Not for the Faint of Heart

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My youngest has been playing mother to her baby dolls for four weeks straight. She tucks them in at night, feeds them in the morning, washes them, changes their diapers, brings them outside to play and calls them her sweeties.

And if this sounds all sugar and spice, I also want to make sure you know she gets after them, too. They can be naughty, and she can be strict. This mothering thing, it’s not for the faint of heart. Especially when you’re only 4.

Recently I called home from a weekend away and Rosie got on the phone to update me. I asked her how it was going, and she said good. She’s very busy taking care of her babies.

“Oh, great, how many babies do you have today?” I asked.

“Edie!” she yelled to her older sister in the next room and also directly into the phone. “Come here and help me count my kids!”

Turns out, that day, she had four.

Earlier this week, those four children came with us to preschool drop-off. Adding four to the two that already live in this house made for a marathon morning routine. We barely made it to school on time due to the clothing changes, feedings, teeth-brushing, fitting them all in one baby doll car seat and then, of course, all the kisses goodbye.

Her orders for me while she was away at school? Bring them all to day care in Florida.

OK then.

“Is it hard being a mom?” both of them have been known to ask me after I let out a big sigh or, despite my best efforts to remain calm, do not, in fact, remain calm.

I reply honestly. I tell them sometimes it is hard. Just like sometimes it’s hard being a kid. And while I’m not sure if that’s the right answer, it is the truth, and I guess I’ve decided on the truth when it comes to parenting.

Turns out parenting in the truth also means things I didn’t think about, like apologizing to them when I’ve overreacted or admitting there are just some things even mommies don’t know.

So then, of course, they go ask Daddy. As if he has more of a handle on where we go when we die the same way they’ve observed he has a better handle on things like numbers and biology and why Rosie just can’t jump inside of the television and live with Bluey. (Did I ever tell you about the time I got kindergarten math homework wrong? Did I ever tell you how many times Rosie has asked us to tape her into the TV?)

Anyway, it’s as if knowing all the parts of a horse and every lyric to every ’90s country song counts for nothing…

“Did you even go to school?” my oldest asked me at bedtime last night after I failed to properly explain why the nights are longer in the winter and shorter in the summer. It was 9 p.m. on a Monday, and I’m pretty sure I was already sleeping.

But Edie moved quickly from that question to her confession for the day. These usually happen in the final hours of bedtime…

“Mommy, the kids at school all gave better valentines than me. I don’t think they liked the suckers I brought.”

Turns out jealousy is one of those things they learn in kindergarten. So is the one about friends who don’t always act like friends. And the one where you don’t always win the contest or learn it the quickest, where you’re not always the best or get the most attention and get left out, and on and on, and it can be hard for a kid…

And hard for a mom.

Which is what I went with in trying to ease her little mind. I told her that mommies get jealous too. Everyone does. And to help get through it, she should try to think about all of the good things that make her uniquely Edie. And I try to do the same. After all, there are so many reasons to be proud.

Her big blue eyes welled up then and as she leaned in for the hug, I felt like she forgave me for all the things I don’t know and just trusted me on this.

And oh, this parenting thing isn’t for the faint of heart. Even when you’re a grown-up…

A Confession and a Recipe

Confession: On Monday afternoon I made a big batch of chocolate chip cookies with Rosie and my nieces, because, as you recall, my youngest needs baked items to go with her band performances.

On Tuesday morning I packed four small cookies intended for the car ride home after gymnastics practice. By the time we made it halfway to school drop-off that same morning, the three of us girls had polished them off.

Yeah, I have weaknesses. And hearing my 6-year-old’s dramatic speech that morning about why and how much she loves chocolate chip cookies and all of the reasons she should be allowed just one more made me realize that perhaps vices are generational.

And so I had myself a good think on it after I devoured approximately three to four more cookies for dessert that evening before my husband hid the Tupperware from me. And I could have been mad except someone needed to save me from myself. Self-control is not a thing I possess at 8 p.m. midwinter, midweek. And so here I am…

Self control has left the building…

Confession: I had no idea who was playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday. I mean, I figured it out and it might be un-American, but I make up for it with my love of cheeseburgers, a good halftime show and an excuse to gather with the neighbors and eat All. The. Snacks. And so I participate in the tradition.

