Epiphany

Sometimes in our lives we’re just cruising along living day-to-day, doing OK, enjoying our lives enough, overall fine but not filled with fire and enthusiasm over any of it, just kind of muddling along, unaware and unconscious and something happens that throws our life in front of us so we see it for what it is and we see our achievements for what they are and we feel knocked over with gratitude to the external factors that helped us along but also grateful — proud — of ourselves for what we’ve overcome and who we are. I know this is one of the purposes of events like graduations and maybe even weddings, but when it isn’t tied to any life-measuring moment or something it’s very special. Most of the time I think we humans think in terms of what we hoped to do and didn’t or couldn’t or gave up on, all that, so-called “failures.” For me, anyway, it’s not always easy to see where things are right because sometimes some of the most right things don’t fit the mold, the pattern, the expectations, but they are, for us completely and totally right.

I had such an experience yesterday. I won’t go into the details because HOW I got here doesn’t matter — I think it would be unique for everyone.

But wow. All day today I’ve thought of a couple of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” The poem doesn’t hit me, but the end does. I first read those lines as title of a book I judged for the contest, the memoir of a woman and her husband who’d built schools in Africa. The title of the book is My Wild and Precious Life. It’s a really good book and I recommend it. The poem ends with:

I do know how…to stroll through the fields
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Suddenly, yesterday, it hit me that I couldn’t have done better given the hand I was dealt and the person that I am. I felt so much gratitude for the fates that landed me in that 3 bedroom tract house in Nebraska across from a forest from which I learned who my best friend through life would be. Yesterday I felt fully how much that has meant to me and how well it has served me, still serves me. As I composed that little poem in response to a small challenge, I realized that I have been writing one poem since my very first poem when I was 10. I’ve written other poems, but that has been my poem. Sometime when I’m not so lazy I’ll go find that first poem and transcribe it here. Maybe. 😉

So what will I do with my “one wild and precious life?” I’ll keep going on as I have been. ❤



Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?



Nostalgia is Deadly

Ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s been a very long time since I read 100 Years of Solitude but many things from this novel have followed me throughout my life, one of them is Marquez’ warning against nostalgia. Of course I underlined it in my copy of the book which, like many of the artifacts in Marquez’ novel has vanished in time. So trying to find it for this post is pretty impossible unless I want to go buy a new copy and read it over.

I don’t. But it might be this:

“Dazed by two nostalgias facing each other like two mirrors, he lost his wonderful sense of unreality, until he ended up recommending everyone to leave Macondo, to forget how much he had taught them about the world and the human heart, to shit on Horacio and that wherever they were they would always remember that the past was a lie, that memory had no way back, that every ancient spring was irretrievable, and that the most foolish and tenacious love was in any case an ephemeral truth.

I don’t remember everything about Marquez’ story — it would be impossible since I read it in the late 1970s at the recommendation of one of my high school English teachers, Miss Cohen, who became my friend. But I remembered the moral of the story. There is no looking back. Putting an antimacassar on my easy chair (or Bear’s easy chair) will not bring back my grandmother or the childhood hours spent in Billings, Montana, or the world as I believed it to be.

It really WASN’T better back then. People were not happier back then. The prosperity that we look back on was not the same thing to people living in those times. A case in point from my own life was my mother. My dad died of MS in 1972 and my mother never moved beyond that moment. As time passed, the time she had with my dad became this sacred relic. His shirt hung in her closet with the pens in the pocket even though that shirt had not been to work since sometime in the 1960s. My mom was a kind of performance artist with clothes, as it turned out. When I cleaned out her dresser after she died all that was in it was the jewelry left to me in her will and, in a bottom drawer, a black, baby-doll negligee. Nostalgia drove my mother into an insane bitterness. Imagine a mother saying to her only daughter who’s sitting with her in the hospital, “He was MY husband. I slept with him.”

I was there for most of their marriage and my dad talked freely and openly to me — which he probably shouldn’t have, but he did. I viewed my mother’s nostalgia as guilt. Her wish she had done many things differently turned into a conviction that she’s been cheated by life. She grew to see herself as a victim. Not a victim of the bad luck of having a husband who died young but as a victim of an unjust fate that stole from her a great love with whom she’d been happy while all of her OTHER sisters still had their husbands. She believed she’d been singled out by malicious forces to suffer in loneliness. In real life my parents fought all the time.

