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Back to Harlan

Harlan. Who’s Harlan?

I’m looking at a small, black and white photograph of children on the steps of a white house, circa mid-1920s, judging by the age of my grandfather, Russell Short, who’s one of the older children in the picture. Someone—probably my grandmother–has written “Daddy” on the front of the photo, but I’d recognize him anywhere. He’s 12 or 14, maybe 16, in this picture, wearing overalls and a beanie on top of his head. He’s smiling a little, squinting a bit in the sun, looking like he’s willing to indulge the photo session for a while.


The other two children marked on the photograph are “Bea” and “Harlan.” Little Bea’s got a big bow in her hair; Harlan’s in overalls looking like someone told him to smile. They’re younger than Grandpa and I don’t recognize their names as relatives, but since Grandma clearly meant to mark them on this photograph, I pay more attention to two other small photos, taken at the same time, judging by the children’s outfits. (Photos from those days are often found in groups since they were taken when someone had a camera available, which was a rarer occurrence than it is now.)

One photograph includes the same group of kids, except for two differences. Grandpa is missing and a young woman–possibly a teacher or parent—joins the photo instead. Grandpa must have taken this one and the woman taken the first. I find Bea and Harlan squeezed between the other children, Harlan now wearing a newsboy cap perched on top of the long bangs covering his forehead.


The third photo is marked “Harlan + Daddy” at the bottom, leaving off the name of a third boy from the other photos who must not have been a relative. Harlan and Grandpa are on their horses in this one, Harlan barely big enough to ride.


Grandpa looks steady on his horse; I know he grew up with horses because his parents, Noah and Mable Short, ran a dairy farm and delivered milk with a horse-drawn wagon. I have another photo of Grandpa’s older brothers on horses at their dairy farm. On the back, it says, “Noah liked horses”–and beautiful horses they were.



Back to Harlan. He’s cute, the way he smiles dubiously at the photographer, his hands in his overall pockets. He looks five or six years younger than Grandpa but the fact they’re riding together makes me think they were close. I file Harlan’s name away in my memory in case I come across something else in the box of old letters and photographs my dad inherited from his parents and recently let me take home to organize.

Several days later, I come across a list of addresses in my Grandma Short’s handwriting. Marked 1978 at the top, it must have been a Christmas card list. My parents are at the top, then my aunt and uncle, followed by my grandmother’s many sisters and brother. Then comes my name, with my first husband’s, a sudden reminder of a previous life. I keep reading and recognize more relatives from their last names, if not their first.

Near the bottom of the page, I find Harlan again, this time with his last name: Amor. He’s living in Montana in 1978. I’ve now got two big clues that might help me find out more about him. “Amor” was my great-grandma Mabel’s maiden name, so I know on which side of Grandpa’s family to look for him. “Montana” will help with census records for 1978, at least. I already know Harlan’s in North Dakota as a child because that’s where Grandpa was born and raised. With this information in hand, it’s time to turn to ancestry.com.

I joined ancestry.com at the beginning of the year when I was searching for my Grandma Short’s Norwegian roots. From my genealogical mentor, I’ve learned a few tips about using ancestry’s databases. I know to be as specific as possible but to also remain open to other possibilities because the names and dates found in early records or family trees are often incorrect.

I don’t have a lot of time for my first search, so I plug in what I know. I’ve already made a guess about who Harlan’s parents are: my great-grandma Mabel’s brother Walter and his wife Florence, whose last name I don’t know yet. I do know that Mabel and her brother lived with their father in Indiana after he was divorced from their mother. I also know that Mabel’s father and brother followed her and Noah to North Dakota after she was married. I also know that Walter was married to Florence in 1915. (My mentor and I are working to fill out the Amor family tree and to figure out where Mabel and Walter’s missing mother went after their parents’ divorce, a separate mystery that might take some time to solve.)

One important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor is that you often have to come around to the information you want from another angle. That means you might find someone by first finding a family member. As I type in Harlan’s name and locations, I wonder what finding Harlan might help me learn about the Amor side of the family, but I also know that I might have to reach out in the family tree in the hope of getting back to Harlan.

