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?

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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…

4-H in my memories

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Old photo brings back proud horse show memories from childhood
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It’s 4-H Week in McKenzie County and I spent yesterday afternoon talking with 4-Hers about the photographs they took of their roosters and kittens, sunsets and sisters, horses and old country churches.

I’m always amazed at the poise, passion and pure creativity these kids possess and am always happy to be involved where I can. As a kid growing up in the middle of nowhere, 4-H held it all for me. It was my connection to civilization for a week in the summer and a good excuse to do a project.

I spent hours on the floor latch-hooking a rainbow or at the kitchen table woodburning or pressing and identifying wildflowers. I grew a garden. I tried my hand at drawing. I took photos of my cats and dogs and horses, and true to form, I never baked a thing.

But my favorite was the horse show. A few days ago I was looking through old photographs in search of some other memory, and out of the pages falls a photo of me, my little sister, and my sorrel mare Rindy, standing stoic and proud in our pressed white shirts, Wrangler jeans, hats and boots at the fairgrounds. I suppose she was about 6 and I was around 11 and we were the perfect age to take this seriously and make it our life. I held that photo and a flood of memories washed over me.

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I could smell the ShowSheen and feel the sweat pooling up on my back, my stomach knotting with excitement and nerves. My little sister and I at the county fair, fresh off the ranch where we likely spent the night before washing my old mare in the backyard with Mane ‘n Tail shampoo, a brush and a hose spraying freezing cold water. I would have put on my shorts and boots and worked to convince my little sister to hold Rindy’s halter rope while the horse got busy munching on the green grass in our yard, not fully understanding or giving a care to what was on the schedule for the next morning.

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My little sister, enthused initially, likely started to get annoyed by the whole deal, the sun a little too hot on her already rosy cheeks, the bees getting dangerously close, so she probably abandoned ship after a couple arguments about it and then I would have been out there finishing the job, picking off the packed-on dirt and yellow fly and then standing back, pleased with the work I did and excited to show my horse in the big arena and decorate her up and ride her in the parade. Because she’s never looked so good, so shiny, her red coat glistening in the sun.

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Then I’d take her down to the barnyard and give her a munch of grain, tell her I’d see her in the morning. It probably rained during the night, soaking the ground nice and good and I likely woke up bright and early because I didn’t sleep a wink, so nervous about getting that purple ribbon.

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I would have pulled on the crisp, dark blue jeans and clean white shirt Dad picked up for me at Cenex or the western store on Main Street and tucked it all in nice and neat before heading out to the barn with my little sister trailing behind to get my glistening horse and her fancy halter loaded up in the trailer, only to find that the mare had gone ahead and taken advantage of the mud, rolling in it nice and good and letting the clay form a thick crust on her back. Typical ranch horse.

So we’d get to brushing in the crisp of the early morning and to get her shined up again in time to head to town in the old horse trailer and show her off, two girls and a mare on her annual and only trip to town.

Yes, it’s county fair season across the state and across the country and I’m basking in the memories. Good luck to all you 4-Hers. Have fun and be as proud as those two little girls in that photograph.

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All the things to love

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All the the things to love
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Last night, as we were driving back to the ranch late from a performance in a bigger town, my dad said he wishes he could live a whole other lifetime so he would have time to fit in all of the things he wants to do.

He said it sort of casually to our friend sitting in the passenger’s seat, the man who has played guitar next to me during most of my music career and stood on stages with my dad in their younger lives. I sat in the back seat listening to them talk about the getting old stuff they are facing now — retirement and bad shoulders, travel and finances and grown children.

But I couldn’t shake what my dad said about the other lifetime, because it’s the same thing that has come out of my mouth time and time again, but it was the first time I’d heard it come out of his.

I wish there were another couple hours to linger a bit on the most important, or the sweetest, or the warmest, or the most fun things. To sit on the back of this horse a little longer, or with my arms around my sleeping child, or climb another hill, or make a trip to see my friends, or help or host or work on the ideas that tumble and toss in my head — the ones that need nothing but a little work and the extra time, time that we cannot, no matter how we try, create.

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And it’s funny that he said it then, after we wrapped up a night of music in a beautiful park in the middle of a growing town. That evening I stepped away before we went on the stage to have a look around. I watched daddies strolling babies, grandparents taking walks, a woman playing fetch with her dog, kids screeching down the slide, and I thought, ‘Well, I could live here.’

