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

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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

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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

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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

Twenty-Five Meditations on Grief

Retreat

On May 29, the day after Memorial Day, I wrote in my journal, I need a retreat.

As I considered the statement, I realized I meant that I’m never free of cooking, checking this, cleaning that. Always my priority is something other than myself or my writing. Lately I’ve taken a few minutes once in a while to read in the middle of the day, but that’s not thinking or writing. Still, it’s a step– taking some time for myself

Here’s the irony: I have a spare house where writers, artists and others come to enjoy their own retreats from their busy-ness. Moreover, I write and give speeches about how to find time for writing in a busy life. I have known for years that taking– making– time in a busy schedule is essential to creativity. I don’t believe real creativity can occur under pressure. If one gets a creative idea in a busy office, I think the meditation that led to it has happened at an earlier time.

Yet recently I am filled with tension that surely hampers creativity.

 LMH office - small copy for blog

Imagine

LMH with toby in sweater 2009 - small copy for blogI recently read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and was struck by his statement that many insights happen in warm showers or when we’re dozing off because we’re relaxed. Our brains are being creative because they have nothing else to do. He also quoted studies that demonstrate that happy people perform better, and he thinks daydreaming should be part of the daily routine because that’s when insights happen.

Daydream

When did I last daydream?

Probably in grade school when the teacher rapped on my desk and said, “Stop daydreaming!”

Is this why I am always doing something? Does always doing something actually block the creative thought that is so important to who I am? I read in bed, write in my journal, rush downstairs to answer emails and run upstairs to cook lunch, then gallop downstairs to finish that paragraph. I’m rarely without a book in my hand when I sit down, but I also usually have a pad and pencil so that if my reading sparks an idea, I can capture it.

linda toby deck manzanita 

Busyness

I’m always taking notes, not only in my handwritten personal journal, but in other ways– in my grocery list, in my garden guide, in my purse calendar and desk calendar and computer calendar, not to mention my computer journal. Does this busyness actually hamper thinking?

I start each day with coffee and my journal, where I record the time, temperature, my appointments for the day, and what I’ll make for lunch and dinner. I seldom simply sit still, letting the day wash over me.

Can creativity blossom while we “interact” on Facebook or chat on the phone or Twitter, however that’s done?

I doubt it.

Journal in grass 1990s - small copy for blog 

Relaxation

Does creative relaxation need solitude?

I’m not sure. I can visualize a woman quilting with friends as they discuss an idea that blooms between them as they each contribute ideas. Each person’s creativity may be encouraged by that of the others to generate a new whole.

Yet instead of being constantly busy, suggests Lehrer in Imagine, we need to create time to deliberately relax in whatever mode works best for each of us. This creative relaxation may take many forms: sitting on the deck, lying in a hot bath, or listening to music through headphones while walking, but it is necessary. Perhaps quilting with friends qualifies.

 women quilting - smallcopy for blog

Destruction

Why do I try to record everything? Because I once burned all the journals I’d kept until I was in my mid-twenties?

That act of destruction still takes my breath away when I remember it. And especially when I realize that I didn’t understand at the time I was hurting myself because my worthless husband at the time, who had cheated on our vows multiple times, had read my journals– because he thought I was unfaithful.

 burning journals - small copy for blog

Encouragement

Certainly I don’t believe everything I write down is important.

Perhaps I am looking ahead, to believe that someday another writer will find encouragement in what I’ve done.

“She was cooking and cleaning and taking care of dogs and she still wrote poems and books, so I can do those things. She survived that and that, so I can thrive as well. ”

 Computer hands - small copy for blog

Robins

I sit under the deck with my journal watching the robins feeding the chirping babies; at least 3 heads show above the rim of the nest. Both male and female robins have red breasts, but the male’s is larger and redder, while the female’s looks washed out. I need to pay closer attention.

One or the other feeds the babies at 3:28, 3:37, 3:41, 3:47, 3:49, 3:55, 4:04, 4:05, and on and on.

The next morning when I peer down through the deck at the robin nest, it is empty. But when I walk toward the greenhouse, three baby robins suddenly squawk and flutter up over the concrete wall and into the grass.

