by Kay Henry

  • Memoir
decorative header image from Volume VIII Issue 1 · Spring 2022

My father has left me 118 acres of pastureland, just north of the once-prosperous town of Havensville, Kansas, where my parents met and courted. I am not sure what to do with my new holdings. I never thought much about what I would inherit from my parents, though I knew they owned their own home as well as a farm in Missouri, plus two properties in Kansas. I’ve known most of my adult life that when they died, I would own half of their land and my sister, Kit, would own the other half. In my parents’ wills, the Missouri properties were to be transferred on death to Kit and me in 50 percent shares, whereas the Kansas farms were deeded separately. Kit’s name is on the beneficiary deed to the farm my father inherited near Goff, where he was born in 1919. My name is on the deed to the Havensville property.

Though I view my inheritance through the blurring scrim of grief, I gratefully welcome the farm’s economic value. I came to modest prosperity late in life and do not take money for granted. Yet the land’s material worth does nothing to untangle my confused emotions about being its new owner. I am grateful for my father’s bequest to me after a lifetime of his careful attention to the land that is now mine. I am sorrowful that he and my mother are no longer here to act as a bridge between my present-day life and our family’s long history. Most of all, I am perplexed about how to manage both the emotional significance of my new land and the functional operation of a farm I can’t find on a map and until recently was not sure I had ever set foot on.

My first visit to Havensville after inheriting the land brought to light long-dormant memories. It had been over forty years since I had last made that journey. Had you asked me to recall the way the Kansas hills roll away off Highway 63 south of town, I could not have remembered. I could not have recalled the pond nestled two-thirds of the way to the horizon off to the left, nor the chunks of pale flint erupting from the spring grass on certain hillsides. Yet when I turn north off Highway 16 from Holton towards the faded buildings that still line Main Street I think, “There’s that pond,” and “I remember those rocky hills.” I feel light, joyous, like I used to as a child when we spent every vacation in Kansas and the sight of that pond and those pale stones meant that the long drive from our Arizona home was over. I would soon be eating one of Aunt Minnie’s sweet rolls and running through the yard with my cousins.

I could not have recalled the fact that when Highway 16 jogs a little and continues to Onaga, Ellis Road stems straight ahead at the intersection with Route 63. Yet I know I could find the site of the old farmhouse where my mother’s oldest brother, Bo Ellis, lived for seventy years with his wife Edna and a dozen dogs, generations of chihuahuas and spitz. Bo’s son Larry tore the old house down and built a modern one for him and Connie, his second wife. I don’t mind too much until I remember the walnut stairway that used to ascend from the dark living room, how beautiful the wood was and how my great-grandfather had harvested it from that very land when he first built the old farmhouse at the beginning of his marriage. But Larry and Connie have worked hard in their lives and deserve a comfortable home, especially now that Larry is dying of cancer and Connie, with bitter and desperate humor, is trying to imagine life without him.

I remember precisely, though, the way my Uncle Doo and Aunt Min’s house sat on a slight rise next to the white clapboard Christian church with its modest steeple. When I was a child, that rounded hilltop seemed tall as a mountain. My uncle had dug out a dark cellar smelling of damp stone whose door conformed to the hill’s incline, making it even more mysterious, a magic portal that concealed worlds deep under the earth. My cousins and I would sometimes hide there among the musty jars and scare ourselves in the darkness. In reality, the cave’s dark shelves held little besides home-canned peaches, green beans, corn salad, and pickles.

Havensville’s watertower

Havensville’s watertower

After Doo and Minnie died, their daughter R.Meta sold their house and with it, I thought at the time, my deepest memories of Kansas. The new owners demolished the old house and built a new one, leveling the hill in the process. They used the dirt from the hill to fill in the cellar.

R.Meta’s unusual name combines “R” from Russell, her father, and “Meta” from her mother, whose full name was the rather ponderous Wilhelmina Katerina Meta Blasky Ellis. R.Meta lived her whole adult life with her husband, Don, across the street from her parents. Don died a few months ago, and she and their daughter Debbie have taken over his small cattle operation. R.Meta is twelve years older than I am. When we were growing up, she seemed like a different generation, more aunt than cousin. She married Don at age eighteen. I used to stare at her wedding picture in Doo and Min’s living room and wonder what it would be like to be a bride. She stared back at me through thick, heavily framed glasses that did nothing to detract from the allure of the white brocade dress that clung to her curvaceous figure. For the duration of my childhood she embodied glamour for me.

