SOMEWHERE IN KANSAS
Sunday, Ron and I traveled to the area where we were raised in rural Kansas. The countryside changes a little every time we journey back to our roots. Even though I’ve traveled that route many times, I am amazed at those changes.
Contrary to the Kansas reputation of being nothing but flatlands, traveling west on I-70 paints a different picture. As we sped along one of the more significant rolling hills of the countryside, we overtook a big rig slowed by the climb. And though the sky was clear where we were, a blue haze in the distance gave a hint there might be a mist of rain happening somewhere.
Little by little, nature has left cedar trees to overtake many pastures while man has taken over the crest of those hills with wind farms. Wind farms also have taken up residence in croplands, and though some see them as clean energy, they are a bone of contention for others. However, they appear to have garnered enough income to significantly help the surrounding small towns and communities.
Still surrounded by enormous energy-producing machines, we exited the interstate onto sand and gravel roads that took us to our first stop, where we decorated graves on the farmland where I lived for some time when I was a young child.
THE VOSS CEMETERY
My maternal ancestors long ago dedicated this land to a gravesite. I suspect it began because of the infant marker I found for Henry, dated 1885 – 1885. I remember a story about a baby dying at birth in a cornfield, and he was buried there. Was this cemetery that cornfield at one time?
This has become a community cemetery that many have already decorated. So we add our decorations to several there. Now it’s time to move on to remember Ron’s family.
THE VESPER CEMETERY
The Vesper Cemetery sets on a hillside not far from a rural highway. Ron’s parents and four-year-old brother are buried there. Though Ron was born after his brother died, he knew him through others’ remembrances, and we’ve always included decorations for him.
We wandered amongst the graves where many Zachgos and people from the Vesper community are buried. We also have a plot and a stone there for the day we must be interred. It feels a little strange seeing it, but we made the decision for whoever must bury us when our time on earth is gone.
Our fun stop is the Zachgo reunion. It has become a yearly tradition we celebrate on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. It seems fitting to celebrate with relatives that are still living as we remember those who are no longer with us. So, we celebrated with good food and caught up with family news before we went to the last cemetery we visited.
GREENWOOD UNION CEMETERY
Greenwood Union Cemetery is in Hunter, Kansas, where Ron’s younger brother and his sister-in-law are buried. In our earthly thinking, they left us when they were still too young to go.
It was an emotional day of remembering. So when it was time to leave, we took the long way home on roads we traveled when we were younger.
REMEMBERING THOSE WHO GAVE ALL
As we drove on those country roads and highways on Sunday, every cemetery we passed was decorated with flowers and many, many small flags. The military honors waited until Monday—Memorial Day.
The tradition of decorating graves started in the 1860s for those who had died in the Civil War. Today Memorial Day is a federal holiday to commemorate all American military personnel who died in all wars. They are the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we Americans might live in freedom.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that not everyone has a kinship to dogs. Those of us who do, know the joy they can bring into our lives. I grew up on a farm more than several years ago. Animals of all sizes and personalities surrounded me, and I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have a farm dog. They were never allowed inside our home. Their shelter came from outbuildings, and their food consisted of table scraps and their hunting skills. How different those farm dogs were from the dogs I know today.
I’m at a bittersweet moment when I write about my son’s family dog. Recently, Sadie, their gentle-badass-German Shepard, left this life. So our hearts are tender for a while. She certainly didn’t have to forage for her food, as her last couple of year’s meals were home-cooked, special for her diet. She was welcomed into her family’s temperature-controlled home, where she slept in total comfort at night and during her naps. We all miss this beauty and will not forget Sadie, who diligently kept guard over those she loved.
My daughter’s dog is one and a half years old. He bounces back and forth from his puppy stage to his love of learning. Ollie is an Australian Shepard that “dines” on a diet of frozen meals delivered by men in brown trucks. And, of course, he earns extra treats when he is in training. He loves entertaining our entire family, eagerly showing off his agility talents. And true to his breed that loves to herd, Ollie quickly learned to herd soccer balls into a goal. However, he often forgets he’s not supposed to herd people, and there are times he is as energetic as that Energizer Bunny that doesn’t know when to stop.
MORE CANINE FRIENDS
I’ve never written a novel about dogs. However, I’ve never written a book without including at least one dog somewhere in my stories. Meet my canine characters.
Blaze—the border collie in The Rocking Horse, is friendly, loyal, and therapeutic to more than one person dealing with grief and heartaches.
