Category Archives: Homesickness

In Search of The Perfect Day

 


I recently celebrated my birthday.  It was a great day.  In kickboxing class I beat the hell out of a punching bag, then I cooked myself a big brunch while watching ‘The X Files’ on Netflix.  I sat on my deck and burned a sage smudge to clear my head, and then I took a nap.  When my children and husband came home, they took me out for dinner, and I ended my day cuddled up on the couch with my husband, eating chocolate, watching ‘Dutch’ and drinking wine.  A great birthday.  Last year, my birthday was overshadowed by the government shutdown and news of the South Dakota blizzard that killed thousands of cattle near my hometown.   I don’t recall truly celebrating.  This year I treated myself to as much fun as possible.  I could always save the hum-drum for the day after my birthday.

I am reading a self-help book right now — something I never imagined doing.  In the book there is a passage about a man hung up on the idea of reliving his “perfect” day.  He couldn’t imagine living an imperfect life day after day, having experienced one day of absolute flawlessness.  He wanted that perfection every day, and it angered him that such an ideal could not be achieved to his satisfaction. When reading that excerpt, it struck me that I have been having the same problem.

This summer I spent not one perfect day, but one entire fantastic week in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  After running wild through the hills literally searching for gold, going back to life as a housewife seemed pointless.  The moment I set foot into my house in Kansas, I wanted to turn around, jump in my car, and drive immediately back to South Dakota!  I was even tempted to formulate wild excuses in my head as to why I had to go back for an extra week, or month.  Sound a tad neurotic?  Maybe so, but I knew what lay ahead.  Boring menu planning, unending laundry, pushing the vacuum cleaner back and forth, and pacing in my tiny yard, staring at nothing but cookie cutter rooftops instead of towering spruce covered hills.  I wanted to relive my perfect days, but that would not be possible in Kansas.

Last night, my husband and I had a profound conversation.  He is typically my more insightful half, but last night my self-help book and I came to the rescue.  Frustrated with a negative situation at work, he described a rosier future scenario that he wants for our family.  I recognized that like me, he is also suffering from the desire to live perpetually perfect days.  After concluding a successful term as a company commander, he is now in limbo, and nothing else he accomplishes seems as gratifying.  I told him that we were both at the same junction in our life together, but for different reasons.  He had come out of a very successful point in his career and was realizing that for a while, his work would not be as perfect as he expected.  I was trying to decide what to make of my life, and how I could guide my family as a matriarchal character.

” There is no such thing as a perfect day, but we like to think so, don’t we?  We are at a point where we can accept that any good day is what we make of it.  We can take control of some of the aspects of every day, even if we can’t make every day perfect.  And, if we’re genuinely unhappy with the way things are, then we can make changes for the better.  I hope that makes sense, I am kind of tired.”

“That does make sense, and it’s helping me feel a lot better!” my husband smiled at me.

“Really? Wow, I am so glad!  I know that we are both going through the same things right now, which is kind of nice in a way, because I totally understand how you feel.  And I know that you understand why I want to run away to South Dakota.”  I smiled and patted my husband’s knee.

“Absolutely, I want to run away to South Dakota.” he stood up and stretched.

“Well, as long as you don’t run away to South Dakota without me!”

“I have to pee really bad.” And that was the end of our deep conversation.

There is an episode of ‘Parks and Recreation’ called Pawnee Rangers in which Donna, Tom, and Ben enjoy something called a Treat Yo Self Day.  The first time I watched this episode, I remember thinking that it was cute, but not terribly realistic.  The scene begins with Tom coming into the office and presenting cupcakes spelling out “Treat Yo Self” to Donna, thus prompting a celebratory atmosphere and a massive shopping spree.  There are no restrictions, the characters purchase anything and everything that they want after embarking on a luxurious spa visit.  While not exactly financially feasible in that context, the idea of having a Treat Yo Self Day is quite brilliant when considering mental health.  I like the concept of applying a Treat Yo Self mentality to each day rather than expecting perfection.  A Treat Yo Self mentality is forgiving and generous; perfection is neither of these.  Treats don’t have to be substantial and expensive either.  Sitting with a loved one and having a meaningful conversation, investing in a kickboxing class because it’s always been a personal goal, drinking a favorite cup of tea every morning, or just taking a walk to the mailbox can feel like a treat after you embrace the imperfections that make your life unique and special.   And now, I must treat myself to sleep, and submit an imperfect post to the online community.  And yes, I am happy.

~ G

 

 

Cruising The Badlands

At the beginning of our South Dakota trip, my sister, my son, and I cruised through the Badlands.  This tradition began in 2012 when my children and I first drove through and fell in love with the stark desolation and breathtaking beauty of the skyscraper pinnacles, rounded buttes, and neck breaking coulees.  Since then, every road trip to South Dakota includes at least one Badlands Cruise.

