Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bookworms Anonymous

I just picked up a new batch of books from the PO so if I don't answer the phone...

Hello. My name is Sondra. I am a Bookworm. I have books on shelves, books in boxes, books stacked on tables, books hidden behind the sofa, books cradled in the laundry hamper. Books are crowding me out of the house. Lately I have asked myself some hard questions. After a fearless and searching inventory of my innermost motives, I have no doubt. I am a Chronic Reader.

Some folks are Social Readers. When it comes to books, they can take it or leave it. You see them at the airport picking up Oprah’s latest recommendation to read on the plane to Boston . If blessed with a chatty seatmate they will not open the book. I look at them with scorn. At the airport I am like a glutton checking to see if there are any books I have missed. I usually buy one or two just in case I am not in the mood for the three I brought with me for the forty-five minute flight to Helena with a touch down in Lewistown.

The Periodic Reader grabs light summer reading for her week on the beach in Maui . She will probably leave the book in the hotel room when she checks out. If I were in Maui that same week, I would browse through two or three bookstores. And I would not leave a book behind. Once I bought another suitcase to cart home my literary treasure trove.

The Maintenance Reader keeps three or four novels at his bedside. He reads for a few minutes or an hour before he turns the light out. I, however, have three or four stacks of books alongside my bed. Enough said.

The Binge Reader can walk by books without a thought. Until one day, hit with an overpowering urge to read, she will hole up under the cottonwood in her back yard, or lock the front door and feast in her living room, or spend hours in the library until she has the urge out of her system and her life returns to normal. She tends to read by category or by author, devouring all the books she can find by Dick Francis or Amy Tan or Joyce Carol Oates.

I, however, am a Chronic Reader. I am powerless over books. I can’t help myself. I cannot remember ever not reading. I grew up devouring Victorian literature because my Grandmother controlled what books she saw me read. I studied cereal boxes at the breakfast table. I poured over the “The Farm Journal” and “Successful Farming”. In high school I knew more about waste disposal systems on pig farms than any boy in my class. I read whatever was in front of me. I did my homework ignoring the television, with “Forever Amber” sneaked beneath the pages of my math book. Neither math nor television has ever influenced my life. I still don’t understand why “Forever Amber” was a banned book.

People ask me, “Does reading interfere with your social life?” A: “No, all my friends are readers.” Or, “Do you spend more time reading than you planned?” A: “Doesn’t everybody?” “Have you ever bought books instead of groceries?” A: “Doesn’t everybody?” “Do you miss work because of reading?” A: “Mmmmm.” “Have you ever lied about how much you read?” A: “Why would I lie?” “Do you read to escape?” A: “Doesn’t everybody!” “Have you ever denied your children essentials because of your book buying?” A: “Of course not. For example, I fed them nutritious meals and we all had our nose in a book while we ate.”

One question does make me wriggle uncomfortably in my chair. “Do you spend more money than you planned on books?” I have white-knuckled it past Barnes and Noble, eyes averted, more than once. But I ask you, how does one stick to a book budget when irresistible bargains crop up. I cruise the book boxes at yard sales and the sale racks at the Goodwill. I once carted home sixty three books for fifty cents each. I feel high just remembering it.

I cannot deny that I am a heavy reader. I know the location of every second hand bookstore in Montana , Idaho and Washington . I run a tab at the Havre Book Exchange. I once drove from Elliott Bay Books in Seattle to Powell’s Books in Portland in search of an out of print book of Richard Hugo’s poetry. Something wrong with that?

I am a Bookworm. I don’t intend to quit. I read books. I re-read books. I hang out at the library and at bookstores. Some weeks I spend more on books than groceries. Right now I am under doctor’s orders to read. Well, he didn’t exactly say I had to read. But I have to keep my injured leg elevated so what else am I to do? I feel like a pig rolling in gumbo. Do you know W. O. Mitchell, the Saskatchewan author of “Roses Are Difficult Here”? I have seven of his books, just arrived parcel post. Did you know you can order used books over the internet for practically nothing? Did you know there are two bookstores in Havre which not only have shelves of second hand books but also carry the latest by Montana authors? Have you read Kent Haruf? How about Ivan Doig? For me there is no cure. WooHoo! Bring on the books!

