Hoofbeats and paw prints and measuring time

Chad on his bay horseHoofbeats and paw prints and measuring time

My husband used to have a big yellow dog that would pull him around town on his Rollerblades. Young, strong and full of heart, the two of them flew through the quiet streets of our hometown, back when Rollerblades were cool and so was he.

I never knew the Chad that existed before that dog. They called him Rebel, except the only rebellious thing about him was that he’d take a cracked door as an invitation to go wandering.

Before Rebel, Chad’s family had a pup named Cookie. I never knew Cookie or the young boy my husband was when he loved that dog except I saw the home movie his parents took when they surprised their boys with her.

Chad always described it as one of the best and most exciting days of his childhood, so I couldn’t stop laughing when I saw the footage of that young kid standing so stoic and serious with that puppy in his arms, willing away his fidgety little brother with the darts of his eyes.

Last night, my husband and I started talking about our new border collie pup, a welcome addition after we lost the lab we had since we got married 12 years ago today. We are excited to see what kind of cow-dog she might become.

And then, without really realizing it, we started recounting our memories together according to which animals were there loving us, bucking us off, running away, getting hurt, growing old and teaching us lessons along the way.

“So, I starting hanging around you when you just got that horse, Tex,” he recalled.

“And my old mare Rindy, you remember her,” I said, reminding him of the first time I took him riding at the ranch and how I wanted to impress him so badly that my enthusiastic attempt at a graceful mount on her bare back resulted in me landing in a heap on the other side.

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Then there was his mom’s dog, Phoebe, who got her through the sadness of an empty nest, and our cat, Belly, who was so bonded with my little sister that we all got to watch her give birth to kittens on the beanbag chair in her bedroom.

And I never thought about measuring a good life by the good animals who witnessed us growing up, heartful and heartbroken, falling in and out of love with people and life and learning how to let go and hold on tight to one another or the big plans we’ve made and changed a million times.

They’re along with us, on the end of a leash, the reins or the bed, steady and predictable.

“Cowboy’s close to 20,” my husband realized then about the young bay horse that made a cowboy out of that lovestruck teenager.

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Seems like time wears itself thinner on the backs of the beasts we love until, one day, we catch ourselves remembering them and the scruff of their fur and the click of their paws on the pavement and how they pulled us through when we were young, strong and full of heart.

In the name of the fair

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Fair season is winding down up here in the great hot north. I hit up my third fair of the year last weekend, this time without the kids, to sing under the watchful eye of the world’s biggest Holstein cow. On the other side of the building 4-H kids stood, shoulders back, showing off the sheep or goat or steer they’d been working to feed up, groom and halter train all summer, unaware of just how many life lessons were packed into that project.

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We took the long, impromptu trek to the state fair a few weekends back with, meeting up with a bunch of family. I bought my two-year-old a wrist band and she fearlessly jumped on every ride she was tall enough to sit in.

I mean, she didn’t even bat an eye at the thought of reaching the top of the Ferris Wheel. She just grabbed her cousin’s hand and off she went growing up and I stood below, watching and wondering if I should start worrying now about her sense of adventure.

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Like, should I be hiding my husband’s dirt bike already?

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I suppose she comes by it honestly when it comes to carnival rides. When I was a kid, the bigger and faster, the better. And so when I had to accompany her on a ride that spun and jerked around a bit, I happily obliged, even though the seats were ripped and like five out of the ten carts were out of order. We squealed and laughed and then squealed and laughed some more as it jerked us around and spun us in circles…for like six hours. Seriously, the ride lasted forever. It gave us our first opportunity at a mother/daughter ESP moment as we looked at each other, wincing, both trying to will it to stop while I seriously questioned my parenting choice of hotdog before spinny ride.

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But we lived and we headed to the livestock barns to check out the pigs, goats, and cattle and grab an ice cream.

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Oh I love a good fair. The county fair was my favorite weekend of the summer growing up, because I was and always will be, a project person. And so I did projects. And showed horses and looked forward to one of the few times in the summer that I got to stay long hours in town and hang out with my friends.

And so I was eager to take my two-year-old to her first county fair this year…and, well, here’s how it went.

In the name of the fair
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It was 175 degrees and 200 percent humidity. I knew because my hair told me soon as I sat up in bed.

