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Jessie Veeder, Published February 09 2013

Coming Home: Longing for memories of generations past

I sit at a table beside an old trunk brought over the ocean in 1907 from Norway, across the country by train and then by horse-drawn wagon to McKenzie County.

This trunk has maintained the original rosemaling detail given to it at its creation in 1744. During its time in McKenzie County this trunk stood in an old cook car, an attic, a granary and now it sits beside me in my town’s Pioneer Museum where I hover over my laptop to write a thought about how they just don’t make things like this lovely trunk anymore.

Things of such function and beauty. Things that hold stories and last lifetimes.

As the fourth generation on my family’s homestead, I spend a lot of time facing my history. I face it today as I notice, hanging next to an old wedding gown and pump organ, a photo of my ancestors: Ben Veeder, Jr. and his wife Antonette, with five members of their family of eight and Ben Veeder Sr. stand in front of their stone house in 1913.

100 years ago.

I look into the faces of these people who share my name, a black and white moment captured in the middle of another dusty day of work. I move in closer to look at their eyes, searching for a trace of familiarity under those hats and the wisps of hair that fall over Antonette’s brow.

I want to see her hair blowing in the wind. I want to know that family.

Yesterday I got news that my great Aunt E’s health is failing and I searched I my mind for the last time I saw her: It was the first hot day in June, and a car pulled into the barnyard where I was bent over my flowerpots, digging in the dirt.

I stood up and put my hand above my eyes to shield the sun as I peered through the window of the unfamiliar car, and out climbed Aunt E, the passenger on a drive with her daughter through the countryside where she raised her family before moving to the nursing home in town.

When I was young my father used to take me along to feed cows or move bales in the field two miles up the road near his aunt and uncles’ place. We almost always stopped in for coffee.

My heart sinks when I think about that June day visit and how it was the first time I’d seen Aunt E in years. Her frame looked small and frail out under the big blue sky, but her spirit proved unyielding as she watched her daughter’s eyes scan the barnyard where I was working.

I told Aunt E we were so happy to be able to live here.

Aunt E wondered out loud why I would want to live so far from town.

I laughed and said we don’t mind the drive or pushing snow out of the yard in the winter.

She shook her head and smiled.

And now I’m mad, and I know it’s for selfish reasons. Aunt E is in her mid-90s now. She’s lived a long and full life. But I should have held the childhood memory of her kitchen table like a snapshot in my mind. I should have served her iced tea on that hot June day and asked her what it was like to raise a family out here without high speed internet, cell phones and cars with cruise control. I should have asked, “Do you love this place the way I love it, or did you dream of big houses, paved streets and a grocery store down the block?”

Now it’s likely I missed my chance to hear Aunt E’s stories from her own lips, and my curiosity about her life, connected to mine by landscape and last name, will remain a mystery like the yellowed photo of my ancestors hanging in the museum.

I run my hand over the worn paint on the old trunk sitting safe and sound between the walls of this museum and say a quick prayer for the beautiful things and the stories I will never know.

I say a prayer for Aunt E.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.