What we don’t know…

I don’t know what it says about me and my culinary skills, but every year at Thanksgiving, the only thing that anybody wants from my kitchen is a giant cheeseball in the shape of a turkey.

By the time you read this, it has already been constructed, admired and devoured, carrot nose, pretzel feet, cracker fan and its little Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup top hat all slumped and scattered to the side of the decorative plate, joining the leftover beets in the relish tray as the thing no one really wants to eat, but makes the table setting more festive.

Oh, Thanksgiving. So much of the holiday for me represents coming home. Maybe even more than Christmas, and maybe more so because on a Thanksgiving six years ago we spent our first night in our house as parents to a brand-new bald-headed baby and nothing has been the same since.

Especially the holidays.

Our Thanksgiving meal that afternoon was drive-thru Burger King with a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna for supper as we sat in the living room recliners staring at this new wrinkly human who would grow up to become the young girl who requested rainbow cupcakes for her kindergarten class this morning and questioned if I was following the rules when I helped her walk the treats into the classroom.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she said nervously as I pulled into the parking lot instead of the drop-off line like every morning before. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be doing this. I’m just not used to it.”

Not used to it. What a way to describe it. I’m not used to it either, girl. Just yesterday, you and I walked the planet essentially attached to one another. Now you’re 6 and questioning my parenting judgment and authority.

And I’m not sure I’m used to my almost 4-year-old spouting off facts about reptiles behind the driver’s seat on our way to school. When we brought these little bundles of baby home to the ranch, I didn’t know I would blink and they would already know more than me. Like preschool is just the threshold. I’ve already been confused by kindergarten math homework and she’s 3 spelling words and the discovery of voice commands away from being able to Google everything.

I thought my motherhood expert status had more of a shelf life. I mean, up until this year I still believed some of the B.S. parent answers my dad had for our incessant questions. I mean, he always sounded so confident. But back then, we were living in a land of encyclopedias and experience-it-for-yourself. He was golden as long as we didn’t ask for confirmation from Mom.

These days, these kids literally have the world at their fingertips. A few weeks ago I was teaching a writing workshop for high school kids in a neighboring town. I watched them work to complete the short writing prompt I gave them and wondered if I really had anything that might be useful to them at the end of the day.

Then it occurred to me that when I was their age, sitting at a desk in my senior English class, there was no way to anticipate that 10, 20 years later so many careers and tools of our everyday existence would be founded in technology that we could have only dreamed of in our Jetson cartoon fantasies.

Like, artificial intelligence is real, and video chat is a thing that my kids will never not know. And so is travel to Mars, for like, normal millionaires, not just astronauts.

And black holes. I mean, we have an actual picture now. Don’t even get me started on things like Spanx and eyelash extensions and dry shampoo…

Anyway, after a few minutes going down the rabbit hole, I decided to tell those students the one thing that I do know: You just really don’t know what’s to come. But you do know your heart. And what and who you love. Pair that with the mission to do the best that you can, and then when it doesn’t work out (because so many times it doesn’t work out) and when it finally does, you’ll know you put the best of you out into this ever-shrinking universe.

And if you need a recipe to take to a holiday party, a themed cheeseball never disappoints. Just text me and I’ll give you a recipe. Or better yet, we can do it together over FaceTime.

We spent the weekend decking the halls at the ranch and now I’m in the spirit! Shop https://jessieveedermusic.com/store for great prairie-inspired gifts.

Use code HOLIDAY for 20% off now until Friday! Happy Shopping!

The bull’s-eye kind of woman

The year our first daughter was born, my husband bought me a bow. I’d been talking about how I wanted to get into archery for a few years, thinking it would be a fun skill to try to master, something the two of us could do together and another good excuse for me to get out into the hills.

I could have taken the initiative myself, of course, done the research and made the purchase, but I was intimidated by it all and so I just kept doing the things I knew how to do as I settled further into adulthood.

