Driving in Darkness

Darkness headlights on gravel road

“They could be driving through the sky.” Elly Griffiths is writing in her mystery The Outcast Dead about a drive on the Norfolk coast, but the line struck me as descriptive of what driving home from town used to be like for me, the little girl in the back seat.

For a minute I stopped to think about the meaning of the line, and it came to me: that’s what the drive USED to be like. I remember the comfort of dozing in the back seat of the old 1954 Chevy, no doubt wrapped in a blanket, as my father drove home, talking quietly to my mother in the passenger seat. The murmur of their voices was comforting in the darkness as we drove down old Highway 79 and turned into our driveway. I usually sat up then, watching as the two headlights stabbed down the gravel road. Occasionally we’d see a coyote lope along ahead of us and duck under the fence, or an antelope dive under the bottom wire. Rabbits always scurried around the limestone outcropping at the top of the hill. Closer to the house, we’d often see the glowing eyes of a cat or two, hunting in the borrow ditches.

Darkness coyote crossing Nov 2015

In the ranch yard, we might pause while my father got out and shut the chicken house door, first flashing a light around inside to be sure no skunks or raccoons were lurking under the perches. Then he’d pull into the driveway and go inside to turn on the porch light before my mother got out of the car. He’d walk ahead of her into the dining room, turning on the overhead lights and perhaps turning the heat up if we had been gone most of the day.

When I got out of the car, I could stand behind it and look east and south and west and north into utter blackness– as if our house were the only one on the planet. Perhaps an owl would hoot, to add to the lonely atmosphere, or a coyote howl. Inside the circle of light, I knew I was safe. But I had slipped out my bedroom window and wandered the dark often enough to feel comfortable without light as well.

Darkness ranch house with lights on

Today, it’s hard to find true darkness even 20 miles from town, where I still live. As the countryside empties of ranchers– a subject on which I’ve ranted elsewhere– it is filling with folks who want to live in the country, which should be a wonderful thing. More people in the country means we share the taxes with more taxpayers, meet more people in church, and the like.

But one of the sad side effects is that although these folks like the country in the daylight, they apparently don’t like it at night. If I look to the west, I see half a dozen glows from yard lights that will burn all night long. To the north I see lights in what was recently my uncle’s pasture, as well as the eerie glow of Rapid City on the horizon. Only to the east and a little southeast can I look at real darkness. And I can appreciate it because I can stand on my deck in complete darkness if I choose to.

The key word is CHOOSE.

On the outside of the garage, and just above my back door, I have installed motion lights which come on when they detect movement. When I drive up to the garage, the light comes on. When I walk to my car parked in front of the garage, the light comes on. When I step out of the garage and walk to my door, the light above the door illuminates the lock.

Of course, the garage light also comes on when a rabbit hops across the driveway, but nothing is perfect.

M2E1L0-12R350B300Besides all these potential lights, I have lights on tall poles outside my house and my retreat house. These lights operate with a switch from inside the house, or with a device I can carry. I have to turn them on. When someone drives up, I can light their way to the door.

This means that I can CHOOSE to light the place like a supermarket parking lot if necessary, but it’s not lit that way every single minute of every single blessed night. In the darkness, the population of hawks and rabbits, skunks, coyotes, mice, pigeons, grouse, bullsnakes, and all the other useful wild inhabitants of the neighborhood can go about their business.

When I walk outside at night, I prefer to go in the dark. In a famous poem, Wendell Berry wrote, “To know the dark, go dark.” If you walk into the dark with a light, you know only the light– only the relatively tiny circle of glowing light. Anything outside that circle will be invisible. But if I step outside with the flashlight in my hand turned off, my eyes rapidly adjust until I can see remarkably well in the darkness– much better than I can see into the dark if I light my steps. I can carry the flashlight in case I need to light my way, or confront something in the darkness. But I can also walk quietly, using my sight, hearing, and touch to find my way, and learn that the dark, too “blooms and sings,” as Berry says, and “is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

Walking in darkness, I have heard the whisper of a great-horned owl flying out of a cedar tree beside me, seen its great shadow cross the moon.

Darkness owl on power pole Oct 2017

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2020, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

www.darksky.org

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

Thanksgiving dinner

The Relatives Who Live in My Head

show up just as I slide into memories

of grandmother’s smile as she basted the turkey.

They crowd into the kitchen

without invitation. They say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Milly’s broccoli and cheese casserole.

The truth is, none of them ate any of it.

Milly, my mother, elaborately ate one spoonful

that day, and we ate the rest for a week.

 

The relatives who live in my head say

it’s just not Thanksgiving without

Hazel’s oyster dressing. We all took that,

you bet, because Hazel would say,

“You missed the oyster dressing,”

and slap it on our plates herself.

 

The relatives who live in my head

are just like real relatives.

I don’t see them for months.

They don’t call, or write, or visit.

But come Thanksgiving, Christmas,

or Easter, here they are again.

 

The relatives who live in my head murmur,

“Only one kind of cranberry sauce?”

“Where are the green beans with slivered almonds?”

And what was that stuff on them–

cream of chicken soup?

“Sorry,” I say,

but I’m not. They’re muttering,

“No home-baked rolls? No sweet potatoes

with marshmallows and brown sugar?”

 

The relatives who live

in my head mumble, “That pie crust

doesn’t look home-made.” I hum as I

make a pasta salad. “What’s that stuff?”

say the relatives who live in my head.

“Where’s the Jell-O and marshmallows?”

 

“I love you all,” I tell them,

“But buzz off,” pouring

a wee dram of Scotch to sip

as I baste the turkey. My life mate

mashes the potatoes to creamy paste

swimming in butter. We seat ourselves,

brimming with thankfulness.

 

Poem © 2011, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Find this poem in my book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, co-written with Twyla M. Hansen– 50 poems by each of us. (2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE)

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

 

Memorial Day, 2019

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

South Dakota, because it is so rural, has many small cemeteries in various parts of the state that may not receive the kind of attention provided at larger—and more costly—cemeteries. In some cases, there may be no group or individual who takes responsibility for cleaning trash out of the cemetery. Memorial Day is a good time to search for these cemeteries. You might provide a learning experience for your family by visiting a cemetery. Death is always with us, but often children are not exposed to it until it happens suddenly and much too personally.

Many people visit a cemetery on Memorial Day to decorate graves and recall ancestors. But in order for the cemetery to look its best, many of us will visit earlier in the week to spruce up the neighborhood. You, too, might benefit from the opportunity to remove garbage while walking among our ancestors. What can you learn by strolling among these peaceful aisles, looking at the graves?