And at the center of our tradition is a particular bread-bowl dip my mom has made for years. It’s been the center of many chicken wing, Crockpot chili spreads across kitchen counters and at the top of my recipe pile when I’m asked to “bring something” or “share that one really good bread bowl dip recipe” year after year (mostly from the same friend because I’m assuming he thinks it tastes better if he never writes it down or remembers it).

So I’m going to share it with you all here today. And I was going to make it on Sunday, except I forgot that it was Superbowl weekend the minute I submitted this column, and it was a long drive to town, and so we ate the queso and sliders my little sister brought over and I contributed chicken nuggets to the cause. Our Super Bowl Sunday looked like playing hide and seek and baby dolls and putting kids to bed after the halftime show and I’m just fine with that. Regardless, I think you should have this recipe, for Superbowl and beyond, so here you have it! Happy Valentines Day!

Priscilla’s Dip Baked in Bread

Serves: 10 (or like, me, for two or three days of snacks)
Ingredients:
1 round loaf of shepherd’s or sourdough bread
2 cups sour cream
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
6 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped
1 jar (5 ounces) chipped beef, finely chopped

Directions:
Cut off the top of the bread as you would cut off the top of a pumpkin; reserve the top. Pull out the inside of the loaf in chunks, saving them for dipping.

In a large bowl, combine the sour cream, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, green onions and chipped beef. Pour the mixture into the bread shell. Replace the top of the bread, wrap it in aluminum foil and bake at 275 degrees for 1 hour and 45 minutes.

In the oven, crisp the bread pulled from the center. Serve with your favorite cracker and the crisped bread for dipping and then, the best part: eat the bread bowl!

Drive Careful, Watch for Deer and other things we say here…

Drive carefully. Watch for deer. How was the drive? Is it icy? Blowing snow?

Leave early. Drive slowly. Check the weather. Call me when you get there. Call me when you leave. I’ll wait up for you. I’ll leave the light on.

In rural North Dakota, especially in the icy and volatile tundra that is the 17 months of winter, I grew up hearing these statements as a sort of language of love. Because to get to most anywhere we need to go, we have to consider the roads.

A 30-mile drive to school, work, groceries and the nearest gas station. A 90-mile drive to a big-box store or an airport. A 140-mile drive to a specialty doctor or to have a baby near a NICU, to get your wisdom teeth removed, a treatment for your cancer or, sometimes, before Amazon delivered the world to your door, just to find the right size of envelope or diapers.

How are the roads?

My little sister just texted me that question as I arrived in town and she’s making plans to bring her girls to gymnastics later this afternoon. It rained all day yesterday, right on top of the ice and snow, and then, just to be dramatic, the wind blew all night at 40 mph.

The fact that the roads between the ranch and town were just fine was some sort of weather phenomenon, ruining any excuse I might have been able to scrounge up for why I barely got Edie to kindergarten in time. And why I forgot my workbag with my computer in it and basically everything I needed for a long day in town. It wasn’t the roads. It’s just me. It’s just me in the middle of winter — frazzled, pale and distracted, trying to get two tired little children up out of their beds when it’s still dark outside.

Because what I think we’re really meant to be doing this time of year is eating a bottomless serving of straight-up carbs and hibernating. My word, it’s hard to fight nature these days. (I yawn for the 50th time in 10 minutes).

For the last three weeks, I’ve been back and forth from the ranch and across the state on these January roads, bringing my children’s book to libraries, schools and stores along the way. I’ve driven in blinding snow and clear skies, in the dark of the early morning and the quiet of late nights, on patchy ice, highways wet with cold rain, by snowdrifts and through snowdrifts, into the sun and away from it, past big trucks stuck in ditches and moms like me pulled over in SUVs, and snowplows, and semis hauling cattle and giant wind turbine blades and crosses along highways and interstates, lit up with solar lights or decorated with flags and flowers or a high school jersey reminding us that, when we’re moving this fast — blur-shaped people on wheels at 80 mph, trying to keep a schedule, to get there on time, to get home for supper or homework or bedtime — it only takes a split second for the whole plan to change.

And that’s why we ask. That’s why we wait up. That’s why we tell you to watch for the deer or the moose or the ice or the snow or the wind or the rain. That’s why we tell you to drive safe. Please. Drive safe. Because it’s the only way to feel we have a semblance of control of these miles we need to trek on stretches of highways, interstates and back roads that are equal parts freedom and fear.

