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Adoption Birthday: Remembering Judge Davis

August 14, 2013

Tags: Birthday, Adoption, Family: Mother, Family: Father, Judge Davis, Custer County 1881 Courthouse Museum, Childhood

Linda in 1949
As my mother took pictures of me playing in a ten-foot snowdrift outside our door, I wonder if she reconsidered the wisdom of moving from Texas back to South Dakota!

. . .
Today, August 14, 2013, I have been Linda Hasselstrom for sixty years. In celebration of what my family always called my “adoption birthday,” I am posting a note written in 2004.


Remembering Judge Davis
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Written for the Custer County Historical Society, June, 2004.


I was nine years old. I don’t remember my birthday that year, but a month later, on August 14, I was adopted by my mother Mildred’s new husband. A photograph shows me on adoption day in a ruffled plaid dress in front of the old brick courthouse, clutching a little white purse with [my] white shoes perfectly aligned. I’m smiling stiffly. Adoption was a new experience.

After the ceremony my legal father, John [Hasselstrom], bought me a gold ring I still have, and we all had ice cream. I didn’t realize that by becoming the daughter of a rancher I had changed the direction of my life forever. I didn’t realize I had pledged my soul to a ranch, to acres of tawny grass and dry creeks that would absorb my blood and sweat, as they had my father’s, and still look parched. I was still dreaming of prancing black stallions; now my dreams are full of waddling cows. [1]


When I wrote that passage in one of my first books, I’d been studying the photograph I described, discovering in it not only memories but information I did not consciously recall. Later, I realized that photographs merely freeze particular moments in time. A photograph exists only as a flat surface, without the taste, texture, smells of a genuine recollection. Moreover, the instant of the photograph, captured and looked at many times, may actually replace the memory.

Looking more carefully at that photograph helps me remember vignettes about the way my mother and I arrived at that place and time, having our images recorded by my new father, my mother’s third husband. Before that day, I had been fatherless. After it, I had both a real father and a biological one: an important distinction. And I had a trusted friend, something I have failed to appreciate until recently, more than fifty years later.

One of my earliest memories is of crouching under the kitchen table while Mother screamed and smashed my biological father’s liquor bottles in the sink. [2] (Mother had a ferocious temper, but she played it like a violin. A practical woman, she knew that when she was through being angry she’d probably have to clean up the mess, and it would be easier if the liquor ran down the sink instead of splashing all over the kitchen.)

I remember, later, sitting on my mother’s lap on a train, looking out into darkness, at the windows of lighted railway cars behind us uncoiling like a golden snake. My mother was doing something very traditional for women whose husbands have betrayed them: she was going home to her mother. We moved to Rapid City just in time for the Blizzard of 1949. As my mother took pictures of me playing in a ten-foot snowdrift outside our door, I wonder if she reconsidered the wisdom of moving from Texas back to South Dakota!

For four years, my mother worked to rebuild our lives. Divorced from my biological father, she called on her mother, Cora Hey, to live with us for awhile in Rapid City to take care of me; mother worked full-time, first in a bank, and then for a law firm. [3]

I spent most of each summer living with my grandmother and my uncle, my mother’s brother George Hey and his wife. I think Grandmother lived with us in winter through the year I attended kindergarten, walking me to and from the school each day. But eventually, she moved back to her home and I had to walk home, let myself into the house, and wait for my mother. Those experiences taught me a lot about independence and patience. And I learned to be the only girl I knew without a father– a situation considerably more rare in the early 1950s than it is today. [4]

Looking at that photograph, I was so sure my memory of the day was accurate that I wrote about my parents’ marriage and my adoption without looking for the supporting documents. [5] I wrote that my parents were married on Memorial Day weekend in 1952, and that I was adopted that same year.

Prompted by my promise to write about these events for the Custer County Historical Society, I did what I should have done in the first instance: check my facts. I learned that, contrary to my memory, my parents were married in 1952, and I was adopted more than a year later, in 1953.

On May 29, 1952, my mother and John Hasselstrom dropped me off at the home of my Uncle Bud (Cleo Truman) and Aunt Fern Hey, in Fairburn, and drove to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be married. They always told me that they got to the Clerk of Courts office just as it was closing for the holiday weekend, and talked the clerk into issuing the license anyway. The documentation proves this is correct; the receipt shows they paid cash-- $2.25-- for their marriage license at 5:05 p.m. [6] They walked about a block to the First Congregational Church, where they were married by a minister whose wife was one of the witnesses. [7]

I don’t know where they spent the night, but I believe they may have visited the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne before they came home. At that time my father was raising registered Hereford cattle, and we later visited WHR several times to buy bulls. Mother let me take photographs with her camera; I carefully annotated the pictures with the names of the bulls and the men who showed them to us.

