Mom, Dad & 2 sisters - Frontier Celebration
Miles City, Montana, circa 1935
They were just waiting to tumble out. When the time and mood were right, stories poured from my Dad like water from a jar - smooth, measured, sparkling clear in his memory. I can still hear his soothing, gentle voice droning on into the evening, filling me with a sense of security, constancy, family history and ways of the world. I listened with mixed interest and attention depending on my mood, the story, and how many times I had heard it. Now, of course, I wish I had listened better, recorded or written them down. Since I didn’t, most of them are only a mixed jumble in my own memory, but their significance has not been lost.
Once Dad got onto the subject of his early growing-up years on the family homestead in eastern Montana, there was no stopping him. In the early 1900’s his German-immigrant family, like thousands of others, left home once again and headed out to stake their claim on a piece of the West. His dad went ahead, to actually purchase the land. Dad remembered waiting by the front gate at their home in Iowa, running to greet his dad shouting, “Did you get the land? Did you get the land? Where is it?” At six years of age, he expected to see his dad carrying a huge chunk of land home. The reality was quite different.
Family homestead - near Lindsey, Montana, circa 1909
The family - parents and seven children - traveled west by train. Dad told of carrying their food, roasting potatoes in the potbellied wood stove on board. Once on the property, which was pretty forlorn, arid, flat-land prairie, they spent the first year or two in a large, sod house. They were lucky that first year; there was an open winter with no snow nor severe low temperatures. By today’s standards, they were dirt poor & times were very tough. But mostly, Dad remembered the freedom - miles and miles of open country to wander, explore, forage. They lived off of jack rabbits and prairie chickens, began to cultivate and work the land, traded in town for supplies, and somehow survived. In the end, they could not make a living there, eventually sold the land and moved on to town and the greenhouse business. I asked Dad if they were not terribly disappointed with the bleak landscape, the failures, the moving on. “Oh, no.” he said. “We were so happy to have the chance to own the land, to have such freedom. Life is a series of adjustments.”
My earliest memories are of his bedtime stories. Begun with my older sisters, the tradition continued with me, so that if I close my eyes and concentrate, I am transported back to that time. Safe and warm under the covers, my dad seated on the edge of the bed in the dark room, I listen to tales of Br'er Rabbit, Skunk, Wolf, Coyote, Fox and other creatures who cavort across the screen of my imagination. They ramble through the stories, interact with each other, scheme, get into and out of more fixes than I can imagine in my everyday life. They have such fun - long days to run wild, frolic, invent, create. And they aren’t always good, either - they get into plenty of trouble, always with appropriate consequences. They are never abused (not even by today’s standards), but they have to make their apologies, spend time in their dens, right whatever wrong they have committed. They have wise, loving parents, who understand them and their indiscretions - who show them the way. There is always a moral to the story.
Back then, I did not realize these stories were a reflection - a re-creation - of my Dad’s childhood. I did not realize the impact they would have on my life.
For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’...