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Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West

Times Past at Carrot Ranch by @Charli_MillsGen X, rural California, USA

Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).

“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.

Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.

Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.

Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.

Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.

I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.

Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:

We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.

At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.

4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.

And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.

***

Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.

Courage to Care

Courage to CareThunder claps and I awaken. The camp trailer is dark and I reach up to feel the paper towels and garbage bag just inches above my head. Damp, not dripping and the bag still holds. Too much moisture and pooled water will break the seal of packing tape around the plastic between me and a leaking ceiling seam. The latest leak I’ve stuffed with paper towels and change them out when they reach saturation.

I relax until the rain cuts loose. I’m beyond crying any more, having sobbed yesterday when I cried out in frustration, “I want to go home!” I yell it at my husband when he arrives from his contract job. We exchange frustrated barbs until one dog scrambles up the wall, trying to get into the overhead bed. The dogs are a litmus test for stress. We are in the danger zone and I simply sit down in the chair that aggravates my sciatica and let tears slide down my cheeks. Home. Comfort. Security. Certainly many are worse off than me, but I’m weary. In the dark of night before the thunder arrives, I shower in a cement public restroom and cry beneath hot water until I can’t cry any more.

When the rain cuts lose, splattering the aluminum roof that is my transition between homes, I know it will take a few hours before the water pools and leaks. I have no tears left so I roll over and go back to sleep, wishing I didn’t have to wake up. Yet cold water dribbling to my hip does the job, and my day renews.

Waking up to news of Trump’s nomination does nothing to lift my spirits. I don’t bother making the bed, and the routine I’ve established this week dissipates into apathy. Politics are nothing but brand campaigns and I’m clearly not the target audience. Where does civic concern for a nation go when brands force sides as if this were a choice of pops — Coke or Pepsi — when the people need water? I was going to write letters to my state rep to express my outrage at the injustice of a state that tolerates veteran homelessness. The house we rented for nearly four years stands empty; all the real estate sites list it as “CLEAN and now ready to SHOW and SELL.”

When I first saw that selling point, I felt punched in the gut. Clean? CLEAN? As if our living there had made the place dirty? I’m a writer who used to work from home and although housekeeping was not tops on my daily to-do list, my home was not dirty. As if to invalidate my sense of reality, the property managers will not give back our security deposit despite the cleaning I did and the housekeeper I hired to shampoo the carpets. Feeling as if the world sees me as unclean stabs me in the heart of shame; shame from childhood, family incest, isolation. Having broke the silence decades ago and the cycle for my own children now grown, I’m  pained to recognize that shame still exists in the shadows of self.

It’s hard to get motivated to write civic letters when water drips from my trailer and shame clouds my head.

Two motivations I’m trying to embrace allow me the opportunity to write through my shame:

  1. From the Honeyed Quill, Shawna Ainslie posts: EMERGENCY #‎LinkYourLife PROMPT: Fear, Compassion and Community Action. #LinkYourCompassion.
  2. 1000 Voices for Compassion: Compassion and Courage.

Compassion is not something I see this morning following the hate-stirring rhetoric of a man who embodies the worst of America, yet seems capable of convincing others that his brand of hate is a cure-all. Compassion is not something I’m feeling. Then it occurs to me — it takes courage to care.

From self-care to that of others, it takes courage. We risk much to admit we are in need or struggling, but that’s where self-care begins. I’ve not been bashful about expressing my experiences current or past, though it is painful to do. How can one break the silence without speaking? I don’t want to dwell in anger or be the sum of my circumstances, nor do I want to be avoided by friends, family or readers because I speak out my truth — the good, the bad, the ugly.

Speaking out has its dangers. Anger can consume. I found it difficult to let go of even for a weekend, but denying my anger doesn’t make it go away either. I have to face it, feel it and make choices as to how to direct it. I have to be real (and compassionate) in acknowledging that shame is still an issue for me. I read a blog this morning by a survivor of sexual abuse who states she had no shame. It made me feel mine all the more keenly — like now, I’m ashamed of my shame.

Not feeling emotion only leads to the numbness I felt when the rain began before dawn.

Self-care, self-compassion is where healing can begin. And it’s okay if healing has to begin again and again. Establishing a routine in homelessness is one way I’m trying to take care of myself. Walking is another. But these are not enough for my circumstances. I’ve pushed hard to get my veteran husband into VA counseling for PTSD and I’m going to behavioral therapy sessions, too. I’ve signed up for an online workshop called Unshamed. I’m asking for help, even when it embarrasses me to do so, and I’m also being honest about what I can handle at the moment.

I’m homeless. I can’t have huge expectations upon my productivity.

Without self-care we can’t care for another, let alone a stranger. If we don’t have the courage to examine who we are and what we want out of our brief lives, we will fall into the traps of fear, perfectionism and judgement. It’s good to acknowledge what makes one fearful. I’m terrified of not having a home and here I am, not having a home. I’m not perfect. I can’t compare myself to another abuse survivor and feel inadequate because she has conquered shame and I’ll most likely go to the grave with mine. I don’t know that I can ever scrub it clean enough. But it doesn’t make me dirty. When I accept my own weaknesses, I can be more forgiving of another person in their weakness.

It takes courage to care for others when I facing my own fears. It took courage to help my brother-in-law yesterday to find his own DVA rep when his politics and lack of empathy upset me. I could have chosen to ignore his question of how to go about VA benefits, after all, he didn’t even thank me and he gave me a “chin up” talk as if I had no right to feel overwhelmed by my leaking trailer or lack of home. I could have taken delight in thinking, “Let him figure it out,” knowing how difficult it is to navigate the VA system. It even took courage to correct my own thoughts when I felt like comparing his service to his brother’s (my husband). He didn’t see combat! But I stopped myself and remembered that he served. It took courage to care, to look up his DVA and send it amidst my own pain he has no capacity for understanding.

Compassion doesn’t mean we don’t feel negative emotions. Courage is what it takes to overcome those barriers of our own negativity and that of others to show compassion. Both courage and compassion are acts.

Writing is a powerful tool for exploring and expressing voice. No matter what we write professionally, personally or in community, voice is what resonates. And the truth is more powerful than purple prose. Maybe that’s why I squirm when trying to read Trump’s speech. Even the annotated version by NPR only adds to the either/or struggle between 2016 US presidential candidates. Facts are not always truth. The truth is that politics is playing upon fear. Trump’s entire campaign message is summed up in his speech: he will restore safety to America if he wins. But who is stirring up the feeling that America is un-safe? America is in need of self-compassion and Americans need to overcome their fears through the courage to care for others.

A writer and comedian whom I admire for speaking truth with humor and compassion is Jon Stewart. He gave me back my motivation this morning. Truth has a way of calling us to action with justice and purpose; lies and denial use hate and fear to agitate action. Stewart offers us the revelation that Trump can’t give Americans back their country. He says to those wanting to take back America:

“You feel you are this country’s rightful owner. There’s only one problem with that. This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it. It never was. There is no real America. You don’t own it. You don’t own  patriotism. You don’t own Christianity. And you sure as hell don’t own respect for the bravery and sacrifice of military, police and firefighters.”

Further he says, “Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out are.”

Full version is on YouTube and worth watching. More so than watching any of the RNC speeches.

What you do own is this: you own your truth; you own your experience as a human being; you own your choices; you own your actions. I own my leaky eyes and leaky un-home, but I also own my resolve to speak out. I’m not living the RVer’s lifestyle, nor am I having a grand adventure. I own my stress and shame, but I also own expectation to be treated with human dignity. I have the courage to speak my voice. I am not silent. I am not perfect, but I am not silent. I will continue to look for ways to take care of myself, my husband, our two dogs and others in my life.

As much as I want to wrap my arms around the world and invite every weary traveler of hardships to sit by my campfire, I will start with those I see — the blogs I read, the people I encounter. Compassion starts with me. It starts with you. Have the courage to care where you are right now no matter how shitty or spectacular life might be. Circumstances don’t dictate one’s capacity for compassion and courage. Compassionate and courageous people will trump…well…Trump-like hatred.

If you are having difficulty today, please reach out here. Speak out, use your voice. There are communities where compassionate and courageous people reside. Read their stories. Respond. Add your own.

#LinkYourLife is found on Facebook, Twitter, The Honeyed Quill and OTV Magazine

#1000VoicesforCompassion is found on Facebook, Twitter and you can link up to monthly themes.

 

Times Past: Grainy Memories

Grainy MemoriesAs a child, I knew the marshmallow give of hot tar while I padded barefoot down the street to the summer swimming hole. I’ve felt the tickle of moss while wading in irrigation ditches, shoes off and jeans rolled up to my knees. I understood sand to be grit I used to wash camp dishes in the dim light of dusk with a creek as my sink. I might be a seventh-generation Welsh-Scots-Irish-German-Basque-Portagee-Dane born in California, but I did not grow up a beach-comber. Cowabunga, surfer dudes and California dreaming was not on my side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

My only memory of oceanic beaches from childhood is a fuzzy recollection of the clam-digger who drowned; a story I already shared.

To participate in Irene Water’s Times Past prompt, I’m dipping into more recent memory because I simply didn’t spend my childhood upon any beaches. Yet, I do have one summer when I lived along the south shore of Lake Superior, a great inland sea. I followed the feel of sand between my toes to that time. For the record, I’m a Gen X Baby-buster and this is my creative interpretation of adult memories from rural Wisconsin, USA.

Unchained on Sioux Beach

With each step the sand sings to my bare feet.

I’ve lost my home, my job and now I just let loose the leashes on  my dogs. Fear clutches the breath in my lungs and I wheeze. Yesterday I walked out of my office, the one I had for 11 years, after shaking hands with my own replacement. 90 days ago a judge said, “I’m sorry, I have no choice.” 80 days ago my husbanded dumped jeans and t-shirts into the back seat of his car, dismantled his aviation toolbox, set trays in the trunk, and said he had to go west; it was a job. 30 days ago I declared myself a Craig’s List dealer, giving strangers my phone number and address, giving away books, suits, dishes, furniture and everything my husband left in the garage, wishing I smoked cigarettes after each transaction. 10 days ago my boss called me into to her office so she could cry. She said, “I’m grieving.” I’d have grieved, too if only tears could have breached the shroud of terror and loneliness. Five days ago my staff held a going away party with jazz and cake. Despite having disrobed my life’s accumulations, they gifted me new stuff as if homelessness was not my destination.

Damp and coarse like Kosher rock salt used to freeze home-made ice cream, I feel the sand scrub my feet.

This morning I awoke in a spare bedroom not my own, having slept in a borrowed twin bed and surrounded with the last of Things That Still Matter — three crates of books, enough clothes to make choices, a small writing desk and a laptop with a hopeful half-drafted first-novel. It is not my first first-novel. I had cheerfully told everyone I was going to Wisconsin, to the fishing village where my novel was set to finish my book, as if foreclosure had made me Hemingway. The two dogs remained with me even though they limited my ability to find places to sleep and write. They Still Mattered. They remained my last fragment of scheduled time with a persistence to go outdoors. They had to pee early this first morning when I felt the weight of loss upon me like a death shroud. We could have stopped at the clumpy patch of grass, but I could hear the seagulls and Lake Superior close-by. So I went to Sioux Beach, took off my shoes and removed the leashes on two dogs who had only known their house, yard and neighborhood walks.

Sioux Beach stretches vast and empty. So much sand is alien to me.

In this place, as far away from my former home and office as mars is from earth, I force out the fear strangling breath in my lungs. I watch the unleashed bigger dog lunge after seagulls, his dark coloring a beacon on the beach dressed in khaki and white. The water tumbles to shore in waves, making semi-circles of washed pebbles and foam. The smaller dog, roan and lighter, sniffs with curiosity at the water’s lapping edge. I imagine I’m at the ocean and look across the bay until land is no longer visible. Later I’ll learn that even though Lake Superior is an inland sea, its fresh water wave action is due to a sloshing bathtub effect. Gunmetal storm clouds from the nor ‘east can bring 14 foot swells.

Above the surf I still hear the sand.

Quartz particles rub with each step and emit a sound like a tiny singing bowl. For the remainder of spring and summer, I’ll discard my shoes to walk upon this sacred beach. My feet will become polished as if I could afford weekly pedicures. Fear falls away and home becomes defined by where I am and who I’m with in the moment. Structure diminishes, that of houses and time. In the places polished clean by sand, creativity enters and I finally finish a first-novel. I discard my own leashes and trust what comes back to me. These first steps in the signing sand on Sioux Beach are like a return to living fully engaged and alive. Unchained.

I write thank-you notes in the sand to bankers who robbed me with pens as big as ceremonial halberds, watching waves erase the diminished letters of BOA.

 

Times Past: Mystery of Laundry

LaundryStanding in the grocery aisle I stare helplessly at bright plastic containers labeled with biblical promises to remove my stains. Nearing the half century mark and I still have no idea how to do laundry properly.

Women’s work. Historically this is true. Soiled doves, the frontier prostitutes of mining camps often began their careers between the sheets by first washing them. A woman in need of money could always find work in a mining camp washing men’s union suits and socks. Even Sarah Shull, a competent accountant, had to find work as a laundress in the mining town of Denver, Colorado after Cobb McCanless was killed and she no longer had a benefactor. His widow certainly wasn’t going to take her in, dirty laundry as Sarah was to the family.

But this is not a historical reflection. Writer, Irene Waters, calls us to reflect on Times Past in our own lives. She asks if laundry is women’s work. This intriguing monthly prompt is a generational and geographical comparison. So let me state, I’m a Gen-Xer and I grew up in rural California.

My mother was the queen of the laundry. Why, I have puzzled all month until the point I can delay no more (or miss the chance to participate). As a child, my parents practiced the typical slave labor of ranching or farming families. The idea was to birth many hands to work the fields or cattle. My father changed it up a bit by only having one set of hands. Also, he traded his cowboy boots for logger’s corks and he bought my mother a store to run in a town of 99 people (for those of you who follow the flash fiction at Carrot Ranch, yes, I just realized the connection, too).

The store was an old mercantile built the same year as our house: 1861. It catered to winter skiers and summer campers, a true mountain tourist town. We lived summers in my father’s logging camps and I worked for the ranch that encircled our small town with summer pastures. I did everything as a kid — stacked cordwood, bagged ice, pushed cattle, cleaned dishes by hand, stocked shelves and fed our horses hay. But never was I tasked with laundry.

As far back as I recall we always had a modern washer and dryer. My mother did the laundry as if it were some homage to my father. His family was big on cleanliness and town clothes had to be spotless. My mother used liquids from various jugs to whip up some sort of cleaning cocktail of which she never revealed its secret. Thus my extenuating befuddlement regarding laundry.

