Former resident says farewell to South Dakota – perhaps
(Editor’s note: Marianne Bickett is a former Mobridge resident. She graduated from Steven’s High School in Rapid City in 1974. She is an artist, writer, and retired public school teacher currently living in the San Jose area of California with her husband, Brian Belet. Marianne’s father, Robert J. “Bob” Bickett, ran the Mobridge Reminder in the 1950s.)
As the wheels of the jet lifted off the ground and curled into the plane’s underbelly, the wind of the plains gave the heavy, silver wings flight, as if they were truly appendages of a giant bird. Glancing down at the streams and roads – both human and natural geoglyphs – already I could feel the distance settling in. This time, would it be a final farewell? Dry worn grasses of early April lie withered on the dormant earth below. Until the elevation of the azure Black Hills to the west, everything I saw was a variation on the theme of ochre and brown colors. Skeletons of trees, too distant to discern emerging buds on new branches, left the land looking bleak, bereft of any hint of green. I found myself already yearning for my succulent and verdant backyard in California.
For many years, since I left South Dakota, I would make the trek back and forth from places I lived: Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, and, now, California. When airline prices weren’t so exorbitant and flights were more plentiful, I’d sail back and forth several times a year to visit my parents, who retired in Spearfish, where my younger sister Jane graduated from high school. They lived in Spearfish for nearly 20 years after my father, Robert James Bickett, left Pierre, where he served as the Director of the Veteran’s Administration. My mother, Rosemary Bickett, worked in the physical therapy department as head PT at the Pierre Hospital, and my sisters, Kathy and Betsy, graduated from Pierre High School.
I was born and raised mostly in Mobridge, a small town on the shores of the wandering Missouri. My three eldest siblings, Penny, Peggy, and Bob, graduated from Mobridge High School. That river was my home. I ice skated on it in winter and swam along its banks at Indian Creek in the summers. My father had a small row boat that we ventured out on many times, and later I became quite adept at canoeing on the Missouri. My family moved to Rapid City when I was in junior high and my sister Patricia, brothers Tim and Jim, as well as I, graduated from Rapid City high schools.
So, I can say I am from South Dakota and no matter where I’ve lived, it’s always felt like home. When I first moved to the east coast, I would notice right away the more languid ambience that greeted me when I deplaned in Rapid City. I could feel the stress of congested city life melting off my back as I sighed in relief. No massive freeways to tackle, no haze of pollution saturating the air, and friendly people who always smiled, especially at strangers. Visiting my family was important to me, of course, but there was something else that drew me back. Perhaps the vistas of flowing wild grass in the wind with yucca plants and coneflowers embellishing the landscape called to me. Perhaps it was the space, the unending breath from horizon to horizon and the silhouette of Harney Peak, dark and black with uneven edging of the Needles against the quiet cerulean blue sky of a summer’s afternoon, with fair weather clouds grazing like well-fed fluffy sheep. Or the powerful thunderstorms with ample lightning that shook the ground and the very depths of my soul.
Time after time I would say good-bye, and time after time I would return. That is, until now. This time, I am not so sure I will return. Two and half years ago my sister Patricia died unexpectedly. She was just two years older than I and left a vacancy in my heart that can never be refilled. A Linden tree will be planted at Canyon Lake Park in her memory, as she always loved that park. Pat was even there the night of the June 9 flood in 1972, watching in horror as the waters rose. She later became a very successful acupuncturist living in the Chicago area with her husband and two daughters.
To speak of death openly seems quite unsettling to most of us, yet, the fact is, especially as we age, we will encounter it more often. Sadly, my brother Timothy died quite recently on May 30 of glioblastoma brain cancer. Tim lived in eastern Wyoming with his wife and had three children and four grandchildren. He was only 62. In contrast, my father died in 2001 at the age of 86 after battling heart and kidney failure for many years. What brings me to this writing, however, is the very recent death of my beloved mother, Rosemary, at the age of 93 – just two weeks shy of her 94th birthday – on June 7 of this year. Naturally we assume our parents will die before us, and at some point we understand the passing of one generation to the next. Perhaps there are still people around in the area who remember her as the kind and competent physical therapist at St. John’s Hospital of Rapid City, as it was called in those days. Mother used to come home with stories about people she’d met and I know she touched many lives with her beautiful smile, lyrical voice, and immense compassion and kindness.
