Rest Easy, Pa’s Frank

A week ago, i sat with Crit and Debul and DW at the Bistro. It was dine and dash situation for me. i was trying to get over the pass at a decent hour because another 5+ inches of snow were coming any minute. if i waited, or even hesitated, there was a good chance the road would be shut down or the conditions too rough to drive in safely at 3am (the time i have to leave my house for a 7am flight out of Jackson Hole). we had just discussed everything i knew and everyone was processing many things allatonce. that i was not going to be there for the play. that was number one. and at ages 6 and 7, that makes sense. it only took a quick minute for Crit to proclaim through her sobs that she was sad about BOTH…all of it was making her want to cry. i said i get it. and i did.

As i was gathering my puffy and my hat, i was squeezing the guts out of my homies. “Do you HAVE to go, Mommo?”, Debul asked.

“Yes, buddy. i do. i HAVE to go, and i WANT to go.”

I knew when i cranked up the Subaru and headed up the pass, that it was as equally important that i go as it was that they saw me go. that they watched me drop everysingle thing that was happening in our world, and go to share time and space with my clan, sacred time and sacred space.

you go.

when i called DW earlier that morning, he said “Well, you can’t not go. That was one of the first things you told me about you when we met. That you can’t not go.”

My heart pitter pattered with love for my husband. for his knowing, understanding, and supporting the most important things, while i scrolled through the limited flight options into Scranton, Pennsylvania.

my mom called first thing in the morning, right after DW and the homies pulled out for school. of course, i was floored. flabbergasted. dumfounded. shocked. but not yet sad. i had a yoga class to teach in an hour. 

“Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” Walt Whitman. i used the same advice when i genuflected in front of the altar and read from the Book of Wisdom in St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, standing in front of so many of the same folk that i read my manifesto tribute to Grammy almost exactly 20 years before. 

it seemed no one knew the protocol exactly. we were all on new turf and out of practice. thankfully and gratefully we were all caught squeaky and rusty in the joints of the Irish Catholic Way-Of-Death (as I heard my dad say a few times). It came back to all of us. 

Last Tuesday, all day long, my phone was dinging. brothers, sisters, and cousins galore checking in. sending love. and asking what i need. dresses? shoes? i’d love to report that at age 42 i have my act together enough to have appropriate attire for a somber occasion in the winter. but they were right, i needed shoes. and there were options a plenty.  my cousins got my back. they were there i suppose, when my Aunt Ruth told me i was dressed like a slut at my grandfather’s funeral. all because of my inappropriate shoes. 

An Irish wake in the heart of ‘ol coal country USA is a ritual to behold. This was my ninth in Carbondale. despite being spread about three different funeral homes; they all play out the same. It’s sad sad sad at first. when you walk in and all your people are there. like a wall taller than any wave at Maverick’s, the love swallows you up. and you cry. you embrace the way Grammy taught us, and you mean it. you give and receive love in a manner that permeates on the cellular level. we share cells. we share DNA. we share a long line of family patterning that runs deeper than any anthracite vein up or down the valley. there are bindings woven at all levels. the freckles on our skin, the flesh in our earlobes, the shape of our feet, the curl in our hair, the stoutness and strength in our physiques. the clever wit, the loyal friendships, the hearty laugh, the fondness of the drink (learning that it is not as fond of us). “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” Whitman, again.

the turnout was overwhelming. four non-stop hours of other human beings in the town of Carbondale to pay their respects. everyone came. the Doherty clan warmed up the back room in minutes when they sat in the chairs and shared laughs and tears with everyone. they stayed for a good warm while. they acknowledged and respected the sacred space. they just came to be. to be together. the meaning of what it means to “hold space” for others sharpened in clarity for me as i looked around and witnessed its powerful effect.

i have heard about the AOH (Ancient Order of Hibernians) for as long as i can remember, but i did not have a solid understanding of its impact and meaning. when the funeral home was hushed for their arrival, everything held a different weight. They made ritual proclamation, and marched in unison, the unified front of a small town squad. The man who spoke took obvious pride in labeling himself of the ‘Ancient Order’ and there was terrific solemnity. It was a powerful moment. I read years ago that affiliation to something outside one’s self is one of life’s greatest motivators. I was comforted by Frank’s deeply integrated affiliation, and the respect and honor they bestowed upon him and his family. 

