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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Go With the Grain: Bread Therapy

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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Lightning, Fire and Neighbors

Linda with large, round hay bales of the size that burned in the night.
. . .
The usual June afternoon thunderstorm struck around 7pm on June 25, more violently than many storms, whipping rain at us from the southwest, pounding my raised bed tomatoes down, even driving rain through the siding to drip down the basement door. Lightning was frequent and close, slamming the hillsides and splitting the air in all directions. A few small shards of hail fell, but nothing like the baseball-sized hail we heard had pounded Rapid City the night before. When we surveyed the rain gauges around 9pm after most of the storm had passed, we found .60 of rain.

Just before we went to sleep, we thought we smelled smoke. As usual after such a storm, I turned out the lights and went to the deck, where I looked in all directions for any sign of flame. I looked mostly at the buildings I could see-- Homestead House and its barn and other buildings, at a shed in the pasture, and in the direction of the various hay yards where piles of round bales wait for winter use. I particularly looked toward the field that had been hayed that afternoon, thinking that lightning might have struck one of the round bales of hay lying in the field.

But we weren’t really worried. "Too wet to burn," we said, because the pastures are full of green grass.

We’d both spent busy days. Jerry mowed around our buildings in the morning while I worked with other Hermosa Arts and History Association volunteers sweeping and rearranging furniture and display cases on both floors of a massive old building in Hermosa. (Another story: for ten years, members of the association have been renovating the building, which will serve as a museum and gathering place for the community.)

In the afternoon, we went to the Great Plains Native Plant Society open house at the Claude A. Barr botanic garden in my front pasture. With the help of a botanist, we walked through the grass, looking at the native plants marked earlier by Cindy Reed, GPNPS leader. And we found one plant new to most of us, Fame flower, a succulent so tiny that you’re only likely to see it if you’re on hands and knees with a magnifying glass handy.

But Jerry and I were both awake about 3am with aching sinuses from the change of weather, when the dogs suddenly started barking and ran to the basement. I went to the living room and could see a light by the basement door. Just then a voice spoke from the deck outside the living room, a neighbor saying, "Linda, there’s a fire." The time was 3:15.

Let me be clear about what my neighbor, Bill, had done with that simple statement. He had awakened about 2:30 and smelled smoke. He got up, looked around his house, and determined that the smoke was coming from the east, the direction of my house. He got dressed, got his wife up and dressed, got in his pickup and drove down his ranch road toward the highway. When he topped a hill, he could see the fire and knew it was on my property, a mile or so east of my house. He guessed it was a shed or hay bales, so that with the wet ground and grass, it was no threat to anyone’s home-- but property was burning. Unable to reach us by telephone (our cell phones were off), he drove the muddy road to my house to be sure that I would know about the fire. Neighborliness is not simply living next door to someone.

I yelled for Jerry, yanked the door open, and could see flames flickering east of us, but couldn’t tell if they were in a hay yard or in the cattle shed that stands on the other side of the railroad tracks.

I called my lessee, Rick, and we decided against calling the fire department. We figured the fire was in a haystack and no amount of water can put out such a fire. Jerry and I grabbed shovels and tools, and headed east, while Rick got on his tractor and headed toward the fire from his house to the north.

Before we got far, a fire unit from the Hermosa volunteer fire department joined us, and we wallowed through the muddy field and pasture roads until we could see that the fire was burning bales near the end of a long collection of them on the east side of the railroad tracks and on the other side of a long gully fully of water. In the dark, unfamiliar with the terrain, neither of us could figure out how to get across the gully without getting stuck. When Rick arrived with his tractor, Jerry and I followed him to a crossing. The fire truck left. With Jerry’s help, Rick laid down the barbed wire of the fence.

Rick's tractor is fitted with a grapple fork, like a large hand. He drove this into the yard and started moving hay bales that hadn’t yet started burning. Each bale weighs about 900 pounds and on some trips he moved two at a time, stacking them away from the fire. Eventually he’d isolated about 10 burning bales in the center of the hay yard.

By that time, a fire unit from Fairburn had arrived, not knowing the Hermosa truck was gone. Rick began driving the tractor to the burning bales, grabbing one at a time, and backing out onto open ground, where he’d scatter the burning bale as quickly as possible. Then he’d go back for another.

With the neighbor who had arrived with the fire truck, we started using our shovels to break up the burning bales so they’d burn faster. Each time Rick dragged a bale away from the burning pile, he’d turn and drive through the bales he’d brought out earlier, breaking them up as the smoke swirled around the tractor. He had to keep moving fast so the hoses on the tractor’s hydraulic system wouldn’t burn. We knew he couldn’t see much through the rolling yellow smoke, so we stayed well out of his way.

The tractor roared back and forth, bouncing flaming bales in all directions. Each time he drove through a burning pile of hay, the speed of his passage sucked the smoke after him so it looked as if the back of the tractor was on fire. Whenever he stopped, he dug dry hay out of spots where it had been trapped on the tractor so it wouldn’t start burning.

Gradually we got the bales broken down. Each time a fire died down, one of us would break up the unburned parts of the bale with a shovel to let air into it, and it would explode into flame again.

I became aware that the smoke smelled just like drying hay: sweet, not smoky at all. During breaks, we leaned on our tools and exchanged neighborhood news and gossip, and reminisced about previous fires we’ve fought.

All our area fire departments are now dispatched by a call to 911, but most are still volunteer forces, so neighbors are always helping neighbors. In addition, anyone who finds out about a fire in the area jumps in a truck and comes to help.

