Monday, January 3, 2011

Dances with Cats

Dances with Cats


“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” a friend asked one day. “Yes,” I answered. I like pets. I haven’t had a cat or dog for some years now because I travel a lot.

So why was I driving home from Seattle in the middle of winter with Fat Louie and Penguina perched on a chair in the back of my van giving me the evil eye? I’m a sucker. I am easily had. I have known these two critters since they were pliant kittens, dragged around in doll clothes by my granddaughter. I was there when she gave them a bath in the toilet bowl. I went to bed many a night in the guest room with one draped over my head and the other anchoring my legs. We have history.

Why indeed? Plain and simple. There was no room at the inn. My daughter, Dee, and her family have a new living situation. No cats allowed. “Mom?” my daughter asked. “Grandma?” my granddaughter pleaded. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Gulp.

Chris, my son-in-law, loaded the potty station, bowls, a sack of food, and the large travel cage into my van. “Did you talk to them; do they understand they are going home with Grandma?” I asked. Fat Louie rubbed against my ankles; his tail whipped around my legs. Penguina was nowhere to be found. I looked around the room. If I were a cat, where would . . . I leaned down to look into the space between the wall and the couch. She hunched in the dark, her eyes flickered like candles. Dee pulled Penguina from her hidey-hole and put her in my arms.

By the time I headed up into the Cascades I realized these two fur balls might not like one another. I could hear them spatting in the cage. I opened the door so they could roam if they wished. Fat Louie stepped right out, howling all the way. Guina hunkered down and glared. Over the next few hours both cats registered extreme dissatisfaction with their transition to a new life. Long before Spokane I decided to high-ball it home, no snugging down in a warm motel bed. I fortified myself with power naps and caffeine. I computed the hours and figured I could make it by 3 am. Roads were clear and dry.

I rolled into Missoula in light snow with intermittent snow pack. Added an hour to my ETA. Ten miles out of Missoula the wind and snow amped up to a full-blown storm. I mentally added two more hours.

Thoroughly snow blasted, I finally reached Lincoln . I ditched my plan and pulled into the first motel. I have friends in Lincoln . I usually stay with them, but I had two cats, a nasty cold and I couldn’t knock on their door at 1:30 in the morning. I don’t even remember getting in bed.

I slept later than I’d intended, skipped the shower, filled the food and water dishes, brushed six inches of snow from my windshield and prepared to sneak out of town. My van would not start. Not a click or grunt. Nothing. I went back into the motel and called my friends. Ten minutes later Gary and Linda showed up. Linda ignored my excuses and chewed me out for not staying with them. Gary called the repair shop and the tow truck. We put the cats in their garage for the day.

Linda put a chicken in the pot to simmer for soup. Their friends Barney and Rosie came over. They all taught me to play Hand and Foot, a complex card game similar to Canasta. The shop called. The van was ready. I picked it up. We ate soup and played cards.

After Barney and Rosie went home, Gary and I went to the garage to transfer the “children” to the sun room for the night. They’d disappeared. We called, cussed, pleaded, shivered with cold and searched. Finally I snared Fat Louie from behind a stack of boards. Gary found Penguina stuck under the back wheel well of the jeep. “Pull,” I said. He ripped her out in two pieces and screwed her back together. By that time, the fat solstice moon was starting its eclipse. So we stayed up to watch the rare spectacle.

At noon the next day I was again ready to leave Lincoln . I loaded the cats, hugged my friends and turned the key. I couldn’t believe it. The van would not start. Not a click. I unloaded cats and suitcase. Prepared for a repeat of the previous day. Tow to shop, etc. All that for a ten dollar relay.

We finally did make it home. Now I can’t sit down without a feline Velcro-ed to my lap. At night Penguina wraps herself around my head. Fat Louie anchors my legs to the bed. Today I heard myself talking baby talk to them. I’m considering counseling.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 30, 2010

Christmas Shopping in Guadalajara

Christmas Shopping in Guadalajara

Evelyn, my new friend from Harlem— Harlem , New York , that is—searched the palapa huts on the beach at Mazatlan until she found us. “There is a shopping tour bus to Guadalajara every Thursday. What do you think?” Kathy and I perked up. “We leave at night, shop all day and return home the following night. It costs only five hundred pesos for the bus. And there will be a tour guide.”

