Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Starry Night

Good morning!

Our week of Christmas celebrations continues, as we spend the weekend at the Cvach family ranch near Midland, SD. Despite our best intentions to arrive early yesterday, the sun was setting as we drove south of Faith toward the ranch. Like the branches on a tree, the road to the ranch became narrower and more winding, the further we drove from town. Already sparse, the traffic became nearly non-existent. As the road gently followed the prairie ridges you could see yard lights from distant ranches twinkling in the distance, a bit brighter than usual due to plentiful Christmas decorations.

A mile from Kim & Russel's house, Wesley stopped the car, so I could let Sox out for a little exercise across the prairie. Kim & Russel have a beautiful new home overlooking Indian Creek. They built the house themselves this past spring, working side by side with Wesley's mom Gaynold and her husband Tony. The home is located a mile or so, from the ranch Wesley grew up on. Wesley's great grandparents, the Miles family, homesteaded across the creek to the northeast on a hillside you can see from the house.

In wet weather, the road to the house gets too muddy for a car, and the family uses a four wheeler to get in and out. But, in cold weather like this, the road is just fine, gently winding its way across the prairie toward the welcoming house in the distance.

I stepped out of the car to let the dog out, and was stunned by the beauty of the prairie sky. The night was clear and crisp, with no hint of wind. In the inky blackness, the stars twinkled with an intensity I've seldom experienced. I felt like I could reach up and touch the heavens. The silence was overwhelming.

Climbing back into the car, I asked Wesley to open the sunroof. Matthew unbuckled from his car seat, and climbed up onto the armrest, stretching his head and shoulders through the roof up into the night. We sat in silence, soaking up the awesome sight.

Matthew asked, "Is that Heaven?".

"Yes, I think it is," I replied peacefully.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Birds in the Snow

Matthew and I spent Friday afternoon in the sewing room. I pieced a quilt top, and he played nearby. A gentle snow was falling: large fluffy snowflakes gradually covered the ground. Thankfully, there was no wind.

I noticed a few small sparrows land in the front yard and begin to eat, reaching through the soft snow cover to the ground below. Then, more landed. Within minutes, small birds were scattered across our entire front yard.

I called Wesley at the quilt store, and described the scene to him. I couldn't imagine what the birds could find to eat in our yard. He reminded me that he spread grass seed again a few weeks ago. This past summer, he coaxed a lawn to grow on our prairie hilltop, but there are still a few bare patches that he had to reseed.

"There's plenty more grass seed in the garage", he told me. "You can sprinkle some more out there for the birds."

I filled a paper cup with grass seed, and headed outside. The sound of the door opening startled the birds, and they quickly flew away, their grey feathers blending into the sky above.
Undeterred, I scattered the seed around the yard, noticing how cold it was outside. I felt bad about disrupting the little birds as they ate, and hoped they would return.

Sure enough, within minutes the flock was back. They feasted on the seed for quite a while, as snow gently fell to the ground. Some were close enough to my window that I could see each snowflake as it landed on their feathers.

Finally, the flock departed. I imagine they sought shelter in a nearby grove of trees or farm shed. Instinctively, they chose to find a good meal before snow completely covered the landscape, and I was happy they found their feast in our front yard.

With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, this experience reminded me of our many blessings.
As I sat in our warm sewing room with Matthew and our two cats, watching the little birds outside the window, I was intensely grateful for our cozy home with its abundance of comforts. I thought of our pantry full of healthy food, and how we never doubt where our next meal will come from. I was appreciative of the love of family and friends, and reflected upon the serene beauty of our life here in North Dakota.

I shared a simple gift of a cup of grass seed with those little birds, and in return they gave me so much more.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our Snow Day

Good Morning.

Wednesday afternoon, a winter storm blew into the Dakotas. First rain, then freezing rain, then snow, then unrelentingly wind. The phone woke me around 6am, a call to notify us that Wesley's 7 am Chamber of Commerce meeting was canceled. I snuggled up under a quilt, cup of coffee in hand, and listed to our local radio station. Weekdays, Dwight is the morning announcer, before he heads off to work at his other job, running Knutson's Feed Store. He is a font of information, faithfully relaying the latest weather forecasts, road reports, school news, along with assorted schedules, cancellations, last minute changes, and other useful tidbits.