 “I have to make sure someone is keeping the brush down and the pasture full of silky, thistle-free grass for the cattle...” The 118-acre Havensville acreage Kay Henry inherited from her parents.

“I have to make sure someone is keeping the brush down and the pasture full of silky, thistle-free grass for the cattle…” The 118-acre Havensville acreage Kay Henry inherited from her parents.

R.Meta and Don adopted their two children, who left home once they were grown but got no farther than Kansas City, less than a hundred miles away. Debbie came back to Havensville after nursing school to work and raise a family. Her brother Kenny stayed in the city. I haven’t seen Debbie since 1976, when I, in my early twenties, returned from a year of studying in France and visited Kansas with my parents. Debbie would have been about eleven then. Now, we’re both middle-aged, and I’m her landlord.

I use the term “landlord” because I can’t bring myself to say that I am a “landlady.” That word is too slight, connoting a meddling fussbudget or else an unkempt soap opera addict whose grey roots show at the part in her fake-auburn hair. A landlady is disorganized, lets things fall to ruin. A landlady of this sort is what I fear I will become. A landlord, though, knows her responsibilities. She treats her tenants with respect, never condescension. She maintains her property and charges a fair price. When I realize the sexist turn my thinking has taken, I remind myself that “actor” has become gender-neutral, as has “author.” “Landlord” could, and should, be next – at least the kind of landlord I want to become, if I want to become one at all. But I am one, I remind myself with trepidation. I inherited that role along with the farm.

As with so many other parts of my life, I’m convinced that my father was much better at this business of land-owning than I will ever be. He would be astounded to hear this. Modest to the point of self-doubt, he sought excellence in all he did, from stringing fence to, in later years, carving wood and weaving white-oak baskets. If he saw his children as imperfect creations, as he surely did, he never let us know. Owning land brought him the peace he sought during his Navy service in World War II, when after surviving the bombs at Pearl Harbor he spent three straight years in the Pacific Theatre without once returning home to the Kansas he loved, nor to the woman from Havensville who would become his bride and lifelong companion.

The Kansas hills and the dark bottomland along the creek, the peaceful world he had left behind in 1938 to join the Navy, became an imagined refuge during his twenty years at sea. He dreamed, he told me once, of returning there to farm, to spend his days with the cattle and the crops and his evenings playing pitch with my mother’s raucous family. He must have envisaged a life as distant as the salt-laden air of the South Pacific.

“After 30 years away, he still cherished his homeland and dreamed of returning, but he never did. Instead, he took a job in Missouri, close enough to drive to Kansas in half a day if he needed to, as he put it, ‘check on things.’”

He retired from the Navy in 1957 when I was four years old. I can imagine that my parents felt a new freedom then, unconstrained by his various deployments which had structured their entire marriage. Instead of returning to the Kansas of his boyhood, though, he moved with our family to Arizona. From the day I was born, I had suffered from asthma. Doctors offered hope that the dry desert air of Tucson would help my breathing. It did. Our family grew to love the Southwest over the twelve years we lived there before moving to Missouri for my father’s work. But we always knew that Kansas was our true heritage. In 1967, a decade after he retired from the Navy, my father had the opportunity to buy the Havensville acreage from the estate of his father’s brother Jack, who with his wife Bonnie partly raised my father after his parents’ divorce. After 30 years away, he still cherished his homeland and dreamed of returning, but he never did. Instead, he took a job in Missouri, close enough to drive to Kansas in half a day if he needed to, as he put it, “check on things.”

