Through some church connections she was put in contact with my father, who desperately wanted to marry and have children. He was 20 years her senior, but he promised her a life she had always dreamed of in the country, where she could go back to land. It was the late 70’s, and homesteading was all the rage. They had a courtship via the mail, letters and audio tapes sent back and forth. The days before emails and Skype enabled the old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” very true in this case. I think they met just 3 or 4 times before they were married. My father represented my mother’s way out. She lived on Vancouver Island, in a rustic, handmade house with a giant, boisterous family. As an 18 year old, she wanted space, craved something to call her own. Getting out of that environment, ultimately, was what this letter-made relationship was all about for her.
My Dad was the youngest of four. His mother died bearing the child who would have been his little brother. My Grandpa remarried with 4 young children at his side, children who needed a motherly hand. This woman was the grandma I knew, but she was not exactly a tender and loving step-mother. I think this forever altered by father’s ability to see the world in a positive way. My grandpa was a minister in the Lutheran Church, and the family moved around Minnesota, eventually settling in a typical little town on the plains of South Dakota.My Dad was born in 1937, if this says anything about him. Before wooing and winning my mother’s hand, he followed his love of the automobile and his gift for drawing and ended up studying art design, in hopes of becoming an famous auto designer in Detroit. When he graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, strangely the same year my mother was born (!), his parents didn’t want him to move away. He simply gave up his dream of auto design and then he briefly entertained the notion of attending seminary school, to follow his father’s footsteps. For some reason instead he began his lifetime of dissatisfaction with jobs at auto dealerships. When he married my mother, he was 39 years old and she was 19. She inspired him and made his life complete.
As newlyweds, my parents lived in a garage apartment near Minneapolis, briefly, before finding their country home in South Dakota. They found a really affordable place, complete with all the things my mom had hoped for:5 acres, a big red barn, a smaller one with pasture already fenced, a chicken coop, a white farm house with a enormous kitchen, a woodstove, a real dirt floor root cellar, antiquated fruit trees, a strawberry patch, a little plot of woods, and rural agricultural life everywhere. She moved from Beautiful British Colombia to what must have felt like another planet. With their worldly goods, I was moved in-utero to those 5 South Dakota acres. Here they learned about their new surroundings, what would be socialized into me as normal. Endless miles of quiet gravel roads, white-faced red beef cows grazing with their calves, farmers cultivating the rich, flat land on their tractors, harsh prairie winters with massive snow drifts that would lock residents in for days.
All that this beautiful place in the middle of nowhere was missing was a way to make a living. My parents were there to homestead, not become farmers. My Dad struggled to keep jobs in various auto dealerships during the recession of the 80’s, ending up working in the Twin Cities and making the 5 hour drive home on the weekends. Meanwhile, my Mom was busy raising my sister and I and overseeing her burgeoning farmyard. She was putting all she had read about in her homesteading books to practice. Her goal was reducing the food bill and striving for self sufficiency as much as possible for our family. She raised and butchered her own chickens. I vaguely remember a summer day under the massive box elder tree by our front porch. Our neighbor Mrs. Teckrony was there helping with Mom’s first harvest, chickens were beheaded and let to run the death off.
There were a couple goats Mom bought to milk, a big white one named Edith was her favorite. This goat was a monster momma, complete with ibex-like horns arching out of her skull. In the fall, a billy goat would be borrowed for a few weeks to create the goat kids to come the following spring. His arrival was startling, all billy goats in rut wafting an unbelievable odor from their musky urine being sprayed all over their face, beard and legs. The goat kids born were all named Hamburger, in order for us all the understand what they were going to become. There was a day when we borrowed a small trailer to take them to the slaughterhouse, the trip there confusing to us. I remember Mom unloading them and seeing a look of sadness in her eyes, but being around 4 years old, the connection was not made. Mom fed us all with chevon dinners, later on telling me she couldn’t bring herself to eat the meat from her goat kids. She had no qualms about the milk though and made alot of cheeses, including waxed and aged cheddar. The red wax in the coffee can, ready to melt and dip wheels of cheese into, was positioned in a certain place on the countertop during the height of milk production from her two goats.
The front yard near the not-too-frequented road turned into Mom’s massive garden. She grew all the standard vegetables for storage and for preserving. Fearing wild children trampling her precious plants, she didn’t ask us to help, so we climbed into our fort perches in the apple trees. I remember brilliant poppies waving in the summer mid-day sun and the orderly raised beds she tended, covered with shiny golden straw. Late spring, she’d carry armloads of rhubarb into the kitchen. Mom tried everything she read about, including wine making. A Redwing crock with rhubarb chunks fermenting was settled into the corner of the kitchen, covered with cheesecloth by the open window. The naturally present yeasts in the air would float in and onto the surface of the brew. After a week or so, she’d strain the juice into big jugs, add more sugar to feed the trapped yeasts, and cap each jug with a balloon. It was a very festive looking kitchen, with the balloons inflated by the wine-in-the-works.
