When I was in high school, I found an old sepia postcard in my grandfather’s envelope of special photographs that he kept separate from family albums and treasured for his own reasons. In this photograph from the 1910s, his older sisters Myrah and Lerah pose with a woman identified only as “the friend from town” whom my grandfather believed worked at a North Dakota telephone company. The three young women are wading near the grassy bank in the wide creek, which is pronounced “crick” in that part of the country.
Myrah and Lerah, farm girls who probably didn’t have many afternoons free to go wading, look a little surprised to find themselves standing barefoot next to each other in the water, holding up the skirts of their long dresses with both hands and giggling for the camera. Lerah, the youngest, beams playfully in her pretty white dress and hair bow, while Myrah, the older sister who already worked hard on the farm, grins sheepishly in her wide-collared calico dress.
But turning away from the sisters, the young woman from town is splashing through the water in a fancy white blouse, sleeves rolled to mid-arm, her long, full skirt held above the water. Her eyes are closed, her smile wide, and her head thrown back in laughter. She was a town girl who probably didn’t spend many days wading in a cool summer creek. Town girls’ lives were undoubtedly easier than those of farm girls but a chance for an afternoon outdoors with friends was probably a treat all the same.
I was so taken with this photograph as a teenager that I made my grandmother write “Give this to Kayann Short” on the back. After my grandparents’ deaths, my mother brought it back from North Dakota for me and it’s been an iconic image for me all these years.
In this photograph, women’s friendships form the meeting place of country and city. Against the backdrop of sky, creek, and prairie, the young women delight in each other’s company and in the chance to move without restriction, breathe fresh air, touch the earth with bare feet, and be surrounded by the vast prairie stretching beyond them. The photograph even captures the fine detail of long grass as it bends in the breeze, a sepia whisper behind the women’s laughter.
I yearned for this place myself growing up, yet with which of the women I felt a kinship was unclear, despite my bloodlines. I was the town girl delighting in the country, her fancy clothes no longer a hindrance as she wades in the creek but an embellishment to the prairie behind her. She had come from the city to visit my great-aunts on their farm outside of town and found herself on the edge of cultivated space. When she returned to sidewalks and streets, she would remember the coolness of the creek bottom. There’s just more outside to life on a farm than “in town,” as my grandparents would say. But looking at that picture, I always hoped my life could include both.