We were an easy sell. We’d landed in Mazatlan exhausted and had done virtually nothing but lounge on the beach, stare at the waves and eat shrimp in the two weeks since we’d arrived. A trip to Guadalajara sounded exciting. We’d get an overview of the city and would know if we’d like to spend time there. For a seven hour trip by bus, the price was exceptional.

When Kathy’s husband Richard arrived on Sunday, as tired and ready for a rest as we had been, we surprised him with the trip, already pre-paid. He raised his eyebrows at us, but went along with our plans. None of us knew quite what we had bought but we were ready for the adventure.

Thursday night at eight we queued up, handed over our bags for inspection by the policia, were given our itinerary and a sack lunch and boarded the bus, one of several heading to the same destination. We were the only Gringos on the bus. Our tour guide, Guillermo, spoke for several minutes. About the trip. I guess. Next year we are determined to arrive in Mexico with a bigger Spanglish vocabulary.

Fortunately, o ur itinerary was printed in both languages. The first stop was Medrano Street from 3 to 8 am. “It is a flea market where you can find all kind of clothes. Be careful of your purse. Because in this season is really crowded.” Guillermo made a ten minute speech at the front of the bus, then indicated to us with gestures at his watch, that we should be back to the bus at 8 am. Oh, and be careful of our purses.

What in the world were we going to do for five hours in the middle of the night at a flea market! Explore, that’s what. We agreed to stay together. It was body to body crowded. A shoppers Mecca , the market sprawled over several streets. Stalls, stands and shops jammed with shirts, shorts, shoes, purses, jewelry, electronics, bedding, you name it. We wandered through the press of people. The atmosphere was like a carnival. We soon split up, each going in whatever direction interested us. Oh, my, the food stalls—the most exceptional baked goods in the world. When it was almost time to leave, we couldn’t find Richard. We nearly panicked and went on the search. With relief we finally spotted him. A tall Gringo did not move through this pack of people unnoticed. We had to go. I was just getting oriented and ready to shop. I comforted myself with plans to return next year; I would go armed with a list.

And thus we ate and shopped our way through Guadalajara , always with Guillermo looking out for us, to make sure we knew when to re-board the bus. We stopped at shopping centers, upscale malls which could have been anywhere in the world, a denim market, arts and crafts markets, and ended up at the huge San Juan de Dios Market, footsore, weary, and happy. We all agreed that shopping Guadalajara deserved several days, with the first stop the flea market. I noticed that Richard was rather quiet through this discussion. The cliché, deer in the headlights, comes to mind. But we intend to also browse through the museums and galleries, photograph the stunning architecture and tour the countryside. It is not all about shopping!

When we boarded the bus for home about twenty extra people crowded in, standing in the aisles. That is, twenty extra people with muy huge bags of plunder. We hardly had room to breathe. One bus had broken down. We swayed through the town for about an hour to a central bus station where a replacement bus awaited. It took some time to redistribute people and bags. On the way again, our driver strived manfully to make up time. We charged and roared through the countryside. About an hour north of Nayarit, our bus gave out, coughed its last fume and died by the side of the road. The driver and Guillermo climbed over the engine, wrenches in hand, to no avail. The policia soon arrived and sat guarding the bus. That’s when I realized there were hundreds of thousands of pesos worth of goods on board, most of it for Christmas.

It was full daylight before another bus putt-putted up to rescue us and carry us back to Mazatlan . During this entire venture, everybody was patient, polite, and cheerful. I never heard one word spoken in anger, not one whine, not one display of impatience. Buses break down. It happens. Will we go again? You bet. Will Richard go again? Maybe not. Maybe he will stay on the beach, in the shade of a coconut palm, reading a book and sipping a cerveza. But Kathy, Evelyn and I are making our lists and checking them twice.

Sondra Ashton

Havre Daily News: Looking out my back door

December23, 2010

How to Teach Your Kids Not to Play with Rattlesnakes

How to Teach Your Kids Not to Play with Rattlesnakes


Pam, Renee and I, fellow writers, challenged each other to bite the bullet, to submit a piece we had written to a publisher. I said, “That’s really scary.” “How hard can it be?” asked Pam. “Put a stamp on an envelope and mail it. Let’s do it by the end of this month.” This is easy? Mail off a piece of my soul? Or that’s how it feels to me. Then wait, chewing my nails, for my baby to either be “accepted” or “rejected”?