My father rented his Havensville pastureland to various friends and neighbors until the early 1980’s, when he began renting it to R.Meta and Don. They grazed their cattle there every summer. Though they paid way less than the going rental rate for Nemaha County, they took good care of the place and never asked my father to pay to put in new fence or spray for thistles. They sent my father a check twice a year and included a newsy letter about the land’s condition and the price of cattle and feed. The letters bragged about Debbie’s children and Kenny’s successful banking career. In the years just before my parents’ death, the letters turned darker, documenting R.Meta’s hip surgeries and Don’s lengthy chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. I was sad to get such news when my mother would bring me up to date on our Kansas relatives. It seemed to me as if their drama was playing out in a distant place, one at once deeply familiar to me and completely foreign. I was connected to their family by blood and memory. Yet Havensville was too far away, emotionally if not geographically, for me to feel anything other than a distant pity for my Kansas cousins.

Now, as I prepare to see those same cousins for the first time since my early twenties, I follow the highway down a slight incline and see a familiar sign: Havensville, Population 142.

“I grew up knowing that these strong-willed people were my people, with all their hidden tragedies and modest victories. I am like them in ways that have nothing to do with geography.”

Even though, or perhaps because, my parents lived long and full lives that spanned nine decades, I’ve had trouble defining myself now that they are gone. The Kansas inheritance is a new puzzle piece. Previous generations of my family on both my father’s and my mother’s side were Kansas farmers. My parents’ grandparents had settled in northeastern Kansas in the late nineteenth century. They were drawn to the fertile bottomland near Havensville and Goff, towns created a century and a half ago as a safe haven in a still-wild territory, towns that offered both services and companionship. Farmers could gather there to forge a broader community, fall in love, create and educate children, buy and sell goods and land. I grew up knowing that these strong-willed people were my people, with all their hidden tragedies and modest victories. I am like them in ways that have nothing to do with geography. My parents, while they were living, maintained those connections and reminded my siblings and me that we had come from Kansas stock and were, in truth, Kansans. I would not wholly define myself that way today. With my parents gone, my self-concept has become more nebulous.

As I drive into Havensville, I consider what it will mean to care for my inherited land in a way that honors my Kansas ancestors. At first, I think—with some despair—that it will mean living there or visiting frequently. That option does not fit into the shape my life has taken. My husband and I have moved from St. Louis to a retirement property in Spain, a small farmhouse on eleven acres. Yet, I reason now, my father found ways to care for the land from a distance; maybe I can, too. I have to make sure someone is keeping the brush down and the pasture full of silky, thistle-free grass for the cattle, the fences mended, and the pond clean and stocked with bass. Debbie and her dad did a good job with all these things while my father was alive. He knew what needed doing, and so did they, without being asked. Will it fall to me now to oversee these tasks? I fear it will not take long for my cousins to spot me as a novice. I will have to trust them to be my proxy.

I remember my father coming home from work on weeknights and clearing undergrowth on the Missouri farm until it got too dark to see. He spent his weekends lopping cedars, felling dead trees, hauling brush to sink-holes, and doing battle against encroaching Rosa rugosa. He knew what to do to make the woods and fields beautiful and the land valuable. I appreciated the beauty he created, but I didn’t understand how much work went into it, how nature had to be bent to his designs. I loved the briar rose for their blossoms, but he saw them as a thorny enemy that, if left unchecked, would clog his open pasture. I have neither the skills nor the will to work on my property as hard as he did on his. Yet the path of neglect is not an option.

In addition to managing the land, I am uncomfortable with managing tenants, especially tenants who are relatives. I want to get fair rent for the pasture, but I don’t want to boot my own family off the land in the process, nor do I feel good about increasing their rent to meet the market rate. I am also tempted to sell while land prices are high and invest the proceeds for my retirement. It would make sense, I tell myself, since I have no intention of living in Kansas. My financial advisor agrees.

Since my parents died, though, it has become clear that emotional as well as economic factors will drive the decisions I make about my Havensville inheritance. I have now become the custodian not only of a piece of land, but of a nearly vanished way of life, a history that is as much a part of me as my name, but which I will never live out for myself.

My cousins, on the other hand, live in much the same way that our parents’ generation did. They have made their home in the town they grew up in, and it seems they don’t want to change, though I realize that what I see from the outside may not be the whole truth. I am their opposite, I tell myself. I’ve travelled internationally since I was in high school, finding something of a home everywhere I went, though I admit I never really felt that I belonged. One learns to live with this paradox; being a stranger isn’t all bad. I have thrived on experiencing new cultures with their unfamiliar people, food, and customs. I have learned foreign languages. I am married to an Algerian. Still, when people ask me where I’m from, I don’t know how to answer. My cousins do.