The Catholic funeral mass is a sovereign ritual. Not to mention the transition from the funeral home to the church. the final goodbye from the families is one of the most gut wrenching and heart draining experiences i have endured. being a daughter of the eldest son, this was my fourth time being the last family called. it does not get easier. it is awful. yet if i were ever not there to participate in the process, i could not forgive myself. 

The readings, the petitions, the gospel, the homily, the hymns, the incense, the cleansing tears, the reality, the everlasting, the looks over our shoulders, the winks, the hand holding, the hug giving, the tissue sharing, the pews full of love love love. the bagpipes. the AOH lining the steps. i felt like royalty walking outside that church. Frank was revered, and they let it be known. i suppose they know what great comfort that offers a grieving family. being honored and saluted as your body leaves the church seemed like a sacrament onto itself.

Frank showed up. My kids know that. When we come to Matamoras, Pa’s Frank comes over. With Matt and with Barb. He brings jazzards and treats from Barbours. He always did his best to bring his good cheer. No matter the season, the week, the day, or how he woke up feeling that morning. He showed up. He packed his bags and drove to Virginia several times a year to simply be where the family action was. He never cancelled. He never said “it’s too much, I’m not in the mood.” Instead, he strapped Matt and Barb in the car and headed south, and took it as it came. He wanted to be where love is and he wanted to take Matty there too. 

We came together, as we have always done and will always do. We held each other close and tight as we began the transition to our new way of life without Frank dwelling inside the Burnett body that we all recognize in ourselves. The intensity of those first few days offer a sound buffer to the grief we all must work through on our own as we go our separate ways. Grief can only visit where great love exists. May we each find comfort and solace as we begin to sit alone with the uncomfortable emotions in the days ahead.

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five years on the frontier

Five years ago this week, i slammed the brakes in the middle of the driveway to gawk at two cranes chilling on the pond. I was in the Highlander with Birch and Lucy Goose and all the potted plants. I was the final load to be delivered to the Moose Willow (except for the wee peeps, they were having a sleepover in Lander). Cranes. I stayed staring in wonder at the cranes long enough to breath it all in. I knew when i crossed under that MW threshold, that my life’s trajectory was pointing sky high.

Although most folk wished us well and smiled and nodded about our grand adventure, plenty of others said we wouldn’t make it for long. we weren’t certain. we went in with hearts bursting wide open and zero expectation. we committed ourselves to two years. to the summer that i had planned to ride my bike from Canada to Mexico. what better way to train for that than to live on the edge of what’s habitable. with two toddlers. often alone.

my situation of full-time saturation of skwaks and screams and cries and whines and poop and snot and boogers and tantrums and laundry and 3 meals a day plus snacks and clean up from said meals and two sets of buttoning and zippering and sock pairing and sunscreening and teeth brushing and hat finding and mitten replacing and dog feeding and wife being, was going to be the same no matter where i positioned myself. i reckoned the view out the windows at the Moose Willow was as good as it could possible get at that stage in the game. more than once, i washed the dishes while staring dreamily at a moose chomping away at the willows outside the window. i put the wee peeps (who were screaming and duking it out behind me) on mute, and envied the moose mother who never had to concern herself with the grams of sugar per serving she was offering her offspring. in fact, she wasn’t feeding them at all. she just took them with her to where the food was. hmmmm….i already liked the lessons i was learning out here.

in addition to expanding our space triple-fold, the opportunity felt like manifest destiny to both DW and to me. i have forever been drawn to the idea of the frontier. in elementary school, i wrote book reports on Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Lewis and Clark. although i was always grateful to be born a female no sooner than i was, i also knew i would have crushed it as a woman on the frontier. DW fancies himself that way too. Maybe we were cut from the cloth of the same Conestoga Wagon… or trapper tent. when the opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer for both of us.

in five years, no two seasons have been alike. September is the best month, and mid-March, April, and May are the worst. Snow begins to wax by the end of October, except for when it doesn’t. It begins to wane about St. Patricks Day. When you sit in the hot tub in late March, you get dripped on by snow that froze on the roof in November.

