While it might not seem like a significant event, dinner hinges upon it. Through a series of fortunate circumstances, the Hub and I drove 16 hours from northern Idaho to northern Nevada to pick up a truck and attend our niece’s wedding. This is the first family celebration we have attended since a Mills reunion in 2004, and the first time I’ve been back since 2008 when I had to cut short our vacation for an emergency surgery. I’ve waited for a dinner like this for years. A family dinner.
In 1988 I fled Nevada and my own family of origin. It’s taken years to feel settled enough to visit where my estranged family also resides. Generations of abuse, and I broke the cycle. Now that my children are grown, I no longer feel panicked over their security and welfare. What was most precious to me to protect also required my husband to sacrifice his own roots, healthy roots. It’s a bit of a wonder to return here and not feel anxious. And I’m enjoying the company of Todd’s family.
I feel unburdened and grateful that his family is my family.
Tomorrow the Hub’s mama, M-1, turns 76. I’m writing from her sunny sitting room with its pitched roof, white walls and sheer drapes of sea foam green. Five picture windows open up to the vast desert view of Lahontan Valley, cradled within the towering purple mountains of the Stillwater and Camel Back ranges. The Hub, his father and our oldest daughter were all born in the same hospital. Seven generations of Mills are buried in the sand beneath cottonwood trees in the county cemetery. From where I write, I can see the dairy farm that the Hub’s father built, the irrigation ditches his family helped institute for agriculture, hear the cows lowing and smell the sharp tang of silage and dusty desert air.
It’s different from my own roots, but familiar. Gardens tended to supply meals, cattle raised for meat in the freezer, the joy over getting a pig (bacon!), fruit watered for pies and jams, grains grown to mill and bake into bread. This is why I still grow things in the dirt and insist on knowing where my meat comes from in Idaho. A born buckaroo, after all, has country roots.
Today we picked raspberries at the Wolf Ranch. Wolf Mom, the Hub’s youngest sister, is a feisty Nevada rancher with a soft-spoken buckaroo husband and two vivacious daughters who grew up raising cattle in the most difficult buckaroo regions to ranch. Ranching in northern Nevada is not for the faint at heart. Basin and Range country is high mountain desert where the valleys are at the elevation of our mountains in northern Idaho. The Nevada mountain ranges have more 10,000 and 12,000 foot peaks than any other state in the union. The weather is hot by day, frigid by night and dominated by dryness. Cattle range hundreds of miles.
They’re industrious, these buckaroos, and they love their horses and cattle, calling them “the girls” or “my boy.”
Wolf Mom often gets asked if the Wolf Ranch raises wolves — it’s their last name, but she’s witty enough to point to her daughters and say, “Yup! And there’s my two cubs.” She serves on numerous agriculture boards and fights politics that have little concern for American agriculture, let alone the unique growing conditions of a place most people think of as Las Vegas. Buckaroos are the last of the “real” cowboys, pushing cattle across vast frontiers and living off the land. Wolf Mom’s home sits in a beautiful old grove of cottonwood trees on a bend of the Carson River as it winds its way through sand dunes and sage to dump in the Carson Sink. It’s a landlocked river that is the heart of agriculture in northern Nevada.
Raspberries grow in three thick rows that dwarf my humble canes back home in Idaho. M-1, Wolf Mom and I chatter over the hum of bees, careful not to disturb great orbs of spiders. We wear picking buckets Wolf-Mom makes out of large yogurt containers and baling twine. The Hub and Sis, his oldest sister who I claim as my own, are the only two Mills of their generation to leave Nevada and live elsewhere. Sis made the apron I wear as I gently tug ripe raspberries from the prickly canes. I feel connect to her and the plucky females in the family. You don’t sustain yourself in a region like this without being hearty and having heart.
In the time I’ve reflected on this incredible moment, this presence in a place I didn’t think I’d be both physically and intellectually today, I’ve learned that the pig is not on his way to the Wolf Ranch. Dinner is at the Mills homestead. M-1 rolls her eyes, laughs and returns to bustle in the kitchen, jamming berries, baking bread and preparing spaghetti for the 14 of us that will gather here tonight in this very sitting room, filled with tables for playing pinochle, sharing meals and allowing a corner for the return of the prodigal son and his wife.
Or maybe I’m the prodigal daughter returning to the family that has nurtured me well beyond my own.
In a week filled with unexpected blessings, several more relate to my writing journey. M-1 has a twin sister, M-2 and she has been my dedicated patron, encouraging, reading and getting me off to LA, believing I will publish my manuscripts. She arrives tomorrow from Arizona to celebrate her shared birthday. I get to see her! Today, after picking berries, M-1 took me to where she volunteers as a book binder — the county library. I got the full tour and serendipitously met the director. I asked for her insight on book distribution (a huge concern of mine if I don’t go the traditional route), and turns out she used to be a book buyer and knows the industry. Her advice was in perfect timing and I will use it to make decisions after I go home. She also encouraged me to work with my own local library.
This week, our prompt takes on returning to a place of origin. Sometimes, it’s not our own, just like this is not my own roots, but is my husband’s. Still, it is a return. Think of immigrants or pioneers of old. They may never return, but often their descendants return to search for homeland roots, for connection. Sometimes, we visit a new place and feel at home, grateful for what it has to offer — a better life. No matter the circumstance, think of a return.
September 30, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a return to home. What does it mean to return? Is it to reconnect, discover or let go? It can be a town, house, farm, castle or ruins. It can be a country or family, one of origin or one adopted. What does the return impart?
Respond by October 6, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
I’ve often wondered at how Sarah Shull felt when she returned home to North Carolina in her later age. She escaped shunning only to return to a family that still harbored ill-feelings toward her. Many believed she had Cobb’s gold — a myth that still surrounds both of them. Logically, if she had had wealth, Sarah would have never returned “home.” She died in misery, nearly a century old. She is buried next to her and Cobb’s daughter who died at 16 months. It’s her homecoming that I’m exploring in flash this week.
Sarah Visits the Cemetery by Charli Mills
The family cemetery remained on the hill. Father’s grave next to Mother’s. White stone spoke their ages. The place itself spoke of Father’s ambition to prosper. Shulls Mill. At one time the name affixed firmly to Father’s store and grain mill with its wooden paddles dipping into Watauga River. Surrounded by tree stumps, a scattering of clapboard houses and a paper mill belching smoke below the hill spoke of the town’s ambition.
The other grave. White, weedy and alone from the rest, it belonged to her baby. An old woman now and she still felt like an erring daughter.