Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Plastic Halloween

The Grinch of Halloween Rides Again
Happy Plastic Halloween

What a curmudgeon I have become! Halloween used to be so much fun—back when I was a kid. The holiday was all about us scaring ourselves. Ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. I remember crouching out behind the wash house with my Bierly cousins, under a table covered with a sheet, the moon throwing shadows from the trees. We told ghost stories, each one more terrifying than the last. Over at my other cousins, the Bells, we huddled around a piano in the dark, the base notes drumming up the drama as we took turns topping the last tale of terror. We sure knew how to have fun. I wonder what it was in our makeup as children that we enjoyed deliberately setting out to feel scared.

I lived in the country, so going door-to-door trick-or-treating was not an option. My favorite Halloween memory was the year when my Grandmother took us to the Rehobeth Club, a kind of community center out in the country, for a party. All our neighbors were there. The clubhouse was decorated with corn shucks, straw bales, orange and black crepe paper streamers. Scarecrows were propped in the corners with jack-a-lanterns leering at their feet, candles throwing fluttering light from within—now that really should have been scary! Think of the liability!

We created our own Halloween costumes, of course. My cousin Shirley and I pawed through the attic, dragged possibilities into the hallway, and cobbled our costumes together. I went as a hobo. We stitched patches onto some of my fathers discarded work clothes, already ragged. My mask from the dime store was made of rubber. Shirley dressed as a great lady, draped in lace curtains hung together with plenty of safety pins. Her mask was a molded form that fit over her eyes. She sneaked make-up from her older sister and troweled it on heavily. We worked all afternoon making huge papier-mache ghost heads that we attached to broom handles. At the party we gobbled donuts, drank punch, dunked for apples, played games, danced and, to our astonishment, won a prize for our costumes. When the party was over, all the children were given small brown bags of hard candies and a popcorn ball. That Halloween was wonderful!

When my children were little I never had money for store-bought costumes, cheap and shiny though they were. They begged and pleaded. I said no. So I taught them to be creative, to search out materials to build new personas. One particularly lean year we all became ghosts, wearing thrift-store sheets with holes cut out for the eyes. We made a walking tour through the neighborhood, bags in hand, gathering loot. I waited in the dark at the end of each driveway for their return. Now and then I talked them into giving me a treat. We always returned home tired and happy, faces smeared with chocolate.

Times, they are a-changing. Several weeks ago, while visiting at my daughter’s house, I watched her cruise through an on-line costume shop, dithering over a choice from costumes with sixty dollar price tags. I, of course, was appalled. If I lived anywhere nearby, I would take my granddaughter in hand and we would make a costume with found objects. Of course, she’d probably balk. She likes and wants the plastic “princess” look, just like every other modern four-year-old girl. They will drive to the brightly lit mall, go store to store, holding out a shopping bag for the clerks to dump in handfuls of candy. With not even a walk through the dark and spooky night, ghosts and goblins lurking behind every bush, won’t they be bored out of their little minds? Poor kids.

I’ll buy candy for the children who might come to my door Halloween night. But I’ll choose the candy that I like best because I might be stuck with most of it. There are several more kids in my neighborhood this year than last year though. So maybe, if I am lucky, some ghoulies and goblins and long-legged beasties will knock at my door to scare me silly.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 28, 2010

Our Retractable Umbilical Cords

Our Retractable Umbilical Cords


Arlene, Leanna, Sharon and I sat around the table in Arlene’s kitchen in Watson , Saskatchewan , drinking tea and wine and comparing our lives. I grew up in eastern Montana , the others in eastern Saskatchewan . We are all women of the Prairies. We all left home vowing never to return. We each opted for a complete cultural change and each landed in a Big City . We made our lives, were happy, and now, here we are, back home again.

Sharon was the first one of us to respond to the subtle but definite pull back to our roots. Ten years ago, she and her husband Ron were on their way from Vancouver to Newfoundland to seek adventure on the opposite coast and to look over a restaurant which sounded promising. They stopped in Watson to visit Sharon ’s family. Sharon ’s mother Sophie was beginning to need extensive care. And the little café at the intersection of the two highways just happened to be for sale. Figuring one’s fortune was where one found it, within days Ron closed the deal on the café and began work to expand and rebuild. Over the years, on their rare days off from the restaurant, the couple began making Sophie’s house into their own home.

Because Sharon and I are close, you could say we are sisters of the chosen variety. Arlene asked, “How do you two know one another?” We laughed and our answers tumbled out. “We are buddies.” “Yes, we met in 1992 at a workshop on Mount Shasta where we were paired up.” “As buddies, we were responsible for one another, had to know where the other one was at all times.” “And since part of the experience was in the wilderness, this was important.” “We discovered we have common interests plus shared geography.” “And you oughta hear our coming of age stories.” “And we were the only two at Shasta who grew up in isolated country. It’s a bond of understanding.”

During the time I lived in Seattle and she in Vancouver , we continued our friendship, visiting three or four times a year. “Once Sharon moved back to the Prairies, our visits were infrequent. So the first person I called to announce my return to Montana was my buddy Sharon.” “Doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “I’ve been expecting this.” “Now we try to get together several times a year.”

Arlene, Sharon ’s cousin, returned to settle in Watson following several life changes, which included the deaths of her parents and a brother. Leanna is Sharon ’s hometown friend whose Mom had died only two months previously. That week she was stacking up piles and making keep-sell-toss decisions over her mother’s lifetime collections which filled every shelf, closet, wall, room, nook and cranny in the house. If Leanna finishes sorting, dispensing, and disposing in her own lifetime, we will all be surprised. The stuff could fill the Museum of Kitsch .

What brought us back? How did we each land in our parents’ houses? Never once did one of us say, “Gosh, I would love to live in my hometown in my parent’s home.” Sharon and I even paid good money for these houses which we did not want. Bit by bit, room by room, we have turned these old-fashioned but well-built houses into homes that fit us. Now Arlene and Leanna are beginning the process that Sharon and I have nearly completed: pitching, patching and painting. We all had sworn that we would never return. Yet, here we are, living fully and happily.

Each of us had a theory to explain what drew us back: family duties, a personal need to start over, a quest to rediscover familiar values, love for the land, insanity (?). As we sat around the table, we developed the answer to our questions. We are born with an invisible but retractable umbilical cord. It stretches to allow us every experience we choose. Then at a certain time, un-definable, it reaches its limit and begins retracting, pulling us hand over hand back to our beginnings.

Will we stay put forever? Are we stuck here? Who knows? The answer will be different for each of us. Maybe the umbilical cord will stretch again. But we’ll never go far away in spirit. The distance back will never be as long.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 21, 2010

A Satisfying Day

A Satisfying Day


About thirty years ago I found myself wallowing in emotional pain over something I can no longer remember. But I know that night it was of extreme importance. Kind friends advised me, “Listen, Stupid, don’t you understand. Tomorrow you will feel Different.” Then laughter. Lots of laughter. “Maybe not better, but Different.” More laughter.

My distress must have been over money or a man. These are the only things back then that would have had me sitting in a smoky café at three in the morning in tears, ready to gnaw on table legs.

My friends taught me about change. I change. You change. The circumstances around us change. These changes are neither good nor bad. They’re simply changes. And, always, tomorrow we’ll feel differently.

With the recent deaths and serious illnesses of friends heavy on my mind, a few days ago I decided to jump-start change. I skittered out of town to visit an old friend near Great Falls .

Nothing we did that day was particularly earth-shattering or even special. She introduced me to 2 J’s where we stocked up on spices from the bulk bins. At the Habitat for Humanity Restore we poked around the building materials and imagined possible remodeling projects. I found the perfect “crystal” chandelier to hang in a dream gazebo. Since I can’t build my gazebo this year, I reluctantly left it. We wandered the paths around Giant Springs. Then we drove back across town to Gibson Park where we surreptitiously harvested a few flower seeds and watched the squirrels feed.

By now it was well past noon and we were hungry. As we discussed various places to eat I reminisced about a restaurant where a friend and I used to have lunch when I lived in Great Falls . “Lunch at Eddie’s was special. We saved up for it. We always ordered this burger that had a unique smoky flavor. I have never had another burger that good anywhere. But that was forty years ago. Eddie’s is probably long gone.”

“No, it’s still there,” Karen told me. “Let’s go. That burger sounds good.” So we headed back over to the east side near Malmstrom Air Base.

I recognized Eddie’s instantly. We walked inside. I surveyed the tables and booths. “Looks like the same arrangement, same décor. It feels like nothing has changed,” I told Karen as we took a booth. I laughed as I looked around. “Including the people. These seem to be the same people who were eating here forty years ago.” The waitress brought menus. I immediately spotted the Campfire Burger. “There it is. It’s still on the menu. The best burger ever!”

“The owners added rib steak to the dinner menu,” our waitress told us. “That’s the only change since the place opened. We even still have some of the same waitresses.” Karen and I grinned. We could believe it.

The hot beef sandwich lunch special sounded good enough to seduce us away from the Campfire Burger. Our meal arrived and all chatter ceased. It had been a long time since I had wanted to pick up my plate and lick it clean. “Best roast beef I ever ate. It is so good. It is so tender. It is so juicy.” I said. “Aged to perfection,” Karen agreed. “And real gravy, made from the beef juices.” I told her, “I don’t know if it is true, but the rumor forty years ago, was that they raised and butchered their own beef.”

