Check out “Memorial Hall” and other essays in “IAm Subject”.
Growing up in the backseat
Returning from real-estate testing in Pierre, I sped east on Interstate 90 to Sioux Falls doing 130 miles per hour in my Subaru just because I could. It was in the heat of summer, I think 1976. If you knew South Dakota in the 1970s, not as much traffic as there is now. My excursion into limited infinity lasted 40 miles or so before I scaled back to 75 and hovered close to 80 for the rest of the trip. I felt that if I kept at that pace, I would be pushing my luck in the late afternoon; but once in a while after I crested a hill and saw no traffic in sight, I sometimes sped up again. Driving that fast felt exhilarating, freeing, as if there were no boundaries; and as a single parent with three children, I thought then I lived within prison walls.
I also loved the time right after my first divorce that I traveled to Kalispell, Montana, to see my sister, first on Interstate 94 then north through Missoula with no speed limit. And when I was in college, the 75 miles per hour speed limit in Iowa all on hard-surfaced roads. Besides, driving that fast on roads was the only way to cool off on a hot summer day–no air conditioning in the car then. Seat belts? Not on your life. But I never got a license until I had my first teaching job. I trusted that speed to boyfriends and male friends.
As a single parent in the late 70s and early 80s, jostling children in Sioux Falls from one event to another meant that right after school until late at night, I moved children like checkers between wrestling, gymnastics, karate, confirmation classes, baseball, basketball, part-time jobs, any which way they wanted to go in any car I had then: dropping one kid off somewhere, then heading somewhere else to pick up another, then back home for a third and maybe neighbor kids, until about 9 or so, 11 if one of them was working late, all were safely back at home. Well, that is until one or two of them sneaked out the window.
Recently my daughter told me that in the middle of the night she or her older brother would push the car out of garage and down the road. I still don’t want to know where they went.
Once when my mother and dad drove up from Iowa for a visit, my mom said to me as she rode with me after school from one place to another, these kids are in too many things. But then I didn’t know much else but being in a car. By that time, between showing real estate sometimes on weekends, helping my second husband run a tavern, and teaching in a town 30 miles away and going back there at night for rehearsal, I should have had enough of the interior space of cars.
One day this week around noon in Dickinson, North Dakota, my daughter happened to stop by on her way back to the office. I shut off the vacuum cleaner and poured myself another cup of coffee in order for us to exchange tidbits or two. In the midst of our exchange to catch one of us on her move to a new place and my packing to head back to Sioux Falls, a Subaru commercial interrupted us:
“The back seat of my Subaru is where she grew up.”
Now I know that my children spent a great deal of time in a car, both the front and backseats, but not as much as I did all told; but I didn’t think I raised them, as the commercial said I should have, in the back seat of my cars, and I argue that anyone who does so now should be taken out to the north 40, as my father would say, and be given a good talking to.
One really cannot have a decent conversation with a child in a car. One can yell at them, especially when they are younger, corner them to ask about something, all because you are the only means to get them where they want to go. They can’t escape. Sometimes they won’t answer and for the next mile or two, which will seem like a hundred, it’s the silent treatment with a child staring at the floor.
It took years for my daughter to travel with me for any trip longer than Wal-Mart because of her being in a confined space guarded and cornered by a parent. I felt that way with my first husband, and at times my second. They drove all the time anywhere we went; it was my job to keep the kids under control. One time on the Interstate 29 heading south, I had this unbearable urge to jump out of the car; my first husband was talking so much that everything in my body hurt. I wanted to be anywhere but there. My hand was on the lever, but there were children in back.
I suppose that day I was raising my children, not properly of course.
