how did climbing shape your life?Women in Early Climbing —
High Clip from The Dihedral invited me to write a blog post for her series, Women in Early Climbing. I struggled because I’m not a climber. I told High Clip, “I don’t think I can write this, you see, I’m not a climber.”
She said, “I think you are.” She said I had a climber’s mentality. I returned to the problem and then I saw the long-term effect of my early climbing life on everything that happened afterward and the person I became, am, now. I hope you enjoy it!
“Don’t join anything, Greg. You don’t know who’s collecting those lists.”
My cousin Greg was along with us on his way to his freshman year at the University of Chicago. We lived in Nebraska, part way there from Greg’s home in Billings, Montana. From Omaha, Greg would go on to Chicago. The plan was that he would help my dad, who was not getting around that well and tired easily because his MS had decided to get real. Greg could drive.
We’d just had a long, and for my dad tiring, vacation that included visiting family in Billings and Denver, a week in Yellowstone and the Tetons, a short visit to the Black Hills and Devil’s Tower on the way from Nebraska to Billings. I didn’t know it then, but it was my dad’s Beautiful Spots in Nature Swan Song.
“You never know what the government is going to do with those lists. You might think you’re joining a club and your name lands on some list in DC and you end up in jail.” My dad was very serious.
I was there for these conversations, but I didn’t understand them completely. I was 12 or so. Now I know my dad was referring to Joe McCarthy’s blacklists. My dad was afraid Greg’s whole life would be blown away because of a club he naively joined his freshman year in college.
My dad had grown to real adulthood during the Red Scare. While he truly hated Totalitarian Communism, even more than that he hated “the thought police” and believed fervently in individual rights. My dad was absurdly intelligent, definitely not a mainstream guy. “They” in my dad’s mind, were the “conformists,” who would try to make everyone the same. He loved Ayn Rand’s novels and I think he would have found the political party that has grown around them to be oxymoronic. My dad’s biggest fear for Greg was that he would end up on a list and lose his personal freedom.
Greg had never really been out of Billings, Montana. I imagine my dad also thought Greg might need extra preparation for the big city. Greg majored in theater which was part of my dad’s concern. So many Hollywood actors, directors, etc. had been persecuted during the McCarthy Witch Trials.
That November, when Greg came to us for Thanksgiving, he walked with me to junior high. We walked through the forest. When I came home the same way, I found Greg at the opening to the forest. He wanted to walk me home through the golden and red deciduous woods. It was 1964 and Greg told me that he was attracted to men. He asked me not to tell anyone. I told him I might tell my dad. As I remember it, Greg shrugged. Maybe he understood that I didn’t fully understand what he’d told me. Maybe he trusted my dad. All my dad said when I told him was, “I’m sorry to hear that. That’s going to make Greg’s life a lot more difficult.”
We got back to my house. Greg sat down at the piano and played — and sang — “I am a Pirate King” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance in which he’d been cast. It was great.
Greg ended up dropping out of the University of Chicago and going back to Montana and finishing university at the University of Montana in Missoula where he majored in literature. He lived for a while in San Francisco, and ended up back in Missoula.
I didn’t see Greg again until he was in his fifties! We were at his mom’s house. The aunts were arguing about what they’d do if they had a million dollars. Greg showed me a book that had belonged to my grandfather, the essays of Thomas Carlyle. We talked about everything, then, to escape the noise, went outside into the snowy pasture. I took him to the back of the pasture where a local vet had built an immense “cage” to rehab raptors that had been injured one way or another. He died when he was 56.
I have thought often in recent months about what Goethe said, something to the effect that our lives depend on luck, specifically where, when and to whom we are born and at what point in the stream of history. That was Goethe’s response to the idea that our lives are motivated by a divine design. In OUR moment we have a lot of advantages that people born even, well, when I was born didn’t have. I got the measles and the mumps because there were no vaccines for them back in the 50s. My dad’s moment had (among other things) the McCarthy trials and the specter of the mind police looming over it. My cousin Greg’s moment considered his sexual impulse a crime.