The moving, it’s always been hazardous for humans. It’s not new to these times we’re living in, the walking or riding across uncharted landscapes or well-worn trails. Handcarved boats with handsewn sails taking us out to a sea that angers easily or a river that goes from calm to raging just around the bend. If only all these years of evolution could protect us now from those unexpected waves. Sometimes we start to believe it can. So just in case, we say:

Drive safely.

Travel safe.

From the top of it all

I have a good life. Not much to complain about when it comes down to it really, except for the weird cat that keeps pooping on the rug right outside the door, my daughters’ occasional meltdowns about waffles not tasting waffle-y enough, impending deadlines, unending laundry, unfinished projects and cold toes.

Nothing out of the usual. Nothing unrelatable. So I’m sitting pretty lucky these days.

But some days, during a break in the morning news, I cry at the Walgreens commercial. And the commercial for a web browser that tells the story about a dad sending his daughter off to college. And then they video chat. And anything with a cute baby or a puppy or a grandpa or a soldier coming home. And lately, I cry at the weather report.

Now, don’t get all worried about me, I’ve got the serious stuff addressed. This is just me being hyper-emotional, the way I’ve always been. And I spend quite a bit of my life laughing, so I figure I’m balanced.

But some days are worse than others, and like so many things, it goes in waves and I find myself running for the hills. Because I’ve learned over the course of my pushing-40 years (gasp!) in this breathtaking and heartbreaking place it’s the only thing to do to recover my senses and gain my balance and center myself once more.

I remove my body from the television screen, the radio, the podcasts, the music, the computer and all of those heartbreaking, heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories and just try to live in my own for a moment.

It hasn’t been easy to do this lately, between the life-threatening cold temperatures, traveling each week to promote the book, darkness that falls too early in the winter, school drop-off and pickup and gymnastics and piano lessons and getting everyone to bed on time, I’ve had to make a special space in my day for clarity.

It’s why I keep an extra pair of snow boots and a furry hat in my car. Just in case. You never know when you might have a chance to escape.

I found my chance one recent afternoon. I had a few of those teary moments over coffee and the news while I moved through my morning trying to pull it together, get to the computer, make it to the meeting, keep up on emails, plan for an event, meet a deadline and keep my head above water in pretty work sweaters between four walls.

4:30 came around and I had a meeting at 6. I figured an hour and a half would do it.

So I got in my car and pointed it toward a favorite refuge, the only other place in the world besides the ranch where I can look winter in the face and call it truly beautiful.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I’ve written about it here before, on similar weepy days in the fall when I’m overwhelmed and worried, on summer days when I’m tan and moving to the next adventure, and winter. I really love it in the winter. And it never lets me down.

So in 15 minutes I was there, turning off the highway and following the snow-coated road toward the river and the buttes, stopping to capture how the sun looks above the frozen water and if I might catch the bison grazing somewhere in the snow.

I drove slowly to admire the lighting. I rolled down my window a bit to feel the fresh, 20-degree air and pulled over where the road ends, next to a trail that can take you to the top of it all.

I checked my watch. I had 20 minutes before I needed to turn my car around and head back to my other world. I was in my town coat and dangly earrings.

I switched out my fancy boots for snow boots, covered my hair with a beanie and trudged on up there, slipping and sliding and panting because, well, I just felt like it.

I felt like climbing. Because winter looks like peace from the top of it all. All 360 degrees of it, surrounding me and telling me it’s OK to cry.

Especially for the beautiful things.

Plowing Through

Typical for a January
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OK, North Dakotans, how are we doing out there? Are you making sure you’re anchored down? Holding on tight and staying fed with the proper amount of knoephla and carbohydrates to keep from blowing away or freezing to death?

Anyone else find yourself up to your floorboards in a snowbank in your sister’s driveway on your way to school drop-off and work last week?

Anyone? Anyone?

Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing like starting a day running late at 7:30 a.m. because I had to literally pry my daughters’ eyeballs open and negotiate Every. Single. Move… from alarm, to getting dressed, to each bite of breakfast, to teeth brushing, to finally getting their boots on and their little defiant bodies buckled into the car.

It’s a good hour-and-a-half process, the morning routine. And Lord send us help if we misplace a mitten or choose the wrong T-shirt/legging combination. By the time I get in my car to go pick up my niece for preschool, I’ve burned 3,000 calories and sweat through my bra.

