“Prairie Princess” Children’s Book Release

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem that asked a young girl to show us around her home on the ranch.

I had just moved back to my family’s ranch in western North Dakota and was living in my grandma’s tiny brown house in the barnyard with my husband. The task I gave myself was to do all the things I used to do as a kid on this place: pick handfuls of wildflowers, ride our horses, take long walks up and down the creek, help work cows, eat Popsicles on the deck, linger outside doing nothing as much as possible and, of course, slide down a gumbo hill in the rain (which turned out to only be a good idea because it made a good story and I didn’t die…).

During that time, I was in a state of transition having just quit a full-time fundraising job and left town with my dogs and my husband for home on the ranch. I wasn’t positive I made the right decision, but then I hadn’t really been positive about much for those first seven or so years of my 20s.

What am I doing back here? What should I be doing back here? Should I take another desk job? Should I hit the road again or switch my career path entirely?

Should we try again for a baby? Should we give up? How is a grown-up supposed to behave?

I had no answers. All I knew is that it felt good to be in that little house trying to make something out of all those chokecherries I just picked. And it felt good to be on the back of a horse trailing cattle to a new pasture with my dad and husband.

It felt good to take the time to throw sticks in the creek and watch them float with the direction of the little stream. And then I sometimes wished that I were that stick, letting the current take me where it will. Or maybe the house cat, the one that used to be the kitten we rescued from the barn, growing up with no concerns except about being a cat. If only being human was that simple.

But we make it complicated, and so I found that channeling the 8-year-old version of myself helped balance me a bit. I spent so much of that summer writing it all down.

That’s how “Prairie Princess” was born. Because I wanted that little girl to show me around this place, to tell me the way she sees it — catching snowflakes on her tongue, helping with chores, dancing along the ridgeline and singing at the top of her lungs. Just like I used to.

I tucked that poem away then, but kept it in the back of my mind as I found my direction and became a mother to two little girls who looked exactly like the Prairie Princess I envisioned in that poem.

And so, 10 years later, I decided it was time to make that poem come to life in the form of a children’s book, so the voice of that little girl could help other kids see the special connection and responsibility we have to the land.

I took photos of my own little girls on the ranch and used them as inspiration for the artist who so beautifully painted it. Daphne Johnson Clark is a friend of mine with rural roots here in Western North Dakota and she made the book come to life.

And now it’s here, after all these years.

To celebrate, I am visiting libraries, museums and other venues across the state to read the book, talk about sense of place and conduct a creative workshop that encourages kids to express themselves through art and poetry. And I hope I will see you out there.

Even if you don’t have a child to bring with you, I believe this story will help you remember what it was like when the world felt wide open and magical and all for you.

I hope you know it still is…

Click here to order a signed copy of Prairie Princess and other music and merchandise

Click here for the KFYR-TV News Interview about Prairie Princess (with a few words from the kids)

Click here for the KX-TV News Interview about the book

A cupcake and a concert

Every day my four-year-old daughter asks me if we can “do a band.”

And by “do a band” she means that we will make some cupcakes or cookies, get out her guitar and little microphone stand and I will eat that cupcake and watch her perform music that she spontaneously composes with all the emotion and drama she has collected in her short little life, the fireplace the backdrop of her stage.

That’s Rosie. I’m not sure why on earth she thinks we need to make cupcakes for her to show her stuff, but I think it may be because it makes it special, like more than a rehearsal. Cupcakes make it a performance.

And Rosie’s no dummy. Recently she’s been asking me to tune her guitar properly so that it doesn’t sound so terrible. And then after I’m done with that could I please, for the love of kittens, teach her to play. Because she recently realized that she really doesn’t know how to play.

And she has a point.

But here’s the thing. She’s four. As in, she just turned four. And her hands are small, she’s still learning to write her name, she has the attention span of a blue heeler puppy. It’s probably going to take a hot minute for her to become a guitar prodigy. But she’s relentless. So for Christmas I bought her this little guitar with three strings that’s made for small fingers and designed to teach young kids the basics of the chords so that when they graduate to a six string, it all makes sense.

