Prairie to Peak

The trail up Mt. Sabattus, which I've climbed every year since before I was born.
The trail up Mt. Sabattus.

I grew up in South Dakota, where the horizon rolls indefinitely in all directions. Hot summer days bred lightning storms and tornado warnings, whose zap and buzz and chartreuse cast I could see from miles away. Despite my Midwestern roots, however, I’m most content at the seashore or—better still–atop a mountain, drinking the view like water for my soul. My first hikes were before I was born, and I’ve sought them ever after–laughing, sweating, berrying, eating warm grapes and half-smashed sandwiches, uttering marriage vows, and spreading a few of my father’s ashes before God and Shawnee Peak.

Through the Window

Photo credit: S. Carter
Photo credit: S. Carter. So yeah, this isn’t the window. It’s not open, and might not open at all. It doesn’t make sense with the text, but I figured the wrong image was better than no image at all.


I waited until everyone filed to the backyard for the party before locking the door and pulling it closed behind me. Suppressing a bubble of laughter, I picked at my potato salad, waiting for someone to need a fork, a drink, the bathroom.

Instead of a laugh, I got a teetering, terrified trip up an extension ladder to the roof, where I climbed through my sister’s bedroom window–the only one ajar.

Descending the stairs as squeamishly as I had mounted the ladder, I unlocked the door for my mother and a spanking–stinging more for its publicity than pain.


Vicki DeLoach
Photo: Vicki DeLoach

I remember when each hour crawled languorously before me—a caterpillar on sixteen tiny legs, inching from Pensacola to New York City and back before the mantel clock would chime again.

Two days before my birthday, I thought I might be 50 before I turned eleven.

Now the years skip about with surprising unpredictability, and I’m never certain how old I am on any given day. It’s not unusual for me to believe I’m in my late twenties–until I try to stay up past eleven, until I glance at my little ones, and realize we see eye to eye.


Tiny girl clutched her raggedy rabbit

in a very particular way:

one bunny ear tucked in her mouth, keeping her thumb company,

the other poked partway up her nose

in a warm and vaguely comforting way.

She teetered on the edges of the room,

saucer-eyed and silent,

watching chaos unfold.

Sleep-deprived snarls,

caustic blasts of incomprehensible rage and frustration,

and at last, a primal bleating

made her customary nighttime monsters seem benign and predictable.





Back to the Future

In the very back of my sister’s closet was a tall, quilted dress bag. It was made of pale pink plastic and filled with my mother’s fancy dresses.

One was a Dutch-blue satin dress she had worn in her best friend’s wedding. It was off-the-shoulder, tea-length, in a simple and flattering style I don’t associate with bridesmaids’ gowns. I loved the feel of the fabric as the flared skirt swayed and brushed against my legs.

There was a floor-length pink gown that had been chopped and altered, once for my sister on Halloween, and once for me when I played Glinda in the fifth grade musical. It had a scratchy layer of tulle over the top, which was uncomfortable, but extra glamorous.

There were several more dresses, but the only other I vividly recall was the one my mother had made for a tea dance in high school. It had a brocade bodice and a wine-colored satin skirt. It was simply divine. That one I put on repeatedly.

If no one was around, I liked to sneak a pair of white gloves from my her bedside table, the ones with a tiny flower of seed beads on each wrist and an impossibly small button.

Then I might poke through her jewelry drawer, the bottom of which was covered with a flat of egg carton material, so each item could be investigated and laid reverently back into its soft gray cup. I might try on everything, but I always ended up with a single strand of pearls from my Grandmother.

One day in high school–nearly a decade since I had played dress up–I happened upon the dress bag in the closet, and decided to try on that tea dance dress once more.

What happened next is difficult to articulate. Each seam fell exactly into place and the hemline was perfect. I stared in the mirror and was overwhelmed by a creepy sensation. It was uncanny. Not only had my mother made the dress, and tailored it perfectly to her frame, she had made me, too. Suddenly the concept of genetics was no longer textbook essays and double helix diagrams. It was concrete and intensely physical. She made me.

I know she had help; I get it. But it wouldn’t have been the same to try on my father’s trousers.

Ah, Halloween! Cow parts and unchaperoned children.

small halloween

I wore the same fairy costume for four years running.

My getup consisted of someone’s worn and baggy blue dress, a cardboard tiara, and a star covered with Reynolds’ Wrap and taped to a piece of dowel.

Back then, the time change came earlier in the Fall, so it was nice and dark early on the big night. Unfortunately, it was also ridiculously cold, and because my parents loved me, I had to wear a coat covering my costume. They probably did not recognize this as the great disappointment it was, especially since everyone had seen my costume numerous times already.

