At the end of a life…

Coming Home: At the end of a life
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Over supper tonight I was attempting to tell my husband about the highlights of my recent getaway to Nashville when my 3-year-old interrupted me repeatedly, insisting her story was more interesting.

“I went to the big town and swam in a hotel pool and met a friend with curly hair who shared her mermaid while you were on vacation to Menards,” she declared.

Nashville. Menards. To a 3-year-old, it’s all the same and another reminder that I was back to the reality of two-toddlers-in-the-house-supper-conversation as we rolled into bath time and bedtime and now here I am trying meet a deadline, piecing thoughts together as the clock pushes midnight…

A few years before my grandmother Edie died, she went on a trip by herself to Alaska. I’m not sure why I remember her vacation so vividly, but maybe it was because the timing fell in the short years she lived after her husband died and so, even as a 9-year-old kid, I was aware of her loneliness.

I understood somehow it was an adventure she never had a shot at as a daughter of homesteading immigrants turned into a rancher and mother of four turned into a widow before she even had a chance to turn 60.

I like to think of her standing on the deck of the cruise ship, posing in front of an iceberg, her magenta lips smiling wide and brave at a new beginning. There have been a million times since she died that I feel like we were robbed of her long life. She would have loved Nashville.

Last week, my husband’s grandmother died while I was sitting in a pew at the Grand Ole Opry. I found out between acts. And even though I suspected it was coming, my heart sank and I cried.

Of course I cried at the loss of a life so precious to all of us. I watched the rest of the show with that lump in my throat, thinking of Leona and how she would have loved the Opry if we could have ever convinced her to spend that kind of money on a ticket when she could listen for free on the radio for crying out loud, which was just one of the many reasons we loved her.

Leona was a woman raised on the dirt of the Great Depression who made up for her low thermostat setting with her warm nature and good humor. The first time I met her I was just a teenager, warned not to leave too many bites of pancake on my Perkins plate, not because she would judge you necessarily, but because it would drive her crazy.

“She cuts her paper plates in half,” said my future husband.

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Maybe then I laughed at the absurdity, but ask me now and I will tell you this world needs more people like Leona. There’s not enough space here to tell you all of the reasons, but I hope I’ve said enough for you to understand why I kept her on my mind as I bought a round of drinks at Tootsie’s, toured the Country Music Hall of Fame and cleaned all of my plates.

Tomorrow, at her funeral, I will learn a little more about the places she went to forget about the burdens of life. I have a hunch her trips were more twirls across the dance floor with the men she loved than overpriced flights across the country.

She always seemed as content with where she was as she was content with that old VHS player no one could convince her to upgrade. And as a person who is always reaching and wondering, I admired her for that.

We were given the gift of Leona’s long life, but I wish I would’ve asked her if she thought we ever have enough time, although I think I know the answer. It’s only the ones left behind who feel robbed.

Leona, tomorrow I’ll play you “Red River Valley.” We’ll miss you forever.

A song for strong women

On International Women’s Day I think it’s appropriate to share this video of my song “Work,” inspired by my Norwegian immigrant Great Grandmother Gundrun, and all the women who have built (and are currently building) their muscles out here in this cold, rough, beautiful landscape. 

“Strong women
may we know them
may we be them
may we raise them.”

A real version of Country Living magazine

Nashville

Just got in from Nashville (where it was an unseasonable 25 degrees without their “windchill”) and arrived to blowing snow and no travel advised. There’s a reason only the strong survive up here (and a reason we all head south about now) but even the strong are getting cranky about it…

 A real version of Country Living magazine
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The snow was blowing big flakes sideways across the prairie and the weatherman warned of minus 30 wind chills and it was just another February morning in western North Dakota.

I loaded up the kids and the car: coats, hats, mittens, blankies, sippy cups, snow pants, snacks for the trip to town, more snacks for the trip back home, lunch bag, computer bag, checked my pocket for my phone and we were on our way… Backed out of the garage, up the driveway, around the little corner and, with a sip of coffee, noticed that with the fresh snow, it was nearly impossible to distinguish where, exactly, our little road was.

