Why the poetry caravan went to St. Francis for a reading had everything to do with one of the town’s prodigal daughters, Ronda Miller. Ronda and her sister mostly grew up here, living with grandparents outside of this extreme Northwest Kansas town after horrendous losses in their childhoods, first with the suicide of their mother, then with the loss of other family members (including their brother, who was ripped out of their arms and sent to live with other family members).
Arriving in St. Francis at age seven, heartbroken and afraid, Ronda encountered great kindness in Grandma Barb, who was Ronda’s teacher at the one-room school house. “I just remember a beautiful little girl,” Grandma Barb told us over breakfast at the Majestic gas station/cafe. “And I did with her what I did with all the kids: I wrapped her in love.” She also encouraged Ronda to read and write as did other teachers later on.
Fast forward over 40 years, and here we are: Ronda’s sister and husband flew in from Virginia to surprise her, a cousin came from the Northwest, and many family members from near and far converged for the Poetry Caravan reading and release of Ronda’s first book of poetry, aptly titled, Going Home. Grandma Barb, after being up on the band shell with us during the reading so that Ronda could honor her (along with a high school English teacher), joined us for fried chicken dinner at the Majestic and breakfast there the next morning.
Over tasty fried food, Grandma Barb shared her secrets for a life of meaning and joy: “Honey, I don’t like to cook or bake. I like to dance!” she told us, explaining how she learned the Charleston as a girl and has been dancing ever since, sometimes driving 80 miles to a local (local in Western Kansas is less than 100 miles) dance although she’s “90 and holding.”
This kind of spirit speaks volumes about what difference a loving mentor can make and did make and still makes. I was so inspired by Grandma Barb’s life — attending all kinds of events and groups, gardening, helping others, and planting joy wherever she goes — that I told her I wanted to be like her when I grew up.
I’m just as dazzled by Ronda’s spirit, strong enough to thrive in unlikely places and carry her through a bevy of vocations (police officer, fashion model, child care provider) to her poetry, which she returned to its source here in St. Francis. Poetry not only brought together her extended family for a variety of pie at the local gas station, but it brought us together to learn the secrets of healing that happened and are still happening all the time all around us.
(Thanks to Ronda for arranging this trip, and fellow poets of the caravan: Nancy Hubble, Karen Ohnesorge, Lee Mick, Rick Nichols. Special thanks to a special patron saint for underwriting our trip.)