It’s seldom one gets to step into the past and have the experience be as good as the memory. Nothing at Eddie’s had changed. But I had changed. The day left me feeling grateful for my friends, the ones that I have and the ones I have lost. It was a good day. Karen said it best, “Today was satisfying.” There is much to be said for a satisfying day. Thanks, Karen.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

October 7, 2010

The Iceman Cometh

The Ice Man Cometh


Is the hair thick on the cow’s neck? Are the worms burrowing deeper? Are the birds flocking south sooner? Is winter galloping in on icy hoofs?

All I know is that when I left Kalispell early Friday morning on my trip home from the balmy shores of Puget Sound , the sky was overcast and the breeze pleasant. I was barely out of the city when my phone rang. I pulled off the highway.

Karen: “It’s snowing heavy in Great Falls .”

Me: “This is the middle of September. It can’t be snowing.”

Karen: “Well, it is.”

I eased back onto the road. As I entered the city limits of Columbia Falls , my phone rang again. I pulled onto a side street to answer.

John: “It’s snowing in Havre.”

Me: “This conversation sounds familiar.”

John: “And in Chinook and Harlem and Dodson and Malta .”

By the time I reached Essex the snow was coming down at a good clip, roads were slushy, the foothills were wearing a light blanket of white, and the high mountains looked like they were socked in for the winter. The east-er I drove, the harder it fell. My first inclination was to sink into a morass of morose. But my face betrayed me with a grin. It was so incredibly beautiful, my first sight of winter wonderland this year. I tried to shut down the other part of my brain, the part that wanted to remind me of what comes next. You know, snow tires, snow shovels, winter coats, studded grips for my boots, insulated mitts, sky-high heat bills, my back door drifted shut, warming up the car for ten minutes to drive four blocks to the post office, and weeks, nay months, of cabin fever.

This year, it was back in July as a matter of fact, for the very first time, I made a prediction. I do not make predictions because if I don’t make them, I can’t be wrong. But this year I took a chance. I predicted another hard winter. Out loud. To several different people. I randomly scattered my prediction around like mosquito bites. With me, it is a kind of superstition in reverse. If I say it, it will not happen.

So as soon as I got home, after driving in snow past Shelby , I checked the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the one true forecaster of winter. It predicts a “Numbingly Cold Winter”. From The Weather Space I read, “A temporary ice age is coming for the western United States . Record cold temperatures will hit Montana farmlands.” Hey, that’s us.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­The Farmer’s Almanac has compiled a lively list of harbingers of winter. These signs are fun to read. They include the usual things, like extra thick sheep wool, horse hair, raccoon fur and corn husks (corn husks?). Early migration of birds, geese, ducks, butterflies. Early arrival of fogs, owls, crickets. The march of the insects. Mice and spiders invading the house in great numbers. (Are you listening, Stephen King?)

But my favorite sign of winter from the Almanac’s list is “pigs gathering sticks”. I kid you not. Pigs gathering sticks. We already know that a straw house crumbles in a heap when the wolf of winter huffs and puffs. But as I remember the story, only the brick house prevails. And whoever heard of a brick pig-house? But why would pigs gather sticks? Tell me truly, have you ever seen pigs gathering sticks? Sober, I mean. I’ve never seen one pig picking up sticks. And if you see any, please tell me, and I will escape south with the birds post haste, before winter ices us in for good.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

September 23, 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Your driveway misses your truck"

Shrug, what can I say.
“Your driveway misses your truck”

I got an email from a friend in Harlem . I walked outside in the misty rain and leaned against Roshana, my truck. “Jane said to tell you that your driveway misses you,” I told her.

A wistful look passed over her windshield. “Ah, I miss parking in front of our home, playing lookout, waiting for you to get in and go.” She smiled at me and nudged my shoulder. “I miss going to Havre and Malta and Turner and the post office. But I don’t want to go home yet.”

I puzzled over this, then noticed a blue smudge on her left front bumper. Ah ha, I thought. I had seen that outrageous blue Lexus flirting with her from the neighbor’s driveway. “Has that masher next door been putting the moves on you?” I asked.

Roshana blushed and blipped her horn.

“Don’t get too attached, my girl, because soon we will head across the mountains to home. These quickie love affairs are hard on a woman’s heart.”

She sighed, shivered in the rain, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, the hussy winked at the Lexus.

I understand her quandary, torn between two places with people we love at each end of the road. I lived in western Washington many good years. My children, my grandchildren and numerous friends live here. It is always a joy for me to return. Once here, it’s hard to leave. At the same time, I yearn for my own routine, to be back with my Montana friends, to breathe the air of home.

“Look,” I offered, “Let’s drive the North Cascades Highway home. We’ll stop in Ione, visit old acquaintances. You remember that cheeky camo jeep you liked so much, the one that’s always parked in front of the bar? He’s so funny and you two can catch up on old times while I attend the poetry reading.” She brightened right up, even shot an apologetic “love ‘em and leave ‘em” glance next door.

My truck and I seldom choose the same route. One memorable winter trip, we began in Vancouver , British Columbia , traversed the Canadian Rockies into Calgary , then crossed the border at Sweetgrass. My favorite is Highway 2 all the way from Harlem to Everett . No matter which route I choose, miles of empty road stretch between here and there. And something about crossing those lonesome miles satisfies my soul.

It would be hard to choose a more spectacular road home than the North Cascades Highway in September, the turning leaves splashing red, yellow and orange with abandon. In honor of novelist Tobias Wolff, who grew up in Concrete and wrote about his youth in “This Boy’s Life”, I will drive beneath the High School which is built with the central portion of the school spanning the road. In Omak I like to cross the Okanagan River on the foot bridge to visit the site of the annual Stampede and Suicide Race. I imagine the powerful horses plunging down the steep slope, swimming across the river, lunging up the other bank and around the track.

I plan to spend the night in Republic, a spunky little gold mining town where stores and houses perch on steep and crooked streets. I’ll get up early and stock up on treats for the road at Anderson Grocery, an old-time general store, over one hundred years old. Roshana and I will greet the sun when we top Sherman Pass and head down the twisty road to Tiger, a crossroads with a gas station, sometimes open, sometimes boarded up.

A left turn detour will point us north to Ione, a town not much larger than a smudge in the road, where a dozen residents meet every Thursday morning to share their poetry. They gather in the back room of the café where I stopped for breakfast one Thursday morning several years ago. I happened to have some of my own poems with me and asked if I could sit in. They welcomed me and made me an honorary member of their group. I’m looking forward to sharing a couple of my latest poems with them over a hearty north-country breakfast.

Roshana, left on her own for a couple hours, will have time for all kinds of hanky-panky with the battered camo jeep. I’ll bid my poet friends a reluctant farewell. Roshana will beep-beep the jeep and we will head to Newport , Highway 2 and home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 16, 2010

Further Adventures With A Toddler

Further Adventures With A Toddler

With my first newborn I acquired a gift, hyper-auditory sensitivity, which I call “Mothers Ears”. It seems to be an automatic side effect of giving birth. When each of my children was an infant, I could hear every breath and the tiny whish of a wave of an arm from the crib, even when I was busy at the opposite end of the house. Once they were toddling around, poking screwdrivers into electrical outlets, ripping labels from all the canned goods and dunking the kitten into the toilet bowl, I developed an auxiliary function, “Eyes-in-the-Back-of-My-Head”, useful for alerting me to exactly what each child was up to that he shouldn’t be. My x-ray-like ability extended to detecting teenagers sneaking up or down the stairway. When they reached adulthood and left home, the gift atrophied and disappeared.

Imagine my surprise, when I signed up to care for my granddaughter Lexi in Issaquah, Washington, while her parents tour Italy, to discover an unknown but related gift, “Grandmothers Ears”. The very first night alone with Lexi, I could not sleep. I heard every sound from her room across the hall from me. Gift or affliction? There isn’t an “off” switch.

Then one night this week neither she nor I slept. Or perhaps she slept. I did not. Lexi tossed and turned like a fish on the end of a line. I heard mutters of her dream conversations. I considered bringing her to my bed. Then the sounds abated. I began to drift off. Before I could fall asleep, Lexi began a re-run of restlessness. I wondered if she might be coming down with something. Probably a cold. Or possibly a dread disease. Or maybe something so rare as to have no name. And all these while she was under my care. Her parents would never forgive me. What should I do? I put off making a decision and floundered in worry.

At 2:00 in the morning a storm blew in. Rain pounded the roof, tree branches scraped the windows. Wind threatened to strip the siding off the house. Thunder crashed. Lightning flashed. Holding my breath, I listened. Every ghost the house harbored was up and about.

Finally, wide-awake and exhausted, still aware of Lexi’s restlessness, I said, “Enough of this foolishness.” I got up, hovered over her and rubbed her back. I felt each muscle relax. I tip-toed to the door. Her little voice stopped me, “Grandma, don’t leave me.”

So I brought Lexi to my queen-size bed. We had plenty of room. I rolled into a comfortable position and willed my own muscles let go. Then I had to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. When I returned, I rearranged Lexi, who had stretched crosswise in the bed. Again, sleep approached. Two little feet, one after the other, landed smack in my face. I straightened out her little body, rubbed her back, rolled over and prepared to finally get to sleep. Lexi flipped around and plopped her feet on the back of my head. I cuddled around her. Her feet landed back in my face. No matter in which direction she flopped, like homing pigeons, her feet found my face.

