You Can Always Come Home

Alan Jackson is one of my favorite country artists. He has just released a new album titled “Angels and Alcohol”. I clicked on the NPR page to listen to that song with the same title and for some reason, the website played “You Can Always Come Home” instead. Now…I don’t really believe in coincidences. After all I’ve been through in my life, I just don’t think they exist even on the smallest of scales.

As I listened to the first lines of the song, I knew I’d love the song. So, I closed my eyes and let the words penetrate my soul.

With my eyes closed, I could picture Dad, the ranch, the Breaks and the different times I left home only to return. This song radiates the story of my book and I had tears in my eyes by the time the song was over.

I’ve copy/pasted the website address here and hope you can listen to it. After you click on the link, you’ll have to click on the song under “My Playlist”.

Turn the volume up…close your eyes and let the words penetrate your soul…

http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html…

Yearly Reminders

April through July…a tough time in my history. Mom died in May and that’s also the month of Mother’s Day. Her birthday is in July. So..basically, when the Mother’s Day cards start showing up in April, the reminders start. The reminder that I don’t have a mom. And, now, the reminder I don’t have a dad.

I used to buy Dad a Mother’s Day card because…well..he was also my mom! The first time I gave him one, he shook his head and said “What the hell you do that for?” But I could also see that shit-eatin grin on his face too…he loved it and loved it every other time after that I got him a card. So to me..Mother’s Day is now a double whammy to the gut because both of my mom’s are gone.

So, how do I cope? Well..I focus first and foremost on my best friend. My big sister, Nona, who I nicknamed “Mom” years ago. She was only eight when Mommy died and she took over the mothering on the ranch. She’s not like me. She’s more quiet, reserved and has always been more of a loner. I’m the loud mouth; the instigator; the one who comes out swingin in a fight. Not her. No…Nona won’t slash your tires if she’s pissed at you. She’ll just quietly loosen the valve stems to let the air out. Nona is also a mom AND grandma now. She’s my inspiration. Truly..my wind beneath my wings. So, when April rolls around, I focus on her and what a beautiful person she is. I also focus on all the other moms out there. I see their posts on Facebook about how much they love their children and these beautiful messages touch my heart.

I get through May much easier these days. Then…June comes and it’s kind of okay…just a period of waiting. Kind of like April because I know there’s another milestone coming up.

Mom’s birthday.

July 17th. It slowly rolls around and I do the math. This year she would have been 88. Wow…hard to imagine she would be that old. Why? Because her face is frozen in time at the age of 20-something in her nursing picture. She CAN’T be 88…she’s still 20. She’s still 41 – how old she was when I was born. She’s still 44 – how old she was when I died.

My niece, Amy, shares her birthday. I wish it were my birthday.

I guess God had other plans.

July passes. Then fall…the time I miss Dad the most. I miss the butchering and watching him read the spleen of a pig to predict the weather. I miss seeing him on his old Massy Harris combine cutting our piddly-ass crop of wheat. I miss smelling cigarette smoke mixed with sweat and Old Spice aftershave. I miss hunting with him and riding over country that would make most men pee their pants in our old Jeep Willys pickup. I miss watching him slap his knee in laughter of pride when I shoot a deer with one shot…open sights.

October comes. We used to have family reunions on the ranch but like the tumble weeds that roll over the dried gumbo at the Ranch, we’re all scattered now. Dad’s birthday approaches..October 25th. I miss making him DBC (Damn Black Cake) or carrot cake…his two favorite cakes…from scratch.

Then, October passes and Thanksgiving and Christmas come around. Memories flood through my head…only to be subsided just enough to get me through the winter.

Starting next April, the reminders will come around in full force again.

The Breaks

The Missouri River Breaks of central Montana hold a unique beauty that is unsurpassed by any other land on earth. The Breaks, as they are affectionately called, are not like the prairie regions of Montana that are considerably more flat and can be tree-less for miles. They are also not mountainous like the western region of the state with high peaks and abundant trees that usually obstruct ones view. I often tell people that the Breaks are the happy medium of the two. High ridges covered in sage brush, juniper, grass, pine and fir trees may roll along for miles before they break off on the end and drop to a coulee, or the Missouri River that winds through the region, below. Thus, the name of the region came to be known as the Missouri River Breaks. In many places, bentonite hills that look like lumpy, rolled bread dough from a distance stand stark-white against a background of these ridges. Mica rocks glitter in the bentonite and will inspire prankster adults to convince the young or innocent that they are walking on a diamond mine. In many areas, sandstone rock cliffs protrude off the edges of the ridges or hills and expose quiet shades of orange, yellow and white. Sometimes, the soft rays of a Montana sunset will make these cliffs appear as though they are on fire and offer yet another contrast to the landscape.