I’m pretty certain my sister was asked to look after me, but what junior high student wants a baby sister tagging along with her posse after dark? Consequently, I had free reign of the neighborhood from a staggeringly early age, and my candy was only stolen once. No other tragedy befell me.

I would wander, giddy and anxious, mesmerized both by the boisterous clumps of people I wasn’t sure I knew, and by my paper bag, swelling with forbidden sweets. I would take them home and count them, chart them, graph them. I would eat two or three pieces, then squirrel the rest away, doling it out so it would last until Easter–the next time we got a statistically significant dose of sugar.

Once I got a bit older, I branched out and tried new costumes, always outdone by the girl who lived catty-corner from us. How did she predict my costume three years in a row? My mummy costume was made out of an old sheet torn into strips, and held together by an array of safety pins. It drooped and exposed my sweat pants in embarrassing patches. Julie’s father was a doctor, however, so hers was made out of surgical wrapping that clung magically to her gloating face.

Multiply that stinging feeling by all three years. I suppose I would have developed lingering unpleasant feelings about the holiday were it not for the Halloween party we had in our basement the year I turned eleven.

In my opinion, all basements are inherently cold and creepy, and ours was no exception. Scariest of all was the storage room, with concrete walls and floors, and rickety metal shelving loaded with spider webs and long-forgotten boxes. We shoved a few things out of the way so we could guide blindfolded kids one at a time into its clutches.

Perched here and there on the shelves were a variety of bowls into which we plunged their unseeing hands. One held eyeballs, or peeled grapes, and another brains, which was clammy cooked spaghetti.

Things got weirder.

Once a year, my parents purchased a side of beef, which was cut and meticulously wrapped and nestled in the extra fridge in the basement–the one without a handle, that we wrenched open with a dish towel and a finely choreographed hip maneuver. We had no shortage of strange cow parts in the basement freezer, so we thawed a variety of organs to fill the other bowls.

Given the location and ingredients, I suspect that our haunted house would have been just as creepy without the blindfold. And though this may reflect poorly on me, I reveled in the yelps and screams of our guests, and later, their wide-eyed wonder when we revealed the bowls’ actual contents. I think most of them had hoped that what we passed off as a heart might not really be a heart.

The piece de résistance of the evening was the Ghost Cake with Flaming Eyes, however. I remember so clearly that feeling of triumph when we turned out the lights again and lit the eyes.

Ever since that night, Halloween has been my favorite holiday.

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

I wrote a whole post about my Ghost Cake on LobeStir. Here’s the link–you could make one, too!

Happy Halloween!

personhood vs. parenthood

Last year, I was feeling so smug, because I watered my orchid stick for six months and it bloomed on Mothers' Day. This year, it's just a stick.
@2012 Beret Olsen     Last year, I was feeling so smug because I watered my orchid stick for six months, and it magically bloomed on Mothers’ Day. Sadly, this year it’s just a stick. Oh well. Happy Mother’s Day anyway.

One summer day in my early teens, my parents and I went on a long drive from our woodsy cabin to Lands’ End.

Though we had hoped for a sunny day on the coast, the fog was so thick we could barely see the sea from the shore. We meandered along the water’s edge in our own little pocket of cloud, quite separate from the world beyond. I thought I would say something nice for a change–perhaps even express some filial gratitude–when I noticed an odd look on my mother’s face.

She raised her arms, laughed out loud, and launched her sprawled limbs into a cartwheel in the sand. It was so astonishing, so completely unexpected, that I suddenly realized how little I knew about her beyond the character she played at home. Now I might consider her as more than my mother, someone whose inner life might be rich and complicated, someone who had lived a lifetime before she made me.

Not that she ever turned another cartwheel, but still. I continued to wonder about her, too Scandinavian to pry.

The only clue I had to her younger days was a doll she called Judy, which she had lovingly arranged in a child-sized rocker facing my bed. She was eerily beautiful, despite a crack across her cheek, a worn petticoat, and misshapen, yellowed socks. Judy had stared at me tight-lipped for years, never spilling the secrets of my mother’s childhood or beyond.

I imagined my mother quarantined on her parents’ plastic-covered couch, hands folded primly, dreaming of play; dreaming of siblings.

Did her parents have the same ancient hard candies back then–the ones at which I stared during my visits to Grandma’s– arranged in the same fancy china dish?

As an adult I get little glimpses of her as a non-mom. Like the night my spouse got her a little tipsy, and she dropped the f-bomb telling a joke. How lucky for me, that there are still opportunities to hear my mother’s stories.  Now, to find the time and the courage to ask.

I look at my kids and wonder: when will I suddenly appear to them as more than a purveyor of fine snacks, a laundress, a driver, a shoulder to cry upon? What will I do or say that will alert them that there is an actual person in my shoes? Chances are, they’re already clued in. I haven’t played the role quite so gracefully as my mother.

