Holidays: How they hold us and haunt us


Last weekend marked the end of deer rifle season here in North Dakota. My uncle from Texas arrived in the middle of the week with his son-in-law and nephew, Pops took some time off, Husband willed Saturday to come quicker and the entire Veeder Ranch turned into a hunting camp, just like it does every year at this time.

Boots dripping with melted snow were strewn in my parent’s entryway, a combination of camouflage, hunter-orange, fleece, wool and leather piled up on the chairs. Men were up and out with the sun sitting on hilltops and sneaking through draws.

When our Texas Uncle comes to the ranch it’s like an extended holiday around here. We all sort of hang up our evening plans and get together around mom’s table while Pops fries up fish or beef or, if there was some success that day, venison.

Ever since I was a little girl, and as long as I’ve lived in this place, this is the way it’s been.

Most years I go out with them on the hunt at least once. Because there’s something about being out with the boys who grew up here, my dad and his brother, together walking the draws they know so well, sitting quietly on the hilltops taking in the familiar view of their childhood, doing what they’ve always done, that’s always been comforting to me.


Since we almost lost dad early this year, each tradition spent since his recovery has been regarded as a gift and a little more precious than it was before.

I seem to be seeing the world more that way lately.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches I imagine it’s timely to be so grateful for second chances, for family, for walking behind my husband on a warm early winter evening, keeping quiet while he carries his bow, turns around and smiles, waving me along.

It’s never been difficult for me to be grateful for these things.


But never in my life have I seen the world and the people in it as fragile as I see them these days.

Never have I been more aware of time and what it means for us.

And as much as I’m grateful for all of the things that fill this life of ours, during the holidays especially, I become the most aware of what we don’t have.

And who or what others are mourning.

Because what we don’t have, who we are missing, sits like a silent ache in the quiet corners of our houses.

IMG_9778Yesterday I sat down to make a Christmas Card and for the first time in my life I felt sort of silly about the whole thing.

“Who the hell wants a picture of just the two of us?” I said out loud to my husband looking over my shoulder. “Christmas Cards are for people with kids, and grandkids, so their families can see how cute they are. How much they’ve grown. We just keep getting older. This feels pathetic.”

It wasn’t sadness coming out of my mouth, but frustration. Frustration that the life I was in was perfectly good and that I should be perfectly grateful, but I couldn’t will myself to be those things at the moment, not even in the name of the holiday spirit.

All I could muster up was annoyance and a sort of anger that other people have family photos taken for the occasion, snuggling into one another on a blanket or in front of a fireplace, birth announcements for Christmas cards, big extended family shots with grandkids on Santa’s lap, and all I could scrounge up from our archives was a photo of us sitting on a cooler at a music festival drinking beer.

It was a moment of pure envy. Pure poor me. It was ugly. (Others have lost more. Others have less to lose. Others suffer more than we can comprehend.)

And it sort of scared me.

Because I love that photo of us sitting on a cooler at a music festival drinking beer.

I love that we have a life full of those sorts of photo opportunities. I am proud that despite all of our losses we are still trying, but most of all, we’re still living a fun life, striving for fulfillment. Holding on to one another. Laughing.

We have other dreams, dreams that don’t fill the empty void of a family we feel as incomplete, but dreams nonetheless.

We’re ok really. Most days we’re just fine.

But how do you portray this when picking out a Christmas card? The templates available to us are smattered with children frolicking in the snow, “Joy to the World” in big bold letters across their footprints.

Staring at the photo of my husband and me, in our early 30s, sun kissed and smiling despite seven years of trying and failing at creating one of those Christmas Card Template families, all I could see were our friends and family, the ones who know of our struggles, opening the card and shaking their heads.

“Poor Jessie and Chad,” they would think to themselves.

“Joy to the World” didn’t feel appropriate then.

And neither did anything with the words “Merry” or “Bright.”

But it was all bullshit. Justified bullshit, but bullshit still, and I knew it.

So did my husband.

He said, “You’re sending these to people who love us. My grandma. Your grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Our friends. They love to get mail. They will love to have a photo of us and I like this one.”

“I like this one too,” I said and carried on.

Christmas card 2

If I learned anything this year it’s that we don’t know what the hell is going to happen. I’ve been walking through 2014 with that sucked so close to my chest that some days I can’t breathe.

But as the year progressed, as summer came shining down on our shoulders, when my little sister got engaged, as I watched my nephew turn 4, working on growing up into a cool little person, I watched my dad get better, stronger, more himself, the worry release from my mom’s face, I realized that not knowing how this is all going to turn isn’t all scary.

But sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s sad. And always it makes the holidays a little bit shaky for us. Because being so damn grateful and so damn frustrated and so damn happy and so damn worried at the same time is confusing and emotional, especially when it comes to cutting down and decorating Christmas trees and making sugar cookies alone together in this house.

Yes, traditions can hold us together as much as they can haunt us.


I guess that’s what I’m trying to say here. That some of us celebrate as much as we mourn during this time of year. I say some of us. But maybe it’s all of us. And that’s ok.

I imagine my dad and his brother walking across these pastures where they were raised, and I doubt they take many steps before they think about their father and how he taught them to shoot their first rifle, how he was with them when they got their first big buck, two grown men, two grandfathers, just missing their dad.

I look at my husband looking back at me, waving me along the trail out there on our own hunt, I feel him standing behind me in the kitchen, I watch him cutting down another tree to stand in our house for the season and I know we can do it. We can be sad and we can be happy. Scared and hopeful as hell.

And we can sit together on that cooler under the hot summer sun, a little tipsy from one too many, smiling eyes under sunglasses in the face of a good and unpredictable life and we can be so frustrated and so thankful and so much of all of the heartache and happiness that sits in our bones under that skin that makes up the arms we have around each other and we can put it on our Christmas card, and despite all that we think we don’t have that we should, we can write “Joy to the World” if we want to.

But I don’t think I want to.

This year, I think I’ll just pick “Peace.”


Uncontrollable urges.

I had two Thanksgivings.

Which means I had approximately seven helpings of turkey, five helpings of mashed potatoes, ten spoonfuls of broccoli salad, three turkey shaped sugar cookies, a half of a turkey shaped cheese ball, a slice of pumpkin pie, another slice of pumpkin pie, a pint of cookie salad, four days of leftovers and no hope of fitting into my skinny jeans for the rest of my life.

But this story isn’t about me and my uncontrollable urges.

It’s about the pug and his.

Because besides making a few dozen ridiculous and unnecessary choices involving doughnut cake and thirds of everything, I also made the ridiculous and unnecessary choice to bring Chug the damn pug to Thanksgiving at my in-laws’.

I had good intentions. I mean, my nieces like him. And so does my Mother-in-Law. She thinks he’s hilarious.

Also, I knew if I left the little shit at the ranch for the weekend the dog would hitchhike his ass up to the nearest oil site on the hunt for a lonely oil field worker who would let him in his camper, feed him the other half of his steak before inviting the little weasel to snuggle down on the couch with him for the night.

So I loaded him up in the backseat of the pickup between the wine bottles and my bag full of stretchy pants and off we went to hug and visit and play ping pong and Barbies and board games and drink wine and wait patiently for the meal I could smell wafting from the house before we even pulled into the drive.

And all was going well. It was. The pug was behaving himself, sniffing the butts of the other family dogs, making friends, cleaning up crumbs from the kitchen floor, sneaking up on laps, licking faces…

and winking on command.

And then, four minutes before the meal was set to be served, that lovable, crowd-working dog lifted his leg and pissed on the floor smack dab in the middle of the living room and right before my eyes, sending me screaming and chasing the one-eyed monster out of the room and barreling through the kitchen before sliding to a stop in the dining room where I scooped him up and snapped out of my blind rage only to find we had landed ourselves in the midst of a crowd of relatives who had just received news of my cousin’s engagement.

I’m pretty sure my swearing, screaming and all the fur flying was just the atmosphere they were looking for in that moment.

And now the pug’s for giveaway.


Turkey, ping pong, a cheeseball and memories…

I hope the holiday weekend was good to everyone. I hope the sun rose bright and warm and flooded your kitchen with streams of light while you or your momma or your gramma or pops or sister or mother-in-law basted the turkey and rolled up their sleeves, saying something like “whew, it’s warm in here isn’t it?” as you cracked the window open, letting the crisp fall air billow in from outside.

I hope you helped make something wonderful to eat, like a cheesecake or pie or a cookie salad (yes, such thing exists). I hope you played games, took a walk, laughed really hard, maybe even danced a little before dessert.

I hope there was ping-pong or a game of spoons or maybe even a friendly round of poker on your list of things to do.

I hope there was a cheeseball. I really do.

Because these are traditions aren’t they? The ping-pong? The kitchen hot flashes? The cheeseball? Every family has them, the things that are constant in an ever-changing and unpredictable life. It’s my favorite thing about the holidays, to know that I will be in a kitchen somewhere with my mother and that there will always be turkey and pie…that I won’t be judged on this day for unbuttoning the top button of my pants…

Yes, some things remain constant…but some things sneak up on us. While we’re busy with that extra slice of cobbler things are tweaking and evolving and changing the world we know little by little until suddenly you find gray hair mixed in with the black ones and you look around to find that those who used to sit with you at the kids table now have kids of their own.

How the hell did that happen?

My handsome nephew

And as the family tree branches out, so do the holidays, turning aunts into grammas, grandma’s into great ones, best friends into uncles and cousins into mommas who are now wearing aprons and hosting their own Thanksgiving meals hundreds of miles away.

So our lives change taking with them some of our traditions. When I was growing up Thanksgiving was always held at my aunt K’s in South Dakota. It was one of my favorite holidays because it meant that we got to see my cousins and run in the hay bales, sing songs we made up and put on ridiculous plays about pilgrims and how the first Thanksgiving may have gone down in our naive and theatrical heads. One year we put my little sister and cousin in ridiculous hats, built them a homemade ship out of a cardboard box and sent them sailing over the living room as we subjected the rest of the family to our version of the story of how our great land was settled as I stood on one leg (the other was in a cast) waiting for the “pilgrims” to make it to shore.

That was one activity that thankfully never made it to “tradition” status.

I miss those days and my ugly sweaters. I miss my aunt’s cheesy potatoes and how watching her work in the kitchen made me feel like my grandmother was in the room . I miss listening to my brilliant cousins whine and moan while their dad requested one more song on the piano. I miss that music.

But now the turkey is in my cousin’s oven and she is the momma proudly requesting a performance from her gifted children and I am miles away with my nieces and nephews opening the window for my mother-in-law before scooping her gravy onto the hot turkey she’d been cooking since the early morning hours.

And I smile to myself because my mother-by-marriage reminds me a little of my aunt K. They way she effortlessly pulls it all together. The way she never loses her sweet and calm nature even when it’s 87 degrees in the kitchen and there are thirteen kids scrambling at her feet, the way her cheeks flush after her first glass of wine…

the way she forgot the sweet potatoes in the microwave until 10 pm….

Because even as time changes our circumstance, taking people we love from us, bringing into the world new little ones to adore,  making us brave enough to try new recipes, to host our own Thanksgivings, to introduce someone to the family, even when weather snows us in, throwing us a sledding party after dessert, or gives us the gift of a 50 degree day in November, I love knowing there are a few things we can count on during this holiday:

One of them is turkey…

and the other is memories.

I hope you made some good ones this holiday.

Next year, the memories are at our house…

our new house.

And get ready, because the cheeseball will be epic.

P.S. It looks like our photography show may have to become a “day after Thanksgiving” tradition. If you missed it, no worries, our things are up all week at the Visitors Center in Watford City, so stop on by take a look and maybe, you know, finish your Christmas shopping 🙂

My kind of turkey

This is what comes out of my kitchen during the holidays.

Yup, when the kitchen is mine I create character shaped cheese…

I do something similar for Christmas.

Oh don’t worry, Cowboy’s cooking up a storm and has created a great little post-holiday meal for you all. I’ll be sure to post it as soon as I recover from the production. It’s a goodie.

But on this special day I felt compelled to share with you my sophisticated and famous (in at least two counties) holiday dish.

Because I don’t want you and your relatives to miss out on the best way to kick off the binge eating that is sure to ensue right after you all consume about thirty crackers dipped in this…

A delightfully festive and perfectly adorable turkey shaped cheese ball

  • 2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 jar dried (chipped) beef, chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 package (1 ounce) ranch dressing mix
  • 3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup slivered almonds

And to give the bird clothes for warmth and eyes to see the light:

  • 3 candy corns
  • 4 or 5 chocolate chips, depending on how many buttons you think he needs
  • 1 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup
  • 1 mini Butterfinger
  • 5 or 6 mini pretzels…or those  pretzel crisp things, those work great too…

1. Mix cream cheese, dried beef, green onions, Worcestershire, ranch dressing mix and cheddar cheese in a bowl. Form into two balls–a large ball for the turkey body and a smaller ball for the head…how much smaller depends on how big you think his brain is.

2. Roll both balls in the slivered almonds to coat.

3. Now place the turkey’s head on the body before you scare the kids.

Ok, let’s breathe some life into this hunk of cheese. We have the power:

4. Give the bird eyes with two chocolate chips.

5. Make him a nice shirt with two or three chocolate chip buttons.

6. The candy corns make two feet for dancing and one beak for singing a song of thanks.

7. Use the pretzels to  make the tail feathers (and then shake yours if you wanna).

8. And top it off with a top hat, Pilgrim style! Place the Reese’s cup on the turkey head and then cut the mini Butterfinger in half. Stick the pieces of the Butterfinger back to back with a bit of the cheese mixture left in the bowl. And then do the same thing to make the Butterfinger sandwich stay on the peanut butter cup….

…and then…

“Ta Da” another Turkey is brought into this world…

This year's model. I used carrots for the feet and beak, cause momma ate all the candy corns. Oh, and I couldn't find my almonds, but hey, in my kitchen we are nothing if we aren't flexible.

…and your guests are mystified. Jaws drop. Grandmothers faint. Applause.

Take a bow, you’ve just become the favorite relative.

Take that Martha!

Oh, he's so darn cute, I could just eat him up....

Happy Turkey day from our kitchen to yours.

I hope you remember to wear your stretchy pants.

Together in another day…

Thank you.

I raise my head and say these words to the sky, to the stars above hidden by the clouds and the snow falling down.

To the man beside me, deep in a dream, chest rising and falling with the rhythm of this night.

To the wild earth beneath my feet, frozen and hard and strong and sleeping too.

To the music that brings a song to my voice and the passion to sing it out loud.

To the coyotes that howl and take in the air and remind me what lonesome really is…

…to a family who shows me, every day,  what lonesome is not.

To a world that holds darkness to help us know the beauty of the light…

…and the fragile purpose of a life well lived…

Thankful—I’m alive.

Thank you—you’re alive.

Give thanks—we’re alive…

…and together in another day.