A Tender Distance: Letters from Mothers to Our Sons


June 27th, 2016 by

Rex Cook, 2016


We took a trip to visit my old sixth grade school teacher in North Dakota a few weeks ago. It is no secret, the influence that a teacher can have on the life of a kid and I credit Rex Cook with first publishing my work. One day during class, I was writing poetry and drawing pictures in my notebook instead of doing my assignment. I was so absorbed that I didn’t notice Mr. Cook looking over my shoulder. He told me to get to work and to see him after school. He was my first male teacher, a tall man with a booming voice. With thudding heart I stayed after school, figuring I was doomed. He asked to see my notebook and then paged through it. “This is pretty good,” he said. He seemed genuinely interested and then asked if he could take a poem and put it on the bulletin board next to the pencil sharpener so the other kids could see it. I was so embarrassed and so thrilled and remember that piece of paper so vividly. It was a drawing and poem about a lighthouse.

He learned about my love for horses and invited me several times out to his little ranch where he tried to teach me how to rope. It was an abysmal endeavor. After my sixth grade year we lost touch. I was too shy to continue the friendship and going to junior high was like moving to another planet. Yet, since then I have always credited him with giving me the courage to publish. During our few times roping at his place, he did give me a rope to use for practice which I kept and still have hanging in my horse trailer.

Later, when I published my first book, I wanted to mail him a copy. I was looking him up online to get an address and discovered he is a well-known saddle-maker and had recently been inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame! It turns out he trains horses and coaches kids to ride competitively. He is now 88 years old and still doing both.

We started corresponding and I asked if he’d make me a saddle. He crafted a one-of-a-kind beauty that now, when it is not on my horse, sits alongside the rope in the horse trailer.  My husband of two years, Bill Sullivan, himself a superb horseman, kept hearing about my teacher. Finally Bill said, “Let’s go see him.”


Prairie school house

My parents had long ago left North Dakota, and in the forty-three years since the sixth grade, I had never gone back to see him.  It was time. Bill and I spent five days with him. We saw the old homestead where he grew up, rode horseback with him in the Badlands, met his daughter and heard wonderful stories of horses and cowboys and the spirit of the Plains. He also tried to teach my husband and me to rope, again an abysmal undertaking, but we had some good laughs.

In returning to the places of our childhood, former homes, yards and playgrounds are often so much smaller what we remember. In the case of Rex, however,  it was interesting to discover that the man turns out to be even bigger in life than he was in my memory. A rope in his hands is like a living thing, moving with grace and purpose. He has the same amazing effect on horses, working them in the manner he taught kids – with firmness and encouragement. Relaxed and positive, he always provides the opportunity for his student to make the right choice. Challenges are not to be avoided, but rather, welcomed as an opportunity to learn. If one explanation didn’t connect in the mind of his student, he changes tactics and tries another approach.

It was even more amazing to be the student again, and see how he broke down the simple task of swinging a rope to “catch” a stationary bale of hay with plastic steer horns. It was interesting to see how my own mind grew pinched by fear of failure. How my coordination stumbled over frustration. Sure, we laughed, but I was determined to do it right; to please my teacher, just as I had wanted to please him back when I was eleven years old.

Yet pleasing him had nothing to do with it. That sentiment only got in the way. To Rex, it is always about the task at hand, the matter-of-fact doing of a thing. What works. What doesn’t. He often walked away to give me space to practice. Then he’d step in again to make a suggestion.


North Dakota windmill

Rex has a term for nonsense. When we talked to him about horse training methods, he nodded in agreement with some; others ideas he just dismissed as “malarkey.” Malarkey may be the absolute best word to describe those inner critics in our minds that sometimes take on the voices of people we know — maybe a parent, or a teacher, or the Ex. All voices whose criticisms rob us of confidence and set our minds to spinning.

To me that was the open door. The uncluttering of the mind. Sweeping out the malarkey in the same way one might shovel out a stall. Clarity. Presence. Focus. Only when I relaxed my mind into swinging the rope – without awareness of whether or not Mr. Cook was watching – did I finally place that loop around the steer horn. All these years later, Rex Cook is still teaching.

