Sweet clover, sweet summer

Listen to Jessie and her sister Alex get interrupted and sidetracked as they try to catch up on motherhood and memories, a real live look into the chaos of life at the ranch on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

Read in the Fargo Forum

It’s officially summer and my daughters have officially done the thing that I’ve sorta been waiting for the past month or so — they’ve made the great escape over the hill to my little sister’s place, without mention to me. By themselves.

Don’t worry, there are no major roadways between the two places. In fact, it’s just a long driveway connected by a prairie trail that cuts across the homestead place and barnyard and into another long driveway (the beauty of country living) — but it’s a big deal for them to be able to do it alone.

So much so that when they asked if they could go exploring in the trees by our house and I said yes and then also said, specifically, “Just don’t go over to Aunt Alex’s,” they went ahead and did it anyway. Because maybe they were feeling brave and maybe they were feeling grown-up in their jean shorts and tie-dye shirts, but mostly if kids listen to their parents all the time, are they really even kids?

I stepped outside and hollered for them with no answer back and had a hunch. My sister texted — “Your kids are over here in case you were wondering.” And I was. Sort of.

I couldn’t blame them really. To have an aunt who gives out Popsicles and two cousins your age who have different toys and a trampoline just over the hill and now all of the sudden your little legs (or the battery-operated plastic Jeep) can get you there unaccompanied, well, see ya later girls.

I don’t know how many times this summer I’ve said something like, “I’m so glad they have each other.” Or watched them run full speed down our scoria road and had a flashback to my childhood out here alongside my cousins, doing the very same thing.

I can almost feel my knees being skinned and scraped on that very road and the sweet clover itching my bare legs as we took a cardboard box down a grassy hill. I swat a mosquito and itch a bite and feel the curls spring out of my ponytail, unarmed against the humidity of a hot June day, and I might as well be 4 or 6 or 8 again on our grandma’s deck eating an orange push-up pop from the Schwan’s man.

I walked myself over the hill and found them hauling buckets of water to the little clay butte in front of my sister’s house so they could make mud pies. And in her daughters I saw my sister standing 3-foot-something, with a permanent crusted tear on her cheek, Band-Aids up and down her arms from picking at mosquito bites and patches on her little overalls.

Raising kids in a place that raised you will do that sometimes. In the crisp smell of a storm brewing on the horizon, or the wind blowing the sweet scent of fresh-cut hay to your door, the sprinkler whirring on your lawn and their happy screeches, a handful of sweet peas, the pop of a wild plum in your mouth, in the heat of the summer you are transported for a moment to a time when those things were all that mattered to you in the whole wide world. Those things and ice cream, maybe.

My summers with my little sister used to be fort-building in the trees by the creek, a tin-can telephone, singing at the top of my lungs running on cow trails and her following close behind despite my protests. Summer for us out here was riding horses bareback and mixing mud and flower petals in a leftover ice cream bucket and riding bikes and skinning those knees; it was a tire swing out over the banks of that crick and getting lost bringing lunch to Dad in the field and it was our bottle calf Pooper and the way he would escape and chase us down the road to the house, but I was faster and she got the brunt of it. It was telling her about the elves that lived under the big mushrooms that grow out of cow poop and her believing me.

And me wanting to believe it myself.

Because summer is magic, and it’s easy to forget that in the reality of living in this adult-sized world.

But the kids, with their sun-bleached hair and sticky cheeks and skinned knees and small voices singing while they run, full speed, down the road into the sweet spot of childhood, the sweet spot of official summer, making their great escape, they remind you. And I’m so glad they do. And I’m so glad they have each other.

If you want a slice of rural America, visit a Cenex station

My niece Ada walked right up to him, a man in work coveralls, thick glasses and a Scotch cap. His face was weathered from years of living and I had my hands full of Icees and personal pan pizzas and a couple treats I let the two 4-year-olds pick out after preschool that day.

We were having a special lunch while we waited for my kindergartner to get out of school on Friday and so we chose the Cenex station because they have basically everything. And Ada broke away from my side to say hello and he reached into the inside pocket of those coveralls and handed her a million dollar bill with a laugh.

Then I had to abandon our lunch with the cashier because Rosie had to go potty really bad, like most 4-year-olds do at the most inconvenient times. When we finally sat down and got them settled in the dining area of the convenience store, I couldn’t help but think of what a slice of life this place is.

