My grandfather was a young boy when my great-grandfather brought the family out and claimed their homestead. My grandfather said he had always had vivid memories of leaving the town in Wisconsin where he had been born, and of coming out on the wagon. He said he remembered it, but later in his life my aunt had taken him on a trip back the way they had come, and to that town, and he said it looked nothing like he had remembered it. And that was when he realized it was all imagined. He had heard stories about it all his life, from his father and his mother, and it was just pictures in his head. Pictures that felt more real than the country he visited. When he told me that, I could tell it felt as though he had almost been robbed of something. But my grandfather wasn’t a man to brood about things. Got up every morning and praised god for the new day. He used to say, “Not everybody gets to get up every day and see the sun rise and step out onto land he owns, even though it often seems like the land owns us and she’s a cruel mistress sometimes at that. But dang it, there’s not too many people in this world can live as free as we do.”
He liked to talk about freedom and god and our blessings. It’s not unusual. I think a lot of people out here feel that way.
He told lots of stories, stories that had been passed down. Of life in Norway, when my great grandfather had come over as a young man, with a young bride. Their first few years, in lumber camps and mining camps in northern Michigan and Wisconsin. Stories about winters. About clever things they had to do to have enough to feed all the children. Then finally scraping together enough money to come out here, put down for a homestead. They had come from a coastal town in Norway, a fishing town, I think, and since they had been in the US they had lived along the Great Lakes. Always by big water. I’ve always wondered what they must have thought when they got out here, an endless sea, but of grass.
I got the idea that my great grandfather was a little lost in it, in the long winters, especially. He went out in a storm one morning to milk the cows and they didn’t find his body until Spring. My grandfather was still young then, maybe only six or seven, but he had older brothers and they worked on, finishing the homestead, breaking the sod. My grandfather said he only helped a little in those days, he was still too small to do the heavy work. Once he said, “I was too young and too small to do the really hard work my older brothers did, breaking the sod, turning over the prairie soil so we could plant wheat. Otherwise I don’t think I would have this memory. On the north part of the section we had, we had a stretch of bluestem grass, tall grass that would come up to the low branches of a tree by the late summer. I guess it was once all over here. He and his cousins played hide and seek in it. It could hide his tallest brother. He said the tips grew a sort of blue and purple but in the late summer they would catch the afternoon light and the prairie seemed to be made of gold. It was magical to him.
I used to make him tell me stories from that time, especially the time the grass was reaching up into a tree, and he climbed the tree and hid from his cousins and watched the prairie turn gold without anyone finding him. The country sounded so raw and fresh and new. Not like the country I knew, all fenced and furrowed and mapped out in straight lines of rows and shelterbelts. I imagined it must have been something different before we captured it in our straight lines.
He said years later it turned out it wasn’t magical at all, except in the worst way. I guess bluestem put down deep roots and the sod was near impossible to turn with a horse-drawn plough. They were still turning the soil in far parts of their land by the time he was of age and big enough to help. He said he cursed the days he had to follow the team through that tall grass. He said, “It’s only now in my memory, now that we have tractors, and that land has long been tamed and tilled and served us well, that I see that grass again, in all its height and gold.”