The morning after that, two of them are sitting on the grass as an adult robin feeds them. A few days later, we still see adults feeding younger robins in various places around the house. They cheep incessantly while they wait to be fed: like teen-age humans.

At the tree swallow nest, two or maybe three indistinguishable swallows are zipping into the nest every few minutes, presumably also feeding chicks.

Meanwhile, two barn swallows perch on a deck support and chatter at one another. And blackbirds and sparrows zip back and forth across the yard, busy on their own errands. I’ve really noticed this lately: the birds are so busy hunting that they don’t bother to fly any higher than necessary. When we are in the yard, they zip past at waist or eye level, sometimes barely high enough to clear the ground. When I’m driving on the highway, I see they just clear the fences. They veer around obstacles with blinding speed, concentrating on getting where they are going.

Tonight, we watch several– it’s hard to tell how many– tree swallows flying high in the air, pirouetting, doing glissades, spinning, flying in formation– clearly just playing.

Robin baby wants to eat 2017--7-8 - small copy for blog 

Survival

I try to ignore the destruction being done to the environment and to every shred of decency in this country by greedy thugs who are dismantling laws that have protected the air, water, and resources belonging to all of us. We seem to be living under a dictatorship rather than a democracy. If I read too much of the news, I become depressed, so I try to concentrate on what I can accomplish. Fortunately, we have no television set, so I’m sure I’m spared considerable ballyhoo.

Like the birds, I keep busy feeding my interests, zipping around obstacles. Their job is survival, as is mine. We do what we can while we have life.

Like the robins and tree swallows, I’ll keep on with what I am doing because the work I can do is all I can claim to accomplish.

 Robin adult and fledging 2018--6-14 - small copy for blog

Lilacs

My dad planted lilacs every spring. He’d dig a few from where they thrived and take the shoots in front of the house to plant them where my mother could see them from the kitchen and living room. I can see him with a few branches in a bucket, carrying his shovel over his bony shoulder. He knew he wouldn’t live to see those lilacs bloom at their finest, but he planted them anyway.

Today, they grow in a massive row ten feet tall and four feet wide, and they are covered in bloom. Did he know that someday they would bloom like this, causing me to miss him so much?  I can picture him with my mother strolling down the avenues of lilac bloom, reveling in the rich scent and color.

In the cemetery, the lilacs he planted on his parents’ graves have overwhelmed the stones, nearly hiding them.  We have sometimes cut them back, but we can’t, or possibly we won’t, remove them. They mean too much, shedding their fragrance over the motley collection of memorials around them.

 Lilacs at HSH - small copy for blog

Cemetery

In the cemetery, bluebells are blooming in the buffalo grass and big bluestem. Sweet William is standing tall, almost ready to bloom. I see grape hyacinth three inches high on some graves, and budding roses on others.

Why do I take real flowers to the cemetery on Memorial Day every year? Every year I find peanut butter jars and olive oil jugs, weight them with rocks, and fill them with real flowers and the branches of flowering shrubs that grow around my parents’ house. I put these modest offerings on the graves of my husband, my father and mother, my grandmother and grandfather and the uncle I never knew, William Edward Callahan, my father’s half-brother, always called Eddie. His brother Archie, killed in a fall from a horse in our pastures, is buried beside his mother Ida and her second husband, Charles Hasselstrom.

All around us, graves are decorated lavishly with bright arrangements of artificial flowers. Some decorations consist of flowers in colors unknown to reality, but others are faithful reproductions of real, gorgeous blooms, backed by white Styrofoam crosses and wreaths. On some graves are small statues: the Virgin Mary, a horse, a tractor.

When I kneel over the grave of my father to place my offering, I can see his ironic smile when he made this trip every year. He’d walk to a particularly ostentatious stone of a once-powerful ranching family that had dwindled away into a few kids raised in town and say, “They used to BE somebody,” and walk away shaking his head.

Two days later I collect the wilted flowers and the containers and take them home to the garbage. The artificial flowers were still bright, though have already blown over in our ferocious winds. All summer, driving past the cemetery, I’ll glance up and see the flowers slowly disappearing as they disintegrate and are blown into the surrounding prairie.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery fake flowers - small copy for blog

Labor Day

Since burials began, people have probably left gifts at the graves of their loved ones. Sometimes the gifts were food, clothing, or weapons. Sometimes captured enemies were symbolically killed to mark a death, or a favorite dog or horse was slaughtered to join its master. Man doesn’t seem to want our loved ones to go into the darkness of death without comforts.