As a nation, many Americans have been hornswoggled by nostalgia. MAGA is political nostalgia that has captured the aggrieved imaginations of people who remember a past that never existed. The echoes and consequences of that past — as it really was — are all around us in the form of climate change and lingering racism. Our past is like my parents’ marriage in many ways. Yeah, there was the good stuff but there was also a lot of bad stuff, enough bad stuff that, as a people, we continued to move forward, almost in spite of ourselves.

One day, as I was opening my garage door in San Diego, I had flash of insight. I was, at the time, worried about my brother who was then in the hospital with complications from alcoholism. I had been thinking, “How did this happen? How did he get so broken? How could that have not happened?” suddenly my brain said, “Our eyes are in front of our face for a reason. And, if we turn around to go the other way, we still go forward. Think about it.”

I believe I actually said, “Whoa…”

By now it’s late (Ormai é Tardi)
Vasco Rossi

By now it’s late!
Look at time…“fly away”! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And what a nostalgia…
What a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!
And life
Goes on running away! 
And what a nostalgia…
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia!
And what a nostalgia! 
By now it’s late!
By now it’s late!

Featured photo: My grandmother and my brother at my grandma’s house in Billings, MT, probably 1959 or so…

“Stay in the yard!!!!”

My brother wanted to be a pitcher which meant I, glasses and all, had to be the catcher. I had baseball dreams, too, but they were different from his. I wanted to make friends in my new town where, for the first time, the inner Marthlete could confidently emerge. I had a — have a heart murmur — and in high Colorado I wasn’t (as a kid) allowed to run. But in sea-level Bellevue, Nebraska, I was free. I’d learned that the neighbor kids played softball (in our yards) and I wanted them to like me. Naturally. No one wants to be last pick. I realized the best way to make friends was to hit home runs. Striking out had the opposite effect.

I spent a summer hitting balls out of the yard. I threw them up in the air and hit them, hour after hour. When my dad got home from work, he threw balls for me to catch. We decided I would play center field. Center field in my yard was the very edge. Many of the yards weren’t fenced, so it was just one long string of open lawns with invisible boundaries that we DID NOT CROSS WITHOUT PERMISSION. It was a military town and, therefore, a military neighborhood, so many neighbors were just referred to by rank. To the south lived “the Captain.” To the east, “the Sergeant.” It was a good system because that’s how they wanted kids to refer to them. No “Mr. Bond” or “Mrs. Pumphrey.”

My dreams of growing up to be Willie Mays were thwarted by reality. How often does that happen? First, Willie Mays was Willie Mays, so the position was permanently filled. Second, I am female. Even when our dreams don’t come true — or can’t — we still get something, and my moment came. It was this. (From a post I wrote some time back, “…a Good Memory from Childhood“)

“My dad was ill with MS and not getting better. I knew he would not get better. I went to the VA hospital with him one afternoon and I know he got bad news from what he told me. When I got home, I had to get ready for my softball game. I lived for baseball, but this was the best we had because we were girls. I played center field. Most of the other girls couldn’t play very well so no one ever hit the ball out where I was. I stood in the sunlight sucking on my glove. Then I saw my mom and dad had come to the game. They were setting up a chair under a tree for my dad. My team was up. I hit one home run after another — six in all — just in that one inning because my dad was there and he was watching the game. The pitcher started rolling the ball over the plate, trying to walk me, the only way they’d ever get up to bat again. When we were finally out and I went back out to field nothing, my mom and dad left.”

To a kid a yard is a world. To a gardener, too, I think, and to my dogs, and to many of us over the past year our yards have taken on a different significance. As always, mine is pretty ugly, but my “team” isn’t much for helping me maintain it. It’s getting to be time to organize grow pots and such like. I always do this FAR too early considering that plants cannot go outside into the yard until June 1. I was wondering last night about this year’s Scarlet Emperor Beans and who they will be this year. I don’t know. Many of the emperors of song and story were pretty awful people, so I imagine they will, again, be poets. But from where?

