Place of origin enriches our lives

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 ofImage 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.

Image 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.Image

 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


Making the most of all of life’s places

After the long hiatus filled with life-changing events, it is hard to start anew with this blog that is based on growing up on the Plains. The long siege of events revolved around my husband and the emergencies brought about by his progressive heart failure; that was what kept me from the keyboard.

My hours, days, weeks and then months were filled by trips to the hospital emergency room, followed by many trips back and forth to hospitals, here and in Jackson, visits to rehab centers, waiting in ICU surgery waiting rooms and finally that last trip to the hospital as he lay dying.

Image Luckily, I had family here before and after his death – his sister came from Arizona – and mine from western New York State. Many more family and friends came to join us in an all family celebration of his life over dinner at his favorite restaurant, then to see more friends and family at a wake.

I dubbed the wake an Ozark County hill country style Irish wake, which is exactly what he wanted. He also wanted to be cremated with half his ashes going to Sweeten Pone Cemetery in Ozark County, Missouri, and the other half to Norcatur Cemetery in northwest Kansas where multiple generations of my family are buried.

I wrote the obituary about Ken for the newspaper here and the one in West Plains, Missouri, and also a much longer version of his story. In doing that, it came strongly to me once again the significance of place to our lives.

My influences began, of course, with the High Plains, blended with later ones from several states and European countries and finally the Deep South. Ken’s were from the Ozark hills, true hill country people, then on to include the western states where he went to college, followed by Ireland and Northwest U.S. metro areas.

He and I met in Houston, Texas, and moved here to the midst and depths of the Deep South, molded by its terrain and climate, its people and traditions. It’s hard to imagine a place in this country that is as different than Southeast Mississippi is to the places we grew up.

In Ken’s case, the places he lived reinforced his many avocational loves: storytelling, musical performance, fishing, photography and painting, to name a few. That’s as it should be. If a person doesn’t embrace his or her life changes and experiences, one might as well never move, never seek to grow. The ability to absorb and enhance life experiences makes a person a contributor to his or her place and its people.

And isn’t that what we all want? To be a person who gives back to one’s life places more than they took away? It was what I have always wanted, and what Ken McMurtrey wanted as well.

Speaking from America’s Heart

 The performing arts have always been an integral part of my life, and I can’t imagine it without them. In my early growing up years, I followed in my sisters’ footsteps and took piano lessons. Later I played an instrument. As a string bass player, I performed with string and concert orchestras, concert band, jazz band and as a soloist throughout junior and high school.

 Some of my music teachers urged me to pursue a career as a professional musician, and although I chose a different course, I continued to perform when opportunities arose with groups of friends, pickup groups at music festivals and as a volunteer with community and university orchestras.


Bass playing ’60s girl

 I considered myself very lucky to have had a strong arts education while growing up in Nebraska, and it is very gratifying to have spent the last 30-plus years in a Deep South city that is home to two universities with strong arts programs. Many performers of national and world renown have appeared here. Art galleries and spaces for live performance are plentiful.

 So, it shouldn’t be surprising to know one of my favorite television specials every year is the Kennedy Center Awards Ceremony. The ceremony this year in particular had a powerful effect on me. One reason, of course, is that 2013 is the 50th anniversary year of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the Kennedy Center honors his commitment to promotion of American performing arts.

 The other reason it affected me powerfully was that to me the honorees in this particular ceremony personified what the American performing arts are.

 The award winners this year were Carlos Santanya, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Shirley McLaine and Billy Joel. That’s quite a diverse group. Yet, there is a strong connection among them that accounted for the powerful personal impact the tributes to them had on me.

 Those who led the accolades all spoke to it: these artists reflect the stories of the people of this country – they represent and perform from the heart of who we are, the speakers said.

 Santanya’s life work has moved from being a young fiddler in his father’s Latin bands through his own bands showcasing sophisticated Latin rhythms and various forms of rock and jazz, all native to the Americas. He weaves it all into his own consuming version of popular music.

 Santanya went through a period of not knowing where he was headed, but he paused and looked to the youth of his adopted country to tell him where to go next.

 Just as Santanya has drawn from his people, Arroyo, renowned performer of Verdi operas, speaks from the heart of her ethnic background in New York City. She conveys the message that achieving the seemingly impossible is indeed possible, and now she spends her time and effort helping promising young students and emerging artists. A number of them gathered on the stage to pay tribute to her.

 Shirley McLaine and Herbie Hancock – again once talented kids who worked to become major performers of their time. Hancock is another musician who has drawn on all the elements of his time and place as has McLaine. When she went beyond the winsome ingénue parts of her first days on the musical stage, she persisted, did not allow herself to be diminished, to fade away. The parts she garnered in the past and now reflect the messages of the time, what people are focusing on. 

Hancock is the master of absorbing and reflecting the jazz connected genres of his professional life. From early jazz to modern versions and on to hip hop and rap, Hancock’s music speaks it all and endures through the changes.

