I rarely go back to the ranch where I was born or to the neighboring
land where I bore the fourth generation of a ranching family. My people
live where hardpan and sagebrush flats give way to the Missouri River
Breaks, a country so harsh and wild and distant that it must grow its
own replacements, as it grows its own food, or it will die. Hereford
cattle grow slick and mean foraging along the cutbanks for greasewood
shoots and buffalo grass. Town lies an hour or more north over gumbo
roads. Our town was Malta, population 2,500, county seat of Phillips
County, Montana, and the largest settlement for nearly one hundred miles
in any direction.
“Get tough,” my father snapped as I
dragged my feet at the edge of a two-acre potato field. He gave me a
gunnysack and started me down the rows pulling the tough fanweed that
towered over the potato plants. I was learning then the necessary
lessons of weeds and seeds and blisters. My favorite story as a child
was of how I fainted in the garden when I was eight. My mother had to
pry my fingers from around the handle of the hoe, she said, and she also
said I was stupid not to wear a hat in the sun. But she was proud. My
granddad hooted with glee when he heard about it.
a hell of a little worker,” he said, shaking his head. I was a
hell of a little worker from that day forward, and I learned to wear a
I am sometimes amazed at my own children, their outrage if
they are required to do the dishes twice in one week, their tender
self-absorption with minor bumps and bruises. As a mom, I’ve had
to teach myself to croon over thorn scratches, admire bloody baby teeth
and sponge the dirt from scraped shins. But in my mind, my
mother’s voice and that of her mother still compete for
expression. “Oh for Christ’s sake, you aren’t
hurt!” they’re saying, and for a moment I struggle. For a
moment I want to tell this new generation about my little brother calmly
spitting out a palm full of tooth chips and wading back in to grab the
biggest calf in the branding pen. I want to tell them how tough I was,
falling asleep at the table with hands too sore to hold a fork, or about
their grandmother, who cut off three fingers on the blades of a mower
and finished the job before she came in to get help. For a moment
I’m terrified I’ll slip and tell them to get tough.
my parents and grandparents, I was born and trained to live there. I
could rope and ride and jockey a John Deere as well as my brothers, but
being female, I also learned to bake bread and can vegetables and
reserve my opinion when the men were talking. When a bachelor neighbor
began courting me when I was fifteen, my parents were proud and hopeful.
Though he was twelve years older than I was, his other numbers were very
promising. He and his father ran five hundred cow-calf pairs and five
hundred head of yearlings on 36,000 acres of range.
one spring evening, my mother and I stood in the kitchen. She held her
back stiff as her hands shot like pistons into the mound of bread dough
on the counter. I stood tough beside her. On the porch, John had
presented my father with a bottle of whiskey and was asking Dad’s
permission to marry me. I wanted her to grab my cold hand and tell me
how to run. I wanted her to smooth the crumpled letter from the garbage
can and read the praise of my high school principal. I wanted her to
tell me what I could be.
She rounded the bread neatly and efficiently
and began smoothing lard over the top, intent on her fingers as they
tidied the loaves.
“He’s a good man,” she said
In the seventh grade, my daughter caught up with the
culture shock and completed her transition from horse to bicycle, from
boot-cut Levi’s to acid-washed jeans. She delighted me with her
discoveries. Knowing little of slumber parties, roller skates or packs
of giggling girls, sometimes I was more her peer than her parent. She
wrote, too, long sentimental stories about lost puppies that found homes
and loving two-parent families with adventurous daughters. Her
characters were usually right back where they started, rescued and
happy, by the end of the story. She’d begun watching
“Do you hate Daddy?” she asked once, from the
depths of a divorced child’s sadness.
I replied, “is a good man.”
* * *
In the manner of good
ranchmen, my father and John squatted on their haunches on the porch
facing each other. The whiskey bottle rested on the floor between them.
John’s good white shirt was buttoned painfully around his neck.
Dad had pushed his Stetson back, and a white band of skin glowed above
his dark face, smooth and strangely delicate. When I moved to the
doorway, their conversation was shifting from weather and cattle to
marriage. As Dad tilted back heavily on one heel to drink from the neck
of the bottle, John looked down and began to plot our life with one
finger in the dust on the floor.
“I been meaning to stop by . .
. ,” John said to the toe of his boot. He looked up to catch
Dad’s eye. Dad nodded and looked away.
“You figured a
spot yet?” He spoke deliberately, weighing each word. Like all the
big ranches out there, John’s place had been pieced together from
old homesteads and small farms turned back to grass.
place has good buildings,” John replied, holding Dad’s gaze
for a moment. He shifted the bottle to his lips and passed it back to
“Fair grass on the north end, but the meadows need
work,” Dad challenged. John shifted slightly to the left, glancing
to the west through the screen door. The setting sun was balanced on the
blue tips of the pines in the distance. He worked at the stiffness of
his collar, leaving gray smudges of dust along his throat. Settling
back, he spoke with a touch of defiance.
