Sunday, March 6, 2016
Zenith, Kansas and Gorka, Russia
Rocky River Farm in Chatham County in 2008, owned by Will and Tabitha. A little different from Kansas, but an amazing working farm.
Zenith, Kansas and Gorka, Russia
It was in Gorka, a Russian village, that I first began to think seriously about my birth place, not the hospital where I was born, but the small town of Zenith, Kansas.
Zenith. It means “the point of the celestial sphere that is exactly overhead.” It is the opposite of the nadir or the ground beneath one. It comes to mean “the highest or culminating point or the peak,” as in “the zenith of one’s career.”
I will be 63 next birthday. Perhaps I have reached the zenith of my life, metaphorically. I do not have everything I want, but I have reached a plateau on which I can accept what I have and don’t have as appropriate, as suiting who I am, how I have lived. I have learned to live with myself, cope with the problems my own personality throws up for me and with the problems of those around me which impinge on me. When I cannot live with other people, at least I know something about how to unhook myself from the games they play. Not easily, and not automatically, but I can think, analyze, and decide what is best to do, and do it. I am healthy. I can and do write what I want to. I can cross taboo territory to tell my story. I believe that all the taboo stories add to our knowledge of history, of what we are like, of what it takes to be able to live so that we work our way out of Purgatory into Paradise and, in our creative responses to life, create Paradise around us, rather than Hell.
Gorka and Zenith had a lot in common. In 1992 Gorka’s roads were dirt like Zenith’s had been in 1937. There was fresh milk from the family’s cow, fresh eggs from the chickens that wandered the yard, a big vegetable garden, an outhouse, although it was built into the traditional Russian isba on the main and elevated house level, and was located near the garden. My guess was that this human manure was not wasted.
The people were simple, open, friendly, neighborly, and curious about strangers. Gorka had lost its church as a result of the Revolution and had been made part of a large communal farm. But in Nikolai and Shura’s house, where Nikolai and his sister, Katya, my age, had been born, there was a “red” or holy corner in the kitchen with an ikon, or picture, of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This picture looked very much like pictures of Jesus I had seen in Protestant churches all through my childhood.
In Zenith in 1937 my father was the minister of a small United Presbyterian church. He was a new seminary graduate in 1936, and he had just married my mother. They had driven out to Kansas from Pennsylvania in a model A Ford. That was their honeymoon.
My mother learned to drive by herself, since my father had no patience to help her, on the straight roads around Zenith. For me Zenith was more horizon than zenith. In every direction in June golden wheat rippled and waved, and all the roads were north and south, east and west. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I could figure out by looking which way was south or east, north or west. I could always tell in Zenith.
They arrived in June, wheat harvest time. Every able-bodied man was called upon to help, so my father went to the granary. That first day the men cursed freely as they worked. The second day they’d found out who the newcomer was and had stopped cursing. This bothered my father all his life. He didn’t want people to change their behavior around him because he was a minister, but inevitably they did.
It was the beginning of the Dust Bowl period in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and other Southwestern and Midwestern states. In Russia it was the beginning of the purges. My mother remembers sweeping out dustpans full of dust in the morning that had sifted in under the door during the night.
After one year there, when I was two months old, they left Zenith and moved to Norman, Oklahoma. Again in the model A. I had always understood that I traveled there in a shoe box, but my mother stoutly denies this: “I would never have put you in a shoe box!” It was a very hot, dry summer. It was a challenge to keep me cool. She took me, or my father did, into the bathtub with her, to cool me off.
My father returned to school at the University of Oklahoma. He’d decided he wanted to be a history professor, not a minister, after his one year in Zenith. I’m not sure why. But by 1940 he gave up that idea and returned to the ministry. With two little girls and a big hospital bill after a Cesarian operation, they needed the money, even though ministers made little enough.
The church women of Zenith made them a quilt with all their names stitched on it. They made me a baby quilt which now belongs to my grandchildren. I didn’t know these women but even in their signatures on the quilt I could feel their presence.
We visited when I was eight, and again when I was eleven or twelve. At eight I fell in love with Donald, who was eight, too, but seemed a man of the world compared to me, who was relatively ignorant and inexperienced. He had a big wagon and we played train. He could call out the stations like a real conductor. We did this for hours. There were kittens in the hayloft, and good-smelling hay. I decided that the mingled odor of manure and hay was my favorite smell. I loved the outhouse, with its sack of feed that balanced, if it didn’t overwhelm, the other odors.
