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A dated archive of blogs is also available below the index.
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Blacksmith or Wordsmith
Iron legs from yesteryear.
Smaller iron items inside.
The scrap-iron table.
Dust, Grass, and Writing
Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions.
Tough prairie grass roots splitting open a rock.
Green life may be found under dry debris.
Fringed Jacket Foofaraw
Turtle carved from bone.
Turtle made of silver.
Warrior Woman pin.
George's grizzly bear claw earring.
Powwow jingle cones made of tin.
A tiny dream catcher.
Harley Owners' Group pin in honor of Jerry.
Wally McRae's cufflink and tooth.
South Dakota Poet Laureate? Not Right Now, Thanks.
"An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position."
Don't just click "like" about some political story you read.
Pick up the phone or write a letter and make a difference.
Ah! The Bathtub.
A brass hook on a nearby wall to hold my robe or a towel.
A removable wire basket stretches across the tub to hold my soap and sponges.
Now on Facebook.
If you Like me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.
No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.
Want to know more about this critter?
See the Gallimaufry Page
for more about the bird, including more photos, and some odds and ends that don't fit anywhere else on this website.
More Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.
* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.
* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.
* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.
* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.
Linda on YouTube
Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.
To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
Or go to www.YouTube.com
and search for Linda Hasselstrom.
You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page
where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.
# # #
click here to send an e-mail message to Linda.
If this link does not work-- some web-browsers are incompatible or perhaps your computer is blocking pop-ups-- copy and paste this email address into your email system:
or send Linda a letter:
Linda M. Hasselstrom
PO Box 169
Hermosa SD 57744
August 27, 2013
Hollyhock Dolls made by Linda, August 2013.
. . .
I've always thought of hollyhocks as a settlers' or pioneers' flower-- without any particular evidence except having seen hollyhocks, along with hardy roses, growing beside shallow holes that may indicate the cellar of an early-day home. I surmise they were popular because they grow easily but I've also read that the stems can be used as firewood.
To my utter delight, I've just learned that the hollyhock was one of the first plants brought to the new world. I intuited those pioneer women planting!
In deference to the women who planted hollyhocks on this prairie, I've tucked seeds into likely spots around the retreat house, Homestead House, and into the stony ground on all four sides of my Windbreak House since moving back to the ranch. Most years, they have done well on the north, east and south, but very few grew on the western side of Windbreak House, blasted by the afternoon sun. But this year the western seeds received extraordinary rain, so the older hollyhocks some on the west side have nearly reached the deck railing.
When I lived in Cheyenne, I spent fifteen years making our corner parkway a display spot for native species, growing as many varieties as I could of flowering plants adapted to the arid climate. I wanted to demonstrate to other residents that their yards could be beautiful without pouring expensive city water into the ground.
So I grew purple coneflower, gaillardia, bee balm, several cacti, columbine, evening primrose and Shasta daisies. I planted Jerusalem cross, chamomile, oxalis, currant, lamb’s ear, lupine, flax, rose mallow, delphinium, snapdragons, penstemon, sweet peas, Siberian iris, wild flags, hyacinths and crocus. I grew butter and eggs, salpiglossis, myrtle, Centaurea, buffalo gourd, plains coreopsis, common sunrose, low poppy mallow, rose mallow, larkspur, pyrethrum, statice and campanula. And more.
Finally, nostalgically, I transplanted my grandmother's pink peony to a spot beside the front gate. Behind the windbreak fence, a tall plank structure, I planted hollyhock seed gathered from my grandmother's and aunt Josephine's plants. Many of the other seeds I deposited in the ground there did not grow, but in the back alley, the hollyhocks reached rose to eight or nine feet, peering over fence, their sturdy stems providing shelter for the birds and stalking cover for the neighborhood cats.
When I've passed the house in recent years, I note the parkway is overgrown and untended. But the hollyhocks grow sturdily in the alley.
* * *
Hollyhocks, native to central Europe and China, are part of in the hard-working Mallow (Malvaceae) family, which numbers more than two hundred flowering plants including such unlikely cousins as cotton, cacao, marsh mallow (yes, it is the original source for the confection), okra, painted ladies, hibiscus and rose of Sharon. What these diverse specimens have in common is that their flowers all have a central column of joined stamens. The hollyhock genus (Alcea) includes about sixty specimens.
Looking up any aspect of this history could send one wandering among in nomenclature highways and paths of origins. You might disappear for weeks. And I haven't even mentioned the hollyhock weevil and the medicinal uses.
Remains of the plant have been found in an archaeological dig in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried more than 50,000 years ago.
The common name "hollyhock" is very old and also has no clear history. One source says the word comes from "alkaia," the Greek word for mallow. Others say it originated with "holy" and "hoc," an Anglo-Saxon word for mallow.
Some say the "holy" was added because it was brought to Britain by the Crusaders in a salve for sore horses' hocks; in that regard, it was also known as Hockleaf. The Spaniards called it Joseph's Staff, and, to continue these religious references, it’s also known as Saint Cuthbert's Cowl, probably as a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.