I’m telling you this so you don’t judge my decision to just “plow through” the giant drift of snow that showed up in her driveway the night before. Because “plowing through” is my default on those hard mornings. Yeah, I channeled Cruella de Vil, forward-leaning, elbows out, wild hair, bloodshot eyes. Then I hit the gas and sank like the Titanic. No amount of rocking or cussing or frustrated steering wheel pounding was going to get me outta there.

I called my husband and made my meek request for backup.

And then came the back-seat commentary.

“Mommy, remember the other day when you went in the ditch by the house and Papa had to come and pull you out? Is that like this?”

Apparently the event was traumatizing enough to become a core memory. Edie was only 2. Now that I think of it, that was probably the last time we had this much snow. My track record isn’t great.

“Mommy, you failed at driving today,” said Rosie as my husband arrived with the feed pickup to hook up the chains and remind me to take it out of park, hit the gas and not the brakes as he attempted to pull our SUV full of distressed females backward up the hill because the drift in front was long and deep and was going to need a tractor, clearly.

Assessing that very situation, my husband, bless him, just called my actions “an interesting choice” before leaving me at the wheel as we jerked and spun and jerked and spun and spun and sighed and whimpered and stayed stuck…

Then came my favorite part: my brother-in-law knocking on the window. I had an official audience now. He wondered how hard I gassed it.

Not hard enough. He gave me a perfect 10.

He went to get his pickup. And now there were two pickups and what I thought were just two of the three men on the place out in the cold morning trying to right my wrong. Except my dad got the memo somehow, likely through the famous sister-to-mother channel. News of a crisis moves fast this way.

And so then there were three. Three witnesses to my poor decision-making, which must be the magic number because in a couple more tugs, we were free.

“Our nightmare is over!” yelled Edie from the back, and I honestly don’t know where she gets her theatrics…

Except that it wasn’t over. I still had to call the school to explain myself and how I am mother of the year because my children had to remind me not to use bad words during the whole ordeal. They’re likely scarred for life…

I know I am.

So anyway, that’s how I’m doing out here. Pretty typical for a January, thanks for asking…

Order Jessie’s new children’s book “Prairie Princess” Here

“Prairie Princess” Children’s Book Release

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem that asked a young girl to show us around her home on the ranch.

I had just moved back to my family’s ranch in western North Dakota and was living in my grandma’s tiny brown house in the barnyard with my husband. The task I gave myself was to do all the things I used to do as a kid on this place: pick handfuls of wildflowers, ride our horses, take long walks up and down the creek, help work cows, eat Popsicles on the deck, linger outside doing nothing as much as possible and, of course, slide down a gumbo hill in the rain (which turned out to only be a good idea because it made a good story and I didn’t die…).

During that time, I was in a state of transition having just quit a full-time fundraising job and left town with my dogs and my husband for home on the ranch. I wasn’t positive I made the right decision, but then I hadn’t really been positive about much for those first seven or so years of my 20s.

What am I doing back here? What should I be doing back here? Should I take another desk job? Should I hit the road again or switch my career path entirely?

Should we try again for a baby? Should we give up? How is a grown-up supposed to behave?

I had no answers. All I knew is that it felt good to be in that little house trying to make something out of all those chokecherries I just picked. And it felt good to be on the back of a horse trailing cattle to a new pasture with my dad and husband.

It felt good to take the time to throw sticks in the creek and watch them float with the direction of the little stream. And then I sometimes wished that I were that stick, letting the current take me where it will. Or maybe the house cat, the one that used to be the kitten we rescued from the barn, growing up with no concerns except about being a cat. If only being human was that simple.

But we make it complicated, and so I found that channeling the 8-year-old version of myself helped balance me a bit. I spent so much of that summer writing it all down.

That’s how “Prairie Princess” was born. Because I wanted that little girl to show me around this place, to tell me the way she sees it — catching snowflakes on her tongue, helping with chores, dancing along the ridgeline and singing at the top of her lungs. Just like I used to.

I tucked that poem away then, but kept it in the back of my mind as I found my direction and became a mother to two little girls who looked exactly like the Prairie Princess I envisioned in that poem.