This old Cenex station used to be on the corner of Main Street in my hometown when I was growing up. A small store with a few candy bar treats, but mostly supplies and parts and sunflower seeds and a drink cooler and most everything you could grab to get you by for now on the ranch or in the field — and if not, they could order it or help fix it in the shop attached.

I remember popping in there with Dad when I was a kid, maybe getting an orange pop for the ride home. And when I finally got my driver’s license, it’s where I would gas up because I could put it on the ranch account. It’s where most kids who lived in the country gassed up and where some of them worked after school and on the weekends.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend (who’s now my husband) took me there to get wasp spray for the wheel well of his dad’s old boat trailer after he witnessed me getting stung right in the middle of the forehead when he disturbed the nest in our attempt to escape to the lake. I don’t know why, but something about walking into that Cenex store with that giant wasp sting and that boy looking for revenge, well, it stuck with me. Must have been love. Anyway, when I look up for the memory I swear I can still smell that place, a little bit of grease mixed in with diesel exhaust, probably what that old man’s coveralls smell like.

The Cenex store is a fixture on the landscape that is rural America. As a musician, I’ve traveled enough county roads and highways to see my fair share of versions of this place, each one retrofitted to make sense to the size of the town. The fancy ones exist along the highways and interstates, but I prefer the ones tucked into the Main Streets of small towns a long way from the exit signs. There you can usually find what you need, plus a couple old timers in a booth in the back having coffee and looking up to see if the person coming through the door might be familiar. Or even better, someone they don’t know about yet.

Anyway, that old Cenex store looked nothing like this bright, shiny pizza pit stop we have now in a newer development in town, complete with a mini food court, fancy restrooms, a wall full of anything you want to drink, clothes, parts, gloves, coolers, toys, and of course, wasp spray. You name it. I picked the pepperonis off of the girls’ pepperoni pizza and watched them wiggle and giggle and use too many napkins in the booth and couldn’t help but think that this place is sort of a metaphor for my hometown turned boomtown. The idea is the same, but we can afford to have some nice things now.

And so there we sat, a mom with an SUV full of car-seats and cracker crumbs dug into the floorboards making a Friday special with a couple of Icees. And in the booth behind me two middle-aged men sat facing one another, a bible open between them, talking about Jesus and what it means to be a man. Across the room, a job interview, one man in work boots asking another about his driving record and through those sliding glass double doors (they’re automatic now) the faces come in and out, some familiar, some new, some we don’t know yet and some just passing through with million dollar bills…

An abandoned service station in small town ND.

Listen to commentary and the column on this week’s podcast

In this week’s podcast I took advantage of the rainy weather and had my husband Chad as my first guest. We visit about how things have changed in our hometown since we grew up there in the 90s. He also proves that he’s intellectual by using the word “unbeknownst.” You’ll hear Rosie in the background and also our thick ND accents take the stage before I read the column and share a song. Thanks for listening!

Listen below or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Christmas fudge and other holiday miracles…

Over the Thanksgiving weekend my family and I fully committed to the Christmas season. And when I say, “fully committed” I mean my husband helped me put lights and big homemade snowflake decorations up on the outside of the house. Because I can’t remember the last time he climbed a ladder in the name of decorative lights. I mean, it was even his idea. I swear I looked up to find a couple pigs flying overhead.

A Christmas miracle.

But it was a perfect day to do that sort of thing and we were all home with no other plans besides digesting all the Thanksgiving treats, and so we busted out the five fully disorganized tubs of Christmas decorations and sparkling Santa hats and we loaded the girls up in the side-by-side for a trip to cut the perfect cedar off the ranch.

Tradition. We’re heading into a season where we reminisce while creating moments to reminisce about. And the great Christmas tree hunt always starts and ends the same: heading to the pasture where Papa Gene saw a perfect tree on his last ride, singing along to Jingle Bells and Rudolf on repeat, spotting one on the horizon only to get closer and realize it’s 75 feet tall, hoofing it up a few steep hills and doing the same thing a few times before we finally we get it right. Then a family photo, saw, saw, saw, timber, and the realization, upon getting it home to lean up against the entryway wall, that this tree may have been smaller than the last, but not by much. (Note: items on prairie skyline are larger than they appear.)

I’m looking at the tree right now. It legit takes up half the living room.