No one ever taught me.

Thrust on my own, I had to use the laundromat with coin operated behemoths. I bought Tide because it’s what my mother used, but all the other ingredients seemed redundant to me. Of course, my clothes began to look dingy. Not that I was particular about that. I had children and discovered the dreaded laundry monster, an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes where items morphed like mold. Where did all those clothes come from? Never did I cater to my spouse the way my mother did. By the time my kids could reach the wash machine lid and understood the dryer wasn’t a carnival ride, my family was on their own!

To this day, I’m stumped buying laundry detergent, trying to figure out which ones will really set me free. Besides, I sneak my clothes into my husband’s loads. Woman’s work? Not if I can help it!

Times Past: Food From the Sea

Times PastGeneration X, Rural Northern California

Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.

When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is:  The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.

I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.

The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.

On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.

Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.

Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.

And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.

Cemetery Day: Boulder City Cemetery

1023151545Half way up the narrow strip of road that winds in and out of carved gullies, I realize what determination miners have. Already we’ve forged access into a deep draw in the Cabinet Mountains of northern Idaho, following tens of thousands of years behind the wake of a massive glacier that gouged the bedrock and littered the canyon with boulders like giant gravel. The creek we cross is aptly named Boulder Creek. It’s difficult terrain and we have a 5-liter engine and 4WD. Yet miners came up here with horses, mules and oxen pulling wagons. What they lacked in trucks they made up for in guts.

The Hub shouts out loud, startled by the drop to his left. I cringe in response because he’s rarely rattled by a road.

“It’s not up here,” he tells me. Already we’ve found the town site of Boulder City. Ironic that in a region of nothing larger than a town the one place on the map that boldly states “city” is nothing more than rock-lined cellars and board rubble. What might have been a mine is now simply a large cement foundation that provides shelter for a rock campfire ring. If it was ever a city, it’s now a ghost town, and a faint apparition at best.

“It could be like Elkhorn. The cemetery was beyond the town and mines.” Elkhorn was my second stab at a historical novel and is also a silver mining ghost town. I worked on it as an independent project in college and wandered the buildings that still stand and the cemetery, wondering and imaging the life of a woman stranded in that town as a recent widow to an ill-fated miner. How would such a woman survive? I shelved the project after graduation when I went to work.

We continue to climb through a dark forest of cedar, larch and pine. It’s hard to discern boards of buildings from dead-fall of trees and amazing that anything can cling to these incredibly steep mountain slopes. Determination. Miners had to be to find silver in this place. The road opens up to a point on the ridge that overlooks the Kootenai River far below in the valley where Bonners Ferry is located.

To our left is a huge log from an old pine. The Hub perks up. We have our chainsaw and firewood permit and that 2-foot diameter log is fair game. I look around for some sign of a cemetery — fence, stones, crosses. Nothing but that log, a campfire ring and the road turning east toward Montana, paralleling the river from this mountaintop. I admit defeat and say he might be right. We could have missed the cemetery below, closer to the rubble and creek.

All the way down I look, hopeful. No headstones but a million boulders the size of giant pumpkins. At the creek we let the dogs run and swim in the crystalline water that reflects the blue of minerals, almost as if it were liquid silver. Maybe just my imagination. I poke around at a rock or two and Todd reads the forest service map where I saw the Boulder City Cemetery marked.

“You know, maybe it was by that log.”

I know the real reason he wants to go back up is to stick his Husquavarna in the wood of that huge pine. But looking at the map and where Boulder Creek meets the Kootenai, it is where the cemetery is marked. How likely is it to be 2,000 feet higher than this ore-bearing, glacial-scarred creek bottom?

Likely enough that I should have gotten out of the truck the first time. We find it — 4 marked graves, one anonymous and several indentations that hint at more. Only, the fence and markers are of the same gray wood of the fallen buildings and dead-fall of the forest. It blends in unlike cemeteries with wrought iron fences and granite markers.

Now I’m going to show you how a historical novelist makes the best use of a Cemetery Day.

  1. Take photos of markers to collect names and dates.
  2. Notice the age and gender.
  3. Look for any clues or anomalies.

What I notice is that the anonymous grave has several gifts from visitors — a couple of  weathered animal figurines of modern make, a tarnished penny and faded plastic flowers. I leave a blue shard of glass that I found, sharing my treasure of the day. The names of the four marked graves read Last, First which is unusual and the Hub points out that it’s “military.” Those buried are not, but is it possible that this tiny resting place was preserved by the Civilian Conservation Corps? After all, it is on national forest service land.

I also note that the four died between 1918 and 1922. Here’s where imagination and history collide. I start thinking about what was going on in the greater world at that time — WWI, flu epidemic, women gain the right to vote. So what was life like in this steep canyon with homes barely wide enough to straddle land along mining claims? One grave is that of a baby, another a young woman with an interesting name — Mathilda Fatland. None of those buried are related. The other two are men, one aged 70 and the other 36.

Now I research. Some might research first before the outing, but I prefer the element of surprise. I want to discover connections or curiosities I might miss if I think I already “know” about the place or people. For research, I use local history websites, census records, Find A Grave and vital records. I subscribe to Ancestry.com to research their vast database of archives. For example, I can go there and search “Boulder City, Idaho, 1920 Census.” I search 1920 because of the death dates. I know the “city” was active in that enumeration year.

I discover that between January 2-6, 1920 Harold Askevald took census in Boulder “precinct” as is is listed (not “city”). He is also the first person listed on the census record, thus he lived there and I read that he is 52 years old, divorced and a native of Norway. He is a carpenter for the railroad. Could he have built some of the town? I note that his script is good penmanship, but that his printing is precise and square. Interesting. Maybe as a carpenter, he likes to square up things? Look! I already have the beginnings of a character profile.

Next, I want to know the population of Boulder. The census record is only three pages long. Counting what Harold did, there were 127 residents of Boulder in 1920.

Now I jump to Find A Grave. I want to see if they have recorded Boulder Cemetery (it’s a volunteer organization). I find Boulder Creek Cemetery listed! They claim that 12 people are interred on that point above the creek and Kootnai River. Of the 12, ten are men. That has me curious about the gender breakdown so I go back to the census record. Of 127 residents, 31 were women. What catches my eye is a 33-year-old widow who is making her way as a cook. This is similar to what I imagined of a character in Elkhorn. Her name is Margaret Buffmuen and she was born in Australia to a German father and an American mother. How did that happen, I wonder. She’s living in the household of Fred Schmidt who is a German immigrant and a lumber manufacturer. He must have the largest home in town because 12 men are boarding there. No wonder he needs Margaret to cook!

Yet, I see something interesting in the census record — the industry listed for occupations of the residents is predominantly “logging.” This was no mining town; it was a logging camp! Yet a mine is listed on the map. I’m fairly certain we saw the remains of Fred Schmidt’s boarding house and what I thought was a concrete mine feature, the Hub now thinks it was a foundation for a mill or even hooking logs down those steep slopes. As he points out, “You can use gravity to get those high mountain logs to the lumber mill in the valley below.”

So what about our cemetery and those who rest there? The first person buried is presumably John Gorman because he died in 1898. All I know of him is that he was “killed in an accident” in Leonia. What I’ve read locally about Boulder City is that it was founded in 1910 by J.M. Schnatterly, who owned Idaho Gold and Ruby Mine. He would bring investors to Bonners Ferry by train, up the Kootenai River by boat to Leonia, and up a private road by horse and buggy (buggy? on that road?). Yet someone from the river town below is buried on this mountaintop 12 years prior to its “founding” and 10 years after that, it’s a logging camp.

Back to the census records. Boulder existed in 1900 before it was “founded” by J.M. Schnatterly. It only had 52 residents and most worked for the railroad; three were miners; none were J.M. Schnatterly. Who is this guy, I wonder. I go to the 1910 census. He’s not there, nor are all the railroad workers. 60 residents and they are all “general farmers.” This is an evolving place! It reflects what we call the boom and bust cycle of the west — railroad provides good jobs and moves on; a mine opens up and closes; farms are bought and lost; logging camps cut until they move to another camp. And as to our founding father, I can’t locate him in the census record. I can follow up at the history center in Bonners Ferry and go over their collection of document archives.

Before I leave this town, I want to find out how long it survived. In 1930, the census shows a mix of farming, mining and logging with 160 residents. Maybe that’s maximum capacity for the canyon! In 1940 there’s 120 residents, mostly farming and logging. I’m not sure how anyone farmed that steep, rocky terrain. I see a few working for the CCC or forest service. Perhaps they are the ones who kept up the cemetery.

And of the four graves that remain marked and fenced?

Mathilda Fatland was born in 1898 in Washington state to Norwegian immigrants. In the 1920 census, the only Fatland living in Boulder is Annie Flatland and she’s 30 years old, single, living as a boarder and working as a laborer in the logging camp. Were they sisters, cousins? Mathilda’s parents lived for 30 years in Kitsap, Washington. How did these two Fatland women come to a place like Boulder? Why? How did Mathilda die at the age of 20?

Nothing else is revealed on those buried in the Boulder Creek Cemetery. This was just an initial look; a fun excursion to fill the well for ideas and local history. I’ll let it all stew and perhaps do some flash fiction and see what develops. Here’s a slide show of the day.

Yes, the Hub tackled that pine and we went home with 1/2 a cord. I counted tree rings on that pine and it was over 250 years old. That means, it was witness to the city of Boulder in all its manifestations and stood sentinel over the cemetery until it died and blew over in a big wind. Now it will be firewood. I’m sure those who are buried by this tree will understand. After all, they were most likely loggers or lovers of such men. Determination lives on in this basin.

