“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

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.

The Messy Middle

My husband and I moved home to my family’s ranch almost 10 years ago with a few little dreams that could live because of the big dream that came true when we decided to stay here forever.

Between then and now, it seems that we’ve learned most of our lessons the hard way (as if there’s any other way), maybe the most important one being that nothing happens in a straight line. Nothing is black and white. And sometimes we get there, short and sweet, but mostly it’s up and down and down further and further still and then up again and up again before we’re off shaky ground.

When you dream of your life as a little kid, do you dream of yourself at almost 40?

And then, if or when you marry the person you love, the vision is mostly of the wedding day and then hop, skip and jump to the two of you sitting side by side in rocking chairs, old and gray looking out into the sunset, reflecting on a beautiful highlight-reel history together.

That whole part where you wake up at 5:30 every morning to get yourself and the kids groomed and fed and out the door and then to school and then to gymnastics and then home and then supper and then bath and then bed and then up and at ‘em the next morning, that’s the less popular middle part of the dream-come-true.

The number of times you sweep the kitchen floor only to do it five minutes later after the kids spill the cereal or dump out the Play-Doh or your husband rushes in with muddy boots to grab the wallet he forgot. The flat tires and broken tail lights.

The stomach flu, the amount of grilled cheese you’ve charred on the stove because the kids are fighting over dolls or clothes, the arguments about closing cabinet doors that really aren’t about closing cabinet doors, the huffs and eye rolls, the little laughs, the banter, the leftovers that mold in the fridge — all of that we skip over in the planning and dreaming and the telling of our lives.

But the cancer diagnosis, the infertility, the loss of the people you love, the divorce, the firing and layoffs, the big epic failures, those things, those traumatic things, they stick in your guts, expanding sometimes to tug on your heart, to punch your ribs, to help keep you bruised and broken and human the same way we take all the good stuff and say we’re grateful, not giving proper credit to the hard stuff that likely deserves the accolade, too.

And I know what I’m trying to say here, but I guess I’m taking the long way. This month we lost a classmate. In my small junior high and high school, she was one of my favorites, who, upon graduation, became a person I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.

And as I sat in that pew in that church next to my high school boyfriend who became my husband, surrounded by individuals who have woven in and out of our lives throughout the years, I couldn’t help but feel robbed. Not personally really, but on her behalf. Because she left us smack dab in the middle of her middle part, in the mushy and complicated center of her dream, in the part that may be skipped over in the Cliffs Notes version but is, in reality, where all the best stuff lies — the characters, the mistakes, the complicated relationships and small and big wins building and brewing and growing and culminating to get us to that last chapter, you know, the one with the rocking chair…

She didn’t get her rocking chair, but then, it was never promised in the first place.

So I guess what I want to say is something that’s hard for me to recognize when the mundane or hectic tasks of the days overwhelm me. That task is part of the day is part of the little plan that is part of the big plan and maybe, if you take a breath, if you pull out the weeds and worries that want to convince you otherwise, you might find that right where you are, sweeping that dirty floor, or rolling your eyes, or losing an argument, is sorta right where you dreamed you’d be someday. You just forgot to give the middle part the credit it deserves.

One of the helpers

He loves to help
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Here’s the scene: My little sister running up to me as I was about to pull the door shut on the passenger side of my car. Someone in the parking lot of the rodeo grounds blocked her big ol’ SUV in, so she couldn’t pull forward and she couldn’t pull backward, and Lord help her, with a 30-mile drive home, they were all on the brink of a meltdown.

My little sister isn’t known for her confidence behind the wheel, and with two little kids in the back seat who had been running around the rodeo grounds for three straight hours — three straight hours past their bedtime — she wasn’t looking forward to testing her skills that night.

Hence, her running toward me in the dark parking lot saying thank goodness Chad’s still here.