Leaned forward, squinted my eyes, misjudged the curve entirely and sunk that car full of snacks and snowpants up to the floorboards in the ditch. Before I even reached our mailbox.

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So I want to talk about country living for a minute. Are there glamorous parts about it? Sure. When the sun is setting on a 70 degree summer day and you’re on the back porch listening to the crickets singing and watching the lightning bugs flicker in creek beds. These are the things Martha Stewart, Country Living magazine and that adorable home-renovating Gaines couple sell you about the whole rural experience.

That and the solitude, fresh air and the fact that they’ve never walked outside to find their pet goats standing on the roof of their car, but I digress.

But I’m guessing neither Martha, Joanna or the editors at Country Living have ever lived where that fresh air hurts your face, winter lasts 37 months and every outfit must coordinate with snow boots and a beanie. No. They live in a world where the dirt, mud, melty snow and apple juice magically stays off of their photo-ready vintage farmhouses decorated with fragile antiques and (*gasp) white rugs.

In these magazines and home renovation shows I’ve learned plenty on how to make a cozy breakfast nook (I’ll never have a breakfast nook) and what flowers to put in my foyer (I will never have a foyer). Curiously, I’ve never come across any tips on what to do when you drive your car in the ditch in your own yard 30 miles from civilization. Sigh.

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Luckily I’ve found myself in this predicament enough times that I’ve developed my own list. The first step being, of course, slamming my hands on the steering wheel in exasperation.

The second is new to me, but involves answering all 50 million of my 3-year-old’s questions about why we’re not moving, which is my favorite step.

The third? Pray that my dad’s home so I don’t have to suffer the humiliation of explaining this situation to neighbor Kelly or risk death by frostbite while hoofing it down to the house for a shovel. Good thing I always pack snacks.

Anyways, I guess what I’m saying, Martha, is some of you have never been pulled out of the ditch by your dad’s old feed pickup in a wind chill blizzard warning and it shows.

If you need me, I’ll be conceptualizing my own magazine idea that will offer fewer tips on decorating that space above your cabinets and more information on the flooring that best blends with scoria mud, how to find a body shop that will removed goat hoof dents and a list of excuses you can use on your neighbor should you find your car stuck in a snowbank. In your own yard.

I think it’s going to be a hit.

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The part not found in parenting books

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On pet fish and falling in love
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As a wife and a parent to two toddling humans, I find that I don’t have to look very hard if I want to feel like I’m doing something wrong.

There’s contradicting advice, opinions and experiences lurking in every day care pickup line and waiting on the other side of every click, swipe or ding. On any given day, I’m certain I’ve faltered far more than I’ve conquered, the feeling of desperation creeping in on me as I negotiate suppertime cooperation for a promise of a pet fish or no treats ever for the rest of your life.

In moments like these, I find myself wishing I were the mother I just knew I was going to be before I actually had children. But now that the current version of me has two little reality checks in tow, the one thing I’m trying to not lose sight of is the thing that got us into these “one-more-bite-of-lasagna” negotiations in the first place: our marriage.

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Last week a headline caught my eye: “Date nights could have saved my marriage.” A little twinge of panic shot up from my gut. I wanted to see the rest of the story, but I was terrified of discovering a familiar play-by-play. I wasn’t ready for that kind of reality check.

So I made a plan, one that favored the whole “work-life balance” myth, and I convinced my husband to attend an event I planned for the community. We called my parents to watch the kids and he met me at Paint Night Date Night, where I registered guests and then met him at our seats, drank a glass of Champagne and tried our hand at creating a unified painting of two tree branches reaching out toward each other under the moonlight.

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How fitting. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but just like the other couples in the room with us, we didn’t show up to become artists, but to carve out some time to sit side by side and do something other than fall asleep to Netflix.


