A ranch house is a work in progress

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My husband and I have lived in our house over the hill from the homestead place at the ranch for nearly nine years. I remember the day that it came, in three parts on the back of a semi-trailer all the way from Wisconsin where they started it — the framing, the siding, the windows and some sheetrock here and there — and then we were going to finish it — the floors and doors and loft, the light fixtures and fireplace and railings and the garage and the yard and the deck and and and and…

This photo is why this chandelier will live in that spot of eternity

Let me just tell you the ideas come fast around here, but the progress is slow. I wish I could blame it all on my handyman husband, but it’s my fault really… I’ll take the blame for all those ideas.

Last weekend, my daughters helped their dad put rock on the pillars outside of the front entrance, the one that we added three years ago, turning the house side of the garage into a giant entryway. Because when we designed the house initially, it was only Chad and I and our boots and hats and coats, and we grossly underestimated the amount of space you want to kick that all off (and the mud and the slush and the poop) when it comes down to it. Add a couple munchkins in the mix, and the family and the friends and the help that comes through the door, and, well, you’re facing a renovation project that shrinks the garage and gives us another spot to put a fridge and a hat rack and all the muddy boots you can manage.

Because when you live out in the middle of nowhere, apparently one cannot have enough refrigerators or hats or muddy boots.

The ranch house. It’s a thing that you see featured in HGTV shows, in those big ol’ spreads in Texas-themed magazines and Southern blogs. The sprawl of the family table, the cast iron kitchen sink where you do dishes looking out the cute curtained window facing a lush spread of a lawn, cattle grazing across the fence, a sleepy dog in the yard, maybe a kid on a tire swing or something.

I’m here to tell you that my reality in particular is a little less frosted and shiny.

Yesterday I stood on my back deck, the one that isn’t finished yet but needs to be redone, and yelled at a bull who found his way to the only green thing on the ranch, the unmowed weeds in my yard. And he looked up at me, fully confused and offended that I would be asking him to leave. And so he took a run for the broken fence where he entered, a burst of movement creating a burst of poop that he distributed from one end of the yard to the other, making sure to deposit a few decent piles in front of the kids’ swingset.

It was picturesque indeed. About as picturesque as the barn cat that has decided to poop on my patio table. Like, all the dirt in the ever-loving world and that’s his spot.

Help me.

I feel like I’m ranting. Sorry. There’s just so much poop out here.

Meanwhile, inside the ranch house, the calf-vaccination guns are in the dish drying rack, the kids got a hold of the calf tagging marker to decorate the 37 gourds they got from Grandpa’s garden and they’re all spread out across that kitchen table and we cannot move them because They. Are. Not. Done. Yet!

And outside, one dried-up petunia plant sits outside the half-finished rock pillar. Half-finished because a fence needed to be fixed, supper needed to be served or the sun went down in the middle of the project.

It’s fall y’all, welcome to the ranch house. Watch out for the dive-bombing boxelder bugs on the way in.

Nine years ago we pictured raising our family here, a family we weren’t sure if we could ever have. And so we were thinking about light fixtures and where to put the outlets, and having the carpet or no carpet debate.

And what a thing life is, so surprising and messy and unpredictable that of course we wouldn’t be able to envision that the Barbie Dream House would take up half the basement and I would be showering with at least two or three naked baby dolls every morning in our master bathroom that my husband and I tiled together and lived to tell about.

I didn’t know it then, when that house rolled down the hill, that it would shift and change and grow in this little spot we chose for the rest of our lives. And that it might not make the magazines, but it’s us, isn’t it? Unfinished and flawed and an ever-loving work in progress.

Fall work and the promise of rain

On Saturday, it rained.

It rained and it soaked the earth and it made mud puddles and the kids splashed in them and we all pressed our noses against the screens and windows and held our breath. Hoping it would last.

My dad was in another town, and so I expected a call or a text, wondering how much rain we had so far. I didn’t realize it until this very dry year, when the man called me every time it rained, to see how much we got. Because I have a rain gauge. And he doesn’t.

Never has.

Isn’t that crazy? A rancher in North Dakota without a rain gauge! It’s even crazier when I tell you why. Why?!

Because he’s superstitious. He figures if he buys one, it will never rain again. Kinda like the old “buy a snow blower and it won’t snow” thing.