My son scrambling down the natural stairs cut over time on a Badlands formation.

My son scrambling down the natural stairs cut over time on a Badlands formation.

We parked at the largest visitor’s stop just inside the gate to stretch and take photographs.  I was wearing a sundress  and gray Vans sneakers and my sister was wearing jelly shoes, so we weren’t dressed for hiking, but tourists rarely are.  Besides, as native South Dakotans, we had something to prove.  This was but one of our many South Dakota playgrounds, and we were ready to frolic.

Many other characters were climbing on the formations that day.  Two massive body builder types in flimsy tanks and flip flops parked next to us.  In their flip flops, they somehow scrambled up a precarious trail to a little stoop offering a panoramic view of Badlands glittering in the sun.  One of the men shed his top and began posed for his companion’s camera, the majestic scenery in the background.   We nearly interrupted their photo session when we stumbled around the corner onto the stoop, and had to turn briskly on our heels, swallowing giggles.  The man with the camera was heard to say “Oh, that’s beautiful as his friend flexed his sweaty arms.  My son was confused.  My sister grinned and murmured, “They are either updating their UFC profiles, or they are lovers, or both.”  A group of female tourists resembling Old Apostolic Lutherans climbed in matching ankle length navy blue skirts with tucked in blouses and thin canvas Keds.  Their blonde hair swished past their tiny waists and they climbed like rail thin Gazelles, speaking very quietly to one another in Nordic accents.

My sister getting a good shot for her scrapbook.

My sister getting a good shot for her scrapbook.

My son was not satisfied with our brief climb on the most popular formation.  He wanted a more challenging, less occupied spot.  We drove until coming to Saddle Pass, a deceptively harmless looking mound.  It turned out to be incredibly steep, with sliding sediment and pebbles galore to inhibit one’s climbing abilities.  My son easily scaled the trail and was waiting impatiently for my sister and me to struggle, red faced and heaving, up the pass entire minutes later.  This is where my sundress really worked against me.  In shorts I could have lunged and scurried, unimpeded by modesty.  In my skirt, I had to at least try to be more ladylike, especially after sensing that someone was moving up behind me, and fast, on the trail.  It was during my last effort to crest a tricky rise, while I made a most undignified scramble, that the wind lifted up the back of my dress and revealed brilliant purple Betsey Johnson underwear to the young man who chose to follow too closely behind.  He quickly disappeared up the trail, red faced and now schooled in Badlands trail etiquette.

Resting with my son on Saddle Pass.

Resting with my son on Saddle Pass.

I sat down to rest, and to keep my dress from blowing up around my hips.  The view was gorgeous, and we felt triumphant.  My son, still not satisfied with the  amount of hiking accomplished, wanted to go further on.  I told him to be back in five minutes.  As much as I didn’t like to let him out of my sight, I knew that he needed to go out on his own and test his limits.  He reminds me of myself, always wanting to go further up the trail, to see what lies ahead, to push the limits and rise to new challenges.

An older couple was hiking down, slowly and carefully, speaking quietly in French.  They paused where we were resting and made a polite comment about the steep trail.  I cracked “Yeah, I think it might be easier if I just hurl myself back down the trail.”  They smiled politely, not sure if I was being clever or mildly suicidal.  I noticed that the man had a nice camera, and offered to take a picture of the couple on Saddle Pass.  They politely declined and began to move away quickly, and I sensed that behind their sunglasses, their eyes had narrowed with suspicion.  After they disappeared down the trail, my sister and I smiled and shrugged at each other.

“Geez, Georgeann, trying to steal cameras from French tourists?” my sister teased.

“Did they think I was going to take off sprinting down the trail?”

We noticed that my son had been gone longer than five minutes.  I started to feel uneasy.  A young couple stopped to rest before going further up the trail.  The woman looked athletic and graceful, but the man seemed rather clumsy.  Maybe he was just nervous; maybe he was going to propose or something.  We decided to yell for Dylan to come back.

“Dylan!”  I hollered “You get down off the Badlands right now!”  The young couple giggled.  We saw and heard nothing.  My sister tried.

“Dylan, did you hear your mother?!  You get off those rocks and come back down here!” she yelled.

Within another minute we saw him shuffling easily, like a panther, back down.  His face was red and sweat trailed along his hairline, but he looked happy and relaxed.

“Did you see me?”  He asked excitedly.   “I was way over there!”  He pointed to a place far in the distance.  It seemed impossible that he could have been so far away in such a short amount of time.

My sister, thrilled to have made the ascent in her jelly shoes.

My sister, thrilled to have made the ascent in her jelly shoes.