What history was happening at the time of these folks lived and died? What can you learn of their travels or their skills from the tombstones above them? I know a grave, for example, where an anvil tells all we need to know about the master blacksmith beneath it. On other tombstones, symbols tell us about the church affiliation, or the social groups to which the person belonged. I’ve seen families eating picnic lunches, and visiting naturally with each other as they recalled the person whose life they were remembering that day.

Let your visit to the cemetery be a pause in your busy life, an occasion of learning, of remembering, and of continuing to love.

# # #

I am reprinting this Memorial Day blog, which was posted in 2017.

Resting in Peace.

Or Not.

Several times this week I’ve walked on a high, windy hill a few miles north of my ranch, smiling and talking to people no one else could have seen, if anyone else had been there.

I was alone with our community’s dead.

Hello, Mary. I remember you so well. You would walk into the schoolyard, a tiny woman with a long black skirt, ankle-high black boots and wearing a black shawl wrapped around your head and shoulders. When the teachers shooed you away from us, you’d flutter a tiny hand in front of your lips and mumble.

Carrying a couple of trash bags, I went to Highland Park Cemetery near Hermosa to tidy the grounds for Memorial Day.

cemetery Highland Park sign 2017--5-28

You died in 1976; I hadn’t remembered that, but I wasn’t living here at the time. And here’s your family. I remember my father telling me that they died of the disease that deafened and deformed you. What was it? Measles? Diphtheria, maybe.

No one else appeared as I walked each quarter of the grounds, but I know that on Memorial Day the narrow gravel roads will be crowded with cars. Neighbors who haven’t been here for years will stroll the aisles, decorating the graves of their own dead. And they’ll notice, and comment, on graves that have not been spruced up.

A man’s name reminds me how his wife used to roll his wheeled bed between the displays in one of the buildings at the county fairgrounds. I never knew what put him into that bed, but I shuddered every time I saw his pale face propped on the pillows.

I stuffed into my bags battered Christmas wreaths, shredded plastic and cloth flowers, broken crosses and flags smeared with mud.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28A little square tombstone has fallen backward. Oh yes, they were neighbors on the east side of our ranch; we met them occasionally when we were all fixing fence. My dad would lean on a post talking while I wandered down the fence line reattaching staples. I try to set the stone upright, but it’s too heavy.

Blades of brome grass are woven through some fallen bouquets, indicating that whoever placed them on these graves hasn’t been back since last year. Recent rains have turned the yellow gumbo into glue that clings to my shoes, sucking me downward.

I once wrote in a poem that nothing but buffalo grass and graves thrive on this hill, “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil.”

My folks always called it “Decoration Day.” Originally, relatives adorned the graves of armed services members with flags, wreaths and flowers. First widely observed on May 30, 1868, Decoration Day was created to honor both Union and Confederate Dead. As the custom of visiting the cemetery on the last Monday in May developed, so did the practice of decorating all the graves. In 1971, an Act of Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday.

When my folks were alive, we visited the cemetery before Memorial Day every year. We didn’t clean up the whole cemetery, just worked on the graves of the folks related to us. My father always insisted on turning over the sod on each grave, and working the weeds out of the tangle. I thought it was gruesome to make each grave look fresh. Once I had to dig out six alfalfa plants from the grave of the grandfather I never knew. He worked so hard to grow hay for his cattle that I felt terrible destroying those plants. My poem continued:

I’ll leave the spade
against Martha’s rock, try the hoe, hack
at the stubborn roots worked deep in clay.
The shock moves up my arm, down the hoe,
drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.

Though I never knew my father’s parents, nor am I their blood relation, I feel connected to them through our ties to the land.

Untangling a plastic vase holding blue fabric flowers from the mesh of grasses, I looked them over. These looked fairly fresh, and lay between two graves, so I propped them against a headstone belonging to someone who died long ago and who probably has no living relatives in the area.

“That’s Eddie; he was my half-brother, from my mother’s first marriage,” my dad would explain. “And over here is his brother Archie.”

cemetery Archie 2017--5-28Archie’s stone, beside his mother’s, holds no message but the years of his birth and death. A cedar tree with a trunk thick as my thigh grows out of the grave’s heart. His brother Eddie, a few paces uphill, is identified as William Edward Callahan, a Sgt. in the 335th Field Artillery, 87th Division. Their photographs in the local history tome show them as brawny young men who marched off to World War I and survived.

Not long ago I found a box of letters Eddie wrote to his mother when he was in boot camps preparing for his overseas service in 1917 and 1918.

“I’m sure glad you had a good year because you need it want to get an Auto this fall so I can have a few joy rides when I come home next year I’ve been gone nearly a year now, haven’t I seems like a long time. . . . I’m still drilling rookies we’ve sure got a tough bunch. . . . part of them are in the guard house and the other half are ready to hit you with a knife every time you look around.”

Eddie later wrote that he didn’t believe he could ever settle down in one place after being in the service, but would travel the world. Instead, he married a local girl and settled down on the ranch with his parents. On March 29, 1942, his horse fell with him in one of our pastures. No one has ever shown me where he died. I picture his handsome, square-jawed face as I tuck a stray bouquet against his small white headstone.

Sorry I never knew you, Eddie; my dad never stopped talking about you and Archie. He grew up skinny and tall, a shriveled arm from the scarlet fever; he must have wanted so much to be sturdy and as handsome as you two.

cemetery tall marble 2017--5-28I pick up a wad of crumpled newspaper, a plastic bag holding the remains of a French fry container, and a beer bottle from the grass beside a tall, elaborately carved headstone, and pause to read the name and dates. The stone has begun to sink into the gumbo on one side.

My father would gesture to this grave and say, “They used to be big wheels in this county. They used to BE somebody. Now the whole family is here. There’s no one left.”

I’m tucking a bouquet beside a square red stone when I realize it says “Bender.” Of course! My dad always called one of our pastures “the Bender place,” keeping these folks I never met alive in my mind and memory. Now I know that’s probably where some of the family originally homesteaded.

My bag is nearly full but I follow the trail of trash to the far west side of the cemetery. Here, overlooked by the dark slope of the distant Black Hills, are the joined graves of a young couple who had planned to marry before they were killed by a drunken driver. Marriage brings uncertainties, trials, but these two will truly be together forever.

Dragging my bag to my car, I pass the graves of several Civil War veterans, identified by standard military headstones. A.G. Fout served in Company F of the 40th Ohio Infantry, and a local historian has learned that Anderson C. Fout fought in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, as well as surviving the carnage at Shiloh. Harrison Adams, Company F of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, participated in the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain at Lynchburg, TN, and in Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, among others. He and then his widow received Civil War pensions. Official lists indicate at least 16 Civil War veterans are buried here, men who probably came west for the land promised by the Homestead Act. The simple white headstones bear only their names, with no indication of wives or children. Since only Union soldiers were considered veterans, we may never know if Confederate soldiers are entombed here.