If anything, parents should know by now that children need to be nurtured and guided, not raised in the back seat of a car. They don’t need to eat fast food in the car. They need to learn the art of conversation over a dining table without being forced to respond. They need to look a parent or two in the eye. They need to know how to negotiate, how to reason without feeling trapped. They need a parent to discuss the latest political events, the meaning of existence, religion in one’s lives. They need to know that mistakes happen and that it’s ok to fail. They need resiliency, and to learn forgiveness and humility. They need to practice consistency and be persistent. A child cannot learn those lessons in a car, much less in the backseat where the mother or father views them in third person through the rear-view mirror while talking a little louder than normal to project their words over the noise of traffic and the radio to the backseat; at the same time keeping the remainder of both eyes on the road. They need to be hugged and cuddled, teased and to tease. They need exercise. Children should be allowed to cry alone if they want to but not in the back seat. The house needs to be filled with laughter, not just the interior of a car or truck for that matter.
All Mingled Out
There’s a Christian Mingle advertisement that absolutely drives me bonkers. A woman sniffling and holding back tears utters the magic words, “He’s my second chance.”
Now there’s mingling and mingling, some tit for tat and this and that, but to cry because some organization helps you find a man a second time, a Christian man she hopes, although anyone can hide behind any label, is beyond my comprehension. It’s not that loneliness is not sad, for I can attest to that–sad beyond all measure, for as my mother said, “Loneliness is a bitch”; but to consider oneself lonely because someone doesn’t have a partner is sacrilegious, especially in light of Jesus’ existence. We can’t count Paul, for he thought that it would be better to marry than to burn. He and the rest of the early Christian folk thought that Jesus was heading back round in their lifetime to gather them in his fold. For sure, even today. one must be prepared to encounter the divine and live an ethical, god-fearing life, even if one has trouble with God thought. By the way, some early Christian folk believed in reincarnation but that was stamped out by the Second Council in 553 AD.
The problem with Christy’s-yes, her commercial name is Christy– almost-in-tears stance and Robert’s smiling sycophancy, him sometimes on her right, sometimes on her left, and with those intermittent, timed just right PDA (Public Displays of Affection), is that the commercial argues that a woman is not complete unless she is with a man, any man, as long as he proclaims himself a Christian. Funny we didn’t hear the same from him. But that kind of positioning isn’t surprising, considering that kind of propaganda has been around since Eve and the helpmate theory. Commercialism– isn’t that why Jesus lost his temper in the temple?
That Christian Mingle commercial usually breaks bread about mid-morning; and for me, since that’s about six to seven hours after I’m up for the last time, it’s almost nap time. Usually I’m tidying up the kitchen or sitting at the kitchen table reading the latest “must read.” Lately I’ve been scanning and reading in fits and spurts great plays by David Rabe or essays in the wonderful Native American anthology Nothing But the Truth or re-reading Joseph Campbell, who does not suggest in the least that what goes around, comes around–that old ruse.
Once I even slammed down my coffee cup on the kitchen table the minute I heard that Christy whine.
It’s not that I don’t believe in the laws of consequence–I do beyond all measure. Acts that one does now will ultimately reap what they sow in this lifetime; but it’s not a bite-you-in-the-butt response, as some Christian folk wish on other folk. It’s not chaos theory, per-say, but the laws of physics on a psychological, emotional level translated into human decisions that ultimately result in deliberate and not-so-deliberate actions; and those actions have consequences. The decision I made after my second divorce, not after my first, as I should have, not to let any man define who I was, yup I’m paying for it now, as even as I will tomorrow for those decisions I make today.
That commercial might be better and might give me pause to consider creating a made-to-measure profile on that site, if I’m sure that every male profile on that site is the truth and nothing but the truth, and if I want to change any old man’s diapers in the long run–and to spit out my response to your question, no, a man will not change any old woman’s diapers, unless he is paid handsomely for it, and at that age it’s not sexual favors–if the commercialized Christy considers herself equal to the commercialized Robert. Oh, if the commercial were paused and listeners shot questions at them in real time, I’m sure that she would say that she’s equal to her man and loves her position as a Christian wife–the temptress who led Adam into sin, the beautiful repentant prodigal daughter who returns with the skin of a dead snake stuck like toilet paper to the bottom of her shoe.