I am still thinking about this days after we have left North Dakota. The implications of learning with an uncluttered mind. It makes me think about how I try to teach my own horse. Am I offering him encouragement or only correction? Am I allowing his mind the freedom to enjoy the task at hand? Or is he doing it just to avoid a consequence?

Roping that straw steer also makes me notice the obstacles in my own life. It makes me think about fears and distractions and the necessity of shoveling out “malarkey” in order to move forward. In order to be truly present to the life at hand.


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“The Girl”

June 6th, 2016 by

My son’s eyes and mine meet. He looks slightly sheepish and hugely proud. We are in a crowd leaving an auditorium where my granddaughter – my son’s daughter—has just finished her first ballet recital. She is five.

It is the first dance recital for all of us. My granddaughter is the first girl to be born in my family in twenty-one years. My sisters and I have all raised boys like stalks of corn, one sturdy row after the next. My son, in turn,  repeated the run of male progeny and we’ve smiled and shaken our heads in this rough and tumble celebration of masculine energy. Until now. When Aurora made her appearance five years ago the hale and hearty commotion of the family stopped to stare. A girl!

A girl! In twenty-one years of boys, all that feminine energy had been storing itself up to be expressed in this one little human being. She loves tutus, nail polish, pink and purple clothes and anything that sparkles.  She loves to dress up dolls. Better yet, she dresses up the dog, who patiently wears a rainbow array of tutus much of the day. The dog went missing once and was later found sleeping in a pile of laundry – so covered with the shirts and skirts she was wearing that the only thing visible was her face.

We are all mystified by this child. Her mother, grandmothers, and aunts have mostly been tree-climbing tomboys.  Yet this girl spends agonizing moments trying to choose what to wear and often changes wardrobes several times a day. Holding up one shirt and then the next, she sighs deeply, “It’s so hard.” Sometimes she cannot make the choice and wears it all. Layer after layer. Her accessories will always include a matching purse. She is known around the house as “the bag lady” for her prolific collection.

Now this. Ballet! Out she came on stage, a sweet sprite, smiling and dancing and looking out beyond the bright lights for a glimpse of her proud dad and mom, brothers and grandparents. She is sometimes simply known as “The Girl.” When my boys were youngsters, they would often converse, even while I was in the room, referring to me in the third person … “she.” You know, the odd one.

Aurora may be all frills and bows, but she is also, in a household of brothers, tough as nails. She stands up to them, reasons with them – scraps with them if necessary – and from some deep well of kindness, always volunteers comfort and company to them when they are sick or hurt.

I think I have some things to learn from this dear one. Aurora is tough, independent, playful and smart. “The Girl” is helping me get in touch with my own inner pink and purple. Secretly, I always wanted to be a ballerina.

Growing up in a small town in farm country in the 70s, there was no such thing as ballet lessons. I also dreamed of being a jockey but the only thing I knew about horse racing, I read about in books. I just knew I liked horses and wanted a job that included them. Even if the opportunity had arisen, I was too tall and gangly to be either a ballerina or a jockey.

My sister and I wanted Barbie dolls. Our friends had them along with suitcases of clothing and shoes. But my mother insisted that no doll in our house would have bigger boobs than hers. As far as my father was concerned, no doll should have a boyfriend named Ken. So we each got a Skipper doll (Barbie’s younger, flat-chested cousin) plus one outfit. Truth be told, our stuffed animals were more fun and didn’t need clothes to keep from being naked.

People were always expressing their sympathy to my Dad for his plight at being the father of three girls. “Three girls, huh, Joe?” they said. “Don’t try for a boy or you could wind up with four.” God forbid.

If Dad ever told us “you’re doing it like a girl,” we knew we were doing it wrong. The message, intended or not, was that boys did things better. In my ten-year-old opinion, the Hardy Boys DID have far more interesting adventures and mysteries to solve than Nancy Drew. I devoured books about horses and dogs. My Side of the Mountain  was a perennial favorite.

