Two grandkids playing. Letters to Montana Blog by Nancy Kay Brown.

Letters to Montana

When my son and his wife moved with my two-year old grandson, Ryan to Montana, she was pregnant. They left their cabin next door to my place and they left free rent, childcare, a job at the college and they left me. Because since he was born, I’d watched over him, saved him from foster placement and one time even kidnapped him. Yes. After Ryan’s birth a social worker told his mother that she wasn’t allowed to hold him because she was taking some prescription drugs that made her woozy and unreliable.  All my son could manage was making it to work each day, so I stepped in. They needed me. I took he and his mother to doctor’s appointments, enrolled her in classes at the college where I taught child development and every day looked in on the baby. Then they took him away. I worried, paced, scratched and picked myself raw, then one day I spun to a stop and wrote him a letter. I imagined him walking with me to the barn, retrieving the mail a half-mile up the road, and began to speak to him through letters posted in my blog. I hope you enjoy peeking in at “Letters to Montana”  stories, lessons, rants and grief and some other posts about writing, creativity and the natural world.

P.S. When Ryan and his family returned with their baby, Liza, they moved into a tent until they could find a place to rent. Follow their story re-told in Fallen From the Nest my nearly completed memoir. Get the inside scoop on what happened and how we transformed our lives and became a Grandfamily.


Recent Posts

  • A beautiful poem  // June 3, 2019
    by Kim Stafford
    Sent by a loving friend. Added here to treasure, https://vimeo.com/237394753 so I can listen again and again. 
  • The Crow // May 30, 2019

    tilt shift photography of birds
    Crow nest hidden in forest

    There he is again, on the same place in the road that runs through the forest. That crow, feet stepping in place, wings jerking open and closed, picking at an imaginary acorn, a speck in the road grasping then dropping it. Is it a small piece of gravel falling from its beak? He’s wooing passers by (human or other animals) with a treasure, “ Look here. Feast your eyes on this.” For the last two weeks he’s there displaying one tiny object or another, looking in my car window as I watch him. He directs my attention to a spot on the ground or, rather redirects my attention away from something else. He pretends, faking his own interest in an imaginary object, an actor on the asphalt stage. Because he’s there, pecking at nothing, I wonder, what he’s hiding. Where his nest is located. Is his mate sitting on eggs in the oaks there above the road? But, I won’t stop to investigate. I’ll allow him his bait and switch, let it succeed. I drive off every time, as if I fallen for his ruse. I don’t like to eat crow. Okay. Sorry.

    Something about that crow resonates. We all pretend. Smile to mask a rough patch, spoke over a friend in class who is about to tell the teacher about a schoolyard misdeed, push a cool washcloth over a hot forehead and get a child to guzzle a cold drink on the way to preschool. A fever? Not today, please, I have an important client. Sometimes pretending covers for what’s real, lies close to an untruth. Is one. BUT, Sometimes pretending masks not yet knowing, covering for ignorance.

    As a writer of a true story, my own true story, a story only as true as I reveal, I sometimes mask the truth. I divert the reader, either intentionally or because I may not yet fully understand the truth of a scene myself. Writing and revising, even after several drafts, continues to include diversions, doubts, hidden information, hesitancy and more discovery. Some of these are part of the character’s arc, as the character develops, scene by scene. She grows, transforms, behaves with new insight. But some places in my piece, in my manuscript, unable to hear my own story or read my own heart, I resort to self-deprecation when I, as the writer, am as befuddled as the character was at the time. Impatient with my own incapability. The writer must become wiser than the protagonist in a memoir. The writer of a novel must hold the wisdom of the story and characters, too. Discoveries are part of both. We must understand human nature, motivation, misbehavior and character innuendo and behaviors to demonstrate a character’s flaws, our own flaws. We write our own story as if we are not yet wiser and share a journey to gain some kernels of wisdom. We best offer ourselves compassion, tenderness and appreciation as we hold our own hand through the hard parts of a story. Love ourselves and let the reader in on that love. It is hard for me forgive myself and work my way through some of the hard places.

