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.

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.

Maybe it’s the rain

Maybe it’s the rain
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I’ve been working on another book the past few months. Like the last, it’s a compilation of some of my favorite photos, columns, blogs, poems and recipes from the past 10 years I’ve spent documenting what it means to raise kids and cattle and make a life on the ranch.

Like the last, it’s been a nostalgic and difficult project to take on with full-time work, ranch life and two loud and wonderfully distracting kids in the house.

I typically don’t spend much time looking back on what I’ve written because I have to focus on what to write. And so I’ve been seeing our lives a little differently lately, thinking about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t, how some things have changed completely and how some things haven’t changed at all, and it’s from that place that I share this piece on that limbo between past and present, a reflection brought on by the rain.

It was late August, and it had been hot for weeks, the kind of heat you remember as a kid, where Popsicles melt on sticks in the heavy air that sends the flies gathering at horses’ bellies and driving them to bob their heads and swish their tails in the trees.

We were sweating it out in the little house in the barnyard where my grandparents used to live, three years into our marriage and three months into unpacking our lives back home at the ranch where I was raised. And it was only six years ago, but we were just kids, really, with plans big enough to keep us busy.

But that day we resigned to the weather, keeping busy with tasks in a house that was sinking and shrinking with the weight of time.

And then the clouds rolled in, dark and as ominous as the lightning on the horizon, and we found ourselves standing, noses pressed to the screen door, watching the water form new rivers and waterfalls in the corrals.

The buttes in the horse pasture turned from rock to slick mud in a matter of minutes, and soon I found myself running behind my new husband through the mud, past the new barnyard river and scrambling up to the top of those buttes where we stood side by side before launching our bodies down the steep bank of that hill, sliding on the slippery, wet gumbo, just like we used to do as kids.

I’ve told this story before. You may remember it and how it ended in bruises, bloody scrapes and a heap of laughter spilling out into that dark, rainy night.

I’m thinking about it now because last weekend I found myself out in the rain again with my husband. We were riding through an unfamiliar pasture looking for a couple stray cows. The day was still, but the sky kept spitting on us, a little mist followed by small, flying drops hitting our cheeks and gathering on our horses’ manes.

It was a quiet rain, the kind that seems to clean up the landscape, making the colors richer against the gray sky. And I just kept looking at my husband on the back of his bay horse, his black hat and red scarf moving along the big landscape, and I started thinking about the times in my life where the rain made the moment.

I decided this was one of them.

And it was perfect timing, I think, following behind him on trails where he broke branches for me or hollered my name from a hilltop. We were doing work, and we were living out a plan, rain or shine.

But that day, I preferred the rain, because I was starting to wonder if it is possible to spend the rest of my life here without losing the magic of this place. A few days before, I received a note from a man telling me that my life seemed romantic in a way that few people know and that I was lucky for it.

I sort of felt like a fraud, wondering if I gave him a false conclusion. Settling into a new life as a mother and a new partnership as parents, no matter how much we wanted it, hasn’t been an easy and seamless transition. I’ve been struggling with it in ways I hadn’t expected.

I began to wonder if I was the same woman who slid down that gumbo hill with that young man six years ago.

We pushed up the bank of a wooded coulee, and I listened to the rain hitting the leaves and the branches break against the chest of my horse, and I thought about how I was taught to lean forward as a horse takes you through the trees so that you don’t catch one to the face and get pulled off.

It’s a lesson I reach back for when I’m in the thick of it, the same way I reach back for the girl who kissed a boy under that old oak tree in the field, promising him forever, no matter the weather.

So maybe it’s the memories we make that keep this place magic.

Or maybe it’s just the rain.

Rain on the Buttes

I’ll be performing at the TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, Minn., on June 17 and in Jamestown, N.D., on June 24. Hope to see you all out and about!

North Dakota, we’ve been claimed

Somehow we’ve been claimed
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As a woman whose heart has been planted solid here in the buttes and prairies of North Dakota, but whose feet and mind have wandered with music and education and the winding road for years, I have often found myself on the other end of the question: Why here?

Before I made the decision to stay here for good, before I became a mother working and raising those children in the middle of my 30s, trying desperately to find a way to do the right thing for the legacy of this ranch, I struggled to find an answer. I used to think I had to be so profound. I used to think I had to convince them…

Because asking me why North Dakota, why the prairies, why Middle America, is like asking what it means to you to hold your last name, or wear your grandmother’s ring, or to lay down next to the man you love every night. How do you answer it?

