by Taylor Roseweeds
A glass-topped tray in a carved wooden frame affixed with two brass handles hangs on the wall by my bed, five blue swallows hand-painted on its surface. It’s the type of tray you might bring to a sick person in bed, but I’ve chosen to hang it on the wall exactly as it hung in my grandparents’ bedroom until I inherited it in 2016. I spent portions of each summer and many Christmases with them on their apple orchard—a welcome break from a less idyllic daily life. Despite the availability of a spare bedroom, my sister and I almost always slept in the living room on two matching couches.
When we were small, we’d wake up before anyone else and get in our grandparents’ tall, soft bed. I would choose my grandpa’s side and he would check that my feet were tucked in, muttering something about Jack Frost coming to get my feet. In a dream—or a waking imagining seeded by this idea of Jack Frost—I sometimes saw a creepy man at the foot of the bed, emerging from the closet. So, while my grandparents tried to get a few more minutes rest, I would turn my gaze away from the closet and focus instead on the wall where the bird tray hung underneath an extremely 1970’s print featuring sunflowers in a vase. In calligraphy, it read “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” I’d watch the birds fly and take in the pleasant philosophical depth of that simple statement, drifting back to sleep.
When my grandma—Dee Loris—died in 2016, preceded by her husband seven years earlier, she left a houseful of stuff. An individual binder-style scrapbook album of snapshots for each year from 1958 to 2015 as well as additional themed books for vacations, older photos, or individual people. Kitchen cupboards crammed with sets of dishes, papered inside with recipes and diet tips cut out from Woman’s Day and Redbook. Basement rooms with closets still bearing treasure—Gunne Sax dresses, washed-soft vintage tees, and bell bottom jeans so wide my aunts said they’d have to stop walking on windy days when their pants transformed into sails.
In Grandpa’s farm office of filing cabinets packed with crumbling, ancient receipts, we found his grandfather’s writings in a binder. Did he plan to write a book? Had his grandfather planned to before him?
All I really wanted was the tray with the birds—presumably an uncontroversial choice. My uncle, set to inherit the entire farm and house as the only boy among the siblings, suggested, however, that “heirlooms should go to married people.”
The birds now fly next to my unmarried bed, celebrating the fact that he lost that argument. I have the tray, but also a stack of papers on my desk and various photos from that house pinned to my bulletin board. I have the binder of my twice-great grandfather’s Montana stories, rescued from grandpa’s office. None of the “married people” in my uncle’s generation, nor any in mine, have taken up these scraps of stories—two generations of diaries, clippings, and photos—and those who tried succeeded only in keeping them safe in a box until the time came to pass them down the line. My history-obsessed grandfather clearly wanted to do something with the records of his ancestors’ lives, but perhaps the very demands of a family kept him from completing that task before death. It’s easy for well-intentioned ideas to accumulate in the form of dusty boxes.
Where will my possessions, including these inherited stories, land when I die? Some of my things will go to friends and some to the landfill, some will land in places between—owned and loved again by strangers. I belong to a generation whose notions of legacy have been troubled by our collective knowledge of the planet’s fragility, by the background noise of a ticking clock counting down to extinction. It’s only one of many reasons I won’t have children of my own. Still, it’s wonderful to think about adding my own layers to the mythology I’ve inherited, eventually passing it down to people younger than me for safekeeping.
The myth itself is troubling too, though. This best-documented branch of my family tree came to Central Washington from Montana, and they came to Montana early. They were members of Pioneer Societies, erecting monuments to the bold Europeans and young Americans who came West to conquer. Their version of events often omits the violence my people’s presence in the West suggests. They believed in a Progress that I, with the benefit of hindsight, do not. How then, to honor these inherited stories, to love the place where my ancestors left me? It feels that in time and place, I’ll always be a visitor. Despite that feeling, I want to leave something behind, but I don’t know what or for whom.
