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Columbia: A Kansas Ghost Town Story

“Do you think this might be it?” I asked my husband, Jim, as we drove down Road M. We were in search of the remnants of Columbia, a ghost town documented in Daniel C. Fitzgerald’s Ghost Towns of Kansas: 6. Other than the wooded area along the Cottonwood River, which we were about to cross, we were surrounded by nothing but acres and acres of farmland. But if we had correctly interpreted the various descriptions from early Lyon County residents, then we were about to drive past the ghost of one of the county’s oldest towns.

The area circled in red indicates the likely location of the Columbia town site. Map excerpt taken from the General Highway Map for Lyon County Kansas, by the Kansas Department of Transportation, September 2007.

***

“Traveling over the prairie without a road, save a dim wagon track in the grass, through a county as yet unnamed and over the divide between two nameless creeks, we were all watching to see the Neosho timber.” — John Van Gundy, Reminiscences of Frontier Life on the Upper Neosho in 1855 and 1856

In the mid-1800s, the only White residents in this part of the country were (supposed to be) missionaries and government-licensed traders along the wagon trails. Lyon County’s earliest settlers were no different. The first official U.S. citizen to find his way to the area was Charles Withington, who in 1854 set up shop at what would become the town of Allen on the Santa Fe Trail, which rolled through the northern portion of the county.  The next major stop along the trail was Council Grove, where an entire government settlement of shops and services existed as a last stop for travelers on their way to New Mexico. The rest of the area’s inhabitants lived on the Kaw or Sac and Fox reservations.

Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act changed everything.

As the Kansas border was opened up to White settlers, Withington and some of Council Grove’s merchants and missionaries–T.S. Huffaker, Seth Hays, Goodson Simcock, and Christopher Columbia (and some sources say William T. Harris)–saw an opportunity to claim their own land and set up shop in present-day Lyon County, which was then two counties: Breckenridge County to the north, and Madison County to the south. (The dividing line for anyone familiar with Emporia was Logan Avenue, just a block north of the David Traylor zoo.)

In 1855, these men set up a little cluster of buildings that included lodgings, supplies, and a blacksmith near a river crossing at what is now Section 23 in Township 19S, Range 11E. Only the the sections weren’t so clearly marked back then because they were not officially surveyed until 1857. Columbia was officially in Madison County, which would only exist for a few more years.

“The best that one could do then was to guess off a quarter section of land in a desirable spot and mark it out large enough to be sure of a good portion of the land embraced in the description. Even then, it would be likely to happen that the claimant’s cabin would finally be in one section and his well in another; or, there might be two or three cabins in the same quarter section.” — John Van Gundy, Reminiscences of Frontier Life on the Upper Neosho in 1855 and 1856

Most of us native Kansans were programmed early on to associate Kansas’ origins with an anti-slavery mentality.  But 1855 Kansas was more complicated than that, and Lyon County even more so. The people moving in to the area represented a variety of political beliefs.  The majority of the Council Grove men who set up shop in the settlement of Columbia were pro-slavery; Seth Hays was himself a slave owner. Others, like David Van Gundy (father of John Van Gundy) was a Constitutionalist who believed that states and territories had the right to make their own decisions about such things. Still others were Free-staters or Free-Soilers, who believed that there was no need to extend slavery rights to new territories, and still others like Joel Haworth, whose home was part of the underground railroad a few miles up the Cottonwood River from Columbia, were abolitionists who believed slavery should be eliminated from all U.S. states and territories.

Now imagine all of these different people homesteading next to each other, depending on each other, out on the open prairie.

1855 was also the year of the Bogus Legislature, when Pro-Slavery Missourians sneaked into Kansas to cast their votes to make the Kansas territory slavery-friendly. At this time, Columbia was the county seat for Madison County, and a Pro-Slavery leadership was elected for the county and its representation to Topeka.

Breckenridge and Madison County residents maintained this uneasy, unsettled existence, which finally came to a head September 14, 1856, when abolitionists–including John E. Cook, who would hang alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry–launched an attack on settlements along the Neosho River. Mrs. Sarah Van Gundy Carver, daughter of one of the area’s earliest settlers, died that night, and several stores, including Withington’s, were robbed and looted. Many of Neosho Rapids’s residents–78 families, according to the documentary A History of North Lyon County–headed east for safety. Only five families returned and found that new settlers had already jumped their claims.