The higher the hair, the closer to God, and I got closer to God with each passing, sweltering hour.

It was 175 degrees and 200 percent humidity, so I did what any good and reasonably sane mother would do: I loaded up the kids and went to the county fair in town.

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Because this was our only chance before they packed up the carnival and quilting projects, put the horses away, sold all the 4-H steers and took the show rabbits off of ice and back home to safety.

Plus, they were selling giant glasses of freshly squeezed lemonade, which taste really good after lugging a 30-pound 2-year old across the parking lot because she suddenly wants to “hold you.”

Yeah, if only she could hold me. “One day child, one day,” I said quietly to myself, her sweat melting into my sweat as she began sliding down my legs at the food stand where the two of us had a 175-degree decision to make between pizza or hamburgers while my nephew spun around us in the wheels he strapped to his shoes so he “wouldn’t have to expend so much energy.”

Kid had the right idea. So did the lady who took one look at me as I trudged across the asphalt dragging a wagonful of children as if I was on the last legs of a yearlong trek across the Sahara. She handed me a handful of Popsicles and saved my life.

Ah, the county fair. It’s always hot at the county fair.

Unless it’s hot and windy.

Or windy and raining.

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I stuck one Popsicle down my shirt and handed the melting children the rest and continued our journey past the livestock sale toward the carnival for a flashback to all of the sweat that trickled into my eyes when I was a 4-H kid standing in my long-sleeved white shirt holding on tight to the halter of my clean-enough horse.

Which reminded me of the once-a-year horse-washing ritual I would perform on my mare in the grassy backyard, complete with hose, Mane ‘nTail and a ShowSheen finish only to wake up to an open gate and a horse that escaped to the nearest mudhole. That happened more than once.

But still, we persist. In 175 degrees or 175 mph winds. In the name of the county fair. And big, godly hair.

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Things I used to be…

Things I used to be
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There are things I used to be.

I used to be more careless. I used to be flexible. I used to be able to say “yes” loud and clear without worrying what “yes” would cost me.

I used to be OK in a bikini, stretched out across the front lawn with a magazine and an endless afternoon in front of me. Because I used to be younger.

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I used to be younger, and thinner and less affected by the one margarita I ordered with supper. I used to order two and then sing into a long night without worrying about the morning and the thin thread attaching me to the little bodies breathing in and out, eyes closed tight in their beds without me.

I used to have spare time that I didn’t spend on searching for sippy cup lids or calculating the coupon cost per diaper.

In my other life, I never once uttered the words, “Don’t lick the doorknob!” and I certainly never made 37 negotiations a day that involved two more bites or five more minutes and no, you can’t put the puppy in your purse.

And I certainly didn’t use the phrase “be careful” as often.

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There are things that are buried in me now under these new layers of motherhood. I think about peeling them back only when I’m looking through old photographs of myself toasting to the sky or in the rare quiet moments that last long enough that I’m almost convinced I could be her again, before the creak of the door or the cry out of the lungs of the fresh soul in her crib in the dark calling for her momma.

I am momma.

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Last week, I was driving the ribbon of Interstate 94 that stretched out west for home. My babies were tucked in the back as the landscape zoomed by their windows and my eyes were heavy with the weight of exhaustion my new body holds. It overwhelmed me.

I signaled, parked in a rest stop and found a shady spot to take a break. I used to be unprepared, but this new version of me had blankets to spread out under our bodies and so we all laid down in a big pile under clouds rolling slowly, slowly, slowly across a blue sky.

And I want to say it before it absorbs into my skin and gets lost in the bigger, more urgent stories of a life…

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If I died tomorrow, this 20 minutes at a rest stop along I-94 with the baby navigating the lines of my tired face, my husband lifting the toddler to the sky, her squeals, our laughter, all four of our bodies touching one another, touching the earth, looking up at the trees and the fact that we simply couldn’t be anywhere else in the world if we wanted to, will make the highlight reel when I close my eyes at the end of my life.

Because I used to be so many things, but now I have these layers attached to this wonderfully agonizing winding and unwinding thread, and I will never be who I used to be because now I am a mother.

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Attack of the bumblebee

Dear Diary,

Tonight I was viciously attacked by a bumblebee.