St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit who sounds like a fine fellow but I found no suggestion that he knew about or used hollyhocks.
* * *
Hollyhocks are easily grown from seeds and do well in poor soil and dry conditions. This time of year, and especially this year, you might stroll casually past your neighbor's tall hollyhock staffs and slip a seed pod or two into your pocket. I generally plant new seed in fall, water it generously for a week or two and then forget it until next spring when the plants pop up and surprise me.
Put the seed where you want the plants; they’re hard to transplant because of a long, tough taproot. I usually scrape a shallow trench, no more than an inch deep, sprinkle the seeds liberally, cover, stomp the earth down and then water. The plants will be tall, so I place them close to buildings for background. With our wind, they often lean and lean and lean until they nearly reach the ground, so I like to put them near fences for support. The big, showy blooms, some frilly and double, range in color from white through red and yellow, peach and almost black. The blooms open in succession starting at the bottom of the plant and moving upward, so you can collect seed at the bottom while blooms at the top are still opening: a good way to be stung or at least buzzed by the local bees.
The plants are short-lived. Some authorities say the plant is biennial; others consider it perennial, perhaps because it spreads its seeds so widely that new plants return year after year in the same area. Experts say they like hot, dry weather, which makes them ideal for this climate.
* * *
Medicinal uses may have made the plant popular with pioneers. One modern source suggests drinking an infusion made of flowers and leaves to aid in urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. The same source recommends the leaves as a poultice for chapped or dry skin.
The thick mucilage, the gluey protein produced by nearly all plants, is said to be soothing to the throat and mucous membranes, thus good for coughs, colds. Cacti and flax seed are better-known sources of mucilage. And I recall the word being used for a particularly nasty glue when I was a child; much more stuck to my fingers than to anything I was trying to affix.
* * *
Testifying to its Asian origins, the hollyhock is part of the official seal of the Shogun of Japan and the name of a Japanese soccer team; Kyoto hosts a hollyhock festival yearly.
* * *
One day, as I drove down the street in Cheyenne toward the driveway, I saw an elderly woman and two little girls standing among the tall hollyhocks in the alley, where they would be hidden from the house by the privacy fence. Hmm, I thought.
When I strolled around the corner, there was the owner of the house next door with two little blonde girls. "Oh," she said, flushing red. "I hope you don’t mind. I’m showing my granddaughters how to make hollyhock dolls!"
"I absolutely do not mind," I said, "and thank you for reminding me."
* * *
Have you ever made a hollyhock doll?
Here’s a source of endless entertainment that requires almost nothing in supplies, does not employ technology and is guaranteed to keep participants away from the computer or TV screen.
Simply pluck a hollyhock blossom and turn it upside down. See? It’s a green-haired lady wearing a colorful dress, full skirt sweeping across the floor. When my mother wanted to make a little fancier doll, she tied ribbon or thread around just below the green sheath, making the doll’s waist.
I always thought these basic hollyhock dolls looked as though they had no heads. To remedy that, take a green seed pod or bud and fasten it with a toothpick above the skirt blossom.
Or pin in place above the first a second, smaller hollyhock or other flower blossom to create the look of a lady wearing a broad hat. You can stack several more blossoms below to make the skirt layered and more full. Or use a spent bloom to make a head with a tall headdress or long flowing hair.
The dolls don’t last long, but floating them in a broad bowl of water allows them to drift gracefully through your day.
* * *
Suddenly it occurs to me to do an internet search.
I was woefully wrong; these days, computers could figure into this entertainment. Not only are there photographs of hollyhock dolls, but step-by-step tutorials-- even a video!-- on how to make them. (Search "images for hollyhock dolls" for photos; see the Better Homes & Gardens website
for instructions; or take a look at www.DesignMom.com
. There’s even a site that sells fake ones but I’m not going to help anyone find it.)
Horrified, I picture little girls being lined up in front of a computer screen to learn the correct way to make a hollyhock doll.
However, several of the sites offer ideas new to me. For example, PremeditatedLeftovers.com
suggests pulling off the sepal of the first blossom to expose "eyes" and breaking off the stem to create a mouth.
Still I hope that somewhere grandmothers are demonstrating for their grandchildren. I hope children are left alone in the garden to use their imaginations to create the dolls. I'm sure there was a time when most little girls knew how to make dolls from hollyhocks. I hope the numbers are growing as young mothers learn from their computer time.
* * *
The key to success with hollyhock dolls-- as it is with so many creative enterprises-- is imagination.
Here comes the writing connection I always try to slip into these blogs.
When I began this essay, I had no idea whether or not I would find a link to writing. In fact, this was to be a break from reading manuscripts, a simple reflection on the innocent fun of long hot afternoons I spent with hollyhock dolls after my grandmother and mother taught me how to make them.
I waltzed those dolls all over my grandmother’s screened-in porch on hot summer afternoons. I don’t recall imagining their escorts, but I suppose I did.