By the end of 1856, the men of Columbia were ready to go back to Council Grove, where Hays operated a saloon known as The Hays House and jointly operated The Last Chance store with Simcock. The stores at Columbia were turned over to Dr. Stiggers. John Van Gundy described his first impression of Columbia at that time: “We traveled in a westerly direction until we came to a wagon road turning south and soon came in sight of a log house with a lean-to on the south.” According to Van Gundy, Stiggers was operating a dry goods store, a drug store, a grocery, and a liquor store all under the same roof just north of the river ford. As one of only a few doctors in the area, he was also busy giving medical attention to patients. Food was cooked in the lean-to.

The Cottonwood River today, near the site of the original Columbia settlement. The river has shifted many times since Columbia’s town site was established in 1855.

As the population of Breckenridge and Madison counties grew, so did the demand for the U.S. Postal Service. Columbia served as an official post office. By 1857, Jefferson S. Pigman, who took over the store at Columbia after his own store in Neosho Rapids was looted during the abolitionist raid a few months before, was dispersing mail that came from Westport, Missouri, down the Santa Fe Trail to Council Grove, and was finally delivered to Columbia. These routes could be dangerous. In her Early History of Lyon County, Kansas, Lucinda Jones writes about freighter Tom Evans and his brother, who saw “gruesome sights,” including a “group of eight men hanging to a little oak tree, horse thieves.”

I can’t help but wonder if this tree once stood on land that is now someone’s front yard.

Despite there being an established mail system, the city of Emporia, with its decisively anti-slavery leanings, did not approve. “This would not do the wide-awake Emporians at all,” Jacob Stotler wrote in his Annals of Emporia and Lyon County. “They hated everything pro-slavery and instead of patronizing this route they took steps to have their mail sent by way of Lawrence. They had box five hundred in Lawrence from whence the mail was brought by private hands. A weekly hack line to that city was established, leaving here every Monday and returning every Friday. It took four full days to make the round trip, and one day to rest at Lawrence.”

Pigman moved on, and John Fowler, whose lands were near the Columbia settlement, served as postmaster until the official post office was moved to Emporia. Fowler went back to farming and H.W. Fink became Emporia’s first postmaster.

***

Around the time that the post office at Columbia was facing its demise, John Street, a surveyor for the General Land Office, made his way through Township 19S Range 11E, completing the survey between March 17 and April 1, 1857. His painstakingly detailed notes record the land, the vegetation, and the settlements he encountered as he and his crew moved up and down each section line.  Of Columbia, he wrote: “The Cottonwood runs through the southern part of this Township, is very winding in its curves…the town of Columbia was laid out about one year ago on [the] left bank of [the] Cottonwood River. I could not find any of the corners, therefore did not take any notice of the…lines with the town…it now contains several buildings, a store, black smith, and dwellings, a good ford at this place.”

Section 23, from John Street’s 1857 GLO Survey Map. Notice the only roads going through Columbia are the trail road to Council Grove (the upper road moving northwest) and the road to Diamond Springs (the lower road moving northeast-east). Yes, those are little teepees indicating the remains of an Indian Village. The Cottonwood River (actually labled a creek on this map) and its channel run immediately south of Columbia.

***

 According to J.S. Pigman’s obituary, which ran in the Emporia Gazette on February 9, 1911, “the town never grew beyond the proportions of a log store and post office combined, a double log dwelling house, a blacksmith shop and perhaps one or two other buildings. A family named Whitaker lived in half of the dwelling house part of the time, and the other half was occupied by its owner and his family, the late Reason Snow, a pioneer known to most of the early settlers in this community.”

Daniel C. Fitzgerald, ghost town historian, argued that this was the end of Columbia. “By late summer 1857, what was left of the town had moved to the present location of Emporia,” he wrote in Ghost Towns of Kansas: 6. While the cluster of shops may not have continued on, a new rural community did grow in this area. Historians have implied that by 1858, there was nothing left of Columbia, but new settlers were moving in to the area. In 1868, shortly after their marriage, William and Jane Willis claimed their 80 acres, most of which was situated immediately south of the Cottonwood River and the Columbia Bridge, formerly the Columbia ford. It also included a pinch of land across the river: the former Columbia townsite.

“There were no improvements on the land, so they found and moved into an abandoned log cabin on this [the north] side of the river, on the old Columbia town site. This cabin had no doors or windows or floor, and had been used to house cattle. When the elder Mrs. Willis saw this abode, she broke down and cried, for the comfortable, cozy house she left in Ohio was dear to her.” –from “The Willis Golden Anniversary” announcement, Emporia Gazette, January 23, 1918

This is also not the end of Columbia’s story, which is astonishing considering how many times the area has flooded. According to Laura French’s History of Emporia and Lyon County, “Beginning with 1857, engineers in 1926 making a survey…found record of forty-seven more or less destructive floods in Lyon County.” In 1904, an especially severe flood tore the 150-foot three-span iron Columbia bridge from its abutment, causing it to roll into the water.

The Cottonwood River has shifted its course many times since Columbia was first settled in 1855. Just a few hundred yards north of where the Cottonwood River flows, timber fills in an older river bed. This may have been part of the active river at the time Columbia was still populated.

And yet the ghost of Columbia persisted. Farmers and county commissioners alike recognized the need for this bridge, a lifeline between Emporia and the rural community. The bridge was rebuilt and reopened the following year and continued to be referred to as the Columbia bridge, and the newspaper, in its weekly updates of local communities, continued to refer to the area as the Columbia community for decades more.

At last, the name Columbia began to fade. During the late 1940s, the Emporia Gazette began to refer to the water crossing as Flat Rocks Bridge. The weekly roundup of community happenings no longer included a listing for Columbia. By the 1960s, the only mention of old Columbia and the Columbia bridge occurred in the obituaries of old-timers who themselves faded away one by one.

In 1972, Flat Rocks Bridge was declared unsound and closed. The old 1905 bridge was never meant to handle the heavy equipment that had been crossing it for nearly seven decades. It was replaced with the current structure in 1989.

The current “Flat Rocks” bridge crossing the Cottonwood River was completed in 1989.

***

Unfortunately, despite all of the information available,  it is still not entirely clear where Columbia’s settlement was constructed. Several early maps of Kansas, like this 1856 map drawn by General Land Agents out of Lawrence, Kansas, mistakenly locate Columbia at the confluence of the Cottonwood and Neosho rivers, which is where Neosho Rapids (well, depending on the year, it could have been listed as Florence, Italia, or Neosho City) was and is located. In addition, the ever shifting Cottonwood River has, with tremendous persistence,  carved its way farther south with each flood, of which we know there have been many.  The first official plat map used by Lyon County beginning in 1874 shows the river in a totally different location from John Street’s GLO survey map.

Section 23, as depicted in Lyon County’s first official plat map that was certified in Topeka in 1874. Notice how wide the riverbed appears, and that the river is in a very different place when compared to John Street’s GLO map from 1857. The squiggles immediately south of the river indicate a swamp.

Because John Street’s task was to survey the section lines and not to mark every single tree, rock, and water source between the lines, where the river flowed between the section lines is not necessary exact. Was the town drawn in at its exact location, or only in respect to the river?

Land records were also not helpful. Although we know U.S. citizens have settled in Section 23 since 1855, the county’s land records begin in 1860, when the land was patented. Most of the early land records do use the section lines as official boundaries–except in relation to the river. All too often, the river is cited as the boundary, but an ever-shifting river means ever-shifting boundaries. The 1878 Lyon County Atlas, the 1918 Atlas, and Google Maps, show even more movement with regards to the Cottonwood River.

After days of studying maps, anecdotal notes, and aerial satellite images, it became apparent that the most likely location of one of the county’s first towns and first fords on the Cottonwood River is now a big, empty field just north of the trees that have filled in the old, abandoned river channel.

The most likely location for the old settlement of Columbia.

