In my late twenties, becoming an actual farmer became my life goal, my calling. I attribute this desire primarily to the childhood memories my homesteading mother blessed me with. This nostalgia was a gift. My Mom and Dad had a little hobby farm in South Dakota, but even though we moved away from that 5 acre wonderland when I was just 7 years old, I was tainted forever. I’ll never forget our life there.
My Mom was the classic 20-something “back to the lander,” who married a man twice her age. He obviously wanted to do whatever his beautiful young bride wanted, and she wanted to live in the country and pursue self-sufficiency. While my father worked various jobs to make ends meet, my mom raised my sister and I on 5 acres in the country and grew much of the food for our family. She was into everything and anything DIY and she did it all- milking her goats and making cheese, brewing rhubarb wine in a crock in the kitchen, raising chickens for eggs, butchering the stewing chickens, tending a massive garden, baking our bread, filling the root cellar with hundreds of jars of canned goods and various produce. She loved trying her hand at everything. Her activities on the homestead, the satisfaction that comes from self-sufficiency and a life in tune with the natural ways of the world really imprinted in my mind and my heart.
My Dad was often gone, working so far away he often just came home on the weekends. Most of my memories are of my Mom, my sister and I spending the days together. We went on nature walks together in the woods where she instilled in us a love and respect for all of the natural world. She’d point out the owls that were sleeping in the trees during the daytime. I remember her stopping the car as we drove past a giant snapping turtle on the sandy side of the road, who was covering up her nest hole. My mom dug up some of turtle eggs and we “planted” them in the garden, then took the beautiful little prehistoric turtles that later hatched out to a field pond where we’d discovered tadpoles swimming a week earlier.
We would take summer strolls down the gravel road to visit with our older farmer neighbors, Jim and Millie, who were like our adopted “grandparents.” They raised crops on hundreds of flat prairie acres, had a large herd of beef cattle, and always some wild barn kittens to try to capture. Their giant German Shepherd named Peaches was terrifyingly ferocious, until she recognized you and rolled on her back for pats like a pup. I remember Jim and Millie’s farmhouse very deeply in my core. It had a tiny and steep entryway that smelled strongly of cattle, and this led into a warm and very multi-tasking kitchen where we’d crowd seated around the little table. The livingroom was made up like you read about in the 1800’s- a parlour, for special occasions. We never sat in there, it was filled with old fashioned, untouched furniture and was dark and cold. But in the cozy farm kitchen, I remember Millie pulling a tray of warmed pickled crab apples out of the oven, which she would serve to us in floral patterned china saucers, with a scoop of cold ice cream on top that melted instantly. I loved searching for the cinnnamon red-hots in the cream infused syrup at the bottom of the dish. Millie had a voice that seesawed like a door hinge squeaks, and always had her silver hair in curlers, pinned under a hanky that she kept tied under her chin. Both Jim and Millie wore old fashioned horn-rim glasses with thick lenses that accented the twinkle in their eyes. We just loved them.
Jim’s brother Lloyd lived directly across the road, but for some unknown big-person reason, they didn’t speak to each other anymore. Lloyd was a bachelor farmer, and he just loved us kids. He always teased us about whether he had remembered to buy those favorite ice cream bars that we loved so much, the kind with a crunchy chocolate coating that cloaked the rich vanilla inside. As he dug around in the ancient coffin shaped deep freeze in his front entry way, he’d carry on about whether he could find them. He always did. Lloyd’s house was clean, clear of clutter and very bright, although it seemed too short inside the rooms to fit his tall frame. Curiously, he kept Breyer models of his favorite cattle breeds on the shelves in the living room and I remember desperately wanting to play with the miniature red and white Angus statues, but being reminded that they were not toys.
We were unintentionally encouraged to be wild and adventurous children in South Dakota. Our young mother wasn’t too worried about us and didn’t watch us like a hawk , perhaps due to her naivete. My favorite story, which my embarrassed mother recalled years later, is from when I was just 3 years old, and my sister was a newborn and taking all of mom’s attention. My mom got a call from Millie, a mile down the road, one afternoon, letting her know that I, my pony and our dog had just toddled down her driveway.
One spring I remember climbing the grain elevator near our house to the top of the grainary building, where I excitedly called for my mom to “come look,” and her panicking to see me two stories off the ground, up on the roof. Another time my sister and I went across the farm fields, easily walking across the frozen mounds left by the plow the previous fall. As we came back from our adventure, the ground had thawed and we got stuck knee deep in mud and couldn’t move. We were pretty far away from the house and we yelled and yelled for help, our toes freezing in our boots, stuck in the mud. I don’t know how that one was resolved, I think my Dad had to come pull us out. I remember trying to ride my mom’s big milk goat named Edith, falling off as she ran away from me. We had a fat little pony, one of every little girls’ fantasy. He was a grey Shetland named Smokey, short, stout and gentle as could be. I would spend whole summer days just laying on his broad bare back, inhaling pony smell, hearing the grass blades swish by my ears as he wandered through the overgrown paths in his pasture. There was one time my sister and I were playing “doctor” and I administered to her the entire tube of Smokey’s wormer. My mom came into the porch and discovered us standing there, wormer paste oozing out of my sister’s mouth!
The flat prairie land of South Dakota led to many blizzard-filled winters, we snuggled up in the kitchen around the woodstove’s warmth, trying to see out the windows blocked by the voluminous snow drifts. We had a couple of pets to play with indoors through those long winters- a Sheltie dog named Scottie who’d snooze under the dinner table, and a magnificent black and white long haired cat called Debbie that my Mom had brought with her when she moved from British Columbia.
Growing up immersed in this rural life made it my “normal.” After I had finished kindergarten though, we left the idyllic countryside to move to the cities where my father could get more steady work. We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment in a 5 story building in the suburbs of Minneapolis. On the bookshelf were all of my mom’s homesteading books. There was a hole left in our hearts.