While we were working on this fire, one of the men got a call from a neighbor who had been called by another neighbor who was on his way to work in Rapid City, saw the fire, assumed (correctly) that it had been reported to fire officials by someone, but called to let them know the fire existed. The neighbor, knowing whose place the fire was likely to be on, called one of the men working the fire to see if they had it under control or needed more help.

Meanwhile, a pin started to slip out of Rick’s grapple, which would have crippled the tractor for further use. All three men dug in their tool boxes and finally got that fixed. Rick also called his son to bring pitchforks, to make it easier to break up the hay.

Finally the Fairburn truck left, and we beat down a few more pieces of hay and headed for home at 8am.

Rick collected a harrow and dragged it over the remaining burning hay, breaking it up so it would burn completely, and also worked the burned hay into the wet green grass. His son fixed the hay yard fence so the cattle couldn’t get into the good hay, and Rick used the grapple bucket to dump a few loads of water from the nearby gully.

By 10am the fire was out, but the wind has come up, so we’ll be watching during the day to be sure it doesn’t flare up in a new spot.

No doubt lightning struck the bales during the storm early in the evening, and the fire smoldered through the storm, including the half-inch of rain, until it got enough strength to burst into open flame. We still don’t know who called the fire department-– perhaps someone from one of the subdivisions high on the hills to the west, or perhaps a passerby on the highway. But we’re grateful.

I was just thinking yesterday that it’s time to write my usual summer checks to the volunteer fire departments in the area. Once again neighbors, both on the fire trucks and off, have saved each other.

# # #

For more information:
The Great Plains Garden Page on this website
Great Plains Native Plant Society website

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RoseMary Goodson: Part III -- Ten Years Later

A vase of bookmarks created by RoseMary Goodson.

. . .
This is a follow-up to my 2001 story about RoseMary Goodson from South Dakota Magazine, posted below.

RoseMary Goodson will be 94 years old on September 27, 2011 and she’s still painting, and “keeping busy,” as she puts it.

Her daughter Emily has been working to catalog all the paintings RoseMary made in her lifetime-- an impossible task, since some were sold and she’s not sure where they are. But the ones she’s found, she’s photographed, and RoseMary slices up photographs of the paintings, laminates them, punches a hole in the top, adds a ribbon and bead, and presto! She has a beautiful bookmark.

She sent me a few of these bookmarks several years ago, and retreat guests at Windbreak House love them. So RoseMary started sending me more; now I have several vases of them at Windbreak House, where writers use them as they are reading a dozen books at once during the retreat. When it’s time to go home, each writer usually selects a bookmark or two to take along, sometimes begging one for a friend.

And I’ve taken them to talks I give. In Chamberlain last fall, I laid out a selection of my books on the sale table for people to peruse as they entered to be seated before my talk. Folks would stroll in, glance at the books, and then start visiting with friends. Then I was inspired to scatter a handful of bookmarks the length of the table. Within a few minutes, most of the crowd had left their seats and were scattered along the table, looking at bookmarks-- and picking up books. So I told the audience a little bit about RoseMary as I finished my reading, and made them a deal: buy a book, and take a bookmark for free. I’m sure the bookmarks helped sell books.

# # #

For more information:
Go to RoseMary Goodson's website to learn more about RoseMary's life and see a gallery of her paintings.

Update 2012: RoseMary (who is going on 95) has a hard time with correspondence now and Emily's project of cataloging RoseMary's original art is falling by the wayside. They used to post a contact address on RoseMary's website but no longer do so because they aren't able to reply to website visitors. Sorry.

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RoseMary Goodson: Part II

Original oil painting by RoseMary Goodson of the view from Homestead House. This painting currently hangs in Homestead House.

. . .
RoseMary Goodson: Sketching her way through life
This essay originally appeared in South Dakota Magazine, September/October 2001, pp. 36-46.

For the beginning of the story, see Part 1 in the blog posted below on June 13.

Part II

During summers, the Goodsons often went to South Dakota to work for RoseMary’s brother John at his resort. Everyone pitched in; Lucy worked on trail rides. RoseMary cleaned the lodge and guest rooms, cooked, and did laundry.

About 1970, with her children growing up and leaving home, Goodson decided to create a life of her own. She arrived in South Dakota alone and almost broke, with only a small suitcase and some pen and ink drawing supplies. She still hadn’t learned to drive, and didn’t own a car.

Staying in a cottage in Piedmont, RoseMary put together a paperback book with information on tourist attractions in South Dakota. She talked Wall Drug owner Ted Hustead into printing the book, A Guide to South Dakota and Black Hills Attractions. Hustead kept copies to sell at Wall Drug and told her to sell the rest at 50 cents a copy and keep the money. She sold 7,000 copies.

“I wanted to go up the ladder,” RoseMary said, so just as she had in St. Louis, she looked for a need to fill. On her next visit to Wall Drug, she convinced Hustead to establish a tourist information center, which she would supervise. Hustead mentioned that he’d purchased six old farm houses for dormitories for the 60 college students he employed. RoseMary agreed to be housemother in return for lodging with the girls.

“I don’t remember what my salary was,” she wrote, “but I was very happy with this new position. You know me. I don’t put a lot of importance on salaries.” She made sure everyone was home by 10 p.m. on weekdays, and that no one left town without her as chaperone or permission from Ted’s son, Bill. At her dorm, students could “hold their parties, play cards, and just have a good time,” she said. “If I accompanied them, they could have pool parties and cookouts in the Badlands.”