So ends the story of Columbia. A town that once had the potential to influence the land, its people, and the law is now an empty field without even a whisper of acknowledgement on modern maps. And yet, without Columbia, Lyon County’s history would be different; Lyon County would be different. Despite its short lifespan, it is an important part of the story of Kansas.

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St. Patrick’s Church: How the Emerald Isle ended up in the middle of the nation’s most landlocked state

Three days each week, our travels take us down Old U.S. Highway 50 past a sign.  “St. Patrick’s Church. Emerald Parish. 6 1/2 miles south.” After passing by at least a dozen times, my husband and I gave in to the urge to follow it and turned south.

The sign drawing in visitors from Old U.S. Highway 50.

“Has it been six and a half miles yet?” I asked as we drove down a country road, with only a handful of farm houses in sight.

“I have no idea,” Jim said. “I’m not even sure what county we’re in.”

Suddenly, our road intersected Kansas Highway 31 at an angle and we were looking at a steep hill.

“You think it’s up there?” I said, doubtfully.

“Let’s go see,” Jim said. And we climbed the hill to find one of the most spectacular overlooks in central Kansas.

We were, in fact, in Anderson County. Belying its idyllic appearance is a county whose people and history are a touch contrary and more than a little accomplished. Named for attorney Joseph C. Anderson, a leader in the “bogus”  pro-slavery legislature that attempted to take control of Kansas, the county would as claim its own one Dr. J. G. Blunt, who, as a major general, was the highest ranking member of the Union army to settle in Kansas. The county would also be the birth place of Edgar Lee Masters, author of the Spoon River Anthology, and Dr. Martha E. Cunningham, one of the first women doctors in the state. And yet, the southeast corner of the county was known to be a hiding place for border ruffians during the Civil War and Jesse James thereafter. It is also believed that the first-ever picture of a tornado was shot from Anderson County.

But this was all in Anderson County’s future. In 1857, when Irish transplant John McManus was looking for somewhere to claim for his family, he saw the cheap land and excellent soil and staked a claim near the Ionthe Creek in Reeder Township.

At the top of the hill with its breathtaking panoramic view was a brick, Romanesque church.

St. Patrick’s Church, built in 1899.

“It’s almost all alone up here,” I said, seeing only a decrepit building next to the church.

Yet the church was maintained and, other than the fact that its bell tower had been removed, appeared to still be in use.

The McManus family was followed by a wave of others who made their way west after immigrating from Ireland, many from North Ulster. Soon names like Doolin, Collins, McEvoy, Glennan, McElroy, Cristy, McGrath, Reddington, Fitzgerald, Sullivan, McLindon, Campbell, and Grant populated the area. After the Civil War, the Fay, McGlinchy, Cotter, Swallow, Benedum, Hagan, McGlinn, Mooney, and O’Neill families settled into the highest eminence of Anderson County.

Many of the monuments at St. Patrick’s Cemetery attest to the Irish roots of Emerald’s original inhabitants.

“They built log houses, danced and were happy in a land of boundless opportunities where they were the landlords instead of the tenants as they had been in Ireland,” Harry Johnson wrote in 1936 in his History of Anderson County Kansas.

The Irish settlement, which spread into nearby Coffey and Franklin counties, did prosper. By 1870, they had outgrown the first church and replaced it with a structure built from locally quarried stone. In 1899, they replaced the stone church with the brick Romanesque building that is said to have been decorated by artists from Luxemburg.

“One of the finest church edifices in Kansas,” Johnson wrote, “…this brick structure, built Roman style, forms the nucleus of the Emerald settlement today.”

The area became known as Emerald, and with no town per se, the church, which stood at the settlement’s highest point, served as a beacon to the community’s Roman Catholic population.

“Look at this cemetery,” Jim said as we walked behind the church. At a glance, it was clear that we were seeing a prosperous community who could afford substantial monuments to honor their dead. Some family stones were adorned with statues eight feet tall, artistry infused with enough emotion to take your breath away.

The monument honoring the Collins family in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

McGlinchy Angel

A close-up of the angel that stands eight feet tall over the five-foot base of the McGlinchy family monument.

