Mother of Mermaids

I used to be a mermaid. For a land locked girl who only made it to the swimming pool in town once or twice a summer, it seemed unlikely. But my cousin and I, we would use the big rocks up on the hill next to the pink county road to mark out the boundaries of our underwater cove and then we would swim to the surface to sit up on those rocks and see the world from a new perspective, the perspective of a sea dweller.

And we’d pick our mermaid names, and declare the color of our hair and our tails and we would pretend we were weightless and spinning and flipping through the water, and that we held some sort of magic that we don’t have up here on the surface, on the prairie, where the summer heat browned our skin and flushed our cheeks and the wind whipped the curls out of our hair.

Who knew then, when I was 5 or 6 years old, that I would one day become a mother of mermaids. I saw my daughters’ final transformations recently when we headed to the lake cabin in Minnesota to carry out the tradition of spending the holiday with my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The weather was hot and sticky, and the lake was warm and clear. We had summer sausage sandwiches with potato chips and juice boxes, topped it off with a Popsicle and we moved from the shade to the sun to the water. All the elements seemed to be just right for the magic needed to make a mermaid out of a kid. And so off they went from the dock into the water, with no hesitation, just bare feet first, and then up to their armpits and then, poof, under the water they went to become a part of that little lake with all its mysteries and enchantment, down below the surface with the other swimming, slimy and shiny creatures.

And I didn’t notice the shift right away. I was out there myself, the way moms and dads are, to float and splash, supervise and clear away the dreaded seaweed. I heard them little by little make the declaration, the color of their fins, their mer-names, and the sea-monster older cousin they had to escape from. And after an hour or so, I thought they may want to come in for a break, maybe have an ice cream or warm up under the sun, but they couldn’t be distracted by such mundane human things. And so I sat my human body up on the dock, and then back on the floating hammock thing my mom bought online that looked bigger in the picture but worked just fine for observing mermaids. I watched them splash and screech and swim and play and I wondered if there is anything more magical than a kid in a lake, both things sparkling in the sun? I wondered if there could be any feeling more free than the dive of a little body, young and bursting with energy made for just this, learning with each bend of an arm, arch of a back, kick of a leg or water up the nose, what they’re capable of. What they truly love. Joy embodied.

And if you’re wondering, someone has to come up with a way to feed those who have just grown their tails. And so that evening, before the sun started to sink, before the fireworks crackled across the dark blue sky, I made those sea dwellers a paper plate full of ribs and corn on the cob and macaroni and cheese, and used it to bribe them back up on land.

You see, I used to be a mermaid once, so I know a little magic myself…

Yes, I used to be a mermaid. And those big rocks, well, they’re still there up on the hill next to the pink county road where my mailbox sits now. It’s all these years later, but if I stand up there and the wind’s just right, if I close my eyes tight, I think I might be able to be a mermaid again…

Sunday Column: How ranch people become lake people

Lake Sakakawea Sunset

It’s been hot out there lately. I just pulled my first harvest from the ground in my garden and it got me thinking about the long, hot weekends spent on the ranch when I was a kid.

Back before we had a boat just a couple lawn chairs and a cooler full of pop and juice boxes to lug to the shores of Lake Sakakawea, on days like this my sisters and I would come up with a plan to get a chance to swim in that big lake that was so close to the house (well like 20 mile or so) we could smell them catching fish out there.

At least that ‘s what we’d tell dad in our subtle suggestion that maybe baling hay could wait for the day.

Maybe it was time to hit the lake.

A few weeks ago I met a young girl who said she reads my column in the paper every Sunday. I thanked her for being such a loyal follower and asked her what she would like to read more about.

“Oh, I like the stories about your childhood,” she said.

And so, inspired by her and a recent trip to the lake where we loaded up the coolers, sunflower seeds, summer sausage sandwiches, nephew, sisters, gramma and grampa and headed to the big water on the new pontoon only to hit the water just in time for rain, I decided to write about the simpler days, enjoying the short lived summer on the “beaches” of that big body of water…

Coming Home: When the day’s just right, ranch people become lake people
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications 

It’s hard for ranch people to be lake people.

Between trying to keep the cows in the fences, the hay baled and the lawn mowed, there’s not much time left to spend an afternoon with a fishing pole in one hand, a beer in the other and your feet up on the dash of a fancy boat.

But when you live so close to the biggest lake in the state that you swear you can see it from that hill out east if the sky is clear and you tilt your head just right, it’s pretty hard not to work a few lake days into the schedule.

When I was growing up, a chance at a lake day meant the conditions had to line up just right to make my dreams of jumping off a flat rock on the shore into the cold, deep, murky water of Lake Sakakawea.

First, it had to be Saturday or Sunday, and both my parents needed to be home with plans on doing something that was utterly miserable to accomplish in the blazing 90-degree heat.

Which means that, secondly, it had to be either the month of July or August, and said blazing 90-degree heat had to magically fall on a Saturday or Sunday.

Now, we all know how rare it is that those two circumstances converge, but when they did, we girls needed to be on it. We needed to wake up with the scent of the lake in our nostrils, ready to feel things out and set the plan in motion.

Maybe Dad would come in from working on a broken-down baler, all sweaty and fed up in the already hot midmorning sun. Maybe Mom was in her shorts pulling weeds from the walkway, stopping every so often to put her hands on her hips and shield her eyes.

Maybe the bugs were a little bad out there because the wind wasn’t blowing and it wasn’t quite noon, and so I took the opportunity to walk out and pull a few weeds myself, sure to mention what a great day it would be for a little swim in the lake.

And then maybe we caught Dad in the house splashing water on his face at the kitchen sink so I said something about how I heard that the fish were biting up at McKenzie Bay while my little sister was out digging worms in the garden, and pretty soon the seed was planted. Mom started whipping up summer sausage sandwiches, Dad started hunting for the old tackle box on the garage shelf where he left it the previous July, and my sisters and I packed up our favorite beach towels, pulled on our swimsuits, loaded the lawn chairs in the back of the old pickup, grabbed a bag of sunflower seeds and milled around in the driveway waiting impatiently in the hot sun, but not saying a word as our parents made the slow migration toward the vehicle.

Now, back in the youth of our family, there was no budget for things like boats or Jet Skis, so we didn’t have to fuss with that. No. Our biggest concern was avoiding the potholes on the worn highway, leaving the windows open so we could spit seeds and cool down, and, when that big lake appeared before us in the windshield like an oasis nestled in the hot cliffs of the Badlands, it was our mission to find an acceptable “beach” on those rocky, weedy and muddy shores.

Lake Sakakawea

And for us, “beach” meant that the legs of Mom’s lawn chair didn’t sink in to her butt when she sat down, the poky Canadian thistle didn’t reach all the way to shore and that there was at least an acceptable amount of sand and/or flat rocks where we could throw out our beach towels, make our picnic, stick a fishing pole in the ground, eat our sandwiches and watch the fancy boats and Jet Skis drive by before finding a place to wash the heat, work and worry of the summer off in the waves of a lake that belonged to us for the few sweet, relaxing, fly-bitten hours that we, too, transformed into lake people.

Lake Sakakawea  

The day the water came to us.

This was our world last weekend as Pops, Little Sister and I rode through our fields and pastures. It was a beautiful nearly 60 degree day, the sun was shining and the scent of damp leaves filled the air as they crunched under the hooves of our horses. On days like these I convince myself the sky will stay blue forever.

But this morning I woke to a chill in the air that left frost on our windshields and a dusting of snow on the ground. The sky is gray and soon our world will turn white.

And I’m reminded how fast some things change.

I mean, wasn’t it just yesterday that Little Man was working on growing hair?

Now look at the guy. He’s growing up, honing his farming skills, learning to drive, and really getting the hang of that hair-growing thing.

Little Man turned 2 last weekend. His two-years-of-life celebration was another reminder that time changes things–just as it grows tomatoes it grows little boys…and sometimes I can’t tell which ripens faster.

