I am glad my mother died. Well, not entirely. It’s complicated. She died a month before I was slated to arrive at Homestead National Monument of America as their artist-in-residence. She was an artist. Well, not entirely. It’s complicated.
When a family member dies, the logistical, legal, and financial demands exhaust one’s cognitive and emotional resources. So, I put off reflecting and grieving until I was headed 500 miles east on Interstate 80 from Laramie, Wyoming, to Beatrice, Nebraska. To the Monument.
I’m here to write about the first homestead in the country. Like a polyphonic requiem, this place interweaves the sounds of busting sod, broken promises, breaking ground, broken treaties, breaking backs, broken dreams, breaking rules, and broken hearts. It is a good setting to encounter loss. We bring our own experiences, values, needs, and desires to a new place–whether a landscape of plowed soil returning to tall grass or the balance of a lifetime without parents.
In imagining the future, how should one judge the past? By modern standards, homesteading and homemaking were oppressive creations of white males. But perhaps in this age of righteous condemnation, there can be space for empathy—not vacuous relativism or empty excuses, but charitable understanding. As we move forward, maybe we can cultivate a compassionate view of earlier times and people. Of virtuous villains and flawed heroes. Of farmers and mothers. Of complicated histories.
* * *
To ‘prove up’ on a 160-acre homestead and earn title to the land, a person had to fulfill two requirements. First, live on the claim for five years–continuously. My mother knew about tenacity. She stayed married to my father until his death in 2009. Fifty-three years. It was, I think, a good marriage. Not wonderful or fairytale but solid and stable. ‘Homesteady’ could be a word for such marriages.
And she stuck with the Church. Her mother was an Irish immigrant, a serious Catholic. My older brother and I were sent to parochial school to be educated by nuns; our younger brother and sister were spared this experience because the family moved to the edge of Albuquerque where Catholic schools were not in walking distance. My mother was dismayed when reports of sexual abuse by priests emerged in recent years. Dismayed but not devastated. Being suspicious of all forms of institutional authority, she let slip a bit of schadenfreude regarding the Church’s embarrassment. But I also sensed that she felt betrayed. Nevertheless, she kept believing in God, if not in the moral authority of priests.
My mother understood that steadfastness entailed struggle, that God didn’t promise His children happiness. My father acceded to virtually all of her demands, perhaps because she’d consented to his one, life changing decision–to move from the comfort and familiarity of the forested East coast to the boondocks of the desert Southwest.
The homesteaders had to struggle with drought, blizzard, fire, diphtheria, measles, typhoid, hunger, malnutrition, infection, grasshoppers, lice, bed bugs, loneliness, depression, and suicide. My mother–a former fashion artist for Vogue–had to face the cultural wasteland of New Mexico in 1964. We lived in a cramped brick house (stucco being equated with living in a mud hut) a few blocks from the gates of Kirtland Air Force Base which hosted Sandia National Laboratories. That’s where my father, a freshly minted physicist from the University of Connecticut, found work developing bigger, better atomic bombs.
Perhaps the greatest sin in our family was quitting. Today I wonder if this accounted for my mother’s repressed desire, but ultimate refusal, to leave the desert. We were forbidden to quit piano lessons, not because learning an instrument was vital to our development, but because persisting in the face of that which is difficult, demanding, and even misaligned with one’s talents was character building. It wasn’t the music that mattered as much as the lessons.
A homesteader had to stay put for five years, which is the same amount of time typically taken to graduate from college today. Of course, we were expected to complete our degrees in four years. And quitting? It never occurred to me as a possibility. I never even dropped a course.
The core of my mother’s steadfastness was an abiding belief in self-sufficiency. Not that she grew a vegetable garden or canned produce, but she possessed a fierce sense of autonomy. She and my father would never have admitted that the government contributed anything toward their success coming from a public university, across interstate highways, to a federal laboratory on a military base.