We started back down.  My son was down the trail and waiting for us once again before we had even decided the safest way back.  We chose a very steep and ever deepening, but very narrow crevice that we could use for foot and hand holds, and we crept across.  My sister followed behind me, taking embarrassing photos when I became stuck in an awkward squat position.  We finally had to crawl out, hoisting ourselves over the scratchy edge like injured prairie dogs.  After getting back on the trail we made a dash to the bottom.  When on a steep, slippery downhill trail, I just make a dash for it and hope for the best.  The young couple we met was galloping down the trail behind us, having finished their hike.  The young man  slipped on loose pebbles and fell on his ass, confirming my suspicions about his clumsiness.  My sister and I made it down safely thanks to years of climbing on steep terrain in Idaho forests.  My son was bored, thirsty, and tired by the time we finally caught up with him.

 

“I’m glad you both made it back down.  I was getting really tired of waiting.” he yawned.  “I think I had enough hiking for today.”

When we got back to the car we saw the French speaking couple, parked next to us.  They were, it turned out, from Quebec.  They had changed from high tech hiking boots into regular sneakers, and the camera was nowhere to be seen.  They smiled and nodded and watched us closely as we loaded into my car.  They must have thought us mad to have been hiking in our strange clothing, with only cameras and chutzpah.  The man took a long drag on a skinny cigarette and watched as I backed out of the parking spot.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, my sister shook her head and said “Smoking a cigarette after an intense hike on a really hot day!  That is so French!”

It takes all kinds to cruise the Badlands.  I think that is why I will never get tired of going back there with my children to be part of the group of characters that hike there every summer.

~G

More Precious Than Gold

During my trip to South Dakota, I spent a fantastic afternoon with my family on one of our Black Hills mineral claims.  Named The Razzamatazz after my parents’ dog, the claim offered easy dirt road access and a gorgeous view of both hills and meadows.  We packed enough provisions for a day of exploration and set out through the hills, singing and chattering happily.

My son enjoying a moment on a pile of stones left over from mining attempts.

My son enjoying a snack on a pile of boulders left over from past mining attempts.

After turning onto the muddy dirt track vaguely marking out a path, we spooked a doe, who melted into the trees.  A huge family of turkeys strutted across  the trail and crouched in the tall grass, eyeing us suspiciously.   We rolled down the window and yelled “Gobble, gobble!  Gobble, gobble!” Dad pointed out pastel wildflowers and we breathed in the piney scent around us.  After parking under the shade of a huge spruce, we unloaded and prepared to hike up a steep ridge so Dad could show off what he had aptly named The Hole.  He wanted a volunteer to go into The Hole, and had brought along rope to pull the volunteer back out, but the majority ruled that this sounded like a terrible idea.  Instead, my sister and son threw rocks into its never-ending darkness while I yelled at them to keep away from the crumpling edge: “Get your damn ass away from that hole!”

Raz, for whom The Razzamatazz claim is named, romping through the grass.

Raz, for whom The Razzamatazz claim is named, romping through the grass.

After the excitement and danger of The Hole wore off, we started looking for interesting rocks to take home.  Dad pointed out characteristics indicating which rocks were more likely to contain veins of gold, and showed us iron pyrite sticking out of pink quartz.  The claim we were exploring had immense reserves of schist and quartz, and had been mined in years past.  We were very likely standing on top of a huge vein of priceless minerals and gold, just deep enough to be beyond reach.  Dad believes there is more than we can imagine, but it would be extremely difficult to extract without heavy machinery and crates of explosives.

We didn’t see any obvious veins of gold in the boulders we pulled from the ground, so my father and sister hiked further up the ridge to get a view of Dad’s favorite meadow.  I helped my mother and son transport arm loads of pink and white quartz back to my SUV.  Once back at the car, we decided to take a lunch break.  I kept my eye out for mountain lions, or “MLs”, as my son calls them, while chewing my steak and red onion sandwich with horseradish mayonnaise.  It was a quiet afternoon, but on our way down the ridge we had spotted predator scat, and an animal was making faint noises in the distance.  My father and sister came back down from the ridge with tales of a colossal belt of quartz that had been pushed out of the ground by massive tree roots.  Dad was thrilled about this discovery and planned to return for more investigating.

Sword fighting on the claim.

Sword fighting on the claim.

My mother smiling and enjoying an afternoon on the gold claim.

My mother smiling and enjoying an afternoon on the gold claim.

We stopped at Dad’s camper, Chipmunk Village, as he calls it, because no matter where he parks, the camper attracts hordes of the pernicious creatures.  I needed to pick up camping gear belonging to me and my husband so we could outfit our camper (which we haven’t yet purchased).  In no hurry to leave the hills, we wandered around a field surrounding the camper and reminisced about family camp-outs from decades ago.  My sister and son fought a protracted battle over a piece of braided grass.  Mom drop kicked conks while Dad and I hauled a footlocker and folding table out of the camper.  We let the late afternoon sun seep into our bones and the smell of Black Hills Spruce trees envelope us in hazy perfume.