But this week I was also reminded that not all change comes quickly. Some milestones are their own kind of miraculous.

See, on Wednesday this ranch was officially hooked into a rural water system that provides safe and clean drinking water to residents living along gravel roads miles away from the nearest city sidewalk. It’s a monumental event for those of us who depend on wells and springs to supply our family and farms with water for laundry, livestock, noodle cooking and baby feeding.

Out here among the gumbo hills that freeze solid in the winter and often dry up with the heat in the summer, the availability of a reliable water source has determined the fate of many farms and ranches, being the one non-negotiable variable when it came to the location of the house, the barn and the livestock pens.

When we determined the site for the new house last winter we were aware that we had the option of purchasing rural water, an option available to us that was not available to my parents or those who made their homes out here first. We made in a deposit and waited patiently as the system was put into place, a project that started with a vision and has taken over three years to come to fruition. For the three months that we’ve been living in this new home Husband has filled a giant tank in the back of his pickup with water from town, hauled it 40 miles down bumpy highways and gravel roads and hooked it up to this house so that we can take a shower, clean our dishes and fill the dog dish.

Without the rural water option, we could not have built our house here under my favorite hill tucked back in the oak trees–the same spot where the little ranch house was located when my father was a young boy. He and my aunt remember the day the family decided to move their home over the hill, back to the original Veeder homestead where a spring watered the livestock.  The decision was a result of a losing battle with a well that continued to sand in. Both my aunt and Pops have mentioned how disappointed they were to abandon their little oak grove to the treeless farmyard just over the hill, so much so that the 7 or 8 year-old Pops took to the hills with a bucket and a shovel and proceeded to transplant a series of native trees from the coulees to his new yard in an attempt to recreate his preferred surroundings.

Some of those transplanted trees still remain in that barnyard, the spindly but proud result of a little boy hauling water in buckets from the spring to encourage them to grow tall in the hard gumbo soil, to provide him shade and leaves to rake.

“A yard should have trees,” Pops declares whenever the moment is right, an opinion that determined the fate of my own childhood growing up in a house tucked alongside a creek-bed that winds through a thick mass of trees.

As a child I would take off my shoes, tie the laces together and swing them over my shoulder so I could walk in the water, following the creek as it bent and bubbled in the most secret places on the ranch. It was never a question to me what was here first–the water or the trees. I knew that if I were an oak I would take root next to the water.

I suppose trees aren’t that much different from people in that respect, only I don’t imagine trees have much to do with the politics involved in such a precious natural resource. They take what they need to grow and leave the rest in the ground for the next living thing that comes in for a drink.

Humans make it complicated. And the road to come up with a way to pipe and manage this fresh, clean and paid-for water that is now flowing out of the faucets and into the kitchen sinks and bathtubs of my neighbors miles away has not been without its politics, fights and complications.

But this morning I woke up to fill our coffeepot, just like I had done the morning before, and the morning before. But it meant something different today as I lifted the glass pitcher up to the window. Husband shuffled in behind me and we stood there for a moment, taking in the monumental fact that this water that will brew our coffee traveled for miles in a pipe from the big lake where we swim and fish, has been purified and pressurized and cleaned up nice and fresh to ensure our white clothes stay white and our ice-cubes crystal clear, this water in our coffeepot is ours. Reliably, clearly and without much worry.

When we lived in the old house last winter there were times when we came home, turned on the faucet and had no results. This would send Husband pulling on his snow boots, wool cap, gloves and coveralls to investigate the situation. It might have been wiring, or a bad pump, a short or something I never really understood, but either way, it was our responsibility to figure it out.

Our quality of life out here in the middle of rural America depended on it.

Today we don’t have to worry about such things.

Today if we wake to find we don’t have water, we can make a phone call and someone on the other end can help us find an answer.

Today I can’t help but think of my grandparents who built a house in their favorite spot, our spot, only to have to literally pick it up and move it to the water.