Heard this in the car on the way to the store yesterday (and sang along). ❤ I still love baseball. One of the great things about living in San Diego was going to Padres Games in their stadium downtown.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/rdp-sunday-yard/

“Think about it, Martha.”

In spite of a mildly torqued knee. a pulled groin muscle, and a limp, I decided to take Bear out to the Refuge. I thought I’d use a cane for stability, but I’d forgotten that is Bear’s job. She’d kind of forgotten that, too, at the beginning of our walk, but she remembered before she did any damage.

The moment I arrived, I noticed the welcoming party.

Welcoming committee…

It was very deer of them to be there, waiting for me, and I was grateful. I took it as a benediction on what I feared was a bad idea, walking Bear when I am physically a little fragile. I sent them my thanks through ASL (which all muledeer understand perfectly) and my friend and I took off slowly, me limping, Bear wanting to smell everything. I didn’t blame her. Even I could see the stories left in the snow.

We went along. I had no idea how far I would go before I couldn’t go, but it turned out that I was able to go almost as far as usual. The only reason I didn’t go all the way is because my mom told me not to, I mean because I’m less stupid and stubborn than I was three days ago. Bear studied scents, rolled in the snow, dug down to where maybe some little creature had burrowed for warmth.

On the way I noticed a large bird in one of the cottonwood trees. Then it went “ooo-hooo” and I realized it was “my” great horned owl. Too far away for a good photo, but when has that deterred me?

I should really take a camera…

When Bear and I turned around, Bear did her lean thing which I interpret to mean, “Thank you Martha,” but it might mean, “Aren’t we going to hunt some more?” We walked along together, my hand on my dog’s back, and I thought, “Is this so bad, Martha? Really, what’s wrong with this? Your best friend is here. Your welcoming committee was waiting for you. The snow is one big mantle of diamonds and stories. And look at that! Look, right in front of you!!”

I did. I stood there and looked at the little grouping of mountains I’ve painted so many times that they’re almost a part of my hand, and I started to cry. “We are hardly a consolation prize,” murmured all the features of the landscape, “And we’re yours. You came here for this and we are here for you. Do you have to live according to some idea of yourself or can’t you just do what we do and BE?”

There were no human footprints anywhere. A couple signs of someone on X-country skis maybe three days ago, but otherwise? As it is most of the year, it was just us, Bear and me and sometimes Teddy, too. I like the cold, the wind, the changes, the tracks, the possibilities of seeing other animals besides me and my dogs. I like what I see going slowly.

So, I will be selling my skis.

Humanity’s Wide Ramble

My first “book” is a semi-autobiographical story that was, long long long ago, titled “Vast Chain of Dancers.” I dimly remember Aristotle describing humanity that way, as a “vast chain of dancers,” but my boyfriend at the time said he had a hard time imagining a “vast” chain, a chain being this long narrow thing and anything vast being more along the lines of the ocean, amorphous and all over the damned place.

The book fell into the darkness for many years, then I resurrected it and worked on it some more. It fell into oblivion again, for a long time, then not all that long after I moved here, without a project, and having found it in the move, I worked on it again. About two years ago I finally finished the book — no longer titled “A Vast Chain of Dancers,” but now Fledging. I printed two copies. One for me and one for the amazing woman who is kind of an adopted mom, mentor, hero.

Thinking of her returns me to the notion of a vast chain. My boyfriend was wrong, but he didn’t live long enough to understand what Aristotle meant. I might not know what Aristotle meant, either, but I get the metaphor at 68, two weeks shy of 69, as I didn’t at 27.

The woman I just mentioned, we’ll call her Bianca, is the mother of a man, Chris, who became my friend and with whom I worked in an online support group for families of addicts. We never met in real life. I met Chris through George, the husband of a Sarah, a wonderful woman with whom I had taught a decade or more earlier. George was an amazing man who “got” me, and was ally and guide for many years as I struggled to overcome life’s fardles and write well. Chris was killed in a very tragic accident. Not long before he died he hooked Bianca up with an iPad and a Facebook account. He linked her up with people he thought she should know, one of whom was me. Another was a woman named Flame. I knew flame from many years earlier as we both struggled toward and through hip resurfacing at the same time and discovered we had much in common other than fucked up joints. That was a bizarre coincidence, to me, but all of these people (except Bianca) were linked by a common faith. They were all practicing Hindus who had been part of the same ashram in the Bay Area. Flame, her husband, and Sarah had all lived for many years in India.

