When Mary Schroeder’s first letter arrived, I reacted with the skepticism years of newspaper work delivers.
The handwritten envelope addressed to me at The Richmond News was a red flag, as were the underlined word “personal” and the sheer heft of what was inside. Based on experience, I could only guess the five-page letter was one of two things – a political rant or a religious diatribe – neither of which is typically newspaper material.
But from the first sentence, I knew Mary’s letter was different.
“Please excuse the fancy stationery and my handwriting, but my typewriter recently died,” she said. “I wanted to write this before the impulse deserts me.”
Her stationery was lined loose-leaf paper, her handwriting the kind grandmothers use in letters and postcards to their children – a sweeping term that can encompass everything from actual children to grandchildren, to anyone who happens by, to anybody who reads it.
The penmanship wasn’t ornate, but it certainly was beautifully neat and easy to read, a quality my father would’ve described as “well-formed.”
So why did Mary write?
“I’ve read – and enjoyed so many of your articles in the 816 section of the KC Star about Ray County – its people and back roads,” she said. “I decided I should write and let you know.”
“I grew up on some of those back roads about which you write. I know where Coyote Bend is located and the photo in the April 8 issue (of our Richmond paper) of a tractor going up a hill on Southpoint Drive took me on a real trip down memory lane.”
Coyote Bend is a section of highway I’d named after seeing a coyote along the road and the title of a song I’d written.
Gone from the area for more than 60 years, Mary could look at a photo and, in the trees and sweep of the hill, not only identify the location but have it open a stream of childhood memories.
A mile or so from that hill, where Southpoint runs by Triple Springs Road, is a farmhouse where Mary spent a good part of her childhood. Much of the story she tells in the first letter I received describes the route she took on foot to one of the one-room schoolhouses where she was a student before Richmond High School.
“I attended the Lillard School, which was located on the next main road to the north,” she said. “Since following the road would have taken too long to walk (roads often followed the rectangular outline of tracts of farm land, she notes), the solution was to go to school walking cross-country. My daily trip took me through the barn lot, through the pasture along a high creek bed to a path the cows had made to the creek, across the creek on some carefully placed rocks, across a neighbor’s pasture to another corner in the road.”
Southpoint Drive, the road I’d photographed and she’d identified, is a scenic route between (roughly) Orrick and Richmond that follows the crest of several hills and is one I’ve driven often. I’d also been down Triple Springs, a hilly, winding gravel road, more than once in my exploring.
To get a letter from someone who’d grown up there and enjoyed the same things I’ve enjoyed 60 years later was quite a treat.
I mailed Mary a computer-generated letter of my own (she doesn’t have email and I didn’t want to subject her to my insane scrawl) and asked two things: Could I use some of what she’d written in the newspaper and would she like to come up sometime, meet in person and show me around?
The answers were yes … and yes.
After another letter or two and a phone call, Mary, soon to be 84, met me at what country folk would call her home place. She’d made the trip with Al, her husband, and Mike, their son, who drove and cleared brush while Mary led Al and me on a rolling car tour.
She uses a cane now and Al, a three-time cancer survivor who’s prone to falls, relies on a walker to get around. Whatever their physical limitations, both were mentally sharp enough to recall details of their 60-plus years together, including the day they met at a square dance across the river in Lexington.
Mary, a high school senior, wasn’t excited about leaving the house that night, but her parents urged her to go and meet some people.
“I had a book I wanted to read, but they wanted me to go,” she said, laughing at the memory. “So that’s who I should blame for all this.”
It was April. By November, she and Al Schroeder were married.
“Fell in love with her the first time I met her,” said Al, who was a linotype operator at the time and later worked for years as a warehouseman.
The couple lived in Lexington two years before relocating to the city – a home with a Kansas City address near Claycomo. They’ve lived in that house ever since.
It was a big change from her pastoral country childhood, Mary said, but she brought what she knew with her.
“I had roamed over those hills, explored and waded the creeks, hunted mushrooms, earned spending money by picking and selling wild blackberries, and discovered where the best wildflowers grew – until I left for marriage, business college and a secretarial job in Kansas City,” she said in her grade-A penmanship.
It’s those memories, engrained so deeply and still clear today, that helped a farm girl transition to life in the city. They were a solid foundation for the person she is, a woman who remembers walking to school, crossing creeks on “carefully placed rocks” and walking down and then back up a long dirt lane to fetch the mail for her mother.
“I guess I brought the country with me,” she said of her life in the city.
And I was glad to remind her of things she knew so well, and so glad she wrote.
You can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.