Around 6:30am, Dwight confirmed that school was closed, and Sheriff Molbert sternly called in to the station to advise absolutely no travel. I gleefully turned the radio off, and woke everybody up, including Laurie-Ann and Hampton (her preciously cute Yorkie puppy), staying with us for the work week.

"It's a Snow Day... We can't go anywhere!" Matthew eagerly planned a day of snowmen, snow balls, snow forts and snow angels until Wesley let had him poke his head out the front door into the blizzard. He quickly realized that inside was the best place to play.

Because we were up so early, we got a lot of tasks done. Wesley & Matthew put together some new furniture, Laurie-Ann sewed most of the day, and I cleaned off my desk and worked on the website. Surprisingly, we had electricity all day, and even the Internet worked until mid-afternoon.

Most of the pets enjoyed the event. The cats, Aimee and Abbie relished in the extra attention. Laurie-Ann's puppy Hampton happily played with Matthew in a fort they build in the living room, using quilts, pillows, and the big boxes from the new furniture. Our big dog Sox, used to spending his days roaming around outside, was anxious about the bad weather, and didn't like being cooped up inside.

As much as we enjoyed our unexpected break from our busy lives, I couldn't help but worry about ranchers out in the weather caring for their animals. A Dakota blizzard is also hazardous for people who become sick and can't get to the hospital, or those who find themselves without heat or electricity. For many, I'm sure this storm brought plenty of hardship, danger, and worry.
I thought of the homesteaders who first wintered on the open prairie, in little cabins with sod roofs and poor insulation. No running water or electricity, poor heat, and none of the modern conveniences that we take for granted. I imagine them huddled around a fireplace or wood stove, doing their best to care for their young children and their precious herds, wondering if they would live to see the end of the blizzard. Many pioneers left the prairie, due to the harsh weather and difficult circumstances. But, many chose to stay... building better homes, barns for their animals, schools and churches. In the midst of a Dakota blizzard, I am amazed at the perseverance and work ethic of our ancestors, in awe of what they must have endured.
I woke Friday morning to the surprising sound of silence. I listened carefully.... no wind. Blanketed in snow, our house was warm and peaceful. I looked out, and for the first time in over a day, I could see our road and the lights of town in the distance. Snowbanks as far as the eye could see, but the storm was over, as was our "Snow Day".

Sunday, October 26, 2008

From Main Street

Friday morning at 9 am sharp, I drove down Hettinger's Main Street, and pulled up to park in front of Dakota Cabin Quilts. I paused to enjoy the beautiful autumn morning and noticed other merchants arriving at their shops, keys in hand, opening up for the day. Across the street, someone swept leaves from the sidewalk in front of the insurance agency. To the north, I heard the wet sound of a window being washed, followed by the squeak of a squeegee. I gazed with pride at our storefront, our pretty window displays (thanks Ellen!), and saw some of my favorite quilts hanging from the ceiling near the front of the shop.

Our small town is blessed with a vital, healthy, busy Main Street. Hettinger has very few vacant buildings compared to communities of a similar size. Our Main Street businesses include: a grocery store, a variety store, a NAPA, a print shop, an antique shop, White Drug (with great gifts too), a KB Jewelers (with gift and books), Prairie Rose Floral, three hair salons, two banks, three insurance/investment agencies, three bars, two restaurants, and a dry cleaner.
Main Street Hettinger has a couple of great non-profits, including the "Clothes Closet", a second-hand shop staffed by volunteers, stocked with clean, inexpensive clothing and housewares. Profits generated by the Clothes Closet are donated back to the community. And, a few years ago, the Hettinger Theatre Board and local tradespeople came together to build a wonderful theatre in an empty building on north main. On the weekends, the smell of popcorn wafts up and down Main, and local teenagers have a tradition of meeting at the Sunday matinee.
I like to think of our end of the street as the "Arts & Crafts" area, as the Music Studio, Fried Photography/Scrapbook Shop, Wild Crocus Embroidery, and the Quilt Store are clustered together on South main.

Just north of us, the largest building on Main is KMM, a manufacturing company, and the second largest employer in town (after the medical center). KMM is a family-owned high tech manufacturer, based in Kildeer, ND, and one of their regional facilities is in Hettinger. At KMM, workers assemble small components that go into military equipment and air craft, and the company has contracts with Boeing and the US Department of Defense.

The phrase "From Wall Street to Main Street" has been ubiquitous this Election cycle, endlessly repeated by politicians, pundits, and news reporters. There is no doubt that the economic downturn is directly affecting Main Street businesses across the nation. As a business owner, I can't help but worry about the economy. But, as a consumer, I know that I can make a difference by carefully choosing where I spend my dollars. From groceries to gasoline, clothing to housewares, and for holiday gifts, I have renewed my commitment to shopping at the small businesses in our region, and plan to do my online shopping at small specialty e-stores rather than large chains.

If we all work together to support "Main Street USA", we will make a difference.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

From Sunrise to Sunset

Good morning.

We've had a pleasant addition to our pet family the last few weekends. Laurie-Ann has been staying with us, and she's been bringing her new puppy along. Hampton is a four month old Yorkie, energetic and inquisitive. He weighs just over three pounds... quite the contrast to our big dog Sox, and our fat house cats Aimee and Abbey (17 pounds and 22 pounds respectively). He really wants to be friends with all of the other animals, but the cats are having none of it. On the other hand, Sox and Hampton play, and Sox's herding instincts come out as he tries to "herd Hampton" around the yard. When we take the dogs out for a walk, Hampton must run 20 steps for every one of Sox's.

Matthew loves the puppy, and for the last two nights he's camped out in his sleeping bag beside the little kennel. The two of them play tag, fetch, and chase each other to the point of exhaustion. Hampton is just the right size for Matthew to easily carry him as he snuggles up inside his coat.
Having the puppy here has also been good for my soul.
Yesterday, I took both dogs for a walk at sunrise and sunset. Watching Sox confidently bound across the familiar ground, as Hampton tagged behind, warmed my heart. I reflected upon the wonderful contrast between day and night, plant and animal, big and small, new and old, dark and light. I appreciated the mysterious beauty of the expansive prairie, yet looked forward to returning to our warm, cozy house perched on the hill... twinkling yard lights welcoming us home. For a precious few moments all of the daily stresses melted away and I lived in the moment, my heart bursting with appreciation for all of these wonderful blessings.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Today, We Make the Soup

Good morning.

We woke Friday morning to a light dusting of snow, and we've had a constant drizzle (rain, freezing rain, and an occasional snowflake) ever since. Despite the dreary weather, the moisture is a blessing.

Matthew and I declared yesterday to be "Matthew and Mommy's Pajama Day", and after a quick trip to the grocery store in the morning, we spent the entire day inside. I got some sewing done, we played games, did puzzles, and read story books. As we enjoyed our time together, the smell of homemade chicken rice soup wafted through the house, a delightful reminder of my own childhood.

When I was seven, my mom passed away after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. For years thereafter, her mom, my grandmother Bernice, devoted a month in the spring and a month in the fall to our family. She traveled by train or bus from Manitoba to Alberta to live with us, and "get things in order". When Grandma arrived, everything was better... she did the mending, the laundry, the "deep cleaning", the cooking, and shared lots of hugs, kisses, and snuggles.

Grandma was a Polish immigrant, and struggled to care for her family in the depression years, as a farm wife in rural Manitoba, near Brandon. For the rest of her life, even in times of prosperity, nothing went to waste. She saved everything: paper grocery sacks were neatly folded and stored in a drawer along with twist ties, bits of string, wrapping paper and empty cereal boxes. She'd use these supplies to wrap the "care packages" she frequently sent to her loved ones. And, she'd fill our freezer with home baked cookies, carefully wrapped in wax paper, neatly stacked in empty cereal boxes, fastened with string.

At night, she would sit quietly mending and patching our clothes by hand. She would carefully stretch my dad's thick woolen work socks over a light bulb, and darn them with yarn. I was fascinated by her neat and tidy work, as she carefully wove the yarn over the worn spots in the heels.