Who are these people who hold the scent of the dirt, the push of the wind, the endless winters, the wheat fields, the small town in such regard? Who has lived here for years, or arrived fresh and unconvinced? Who comes home again?

We are rural route roads, beat-up mailboxes and dusty school bus seats. We are rides in the combine, summer sausage sandwiches, a thermos of coffee washed down with warm lemonade and faces streaked with dirt after a hot August day in the field. Two miles to a gravel road on the edge of town and we are freedom, our father’s pickup, 12 years old behind the steering wheel.

We are first loves and last loves and forever loves found on those back roads at night, on front porches, in the back seats of cars and under blankets shared in the stands at football games.

We are the stars that light up the endless sky at night, family farms, four generations of the same recipe on Christmas Eve. The barnyard light.

We are white wood prairie churches, our mother’s voice quietly singing the hymns, Jell-O with suspended vegetables and mayonnaise casseroles waiting for us in the basement when the service is through.

We are wet clay caked to cowboy boots, the black soil of the valley, the only stoplight in town.

High heels and business suits, running shoes and hoping things will stay the same and knowing, working, voting, crying out for change.

We’re number crunchers, songs that must be sung, books that must be written. Snake-bitten.

We scream for sun and pray for rain and push the river from our doors. We’ve been here before.

Chokecherry jam, mosquito bites, country fairs, one station on the radio, too young for our first beer, FFA and 4-H steers. Too young to leave here.

We are race car tracks and endless power lines, hockey rinks and barbed wire fences. Drilling rigs and endless fields of wheat. September heat.

We are bicycle tires on quiet streets, fireworks in May, Popsicles and swimming pools and a stop at the Tastee Freez, please. The new kid in town. The doctor who knows you and your children too. Rodeos and American Legion, football heroes, lead singers, the Ferris wheel in town for the weekend. The underdog.

Powwows, three-legged races, familiar faces, dances in the street.

Throwing rocks in the creek.

We’re “Pete’s kid,” and “Your mother wants you home right away!”

We are pushed to go and pulled to stay; we are leaving this place as soon as we’re grown.

And we are the sky we can’t explain, unpredictable, colorful and full of rage and gentle hope that it’s all going to be OK.

We are someday.

We’re the wind, relentless. The snow, endless. Sharp and hard, steadfast and certain like the winter and the change in weather.

We are the dirt under our nails, tangled hair, the cattails and bluebells and big white-tailed deer. We are new Main Street signs, and small high school hallways, and hope, even though…

We are all of these things that make up a home, but home is not ours to take. Somehow, we’ve been claimed.

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…

My sister over the hill

My sister over the hill
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My little sister, her husband and their two young daughters have lived over the hill from us at the ranch for over a year now. When they sold their cute little home in town and moved into the cabin while they built a house out here, Alex was pregnant with her now one-year-old, her two year old was climbing the walls and neither one of us could have understood how much the two families would come to rely on one another in the coming months.

Not many people predict a cancer diagnosis, let alone a global pandemic over the horizon waiting to make us all feel isolated, helpless and utterly disorientated, but here we are, all more grateful than ever to have backup.

We celebrated my youngest’s third birthday last night, and this morning my little sister texted me: Let me know if your girls’ poop is blue from all that frosting!

Only a best friend/sister would want to know a thing like that, if only to laugh together about the absurdities of parenthood.

Being in the middle of this season of raising our daughters together is one of those unexpected gifts that all of those years of infertility struggles gave us. If my husband and I would have been able to start our family the way we thought we should almost fifteen years ago, our children would be babysitting their cousins instead of growing up alongside them like sisters, eating blue frosted cupcakes together in their leotards after gymnastics on Tuesday nights and fighting over baby doll strollers and Play Dough rolling pins. And while Alex wouldn’t turn down a couple babysitters living down the road, I think we all feel pretty lucky (not to mention outnumbered) around here.

And the thing is, while raising children on the ranch thirty miles from the nearest structured entertainment comes with so many blessings—the wide open spaces, the life long lessons, unlimited pet inventory and an abundance of big rocks and hay bales to climb—there’s plenty about it, especially as a parent of young kids, that can make you feel pretty isolated. 