Since I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, I will drive to the cemetery the day after Labor Day, in early September. I will drive between the great stone gates, over the cattle guard and between the cannons.

Cannons. They guarded the grave of some Confederate prisoner in the Dry Tortugas, and through someone’s influence were brought proudly to this remote outpost in the West. Is there something ironic about these great weapons of war pointing at every visitor who comes to this cemetery?

With other members of the Cemetery Board, I will walk the cemetery collecting pieces of Styrofoam and torn flowers, putting all these symbolic gifts from the spring in black plastic bags to be piled into dumpsters and hauled away. People who care enough to decorate the graves for Memorial Day apparently find it inconvenient to take the offerings away before they become trash.

What do cannons in the cemetery mean?

Why do I take flowers to the cemetery every Memorial Day? Because my mother did.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery cannons - small copy for blog

Scraps

All I have left of my grandmother are a few photographs. She smiles love at me from above my computer every day.

All I have left that I can touch are a few fragile compositions in thread.

All I leave behind me will be scraps of paper threaded with words.

 Cora Belle picture in hand - small copy for blog

Graves

When we are finished with our lives, we sink into the ground, like the graves on the cemetery hill. Humans’ resting places are marked. The graves of the birds are anonymous. Yet they have just done their duty, done all they could.

 LMH PHOTO cemetery old stones and view - small copy for blog

Tombstones

LMH PHOTO Wm E Callahan grave - small copy for blog

I stop to read William Edward Callahan’s white marble tombstone, with his birth and death dates and the symbol of his military service cleanly carved into stone. 1895 to 1942. I’ve read his letters from Camp Funston where he was sent when he was improperly drafted at the age of 46. He wanted to come home to his horses.

My father always felt guilty that he wasn’t able to serve in the military; the rheumatic fever he had as a child left him with a withered arm. He wouldn’t have been good at taking orders.

Instead

When I think about a day when I haven’t gotten any writing done, I can list the things I’ve done that no one else will do, but that seem necessary for a well-ordered and pleasant home. I find it easier to do the jobs than to nag about getting them done. Take the hair out of the bathroom sink drain. Put the garbage in the can outside the basement door. Empty wastebaskets. Check the dogs’ water. Empty the humidifier. Clean the toilet and sinks. Spray the dogs with homemade tick repellent before they go outside. Close cupboard doors. Lock the doors at night. Put everything away.

 Garbage cans - small copy for blog

Crocheting

In the corner of my bedroom hang several crochet hoops and picture frames containing “piecework” my grandmother crocheted during her life. These fragile cloths are all I was able to salvage after various relatives claimed her dishes, her silver, her watch. But these are most precious to me. She sat before her television set, watching events unfold while she created beauty with her arthritic hands. Sometimes she mistook the TV dramas for real life, but she kept on crocheting.

My hands now look a great deal like hers and I can’t crochet despite her efforts to teach me. But her example is still teaching me. I can do nothing better than to watch events unfold while stitching together my writing, my meditations on events. Perhaps my writing serves no more purpose than my grandmother’s crocheting did. Perhaps I do them only because I can, or in an effort to create beauty. But like the robins and the tree swallows, I’ll keep on with my work because it is mine.

 Cora Hey crochet work - small copy for blog

Spirit

I’ve read somewhere, “land is not insensate; it is possessed of spirit.” Every inch of the earth is sacred, some believe. When I think of the land I sold to my neighbor, I feel fiercely protective. I want to get on a horse and ride over there to see that the antelope are still there, perhaps spot the cougar fleeing down that draw again, to see if anyone has disturbed the pile of rocks that I believe to be a grave.

I can’t do these things. I haven’t owned a horse in years, and dislike borrowing strange horses to ride. My neighbor would consider my visit to what is now his land an intrusion, though he wouldn’t say so, even if I met him in the pasture. He’d ask politely how I am doing, and how much rain we got, and we’d both observe how good the cows are looking.