And then new motherhood hit me like a freight train and suddenly everything I thought I knew about myself, the planet and existing on it, was turned upside down.

Forget learning a new skill. Forget self-improvement. Forget quality time with the husband. Forget recreation. I just wanted time to take a full, uninterrupted shower and maybe eat a meal while it was still warm.

And so there the bow sat, in the closet of the spare basement bedroom, for close to six years. Six years. That’s how old our daughter will be in a few days.

And in that time, so much has happened. We almost lost my dad, wrote a book, welcomed baby Rosie, home-improved, built and rebuilt, broke and fixed, fed cows and kids, celebrated milestones, made a thousand messes and cleared them up, lost a job, started a new business, recorded an album, got cut right down the middle, kicked cancer, made some new plans and endured an endless worldwide pandemic.

All those things we did and all the new lessons we learned, yet still the bow sat, in the basement, a little reminder of the type of woman I could be someday, when the dust settles maybe. The type of woman who can drive an arrow right through the bull’s-eye of a target. That woman, dressed in camo and confident, sounds like she has control over things.

Bet her kids listen to her the first time when she tells them to brush their teeth. Bet she doesn’t do her makeup in the car’s rearview mirror in the parking lot after she drops her kids off at school because in the car, alone, is one of the only places she can focus fully on her eyeliner. Bet her meals are planned and she can walk around barefoot in her house without collecting a decent amount of dirt, glitter and a dead fly or two.

That woman wouldn’t have left that bow in the basement for six years waiting on her to do something she said she wanted to do.

Anyway, I’m thinking of this now because a few weeks ago, my husband brought home two little bow and arrow sets for our daughters. I watched them squeal with excitement at the idea that they were going to do something that puts them in the same world as their dad. Because at almost 6 and almost 4, they still want to be like us.

So I followed them outside and watched my husband kneel down next to them, coaching them through the safe ways to handle the bow, helping them pull it back and easing them into a couple target hits that sent them bouncing with joy and asking for, please, one more time. I clapped and encouraged, yelled “Good job!” and watched them work on getting the hang of it in repetition.

And as much as they wanted to be like their daddy, I found that I wanted to be just like them. So fresh and confident with a whole life in front of them to discover what they love, to learn, to explore, to become experts at things. At almost 6 and almost 4, every single minute these girls are learning something new about their world, and about themselves.

At 38, I wonder now, when was the last time I worked hard to learn something completely new? My daughters reminded me that there’s no better feeling really, when something finally clicks and you go from not knowing to knowing. It’s incredible. It shouldn’t be reserved solely for the young.

A few weeks ago, my husband dug that bow out of the basement for me. He tuned it up and called me out to see if I could pull it back. Turns out the whole splitting your chest open thing wreaks havoc on the exact muscles needed to become that woman who can shoot an arrow through a bull’s-eye.

So, for now, I’ll be the woman in my bedroom lifting weights and getting stronger and finding her way no longer as a mother of babies, but of two growing girls who could benefit, I think, from watching their momma grow, too.

The Messy Middle

My husband and I moved home to my family’s ranch almost 10 years ago with a few little dreams that could live because of the big dream that came true when we decided to stay here forever.

Between then and now, it seems that we’ve learned most of our lessons the hard way (as if there’s any other way), maybe the most important one being that nothing happens in a straight line. Nothing is black and white. And sometimes we get there, short and sweet, but mostly it’s up and down and down further and further still and then up again and up again before we’re off shaky ground.

When you dream of your life as a little kid, do you dream of yourself at almost 40?

And then, if or when you marry the person you love, the vision is mostly of the wedding day and then hop, skip and jump to the two of you sitting side by side in rocking chairs, old and gray looking out into the sunset, reflecting on a beautiful highlight-reel history together.

