My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Middelmarch for the prairie. Too bad that Aldrich is not still more widely read.
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A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change. He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life. The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.
The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm. I didn't relish the thought. Obviously. But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.
Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn. Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her. My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church. There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state. I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.
So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.
Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways. The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas. The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.
A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor. The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor. She received the training and was licensed to the church.
The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off. Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct. I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.
In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall. It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery. I began to contemplate turning around. I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather. Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.
An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.
I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest. If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted. While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.
Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills. What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch. I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.
And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building. The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out. Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.
The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman." The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community. Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."
And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording. Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church. In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected. And it was being honored and celebrated.
After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.
The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before. Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow. It snowed until the other side of the town. In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going. So odd.
In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband. Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another. I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.
I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."
I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving. Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork. After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.
Today I attended the funeral of Anne Boyle, former Public Service Commissioner and Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and husband of former Mayor and current County Commissioner Mike Boyle.
Michael and I met Anne and Mike shortly after we moved to Omaha when she was running for Lieutenant Governor. And then whenever we saw them, usually at some sort of public event advocating for progressive causes, especially LGBT equality, they greeted us warmly as if they had known us for many years. They helped make us feel at home in Omaha.
It was immediately impressive to us, who had been LGBT activists in Oklahoma in the Aughts, that these prominent public officials were such staunch advocated for LGBT equality. That had not always been the case even with Democratic politicians in the first decade of this century.
Sometime last year our family was out to dinner at La Buvette and Anne entered the restaurant. She saw us, her face lit up, and she came over to chat. My mother was with us at the time, and she had a nice chat with Mom, but what I remember most was how she engaged 3-year-old Sebastian in conversation. Even he remembers it, as I showed him Anne's picture and asked if he remembered when he last saw her.
Anne was a political force but always kind and compassionate. Her funeral was filled with memorable stories and observations on her character. I appreciate Jeff Koterba's cartoon in the paper this week, where a young girl asks her Mom, who is preparing to read a bedtime story, "Instead of a story, can you tell me more about Anne Boyle? About her boldness and advocacy, her integrity and compassion?" Those are four virtues I'd like to be remembered for.
Back in February the Queer Omaha Archives Oral History Project housed at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries' Archives and Special Collections interviewed me. The interview is available online here.