Would he understand what I’m doing over there? Maybe. Probably.

 Horses Over East 1984 - small copy for blog

Light

10:25 p.m. with full moon, slightly lopsided. I’m collapsed in a cool breeze after a hot bath. Chorus frogs sing on the dam below the house. Straight up are stars. I avoid looking to the north to the glow of Hermosa’s streetlights. To the west, the neighbors’ glaring yard lights announce their presence. Someone recently broke into several garages and houses under those lights when the families were away. No one would have known about their houses without the lights to guide them. But I don’t want to think those negative thoughts now. I look east and south into blessed darkness where I own enough land to keep lights away. At least for now.

A bird chirps as though half asleep. Maybe the robins under the deck sense my presence and are nervous. Cars speed past on the highway like blind beetles. Do their drivers have any idea what is out here?

Moonrise 2017--10-3 - small copy for blog 

Sunrise

I go to the greenhouse to check the mouse traps, hoping to capture the rodents who have been eating the sage and thyme and basil that are just emerging from the pampered soil.

A baby rabbit is eating a cabbage leaf I threw off the deck yesterday. Since I closed down my compost bins because they were being raided by a skunk with no respect for our dogs, we haul some of our garbage to town. I throw from the deck anything the rabbits might eat. This contradicts the fact that I will hate it when baby rabbits start feasting on my radishes and tomatoes.

 Rabbit eating at HSH - small copy for blog

The Land

I’ve begun to loosen my hold on my father’s land, now mine.

I will soon be 75 years old, and have no siblings, no children. My cousins are all in other places and professions and my nieces and nephews uninterested in ranching. The land “over east” that I sold to my neighbor was about half of my ranch, so that I no longer have enough to make a living raising cattle. I sometimes dream about riding my horses there. But I won’t ride again, and certainly not over the prairie. There’s no horse I could trust, since there are no horses I raised myself. I know intimately the pastures over east—no doubt better than their current owners, who visit there in their mechanized vehicles. I’ve walked every step of the way to get there, tramped all over the pastures, ridden a horse or hiked into every niche in the prairie inside those fences. I’ve climbed most of the cliffs. I have sat in hidden alcoves that few people will ever see, sniffing the air of the prairie, watching the hawks soar above. So I tell myself that I am there, in every piece of ground where I’ve spent time.

I’m there, and I will always be there, in the pinnacle of rock where the previous inhabitants, the natives, watched for interlopers coming from the Badlands to the east. From that spire of rock, my spirit will float silently over the plains as long as air moves.

To me, the land is life. To anyone I can think of whom I might make my heir, it would be cash to be spent on a bigger house and newer car.

I remember my uncle Harold saying, “I didn’t work on this ranch my whole life for it to be somebody’s in-VEST-ment.” I had not imagined the non-metaphorical word “investment” could sound so much like the hiss of a dragon.

LMH rocks 2002 - small copy for blog 

Burial

This morning we went to Belle Fourche to bury the ashes of my cousin Charlie. A few family members from Charlie’s generation gathered among the headstones of quartz and marble and concrete. Most of us were cousins, sons of my father’s sisters and brothers. Some friends of Charlie’s sister came, and the pastor of her church with his Bible.  As our voices united in the Lord’s Prayer, we could hear the idling of an engine as the cemetery worker waited for us to leave so he could cover the hole. We left the urn under an oak tree and walked away. The next time we come here, we’ll see his name engraved on a flat stone beside that of his brother and his parents. At a nearby park, we ate a picnic lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, and sweet desserts. I didn’t hear Charlie’s name mentioned.

burial food - small copy for blog

We stopped in town on the way home and bought tomato plants. I was happily digging holes for them before I took a breath and tasted ice.

Clouds

When I looked up, I could see the ragged white edges of a hail cloud and smell the jagged ice that was falling north of us. I hustled the rest of my plants inside, and put buckets over the two I’d already planted. Jerry called from town to say that he was parked under a bridge watching the hail. I could hardly hear him for the pounding storm.

I settled in a chair on the deck to watch the drama and wait for the hail to reach me. At first the clouds were deep gray with frothy white tops that looked like foam or ripe cotton bolls. As the wind aloft caught them, some began to shred like snow blown across the highway in a blizzard. Clouds that were flat and black on the bottom bubbled into gray or blue on top. Blowing east and south, they piled up, losing their definition as they formed a solid gray wall beyond the green shield of the south ridge. Mordor!

