Have you ever paused to listen to the voices in the wind stirring the prairie grass? The wind remembers the voices, joyful voices, sorrowful voices. Listen to the wind blowing through the prairie grass on a summer day and you will hear the lilt of the children of the prairie.
The wind's testimony cautions us to remember every child of the prairie. Lorraine Jensen Carlson, was a child of the prairie who, as an adult, became a keeper of the history of Sorum, South Dakota. Sorum was the small town in Perkins County hosting Thrall Academy. When I wrote about Thrall Academy in August and revisited Thrall Academy in September, I couldn't consult with Lorraine. Lorraine Jensen Carlson died two months before I started writing that story.
What I learned about Lorraine, and from Lorraine, since 2010 gives me cause to be grateful for Ma Bell and her successors and competitors. Without the telephone, I would have missed meeting Lorraine Jensen, the child of the prairie, through her stories, and Lorraine Carlson, the woman, a prairie historian who continued to have the strongest of connections with the North Country. Lorraine's parents were the proprietors of the country store in Sorum, just as Govert and Emma Van der Boom tended the country store in Govert. Sorum fit the template of all small country towns west of the Missouri River in South Dakota. The experience of life in Govert would be similar to the experience of life in Sorum 28 miles distant, or any other small West River town, even giving full credit to the effect of distinctive personalities. Lorraine remembered, and she shared this experience with me, connected as we were by telephone.
Lorraine remembered even more than this. Without the telephone,
and without Lorraine on the other end of the line, the true identity of the last
resident of Govert, South Dakota, may have remained hidden. I would still be wondering "Who in the
world was Smokey Joe?" In my South Dakota travels, by car, by phone, by
email and by the US Postal System, I asked everyone who would listen,
"Who was Smokey Joe?" No one knew him by any other name and never questioned
whether Joe had a family or even a family name. "He's just
Smokey Joe", they said. Smokey Joe is no longer lost, his identity is no longer a mystery. Smokey Joe's story was a crossover story from Sorum to
And, without the telephone, I would have missed the joy of getting to know Lorraine, just a little bit.
Lorraine wrote her own obituary, so I've been told. I believe that report because any other author would have shared more of this wonderful woman than Lorraine did herself. Characteristic of Lorraine, her obituary was low key, even modest. After the necessary introduction detailing that Lorraine died in her own home 8 July 2013 at the age of 82 from complications of cancer, these are the words that appeared:
"[Lorraine Jensen Carlson] was born in Hettinger, ND, to Otto and Beatrice Jensen of Sorum, SD. She and Dewayne Carlson of Bison, SD, were married July 2, , in Rapid City. She is survived by a son, Wade Carlson (special friend, Margaret Joseph); a granddaughter, Mackenzie (Jason) Grimes; her two beloved great-granddaughters; nieces; and a nephew. She was preceded in death by her husband; an infant son, Craig; a sister, Joan Meyer; a brother, Reed Jensen; and her parents. At her request there will be no funeral services. Celebrate her life by doing a random act of kindness. Love you forever. [signed] Mom."
"Why so sparse, Lorraine?" I wanted to ask her. But I already knew what her response would have been: "I didn't want anyone to fuss. I lived my life quietly, and I see no reason to change that now." Unassuming prairie folks. You can take the girl out of the prairie, but you can't take the prairie out of the girl.
I hope you are the reader who knew Lorraine best. If you are, and if you feel I'm not the best person to create a memory of Lorraine, you're right. I've never chatted with Lorraine over a cup of coffee. I've never shared a South Dakota evening with her raking through the old times. I never drove Lorraine to the medical center and I never held her hand while she endured round after round of cancer treatment. Lorraine and I could not boast a friendship born of shared experience. However, Lorraine and I did share something quite real, that being our appreciation for the small prairie towns of times past. One thing I can do for Lorraine is remember her voice in the wind. Lorraine was born a child of the prairie, and the spirit of that child running through the prairie grass never left her.
Lorraine was kind, thoughtful and, with the respect due the word as was given in her day, Lorraine was a lady. She communicated a sense of grace and graciousness, even on the telephone. Her mind was keen and her disposition patient, polite and friendly. She had determination and perseverance, and even cheer, in the face of what the rest of us would consider disaster. When cancer can’t be cured, you have few choices, and when Lorraine made her choice, she set the standard for acceptance, endurance, and love. Lorraine was a women other women could respect.
Next week I'll tell you about life on the prairie as Lorraine experienced growing up in Sorum, South Dakota. But first, let's take a look at Lorraine's last request that we celebrate her life by doing a random act of kindness. Her sparse obituary required few words and occupies only a few lines of newspaper print, little more than her birth in 1931 and her death in 2013 separated by a dash. The space represented by the dash tells you how this friend, neighbor, daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and aunt lived. Lorraine says no funeral, no flowers, no contributions to a favorite charity. "Celebrate [my] life by doing a random act of kindness. Love you forever. [signed] Mom." How much tenderness of heart does it require to make this last request and leave this public bequest of love? How many random acts of kindness do you think God credits Lorraine in her 82 years? When she was growing up, random acts of kindness were simply referred to as neighbors helping neighbors. This was the code of the prairie.
Maybe, having met Lorraine today, and learning more about her story next week, you will contribute a random act of kindness to her memory, too. All it takes is being kind to your neighbor, a long-time neighbor you know, or a person who becomes a neighbor by virtue of temporary proximity. Practice this for as long as Lorraine did and maybe you can change the world. Did Lorraine change the world? Don't short-change the possibility of a woman living a quiet life having this power. I believe Lorraine did change the world.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass ... and to the voices in the wind. Kate
[Written with gratitude to Lorraine Jensen Carlson for sharing her memories, and to Marie Kulisich for introducing us.]