40 Years

Listen to my interview with my parents and learn what my mom thought when dad brought her to the ranch when there were still party lines and how dad’s night in county jail gave him clarity on the direction of his life. 

My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last week.

There aren’t many photos of their simple backyard wedding day around the ranch, just a few tucked inside old photo albums among snaps of cousin birthday parties, family in Christmas sweaters, Hereford cattle and my dad holding a string of fish he caught on their “honeymoon” to the big lake in the Badlands where my mom might have begun to realize what she was really getting into — it was going to be a no-real-frills existence with this man, not that the woman needed frills.

But she was up for it. I like to imagine that not much scared my mom back then. She had survived and left a problematic marriage well before she was out of her 20s. She packed up her hand-me-down furniture, clothes and dishes and called her sister and she was out of it, on her own with her young daughter in tow.

When she met my dad, she didn’t need him. She had her friends and family and her guts and she was working on finishing her social work degree. She taught ballet for extra cash, and aerobics, too. And knowing my dad, all of that was likely the appeal anyway, that she didn’t need him. That he could be who he was and she would take it or leave it. The woman wasn’t there to change anyone.

But it turns out he did change, maybe a bit, not for her but because of her. I’m privy to more of the scoop as I’ve taken Dad along for long road trips to music gigs throughout the years. On the miles of county roads and interstates, you get talking about things you might not otherwise get around to.

He told me the two had broken up at one point before their engagement and a few weeks later he found himself hitching a ride from a skeptical sheriff who didn’t fully believe his story about his broke-down pickup but let him spend the night in a county jail cell because there were no hotels in the town. And so he was sorta broke, sorta lonesome and sorta wondering what the heck he was doing. If he died that night, would anyone even know where he was?

He wanted her to know.

He laughs now thinking about it, but really, how do you decide to take the leap into committing to build a life with someone? Did Dad really need this sort of dramatic experience to make him see the light? Realistically, he probably only realized it was the light in hindsight. But it’s a good story with a good lesson I think, that you have choices. That when you are responsible for the life you build, it makes you one of the lucky ones.

In my experience witnessing my parents’ marriage throughout my lifetime, it’s been the sweet way they mix independence and individuality with support and care that’s always made me feel secure. Watching them, I never got the impression that you had to give a part of yourself up to be with someone.

And my young ballerina mother from the Red River Valley couldn’t have thrown herself into a more foreign situation — with the country churches and schools, the party line phones and that time she found a rattlesnake in the house when she was home alone with just my sister and me as a little baby—but I’ve never heard resentment once. They chose this life together and as the years went on, my mom figured out how she could best be herself in it, determined to bloom where she planted her life, understanding the important hold this place had on my father.

These days I’m getting to know them in a different season of their lives, one that looks like retirement (well, sort of) and grandchildren and the ability to do things they could have never done in the years spent raising kids and cattle and careers.

How lucky are we to continue to learn from them? I know they love one another by the way they let the other one be, as if to say, “I love you because I know you and we’ve got this.” And in the past 40 years, they’ve been dealt some pretty mountainous obstacles that took the ways in which they are very much the opposite to fully get through. No one tells you that can make all the difference. My parents have never shied away from the tough things.

But they’ve never argued on what they find moral and right. They’ve never disagreed on the way they both view giving and helping. They didn’t even disagree when my dad flat-out gave their minivan to a person who needed it more. And so I guess it’s the ways in which they are the same that really pack the power punch.

Anyway, in true no-frills fashion, we didn’t plan a big fancy anniversary party this year. Instead, my mom went fishing with my dad, this time on a nice pontoon. With magazines and wine. And that sounds just like them, doesn’t it?

It’s mid July and they’re in the hay fields

From haying to old Bible camp memories, weird pets, the proper way to pronounce s’mores and how to deal with an accidental toad murder, Jessie and her husband cover all things mid-western July in this week’s podcast, because if you blink, you might miss it. 

It’s mid July and the guys are in the hay field. Everyone is in the hay field. The heat and the rain and the humidity have created a jungle of grass out here, up past our stirrups, belly high on the cows, over my daughters’ heads in some places. That’s how we describe it when we see one another in town, at the Farm and Fleet, or a t-ball game or anywhere another rancher was convinced to go because it was a little too wet to bale.

