Stories, Written Down

This May, my aunt asked if I would help her type up and re-organize the handwritten life story of her 88-year-old mother. I was immediately curious and happy to be of assistance. I’ve spent much of the past two weeks typing these pages, piecing memories together that sometimes jumped around from one section to another one. It was fascinating. M. was born in 1921 in Nebraska, lived without indoor plumbing or electricity into her mid-20s, raised eight children of her own while working hard as a farm wife, married a man who was one of 14 children.

Seeing this story written down also makes me think of Facebook and the emails I’ve been exchanging with high school and college classmates about where the last decade has taken them. I still have somewhat mixed feelings about FB; as I mentioned a while ago, the magazine Real Simple had an article about it that spelled out exactly how I feel. I was reluctant to join at first, but I have to admit that I’m enjoying it now, although I have purposefully limited the amount of time I spend looking for old friends. I do find sparks of affection welling up for these people who once shared my life and feel relieved to know where they are, to know that they are doing ok. That said, it is also somewhat disorienting to have so many different slivers of my life coming together on one screen. There’s also the reality that it is impossible for my friends to truly understand who I am now, and likewise for me to know how they’ve changed, without real, face-to-face interaction. FB also stirs up a feeling that I often have, a wish that I could gather everyone I love into one town and not have all my friends and loved ones scattered so far away. It provokes a desire to sit down for coffee in real life with them, rather then sending paragraphs through cyberspace. Having been out of touch for years with most of these people, and now so easily seeing updates on their lives online, also makes me feel as though I’ve stepped into another dimension of reality!

Speaking of stories, I had another birthday last week. These are some of my birthday peonies, which conveniently arrive in groceries right on time. (It’s too hot down here for them to grow.) I need to focus on writing the next chapter in the story of my life, reinterpreting the last chapters, and hopefully making it a story worth reading!

What chapters are you writing right now?


A Rural Secret

I have a secret. More and more these days I find myself wishing that I was a rancher. Shocking, I know. Who would secretly wish for such a hard lifestyle, up all night in blizzards pulling calves from their momma’s birth canals, hauling hay and water, living in isolation? I’m sure I’m idealizing the lifestyle. But I certainly do admire the personal strength it takes to live like that and envy the strong communities that can evolve in rural life. Echoes of this community filtered into the small church we grew up in. I can’t locate it now, but a recent survey showed that sense of community is much stronger in the Dakotas and other rural states than in more urban areas. Yes, independence and a don’t-tell-me-what-to-do attitude are also strong up there, but I think the sense of community stems from the fact that people really have to rely on each other in such extreme conditions as rural life demands, and this carries over into the town folk as well. A life lived outdoors also seems to have a profound effect on people’s realities. I do know that I have not found the same sense of community anywhere else I’ve lived.

I’ve read several memoirs this spring that have made me think a bit more about this. They include The Perfection of the Morning, Refuge, and A Country Year. I don’t know that I would recommend any of them as great reading, but I enjoyed them because they hit upon topics that I think often about. Refuge was certainly the best written of the group, but it and Perfection did annoyingly get new-agey and earth mother/goddess/wackily eco-feminist at times. I’m gearing up to read the memoir Buffalo for the Broken Heart, by a South Dakota rancher and noted fiction writer, and I suspect it will be the best of the bunch.

So, one morning my sister, stepmom, two-year-old nephew, and I visited Old MacDonald’s Farm in the Black Hills, where I had the time of my life with all the animals, especially the calves and goats. We pass so many herds of cattle and calves on our road trips that it’s always nice to actually be able to touch them up close. My other secret is that I am thinking more and more these days about what it means to eat meat and trying to figure out how to approach it in a healthy, humane manner. Orthodox monastics are vegetarians for a reason!

What are your thoughts on these topics?