By this time I knew I would not get enough sleep. The next day, which it already was, I would be tired, which I already was. Finally I gave up, lay my head against her feet and prepared to wait out the last hour before 6:15, her usual wake-up time. As I was about to sink into that nebulous state prior to dreaming, General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton’s Seventh Army Tank Division rumbled and crashed through the front line of 249th Avenue . One after another three tanks reconnoitered into our cul-de-sac. The first tank screeched and clanged to a stop at each house, scooped up the garbage container, ground gears and dumped the contents into its gaping maw. The second picked up the recycle bin. The third crunched yard refuse. One at a time, they attacked at each and every house. Rumble. Clank. Grind. Rumble.

“Grandma, what time is it? Grandma?”

“It’s only 5:30, Honey, go back to sleep.”

“Grandma, I want a snack.”

Grandma wanted a drink.

But we rolled out of bed, ate breakfast, and played quietly indoors all day. The rain fell steadily. We both took a three-hour nap. And when bedtime finally came, we slept through the night.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
September 9, 2010

Please Send M and Ms

And send them NOW!
Please send M&Ms

Greetings from Issaquah , Washington . I am staying at my son Ben’s home while he and his wife Shea are exploring Rome . I am the keeper of my two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter Lexi--the designated Granny-Nanny. It is my official duty to foil her parents carefully laid plans for Lexi’s development. My job is to find her every action pure delight, to let her have her way at all times, and to sneak in such contraband items as chocolate milk and cookies. After all, what are Grandmothers for?

When Lexi is older, I intend to be a Grandmother on the edge. I will tantalize her with temptations. I will expand her mind with live theatre, music, dance, demolition derby and rodeo. I will float in like a good fairie, wave my magic wand and whisk her off to the opera, to the ballet and the symphony, things her hard working parents won’t have time for.

But for now, Lexi and I stick close to home, build castles in the backyard sandbox, walk to the park, the wading pool, and Starbucks. Oh, heavens no, I don’t give her coffee. Starbucks concocts a dynamite chocolate milk. And they make a parfait that is so good, so exploding with sugar--you won’t tell her parents, will you? All these delights are within a two-block walk. Our days are simple.

Our favorite pastime is playing on Grandma’s bed. We do this several times a day. Here is how it goes: Lexi says, “Let’s go play on Grandma’s bed.” Grandma smiles indulgently. We tromp up the stairs singing Frere Jacques. Lexi loads the bed with books, climbs up the covers hand over hand, jumps up and down a few times and lands with a plop on her bottom. She scoots up to the pile of pillows and hands me a book. “Read to me, Grandma.” Grandma reads. Already Grandma has memorized twenty-three books and counting.

There is a bonus to this job. I have become proficient at a plethora of electronic gadgets. Right now i-tunes play on one computer, I write at another, record PBS Kids on yet a third, while at the same time Lexi watches Nemo swim across the screen, via video. Ah, the wonders of modern science.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? And it is fun. But, I am at the front end of this run. I am not sure how the seventeenth day will find me. Seventeen days of living in a two-and-a-half year-olds world. Seventeen days sans adult conversation. Seventeen days of pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, “Dragon Tales”, “The Little Mermaid” and potty training. Seventeen days before Mom and Dad come home.

In imagination I picture the return of Mom and Dad. Here they come, lugging luggage into the foyer. And there sits Grandma, her hair chopped off, her eyes like pinwheels, draped in a stained bathrobe, tied to a chair, forced to watch her three-hundred-eleventh viewing of “Sid, the Science Guy”. Picture Lexi running circles around the chair like a wild creature, stark naked, eating forbidden cookies right out of the bag. “Hi Mommy. Hi Daddy. Grandma and I are having fun.” I will hug Lexi, give her a huge bye-bye kiss, head out the door and vanish back to Montana, leaving Mom and Dad to clean up the mess.

Meanwhile, please send M&Ms. I can’t find any in the cupboards. They are not for Lexi. They are for me. I assure you I will eat them only after she is sweetly asleep for the night. Fortified with enough M&M’s, I can promise to persevere with Lexi’s potty training, to keep sugared treats to a minimum, to feed her wholesome foods and to uphold discipline to the best of my ability. I don’t need the M&Ms to promise to love her to bits. But please, please, please send me M&Ms.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 2, 2010

Tourists Move In

The new wave of suburban homesteaders.
Tourists Move In

August in Montana . Harvest is in full swing. Hay, neatly compressed and bound, tumbles forth from balers. Combines fill trucks with record-breaking yields of wheat. Fat, contented cattle stand hip deep in ripening grasses.

Multitudes of ducks and geese paddle across lakes and ponds in places where no lakes or ponds or even puddles have been seen in living memory. Green grasses peek through the golden hue of ripening grains. Flowers are bigger, leaves heavier, robins fatter. The countryside is lush.

This is not normal. This is August. This is the dry-land of Montana . Our gumbo soil should be hard as concrete with cracks gaping down to bedrock. Usually, by now, cottonwood leaves hang wilted and listless in the unrelenting sun, edges brown and curled. By now, everything should be brown. But look around. Beautiful hazy shades of green blanket the rolling hills. Golds are brighter. Blues are deeper. Greens are greener.

Usually, in August the tourists stream across eastern Montana on their way to Glacier and Yellowstone , speedometers on the red line, grimly eating the dusty miles. Cranky kids, hot and sweaty in the back seat, punch each other. But this year is different. This year rain fell in abundance. This year tourists slow down. They stop to look. They see. They linger. They camp in spots in which no tent has been erected since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. “Honey, why do we have to keep driving? Let’s stay here. Little Johnny and Susie are having fun wading in the creek. I didn’t know prairie country was so peaceful, so beautiful. I thought the only things in Montana worth seeing were the mountains. I wish we could live here.”

A hundred years ago dugouts, shanties and sod houses dotted the Montana plains and short grass prairies. Several years of plentiful rainfall had prettied up the land. Our semi-arid country exploded into spring bloom. Professor Wilbur’s much publicized, hopeful and dead-wrong theory that “rain follows the plow” lured thousands of homesteaders to the erstwhile “ Great American Desert ”. Men and women unloaded their wagons, hitched plows to oxen and dug furrows into the deeply grass-rooted soil to plant foreign crops. Pioneers could look across their free acres and see smoke from several neighbors’ chimneys. In a few years, those who hunkered down and toughed it out watched most of their neighbors load household goods onto the same wagons and roll back down the road.

There is a lesson here, folks. Thousands of tourists have experienced this year in our region as, indeed, “The Last, Best Place .” There is a danger that ill-informed easterners will be so taken by this lush and lovely rain-drenched summer that hundreds of them will descend upon us. A new wave of these pioneers sell their suburban ticky-tacky back in New Jersey for a few acres of prairie. Couples lie in bed at night sharing dreams of starting a new life Our West. Children argue over what to name the new horse.

Developers, one step ahead of the new wave of homesteaders, buy up hundreds of acres of alkali-laden soil, divide it into five-acre lots, and truck in the bulldozers. From temporary trailer offices, names are invented, streets are platted and advertisements go out to major newspapers across America . Soon, in places named Lone Pine or Cactus Flats, five-acre ranchettes will sell like, well, like dreams. Horses will hang their heads over white board fences while their new little owners play computer games in their new four-bed, three-bath plus, because the great outdoors is scary and Trigger is large and alive and has huge feet. Mom and Dad sigh over memories of sushi bars, latte stands and bagels and lox.

Four years; give them four years. Their covered wagon is the Mayflower Van or the U-Haul Truck but the effect is the same. Montana is a land of Promise . There is Gold in these here hills. But the gold might glitter differently than what most people expect. Our riches include the solitude, the empty hills, the slower pace of life, the look of peace in your neighbor’s eyes, the time to talk with strangers, the contentment with what each day reveals. New homesteaders who find these things are likely to stay. Welcome home.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 26, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

1969 Chevy Pick-up Truck

Whadda ya think?
1969 Chevy Pick-up Truck

Last weekend I drove to Missoula to deliver a couch to a customer. It was fun to be back in Missoula , seeing old sights, visiting old friends. I felt nostalgic for the days when I lived on Alder Street with my young son. My friends and I shared all our resources. We could always count on each other for help. It was a time of stimulating talk, good friends and little money.

On my way back home I stopped at Ma’s Café in Loma. The Sunday evening special was a juicy a rib-eye steak. I washed it down with a tall glass of iced-tea. Satisfied and satiated, I rambled out to my elderly, but trustworthy, cargo van. I climbed into the driver’s seat and started to turn the key. In front of me, angled off to the side just a hair, sat a sky blue Chevy pick-up. A red and white FOR SALE sign was stuck prominently under the windshield wiper. The minute I saw it, I said out loud, “With that truck I could be a politician.”

For a person involved in city government, I am about as apolitical as one can be. I have never had political ambitions. But when I saw that truck, political lust struck. I knew this truck would be the perfect campaign outfit. With it, I knew I could win any race I chose to enter. Now I know nothing about politics, but I have observed that ignorance is no detriment to the job.