It’s mid July and across the state small towns are holding homecoming gatherings, blocking off Main streets so they can pull in a flatbed trailer and use it as a stage for the band they hired from Bismarck or Minneapolis or just down the road because it’s summer in North Dakota and it’s time for dancing in the streets. And the committee that made the plans, they’re hoofing tables and chairs, picnic tables and signs, dressed in matching t-shirts and sweating because they’ve been at it since 6 am, cursing the weather, but glad it isn’t rain, although even rain wouldn’t stop it. We have three fleeting months here, we don’t have the luxury of letting a little bad weather stop us.

It’s mid-July and the lake people are not coming in. Not now, are you crazy? This is their sweet spot and it shows in their bronzed skin and the pictures of the fish they’ve caught. Their kids have another month to find their shoes, but until then, they’re gone with bedtimes and balanced meals.

It’s mid-July and the peas in the garden are ripe for the picking. We send the kids to collect some for supper and they don’t make it to the pot and that’s just fine, because the best way to eat a garden pea is fresh off the vine anyway, the same goes with beans and cherry tomatoes and does anyone need lettuce? It’s coming out of our ears.

It’s mid-July and the wild sunflowers are blooming in the ditches along the highways and county roads. If you’re not in a hurry — in mid-July it should be crime to be in a hurry — you pull over to pick a handful among the sweet clover and wild grasses, the grasshoppers sticking to your legs, the horseflies buzzing, the heat reflecting off of the pavement forming beads of sweat along your hairline. Some little bugs will take the trip back home to the vase with you, a black ant unknowingly hitching a ride to a new world on the petal of a flower.

It’s mid July and the kids are catching baby toads in the yard, five total in a Tupperwear habitat, pinching them carefully between the pads of their little fingers and holding them up to their eyes to get a closer look at their rough skin, tiny eyes and soft, thumping throats. How they just appear like that in the garden is a mystery like the fireflies blinking outside the fence when the sun finally disappears way past that bedtime we set only to miss. It’s mid-July and the magic of growing and momentary things is everywhere, but most especially in these children stretching up towards the sun.

It’s mid-July and the sprinkler’s on. It’s mid-July and we’re at the Farmer’s Market. It’s mid-July and we’re swatting mosquitoes and cutting watermelon and the tops off of freeze-pops. It’s mid-July and we’re camping, poking sticks in the fire and itching bug bites. It’s mid-July and we’re grilling burgers and sending the kids outside to husk sweet corn. It’s mid-July and we’re at another Rodeo, another softball game, the county fair, the state fair, the grandstands at a demo-derby, a concert in the park, the pool in town, yes we dove right in and there’s as much water under us as there is over our heads and we don’t want to hear it, although we say it ourselves, it’s going fast. It always goes so fast…

What to lose in a fire

Listen to the podcast here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chad and I discuss how a place like this humbles you and why, when he dies, he wants to come back as my aunt’s Corgi.

Ten Julys ago my husband and I stood on the scoria road on the homestead place and watched as my dad’s childhood home started going up in flames. We had been living there, in what we called “gramma’s house,” the first two years as we worked on building our own home on the ranch until one sweltering summer night we arrived home from a trip to the lake, turned on the lights and noticed smoke coming from the basement and traveling inside the walls. An electrical fire started by a lightning strike while we were gone.

A few months later, when we were living in my parents’ house and all our Earthly possessions were scattered across their lawn, airing the smoke out while we reorganized from a chaotic scramble to save them, I remember thinking this:

When the walls of our home were smoking from the inside out into the night, we did not grab onto one another. No, we placed our arms around computer screens and television sets, appliances and guitars. We threw our possessions on the earth to be saved and to save us from the need we might feel to replace them.

What it would cost us to purchase another would mean time and money, the things that take up the biggest part of us some days.

And there it all was, out in the great wide open of the sky, stacks of important papers and photographs, hats and shoes, books I’ve never read and albums I haven’t listened to in years. We pulled these things from the flames so that it could lay there, waiting for us to decide what to do now. And suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want any of it. 

I didn’t want a choice between red boots or black, I didn’t want the papers reminding me what it costs to live. I didn’t want the movies suggesting I should stay in and watch a world that doesn’t exist for us.

I didn’t want the memories waiting in boxes for me to recall what we were when we were sixteen and sun kissed and the world scared us, because things like this, unnerving, uncontrollable things, they will happen. And they will happen to us.