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And so I kept it going, and the next night I made arrangements to head to the big town to attend a community symphony event. It was a trip that was part work research, part construction supply shopping, part the perfect chance for an uninterrupted meal and part Sunday morning trip to urgent care because we have young kids and the little darlings like to cough directly into my eyeballs.

And I bet you know what I’m going to say here, but I’m going to say it anyway. Sometimes in the thick of being in love, it can be hard to remember what falling in love means. Being in love is the man sitting with me in the waiting room of a strange hospital and laughing at how my illnesses always seem to coincide with our romantic plans.

Being in love is an insurance card. Comfortable. A lot of times predictable. But falling in love is not knowing quite how the painting is going to turn out, or if you really wanted to try it in the first place, but taking a swig and dipping the brush anyway.

And I think the falling in love part should be in those parenting books. I mean, it won’t get the toddler to finish her lasagna, but it will at least help the two of you laugh about it when you’re out shopping for a pet fish.

 

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Wilderness Dreams

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Coming Home:Wilderness dreams come back on days like this
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When I was a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of was “My Side of the Mountain,” a story about a boy who finds himself living alone in the wilderness inside of a giant hollowed out tree.

I still have the book buried somewhere in this house, holding all the secrets to adventure like all the books I loved about kids taming horses and dogs and braving wild prairie storms. Forget after school microwave popcorn and “Super Mario Bros.” — I wanted real adventure!

I’m sure I wasn’t unlike most kids at 9 or 10 years old. We all had a little more confidence than we had experience, so maybe it wasn’t unusual that I was convinced I could survive out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my mom’s cheeseburger chowder. Yeah, there was a time that was my plan.

In the evenings, I would step off the bus and head up the creek behind our house to work on building what I called “secret forts.” In the oaks and brush that grew along the bank, I would I use every muscle in my spindly body to collect and relocate every fallen log within a 200-foot radius to lean against a bent tree, creating a leaky little tent. And when it was complete, I would look around to make sure my little sister hadn’t followed me here, ruining the whole secrecy thing.

And then I would lay down under the flawed “shelter” of 50 logs to think about my next step. Make plans for a door. And a blanket. And rocks for a firepit.

But as the dark crept in, I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night, emerging to follow the cow trail back toward the house where supper was warm and waiting. For months, this was my daily ritual, and one of my signature childhood memories.

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I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own survival skills, but it turned out that having company was a nice addition. So eventually I gave in and helped my little sister build her own fort. A much smaller fort. Across the creek. Out of site.

We built a tin-can telephone that stretched from my fort to hers and brought down old chair cushions from the shed, tried to catch frogs and spent our evenings planning our next move — spending the night. But we never did it.

Summer gave way to fall, and the leaves fell and covered the floor of our paradise. We would pull on our beanies and trudge down the freezing creek to clear out the fire ring we weren’t yet brave enough to use. And then the cold set in and the snow came and the neighbor girls called us to go sledding, and our wilderness dream waited on a warmer season.

I can’t help but think about those girls on days like these. Days when the cold sets in, burned casserole from the night before sits waiting for a cleanup on my countertop and the dark, naked trees behind my grown-up house seem to call to me to come out from behind these walls.

Come have an adventure, girl.

I step outside and let the frozen air fill my lungs and bite my cheeks. I step outside and miss my sister. I step outside and I’m alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she could tame coyotes, break unbreakable horses and live alone in the wild.

I step outside to look for her. I know she’s here somewhere, waiting for me to come and play.

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.

Veeder Ranch to be featured on Born to Explore

Born to Explore

Last summer, Richard, from Born to Explore, a travel show on PBS, came to North Dakota. They stopped by the ranch for a little music, a ride, and an attempt at a dinner conversation with us and our two babies.

