Last Friday, that’s right, just one week ago, I drove with mom (Grandma Gehringer to you) and Grandpa Merlin from their smoky hotel room (in their smoky car) from Fremont, Nebraska out to Newman Grove.
Oh, yeah, I forgot Uncle Deke. Uncle Deke came along. He smokes, too. Uncle Deke is my favorite uncle. He’s mom’s (grandma’s) youngest sibling. He’s just two years older than I and lives in Oklahoma with his wonderful wife, Chris.
Fremont itself, 40 miles west of Omaha, is no great metropolis, although from my viewpoint, it seems to be thriving. Fremont is a heck of a nice town, real middle America. But, if you drive another 80 miles west and just slightly north and turn in all the right places, you come to a much smaller community called Newman Grove. Newman Grove is decidedly NOT cosmopolitan. It’s rural, sleepy, only one short block of downtown. With 800 folks who call it home, it’s the sort of place where, if the guy driving the pickup in front of you stops in the middle of the street in front of the garage, leaving the keys in, the engine running and the driver’s side door standing wide open to run in and talk to ‘Jerry’ about his carburetor problems, well, it’s okay because there’s no stop sign, no traffic light and likely no other cars or people, so you just drive on around and continue on your way.
But that’s not what I came to talk about. No, what I came to talk about is contained in the headline above. Here’s how driving on Nebraska backroads works. And it’s probably not a whole lot different than most other places. With every turn that takes you away from civilization, the fields get bigger, the houses further apart, and the roads narrower, and straighter. And on this particular July day, the corn was beginning to reach pretty high.
After nearly two hours under the biggest blue sky I’ve ever seen, heading straight for a huge bank of cumulo-nimbus clouds scraping heaven’s floor, and a landscape beset with endless stretches of soothing, undulating green, the church came into view. We turned off and parked in the shade, on its west side, nearest the cemetery.
I watched my mother. She stood, hands on her hips, surveying the scene just inside the gate fashioned of narrow white pickets beneath a wrought iron archway bearing the name “Rosehill.” Beneath her feet, and mine, rested parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and assorted cousins. This is where mom’ll end up, and I’ve been entrusted with the task of getting her here. One far corner was conspicuous for its tidiness, clearly belonging to families that still live here. I strolled among the markers, many of them more than a century old. Way over to one side, between two evergreens and overgrown by grasses, was a modest headstone of grey marble. It dated back to the 1840’s and belonged to a child. A girl. Her name may have been Alstadt. We have a lot of Scandinavians in our ranks.
My grandmother, Naomi Myrtle Bley Henderson, lays next to her oldest brother, Earle Bley. He died, the result of a farm accident, in his early twenties. My grandmother, the youngest of ten children, was just a baby. Next to her stands a more imposing granite monument. Meant to mark the Bley family graves, my Great-aunt Grace Bley Shipley, is buried there. Rather, her ashes rest in eternal peace. My Aunt Grace may have been a nurse, but don’t equate that with tame. When she was just a young pup, Aunt Grace ran off with a barnstormer. I can just imagine a light plane touching down on that road that splits the header shot in this blog. To a young adult woman, Newman Grove and the Bley family farm must have been dull enough to make that empty back plane seat pretty inviting. Later, she married a man named Shipley. I doubt it was the pilot, as handsome as he must have been. Family lore has it she gave birth to a child that died. I love you, Aunt Grace.
Mom’s sister, my Aunt Micki, brought carnations a little later. We laid them around the headstones, drove past the farmhouse and headed back to Fremont.
I felt small and anonymous driving through those fields of waving corn. One field, the same as the next, over and over again. And me, nobody special, either. Except, on that day I felt as though I found a place where I belonged, and that belonged to me, too.