Talk of a land of contrast! Many times over the years I’ve walked off a ridge that was arid and dry to the bottom of a coulee to find myself surrounded by fir trees looming above me so large that very little daylight streamed through their branches. In these deep coulees the dark air is heavy, damp and musty. Ferns and plants more commonly known in places like western Washington grow underfoot and the tree branches are often draped with heavy moss. Small pockets of water can be found, even in the driest of summers, and it is not uncommon to stumble upon a small spring. This is an important element for the wildlife and domestic livestock that are in the area. Water is priceless in this arid land and when the rains do come, there’s almost a sound of relief heard as the soil soaks up every drop sometimes turning it into a form of soup.

“Gumbo: not a soup you eat” is a common joke for the Breaks folk. In fact, I didn’t even know gumbo was a soup until I was in my early twenties and had met some people from Louisiana. I only knew it to be a substance of wonder, and one to be respected. When dry, this clay soil can be as hard as concrete. A 100 ton rock truck can drive across it and not cause a dent. However as soon as a rain storm hits, or the spring snow melts, this soil turns into a grey-brown, snotty goop that will make a 4-wheel drive pickup travelling at a snail’s pace slide into the ditch quicker than any sheet of ice. If packed into the wheel-wells of a vehicle when wet, and not cleaned out before it dries, it will turn back into concrete immobilizing the vehicle until chunks of it can be freed with a pry bar. Yes, I learned to admire and respect gumbo at a very young age because it was underfoot everywhere I travelled throughout the Breaks area where I grew up. There were many adventures in this place that was my backyard when I rode with Dad or my siblings around the country. The house was home base of course and from there we could easy hunt the mule deer that frequented the area by either taking a short drive or even walk a small distance. However, if the rains came or the snow melted, it was the gumbo that would keep us home-bound until the sun and wind dried the ground enough for us to venture away from the house.

Many adventures filled my childhood as I explored this region of Montana that is filled with beauty and history. My stomping grounds were primary located east of the small town of Winifred, west of Montana Highway 191, south of the Missouri River, and north of Knox Ridge Road. The area is central to the entire Missouri River Breaks region and known for its historical significance. In the late 1800s, famous outlaws including Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid, had a hide out on the north side of the Missouri River near the gold mining town of Zortman. Baker Monument, only 10 miles east of the ranch, was named for a lesser-known cattle rustler who was hung in the area by a posse that had chased him all the way from Miles City sometime in the same time period. Cow Island, an island on the river about 5 miles north-east of the ranch, is where Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce crossed the river in their flight to Canada to escape Indian reservation life in 1877. The route of Chief Joseph and his band is famous as they crossed through Romanstead Pass in the Judith Mountains and travelled towards the river to the crossing at Cow Island. Common sense would say due to the navigation of the land, this famous band of Indians would have trekked through the area I considered my back yard during my childhood.

I always felt that the house where I grew up sits just inside the boundary of the Breaks in this region of the area. The road from Winifred, where I went to school, winds 23 miles in a north-easterly direction through prairie lands that are checker-boarded with sage brush state sections and private sections filled with fields used to produce a variety of grain crops. The last quarter-mile of the road cuts between a large bentonite knob covered in trees that my sister and I named “Rattlesnake Butte” on the left and a gentle ridge covered with trees on the right. As the house comes into full view, the first real glimpse of the Breaks since leaving Winifred emerges in sight. Behind the house is a small alfalfa field that is divided from a sage brush flat by a barbed wire fence. Beyond the sage brush the dark evergreen trees begin and Murphy Coulee can be detected by the black, v-shaped cut that runs north on the surface of the landscape. It blends into Woodhawk Coulee that is also defined by v-shaped cuts that run in an east-west direction. Behind Woodhawk, the large bare hills of Middleton Ridge, and the scattered- tree-covered Sunshine Ridge, can be seen as the eyes stretch farther north until, finally, they land on the blue Bears Paw Mountains just south of Havre. This view was one of Mom’s favorites. It was no wonder why she and Dad decided this would be the place to build the house where they would live for the rest of their lives. When Mom died, Dad buried her on a hill above the house overlooking this same view.

