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
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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.

Oh, it’s raining…

I tell this story on stages, right before I sing a song about rain. It was written on the memory of these hot August days, when the sun is scorching and the horseflies are biting.

And maybe a fence needs fixing, because it seems fencing is always done when the temperature reaches up to 90. And so you go along, but you’re missing a glove and you don’t have enough fence posts and you should have brought the bug spray because you’re so busy swatting flies you might be no help at all.

And the thorns are poking through your shirt and you look up at the sky and pray that those thunderheads rolling in over the horizon might just roll right over you, to cool your skin and send you running for cover, away from this miserable chore.

Oh, if it could just rain. Rain. Rain. Rain.

Storm cloud and rainbow

I was 12 or so, and my little sister was 7 and we went with Dad to check our cattle on the reservation. It was a hot afternoon and the ride was long, about 6 miles or so. Our horses’ tails were working hard to swat the flies and I’m sure we were stopping to pick wild plums along the way, spitting the pits at one another and taking our time. Because if Dad was ever in a hurry (which I understand now that he was, always), he didn’t let it show on rides like these. And I can’t remember if we were supposed to bring cows home, or anything about the task, but I do remember my little sister’s pony named Jerry and how that ornery little creature would decide he was done with it all and just lay down without warning, sending my poor sister crawling off, yelling “I hate you Jerry!”

And I’m sure that happened during that ride to the reservation that evening, because it usually always happened. And I’m sure I laughed at her, in true big sister fashion. And then I remember those thunderheads looming and my dad getting a little anxious about it, the heat building and brewing up what looked to be a big storm heading for us. And so we started for home as the sun sank below the horizon and the claps of thunder felt like they were slapping right at our backs.

Dad was nervous, I could tell that, but he calmly told us to space out to help avoid a lightning strike and then went through the rules of what to do if we got separated or lost along the way… let the reins go and your horse will take you home. She knows the way…

But I was 12 and had a few years of experience on the back of my mare, and so I determined this was it, we were going to die out here on the prairie, miles from home in the pouring rain. Because I’d let the reins go before, an act that became an open invitation for that mare to consume as much sweet clover as possible, not a care in the world and definitely not heading toward home.

My attempt at looking like an outlaw. Not sure it landed…

And my little sister? Forget it. Let those reins go and who knows when Jerry would decide to get back up again.

We were doomed. That’s what I thought as we kicked our horses up to a fast trot, and then a lope, Dad turning into a dark shadow we followed as the sky turned midnight blue, releasing big splats of raindrops as we flew toward home.

And when we rode up over the last hill, I could see the light of the barnyard, and the kitchen of the old ranch house lit up. And even though my grandma had passed a year or so before, leaving that farmhouse empty, I swear I could smell her roast cooking in the oven. Up to that point in my short life, I had never felt as relieved, as safe and sound, as we unsaddled the horses as the rain turned from big splats to downpour.

When we got inside the house, we stripped off our wet clothes and told the story to our mom, laughing and exaggerating the drama of it all. And then we opened the door and pressed our noses against the screen to watch it pour and feel the cool mist on our faces because, oh my oh my oh my, it was raining…

A garden is an act of hope for the future


It’s about that time of year when all you gardeners out there are discovering you have a cucumber situation. I was that gardener once, but these days all I’m growing is pigweeds in my new retaining wall and that’s a story for another day. Turns out pigweeds are the only thing that seem to multiply faster than a cucumber (unless you count zucchini, but I only count it when I’m throwing it in the coulee or trying to figure out how you all make it taste like chocolate cake).

Yes, it’s coming up on garden harvest season and because and I’m feeling nostalgic about gardens of my past. Because there’s something magical about a garden, it’s always been that way for me. As a kid I gladly claimed the role of garden planter and helper each season, carefully spacing and placing the bean seeds two inches apart and finding the right stick to mark the row before moving on to the radish and carrot mix, dreaming of the hot summer day when I could come out and pull a ripe pea pod off the vine.

