Editor’s Note: This story is the first place winner in our ‘Who Inspires You’ contest.
by Jesse Veeder Scofield
I am living in my grandmother’s house, between walls where her pictures once hung, beneath a roof her husband built with his own hands, within a mere 600 square feet of lumber and steel and bricks, still standing humbly like a glimmer of life on 3,000 acres of ranch land on the edge of the Badlands in western North Dakota.
I am living in my grandmother’s house and have never been more inspired by a woman who once called this place home.
And I was blessed to have lived here before, because when I was 6 years old my grandfather died and left my grandmother alone in a world that was supposed to be theirs together forever. But there she stood with four horses, one hundred head of cattle, a cow-dog, a cat, and her hands on her hips in her blue jeans and wool cap on a landscape that held her heart.
She was only 58 years old.
And she wasn’t moving.
I’m not sure how the conversation went, but it was agreed that my father would be the one to help run the ranch. And when he sprung to action, packed up his things, kissed my mother goodbye for now and knocked on my grandmother’s door, I was standing right behind him when she opened it.
So it was here I lived, in this very house while my father made plans to move the rest of the family to the ranch. It was here my grandmother taught me how to make homemade bubbles and bread dough and how to ride a horse and weed and care for a garden. It was here she showed me all of the things a six or seven-year-old ranch kid should know.
Oh I loved this woman with silver hair and wide hips that swayed as she hummed old songs in the kitchen at the end of a day. I remember watching her brown, worn hands as she worked, either on the back of a horse or in her yard. And I would glance down at mine, comparing, studying, as if I was looking for a sign that we were connected, that I would indeed grow up to have her heart, her passion, her beauty and her zeal for a life lived on a landscape that captivated me—captivated her.
As I grew a bit older and moved into a house down the road with my family, it was by her side on this landscape where I learned to chase cattle and care for my first bottle calf and how to drive the feed pickup as my dad shoveled grain out the back for the hungry animals in the winter.
And for five years I watched as my grandmother lived her life as the rock of her world, hosting huge family dinners in this very house, forgetting the Jell-O salad in the fridge amongst the wonderful chaos that her three grown children brought along on their coattails, laughing until tears streamed out of her eyes as my cousins and I put on plays and dressed in the old dresses, shirts, hats and costume jewelry she saved for us. I helped her string cranberries for the cedar Christmas tree she cut from her land and sat next to her in our small country church as her steady voice carried the hymns out of the open windows and into the prairie air.
Yes, I was her sidekick, her shadow, until one clear summer morning I woke to find that my grandmother’s laughter would no longer echo off the buttes and the floors of her house would never again creak under her bare feet. Her house would no longer smell of cinnamon and warm butter. And it may remain that way forever.
Now, at 27, I realize I have lived without my grandmother longer than I have lived with her in my life. But in those years spent in her shadow I learned more than how to grow plump tomatoes and saddle a horse. My grandmother showed me what it was like to live a life with heart, hard work and a little play splashed in.
So I took her voice with me as I moved off of the ranch and on to college and adulthood and tried to do things she would be proud of. I have sung my songs, rode horses, fell in love, rescued animals, had my heart broken, learned a few things the hard way and moved away to find myself somewhere, knowing full well where I would end up.
Home in her house working to build a life on a landscape that shaped me, standing in her doorway, scrubbing her floors, cooking dinner on her stove, stubbing my toe on the coffee table and complaining while trying to find space for my ridiculous shoe collection and oversized sofa. And as I am coming into my own in a house I know so well, with each day I am learning more about this woman and who she really was.
Because as I cuss the worn linoleum and search for a place to store my Tupperware collection I wonder if this could really be the same house that held my childhood memories of dress-up and kitten rescuing? Could this be the same basement where my grandmother helped drag abandoned calves to shelter during a blizzard and stood by the wood-burning stove helping my grandfather to dry the newborns and keep them alive through the storm?
The stories I hear about how she raised three children and countless foster children between the small spaces of these walls awaken something inside of me and urge me to do better, to be stronger. I cling to the image of my grandmother as a young wife and mother who would take off riding over the hills to gather cattle with her husband during a time when most women stayed in the house to tend to the housework. I long to be as light hearted, to put coffee filters in the pancakes on April Fools Day and laugh with the delight and zest for fun she possessed. I envy her free spirit when I hear about the way she would throw her shirt aside as she worked in the garden to let the sun soak in her skin, to feel the wild air and work and live under this big blue sky like she belonged nowhere else.
When I tuck myself into bed in the very room where my grandmother used to sleep after a day of chores and living in the sun and wind, I wonder if she ever cursed the small stove or wished she had room for a bigger table.
And in the middle of a Saturday morning when I’m straightening a photograph or taking a ride on the back of a good horse in the saddle she left behind, I miss her.
I miss the things she didn’t have a chance to teach me, I miss her voice, her laugh, her hands, her smell, her bread dough and homemade pickles. Because when I grew up, I wanted to ask her things and compare our features and understand why I may have turned out like her.
But then, sometimes, in the quiet moments in this house spent scrubbing the floor or dusting the shelves, I feel like her. I feel her smile spread across my face, her kink in my back and I wonder if this house held her the way it is holding me. I wonder if these walls closed in on her family the way they have on us, urging us to break down, to touch, to hold on tight to each other. I wonder if she stood in the kitchen making dinner for her husband and if he felt moved to come up behind her and gently kiss her cheek. I wonder if she danced in the living room. I wonder if she tripped over her coffee table.
So here I am, the fourth generation on my family’s ranch still listening, still learning how to exist here, the only place I’ve ever called home, long after my grandmother’s death. And I find myself wanting, so bad, to keep the bricks and mortar in tact, but more so I long to fill this house they way she filled it. I want people to sit close, eat my cooking and drink my bad coffee. I want our laughter and kitchen light to flood the farmyard late into the night and bounce off the buttes and make the landscape ring with life.
Just like her. Just the way she lived.
Jessie Veeder, singer/songwriter, lives on her family’s ranch in Western North Dakota with her husband. She plans to open a ranch vacation business this summer. You can read more from Jessie on her blog.