Taking in the photographs at the Monument’s Heritage Center, I was intrigued by the facial expressions of homesteaders. Not many were smiling. In most family snapshots, the mother looks stern–not severe, but lacking an aura of joy. For us, vacations were the exception, being times for smiling at the camera. We were a close–or better put, closed–family. My parents didn’t have lots of friends. They didn’t depend on others, nor expect others to rely on them. When my mother died, I could think of only four people who I felt a need to tell immediately; others would hear through the social network. Sometimes, I’m more like her than I’m willing to admit.
* * *
The other requirement for a homesteader to gain title to the land was filing a document called ‘proof of improvements.’ The earth had to be bettered: sod busted, crops planted, house built. But improvement is a slippery concept. Upon its founding 83 years ago, Homestead Monument began to improve the first homesteaded land in America by undoing what Daniel Freeman began in 1863. He plowed the grasslands–and the Park Service restored them. For whom are things better: butterflies or cattle, future generations or current farmers, big bluestem or hybrid corn, Prairie Enthusiasts or Archer Daniels Midland?
I’m not sure that either environmentally or medically we’re getting better at improving lives. When I confessed that I was glad my mother died, that feeling derived from her mental erosion. Dementia is a kind of cognitive Dust Bowl in which the sands of proteinaceous plaques scour and cover memory. I don’t know what she was thinking or feeling in the last year, although in her final days she maintained her cussedness. The woman refused–through gestural contrariness if not interpretable articulation–the interventions of doctors and nurses. I don’t ascribe to an afterlife or there being some ‘better place’ to which we gain title if God decides we’ve proven up. My mother, however, had long found comfort in the belief that she’d be reunited with my father–and I would never have challenged her source of solace.
We can’t know what’s unfolding in the consciousness of a person with dementia. Maybe my mother simply lived in each moment, with the memory of my visits fading in minutes. Perhaps she was happy during phone calls, with a fleeting connection to one of her children. However, I think that she was never happier than when her kids had moved out to start their own lives and families, so she could dote on her Tibetan spaniels and return to her creative roots. Having passed through a time of socially sanctioned (re)productivity, my mother was restored when she reclaimed her artistry through the practice of calligraphy.
She left behind the two onerous labors of her life: homemaking and status making. After decades of home cooking, with restaurants reserved for special occasions, my parents began eating out regularly. Having attained the upgraded house, yard, furnishings, clothing, jewelry and other trappings of upper middleclass life, they began to travel purely for their own enjoyment.
The house was still sparkling clean, but without children underfoot there was so much less laundry, crumbs, trash, and scuff marks to worry about. She could tend her patio plants and rose garden without finding broken stems from errant footballs. Her children had been domesticated–the boys into male careers (science) and the girl into a female career (nursing).
I eventually became feral–converting to Unitarian Universalism, registering as a Democrat, pursuing the humanities, and practicing the arts. But by that time of life, my nonconformity was more a matter of maternal befuddlement than angst.
Then came her stroke, the beginning of the end in retrospect. For some years prior to that moment, her calligraphy had flourished both in terms of original and commissioned work–and she’d even cultivated social connections within the arts community. But I have to wonder about the toll taken by previous decades of judgment, dissatisfaction, and anger. She’d not communicated with her brother in 50 years after some undisclosed falling out, and she’d loathed her mother-in-law from the beginning (the reason being inscrutable but the feeling mutual).
A sign along the path bordering the prairie restoration project says, ‘When Congress created this national monument in 1936, 60 years of farming and Dust Bowl-era droughts had seriously damaged the Freeman homestead.’ A visitor is led to believe that when the farm passed away, the land became a better place–as if one should believe in ecological afterlives.
* * *
The Homestead Act required documentation of being present on, and making improvements to, the land. This was tangible evidence of character traits that formed a trio of pioneer virtues: gritty courage, practical wisdom, and a capacity for domestication.
First and foremost was courage–a willingness to enter the unknown. Notwithstanding the effusive marketing campaign of the railroads (who wanted prosperous farmers shipping their harvests by rail), the Great Plains were inhospitable to the point of brutality. Even with an evangelical belief that ‘rain follows the plow’ so that` moisture would transform the Great American Desert of the central states, a homesteader was coming to a land radically different from anything to the east.
