Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

Woman of the Prairie

Photo by Matthew Henry on Wunderstock

Recently, I have been thinking about Lucy Hollembeak, a surviver of the 1918 influenza pandemic. I first met her when I worked as a college intern for The Arkansas City Daily Traveler, in a hard-edged little town on the Kansas and Oklahoma border.

I was nineteen and knew no one in the town beyond the paper’s staff. My high school history teacher in Kansas City, Gerald Hollembeak, had suggested I look up his mother.

So I did. In June 1968, I introduced myself to her. Her husband had died in 1959, and since then she had lived alone. Every few evenings we would talk about politics, about religion, about what we came to call “the ache,” the painful pleasure of being alive.

As I came to know and admire her, I was moved by her wisdom—how she conserved what was valuable, appreciated what was small, needed little, but had a mind as broad as the prairie itself. She had written poetry all of her life, scribbled on scraps of paper. When I returned to college, after my summer in Ark City, a poem or two would arrive in the mail now and then.

Decades passed. I had not seen her since that summer.

So, one summer during a trip back to the Midwest, I drove 200 miles across Kansas to see her again. At dusk, I walked up the sidewalk to her three-room house. She opened the screen door. Her face, small and pixieish, creased into a broad smile. I sat on the same couch that I had in the summer of ‘68. She sat in the same rocking chair. She was now ninety-one years old, but it was hard to think of her as old, or young, or any age. We picked up the conversation seemingly in mid-sentence.

I mentioned some of my memories of her, how she would play Beatles records, sitting there alone in her Spartan little cottage. And how, in ‘68, she had read passages from Black radical Eldridge Cleaver’s book, “Soul on Ice,” to her adult Sunday school class, without mentioning the author’s name. She smiled. “Cleaver was an uncouth man, but there was something in what he wrote. If I told them who wrote it, that would have set them back a bit.”

She walked into the next room and brought out a family scrapbook that her sons had assembled for her. It included newspaper clippings from 1899, on the day she was born: an interview with Frank James in which he denied that he and his brother, Jesse, rode with Quantrill in his pre-Civil War raid on Lawrence, Kansas..

She was raised on the prairie miles from other settlements. She grew up before radio, and read by a kerosene lamp. Her family butchered their own hogs and canned the meat on the kitchen wood stove. “When I was a girl, women didn’t have the right to vote. Can you believe it? I was a suffragette!” She remembers Teddy Roosevelt running for president as a Bull Mooser; news of who won presidential races would often arrive days after the election.

Some nights, her mother would put out bowls of apples for the kids to peel and eat, and perhaps a bowl of popcorn. On some evenings, neighbors would gather. Her bearded father and the other men would go to the next room and chew tobacco and talk politics. They called themselves “the men’s club.” In another room, the women would do kitchen work or sew and talk, too. “I had big ears, so I was well informed.”

Her mother died when she was eleven. She remembers her father building the long box with his own hands, and seeing her mother’s body in bed. She remembers vividly how the neighbors came for a final visit, how the women sewed the burial dress and gently slipped it on. And she remembers how her father held her mother in his arms and laid her down in her coffin. “All of this was done with loving hands.”

She didn’t fly in an airplane until she was in her late 70s. The one modern technological device she loves is the microwave oven. She just can’t get over it. “It’s truly a miracle.”

After her husband died, she felt no need for another man. She liked men fine as friends, she said, but “why would I need another marriage if I was fulfilled in the first?”

She had lived by herself for 31 years, but not alone. She was amazed and awed and touched at the smallest things. “My sons say I can get more out of watching a butterfly than anybody they know. Lately, I’ve been drinking up autumn.”

She described a recent evening when she was sitting out on the porch watching the bats dip and shoot. Silently, behind her, someone cut a hole in her screen, climbed into her house and took $16 out of her purse. She felt enraged and violated.

She began to lock her door for the first time in her life. Not long after the theft, she wrote a poem about it, and at the end of the poem she forgave the thieves, teen-agers she thinks she knows. She remembers seeing one of them across the road, standing in the darkness, watching.

What she finds most difficult to accept about the theft is the lack of self-worth a young person must feel to victimize someone in her 90s. She sat forward quickly and said, “You like yourself, don’t you?”

“Sure. Most of the time.”

She sat back, narrowed her eyes, then smiled.

She said she doesn’t attend church anymore. Her ideas about religion have changed over the years. She has gently moved away from dogma. She is uncomfortable with some of the narrow-mindedness she sees among many religious people today, particularly the young ones.

“But I do feel a…presence. More each day.”

She prays often, but asks for nothing. She considers praying a way of sharing, not asking. She thinks of it as a release—like her poetry.

She told me how she often walks a mile to the grocery store. When she returns, she says, “Thank you, Lord, for helping me with that walk.” When she takes down her hair to wash it in the bathtub, she gets dizzy. She’ll sit for a moment on the edge of the bathtub, and say, “Thank you for helping me with my hair.” She says these prayers out loud. “Maybe because I’ve lived alone for so long.”

I asked her if she believed in an afterlife.

“Don’t need one,” she said, quickly. “I’ve had a long full life. One is enough.” Still, she sometimes wonders if there is an afterlife—not for her—but for those who die young, like the baby she buried so many decades ago, or the son she lost to World War II.

Suddenly I realized it was 12:30 a.m. Just as in the summer of ‘68, the time had gone by without notice. I stood to leave. She stood, too, with her arm across the back of the rocker. “Mrs. Hollembeak,” I asked, “what do you think this presence will do with you when you die? Will you become part of it?”

She thought about this for a moment, and then uttered the clearest statement of faith I have ever heard. “I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes were level, clear, strong. “But whatever is done with me will be fair.”

* * *

Two years after our meeting, I came home to find a fat manilla envelope in the mailbox. I knew what was in it before I opened it. The return address read: Gerald Hollembeak.

I stood by the kitchen counter and opened the envelope. “Mom died May 20th,” her son had written. “She spoke often of your summer together and the exchange of thoughts in the years after. She died with her children at her bedside and we shared laughter, tears, and politics. She was 95.”

The envelope contained letters I had sent to her over the years, clippings of my columns, and photographs of my wife and children, whom she had never met. I touched the pinholes. The photos, apparently, had been attached to a wall or bulletin board.

I put all these things back in the envelope and thought about what I had learned from her—that all that really matters is family and friendship, and that the best of life is written on pieces of torn paper.


Adapted from “THE WEB OF LIFE: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us,” by Richard Louv

Related articles by Richard Louv:

Why We Hunger for a Connection with Animals During Quarantine, Los Angeles Times

The Mind Altering Power of Deep Animal Connection: An excerpt from “OUR WILD CALLING.”

What’s Right with Kansas

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