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.

Free and safe and lonesome…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checking in with dad

Father’s Day is just around the corner so I thought I’d check in with the dad of the house.

How’re you doing?

A. Fine. Tired.

What’s your favorite thing about being a dad to two girls?

A. They see me as fun and I love that.

 What’s your favorite thing to do with them?

A. Everything is my favorite thing to do with them.

What’s the biggest challenge about parenthood that you didn’t see coming?

A. Personal time. It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, it’s just that you don’t know what that means until you can’t poop alone.

How do you think it’s changed our relationship?

We have a relationship?

Haha…ugghh…that’s depressing.

It’s not. It’s going to sound like it’s a bad thing, but in my mind it’s turned our relationship into a partnership. It made us a lot closer in a lot of ways, but a lot farther away in a lot of ways. It makes you appreciate each other I think. At least me anyway.

I think parenthood has shown me what I’m capable of. Do you think it has changed you in any way?

A. It makes me want to be better. It’s very important to show my girls what a good man looks like, what a good dad looks like, what a good husband looks like. All of those things they don’t know they’re learning, but they’re learning it. How I speak and the language that I use and how I talk about people and to people. Now it’s more important than ever because there are little people who are going to be doing what I’m doing and saying what I’m saying.

What are you most looking forward to doing with the girls as they get older?

A. I think about it in two ways. I’m really excited to see which one of them is into what I’m into. It would be so awesome if I could get one or both of them into archery, but I’m also really excited to see what they can get me into. Like, I live my world, but it’s pretty exciting to think about how they can influence me. I try to imagine, are they going to be athletes or artists? Or am I going to get super into physics or some scholastic thing? I like that stuff, but if they were into it then I would be super into it just so I could be at their level.

Plus as a dad you have to be one step ahead of everybody. So if they’re into math then I have to make sure I’m just a little bit better at math. I don’t know what moms feel like but dads are just supposed to be good at everything. Think about it, as a little kid, your dad was invincible. I’m not fully serious, but that’s what dads are to me.

How do you define a good dad?

A. In its simplest form a good dad is somebody who cares and can be a role model. And being a good role model means showing them how you treat yourself, how you treat other people, how you interact, how you resolve conflict by not losing your temper, that it’s never OK to treat people poorly. It’s very important to teach respect.

That will be one of the hardest challenges that we’re going to face as parents. How are we going to teach our kids to treat people with respect and dignity, to not be mean, not be a bully when they’re going to be bullied and people are going to be mean to them and they are going to be disrespected? How do you teach your kid to live one thing while understanding that you’re playing by a set of rules that other people aren’t going to play by?

 So what do you hope that they learn from you?

A. I think more than anything, and maybe especially because they’re girls, I want them to learn that they can do anything. I want them to be self-sufficient. There’s no reason that either of them can’t do anything that they want to do. And I want to give them the opportunity to do it and the know-how. I want to teach my kids that even if they don’t know how to do it, they know how to learn how to do it. I’ve always said from forever, that if I ever had girls they’re not going to be the kind of girls who have their boyfriends back their pickup and trailer up for them. That’s a metaphor for everything I think.

And I want to teach my girls to be what and who they are regardless of what anyone says and have the confidence to own that, because having that confidence is what’s going to make and break it for them. How do you give your kids confidence? I know you can break it, but can you give it?

I think you can.

I look to your dad a lot because he raised girls and he raised them here (on the ranch). I think you just do stuff with them, and you just keep doing it. And you know, knowing him now, I know that he was terrified, but he did it anyway. Because mostly being a parent is finding a new thing to be afraid of every single day. You figure one thing out just in time to learn the next thing to be scared of. That’s what being a dad is.

Oh man…some day they’re gonna start driving. I don’t even want to think about that.

I don’t want to think about that either. Last question. What would be the best Father’s Day ever?

A. Going fishing. Hopefully we would catch some fish because fishing isn’t very fun if you don’t catch fish.

You want to go fishing with Rosie? She’s crazy!

A. Yeah. I’ll give her a bucket of minnows and she’ll be so happy. She’ll probably eat a worm.

My favorite people in the whole wide world

My favorite people in the whole wide world
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Today Edie, who is 5, told me that Rosie, her little sister, who is 3, is her favorite person in the whole world.

It was in a moment when the day was clear, the rain had just fallen and the wind was calm and so we lingered a bit longer in the barnyard after feeding our bottle calves. We saddled up the pony and the big horse and Edie practiced reining around the one barrel left over in the arena from when I used to practice the same thing 100 years ago.

And Rosie, she sat on Tootsie while the mini horse scouted out every last lone blade of grass in the dirt. One step, one bite, one step, one bite, and on and on until the duo headed back to the grain bucket.

