Hosting friends, ranch style…

We’ve had company for a couple weeks and it’s been lovely to have new faces around to marvel at a place that has started to look more like work than love lately.

I needed that.

Thanks friends. I miss you.

Appreciating this rugged, imperfect place

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They left me with a plate of Snickerdoodles, a fridge full of half-finished dips, opened bottles of white wine, sheets to be washed and a heart full and lonesome at the same time.

A group of eight of my friends made their way to the ranch from Colorado, Minnesota and eastern North Dakota last weekend, fulfilling our promise to get together once a year, no matter what, since we first met 11 years ago during a hot summer spent moving picnic tables and cutting pies at a performing arts school.

Since then the group has grown to include boyfriends, spouses, babies, dogs and a cat on a leash, which I’d never thought I’d see on this ranch in my life. But I did, thanks to the eclectic and brilliant group of people I was honored to host for a few days in our rugged little mess of a life out here, surrounded by cattle, horseflies and bats swooping against the backdrop of a black and starry sky.

It’s funny the way the familiarity of a home changes when it’s full of people you love, some of them who’ve never set foot on the place.

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Before they arrived all I could see was the unfinished trim, the landscaping I thought I’d have done by now and the complete lack of Good Housekeeping magazine touches. We spent a half a year with their visit on the calendar thinking maybe we’d at least get the basement bathroom done, because anyone with a house knows that it takes impending company to get a long-planned construction project done.

But then we ran into haying season and I was on my own with a pressure washer, a lawnmower and a garage full of tools to do what I could around here.

Needless to say, we’re gonna have to wait until Thanksgiving to think about that bathroom project again, but I obsessed over it all nonetheless, because I’m my mother’s child after all.

And then they arrived and you couldn’t see the floor or the counters anyway for all the food and toys and bodies scattered about, talking and laughing. And not one of my friends inspected the tops of my light fixtures for dust, because we were too busy telling stories, cutting onions for guacamole and taking hikes around the farmyard, where I got a chance to see our place through their eyes.

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That was another gift they gave me that weekend: a gift of appreciation for our home. They picked wildflowers and rocks and marveled at the things we’ve labeled burdens or works in progress, like the old farm equipment and tumbled down fences that need to be repaired. In the midst of the overwhelming feeling that summer ranch work brings, I loved them for it.

And now they’re gone, leaving this place feeling a little electric, pulsing from the conversations and dropped forks and baby kisses, like it needs a moment to come back down to the quiet chaos of the life we lead, sending our love to them from this rugged, imperfect place.

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Memory’s sweet scent

Sweet Clover

My cousin from Texas is here visiting the ranch this week and she brought her three children with her. They spent this morning with us, playing with Edie’s toys (much to her dismay) running around outside and helping me dig radishes in the garden while my cousin and I tried to catch up between wiping noses and serving goldfish crackers.

Tonight they’ll come over for supper and I hope to take them up to the top of the hill we call Pots ‘n Pans the way we used to as kids, but with less emergency pee breaks and cactus in their butts, because there will be adult supervision…

This time of year makes me nostalgic for some of the magical times I had here as a kid. I know my cousin feels the same about this place, no matter how long she’s been away from here. That’s why she’s packed her three kids in a car to drive the million miles from Texas to North Dakota, for the memories.

And that’s what this week’s column is about…

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Sweet clover under my skin

I imagine everyone has some familiar scent that hits their lungs and brings them back to a time in childhood when they felt so deeply loved, so overwhelmingly safe, so much themselves. So free.

 

Maybe it’s your grandmother’s warm cookies from the oven or the smell of a diesel tractor plugging across a field. Maybe it’s your parent’s home or the fur on the back of your old cat or the salty air blowing across the ocean and onto vast beaches.

For me, it’s sweetclover.

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I wish I could pick the right words to describe the sweet, fresh scent that fills the air tonight and gives me comfort when I breathe it in, moving across the landscape, stepping high …

My first best memories are lying among it, rolling down hills on the ranch as the sun found its way to the horizon and my cousins, tan and sweaty, hair wild, would fling their bodies after me. We would find ourselves at the bottom in a pile of laughter, yellow petals sticking to our damp skin.

