“In the late afternoon we would stop and make camp. The dust was thick in our clothes. It was so fine coming up off the ox hooves that it just floated in the air until it found a hiding place. I remember parting my sister’s fine blond hair to find her scalp was the same dark gray of the Dakota trail.
While the men were off gathering wood to the south, we girls would be standing there naked as Jay birds on the north sides of the wagons, beating our clothes against the wagon sides. The dust would float about us in a cloud when there was no late afternoon breeze, and we would whirl our dresses about us over our heads like a bunch of drunken cowboys on a Saturday night in hopes it would blow the dust away.
It probably didn’t, but we felt better doing that dance. I don’t remember the men folk ever making any comment about the women’s dresses looking any cleaner; they were just hungry and tired by the time they got back with firewood. But tired as we all were, while the women folk made dinner, the men would lever up the wagons one by one and pull the big heavy wheels to check the axles and grease; a dry axle would burn an axle within a day and there were few spares or ways to repair an axle or wheel out there on the prairie.”
Her eyes were pools of remembrance as they looked out off to the lodge. But the sight was made watery by the 83 year old memory of camping alongside the lake. Her left hand, now deformed by the abuse of age visited on her life of hard scrapple days of nonstop survival in the Wild West, hovered like a butterfly against her chin. Resting lightly on the old scars gathered in the horror of a century gone by, the finger tips read the brail each memory carved onto the tablet of her life’s face. These were the stories she could not tell little children; they were stories that she could barely tell herself. The Indian raid on the wagon train, losing her little brother to a wild cat and almost losing her own life, falling out of the loft during the barn raising; each written in blood with a scar here and another there, as if memories could be written in flesh.
The sun was soft on her blue chintz dress as she almost sat splay-legged on the sweet prairie grasses, resting from a lifetime of hard living. The sweet music of bees laboring to turn the summer into honey for winter pancakes and full happy tummies lightly droned across the meadow and blended with the occasional sounds of people talking or the rare automobile arriving at the great lodge.
“What honey?” She turned to the children sitting near her as they pulled at the stalks of grass in random mindlessness of pulling, stripping, and holding the parts up to be lazily pulled away in the partial breeze. “What did you ask?” she asked regaining her focus on the current day as her left hand return to its perennial place in her lap; winding the second and third finger into the folds of her dress until they would eventually wear a pattern or hole in the weave.
“I asked, what would they cook for dinner, grandma?” The small girl asked with her head cocked onto her right shoulder covered by the white puffy sleeves of her middy.
The elder’s eyes studied the fine yellow hair of the child as slender tendrils were caught and lifted into the puffs of breeze; much like her great aunt’s hair would have been at that age. The watery eye glinted in the gloom of the deep overhanging straw hat, looking at the child but seeing another child about a very different camp fire.
“Always biscuits; I remember we always had wedge cut soda biscuits with dinner. My mother was known for her campfire biscuits. And beans; there was always a crock of soaking beans in the wagon. Many days would go by that the men couldn’t find any game for a stew or roasting, and beans would sustain us.”
The children laughed at the shared secret that was common knowledge; “So there was ‘music’ in the air,” the older boy muttered and then snickered and looked off to the lowering sun.
She removed her straw hat and dusted some imaginary detritus from the brim as she looked off into the distance to hide the smile. Inside her, the child was turning rolls on the ground from giddy laughter at the men trying hard to remain gentlemen, yet “having to check on the horses” every few minutes. It was one of the true happy memories from that time.
Checking her cheek back in against her back teeth, she gave the children a half earnest attempt at “the look”, which only set the gang into more wild gyrations of flailing legs and rolling bodies played to the tune of squeals and giggles. “Well,” she huffed dramatically, “if you’re only going to act like children, I guess we’ll just have to put you to bed early tonight.” She paused for drama, “without a bonfire.”
That had a very quick sobering effect on the gaggle of squirming bodies. The decorum was restored as she rose teetering to her feet. “Help your grandmother Jacob, I’ve sat too long,” reaching out to the oldest boy. “Give me your shoulder.”
They walked across the meadow towards the not yet finished lodge. The late evening hush settling down amongst the grasses as the geese slowly began to tuck their beaks into their feathers fluffing and softening in preparation to burrowing in for the night. In the distance the screaming squeal of an elk calling to a possible mate warbled in the half light. The sky had lost its azure light and began its walk in grey and the last small birds fluttered about in the air in a waltz with the bats of the night.
She leaned into the young teenagers shoulder until their heads were just inches apart as she confided an observation of years watching others. “I saw the Yoder girl watching you today.” He squirmed as if to get away from the tightening arm about his shoulder. “I think she would prefer it if you might share your lunch with her instead of with the men tomorrow.” He knew better than to talk and betray his mutual interest or worse interrupt the family matriarch. “There will be some gooseberry pie hiding under the chaffing table near the potato bins. I would suggest you maybe sit in that large hole they cut for a viewing window; so it will be in easy reach if you feel a need to share a treat with someone.”
“But they’re going to mount the great window in there tomorrow morning. Uncle Lawrence brought the glass up this afternoon. They just have to finish the frame and mount the glass before they seat it all.”
“You never mind about your father and uncle. After I’m finished with them at breakfast, their crew will be busy in the entry cathedral for at least a few days; so you two will have a very nice large log on which to sit quietly enough to talk and have lunch.” She smiled and winked at her grandson with her only good eye, “at least for a couple of days.”
The night settled down across their shoulders and the land as they made their way up the great stone stairway and into the great room of the lodge. She thought back to those days spent near the lake with her family, and then after her capture by the small tribe that had become her family until she was a woman and fled to civilization. Those mixed years had lead to her mixed resilience that kept her alive and raising her family of her own making. Never marrying and unable to have children of her own, she had taken in strays that had come her way. Tender love had left none of the scars on her fiercely protected brood that drew maps across her face and body. Scarred and battered she tottered into her golden years and beyond, and wouldn’t trade one less scar if it meant one less child.
She looked about the carefully hewn timbers and logs that made up the “furniture” feeling of the construction of the lodge. In her bones, she knew that the attention to what the tree and stone tells you, went into every step of construction. The power and health of the great meeting hall vibrated in her sole as she felt that it would endure as the earth would; long and resilient. She gave her grandson’s shoulder one last hug of love as she made her way off to her rest. The morning would bring another long day and she would need to start searching for a third and last eagle feather for the spirit bag for the heart. She looked back at the silhouette of a strong young man standing in the great door looking out at the moon just rising above the plains off to the east. Yes, she thought; that heart would need a third feather, not so much a large one, but a third one for the balance. Nodding, she tottered down the hall as her gnarled knowing fingers traced the grain and knots of the log walls; comfortably finding her way through the dark as if it were a bright prairie day at high noon.