That whole part where you wake up at 5:30 every morning to get yourself and the kids groomed and fed and out the door and then to school and then to gymnastics and then home and then supper and then bath and then bed and then up and at ‘em the next morning, that’s the less popular middle part of the dream-come-true.

The number of times you sweep the kitchen floor only to do it five minutes later after the kids spill the cereal or dump out the Play-Doh or your husband rushes in with muddy boots to grab the wallet he forgot. The flat tires and broken tail lights.

The stomach flu, the amount of grilled cheese you’ve charred on the stove because the kids are fighting over dolls or clothes, the arguments about closing cabinet doors that really aren’t about closing cabinet doors, the huffs and eye rolls, the little laughs, the banter, the leftovers that mold in the fridge — all of that we skip over in the planning and dreaming and the telling of our lives.

But the cancer diagnosis, the infertility, the loss of the people you love, the divorce, the firing and layoffs, the big epic failures, those things, those traumatic things, they stick in your guts, expanding sometimes to tug on your heart, to punch your ribs, to help keep you bruised and broken and human the same way we take all the good stuff and say we’re grateful, not giving proper credit to the hard stuff that likely deserves the accolade, too.

And I know what I’m trying to say here, but I guess I’m taking the long way. This month we lost a classmate. In my small junior high and high school, she was one of my favorites, who, upon graduation, became a person I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.

And as I sat in that pew in that church next to my high school boyfriend who became my husband, surrounded by individuals who have woven in and out of our lives throughout the years, I couldn’t help but feel robbed. Not personally really, but on her behalf. Because she left us smack dab in the middle of her middle part, in the mushy and complicated center of her dream, in the part that may be skipped over in the Cliffs Notes version but is, in reality, where all the best stuff lies — the characters, the mistakes, the complicated relationships and small and big wins building and brewing and growing and culminating to get us to that last chapter, you know, the one with the rocking chair…

She didn’t get her rocking chair, but then, it was never promised in the first place.

So I guess what I want to say is something that’s hard for me to recognize when the mundane or hectic tasks of the days overwhelm me. That task is part of the day is part of the little plan that is part of the big plan and maybe, if you take a breath, if you pull out the weeds and worries that want to convince you otherwise, you might find that right where you are, sweeping that dirty floor, or rolling your eyes, or losing an argument, is sorta right where you dreamed you’d be someday. You just forgot to give the middle part the credit it deserves.

Homemade Halloween

Happy Day after Halloween everyone! How’s your blood sugar level? I’m feeling the need to check in on you all after a Halloween that lasted three whole days. Are you upright? Did the kids make it?

This week’s column is a reflection on my Homemade Halloweens, and this year we carried on the tradition successfully, although I was a little nervous when I wrote the column that my five-year-old was going to reject the homemade and head toward her rack of princess dresses. But alas, she proved that she has a soft and gooey center and dressed up as Bluey, the star of her little sister’s favorite show, making Rosie’s dreams come true and her momma proud and thankful that I didn’t get out the glue gun for nothing.

So here’s the thing about having Halloween officially land on a Sunday–not only does it make for a three day celebration, it means that I had a whole day and a half to thoroughly obsess over my Trunk-or-Treat display. Because when I was a kid, Trunk-or-Treat didn’t exist. But oh, it exists now and I. Am. Here. For. It.

So the girls and I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning turning the back of my car into a campsite. We painted signs and mountains, brought up the sleeping bags and Teepee and old time lantern, took out the fishing poles, gathered sticks and cut up paper to make a fake fire and fully and completely destroyed our kitchen in the process. And then we loaded it all up to head down the road to figure out how to coordinate our Bluey Family costumes with our winter gear. Because weather’s never really stopped North Dakotan’s from doing our best to celebrate something. And so we celebrated, in 70-some degree weather on Friday on Main Street and 30-some degree weather on Sunday handing out candy from my lawn chair and “fishing hole.” the fishing hole.