By World War I, Emerald was home to 75 families, and its schools (the final building, St. Patrick’s School, is the empty structure next to the church) produced five lawyers, two doctors, numerous nurses and teachers, and a member of the Kansas Authors Club. Eighteen men from the area would serve in the Great War, two losing their lives.

Then, like so many other rural areas in Kansas, the settlement experienced a population decline beginning during the 1930s. The number of local families dropped to 48, with a slight resurgence after World War II. Despite the decline, many with Irish roots still call this area home, and the church and cemetery are still in use. While the bell was removed from the church roof during the 1990s, it is preserved at the entrance to the cemetery, where visitors can activate the clapper, causing it to resonate a deep, rich sound that can be heard for miles.

At a time when so many Roman Catholic churches are closing their doors due to financial shortfalls and a shortage of clergy, St. Patrick’s Church continues to serve the community of Emerald. Though the settlement may only be a shadow of its former self, at five o’clock each Saturday evening, the church that otherwise sits quietly on the hill is renewed with members from the surrounding farms and ranches.

Panoramic View Emerald Kansas

It took 10 snapshots to build a panoramic view of the sweeping countryside east of the steps of St. Patrick’s Church in Emerald, Kansas.

Lessons from a Kansas graveyard: What a 1903 outbreak of diphtheria can teach us today

In a shady corner of St. Mary’s Cemetery, a curious collection of little headstones, all of the same size and age, surround a large hooded monument. Unassuming and unadorned, the large family headstone does not prepare you for what you will read. This little cemetery just south of Hartford, Kansas is the final resting place for the “Children of James & Anna O’Marra,” eight of whom died in 1903.

James and Anna O’Marra and their nine children, ranging in age from six months to 21 years, lived seven miles south of Hartford. Their family was in mourning for James’ brother John, who had died of pneumonia on March 30, 1903. The newspapers are not clear as to exactly what happened next, but John O’Marra’s funeral may be a clue, as family members from outside the area came to Lyon County to pay their respects.

According to the Neosho Valley Times, a cousin visiting from Anderson County might have been the unwitting carrier for the tragedy that would devastate the O’Marra family.

“What’s diphtheria?” my colleague asked me as I told her this story.

“We’re so lucky we don’t know first hand,” I told her.

On April 10, nine-year-old Julia O’Marra was taken down with respiratory “black” diphtheria. As the bacteria grew thick dark membranes around her tonsils and throat, she grew weak, gasping for air, until the membrane completely blocked her airway. On the morning of Tuesday, April 14, Julia suffocated to death. She was buried the same afternoon.

The tiny marker for Julia O’Marra, age 9, the first to die of diphtheria.

Before the last of the earth was shoveled onto her grave, all eight of the remaining O’Marra children were extremely ill. Rumors were circulating that the O’Marras had already infected members of other large families. Though unfounded, the stories prevented many neighbors from offering assistance. Beyond the help of “the old priest,” Father J.W. “Paul” O’Connor and the undertaker, Mr. Holloway, the O’Marra family was on their own.

Thirteen-year-old Anastasia, called Annie, died Saturday morning, April 18, and was buried the same day. Her four-year-old brother James died at 11 o’clock Saturday night, followed by his seventeen-year-old sister Ellen, called Nellie, who died early Sunday morning.

Anastasia “Annie” O’Marra was the second sibling to die.

James and Nellie were buried in the same coffin Sunday afternoon.

James and Ellen “Nellie ” O’Marra died within hours of each other, and were buried in the same grave.

How serious is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious disease: 5%-10% of all people with diphtheria die. Up to 20% of cases lead to death in certain age groups of individuals (e.g., children younger than age 5 years and adults older than age 40 years).

Immunization Action Coalition

On Monday, April 20, 21-year-0ld William and his six-year-old sister, Hanora, called Nora, also passed away. They were buried in the same casket later that afternoon.

William and Hanora “Nora” O’Marra also share a grave after dying the same morning.

James and Anna were beside themselves with grief and worry. Anna grew physically ill herself, and it was feared that she, too, had contracted diphtheria from her children. While the parents looked on, the local doctor, S.P. Reser, administered anti-toxin, a therapy that had only been in use since the late 1890s, to the three remaining children. He was too late. Maggie, the six-month-old baby, died Monday night.