And don’t worry, even though we haven’t learned any lessons on sizing, the great Christmas tree crash of 2019 and 2020 (and probably every year before that) has finally taught us to strap it to the wall first thing. When it about took my oldest daughter out, leaving one lone ornament dangling in her tangled hair, we decided we were done taking chances. 

Anyway, we spent the whole weekend decorating and it turns out we needed a ladder for lights on the inside of the house too. The girls got to work organizing ornaments, laying them out and putting thirty-seven or so on the same two lower branches and I made sure they weren’t looking when I fixed them and so now Christmas can come.

I don’t know the last time I’ve been this prepared ahead of time. More pigs fly. Another Christmas miracle. Now if I could just find Edie’s stocking that I managed to misplace, we could make it three.

I’m so in the spirit that I spent the afternoon making Momma’s Famous Christmas Fudge for an event in town, another tradition checked off the list. It was a special request, which is a testament to how good the recipe is. No one ever asks me to make dessert.

So because I’m on a roll I thought this would be the perfect time to share that famous fudge recipe once again, a little early this time so you have the chance to get after it, or fully procrastinate it, whichever you choose!

Enjoy!

Mom’s Famous Fudge

  • 1 12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 12 oz package milk chocolate chips
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 1 pound of butter
  • 1 12 oz can evaporated milk (not to be confused with sweet and condensed milk. I won’t make that mistake twice)

Got it?

Ok, onward.

  • Butter an 8×12 baking dish
  • Bring sugar and evaporated milk to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue to stir and boil for 7 minutes.
  • Remove pot from heat and stir chocolate chips, vanilla and butter.
  • Stir until smooth and pour into the buttered baking dish
  • Refrigerate until set
  • Muster up your incredible strength to help you cut the fudge into squares and serve it up on cute little platters or in festive tins for your friends.
  • Become the favorite.

Merry Holiday Season from the ranch!  

Homemade Halloween

Happy Day after Halloween everyone! How’s your blood sugar level? I’m feeling the need to check in on you all after a Halloween that lasted three whole days. Are you upright? Did the kids make it?

This week’s column is a reflection on my Homemade Halloweens, and this year we carried on the tradition successfully, although I was a little nervous when I wrote the column that my five-year-old was going to reject the homemade and head toward her rack of princess dresses. But alas, she proved that she has a soft and gooey center and dressed up as Bluey, the star of her little sister’s favorite show, making Rosie’s dreams come true and her momma proud and thankful that I didn’t get out the glue gun for nothing.

So here’s the thing about having Halloween officially land on a Sunday–not only does it make for a three day celebration, it means that I had a whole day and a half to thoroughly obsess over my Trunk-or-Treat display. Because when I was a kid, Trunk-or-Treat didn’t exist. But oh, it exists now and I. Am. Here. For. It.

So the girls and I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning turning the back of my car into a campsite. We painted signs and mountains, brought up the sleeping bags and Teepee and old time lantern, took out the fishing poles, gathered sticks and cut up paper to make a fake fire and fully and completely destroyed our kitchen in the process. And then we loaded it all up to head down the road to figure out how to coordinate our Bluey Family costumes with our winter gear. Because weather’s never really stopped North Dakotan’s from doing our best to celebrate something. And so we celebrated, in 70-some degree weather on Friday on Main Street and 30-some degree weather on Sunday handing out candy from my lawn chair and “fishing hole.” the fishing hole.

The girls and I went all out on our Trunk or Treat Theme this year. My kitchen is covered in paint and crafting supplies, and I had to take a half-hour shower to thaw out from sitting in 30-some degree weather handing out the chocolate, but it was worth it.

I hope you all enjoyed this fun holiday the way you prefer to enjoy it–eating all the candy, entering the costume contest, playing tricks on the neighborhood kids, or shutting the lights off and hiding out–because if there was ever a holiday that screams “you do you” it’s All Hallow’s Eve.

Ok, here’s this week’s column.

Another Homemade Halloween

If you don’t watch Bluey with your kids, you should. An adorable Aussie show featuring a family of Heelers. They have two little girls, Blue and Bingo, and two little girl cousins, Muffin and Socks, and I feel like it’s our life on the ranch as a cartoon.

