Lost tooth memories

Losing a tooth and gaining memories
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My oldest daughter lost her first tooth last week. On her 47th jump off the panel fence while we were feeding bottle calves, she fell and jarred her little jaw enough to knock a loose tooth looser.

By bedtime, all bathed and fresh and ready for sleep, she let her daddy pull that wiggly tooth, the one I swear she just grew yesterday.

And while she went into the whole thing brave and tough, chaos ensued well past bedtime when she realized a part of her that was once in her mouth, was now in her hand.

And there was blood.

And crying. From both Edie and her little sister. (And maybe me a little, because I thought he was just going to wiggle it!) But, for Edie, all that was scary was calmed by the dollars left under her pillow. I’m still not sure Rosie is over the trauma of it all.

Come to think of it, maybe neither am I. Because it all seems to be happening at once. She turns 5 and learns to ride her bike without training wheels, she loses her first tooth, I register her for kindergarten and listen to sad ’90s country for a week straight — and then I blink and she’s taking the painting she did in junior high, the old lamp in the attic and packing up the station wagon, waving goodbye to me while I stand in the very same driveway where she just learned to ride her bike yesterday.

At least that’s what Suzy Boggus told me as I drove out of the elementary school parking lot wiping my tears away. The song has a bit more bite than it did when I was singing along to it on my bus ride to school.

Letting go.

We’ve taken a large step into that phase of parenting now, and my girls take twirling leap after spinning bike tire toward their independence. I see it now in how they’re suddenly so aware of the wide-open spaces that surround them. No more fenced yard holding them in — they climb right under it and wonder now if they can get themselves from our house to Gramma’s or aunt Alex’s.

Maybe if they run to the top of the hill and stand on the tallest rock. Maybe if they follow that deer trail, or the cow dog. Maybe if they didn’t pick up every pretty rock they found along the way. Maybe if they wouldn’t have face-planted in the dirt running too fast down the hill. Maybe if they would have told their mother they were leaving the yard, she could have come and rescued them from themselves a bit earlier.

But oh, so much of me loves to watch them suddenly realize that all of this is theirs to make footprints on. To take care of. To inspect for crocuses, to pick up a cactus or two on their jeans. The big blue sky, the tall oaks, the stock dam and the crick and the sticks they throw for the dogs, the mud that gets stuck to their boots, the big rocks that will become their special, secret spots, even though we can see them from the house…

My daughters, at 5 and 3, are entering the sweet spot of childhood where memories are made and the world seems wide open and full of questions and mystery. They’re entering a phase of childhood in which I can remember for myself now, and how it felt to fall in love with this place.

How it felt to hold my little sister’s hand and help her through the fence.

How big my dad’s fingers felt in my mouth when he helped pull out my first tooth…

I can remember that, Edie. You’ll remember it now too… you’ll remember now…

Driving the backroads

Life on the backroads
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Ever have to yield to a guy trying to clear a giant tumbleweed in full motion out of a parking lot by way of running it down with his pickup? Ever see him fail the first time and then feel guilty that you didn’t just let it hit your car when it was coming for you, you know, to be helpful?

Ever been in line at a drive-thru and have the man in front of you get out of his vehicle to say that he can guess where you’re from by the amount of dirt on your car?

Ever hauled a live goat home in the plush back seat of your best friend’s dad’s car before you even had a proper license?

Ever been 17 sleeping in the gooseneck of a horse trailer at a rodeo to save money on hotels?

Ever stopped to take a photo of your shortest friend in funny glasses next to the highway sign for Gnome, N.D.?

Or what about grabbing a photo with a roadside smiling stack of hay bales? Or the ones that look like jack-o’-lanterns in the fall and snowmen in the winter?

Ever rush to the aid of the people certainly dead or badly mangled in the car you just witnessed fly off the highway in the Badlands and crash directly into a tree, only to find the passengers completely unharmed and in the middle of an argument that no near-lethal car accident was going to end? Ever stand in the middle of that highway and demand that the driver let you give him a ride instead of walking the 10 miles home?