One day when she was substituting for a regular employee in the book department, she noticed people buying prints of pen and ink drawings of Black Hills scenes; she thought, “I can draw better than that.” Traveling through the Black Hills with friends–– she still had no car–– she sketched historic buildings and visited museums to sketch wood cook stoves, wagons, and washing machines. When she’d finished several dozen sketches, she printed 300 copies of each on good paper. She hired a woman to drive her to distributors, and began selling hundreds of prints at tourist stops in South Dakota.

RoseMary often set up her easel on a Deadwood street. Dressed in paint-spattered clothes, her dog at her side, she taught herself to paint. Concentrating on her work, she was unaware of the picture she presented. She gleefully tells about reaching for her water one day and discovering that a passerby, thinking she was a homeless bag lady, had left a dollar and fifty cents, an apple, and a banana.

When I first saw that small blonde woman sitting on the street corner with her dog and her paints, my own life was unsettled, and I was so hesitant I walked by her two or three times, peering at a painting I didn’t think was very good. But she was enjoying herself, and she looked like a woman who wasn’t worried about the future. I stopped to talk. Where did she live? I asked. Right now she was staying with a daughter and her husband, in the “mother-in-law tent” pitched behind their house. I was awestruck at her charm, her obvious joy in living, her unconcern with the future. RoseMary was happier sitting on a street corner dabbing at her canvas than I’d ever been; she has been my idol ever since.

Peg, the oldest of RoseMary’s seven children, describes her mother as “someone who consistently makes adventures out of ordinary life.” One moonlit night during her childhood, Rose Mary dragged all the children out of bed to watch night crawlers emerging from the ground. When the basement flooded during hurricane season, RoseMary garbed the kids in rain boots and slickers and sent them downstairs to play in the puddles. “Mom was always going off the beaten path,” Peg adds, “both in daily life, and especially in her travels.”

One summer day RoseMary insisted on stopping at a creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation to cool off. The whole family shed clothing and plunged into the creek–– just as several carloads of Lakota families arrived with the same idea. “Our first instinct,” Peg said, “was to quickly leave the area, but Rosie just began visiting with some of the women, resulting in a wonderful picnic atmosphere with children and adults from two worlds splashing and laughing together.”

On another trip, RoseMary followed her curiosity to the fishing town of Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, where the family camped on the beach for days. When ice ran low, Peg says, “Rosie would make us drive her to the ice-making plant for the shrimp boats and would boldly walk in to fill up our coolers. We were quite nervous about this practice, but she insisted that no one would bother a little old lady getting some ice.”

About 1973 RoseMary decided to spend the winter months alone in the Wall Drug dorm. The Husteads rented the house for $40 a month, but said she couldn’t afford the gas bill if she kept the house above freezing. She said she’d find a way. She bought a wood-burning stove, which Peg and her husband Bob Lamburth helped her install, and she collected scrap wood and coal. The Husteads wanted her to work in the store, but she wanted to learn more about oil painting. Whenever RoseMary was short of money, however, the Husteads found a job for her, even if it was repainting the giant jackalope and the stuffed horses in the back yard.

One day after a snowfall, she painted her own yellow house from across the street, and gave the painting to the Husteads, who hung it in Wall Drug. When local teachers saw it, they asked for art lessons, and RoseMary began teaching at $3 per session. Most of the teachers were tense because they’d never done art, so she gave each a tequila sunrise. “That did the trick,” she laughs. “They relaxed and had fun,” as she encouraged them to draw in their own styles.

One winter, friends from Deadwood invited her to join them on a trip to Arizona. Right away, she discovered the old mining camp of Congress, an unincorporated desert hamlet 50 miles south of Prescott. She stayed at the only motel in town, where her room with a kitchenette cost $3 a night. “It had a few roaches,” she recalls, but she’d met a lot of roaches in Missouri. “I fell in love with the desert and the warm climate.”

The next morning, she hiked to the historic ruins of the old gold mine and spent the day sketching. On the following day, she sold her drawings on the street in nearby Wickenburg, Ariz. At age 56, she’d found a new way to make a living.

Back in South Dakota, RoseMary continued to create and sell pen and ink drawings as cards and for framing. She learned to play the mandolin with her family band. She spent months sketching Mount Rushmore and thinking how to tell and show the story of Gutzon Borglum and his carving. She built a small light table and learned layout to produce The Rushmore Story.

Telling the Rushmore story engrossed her. “Even the smallest bumping pneumatic tool was difficult for me to lift,” she said. Sketching the bosun chair, she “thought of the man in the harness shop who made dozens of such chairs by hand with iron and heavy leather–– with perfection. I thought of the man who sat in that chair on a seat that was no more than two iron bars and a strip of leather–– hanging over the mountain side for hours in bitter cold winds or the intense summer heat and smiling when he received his pay of sixty-five cents an hour. The rubber gripper on the handle of the pneumatic drill that I sketched was worn down to the metal; the hand tools were worn and split handles wrapped with tape. Everything told of the stress it took in shaping a granite mountain into a beautiful work of art.”

A reviewer for The Traveler magazine later wrote, “In all my travels, I have never found a book on a national monument as delightful to read and own as RoseMary’s The Rushmore Story.”

