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

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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

#  #  #

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

Resting in Peace. Or Not.

cemetery rabbit pays respects 2017--5-28

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.

A 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.

cemetery gumbo on shoe 2017--5-28Blades 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--5-28

Archie’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 Sergeant 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 camp 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 G. 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:

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 rock 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 horses 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.

work horses feeding hay to cattle“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.”

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, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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

My intent was to post this blog in advance of Memorial Day. However, my Internet service, which has always been less than satisfactory, has failed again. I’m not sure what the company is calling itself this week; it seems to change business names frequently and one must wonder why. Most recently, our service has been Exede which used to be Hughesnet which became WireFree USA and which I’m told is now called Rapid Choice. I have been waiting a week for my Internet service to be resumed and I’m told I may not be able to connect for several more days.

*  *  *

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: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993)

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.

*  *  *

Through the magic of some internet searching I learned that the poem Anna Lindsay often quoted, which was once thought to be her own composition, is apparently the work of another.

“Ambition” by E.C. Richardson was published in The Saturday Evening Post on November 19, 1932.

Ambition

I would I were beneath a tree
A-sleeping in the shade,
With all the bills I’ve got to pay
PAID

I would I were on yonder hill
A-basking in the sun,
With all the work I’ve got to do
DONE.

I would I were beside the sea
Or sailing in a boat,
With all the things I’ve got to write
WROTE.

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Looking for Grandmother: Revising A Poem

Here’s a poem that, I believe, begins in nostalgia and ends– many years later– in discovery.

Edgemont Cemetery gateMy records indicate that I took notes for this poem on May 25, 1998, when I was working on a prose piece about walking in cemeteries. Driving from my home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to the ranch in South Dakota, I often stopped at about the halfway point to walk my dog in the cemeteries for the little towns of Sunrise and Hartville, Wyoming. Once, deliberately, I stopped at the Edgemont, South Dakota, cemetery and realized I couldn’t recall exactly where my grandmother was buried. I spent a long time looking for her and thinking about the irony of not being able to find the ground that held this woman who was so important to me.

In 2007, working from those 1998 notes, I began writing a poem I called “Looking for Cora.” Thinking about not being able to find her reminded me that every day I used objects she had owned. I took satisfaction in recalling– though it is not in the poem– that when we met in her little house to divide her belongings, some of her heirs took the most expensive possessions, like silverware and sets of dishes. One cousin and I collected humbler objects.

Looking for Cora [or Grandmother?]

1          Today, walking in this dusty cemetery,

2          I cannot find the plot of earth

3          that bears her name. No need.

4          I greet her every day, using the towels

5          she’d stored in deep drawers.

6          I wore out the frayed ones first,

7          as she would have. Eighteen years

8          after her death, I still haven’t had to buy

9          a kitchen towel. Probably they were gifts

10        from people who didn’t know

11        what to get her. Last week I used the last

12        of her last jar of Noxzema. I’m finally

13        old enough to be someone’s grandmother

14        myself, ready finally for the smell

15        that reminds me of her; old enough not

16        to care what I smell like as I get into bed.

     

17        When all her towels and bars of soap are gone,

18        I’ll still be using her bread bowl; her wood-handled

19        potato peeler will still hang on the wall.

20        And when they all are gone,

21        when I am nearly gone myself,

22        I’ll see her hair and the bones of her face

23        when I look in a mirror. See her wedding ring

24        on my cousin Sue’s left hand. That’s fine.

25        It never would have fit over my knuckles,

26        growing thicker, more like Grandmother’s

27        every day.

All the elements of the poem’s longing are in that first draft. Lines 7-9 mention her kitchen towels; I take pride in wearing out the frayed towels first because she would have done exactly that. Handling her towels– touching the things she touched– brings the sensory experiences closer in my memory, and recall to me (lines 11-15) the sharp smell of Noxzema, which I know will evoke specific and vivid memories in those readers who have smelled it. That realization leads me to humor: that although I am not a grandmother, I am now old enough to be one, and old enough not to care how I smell in bed (lines 15-16.)

Cora Belle.
Cora Belle.


Lines 22-23 mention Grandmother’s face in my mirror, and lines 23-24, the wedding ring that my cousin Sue wears. Because I had taken careful notes, including all five senses– sight, sound, smell, touch, possibly even taste– I was able to recreate the memory of walking in that burial ground nearly ten years later, and recall specific details of my Grandmother almost two decades after her death August 9, 1980 at age 88.

Revising called my attention to other rough spots in the poem as well: the repetition of “last” in the lines 11 and 12, and the repetition of “gone” in lines 20-21. The emphasis of the poem shifts when the poet mentions being “nearly gone myself,” taking the reader’s attention away from the central figure of the poem, Grandmother, and the particulars of her life. But the poem is supposed to focus on my search for Grandmother, both literally in the cemetery and metaphorically in my memory, so although I mention my swollen knuckles in the final draft, I shift attention back to Grandmother.

What changes most from draft to draft is the title– from “Looking for Cora” to “Looking for My Grandmother” in 2010 to “Looking for Cora Belle,” and back. Her melodic name was important to me, but I found myself resisting including it early in the poem.

An important improvement in the revisions is in the length of each line, and thus the rhythm. The first draft, written in 2007, is rocky. First drafts should be a mess, because the intent of beginning is to collect all the impressions that come to mind when you are deciding what to write about. So I’m pleased to note that nearly every detail that is important to the final poem was already in this draft.

Though the rhythm is awful, I’ve read the completed version of many “free verse” writings (I decline to call them poems) that are as bad. Apparently some novice writers think that capturing the specifics of an event on the page completes the poem. Not so. Now it’s time to work on rhythm. To demonstrate, I’ve capitalized the syllables on which emphasis falls in Lines 1-5 of this version.

