My younger sister Jeanne died of breast cancer on January 5, 2000. I’m sure she wanted to make it to the new millennium. Having made it to see the year 2000, she finally let go of this Good Earth at the young age of 41 years.
She died in Twin Bridges, Montana, having returned to the state of her birth after living for years out in the big wide world – like myself – in St. Louis, Washington DC and Boston. In DC she had made a name for herself at a very young age as an artist and calligrapher. One of her pieces won a juried competition and is on permanent display at the Hiroshima Museum in Japan.
She moved on to Boston in order to get an education.
She lived in Cambridge and she had a tarot card reading there that predicted her one true love would soon appear and would have something to do with rainbow trout. Shortly thereafter she met Sam, who designed fly rod fishing poles in Twin Bridges, Montana and so she returned back to her roots. She married him in a campy cowboy wedding ( I documented the wedding with sepia-toned photos) and settled down, hoping to have children. Three years later the cancer struck her down.
The morning my sister died, she appeared to me in a dream. Growing up, we spent summers on my grandmother’s farm, north of Lewistown, Montana, far from the Interstate highways and secluded deep in the great plains. A butte overlooks the thousand acre property and the local Sioux tribes once camped up on top of the butte and sent smoke signals across the land to the other nearby high points. In the dream the two of us were children again. This is where we were in the dream – one of my favorite places on this Earth, and surely hers.
In June of 1998, Jeanne wrote this to me:
“I spent a few days last week hanging out at Grandma’s. Took our trailer and the dogs and just camped. It was great. Grandma’s farm is my heart-home. There is just no other place like it. Quiet. I read and did some drawing. Writing. Went for walks. Picked wildflowers. Took pictures. Shat in the woods. Saw a badger. Snooped around. I brought my usual cache of found items back with me. An old wooden-spoked wheel. Galvanized wash tub. Old bottles and broken glass. You know.”
In the dream, it was a sunny Spring morning and we were on the upper slopes of the butte, running and cavorting around. She was running in front of me and yelling back at me to catch up. She was smiling and the smile reassured me that all was okay. And then she said it — “Everything is okay now.”
I woke up with a start and noted the strangeness of the dream. My father and I had planned to drive to Montana that weekend, because we knew she was direly ill. I arrived at work and soon there was a call at my desk. It was the hospital in Dillon, Montana. They put my mother on and she told me the news that Jeanne had passed over about eight a.m. my time. That would have been about the time I was experiencing the dream. I was accustomed to sleeping late, not having to be at work until ten.
There was a lot of drama in my family about it. Most of them were traditional and wanted an open-casket funeral and for her to be buried in the family plot, next to her grandmother and the others. Sam was traumatized by the events and just withdrew, not wanting to have anything to do with it. Mom took charge by default.
Jeanne was cremated and again the family could not decide what to do with the ashes. My own opinion was that they should be scattered at the family farm, on the upper slopes of the butte, where she had appeared to me in the dream. This was not acceptable to the traditional Christian faction of the family.
The spot was remote and difficult for the older folks to get to. It was quite a hike. My father finally surrendered to the idea and proposed having a personal friend fly over the property in his private plane to do the deed. The family quibbled about it for years and meanwhile Mom held on to the ashes. At one point she felt the need to do something with them. On a trip to another of our favorite spots – Many Glacier in Glacier National Park – she scattered some ashes one early morning and was peacefully visited by a moose and her calf, who kept her company.
But most of the ashes remained in a state of limbo.
In the meantime, my father passed over. Then Jeanne’s husband Sam passed on from leukemia.
And now I had finally returned to Montana. Spirit told me now was the time to take care of this unfinished business. Only Mom and I were left to take care of it. The rest of the family would not approve and certainly would not participate.
Yesterday morning there was a heavy frost. It was the first hard frost of the season. I scraped the frost off the windows of my Mom’s car and drove over to her place from my motel. We took off from Bozeman early and drove across the plains north to Lewistown. The morning sun gave way to a gray drizzle. The forecast was for snow that evening.
There was snow on the ground at the Bozeman Pass and a lot of snow on the ground across the plains. This ended as we travelled further north and as we arrived in Lewistown it started to drizzle a bit. We drove through the little town and followed the familiar road north. I missed the cut-off road. Hardly anyone uses it anymore. The several farms that are served by that gravel road have mostly been consolidated into one big ranch as the older farmers died off. Our farm solely remained – my aunt is holding out from selling.
We were worried the gravel road might be in disrepair as a result but we found it to be well kept up, probably because of the nuclear missile silo that is still there. (The Air Force still keeps strategic missiles on alert, some of which are scattered across the Montana high plains.)
We drove past the Loretz place. My mom was astonished because their house and barn were gone, this property absorbed into the Phillips ranch. On we went, deeper into the hills. We turned the last corner and my grandmother’s farm slowly came into view.
The first thing you see is the barn. When I was small I learned to milk cows in that barn. No one lives in the farm house anymore and the buildings are decaying. The land is used only for grazing livestock. My aunt lives on her husband’s ranch nearby and they truck cows over to graze here.
I walked around the back of the house and the back door was unlocked. I stepped in, the memories flooding back from my childhood. My grandmother used to bake bread in this kitchen. The refrigerator and stove and a washing machine are still here. Clutter is everywhere.
No one in the family had really cleaned the place out after my grandmother died. My aunts and uncles had picked through what was there but much still remains. My grandmother had been a school teacher so there are a lot of old books, scattered about and in boxes. My uncle Dale had spent two years in Viet Nam, returned and then committed suicide, probably suffering from PTSD. His room still holds a lot of his stuff. There are boxes of unused ammunition laying around. Dale was an avid hunter. And then I found his dog tags. I slipped them in my pocket.
