Going back to Kansas

Imagine your bare hands and feet digging deep into piles of harvested wheat in the back of a grain truck. The grains caress you with their texture and their weight. That feeling was a touchstone of my childhood when my brother and I visited my mother’s relatives in June, during the Kansas wheat harvest.

This year I took my family there. It’s a place my children had never seen and I had not seen it in a dozen years. My Kansas relatives live in a Mennonite farming community called Moundridge, about 40 miles north of Wichita. There is something about the place that draws people back. My cousins Ann and Kirsten had moved to Los Angeles and Berkeley but soon returned. Ann and her husband Chip moved into the old Zerger homestead, preserving the architectural landscape of the place… the barns, the tool shed, the dairy shack and the hog pens… even though they don’t farm themselves. The very week of my visit, their son and his fiance left Maine and were moving back to Kansas.

One hundred and fifty years ago my mother’s Swiss-German forebears lived in the Ukraine where they saw their religious freedom slowly erode as the Czars lost patience. These Mennonites had agreed to bring their turkey red wheat and their gift of farming to the kingdom of Catherine the Great. In return, they were left alone and they were not forced to serve in the army. 

That deal eventually fell through and the Swiss Mennonites came to the American great plains where they found political freedom but suffered the oppression of a hard life and savage winters. My great-grandmother Anna Kaufmann lost three boys who froze to death in a blizzard that flew into South Dakota. This, after she’d already seen three of her other children die between Europe and America.

Anna Kaufmann endured. She moved to Kansas, had more children and her culture endured as our relatives refused to serve in Vietnam or World War II. That was not an easy thing in the 1940’s when one common Mennonite name was Goering.

Today, members of my generation typically farm and teach. They live on the flat farmland that’s divided by hedgerows and where temperatures this June, near 100 degrees, were made nearly tolerable by the endless wind. They sleep five hours a night during harvest to get the wheat cut while the dry weather holds. But they stop work all day Sunday even if the crop is about to go to hell. Better the wheat than their everlasting souls.

As my relatives worked in the field my wife Karen fixed dinner to make us useful as my kids Nicholas and Sophie headed out the door to the farmyard where a new litter of kittens, born by a six-toed cat named Cleo, wrestled and played. A path to the pond ran between a metal round top and a cavernous shed where cousin Pat and her husband Bruce store a New Holland tractor, whose GPS system can steer it through a 40-acre field within a three-inch margin of error while planting seeds or spraying weeds. 

Before I went back to San Diego, I visited an old folks home in Moundridge where two elderly aunts live. My Aunt Doris suffered a massive stroke and now speaks in occasional sentences which you can’t, most often, understand. I told her stories of my visit, hoping she understood most of it. I gave her a kiss and left the room as I heard her tell me one thing that made perfect sense. “I’m getting better and better,” she said. My other aunt, Elsie, has no trouble talking. She’s vital and active despite being over 90, though I’m not sure she can hear a thing.

The airplane lifts off from the Wichita airport and the kitten we brought with us mews in a black bag we carried on. Kansas is the one place I have lots of family at a time when all other relatives are spread throughout the country. Like I said, the place has a draw. Maybe one of my kids will go to school at Bethel College.

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2 Comments on “Going back to Kansas”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    What can I say, Tom. your description of the texture of the wheat, the thumbnail history of the good folk who raised our famous “Red Turkey” crop, and the picture of your beautiful wife out in the fields caused your mother and I to grow misty-eyed. Beautifully done!

    Dad

  2. Pam Says:

    This is great, Tom. I am going to share this story with my girls. We have been reading the Little House books together and have learned a lot about the way wheat was harvested in the late 19th century, as well as about fierce Dakota blizzards and the hard plains life. I think they would enjoy seeing some of the farming machinery used today.


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