Renee reminded us how important it is to know our market. She considered sending her story about a mother beleaguered by her darling offspring to Parents Magazine. But she found that what they were looking for was “How to” articles, such as “How to teach your children not to play with copperheads.” “I can write that,” I thought. So I snatched the idea. Who better qualified to write this than I? But I’ll change copperheads to rattlesnakes.

This will be easy. I won’t have to do much research. I have the qualifications. I live in snake country. I once was a child. Never did I play with a rattlesnake, or for that matter, a copperhead. I call that on-the-job-training. To add to my expertise, I am the mother of grown children, none of whom played with rattlesnakes. So my teaching was successful. All I will have to do is dredge my memory for how I taught my children not to play with rattlesnakes.

My own training harkens back to my early childhood in southern Indiana . I was balanced on the hitching bar of the Farmall tractor as my Dad drove across our creek on the way to feed the pigs. I watched the water splash beneath the tires. My Dad spotted the water moccasin slithering through the creek, reached back and jerked me up onto the seat with him. He didn’t say a word. I felt him shaking. I instinctively knew that I was not to play with water moccasins. In fact, ever since that eventful morning, whenever I spot a snake of any variety, harmless or not, the sight elicits a sharp intake of breath and a simultaneous scream. You say it is not possible, to scream, an outlet of breath, and gasp, a sharp intake, at the same time? Want me to show you?

My daughter, my firstborn, learned to crawl in snake country. We lived a quarter mile from a rattlesnake den. My Siamese cat regularly brought me dead rattlesnake gifts, thoughtfully leaving them on the step into the kitchen. I showed them to my babe in arms and calmly instructed, in a soothing tone of voice, “See, Sweetheart. We don’t touch those nasty things.”

When she was three and a half, and we were living on the old Riggin place north of town, Dee Dee had her first snake memory/experience. She ran down the front steps heading for her little Shetland she called Pony, saddled and tied to the picket fence. As she tells the story, between her and Pony a giant rattlesnake, taller than she was, reared up, opened its mouth over a foot wide, hissed and rattled furiously. She screamed. Her Dad, gun in hand, came running, and shot the snake. To this day she has never played with snakes.

However, her good sense skipped the next generation. Both her children think snakes are cute. One day, when Jessica was four, she ran into the house, an entire nest of garter snakes cradled in her arms, excited about her new-found friends. Annie, now nearly five, has harbored Sally the salamander for over a year, so I am not sure any lessons will be effective with her. But, for the record, last spring she found her first snake in the shower stall. She tried to put it in the tank with Sally, but her father caught it in time and released it into the backyard wilderness.

My son Ben recalls that his first snake encounter came shortly after his kindergarten class had constructed paper snakes as an art project. He and his inseparable little friend Chantelle, both magnets for trouble, one frigid day were out exploring the foothills of the Little Rockies where we then lived, when they captured a slow-moving snake. They brought it back for Show and Tell. Ben tells me that I “freaked out”. I am sure that I calmly sat him down for a lesson about “good” snakes and “bad” snakes. He admits he never has had any other inclination to play with or otherwise handle poisonous snakes, so obviously my lecture was successful.

I know Parents Magazine will be delighted to receive my article. Now that I have done all the research, all I have to do is write it. “How to” articles are all the rage. With my talent and skills, I should be able to supplement my income handsomely. So when I finish my article on how to teach children not to play with snakes, I think I’ll write one on “How to Transform Your Life for Fun and Profit”.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 16, 2010



Our little writers group strongly agreed on one point; the “assignment” for our next meeting was a stumper. The idea was to take a license plate—AAJ9037—and create a piece wherein A-A-J comprise the first letters of the first three words and 9037 must appear somewhere in the body of the writing. Simple, yes? No! Emphatically, No!

We meet the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at the Harlem Library. So for two weeks the assignment niggled in the background of my mind, sneaked forth at inopportune moments to remind me I had a task unfinished. Ha! Task not even begun! So here goes:

Allie’s apple jelly cooled on the counter. This was her last batch of the season. 9,037 jars of jelly lined the shelves in the cellar. (Give me a break!)