The adoption day photograph shows me a particular moment in time from a particular day, and any story I tell about that day will be true to be best of my recollection research. But, now that I have done a little research, I realize that for nearly fifty years I have believed I was adopted only a few months after my parents’ marriage.

Knowing that I was adopted more than a year after my mother’s third marriage, I guess that John Hasselstrom was unable to adopt me right away because my parents needed to convince my biological father to give up his parental rights. [8]

Digging deeper among the facts, I find the final judgment in my parents’ divorce. [9] The document awards “care, custody and control” of Linda M. Bovard to Florence M. Bovard, [10] but acknowledges the right of R. Paul Bovard to “visit with said child at all reasonable hours, provided such visitation does not interfere with the welfare of said child.” The decree further required R. Paul Bovard to contribute to my welfare in the amount of $75.00 per month until I was sixteen, or until the court ordered payment to stop. According to my mother, these payments were never made. I remember receiving letters from my biological father, and I know that I answered them-- some of those letters were returned to me upon his death, when I was notified as his next of kin. [11]

A careful look at that adoption day photograph requires me not only to do research, but to reflect on my memories. My mother usually dressed me in ruffled, lacy pink dresses. Even at ten years of age, I hated pink, hated “fuss and feathers,” as my grandmother called it. Maybe we compromised on the plaid dress as being more practical for school. Our hopeful smiles on that adoption day hid the fact that we would disagree about almost everything for another fifty years. For the rest of her life, her gifts to me were usually pink and fragile; I immediately discarded them, or traded them for something plain, solid, and hard-wearing in earth tones. She never stopped trying to make me into a delicate little lady and I never stopped rebelling against her efforts. I once wrote, “Mother wanted a daughter who would be a lady swathed in silk, but I was born to love denim.” [12]

As soon as we moved to my father’s ranch, a year before my adoption, I had an excuse for being a tomboy instead of a lady: horses. From the moment of my adoption until I was nearly fifty years old, I was my father’s shadow, recreating myself in his image. [13] Boots, jeans, hats-- those were my work clothes, not pink ruffles. And my mother’s constant refrains were, “You’re not going out like THAT!” and “My God, when are you going to cut that HAIR!” After his death, when her memory failed and she stopped repeating these old songs, I missed them.

In the adoption photograph, my mother’s hair is still dark brown, smoothly curled. She is smiling at my father, who is taking the picture. The street was so quiet that day-- August 14, 1953-- that he could stand in the middle of it while he fumbled with the camera’s focus. [14] Nowadays, Custer’s citizens seem happy when the street is considerably busier.

Until my father’s death in 1992 and my mother’s in 2001, my family always celebrated the day I was adopted as my second birthday of the year. The photograph shows what we were wearing, and has led me down these twisted paths of memory, but it doesn’t show the most important thing that happened to me that day.

The document of my adoption states that the County Judge, having “examined all persons appearing separately and being satisfied from such examination and the report of such investigation that the child is suitable for adoption and the petitioning foster parent is morally fit and financially able to have the care and training of such child,” decreed that I should be adopted.

Oddly, those dry official words bring back a memory that is filled with movement and texture. I remember climbing the stairs to the third floor courtroom with my parents; I’m sure my father made a wry comment about being breathless. I only dimly remember what happened in the courtroom. Probably Judge D. Webster Davis sat in his judicial robes behind a high desk, while my parents and I stood below him. I’m sure Judge Davis took my parents aside and satisfied himself about those moral and financial requirements.

But what I remember most vividly about that day is what happened next.

The Judge instructed my mother and father to wait, and probably ushered them to a bench like a church pew in the hallway outside the courtroom. Then he walked away with me. I remember the sound of his robes brushing the floor, and I think he took my hand. I now know, because I have visited the courtroom, that we walked through it to his private chamber. I hardly noticed where we were going; I was caught up in astonishment, seeing my parents sitting, left behind. My father was leaning forward impatiently, his mouth pursed as if he’d like to object, while my mother stared after me. But they sat meekly on that bench because the Judge told them to. I was amazed that anyone had the power to make my mother and father do anything they didn’t want to do.

