Snowed in

Happy winter! It’s official now, on December 22nd. I’m writing this in the middle of another no-school, all the roads are closed, the wind is whipping 40 MPH snow day.

And I wrote the column during the last snow day. December has had it’s way with us. So Chad and I had plenty of time between tractor thawing and snow blowing to sit down and visit a bit about windchill and frozen equipment, digging out and and staying home, Christmas traditions and finding gratitude where you can. Even Edie pops in for a snow day report. Then stick around to hear both she and little sister Rosie sing their favorite Christmas song this year. 

Merry Christmas. Thank you for following along this year and sharing your stories with us. Sending you love, gratitude for the year behind us and hope for the year ahead.

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The magic season

Oh wow it’s magical around here. Two young kids waking up each morning smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season to see what shenanigans the little felt elf got into this time will make it that way. So will 4 to 8 inches of heavy snow and a promise of at least 40 mph gusts to make it nice and blinding, just like the North Pole.

Yes, we’re smack dab in the middle of the Christmas countdown. As I write this almost every road in the state is closed and so we’re in a good ‘ol fashioned snow day, except with laptops and virtual learning. And depending on your experience with Google classroom, the whole magic of the snow day experience can go either way.

And so can waking up at 3 am realizing that you forgot to move that enchanting felt elf. In which case you can either embrace that you are the magic or you can use your favorite cuss words as you squinty slipper shuffle down the steps to move the elf from the bathroom perch to the fridge between the ketchup and the soy sauce, wrapped up in an old dish towel for dramatic effect.

I’d say the magic is in remembering to move it at all. Bonus for a clever idea.

It’s worth it in the morning though. My kids are in that special spot of childhood where they still believe, and finding their elf in a toilet paper hammock is about as thrilling as it gets. Although the concept of Jesus and Santa both watching you gets a bit confusing for the five-year-old, especially when the felt elf becomes a part of the felt nativity scene. (Hey, I’m running out of ideas here.)

But it’s not just the Christmas season and the elf-drawing-faces-on-our-bananas- with-a-Sharpie that’s bringing this magic, it’s the kids themselves. They just have it beaming out of their curious eyes, skipping with them to meet their friends at school and almost knocking the Christmas tree over with each of the thousands of cartwheels they’re throwing in the living room.

The lineup of performances and celebration helps too. Last week my girls ran a regular rock star schedule and I happily (and with a supply of Motrin and coffee) played the role of their tour bus driver, stylist, caterer, and personal assistant. We had a first grade Christmas program on Tuesday, a pre-school Christmas Caroling experience on Friday morning and a dress rehearsal for a cheer performance on Friday afternoon. They gave it their all in their cheer recital Saturday afternoon and then we hosted Rosie’s five-year-old swimming birthday party on Saturday night. Then we wrapped it all up with my personal favorite, the Church nativity play on Sunday morning. The girls dressed as angels and they both had lines that we’ve been practicing all month. And we got to dress in our best and watch as Edie the Angel inched all the wise men and poor little Joseph out of the way so she could do the actions to the song front and center like she was born to do.

Man, wasn’t it just yesterday that she was baby Jesus who had a blowout mid-manger scene?

Maybe we all secretly wished for this snow day to slow it down for a minute so that we might sit on our cozy chair, our kids still in their jammies and watch a Christmas movie while procrastinating trying to figure out how to log-in to their Chrome books.

I’m rambling a little I know. I sat down this morning with the idea that I would write down a few lessons I’ve learned from this season of the year and of this middle-aged-mid-parenting life. But all I want to do is write down these little things I don’t want to fade from my memory: my daughters’ red tights and sparkly holiday shoes. Their morning bed head and crumpled Christmas PJs. The mess of graham cracker gingerbread houses and h alf-drunk holiday cups of hot chocolate taking over my kitchen table and singing Edie’s favorite Christmas song at the top of our lungs on the car ride to school. And even that silly elf that wakes me up and reminds me that these are the days. These are the exhausting, adorable, hilarious, snuggle-clad, sugar cookie filled days, frosted in sketchy weather with holiday sprinkles on top.

In case you forgot to remember. In case you’ve never forgotten.

Anyway, I got a little off task here, but here’s one lesson I really wanted to pass along: Tie the tree to the wall. Fishing string works great. Do it even if no one’s doing cartwheels in your living room. Trust me.

And whatever phase you’re in this Christmas, may you do your best to find peace where you are, even if it’s 3 am and you’re barely awake dressing a felt elf in Barbie clothes…

We’re all our own Christmas DJs

We’re all our own Christmas DJs
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This morning I played the DJ for two little girls sitting in car seats in the back of my SUV covered in a nice layer of dust and then ice and then snow and another sprinkle of dirt.

As the sun rose slowly over the horizon, turning the sky from navy to blue to gold to pink, my girls sang along to the Christmas version of our life’s playlist. Their little snowboots keeping time with the beat and their heads bobbing as they watched the electrical poles, black cows and pumping units zoom past on the other side of frosty windows.

“Play ‘Jingle Bells’ next!”

“O Christmas Tree!”

“Now ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!’” I obliged each request, the world of music, every song we can think of, now at our fingertips these days. All you have to do is call it out. And I sang along too, running and rerunning my holiday and end-of-year to-do list through my head to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

It was only four more days until Christmas! We knew because the elf in the taco shell in the messy pantry told us. A few weeks ago, that elf was more cleverly placed — in a Barbie boat floating in the kitchen sink, on the Christmas tree, dangling from the wreath, then the chandelier, then holding baby Jesus in the nativity scene. By now, it seems she’s running out of ideas…

We’re right smack in the middle of the season of tradition, and some of those traditions sent me to the grocery store 37 times a week and I still forgot the key ingredient to the fudge recipe. So I called over to Mom’s because she’s the official Queen of Christmas. She is stocked and ready and has had the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and the Kathy Mattea Christmas albums on repeat while she decks her halls for our family gathering on Christmas morning. So of course she had three cans of evaporated milk. And no, she didn’t need me to replace them. She just has extra.

That’s how you do the holidays in the middle of nowhere. You buy extra. One day I’ll learn.

But contrary to popular belief, Christmas comes even if you don’t get your fudge made, cut, packaged and distributed to every person who has ever crossed your path. And if that elf never moves from that shelf, or even shows up at all, it’s fine. Really.

After a challenging year where day to day I didn’t know if I would feel bad or worse, I decided, this Christmas, I’m trying really hard to be here for whatever it is. If making the fudge brings me joy, I make the fudge. If I drop the whole pan on the kitchen floor and don’t have the energy to start another batch, well, that’s that. It’s good enough. If I don’t have the energy for it, I’m going to sit it out. If I do, well, then bring it on. Bring it all on. Let’s not forget that we’re our own Christmas DJs here…

Because these are indeed the days. I have a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old in the house and that’s pretty much all the magic I need. And I want to be here, fully present for all its layers — sprinkles on top of dust on top of scattered toys and excited squeals and all of the ways my girls mispronounce the lyrics in every verse of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” at the top of their sweet little lungs as time ticks on with the rhythm of those electrical poles whizzing by on the other side of their frosty windows…

Correction: In my Dec. 4 column, I shared a recipe for my mom’s fudge. The evaporated milk ingredient should have been a 12-ounce can, not an 8-ounce can. I sincerely apologize for all the kitchen cussing this error may have caused. I owe you all a batch. I’ll get to it. Until then, merry merry Christmas from the ranch!

And the sparkle of childhood followed us home…


The light of childhood reminds us to embrace life
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It’s no secret there are things in this life that are ruined by adulthood.

I remember thinking this as a kid when I was jumping into the cold water of Lake Sakakawea on a hot summer day. The water couldn’t be too cold. The sky too gray. The wind too wild. None of those elements existed to me at 7 or 8 because there was the water and I needed to swim. And so I did. And when I emerged and looked over at my parents visiting with friends on dry land, I wondered how anyone could be so close to a lake and keep their hair dry.

When does it shift in us? When does that water become too cold? The sky too gray? The wind too wild? When do we decide that in order to have fun, the sun must be shining in the most optimal way?

I wondered this again as I watched my 3-year-old daughter put her nose down to the freshly fallen snow, stick her tongue out and lick it up. I laughed as her little sister mimicked her, sitting up to look at me with pink cheeks and a kiss of frosting on her lips, and I remembered then how fresh snow tasted, although it hadn’t hit my lips for years.

And neither had an icicle, even though every time I see one hanging sharp and crystal clear off the eaves of a house, I think about pulling it down and having a taste. But I never do it.

At least I hadn’t for years, until I became a mother, and then slowly, the magic of the world that seemed to have faded out to dull tones of beiges and grays started to glimmer and pop and shine again in the little fluffs of light and sparkle that follow in my daughters’ wakes.


Last weekend, I wrestled my girls into their snowsuits and loaded them up in the pickup for a drive out into the pastures of our place, determined to get our Christmas tree cut, in the house, thawed out and decorated before the weekend was over. I was on a deadline. My husband was on a deadline.

But that morning, we stepped out into the bright sunshine after days of fog to find our whole world sparkling. We couldn’t make out a cedar tree from an oak tree in the hills because of the glare, so we got out and walked into the hills to take a closer look, to lift Edie on her daddy’s shoulders, to let Rosie eat snow. To come up for air.


And when we were trying to find a way to get us all back to the pickup with a tree just a little too big for the space, looking down at a steep icy slope of a hill, I think it was the 8-year-old version of me that whispered, “Let Edie ride on its branches, like a sled! Her daddy will pull her down!”

And so that’s what we did. We stepped off the shore and let the fluffy, glimmering light of childhood follow us home.

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A little Christmas reality

I’ve been a mom now for over a year, so needless to say, I’ve learned plenty of lessons. Like, every day is a lesson on how much sleep you actually need to live. I’m still alive (I think) so apparently you don’t need much.

Last week was one of those weeks at the ranch that I think all parents look back on with fondness and then relief that it’s over.



It started on Sunday when, after the church Christmas program, 2015’s Baby Jesus #4 turned 2016 Angel #6, leaned in for a snuggle and puked the puke of the mighty all over her mother, down my shirt and into the deepest unclean-able crevasses of the easy chair, and it just sort of went on from there….

and into a week that started with a sick baby and ended with a trip to the big town sixty miles away on the coldest day of the year (like -50 windchill) to pick up Husband’s broken brand new pickup from the shop only to find what we all already new…diesel pickups don’t start in sub-zero temperatures when unplugged and outside.

And in between (after rescheduling for the third time due to that damn month-long blizzard thing we’ve been dealing with) I finally got a chance to get Edie to her one-year photos and one-year shots only to discover upon arrival (and the arrival of her general foul mood) that the poor child was in the process of cutting all four molars and both of her eye teeth at once, just in time to smile for the camera.

Which she managed to do in true Edie fashion, in between fits of sorrow.


Little did she know that the torture I was putting her through in the name of memories and photo books and embarrassing her at her high school graduation wasn’t going to compare to the torture coming to her next in the form of four big needles.

And that’s when I learned my biggest lessons since the birthday glitter catastrophe of November 24th:

#1: Don’t schedule shots and photos on the same day, even if it will save you a trip. Save your sanity instead.

#2: Planning a child’s photo session is a good way to invite disease or disfunction to your family.

But we made it through like we always do and everything is fine in the whole big picture. Last night I got home late from singing at a Christmas concert just in time to fall asleep and wake up again to rock my poor crying baby with a runny nose and a mouth full of teeth back to sleep in months between 3 and 4 am, which sets me up nice and exhausted for the week of Christmas.

But at least we finally got our tree. The week before the deep freeze, sub-zero temperatures, snow drifts up to my armpits and general good naturedness of an ongoing North Dakota blizzard finally had me persuaded to give up on the whole cutting-our-own-Christmas-Tree tradition and just get one in town for crying out loud. And so that’s what this week’s column is about.

It’s about the expectations. And then it’s about the reality.

And the truth is, the reality, in all its mess and mayhem, just can’t compete with the fantasy because, well, it’s real. It’s our life. And I wouldn’t trade it.

Puke and all…


Coming Home: Christmas in my mind different than reality
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

When I was dreaming of having a baby of our own for all those years, I ran through how it might look in our house at Christmas: cozy and warm tucked in the trees, hot cider on the stove, a fire crackling in the fireplace, our baby crawling playfully around the fresh-cut cedar we found together on the ranch under a blue sky and after a little impromptu snowball fight.

I held onto that dream through all those childless holidays, come hell or 75-below zero windchills. Even when daylight and landscape were against us, we rallied, we bundled up and took the time to find a tree and make a memory.

But that was back when we took our time for granted.

That was before we had a one-year-old, a house to finish, cows to feed, a broken pickup in a snow bank and a series of days spent getting stuck and unstuck, stuck and unstuck in 50-mile-per-hour winds and miles and miles of snow banks in our way.


Yeah, this December all it took was one look out the window, the sub-zero temperature gauge and the calendar boxes quickly counting down to the big day and suddenly I became a little more flexible on that whole Christmas Tree Tradition thing. Not that I couldn’t count on my husband to try plowing through the snow banks to make it happen if that’s what I wanted.

But what I wanted was not to freeze my nose off having to pull him out.

And also, I wanted a Christmas tree before New Year’s.

So we went to town.

You heard me.

We had to get some things anyway, like light bulbs and doors for the rooms in the basement, so we might as well pick up one of the last sorry trees they had left in the back, all wrapped up tight and snug and out of the whipping winds.

And the baby loves to go shopping.

You should see her in a store, smiling and waving at everyone, babbling like she’s in a parade. So maybe we made the right choice, swapping a sled for shopping cart…


Anyway, we picked out our rugs and our Lysol and our spindly, $35 Christmas tree and while I strapped Edie in her car seat, my husband strapped that sorry-looking tree to the roof of my SUV.

And it was a sight somehow reminiscent of both the Griswolds and Charley Brown’s Christmas as we drove an hour home, through the badlands and into a dark, 30-below zero, regular North Dakota blizzard, the heat blaring as we sipped the fancy grocery store coffee we grabbed on the way out of town.


When I was rocking Edie by our tree last year, her tiny wrinkly body pressed against my chest, peaceful and innocent, I imagined what the next year’s Christmas would look like — a different kind of chaos, ornaments hung on the tree just above her reach, her squeals of delight at the pretty lights, an evening spent watching Christmas movies while we wrangled her up and decorated the tree together as a family.

Well, that’s sort of what happened … just replace the whole “squeals of delight” thing with my sick baby projectile vomiting down the inside of my shirt, all over her favorite blankie and in the deepest cracks of the easy chair.

Change “ornaments hung on the tree” to “the house strewn from wall to wall with partially unpacked boxes of frozen decorations and a tree losing about a thousand needles by the minute.”

Then finish it off by swapping “together as a family” with “my husband in the barnyard pulling Dad and his pickup out of another snow bank while my glass of wine and I found the least breakable ornaments to put on the tree at 10 p.m.”

No, it wasn’t the magical Christmas tree tradition I imagined, but it was real, and you know what? I’ll take it. For so many reasons, I’ll take it.



Making Memories. Making Pies.


It’s a beautiful morning at the ranch, the wind is calm and the golden trees are sparkling in the sun, the baby is napping, the windows are open and I’m so happy to be home after six days on the music road.


I’ve designated this day to unpacking and putting away all that was drug out in the name of traveling across the state with a ten-month old and my mother…which means we most definitely brought home way more than we left home with…


Like maybe a few more outfits. And at least one new pair of shoes for each of us.

And maybe a giraffe suit for Little Sister?


We sure have a fun and exhausting time when we’re out traipsing around the countryside. But we don’t get much napping in. And we don’t stick to a bedtime. And we try to cram as much fun as we can in between the gigs.


Mini Merch Slinger

So we’re tired.


I predict Edie will take the rest of the week to catch up on all of the extra time she spent kicking and clapping and singing along with her eyes wide open until the bitter end of the day when we plopped down together on the hotel bed, or the bed in my grandparent’s house, or the bed of our gracious hosts, and finally gave into the night.


Sound check…

I’m contemplating crawling into her crib with her right now and the two of us could stay there all day. If only we both fit.

But not until I share this week’s column with you, a little story about the best part of this season change, which is most certainly more time in the kitchen with family reminiscing and making new, sweet flavored memories.

And I may be no Martha Stewart, as you all know, but this was my biggest attempt yet, getting as close as this non-pastry-making-family can get to pie perfection, thanks to the notes left behind from our grandma Edie…and maybe a little encouraging from above.

Happy season change. May the cooler weather inspire you to cuddle up and settle down a bit. I know that’s my goal this upcoming October anyway.


Coming Home: Connecting with gramma’s memory over a slice of apple pie
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications


My mom keeps a small wooden box in her kitchen, tucked up in the cupboard next to her collection of cookbooks. On the front it reads “RECIPES” in the shaky, wood-burning technique of a young boy trying his hand at carpentry.

And the from-scratch buns she served with supper.

And the familiar casseroles that you could smell cooking as you walked up toward the tiny brown house from the barnyard after a ride on a cool fall evening.

Every once in awhile my mom will open that box on a search for a memory tied to our taste buds. She’ll sort through the small file of faded handwriting and index cards until she finds it, setting it on the counter while she gathers ingredients, measures stirs and puts the dish together the best way she remembers.

I’m thinking about it now because it’s sitting on my kitchen table, the one that used to sit in my grandmother’s kitchen all those years ago acting as a surface to roll out dough and pie crusts or a place to serve countless birthday cakes or her famous April Fool’s day coffee filter pancakes.

And so they’ve met again, that table and that box, which is currently sitting next to a pie pan covered in tinfoil.

Because last week we pulled the box out on a mission for guidance on what to do with the 50,000 pounds of apples my little sister inherited from the tree in the backyard of the house she bought a few years back.

“Maybe we should make applesauce or apple crisp,” we said as Little Sister plopped the fourth bag full of fruit on my kitchen counter, my mom sipping coffee and my big sister entertaining my nephew beside her.

I reached up in the cupboards to dust off a couple recipe books because we all agreed then that apples this nice deserve to be in a pie, and Googling “pie making” seemed too impersonal for such an heirloom-type task.

Then Mom remembered the recipe box.

And that Gramma Edie used to make the best apple pies.

It was a memory that was intimately hers and vaguely her daughters’. We were too young to remember the cinnamon spice or the sweetness of the apples or the way she would make extra crust to bake into pieces and sprinkle with sugar when the pies were done, but our mother did.

And most certainly so did our dad.

So we dove into the recipe with the unreasonable confidence of amateurs and spent the afternoon in my kitchen, peeling apples, bouncing the baby and rolling and re-rolling out gramma’s paradoxically named “No Fail Pie Crust,” laughing and cheering a victory cheer as we finally successfully transferred it to the top of the pie using four hands and three spatulas, certain this wasn’t our grandmother’s technique.

Wondering how she might have done it.


Little Sister carved a heart in the top to make it look more presentable. We put the pie in the oven, set the timer and hoped for the best.



We fed the baby and gave her a bath. We watched my nephew demonstrate his ninja moves. We talked and poured a drink. We cleared the counter for supper. We put the baby to bed.

And then we pulled the pie from the oven. We marveled at our work. We decided it looked beautiful, that we might declare it a huge success, but first we should see what Dad thinks.

So we dished him up a piece. It crumbled into a pile on his plate, not pie shaped at all. But he closed his eyes and took a bite and declared it just the right amount of cinnamon, the apples not too hard, the crust like he remembered, not pretty but good.

We served ourselves and ate up around that old table. We thought of our grandma, wondered if she might have given us a little help and put the recipe back in the box right next to her memory and the new one we made.

And we closed the lid.



The perspective from a distance

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We’re spending the week in vacation mode.

Vacation mode meaning heading east to the lake in Minnesota to spend time with family at my grandparent’s lake cabin, per tradition.

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And then coming home to cut some hay and meet some deadlines before heading back out the big lake tomorrow to spend time on the pontoon or roasting s’mores with the other side of the family.

When we’re at the lake in Minnesota we do this thing where we load up the crew on the pontoon, drinks and snacks and towels and caps and everything else we could have forgotten, and we drive that boat around the shore, slowly, so we can take a look at the beautiful houses that have been built in place of the small cabins that once stood there back when my grandparents first bought their place.

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We comment on the lawns and the landscaping, the docks and the red shutters. We like the cedar siding on that one, and the cottage feeling of the other. We wonder where the NFL football player’s house is. We wonder how much the inflatable trampoline costs. We like that patio set and the adorable kids playing catch in the front yard.

We wonder who lives there. And secretly, I think we all wonder, what that would be like.

It sounds sort of strange, a literal boatload of family tooling by people’s houses on the lake. But we’re not the only ones who do it. It’s like a parade of homes, only we’re the parade.

We wave.

They wave back.

We’re at a safe distance that way. We can imagine and talk and wonder while we make our rounds and come up, always sooner than expected, as the sun starts to sink, on the blue house with the sailboat in the water out front, the familiar trees where the hammock used to swing, grandma’s flowers, the American flags stuck in the grass by the rocky shore, and feel the warm flood of familiarity fill us up with the good memories we’ve had there year after year together.

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It happens to me every time we leave on that pontoon, sitting shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing with my aunts and uncles, sisters, parents, grandparents, looking briefly into other people’s lives, wondering, wishing perhaps that we could afford that big boat or that beautiful deck, contemplating who we would be there before pulling slowly into the dock on that one house out of a hundred that we know so well.

The one that holds so much.

The best one on the lake for people like us.

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Coming Home: Searching for perspective on life from a distance
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications


When I lived between the sidewalks of town, one of my favorite things to do was go out for a walk in the evening as the sun was going down on the neighborhood. It didn’t matter what time of year—the crisp, still air of winter or the thick heat of the summer—I liked to follow the path of the sidewalks that stretched past the neat rows of houses, the warm glow of the kitchen lights shining brighter than the setting sun outside, projecting a slice of each family’s life out onto the street.

For a few short years of my young life, when times were tough and my parents had to move to eastern North Dakota for work, I was one of those sidewalk kids, riding my bike a few houses down the block to the neighbor girl’s house so we could pretend we were riding horses in her front yard.

But mostly I was a kid who played in the coulees in the evenings after school, one who got to ride horses in real life, who never learned to rollerblade for severe lack of pavement, whose new neighbor girl was a mile away up the hill and who pushed a lawnmower over cocklebur plants and Canadian thistle that couldn’t be tamed no matter how my mother willed it.

Those were my memories.


So it was surprising to me how much console I found in walking those neighborhood streets in my adult years spent away from the ranch.

I was thinking about this last night as I walked out in the pasture as the sun dipped below the horizon, turning the grassy pastures and the sky behind me dark green and navy blue. I climbed the hill where the two teepee rings still sit and I looked back at our house, noticing how it somehow looks nestled and perched at the same time in that small opening of oak trees.

The lights were glowing small squares of gold to the outside, while inside the baby slept in her crib, holding the satin edges of her blanket, breathing in and out behind drawn curtains.

I couldn’t see her, of course, but I knew she was there, just as I knew my husband was in the new easy chair, reclined with his arms above his head and his stocking feet kicked back, a small glass of whiskey beside him.

This has always been my favorite way to look at our house. From this distance it seems like it doesn’t contain my life at all, but a life of another woman entirely, and I’m just a passerby who can make up her story.


Because I can’t see the things undone from here—the fence that needs stain, the pile of unsorted laundry, the conversations we need to have about selling the car or cleaning the garage or juggling the bills.

From this distance I can imagine our life instead of live it, and it’s a strange but wonderful thing.

And I think that’s what I was doing all those years walking those sidewalks in my 20s, trying to imagine my life and how I was going to get to whatever came next.

I would put myself in those houses with the manicured lawns, the dad on the grill out back, the kids jumping on the trampoline. I could put myself in the kitchen that opened up to the deck and invite my neighbors over for burgers.

I could fall in love with the little boy fishing in the gutter of the street, I could name him and his siblings and make up what kind of mother I might be to him.

Because I wasn’t prepared for any of it, even when I found myself living in it, in a real job, renovating a real house, working on my own manicured lawn along those sidewalks. So I walked. For perspective.

And I still do.

Because everything’s a little easier, a little more perfect, at a safe distance.


A Country Church Christmas

It’s the morning after Christmas and from the comfort of my bed where I have decided to remain watching “Julie and Julia” and drinking coffee out of my favorite snowman cup, I can see (and hear) my dearly beloved practicing the D chord on the new “used” guitar I collaborated and schemed and finagled to buy him this Christmas.

And I am gathering he liked the surprise, because the first thing he said to me this morning as I rolled over and let him know that I am not getting up any time soon is:

“Good morning. Good to see you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go learn to play guitar today.”

So he’s working on it. And the thing about husband is, he probably will learn how to play guitar today. I have been practicing and playing guitar since I was twelve years old and husband will more than likely swoop in with a mission and learn to play “Stairway to Heaven” in a couple weeks.

Better than me.

Because I can’t play “Stairway to Heaven.”

Husband is good at everything.

Which drives me crazy, but comes in handy mostly.

Anyway, here I am this Sunday morning surrounded by unwrapped gifts and ribbon and leftovers and dishes, still under the covers in my little cabin in the North Dakota hills listening to husband take his first steps on the way to rock star status and I am thinking, this movie and coffee and private concert in bed in the morning should become an after Christmas tradition.

And I think I can arrange that.

Because I have had some practice at maintaining traditions this Christmas season, and, if I do say so myself, we did it proud this year.

As you know this little house has been around. My grandpa built it and my dad and his family have celebrated many Christmases between the walls. When I was growing up, my cousins and aunts and uncles gathered around the Christmas tree in our “Beef, it’s What’s for Dinner” sweatshirts (our gramma was a member of the Cattlewomen Association and felt her grandchildren should advertise the cause) and performed carols and put on plays on Christmas Eve and then dressed in our best and headed out to the little country church down the road for the candlelight service.

Evidence, I must always provide evidence. That's me on the right being held against my will by my oldest cousin. My sister and my other cousin to the left of me, thrilled about our matching outfits.

And as we grew a little older and time took people away and changed our world like it often does, the tradition of Christmas Eve spent in this house for my family continued.  After my grandmother died, my other grandparents from eastern North Dakota would move in for the season to ring in the holiday at the ranch. And they brought with them their own tradition of pancakes and gifts before church.

It was always cozy. It was always magical. It was always sweet and syrupy with the smell of cedar and cinnamon candles and hot coffee.

And there was always a trip through the starry, crisp and sparkling landscape to our little country church.

So that is how husband and I hosted Christmas Eve this year. With blueberry waffles and bacon and my homemade chokecherry jelly and gifts and laughter and photos by the Christmas tree (sans beef shirts.)

Me, cookn' the bacon. Yeah, sometimes I chip in with the parts of the meal that don't involve mixed drinks and wine.

Then we left it all to be cleaned up later as we piled in the car and let our headlights cut through the foggy, frosty night and take us the 35 miles to the little white church on the hill that was waiting for us with lights on.

Our drive to church wasn’t always this long. See, we used to attend services only five miles north of our home in a tiny little country church in the middle of a field called “Faith Lutheran.” This is where my sisters and I, along with the neighborhood farm kids within a 25-mile radius, took Sunday school lessons from my pops. And during the Christmas season, pops would put together a list of hymns that he knew and could realistically be played on the guitar and we would sing “Go tell it on the mountain,” “Away in the manger,” and “Winds through the olive trees,” loud and angelically in our red and green sweaters, hair combed and hands at our sides.

Then, in the grand finale, we would light each other’s candles and hold them steady, peacefully, prayerfully, as we sang “Silent Night,” to sweet baby Jesus on the eve of his birth.

And I like to imagine the crowd of eight families who filled that tiny church wall to wall had tears in their eyes at the beauty and innocence of it all…

But, sadly, the voices of little ones will no longer fill the Christmas Eve air out on the prairie where our little Faith Lutheran church stands. Because, without sounding too dramatic, the changing landscape of rural America has finally made its way to our little corner of the world as many young families choose to make their homes in town and family farms are left to be worked on the weekends.  The population of the congregation of that tiny church has dwindled and tapered off to the point of no return and Faith Lutheran, home to my first Christmas song solo, closed its doors for good this summer.

Leaving behind only one country church in our community, about 35 miles north of our ranch. First Lutheran Church, the last of its kind, still stands proud and tall on the rolling landscape, surrounded by wheat fields and oil wells and farmyards and cattle, and continues to welcome the family members of those who founded the place of worship, those who dug its foundation and built its steeple.

And I am one of those relatives, because, as pops reminds us each time we pull onto the gravel road that leads to its door, he helped build that steeple–the one that reaches toward the heavens…you know way up there, almost to the clouds. Yup, he did that, all the while overcoming his horrifying feelings toward heights.

Yup, pops helped build that steeple. So under that steeple we walked through the doors on Christmas Eve, hand in hand, side by side with those we love.

And we hugged neighbors and classmates we haven’t seen for years. We straightened out our holiday scarves and smoothed our dresses and talked about new babies and Christmas dinners and as the pastor stood before us, our chatter silenced and Christmas Eve candlelight service began.

And it opened with gusto as a neighborhood boy played “Good King Wenceslas” on his saxophone, cheeks rosy, shirt pressed and tucked into his blue Wranglers and belt buckle. I admit I might have welled up a bit as I remembered our humble Christmas concerts with guitar accompanist and wondered where all the children have gone.

And noticed that this church with the steeple wasn’t bursting at the seams with families squished in pews, sharing hymnals.

But that didn’t stop their voices, no matter the number, from filling the air with the music I remembered singing shoulder to shoulder with the kids who shared my landscape, called the little church out on the prairie theirs and grew and learned under the same remote sky.

So I sang the melody to  “Oh little town of Bethlehem,” as my pops’ voice sang the base. I listened to the greeting and looked down the pew to my little sister as she sang from memory “Go tell it on the mountain.” I smiled at the little neighbor kid, who wasn’t so little anymore and we sang together “Away in the manger,” just like we used to.

And then the sermon, the offering, the prayer and, with the lights turned low, in a chain reaction, we lit one another’s candles and sang over our flickering lights “Silent Night.”

And there was that magic again.

There it was. I have felt the same way every Christmas Eve since I could first form a memory.

My voice a little stronger, a little louder, my father’s voice a little more weathered, my little sister a bit taller, my momma a grandmother now.

But there we all stood, side by side, under that steeple, remembering our little church, thankful for this one, thankful for family, thankful for our place in this world.

Thankful for a tradition, that, no matter the time, the roof or the steeple we worship under, the family that had to leave us, or the friends and babies we welcome with open arms, we keep.

We keep and celebrate…

…and remember.

And maybe someday soon, husband will be performing his own rendition of “Joy to the World,” at church on Christmas Eve.

I am sure of it.

A very non-Martha tradition

This skiing hippo has nothing to do with anything, but he's cute so I thought I would give him some face time...

Merry Christmas! It’s here I suppose. All signs point that way. The Christmas tree is up, the snow is on the ground, the lights are on the fence, the pug is hiding out in his Santa suit and my little sister came home yesterday.

Complete with holiday sweater and jingle bell earrings.

So we kicked off the weekend and broke in the holiday like it was meant. While husband was at work (bless is little heart) we lounged it out like only a tried and true college student knows how to do.

It didn’t take me too long to snap right back to those days. We filled our snowman mugs with coffee and shuffled around in our wool socks and sweatpants as we fried up some bacon and eggs and I told her all my troubles in like, three breaths (I don’t have too many these days) and then we moved on to her life plans really quick, and her latest boyfriend, and then some embarrassing little tidbits–like how I fell on my face in a restaurant and unintentionally bared my floral underwears to the entire occupancy and how she dropped a bottle of bread oil while out with her friends trying to be fancy, shattering the entire thing all over the floor and splashing oil on her fellow diners, sending them packing and saying things like “someone doesn’t get out much.”

And then we plopped down on the couch and watched a movie that involved a love story and inner conflict and cute boys while the pug made his way to a new lap….and so did the lab…and the cats…little sister was in heaven.

So were the pets.

When the movie concluded, we stretched and contemplated doing something constructive, so we took two steps to the kitchen and whipped up a batch or two of hard candy…because I found a candy thermometer somewhere and I was going to learn how to use it….

…then I painted white snowflakes on her tiny, nubby fingernails….

…and then we melted some cheese and salsa and dipped half a bag or tortilla chips in it and got back on the couch to refresh our memory of how the Grizwalds spent their holiday.

Then Momma called.

She wanted to make Christmas cookies.

So we peeled ourselves out from under the blankets and obliged.

See, the women in my family have little traditions like these. We are not bakers. We do not attempt bread dough or pie crust or elaborate gingerbread houses with gingerbread men and women standing outside hand in hand in little dresses and overalls.

We do not make beautifully decorated and personalized delicate treats in tins with fancy wrapping and beautifully piped frosting.

No. We do not do these things.

But we do raid momma’s liquor cabinet and find what we need to mix our selves a fancy cocktail…

…and dip things in chocolate…

…and pops sometimes helps and makes things like this…

"My chocolate covered pretzel glasses, my chocolate covered pretzel glasses, without them, I am powerless."

..and then we dig out the cookie mix that comes out of a bag or box and proceed to exercise our creativity by cutting out holiday shapes and decorating the cookies into tie died peace signs, Santas in green and blue suits, multi-colored churches and green stars, all the while wondering why there is a sailboat mixed in with our Christmas cookie cutter collection.

Why the sailboat every year? I don't get it. I just don't get it.

There have been multiple explanations. None of which I accept.

By the time it’s all over momma’s kitchen looks like this:

A Christmas war zone complete with frosted walls, sprinkle coated floors, cranberry vodka puddles and half eaten Santa cookies. We might be in the middle of an argument about who has the most beautifully creative cookie and then we might make pops make the final decision. He usually picks the top five, in no particular order, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. And I might stomp my foot and say something like “No, that is not acceptable. Pick one. You must pick one and only one!” while presenting to him, in the least obvious way, my best effort.

And then, when he doesn’t chose mine, I might accidentally throw flour in someone’s hair, or wipe green frosting on someone’s ear or chase someone down the hall with both ingredients, threatening a full on food fight….while screaming “I am not a sore loser…I. Am. Not!”

No, this is not a Martha Stewart Christmas cooking experience.

Cocktails anyone?

But it’s ours.

And the cookies are delicious, out of the box or not.

But they are always out of the box.

And there is always laughter.

And lounging.

And that’s how we get ready for Christmas around here.

It’s my favorite part of the whole ordeal.

So Happy Christmas Eve everyone.

I hope your little sister comes home in her sweatpants with a matching pair of jingle bell earrings for you…

…and if you have another sister, with a new baby and a nice husband, I hope she comes home too.

Cause this Christmas I miss my big sister that has a new baby a nice husband…

But, you know, she usually wins the cookie decorating contest….

…hmmmm….so I should have actually had a chance this year…

I demand a re-count!

Oh well…

Merry Christmas!

See ya at church.

The (old school) Christmas tree thing

Christmas. We officially have 12 days until the big day (hmmm, that reminds me of a song…). And it’s beginning to look a lot like this much-anticipated holiday around here. I mean, we have snow. Lots and lots of sparkling snow, the lights are up, the wreath is on the door, and, much to the pug’s dismay, I scrounged up his Santa suit.

But really, you can’t wear a Santa suit, dog or human, without the Christmas tree. I mean, that would just be ridiculous. And out here at the ranch, hands down the best thing about Christmas has always been the Christmas tree.

Because the search for the perfect tree out in the wild pastures of western North Dakota is an event. It is a hunt. It is magic. It is anticipation and adventure and tradition in its purest form and everything that makes the season so damn delightful.

That’s right, we do the tree thing old school.

And by old school I mean bundling up in our snowsuits and neckerchiefs (and facemasks if it’s really cold out there) and scouting out the 3,000 acres of semi-rugged snow covered landscape for a cedar that looks like it might fit nicely in the corner of our little house covered in twinkling lights and sparkly balls and glitter and candy canes and presents and a cat climbing up the middle… well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.

And then, when the clouds open up and the light shines on that particularly spectacular tree the men of the land whip out their hand-saws and gently detach it from the earth and drag it home to live the remainder of its life on the receiving end of “oooo” and “ahhhh” while providing shelter to the perfectly wrapped presents placed beneath it.

Not a bad life for a tree. Probably beats being pooped on by birds….

Anyway, my family and the families who live out here as our neighbors and friends have been cutting Christmas trees off of their land as a tradition since the homesteading days. And that is the world I was transported to every time we went out with pops on a blustery, sunny December day to fetch ourselves the centerpiece of Christmas when we were young.

I found myself imagining how it used to be, hitching up a horse to a sleigh and venturing out into the hills on a mission to make a tiny, drafty, house standing strong against the season in the middle of a lonely winter farmstead feel a little warmer with the sweet smell of cedar–the land’s gift to those who had worked it all year.

I envisioned a family gathering around the tree standing humbly decorated in green and red singing the same carols we continue to sing to this day, opening their stockings, tasting the recipes that have been passed down, moving in close to one another under the branches, smiling in the glow of the season.

I imagine a simple, quiet holiday with the cattle in the yard and the snow falling softly outside and families giving thanks for the life that they lead….

So you see, the Christmas tree has never been just a tree to me. It has been a feeling. A process. A ritual. The best memory of the season.

And you can imagine I have quite a bit to say about the whole business of my Christmas tree, because last week, husband and I ventured out to find it…

…the same way I did when I was a kid.

A kid in my mini Carharts and Santa hat, with a little twinkle in my eye put there by the whole holiday spirit thing, stepping in my dad’s foot prints in the deep snow, hand shading my eyes, scoping out my world for a glimpse of the perfect tree—a tree that would bring Christmas to my house….and if I was lucky, Santa too.

I am not positive, but I think dad would have the tree located long before December and, in the snowy years, probably used the tractor to plow a trail right to its location. But my sisters and I were convinced we were essential company on this hunt and when we finally found it, we would exclaim over and over how beautiful, how perfectly shaped and proportioned, how lovely it would look in our house. And then–our favorite part–pops would cut us a couple branches that would sit in coffee cans in our rooms, decorated with our own set of colored lights and ornaments we had made ourselves.

Oh, I loved this. I loved having Christmas in my room. I would load that little branch up with so many lights, so much tinsel, an excess of reindeer shaped ornaments and snowflakes and popcorn and cranberry strands creating a Christmas explosion that caused that little tree to collapse under the weight of all that love and joy.

Yup, it would tip right over.

Every night—ka boom.

But I didn’t care, I just propped it back up, brushed off the glitter and climbed back in bed to admire the twinkling lights as I drifted off to sleep and marked another day off the calendar on my countdown to Christmas.

I know you all have been there. I know you can remember the feeling–that feeling when you found yourself as a child in the middle of winter in your bunny slippers, your heart full of wonder and joy and anticipation at the sight of the lights, the taste of peppermint on your lips, the smell of the cedar tree…

…oh how that smell transports me…

So here we are, husband and I, at the ranch for Christmas. And so it seems we made a little tradition, a little unspoken pact that as long as we were blessed enough to be here, we would celebrate the simple, time-honored things by venturing out and cutting ourselves a cedar.

But let me remind you here about the size of our house: it’s small. And we have a lot of furniture crammed in here. So I wasn’t sure we could manage a tree this year. And if we did, it would have to be pretty modest.

But apparently husband had a different idea entirely and as we headed out into the crisp, clear, December day, it became quiet evident that his eyes and his holiday heart were a bit bigger than the room we have in our house.

Because as we scanned the landscape in our snowsuits, eternally grateful for my brother-in-law’s generous donation of a snowmobile for this adventure, my suggestions and hand waves and hikes up to the reserved and unassuming trees I envisioned would fit nicely in our little home were met with the following statements:

“What, you want a Christmas branch?”

“A Charley Brown tree? We can’t have a Charley Brown tree.”

“Seriously, how small are you thinking?”

And my favorite:

“How is Santa going to know where to put the presents if he can’t find the damn tree?”

And so our search continued, up hills, around bends, scaring coyotes from the draws and the dogs, not to miss something this significant, huffing and puffing through the drifts behind us.

This one’s too big. This one’s too small. This one we’ll save for our next house. This one would look good in Rockefeller Center.

It started to get dark.

My cheeks were getting cold.

We split up, husband on the mobile, me on foot. Damn the machine, we had to do this the old way.

I followed my feet down a cliff and out into a clearing where a tree that looked the perfect size from half a mile away sure grew mighty fast as I crept up on it.

Husband took to the hills behind me, testing, I am thinking, his wild-man side on his new toy. And as I stood looking up in amazement at the giant cedar thinking we should turn in for the day and try a different pasture tomorrow, husband swept up behind me (not so quietly…not as peacefully as I had envisioned the whole process) and killed the engine.

“Oh, look over there…” he whispered behind me and I turned to find him pointing to the horizon where two big mule deer bucks were creeping along the top of the butte as the sun dipped below the landscape.

We sucked in the cold air as we watched those creatures, unconcerned by the entire spectacle of tree hunting and the snow monsters on two legs causing a stir below them. Our mouths hung open in awe, our breath creating misty puffs in the cold weather as the animals pawed and scraped at the frozen earth and then, finally found a proper place to bed down for the night…

I am not sure how long we stood in silence and watched the beasts hunkering down against the season, so quietly, so magnificently, but when we finally broke our gaze, we followed our eyes down from the butte and found they settled on a tree that looked like it just might work.

A tree that we just might have room for in our home.

Well, at least that’s what husband said to me and I agreed, caught up in the magic of it all.

So out came the saw and, just like that, the top of the spruce was detached from the land and tied to the back of the snowmobile, transforming it from a racing machine to a modern day sleigh.

Off we went, in the snow, into the sunset, me, my husband and my Christmas tree (oh, and the dogs… the shivery, snowy dogs in our wake.)

And when we approached the house with the cedar trailing behind, a bit of reality began to creep up on me. There was no way this magnificent tree was going to fit in that door. We were going to have to take out all of the furniture. We were going to have to build an extra room.

One of us was going to have to move out…

But husband was determined. Determined. And miraculously he got the tree into the entryway to thaw out, blocking us inside for a good day and a half.  And when I climbed out the window to get to work the next day, I came home to find that husband had indeed found a place for our Christmas tree.

A pretty perfect place really. I mean, I don’t actually need to get to my desk. And I don’t mind branches tickling my ears as I’m reading the paper on the couch.

I don’t mind at all.

So I spent a good two days decorating and humming Christmas carols to myself and falling asleep gazing at its twinkling lights and remembering that enchanting evening when it found us.

Our tree.

…and it hasn’t tipped over yet…

But if it does, I won’t mind, because I am eight again…

I am eight years old every time I walk in my door and the smell of cedar fills my lungs….

…I think husband knew that would happen…

And that, my friend, is the best thing about Christmas.

Hands down.