I don’t want to sound dramatic, but it was dramatic. We were out picking raspberries under a perfect North Dakota sky, the toddler was chin deep in the brush, her daddy in front of her handing back berries, my niece right beside them getting her fill, and me, with the baby strapped to my chest, innocently watching a postcard of a moment, when out of the the clear blue sky I get dive bombed by a 10 pound piece of fuzz with wings.

I shooed him away carefully at first because I like bees, bees are important for the health of our world, but the fella was relentless.

Shoo after shoo he came back for more, as if he planned on permanently taking up residence in my braid. I swear he was digging with his sticky little bee legs, shooting the bad sort of chills down my spine with every jet plane buzz, sending me flailing as much as a mother can safely flail with a baby strapped to her chest out in the wild brush of the badlands.

And I know bumblebees don’t generally sting, but it’s hard to remember the whole harmless mantra when the bugger is trying his damndest to unbutton your shirt.

So naturally, as one does in situations such as these, I spun in circles, jumped up and down and swatted frantically at my head, squealing short little squeals that’s turned into full on screeches in case anyone within a ten mile radius might decide it sounded urgent enough to come to my aid.

And when the people I loved most in life failed to even lift a head from the raspberry patch to make sure I wasn’t quickly disappearing into quick sand or negotiating my life with a mountain lion, I decided to name names.

“Chaaaaddd!! Chhaaaad! A bee! He won’t quit!” I finally hollered, now sixteen miles away from him on a tall hill in the neighbor’s bull pasture.

Which got him to casually turn around and stroll toward me to try to shoo the thing himself, as if the matter wasn’t as urgent as the woman who currently had a robin sized bumblebee drinking wax from her ear thought it was.

But he quickly found out he was wrong as the velociraptor turned on him, sending all 190-some pounds of him running and flapping his arms on his way to our ATV.

“Save Yourselves!” He hollered, scooping up our toddler in one arm and our fourteen year old niece in the other and tossing them to safety before he sped toward me and the bewildered baby with at least six new Jurassic-era sized bumblebees now on board inside the cab.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a woman with a seven month old, eighteen pound baby strapped to her chest attempt to sprint alongside a moving vehicle Tom Cruise style in an attempt to make a running leap to safety, but I can assure you everyone would have been laughing if they weren’t so terrified.

With the toddler hanging on for dear life by the crook of her little finger, my niece firmly stuck Spider Man style to the ceiling and yours truly with one butt cheek on the seat and two baby legs flapping along with the frantic bumps, our getaway driver made a successful escape to a breezier spot away from the sweet nectar of the brush patch.

Because, apparently that was the bee’s turf, dammit.

I know because I could hear the thing yelling it at me, shaking his tiny bee fists and shooting his tiny bee eyebrows up to the sky as we disappeared over the bumps of the horizon, all of us a little punchy for the rest of the night, certain we were being followed.

If you need me I’ll be Googling “when bumblebees aren’t so bumbly.” Or maybe “When bumblebees are too bumbly…”

And that pretty much sums up my life for the past month. Shaken but relatively unscathed by each turn of events…

The end.

Good night.

🐝

Banquet in a Field: Telling our food story

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Dad and I had the opportunity to entertain for a unique event in Belfield, ND a few weeks ago for the Banquet in a Field event. Hosted by the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce Agricultural Committee, this event was focused on connecting consumers and North Dakota growers and producers. As cattle ranchers we were happy to have the opportunity to help support the idea that we need to find new and interesting ways to tell the story of our food, helping to bridge the gap and break down barriers in our industry.

The event was a great success, hosting 140 guests at Kessel’s Arrow K Farms, literally placing consumers where it all begins–right in our beautiful North Dakota backyard. The evening was not only a showcase of production agriculture, it was a first-hand look at scenic Western North Dakota.

As guests socialized and enjoyed appetizers made from local ingredients, dad and I played our old standards under the shade of tall cottonwoods that have likely stood as windbreaks for generations. The wheat field in front of us rolled in the much appreciated breeze and I felt fortunate to have my two world’s colliding in this special way.

It was even better that we were invited to the multi-course meal served by a local FFA chapter. My favorite part? The kids came around offering little shot glasses of milk–your choice of chocolate or white.