And so, 10 years later, I decided it was time to make that poem come to life in the form of a children’s book, so the voice of that little girl could help other kids see the special connection and responsibility we have to the land.

I took photos of my own little girls on the ranch and used them as inspiration for the artist who so beautifully painted it. Daphne Johnson Clark is a friend of mine with rural roots here in Western North Dakota and she made the book come to life.

And now it’s here, after all these years.

To celebrate, I am visiting libraries, museums and other venues across the state to read the book, talk about sense of place and conduct a creative workshop that encourages kids to express themselves through art and poetry. And I hope I will see you out there.

Even if you don’t have a child to bring with you, I believe this story will help you remember what it was like when the world felt wide open and magical and all for you.

I hope you know it still is…

Click here to order a signed copy of Prairie Princess and other music and merchandise

Click here for the KFYR-TV News Interview about Prairie Princess (with a few words from the kids)

Click here for the KX-TV News Interview about the book

A cupcake and a concert

Every day my four-year-old daughter asks me if we can “do a band.”

And by “do a band” she means that we will make some cupcakes or cookies, get out her guitar and little microphone stand and I will eat that cupcake and watch her perform music that she spontaneously composes with all the emotion and drama she has collected in her short little life, the fireplace the backdrop of her stage.

That’s Rosie. I’m not sure why on earth she thinks we need to make cupcakes for her to show her stuff, but I think it may be because it makes it special, like more than a rehearsal. Cupcakes make it a performance.

And Rosie’s no dummy. Recently she’s been asking me to tune her guitar properly so that it doesn’t sound so terrible. And then after I’m done with that could I please, for the love of kittens, teach her to play. Because she recently realized that she really doesn’t know how to play.

And she has a point.

But here’s the thing. She’s four. As in, she just turned four. And her hands are small, she’s still learning to write her name, she has the attention span of a blue heeler puppy. It’s probably going to take a hot minute for her to become a guitar prodigy. But she’s relentless. So for Christmas I bought her this little guitar with three strings that’s made for small fingers and designed to teach young kids the basics of the chords so that when they graduate to a six string, it all makes sense.

At Christmas she unwrapped it and I was excited. It comes with an app and flashcards and video tutorials, all the things I didn’t have when I picked up the guitar to learn at 11 or 12. (I had my dad, his guitar, an old 1970’s chord book and a tape player that I could play and pause and rewind and play and pause and rewind to figure the songs out on my own, but I digress). Anyway, I got that little guitar tuned up, her little strap adjusted, I coached the lefty to put it on right side up and helped her figure out her first, one finger needed, chord. And as I looked at my youngest daughter with anticipation, scenes of her life as a rock star flashed in my mind. I smiled and encouraged her. Her face dropped. She let her hands off the instrument.

“It doesn’t sound like a real guitar,” she exclaimed. “I need it to sound like yours.”

Oh Rosie, just another example of how I imagine that you’ve lived another life before this. And in that life you were indeed in a band. And you played killer lead guitar. And, I’m assuming there were, of course, cupcakes.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve had to consider my daughter’s prior life in my role as her mother. Like she was out of the womb demanding that she do it all herself and so I’ve spent hours waiting for her to perform grownup tasks as a mere toddler, like style her own hair, pour her own milk, choose her own outfits and make her own phone calls.

And then there’s her affinity for coffee, a habit that couldn’t be left behind.

Which makes sense now, considering all those long nights she must have spent as a bandleader back in the day.

Yeah, it seems my daughter’s just annoyed now that she has to learn to do these things all over again considering she’s already perfected them. So I get it about that little guitar, I do. It’s not what she’s used to. It’s not what she remembered.

But she’s coming around. It looks pretty cool after all. And fits her perfectly. Recently she jumped right in on a little jam session with her grandpa Gene and me. When the song was done, he gave her a high five after and declared, “Rosie, you’re getting so good! You can be in my band now!”

To which the four-year-old going on 40 replied, “No Papa, you can be in MY band.”

Happy New Year everyone. Cheers to learning something new this year…or maybe, if you’re like Rosie, relearning.

Hello to a new year

Hello, new year. I see you coming up over the horizon, sneaking in with the light of the sun, preaching hope and possibilities in an attempt to make us optimistic as we sit here under Christmas trees, eating leftover dip and pies, surrounded by gift boxes and stray wrapping paper, trying not to step on Barbies and Legos on our way back to the kitchen for something sweet.

