Sunday Column: Haunted

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

The art of the spook.

Mysterious things left behind.

And the definition of haunting.

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

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

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

It’s a gloomy day, the rain is falling, the sky is gray and the trees are stripped from black branches. It’s Halloween season and all of the sudden I’m reminded of the old house that used to sit up in a grove of trees behind the yard where I grew up.

It’s not so uncommon around here for a family to purchase land from neighbors or inherit an old family homestead, so there aren’t many farmsteads around these parts that didn’t come with an old structure lingering on the property, providing ranch kids with plenty of bedtime ghost story material.

And so it went with the old house that stood tucked back on the other side of the barbed wire fence, against a slope of a hill, surrounded by oak trees and the remnants of Mrs. B’s famous garden. Her hearty lilac bushes, her grove of apple trees, her wild asparagus and rhubarb still thrived in the clearing she made in those trees all those mysterious years ago before the family up and left, leaving that garden untended, the root cellar full and a house seemingly frozen in time.

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“What happened to them?” I would contemplate with my cousins, one of our favorite subjects as our eyes grew heavy, tucked in bunk beds and sleeping bags scattered on the floor, together growing up, together trying to figure out what the passing of time really means and how a story could be left so undone.

Gramma took some old dresses, vintage black smocks with pearl buttons and lace collars, from the small bedroom closet of the old house. We would pull them over our heads to perform pretend wedding ceremonies or attend fancy parties like we saw on our mothers’ soap operas, the fabric smelling like mothballs, dust and old forgotten things.

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But no matter what character you were that day, you couldn’t help but think about who the real woman in those dresses once was.

And who would leave them behind?

So, as it goes with kids, our curiosity outweighed our fear and we went on a mission to collect samples of this family’s life that still existed between those walls.

And while I remember kitchen utensils hanging neatly on hooks, canned beets and potatoes lined up on shelves, the table and chairs sitting in the sunlight against the window, waiting for a neighbor to stop over for coffee, I also remember bedrooms scattered with old newspapers and magazines, the dates revealing the last years of occupancy, the fashion of the season, stories of drought and cattle prices sprawled out among diary entries and old letters, a glimpse into a world that existed long before us kids sifting through the rubble in tennis shoes with neon laces.

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And then I remember the dentures. Or maybe I just remember the story my oldest cousin told about the dentures. It doesn’t matter now who was actually there to witness it, it evolved to belong to everyone. An expedition to the old house, a creak of a cupboard door, a jar full of teeth that nobody noticed before.

“The place is haunted.” That was the consensus, especially when, at the next visit, the unwelcome house guests were greeted at the door by a flurry of bats (or, more likely, a bat or two). Yes, the spirits of that mysterious couple came back to the place. How else could you explain the thriving asparagus plants? The teeth?!

And so that was our story of the old house, a mysteriously fantastic pillar of our childhood adventures and a structure that had to eventually be burned down due to its disintegrating floor joists and general unsafe environment.

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I stood in my snowsuit and beanie and watched the flames engulf the graying wood and shoot up over the tops of the black oak trees and wondered how it all eventually came down to this … a life turned into old forgotten things, turned into ashes, turned into stories.

Maybe that’s the scariest tale of them all.

But each fall the apples in the old woman’s orchard ripen, each spring her lilacs bloom and each year their names come to our lips because of what they left behind, making me wonder if we were right about the haunting thing after all.

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Inside Old Houses

We live on gravel roads that stretch like ribbons along pasture land dotted with black cattle and a patchwork quilt of grasses and crops. As we kick up dust beneath our pickup tires heading out to a chore or to meet up with a neighbor, we take for granted how these roads were built. Why there are here in the first place.

These days we are in a rush aren’t we? Aren’t we headed somewhere on a deadline?  So we drive faster than we should on these roads beat up from years of wear by our rubber tires, and now, by the new-found rush of a booming industry.