Below is this week’s column with a little more on the experience, but more about the importance of supporting and energizing efforts to tell our agriculture story. It’s why I do what I do, in a small way “opening the doors” to this place so that you might be able to see how important this land and these animals are to our family and the plates we help fill. Because we all know how food connects us, now let’s connect to our food.

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If we don’t tell our food story, who will?

We sit at kitchen tables, on blankets in the park, around picnic tables at street fairs and on tailgates after a long morning in the field. We crack eggs in our pancake mix while we tell our kids about the time their grandmother baked coffee filters in an early morning batch, her attempt at a legendary April Fool’s joke.

We flip our burgers on shady decks while our friends talk about the time they got lost in Mexico City. We scoop up spoonfuls of peas and choreograph a song and dance routine, complete with a jazz-hand landing to convince our toddler to open her mouth.

We grab a handful of dad’s caramel corn and remember the time spent with him in the kitchen. We’re grateful we paid attention to the recipe so he can live on in the sweet, sticky reminiscence.

No matter where you eat it, food connects us, it reminds us and it’s part of our story. But when was the last time you’ve thought about the story of your food?

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It was a muggy summer evening in western North Dakota and I stood next to my dad under the shade of a grove of tall cottonwood trees along the edge of a beautiful wheat field. We were strumming our guitars and singing about eating watermelon after a summer ballgame as a slow and steady line of community trickled into this farmyard from a makeshift parking lot behind the family shop.

They shook hands, made introductions and wondered what to expect as they walked past beautifully set tables next to grain bins and farm machinery, ready and waiting to celebrate food in a unique way — right where it all starts.

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We hear the phrase “farm-to-table” thrown around these days as a way to make us feel more connected to the food on our plate. On that evening, the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce took it a step further by inviting the community to meet directly with a local family who dedicates their life’s work to growing and caring for the land and the food we eat at their first annual Banquet in a Field event.

Over bites of mini cornbread muffins, lentil dip, sunflower toastettes, oven-roasted potatoes, beef picanha and honey apple cake served by kids from the local FFA chapter, a conversation, centered on North Dakota’s agriculture producers, began.

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And so did the celebration. Because our agriculture story is sometimes harder for us to tell than the story behind our grandmother’s recipe for award-winning chili. The fact that North Dakota is the lead producer of the navy and pinto beans it contains? Well, that’s something I know the Kessel family hosting us that evening was proud of.

And we should be, too. Because if we don’t spread the message and help the world understand that a tomato makes ketchup and that big, beautiful wheat field rolling in the breeze that evening is just a step on a long journey to appearing in the pasta you’ll be serving for your best friends as they reminisce about the time you all ran into the ocean naked, who will?

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The Banquet In a Field Events were the idea of CommonGround, a group of women in agriculture who volunteer to engage and outreach with non-ag consumers. It was started by and continues to be supported through the soybean and corn checkoffs. One of the reasons CommonGround created this event was to build stronger connections between North Dakota consumers and the state’s farmers and ranchers.
Because Banquet In A Field was such a success, the Dickinson Area Chamber Of Commerce Ag Committee is already making plans for next year. The event will be a key community resource, going forward, for those who want to learn more about how agriculture impacts their daily lives. Find out more at dickinsonchamber.org/banquet-in-a-field/

In dark times, hang on to hope

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Western North Dakota has become many different things to so many different people over the last 10 years of an all out and unprecedented economic boom — a refuge. A last resort. A stop along the way. An experiment. An adventure. And for many, a new home.

Last week, it became a place where a family lost their baby to the sky.

And this isn’t my story to tell except that it’s my community and my heart is breaking. In another time of my life here in my hometown, it would have been more likely that I would have known many of the families whose homes were ravaged by a tornado that whipped through a trailer park on the south side of town in the terrifying and devastating moments before midnight.

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MIKE McCLEARY Bismarck Tribune

But then again, in another time, that trailer park was nothing but a field and I was a young girl with plans to leave a place that didn’t yet hold all of these new dreams, let alone my own.

But here we are now, together in this town, together between new stoplights, new foundations and freshly planted lawns, all of us on wobbly knees, all of us so focused on navigating our place here that maybe we forgot about that sky and how it can freeze our pipes and frost bite our skin only to turn around and soak us in sweat before sending down hail stones and ripping homes from the dirt.