Ever swear you saw a man run across that same highway in the dark dead of night, only to have your search turn up nothing but the memories of a ghost?

Ever take your little sister to her orthodontist appointment in the big town and drive through parking lots and back alleys to avoid stoplights because you learned to drive on a gravel road and weren’t quite ready for that sort of traffic?

Did your friends ever make you drive the pickup and gooseneck trailer full of rodeo horses through a new town just to laugh at you when you stalled out because they knew you sucked at driving stick?

Ever been 8 or 9 with your best friend, weaving your bikes with playing cards pinned to the spokes through the dotted centerlines of the highway?

Ever have to put oil in the tank of your 1982 Ford LTD every morning before you drove it to school and every afternoon in the parking lot after if you had any hope of starting the thing?

Ever go in the ditch three or four times the first day you got to drive that car to school by yourself, because you missed the lesson about icy roads and rear-wheel drive?

Does anyone even know about rear-wheel drive anymore? Or three-wheelers that twice cracked his ribs, and then his collarbone and then his shoulder blade?

Ever sit in the back seat of his Thunderbird on a hot summer day with the windows rolled up and the heat blaring, driving too fast on your way to the shores of the big lake just so you could be sweaty and desperate enough to strip down and jump in its barely thawed waters when you arrived?

Ever wore the red mud to town on the front of your dress pants? Hauled a couple square bales or deer heads for the taxidermy in your SUV on the way to Thanksgiving? Drove a pickup with no back seat and napped in its shade in a hayfield? Pulled up to a job with a fully intact pheasant stuck to your grill?

Ever cruised the three blocks of Main Street over and over in a car with a name your friends gave it, pushing curfew under the big, black sky just to move because you were young and restless in a small town?

Every once in a while, do you get behind the wheel on the back roads of North Dakota and feel that way again, and so you take the long way home?

The things we leave behind…

The things we leave behind
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’ve always been enamored with old buildings, the kind you see standing haggard and hunkered down along a county road or state highway.

Or, when you’re sitting in the passenger seat as he zips past on the interstate and you’re looking out at where the sky finally meets the curve of the earth, you might catch a glimpse of a memory way out there on a section line. A school maybe. A church?

It would be small and unassuming except for the lack of trees and similar structures on the prairie landscape, and it might as well be a castle. To me, a place like that holds as many mysteries.

I don’t think the sentiment toward abandoned places or things is unique to people who grew up on these Plains dotted with weathered-out buildings, humble, tumbling barns and a row or two of lilac bushes and windbreak trees left to fend for themselves against the prairie elements. On days when the wind blows 40 miles an hour or the temperature drops well below freezing, I build up more of a sentimental response to those who came before us and how they might have survived it, well aware that I am here because they did more than stay alive somehow.

On top of a hill in the horse pasture connected to our barnyard, if you stand the right amount of back and look close enough, you will find two sets of teepee rings, armfuls of nice granite boulders placed in the dirt in a nearly perfect circle under the big blue sky. I stand up there and wonder what it looked like all those years ago, without fences, or water tanks, without this smattering of bur oaks and ash growing taller in the draws. Without houses or roads.

If you put yourself in the right spot out here, there are a few places you can look that don’t so evidently reflect the modern era. You can imagine it then, how high the grass might have grown, how thick the mosquito swarm, how you might find more value in a flower or the creek that runs through it all. How different the quiet sounded.

And it’s so much easier to think about the lives of the souls who left structures and tools and equipment behind for us to ponder, to poke around in, to photograph. We forget these days that there was a time humans lived without leaving so much behind. It’s remarkable to think about, the innovation we’re capable of as humans and how it can simultaneously make us and break us.

I’ve said this before about living on this 110-year-old ranch. I’m a fourth generation raising the fifth, and some days, I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts. My girls dig in the sand under their swings and they find a glass medicine container, pieces of ceramic bowls and plates, a 7UP bottle. We’ve built on top of an old burn pile, and some things don’t go so quickly back to the earth.