I did my best not to disappoint Dad and he in turn was eager to make sure his daughters grew up independent and strongAurora. He taught us how to change the oil on the car, fix a flat tire, shoot a gun, and clean a fish. I enjoyed laying under the car with Dad as he showed me how to use a grease gun. I’ve always been grateful for that time with him and proud to know the things he taught us.

It was when our femininity blossomed into puberty that Dad grew distant. We couldn’t quite figure out what we’d done wrong except that aside from embarrassing changes to our bodies, Dad seemed vaguely … angry. Like we had betrayed him somehow. I think he just didn’t know what to make of us. Dad’s mother had been a high-spirited beauty and from stories I’ve heard, an outrageous flirt. His father spent much of his time in a jealous rage. Dad had no patience for “boy crazy” and assured us none of us would be dating before we were thirty. So when our interest eventually turned to that mysterious otherness of boys, we kept it secret.

I guess that was the nature of being a girl in my family. Keeping it quiet and working hard to run and throw like a boy.

The other day, I ran into my daughter-in-law at the grocery store. Aurora, who was sitting in the cart, was wearing a glittering navy-blue Christmas dress (in May) and pink sparkling shoes. Her cheeks were stained pink from the markers that she used as rouge. We talked and agreed that she and I ought to go shopping soon. I needed to find something other than the Carhartt jacket with hay-filled pockets that I wore to the store that day. And she needs a new purse. Aurora is blatantly, unabashedly a girl.

No apologies needed.



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Puppy Adventures: Part II

August 29th, 2014 by


Earlier this summer I wrote about my son’s family and the birth of a litter of Labrador retriever puppies. Their household of six (including mother dog) grew almost instantly to thirteen with the birth of seven little loaves of canine sweetness.

Terrorists at large.

That was ten weeks ago. Things have changed.

I know several of the people who took pups from the litter and their adorable bundles of have quickly grown into whirlwinds of happy energy. A friend, Ingrid, approached me at church on Sunday and I sensed she was mentally wringing her hands.

“So, how long do Labrador puppies chew on things?” she asked. They’d only had the pup a couple of weeks. I didn’t know how to tell her that this stage could last up to two years.  She mentioned she couldn’t get a thing done unless the pup was taking a nap.

Ingrid and Vern are gentle, quiet, law-abiding citizens. Labrador retriever puppies are none of those things. They are terrorists.

Their names are Floyd, Mitzy, Dozer, Pistol, Karley, Nelchina, and Bane.

They chew, bark, piddle, cry, and make a magnificent nuisance of themselves as they learn to adapt to family life. During the first couple of months having a puppy is like having an infant with teeth and claws. Puppies have an insatiable curiosity which puts them squarely in the diaper pail, the trash bin, and that box of historic family photos you forgot was sitting in the corner. Their baby teeth are being pushed from behind by adult teeth, so their little mouths need to CHEW. Things like computer cords and expensive running shoes and antique table legs are exactly the right medium for scratching that itch. Yum.

Pistol’s owner brought her and their older dog Oreo to work the other day and Pistol spent hours harassing the older dog. Everything was a game. When Oreo got up, Pistol bounced along, pulling on the old girl’s ears, biting her tail, and body slamming her—just as she had with her litter mates. When Oreo had finally had enough, she schooled Pistol by snapping and rolling her forcefully to the ground. Pistol got up, shook off the dust, and resumed her antics.

One family complained that they have not had more than three hours of continuous sleep since they brought their baby home. Since they work, the pup sleeps most of the day and is up and ready to raise Cain much of the night.

My son, Erik, and daughter-in-law, Ashlee, are pleased that the puppies all went to kind and responsible homes. The day the pups left for their new family homes, my nine-year-old grandson, Elias, was heartbroken that the babies had to leave their mother. I know how he felt. I shed tears when my kids left home too.

Ashlee was telling me the other day how nice it was to have one puppy rather than seven in the house. We commented that at least the baby phase of puppies didn’t last that long. Soon everyone’s pups will mature into beloved members of the family.