“ToDAY, WALKing IN this DUSty CEMetery,

I CANNnot FIND the PLOT of EARTH

that BEARS her NAME. No NEED.

I GREET her EVery DAY, USing the TOWels

she’d STORED in deep DRAWERS.

There’s no consistent rhythm in those lines; reading them makes me grit my teeth rather than recall the woman that I knew and my reason for searching for her.

I put the draft aside and apparently didn’t work on the poem again until November 23, 2010. Perhaps I returned to it then because Twyla M. Hansen and I had begun to discuss doing a book of poems together. I knew the draft had good material, but it needed serious work.

In pursuing a smoother rhythm, I kept the length of time since her death “eighteen” years because the word has two syllables, whereas twenty-seven, the actual length of time she’d been gone, has an awkward four. And while it’s believable, and was true, that I was just finishing her Noxzema after 18 years, 27 might have been hard to believe. That odor is my favorite memory in the poem, sure to awaken responses in anyone who has smelled it.

Noxzema jarWhen I read the finished version of this poem to an audience for the first time at the 2015 South Dakota Book Festival, I was delighted to hear gasps of recognition, and see nods as women remembered Noxzema. The women with hair as gray as mine laughed at the idea of smelling like Noxzema in bed, but younger women looked slightly puzzled.

The tangible possessions that I’d kept as souvenirs of my grandmother’s life, such as her bread bowl and her towels, remained in all later drafts, but I took her potato peeler down from the wall and made it an active part of the poem by writing the truth: I was still using it, and one of the blades was wearing thin. Yet the poem is becoming a combination of true events with the truth of the poem: even though I changed the number of years since her death, the truth of what she means to me has become stronger.

On November 29, I revised the poem again, and this time the rhythm became more consistent.

I’ve WANdered this DUSty BURying GROUND

for an HOUR, BACK and FORTH aMONG the GRANite

STONES, pink QUARTZ, SQUARES of SHATtered CONcrete.

I CANnot FIND the PLOT of EARTH that BEARS her NAME.

Of course when the poem is read aloud, the emphasis on these syllables isn’t as pronounced.

In each of several 2010 drafts, I made the lines longer, so the poem became more truly a prose poem, more like a conversation or a reflection than a rhyming poem. I removed the space that had previously divided the poem into two stanzas because I felt it had become more like a soliloquy, the act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud as if one is alone.

????????????????????????????
Elmer Baker, the grandfather I never knew. He died when my mother was just a girl.


Working on the poem made me recall more details of her life. I had known that her husband was killed in a “logging accident” near Mount Hood, OR, but years later I obtained his death certificate and discovered that he was beheaded when he fell under a train. My grandparents had married in Wheatland, WY, where her family had moved after living in Oklahoma for “a spell,” as she put it. After Elmer was killed, grandmother moved back to Wheatland with her two babies, my mother and her brother. Grandmother later told me that the railroad gave her $100 and a ticket to anywhere she wanted to go as compensation for his death, since there was no insurance. His brother borrowed the money from her, so, short of funds, she moved to Edgemont, SD, another train town, and opened a “dining room” with her sister Pearl. Later, she married a local mechanic, and when he was given a small ranch in payment for a debt, moved with her two children to the ranch where she and her second husband had two more boys. Her second husband dropped dead beside her after pitching off a load of hay to their cattle.

Writing up the poem conjured grandmother so completely in my mind that I remembered how I had recalled that small fact about the dining room as I looked from the cemetery hill down over the little town. And that memory somehow told me where to look for her in the cemetery. The final line becomes the success of the poem and my search. As I worked through the drafts, changing the title by removing Grandmother’s name, I had finally concluded that it would be more effective if, as I searched, I kept her name to myself until I found her. Perhaps the reader would think of her own grandmother until her name rings out as part of my discovery of her grave in the final line.

Here’s one more reminder of how the process of revision works, and why it may never be quite complete. Spending several hours with this poem as I write this essay has drawn my attention to an error I wish I’d caught before publication. In line 13 and 14, I wrote:

When all her towels

and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

I inserted “lotion” both because I was using her hand lotion, and for the line’s rhythm; the line would not scan as well if I’d written “lotion and bars of soap,” but the phrasing makes it sound as if I’m using up “bars” of lotion. I should have placed a comma after soap.

     

This is the poet’s life: revise and revise and revise again several times after you think the piece is finished. Knowing when to stop revising is a different problem!

     

Here’s the finished poem.

Looking for Grandmother

1          I’ve wandered this dusty burying ground

2          for an hour, back and forth among the granite

3          stones, pink quartz, squares of shattered concrete,

4          but cannot find the plot of earth that bears her name.

5          And yet I greet her every day in my own kitchen.

6          I use the towels she folded on the shelf above the sink,

7          gifts from folks who cared for her but didn’t know

8          what she would need or want. I’m wearing out the frayed

9          ones first, as she would do. Eighteen years after she died,

10        I still haven’t had to buy a kitchen towel. Last week

11        I finished up her last jar of Noxzema, finally

12        old enough to be someone’s grandma; old enough

13        not to care how I smell in bed. When all her towels

14        and bars of soap and lotion are gone, I’ll still

15        be using her bread bowl, her potato peeler worn so thin

16        it’s nearly wire. In my own looking glass, I see her hair,

17        the strong bones of her face. Her wedding ring gleams

18        on my cousin’s left hand; she’s younger. My knuckles

19        are swollen thick and growing thicker, more like

20        Grandmother’s every day. Somewhere in that little town

21        below this hill, she once ran a dining room. Finally

22        there she is: just below the water tower.

23        The dusty stone reads Cora Belle.

     

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.

     

     

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

 

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(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015