family photos

My family together after Grandma Laura’s funeral. One of those few times we are all together and looking good all at the same time.

Me with four generation of Crane boys, and not one of them was tickling me.

a montana storyteller

You have heard the stories of The Little House on the Prairie. [Laughter.] This is real life – these are the true stories.

That is how our morning with Jewel began. My two great aunts had been discussing (and arguing) about their childhoods – had it been a hard or an easy life on the Lewis homestead? Jewel, an old classmate and collector of stories, was at grandma’s funeral, and they invited her over the next morning. The sisters planned to have Jewel settle the argument, but Jewel had her own plan, and I think storytellers generally get their own way.

Jewel has collected stories from people in town and has made themed story quilts to go along with them. Saturday morning she brought her “Homestead” quilt and shared its stories. Just a few were gathered around in the beginning, but before long she had drawn us all in. I wish I had a summer to record and transcribe Jewel telling stories – they truly capture life from a different time. Here are just two snippets from that morning (the first a comment about my grandma’s family, the second about another family in town).

There were two homesteads I wanted to be a part of – one was the Lewis homestead. They were so aristocratic. They held themselves just so when they walked and they always had custard pie. Not everyone had custard pie.

He won the farm in a poker game. After he and his wife moved out to the farm, she asked him what she could do to make his day better. He said, “You know those red high heels? If you could wear just those when you make my breakfast, I would be left with the best images in my mind while I worked all day.” Well, she knew how to negotiate, so she replied, “You know how the bacon splatters. If you make breakfast, I will sit at the table in nothing but those red high heels.”  And that is how their mornings went.

goodbye grandma

In a few hours, we will attend my Grandma Lauara’s celebration service, or funeral. Her body will not be there – viewings were yesterday and today she will be cremated – and her being or spirit is in heaven. Today we will celebrate her life.

This week has been filled with loud family gathering in my mom’s childhood home – including Grandma’s two older sisters who are still laughing, telling stories, and cracking jokes. Today will not be that different. The celebration will start at Grandma’s church, continue into the fellowship hall and then just move a few blocks away to her home. This is the way it works in small farm towns on the prairies. Someday maybe I’ll take a few moments to share some of the stories about the old days – when my great grandparents homesteaded out here. For today, I wanted to share with you a couple pictures (including when my Grandma was downright foxy) and what I will read at today’s service – these are my mom’s words and memories written after my Grandma died that I edited to share with everyone. I hope they make you smile.

HERE is a link to her obituary.

In the voice of my mother, Nancy Kay (Neil) Crane:

Laura Mae Lewis Neil, mom.

As I thought about what to say today, I remembered meeting one of mom’s high school friends who said she had never met a nicer person in all her life. Mom had so many good qualities, but she could also alienate many of those she was closest to by fixating on a something that was part true and part fabrication. That part of mom was not easy, but let’s lay that aside and look at mom’s beautiful qualities – qualities that made her someone that if I could be a quarter of what she was, I would be proud.

Mom was fun. Making tents as kids or playing army in the garden – it was all ok with Mom. Growing up we floated the river, we did whatever sounded good and she was right there, glad that we’d have fun. She enjoyed a good movie and even more a good laugh. My children remember Mom roasting marshmallows over a candle in the kitchen  – just because it was fun. Or telling Steve, “Go get some wood for the fireplace, these kids need to make S’mores. Her love of a good time and easy laugh was her personality that was well watered by growing up on the farm with the Bergers nearby.

And because mom loved fun, messes created didn’t bother her. As kids, Mom never complained about coming into a house in a disarray from our cooking or a sewing or building projects. There was never a selfish, “Oh, I was saving that” of any item we were using in a project. Instead she delighted in what we were doing and admired our cleverness. She loved to tell the story of Jake getting Hilda Sletten’s sugar cookie recipe when he was just 5 years old. He came home and made them up all on his own. After years of hearing that remarkable story I finally asked, “Did he clean it up too?” “Oh, no. But can you imagine that he got the recipe and made them entirely on his own!” Now isn’t that having your priorities right?! I want to be just like that!

Mom was inclusive; she would never leave someone out. She didn’t want anyone to feel on the outside. If we kids brought friends home from school, Mom didn’t mind. I think I had girlfriends over weekly in high school for parties and Mom never minded a bit. Extra people for dinner – not a problem. If we invited others to stay at her home, she welcomed them. She has even had several people stay with her long term.  Sometimes that got to be difficult but it seemed to wear on her much more slowly than it would have worn on me. One time I was home visiting and Mom was suggesting I invite my in-laws for dinner. I was angry at Mryt but Mom had suffered from her even more. Still she encouraged me to let go of it and have them over -she didn’t want them hurt by us not having them over. May we all be so inclusive.

Mom loved her family including all the photos and gifts they gave her. As soon as she received photos of her grandchildren (and great grandchildren), they were up on the wall framed that is if they weren’t on her table where she was looking at them. She spoke again and again of how she got such a chuckle out of her latest great-grandchild, Jack. She said that in his newborn photo, he just looked like he had an opinion about things, that he just came out looking like that. And that tickled her so. And her house is full of gifts from her kids and grandkids. There are the vases that Steve and Jake got her in the early 60’s right through to the Christmas nativities that were just too pretty to put away. Whether near or far, her family was her life.