I bounced out of my van and walked around the old pick-up. It was a 1969 Chevy C-10. A gun rack spanned the rear window. An older model 30.06 nestled snug in the rack. A cap with a fish skeleton logo dangled from the rear-view mirror. An NRA sticker was plastered in the back window. Old Glory flew from a stake in the back right hand side of the box and an old broom stuck up, right behind the cab. The brake lights were mounted on posts on each side of the missing tail gate. The grill was noticeable by its absence, but that was no big deal. Both front fenders were intact though thoroughly dented. I kicked the tires. She was a beauty. This outfit, complete with all the accouterments, was everything I would need to launch my new political career. The only thing missing was a horn which could play “Yankee Doodle”. I jotted down the phone number. I knew I would pay any price.

I could see myself tooling around, up and down all the back roads of Montana . I would plaster campaign posters all over the truck. I would make speeches in local Fire Halls, shake hands with farmers, kiss babies and eat fried chicken. With my truck I would lead the Fourth of July parade. One look at my truck would convince the voters that I was a woman of the people, by far the best candidate. And if I had a flat tire, I could change it myself.

In these troubled times, people are flocking to the polls in every state to vote for sincere, well-meaning folks with little or no experience. I would fit right in. I also have noticed that these same voters are leery of the two established parties. There is already a Tea Party. So I thought I’d give mine a name that would appeal to more of my constituents. I would call it the Kaffee-Klatsch Party. I’ve been listening to the men sitting around the front table in Deb’s Diner. I’ve noticed that more political talk takes place over coffee than tea.

I had a moment of apprehension when I recalled the grief and aggravation my Harlem friends, our mayor and the county commissioner, put up with. I flung that fleeting fear aside. Maybe I could recruit one of them to be my campaign manager. With support from my friends and the right truck, there would be no stopping me.

Driving between Loma and Big Sandy, day-dreaming of fame to come, I saw three sets of genuine crop circles. What is this world coming to!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 19, 2010

Five Women and the Bears

The story I didn't tell: At lunch I felt a tick crawling up my leg. I said, "Excuse me, please," as I dropped my drawers right there in front of everybody. "Ive got a tick." The tick shape-shifted into a strand of dried bear grass which had worked its way up my pant leg.
Five women and the bears

Donna and Linda from Lincoln invited Karen (Floweree) and me to pick huckleberries. I had important business in Malta Saturday morning so I took the long route, but that is another story. I met Karen at her house at the end of the gravel road down in Floweree. Karen’s husband Don loaded our gear into her SUV. Neither Karen nor I had ever picked huckleberries so we had no idea what to expect. Rookies that we were, we thought picking huckleberries would be like shucking corn. We each brought along a cooler and buckets and miscellaneous containers. We also packed sturdy shoes, hats, jeans, long-sleeved shirts. I brought my bear bells.

Rumor has it that the bears in Lincoln outnumber humans two to one. In fact, city officials worry that some enterprising genius will register the bears to vote. This is not a bad idea except they fear the bears might vote a straight Democratic ticket.

Bears. They are everywhere. We women took a walk in the twi-night. We saw neighbors taking in their bird feeders and dog dishes. Others carted garbage to a shed, securing the door with a bullet-proof padlock. A couple of families sat around their patio barbeque pits, protected by ICBMs. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks currently are monitoring thirteen Grizzly sows in the vicinity. I would not want these huge hairy beasts hanging out in my back yard. Yet in Lincoln , there are people, evidently ignorant, who feed the bears. Yep, you heard me. They are like tourists in Jellystone who want to get a picture of their favorite grandchild, grinning, snug in Yogi’s arms—just before Yogi changes the name of the grandchild from Joey to Lunch.

Later that evening we gathered at Linda and Gary’s for huckleberry margaritas, ostensibly to inspire us for the next day’s picking. Mmmm, Mmmm, Good! Keep in mind this drink could be habit forming, creating an obsessive need to pick huckleberries to make more margaritas, which would strip the mountains of an important sustenance for the bears, necessitating the requirement for Fish and Wildlife to build bear pet feeders, which would lead to a direct reduction of the population of both dogs and grandchildren. But I digress.

Sunday morning Ginny and Ken joined us while we prepared for our trip up the mountain. Karen, Linda, Donna and I are former classmates, Harlem High ’63. We declared Ginny an honorary member on the spot. We loaded gear, sandwiches and buckets. I wore my bear bells. Christmas bells, actually. Five bells strung together on a decorative rope secured to the belt loop of my jeans. They clang and jangle nicely. Donna remembered she had a string of miniature cow bells, so she followed suit. Oh, you should have heard the men hoot. They hitched their belts up, fondled their massive pistols. They teased us that our bells would call in the bears. They would then protect us and be heroes. Oooh, we felt safe.

We drove, lurched, bounced and heaved up the side of Sauerkraut Mountain, not too far from where Bigfoot was spotted in July of 2004. (“Oh, look, there’s Bigfoot. Hand me another beer.”) Lincoln is a known sanctuary for a diversity of wildlife, both animal and human.

Now our education began. Keeping close to the men with guns, we women gave obeisance to the gentle and rare mountain huckleberry. Bent over at the waist, we searched each calf-high plant for the occasional berry. After an hour of harvest, we each had a treasured cupful. One would have thought we were panning for gold. At a cup an hour, well, you do the math. Yet every hour of picking did not yield a full cup of purple-some fruit. Alert for bears, we kept track of one another. We jangled our bells, shouting frequently, “Where’s Linda?” “Over here.” “Where’s Duane?” “Up here.” We were careful not to stray too far from the men with the artillery.

By noon we had grown complacent enough amidst the bruin infested wilderness to have a tailgate snack of sandwiches and cookies. We picked for another couple hours before calling it a day. With sly grins, one by one, Ken and Ginny, Linda and Gary , Duane and Donna, all dumped their berries into Karen’s and my picking pails. I almost cried. Through our friends’ generosity, Karen and I each brought home enough berries to make a batch of huckleberry jelly. Thanks to our pistol-packing guards, we had survived the perils of Griz, Bigfoot and shades of the Unibomber.

Those who scrabble around the mountainsides picking huckleberries to supplement their income have my admiration and respect. We arrived back in Lincoln tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, dirty and sore. Next year I’ll pay the price and buy my huckleberries at the S.A.T.U.R.D.A.Y. Market. I will visit my friends in Lincoln well after the huckleberries have been harvested.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
August 12, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yard Sale

True story, eh?
Yard Sale

At Easter Sunday dinner Pearl and I decided to have a yard sale. My closets were cluttered and the basement was stuffed. Pearl had equal excess. We had things we had not seen in years. We figured the middle of July would be a great time to hold the sale. We chose Wednesday, July 21. We decided to hold it at my house, situated as it is on a main street, with a wide concrete driveway.

Pearl tacked up flyers around town. We checked the weather oracle. Sunny with a few clouds. Temperatures in the high seventies. Precipitation zero. Utter perfection! A delightful forecast.

On Tuesday, the day before the sale, Ted and Pearl and their grandson Justin arrived with a pick-up load and a tent. The tent was a welcome surprise. It would expand our sale area, provide shade, and protect things overnight from the elements, should there be any elements raining down.

Setting up a tent is always great fun. I remember one family outing at a campground on the Elwha River in Washington . My husband and I laid the tent and all its parts out on the ground. I stood with the directions insisting that part A could not possibly interface with part D. I noticed our eight year old son Ben had disappeared. I figured he went scouting down to the river. After several failed attempts to raise the tent we were glaring at each other, sweaty with frustration. At that point a couple carrying camp chairs showed up and sat down to watch. That seemed strange, but we were consumed with trying to unravel the puzzle of tent construction. The next time I looked, at least a dozen people were circled around our little campsite. One family was passing out popcorn. Ben had gone from campsite to campsite and sold admission tickets to our comedy. He clutched a fistful of dollars. When it looked like we were destined for failure, a kind man with a similar tent stepped forward to save the day. In minutes our tent was erected. Everybody applauded.

In contrast, Ted and Pearl ’s tent was a wonder of engineering. Some genius had color coded all the parts. Blue fit into blue and red into red and so on. In no time at all Ted and Justin raised the tent. Pearl and I looked it over and saw that it was good. Ted noticed he had forgotten the tent stakes so he and Justin went back to get the pegs and another load of stuff for the sale. Pearl and I went down to my basement to find my large coffee urn. We planned to make coffee for the hordes of people who would come swarming through in the morning.

We stepped outside just as Ted and Justin drove in. We all stood stunned. The tent was gone. Gone. Really gone. Not there. Not where it was. Not where we had left it. The spot where we had put it was empty. A breeze had come up so I looked east to see if the tent was flying toward Dodson. I scanned the sky for an unidentified flying object. Then Justin yelled from the neighbor’s yard, “Here it is!” A gust of wind had swooped up the tent, sent it somersaulting over a twelve-foot high caragana hedge and landed it sitting perfectly upright in the neighbor’s yard. We each grabbed a corner post and walked it back into my yard. Justin immediately pegged it into the ground.

Sale day arrived. At seven o’clock Pearl and I were making final preparations when a dozen state highway department trucks rumbled around the corner. One man parked in front of my house. He jumped out of his rig and set up cones to block off my street. We ran over to him. “What are you doing?”