“Allie, Ann, Jake! Front and center! Now! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you nine thousand thirty-seven times . . .” (Oh, forget it!)

Alexandria Amy Jones jerked awake. Today she was exactly 9,037 days old, that is 24.758904 years old and she had not a clue what she should do with . . . (Yawn.)

“Anyway, ask Jake. He has all the answers, all 9,037 of them. (You’re kidding, right?)

Any apple just fallen from the tree was up for grabs. Sassy Squirrel tucked the ripe apple into his bulging cheek and scurried for his larder in the tall oak tree. He now had 9,037 apples for the winter . . . (Sassy Squirrel? Honey, do you have a fever?)

Any awkward jerk can shoot a basketball. I have aimed 9,037 balls at the hoop and still none have swooshed through the net. Perhaps this is not my sport. (Crimininy!)

Anthony Adverse Jones, named for the hero of a long-forgotten 1930’s best-seller, collected copies of his namesake novel and now has 9,037 . . . (Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.)

Oh, dear, I am stuck, stuck, stuck! Maybe I should stay home tonight with a stomach ache or—or—be suddenly stricken with a dread disease, such as writer’s block—or—or—I put bread in the oven and . . . No, these excuses are as dreadful as my attempts to write. I must gird my loins and go, must accept my failure. Evelyn will have a delightful memoir from the olden days in Hogeland. Mary John will come up with a topic from her current life, always with a unique slant and undoubtedly funny. Jane usually writes a more scholarly work than the rest of us. Cheryl will surprise us with a thoughtful story, as always. Katie’s will rhyme, probably to a rap beat. That’s it--rhyme!

All accepted justice

Depends on the judge.

He must know his case law;

No way can he fudge.

When his list of decisions

Totals nine thousand thirty-seven

blank-blank-blank-blank-blank-blank-Heaven. (Yuck!)

Well, it was just a thought. Verse to worse?

An ancient jalopy

was parked in the shed.

It’s color was rust,

it used to be red.

It wasn’t abandoned,

it still was alive,

home to nine thousand

thirty seven bees in a hive. . . (shudder)

Absolutely Abysmal Junk! Egads—look at the time—gotta go. I’ll leave AAJ9037 to rattle around in YOUR brain cage for the rest of the day. Ha-ha-ha—HA-ha! That’s All Folks!

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 9, 2010
The Good Ladies of Mortlach


While it is impossible to get lost taking the Ring Road around Regina , what with construction zones and detours, I managed the feat. Using my superior powers of guesswork and instinct, I jagged west and south and west on dirt roads, then south again until, in the distance, I could see big rigs floating along the blacktop of the TransCanada Highway . It was early morning and I had been driving three hours. I was on my way home. I reached the highway and eased in between a couple of cattle trucks. By the time the exit to Mortlach appeared, my stomach felt like “breakfast”.

I turned off the highway onto another dirt road, but this time I knew where I was going. A huge billboard announced to one and all that this was the home of the Mortlach Old-Time Fiddlers. On the lane leading into town was a plantation of trees, a rural forest poking out of the prairie. The humped dome of the hockey rink loomed prominently on my left.

The village of Mortlach is about the size of Gildford. I passed a library, installed in a converted house. An ice-cream shop shared a building with a small grocery. As I passed the Country Garden Teahouse and CafĂ©, a sign in the window caught my eye: “A Little Taste of Britain”. A brick pathway led back of the Teahouse through a garden to an art gallery housed in a former coach house. I caught a glimpse of the town park and a small school house. At the end of Main Street a two-story brick building housed the museum, the side wall splashed with murals of farm scenes. In a smaller building with a large front window, painted in gold lettering were the words, magical to me, Books and Music. I felt like I was driving through a set from a movie and wanted to savor the experience. I wished I didn’t have to hurry to make the border crossing. But breakfast was all I could take time for.