Imaginatively, the dolls have turned into writing coaches. They remind me of my maxim that spending time thinking about your writing is probably as valuable as the time you spend making black marks on paper or on a computer screen.
Don't even think. Just sit, look around you, see what happens.
And handwork of any kind is good because it detaches you from the writing implement of the day. While doing something creative besides writing, you can think about your writing project. You'll find you work out all kinds of problems that had defeated you while you sat at the computer, fuming.
Relax, Breathe deeply. Imagine those little pixies with green faces whirling around the garden at dusk.
* * *
One source says that hazel buds, wild thyme, marigolds and hollyhocks were part of a recipe made in 1660 AD that enabled anyone who ate it to see fairies.
Or perhaps what they saw were hollyhock dolls, dancing in the wind.
# # #
back to top
August 14, 2013
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. 
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.  (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. 
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. 
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.  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.  They walked about a block to the First Congregational Church, where they were married by a minister whose wife was one of the witnesses. 
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. 
Digging deeper among the facts, I find the final judgment in my parents’ divorce.  The document awards “care, custody and control” of Linda M. Bovard to Florence M. Bovard,  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. 
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.” 
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.  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.  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.  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.  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  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. 
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.
# # #
 Going Over East
, p. 3.
 Feels Like Far
, p. 14.
 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.
 Feels Like Far
, pp. 14-16.
 Feels Like Far
, p. 16.
 Laramie County Clerk of Courts receipt number 598586 for marriage license number 25127, May 29, 1953.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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?
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
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August 1, 2011
Cover of "A White Bird Flying"
. . .
My mother grew up on her family ranch with an interest in books that lasted her whole life; she read to me, quoted writers to me, and turned me into a reader-- though she’d rather not have turned me into a writer.
Once we moved to the ranch, both my parents encouraged my reading habits; I was always allowed to open one gift before they got up on Christmas morning and it was always a book and I always read quietly until they arose. Sometimes, though, if I was reading in the middle of the day they encouraged me to stop reading and go hoe the garden.
Mother preferred romantic poets-- she’d kept poetry books from her college days, some inscribed as gifts from suitors, and quoted the Brownings often. She loved the books of Bess Streeter Aldrich. No doubt I considered my tastes superior to my mother’s because I never read Aldrich. But recently my faithful correspondents (Hobie and Lois Morris), modern homesteaders in upstate New York, mentioned how much they enjoy her work. They also compared my writing to hers, praising us both for bringing the prairie to life.
So I decided it was time. Yesterday I finished A White Bird Flying
, originally published in 1931 and kept in print by the University of Nebraska Press. The story of Laura, the writer, bears some close resemblances to Aldrich’s own biography and to mine as well.
I could identify with Laura when she pictured herself as a writer, standing outside her own emotions sometimes until she almost missed the important part of human interactions. Laura was a hick when she went to college, just as I was, and stumbled over some of the same problems with sororities, studying, and her friendships with both men and women. Somehow, she grew to believe that she could not be a writer in Nebraska, just as I at one time concluded that great writers had to live in New York, if not California. I suspect that Bess Streeter Aldrich may have thought similarly, but she spent her life in small towns and wrote nine novels and numerous other works about the life she lived.
Since I encourage you to read this book, and others by Aldrich, I won’t tell you how Laura solved her dilemma. Aldrich’s descriptions of life in a small town in Nebraska are filled with details that made me laugh and cry over their resemblance to the places I’ve known and loved.
And writers, especially those from small towns in the Great Plains, if you read nothing else of hers, please go to Aldrich's website and read “Why I Live in a Small Town,” published in Ladies Home Journal
# # #
For more information:
Bess Streeter Aldrich’s website
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July 12, 2011
Linda with hand-kneaded bread, 2009.
. . .
Bread is benediction, scenting the air with an aroma finer than blessed incense. To create bread-- mixing, kneading and shaping loaves-- is to forge a sacrament of consecration for a home and all who dwell in it.
Baking bread became an important part of my life when I was nine years old and my mother married a rancher. Avid to become a real country girl, I bought a red western hat to match my birthday cowboy boots, and joined 4-H. The Buttons and Bows 4-H Club was dedicated to teaching me how to preserve my young Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. Years and years and YEARS before yuppies discovered whole grain goodness, I attained the highest goal imaginable in our community by winning a purple ribbon at the State Fair for demonstrating bread-baking.
My narrow fame roused me to dreams of standing in a bright light while thousands applauded. Not long after my bread-baking success, I mounted the community hall stage to sing our 4-H club song, wearing a fringed blouse and skirt with a toy pistol strapped around my waist. My mother sang in a beautiful voice, but I was baffled by musical notes and never sang the same one twice. "My bones denounce the buckboard bounce," I bawled, "And the Cactus hurts my toes." I seem to recall yanking the cap pistol out of its flashy holster and firing it in the air as I quavered, "East is east and west is west and the wrong one I have chose."
