What they left behind

This week’s column is a revisited story from my book, “Coming Home.” Get your copy at www.veederranch.com.

On the Podcast this week I sit down with my husband to talk about homestead houses and how history can haunt us, just like the Goat Man Chad encountered near the Lost Bridge in the badlands. Find out what word I just made up out of thin air last week, hear a story about Lutheran kids dressing up as nuns and get the scoop on the spooky relic from the old house behind my childhood home that chills me still. 
Listen here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

What they left behind

It’s a gloomy day, the rain is falling, the sky is gray and the trees are stripped from black branches. It’s Halloween season and all of the sudden I’m reminded of the old house that used to sit up in a grove of trees behind the yard where I grew up.

It’s not so uncommon around here for a family to purchase land from neighbors or inherit an old family homestead, so there aren’t many farmsteads around these parts that didn’t come with an old structure lingering on the property, providing ranch kids with plenty of bedtime ghost story material.

And so it went with the old house that stood tucked back on the other side of the barbed wire fence, against a slope of a hill, surrounded by oak trees and the remnants of Mrs. B’s famous garden. Her hearty lilac bushes, her grove of apple trees, her wild asparagus and rhubarb still thrive in the clearing she made in those trees all those mysterious years ago, before the family up and left, leaving that garden untended, the root cellar full and a house seemingly frozen in time.

“What happened to them?” I would contemplate with my cousins, one of our favorite subjects as our eyes grew heavy, tucked in bunk beds and sleeping bags scattered on the floor, together growing up, together trying to figure out what the passing of time really means and how a story could be left so undone.

Gramma took some old dresses, vintage black smocks with pearl buttons and lace collars from the small bedroom closet of the old house. We would pull them over our heads to perform pretend wedding ceremonies or attend fancy parties like we saw on our mothers’ soap operas, the fabric smelling like mothballs, dust and old forgotten things.

But no matter what character you were that day, you couldn’t help but think about who the real woman in those dresses once was. And who would leave them behind?

So, as it goes with kids, our curiosity outweighed our fear and we went on a mission to collect samples of this family’s life that still existed between those walls.

And while I remember kitchen utensils hanging neatly on hooks, canned beets and potatoes lined up on shelves, the table and chairs sitting in the sunlight against the window, waiting for a neighbor to stop over for coffee, I also remember bedrooms scattered with old newspapers and magazines, the dates revealing the last years of occupancy, the fashion of the season, stories of drought and cattle prices sprawled out among diary entries and old letters, a glimpse into a world that existed long before us kids sifting through the rubble in tennis shoes with neon laces.

And then I remember the dentures. Or maybe I just remember the story my oldest cousin told about the dentures. It doesn’t matter now who was actually there to witness it, it evolved to belong to everyone. An expedition to the old house, a creak of a cupboard door and the discovery of a jar full of teeth that nobody noticed before.

“The place is haunted.” That was the consensus, especially when, at the next visit, the unwelcome house guests were greeted at the door by a flurry of bats (or, more likely, a bat or two). Yes, the spirits of that mysterious couple came back to the place. How else could you explain the thriving asparagus plants? The teeth?!

And so that was our story of the old house, a strangely fantastic pillar of our childhood adventures and a structure that had to eventually be burned down due to its disintegrating floor joists and general unsafe environment.

I stood in my snowsuit and beanie and watched the flames engulf the graying wood and shoot up over the tops of the black oak trees and wondered how it all eventually came down to this; a life turned into old forgotten things, turned into ashes, turned into stories.

Maybe that’s the scariest tale of them all.

But each fall the apples in the old woman’s orchard ripen, each spring her lilacs bloom and each year their names come to our lips because of what they left behind, making me wonder if we were right about the haunting thing after all.

It’s tomato season, and I’m coming for you!

If you’re not hungry, you will be after listing to this week’s episode of the podcast. It’s all about soup season, comfort food and the different styles of cooking my husband and I grew up with. Listen at the link here or on Spotify of Apple Podcasts.


It’s official. When I’m in town and my friends, family and colleagues see me coming, they turn their eyes, put their heads down start walking for the nearest exit or crosswalk. And it may be because they know that if they make eye contact we could potentially find ourselves in an hour-long conversation about the weather and the meaning of life because I’ve lived as a Midwestern Lutheran Norwegian long enough that I’ve over-mastered the art of a good visit, but mostly I think it’s because of my tomatoes.

