Nebraska Center for Writers

by Laurel Johnson

My pilgrimage began as it would eventually end, in the Potawotomi County cemetery. At the foot of a grave, staring at its crumbling sandstone marker, is not the place I would have chosen for an epiphany. Still, that place had special meaning for me.
At one time, the gravestone had a name carved into it — Indian John. Every summer of my life my grandparents had visited this obscure place in the rolling Kansas prairies to decorate John's grave.
From earliest childhood, I can recall my Grandma whispering solemnly while sorting through her hand picked flowers, "And we MUST fix something nice for John." No Decoration Day went by without visiting John's grave.
John had no other name I was aware of, no history except for what he'd shared with Grandma and Grandpa. But it was clear from the way she spoke his name that John was someone of importance to them both.
In the years when they were younger and more flexible, the three of us would sit beside John's grave while Grandma and Grandpa relived old memories of their days on the farm. We'd lounge upon the grass and I would listen raptly as they talked. With the coming of adulthood nothing changed, except my grandma grew progressively more feeble, and the trips to visit Indian John at rest became more difficult for them to navigate. Grandpa and I would have to hold Grandma up by both arms while I clutched the bouquet for John tightly in my free hand. Their ritual never varied much, however, once we finally reached his grave.
Grandma would say, "Here lies the best friend we ever had." She would try not too successfully to hold back tears each time she said it. "He worked for Dad's folks you know."
Dad referred to my grandpa, who stood by in silence smiling, nodding, choked up with emotion. These two blessed and beloved anchors of my life would weep in silence for awhile each year in honor of a long dead friend, their mysterious John.
Tenderly and reverently, the flowers Grandma's gnarled arthritic hands had gathered would be placed upon the grave, next to the headstone. She would smile and softly sniff a laugh like people sometimes do when they've been crying and her eyes would meet with Grandpa's. He would smile that twinkling eyed smile of his and nod at her as if they shared some special and unspoken secret. That would be my cue to ask the question I'd been asking them for decades: "How did you and John become such good friends?"
My grandparents took great delight in the telling of their story, and I had never tired of hearing it. I'd never met their friend, this man who died back in the early 1920's, and yet their memories of John made him seem to be alive and standing with us.
John was ancient when they met him, wrinkled bronze and wiry from a life of heavy labor and sparse living. All they knew of him at first was that he grew his own tobacco in a shed half tumbled down from Kansas winds and weather, and he lived in that same shed of his own choosing.
John worked for Grandpa's parents on the farm. He stayed to himself, kept his own thoughts, and rarely spoke a word aloud, but he took an instant liking to my grandpa. Grandpa was a big hard working man of strong Germanic stock, who smiled a lot and loved to pull an often not-so-gentle prank. John accepted Grandpa's joking without comment, and he loved my grandma's doughnuts with an almost

Reprinted with permission
from The Grass Dance
Copyright © 2001
by Laurel Johnson
Publish America

by Laurel Johnson

The Alley of Wishes was born of childhood memories. My mother was a beaten down romantic who didn't lose her hope and sweetness despite domestic violence and its lingering effect on her children. As her oldest child, I remember well the stories she told, stories meant to soften up the edges of our nightmare life. One parable stuck with me, the story of a sweet and tender man who loved his wife with unabashed devotion, a man who was nothing like our father. This man loved once and only once, only his wife. The awful sound of fists on flesh were never heard at his house. His voice and hands were never raised in anger. And everything he did was for her happiness and security, because he loved her so.
I used to hide from my mother in the alley behind our house and cry when things were horrible or frightening. Many a childish wish and prayer was whispered out in that alley. I was too young to make much sense of what went on behind closed doors at our house, but I knew enough to long for better days. More than anything, I wanted Mother's dream man to exist.
This book is for my mother, although she's gone from this earth. And it's partly for the little girl who wished and prayed out in the alley when life seemed bleak and hopeless. My mother's romantic fantasies, whether they were true or not, set me on a path in life where cruel abusive men could never follow.
If he truly ever did exist, this might have been Beck Sanow's story.

Reprinted with permission
from The Alley of Wishes
Copyright © 2003
by Laurel Johnson
Dandelion Books

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Nebraska Center for Writers