The Teahouse was the only place to eat. I love nothing better than high tea, but at nine in the morning I craved breakfast. There was no place to park near the Teahouse. Cars lined both sides of the street. So I pulled around the corner and found a space across from the Volunteer Fire Department. Two young men were hosing down an already sparkling red fire truck. I climbed from my van and locked the door. Took two steps, turned back, unlocked the door and grabbed a book to read while I waited for breakfast. I glanced around at the pastoral scene, shrugged and left my door unlocked.

“This must be a popular place,” I thought as I walked back to the small eatery tucked into the front of a white-painted cottage, ruffled chintz at the windows and red roses climbing the front. I could hear a buzz of voices as I reached to open the door. The room was filled with women. My first thought was “Oops!” I felt like I had walked into somebody’s party. Before I could retrieve it, the “Oops! came out my mouth. I started to back up. “No, no, no, come on in.” “We’re having a meeting. You are welcome to join in if you wish.” “Here is an empty table. Or you can sit with us” “Please, make yourself comfortable.”

So I stayed, a quiet mouse in the corner, my book forgotten. Over steaming strong coffee, just the way I like it, and fresh strawberry jam slathered on toast, I eavesdropped on the meeting of the ladies of the United Church . Actually, the meeting was organized by the United Church ladies, but fully half of the women were not church members. This ecumenical gathering of women, church and non-church, some from town, some from the surrounding farmlands, were all working together on projects to enhance and enliven the community. Over the course of their meeting I learned that this group had built public restrooms and a playground in the park. They had planted a community orchard. They are actively involved in the town’s choir. They organized the new recycling program. The hockey and curling rink needed a new roof. The ladies were on the case.

They spoke freely. Ideas flew from all parts of the room. I sat fascinated as the women discussed their plans, assigned tasks and volunteered for duties. They made their decisions by group consensus. I thought, “This is how it works. This is the way to get things done. Way to go, Ladies of Mortlach!” And do not think for one minute that the men are left out of the picture. Woman proposes, Man disposes. So, “Way to go, Women and Men of Mortlach!”

I finished eating and lingered over another cup of coffee. As I prepared to leave, several women approached me. “Why don’t you come to our Berry Festival next year.” “It will be the first weekend in July.” “This year we had over three thousand people.” Sounds like a lot of fun to me. Want to come along?

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

December 2, 2010
Dining Out in Smudge

The names and places in this little story have been changed to protect the innocent. Let’s call the town where the man and the woman stopped for dinner, “Smudge”. The town was well-named. It was not much more than a smudge along the highway. And let’s call the restaurant where they dined the “Hole-in-the-Wall”.

On this evening of the opening day of elk season, nearly every table in the Hole-in-the-Wall was full. Many of the customers were families with children. Hunters, sprinkled throughout the room, were dressed in the unlikely combination of camo regalia accessorized with day-glo orange. Three tables had been pushed together in the center of the room to accommodate a gathering of senior citizens, there to celebrate the birthday of a smiling, grandmotherly-looking woman. The place buzzed with excited voices, interrupted stories and laughter.

At a corner table in the back of the room, his back against the wall, sat a middle-aged, balding, part Native American man. We’ll call him Ollie. Yes, that’s a good name, Ollie Oxinfree. Across from him sat a woman whose hair showed more salt than pepper. We’ll name her “Pyridoxine”. Pyridoxine Hydrochloride Donnelly. She was the seventeenth child from a practicing Catholic family. Her mother, desperate to come up with yet another name, had been reading the ingredients on a cereal box when her waters broke. The name had something or other to do with Vitamin B6. So her family called her “Bee” for short. They might have called her “Doxie”. Whenever she thinks of that, Bee shudders. The couple, recently re-acquainted, were no strangers to the aches and pains or the hard knocks of life.

Their table had been cleared but not yet wiped clean since the last diners left. The harried waitress put down menus, water glasses and utensils, and turned to deliver steak sauce to the folks two tables over. Ollie loudly called after her, “Would you bring a rag and wipe off the table?” The waitress did not visibly respond. Ollie glared at her departing back, swiped his hand across the crumbs and knocked them to the floor. “She’s racist. Obviously,” he spit the words. Ollie drained his glass of water and set it down with a thunk.

Bee lifted her eyebrows. “Ollie, this place is a hive. She could be feeling hassled. No doubt she’s overworked, underpaid, and probably inexperienced to boot. Maybe her boyfriend just dumped her. Or she missed her car payment. What if she just found out she’s pregnant? Or maybe she is just having a bad day.”