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And then for a few moments I allowed myself to imagine it. It’s the same way I imagine myself being a part of the families riding their bikes down a charming city sidewalk in a quiet neighborhood in an unfamiliar town. I wonder what it looks like in their houses and then I recognize that there wasn’t ever just one way to be me.

This spot out here on the ranch, where the cattle poop in my driveway and eat my freshly potted plants, might have remained the quiet little pile of abandoned cars and farm machinery if I would have followed through with my idea when I was 22 years old to move to the big city and sing.

What if he never asked me to marry him? What if he bought that motorcycle he talked about and headed farther west while I headed east, uncompromising in the vision I had for myself at that moment as someone who shouldn’t go home again?

There’s nothing there for me. They told me so. Would I have bought a house in a quiet neighborhood in a suburb in the Midwest or traveled to Nashville like they all told me I should do?

Would I have broken his heart and met someone new? Would I have children now with different colored eyes and unfamiliar names and would we ride our bikes and play fetch in a park like this listening to another woman singing about a life I could only imagine?

And in these imaginary scenarios, I like to think that I am happy and content, that whatever choices I made would find me just fine. And if I’m being honest, a part of me wishes that there was some way I could find out what would have become of me in Minneapolis or in Nashville or on a ship on the Mediterranean. What would my new favorite places become?

Because as much as there are things in this world that terrify me, those don’t weigh as heavy as the weight of all the things there are out there to love, if only we had another lifetime.

“Oh, I hate this getting old stuff,” our friend said to my father and then they both got quiet, staring ahead at a dark and familiar road, the headlights lighting up the night.

Night Sky

I write it down

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Coming Home: I write it down
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As a writer who documents my life weekly, the gift I get in exchange for the deadlines is a chance to look back on previous versions of myself.

Because sometimes I feel compelled to look back, like I did last night as I tried to quiet the worries that come with full-blown adulthood, a worry much different from the ones I used to possess.

In a few weeks, my little sister will be moving her family to the ranch. They’ll build a house right down the road from us. When they’re all bigger, our girls will be able to meet on their bikes to play. In fact, if the wind is right and they find a hill, they could stand outside and yell to make plans.

Time will tell if they ever figure that one out — the same way time has shown us.

Seven years ago, I sat with my little sister on the love seat in the back room of my parent’s house while she was home deciding the next step to take after college, deciding whether or not to move back. And we were a bit younger then, but the same amount of uncertain about how it might all turn out.

The love seat was small and so my sister and I were shoulder to shoulder, and my other shoulder was smashed up against my husband’s leg as he leaned back, sprawled out on the arm of the overstuffed piece of furniture. The three of us, we were a sandwich, and I was the lettuce, the cheese, the pickle, mayo and turkey. They were the bread and we were everything you needed for a good bite.

We closed our eyes and listened to dad blow the air from his lungs through the harmonica he wore around his neck. We heard a lonesome sound, one that’s familiar and haunting.

I got a shotgun, a rifle and a four-wheel drive

And a country boy can survive…

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We leaned in closer, not knowing then what those words might mean after more years passed, his hair more silver than it was yesterday, his fingers callused, his voice ringing with those pieces of gravel that dug their way in from years of playing songs like this in bar rooms.

We didn’t know then. We just knew it was quiet that night. The dogs were asleep and the trucks were taking a different route. We knew the stars were out.

Country folks can survive…

In the kitchen, the warm scent of brownies my mom was frosting fresh from the oven drifted back to us smooshed together, the sandwich, on the love seat. I couldn’t see her from my position as the lettuce, cheese, pickle, mayo and turkey, but I knew my mother was sipping wine and running her long fingers along the pages of a new magazine.

Everything I ever knew for certain then was filling my lungs and my ears, touching my shoulders and swaying along to all of the things I was on the inside. What I didn’t know didn’t matter then.

I was his lungs and heart and pieces of his gravelly voice.

I was her fingers and worries and holidays.

I was his good-nights, his battles and his wishes.

I was her blood, her memories… her shoulder.

And I remember thinking that if I were not those things, I might not exist at all.

But we are much more now, that sandwich, busy now becoming pieces of the new little hearts we’ve created. And time will reveal to us the rest, but it isn’t good at helping us remember, so I write it down.

The in-between pages

At the end of a life…

Coming Home: At the end of a life
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Over supper tonight I was attempting to tell my husband about the highlights of my recent getaway to Nashville when my 3-year-old interrupted me repeatedly, insisting her story was more interesting.