Don’t go back to cooking and cleaning, changing nappies if bearing fruit is in one’s future. Don’t go back to piddling around the kitchen, vacuuming dust and cat hair up off the sofa, getting down on one’s hands and knees with a toothbrush getting the crumbs out of corners. Don’t go back to bending over a bathtub, scrubbing off the crud of your and his and your and his children. Get some exercise. Read some feminist theory. Find out who you are for Christ’s sake. Become a self-sufficient woman who experiences the present in all the physics’ and physic’ singularity.
“Farmed out” published in Lief–Thanks, Mike Finley
“Farmed out” published in Lief Publications
An Unexpected Thank-You Card–Thank You!
On January 23 of this year, at Saint Joseph Hospital in Dickinson, I had the cataract in my right eye removed, as recommended by Dr. Biesiot. Even though prior to the operation, friends calmly told me that the operation was simple, I still had a great deal of fear, for when my mother had hers done, sometime in the mid 1980s in Omaha, Nebraska, something amiss occurred: her eye was not deadened when her doctor began to cut. The pain sent her into shock; as a result, hives erupted all over her body.
At the preliminary appointment, I told Dr. Leidenix, the eye doctor from Bismarck, what had happened to my mother, and he assured me that the operation was perfectly safe. He even shared some of the history of cataract removals–the week-long stay in the hospital, the pain, the head in a vice, even at the same time informing me of possible complications. He said the operation today only takes 10-15 minutes.
I checked in at 8:45 am. After a little waiting and approximately an hour of eye drops every five minutes or so, I was wheeled in the operating room. A covering was placed around my eye, just so the cataract can be seen. I didn’t even have to be in a hospital gown: one gauzy outfit over my clothes covered me from top to bottom, except for my shoes.
The drops to deaden the eye had begun earlier, but in the operation room, the drops were applied again. I didn’t feel anything, just a little pressure as I was told. Although I often find myself facing obstacles without asking for help, I was surely glad for the nurse who held my hand during the procedure. The dome of golden prisms that I saw during one part of the operation, like the ceiling of a cathedral or a museum I have yet to visit. And yes, after 10-15 minutes, the operation was over, and a little while after that, around 11:30 am, a friend took me home.
The operation was uneventful, simple, painless; and as a result of everyone’s focus on the patient, I did not panic. But more surprising was the card I received in the mail a few days later from the doctor, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, and the staff who attended me and others undergoing the same procedure that day.
I wasn’t born yesterday, as my friends know; in fact, my life experiences have given me a wide variety of crazy, wonderful, sad, frightening experiences, but this card was the first I have ever received from a doctor and those who aided in an operation.
When I first saw the envelope, I thought it was a bill, but when I opened the envelope, it took me a while to realize what it was. So kind and considerate, what care they showed!
(If you click on the picture, it should enlarge so that you can read the names up close.)
My mother’s recovery from her operation took an extremely long time–hives weeks to fade; emotionally much longer–but it’s been one week since mine. The sensitive treatment that Dr. Leidenix, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, and the staff showed has made my recovery a snap. I can see white now, can distinguish blue from black. My vision in my right eye has improved a great deal. And I can’t wait for the second cataract to be removed.
Thanks to all of you!!
“The Lesson” published in Van Gogh’s Ear
“The Lesson” was originally published in Hurricane Alice (1990) and again in Kaleidoscope (2007). Thanks to Tina Hall for republishing it in The Original Van Gogh’s Ear Anthology.
“Pentimento for Grandfather” published
“Pentimento for Grandfather” published. Click on my name.
“The Dog” – a short story
“The Dog” by Karen Foster
This short story was originally published in Omaha’s The Reader and has since been published in Tower Journal and Muse Apprentice.
There is a fine lot to it all, how the day has become, and loneliness sets in. What a day. The rain came early in the morning, but the rainbow didn’t come till dusk. The family in 21 saw it first. They always do. They saw the one last week before their dog died, the wife talking about the rainbow she saw in a perfect circle around the sun. I never heard of such a thing, her husband said. Didn’t I tell you, she said. I look at the gray sky, the clouds calm after the rain, and wish I could have seen that perfect rainbow circle the sun.