When I planted the tiny plants in my new raised bed this spring, along with the hope that was hanging in the air, apparently so was some magic, because I’ve never had a crop like this. And Lord help me, I can’t possibly process, puree, chop, stew or can one more. It’s not in my blood. I don’t have what it takes and also Chad will have to build me another pantry.

So I’m working on offloading and if you look like you could use a vegetable, I will hunt you down with a paper bag filled with produce. I will pop in your store with the offer. I will casually ask in a conversation that has nothing to do with vegetables. Need some tomatoes? Sure you do, I’ll be right back. And then I am right back with a promise of more tomorrow if you want, and I’ll throw in some cucumbers for good measure. If you leave your car unlocked, I will pull the old zucchini trick and leave you a surprise. Just this morning I left a grocery bag full of peppers on the desk of a coworker while she was out getting mail. “Peppers for Val,” I wrote on the Post-it note, and then I slunk away unnoticed, except I noticed the bag of cucumbers and tomatoes I dropped off yesterday still sitting in the corner untouched. If this was a sign to back off, I’m ignoring it.

Besides the dilemma of what to do with it all, I’m really in heaven over it. There’s nothing more satisfying than pulling a perfect carrot from the ground that was bare just a few months before. Each perfectly round tomato plucked from the stem in my backyard feels like a pretty little miracle and I’m so obnoxiously proud. Like, I’m not the only one who has ever grown a cute little red pepper for crying out loud, but it still feels so special, each one. Which is why I can’t bear to let any go to waste. I even save some semi-spoiled produce for my little sister’s chickens and make special trips to deliver it to the crazy birds myself. I consider it a little thank you for the eggs. And also, they seem to get as excited as I do about the whole thing, so that’s a bonus.

Anyway, in a few short weeks the frost will settle in and my garden will settle down, and I know that this growing and harvest season is so fleeting. Which is maybe the main reason it feels special, having a garden. It comes in its own good timing, which is such a holy thing to me. Am I getting dramatic? Maybe. Just this afternoon I started writing a song about tomatoes. Hit material…

Anyway…it’s been a few years since I shared the recipe my husband put together during the first fall we spent at the ranch using garden tomatoes and fresh carrots. It’s in my book, “Coming Home,” and some of you may have seen it before, but ‘tis the tomato-season. So here’s your reminder to try it out, try it your own way, and if you need tomatoes, there’s a bag for you in the corner of Visitor Center in Watford City. Or just send me an email me. I will deliver.

Cowboy’s Garden Tomato Soup

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup water or chicken stock. Add more depending on how thick you like your soup
  • 3 cups fresh tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup (about 3 medium carrots) diced
  • ¼ of a large purple onion, diced
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 12-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon dill weed
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
  • ½ teaspoon rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon chopped chives
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1½ cups heavy whipping cream (room temperature)

Directions

In a large soup pot add the diced tomatoes, carrots, onion and garlic to ¼ cup water and simmer on low for about 5 to 7 minutes or until the tomatoes start to gently boil. Stir in the tomato sauce, butter, seasonings and bouillon cubes and simmer the soup on low, allowing the onions and carrots to cook, about 30 minutes.

Once the vegetables are cooked through, slowly stir in the heavy whipping cream and say “M’m! M’m! Good!” while Campbell sobs silently to himself.

Heat (don’t boil) for a few minutes, serve it up and have yourself a happy and well-fed fall.

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.

September and what keeps it precious

This week on the podcast I sit down with my little sister and talk of the weather turns to embarrassing moment confessions. The flies and the wasps and the rooster and the tomatoes and the mice are taking over the ranch and we talk about it all. Catch it here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I’m canning tomatoes and chopping up peppers from the garden for salsa so we can have a piece of summer when winter hits hard.

I can preserve our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode behind our dad to gather cattle.

Working cows in the fall has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done. Dressing in layers is a different level on the ranch.

Moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me—probably because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate. It was during that long wait that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest, find sticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out these days my role working cattle hasn’t changed much. I remain the peripheral watcher, the one who makes sure the cows don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

Recently our little ranch crew met in the morning to move cows to a different pasture. Dad, my uncle and aunt who summer up here from Texas, my little sister, my husband and I saddled horses in the crisp air of the morning and met to stretch out across the Peterson pasture and make the move through a couple gates to Hughes (every pasture has a name, these attached to the old homesteaders.)