The Judge ushered me into a room that seemed dim, filled with dark oak furniture and perhaps dark drapes. We both sat, and he leaned forward so his face was level with me. I recall his voice as warm, comforting. [15] I believe he asked me to tell him about my life, about moving from Texas to South Dakota, and then from the city to the ranch. I think he asked how my mother treated me, and what I remembered about my biological father. I probably told him that though I wrote my dad a lot of letters, my mother said he never sent us money.

He asked me if I wanted John Hasselstrom to be my father. I imagine I told him what I’d told my teacher: that I was happy to be getting a horse and a daddy-- in that order.

And then he explained that if I didn’t want to be adopted, that I could stop the whole process simply by telling him so right then. He said that, although my parents had a right to decide to marry one another, and change my mother’s name from Bovard to Hasselstrom, that I didn’t need to change my name, or be adopted if I didn’t want to. I’m sure he told me that I was old enough to make this decision myself, and that he would wait while I thought about it.

I remember him turning away, to give me privacy to think, perhaps moving papers on his desk. And I’m sure, because he was so serious and so gentle, that I gave the matter all the thought I could manage, and told him that I did want John Hasselstrom to be my father. [16] I wouldn’t be surprised if I mentioned that horse I’d been promised, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have one yet. But other photographs show that, besides the new house my father had built for us, we had a dog, and I had spent considerable time climbing trees: pleasures I’d been denied living in town with my mother. So I am sure that I was pretty convinced John Hasselstrom would be a good father-- as he turned out to be.

When Judge Davis was satisfied that I knew what adoption meant, he turned back to me with a slip of paper in his hand. “This is my name, and my telephone number,” he said, putting the paper in my hand. “Now, if you ever change your mind about this, you can call me and tell me so, and we’ll do something about it. If that man ever mistreats you, or if your mother hurts you, or you even have a question about how they are treating you, you call me. Anytime, day or night. I will help you if you just tell me.”

And he looked at me, and smiled. I can’t picture his face as I write these words, but I can feel the comfort of his words, and that smile.

Try to imagine the effect of these words on a ten-year-old girl who, for more than half her life, had been without a father. My mother worked hard and only in retrospect have I learned to admire how she managed to keep her dignity and respect as a working single mother in a time when such women were rare.

Mother had made serious efforts to find me a father while we lived in Rapid City; I have dim memories of several of the men she saw at that time. One of the partners in the law firm where she worked [17] took an interest in me, giving me a beautiful doll each Christmas. My mother put the dolls on a high shelf in her closet, and told me she was keeping them for my children. They became remote, unreal, as if they did not belong to me. [18]

A father seemed similarly unattainable. I had already learned from my mother-- probably in spite of her best intentions-- that men were not to be trusted, that they were the enemy, dangerous and dark and distant.

But when Judge Davis spoke to me, I trusted him. I knew nothing at all about him; I had forgotten his name until this promise to write my memories of him for the Historical Society sent me back to search for the relevant documents.

Still, I recall putting that scrap of paper carefully into the little white purse in the photograph, and cherishing it for years. I remember stepping back into that hallway with my head up, feeling the power of the robed man behind me, the confidence he’d given me.

Reflecting on what his gesture meant to me, I think Judge Davis must have been the first person, except for my mother, that I trusted after our terrifying midnight flight away from my father’s insanity. I never called Judge Davis for help. I wish now I had written or called him to thank him for his promise. If my mother had known about the piece of paper, she’d have made me write one of my labored thank-you notes.

I kept the conversation secret from my parents, and somewhere I lost the piece of paper, but I have never forgotten. I now believe that each time I have trusted someone without any particular evidence, relying on my instincts alone, it is because I saw in that person’s eyes the same promise Judge Davis conveyed to me: that his word could be trusted.

# # #

Footnotes:

[1] Going Over East, p. 3.

[2] Feels Like Far, p. 14.

[3] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-15. Mother worked for the firm of Whiting, Wilson and Lynn, which is currently Bangs, McCullen, Butler, Foye & Simmons, in Rapid City, South Dakota.

[4] Feels Like Far, pp. 14-16.

[5] Feels Like Far, p. 16.

[6] Laramie County Clerk of Courts receipt number 598586 for marriage license number 25127, May 29, 1953.

[7] The First Congregational church was then located at 208 W. 19th Street; the site is now a parking lot for a bank. The Minister was Lincoln B. Wirt, witnesses Florence Wirt and Josephine E. Simmons, possibly church secretary. For the past fifteen years, I have lived in Cheyenne, about 8 blocks from where my parents were married.

