Anything But That by Johanna Harness

12 Oct


I have an affinity for cemeteries.  As a kid, I biked and played in a nearby cemetery much more than I did any park.  I knew the names and the scant stories revealed in chiseled lines.

When my husband and I became friends so many years ago, it charmed me that he loved his family cemeteries.  He took me out to meet the family–generations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—filling nearly half a pioneer cemetery—and my heart was his.  Yeah.  I’m like that.

family cemetery

Now we take the kids and they recite their family history from the stones. They are 8th generation Idahoans on their dad’s side.  On my side, only 5th.  His family came out in covered wagons.  They were miners, explorers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, guides, and they even had one mad hatter in the bunch.  My family came later, in jalopies with chairs strapped in the back for seats.  Pushed out of Kansas in the dust bowl, they started new farms from sagebrush-covered land.  On my dad’s side, half are illegal immigrants—from Canada.  They were ranchers who strayed a little south from Alberta, only to find themselves Idahoans by circumstance and, only later, marriage.

My husband and I made the trip back to my family cemetery in Kansas—and I cried to see the generations of names mirroring my own, proof somehow that the family stories were real. These people once were solid enough that they needed buried once they died—and so their stories became more solid too.

Hemingway's grave under the pines

Last week I visited The Ketchum Cemetery in Ketchum, Idaho.  I don’t know anyone buried there.  Not really.  I just know the stories.  And no, I don’t mean the stories Ernest Hemingway wrote, although I know them too.  I mean the stories I grew up hearing—about the great man living in and killing himself in my home state.  I remember seeing the images of Hemingway with the Pioneer Mountains in the background. I remember the adults in my life talking in hushed voices about the mixture of celebrity and brilliance, guns and alcohol abuse—imagination and delusion.  When I said I wanted to be a writer, they thought of Hemingway and they wanted something better for me.

Hemingway's grave

In Hemingway, my family saw proof that writers suffered from unstable minds. Perhaps I bought into the mystique myself.  I did seem to have a penchant for broody scribblers.

Hemingway in IdahoI was nearly out of high school by the time it came to light that maybe Hemingway wasn’t so delusional.  He thought the FBI followed him, bugged his car, pored over his bank records in the dead of night.  Largely discounted by those around him, what must he have been thinking?  Depression did run in his family. Ernest’s father, brother, one sister for sure (maybe two), and later his granddaughter—all committed suicide.  His father’s actions worried him enough that he once asked his son, Jack, to exchange a promise that neither would ever kill himself.

When Hemingway kept seeing feds, when his friends and family turned to him with sympathetic eyes and said, time and time again, that they didn’t see anyone—what must Hemingway have thought?  He thought shock therapy would be a cure.  Instead, the therapy took away his ability to write and, with it, his will to live.  And the damn thing was, he still saw those feds everywhere.

It wasn’t until 1984 that a Freedom of Information request resulted in the release of Hemingway’s FBI file:  120 pages, 15 of them still blacked out.  Some of the notes were from surveillance while Hemingway was at the Mayo Clinic for shock treatment.

Yeah.  No wonder the treatment didn’t make Hemingway’s delusions go away.

Many have gone to great lengths to suggest that the FBI killed Hemingway, first making him delusional and then somehow arranging for the shock treatment that took his will to live.  They suggest this, in part, because Hemingway often described suicide as an act of cowardice.

Hemingway in IdahoI hear those words and I hear the words of my own dad, spoken with the same intense anger.  Although my father did not kill himself, he did battle the darkness that prematurely ended the lives of family members–some of whom are now buried in that cemetery of my childhood—the place where together we’d ride bikes and run carefree through deep grasses.  I hear Hemingway’s words and I hear the fear that so often lies beneath anger.  I believe he went for the shock treatment to save himself from hallucinations he wasn’t having.  Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness.

Perhaps it was my own family’s fear for me that made them look to Hemingway and tell me I should not be a writer.  Not that.  Anything but that.

Hemingway in Idaho

And yet, even as I look at the solid stone that marks that solid stories of Hemingway’s life, I know I can’t live my life in fear. Fear of darkness does not just end dreams. It can also keep them from beginning.

The Salmon River


Posted by on October 12, 2011 in Idaho, writers


Tags: , , , , , ,

33 responses to “Anything But That by Johanna Harness

  1. Pat Newcombe

    October 12, 2011 at 5:34 AM

    Me too! I’m fascinated by cemetaries and graveyards! Creepy but lovely and very mesmerising places

    • johannaharness

      October 12, 2011 at 8:03 AM

      Thanks, Pat. It’s good to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  2. Carley Ash

    October 12, 2011 at 6:51 AM

    Fantastic blog, Johanna. Very interesting.

  3. Liz Fredericks

    October 12, 2011 at 7:00 AM

    Johanna, I love the pictures and share your fondness for history through respect for the dead. My father’s family ranched in and around the Shoshone, Ketchum, Gooding areas since the turn of the last century. I remember stories about Hemingway. I’m told he hunted on my grandparents’ ranch. But mostly, Johanna, I deeply appreciate your closing message. Thank you for this post.

