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Wednesday, 02 November 2011


By Lyn Burnstine


May brings a mosaic of green to the mountains of western New York. As I drove the first leg of my trip, my eyes feasted on the unparalleled beauty of those lush shades - too many to count.

In more than thirty years away from the Illinois prairie, I thought I remembered the flatness, but was glad for the gradual flattening of the terrain to prepare me for it as I drove through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Crossing the border into Illinois, tears started for a land I’d been all too eager to leave and never thought I’d care to see again. I hadn’t known that I cared - a theme which persisted throughout the week I spent journeying back to my roots.

More questions than answers presented themselves: Why did I remember the urge for leaving and not the dearness? Why had I remembered the flatness, isolation and bigotry, forgetting the warmth, simplicity and honesty?

When I realized that 1990 marked 40 years since my high school graduation, I determined to go back to Illinois for a reunion. I had not even set foot in my home state for 34 years, so I set the wheels in motion by writing to two friends - high school sweethearts who married and remained there.

They were the ones who organized previous reunions (they never gave up inviting me even though I never went) so I guessed, rightly, that they would meet the challenge.

As I began to plan the trip, I kept saying to myself, “Lyn, this is the weirdest thing you’ve ever done.” Mixed into my excitement were niggling feelings of apprehension. I practiced not letting my jaw drop. Would I be able to control my reactions to extreme changes in how people looked? And what if someone looked really old (the way I used to think 58-year-olds looked, but few of my Eastern friends do)?

I dreaded having to adjust my age-image of myself. A friend sent me a cartoon that said, “Who are all these old people and what have you done with my classmates?”

They were all in a stopped-shutter frame in my memory - 18-year-olds forever. Having not spent a great deal of time thinking about these people for 40 years and then letting them back into my mind, made me feel like a time traveler. They were 18 - then suddenly, a moment later, they were 58.

One worry was needless. The aforementioned host and hostess had two days to prepare me with stories and photos of my classmates. Those pictures of interim reunions, wherein most of the changes had already occurred, helped me to get ready.

My reactions to both the land and the people were of a piece. I remembered the land was flat in my prairie home, but flat doesn’t even begin to describe the vast reaches the eye can see, the immense distance between farms, and therefore, the visual evidence of isolation.

I saw a flatness in some of their lives - those who had stayed - that echoed the flatness of the land: flat, dull, bored. And resigned, like the farmers who waited for the puddles in the fields to dry up, unable to plant their crops in that wettest of springs.

Two of the brightest, prettiest girls, worn down by years of alcoholic spousal abuse, waited - for what, death? - to release them from their untenable situations. They both expressed in different ways that they “probably couldn’t do any better.”

One woman, now a veritable mountain of flesh - I couldn’t even find the face I had known - barely able to walk, said resignedly about her paranoid schizophrenic son, “He has a gun.” She told me how he insisted they keep the door wide open all one winter. Her daughter, mid-30s, seemed resigned to her role of family caregiver.

Part of my incentive to see my childhood home again was to find my “ancestral voice” - a necessary requirement, I’ve heard, to enable me to satisfy this latent muse of writing now burst forth in late life. To do that, I’m told, one must go back to the place.

Indeed, I knew, when I saw those vast open spaces, why I still need - in my world - a vista of sky, a plethora of people and yet, the contrast of solitude. I knew why it was alien for me to live for 17 years in the woods without an expanse of sky. I knew the rightness of William Kittredge’s lines in Hole in the Sky, “The long horizons of that country are imprinted in my synapses like a genetic heritage."

And I now know how to answer the frequently-asked question, “How did you become so creative?” I’ll pull from my pocket the photograph of the cornfield where our farm used to be - cornfield as far as you can see in all directions - with a shadowy outline, way off in the distance, of the nearest house.

To me, the answer is obvious but if you need more clarification, it comes from Kathleen Norris in her book Dakota, wherein she says, ”A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky.”


After forty years, I went back.
Back to the prairie, back to the home
of my greening years,
Knowing my youth was gone,
Knowing the house of my youth was gone.
I didn’t know the trees would be gone
- every one.

Did they honestly need
every inch of that cornfield?
Where are the birds
once sheltered by those trees?
Where are my dreams
once sheltered by those trees?

I stood there and wept,
For the parents who were gone,
For the house that was gone,
For the youth that was gone,
For the dreams that were gone
- and for the trees.


[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Beautifully written. I too find reunions bittersweet. The photo and the poem are special.

Lyn - This was wonderful, especially the poem. Great 'mood capturing' photos.

Although I had not set foot on either campus for 50 years, I went to both my 50th high school and college reunions. Except for the shock of learning of those no longer living, I had a blast! - Sandy

How touching, we all have to face so many changes in our lives, some for the better, and some inevitably for the worse.
Good job Lyn. Poignant picture also, makes one want to weep.

I went to my High School 50th reunion and again to the 60th. I could still see the 18 year old faces under the 78 year old wrinkles and I made the discovery that those who were predicted to be successful actually fulfilled the promise.

The biggest discovery,though, was that those of us who left our home towns had changed more than the ones who stayed. Moving, like traveling, is broadening.

It is a bittersweet feeling when you look at the photos of the deceased. They remain 18 forever in your mind.

Your photos capture that bittersweet emotion so very well.

I can only add "Amen" to all the comments of others. I think as we age and have the blessings of time and health, one could ask, Where does the creativity and insight come from?

We might adapt your quote to read:
"We welcome time for looking inward by the spareness of our current lives to recall, reflect and share our past and present views of earth and sky."
Thank you
Michigan Grandma

Great piece, Lyn, and the poem is a wonderful finish for it. Terrific photos, too.

Hi Lyn,

Great story!

I went to our 60th reunion and some of those people there looked so old and had changed so much,they didn't recognize ME!

Thank you all so much for your comments. It is a universal experience, to realize your own age as reflected in your classmate's faces. You can either laugh or cry. Thanks for the laugh, Nancy.

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