The yard light’s back on

This week on the podcast I catch up with my husband after he returns from leaving for a 75 day hunting trip (ok, maybe is was just 5 days). A small change in the barnyard makes me reflect on how wrong they all were about the future of our home, and Chad wonders if I would wish my kind of creative drive on my children, and then asks me to explain gravity. There’s lots to unpack here, figuratively and literally…listen here or on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

There hasn’t been a yard light in the barnyard of the homestead place for ten years. It went out when we took the old house down after a fire and we didn’t get around to rewiring it. When the house went, so did we, we left the barnyard and moved up over the hill to a new house and so no one lives there full time, we just work there now—we saddle up, feed horses, bring the bulls in, ride the ponies…

When I left home at seventeen, I had this vision of all of the yard lights in my rural community going out, one by one by one behind me as I drove away and kept driving. In my lifetime, at that time, I had only seen things getting quieter out here. I saw old neighbors packing up and moving to town. I saw schools close and businesses come and go and come and go. I saw star football players heading to college and not looking back. We were told not to look back, unless it was to reflect—on a simple upbringing in a less complicated time in a place where work ethic and sacrifice are badges of honor—because it makes you employable, you know, having come from a small place, heading off to the big places. But don’t come back here. Not when you’re young. Not when there’s more opportunity, more money to be made in places where the streetlights and stoplights replaced yard lights long ago.

Last week, in the dark, I pulled my car off the highway and followed my headlights down the big hill on the gravel road, past my parents’ place and across the cattle guard. It’s at this point in my drive, if the weather’s cooled down or warmed up, depending, that I like to roll my window down to catch the scent of that little valley with the cattails and the stock tank. It smells like cool summer nights riding home from moving cows, or long walks through the draws after a day that tried to break me. It smells like plum blossoms or cattle watering, fresh cut hay or the thaw or the cold coming in, you know, like the scent of snow.

It smells like home and I try to catch it when I can, when I think of it. When I need to be reminded who I am and why I’m here.

And then up another big hill to the mailboxes and grain bins I take a right turn into my drive and then look to my left at the sky past the buttes to see what the stars are doing and then down to the barnyard and then, well look at that, the light was on.

Dad got the light back on.

It caught me so off guard, that yard light once again illuminating the scoria drive, the barn a shadow behind it, the little guest cabin that replaced the old house, waiting, now under its watch, for someone to come slip through the gate and under the covers.

And I wasn’t expecting it, but I remembered then that my dad did tell me, that the electricians were coming, that some old wiring was going to be replaced. I didn’t connect the yard light to that information I guess. But what took me most aback was my reaction to it. It stopped me in my tracks, it bubbled a lump up in my throat. Memories of pulling into my grandma’s yard as a little kid sleeping shotgun in my dad’s pickup for a weekend trip and then as a ranch kid leaving the place after a family supper or after a long ride or a late day helping or running wild past our bedtime with the cousins when my grandparents were still alive and we were all young, all of us, and we paid no mind to how anything would ever change that.

Seeing that light on made me realize that I didn’t think of its absence at all really. Not the way I thought I would. When it went out it was just gone and life carried on. We put a new yard light in over the hill and felt lucky and maybe that’s why. I didn’t have to mourn it, because the story I was told as a kid about this place, it turns out that they got it all wrong.

Because look at me, I am 39 now and driving my children home in the dark and in front of me the yard lights glow like beacons of hope for the future.

Cheers to Middle Age

Chad and I have officially climbed the hill to reach middle-age and on this week’s episode we talk about it. Like, what would we tell our younger selves, why Chad settled into his beard and cargo pants, how I just can’t anymore with uncomfortable underwear and why time is worth so much more than money. Listen here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Yeah, here I am hanging out on the top of the hill, teetering and a bit wobbly, inching toward the day I take a step over.

By the time you read this I will have just turned 39.

Over the hill. That’s how they define it.

I’m at the age where the High School marching band is playing the music I listened to as a teenager. I’m at the age where I couldn’t name one relevant popstar in a lineup. I’m at the age where I spend an excessive amount of my paycheck on multi-vitamins, pro-biotics and physical therapy appointments and I genuinely get excited about a vacuum cleaner.

I’m at the age where I’ve started telling my kids they don’t know how good they have it.  I say things like, “When I was a kid, we didn’t have all these choices! When I was a kid I had one pair of tennis shoes and that was it. When I was a kid we listened to the AM radio station and looked out the window on road trips,” which prompts one of my favorite questions, “Were there even cars when you were a kid?”

