Photos of a Pioneer
My grandparents lived in a massive two-story home with creaking pinewood floors and lace curtains that hung like ghosts from the windows. It figured prominently in the nightmares of my childhood, and yet I loved that old house, every inch of it sprinkled with dust and wonder. Come summer, the pear tree out front littered the yard with fruit and the paint curling from the wraparound porch clung to our blackened, clammy feet. My brothers and I loved the basement, cool and damp and packed with my grandpa’s peculiarities—junk mostly, shoeboxes filled with rubber bands and fat rolls of stickers from bygone political campaigns. We loved the attic, too, wide and flat as a roller rink, it seemed, with corners so deep and dark I never dared explore them.
But it’s the second floor hallway that still crops up in my dreams. My distant relatives lingered on that floor, hanging from the burgundy walls in black and white. None of them smiled. They never slept. They stared at me. They sat upright in wooden chairs in front of their soddies, surrounded by the trappings of their frontier existence: their sheep, their horses, scythes, spades, guns, grinding wheels, framed photos of their dead loved ones. Their lives seemed tiny and brutally sincere, swallowed by the grass and sand of Custer County, Nebraska, a land so vast and so empty it appears often dimensionless in the photos. These faces had a way of sobering me as a kid, stopping me cold in a playful sprint around the house. Later, when my grandparents passed, my mother brought the photos home and displayed them in our living room.