I like the space after Christmas and before the new year, where nothing to me seems so urgent, maybe anything is possible and the most important task is to do something fun and non-productive.

At least that’s always been my goal in this space. And now that I can literally see my kids growing before my eyes, that whole fun thing seems more urgent than ever.

So it’s a good thing they’re easy to please. Get out the sleds and push them down a snowy hill, and you become the favorite parent. Get in that sled with them, and you’re the best mom in the world.

I get it. I remember being in that sled as a kid, Turtle Fur neck warmer pulled up over my nose, my beanie pulled down past my eyebrows and my Carhartt coveralls growing more high-water by the minute, plopped down in front of my similarly bundled dad, leaning back against his puffy barn jacket, looking down off the steep edge of our favorite sledding hill and wondering how far we’d go this time.

We were putting ourselves in the position to scream and laugh and blow snot out our noses and send tears down our frozen rosy cheeks, anticipating the epic and hilarious wreck that might ensue. Somehow seeing an adult holler and giggle and crash-land down that hill seemed to calm my fear about growing up, if only for those moments, living proof that you may outgrow your Carhartts, but you don’t have to outgrow everything.

My little sister and me racing Rosie and Ada down the hill. Guess who won?

Do you remember a time in your youth when you were caught in a moment you knew you would remember forever? Where you were suddenly aware that each passing hour was pulling you closer to the time in your life where you might dare say no to cannonballing into the deep, cold water of the lake on a late June day and opt to sit in a lawn chair instead? The horror.

For me it was during this in-between holiday, on a mild late December day when all the presents were unwrapped and we were trying out our new winter gear, maybe even a new sled. And then our neighbor showed up with his horse and toboggan and pulled all of us kids up and down the snowy road. And it all felt like magic then. I feel it now just remembering the snowy, dreamy scene and what it was like to think I was the luckiest kid in the world, wanting desperately to be trapped in this storybook version of childhood forever.

I suppose it was memories like this one, just a few hours out of the millions that make up a childhood, that built me into an adult who wanted to come back to this place and have the chance to be the adult on the other side of the magic equation.

And I’m not sure what these children of mine will remember when all their grown-up teeth come in and they take off down the road without me. I can’t micromanage that, just as I can’t will them to want to come back to this ranch that sent generation after generation off to ice skate on frozen stock dams and fling their bundled bodies down snowy hills. And I don’t know exactly what lessons will stick with them as they grow, but as the new year welcomes us, I vow to get into that sled with them and do what I can to help stop time…

We’re all our own Christmas DJs

We’re all our own Christmas DJs
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This morning I played the DJ for two little girls sitting in car seats in the back of my SUV covered in a nice layer of dust and then ice and then snow and another sprinkle of dirt.

As the sun rose slowly over the horizon, turning the sky from navy to blue to gold to pink, my girls sang along to the Christmas version of our life’s playlist. Their little snowboots keeping time with the beat and their heads bobbing as they watched the electrical poles, black cows and pumping units zoom past on the other side of frosty windows.

“Play ‘Jingle Bells’ next!”

“O Christmas Tree!”

“Now ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!’” I obliged each request, the world of music, every song we can think of, now at our fingertips these days. All you have to do is call it out. And I sang along too, running and rerunning my holiday and end-of-year to-do list through my head to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

It was only four more days until Christmas! We knew because the elf in the taco shell in the messy pantry told us. A few weeks ago, that elf was more cleverly placed — in a Barbie boat floating in the kitchen sink, on the Christmas tree, dangling from the wreath, then the chandelier, then holding baby Jesus in the nativity scene. By now, it seems she’s running out of ideas…

We’re right smack in the middle of the season of tradition, and some of those traditions sent me to the grocery store 37 times a week and I still forgot the key ingredient to the fudge recipe. So I called over to Mom’s because she’s the official Queen of Christmas. She is stocked and ready and has had the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Kathy Mattea Christmas albums on repeat while she decks her halls for our family gathering on Christmas morning. So of course she had three cans of evaporated milk. And no, she didn’t need me to replace them. She just has extra.

That’s how you do the holidays in the middle of nowhere. You buy extra. One day I’ll learn.