Poor old room 20, no phone operating so I gave the money back. Tore up the American Express charge before his eyes. No one else to decide what to do, except me. The phone company’s closed for it’s 8 o’clock, but that’s the way it is. Just a fine day. What am I to do but watch the neighbor ride his pale horse down the highway. It whinnies. He pulls his cowboy hat down to shade his eyes. I sit in the lawn chair under the awning, smoke a cigarette in such a damn depressing mood. I go inside and watch the ceiling fan go round and round. The air conditioner makes such a racket. I can’t hear anything, not a single noise from the rooms, not even the words on this tv mystery.
Then there’s this dog, a golden retriever, and the strange smile from the woman tonight who let it die out in the grass last Thursday afternoon when it was so hot. What did it get into, her husband comes to the office after work to ask me. I look at him, his eyes red, his sunglasses in his hand. I didn’t know his dog was dead. He tells me. He leans on the counter. My dog’s dead, he says. What did you say, I ask him. He asks me, what there any poison. I said, the housekeeper said his wife wouldn’t let the exterminator in. I wasn’t there then.
I saw the dog at one when I drove in, panting in the sun, and I should have said something then, knocked at the door and warned her that the dog should have some shade, but like children, I thought, it’s their business. I wouldn’t keep a dog in the sun like that, heat that day not fit for man or beast, 102; even the skinny housekeeper feels it. She can’t take the heat, she said. We talked about how it’s better than 20 below and freezing to death in the afternoon when the wind whips as before a blizzard, our arms loaded with sheets and towels down the sidewalk, in and out of rooms.
I call the housekeeper. It’s 4 p.m. She says, no, the woman did let the exterminator in; she didn’t want to at first, but she did. I track down the guy. He’s in another room, talking to a buddy. Both of them here building tanks for this company outside of town. I tell him I called the housekeeper and she said your wife did let him in. I didn’t want you to get mad at your wife. I’m sorry I misunderstood her when she told me about this morning, what when on and such, before she left. It becomes quiet in that room, and I shut that door.
The phone’s dead in room 20 tonight. The guy wanted his money back, says he needed a room with a phone. Whoop tee do, I wanted to dance a jig in front of him in the rain puddles. I pounded nails today to replace a sash, scraped off paint, pulled nails, washed walls in one of the rooms, paid bills, checked the guy in room 20, a tall, nice-looking man from Omaha, who needed a phone, but I forgot to call the phone company to come over today. I knew it wasn’t working yesterday. I tried a different phone, but it’s something in the connection. I hear him saying, I need a phone.
It’s raining, all day on and off, on and off. How can one hang out towels on the line in the afternoon when it’s raining? Hell if I know. If there’s a vacant room, I can sleep in it and idle away the time, watching some movie channel, put my feet up and not go home to an empty house with no one to call me or put my feet in his lap. That’s the way it is; nothing but the best for me.
This dog was seven years old, his owner says. He wagged his tail at me when I saw them check in, the dog on a leash beside the owner. I looked at the dog and thought how quiet he seems. He was showing me the dog, saying how he never moves off a blanket they bring with them, won’t be any bother. Someone else who saw him said he was an old dog, but I can’t tell an old dog from a new dog. They’re all the same, young or old. They have this fur on them, and I can’t tell unless I open their mouth and count teeth or know when they were born or see the light in their eyes when they lick everything in sight, sniff around my feet and circle my skirt. If their gums are bad, how can anyone tell from that? Maybe they smell, or walk like I do with a shuffle, stiff as if cement has settled in my legs, then I can tell how old they are.
They had him staked out by the portable pool they set up for their children, splash, splash, filled with a hose attached to the bathtub, three towheads, and I can’t even see my grandchildren every other weekend. Every other weekend, mothers leave them off. Perhaps my son might bring them over. Swinging in the swings at the park, I see them when I drive over. At their house, the garage door open. I call and call, then guess the park. I watch them for a while, put my finger to my lips so my granddaughter doesn’t warn my son when I sneak up on him. My son says, how did you find us here, the kids going higher and higher in the swings, too high for them to jump off without getting help from their father. He lifts the boy down. The little one runs from swing to swing to try them out as if they were candy bars, a lick here a lick there. When I go behind the swing, I can’t push him higher and higher. He wants his dad to do it, daddy, do it, daddy, do it. He does. The boy soars in the air. He lifts down his daughter. She runs over to me and squeezes me tight, then runs back to the swings, to the one by my grandson. They sound like crows, daddy, push me, daddy, push me.
