The influences of places or origin have been on my mind quite a bit lately, as I think about Ken and look through all his collections and writings. Some of these things strongly reflect his place of origin, just as mine has who and what I am.
My place of origin, of course, is the Plains. I was born and raised in Southern Nebraska, but all my ancestors were descendants of homesteaders in Northwestern Kansas. We are a people of the Plains, people who can see and appreciate the beauty of it and what its terrain has meant in our lives.
When I met my husband in Houston, Texas, I soon learned that he had lived many places – as had I – and his life’s experience was informed by years spent in Utah and Colorado while he was in university and Dublin, Ireland, San Francisco and Portland after graduation. He came to Houston when he took his first career job.
I had gone to university in my home state, but left there for California, South Carolina, then England, Germany and France. After that I lived in eastern Kansas before moving to Houston as well.
I also learned that Ken had been born and raised in Ozark County, Missouri, a place that could hardly be more different than the flatlands of South Central Nebraska.
While he had the North Fork of the White River, a wild and untouched river, I had the Platte, rarely with much water in it because of all the dams upstream. While he had the Mark Twain National Forest nearby, I had only big Dutch Elms (later killed by a disease), cottonwoods and a few other trees in towns and along creeks.
Ozark County was characterized by grass-covered rolling hills. Buffalo County had flatlands covered with row crops – corn and soy beans or alfalfa. South Central Missouri had rock roads and pastures, which someone had once culled of rocks, which were piled up to make fences.
Ken grew up on a hard-scrabble farm where they lived and worked much as his grandparents had done two generations earlier. They carried water to the house from a well, they raised and butchered hogs for meat and by-products made into lard and soap. They made syrup and other sweeteners from sorghum. They had cows for milk and butter and cultivated large gardens to supply the rest of their food. They grew or produced nearly everything they used, with coffee being the main exception. Ken’s early homes had no electricity until about 1950.
I never lived in a house that didn’t have electricity and only one house I ever lived in had no indoor bathroom. There, the only water was pumped into the kitchen sink. We both, however, once took Saturday night baths in the kitchen in tubs of shared water that had been heated on the stove.
Mostly I lived in fairly nice houses in small towns and cities in Southern Nebraska. I attended good schools, took piano lessons and had dental and medical checkups and nice clothes made by my Mother. We were not well off in any sense of the word, but both our parents were well educated and saw that we were to the best of their ability. The main thing was that our Mother read to us always and encouraged us to read as well.
From Ken’s country beginnings, he went on to graduate from high school in Park, outside Kansas City. He earned a B.A. at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg; he received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Colorado State University via Utah State.
I received a lot of scholarships when graduating from Kearney High School that allowed me to attend the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, majoring in journalism and minoring in English and political science. I left after earning my journalism certificate (and running out of money), years later finishing my bachelor’s degree at UN at Kearney.
I also took courses in political science from the University of Maryland while in Europe. I received a master’s in public administration from the University of Houston.
I write all this to emphasize what different backgrounds Ken and I had and how different we lived while growing up. Yet, we both headed down a path of higher education, pursuing fields that interested us.
We traveled diverse paths, but somehow turned up at that Guitar Shop on Montrose in Houston, where I was taking lessons on what he called “the worst guitar I’d ever seen and he was attending a master glass with Pepe Romero. We went to lunch and the rest is the story of our lives together.
Just as I have strong memories of life on the Plains and its unique terrain, Ken never entirely left behind the Ozarks. He wrote eloquently and with deep understanding about it in a cookbook he w
rote. In the book, he explains how his early years varied little from those of his great-uncle’s growing up on a farm in the Ozarks.
Ken also incorporated the influences of meeting and marrying me, and the joining of his life to mine and that of my two children. He
writes about the very deep influence of his new family, explaining that, in fact, the book is dedicated to those children and all they meant to him.
Thank you, Ken McMurtrey, for sharing yourself and your Ozark life and family. We miss you