WBH storm clouds 2014--7-11 small copy for blog 

Nighthawks

Again and again the barn swallows flew above me, beating hard into the wind for a few seconds and then letting the wind take them, as if they were going down a slide. Then the nighthawks appeared, recognizable because they fly high and follow a pattern: flap-flap-flap-soar, flap-flap-flap-soar. While the barn swallows and tree swallows flirted with the wind, the nighthawks flew high, calling in their peculiar tone. The Lakota called them thunderbirds for their habit of flying in storms.

Nighthawk flying in clouds - small copy for blog

One nighthawk flew south, and began spiraling up and up and up until it disappeared behind a cloud.  I thought of Charlie as I had last seen him, lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his arm. His suntanned, bony face looked so much like that of my father I could hardly stand to kiss him goodbye.

Tube in arm -smallcopy for blog

The nighthawks are invisible in the darkness now, calling high above me. Time to go inside. I breathe deeply.

++–++–++–++

I have not had a retreat in the ordinary sense. Yet in the middle of a busy life, I have made the time to write a line or a paragraph that became twenty-five brief meditations this week. Writing time doesn’t have to be long to be effective.

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

© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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O Holy Night on the Prairie

Winter grass and rocks

Folks who are used to bustling, fur-wrapped shoppers and greenery hung with lights would see the wide prairie that stretches in front of me as a bleak place to spend Christmas. The grass is a mountain lion pelt– not one color, but gold, fawn, red, brown, and colors for which no name exists– blended into each other over the rolling hills. A few limestone outcroppings studded with pale green lichen, and a scatter of white and granite-gray boulders decorate the scene; there are no trees, no green, cone-shaped evergreens that mean Christmas to many. In the deeper gullies, an occasional bare cottonwood shows a white, lightning-stripped trunk against the grass; buffalo berry and plum bushes stand naked in narrow crevices beside ground-hugging juniper bushes blending green and bronze.

In the eastern distance are the Badlands, pink, gray and blue spires a finger’s width above the horizon, made higher this morning by mirage which is rapidly spreading, to disappear as the sun comes up dull gold. To the west rise the Black Hills, a handsbreadth of tree-covered hills, rising in five distinct ranges and glowing blue in the morning light.

Here, while Christmas songs play on the pickup radio, I see nothing at all to remind me of the season. The grass is short, because we graze these distant pastures in summer, and bring the cattle closer to home in winter. I am making a last survey, picking up salt blocks and fence panels, to be sure gates are closed against the neighbor’s buffalo. When I turn homeward today, I will be shutting the door on this part of the ranch until spring, when we’ll bring cows and young calves here to graze through the summer.

Winter antelopeA coyote slips down a draw, glancing back over his shoulder. Except for his quick movement, a flash of white at his throat and a nearly-black ridge on his spine and tail, he would be invisible against the grass. My eye catches movement again, and I turn to see thirty antelope run over a hill, white rump-patches flashing. One pauses, silhouetted against the sun.

The gray limestone of Silas Lester’s house has descended a little more toward the ground this year; the blank windows look like half-shut eyes. The house was never finished; dry years came, and Silas sold his land for two dollars an acre to my grandfather, who took the risk and stayed. The spring Silas found and enlarged still runs gently from the hillside, into a tank George and I dug into the hillside and covered with wood chips to keep the water from freezing. I open the gate to it, so the wild animals can safely drink, and leave a few chips of salt nearby; a really thrifty rancher would take them home to the calves, but I like to think of the antelope and smaller creatures– porcupines, skunks, mice– enjoying the rare treat of salt this winter.

Another year has passed. Some years George and I made this final trip in deep snow, laughing as the pickup plunged into a drift, apprehensive when it dropped too deep and the tires spun. We’ve shared picnics here under the talking leaves of the cottonwoods in summer, shoveled together when the pickup was stuck in winter. Feeling a little foolish, we shut off the motor and observed a worldwide moment of silence in honor of John Lennon a few years ago, then sang his songs on the way home, and didn’t feel foolish at all.