Toby—the “girl” cocker spaniel puppy in Hush Girl: It’s Only a Dream. She was named after a boy in the pet store. Like our family’s part cocker spaniel I loved in my home, she was adorable and occasionally had accidents before she could get outside to pee.
Corky & Rusty—two crossbreed dogs in Never Waste Tears.
Corky reminded me of some of the farm dogs I used to know. His loyalty to his first family is undeniable, and with Hannah’s kindness and love, he adapts to his new home and survives the rugged prairie.
Rusty was a dog that loved to chase chickens. But, because raising chickens on the prairie meant survival for the settlers, Rusty wasn’t thought kindly of all the time. Yet, he was a lifeline for one woman’s sanity until he tangled with a rabid skunk.
Corky, Yippy, & Puff---in the sequel Never Waste Dreams, three dogs played a vital role in the story.
Corky discovers and befriends an abandoned child in the particular way a dog can help heal a broken spirit.
Yippy & Puff are pups born into a litter too large for one farmer to feed them all. By happenstance, they are rescued from the man’s rifle and taken in by two families, each with a child that needs their love and protection.
These canine friends were as real to me as any of my human characters. They had a significant role in my books. Each one touched my heart with his unique personality and characteristic traits, and I loved including them in my stories.
THE FIRST HOHO
If you’ve read The Rocking Horse, you know who the original HoHo is. Hand-crafted by a loving uncle, the toy rocking horse plays a prominent role in the book, especially when the wooden toy often starts rocking without assistance.
The image on the book cover represents HoHo as he was when two-year-old Jenny Preston received him from her uncle. But he’s aged after the twenty-two years Jenny kept him, much like the other HoHo who now sits in my office.
THE OTHER HOHO
The other HoHo was also hand-crafted, this time by my husband, and he often traveled with me to book signings and other author events to represent the real HoHo.
This second little guy has worked hard and is now quite scruffy from getting packed and unpacked during our travels. I kind of like him that way because I think he better represents how Jenny’s HoHo looked after some of the trauma he had survived.
Here is one example.
The Rocking Horse – page 213
She had been very young—maybe five or six years old. Katherine had taken HoHo away from her and thrown “that dirty little toy” out. She had cried and thrown such a fit that Katherine had Maude dig through the trash and find HoHo again. She had almost forgotten that memory.
At one time, this other HoHo sat on a sofa table in our living room. I caught my daughter staring at him while visiting us one weekend. She had read about HoHo in the book, and I thought she was admiring the craftsmanship of the second toy rocking horse when she said, “If that thing starts rocking on his own – I’m out of here!”
Maybe she was thinking of the following scene from the book.
The Rocking Horse – page 42
She walked over to the dresser and placed HoHo there. As she turned back to her suitcase for a clean white shirt, gooseflesh suddenly crawled up her arms. She swung back toward the dresser and stared at HoHo. He was rocking violently on the dresser. What on earth? As she timidly reached for the toy, it stopped rocking as abruptly as it had started.
Or perhaps she was thinking of the time the other HoHo was featured in that same scene in the following video.
I recently wrote about my beginning education and what it meant to me. The little one-room schoolhouse sitting on a two-acre corner of a pasture is one of the things that brought our rural community together. Parents with children that attended Union Valley gathered before Labor Day to prepare the schoolhouse, outbuildings, and grounds for the coming school year.
Once the outside pump in front of the building was primed, the women tackled the inside jobs of washing windows, scrubbing grimy desks, and polishing woodwork, while mowing the grounds and seeing to the repair and painting of the buildings was done by the men. The kids were assigned jobs like pounding chalk dust out of blackboard erasers, picking up trash, and my favorite—(not)—scrubbing inside the girl's and boy's two-seater outhouses. Yes, two-seaters.
Since the projects often took up an entire day, everyone brought a picnic lunch for the noon hour. This gave them time to visit, catch their breath, and enjoy the accomplishments of getting the job done together. And I like to think the inclusion of getting the kids involved helped teach them how to respect our school and each other.
So, how did we coordinate this community project?
Families were often miles apart from their neighbors in our rural area. So, we often communicated by telephone—on a party line. I once tried explaining what a party line was to a young man. He didn't believe me until he looked it up (on his cell phone). So, for those who've only known a cell phone, here's how our phones with a party line worked.
The picture shown is the phone my husband's parents had. To make a call, we used the small hand crank (attached to the right side) to ring the party line phones. To answer the phone, the person receiving the call would lift the earpiece off the hook on the left side and speak into the mouthpiece on the face of the phone. Each phone on the party line had an assigned sequence of rings, meaning there were numerous combinations to identify each phone. Each different party knew their delegated assortment of rings.