There is no crisp like the fresh snap of a pea pod. There is no orange like the orange on a carrot, the subtle hint of black earth lingering as you take a bite by the garden hose. There’s nothing more fresh than slicing into a ripe, red tomato, its juice and seeds spilling over onto your kitchen counter where you think it’s a shame to waste it on sauce or supper, so you finish the whole thing off right there. And there’s nothing more satisfying than reaping the rewards of a past and personal effort you put in to something that came alive, before your very eyes, simply because you cared.

Because planting a garden is the physical act of hope for the future.

My Niece Emma robbing Papa Gene’s Garden

When I was a young kid and my family lived in Grand Forks, my dad helped my great grandma Eleanor keep her backyard garden. I reach way back in the archives of my memory and I can see my dad disappearing and reappearing from under the leaves of waist-high tomato plants while my great grandmother stood on the edge of her lawn to visit and I itched the fresh mosquito bites on my bare legs.

That Red River Valley dirt held different kind of secrets than the rocky, gumbo clay of my dad’s home in Western North Dakota. I was too young to understand how much that garden must have meant to both him, a ranch kid missing home, and to my great-grandma Eleanor, whose knees were too worn to do the planting and the weeding.

And in the high heat of summer, when the vegetables were ripe for harvesting, my great grandma looked forward to picking and chopping and mixing up her sister Maebelle’s Garden Soup. It’s something my mom looked forward to each year as a way to connect with her grandmother. It was a labor of love, a practice of patience and a tradition tied to family tied directly to the ground beneath our feet.

And so I want to share the recipe for you here as an offering of hope, a reason to take care and a special way to enjoy all that you’ve been watering this season.

Aunt Maebelle’s Garden Soup

As written on my mom’s recipe card.

Get out your 8 qt. or 12 qt. stainless steel soup kettle (Maebelle was very specific)

Dice 3 LARGE sweet onions (the “heart” of this soup)

Melt a 1/2 stick of butter in the soup kettle and add onion and sauté slowly until they are soft (but not browned). It will take a while.

Add 6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed, and 6 large carrots, peeled and cubed, to the onion and cover all with 3 cups of water. Cook gently. Stir.

When the carrots and potatoes are partially cooked, add 1 pound of yellow beans (summer only) and 1 pound green beans (fresh or frozen). Beans should be cut up in 1/2 inch pieces.

Add lots of fresh chopped flat leafed parsley and lots of fresh dill (or dry dill weed)

Season with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and Lawry’s Seasoned Pepper (to taste)

When the above has cooked, add a can of cream style corn and stir

(Now here’s my favorite part) Add 1/2 stick butter and let sit (not cooking) for 1 hour or so. (This seems weird, but it’s the rules)

Bring heat up and add 16 oz. package of frozen petite peas

Add 1 1/2 quarts of whole milk (Maebelle was known to slip a little half and half in also)

Adjust to your own taste. Try not to add more than 3 cups water. Maybe more milk, half and half or cream.

When I flipped the recipe card over I discovered that Maebelle often made “bullet” dumplings to add to this soup. I’ve never had this soup with dumplings, but you can’t go wrong with dumplings.

Now invite your family over to help chop, chat and enjoy!

Emma’s outfit is goals.

Mother of Mermaids

I used to be a mermaid. For a land locked girl who only made it to the swimming pool in town once or twice a summer, it seemed unlikely. But my cousin and I, we would use the big rocks up on the hill next to the pink county road to mark out the boundaries of our underwater cove and then we would swim to the surface to sit up on those rocks and see the world from a new perspective, the perspective of a sea dweller.

And we’d pick our mermaid names, and declare the color of our hair and our tails and we would pretend we were weightless and spinning and flipping through the water, and that we held some sort of magic that we don’t have up here on the surface, on the prairie, where the summer heat browned our skin and flushed our cheeks and the wind whipped the curls out of our hair.