I didn’t want it weighing on me. Not that day. And sometimes, not these days. Not ten years later.

I heard once, somewhere on the car radio, a man who said, “We do not have a soul. We have a body.”

I pause to think of this today when my clothes feel heavy against the wet sticky heat of the summer and the body that houses my soul is feeling tired at the thought of moving through the tasks we’ve laid out for the day, cleaning up after ourselves, moving our stuff from room to room, from yard to house, from floor to laundry, from table to sink.

And I think about where my soul might live next.

Perhaps in the body of the yellow bird that returns to the feeder outside of this office window, concerned with nothing but her next bite, spreading her wings and cooling herself in the puddles left from an early morning rain.

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

Or maybe a long living oak with the mission to reach my branches out to the sun in the summer, to release them in the autumn chill and sleep until the spring sun asks me gently to bloom again.

I would have roots that would keep me grounded and grass and branches from the aspen or the birch to keep me company, to lean on, to protect me from the wind.

Maybe a wildflower, a thistle or a cricket screeching my song into the night.

I could be all of those things.

But today I don’t want to be attached to anything…

I’ve felt like this as a teenager, before I understood what I was so anxious about and why I suddenly had so many emotions pulling at my skin.

I remember walking out into the rain on a cool late summer evening, just to be out there, away from the four walls of a house, away from the telephone and, things that needed to be thought through. I felt heavy that day and I wanted to be a blade of grass, grounded and soaked in this rain.

I walked further into the protection of the oaks and stepped off of my path, then slowly out of my shoes and finally out of my clothing. I stood there in the lush green of the weeds and wild fruit bushes, under a canopy of leaves dripping the rain down through their branches and onto my bare skin…
I was comfortable like this for only moments before I glanced down at my pale skin and remembered to be self-conscious. But for a moment I was there, holding my breath, and I was the rain and the clouds and the dirt. I was the grass and the still, damp air.

And I’m not wishing for the reminders of a good life to disappear. Today I am just asking to not be held accountable for my possessions or a body that doesn’t do much to hide the relentless emotions of this soul, the one that crinkles up my nose when it cries, bites the scar on my lip in worry and screams air out of my lungs in frustration…Today I am just taking a moment to remember that someday my soul may have wings…

Get your goat

Listen to the podcast here, where Chad and I talk growing up in the 90s and all my goat related incidents.

Did I ever tell you about the time my best friend and I went to pick up a goat in her dad’s old Lincoln? I just got my driver’s permit and off we went 20 miles on the highway to pick up a rodeo goat from our neighbor. I think I told you this, but it’s one of those core memories you get when you’re young enough that not too many scary things have happened to you yet and old enough to start putting yourself properly in harm’s way. Anyway it ended up with a blown tire and two thirteen-year-old girls in the ditch crying in the rain by the old church and it ended with our friend’s grandpa helping us change a tire and a goat standing in the backseat popping his head up between us as I drove that Lincoln back home at 30 MPH.

This is what friendship, teenage-hood and wild and free looked like in the 90s, before cell phones, affordable all-wheel-drive vehicles and hovering parents. Mostly we were left to our own devices, and mostly we were fine until the times we teetered on the edge of disaster on a back-road somewhere.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I entered my daughters in a kids’ rodeo in my hometown. I spent some of my life entered in barrel racing, pole bending and, of course, goat tying in high school rodeo back in a time where you could bring your fastest, most sound ranch horse to town in a stock trailer freshly cleared of cow poop and you wouldn’t be entirely laughed off the rodeo grounds. I wasn’t competitive really (*read, ranch horse,) but I had fun working to beat my time and with my friends on the road trips across the state where we would ride part of the way in the gooseneck of that trailer, bundled up and stretched among the horses as the highway rumbled underneath us (And that’s just one example of 90s safety standards and I’m hoping the statute of limitations protects my parents in this confession, Amen.)

The thing about the sport of rodeo is that it’s more about the practice, practice, practice than the 12-20 second race you’re running, or the 1-8 second ride. And I loved to practice, particularly goat tying (hence, the goat-getting adventure). For those of you unfamiliar with the event, in goat tying the cowgirl races her horse at its highest speed down the center of the arena where a goat is staked and waiting for her. The cowgirl dismounts the still-moving-at-a-rapid-speed horse, hits the ground running (literally and hopefully) and catches that goat, flips it over and ties three of its legs together. The girl with the fastest time wins and now that I’ve typed that all out it sounds sorta brutal. But the goats weren’t injured, switched often and were well cared for between rodeos. The girls? Well, there’s plenty of face planting and dirt eating in this sport to which I’ve contributed my fair share of statistics.