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Hard Places

Hard PlacesHard places are universally known. The teacher put on the spot by a parent; the childhood friend who died too young; the ailing family member; the medical condition that won’t go away; roadblocks and stream-blocks; abandoned buildings and glimpses of earlier struggles.

Yet circumstances such as these have a rock — a way through the hard place. It might be the support of a colleague or pure determination to get through. It might be a way to remember or a way to honor what has passed. This week, writers looked for connections. We might not control the hard places we are in, but we can find connection.

Connection is the monthly theme for a group of writers and bloggers who gather to overcome hard places and connect with one another in compassion. These stories are part of the May collection from 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion and are based on the May 13, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that shows a hard place and a connection.

Connection in a Hard Place by Irene Waters

Natasha dreamed of death. These visions were always pleasant unlike the bombs that fell around her, killing all in their path. Except her. She who longed to die seemed immune to the terror surrounding her. All her family were dead. Her lover too had died, beheaded. They had forced her to watch. Now, except when dreams of death lulled her, the nightmare never left. The latest bomb left her scrabbling at the rubble to reach the trapped cry below. She pulled the unharmed baby to her and connected her to her breast. She smiled as the milk flowed again.

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A Game by Mercy.James.

Rock  Paper  Scissors

Scissors cut paper. Rock smashes scissors. Paper weighs upon both.

Who wins?

None exists without the other – each complimentary – a serving of needs met – sometimes left wanting – as reliable as the waxing and waning moon, sitting in crescent left or right-faced.

Does not paper come from the earth? From trees that are deeply rooted in soil, rock and nutrient infused. And silver – precious metal – it too comes from the earth, lying in rock’s embrace.

What matters in the end – now – we realize connection is absolute truth – no room for control over elements in purity – nature’s way.

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A Dawn Concert by Jeanne Lombardo

Four a.m. The pain a staccato knock. No going back to sleep. She pushed up on gnarled hands, scooted, let the sharp ache push her into the wheelchair.

She followed the grooves in the carpet, pushed past the girls’ rooms, imagined their young bodies. They looked like her, thirty years ago, before the arthritis made a crippled birch of her.

She parked at the kitchen table. No coffee until Dan rose to percolate it. She waited.

At last a pale lemony light washed through the window. The familiar room emerged. And the concert began.

The robins never forsook her.

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United With a Song by Kate Spencer

She sat on a log hugging her knees, smiling softly as she gazed at the campsite community seated around the blazing fire. Some were chatting quietly; others were busy roasting marshmallows.

She nodded to her husband who leisurely reach behind him and pulled out the worn guitar. He tinkered with the strings and began strumming an old familiar ballad.

Slowly he started singing, the lyrics filled with love and sorrow, longing and hope. Tears formed in the corner of her eyes as she raised her own voice, joining her husband. Gradually everyone joined in – united with a song.

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Fiona Meets the Universe by Ula Humienik

Fiona felt alone and small under the twinkling of the universe and sweeps of the Milky Way. She’d never seen the night sky living in the city all her life. Tears made rivulets on her cheeks.

She remembered her last conversation with her sister.

“Dad never meant to hurt us,” Nina said.

“But he did. He hurt me. I can’t trust men, I’m afraid of them.”

“You have to forgive him.”

“I can’t,” Fiona said as she ran off. They hadn’t spoken since.

She looked up at the expansive sky and imagined each star a soul watching over her.

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The Friend Inside by Sarrah J. Woods

A sudden breeze rose up and ruffled Maggie’s hair as she gazed over the valley. The wind was changing inside her, too.

Loneliness had become her straightjacket in the past year. The more desperately she struggled to make friends in this unfriendly town, the more isolated she felt.

Now she was giving up. Aloneness had won.

But, somehow, this decision only lightened and sweetened the silence that had oppressed her for so long.

“I’ll keep trying to make friends,” she said, “but in the meantime, I’ll enjoy my own company. I will become my own friend.”

Her heart smiled.

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House of Thorns by A. R. Amore

Nesting in the back are a pair of cardinals. They’ve chosen the most evil of shrubs, a dark red demon laced with poisoned oblong pellet sized berries and black tipped briars. The bold male roots in empty planters on the deck for building materials while the duller female scuttles in and out of the shrub seemingly unscathed, her beak filled with a gathering of grass or twig or twine. Like any couple, they visited and revisited, no doubt debating merits and drawbacks. Flitting in and out, despite the risk of harm, they nestle hopeful in their house of thorns.

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Little Boy Lost by Sherri Matthews

I saw him, that little boy. His back turned to me, holding the hand of a man leading him further into the crowd.

I recognised his saggy blue jeans and the curl of his boy-short, soft brown hair.

Don’t go, oh God, please don’t go.

Then the boy, hearing my silent cries and knowing my love turned back, and his brown eyes locked into mine.

He tugged at the man’s hand, but the man held too tight and kept walking.

Mummy!

Gone. Just like that.

Now my boy is a man and I hug him with everything I have.