Six-month old Margaret “Maggie” O’Marra was the seventh sibling to die, despite anti-toxin treament.

A nurse from Kansas City arrived to help care for the two remaining children and the heart-sick, exhausted parents. The two surviving children, eighteen-year-old Mary and eleven-year-old Lizzie, appeared to respond to the anti-toxin treatment. Neighbors stepped in to help as they could. It was thought the two girls would recover.

On the morning of May 5, Mary’s heart gave out, most likely from myocarditis.

Thought to be recovering, Mary, the eldest daughter, died on May 5.

Lizzie, the middle child in a family of 11, was now the only surviving daughter to two of the most grief-stricken parents in Lyon County’s history. She would outlive her siblings by nearly six decades.

A confirmed case has not been reported in the U.S. since 2003. Approximately 0.001 cases per 100,000 population in the U.S. since 1980; before the introduction of vaccine in the 1920s incidence was 100-200 cases per 100,000 population. Diphtheria remains endemic in developing countries with low vaccination coverage. During the 1990s, the countries of the former Soviet Union reported >150,000 cases in a large epidemic.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diphtheria

Cemeteries are rich with the history of the people who live in a particular area. They indicate wealth, social status, social and religious affiliations, and ethnicity. They are also a strong indicator of the hard existence our not-so-distant ancestors endured.  For me, the graves of children are both the most heartbreaking and the most honest, because it is our nature as humans to do all we can to protect our young. The headstones and markers of the young tell the stories of those we couldn’t protect from stillbirth, disease, or tragic accident.

Cemeteries that date back a century or more often protect the remains of far more infants and children than most of us are comfortable seeing. The late 1800s and early 1900s brought death to children, death from diseases most of us have never even seen in another living being: tetanus, small pox, diphtheria, typhoid, and polio, as well as others that are beginning to reappear as more and more Americans lose the immunity acquired through vaccination or choose not to vaccinate their children (measles, mumps, pertussis). These families lost children — sometimes many or all of their children — in a matter of days or weeks.

I acknowledge that some of the most important decisions we ever face are those concerning our own health and the health of our loved ones. As thousands of children died all over the world from highly communicable and extremely dangerous diseases, doctors and scientists and other public health officials sought ways to protect the entire population by protecting the most vulnerable: the very young.

In some ways, those scientists and doctors and public health officials were almost too successful. We have forgotten how severe, painful, dangerous, and heartbreaking many of these diseases really are.

Vaccines have always generated dissenters as well as supporters. As the concept of vaccination spread through New England, many argued that to “sicken oneself as a way of preventing God from sickening you…[was] an act of supreme arrogance,” and considered a sin.  (See Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver by Arthur Allen.) Today, many believe that vaccines are physically dangerous, that there is no need to to vaccinate children from diseases that are sometimes mistakenly believed to have been eradicated. Yet we know that unvaccinated children are only as safe as the people around them, completely dependent on the immunity of others to protect them from harm.

As many news stories have demonstrated, in a world where people travel freely from city to city, state to state, country to country, it is very difficult to prevent exposure to some of these extremely deadly diseases. What’s more, there is a tremendous cost, physical and financial, to minimizing the impact these diseases have once they are reintroduced to populated areas.

My reaction is more visceral. When I hear of someone arguing against the benefits of vaccinations, I want to say, “Before you make up your mind, let me show you something.” Then I want to take them out to a local cemetery. “This,” I want to say, “This is why we have vaccines. Because I believe in my heart the O’Marras would have given anything to have protected their children from this. They would have given anything to have had children who lived full lives.”

I believe the O’Marras would have given anything for their children to have more than the occasional stranger standing over their graves, wondering what awful tragedy befell them in 1903.

The O’Marra family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery, south of Hartford, Kansas.

Author’s note: Two newspapers covered the O’Marra family tragedy: the Emporia Gazette and the Neosho Valley Times. The exact times of death vary slightly between the two papers; I opted to go with the times listed in the Neosho Valley Times, which was the more local paper for Hartford. O’Marra is occasionally spelled O’Mara, though all of the family markers at St. Mary’s Cemetery spell it “O’Marra.” All photos by Diana Staresinic-Deane.