Monte Vista. I’m here because of a house that I saw online. I couldn’t buy it, but it’s only a block away. Since I walked my dogs almost every day, going down the alley to the golf course or high school if I didn’t head out somewhere “more” interesting (that’s a point of view thing) I passed a house. Two years ago a family moved in and the little boy, then 5 years old, said “Hi!” to me. And so, yesterday,

Yesterday — almost exactly two years after I met this little boy — Bear and I stopped by his house to take him and his sister for a walk. Since they hardly ever get to go anywhere, it was a big big big deal for them. We walked up to the high school, then I asked them if they wanted to go through a secret gate and, of course, they were all about it, so we “sneaked” in a back gate to the golf course. There were animal tracks in the snow so I taught the kids what creature made what tracks. Bear rolled in the snow where the scent was strong enough for her to smell (not me, thankfully). The kids ran and explored and felt they’d had an adventure. They climbed the great pile of snow that came from all of our town’s streets and then summited one of the golf course berms. I told them to plant their flag so I could take the summit photograph (featured photo).

“Can I climb that mountain, Miss Martha?”
“God yes,” I think, “climb them all.” I say, “Sure, but be careful.”

Everything we did we did because I was once a little girl with a little brother, not because I know anything about kids. I don’t. I just remember what Kirk and I thought was great. So, though these kids don’t see the OTHER two kids running and climbing with them, they — we — are there.

And more…last night I did a video chat with the younger son of the Good-X with whom I’m close, his wife, S, and their kids. Their little girl has my mother’s name. She’s 7 and recently became very interested in American Indians. Her mom alerted me to this and told the little girl, “Oma Martha knows about Indians.” I haven’t met the kids in real life. It’s expensive for them and for me to make the trips involved. In a conference with S I decided to send H (the little girl) some of the Indian things I have including a bracelet made for me by one of my mom’s friends on the Crow Reservation where my mom taught in the 1940’s. I got it out of its safe place, repaired the snap that closes it and packed it up with a little pin from the Zuni Pueblo and a small black pot made by Maria Martinez. Last night I watched as H struggled to fasten the bracelet on her wrist (it was never easy). S stepped in to help her, and I thought, “Well, Mom, it found a home.” H is thrilled to have REAL Indian things and I am happy she has them. But what a journey for these small bits of life.

When I look around me at life, I see many of these “chains” forming a wide and timeless net. Maybe this is what Aristotle meant. We really do not know whose lives we will enter and touch.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/12/25/rdp-friday-humanity/

It’s a Pulcritudinous Day in the Neighborhood

Back in the day, when we were approaching high school graduation, we began prepping for the college boards. College back then wasn’t community college; it was a four year liberal arts institution that’s still around, I think. ANYhoo, there were a couple of exams we had to take in order to apply to institutions of higher learning and these were the ACT and the SAT. There was a little debate about whether we needed to take BOTH tests but since some schools wanted one and other schools wanted the other, many of us took both. Both exams are still around.

I didn’t expect to pass the math sections of either exam. I don’t believe I did. That was about the time “pocket” calculators came out and they were incredibly expensive and not allowed in the exams, anyway. I didn’t go to school with any kind of math tool except my strange brain that moves numbers around and recognizes 3 as B and 5 as S and l as 1 etc. and my two hands. My teachers coached me around my fear and frustration, “It will be fine, Martha. You’ll score very high on the verbal sections, and you have all your extra-curricular activity to make you an attractive candidate.”

It’s true. I did a lot of extra-curricular stuff in high school. I don’t even remember all of it at this point, but I got a full ride to a woman’s college in Denver. That was my mother’s dream. I couldn’t really go very far away from home because my dad was so ill and the family so friable.

We were intensely prepped with vocabulary, but anyone with the predilection I had for Victorian fiction was ahead of that game. People back in the 19th century seem to have truly loved words. And then, those with a good education usually studied Latin, Greek and a modern language bringing even MORE words into their world. At that moment in my education I believed that truly educated people had a classical education and I meant to get one. Learning vocabulary for the college boards was a breeze for me. Pugnacious, bellicose, belligerent, quarrelsome. Bring it on.