The food tasted so good. I didn’t like to think that the wonderful fried chicken we had for supper had anything to do with the chickens killed in the afternoon, but I relished it nevertheless. Donald introduced a novel treat: bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. I loved country life and decided to marry Donald and be a farmer’s wife. Instead I ended up being a small farmer.
My Russian friends thought it was very risky to take me to Gorka. I never have figured out where the risk lay. There was no telephone in the village. The roads going in and out were deeply rutted. Getting a car fixed, if it broke down, was pretty much the owner’s dilemma. Katya’s brother Kolya and her husband Mikhail were both competent mechanics, but they couldn’t necessarily get parts. But nothing went wrong. I think, actually, that what they worried about most was the outhouse, the lack of running water. There was a windmill on that Zenith farm and a hand pump at the well. No running water either.
Zenith suffered the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but most of the people there got through it. Gorka suffered collectivization and lost part of the village. I glimpsed a road of abandoned houses that Mikhail called simply “a bad road.” They meant a tragic road. They didn’t want me to see it or to look at it again themselves. Mikhail’s own native village or rodina (birth place) was lost by the end of World War II. He took me that summer into the taiga, or wild forest, to the area where his village had been. The beautiful Black River meandered through forest inhabited by bear, deer, beavers, black grouse, etc. A fish soup was prepared for
me out of fish caught that morning in the river, and the women had gathered wild raspberries.
Because many peasants resisted collectivization and the prosperous peasants, the kulaks, were persecuted for owning a few animals, millions of peasants died in the 30s, many more didn’t return after the war (Russia lost 25 million to that war), and many old villages were abandoned when new collective farms were built or when there wasn’t enough manpower after the war to keep them going. Most children growing up after World War II (The Great Patriotic War in Russia) had lost their fathers. Both Katya and Mikhail had. Katya’s mother had also grown up without her father, lost during World War I. One of the most powerful and nostalgic songs present day provincial Russians sing is “My Village.” I have met few people my age in Russia whose native villages still stand. Katya’s did, and she took her family back there every summer to rest and heal, to gather berries, herbs, mushrooms, to fish and preserve food.
Even as an eight-year-old I sensed that rural life, though harsh, was healing. Food was better, play was more satisfying, work more meaningful. There was a robustness about life; one knew better how to cope with life’s twists and turns, with weather, with disaster. In 1945 we visited a second family who had four daughters, about my age. I remember that they went barefooted and one stepped on a rusty nail. Her father held her and made her foot bleed to get the germs out, in case of tetanus.
When the harvests were good, Zenith prospered. During years of drought, people barely hung on. But I could feel in them that ability to hang on, to get through things, to enjoy life. The elder Russian peasant women, their heads wrapped in white, carrying their buckets of freshly picked raspberries out of the woods, gave me the same feeling. These were the country women, the quilters and preservers of food, from my own childhood, transposed into a different culture. These women during World War II, when all the able-bodied men had gone to the front, had themselves pulled the plows in the fields.
All my new Russian friends talked about their rodina, sang about their villages, and went to some trouble to show me their village. It made me think: what is the significance of one’s place of birth? What did Zenith give me, who only lived there two months? I had never wanted to return after I grew up. But in childhood I knew it was important. Somehow, mysteriously, there began for me there a sense of a rich harvest, what it is like to be surrounded by fields of ripe wheat, the staff of life. In Russian bread and bread grain or wheat are the same word: khleb. For me began the value of the natural world and living close to its rhythms. Of being able to cope and do for myself as much as possible, of wanting to be an elder woman who could cook, sew, cope with life, solve its problems, heal people, have wise things to say, laugh.
I like to think that there I knew where roads went, I had a sense of direction, if not as a baby, on later visits. What is that knowledge in one, even at age eight: “I was born here.” And it comes up every time someone asks where I was born. Zenith, Kansas. Where I never lived again. The heart of the American continent. During harvest time, when it was hot, the fields waved gold. Gorka made me curious to see Zenith again. Surely there will be someone there who will remember me or my parents. Surely Zenith, Kansas, is still there. Inside me it lives as nadir as well as zenith.
Originally written in 1997. I was in Gorka in 1992. I've never been back to Zenith since I was a teenager.
Painting of a Russian farm "The First Snow" by Nikolai Smirnov