Anyway, my girls are too young to enter the goat tying portion of the rodeo, but when I lead them into that old indoor arena in my hometown, the one that served as a hockey rink in the winter, the smell of the cool dirt, concrete walls and horse sweat transported me back to my high school rodeo days when my girlfriends and I would spend countless hours practicing our goat-tying dismounts inside the dimly lit and echo-ey walls. The taste of that dirt hopped right back on my tongue and I swear I scooped some out of my waste band as I remembered us as teenagers hauling our goats to town in the early mornings to put them up in the fairground’s pens while we went to history then algebra, then choir then Earth science with the plan to practice tying those goats right after school.  But our plan to practice together comfortable and temperature controlled in a real, indoor arena honing our skills no matter the North Dakota weather didn’t come without a handful of hitches. Well, just one hitch really. One hitch a handful of times. Because I’m not sure what qualified as embarrassing in your high school experience, but getting called by name, over the intercom for the entire school to hear because “Jessie, Gwen, Nikki, please come to the office right now. Your goats have escaped and they’re loose around town. Again, Jessie, Gwen and Nikki, your goats are loose in town and you need to go get them,” could have qualified for us if we weren’t so thrilled for an excuse to leave in the middle of the school day to go do cowgirl stuff.

Did I ever tell you that story about the goats? No? Well, there it is.

My friend Gwen and I back in the day

On Marriage and Montana



Dear Husband,

Listen to the podcast where Jessie sits down with Chad to visit about marriage in the thick of it and to hear the audio version of the column. Subscribe on Anchor, Spotify or Apple Podcast

Last weekend when we were heading across the North Dakota, Montana borderline. Looking out the windows as the landscape turned from badlands to plains, we admired the green grass and marveled at how the big Yellowstone and Missouri rivers were pushing their banks to the limits at every turn. It’s that season. The snow melt from the mountains and the rains reminding us that there are very few ways to tame the water when it needs to rage. It’s out of the river’s control really. So many outside forces at play…

The night before we packed up our pickup camper with my guitars and boots, bedding and snacks, lawn chairs and coolers, you worked until dark tearing down an old garage at a neighbor’s place.

With heavy equipment and your muscles, you wanted to leave a clean slate in that yard before we dropped or daughters at their grandparents’ place and you drove with me to sit in the audience while I played songs for a mountain town, who, just days before, was on the edge of disaster as their creek flooded and took houses and streets with it.

But you wouldn’t have known it that weekend on the main streets of this small mountain town. The restaurants were full, the shops were stocked and the doors to the bars and venues were swung open so that you could hear musicians like me strumming guitars and singing songs about hope and loss and family and these untamable rivers and love, of course.

I drank tequila after the shows and you talked about ranching with anyone who asked because your hat and the way you lean so self-assured with one shoulder against the wall in the back gave you away.

Dear Husband, you were there with me so I suppose I don’t have to tell you all this, but I guess I want to remember the way you’ve always let me know that my dream is your dream too. And so you carry my guitar and you sell my albums in the back and you grab the things I forgot, the cord and the picks and the lists and you tell me good job even if maybe it wasn’t my best job.

Husband, we haven’t been away together, just the two of us, in a while. The kids and the ranch and the chores and the work fill our days and nights like the melting snow from the mountains floods the river and so we think we have no choice but to keep rushing, keep pushing, keep flowing harder to keep on our feet, to keep between the banks.  

The last time we slept next to this unruly creek at the edge of this mountain town we were in your dad’s old Ford pickup with a broken AC and a 1970’s pop-up camper in the box and I had never really been in the mountains so you were taking me there.

We were just kids then and I remember hoping that it could be like this forever, you in the driver’s seat, me singing along to the radio and helping us find our way. 20 years later, on the very same route, you turned our pickup off the interstate and told me you missed me and I cried. I cried because I knew it. I missed you too, in the kind of way that you’re right there but I can’t get to you. I cried because didn’t we know better?