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
August 6, 2009


Wondering Montana

Recently, in my copy of the Havre Daily News, I spotted a rare typo. An article about children choosing the name for the baby duck-billed dinosaur on display in the Clack Museum stated that the dinosaur “wondered Montana , probably near the Judith River ”. While I am sure that “wondered” was supposed to read “wandered”, I was struck with the infinite possibilities of both wondering and wandering. The more I entertained the idea, the more I liked it. I often wonder Montana . Every time I get on a gravel road without a map I wonder, as in why did I turn left after the barbed-wire gate when the right track had the deeper ruts, and I wander, knowing I will eventually circle back to somewhere.

As I read the article a whole new world opened to me; the notion of the little dinosaur eagerly wondering Montana . I could see this cute baby duck-bill, his eyes alight, ready to explore his new environment. His eggshell had given him no room to roam. Then I wondered why all the dinosaurs in museums around here are male. We have Leonardo and Elvis in Malta , Scotty in Eastend and now Melvin in Havre. So where are the girls?

If I had a duck-bill, she’d be a girl. I’d name her Dora. Dora the Duck-billed Dinosaur. I like the sound. While trying to imagine Dora in her pre-historic world, and wondering what her life would have been like, I felt a tug on my shirttail. I looked around and there squatted Dora, chewing a chunk of my shirt. I was speechless. She cocked her head and said to me, “I’m here to wonder in Montana .” And she took another bite of my shirt. “This has an interesting texture for an appetizer, but what’s for dinner?” Cheeky little thing, isn’t she?

“How’d you get here,” I asked.

“You wondered me.” She shrugged. “Is dinner ready?”

“The Milk River Valley isn’t exactly ferny, water-plant country,” I told Dora. “You will have to adapt. Let’s see what we can find for you in the backyard, but please keep to the shadows. The neighbors might object to you being here, you know. We have a livestock ordinance in town, although I don’t remember the ordinance specifically prohibiting dinosaurs. I suppose I could get you a collar and a license.” I realized I was babbling but nothing in my life had prepared me for this experience.

As I spoke Dora was munching down the great row of hollyhocks on the south side of my house and . . . “No, Dora, not the wisteria.” But I was too late. Then I realized she must be thirsty. So I dragged a galvanized tub from my garden cabin and filled it with water. Dora drained it, twice. She burped and settled by the bench under the poplar for a nap.

I sat beside my new friend, idly scratching the dry skin on her neck and worrying. How will I manage to feed her? I could see my yard devoid of its raspberry bushes, apple trees, the currants and all the rest of the vegetation. Then she’d probably polish off the neighbor’s twenty-foot high caragana hedge. That might keep her content for a couple of days. No doubt she’d next tackle the grove of lilac bushes at the house across the street. Then I would have a hungry, growing dinosaur plus two angry neighbors on my hands. I imagined Dora proceeding to gobble every plant in town. I pictured Main Street denuded like a war zone. Then she’d head to the hay fields in the valley. The farmers would form a militia. There would be open season on dinosaurs.

Dora woke up, rolled over and belched. My gosh, her breath. What will it smell like when she passes gas! I led her back into the house and turned on the tellie, looking for something to entertain her. She had no interest in the news, weather, wildlife, history, science, or old movies. Then I clicked on the perfect thing, re-runs of the Flintstones. With a bushel tub of popcorn between us, Dora and I watched four hours of the antics of Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty, Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm and, of course, Dino. Dora watched intently. She was fascinated.

The next morning, after ravishing my raspberries and bounding over my fence and eating all the weeds along the Burlington Northern right-of-way, Dora bounced back into my yard, leaned against my leg, put her head in my lap, and announced, “I appreciate all you have done for me, but I want to go to Bedrock and live with the Flintstones. I want to play in the sandpit with Dino. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could go to Hollyrock. I could become a star.” She picked a piece of dangling greenery from her teeth. “On the way I think I’ll wonder along the Judith River and then through Yellowstone and then up to Glacier and maybe swim in Flathead Lake . When I get to Bedrock I’ll send you a postcard. You’ll miss me, but we had great fun, didn’t we?”

I waved Dora off as she wondered north to go south. I understood her internal GPS. I went back into my house, feeling strangely empty, and saw that all my houseplants had been devoured.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
August 13, 2009

The Eggs and I

My yard was an ugly mess. The grass was scant and scraggily. The weeds were vigorous, healthy and knee high. The never ending lawn-care expense did not justify the meager results. Every water bill made me cringe. But I had a vision. I would create a Zen garden, a garden of peace. I would define it with separate areas. There would be nooks, each with a meditation bench and potted splashes of red geraniums and purple petunias. I would plant a rock-ringed circle of herbs, and build paths through the shrubs and fruit trees. In my mind I could picture future plots crowded with lilies, bachelor buttons blowing in the breeze, and poppies nodding their red heads.