AnnaLindsayBeside John and Anna Lindsay’s plot, I pause to recall their faces and the stories they told of struggling to make a living in blizzards, prairie fires, grasshoppers, beetles, dry weather, dust storms, hail storms and low prices. Anna said they went without sugar, gas and tires for years. Their only daughter was born during the famous Blizzard of 1949. During lean years, including two world wars and the Depression, both of them took turns working in town. Anna worked for the local telephone company for 25 years.

“Now remember,” my father cautioned as he handed me the telephone receiver. I was in high school, just beginning to get calls from boys. “Remember,” he repeated strongly, “Don’t say anything on the telephone that you don’t want the whole neighborhood to know.” I nodded, knowing what he meant.

Lindsays sold their place to the Hasselstroms about the time my father married my mother and we moved to the ranch. Whenever we sorted cattle in their corrals, I usually seized the chance to explore their empty house or the cellar where they’d left a few discarded canning jars. When we tore down the old house, we moved the kitchen to our place to serve as a bunkhouse; later it became my office and now it’s my garden shed. The last linoleum Anna bought is still on the floor, and their round wood stove is ready to provide heat. Anna also read widely and enjoyed reciting these often-published lines apparently written by E. C. Richardson:

I wish I were on yonder hill,
A’basking in the sun
With all the things I have to do
DONE.

She got her wish. The sun shines brightly on their plot, and their stones feel warm to the touch.

cemetery small black stone 2017--5-28A little lower on the hill, a headstone made of slate a half-inch thick is so difficult to read that I kneel in the grass and trace the delicately-carved letters. The baby who is buried here was nine months old, and died in 1892, not long after this cemetery was established. Surely the slate was collected in the nearby Hills. Several other markers, many of them dated to the harsh years of the 1930s, were probably made at home by relatives of concrete set with quartz and other decorative stones.

At one time, the people buried in a nearby plot were important enough to be memorialized with an elaborately carved marble cross taller than I am. Now the weeping angel draped over the cross presides over nothing but weeds.

I am admiring an immaculate grave covered in red lava with a white quartz cross in the center when I realize it is the resting place of Homer and Lillian Hansen. Some days when the school bus stopped at their store, I was able to spend a hoarded dime for a candy bar. I introduce myself to the woman working there, their granddaughter, Joann.

“I’m visiting my future,” my father said each Memorial Day as he walked among the graves.

In a double plot lies William, born in 1927, dead in 1998, and still waiting for Ruth, whose birth date is engraved on the stone beside him. Tulips that may have been planted on a grave dug in 1975 are still blooming in cheery tones of red and yellow beside the frilly white blossoms of native death camas in the buffalo grass. A few sturdy thistles are budding between graves.

A piece of sandstone no larger than a piece of typing paper is nearly buried in the grass. I can’t see or feel any engraved letters. A broken cross, weathered gray, leans against it.

Not far away is the gravestone of the folks for whom a county road south of my place is named. I remember only the last one alive, an elderly spinster who died while I was in high school.

cemetery carved stone 2017--5-28

“Hanson” announces a great gray stone, and I can hear my father talking about these neighbors, Swedes who had come west with his father.

“The last one, Christine, got so she’d hide in the cellar when people came to visit. If they drove up from the east, they’d see her running across the yard toward the entrance.”

On our way to our east pasture, we passed their disintegrating corrals and house, and the collapsed cellar. Once I’m home, I turn to Our Yesterdays, a magnificent 920 pages of local history, hoping to find out more information. Sadly, I find that the Hansons, like many of the people my father knew when he was a child, were apparently all gone from the community before Anna Lindsay and her crew started collecting information for the book.

Nearly buried in lilacs is a stone labeled “Pelter,” and I hear my father’s voice again.

“Finn Pelter and his wife were headed to town with their new baby when the team bolted. Finn didn’t hesitate for a second.” My father shakes his head, laughing. “He grabbed the baby from his wife, handed her the reins of the horses, and jumped off the wagon.”

I am likely to be the only living person who remembers that story and can see the logic of it. Finn knew that the horse would eventually stop. He must have believed he could protect the baby better by jumping off rather than risk injury if the wagon tipped over. Finn’s mother, LuVisa, after whom his daughter was named, is buried beside the couple. Her tombstone reads, “She hath done what she could.” Finn just did what he could to save his child.

The name Upham catches my eye, another family that figured in my father’s stories. I see by the tombstone that he was only 10 or 11 years old when the last one died. Was he reciting stories he’d heard his parents tell? I find the same contradiction when I look at several other stones: they died when my father was a child. But he was always a good listener, and he had a phenomenal memory, so he recalled details that he may have heard from his father. I doubt anyone else remembers those tales, and why didn’t I write them down? I was scribbling notes from the time I was nine years old.

cemetery double hearts 2017--5-28

Here’s the grave of the girl who was killed in a collision just below cemetery hill, at the crossroads I can see when I straighten up. The stone on her grave has three parts; her parents’ birth dates are engraved beside the dates of her short life.

Chiseled on the back of the three joined stones is a statement signed with her name: “Love is caring enough not to hold on tightly. 1981.”

Eventually, I come to the small plot that holds my husband, George. I’ve clipped away the grass so the iris plants will show, along with the memorial plaque identifying him as an Air Force veteran. Today I see a small plastic box tucked against the headstone. Inside is a note from someone whose name I don’t recognize: “I tied these flies for you, George.”  This little gift has given me back a vivid memory, in almost-living color, and I nestle it against the headstone again.

I can see you hooking these flies into your hatband, George, smiling that half smile that shows your gold tooth, stripping line and stepping into rippling water that gleams with sunshine.

cemetery iris grass 2017--5-28Beside George lie my parents’ low stones. I’ve clipped the invasive grass short enough so the iris I planted here might get enough sunshine to bloom in time for Memorial Day. Beside my mother’s stone, I’ve nurtured a lush collection of flax with deep blue blooms, just the color of her eyes when she was young.

In the newer part of the cemetery, where George is buried, many of the names are unfamiliar to me. Strangers. People for whom my mind supplies no memories. Yet this is their place too, and the people who were my neighbors are strangers to them.

Still, I continue to pick up litter and prop used bouquets close to the headstones. Behind me, I hear the roar of the riding mower operated by a man hired by the Cemetery Board to trim between the graves. He maneuvers his big machine carefully, bending over the side to be sure he doesn’t nick a stone.

