When the opportunity came a few years ago to travel to Nebraska on a National Writing Project trip to collaborate with other writing teachers across the country, I was thrilled. I had no idea what to expect, but I learned that Nebraskans constantly watch the sky for bad weather. They always fear being swept away by tornados that spring up without warning. I remember that few trees grow there, just tall grasses that stretch for miles. Above all else, I remember a writing visit to a small white church on the plain. The story of the church and the people buried in its cemetery haunts me to this day.
A chill ran through my body that July day, even though the temperature outside was sweltering. The place felt foreign to me, as I sat with my colleagues under the Swedish banners in the little Presbyterian Church in Nebraska. In the balcony the minister played the organ as I sat poised to write in my journal. Parts of the church had been rebuilt, but its foundation dated back to the 1700’s, and many of the headstones out in the cemetery bore names like Abraham and Isaac and Sarah; they too came from the 1700’s. These people braved assorted hardships to ensure a better life for their children and grandchildren.
Clumps of settlers arrived on the plains of Nebraska in the 1700’s, bringing with them the essential goods, such as plowshares, pots and pans, a few dishes, and blue glazed coffeepots, chipped during the journey. In the beds of their covered wagons lay their elderly and their youngest children, protected from the vicious storms and the lightning that struck like rattlesnakes, often killing instantly. Worst of all, in their souls they carried the dreadful weight of their priests’ words.
“God will surely punish you if you leave,” the priests had raged from the pulpits. He will strike your children and they will surely die.”
When the people arrived, they segregated themselves and welcomed Swedish settlers that might come, but they did not mingle with the Germans or any other foreigners, except for business purposes, of course. Business transcended everything, even language barriers. It became the younger generations that spoke together in English that they learned in school.
When the Swedish people came to Nebraska in the early 1700’s, they came against the odds. Weather posed many problems; no one was there to welcome them or help them. They were on their own. If a child should happen to die, they blamed themselves as the priests’ words rattled around in their consciences. If only they had stayed home, the child might have lived.
So well I remember Dr. Moody, a Nebraska historian, as he spent the day on a bus touring the grasslands of the state with us teachers. Before we visited the church, we saw the grave of an Indian princess out on the prairie with nothing separating it from the grass but ropes. It was a small rectangle in a huge open land, but covering the slab were assorted beads, glass knick-knacks, and visitors’ notes held down against the fierce wind by assorted paperweights. Even a miniature Eiffel tower sat on the grave.
We visited the house and farm Willa Cather wrote about in O Pioneer and My Antonia. We even visited her own tiny bedroom and saw the actual wallpaper she and her sister had hung years ago in her small family home in Red Cloud. I gained a new found respect for Cather’s works, even reread them all when I returned to Georgia, and pondered her genius.
But most of all I remember the stories of that church and its people. I sat and really contemplated the early Nebraskan story that day and it comes back to me often. Dr. Moody’s story of the early settlers bothers me, niggles at my mind, like salt in a raw wound. It is a story of language barriers and different cultures, a story very much alive today in Nebraska and Georgia and Florida, etc.
It seems to me that little has changed in three hundred years, not really, not down where it counts.