For us, the clover was a blanket, a canopy of childhood. A comfort. It was our bouquet when we performed wedding ceremonies on the pink road wearing our grandmother’s old dresses, an ingredient in our mud pies and our crown when we felt like playing kings and queens of the buttes. It was feed for our horses and a place to hide from the seeker, to rest after a race, to fall without fear of skinned knees. It was a promise of summer and a wave of color to welcome us home together.

It’s there all season, the seeds tucked neatly under the dirt, and still I’m surprised when I open the windows of the pickup after a late night drive and the fragrance finds its way to me.

And I’m taken back …

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I’m seven years old and my grandmother has our bunk beds made up in the basement and my cousins will be coming down the pink road soon. And when they get here, we’ll climb Pots and Pans and we’ll put on a wedding and look for kittens in the barn. We’ll play “The Wizard of Oz,” and I’ll be the Tin Man. We’ll chase each other on the hay bales in front of the barn and then hide from each other in the tall grass that scratches and brushes against our bare legs.

I wish I could bottle it up for the cold winter days that showed no sign of release. I wish I could build my house out of it, weave it inside my walls, plant it in my floor and lay down in it at night. I wish I could wrap those cousins, my family, in its soft petals and sweet stems and watch as they remember now, the kids we once were before time took us and made us think that we were anything less than free…

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Rain or shine, this is the life we chose

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We’ve been in the middle of a heat wave out here for the last couple weeks, and it’s not looking to cool off or rain anytime soon. After a long, really snowy winter, I thought we might continue the moisture trend throughout the rest of the year, but it turns out that was just a hope.

We haven’t had a good rain for months and months and we’re better off than most of the state. Fire danger is high, and there’s one raging in the badlands as I type. It worries me. It worries everyone. That’s one thing we all have in common up here in the north. We all know worrying about the weather.

Last weekend we took a quick trip to the other side of the big lake to meet up with my inlaws who were camping there. While we were leaving a little storm cell blew through, darkening the sky and soaking the ground. We never drove in the rain, but we were in its aftermath on the way home. I rolled my windows down and breathed it in.

There’s nothing like the smell of rain on a hot summer day.

It’s heaven.

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It’s hard to believe when I’m sitting here in as little clothes as a pregnant woman can get away with in the summertime, that it was ever thirty below zero and completely white out here. We live in such extremes.

And that’s what this week’s column is about. It’s a little different take on the summer and the weather and just how crazy we really are when it comes to packing as much fun and work as we can in our three months of what we envision as being a California-esque summer.

Which it never is. No matter how we grit our teeth and bare it.

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Rain or Shine, this is the life we chose

“Well, I guess this is the life I chose,” he said as he pulled on his boots and headed out the door. “Work all day in 100 degrees so I can come home and work all night in it.”

Yup. That’s the story out here on the ranch where we can’t quit our day jobs. And on evenings when the wind settles down and the sun sets just right on cows grazing on green grass in their proper places, it feels pretty dang good.

But then there are days like today where you wonder if you might be able to fry an egg on the back of those black cows and the tractor won’t start and you just roll up your sleeves, wipe the sweat, crawl back under the tractor and hope to hell in those 10 minutes of scratching your head that you’ve magically developed the necessary mechanic skills and do what you gotta do.

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Rain or shine. That’s what they say. Whoever coined that phrase obviously didn’t live in North Dakota. If they did they would’ve likely added a few more elements – like hail – or 50 mile-per-hour winds – or blinding, sub-zero blizzards. I get that about this place. And I get that about the work.

But what’s been amusing me lately is the fact that up here we seem to apply the same motto to the idea of fun. Because it’s summer here, and dang it, we’re gonna stand in the street with a beer and listen to this band regardless of the fact that it’s 40 degrees and sleeting. It’s JUNE! We only have three months to fit in all of our outdoor activities, people!