Who knew then, when I was 5 or 6 years old, that I would one day become a mother of mermaids. I saw my daughters’ final transformations recently when we headed to the lake cabin in Minnesota to carry out the tradition of spending the holiday with my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The weather was hot and sticky, and the lake was warm and clear. We had summer sausage sandwiches with potato chips and juice boxes, topped it off with a Popsicle and we moved from the shade to the sun to the water. All the elements seemed to be just right for the magic needed to make a mermaid out of a kid. And so off they went from the dock into the water, with no hesitation, just bare feet first, and then up to their armpits and then, poof, under the water they went to become a part of that little lake with all its mysteries and enchantment, down below the surface with the other swimming, slimy and shiny creatures.

And I didn’t notice the shift right away. I was out there myself, the way moms and dads are, to float and splash, supervise and clear away the dreaded seaweed. I heard them little by little make the declaration, the color of their fins, their mer-names, and the sea-monster older cousin they had to escape from. And after an hour or so, I thought they may want to come in for a break, maybe have an ice cream or warm up under the sun, but they couldn’t be distracted by such mundane human things. And so I sat my human body up on the dock, and then back on the floating hammock thing my mom bought online that looked bigger in the picture but worked just fine for observing mermaids. I watched them splash and screech and swim and play and I wondered if there is anything more magical than a kid in a lake, both things sparkling in the sun? I wondered if there could be any feeling more free than the dive of a little body, young and bursting with energy made for just this, learning with each bend of an arm, arch of a back, kick of a leg or water up the nose, what they’re capable of. What they truly love. Joy embodied.

And if you’re wondering, someone has to come up with a way to feed those who have just grown their tails. And so that evening, before the sun started to sink, before the fireworks crackled across the dark blue sky, I made those sea dwellers a paper plate full of ribs and corn on the cob and macaroni and cheese, and used it to bribe them back up on land.

You see, I used to be a mermaid once, so I know a little magic myself…

Yes, I used to be a mermaid. And those big rocks, well, they’re still there up on the hill next to the pink county road where my mailbox sits now. It’s all these years later, but if I stand up there and the wind’s just right, if I close my eyes tight, I think I might be able to be a mermaid again…

Tiny, perfect things

There is a hill on the ranch that is completely covered in tiger lilies. My little sister went on a ride with Dad and they discovered them, a scattering of bright orange petals opening up to the bright blue sky.

It has been a dry year here, with our spring rain coming to us late, and so our wildflower crop is just now appearing. And this news about the tiger lilies may not seem so thrilling to some, but it’s exciting for us.

Because the flower is so perfect, and so exotic looking, and they don’t always come up every year. So when they do, we feel like we have access to our own personal florist, Mother Nature.

I don’t know if everyone has a favorite flower, but the tiger lily is mine. I carried them at my wedding, a bouquet of orange walking with me down a grassy, makeshift aisle in a cow pasture. We had to mow and build benches and move cow pies to make it presentable for guests, but we didn’t get rid of all of the cactus. My little sister found this out as she was making her trek down the aisle in front of me. I didn’t know if she was crying because of the cactus in her leg, or if she was so happy for us. I think a little of both.

Anyway, that’s what happens when you live in a wild place. No matter how you try to tame it, the flies and the thorns, the barn swallows and the raccoons, they don’t care about your fancy new deck furniture that you got for the family reunion — they will show up to eat the cat food and then poop on it.

And so then you sort of become wild, too. I know because I caught myself standing outside in my underwear one morning yelling at the birds to find a new place to make their messy clay nests. Not here, swallows. Not on the side of my house! And my husband? Well, he likes to scare raccoons at midnight… also in his underwear.

Anyway, I guess that’s why the wildflowers seem so special out here. For so much of the year we’re battling the elements, praying for rain, shoveling snow, bundling up, tracking mud in the house, pulling burs out of horses’ manes, cutting down weeds and clearing and cleaning and building and doctoring. The wildflowers, especially the tiger lily, seem like a reminder that there is perfection in this world, in the smallest things. Tiny, pretty miracles surviving despite and because of the hot sun and clay dirt.