“We’re paving your street today.” Who would believe this? Pearl and I could only laugh. We’d picked the perfect day, picked the perfect street, and look. Soon dump trucks full of hot mix and machines to spread and tamp it thumped and clanged in front of my house. The noise was intense. Pearl and I sat out front watching the road show and drinking coffee from our sixty-cup urn. Finally a few people parked on the side streets and walked over to the sale. We urged each of them to have a cup of coffee. We offered seconds. They left full of coffee with arm loads of treasures. The highway crew wandered over at break time. They picked through our stuff. I poured them coffee.

In minutes clouds swooped in and chased away the sun. Rain pounded the ground. We hastily shoved the remainder of our goods under the wide overhang of my roof and into the tent. The highway men milled around and then quit for the day. Soaked to the skin, we drank more coffee and watched the rain. It rained hard. It rained steadily. It rained for hours. At noon, as the rain continued, I suggested, “ Pearl , go on home. Tomorrow is bound to be better.”

The next day the highway crew returned. The rain followed. Pearl and I shrugged and called Ted to come take down the tent. We’ll try again next year, on another perfect day.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 29, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Eudaemonia and me

Eudaemonia to you too!
Eudaemonia and me

Eudaemonia: the state of happily following our daemons. A friend sent me this word, knowing it would intrigue me. I like words. I like this word. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it feels on my tongue. For several months I have had this word thumb-tacked above my computer. I studied it from time to time. I mused about my own state of eudaemonia. I wondered just what specific daemons I was following.

With our spate of beautiful weather, such a long time in arriving, I finally identified one of my daemons. No matter how diligently and with what determination I begin a task in my house, I frequently find myself standing in my yard, not knowing how I got there, watering hose in hand, or uprooting yet another insidious patch of toadflax, or just aimlessly wandering, admiring my petunias, lilies, and hollyhocks, glorious in purples, pinks, reds, yellows, salmons and whites. I stand bemused. I started in the bedroom by stripping my bed and ended in the garden watering flowers. I examine my fingernails embedded with gumbo. I reflect on my still unmade bed. I smile. I’ve been following my garden daemon.

On a day when guilt wins out over pleasure, I shake my head at the lilac that is begging me to move her from the front to the back yard, stand my shovel against the door and go back into the house, a return to duty. On another day I will obey my daemon, flee my shop, move the lilac, weed the strawberry patch, harvest mint and lounge in the shade of the Canadian poplar reading a novel.

This morning I found myself wandering outdoors, with a dust rag in my hand. I chortled to myself, “Umm, humm. Eudaemonia strikes again.”

Curiosity led me to my Oxford English Dictionary to look up a formal definition of eudaemonia. There I affirmed that, indeed, I had contracted a chronic case, no doubt fatal, of “happiness or well-being consisting in the full realization of human potential, in rational activity exhibiting excellence”. This is a definition of me in my garden. In fact, I am an artist, “pursuing life with happiness as the ultimate goal”. Guilt, be thou gone.

Through further research I learned that eudaemonia is the basis of an entire philosophy constructed on the theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well being. Having a happy spirit (daemon is defined as spirit) is the result of “right living”. I like this.

So it turns out that my personal daemon spirits me outdoors, overriding my industrious intentions. Eventually, beds do get made. Bookshelves get dusted. Projects in my shop get finished. And I do these things with a happy spirit, having first indulged in “right living”.

Last night, like the good shoemaker who cut the leather for a pair of shoes in the evening and went to bed, I rolled out material for two couches. I cut fabrics for six cushions, six inside backs, four inside and outside arms, strips for cording, and the boxing and zippers for the cushions. I often make my preparations at night, hoping the elves will have my project finished by morning. When I jumped out of bed, I made coffee and peeked into my shop. No, the elves had not come and finished the couches. My fabric piles lay exactly as I had left them.

But I drank my coffee and bounded out to the yard, watered flowers, dead-headed petunias, pulled a few weeds, harvested chives to chop and dry, picked a gallon of currants for jelly and a bowl of raspberries to eat with cream. I assured the rhubarb, which wanted to be picked today, that I would get to it soon.

The day is young. Already I have stitched the zipper strips, sewed up miles of welt cord, and assembled the cushions. I could do another hour of work in the shop, but I hear my daemon call me. The sun is warm and inviting. We’re already on the short end of July. Basil is ripe to be snipped. Fledgling robins flit from limb to limb. I will gather a bouquet of baby’s breath. There will be plenty of time for long work days in my shop when winter returns.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 22, 2010

Camel Sweat and Cow Dung

For intro: Ah, the sweet smells of home.
Camel sweat and cow dung

“I fell in love with him because he smelled like horses and leather,” I told Karen. “He swung me up on his rope horse and taught me to ride. Well, the horse taught me to ride. My husband taught me to notice things along the trail. I had a tendency to ride with my head down, looking for rattlesnakes. He taught me instead to pay attention to my horse’s ears, which would twitch and point if he saw a snake along the way. When I didn’t have to worry about snakes, I learned to look out over the land. We rode for fun every evening, often after a work-day in the saddle. That horsey-leather smell still makes me wistful.”

“I grew up on horses,” Karen said. “My favorite smell is a sweaty horse, one that I’ve been running hard and he’s warm and stomping and blowing and full of energy. When I rub him down, I flick the sweat off his rump with my hand. I love that smell.”

We were driving up and down the streets of Harlem at about three miles per hour. It was Friday evening, the day before the school reunion. We were reminiscing, trying to remember just who used to live in the house on the corner, or in the house that is no longer there. We got to talking about how over the years our values have changed. And somehow that led us to talking about good smells.

“Horses,” I said. “That’s probably why I like camel-sweat tea.”

Karen raised her eyebrows. I told her the story. “In ancient times, merchants from China and India carried tea and spices to the Mediterranean countries across the mountains along the Silk Road . The tea leaves became soaked with the camels’ sweat. Every few nights the men had to dry the tea over their campfires, giving it a strong smoky flavor. My friends call it my “stinky tea”. Lapsang Souchong. It’s my favorite.”

“I like the smell of cow dung,” Karen confessed with a side-long look. “Especially when it is fresh and steamy on a cold winter day.”

“Me too. But my favorite is pig. It reminds me of raw brown sugar.”

We burst out laughing. We had both had grown up surrounded by animals. A whiff of scent triggers a host of memories.

This time of year the wild rose and milkweed blossoms and wet dirt drop me back in time to our farm on the Milk River . Once again I’m walking along the irrigation ditch, watching the dirt crumble off the bank into the swift brown water. I’m carrying a jar of iced tea and a fresh cinnamon roll to my Dad. The smells of cut grass and new-mown hay, scooped into windrows in the fields, make me feel rich, though it is neither my grass nor my fields.

When summertime heat has settled in, dust and sagebrush will have me back riding Sputnik again, moving cows to pasture, scanning the sky any the hint of a cloud, praying for rain. Although too many years have passed, memory is vivid.

On return trips to Harlem when my Dad was alive, rolling down the east slope of the mountains into Ellensburg, I could smell the feed lots, the dust and the sage. I was instantly transported to Montana , though I had hundreds of miles to go. The lure of dust and sagebrush eventually reeled me back home for good.

Whiffs from back yard barbeques reminded Karen and I that we had not yet had dinner. We headed home, still puttering along at about three or four miles per hour, remembering, forgetting, laughing and talking, reliving events from forty and fifty years ago. We heard shouts. There were nearly thirty people sitting on a front patio. I recognized a friend waving his arms. He shouted for us to join them for dinner, the barbeque was ready to put on the table. I looked around, the way one does when one is not sure who is really being motioned to. “Yes, you. Come eat with us and meet some of my friends.” We parked along the crowded street and joined the celebrants.

It was nearly dark when we left. Rain hung heavy in the air, along with another familiar night scent. “Now that’s another smell I really like,” I told Karen. “Eau de skunk.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 15, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Field of Day Dreams or Build It and hope they come

Field of Day Dreams
or Build it and hope they come

This morning, while I was bent over in my garden pulling weeds, the phone rang. I finished dead-heading the petunias and went indoors to listen to the message on voice mail. It was a woman with ideas. She didn’t leave her name. She must have noticed that periodically, in this column, I express concern for the financial future of the dwindling town of Harlem . She had answers. I liked her suggestions. She thinks like me.

Thank you, whoever you are. I have taken your ideas and run with them. In fact, I talked with my business partner about bringing you on board. She runs the coast office and I head the inland office. So far, all our business is in our heads. You, too, could have a head office—the field office.

Like you, I can picture an outlet mall nestled on the prairie, built with a railroad theme-parky style. What if we move the train station from Havre to Harlem where it always should have been in the first place. We’ll remodel it to be the mall entrance. We have lots of room on the sidings in Harlem for the historic steam locomotive.

I suggest Cabellas, Eddie Bauer, LL Bean and the Big R for the anchor stores. We will include such home-grown businesses as Herberger’s, the Harlem Clothing Company, Leon ’s Pawn Shop and Ken’s Guns. The usual Montana compliment of bars and casinos will circle the perimeter of the mall, all designed to resemble an old-timey railroad town.

Neither mall sprawl nor parking should present a problem. In Harlem a business can expand in any direction, err, except for the flood plain, which might be a problem. But, no problem is insurmountable, right. We’ll build extra runways at Harlem International Airport to accommodate commercial jet traffic. With the new terminal and control tower, our airport will rival Denver ’s. Amtrak will run four trains a day, hook on more cars and beef up its ad campaign. North Central Montana Transit will acquire a fleet of posh tour busses.