Today I think of the homesteaders out here on the prairie in the heat of summer or the cold of winter worrying about water. Worrying if there would be enough. Finding solutions to get it to their homes and livestock. Making tough decisions based on the source.

On Saturday my parents will get their rural water. My mom will no longer have to take her white clothes to town to be washed, a chore she’s been performing for years to avoid rust streaks on light clothing from the discolored water that comes from her spring. My Pops will no longer experience the worry of sleepless nights when the faucet is dry and he doesn’t know why.

The day the water comes my parents will celebrate a monumental occasion, a long-awaited change, that, for as long as we are living, will not be taken for granted.

The 105 pound heart

If you were the lab with your sleek coat and paws that make tracks like a wolf in the mud, your tail would clear a coffee-table with one sweep while running to the door to enthusiastically welcome the neighbors with an accidentally and completely oblivious swat to the groin.

And you would be confused as to why you didn’t fit on the couch, or on a lap, or in the arms of your favorite human, but nothing could keep you from trying.

Because if you were the lab your self perception would be slightly off. In your mind you would be fluff, weightless and wishing to fit in the palm of a hand, or in a pocket, or on the soft cushion of a chair all the while working to squeeze your body between the small spaces of this house, taking up the limited carpeting available for walking.

But if you were the lab you would be polite and move out of the way when prompted, not recognizing that perhaps you are indeed fluff after all…and the rest of the 105 pounds is taken up by your heart.

Because if you were the lab your heart would have to be big enough to fit in the one-eyed pug who came into your life as a little black, squishy blob with two eyes that couldn’t climb the stairs and quickly took over the house and the walks and the yard and the lap that used to belong only to you.

And your sticks. He would always be taking your sticks…

while biting at your back legs.

And yes, if you were the lab your 105 pound heart would give a nice growl, but never a snap, after the 330th time the cat bit your tail and you would attempt to protect the barnyard with enthusiastic barking, only to follow it up with head rubs and giant licks and tail wags and all of the things dogs that love their world do when approached by good humans.

And you would chase deer and pheasants and cows when told a million times to back off to go home, but you would avoid porcupines at all costs, forever remembering the single quill you once had barely dangling from your snout from the first and last encounter with the prickly demons. 

And in the depths of your slumber when you’re drooling from your floppy lips and your droopy eyes are closed up tight for the night, you would have nightmares about this, squealing and whining and moving your legs as you lay on your side.

If you were the lab you would drag out garbage, and bring home dead things and roll in poop and bark up trees and almost spontaneously combust at the site of your person putting on tennis shoes or boots or grabbing a gun or hitching up the boat for a trip to the lake.

You would be four years old with a gray beard and the softest ears and joints that seemed to ache when your old soul arose and you would howl at my harmonica with the same vigor you use to howl back at the coyotes at night…

and during the course of a day your 105 pound heart would fill up, combust and be broken 175 times.

Yes, if you were the lab all of that love and life and adventure you made room for in the 105 pound heart of yours—the pug, the tolerance and acceptance of the cats, the cow poop, the neighbors, the sticks and the fear of the sting of the porcupine would be incomparable, thrown to the wind, forgotten and completely and utterly abandoned at the first site of water….

…water, the only place you, the lab, is truly weightless…

…105 pound heart and all.

We’re like the water

We’ve got mud here people. It’s official.

And never has a girl been so happy to see this slop and slush and muck. I’ve have enthusiastically switched from snowshoes and boots with three inch insulation to those of a muck variety and I have no intention of dodging or jumping or leaping over any puddles or rushing streams.

I have every intention of stepping in as much of the stuff as I can.

Because we have mud people.

We have mud and blue skies

and a bug on my backpack

and magic sunshine that is turning those white drifts into rivers in places rivers only exist for a few short days during this time of year.

The time between winter and the full on sprouting, buzzing heat wave of spring. The time where the snow still peeks through the trees, the wind still puts a flush in your cheeks, birds are still planning their flights back home and the crocuses haven’t quite popped through the dirt.