The same was true for my mother, who came to a bonafide American desert in New Mexico–a land with unfamiliar people (Indians and Chicanos), foods (enchiladas and posole), music (mariachi and country), art (Navajo weaving and pueblo pottery), and languages (Spanish and Spanglish). I imagine that my mother empathised with Dorothy–we watched The Wizard of Oz on television every year–when she observed, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas [Connecticut] anymore.’ My mother was fascinated by Judy Garland which I never fully understood, but perhaps her connection was rooted in this line.
The Homestead Act not only created a massive, domestic migration but drew Europeans from across the Atlantic to ‘The New Eden,’ where the government was giving away land. My mother’s parents immigrated in the 1920s, not to homestead in the West but to seek economic opportunities in the East. My mother was unabashedly prejudiced, considering Indians and Chicanos to be lazy, sometimes saying ‘mañana’ (one of the few Spanish words she knew) in a mocking tone to suggest a propensity for avoiding work. Her father came from Germany and started his own machine shop; he worked long, hard hours.
Irish-Catholic immigrants, such as my grandmother, were cruelly discriminated against in the 19th century, a well-known historical fact to my family. And German-Americans were treated with suspicion and harassed during the world wars. With this family history, one might imagine that my mother would’ve been primed for ethnic tolerance or even seen herself as an immigrant in New Mexico. Instead, she saw herself as the real American in a state filled with brown people.
Ten years after my maternal grandfather came to this country, the United States Congress established Homestead National Monument of America. It’s the only National Park site that specifies, ‘of America.’ The historian at the Monument tells me that the Congressional record provides no rationale for this naming. His best explanation is that many, probably most, people think that homesteading is a story about tall-grass, Little House, back-then mid-America. And it is, in part.
However, few folks realize that 10 percent of the country’s landmass was given away to (or more accurately, earned by) homesteaders between 1863 and 1986. Homesteaded land can be found in thirty states, and 93 million Americans are descended from homesteaders. What the Monument doesn’t proclaim is that while 29 percent of us come from homesteaders, 27 percent of us are either foreign immigrants or their children. My mother was one of the latter. The tagline, ‘of America’ would resonate with New Mexicans. My mother told the story of having clipped and sent coupons to receive a Betty Crocker cookbook in the 1960s and then receiving a polite letter explaining that the company could not mail their cookbook outside of the United States.
Americans like my mother had grit, even True Grit. Maybe John Wayne (who starred in the original, 1969 movie) is a painfully apropos icon–a straight-talking, rags-to-riches, man’s man, who espoused bigoted views and whose father was a failed homesteader. Americans are complicated, as was my mother. They aren’t very good at locating themselves in time and space, but they’re adept at finding differences among one another in any given community.
* * *
Courage was a virtue for settlers, but so was what the ancient Greeks termed phronesis–practical wisdom or the application of good judgement. This trait was given a distinctly American formulation through the development of Pragmatism, a philosophical framework that emerged in America contemporaneously with homesteading in the late 1800s.
The same year that the Homestead Act passed, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, establishing a land-grant college in every state which crystallized and elevated one of the nation’s most practical academic disciplines: home economics. The field changed its name to ‘Family and Consumer Science’ in the 1990s in an effort to appear more credible, but euphemisms rarely succeed; families are works of art not science, and we are all so much more than mere consumers. I took a required home economics class in junior high, learning the basics of cooking and sewing which are genuinely useful skills.
I’m not sure when or how my mother developed her skills as a home economist–probably from her mother–but she most assuredly squeezed value from every meal (creamed hot dogs on toast, tuna-macaroni loaf, and sauerkraut with pig’s knuckles being memorable), mended, altered, and sewed our clothes (the epitome being Sunday suits for each boy and Easter dresses for our sister), and traveled frugally (station wagon vacations generally involving prolonged stays with our aunt, uncle, and cousins). We received no allowance for doing chores; spending money was earned by mowing lawns and walking dogs for the neighbors. Family finances were never discussed, but all of the kids went to in-state colleges and worked part-time jobs.
If homesteaders had to be thrifty, efficient, and clever, my mother would’ve qualified–at least during her motherhood days in our first house. But then, plenty of homesteaders, once they’d made it, moved up from a sod house to a frame house. We moved to the edge of city where my parents built a southwestern style stuccoed house which, although not the disparaged adobe, was more earthen than my mother would’ve accepted when we moved to Albuquerque.