RoseMary began spending winters in Arizona, returning each summer to South Dakota to paint, sketch and market her prints and greeting cards. She rode busses, caught rides with friends, or hired people to drive her around for years–– and then got an inheritance. “RoseMary is always helping others and never asks for anything in return,” said daughter-in-law Desi. “Within about two weeks she had given it all away, except for enough to buy herself a car she still has today.” A mechanically-minded friend found and fixed up a 1954 red Ram Dodge, a four-door sedan. The car was so neglected that birds had built nests in the seats. RoseMary cleaned up the car, added new seat covers, and began teaching herself to drive by laying out lines of rocks in the desert.

The next Sunday she drove the car to church, parking well away from other cars. After mass, the priest asked everyone to remain for a few minutes, picked up the vial of holy water, and led the congregation directly to RoseMary’s car; he blessed the car and prayed. “Apparently it worked,” says RoseMary, “because I never had an accident–– and when I drove the car back to South Dakota one wheel had only two lug bolts on it.”

No matter where she was, RoseMary continued teaching herself to paint. Since she’d never had lessons in drawing or painting, she consulted library books. For her first oil painting, she chose a deserted adobe mercantile building in Arizona, roofless and deteriorating. She painted most of the building before heading home. She heard a hard rain in the night, and when she returned next day, most of one wall had collapsed.

“I changed my painting, which made it more interesting,” she said. Then she packed up her paints and easel and returned to the motel–– but couldn’t find the painting in her car. She drove back to the adobe building, but it wasn’t there. Only when she gave up in frustration and headed back to her room did she notice the painting–– on top of the car where she’d put it while packing. She later gave the painting away, and has no photos of it.

By then, RoseMary’s family was mostly grown; she was living alone in a brown and white trailer in a Piedmont development called Thunder Hills, next to her daughter Peggy, working as a supervisor of eight college students at the Tilford rest area.

Peg recalls a 1973 Halloween party at an old farmhouse her brother rented. Family members appeared as pirates, nuns, witches, a Pillsbury dough boy, and various four-armed and four-legged creatures. RoseMary came as an elderly beauty pageant winner, in what Peg calls “Tammy Faye Baker make-up,” under a big straw hat piled high with fruit and flowers. RoseMary painted pink tights with bright blue varicose veins, then stuffed them with tissue paper to simulate knobby legs. Over that she wore a bathing suit draped with a banner reading, “Miss Thunder Hills.” RoseMary left the party earlier than her children, wondering how she’d explain herself if she had car trouble on the way home. Peg is sure she would have thought of something.

Each winter, RoseMary drove to Arizona. To research the history of her family she learned to read and write German. She visited Germany several times, and lured German relatives to the west to camp and hike with her. Always she painted and sketched, trading her art for stories, storing up images to take back to her easel for the winter.

In 1980, when RoseMary arrived in Congress, the motel room was no longer available; a sheepherder had moved in for the winter. Land developers had discovered Congress, so she put $1,000 down for one of the first lots, on a corner next to the open desert. She was considering living in a tent until the motel told her the sheepherder hadn’t arrived. She stayed in the motel until she found a small travel trailer for her lot.

The next winter her son and daughter-in-law, Tony and Desiree Goodson, came to help RoseMary start building. “She had no money,” Desi said, “so we cut, peeled and hauled all the logs from the Prescott National Forest about 50 miles away.” They hand-dug a basement for plumbing and lined it with rock they gathered in the desert. One day when they were collecting rocks, rancher Lewis Granthan told them they were on private property. RoseMary offered to make a painting of his ranch in exchange for the rocks. He agreed, adding, “Every time you pick up a rock, I get a little more grass for my cattle.”

RoseMary bought an old cement mixer, and they collected and sifted sand from washes for the concrete. As the rock walls rose, she studied the pile of dirt from the basement. She learned it was the perfect mixture of clay, sand, and pebbles for adobe bricks. “When I wasn’t painting,” she said, “I made adobe bricks. The Spanish have a slogan, ‘When you’re resting, make adobe bricks.’” She also found an adobe house about to be demolished and hauled truckloads of salvaged bricks from it. “Some of my family were eager to help after I told them that gold might have been stashed between the double-thick walls,” she laughs, “but we found only an old smoking pipe.” For several winters, RoseMary worked with friends and family on the house and an adjoining shed; when it was completed, about 1985, she settled in Congress.

As usual, she found new challenges, new ways to experience the world and make a living, like painting murals on businesses, decorating a tour bus, creating business signs, sketching people’s homes. She drew a map of the historic mining district around Congress, sold hand-drawn ads around the map’s edges, and distributed it free to tourists. She wrote and illustrated the first history of the region, The Story of Congress, Arizona’s Premier Gold Camp.

RoseMary now says she’s “somewhat retired,” but it’s hard to tell. She’s always made time for enjoying life wile she worked, hiking the Grand Canyon with daughter Lucy when she was 72 years old, traveling and camping with daughter Alice and her two children, and visiting art exhibits.

RoseMary never goes anywhere without her art supplies–– or her sense of humor. Always she has made a living from her art, and enjoyed herself as much as possible while creating it. And always, she has made a distinction between the work she did for a living and her fine art paintings.

“I believe that I have made more than 350 paintings in my lifetime,” she said. She’s also made thousands of pen and ink sketches, giving most of them away. Not to mention an untold number of hand-drawn greeting cards, place cards and Easter eggs. But her records of the massive volume of work are sketchy; RoseMary has always been more interested in making art than in cataloguing what she has done. In August 1998, her daughter Emily and son-in-law Dennis Buckhannon arranged an exhibit of 85 of RoseMary’s paintings, a few pen and ink sketches, and some of her books at St. Peters Cultural Arts Center in St. Peters, Mo.