People Die; Life Goes On

We were poor and that meant hand-me-down clothes, sourdough pancakes for breakfast every morning, and venison steak for supper every night. All but 40 acres of the big ranch had been sold and the Farmer’s Almanac wasn’t always true to its predictions when it called for years of plenty. Poor, dry-land farmers in central Montana couldn’t afford the latest technology to produce good crops and water was a precious commodity. So, we prayed to God for rain in the dry years and for the sun to come out when the ground was too wet for planting our crops. Along with his faith, Dad threw in common sense and wives’ tale wisdom into the mixture of his survival recipe. The Farmer’s Almanac was always within reach on the table next to Mom’s bible and the radio on the kitchen counter was always tuned into the Havre radio station for the weather and agriculture report. We planted our crops and vegetable garden in the spring after the ground thawed and the moon was in the right phase. The butchering was done in the fall and I remember looking over Dad’s shoulder as he read the spleen of a hog to predict the weather of the oncoming winter.

Growing up dirt poor in the Breaks with parents was hard enough. Not having a mother to keep the softer side of life’s balances in check was even tougher. At least, that’s what so many people have said to me over the years. “You poor little thing! I can’t even imagine what you’ve gone through not having a mother. And your dad! How could he raise you girls all by himself…and out in the wilds of the Breaks?” The intentions were pure and I still believe that people truly did care. Like me for many years, however, most of them were so focused on Mom’s missing presence they forgot about the man who was still standing firmly on the ground making the best of a tragic situation. To my knowledge, Dad never wallowed in any kind of self-pity over losing his wife. It seemed as though he approached Mom’s death like he did whenever an animal died on our ranch. Death was a part of life and, while Mom was the love of his life, he had no choice but to carry on without her. He had kids to raise, so he just kept moving forward each day, putting one foot in front of the other. Mom died, life went on and it was as simple as that.

A Background

When Mom died, she left my dad with six out of ten children to raise by himself on a forty-acre ranch in the Missouri River Breaks of central Montana. The year was 1971 and I was only two years old. My sister, who is six years older than I, was the only other female in the house. The oldest of the six children still living at home at the time was a senior in high school. Dad never remarried, but instead chose to raise his kids the best he could with whatever God gave him.

We grew up tough because there was no other option. While trying to eke out a living by raising a few hogs, potatoes and small grain crops, Dad didn’t have time for much coddling. All but 40 acres of the big ranch had been sold and Publisher Clearinghouse never did show up on our doorstep so there was no room for whining and wishing for things that would never come to be. Dad expected us kids to do what we were told, but he also taught us to think. “Use your damn head!” was an expression he voiced when I was working on schoolwork, operating the farm equipment, or trying to navigate through a heart wrenching divorce. This stubborn Montana farmer ingrained in me that a person’s word, a direct look in the eye, and a firm handshake were just as valuable as any signed contract. He always told me that if I were ever in the wrong on something, then I must admit this, correct the situation as best I could, and move on. However, if I felt with all my strength that I was in the right, he would back me until the bitter end.

Growing up dirt poor in the Breaks with parents is hard enough. Not having a mother to keep the softer side of life’s balances in check is even tougher. At least, that’s what so many people have said to me over the years. “You poor little thing! I can’t even imagine what you’ve gone through not having a mother. And your dad! How could he raise you girls all by himself…and out in the wilds of the Breaks?” The intentions were pure and I still believe that people truly did care. But, like me for many years, most of them were so focused on Mom’s missing presence they forgot about the man who was still standing firmly on the ground making the best of a tragic situation. To my knowledge, Dad never wallowed in any kind of self-pity over losing his wife. He just kept moving forward each day, putting one foot in front of the other. Mom died and life went on.