Nothing mattered but the feeling we felt at that moment.  We had no cell phone service and no way to get updates from the world.  For the time being, we weren’t affected by ISIS terror threats, protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Robin Williams, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the stacks of bills piling up in our respective homes.  We just wanted to play out a daydream, much like my childhood full of summers camping out in pristine Idaho forests.

When it was time to go back to the real world, I don’t think that any of us really wanted to go back.  We had soaked up the sun, the smell of dry pine needles, and the memories of living a simple life, spending entire summers embracing the wilderness.  We wanted to stay in the forest, but we were out of water and food, it was time to go back, cook a big dinner, smile at all the photos we had taken, and fall asleep dreaming the dreams of children: a sunny day, a grassy field, a muddy hole and a rock perhaps hiding a sliver of gold.  We were satisfied with our consolation prize — knowing we could walk away cherishing the memory of a day that we stood on top of a priceless vein of gold that we might never possess, because we had something much more valuable: family.

~G

At the Chipmunk Village.

At the Chipmunk Village.

 

 

 

He Who Owns Us

My Mini Tatanka, a treasure found at a favorite second hand shop in Belle Fourche.

My Mini Tatanka, a treasure found at a favorite second hand shop in Belle Fourche.

For the next few posts, I will be writing about my latest trip to South Dakota. Rather than start from the beginning, I have chosen to work backwards, so that in effect, the posts will read (hopefully) in chronological order once completed. I don’t know if this will actually make reading them more enjoyable, but since the return trip is freshest on my mind, I begin with this story.

It always seems to rain when it’s time to say good-bye.  I try to remember back to childhood.  Did it rain every time my grandparents finished their summer visit?  And there is a tradition in my family that no road trip to South Dakota would be complete without Mother Nature hurling her most creative weather concoctions at us as we rocket down the parched and patched roads.
My sister and I left Belle Fourche on a cloudy morning, my car so loaded with “treasures” that we could only see out the side mirrors.  Traveling this way makes some nervous, but we’ve done it so often that after looking at the pile of bags, coolers, boxes, and assorted furniture crammed into my SUV, we just shrugged, laughed, and started the ignition.  My parents were depressed to see us go, and as we prolonged our farewells, rain clouds stacked up in the sky.  I noted this but said nothing of my observation about rain and families splitting.  I volunteered to drive first so that I would be less likely to pout in the car.  I did not want to leave.  South Dakota had seeped into my bones and was coursing through my blood.  I burned with the fever of wanting to return to the dreamscape –Black Hills Spruce, impossible geography, and frosty creeks  hiding gold flecks — all muted the outside world.

 

The Al's Oasis sign at Oacoma, with the legendary buffalo mascot.

The Al’s Oasis sign at Oacoma, with the legendary buffalo mascot.

We made small talk in the car and let the conversation twist down whatever trail seemed appropriate.  On Interstate 90 east of Rapid City, I looked up into the sky to gauge the probability of a storm and saw an enormous bison in profile, charging majestically across his cloud prairie.  Tatanka, or He Who Owns Us, according to the Lakota language, demanded our full attention above the horizon.  The literal translation of Tatanka is buffalo bull, but the meaning of the name — He Who Owns Us — implies the Lakota’s great reverence for the king of the Plains. Legend and tradition ingrained through generations has made the bison a permanent central character defining life in South Dakota.  Symbolizing the sacredness and abundance of life on the Plains, the bison is not owned by any person.  Instead, we who walk the earth are owned by him, who has sustained us.

 

It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road; the Tatanka cloud was practically mesmerizing.  Within minutes it morphed into a smaller bison, maybe a cow, and soon it was strolling slowly with its humped back framed against a bluebird sky.  By the time we reached Wall, the cloud had changed once again, breaking apart to become the wispy face of an old bull, staring down as we passed the cemetery like a great sentinel watching over his vast domain.  Tatanka certainly owned us that day as we wallowed in the bittersweet memories of our adventure.

The next day we left South Dakota in the early afternoon.  It was raining.  As I said, it always rains when I have to say good-bye.  The clouds, a reflection of my breaking heart, streamed quiet wet tears down the canvas of the sky.  They swirled above and around, creating the impression that we were enclosed under a great inverted bowl of steel blue wool.  A few tears escaped from behind my sunglasses and I brushed them off my cheeks quickly.  Suddenly Tatanka appeared one last time, humped up and riding the cloud bank shot through with lightning, reminding me to keep my aching heart strong and wait for the next time I would return to South Dakota.  The question is, can I hold out?

~G

Homecoming

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An imposing perspective on parent/child relationships. You can go home again, but it’s scary!

