Sunday Column: Haunted

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Another Halloween has come and gone and, although I this year didn’t find me traipsing around to parties dressed as my favorite farm animal, it did get me thinking, for some reason, about the origin of this all.

The art of the spook.

Mysterious things left behind.

And the definition of haunting.

Because out here we’re surrounded by a history that has left behind artifacts for us to contemplate, old abandoned farm houses, out buildings or shacks that many midwesterners have standing on their properties, out in fields or cow pastures, little snippets of stories of who used to live there hanging in the air as dinner table discussion or campfire ghost stories, leaving us to wonder who was here before.

So this week I dug back in my memory to reflect on an old homestead that used to sit up behind the house where I grew up…and all of the things we leave behind….

Screen shot 2015-11-02 at 12.49.51 PMComing Home: Items left behind in abandoned houses create
ghost stories for us country kids
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

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 thrived 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.

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“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.

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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.

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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, 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 mysteriously 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.

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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.

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The generations…

So we have been in the middle of making house plans this summer and have faced the big decisions about where we should put it, what kind of view we want from our front porch, who is going to build it, who will dig the basement, what is our budget for windows, how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, what will our light fixtures look like, what style of shingles and what kind of toilet for crying out loud.

I have been through a major remodel in my short (five years to the month) marriage, which I left behind me in the dust last December when we sold the damn thing. I know about the process. I know what it takes and am excited about our final decision to have a new home built over the hill and keep this little house renovated and in tact for family on the home place.

I know, I know. Those of you who have been following my little journey here at the ranch will recall that I changed my mind about this a few times.

Approximately sixty-seven I would guess. It was a big decision, you know, the spot we pick to spend the rest of our lives.

But in the end, when the surveyors were here to stake it out, we were back at the beginning, back to the place where this little house originally stood, back to the coulee where my grandfather built it, and back to a home under my childhood stomping grounds, the big hill we call “Pots and Pans.”

They are building the road today…and you know the old saying “here goes nothing…”?

Well, forget that. Here goes everything.

The original Veeder Homestead where my great grandpa Eddy Veeder was raised

Everything my great grandparents worked to build, everything my grandfather and father and aunt and uncle worked to keep, everything I grew to love in the buttes and the clover and the coulees and the big blue sky is going to surround us, get under our fingernails, brush against our skin, greet us in the morning and kiss us goodnight…for as long as we chose to be here.

Which in my mind is as long as I live.

I can’t help but feel overwhelmingly blessed at the thought of it all. And then a bit guilty, a bit ridiculous.

Because what have I done to deserve to be here? What have I done but be born to a family who taught me things about the land and horses and cattle and how to plant a garden, a family who didn’t worry about getting my jeans dirty falling in the creek, or my boots scuffed from kicking rocks on the scoria road? What have I done but listen, learn and want to be like them?

What did I do but ask to plant my life here only to find my wishes so graciously granted?  Because someone should be here, someone should help tend to the fences and fix up the old barn.

The old barn my great grandfather Edgar Andrew Veeder built with his sons on this very place.

Can you see him here? A shadow in the doorframe of his homestead shack around the year 1915.

Eddy Veeder Homestead Shack-1915

His home that stood outside of the trees where the horses hide from the flies below our house. It was here he settled when he left his parents’ homestead to start out on his own at age 21. It was here he brought his new bride, Cornelia, after they wed on September 4th, 1917 in the small town of Schafer, ND. It was here he kissed her goodbye when he was called to serve in the Army during World War I. After his discharge in 1919, it was here, on this acreage where I ride and walk and kick up dust every day, that he purchased a threshing machine, more acreage from his brother, and worked cattle and the fields as he and his wife welcomed five children, the youngest, my grandfather, my father’s father.

Edgar and Cornelia Harrison-1917

It was here where my great grandfather watched as his wife, his woman, slipped away from this world at only 36 years old–a heart failed and five young children left behind to be cared for by a man who I hear made the world’s best biscuits.

And it was here, right below this house where I cook dinner each night, that Cornelia’s yellow roses still bloom in the spring.

Cornelia's Roses

I never knew him, my great grandfather Eddy. I couldn’t have. Time did not allow him to hold me in his arms, a wrinkly bundle of flesh and bone who would grow into a woman who would think of him often, discover his wife’s roses, and be grateful every day for the gift of this land, for his hard work, for the red barn and my grandfather.

My grandfather who chose to stay here too, through droughts, and too much rain and seven feet of snow. My grandfather who married a good woman who climbed on the back of a horse with the same grace and humility that she used to raise exceptional children.

Grandpa Pete and Grandma Edith Veeder

Children who loved this land, who cherished it more than the money it may or may not reap, who understood that it must stay here, no matter the cost, for their children to enjoy.

So what did I do but love this land too? What have I sacrificed but the conveniences of a grocery store and a shopping mall nearby? Why would I want more than this, besides my cousins and sisters and aunts and uncles as neighbors living here on this land where we all grew up?

My cousins and I with my Grandma Edie outside the house I live in

And so, as the first move of progress on the house we will have built comes creeping up the pink road, making a path to our new home, I am humbled by those people who share my name and my blood, who carved a few roads of their own out here, who put up their own walls, who grew their own flowers and wheat and corn and babies and cattle out here where I’ve always felt I belonged.

Where I will remain for as long as I am able.

And the colors of the carpets, the make of the siding, the size of the basement loom a little less significantly in my mind today as I am grateful…

Me with my Grandpa Pete in his house, this house, in 1985

Old Homestead

My dad emailed me these photos this morning after we visited last night about where the old homestead was located-just below the house where we are currently living. This house, my house, where my dad and his brother and sister grew up, was actually moved from its original location to its current location on a basement when my dad was 10 years old (so 45 years ago dad? Give or take a few). It was only then they had running water and a toilet in the house. He told me that he was so upset to have to move from an area with plenty of trees that he took it upon himself to work on landscaping, hauling trees in a bucket from nearby pastures (quite revealing of his character, even at that age). He’s proud to say that many of his transplant trees are thriving today.

The photos and his message:

“The first picture is your great grandpa Eddy standing in the door of his tarpaper shack below your house where I pointed out last night. He eventually built a house around that. It had a cool porch that a milk cow chased me into one day when when I went to get the milk cows. Kerry (sister) and I got chased home.  The cow’s name was appropriately “Dummy”. Kerry would remember this, as she outran me!

The second pic is Grandpa Pete, you can see the butte east of him so it was taken close to the lilac bushes.”