Several rows of graves below me, a woman is wielding long clippers, lopping off branches from some of the huge lilac bushes that have grown over and around many graves. From a distance, these bushes look beautiful, bursts of green and purple on the pale prairie grass of the hillside. But on graves, they are a menace. Nothing hampers their growth; they cover entire graves and even topple large stones.

cemetery lilacs encroaching 2017--5-28

Taking a break, I walk down to where Terri is working and we lean against her pickup looking at the masses of lilac bushes left to cut back.

“I’m going to spend the summer doing this,” she says. “It has to be done, and no one else is doing it. Some of these people don’t have any living relatives.” Her grandson and niece drag lilac branches to her truck as we talk.

Guiltily, I look at the lilacs dominating the graves of my grandparents, Charley and Ida Hasselstrom. I know them only through my father’s memories and photographs. The first picture that comes to my mind is always the first one I saw of them, both seated on the weathered steps of the old house.  I wrote about them in my poem, “Rancher: 1864-1928:”

A broad-shouldered man with a mustache and serious eyes,
he poses beside his wife seated on the porch.

Their first pregnancy bulges
despite the bulky dress and the hot day.

Her first three children are seated
steplike at his left,

with a collection of nieces and nephews behind him,
as if the entire pyramid of flesh

rested
upon his shoulders.

Charley Hasselstrom married the widow Ida Sanders Callahan and indeed took responsibility for the whole tribe of her relatives. Now I’m responsible for the graves of those who stayed in this area and died here. Time to go get the big clippers from the garage and start hacking those bushes.

Terri’s grandson crawls out from under a lilac bush shouting, “I found a dead guy in there!”

Bending down, I see the tunnel carved into a tangle of lilacs, and at the end, a crude concrete cross studded with fist-sized chunks of rose quartz. I’ve read that in ancient times pink quartz was believed to symbolize love. Did the survivors of this man know that symbolism, or only choose the most beautiful rocks they could find?

LMHcemetery09

Perched on the concrete border around the graves below the stone marked HASSELSTROM, I look south, to the hayfields where Charley Hasselstrom drove his teams of horses collecting hay for his cattle for the winter: “Fannie and Queen and Betts and Beauty.” He wrote their names in his journal. “Katy, Martha and Ester and Mary and May and Dolly.” He made his sons dig graves for the horses.

“I don’t want them to just lie there and rot and be eaten by coyotes, boys. They did a lot of work for us.”

work horses feeding hay to cattle

I could find those graves in the hayfield. I’m the last one who knows.

To the southeast, past the town of Hermosa where subdivisions are beginning to crawl up the hills and ooze into those rich hayfields, I can see the high plateau where Charley and Ida homesteaded and raised their family.

I look north, where I own five burial plots surrounding George and my parents. I’ve provided room enough for me, for Jerry, and for anyone else we might invite to join us. There we’ll rest, and gradually those who knew us will cease to be.

Who will care for the family graves then? “Mitakuye oyasin” say the Lakota, “We are all related.” May some of our relatives take responsibility for all who lie in Highland Park.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2017 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

++–++–++–++

Cemetery rabbit resident 2017--5-28Author’s note: Some of the names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

*  *  *

I quoted from two of my poems in this essay—

The first poem, with the lines “pulling some thin life from the thick clay soil” as well as “drumming to bones I’ll never see” is “Memorial Day” from Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems  (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017)

The second poem, beginning “A broad-shouldered man,” is “Rancher: 1864-1928” from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)

*  *  *

All of the cemetery photos were taken at Highland Park Cemetery, Hermosa, South Dakota. The stones pictured– other than Archie Callahan’s, the Hasselstrom family marker, and the iris blooming on my mother’s grave– do not necessarily correspond with the stories in the essay.

The photo of Anna Lindsay at her telephone switchboard is from the local history book Our Yesterdays.

# # #

What Shall I Wear?

Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.
— Marc Jacobs

The last time Jerry and I went to town, we did our usual town chores: got groceries, picked up some lumber for his building project, exchanged my library books.

When we got home, we both changed clothes before we went out to walk the dog. The clothes we wear to town are a bit nicer, more coordinated, and cleaner than those we don at home.

clothes - high heeled shoes

Later in the afternoon I visited a ranch woman from this community who lives with her daughter in another state, but comes back to her ranch once a month or so. Throughout my childhood, she was the style icon in our church, always perfectly dressed in suits and high heels, her long hair neatly wrapped and decorated, and wearing perfectly applied makeup. Even in church, I heard murmurs of envy and caught sidelong glances from other women.

On this day, I was interviewing her for a local history, collecting her memories of the county inhabitants. She had dressed for our interview in a stylish suit, nylons, high heels and earrings. I was, of course, wearing sweat pants and a loose t-shirt because I had changed when we got home from town. As I was putting on my coat to leave, another question occurred to me.

When she lived on the ranch, I asked, did she differentiate between “town clothes” and work clothes? And how does she dress now that her home is an assisted living unit in a town?

Oh yes! “I still won’t wear jeans to town,” she said. “Or shorts.”

She’s not ignoring the fact that she has left her ranch and lives in a metropolis, but her terminology remains the same: when she leaves home, she is going “to town”; she doesn’t consider jeans or shorts appropriate to her age and social status.

As we talked, it became clear that she had two additional categories of clothing: church duds, and tattered old rags for particularly messy ranch jobs.

Now in her nineties, she’s developed these habits through the years, and she’s unlikely to change. I’m twenty years younger, and raised by a woman of her generation, but I’ve made compromises. I often wear jeans or sweatpants to town, but I’d never wear shorts in public– at least not in this state. I’ve rarely worn shorts on vacations a long way away from home.

She wears her clothes, as if they were thrown on her with a pitchfork.
— Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation, 1738?

My mother was raised in the country, so she trained me in this general concept when I was five years old and we still lived in town. She required me to get into “after-school clothes” before I was allowed to play cowboys and Indians in the alley with the neighbor boy. Lacy dresses and uncomfortable patent leather dress shoes were only for church. I wonder if my avoidance of church stems from that discomfort.

Clothes - after school cowboy 1950While she thought I was too young to make my own clothing choices, Mother saw me dressed and then sent me out to play while she got ready. My father would be wearing his suit, sitting in the car, waiting. I was– and am– utterly unable to go outside without pulling a weed, picking up a rock, kneeling to look at a bug or a plant. When I did so in my dress clothes, my mother’s fury was loud, colorful, and usually painful.

Clothes - patent leather shoes and fancy dress 1951As soon as I was old enough to get a horse, Mother discovered more clothing nuances. When I rode horseback, I must wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect the complexion she was sure would help me attract boys, since, she said, I wasn’t particularly beautiful.

