WATFORD CITY, N.D. — I was too old to believe in Santa Claus when reality finally started tugging at my sleeves. I tried to shoo the truth away as long as I could, not so eager to grow up and exist in a world surrounded by it because the truth never seemed quite as thrilling as the dreamed up. I suppose I've always been one to hang on to the coattails of magic as long as it lets me, as long as it doesn't grow too wild and reckless, sending me spinning and whipping off its haunches.
When I was dreaming of having a baby of our own for all those years, I ran through how it might look in our house at Christmas: cozy and warm tucked in the trees, hot cider on the stove, a fire crackling in the fireplace, our baby crawling playfully around the fresh-cut cedar we found together on the ranch under a blue sky and after a little impromptu snowball fight. And that tree we cut would fill the house with its wild scent and twinkle throughout the long nights, reminding me when I was a kid and Christmas was magic.
I was downstairs trying my best to finish up a deadline I'd been working on submitting all day. It was the Monday after a long Thanksgiving break spent with family and food scattered around the house for days. The baby was so worn out from the excitement of it all that she decided to stop sleeping and pop her first molar, and I was ready to get back into the swing of things.
Outside, up out of our driveway next to the gravel county road, a couple pyramids of hay bales are stacked up nice and neat, waiting to be unrolled on the cold hard ground for the cows that we will be feeding this winter.
I just put the baby down for the night. I rocked her a little longer after she fell asleep in my arms, kissed her head and sat with her in the quiet darkness of her room before I laid her down in her crib.
I was a princess once. It was a long time ago in a faraway, mysterious frozen tundra called North Dakota. I was beautiful. My crown was made of glittery pipe cleaner, my dress a hand-me-down from my fair mother, shoulder pads for dramatic effect, taken in at the waist with 37 safety pins, and it swept (drug) on the ground ever-so elegantly, collecting fallen leaves, dirty snow and candy wrappers the way every magnificent princess ballgown should.
It was late August, and it had been hot for weeks, the kind of heat you remember as a kid, where popsicles melt on sticks in the heavy air that sends the flies gathering at horses' bellies and driving them to bob their heads and swish their tails in the trees. We were sweating it out in the little house in the barnyard where my grandparents used to live, three years into our marriage and three months into unpacking our lives back home at the ranch where I was raised. And it was only six years ago, but we were just kids, really, with plans big enough to keep us busy.
There are things I always envisioned doing once I had a child of my own in tow. One of them was sitting my baby on a hay bale at a pumpkin patch and taking a photo. It seems simple and maybe not such a necessary step on the path of raising a baby, but it was a club I wanted to be a part of, the club of moms and dads bundling up their children, pulling them along in wagons, picking out the best pumpkin in the patch and celebrating a season change with a forced photo or a hay ride or a chaotic walk through a corn maze.
WATFORD CITY, N.D.—My mom keeps a small wooden box in her kitchen, tucked up in the cupboard next to her collection of cookbooks. On the front it reads "RECIPES" in the shaky, wood-burning technique of a young boy trying his hand at carpentry. And inside is an assortment of recipe cards, of course, notes from a kitchen and a cook who left us all too soon, taking with her her famous homemade plum sauce. And the from-scratch buns she served with supper.
Last weekend on the way to meet my husband's family to celebrate his grandmother's 87th birthday, I had one of those moments where I broke everything down that wasn't working in my life. Something my husband said set me off and I took it as an opportunity to let the steam out of the frustration kettle that had been boiling for a couple weeks.