Where the Wild Things Are

by Kate

Growing up, I was a wild child. All nine of us were fairly savage, often found barefoot in trees with uncombed hair, and it would be fair to say that we were a bit uncouth. My mother often said that her goal was to raise children who were free, and in that she most definitely succeeded. So have her free children, as they make their way into the world. Somehow the time we spent running wild though woods and pastures and the pages of a thousand books formed thoughtful, articulate, and hardworking adults.

I often think about raising free children, ideally with brushed and braided hair and decent table manners. So far, I am excelling at the freedom part, with a pretty spotty hair brushing record and a plan to implement better table manners very, very soon. My husband suggests that I learn some first, and I suspect he may be right.

Of course, unlike my parents, I do not live on a high ridge falling into a woods and a valley, with a huge willow sheltering a junkyard crick. I live in the heart of a city and glimpse skyscrapers through a canopy of branches. But I do live in a city of hills, ravines, and rivers, and when I have trouble breathing remembering the free feeling of running through the back pastures and hills of home, I head out to find the wildness hidden only minutes from my front door.

Outstretched arms and muddy hands and feet are not off limits for city children.

river girl pittsburgh

And a river anywhere is full of wildness and cannot be tamed. Ours is a gift full of mystery and wonder- along with some industrial debris, Canadian geese, and pairs of hungry ducks.

river adventure

I am working out a theory that the most important thing is not living in the city or the country, but to open the eyes of your children to the wonder and the wildness of the world around them…

city walk

wherever that might be.

For here we are, and here we shall remain, looking for the wild places and trying to tame the tangles in our hair.

kate stapleton sweet ridge sisters

Homespun

Mary

Words are interesting to think about. Definitions and sentences hold a lot of power. They can build a person or vision up, or break it down. Recently I realized how much I like a word and how it applies to my life. The word is this: homespun.

embroidery hoop craft

To some this word may sound grungy or outdated. I don’t think so though! I feel like this word reflects simplicity and sincerity, thriftiness and creativity. And also much trial and error.

I love living a homespun life.

nicole slattery photography portrait horse wisconsin

I like sharing that life with others.

050

I like making homespun things.

030

beforebabyboy 014

I especially like sharing homespun projects with children. Cultivating creativity in kids is so important.

move egg flowers 019

farmbooth 032

And of course, I like eating homespun food.

283

Going at homespun projects is a great way to use energy and creativity. And at the end of a project, there is always another idea for a new project looming in site. Speaking of that, I REALLY need to figure out how to tan a sheep fleece. That and learning how to make homemade ice cream and braid my own rugs all are on my homespun bucket list, but first I should complete the roughly 12 undone projects I have half done. Speaking of that-why don’t I just start completing a project by posting this blog post. Check.

Frank’s House

by Kate

This is the story of a man named Frank, a man who was generous and gentle and kind and possessed an extraordinary collection of fine ties. This is Frank’s birthday week. Frank’s birthday fell just before St. Patrick’s Day. I always thought this fitting for this man who loved to celebrate life with good food and song and conversation, a man whose blue Polish eyes welled up with tears at the sound of an old ballad. Four years on St. Patrick’s Day I put my tiny baby Olympia in a sling and hauled my harp across the gravel driveway and up the steps into Frank’s home and played a private concert for him as a birthday present. He wasn’t well, had battled heart trouble and cancer and lung problems for years, but he cried at all the ballads and laughed at all my jokes and somehow from his battered leather armchair he made me feel like the much more important artists he had hosted in his early days, when he was a dashing young bachelor managing the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater that would later become the Benedum.

Frank and his wife Catherine loved Olympia. They married late in life, well into their 50′s and 60′s.They met when Catherine moved in with her aging mother two doors down from the home Frank had shared with his mother, and somehow Frank the eternal bachelor was finally induced to take the plunge into matrimony. Of course, they had no children of their own. We met Frank and Catherine in a miraculous manner just before Olympia was born. We were living in an apartment above a loud and smoky bar and our baby was due in two and a half months. A chance meeting led us to tour the house they had for rent just behind theirs, with two bedrooms and a washer and dryer and a huge yard with space for a garden and a clothesline. It was a perfect home for newlyweds and a new baby. The new baby was a great source of delight for Frank and Catherine, who were delighted to have the unexpected chance to act as Grandparents after all.