The Daybed

@2010 Beret Olsen
@2009 Beret Olsen

I don’t say this to evoke pity. Please don’t read it in a melodramatic tone in your head, or season it with melancholy. Think matter-of-fact. It is what it is.

I was a bit of an accident.

I asked my mother about it, once, and she paused for an uncomfortable moment before responding. “Honey, by the time you showed up, we were so happy to see you.”

Even as a child, I knew what that meant. That explained the six years between my sister and me. It explained why nine years separated me from one brother, and twelve from the other. It explained why I often felt like a child in a roomful of adults, and why, for many years, the taller people in the house took some precedence. It wasn’t all bad, though. In general, they also took the heat and the blame.

When we were all at home in our little red house, we piled atop each other, and tensions tended to rise. My parents hastily carved out the attic to make two bedrooms, one for my brothers, and one for my sister and me. When my brothers began to chafe at those close quarters, the eldest retreated into the basement with a black light bulb and day-glo Easy Rider posters. Once my sister hit her teens, though, when it became increasingly awkward for us to share a room, there seemed nowhere else to expand.

After much debate, it was finally decided that I should move into what was essentially a throughway, a roomy passage between the kitchen and the bathroom. As one might imagine, I had extremely limited space for luxuries such as clothing or books. There was a shelf put in, and a small dresser crammed under the stairs. There was a window which peered at the garage, and I hung a few things on the wall, but because everyone trooped through this space during waking hours, I couldn’t have my bed down there. Instead, I was allowed use of “the daybed.” Never mine; just the. This was a couch-like thing which served as a cot-sized bed at night. I didn’t really mind. Mostly. It beat witnessing my sister’s eighth grade make-out sessions.

The daybed was very simply designed. Very nordic. Imagine a cheap door, taken off its hinges and laid flat on skinny, pointed legs. An egg-colored foam pad, about four inches thick, lay on top, covered with an upholstery apparently conceived in the seventies. It was a magenta paisley, crossed with a parade of stripes and shapes which have never been seen together since. It was poorly made, too, so the rough metal zipper was entirely visible along the side, and I often grazed the backs of my legs against its voracious teeth. More inviting were the two long, wedge-shaped pillows which served as the back of the couch during the day. These were covered with corduroy of a very specific blue hue, one I still associate with all things quiet and comfortable. I loved to run my fingers along the nap endlessly, with it or against being equally zen-like.


From the daybed, I would doze to the sound of the dishwasher, and wake to the sound and smell of the eternal percolator, a seemingly indestructible wedding gift from the fifties.

It was there that I lay through the German measles and the mumps; there that I listened to my mother read Watership Down.

One evening, my mother found the nuts I had stolen from the roasting pan full of Chex party mix in the basement. They were in an old bread bag, tied in a knot and tucked under the daybed. They might have escaped notice, too, had my mother not helped me put the sheets on that night. “What are you, some sort of squirrel?” she asked, but not too sharply. I was glad when she let it go, perhaps understanding how hard it was to get the good bits when your siblings are so much older and faster.

I remember lying on that daybed the night after the girl scout picnic in second grade, the one where I ate a hot dog stuffed with Velveeta and wrapped in bacon before grilling. I threw up six or seven times–a little daybed volcano–and have never eaten a hotdog since.

I remember lying there sniffling, lamenting my lack of space and privacy, when my medium brother heard me and tiptoed in. We were not a terribly affectionate family, nor emotionally adept, but he explained with such kindness and enthusiasm how he would make it feel big enough. I still feel deep gratitude for that night. He began to schlepp all kinds of things from his room, my sister’s, the kitchen, wherever. He filled that tiny place from floor to ceiling so I could be pleasantly surprised when he it emptied out again, and there would be room to roll over and even to stand with my hands outstretched.

But by far, my favorite memory of the daybed was a secret I neglected to tell anyone, lest I would have to share that, too. Ours was a frugal household, where finances dictated a thermostat set at a bone-chilling 58 degrees through even the worst of the South Dakota winter nights. But when temperatures outside settled well below zero, maintaining 58 degrees still necessitated occasional blasts of delicious heat. A major duct ran through the wall, all along the length of the back of the daybed. Who would know, with the blue corduroy pillows in place all day, what heavenly heat emanated from the wall behind me? I pressed my socked feet against it, snuggling like a cat to a sunny patch, and dreaming dreams.

These days, we set the thermostat at a balmy 62 at night, and I have a heating pad, which spares my spouse from my icy toes. But I think the comfort it offers is not simply a physical one. It is also a remembrance of those long, cold nights, pressed against the wall in my make-shift little roomlet. It is a reminder that there is always enough room for me, and more than enough of what I really need.