Ollie grimaced. “No, no, no. She’s racist. Bee, I can tell. I’ve lived with this all my life. Don’t you try to make excuses for her.”

Bee had no answer to that but Ollie’s words sparked in her a determination to put a smile on both Ollie’s and the young waitress’ faces. She turned slightly in her chair. She watched the waitress place three meals in front of other customers as she made her way to their table with a cloth. “You ready to order yet?” the girl asked as she wiped the table. Bee waited for her to finish then nodded to Ollie. “Take his order first. I still have to make up my mind.”

As the waitress left their table, Ollie called after her, “And bring me some more water. Didn’t you see my glass is empty? Listen, just leave a pitcher here.”

Bee studied Ollie. She felt very sad at the pain this man tried so hard to hide. She had no way to know what insults and abuses he had lived with. She knew him to be well educated, articulate, a kind and gentle man, not the sullen hurting four-year-old across the table from her.

The waitress returned with a pitcher of water and their salads. Bee complimented her on her promptness, especially given this busy evening. When the waitress returned with their dinners, she ventured a half-smile that almost crinkled her eyes. Bee exclaimed, “My goodness, there is enough food heaped on this platter to feed three lumberjacks!”

Ollie and Bee ate quietly. Ollie secretly wished he had ordered a pizza to take home to eat alone. Bee made a mental list of the ways in which she had experienced bigotry. “None of us are immune,” she thought. Her list included being a Catholic, being a farm kid, being poor, growing up without a mother, being divorced, too skinny, too white, too fat, too old and crippled. “And we all are bigoted to some extent,” she thought. “Usually because of fear. Or maybe we become critical because of perceived differences. I like people. When I focus on the person, I see my fear is unfounded, the difference becomes unimportant.”

This story has no ending. There is no ending for bigotry. Bee wished she could ease Ollie’s pain, but knew she could not touch it. Ollie wished he could make Bee understand. When they left the Hole-in-the-Wall, the waitress, with genuine warmth, wished them a good evening.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 18, 2010

My 1975 Stick-built Double-wide

This one was very much fun to write. I enjoyed it at any rate!

My 1975 Stick-built Double-wide

“My house is a very, very, very fine house . . .”

When I moved back home to Harlem, to the wide valley cut through the Prairies eons ago by the Missouri River, but long abandoned to the more gentle meanderings of the Milk, I left behind my beautiful Pacific-Northwest-style artists cabin, perched on a hill surrounded by towering Douglas Fir and second-growth cedar, landscaped with giant ferns, salal and kinnickinnick.

I was down-sizing my business and my life and wanted to find a house which would be not too large, not too small, not too expensive, with room for a small studio-shop. For nearly a year I looked at many houses in many towns up and down the Hi-line. Not one felt just right.

In 1975 my father sold his farm along the Milk River , the farm where I grew up. He moved into town where he built a business at one end of the street and a house at the other. I never lived in this house, never gave it much thought, never particularly liked it. To my critical eyes it had all the charm and grace of a double-wide trailer house. The front door opens into the living room-dining room-kitchen. Back down the narrow hallway are three postage-stamp size bedrooms and a bathroom smaller than a modern closet. But even to my jaundiced view I could see that it was well-built, sturdy, tight, and that I could convert the attached garage into a fine shop for my small business with maybe room to set up an easel. So I bought, from my father’s estate, the house I didn’t especially like and didn’t particularly want, and moved in.

On the first night in my new home, sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of boxes, rolled-up rugs, and jumbled furniture, I surveyed my new kingdom. “This is the ugliest house in the world,” I said to myself. That wasn’t true. I’ve lived in uglier. What I really meant was that I saw it would take a lot of work to transform this hulk into my sanctuary. And I needed to do this on a very limited budget.

You know what that means—cosmetics. Lipstick and eye shadow, shoulders back and suck in your gut. Paint and spackle. Cosmetics. Move this built-in cupboard to the shop. Line that wall with bookshelves. Tear out the carpet. Rip down the dusty drapes. Wheel and deal for fake-wood floors. Install them myself. Elbow grease. On to the next room. Another coat of lipstick and eye shadow.