The first entry I find is the 1940 census for Harlan, his wife Esther, and two children in the same North Dakota county where he’d grown up. I learn his estimated birth year (and curse the 1940 census for not including birth month like earlier censuses had) and his occupation. Not a bad start. I take a screen shot and label it with his name, census date, and location.

Then I use one of the tips I’ve learned from my mentor. Rather than go back to the first list that may contain irrelevant information, I check the sidebar on the same page. Here I find other records listed for my Harlan specifically, including a social security death index. This includes both his birth and death dates, which might be helpful in a further search. You can think about the original search as casting a wide net to find the right catch and the sidebar as using a hook and line to reel in more just like it. I decide it’s time to start documenting the facts I’m learning by copying and pasting them into a blank document.

Still working on the links to the side of the 1940 federal census, I click on a North Dakota territorial census. I want to get the earliest chronological information about Harlan first for two reasons: I want to trace this little boy growing up and I want to find out for sure who his parents are.

The first North Dakota census I find is for 1925. Here’s my first surprise: Harlan and Beatrice are 9 and 8, but they’re not living with Amors. Instead, they’re living in a nearby township with a family named Page, a name I don’t recognize. Are Beatrice and Harlan orphans? Where are their parents? And who are the Pages?

My next find is a helpful one: Harlan and Esther’s 1936 marriage certificate. Now I find out for certain that his parents were Walter and Florence Amor, my great-grandma Mabel’s brother and his wife. I say “were” because “is” is crossed out for Walter; Florence would have been a “was” anyway since it asks for her maiden name—one of the many sexist recording conventions of the time. The other important piece of information is Florence’s maiden name: Page. Now the Page family makes sense—they’re related to Florence. Further, if the “was” is correct, Walter may not be living in 1936.

I find a couple more records before I quit for the day: another 1925 North Dakota census and the 1930 federal census. Both contain more mysteries. This second 1925 census shows Harlan and Beatrice living with a person named “Estes Paige,” probably a misspelling of “Page,” in the town that’s the county seat. This means the children are doubly listed for 1925 with two different parts of the Page family. Why both households? Did they move back and forth between them for school or for some other reason? The 1930 census presents even more of a mystery. Here they’re listed as the wards of Oscar and Esther Booke back in the same township where the children lived when they were little.

An hour’s work on ancestry has yielded some information and more questions. Thinking about what might have happened to Harlan and Beatrice’s parents, I realize that the children were orphaned or abandoned sometime between 1917, when Beatrice is born, and 1925, when they live with the Pages. Could Walter and Florence have both died of the Spanish influenza that swept the country in 1918, especially taking the lives of young adults Walter and Florence’s age?

It’s a couple days before I can get back on ancestry.com with some new ideas. Remembering my mentor’s advice about looking for someone from the side, I start with the Pages, George and Nora, because I’m certain they’re Florence’s parents—and I’m right. There they are in the 1920 census, one I hadn’t had time to search before—and guess who’s living with them? Harlan, age 4 and a half; Beatrice, almost three; three Page children; AND Walter, their widowed son-in-law, age 35. There goes my double-influenza theory. Next I realize that Harlan hadn’t shown up in the 1920 census because he, his sister, and his father are recorded as “Asnor.” If I hadn’t looked for the Pages, I wouldn’t have found Harlan in 1920. I’ve run across this mistranscribed name problem before with “Amor” showing up as “Amos,” and my mentor has found them as “Heymour,” but “Asnor” is a new one.

Another quick search proves that Esther Booke was Florence’s sister, Esther Page, with “Estes Paige” a misspelling of her name in the 1930 census. I’m relieved to find that Harlan and Beatrice were still living with family. Looking back at the photographs, I’m not sure whether they had lost their mother and possibly father by the time the pictures were taken, but if they had, the pair certainly look cared for, with people around them. It’s even possible the other children might be Pages, cousins on their mother’s side.