OK, I know a lot of people like these dishes and I’m not dissing you. But I hate them.
“What’s for dinner?” I might ask home from school.
If one of these was the answer I knew I was in for a salt-laden hell.
“Tuna casserole.” My mom never used noodles. She used potato chips.
“Creamed chipped beef on toast.” It didn’t just taste like someone had stirred pieces from the bottom of the Great Salt Lake in a pan with flour and milk, it looked horrible.
“I just can’t make you happy,” she said when I groaned or (oh my god!) didn’t eat (much) of the portion on my plate.
My dad called creamed chipped beef “army food” but he liked it. My brother liked it. My mom liked it, but I hated it. “You’re just fussy,” my mom.
There were other gross looking dishes that weren’t quite as terrible to eat. Creamed hard boiled eggs on toast.
Hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.
Then there was boiled beef and potatoes which stank up the house. Even after all day in the pot, the beef might still be chewy. It might also fall apart. No way to know. When I was very small and didn’t understand three dimensions, I tried to hide it by sticking it under my plate where, at least, I couldn’t see it.
“Take that good meat out from under your plate, put it on your plate and eat it.” Followed by, “You’re going to sit there until you finish your supper.” It was a test of wills at that point.
I think my mom was a good cook, but the foods she enjoyed were just different from those I enjoyed. In order to make this blog post a little bit more interesting and less about my own personal experience, I did a little research into why taste preferences vary between people. I didn’t get any surprising information. Some of it is based on the associations we have with a particular food.
My mom grew up on a farm during the Depression, and I think creamed chipped beef on toast might have been both a treat and a kind of comfort food for her. In my mom’s world, as she was growing up, there were no refrigerators. Dried, salted meat was safe meat. I took a survey years ago. Not a Facebook quiz, but a legit quiz to determine what people believed was the greatest invention of the 20th century. Among the choices was refrigeration.
The boiled beef and potatoes? Home food for my mom. She lived in a world replete with vegetables but where meat could be scarce, and definitely not the fancy cuts.
I can’t speak to the tuna casserole except maybe she didn’t have taste receptors as sensitive to salt as I do. I guess that could be a product of our individual DNA, or her chain smoking.
My mom liked to cook and over time she tried out a lot of new recipes and made many delicious meals, but the memory of these old standbys from my school years could never be erased by prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. The was the ever present possibility of their return. I started cooking at age 7. My mom knew a good thing when it happened to her. She took advantage of what seemed to be my aptitude for the culinary arts and started teaching me. I was able to make stuff I liked like tacos and spaghetti (not together).
When I was a little kid I lived in Nebraska in a town whose eastern border was the Missouri River. This means that “my” Nebraska wasn’t the Nebraska of myth and legend — flat, treeless, grassland — but forest, bluff, and butte. Almost literally across the street from our house was a forest. It belonged to the Columban Fathers, the branch of the Roman Catholic Church that is concerned with books, publishing and missionary work.
The geography was a narrow strip of deciduous forest, a wide open meadow ruled over by an ancient oak tree, then a kind of road. To the right the road went past many strange relics of an arcane faith that had little meaning to a kid brought up American Baptist. At the end a life size Christ hung from a giant cross. Along the way was a “grotto” made of concrete to look like natural rock. Now I know it was meant to be Jesus’ tomb. If my memory is right, there was an angel somewhere on that very convincing concrete climbing wall (how we used it). The passage was lined with trees and, especially in fall, it was very lovely.
Beyond this passage was a real road but I never saw a vehicle on it. It led to the buildings of the cloister. We never went there. Instead we crossed it and went into the REAL forest. This is where things got good. There was a ravine across which we rigged a rope and tire. My brother rode that across the ravine — and I’m sure others did — but it wasn’t my thing. There were mulberry trees from which a friend and I once shook berries. There were my favorite; narrow trails to run on and, in winter, on which we could ride our sleds.
Above: a drawing I did a few years ago of my brother and me sledding at the Mission.