Like my stubborn grandmothers crossing the plains, I forged ahead, making up in volume for lack of pitch. "Let's go where I'll keep on wearin those frills and flowers and buttons and bows." In the middle of my second shot at the chorus, I dared to look at my mother's face, and experienced a blinding bolt of understanding: I cooked better than I sang. My brief stage career was over when I stumbled down the steps; I vowed to dedicate myself to cooking.
My parents were determined I experience every advantage of country life; soon I was feeding caged rabbits and gathering eggs from a dozen hens. I learned to milk a cow and hoe the garden; it was several years before I realized that the tasks my parents advertised as "country experiences" were what other kids called chores.
Gnawing a sandwich at lunch one day, my father stared out the window; I'd learned to recognize such thoughtful pauses as a prelude to jobs guaranteed to enrich my adaptation to country culture. "My Maw," he finally announced, "baked bread three times a week. Why don't we ever have any homemade bread around here, Wife?"
Since my mother never learned how to bake bread, I was instructed to learn how. Soon I was baking bread once or twice a week. Using my mother's cookbooks, I devised a personal recipe that called for stone ground whole wheat flour. I bought a grain mill with my allowance, and traded butchering rabbits to a neighbor for organic wheat, already hulled.
Early on baking day, I'd scoop a double handful of slick dun-colored grains into a high-rimmed pan with a screen bottom. The wheat kernels were tinged with pink, like a tanned face blushing; I loved the silky feel of the fat grains running through my fingers. My father taught me how to winnow remaining hulls and mouse droppings from the wheat. We'd step off the back porch, backs to the constant breeze, and jerk the screen upward, tossing grain into the wind. The chaff and anything lighter than wheat blew away.
Back inside, I'd trickle a handful of grain into the hopper of the grinder permanently mounted on the kitchen counter, and turn the handle. Metal plates rotated, drizzling cracked wheat. I put each batch of wheat through the crusher three times, leaving a few tawny nuggets of grain. If I'd ground it another time or two, my flour would have been as fine as commercial varieties, but I liked a chewy texture.
Once the flour was ready, I'd scald a cup of whole milk, dipped from the jug in the refrigerator and dump the yeast into warm water. By the time the milk was hot, I'd have honey from a neighbor's bees, or dark molasses, in my big mixing bowl with chunks of butter I'd churned earlier in the week. The hot milk softened the honey enough to stir, until the mass was cool enough to risk adding yeast.
Adding the first cup of coarse wheat flour, I always debated with myself. The pale white flour my mother bought at the grocery store for pies and cakes smoothed the texture of the bread, making it rise higher in the pans, but I hated using anything store-bought. Sometimes I added wheat flour I'd milled a half-dozen times, until it was nearly as fine as the bleached kind. I saved the smaller grind for cakes and pie crusts, but my cakes never won prizes at the County Fair. "Tough!" the judges would write, slapping a white ribbon on the plate. Smug in the knowledge my cake was nutritious, I just smiled.
Once I'd added five cups of whole wheat flour, the bread dough was the consistency of concrete mixed for a bridge. Even if I gave in to my mother's pleas and added white flour, a double batch of bread dough was a weighty matter. I'd lift the ball out of the bowl and heave it onto the bread board, inhaling the fertile scent of yeast, the faint perfume of honey or molasses.
Bread dough is less predictable and only slightly less independent than a two-year-old child, and about the same weight. And like a child, if the bread is to develop a strong texture, it must be worked hard. I'd grab the outer edge, fold it to the inside and push with the heels of my hands; broken wheat kernels prodded my fingers. I'd rotate the globe of dough a quarter turn, fold and push, again and again and again. When my arms began to tire and the warm mass stuck to my fingers, I'd dip up a bit more wheat flour and scatter it across the board under the dough. I'd brush my sleeve over my forehead to soak up sweat, and begin again. Turn, fold, PUSH; turn, fold, WHACK; turn, crease SHOVE. My muscles hummed in rhythmic harmony with the natural world that provided the ingredients of that bread. As I pound and stretch the dough to its proper texture, my mind slipped into an ancient cadence. Tension subsided; my pulse beat to a simpler strain.
Up to my elbows in bread dough, I can let my mind meander. I can conduct rational and irrational arguments, THUMP the dough to emphasize what I should have said. I CAN analyze human and animal behavior while neatly folding and flipping. Decisions I've avoided for weeks have made themselves while I poke a finger into the shiny dough to check the tension.
No matter my mood when I began baking, kneading improved it. Baking bread is cheaper than other forms of therapy, like seeing a psychiatrist, drinking, or using drugs, and has offered me more consistent help. And I can eat the results; nibbling a therapist is always ill-advised.
Besides improving my mental health, blending dough provided as much exercise for my biceps and upper torso as if I'd lifted weights. Kneading makes me breathe deeply, pulling yeasty air deep into my lungs. When I finish, the dough is glistening and elastic, and both the dough and I are bouncy with vitality.
Once the dough is kneaded, it must be patted into a sphere and replaced in the bowl to rise until it doubles in bulk; waiting for its slow growth provides a chance to catch my breath and meditate.