Somewhere within the layers of accumulation in that house, my aunts unearthed a pocket- sized black leather notebook, bound with rings like a school binder, its capacity strained by the density of its fragile paper contents. It was a typewritten copy of my great-grandmother Zelma’s diary from 1919-20, transcribed from a now-lost handwritten original by its writer in the mid-1960s. The diary is split evenly between time spent in her Central Montana home and Kansas, where she attended one year of art school.
An addendum labeled “My Life” fills in the rest, its pages folded and wedged into the small notebook. “The lure of the West,” she wrote, “and financial need” called her back from college to Montana where she met my great-grandfather at a dance, got married, and continued to teach. After having her first two children—Joan and Gordon, my grandpa—the family moved to the Okanogan Valley along the Washington-Canada border to farm apples, planting the orchard where I would spend my summers seventy years later.
Zelma never returned to art school, but she did continue to paint watercolor landscapes throughout her life. One hangs in my room, originally given as a gift to my grandma, inscribed “Happy Birthday Dee Loris, 1981” on the back. Like her other work I’ve seen, it is a carefully rendered, bucolic scene. Like its creator, the painting seems content to peacefully observe and relay simple, everyday beauty. A dirt road curves away from the foreground bordered by a wooden post fence. Huge deciduous trees, one green and one pinkish, loom ahead across the road from a series of distant red farm buildings, all set against a very blue, lightly clouded sky. Is it in the Okanogan? Montana? An imagined landscape in between?
Downstairs, another larger painting dominates one of my living room’s warm goldenrod walls. This one is a confirmed Montana landscape painted by my late friend Clara. She grew up in Central Montana like Zelma—though a few generations later—and when I met her, she was an art restoration specialist in Spokane. She kept to herself, but she grew to trust me, hiring me to help her develop a web presence for her restoration business. Our working relationship expanded into a handful of side projects including an unfinished documentary interviewing some of “the girls” (as she called them), the sex workers who were being removed from their historic work sites by the increased police presence invited by slow-moving gentrification. We teamed up to help another artist friend prove a case of art fraud and con-artistry. She paid in cash. We made each other laugh.
When I think of her restoration work, I think of a photo taken during a project she completed for a church. She’s repairing a huge fresco, twenty feet up on the world’s most rickety ladder, one hand removed from its rungs to wave down at the photographer. She used her own secret mixture of chemicals to remove only grime, never paint, from neglected art. Her work was divided between this painstaking craft of making repairs invisible and her own art which made a complex and melancholy inner world visible.
I don’t know anything about painting, really. But for months, this Montana landscape was displayed in her studio’s front window. In it, the brown ground extends out to some distant mountains in the lower quarter of the canvas; the rest of the painting is sky. Reaching down out of the deep, varied blues and gold-tinted clouds above is a single, light line reaching down to the tops of the mountains. Is it lightning? A wisp of cloud? Devastating—the way it looks like both. This painting tightens my chest and evokes the same mix of loneliness, danger, and freedom I get when I’m somewhere big and desolate. It looks like Zelma’s brief, homesick
journal entry from college in Lawrence. She wrote, “This city life is too conjested,” followed by a tasteful amount of negative space, a single line centered in all-caps at the bottom of the page:
I didn’t get to see Clara in the last six months of her life because I was very sick myself. My sister and I drove to her casual, in-studio memorial. The event doubled as an art and supply sale to help her family cover funeral expenses. We went upstairs into the apartment where she died, and there was the stormy landscape, leaning against the wall in a mostly emptied room. It looked like me—unresolved clouds contained in a frame wondering how to proceed after dying and being resurrected at 27, waiting in an empty room with an empty wallet for something new to happen. I introduced myself to her sister and wished aloud that I could afford to take that painting home. She hugged me and told me to pay what I could. Grateful, I drained the last two twenties from my checking account at the nearby meat market’s ATM.
On the walls of three different homes since the day we wedged it across my sister’s backseat, every time a new person visits, I watch them fall into its gravity, the strongest thing in the room.