Just a few weeks ago, I went to my niece’s softball game where we all wore gloves and beanies and sat in lawn chairs under blankets while we watched the cold wind whip these poor children to a misery, and I couldn’t help but wonder at what point we stop referring to this as a fun and games.

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Don’t even get me started on the memories I have of monsoon rain turning high school rodeo arenas into soup while our mothers sat steadfast, writing scores on soggy programs shielded from the brutal weather only by visors and the slicker that’s been sitting at the bottom of the horse trailer since last year’s rodeo in Elgin.

Oh, I come by this observation honestly. As a musician who’s spends her summers singing on flatbed trailers in my home state in the name of a festival, I’ve feel I’ve been with you through it all. But nothing sums up the insanity of our people better than the view I had from the stage on the capitol grounds on the 125th birthday of our great state a few years back. As the rain shot sideways into my eyeballs, I sang Red River Valley to a crowd of diehard North Dakota neighbors as they swayed back and forth under umbrellas and makeshift newspaper hats and I wondered if this is how I might go out, electrocuted by my soaking microphone – because 100 degrees or pouring rain, this is the life we chose.

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Squish. A short story.

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So this morning I followed dad and Edie out the door of our house to go feed the bulls and found a squished mouse head laying in my entryway, a gift my cat regularly leaves for me on the  deck rug, drug into the house on the bottom of my dad’s shoe.

And I’m just going to leave that here in case you were feeling in any way bad about your housekeeping skills, unruly pets or the fact that we don’t have control over the universe.

Oh, and then I had to pick it up with a pair of  fencing gloves and fling it out the door and I swear it’s beady little eye was looking up at me wondering how we got to this place in our lives…

Happy Thursday. We got a little rain yesterday and have a little more coming this weekend I heard. Better get those tomato plants in.

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Peace, Love and Un-welcome houseguests.

Now I’m gonna leave you with this cute photo to help cleanse your mind…

Edie and Papa

Jessie

A moment in the plans we’ve made

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This week’s column is a little reflection triggered by branding day at the ranch a few weekends back.

It really is something to take a breath in the middle of this crazy life and realize that the crazy was actually your intention and what you’re doing is a little piece of a dream coming true.

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Oh, and for those of you who don’t reside in Western North Dakota, a slushburger is a sloppy joe.

Thanks for all the words of encouragement. In six months or so I’ll be calling you at 3 am wondering what we were thinking.

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Coming Home: Taking time to appreciate moments as ranch, family expands

I rushed to get the slushburger in the slow cooker, the chip dip layered and the watermelon cut and mixed with the cantaloupe from the fridge. It was 7:30 a.m., and one of our friends was already sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee, boots and hat waiting in the entry. He’s more of a cattle expert, but it turns out he had some tips on cantaloupe slicing before heading out the door with my husband to gather gear and saddle horses.

The neighbors would be here in an hour or so to help ride, and I had to get Edie and my niece dressed and down the road to gramma’s with the burger, melon and grocery bags full of paper plates and potato chips so I could climb on a horse of my own.

It was branding day at the ranch, and the sun was quickly warming up the world as I finally made it to the barnyard, buckling my belt as I ran past the neighbors and the guys already saddled and waiting to take off over the green hills together, splitting off at the corrals up top to gather cattle in the corners, search the brush and trees and meet up at the flat to take them home.

It’s one of the best views in my world, to see the cowboys and cowgirls you trust most riding together on our land, connected by generations, friendships and blood, dedicating a Sunday to getting a familiar and time-honored job done. I loped my horse across the flat to catch up and watched a trail of black and red animals form a jagged line across the crick and up the road, kicking up dust and bellaring to their babies as our crew gently coaxed them along.

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My husband and I have dreamed about the days we could figure out a way to own our own cattle out here, a goal we began to realize last winter with the help and partnership of my dad. We branded a handful of our own calves last year and worked this year to crunch numbers and build plans. And it’s been scary, exciting and challenging to say the least, balancing full time work and family while helping to take care of this place and the animals on it.