It was pretty nice and easy because that’s the way we work cattle here. Just let them take the lead mostly, which occasionally finds you off your horse walking through the thick brush or chasing out across the pasture after a stray, or, sometimes deciding on another approach entirely because that’s the way they want to go.

With the exception of a wreck, nothing can really ruin this for me, sitting horseback on a cool morning slowly making its way into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here, and what makes it even sweeter is that I know the rest of the crew, my family, feels the same way too. I listen as they make conversation about the calf crop and plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while my husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and my dad lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate with my sister and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture. Dad comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up quick to wonder where uncle Wade might be and find him over the hill waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle. We push them through to taller grass and up to water to help them settle in. We wonder if we got them all.

And that’s how it goes generally, the six of us, this time with the exception of Dad stopping to take a picture of my little sister, creating the opportunity for one squirrelly calf to cut back. He laughed as he went after her, thinking what his own dad might say about stopping for a picture.

But why not take a picture? Morning makes its way into the afternoon and if we let ourselves, we might remember that we don’t get an infinite number of fall days like this in our lifetime. Isn’t that what keeps it all so precious?

We head toward home and talk about lunch and the fencing that needs to get done. And cattle prices. And the deer population. And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…even though, year after year, up here… I always feel the same.

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.

Summer, don’t leave me…


This week on the podcast, I have coffee with my little sister, Alex, who is a former guidance counselor and teacher, to get some perspective on back to school. Alex gives some tips on the best questions to ask about your child’s day to actually get a response and I try to get to the bottom of why having a kid going into first grade is carrying more weight than the first day of Kindergarten. We talk season changes on the ranch, back to school traditions and more. Listen at this link or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.  

What can happen in a summer at the ranch? When you’re raising two young daughters this is where they sprout and bloom, in this season of sunshine and sprinklers and butterflies and toads. We’re winding it down now.

If you’re reading this in your local newspaper, I am probably in one of the big towns coaxing those daughters to try on pair of school shoes, making them stand up, walk around a bit, feeling where their big toe hits, asking them if they feel ok. Do they feel ok? It’s the exact same thing my mom used to do, word for word it seems. Because these days you can get just about anything to come to you in the mail out here with the click of a button, but the shoes need to be tried. It’s a back-to-school ritual that we’re in now because I blinked.

I blinked.

They all told me not to, but I did and the spring that brought record breaking snow drifts with it, then it melted and made way for a summer filled with armpit high grass and wildflowers and healthy black calves kicking up their heels on the hilltops and laying down in the cool draws. Because the rain came to feed the hay crop and you should see the bales dotting the fields. Here we spend our three fleeting months of summer preparing for the long winter and we’re all more prepared than ever it seems. Thanks to the rain. Thanks to the sun. Thanks for the work.

I watched my daughters’ sandy hair turn blonde under that sun, and their pale skin tan, their cheeks rosy and flushed when they came in for popsicles. And I saw them stretch out of their long pants so they could properly skin their knees on the scoria road as they ran wide open toward their cousins’ house. I want to run wide open with them right back into the spring so we can do it all over again, but this time I’ll keep my eyes wide open. I promise.  

Why does this always happen to me? Why do I get lonesome for this season before it’s even officially over? Is it because it always feels like we’re at the end of one of those predictable summer themed movies, where the lighting is perfect and they conquer a fear and they all fall in love in the end at a beach house somewhere along the coastline? Back here in the real world I’m picking the ripe tomatoes from my garden and hoping for rain again, the sun is setting low at 9 pm and  the credits are rolling and I have to get back inside to get to the dishes….

And nothing has changed here except sort of everything. Kids learn to ride their bikes and climb the monkey bars backwards. They make friends in the campground they’ll never see again. She decides not to wear shirts with unicorns on them because she’s not a baby anymore. They fix their own hair, get their own milk to pour, decide they like tomatoes, grow an inch…

It’s all so gradual, these quiet transformations, like summer herself. You go out one day and notice the sweet peas coming with the green grass and the next time you look they’re dried up and gone, making way for the sunflowers to bend in the wind alongside that green grass turned golden.