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My our collection of grills, unfinished house projects, chaotic kitchen and my North Dakota accent make an appearance, but so does the beautiful landscape, our babies, cows and some music on the porch with dad 🙂 It’s a great snapshot of North Dakota and all the reasons this place means so much to us.

Also, I don’t usually wear dangly earrings when we chase cows…but, you know, TV.

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The episode, North Dakota: Where Legends are Born will premiere on PBS stations on Feb. 23 and have multiple repeat broadcasts throughout the year. Check out the preview here and tune in!

Born to Explore #208(P)/North Dakota: Where Legends are Born preview from Born to Explore on Vimeo.

Thanks Richard and crew for a great visit!

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Dear Husband, I miss you.

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Dear Husband, I Love You
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Dear Husband,

I’m writing this at naptime because I have a moment and I’m worried when I try to say it I’ll get interrupted for a snack request or to break up another argument over the toy purse. I love being a mother, but I miss you and me.

I’m not sure we’re really supposed to admit it as parents, but sometimes I’m sad we will never go back to being the same people we were when we both squished on the easy chair together every night after supper. And it’s not that we don’t still want to be close like that — it’s just that for the foreseeable future, us two and the babies can’t all fit on the fancy new chair we bought to replace the big, ugly hand-me-down that used to sit in our living room.

Slowly, we’ve replaced the newlywed stuff with grown-up things. Yes, we are grown-up things now, with grown-up aches, grown-up plans and grown-up arguments about chores and bills and schedules, and I know, I know, this is life.

And I know how hard we’ve worked to get here and how grateful I am to see some of our dreams play out, but man, I didn’t realize the compromise this phase of parenthood would put into the equation of our partnership.

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I didn’t realize how little I can be by your side when there’s work to be done and naptime and diapers and wild little girls who aren’t much help yet. And so we compromise indeed. We divide and conquer. You take the babies so I can work and I do the same and so we’re apart more than together.

But remember when we could just load up the car and take off to anywhere? I looked at you the other night as you helped the baby feed herself and negotiated two more bites with the toddler and I said this out loud to you: “Don’t you think we just took all that time for granted? Like what were we doing?”

You echoed my thoughts so completely. And I was surprised I felt so relieved.

Funny how time works on us humans. It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time that hand-me-down easy chair was a big score in our lives and so we sat in it together, looking out the window at the snow falling on the city street outside, making plans for this day at the ranch, feeding babies after feeding cows. I just didn’t know getting what we wanted would mean missing you, and that easy chair, sometimes.

Nobody told me that. So I’m telling you today.

Because last week when you were late coming home and I called you 6 million times about the icy roads, or when I check in every afternoon about supper plans, or when I’m annoyed at a chore that turns into your all-weekend absence (as every ranch family understands,) instead of the sighs or the calls disguised as grocery lists, I think I should just tell you.

So I’m telling you today, husband. I love our life together. And this magical and maddening phase that we’re in? Well, we’re both going to miss it sooner than we’re ready to. But just because that’s the truth doesn’t mean that the rest of what we’re feeling can’t be, too.

And so today, I will call you about supper and then I’ll just say it.

I miss you.

Love,

Your wife

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Working mom retreat gone wrong

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This week’s column brought to you by another winter storm that blew in to drop a good six inches of snow and bring sub zero temperatures. But I’m telling you, it’s not the weather that’s getting to me…

Puking toddler waits for no queasy mom
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You guys, this winter is getting to me. And even though the wind is blowing 65 mph outside my windows, shaking this house and forcing me under the covers in my long underwear listening to weatherman Cliff promise like 100 below zero tomorrow, I’m telling you it’s not the weather.

I know about the weather. I mean, I get it. What I didn’t know was what having two toddlers in January in North Dakota truly meant for me and my pharmacy bills.

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Like, why didn’t anyone warn me that double the babies meant double the sneezes directly into my mouth, double the ear infections, double the spontaneous sheet-soaking barfs and double the pink eye, because, face sneezes.