So he’ll call his brother who’s 3 miles down the road in the summer with a big ol’ rain gauge nailed to a fence post. And then he’ll call me, who’s closer by 2 miles and has a butterfly gauge stuck in my flower pot, flapping in the breeze, and then he’ll compare the two and calculate if he can breathe a sigh of relief or keep worrying.

It seems this inch of rain let him breathe a bit. And I think he needs to thank my husband for the wet forecast, because he started a deck project with a deadline a few days ago, which pretty much guarantees a weather delay.

But we’ll take it, just like we took the rain on Saturday with homemade tomato soup cooking on the stove and a plan to work calves the next morning in the mud, up on a horse as soon as the sun broke over the horizon. We put on layers, long johns and jeans and chaps and sweatshirts and neckerchiefs, gloves and earflap caps.

We could see our breath against the morning light. And as that sun burned the chill off our cheeks and the bare branches of trees that had given up their leaves, we pushed lazy cattle from one pasture, across the cover crop and into the corrals where we sorted and checked and counted and stripped off those carefully plotted layers the way North Dakotans do in the transition of seasons.

This kind of fall work takes a village, and we have a good little group. Two young cowboys from down the road show up with horses, one of our best friends from high school who wouldn’t miss the chance to ride these hills, and my husband and my dad and me. And my little sister, who brings the kids to watch and climb on fences and old haying equipment and helps her tiny daughter push calves through with the pink sorting stick.

And my mom who puts the soup on, makes the Scotcharoos and lays the sandwiches out for the crew so I can stay to help in the corrals a bit longer. Nothing tastes better than warm lunch after work like this. And I like having them all in the house to feed them as a thank you for the help.

This kind of work is good for the soul I think. Hands busy, heart pumping, air in your lungs. It’s precisely why people remain in this lifestyle no matter the practicality of it really.

Despite the lack of vacation days and stability. It’s because the back of a horse in the hills becomes your office space and your church and your therapy and your living and your family and your friendships and it’s all wrapped up out here in the least complicated way so that even when it’s hard, it is worth it.

It’s almost always hard.

But then, if you’re patient enough with the promise, it will rain…

Will our children know the quiet?

Will our kids have a chance to know the quiet?
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On a recent trip to a Minnesota town, I took a walk along a path by the river that wound through the city. I kept my headphones out and listened to the sound of slow-moving traffic, wind moving through the changing leaves, dogs barking, a mom and dad chatting, strolling their newborn down the sidewalk on a sunny evening, the sound of my own thoughts…

In the quiet neighborhood I noticed a little girl swinging, alone on the playground behind her apartment complex, her mom sitting on a bench at the corner of the sandbox while the child sang to herself, pumping her legs up to the sky, lost in thoughts of her own, only the way a child can do it when left to herself. What might it be like to be a bird? She closes her eyes and imagines she’s flying, imagines she has wings and a place to be. She sings to herself and the world she’s created in that slow and steady moment she was given to play alone.

I used to be that girl. I hope we all have been a version of her at some point in our childhoods, whether we grew up between these sidewalks or, like me, with miles of road and trees and creeks separating me from parks like these. With years between my sisters and me, I spent plenty of time alone as a kid, using my imagination to occupy me, to come up with a project or a song or a place I needed to be that day — checking on the wild raspberries, trying my hand at catching a frog or pushing logs up along a fallen tree and calling it a fort. I didn’t know it then, but it was the best gift I could have been given, the time to learn how to be with myself.

It’s served me well now as an adult in a career that’s sent me traveling thousands and thousands of miles along lonesome stretches of highway, navigating it alone. Dining alone. On a mission to wander.

To be quiet with myself has never been a thing that’s scared me, and now, as a parent to two young children in a world that feels noisier every day, the thing that scares me about the quiet is that our children won’t have a chance to know it. And without the quiet moments, I worry they won’t get to truly know themselves.

Last weekend my husband was digging in a water tank for the cattle behind my parents’ house, along the creek that used to be my old stomping grounds. My 5-year-old suggested we take him a picnic and so we packed up juice boxes in lunchboxes and ducked through the fences behind dad’s garden, past where the tire swing used to hang and along the beaver dam where a tin-can telephone used to connect my fort with my little sister’s across the creek.