From time to time, we would see a monk walking between the trees, reading from a small book. I never thought they minded us being there, but in time a high fence was erected. We just went under the gate and went on as always. In the intervening years, the cloister has been built up and some of the forest is gone and the meadow is now an area filled with buildings, but…
Years and years later, when I read the life changing book, How the Irish Saved Civilization I learned something strange and wonderful. My “mission” was home to the spiritual descendants of one of the Irish monks who, with St. Gall, crossed the channel to bring books to Europe in the 6th century. Columbanus.
We live in innumerable parallel universes and are oblivious to many of those in which we live. “Here, Martha Ann, this will be very important to you someday.”
I think for women of a certain age, the word “cherish” has only one association (ha ha ha). I was in ninth grade and I was moving away from the town where I’d left childhood and grown into a teenager. 9th grade back then was the last year of the arcane thing known as junior high.
We’d lived in Bellevue, Nebraska for six years. My mom hated it. My dad liked it. My brother and I? Kids just live wherever, I think, little kids anyway. I grew into the small town. I liked it. I was active in Rainbow Girls, I was studying piano and getting somewhere, and I was popular in my school, one of the cool of the cool. Most important, I had my first boyfriend. Rex. He started being my boyfriend in fifth grade.
And we were moving back to Colorado.
My Aunt Martha flew out from Denver to drive one of our two cars. By then my mom had her drivers license, but my dad’s abilities had deteriorated and he tired easily (multiple sclerosis) so he wouldn’t be up to driving the two long days from Bellevue to Colorado Springs. The movers would pack our stuff once we were gone. We spent the night before our move in a motel in our very town. I have no idea how the logistics of this worked. At age 14 I wasn’t responsible for anything but me.
We spent a night on the road. In Colorado Springs, my family spent a few nights in a motel and I went to Denver with Aunt Martha. The following week, we moved into a little brick tract house that was a lot like the house we’d left behind. Our stuff arrived and the movers put everything where it was supposed to be.
The family tried to slide smoothly into a new life.
I missed everything. I missed being cool (because now I wasn’t). I missed my piano teacher (but he wrote me). I missed knowing where I was. I missed my small town. My piano teacher (a German Jew who’d fled Hitler) reminded me how much I loved the mountains and explained that soon I would be happy to be there.
Most of all, I missed my boyfriend. At 14 I wasn’t allowed to date and I don’t think Rex was either, but we HAD held hands (I never told my mom). In 9th grade there were two dances and Rex and I had already agreed we’d go together. I saw a whole future of football games and dances with him.
In my anonymous bedroom in a new city I didn’t even like, I cried and thought of Rex whenever the clock radio on the shelf of the headboard of my twin bed played:
Listening to it now, it was totally non-applicable to my situation. ❤
And, through 9th grade in Colorado Springs, I went to all the dances with my brother.
The protests against the police brutality that killed George Floyd have gone on for 9 days? 10 days? Yesterday I found myself wondering what the goal is. When will protestors know they are finished or is it a thing now that will go on and on and on and on?
Last night is the first night I’ve slept since the protests started. If their goal was to make white people think about things they haven’t thought about before, it worked here. I wrote one blog post about (now set to private) and a letter to Obama (never sent).
There are things related to it that I haven’t thought of for decades, one of which is Louis Farrakhan. It’s a fact that not all white people are racist and not all black people are NOT racist. Farrakhan, who is an extremely angry man — has claimed that it’s impossible for black people to be racists. Any anger they feel toward the white oppressor is justified and any action taken against whites is legitimate. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Farrakhan — and his organization — as black nationalist and black supremacist.
He spoke once at the university where I was teaching. It was a hate fueled speech. It made the work of ordinary people — I’ll say ordinary white people — seem hopeless. The next day, when I got to school, I found the ground littered with 4 x 5 inch black and white flyers, printed with swastikas and the words, “White men built this country.”
One extreme brought out the other.