Olympia was a constant presence and joy for Frank in the last year and a half of his life, as his health declined. When he died, I stood with Catherine beside his bed, holding his hand. Olympia slept quietly in the sling while Frank’s wife and I sang Old Man River one more time, told stories, laughed a little and cried a little more as his life slipped away. It was a quiet passing and a peaceful one. A few days later Frank was buried on a high windy hill while a long bagpipe keened a haunting and beautiful lament, but his great generosity has remained a powerful force in our lives.

First of all, there are the ties. The hundreds of designer ties and finely woven, sharply cut collection of dress shirts and suit coats and overcoats too. At six five, my husband couldn’t quite fit into this finery, so at Catherine’s request, the bulk of his collection was delivered to the farmhouse at Sweet Ridge Farm and distributed there to all the men in the family, from my father down to my youngest brother James. These days, weddings, holidays, and formal gatherings of any sort guarantee that Frank’s finery will be sported by one if not all of the Slattery men.

For my family here in Pittsburgh, ties are the tip of the iceberg. Last August, Casey and I bought Frank’s house. For fifty years, Frank lived in a stately yellow brick house high up on a hill, overlooking the hundred year old trees of Arsenal Park and through them the glimmering skyline of downtown Pittsburgh and beyond that Mount Washington, the Incline, and the famous Bayer sign. It’s a beautiful house, but it had been cut up into apartments and after Frank’s devoted (and very business savvy) mother died, it was quite the bachelor pad. Frank lived on the second floor, and his devout and good tempered but untidy hoarder friend occupied the first in a dark, dingy warren full of dusty heaps of books and high unsteady piles of videocassettes, DVDs, and CDs.

Frank always wanted us to have his house. He thought it would be a perfect place to raise a family, something that for one reason or another had never happened in the hundred year history of the house. He loved the idea of Olympia growing up in his home, but when Casey and I stopped in to check the house out we were overwhelmed by the vast size of the place, the filth of the first floor, the pink tiles of the 1950 time capsule kitchen, the amount of money it would take to buy and renovate the house and the amount of work that needed to be done. Once and then twice we looked at Frank’s house, then literally ran down the hill to our safe, solid, 950 square foot apartment and there we stayed, perfectly content until the day suddenly arrived when our cozy little home seemed far too small for a growing family with a legacy of great height and wildly enthusiastic movements. After long months of conversation with Catherine and many requests for aid and counsel sent heavenward to Frank, we took a deep breath and worked out a deal to purchase Frank’s house.

This February in the icy wind and driving snow, exactly four years after moving into the perfect little house behind Frank and Catherine under the same conditions, we moved a block and a half up the street and into a different world. Frank’s house is a strong, sturdy, and stately home. It’s a lifetime kind of home- a place to settle into and live from.

frank's house

This house is a comfort and a joy, and I can’t express the gratitude I feel for the fact that we were able to move in here.

Both Casey and I believe that Frank was directly involved. I know that he would be glad that we are here- and in fact, Olympia has inherited his room and the antique bed his mother purchased for him long ago.

This is a hundred year old house, but instead of ghosts I believe it is full of the communion of saints. I am daily reminded that our stories continue long after we are gone, that death is not the end of life, and that love lives on beyond the grave.

Happy birthday, Frank. Thanks for giving us a new beginning.

The Mighty Giant

xc colleen

Out here, they call me the mighty giant.  But in reality, I’m really just a Wisconsin farmgirl.

squash 1

If you’ve been following the blog at all, you’ll know that I run track and cross country for the University of Dallas.  This means that over Christmas break, I not only consume an amazing amount of mom’s homemade bread and Mary’s famously sweet cookies, and studiously avoid dad’s attempts at fermentation, but I also brave the winds and drifts of scenic Highway 33 to run the ridges and hills.  When the Polar Vortex hit, our big white farmhouse may have been a cocoon of warmth and woodsmoke, but outside the air was deadly frosty, with windchills hitting 45 degrees below zero.  I consider myself to be a pretty tough runner, and I held out for as long as I could.  7 degrees, 4 degrees, 3 degrees…I ran in it all.  But I finally came to my senses after ploughing uphill to the finish of a 5 mile run, my lungs begging for warm air and my legs, well, I think my legs would have felt something if they weren’t numb from the wind.  It was at that moment that I realized that I have a bit of self-determination that I put to good use.  And that I was a bit crazy.  So, when the Polar Vortex really did hit, I stayed inside, my breath blowing frost designs on the windows as I admired the swirls and play of the wind and snow outside my window.

When I flew back to Texas after break, track season began immediately, luckily without snow and negative windchills.  There is even a little sunshine here, most days. Tomorrow is my first competition of the season, and my coach has taken full advantage of my position on the team: that of the Mighty Giant.  Over the past two years of running for UD, I’ve transitioned from being a one or two event competitor to a jack of all trades.  Whatever coach wants me to do, I do it.  Last year I added the new skills of javelin throwing and the 400 meter hurdles to my repetoire.  And tomorrow, my coach has me slated to throw shot put, jump in the long jump competition, run the 60 meter high hurdles, and race the 800 meter run in preparation for a possible pentathlon competition later on this year.  For those of you who have no clue what that means (and really, I didn’t until this year), a pentathlon is a contest featuring five events.  In indoor track, all four of the above mentioned events are in the contest, and the fifth is the high jump, which I specialized in during high school.

The only catch to tomorrow’s competition is the fact that I have only thrown the shot put once in my life, I haven’t long jumped since I was 15, and as of this afternoon, I have run the high hurdles in practice.  But somehow coach has complete faith in my ability to wing it.  And somehow I know that I can.  It’s not my height.  It’s not the training, obviously because as you can see, I haven’t really had any.  It’s that I’ve been trained to handle almost anything from birth.  It’s that I’m a farmgirl from the Slattery clan.  I grew up racing my siblings through the rows of grapes and raspberries out in the big field, hurdling the curling tendrils of grape vines and the thorny clutches of drooping raspberry plants.

berries

I made the long jump off of the first floor roof of our house onto the over-tired family trampoline over and over again when I was eight.  I threw thousands of squash in spinning arcs into the arms of James and Clare during the golden autumns of Wisconsin.

squash

So, in reality, I’m not the Mighty Giant; I just grew up on Sweet Ridge Farm.

Long Winter

By Mary Slattery

Spring brings blossoms into the world. Summer sends forth a rhythm of busyness and purpose, Fall is full of blazing glory and winter is loooooooonng.

1557592_10152145024071282_541859412_n

Laura Ingles Wilder is my hero these days. Come to think of it, she always has been. Her books were read over and over in my family growing up. Now as an adult I still use them as a mental reference to measure the grit and common sense that it takes to life a life of sustenance and innovation.

cold and long

Winter is unfailingly a  most difficult and dark time for me year after year. I hate the cold, I hate the snow, I hate how I can’t enjoy what I love to do most outside in the sun. I don’t have much to complain about though when measuring my trials next to those who lived through the Long Winter which spanned from October to May in the  winter of 1880 and 1881.

During the long winter, about 36 blizzards hit down upon what was then Dakota Teritory making each month incredibly difficult. Survival was no easy challenge as wood and coal ran out and food became more and more scarce due to the inability to get a train shipment of commodities to the people of the prairie.

Image

As much as I hate winter my life is not difficult. Winter will not last 7 months, and I don’t have to worry about much. Life is not hard. I don’t have to make firewood by twisting hay for hours each day with numb hands as they did in the long winter. Nor do I have to eat the same rationed meal of potatoes and coarse brown bread made from wheat ground by hand in a coffee grinder.

loong winter

Nope, I’ve got it good.

blog post

Wait, not good. Great.

clare and i

And as Pa tells Laura in this much loved novel:

“It can’t beat us!” Pa said. “Can’t it, Pa?” Laura asked stupidly.”No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.”Then Laura felt a warmth inside her. It was very small but it was strong. It was steady, like a tiny light in the dark, and it burned very low but no winds could make it flicker because it would not give up.”