I release any lingering hostility by punching the risen dough hard to drive air out. Briefly, I knead it again,; my breathing slows in rhythm with the strokes. Once I've shaped the dough into loaves and fitted it into my battered pans, I'm free to think again, or wash the baking dishes if I'm expecting company to eat my the homemade bread.
Baking, the bread scents the house with mingled fragrances; wheat smells nourishing, an incomparable odor, impossible to imitate. While waiting, I remove butter from the refrigerator to soften. The climax of the true bread-baking experience is the first taste. Tradition prohibits cutting the loaf; the true gourmet rips the end of the loaf away, burning her fingers. Cries of "Ow! Ouch! Yikes!" may punctuate the air; after all, some expensive therapists recommend screaming. Every pain disappears as I slather butter on a ragged mass of hot bread. Sorrows evaporate as the yellow seeps into a rich brown universe; the only problem is whether I can gnaw off a bite before the butter runs down my arm.
I open my mouth wide, and tear off a solid bite. The universe wobbles on its axis, then settles into an age-old throb of grace. Homemade bread.
# # #
written 1994; published on the Windbreak House website 2011.
For more information:
The recipe for Linda's hand-kneaded bread shown in the photo above may be found in the Home Page Message archives
of this website.
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May 30, 2011
Linda at the Hasselstrom plot in the Highland Park Cemetery, looking east towards Hermosa.
. . .
Part I. Bill Kloefkorn, poet
Bill Kloefkorn, the poet laureate of Nebraska, died at age 78 on May 19, after struggling for two years against an immune-deficiency illness. Doctors could name no specific cause of his illness, and find no cure.
The day I heard the news, I drove to Hermosa for the mail, feeling gloomy under a sky curdled with gray clouds. We’d already had three days of rain, a fine thing in this arid climate, but the lack of sun had made everyone glum. Discovering Bill’s poems soon after I returned to South Dakota after escaping from the narrow poetic confines of graduate school gave me the courage to write my own poems. I learned, in part from Bill’s writing, to tell my own poetic stories in clear language; to tell some of the complicated, funny stories that characterize real life. So I was feeling down because Bill was no longer part of the world, no longer writing.
Then the sun came out, and Roy Orbison belted out “Pretty Woman” from my car radio, and I pounded my hand on the steering wheel and sang along as usual and I could almost see Bill smile. I was still considering going to his funeral and memorial, to be held in Lincoln, NE, where he lived. Somehow, though, a thousand-mile drive to a funeral thronged with people who have known him for years didn’t seem right. I come from a long line of people uncomfortable showing emotion in public, and though I’ve worked against that in many ways by writing and by reading my work to audiences, some of the reticence prevails. I’m more comfortable writing about what he meant to me.
Describing Bill’s poetry in a way that would convey its joys to someone who has never read it is beyond my skills. But I can quote him and perhaps give a hint.
“Connections: A Toast” begins with “Here’s to the bur oak” beyond his office window, and works its way through toasts to books, to saints, to fine individual moments in his life and a few mentions of baseball, to Rosa Parks and a quotation from ee cummings to Crazy Horse and his supposed last words and Bach and Louis Armstrong and the bird perched in the bur oak:
“trilling with its unsplit tongue, one
steady and diverse and universal song.”
You’ll have to read the poem to get the full effect: pages 96-97, Fielding Imaginary Grounders
, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1994. The theme of how, as the Lakota say, “we are all related,” may be universal to poets. (I’ve been working on my own “connections” poem.)
I bought Bill’s Alvin Turner as Farmer
in 1974 when it was published by Ted Kooser’s Windflower Press. I probably met Bill and heard him read several years later. The poems I marked in the book concern the difficulties of farming; I was just beginning to write about ranching.
In poem 9 from that book, Alvin Turner tells of shooting rabbits to make nourishing food for his sick baby. After the child dies, he keeps shooting:
“The chamber of my .12 gauge
Like a little throat, coughing.”
In poem 11, he writes that the granary is full, and “the baby is solid as a tractor lug.” In 58, “I snag the strutted leg/ Of the most unmindful chicken,” Bill wrote.
“Now the manure is in bloom,” Alvin says, and “I roam my acreage like a sweet spy.” In 36 he speaks of his wife with her masher, “humbling the potatoes.”
And then in 14, “I love the boys like they were fanbelts. . . And brand new.” These were images I could feel, touch, taste, because they were part of my world too.
In 21, “I watched my father die,
Said yes to his request, and in that single word
Sent all my sinews, like a measurement,’
Around this quarter section.”
My own father made no such request, refusing to leave the ranch to me. But, as Bill wrote in 24:
“I stand alone at the foot
Of my father’s grave,
Trembling to tell:
The door to the granary is open,
Sir, And someone lost the bucket
To the well.”
I’ve often stood at the foot of my own father’s grave and given him reports on the condition of the ranch.