On the day of my visit to Havensville, I drive slowly down Commercial Street past the old tavern that Don and R.Meta ran when they were still young and beautiful. Back then, they served up beer and hamburgers and joked with customers they had known all their lives. Now, the tavern sits empty. Across the street and down a block, I recognize the red brick post office, now closed, where the postmistress used to steam open everyone’s mail and read each letter before resealing and distributing it. She also, in a perfect confluence of careers, wrote the gossip column for the town paper. On my left are the vacant windows of what used to be Harley’s drug store. When I was a kid, you could still get an ice cream cone at Harley’s for a nickel. My sister, Kit, opened a charge account there when she was four, and caught hell from my mother when the bill arrived at the end of the first week. Or maybe old Harley caught hell for letting her do it.

I detour to the left so I can see the old schoolhouse, solidly built of hewn stone, whose boarded windows have succumbed to ruin and whose yard is a tangle of weeds. When they bloom, we’ll call them wildflowers, I remind myself. I circle past the Christian church and the corner where Aunt Minnie and Uncle Doo’s house once stood. The new house disorients me, even though it is a surprisingly close copy of the old one. I pull my father’s white Toyota parallel to the sidewalk across the street.

I hesitate briefly before deciding that the neater and less-decayed of the two houses at the end of the block has to be R.Meta’s. As I mount a rickety step to the porch, I see a slender, serious woman slide down from the driver’s seat of a dented white pickup truck. Unsmiling, she walks toward me. I know she is my cousin Debbie, but I am taken aback by her haggard beauty: her wide grey eyes, her high cheekbones and proud nose, the long, straight, white ponytail, the easy fit to her jeans. She wears a flannel shirt and rubber-toed work boots. I think: this is her uniform. This is what she wears every day. We hug and I feel myself tearing up. She looks at me without blinking and I can’t tell whether she is crying, too, or not. I decide that she is.

On the porch of her mother’s house, within sight of the corner where we played as kids, Debbie introduces me to her boyfriend. Rowan is built like a block of wood, rectangular and solid. His mouth remains unsmiling beneath his thick brush of white mustache, but his eyes meet mine in welcome. Then R.Meta opens the screen door and walks out onto the porch to give me a hug. When I last saw her, she wasn’t yet forty, and still resembled the young woman she had been when I visited Havensville as a child. Now, she has morphed into her mother or any one of my other aunts–short, with permed grey hair and a softness about her body that belies her strong character. After not quite enough of the small talk I had counted on to ease us into our new reality, she invites me in and sits me down on the cloth-covered couch. She looks at me hard through her thick-lensed glasses. “Don’t you sell that land,” she says. It is more a threat than a plea.

On the drive to Havensville, I had felt prepared for any conversation with my cousins. I had imagined myself benevolent and thoughtful, getting to know them again, building a relationship, as they say in business. I would make them feel that they were my partners in stewarding the land. I might even suggest that I had much to learn from them. Later, much later, I had thought, I would gently inform them of the land’s true worth and hint that it might make sense to sell. Or at least raise the rent. But faced with R.Meta’s blunt command, I drop my eyes and stammer.

“‘My father was glad to hear you like raising cattle,’ I tell [Debbie]… ‘He said you and your dad always took good care of the pasture.’ Debbie nods and gives me a wistful half-smile, acknowledging our shared grief.

“Oh, no, I have no intention of selling, not now,” I say, my voice too shrill. I mentally grab onto the “not now” as evidence I’m not really lying, or worse, making a commitment I cannot keep. “It’s too soon,” I continue. That last part is true, at least. My father’s recent death has unmoored me, and I see the wisdom in the common advice not to make major decisions for a year after such a loss. R.Meta continues to glare. I turn to Debbie.

“My father was glad to hear you like raising cattle,” I tell her. Another true statement. “He said you and your dad always took good care of the pasture.” Debbie nods and gives me a wistful half-smile, acknowledging our shared grief. From the corner of my eye I can see that R.Meta is softening.

