Saturday, January 5. 2008
Went to the funeral of Zula Mae Reed yesterday, in Dodge City, KS. She died on December 30 at age 85, after an extended illness. She was my father's first cousin. He probably had more cousins, but she was the only one we were close to. They were both born near Spearville, KS in 1922-23. Their parents were brothers, Robert and James Hull, and they grew up in Hodgeman County northwest of Spearville, on a piece of high prairie their grandfather Abraham Hull homesteaded in the 1870s. (In between there was an Abraham Lincoln Hull.) My father's family moved to Wichita in the 1940s, then his parents moved to a farm northwest of McPherson, KS (near where my grandmother came from), and that's where I first recall them living. For most of the first 15-20 years of my life, we managed to see Zula Mae, her husband Melvin, and two kids Sonia and Rick, 5-10 times a year. I remember they had a dairy farm for a while, then moved into Dodge City, where Zula Mae taught elementary school. Riding with Melvin to the dairy was an eye opening event. Trudging through the fields behind my dad hunting pheasant turned me off the sport forever.
I grew up in a family that held grade school teachers in the highest esteem. I don't know how doctors or professors might have compared, since we didn't know any -- one cousin became a lawyer, but moved far away and was remembered mostly for his basketball skills. It wasn't clear to me where this reverence came from. My parents grew up on farms and had little schooling, but it turns out that my father's parents had both taught, and teaching was a Hull sideline for several generations, alongside milling wheat and raising sheep. Anyhow, we had two teachers in the family: Zula Mae Reed and Freda Brown, the widow of mother's brother Allen. I was a precociously smart kid, and they quickly became my favorite relatives.
Not that I paid much heed to relatives or anyone else back then. I retreated into my room and books as a teenager, rejecting pretty much all around me, then moved far east as soon as I got a chance. Over the last 10-20 years I've gradually reacquainted myself with many of the relatives I shunned 40 years ago, and it's been a fascinating, gratifying venture. I've even toyed with the idea of writing a book on them, like Ian Frazier did in Family, but still know far too little.
Since we moved to Wichita in 1999, I've managed to get to Dodge City a few times. I talked to Zula Mae after Melvin died, and after my dad died. After my mother died, we drove to Arizona to see her last sister. I remembered a time when Zula Mae came to Wichita and talked us into going out for Chinese food, which at the time I had only eaten once or twice. So I made Dodge the first stop on our drive. I wanted to cook Chinese for her, and recreated for her what was actually the meal I had fixed for my mother on her last birthday: Szechuan chicken, dry-fried string beans, strange flavor eggplant, fried rice. The last time I saw her we made a tour of the area, stopping at their old farmhouse north of Dodge City -- abandoned and now decrepit, only skeletally akin to the farm I remembered; the old "Hull Ranch," with rubble from a house that was already decrepit with Uncle Otho lived there in the 1960s, huddled down in a rattlesnake-infested gulley that would have served the Dalton Brothers well; the Spearville cemetery with numerous Hull family markers. Went to that cemetery again yesterday.
I gather she had a very rough 2007, in and out of the hospital with pulmonary problems, the cigarettes she still smoked a couple of years ago eventually doing her in. I heard from her a year ago, and nearly every day thought I should write or call -- skills I never much had, atrophied further with email -- but I've had a pretty lousy 2007 myself, haven't traveled, and have lost touch with many others, all of us only getting older. The drive itself was easier than I remembered it, and we've done it hundreds of times in the past. We skirted through Greensburg for the first time since it was destroyed by a tornado last spring, and the wreckage -- especially the bare tree stumps -- is still vivid.
Got to spend some time with Zula Mae's children, who I hadn't seen in 40 years. They remembered us better than I expected, and they knew more about our shared roots than I do -- probably the result of sticking closer to the homestead. They also have long life stories, including grown children of their own. It would be a shame not to make something of this reconnection. Otherwise we're just left with a void as the old ones pass.
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