I picked up a couple of those flyers and took them home and stuck them in a drawer imagining a future collage that never happened. “It’s never going to work,” I remember thinking, “as long as entire groups of people categorically hate each other.”
In other news, the hike I’d planned with my friends yesterday didn’t happen. I texted everyone at 5 am yesterday and said, “I haven’t been sleeping. I’m going to keep trying.” or something. I finally went to sleep and woke up at 8:30 to see their texts. They answered immediately planning between them an alternative way that we could get together. It turned out to be a “Bring your own cuppa'” tea party in Elizabeth’s beautiful back yard.
The other thing on my phone when I woke up was a voicemail from the Good-X. I listened and then I screamed. He’d had a major heart attack and was in the hospital but he said, “They fixed me up.” I called him back after I’d had some coffee and got the whole story and answered some questions he had for me. As we were saying goodbye, I had to hold myself back from saying, “I love you.” How would he understand those words? Two people can have a terrible marriage and yet form a functional and mostly happy life together. We did for 12 years. His younger son is “my” son and between his family and me all the “I love you’s” are said often. In the “I love you” that I did not say are all the experiences we shared — China being one of them. Part of it, also, is “I get who you are now.” Instead of “I love you,” I said, “Come back and visit me. That was fun last time.” He and his step-grandson came through Monte Vista a few years ago on their way to Durango to meet his wife who was at a dahlia conference.
“I will. That was fun,” he said.
I told my friends about it at the tea party later. When I told them about wanting to tell my ex “I love you,” they understood. We talked about C-19, our encounters with people during this time, the weirdness, the beauty.. We laughed and did all the things that make friendships and, I think, for all of us, it was an incredible relief. None of us has been sleeping and as we talked about it, it seemed that our sleep was taking the same trajectory. Going to sleep, waking up thinking and then either getting up ungodly early or going to sleep a few hours later. I asked if they’d like to go on a evening hike to the Refuge with me when the skies and light are beautiful and the breeze is calm and fresh. Now we sort of have a plan.
Elizabeth’s husband, Bob, came out of the garage where he’s building a 1957 T-bird. I like talking to Bob and he likes telling me stories, so as my friends went off to cut rhubarb (some for me) Bob told me stories about airplanes. I don’t know that he always has a willing listener and the words just poured out of him. Later he came over and installed a new pneumatic spring on my storm door.
The day went on with curious intensity, culminating in a 1 1/2 hour phone call with my formerly lost cousin, Linda. We’re catching up on each others entire adult lives. She wanted to know about how my brother’s death affected me. That’s a long story. We talked about the deaths of the people we loved, a strange coda to my morning.
I was struck again that all we really have in this life are dreams, memories and the love we bear for others. That’s it.
Throughout my valley are log cabins. Some of them have been taken care of, some of them have been abandoned, some of them are slanting against the wind, some of them — well you can’t hardly tell what they are or were other than the trees planted as a windbreak in a rectangle around a house-sized open space that was once a homestead.
We tend to think that those houses were from the Wild West and the Frontier Days but not necessarily. Here’s my mom’s family in the 1920s. The house had been there a while. Most of their kids were born in it.
You can see how the window had been put in to replace a door and the structure itself had been added to a few times. It was a lousy place to live, by all reports. I heard seemingly endless stories of pasting newspapers to the inside walls to keep the wind out. The wind would have been fierce, too, on the high plains of Montana and desperately cold in winter. Believe me, I know my deep love of winter hinges on having a heated house.
My grandparents were settlers, but this cabin (which they had not built, anyway) on the plains was not their first Montana home. They’d come from Iowa and settled first in the Clark’s Fork valley in the town of Belfry but, according to my mom, the hills and trees there (it’s beautiful) had given my grandma claustrophobia so they ended up here. Apparently my grandmother — like this granddaughter — had a thing about seeing the horizon.
I think, also, their move might have had something to do with the death of their son, Martin. I know it broke my grandmother’s heart. Maybe she didn’t want to live there any more because of that. She’s not here to ask, so…
I’ve been there but I can’t say exactly where it is. I believe it had a Hardin, MT address. When the kids grew up enough to get jobs, sometime in the 1930s, the family moved into Hardin, a real town, and I think life might have been easier.
Settling the frontier is a big theme here on what is still kind of a frontier. Plenty of people in the San Luis Valley sport the license plate that sets them apart as descending from original settlers.
Like them, I’m proud of my family, its courage and resilience. I love my local history museum, the Rio Grande County Museum, because it’s a safe home for the relics of settlers’ lives, and, what’s more, their stories.
There’s a similar museum in Hardin, Montana — The Bighorn County Museum — that contains photos and stories of my own family. It’s one of those amazing museums that covers a few acres and on which old buildings have been moved, erected and restored. They have an entire camp from one of the places where my uncles worked, the enormous Campbell Wheat Farms. In the museum you can see their thumbprint sized faces in more than one photo of this historic farming operation. The Campbell Farming Corporation had 95,000 acres under cultivation. It shut down in 1987. Flying into Billings from Denver, I could look down from the plane onto the Pryor Mountains, and see fields of wheat that might have been visible from space. I don’t know.
One of the buildings at the Bighorn County Museum is a one room schoolhouse, the Halfway School, which played a role in my mom’s stories about dancing with cowboys. There is the German Lutheran Church with its German Bible and hymn books. Museums like this are more than places to see old stuff.
I guess if I lived in Montana (Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania) I could sport a license plate like this, but I don’t think I would. I had an epiphany in Switzerland in 1997 and realized I would NOT have emigrated. I’d have changed my religion. But then, how do I know who I would have been back in the 17th century?
“Well sweetie, we have osteoarthritis everywhere in our body. It’s in our genes.”
Suddenly it all made sense, the pain and fatigue I felt walking with Teddy in the Big Empty on Sunday evening.
“Do you find it’s worse when the weather changes?”
“I think so. The weather was changing.”
Since my cousin’s daughter found me on Facebook a month ago, I have had family. I already had my family that I put together on my own, but now I the other kind of family with shared childhood memories and relatives. I spent an hour on the phone with my cousin yesterday. It was kind of miraculous. I don’t know when we’ll be able to see each other, but this is pretty awesome as it is.
She had just finished reading Across the World on the Wings of the Wind, the whole mammoth trilogy of Savior, The Brothers Path and The Price compiled in one book. She had so much to say about it. The best thing — to me — was that she found Savior, the first book, too short. She’d wanted more. “I loved it. That book grounds everything, the family, there in the castle, all of it.”
Of course it’s HER family as well as mine.
“I didn’t know we were Swiss. I thought we were Scots/Irish.”
“Mostly. We’re mostly Scots/Irish. But yeah. Swiss too.”
“I had no idea.”
“No one did, well my mom thought Grandma was Pennsylvania Dutch, but I don’t think she knew what that meant.”
“Why did she think that?”
“Grandma has a few strange turns of phrase.” My grandma said a few every day sentences in German syntax, like “Put on the table the bowl.” I don’t know if my mom had read a novel or studied or what but she’d heard those and developed a theory. When it comes to it, I’m not sure we know our parents all that well.
“I loved your books,” said my cousin.
I was a little sorry she’d bought the books because I was going to send them to her. I just don’t have them all and Amazon isn’t rushing to fill random book orders from authors who don’t make them any money.
We gossiped about family, talked out the changes in the 20 year interval since we last saw each other, and talked about dogs. She has always had dogs and right now has Mini-Aussie puppies.
Today four years ago I was in Zürich. I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I hope so. Whatever small part of my DNA or ancestry or whatever it ultimately represents, it occupies a large part of my heart. I will always wonder (though I wrote about it) how my ancestors felt leaving. Relieved, I guess, scared, but I can’t believe some of them wished they had not had to go.
Nothing really going on which, given the times in which we live, is OK by me.