So here is a confession: my parents and I had a falling out recently.  The details need not be aired, but I will admit that I spent several weeks not talking to them, and it was brutal.  As summer neared, the mulish anger subsided, and just in time for the return of the prodigal daughter.  I placed a phone call to Mom to patch things up.

I was still skittish about coming home after making amends with Mom and Dad.  After only a few delicately worded conversations, it seemed that we were all walking on egg shells, and anything was apt to go wrong.  Visiting my parents is not like visiting other parents.

Mom and Dad live in a giant, ancient schoolhouse.  Correction: the third floor of a giant, ancient schoolhouse.  So a visit begins with the hauling of half a ton of belongings up three flights of slippery crumbling tile stairs, usually late at night, during a rain storm.  Can’t find your kids at Papa and Nana’s?  They are probably just playing hide-and-seek, aren’t they?  At my parents’ schoolhouse, which is roughly 45,000 square feet of mystery and danger, I have about as much chance locating my wandering children as the drunken transient who has broken into the building in search of valuables to steal and sell at the pawn shop down the street.  There’s a Hunger Games vibe.

In a town full of individualistic characters, my parents are the definition of characters.  Everyone knows them, and depending on previous encounters, the mere mention of their names can bring smiles and happy anecdotes or dark scowls of contempt.  Am I proud of this?  Damn right I am!  Does it make life a little harder when I come to visit?  Sometimes.  But while running errands around town today, something made me realize how important your family is, even when driving you crazy, making you mad, and causing you constant frustration.

It started at the dented can store — the kind of place where you buy cereal boxes that have the tops taped back on and cans of organic black beans with little dents in the sides — all at a discount.  We went to look for “good deals”, a longtime family ritual.  Inside the store a photograph of me is tacked up at one of the cash registers.  It has been there since 2003, when I left home to go to Baghdad.  Me in my Army uniform, with my infant son, who is holding a little American flag.

Every time we have gone into this store over the past eleven years, my parents have made a fuss over the picture.  Now my children make similar remarks, mimicking what they have heard my parents say for their entire lives.  “Doesn’t Momma look neat in that Army uniform?”  It finally occurred to me that the picture is still tacked up at the register because my parents have made sure I’m not forgotten.  They have made me into the hometown hero and carried on my memory long after I’ve gone.

Running errands around a town  this small, my main concern was finding sustenance to accommodate my annoying food sensitivities.  I had already fallen off the gluten-free wagon during a delicious but near disastrous lunch at a local sports bar, so I was thrilled to discover that one of the grocery stores features a new, impressive gluten-free section!  Arriving back at the schoolhouse (and after four trips up the three flights of stairs carrying 200 pounds of grocery items) I mentioned to Dad that the section was quite progressive.  He took  complete credit for its inception.

“I talked to the store manager for some time about doing that,” he said.  “I told him that you needed better food options when you visit, and that there are a lot of other people in the community who need gluten-free foods.”

I was, quite frankly, in awe.  It’s possible that my father was not the one person solely responsible for the gluten-free section of the grocery store.  However, knowing him, he probably spent a great amount of personal time lobbying the store on my behalf.  Just like he spent eleven years remarking on my deployment photo, making sure that everyone within earshot didn’t forget me.  It made me wonder if the reasons why I had been so upset with my parents were really worth being so angry after all.

 It makes me wonder something else too.  Will I ever be as good a parent to my children as my parents have been to me?

— G

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Passing Time on a Winter’s Evening

A bee visiting a giant sunflower in my Kansas garden.

A giant bee visiting a giant sunflower in my Kansas garden.

After the shock of Christmas has worn off and all the decorations have been packed carefully into closets until next season, we settle into a generally quiet routine and wait for Winter to melt into Spring.  The signal that Spring planting is closer than we think arrives with seed catalogs in our mailbox. We usually have a stack as thick as a phone book by the end of January.  These glossy wish books full of endlessly fascinating plant varieties provide hours of entertainment during even the coldest of winter evenings.

My system for browsing seed catalogs is simple: I choose my three favorites, toss the rest, and then sit down with a hot cup of tea and religiously peruse, looking for coveted packets of heirlooms and rarities for the new year’s garden.  I dog-ear the magazine pages and make an extensive shopping list of seeds that catch my eye.  Before practicality overtakes me, imagination reigns supreme, and I write down absolutely everything the family desires, from fantastical warty pumpkins the size of enormous boulders to dwarf bushes bearing glittering gem colored berries.  Growth and food production characteristics of exotic squash, vibrantly hued okra, delicate bee enticing flowers, crisply fragrant cucumbers, and vivacious snappy carrots are researched vigorously by the glow of a warm lamp.  Only after my exhaustive list is complete, and Spring is just around the corner, do I edit items that won’t quite fit into our budget or our garden.