Meanwhile, however, there will likely be some mishaps. Ashlee had their kids plus a couple of extra at home the other day when their pup, Nelchina, went to the door to be let outside so she could relieve herself. Everyone was downstairs playing and the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaner was going; no one heard whether she whined to be let out or not.  The pup had no choice but to leave a pile in front of the door. Unfortunately, the robotic vacuum discovered the pile before Ashlee did. The robot plowed through the stinky deposit and then proceeded to systematically, room by room, distribute puppy poop throughout the rest of the house.

Ashlee said it could well be the biggest cleaning disaster she’s ever encountered. Poor dear. May their puppy stage quickly pass.




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A Tent for Two

July 31st, 2014 by

         Earlier this summer, we had the opportunity to travel backcountry into the Chugach Mountains with our sons—a trip where I looked forward, among other things, to sharing my old tent with my soon-to-be new husband. The old tent and I go way back, I told him. That small space held a lot of memories. I boasted about how lightweight and rain-proof it was and I gave examples with stories from the trail. The patches on the rainfly and corner of the tent came from the time a bear decided to take a swat—while I lay sleeping inside!

               We were nearly packed and ready for our trip when it turned out that one of the boys didn’t have a tent for the expedition.Tent for two

               “Let’s get a new one for ourselves and they can borrow yours,” Bill suggested. I hesitated. I loved that old tent; but I supposed we could go shopping and take a look. This was a trip for new beginnings, after all.

Our trip to REI began with a floor display of a tent that was lighter in weight than the shoes I was wearing. Bill couldn’t believe two people would fit in such a small space. (This is a man who is transitioning from motor home luxury to backcountry minimalism.) We climbed inside to give it a try. Since most of the tent was made up of mosquito netting, we could watch unnoticed as customers walked past. It made us laugh. We decided to try on a few more tents for size and then spent the next two hours weighing the options. We discovered that the choices came down to a direct price to weight ratio—the lighter the tent, the higher the price tag.

Amidst our fun, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to share a backpacking tent on a permanent basis. With my old tent, I’d usually slept alone or in the company of my dog, L.C. One time I shared it with my niece on a hike along Resurrection Pass. Mostly though, I’d had the space to myself. We picked out a tent with a vestibule on two sides. The new tent was so lightweight and roomy that it made my old one seem positively prehistoric by comparison.

There’s nothing like small spaces to reveal one’s obsessive compulsive tendencies. As a youngster, I put masking tape down the middle of the bedroom that I shared with my sister and insisted that she keep her mess on her side of the room. I could see how a vestibule on both sides of a tent could save a marriage. His-and-her storage would likely be valuable real estate when dealing with backpacks in the rain. Still I wondered—would my husband use the handy pockets to keep the tent bags and compression sacks in one place? Would he close the zipper as he went in and out of the tent to keep out mosquitoes? How did he feel about nighttime pee bottles? I realized that one of the things that I enjoyed about backpacking was being in command of this tiny space with its minimal but important demands for tidiness.

It is the ultimate in cozy to be wrapped in a warm sleeping bag when rain and wind and even snow are pummeling the outside of a reliable tent. Somehow being in the wilderness heightens awareness not only of the natural world, but a quieter world within. I had to wonder, would sharing that world—like sharing the tent—feel just a tiny bit crowded?

In the end, my husband proved to be a most considerate roommate. Bags and sacks were tucked into the handy pockets. Check. Zippers were opened and closed in quick succession. Check. Extra clothes were on kept on appropriate sides of the tent. Check. But what the heck is a pee-bottle, Bill asked.

Seasoned wilderness traveler and our good friend, Dick Griffith, explained their use, but Bill shook his head. “Naw. I’m not going to use one of those.”

“You will,” Dick replied. “Eventually.”

After several chilly, middle-of-the-night forays outside with the requisite tent zipper up, tent zipper down, fly zipper up, fly zipper down—in and out of the tent—Bill conceded. Maybe a pee bottle wasn’t such a bad idea.

Couple by Eagle Lake               Along with the new tent, Bill had insisted on purchasing new air mattresses. They felt positively decadent, a word that Griffith volleyed our way on numerous occasions as he took inventory of our shiny new gear. I was grateful, however, that Bill asserted our need for good sleep on the trail.