By the time you read this, I will have successfully consumed all of the chewy SweeTarts, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Milk Duds I purchased for Halloween, proving yet again that I can’t be trusted to buy any candy early, unless I somehow hide it from myself, which would mean I won’t find it until they clean my house to move me into the nursing home.

By the time you read this, I will have hot-glued some felt to a couple bright sweatshirts (and added puffy paint just for fun) in an attempt to create a costume you can’t find in stores, only to learn that my oldest would now rather be Elena, Princess of Avalor than Bluey, a cartoon blue heeler puppy made out of a hoodie.

I’m not sure I have enough hot glue sticks, felt or glitter in the house to construct a full-on ballgown, not that I won’t try. Edie’s too young to understand that I will, indeed, try.

Because her father and I come from a long line of “make your own costume” people. Walmart wasn’t just down the street, you know. Oh, and money didn’t grow on trees then either. And uphill both ways, and all that stuff that will send my daughters’ eyeballs rolling.

Anyway, did anyone else’s mom stuff you in one of those pumpkin leaf bags, paint your face green and call it a costume? How about a princess in one of her old bridesmaid’s dresses with a pipe cleaner crown? No.

Halloween in the early 90s. My little sister as a garbage bag pumpkin and me as an old lady in my grandma’s dress.

Well, then there was always the one clown suit our grandma made that we could get from the cousins down in South Dakota who wore it last year, trying to decide if it’s best to wear the snowsuit over or under the baggy striped and polka-dotted jumper. Then we all crammed in the neighbors’ pickup with the tiny seat in the back and covered the 15-mile radius from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor, stripping off our beanies, coats, mittens and snowpants to reveal our characters and sit and have a cup of hot chocolate or a cookie before heading to the next house.

Trying to incorporate my broken leg into my costume

I was a full-blown adult before I ever dressed in a store-bought costume — I was a deviled egg, and I borrowed it from my little sister. We still have it if you want to borrow it, too, along with some wigs, a couple witch hats and a child’s flamingo costume we acquired along the way.

Me and my husband, as full grown adults…in homemade costumes…

We love Halloween around here, but it’s such a different time. Since my oldest daughter was born, we’ve collected enough princess, mermaid, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, cheerleader and ballerina costumes, complete with the plastic high heels, crowns and capes to play dress-up or trick or treat every day for a month.

But when Halloween comes knocking on our door, I get that old familiar urge to construct something. One year, I hot-glued hundreds of colorful puffballs on a beanie and made 11-month-old Edie into a gumball machine.

The next year I ordered as much harvest-colored tulle I could find and spent two days making a giant tutu for a cute little scarecrow and my daughter took one look at it and cried. Apparently it wasn’t pink and sparkly enough for the 2-year-old.

Recycling the idea on Rosie a few years later

But that didn’t stop me from whipping out that glue gun the next year to create an epic mermaid crown out of old costume necklaces and beach shells and turning a little sweat suit into a flounder fish for baby Rosie. Because I have to glue while I can! I knew that the days of my daughters appreciating my homemade efforts were going to be short-lived.

I didn’t know that the timeline would be so short. Apparently almost 6 is when your daughter turns to you out of the blue and asks you, very frankly, to not embarrass her.

And I’m not sure what qualifies as embarrassing to a 6-year-old, but apparently I’ve done it. A few times actually.

If you need me, I’ll be drowning my sorrows in Reese’s and bedazzling something.

Fall work and the promise of rain

On Saturday, it rained.

It rained and it soaked the earth and it made mud puddles and the kids splashed in them and we all pressed our noses against the screens and windows and held our breath. Hoping it would last.

My dad was in another town, and so I expected a call or a text, wondering how much rain we had so far. I didn’t realize it until this very dry year, when the man called me every time it rained, to see how much we got. Because I have a rain gauge. And he doesn’t.

Never has.

Isn’t that crazy? A rancher in North Dakota without a rain gauge! It’s even crazier when I tell you why. Why?!

Because he’s superstitious. He figures if he buys one, it will never rain again. Kinda like the old “buy a snow blower and it won’t snow” thing.

So he’ll call his brother who’s 3 miles down the road in the summer with a big ol’ rain gauge nailed to a fence post. And then he’ll call me, who’s closer by 2 miles and has a butterfly gauge stuck in my flower pot, flapping in the breeze, and then he’ll compare the two and calculate if he can breathe a sigh of relief or keep worrying.