It was the final award recipient, Billy Joel, however, who really pulled it together for me. I saw him in the benefit show after Hurricane Sandy, and at that time, it occurred to me that he is a dominant musical spokesman of our time. His compositions and lyrics tell it like it was and is, but in a broad way that draws in everyone.

 That was why, I think, that everyone sang along during the tribute to him: the President and First Lady, Martina Arroyo and Shirley McLaine (of course, Hancock and Santanya) and many in the audience, including Sonia Stotomayor, who gave the tribute to Arroyo.

 During the other tributes, the award winners responded with broad smiles, cheers and claps. For the musicians they moved to the beat. For Biily Joel, however, they all sang. They knew the words – as did we. He tells our stories, and he sings our hearts’ songs.



Family traditions make holidays special


Lopinto House in Hattiesburg Historic Neighborhood.

As we get closer to Christmas, the family rituals we observed when I was growing up come to mind. Some of these we continued to observe as adults with our own families, some not.

 One I wrote about earlier was going to spend Christmas with grandparents. Those were very special times that I regret my own children didn’t have. We never lived close enough to my parents to make visiting at holidays reasonable, and I know my kids missed out on a significant experience that would have created deeper bonds with their grandparents.

 A tradition I did keep, however, was making Christmas cookies. When I was growing up, we always saved a day before Christmas to make cookies using Great-Grandma Venrick’s sugar cookie recipe. The dough was rolled out flat and the cookies cut out in shapes such as candy canes, trees, gingerbread men, wreaths and so on.

Once baked, the cookies were decorated with red, green and white icing as well as sprinkles of various kinds.

 As we kids got older and became involved with boyfriends or girlfriends, they had to be included in the cookie making tradition. It was a requirement, just as it was required for all serious potential mates to go to Norcatur, Kansas, home to both sides of our family, for Memorial Day to meet – and pass muster from – the extended family.

Just as some serious suitors did not pass the Memorial Day test, many more special friends fell by the wayside as the result of not getting into the expected spirit of cookie making. Did some think cookie making wasn’t what guys did? Too bad – that’s what was expected of those who wanted to be around our family.

 One Christmas cookie making I remember when I was home from college was when our only brother brought his fiancé to the annual event. I think she was a little overwhelmed by all of us girls – 3 still home at that time – and our various friends. Okay, I’ll admit it — we probably acted out to the point that rising to the challenge of a bunch of rowdy, wisecracking cookie makers was a bit much.

 When she was in 11th or 12th grade, our daughter brought a friend to family Christmas cookie making. She’d been going out some with this boy, who happened to be Jewish. Later she told me he was rather touched by the whole idea of being included in a family Christmas tradition so unlike anything he’d previously experienced for Hanakkuh.

 Ken used to make cookies for Christmas, but he made a variety of kinds, never the cut out sugar cookies. Now, neither one of us make Christmas cookies, and while I miss it, I have the warm memories of those days of Christmas past.





Ghosts of Christmas past

Linda and Toughie at 1st Guide Rock HouseWhen I was growing up in South Central Nebraska, in whatever small town we lived in at the time, we spent Christmas with our grandparents in Norcatur on the High Plains of northwestern Kansas.

Those Christmases were special times with our Grandfather Ward in particular and those years are the ones I remember best. Family was all-important to him and having his children and grandchildren around him at Christmas meant everything to him.

Great-grandma Venrick, Grandma Ward’s mother, lived with them during those years, so she was a central part of the celebration. My special memory of her is that she was always waiting at the front door when we arrived – always.

As we pulled up and spilled out of the car (I say spilled out because with 5 kids one can only spill from a packed car) and raced toward the house, she would open the screen door to welcome us in. The house was warm and cozy with the big front room heated by a large gas, free-standing stove.

The Christmas tree was by the bay window at the front of a room large enough to be living/dining room combined. Grandma Venrick would return to the old rocking chair where she always sat. Grandma Ward would be in the kitchen cooking or in the back yard feeding the chickens. Grandpa would still be downtown working at the creamery.

“Auntie Pearl (actually no relation at all but we always called her Auntie) would pop over from next door to give us holiday greetings.

If we arrived on Christmas Eve, we would have an early supper around the big dining table, then go to services at the Methodist Church down the block and around the corner — walking distance (actually, all of Norcatur was walking distance).

Great-Aunt Alta would be at the pump organ, pounding out the Christmas music, including our favorite carols “Away in a Manger” and “The First Noel.” The service would be the telling of the Christmas story from the King’s James Version of the Bible.

After church we’d go back to the house, where Grandpa met us at the door to announce that, while we were gone, Santa Claus had arrived in his sleigh, bringing a special gift for each child. The one I especially remember was a Kewpie Doll, those molded toddler dolls with the blonde hair turning up in a curl at the top – all molded composition.

That night I would be tucked into my “bed” for the night – two of the over-stuffed armchairs pushed together front-to-front to create a child-sized bed! I loved sleeping in those chairs; it was my own special place.

Many Christmases have past since those early ones, made so special by loving grandparents who knew so well how to create the magic we children loved.