They run away from me when I try to hold a small hand or two, I want my daddy. One mother drops hers off on Friday evening in a small town half way between here and there, half way between there and here, half way. The other mother drops her son off on her way to the bar. Doesn’t pay attention, she says about him, but he watches tv on his father’s lap, lets my son read him a story, play catch with a big old softball. She’ll be in the bar, sipping beer in her skin-tight blue dress; there’s the three-year-old, sitting in his father’s lap like a prince, a little boy who lays his head down on the dog’s belly or lies next to him sleeping.
The dog vomited, 21 said; what did he get into? 21 asked; do you have poison? With the dandelions all over, I couldn’t have spread poison on the grass. But what about bugs, he asks? They use chrysanthemums, I said. I called the pest controller to ask them what did they use. I read him the invoice. Chrysanthemums, he says, as I thought. Even if he licked up all the residue in the container, he says, shouldn’t hurt him, he says. It was the heat, I said to the guy. Can’t leave a dog outside like that in this heat all day long. He was out only a short time, his owner says, so I called the housekeeper again. Was he in the room when the pest controller came? No, she says, no, outside at 10 a.m., outside at 1 p.m., then at 3 when a woman from Wisconsin with two big hairy dogs in the backseat stops by to rent a room. I didn’t have any vacancy, her dogs barking at something. I figured the dog from room 21.
The man’s crying, says he’s had that dog longer than he’s been married, seven years, that’s what he said. How old is the oldest of his three kids, I wonder, if the dog is that young? They take their kids on the road to jobs, a wife and three kids living in a motel room from one site to another, here for a month, there for six. Today the children roller skate in the parking lot. His wife sweeps away gravel from the asphalt that truck tires kick up, so roller blades can swirl around and around. When they’re exhausted, the three girls sink their butts in puddles of rainwater that reflect the clouds on this dismal afternoon. I see cheetoes sprinkled on the cement in front of their room. I watch them while standing in the rain. Couldn’t work today, the man said, rainy, can’t build tanks for this company they’re here for, so they went to a park. I waited until 10 p.m. for a guy to show up for a room he’s suppose to be in, but he doesn’t come and it’s getting late.
That dead dog lies in the grass by the road, his head nestled in the grass’s steamy smell. Wet alfalfa it must have been to his nose, his legs stiff to one side. I called the vet at home. Does a dog vomit when he has sunstroke? Sometimes when he’s drinking too much trying to cool down, sometimes. That night I went home and had a couple, then stayed up till 2 waiting for a storm to come. Suppose to rain, and it was a Thursday night. They left that next day for their home in Missouri to bury the dog, have an autopsy, he says, that’s why I called the vet. 102 degrees that noon, and no breeze, chained out in the sun.
The guy next to them tells me that night that the dog was there at noon. I kicked that guy and his girlfriend out the day after, so what does he say to another staying here when he bitches? I’m prejudiced to Mexicans. Can’t be, I tell the customer. Three rented the room next to the office for two months and we got along fine. Noise, I told him, noise at 1 a.m. in the morning, noise. The girlfriend says, that’s our business. Not when I pay the bills, I say. Noise and fighting and drinking, and buddies until 1 a.m. I get complaints on the telephone and then before you settle down, your boyfriend tells you he’s going to kill you. That’s our business, she says, her pert little self with her hands on her hips. Our business, she says. She’s in a white tank top with short shorts, something I could have worn when I was 20 too, I think to tell her. Not when I own the place is it your business, two days after the dog died while the people in 21 are in Missouri burying the dog and getting an autopsy.