“I went to the big town and swam in a hotel pool and met a friend with curly hair who shared her mermaid while you were on vacation to Menards,” she declared.

Nashville. Menards. To a 3-year-old, it’s all the same and another reminder that I was back to the reality of two-toddlers-in-the-house-supper-conversation as we rolled into bath time and bedtime and now here I am trying meet a deadline, piecing thoughts together as the clock pushes midnight…

A few years before my grandmother Edie died, she went on a trip by herself to Alaska. I’m not sure why I remember her vacation so vividly, but maybe it was because the timing fell in the short years she lived after her husband died and so, even as a 9-year-old kid, I was aware of her loneliness.

I understood somehow it was an adventure she never had a shot at as a daughter of homesteading immigrants turned into a rancher and mother of four turned into a widow before she even had a chance to turn 60.

I like to think of her standing on the deck of the cruise ship, posing in front of an iceberg, her magenta lips smiling wide and brave at a new beginning. There have been a million times since she died that I feel like we were robbed of her long life. She would have loved Nashville.

Last week, my husband’s grandmother died while I was sitting in a pew at the Grand Ole Opry. I found out between acts. And even though I suspected it was coming, my heart sank and I cried.

Of course I cried at the loss of a life so precious to all of us. I watched the rest of the show with that lump in my throat, thinking of Leona and how she would have loved the Opry if we could have ever convinced her to spend that kind of money on a ticket when she could listen for free on the radio for crying out loud, which was just one of the many reasons we loved her.

Leona was a woman raised on the dirt of the Great Depression who made up for her low thermostat setting with her warm nature and good humor. The first time I met her I was just a teenager, warned not to leave too many bites of pancake on my Perkins plate, not because she would judge you necessarily, but because it would drive her crazy.

“She cuts her paper plates in half,” said my future husband.

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Maybe then I laughed at the absurdity, but ask me now and I will tell you this world needs more people like Leona. There’s not enough space here to tell you all of the reasons, but I hope I’ve said enough for you to understand why I kept her on my mind as I bought a round of drinks at Tootsie’s, toured the Country Music Hall of Fame and cleaned all of my plates.

Tomorrow, at her funeral, I will learn a little more about the places she went to forget about the burdens of life. I have a hunch her trips were more twirls across the dance floor with the men she loved than overpriced flights across the country.

She always seemed as content with where she was as she was content with that old VHS player no one could convince her to upgrade. And as a person who is always reaching and wondering, I admired her for that.

We were given the gift of Leona’s long life, but I wish I would’ve asked her if she thought we ever have enough time, although I think I know the answer. It’s only the ones left behind who feel robbed.

Leona, tomorrow I’ll play you “Red River Valley.” We’ll miss you forever.

Wilderness Dreams

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Coming Home:Wilderness dreams come back on days like this
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When I was a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of was “My Side of the Mountain,” a story about a boy who finds himself living alone in the wilderness inside of a giant hollowed out tree.

I still have the book buried somewhere in this house, holding all the secrets to adventure like all the books I loved about kids taming horses and dogs and braving wild prairie storms. Forget after school microwave popcorn and “Super Mario Bros.” — I wanted real adventure!

I’m sure I wasn’t unlike most kids at 9 or 10 years old. We all had a little more confidence than we had experience, so maybe it wasn’t unusual that I was convinced I could survive out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my mom’s cheeseburger chowder. Yeah, there was a time that was my plan.

In the evenings, I would step off the bus and head up the creek behind our house to work on building what I called “secret forts.” In the oaks and brush that grew along the bank, I would I use every muscle in my spindly body to collect and relocate every fallen log within a 200-foot radius to lean against a bent tree, creating a leaky little tent. And when it was complete, I would look around to make sure my little sister hadn’t followed me here, ruining the whole secrecy thing.

And then I would lay down under the flawed “shelter” of 50 logs to think about my next step. Make plans for a door. And a blanket. And rocks for a firepit.

But as the dark crept in, I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night, emerging to follow the cow trail back toward the house where supper was warm and waiting. For months, this was my daily ritual, and one of my signature childhood memories.

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I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own survival skills, but it turned out that having company was a nice addition. So eventually I gave in and helped my little sister build her own fort. A much smaller fort. Across the creek. Out of site.

We built a tin-can telephone that stretched from my fort to hers and brought down old chair cushions from the shed, tried to catch frogs 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 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 wilderness dream waited on a warmer season.

