Just the Four of Us

For the first time in more than 20 years—near as we can figure—my mom, dad, sister, and I are alone together in my parents’ house.* The last time this happened, according to Jill’s recollection, was just before I left for South Dakota to marry Jodi. Jill was pregnant with my niece and goddaughter Kayla (hence the asterisk above) and couldn’t travel; she recalls sitting together in the loft overlooking the great round beams of my folks’ house, talking with me and giving me a old penny from her coin collection that had belonged to Grandpa Thorp. I don’t recall the exact moment as clearly as she, but I have the penny still, and the timing seems right.

And now here we are again, just the four of us, talking and laughing together. Births, holidays, weddings, funerals. Decades pass like minutes. We are entirely different people than the last time, and just the same.

I’m not sure I have a point tonight, other than to commemorate this day and note the speed with which time’s arrow flies, the swift fluidity of life, and the beautiful permanence of family.

Long Goodbye

It’s a strange sensation, like a high-tensile wire stretched six hours west to a bluff above Bismarck and the Missouri River, a steady thrum, more felt than heard, reminding me that a part of me is there. Not gone, but definitely not here, and I can’t know from one moment to the next what he’s about. We are six hours distant, so I know less about his day-to-day — but I am more keenly aware of him than I have been in years. His absence is a presence, palpable, in our home.

I am wearing an old hardware-store t-shirt he left behind.

I haven’t felt this sort of connection to my eldest son since he first came home with us — the heaviest ten pounds I ever lifted — and I realized he was ours to shape and raise to manhood. Then the connection was direct, bare skin on bare skin, almost frighteningly close: his little chest expanding and contracting, the soft spot where his skull had yet to form pulsing, his every need and discomfort so close to the surface we could almost feel it. Now it’s this invisible strand from one eggish Thorpian occiput to another. He’s always at the back of my mind.

I wonder if he feels it, too?

* * * * *

At different points this past summer, it felt like such a blessing that the University of Mary started late. We planned an August send-off, since Brendan didn’t want a grad party and had lots of time to plan and few conflicting parties to contend with. As we watched more and more friends drop their teens off at college, we thought it was helping to prepare ourselves for this weekend. Perhaps it did. But the past three weeks or so began to feel like a very long goodbye. Brendan left his job at the hardware store at the end of July, and his electrician’s job a few weeks back. His band, Pabulum, played their Final Jam. (They insist they are done as a group, which would be a pity.) All of his friends expect Olivia (who is a senior this year) left for college, and he started packing his things, some for Bismarck, some for storage.

The week before last he took a solo road trip to Michigan to spend some down time with my folks. As God’s providence would have it, a high-school friend of mine has a son who was transferring to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul this fall; he and Bren were best friends in preschool, and Will and his stuff needed a ride to Minnesota. They came back together, two peas in a pod, and Will dropped right into our family. When we took him to the seminary a day or so later, it was actually a little emotional — call it practice or anticipation, we were beginning to feel the ties to Brendan being stretched.

Last Monday, Jodi and I took Brendan out to supper and to get sheets, supplies, and decor for his dorm. We had such a good time eating his favorite food (Mexican, this time at El Bamba), listening to his current favorite band (Icelandic blues-rock outfit Kaleo — Bren, his friends and I are going to see them in October); making him pick out dishes, sheets, and towels when he couldn’t care less. It was a great evening.

And then this weekend. Originally only Trevor wanted to make the trek to UMary, until Gabe realized he could potentially get 12 hours of driving toward his license. Once he decided to go, Emma jumped aboard, realizing that otherwise she would be left to babysit Lily alone. So all seven of us went — the largest single-family contingent I saw on campus.  Jodi and I took Friday off, and we left early in the afternoon so Bren could connected with his NDSU friends in Fargo and catch our local high school’s football game against Moorhead. He spent the night on campus; the rest of us in a hotel. Seeing his friends joyful and comfortable on campus, was reassuring; arriving at UMary itself was doubly so: simple, joyful, peacful.

Bismarck’s Big Boy Drive-In — unique in my experience,
with menu items you don’t see anyplace else. Google it!

We met his roommate, Ethan, a nursing student and Vikings fan from western Minnesota, and Ethan’s parents — they seem like a wonderful family — and heard from UMary president Monsignor James Shea, who told the students with clear affection and blunt honesty that their lives were not their own, but a gift for others, and unless they find a way to spend themselves in love, they will have wasted their time here. He told us parents, as well, to step away and allow our children to stumble and fall that they may learn to stand on their own.