Old plow outside the Veeder House

Dad dropped fencing pliers in the east pasture 20 years ago, and I stumble upon it on my evening walk. I wonder, who will someday find that hat I caught on a tree a few years back?

My husband digs out the corners of the old shop, grease cans and motor parts, welding units and scrap metal, wooden skis and a chair no one truly thought they could part with. Except they could. They did. There’s nothing left in that shop worth photographing, really, and so we might as well make it useful.

I fall off my horse at 10 years old and pick up a perfect arrowhead, just laying there now with no job but to be discovered, making us wonder what it might have been like before the world turned 55,000 times, day by day slowly shedding the past for valiant pursuit of the future…

To live wild

To live wild
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When I was a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of all time was “My Side of the Mountain.” It’s a story about a boy who finds himself living away from home in the wilderness of the mountains inside of a giant hollowed out-tree.

I can’t remember the exact story now or why he was alone out there, but I remember diagrams of how to build a fire with no supplies and something about a windmill and making a spear for fishing.

I still have the book buried somewhere. It was one I couldn’t give up to charity or to my younger sister, as if keeping it meant that I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to be at 9 or 10 years old — wild and young and capable of survival out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my mom’s cheeseburger chowder.

Yes, there was a time that was my plan. In the evenings I would step off the bus, grab a snack and head out to the trees behind our house. For months I would work on building what I called “secret forts” all along the creek that winds through our ranch. I would drag fallen logs to lean against tree branches bent just right, keeping watch for my little sister who always followed far enough behind to not be noticed right away, identifying my plan and ruining the whole point of secret forts.

Once my log “shelter” was constructed, I would lie down on my back on the tall grass, fallen leaves and twigs underneath, and I would think about the next step. I would need a door, some rope and a knife… a fire ring, of course…

I would scour the creek bottom for granite rocks when the sun would start its slow sink below the banks, and then I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night, my stomach rumbling at the thought of supper on the stove at home, and then I would follow the cow trail back toward the familiar comfort of the house.

This was my daily ritual for months and one of my signature childhood memories. Eventually I gave in and helped my little sister build her own fort. A much smaller fort. Across the creek. Out of sight.

I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own devices, but it turned out that having company was sorta nice. So we built a tin-can telephone that stretched from my fort to hers and brought down old chair cushions from the shed, searched for wild raspberries, tried to catch frogs and minnows in the beaver dam and spent our evenings planning our next move: spending the night.

But we never did it. Summer gave way to fall and the leaves fell and covered the floor of our paradise. We would pull on our beanies, mittens and boots and trudge down the freezing creek to clear out the fire ring we weren’t yet brave enough to use. And then the cold set in and the snow came and the neighbor girls called us to go sledding and our dream of being wilderness women collected snow and waited on a warmer season.

I can’t help but think about those girls on days like these. Days when the cold sets in and the house seems smaller. Days when the demands of the grown-up life I’ve built weigh heavy in responsibility and uncertainty and I feel tethered to them…

I try to remember a time where I felt like there was no one but me and the wind out here… the wind that calls, “Come have an adventure, girl. Come dream about hollowed-out trees…”

I step outside and I try to summon the magic as the cold bites at my cheeks and the snow crunches under my feet. I turn around and I miss the summers of my youth… I turn around and I’m alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she might tame the coyotes one day, and break unbreakable horses, and live wild.

I follow the creek and look for her. I know she’s here somewhere. I hope she hasn’t given up…

Looking for my reflection in my grandmother’s journals

My reflection in Gramma’s old winter journals
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It’s January and we’re working cows again, sending our later calves out to the sale and retiring a few old cows, a couple who won’t stay on any side of the fence and the one that will run you over if you don’t watch your back.