June and July swarm with mosquitoes. August and September with flies. The summer sun sets on our deck two hours before it bids farewell to Happy Hour Hill. we often scoot up there to extend the day. We’ve rafted and tubed and walked our section of creek over and over again. The campsites across from us remain occupied from Memorial Day through Halloween. the summer months have been a whirlwind of wildflowers and weeds. of tent camping, camper trailer camping, and side porch camping. of star gazing and sunrise witnessing. of campfires and DareDevil Dips. of bike riding, all attached, and all by our own selves. of seed planting and garden harvesting…sort of. of mountain peak summiting and hot tub soaking. of alpine lake hiking and wild strawberry gathering and gobbling. of flower tending and hillside slip and sliding. summer comes and goes quicker than two shakes of a lamb’s tail. we clutch tightly to each and every tick and tock of the clock. i never (and i never say never) utter a single whimper of complaint about the heat of a High Country Wyoming summer. I worked outside in the summers in Low Country South Carolina. i know better.

Fall hands out perfect days like it just won the Jackpot at Mohegan Sun. It is easy to stay light and bright in the fall. everything seems in its prime. the bulls and the bucks have grown their antlers and shed their velvet. we scout the mountains and sit silently to listen for the mighty bugles. DW puts in his time each morning and night until his tags are full. Each season the homies have taken a step closer and closer to the experience of the hunt. This year, their fifth fall, they were with DW when he shot a mule deer. they were in it together. from spotting him, making the decision, getting closer, experiencing the shot, walking up to the deer, bringing it back to the truck, hanging it in the garage, gutting it, and butchering it. all of it. every other season they had seen the animals already skinned and quartered by the time they arrived at our place. they both (all three of the, really) revered the experience.

By the time we make our decorations for Thanksgiving, the traffic out here slows down and i am ready for the break of it. When the days shrink to their shortest, we are all alone out here for the next several months.

No question about it, winter is a force to be reckoned with up here at 8, 000ft. i love it in all the ways i dreamed when i wished on stars in my childhood that i could have a life like Heidi. i was desperate to live up high in the mountains, alone, above the village, where you had to sled and ski to get around in the winter and the snow gave way to meadows of wildflowers in the summer. i knew it would suit me the way i knew being a frontiers-chic would suit me.

the first couple of winters were particularly rough, when we were newbs and we already had our hands full with just life. neither of us operated a truck and plow before. DW had plenty of farm equipment experience growing up in Kansas and all…but me, zilch. well, except when i got to operate a couple of mini Holder tractors when i worked for Parks and Rec in Jackson. i used the sweeper brush to clear the pathways, and the snowblower to clear the broom ball rink. of course, i performed those duties in my county-issued Carhart costume. i was a real catch in my early 20’s. it didn’t matter if i never plowed before. DW was gone allthetime it seemed, i was in charge of keeping the road open. and i did. i kept showing up. even when the three of us had the stomach bug. i would pull over, open the door to throw up, chip the ice of the windshield wiper, and carry on. we didn’t even have a place to be. our first winter was pre pre-school! we did that just to keep the road open. i guess for the times i couldn’t go another day without my Jeopardy match with Frank. My only other business in town was my twice a week yoga class.

Christmases have been dreamy. There is always enough snow to coat the solstice to New’s Years time with a cold blanket of magic that melts you to your very core. We spend our Christmas Eves with Frank out here, and Christmas days with him in town. and one special Christmas we got to share with Nanny and Pa.