Rhubarb Bread and Coffeecake

Rhubarb grows like a weed up north. My aunt and uncle were happy to give a bunch away to my stepmom and me, so we all picked it one afternoon (well, they picked and I took photos) and then enjoyed iced tea on the front porch. I think I enjoy rhubarb more for the nostalgic reminders of my childhood than anything else. So that evening I chopped up approximately 5 lbs. and froze it to attempt to bring it back to Texas.

Unfortunately, while it did stay cold on the trip, it did thaw. I was advised not to refreeze it, so I tried a few new recipes this week. One was for Rhubarb Bread, seen below, which I enjoyed. I pulled the recipes from my stepmom's box, a treasure of Midwestern classics!
Rhubarb Bread

1 ½ C brown sugar
2/3 C oil (I used 2/3 C applesauce + 1 Tbsp oil instead)
1 egg
1 C sour milk (just add 1 Tbsp of vinegar to milk) or buttermilk
1/2 tsp salt
½ C nuts (I used more)
1 tsp soda
1 tsp vanilla
2 ½ C flour
1 ½ C chopped rhubarb

Mix all together (dry first, then add wet, then add nuts and rhubarb.) Put in two greased loaf pans. If desired, top with ½ C sugar, ½ tsp cinnamon, and 1 T melted butter. Cook at 325 for 40 – 60 minutes. Very moist and yummy.

I also combined two recipes to try out Rhubarb Coffee Cake.

Rhubarb Coffee Cake

1 ½ C brown sugar
1 egg
1 C sour milk or buttermilk
1 tsp soda
¼ tsp salt
½ or more C walnuts
½ C shortening
2 ½ C flour
1 tsp vanilla
2 C rhubarb
Cinnamon if desired
Mix dry ingredients, form a well, and add wet. Or just mix it all together at once!

Top or swirl into batter mixture of:
½ C white sugar
½ C brown sugar
½ C walnuts
2 T melted butter
1 tsp cinnamon

Bake 350 for 40 – 45 minutes. Very sweet! Can probably reduce topping sugar if you want.


A Robin Family

Robins are one of my favorite birds, mainly for their cheerful songs, which I love to wake up to when I stay up north, but also for the cheerful way they bob through the grass. A pair choose to make a nest on a ladder hanging on my dad's fence this spring. We waited eagerly for a few weeks while Mama Robin sat on the eggs. (I'd hoped to get a photo of the eggs, but there was no way they'd let me get close enough.) Just a few days before my time in South Dakota came to an end, they finally hatched. Their little mohawks of fuzz are pretty cute! I did feel a bit guilty about disturbing them, and Daddy Robin made a valiant defense of his babies, even hitting my hat once or twice. That's him in the third and fifth photos as he chased me around the corner of the house. Their nesting site seemed rather exposed, but hopefully a few babies will survive. I was so thrilled to see this little family. Any nesting going on in your neighborhood?


What Remains

I am back from another jam-packed month of May in South Dakota, my mind full of memories and experiences that I’m still processing. It’s hard to decide what to share first, but today’s Shutter Sister topic helped make up my mind. They ask, “Share with us wonder and questions and eyes bigger than ordinary. Share with us faith and unfaith and how it looks to wonder what happens next.”

And so, I share with you lilac photos. These are not just any lilac photos, however. These are lilacs that survived a massive flood in Rapid City in 1972, one that killed almost 300 people and swept away the very homes around which the lilacs grew. Fortunately, my parents were out of town on their honeymoon that week when their little rental home near the river was destroyed. These five lilac bushes stand evenly spaced in a large field near a city park, steadfastly hanging on and continuing to grow decades after they were planted. That they survived amazes me. Apple trees can also be found nearby, and in other parks, poppies sprout year after year along the river where gardens were once nurtured. In their own way, the lilacs and poppies stand as memorials to the lives that were lost, blooming each year near the flood’s anniversary.

And so, I wonder what parts of you and me hang on and survive after change, whether good or bad. I wonder what parts of us tenaciously remain rooted in our souls, even when much around us changes, even when our very selves are changed through the floods and feasts of life. It’s something I’m still thinking about.
I suspect the lilacs will be around for many more decades.