That weekend I sang a love song I wrote before the kids came, when we were younger and building a life, not knowing then that the tools will always be out on the kitchen table, we just need to remember to pick them up. And I don’t have many love songs, I’m not sure why. I’ve been in love with you much longer than I haven’t in this life. On that stage, I realized that’s probably why. Sometimes we admire the big oak we’ve grown, but don’t thank the strong branches for the leaves and the shade and for hanging on to help weather the storms.

So Husband, we may be that great big river right now, running and rushing and picking things up along the way, but along the banks of that creek that weekend I made a quiet promise to myself not to wait for disaster. And I promise you I’m not waiting any longer for the sun to dry off of the mountaintops and force us to slow down. Can we promise to be a different kind of river?  Let’s find a flat meadow and spread out and slow down and be grateful anytime we can, but maybe most importantly when we think we can’t.

Dear Husband, I have plenty more love songs to write.

Love,

Your wife  

Sweet clover, sweet summer

Listen to Jessie and her sister Alex get interrupted and sidetracked as they try to catch up on motherhood and memories, a real live look into the chaos of life at the ranch on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

Read in the Fargo Forum

It’s officially summer and my daughters have officially done the thing that I’ve sorta been waiting for the past month or so — they’ve made the great escape over the hill to my little sister’s place, without mention to me. By themselves.

Don’t worry, there are no major roadways between the two places. In fact, it’s just a long driveway connected by a prairie trail that cuts across the homestead place and barnyard and into another long driveway (the beauty of country living) — but it’s a big deal for them to be able to do it alone.

So much so that when they asked if they could go exploring in the trees by our house and I said yes and then also said, specifically, “Just don’t go over to Aunt Alex’s,” they went ahead and did it anyway. Because maybe they were feeling brave and maybe they were feeling grown-up in their jean shorts and tie-dye shirts, but mostly if kids listen to their parents all the time, are they really even kids?

I stepped outside and hollered for them with no answer back and had a hunch. My sister texted — “Your kids are over here in case you were wondering.” And I was. Sort of.

I couldn’t blame them really. To have an aunt who gives out Popsicles and two cousins your age who have different toys and a trampoline just over the hill and now all of the sudden your little legs (or the battery-operated plastic Jeep) can get you there unaccompanied, well, see ya later girls.

I don’t know how many times this summer I’ve said something like, “I’m so glad they have each other.” Or watched them run full speed down our scoria road and had a flashback to my childhood out here alongside my cousins, doing the very same thing.

I can almost feel my knees being skinned and scraped on that very road and the sweet clover itching my bare legs as we took a cardboard box down a grassy hill. I swat a mosquito and itch a bite and feel the curls spring out of my ponytail, unarmed against the humidity of a hot June day, and I might as well be 4 or 6 or 8 again on our grandma’s deck eating an orange push-up pop from the Schwan’s man.

I walked myself over the hill and found them hauling buckets of water to the little clay butte in front of my sister’s house so they could make mud pies. And in her daughters I saw my sister standing 3-foot-something, with a permanent crusted tear on her cheek, Band-Aids up and down her arms from picking at mosquito bites and patches on her little overalls.

Raising kids in a place that raised you will do that sometimes. In the crisp smell of a storm brewing on the horizon, or the wind blowing the sweet scent of fresh-cut hay to your door, the sprinkler whirring on your lawn and their happy screeches, a handful of sweet peas, the pop of a wild plum in your mouth, in the heat of the summer you are transported for a moment to a time when those things were all that mattered to you in the whole wide world. Those things and ice cream, maybe.

My summers with my little sister used to be fort-building in the trees by the creek, a tin-can telephone, singing at the top of my lungs running on cow trails and her following close behind despite my protests. Summer for us out here was riding horses bareback and mixing mud and flower petals in a leftover ice cream bucket and riding bikes and skinning those knees; it was a tire swing out over the banks of that crick and getting lost bringing lunch to Dad in the field and it was our bottle calf Pooper and the way he would escape and chase us down the road to the house, but I was faster and she got the brunt of it. It was telling her about the elves that lived under the big mushrooms that grow out of cow poop and her believing me.

And me wanting to believe it myself.

Because summer is magic, and it’s easy to forget that in the reality of living in this adult-sized world.

But the kids, with their sun-bleached hair and sticky cheeks and skinned knees and small voices singing while they run, full speed, down the road into the sweet spot of childhood, the sweet spot of official summer, making their great escape, they remind you. And I’m so glad they do. And I’m so glad they have each other.

