An Excerpt from Song of the Plains: A Memoir of Family, Secrets, and Silence
By Linda Joy Myers
The Great Plains is a wonder of contrasts.
The deep-indigo night sky is splashed by a wash of stars scattered across the dome above your small self.
In the white brilliance of daylight, it echoes with lonely notes from meadowlarks and red-winged
blackbirds resting on stark tree branches and fence posts, dangerous barbed wire trembling in the wind.
The sounds of the birds and the sense of space, so large you can’t grasp them with your two-dimensional
mind, etch the edges of your loneliness, giving it form, making your heart
reach out for the simplicity of light and wind, red dirt and birdcall.
In this moment you are at one with All That Is. You are free.
It’s more than eyes and hair, the curve of a cheek, the shape of a lip, a smile, a happy temperament. We inherit many things in our genes, but here’s a question: How much is nature, versus nurture? Science tells us that our cells are marked by what has happened in the past long before we became embodied, and that we carry fragments of our history from ancestors whose names we don’t know. Yet we come into the world with our own story set in the stars, our own fingerprints and personality, our own magic and shine. As we make our way through life on this planet, we question who we are and where we came from. Hints
whisper to us in the darkness—ghosts of our history, the sense of what’s hidden, secrets. I have always wondered, if we search for the secrets and hidden history, can we recover lost years and lost people? Can we repair the lost connections and create new relationships? Is it crazy to try? How do we weave together that was broken?
I suppose you could say I’m obsessed with trying to fit together all the pieces of my fragmented family. I always wanted to know more about them, about the history that kept entering my childhood like a wave that kept rolling toward us. I could feel its unstoppable force.
I was lucky—my curiosity about history was seeded by the stories my great-grandmother Blanche told me as we lay together in her featherbed in Iowa when I was eight years old. As I listened to her tell me about my grandmother as a little girl and my mother as a baby, I’d close my eyes and imagine them small, like I was.
What I learned as I gathered up the threads of our stories is that everyone has a point of view, a particular lens through which they see the world. My grandmother had her version, and Blanche had another. I always yearned for my mother to tell me her story, but instead she acted it out—sometimes screamed it out—and in the end, I was left with fragments about her life. There was so much more I didn’t know. I had to find out what happened to my mother when she was a little girl who had been left behind by her mother, just like I was. What were the stories she couldn’t remember or tell? Our story is about my search to understand what happened to my mother and her mother, and the legacy of the generations that came before us. I wanted to understand the ways in which we were all marked by loss, the way the wind in the Great Plains bends the trees and lifts the earth in shapes that change the landscape forever.
* * *
Until the recent advent of Ancestry.com and other online resources, you had to learn your history through “direct research.” Your fingers rifle through gritty index cards filed in the dusty archive boxes lining spider-webbed shelves in the backs of libraries and courthouses. You lift up huge leather-bound books from the shelves and flip through hundreds of pages of births and deaths and marriage records, translating calligraphic handwriting in black ink, each name shaped like a poem, each name someone who lived and died and was memorialized in these records.
The books I found in the courthouses in Iowa were stacked to the ceiling, draped with inches of dust, the thick books holding clues to people long forgotten. I wondered if anyone alive had ever heard of the names I saw in them.
Another place to find your kin is in a cemetery. The aroma of fresh grass greets your nostrils, and birds sing on nearby trees. In this bucolic setting, you tramp between the rows of headstones. You see names carved in old stones that are almost unreadable, names lost to the ravages of weather and time. Angels lean inexorably toward the earth, where the ancient loam will absorb the stones.
Looking for people with whom you share DNA is a physical experience of sweat and dust and frustration. But when you find them and brush the powdered leaves off the dimly chiseled names, you notice the severe framing of the person’s life: date of birth to date of death. You can’t help but wonder about your own future stone, how the austere dates of your beginning and ending will one day be marked under your name, and how in, say, one hundred years, no one will remember you. No one will know who you were — unless you leave a story behind. And even then, the trails of your existence will gradually disappear into mist.
Perhaps the current DNA testing, genealogical research, and family stories and memoirs are a popular way to link ourselves to what may seem to be invisible threads, to the long arc of time. For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with learning about people I’ve never met, especially direct links to my mother’s kin. I had a living father whom I hardly saw, and I lived in a world of women. The family that I could claim and that, for a time, claimed me was my mother’s side. It is their tale I seek.
* * *
I have now found what I can through my genealogical research, which leaves me with even more questions, but I’m content with having many dates and facts from our family story. I want to share these with my daughter, but when we gather during the holidays, we are in the Present. In moments of quiet, during our celebrating and opening stockings and presents, I find myself thinking about the long-ago stories I’ve uncovered, the heritage that is ours. As I look around the room, our DNA legacy is evident in the faces of my daughter and grandchildren—the impressions of five generations, that harks back over 120 years. Such moments reveal the most obvious gifts from the past, in bone and blood and flesh.
Several times a year, I visit my daughter, Amanda, her husband, Frank, and their two children, Miles and Zoe, in San Diego. It is in them that I notice the hints of what Louis, my grandmother’s father, left us. He died at twenty-one in 1894, two months after his wedding to Blanche, my great-grandmother, most likely unaware he had fathered a daughter. I think of him as the boy who offered us his beauty before he died.