Relativity in Kansas

Relativity in Kansas

As for Linda’s relatives …

Linda was born in Wichita, Kansas, where she lived most of the years until coming east with her first husband, Rusty in 1965. Her parents both had jobs at Wichita aircraft plants, then moved back briefly to their tiny home town of Cedar Vale – which, by chance, has about the same minuscule population (650) as Dushore, our town in upstate PA. 

In Cedar Vale, her father toiled in Uncle Floyd’s Garage until he realized he preferred the aircraft work, so the family moved to Herington (then the demographic center of the contiguous US) to work for Beech Aircraft, and again to Wichita when the Herington plant closed. They retired to Cedar Vale shortly before Linda and I got married.

I think I’ve got that right.

Her parents visited us two or three times at our Baring St. home in Philly. Each time, their van was broken into, which didn’t help their unease with city living.

Linda and I lived together for two and a half years before we got married. During that time, her dad treated me as next of kin to the Devil. Invited to our favorite Indian restaurant (where he and his wife got little joy from the food), he would not look at or speak to me directly, throwing his words across the table 45 degrees past my left shoulder. 

When, later, Linda called them to announce our wedding plans, he chuckled at me like an old chum. I’d offended his bedrock social sense of decency, so I suppose this change in attitude made at least superficial sense. I found it difficult to talk civilly without biting the phone cord from a fury I’ve seldom felt against another human being – was I now a separate person from the lout who had sullied his daughter? 

The year after our marriage, our family  – Linda, me, my daughters Morgan and Erin and Linda’s son Ben – drove to Florida to visit her parents, living for the summer with Linda’s 8-years-older brother Carl on his chicken ranch in Apopka, Florida, northwest of Orlando – I sincerely hope our only trip to that determinedly repellant state. 

A side note on our means of transportation:

Once merged, Linda and I shopped at the dingy excuse for a supermarket on Haverford Ave., hauling groceries back in the only conveyance we could afford, a foldable shopping cart that tottered closer to extinction with each trip. For the rest of our transportation needs, we pulled Linda’s little red wagon, which served us well for a year or so. (Would you believe someone stole that little red wagon from our front yard? Of course you would.)

So we bought a 1964 Dodge Dart – of the famed slant 6 engine – for $350. The speedometer and odometer were dead, someone had repaired the driver’s door with aluminum flashing and pop rivets, a gaping hole in the rusted backseat flooring wafted noxious gases to the inhabitants, and the heating failed in mid-winter. It consumed a quart of oil every 70 miles, and once stopped, would not restart for the following ten minutes.

Yet Linda and I (even the kids, I think) grew fond of this wounded beast. 

Back to Florida:

While Linda’s mom and dad and Carl’s family stayed in the main house, we spent the nights in her parents’ tiny RV, downwind from the chickens. In the mornings we could watch the chickens, confined in wire cages of half a cubic foot each, being fed some kind of slurry while feral cats lapped up broken eggs.

For recreation, Linda’s parents took us to Disney World, where we spent 70% of the time waiting in lines. What fun!

The way back from Florida would have been a total horror – except for the fact that we were no longer in Florida. We bought a case of oil before lumbering up I-95, which has convenient mile markers to count off the 70 miles for odometerless us to the next oil change. 

Ben and Erin raised such holy hell in the back seat that we seriously considered abandoning them in Newark, Delaware, if we could make it that far without murder. Morgan, even ten minutes, would collapse sideways in her seat and intone, with Russian inflection, “I have no weel to livvve,” our one bit of pleasant entertainment.

The next year, Linda’s mom developed cancer that metastasized like a rabbit on estrogen. Within a few months she was in a nursing home, and by the following February (1983), she had died. Three months or so later, Linda was taken aback when her dad said he was planning to remarry.

He certainly didn’t have the stash to lure a gold-digger, so what was going on? From Uncle Frank (Linda’s dad’s brother), Linda learned that Treva, the intended bride, had been the subject of her father’s intense devotion when he and she were 14 – so intense that his mother had scuttled their romance as unfitting in ones so young. Treva, a widow now living in Oklahoma, read of his wife’s death, sent her condolences, and things swept on quickly from there.

