My ancestry also comes with plenty of negative baggage - slavery and hundreds of years of institutionalized and socially acceptable discrimination. But when I think of New Orleans, my family, and my Louisiana, I think of food: crab and crawfish boils, gumbo, and crusty french bread. I think of music, cemeteries, beautiful architecture, trees draped in Spanish moss, lazy wet heat, family parties, and belonging. There is always a sense of ownership and belonging. Those are my people.
Those people now belong to my sons and, although I no longer speak with a Southern accent, my sons will. Every time I hear Hollis drawling "yeeeaaaaahh" into a two syllable word, it makes me smile. It reminds me of who I am and who my sons will be.
For an Air Force brat, a sense of belonging is important. When I went off to college, I never knew how to answer that first and simplest of all questions: "Where are you from?" A truthful answer could take a half an hour of explanation. Sometimes I said "Louisiana," but that required its own detailed explanation. Sometimes I took the easy way out and said "Nebraska," where my parents still live and I went to high school. But to be honest, I hated to tell people I was from Nebraska. I still do.
When I left Nebraska for college in Miami, it was with the expectation that I would never really live there again. It wasn't my home. I didn't belong. And frankly, I thought it was pretty boring. When I thought of Nebraska I thought of long stretches of flat highway, corn and wheat fields, smelly cows, dust, and maybe, if I was feeling charitable, pioneer Nebraska with a whiff of Little House on the Prairie.
If you contrast the mystery and excitement of Louisiana in the 1600's and 1700's, with the dusty plains of Nebraska in the 1800's, I thought the choice was clear.
I did, however, end up back in Nebraska, where I met and married T, a born and bred Nebraska farm boy. T and his brother grew up helping his parents work their family farm in Southwest Nebraska. I'll admit that he does have some exciting ancestors sprinkled in there, including Christopher Wren, but I thought that his ancestry and background paled in comparison to my own.
I couldn't wait to leave Nebraska, to view it from my rear view mirror as I drove away for good.
I began to look at Nebraska differently only by seeing it through T's eyes. When we were dating, he took me out to his parents' farm. We tromped out into the middle of a field and T turned to me and told me to stand still and listen.
At first I heard nothing.
No cars, no phones, no planes in the distance, no mechanical buzz of any kind. I didn't hear any of the myriad of sounds we all hear every day and ignore in their constancy. It was a bit freaky, that silence.
Then I heard the wind in the grass, birds twittering, a faint mooing, and my own shallow breath. There was movement all around me, in the air, the trees, the field, the shifting light. But it was still. Suddenly I understood what my husband loved so about his corner of Nowhere. I began to understand the man who would be my husband.
Don't get me wrong, my T has no desire to lead the life of a farmer. It's hard work. Harder than anything I've ever done. And in many cases farming is a direct route to bankruptcy and heart break. Only those who farm bigger or, in some rare cases, smarter, survive. But T loves Nebraska. Much of his love is, of course, caught up in his love for his family, but it's also the love of a way of life and a certain type of person.
Farmers are entrepreneurs, only without the attitude of entitlement. They take risks as lofty as the Las Vegas high roller or the venture capitalist. But farmers don't keep planting or ranching for the love of money. They do it for love of the land and of family. They have a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility to the earth they keep and the people they feed. It took me a long time to understand that.
While we were in Nebraska last week, we helped my in-laws pack up their house. Several years ago they sold the family farm, although they retained ownership of the house and the land around it for a time as part of the sales contract. Two days ago they closed on the sale of T's boyhood home. I know that the sale was undoubtedly harder for T's parents than for T, but still it hurts him. He wants to show the boys his history and the loss of his home means a loss of some part of his childhood. A part he assumed would always be there waiting for him to visit.
But still, T's parents will be nearby in my mother-in-law's childhood home, a place that is still a part of T and the story of his life that he will share with our sons. So now, T is beginning to talk to the boys about farming and tractors, cows and chickens, pivots and irrigation. He is teaching them the language of his people. He is showing them a piece of their history.
H&H are thrilled with anything involving both animals and heavy machinery. In fact, Hollis was in tractor overload on our trip. He spent hours staring out the car window as the scenery passed us by - the scenery I thought of as a boring stretch of flat highway - watching the cows, asking about each piece of farm equipment and the "big sprinklers" (the pivot irrigators).
In knowing and loving my husband, I've grown to know and love his state. Watching my sons discover Nebraska is something else entirely. It's wonderful to watch Hollis's eyes light up when his daddy promises to let him ride a tractor, pet goats, or chase chickens. What boy wouldn't love that?
But I also hope that the boys will someday see Nebraska through their father's eyes. They won't just see chickens to chase and cows to harass. One day they'll look over the rolling hills from their great-grandparent's house in Southwest Nebraska and they'll feel that wonderful silence. They'll understand a piece of their father they could never know without standing there in that spot and listening to the sound of nothing.
One day Hollis and Holden will think of Nebraska and its heritage with a sense of wonder. They will see the floods and the drought, the feast and famine of farming, the flawed beauty of what was once the wild west.
They will belong to Nebraska as much as they belong to the South.