* * *
A final quality of the homesteader was a willingness to tame and be tamed in order to stay put. Agriculture is rooted in domestication. Humans cultivated relationships with other species, shaping their traits to meet our needs while tending to their wellbeing. Farmers tamed corn, wheat, cattle, and chickens. Homesteaders tamed the prairies. My mother tamed her children, although we were encouraged to play outside to keep us from being underfoot and minimize disorder in the house. And she also domesticated herself.
Artists don’t generally take the bit; they chafe under the yoke. But in mid-20th century America, a woman didn’t have many options. And so accepting the traditional role in a nuclear family–aptly named given my father’s frequent travel to the Nevada Test Site for underground atomic bomb blasts–probably seemed ordained, even if it wasn’t her calling. She managed to find moments of creative expression at the piano, with our school projects, and through interior decorating.
Every Christmas, she would find a tumbleweed, spray paint it silver, hang tiny balls and lights on it, and display the ‘New Mexico Christmas Tree’ on the buffet that my father had made (using hand tools–the only power tool he allowed in his workshop was a drill). I don’t know if she saw one of these holiday creations in some southwestern magazine or made it up herself. I also don’t know if she intended the decorated tumbleweed to be satirical commentary or an expression of defiance regarding the desert surrounding our house. Maybe it was just pretty, but I think there was something more.
* * *
In quantitative terms, the Homestead Act was a success–4,000,000 claims and 421,000 square miles of land. The numbers don’t work out to 160 acres per claim because lots of people didn’t make it. A prominent sign in the Monument’s interpretive center says:
Success or Failure? How do you measure success? Only 40 percent of homesteaders stayed long enough to gain title to their land. But did the other 60 percent fail? The answer is not always clear-cut. What about those who never received ownership, but did gain invaluable experience and skills? Did they succeed? For those who stayed, did their impact on the environment and on the American Indians diminish their achievement?
That’s a lovely sentiment for school children who we’ve mollycoddled into believing that no matter what the result of their efforts, they’ve succeeded. My mother never bullshitted her kids with this self-esteem pablum. I remember coming away from a 5th grade science fair without a ribbon and leaving my first judo tournament without a medal; I received some parental sympathy but no comforting lies. I had lost.
Homesteaders didn’t come west to ‘gain invaluable experience and skills.’ They came to acquire land. Sure, they valued the lofty ideals of freedom and autonomy. But they were possessed by possessing. The Homestead Principle lurking beneath the legislation was derived from John Locke, a 17th century British philosopher. According to his theory of property, you own your body and therefore you own your labor. So when you mix your labor with unused land (setting aside that the Indians had been using the land for millennia), your labor–your very self–enters that part of the world and it becomes your property.
Daniel Freeman chose the first homestead site in the country for its possibilities: trees (not common in Nebraska), a creek (not found just anywhere in the Great Plains), and deep, rich soil. We moved to Albuquerque for its economic opportunities–a well-paying job for a physicist and a solid little house in a decent neighborhood within walking distance of a Catholic school. The American dream, a place to call our own.
My mother had a burning desire to succeed, to progress from a blue collar childhood to a white collar adulthood. With time, she was able to purchase fashionable clothing, commission custom jewelry, and oversee the construction of a house at the fringe of the growing city. Our new place had a tennis court, situated catawampus in the backyard (deep shots to the corners could drive an opponent into a cinder block wall). After a few years, we added a half in-ground fiberglass pool which required the excavation of several cubic yards of caliche-laced soil by the brothers who earned our watery refuge–and our mother’s turquoise-blue symbol of success.
The tennis court and pool also served to keep the children in the yard and out of team sports with kids of questionable quality, coached by adults of dubious character. Catching lizards on the desert grasslands beyond the walls to sell to pet stores was permitted because it generated spending money through hard work–and it kept us out of the house for long hours in the summer.