“Well, make sure that if you ever do sell you give Debbie the first chance at it,” R.Meta says, her tone still brusque. This is just the way she talks, whispers a small voice in my head. She’s always talked this way. Now I remember.

I rearrange myself on the sofa and face R.Meta. “You must be feeling lost without Don,” I say. I speak the word she had used on the phone when I called to give my condolences: “I’m just lost without him,” she had said then. I can see now that it is true.

“He always did everything around here,” she says. “I never even had to write a check.” The four of us sit in silence. I look over at Rowan. He has only been with Debbie a few months, and they have been hard ones. First, Don learned he had lymphoma and underwent a series of debilitating treatments. No longer tall and strong, he spent most days at home tethered to an oxygen machine even after his cancer was in remission. Then, just before Christmas, he and Debbie both broke their necks in a car accident. Debbie still hasn’t quite healed.

R.Meta takes and releases a deep breath and focuses on an empty recliner in the corner.

“He got over his cancer,” she says. “It’s that damn C.O.P.D. that ruined his lungs and killed him.” She pauses. “I heard him get up in the night, and I asked if he was ok. He said he couldn’t sleep and was going to sit up in his chair for a while, see if he could get to breathing better. I found him right there the next morning.” We all stare at the recliner. I can see him slumped there, his weakened frame still too big for the chair. I notice a photo on a nearby shelf. Don, as handsome as I remember him, stands behind his wife giving the camera a lecherous grin. R.Meta leans into his arms. Her glance is coquettish behind her glasses, and she stretches out a shapely leg adorned with a garter. I can almost hear their laughter.

The present-day R.Meta follows my eyes to the photo. “That was when we had the tavern,” she says. “We’d had a couple of drinks that night.” She smiles at the memory. I cannot speak.

Debbie asks if I’m ready to go see the farm. She must think it’s incredible that I don’t even know how to locate the property she loves. I tend to agree with her. I’m lucky enough to own a piece of prime pasture and I can’t say what side of the highway it’s on, let alone drive there. I have no idea what the land even looks like. Why, I wonder, did I not visit the property while my parents were alive? I must have gone there at some point, but I can conjure no memories. A month before he died, my father and I opened up Google Earth on his computer and located the land my sister now owns. I recorded our conversation as we labeled each landmark: his father’s pond, Uncle Buck’s house, Grandpa Henry’s truck garden, the road to Fostoria, the property lines. I saved the map, pleased at having captured all that knowledge. We agreed to map the Havensville property next time. His illness worsened quickly, and there was no next time.

“\[R.Meta\] looks at me hard through her thick-lensed glasses. ‘Don’t you sell that land,’ she says. It is more a threat than a plea.”

“[R.Meta] looks at me hard through her thick-lensed glasses. ‘Don’t you sell that land,’ she says. It is more a threat than a plea.”

Rowan says goodbye and drives away. R.Meta and I squeeze into the cab of Debbie’s old truck – her Dad’s, I learn – and we drive north out of town and take the second left. I tell myself to pay attention, to remember each turn so I can drive there on my own. We follow a stretch of road and turn right after half a mile or so. Debbie points out an old boxcar on the corner, a landmark. We take a few more corners and I lose track. Instead, I look at the rolling landscape and think how my father would have known every hill, draw, and fencepost, as well as all the neighbors and their stories and how much land they had and when they had last added onto their house. For me, by contrast, the plots of land blur together into a single expanse of green, and the houses are peopled by strangers.

A car approaches and Debbie raises her index finger in greeting without removing her hand from the steering wheel. The other driver does the same. I remember this from childhood as a sort of secret Kansas handshake. Sometimes, as a joke, my father would raise his middle finger instead, but the gesture was without venom. His hand faced forward on the wheel, mitigating any obscene reference. We kids thought the finger wave was hilarious in all its forms, and we urged our father to try it on city streets where cars passed in a constant stream instead of a few times a day. Now, seeing my cousin make the same familiar gesture gives a strange comfort.

Debbie stops the truck, gets out, and swings open a gate. She slides back behind the wheel and drives west toward a ribbon of trees. “It’s all pasture,” she tells me. “Except for that draw there.” On our right is a hedgerow of Osage orange. The draw is to our left, a couple of dozen trees I can’t identify growing out of a shallow, meandering ravine. She points out a new fence.