Both my parents served in the U.S. Army. My father was a lieutenant, serving as a tank commander under General George Patton in Normandy, France, where he was injured and lost his right leg. My mother was a physical therapist at an Army Rehabilitation Hospital in Georgia, where she met my father. They had originally decided to live in Florida, but at the last minute my father whisked his new bride away to raise a large family in South Dakota. He felt it would be a healthier place to bring up children, and I believe he was right.
Now, as I sit here in the San Francisco Bay area of California, where I live just a half hour’s drive from the Pacific Ocean, I ponder the significance of my mother’s passing and what it means in terms of my ties to South Dakota. Unfortunately I came down with a very severe case of the influenza this May that kept me literally grounded so that I was unable to make the trip for both funerals this spring. I was, however, fortuitously in South Dakota and Wyoming in early April to see Tim and Rosemary.
There have been so many times we’ve had to sacrifice trips to yet unseen places because of my annual return to South Dakota. The death of airlines flying into Rapid City (well, compared to years ago, it seems the choices have narrowed considerably) as well as the high price of flying to Rapid City (I can fly to New York for less) began to make the trip less appealing. Were it not for the sake of seeing my parents and siblings, I often said I would not make the trip ever again. Though I still have two brothers living in the area, my reasons for flying back to the home of my birth surely fade away.
After all, there are plains of wild grass not too far from where I live, and mountains that rise into the horizon, hunkered down somewhat like the Black Hills against the blue sky. There are many, many places of great beauty I can now consider visiting (not that I haven’t done any other traveling already) that I’ve never seen, that I can now afford since I won’t have the expense of returning to South Dakota.
Yet there is a strong sense of unfinished business for me, and hence, the writing of this article, because I often thought the pull of the land might possibly be enough to call me back, the smell of the southern hills, the relative calm pace of life, the late afternoon thunderstorms that purify the air and refresh dusty souls. But my mother is gone now, really gone, although she began her slow agonizing retreat some years ago. Rosemary Bickett was light and joy, laughter and creativity, kindness and pure, unconditional love. I would travel to the least likely places on earth to see her, to be in her presence even just one last time. Now that she is gone, will I ever return?
I close my eyes and see her grave, as she now rests with her beloved husband Robert, at the Black Hills National Veteran’s Cemetery outside of Sturgis, and I read the words on the white headstone that has my father’s name on the other side. Maybe I’ll want to come back and sit by her remains and ponder her leaving, surrounded by row upon row of so many others who served their country. I think of Interstate 90 nearby with people going about their lives, so very much unaware of her buried there, this woman who so profoundly influenced my life. Surely she will be treasured and remembered by not only her progeny, but former patients and friends. My mother had a lovely voice, was a musician who played and taught piano, and rediscovered her artistic ability as a painter after she retired. I am proud to have some of her paintings hanging in my house, proud that Rosemary Bickett was my mother.
Will I ever return? It is hard to say, though I can say for certain right now that it will be some time. Losing a brother and mother so close together has reopened immense grief for me, although it is softened by the fact that neither is in pain anymore. They are truly free. And, for me, perhaps I am free too, free to decide whether I really want to return to South Dakota ever again. No matter what happens, though, I know that South Dakota will never leave me. It is a part of my being, my heartbeat. The meandering Missouri River flows in my veins, the undulating plains and wide-open sky are a part of my own inner landscape. And as I sit here writing this, I can still smell the earthy Ponderosa pines, and see the glint of mica in the sandy dirt, and the rise of the vulture as she catches a thermal over the Badlands. It’s all here, and perhaps it shall prove to be enough.