Since that search, I’ve found more records for Walter and Florence, including his WWI draft card in 1918. Florence was still alive then because her name is also on the document. But I haven’t yet found Walter past 1920 when he and the children were living with his in-laws. Various “Walter Amos-es” show up in census records in different states. I’ll keep looking. I might even find a death record for Florence, who may have died of the flu or of any number of problems that plagued young mothers back then.

I do know that Harlan married, had two children, and lived to age 80. I like to think he had a happy life, that small boy in cap and overalls on a big horse next to his cousin, my grandfather, seven years between them. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure he looked out for Harlan, a little boy who lost his parents along the way but still had family to ride along beside him.

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

Grandpa Short with a younger brother


Filed under memoir

Horse Barn, Milk Barn

I never saw a horse in the horse barn, but harnesses hung on the weathered walls and hay still covered the loft floor. My grandparents didn’t like us climbing up there because we might fall through the slots in the planks where years ago the hay was pushed down into the mangers below for the horses to eat.  But sometimes we’d sneak up the steep stairway along the barn’s thick, wooden wall, our feet fitting the hollows grooved into each step from years of burdened climbs. At the top of the steps, we’d peek into the dark vault of the gabled roof, smell the stale hay, and wonder what treasures lay hidden in the loft’s dusty depth, abandoned when the horses were no longer needed for farming and now long forgotten.

According to my mother, the family historian, the horse barn and other buildings had been moved to the Smith farm when my great-grandmother Flora’s sister Edith—who was a Crum, as they used to say after a woman married—left her nearby homestead to go “out West” with her family. “Out West” was another colloquialism I heard growing up, usually referring to the two states most west of North Dakota—Idaho and Washington—Montana lying geographically in the right direction but not far enough away to constitute the “out” part.

My great-grandparents farmed with horses in the days before combustion tractors, so a horse barn was a valuable building, providing shelter not only for the horses, but for their feed. Hay could be brought to the barn by wagons after it was cut in the fields and then hoisted by pulley to a door at the top of the barn loft and stored there through the winter. But after tractors replaced horses, the barn stood empty, inhabited only by the farm cats, who would have their kittens in the soft hay. Then my grandmother would take us up in the loft to find the newborns before they’d even opened their eyes.

On our summer visits, one of our chores was feeding the cats in an old bowl outside the horse barn. After each meal, Grandma Smith would scrape the plates and pans for leftovers—skin, bones, crust—into a clean ice cream container from our Uncle’s creamery, adding a little milk on top for the mother cat. My sisters and brother and I would take the scraps out to the barnyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a cat, but they were wild, having found their way to the farm on their own or having been abandoned by the side of the highway on which my grandparents lived, their city owners hoping that this farm would provide a more convenient home. My grandparents fed the lost cats and even gave them their shots if they could catch them. In return, the cats would keep the farm buildings free of mice.

The Smith Farm in later years. The horse barn is farthest right; the milk barn-turned-garage with white doors is directly to its left

Across the barnyard from the horse barn stood a gambrel-roofed milk barn, but my mother’s parents quit milking cows before I was born, so that barn was cut down in later years to make a new garage for my grandparents’ car. Even though baby pictures show me and my mom in the farmyard with the milk barn towering in the background, I don’t remember it.

Milk Barn on the Smith farm

But I do remember the milk barn at the Short farm. It didn’t have a high loft like the other farm’s barns but was a lower-roofed building into which the cows plodded from the pasture every evening. As children, we didn’t understand how the cows knew when to come to the barn, lining up in their stalls to be milked by my grandfather. We didn’t know how cows worked, how their udders would fill with milk after pasturing all day, but we could watch my grandpa squirt the milk, creamy and white, into the stainless steel buckets, keeping an eye out for a stray hoof as the cows switched their tails and waited patiently for my grandfather to finish. That cream would be separated from the milk in a round-topped machine on the back porch of the farmhouse and taken to the creamery in town once a week for pasteurization and sale.  We children never drank that fresh milk because my parents were afraid we’d get sick from stray bacteria. Now some nutritionists say we’re all less healthy than when we lived on farms because proximity to animals strengthened our immune systems. 

Playing with Poochie in the Short milk barn as cousin Debbie watches from the doorway

In later years, after Grandpa Short gave up raising cows, the milk barn slowly leaned inward and collapsed, as if swallowing itself. The barns on the Smith farm were torn down after my grandparents’ death when the land was sold to a neighbor who would farm it along with his own hundreds of acres of wheat.

Until I was older, I didn’t realize that barns were special because they symbolized a part of my family’s farming history that was being lost on a national level as well. Barns once stood at the center of our farmyards and our food system, but as this country has turned away from its rural roots, barns have become an endangered species. Once families depended on them to house the animals and store the food required for survival, but as agriculture became first mechanized and then industrialized, barns like those on my grandparents’ farms no longer held what was needed to live.

The Short farm with the milk barn to the far left; even then it was starting to shrink

Our own barn at Stonebridge is a part of that rural history, but it’s not the same as those old barns were to me. Our barn was saved because it continued to fit the needs of small-scale farmers on a farm that was preserved by our forward-thinking predecessors. We’re lucky to have our original barn, but it lacks the mystery of my childhood barns. Those barns were imposing, larger than the life that had been lived in them because, even when I was a child, that life was fading away.

Built for a kind of farming that died out with my grandparents’ generation, the horse barn and the milk barn could not outlive their use. Nor could I imagine that one day, like the farms themselves, they would be lost and my childhood summers left behind. So I conjure them here in words that can only tell my part of their story. Preserved in memory and old photographs, those barns still stand against the prairie as hay turns to dust, boards sink, nails loosen their hold, and rusty chains drop coiled to the floor.

My dad in front of my mom's horse barn in 1960, a year after I was born

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Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Giving a Horse

Growing up, I was a bit of a horse girl. I was one of those girls who cried over Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. My favorite book in first grade was Brighty of the Grand Canyon, about a sweet little burro, which was close enough to a horse for me. Around fifth grade or so I received The Girl Scout Book of Horse Stories as a gift, stories combining Girl Scout resourcefulness and courage with the wild independence of horses. Like horses, Girl Scouts have a mind of their own.

I collected Breyer toy horses too and but I never had as many as my older cousin did. She had a whole cabinet for hers while mine fit on a shelf. I didn’t have any of the showy appaloosas or pintos or paints like hers; instead, my horses were classic breeds, making up in elegance what they lacked in variety: the white Arabians, the golden Palominos, and the dark brown Thoroughbreds. I collected my horses in families of mother, father, and foal, with a cousin pony sometimes keeping them company. I still have those horses.

I love the beauty of horses but not so much riding them. They’re alarmingly large to me and unpredictable. I’ve been on a horse a dozen times and always just manage to ride comfortably enough, the horse paying less attention to who’s on their back than to finding dinner back at the stable.  I may not be a rider, but I’m always thrilled to come upon a herd of multi-hued horses pasturing in the foothills along my drive to town.

And I’m still happy to chance upon a good horse story, like The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a novel of an unusual young woman, Martha Lessen, who “gentles” horses for a living. Inspired by the oral history of a “rancher’s daughter” whose words introduce the story, the novel is set during WWI in eastern Oregon and the plot device—she travels a circuit of several ranches to train each family’s horses—allows Gloss to examine the rural situations and prejudices of the times. I’m not sure what interested me more—young Martha’s avoidance of gender restrictions with her “man’s trousers” and self-reliant ways or Gloss’s descriptions of the horses Martha handles. Despite her bashfulness, Martha never shies away from doing what’s right, whether it’s rescuing a horse from a foreman’s whip or helping a family in need.