A sentimental branding day roaster

Listen to Jessie and her husband Chad discuss the big plans they have for the ranch and the reason they love having guests at branding day on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

I have a big roaster that sits on my shelf in the storage area of our basement. It’s next to the cake stand and the air mattress pump, the extra mason jars and the quesadilla press thingy I’ve never used. I received this giant electric roaster as a wedding gift 16 years ago. I can’t remember now if it was something on the gift registry or if I asked for it, but I know I wanted it.  A roaster that can hold a full sized turkey. A roaster that can hold enough chili to feed half the county at a fire department fundraiser.  A roaster to serve three hundred sausage links at a pancake supper. The roaster that I imagined using to feed the crew roast beef sandwiches after a long day of riding, sorting and branding calves.

And maybe one day the roaster that I’ll use to serve our famous cheesy potatoes at my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Who knows. But I had dreams for it. 

What happens to my oldest’s face when you say “smile!”

I pulled that thing off the basement storage shelf last weekend and dusted it off. On the bottom back side of the appliance, sixteen years ago, I had written SCOFIELD in black magic marker. As my husband was helping me unwrap and season six rump roasts for the next day’s branding, he mentioned that we should write our last name on the lid too. “I’ve done enough firemen supper dishes to know how helpful that is,” he laughed.  And I realized then, right in the middle of my messy kitchen on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of summer at the ranch, that I was also standing right in the middle of a little piece of a dream that had come true.

It sounds so silly. A roaster. But there we were.

And the next day we were pushing cattle across the greenest pasture you could imagine, riding good horses side by side and laughing at my little sister getting chased by a calf who mistook her horse for his momma. On a hill a half-mile away my dad was chasing another bunch of cows toward us with neighbors and friends checking the draws. The plan was to meet on the flat and follow them up through the gates to the pen, and it didn’t go perfectly, but it never does and that’s the fun of it really, as long as no one gets hurt.

And in the pens up on the hill, another group of friends and family were waiting to help. Some of them had driven from their homes in the neat rows of the suburbs three hours away to lend a hand and be a part of the action. This is my favorite part about branding day. It’s getting the work done, riding out on a stretch of green pasture, making sure the calves and mommas are all accounted for and healthy, but it’s also the fact that we get to watch our friends’ kids from town run around the ranch, climb trees and fences, practice roping, help hold the little calves down and get on the back of a horse or snuggle up to his soft nose.

I like that they can have free access to the barn cat’s kittens and to the frogs in the stock dam. I like that they usually discover something slimy or dirty and that is the exact reason they are here. And I like to see the excitement and the pride my daughters hold for their home when they have guests to show around, to play with and to help climb up on the ponies. The way their friends run full speed into a wide open pasture meadow reminds them how special they have it.

And I guess that’s what that big ‘ol roaster is making me think about today as I wash it up and put it away. The work is never ending here, but one task is done for the year and I have moved from being that kid climbing fences and trees and taking kids to my secret spots on the ranch, to the adult here that maybe they will remember for my branding day beans and roast beef sandwiches, and, more hopefully, for always making them feeling welcome here.

A spare toilet in a plastic world

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her husband in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

I married a man who knows where he can get a surplus of washing machine motors in case of a clothes-washing emergency. I fell in love with a guy who has hauled a broken down three-wheeler to all five of the places we’ve moved with the intention of making the thing run when he has a spare moment (and he never really has a spare moment).

And, we’ve been over this before, but I want to remind you that I’m living with a person who has 75 Tupperware containers full of drill bits, little pieces of wire, nails and screws of various sizes, scraps of leather, broken saw blades, old speaker cords, empty shotgun shells, half-used rolls of tape, weird-shaped things made of metal, something that looks like an electrical box, loose change from years of emptying pockets and a partridge in a pear tree because he might need it someday.

OK, so I’ve set the scene so you won’t be surprised that when my uncle from Texas arrived in our yard earlier this spring and casually mentioned that he was going to take a trip to Dickinson that afternoon because his toilet was broken I turned on my heel, opened the garage door and offered him the extra one we’ve had sitting in there for months. It was still in the box and everything — all we had to do was remove the table saw sitting on top of it and it was all his. It was fancy (the box claimed you could flush like six golf balls down the thing), and my uncle was thrilled.