And maybe that’s why the lump swelled up in my throat the way it did when I heard of the devastation that occurred while I was lying safe in my bed with my arms around my own baby. Twenty-eight injuries. One child lost. More than 100 people displaced in a town that has yet to become familiar to many of them.

I didn’t want this to be their experience here. I didn’t want this to be the place where a baby lost his chance at a future, where bodies were injured and belongings scattered in the dirt. I didn’t want this devastation to be a chapter in our unpredictable story.

But if we can’t control the sky, we can control how we connect our hearts to our hands and our hands to our actions. And we can carry on the narrative of compassion and neighborly love and muscle that made us a dot on the map in this wild place to begin with.

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A cat found in the rubble of a mobile home destroyed by Tuesday morning’s tornado hitting Watford City rests in the arms of Andrew Anderson, a missionary helping the Red Cross at the Prairie View RV Park.

And that’s what I see happening here now. Even if there’s no blanket soft enough and no hug tight enough to put that baby back in his mother’s arms, at least there’s a community wondering how they might help those new parents bear the weight of their grief.

Because the roads in and out of this town are full of people talking about how they’ve been helped and hurt, how they’re leaving for good or coming to stay forever.

And regardless of the story, I wish nothing for any of us but to hold on to hope. Because the sky can rumble, it can scream and shake us until we break. But in so many ways I’ve come to know it to shine again and that’s the only promise any of us can make here in this place.​

As shelter closes, Red Cross praises Watford City

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Chris Moore stands beside the American flag he has attached to the box of his pickup truck parked next to his mobile home at the Prairie View RV Park in Watford City on Tuesday afternoon. His home was damaged by the EF2 tornado that struck the park in the early morning hours, but the flag remained upright. MIKE McCLEARY Bismarck Tribune

Who are we without our memories?

Happy summer everyone. We took as much of a hiatus from real life as we could over the 4th of July week to head to my grandparent’s lake cabin in Minnesota like we do every year over the holiday.

This year was pretty special as more family joined us from across the midwest and my two-year old had a blast following the big kids around the lake.

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Great Grandpa and Grandma with all ten of their great grandchildren

I’m not going to lie, traveling with two young kids and staying in a hotel for night upon night is no joke.

Kids like schedules. But there are so many reasons it’s worth it to spend a week having donut holes for breakfast, skipping naps for more swim time, serving popsicles before supper and wiping the sand and grass off of their little feet before zipping up their jammies and flopping down for bed sunkissed, dirty and exhausted from fun at 10 pm.

My only wish is that my girls could remember every minute of the weekend spent with this family, especially these special moments…

Last week, Edie caught her first fish off of her great-grandparents’ dock on a little lake in Minnesota.

After her daddy helped her pull that bluegill out of the water using the little orange fishing pole with the button reel that has likely caught many grandkids’ first fishes, she inspected its puckered mouth, ran her fingers over its scales, looked toward the shore and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Gramma Ginny, look! I caught a fish!”

Gramma Ginny is Edie’s 80-something great-grandmother who is known to her family as a woman who loves to play bridge, has read thousands of books, is probably magic because she can float in the water for hours without paddling and refuses to look on anything but the bright side in life. This is a quality that is seeing her and her family through the difficult and inevitable process of time that has taken her quick wit and memory, but has not broken her spirit.

Edie calls gramma Ginny her best friend and like any best friend, she was thrilled by her little granddaughter’s first catch. I watched them celebrate with a lump in my throat wishing time would stop for a moment.

Edie, don’t get bigger just yet. Gramma, don’t get older. Warm sun, don’t go down on Lake Melissa today; just hang in the sky a little longer and shine on my mom in her swimsuit as she floats out to the sailboat with her sisters. Don’t set on these cousins getting to know one another and growing up too fast. Don’t stop our laughing and start our worries. Not yet. Hold still now, time.

“It’s a beautiful day. A good day,” said Gramma Ginny over and over as all 10 of her great-grandchildren, from 7 months to 14 years old, navigated their relationships to one another over games of beanbag toss, squirt gun fights and kayak trips to the lily pads.

“Yes, yes it is Gramma,” we would reply, all of us reliving old memories of swim lessons from aunties, rainy day card games and mosquito slapping by the campfire, wishing we didn’t know that our matriarch’s memories slip in and out like waves as she holds on tight to her husband’s hand and wades into the familiar feel of the cool lake water towards her grown daughters with children and grandchildren of their own.