If I get my office work done in time this morning, I will go out and help. My mother-in-law will be here in a few hours to watch the girls who, these days, are passing the time by drawing pictures and then cutting them up. All those toys for Christmas and right now my black magic marker and the kid scissors might as well be gold. I just have to remember not to turn my back on them too long…

Yes, January’s settling in. And it should be about 20 below zero these days, with wind whipping snow, but we haven’t seen that yet around here. It rained yesterday. The day before, I took a 2-mile walk out to the east pasture dam in nothing but a light coat and a vest with the dogs zooming out happily ahead of me, zipping back and forth across the hills like blurs.

The guys have been busy fixing fences and setting water tanks, tasks that are usually reserved for different seasons. It’s sort of eerie, this mild winter weather. Yesterday I stepped outside and it was quiet, the kind of quiet you can’t put your finger on, until you realize your ears aren’t freezing and your nose isn’t running and there’s not a lick of a breeze.

It reminded me of the winter we lived in Missoula, Mont., where the snow floated straight down in fluffy puffs, settling like frosting on rooftops and windowsills and tree branches where the thermometer never dipped too far below 20. In Montana, winter was more magic than punishment. When we returned back to the ranch for Christmas, I felt the North Dakota wind chill on my face in a new way, looking out across the prairie, a line of black cows slowly moving toward us as we worked on serving up the best part of their day.

Up here, the weather exasperates every possible sense and I hadn’t had the autumn to help me work into the bite of that kind of cold. I swear I could see it come to slap me on the cheeks and sting my eyes into squinting. More stable creatures would have retreated to the mountains to stay put. We were back in North Dakota by late spring.

Last week, my mom brought over some of my grandma Edie’s old journals, a stack of notes scrawled in the squares and margins of a Cenex calendar. Recounts of the day-to-day from a woman who was born, married, mothered, worked, lived and died on the edge of these Badlands.

I was only 10 when my grandma died suddenly; she was barely in her 60s. These days especially, I want her to have never left us. I didn’t get a chance to know my grandmother the way a grown woman knows her grandmother, and given that we’ve moved in on her turf, I’m sure she’d have some things to say. And I have questions.

So I pore over her words again. It’s been several years since I’ve done so, before I was a mother, before settling down for good in this place. Back then, I was searching for something with a little more dirt on it, a reflection on her mood or the way someone rubbed her the wrong or right way, some inner turmoil that revealed a sweltering side of her humanness… or maybe I just wanted to see myself reflected there somehow…

Oh, how we make the departed so exalted, don’t we? I pick them up again…

January 6, 1982: -26. Pete changed filters on the tractor, then it ran better. We hauled a load of calves to Dickinson for Paul, he bought us supper at the Queen City. Got home at 9:30.

January 10, 1982: -42. Tractor and pickup didn’t start until late in the day. Wade helped Pete feed so I didn’t go out.

January 14, 1982: + 40. I almost tipped the pickup over today, it was slippery.

January 15, 1982: -27. Really stormy today. I am cleaning the closet in the bathroom, what a mess…

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…

This shirt

This Shirt
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I came across one of my husband’s old T-shirts while folding laundry last week. It was there in the basket with underwear and worn jeans and socks that somehow never match up right, the gray shirt with the blue collar I bought him when we were just kids.

That blue collar is frayed now, and there’s a rust stain under the word “Nike.” A little hole is forming at the seam of one arm and it won’t be long before I can hold it up and see right through it. Twenty-some years of wear on a man in work and play will do that. Ten thousand trips through the washing machine will do that.

Funny how an everyday chore can suddenly transport a person. I lifted it up and smoothed the wrinkles out on my lap and suddenly I was that 16-year-old girl again, in the mall in the big town, looking up at a wall full of men’s shirts, summoning all that I knew about the boy I liked so that I could make the right decision.

I chose the one on the very top row of course, and so I had to ask a clerk to get it down so I could bring it to the register to pay for it. I spent $25 of my hometown department store earnings on a boy for his 17th birthday.