I did note that she didn’t ask me to drive her out of there. I mean, I only failed my driving test once, but I’m more than happy to pass those tasks along to my husband, if I even had a choice. He was walking over there and in the driver’s seat and out before she even finished explaining herself.

Our daughters were in the back seat and, of course, asked what Daddy was doing. I said he was helping. And one of them replied, “Yeah, Daddy loves to help.”

And that sorta stopped me there. Because there couldn’t be anything more true about the man except if they would have said, “Daddy likes to save things.” Which is also related to that helping statement. Helping. Saving. Restoring.

The man is a fixer-upper, and not in the way in which he needs fixing necessarily (I mean, nobody’s perfect). But if there’s something to fix, call him and he’ll see what he can do about it. Same goes with pulling things out of ditches, ravines or, in the case of me and the four-wheeler, just really deep mud I should have avoided entirely.

And if you need it lifted, he can lift it. And if he can’t, he’ll make a contraption that will help him lift it, because my noodle arms and I certainly can’t be trusted to help him pull the giant fridge up your narrow basement steps. He’ll just do it himself, thank you. It’s much quicker and less whiny that way.

It occurs to me now that perhaps I shouldn’t broadcast this in statewide newspapers, because it’s like if you’re the guy who has a pickup, then you’re the guy who moves all your friends. But Chad has always been the guy who has a pickup, and access to a flatbed or horse trailer, so yeah, he’s the guy who moves all the things. (Same goes with roofing projects it seems, but anyway…)

Which means he’s probably also the guy who has had the world’s most engine trouble and flat tires. Because we never said these trailers or pickups were in the best working condition. But never mind that. The man probably has a jack and a couple spare tires, at least seven tarp straps, a toolbox full of fluids and tools, and a chain or two in case he drives by someone who needs a tow once he’s back in business.

The time I got stuck in our driveway. Was three years ago and Edie still reminds me…

Now that I think about it, the man has made a business out of it actually, at long last — Rafter S Contracting, for all the stuff that needs fixing or flipping.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Let me get back on track. I think why I started was to tell you that my husband is leveling up his helping qualifications by training as an EMT. Because, as he put it, as a first responder, he didn’t like the feeling of helplessness at a scene. If there’s something more to be done, well, let’s go ahead and do it. Let’s figure it out.

A community, a thriving community, exists because of people with this mindset. People’s lives are literally saved because people exist with this mindset. This is a hands-down truth that we see every day.

Chad helping my sister that night, and Chad (and his classmates from our community) going to EMT training two nights a week and some weekends for months on end, reminds me of our responsibility here. And it pushes me to think of what I should be doing to make this a better, a safer, more compassionate place to live. That question, shouldn’t it be the thesis of our lives?

“He loves to help.” Well, what a thing to show our children…

Happiness is a wild plum patch

Happiness is a wild plum patch
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Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies. They start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.

Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees. They mean Dad’s stories of Grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums, drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.

They mean memories of Grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.

They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal conditions, a reminder we all need from time to time. Wild plums mean a passing surprise on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.

A wild plum patch means listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.

“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”

“Keep ’em out of the cow poop!”

“Are you eating them, Jess? Hey, no eating!

“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”

Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees. I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking. I could. Maybe I will.

But even if I didn’t, even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.

Tiny, perfect things

There is a hill on the ranch that is completely covered in tiger lilies. My little sister went on a ride with Dad and they discovered them, a scattering of bright orange petals opening up to the bright blue sky.

It has been a dry year here, with our spring rain coming to us late, and so our wildflower crop is just now appearing. And this news about the tiger lilies may not seem so thrilling to some, but it’s exciting for us.

Because the flower is so perfect, and so exotic looking, and they don’t always come up every year. So when they do, we feel like we have access to our own personal florist, Mother Nature.