I looked at my grandparents and thought about the 60-some years of a life they’ve lived hand in hand like that and I wondered how it is that I want to stop the very thing that has given them so much adventure and fulfillment and love.

What do we know if we can’t remember it all?

Who are we without our recollections, our stories? Our memories?

We are my 2-year-old daughter, fresh and eager to discover a mysterious new world, and her great-grandmother, two best friends celebrating a catch in a special moment on a good and beautiful day.

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Seeing the garden in spite of the weeds

We’re coming off of one of those long stretches of week that sometimes happens for us in the summer when work and fun sort of collide to create this chaotic swarm of action and stress and fun.

We had a birthday party, cousins visiting from Texas, a children’s theater production, a visit from a PBS film crew, a swing set building project that likely won’t be done until Rosie gets married and it was awesome to have so much to do and so many people around us to love…

But in the middle of it all was this big Art in the Park event I’ve been planning for months as part of my work running an arts foundation in the community.

I put a lot of effort into this event. We had generous sponsors that put hard earned money into it as well. I enlisted the help of all of the family I could round up, plus my husband and board members and volunteers. In my mind, if we could pull it off, it was going to be a fun gathering of local music, artists and hands-on activities.

And after the stress of setting up and making everyone fit in a limited space, for a good three hours or so the sun-shined and the people milled and the music played and the kids got their faces painted and did projects and played in the park and the artists talked with shoppers and it was exactly as I envisioned. And I was thrilled for us all…

And then the thunder clapped and the sky opened up and it rained and rained and rained….

And a part of me wanted to cry, but a bigger part of me said instead, at least the sun shone on us for a while.

Because I was born with something in me that seems to beg me not to be let down…

And that’s what this week’s column is about…seeing the garden in spite of the weeds.

Coming Home: Never mind the weeds

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Last night, I put the girls to bed before the sun set and headed out to the garden.

It had been an entire week since I had a chance to dig in that dirt in an attempt manage my little crop of vegetables, and I could see from my window all the rain gave the weeds permission to set up shop.

But I didn’t mind. When I first moved back to the ranch, I made myself a list of the things I wanted back in my life after spending a few years thinking I didn’t know who I was. At the top of that list was a simple little promise to keep a garden. And because it was quiet last night as I kicked up the smell of damp dirt, I had a moment to remember why.

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When I was a kid, probably close to 10 or 11, I entered my garden into the county fair. Because of the timing of our growing season, I didn’t have any vegetables to present, so I decided I would document the process. I can’t remember every detail of the exhibit or what we grew that summer, but I do remember I put together a picture book with some progress photos.

I recall one photo I was particularly proud of that featured 10-year-old me in a T-shirt, ponytail and jeans standing confidently next to our little corn crop. The idea was to show the height of our stalks to the judge in a book that, between the shiny Kodak photos pasted on construction paper and the sentences spelled out in wavering Sharpie lines, told less of a story of a master gardener and more of a kid who liked a project.

I was pretty certain the judge would be impressed, which made it that much harder to process the sinking feeling when he pointed to that picture and asked, “What’s that there?”

I moved my eyes from my beautiful corn stocks down to the border of the garden where the judge placed his finger.

“Weeds,” I said as my face flushed.

Weeds that the judge suddenly made me notice for the first time in all of the hours I spent digging in that dirt and documenting my progress.

Weeds my dad never pointed out to me. Weeds my mom never mentioned. Weeds that earned me a red ribbon instead of the coveted blue.

Weeds that today remind me of the vulnerability of my optimistic nature. That I could look right past that snarl of crabgrass and creeping Jenny and only see the promise of grilled corn on the cob or the snap of a fresh pea says something about the innocence and wonder of childhood, a person I become again when I’m standing in a garden I made grow.

And I’m thankful for that judge. He did his job and I was better for it. And on days the burdens in my life grow in too close, threatening to steal my rain and choke out the sun, I know I can chop them down if I need to.

But sometimes I like that it’s in me to say never mind the weeds. Better things are coming with a little sunshine and rain.

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This place is yours

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Family ranch is a special place, not just for the ones who live there now. 