    My Beta Readers, a few selected people who agreed to read this draft and offer feedback on the current version of my story, Fallen From the Nest, 25 chapters 350 pages, have been invaluable in nudging me to consider a few shared issues. Among them was that I lessen the incidences of self-deprecation, leaving self doubt as a motivator for discovery, when overwhelmed and confused, but to love for this struggling grandmother as she settles into her role with her grandchildren and her troubling son. Tell the story with more self-kindness and generosity, love her more. How can I be compassionate with myself when I made so many mistakes? Bad choices? One thing I know is that I’d  be kinder to others in this situation, more generous and understanding. This is where I begin the next revision, wrapped in tenderness for that old me as  a friend. Back I go into the weeds of words and ideas I planted on my own, scythe in one hand and a soft pillow and shawl in the other, a pot of tea for our journey.

    Shall I enjoy myself, with laughter, puns, jokes and silliness? Might that help the reader want to spend time with me, like me more, enjoy hanging out? I’ll have to tease the reader, a little bait and switch on the crow’s road, the same one where my story begins. How can I make the reader care for a woman who kidnaps her grandson? To protect her son from losing another child or to protect her own professional reputation. It was never about my reputation. My beak plucks a tiny stone from the road, tells you its delicious, to try some as I sneak back home to revisit myself and write what I discover.

    Send love and understanding my way as I dig a little deeper, tease out a thread of tenderness and weave it in and around softening, opening my heart throughout the manuscript. Nancy

    black bird
    Crow on the road

    nancy

  • The Balm of Feet in Dirt // May 9, 2019
    Wyoming…a beautiful river at the base of mountain. Going this summer.
    Meditative moment in a field of lupines

    “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.” – John Muir

    This day, I will glide and sing. Want to join me?  The natural world has power, more than all of us. We step outside and there it is, go a little further, off the sidewalk, step onto a dirt path, a trail, the air changes, you change,  warmed by a planet beneath our feet, spinning round in the universe. The moment we shed the coat of the heated room, unfold from chair and screen, leave managing food, home and swiping everything clean, we are transformed. One last swipe at the dust thick on pottery once made by hand. Yes, long ago we put our hands to clay, slapped it free of bubbles and shaped it, fell into its trance, immersed our very being, became “one” with a gluey glob of earth, all hands and sensation- lost ourselves in the creative moment. Remember, losing yourself in clay, paint, poetry and dance? Or were those the very moments we found ourselves? Another high school shooter. Oh, once again our world in pain, self-inflicted, salty tears overfill our growing oceans. Head outdoors to unburden. Fresh sensation: birdsong, trickling water, wind in trees, feet on chilly earth, soft, hard or rocky heals. The smells of the moist earth are familiar, comfort, reassure. They are our scent, too as we are of her. Discover duff beneath the trees- ancient layers, trod for centuries by wholehearted wanderers like ourselves. Foragers, renegades, seekers who dared to wonder. Witness the wood rat build her dome of sticks, a bird carry a ridiculously long twig for its nest- watch as she weaves it with intuition and skill. A snake slithers to a stop on the trail risking its very life for a spot of sun. Outdoors we risk discomfort, grow tender with sensation. Commit to the experience. Let all else fall away, step out and keep walking, jog if you can. Feel your way touching bark, crunch leaves, grasp soft or prickly needles, furry leaves and granite boulders. Feel a vibration, a tumbling rage of something beyond. Wonder, seek and praise moments of beauty, notice what elicits joy, live for those moments, they fortify us, strengthen us as we will face, once again, what smolders in wait. We return with renewed presence and grace, clap our soiled shoes together and set them side by side like always. Head back inside renewed and connected.  As a child I was pushed out the door, with the slam of the screen, freed to roam, giving no thought to what my mother did while I was “out of her hair.” Today, after jogging up the roads, biking on rooted bumpy trails have left me in the dust, I walk. Walk and walk and walk. I move more slowly, but see more as the right knee creaks to limber, the left heel throbs, shoulders soften. In a grand outdoor amphitheater, a hawk opens the melody, calls our attention with an ominous whistle above the trees, a chorus of jays squabble in the oaks, ragged, a falling scramble of rocks and listen, its our own footsteps, 3:4 time percussive beat. This morning’s grand composition. On chilly wet days, misty mornings and warming afternoons our feet tap past familiar trees, narrow animal trails and tunnels through brush. We greet a bird, another, that squirrel, then there in the pasture, the same small herd of deer, a sprout of furred antlers, nubs sparkling with mist. Our neighbors. Now they stand and watch, casually bend to nibble grass.We are known.  Thank you to mothers who send their children out the door and slam the screen behind them. “Each step we take keeps our planet spinning. Seek her wisdom. Share yours. Walk slowly and tread softly.” Nancy Congratulations to Anna Shaw for winning my April sign-up contest. Your copy of @52 Reasons for Hope by Cathy Krizik is in the mail. 
    Our hands in clay, our hands in sand, mud, water, our hands
     
