It all started with a question.
In 1911, my great-grandmother Grace came as an 16-year-old orphan bride to a sod hut on the prairie of western South Dakota where my family still ranches. My mom spent summers on the ranch as a child and I’d grown up hearing stories about Great-Grandma Grace, of her life, and of Paul. My own memories of Grandma Grace are of the feel of the paper-thin skin on her hands.
In Mom’s stories, her grandmother, Grace, came alive as a young woman – one who worked hard every day of her life, made sure my mom got the first weekly bath in the tin tub with one inch of water on Saturday nights, so all would be clean for church on Sunday. The line-up for water began with my mom, then Grandma Grace, then my Uncle Jim, and finally, once the water was cold and had seen three bodies already, Paul bathed.
There are not many stories of kindnesses that happened on the ranch in my mother’s childhood. Almost all center around Paul, the ranch foreman. In the summers of my mother’s youth on the ranch, it was the four of them: Mom, Jim, Grace, and Paul.
Again and again I heard the stories – of what happened on Grace’s wedding day after she climbed into the buckboard with her new husband, and of Paul galloping his horse over the rise and toward the ranch house shouting something nobody could hear and all ran outside as he raced toward the ranch to finally make out the words, “Skunks! Skunks!” and see his smile. Paul made Grandma Grace and my mom and uncle smile and laugh in a world that held precious little of either.
One day years after first hearing these stories, Mom and I stood above the bed folding the mountain of clothes that came with my three young children, in the same ranch house where Grace and Paul had lived all those years. I had a sudden thought. “Mom, what about Grace and Paul?”
“I don’t know.” A slow smile spread across her face,”But, I’ve always wondered.”
I wrote a book to find out.
* * *
The stories I knew formed the cradle into which I started to place research and information gathered about the time and place of Grace’s life. I drove to every historical museum and bookstore I knew of and the piles of original journals, books written by pioneer women, stories and experiences of Lakota women, and cowboy journals grew on the shelves of my house, each filled with sticky notes and my own markings. Slowly, the stories I’d heard began to gain the context of history and place. I scribbled notes, stories, and observations about the landscape in notebooks. Through the seasons, the heat and storms of summer, cool bite of fall, the hoarfrost of winter, and capriciousness of spring on the plains, I walked the land and listened.
And then Grace’s story was interrupted by my own. My marriage ended and the intensity of the chapter of my own life took over. The books about the prairie and notebooks remained shoved onto shelves and closed for the next number of years. Until one day, Grace whispered from the past to begin to write her story again.
I had no idea that writing her story would save me.
* * *
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