We found a log to sit on and dug into our treats, talking about how I used to float sticks and watch the water bugs row across the clear water, and pretty soon I was leading them along that creek bank, making crowns out of reeds, picking riverbank grapes, jumping after frogs and digging in the sand. I was transported and they were transfixed the way wild places work on children. Let’s go farther, stay longer, look for more frogs, please.

Do you know we can still feel this way if we allow it? The magic — it still works on us too. I forget sometimes, but I was reminded.

There’s magic in nature. Magic. Magic in reaching for the sky, in the pumping of our legs to the rhythm of the songs we sing to ourselves. What’s it like to be a bird? Close your eyes, let the quiet in and grow yourself wings…

Why I’m moving to the suburbs

And now a true story about what it’s like being me trying to be a ranch hand and a housewife and why I may need to start shopping for khakis and a house in the suburbs.

The scene: Going with my dad on a ride to gather cows. We are in a hurry because every day it gets darker a little earlier. It was 7:30. It gets dark at 8:30… or something like that.

And now me explaining myself: I’ve never been able to keep up with my dad on a horse, and I’m afraid no matter how much help I think I am, I’m quite certain he would be better off without me.

I mean, I could be riding a racehorse. You know, one of those fast buggers that wins the races that racehorses win. It could have countless trophies, made jockeys famous and fans from around the world could be chanting his name. And that horse would take one look at me and decide that running isn’t his thing today.

And neither is trotting for that matter.

Nope. Not until we’re pointing toward the barn anyway. Or cutting a path through the thick trees. Yeah, in the trees he’d find a quick pace.

But Dad? Dad could ride a horse that was halfway to the light at the end of the tunnel and that horse would turn right around to give him his last breath.

So this is what I deal with when we’re in a hurry: Kicking and pushing and working to find a pace on a lazy horse to keep up with Dad as he heads toward the trees, providing me with directions that I cannot hear because he is facing the hills and I am three horse lengths behind him.

I yell, “What?”

And he says something about following a cow through the trail in the trees.

So I do.

Only there isn’t a trail.

So me and my suddenly lightning-fast horse make our own trail through the brush so thick that I lose sight of the cow I’m supposed to be following (and all forms of life and light for that matter).

I hear Dad hollering from what seems like 20 miles away and wonder how he got that far in what I thought has only been 30 seconds (I’m not sure though because I lose all sense of time because I’m focusing on trying to keep both my eyeballs as we duck and weave and through the thick brush).

“Jessss!!!” Dad’s voice echoes through the trees. “Wheeereee youuuuu attt?”

“Uhhhh…” I spit the leaves from my mouth. “Just, uh, cutting a trail here…”

…and bringing with me some souvenirs: sticks in my shirt, leaves down my pants, acorns in my pockets and twigs jammed nicely in the puffs of my ponytail as I emerge on the other side of the brush alone and searching for any sign of the cow I was supposed to keep an eye on.

Ah, never mind, looks like Dad has her through the gate.

I cuss.

I kick my horse to catch up while I work on ridding myself of the vegetation I acquired on my “Blair Witch” journey through the coulee.

I catch up just in time to follow him to the top of a hill, down through another coulee, along the road and into the barnyard where we load up the horses and I wait to make sure Dad’s tractor starts so he can get home and get a bale of hay.

It does not start.

So I drive him and the horses home.

Slowly.

Because I have precious cargo.

And because apparently I like to torture this man who is trying to beat the sun.

And the other man in my life, the one I married, was still at work when I got in from “helping.” So I decided to make him a casserole, only to be asked, three bites into his meal, what I put in this thing.

“Cheese, noodles, hamburger… the regular… why?”

He gets up from his chair, pulls something from his mouth, looks and me and says:

“Because I just bit into a stick.”

If you know of any nice places in the suburbs, give me a call. I’ll be shopping for khakis and looking for a new job.

A Poem for Healing

In my life, I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere except these acres of land where I was raised. When I was a young kid it’s where I felt the most myself, and it didn’t change the way I thought it would change as I grew up and went out to see how I fit in a bigger world.