Asparagus established in our Kansas garden.

Asparagus established in our Kansas garden.

The heartiest plant in our garden: my $5 rosebush!

The heartiest plant in our garden: my $5 rosebush!

In past years I have kept an Excel spreadsheet on my old laptop with all my shopping lists, seed prices from catalog and Internet vendors, price comparisons, and best of all, my garden records.  When we lived in South Dakota I had a glorious garden!  The soil yielded vegetables willingly at the slightest turn of my spade, and I could spend hours fussing about with my little seedlings, helping them turn up to the sunlight.  In South Dakota we produced a bumper crop of carrots, onions, lettuces, spinach, wild kale, beans,  cucumbers and others.

Our hops going dormant last autumn.

Our hops going dormant last autumn.

Every plant was recorded in my spreadsheet, with seed type, location, date of planting, and success rate noted.  I even added  notes indicating any unusual circumstances surrounding the success or failure of the seeds.  For example, we had a terrible hail storm one year that annihilated the tomatoes, but practically every other seedling managed to dodge the hailstones plummeting to earth like icy buckshot.  After this  storm, the garden thrived and provided delicious edibles for the remainder of the year.  Noting anomalies, weather pattern effects, and strange circumstances in my spreadsheet helped me decide whether or not to continue to attempt to plant certain crops.  I eventually gave up on tomatoes after three straight years of various failures, but my husband has picked up the proverbial spade, determined to get the little buggers to grow come hell or high water (which we had in our yard last year)!

Our asparagus thriving, with bright red berries to mark the coming winter.

Our asparagus thriving, with bright red berries to mark the coming winter.

Sun Chokes, AKA Jerusalem Artichokes, have found a home.

Sun Chokes, AKA Jerusalem Artichokes, have found a home.

The garden in Kansas presented a new challenge.   Uncultivated like that of our beautiful Black Hills soil, it is ugly construction zone soil badly in need of care and refinement.  However, our first year garden in Kansas was surprisingly successful.  We had so much okra that we became tired of gumbo, stir fried okra, curries, and okra pickles, so I let the remaining pods go to seed, hoping the okra would reseed naturally the following year.  Torrential rains and a temperamental spring prevented the seeds from taking, and we had no okra.  We had  similar experiences with other vegetables.  Seeds that had sprung so lively from the soil the previous year failed to even germinate.  My heirloom lettuces and wild kale, the pride of my garden, washed away when the yard flooded in the torrential rains.  The beans were devoured by a mysterious insect, possibly grasshoppers, and Napoleon, my garden toad, could only grimace apologetically at me as if to say “I ate as many as I could!”  

The rosebush enduring the first winter storm of 2013.

The rosebush enduring the first winter storm of 2013.

The final insult felt like a sharp blow when my husband and I discovered that a varmint had plucked and eaten every last sun ripened grape from the spiraling vine I’d been nurturing and (thought I had been) protecting all summer.   As we stared at the last remnants of our efforts I know we were both thinking the same thing: all that work, and for what?  But, as I was tearfully mourning the jars of grape jelly we would never taste, my husband just said quietly, “Well, now we know what to look out for next year.”  This is the nature of gardening: so many risks, so many contingencies we can’t always plan for, and so many heartbreaks when our hard work goes unrewarded.  But every gardener knows that all the hard lessons from the past should not prevent browsing the catalogs, making seed lists, and making plans so to be prepared for the future!

As with choosing seeds for my garden, I had a very difficult time choosing related articles to add to my post…so, I chose them all!  
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Looking Back

Christmas is my favorite time of year, so naturally I have many great memories.  The entire month of December seems filled with magic and goodwill.  By the time Christmas Eve arrives, I am as excited as my children, who don’t fall asleep until quite late in anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus.  In 2009 I wrote a journal entry about our family’s Christmas adventures; this year I found it when I was sorting through my office.  Kind of fun to read back through it while I sit by the fire…

By the Christmas tree in 2009...

By the Christmas tree in 2009…

This year we almost ended up separated by a huge winter blizzard.  Dad had just returned from a long vacation to Kansas City, and he’d left Mom with my sister and brother-in-law.  She would be coming home “sometime after the New Year” so our celebration would be small in size.  Within 24 hours of Dad’s return home, we began to hear ominous reports of a storm system scheduled to hit the Black Hills just before Christmas.

and in 2013...my favorite girls!

and in 2013… with my favorite girls!

Since Dad had been gone for several weeks, he had numerous important matters to take care of before coming to Rapid City, where we planned to spend Christmas together.  Because of the inclement weather, it was starting to look like Dad might not be able to join us, and that didn’t seem right.  Although he had other invitations to celebrate with friends, Van and I didn’t want Dad to be without family during the Holidays.  After watching the local forecast on television we realized that if we didn’t make a move immediately, we would remain separated.  The time window was closing fast!