My husband’s hoarding qualities also recently saved our neighbor a trip to town after the big blizzards this April when he called to ask if he had an extra shear pin for his snowblower. Turns out he just picked up an extra 37 or so, you know, just in case.

And while most of the rest of the year I silently curse all the extra crap I have to walk over and around and move from surface to surface day to day, it was alarming the amount of pride I had in my husband when I was able to present my uncle with an unexpected, shiny new toilet.

It’s a generational gene that is planted in his soul. His dad is the one who sent an old washing machine he refurbished from the dump to college with Chad, and, along with it a few decent motors for the road. He was renting his first condo and by the time he moved to the next place, my husband and our friend had completely finished the basement, installed a new bathroom and redid all of the floors in the upper level. At the delicate age of 21, my husband had effectively dove into his legacy of leaving every place a little better for having him.

Yes, he comes by it honestly. His grandma, his dad’s mother, was a woman on the heels of the Great Depression and thrifty was a badge she wore with pride. She cut her paper plates in half and hung her paper towels to dry, shopped the section in the grocery store with the dented cans on discount and sent me a birthday card once with a little rip off of the edge and made sure to make a little arrow so she could tell me she got it on sale. She found treasure in things other people gave up on, scooped it up behind dumpsters and on curbsides and took it home to shine up and line up neatly on her shelves or on tables set up in that garage she opened every weekend to the neighborhood, offering the stuff a second chance at a new home.

And we laugh and tease about it now, but honestly, what a precious quality. In this world made of plastic, disposable, breakable things, things that are cheap but cost us so much, we need more Leonas in this world to take care. There was never a hard-earned dollar that she didn’t account for because she knew a time when the hard-earned dollar was hard to come by.

You can see evidence of that generation on this ranch as well while we slowly collect and clean up old equipment and rundown buildings. One of the last things to go is a shed with three garage doors that my grandpa used as a garage. Sitting on shelves are old coffee tins full of, you guessed it, drill bits, little pieces of wire, nails and screws of various sizes, scraps of leather, broken saw blades, old cords, empty shotgun shells, half-used rolls of tape, weird-shaped things made of metal, something that looks like an electrical box and long-retired welding supplies and tools to put the broken things back together.

And it reminds me, when my lawnmower breaks down on Sunday 30 miles from town or we need to pinch pennies while still getting the fences fixed, or if a neighbor comes knocking looking for a spare battery or bolt — or, you know, a toilet — that the man I married was born for this place. And if you need anything, just call…

What a cowgirl carries

What a Cowgirl Carries
Forum Communications

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

There’s something about the view between a horse’s ears that makes a woman forget that she can’t stay up there forever. It’s the same way she feels watching a man catch a horse. It’s the quiet and gentle approach, the calm way he whispers and coaxes. It reminds her of the good ones.

And it’s how he wears his hat, how his shirt’s tucked in and the way he sits so sure up there next to her riding along.

The way the breeze moves through that horse’s mane before brushing her cheek and the sinking sunlight hitting him just right.

How the grass sparkles under the glow of it.

All of those things that make her happy to be alive out here are wrapped up in the way the air cools her skin in the low draws, and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush.

Ask her, she knows. No living thing is only softness, even though spring out here tries hard to convince us. There are thorns and snags among the fragile pieces of it all. There has to be or how would a thing like a raspberry or a rose survive here in the heat and the teeth and the pounding hooves and bending wind? You can be pretty and sharp. You can be strong and soft. You can be remarkable and fleeting.

You can be terrified and brave.

You wrap all of that up and you get a cowgirl. Some of them carry ropes. Some carry square bales and feed buckets and scoop shovels and fencing pliers. Some carry babies, on their hips or in their bellies, Earth-side or in heaven. In a quiet prayer.

And then some of them come carrying casserole dishes and plates of cookies and pies to feed you after the work is through and they wash up their hands and change their shirts because they were working right alongside you after the cooking was done. And some carry the weight of expectations wherever they go, but then some women dropped those in the crick years ago. Some carry burdens of past generations and some carry hope so high that it lights up their eyes and escapes with the loose hair flying out from under her hat.

And all carry with her the lessons learned from the buttes and the big sky. The cattle and the wild roses. The dirt and the river. The women who have cared for her. The men.

And the horses.

The horses. That’s where we started.