I think about that girl I was, the one who, at barely 19, grabbed her guitar and gassed up her Chevy Lumina to hit the highway with her North Dakota accent and songs about cowboys and prairie skies and small town tragedies. I think about how I could be that rooted yet so completely comfortable on those highways and interstates that stretched on for miles between gas station snacks and Super 8 Hotels. How could everything seem so possible and impossible at the same time? I had no reason, no context in which I could reach back and pull that confidence, I just said yes, even if I was terrified, and got in my car and drove.

I turned 38 last month. And while I have plenty I could write about how grateful I am to be here, I’m feeling compelled today to dig out what I haven’t been saying, in part to keep with my promise to share the hard stuff in case it might help someone else with the hard stuff, too. And maybe as a reminder that what looks fine on the outside, might not be the full story, no matter what you’re seeing on social media or in that quick grocery store chat, no matter the motivational speaking and the narrative that indeed you can have it all if you just washed your face and planned your meals and made a monthly date night and cut out carbs and scheduled a run and went to church more…

I want to scream. One size does not fit all! One size doesn’t always fit one person!

And also I want to go back two years before I got sick and had my chest cut open and could maybe believe that stuff. Before the pandemic weighed on our health and our communities and our relationships so heavily. Before this chronic pain consumed me and made me feel guilty for not living each day to the fullest, because, I am, in fact, a survivor who wants to desperately to do more than just survive.

And so there I was standing in my kitchen sobbing, finally, to my husband, that spending a year and a half of my life draped in a nagging pain that threatens every day to steal the joy in which I’ve drawn my ambition and my confidence has maybe, at last, accomplished its mission. It was getting to me. I’m tired. Yes. Me. I get weighed down, too. I feel heavy. I don’t feel like I belong in this broken body sometimes, and this broken world, and then it makes me so angry. Because I’m tired and all I can do is sob in my kitchen and ask my husband to please, don’t try to fix it…

And so he doesn’t. He just listens. And tells me I’m human. And when you’re human you can be all of the things at once, happy and scared, grateful and mad and tired and hopeful and desperate and worthy and worried….

And so I take to the hills of this place that has held me so close and, even in the driest year, has never let me down. And it all seems so impossible and possible at the same time.

Keep driving.

A poem for healing

Wherever you are. However you are hurting, or sighing, or rejoicing,

I hope you have loving arms to hold you tight, to wrap around you and move you…

if you are low….

or if you didn’t think you could possibly be higher.

I hope those arms lift you, if just a little bit…a little bit more.

But mostly for you I wish,

wherever you are,

however you are hurting, or sighing, or rejoicing…

you will know to look to the skyline,

reach to the trees,

run your hands through the grass,

let the creek flow over your boots,

sit under the sunset and breathe in the cooler air…let the earth feel with you.

Let the dirt absorb the impact of a life you can’t control, lay down in it and know that you belong.

You belong here.

Here where you sigh.

You sigh.

And the earth sighs with you.

And you can cry. Scream to the sky.

I hope you know you can.

I hope you know something is listening, something can hear you and is echoing your pain, echoing the words “you will laugh again, you will, you will.”

And when you do, laugh loud.

Laugh at the hurt that tried to break you,

laugh because you know you can,

laugh because you never thought you would again.

Then reach for those arms, wherever you are, however you are hurting, or sighing or laughing…

reach for those arms, listen close and look to the sky…together.

September is National Suicide Prevention month. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out. You are worthy. You are loved and you are needed here.

A letter to you as you let go of my hand

Dear Daughters,

Last week I ran into another mom in the grocery store while I was pushing you, Rosie, in the car cart through the cereal section. I had just picked you up from preschool and you were helping me pick out snacks for your big sister’s backpack.

Rosie and her cousin Ada on their first day of Preschool

Turns out we needed to pack snacks for kindergarten, a line in the welcome packet I must have skimmed past 60 times and still didn’t register until you, Edie, informed me three days in. You were snarfing down a granola bar and I was horrified thinking how hungry you must have been watching the other kids take their apples and fruit snacks out after recess for three days straight. A lump formed in the back of my throat and I wanted to cry. I thought I had it under control. Turns out I didn’t really.

But you, dear Edie. You totally did.

