Several years back I was staying in Kansas for six months. I rented a modest place for the duration of my stay. The house was located in an older neighborhood in Atchison. I moved into a sturdy, red-brick cottage with hardwood floors and an expansive basement. Shortly after my arrival, my neighbor knocked on the front door to introduce herself.
She reached out her hand and said in that friendly Midwest inflection, “I’m Sue, Sue Van Gordon, but most people call me Old Sue.” Even though she had just passed 60, her motherly voice and profound wisdom fit. The name stuck. So did she.
Sue is one of those people who stay with you. Her huge heart, contagious laughter and endless optimism draw you in and keep you. Any encounter or conversation with Sue is like eating comfort food. Everyone feels safer and more at ease in her company.
We have maintained contact in the six years that have rolled off the calendar since I left Kansas, and she remains a dear friend to me and my family. I’ve wanted to write about Sue for some time, so I recently asked her some questions to shape the column. As it turns out, Sue is much better describing herself and her life in her own words than I could ever be, so most of what follows is Sue’s own voice.
“[I was born in] October 1945, the third mouthy child of 13, in Atchison, Kan. I finished education in parochial school, inclusive of high school. I became a long distance operator after graduation, then numerous bookkeeping jobs after a layoff from the phone company. Those were the days you would stay at a job for a year and then go get another one if you weren’t happy there.”
Sue worked for the Santa Fe Railroads as a heavy equipment operator and then moved into the office and was responsible for rail crew handling for eastbound and westbound trains for 18 years. Her mother’s illness took her back to Atchison.
I asked her about living in the Midwest and what it means to her: “In the divisionary years of jobs, and marriage ... had friends living all over the U.S., so sometimes went and stayed, even got jobs. But somehow, dear old Kansas calls ya back to her arms, whether it be by the heart tugs of the best of green and rain in the spring, the growing of all things in the summer, the harvesting of colors via vegetables in the fall, and even the bitter, colorless gloomy, stay inside winters.
“Always there’s wind, or breeze, or telltale tree sways with scents of forthcoming, soon to be rain. When one looks up skywards, mystical stars dance in haloed moonlight no matter the season. Wildlife is abundant, birds dancing with thrushing songs of happiness and joy at any given time, playful rabbits daring you to give chase, purposely teasing the outdoor felines in run games, yarded dogs begging in barks for attention, all out here in Kansas. Saturday sports, mowers repelling that fresh cut grass scent, Sunday worship of every denomination, fairs, rodeos, parades, 4-H, classic autos, ice cold well waters, lakes, picnicking, hiking, bike riding and racing. ... Oh, so many good things harbored here in Kansas, this glorious terra mater.”
I also asked Sue to share some of her Midwest wisdom, and this is what she offered.
» The less you have, the less you gotta clean.
» Most things are improved by you leaving them entirely alone.
» Gossip hurts and causes lots of mistrust.
» All those things your folks warned you about doing ... they are true.
» Little children tell you the truth, teenagers would rather not.
» Shouting at your dog results in you having to clean up their elimination on your new carpet.
» Cats don’t care when you leave; dogs, however, panic.
» God is reliable, prayers work. Sometimes the answer is no.
» Easy open packaging means you best have a pair of sharp scissors on hand.
» Tamper-proof child lids mean the elderly must seek outside help to get the product open.
» One size fits all does not fit corn-fed Kansans.
» You are never too old to fly a kite.
In a prior email asking Sue if she would be OK with me writing about her, she responded, “Gosh o golly gee, no pics right? [I’ve] got so many wrinkles now. Of course when I look in the mirror, I still yet see that whimsical 18-year-old youthful skin face. ...please note mirror is (obviously) cracked.”
She also reflected poetically on Atchison: “Atchison keeps diminishing … so much has gone away, silently ... kinda like slight clouds, there one brief moment, whisked away the next ... even old Walmart is considering leaving, so downy, downy ,downy we go. Danged good thang us old farts gravitate to gardening or else we’d be purdy well going hungry.”
That is the Sue I know and love so well — honest, witty and practical with the pulse of a nation reflected in her uncomplicated observations. I miss our daily contact, but when I need some comfort I search her emails and am reminded just how good life can be and that if I look at the ground beneath my feet, regardless of where I stand, it is glorious terra mater.