But contrary to popular belief, Christmas comes even if you don’t get your fudge made, cut, packaged and distributed to every person who has ever crossed your path. And if that elf never moves from that shelf, or even shows up at all, it’s fine. Really.

After a challenging year where day to day I didn’t know if I would feel bad or worse, I decided, this Christmas, I’m trying really hard to be here for whatever it is. If making the fudge brings me joy, I make the fudge. If I drop the whole pan on the kitchen floor and don’t have the energy to start another batch, well, that’s that. It’s good enough. If I don’t have the energy for it, I’m going to sit it out. If I do, well, then bring it on. Bring it all on. Let’s not forget that we’re our own Christmas DJs here…

Because these are indeed the days. I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old in the house and that’s pretty much all the magic I need. And I want to be here, fully present for all its layers — sprinkles on top of dust on top of scattered toys and excited squeals and all of the ways my girls mispronounce the lyrics in every verse of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” at the top of their sweet little lungs as time ticks on with the rhythm of those electrical poles whizzing by on the other side of their frosty windows…

Correction: In my Dec. 4 column, I shared a recipe for my mom’s fudge. The evaporated milk ingredient should have been a 12-ounce can, not an 8-ounce can. I sincerely apologize for all the kitchen cussing this error may have caused. I owe you all a batch. I’ll get to it. Until then, merry merry Christmas from the ranch!

The glamour and the timing on a family ranch

“Heya! Can you go close the gate below the barn?” I yelled at my little sister on the other side of the cattle pens. I had a pencil in one mittened hand, a list of numbers in the other, and a sorting stick stuck under my arm. My going-to town-boots had kicked up a fair amount of mud and poop and slushy snow and deposited it right inside of my socks and up the back of my going-to-town-pants as I chased both man and bouvine around the corrals. I had been caught in the wrong outfit as I pulled back into the ranch that morning, bringing two little girls home from preschool.

This wasn’t the timing I was expecting, but there I was…

My little sister was sitting, one butt cheek in the side-by-side and one leg out the door, hanging on to her thirty-pound toddler while her dog bounced and begged to come in and those two little preschoolers sat beside her, one singing an original song about cows at the top of her lungs and the other holding her ears. Take a guess which one was mine…

My poor sister was caught in a “Here, hold my kid, the guys need help,” situation and just like that she was responsible for her children, a niece and a gate.

This wasn’t the timing she was expecting, but there she was…

“Which gate?” she hollered back.

“The brown gate below the barn!” both Dad and my husband chimed in, as if adding the color of the gate was going to be helpful to a woman who had all limbs occupied, forty-seven tabs open in her brain and couldn’t get the music to stop.

But she needed to hurry, we had a couple loads of cows to haul for the sale the next day and the rest of them were quickly headed to that spot where the fence had been down for repair the last few weeks. Should have thought of that earlier probably, but, as you are learning, that’s not necessarily the way we do things around here.

Oh, life on the family ranch—the only thing glamorous about it that day was the cute new sunglasses I was wearing and my good fall coat that wasn’t expecting to work so hard. But that’s the way it goes on a small operation, raising kids and careers and cattle, you must be prepared, at anytime, to step in poop and be fine with it.

Or to open or close a gate, which depending on the status of your fences can determine how the entire rest of your day goes.

And there are plenty of misconceptions about what it means to be a cattle rancher, the one I didn’t pay any attention to growing up was the amount of deadlines and dates you have to pay attention to in order to calve at the right time, sell at the right time and have enough feed and water along the way. And so that explains why it seems we’re always in a bit of a rush. Because on the ranch, if you think it’s going to take a couple hours, it almost always takes a couple more.

And if you think you fixed it, 98% of the time you return to find you only thought you did.

Anyway, little sister got the gate shut and we got the cows loaded and sent the guys on to the highway to get to Dickinson before dark. Because dark is the ultimate deadline and it comes early around here these days.  Once they left, my little sister and I took the kids into my house for snacks and whatever crafting project they could scrounge up while I ate a three o’clock lunch of handfuls of Wheat Thins and debated the best ways to get mud and cow poop off wool and leather.

It seemed we pulled it all together then as I cooked up some spaghetti and got the kids fed and bathed and ready for bed on schedule, feeling pretty good about nailing all categories of our life today.

Until my husband walked in the door and told me they arrived to the sale barn to find out there was no sale the next day…

And that’s not the timing they expected but there they were….