So I phoned Frontier Landscaping and ordered fifteen cubic yards of bark chips to cover the grass and weeds and make them go away. I borrowed two muscular young men away from their fencing chores. For two days Trent and Rylee manned shovels and wheel barrows and trundled the chips around the yard while I raked them, creating the canvas for my future masterpiece. I planted and groomed and set about with rockery the spindly twigs of lilac, wild rose and spirea, currants, chokecherries and Saskatoon berries. These sprigs would bear fruit and flowers for years to come.

One morning a couple days later, I dragged a hose around my back yard watering my pots and bushes and twigs. I was exceptionally pleased with the fruits of my labor. I beamed, well satisfied. In my mind I could see the on-going metamorphosis of the once weedy yard into a verdant private park. My reverie was interrupted by a knock at the front door. My first thought was, “I’ll bet that is Sam the Egg Man. And I need some eggs.” So I dropped the hose and pivoted and hobble-ran to the door, through the house and out the front, waved at Sam and bought my eggs, relieved to catch him in time.

There was only one problem. With my newly reconstructed knee I cannot pivot and I cannot run. I have been doing so well in recovery that I forgot those details. I also didn’t consider that I must have stressed my leg muscles in the past few days of raking and shoveling. By the time I got the eggs put away, my leg throbbed like base notes pounding through the speakers in a low-rider hot rod. I grabbed a book and a cup of tea and sat down to wait it out. An hour later, the pain worse, I moved to the couch. My leg felt hard, swollen and hot.

I called Katie. “I hurt my leg. I can’t walk. I can’t go with you to the Northern Montana Fair this afternoon. I won’t get to eat the hot dogs slathered with mustard, the melting ice cream cones, the butter drenched corn-on-the-cob, the gummy cotton candy. I can’t tour the 4-H barn or the crafts and garden and sewing displays. I won’t get to see the livestock and scrape stuff off the bottom of my boots. I won’t get dusty and hot and sweaty and sun-burned. I won’t be able to ride the merry-go-round. I’m going to miss the rodeo.”

“Quit whining,” Katie responded. “I’ll pick you up and take you to the doctor.”

Dr. Pat poked and prodded and frowned and x-rayed. An hour later I was back home, wrapped in ten miles of elastic bandage, iced and propped about with cushions, with a stack of books and a pitcher of water on the floor, and a pair of detested crutches near at hand. I missed the Fair. I cancelled a trip to Helena . But I obeyed orders because I hurt a lot. Four days later Dr. Pat poked and prodded again and pronounced that the damage was muscular. This was good news. It would heal. He positively beamed at the bruise on my thigh the color of a thunderstorm and the size of Texas . It was proof to him that healing had begun. He ordered me to remain prone for ten more days.

“Ten more days!” I heaved a sigh. “Then can I lose the crutches? I hate them and I don’t know how to use them.” He gave me a lesson on how to form a tripod with my body and the crutches. Then correctly interpreting the rebellious look on my face, he told me once more to stay off my leg for ten days or else.

So I am doing my best to obey orders. I read a lot. I have time to meditate. I day-dream. I try not to think too much of all that I am missing, stuck on my couch. And I eat eggs. I eat eggs poached, soft-boiled, fried, and hard-boiled. I make them curried, jellied and scrambled. I make omelets, quiche, soufflé, and egg custard. I have eggs coddled, creamed and baked on toast. I even dyed my eggs and placed them in coconut nests. I am now making exotic Chinese tea eggs. The uses for the humble egg are endless.

Before Sam pulled out of my driveway, that morning when I rushed to buy his eggs, he said, “I figured you were working in the back yard. I would have come around and checked. You didn’t have to hurry.”