But last Sunday we sorted and doctored those animals together while the neighbor kids sipped juice boxes and waved sorting sticks outside the fence, my grandparents sat watching in the shade, my sisters standing together, my little sister arching her back against the weight of her pregnancy while my mom and aunt opened the door of the car to let out my fresh-from-her nap daughter, and I willed myself to take a moment to appreciate that I could stretch out my arms and nearly touch all of the most important things in this world to us.

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And then I reached down to loosen the belt on my jeans that are growing tighter each day as my belly swells with the newest member of the crew, due to arrive in December to these grateful arms.

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Plans and un-plans: How the best days are made

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So, Husband and I took a belated (by 10 1/2 years) honeymoon last week and now we’re back to the real world and I feel like I’m already tired tomorrow.

But it was a great trip. I’d tell you all about it, but besides a night snorkel, a really cool swim with the dolphins and hanging out with this stingray (OMGEEE)…

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I mostly I slept and read and ate and soaked up the sun while Husband did adventurous things like scuba diving and cliff jumping and Edie hung out around campfires and in campers with her cousins without really noticing we were gone.

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I’ll bore you with more travel adventures later, but my vacation brain just switched off in time for me to realize that tomorrow is Tuesday and I have to travel to the big town all day tomorrow, so I have to get cracking on next week’s column to meet the deadline.

So here’s last week’s column on another one of those great weekends.

Coming Home: A Trip the Sale Barn Proves the Best Days Can’t Be Planned

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In all the years my husband and I have spent growing up together, there’s one quality we continue to share and that’s our affinity for last minute, spontaneous plans.

Especially if those plans mean blowing off yard work and fencing projects in favor of spending an 80-degree day at the sale barn watching horses come through the ring while we try to convince ourselves of all the reasons not to bid.

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I’ve always loved the sale barn.

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I’m not sure why a little girl would grow up loving a place like that, but it’s likely the same reason anyone loves any place, because of the memories that hang in the air.

As a kid I spent time in the fall sitting shotgun in dad’s pickup as we drove a load of calves up through the badlands to Dickinson where I would wait in the pickup, feeling the calves shake the trailer and pickup as they unloaded into the bright autumn sun or the wind of a chilly overcast day. I would watch the men in ear-flap caps push the animals to their pens and then lean against sorting sticks or the railing of the fence and visit a bit about prices and weather and grown up things.

And then we would head inside to the smell of black coffee and dirt and manure and the sound of the auctioneer spitting out numbers and weights and colors and “Hey!,” “Ho!” “Yup!” and I would sit with it all swirling around me, watching white papers go up and down, terrified to scratch my nose in case they might mistake me for a bidder. And then, after hours of collecting sale barn dust in my nostrils, it was time for my favorite part of all — a cheeseburger at the counter in the café downstairs.

I sat with Edie at that counter last weekend trying to will her to eat some chicken nuggets while her dad was upstairs bidding on gentle horses to replace Stormy. It was a different vibe than those fall cattle sales — hot, muggy and of course, full of horses.

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Cowboys would whip out rope tricks and tales of how the animal drags calves to the branding fire. Little kids would stand up on a pony’s saddle, flip off their backs and duck under their bellies, demonstrating the animal’s tolerance, reminding me of the few times I rode horses dad trained through the ring as a kid, showing how they handled, backed up and tolerated the swinging of my reigns.

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Was I really ever that kid? I wondered to myself as I watched my daughter lean against her dad’s lap the same way I used to, yelling “Hey!” at the auctioneer while I held my breath as my husband took a pretty dun gelding up to our budget.

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How old stories help us hold on

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Coming Home: How old stories help us hold on

One of the best parts about sharing stories every week is that sometimes it compels others to share their stories, too, reminding me how closely strangers can be connected.

For the past few months I’ve been traveling on behalf of my new book, telling stories about crocus picking, old pickup driving and growing up on the back of my old mare.

Inevitably then, after the show, I get to hear a few of your own memories, the ones sparked by my recollection of sliding down the gumbo hill in the pouring rain in my pajamas, because—aw, you have a gumbo story of your own? One that started out with a pretty pink jacket bought to impress his family and ended with you and that pink jacket planted in the sticky mud after a too-close-for-comfort call with a rattlesnake den.