The girls and I went all out on our Trunk or Treat Theme this year. My kitchen is covered in paint and crafting supplies, and I had to take a half-hour shower to thaw out from sitting in 30-some degree weather handing out the chocolate, but it was worth it.

I hope you all enjoyed this fun holiday the way you prefer to enjoy it–eating all the candy, entering the costume contest, playing tricks on the neighborhood kids, or shutting the lights off and hiding out–because if there was ever a holiday that screams “you do you” it’s All Hallow’s Eve.

Ok, here’s this week’s column.

Another Homemade Halloween

If you don’t watch Bluey with your kids, you should. An adorable Aussie show featuring a family of Heelers. They have two little girls, Blue and Bingo, and two little girl cousins, Muffin and Socks, and I feel like it’s our life on the ranch as a cartoon.

By the time you read this, I will have successfully consumed all of the chewy SweeTarts, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Milk Duds I purchased for Halloween, proving yet again that I can’t be trusted to buy any candy early, unless I somehow hide it from myself, which would mean I won’t find it until they clean my house to move me into the nursing home.

By the time you read this, I will have hot-glued some felt to a couple bright sweatshirts (and added puffy paint just for fun) in an attempt to create a costume you can’t find in stores, only to learn that my oldest would now rather be Elena, Princess of Avalor than Bluey, a cartoon blue heeler puppy made out of a hoodie.

I’m not sure I have enough hot glue sticks, felt or glitter in the house to construct a full-on ballgown, not that I won’t try. Edie’s too young to understand that I will, indeed, try.

Because her father and I come from a long line of “make your own costume” people. Walmart wasn’t just down the street, you know. Oh, and money didn’t grow on trees then either. And uphill both ways, and all that stuff that will send my daughters’ eyeballs rolling.

Anyway, did anyone else’s mom stuff you in one of those pumpkin leaf bags, paint your face green and call it a costume? How about a princess in one of her old bridesmaid’s dresses with a pipe cleaner crown? No.

Halloween in the early 90s. My little sister as a garbage bag pumpkin and me as an old lady in my grandma’s dress.

Well, then there was always the one clown suit our grandma made that we could get from the cousins down in South Dakota who wore it last year, trying to decide if it’s best to wear the snowsuit over or under the baggy striped and polka-dotted jumper. Then we all crammed in the neighbors’ pickup with the tiny seat in the back and covered the 15-mile radius from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor, stripping off our beanies, coats, mittens and snowpants to reveal our characters and sit and have a cup of hot chocolate or a cookie before heading to the next house.

Trying to incorporate my broken leg into my costume

I was a full-blown adult before I ever dressed in a store-bought costume — I was a deviled egg, and I borrowed it from my little sister. We still have it if you want to borrow it, too, along with some wigs, a couple witch hats and a child’s flamingo costume we acquired along the way.

Me and my husband, as full grown adults…in homemade costumes…

We love Halloween around here, but it’s such a different time. Since my oldest daughter was born, we’ve collected enough princess, mermaid, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, cheerleader and ballerina costumes, complete with the plastic high heels, crowns and capes to play dress-up or trick or treat every day for a month.

But when Halloween comes knocking on our door, I get that old familiar urge to construct something. One year, I hot-glued hundreds of colorful puffballs on a beanie and made 11-month-old Edie into a gumball machine.

The next year I ordered as much harvest-colored tulle I could find and spent two days making a giant tutu for a cute little scarecrow and my daughter took one look at it and cried. Apparently it wasn’t pink and sparkly enough for the 2-year-old.

Recycling the idea on Rosie a few years later

But that didn’t stop me from whipping out that glue gun the next year to create an epic mermaid crown out of old costume necklaces and beach shells and turning a little sweat suit into a flounder fish for baby Rosie. Because I have to glue while I can! I knew that the days of my daughters appreciating my homemade efforts were going to be short-lived.

I didn’t know that the timeline would be so short. Apparently almost 6 is when your daughter turns to you out of the blue and asks you, very frankly, to not embarrass her.

