Marie Kulisich Webb
April 28, 1930-December 19, 2015
If you came calling in Govert recently, you know Marie Kulisich joined her friend Lorraine Jensen, a voice in the wind blowing through the prairie grass ... returning to the weathered planks of the small house that saw her birth 85 years ago, returning to the prairie she wandered barefoot as a girl, an eyewitness to the history of Govert Township in Harding County, South Dakota.
Marie's roots meander deep in her family's history, as deep as the roots of the grass blowing on the prairie, that dense tangle gripping the soil in defense of the legendary Harding County wind.* Her roots claim Marie as a daughter of the prairie, but her roots also frame her as the daughter of immigrants. Marie's parents were born a world away from the Kulisich homestead in Govert, South Dakota.
Miko Kulisich chose America in 1903, and Nike Miljas set out on the same ocean journey in 1914, as "Austrians" from that part of the world today again called Croatia. In South Dakota, Mitchell and Nikla both filed for homestead and naturalization papers in quick succession, so relinquishing the label of "Austrian" and becoming "Yugoslavian" after World War I had less meaning for them than for their families who remained in Dubrovnik. Neither Mitch nor Nikla knew a free and independent Croatia, not when they were born, not at any time before their deaths. Freedom was what they found in South Dakota, what they gave to their children.
Nevertheless, with Croatia in her blood, Marie never tired of pictures of rocky ridges leaning into the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea, nor did she tire of baking her mother's strudio or propping up Croatian cookbooks for inspiration. Marie marveled over images of large rosemary bushes growing wild, but the Croatian influence did not end in the kitchen or along the shore where the sea began.
Mitch and Nikla were Catholic, as was everyone they knew in their homeland. Nikla's Catholic traditions were easily transported with the few possessions she carried aboard the four funnel ocean liner called the SS France, a ship hauntingly reminiscent of the SS Titanic. Two years later on July 8, 1916, Mitch and Nikla were married at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Lead, South Dakota. Nikla became the custodian of the faith on the Kulisich homestead, as Mitch preferred shepherding his sheep to praying the Rosary. Without even a circuit priest to rely on, Nikla did what she could to assure her children would never lose the reminder of their Catholic origins, no matter where their faith would take them as adults.
Mass was the order of the day when the Kulisich family traveled to Lead, to visit family and friends in Slav Alley. Nikla's children were baptized in the same church where she and Mitch were married. Nikla saw to that. Nikla also assured her children were named according to Catholic tradition.
The uninitiated might dismiss the names Nikla chose for her children as simple, old-fashioned, unimaginative: Ann, John, Tony, Marie. Not only were these names not simple, they were complicated with meaning. All of Nikla's children had saints' names. Nikla saw to that. Nikla made sure each of her children was branded with a name carrying expectation, giving each child a personal role model. In her home, Nikla raised children named for Saint Ann, Saint John, Saint Anthony, and Mary the Holy Mother.
Catholics have a strong devotion to the Holy Mother, so naming a daughter Mary, Marie, or Marija is no middling matter. Bearing the name of Marie would be both blessing and increased obligation, as the Holy Mother loves with a perfect love. For those who have lost their own mothers, and those who have been unloved, under-loved, or loved imperfectly, the Holy Mother becomes just that, the perfect mother. How could this little girl, born to the prairie, be expected to live up to the model set by the Holy Mother?
Nikla was at her strongest, at her very best, when protecting her children. Nikla oriented her daughter, teaching Marie the compassionate arts by example. In her turn, young Marie practiced tenderness on the bum lambs, babies themselves abandoned by their mothers. And she befriended the dogs and the cats, the saddle horse, the goats, especially the goat Marie described in later years as "that silly goat who ran with the band of sheep". Nikla's lessons were reinforced by young Marie's playmates, the West sisters, and their kind and loving mother.
Marie and "that silly goat"
Marie was not one to draw attention to herself. She was not loud, not flashy. She was not proud, not demanding. Marie tended to what needed tending, wasting nothing ... nothing, including time. She tended to her husband and sons, her home, the family business. And when that was done, Marie tended to her muse - orange paint transformed into graceful loping poppies on china, paint dabbed on porcelain breathing life into dolls with wistful eyes and tentative smiles. Marie pieced colorful fabrics into whimsical figures on quilts, embroidered flowers on scraps of fabric, fired glass capturing bubbles perfectly adrift. Marie's art also surprised and pleased in the prose poems she wrote for her family. She created all these out of love, adding beauty to the lives of the people she loved.
Marie's family grew beyond her sons and daughters-in-law, beyond her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, extended further, reaching out to friends who needed her encouragement. Then followed the years when her excursions from the cottage by the pond became increasingly infrequent. But even then Marie had a mission and a ministry ... Marie had a telephone ministry and a ministry of prayer until the day she breathed her last breath. Marie listened. Marie observed. Marie comforted. She was a master of the compassionate arts. Her mother would be proud.
How did this little girl, born to the prairie, measure up to the model set by the Holy Mother? After a lifetime of meeting each day with the desire to serve, what better legacy can Marie Kulisich Webb leave than "She Loved Well".
Morning star, so strong and bright,
Gentle Mother, peaceful dove,
Teach us wisdom, teach us love.
Good night, my dear friend, good night.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
*The root system of prairie grass furls, and loops, and twists deep below the surface of the soil to depths reaching 10 feet and more, creating a thick mat of root-snarled soil. These naturally occurring grasses are perfectly suited to prairie land subject to drought, like Harding County - at these depths the roots tap sufficient moisture to maintain life and growth. Although plowing an acreage of land was required for ownership under the Homestead Act, widespread crop systems were not successful in the area of Govert Township, and those who remained on the land reverted to grazing cattle and sheep, largely returning cultivated land to natural prairie by the middle of the 1930's.
[Written with appreciation for the friendship of Marie Kulisich Webb, for her memories, and her companionship as I recorded the history of Govert, South Dakota. I delight in the choice Marie made to become computer literate. Without our computers, exchanging information would have been slower, as would building the foundation for our friendship. Without her taking this leap in her 70s, my finding Marie would have been harder, although I'm convinced we would have met. A year after we first made contact, Skip Wiest, whose sister married Marie's son, David, wrote to tell me that I needed to talk to his sister's mother-in-law. Skip was another who loved the history of Harding County and he is gone now, too. Those historians who remain continue to preserve their history in memory of those who have passed, so as to give another generation the strength of deeper roots. And an equal desire to continue where we left off.]
[Photo credit Marie Kulisich Webb. Used with permission]