We were invited to the wedding and took our first cross-country visit to Cedar Vale. Were we still driving the Dart? You’d think that would be stamped in my memory, but it isn’t.

The flatness of Kansas is exaggerated, at least in the eastern sector. (For flatness, go to Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s 1200-mile tabletop of wheat, a nightmare of the mundane.)

Cedar Vale had a squat Main St. with standard little stores and semi-deserted storefronts, one of which seemed to be a pool hall, and one good restaurant, (the Café). A numbered route, 166, doglegged through the town in those days; it was later diverted to a bypass – god knows what’s left of its near-terminal commercial center. A bus stopped a couple times a day in front of a leather store, a cross between a saddle emporium and a ’60s craft rediscovery.

While we stayed in her dad’s house, Linda offered to clean out the excess that any couple accumulates. In the garage she found that her parents had not thrown out a plastic container over the last decade. Whole racks of shelving were packed cheek by jowl with empty gallon milk jugs and yellow margarine dishes (her parents, in cow country, never bought butter). Linda disposed of the plastic, but when she returned a decade later for her father’s funeral, she found that he had replenished the supply.

I was much taken with her Uncle Frank, who owed a small dairy farm nearby. Good-humored, bright, straightforward and mildly sarcastic, he was a full character filled with a genuine love and appreciation for his land. He drove us to a small hill so we could gaze down on his holdings – “a pretty man’s farm,” as he described it. 

All his family – wife (also named Treva), sons F.E. and Bobby – were good souls. I was enthralled by F.E, with his massive square head and love of rollercoasters and motorcycles (one of which had spilled and left him on crutches for a year and a half).

Her dad’s youngest brother, Johnny, had been the black sheep of the family, an alcoholic nomad rodeo rider and riverboat rat recently settled down with his champion coon dogs and realigned (after a separation tumult) with his wonderful wife Joann (pronounced “Joanne”). I felt easy with him, accepted.

An unsettling sidelight: Johnny’s almost blind father would, unknown to Johnny,  seat Johnna, Johnny’s daughter then about five years old, on his lap while driving to tell him when it was safe to move ahead or turn. Johnny – whose weirdly-set false teeth made his mouth look out of balance – said he was rightly pissed when he found out.

We’re not sure if Johnna –one of the most outrageously sexually exciting women I’ve ever been around – recalls this. Last time we visited her, she was living with a dissipated-looking limousine driver and wondering if she might end up “polluting the gene pool.”

Johnny died of a heart attack in his late 50s, which initially wrecked Joann, though she later sent letters indicating she was doing well in Iowa or somewhere else, far from Kansas.

Linda’s father’s only sister, Ferne, lived in one of the few interesting houses (perhaps the only interesting house) in Cedar Vale, where she sewed quilts and crocheted brilliantly colored afghans. The house had been left to her by her husband, who ran off with the “town floozie” (how often do you here that designation?). Ferne had a hole in her vocal cords and could only speak at a rasping whisper. A thoroughly gracious lady.

Johnny, Frank and especially Ferne had a strong sense of beauty, an appreciation for nature and for art in its various forms. Linda’s dad, so far as either of us could tell, had no aesthetic sense whatsoever, except for flowers – no interest in music, paintings, reading for pleasure. He seemed indifferent to food (his almost undeviating supper was cornbread and milk). That Linda could have sprung from such a contained man astounds me.

I knew far less about her mom (a schoolteacher for many years) – I think Linda’s amazingly wide range of interests and talents more likely came from her. Except… Frank, Johnny, Ferne: Where do genes or interests get passed along, where lost?

Linda’s father had been a lifelong Baptist and had intended to marry reunited teen sweetheart Treva in the local Baptist church, but the pastor frowned on remarrying one so recently widowed. Without skipping a beat, her dad switched to the Lutheran church for the ceremony. When it came time to kiss the bride, let us just say this late-70s man did not restrain himself in front of the altar.

Treva was a solid, contained, confident presence. She did much to open up their few remaining years – few because she developed cancer, refused pointless extended treatments and left him a widower a second time at age of 80.

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