Lately, I’ve appreciated Bill writing about aging as he recorded with brilliance and sensitivity what age feels like. Here’s one of the results:
It's a slow dance, all right,
this business of slipping
from the quick to the numb,
but to be honest with you
it isn't as slow
as I believed forty years ago
it was going to be. I'll confess
what I know of history
is somewhat less than
voluminous-- but I think it was
Jefferson who said that
God shows his mercy
by taking away, one by one,
those passions we stake
our own and others' lives on,
so that when the time comes
we'll not have so much to let
From We Don't Get Around Much Any More
by Bill Kloefkorn, published in The Laurel Review
, vol. 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996).
In the week since Bill died, I’ve been conducting a private memorial, collecting from the retreat house all of his books that I own-- maybe half of the 31 books he wrote and published-- and reading and re-reading, discovering poems I hadn’t remembered, and greeting old friends.
Here’s a fact that may encourage writers who are beginning later in their lives: Bill didn’t start writing poetry until he was 37 years old.
Part II. Highland Park Cemetery
The Sunday after Bill died, Jerry came with me to the Hermosa cemetery to do the annual cleanup, traditionally done the week before Memorial Day. I’ve written about this annual labor for the dead in my poem “Memorial Day,” saying, “They’re just bones to me.” Hoeing at the stubborn alfalfa growing on my grandfather Charles’s grave mound, though, I felt the shock moving up my arm, down the hoe:
“drumming to bones I’ll never see, deep
in the earth, deep inside my flesh.”
I’m now the last of our family to wear the name Hasselstrom, so the upkeep of these graves is my responsibility. Besides the Hasselstrom graves where my grandmother and grandfather lie, I need to care for the graves of their ancestors, and my grandmother’s first husband. In another part of the cemetery lie my mother and father, John and Mildred Hasselstrom, and my husband George Snell. Then there are the graves of Harold and Josephine Hasselstrom, my dad’s childless brother and his wife, buried in Buffalo Gap. My uncle and cousins still care for the grave of my mother’s mother, Cora Belle Hey, in Edgemont, and several uncles and aunts on my mother’s side of the family.
But on Sunday, I focused on the Hermosa dead. At some time, one of the Hasselstrom survivors was moved by inspiration to plant hardy lilacs on the sizable plot; the resilient bushes might survive in the yellow gumbo soil. Now, nearly a hundred years later, the lilacs have inundated not only most of the Hasselstrom grave but also a couple of Kimballs. My father knew the Kimballs, but while we do the right thing, hacking the lilacs away to expose their graves, I don’t remember a single anecdote.
The Hasselstroms weren’t the only ones to underestimate the vigor and buoyancy of lilacs: everywhere in the cemetery the bushes are thriving, washing like a green wave over older graves. Just below the Hasselstroms and the Kimballs, lilac stumps surround a homemade tombstone decorated with chunks of native rock like quartz, bearing the single name DOWNIE, lost for a generation.
My father, when we came to do this work on what he always called Decoration Day, used to say he was “exploring his future.” I’m starting to think about the practicalities of cremation.
Part III. The Rapture
Someone predicted that Saturday, May 21, would be the end of man’s days on earth, the end of the world, the day of what was called “The Rapture.” Wondering what Bill might have written about it, I could see his eyes sparkling at the challenge, the beginnings of a grin. I made a few notes, but nothing that resolved itself into coherency.
Then my brain was flooded with lines from an irreverent chant I first learned on the playground at Hermosa grade school, probably about 1954.
“Did you ever think when a hearse goes by
That you might be the next to die?”
The jingle rattles in my brain for days, the way mindless doggerel always does when you don’t want to remember it at all.
“They wrap you up in a bloody sheet
and bury you about six feet deep.”
The harder I try not to think about the lines, the more of them return to my mind. I can hear the shrill voices of my classmates as we screamed the words at each other.
“You’re okay for about a week
and then your coffin springs a leak.”
I don’t want to remember but I can’t seem to stop myself.
“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”
The chorus bubbles along in my brain when I’m visiting the cemetery with my inlaws, when we’re having lunch, when I’m trying to sleep.
“The worms play pinochle on your snout.”
When I wake up in the middle of the night, I can hear those ten-year-old voices warbling,
“They eat your eyes, they eat your nose.”
When I try to say something meaningful about the historic tombstones or the sunny, breezy day, my tongue tries to sabotage me.
“They eat the jelly between your toes.”
Why can’t I rid my brain of that silly rhyme? I sit up in the dark at 2 in the morning, thinking back over the past few days, searching for a reason that I can’t rid myself of the curse. Sometimes this works; once I figure out why I’m sleepless, I can decide on an action, and then sleep.
“A big green worm with rolling eyes
crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.”
The song gets worse. Much worse.
And finally I realize that Bill Kloefkorn is the master of the playground poem, the childhood memory turned into a story that can make the reader laugh or cry.