Grandma baked and cooked without a recipe or measuring cups, using fresh ingredients from the garden and the butcher shop. Although I fondly remember her homemade Polish dishes (pirogies and cabbage rolls), my favorite days were those when she made soup.

Grandma would rise in the early morning, and declare, "Today, we make the soup!" By the time I was dressed and ready for school, I would find her in my father's kitchen, standing over the beginning of her homemade stock, stirring and skimming the fat from a boiling soup bone, or a whole chicken. I can still see her patiently hovering over the stove, wearing a long apron, holding a wooden spoon, with a large array of fresh vegetables and herbs on the kitchen counter beside her. By the time we arrived home from school for lunch, the kitchen was spotless, warm, and fragrant, and she served us large bowls of soup from her steaming kettle. Beef barley, chicken noodle, ham and bean, turkey vegetable... I loved them all.

Yesterday, I took the time to make soup like my Grandma did. Homemade stock, fresh herbs and vegetables, and lots of TLC. I did break down and use a recipe and measuring cups, though. As Wesley, Matthew and I sat down to eat, I thought about how much I miss my Grandma, and wished she could be with us to enjoy the savory meal. But, I was thankful that I took the time to honor her memory, and thought, "Today, we made the soup."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Spirit of Dakota

Good morning. This edition of the newsletter comes to you from the South Dakota Quilters Retreat, at the Crossroads Hotel and Huron Events Center in Huron, South Dakota. Wesley & I are vending here this weekend. So far, it's been a wonderful weekend, as we've reconnected with dear friends and made new ones. As usual, we brought way too much merchandise, and our booth is "packed to the hilt" with quilt kits, fabric bundles, yardage, patterns, books, and notions.

All weekend, I've been enjoying the "Pride of Dakota" sculpture gracefully set on the lawn near the main door of the events center. This morning, I did some online research, and learned that "The nine foot bronze sculpture "Spirit of Dakota" which stands at the entrance of the Crossroads Hotel & Huron Event Center, is the source for the state-wide Spirit of Dakota Award. Dale Claude Lamphere, nationally recognized sculptor and artist, is the creator. This sculpture of a pioneer woman balanced against the wind was unveiled and dedicated in October 1987 by the citizens of Huron and is the unique possession of this community." (Source: Spirit of Dakota Award Society)

Each fall, the Society bestows the "Spirit of Dakota" award on a deserving South Dakota woman, based on leadership, courage, and strength of character, and other honorable attributes. The recipients of the award receive a small scale version of the sculpture.

Earlier today, I went out into the cool morning air, camera in hand, to take a photo of the sculpture for the newsletter. I spent a few moments admiring her. My attention was captured by the look of determination on her face, and her muscular arms portraying physical strength and stamina. Her sunbonnet reminded me of the long days she worked under the hot sun, in the fields and the garden. Her long flowing skirt, impractical and cumbersome, is a steadfast reminder of her femininity. She gazes into the distance, always looking ahead, as though she is working hard today so that her children may have a better tomorrow.

With a bit of sadness, I tore myself away from the serene garden, and my time with the sculpture. Another busy day ahead... newsletter to write, suitcases to pack, goods to load up in the car and trailer, and a six hour drive home. But, as I put "one foot in front of the other", I'll appreciate this beautiful Dakota morning and the "Spirit of Dakota".

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beet Pickles

Good Afternoon.

Earlier this week, I found out that the vegetable truck was in Lemmon,SD, and had set up shop in a gas station parking lot. These resourceful farmers live "East River", where the farms have rich soil and plenty of moisture; perfect conditions for growing wonderful vegetables. We don't have a garden, so we rely upon the grocery store and the fruit & vegetable trucks that pass through town for our fresh produce.

I was hoping to pick up some pickling cucumbers. Last year my friend Dode taught me how to make delicious spicy dill pickles, and crisp sweet refrigerator pickles. No such luck. "Sold out of cukes", the farmer said. "Won't have any more until next year. You should have come last week."

I settled on a bag of sweet corn. As an afterthought, remembering how much Wesley loves beet pickles, I bought all the beets the farmer had.