I wondered about Mom of course. A child has no knowledge of psychology and all of the clinical definitions that could be used to describe the effect of my mom’s death on my psyche. All I knew was that this woman that everyone else knew, and who was dressed in a nursing uniform staring out at me from an 8×10 picture frame, was someone who was supposed to be in my life but simply – wasn’t. For many years, I was envious of my brothers and sisters because they had known her. My ever-present curiosity of this woman I never knew was fueled by story after story from my siblings of how she would give them rides in the wagons they had. Swimming in the CCC reservoir below the house on hot, summer days and going ice skating on the frozen ponds on the old place during the cold Montana winters were activities they were able to share with her. During my childhood, when my siblings would talk of her, I tried to imagine what life would be like with her around.

“Remember the time she shot Dad’s pigs?” My older brother, David, laughed as he looked across the table at Jim, the middle brother of the five.

        “Oh shit, yeah! She was pissed! But the Old Man finally got the fence built didn’t he?” and they both laughed as I begged them to tell me more.

        “Well,” Dave started, “Dad had these pigs over at the old place, and they kept getting into Mom’s garden. She kept telling him ‘Lester, if you don’t help me get that fence built around that garden, we’re gonna have pork on the table sooner than you think.’ But Dad just never got around to it and this went on for a while. Finally one day, Dad came home from the field, and there were two dead pigs lying in the yard! So, needless to say, the fence went up right after the butchering was done!” Jim and Dave both laughed; their faces gleamed as they recalled this vision of their childhood still fresh in their minds.

        I sat at the table next to them, trying to imagine the scene at the old place. Under the shadow of the pine-tree ridge, two dead pigs were lying next to the garden that had vegetable plants torn up from the earth, exposed to the elements as Mom calmly placed the rifle back on the gun rack that hung on the living room wall.

       

By the time I turned 16, I became inundated with thoughts of her. I had needling questions inside of me that asked what role my mom played in my personality. Perhaps this was because I was finally cognizant of the fact that since first grade, I had been surrounded by other young girls who had mothers that were alive. My friends had moms who were active in their daughter’s lives. These moms attended parent-teacher conferences, ironed their dresses, and took pictures of them while they sang at school Christmas concerts. All I had of my mom were stories from other people’s memories and two faded photographic images of my own memories of her.

In the shadows of a dim kitchen light, Mom was standing at the stove in the house we lived in for a brief time in town. I remember standing at the top of the stairs that led to the basement. I wanted to go down to my brother’s rooms because I could hear their voices below me. As I looked down at the stairs made of weathered fir, I heard her voice warning me to not go down or I would fall. Her back was to me, but she knew what I was up to and the sternness in her voice made me stop my tiny bare foot in mid-air as I approached the first grey step downward.

 

        Another faded snapshot is of Mom leaning over the kitchen counter, looking down on me in the living room while I unwrap my birthday present. This greatly anticipated gift came after watching endless commercials on the television, and I can remember the smile on her face as I watched my “Baby-Go-Bye-Bye” doll drive her wind-up car around the living room floor. Mom’s dark hair was neatly combed, and she was wearing a short sleeve white shirt with little flowers embroidered on the lapel.

Because these images haunted me relentlessly in my young adult life, I began to ask more questions about Mom. Everyone I talked to, including Dad, had nothing but wonderful things to say about her. It was as if she was this perfect being who had a Mary Poppins presence that touched all those around her. She was a nurse – an R.N. no less! She was funny, cheerful, kind hearted, a wonderful mother, great cook and an amazing shot with a rifle.

I wanted to know her personality. What made her laugh? What made her cry? What were her weaknesses? She had to have some negative attributes; that was only human! What gave her strength? What were her regrets? What feelings did she have raising seven children on a ranch in the Missouri River Breaks, 23 miles from the nearest town? Did she have any true female companions to vent about her kids or husband when she was upset about typical parenting or marriage issues? And, most importantly, what parts of her were inside of me?

It was frustrating as hell and there were many times when I was down-right pissed off at God. I had been told by Dad many times that “God is mysterious and He knows best” but how could He take her from me? What kind of God allows a 43-year old woman, wife and mother to die in a single car accident? My friends had moms – how come He didn’t take them to heaven? We never even got to say goodbye.