I suppose I was pretty obnoxious because the best friend of my boyfriend said, “You kiss HER? Isn’t that like kissing a book?”

Fighting words.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/12/02/rdp-wednesday-pugnacious/

Complex vs. Simple Compassion

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama

Compassion is the key to everything, but as I had to learn the hard way, it doesn’t always feel good. I always thought of compassion as being nice to people, seeing their side, walking a mile in their shoes, but at a certain moment in my life I realized it might not mean “being nice” at all.

Being nice is easy. You do the nice thing and walk away feeling good about life the universe and everything — and ones self. But then…

My alcoholic brother.

“You think you’re being compassionate by taking care of him, paying his bills, listening to him on the phone, all of that, but it’s taking a huge toll on you, or why would you be here?”

My therapist.

“But I have to help my brother.”

“Who said? Are you helping him? Is he better because you pay his electric bills? Maybe you’re hurting him.”

I had a whole week to think about that — or hike and run about that.

I got my therapist’s point, and I even saw what I had to do, mechanically. I even saw that my “help” was just helping him NOT recover from alcoholism, and that if I really wanted to help him, I had to stop “helping” him. After that, it wasn’t just me mechanically not “helping” him any more. I had to deal with myself, and that has taken decades. I’ve thought a lot about compassion. Ultimately, compassion is self-care.

We live in a historical moment where compassion is simple. It doesn’t demand therapy or making the excruciating decision to let one’s glorious, talented, beloved little brother go wherever he has to go on his own. It just means we wear a mask when we’re around others to inhibit the spray of germs that issues from our mouths when we speak or breathe. Just this could keep businesses open, could keep people out of hospitals and could save lives. Heroic. But NOoooo. It’s political. Wearing masks inhibits our “freedom” and tramples our rights.

We call people heroes when they pull someone from a burning car wreck, save a child from drowning in a pool, give a kidney to a stranger, but here we are needing government officials to enforce behavior that would make all of us heroes if we just had the compassion to strap a stupid fucking piece of cloth across our nose and mouth.

Here are some smart words and thoughts from a kid.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/20/rdp-friday-compassion/

Island of Tranquility in the Midst of National Idiocy

The virus chugs on, the president denies he lost an election, 15 counties in Colorado go to the arbitrarily (?) designated “Level Red” which, when I looked it up only means:

According to the state, ‘level red’ indicates severe risk and is reserved for counties with high levels of transmission, hospitalizations, and positivity rates related to COVID-19. Under this level of restrictions, most indoor activities are prohibited or strictly limited. Among major changes with the shift to ‘level red’ includes a drop to 10 percent capacity at gyms and fitness centers, an 8 PM last call for alcohol, and the closure of indoor dining. 

Surprised that this “Level Red” wasn’t much of a “thing” I saw that we now have an additional level which is “Level Purple.” At that point people would be told to stay at home. It is “a level of more extreme risk than ‘level red’, reserved for counties where hospital capacity is at extreme risk of being overloaded.

I also learned yesterday that scientists have discerned that the virus probably DIDN’T originate in Wuhan, but somewhere in Italy. Va bene.

Such is life in America this morning, November 18, 2020. On a visceral level, since the beginning of this shit show, I’ve “thought,” “Avoid people as much as possible. Wear a mask if you must be around others.” Seems obvious to me, but for some it’s easier said than done.

That said, yesterday my neighbors and I took our little two-car caravan out to the Wildlife Refuge for a saunter. More cranes have arrived. It was a cloudless day with no wind. There was a couple there with a leashed dog so part of our walk was spent taking detours to avoid them. Bear really does not like other dogs. My friends are so amazing that they just went along with the bizarre little circuitous wandering we had to do at the beginning of the walk. It’s not like it was really punishment. We walked in splendor wherever we were.

As always, my neighbor’s husband and I were far behind the girls. We’re just slower. We noticed the girls had stopped ahead of us and were staring into a field. I knew why. There’s a big field with a small pond and the cranes LOVE it.