Saturday morning, I studied up on how to make beet pickles. I'm always a bit intimidated by food safety warnings, and worry I'm going to mess up and somebody will get food poisoning.
I examined the bag of muddy beets. All sizes & shapes, and somehow prehistoric looking. It was hard to imagine transforming these ugly vegetables into tasty beet pickles. But, I set to work. Washing, trimming, boiling & peeling the beets was hot & messy work. But, by the time Wesley got home from work, I had three large bowls of clean, shiny, cooked red beets.

We worked together to make the pickles. By bedtime, we were finished: eighteen little jars of beet pickles, neatly lined up on the counter top. The rest of the kitchen was a disaster, but I happily enjoyed the sight of our treasures. The ruby red pickles in the glass jars were so pretty. The gentle popping of the lids was such a welcome sound, indicating our jars were sealing correctly.

As we worked, we talked about our grandmothers. Both were of European ancestry, and amazingly both were named Bernice. Both had large produce gardens, carefully tending their crops in the spring & summer. Come fall, their kitchens would become beehives of activity, as they canned, pickled, made jams & jellies, and froze fruits & vegetables for the winter ahead. They had lived through the depression, and even though we knew them when times were good, they never forgot the feeling of not having enough food to feed their families. I told Wesley about my grandmother's basement, a veritable warehouse of freezers, cupboards full of every imaginable preserve, pickle, relish, jelly and jam. Although she lived alone, she chose to have a stockpile of food. I can still hear her her voice telling me, "I just like to be prepared." Nothing went to waste at my Grandma's house.

Our beet pickles turned out great. And our grandmothers would be proud of our efforts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Living in the Moment

Good Morning.

Last week, we took a nice vacation, traveling to Rapid City, SD, and Northeastern Wyoming. With a couple of "must do" plans, and the goal to relax and spend some family time together, we excitedly left on Tuesday evening.

As always, it was really hard to remove ourselves from our responsibilities and commitments, even for just a few days. But, our capable staff pulled together to run the store in our absence. And, Laurie-Ann lived at our house while we were gone, so our pets had great care and companionship.

I love to travel, to experience new sights, tastes, sounds, and smells. Traveling makes me feel "centered"... the daily worries & stresses meltaway, as we drive the open road, enjoy beautiful landscapes, and see the world through Matthew's eyes.

Yesterday, on our way home, we took a side trip to Devil's Tower, WY, proclaimed in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt as the first national monument. Today, the beautiful landmark is maintained by the National Park Service,and visitors enjoy learning about it's history, ecology & geology. Families picnic in the shade of the Ponderosa Pines, hikers roam around the base, and adventuresome rock climbers scale the monument.

I learned that over 20 American Indian tribes have a cultural connectionto the Tower, and that at least six nations (Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, and Shoshone) lived at the area at some point in their history. The tower is of profound religious importance to American Indians, and many sacred ceremonies are held there. Colorful prayer cloths and bundles (left behind as prayer offerings) can be seen tied to tree branches around the base of the monument.

We took a lot of pictures yesterday, to remind us of our wonderful afternoon at the site, and capture the beauty of our surroundings. But, as we sat quietly on a bench, eating our lunch and watching the climbers deftly scale the rock columns, I forced myself to stop taking pictures and to live in the moment. Along with the awesome sight before our eyes, we could hear the breeze rustling through the pines, and smell the clean, fresh air. Chipmunks chattered in the distance, and birds soared overhead. A doe and her fawn quietly grazed nearby, and the sound of children laughing brought joy to everyone. Visitors from all cultures enjoyed the site, and we heard families speaking in many different languages.

I thought, "Today, I am blessed. This is exactly where I am meant to be, and I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing."

Those moments of inner peace will serve me well in the busy days ahead. Matthew starts Kindergarten this week, and coming home from vacation is almost as hard as getting ready to leave. But, our little family is refreshed, rejuvenated, and energized... ready to face the busy days ahead.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mmm... Homemade Ice Cream on a Hot July Evening

Good Morning.

It's been hot this week. Temperatures have been in the high nineties, with hot winds stirring up the dust.

Wednesday night, we took a break from the heat, and drove down to the "Lodgepole Ice Cream Social". Rose, Gayla, and Phyllis live in this tight knit little community. Some might refer to the place as a "wide spot in the road", but there is so much more to the story.