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And I will admit there was a time at the beginning of this month that, after two separate emergency room visits with the children over Christmas break, I thought I might’ve developed the iron-clad immune system reserved only for mothers while everyone around me was dropping like flies and I stood in the middle with my cough syrup, Clorox and cape, one hand stirring the soup and the other rubbing a back, reassuring them all that the worst was over…

 

But that was before I found myself in the doctor’s office high on Sudafed, a pocket stuffed with tissues, holding my sick 1-year-old on my lap and, get this, just as the doctor declared the poor little soul had a double ear infection, the seemingly perfectly healthy 3-year-old on my husband’s lap across the room spontaneously barfed.

So there was that.

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A husband-style trip to the pharmacy, an equally husband-style big ol’ pot of homemade soup and a weekend spent laying low and it seemed like we were all on the mend enough for me and my year-supply of Mucinex to tackle a three-day work trip across the state.

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I packed up my guitar and my fancy clothes and made my escape to the big town where I had visions of conducting my writing workshops in the day, blissful solo shopping excursions in the evenings and topping it off with my choice of restaurant, television and a quiet room (and bed) all to myself at night. “A Working Mom’s Retreat” is the term I coined in my head.

I even tried out the phrase in a text to my mom. Turns out the next text to my mom wasn’t as hopeful. “Stomach flu from h*#!. Tell the kids I love them. I might not come out of this…”

Yeah, you probably saw this coming, but I was in complete denial as all of my dreams of uninterrupted sleep, work and meals were sideswiped by what happens when a mom has the nerve to take off the cape and set down the Clorox. Life canceled.

Turns out being alone in a hotel room loses its appeal — even for a mom of toddlers — when you have to pay for an extra day simply because you can’t even move enough to make it to the lobby to try your luck at a Gatorade.

But if I thought that was my reality check, I was wrong. Because as all you parents know, but somehow forgot to mention, I found out when I got home that a puking toddler pauses for no one, not even a queasy mom who has most definitely lost her cape and her battle with winter.

If you need me, I’ll be at the pharmacy.

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Fifteen

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A photo of me at 15, which is now considered vintage 

And now, for this week’s column on a trip I took to teach a writing workshop to classes full of teenagers where I mentioned mixed tapes and records and a time before the Internet and felt old.

When I was fifteen
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“Oh, you’re going to feel so old,” my husband told me as I explained that my plan for the week was to drive across the state to conduct a few writing workshops for high schoolers. “Just remember, you were their age once…like twenty years ago.” And then he took a drink of his coffee, laughed and turned out of the room.

Funny. Real funny.

But twenty years ago? That can’t be right.

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Wasn’t I just fifteen last week when I was grocery shopping and gave in to the nagging instinct to buy the Double Stuffed Oreos?

And I was certainly fifteen the other day, walking down the hallway at work with my hair flat ironed, new boots, feeling pretty good. Until my coworker said she saw me coming and didn’t recognize me with my new “do.” “Who’s that lady?” She wondered to herself.

And I wondered when I became a lady.

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Me, on the right, about thirty birthdays ago…

Wasn’t I just fifteen, swearing I would never forget what it was like to be fifteen and then all of the sudden I woke up to find myself standing in front of a room full of teenagers talking about record players?!

“And yeah, I know, record players are vintage cool now, but this was before the Internet. And YouTube. And, have you ever heard of a mixed tape? Well…anyway…”

I spent an entire day in that high school, talking and guiding students through creative writing exercises, sharing my career path, drinking chocolate milk out of those little cartons and listening to snippets of their lives play out in the hallways: A paper is late and there’s an excuse. Her sister didn’t put her clothes in the dryer last night and she was so annoyed. Someone’s not pulling their weight in the group project. A sign needs to be painted before tonight’s game. Did you study for the test? What are you doing this weekend?