Anyway, there was no place on earth we would have rather been at that moment, and I think that’s why it struck me. That Edie declared it. Her favorite person in the whole wide world was just born three years ago, and so how lucky to have that many more years ahead of them to ride ponies and fight over the tractor seat and jump off corals and cheer one another on and steal shirts and shoes and keep secrets…

And I know they love one another. I know because for every 10 minutes of peaceful playing, there is another five or so where one is devastated by the other. If it’s not a push or a hit, it’s usually over who gets to be the mom when they’re playing dolls. And generally it resolves with them deciding they can both be moms. They’re aunties, taking care of their kids together, because that’s what they see I suppose, and that makes me smile.

“Pretend that we’re sisters,” they say, as if they can’t fathom a world where they’re not, and so they fast-forward it to make it more interesting. Teenage sisters. Mommy sisters. Superhero princess sisters. And then there’s the game where Rosie turns into a troll who ate, well, Rosie, and then it becomes the game where you fight a troll to save your sister…

And on and on they go, as sisters.

Most evenings, at suppertime (which always runs too late in case you were getting any sort of impression that we have it remotely figured out around here), we ask the girls, “What was your favorite part of the day?”

And before they can answer, they have to argue a bit about who gets to ask first, and who gets to answer first, but eventually we get around to the fact that, most days, they can’t decide.

Was it when they found the barn kittens? Or was it riding horses? Or picking sweet peas or swinging in the backyard or getting a Popsicle and then an ice cream cone at Gramma’s? Or maybe it was climbing gumbo hills with their cousins or big flakes of snow that fell in the yard, oh wait? Was that today? Or was that yesterday? Little kids, their memories are like a dream I think.

Because there is no time when you’re more fully in the moment than when you are a child. Mornings into afternoons into evenings, it all lasts, as Rosie would say, “for ages!” And then not long enough.

A few days before the favorite sister declaration, I was walking with my daughters along a trail in the trees behind our house, watching them adventure, stop for every stick and bug, navigate every poop pile, and I found myself anxious to tell them to move along. We have to get up this hill so we can look for flowers so we can get back to the house so I can get supper on. This is the narrative that runs through a mom’s head, the next thing that affects the next thing.

But I looked at them then, with the light streaming through the trees, lighting up the tiny buds on the branches and their gold hair loose from their ponytails, and I stopped, took a breath and willed myself to be more like them. Because we had nowhere to be but there. And these are my favorite people in the whole wide world.

The ranch and the weather

Hoping for the weather to cooperate
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Last Friday a grass fire began to rage up north near our neighbors’ house. I had planned to have our Arizona-turned-North Dakota friends over to help feed the bottle baby calf, pet the horses and make them a proper Tater Tot hotdish.

They were coming over at 5, and my husband left to fight a fire at 1. I asked him, stupidly, as he was rushing out the door, “Do you think you’ll be home by 5?” And of course, he replied, “I hope so!”

And I hoped so too. Not just because I wanted him home in time for hotdish and friend-hosting, but because it would mean that they would have that fire under control by then.

The face of a fireman

On Saturday, the wind died down and the sun shone so bright that my oldest daughter couldn’t help but strip off her shirt and play in the dirt left waiting for the spring petunias in our flowerpots. I sat my husband down on a stool on the deck, he pulled his shirt off as well and I started to clip and buzz and cut the winter hair that had grown long on his head, shedding another layer as we moved slowly into a new season that was feeling so different than all the springs before it. Crocuses and muddy puddles, plum blossoms and new grass blades evaporated by a sky that just won’t give up the moisture.

That afternoon, looking a little less like a mountain man, my husband went out to check the cows and found a tiny calf, just barely over 30 pounds, left trying to get milk off her sick mother. He scooped her up in his arms and brought her down to the barnyard where I was brushing out horses and the girls were taking turns seeing how high they could climb the corral panels before they became too scared to jump off.

The tiniest calf we’ve ever seen

I just helped Rosie up on Tootsie and was watching the fluffy, old, partially blind mini horse wander around the barnyard with my youngest on board, when my husband arrived with a calf the size of a small goat — and just like that, the ponies were old news. The girls squealed and sprung to action with pets and snuggles, concerned looks, bottle-holding and more questions about calf poop and umbilical cords turned to belly buttons.

Little Mommies

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Chad and I quietly hoped that poor little baby and her mom might make it through the night and told the girls to be careful now. Not so high. Why don’t you come down and help get these calves some fresh hay to lie on?