In the first few winters, it was an entire day’s event to ski out to Big Tree and back. It required setting up little puffy people on the floor of the living room. two sets of polypro tops and bottoms. two pairs warm socks. one dry diaper. two snow pants. two puffy coats. two pairs of mittens. two winter hats. two pairs of snow boots. two sets of snacks. two water bottles. two cups of chai. one pair of ski boots and skis. then i had to get myself ready. and get the Chariot ready and find all the blankets. then get them situated in the Chariot. then attach the waist belt and sprint as best i could up the first little hill in the driveway. from the end of the driveway to Big Tree was thigh deep snow every step, even with skis on. the Chariot would just scrape along dragging its belly through the snow. i trudged on and told myself with every step forward that it was worth it.

This winter, i was down to only helping with mittens, and often only with the second one. DW devised a mini groomer two winters ago that he pulls behind the side by side. He puts down a mighty fine track. The homies had their own packs packed with water and snacks and extra layers. after i helped them snap into their skis, they took off. it was rare for me to be in front of them, ever. all i get now is photos from behind. When Crit races to Big Tree, she is hard to beat. what once took all day, is now a warm up for a morning adventure. Hoping next year finds us skinning to the tops of hills and zooming down.

DW has flourished in the past five years. He runs himself ragged in the summers, hunts with a smile tucked under his beard all fall, travels heaps for work all winter and spring and adventures with us the rest of the time. He is legit when it comes to snow removal. Now he knows so many of the things we could not have know then. like where all the drifts accumulate. how to “push back the bankings” as the plow driver from Boston taught me through a viral video. he knows the difference that putting in windrows makes. he can take chains off and put them on lickety split. he learned to dig trenches in the driveway so that it is slightly less of a sloppy mess during the melt. he’s walked out the front door, hiked up the hill, and shot an elk. in fact, with the exception of a few turkeys, all of the game he has harvested in the past five years have been within five miles of our front door. he keeps constant and vigilant watch of the hillsides and ridges. several times a season, he proclaims “I love living here.”

Crit is precisely who she should be five years from who she was. She is growing right into herself everyday. She is curious and kind and clever. She clearly sparks in the natural world. She notices it all: the ice on the puddles and the design of the snowflake, the smell of the rotten duck egg, the flower from bud to bloom to seed, the chill of the creek, the warmth of the sunshine, the sound of the warring eagles and the raucous cranes. she slides up hills on skis and foot like she’s riding an escalator. she feathers her brakes and wedges her skis to control her descents. she does not want to be moving through space too quickly. she gains confidence every day, and still remains humble. her very existence validates my own. The emotional regulation that seemed galaxies away when we first got here, and she was a wee little lass of three, has come to be. she has tools and she uses them. she has strategies and she implements them. her imagination is vivid and complex and she is filled to the brim with good cheer and humor.

Debul has transformed leaps and bounds. He was in diapers when we got here at the edge of it all. He was not in the kind of hurry Crit was to develop through things. He’d rather hang out in a phase for a while and wear it completely until it has to be thrown away. These past five years have certainly plumed his feathers. His best place is outside. Several falls ago, we were camping outside of West Yellowstone. We were enjoying a lazy morning together at camp. Debul was sitting at the breakfast table. He was two years old, but not incredibly verbal yet. He raised his voice to garner all the attention of the tribe of us, and said, “blah biddyblah seepyblowblahdy y perinsidy goblittity”, then he slammed both hands down on the table. he sat back in his chair, interlaced his hands behind his back and said ” I lub dat. i weally weally lub dat.” none of us know to this day what is it that he lubbed…but i knew each of us were grateful to be there at that moment of declaration. Debul has extraordinary sense of spatial relationships and an uncanny way of combining color together. It seems like maybe it shouldn’t work – but somehow it does. He loves to dress up and wear costumes and pretend-play. If any motorized vehicle is getting its engine revved, Debul is at the door with his helmet on ready to ride. He can spot animals anywhere anytime and he rides his bicycle with the same grace that Crit skies. When something is difficult, he keeps trying. When there is a problem, he is a walking brainstorm of solutions.