Ugh. I remember asking my dad the same thing. I pictured him driving around as a kid in a covered wagon and I didn’t understand why he laughed so hard at the question.

I was five and he was 37, from the olden days.

And so I find myself there too. From the olden days, born and raised before high speed Internet and smart phones. When I wanted to talk to my boyfriend, I had to call his house and talk to his dad first. The horror. When we took a picture we had to wait at least an hour to see the result, and that’s only if you lived in a big town with a Walmart or something.

I am from the unique generation that grew up as high tech grew up. We were in high school during the release of the first cell phones and in college when Facebook was invented. We remember traveler’s checks and the movie theaters only taking cash. We paid per text message and wondered why it was event a thing. And we remember TGIF television where we had to, “gasp!” be in front of the TV on time and watch the commercials.

I could be wrong, but us almost-40-year-olds may be the last of human-kind that considers actually picking up a phone to ask a question, have a conversation or make a weekend plan.

We’re vintage like that.

Vintage like the relics of our childhood we recently found in a thrift store/museum. The orange Tupperwear juice pitcher that every household had in the fridge filled with green Kool-Aid. The TV Guide collection. The BUM sweatshirt. The McDonalds Happy Meal Smurf set. The My Little Ponies and GI Joe Figurines, Disney on VHS tapes and giant TVs that took a couple friends to move into our first apartments that cost us $400 per month.

Those were the days.

I say that now too, while rubbing that spot on my neck that always kinks, no matter how much I spend on ergonomic pillows.

When my family asked me how I wanted to spend my birthday, I didn’t say a long nap, but I wanted to. Instead I said I just wanted to stay home with the kids, maybe ride some horses and make breakfast. Let me sit for a little longer in the morning with my cup of coffee and I meant it. That’s all I wanted, to take it easy because I’ve been busting my butt the last decade or two.  

39. If I’m lucky, that’s almost half my life behind me, but whew, that last part went fast didn’t it? How long does it take to start feeling like you’re getting things right? My thirties set me firm in what motivates me and solidified a career path that twenty-something me was too scared to define. And my thirties brought me into motherhood and then turned around and slapped me in the face with the inevitability of my own mortality. It cut me open, literally, right down the middle and is still working on teaching me that healing takes patience, that I can’t do a thing if I don’t take care of myself properly.

In my twenties, I thought I could do it all if I wanted to.

My thirties helped me discover that I don’t want to.

And while our society tries to tell women like me that we’re losing relevance (remember the pop star thing?) I’m happy to now have the audacity to call bull on that.  I’ve been working my whole life to get to the very place I stand, and I got most of the way by navigating with an actual map.

So cheers to middle age, a place from which we can tell you from experience that you’re going to regret those jeans in a few years, but you most definitely should wear them anyway.

Showtime in the badlands

From fishing trips to film crews, Bible camp a barn dance and a musical in the badlands, family life has been a bit of a blur the last week. I catch up with my husband after bedtime to share the latest and reminisce about memories in North Dakota’s favorite tourist town, Medora. Listen to the podcast here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. 

I’m writing this as my girls are sleeping in two hotel beds in the middle of the badlands in North Dakota. In fact, the hotel is named The Badlands Hotel. Or is it Motel? I’ve always wondered about the difference between the two.

The lights are off and I’m brewing hotel/motel coffee hoping they sleep another hour or so on Mountain Time because it was a late night coming in from the musical last night.

If you’re from North Dakota or a state within a decent driving distance from it, you probably have memories tucked away from the time or times you’ve visited this little tourist town in the badlands. That’s why Medora exists really. To make those wholesome memories for you. If you were a kid during your first visit (and I hope you were because, like Disneyland, that’s really where the magic is) you remember ice cream cones on the boardwalk, wagon rides, mini-golf and that really cool wooden playground that looks like the town itself. You played there with your cousins at a family reunion or your classmates on an elementary school fieldtrip to learn about Teddy Roosevelt and the Marquis de Mores’ and visit the National Park.

If you were a mom or a dad or a grandparent during your first visit, you probably made everyone get dressed up in vintage western costumes get their black and white, old timey picture taken. Or maybe you told everyone they needed to put on long pants and boots or tennis shoes and meet up at the trail rides and only some of them listened and so there were some sore butts the rest of the weekend.