It seems this inch of rain let him breathe a bit. And I think he needs to thank my husband for the wet forecast, because he started a deck project with a deadline a few days ago, which pretty much guarantees a weather delay.

But we’ll take it, just like we took the rain on Saturday with homemade tomato soup cooking on the stove and a plan to work calves the next morning in the mud, up on a horse as soon as the sun broke over the horizon. We put on layers, long johns and jeans and chaps and sweatshirts and neckerchiefs, gloves and earflap caps.

We could see our breath against the morning light. And as that sun burned the chill off our cheeks and the bare branches of trees that had given up their leaves, we pushed lazy cattle from one pasture, across the cover crop and into the corrals where we sorted and checked and counted and stripped off those carefully plotted layers the way North Dakotans do in the transition of seasons.

This kind of fall work takes a village, and we have a good little group. Two young cowboys from down the road show up with horses, one of our best friends from high school who wouldn’t miss the chance to ride these hills, and my husband and my dad and me. And my little sister, who brings the kids to watch and climb on fences and old haying equipment and helps her tiny daughter push calves through with the pink sorting stick.

And my mom who puts the soup on, makes the Scotcharoos and lays the sandwiches out for the crew so I can stay to help in the corrals a bit longer. Nothing tastes better than warm lunch after work like this. And I like having them all in the house to feed them as a thank you for the help.

This kind of work is good for the soul I think. Hands busy, heart pumping, air in your lungs. It’s precisely why people remain in this lifestyle no matter the practicality of it really.

Despite the lack of vacation days and stability. It’s because the back of a horse in the hills becomes your office space and your church and your therapy and your living and your family and your friendships and it’s all wrapped up out here in the least complicated way so that even when it’s hard, it is worth it.

It’s almost always hard.

But then, if you’re patient enough with the promise, it will rain…

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…

We’re going to be OK, and things of that nature…

There’s a mist that’s settled in over the ranch this morning, a lingering reminder of the rain we just experienced the past few days, at long last.

It was just what we needed, we all agreed. Over 2 inches in a few days and it didn’t fix everything — not the hay crop, not the world news, not the fact that my house hasn’t been clean since November 2015 — but it put us back in a much needed frame of mind:

“Patience often gets rewarded.”

“Well, there’s no sense worrying.”

“We’re going to be OK,” and things of that nature.

We’re going to be OK. It’s a mantra I told myself as I pulled my car out of the driveway of that old country church last Sunday. I hadn’t been to church in well over a year, for lots of reasons, some of them valid, some of them excuses, not many of them out of the ordinary.

It was my turn to serve the “lunch” after the service. (“Lunch” in Lutheran means coffee on and something nice to eat so we can all visit in the basement for a while.) There once was a time in my life where I would have felt intimidated at the thought that I was expected to actually “bake” something edible in time for 9 a.m. service, but I just turned 38 and last year I had my chest cut open and lived to complain about it, so I was fine with buying orange juice and bakery coffeecake on my way home from school shopping for two daughters I never thought I’d have who start kindergarten and preschool in a few short days and calling it good.

This is not my spread…

I left those children sleeping that morning while I headed down the road alone in the rain, on the quiet, now sorta muddy back roads to that tiny church that was still there waiting for me with a small congregation of neighbors and a drafty basement with steep steps that smells like old things and has drawers that stick, a cabinet full of vintage coffee cups, three large percolators and silverware I could not locate to save my God-fearing soul…

“I suppose if I made it here more often… but here I am anyway. I’m here today…”

The silverware search, coupled with a short-and-sweet sermon (remember: Lutheran), made me miss the service entirely — but not this, I did not miss this:

I did not miss the fact that someone was there before me to make sure the space was warm enough and everything was working properly. Or the fact that he checked to make sure I had everything I needed, and also asked if I needed help. And so did she. And so did she. And then she helped with dishes and he took the garbage out and I did not miss that these are those kind of people you try to pull to mind when it all seems a bit overwhelming out there.

I didn’t miss the conversation I had with her about canning chickens and the fact that she always mentions my grandma every time we talk and I love her for it.

I did not miss the words of gratitude for the spread I served and the assumptions that it was homemade (oh, you must have been working so hard!) before my bakery confession.