I can’t help but think about those girls on days like these. Days when the cold sets in, burned casserole from the night before sits waiting for a cleanup on my countertop and the dark, naked trees behind my grown-up house seem to call to me to come out from behind these walls.

Come have an adventure, girl.

I step outside and let the frozen air fill my lungs and bite my cheeks. I step outside and miss my sister. I step outside and I’m alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she could tame coyotes, break unbreakable horses and live alone in the wild.

I step outside to look for her. I know she’s here somewhere, waiting for me to come and play.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

Fifteen

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A photo of me at 15, which is now considered vintage 

And now, for this week’s column on a trip I took to teach a writing workshop to classes full of teenagers where I mentioned mixed tapes and records and a time before the Internet and felt old.

When I was fifteen
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“Oh, you’re going to feel so old,” my husband told me as I explained that my plan for the week was to drive across the state to conduct a few writing workshops for high schoolers. “Just remember, you were their age once…like twenty years ago.” And then he took a drink of his coffee, laughed and turned out of the room.

Funny. Real funny.

But twenty years ago? That can’t be right.

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Wasn’t I just fifteen last week when I was grocery shopping and gave in to the nagging instinct to buy the Double Stuffed Oreos?

And I was certainly fifteen the other day, walking down the hallway at work with my hair flat ironed, new boots, feeling pretty good. Until my coworker said she saw me coming and didn’t recognize me with my new “do.” “Who’s that lady?” She wondered to herself.

And I wondered when I became a lady.

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Me, on the right, about thirty birthdays ago…

Wasn’t I just fifteen, swearing I would never forget what it was like to be fifteen and then all of the sudden I woke up to find myself standing in front of a room full of teenagers talking about record players?!

“And yeah, I know, record players are vintage cool now, but this was before the Internet. And YouTube. And, have you ever heard of a mixed tape? Well…anyway…”

I spent an entire day in that high school, talking and guiding students through creative writing exercises, sharing my career path, drinking chocolate milk out of those little cartons and listening to snippets of their lives play out in the hallways: A paper is late and there’s an excuse. Her sister didn’t put her clothes in the dryer last night and she was so annoyed. Someone’s not pulling their weight in the group project. A sign needs to be painted before tonight’s game. Did you study for the test? What are you doing this weekend?

And suddenly I was transported back to a time when so many things were out of my control, my sensitivities were heightened, I simultaneously knew everything and nothing, and, what I probably remember most, was just being so completely unsure of myself.

I was reminded of that uncertainty because of the juxtaposition of the kids sitting before me that day. They did not appear unsure at all. I mean, yes, there was hesitancy in completing what I was asking them to do, which was to be vulnerable, to write down memories, to approach their identity, to open up their creative vaults, which was big. But these kids were open to it. They were given the task and they spoke up and shared things out loud, in the open, that I’m not certain I would have been brave enough to share when I was in their shoes. And now, I just wish I could really remember if that was true. I’d like to think I was more like them.

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I doubt any one of those teenagers would have been caught dead in this for $5.15 an hour. 

But what I do remember is that when I was fifteen I thought there was a magical time when you suddenly became an adult and that uncertainty made way for self-definiteness. Like, I am 35 and this is my house, this is the way I wear my hair. This is the cut of my jeans. This is my job. This is my plan.

But that’s not the way it goes is it? I know that now, because I’m not fifteen. I am thirty-five and I’ll tell you there are some things the years just don’t change. I just didn’t know until now that I would be glad for it.

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The making of me

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Last weekend I had thirteen hours in the car alone to trick myself into thinking that I might have time to resurrect and revisit parts of my old life. It happens every time I’m in the car alone with my guitar in the back and whatever I want loud on the radio. Snacking without having to send a handful to the back seat. I feel like I did three years ago, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, on the road to a different town with time to think and plan and scheme for my life. A little free. A little nervous. Sometimes a little later than I want to be.  A lot myself.

Then I returned home and was reminded that while in the quiet moments there are parts of me that are who I’ve always been, my life will never be what it was yesterday…or two minutes ago.

Because I have children.

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And we have calves to sell this week.

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And a dog that went missing only to be found 60 miles away three days, which meant I spent my Sunday driving (thankfully) 120 miles with a toddler in the back to get her.

And a job that I can’t quite get done because I discovered last night that those children I now have, well they now have hand, foot and mouth…or something that looks and acts a lot like it.