“If a person worked it
right . . .” Then his eyes found his boots again. He held his head
Dad smoothed one hand along his jaw as if in deep
thought, and the two men squatted silently for several minutes. Then Dad
drew a long breath and blew it out.
“Old Morgan used to get
three cuttings in a rain year,” he said at last. John’s head
rose and he met my father’s steady look.
“A person might
make a go of it,” John agreed softly. Dad’s shoulders lifted
slightly and dropped in mock defeat. He placed a hand on each knee and
pushed himself up, John rising beside him, and they shook hands,
grinning. Twisting suddenly, Dad reached down and grabbed the whiskey.
He held it high in a toast, then leaned forward and tapped John’s
chest with the neck of the bottle.
“And you, you cocky
sonofabitch! Don’t you try planting anything too early,
understand?” They were still laughing when they entered the
I talk to my father twice a year now, on Christmas and
Father’s Day. We talk about the yearling weights and the rain, or
the lack of rain. When I moved away from our community, my parents lost
a daughter, but they will have John forever, as a neighbor, a friend. He
is closer to them in spirit than I am in blood, and shares their
bewilderment and anger at my rejection of their way of life. As the
ultimate betrayal, I have taken John’s sons, interrupting the
perfect rites of passage. The move was hardest on the boys, for here
they were only boys. At the ranch they were men-in-training, and they
mourned this loss of prestige.
“I used to drive tractor for my
dad,” the elder son once told his friends, and they scoffed.
“You’re only eleven years old,” they laughed, and he
was frustrated to bitter tears. He would go back to the ranch, that one.
He would have to. But he returned there an outsider, as his father knew
he would. He did not stay. The first son of the clan to cross the county
line and survive found it easier to leave a second time, when he had to.
Had he chosen to spend his life there, he would have had memories of
symphonies and tennis shoes and basketball. When he marries and has
children, he will raise them knowing that, at least sometimes, cowboys
I stuck with the bargain sealed on my parents’
porch for more than twelve years, although my faith in martyrdom as a
way of life dwindled. I collected children and nervous tics the way some
of the women collected dress patterns and ceramic owls. It was hard to
shine when all the good things had already been done. Dorothy crocheted
tissue covers and made lampshades from Styrofoam egg cartons. Pearle
looped thick, horrible rugs from rags and denim scraps. Helen gardened a
half acre of land and raised two hundred turkeys in her spare time. And
everyone attended the monthly meetings of the Near and Far Club to
answer roll call with her favorite new recipe.
These were the
successful ranchwomen who moved from barn to kitchen to field with
patient, tireless steps. For nearly ten years, I kept up with the cycles
of crops and seasons and moons, and I did it all well. I excelled. But
in the end, I couldn’t sleep. I quit eating. It wasn’t
I saved for three years and bought my typewriter from the
Sears and Roebuck catalogue. I typed the first line while the cardboard
carton lay around it in pieces. I wrote in a cold sweat on long strips
of freezer paper that emerged from the keys thick and rich with ink. At
first I only wrote at night when the children and John slept, emptying
myself onto the paper until I could lie down. Then I began writing
during the day, when the men were working in the fields. The children
ran brown and wild and happy. The garden gave birth and died with
rotting produce fat under its vines. The community buzzed. Dorothy
offered to teach me how to crochet.
prescribed distance of beige plush separated us. On a TV monitor nearby,
zigzag lines distorted our images. John’s face looked lean and
hard. My face showed fear and exhaustion. The years were all there in
black and white. Mike, our marriage counselor, stood behind the video
camera adjusting the sound level. We were learning to communicate, John
and I. We each held a sweaty slip of paper with a list of priority
topics we had prepared for this day. Our job was to discuss them on
camera. Next week we would watch our debate and learn what areas needed
improvement. We talked by turns, neither allowed to interrupt the other,
for three minutes on each topic.
John was indignant, bewildered by my
topics. I, on the other hand, could have written his list myself.
Somewhere in a dusty file drawer is a film of an emaciated, haggard
woman hesitantly describing her needs and dreams to a tight-jawed man
who twists his knuckles and shakes his head because he wants to
interrupt her and he can’t. His expression shows that he
doesn’t know this woman; she’s something he never bargained
for. When it’s over, they are both shaking and glad to get
“John,” Mike once asked, “how often do you
tell your wife that you love her?”
“Oh, I’ve told
her that before,” he replied cautiously. I cut into the
conversation from my corner of the ring.
“You only told me you
loved me once, and that was the day we were married,” I
“Well,” John said, injured and defensive, “I
never took it back, did I?”
The break, when it came, was so
swift and clean that I sometimes dream I went walking in the coulee
behind the ranch house and emerged on the far side of the mountains.
It’s different here—not easier, but different. And
Excerpted from Breaking Clean by
Copyright 2002 by Judy Blunt. Excerpted by
permission of Knopf,
a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt
may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.