In my late-twenties, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska and struggling to find a full-time teaching job so I could use my college degree while trying to find a way out of a marriage that had been broken by betrayal. My life had reached a point of sadness I never thought possible but I had a friend who had also lost her mother at a young age. Over wine or coffee, Rose and I often talked of our mothers and how their void in our lives affected us. Besides my sister, Nona, I had never met another woman who had lost her mother while young and had to deal with the pain afterwards. Rose and I bonded over the loss and shared stories of our childhoods and how we managed to survive it all. One day, she came knocking at my door and, as I opened it, her feet and words rushed towards me.

“Oh my God, Mary! You’ve got to read this book! I was at the bookstore poking around and stumbled on it. It’s so awesome and it explains so much! I haven’t been able to put it down!” and she thrust Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (Edelman, 1995. Delta.)at me. After thumbing through the book at Rose’s direction, I purchased the book for myself and sent another copy to Nona.

I finally realized why I felt a sense of sadness every year around the month of May. Two never-ending anniversaries that were linked to this missing woman overwhelmed that particular month: Mother’s Day and May 26th, the date of her death. I learned that more anniversaries which serve as constant reminders would follow me throughout my life; weddings, babies, graduations, and her birthday. All of these events are typically linked to the relationship between every woman and her mother. And, in the case of a motherless daughter, the death day is also an anniversary.

While reading this book, I also began to look at Dad through different eyes. Edelman’s research found that many fathers who lose their wives will marry within two years of the death of their spouses. They feel overwhelmed by facing life on their own and, especially if there are children, this feeling is often much more than they can bear. However, my dad never did that. In fact, after Mom’s funeral, I was told that several people offered to take us kids and help raise us. They didn’t believe that a single man, living on forty acres in the middle of the Missouri River Breaks, could continue to raise six kids on his own. There were also suggestions that he remarry, especially so he could have help raising the two little girls left behind by their mother. Dad refused all offers, no matter how good their intentions, and vowed to not break up his family. He also refused to remarry because he felt that no woman could ever take the place of his wife or our mother.

Edelman’s book explained that the death of my mom actually contributed to the person I am. Many people have told me that I’m strong, independent, and fiercely determined. These are positive traits that I’m proud to have, and I’ve heard that Mom had these traits as well. However, as I grew older I could not disregard my dad’s constant presence in my life.

At the end of Motherless Daughters, there is a wonderful analogy of how a mother influences her daughter even after the mother’s death.

        “Nature often offers metaphors more elegant than any we can manufacture. In the redwood ecosystem, all seeds are contained in pods called burls, tough brown clumps that grow where the mother tree’s trunk and root system meet. When the mother tree is logged, blown over, or destroyed by fire the trauma stimulates the burls’ growth hormones and the seeds release, and the trees sprout around her, creating the circle of daughters. The daughter trees grow by absorbing the sunlight their mother cedes to them when she dies. And they get the moisture and nutrients they need from their mother’s root system which remains intact even after her leaves die. Although the daughters exist independently of their mother above ground, they continue to draw sustenance from her underneath.”

When I read this passage, I could see this beautiful image in my mind – the young sapling trees full of fresh, green leaves that seem like hands holding onto each other, are circling the dead mother in their midst. The sunlight, filtering through the trees of the redwoods still standing, falls onto the shoulders of these daughters as they sway in the breeze that sweeps through the damp forest around them.

However, it was the vision of the giant redwood standing nearby that intrigued me even more. As I thought about Edelman’s analogy, I envisioned this remaining redwood as the father left behind. He was still there, his strong branches outstretched, providing shade and shelter from the storms that would threaten his daughters as they strived to grow. Because of his rooted sense of responsibility to see that his children reach adulthood safe and sound, he could not move. He had to stay and remain constant in their lives, providing that protection and filling the void of the mother who was lost to the best of his ability.

Edelman’s book also talks of the four different types of fathers: The “I’m Okay, You’re Okay Father”, the “Helpless Father”, the “Distant Father”, and the “Heroic Father.” I could see a few traits of three of the first fathers in Dad, but the “Heroic Father” was the one who resembled him the most.

