Meeting Grampa in the Middle of Nowhere: a Montana Mystery

Many roads in Big Sky Country have become familiar to me over years of quick weekend getaways, but my favorites are the less traveled paths I take spontaneously without knowing where they will lead.  Oftentimes, a map doesn’t include these roads and there are no signs: this is the best way to explore Montana.

Part of the thrill is wondering whether my adventure may include running out of gas before finding civilization, and contemplating what that experience might be like with a toddler in the car. I was driving my old Explorer on one such excursion back in 2009, a vehicle that could plow through about anything but would guzzle fuel while doing so.  My daughter and I were on a winding dirt road through miles of ranchland when I began to wonder whether I might reach a dead end and have to retrace my path on fumes and prayer. Where I saw Grampa

As I topped the hill at this gorgeous point overlooking the Flathead River, I saw a man on a horse, walking another horse.  I stopped the car and waited for him to approach.

“Hey there,” I said.  “Can you tell me if this road will eventually take me out to a highway, or I do need to head back where I came from?”

He got off the horse and looked at my map, showed me where I was in the midst of blank spaces on the page, and told me where I would eventually come out.  Then, looking into the back window where he saw my daughter, he said slowly, “What are you doing way out here?”

“I just want to see Montana from the backroads,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said.  He was a trucker from Lewiston, Idaho, got laid off, and decided to buy two horses and pack them for a journey through the countryside up to Glacier. All the while we were chatting, one of the horses stuck its long nose through my window for a sniff inside the car and some friendly strokes on the nose.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Rusty.”

Figures.  My grandpa had a pony named Rusty.  Grampa and Gramma loved Montana, having started a family there before moving to the Midwest to farm. Years later, Gramma would tell me Montana still called to her.  It called to my aunts, too, who moved from Missouri back to the Wild West where they’d stay for the rest of their lives.  It had my number as well, beckoned me back with regularity; it anchored me, it connected with me, it always left me feeling at ease.

I was thinking about all of this when the traveler’s eyes met mine, and for an instant, he was Grampa, back in the flesh. 

He shook me out of my reverie saying I’d be on the highway before too long, and to enjoy the views along the way.  He winked at my daughter and called to Rusty to move along.

I stared ahead, a bit dazed, as if in the desert confusing reality with mirages.  Then I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car to capture the image of the man with his horses walking on down the dusty road.

There was no one there, and the only picture I took was of the silky green river winding its way to the mountains.

I Wasn’t Supposed to Be a Mom (Or, Not Your Usual Mother’s Day Reflection)

At 31, following several years of medical treatments and a roller coaster of adjusting hormone therapy, I was anxious to proceed with a hysterectomy.  Those troubled ovaries weren’t worth keeping.  They caused so much pain and worked so poorly that my doctor said I’d never get pregnant without a lot of fertility assistance.  I wasn’t interested in going that route, had never envisioned having kids anyway, and I was in a dead-end marriage.   A hysterectomy seemed like a great idea, so I planned my surgery and the six weeks off to coincide with the best time of year in Spokane to have some free time.

Two weeks before that vacation was to start, I underwent a normal test to rule out pregnancy.  After running it three times in disbelief, my doctor’s assistant uttered the words that would change my world:  you’re pregnant.

I was not elated.  I did not cry tears of joy.  This was not the plan.

A high-risk pregnancy, a month of bed rest and countless exams on a little life that wouldn’t cooperate inside the womb culminated in the emergency delivery of a 4-pound, 7-ounce little bug named Emily.  I was a mom, despite the odds, and in spite of the decisions I thought I’d made.

Kate & Emily, 2006 (Photo by Twila Davis)
Kate & Emily, 2006
(Photo by Twila Davis)

Before she turned a year old, my divorce was final, and thus began our journey of a unique relationship that is the only-child-single-mom bond: one that is fierce, unshakeable, and so strong that we—Emily and I—are the only people who could harm or hamper it.

On Mother’s Day, when most of us are reflecting on our own moms, this year I was pondering me instead.  The one who never thought she should or could have kids.  A woman who believes in being a person first and a parent second, because it’s the only way I figure I can do right by myself and my kid.

My first Mother’s Day, celebrated while little bug was still growing inside, I bought a 7-piece oak dining room set—something sturdy that would be around a long time, something we’d use day in and day out for years to come.  Ten years later, we celebrated Mother’s Day with a picnic near the mountain, a simple new tradition we’ve set with my own mom.  I don’t need some expensive piece of furniture to make me feel like a good mom.  All I really need is to put each day to rest with another tradition: lying on Emily’s bed, listening to her recount her blessings and her frustrations, make plans for the day ahead, and say her prayers.

Maybe I wasn’t “supposed” to be a mom.  But if I weren’t, who would love me “to the moon and back, and around the whole galaxy a million times” every night?

Only One Regret

Shared from “To Be Continued.”

Sister Peter Claver, administrator of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for 30 years
Sister Peter Claver, administrator of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for 30 years

Every now and again, those quizzes circulate social media, asking us to identify silly things like our greatest fear or biggest regret.  The answers are easy for me: fear itself, and no regrets.  (Okay, full disclosure, I waffle between my fears being the clichéd “fear itself” and “the unknown.”)

