Jenny and I arriving for the Ibla International Music Festival in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily. Here for ten days listening to musicians of all ages from around the world. And also we are exploring the Val di Noto World Heritage Site of south eastern Sicily.
On the Svenvold farm
After 19 years together, my husband took me to his father’s childhood home on a farm outside of Glendive, Montana and I met more Svenvolds than I knew existed—cousins and second cousins and cousins once and twice removed. I’m rich with in-laws I didn’t know I had. Their grandfather, Rasmus, came from Norway at the end of the 19th century. He bought a cattle brand at auction to discover there were some 2000 cattle. In 1909, to take advantage of the Homestead Act he sold the cattle brand and became a rich man. He didn’t need to farm, so he didn’t. A gentleman farmer was he. With his cash, he built a state of the art farm house with electricity and running water, married a Norwegian girl from an adjacent farm. Her name was Sandra Waag and she came from Norway to take care of her brother, Ingvald.
The remains of Ingvald’s homestead
Sandra and Rasmus had four boys. My husband’s father, Harold, was one of those boys. Some years later, quite ill, a traveling preacher swindled Rasmus for everything but the farm. Rasmus and his sons never went to church again. His youngest son, Raleigh, started farming the land to make ends meet, planting high protein wheat as his other brothers went off to pursue their own lives and dreams. Raleigh and his wife had six children, five boys and a girl. All of those children were in Glendive this July to celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday.
Some of the Svenvold men
As it happened, my grandmother came to Glendive when she was 6 years old, in 1910. She came with her little sister and my great grandmother, Glenna.
Glenna was fleeing her husband who had, as my grandmother liked to tell me, “a wandering eye for women.” In Montana, she became an itinerant school teacher, traveling wherever need led. There was a lot of need. Rural one room school houses dotted the landscape and school teachers lasted only briefly. Glenna got schools up and running and then moved on to the next hardship post.
Upper Seven Mile School
What remains inside the Upper Seven Mile School
She left her young daughters in town to fend for themselves. The landscape hasn’t much changed since Rasmus and Glenna were alive — ravines and gullies, mesas like towers all draped in green. The Svenvold farm is on a table that sits high above the carved land, over fifteen square miles of wheat and cattle, spreading out like an ocean—one gorgeous farm house, 100 years old, in the middle of it all in which my husband’s father was raised. I never knew him. He died before I met his son. Surrounded by Svenvold men, the highest concentration of them I have ever or ever will encounter, welcoming and warm and loving, I felt I met Mark’s Dad. I feel I know him now. Out there in the midst of all this it occurred to both my husband and me how once long ago in 1910 we were both there in our grandparents. Our daughter said to us, “I have an idea. Write a novel in which Rasmus and Glenna meet. It could have happened that way. They meet, you know,” and she winked.
CARROLL AND SONS450 HARRISON AVENUE, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS 02118PHONE: 617-482-2477 FACSIMILE: 617-482-2549
Carroll and Sons is pleased to announce the opening reception of:
Laura McPhee – Something About LoveAn exhibition of new photographsSeptember 9 – October 29, 2011Reception: Friday September 9, 5:30 – 7:30
There’s a bull in this picture. Can you see it?
One bull for about 25 cows. The bull here is just left of center, the biggest beast in the picture. His job happens in the summer months. He can tell a cow is fertile by smelling her pee, literally putting his nose to her. In November the vet comes to do pregnancy checks. If a cow isn’t pregnant she’s sent off to McDonald’s. Ranchers do not eat veal and a child on a ranch learns everything she needs to know about the birds and the bees by the time she’s five or six.
Livia Svenvold McPhee on the Svenvold cattle ranch in Bloomfield outside of Glendive, Montana. Summer 2011.
(If you want to understand more about the violent weather the rips across the south, read Big Weather. Written by Mark Svenvold, poet, nonfiction writer, my husband.)
MOMENTS OF BEING
About once a week a stranger visits my site by googling “girls in patent leather boots.” I don’t want to know what he is hoping to find, but on his quest he stumbles upon my sister and me. As far as as I can remember I have never written a post about or used the term “patent leather boots.” So be it. Now I am. As a little girl I wanted white patent leather boots so badly I wrote it on my Christmas list for three years in a row. (My parents searched and searched, but could not find them in a child’s size.) Jenny had black patent leather boots, therefore I wanted white — the same but different, maybe even better. In this picture, I’m wearing white knee socks. From a distance, I hoped, they looked like leather. We’re standing on the wing of my mother’s divorce lawyer’s airplane. His name was Henry Hill and he used to fly over our house upside down just for fun. “Oh there’s Henry,” Mom would say, rushing out to the deck, looking up at the sky. And there he was, swooping all around, flirting with my mother even though both were involved with others. The plane would disappear, but before long he’d show up with a girl on his arm for a dip in the steamy indoor swimming pool, the water so hot it wrinkled your skin, underwater speakers playing Neil Young and Bob Dylan — the little kids (there were ten of us in all) told to stay out because it was “adult time” in the pool. In the summers, Henry would fly us up to Maine to dig clams for an afternoon. Here, in the picture, we’re near Prout’s Neck. I have no idea what we’re staring at, but I love our contrasting expressions: Jenny is a little skeptical, mouth pinched closed, hoping, though, to be disproven; I’m a little in awe, a bit afraid. I can feel the cool salt air, smell it mixed with pine. We don’t have pierced ears yet and last year’s dresses are more fashionable now because we’ve grown taller. Our mother has tied bows at the end of our braids. I’m clutching Juicy Fruit. Even so, with those boots and the desire for another pair, the adventures having already begun, jetting around with a divorce lawyer, we’re reaching forward toward the adult world.
And here we are. Almost 40 years have passed. The divorce lawyer has died. Jenny has stopped getting older. (Her birthdays ended when she turned 37. It’s a neat trick.) Skeptical, hopeful, in awe, a little bit afraid, many adventures, Jenny still by my side.
Wildhorse Creek, Idaho
Bob Griswold, handsomest cowboy in the Sawtooth’s, cut a willow branch with a knife, tied on some line and a hook, placed a bright red salmon egg on the end of the hook and let Livia drop it in Wildhorse Creek, in a pool close to the bank. She pulled out three trout. Bob made a campfire and set up a cast iron pan at the edge of it, on some rocks. Livia, bitten, went back with her willow switch rod to catch another and she did, immediately. Alone, she wasn’t sure what to do with the fish as it flopped about on the bank. Another friend, Matt, showed her what to do, and then gave a lesson in gutting the fish. Livia cleaned her own. Others caught a river char, and Leandro McPhee, on his tenth birthday, caught the longest trout of all. On a sunny bank of a creek in a valley of the Sawtooth’s, we ate butter fried fish with lemon. I thought of my grandmother 100 years ago, a six year old, in Montana, in the wilderness, fishing with nothing more than a switch, catching dinner for her mother and little sister — in what was then, for them, with no money and little food, something of a necessity.
Jenny’s fantastic new website