I pass a sign, “Beware Strong Winds.”
After a few hours studying Catherine of Siena at the monastery, I look up how far it is to the town where my great-grandparents’ church is. A ten-minute drive. I can’t believe I haven’t looked this up before.
The great thing about going to Lancaster, Kansas, to see the church is that I won’t need directions to see where the town is, or to find the church itself, as the town is maybe thirty buildings, not counting the one that is falling down and has windows covered in memos from the state of Kansas explaining that its owner needs to take it down because it is dangerous.
Between the bustling metropolis of Atchison, Kansas (population 10,000) and Lancaster (population 298, when everyone is home), there is an industrial park with some small places making something. The color of winter here, when there is no snow, is flowing forevers of a dead, pale gold. I used to think it was depressing. Now it reminds me of the colors I like to wear: mustard, grey, shades of dust. The world could use some red lipstick, but.
I see the cemetery. There is a gate, and half of it is hanging open. I just stop the car on the gravel, there is no place to park, there is no need for anyone to park, ever. There is a small structure for the cemetery equipment, and a rusted pump. I open the car door, and the wind blasts me. It isn’t cold. Just strong, so strong. No one is about. They are all inside looking at their phones the way everyone is all the time. Or making Sunday dinner.
I do a few walks up and down before finding the right Schurmans. There is one couple right by my car, but the ones I am looking for, my great-grandparents and grandfather and a couple of great uncles, they take a little more walking. My grandfather’s headstone has an airplane carved into it. It’s by far the coolest gravestone I know of, the most personal, and this is weird, because no one will tell you my grandpa was such a great guy. A lot of people will be like, well, you know. There were some good things about him.
The wind blows and blows. It isn’t cold, and my hair is back the way I always put it back, neatly and without vanity, when I go to the monastery. The sisters have never seen me with makeup, or wearing prints. It’s just how I like to be when I’m there.
I kiss my hand and touch it to my great-grandparents’ headstone. I knew both of them. My great-grandma was college educated, and a teacher, and rather mouthy.
The other last names in the cemetery are British, Scotch-Irish. There is one clearly Catholic grave, with a Mary statue on it, but it is a brand-new one. The oldest grave I can find with a date says eighteen-eightysomething. (Last letter worn off.) It isn’t that old of a place.
I get back in the car to make the drive to the church, which is, in New York City terms, truly ridiculous. Walking is where small towns and New York City meet. If not for the wind, I would walk the whole town. Inside a garage, someone has hung a Confederate flag.
I see the Methodist church– that throws me– but then there’s the Lutheran church. I don’t remember it being so close to the cemetery. I thought we drove from the church, after funerals, but maybe we didn’t. Maybe it was because of weather.
My great-grandparents, and my grandfather, rode horses and buggies to this church. There is a crudely built iron bell tower. Someone painted it Babe-the-Blue-ox blue, and I wonder whose idea that was. I peek in one door, and see the entrance has been renovated in the last twenty-five years (drat!), but peeking in another glass door, I see that the entrance to the sanctuary looks exactly the same. Lowest of low pile brown carpet, steps going up to the sanctuary, where Jesus in a painting is rising, and above him, a stained glass window with an unchurchy design. I don’t have any memory of what was at the front of the church. We spent a lot more time in the basement, having potlucks, than we did in the sanctuary.
I don’t know if this church used to be a Norwegian Lutheran church or a German Lutheran church. But my great-grandma told me hers was a mixed marriage: German Lutheran and Norwegian Lutheran. And that they compromised by going to her church, which was Norwegian. That was the kind of lady she was.
I walk down to the post office, another memorable Lancaster spot. It is still open, and looking fresh and good. Next to it is the falling-down building. Then that fixture of small towns: the insurance agency. And finally, to my great surprise, there is a restaurant! It is open!
I have to get back to Kansas City to my cousin’s birthday dinner, but damn, way to go Lancaster! I can’t wait to go back and get a cup of coffee there and ask some townspeople what’s up. “I’m a Schurman,” I imagine myself explaining. “There are a bunch of us up in the cemetery. I just blew into town.”