That emergency ring signaled everyone on the party line to pick up their receiver, as there were no 911 calls back then.
Whenever anyone made a call, all phones on the party line would ring, and people could pick up their receiver and 'listen in' on other people's calls. Like a public post on Facebook or Twitter, our phone conversations could quickly spread news and gossip in our community. I can testify to this, as one day my boyfriend called me. Though I don't remember what we talked about, he stopped mid-sentence. There was a slight pause.
"Do you have any corn?" he asked.
"What? Why do you want corn?"
"To feed all these old hens on this line."
Oops! We heard many clicks as receivers hung up.
He laughed at the time. However, one of those "old hens" listening also talked to his mother the next day. He survived her wrath, and today I call him my husband.
FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
Sometimes calling on our phone wasn't necessary. Impromptu visits were not unusual in those days, and people rarely let us know before they dropped by. When that happened, Mom always had refreshments to welcome them, and if she didn't, she'd whip up something before they'd leave. It's what the women in our area did, and I can still remember one family we visited. Caught unaware, while we visited, the woman of the house simply baked us the most delicious upside-down apricot cake I've ever tasted.
My husband once told me he thought it was strange when a certain group of my neighbors was expected to show up uninvited and unannounced for birthday parties because there were no calls or planning—people simply showed up at the house of the birthday celebrity. No gifts were expected or given, though everyone brought something for a 'lunch' that usually consisted of sandwiches, fruit-filled kolaches, Jell-O salads, cookies, ice cream, and a birthday cake—always a birthday cake.
I've always felt blessed to have been part of that community. Our communications were nothing even close to the cell phones we know today. However, through party lines on the wooden wall phones, we kept in touch with friends and neighbors.
WHERE I BEGAN MY JOURNEY
Because I’ve authored and published four novels, I call myself a writer. However, sometimes I still have trouble believing that’s me. I’ll be candid. I’m not like most of the writers I know. I never had a burning desire to write stories when I was young. Instead of curling up with a book as a child, I spent most of my time with furry critters, domesticating kittens, exploring creek banks with our family dog, or riding horseback around the farm. I grew up in Kansas flyover country, where my roots run deep.
Though I’ve lived in different states, Kansas is where I feel at home. I’m in my vintage years. It sounds surreal today to admit my earliest education echoed the TV show Little House on the Prairie, where I attended a rural one-room schoolhouse in the 1950s. I was the only child in my grade for most of those eight years. However, Mrs. McQuillan, my teacher for most of those years, gave me both individual time and often juggled my lessons with other grade levels.
My high school years were before area schools consolidated. Our class consisted of five students for those four years. Of course, there were disadvantages to being in such a small school; however, I now realize the most significant benefit. Every student was encouraged (perhaps even obligated) to participate in various activities: sports, music, speech, plays, etc. There were few tryouts where anyone was cut from a team—we were the team.
I had no desire to attend college. Instead, I studied a general course at a business school. I learned business skills like typing, dictation, bookkeeping, and composition of professional business letters. It wasn’t exciting. It was practical and useful when I found employment with an insurance company after marrying my high school sweetheart. It also gave me the confidence to own my home-based business when my children were young.
When the kids left home, I sold my business and delved into the creative side of myself by taking art lessons. I loved learning to use oils, pastels, watercolors, and acrylics. However, my walls began sagging with my artwork. That’s when a friend asked me to join her creative writing group. I was a wanna-be artist, not a writer. Yet, Mary kept pestering me until I accepted her invitation.
I started with simple stories and descriptions that soon led to exploring my emotions. I found it could be therapeutic to share my thoughts with the group. And the best part was—I was having fun. The more comfortable I became with using words, the more I let my imagination take me on journeys with characters I had created. I became thirsty to learn more about the craft of writing, so I started reading some of my stories at our library’s open mic night. And when they offered an author workshop, I signed up.
The American crime novelist, Nancy Pickard, presented a program that inspired me. I’d bought the book she and Lynn Lott had written, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path. However, before I had time to study that writer’s guide, on my drive home, I already knew I wanted to develop something more from a short story I’d written. So I told one of my writing friends and my husband. And then, for the better part of the next year, I hid in my office over my second cup of coffee most mornings. I wrote about the heartache of a child taken away from her family. I studied the skill of writing, developed characters I loved, and achieved my selfinflicted challenge to write a full manuscript. I accomplished writing my first rough draft of The Rocking Horse.