  • Making Books // April 30, 2019
    handmade children’s book-Cottage Garden Library using hole-punched plastic page covers (sleeves) and clip rings to assemble

    I love making books for children. I started writing and constructing books as a teacher of young children in the early seventies. The first instance I recall was after recording what children said when a farmer visited our preschool leaving us with two kids, baby goats, for the day. The children petted, held and observed as the babies hopped up on tables, ran through the sandbox and ate their crackers at snack time. What a hullabaloo! I took a roll of film that day and after developing it the children glued them to pages and provided the words for our story. We posted it on the door for families. Then by the end of the year, we had twenty or so little books and big books recording our experiences-some illustrated by the children, other with photos and others with cut outs from magazines.

    Those classroom books were rarely found on the bookshelf-because they were always out in circulation, sitting at the top of the climbing fort, in the playhouse, in the bathroom or on tables in the play areas. Lovingly used.

    Over time, my use of books and way of making them has evolved. I often asked parents to contribute, making books with their children at home about getting glasses, magazine collages, painting or sketching to share with the class. I recall a fabulous year long poetry book we did that way each child choosing a poem to take home and bringing it back to add to our home illustrated poetry collection.

               I was fortunate to have had a fabulous creative arts teacher, post baccalaureate, at Cabrillo Community College in the Early Childhood Education Department. She had us scavenging through trash bins for cardboard, old hinges, clips and folders to use in our book-making endeavors. She taught us how to stitch the covers, glue fabric on them, or use clip rings and yarn to bind the pages. We had a laminator, a spiral binding machine and a weighted press for printmaking. I loved using all that equipment, but wanted to be able to assemble classroom books in the evenings on my kitchen table or with the children on the carpet at group time.

               Drug stores sold rolls of clear contact paper (do they still have them?) plastic, actually, that would hold anything in place, even little bouquets of wildflowers from a walking field trip.  I went through yards of clear contact. With the availability of glue sticks that allowed children to set things in place without the sticky mess or drying time of white glue, they would assemble lace their own books together on the spot and take them home. We kept baskets of book making supplies available for this purpose, magazines to cut pictures and Polaroid cameras with those expensive little film packets.

               I’d take a bag of supplies for my own children to make books during family vacations and encouraged them to make book gifts for grandparents and teachers. Sometimes I’d suggest topics or titles for them to tackle. I recall at a timely project, called, “Me and My Brother” My two boys, at around 7 and 4 years assembled a book together, drew pictures and wrote words about what they liked to play together. They’d been arguing, seemed out of synch. The book pulled them a little closer, served to reconnect them. Titles like, Going to the Dentist, My Surgery, The New School, The Airplane Trip, and The Dead Dog (their words), focused on transitions and meaningful events offered them extra support. They could sleep with their favorites and often did. Books have always been another way to for me to talk with them, extend thinking on a subject and also allowed them to reflect on worries, misinformation and to revisit delightful discoveries and passages of childhood.

    My children now, (my grandchildren) make books at school, continued the stapling and drawing of little books through early childhood. I provided supplies at home, too. At ages 9 and 12 they still often sit and write books with illustrations, photos or special collections.

