I have always been drawn to Great Plains–It could be the wide open spaces, and its long views. I remember as a child, my father pointing out that those streaks in the sky far ahead of us were actually rain falling. We were driving toward the Rocky Mountains someplace in the Great Plains.
It is specifically Montana that draws me, though. I can’t remember when I learned about my connection to Montana. Was it tied to asking my mother’s about her agate ring with what looked like a grove of trees in the stone? My grandfather homesteaded in Montana from 1913-1919 with several of his sisters, and brought the ring back to Minnesota as a ring for what became a failed engagement. He did marry and have two daughters. But in 1939, when my mother was 9 years old, the family was in a car accident that led to his death. So what I know of my grandfather is through my mother’s memories. He loved his daughters. He would have them jump in bed with him in the morning and recite the names of Roosevelt’s cabinet. He valued education and had a teaching license so that he could teach in the winters in town when he lived in Montana. And he had a deep Christian faith. He was part of the Sunday School movement.
My mother and aunt, in his absence, or because of it, put themselves through college. They passed on both his deep faith and his desire for education to all of us, especially all the granddaughters and great granddaughters. The open space of Montana has come to represent my grandfather’s absence from much of our family’s history. It is the empty space that always yearned to be filled and known.
When I went to graduate school I studied public land history including the settlement of the Great Plains. A part of the empty space was filled through seeing the larger story of my grandfather’s time in Montana. During that time, on a trip west, I stopped to visit my mother’s cousins who became scattered westward from the Great Plains after abandoning their farms during the depression. One took me to the top of a butte, 18 miles north of Terry, Montana and pointed to the remnants of his farm, describing all the farms that once populated the valley. I walked down to hill and found his stove out in a field along with other remnants of his life in Montana–part of that empty space that always yearned to be filled.
When I had my own daughters, I once took them to stay overnight in a sod house just to help them imagine what his life had been like, before he built a wooden house. And when they studied American History and the settlement of the Great Plains, I talked about my grandfather and how this was their history–it was not an empty space but a space that was filled with their own lives.
The long views that my grandfather had were shared by Evelyn Cameron (1868-1928), a British-born photographer who live in Terry, Montana at the same time as my grandfather. I discovered the work of Cameron when I read the book, Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban. The book centers on the history of Prairie County and Terry, Montana during the era when my grandfather and Cameron were living there. I read it with interest as I tried to fill in the empty spaces of his life and experience.
In the past month, when I was again in Montana, I searched book stores for more of Cameron’s work. I want to know if the photos I have of my grandfather in Montana were taken by Cameron. Did Evelyn Cameron meet him as he got off the train with his two sisters and walked into a spring snow storm? Did she take the photo of the sod house?
I’m still working on trying to bring closure to this story. It has now been 100 years since my grandfather homesteaded on the Great Plains. It has been 75 years since his car accident. It seems like so long ago, yet not too long ago, my mother and I had dinner in Hong Kong with one of her cousin’s sons, a peer of my generation who we had not really met before. Afterward my mother said–“He is like my father–quiet and gentle.”
I continue to yearn to fill in the empty spaces of place and identify.