And no matter who you were when you made the first memories, you remember that it is hot down here in the summer in the deep Little Missouri River valley, surrounded by high clay cliffs and yucca plants, cedar trees and prairie dogs.

And of course, you remember the musical.

For those of you who have never been to Medora, North Dakota, this is what it’s known for. “The Greatest Show in the West!” running in the Burning Hills Amphitheater built right into one of those steep badlands banks since 1965. It’s pretty spectacular really, just the venue itself. I go to take in that view and appreciate the vision and ambition that brings families from around the world to our little corner of it. Where else do cowboys and cowgirls in patriotic costumes carry the American flag up and down the steep banks of the wilderness under the spotlight of the production. And man, do I always want to be the one on that horse carrying the flag in the spotlight. That feeling doesn’t change when you get older I guess. Anyway, there’s singing and dancing and clogging and a little bit of reenactment and special guest performers (last night it was basketball tricks) and fireworks at the end! They really go all out and I don’t care who you are, it’s wholesome as heck, and you leave there feeling a little lighter maybe, especially if you bring a kid or two with you so they can remind you to watch with a little less of the adult cynicism that you’ve come to acquire over the years and more of their innocence.

That’s the part that got me last night sitting between my two young daughters who were wearing the blinking, sparkly, light up cowgirl hats we bought them at the start of the show because who could resist?

They were so dang cute and they were experiencing this little North Dakota kid milestone for the first time. (Well, technically the last time my oldest was here she was a baby and had a massive blowout during the first dance number and we had to buy her a Medorable t-shirt to get us through the rest of the show.) And next to us were their cousins and their grandma and their aunts and that’s why this place holds a special soft spot for so many around here. Because that’s the sort of crew you bring along with you to a place like this, to do something, together and feel good (and usually sorta sweaty) about it.

And so that’s what we’re doing today when the kids wake up. They’re putting their light-up cowgirl hats back on and we’re turning into tourists in our own countryside. We’re mini-golfing. We’re lazy-rivering.

We’re shopping. We’re listening to music and, dangit, we’re getting ice cream (Of course we’re getting ice cream) in this little gem or a tourist town with the other moms and dads and grammas and grandpas and aunts and uncles because, if you can get away for a night, this is what you do in North Dakota in the summer…

And the kids are stirring now and my little sisters knocking with my latte from the cute shop down the street, so we better get to it!

40 Years

Listen to my interview with my parents and learn what my mom thought when dad brought her to the ranch when there were still party lines and how dad’s night in county jail gave him clarity on the direction of his life. 

My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last week.

There aren’t many photos of their simple backyard wedding day around the ranch, just a few tucked inside old photo albums among snaps of cousin birthday parties, family in Christmas sweaters, Hereford cattle and my dad holding a string of fish he caught on their “honeymoon” to the big lake in the Badlands where my mom might have begun to realize what she was really getting into — it was going to be a no-real-frills existence with this man, not that the woman needed frills.

But she was up for it. I like to imagine that not much scared my mom back then. She had survived and left a problematic marriage well before she was out of her 20s. She packed up her hand-me-down furniture, clothes and dishes and called her sister and she was out of it, on her own with her young daughter in tow.

When she met my dad, she didn’t need him. She had her friends and family and her guts and she was working on finishing her social work degree. She taught ballet for extra cash, and aerobics, too. And knowing my dad, all of that was likely the appeal anyway, that she didn’t need him. That he could be who he was and she would take it or leave it. The woman wasn’t there to change anyone.

But it turns out he did change, maybe a bit, not for her but because of her. I’m privy to more of the scoop as I’ve taken Dad along for long road trips to music gigs throughout the years. On the miles of county roads and interstates, you get talking about things you might not otherwise get around to.

He told me the two had broken up at one point before their engagement and a few weeks later he found himself hitching a ride from a skeptical sheriff who didn’t fully believe his story about his broke-down pickup but let him spend the night in a county jail cell because there were no hotels in the town. And so he was sorta broke, sorta lonesome and sorta wondering what the heck he was doing. If he died that night, would anyone even know where he was?

He wanted her to know.

He laughs now thinking about it, but really, how do you decide to take the leap into committing to build a life with someone? Did Dad really need this sort of dramatic experience to make him see the light? Realistically, he probably only realized it was the light in hindsight. But it’s a good story with a good lesson I think, that you have choices. That when you are responsible for the life you build, it makes you one of the lucky ones.