Zelma wrote in her diary during her winter at college:
“FIRST SNOW TO-DAY I do have to slip on the front steps OUR HOUSE MOTHER TELLS US OF OUR ATTITUDES. IT IS HARD TO BE GOOD. I WISH I COULD always depend on my self to do and say the right thing. mother writes me another good letter. I have good influences. I NEED GOD MORE THAN I WILL LET HIM HELP ME. All these experiences are helping tho.”
I first read this diary when I was quite unwell, staying alone in my grandparents’ house (emptied of both occupants, but still mostly filled with their possessions) on what was meant to be a weekend writing retreat. I didn’t write a word. I did take photos: this diary page and a few others, a cryptic image of a mirror reflecting the pink wall of the spare room. My reality was blurring then, and soon I’d be hospitalized. In that state, I connected with her words and feelings on a primal level. I felt that on some level, I was her. She longs for an artist’s life of adventure. She runs out of money. She just wants to look at mountains, eat fudge, and dance.
Now, with my mind in better balance, I still resonate with 20-year-old Zelma, but I more clearly see our pronounced differences in attitude and belief. She is pious and wholesome, and though she references the generational divide between herself and her parents—attached, as she says, “to their Victorian ways”—she still bears an earnest, Christian way of being, a modest conservatism notably absent from my own personality. But perhaps I, in my own way, “NEED GOD” too.
Years after that retreat, I found spiritual kin in another early 20th century Montana woman, this one best known for her suffering in the mining town of Butte. In stark contrast to Zelma’s clean-cut positivity and humility, Mary MacLane was a self-described “genius,” a writer and “peripatetic philosopher” whose first work, I Await the Devil’s Coming, became an unexpected literary hit when it was published in 1902. A confessional memoir, it chronicles Mary’s isolation and misery living in Butte. MacLane finds no fellow-feeling in her community and instead “awaits the devil’s coming,” communing with the “sand and barrenness” of her desolate Montana surroundings.
She writes, “We three go out on the sand and barrenness: my wooden heart, my good young woman’s-body, my soul. We go there and contemplate the long sandy wastes, the red, red line on the sky at the setting of the sun, the cold gloomy mountains under it, the ground without a weed, without a grass-blade even in their season—for they have years ago been killed off by the sulphur smoke from the smelters. So this sand and barrenness forms the setting for the personality of me.”
A hundred years before my generation of dissatisfied teenagers sang along to versions of an angsty refrain of suburban malaise, MacLane poetically declared her own version of “I hate this stupid town.”
Barrenness could describe many places in the West, including portions of my own beloved Eastern Washington scablands and much of the prairie surrounding Zelma’s Montana home 250 miles east of Mary MacLane’s reviled Butte. Driving from my hometown of Spokane to my grandparent’s house in the Okanogan Valley, you pass through diverse successive landscapes in a rhythm that makes the drive simultaneously stretch out and pass more quickly. Heading west, the evergreen trees surrounding Spokane recede, replaced by rolling hills
of wheat and alfalfa farms. Up and down hills, the highway unwinds and, just past Wilbur, shifts into dry sage-scrub desert at the edge of the Upper Grand Coulee. As you curve northwest approaching the Grand Coulee Dam, columns of rock rise dramatically on either side of the road that snakes along the edge of the canyon above the dammed-up Columbia River. On the other side of the concrete divide, the desert of sage stretches across the Colville Indian Reservation, the northernmost part of the channeled scablands, a region repeatedly scraped to bare rock by ice age floods roughly 20,000 years ago. Trees reappear in the foothills as you climb across the forested Okanogan Highlands before dropping back into the irrigated desert of the agricultural, nearly-Mediterranean Okanogan Valley.
In 2020, I moved south to the undulating fertile hills of the Palouse. It was once sacred prairie, its rich soil spared from the punishing floods that shaped the bordering scablands. Now, it’s nearly all wheat. If you don’t think about the prairie, it’s still stunning, and people come from all over the world to photograph its unique topography. I spend more time driving now than ever —a reality of rural life. In the same way I memorized the rhythm of the journey northwest to my grandparent’s orchard, I have begun to internalize the repetitive hills of the Palouse and recognize the way the sky changes throughout the day and year.