And, as you suggested, my unknown friend, nobody could resist an outlet mall built around an indoor pool and waterslide. The retractable roof will allow our customers to recline poolside under the summer sun.

We will top the high rise hotel with a penthouse suite and an observation deck with a revolving restaurant. What do you think? The restaurant, called The Dining Car, will attract the finest chefs in the entire region. Every Friday night they will feature the pitchfork steak fondue special, all you can eat.

Nashville ’s finest will flock to the Opry House. Who knows, we might grow to rival Branson , Missouri or even Las Vegas . Let’s mix Montana talent right in with the Big Stars. I wonder if the Singing Sons of Beaches would be willing to drive up from Ringling to headline the grand opening.

We’ll call the indoor sports complex The Round House. My incognito friend, you suggested that we “build it and they will come”. Shoeless Joe might even show up and hit one out of the park. We’ll have everything--baseball, football, basketball, hockey and curling. Year ‘round rodeo. Monster trucks. Mud wrestling. You name it.

I agree with you that folks would drive hundreds of miles for a mall with a waterslide, from Spokane , Phoenix , Saskatoon and Fargo . Think big, I say.

Before your timely phone call today ignited our imaginations, we in Harlem would have gone begging for a twelve unit motel and a full-time restaurant. And a pawn shop.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
July 8, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

Harlem High's All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

This came out in today's Blaine County Journal. This is a real coup, by the way. And I got a nice compliment from the editor.
Harlem High’s All-Class Reunion Brings Memories With It

The voices and memories are those of Mary O’Bryan, Mary Belle Liese, Elsie Hanson, Phyllis Rasmussen, Karolee Cronk , Kay Brekke, and Irene Stout. The mistakes are all mine. I take credit for historical errors. You may blame us all for lack of a coherent time line and the rambling nature of this piece. I have tried to keep the sense of many people talking at once, which was often the way it was that day at the Senior Center , when these women shared their stories with me.
Sondra Ashton
Harlem High Class of ‘63

Every community has a unique identity, a spirit about it which reflects the life of its citizens. Never is this spirit felt more strongly than when graduates return home. In Montana ’s small towns the high school is the hub of the community. Each student, each teacher, cook, janitor, bus driver and class aide leaves his or her mark. Wherever one goes, throughout his life, the graduate carries the influence of his home-town school experiences.

With this in mind, I recently met with a group of women to talk about the up-coming All Class Reunion in Harlem . These seven women created a patchwork quilt of memories. And as in any patchwork, one story-piece led to another. My job was to listen to the stories these women told and share them with you.

The first thing they talked about was what the town looked like, where everything was. They began naming the stores on the north side of the tracks, across from the train station, where Harlem had its beginnings--the elevators, hotels, groceries, a mercantile, blacksmith, the post office, warehouses, and restaurants including Quong Louie’s, which they agreed, did not serve Chinese food.

You could buy lumber, flour, furniture, canned goods, tools, seeds—everything the town and the homesteaders needed. There were many fine homes on the north side. When the elementary school was built on the south side of the tracks, kids had to cross a huge ditch on a bridge and then cross the railroad tracks. This waterway runs under the school and through the town. It was all built over with concrete as the town grew. Why the transition from north to south, I asked. Fires and floods. And the school was on the south side. It just seemed natural. The town followed the school.

What began on the north quickly jumped the tracks to the south side. Andrew Nelson’s Confectionery, next to Kennedy’s, served hand-packed ice cream and had booths with high walls where you could have a coke with your boy friend and not be seen if your parents peeked in the door. One woman told a story about the night there was a shivaree. We all were banging cans and making all kinds of noise. The young groom bribed us to go away by giving us money to go get ice cream at Nelson’s. We left the couple alone then. This talk led to Merle’s Confectionery, built in the ‘50’s, where everyone enjoyed black-and-whites.

I could not keep up with the lively conversation. Imagine a mosaic of voices: JC Penney’s was a large store with a downstairs. The stairs were very wide. That was before the Brekke Block was built. Gambles had a downstairs too. That was on the east side of Main Street . There was dancing in the New England Hotel bar during the war (WWI). It was downstairs. There was a barber shop in the hotel. There was another barbershop where Kennedy’s Bar stands now. Oh, that barber like to scared me to death. My father took me into that barber shop for a haircut. I was scared stiff I would come out looking like a boy. It was a barber shop, you know, for men. I was five years old.

Remember Halsey’s Drug Store. Oh, and the Post Office was in there. It was real small. Then there was the Smith and Kissell Grocery. And the hospital and mortuary once stood where the Senior Center is now. People hardly ever left Harlem to buy anything. They rarely went to Havre.

The Grand opened in 1920. Several of the girls agreed that Mack Miller was a great guy to work for. One woman reported: I was raised out north. When we came to town to go to the Saturday matinee, I was surprised to see so many people. People everywhere. Dad took us kids to the show so it was always a cowboy movie. We girls got up and left because it scared us when the Indians rode in shooting.

They gave dishes away at the shows. They had nights they gave away dishes, real pretty ones with a Phoenix bird or some kind of bird on the plates. And we used to get silverware out of flour.

The Indians from Fort Belknap drove horses and buggies into town. They tied up behind Fred Sturges’ Saddlery. I loved the smells back then, one woman said. He tanned leathery there, where Frip’s Café was. And the old greasy smell from the John Deere shop. That was where Albertson’s is now. The John Deere and the tannery. I loved those smells.

The streets were either mud or dust. The cemetery was all sagebrush. It looks so pretty today with the grass and hedges and pine trees. The FFA helped plant those trees. One time our class took an unscheduled sneak day. As punishment we planted grass and pine trees at the grade school. When the addition was built, all our hard work was plowed up.

Speaking of playing hookey, Scrud Brekke could get away with anything. He told the principal that he was picking potatoes. High school kids were excused from school to pick potatoes or harvest sugar beets. Even the girls were let out of school to harvest beets. It was hard work. We had to pick them up and throw them into the truck.

The women’s school memories included head lice, tuberculosis patches, mean kids, and how hard it was to go from a one-room country school to the big school in Harlem . One girl boarded in town for eighth grade, so she could get used to it before high school. The outlying boys often boarded in town so they could play basketball.

Everyone recalled the “pit” at the old grade school. This was a sunken gym, about four feet below floor level, with a rail built around, a stage at one end and with wide hallways all around. The older girls set up tables for school lunches in the pit. Fort Belknap sent in hot lunches for the Indian kids and their tables were up in the hallway. The white kids ate sack-lunch sandwiches down in the pit. We all wished we were up there with them eating hot soup while the Indian kids wished they were down in the pit eating sandwiches. The pit was used for everything--roller skating, basketball, parties, dances, Christmas programs and proms. And if you were bad in class, that is where you were sent. So if you saw some kid sitting by himself in the pit, you knew he’d been bad.

In 1925 the notable basketball team comprised of Hurley Wilson, Harold Hoyt, Emmett Buckley, Waldo Ekegren, Quentin Ekegren, Ed LaRock and Kermit Ekegren was called The Terrible Swedes. Why, I asked. Because they were Swedes was their laughing answer. In 1951 Harlem won the State Class C Football Championship. The game was played on Watkin’s Field, on Thanksgiving Day. This was a real field planted with blue joint hay. In 1977 Harlem placed second in Class B Basketball.

Music played a large part in school. One woman recalled that she played trombone in band and also was a majorette in the drum and bugle corps. At one past reunion she was reminded by Superintendent Langbell that she wasn’t as good a trombone player as she was a majorette. He also remembered that a different woman of the group had tried to play fiddle and could not learn.

In 1933 Leo Brockie, Sr. was the first Fort Belknap graduate of Harlem High. Herman Liese graduated twice. Well, his picture is hanging on the wall at the high school in two different classes. One woman said there was one year when every boy in her class was in the service. The seniors were issued diplomas even though they were gone. Several young men finished their credits at Ft. Lewis . Many didn’t come back. At the dances, girls danced together. The dances all started with girls on one side and boys on the other until the boys got up the nerve to ask the girls to dance.

Two of the women recalled the time when the older Native people spoke little English. They signed for what they wanted, and wrote a mark signifying their name. They were always able to make you understand what they wanted. The Hutterite people, not that many years ago, spoke broken English with a heavy German accent. During WWII, Harlem had a German POW camp. At night we could hear the prisoners singing in harmony. It was beautiful. They had a bus driver who dropped the men off to work at sugar beet farms. Japanese people were also brought into this area. These were American citizens. They were lodged in bunk houses on farms. They liked to hang out at the theatre. Some of them liked this area so well they wanted to stay. But when the camps were formed, they shipped them all out. One woman still has a perfume bottle given to her by a young Japanese man. Then the Mexican laborers were brought in to hoe sugar beets. The Mexican men planted another crop alongside the ditch banks. Some of these men found a way to stay and are now a part of the community.

We wrote a lot of letters during the war. And got letters—Dear John letters. Those went both directions. One woman got five hundred letters from her sweet heart when he was thirty-three months in the Pacific. Then he came home and she married him. Another woman, a nurse during the war, helped with the returning Prisoners of War. She described how helpless she felt that there was so little they could do to treat the men. Bud Campbell from Lodgepole was one who returned to us. Then Korean POW’s, George Blackbird and Charles Brekke, were released in 1953.

