Monday, July 13, 2015

Listening to an Oklahoma Windmill

This weekend my great aunt passed away, the youngest of a large family where only two sisters remain. I will be forever indebted to her for her memories as I researched a memoir on Oklahoma -- though with fewer experiences being the youngest, it was in a lot of ways her voice and thoughts that got me the closest to my grandmother and her early life. Exploring Oklahoma as an estranged adult -- someone who once hated the state and whose heart sank crossing the Kansas border -- I never asked my grandmother the questions I most needed answered (the questions I only began to come to in her last months through a cache of photographs). 

My journey into Oklahoma and the prairie, Mennonites and Cheyenne and oil and manifest destiny, is far from over -- yet the people who can make that journey richer are all but gone. So many little stories from one moment to the next in our lives, and 99.9% of it is erased seconds later, the truth hazier and less true with each breath. 

The story I will most remember is driving the backroads of red-dirt wheat fields in the fall of 2009. My great aunt said that, while growing up, you could know whose farm you were on by the sound of the windmill; that on still nights she could not fall asleep, only able to drift off once the breeze picked up and the windmill began turning, creaking. Moments later she told me the low German Mennonite words for "chicken shit." Listen to the windmills in your life -- but don't fall asleep, stay awake, strain to hear the pattern, live harder in a place for every second you can.

Marjorie Janzen Heinrichs on the left.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Thank you for this article Benjamin. Far too many people who shared my journey are gone now, too. But so very often I am reminded of them and can hear their voices, their speech patterns, the sound of their footsteps. I carry my paternal Grandmother with me in my mind, especially when gardening. It was one of her passions and she taught me a great deal. I am better for her having been in my life, for her being patient with me as a child, subtly imparting knowledge and history (or her-story, as I call it), chatting to me about her past, about being raised by her Grandmother. She loved birds--fed them, knew their calls and songs, delighted when they came back from winter migration. She loved her plants and was adventurous but pragmatic with her gardens--she'd say she'd made a mistake and "the plant knew where to go so it walked off. . ."
I wish I'd retained more of her wisdom, more of the names of faces in photos that are fading. But I have incorporated things that bring me great joy: the song of the first male Redwing Blackbird who arrives home in late February, the scent of her Hyperian daylily, her cheerful little yellow bearded iris that reblooms faithfully Spring and Fall. She is with me in what are now my favorite endeavors so I suppose she isn't really gone after all.
She loved to read Benjamin and I know she would have enjoyed your writing. This past week I found Prairie Smoke in my garden center and bought all they had (2 plants). I planted them yesterday and was content that Grandma would have liked the idea and that you would, too.