And I’m not sure what qualifies as embarrassing to a 6-year-old, but apparently I’ve done it. A few times actually.

If you need me, I’ll be drowning my sorrows in Reese’s and bedazzling something.

A ranch house is a work in progress

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My husband and I have lived in our house over the hill from the homestead place at the ranch for nearly nine years. I remember the day that it came, in three parts on the back of a semi-trailer all the way from Wisconsin where they started it — the framing, the siding, the windows and some sheetrock here and there — and then we were going to finish it — the floors and doors and loft, the light fixtures and fireplace and railings and the garage and the yard and the deck and and and and…

This photo is why this chandelier will live in that spot of eternity

Let me just tell you the ideas come fast around here, but the progress is slow. I wish I could blame it all on my handyman husband, but it’s my fault really… I’ll take the blame for all those ideas.

Last weekend, my daughters helped their dad put rock on the pillars outside of the front entrance, the one that we added three years ago, turning the house side of the garage into a giant entryway. Because when we designed the house initially, it was only Chad and I and our boots and hats and coats, and we grossly underestimated the amount of space you want to kick that all off (and the mud and the slush and the poop) when it comes down to it. Add a couple munchkins in the mix, and the family and the friends and the help that comes through the door, and, well, you’re facing a renovation project that shrinks the garage and gives us another spot to put a fridge and a hat rack and all the muddy boots you can manage.

Because when you live out in the middle of nowhere, apparently one cannot have enough refrigerators or hats or muddy boots.

The ranch house. It’s a thing that you see featured in HGTV shows, in those big ol’ spreads in Texas-themed magazines and Southern blogs. The sprawl of the family table, the cast iron kitchen sink where you do dishes looking out the cute curtained window facing a lush spread of a lawn, cattle grazing across the fence, a sleepy dog in the yard, maybe a kid on a tire swing or something.

I’m here to tell you that my reality in particular is a little less frosted and shiny.

Yesterday I stood on my back deck, the one that isn’t finished yet but needs to be redone, and yelled at a bull who found his way to the only green thing on the ranch, the unmowed weeds in my yard. And he looked up at me, fully confused and offended that I would be asking him to leave. And so he took a run for the broken fence where he entered, a burst of movement creating a burst of poop that he distributed from one end of the yard to the other, making sure to deposit a few decent piles in front of the kids’ swingset.

It was picturesque indeed. About as picturesque as the barn cat that has decided to poop on my patio table. Like, all the dirt in the ever-loving world and that’s his spot.

Help me.

I feel like I’m ranting. Sorry. There’s just so much poop out here.

Meanwhile, inside the ranch house, the calf-vaccination guns are in the dish drying rack, the kids got a hold of the calf tagging marker to decorate the 37 gourds they got from Grandpa’s garden and they’re all spread out across that kitchen table and we cannot move them because They. Are. Not. Done. Yet!

And outside, one dried-up petunia plant sits outside the half-finished rock pillar. Half-finished because a fence needed to be fixed, supper needed to be served or the sun went down in the middle of the project.

It’s fall y’all, welcome to the ranch house. Watch out for the dive-bombing boxelder bugs on the way in.

Nine years ago we pictured raising our family here, a family we weren’t sure if we could ever have. And so we were thinking about light fixtures and where to put the outlets, and having the carpet or no carpet debate.

And what a thing life is, so surprising and messy and unpredictable that of course we wouldn’t be able to envision that the Barbie Dream House would take up half the basement and I would be showering with at least two or three naked baby dolls every morning in our master bathroom that my husband and I tiled together and lived to tell about.

I didn’t know it then, when that house rolled down the hill, that it would shift and change and grow in this little spot we chose for the rest of our lives. And that it might not make the magazines, but it’s us, isn’t it? Unfinished and flawed and an ever-loving work in progress.

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…

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.

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.

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.