My mother cultivated a stunning rose garden while my father planted a virtual arboretum and installed an underground sprinkler system. We had an oasis in the desert, and we judged our neighbors for their imperfect yards and families. These days, I like to think that success is a matter of leaving the world better than when one arrived–more loving, just, or beautiful. By these qualitative standards, did my mother succeed? Her calligraphy was beautiful, to be sure. She loved her family in her own way which did not so much foster social justice, but did encourage a healthy suspicion, even a defiance, of institutional authority. And that’s something.
With each grumbling move of my aging mother–from her house to independent living, then to assisted living, and finally to skilled nursing care–the material signs of her success were pared down. I look around my house and realize how few of her things I have. And I think about how little of my stuff that our kids will want. Nothing drives home the futility of possessions like death.
In my romantic moments, I imagine that the land of the homesteaders wasn’t just an object to be owned, but a relationship to be cultivated. The land yielded food, the fruits of their labor. They mixed their blood, sweat and tears with the soil–reaping a harvest on the hilltops, while slogging through mud in the bottomlands.
As the artist-in-residence, I helped one of the rangers lead a day’s worth of hour-long programs for a passel of eighth graders. We hoped to teach groups of wired, anxious adolescents that sitting quietly amidst restored prairie could provide tranquility, rejuvenation, and perspective. What they experienced was that 94 degrees Fahrenheit with 78 percent humidity is miserable; ticks and poison ivy are nasty; grass blades and clover mites are itchy; and a soggy butt is uncomfortable.
What they might’ve learned is homesteading was hard, and prairies weren’t Nature’s soft lap. It’s not ‘Mother Nature’ but ‘Mutha Nature’–and she isn’t going to nurse your green soul, or pamper your recycling ass. So homesteaders had to take care of one another–and her.
In a quiet evening after the school kids left, I admitted to myself that I should’ve called more often and stayed longer during visits. Homesteads and mothers are ephemeral, regrets less so.
* * *
Success is enigmatic, as are most of the important things in life–and death. Ambiguity is embedded in the Monument’s interpretation. Recall that sign: ‘For those who stayed, did their impact on the environment and on the American Indians diminish their achievement?’
New technologies made homesteading possible. Innovations in reapers and plows, the invention of the American windmill, and the development of new plant varieties made possible the farming of vast areas, along with the economic flourishing of families. And the technological breakthroughs in nuclear weapons kept my father gainfully employed, provided food for our table, and sent me to college.
The US government created unprecedented opportunities for its citizens by offering land that had been taken from the Indians. How should we understand a radically progressive federal project in which women, Blacks (after the 13th and 14th Amendments), and Indians (via the Dawes Act, in one of history’s cruelest ironies) were given a chance to own land? Do we focus on how difficult it was for the poor to make the journey west, how few Blacks actually received land, how much of the best land was taken by non-Indians, and how Asian immigrants were excluded because they couldn’t qualify for citizenship?
What if I’d brought home a Chicana girl to meet my parents? My mother grew up in a time of largely unquestioned racism and sexism. One of our few, close family friends came into our lives through a program to host foreign, university students. I suspect my mother’s incentive was a sympathy for immigrants and a desire to introduce American values. We ended up with a Taiwanese couple. The husband was the student–and he turned out to be a domineering chauvinist. My mother mothered the wife, who blossomed after her divorce and remains connected to us. I wonder what would’ve happened had I brought home an Asian girl.
My mother was a stern and loving artist-homemaker who both spanked and kissed. She was harsh and caring, short-tempered and forgiving (after due punishment). She distrusted me for good reasons; I had learned to be deceitful out of fear of searing disapproval. I was a master of the sin of omission well into adulthood to avoid family conflict.
For his part, Daniel Freeman learned that Nebraska was generous and brutal, fertile and fickle, scorching and freezing. On the one hand, he wrote to his future wife that, ‘I like the west well we hav a rough but free and easy way that sutes me well.’ On the other hand, he later penned, ‘I hav bin called to help at the Funeral of a man one of my neighbors he was found dead in bed the first Person that I have seen dead in Nebraska that died a natural death if he did.’ He omitted all of the unnatural ways to die as a homesteader.