When I was 20 I started to work in the deli at the Seward Co-op. Somehow I soon ended up taking over the meat department, a vegan meat buyer! I loved meeting the farmers, and they tickled a nostalgia in me that I’d forgotten about. Things were transforming for me rapidly. I found these quotes in my journal:
10/13/99 “I want to be able to be respected and do well. I want to work with local farmers who do a good job. Who respect the earth and their animals but see them differently than I do. They are their income. Someone is going to do it and if it’s between huge corporations or small farmers I have to choose the small ones.”
11/22/99 ” I have been having cravings for meat. it’s really bad. When i go into Coastal Seafoods, the smell is so good. And seeing all those luscious fillets….it looks fake, not real as in a dead body. I do not understand these cravings.”
12/20/99 “When I’ve lived long, I want to be able to quickly act on a new idea, because the world contains so much. I want to be able to jump out of my rut and start something new.”
At 22, I was promoted to a very fulfilling position as the natural foods merchandiser at the co-op. With a steady salary, came the ability to get a mortgage. I bought my own piece of nostalgia at the age of 24, a little plot of 1.8 acres in the countryside. There was a tiny, very old house, and space to explore my own homesteading desires. After living in apartments for 4 years, my new home and the land there felt like paradise. Plans were drawn up and written about all winter long. My first lesson was lack of funds can nearly squash every best effort. After making landscaping plans for the entire property, as spring came I knew there was no way to do any of them. The garden however, flourished. I used raised beds, heavily mulched with straw, as my Mom had taught me. I got 2 milk goats of my very own, with the thought in mind that I’d lure Mom to make the 2 hour drive to see me more often if I had goats to visit with.
Soon I was not contended to be homesteading. I wanted more, to take the next step up and become an actual farmer. Commuting to my job made me guilt-ridden. How could I justify all the gasoline I was using to go back and forth? The store I worked at was all about growth, but I wasn’t on board. When I started there, sales were at 4 million a year, and this figure had more than doubled in 2 years. I could see that the constant growth and this fast pace was not where I wanted to be going with my life. While at work, I craved home, the slow time in the garden, the satisfaction of preserving foods, tinkering with and completing homesteading projects. I wanted to get chickens and needed to build a coop, not worry about meeting margins on promotions in order to fund the bottom line of the store. It was hard to walk away from a once perfect job, but we’d outgrown each other. Luckily, I landed a position closer to home, doing similar work for less pay, but a lot less stress.
Over the next couple years I homesteaded before and after work and on the weekends. I was absolutely engrossed in my little world. Chapter 4 Farm Beginnings – Goats and Soap
Then everything changed.
From my journal:
“7/22/07 Mom left a message saying “I just wanted to talk to my daughter.” Her voice was shaky, almost trembling, and it scared me. not the strong voice I am used to. When I called her back, she sounded just fine, asked how my day was going. I proceed to ramble on, oblivious to anything else. This is how it has been going for 9 years with her cancer. I ask her how she is feeling, and there is a long pause. “Khaiti, things are not going very well. The cancer is spreading into my brain, and possibly my liver. I don’t feel very good. I’m going in to see the doctor for tests on Monday.” She sounded scared, the first time I have ever heard her voice laced with fear. It seems like Lutherans try so hard to be accepting of death, borderline excited to die, as they will go to heaven. I’m at peace with death because I embrace the natural cycle of life, I know we will all die. It is a part of living! I know Mom is going to die, it’s ok, but it’s not, because I am going to miss her so much. The past few months she’s been fading, it’s been more obvious she’s needing painkillers and using them. In this fading, it’s almost as though she’s been kind of leaving us already and that we’ve been getting prepared for her to be gone. That doesn’t make it any easier to comprehend right now though. Ultimately death is the worst part of living and loving people, the concept of someone just not being in your life anymore is impossible to reconcile with. Our sense just want to dismiss the inevitable on a daily basis. Take it for granted, like forgetting that our bodies take care of breathing…I need to get down to see Mom as soon as possible.”
7/25/07 Went down to Shakopee to see mom
7/26/07 Mom went into the hospital
7/31/07 Mom died
This is what pushed me over the edge. It was not over the edge of sadness, but more an edge of understanding, a transformation occurred in my mind of what life entailed. Life means death. Before death arrives, life must mean LIVING. When my Mom died at 50, after a long battle with breast cancer, I knew I had to do everything I dreamed of, before my end came. With much grief, I saw that we really can’t anticipate when we will be at death’s door. We have to live while we can.
Someday I will share my writing from the days between those three dates, but it’s too intense for today.