Not all that far down the road stood a country school where the kids went for a few years, the Protestant kids. That word was her choice, not mine, but undoubtedly accurate because her family lived in a place whose vast majority attended mass and had their kids enrolled in the Catholic school in the middle of town.
Once the country school shut down and the Harnacks too went to town, their only classmates (no more than ten) were Protestant, so she called the public school, in essence, "the Protestant school." Her family was Protestant. They were Lutheran, a word she never used even though I would have thought it would be more to the point. No, the word was "Protestant" all the way through the story.
I've got no problem with Catholic or Lutheran clannishness. Mine is a tribe who lived in the Netherlands in clusters, came to America in clusters, and stayed in those clusters for decades. I went to a Christian school where all the kids were Dutch American, even though, by some quirk of history, we came from two different churches, our sole bit of diversity.
Whether we've ever been "one nation, under God, indivisible" is something I'll let you decide. Talk amongst yourselves.
She wasn't dissing Roman Catholics, or the kids who went to school at St. Mary's. She was simply telling the story as she knew it.
"You can find his grave right along the road," she told me. "You don't even have to get out of the car. It's beside a big pink one that says Harnack, Grandpa's. His stone is right there too."
She couldn't help giggle at that because it seemed so awkward. But then her cousin/brother wanted half his "cremains" on the family site, even though he'd lived in New York for most of his life. He wanted half of that urn-full buried in good, black Iowa soil, the other half somewhere back east. To each his own.
We drove out to the farm later because I wanted to see the place he describes so richly in his books. The old wrap-around porch is immediately recognizable, and a number of misshapen outbuildings still carry the handiwork of the old man beneath that pink granite, a prodigious old-country builder. A fancy cupola crowns what's left of an old barn that, or so I read, has no nails.
A pickup drove on the yard when we were gawking. I simply assumed it was Curtis Harnack's well, nephew (it's complicated). Wasn't. Was just a neighbor who probably wondered who on earth was lolly-gagging in the place down the road. He rolled down his window.
"You're Scott, I bet," I said.
He shook his head. Didn't seem menacing. I didn't think we were in trouble.
I told him we were just stopping to look at the house that a writer named Curtis Harnack wrote about in a couple of his books.
"Sure," he said. "Curtis Harnack. I heard of him."
"Listen," I said, "you know where the Harnack plot is in the cemetery in town? I'd like to find it."
He hung one elbow out of the window of the pick-up. "They're Protestant, aren't they? I don't know where exactly, but you got to to the south end--southeast."
"The Protestant section?" I said.
"Up the road on the east to the older part--that's the Protestant section." He didn't blush. It was plain-and-simple fact.
So that's where went, and that where we found that big Harnack stone--the far southeast corner of the Remsen cemetery. Right there where his sister/cousin told us it would be.
In the Protestant section.
Today, in Remsen or Alton or any of a thousand hamlets, it hard to imagine a time when people assumed they'd be buried only with their own kind, or that such a desire might eventually come to mean that outsiders need not apply for available plots.
I'm not playing holier-than-thou. I'm a part of my own tribe. I'm not accusing anyone of anything. But such deeply set divisions were matter-of-fact, and it's good to remember occasionally that it's simply how people lived, my people too. Separate but equal, and not always equal either.
It's not difficult to understand why some people, people of color especially, get anxious when Donald Trump wants to "Make America Great Again." They can't help wonder, as all of us should, exactly what he means. To what era exactly are we returning?
The Remsen cemetery is big for a small town, but going south along its eastern edge it's not hard to notice that the stones no longer carry a crucifix. You know when you're moving into the Protestant section.
Those divisions aren't gone, but everyone knows, thank goodness, that they aren't what they used to be back in the days when America was great.