    Today I discovered a stack of books I made for and with my grandchildren at different ages. Many of them are assembled using punched plastic sleeves or page covers and bound in an old folder, grocery bag, manila mailing envelope, disassembled shoe box or carton and covered with fabric or report cover, binder with snap rings. Would you like to see a video of me assembling a book? I’ll try it out next week and post unless its horrible.  Some of my Grandchildren’s stack:

    Toddler Books

    Liza Turns One, a photo collection assembled with punched heat laminated page covers (waterproof and washable)

    At Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house, illustrated with photos and labels

    Up, Up, Up Into the Trees, images of visiting grandma’s house, one word labels

    Trip to visit Thomas the Train

    Looking for Thomas, a photo and story book about Thomas the Train visiting at a nearby park

    Photo Collection with names of people in the family, laminated on 6 by 8 small cards

    Doll goes on a mountain hike

    A Toddler’s Adventure-taking a doll on a hike and photographing her various places, the child positions the doll and we thing of what to say about her, is she in danger? Grandpa was a good sport on this one.

    Preschoolers’ illustrations

    Preschooler’s Books

    Adventure story narrated by child and illustrated with toy photos

    A Scary Morning, a rather silly story with photos of toys for telling three-year old grandson’s story

    Short story co-written with child about a family move

    Where Are You? A book to support my 2 ½ yr old grandson’s big move to Montana-toys, play and discovery-a concrtete way to play with a big change

    photos and questions generated by children about changing schools

    Bonny Doon School, leaving childcare and going to a big new school, transition support, photos of the new school environment making connections with preschool

    Well loved book to address differences among us..a favorite

    The Missing Squeak, the mouse born without a squeak, story and art, theme: differences and resilience

    child’s view of a favorite topic, child illustrated

    Chicks favorite topic explored, child’s words, drawings and photos

    Read Aloud Story Books by adults

    Instructions: how to make a tiny tea set
    Print shop bound adult conceived story adventure themes: making art, loneliness

    Grandma Mouse, a story with art collage and words when my grandchildren moved away

    Engaging, interactive photo book with information about a new place

    Exploring Our World, a series begun by Grandma documenting vacations and interesting trips away from home-asking child centered (school age) questions about places in the world, Brazil, Peru, New Zealand, photos and stories

    For an adult:

    Operating Manual Tongue-in-cheek Instructions for a new step mom, photos and instructions, support and information

    Make a book or two this month for your family. Enjoy, Gma

  • Choosing the Jury // April 10, 2019
    A courtroom

    Dear Children, I am on-call for jury duty-

    “Okay, imagine a woman tells you that sun will come up in the West each morning from now on. Would you believe it? What if a man told you, is that more believable? A teacher? A police officer? Your best friend? How about you hear it on the nightly news? What would it take for you to believe it? One fellow says he’d have to see it, and get a very good explanation. “Okay, say an astrophysicist explains it and you believe it beyond a reasonable doubt. Does that make it true?”

    Philosophy 101? No, this is voir dire, during a jury selection process where attorneys question potential jurors about conflicts of interest, biases, ability to remain fair and impartial after given the facts of the case. This is my first time making it into a courtroom doing my civic duty, responding to a summons-(which, BTW is not an invitation). Sadly, this part of the process resonates with me because of books I’ve read, movies and television. They are my only experience and maybe not the best representation.

    Each day was long, the benches hard, three hours seemed like six, then we got to the vior dire. Oxygen filled the room or maybe the air conditioner went on. I may have smiled and sat up taller.  Each good citizen was called one by one to respond to a question. The first 18 people were my community. Some young, some older, (only a few), some with children, still working, recently married, recently divorced, never been in a courtroom or served several times. Some needed assistive devices to hear, spoke Spanish better than English and some were students. Each person seated in the jury box was not yet selected to serve, but once selected by random number to reduce our group size. There were about fifty of us at this point. This was the culling phase and 18 good citizens, doing their civic duty, moved to the hot seat.