Without discussion, we knew exactly what we would do.  We called Dad to tell him that we would be coming to Belle Fourche, and then we immediately began to pack.  We loaded my car with dozens of brightly colored gifts, a duffel bag full of snow clothes, a twenty pound turkey thawing in a bucket, stockings for Santa to fill, the kids, the dog, the hunting rifles, and last but not least, the Dutch oven.  It was an afterthought thrown in because it contained half a roasted chicken from the previous night’s dinner.

Ready to take Christmas to Papa!

Ready to take Christmas to Papa!

Van was a bit nervous about the icy road conditions so we took it slow and let more adventurous travelers pass in their two wheel drive sports cars.  We talked about how we felt good, that this was the right thing to do, bringing Christmas to Dad.  We could have stayed in our warm, comfortable house with the decorated Christmas tree and all the amenities we wanted right at our fingertips.  But Christmas isn’t about having things.  This year year we decided it was about leaving our comfort zone and giving more than we received.

Our youngest daughter peeking over the furry yellow back of Ross the Dog.

Our youngest daughter peeking over the furry yellow back of Ross the Dog.

My happiest Christmas memories are of times spent with my parents and sister during childhood, or with my husband and children more recently.  I was looking forward to a rather quiet evening and a more or less regular Christmas Day, nothing out of the ordinary.  But since my family has never fit the cookie cutter family stereotype, I should have known this wasn’t going to happen.  Somehow, frantically packing warm comfy clothes, preparing enough food to feed an army, and taking all the bows off the lovingly wrapped gifts to cram them into our already too full SUV just seemed so much more appropriate, so us.

We arrived safely at the schoolhouse (did I mention my parents live in an 85 year old schoolhouse?) in Belle Fourche around noon and quickly unloaded as the wind began to pick up briskly.  After lugging our belongings up three flights of stairs, we enjoyed a quick lunch of leftovers and then planned our events for the next few days.  Dad and Van had one major objective: turkey hunting at the local dairy farm.  My objective was to cook a feast and assume the regular domestic duties of a matriarch (story of my life).  Coming to Belle to see my parents is fun but it also requires unlimited energy, sufficient prior planning, and the ability to deftly travel through the 50,000 square feet of schoolhouse in a timely manner (that is why the unlimited energy and prior planning is so important).

Busy cooking delicious Christmas goodies on a cold blustery day.

Busy cooking delicious Christmas goodies on a cold blustery day.

After lunch the guys decided to go on a hunting trip while my daughters and I prepared the project room — what we call the Break Room because it is equipped with everything for projects and entertainment — for the festivities.  Stockings were to be hung near the wood burning stove and little decorations were put up around the room.  Gifts were unpacked, bows were reattached, and a pyramid of presents was stacked on the long table at the back of the room.  When the guys returned from hunting I went upstairs to the kitchen to make supper.  We had all the ingredients for a large batch of chicken with noodles, so I quickly went to work.  In the meantime, a plate of Christmas goodies was delivered to the Break Room to keep the rest of the group content.  The dinner turned out nicely, and we were pleased to discover how much faster it cooked in the Dutch oven.  After our nice hot meal, we turned in for the night.

Van woke me on the morning of Christmas Eve to tell me that the power was out because of the weather.  He was REALLY excited about this turn of events, and he encouraged me to bring the girls downstairs to the Break Room where the wood stove was putting out sufficient heat to keep us warm.  When the girls woke up we pulled on slippers and went downstairs.  The guys were making the most of the power outage by cooking breakfast on the stove.  Bacon sizzled in a skillet, the griddle was heating for pancakes, and the coffee…well that presented a problem.  We needed a campfire coffee pot, immediately!  The guys figured out an alternative method by heating water on the stove and then pouring it over paper towels full of coffee grounds.  Yuck.

Putting the stuffing into a new snuggly friend.

Putting the stuffing into a new snuggly friend.

We had been without power since 11:00 the night before, and had no idea how long we might wait before power would be restored.  We had to consider the idea that Christmas Eve might be spent mostly without power and prepare accordingly.  Van was having a ball, and even said he hoped the power would stay off at least another day.  He had unpacked all our camping gear, which we kept at the schoolhouse.  He had a big grin on his face.  I was a bit less enthusiastic, unsure how to keep the kids busy without electricity.  After a very good old fashioned breakfast of sausage, bacon, and pancakes, Van went on a search to find a camp coffee pot so we could have drinkable coffee.

