It is September 1998 and we are traveling. We have come to the far end of Missouri, my husband, Roger, his father Jim and myself. We are odd traveling companions I suppose, but it has been a priceless journey. We drove for two days, stopping to stretch arthritic limbs on foreign mattresses. Pausing for rest and respite from the merciless drive.
Even in 1998 the scenery is desolate, empty and depressing. The only thing that breaks up the monotony of the flat lands are the overpasses and the trees. I think about the pioneers who made this trek before us, and am suddenly ashamed that I am grateful for the break in the scenery that the overpasses provide.
We make a lame kind of game out of the names on the road signs, as though we had really gone astray from our intended route. We wonder how we got so near to Harrisburg, when we thought we were in Indiana; how we got to places like London and Lisbon, without crossing the ocean.
We crossed Licking Creek, Nameless Creek and the Blue River, which is really a creek, or creek sized. We crossed the Wabash, the Monongahela, and the Mississippi rivers. We have crossed the Missouri River three times while traveling I-70.
We crossed the Platte River that James Michener built his story Centennial around and I thought back to the story when I saw that sign. Maybe it is Michener’s fault that I cross rivers wanting to get closer, but on my own terms. His fault, too, that I think of people who have gone on before us, living off the great rivers and traveling them. I keep my thoughts to myself rather than give voice to my frustration that there is no time to do the exploring and sight seeing we would like. There is no time, so there is no point. We will make this journey again, my love and I and then we will take our time.
We make small talk with his father now and then. He will lean forward in his seat, stick his head between us, and ask questions or talk until his back can’t bear the position. Then he sits back in silence. He doesn’t offer to drive, and we assume he is glad to sit back and relax. I think to myself it is just as well. He is 70 and hasn’t mellowed much. I’ve heard stories about him out running state troopers in his younger days and I am just as glad that he doesn’t offer to drive now. He does not read, except to browse through hunting magazines. One good novel would make the ride more bearable. But he does not read, not on this drive anyway.
It is a long drive from North Central Pennsylvania to St. Joseph, Missouri. He has traveled out of state before, but probably not this far. We were not at the far reaches of Pennsylvania, into Ohio before he asked the age old question, “Are we there yet?” To this day, I am not sure if he was serious or joking, but we broke up the monotony of the drive by telling him every time we had gone another 100 miles. Not there yet Dad, but another hundred miles under our belts.
I took vacation from church to make the journey; but school was still in session and I had to bring homework with me, some of which I resented. Jim came to our room the first night in St. Joseph, and his visit was a welcome interruption. He stayed a long time and talked about his childhood. He talked about growing up in a large farming family on the edge of poverty, in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. I was glad that I was daring enough to ask some questions. I know about beaches, but I do not know anything about farming.
I’ve known Jim for twelve years, but not well. It is more realistic to say I have been acquainted with him and these days of traveling together, have revealed glimpses of the man. He is an old-fashioned “good old boy,” a hard worker, a mountain man and imperfect. But he is also honest, wise about many things, passionate, and very stubborn.
When he was thirteen years old, he could lead a team of horses to plow a field. Even when the snow was six inches deep they would plow, because his father said the snow helped keep the moisture in the ground. He was one of eleven children and they slept three children in one bed. No wonder they are close. Most of the siblings who are alive live within a few miles of each other.
Often they would plow or do other work in their bare feet, because they could not afford shoes. They’d plow, plant corn, go through and pull bugs off the corn to protect it. They would harvest the corn by hand with a corn knife, haul it back to the barn in a wagon and husk the corn in the winter. When they were done husking the corn, it was time to start over. They would do the haying all by hand. The boys would fork the hay into the wagons and put it into the barn. They milked the cows, let the milk set in the container util the cream rose and his mother would make butter.
They worked all day from sun up until sun down. in the winter, the children would go sledding down the long snowy hills until 11:00 p.m. In the summer the whole family would walk two miles to visit a neighbor and stay late. Then, they would walk back home in the dark. The older children would carry the young sleeping ones. They worked together, they played together, and they slept together.
When Jim was sixteen, his father developed a brain tumor. he had been kicked in the head by a horse when he was younger. The brothers took turns sitting with their dad at night and would often have to hold him down, because he would flail violently in bed.
Jim dropped out of school to work, after his freshman year, so his older brother John could finish high school. The family could not afford for both of them to go to school, so he made the sacrifice. I was going to ask him if he ever resented it or held it over John’s head. But fifty years later, Jim is as close to John as he is to his surviving siblings. He is a big tease, and I would not be surprised if he hadn’t teased his brother about it now and then. But there is no resentment or meanness in the teasing, or in him as he talks about it.
He came here with us to attend his granddaughter’s wedding. She is his first granddaughter to marry, and I do not think he would have missed it. It has been a tiring trip, 1200 miles, one way by car. It has been a hard trip because his wife, Roger’s step-mother, was not able to come with us. They are not joined at the hip, he leaves her several times each year for hunting trips. Yet, there is an emptiness beside him here in Missouri, because she is not.
It is that persistent sense of what family is, and does that draws him here in the first place, and that is something I know more fully, because he has shared the journey with us. He has shared some space, a few stories and a huge chunk of his time that is normally otherwise invested. Some of the stories, my husband tells me, he has never heard before. Roger was raised by his mother and step-father, and has other siblings on both sides of the family. I often joke that when his parents had him, they broke the mold. But one look at that picture shows the apple did not fall far from the tree. The six days of our journey are more time than father and son of have had in a lifetime. They were worth the drive.
I am brought up short to realize that at this writing, my husband and I are a little older now, than Jim was when we made this journey. I thought he was old! We lost Jim a few years back and my strongest memory is sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren around his bed and of course his beloved Shirl. Strange as it sounds, we ate our lunch there, waiting for other grandchildren to arrive, and told and listened to stories.
Not holding back the tide,
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