I was retelling this story to the mom in the grocery store, adding that I had spent the entire day in and out of those tears because when I watched you, Edie, walk so confidently into those big doors, a music montage of your entire childhood and your future rolled through my head. Then suddenly you were grown and I was helping you pack your car to leave me. Like really leave. And it shook me up a little bit.

Also, did I mention you kicked me out of the room the first day of school? I held your hand and helped you find your desk. You sat down, folded your hands in your lap and I took your picture. You asked me how many more pictures I needed and then you asked me when it was time for the parents to leave.

“Do you want me to leave?” I was surprised. You’re usually so shy. But you whispered “Yes,” confidently in my ear, and so off I went then. Into my own new realm of parenthood, the realm where neither of you are babies anymore.

That mom in the store could relate. She told me she cried in her car and then wrote her son a letter to open when he graduates from high school. She said it was five pages. Or maybe it was more. And she said I should do the same. To write you a letter. And the thing is, I’m a writer. I write about you two all the time. But to write to you? She was right. I should.

When I was getting ready to head to surgery to get my tumor removed a little over a year ago, I was terrified of leaving you two without a mother (you may not remember, but you girls regularly trace the line of my scar with your little fingers, ask if it still hurts and then when I say no, we reassure one another that I’m OK now).

And so I thought I should do just that, to write you each a letter, just in case I had to leave you before I was ready. I thought maybe I could look ahead and try to imagine a world in which I wasn’t there for you for things like this: your first day of preschool Rosie, and kindergarten Edie. For your big wins and heartbreaks, for all the fights over hair and outfits and nights that got too late and the trouble you’ll get into as you search for yourself.

But I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I couldn’t find the words just as I can’t seem to find them here today. Except that I never want to forget, Rosie, that some mornings you cry because your oatmeal spoon has oatmeal on it. And Edie, we told you twice last week not to get too close to the stock dam, and twice you got stuck so deep in the mud we had to get a shovel to dig your shoes out.

So I told you that, and now I guess I’ll tell you this: The world is going to be that oatmeal spoon and that black, sticky mud sometimes. It’s either going to seem fine to everyone else, but not to you, or seem fine to you, but not to everyone else. While it’s our job as parents right now to keep you fed and safe and out of the deep end, it’s my hope that we can raise you to be so completely and incredibly yourselves that you’re not scared of being scared or uncomfortable or a little bit lost. You’ll know how to ask for a hand, and how to generously give of yours.

In this milestone, dear daughters, the one where you are letting go of my hand, I can’t tell you how honored and grateful I am to be here, watching you, ready for when you need it again.

And also, dear daughters. You have kindness in you. Let it shine out your ears.

You are brave. Let that bravery lift up others.

You are ours and you are wonderfully you and we are so proud of you.

Love,

Mom

P.S. I bought you some Twinkies

One of the helpers

He loves to help
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Here’s the scene: My little sister running up to me as I was about to pull the door shut on the passenger side of my car. Someone in the parking lot of the rodeo grounds blocked her big ol’ SUV in, so she couldn’t pull forward and she couldn’t pull backward, and Lord help her, with a 30-mile drive home, they were all on the brink of a meltdown.

My little sister isn’t known for her confidence behind the wheel, and with two little kids in the back seat who had been running around the rodeo grounds for three straight hours — three straight hours past their bedtime — she wasn’t looking forward to testing her skills that night.

Hence, her running toward me in the dark parking lot saying thank goodness Chad’s still here.

I did note that she didn’t ask me to drive her out of there. I mean, I only failed my driving test once, but I’m more than happy to pass those tasks along to my husband, if I even had a choice. He was walking over there and in the driver’s seat and out before she even finished explaining herself.

Our daughters were in the back seat and, of course, asked what Daddy was doing. I said he was helping. And one of them replied, “Yeah, Daddy loves to help.”

And that sorta stopped me there. Because there couldn’t be anything more true about the man except if they would have said, “Daddy likes to save things.” Which is also related to that helping statement. Helping. Saving. Restoring.

The man is a fixer-upper, and not in the way in which he needs fixing necessarily (I mean, nobody’s perfect). But if there’s something to fix, call him and he’ll see what he can do about it. Same goes with pulling things out of ditches, ravines or, in the case of me and the four-wheeler, just really deep mud I should have avoided entirely.