When it was time to head back home, Bill broke camp and treated our tent like the good friend it has already become. It has ample room and proven itself worthy even in a downpour. The old tent is still fine and can be used as a backup or as guest accommodations. Meanwhile, in this tent made for two, we’ve begun to fill the space with fresh memories, looking forward to new trails and adventures yet to come.

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Adventures in Puppies

July 9th, 2014 by

My grandchildren’s summer adventure will be to watch seven wriggling Labrador retrieverAurora lr puppies grow from birth to eight weeks, when they will go to live in their new people’s homes. My son’s family owns their mother, Rhubarb, who is the daughter of my dog, L.C. 

So, L.C. and I now boast seven new grand-puppies.

The day before her delivery, I spent part of the day dog-sitting Rhubarb who was showing signs of being in labor. A first time mother, she paced and panted and repeatedly asked to be let out. Each time, she led me to two specific locations at the edge of the yard. Beyond the clearing, the terrain was overgrown against a steeply wooded slope. She looked back at me as if to say, “Come on… over here.”

“No, let’s go back inside,” I said, and reluctantly she followed. Together we sat in the whelping box while she tried in vain to get comfortable. In some of these attempts, the seventy pound dog literally crawled on my lap. I wished I could explain to Rhubarb what was happening, why her body felt like it did, and how puppies would soon be on the way. I talked to her and she seemed to listen. Perhaps the need to know and understand is a human desire. And maybe all Rhubarb really wanted was some reassuring company.

River lrEarly the next morning I started receiving text messages and photos of puppies, one at a time. “It’s a girl!” “It’s a boy!” until the litter consisted of four females and three males. All safe and sound with mother doing what came naturally. No explanation needed.

The puppies were born on Father’s Day, a sweet gift to my son, who celebrates a decade of parenting this year. Erik and his wife, Ashlee, have three children so with the puppies their household has grown to thirteen! Plus there are the chickens outside. The terraced garden is in full bloom and it is the time in summer and in their lives when the world is fecund and rich with life and possibility.

Their household is also a riot of non-stop action and noise. From the moment the kids open their eyes in the morning, the day is an unfolding adventure. This is why parenting is exhausting. With all the tenderness of those years when the children are young, there is also a tremendous amount of work and energy that go into tasks of daily living – meals, laundry, piano lessons, swimming lessons, bath times, and the multitude of little catastrophes that crop up during the day. When I arrived yesterday, three-year-old Aurora was outside on the porch, standing barefoot in a yoga pose, holding her foot in her hands. She was stricken because she had a hangnail on her toe and no one seemed to know where to find a fingernail clipper. (Did I have one in my purse?)

She quickly forgot about it however, when I asked if she would show me the puppies, who were now a week old. Erik and Ashlee are planning to keep one of the pups, a female they have already named “Nelchina.” The boys, Elias and River, joined us and together with their Dad, we proceeded to weigh the pups one at a time. It is a daily ritual to assure that each puppy is thriving. A week from now the babies’ eyes will begin to open and soon after they will begin to totter around on wobbly legs. Eat, sleep, grow. That is their job. Rhubarb’s job is to feed this little mob for which she requires enormous amounts of calories and water. Even eating all that she can, she is a slender shadow of her pregnant self.

After my visit with mother and pups, Elias and River invited me outside to see the den that Rhubarb dug before the puppies were born.

“It’s huge!” Elias said. “She dug two of them, but this one is big enough to be a fort.”

They took me right to the edge of the yard where Rhubarb had led me the week before. There, just beyond the brush and under the roots of a tree, Rhubarb had excavated an impressive cave. Instincts apparently kicked in long before the pups were born for her to have produced that kind of den for her family. And since the boys had taken over the fort, Rhubarb was nearby, dirt flying, digging up another one.Elias lr

This summer will certainly be an adventure for my son’s family – even more so once the puppies become mobile and start wanting to make their own way in the world. Be it puppies or kids, I have the feeling Erik and Ashlee’s summer fun and their parenting adventures are only beginning to get interesting.