02/22/2015 Update: I’ve often wondered what happened to the surviving O’Marra family members who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives. Margaret O’Marra Miller, a descendant, reached out to me to share their story. Read more about Lizzie, James, and Anna here.

How I developed a healthy fear of giant mutant chiggers

I. Can’t. Stop. Thinking about it. Every time I almost push it out of my mind, that tiny pin prick of an insect bite begins to pulse, the itch radiating away from the center, until all I can think about it scrubbing it with my fingernails for ten measly seconds of relief.

I. Hate. Chiggers.

Growing up in Kansas, I considered bug bites a rite of passage. Childhood summers were spent peddling bicycles and turning cartwheels in grass on legs lumpy with mosquito bites. I’ve been stung by wasps, bees, and have even been unfortunate enough to step on an ant hill barefooted. But the chiggers and all of the mythology surrounding them were always the most itchy and obnoxious and disgusting. I remember dousing bites with alcohol, fingernail polish, calamine lotion, and a bunch of other weird stuff that someone always swore worked.

Chiggers are also very rude about where they choose to attack on one’s person.

I can’t even describe the joy I felt when I discovered most of these creatures didn’t live in Southern California. Some say the air was too dry; some say it was the smog. I didn’t care. I was just happy to spend summer evenings riding the rides at Disneyland without smelling like Off! and still scratching under my socks.

Then I moved back to Kansas.

I had forgotten about the chiggers.

When I returned to the Midwest, I took a position handling communications for a university alumni and fundraising office. I had written a sweet little piece about one of the parks on campus for the alumni magazine. The park, named for the family who donated the land, escaped being turned into a parking lot because the donors were wise enough to stipulate conditions of use in the trust.

Pleased with the story, one of the descendants decided to pay a visit. Would I join her for a walk in the park?

Preferring a stroll through a woodsy, grassy park with some charming WPA architecture over sitting in my office, I readily agreed.

Later that night, I realized how much trouble I was in.

Chiggers are sneaky.

You don’t feel them crawling on you. You don’t feel them bite. The bites don’t inflame immediately. It’s not until after, when it’s much too late, that you realize what has happened.

“Oh, my God,” I said to my then-fiance-now-husband. “Look at me! LOOK. AT. ME.”

My then-fiance-now-husband stared at me in horror.

“Where did you go?” he asked, and prodded my leg. “Were you hiking through a farm field?”

“I was at the park! On campus!” I was standing in front of a full-length mirror, feeling sick. “Why on earth doesn’t the university treat the grass?”

I was looking at the most gruesome collection of chigger bites I had ever seen. The started at my toes and covered my entire body to my shirt collar.

Once I reached 300, I couldn’t remember which ones I had already counted. I didn’t have a few chigger bites. I had ALL the chigger bites. All the chiggers in all the land had come after me that afternoon.

I still remember lying in bed, shivering from the itching, wishing a nice coma would settle over me so I couldn’t feel them anymore. I broke out into a cold sweat. I started to cry.

By morning, those 300-plus chigger bites were completely inflamed. I was in trouble.

“You need to see a doctor,” my then-fiance-now-husband said.

The receptionist was not impressed when I called. “You want to come in to see a doctor because of some chigger bites? ” She said. “Honey, you’re in Kansas. You’re gonna get a lot of those.”

“You don’t understand,” I said, trying not to hold back a sob. “I have A LOT of them. And they. Are. BAD.”

She begrudgingly scheduled an appointment for me, and the doctor begrudgingly saw me, opening the folder with the appointment note paper clipped to it.

“So we’re seeing you for a…chigger bite?” he looked at me suspiciously.

“No,” I said, grinding my teeth in both annoyance and severe pain. Sweat was tracing my jaw line. I wanted to run outside and rub against a tree. “I’m here because I have HUNDREDS of chigger bites.”

“Let’s have a look,” he said, and I pulled back the gown.

His horror was deeply gratifying.