There used to be nice big houses in town until the Snake Butte project got started. The street from downtown to the high school was called “ Silk Stocking Avenue ” because of those beautiful old homes. Then those homes were chopped up into apartments and they never recovered. Anything was used for housing, shacks, shanties, tents. All were rented. The population tripled. A lot of Harlem girls got married. There were so many kids in school that several classes were held in church basements.

It was not the only time kids were farmed out to church basements. 1968 was the year of the fires. In January the civic enter burned down completely. It had housed the library, the basketball court, stage, jail, police office, a shooting range, the city office, and the Legion meeting rooms. All the basketball games, the school carnival, and the Seed Show were held there. Then a month later the older part of the grade school burned. It felt like the entire city disappeared. One of the Frey girls didn’t get out of the school. The teachers didn’t have a good count. Jim Thompson went back into the building, feeling his way, the smoke was too thick to see. Suddenly her little arms wrapped around his legs. He was so happy to get her out of there.

What do you remember most, I asked. They answered: We were a community. We were a village looking out for one another. We had a commitment, whether it was to school, to a job, or to our community. We were involved and became a part of everything. Young people today, well, both are working. They don’t have time for civic duties. Everyone knew who you were and where you were supposed to be. As young people we never got away with anything. Somebody would see us and that would be that. They would scold us and then tell our parents and then we would get it good when we got home. But we knew they cared. They cared what we did and wanted us to do good. If we could, this is what we would bring back. That strong sense of community.

Blaine County Journal
June 30, 2010

After You, My Dear Alphonse

If the title confuses you, look up "Alphonse and Gaston"
After you, my dear Alphonse

Recently, in my local county newspaper, an elected official was quoted as saying that his constituents never want to be first, never want to be trailblazers. They want someone else to get the ball rolling and then join in.

I was stunned. Confused. Disillusioned. What about people like Christopher Columbus? Lewis and Clark? Liver-eating Johnson? I grew up believing the myth of the rugged individual. I was proud of the pioneer spirit running through so much of Montana history. I thought these traits were shared by all my friends and neighbors. Where did I go wrong? I was afraid I would have to re-think my entire belief system.

Then I remembered Sunday dinner at Aunt Mary’s. Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul had ten children, five boys and five girls, so twelve crowded the trestle table every meal. Often, they welcomed me, my sister, Dad, Grandma and Father Todd to share dinner after Mass. That made seventeen. Aunt Mary and Uncle Paul farmed. They grew everything they ate. So the platters my cousin Shirley and I carried to the table were heaped with chickens that Aunt Mary had killed and plucked early that Sunday morning.

Everybody reached for their favorite pieces. The practical boys dived for the drumsticks, then heaped their plates with mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, and huge ears of corn. But Shirley and I were good Catholics. She had introduced me to “The Lives of the Saints.” I had listened in awe and admiration to stories about martyrs, hair shirts, torture, burnings at the stake--proofs of holiness. While conscientiously racking up points in Heaven, Shirley and I piously waited to take the last pieces of chicken--the backs and the necks. At an early age I learned to pretend that the bony chicken back was my favorite piece, to suck every strand of stringy meat from a chicken neck. It was the saintly thing to do.

Dinner at Aunt Mary’s was the perfect training to prepare me to live where “nobody wants to go first”. Now I know why I feel right at home here. I decided to see if I could learn about some famous people who, like us in this county, were reluctant to take the lead.

First, I found the patriotic Irish saint, Patrick Henry, who said, “I’d rather die than fight for liberty.”

I was startled to read that Davy Crockett said, “Make sure some one else is right and then follow them.”

Or how about that Daniel Boone, not one to foolishly blaze a trail, who said, “Will somebody please show me the way west.”

I had hardly scratched the surface. Remember George Washington’s immortal words, “Well, I’m willing to be vice-president.”

My heart swelled with affirmation that I was on the right track. We all loved to hear John Wayne say, “Saddle up. Move ‘em out. After you.” Then there was Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, eager to go “where many men have gone before.” Or Gilligan, who said, “This boat looks too crowded. I’ll catch the next one.”

Everybody knows how Teddy Roosevelt ordered a hapless private up San Juan Hill to make sure the way was safe. He then ensured his political career with these famous words, “Speak softly and carry a big justification.”

The Wright brothers waited and waited at Kitty Hawk until they heard about the heroic efforts of Jacques Fondue, who sailed up, up, up into the blue horizon. Then they swallowed hard and took to the air. (By the way, Jacques Fondue is better known as the inventor of the pitchfork steak fry.)

The intrepid Admiral Farragut, standing on the bridge in the face of grave danger, shouted, “Damn! The torpedoes! Full speed astern!”

And every school child can quote Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, I waited.”

Let’s not forget the women who, of course, followed their men. Rosa Parks always went to the back of the bus. Our own Jeanette Rankin trailed the herd and voted to go to war. Betsy Ross shrugged and turned down the commission to design Old Glory, “If somebody else will sew the first one, I’ll make copies.”

In Blaine County we follow in the well-worn footsteps of heroes. Here’s my favorite quote for those who drag their feet, never wanting to be first, never wanting to be trailblazers: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”--God.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
July1, 2010

Stalking the Wild

Stalking the Wild

Ah, the thrill of the chase. The anticipation of pursuit. Stalking the quarry, sneaking through the brush, the grasses, the thistles, the wild rose, warily parting the fronds and peering with expectation. My delight at spotting my prey.

Something of the pioneer courses through my blood when I venture forth to bring home the bacon, so to speak. It is hard to describe my satisfaction upon my return with larder for the pantry. I feel like a mighty hunter who evaded the wooly mammoth, outwitted the saber-toothed tiger and brought home the wild asparagus.

A couple weeks ago, while sipping a cup of coffee at the bakery in Chinook, I eavesdropped on men at the next table. They were telling tales of gathering asparagus along the river. I had had every intention of going for asparagus this year, but each day that I was available to go, the weather conspired to defeat me. It was getting late in the season. I was glad to hear that there might be some left.

When I was a child, I discovered a small stand of asparagus that grew on the bank of the Milk River near our house. I sat in the sand and ate the tender spears. Not one stalk made it to the kitchen. I was hooked.

Fresh out of high school and newly married, I moved to Dodson. Mary Tribby took me under wing. She lived in a small cottage across the road from the creek. To me, she was a wise woman, a crone of inestimable knowledge. She initiated me into the esoteric rites of asparagus stalking. She taught me how to see the above-ground clues to the close-to-the-ground bounty. While the dew still sparkled on the grass, Mary and I gathered a basket full of spears, blanched them, and bagged them for my freezer.

So I told my guests from out of state, “Today is the last possible day we might pick wild asparagus. I know a special place. Would you like to go on a hunt? But there is no guarantee we’ll find fresh game.” Within minutes we were on the road to Dodson. We parked along a side street. I led my guests to the wide banks of Dodson Creek.

“Here’s what we look for,” I said. I showed them the dried fronds from last years crop, parted the grasses beneath the old stalks, and noted where others before us had snapped off fresh spears. One dark green stalk, about two feet high, stood guard. It was much too woody to eat. It would scatter good seed for the future. I continued to rake through the grasses with my fingers and uncovered one lovely stalk, about five inches above ground, barely visible above the duff, light green in color with tight, scale-like leaves.

Once we had snapped off the first three asparagus, we ate them. My friends had never tasted fresh asparagus in the field. That was all the motivation these greenhorns needed. We separated and each of us combed a different section of creek bank. I know many fresh stalks were munched and never made it into the bag. Yet our end-of-the-season hunt yielded two huge messes of this lily-like vegetable. We left, satisfied with our haul. As a bonus, I took home two wool socks studded with cockleburs.

Back at the house we enjoyed a simple meal of steamed asparagus, lightly buttered with salt and pepper. My friends began planning next year’s hunt while I plucked cockleburs from my socks. They intend to return for opening day and bring appropriate field gear.

We who live in north central Montana have missed a vital commercial opportunity. Think about it. Annually outlanders come to hike our trails, shoot our elk, photograph our wolves, and toss dry flies at trout. So why not institute a designated “season” to stalk the wild asparagus. I can see it now. An entire new industry is born. The state issues licenses. Guides take the innocent hunters to the second best sites (saving favored stream banks for family). Towns vie to be named “Wild Asparagus Capital of the World”. Tournaments. Trophies. Hunting gear. Clothing. Caps. Tools. Art. Kitsch. Souvenirs. Toys. Recipe books. Maps. Brochures. Museums. Parades. Celebrations. Roadside stands. The possibilities are endless.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 24, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Our Day at the Centennial

Our Day at the Centennial
My friends, David and Vidya from Washington State , are visiting me. You might remember them from a column I wrote last year in which they were almost stranded in Saskatchewan , frantically searching for their passports at the Monchy border crossing. Well, they are back again.

One morning David was paging through the Havre and Hi-Line Visitor’s Guide. He said, “Where’s Gildford? It says here they are having a Centennial celebration on Saturday. I bet that’ll be fun.” So we decided we would go.

Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed out to Gildford, excited as all get out. We like town celebrations. We aimed to arrive in time for the chili feed and the historic tour. David speeded up so we could beat the crowd.