In my experience witnessing my parents’ marriage throughout my lifetime, it’s been the sweet way they mix independence and individuality with support and care that’s always made me feel secure. Watching them, I never got the impression that you had to give a part of yourself up to be with someone.

And my young ballerina mother from the Red River Valley couldn’t have thrown herself into a more foreign situation — with the country churches and schools, the party line phones and that time she found a rattlesnake in the house when she was home alone with just my sister and me as a little baby—but I’ve never heard resentment once. They chose this life together and as the years went on, my mom figured out how she could best be herself in it, determined to bloom where she planted her life, understanding the important hold this place had on my father.

These days I’m getting to know them in a different season of their lives, one that looks like retirement (well, sort of) and grandchildren and the ability to do things they could have never done in the years spent raising kids and cattle and careers.

How lucky are we to continue to learn from them? I know they love one another by the way they let the other one be, as if to say, “I love you because I know you and we’ve got this.” And in the past 40 years, they’ve been dealt some pretty mountainous obstacles that took the ways in which they are very much the opposite to fully get through. No one tells you that can make all the difference. My parents have never shied away from the tough things.

But they’ve never argued on what they find moral and right. They’ve never disagreed on the way they both view giving and helping. They didn’t even disagree when my dad flat-out gave their minivan to a person who needed it more. And so I guess it’s the ways in which they are the same that really pack the power punch.

Anyway, in true no-frills fashion, we didn’t plan a big fancy anniversary party this year. Instead, my mom went fishing with my dad, this time on a nice pontoon. With magazines and wine. And that sounds just like them, doesn’t it?

It’s mid July and they’re in the hay fields

From haying to old Bible camp memories, weird pets, the proper way to pronounce s’mores and how to deal with an accidental toad murder, Jessie and her husband cover all things mid-western July in this week’s podcast, because if you blink, you might miss it. 

It’s mid July and the guys are in the hay field. Everyone is in the hay field. The heat and the rain and the humidity have created a jungle of grass out here, up past our stirrups, belly high on the cows, over my daughters’ heads in some places. That’s how we describe it when we see one another in town, at the Farm and Fleet, or a t-ball game or anywhere another rancher was convinced to go because it was a little too wet to bale.

It’s mid July and across the state small towns are holding homecoming gatherings, blocking off Main streets so they can pull in a flatbed trailer and use it as a stage for the band they hired from Bismarck or Minneapolis or just down the road because it’s summer in North Dakota and it’s time for dancing in the streets. And the committee that made the plans, they’re hoofing tables and chairs, picnic tables and signs, dressed in matching t-shirts and sweating because they’ve been at it since 6 am, cursing the weather, but glad it isn’t rain, although even rain wouldn’t stop it. We have three fleeting months here, we don’t have the luxury of letting a little bad weather stop us.

It’s mid-July and the lake people are not coming in. Not now, are you crazy? This is their sweet spot and it shows in their bronzed skin and the pictures of the fish they’ve caught. Their kids have another month to find their shoes, but until then, they’re gone with bedtimes and balanced meals.

It’s mid-July and the peas in the garden are ripe for the picking. We send the kids to collect some for supper and they don’t make it to the pot and that’s just fine, because the best way to eat a garden pea is fresh off the vine anyway, the same goes with beans and cherry tomatoes and does anyone need lettuce? It’s coming out of our ears.

It’s mid-July and the wild sunflowers are blooming in the ditches along the highways and county roads. If you’re not in a hurry — in mid-July it should be crime to be in a hurry — you pull over to pick a handful among the sweet clover and wild grasses, the grasshoppers sticking to your legs, the horseflies buzzing, the heat reflecting off of the pavement forming beads of sweat along your hairline. Some little bugs will take the trip back home to the vase with you, a black ant unknowingly hitching a ride to a new world on the petal of a flower.

It’s mid July and the kids are catching baby toads in the yard, five total in a Tupperwear habitat, pinching them carefully between the pads of their little fingers and holding them up to their eyes to get a closer look at their rough skin, tiny eyes and soft, thumping throats. How they just appear like that in the garden is a mystery like the fireflies blinking outside the fence when the sun finally disappears way past that bedtime we set only to miss. It’s mid-July and the magic of growing and momentary things is everywhere, but most especially in these children stretching up towards the sun.