Meanwhile, Dad and I had to figure out how to entertain the girls.  We fixed a few broken ornaments — being in the Break Room meant we had access to glue, paint, woodworking and metalworking tools, and all kinds of other fun things!  We kept them busy with an assortment of toys and crayons, and felt grateful for the natural light streaming through the large windows.  It felt quite cozy and it was kind of fun, echoing back to a simpler time.  We were all actually a little disappointed when the electricity came back on around 10:30 a.m.  Dad and I wasted no time once we were certain the power was going to stay on. We loaded the dishwasher and washing machine and began preparing Christmas Eve foods.

Scared of Santa

Scared of Santa Claus at Storybook Island, Rapid City, SD 2009. Some things never change…

I had realized that bringing the Dutch oven was a blessing in disguise; it would come in handy for cooking foods on the wood burning stove if we had another power outage.  I hurriedly put together canned beans, carrots, celery and onions with a ham bone left over from Thanksgiving; I added a blend of spices and plopped it onto the stove where it could simmer until lunch.  Van came back with a nice stainless steel coffee pot given to him by a friend in town.  He had stopped by to check on us while the power was out and heard that Van was looking for a coffee pot, so he went home and got his old camp pot for us.  Even though the electricity was now working fine, Van put the pot on the stove to percolate because we wanted to continue enjoying the old fashioned feeling.

Storybook Island

Storybook Island, Christmas 2009.

With the beans bubbling on the stove, I started making pumpkin pies in the kitchen upstairs and had two baked in no time.  Next was homemade pizza, a family tradition on Christmas Eve.  I was concerned that the dough wouldn’t rise because the kitchen was very cold, but the early afternoon sun came through the window and warmed the dough enough to make it double more quickly than I expected.  My older daughter helped me make the pizza while my younger daughter napped.  When the guys returned from a Christmas Eve hunting trip with two fresh turkeys in the evening, one pizza was cooling and one was baking in the oven.

Something useful for Papa.

Something useful for Papa.

We had decided in advance to attend a Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Church down the street, and after the guys came back from their hunt we had a few quick bites of pizza before getting ready for church.  We dressed the girls in beautiful dresses and then bundled up against the cold.  The church was only about two blocks away, but due to the heavy snowfall and frigid temperature, we drove to the service.  We sat in the back and were soon joined by a family we had known for years, kind people with big smiles and warm hearts.  During the service, the girls were quiet and seemed awestruck by the carols and Nativity symbols.  My husband joked quietly that something must be terribly wrong since our children were actually behaving in church!

Our oldest daughter Annie began to fall asleep in Van’s arms, but during a brief moment of near silence, she passed gas audibly enough for our friends to hear.  Van looked at Annie and she said loudly “It wasn’t me!” We nearly had to excuse ourselves to laugh hysterically in the foyer.  After the service, my friend told me that she thought the ‘mystery gasser’ was her baby, and we all had a good chuckle before we headed to our respective homes.  The service was quite good, although the carols were really high pitched, so I felt out of my element.  Van solved that problem for himself by not singing at all — so clever!  The sermon had a lovely message and the celebration was very uplifting, though, and we left in high spirits!

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Cleaning the turkey after church. Daddy has his best helpers!

Back at the schoolhouse, we told Dad about Annie’s comical moment while Van dressed and cleaned the turkeys.  We ate more pizza and other goodies, then we hung our stockings near the stove and left cookies, milk, and a letter for Santa.  The girls were so excited about Santa coming that it took nearly two hours to get them to fall asleep.  Finally, they snuggled into their blankets and dozed off.  Van and I stayed up a while longer and enjoyed the crackling fire in the Break Room.  Snow fell all night outside our windows.

Merry Christmas Daddy!

Merry Christmas Daddy!

The next morning, we awoke to a winter wonderland.  The storm had passed through the Black Hills slowly, leaving an almost unfathomable amount of snow.  We checked the forecast and found out the blizzard warning was still in effect for 24 more hours.  Not to worry, we had plenty of firewood, food, and things to do!  The girls were thrilled with the goodies they found in their stockings and we all enjoyed unwrapping gifts.  When it was time to clear away the torn wrapping paper and move on from another Christmas, I felt happy, not like past years when a sense of guilt and loss always overtook me.  Loss because the time went by too fast, and guilt because of our frivolous spending on things we usually didn’t need.  This year I just felt really good.

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Thank you Sis for the wonderful gift!

As we lay cuddled up after a long day of family time, my daughters and I were very still and very quiet.  I don’t know what the girls were contemplating before they fell asleep, but I thought about the meaning of Christmas, and how this year’s odd circumstances conspired in a truly blessed way.  Most Christmas seasons leave me feeling sad, frantic and burned out as I try to cling to the traditions and decorations long after the New Year has passed.  But this year, on the evening of Christmas Day, I feel ready to let go of the things that are not important and hold onto the things that are.

Glad I found that old entry.  Hope your holiday celebrations continue to be merry!

—G