He strikes me as a good man, and I couldn’t be happier to entrust Brendan’s young mind and character to him these next few years.

One other speaker shared an Erma Bombeck quote, comparing raising children to flying a kite: letting out more and more string until ultimately the tether breaks and the kite soars away on its own. It’s not a bad metaphor, but I see things differently. This connection between us is stretched thin, but not to breaking; it is keen, sensitive, and strong, and though it can be tangled, wound about the world, stretched to invisibility and nigh untraceable, it cannot be broken.

I told him as much, in a letter I left in one of his boxes. No matter how far away he goes, I am here waiting for his return. Because he is mine, and I love him.

When we finally decided, after dinner on campus, that it was time to head home, Bren walked with us to the Suburban. He hugged each of us (Mom and Lily more than once) and told us he loved us. He told the older kids to keep doing their thing: Emma, to keep baking; Trevor, to keep drumming; Gabe, to keep being himself and making people laugh. Lily’s last words to him from inside the Suburban: “Love you, Brendan! Don’t do anything bad out here!”

We’ve done the best we could. I think he’ll be alright.

Brandings

Blogger’s Note: Another past writing, from 2001. This is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction I ever wrote, and came back to my mind following this recent post from Prairie Father. In case you are wondering, Fr. Tyler is, in fact, the Tyler mentioned below. Finally, I’m no cowboy. If my terminology is imprecise or inaccurate, forgive me. If it is offensive to cowboys, correct me in the comments!
I

The city girl behind the counter called it a marking. She wore Doc Marten sandals and just last week mistook a bird’s call for approaching cattle. Drugstore cowgirl, with her chopped blonde hair tucked beneath a curled straw hat, more Junior Brown than Tom Mix. She wants a stampede string to keep it in place should she need to chase cattle at the “marking,” and I’m smiling at the thought of her sprinting in her sandals through knee-high grass behind some rangy Angus cow, her hat tied tight beneath her chin.

II

We rose to cinnamon rolls and coffee—six a.m., and Bob’s pulling his tall, red-topped boots over his jeans; a bright silk scarf about his neck; white shirtsleeves shining softly in the morning sunlight. Bob drinks tea, not coffee; sweeps the crumbs from his long moustache, takes from the wall a straw hat with the same crease, crown and brim as his felts, and heads out, spurs jingling, to catch his pony.

The hands arrive in twos and threes, and their rigs line both sides of the driveway—crew-cab pick-ups and long stock trailers with cow-horses saddled and tied short alongside. The men gather around the plank table in the kitchen, exchanging greetings and jabs, sipping coffee and complimenting Cindy on the rolls. All wear boots and hats; many have chinks, and most wear spurs. They range in age from 15 to about 60. Chance, Bob’s youngest, wears his boots outside his pants, same as his dad; a rosy plaid western shirt, battered chinks and a black felt hat set back on his head. He’s rough and ready, a chaw in his cheek and blue eyes sparking, happily cussing the dogs.

Chance has two friends with him today—John’s dark haired and dark skinned, with baggy carpenter’s jeans and Docs on his feet. He’s clearly not cowboy, and his T-shirt reads the same as yesterday: “I’m just one big f—ing ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (Hyphens mine, not his.) His sister, Rachel, watches Chance with dark eyes and prepares to ride—purple chinks with heart-shaped conchos; a long denim shirt opening on a white tanktop.

Straws are the hats of choice in summer; still, a few felts make an appearance. “Real cowboy hats can be any color, so long as it’s black or silverbelly,” Bob says. Rick Smiley wears a dark gray hat, for what that’s worth, and sky-blue plaid. Frank Timmons wears battered silverbelly, with a sweaty ring at the base of the crown. It sits low on his brow, so that the curled ends of his moustache are often all that escapes its shadow.

Where I come from is not far from the girl at the drugstore. I shake hands with the men around me, conspicuous in a green Filson cap that suggests I’d rather be fishing. I remember selling western boots in that same drugstore, when my own boots and the pearl-white snaps of my uniform shirt branded me a cowboy in the eyes of little boys from New Jersey—this day even my father, in his broad black hat and leather vest with antler buttons, may have dressed too plainly to be called “cowboy.”

III

A couple days later we’re eating chili around that same plank table. Bob took a call a few moments earlier from a Manhattan-based research firm conducting a survey on environmental policy and public opinion. He spends a good ten minutes on the phone with the caller, and by the time he hangs up, he has identified himself as a heterosexual white male, a conservative, a Catholic, and a staunch Republican.

“You realize,” I tell him, “that you are the enemy.”