She insisted I wear riding boots because ordinary shoes might get caught in a stirrup so I could be injured or killed if the horse bolted. I needed overshoes to cover either work or school shoes when it was muddy. I never wore sandals; rattlesnakes could be anywhere outside.

Like many country kids, I grew up, went to school, and learned a profession. As a college teacher, I dressed in suits, though I never wore high heels. Eventually, I moved back to the ranch, where I am now able to work in my own office, on my own time, and in clothing that I choose.

Naturally, with my partner Jerry, a retired highway department engineer, I have simplified my clothes stratification. Jerry was required to wear a jacket, dress pants, and a tie to work every day for thirty-five years. On “casual Fridays,” he could skip the tie. His only rebellion during his work years was to cut his hair only when one of his bosses insisted he do so. As a joke, he once directed his barber to leave a long, slender tail of hair hanging down his back, and got away with it for days before one of his superiors happened to notice his back view and laughed, but threatened to get the scissors. I cut the rattail off to the tune of considerable cussing.

So when he retired, Jerry got rid of most of his ties. He keeps his dress jacket in a bag in the basement and wears it only for funerals. When he’s in his wood or blacksmith shop, his work clothes are clearly identifiable by sawdust, grease stains, threadbare spots, and sometimes patches or rips. When he heads for town, he usually puts on a clean tee-shirt and jeans unless we are hauling the garbage in the pickup.

My work is mostly gardening or writing in my office, so the first requirement for my daily work clothes is comfort. For ordinary trips to town, I may wear pants or an ankle-length denim skirt. For an evening out or a speech, I wear a long skirt. I don’t wear short-sleeved shirts; I’m over 70.

Time and circumstance dictate my gardening wardrobe. I prefer loose-fitting denim coveralls with long-sleeved shirts (against thorns, mosquitoes and flies), tall boots (against rattlesnakes) and a broad-brimmed hat (skin cancer.)

Clothes - gardening hat and overalls 2013

Visitors who arrive in sandals or flip-flops give me nightmares. Not only are they ignoring or uninformed about rattlesnakes and stickers, they haven’t given much thought to strolling through pastures frequented by cows.

I don’t attend church regularly, but for funerals, I wear a skirt. Even with my loose dress code, I have been astonished to see women at funerals wearing pants, and even jeans or shorts. Men appear in everything from shorts to coveralls.

What about church, I asked my retired rancher friend; what does she wear to church?

“It’s a matter of respect,” she retorted. “I dress up when we go to church. That means I wear a dress. My son-in-law, on the other hand . . .”

Well, I’ll skip that part of our conversation. Let it suffice to say that apparently many people younger than I view these matters differently, and “respect” isn’t part of their criteria for choosing clothes.

I believe I’ll stick with Thoreau’s advice.

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
— Thoreau, Walden.

Considering Thoreau’s wisdom, I realize that there is a connection between writing and the clothes we choose to wear. Picture your at-home clothes as the rough draft of your writing. Like clothing, the rough draft needs to be roomy, loose-fitting enough to be comfortable. If you set out to Write A Poem, your language may be as stilted as high heels or a tight necktie. Naturally, if I am reading my poems to an audience, I dress in my best clothes that are still comfortable. But for writing, comfort comes first.

Just as your relaxing clothes need to be worn soft from use, so your language needs to be familiar, to slide easily to tongue or pen– not fancy words plucked from a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary. When you begin to write, tell the story as though you were speaking to a friend over lunch, not as though you are an English professor in front of a freshman class.

Similarly, the rhythm of your writing needs to begin, at least, with the familiar cadence of conversation rather than the footnoted formality of a Ph.D. thesis. Don’t begin by selecting a poetic form and trying to squeeze your words into it; let what you have to say dictate the form.

Virginia Woolf once said

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have . . . more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.

Just so does your poetry have more to do than merely to fill white space on a page. Carefully selected words can change our view of the world– and the world’s view of us. Take time to break in your words in multiple drafts of whatever you write.

Because poems, like clothes, mean nothing until someone lives in them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Planting Peas and Writing Poems

planting-peas-in-dakota-bones-grass-sky.jpg

This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.

The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.

As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.

This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.

 

Planting Peas

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t

wait anymore. I get the hoe,

pull back the snow from the old

furrows, expose the rich dark earth.

I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,

one by one.

 

As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.

 

I see my grandmother’s hand,

doing just this, dropping peas

into gray gumbo that clings like clay.

This moist earth is rich and dark

as chocolate cake.

 

As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.

 

Her hands cradle

baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft

and hands them down to me, safe beside

the ladder leading up to darkness.

 

That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.

 

I miss

her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,

but mostly her hands.

 

The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.

 

I push a pea into the earth,

feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,

she says, in long straight rows,

dancing in light green dresses.

 

I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.

Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.

Planting Peas - grandmother

Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Additional information:

The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.

Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.

You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.

In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!

Learning to Breathe

Linda tea party with doll in Texas

 

Often I take a hot bath to soak the kinks out of sore and damaged body parts and ease my mind. Finally, after a long and complicated day, I have the kind of solitude and quiet that encourages and enables writing. If I’m too tired to think, I lean back and inhale. Recently, I realized that when I’m busy, I sometimes do not breathe.

Oh I breathe enough to sustain life: little sips of air between rushing here and there. But I do not inhale so that the air flows through my nostrils and throat and lungs and feels as though it is flowing into every vein in my body, clear to my fingertips and toes. This is the kind of breathing that is necessary for the calm that allows us to think, and to accomplish serious tasks.

Most of us, I think, scrabble all day long, like chickens scratching in the dust of the henyard. A friend calls it “putting out fires.” We can deal quickly with the daily emergencies, but we don’t have time to absorb them, to consider how each action fits into the whole of our lives, and make it part of a concentrated pattern of pleasant living.

This train of thought led my mind into the past, and I could hear again my mother and my biological father screaming at each other as I huddled in fear. I was probably in my crib in a bedroom with the door shut, but I could hear every word, hear glass breaking and doors slamming.  Suddenly, even though I was chin-deep in hot scented water in a cast iron tub in my own bathroom more than a thousand miles from that place and more than seventy years from that time, I was shivering in terror.

Gradually, I calmed myself, inhaling eucalyptus to clear my sinuses, reflecting on the good and privileged life I lead now, to clear my mind.

Early the next morning, I suddenly thought: Didn’t I write a poem about that incident? I couldn’t remember the title, only the final phrase: “This poem is me learning to breathe.”

In my study, I started looking at my books, starting with the earliest ones, Roadkill and Caught By One Wing. I looked through Bitter Creek Junction and Dakota Bones, and Dirt Songs, the collection I published with Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, and then Land Circle, in which I included several poems. Finally, in the expanded collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, I found the poem.