On the phone the vet says, keep it iced to get an accurate autopsy, so I tell them, keep the dog cool, but they load it up in the trunk of the car, so it must have started to smell south of Omaha on the way to Missouri, the kids screaming in the backseat and him bitching her out for leaving the dog in the sun all day. How could you be so stupid? Maybe they plot to sue me, cause me grief. They come back today. Wasn’t up to the autopsy, he said, but there’s that strange smile she gives me when she and the kids follow him and me into room 20 to check the phone after the guy who needed a phone gets in his car to see why it won’t work. The man in 21 says his phone has trouble too, have to push the clicker all the way in. I say, I’ll get the phone company out here tomorrow and check them both, wonder if the other rooms are like that. Their two girls tromp in the room with their wet feet and muddy bottoms from plopping in puddles all afternoon.
They went to the park, the girls tell me all at once. They sound like whippoorwills. We saw four deer and three woodpeckers up in a tree, the oldest said. I can’t look the little girl in the eye and talk to her: she’s jumping up and down, telling me about the deer. The middle child pulls on my sleeve. The father who had the dog starts talking. Four deer, he says; we should have gone there now in the afternoon, when it’s stopping raining; the deer would be out grazing. They talk about the rainbow in the sky overhead, how last week it was complete. Tonight its tails end in the hills; the middle disappears in the clouds. The youngest girl twirls at my feet, round and round in her blue sundress. I look at the rainbow and watch the guy who wanted a working phone in room 20 turn on the highway. He said it’s a nice room and all, but I need a phone. I don’t suppose, I thought, I need a phone too. The room is nice, bathroom freshly painted, plush green carpet, halfway decent mattress and a tv repaired yesterday for 60 dollars.
My dog died out on the highway, a cross between a Sharpie and a Saint Bernard. How did that Saint Bernard do that, bend down so low, and she so high, or she on a box by the trash, but there was this puppy Rufus I fell in love with. This woman comes in, asks to use the phone. She’s holding this puppy, and he looks at me. I want that dog, I said to her. You do? she says. He’s the runt of the litter, last one left. You do? Here, and she gives him to me. He licks my face while I hold him in my arms. We sleep together and he messes on the carpet, eats like a stallion. In a snap he trains himself. He big feet plop up and down the cement in front of the rooms as he follows me from room to room. Woof, woof, he’d bark and shake his jaw until the wrinkles around his mouth bounce in abandon. He was spotted black and white, an ancestor probably a dalmatian, all fire, and no rain.
He died out on the road. The young man who hit him walked in the office with Rufus in his arms. Rufus, I said, crying already. I called the vet, at night. Bring him down. I’ll meet you. Rufus wouldn’t come to me that night, the neighbor dog Barney shook his bony self outside my door. Rufus went with him, wouldn’t come back when I called up the road after him. Barney took Rufus’s leash in his mouth and led him out of my lawn, across the neighbor’s to his farmhouse a quarter mile away. To teach him new tricks, I thought, an old dog and a young one. Rufus wouldn’t come back. A beautiful spring day, sun warming everything, and Rufus, a young one who wanted to run and chase dogs, bark at cars. I loved that dog, a mutt with an attitude. He loved everybody, would sit on the sofa, his tail wagging low, his Saint Bernard head staring out the office window, barking at Barney whose rear end would wiggle back and forth low to the ground as if someone was shaking his tail, only it was tucked between his legs. Barney saw me on guard with my hands on my hips behind Rufus who perched on the sofa, his paws like a bear’s spread a foot wide on the sofa’s back, barking at Barney. Barney looked at him then back at me through the glass pane, watching to see what I would do, chase him or throw stones. A customer comes in and Rufus springs for the door before it shuts, trailing his leash I kept on him to put my foot on before he could bolt out the door. The customer in the office trying to find a room and Rufus out the door. In my head later, I heard a voice say to me, go get Rufus. I didn’t, was watching news or Jeopardy or Roseanne. He’ll be all right, I thought; he’s been out before; he’ll come home. Then this young man comes in, dressed in a nice striped shirt with a tie, slacks, beige I remember, but blood on his shirt, dripping on his pants and Rufus in his arms, his head lopping off the guy’s arm. What happened; what happened? Is this your dog, he asked; the people down the road said this is your dog. I hit him with my car. I’m so sorry, so sorry. I call the vet; he meets me at the office. Rufus is in the back of the van, blood all over. I talk to him on the way over; you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine; we’ll get there in time; hang on, boy; hang on; but the vet looks at his eyes when I open the van’s door; blood covers the carpet. He says he’s dead, but you can bring him in if you like. I can’t see for the tears; they’re streaming down my face. The vet takes him in his arms. I go back to the motel, call my daughter and tell her. She tries to comfort me, and I can’t stop crying. For three days I cry. I see Rufus in my sleep and I feel him lying on my feet. He was a puppy, a big old mutt with rolls of skin around his mouth and neck, a mouth that dropped open as wide as the ocean, black white spots all over him, feet that could collapse a mountain, and could he run. He galloped down the sidewalk. In the wind I can still hear him.