At Christmas she unwrapped it and I was excited. It comes with an app and flashcards and video tutorials, all the things I didn’t have when I picked up the guitar to learn at 11 or 12. (I had my dad, his guitar, an old 1970’s chord book and a tape player that I could play and pause and rewind and play and pause and rewind to figure the songs out on my own, but I digress). Anyway, I got that little guitar tuned up, her little strap adjusted, I coached the lefty to put it on right side up and helped her figure out her first, one finger needed, chord. And as I looked at my youngest daughter with anticipation, scenes of her life as a rock star flashed in my mind. I smiled and encouraged her. Her face dropped. She let her hands off the instrument.

“It doesn’t sound like a real guitar,” she exclaimed. “I need it to sound like yours.”

Oh Rosie, just another example of how I imagine that you’ve lived another life before this. And in that life you were indeed in a band. And you played killer lead guitar. And, I’m assuming there were, of course, cupcakes.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve had to consider my daughter’s prior life in my role as her mother. Like she was out of the womb demanding that she do it all herself and so I’ve spent hours waiting for her to perform grownup tasks as a mere toddler, like style her own hair, pour her own milk, choose her own outfits and make her own phone calls.

And then there’s her affinity for coffee, a habit that couldn’t be left behind.

Which makes sense now, considering all those long nights she must have spent as a bandleader back in the day.

Yeah, it seems my daughter’s just annoyed now that she has to learn to do these things all over again considering she’s already perfected them. So I get it about that little guitar, I do. It’s not what she’s used to. It’s not what she remembered.

But she’s coming around. It looks pretty cool after all. And fits her perfectly. Recently she jumped right in on a little jam session with her grandpa Gene and me. When the song was done, he gave her a high five after and declared, “Rosie, you’re getting so good! You can be in my band now!”

To which the four-year-old going on 40 replied, “No Papa, you can be in MY band.”

Happy New Year everyone. Cheers to learning something new this year…or maybe, if you’re like Rosie, relearning.

The glamour and the timing on a family ranch

“Heya! Can you go close the gate below the barn?” I yelled at my little sister on the other side of the cattle pens. I had a pencil in one mittened hand, a list of numbers in the other, and a sorting stick stuck under my arm. My going-to town-boots had kicked up a fair amount of mud and poop and slushy snow and deposited it right inside of my socks and up the back of my going-to-town-pants as I chased both man and bouvine around the corrals. I had been caught in the wrong outfit as I pulled back into the ranch that morning, bringing two little girls home from preschool.

This wasn’t the timing I was expecting, but there I was…

My little sister was sitting, one butt cheek in the side-by-side and one leg out the door, hanging on to her thirty-pound toddler while her dog bounced and begged to come in and those two little preschoolers sat beside her, one singing an original song about cows at the top of her lungs and the other holding her ears. Take a guess which one was mine…

My poor sister was caught in a “Here, hold my kid, the guys need help,” situation and just like that she was responsible for her children, a niece and a gate.

This wasn’t the timing she was expecting, but there she was…

“Which gate?” she hollered back.

“The brown gate below the barn!” both Dad and my husband chimed in, as if adding the color of the gate was going to be helpful to a woman who had all limbs occupied, forty-seven tabs open in her brain and couldn’t get the music to stop.

But she needed to hurry, we had a couple loads of cows to haul for the sale the next day and the rest of them were quickly headed to that spot where the fence had been down for repair the last few weeks. Should have thought of that earlier probably, but, as you are learning, that’s not necessarily the way we do things around here.

Oh, life on the family ranch—the only thing glamorous about it that day was the cute new sunglasses I was wearing and my good fall coat that wasn’t expecting to work so hard. But that’s the way it goes on a small operation, raising kids and careers and cattle, you must be prepared, at anytime, to step in poop and be fine with it.

Or to open or close a gate, which depending on the status of your fences can determine how the entire rest of your day goes.