My favorite time of year.

When I was a little girl I lived for the big meltdown. My parent’s home is located in a coulee surrounded by cliffs of bur oak and brush where a creek winds and babbles and bubbles and cuts through the banks. And that creek absolutely mystified me. It changed all the time, depending on rainfall, sunshine and the presence of beavers or cattle.

In the summer it was lively enough, home to bugs that rowed and darted on the surface of the water and rocks worn smooth by the constant movement of the stream flowing up to the big beaver dam I would hike to daily. In the typical North Dakota fall it became a ribbon carrying on and pushing through oak leaves and acorns that had fallen in its path. In winter it slowed down and slept while I shoveled it’s surface to make room for twists and turns on my ice skates.

But in the meltdown it was magical. It rushed. It raged. It widened in the flat spaces and cut deep ravines where it was forced to squeeze on through. It showed no mercy. It had to get somewhere. It had to open up. It had to move and jump and soak up the sun and wave to the animals waking up.

And I would follow it. I would become obsessed. I would step out on the back deck and at the first sound of water moving in the silence of our backyard I would pull on my boots and get out there to meet it, to walk with it, to search for the biggest waterfalls and gawk at how it would scream out of its banks and marvel at how it changed.

I would be out there for hours.  Around every bend was something a little more amazing–a fallen log to cross, a narrow cut to jump over, a place to test the water-proof capacity of my green boots. The creek runs through multiple pastures on the place and as long as the daylight would allow I would move right along with it for the miles it skipped along and then return home soaked and flushed and refreshed and completely and utterly exhausted.

And then I would do the same thing the next day. Because even as a kid I knew this magical time was fleeting. I knew the creek wouldn’t always act this outrageously marvelous so I had to get out there…because someone had to see this. And at that time, and still to this day, there are places on that creek that very few people have ever been.

But I was one of them. I was one of them and that creek was performing for me.  Oh, I remember feeling so secret. So special and lucky to have this show in my backyard. And although I loved summer and all the warmth and sunshine and green grass it brought with it, I never wanted this early spring witching hour to end.

I vividly remember a dream I had about the creek when I was about 10 or 11. I dreamed the creek behind my house was huge, like a river you would find in the mountains–a river I had yet to discover at that time. The landscape the creek wound through was the same in real life as it was in my dream–the oaks and the raspberries existed there–but the water was warmer and crystal clear and it pooled up at the bottom of huge and gentile waterfalls that rolled over miles of smooth rocks and fluffy grass. And I was out in it with friends I had never met before as an adult woman with long legs and arms and we were swimming in its water and letting the current push us over the waterfalls and along the bottom of the creek bed until we landed  in the deep water where we would float for a while and then launch ourselves out for another run. And we were laughing and screaming with anticipation for where that water was going to take us. But we were never afraid. We were never cold or worrying about getting home for dinner or what our bodies looked like in our bathing suits.

We were free. I was free. And the water was rushing.

We may never know if there is a heaven while we are here on this very volatile and fragile earth, but that there could be that much water and that much power and change rolling through our backyards and then one day we wake up to find that it has just quietly moved on and out and along still mystifies me to this day.

That there are snowbanks that fly in with the burning chill of winter’s wind and reach up over my head and stay for months on end only to  disappear in one day with the quiet strength of the sun is extraordinary for lack of a more powerful word.

That the water in my creek is made from the snow that fell from the sky in early November and is currently rushing around the trees, settling in hoof prints, being lapped up by coyotes and splashed in by geese and sinking in the earth and changing it forever is something that makes me believe in something.

…like perhaps we are like that drop that fell from above,  afraid of the mystery that was waiting for us as we hurtled through the atmosphere only to find when we finally hit the earth that we are not one drop alone in this world…

…we are the water.

The extraordinary ones…

The coulees that dot the landscape on the ranch are mystical places that I spent my entire childhood exploring. Each season they changed, and each year when I returned after a long winter, I found something new.

