The pheasant opener started for my big brother and me at mid-morning last Saturday in a cemetery where all four of our grandparents rest.
The day was fine — mostly sunny, mostly mild and slightly breezy. It was the kind of day that makes grown-up South Dakota kids nostalgic for home, the kind of day many of us picture when someone says October on the Plains.
From the modest road-side cemetery a mile north of Reliance, Medicine Butte rises majestically in the distance. A constant on the landscape of my childhood, Medicine Butte is as familiar and reassuring as the family names etched into the stone markers laid out in careful rows in the cemetery’s drying grass. My cousin Red, gone too suddenly and too soon, for years made it part of his life’s work to keep the cemetery in shape. He understood its importance not only in the lives of the people who live in the rural community of eastern Lyman County but also in the lives of the ones who moved away and who count on this place to anchor them to their past.
A few miles east of the cemetery, over a series of low hills and shallow draws, lies the farm. It isn’t much, only a small piece of prairie that no longer even belongs to my family. Yet that collection of fields and pastures and stock dams and tree belts shaped me, my parents and my brothers and sisters in ways none of us realized until we had grown older and moved to live in other places, places that weren’t “the farm.’’
Brother Jim and I began our day among ancestors and memories. He stopped in Chamberlain to pick me up on his way to the annual pheasant opener west of Reliance. As I crawled into the car, he said, “I thought we might swing by the cemetery first.’’ Well, of course. For Jim, and for me, any trip to the old home country includes at least a brief visit to the cemetery. There we can consider our roots among the resting places of grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, young and old, and a collection of other Reliance-area men and women who were always around when we were growing up. Walking around the cemetery and seeing those familiar family names brings memories of simple childhood moments, moments as insignificant as idling among the fan belts and leather gloves in the co-op while the people who now lie in the cemetery traded gossip and baseball scores and rain-gauge readings with my dad.
From the cemetery, we backtracked into town to pay a visit to Ruth Ann, Red’s widow. She had coffee and fresh caramel rolls. Excellent, I said. It’s a simple recipe, she said in the way of gracious people. Our younger brother, Kevin, joined us there, along with a couple of Ruth Ann’s daughters and a few grandkids. In a loud, laughter-punctuated conversation, we caught up on some of the latest McManus family happenings.
Then it was on to the McManus farm west of town. There we connected with a couple of other members of our generation of the family, along with several members of the next generation and the one after that. Again the conversation was loud and filled with laughter. Again the table was laden with simple but tasty and filling food, with an array of desserts that would shame the offering in a big-city restaurant. “This has been a great pheasant hunt,’’ I said at one point.
Finally, well after the legal start of shooting had come and gone, the McManus group gathered shotguns and headed for pickups. Jim grinned and said, “I think we’ll pass on the hunt and take some back roads home.’’ We did, too, driving between fields we’d once hayed or harvested and past farms where we’d helped with branding and barn roofing. I was content to simply sit back and remember as the old places slipped by.
I don’t have a hunting license. It’s been years since I even owned a shotgun. Even so, last Saturday I enjoyed a pheasant hunt to match any I’ve ever had in my life.