And I want to say that I miss it, the alone time. The time to think, to create, to just be me. If I’m being honest, I will admit it. Being a mother to two young kids is not just physically draining, you can get lost in it. I miss the freedom I used to have to just walk out my door and up to the hills without calling in reinforcements, coordinating schedules or negotiating time. I didn’t know that would become so far out of reach when I became a mother.

I didn’t know I would feel so guilty and ungrateful saying that out loud, but I’m certain I’m not the only one.

Fall in the Horse Pasture

As I type this in the quite of my room, my almost-three-year-old found her way out of her bed and to the bottom of the steps, a last ditch effort to avoid bedtime. My husband is driving home from the big town with a load of sheet rock. I probably won’t see him much this week as we get ready to roundup and ship.

But that’s life and the reality of all these little dreams coming true…no one ever said all these little dreams would be easy to get or hold on to…but I think I might have heard someone somewhere say it’s worth it.

We’re the lucky ones.

Maybe that’s me, whispering to myself as I lay my daughters down at night.

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So I get up a lot earlier these days so I can have the morning for my thoughts. And one day, when I’m an older woman and I have regained the freedom to walk out my door on a whim and up to the top of my favorite hill,  I will tell a younger woman to take it all in, to not be so hard on herself, to love every minute because it all goes so fast. I will say that, because it’s true. But I hope I also remember to tell her to do what she can to keep her passions ignited in the middle of the Legos and Fruit Loops on the floor, even if she can only manage a flicker. Because we need that little fire in us, for the moments we get to breathe, but especially when the wind blows hard…

This week’s column…

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Coming Home: The Making of Me

I made a trip down to South Dakota last weekend to perform. In the early morning, before the sun burned off the cold fog, I sneaked quietly out of the house to make sure my family stayed sleeping while I took on the miles of road.

In a different time in my life, a six-hour trip alone was just another workday. These days it’s empty car seats, my guitar in the back of my SUV and the strange feeling I get when no one’s demanding I hand them pretzels. I turn up my music and let my mind wander, something it used to do so much of before my children stole half of it.

In my other life, I might have taken my time and stopped to see friends along the way. These days, it’s there and back quickly because the babies are at home, and the last time I called, my husband thought Rosie might have eaten a Band-Aid.

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“What am I doing?” That was the question that came up in the 13-plus hours I spent alone behind the wheel. “Is it worth it to go this far? Am I doing it for the money? Is this selfish? Maybe I should act more like a normal mother. Are the kids OK?”

After my concert on Saturday evening, a man came up to me to talk about the value of recognizing the sacrifices and struggles of our ancestors. My great-grandma Gudrun, an immigrant from Norway, comes up in my stories and songs, and he wanted to relate.

“When I was a kid, I found a little welder at a garage sale,” he said, remembering how he worked on lighting it over and over again before, frustrated, he declared it a rip-off.

“Then, my mother came over and grabbed it out of my hands,” he recalled. “And just like that, she had it lit up and running. She wrote my name on a piece of metal, straight and perfect, and I just stood there, sort of baffled.”

It turns out in his mother’s other life, she had been a welder who worked on ships during the war. And at 10 years old, watching his mom who wore nothing but dresses expertly handle his garage-sale purchase made the boy wonder how he had missed it. He didn’t want to miss it.

“It was like she had a secret life!” he declared.

I’ve never met this woman, but I can’t stop thinking about her. Because her story carried with it a little lift on the weight of my doubts.

I was a woman before I was a mother. And I am a mother and a woman still. A mother to daughters who will want to do things, see things. Be things. Travel. Maybe sing songs. Or write books. Invent. Or advocate. Haul horses. Plow up fields. Sit at a desk in a high-rise in New York. Maybe weld ships.

And the only way I can show them that they can be who they want to be is to show them who I was.

And who I am.

And, every day, how they’ve been the making of me.

In those boxes under the stairs…

Coming Home: Some things are worth saving
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OK, please tell me everyone has it — that space under the stairs or in the attic or the corner of your bedroom piled up to the ceiling where you put all the things.

All the things you want to save but don’t know what to do with, like the junk drawer every Midwesterner tries and fails to clean out every three years.

Please tell me you know what I mean so I don’t feel alone in the stacks of boxes I’m wading through here to make room for a plumbing project under those stairs.

Because I usually blame my husband for all the clutter, but four hours and 10 tubs full of less-practical things later, I’m admitting I’m guilty of the sentimental version of his shortcoming. And apparently it comes with baggage.

