It’s a rainy, dark and cold Saturday evening in Vermont. I’ve built a fire in the wood stove and poured myself a glass of wine. I’m in a nostalgic mood.
I’ve been thinking about how, in two ways, I manage to bring a little bit of Kansas with me wherever I go: a desk, and day lilies.
Both of my parents and all three of my brothers were born in Kansas. I was born in Washington state, a year after my father was transferred from Boeing’s Wichita plant to Seattle. As a family, we visited Kansas several times when I was growing up. In my twenties, I joined my father and brother Tim for a visit in July, when our branch of the Wallick family held its annual reunion. I haven’t been back since. While I often joke that I’m grateful I wasn’t born and raised in Kansas, I do like maintaining some connection to the state that has been home to my part of the Wallick family tree since the 1870s.
I have a niece, Tracy, who I rarely get to see. She’s in the Navy, living in a distant state. We stay in touch sporadically through Facebook. Often, our exchanges involve sharing memories about my father.
Tracy met him a few times when she was just a child, when my brother would bring both of his daughters from California to Washington to visit family. I remember being present at a few of those gatherings, and it was clear to me then that my father was especially fond of Tracy. She was a child wise beyond her years, and my father never spoke down to a child. They connected and shared a mutual respect. In some ways, watching them, I was able to better understand why my father and I were so close, because I knew the way he interacted with Tracy was just as he had with me. Even though Tracy enlisted after my father passed, I know he would have been proud of her because he, too, was Navy. He was a Naval Aviator during WWII.
Recently, I shared with Tracy photos of an old desk I have. My father made it when he was in the eighth grade, as a school project. He was born in 1924, so the desk was likely made in 1937. The wood came from native black walnut trees growing on his family’s wheat farm in Independence, Kansas.
After sending the photos to Tracy, I looked at them more closely, and zooming in, for the first time noticed joints between sections on the edge of the desk’s surface. I stepped away from my computer and took a real look at my father’s handiwork, resting a few feet behind me. I had never looked at it so intimately, nor noticed those joints.
I’m gobsmacked by the quality of the desk’s construction. Dad was only thirteen years old when he made it! It’s clear he used a technique called “tongue and groove” to join pieces together. The only hardware of any kind is the handle on the drawer. Otherwise, the desk and its shelves and drawer are held together by the tightly-fitting pieces of wood, tongue nestled into groove. Despite having this desk in my possession since the 1980s – rescued when his new wife was going to toss it out if someone didn’t claim it – I never realized that the top surface is composed of five separate pieces. They are so neatly connected, seams virtually invisible, that I always assumed it was a single piece of lumber.
I see patience, dedication and true skill in this desk. I’m reminded of something one of my father’s colleagues, Brien Wygle, said about him when I interviewed him for my book: “He had great hands.” What Brien meant was that my father had a light and instinctive touch when test flying airplanes. The desk, to me, is proof that he developed that skill at an early age.
I kept the desk in my home in Washington, then moved it with me to Idaho. This summer, it made the journey from Idaho to Vermont, and unlike most everything else I packed into a moving container, it arrived unscathed.
The only reason I know the desk’s provenance is because I asked Dad about it when I rescued it. And I’m so glad I did rescue it. Today, it’s one of the few tangible things I have that he also touched. I smile every time I see it, thinking of the hours he spent cutting and shaping the pieces, putting them together to form the whole. I love that it includes shelves for books. That he kept the desk with him after marrying my mother, moving his growing family from Kansas to Washington, throughout my childhood and even after my parents divorced, tells me he valued it as much as I do.
Knowing that he made it from native black walnut trees growing on the Kansas homestead, and admiring the beautiful, dark grain of the wood, I wanted to know more about the tree itself. (If you’ve been following my blog for any time at all, you’re not surprised.)
Juglans nigra, or Black walnut, is native to the eastern one-half of Kansas. It reaches a height of 70 to 90 feet and spread of 30 to 40 feet. This tree grows about 2 to 3 feet per year.