I don’t know if everyone has a favorite flower, but the tiger lily is mine. I carried them at my wedding, a bouquet of orange walking with me down a grassy, makeshift aisle in a cow pasture. We had to mow and build benches and move cow pies to make it presentable for guests, but we didn’t get rid of all of the cactus. My little sister found this out as she was making her trek down the aisle in front of me. I didn’t know if she was crying because of the cactus in her leg, or if she was so happy for us. I think a little of both.

Anyway, that’s what happens when you live in a wild place. No matter how you try to tame it, the flies and the thorns, the barn swallows and the raccoons, they don’t care about your fancy new deck furniture that you got for the family reunion — they will show up to eat the cat food and then poop on it.

And so then you sort of become wild, too. I know because I caught myself standing outside in my underwear one morning yelling at the birds to find a new place to make their messy clay nests. Not here, swallows. Not on the side of my house! And my husband? Well, he likes to scare raccoons at midnight… also in his underwear.

Anyway, I guess that’s why the wildflowers seem so special out here. For so much of the year we’re battling the elements, praying for rain, shoveling snow, bundling up, tracking mud in the house, pulling burs out of horses’ manes, cutting down weeds and clearing and cleaning and building and doctoring. The wildflowers, especially the tiger lily, seem like a reminder that there is perfection in this world, in the smallest things. Tiny, pretty miracles surviving despite and because of the hot sun and clay dirt.

I took my girls to that tiger lily hill the other day to check out this year’s crop. On the way they were singing Bible school songs they just learned, doing the actions and repeating the lines over and not quite right the way little kids do in the cutest way.

They had never seen a tiger lily before, and so it was a fun and easy Easter egg hunt, each girl grabbing up more than a handful of the flowers and thrilled with it all. With the familiar songs they were humming, and their sun-flushed cheeks and mosquito-bit arms, I couldn’t help but think: Now isn’t this the quintessential ranch summer?

I wonder what they will remember about being a little kid out in these hills. Do they feel as wild and free as I used to feel out here, enamored with the mystery of this place and how it can change so magically by the hour, the sun sinking down, turning the tips of the trees and grass and my daughters’ hair golden?

I hope so. I hope they feel as wild and beautiful and as loved as those lilies, because they are to me. My own little tiger lilies on the hilltop, growing before my eyes.

My favorite little flowers reminding us that there are perfect things in this world.

Free and safe and lonesome…

There’s a hill outside my house we call Pots and Pans.

When we were kids, my cousins and I would take the trek from my grandparent’s barnyard, past the bulls munching on hay, over the corral fences, along the dusty cow trail, up big granite rocks, stopping to declare we were kings and queens of the world, taking a juice box from our fanny packs to sit for a break along the way, kicking up little cactuses to add to the drama and adventure of finally making it up to the peak where old pots, pans and sifters waited for us among the sandstone rocks so that we could pretend the way kids do, while the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks.

And we could see everything from way up there. We could see the red barn our grandpa moved in with his brother and dad 50 years before. We could see the grain bins and the black cows and the sorrel and bay horses and the line of old fence posts trying to hold them in. The reflection of the hot sun on the stock dam and the tops of the oak trees bending in the relentless wind. And the mailbox and the pink road cutting through it all. We could see it all up there and I remember it making me feel free and lonesome and safe all at the same time.

And we were just kids, so we could have played anything up there. We could have been superheroes or dinosaurs, gold miners or Jesse James and his gang. We could have been magical fairies or mermaids or wild horses even. Kids that age, in the sweet spot between 3 and 10, with space and freedom like that, we could have been anything.

But we gathered those pots and pans up and we pretended to be grown-up versions of ourselves making supper for our children out of dirt and sweet clover, washing dishes, singing to them and putting them to bed in the house we made from the boundaries of the rocks and the tree line.

We could have been anything, and so we pretended to be grown-ups. What a thing to pretend. If we only knew how much of it really becomes cooking supper and tidying up the messes we make, tucking one another in at night and wondering what it’s going to be like…

Because we thought that we would someday be old enough and know enough to be as free as we wanted to be. No more rules. No more bedtime. No more supper table to sit at until we finished the spinach on our plates. We didn’t know then that maybe, on that hilltop, picking cactuses out of our little cousin’s bare legs, that we may have been as free as we’ll ever be.

Last week, we gathered up on that hilltop again, all of us cousins, over 30 years later, carrying our children on our backs, or holding their little hands, explaining the magic to our husbands and boyfriends, stepping on cactuses and gathering up the old pots and pans that had scattered down the bank over the years, just like us I suppose, gathered up from Texas and Minnesota and South Dakota and from just down the road outside the houses we put here, under that big hill, all grown-up now, like we wanted to be.

If you’ve ever wondered, like me, what keeps us bound to one another, I wonder if it isn’t as simple as the memories. It sounds silly, but for us cousins, it only had to be as epic as finding kittens in the old barn, or pretending that pink road was made of yellow bricks and one of us was Dorothy.

We held onto one another because we were given time and space to create a bond on a landscape with no agenda but to be to us what we dreamed it to be. And so the years between then and now, in the growing-up part that took us far from those hilltops, we held those memories, those old pots and pans and cactuses and black cows and clay buttes as a part of us.

Standing on that hilltop with them again, all these years later in the thick of the messy and wonderful and complicated lives we built, the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks again. We could see everything… free and safe and lonesome, all at the same time.

Maybe it’s the rain

Maybe it’s the rain
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I’ve been working on another book the past few months. Like the last, it’s a compilation of some of my favorite photos, columns, blogs, poems and recipes from the past 10 years I’ve spent documenting what it means to raise kids and cattle and make a life on the ranch.

Like the last, it’s been a nostalgic and difficult project to take on with full-time work, ranch life and two loud and wonderfully distracting kids in the house.

I typically don’t spend much time looking back on what I’ve written because I have to focus on what to write. And so I’ve been seeing our lives a little differently lately, thinking about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t, how some things have changed completely and how some things haven’t changed at all, and it’s from that place that I share this piece on that limbo between past and present, a reflection brought on by the rain.

It was late August, and it had been hot for weeks, the kind of heat you remember as a kid, where Popsicles melt on sticks in the heavy air that sends the flies gathering at horses’ bellies and driving them to bob their heads and swish their tails in the trees.

We were sweating it out in the little house in the barnyard where my grandparents used to live, three years into our marriage and three months into unpacking our lives back home at the ranch where I was raised. And it was only six years ago, but we were just kids, really, with plans big enough to keep us busy.

But that day we resigned to the weather, keeping busy with tasks in a house that was sinking and shrinking with the weight of time.

And then the clouds rolled in, dark and as ominous as the lightning on the horizon, and we found ourselves standing, noses pressed to the screen door, watching the water form new rivers and waterfalls in the corrals.

The buttes in the horse pasture turned from rock to slick mud in a matter of minutes, and soon I found myself running behind my new husband through the mud, past the new barnyard river and scrambling up to the top of those buttes where we stood side by side before launching our bodies down the steep bank of that hill, sliding on the slippery, wet gumbo, just like we used to do as kids.

I’ve told this story before. You may remember it and how it ended in bruises, bloody scrapes and a heap of laughter spilling out into that dark, rainy night.

I’m thinking about it now because last weekend I found myself out in the rain again with my husband. We were riding through an unfamiliar pasture looking for a couple stray cows. The day was still, but the sky kept spitting on us, a little mist followed by small, flying drops hitting our cheeks and gathering on our horses’ manes.

It was a quiet rain, the kind that seems to clean up the landscape, making the colors richer against the gray sky. And I just kept looking at my husband on the back of his bay horse, his black hat and red scarf moving along the big landscape, and I started thinking about the times in my life where the rain made the moment.

I decided this was one of them.

And it was perfect timing, I think, following behind him on trails where he broke branches for me or hollered my name from a hilltop. We were doing work, and we were living out a plan, rain or shine.