Featured photo by Lois Maxwell
I can’t dance. Don’t ask me. All the work in the yard finally exacted its toll, not on my back, but on my knee, which is not unexpected. OH well…
Our parents load us down with *fardels and we are obliged, at some time in our lives, or maybe when our lives over, to scatter the fardels appropriately to the future. One of my ancestral fardels is an old pedal sewing machine that once belonged to my grandmother. It’s cast iron and oak and that isn’t even the sewing machine. The sewing machine itself is made of heavy metal inside and out. It comes from a time before plastic.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my cousin’s daughter. She included her mom’s phone number, and I sent back mine. Within the hour we were talking and it was wonderful. I wrote all about it here.
This past weekend I was dusting (who’s surprised?) the top of the sewing machine and had an epiphany. “I found a home for you, Grandma,” I said to the machine. I contacted my cousin’s daughter and asked her if she sewed. She does. Then I asked her if she would like this wondrous thing. She was so happy and excited. I took a bunch of photos so she could see it. All she has to do is come and get it. They live only 3 hours away and we’r getting together when the virus is “over.”
My mom was very insistent when my grandmother died that she get the sewing machine. “I’m the one who sews.” It meant a lot to her to pass it on to me. But, it was not strictly true that my mom was “the one who sews.” My cousin’s mom also sewed. My cousin won prizes at 4-H for sewing.
As I was setting up the photos and really looking at the sewing machine for the first time in years, I thought about the influence of my grandmother on my life. It’s been mysterious and persistent and, in some ways, I feel like she lives here with me. She died when I was 10.
A million years later, when I traveled to Switzerland, I found her again. Corresponding with my cousin’s daughter about this heavy-weight fardel, I felt like my grandma was watching over my shoulder, maybe arranging the whole thing. I know that sounds weird, but…
The word “fardel” means “burden.” It’s archaic, and no one uses it, but I really like it and it is my singular mission in life to restore it to common usage. It is used in French (fardeaux) and has a certain undeniable je ne sais quoi.
When I found myself writing fiction that was based on what was known of my family in Switzerland (not much is known; the stories are 98% fiction), I examined my ancestry. I’m not into genealogy, but that was the source of the answers to my questions. Had Rudolf von Lunkhofen had children? Who were they? Where did they live? How about later, during the Reformation in the 16th century? Was the family still there? Who were they? How many? By any remote chance had they been involved in the terrifying events of the time? Were any of them Anabaptists? Then, later, knowing by virtue of my BEING on this continent, that some of them had had to have emigrated, I began looking for THEM.
They were pretty easy to find, even down to the ship on which they sailed — and more.
Luckily, one of my cousins married a Mormon woman, and my mom had been a passionate genealogical researcher in the 1960s, and they’d exchanged information, so the great data base of the Mormon Church had fed into the vast number of places into which one can look for their ancestry. The fantastic Swiss Lexicon told me about my family during the Reformation. I was stunned to learn that two of the Schneebeli brothers had fought in the Second War of Kappel and one of them, the pastor, was killed. As for the rest? I was on my own — within certain parameters — to determine what might have been their lives.
Then, as I cleaned out the boxes in my garage, boxes that I inherited from my mom, I started to photograph (with my phone) pictures I knew I was going to throw out but that I wanted to keep with the thought of uploading them to the pretty extensive family tree I had built on Ancestry.com. Why did I do that?
For posterity. I did it very consciously for the kids of my cousins and my own niece. The photos — some old photos — are cool and the stories of the people are interesting. I truly love the family I’ve known. I’m proud of them and they interest me. I suspected they might interest the future.
And then came the DNA tests. I did it for fun and learned NOTHING new, but unknown to me, some of my relatives were taking it to. The upshot of that was I was emailed by the daughter of one of my cousins with some sincere and serious questions. I wasn’t as helpful as she might have wished, but at least I showed up on the other end of her messages.
That’s what I wanted. I want them to know those people. So when I find photos, I put them up. Because I knew them (not the very old ones, of course) and have a really amazing memory I feel a kind of responsibility to those people who aren’t here any more to share a bit of them to any of the future who asks. I’m a story teller, after all. ❤