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Just a Soul by Ruchira Khanna

Jane was pensive, yet persistent as she was staring at the pen.

Took a deep breath, blinked a couple of times.

“I am not the body. I am not even the mind,” she chanted as she disinfected a small area of her thigh and placed her pen over it.

Clicked the pen, and the pain was intense. Her eyes were moist by the ache.

She waited for the syringe fluid to enter her body, while she continued her chant, “I am not the body. I am not even the mind.”

Released the pen, and wiped the drop of blood.

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Brown by Norah Colvin

She glanced at the child, usually so eager to please, and knew this was no ordinary day.

Downcast and avoiding eye contact, the child trembled. Her instinct was to reach out with comfort to soothe the hurt; but stopped. Any touch could end her career. What to say? Brown earth/brown rocks? would ignore and trivialise the pain. Any talk now would be insensitive with other ears listening. Any word could unravel the relationship built up over time. Nothing would harm more than doing nothing. Her steps moved her body away but her heart and mind stayed; feeling, thinking.

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Selfish Devotion by Rebecca Patajac

Fist clenched, Warrick scribbled signatures across paperwork. His wife, face pale, breathed hard on a hoverbed. She looked worse with each day.

Labouring took a greater toll.

She screamed before the relieved laughter and a nurse placed their child in her arms.

Warrick relinquished the papers and nodded.
The nurse reclaimed the newborn.

His wife turned her head to him, eyes trained on their child, “Warrick? What’ve you done?”

Men guided the hoverbed to a cryo-chamber.

She screamed, “No! I want my baby!”

Warrick steeled himself, muttering, “should’ve had the treatments.” He left the child. “I’ll find a cure.”

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Mentoring the Gaps by Roger Shipp

“Mr. Raycomb, you are needed in the office.”

Having just left the office, I wondered why I was needed to return.

“Come on in. Push the door shut.”

I do so. With stomach and thoughts intermingling… I’m wondering why the sudden closed door conference with our new principal.

“Steven’s mother is on the phone. She has asked, what I feel is a very unusual request.”

I gasp. I immediately know what has happened.

He presses speaker-phone.

“Hello, Ms. Jackson.” My faltering voice answers.

“I can’t tell him it’s returned. I won’t win this one. Will you tell him? Please!”

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For Chris – The Rock by Susan Zutautas

I have a rock I keep upon my window ledge that is my connection to you
They were handed out at your funeral so we had something to hang onto
It sits in sunshine almost every day
I pray your pain has left and gone away
Young children should never die so young
Your life had just begun
You are and always will be Garth’s best friend
For the rest of eternity
We talk about you after all these years
Remembering your courage, showing no fear
Until we meet again one day

You are in our hearts Chris Jackson

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The Yellow Rose of Kennedy by Deborah Lee

It feels subterranean inside the ruined cabin. Dust motes eddy in the beam of light fingering through the glassless window. This gold-panner’s squat has long been picked clean of souvenirs. Fine dirt like powder covers the floor. Smell of decay and old scat.

Outside again, he is brought up short. Growing hard against the cracked and weathered wood under the window is a vibrant green rosebush, blooms at once shy and defiant in this wilderness. Not wild; deliberate.

Who planted it? A woman, in a mining camp? A cultured forty-niner? That is the story he would like to hear.

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Aunt Gloria by Geoff Le Pard

Rupert called, ‘She’s taken a turn for the worse. Her cancer is back.’

Mary dreaded visiting. Letting herself in, Gloria’s call was as usual cheery. But her face was grey. She saw Mary looking. ‘Cheekbones like Garbo. About time.’

Mary wept and felt guilty that it was Gloria comforting her. ‘Who will I talk to?’

‘Paul’s a rock. Rupert too…’

Mary shook her off.

‘God’s still here.’

‘I don’t believe in him anymore.’

Gloria put a hand on Mary’s stomach. ‘I’m here, every time you need me. Just talk, dear and we’ll be listening.’

‘I’ll try. Both of you.’

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The Power of Science by Larry La Forge

Ed stared at the weathered concrete wall still standing behind the Science Hall patio. His mind drifted back nearly five decades.

A power outage had sent the class outside. Ed sat on the wall facing the professor. A cute coed plopped down next to Ed—it was the only spot left.

“This stuff’s impossible,” she said.

“Tell me about it,” Ed replied as he mimicked the current assignment: Calculate the magnetic flux density of a parallel plate capacitor when completely submerged in a homogeneous isotropic dielectric.

They agreed to try to figure it out together.

Her name was Edna.

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New Friends by Ruth Irwin

First day at this school. She had been to many schools before, but not long enough to settle in and make friends. Small for her age, very thin, unkempt hair, stained ill-fitting clothes and battered shoes revealed that this six year old had been doing it tough. She remained aloof at recess, watching the other children as they played in already formed friendships. She wondered how long she might be at this school and if she would have friends. Then she saw an out-stretched hand and a smiling face saying “come and play with me”. How could she resist?

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The Rock by Sarah Brentyn

“It’s cool that you don’t say stupid shit like ‘How do you feel about that’ or whatever.” She grabbed a grey rock from its shelf and examined it.

“Well,” he swiveled in his chair, “glad to hear that. But I do need you to talk to me.”

She turned the rock over in her hand, “Okay. I’ll talk. You have this like professional office with expensive leather couches and shit then there’s this ugly, little rock. Seems out of place.”

“It’s special.”

“Why?”

“My father gave it to me. He died last year. You think it’s ugly?”

“Not anymore.”

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The Portal by Ann Edall-Robson

A welcome familiarity reached out as she stood in the doorway.

The aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying coming from the old wood stove. The quiet murmur of voices around the kitchen table, interrupted by intermittent laughter.

Through the curtain-free window, the hand hewn log barn stands silhouetted against the early morning sky. A stoic soldier offering shelter and sanctuary while scrutinizing the activity beneath its massive structure.

There was no doubt within her soul. These old abandoned buildings were the portal to the inception of life. The premonitions would be answered. Finally, she had arrived home.

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Flash Fiction by Anne Goodwin

Revenge fantasies kept me warm in bed. She’d lose her job; she’d crash her car; some thief would take her precious ring. The news infused my heart with joy. Let her learn how it feels to lose a husband.

The kids, though, mine and theirs, would lose a father.

I made a casserole, seasoned with rosemary, his all-time favourite. Thought I’d leave it on the doorstep, but the door opened before I could nip away. I took no pleasure from seeing her so unkempt. She opened her arms. We wept on each other’s shoulders. Soon we’d both be ex-wives.

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River Ganges by Kalpana Solsi

And she tried desperately to hold his deliberate loosening grip, the diamond

ring slipped off and remained in his cupped palm, as she saw his sinister smile

before the foaming Ganges sucked the bride into the river-bed.

After the last rites, he sat, staring at the diamond ring.

Horror was largely writ on his face as he saw a hand with the wedding ring,

rising above the rapid Ganges water-current. His feet gave away as he

couldn’t resist her strong grip dragging him.

“In life and in death together”, the wedding vow, he remembered.

A watery grave they had.

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A Chink in Her Armor by Sarah Unsicker

“We are concerned, Mama,” Kate said. “You spend too much time alone. I found a widow’s support group that might help you …”

“I don’t need a support group,” Cecilia said.

“You need friends.”

“John’s been gone too long. My pain is stale.”

“Pain doesn’t go stale, Mama. It fades away, and yours hasn’t.”

Cecilia sighed dramatically. “I’m going up to bed. You know where the door is to leave.”

Before she had time to answer, she heard the stairs squeak as her mother climbed up to her bedroom.

For the first time, Kate’s arrows had pierced Mama’s armor.

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Indomitable by Pat Cummings

The racetrack surges with imperative: we must return. Each mile upstream also means climbing a body-length vertically, darting past the rocks, and the other racers. Our run has the ultimate prize, but there is no call to win. There is only the urgent invitation of the water upstream.

Closer and closer we come to the finish. Suddenly the water almost disappears. The final lap is a tight tunnel, already full of racers. Has someone already won?

No, there is one more obstacle, a leap to a tighter passage. I alone make it home, one salmon of thousands hatched here.

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The Rock by Charli Mills

A contact rock. Yin and yang. Feldspar and…?

Ramona frowned, retrieving the smooth river rock from beneath a wild rosebush in the west pasture. It felt heavy, familiar. She closed her eyes, willing recollection. Running water. Yes! She and Vic riding to the grotto, up the creek, metallic horse-shoes clanging on rocks this size. Vic, off his horse, reaching elbow deep into the water.

“Look, Ro, a contact rock.”

Her eyes fluttered open. Why did her memories have holes? She cradled the rock to her chest, willing herself to remember the twins. This rock was connected to them somehow.

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Bugle Boy by Pete Fanning

They found his bugle amongst the bodies. A few of the survivors recounted of how fourteen-year-old Eli had charged right into the line of fire and dragged three soldiers to safety, only to return and man the cannon as confederates advanced on his position.

When Eli awoke his chest ached. Nearby, a soldier screamed out in agony. He watched through blurry eyes as a bandaged Colonel limped over and laid his mangled bugle beside what was left of his family’s songbook. Eli grimaced, studying the musket ball embedded in its pages.

Those rebels were going to pay for that.

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Ministering by Paula Moyer

“Thou art Peter … upon this rock I will build my church.” When Jean heard these words – like most Baptists – she remembered what Simon did that caused Jesus to rename him: he declared his faith.

The rock was more than Peter.

Now Jean sat in her house with her little kids, five days after her husband had moved out.

The phone rang. “Jean, it’s Lynn.” Her cousin, a rock in her own right. “I’m here for you.”

Thirty minutes on the phone.

Lynn showed her faith by enacting a passage from a letter of Paul’s: Bear one another’s burdens.

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