It was the time of the afternoon when the cranes go from the refuge to a barley field across the street so we were regaled with many large swoops of cranes taking off from this field, flying around us and off. We all stood there a long time watching the magic and talking about life right now. It was a beautiful afternoon, the kind you know belongs in a glass globe on a shelf so whenever you need a good day you can have it again.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/18/rdp-wednesday-visceral/

Cranes and Time

It’s not easy to record the flight of cranes in the sky with a phone. Until today, I haven’t had a lot of success, but….

Ta-TAAAAAA

There were thousands of cranes. Cranes on the ground eating and dancing, cranes in the air, doing what you see above. As Teddy and I were walking out, toward Bella, shadows of cranes passed over me and I thought, “Shadows of these birds have been passing over the earth for 350 million years.” I thought of my little life. Of the little lives of my cows that I’d just seen and talked to (I hold Teddy in my arms when we see the cows; he’s WAY too curious). The cranes had passed over the Clovis point people who once lived here. The cranes had passed over Lake Alamosa when it was above ground. The cranes had passed over the mammoths and the dinosaurs.

Wow.

Then, as we had to drive the loop today, I saw an osprey on the highest point of a small cottonwood tree, the lone tree for miles. I stopped to watch him thinking about how lucky I am to walk in the shadows of Sandhill cranes with a sweet dog on a beautiful Indian summer day and spy an osprey. I thought about how I am really a single-issue voter and it’s never been abortion or racial problems or the economy or anything like that. I have always voted for this beautiful planet. As far as I can tell, nothing is more wonderful, more beautiful, or more important. Nothing and no one has ever loved me more. This is my home and home is where the heart is.

When I couldn’t imagine this afternoon could get more amazing, it did. Suddenly THOUSANDS of cranes who had been grazing on a pasture some distance away took flight and filled the sky with their darker forms.

Wow again. Our time on this planet is so brief, but afternoons like this? A little taste of the best of eternity.

My Submission to a Local Literary Magazine

Tasked to write about “A year like no other,” this is what I submitted. It’ll be nice to see my grandfather’s story in print if they accept it. ❤

The Hole in the Ground

We’re surrounded, inundated, addicted to, swamped by, trampled under, a cacophony of noise, news, social media, opinion, some presented intelligently, logically, some mindless, emotion-driven noise. I keep very quiet about a lot of things right now in this world of absolute, black and white, all or nothing points of view. I miss calm and rationality, and I wonder if I miss something that never existed. Some of the people I love most espouse views I deplore. Out of love, I hold my peace. We’re all in the same boat there. From my perspective, facts and science are too often ignored in what I see as a rebellion against reality. These tiring puzzles swarm around us like yellow jackets at a hummingbird feeder. 

Now I’m tasked to write a story about “a year like no other.” I’ve thought about “our year,” of course, our hardships. The thing is, humanity has lived through worse. My parents and grandparents lived through worse.

I have photographs to prove it. They were the “typical” pioneer, westward moving people, starting in the seventeenth century when the first one was shipped to Barbados from Scotland as a prisoner of war and worked as slave on a sugar plantation. At some point, for some reason that I do not know, he got his freedom, moved to Maryland, set himself up as a tobacco farmer then slave-owning planter, had children, some of whom didn’t stay home, but pressed westward across the Cumberland Gap, and so it went. Others? Arrived at different times. Some, Mennonites from Switzerland, arrived in 1743 escaping decades of religious persecution. Others fled the “starvin’” in nineteenth century Ireland, others hunger in Sweden. It’s the story of a lot of us.

My mother’s parents left their farms in Iowa to settle in Montana in the early twentieth century. Among their notable achievements was the founding of the first cemetery in Belfry, Montana. Why? Because their little boy died of pneumonia. Childhood mortality was a common feature of life until, well, today. My heart-broken grandmother couldn’t bear to stay in the beautiful valley (through which runs a tributary to the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone River), so they moved east, to Montana’s high plains near Hardin, Montana. 

My grandmother — descendant of those Mennonites — and my grandfather — descendant of that Maryland planter — scraped out a life during the Great Depression. The whole family — parents and nine kids —  lived in a two-room log/sod house. They rented it and worked the farm for someone else. Down the road was the well where my grandmother filled the family cistern, a huge wooden barrel fixed to a sledge and pulled by the family’s two Percherons.