[8] If my biological father, R. Paul Bovard, objected to my adoption, his objections were probably set aside because he had contributed nothing to my support. A letter from Walter G. Miser, lawyer, of Rapid City South Dakota dated July 3, 1953, confirms that the District Clerk of Hidalgo County, Texas, confirmed my mother’s statement that he had paid nothing into the registry of that court since September 27, 1947-- four months after their divorce. The official adoption document states that my biological father had been notified of the pending adoption and failed to comment, that John Hasselstrom agreed to treat me “in all respects as his own lawful child should be treated.” That requirement created some interesting implications about fifty years later. See “Badger’s Daughter,” Feels Like Far, pp. 212-216.

[9] No. 15,602, in the District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas, 93rd Judicial District, dated May 23, 1947. My parents were married April 16, 1938 in the First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, West Virginia.

[10] I’ve never known my mother as Florence, only as Mildred, which I understood to be her middle name. However most of the early documents show her given name as Florence. Her birth certificate, showing her name as Mildred Florence-- which is how she signed documents most of her life-- was not filed until December 4, 1940, when she was 31 years old.

[11] According to my journal, R. Paul Bovard was dead on arrival at Oceanside City hospital in San Diego, CA, Sunday afternoon, May 11, 1969. I received a telegram announcing his death the next day, along with a request to call the county coroner’s office. When I did so, I was told that as next of kin I needed to give permission for an autopsy. I was 26 years old and had not seem my father in twenty years. What if I don’t? I asked. His remains will be retained here until an autopsy is done, reported a dry voice. Indefinitely? I asked. Yes, he answered. I gave permission. A letter from the County of San Diego to R. P. Bovard’s brother Ike in Pittsburgh, PA, says his estate consisted of a “few items of clothing” which were “of no value and were abandoned,” a joint bank account with his brother “showing a balance of $6.77,” and cash in the amount of $14.17 “which will be absorbed for mileage charges, etc.” I did not receive a copy of the autopsy report or the death certificate, but his brother informed me that the cause of his death was heavy drinking combined with heavy medication. He was 61 years old. His body was cremated and the ashes were buried at the foot of his sister Ruth’s grave in a country cemetery in McVille, PA, beside his parents. I once visited the grave.

[12] Feels Like Far, p. 12. Actually, what I wrote was “Mother wanted a daughter swathed in silk, but I was born to denim,” and an editor altered the line without my permission.

[13] While I never thought of John Hasselstrom as my stepfather, I once referred to him in print by that description, and infuriated him. Feels Like Far, pp. 195-6. He was so angry, that later on, his memory damaged by undiagnosed strokes, that he left me nothing in his will.

[14] Among the adoption documents is my revised birth certificate, According to the Texas Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, State File No. 78951, I was born legitimate in the county of Harris, city of Houston, at 1911 University Blvd., though no hospital is mentioned. My mother was Florence Mildred Baker of Wheatland, Wyoming, and my father was John (no middle initial) Hasselstrom of Hermosa, South Dakota. My mother’s marriage to my biological father isn’t mentioned, nor is the fact that she was living in Houston with him at the time of my birth. A researcher without other information might wonder how a woman from Wheatland, Wyoming, and a man from Hermosa, South Dakota, managed to have a legitimate child in Houston, Texas. One clue exists: the birth certificate was filed August 28, 1953, more than ten years later. Perhaps it’s a good thing I don’t have children, since my bloodlines have vanished in the paperwork. And this information only raises more questions: Why did my mother give her residence as Wheatland, WY, (where she was born) when she had been living for several years in Rapid City, South Dakota?

[15] Recollecting now, it seems to me his voice was like that of James Earl Jones, the black actor-- but I wonder if I am merely substituting the sound of his beautiful voice for one I don’t really remember.

[16] Until the end of his life, I called John Hasselstrom “father,” never “dad,” and he called me “child,” which sometimes annoyed me in later years.

[17] Mr. Lynn, whose first name I should also research, though I knew him always as Mr. Lynn because that’s now my mother referred to him.

[18] When I got the dolls back after my mother’s death, I gave them to the Salvation Army without a pang.


# # #

For more information:

The Custer Courthouse of this story is now a museum in the city of Custer, South Dakota. You can climb the creaking wooden stairs, enter the court room, and peer in the door to the judge’s chambers.

www.1881courthousemuseum.com

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