Poetry books by Linda M. Hasselstrom

I’m writing about this for several reasons. First, nothing you write is ever wasted. Somehow the writing sinks into your brain and may emerge as a poem, a story, a solution many years later. Second, no experience goes unrecorded in your mind, no matter how much time passes. And few of us perfect the ability to put these matters completely behind us and never think of them again. But if the pain of the past is accessible to your brain, so can the healing be.

Still, there’s another element that is important in this event. My mother made a number of mistakes in her life for all kinds of reasons, but she loved me and once I was part of her life— though I doubt she really wanted me— she did her best to raise me well. She was absolutely right to resist my biological father’s drinking in whatever way she could; breaking bottles in the sink wasn’t the most violent action she could have taken against him. Yet when I hear raised voices today, I have to fight hard not to enter an almost catatonic state during which I can’t talk or move or escape; I can hardly breathe. Terror freezes me. If you have children, try to remember that every single action of yours has consequences for them that you cannot foresee. Do your best to keep them away from violence that may be coming back to haunt them 70 years later.

And this thought leads me to another quote I’ve loved since I discovered it: Winston Churchill may or may not (authorities differ) have said:

Never give in– never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

So, with that introduction, here’s the poem.

Broken Glass

She found more whiskey.
That’s how it started every time.
When he came home
she screamed and
he yelled. I was three,
crouched under the table
holding my breath
as she broke bottles
in the kitchen sink.
I could see his ankles,
shoes set wide apart facing
her hose and high heels.
Smash. One. Scream. Two.
Sour whiskey fumes choked me.
Glass shards pierced air,
shrieked against the tile floor.
Three. Pop. Four. Bash.
Holding my breath, I counted.
His drinking, her spending.
How he left me alone while he bedded
the woman upstairs and now
she’s having a baby. If I
held my breath, they’d stop.

That night mother carried me
up steps that clanged
onto a chugging train.
I held my breath and counted
lighted cars uncoiling
behind us in the dark.
Mother divorced father,
found a job, married a good man.
When she slapped me,
I held my breath and counted.
Her good man died. She
shriveled away into eternity.

For sixty-five years I’ve
held my breath and counted.
This poem is me learning to breathe.

. . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Linda testing the new cast iron clawfoot tub 2017

 

“Broken Glass” was originally published in the anthology True Words from Real Women  (Story Circle Network, 2013).

The poem may be found in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems by Linda M. Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017).

Remembering Judge Davis

Today, August 14, 2018, I have been Linda Hasselstrom for sixty-five years. In celebration of what my family always called my “adoption birthday,” I am posting an essay I wrote in 2004.

Remembering Judge Davis 
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Written for the Custer County Historical Society, June, 2004.

I was nine years old. I don’t remember my birthday that year, but a month later, on August 14, I was adopted by my mother Mildred’s new husband. A photograph shows me on adoption day in a ruffled plaid dress in front of the old brick courthouse, clutching a little white purse with [my] white shoes perfectly aligned. I’m smiling stiffly. Adoption was a new experience.

After the ceremony my legal father, John [Hasselstrom], bought me a gold ring I still have, and we all had ice cream. I didn’t realize that by becoming the daughter of a rancher I had changed the direction of my life forever. I didn’t realize I had pledged my soul to a ranch, to acres of tawny grass and dry creeks that would absorb my blood and sweat, as they had my father’s, and still look parched. I was still dreaming of prancing black stallions; now my dreams are full of waddling cows. [1]

When I wrote that passage in one of my first books, I’d been studying the photograph I described, discovering in it not only memories but information I did not consciously recall. Later, I realized that photographs merely freeze particular moments in time. A photograph exists only as a flat surface, without the taste, texture, smells of a genuine recollection. Moreover, the instant of the photograph, captured and looked at many times, may actually replace the memory.

Mildred and Linda at Custer County Courthouse 1953

Looking more carefully at that photograph helps me remember vignettes about the way my mother and I arrived at that place and time, having our images recorded by my new father, my mother’s third husband. Before that day, I had been fatherless. After it, I had both a real father and a biological one: an important distinction. And I had a trusted friend, something I have failed to appreciate until recently, more than fifty years later.

One of my earliest memories is of crouching under the kitchen table while Mother screamed and smashed my biological father’s liquor bottles in the sink. [2] (Mother had a ferocious temper, but she played it like a violin. A practical woman, she knew that when she was through being angry she’d probably have to clean up the mess, and it would be easier if the liquor ran down the sink instead of splashing all over the kitchen.)

Linda in snow after 1949 Blizzard Rapid CityI remember, later, sitting on my mother’s lap on a train, looking out into darkness, at the windows of lighted railway cars behind us uncoiling like a golden snake. My mother was doing something very traditional for women whose husbands have betrayed them: she was going home to her mother. We moved to Rapid City just in time for the Blizzard of 1949. As my mother took pictures of me playing in a ten-foot snowdrift outside our door, I wonder if she reconsidered the wisdom of moving from Texas back to South Dakota!

For four years, my mother worked to rebuild our lives. Divorced from my biological father, she called on her mother, Cora Hey, to live with us for awhile in Rapid City to take care of me; mother worked full-time, first in a bank, and then for a law firm. [3]

I spent most of each summer living with my grandmother and my uncle, my mother’s brother George Hey and his wife. I think Grandmother lived with us in winter through the year I attended kindergarten, walking me to and from the school each day. But eventually, she moved back to her home and I had to walk home, let myself into the house, and wait for my mother. Those experiences taught me a lot about independence and patience. And I learned to be the only girl I knew without a father– a situation considerably more rare in the early 1950s than it is today. [4]

Looking at that photograph, I was so sure my memory of the day was accurate that I wrote about my parents’ marriage and my adoption without looking for the supporting documents. [5] I wrote that my parents were married on Memorial Day weekend in 1952, and that I was adopted that same year.

Prompted by my promise to write about these events for the Custer County Historical Society, I did what I should have done in the first instance: check my facts. I learned that, contrary to my memory, my parents were married in 1952, and I was adopted more than a year later, in 1953.

On May 29, 1952, my mother and John Hasselstrom dropped me off at the home of my Uncle Bud (Cleo Truman) and Aunt Fern Hey, in Fairburn, and drove to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be married. They always told me that they got to the Clerk of Courts office just as it was closing for the holiday weekend, and talked the clerk into issuing the license anyway. The documentation proves this is correct; the receipt shows they paid cash– $2.25– for their marriage license at 5:05 p.m. [6] They walked about a block to the First Congregational Church, where they were married by a minister whose wife was one of the witnesses. [7]

old postcard Cheyenne City County Building

I don’t know where they spent the night, but I believe they may have visited the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne before they came home. At that time my father was raising registered Hereford cattle, and we later visited WHR several times to buy bulls. Mother let me take photographs with her camera; I carefully annotated the pictures with the names of the bulls and the men who showed them to us.