I walked them today again for the first time in several years and I was taken right back to the magic I feel they possess. I believe that the curious, the brave and special people that take the time to pick apart this prairie and get to the roots of the rough places give themselves a gift of beauty and life and discovery, losing themselves in a mystery like nothing else.

And so when I returned, I wrote….

There are secrets out here at the ranch that not many have explored. These secrets are quiet and hidden and full of magical life that only a watchful, imaginative eye can detect. This magic is not that far off the beaten path and most people, the ordinary people, never even turn a head or give this world a glance as they kick up dust from the tires of their SUVs.

But the special ones, they are curious. The special ones listen. They stand deathly still at the side of the road and hold their breath to hear through the wind and the traffic and the barking dogs. They lift a hand to shield their eyes and carefully take a step off the gravel—one step into the world. And then the brave ones take another and another…

Because they think they can hear something faintly calling to them saying, “hello up there” from way down below, under the tangle of grasses and cactus, along the base of trees, where the roots peek out from under the damp earth. So the curious ones, the ones who listen, move their eyes from the horizon and follow the call from the ground. Their feet bravely urge them to move from the top of the hills among the safety of the open prairie to the mysterious, damp, dark and prickly gullies of the surrounding coulees and creek beds.

They take in the panoramic view of cattails springing up like furry corn-dogs bouncing and bending on frail sticks in the breeze, congregating together under the care of the world’s largest street fair vendor. So the special ones are called to take a step a little closer and the smell of the marsh fills their nostrils as the once solid ground gives way to the dark mud under the reeds. And the water seeps into the brave one’s shoes.

A little startled, they look down and decide that soggy feet may be a small price to pay, because they’re on to something here. They need to get to the other side, to the trail that cuts along the creek that runs, uncommonly, up the banks of the ravine on a hot August day.

They wobble and slosh their way, deeper in, and with each step the voices get a bit louder, coaxing them to look down to the mushrooms and moss multiplying and spreading on the bark of the bur oak. The brave ones bend down to run their fingers along it, to feel the sponge of the mushroom’s fragile skin. Some might take a look underneath the caps of the fungus, not feeling at all silly at this point about making sure the stories of the fairies and the elves aren’t true. And they will be a little disappointed, really, to find, when they look, there is nothing there but a couple gnats…

And the curious ones have their eyes open enough to sense a soft rippling on the surface of the creek as the water bugs zip and glide and row and skim across the water. The brave ones feel the urge to jump in and splash with them, but don’t want to disturb the frail bugs.

Because, if not the fairies or the elves, maybe they are the ones who have called them here…

And when the voices (whoever they are) are drowned out by the buzzing of the mosquitoes and the air gets cooler and damper as the brush thickens up again along the path, even the brave ones can’t take it —they want to see the sky again, to see how the time has passed and how far they have gone. So they claw their way up the steep banks the creek has cut. They want to run to the top of the hill, but their legs are not meant to go so fast at times like these. Something slows them and they crouch to see how the tall grass looks against the overcast sky. They stand up and stretch their limbs to taste the ripe plumbs at the very tips of the thorny branches. The sweet juice pops in their mouths.

The curious ones bend down low to skim the vines for the rare red raspberries and wild strawberries underneath the mangle of green and they tiptoe along the juniper spreading up through the rocks and watch for the poison ivy that has, until the voices, deterred them from coming here.

And in their drunken wonderment, mouths puckered from sucking on the pits of wild berries and foreheads wrinkled from really seeing the small things, they are all surprised that the road has found them again, somehow.

Turning their heads back over their shoulder, they are bewildered by the look of it all from far away.

The trees put their arms around each other, moving so close together they all become one, the wind blows through the reeds, the grass stands up straight, the wild sunflowers spread open their smiles and everything (except the water who hides itself away, not so good at goodbyes) seems to wave at the brave and curious and special ones as they make their way home.

And the extraordinary people say a quiet word of thanks to the voices whispering their secrets, because the small world they thought they knew, the one they thought had belonged only to them, had become quite large indeed.

And after all that magic, it never looked the same again.