“...I look at the rolling landscape and think how my father would have known every hill, draw, and fencepost...”

“…I look at the rolling landscape and think how my father would have known every hill, draw, and fencepost…”

“Dad and I put that in last year.”

I nod. “Pop sure appreciated it.”

“The neighbor’s going to replace that fence over to the south.” She indicates other sections, half-sections, boundaries. I don’t even speak this language.

“Debbie picks up a handful of dry earth and lets it flow through her fingers. I do the same. We look like we’re in a movie, I think. I don’t know what I am looking for in the dirt I hold, but it is important to look, to touch, to feel. I want to understand this place.”

R.Meta is quiet. Debbie pulls up beside a pond. As soon as I see it, I remember fishing there as a little girl. I must have been with my father, or with one of my uncles, my mother’s brothers, most likely Uncle Doo, Debbie’s grandfather. I remember sitting quietly on the bank holding the pole with great patience and anticipation. I might have caught a sunfish. My father or uncle would have thrown it back, and that would have been all right with me. The process of doing something as important as fishing with a grown man far eclipsed the mundane product, the day’s catch. I recall lying back against the bank and watching clouds gather overhead. The clouds quickly took the form of a giant hand spreading across the sky. Looking back nearly six decades, I’m sure I didn’t know whether the hand would protect or destroy me. Years later, my mother would tell me that she once saw the same formation as she rested in a Kansas field, pregnant for the first time, feeling the earth turn below her and watching the clouds above her form into gentle fingers.

“Debbie pulls up beside a pond. As soon as I see it, I remember fishing there as a little girl.”

“Debbie pulls up beside a pond. As soon as I see it, I remember fishing there as a little girl.”

Relieved that I had at least once walked on this land I now own, I follow Debbie around the pond’s western edge. It has been a drought year and the water level is low. Debbie picks up a handful of dry earth and lets it flow through her fingers. I do the same. We look like we’re in a movie, I think. I don’t know what I am looking for in the dirt I hold, but it is important to look, to touch, to feel. I want to understand this place.

Debbie says, “If you come back this summer, we can go fishing.” She looks toward the far bank. “Have a barbecue right here by the pond.” Her invitation both moves and frightens me. What about me, I wonder, made her think I could fish? I had said nothing about my sudden recollection from childhood. I worry that I won’t be able to bait a hook. My husband has to remind me how to operate a reel every time we go surfcasting at the beach during our annual South Carolina vacations. He strings shrimp or sardines along the hooks of his seven-foot poles, casts out, and puts the butt-ends of the poles in pieces of PVC pipe he’s twisted into the sand. If we get a bite and I’m closer to the pole than he is, I’m supposed to flip back the reel’s wire trap, give the pole a yank, and bring in the fish. Mostly, though, I walk on the beach or keep my nose in a book. As to cleaning the fish we catch, forget it. I’m not squeamish but I have no experience in slitting open bellies and removing guts black with offal. I’m betting Debbie does.

But what I say is, “I would enjoy that.” Then I add as a hedge, “My husband does most of the fishing these days.”

We see R.Meta watching us from the truck and we walk towards her. I own this land, I think. It’s mine, and my father, before he died, gave me permission to sell it if I wished. We had been sitting out by the woodstove in the narrow room where he had slept every night since my mother died three years earlier. “I don’t feel attached to that place in Havensville,” he told me. “It never hurts a fellow to have some land, but if you decide you want to sell it, you go right ahead.”

“You told Kit to sell to Gold if she ever sold her piece,” I reminded him. The Gold family owned the land adjacent to the Goff property and had been renting it since the forties. I needed to know my father’s wishes for the Havensville farm. I waited for him to say, “Sell yours to Debbie.” Instead, he said, “Sell it to whoever’ll give you the best price.”

My father always appreciated Don, I remember as Debbie and I walk back to the truck, but their relationship was not without complications. For a while, Don sublet the pasture, renting part of it out to another farmer. It irked my father that his nephew, who was already paying below-market rent, was actually making money off the property. Don also left a light on in the barn at the old Ellis family place where my mother grew up, and the barn caught fire and burnt down. But he was good with cattle and he was nice enough to R.Meta’s folks. He seemed to have done a good job raising Debbie and her brother. He stayed married. He never left Kansas, and he lived a life my father might have chosen for himself had things worked out differently.