HA! I wanted to scream while jabbing my chigger-bitten finger in his chest. I. Told. You. So.

“My God,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Not words you want to hear from your doctor. But at least he was appreciating my situation.

“Where did you go? Were you at a lake? Or a farm?”

“I was on campus,” I said. “I was at work. This happened to me at work!”

Twenty minutes later, I was sent home with a prescription for steroids and instructions to stay home for a couple of days, and he no doubt went to his office to write my mutant chigger attack up for a medical journal.

I called work.

“You are not coming to work because of chigger bites?” my boss said dubiously.

“This is not a normal attack,” I said. “Do you want to talk to my doctor?”

The chigger that got me Tuesday when I mowed the grass was testing the waters. He thinks he won. He’ll brag to his friends. They’ll laugh their little buglaughs, sitting around at their little bug party drinking little bug drinks with little ladybug-print umbrellas in them.

But what he doesn’t know is that the SECOND I suspect chiggers might be around, I backstroke through enough DEET to take down a herd of elephants. I will stick their little heads on pikes if given the chance.

Look out, mutant chiggers. I’m on to you.

Flowers for my mother

My mother’s birthday is just a few days away.

The date, June 9, doesn’t always click for me. Even though I am really good with dates, I sometimes forget to associate June 9 with a woman who passed away a little over six years ago. I’ve even forgotten about Mother’s Day in recent years.

My mother and I weren’t very close. We were very different people. Her entire life was about homemaking and family; I was a bookish daydreamer who could keep myself entertained sitting on the porch swing for hours on end, just thinking. We grew more distant as multiple sclerosis ravaged my mother’s body. She had a stroke. She went blind. She was disappointed that I wanted to go away to college.

She didn’t want me to leave. I couldn’t stay.

We rarely spoke of about anything meaningful. She wasn’t interested in my work or my writing or my life. I wasn’t ready to marry and have children.

She began to sleep through my visits.

And then she died.

My family owned property at a little man-made lake in Miami County, Kansas. While my mother was still well, we made regular trips to Miami County from our home in Kansas City, Kansas. Back in those days, it seemed like a long way. Back in those days, it involved miles and miles of driving through farmland, farmland that is now heavily splattered with the detritus of suburbia.

Because we actually owned this little piece of not-lakeside property, one of our first chores each season was to clean up the land. One year, when I was young, my mother spotted these beautiful purple flowers growing alongside the road. She insisted my father dig some up to take with us.

The flowers were so different from anything we could buy at the local nursery: three perfect purple petals, connected in the center by yellow-tipped, fuzzy purple stamens. Flowers, just waiting for their turn to open, were draped in chains next to the ones already on display. I never new what they were called, but they spoke to me. They spoke to my mother.

Every year, like clockwork, those purple flowers bloomed next to the patio of our back porch. As the spring passed to summer, nature worked its way through the chain of blossoms. Then the leaves died back and prepared the groundwork for the next year.

I spent many evenings sitting on that porch swing, surrounded by giant grape leaves and those purple flowers. As I progressed through my teenage years, and my mother’s health began to noticeably decline, those purple flowers were steady and true.

My mother couldn’t see them anymore, but she knew they were there.

Almost nine years ago, my husband and I bought our first house. After living in apartments for several years, I was most excited about having my own dirt to play in.

Like my mother, I love flowers.

I toured every nursery and gardening department in our town, considering, debating, planning.

I saw a familiar leaf pattern. A uniform grass green, long and slender shoots coming straight out of the soil. I looked at the tag inside the box, at the picture of the pretty purple, three-pedaled flower. Spiderwart.

I had never even known what they were called. But when I held that seedling in my hands, I knew I had to have it.

Every year, at this time, the spiderwarts are at their peak. I am drawn to them. I photograph them. I marvel over how much they have spread since the previous year. I know I can count on them. Every year, when the first blooms in the chain emerge, I think about being a little girl at the lake with a mother who could still walk, about being a sullen teenager on the back porch with a mother who could not.

I think about this one thing my mother and I could agree was beautiful and good.

And I think about my mother.

Spiderwarts

My spiderwarts in bloom.