I pull over to take photos. I picked up saying, “Look what God did” to my passengers or myself while driving through this casually breathtaking scenery. At first, the exclamation held a tinge of irony, but it rapidly, alarmingly, grew earnest. Maybe it’s quiet Zelma’s voice reaching out through one of her least-likely-to descendants. She revered the natural world, infusing it into her Christian faith and reflecting it back in her restrained, painted renderings of our planet’s simple pleasures. Whether on the snowy prairie surrounding her hometown of Straw or in the nearby mountains where she taught summer school, her diary reflects her appreciation of Earth.
“I love nature. There is God in these mountains. I feel religion as in a church. I have my pressed plants with Latin names so we can study what grows here.”
If God wants to come to me in the form of light falling on hills of loess left un-scraped by epic, ancient floods, that’s as good as any other revelation.
In my mid-twenties, I dated a nice Christian boy from the west coast of Oregon and brought him home to my grandma just a few weeks before she died. He and I were chatty and pleasant on the drive until we crested the plateau of the shrub-steppe and he fell silent. I prodded him and he admitted to feeling anxious because of the landscape. “I feel like we’re on the moon and we aren’t supposed to survive here.”
That’s the whole point, though, I wanted to say. To me, this apparent barrenness is safe and un-oppressive; anything coming can be seen for miles, even if all that’s coming is a tumbleweed. The wind hurts a little and smells like sage. There’s rattlesnakes. It isn’t easy to survive, but it’s thrillingly possible even so. I might have told him then that I feel claustrophobic and smothered by mold in the verdant overhang of the Pacific coast. It’s so green and showy. Of course the waterfalls are beautiful, but isn’t it all a little…obvious? We stayed together a while longer, but our romantic social experiment, the queer anarchist and the optimistic believer, had effectively ended.
“My sand and barrenness is clothed in the awful majesty of countless ages,” Mary MacLane wrote, near the end of her memoir. “It may have been green once—green and fertile. It may have sometime been rolling prairie. It may have been submerged in floods. It changed and changed in the centuries…the spirit of it never moved.” The spirit of barrenness. That was it, or part of it at least, I thought as I underlined the passage and dog-eared the corner of the page.
My friend Tim, a favorite companion on scablands explorations, describes this quality of allegedly barren places as “a sense of deep time.” He visits these places to fully experience his grief during periods of personal loss. He gets it, the sand and barrenness. We go out and walk, perhaps hoping to see birds or learn a bit about geology, but mostly just to put one foot in front of the other, like Mary. It’s the basic work of survival, moving forward across the old, enduring Earth. At the end of the same passage, MacLane seems to accept her “sand and barrenness,” the place from which she has begged the Devil (for over a hundred pages) to deliver her: “Flood, or fertility, or rolling prairie, or barrenness—it is only itself. It has a great self, a wonderful self. I shall never forget you, my sand and barrenness.”
Mary was correct about the flood, even though she had no way of knowing that she lived near the site of some of the most dramatic floods ever (the theory wasn’t proposed scientifically until a few years before her death and she wouldn’t have been exposed to references within Indigenous oral histories). She was right about the rolling prairie and, depending upon the season, the “green and fertile” of it all. She wasn’t an environmentalist exactly, but she was the type of person who could see right through the temporary economic promise of a smelter, who could lie down in the dirt to cry about the beauty of nature.
Her bleak sense of nihilism was partially driven by witnessing human destruction of the landscape around her in real time. From her vantage point at the western edge of the Great Plains, she could have squinted toward the sunrise to witness the final stages of the attempted total extermination of buffalo from the prairie. White settlers, backed by the U.S. government, systematically destroyed these herds, reducing their numbers to under a thousand individuals by the time MacLane was a teenage girl at the turn of the twentieth century. There had been tens of millions of them roaming the plains only 35 years before at the end of the Civil War, quietly sustaining key functions of the ecosystem, absolutely central to Indigenous cultures of the Plains.