Yes, your boyfriend might have saved you from a nasty bite, but you never got over the ruined jacket.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but this is how I acquired a reverence for storytelling. It was all those afternoon coffee breaks I’d sit in as a kid, the ones where the neighbors would take their hats off after branding or a day spent fixing a stubborn part on the tractor again, and the recount of the things that went wrong during the day would spark a story about another time, a few years back, when a new spring opened up on the flat over the winter and he was loping along across that stretch and the ground just disappeared beneath that horse …

And that would remind my neighbor of a time they ran the outfitting business, and they were taking some guests on a ride through a narrow trail of the badlands and down slid their best horse with a dude on his back. It’s a story we all might have heard before, the ground becoming a little steeper with each re-telling, all the could-have-beens recounted over and over as they rehashed their gratitude that it all turned out OK in the end.

Good grief.

Thank God.

Can you imagine?

Last week I got a letter in the mail from a woman who used to help out a family friend who ran trail rides in the badlands for years. This is the ranch where our old Stormy spent years working as a trail horse, and after reading about how we recently lost him to the years, this woman felt compelled to write me to share with me her own memories of that spotted gelding. Included among her recollections was a photo of Stormy in his younger days, taking that cowboy through the sagebrush badlands. I put my hand to my mouth, surprised by the tears that caught in my throat as I folded up that letter, remembering that Stormy was someone else’s coffee-break story once.

Reminded, in a world that spins too quickly, stories are the only way we can really hold on.

Keep telling them.

Spring: From the experts

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Signs of spring come earlier for the experts
by Jessie Veeder
4-9-17
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

The first calf of the year was born on the Veeder Ranch last week. That afternoon I went out on a walk to clear my head and to climb to the top of a hill to see if there were any mommas off alone on a hillside or in the trees, a pretty sure sign of some birth action.

But I didn’t see a thing.

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But I struck out again.

Yes, to me the world was still brown with a few splashes of white snow in the deep coulees and, except for the dang hornets that have magically come to life to bang against the windows of my house, no sign of new life quite yet.

I strolled home with the dogs sniffing out the path in front of me, on their own mission for signs of spring, kicked off my shoes and went inside.

That evening my husband and I loaded Edie up in the pickup to go feed the cows, and just as we were pulling out of driveway, I got a text from dad.

“Got our first calf today,” it said.

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“Of course we did,” I said out loud to myself, wondering when the heck I will develop the sixth sense and laser beam eyes Dad has for things like this. We met him down the road a ways and Edie helped him unroll a bale by pulling out handfuls of hay and picking a nice strand to chew on herself.

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We drove over to take a look at the new baby who was standing on wobbly legs, fresh, slick and black as a bean. When my husband came back with the tagger (because we never have what we need when we need it), all four of us lingered out there in the warm spring air, leaning against the pickup doors and letting Edie work the windshield wipers, radio knob, steering wheel and headlights of the parked pickup, certain she was accomplishing the most important task on the place that day.

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After a half hour of solving life’s problems, we all went home for supper.

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The next day while I was in town for a meeting, I got another text from Dad.

“Found them first!” it said, with a blurry photo of a bunch of crocuses attached.

Apparently he also knew we were in an unspoken contest.

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I put my hands on my hips and huffed.

“Of course you did,” I texted back, thinking if it couldn’t be me, at least someone found the first promises of spring.

Thinking how different the world can look behind another set of eyes.

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And so with the first calf, the first crocus, the frogs croaking in the dam and the birds flying home and the appearance of Edie’s garden hat, I think it’s safe to say spring is here.

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Oh, thank goodness, spring is here.

Stick Shift…Shit

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Why I blame my dad for my stick shift struggles
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

I have a confession to make.

In the years I spent growing up out here on the ranch as well as those being all grown up here on the ranch, I have never properly learned to drive a stick shift.

Oh, I can make it work. I can get from Point A to Point B if Point A is the house and Point B is the barnyard over the hill, the hay yard, or my parent’s house a mile down the gravel road, but that’s where my gear-finding, clutch-pushing confidence ends.

