“Toto, I don’t think we are in California anymore,” I whispered to no one in particular knowing full well that the plane had landed and I was disembarking the plane in Kansas. Well, technically Missouri, since the Kansas City airport is in Missouri and NOT Kansas. But close enough. I was heading into Kansas territory, sure enough. I had left my technicolor dream home of California for a week in the black-and-white world of farms, fields, and tornadoes. I missed the state of poppies already.
This was not my first trip to Kansas, and, unfortunately, it will not be my last. And, like the black-and-white Kansas in the Wizard of Oz, many, but not all Kansas moments are painful. Some of my first childhood memories are of me in Kansas: I clearly remember falling down the basement steps in my grandparents Kansas City home because I was a recalcitrant child and pulled and pulled away from my brother’s hand who was trying to reign me in and, you guessed it, prevent me from falling down the stairs. If he had just let me be and let me walk down the steps on my own I probably would never have fallen down the steps at all. But Kansas tries to protect you from the things that never should have been a danger. And you know an independent 4-year old growing up in a 1-story California-style bungalow could not possibly navigate stairs without her older brother’s assistance. And so, that which Kansas fears becomes the inevitable outcome.
Now, I consider myself to have been granted special dispensation to make fun of Kansas at will given that my parents were born and raised in Kansas. While I was most definitely born and raised a California girl, I was the product of solid, stolid midwestern parents. And, while they were somewhat tolerant of my trips down yellow brick roads, my fights with winged monkeys, and my obsessions with ruby slippers, they would never experience these things first hand and never really understand the appeal.
Somehow, I also remember that 4-year old child riding on an elephant with her brother at the Kansas City zoo. This certainly seems too magical for a Kansas story, but the house has to lift off from somewhere to get to the magical lands and all the dream worlds are somehow rooted down into the bowels of our beginnings anyway. What I should remember: the view, the majesty. What I do remember: the feeling of the elephant’s skin and the course hairs poking out. I was fascinated by the roughness and the feel of it against my young unblemished tender skin. Kansas is refined but rough. Not the old west, but totally respectable farmers with rough hands and gnarled faces. Hard living wrapped in a veneer of wallpaper and sit-down dinners with the family.
And judgment. We can’t forget the judgment. There was the love and admiration my grandparents showered on the little girl next door to them in Kansas. But not on me. She got good grades. Mine were better. She gave them cards on holidays. I wrote missives. But she was always praised and adored. Held up as an angel. Apparently she did what she was told. She never fell down the stairs trying to be independent and she never spilled a vase full of flowers and water (it didn’t even break) while pretending the carpets were lava and carefully walking around on the furniture skillfully and gracefully (as only a trained dancer can do) to avoid burning her feet in the burbling red hot lava beds of her imagination. The vase only got knocked over when grandmother burst open the door, saw me walking onto the small end table and made an “oh” of a screeching variety that sounded kind of like an owl swooping down for its prey. Disapproval hung heavier in the house the rest of the day than the oppressive heat and humidity that hung outside and as a result I banished myself to the front porch to stare at the asphalt and imagine I was back home in California.
Now, I was a good child by California standards. I got good grades, cleaned my room, danced well. But I was sassy and independent and outspoken. Not the traits a good midwestern Kansas girl would have. I never had to rescue my little dog Toto from a crazy judgmental white lady, but I would have. I talked back to my father (he was in my eyes too often the man behind the curtain pulling levers and not the Great and Powerful Oz). I talked back to adults (I could follow the yellow brick road just fine on my own, but you were welcome to accompany me if you were smart or nice and didn’t try to scare the cowardly lion.) I never took naps (even surrounded by California poppies or when struck down with typhoid fever). And worst of all, I cried when I wasn’t perfect, when people were mean, when they tried to make me take naps. Crying. That was the breaking point for my mother. All her Kansas judgment would leap out at me when the tears started rolling down my cheeks. All I wanted was love and acceptance, but the tears got me bad looks, lectures, and the cold shoulder from my mother. Apparently, Kansas girls don’t cry. Go away little girl, you are not hard enough to be my child and your crying annoys me. I am supposed to be the good witch who protects you, but I will never show up on time. You have your shoes – what else do you want from me anyway? Here is a bucket for your tears. It might come in handy someday. Go fight the witch alone.
The last time I was in Kansas was for my grandmother’s memorial service and the burial of her ashes in a Kansas cemetery plot next to my grandfather. It was just the immediate family – no spouses- who made the trip. We visited lots of relatives I didn’t remember or didn’t want to know and a very few which I wished I had known better. I tried to be good and I tried to fit in. It didn’t work very well. My tattoos all showed in my light dresses in the warm May weather and my auburn-red hair was not a standard Kansas color. I danced at my grandmother’s grave side to say goodbye in the best way I knew how. But Kansas ladies don’t do that type of thing.
The relatives were rough. Jeans and overalls and clothes that were too-frequently and too harshly washed. The land of riding mowers if you lived “in town” and tractors if you didn’t. Farmers, ranchers, and the “retired” farmers who leased out their land to other farmers and sat on their front porch with a shotgun or rifle looking to shoot rabbits or armadillos or other varmints. Sure, not their crops anymore, but those critters are best dispatched anyway. Beware the too small dog that wanders into view of an aging mind and aging eyes that only looks for the blur of movement. Shoots first and whistles for the dog second. Only the dog never comes. Damned dog!!!
One woman was different. An aunt. She helped her parents on the small ranch, living next door to them. But, she had a career doing some type of work in Kansas City. When she retired she came back. She never married, never had children. Apparently she had a long-term affair with her boss – a married man. But that was rumor. None of it was discussed. What she did, who she loved, who she was. Irrelevant in relation to discussions of the cows or the crops or the weather. Kansas ladies don’t cry, don’t feel, don’t emote. At least not in public. Family counts as public.
My brother and I titled the trip the Kansas Cemetery Tour as we seemed to spend a lot of time visiting cemeteries and family graves and driving in between. I did find the perfect place for a house should I ever have to live in Kansas. A graveyard on a hill ringed with a variety of trees and a small creek winding around the bottom. I would move a grand old Victorian and set it up at the very top of the hill with views of the trees and the creek and the gravestones. I would be more at home living among the dead who I felt must be warmer than most of the living I had encountered.
The days were long, but my brother and I found some respite in long evening walks together – including walks to the liquor store where we stocked up on tiny bottles of hard liquor that we would slip into my purse before family get-togethers. The tiny bottles were easy to surreptitiously pour into tall cold glasses of unsweetened iced tea. The family members were not all non-drinkers but many were and the strongest drink served at these farmhouse events was usually a Mountain Dew or coffee. I was happy when I had work conference calls and had to walk up to the highway and sit under a tree in the warmth of the day because I couldn’t get cell phone reception near the house. Work made me feel like a responsible adult again instead of a misguided and wayward child who had just finished drawing on the new wallpaper with a felt tip pen. Except the wallpaper was my skin and the pen was tattoo ink and what kind of money had I paid to let people draw on me? Why did I want that there anyway?
Was it any wonder I didn’t want to go back? Even though this was a work trip and not a family trip, I knew there would be no elephant rides. I was leaving behind my warm sunlit yellow brick roads for a cold and grey country with cold judging people. I wasn’t happy to be there, but I wasn’t afraid of the wicked witch anymore. Because I could become the wicked witch. To me, it was my superpower. My protection. I could be colder than the cold when needed. But maybe to them I had always been the wicked witch.
But you and I know that the wicked witch isn’t really wicked. Just misunderstood. Just judged or abandoned or turned away. She had to become colder, harder, and meaner just so she wouldn’t cry every day. And she had to stop crying into her bucket of tears so she wouldn’t inadvertently melt her face with the salty concoction of her tears or spill her bucket of tears on the floor as she tried to navigate her dancing body away from the lava and back to the direction, guidance, and comfort of that yellow brick road. She needed more poppies, more flying monkeys, and the love of the smart, the kind, and even the cowardly. Until then, watch out Kansas. My broom is portable.