With my niece, the animal whisperer

The next day we woke up to rain, just enough to coat the ground and make us dare hope for more. We mixed up three big bottles for the two calves and the girls dug for their rain jackets and rushed out the door to dance in it. “Rain!” they hollered. “It’s raining!” And they twirled and ran and jumped and danced as if there was no way to contain themselves. As if, in their tiny little bones, they understood what a miracle it was.

If I wasn’t holding three big ‘ol calf bottles with a mission to finally get to the barn after two pancake refills, a hair-brushing argument, a hunt for the right mittens, two boot changes, two coat changes and a trip back for a snack for the way, I might have danced, too. And alongside the road on our way to the barn, the baby calves kicked up their heels, running and bucking and playing just like my daughters, thrilled for the drops on their backs.

We tucked our girls in that night too late and we both fell asleep beside them while our muddy boots worked on drying off in the entryway, our cattle bedded down in the draws and the rain quietly turning to snow to pile up to 3 inches on our thirsty land.

And so on Sunday, we dug out the snow pants, caps and mittens, fed a little more hay and found another stray calf, maybe the twin to the tiny one we’re still fussing over. And hoping for… just like I hoped, on Friday, when the land was burning up, that my husband might be home in time for supper…

Answering the call

Answering the call, because someone has to
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Last weekend, my husband had plans to work on the house addition that extends our living room and gives us a main level master bedroom for when our joints start to get too creaky to carry laundry and our bodies up and down the steps to our loft.

When your husband’s a carpenter, the renovation ideas never stop, and so we were looking forward to the progress he was going to make in two days of uninterrupted carpentry work on our own house. Except that uninterrupted thing lasted only a few hours into Saturday morning before his phone sounded the alarm.

If I didn’t hear it myself, I know immediately by the way he strides, big steps through the house, grabbing his coat and his hat and that big duffle bag in the entryway. “Going to a fire,” he says calmly as he swoops past me in the kitchen or out in the driveway where the girls are practicing riding their bikes on the only patch of cement for miles.

If I think he can hear me, I might ask him “where?” because for some reason knowing the general direction he’s heading in such a hurry puts me a little more at ease with the idea that he’s literally running into a fire.

That was Saturday. Sunday sent him out until past supper. We’re having grass fires in March. We desperately need rain.

When my husband and I first moved back to the ranch about 10 years ago, we lived in my Grandma Veeder’s small farmstead house while we built a new house over the hill. One hot summer evening, we arrived home to a blown breaker. Chad went down to the basement to flip the switch and just like that, the inside of our wall was on fire.

“Call 911,” he said calmly as he emerged from the basement and started handing me things to throw out on the lawn. Within minutes our neighbor, a volunteer rural fireman, was at our side, telling us the trucks were on their way. And under a calm, starlit sky, standing surrounded by my guitar, piles of clothes still on hangers, photo albums and paperwork, our computer and all the material things we could grab in armfuls from the house before it was no longer safe, I watched as the men and women of our “neighborhood” that spans dozens of square miles worked to save my dad’s childhood home from flames.

And they did. The house wasn’t grand, 650 square feet of wood and a crumbling foundation, but it was sentimental and it was one of the most helpless and lonesome feelings I’ve ever experienced, standing back and watching the flames rise. Those volunteer firefighters, my neighbors and former schoolmates, they managed to successfully put out the fire so that we had a chance to walk back inside and sift through the damage, gather the rest of the things worth saving, and shut the door for good.

That moment, my husband decided to become a first responder. I’m certain he would have made that decision without the upheaval, but true to the way we learn lessons around these parts, I know he made note of what those people meant to us in that moment. And he knew, at the very least, he could try to do the same where he was able.

I didn’t understand then, standing under that black July sky, what it really meant to be a rural firefighter. I didn’t know it meant, years later, that they would be the first on the scene to help my dad on the stretcher in the middle of the night — neighbors seeing neighbors at their most vulnerable.

I didn’t know it meant monthly meetings, training sessions, suppers interrupted, weekend plans paused, hammers dropped, doors left open, jobs left undone, breath held until the coast was clear. Until they’re out of the woods. Until they’re needed again.

And it certainly isn’t for the money — they volunteer, after all — or for the accolades. It’s 100% because that’s what living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything means — to be on standby. To be there when the call comes.

And my husband, he will be the first to admit that he’s got work to do, that he could be better, take more trainings, get to more calls, that he’s working on it, that he’s doing what he can. But to know there are people like him out there with the call to action in their front shirt pocket, it makes that big black sky feel less lonesome, those county roads less desolate, nerves less shot.

It makes us feel so much less on our own to fight the flames, the out-of-nowhere crashes, the unexpected pains or slips that threaten to change it all in a blink…

To know, Sunday dinner or house project be damned, someone’s running when we call? What a thing to do. What a thing to be.