And there are plenty of misconceptions about what it means to be a cattle rancher, the one I didn’t pay any attention to growing up was the amount of deadlines and dates you have to pay attention to in order to calve at the right time, sell at the right time and have enough feed and water along the way. And so that explains why it seems we’re always in a bit of a rush. Because on the ranch, if you think it’s going to take a couple hours, it almost always takes a couple more.

And if you think you fixed it, 98% of the time you return to find you only thought you did.

Anyway, little sister got the gate shut and we got the cows loaded and sent the guys on to the highway to get to Dickinson before dark. Because dark is the ultimate deadline and it comes early around here these days.  Once they left, my little sister and I took the kids into my house for snacks and whatever crafting project they could scrounge up while I ate a three o’clock lunch of handfuls of Wheat Thins and debated the best ways to get mud and cow poop off wool and leather.

It seemed we pulled it all together then as I cooked up some spaghetti and got the kids fed and bathed and ready for bed on schedule, feeling pretty good about nailing all categories of our life today.

Until my husband walked in the door and told me they arrived to the sale barn to find out there was no sale the next day…

And that’s not the timing they expected but there they were….

The bull’s-eye kind of woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Messy Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ranch house is a work in progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will our children know the quiet?

Will our kids have a chance to know the quiet?
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On a recent trip to a Minnesota town, I took a walk along a path by the river that wound through the city. I kept my headphones out and listened to the sound of slow-moving traffic, wind moving through the changing leaves, dogs barking, a mom and dad chatting, strolling their newborn down the sidewalk on a sunny evening, the sound of my own thoughts…

In the quiet neighborhood I noticed a little girl swinging, alone on the playground behind her apartment complex, her mom sitting on a bench at the corner of the sandbox while the child sang to herself, pumping her legs up to the sky, lost in thoughts of her own, only the way a child can do it when left to herself. What might it be like to be a bird? She closes her eyes and imagines she’s flying, imagines she has wings and a place to be. She sings to herself and the world she’s created in that slow and steady moment she was given to play alone.

I used to be that girl. I hope we all have been a version of her at some point in our childhoods, whether we grew up between these sidewalks or, like me, with miles of road and trees and creeks separating me from parks like these. With years between my sisters and me, I spent plenty of time alone as a kid, using my imagination to occupy me, to come up with a project or a song or a place I needed to be that day — checking on the wild raspberries, trying my hand at catching a frog or pushing logs up along a fallen tree and calling it a fort. I didn’t know it then, but it was the best gift I could have been given, the time to learn how to be with myself.

It’s served me well now as an adult in a career that’s sent me traveling thousands and thousands of miles along lonesome stretches of highway, navigating it alone. Dining alone. On a mission to wander.

To be quiet with myself has never been a thing that’s scared me, and now, as a parent to two young children in a world that feels noisier every day, the thing that scares me about the quiet is that our children won’t have a chance to know it. And without the quiet moments, I worry they won’t get to truly know themselves.

Last weekend my husband was digging in a water tank for the cattle behind my parents’ house, along the creek that used to be my old stomping grounds. My 5-year-old suggested we take him a picnic and so we packed up juice boxes in lunchboxes and ducked through the fences behind dad’s garden, past where the tire swing used to hang and along the beaver dam where a tin-can telephone used to connect my fort with my little sister’s across the creek.

We found a log to sit on and dug into our treats, talking about how I used to float sticks and watch the water bugs row across the clear water, and pretty soon I was leading them along that creek bank, making crowns out of reeds, picking riverbank grapes, jumping after frogs and digging in the sand. I was transported and they were transfixed the way wild places work on children. Let’s go farther, stay longer, look for more frogs, please.

Do you know we can still feel this way if we allow it? The magic — it still works on us too. I forget sometimes, but I was reminded.

There’s magic in nature. Magic. Magic in reaching for the sky, in the pumping of our legs to the rhythm of the songs we sing to ourselves. What’s it like to be a bird? Close your eyes, let the quiet in and grow yourself wings…

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
Forum Communications

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.