Thomas McKenzie
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Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

Bury My Heart in Carson County

The McKenzie family plot in Carson County TX

May 24th, 2012.  Part One.

I relived 20 years of my life on May 24th.  That’s too long for one blog post.  This is part one.

I woke up in a hotel off Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas.  I called Laura, ate the breakfast, and then texted Robert Pelfrey.  Robert is my best friend from high school and was the best man at my wedding.  His mother, father, and brother all live in Amarillo.  Robert is a Methodist minister working at a church in Midland, 4+ hours from Amarillo.  When I told him that I would be in town on the 24th, he responded that he would drive up.  We could spend time together and sleep at his mother’s house.  Sleeping at Betty’s house was something I have done a great deal of, practically every weekend in high school. 

Since I had arrived early to Amarillo, Robert was still on his way up.  He told me not to begin my adventures without him.  I assured him I would not.  But seeing that I had a couple of hours alone, I decided to take the 30+ mile trip to Panhandle. 

Panhandle is a tiny town, the county seat of Carson County.  My dad, Robert McKenzie, had grown up on a wheat farm near there.  His sister and several other family members had lived in Panhandle when I was a boy.  My dad was born in 1919, his parents were some of the early white settlers of Carson County, having come in the early 20th century land rush.  For those of you fortunate enough to have read “The Worst Hard Time,” they were those people.  My family rode out the Dust Bowl.

I drove straight to the Carson County Square House Museum.  It is a lovely place that tells the story of the area.  My dad was very involved with the museum.  There is a large, long room there dedicated to the history and free spirit of the settlers called “Freedom Hall.”  Robert McKenzie designed, built and filled practically every one of its displays.

Walking through Freedom Hall felt less like walking through the history of Panhandle and more like walking through my own childhood.  All those displays, those paintings, those artifacts, those pictures, even the lettering of the words, all of it came from my father’s hands.  I remembered so many of those objects being on our kitchen table or in his studio.  I remember him reading the history blurbs to me, and showing me how to place each letter individually on the displays.  I remember his agonizing about the historical accuracy of this headdress or that arrow.  Being in that room was like being 10 years old again.

I looked around at other parts of the museum.  They have a replica “dug out,” the kind of home that my grandparents built when they first arrived, the kind of shelter that a beetle would find comforting.  They have a red caboose from an old train.  My sister and I used to play in that caboose as my dad worked in the museum.  They have a large, newer hall where my dad displayed two or three of his art shows much later in life.  They have a painting of Jo Randle, the woman who ran the museum.  She was a dear friend of my father’s, though she scared the heck out of me as a boy.  My godfather, Delmas Howe, painted her portrait. 

I met a woman who said she has worked at the museum for 13 years.  She remembered my father.  She asked if I was the person he had made those chasubles for (my dad created some wonderful religious vestments).  It told her I was not, as I was not ordained when he made most of them, but that he had given me quite a few.  She gave me a historical map of the Texas Panhandle.  I asked her if she could direct me to the cemetery. 

I drove out to the Panhandle Cemetery.  It wasn’t on Google Maps, but I did put it on FourSquare while I was there.  You’re welcome. 

The cemetery sits on the edge of town, down a residential road of small homes.  Beyond it the wheat fields stretch out to the clear, flat horizon.  There is a small chapel in the cemetery.  Near the chapel, mere steps away, is the oldest section, the section used by the settlers.  That is where you will find the McKenzie plot. 

There are two tombstones in the McKenzie plot, but one of them marks two graves.  A rectangle of bricks marks the boundaries of the plot.  There is room for two more graves.  The double tombstone belongs to Thomas Horatio and Anna Haigh McKenzie, my father’s parents.  Their tombs are marked by the dates of their lives, and by the symbols of the Masonic Lodge and Order of the Eastern Star (I still have Thomas’ 32nd degree Mason ring).  The other stone marks the final resting place of Elizabeth McKenzie.  She was my dad’s favorite sister.  He described her as a carefree, gracious and loving woman.  She had a failed marriage and died in her forties of cancer. 

The other two plots belong to my aunt Frances and to my father.  Frances is buried in the Panhandle Cemetery, but several plots away.  She married into the Apel clan and lies next to her husband, Johnny.  My dad’s ashes reside in St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Well, most of them do. 

My parents moved from Texas when I was a senior in college.  My mom began work in Ohio, where she is a professor at Xavier University.  While Robert’s body left Texas, his heart never did.  He still owned land in Texas, his bank was in Texas, he had a Texas driver’s license, he was still a member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Canyon, Texas.  When he died nearly four years ago, I went through his papers and found that he was still registered to vote in Randall County, Texas.  He had been voting absentee in local elections for 17 years. 

I respect my mother’s decision to keep my dad’s remains close to her, in the columbarium at the church they were part of for many years.  If it was my spouse, I would do the same.  But, as his son, I also felt that Robert would want to rest in Texas.  Do you know the book “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee”?  I read that book in college, and I know the Indigo Girls song of the same name.  The title of the book inspired me. 

Before my dad was laid to rest, I asked for a portion of his ashes.  Three years ago, while I was in New Mexico on my way from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert to the Albuquerque airport, I made a not-so-short detour to Panhandle.  On a clear day, underneath the vast blue sky, I scattered Robert McKenzie’s ashes on his family plot, next to his parents and beloved sister.  I buried his heart on the High Plains of West Texas.  I have never wept so much as I did on that day, the day I truly felt like I told him goodbye.  Goodbye for now.

Visiting Panhandle was visiting my father.  I walked again where he walked.  I saw again his legacy, his art, his personality.  I said a prayer at his grave.  I touched my grief again.  Not nearly as strong as it was three years ago, but it is always present. 

I got back in my car and drove to Amarillo, where I would meet my dear friend, also named Robert, at the Barnes & Noble near the mall.  From there, my journey backward continued...

The Panhandle Cemetery Chapel