Currently, "Lodgepole" consists of a handful of houses, a multi-purpose business called the "Lodgepole Store", and a community building called the "Lodgepole Hall". The "Store" serves as a gathering place for daily coffee, and offers a variety of groceries, and other essentials. Also, they sell Maytag appliances, fireplaces, and tires. They run a propane business, and service the wells and water-tanks on local farms & ranches. A few years ago, the store added an important addition: a special room was built for Mary & Melody's long-arm quilting machine.

Oh, and there is a post office in the store too. If you've received a package lately from us, check the mailing label. We try to keep the Lodgepole post office busy, as we ship the majority of our packages from there. We joke that if our business keeps growing, USPS might build Gary his own building. For now, he gets by in a tiny room within the store.

The "Ice Cream Social" is just one of the events held every year at the "Hall". I visited with Thelma, one of the founders of the event. She told me that the social has been an annual event for 40 years, originally starting out as a birthday club party. Gradually, it evolved into a community wide celebration, carefully planned for the end of July or early August, between "haying" and "harvesting". Thelma plans the evening, puts up posters around town, calls the Hettinger radio station, and arranges for volunteers to bring the meal (sandwiches, salads, and cake). A large crew of help is on hand to set up, serve the meal, do the dishes, and clean up afterwords. It's a free will offering, and the proceeds go to maintaining "the Hall."

The highlight of the evening is the homemade vanilla ice cream prepared earlier in the afternoon. Simple, rich, creamy, and so very good!

Thelma prepares all of the ice cream mix herself. This year, she made four batches, enough for 12 gallons of ice cream. She said she hasn't changed the recipe in 40 years. This year, four of the original birthday club members made it to the social. After dinner, everyone enjoyed the creamy ice cream, returning for seconds and sometimes thirds. Senior members of the crowd happily shared the tradition with their grandchildren, great grandchildren, old friends, and newcomers attending their first social.

Lodgepole, SD. A "wide spot in the road?" I don't think so. A tight knit community filled with life, laughter, and respect for the importance of history, family, and tradition.

Thelma's Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream Recipe: Note: this is for a crowd (makes 3 gallons)
15 eggs
9 cups heavy sweet cream
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup imitation vanilla
6 cups white sugar
1 gallon milk

Sunday, July 20, 2008

If These Walls Could Talk

Good Morning.

With the heat of summer upon us, we've been spending most of our time inside. But, as it cooled off last night, we decided to go for a drive, take Sox for a run, and take a few pictures. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about an abandoned house a few miles from us, and I wanted to go see it again.

Wesley first showed me the house a couple of months ago when we were running Sox. The house is tucked off the highway out of view, surrounded by a grove of trees and rolling hills. It's an old two story wooden house on the prairie, with a couple of outbuildings that have fallen down. It's been abandoned for years.

Although some parts of the entrance have fallen off, the main structure stands firmly. A dirt road gently winds past the place, and fat black cattle graze nearby. Last night, a herd of antelope stood sentry on a nearby hill, quietly watching us. As I got out of the car to take my pictures, Wesley warned me: "Be careful where you step, there are rattlesnakes around here!"

The house fascinates me, and triggers my imagination. Apparently, the farm family who lived there had a number of children. I imagine they had a large garden, full of fresh vegetables. They must have raised chickens, pigs, cattle, and possibly sheep. The children probably rode horses to a country school, weather permitting. I think of the farm wife, raising her family, and keeping the household going. In the early years, she probably didn't have running water in the house, yet somehow managed to do laundry, cook, and clean, using water she carried from a well. I wonder how often she went to town, or if she went to church. I can only imagine how tired she must have been at the end of the day. I'm sure she knew how to sew... mending and altering clothing. But, I wonder if she made clothes for the family. I wonder if she used her scrap fabric to make quilts for the beds, to keep her family warm against the bitter winter winds. Did she ever have any feedsack prints? So many questions...if only the old walls could talk.

Standing there on the prairie, I took a few photos, and peacefully reflected upon the history of the place. I said a quiet greeting to the farm wife who once lived in this beautiful place. Although her home may be abandoned, I wanted her to know that I respected her space, and recognized her life's work.