This type of father doesn’t bury his head in the sand after the mother dies, nor does he keep emotionally distant from his children or turn into a sad sap. While he struggles with his own grief over his loss and doesn’t do everything perfectly, he is still the father who is in control of the household. In the absence of the mother, a safe environment is established and the support he offers helps develop positive self-esteem in his daughters who are left behind. While he has his limits, the heroic father becomes the rock – the giant redwood still standing – that his daughters know they can depend on.

Yes, I lost my mother at a very young age. Yes, this was very tragic. Yes, I often wondered about her over the years but I was blessed to have Dad. Mom’s traits are surely in me, but Dad raised, shaped and molded me. His devotion, faith and constant love made me who I am today. Thirteen years of turmoil beginning in my late twenties helped me to see that Dad and I had more in common than me just being a daughter he loved.

The Marker

        It was fall. The field we walked on had been plowed, but it was dry and there was no fresh crop of winter wheat in it yet. I remember this vividly because my small feet had a hard time keeping up with Dad as he walked beside me. My eyes focused on the ground so I could concentrate as I tried to step on top of a hard dirt clod that had been turned over from the cultivator. My body weight was not heavy enough so my foot slid off the top of the huge obstacle as it rolled under my foot and caused me to stumble.

        I never fell down, though. My right hand was held securely in Dad’s left and he kept me steady as I walked with him. I felt the warm firmness as his calloused hand engulfed mine. The grip of his hand was just strong enough to remind me that I had a safety net there when needed.

        The sun was at my back to the west, and I could feel the warmth of its rays penetrate my body. I don’t remember the heat being too intense, but I do remember the dust. It rose from the earth beneath our feet like puffs of smoke every time Dad’s boots tromped on the rich, brown clods. It would sometimes rise up enough to filter into my nose, and this musky earthiness was a welcoming smell.

        Grasshoppers buzzed somewhere in the distance. They were probably hiding in the grass planted on Mommy’s grave. Sometimes, as I played in the yard by the house, I’d look up on the hill to see if she was watching from her place of rest. The dark, square-shaped marker seemed so distant and tiny at times. Now, with every step we took in that direction, it grew bigger and bigger. I noticed that when we got closer, the granite stones glittered as the sun danced on them, and I imagined that Mom was smiling. I was sure she loved this simple beauty.

        As we walked along, I asked Dad where Mom was. I knew the answer because I had asked this same question before. Hearing him repeat it to me one more time made me feel like this, too, was something I could count on. “She’s in heaven,” Dad said gently. The reassurance of his voice blended with the dust, the grasshoppers, and the sunlight. It was a part of the scene – like God created it that way on purpose, knowing that the mind of a four-year-old would find comfort in her Dad’s soothing voice that harmonized with the surroundings of our ranch.

        The square, granite, stone marker loomed before us. In the middle was the copper plate, held securely in place with concrete in the middle of the sparkling, granite stones that framed it. Across the top of the marker was a flat, sandstone mantel which held a sign made out of welded iron that read “Heller Memorial.” Between the “r” and the “M” was a cross. From my viewpoint, the black silhouette of this sign against the horizon behind it was cold reality against the Montana blue sky.

        Careful to not step on the Gumbo Lillies planted around the gravesite, Dad kneeled on the ground in front of the marker and began to polish the copper plate. Nothing had been engraved on it yet, and I asked Dad what the words were going to say. In a moment of quietness, I watched him polish the plate with a hole-filled cotton dishtowel. I could hear the towel slide across the copper as Dad pushed down and created pathways of new shine on the surface. “Well, her name…when she was born…when she died.”

        “Is that all?” I crouched on my heels to draw pictures in the dust that had stuck to the toes of my shoes. The dirt gathered under my fingernails, adding to what was already there from a previous encounter with the earth when I played cars and trucks in the yard earlier in the day. This same playtime, along with other miscellaneous tom-boy activities, had caused my faded jeans to finally sigh and rip. The open hole showed where ground-in dirt had turned my white, calloused knees into rough, brown pads.

        The dishtowel now whispered in quiet, circular rhythm. Dad seemed hypnotized by the motion he created as he polished the copper plate. His left hand held the obsessed dishtowel and his right hand made a dent in the earth by his leg. “Oh. I don’t know. I guess I’ll put something from her bible on there. She might like that.”

A daddy's girl grows up in a motherless world amidst the wilds of central Montana.