The chores we did together I now do alone. The Christmas songs on the radio mean the solstice is near, when the days will almost imperceptibly begin to lengthen. Now the sun has risen far south; it will make a shallow arc in the southern sky all day, and the moon will shine in the south windows of the bedroom tonight.

Winter Sunrise from Windbreak House 2014

We started a tradition a few years ago, when Michael came in a dry summer with a trunkload of fireworks; it was too dry to shoot them then, so we saved them for his winter visit, and fired them on New Year’s Eve. Last year, I did it alone; this year, I may invite friends to share the ritual. On Christmas Eve I will join my cousin and his wife and their children, one my godson, in church. I attended the same church when I was five years old, and my mother sang in the choir. It’s famous for its massive organ, and as the tones swell into the familiar “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” I– who have been anything but a faithful churchgoer– will find myself in tears. The organ tones express to me the largeness of the land, rising over the small minds and bodies of the people who live upon it.

Slowly, as Christmas passes, snow falls, grouse mate with bell-like calls in the winter night stillness, the days will grow warmer, and spring will come. If we get spring rains– which have not come for three years– the tawny grass will show a hint of green at the roots in April and by June the hills will be rich with new life.

“I believe in the Israelite,” sings a low voice on the radio, backed by the sound of bells, and I wonder. Surely no one who sees the seasons turn as I do, who observes the prairie’s stillness in this season of rest, and the inevitable coming of spring life, summer’s lushness, the harvests of fall, and the chill of winter again and again, can fail to believe that all is arranged as it should be. That no matter how great are our personal sorrows, the world is proceeding in an orderly fashion. That we are all part of a great cycle, and our job is to help the earth in its turning, to keep it pure and beautiful and clean for those who will surely come after us.

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

© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom

#  #  #

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land  was published in 1991 by Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado.

This essay, O Holy Night on the Prairie, appears on pages 171-173 in the original edition, and on pages 191-194 in the Anniversary edition of 2008.

LC2Boots

 

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

A poem of thanksgiving, gratitude, and remembrance.

by Linda M. Hasselstrom

Linda pumpkin head

Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers

All over America today, women search
for their grandmother’s pumpkin pie recipe.
Some rush to the store for condensed milk,
or whipping cream. Or stir up powdered milk
if they are poor, or on a diet,
or live too far from town.

In a Wisconsin farm house a red-haired woman
measures salt in a dented spoon.
In California, a thin girl stirs and puffs a cigarette,
puffs and stirs. In Wyoming,
I dust clove powder over my grandmother’s
green glass bowl and reach for the nutmeg grater.
In New Mexico, a brown-eyed woman
sprinkles cayenne. In Iowa, a man beats eggs,
recalling for his children how their mother looked.

Grandma always left me to measure
dry ingredients while she walked down
to her hen house. She came back holding four
warm brown eggs in her open hands
just as I licked brown sugar off my lips,
thinking she wouldn’t notice.

So today, twenty-five years after she died,
I lap brown sugar from a spoon just
so I’ll remember how she grinned at me.
While I stir, my oven beeps. Hers
was fired with wood she chopped. To test
the heat, she’d dip her fingers
in the water bucket she’d pumped full
that morning, flick spattering drops, and nod.

All over America, families are studying
gratitude. Some women slip
a pie into the oven, and hide
the cardboard box in the garbage.
Others light pumpkin-scented candles,
thankful anyway– though my grandmother
might not think they have good reason.

I crimp the rim of each pie crust
with three fingers, just the way
she taught me; make a salad
while the fragrance surges out
the open kitchen window. Next door,
perhaps the drug dealers open their eyes,
inhale, and almost remember.

Grandmother, may this pumpkin perfume
rise up to whatever heaven you inhabit,
sanctifying all my love and memories.
Listen: countless voices chant together
an infinity of thankful hymns.

# # #

© 2006, Linda M. Hasselstrom

— First published for Empty Bowls 2006, United Church of Christ, Brookings, S.D.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen
published 2011, The Backwaters Press, Omaha, NE
50 poems by each author; find this poem on pages 98-99

This poem is copyrighted. Do not reprint without permission from the author.

Dirt Songs with autumn leaves