“You know, it’s about a hundred yards past the old Morton place.” Dad grew up where the one-mile grid of roads went unnamed. Didn’t need to be! People knew where they were by relationships and landmarks. “No, Dad, I never knew the Mortons and don’t have a clue where they lived.”
I grew up in a city where I depended on house numbers, street names and quantifiable directions to a location. “You do too! The Morton place is about a quarter of a mile south of the farm.” Though vague, at least Dad’s reference to “the farm” gave me a clue I could understand.
An orientation to place — a sense of where we originate, stand, belong — seems vital if not essential. Although driven to America by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in a region we know as Germany, my ancestors were typical of most. They came together in multi-family units while clinging tenaciously to their language and religion.
On a recent visit to my mother’s ancestral village of Weiberg in the North Rhineland region of what was Prussia we were struck by how that terrain mirrors the land near St. Helena, Cedar County, Nebraska where they settled in 1861. Just makes sense — as one Nebraska author writes, we know such land by heart.
That became abundantly clear yesterday. In playful banter an eleven year-old neighbor accused me of not being a very good Minnesotan. Without even a hint of forethought I retorted, “I’ve never aspired to be a Minnesotan. I’m a Nebraskan.” Though I enjoy living here and have sunk deep roots, I know my place. My heart and sensibilities rest most happily and assuredly deep within the Nebraska prairie.
On our annual trek back to Cedar County earlier this month, my Florida brother and I reminisced, visited relatives (at least the few who are left) and said a prayer at the graves of grandparents going all the way back to Ireland and Germany.
Tending the grass of my parents grave, I stood atop the spot where my cremains will one day be interred. It felt right. Felt like home. It felt like the place where I want to be laid to rest — amid four generations of family in a land I know by heart.
Yes, my family moved from this place 62 years ago and I admit a true disinterest in whether any Mortons remain. Still, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are! That takes years, decades even; involves traveling vast distances and engaging rugged terrain; nothing short of a lifetime.
Nothing is more humbling and challenging than moving toward diminishment, even dependence. Earlier this month my brother and I visited cousins in a nursing home, stayed at the home of our brother’s widow as well as placed flowers on many more graves. In time this is the place we all find ourselves (if we are among the lucky ones).
What we depended upon for our identity and livelihood — houses, careers, bank accounts, reputations, responsibilities — prove not to be solid or even essential, loved and good as they were. Finally, it all comes down to knowing who and whose we are, where we really belong.
Recently I came upon this by Brendan Freeman. It pretty much says what I have come to believe:
Our true homeland is not here; our true monastery is not a building or a visible place. It is in the heart, in the center of our being — a space that can never be diminished or demolished. It is eternal and everlasting as the heavens. …the soul lives where it loves.
And, I might add, our true homeland is as all-embracing as the Nebraska prairie.
The precise and perfect image of “knowing the land by heart” comes from Ron Hansen in his short story entitled Nebraska, in his collection of stories with the same name.
Trappist Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO is Superior ad Nutum of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah. His experience of assisting the community through the process of closing is shared in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol 52.2 (2017) pages 221-29. “…the soul lives where it loves” is from John of the Cross in his Spiritual Canticle (8.3).