And if you need it lifted, he can lift it. And if he can’t, he’ll make a contraption that will help him lift it, because my noodle arms and I certainly can’t be trusted to help him pull the giant fridge up your narrow basement steps. He’ll just do it himself, thank you. It’s much quicker and less whiny that way.

It occurs to me now that perhaps I shouldn’t broadcast this in statewide newspapers, because it’s like if you’re the guy who has a pickup, then you’re the guy who moves all your friends. But Chad has always been the guy who has a pickup, and access to a flatbed or horse trailer, so yeah, he’s the guy who moves all the things. (Same goes with roofing projects it seems, but anyway…)

Which means he’s probably also the guy who has had the world’s most engine trouble and flat tires. Because we never said these trailers or pickups were in the best working condition. But never mind that. The man probably has a jack and a couple spare tires, at least seven tarp straps, a toolbox full of fluids and tools, and a chain or two in case he drives by someone who needs a tow once he’s back in business.

The time I got stuck in our driveway. Was three years ago and Edie still reminds me…

Now that I think about it, the man has made a business out of it actually, at long last — Rafter S Contracting, for all the stuff that needs fixing or flipping.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Let me get back on track. I think why I started was to tell you that my husband is leveling up his helping qualifications by training as an EMT. Because, as he put it, as a first responder, he didn’t like the feeling of helplessness at a scene. If there’s something more to be done, well, let’s go ahead and do it. Let’s figure it out.

A community, a thriving community, exists because of people with this mindset. People’s lives are literally saved because people exist with this mindset. This is a hands-down truth that we see every day.

Chad helping my sister that night, and Chad (and his classmates from our community) going to EMT training two nights a week and some weekends for months on end, reminds me of our responsibility here. And it pushes me to think of what I should be doing to make this a better, a safer, more compassionate place to live. That question, shouldn’t it be the thesis of our lives?

“He loves to help.” Well, what a thing to show our children…

We’re going to be OK, and things of that nature…

There’s a mist that’s settled in over the ranch this morning, a lingering reminder of the rain we just experienced the past few days, at long last.

It was just what we needed, we all agreed. Over 2 inches in a few days and it didn’t fix everything — not the hay crop, not the world news, not the fact that my house hasn’t been clean since November 2015 — but it put us back in a much needed frame of mind:

“Patience often gets rewarded.”

“Well, there’s no sense worrying.”

“We’re going to be OK,” and things of that nature.

We’re going to be OK. It’s a mantra I told myself as I pulled my car out of the driveway of that old country church last Sunday. I hadn’t been to church in well over a year, for lots of reasons, some of them valid, some of them excuses, not many of them out of the ordinary.

It was my turn to serve the “lunch” after the service. (“Lunch” in Lutheran means coffee on and something nice to eat so we can all visit in the basement for a while.) There once was a time in my life where I would have felt intimidated at the thought that I was expected to actually “bake” something edible in time for 9 a.m. service, but I just turned 38 and last year I had my chest cut open and lived to complain about it, so I was fine with buying orange juice and bakery coffeecake on my way home from school shopping for two daughters I never thought I’d have who start kindergarten and preschool in a few short days and calling it good.

This is not my spread…

I left those children sleeping that morning while I headed down the road alone in the rain, on the quiet, now sorta muddy back roads to that tiny church that was still there waiting for me with a small congregation of neighbors and a drafty basement with steep steps that smells like old things and has drawers that stick, a cabinet full of vintage coffee cups, three large percolators and silverware I could not locate to save my God-fearing soul…

“I suppose if I made it here more often… but here I am anyway. I’m here today…”

The silverware search, coupled with a short-and-sweet sermon (remember: Lutheran), made me miss the service entirely — but not this, I did not miss this:

I did not miss the fact that someone was there before me to make sure the space was warm enough and everything was working properly. Or the fact that he checked to make sure I had everything I needed, and also asked if I needed help. And so did she. And so did she. And then she helped with dishes and he took the garbage out and I did not miss that these are those kind of people you try to pull to mind when it all seems a bit overwhelming out there.

I didn’t miss the conversation I had with her about canning chickens and the fact that she always mentions my grandma every time we talk and I love her for it.