I did not miss how everyone who was able in that small congregation that morning grabbed an armful of that spread to take it up those steep old steps to be served in the small sanctuary so that our neighbor who couldn’t get down those steps could enjoy it over a visit, too. It was raining after all. There was nothing better to do. I did not miss that.

And at another time I might have worried over judgment that I didn’t bring the kids, or that I hadn’t been there in so long, maybe I shouldn’t be now. And there have been plenty other times I have run out the door sweating, hollering that we’re running late, putting my makeup on in the car while he drove. But not that day.

Because I had store-bought coffeecake, orange juice, a bag of bagels, it was raining and it was just what we needed, and there’s no sense worrying, and we’re going to be OK, and things of that nature…

Happiness is a wild plum patch

Happiness is a wild plum patch
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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.

Answering the call

Answering the call, because someone has to
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Last weekend, my husband had plans to work on the house addition that extends our living room and gives us a main level master bedroom for when our joints start to get too creaky to carry laundry and our bodies up and down the steps to our loft.

When your husband’s a carpenter, the renovation ideas never stop, and so we were looking forward to the progress he was going to make in two days of uninterrupted carpentry work on our own house. Except that uninterrupted thing lasted only a few hours into Saturday morning before his phone sounded the alarm.

If I didn’t hear it myself, I know immediately by the way he strides, big steps through the house, grabbing his coat and his hat and that big duffle bag in the entryway. “Going to a fire,” he says calmly as he swoops past me in the kitchen or out in the driveway where the girls are practicing riding their bikes on the only patch of cement for miles.

If I think he can hear me, I might ask him “where?” because for some reason knowing the general direction he’s heading in such a hurry puts me a little more at ease with the idea that he’s literally running into a fire.

That was Saturday. Sunday sent him out until past supper. We’re having grass fires in March. We desperately need rain.

When my husband and I first moved back to the ranch about 10 years ago, we lived in my Grandma Veeder’s small farmstead house while we built a new house over the hill. One hot summer evening, we arrived home to a blown breaker. Chad went down to the basement to flip the switch and just like that, the inside of our wall was on fire.

“Call 911,” he said calmly as he emerged from the basement and started handing me things to throw out on the lawn. Within minutes our neighbor, a volunteer rural fireman, was at our side, telling us the trucks were on their way. And under a calm, starlit sky, standing surrounded by my guitar, piles of clothes still on hangers, photo albums and paperwork, our computer and all the material things we could grab in armfuls from the house before it was no longer safe, I watched as the men and women of our “neighborhood” that spans dozens of square miles worked to save my dad’s childhood home from flames.

And they did. The house wasn’t grand, 650 square feet of wood and a crumbling foundation, but it was sentimental and it was one of the most helpless and lonesome feelings I’ve ever experienced, standing back and watching the flames rise. Those volunteer firefighters, my neighbors and former schoolmates, they managed to successfully put out the fire so that we had a chance to walk back inside and sift through the damage, gather the rest of the things worth saving, and shut the door for good.

That moment, my husband decided to become a first responder. I’m certain he would have made that decision without the upheaval, but true to the way we learn lessons around these parts, I know he made note of what those people meant to us in that moment. And he knew, at the very least, he could try to do the same where he was able.

I didn’t understand then, standing under that black July sky, what it really meant to be a rural firefighter. I didn’t know it meant, years later, that they would be the first on the scene to help my dad on the stretcher in the middle of the night — neighbors seeing neighbors at their most vulnerable.

I didn’t know it meant monthly meetings, training sessions, suppers interrupted, weekend plans paused, hammers dropped, doors left open, jobs left undone, breath held until the coast was clear. Until they’re out of the woods. Until they’re needed again.

And it certainly isn’t for the money — they volunteer, after all — or for the accolades. It’s 100% because that’s what living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything means — to be on standby. To be there when the call comes.

And my husband, he will be the first to admit that he’s got work to do, that he could be better, take more trainings, get to more calls, that he’s working on it, that he’s doing what he can. But to know there are people like him out there with the call to action in their front shirt pocket, it makes that big black sky feel less lonesome, those county roads less desolate, nerves less shot.

It makes us feel so much less on our own to fight the flames, the out-of-nowhere crashes, the unexpected pains or slips that threaten to change it all in a blink…

To know, Sunday dinner or house project be damned, someone’s running when we call? What a thing to do. What a thing to be.