Though his memories of what he did as a boy in a small town in the middle of the nation differs considerably from what I did as a girl growing up in a rural community and going to school in a town of 100 residents, there are parallels. In his blasphemous, funny way, he memorialized the truth about playgrounds. I don’t recall ever encountering the worm song in any of his poems, but it wouldn’t surprise me to.
In the poem “Prove It” from his book Swallowing the Soap
, Bill writes about seeing Bubba Barnes steal a comic book from the rack in the Rexall drugstore. The next day at recess, Bill confronts Bubba with the crime. When Bubba denies it, Bill clearly delighted in the opportunity to write these perfect playground lines:
I don’t have to
prove it, I say.
I know you did it
and you know you
did it. So, he
says, prove it, ass-
eyes. Just prove it.
What a poetic challenge recalling that little ditty has created for me as a writer! And making use of the rhythm of the worm song would add a lilt and a zip to any poem that began with its inspiration.
Part IV. And Rapture
I spent a few-- too few-- evenings with Bill and an assembled company of people interested in words, talking about writing, but I’ve heard him speak and read his poems enough so that I can call up his voice when I read his work. I doubt I will ever forget that voice, that ability to deliver a poem. If Bill Kloefkorn were here this Sunday morning, we might talk about the rapture that didn’t occur yesterday, explore the meaning of the word “rapture,” the ironies of that forecast and its result.
Thinking about rapture without Bill’s help, I turn to my American Heritage Dictionary
“1. The state of being transported by a lofty emotion,” it says. “Ecstasy.”
And furthermore: “2. An expression of ecstatic feeling. Often used in the plural.”
And finally, “3. The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.”
Rapture, 1: ecstacy:
Outside the window, rain falls lightly, and the prairie grass is as green as it ever gets. Twenty black cows graze below the hill, their heads staying down for long minutes as they fill themselves with the vibrant grass, driving winter’s cold out of their bodies. In my garden at Homestead House, the Alaska and Early Perfection peas are four inches tall. The leaves of the Yukon Gold potatoes are just breaking earth. My mouth waters, thinking how, in July or August, I will serve a bowl of new potatoes and peas with lunch.
Rapture, 2: expression of ecstatic feeling:
Star lilies are blooming, their white petals flaring out of the ground, tiny fountains of white silk. Yellow Nuttall’s violets-- my mother called them Johnny Jump-Ups-- wink among the curly buffalograss. Bluebells hang among the stems of the taller redtop, ringing gently with each breeze. Pale blue sky shimmers with sun and birdcalls.
Rapture, 3: transporting, especially to heaven
The air is filled with wings. Common snipes, redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, sparrows, killdeer-- all are flying, zipping, diving, zooming, snatching bugs out of the air and whizzing back to their nests to feed the demanding nestlings. The bugs fly through the cool spring air, lifted up on gossamer wings to become part of the ecstacy and nourishment of spring surrounding us, raptured as life goes on.
# # #
For more information:
Linda's poem "Memorial Day" may be found in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom
Spoon River Poetry Press, 1993.
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May 3, 2010
Grandmother's rocking chair is in use at Homestead House, my writing retreat.
. . .
This essay was first published in Manoa
, Summer 1997, Volume 9 Issue 1, pages 105-108.
* * *
When we moved into the four-square house on a tree-lined city avenue, I lugged the ugly oak rocker into the sun porch and covered it with grandmother's yellow quilt, just as I'd decently wrap an aunt caught outside in her undies.
Two years later, I carried the rocker into the back yard. Sunshine outlined the shape of the back, graceful as a handmade fiddle, but shiny gray paint masked the chair's oak skeleton, and the seat was a slab of three-quarter inch plywood.
First I yanked off the seat cushion, remembering when Mother bought the oatmeal-colored wool speckled with red and green, on sale of course. I hated the ungainly skirt she made for me to wear to high school. Thriftily, she turned the leftovers into a pillow stuffed with odd pieces of foam. She used roofing nails, driven crooked, to anchor the ugly contraption. When I yanked at the cushion, powdered foam drifted like pollen into the breeze.
I stared at the chair, thinking of better jobs: cleaning house, revising an essay. Stripping this relic would take hours. No wonder my ancestors slapped on a dozen layers of paint. I could paint it in an hour, park it on the porch to decay in peace, if not dignity.
Instead, I attacked with rough sandpaper on an electric palm sander. Gray paint dribbled down as powder, revealing raw oak etched with dark lines from the original stain. Probably the chair fell prey to my mother's infatuation with the 1950s craze for blond furniture, called "limed oak." When she married a rancher, she bought a massive dresser, double bed, and two dressing tables heavy enough to be real oak. The unnaturally pale finish made them look, I thought, remarkably like plastic.
Determined everything would match, she stripped a Mission Oak buffet, smeared white paint over it, then rubbed until the surface was dingy gray.