I remember a time when these roads were quiet. It was where my cousins and I could skip like characters from “The Wizard of Oz” down the middle of the pink road without a care in the world. The only vehicle that was certain to meet us was carrying our great uncle driving with his windows down, checking fences and out for coffee with the neighbors; or my mother  looking to borrow some sugar. If we were lucky it would be the Schwann’s Man hauling the promise of orange push-up pops in the back of his truck and we would put the game on time-out and sit on the front porch trying to get to the bottom of the treat before it melted and dripped down our fingers.

We didn’t know that  there would ever be anything here at the end of this road besides imagination and our grandmother’s cookies. We didn’t know that anything but our  boots and agriculture would kick up dust on the road.

I spent Friday afternoon with a reporter from the cities. He came to visit me on the ranch to talk about the landscape, ranch life, my music and what’s happening here in the booming oil field we have in Western North Dakota. I agreed to have the conversation and then gave him the requested directions he needed to find me.

  • Head east out-of-town until you hit the school.
  • Turn right and follow the pavement.
  • Cross a cattle guard, but only one. If you hit the second  you’ve gone too far.
  • Turn left on the red scoria road until you see the small red barn.

Because we’re in the middle of all of this activity, all of this national press, the #3 oil-producing state in the nation, but we are not on the GPS.

I am not sure if it was my very rural directions or the wrong number provided for the county road, but my reporter friend didn’t quite make it to me, so he found the top of a hill (because we don’t have cell service either) and called.

I got in my pickup and found him on the pink road where I used to pretend I was Dorothy, waiting with his hazard lights on for me to show up and tell him what I do, what I think and what it means to me to live here right now.

What I do is ride horses and chase the pug and take pictures and sing and tell stories.

What I think is that every day we work  to live a good and true life as we build a house on my family’s land that once was the middle of  nowhere and has now suddenly become the middle of something that is so much bigger than the sound of Pops’ tractor coming over the hill.

What it means?

The truth is I haven’t put my thumb on the black or the white, because between the past and the future there are so many colors here.

So I sent him on his way with a story and a new-found love for the pug and grabbed my camera to follow that pink road to meet my neighbor, a friend who is absolutely intrigued by the idea of what this place was in another time. We had plans to take our country roads and explore the little pieces left behind by the generations that came before us. My friend knows where every buried treasure lies. Her eyes are open to it, our history and tumbling down memories that scatter across our landscape in the form of old houses and churches and schools.

My friend moved to this area from Montana with her husband almost two years ago, but you would never know she is new to the place. Ask her about the stone house across from her approach or the old Sandstone school and she will tell you a story about it. She will tell you who built the house and what he did for a living, who taught in the school and where you can find photos of the students. My roots are planted here and I’m sure I have heard bits and pieces of these stories as I grew up, but hearing her tell about the families who homesteaded near her new home, watching her put the pieces together as she peers inside the windows of old houses, seeing her wonder and excitement as she unearths an old book from an abandoned house or admires the green paint on an antique table, makes me wonder too.

It makes me wonder what memories were held in the hearts of those prairie people who have long ago returned to the earth. What would they think if they saw us driving down this road in our fancy cars to get to houses for two that quadruple the size of where they raised 12 children?

How far away I feel from that life some days…

And then I talk with my friend I am reminded that our goals were the same.

To make a living, to raise our families. To have a good life.

Just as the family that inhabited that old house with the broken windows and remnants of a life I will never lead, we are existing in a changing landscape where trees grow and fall, baby calves are born and sold, ground is tilled for crops and minds are inventing ways to make the living easier.

Inside those old houses they ate, they prayed, they laughed and worried, just as we do in our own homes with too many television screens and not enough vegetables.

So what does this mean?

The washed out fences and boarded up school-house doors remind us, like the newly paved roads and constant wind that blows across our prairie, tangling our hair and knocking on our windows, that this place, this land, is not ours solely and rightfully and individually. One day we will abandon these houses in decision or death and there will be a new generations searching these roads for our story.

So we should tell it now, honest and true and leave to them what they will need.