I didn’t know at the time the long-term relationships men come to develop with their favorite T-shirts. If I dug through my husband’s drawers right now, I would find at least 15 to 20 relics of past wrestling tournaments, FFA and football championships, little pieces of his history telling the story on faded lettering and logos on the back of a T-shirt.

Here he is at sixteen. He still has this shirt…

I recently bought my husband a new shirt at the local Western store. We were going to take family pictures and I wanted the color to be right. And there I was again, looking at the wall of options, long-sleeved and short-sleeved, plaid and patterned and plain, snap buttons and embroidery.

This time I knew at a glance which ones he would wear, which ones look like him, and which ones to pass up. And it occurred to me then, when I brought that shirt home and hung it in his closet, next to his worn-out work shirt and jeans folded at the knee, that the act of successfully picking out someone’s clothes couldn’t be more personal.

To know a man well is to know the belt he wears for work with the vintage buckle and the one he pulls out for a wedding or a night on the town. It’s to know the inseam of his pants and the size of his foot in his boots, and how the man can wear out a pair every six months in this rugged place, the same way the wind and the sun wears on his cheeks and that spot on his neck his hat won’t cover.

To know a man well is to know how his shirt tucks, and that the sleeves are never long enough, his shoulders too wide and broad — just like, I thought while folding that old shirt and putting it in his drawer, my love for him.

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

A year of work ends at the sale barn

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We sold our calves last week.

With snow on the ground and our warm breath turned to ice in the crisp morning air, we layered up, saddled up and gathered up our herd of Black Angus and Simmental cattle and loaded up the calves to head toward the sale barn in town.

My husband pulled a trailer load out of the ranch while I served the neighbors and family who helped us some of that good ol’ spiceless North Dakota chili and watched one of the bachelors eat at least six or seven apple bars for dessert.

And when they all left, I was suddenly alone in my house for the first time in months, smelling like horsehair and plenty warm because of the long underwear and silk scarf that stayed on through lunch. And I probably should have taken the time to clean up the kitchen and do something domestic-looking after the whirlwind that fall inevitably brings to the ranch, but sale day gives me a bit of nervous energy.

 

Typically we think of it as a whole year of work riding on what the market is doing that day, but for us, even though it’s not our sole source of income, it’s so much more. It’s holding your breath to be given a sign that we are not crazy people. That there might be a future for us in this cattle business somewhere, no matter the slow, steady and cautious pace with which we are pursuing it, working to find our footing as the new generation here.

And so I decided I couldn’t stay at home cooking and cleaning, waiting to hear the numbers — I had to go watch it myself. So I grabbed my young daughters and their tiny pink cowboy hats and we headed toward Dickinson.

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I wasn’t going to bring them. I mean, taking a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old to a smelly, noisy sale barn 60 miles away on a Thursday night during suppertime is really just asking for it, but I felt like we all needed to be there, this year especially.

Because, despite the smell, I love the sale barn. It reminds me of the Carhartt coveralls that I outgrew long before I was willing to hand them down, and being 8 or 9 and sitting shotgun next to my little sister, next to Dad, warming our flushed cheeks in the old Dodge pulling a load of Black Baldy calves through the breaks after an early-morning roundup.

It reminds me of patience in a time with less distraction, of a time when a can of Mountain Dew, a cheeseburger and maybe a Snickers bar at the little cafe there was a big-deal treat and took the sting out of the 45-minute wait in the pickup to unload with nothing but AM radio to cut the boredom.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

And so when I walked my girls into Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange, we wasted no time getting that pop and a burger, feeding my nostalgia while feeding them supper.

 

And when we took those steep steps up to sit on the benches in the ring, I quickly became aware that we were the kind of circus they just might appreciate around there.

“What is going on, Mommy?!” my little Rosie asked in complete wonder, pausing to watch before unloading all the tiny plastic cows, steers, horses and a Mickey Mouse onto the bench to amuse herself.

