“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

o pioneers!

Searching for Mom's old farm
The various unconscious overloads of habit, the disorder at the end of the week, the work undone, the escape hatch bolted: it is to escape this circle that we travel. We? Well, myself, my always overintellectualizing self. Escape, last week, was to St. Joseph, Missouri.
First, we stayed at the Elms Hotel, a vast, fortress like pile located in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a good twenty minutes from Kansas City. A good forty minutes from St. Joseph, if you don’t go the highway route. The Elms at one point was a premier resort, one of the Midwest’s finest, the haunt of Al Capone, the famous Kansas city boss Tom Pendergast, and Tom’s protégé, one Harry Truman. Harry Truman received word that he’d beat Dewey here, where he spent the night in 1948. Jack Dempsey, in 1920, had swum laps in the famous “European” lap pool, which you reach by going down three flights of stairs from the lobby to the very nadir of the place. He’d even done an exhibition round there. I imagine Brenda Joyce might have swum there too. She’s the actress that played “Jane” in the Tarzan movies in the 30s. She was born in Excelsior Springs. I am related to this semi-glorious company that I, too, have wallowed in the pocket hot tub and languidly paddled myself in the pool.
Of course the Springs and all of North Missouri was the stomping ground of Jesse James, one of the more curious hero/antiheros to have his legend spawned in the Volkgeist, such as it is. A bankrobber and murderer, who I know about mainly as the poor goof in the song, shot in the back by that ‘dirty little coward’ Robert Ford. Poor Jesse had a wife, too. According to the song. Poor Jesse.
As for other crimes, well, there’s the usual racial ones. In 1925, a crowd of 500 lynched Walter Mitchell, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Unusually, according to the Chicago Tribune, the man who tried to photograph the event was knocked down and his camera broken. Usually, white Americans were right proud of their lynchings, and made picture postcards of them, which they traded. You can see any variety if you look this up on google images, or read Without Sanctuary.
The first night, we came in late and tired and gobbled down our dinner by the fire. I had a couple of beers: farm ales, our waitor told me. They were filling. Missouri food generally tries to be filling. Perhaps it is all the land that sends a sort of panic fear of starvation through the masses, as though maybe one will be forced out on the steppe with no vittles on a cold night. Plates arrive at the table with every damn square inch of ceramic covered with whatever you ordered.
The next day, we set out to find my relatives. My Mom was born in St. Louis, and raised on a farm outside of Albany, Missouri. I believe the county of Gentry was more populous then – if the Jollys are any indication. George and Ola Jolly, my grandfather and grandmother, stuck it out through the Great Depression, but when their five kids all moved to the Washington D.C. area, they followed. This was in 1945, 1946. In 1930 there was 14,300 some people. Now there is less than half that number. The depopulation shows. We drove around for miles and miles without seeing another human being.
Eventually, we drove past the Fairview Church, reversed, and parked in front of it. I had read that some Jollys were buried in the Fairview graveyard. The church, an impeccably white clapboard structure that was pure Midwest gothic, went from hosting a standard denomination of Methodists, I believe, to hosting the Freewill Baptists. My mother in law asks me what distinguished the Freewill Baptists, and I couldn’t say. Mom was never particular about the Baptist varieties. She attended Northern Baptist and Southern Baptist churches alike. But my Mom loved Jesus and didn’t think he made too much fuss about methods of Baptism or certain amusements, like dancing. We went through the graveyard. It was a beautiful sunny day, the rolling hills falling away in all directions. Northern Missouri is beautifully treed – I was told that the arboricity was due to the settlers, who’d found this country a grassy sea, no trees in sight. I have to tip my hat to those settlers. There were thousands time more green trees than people in all this countryside.
Finally we came upon the Jolly family plot. Here was the sturdy monument to James Perry Jolly, 1846 to 1942 (I think. I didn’t take a note on the spot, alas). He is, I believe, my great great grandfather. Or is that one too many greats? I found a geneology in a history of Gentry county, which claims that James Perry and his wife, May nee Schaffer) begat George, my grandfather. However, the dates in the book seem to either conflate James Perry and his father, Samuel, or, more likely, have the wrong date for his birth, which it puts at 1894, but which it places in Breckenridge County, Kentuck. Since the Jollys left Kentucky according to the same history in 1852, I incline to the latter supposition. In any case, the conspectus of James Perry’s adventures enroll him among the pioneers. Not, perhaps, the sodhut pioneers of Willa Cather’s stories, since the book claims for the Jollys a double log house. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds a little above the peasant grade. James Perry was apparently a lieutenant in the Civil War. Since he was a Republican, I think we can assume he served on the right side, which is a relief. I have no confederate blood in my veins, peeps! And he seems to have been a successful raiser of livestock.
After Fairview, we went on to Albany, which has the great good fortune to have retained an old Carnegie Library in the heart of it. The librarians were gracious. They showed me the geneology room, and I read a bit from the Albany Ledger – searching out mentions of the Jollys.
But I was searching for something other than geneology, I admit. I wanted to know what Mom saw and breathed. She left Missouri when she was 19 years old, and by the time she had me, she hadn’t been back in some time. I don’t know that she ever went back once she married Dad. It was all a fleeting memory. Did it contain such sunny/rainy spring days, such hills and dales? Well, surely. I am not strong for the idea that we are such isolated individuals that we are each blocked up one to the other. This strikes me as a bourgeois way of looking at things. But I am old, I have chased what I chased in my particular tracks, and I can’t say that I felt that I saw what Mom saw, though I stood on spots that she stood on. I carry in my voice, in my accents, some tiny bit of this Missouri soil – the voice is where our histories repose. Voice is compound. In fact, of the people I met in St. Joseph latter on, none of them quite matched the accent I remember my aunts and uncle having, save for one woman whose mode of speech brought into my mind the way Aunt Georgia talked – tart, angular, with a certain skepticism. My tongue doesn’t have those tribal resonances, but it is what I have, barely, that I share with these men and women gone to earth in the Fairview Cemetery.

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