Six hours west of Chicago, the lush farmland of Madison County, Iowa flows flush against the horizon. Fertile soil and family roots run deep there.
Roots like mine.
Last weekend, I returned to Madison County to celebrate my Cousin Mary's 90th birthday. She is the last of her generation on my mother's side of the family. But she is more than that to me. Mary is the heart of our family. Our family's historian and story teller. A woman who has given much more in life than she has ever received.
When Mary was only a few years past high school graduation, she found herself without a father, mother, or sibling. Both her parents died young. Her brother Robert, died at twenty-one. A Marine in the Korean War, Robert was killed by a booby trapped bomb on a hill called Heartbreak Ridge.
Mary has also outlived two husbands. Cared for them during their illnesses, as she did many of the older members of our family. She never had any children of her own, yet she is affectionately known as Grandma Mary by her second husband's grandchildren. To me (and my sister and brother), she is a second mother.
Every summer when we went to visit her, my siblings and I ran to a bedroom closet where she kept a fresh box of crayons and coloring books for us. Shiny red rubber balls. And we waited, as patiently as possible, for her to take us to look at litters of wild barn kittens, wobbly newborn colts, squealing piglets, and neighborhood dogs.
Mary has always been devoted to her church, community, and government, as well. For most of her adult life, Mary served as Recorder of Deeds for Madison County. On long drives to Iowa, my siblings and I scanned the horizon, looking for the dome of the Madison County Courthouse. Or, as we called it, Mary's Courthouse. Besides her job at the courthouse, Mary spent countless hours setting up historical databases for the Madison County Historical Society and working on Iowa genealogical projects.
To Mary, someone who has lost so much in life, family is everything. Her meticulous family history records and photos are precious to me beyond words. But it is only in recent years that I have come to appreciate the personal stories beneath Mary's mound of documents and photographs. Learned that my Iowa ancestors hid fugitives on the Underground Railroad in their attic on their way to freedom. That one slave returned to Madison County after the Civil War and lived there the rest of his life because the people had been so kind to him. From Mary, I found out that my uncle and grandfather swam in the local river with members of the Native American tribe whose village was not far from their farm. That members of that tribe joined the farmers and hunted rattlesnakes together. That whiskey was supposedly good for snake bites. That my great grandmother always kept a fresh loaf of bread on the windowsill for Native Americans passing by on horseback.
Many years ago, Mary sent me a copy of this photo. It is the log cabin of my great, great grandfather. Built in 1854 from Iowa timber, the humble home was one of the first dwellings of my Iowa relatives. Torn down in 1908, it was eventually replaced by the farmhouse shown in this post's featured photo. That farmhouse was passed down to my grandfather and then to my cousins. During my childhood, I snooped around that farmhouse, looking for mysteries. Caught lightening bugs in coffee cans. Played hide and seek in chicken coops with my cousins. Had watermelon spitting contests.
We held Mary's 90th birthday party at the Madison County Historical Society. Ordered a cake from a local bakery and asked them to place a design of Mary's courthouse on the top. They did. It was beautiful. Then we ordered yellow and white bouquets -- her favorite colors -- to spread around the room. Finally, we put out the word in the local paper that everyone was invited to come and honor Mary for several hours.
Then we waited.
"What if no one comes?" Mary asked at one point.
That never occurred to the rest of us. Not to my brother or sister-in-law. Not to my sister and her partner. Not to my daughter, my nephew, or his wife. Not to Mary's step-son or step-daughter. All of us who had helped put together Mary's celebration were confident people would come. And we were right. Young and old, they came from out of state and counties all over Iowa. Cousins I hadn't seen in years. Family members from both of Mary's husbands. Over 100 hundred people, we counted. And they stayed and shared stories. Showered Mary with the love she deserved. Dropped off cards. One was from the entire police department.
At one point, I snuck away and took a break in a back room surrounded with volumes of local history. One volume, on the Underground Railroad in Madison County, was donated by Mary. But that wasn't her only donation keeping watch. In another locked room, against a far wall, hung the Marine uniform of Mary's brother.
In a glass case in another room sat the antique family glassware Mary had donated. In a lovely preserved home behind the museum I pictured the pieces of family furniture Mary had placed there. And visible from the back porch of the historical society, just above the treetops, loomed the dome of Mary's courthouse.
Yes, Mary, they came.