DW and I put our forces together and created two human beings. it seems like one came from the right side of my brain, the other from my left.

I certainly feel like I’ve grown barrels and heaps myself since the day i greeted the cranes on the pond. the first year was the toughest. it was the pre pre-school era. just me and those Macaroni Piggies day in and out. i signed them up for swim lessons that first year. in Lander. close to two hours from our driveway to the parking lot. once a week for six winter weeks. it was my major triumph each week. the next winter i drove in to town to scoop Crit up from pre-k everyday. the winter after that, for seven weeks, i skied six miles to our truck, drove from there to town to teach yoga, scooped Debul up from pre-k at noon, ate lunch in the camper trailer parked at our old house, found a public restroom for him to poop in, and then scooped Crit up at 3:30. We could then all ride back the six miles of winter driveway together in the side by side. the winter after that, things got quieter for me.

i, too, have become adept with the tire chains. and i can plow a rooster tail like a boss. i spent a week alone with my wee peeps, stranded, after being swallowed up by the February storms of 2017. I’ve tackled my kids to the ground, and shielded them with myself as a moose trotted in panic right over us. i’ve listened to a pack of wolves howl in the nighttime darkness from the top of my skinny skis. i’ve climbed to the top of just about every hill and ridge you can see out any window. i’ve polar explored on skies in every direction. since moving here i learned to sew and started a t-shirt business. i rode my bike from Canada to home. i’ve had life coaching clients. i write. i paint. i ride my bike. i go to town to walk up hills and watch Jeopardy with Shank. and and i still make the meals and clean them up and wash, dry, and fold the laundry. i sweep, vacuum, and mop. i do toilets too.

The Macaroni Piggies turned into Howling Wolves turned into Jolly Rodgers turned into whatever it is were are coming on for this summer. We change our alter-ego identities as often as it seems fit. we love no-school Fridays and still have full on Salon Days. Wee peeps soak in a LUSH bubble bath, lay towels out on the floor, choose from a variety of oils, get nails trimmed and painted, and choose their style for homesteading haircuts. I know that i will be sad when those days end.

as remote and isolating as this experience has been, i have never been taken under by loneliness. each of those five years we have travelled east to share time and space with the ones we love. it is a necessary part of the success of our story here. in the past five years, when the going got tough, i could check out the calendar on the wall and remind myself that it whatever it was, was temporary. that we were flying east soon, or that someone was coming here. when our plane lands in EWR, AVP, BWI, IAD, CLT, RSW, AVL…i gulped up sips of the humid air. sharing time and space and hugs and laughs with our people makes me feel like i’m in our old Commodore 64 game, Threshold. at the end of every level, the mothership would come down and connect to the little ship. it filled its life force right up to the tippety top, seemingly without losing any of its own, then it flew off. i get saturated and filled to the brim with all the love i receive in our time there. to love and be loved. nothing else.

We have made this Horse Creek valley our own. If anyone asks our kids for directions out here, they will need a key to translate. We have Piggy Piggy Oink Oink trail, Moo Cow Point, Monkey Tunnel, Crabtree Lane, Touch the Sky Island, Back 40 Beach, Big Tree (maybe they could figure that one out), Lorax Lookout, Osprey Overlook, Wet Willy Hilly, Nettipot Pond, Happy Hour Hill, CP Junction, Eclipse Point, Drifter Flats…i’m certain i’m missing a few.

For five years, we have made this our home. Home on the ranch. Where the deer, and the antelope, and the elk, and the moose, and the black bears, and the grizzly bears, and the coyotes, and the wolves, and the mountain lions, and the picket pens, and the badgers, and the trout, and the eagles, and the four of us humans and our two mountain mutts, range.