But that day, I preferred the rain, because I was starting to wonder if it is possible to spend the rest of my life here without losing the magic of this place. A few days before, I received a note from a man telling me that my life seemed romantic in a way that few people know and that I was lucky for it.

I sort of felt like a fraud, wondering if I gave him a false conclusion. Settling into a new life as a mother and a new partnership as parents, no matter how much we wanted it, hasn’t been an easy and seamless transition. I’ve been struggling with it in ways I hadn’t expected.

I began to wonder if I was the same woman who slid down that gumbo hill with that young man six years ago.

We pushed up the bank of a wooded coulee, and I listened to the rain hitting the leaves and the branches break against the chest of my horse, and I thought about how I was taught to lean forward as a horse takes you through the trees so that you don’t catch one to the face and get pulled off.

It’s a lesson I reach back for when I’m in the thick of it, the same way I reach back for the girl who kissed a boy under that old oak tree in the field, promising him forever, no matter the weather.

So maybe it’s the memories we make that keep this place magic.

Or maybe it’s just the rain.

Rain on the Buttes

I’ll be performing at the TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, Minn., on June 17 and in Jamestown, N.D., on June 24. Hope to see you all out and about!

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

I write it down

guitar

Coming Home: I write it down
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As a writer who documents my life weekly, the gift I get in exchange for the deadlines is a chance to look back on previous versions of myself.

Because sometimes I feel compelled to look back, like I did last night as I tried to quiet the worries that come with full-blown adulthood, a worry much different from the ones I used to possess.

In a few weeks, my little sister will be moving her family to the ranch. They’ll build a house right down the road from us. When they’re all bigger, our girls will be able to meet on their bikes to play. In fact, if the wind is right and they find a hill, they could stand outside and yell to make plans.

Time will tell if they ever figure that one out — the same way time has shown us.

Seven years ago, I sat with my little sister on the love seat in the back room of my parent’s house while she was home deciding the next step to take after college, deciding whether or not to move back. And we were a bit younger then, but the same amount of uncertain about how it might all turn out.

The love seat was small and so my sister and I were shoulder to shoulder, and my other shoulder was smashed up against my husband’s leg as he leaned back, sprawled out on the arm of the overstuffed piece of furniture. The three of us, we were a sandwich, and I was the lettuce, the cheese, the pickle, mayo and turkey. They were the bread and we were everything you needed for a good bite.

We closed our eyes and listened to dad blow the air from his lungs through the harmonica he wore around his neck. We heard a lonesome sound, one that’s familiar and haunting.

I got a shotgun, a rifle and a four-wheel drive

And a country boy can survive…

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

We leaned in closer, not knowing then what those words might mean after more years passed, his hair more silver than it was yesterday, his fingers callused, his voice ringing with those pieces of gravel that dug their way in from years of playing songs like this in bar rooms.

We didn’t know then. We just knew it was quiet that night. The dogs were asleep and the trucks were taking a different route. We knew the stars were out.

Country folks can survive…

In the kitchen, the warm scent of brownies my mom was frosting fresh from the oven drifted back to us smooshed together, the sandwich, on the love seat. I couldn’t see her from my position as the lettuce, cheese, pickle, mayo and turkey, but I knew my mother was sipping wine and running her long fingers along the pages of a new magazine.

Everything I ever knew for certain then was filling my lungs and my ears, touching my shoulders and swaying along to all of the things I was on the inside. What I didn’t know didn’t matter then.

I was his lungs and heart and pieces of his gravelly voice.

I was her fingers and worries and holidays.

I was his good-nights, his battles and his wishes.

I was her blood, her memories… her shoulder.

And I remember thinking that if I were not those things, I might not exist at all.

But we are much more now, that sandwich, busy now becoming pieces of the new little hearts we’ve created. And time will reveal to us the rest, but it isn’t good at helping us remember, so I write it down.

The in-between pages