I took my girls to that tiger lily hill the other day to check out this year’s crop. On the way they were singing Bible school songs they just learned, doing the actions and repeating the lines over and not quite right the way little kids do in the cutest way.

They had never seen a tiger lily before, and so it was a fun and easy Easter egg hunt, each girl grabbing up more than a handful of the flowers and thrilled with it all. With the familiar songs they were humming, and their sun-flushed cheeks and mosquito-bit arms, I couldn’t help but think: Now isn’t this the quintessential ranch summer?

I wonder what they will remember about being a little kid out in these hills. Do they feel as wild and free as I used to feel out here, enamored with the mystery of this place and how it can change so magically by the hour, the sun sinking down, turning the tips of the trees and grass and my daughters’ hair golden?

I hope so. I hope they feel as wild and beautiful and as loved as those lilies, because they are to me. My own little tiger lilies on the hilltop, growing before my eyes.

My favorite little flowers reminding us that there are perfect things in this world.

Free and safe and lonesome…

There’s a hill outside my house we call Pots and Pans.

When we were kids, my cousins and I would take the trek from my grandparent’s barnyard, past the bulls munching on hay, over the corral fences, along the dusty cow trail, up big granite rocks, stopping to declare we were kings and queens of the world, taking a juice box from our fanny packs to sit for a break along the way, kicking up little cactuses to add to the drama and adventure of finally making it up to the peak where old pots, pans and sifters waited for us among the sandstone rocks so that we could pretend the way kids do, while the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks.

And we could see everything from way up there. We could see the red barn our grandpa moved in with his brother and dad 50 years before. We could see the grain bins and the black cows and the sorrel and bay horses and the line of old fence posts trying to hold them in. The reflection of the hot sun on the stock dam and the tops of the oak trees bending in the relentless wind. And the mailbox and the pink road cutting through it all. We could see it all up there and I remember it making me feel free and lonesome and safe all at the same time.

And we were just kids, so we could have played anything up there. We could have been superheroes or dinosaurs, gold miners or Jesse James and his gang. We could have been magical fairies or mermaids or wild horses even. Kids that age, in the sweet spot between 3 and 10, with space and freedom like that, we could have been anything.

But we gathered those pots and pans up and we pretended to be grown-up versions of ourselves making supper for our children out of dirt and sweet clover, washing dishes, singing to them and putting them to bed in the house we made from the boundaries of the rocks and the tree line.

We could have been anything, and so we pretended to be grown-ups. What a thing to pretend. If we only knew how much of it really becomes cooking supper and tidying up the messes we make, tucking one another in at night and wondering what it’s going to be like…

Because we thought that we would someday be old enough and know enough to be as free as we wanted to be. No more rules. No more bedtime. No more supper table to sit at until we finished the spinach on our plates. We didn’t know then that maybe, on that hilltop, picking cactuses out of our little cousin’s bare legs, that we may have been as free as we’ll ever be.

Last week, we gathered up on that hilltop again, all of us cousins, over 30 years later, carrying our children on our backs, or holding their little hands, explaining the magic to our husbands and boyfriends, stepping on cactuses and gathering up the old pots and pans that had scattered down the bank over the years, just like us I suppose, gathered up from Texas and Minnesota and South Dakota and from just down the road outside the houses we put here, under that big hill, all grown-up now, like we wanted to be.

If you’ve ever wondered, like me, what keeps us bound to one another, I wonder if it isn’t as simple as the memories. It sounds silly, but for us cousins, it only had to be as epic as finding kittens in the old barn, or pretending that pink road was made of yellow bricks and one of us was Dorothy.

We held onto one another because we were given time and space to create a bond on a landscape with no agenda but to be to us what we dreamed it to be. And so the years between then and now, in the growing-up part that took us far from those hilltops, we held those memories, those old pots and pans and cactuses and black cows and clay buttes as a part of us.

Standing on that hilltop with them again, all these years later in the thick of the messy and wonderful and complicated lives we built, the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks again. We could see everything… free and safe and lonesome, all at the same time.