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“This place, there’s just something about it that makes people feel like it’s their own. It’s special that way I think,” my husband said as he pulled his pickup off the highway and onto the gravel road that leads us home to the ranch. Our girls were sleeping in the back and the sky was turning dark in anticipation of a summer storm.

Last week, we said goodbye to a ranch full of relatives who came to celebrate the fact that Dad gets another birthday and catch us in the act of branding and working cattle. Aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends leaned on fences, pointed cameras, served roast beef or grabbed a job, each one with a memory of time spent here making an appearance in the stories on their lips.

When a place has a 100-year family history, the things that old barn has seen as it stands watch over it all could fill some colorful pages.

And if I had millions of words and time upon time, I don’t know if I could have said it better than my husband did that day as a man who wasn’t born to it, but respects it and the people it raised enough to be granted the gift and responsibility of a home here.

But we both know that it’s not ours alone, to keep or to claim. That’s something I learned at an early age from my grandparents, before they left us too soon. Open arms, open minds and a porch light that stays on just in case is the way it’s always been.

We’re just lucky enough to help be the keepers of a flame that has remained flickering because of the hard work and good hearts of the people who kept the cows fed and the bills paid through times much tougher than these.

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Great Grandpa Eddie who homesteaded the Veeder Ranch

So when the little old farm house started on fire on that black and starry Fourth of July six years ago, we said goodbye to an old structure with a crumbling foundation and built a new cabin in its spot by that barn. Because we needed to keep a house there for the people who love this place and those who may need to fall in love with it someday.

Because as much as the coulees and hilltops of this place are sacred to me, there are dozens upon dozens of others throughout the years who have climbed these hills for a breath or got lost in the draws on purpose, bucked off of horses or scooped up barn kittens in their arms, slid on cardboard boxes down the gumbo hills or sat for coffee around the table in my grandma’s tiny kitchen. This is their place.

And if you come over for a visit, or a ride, or a roast beef sandwich, it might just become your place, too. I hope it does. It likely will. Because it’s special that way I think.

homestead shack

Great Grandpa Eddie in the door of his homestead shack

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

It isn’t always money that makes us rich

Even without much money, family can make us rich
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When we were young kids, my little sister came home from a weekend with her friend spent four-wheeling and boating on the big lake and asked my dad if we were poor.

Because somewhere between kicking up dust and riding the boat’s wake she realized what they had that we didn’t, and she wondered why.

Ah, comparison. It happened to my little sister earlier than it happened to me, but eventually we all outgrow our childish blinders to notice the things that make you comprehend we aren’t all created equal here.

I find myself struggling with this as I work on growing my children up in a world that strongly suggests that life is happier with more things in it. Bikes and cute clothes, an iPad with endless games, a toy-barn full of toy cows, a big sandbox, one of those lawn mowers that spits out bubbles as it goes and more space in the house to make a mess with it all.

Just this month I ordered my kids a big ol’ playset to go in the backyard, something that I never had as a kid, would have loved, but did just fine without. And knowing what needs to come of those four big boxes in my driveway, it looks like my girls might be off to college by the time we get the thing set up.

Then last week I stood under our big old barn reaching up toward a blue sky with an armful of the winter’s bale twine and a fresh cow pie squished under the heel of my boot. I was cleaning up the pens and tack room, sorting and organizing in an attempt get ready for the weekend’s branding.

 

 

 

I was sweaty and dirty and a little on edge from all of the mice running for their lives from under every grain bucket I moved and I was sort of cussing us for not keeping on top of the work out here and for not having nicer equipment, more organized outbuildings, well-kept fences and a bigger, nicer house that could accommodate all the family and friends we expected that weekend.

I looked up at that big old barn and the breeze blew the scent of that freshly squished cow pie to my lungs and I smiled.

barn

I don’t know how my dad answered my little sister that day, but if my children ever ask I’ll be sure to reply, “The list of things we won’t be able to give you could fill pages…

“But the scatter of those mice, the scent of the plum blossoms in the coulees in the spring, the ache of your muscles after a long day in a saddle, tangled-up hair and jeans that won’t come clean, forever knowing the sound quiet makes as day turns into night, the flicker of the fireflies and watching them glow so unafraid of the dark as we stand together on the deck of a home that, thank God, will never be big enough to hold all of the people we love, well children, I think we might actually be rich.”

IMG_6752IMG_6946IMG_6874Edie and calf