And suddenly I was transported back to a time when so many things were out of my control, my sensitivities were heightened, I simultaneously knew everything and nothing, and, what I probably remember most, was just being so completely unsure of myself.

I was reminded of that uncertainty because of the juxtaposition of the kids sitting before me that day. They did not appear unsure at all. I mean, yes, there was hesitancy in completing what I was asking them to do, which was to be vulnerable, to write down memories, to approach their identity, to open up their creative vaults, which was big. But these kids were open to it. They were given the task and they spoke up and shared things out loud, in the open, that I’m not certain I would have been brave enough to share when I was in their shoes. And now, I just wish I could really remember if that was true. I’d like to think I was more like them.

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I doubt any one of those teenagers would have been caught dead in this for $5.15 an hour. 

But what I do remember is that when I was fifteen I thought there was a magical time when you suddenly became an adult and that uncertainty made way for self-definiteness. Like, I am 35 and this is my house, this is the way I wear my hair. This is the cut of my jeans. This is my job. This is my plan.

But that’s not the way it goes is it? I know that now, because I’m not fifteen. I am thirty-five and I’ll tell you there are some things the years just don’t change. I just didn’t know until now that I would be glad for it.

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The way my grandpa sees the world

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Theodore Waddell, Gallatin Angus 2001

The way my grandpa sees the world Forum Communications

There’s a print of a painting hanging in a frame beside my bed that reminds me of my Grandpa Bill.

It’s a framed card actually, a watercolor of a rugged landscape, dark blue buttes forming a horizon against a gray and white sky. And below the buttes, in the foreground, the brush stroked green and beige, and then the artist, seemingly with the blunt end of his brush, came back to add a scattering of black dots.

The cattle.

I took the print off the wall tonight to take a closer look as I was crawling into bed and the back of the frame came off to reveal the reverse side of that card and my grandpa’s handwriting.

“This scene looks much like the blue mountains from the hills above your place. Happy Birthday.”

And he was right. If you sit on the top of a hill on our ranch, you will likely see the live version of this scene — a moody sky casting sporadic golden light in the pastures where our cattle graze. And off in distance, as far as you can see, those buttes that cradle our neighbors 10 miles to the north shine blue on us and frame every scene of our lives out here.

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My dad tells a story of when he was a little kid in elementary school. He was coloring a picture of Roy Rogers riding through the mountains on his horse, Trigger.

“Why are you coloring the mountains blue, Gene?” his teacher scolded. “Mountains aren’t blue.”

I always thought that was one of my dad’s sadder stories…

But I don’t think Grandpa Bill had this sort of teacher in his life. And if he did, he didn’t pay her any mind.

And I like this little card with black dot cows because I like to imagine it’s the way my Grandpa Bill sees the world, like a painting waiting to be made and admired. And I’m so glad to know that about him.

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When I was 11 or so, my dad’s mother, Gramma Edie, died on the ranch, leaving the little brown house in the farmyard down the road empty and lonesome. So in the fall and winter, my mom’s parents, during their early years of retirement, would move out here to breathe life into the place.

Grandpa traded his Minnesota dock shoes for boots and immersed himself in ranch life. He fixed fences, he rode along to move cattle, he updated that old farmhouse, hung his chaps and hat like a work of art on the entryway and took beautiful photographs, even trying his hand at painting the simple, old, everyday scenes of this place I might not have thought to find extraordinary if it wasn’t for him.

Eventually, my grandparents made the decision to settle into summers in Minnesota and winters in the Arizona sun. In fact, Grandpa Bill is likely reading this to Gramma as they have a cup of coffee and a doughnut hole on their deck.

And he’s probably noticing how the morning light creates a soft glow around his wife’s silver hair and thinking that it would make a lovely photograph or painting.

And every time I take the turn off the highway to head north, toward home, toward those blue buttes, I slow down a bit as I come up over the hill overlooking the gold pastures dotted with cattle and, because of Grandpa, I think the same thing.

Road Home

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.