He’s cutting cheddar with the same pocket knife he cut calves with two days ago. He’s got a saddle shop in his kitchen. He doesn’t care.

IV

The riders mount and spread across a broad expanse of grass to round up the cows and calves. We’re watching from a windy hilltop overlooking the pasture, the pond, an old windmill and a few crooked trees, with the house, pens and buildings beyond.

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.

V

The cows are vaccinated, and the fire’s lit. Bob moves between groups of cowboys enjoying cookies and iced tea and assigns them to work as ropers, wrestlers, branders and cutters. Dad and John man the gate, shooing the bravest calves back into the pen. An odd pairing, to be sure—my father will lock up the brakes on the pickup at the sight of a middle finger, and this kid’s wearing as bad as that across his chest.

The ropers ride into a sea of bawling black and throw their loops. They drag the calves out by their hind feet, and the wrestlers topple them to their right sides and pounce on them, one on the head and topside foreleg, the other on the hind feet. The horses keep the rope tight, looking only slightly interested, and the riders watch. Two needles to the neck; blue smoke, the stink of burning hair and the sizzle of flesh. If it’s a bull calf, a few deft strokes with a pocket knife and a squirt of disinfectant. It’s brutal, quick and effective—strangely, the calves bawl loudest when first roped and dragged, and scarcely limp upon release.

Bob is cutting calves, and in just half an hour, his white sleeves are punctuated in red. He keeps his pocket knife in hand, wiping the blade occasionally on his chinks. It’s coarse surgery, without anesthesia or stitches, and I tell him so.

“You’re right,” he says, looking to the next calf. “It’s pretty rough, what we do to these critters.”

The smoke rolls.

VI

The latest issue of The Atlantic ran an ad for the American Indian College Fund, with the tagline, “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” The picture is of a young woman of no obvious ethnicity, with long dark hair, standing near a wooden cabinet full of microscopes. “Carly Kipp, Blackfeet,” the ad reads. “Biology major, tutor, mom, pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine, specializing in large-animal surgery.”

VII

The work’s nearly done, and Chance and Rachel are leaning against a gate, saying little. He dates her cousin, and he, Rachel and John spent last night beneath the stars on a hide-a-bed couch in the back of a pickup.

When the branding’s finished, it’s dinner—roast beef and beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; bread and salad and beer. Some of the men head home—the rest take up spots on the porch or the lawn. After a bit, two guitars come out, and Bob and Paul (a rancher out of Montana who owns the cattle we branded today) take turns picking—old country songs, rock older still—and discussing how music and cowboying has changed over the years.

“My wife tells me,” says Paul, “that if I want to get back to cowboying, the first thing I gotta do is get rid of about 1,500 head.”

I’m riding a sawhorse next to Chance. He takes his dad’s guitar and begins to play—bits and pieces of more recent rock songs. He finally settles into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—bending strings to coax all the heartbreak he can out of them, the lyrics audible only in fits and starts above his playing.

Three-year-old Brendan’s on the porch with Rachel—they’ve been splashing each other with water from a five-gallon pail, and Brendan is soaked. Rachel’s hair is dripping, and Brendan’s new “pet” clothespin is clipped to the back of his shirt—he’s been looking for it for the past twenty minutes. She’s swiped a beer from the ice-filled tub in the grass, and Brendan wants what she’s having. They play together for an hour or more, when nobody asked her to—she’ll make a mother someday. Or someone’s favorite aunt, at least.

Bob says her older sister’s a beautiful girl—could’ve been a model.

“She’s got just enough Indian—they’d take her to Elko, to the Artists’ Ride, and dress her in skins …”

Rachel’s a beauty in her own right—her mixed ancestry shows in her complexion, her dark curls and brown eyes. She’s been arguing with Bob about whether her Adidas visor qualifies as a hat.

It takes a special girl, I think, to make a visor and chinks look good.

VIII

I’m driving to work and NPR is talking to songwriter who’s latest recording is called Scar. The title cut, he said, is based loosely on his relationship with his wife—it’s about how our relationships and experiences, for better and worse, mark us for life.

Brutal, quick and effective.

J. Thorp
May 2001

Rosa Comes Home

Look who’s back!

When Jodi and I first moved to Minnesota, I wanted a pickup to help with the move. We had a couple thousand dollars to spend, which won’t get you much unless, it turns out, you go “classic” — then it will get you a project truck. I’m not particularly gifted as a mechanic, but with Dad’s help, I figured we could get into something basic and make it roadworthy.

