Wednesday, August 28, 2019

At Home in Kansas

Caught in a side view mirror
When my family moved to Kansas in 2000, the prospect of adjusting to a new community brought great trepidation. I imagine the feeling was similar to that of a settler’s wife, she who might have come west more than a century earlier, around 1880, as a young bride.

The young bride may be akin to a state of mind, the wistfulness that comes from leaving what is comfortable and moving to unfamiliar territory.

Perhaps the Civil War has just ended, and she is following her husband to a strange flat land of extreme temperatures and wary natives, where most news of the outside world comes from the Methodist circuit rider who pays monthly visits to conduct a revival or perform a baptism.

That was me, trailing my husband out to the Plains, hopefully anxious and anxiously hopeful – a young bride, figuratively speaking, wishing to feel at home in millennial Kansas. For despite the homogenization of American culture, communities do maintain distinctive social structures. I found that it would be necessary to acquire a local state of mind in order to fit in.  

View from a Target parking lot;
Overland Park, Kansas

From its earliest days as a territory, Kansas challenged those who made the journey. Whenever the pioneers reached their destination – whether by covered wagon after the Homestead Act of 1862 or by train during the rise of the Populist / agrarian movement a few decades later – they found unpredictable weather and unbroken land.

Even before they got to the place, there were premonitions. One pioneer woman would recall:

To me Kansas spelled destruction, desperadoes, and cyclones. I could not agree with my husband that any good could come out such a country, but the characteristic disposition of the male prevailed, and October 1, 1879, saw us bound for the “Promised Land.”  

A dairy farm lingered in suburban
Johnson County, Kansas

My family arrived in mid-July and waited for the temperature to cool. Day after day – 107, 105, 106. Occasionally, a faint prairie wind blew through. We stayed inside nearly all the time, enacting the nineteenth-century drama of the parlor darkened by curtains pulled against the sun.

Would the doorbell ring? Would the minister pay a call on the new family? That did not happen.

Eventually the heat diminished, and our two sons began the school year. I started to find my way, always driving, along the wide streets and through the startling checkerboard of big-box stores and fields filled with hay bales.

By the time of the High Holy Days in October, we were invited to break the fast at the home of neighbors, where the hostess’s famous ten-layer Jell-O mold, presented in the world’s largest trifle dish, arose in the center of the buffet.

Land for sale

It’s not easy to understand why any individual will become comfortable in certain places and not others. There are cities and towns where the fit is right, and we discover with pleasure what Willie Morris called “terrains of the heart.”  

We do not need to be kept in familiar boxes in order to feel sure of ourselves. However, there are things we grow to as a habit without which we may not be happy.   

Of course, I did not appreciate Kansas while we were there. That’s an old story.  Farther down the road, when I was no longer a young bride, it became possible to know and understand the place.

Photos by Claudia Keenan

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