Gosh. Gildford was empty. Not a human in sight. We couldn’t find the celebration. No cars were nosed up the restaurant. The bar sported a “For Sale” sign. A black and white cat lay in the middle of the street. The museum looked like it might be locked up for the day. This did not make any sense.

“Maybe the functions are being held at the school or the community center or the park. Everyone could be there—wherever “there” is,” David said. We drove slowly up and down every street in Gildford, searching for a crowd. We saw a woman in her yard, watering flowers. A couple streets over, a man pushed a lawn mower. Two small girls pedaled by on bicycles. Another black and white cat crossed the street. Or maybe it was the same cat.

We sat idling at an intersection for several minutes, contemplating what might have happened. We had searched the entire town and could not locate the festivities. Maybe everything had been cancelled at the last minute. Maybe we had grabbed last year’s visitor’s guide. Maybe the venue was moved to Kremlin. Maybe UFO’s had abducted everybody. Maybe the Rapture had occurred and only we and the two cats were left behind.

“Let’s head back to Havre,” Vidya said. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” David agreed. “I could almost taste the home-made chili. Chunks of succulent beef, spicy peppers and beans, dipped steaming out of a giant kettle.”

Over the chicken-fried steak special at Wolfers we continued to puzzle out the mystery of the empty town of Gildford . Without success. We shrugged, paid the bill, and left the diner, picking our teeth. We ambled down the sidewalk just because it was there. The sun was shining. There were a thousand things we could do, but we were lazily content to enjoy one another’s company.

Somehow, scavengers that we are, we ended up at the Salvation Army thrift store. An hour, nineteen books, a coffee cup, and half a “new” wardrobe for Vidya later, we lugged our bounty out the door.

On the way to the car, we passed the Book Exchange. For a long time I had been hunting for an early novel by Wayne Ude, a friend from Harlem school days. There was nothing for it but to go upstairs in the Atrium to see if they had the book. Susie and I disappeared into the office to look it up on the computer.

David idly flipped through a copy of the Havre Daily on the counter. From the office I could hear him sputter. Vidya cackled. They raced in and shook the paper in front of my face. The front page of the second section was filled with photographs of people enjoying the Gildford Centennial—pictures taken the previous Saturday. Oh. Mystery solved.

On the drive back to Harlem , Vidya said, “So, tell me, what was your favorite part of the Centennial?”

I mulled over her question. “The hot-air balloon ride. Definitely. I have wanted to do that for years. What a thrill to glide over the town, up in the air so high.”

“That was your ride. For me, it was to fly, sitting snug behind the pilot in the yellow bi-plane,” David said. “It was just wood and canvas and wire, held together with glue. I couldn’t believe it when the pilot did the figure 8 loops and the rolls.”

Vidya and I giggled. “We saw you throw up after you landed.”

“I loved the turn-of-the-century costumes,” Vidya said. “And that the entire town was in character, as if it were 1910.”

“Yeah, the old cars and the horse-and-buggy rides and the steam threshing machine and the honky-tonk piano and the old time music.”

“And best of all, the chili feed.”

We were a week late. We had missed the whole thing. But we sure had a good time at the Gildford Centennial.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
June 17, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

Life is Big

Chance encounters of the close kind.
Life is Big

I met Sharon at a workshop at Mt. Shasta , California in 1992. We all sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. The workshop leader asked us to buddy up, explaining that we were to work in teams of two. Sharon and I looked across the circle, nodded and grinned. Instant buddies. That week we forged a friendship.

Our lives were vastly different. I lived in a house in the woods in rural Poulsbo , Washington . Sharon had an apartment in the heart of downtown Vancouver , British Columbia . Sharon, a single woman, had traveled all over the world. She was intensely interested in alternative medicine and the healing arts. I had children, owned my own business, wrote poetry and painted. But we shared one common experience: we were both women of the prairies. Sharon grew up in Watson , Saskatchewan , just a little east and north of my own home town of Harlem , Montana . We frequently shared stories of our growing up at the end of the road, in small town isolation. We had been near neighbors and never knew it.

Over the next several years, we visited back and forth. I loved Vancouver . Sharon took me everywhere. We walked barefoot through the goose poop in Stanley Park . We explored Granville Island , its Public Market and the galleries. As time passed, our lives changed. Sharon married Ron, a chef and restaurateur from Singapore . Ron is a whirlwind of energy, full of plans, with the skills to carry them out. I liked him immediately. I became an empty nester. My children flew off into their own lives. I found myself doing something I had never thought I would do. I entered the world of theatre. Sharon attended my first play. O ur friendship grew.

One Friday Ron and Sharon surprised me when they drove up to my house in their big red pickup. They burst through the door. “Guess what we are going to do. We are leaving Vancouver . Ron sold the restaurant. We are done with the hustle and bustle, the pressures of the big city,” they announced, both talking at the same time. “We came to share our excitement with you.”

Amidst hugs and kisses, I managed to squeeze in a query, “What are you going to do?”

“We’re off to check out restaurants for sale in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland . We’re going from the west coast to the east coast.”

The weekend passed too quickly. Monday morning I waved them off with tears in my eyes. I wondered when, if ever, I would see Sharon again. I wanted to pack a bag and go with them.

A few days later, Sharon called. “Guess what? On our way east, we stopped to visit my Mom in Saskatchewan . You won’t believe this. We bought a restaurant right here in Watson. It’s called the Quick Stop. Ron has big plans for it.”

Our visits became less frequent but our phone bills increased. Five years passed. One day I called Sharon , “Guess what? We’ll be neighbors again. I’m moving back to Harlem .”

“Sondra, I am not one bit surprised. You always talked about going home. So when are you coming up here. We have a room waiting for you.”

And so we have resumed our cross-border trips, only now a thousand miles to the east. I like Saskatchewan . I feel at home up there.

This morning I called Sharon . She and I talked for an hour. We caught up on recent details of our lives. Ron has expanded the restaurant again. He added a room to house their new machine to manufacture perogies. They also bought the five acres of brush-land they took me to see on my last trip. They’ve cleared a patch and planted spruce and irises.

After our call, I stood in my doorway and watched the puffy clouds roll north, listened to the rain beat a tattoo on my red metal roof, inhaled the aroma of wet mud and lilacs, conscious that Sharon was unlocking the front door of the Quick-Stop and smelling the same fragrances. We are both back where we started. Prairie girls again.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
June 10, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Pink Frock

I hated that dress after the first day.
The Pink Frock

Today in Harlem , I attended a rite of passage, eighth grade graduation. I am a sucker for ceremony. As the young people promenaded two by two through the decorated arch and up the aisle, tears rolled down my face.

I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine. Long buried memories of my own eighth grade graduation flooded my mind. I leaned over to Karolee, “When we were in school, was graduation held in the cafeteria or the pit? I can’t remember.” The pit was a sunken gymnasium in the old section of the grade school, a place where we were sent for punishment. All of it long gone.

This year’s crop of eighth grade girls all looked so pretty. The boys moved with sporty grace. I glanced around at the proud families. Cameras flashed to document the moment.

“Look how assured and confident they stand. We were not so sophisticated,” I whispered. I remembered how uncomfortable I had felt. Fidgety. I had kept a nervous eye on the boy who walked next to me, trying to match step. I was paired with either Bob Neely or Big John Longknife, our tallest boys. I, myself, was eight feet tall. With feet twenty-four inches long. I could not keep my feet out of the way of my legs. My arms were so long that my hands hung near my knees. None of us knew what to do with our platter-like hands. I was as thin as a steel fence post and with as much sex appeal.

And I remembered the pink dress. Somewhere in my boxes of photos, filed by chunks of time, I had a photo of myself wearing the dress, taken with my own Brownie Hawkeye. I had posed in front of our house, out on the farm, in a corner by the porch steps. As soon as I got home, I dug my storage boxes out of the cupboard, tore through the files, and found the picture stored under the heading, “Sondra—young”.

Even in the black and white photo, it looks pink. It was my first semi-formal frock. It was horrid. I don’t know what I was thinking to have chosen such a dress. I must have thought it was pretty. Pink is a beautiful color. I love pink. Just this week I bought an entire flat of pink petunias. But I cannot wear pink, especially light pink. I fade away to nothing.

I wish I could show you the photo I have propped in front of me. No, that’s a lie. I am glad you cannot see it. There I stand, posing awkwardly, feet encased in white flats to hide my height, a white pop-bead necklace around my scrawny neck, hair straight as a stick, eyes squinting into the sun, trying to look happy. The dress is a wonder, satin with a scratchy lace over-layer. The piece de resistance, that which sets this dress apart as “special”, is a giant bow stitched smack in the front. The bow extends beyond the width of my waist (metal fence post) and the tails hang down to the end of the skirt. Beneath the skirt, I wore three starched, ruffled net petticoats.

I had to wear that pink dress to formal dances until my junior year. Finally, in time for the Junior Prom, I had saved enough money to buy the only other semi-formal dress I ever owned, a white froth of beauty that could have been inspired by “Gone With the Wind”. I loved that white dress. In my white dress I shrunk to five-foot eight, my arms became proportionate, my feet fit into size eight shoes, though I still wore flats. In my white dress, I felt like the girls looked at the graduation today. Assured. Confident. Graceful.

I know dresses have nothing to do with either sophistication or awkwardness. It just took me a while to grow into myself. These young people have a head start. They, every one of them, are beautiful.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door.
June 3, 2010