Debbie and I climb back in the truck, and we drive silently away.

“I thought I’d take you by the old place,” Debbie says after a few minutes.

“She wants to see her cows,” says her mother. “That girl is nuts about them cows. Treats ’em like pets.” Debbie smiles and looks sideways at R.Meta. The “old place” is the Ellis family farm, where my mother and R.Meta’s father and their siblings, six in all, were raised. The house is gone now, along with the barn that Don burnt down. I haven’t seen the farm since I was in my twenties, but I do own the bed that came out of the upstairs bedroom where my mother and her brothers and sisters were born. Through the bed, I feel tied to the place and to my mother’s family. The bed is made of iron, gilded over with flaking paint. I’ve taken it along wherever I’ve lived. Once, I thought it had been stolen from a storage container in my parents’ small Missouri town. I was heartbroken: all that family history lost, and the bed would have no value to anyone outside our clan. A few months later, to my great joy, it turned up in our attic in St. Louis.

We pull off to the right and Debbie parks under a stand of oak trees dense with foliage. I can almost sense that these trees do talk, as my mother believed they could. I can see where the barn stood before it burned. I can trace the foundations of the house. My mother’s parents had moved into the town well before I was born, and yet their old farm seems familiar to me, more familiar than the land we just left.

“The unspoken truth is that things will go on as before. I won’t sell. Debbie will mail me a check every six months. She’ll pasture her cattle on my land this year and next year and thereafter until something changes.”

The cattle, twenty head or so, amble toward the fence. Debbie is already out of the truck, walking toward her animals. R.Meta and I slide out and follow. Most of the cattle are black Angus, with a couple of red-and-white-faced calves. Debbie pulls up handfuls of grass and holds them out to the wet noses pushing between the wires. I bend down to the grass and pull up a fistful and let the cattle’s huge, black-spotted tongues wrap themselves around the blades as if accepting an offering. Their liquid eyes gaze at me obliquely as they chew. I pull up more grass, and more. “Hey, forty-two,” I call to one cow, reading off the number on her ear-tag. My father used to call his cattle by their tag numbers. “Come on over here, seventy-four.” Debbie leaned on a post and looked content. “Forty-two had trouble during calving season this year,” she tells me, “But she’s ok now. That’s her baby over there.” She points to a calf that to me is indistinguishable from the others. As if it had heard its name, it walks toward us, stopping to nuzzle its mother.

R.Meta joins us beside the fence and we all stand and watch the cattle. “I’ll take them up to pasture next week,” Debbie says. The unspoken truth is that things will go on as before. I won’t sell. Debbie will mail me a check every six months. She’ll pasture her cattle on my land this year and next year and thereafter until something changes. Debbie, maybe with Rowan’s help, will repair the fences and keep a watchful eye out for thistles. In the fall, she’ll take some cattle to the slaughterhouse, and she’ll rent the neighbor’s bull to sire another round of calves. R.Meta will grow old watching her daughter do the chores.

In a few months I’ll probably make another trip to Havensville. Maybe this time I’ll drive Debbie and R.Meta out to the pasture that used to be my father’s, and I’ll know that the gate is on the left just past the old boxcar. Maybe we’ll bring a picnic and build a cooking fire, and Debbie and I’ll pull bluegills out of the pond while her mother tends the coals. I’ll lie back on the grassy bank. Clouds will reach toward me with airy hands. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

About Author Kay Henry
Portrait image of author Kay Henry.
Photo by Oscar Lanau. All other photos courtesy of Kay Henry.
Kay Henry is a writer with roots in the American Midwest who now lives with her husband in the Catalunya region of northern Spain. She holds her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her nonfiction work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Numéro Cinq, and Collateral Journal, and her essays have been selected as finalists for prizes including Ruminate Magazine’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize and the Orison Anthology Award in Non-Fiction. She is currently working on an essay collection whose topics include why Catalunya reminds her of Kansas.