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
August 20, 2009

Easy Spice Cake

Easy Spice Cake

One of the unique things about our Hi-line publications is that most of them print recipes submitted by local homemakers. These recipes frequently use such ingredients as Velveeta, crushed corn flakes or cream of mushroom soup. My sophisticated foreign friends, foreign being not from Montana , laugh at the quaint simplicity. But I know what it is like to have to make a good meal using whatever limited ingredients remain in the pantry. Once, back in the olden days on the ranch south of Dodson, where we lived at the end of a three mile dirt road which wound through the hills, we were snowed in for three months. Though that fall I had bought supplies in quantity at Claypool’s Mercantile, toward the end of that particular ninety day siege of snow and wind, I was out of such essential ingredients as sugar, flour and vanilla. Deer trampled our haystacks nightly. We ate a lot of fresh venison. But man cannot live by meat alone, even roasted at low heat in the woodstove and smothered with undiluted cream of mushroom soup. Hungry for sweets, I concocted a delicate lacy cookie using crushed corn flakes and Log Cabin syrup. That was the winter I got pregnant.

So in the spirit of sharing good food made with basic ingredients, I give you my recipe for “Easy Spice Cake”. This old favorite of mine was given to me years back by my friend Terry, a dynamite cook. We both approach a recipe as a guideline, filled with possibilities.

I do love a good cake and spice cake with penuche frosting is one of my favorites. I have had a hankering for spice cake for the past six months. With determination and perseverance I’ve managed to put off baking one. My problem is that I am the only one around to eat it. I eat maybe a fourth of the cake and dump the rest. Seems silly to bake a cake and throw most of it in the garbage. I wasn’t raised that way. But on Sunday my resolve vanished and I pulled Terry’s spice cake recipe from my battered yellow file box, a relic of high school freshman home-ec.

I measured two cups of water into a sauce pan and dumped in a mixture of raisins and craisins, about three cups. I’ve also used shredded carrots, zucchini, chopped apples, dried apricots. They’re all good with the spices. There is no limit to the flavors you can create. I bring the concoction to a boil, let it simmer for a few minutes and set it off the burner. I pour in a cup of oil. (I know this sounds like a lot, you just have to trust me.) I let the mixture cool. This gives me a chance to sit with a cup of coffee and read a couple chapters of a fast-paced James Lee Burke novel. That is not essential to the recipe, but I recommend it. Or you can go ahead and beat two eggs, measure out a cup and a half of sugar, I prefer brown sugar. Blend the eggs and sugar into the cooled fruit mixture. Sift and measure three and a half cups flour. You’ll be glad you sifted the flour. It is worth the extra step. I bury a half teaspoon salt, two teaspoons soda and two teaspoons each cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice plus one teaspoon cloves into the flour, gently. You can play with the spices too. I always use more cinnamon, almost three teaspoons, and a pinch more cloves. I chop between one and two cups pecans and pop half a dozen nuts into my mouth while chopping.

Here is where it gets tricky, though it is supposed to be easy. Terry folds the dry ingredients into the batter in the same pan used to cook the fruits. Doesn’t work for me. I dump the goo into my mixing bowl and then gently blend the flour mixture and spices and nuts with my mixer. Do what works for you. Turn the batter into a greased, floured pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until done. Your whole house will smell deliciously spicy. When the cake nears the end of the baking time, do not check your email, go outside to water the potted plants, or begin a new book. Just take my word for it, please. Once the cake is removed from the oven and set on a rack to cool, you can do any of those things.

This cake is delicious plain. But penuche frosting is my favorite companion for any spice cake. Melt one half cup butter in a saucepan and stir in a cup of brown sugar. Stirring constantly, bring it to a boil. Keep stirring and boil for two minutes on low heat. Stir in one fourth cup milk and bring it all back to a boil. I then set the pan of syrup into an ice cube filled sink to cool to lukewarm. Once the syrup has cooled, I pour it into my mixing bowl and carefully stir in two cups powdered sugar. Be sure to use the lowest setting on your mixer unless you want powdered sugar covering every surface in the kitchen. Once it is well blended, turn up the speed and beat until the frosting holds its shape and is of spreading consistency. You can add chopped nuts if you wish. But I put all my chopped nuts into the cake so I left the frosting smooth.

I sliced a generous piece of spice cake and placed it on my prettiest saucer. My mouth watered in anticipation. The phone rang. It was a friend from British Columbia , a gourmet cook. I described my cake and mentioned that I surely hated to throw most it away, but I knew I would. She said, “Dummy. Why don’t you just cut the cake into sections and put them in your freezer?” I knew that.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
September 3, 2009

Dust and Other Dangers

The other day Karen and Ellie and I were chatting. Karen, who lives near Great Falls , had just had new windows installed. Both Ellie and I had previously done the same. What a difference it made at my house! Less dust, less noise and the temperature stays even. Karen mentioned how nice it was to be able to open and close the windows. Until now, as in many vintage homes, several windows in her house had warped or were painted permanently closed. “In fact,” she said, “it was stifling hot last night and for the first time, we were able to open all the windows. This morning the house was nice and cool with the breeze blowing through.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to leave all the windows open in Montana ?” Ellie, who lives in California , asked. Immediately I thought about the homes in her neighborhood which have security systems, barred windows and gated access. We three women grew up in Harlem , where nobody even locked their doors, so I couldn’t imagine what dangers Ellie had in mind. “Not because of burglars,” Ellie continued, “but because of wind and dust.”

The dangers of wind and dust. That statement stumped me. Neither Karen nor I responded further. I thought about tornados and dust storms which, indeed, are dangerous. But I know Ellie meant inside the house.

I love fresh air and often leave my windows open. I also like light, so my only window coverings are gauzy sheers. When the wind blows hard, as it does here on the Hi-line, sometimes my sheer curtains hover nearly perpendicular across the room. If I got up in the night, walked into a curtain blowing across my face, startled, tripped and fell and broke my neck, then, yes, that would be a dangerous wind blowing. But that is a far stretch for even my imagination. As for dust, yes, I had to concede that, for me, dust holds particular danger. And since our eastern Montana wind is always dust-laden, even in the winter, and since, weather permitting, I do keep my windows and doors open, the wind dumps dust into my house.

When I was a child my German grandmother taught me The Way to clean--her way, the only way, the right way. My first job every Saturday morning was to dust; walls, furniture, the ceiling corners, and especially under the beds. Grandma always checked my work, waiting to pounce on any hint of sloppiness. I trembled, anxious that she might find one of those errant gatherings which collect beneath the beds, fluffs which she called slut’s wool. I didn’t exactly know what a slut was, but I knew that if Grandma found a puff of dust, then I was one of those sluts and that was a shameful thing to be. For years, thanks to her training, I feared those dust gatherings. Slut’s wool kept me on the straight and narrow.

I was grown up and married before I heard a friend mention dust bunnies. I had to ask her what that meant. I thought the term was cute but I knew she was trying to prettify sluts’ wool. That was one phrase that could not be dressed up and disguised. To this day when somebody says “dust bunny”, I hear my grandmother’s voice shout “slut’s wool”.

Years later I re-trained myself to be a less compulsive cleaner. Sometimes I can wait long enough between cleanings that the dust bunnies mutate into dust hares. In the winter I often go a month without a thorough housecleaning. But in the summertime, with windows open to the elements and the wind blowing dust into every crevice, I have to clean every couple weeks. But every day I neglect dusting, my grandmother’s voice haunts me with “slut’s wool”.

Today there are notices posted around Harlem informing us that rattlesnakes are moving into town. Snakes terrify me. But I have snake-detector eyes. If a snake creeps into my yard, I will see it. However, I think a perfect hideout for snakes is around my cabin in the garden, where my raspberry patch nestles against the south side of the logs. When I pick raspberries, I have the eagle eye for snakes. And I don’t know if snakes have ears, but one can’t be too careful. So I wear my bear bells. I also talk to the possibility of snakes. “Okay, snakes, I am moving into this cluster of raspberry canes and then I am going to reach under these branches, so if you are here, please vacate the premises for a few minutes. Won’t take me long, just a few more berries and I am out of here.” So far this tactic has worked. I have picked gallons of raspberries and no snakes.

But if I had to meet a rattlesnake in the bushes or my grandmother taunting me with the full implications of “slut’s wool”, I would choose the rattlesnake. Against the rattlesnake, I have more defenses.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Agin
September 11, 2009

Making Hay

There is no finer perfume than fresh-cut hay. When I reached the age of seven years, my dad introduced me to working the hay field. “Come out to the field with me and help me drive the tractor.” I thought he meant for me to sit in his lap, his arms around me, his hands on the wheel, me nestled safely against his warm body, smelling his salty sweat and the sack of cigarette tobacco tucked into the left pocket of his chambray shirt, the tag hanging out.