Because does the 35-year-old version of me need the graphic design projects I completed my junior year of college? Or a psychology textbook? Or a stack of blurry and misfired shots from my high school camera or this keychain that probably meant something to me but now I can’t remember what?

At some point in my life I must have thought so. But last weekend, in the name of time and an attempt to declutter my life to make room for the two new little lives that exist in our house now, I tossed them. I tossed them because, while it all served as a reminder of the things I used to do, it was no longer what I needed to remind me of who I used to be.

Some things aren’t worth saving, I decided. But it didn’t take much more digging to find the things that were. A box of random photos I hadn’t seen in years, photos that spanned decades, randomly tossed in a box and buried under things to deal with another day.

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Evidence of Sisterly Love and overly festive jammies

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A reminder of my fashion forward-ness

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That time we puffy painted everything…and babysat the neighbor’s goat over Christmas break

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A picture of me that could be a picture of Rosie (with brown eyes)

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Halloween with the little sister a million years ago

A photo of a 1-year-old me tucked under my grandma’s arm on her old brown couch, both of us worn out and sleeping in her little farmhouse that I can still smell if I close my eyes.

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An image of my little sister, 6 years old, standing outside with a Band-Aid and a tear on her face. She always had a Band-Aid and a little tear.

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A rare photo of my mom and all of her young daughters in our kitchen. Dad sleeping against the piano while we opened presents at Christmas.

Me, 16 with bad hair and a bad sweater, sitting next to my boyfriend in a wrestling T-shirt.

And then piles of carefully folded letters and notes we wrote to each other while we were falling in love with no real grasp on the future or that it might look like a house on the ranch with our babies and a space under the stairs stacked with books and DVDs, paint cans, a witch hat, yearbooks, sports buttons, trophies, a salamander and memories worth digging out sometimes to remind us where it began.

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Which, it turns out, helps in the whole moving forward thing. These things are worth saving.

Distracting things.

If you need me, I’ll be under the steps, trying again.

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Oh, love can come a long way…

The privilege of growing old

Maybe growing old isn’t what I once thought it was
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When I was a young kid, my grandma Edith would take us to town. I would ride in the back seat on the blue velvety cloth seats of her sedan, my feet dangling above the floor and my eyes reaching just high enough to watch the power lines whiz past the window.

She would run errands. To the drugstore, to the grocery store, to the Chuckwagon Cafe where her brother sat drinking coffee in his seed cap and then to the nursing home to visit her mother.

Great-grandma Gudrun was as close to 100 years old as most people ever get when I was the epitome of a kid, scraped knees and carefree. And when you’re a kid, close to 100 might as well be 100 million.

And there are things I remember about her there — mostly her stark white hair and her cane, the candy she offered and the tiny TV quietly flickering other people’s stories in the built-in shelves among her trinkets…

But I was a kid and all my memories revolve around how I felt and what I saw. Shy and quiet, wanting to escape to visit the birds in the atrium or feed the fish. Hoping she didn’t forget the candy.

It never occurred to me to think about what it meant to her to see her daughter with her great-granddaughters trailing behind. She raised 12 kids, after all. I wonder now if she liked the quiet that came with aging, or did it make her uneasy? I have so many things I want to ask her now that I am not that timid, unaware kid anymore.

8. Great Grandma Gudrun and Great Grandpa Severin Linseth and their 12 children Edith Linseth Veeder is center in the plaid

Last weekend, the arts organization I belong to helped host a Harvest Fest at the area nursing home and assisted living facility, the same place Gramma Gudrun used to live. Her son, the same man who used to drink coffee in the Chuckwagon Cafe, lives there now.

He sat outside on the front porch all afternoon and listened to his nephew, my dad, and his band play music while kids and families loaded up on horse-drawn wagons, squealed at the chickens, goats, bunnies and mini horse in our makeshift petting zoo, won apple pies in game after game of bingo, ate dessert and painted wooden pumpkins inside.

This event was a way of welcoming the community to engage and connect with their elders over stories attached to those apple pies, or the fancy chickens my friend brought to town. To tap their toes to the music under a clear, fall sky and remember where we came from. And maybe, help ease the fear that comes with aging. For them.

And for us.

When I was 8 or 10 visiting my great-grandma, I never imagined what it might be like to be an old woman. But I can imagine it now.

And I can see what a privilege it is and how we need to do better at not only celebrating it, but embracing the slowdown. The sit down. The process.

Because at the end of our lives, we only have the memories, and I understand now that it’s up to us to make sure that our elders never stop making them.
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