And after her family, mom just loved people. She looked at each person’s character – not their past choices, but where they are today. She delighted in people who turned around and people who were living life well. She did’t fear people. She did not lock her doors, preferring people to be able to come in at any point rather than keep out a possible burglar. A stranger was a friend she just hadn’t met yet. Every time she flew the outrageous miles to visit us overseas, she’d get off the plane saying the time passed so quickly as she had just met the most interesting person.

Mom didn’t know how to complain.  She could empathize but not complain. We had car trouble a couple times. Once after 6 hours in the car, I was hot and the kids were tired. The car broke down and she pulled out the lawn chairs that she had bought for us that were in the trunk (you know those orange ones that rocked) and said with her laugh, “We can sit here and watch that beautiful sunset.” Another time we were driving in the Dead Sea valley which has a similar climate to Death Valley. Our SUV broke down and I was thinking how miserable it was. Mom, who all my life has repeated the Cut Bank mantra of, “I just can’t stand the heat,” said on that blistering hot day, “You know, it’s not really all that bad.” What an attitude!

Speaking of weather, it didn’t matter what tropical country we were living in, Mom , living back in Cut Bank, swore the temperatures were just about equivalent whether it was winter or summer. Two years ago we were looking for a retirement home in North Carolina and Mom accompanied me as the realtor took us around. Mom compared everything– homes, weather and countryside– to what she knew, Cut Bank. Several days into this search the realtor asked how long she had lived in this interesting place – Cut Bank. Mom started laughing and said, “Well, 80 years!” Really, she should have been hired by the Chamber of Commerce as she promoted Cut Bank to everyone!

She was tough as nails, never really paying much mind to a bad cut or pain. And though she was miserable with hay fever, she never complained. Instead, she’d grab a Kleenex and say it was nothing, feeling much more empathy for someone else she heard who was suffering with the same thing than she ever did for herself. Even with arthritis she weaned herself off of aspirin a number of years back because she didn’t want to be dependent on it, but never complained of the pain – she could bear it.

I’m thankful that she died quickly. She never wanted to move out of her home, or have her driving taken away from her. She was always mobile. Due to her kind neighbors who mowed her lawn, shoveled her snow, got things off the top shelves and checked on her, she could stay in her home. She was always busy with church. I should have realized just how bad off she was on Sunday when she said she didn’t go to church to set up for coffee hour. She and Bev Burrows have done coffee hour for years, and she did it for others. She wanted people to have some place to go after church, instead of heading home. She never complained that there weren’t people who would come to it but rather her concern was that someone might be heading home from church without first having the companionship.

I debated suggesting the meal following this funeral today at her home, but how could it be anywhere beside in the fellowship hall which she enjoyed so much, including decorating it every year for Christmas. The beauty of it pleased Mom – I told you she was fun. She was into candles, Christmas lights, things that sparkled and made people smile. There wasn’t a year that she didn’t put up a full sized Christmas tree. She just enjoyed looking at it so.

Today as we eat one last time in the fellowship hall in honor of mom, Laura, I hope we can all celebrate her life as we share memories and stories with one another. She would simply delight in this reunion.

19 hours

Time is such a beautiful and odd thing. As I write this I am sitting with at a bar in the Salt Lake City airport drinking a local amber. (Yes, I love the irony of drinking local brew in Mormon country.) When I land in Nashville in a few hours I will have 19 hours from touchdown to take off for Africa. 19 hours to do laundry, the final bits of packing, sleep, have a pile of meetings, set up some more electronics, recharge a few batteries, and get on the next flight. 19 hours in which I will get much accomplished, test the theories of multi-tasking, and hopefully enjoy one last soak in my tub while watching a tv show on the trusty mac.

The last five days were spent in Montana pulling up childhood memories. I spent two nights at a cabin my grandfather built in Essex, which is basically across the highway from Glacier National Park. He died of old age and strokes while I was in college, but the cabin remains. Grandpa has no time left, but the cabin remains not quite frozen in time. Walks in cool mountain air, huckleberries and raspberries on wild bushes, and the trains not far away crossing the Continental Divide.

Then two nights in Cut Bank, the small town where my mom grew up which appears as a cluster of homes and trees surrounded by endless wheat fields and dry prairie grass. At night here the constellations still grace the night sky; this state is not called Big Sky for nothing. Grandma still lives in the home my mom grew up in – the one where we made more s’mores in the backyard and pinned on superman capes that were really towels as kids. Grandma is old and wrinkly, but still grandma, and she is still holding onto life. My other Grandpa lives down the street from grandma and is starting to fall to Alzheimer’s. Stories are repeated more than normal and there is much amazement that clothes can come out of the dryer completely dry – if you know how to use it. Here time is regressing and moving forward all in one. Somehow it seems appropriate that in this town with insanely wide streets that few people reach the 25 mph speed limit.

Before long my 19 hours in Nashville will begin, and I am working on getting my brain up to speed as it seems to have been put in the cruise control mom now uses to not speed in Cut Bank. I am headed from no cell reception or email to a life dictated by my iphone. From slow time to fast forward – all just a plane ride away in this nation that we call the United States of America.