    • johannaharness

      October 12, 2011 at 8:07 AM

      Last week in Ketchum I attended “Women Writing and Living The West,” which was part of The Trailing of The Sheep Festival there. Women ranchers shared their family stories and the experience was so moving. You would have fit right in. I live-tweeted part of the event and you can read some great quotes here:

  4. Joanne (@OpinionsToGo)

    October 12, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    What a lovely way to start the day…a beautifully written and informative post!

    • johannaharness

      October 12, 2011 at 8:08 AM

      Thanks so much, Joanne—and thanks for your mention on Twitter too. 🙂

  5. Janis McCurry

    October 12, 2011 at 7:24 AM

    A lesson learned from those who came before us. Thanks, Johanna.

  6. Meredith Conner

    October 12, 2011 at 7:42 AM

    Beautifully written Johanna. Thank you.

  7. Kristina

    October 12, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    You always write so well, but this one is extra wonderful.

    “Fear of the dark can sometimes lead to greater darkness.” These words are so very true. Each person’s “dark” may differ, but each can lead to something far worse.

    I have always loved Hemingway. Thank you for reminding me why.

    • johannaharness

      October 12, 2011 at 9:19 AM

      Thanks, Kristina. Your words mean a lot to me.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    October 12, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    I’ve been to some interesting cemeteries in different parts of the world. You can learn a great deal about a culture from their cemeteries. Hemingway’s brilliance with words was amazing. Thanks for reminding me.

  9. JC Rosen

    October 12, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    Your last lines of this article, “Fear of darkness does not just end dreams. It can also keep them from beginning,” will be with me a long time. In fact, I think I’ll post them on the wall by my desk as a touchstone for the dark times.

    Fascinating blog, Johanna. Utterly captivating. Thank you for opening up and sharing it.

    Take care,

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:33 AM

      Thank you, Jess. Your words mean a lot to me.

  10. Zehra Cranmer

    October 12, 2011 at 9:20 AM

    you never fail to reach for the right word

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:34 AM

      Thank you, Zehra. As an admirer of your writing, I count that as high praise.

  11. Julia Karr

    October 12, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    Just what I needed to hear today, Joanna! Thanks! & Here’s to the light!

    • KjM

      October 12, 2011 at 9:49 AM

      Marvelous blend of photo, history and personal experience.

      A quite beautiful post with which to start the day. Thank you.

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:37 AM

      Julia–Definitely. Here’s to the light!

      KjM–Thanks so much. It’s so good to see you here.

  12. Terri Farley

    October 12, 2011 at 1:17 PM

    I second Kristina’s “extra wonderful,” and hold close memories of a tiny Texas graveyard where blue bonnets helped me reconcile with my stubborn Southern grandfather.

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:38 AM

      Thanks, Terri. Those graveyards are special places. Thanks also for the Facebook link. Much appreciated.

  13. ramblingsfromtheleft

    October 12, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    Well done, Johanna. He was my hero when I was a teenager. I never cared that he was a sexist, or that many thought he was over rated. The day I heard the news of his death I felt a deep loss. The echoes of darkness and light in the cemetary only further to show us the impossible conflict of man on this earth. I grew up in the neighborhood in Brooklyn that contains Green-Wood Cemetary where Houdini is burried. Thousands still flock there to do rubbings. We ran around the toomstones and hid behind the large houses of stone containing generations of families. Our fascination with death is only matched by our equal or greater fascination with this brief mortal life.

    Loved the pictures and the story of his family and yours. There is in truth no more than six degrees of separation in each life 🙂

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:43 AM

      I love the detail about Houdini. I wonder if there are people with scrapbooks full of rubbings from cemetery stones. Hmm.

  14. angela parson myers

    October 12, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    I never cared much for cemeteries until I visited my husband’s family graveyard. It’s tucked away in a small clearing among the trees at the back of an Illinois cornfield. To find it, we had to drive over miles of gravel road, then down a dirt path beside a pig farm. It’s so peaceful that when you walk in it, you sense the ghosts’ outrage at the intrusion. Many stones are nearly worn away. Some of them bear traces of dates from before the War Between the States. It’s really an amazing place where I swear stories crawl through the grass and curl around the trees branches.

    • johannaharness

      October 13, 2011 at 5:46 AM

      I would love that cemetery. My husband has one family cemetery where the fence around it keeps the cattle out. It’s tucked away like that–behind a farm and down a long, dirt lane. It’s very welcoming though–no outrage there. I have more a sense that they’d like me to stay and visit long past when it’s time to go home.

  15. Gloria Antypowich

    October 15, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    I enjoyed your site–as well as writing, I have a massive genealogy project on the go for both sides of our family,- so I am interested in history and graveyards and anything that documents the past. I love you pictures–would like to be able to see the full ones behind the site. I am a country girl through and through.

  16. Clarissa Southwick

    October 16, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    I do have fond memories of a family cemetery, but I never really thought about how those ancestors influenced my writing life. Thanks for sharing such powerful thoughts with us, Johanna. Your beautiful words and photographs never cease to impress me.

  17. Mary Vine

    November 1, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    I loved this Johanna! I love looking at old graveyards and have searched many out in NE Oregon, and some in ID, too. Really liked what you had to say about Hemingway. Great job. I’m going to put this on Facebook right now.

  18. Erika Robuck

    November 1, 2011 at 6:52 PM

    This is a powerful post. I, too, love old graveyards and Ernest Hemingway.


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