I did not miss the words of gratitude for the spread I served and the assumptions that it was homemade (oh, you must have been working so hard!) before my bakery confession.

I did not miss how everyone who was able in that small congregation that morning grabbed an armful of that spread to take it up those steep old steps to be served in the small sanctuary so that our neighbor who couldn’t get down those steps could enjoy it over a visit, too. It was raining after all. There was nothing better to do. I did not miss that.

And at another time I might have worried over judgment that I didn’t bring the kids, or that I hadn’t been there in so long, maybe I shouldn’t be now. And there have been plenty other times I have run out the door sweating, hollering that we’re running late, putting my makeup on in the car while he drove. But not that day.

Because I had store-bought coffeecake, orange juice, a bag of bagels, it was raining and it was just what we needed, and there’s no sense worrying, and we’re going to be OK, and things of that nature…

Blue Buttes and the backdrop of childhood

There are sets of buttes that frame the landscape of our ranch. When you’re turning off the highway and coming down toward home, or when you find yourself on the top of a hill, searching for cows, or the dogs, or the other riders who are supposed to be with you, if you look north, as far as the eye can see, there they stand — the Blue Buttes — the backdrop to this little painting we live in here at the Veeder Ranch.

Every time I look at them, I’m reminded of a story that my dad told me about a drawing he colored of a cowboy on a mountain during a project in elementary school. He used his crayons to make the man’s hat brown, his shirt yellow, the sky blue and the mountain he was riding along purple.

When the teacher asked, “Why did you paint the mountain purple? Mountains aren’t purple!” my young dad said he felt embarrassed and confused. He didn’t think he was wrong. The only encounter he had up to that point with anything resembling a mountain was the Blue Buttes that waved to him from about 7 miles north. And they sure looked purple to him.

Oh my heart.

This week my oldest daughter, Edie, will start her first day of kindergarten. It’s a milestone she’s more than ready for, but I can’t stop kissing her cheeks and looking at her wondering how this happened. Wasn’t I just measuring her milestones in weeks and months? And now here we are staring down an entirely new chapter and all I can do is reminisce with her about how I used to rock her to sleep every night by pacing the floor.

Oh, I’m not ready. Like, in denial, putting off school shopping, not ready.

Recently we took Edie to the big hospital to get her tonsils taken out and while they were in there, they took her wiggly front tooth, too. (A fun surprise for all of us when she came off of anesthesia.) So if she didn’t look like a kindergartener before, she certainly does now.

So very soon, off she’ll go into a world that, day after day, will teach her things, so many things, she didn’t know before. Like, maybe, that the Blue Buttes aren’t actually blue or purple. And that 5+5 is 10 and 10X10 is 100 and then maybe the lines in a Shakespeare play and the periodic table and, too soon, that the Tooth Fairy is actually her mother, scrounging up cash, writing notes and sneaking into her room at night.

Right now my daughter is full of magic and innocence, collecting toads with her little sister in her ballet costume, drawing flowers with faces, playing dolls, hoarding special rocks, pumping her legs on the swing and believing that maybe unicorns exist somewhere. She’s also arguing with me about brushing her hair, choosing outfits that don’t match but make her “feel like herself,” and reminding me that every day of parenthood, if you’re doing it right, is a day closer to letting them go where they need to go.

But for now I’m soaking in the fact that, for now, where my girls need to go is outside to see if we can find some more toads. And can they please wear their princess dresses and bring their dolls in their strollers?

And then after that they might find themselves in the trees, following the secret path up to the top of the hill to check on the sunflowers, the wind tangling up their already messy hair. And if they look north, as far as the eye can see, they will find those buttes, purple and blue as can be, the backdrop of their childhood that I hope will never lose its magic, even in memory…

Happiness is a wild plum patch

Happiness is a wild plum patch
Forum Communications

Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies. They start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.

Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees. They mean Dad’s stories of Grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums, drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.

They mean memories of Grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.

They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal conditions, a reminder we all need from time to time. Wild plums mean a passing surprise on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.

A wild plum patch means listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.

“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”

“Keep ’em out of the cow poop!”

“Are you eating them, Jess? Hey, no eating!

“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”

Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees. I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking. I could. Maybe I will.

But even if I didn’t, even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.