2022 01 25
You are wrong to want a heart

I sat next to a middle-aged man on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Kansas City. The man wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a beakish nose. He seemed pleasant enough but wrestled with his newspaper for much of the two-hour flight.

He would fold the long edge of his paper with a manic rustling sound, crease it, and fold it again until it was a square. This continued for much of the flight. When I wasn’t listening to the paper rustler, I was reading my book and looking out the window of the plane as the jagged, red-tinged Colorado mountain tops gave way to flat prairie. I was flying to visit my sister who lives in Lawrence, Kansas which was one of our hometowns when we were kids and where she had returned to years ago. With a modest savings she had taken time off from her cashier job at the Dollar Tree and moved into a small apartment on the far east edge of town. 

After several days of getting my sister settled into her new place, I got into my rental car and headed north on Route 59 toward Atchinson. Perched on a hill above the Missouri River, the town is known for being the birthplace of the famed aviator Amelia Earhart. It was a cloudy early fall day. From my car window, I could see the tall prairie grass barely hanging onto their summer colors. Farms and barns and red and green resting combines flanked the road and a distantly familiar mix of manure and fresh dug earth tickled my nose. I tried to think like a photographer, or what I thought a photographer should be thinking of,  but all I could think about was how I had arrived here and why our family had to leave in the first place. I was a teenager then. Now, so far removed from my younger self any memories I had seemed borrowed from someone else.  Did I really have bottle rocket wars on dried-out river beds and come home so exhausted and exhilarated I could barely sleep? Why did the gully near our house scare me so? What was so important that our Dad uprooted his family to start all over again in another new town? 

I was thinking about these things when I took a left turn off Route 59 and drove into Oskaloosa, one of the many towns sprinkled throughout Kansas which reflects on its origin as a Native American territory. I  walked around the town for a while, through it’s small center looking for photographs, until I arrived at a ramshackle house that was getting a paint job. I saw a woman in the front yard and asked if I could take her photograph. She was patient enough to let me, an acceptance that continues to surprise me when it happens. When I got back to my sister’s house later that evening I showed the photo of the woman to my sister and asked her what she thought of it. “I see women like her every day at the store,” she said. “She’s lived a hard life, but she’s a proud woman.” Kansas is made up of rugged people. You’ll need your own version of strength too. I don’t know many people that get to escape that.