April 16, 2008

Whippoorwill in the Wind

Family is a many wondered thing. Five generations of mine descended on the small towns of Chadron and Hay Springs, Nebraska, on Monday. A lady named Rachel Peterson had five children, one of which was Delmira, who had four children, one of which was Dayle, who had two children, one of which was me. She was my mother’s mother’s mother and she passed away at the age of ninety-six. She was ready to go, just waiting for God to take her home, or so she had told us a few weeks ago. She seemed delighted by the prospect.

It was not a sad occasion. The five branches of her family, along with numerous of her nieces and nephews and their descendants, easily filled the United Methodist Church of Hay Springs to overflowing. Then her friends began to arrive and chairs were brought in to the back. The visitation at the funeral home the eve before the service was full of laughter and shared memories. Gold toe socks. A person knew when they were considered an adult when Grandma Pete sent them gold toe socks for Christmas. They were treasured gifts we all looked forward to, far more than ordinary socks should merit.

Even those of us who had never met already knew each other. Grandma wrote wonderful letters, tying together the far-flung branches of her tree. She knew where everyone of her over fifty descendants was living, what they were doing, and who they were married to. She greatly loved her five great-great-grandbabies, the eldest of whom is seven and the youngest just turned one.

My great-aunts, Vonnie and Neva are a hoot, always up to something and causing trouble. Their children are no different. Great-uncle Bud somehow managed to raise three perfect gentlemen, all of whom work in the family business – providing equipment for poultry processing plants. My own branch of the family is down to earth and companionable. Everyone was interested in what everyone else was doing, where they were in their lives, their careers. We shared and laughed and teased.

I would walk out across the grass and just look upon the rolling expanse of the Sand Hills. When I was in San Francisco, I looked out across the ocean and saw this vast, unending, unconquerable thing. Now, looking toward the horizon, I saw the root of that feeling and remembered the first time I had felt it was in this place.

The voices behind me would fade away, replaced by the whippoorwill, the crunch of dry grass beneath my boots, and the ever present sound of the wind. The wind never stops blowing. The grass never stops flowing, like a rippling sea. I drowns out everything, even thought, and leave blessed silence.

Snow still lay in the southern lee of the dunes, pushed there by the wind. Two days before, a late spring storm had dropped a foot or more on these hills. It will be counted a blessing as the grass turns swiftly green. The sun shown bright and warm, not even calling for a jacket even with the wind. I stopped my walk at the barbed wire fence. I could easily have stepped over it and continued. I could simply keep walking, pushed by the swift sound wind. In time, I might even reach Canada. Instead I stopped, and looked out across the hills, counting three windmills turning in the wind, pulling up water for cattle who appeared as tiny black dots upon the burnished hills.

I listened to the whippoorwill and after a time, I turned around and headed back towards the ramshackle collection of buildings which made up my Great-Aunt Vonnie’s homestead. I heard the voices of my family, where they gathered around the bear cooler in the barn, and on the front porch, and leaning against the back of their cars.

“What did you find out there?” Vonnie asked me.

“Whippoorwill,” I told her. That was not all I had found, but it was enough.

She smiled Great-Grandma’s smile. “Yeah, they’re good.”

I think she was speaking about more than just the bird.

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