When I try to understand my mother’s life, her beloved rose garden comes to the fore. Is it the blossoms or thorns that I remember? It seems so easy to recall the sting of the paddle (actually a wooden spoon from the kitchen, so dignity was far more damaged than flesh), rather than the tenderly delivered cup of Constant Comment tea which was the elixir for illnesses ranging from chicken pox to stomach flu.
The US government has stolen land, condoned slavery, disenfranchised women, waged wars, concentrated wealth, dumped chemicals, installed dictators… I get it. Our government has been very naughty. But parents are told that the most effective way to foster kindheartedness is to ‘catch children being good.’ Might citizens likewise encourage politicians?
Through the Homestead Act, Congress created opportunities for the poor, women, Blacks and other marginalized people. Perhaps we should cultivate a charitable view of the government, without denying the harms. Maybe we can even catch ourselves being generous. We have deeply flawed politicians, governing a deeply flawed society, of deeply flawed human beings. I get it.
The older I become, the more I understand the importance of reading, listening, experiencing, and remembering generously. It’s easy to be offended and ascribe malevolence. There is surely a place and time for righteous anger, but perhaps there’s also a moment for benevolence, for trying to understand what fear underlies acts of oppression. To understand is not to excuse, any more than forgiving entails forgetting We are the products of imperfect parents, social structures, and state authorities. There is no denying that people are treated unfairly. But every time, by everyone, and everywhere?
Homestead National Monument can be experienced as a celebration of the nation’s spirit of self-reliance, a testament to pragmatic progressivism, a window into the American dream. Or it can be framed as a dark chapter in the nation’s story–a prologue to the Dust Bowl or an epilogue to genocide. The cynical history, long accepted by scholars, was that the homesteaders drove Indians from their land, fraud was rife, homesteading contributed little to farm formation, and success was the exception. But recent, careful analysis of primary sources has revealed that homesteaders played a minor role in the taking of Indian land (other federal actions were largely responsible), fraud was rare (about 5 percent of claims, as neighbors policed one another), millions of acres were converted to agriculture (forming the Bread Basket of America), and more than half of claims proved up.
What did I make of my bedridden, 85-pound mother in the nursing home? Was she a judgmental matriarch who sought to climb a rung or two on the socioeconomic ladder while resenting having moved to America’s outback and traded a career in art for housewifery? What is to be gained by this account? What stories could be told of my own shortcomings, dishonorable intentions, ungenerous motives, and cruel words? She was also a principled woman who did her best while I was growing up–made healthy meals, helped with school work, made me learn music, soothed my fevers, drove across the desert to Disneyland, and taught me autonomy, defiance, courage, and a curmudgeonly doubt of authority (even if not of her own).
* * *
How should we feel about the death of the tallgrass prairie (the few restored remnants are a kind of ecological hospice) and the death of the small farm (less than 10 percent of agricultural land is on farms the size of a homestead)? Political sensitivity dictates our reaction to Indian displacement, Black settlement, and female homesteaders; environmental rectitude provides our response to breaking sod, planting grains, and restoring native prairie. Except it’s so much more complicated than simple dichotomies of good and evil.
How am I supposed to feel about my mother’s death? The grief experts claim that there are five stages, or maybe seven. I went online and found how-to manuals with typical durations for each phase, while also insisting that there is no ‘normal’ schedule. Following these guidelines seems akin to using step-by-step instructions for making love.
I think I’ll do what my mother would suggest when told by authorities what is expected. That contrary, irascible, fiercely independent woman would gracefully but defiantly tell them to shove their instruction manuals where the sun doesn’t shine. She would do it her way. And so, I am giving a deep sigh of relief (none of the guides include this as a step), followed by a crooked smile, a dry eye, and a bittersweet soul.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood is professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities at the University of Wyoming. He has authored seven books of creative non-fiction, including: Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving, Skinner House, 2002; Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier, Basic, 2004; Prairie Soul: Finding Grace in the Earth Beneath My Feet, Skinner House, 2004; The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe, and Love Insects, Oxford, 2013; Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech, University of New Mexico, 2017. He has also written 119 magazine articles, literary essays and short stories and 150 scientific papers, in entomology and insect ecology.