Friday, April 12, 2013

Mending Fences and Writing Down the Bones

Yesterday when I was photographing some old Journals, I knew immediately what that blue one was. In the early 90's I bought Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down the Bones. It is no secret I dreamed of being a writer - it says so right there in my blog profile. Natalie's book was all about how to become one. Her rules were simple: use a cheap spiral notebook and a comfortable pen or pencil with which you can write rapidly.
Practice writing every day: the first thought that pops in your head. Keep your hand moving. Don't re-read, don't cross out, don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar - lose control - don't think, don't get logical - just write. She was asking me to break a lot of my self-imposed rules about writing.
But I started with a fresh, cheap, spiral bound notebook and here is a sample of some of that writing:

3/2/95 So, Natalie, just write? Easier some days than others. Will this become my journal in place of? This scribbling on the bus. What happens if I quit riding the bus? (The commute to my downtown workplace took about a half hour - it was my free time to, usually, read. I was trying to replace that with writing practice.)

The summer I was 12, or maybe 13, Dad was rebuilding the N. fence line in the Shearburn pasture. We called it the Shearburn pasture because it belonged to the neighbors and we rented it from them. Each morning after milking, one of us would drive the cows down our quiet country road to the corner where we had to cross a much busier county road to get the cows through a gate and into the safety of the pasture.
The task was made somewhat more dangerous by a hill immediately to the west of the corner. In other words, if a car came flying over the hill from the west and the cows were just crossing at that moment the driver may or may not get stopped in time: Voilá - instant hamburger. The cattle crossing sign did little to slow them down. But nothing like that ever happened - just a few close calls. In the evening the procedure was reversed and we drove the cows home for the evening milking and to spend the night lazing in the cow lot.

But, back to the fencing project. The Shearburns, Glenn and Ethie, were retired. Not much had been done to keep up their farm over the years. Where my brother Ron was and why he didn't help Dad I don't remember. Maybe it was the summer he went "blue grassing" with Firkins and Morrison. With an older brother always around, we girls weren't often asked to help dad outside. I felt privileged.

We drove the old pickup loaded with posts and wire, the post hole digger, a tamper and a jug of ice water down to the corner and through the field to where we needed to begin. Most of the posts were still o.k., so we only had to replace part of them and then stretch the wire. It was a hot day, but out on the pasture hill a steady breeze kept us cool.

I was in heaven that day. The sky was blue, the breezes rippled the pasture grasses in waves, meadow larks and red-wing blackbirds sang and I had my dad to myself. He must have been in a good mood that day for he praised my work rather than tell me I was "doing it wrong". (I even remember him telling Mom I had done a good job.)

My work that day - or at least all I can remember doing - was "sighting" the poles to get the fence straight. I would stand at the post just set, look across the top of it, hold out the thumb of my right hand, close my left eye and then tell Dad to move right or left where he stood holding the next post down the line.

There is a Grant Wood painting of a farmer building fence. Years later I gave Dad a framed copy of it "in memory of the day we marched the fence posts across the Shearburn pasture." Did he remember the day? And me helping him? Did he ever think about us kids? Except for what disappointments we were to him - or how he had failed us? Did he ever reconcile himself to being a father before he died? Will I ever reconcile myself to being his daughter before I die?

And now I have a son who "wants to know me better". Just as my father and I built fence, so did my son and I - in 1978 after moving back home. We moved on a shoestring and a prayer. No money, no job and no place to live. The deal for the house we were planning on moving into fell thru - then Dad died. The month of May '78 was stressful to say the least.

We moved all our stuff in a borrowed van and then in a rented open trailer - making several 200 mile round trips a day. Doug and I did it all ourselves - a 16 yr old boy and his 34 yr old Mom. Furniture - clothes - everything was stuffed into Mom's two garages. And the newly widowed woman took her daughter and 3 grandchildren into her house. A house that my father had warned me 12 years previously after my first divorce that "you're not going to move back in here with your mom after I'm gone." Ironic isn't it? He thought he was so in control. And he did control our lives as fathers do - by yelling, degrading, withholding affection and being the money keeper. Yet I loved him and longed for his love and approval in return.

It was 6 weeks before I found a part-time job and 3 mos before we got our own house which we moved to just before school started. Doug as a junior, Kari a 4th grader and Preston in second. The house was on Tuck Corner - a windy, cold old house. We named it 'Windtuck'. Somehow that first winter I managed to buy a chain saw and a wood-burning stove. Mom helped me buy a pickup truck. All the things I needed to make my move home complete. Those really were the best years of my life. I wonder how the kids remember them?

There was never enough money. I did not believe in welfare or even in food stamps. I was proud and independent - just as Dad had raised me to be. Doug worked for farmer neighbors, we bartered, we did odd jobs. The summer of '79 the farm mgr we rented from offered us a job rebuilding a section of fence on another farm he managed. It paid $80!! We jumped on it!

The farm was west of town about 10 miles so a 16 or 17 mile trip from our place. We loaded up the old Dodge pickup with wire stretchers, post hole diggers and wire. Took along a cooler with pop and sandwiches, grabbed our hammers and fencing pliers, made sure we had leather gloves and head bands and headed off for a day of fencing. Richard met us there to show us the fence and how to get to it. We had to drive through a pasture in a round-a-bout way even though the fence was straight N of the farmstead - we couldn't drive through the cornfield.

Why is it that when someone is telling you about a job needing done it is just "re-stretching a couple wires on about 80 ft of fence" but when you actually see the job it is re-stretching all the wire on about 1/2 mile of fence, plus replacing fence posts and repairing woven wire?
Fortunately my young son was experienced with wire stretchers and was already muscular and capable. I quickly went from being the boss to being the helper. Soon we worked out a routine and became a fencing team.

The summer sky was the same blue with white puffy clouds. The same sun shone bright and hot. It was a different hill and a different breeze that rippled the grasses and dried our sweat. And the next generation making a memory. I am the bridge between these two memories of fencing. I gave Dad a copy of someone else's drawing to commemorate our day. I took pictures of Doug working and gave him a copy to remember our day.

I am a bridge.

This has been a longer than usual blog. It is hard for me to transcribe this writing practice entry and not edit it, but that was the whole idea of writing it to begin with. Doug was the son who told me he wanted to know me better. Doug is the one who wanted me to write my memoirs after I retired and his request is the reason I started blogging about my life.

After writing about and thinking about journaling the past two days, I am feeling more like going back to that hand-written form of introspection and memory keeping. Some things about my life just don't belong out there in the ether.


  1. This is beautiful, Mommy! It made me tear up.

    1. Well, as designated future keeper of my journals, this is just a sample of what you may find!
      Thanks for the kind comment.