It’s mid-July and the sprinkler’s on. It’s mid-July and we’re at the Farmer’s Market. It’s mid-July and we’re swatting mosquitoes and cutting watermelon and the tops off of freeze-pops. It’s mid-July and we’re camping, poking sticks in the fire and itching bug bites. It’s mid-July and we’re grilling burgers and sending the kids outside to husk sweet corn. It’s mid-July and we’re at another Rodeo, another softball game, the county fair, the state fair, the grandstands at a demo-derby, a concert in the park, the pool in town, yes we dove right in and there’s as much water under us as there is over our heads and we don’t want to hear it, although we say it ourselves, it’s going fast. It always goes so fast…

Get your goat

Listen to the podcast here, where Chad and I talk growing up in the 90s and all my goat related incidents.

Did I ever tell you about the time my best friend and I went to pick up a goat in her dad’s old Lincoln? I just got my driver’s permit and off we went 20 miles on the highway to pick up a rodeo goat from our neighbor. I think I told you this, but it’s one of those core memories you get when you’re young enough that not too many scary things have happened to you yet and old enough to start putting yourself properly in harm’s way. Anyway it ended up with a blown tire and two thirteen-year-old girls in the ditch crying in the rain by the old church and it ended with our friend’s grandpa helping us change a tire and a goat standing in the backseat popping his head up between us as I drove that Lincoln back home at 30 MPH.

This is what friendship, teenage-hood and wild and free looked like in the 90s, before cell phones, affordable all-wheel-drive vehicles and hovering parents. Mostly we were left to our own devices, and mostly we were fine until the times we teetered on the edge of disaster on a back-road somewhere.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I entered my daughters in a kids’ rodeo in my hometown. I spent some of my life entered in barrel racing, pole bending and, of course, goat tying in high school rodeo back in a time where you could bring your fastest, most sound ranch horse to town in a stock trailer freshly cleared of cow poop and you wouldn’t be entirely laughed off the rodeo grounds. I wasn’t competitive really (*read, ranch horse,) but I had fun working to beat my time and with my friends on the road trips across the state where we would ride part of the way in the gooseneck of that trailer, bundled up and stretched among the horses as the highway rumbled underneath us (And that’s just one example of 90s safety standards and I’m hoping the statute of limitations protects my parents in this confession, Amen.)

The thing about the sport of rodeo is that it’s more about the practice, practice, practice than the 12-20 second race you’re running, or the 1-8 second ride. And I loved to practice, particularly goat tying (hence, the goat-getting adventure). For those of you unfamiliar with the event, in goat tying the cowgirl races her horse at its highest speed down the center of the arena where a goat is staked and waiting for her. The cowgirl dismounts the still-moving-at-a-rapid-speed horse, hits the ground running (literally and hopefully) and catches that goat, flips it over and ties three of its legs together. The girl with the fastest time wins and now that I’ve typed that all out it sounds sorta brutal. But the goats weren’t injured, switched often and were well cared for between rodeos. The girls? Well, there’s plenty of face planting and dirt eating in this sport to which I’ve contributed my fair share of statistics.

Anyway, my girls are too young to enter the goat tying portion of the rodeo, but when I lead them into that old indoor arena in my hometown, the one that served as a hockey rink in the winter, the smell of the cool dirt, concrete walls and horse sweat transported me back to my high school rodeo days when my girlfriends and I would spend countless hours practicing our goat-tying dismounts inside the dimly lit and echo-ey walls. The taste of that dirt hopped right back on my tongue and I swear I scooped some out of my waste band as I remembered us as teenagers hauling our goats to town in the early mornings to put them up in the fairground’s pens while we went to history then algebra, then choir then Earth science with the plan to practice tying those goats right after school.  But our plan to practice together comfortable and temperature controlled in a real, indoor arena honing our skills no matter the North Dakota weather didn’t come without a handful of hitches. Well, just one hitch really. One hitch a handful of times. Because I’m not sure what qualified as embarrassing in your high school experience, but getting called by name, over the intercom for the entire school to hear because “Jessie, Gwen, Nikki, please come to the office right now. Your goats have escaped and they’re loose around town. Again, Jessie, Gwen and Nikki, your goats are loose in town and you need to go get them,” could have qualified for us if we weren’t so thrilled for an excuse to leave in the middle of the school day to go do cowgirl stuff.

Did I ever tell you that story about the goats? No? Well, there it is.