We found a ’66 Ford F-100 with a 240 straight six and three-on-the-tree — a ranch truck, “farm fresh” from Texas. The back bumper is heavy steel stamped with the dealer name: Kozelski Mtrs. West, Texas. The chrome brush guard on the front reads Smash Hit, Waco, Texas (with a lightning bolt between the Hs), and in the back window is a sunbleached sticker for 99.5 KBMA “La Fabulosa” Bryan-College Station. It had originally come to Michigan as a project truck for a father and son who had never quite gotten to it. The body and engine were solid, the electrical system and gauges were marginal, and the shift lever was inserted through a wallowed-out hole in the steering column and “secured” by a filed-down mini screwdriver that served as a pin. As you drove, the makeshift pin would sometime vibrate out, which led to a momentary thrill when the lever came off in your hand mid-shift.

We fixed it up well enough to drive it to Minnesota with a chest freezer full of beef in the back. We hauled whatever needed hauling around here for a year or so, and parked it during the winter so as to avoid getting road salt on a 40-plus-year-old body that had only two tiny rust perforations. It was a three-season vehicle only I would drive; we couldn’t fit it in the garage, and couldn’t afford to store it — so finally, we put it on Craigslist. Dad urged me not to do it. “You’ll never find another one like, and you’ll wish you had it back some day — I know from experience.”

I was only trying to get my money back out of it, but there were no takers. I thought about dropping the price. Then one afternoon, Dad called to make me a deal. He wanted to buy the pickup. He would pay us in beef over the next few years. He would take the pickup back to Michigan, drive it only during the summers, and “someday when I’m gone,” he said, “you can have it back.”

I signed the title over to him, and we were well supplied with meat.

About a year ago, I saw the old pickup again and told Dad I was glad he hadn’t let me sell it. He mentioned that if I wanted it back, I could have it — but he’d only sign back over if I promised not to sell it. This winter we shook on that deal, and today, the old girl came back home to Minnesota.

The journey back was a father-son road trip for Gabe and me — we took two days, traveling north from my folks’ place, over the Mackinac Bridge, then west across the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin on US 2 and US 8. No more than we got on the highway, fellow motorists started rubbernecking as they passed. The old timers gave us thumbs-up or nods of approval. We stopped at a few antique shops and got a few compliments and one not-so-subtle hint that we should consider selling. We speculated that the big shiny pickups roaring past us on the highways would not still be running in 50 years. Our pickup ran like a champ the entire trip, with only three minor challenges and one momentary thrill:

  • The gauges don’t work. The gas gauge never registers more than half full, and may or may not register empty — that, coupled with an odometer that registers 7/10 to 8/10 of a mile for every actual mile traveled makes judging when to fill up a challenge. Solution? Fill up frequently. The speedometer doesn’t work — but wouldn’t you know, there’s an app for that, using your smartphone’s GPS to tell you exactly how fast your moving and in what direction.
  • The doors don’t lock — which meant I carried a backpack with me wherever we went rather than leave anything of value unattended.
  • The wipers seemed to have a mind of their own. During an Upper Peninsula downpour, they worked great — but a few hours later, when we were thinking of stopping for the night, they quit just as the rain started. Coincidentally, we had just spotted a likely looking motel, so we pulled in. This morning, they worked fine — maybe the old truck was ready to turn in, too?
  • Old-school drum brakes needed polishing? If you have driven an old vehicle, with drum brakes that aren’t somehow power-assisted, they take some getting used to, and you’re wise to give yourself a little more distance to come to a stop. When a line of cars in front of me came to a quick stop behind a vehicle turning left, I had to get on the brakes hard — and the truck pulled sharply toward the shoulder, causing the tired to howl angrily and me, Gabe, and driver in front of me a moment’s panic. Later I tried the same hard stop in a more controlled and traffic-free environment — it pulled hard to the left once, then began stopping more effectively. Little rusty, perhaps?

Dad sent us home with a wooden duck decoy he’s hoping one of the kids will repaint. The duck sat on the dash, and whenever one of us predicted something unfortunate about the truck or the trip, Gabe would knock on the only wood available — earning the decoy the moniker “Lucky Duck.” As for the old truck: she’s never had a name, but given her border town roots and faded red paint, I dubbed her Rosa. Gabe thought immediately of his sister (whom I sometimes call Rosa) and then of her patron saint, Rose of Lima — he began to call the truck “Santa Rosa de Lima” (or more accurately in Gabe-speak, “Santarosadelima!” But for me, she’ll always be La Fabulosa. Bienvenidos, chica.

Rosa La Fabulosa: Thanks for keeping her for me, Dad!