Sarah Smarsh


The farm was thirty miles west of Wichita on the silty loam of southern Kansas that never asked for more than prairie grass. The area had three nicknames: “the breadbasket of the world” for its government-subsidized grain production, “the air capital of the world” for its airplane-manufacturing industry, and “tornado alley” for its natural offerings. Warm, moist air from the Gulf to the south clashes with dry, cool air from the Rocky Mountains to the west. In the springtime, the thunderstorms are so big you can smell them before you see or hear them.

Arnie, a man I would later call my grandpa, bought the farmhouse during the 1950s to raise a young family. He spent days sowing, tending, and harvesting wheat. He eventually owned about 160 acres, which is a quarter of a square mile, and farmed another quarter he didn’t own. That might sound big-time in places where crops like grapes are prized in small bunches. But for a wheat farmer in the twentieth century, when the price per bushel had been pushed down by the market even as yields had been pushed up by technology, it was just enough to earn a small living.

When a wheat crop was lost to storm damage or volunteer rye, sometimes milo went in. Arnie raised alfalfa, too, to bale for his fifty head of cattle. He also kept pigs, chickens, the odd goat or horse. He had one hired hand, and his sons and daughters pitched in at harvest. For extra money during the winter, when the fields were frozen, he butchered for a meat locker down the highway toward Wichita and sold aluminum cans he collected in barrels near a trash pile west of his pole shed.

When the old house turned quiet after his divorce, Arnie drank a lot of whiskey. On weekends, he liked to put on his good cowboy boots and go dancing in Wichita honky-tonks like the Cotillion, a small concert hall with a midcentury sign on Highway 54.

There, one night in 1976, country music played while widows and divorcées danced in Wranglers and big collars under a mirror ball. Sitting at a table with a butcher named Charlie and a farmer they called Four Eyes, Arnie noticed a skinny woman with short blond hair at another table. She and her friend wore the paper rose corsages given to all the women at the door.

“She’s not gonna dance with you,” Four Eyes told Arnie. “You’re too damn fat and ugly.”

Four Eyes himself got up and asked the blond woman to dance. She said no. So Arnie walked over. His hair was a feathery brown comb-over, and he wore carefully groomed muttonchops on his square jaw. His round belly jutted over his belt buckle. The woman, Betty, had overheard his friends making fun of him. So when he asked, Betty said yes.

She would be my grandma, and I would have loved for you to know her. Betty’s whole life amounted to variations on that moment at the Cotillion: doing something kind for an underdog. That’s the kind of love I would have wanted to surround you with: indiscriminate and generous, from people like Betty who had every excuse to harden their hearts but never did. She was no saint, never pretended to be. But she would have loved you not just because you were mine but because you existed in a world she knew wasn’t easy for anybody.

Betty and Arnie danced two or three songs. He smelled like Old Spice aftershave, and she liked his happy laugh. They agreed that every Johnny Cash song was the same damn tune with different words. Arnie thought she was a looker. Funny, too. He got her phone number. But when the band packed up and the dance floor cleared, she wouldn’t let him take her out for breakfast at Sambo’s down the highway. She’d stick with her friend and buy her own pancakes.

In the coming weeks, Arnie called her trailer a few times, but she didn’t answer. Then the operator said the number was disconnected. Arnie went back to farming the land.

Betty wasn’t the farming kind. She’d spent her adult life moving among urban areas in the middle of the country—Wichita, Chicago, Denver, Dallas—and neighboring towns. She and her daughter, Jeannie, who would be my mom, first hit the road when Betty was a teenager. Their whole family, which consisted mostly of single moms and their daughters, was hard to pin down. By the time Jeannie started high school, they had changed their address forty-eight times, best I can count. They didn’t count. They just went.

About a year after Betty and Arnie met, his pickup and her Corvette pulled up to the same highway intersection just west of Wichita. They waved at each other, rolled down their windows, and pulled into a nearby truck stop to get a hot drink. Arnie’s life was the same, but Betty had gotten married and divorced in the months since they’d last seen each other. She had a wildness—not so much a streak but a core—that other middle-aged farmers might have found off-putting, even scandalous. But he fell in love and treated her better than she’d ever been treated. For one thing, he didn’t beat her up. He didn’t even complain about what she cooked for dinner or did with her life in general.

“Mox nix to me,” he told her.

She stuck around.

During the wheat harvest of 1977, when Betty was thirty-two and Arnie forty-five, Betty drove every evening from her fulltime job as a subpoena officer at the Sedgwick County courthouse in downtown Wichita to Arnie’s farm. She took over the house, cooking for Arnie and his field help, driving tubs of fried chicken, paper plates, and jugs of iced tea to fields where yellow dust followed red combines. She learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated through the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms and sleep is possible only because of how hard you worked.

Jeannie was fifteen and going to high school in Wichita, old enough by our family’s standards to take care of herself while Betty was at work or at Arnie’s farm. She’d finally gotten into a social groove after changing schools twice a year for most of her life. She didn’t want to move this time, especially not to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Now that she’d been in one place long enough to turn in her homework, she was getting good grades and enjoying school. She preferred hanging out at Wichita’s little outdoor mall to fishing in pasture ponds. Her hobbies were reading and fashion, which she studied in magazines before sewing her own clothes. Fabric stores and public libraries would be in short supply on the Kansas prairie. Jeannie groaned. But her mom had  decided they were going. They packed up yet again and moved west to Arnie’s farm.

After a few months, Arnie asked Betty to marry him. Betty thought she was done with all that, and anyway, Arnie was Catholic. She’d heard the Church didn’t take people who’d been divorced, let alone six times.

Father John, the priest of a nearby parish, assured her that none of those marriages counted since they weren’t in the Church. She figured she had to count the first two husbands, since they’d fathered her children, but otherwise she liked the idea of disavowing every one of the bastards.

She and Arnie ended up marrying outside the Church anyway, in September 1977, at a little chapel on a highway next to a trailer park.

The newlyweds had constant company at the farm. Their pickup engines could be heard down the road, followed by the sound of tires rolling slow on the gravel driveway, usually around dinnertime. Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies— she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?

“It wasn’t like when you lived in town, you’d bebop down to the QuikTrip,” she told me years later.

She learned to keep the basement overstocked with discount canned food, the deep-freeze packed with every cut of meat, the cupboards filled with double-coupon deals. She and Arnie were the sort of poor who, whether by spirit or circumstance, found a way to feed themselves and whoever else needed a meal.

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