The buffet loomed over my childhood, half-filling our narrow dining room. Before family dinners, I knelt before it to get out mother's china and silver, while she scurried around the kitchen reciting the names of the patterns and promising that when I married, I'd choose my own. Drying the china after Sunday dinner, I'd kneel before the gray hulk again, vowing to restore its golden youth with oil rubbed gently into pure unvarnished wood. Some evenings, I'd open the bottom drawer and stare at Grandmother's crocheted tablecloths, wondering how her gnarled fingers could weave such loveliness.
Neither of my marriages produced china, so mother begged me to take hers when she moved to the nursing home. When I cleared the house for renters, I left the buffet and table in the house. An expert says the white paint penetrated the grain so deeply it can't be removed. My partner and I already had furniture.
But I couldn't leave the rocker. Each time I looked at it, I saw Grandmother's brown fingers curved around the knot of oak at the end of arm rests bulging like her muscular arms. During the summers I stayed with her, she'd sit in the rocker on the screened porch before she fixed supper. I sat on the slab of sandstone she used as a step, listening for bobcats and trying to catch toads. Grandmother said if I picked them up I'd get warts. I was looking forward to the experience; I'd never seen warts.
The chickens hurried to catch every bug in sight before the world went dark. I looked across the valley at the shadows running up the cliffs, plunging into the crevices like dark coyotes. The cliff tops shone gold for a moment, then went dark. The air chilled, tasting dusky and wild. A sliver of deep red appeared above the cliffs, swelling until I took a deep breath to scream, "Fire!"
"Red moon," Grandmother said. "Feels like fall all right, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Can't I stay here instead of having to go back to town? I could go to school with John and Susan, and then maybe they wouldn't close the school."
"Oh, your mother wouldn't like that. She don't think our little school is good enough for you."
"Did you ever go to church, Grandma?"
"I wanted to go when the children were small, but it was such a trip with the buggy that we hardly ever did."
"It seems like church but different when I'm out here. God must really like the world."
She chuckled. "Walt always said he served God by taking care of this land, and I served Him by taking care of the children. Since Walt's been gone, when I walk around the hills here, I feel close to him and God both." Darkness wrapped comfortably around us. "About time to light the lamps I expect," she said as I jumped up, ready. "Be careful with the chimneys, and don't set your hair on fire."
I left the door open to help my eyes adjust, and felt around on the cupboard for matches. The dark smelled of fried chicken. A row of jelly glasses gleamed with white paraffin on the counter beside the wood stove.
I gently lifted the lamp chimney, turned the blackened wick up a little. Then I inhaled, struck the match on the side of the box, and ran it along the top of the wick. It caught at once and the blue flame flickered up into yellow. Eyes on the wick, I blew out the match and delicately turned the brass knob until the flame danced along the edge of the brass.
With both hands, I picked up the chimney by its fat belly and placed it on the lamp, holding my breath. Often the fire flared up and sooted the clear glass. Then I had to get out my polishing rag and start all over.
Instead, the flame fluttered into a soft radiance, so the eyes of the cookie jar squirrel glistened. The light brushed the brass bedstead. Above it, pictures of Grandmother's children and their children watched me like ghosts.
Sanding in the sunshine, I find circular scars under the gray paint, where someone removed the original finish with a drill sander. Maybe my uncle, who worked Grandmother's ranch. Suddenly he stands in my back yard as I first remember him, laughing with youth nearly fifty years ago. I hear this is the year he'll sell his cows, give up the ranching that has been his life since he came home from war to help his mother.
After the first day's sanding, my shoulders and wrists throb for hours. But the chair rocks lightly when I carry it outside the next day. Sanding, I lecture my grandmother for letting this travesty happen to a lovely piece of furniture. Grinding deeper into the chair's history, I uncover a dozen nail holes around the seat, evidence of several replacement cushions after the original disappeared. I notice the chair's feet do not quite fit the curve of the rockers, which aren't oak but softer pine.
Getting a sunburn I won't notice until evening, I study the chair, deciding it was not originally a rocker. Perhaps my Grandmother got it from her mother when she went West with her young husband to work for a logging company in Oregon. I'd seen a faded photograph of her at sixteen, just before she married Elmer Harry Baker, who became my grandfather.
For a moment, I can see a dark-haired girl sitting in a stately oak chair in my sunny yard. She holds a baby with golden ringlets-- my mother-- and gazes up at her husband, the grandfather I never knew. Beaming, he says, "Cora Belle, I can make that chair rock for you."
Elmer died when he fell in front of a moving logging train in 1913. Not long ago, I found his obituary in a couple of papers of the time, saying he was beheaded by the train. Just twenty-four, he left grandmother a widow with a four-year-old daughter and an infant son. She rode the train to the home of his relatives in Wyoming, a few miles from where I live now. I can picture the rocker swaying with the train's motion among her few possessions. She must have repaired its worn cushions, keeping the chair to grace her household as she married again, and bore two more sons.
Rocking gently through long summer evenings, crocheting and listening to her granddaughter read aloud, maybe she saw her young husband's face, recalled past joys. That’s what I plan to do, now that the rocker looks as I remember it from my childhood.
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For more information:
Website for Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writers
Published by the University of Hawai'i
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