The adoption day photograph shows me a particular moment in time from a particular day, and any story I tell about that day will be true to be best of my recollection research. But, now that I have done a little research, I realize that for nearly fifty years I have believed I was adopted only a few months after my parents’ marriage.

Knowing that I was adopted more than a year after my mother’s third marriage, I guess that John Hasselstrom was unable to adopt me right away because my parents needed to convince my biological father to give up his parental rights. [8]

Digging deeper among the facts, I find the final judgment in my parents’ divorce. [9] The document awards “care, custody and control” of Linda M. Bovard to Florence M. Bovard, [10] but acknowledges the right of R. Paul Bovard to “visit with said child at all reasonable hours, provided such visitation does not interfere with the welfare of said child.” The decree further required R. Paul Bovard to contribute to my welfare in the amount of $75.00 per month until I was sixteen, or until the court ordered payment to stop. According to my mother, these payments were never made. I remember receiving letters from my biological father, and I know that I answered them– some of those letters were returned to me upon his death, when I was notified as his next of kin. [11]

A careful look at that adoption day photograph requires me not only to do research, but to reflect on my memories. My mother usually dressed me in ruffled, lacy pink dresses. Even at ten years of age, I hated pink, hated “fuss and feathers,” as my grandmother called it. Maybe we compromised on the plaid dress as being more practical for school. Our hopeful smiles on that adoption day hid the fact that we would disagree about almost everything for another fifty years. For the rest of her life, her gifts to me were usually pink and fragile; I immediately discarded them, or traded them for something plain, solid, and hard-wearing in earth tones. She never stopped trying to make me into a delicate little lady and I never stopped rebelling against her efforts. I once wrote, “Mother wanted a daughter who would be a lady swathed in silk, but I was born to love denim.” [12]

As soon as we moved to my father’s ranch, a year before my adoption, I had an excuse for being a tomboy instead of a lady: horses. From the moment of my adoption until I was nearly fifty years old, I was my father’s shadow, recreating myself in his image. [13] Boots, jeans, hats– those were my work clothes, not pink ruffles. And my mother’s constant refrains were, “You’re not going out like THAT!” and “My God, when are you going to cut that HAIR!” After his death, when her memory failed and she stopped repeating these old songs, I missed them.

In the adoption photograph, my mother’s hair is still dark brown, smoothly curled. She is smiling at my father, who is taking the picture. The street was so quiet that day– August 14, 1953– that he could stand in the middle of it while he fumbled with the camera’s focus. [14] Nowadays, Custer’s citizens seem happy when the street is considerably busier.

Until my father’s death in 1992 and my mother’s in 2001, my family always celebrated the day I was adopted as my second birthday of the year. The photograph shows what we were wearing, and has led me down these twisted paths of memory, but it doesn’t show the most important thing that happened to me that day.

The document of my adoption states that the County Judge, having “examined all persons appearing separately and being satisfied from such examination and the report of such investigation that the child is suitable for adoption and the petitioning foster parent is morally fit and financially able to have the care and training of such child,” decreed that I should be adopted.

Oddly, those dry official words bring back a memory that is filled with movement and texture. I remember climbing the stairs to the third floor courtroom with my parents; I’m sure my father made a wry comment about being breathless. I only dimly remember what happened in the courtroom. Probably Judge D. Webster Davis sat in his judicial robes behind a high desk, while my parents and I stood below him. I’m sure Judge Davis took my parents aside and satisfied himself about those moral and financial requirements.

But what I remember most vividly about that day is what happened next.

Courtroom Judges chamber to right of the bench

 

Courtroom door to Judges chamberThe Judge instructed my mother and father to wait, and probably ushered them to a bench like a church pew in the hallway outside the courtroom. Then he walked away with me. I remember the sound of his robes brushing the floor, and I think he took my hand. I now know, because I have visited the courtroom, that we walked through it to his private chamber. I hardly noticed where we were going; I was caught up in astonishment, seeing my parents sitting, left behind. My father was leaning forward impatiently, his mouth pursed as if he’d like to object, while my mother stared after me. But they sat meekly on that bench because the Judge told them to. I was amazed that anyone had the power to make my mother and father do anything they didn’t want to do.

Judges private chamber

The Judge ushered me into a room that seemed dim, filled with dark oak furniture and perhaps dark drapes. We both sat, and he leaned forward so his face was level with me. I recall his voice as warm, comforting. [15] I believe he asked me to tell him about my life, about moving from Texas to South Dakota, and then from the city to the ranch. I think he asked how my mother treated me, and what I remembered about my biological father. I probably told him that though I wrote my dad a lot of letters, my mother said he never sent us money.

He asked me if I wanted John Hasselstrom to be my father. I imagine I told him what I’d told my teacher: that I was happy to be getting a horse and a daddy– in that order.

And then he explained that if I didn’t want to be adopted, that I could stop the whole process simply by telling him so right then. He said that, although my parents had a right to decide to marry one another, and change my mother’s name from Bovard to Hasselstrom, that I didn’t need to change my name, or be adopted if I didn’t want to. I’m sure he told me that I was old enough to make this decision myself, and that he would wait while I thought about it.

I remember him turning away, to give me privacy to think, perhaps moving papers on his desk. And I’m sure, because he was so serious and so gentle, that I gave the matter all the thought I could manage, and told him that I did want John Hasselstrom to be my father. [16] I wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned that horse I’d been promised, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have one yet. But other photographs show that, besides the new house my father had built for us, we had a dog, and I had spent considerable time climbing trees: pleasures I’d been denied living in town with my mother. So I am sure that I was pretty convinced John Hasselstrom would be a good father– as he turned out to be.

When Judge Davis was satisfied that I knew what adoption meant, he turned back to me with a slip of paper in his hand. “This is my name, and my telephone number,” he said, putting the paper in my hand. “Now, if you ever change your mind about this, you can call me and tell me so, and we’ll do something about it. If that man ever mistreats you, or if your mother hurts you, or you even have a question about how they are treating you, you call me. Anytime, day or night. I will help you if you just tell me.”

And he looked at me, and smiled. I can’t picture his face as I write these words, but I can feel the comfort of his words, and that smile.

Try to imagine the effect of these words on a ten-year-old girl who, for more than half her life, had been without a father. My mother worked hard and only in retrospect have I learned to admire how she managed to keep her dignity and respect as a working single mother in a time when such women were rare.