My friend Gwen and I back in the day

Notes on Summer

Notes on a Rural Summer

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her daughters and her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

By the time you read this, summer will have officially arrived for most of the kids in North Dakota. That last bell, it means more to me now that we wrapped up our first official school year with our six-year-old. I watched her stand smack dab in the middle of one hundred other kindergartners on risers dressed in matching shirts and singing a school kid version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” My favorite line? “Teacher in a tidy room, smell of paint and Elmer’s glue. For a day that seems to go on and on and on and on…” But wait? Wasn’t I just embarrassing her by existing in the classroom on the first day of school? Now she can read and frankly, does math better than me and so we’re on to our next task of cramming as much fun in a three-month time period as possible.

For my family it also means trying to keep up with fencing and haying and barnyard reconstruction projects while juggling yard work and day jobs, my performing schedule and getting the kids in their swimsuits as much as possible, even if it just means splashing in the tiny plastic wading pool currently collecting dirt and bugs on our lawn.

I’m ready for it and determined to keep my focus on what really matters…

Because summer means that my babies constantly smell like sunscreen and bug spray and come in from outside with a warm, sweaty glow on their faces. It means 9 PM supper and 10 PM bedtime because no matter how hard we try we just can’t settle down until the sun settles down. It means picking wildflowers and swatting bugs, brushing the ponies, sleepovers with the cousins and slow walks down the gravel road pulling baby dolls in the wagon.

A western North Dakota summer means digging in the garden and praying the hail from the summer storm doesn’t take our little tomato crop while we lean into the screen and count the seconds between thunder and lightning.

Summer out here means searching for the right place to dock the boat or plant a beach chair on the shores of Lake Sakakawea and spitting sunflower seeds waiting for a bite to hit your pole, trying to convince the kids to swim where they won’t scare the fish away.

And then summer is laughing even though they aren’t listening, knowing that this time of year, especially in a place where it’s so fleeting, is magic for kids. And you can’t blame them, because you remember the rush of the cold lake water against your hot skin and how you would pretend your were a mermaid or a sea dragon and the afternoons seemed to drag on for days before the sun started sinking, cooling the air and reminding you that you were not a mermaid after all, but a kid in need of a hamburger and juice box.

You remember the way the fresh cut grass stuck to your feet as you did cartwheels through the sprinklers or the how you smelled after coming in from washing and grooming your 4-H steer in preparation for county fair. You remember the anticipation of the carnival, the way the lights of your town looked from the top of the Ferris wheel and how maybe you brought a boy up there with you and maybe he held your hand.

Summer in North Dakota is dandelion wishes and a fish fry, fireflies and camping in tents that never hold out the rain. Summer is wood ticks and scraped knees, bike rides and gramma’s porch popsicles, catching candy at parades, swimming pool slides, drinking from the hose and trying to bottle it all up into memories that won’t fade.

And so I am stocking up on popsicles and doing my best to make some plans for my young daughters that don’t include any plans at all. Because they are in the sweet spot right now, wild sisters who have one another and who are just big enough to take on the kind of summer adventures that only happen when nothing’s happening and the sun is shining and the day stretches out long and lazy in front of them. Because they can only be four and six for one June, one July and one sweltering hot August before the next summer rolls around with another year behind it. And I have my memories, but the girls, they are smack dab in the middle of making them. And for all that they don’t know, for all the things they are still learning, they don’t need anyone to tell them how to spend their summer. They are experts on that one. And I intend to take notes.

Under the early morning sun…

Mornings come early for my family during the work and school week — that’s the thing about living so far from the edges of town.

At 6 a.m., the house is dark and quiet and as sleepy as we are, when just hours before it was buzzing and humming and squealing with the negotiation and untimely roughhouse play that dads always bring to the bedtime routine. I remember it from my childhood, too, my dad teaching us to properly make a fist, our spindly arms swinging at him, trying to tackle him to the ground, to show him our muscles while he did things like put one big hand on my forehead, the other on my little sister’s, and we clenched our jaws then laughed and giggled and swung our arms into the air between us.

And there were a hundred other games we made up on the brown shag carpet of the living room, tumbling and jumping, growling and squealing like wild little bear cubs ripe to learn our lessons, doing anything we could to avoid the teeth-brushing portion of the night that led to bedtime. My mom would look over from cleaning up the supper dishes or sweeping the floor to suggest that we “Be careful now. Careful! Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Because someone usually got hurt, even though we tried our best not to admit it.