We walked out to the field where the flatbed trailer sat hitched to our scarred Farmall tractor. Dad hefted me up onto the wide metal seat and placed my hands on the wheel. My eyes must have been ready to pop off my face. My heart began to pound in my ears. He shoved the lever into the lowest gear and told me to just hang on to the steering wheel and keep the tractor pointed between the rows of bales. Although I was tall for my age, my feet didn’t reach the pedals. As we rode one length of the field, he gave me pointers on steering. When we reached the end of the row Dad grabbed the wheel and turned the corner for me. Then he jumped off the back of the tractor. I was on my own. I nearly peed my pants. As we chugged down the next row, Dad walked alongside and lifted bales onto the trailer. Now and then he climbed onto the bed and neatly stacked the bales. When I reached the end of every row I’d hold my breath, terrified that I’d run us into the ditch and through the fence. Dad always leaped onto the hitching bar in time to turn the wheel and point me on my way, back and forth across the field.

In time, once I could reach all the pedals, Dad promoted me to drive our old IH farm truck, with a contraption for lifting bales hooked to the side of the truck bed. But first I walked the entire field straightening the bales into long lines. Then I walked back to the truck, picked up my Dad from the shop where he was repairing the baler, and drove along the rows, scooping the bales onto the elevator. I liked to watch through the rear-view mirror as each bale pitched off the top of the incline onto the truck bed. Dad sank his bale hooks into the hay and stacked a neat pattern which tied the load so it wouldn’t shift.

When I had finished my first year of high school, Dad hired my cousin Jim and his buddy Larry to harvest the hay. Jim and Larry were two years older than me and about twenty years smarter. They told me that if I would drag the bales in line and be their water-girl, they would pay me a generous ten percent of their earnings.

Whoopee! I would actually get paid for work I had been doing for years as a family chore. In my mind I spent that money over and over. New boots, school clothes, ice cream sundaes, the movies. Every day I dreamed up a new list. Early each morning I doused myself with 6-12 mosquito dope, pulled on my leather gloves and hurried out to the field. I always had the first rows of bales in line before the boys arrived with the truck.

Once the truck bed was loaded high with hay, I rode in the cab with Jim and Larry back to the stack. I liked this because I got to listen to their dirty jokes. I felt like one of the boys. I laughed, even when I didn’t understand. Jim always knew when I didn’t “get it” and called me on it. When we arrived at the stack, I scurried to the house for jars of iced tea and platters of cookies. Then I’d sit on the truck, swing my legs, and wait for the boys to finish unloading the hay.

When we were just a couple days into the first cutting, the boys suggested that the job would go faster if I could pull the bales over to the edge of the truck so both of them could throw bales onto the stack. That made sense to me. I quickly agreed. So now I not only lined out bales in the field, performed the chores of water-girl, but I dragged the hundred pound bales across the truck bed so the boys could easily snag them with their hooks. Three days into our new routine, a summer shower ended work for the day. I stood in the rain and watched the boys drive off toward town. Something about our arrangement had been bothering me. I mulled it over while I walked out to the river-bend field where Dad was irrigating sugar beets.

I told Dad, “It isn’t fair. I’m working really hard. I work just as many hours as the boys do and I’m only making ten percent. I’m not asking for the same wages. I know I can’t throw the bales up onto the big stack like they can. They have more muscles than I do. But for all I’m doing for them, I think they should pay me twice as much.”

My Dad leaned on his irrigating shovel, studied the ground and gave my tale of woe his full attention. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “You agreed to the deal.” He turned back to his work.

I finished out the haying season, first, second and third cuttings. I did my job. I pocketed my ten percent. I never forgot.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
September 17, 2009

When Giants Roamed the Earth

Happy birthday to Me, Happy Birthday to Me, Happy . . . you get the idea.

My phone rings. “Happy Birthday, Grandma.” It is three year old Annie and her teen sister Nadia. “How old are you today, Grandma,” asks Annie.

“I remember the dinosaurs,” I reply.

“Oh, Grandma, you must be reee-ally old,” said Annie. They are on speaker-phone. I hear sophisticated Nadia snort and leave the room. “Tell me, tell me all about them,” Annie demands.

I’m a poet, not a scientist. I describe giants roaming the earth, green and brown and purple. Then I contemplate that scientists also must be poets to be able to flesh out in color the look of the beasts, beginning with nothing more than a pile of bones. “I’ll show you what it was like in the dinosaur days when you visit,” I promise.

When they arrive, we head out to the ranch owned by a young man from my high school days. I had phoned ahead for permission to take the children out into a field where cattle grazed. I carry a thick blanket folded over one arm.