John and Mildred at Mt Rushmore 1970sMother had made serious efforts to find me a father while we lived in Rapid City; I have dim memories of several of the men she saw at that time. One of the partners in the law firm where she worked [17] took an interest in me, giving me a beautiful doll each Christmas. My mother put the dolls on a high shelf in her closet, and told me she was keeping them for my children. They became remote, unreal, as if they did not belong to me. [18]

A father seemed similarly unattainable. I had already learned from my mother– probably in spite of her best intentions– that men were not to be trusted, that they were the enemy, dangerous and dark and distant.

But when Judge Davis spoke to me, I trusted him. I knew nothing at all about him; I had forgotten his name until this promise to write my memories of him for the Historical Society sent me back to search for the relevant documents.

Still, I recall putting that scrap of paper carefully into the little white purse in the photograph, and cherishing it for years. I remember stepping back into that hallway with my head up, feeling the power of the robed man behind me, the confidence he’d given me.

Reflecting on what his gesture meant to me, I think Judge Davis must have been the first person, except for my mother, that I trusted after our terrifying midnight flight away from my father’s insanity. I never called Judge Davis for help. I wish now I had written or called him to thank him for his promise. If my mother had known about the piece of paper, she’d have made me write one of my labored thank-you notes.

I kept the conversation secret from my parents, and somewhere I lost the piece of paper, but I have never forgotten. I now believe that each time I have trusted someone without any particular evidence, relying on my instincts alone, it is because I saw in that person’s eyes the same promise Judge Davis conveyed to me: that his word could be trusted.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Going Over East, p. 3.

[2] Feels Like Far, p. 14.

[3] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-15. Mother worked for the firm of Whiting, Wilson and Lynn, which is currently Bangs, McCullen, Butler, Foye & Simmons, in Rapid City, South Dakota.

[4] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-16.

[5] Feels Like Far, p. 16.

[6] Laramie County Clerk of Courts receipt number 598586 for marriage license number 25127, May 29, 1953.

[7] The First Congregational church was then located at 208 W. 19th Street; the site is now a parking lot for a bank. The Minister was Lincoln B. Wirt, witnesses Florence Wirt and Josephine E. Simmons, possibly church secretary. From 1991 until 2008, I  lived in Cheyenne, most of that time about 8 blocks from where my parents were married.

[8] If my biological father, R. Paul Bovard, objected to my adoption, his objections were probably set aside because he had contributed nothing to my support. A letter from Walter G. Miser, lawyer, of Rapid City South Dakota dated July 3, 1953, confirms that the District Clerk of Hidalgo County, Texas, confirmed my mother’s statement that he had paid nothing into the registry of that court since September 27, 1947– four months after their divorce. The official adoption document states that my biological father had been notified of the pending adoption and failed to comment, that John Hasselstrom agreed to treat me “in all respects as his own lawful child should be treated.” That requirement created some interesting implications about fifty years later. See “Badger’s Daughter,” Feels Like Far, pp. 212-216.

[9] No. 15,602, in the District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas, 93rd Judicial District, dated May 23, 1947. My parents were married April 16, 1938 in the First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, West Virginia.

[10] I’ve never known my mother as Florence, only as Mildred, which I understood to be her middle name. However most of the early documents show her given name as Florence. Her birth certificate, showing her name as Mildred Florence– which is how she signed documents most of her life– was not filed until December 4, 1940, when she was 31 years old.

[11] According to my journal, R. Paul Bovard was dead on arrival at Oceanside City hospital in San Diego, CA, Sunday afternoon, May 11, 1969. I received a telegram announcing his death the next day, along with a request to call the county coroner’s office. When I did so, I was told that as next of kin I needed to give permission for an autopsy. I was 26 years old and had not seem my father in twenty years. What if I don’t? I asked. His remains will be retained here until an autopsy is done, reported a dry voice. Indefinitely? I asked. Yes, he answered. I gave permission. A letter from the County of San Diego to R. P. Bovard’s brother Ike in Pittsburgh, PA, says his estate consisted of a “few items of clothing” which were “of no value and were abandoned,” a joint bank account with his brother “showing a balance of $6.77,” and cash in the amount of $14.17 “which will be absorbed for mileage charges, etc.” I did not receive a copy of the autopsy report or the death certificate, but his brother informed me that the cause of his death was heavy drinking combined with heavy medication. He was 61 years old. His body was cremated and the ashes were buried at the foot of his sister Ruth’s grave in a country cemetery in McVille, PA, beside his parents. I once visited the grave.

[12] Feels Like Far, p. 12. Actually, what I wrote was “Mother wanted a daughter swathed in silk, but I was born to denim,” and an editor altered the line without my permission.

[13] While I never thought of John Hasselstrom as my stepfather, I once referred to him in print by that description, and infuriated him. Feels Like Far, pp. 195-6. He was so angry, that later on, his memory damaged by undiagnosed strokes, that he left me nothing in his will.

[14] Among the adoption documents is my revised birth certificate, According to the Texas Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, State File No. 78951, I was born legitimate in the county of Harris, city of Houston, at 1911 University Blvd., though no hospital is mentioned. My mother was Florence Mildred Baker of Wheatland, Wyoming, and my father was John (no middle initial) Hasselstrom of Hermosa, South Dakota. My mother’s marriage to my biological father isn’t mentioned, nor is the fact that she was living in Houston with him at the time of my birth. A researcher without other information might wonder how a woman from Wheatland, Wyoming, and a man from Hermosa, South Dakota, managed to have a legitimate child in Houston, Texas. One clue exists: the birth certificate was filed August 28, 1953, more than ten years after my birth. Perhaps it’s a good thing I don’t have children, since my bloodlines have vanished in the paperwork. And this information only raises more questions: Why did my mother give her residence as Wheatland, WY, (where she was born) when she had been living for several years in Rapid City, South Dakota?

[15] Recollecting now, it seems to me his voice was like that of James Earl Jones, the black actor– but I wonder if I am merely substituting the sound of his beautiful voice for one I don’t really remember.

[16] Until the end of his life, I called John Hasselstrom “father,” never “dad,” and he called me “child,” which sometimes annoyed me in later years.

[17] Mr. Lynn, whose first name I should also research, though I knew him always as Mr. Lynn because that’s how my mother referred to him.

[18] When I got the dolls back after my mother’s death, I gave them to the Salvation Army without a pang.

# # #

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

For more information:

The Custer Courthouse of this story is now a museum in the city of Custer, South Dakota. You can climb the creaking wooden stairs, enter the court room, and peer in the door to the judge’s chambers.

www.1881courthousemuseum.com

1881 Custer County Courthouse now a museum