Like when you’re in the middle of making supper for a hungry family and you realize you don’t have the main ingredient in your pantry. Like beans for chili or, in my case a few weeks ago, cheese for grilled cheese…

You just can’t have tomato soup without grilled cheese. Also, you sorta halfta have cheese….

Yes, my neighbor/ little sister is my extended pantry, sounding board, change of scenery, chicken nugget lunch time date, quick drop off point and, most importantly, a second mother to my daughters, which is my favorite part.

Because everyone needs a fearless backup who isn’t afraid to climb her own auntie/mom butt up to the top of the playground to retrieve your defiant screaming child while you have your hands full helping the other one take an emergency pee in the grass…

When my girls play “babies” together and neither one of them wants to be the daddy, they pretend they are aunties who live in the same pink house together because their husbands are out hunting or working, or, you know, they died….

Yeah, it can get a little dark in my kids’ pretend world. Alex tells me that’s normal, which is another reason I like having her around.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Rosie needs help on the potty and, frankly, now I’m curious.

Cheers to sisters/friends/family/shoulders to lean on in this crazy world of parenting. My wish is you have one down the block or right over the hill.

Every kid needs a tire swing

Every kid needs a tire swing
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We used to have a tire swing tied to the branch of a scrappy and tall oak tree that reached out over the steep banks of the small creek that runs through the ranch.

Mom could see it from the window above the kitchen sink, hanging on the other side of the fence that separated our mowed yard from the horse pasture that us kids regarded as the wilderness. When we could get a push or two from Dad between the work and the worry, there was nothing in the world that felt more like flying.

But mostly my little sister, or the neighbor girl and I, would take our turns on our way to the beaver dam to check on the frog population or to pull logs up over leaning trees to make secret forts and pretend we were living as grown ups in another time.

Even when I was just a kid, I thought that every kid should have a tire swing. The only thing that would have made it better was if we could let go to be dropped in the water on a hot day, the way I saw them do it on the country music videos. But the only time the water was high enough was in the years the snow turned to water fast and furious enough under an unexpectedly warm March day when we still wouldn’t dare put away our knit caps and coveralls, let alone strip down and jump in.

It didn’t matter to us, though — we were happy with any formation we could come up with that would make a big push out across the steep bank a little more dangerous — standing on the top, one-handed, no-handed, doubles, triples, a fast spin from your friend, a pullback and running leap on your own… and on and on until we were called inside or got distracted with another idea for how to make our own fun.

Remember those days? When time stretched out in front of us like a newly discovered trail, curiously winding instead of urgently ticking down on wristwatches and cellphones, screaming at us to hurry, reminding us there isn’t enough…

This fall, my husband spent several days behind the wheel of the backhoe, clearing out a tangle of fallen trees and underbrush to build a bigger driveway in front of the house, leaving behind a tall oak, gnarly and mangled, to stand magnificently on his own right outside our door. I always liked this tree, the way the twists of its branches told a story of perseverance, the way its trunk consumed ancient remnants of barbed wire, its bark determined enough to grow over the scars, revealing the secrets of a tree with a purpose beyond growing and shading and shedding its leaves.

But clearing the brush and weeds away really showed it off, ominous against a gray sky, inviting in the sun. Magical no matter what. It seemed both me and the tree loved the new landscaping plan.

But we weren’t the only ones. As soon as the dust cleared, my dad came over with a rope swing for the grandkids, and just like that the old man of a tree had a new purpose.

I watched my girls spin and squeal with their cousins under the shade of that oak. As the leaves cut loose in the breeze and spiraled to the earth around us, I laughed as I remembered the break of the rope all those years ago, and my little sister marching up to the house, tears in her eyes, to deliver the news (and request a trip to the hospital because the wind that got knocked out of her convinced her of internal damage).

And while my little sister was just fine, it was a big dramatic last trip on that swing. I was a teenager then and I realized it had probably been years since I had my last turn. I remember feeling a little sad about that…

We’re all grown-up now and so much has changed, so many things missed, pushed aside as memories we visit when we need them.

But I’m comforted knowing time hasn’t changed our minds. We all still agree every kid needs a tire swing, and a big push that feels like flying…