We slip the wire off the post and go through the gate. The barbed wire gates braced with diamond willow stays have not improved in design in fifty years. I struggle to get it closed. “Those are cows,” Annie crows. “Where are the dinosaurs?” Nadia rolls her eyes.

By luck, we have chosen a balmy spring day for our scientific expedition. I spot the perfect slope for the experiment, neither on the crest of the hill nor in the bottom of the coulee. I spread the blanket on the grasses and we lay down. Immediately Annie jumps up and wanders off in exploration of buttercups and rooster heads. She gathers a fistful of wild flowers, a gift for her Grandma. With promises of dinosaurs and cookies, I induce her to stretch out with her big sister and me on the blanket.

I string together stories of dinosaurs, inland seas, and glaciers building huge moraines of gravel. I’m being nine parts poet and one part scientist. We cover a lot of geologic ground, when Annie tugs at me, “Grandma, the cows are coming. We need to go home.”

“Goodness no, child. This is why we are here. Rest your chin on the ground and watch the cows. Pretend we are as small as those little gophers popping out of their burrows. See how the cows seem to get even bigger as they come closer.” The girls settled into the game. They hardly breathed as the cows in their curiosity wandered right up to us, snuffled at our heads and then went back to grazing. Nadia’s eyes were as full of wonder as her little sister’s.

“Whoa. Grandma, he sniffed me. I’m scared.”

“Nobody said being a scientist is easy. We are lucky. Our monsters are plant eaters, so they didn’t want us for dinner. Now let’s eat cookies.”

That afternoon we visited our famous local dinosaurs, Elvis and Leonardo, at the museum and the field station in Malta . Both kids were entranced with the exhibits. The next day we drove to Eastend , Saskatchewan to see Scotty , Canada ’s most complete T. rex. Where are the dinosaurs? Dead ahead.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
April 9, 09

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Please Send Bail

Please send bail money in care of the Havre Daily News. There. I like to make arrangements for every contingency. Last week I didn’t have a plan in place and, whew, it was crazy.

Here is what happened. My friends David and Vidya were visiting from Washington . They always help me with projects around the house. We readied the yard and garden for winter, pruning and raking and wheeling loads of plant debris into a mountainous pile to haul away. The guys from Public Works, driving by in their truck, accused me of cracking the whip over my slave labor, but that is not so. We had fun working together. We had fun going places. Our fun nearly landed us in—but I’ll get to that later.

I want to tell you some things we did. First we headed to the “What the Hay” festival. We had breakfast in Lewistown, and then drove the route from Hobson to Windham , stopping to eat our way through the Utica fair. Vidya jumped out of the car at every display of hay-bale art to take pictures with her new camera. We moseyed on up the road to Square Butte, which consists of about four houses, a bar, and an historic jail. (No, that is not why I might need bail, but we got a great photo.) We quickly toured Ft. Benton , promised to return. We wrapped a full day into a full circle on the map, ate dinner in Havre and returned home. Another night we went to Chinook to see a macabre play about Edgar Allen Poe, brilliantly performed by the young actors of the Montana Repertory Theatre. We shoe-horned the Havre Festival into our itinerary, a full feast of a day, with the parade, farmer’s market, quilt show, crafts, and book sale. Who says there is nothing to do around here?

To top off our adventures, like pouring hot fudge over ice cream, we spent three days in Canada . Next time you are in Watson , Saskatchewan , stop at the Quick Stop Diner and say hello to my friends, Ron and Sharon. Tell them I sent you. We carved another circle on the map, exploring the short-grass plains through Regina on the way to Watson and then on the way home traveled the lake country through Saskatoon . We headed to the border crossing at Monchy, promising ourselves a juicy steak dinner at the GN in Malta .

We pulled in to the port of entry. I handed the guard my passport. David reached for his jacket for their passports. They weren’t there. Vidya searched her bag for the documents and they were not there either. A terse conversation ensued. “What did you . . ., Why did you . . . , Why didn’t you . . ., I remember that . . .” We had documents in hand when we entered Canada at Turner/Climax. As we drove off David handed them to me and I handed them to Vidya “to put in a safe place”. More conversation about “safe place”. The search continued with a strained earnestness. I looked through the glove box and found nothing. I got out of the car, stepped back and watched.