I hear her voice come out of my mouth now as I watch my own children launch their bodies from the couch and onto their dad’s back while he bucks and kicks and tries to dump them off. They use my throw pillows as weapons, they team up to distract him and execute an attack, they holler and whoop and laugh hysterically, golden hair strung out of their ponytails, cheeks flushed as they dangle from each of his arms, arms that seem made for this sort of thing, cut into shape from years of swinging hammers and hauling Sheetrock, sanding oak smooth and digging in fence posts. They ask him to show them his muscles and he puffs up his chest, rolling up his sleeves for his audience. They do the same, just like we used to do, my sister and I. Then they launch another attack to put those muscles to use.

“Careful now. Careful now girls. It’s almost bedtime. Five more minutes…”

I say this and so you might not believe that my husband is the more cautious of the two of us when it comes to our young children and their play. Knowing the guy since childhood, I guess I understand it. I never pushed my body’s limits the way he pushed the limits of his, driving his three-wheeler too fast over prairie trails, finding the highest cliff from which to jump into the lake, wrestling and playing football, peddling his bike off ramps that just got higher; broken ribs, broken shoulder blade, broken collarbone. A fish hook under his fingernail.

I suppose I can relate, having spent plenty of my youth in a cast, but my circumstances always felt more like bad luck and clumsiness to me. I always thought his scars screamed wild boyhood. I think back on it and the only difference I see now is that the hurt made me more afraid. It just made him want to try again.

I watch our daughters run wide open down the scoria road in their cowboy boots and I can almost feel the rocks scrape and dig into my bare knees. He sees them climb a thing they’re not ready to climb and he moves to help make them stronger. He shows them how to tighten their grip. How to clench a fist. How to bend their knees at the drop. I yell, “Careful!” He shows them how.

I pull my 6-year-old out of our bed, untangling her long, skinny legs from her little sister’s. They both found their way to us in the middle of the night and curled their bodies up in the space between us to ward off bad dreams. It’s my job now to wake us all up. It’s so early, but it’s time.

It’s his job to make them breakfast. It’s my job to fix their hair. It’s his job to make sure their teeth are brushed. It’s my job to drive them to school. It’s his job to pack the snacks, and on and on, step by muddy puddle jump — we make a mess and clean it up and find our way together under this sun, no matter how early it rises…

Spring cleaning gives time to reflect

My sister’s husband is working on building a chicken coop today and so my niece, Ada, spent our ride to town telling me how many chickens she’s going to get.

Sounds like hundreds. And I’m thrilled for them. Because it means that I don’t have to get chickens ever in my life. It’s kinda like the boat thing, you know, the only thing better than having a boat is having a best friend with a boat. That’s what I think about chickens. Eggs for days and no poop to scoop. I’ll save us all the cartons.

Building something like a chicken coop is a typical spring task at the ranch. The sun warms the ground and we’re ready to head outside to thaw out all of those ideas we conjured up while eating carbs and pulling our beanies down over our ears. But it also means cleaning. Oh, the cleaning. I’m always amazed by the amount of mud, random screws, mismatched gloves, beanies, boots, neckerchiefs, and, because my husband’s a carpenter, random electrical wires, plumbing parts, tools and hardware store receipts that accumulate in our entryway over the winter. I spent all morning Sunday trying to arrange it all so I could mop. And by the time I got to the mopping part, the kids had come in and out of that door 37 times, dragging more mud and dolls and winter clothes and random twigs with them.

My daughters were busy driving their kids to Hawaii in the little hand-me-down electric car that always gets stuck in the scoria halfway up the driveway. And the disagreement about who’s turn it is to push and whose turn it is to drive derails the game for a spell, although it does make it a bit more realistic. Adulting comes with all sorts of obstacles and predicaments. Like making the choice between spring cleaning and pouring a Sunday margarita….

Most of the time, I chose both. I’ve always been good at multitasking.

Anyway, the mess here is endless, between the ranch and the garage and the house and the yard, I’m fully committed to the idea that I’ll never catch up. And I know I’m not alone in it overwhelming me sometimes. If I dedicated every minute of my waking life to trying to control it, I still don’t believe I’d fully dig us out. Because, we just go on living, don’t we? Do the dishes and your husband comes in to make a sandwich. Clear the kitchen table of Play Dough to turn around to the kids making Barbie Doll phones out of tin foil and puffy paint. Get to the bottom of the laundry hamper and you’re still wearing clothes, aren’t you? Fix the fence and watch a bull jump right through it. Living’s messy. It requires lots of chores…

Last weekend my husband was also committed to clearing some clutter, so we were, as we usually are on the weekends, busy bopping around the place to see what tasks we can get checked off the list. This leaves the kids within earshot, but to their own devices, with a few tattle tale moments, skinned knees or request to help push the blue car out of the ditch sprinkled in. I stood in the driveway procrastinating sorting 1,000 gloves and watched as my daughters pretended to be mothers riding their bikes and changing diapers and, as I said, making plans to head to Hawaii.