A friend once said to me, “If you landed in hell, you’d start hanging pictures and re-arranging furniture.” I took his statement as a compliment. Room by room, gallon by gallon, I painted, laid flooring, stitched curtains, ripped out this and put in that. Room by room my house began to reflect my personality. I mixed my colors to imitate autumn light, leaves and grasses, colors from the roadsides and fields of Montana . It took me two years of hard work.

This morning while draining and rolling up hoses to store them in the shed for the winter, the autumn sunlight reflecting off the trees with golden hues reminded me of that exciting time. Today when I sit in my home, my sanctuary, my refuge, I smile at the beauty which surrounds me. My home is now a Montana prairie-style artists home, a place of comfort for myself and my friends.

I’ll light the fire,

I’ll place the flowers

in the vase I bought today. . .

everything is good.

My house is a very, very, very fine house,

with two cats in the yard,

life used to be so hard . . .*

*Thank you, Crosby , Stills and Nash.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 11, 2010
A Celebration of a Life

Our friend went to school with us. Farm kids, we rode the same school bus, but he was two years older and as soon as he got a car, he was off the bus. Karen shared more school activities with him than I did, but she really hadn’t known him any better. After high school our lives scattered us like dandelion seeds in the wind. Neither of us knew his wife nor his children.

When I first moved back to Harlem I was a stranger in my own home town. I was working in my front yard one day when he drove up to the stop sign at the corner. He saw me, jumped out of his pick-up, left the motor running with the door slung open, and hurried over with a grin to give me a big hug. He told me he was glad I’d come home. I felt real welcomed. I saw him from time to time—always he gave me a wave with that grin of his that crinkled his entire face.

Then Karen and I learned that our friend had cancer, one of the more insidious kinds. Even there at the end he was so easy to talk with. I think he was a man of courage, a man with no false illusions. He met the disease head on like it was a freight train in a tunnel and the freight train won.

There was a notice in the paper. Said he didn’t want services, said he wanted a celebration out at the ranch. So Karen and I met in Chinook and rode out together. On the way we talked about how we both were feeling his death so strongly. “I can’t figure out why this has hit us so hard. Neither of us was that close to him.” “The only thing I can come up with is that the suddenness of his death slaps us in the face with our own mortality.”

Karen and I didn’t know where the ranch was. Out on Clear Creek Road somewhere. “We’ll follow the cars,” Karen said. That’s what we did. Followed the dust of the cars ahead. It is a pretty ranch, neat and well kept up, just like we’d pictured, nestled in the gentle foothills of the Bears Paw Mountains . But, oh my, there must have been three hundred or more cars parked along the lane, in the fields, behind the buildings, in every conceivable way, place and space. Some were leaving but more were driving up. We finally eased our way into a slot and walked a quarter mile up to the buildings.

“When I die, there won’t be enough people come to fill our little church,” Karen said. “I don’t even know this many people.”

“I could maybe fill my living room,” I replied. “I have acquaintances, but I haven’t lived here long enough to have many friends.” We both snorted at our thoughts.

The party was in full swing when we got to the barn. Crowded rows of tables and chairs were set up and food was being served. We took our offerings to the front of the barn to add to the pot luck. The women serving the food told us to, “Grab your plates and get in line.” There were great roasting pans heaped with beef, pork, lamb and chicken. You could just about name any dish and there it was, on one of the serving tables. And desserts, ummm, ummm.

We filled our plates. Once we sat down, we began to see people we knew. I think nearly everybody in the county was there. As far as I know, he had lived in Blaine County all his life. I overheard somebody laughingly say, “You know, he didn’t like crowds.” I looked around. “Well, he certainly has a crowd today.” I estimated between five and six hundred people had come. We finished eating, milled about, visited with those we knew, were introduced to others. We stayed about two hours. Still more people were driving in as we left.

That celebration said a lot about the kind of person our friend was, that he had touched so many people’s lives. As far as I know, he wasn’t special. He wasn’t famous. He was human, had troubles and worries just like the rest of us. He was a rancher, raised fine fancy cattle. I didn’t know him well, but I know he loved people. I bet he gave that same smile he gave me to all who knew him. We’ll miss him.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

November 4, 2010