Gloss’s authorial point of view is particularly adept at capturing the innermost thoughts of characters so that by the end of the novel, we’ve intimately experienced the sensibilities found in the rural West of the time. I didn’t want the novel to end, but it did, beautifully.  Leaving Martha as a young woman, newly married to a man who can love a woman who “doesn’t want to stay in the house like women usually do,” the novel flashes forward to an older Martha at a time far removed from the West of her young adulthood: “She said to her granddaughter, without planning to say it, ‘You know, honey, I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves.’ It was a startling thing to hear herself say, but then she thought: Here I am in my old age and just at the beginning of figuring out what it that means, or what to do about it.”

I have that feeling myself; even though I’m not yet facing old age, I am trying to figure out at fifty what to do with the next part of my life. As a young girl dreaming of horses, this jumping off feeling was breathless with possibilities of what I might be when I grew up. Now that I’m grown, I’m more cautious about the choices I may make, or more certain of the criteria they must fulfill. Still, at any age, we must choose how far we’ll go without knowing exactly where we’re going. Do we give the horse we’re riding its head or hold the reins even tighter?


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing

The Same Moments

May 18, 2010

We’ve had a remarkably cold spring, remarkable in the sense that we’re all remarking on it. Yesterday morning was the first sunshine we’d seen in a while and we weren’t sure what to make of all that dazzle. Wearing only a t-shirt, I weeded the raised herb bed under a wide blue sky with Mt Meeker to the west sheathed in more snow than I’ve ever seen in May. Today, though, is cool and cloudy again and I’m missing the sunshine already. I’ll have to wear a sweater to transplant lavender and I’m not feeling as eager to rush outside as I did in yesterday’s warmth. Weather-wise, I can’t quite seem to get where I want to be. 

In thinking about my life at 50, I’m trying to find a word that starts with “ambi,” meaning “both,” because I often feel like I’m experiencing conflicting situations or emotions at the same time. “Ambivalent” isn’t the right word because that implies that I don’t have strong feelings one way or another, which certainly isn’t true. Quite the opposite in fact. Same for “ambiguous”; although sometimes things do seem a bit unclear, I feel more of a “both/and” than “either/or.” “Ambidextrous” is the closest since my life suddenly seems to require using both hands to juggle all I’m trying to keep in the air at once, but that word seems too breezy or too skillful for the way I’m feeling now.

 Maybe I need to coin a new word: ambipathy. Just as “antipathy” means feelings against something and “sympathy” means feelings with something, “ambipathy” can mean feeling both good and bad about something at the same time—and that’s how I often feel about my life. The things that bring me great joy can also bring excruciating pain.

But poet Joy Harjo says it better than I ever could in her poem “She Had Some Horses.” Here Harjo writes of horses possessed by an unnamed “she”:

She had horses who were bodies of sand.

She had horses who were maps drawn of blood.

Some of Harjo’s horses are beautiful and wise; others are devastated and dangerous. But the poem turns on the convergence of these horses in the last three lines:

She had some horses she loved.

She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

 Sometimes when I wake—especially the mornings just before sunrise when it’s too early to get up but too late to go back to sleep—I don’t know whether to welcome or dread the day before me. After years of following the same path, I’m branching out, developing new opportunities, stretching my skills in seemingly satisfying ways. Yet that work is hard, even exhausting, and I often wonder whether it’s worth it.

Working with others at 50 is difficult too. I seem determined to push back more now than I ever did when I disagree or find myself confronted with rude or hurtful behavior born of others’ self-absorption or distraction. I’m just plain angry at the carelessness around me, from the negligent clerks who can’t get off their cellphones to count back my change to the greed fueling BP and Haliburton’s oil spill in the Gulf. I get frustrated by those closest to me too and I can be hard on them—and on myself.

But then the sun shines and the sky arches over my head as I transplant tiny herbs into finally warming soil and dig out grass, dandelions, and bindweed. On a ten-acre farm, there’s something satisfying about spring cleaning a 4 x 10 bed, knowing that with an honest first effort, the weeds won’t completely take over and the plants will make a good show.

Maybe ambipathy is what 50 is all about: life is very, very good, even amongst what’s very, very bad. We don’t get to choose one over the other but rather live in moments of inherent contradiction between love and hate, joy and suffering, because these

are the same


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Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing