The yard light’s back on

This week on the podcast I catch up with my husband after he returns from leaving for a 75 day hunting trip (ok, maybe is was just 5 days). A small change in the barnyard makes me reflect on how wrong they all were about the future of our home, and Chad wonders if I would wish my kind of creative drive on my children, and then asks me to explain gravity. There’s lots to unpack here, figuratively and literally…listen here or on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

There hasn’t been a yard light in the barnyard of the homestead place for ten years. It went out when we took the old house down after a fire and we didn’t get around to rewiring it. When the house went, so did we, we left the barnyard and moved up over the hill to a new house and so no one lives there full time, we just work there now—we saddle up, feed horses, bring the bulls in, ride the ponies…

When I left home at seventeen, I had this vision of all of the yard lights in my rural community going out, one by one by one behind me as I drove away and kept driving. In my lifetime, at that time, I had only seen things getting quieter out here. I saw old neighbors packing up and moving to town. I saw schools close and businesses come and go and come and go. I saw star football players heading to college and not looking back. We were told not to look back, unless it was to reflect—on a simple upbringing in a less complicated time in a place where work ethic and sacrifice are badges of honor—because it makes you employable, you know, having come from a small place, heading off to the big places. But don’t come back here. Not when you’re young. Not when there’s more opportunity, more money to be made in places where the streetlights and stoplights replaced yard lights long ago.

Last week, in the dark, I pulled my car off the highway and followed my headlights down the big hill on the gravel road, past my parents’ place and across the cattle guard. It’s at this point in my drive, if the weather’s cooled down or warmed up, depending, that I like to roll my window down to catch the scent of that little valley with the cattails and the stock tank. It smells like cool summer nights riding home from moving cows, or long walks through the draws after a day that tried to break me. It smells like plum blossoms or cattle watering, fresh cut hay or the thaw or the cold coming in, you know, like the scent of snow.

It smells like home and I try to catch it when I can, when I think of it. When I need to be reminded who I am and why I’m here.

And then up another big hill to the mailboxes and grain bins I take a right turn into my drive and then look to my left at the sky past the buttes to see what the stars are doing and then down to the barnyard and then, well look at that, the light was on.

Dad got the light back on.

It caught me so off guard, that yard light once again illuminating the scoria drive, the barn a shadow behind it, the little guest cabin that replaced the old house, waiting, now under its watch, for someone to come slip through the gate and under the covers.

And I wasn’t expecting it, but I remembered then that my dad did tell me, that the electricians were coming, that some old wiring was going to be replaced. I didn’t connect the yard light to that information I guess. But what took me most aback was my reaction to it. It stopped me in my tracks, it bubbled a lump up in my throat. Memories of pulling into my grandma’s yard as a little kid sleeping shotgun in my dad’s pickup for a weekend trip and then as a ranch kid leaving the place after a family supper or after a long ride or a late day helping or running wild past our bedtime with the cousins when my grandparents were still alive and we were all young, all of us, and we paid no mind to how anything would ever change that.

Seeing that light on made me realize that I didn’t think of its absence at all really. Not the way I thought I would. When it went out it was just gone and life carried on. We put a new yard light in over the hill and felt lucky and maybe that’s why. I didn’t have to mourn it, because the story I was told as a kid about this place, it turns out that they got it all wrong.

Because look at me, I am 39 now and driving my children home in the dark and in front of me the yard lights glow like beacons of hope for the future.

September and what keeps it precious

This week on the podcast I sit down with my little sister and talk of the weather turns to embarrassing moment confessions. The flies and the wasps and the rooster and the tomatoes and the mice are taking over the ranch and we talk about it all. Catch it here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I’m canning tomatoes and chopping up peppers from the garden for salsa so we can have a piece of summer when winter hits hard.

I can preserve our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode behind our dad to gather cattle.

Working cows in the fall has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done. Dressing in layers is a different level on the ranch.

Moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me—probably because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate. It was during that long wait that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest, find sticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out these days my role working cattle hasn’t changed much. I remain the peripheral watcher, the one who makes sure the cows don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

Recently our little ranch crew met in the morning to move cows to a different pasture. Dad, my uncle and aunt who summer up here from Texas, my little sister, my husband and I saddled horses in the crisp air of the morning and met to stretch out across the Peterson pasture and make the move through a couple gates to Hughes (every pasture has a name, these attached to the old homesteaders.)

It was pretty nice and easy because that’s the way we work cattle here. Just let them take the lead mostly, which occasionally finds you off your horse walking through the thick brush or chasing out across the pasture after a stray, or, sometimes deciding on another approach entirely because that’s the way they want to go.

With the exception of a wreck, nothing can really ruin this for me, sitting horseback on a cool morning slowly making its way into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here, and what makes it even sweeter is that I know the rest of the crew, my family, feels the same way too. I listen as they make conversation about the calf crop and plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while my husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and my dad lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate with my sister and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture. Dad comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up quick to wonder where uncle Wade might be and find him over the hill waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle. We push them through to taller grass and up to water to help them settle in. We wonder if we got them all.

And that’s how it goes generally, the six of us, this time with the exception of Dad stopping to take a picture of my little sister, creating the opportunity for one squirrelly calf to cut back. He laughed as he went after her, thinking what his own dad might say about stopping for a picture.

But why not take a picture? Morning makes its way into the afternoon and if we let ourselves, we might remember that we don’t get an infinite number of fall days like this in our lifetime. Isn’t that what keeps it all so precious?

We head toward home and talk about lunch and the fencing that needs to get done. And cattle prices. And the deer population. And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…even though, year after year, up here… I always feel the same.

This world needs more barn dances

In this week’s podcast, my husband and I reflect on who taught us to dance, how our Dirty Dancing days are over and pontificate on the old house that used to be on the ranch, who lived there and why they left

I think what this broken old world needs is a few more barn dances.

You may have forgotten that those used to be a thing that people did.

Above the house where I grew up is an old shed. It’s sat there for nearly a hundred years now I think. It outlasted the homestead house where a family used to live and then one day moved away, leaving what seemed to be everything behind—dresses and books and filled-in calendars and ledgers and dishes in the cupboards, canned garden vegetables in the root cellar, the lilac bushes and the apple orchard and mattresses and lace curtains moving like quiet ghosts with the wind cutting through the gaps in the walls. Old houses fall apart in the most slow and lonesome way when there’s no one there to sweep the floors and wipe the windows and serve the bread.

They left the house and all those things and they left that little wooden shed my dad said used to be a granary. He remembers it and he remembers those neighbors.

They used to have dances in there my dad told me when I was poking around as a kid. It seemed impossible to me. That granary was much too small, not even close to 1,000 square feet. If you danced it would be a tight circle. Add a guitar and a fiddle and the quarters would be beyond close. Tight. Unimaginable to us these days, losing ourselves and one another in wide-open floor plans, separate rooms and all the space between. Houses are big enough now so that you never have to lay a hand on each other on your way to the kitchen sink, or sit with legs touching on the living room sofa, or fall asleep to the sound of your sister breathing in the small bed next to you. Not if you didn’t want to anyway. Not if you’re what we call “lucky” to have all that room…

Back then I imagine the landscape, and the work that needed to be done upon it, gave you all the space you needed from the next living soul. Lonesome looked a bit different back then.

Maybe that’s why they turned tiny granaries into dance floors. Because wouldn’t you want to hear the slow drawl of the neighbor’s fiddle spill out of the leaky roof and into the night sky lit with stars? Wouldn’t you want to put your hand on her waist and swing her around laughing? Wouldn’t you want to sing along, to hear their voices overlap and chatter, gossiping and encouraging and entertaining to help you forget for a moment the worry of it all?

You would have wanted to then, when it was a bit quieter. When the world you knew stretched only as far as the horizon, or as far as you could afford a train ticket to take you. You see, they were islands too, in much different ways. And then, in so many of the same. Humans have always been humans, after all.

But the dancing in that tiny building, well, one hundred or so years ago, there was no other choice.

Now we have so many. So many excuses. So many oceans we’ve put between us… But last week a man in the middle of rural North Dakota, more than one hundred years from when the first barn was raised on this northern prairie landscape, called his family, his neighbors and friends, and told them to come on over to the Homeplace. Come on over to the barn. We’ll feed you. There will be music. And there will be dancing.

He’s been doing it for years, so they knew. They had it on their calendars. And his daughters and their families and he and his wife, they made the Fleischkuechle and the kuchen because that was tradition too. And me, well me and the guys were lucky enough to witness it all from the little stage in the corner of the loft of the old barn with the shined up floors where we strummed guitars and sang some songs they knew and some they didn’t and all with a beat for a good two step, or a waltz or a chance to join hands in a circle. Because I heard him say it into the microphone when he welcomed them all to that loft after a picnic supper–he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a world where there were no barn dance. So he made sure, at least for his community, it was not a lost tradition.

And from my perch behind the microphone he reminded me that we may not all have big beautiful barns preserved from the cruel weather of time, but if we’re lucky, we have a spot that might work just fine enough for dancing in a circle.

Because I’m not sure, but I think it’s true, that just like old houses, people, they fall apart too, slow and lonesome if there’s no one there to sweep the floors, to brush past, to breathe the same close air, to sway side to side, and open the curtains and let the light in and serve the bread and do the things that, together, people are meant to do…

It’s mid July and they’re in the hay fields

From haying to old Bible camp memories, weird pets, the proper way to pronounce s’mores and how to deal with an accidental toad murder, Jessie and her husband cover all things mid-western July in this week’s podcast, because if you blink, you might miss it. 

It’s mid July and the guys are in the hay field. Everyone is in the hay field. The heat and the rain and the humidity have created a jungle of grass out here, up past our stirrups, belly high on the cows, over my daughters’ heads in some places. That’s how we describe it when we see one another in town, at the Farm and Fleet, or a t-ball game or anywhere another rancher was convinced to go because it was a little too wet to bale.

It’s mid July and across the state small towns are holding homecoming gatherings, blocking off Main streets so they can pull in a flatbed trailer and use it as a stage for the band they hired from Bismarck or Minneapolis or just down the road because it’s summer in North Dakota and it’s time for dancing in the streets. And the committee that made the plans, they’re hoofing tables and chairs, picnic tables and signs, dressed in matching t-shirts and sweating because they’ve been at it since 6 am, cursing the weather, but glad it isn’t rain, although even rain wouldn’t stop it. We have three fleeting months here, we don’t have the luxury of letting a little bad weather stop us.

It’s mid-July and the lake people are not coming in. Not now, are you crazy? This is their sweet spot and it shows in their bronzed skin and the pictures of the fish they’ve caught. Their kids have another month to find their shoes, but until then, they’re gone with bedtimes and balanced meals.

It’s mid-July and the peas in the garden are ripe for the picking. We send the kids to collect some for supper and they don’t make it to the pot and that’s just fine, because the best way to eat a garden pea is fresh off the vine anyway, the same goes with beans and cherry tomatoes and does anyone need lettuce? It’s coming out of our ears.

It’s mid-July and the wild sunflowers are blooming in the ditches along the highways and county roads. If you’re not in a hurry — in mid-July it should be crime to be in a hurry — you pull over to pick a handful among the sweet clover and wild grasses, the grasshoppers sticking to your legs, the horseflies buzzing, the heat reflecting off of the pavement forming beads of sweat along your hairline. Some little bugs will take the trip back home to the vase with you, a black ant unknowingly hitching a ride to a new world on the petal of a flower.

It’s mid July and the kids are catching baby toads in the yard, five total in a Tupperwear habitat, pinching them carefully between the pads of their little fingers and holding them up to their eyes to get a closer look at their rough skin, tiny eyes and soft, thumping throats. How they just appear like that in the garden is a mystery like the fireflies blinking outside the fence when the sun finally disappears way past that bedtime we set only to miss. It’s mid-July and the magic of growing and momentary things is everywhere, but most especially in these children stretching up towards the sun.

It’s mid-July and the sprinkler’s on. It’s mid-July and we’re at the Farmer’s Market. It’s mid-July and we’re swatting mosquitoes and cutting watermelon and the tops off of freeze-pops. It’s mid-July and we’re camping, poking sticks in the fire and itching bug bites. It’s mid-July and we’re grilling burgers and sending the kids outside to husk sweet corn. It’s mid-July and we’re at another Rodeo, another softball game, the county fair, the state fair, the grandstands at a demo-derby, a concert in the park, the pool in town, yes we dove right in and there’s as much water under us as there is over our heads and we don’t want to hear it, although we say it ourselves, it’s going fast. It always goes so fast…

What to lose in a fire

Listen to the podcast here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chad and I discuss how a place like this humbles you and why, when he dies, he wants to come back as my aunt’s Corgi.

Ten Julys ago my husband and I stood on the scoria road on the homestead place and watched as my dad’s childhood home started going up in flames. We had been living there, in what we called “gramma’s house,” the first two years as we worked on building our own home on the ranch until one sweltering summer night we arrived home from a trip to the lake, turned on the lights and noticed smoke coming from the basement and traveling inside the walls. An electrical fire started by a lightning strike while we were gone.

A few months later, when we were living in my parents’ house and all our Earthly possessions were scattered across their lawn, airing the smoke out while we reorganized from a chaotic scramble to save them, I remember thinking this:

When the walls of our home were smoking from the inside out into the night, we did not grab onto one another. No, we placed our arms around computer screens and television sets, appliances and guitars. We threw our possessions on the earth to be saved and to save us from the need we might feel to replace them.

What it would cost us to purchase another would mean time and money, the things that take up the biggest part of us some days.

And there it all was, out in the great wide open of the sky, stacks of important papers and photographs, hats and shoes, books I’ve never read and albums I haven’t listened to in years. We pulled these things from the flames so that it could lay there, waiting for us to decide what to do now. And suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want any of it. 

I didn’t want a choice between red boots or black, I didn’t want the papers reminding me what it costs to live. I didn’t want the movies suggesting I should stay in and watch a world that doesn’t exist for us.

I didn’t want the memories waiting in boxes for me to recall what we were when we were sixteen and sun kissed and the world scared us, because things like this, unnerving, uncontrollable things, they will happen. And they will happen to us.

I didn’t want it weighing on me. Not that day. And sometimes, not these days. Not ten years later.

I heard once, somewhere on the car radio, a man who said, “We do not have a soul. We have a body.”

I pause to think of this today when my clothes feel heavy against the wet sticky heat of the summer and the body that houses my soul is feeling tired at the thought of moving through the tasks we’ve laid out for the day, cleaning up after ourselves, moving our stuff from room to room, from yard to house, from floor to laundry, from table to sink.

And I think about where my soul might live next.

Perhaps in the body of the yellow bird that returns to the feeder outside of this office window, concerned with nothing but her next bite, spreading her wings and cooling herself in the puddles left from an early morning rain.

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

Or maybe a long living oak with the mission to reach my branches out to the sun in the summer, to release them in the autumn chill and sleep until the spring sun asks me gently to bloom again.

I would have roots that would keep me grounded and grass and branches from the aspen or the birch to keep me company, to lean on, to protect me from the wind.

Maybe a wildflower, a thistle or a cricket screeching my song into the night.

I could be all of those things.

But today I don’t want to be attached to anything…

I’ve felt like this as a teenager, before I understood what I was so anxious about and why I suddenly had so many emotions pulling at my skin.

I remember walking out into the rain on a cool late summer evening, just to be out there, away from the four walls of a house, away from the telephone and, things that needed to be thought through. I felt heavy that day and I wanted to be a blade of grass, grounded and soaked in this rain.

I walked further into the protection of the oaks and stepped off of my path, then slowly out of my shoes and finally out of my clothing. I stood there in the lush green of the weeds and wild fruit bushes, under a canopy of leaves dripping the rain down through their branches and onto my bare skin…
I was comfortable like this for only moments before I glanced down at my pale skin and remembered to be self-conscious. But for a moment I was there, holding my breath, and I was the rain and the clouds and the dirt. I was the grass and the still, damp air.

And I’m not wishing for the reminders of a good life to disappear. Today I am just asking to not be held accountable for my possessions or a body that doesn’t do much to hide the relentless emotions of this soul, the one that crinkles up my nose when it cries, bites the scar on my lip in worry and screams air out of my lungs in frustration…Today I am just taking a moment to remember that someday my soul may have wings…

A sentimental branding day roaster

Listen to Jessie and her husband Chad discuss the big plans they have for the ranch and the reason they love having guests at branding day on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

I have a big roaster that sits on my shelf in the storage area of our basement. It’s next to the cake stand and the air mattress pump, the extra mason jars and the quesadilla press thingy I’ve never used. I received this giant electric roaster as a wedding gift 16 years ago. I can’t remember now if it was something on the gift registry or if I asked for it, but I know I wanted it.  A roaster that can hold a full sized turkey. A roaster that can hold enough chili to feed half the county at a fire department fundraiser.  A roaster to serve three hundred sausage links at a pancake supper. The roaster that I imagined using to feed the crew roast beef sandwiches after a long day of riding, sorting and branding calves.

And maybe one day the roaster that I’ll use to serve our famous cheesy potatoes at my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Who knows. But I had dreams for it. 

What happens to my oldest’s face when you say “smile!”

I pulled that thing off the basement storage shelf last weekend and dusted it off. On the bottom back side of the appliance, sixteen years ago, I had written SCOFIELD in black magic marker. As my husband was helping me unwrap and season six rump roasts for the next day’s branding, he mentioned that we should write our last name on the lid too. “I’ve done enough firemen supper dishes to know how helpful that is,” he laughed.  And I realized then, right in the middle of my messy kitchen on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of summer at the ranch, that I was also standing right in the middle of a little piece of a dream that had come true.

It sounds so silly. A roaster. But there we were.

And the next day we were pushing cattle across the greenest pasture you could imagine, riding good horses side by side and laughing at my little sister getting chased by a calf who mistook her horse for his momma. On a hill a half-mile away my dad was chasing another bunch of cows toward us with neighbors and friends checking the draws. The plan was to meet on the flat and follow them up through the gates to the pen, and it didn’t go perfectly, but it never does and that’s the fun of it really, as long as no one gets hurt.

And in the pens up on the hill, another group of friends and family were waiting to help. Some of them had driven from their homes in the neat rows of the suburbs three hours away to lend a hand and be a part of the action. This is my favorite part about branding day. It’s getting the work done, riding out on a stretch of green pasture, making sure the calves and mommas are all accounted for and healthy, but it’s also the fact that we get to watch our friends’ kids from town run around the ranch, climb trees and fences, practice roping, help hold the little calves down and get on the back of a horse or snuggle up to his soft nose.

I like that they can have free access to the barn cat’s kittens and to the frogs in the stock dam. I like that they usually discover something slimy or dirty and that is the exact reason they are here. And I like to see the excitement and the pride my daughters hold for their home when they have guests to show around, to play with and to help climb up on the ponies. The way their friends run full speed into a wide open pasture meadow reminds them how special they have it.

And I guess that’s what that big ‘ol roaster is making me think about today as I wash it up and put it away. The work is never ending here, but one task is done for the year and I have moved from being that kid climbing fences and trees and taking kids to my secret spots on the ranch, to the adult here that maybe they will remember for my branding day beans and roast beef sandwiches, and, more hopefully, for always making them feeling welcome here.

“Prairie Princess” Children’s Book Release

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem that asked a young girl to show us around her home on the ranch.

I had just moved back to my family’s ranch in western North Dakota and was living in my grandma’s tiny brown house in the barnyard with my husband. The task I gave myself was to do all the things I used to do as a kid on this place: pick handfuls of wildflowers, ride our horses, take long walks up and down the creek, help work cows, eat Popsicles on the deck, linger outside doing nothing as much as possible and, of course, slide down a gumbo hill in the rain (which turned out to only be a good idea because it made a good story and I didn’t die…).

During that time, I was in a state of transition having just quit a full-time fundraising job and left town with my dogs and my husband for home on the ranch. I wasn’t positive I made the right decision, but then I hadn’t really been positive about much for those first seven or so years of my 20s.

What am I doing back here? What should I be doing back here? Should I take another desk job? Should I hit the road again or switch my career path entirely?

Should we try again for a baby? Should we give up? How is a grown-up supposed to behave?

I had no answers. All I knew is that it felt good to be in that little house trying to make something out of all those chokecherries I just picked. And it felt good to be on the back of a horse trailing cattle to a new pasture with my dad and husband.

It felt good to take the time to throw sticks in the creek and watch them float with the direction of the little stream. And then I sometimes wished that I were that stick, letting the current take me where it will. Or maybe the house cat, the one that used to be the kitten we rescued from the barn, growing up with no concerns except about being a cat. If only being human was that simple.

But we make it complicated, and so I found that channeling the 8-year-old version of myself helped balance me a bit. I spent so much of that summer writing it all down.

That’s how “Prairie Princess” was born. Because I wanted that little girl to show me around this place, to tell me the way she sees it — catching snowflakes on her tongue, helping with chores, dancing along the ridgeline and singing at the top of her lungs. Just like I used to.

I tucked that poem away then, but kept it in the back of my mind as I found my direction and became a mother to two little girls who looked exactly like the Prairie Princess I envisioned in that poem.

And so, 10 years later, I decided it was time to make that poem come to life in the form of a children’s book, so the voice of that little girl could help other kids see the special connection and responsibility we have to the land.

I took photos of my own little girls on the ranch and used them as inspiration for the artist who so beautifully painted it. Daphne Johnson Clark is a friend of mine with rural roots here in Western North Dakota and she made the book come to life.

And now it’s here, after all these years.

To celebrate, I am visiting libraries, museums and other venues across the state to read the book, talk about sense of place and conduct a creative workshop that encourages kids to express themselves through art and poetry. And I hope I will see you out there.

Even if you don’t have a child to bring with you, I believe this story will help you remember what it was like when the world felt wide open and magical and all for you.

I hope you know it still is…

Click here to order a signed copy of Prairie Princess and other music and merchandise

Click here for the KFYR-TV News Interview about Prairie Princess (with a few words from the kids)

Click here for the KX-TV News Interview about the book

We’re all our own Christmas DJs

We’re all our own Christmas DJs
Forum Communication

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!

The glamour and the timing on a family ranch

“Heya! Can you go close the gate below the barn?” I yelled at my little sister on the other side of the cattle pens. I had a pencil in one mittened hand, a list of numbers in the other, and a sorting stick stuck under my arm. My going-to town-boots had kicked up a fair amount of mud and poop and slushy snow and deposited it right inside of my socks and up the back of my going-to-town-pants as I chased both man and bouvine around the corrals. I had been caught in the wrong outfit as I pulled back into the ranch that morning, bringing two little girls home from preschool.

This wasn’t the timing I was expecting, but there I was…

My little sister was sitting, one butt cheek in the side-by-side and one leg out the door, hanging on to her thirty-pound toddler while her dog bounced and begged to come in and those two little preschoolers sat beside her, one singing an original song about cows at the top of her lungs and the other holding her ears. Take a guess which one was mine…

My poor sister was caught in a “Here, hold my kid, the guys need help,” situation and just like that she was responsible for her children, a niece and a gate.

This wasn’t the timing she was expecting, but there she was…

“Which gate?” she hollered back.

“The brown gate below the barn!” both Dad and my husband chimed in, as if adding the color of the gate was going to be helpful to a woman who had all limbs occupied, forty-seven tabs open in her brain and couldn’t get the music to stop.

But she needed to hurry, we had a couple loads of cows to haul for the sale the next day and the rest of them were quickly headed to that spot where the fence had been down for repair the last few weeks. Should have thought of that earlier probably, but, as you are learning, that’s not necessarily the way we do things around here.

Oh, life on the family ranch—the only thing glamorous about it that day was the cute new sunglasses I was wearing and my good fall coat that wasn’t expecting to work so hard. But that’s the way it goes on a small operation, raising kids and careers and cattle, you must be prepared, at anytime, to step in poop and be fine with it.

Or to open or close a gate, which depending on the status of your fences can determine how the entire rest of your day goes.

And there are plenty of misconceptions about what it means to be a cattle rancher, the one I didn’t pay any attention to growing up was the amount of deadlines and dates you have to pay attention to in order to calve at the right time, sell at the right time and have enough feed and water along the way. And so that explains why it seems we’re always in a bit of a rush. Because on the ranch, if you think it’s going to take a couple hours, it almost always takes a couple more.

And if you think you fixed it, 98% of the time you return to find you only thought you did.

Anyway, little sister got the gate shut and we got the cows loaded and sent the guys on to the highway to get to Dickinson before dark. Because dark is the ultimate deadline and it comes early around here these days.  Once they left, my little sister and I took the kids into my house for snacks and whatever crafting project they could scrounge up while I ate a three o’clock lunch of handfuls of Wheat Thins and debated the best ways to get mud and cow poop off wool and leather.

It seemed we pulled it all together then as I cooked up some spaghetti and got the kids fed and bathed and ready for bed on schedule, feeling pretty good about nailing all categories of our life today.

Until my husband walked in the door and told me they arrived to the sale barn to find out there was no sale the next day…

And that’s not the timing they expected but there they were….

On Charity and showing our kids they are loved

Charity and showing our children they are loved
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The other day, Edie declared she was going to give one of her dolls to charity.

“Who’s Charity?” Rosie asked, confused as to why anyone would think to give a doll away, even if you have another just like it in your room. According to a 4-year-old, you can never have too many.

“Charity is for kids who don’t have toys. Rosie, there are some kids who don’t have toys!” Edie explained to her little sister who didn’t seem convinced of the plan.

And she put the doll in a leftover Happy Birthday gift bag and vowed to look through her things to find more toys to add to it.

Charity. I tried to explain the concept to them last year, when they were freshly 3 and 5. I took them through the house on a deep clean, going through toy boxes and drawers, under beds and in the basement, pulling out misplaced blocks and tiny jewelry and naked dolls with tangled hair and making piles for trash and piles for giveaway.

Which, of course, resulted in my two girls rediscovering stuffed animals and games they hadn’t snuggled or played with in a year and falling back in love. And so I had to resort to the covert operation of sneaking things into boxes and out to the car while they were asleep or at school.

They have too much stuff and I hate it. What a very privileged thing to say.

“Eat your supper please, don’t you know there are kids who don’t have enough to eat?!” Which is a very mom thing to say. And sadly, true. I only wish making my kids eat the last few bites of broccoli was going to change anything for the kids who need and deserve so much more in this life.

To raise my children with a grasp of gratitude and compassion is something that keeps me up at night. How lucky are we that this can be one of my main concerns? Because we have the means to keep our children clothed and fed and, additionally, celebrating birthday parties with friends, decorated in their favorite colors, serving their favorite foods. Which makes it hard for their little brains to get a grasp on a perspective. Isn’t every kid’s life like this?

And so I took an ornament off the giving tree last night after Edie’s kindergarten Christmas concert. She stood up there on that stage in a fresh new outfit, black tights and new red, sparkly shoes that we had to get in a size larger because she’s stretching and growing out and into so many things these days. Shoes are just one of them.

On our way home, Edie asked me what the ornament said.

“Girl. Age 6. Special requests: gloves, winter gear,” I replied. “We’re going to have to go shopping. Will you girls help me? I figured you would know just what she might like.”

Edie wanted to know what her name was. Rosie wanted to know how we were going to get her the toys if we didn’t know where she lived. How will she know it was from us?

How do you explain that it doesn’t matter? We don’t need credit. We don’t need to know her. We just want her to have a good Christmas. How do you explain what real need is to two small children who have everything they could want?

How do we give them what they need, but also make them understand what it means to work for it? How do we give them a charmed childhood and keep them grateful? How do we make them feel special, but keep them humble?

My daughters are coming to the age where they are becoming aware of the world around them, of the kids who have more and those who have less. How do we teach them to treat each with kindness and respect? How do we teach them to only compare in the way in which it makes them feel grateful, generous and compassionate?

When my little sister was a kid, she was out doing chores with Dad and asked him, “Are we poor?” My dad was taken aback a bit, wondering where this question was coming from. Turns out she noticed that we didn’t have a four-wheeler or a new pickup, a boat or bigger house like some of her friends.

“Would all of that make you happier?” he asked her. She thought probably no, but she was aware. And she was wondering.

If only we knew for certain that every child in this community was held safe and armed with what they needed to stand up against the tough elements of weather and life. If I could give the gift of reassurance and wrap it up in that box with the hat and gloves and Barbie doll, I would do it. If I could make my kids understand that in the long run, they won’t remember how many gifts were under the tree, but for a child who has none, well, that’s something that sticks with them.

And we can’t do so much about any of it, but we can do something. And so we did something.