As for regrets, I have to recognize one constant: not having known certain individuals, a few blessed souls who have left only positive lessons, only loving marks, in their tracks.

I worked for 15 years at a hospital founded and sponsored by the Sisters of Providence.  So many Sisters had profound effects on all who knew them, and on many more whom they’d never met.  Sister Peter Claver, who died in 1991, is still recalled with great fondness and respect in Spokane’s leadership circles.  I never tired of hearing tales about her grace, wit and fortitude.  Even the gentleman driving the courtesy shuttle for a car dealership recounted for me the times his mother had been a patient and the impression made by Sister Peter Claver, who, as the top administrator, took time to visit patient rooms. (She also carried tools in the deep pockets of her habit and would tighten door hinges on her way through the hospital.)  Other Sisters of Providence—and the Dominican Sisters I eventually came to know—were such strong forces, often the only women calling the shots in a business world usually reserved for men.  They were innovative and fiercely protective of the causes they served.  Getting to know these dynamic women and their collective history ultimately led to naming my daughter after Emilie Gamelin, who founded the Sisters of Providence after suffering the loss of her husband and all her children to illnesses.

Now in the folds of the Jesuit heritage of Gonzaga University, I’m discovering more saintly souls who I regret not having had the chance to know.  Father Tony Lehmann, for example.  When my colleague wrote a piece on Father Tony to explain why we chose “To Be Continued” as the name of our new blog, I quickly learned how deep and far and wide Zag love runs for this beloved priest.  People trolling their Facebook feeds stopped in their tracks at seeing Father Tony’s face.  They “liked,” they shared, they posted.  Not in that usual Facebook style, but with intention and heart.  What I wouldn’t give to have known him myself and have my own story to recall.

It’s questionable to regret something I couldn’t have controlled—I didn’t choose when or where I was born and raised.  But I’m positive there have been other great people in my midst who I did ignore or pass by too quickly.  What might I have learned or gained if I’d taken a moment (or more) to visit?

That is my one regret.

Grace for the Sparrow

2 Girls & a birdIt was like a Windex commercial, except without the laughing crows.  The small sparrow on its morning trek was blissfully unaware that the scene ahead was framed by brick and encased in glass.   The legal assistant inside the office building turned in her swivel chair when she heard the thud, just in time to see the frail bird fall to the ground.

She had dozens of phone messages to return, and a pile of papers stacking up at the fax machine, all of which would result in hours of paperwork to prepare for her anxious attorney.  But for Shirley, the last moments of that bird’s life were more important.

Dressed to the nines and sporting her new five-inch red stilettos, Shirley dashed outdoors and knelt down next to the window.  The bird was gasping for air, and seemingly crying out for comfort.

Shirley scooped it up in her hands and wept over it.  “No one should die alone,” she whispered, “I’m here for you.”

Hers was a heart that was wrenched daily by clients suing neighbors, doctors, family members; criminals avoiding due punishment for heinous acts; couples ending marriage in nasty court battles.  She read and filed and recorded countless stories of child abuse and saw failed cases where justice was not found.  A thankless job like this would harden the softest soul.  But for Shirley, it made her that much more tender and resilient and compassionate.

The bird witnessed this truth.  As did many a scorned teenager.  And plaintiffs wrongly accused.  Even her ex-husband.

As the bird closed its eyes and took its last breath in the comfort of Shirley’s hands, she was transported back in time to her youth, when she and her sister would feed the squirrels and birds, rabbits and geese that wandered freely through their Pennsylvania property.  Inevitably, the two girls could charm a feathered or furry guest to come and be stroked or even held.  In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered.  At those times, being so deeply trusted by another was as fulfilling as life could be.

Shirley dug a small hole in the ground by the window, clumps of earth collecting beneath her manicured nails.  She laid the bird in his final resting place, wiped the dirt from her hands and the tears from her cheeks and returned to court documents awaiting her attention.

If justice couldn’t be guaranteed for each client who came through her office, at least there was grace for the sparrow in its time of need.

*Editor’s Note: This photo was among hundreds in a box at an antiques store in Philadelphia’s historic district.  It was begging for a story, so I bought it, for $1 and gave it “Grace for the Sparrow.”  I have no idea who these girls really are—and if some soul out there recognizes them as part of a lost family history, then please reach out. While their identity is unknown, “Shirley,” is indeed based on the life of a real woman, a real legal assistant with a real heart for those who suffer. — kv

100 Words – a contest

mapShe had an old, brown map of the world, framed and hanging over her TV.  Stickpins with colored heads marked where she’d been and how many times.  Lying on a twin bed in her nursing home room, she propped a leg over the other knee in the air; her memory as sharp as her body was nimble.  She knew what she had paid for a Coke on an Alaskan cruise in the ‘60s, and why she returned to Australia twice. (Koalas.)  Thirty years after her death, the search for that map—with its pins and memories—begins.

Finding Ghosts and Beauty

Moon PassI have unfairly judged North Idaho.  Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan.  I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.

While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.

For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle.  North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck.  No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.

IMG_6417Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest.   Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds.  Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor.  Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer.  There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.

And then …

Then there are the ghosts.  The cedar ghosts.  Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too.  They were 300-500  years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops.  And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.

Cedar Ghosts

Oh, not dead.  For something in them spoke to me.  They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen.  Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.

August 2013