And then I had a flashback of when they were smaller, just a few short years ago, at age 1 and 3, then 2 and 4, when my children required so much more out of me in the entertainment department—to peek-a-boo, to pour the paint, to rattle the rattle or build the blocks.

Now look at them, they’re in the sweet spot of sisterhood and childhood and play, immersed together in a world of their own creation. Rosie stopped her bike/car and her eyes caught mine, “Mooommmmaaa, you can go now! You don’t need to watch…”

And so this is the phase we’re in. Maybe I’ll get a duck or something and add it to my sister’s coop. It seems, with my kids in Hawaii, I might need something new to fuss over this summer, because I’m already sick of cleaning…

To get away, and be glad to be back…

It was spring break and so we let loose two little pale-as-our-snow Northern prairie girls in Florida. They swam with dolphins, caught a lizard, came face to face with a couple of sea otters, snorkeled and rode a roller coaster and jumped in the backyard pool approximately 3 million times, which is about equal to the amount of times they yelled, “Watch this!”

And so we watched. We, the parents who clearly overpacked, realizing our two little girls had no intentions of ever removing their swimming suits. And so we had to drag them out of that pool every night for the entire seven-day vacation, wondering if fingers can be eternally pruned. Or as Edie used to say, “sprinkly.”

We got back to the ranch and woke up to the official first day of spring. Which doesn’t really mean that it’s going to feel like spring around here, except now we can leave the house in the light and come home in the light and therefore we can see the light at the end of the winter tunnel. And that’s why Northerners need places like Florida. So much so that in the mix of a bazillion people at SeaWorld, Rosie spotted one of her preschool friends.

And then, the next day, we ran into folks from a neighboring town and so Disney is right, it’s a small world after all. Especially when all the frozen people are planning to head south at the same time.

What a blessing it is to get away for a bit. This vacation was one that was supposed to kick off, quite literally, the day the world shut down in 2020. It was a gift from my husband’s family, the kind that has aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, grandkids and Gramma and Grandpa scheduling time to live in a house together for a week and do nothing but the fun things. Who would have thought that it would take two entire years to actually get us there? The last time we did something like this as an entire family, my daughters were just a dream and my now-teenage nieces and nephew were much shorter, much younger and found me less embarrassing.

Which I proved wasn’t such an unreasonable sentiment when I took that nephew along to help me deliver our leftover boxes of beer and soda to the neighbors at 11 p.m. the night before we left our Airbnb because I “would just hate to see it go to waste.”

Those neighbors opened the door slowly to a woman in PJs and humidity hair and they looked as cautious and confused as they should have been and suddenly I became overly aware of my nerdy North Dakotan accent. I’ve never felt more Midwestern in my life, except for moments later when the poor woman finally took the boxes and began to close the door and I couldn’t stop myself from popping my head in to elaborate: “There’s just a few beers, some pop, I mean soda, and a juice box or two, you gotta dig for those, sorry… you know, we heard you back in the pool and thought you might put it to use. Hate to see it go to waste! Enjoy! Enjoy your vacation!” Because when in doubt, just keep talking. That seems to be my motto. Lord help me.

My nephew couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He literally ran himself into our glass patio door and we both laughed harder than we ever have together. He said it was his favorite memory of Florida, beating the dolphins and his shark-fishing excursion, me embarrassing myself.

And isn’t that how it goes if you do it right? My dad asked Rosie, my 4-year-old, what was her favorite part of the vacation and she said it was swimming in the backyard pool and staying in the same house as all her cousins and her Nana and Papa. No dolphin jump or roller coaster ride or new princess outfit complete with a sword beats any of that, the actual time spent. Sometimes we just need a few plane rides and a four-hour wait in the rental car pickup line to get us there.

And now we’re home. And it’s spring. And soon the calves will be born and the crocuses will bloom and my daughters will be riding their bikes on the lone piece of pavement on the ranch, fingers fully dried out and “unsprinkled.” To be gone long enough to miss it. To be away in paradise and be glad to be back, well, what a gift. What a blessing.