― Laura Ingalls WilderThe Long Winte

Well said, Pa. Well said.

Change

by Kate

Tonight my sister is leaving on a midnight train. She’ll leave the bright city lights far behind and head for the hills of home. After two weeks in the city she’s ready to see her horse and her apartment tucked into the corner of a barn and to gather her arms full of nieces and nephews and to experience some blessed solitude under Wisconsin skies.

wisconsin ranching

She’ll be back though. She has to. I’ve got a magazine to write, and I need her to help me do it. My sister is a farmer and she belongs to the land of southwestern Wisconsin in a deep and abiding way, but November has come and soon a blanket of snow will cover her fields. This gives her the freedom to pack up her ancient yet impeccable 4Runner and head to Pittsburgh for the winter.

I hope it will be exhilarating. I know it will be terrifying.

Change is hard. I know this. I’ve moved across the country alone more than once in the past, and the culture shock of a different place can be overwhelming. The city is different than the country. One state is different from another. Perhaps most importantly, when one grows up in a large loud family with a culture all it’s own and then steps outside its boisterous confines, the silence can be deafening. It’s startling to have time and space and silence in which to define the self as a separate entity outside the clan.

It will be challenging for my sister to spend time on her own here in the city, and yet of course she is not entirely alone. I am here too. There is still a sister to explore the city with, to fight with, to drink wine with, to tend the children of. I am alternately sweetly encouraging and bossily berating in my attempts to support Mary in her move, and she is returning the favor as she attempts to make some order in my home. My life is very full, and so is my laundry bin. In fact, when Mary arrived there was less of a bin, and more of a vast all encompassing heap. My days often consist of a breathless rush between farmers and sequined dancing and elderly ladies, all with two extremely energetic young children in tow. Mary waded into the chaos and ruthlessly cleaned and culled and created order. Change is hard. Sisters are good. Mary’s house cleaning was painful and necessary and in the end it was freeing. I hope that her winter in the city will be too.

 

Every Day is Halloween

By Mary

A man gave me free roses today. He told me to take as many white roses that had been sprayed with either a black or orange mist in lieu of the days celebration as I liked.

I picked the best roses that I could scrounge from the bucket and took them back to Kate’s so that they could add a cheery orange and white cast of color to her dining room.

Coming back to my sister’s house with the flowers in hand I reflected on how today is Halloween and why I was not feeling very attached to the holiday. It might be because I am not at home so I don’t really have my typical Halloween costume which can fluxuate between re-using one of my many bridesmaids dresses, or wearing my normal clothes and double H cowboy boots. That’s right, I am one redundant costumer. Either a cowgirl or a princess seems to be my typical go to.

094

Halloween attire aside, I think the real reason that I feel so very uninvolved in today’s frenzy is that for the last two weeks I have been with my sister, Kate in Pittsburgh. Life with Kate transcends into every day being Halloween. In all my life, I have only known one person who loves dressing up more than Kate. The other week Kate, our friend Maqui and I stopped at a Goodwill. I ended up snapping some pictures that illustrate my point.

wpid-20131024_161155.jpg

This black gown was not purchased to be worn on October 31st. No, it’s just another dress that Kate with pull out of her closet on a random day for a harp gig or to galavant somewhere in with some theatrical purpose.

While this blue 80′s number did not make the purchasing cut, my sister was drawn to it for a reason that I have yet to understand.

wpid-20131024_160545.jpg

Shopping makes me weary. The bonus of doing so with a sister is that I don’t have to with hold pretending how I feel.

wpid-20131024_151524.jpg

Fortunately, Kate did take the hint and after I left to retreat to her van she checked out a few other items of interest.

wpid-20131024_151357.jpg

By the end of the shopping trip, Kate did come out of the store victorious with a few black garbage bags of well….’Kate’ stuff, you know, costuming, or um, everyday Kate clothing. I am sure none of it will be on display today. But just wait a day or two and my sister might just be sporting it.

For another Halloween related post check out:

The Belle of Halloween