This is us too you know, I need to make the reminder should we forget that we are as much a part of the transformation of seasons and time ticking as the rising and setting of the sun. You might not have noticed. You might have blinked, and that’s ok.

So stand up, walk around in it now, how does it fit? Does it feel ok? Do you feel ok?

Summer Don’t Leave Me

Summer don’t leave me
stay under my feet
hang warm in the sky
don’t dry up the wheat

Summer stay near me
to kiss my skin tan
mess up my long hair
hold tight my hand

Summer please stay here
in the chokecherry trees
on the back of a good horse
in the green of the leaves

Oh, Summer my good friend
there’s only so many hours
so take the storms and the rainbows…

but don’t take my wildflowers

Wild Sunflowers

This world needs more barn dances

In this week’s podcast, my husband and I reflect on who taught us to dance, how our Dirty Dancing days are over and pontificate on the old house that used to be on the ranch, who lived there and why they left

I think what this broken old world needs is a few more barn dances.

You may have forgotten that those used to be a thing that people did.

Above the house where I grew up is an old shed. It’s sat there for nearly a hundred years now I think. It outlasted the homestead house where a family used to live and then one day moved away, leaving what seemed to be everything behind—dresses and books and filled-in calendars and ledgers and dishes in the cupboards, canned garden vegetables in the root cellar, the lilac bushes and the apple orchard and mattresses and lace curtains moving like quiet ghosts with the wind cutting through the gaps in the walls. Old houses fall apart in the most slow and lonesome way when there’s no one there to sweep the floors and wipe the windows and serve the bread.

They left the house and all those things and they left that little wooden shed my dad said used to be a granary. He remembers it and he remembers those neighbors.

They used to have dances in there my dad told me when I was poking around as a kid. It seemed impossible to me. That granary was much too small, not even close to 1,000 square feet. If you danced it would be a tight circle. Add a guitar and a fiddle and the quarters would be beyond close. Tight. Unimaginable to us these days, losing ourselves and one another in wide-open floor plans, separate rooms and all the space between. Houses are big enough now so that you never have to lay a hand on each other on your way to the kitchen sink, or sit with legs touching on the living room sofa, or fall asleep to the sound of your sister breathing in the small bed next to you. Not if you didn’t want to anyway. Not if you’re what we call “lucky” to have all that room…

Back then I imagine the landscape, and the work that needed to be done upon it, gave you all the space you needed from the next living soul. Lonesome looked a bit different back then.

Maybe that’s why they turned tiny granaries into dance floors. Because wouldn’t you want to hear the slow drawl of the neighbor’s fiddle spill out of the leaky roof and into the night sky lit with stars? Wouldn’t you want to put your hand on her waist and swing her around laughing? Wouldn’t you want to sing along, to hear their voices overlap and chatter, gossiping and encouraging and entertaining to help you forget for a moment the worry of it all?

You would have wanted to then, when it was a bit quieter. When the world you knew stretched only as far as the horizon, or as far as you could afford a train ticket to take you. You see, they were islands too, in much different ways. And then, in so many of the same. Humans have always been humans, after all.

But the dancing in that tiny building, well, one hundred or so years ago, there was no other choice.

Now we have so many. So many excuses. So many oceans we’ve put between us… But last week a man in the middle of rural North Dakota, more than one hundred years from when the first barn was raised on this northern prairie landscape, called his family, his neighbors and friends, and told them to come on over to the Homeplace. Come on over to the barn. We’ll feed you. There will be music. And there will be dancing.

He’s been doing it for years, so they knew. They had it on their calendars. And his daughters and their families and he and his wife, they made the Fleischkuechle and the kuchen because that was tradition too. And me, well me and the guys were lucky enough to witness it all from the little stage in the corner of the loft of the old barn with the shined up floors where we strummed guitars and sang some songs they knew and some they didn’t and all with a beat for a good two step, or a waltz or a chance to join hands in a circle. Because I heard him say it into the microphone when he welcomed them all to that loft after a picnic supper–he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a world where there were no barn dance. So he made sure, at least for his community, it was not a lost tradition.

