My reflection in Gramma’s old winter journals
It’s January and we’re working cows again, sending our later calves out to the sale and retiring a few old cows, a couple who won’t stay on any side of the fence and the one that will run you over if you don’t watch your back.
If I get my office work done in time this morning, I will go out and help. My mother-in-law will be here in a few hours to watch the girls who, these days, are passing the time by drawing pictures and then cutting them up. All those toys for Christmas and right now my black magic marker and the kid scissors might as well be gold. I just have to remember not to turn my back on them too long…
Yes, January’s settling in. And it should be about 20 below zero these days, with wind whipping snow, but we haven’t seen that yet around here. It rained yesterday. The day before, I took a 2-mile walk out to the east pasture dam in nothing but a light coat and a vest with the dogs zooming out happily ahead of me, zipping back and forth across the hills like blurs.
The guys have been busy fixing fences and setting water tanks, tasks that are usually reserved for different seasons. It’s sort of eerie, this mild winter weather. Yesterday I stepped outside and it was quiet, the kind of quiet you can’t put your finger on, until you realize your ears aren’t freezing and your nose isn’t running and there’s not a lick of a breeze.
It reminded me of the winter we lived in Missoula, Mont., where the snow floated straight down in fluffy puffs, settling like frosting on rooftops and windowsills and tree branches where the thermometer never dipped too far below 20. In Montana, winter was more magic than punishment. When we returned back to the ranch for Christmas, I felt the North Dakota wind chill on my face in a new way, looking out across the prairie, a line of black cows slowly moving toward us as we worked on serving up the best part of their day.
Up here, the weather exasperates every possible sense and I hadn’t had the autumn to help me work into the bite of that kind of cold. I swear I could see it come to slap me on the cheeks and sting my eyes into squinting. More stable creatures would have retreated to the mountains to stay put. We were back in North Dakota by late spring.
Last week, my mom brought over some of my grandma Edie’s old journals, a stack of notes scrawled in the squares and margins of a Cenex calendar. Recounts of the day-to-day from a woman who was born, married, mothered, worked, lived and died on the edge of these Badlands.
I was only 10 when my grandma died suddenly; she was barely in her 60s. These days especially, I want her to have never left us. I didn’t get a chance to know my grandmother the way a grown woman knows her grandmother, and given that we’ve moved in on her turf, I’m sure she’d have some things to say. And I have questions.
So I pore over her words again. It’s been several years since I’ve done so, before I was a mother, before settling down for good in this place. Back then, I was searching for something with a little more dirt on it, a reflection on her mood or the way someone rubbed her the wrong or right way, some inner turmoil that revealed a sweltering side of her humanness… or maybe I just wanted to see myself reflected there somehow…
Oh, how we make the departed so exalted, don’t we? I pick them up again…
January 6, 1982: -26. Pete changed filters on the tractor, then it ran better. We hauled a load of calves to Dickinson for Paul, he bought us supper at the Queen City. Got home at 9:30.
January 10, 1982: -42. Tractor and pickup didn’t start until late in the day. Wade helped Pete feed so I didn’t go out.
January 14, 1982: + 40. I almost tipped the pickup over today, it was slippery.
January 15, 1982: -27. Really stormy today. I am cleaning the closet in the bathroom, what a mess…