Uses: Timber – Walnut is the premier timber species in eastern Kansas. The wood is used in making high quality furniture, cabinets, veneers, paneling, gun stocks and novelties. Human Food – The nut meat has a delicious flavor and is highly prized for its food value. It is used in candies, ice cream, cookies, etc. Wildlife – The nut serves as an important food source for squirrels as well as other wildlife species.Kansas Forests
And from The Old Farmer’s Almanac,
The easily worked, close-grained wood of the black walnut has long been prized by furniture- and cabinetmakers for its attractive color and exceptional durability. Its logs are in such demand for veneer that “walnut rustlers” have made off with trees in the dead of night and even used helicopters in their operations.Almanac
Native Americans had many uses for black walnut trees and their nuts.
Food: While many American Indian tribes made use of walnuts, the Apaches were particularly fond of the nuts. They ate nut meats fresh and raw, or added them to a variety of culinary dishes. Nuts were often ground and added to pemmican, soups and baked goods. Oily mashed nuts were also used to flavor beverages, particularly in the southwest where they were mixed with agave pulp. Medicine: Black walnuts were also used to treat a number of ailments in both humans and animals. Juice made from green walnut husks was used to clean maggots out of wounds and to rid dogs of intestinal worms. The White Mountain Apache tribe rubbed their horses and livestock with a concoction of husk juice to protect the animals from parasites. A tonic made from walnut bark was also used to treat aches and pains associated with rheumatism. Other uses: Walnut husks contain a potent, dark brown dye. Aging men often used this dye to return their graying hair to a darker color.American Indian Health and Diet Project
Dad’s desk shows its age and mileage. Its surface has many scratches. Yet it has withstood all the traumas inflicted upon it. Strong, sturdy, steadfast and true…it possesses the traits I attribute to my father.
After he retired, my father made occasional trips to Kansas for family and high school reunions. He usually flew himself there and back in a Cessna. This made it easy to transport lightweight items. On one such visit, in the mid-80s, he dug up some of the day lily bulbs growing near the dilapidated house he grew up in on the family homestead. He then planted them at the home he’d built in Washington state.
Soon after I moved to Idaho, when visiting Dad at his house one day, he dug up some of the day lily bulbs and put them in a box for me to take to Idaho. I planted them there, and they thrived. Every year when they bloomed, I thought of my father. After he passed in 2009, they became especially dear to me.
When I sold my Idaho house earlier this year, I had a moment of panic: the day lilies! I would be moving in July, just as they were blossoming. Should I dig the bulbs up then to take with me to Vermont? I couldn’t pack them with the rest of my household goods in the moving container (no live plants allowed), but I could take them in my car, along with five small houseplants. I was worried that it was a poor time to try to transplant them.
The couple who purchased my Idaho house, Randy and Becky, came to my rescue. Before I left, they agreed to wait until fall to dig up some of the day lily bulbs and mail them to me in Vermont. They also agreed to include seeds from my beloved lupine and columbine wildflowers.
True to their word, a package from Randy and Becky arrived in late October. Inside I found several day lily bulbs, and two separate envelopes with lupine and columbine seeds.
A few days later, I put most of the day lily bulbs in the ground, next to my Vermont house. I initially fretted over where to plant them, but finally scolded myself for overthinking it. “Just get them in the ground this fall; they can always be moved later,” I told myself. They’re hardy. I already knew that day lilies like Vermont; I noticed them blooming in yards everywhere, once I arrived. The lupine and columbine seeds can wait until spring before planting. I’m still figuring out where they might do best.
Kansas – in the form of a native black walnut desk and day lilies – has arrived in Vermont! It feels right to keep that heritage close.
Fingers crossed my Kansas day lilies thrive in Vermont, as they have in Washington and Idaho.
The desk? It’s so well constructed, I have no doubt it will outlive me, no matter where I reside. Oh, the stories it could tell….
Feature image: my father’s Kansas day lilies blooming in my Idaho yard, 2020.