The next few minutes were not pretty. David dumped his wallet. Vidya dumped her knitting bag which had accompanied her everywhere. David looked under the seat. They both started rifling through the luggage. From my vantage point the car looked like a front-load washing machine with a port window. I watched the contents of the car cycle through agitate to spin. A second-time search began with renewed vigor. The trunk was open. All four doors were open. The luggage, clothing, yarn, books, papers, maps, gifts and blankets continued to spin. David and Vidya agitated. I watched David move from Auto-soak into the Heavy-duty cycle. I wisely refrained from giving sage advice, such as “Calm down”. They dumped every container in the car except the camera case. They knew the documents were not there. The camera had been in continuous use each day. I contemplated having to wave good-by to my friends, trapped on foreign soil, while I trudged on down the highway to Malta .

The customs officer joined the fray, I mean, the search. He methodically lifted, peered and sorted. Eventually he picked up the camera case and opened it. Bingo. Passports found. He gave their papers a cursory glance and motioned us on our way, down the road to freedom.

In a few weeks I will fly to Mexico . I always stow my passport in the same pocket of the same bag which I take with me everywhere. However, one cannot be too careful. You never know. A momentary distraction and my passport could end up inside a shoe. I could end up in the Stoney Lonesome. So if I call for help, please send me bail money in care of the Havre Daily News.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
October 8, 2009

A Good Time Was Had By All

A few minutes ago I waved good-by to friends from the west coast. I feel happy, because while they were here we had such fun. Sad, because they are headed down the road. Happy, because they love this country and its people like I do.

When friends arrive, I put on my tour guide hat. We discuss possibilities and make lists of things to do and places to go. Creating an agenda takes time. There are always critical components, which include drinking coffee, eating goodies hot from the oven, and catching up on life events.

Eventually we hit the road in search of adventure. One morning we head for Havre. But a Saddle Butte Smoked Meats outfit is parked alongside the highway in Chinook. Hey, shopping for essential elements of life is part of the fun. And this morning I had fried my last pound of bacon to accompany sour dough waffles. So I drive around the block and swing in alongside the trailer, buy bacon, chat about the selection of goodies, then pull back onto the road. My friends and I talk turkey. Smoked turkey. Why not? I turn around and head back into Chinook.

One more scenic detour to the tune of “I wonder what is down that road?” and we arrive in Havre. We buy books by Montana authors. We dent the inventory of threads and yarns at the Ben Franklin. We hang out at the train station to watch folks arrive and depart on the Empire Builder, a regular stop on the tour. But the crowning highlight of our day in Havre, is the auction sale of a fifty year collection of Avon . None of us use Avon . I am allergic to any scent. Turns stinky on my skin. I’ve tried them all. But the hook that pulls us in is the sheer incredulity of garnering these items for over fifty years. What was the attraction for the woman who did this? Who was she? We have to see.

We walk into the VFW hall and our jaws drop. Boxes fill the room. Six hundred boxes generously, fully packed. We browse products, collectables, crafts, and knick-knacks. We each choose a box of interest and memorize the number. We sit through an hour of the auction loving every minute of the action. Is this box really a bargain? Are these valuables? Should I bid on the next one? That man in the blue jacket bought ten boxes. What will he do with it? If I buy my box, how much will I end up donating to the Salvation Army? We leave with no loot to pick through. The experience is the gift.

Another day we visit friends at the North Harlem Colony, compare crochet techniques, eat June-berry pie and sip mint tea. Filled with pie, stories and comfort, we head north up the highway on the lookout for baby antelope. We see herds of antelope but no babies. Is it too early? Or are the young obeying mom’s orders—drop and don’t move? We note few houses but many abandoned homestead sites. We try to imagine the lives of the early settlers, their hardships, their joys, the isolation of these people in this place here at the top of the world.

We swing into Turner, drive around the grayed and ancient tumble-down buildings, admire the school, walk along the raised bed where the railroad spur was years ago, peer through cracks in the old station, the granaries. We land at the Border Bar in time for an early dinner. If you haven’t been there, go soon. Talk with the people who love their town of seventy-five citizens. Celebrate their vitality.

We drive back to the valley in awe of cloud shadows on the coulees, mountains detailed in the distance, the beauty of sunlight and antelope at play on the plains.

When my friends drive a thousand miles to visit me, they always help out with a project. Sunday we clean flower beds, perk up my old cabin in the back yard with bird houses and an original A&W sign purchased for a dollar at a different auction. And we eat smoked turkey.

There are leftovers on our list, things we did not take time to do or see. These are seed for their next trip, our next adventures. We part with reluctance and smiles. A good time was had by all.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
April 9, 09