This timeline means that most of the buffalo remained when Zelma’s great-uncle William, our first Montana ancestor, arrived in Montana as a young man in the late 1860s. His headstone, which I visited this summer in the ghost town of Buffalo, is inscribed PIONEER and lists him as “first white man to settle on the Musselshell.” William invited his nephew, my great- great-grandfather B.F. (for Benjamin Franklin), to join his cattle ranching operation there a decade later. Thus began B.F.’s somewhat mythical life as a self-described pioneer.
His mostly hand-written autobiography (preserved and assembled by Zelma and amended by my grandpa Gordon) is bound in a three-ring binder labeled True Western Stories in sprawling cursive. The binder’s blue spine, rescued from grandpa’s office, forms the base of one of my well-intentioned desk piles now, where it waits to be digitized, expanded, interrogated, properly honored, perhaps, by a member of its fifth generation.
I fear I am not up to the task of honestly approaching these True Western Stories. I believe that his stories are Western, of course, and I also believe that—from his perspective— they are True. In these pages, however, Crow and other Native peoples are “savage” or, at best, “helpful” (presented in a tone of pleasant surprise). The virtues of mining and timber industries are extolled in passages where our narrator urges on rapid “development” of these resources. There is a troublingly ambiguous “love affair” with an “Indian maiden.” True or false, these stories make uncomfortable reading material for someone who has spent their adulthood attempting to evade whiteness and create distance from its legacy of violence.
I could try to outrun whiteness by focusing on my gender, my queerness or my disability as axes of oppression. I could selectively omit my Wild West heritage, repudiating its toxic, patriarchal values altogether like Zelma’s dapper bachelor uncle did when he permanently relocated to Paris in the 1880s. Great-great-uncle Lawrence smirks down from a photo on my bookshelf as I consider the options, leaning like a sandy-haired Oscar Wilde against a fabric- draped column, happy to have left such a dreary and difficult life behind.
Zelma is up there with him, too, though—encouraging me to persevere from her 1919 teaching portrait. She’s right, of course, and I don’t want to leave these things in a box indefinitely (just look at what happens to a country that leaves troubling myths unexamined in a box for too long!). I’m wondering how best to share the unvarnished realities of my ancestors while neither denying their authentic grit nor ignoring the wake of destruction their participation in history left behind.
I’m doing this while learning to live a different kind of life in a place that feels both comfortingly familiar and—sometimes—pretty bad, precisely because of its continuity with their stories. Living in the country has made me realize I am more of a simple “Western girl,” like Zelma, than I ever expected to become. I haven’t pressed any plants yet, but I am learning their names and uses while trying to visit the few intact sections of native prairie that remain among the wheat. It is hard to be good in this world.
Another photo sits up on the bookshelf with the others. It looks old, like it was made with an old type of camera, but it’s a little confusing. A young woman wearing a white embroidered dress half-scowls into the lens, standing in tall, dead grass with her arms crossed. The dress looks like something a girl in the country would have worn to graduation a hundred years before, like something you would wrap in paper and save for a descendant, but the person in the photo has anachronous tattoos on the exposed parts of her arms and piercings in her face. It’s just the type of image you’d want to hand down through the generations, given the opportunity, to preserve your brief time on Earth.
About the Author
Taylor Roseweeds is a writer, activist, and artist living in a small Eastern Washington town. She is working towards an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fairfield University. Her writing is deeply place-and-community-based; her recent longer essays have been first published as zines, distributed via mail from her rural post office box.
Her undergraduate studies in interdisciplinary documentary, her background in radio journalism, and her deep desire for a more humane world all inform her artistic practice.
She writes a weekly newsletter on Substack at https://roseweeds.substack.com/.
Visit her website: http://www.roseweeds.com