And tonight comes the rain again, a wild uncontrollable, summer storm. Lighting flashes in the office. Housekeeper called tonight. She left before I drove in so I didn’t talk to her. She had no trouble today, nothing to speak of, turned away a customer for the only room available was reserved tonight, but the reservation didn’t show up. A lack of dollars for tomorrow.
Something there is
Something there is that sometimes loves a blizzard, that delights in frozen whiteouts, that longs for freezing rain. On a farm in the 50s, a blizzard often meant adventure, a rope from the front porch to the outhouse, another to the barn, and from there to the granary. Before meteorologists, a prognosticator of blizzards would note a shift in the air, witness cattle gathering towards shelters, dogs burrowing under the front porch; chickens ending their clucking and snoozing under folded wings. “You kids, get out there and fill the wood box,” a farmer would order like a harried prophet with God roaring at his heels. A blizzard during spring-calving season meant that warrior-farmer would trudge into the kitchen with a calf draped across his shoulders like the hide of a wolf. He would place the calf gently on blankets near the cookstove so that kids and their mother could break the ice from the calf’s nostrils and rub its legs and body to urge it to live.
A blizzard before corn-picking time often predicated economic stress to a farm family, especially if the corn-picker broke down in the howling wind. If it did, for me, the oldest, the lull before a blizzard meant that the last of the corn had to be hand-picked, my hands stiff in work gloves, snapping corn off stocks and throwing the ears one at a time into the wagon box until both my father and I turned into ice.
In Dickinson, two years ago, I woke up sweating from a dream in which my house was buried under a mountain of snow: doors blockaded, windows mirroring sheets of whiteness; the eaves bent, the roof groaned, nerves frayed. That winter my daughter’s and my backs ached from wielding grain shovels immense with heavy snow. This past year, nothing but a couple of dustings. This year, the winter’s breath, cold and icy with blankets of snow.
Blizzards meant that once the cows were milked, by hand then, eggs gathered, sows and boar down for a winter’s nap, the family huddled around the kitchen table, father and mother played pinochle–we children taking turns being partners with one or the other of our parents. I read Jack London and composed tales of my own. Blizzards with loved ones encased safely meant hope and renewal, a reaffirmation of values, that is if the family was built on solid ground. God forbid if an argument fractured the air, or as today, teenagers with cars and notions of invincibility venture forth on highways in search of girlfriends or parties.
Most of the time, even though my father was within walking distance, across a frozen field or a rutted cattle yard, I still ached to accompany him. I liked the way his stride moved thrice to mine, the way he shouldered stolid milk cows into stanchions, hitched up draft horses, loaded wood onto wagons.
When I was in kindergarten, a blizzard came on suddenly, one the country school teacher had no time to ring parents before they themselves were stomping their feet in the coat room. My father was one of the fathers who came to the country school in the swirl of a roaring blizzard. The wind blew like Odin warring on the prairie. At five I could not walk against that wind. Before leaving the warmth of the country school, my father tucked me underneath his jacket, his arms wrapping me tightly to his chest, and braved the winds, walking in front of the horse the miles back on the gravel road to my mother and safety radiating from the wood cook stove.