I know, I know. It’s embarrassing. Some things are just expected of you living out here among cows and barbed-wire fences. But I have a handicap.

And I could say I have no one to blame but myself, because I’m ultimately responsible for taking the initiative to master something I need to know, but forget it.

I blame my dad.

I blame my dad and all the old, impossible, gear sticky, seat-stuck-too-far-back, ancient and impossible pickups he enlisted to teach me to drive back in the day.

I mean, how’s a girl to grab a chance at finding the right gear when the gear indicator knob long ago popped off and rolled around on the floorboards before meeting its ultimate fate in some brush patch Dad was fencing one day in 1995?

Am I in reverse? The only way to find out is to release the clutch and hope I don’t kill it before rolling backwards while simultaneously hoping I’m not in first because there’s not much room for error in the 10 inches between the front of the pickup and the shop.

And that wasn’t the worst of it. There was one pickup he tried to teach me on that you literally had to push down a hill like a Flinstones car to get started. And once it turned over, well, you had to keep it gassed for fear of starting the whole ritual over again.

God forbid it quit at the bottom of a coulee somewhere.

Some of the biggest fights I had with my dad happened behind the wheel of his old pickups where he more than one chose the “just leave her to sort it out” method, and frankly, my pubescent tears of frustration just didn’t allow for that sort of sorting it out.

That’s the flashback I had yesterday when I suggested my husband run me through the workings of the hydraulic bale spear so I can feed cows on my own. I had left chicken baking in the oven, and we brought along the wiggly toddler who wants nothing more than for me to just scooch on out of there and let her take over.

Needless to say, I had a few distractions to blame for me killing it 37 times between my attempts at picking up and rolling the bales out.

But we were in Dad’s pickup, the one with the sticky gears, missing gear knob and seat that doesn’t move forward, so I blame him.

I will always blame him.

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The beasts, in their final resting place. RIP…RIP…

The newest member of the Kitten Caboodle Club

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This is the face she makes when I ask “Should we go see the kitties?”

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This is the face the kitties make when they hear us coming downstairs.

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I think there’s panic there as they hear the high-pitched squeals and the pitter patter of a one-year-old running down the hall and flopping her body down on the floor to get a good look at them under the bed.

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And, well, this is how the rest of it goes.

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Notice dad’s hand working to contain the excitement.

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I should really video it to give you the full effect these tiny fur balls have on my tiny bundle of energy.  But I’m usually too busy working on protecting them from that same enthusiasm and I don’t want to be distracted.
Oh, there’s nothing like having a pile of fur babies around the ranch. I’ve had a few people comment, asking why we don’t get our cats fixed out here, and the answer has to do with the fact that we live on a ranch and every animal, even our pets, serves a helpful purpose. (These days Brown Dog’s happens to be to keep us company and our arms and backs strong from lifting him in and out of the pickup.)

Anyway, simply put, farms and ranches have mice and we need cats to help us remedy that situation.

The laws and truths of nature aren’t pretty sometimes.

But these kitties are.

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The other reason is that we haven’t had a stray tom cat lurking around this place for years so we haven’t had to practice cat birth control lately. These kittens were the first batch we’ve had out here for a long time, a sweet little winter surprise, and lucky too, because they got to be born in the house instead of in the barn.

Soon a few of them will be ready to go to some of our friends’ homes who are looking for pets and pest helpers and we’ll keep the rest to help us keep this place varmint free.

And there will be plenty of snuggling to go around.

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This is a story I’ve told before, but when I was growing up, my cousins and I would go to the farm to visit gramma in the spring and summer and spend our days hunting around the farmstead for the newest batch of kittens. We got good at knowing the usual locations–a stack of hay bales, in the hole of an old tire, inside the old threshing machine–and we were so serious about our efforts we named ourselves “The Kitten Caboodle Club.”

We even made uniforms (a.k.a we puffy painted gramma’s old t-shirts).

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So it looks like Edie is the newest member of the KCC and I think she might be a natural. All we need now is some puffy paint.

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Peace, Love and Whiskers,

The KCC