Up there, she feels stronger and as capable as anyone. A bit more free. The horse separates her from the rest of them, puts her shoulder to shoulder. He’s the great equalizer carrying her along, not only because she might have bought and paid for him, or maybe he was a gift, but always because she learned how to be up there properly as all of the things we know she is — confident and patient and soft and tough and kind and fierce and brave and humble and beautiful and practical and wild and collected….

And he carries her along because she made all this known, through mistakes and broken things and good days and ones that begged her to quit. And it’s not that she has something to prove, but the good ones, they prove that it can be done. It can all be done, but not without sacrifice. Not without strength. Not without fear. Not without knowing it might work out or it might not but if it’s worth being done, then it’s worth the try. It’s always worth a try.

And so she rides horses because sometimes she forgets who she really is at the bones of it all and that horse, he reminds her. And if you love her, if you’re a good one, she’ll make you happy to be alive out there in the cool low draws and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush next to her riding along.

Notes on Summer

Notes on a Rural Summer

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her daughters and her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

By the time you read this, summer will have officially arrived for most of the kids in North Dakota. That last bell, it means more to me now that we wrapped up our first official school year with our six-year-old. I watched her stand smack dab in the middle of one hundred other kindergartners on risers dressed in matching shirts and singing a school kid version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” My favorite line? “Teacher in a tidy room, smell of paint and Elmer’s glue. For a day that seems to go on and on and on and on…” But wait? Wasn’t I just embarrassing her by existing in the classroom on the first day of school? Now she can read and frankly, does math better than me and so we’re on to our next task of cramming as much fun in a three-month time period as possible.

For my family it also means trying to keep up with fencing and haying and barnyard reconstruction projects while juggling yard work and day jobs, my performing schedule and getting the kids in their swimsuits as much as possible, even if it just means splashing in the tiny plastic wading pool currently collecting dirt and bugs on our lawn.

I’m ready for it and determined to keep my focus on what really matters…

Because summer means that my babies constantly smell like sunscreen and bug spray and come in from outside with a warm, sweaty glow on their faces. It means 9 PM supper and 10 PM bedtime because no matter how hard we try we just can’t settle down until the sun settles down. It means picking wildflowers and swatting bugs, brushing the ponies, sleepovers with the cousins and slow walks down the gravel road pulling baby dolls in the wagon.

A western North Dakota summer means digging in the garden and praying the hail from the summer storm doesn’t take our little tomato crop while we lean into the screen and count the seconds between thunder and lightning.

Summer out here means searching for the right place to dock the boat or plant a beach chair on the shores of Lake Sakakawea and spitting sunflower seeds waiting for a bite to hit your pole, trying to convince the kids to swim where they won’t scare the fish away.

And then summer is laughing even though they aren’t listening, knowing that this time of year, especially in a place where it’s so fleeting, is magic for kids. And you can’t blame them, because you remember the rush of the cold lake water against your hot skin and how you would pretend your were a mermaid or a sea dragon and the afternoons seemed to drag on for days before the sun started sinking, cooling the air and reminding you that you were not a mermaid after all, but a kid in need of a hamburger and juice box.

You remember the way the fresh cut grass stuck to your feet as you did cartwheels through the sprinklers or the how you smelled after coming in from washing and grooming your 4-H steer in preparation for county fair. You remember the anticipation of the carnival, the way the lights of your town looked from the top of the Ferris wheel and how maybe you brought a boy up there with you and maybe he held your hand.

Summer in North Dakota is dandelion wishes and a fish fry, fireflies and camping in tents that never hold out the rain. Summer is wood ticks and scraped knees, bike rides and gramma’s porch popsicles, catching candy at parades, swimming pool slides, drinking from the hose and trying to bottle it all up into memories that won’t fade.

And so I am stocking up on popsicles and doing my best to make some plans for my young daughters that don’t include any plans at all. Because they are in the sweet spot right now, wild sisters who have one another and who are just big enough to take on the kind of summer adventures that only happen when nothing’s happening and the sun is shining and the day stretches out long and lazy in front of them. Because they can only be four and six for one June, one July and one sweltering hot August before the next summer rolls around with another year behind it. And I have my memories, but the girls, they are smack dab in the middle of making them. And for all that they don’t know, for all the things they are still learning, they don’t need anyone to tell them how to spend their summer. They are experts on that one. And I intend to take notes.