The horses were their livelihood. At one point, my grandmother supplemented what they made from the farm by driving the horse drawn school bus to pick up the farm kids and take them to school.

My grandmother and the horse-drawn schoolbus. Six of those kids are hers.

“At school, the town kids got hot chocolate for the snack,” my mom  — who was born in 1920 — used to tell me. “Because we were poor, they gave us vegetable soup. It wasn’t fair. We were poor, but we never went hungry. We lived on a farm. We had lots of vegetable soup, but we never had hot chocolate.” Their clothes were made of flour sacks and passed from kid to kid as were their shoes. My mom told the “uphill in the snow at forty below” stories, but I know the place, and those stories were true. Closing school for snow days or until it was 10 above zero? That wasn’t part of my mom’s life.

Every December, my grandfather read James Russell Lowell’s poem, “Snowbound” to his family, and got them through the winter by reading from Les Miserables by Victor Hugo every evening. Reading aloud and reciting poetry were their entertainment. They had no electricity.

Like any kid, I got sick of hearing my mom’s stories about the Depression, but they sank in. I grew up with a sense of gratitude for the advantages I’ve had, among them that my mom grew up in a family that valued education. 

My dad’s story was a little different. His granddad came over as a child from Ireland and ran away from home (Philadelphia) to work on ships that sailed the Great Lakes. He married a French/Finnish/Canadian woman and they ended up in Missoula, Montana, where they had two kids. My great-granddad was the sheriff of Missoula for quite a while. My granddad married the daughter of two Swedish immigrants. My grandmother’s mom, still in her 20s, died of diabetes, leaving behind three kids. My dad’s background was comparatively “urban” — his dad was a building contractor and store owner in Billings, Montana. My dad signed up for the army when he was 17, but he never saw action. His dad signed up, too and spent the war in the Aleutians. 

So here were these people — my people, all of our people — living ALL of this — drought, economic depression, world war, diseases with no cure, for which there was no vaccine, a world where stepping on a nail could kill people, where many had experienced the Spanish Flu epidemic, where kids died of polio or were crippled for life, living through the fear and deprivation brought by a World War. Like our world, it was a time of rapidly expanding technology (cars, typewriters, telephones, electricity, refrigeration, vaccines, antibiotics). I was always amazed that my Mennonite grandmother lived her whole rural, horse-driven life and then, in 1958, sat with six year-old me in a big easy chair to watch Sputnik on a black and white TV. She never got used to the telephone. When it rang she invariably jumped up and cried “Oh my Lord!” She sang hymns all day. 

In 1941 my grandfather (the descendant of the Maryland planter) wrote a short story that is a “photograph” of his world. It’s also the best short story I’ve ever read. Here it is:

The Hole in the Ground

S.A. Beall, Hardin, Montana, 1941:

Between my place and town there is a hole in the ground. A long time ago I noticed some boys digging. I stopped and looked. A small hole. They built a fire and I furnished the marshmallows. We roasted them and then they forgot the hole in the ground. Some played marbles and some flew their kites, but the next spring a new bunch of boys enlarged the hole, built a fire, I furnished the marshmallows and by then it was time to play marbles and fly their kites so year after year a new bunch of boys would enlarge the hole and finally we organized a club. We named it the hole in the ground. I was too old to dig so they elected me an honorary member with the title “Dad.” Every spring a new bunch of boys dig until the hole is big enough for a basement and then came Pearl Harbor. I would go to the depot to see the boys leave. Just boys they shout, “Bye Dad.”

S. A. Beal sometime in the 1950s with a cow and a calf, Billings, MT

So is this “a year like no other” or is it par for the course? I do know that thinking of the brave, tough, kind, enduring people from whom I’m descended has given me both hope and perspective when I head out the door to pick up my pre-ordered groceries, stuff a mask in my pocket, or meet my friends for a socially-distanced “Covid Tea Party” in which everyone brings their own drink. In those moments we suspend our moment and enjoy conversation and friendship and, when it’s over, we say, “That was wonderful. Thank you. We need this. It keeps us sane.” When it comes down to it, in our brief historical moment, the greatest gift we have is the love and friendship we bear for each other.