    I wished I’d been selected for the hot seat. I wanted to answer their provocative questions. To see what I’d say when singled out. Of course I imagined the answers as they were asked. Each of us must have been doing the same. I imagined me raising my hand, calling out, “Me, me, me, call on me.”

    Each of them told the courtroom their employment, or former, how many children they have what each child does, if grown, and who they live with and for how long they’d lived in the county and where. “ (Me, your honor?I have lived in the county for forty eight years, am a retired teacher. I have a partner, a retired aeronautical engineer. We raised four boys: an electrical engineer, a fly fishing guide, a grocery clerk and a global sales rep for an Australian surf company). Then came the hypotheticals, not directly related to the case, a case I am sworn not to talk about, but these ideas are posed so that each side, the public defender and the defense attorney in this criminal case, can watch people struggle through an answer to get the best jury.

    I learned some things about my community: that ten people of the 18 had moved to the county within five years after retiring from high tech and dot com work, had well paying jobs and no children. Whoa, those are not my peeps.  But…they may be the only ones who can afford local housing. No time for kids. Or maybe jurors have fewer children as a lot, because the others get released for child care hardship. What will happen to the schools if new residents are retired?  The age bracket will rise again. When I moved here in 1970, it was a retirement town. Few jobs for young families. But housing affordable. The other seated prospects were a mix, thank goodness -a carpenter, a doctor, a farm laborer, an office worker, a librarian, stay at home mother, ages dipped and many more had children among that group.

    “What if you were told one story by one witness and that was all you got, no more witnesses or evidence presented. You believed this testimony beyond a reasonable doubt. Could you find the defendant guilty with just that one testimony?” Wait, weren’t we instructed that if you believed beyond a reasonable doubt then you decide based on that, your personal best choice?  Even if we got no more information? These questions are not right and wrong, but more for the professionals to watch citizens react, manage confusion, ask for clarity, answer to the best of their ability. They were prompted, pushed and pushed some more to see how they would react. The attorneys and the judge observed as they squirmed, scratched heads, ducked to tie our shoes.

    “If one witness were to state a fact and another state another fact neither supported by a testifying police officer, who would you believe? What if one witness was a priest? How about the rest of you? Please answer.”

    “If a friend tells you she believes you stole something from her, but you did not do it, what might you do to clear it up? How do you get at the truth?” Several people were confused about this question. After a discussion among many seated, the attorney said, “Okay, so you would convince her with evidence or tell her what might have happened and get to the truth. This, the attorney explained is not what happens in this court case a criminal case, not a civil case, remember. The burden of proof is not on the accused, to show they are innocent. No, it is on the district attorney to prove guilt. Do you see the difference?” The burden of proof must be demonstrated by the DA, beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Whew. I was exhausted after three hours as a mere a mandated observer, a marathon of thoughts and opinions. Besides it was time for my afternoon catnap. Before my final dismissal, when the full selection process would be complete with 12 jurors and 3 alternates selected, (I was not one of them), another series of questions were posed. “No one has talked about race here. Let’s face it. Race is a factor in criminal justice. We see more people of color, blacks and Latinos incarcerated, arrested and charged. Why is that?” Me, me, me. (Its a pervasive social issue, people of color are underrepresented in the predominantly white power structure and marginalized by poverty, lacki access to worthy and well-paid jobs, high cost of living and prejudice and bias. And…) The members struggled: I am not racist. I don’t think profiling is right. We all are racists, the system reflects that problem. Whew. Good one.

    The final question that puzzled and prompted rattled discussion among three potential jurors, who were later dismissed: “If the victim gave the only testimony at the trial (no one else) and you believed the victim, could you deem the suspected perpetrator guilty?”

    The judge invited us to attend the three week proceedings, as though he wanted an audience, to be observed, do his best for his public, in public. He has developed a style. But, for me? I will get back to my daily life and don’t plan to return until invited back at least two years from now. I’d prefer to read a good book about a trial, a judge, attorneys, the testimony, about the same offense while sitting on a soft chair, a cup of tea hooked in my finger and indulge in a short stroll when the knees get antsy. But, none the less, I was fascinated by my few days in court. Hope you get to sit in should you be summoned.


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