These days, she spends part of each winter visiting her children. But she is always anxious to get back home and to her easel. It’s still true, as her friend Al Gunther wrote in 1972, that “if you visit when she’s painting, you’re sure to find a pot of dried out, blistered coffee on the stove, or a load of dirty dishes stacked in the oven. On those days she forgets to eat,” except for crackers, cheese, and beer before she goes to bed. Her children mention that after she moved to South Dakota and resumed her life as an artist, her spaghetti sauce always had a slight flavor of turpentine, that her dinner plates were usually speckled with cobalt blue around the edges.

“I am an artist,” RoseMary says firmly, “and even though I have had some hard times as an artist, I have always been completely satisfied and happy with the fact that I was born an artist.”

# # #

For more about RoseMary . . .
See my blog posted June 15th (above) for Part III of this story: an update after ten years.

For more information:
South Dakota Magazine website

Go to RoseMary Goodson's website to learn more about RoseMary's life and see a gallery of her paintings.

Update 2012: RoseMary (who is going on 95) has a hard time with correspondence now and Emily's project of cataloging RoseMary's original art is falling by the wayside. They used to post a contact address on RoseMary's website but no longer do so because they aren't able to reply to website visitors. Sorry.

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RoseMary Goodson: Part I

Linda and RoseMary Goodson in 2008 at Homestead House.

. . .
RoseMary Goodson: Sketching her way through life
This story originally appeared in South Dakota Magazine, September/October 2001, pp. 36-46.

Part I

“I sincerely believe that artists are born, and there is nothing they can do about it,” says artist RoseMary Goodson. “They are destined to spend the rest of their lives being different than most people.”

Destined or not, Goodson has been both uncommon and an artist all her life. She began a professional art career in high school, then gave it up for marriage and children. When she started over again in her mid-fifties, she became notable in an entirely different way. At 83, she’s still creating art.

RoseMary Goodson may not be a household name. But thousands of South Dakotans have savored her work–– sketches and paintings of the Black Hills, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and other South Dakota attractions–– a professional career which began decades earlier with a high school cartoon.

RoseMary was born to Mary and Frederick Joseph Honerkamp in 1917 in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. When she was four, her mother carried her to the kitchen one Christmas morning, set her on the floor near the wood cook stove, and put in her lap a black stocking filled with toys and candy. “I remember little about what was in the stocking, an orange in the toe, but I remember the black and white of the linoleum I was sitting on,” she says, a design of “diamonds and squares and lines that I could sketch today.”

RoseMary learned to draw at age eight from a carpenter named Ben whom her father had hired to repair the slate roof of their home. One summer noon, she sat beside him as he ate his lunch on the lawn. Ben picked up a slate and took a piece of white chalk from his pocket. He’d always wanted to paint pictures, he said. He sketched the profile of a horse’s head and gave the slate to her.

For months she copied his drawing: on the blackboard at school, on odd scraps of paper; she even made mud sculptures of the horse, re-creating it hundreds of times before she attempted to draw anything else.

By the time she entered Normandy High School, RoseMary was drawing cartoons for Christmas and birthday cards and for the school newspaper, earning money from her art. One Christmas she purchased a small hand stencil. She drew and hand colored dozens of Christmas cards to sell to friends.

Automobiles were just becoming common, along with jokes about women drivers. RoseMary, always alert to her times and able to find humor in any situation, wouldn’t learn to drive for another 40 years, but she created a cartoon about a woman driver named “Nellie.” The young woman solved car troubles while poking sly fun at male views of women. To give her car a sleek, modern look, Nellie made a grille out of slatted window blinds. She jacked up her car and fastened an ice cream maker to a lug bolt to mix ice-cream. Nellie’s auntie used the grille of a visitor’s car as a washboard. Nellie’s “humor, independence, and inventiveness,” RoseMary later wrote, “mirrored the approach I took in my own life.”

After graduation, RoseMary sold the comic strip to the Auto Club News, a newspaper for members of the American Automobile Association. In 1937, The St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat sent a reporter and a photographer to write a feature about her; she illustrated the story with cartoons. Each month, from 1938 to 1967, she was paid $25 for Nellie’s appearance. In May, 1966, Auto Club News commemorated her 30 years’ entertainment of its readers.

RoseMary’s practical Aunt Rose wanted to send her to secretarial school. Rose Mary “dreaded the thought and convinced her that [she] wanted to be an artist.” Looking for a way to make money, she took a streetcar to the Famous and Barr department store and told the skeptical stationery department manager, Moe Swartz, she’d like to create personalized, hand-tinted greeting cards for people while they waited. By the time she’d arranged her paint, ink, and pens–– she didn’t have an easel–– customers were standing in line. RoseMary perched on a stool and drew on a counter, charging 25 cents a card with a five-cent commission to the store. Soon she had so many customers she had to take orders and finish the cards at home.

Before long a salesman asked her to work for the Stanley Greeting Card Company in Dayton, Ohio. RoseMary left home at 20, on her own in the middle of the Depression with a salary of $35 a week. In Dayton, she roomed with a school teacher for $8 a week, paying 25 cents for breakfast, and 50 cents for other meals. She lacked experience, but creative ideas filled her head. She worked with other artists, devising innovative animated cards with foldout parts–– ducks that wagged their tail feathers and people whose arms opened wide and declared, “I love you this much.”

Soon RoseMary was offered a job as editor. She accepted with some reservations–– the editor she replaced had resigned by jumping out an eighth floor window in New York. “I was probably chosen because I was the only one in the department who could type,” she said modestly.

About 1941, after World War II began, RoseMary began visiting the United Service Organization (USO) club in Dayton, where she was known as that “darn good-lookin’ blonde with the cheerful smile and sparkling blue eyes.” But she didn’t go to dance; she spent evenings drawing and coloring greeting cards for the men. One night, a young corporal asked her to make a card for his sister, Rose, in Brooklyn. As they talked, she learned that Tom was of Italian descent, and had changed his name from Bonfiglio to its English translation: Goodson. Before long, Tom’s letters were arriving daily, and within a few months he returned to Dayton as a major.

“He didn’t verbally ask me to marry him,” recalls RoseMary. “He just tossed the box with the engagement ring in it into my lap.” In 1943 she boarded a train to Brooklyn and married Tom. During the next 13 years, the couple had six daughters and a son: Margaret, nicknamed Peggy; Mary, Grace, Alice, Emily, Tony and Lucy. RoseMary continued to draw “between babies.” Tom, an animation artist who had worked for Walt Disney before his army stint, supported the family.

After 17 years in New York City, the Goodsons decided in 1960 they wanted to raise their children in a better environment. “Tom was getting restless,” RoseMary says, “mumbling about ‘getting out of this rat race.’” Her brother, John Honerkamp, ran The Covered Wagon resort in Piedmont, so the couple moved to South Dakota. But Tom couldn’t find work in the state, so they moved on to St. Louis, where RoseMary’s sister and mother still lived.

One Christmas day, RoseMary took her children to the new “Gateway to the West” arch on the banks of the Mississippi river. Watching a school bus unloading children on a field trip, she wondered if they really understood the arch, and why it had been built. She researched and wrote a children’s book about the structure, illustrating each page with pen and ink or watercolor sketches. As market research, she asked her daughter Lucy’s third-grade teacher to read the draft aloud and show it to her class. Impressed by the kids’ reaction, the teacher urged RoseMary to publish the book.

Next day RoseMary took the bus downtown to the main office of the Jefferson National Memorial Committee, which managed the Gateway monument. She marched past several people waiting for appointments with director Gus Budde, and placed her book mockup on his desk. As soon as RoseMary had completed the illustrations and cover design, he published the book, which sold at the arch for $1.50 a copy. RoseMary got a 20 percent royalty on all sales of The Gateway Arch; by 1972, 50,000 copies had been sold.

During summers, the Goodsons often went to South Dakota to work for RoseMary’s brother John at his resort. Everyone pitched in; Lucy worked on trail rides. RoseMary cleaned the lodge and guest rooms, cooked, and did laundry.

To be continued . . .
See my blog posted June 14th (above) for Part II of this story.

# # #

For more information:
South Dakota Magazine website

Go to RoseMary Goodson's website to learn more about RoseMary's life and see a gallery of her paintings.

Update 2012: RoseMary (who is going on 95) has a hard time with correspondence now and Emily's project of cataloging RoseMary's original art is falling by the wayside. They used to post a contact address on RoseMary's website but no longer do so because they aren't able to reply to website visitors. Sorry.

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Bill Kloefkorn and The Rapture

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
go of.

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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Mother's Day

Linda's grandmother, Cora Belle Hey and mother, Mildred Hasselstrom, in Hermosa, 1978.
. . .
I’ve spent this Mother’s Day very pleasantly. I did some laundry, made a huge pot of green chile, read a bit, and wrote a bit. And I planted nasturtium seeds among the radishes and lettuce in the herb garden. I also moved a few plants into my rock garden, decorating it with shells and rocks and other objects I’ve picked up here and there on my walks for years. A dozen bright aqua insulators from the old telephone poles wind like a stream through the sandstone, agate, quartz and other stones.

Seeing the sand dollars and other shells I picked up on beaches in Manzanita, in Maine and in Scotland, a spoon George carved from bone in a bowl Jerry carved from a pine burl, all brought back good memories that flowed through the warm spring air like the songs of the blackbirds and meadowlarks.

Wherever I was during the past few days, I have wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” to every women older than I am that I encountered. Several of them sounded surprised as they said “Thank you!”

Many women, on this day, have been presented with corsages and cards, taken to dinner, saluted with roses or carnations in church or in restaurants, and in various ways remembered and thanked for giving birth. I, too, have been remembering my mother, who died in 2001, my grandmother (the only one I ever met) Cora Belle Hey, and various women who treated me as well and taught me as much as any mother could have. Then, too, I’ve been remembering my four step-children, and the joys of sharing their lives.

And I’ve been thinking about all we women who, for one reason or another, are not mothers. The reasons vary. Some of us chose not to have children for a variety of reasons: because there are too many people on the planet; because we believed we might have important work to do; because we believed we would not be good mothers. Some of us tried and failed. Some of us have lost children at various stages of their lives, from conception to adulthood.

I’m not suggesting that we declare a Step-Mother’s Day, or Bereaved Mother’s Day. Just don’t forget that we’re here too, and we have made contributions to the world in other ways.

# # #

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The Perils of Punctuation, or How I Became a Stickler

Linda Hasselstrom's Senior Class photo in the 1961 Pine Cone of Rapid City High School.
. . .
A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from Becca Curry, the niece of my favorite high school English teacher, Josephine Zamow. Going through her aunt’s possessions, Becca had found a folder containing papers I’d written for Miss Zamow’s class. Would I like to have it?

That worn folder has kept me reading, and laughing, and blushing, and remembering Miss Zamow, for days. I’m deeply grateful to her, and to Becca, for reminding me that, like most of us, I wasn’t as smart in those days as I thought I was. I have trouble even looking at my photo, because I look so young and at the same time so smug. Like my peers, I was caught in the horrid high school business of trying to be gorgeous, trying to fit in with the crowd. I believe Jo Zamow was one of the people who taught me, by example, what a waste of time that is.

I remember Miss Zamow as a little dynamo with soft brown hair cropped at chin length, and bangs that curled down on her forehead. She wore tidy little suits, brightened perhaps with a scarf under the collar. I remember her jaw as usually being fairly rigid, probably from what she had to put up with from her classes. She had a wry sense of humor, and I always had the sense that she wanted to say more than was acceptable in a high school classroom. I hope I told her how much she meant to me, and probably I did not.

Years later, after I’d begun to be published, I visited her class. She pulled from a deep desk drawer my lengthy treatise on Why I Am A Christian and read parts of it to the class while I blushed furiously. I was hoping to find that paper in this collection, but it’s probably just as well it’s not here. As I recall, it was written while I was angling for the attentions of a handsome blond fellow who was determined to become a missionary. And I heard in Miss Zamow’s voice, when she read it aloud, her awareness of its pompous tone and its ironies. (See “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” in my book Land Circle.)

The papers Becca gave me were written for Advanced Placement English, dated from late 1960 into 1961. Here I found three poems that deserve to be forgotten, but they are among the earliest work of mine I’ve saved. I’ll show them to my retreat writers to prove that everyone CAN improve.

One poem, “The Alamo,” is filled with patriotic spirit– and contains one of the errors I’ve now become a stickler about: the confusion of its and it’s. Here’s the handout I use when I encounter that error these days:

The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
-- Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves, p. 44

Miss Zamow would have loved that.

The papers provide an insight into what we were reading and discussing for the class. For the third six-weeks test, for example, I wrote on conformity vs. nonconformity, and forecast some of my own future by voting solidly against conformity, quoting T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in defense of my view. In February, 1961, I wrote passionately in defense of the beauty of the prairie that some saw as “dull and uninteresting,” describing some of the encounters I had there with coyotes, antelope and eagles while riding my horse. However I also described Jackson Hole as the “ideal vacation paradise.” Both Jackson Hole and I have changed!

Another topic was training a young horse, and how one must patiently show him that “his diet includes only hay, oats and water,” and not human flesh. I vividly remember the inspiration for this one; my colt Oliver started biting my arm and left giant blue teeth marks on my buttocks before we convinced him that was a bad idea. Once you get on the horse, I said, his first act would be to “leap four feet into the air, come down hard, and start spinning like a runaway top. He is just high-spirited, as some parents say about their demon children.” I still feel pretty much the same way about horses and spoiled brats.

Another favorite topic of mine that semester was the behavior of teachers; three essays on the subject extol the virtues of strict teachers. Miss Zamow must have been proud of me; she certainly was not one of the lenient ones I criticized.

Much of our writing that semester centered around reading. I still recall lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” and Ode to the West Wind,” and wonder if they are still read in high school English. I asserted in a September paper that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 should be required reading for all high school students. I thought John Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” were “escapes from reality,” but well-written. I didn’t care for William Blake’s work then, and have not changed my opinion. After writing papers analyzing the writing of Andreyev, Gorky, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I have avoided all four writers ever since. But I had a great time comparing our new car with our old car, saying the 1950 Chevrolet “closely resembled a duck,” while the 1959 was more like a “crouching panther.”

Asked to write about one poem, I insisted that I couldn’t choose between them and wrote about two, Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” which I can still recite, and “The Stab” by William Wallace Harney, which I had entirely forgotten-- though I can see the influence of both poems in my writing today.

On Dec. 9, 1960, I turned in a diamond paragraph designed to teach us the use of various kinds of sentence structure; I’m going to use this as an example to the writers who come to Homestead House. We were instructed to write the following sentences:


Here’s what I wrote:

My mirror is my bulletin board. I wedge postcards around it, and I stick poems and reminders to the frame. Since I collect these items fanatically, I now see myself only in the center of the mirror. After tiring of peering at two inches of my face, I may tour the world in thoughts, or I may read poetry and philosophy. If I am discouraged, some selection will make me cheerful. I can read love poems and prayers, or I may look at friends’ faces and tour exciting places. Truly, my bedroom mirror is an adventure in itself.

But the best gift from this collection of papers came from the comments Miss Zamow wrote on two papers.

At the top of the paper on Maxim Gorky’s “In the Steppes,” dated Jan. 19, 1961, is an A-, followed by this comment in Miss Zamow’s small, square handwriting: “Excellent except for punctuation. Please analyze each use of the comma in this paper.”

The second paper, on Leonid Andreyev’s “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” dated Jan. 20, 1961, received an A, and this comment, “Anyone who can analyze this astutely, write this well, and produce a term paper for a daily assignment is intelligent enough to learn how to use punctuation. Please do so.”

I doubt that I sat right down and studied punctuation during that senior year of high school, but I’ve worked at punctuating correctly ever since. I’m delighted at this reminder of just why I’m so darn picky, and I hope Jo Zamow would be proud of me.

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Tulips and Your Writing

Linda's flower beds in Cheyenne.
The tulips are in there somewhere.
. . .
One spring day I was behind the first house Jerry and I had in Cheyenne, looking in despair at the yard, which was pure gumbo. Right against the foundation, he’d thrown some boards-- and I suddenly realized that tulip leaves were coming up between them. I took the boards off, and the yellowed leaves stood up straight and produced several old-fashioned, small tulips in several colors. When we moved, I transplanted them to the front of the new house, and they are growing there yet.

Which reminds me of a story my friend Margaret told me. Every year, her husband planted a field that they knew had been a homestead. They’d picked up a few souvenirs in the first years they worked it, but it had been plowed and planted many times, so no trace of the house and outbuildings was left.

One spring when her husband Bill was in the field, he noticed tulip leaves sticking up through the soil. He dug down carefully, and brought up the bulbs, and took them home to Margaret, who planted them immediately. And they are probably still flourishing right where she planted them.

Most of us do a little writing in grade school, and more in high school or college-- even if it’s only mushy poems and love notes. Usually, we’re in classes that require some writing: essays for English, perhaps, or essay answers to history questions. And many of us begin to write a little on our own, with no grades involved. Maybe we start a short story, or a diary.

Then we get busy, get a job, get married, and the impulse vanishes. Once in awhile we may think, “I ought to write that down.”

Do. Your ability to write is just like those tulip bulbs; a little warm sun will encourage them. You might need to get a shovel and lift the bulbs out from under the trash or weeds, but with a little gentleness, those tulips and that writing can bloom. Start now: what have you seen today? Don’t be poetic or metaphorical, just write down what you’ve seen.

There. You’ve begun.

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Chin Hairs and Proofreading

. . .
I always tell students you can write a poem about anything and it may become a good poem. Challenging myself, a few years ago I wrote about my chin hairs. And recently, probably while holding a pair of tweezers and peering into the mirror, I realized plucking unwanted facial hair is a dandy metaphor for removing those errors and unsightly intrusions in a manuscript.

First, here’s the poem, scheduled to appear in my new book with Twyla Hansen, Dirt Songs, sometime this autumn.

Chin Hairs

Two o’clock each October afternoon,
the sun angles just right
through the bathroom window
so I can perch on the tub
with the magnifying mirror
in one hand and the tweezers
in the other to pluck
hairs off my chin.

Each day, when I look in the mirror,
I see my grandmother.
Of course we never talked
about our chin hairs.
During our final conversation,
she was too old, I too young,
our minds too busy with her dying.
But these days we each know
what the other is thinking.
We understand how fast
the sun is sinking into winter.

Sitting on the side of the tub,
I remember being blonde,
believing chin hairs to be the curse
of dark-haired women. I tweeze
and yank and pull
and mumble to myself.

After I pluck awhile, I return to my desk.
I don’t know the angle of the sun
where grandmother is,
but I’m sure
no chin hairs grow.
. . .

Our chins may not have chin hairs in heaven or our manuscripts have mistakes, but here and now, we need to proofread!

** No one is immune from chin hairs or error.

As a child, I thought only dark-haired women got chin hairs, and felt quite smug. Similarly, no matter how good your grammar is, or how attentive you are as you are drafting a manuscript, you will probably make mistakes.

** There’s no sure way to remove chin hairs or faults in writing.

Once, in the throes of a new romance, I paid what seemed like a lot of money and endured many painful appointments while a young woman stuck an electric needle into my chin to remove hairs “permanently.” Yet every day, I pluck hairs she electrified at least once. Similarly, if you believe spell check or other computer programs will make your manuscript error free, you are misguided.

** Just when you think you have them all, you spot another one.

When I’m proofreading manuscripts, I read first the regular way, from the beginning to the end. Then I read the last sentence, then the next-to-last sentence, and so on, until I reach the beginning again. Then I run the various computer correction programs. Then I print out the manuscript and take it to a well-lighted desk and read it carefully. And still, I’ll often find an error the instant AFTER I mail or email it to its destination.

** Some are easier to find than others.

Some chin hairs and mistakes are big and black and obvious; others are blonde and hidden subtly in the curve of cheek or a sentence that you know sounds just wonderful. Only persistence and nit-picking care will find them.

** Take your time to get them all.

Just as with plucking chin hairs, don’t try to proofread a poem or article quickly in one session. A strong bathroom light might help you find some hairs, or sitting outside in full sunlight with a magnifying mirror. Similarly, proofread your writing at the computer, but also print out a copy to carry around and read in otherwise idle moments, like waiting at a checkout line. You’ll find errors you might have missed when your brain is in writing mode.

I’ve proofread this essay a number of times, both with the computer programs and by printing it out-- but quite often once I’ve done that and sent it to Tamara, she finds one or two more errors. You aren’t likely to have a friend who will pluck your chin hairs-- though I have a friend who plucked them for her mother when she was on her deathbed. But if you have a friend who will proofread, do take advantage of that good luck.

Both proofreading and hair plucking can be painful, and require you to be annoyingly detail-oriented, but both are worth the trouble. Your manuscript will be at its spiffy best when you've made it error free, and you won't risk an editor rejecting it just because dangling modifiers or the misuse of “its” and "it's" drives her crazy. And you'll feel more confident with the shadow gone from your upper lip.

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