“We’re selling our calves today!” I told her proudly, which promptly set her big sister off into tears, declaring dramatically that she was going to miss them “so, so much!”

Twenty minutes and three plastic ponies flung at the buyers below us later, our load number was up and our calves began to enter the ring, just as Rosie spilled the entire contents of her pop down my husband’s back.

And just like that, the day we’d been working for all yearlong had come and gone, the scent of cattle on our clothes and plans for the year ahead drowning out the doubts as we chased our headlights and our bedtimes back home through the Badlands.

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Rose soap and the woodwork of our memories…

Lasting memories of my great grandma

When I was in kindergarten, I lived in Grand Forks with my family in a small white stucco house by the Red River.

I don’t remember too much about this time in my life, except the blond neighbor girl named Jenny, my blue bicycle, drinking Dad’s cold coffee in his basement office, my little sister’s run-in with a hornet’s nest, my sparkly jelly shoes and my Great-Grandma Rognlie. Actually, her name was Eleanor, but we called her by her last name because she was the kind of woman who took formalities seriously.

She lived in a red house a few blocks away from our little white one by the river dike, and every day I would walk there to spend time with her in those free and unplanned hours kids used to have between after school and suppertime.

And that time for me as a little girl meant saltine crackers arranged on a plate and spread with peanut butter, reading books with her giant light-up magnifying glass at her antique fold-down desk, watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS while laying on the carpet in front of her couch with the birds on it and her screened-in porch and her garden and this sophisticated woman with immaculate hair that was curled and styled every Tuesday at the salon.

When I pull from my memory, I realize that walking into my great-grandmother’s house was like walking into a different time that smelled like rose soap, tasted like frosted gingerbread cookies from the bakery and looked like a woman who worked to make money so she could put a roof over the heads and food in the mouths of two boys by herself in a time when women didn’t do those things without a man in the house, or at least they didn’t dare declare it.

But I didn’t know that about her then. I didn’t know how strong she was or the sacrifices she made or how hard it must have been or how proud it made her to see both those boys go on to graduate from universities, marry good women, contribute to their communities, succeed in their careers and raise children of their own.

I just knew she let me have Juicy Fruit gum and play her old piano and try on her fancy hats and shoes and she would order my sisters and me things from the Lillian Vernon catalog. And I knew that she always had a tablecloth on her table and a centerpiece and a game of Skip-Bo or Uno or Wheelbarrow or Solitaire and that she took the time to play cards with me after “Mister Rogers” and before my dad came to pick me up.

And on Sundays, I knew that she liked to take us all out to the Village Inn where I’d get three crayons and a paper menu and a pancake with that little dollop of whipped cream and I better behave.

And I knew that she had another husband later in her life, because I saw him in a black-and-white picture framed in her hallway, but I didn’t know him because I wasn’t born yet when he died, or maybe I was, I just wouldn’t remember, but somehow I knew that they didn’t have enough time together. None of us who love really do, do we?

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

And I’m thinking of my Grandma Rognlie today because last night I watched my mom, dressed for the occasion, help my little Rosie put on her peacoat to head out the door of a theater event and I swear I could smell her grandmother’s rose soap…

And it occurred to me there is no way for my daughters to understand the complicated, compassionate, strong and beautiful story that lies within my mother. I can only hope that one day they will all grow old enough to ask the questions, woman to woman.

But right now, they know they’ll always find M&M’s in her drawer conveniently placed at their height, and on Thursday she’ll take my oldest to dance and then for a smoothie at her coffee shop and then the two sisters will run and play under the racks at her store until it’s time to head back to the ranch without sidewalks.

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And my daughters, they don’t know it now, but when they grow older these moments will lie quiet in the woodwork of their memories, waiting there for them when they close their eyes, searching for a way to feel safe and special and loved.

And they may never know the full story, and they surely won’t remember much about being small, but they will remember what matters, and it will always matter: that red house, that rose soap, that card game, those M&Ms, that Juicy Fruit gum…

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