My grandmother lived to be 95 – and had the good fortune to remain mentally sharp for almost all of that time.
Her family had homesteaded central Kansas not so long before she was born, and in my grandmother’s eyes, they had settled in the perfect spot. My grandmother never strayed very far from a triangle defined by Hudson, Kansas, St. Johns, Kansas and Stafford, Kansas (not all that far from Great Bend or Hutchinson -- the nearest airport is in Wichita). She was rooted to a place – to the bit of land that she and my grandfather farmed and to the people that eked out a living on the same sandy soil – in a way that I am not. It was never all that wealthy a place, but it was also not a place with great discrepancies in wealth. De Toqueville’s America was alive and well in my grandmother’s life. Social capital she had.
Like anyone who lives as long as she did, my grandmother witnessed tremendous change. Technological change obviously. Other changes as well. She was born into a community that was in some ways more prosperous then than it is now. Not in a narrow material sense – a man and a tractor can produce more grain and more cash now than then. But the productivity of the tractor – along with the efficiency of Wal-mart retailing – also drained some of the vitality out of small prairie towns.
Central Kansas had far more people at the turn of this century than it does now. The original Stafford high school, my grandmother’s high school, still stands. It is a more imposing structure than most of today's buildings.
My grandmother had the frugality – and dislike of debt -- that comes from starting a family in central Kansas during the depression. She didn’t believe in spending money on things you didn't need, or buying anything that you could make – and she was the kind of person who could turn a chicken, a few vegetables from her garden, some flour and a bit of water into a truly delicious meal.
But she also had the kind of generosity that comes from the knowledge that you can survive on very little. Every year she and my grandfather gave me – and their other grandchildren – the gross proceeds from the sale of a calf. They had five grandchildren and only about thirty cows, so they were giving up a substantial fraction of their gross proceeds, and an even bigger share of the net.
My family wasn’t clued in to the Ivy league’s financial aid system – and didn’t realize that assets held in my name had to be exhausted before any application for financial aid would be considered. I always thought it was a little unjust that my grandparents' sacrifice ended up saving an institution as wealthy as Harvard a bit of money. But I also am proud that I know the real cost of one year’s tuition, room and board at a top-tier private university in 1989-90 was 18 calves and accumulated interest. I am pretty sure that my first year of college was the only brand-name luxury good my grandparents ever bought.
My grandmother wasn’t a great traveler, but she was a great letter writer. Her monthly accounts of life on the farm -- accounts that she kept up throughout her 80s – are gems. Direct and honest, a true reflection of the stubborn (ha!), practical and proud woman who wrote them. I eagerly awaited her letters then and now I deeply wish I had written back more often. Some of my best early memories involve sitting under the windmill on my grandparents' farm at night, listening to the Kansas City Royals -- they were good then -- on the radio.
My grandmother said not so long ago that the only thing wrong with central Kansas was that it "blows" so hard. And the wind does blow across central Kansas like it does in few other places. She was a woman of strong faith and, if there is any justice in this world, one last summer blast blew her on.