I snooped around some more but there wasn’t much left of special interest. I slipped back out the back door and wandered into the overgrown garden. The old two-seater outhouse is still standing, though it is tilted over and won’t survive much longer. I took some pictures.
The apple trees in the garden are heavy with fruit. Nobody picks them anymore.
I knew Mom wouldn’t be able to make it up to the slope I was thinking of. It is miles up there and even on a nice day she wouldn’t be able to do it. I asked her if she wanted to come with me to check out the barn. She nodded and we made our way over there through the high brush.
The barn door has fallen off and there is a gaping hole in the roof. There had been an attempt to patch the roof with aluminum sheeting years ago, but those had blown off in some winter storm and they lie scattered about. Each time I visit here it gets worse.
It’s hard for me to see this, and even harder for my mother.
The lambs used to be kept right here, and I can remember feeding the baby lambs milk from a bottle. At one time there were pigs here too. Down the hill is the spring. The reason this homestead is located right here is because of that spring. The water bubbles up from nowhere and then forms a crick (creek) that opens up into a few ponds created by beaver dams.
Overlooking this scene are some rock outcroppings, surrounded by black pines. Jeanne and I once played up there, and Mom confirms that she and her brothers and sisters had as well. That’s when I propose that spot. Mom agrees. That spot will do for our purposes.
To get there we have to go over a fence, down the hill to the spring, cross that and then up the hill. It’s raining now and it’s in the high thirties. I’m getting wet. Mom seems game for it though. So we find a spot in the barbed wire fence where I push down one wire with my foot and pull another up with my hand, gesturing her through. It’s tricky making sure she doesn’t get snagged on the barbed wire but finally she’s through. I find a spot and climb over the fence. We make our way down the hill to where we know the spring is. Back in the day, in the dead of Winter, we had to take an axe down there to chop the ice open so the cattle could drink. Now the spring is overgrown with brush and the ponds are filled in, but we find where it is by the fresh clear running water and the unmistakable sweet grass smell.
We are following the game trails. The animals leave trails by their frequent passings and these provide a means of getting through the brush. I make my way down the steep bank. It’s not very slippery, it hasn’t been raining much yet. I’m worried about whether Mom can do this but she seems game. I tell her to hold on to me and we make our way across the stream and then up the opposite bank. It’s a steep hike and I’ve got her under one arm. Slowly we make our way up the hill to the rock outcropping.
We make it and gratefully get under the cover of the gnarly black pine trees. These provide some cover from the wind and the rain, which is starting to come down harder now. There’s a spot with a nice view of the whole place. This place will do, we both agree.
I look around at the flora. There’s wild juniper and choke cherry bushes. And then I notice that wild sage is growing all around this spot. That’s appropriate I think. This is sacred space. So I ask Mom if she wants to say any words. She says them quietly to herself. I say some things out loud to the wind. We both feel my sister’s presence. She’s here with us. So I start to scatter some ashes around. I empty half of the first container. It’s feeling right and good. I hand it to Mom and she continues. I take some pictures and a video of her doing that. There’s another container and I step to the edge of the rock and start to scatter that one to the wind. The wind picks up the ash dust and it flies out over the land. Jeanne is not just being returned to the ground, but she’s in the air of this place too.
I look at Mom. She nods. It’s good. We have done good. It feels good.
After admiring the beauty of the scenery we set off back down the hill. We’re going to attempt a crossing a bit further down from before. Game trails look like we can go up the other side and get to where we need to go. There will be at least one more fence to cross to get back. We make it down to the stream and ford that. I get a flashback to when we were children, my sister and me. My aunt taught us how to catch the leopard frogs that made their homes in this pond. We spent a lot of time here.
I’m old now, but still in the prime of my life I think. It is times like this when it really hits home just how much I have done in my life, and how much time was spent doing things like milking cows and catching leopard frogs. I don’t think about those times much any more.
It’s steep going on the other side. I alternate between being uphill and pulling her up, and being downhill and supporting her in case she falls. What was I thinking, allowing my Mom to do this? She’s 82 years-old for god’s sake.
Sometimes we’ve got our faces practically in the flora. It’s mid-October and hasn’t really frozen yet. There’s no snow here yet and there’s plenty of moisture to nourish the plants. The ground is alive with growth. A painter’s pallet of color is spread out across the hills. I point out a purple wild flower to my mom. She has the artist’s eye too and we remark at the contrast of the bright orange of the quaking aspen leaves against the bright green of the young fir trees.
At the top of this hill there’s an artificial snow break – bushes planted here probably seventy years ago or so to provide cover from the snowstorms for the livestock. We roll under a barbed wire fence and make our way through the snow break. We come out the other side and there’s the barn and the chicken house. Mom made it out in one piece.
After lingering a bit more I backed the car out of the brush in front of the house and drove down the dirt driveway to the road. The black hereford cows are making some noise now. I had to open the wire gate to get the car out but I was afraid some of the cows might escape so I had Mom drive the car through while I held the cows off. I pulled the gate tight behind us. Off we went down the gravel road, back to civilization.
We didn’t look back.
It seemed like it was threatening to snow as we drove back across the prairie, through the futuristic Wind Farms. And in fact, it started to snow at one point. This was alarming to me. I started to imagine us stuck in a blizzard as darkness falls, but gradually we drove out from under the storm, which passed away to the East as we drove West and South to Bozeman. We arrived home after dark. I was amazed I got Mom home in one piece. She had a tired glow to her now.
She said that was quite an adventure.
I discovered that my sister took a photo from the very spot we chose on one of her last trips to the farm. That picture is here: