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Ode: A flower child from small-town Iowa finds her way

Susan Leonard
Ally Karsyn

For much of my life, I have felt that I didn’t quite belong.

My parents were busy farming so I was left to entertain myself at a young age. I wandered the cornfields, the tall grass pastures and riverbanks alone for hours. (You could do that as a little kid back then.) This was probably the genesis of my independent spirit.

Before I was old enough to start kindergarten, I watched daytime TV like “Loretta Young Theatre” and learned of places where people dressed up for dinner at 8, instead of sitting around the kitchen table in dirty work clothes for supper at 6. I made plans to run away to New York City, the most cosmopolitan place I could imagine, but I knew I’d be caught and sent back home.

I entered my teen years in the late ‘60s so think Civil Rights, Vietnam War, movies like “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate,” and an exciting new song that I adopted as my personal anthem: “Born to be Wild!”

When we’d get together with my aunts and uncles at my grandma’s house, I’d sit in the living room with the men while they debated the relative merits of Ford vs. Chevy, John Deere vs. Allis Chalmers and the outlook for the grain crop. Sometimes they would tiptoe into discussions of current events.

Their take on the Civil Rights movement was that “the Negroes” were to blame for all the violence in the cities and King was the one who stirred them up and encouraged them to riot. I tried to set them straight and questioned their proclaimed Christianity: doesn’t the Bible say we are all God’s children and we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? But it was naive to think that their concept of “neighbor” could stretch to include inner city black folks.

I was excited when I heard that comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory, was going to speak at Westmar College, but my dad wouldn’t allow me to go. In fact, he told me that, when I turned 18, I would vote the way he told me to.

I felt alone in mourning the deaths of Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy and the “Four Dead in Ohio” Kent State victims. No one I knew shared my despair at the “streets running with blood” during the ‘68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That part of the revolution was televised.

At Le Mars Community High School, I was one of the few students who vocally opposed the Vietnam War. The draft ended before it affected the boys in my grade so my friends didn’t see much reason to be concerned. When we picked the class slogan and flower for graduation, I proposed a quote from T. S. Eliot and the dandelion—to me a symbol of anti-consumerism, anti-establishment, anti-conformity.

I was out-voted. They chose some forgettable version of “Go Team Go” and the prosaic red rose. I did pin a dandelion to my graduation gown and gave the peace sign as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, the most obvious protest that I thought I could get away with.

I finally found a small group of like-minded people at Iowa State University, but we were definitely the minority on campus. We demonstrated against the war and followed the Watergate proceedings. We listened to Hendrix, the Stones, Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye. We smoked pot and ate a lot of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

I joined the feminist movement, eschewing make-up and bras. During the warmer months, I didn’t even wear shoes. Studying anthropology quickly made me question my religious beliefs, at least the part that says only Christians can enter heaven.

It was a tumultuous time for the country—and for me. My family didn’t understand the person I was becoming.

After a few years of college, I felt that I had to get out of Iowa. I moved to California, planning to wear flowers in my hair and hang out in the Haight. It was 1975 so I was a little late for the Summer of Love but thought I could still find my place in San Francisco.

My relatives were convinced that I was leaving because I was pregnant. They thought I would have the baby there, put it up for adoption and come back. Not true, but I think some of them still believe it.

I lived on the West Coast for almost 20 years. I got married and Mark and I had our first child. After becoming a mother, something in me changed. I couldn’t quite explain it but knew that I wanted for my daughter some parts of what I’d had growing up—maybe the feeling of safety and connectedness? Plus, my parents were aging, housing in the Bay Area was exorbitantly expensive and the California public schools weren’t great.

We decided to move to Iowa, a huge change for my Berkeley-born husband. One of my West Coast friends who was originally from Sioux City asked me if I had listened to “too much Prairie Home Companion or not enough?” Guess I would find out!

We moved to the small town of Merrill, where I had gone to elementary school. I was used to the comfortable anonymity of life in an urban area so it took me a while to realize that we were being scrutinized by the community.

People asked how we liked living in “Maggie Schultz’s house,” even though dear, old Maggie had been dead for decades.

Then we’d hear, “Aren’t you glad you don’t live in California anymore?”

That wasn’t always easy to answer. Our family’s first winter in Iowa—we got two feet of snow before Halloween, followed by an ice storm which didn’t melt for months.

When news got around that I planned to give birth to our second child at home, one of my mother’s friends came knocking on my door. I had a midwife contracted to help with the delivery but that wasn’t good enough for her. She railed at me for my “dangerous decision.”

Mark is still considered a newcomer to the area, even though we’ve been here for 27 years. But if your grandparents didn’t know my grandparents, you’re not from here, right?

The years passed quickly, working and rearing our two children who have grown into phenomenal, outstanding adults.

My parents amazed me in their role as grandparents and I have never regretted the decision to move back to the Midwest which allowed my children to develop a close relationship with them.

Before they passed away, we had come to an understanding. We didn’t agree on everything, but we did agree on what mattered most.

Two years ago, I quit my job. I guess I “retired” but it took a while to be able to say that word. I spent the first few weeks sleeping late, sitting on my porch, watching the birds, drinking tea, tending my garden, reveling in the freedom of fewer responsibilities.

But soon I started to feel that I didn’t belong anywhere, wasn’t needed by anyone and wasn’t contributing anything to the world. So I started looking for volunteer opportunities which quickly multiplied when people found out I am reliable, energetic and, most importantly, have time on my hands.

The 2016 election spurred me into taking a more active role in politics again. So now I find myself with a vibrant, fulfilling and very busy life, surrounded by people who share my values and vision. I have more friends than ever before. I have a community in which I feel that I belong and have a purpose.

And so I leave you with my favorite T. S.Eliot quote, the one they wouldn’t use at my high school graduation: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."



Susan Leonard worked in publishing and education administration. Her last job was as the education coordinator for the Siouxland Medical Education Foundation's family medicine residency program. She is married to Mark Leonard, and they have two children.

Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. The next show is 7 p.m. Friday, July 27 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St., in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Lessons Learned.” Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.

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