And from my perch behind the microphone he reminded me that we may not all have big beautiful barns preserved from the cruel weather of time, but if we’re lucky, we have a spot that might work just fine enough for dancing in a circle.

Because I’m not sure, but I think it’s true, that just like old houses, people, they fall apart too, slow and lonesome if there’s no one there to sweep the floors, to brush past, to breathe the same close air, to sway side to side, and open the curtains and let the light in and serve the bread and do the things that, together, people are meant to do…

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…

What to lose in a fire

Listen to the podcast here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chad and I discuss how a place like this humbles you and why, when he dies, he wants to come back as my aunt’s Corgi.

Ten Julys ago my husband and I stood on the scoria road on the homestead place and watched as my dad’s childhood home started going up in flames. We had been living there, in what we called “gramma’s house,” the first two years as we worked on building our own home on the ranch until one sweltering summer night we arrived home from a trip to the lake, turned on the lights and noticed smoke coming from the basement and traveling inside the walls. An electrical fire started by a lightning strike while we were gone.

A few months later, when we were living in my parents’ house and all our Earthly possessions were scattered across their lawn, airing the smoke out while we reorganized from a chaotic scramble to save them, I remember thinking this:

When the walls of our home were smoking from the inside out into the night, we did not grab onto one another. No, we placed our arms around computer screens and television sets, appliances and guitars. We threw our possessions on the earth to be saved and to save us from the need we might feel to replace them.

What it would cost us to purchase another would mean time and money, the things that take up the biggest part of us some days.

And there it all was, out in the great wide open of the sky, stacks of important papers and photographs, hats and shoes, books I’ve never read and albums I haven’t listened to in years. We pulled these things from the flames so that it could lay there, waiting for us to decide what to do now. And suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want any of it. 

I didn’t want a choice between red boots or black, I didn’t want the papers reminding me what it costs to live. I didn’t want the movies suggesting I should stay in and watch a world that doesn’t exist for us.

I didn’t want the memories waiting in boxes for me to recall what we were when we were sixteen and sun kissed and the world scared us, because things like this, unnerving, uncontrollable things, they will happen. And they will happen to us.

I didn’t want it weighing on me. Not that day. And sometimes, not these days. Not ten years later.

I heard once, somewhere on the car radio, a man who said, “We do not have a soul. We have a body.”

I pause to think of this today when my clothes feel heavy against the wet sticky heat of the summer and the body that houses my soul is feeling tired at the thought of moving through the tasks we’ve laid out for the day, cleaning up after ourselves, moving our stuff from room to room, from yard to house, from floor to laundry, from table to sink.

And I think about where my soul might live next.

Perhaps in the body of the yellow bird that returns to the feeder outside of this office window, concerned with nothing but her next bite, spreading her wings and cooling herself in the puddles left from an early morning rain.

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

Or maybe a long living oak with the mission to reach my branches out to the sun in the summer, to release them in the autumn chill and sleep until the spring sun asks me gently to bloom again.

I would have roots that would keep me grounded and grass and branches from the aspen or the birch to keep me company, to lean on, to protect me from the wind.

Maybe a wildflower, a thistle or a cricket screeching my song into the night.

I could be all of those things.

But today I don’t want to be attached to anything…

I’ve felt like this as a teenager, before I understood what I was so anxious about and why I suddenly had so many emotions pulling at my skin.

I remember walking out into the rain on a cool late summer evening, just to be out there, away from the four walls of a house, away from the telephone and, things that needed to be thought through. I felt heavy that day and I wanted to be a blade of grass, grounded and soaked in this rain.

I walked further into the protection of the oaks and stepped off of my path, then slowly out of my shoes and finally out of my clothing. I stood there in the lush green of the weeds and wild fruit bushes, under a canopy of leaves dripping the rain down through their branches and onto my bare skin…
I was comfortable like this for only moments before I glanced down at my pale skin and remembered to be self-conscious. But for a moment I was there, holding my breath, and I was the rain and the clouds and the dirt. I was the grass and the still, damp air.

And I’m not wishing for the reminders of a good life to disappear. Today I am just asking to not be held accountable for my possessions or a body that doesn’t do much to hide the relentless emotions of this soul, the one that crinkles up my nose when it cries, bites the scar on my lip in worry and screams air out of my lungs in frustration…Today I am just taking a moment to remember that someday my soul may have wings…