Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Cusp of Spring

Tracy & Her Dad  2008

In February I officiated the funeral service for Richard Wortman, a husband, a father, and a true cowboy from the Lloyd area.  A hard 45 miles south of Chinook, Montana, the Wortman ranch sits alone in the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains.  Dick leaves his wife Lela, and four daughters, Christine, Glenna, Gayla, and Tracy.  A few years ago I photographed Tracy and her Dad for a magazine story, and his daughters asked me to take a few photos of the burial.  So I share some of those images here, with an astute account written by Tracy of her life with her father.  

The Cusp of Spring 
                                                               -- by Tracy Wortman

The year I turned five, Dad and I set the parameters of our relationship. I was born in March of 1961, the same year as the space race. Huge piles of snow figure prominently in the pictures of the winter of 1966. I have seen a picture of me, unrecognizable bundle on the back of Dad’s best mare, next to him on his favorite gelding, snow piled all around, with a caption reading “pretty cold for a four year old”.  My earliest memories do not include any of my three older sisters, or my Mother. My earliest memories do not include anyone else at all. It was just the two of us. I have no memory of my oldest sister, Christine, graduating from high school that May. I remember being aware that fall when she went to some mysterious place called “college”, which no one ever explained to me, and I thought I would never see her again. I know now that Mom and my sisters were gone during the week and came home on the weekends, roads permitting. But at the time, Dad filled up my world, my consciousness, my existence with his reality.  So, my earliest memories are just me and Dad, a barn, and horses.

Dad had no choice other than taking me with him wherever he went. I don’t remember learning to ride, but then I don’t remember learning to walk either. I rode his buckskin mare named for the forties song “Mairzy Doats . . . .” I didn’t know the words then: “mares eat oats, and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” I just heard her name as the words all mashed together into Mairzydoats. She was already old and experienced by the time I came along and she taught me more about myself and riding than any horse or human ever did. Anyway, I rode her that year, my feet in thick socks stuffed into cheap kids boots.  I’ve dressed a few stubborn four year olds in winter wear before, so I imagine the conversation every morning that winter could not have been particularly … easy for either of us. I cannot now say how Dad acted towards me on those mornings, getting me dressed, fed (I don’t and didn’t like oatmeal), ready for a big girl day – but I know he expected a lot from me and perhaps from that I developed my determination. I recall the usual argument about wearing my cowboy boots of course, but it was too cold. I recall bulky outerwear, a scratchy knitted hat with a hood over it, and itchy tights under whatever snow pants I wore. I hate tights to this day. It seemed like I was always cold.  Either I was born tough or thought it was important to be tough (there is a damned thin line between tough and stupid) or maybe I was just proud and willful and stubborn.  Snot and tears were frozen on my face, but I wouldn’t admit being cold when Dad asked. I never admitted needing to pee either. If you are cold and miserable and a couple miles from home horseback, wetting your pants does not improve your situation. I did that once. I don’t remember doing it a second time. We’d get back to the barn and Dad would lift me off. I’d be so cold and stiff that my toes and fingers and cheeks were all numb, but I’d hang out with Dad just the same while he unsaddled the horses and took care of the tack. We rarely got back in time to enjoy the late afternoon sun slanting into the barn’s south door, cheering and warming the interior, but I was always glad to be in it.

Our barn was purchased and moved from a place up in the Bear Paws Mountains – hills really. The wonders of the barn, a simple structure of substance, included a hay loft, a bronc stall, cow stanchions added by Dad, and numerous carved brands from long gone cowboys. It was situated away from the prevailing winds so the large heavy wooden sliding doors were north and south on either end with stalls along the east side. It had wide boards as saddle racks nailed high enough to the heavy studs of the walls so that horses could walk along without knocking the saddles down. Milk cow calves would sometimes suck on the saddle strings or latigo ends. By the time I was six, I was tending to my own horse. I’d prop my saddle on its horn, wrestle it onto my head, stand, and from there lift with both arms and jump to reach those racks. But that winter, he’d tell me to go on into the house to get warm. I’d stay with him though. Of course, his chores weren’t done yet because we needed supper and then he’d do the dishes. There were probably cows to milk too. There may have been warm baths, but I don’t recall that. I must have been whimpering or crying loud enough in my own bed for him to hear me. He came and brought me to bed in his room. I remember wanting very much to snuggle next to him, but I felt afraid to touch him. He was never demonstrative, and so like still water that reflects the sun and the stars and the moon, I have never been either. I’d lie next to him as close as possible, and very still so as not to disturb him. His broad back radiated warmth, and, like the barn, loomed strong and secure next to me in the dark. It was like falling asleep next to a stove.

March may be the cusp of spring, but it doesn’t always materialize as one might like. I’m not a big fan of winter weather. If I were snow skiing, or ice skating, or snowmobiling, it might be different. But following bovine around all winter with the added effort of staying warm and making equipment run is exhausting. I remind myself that Dad did it without equipment or electricity. Dad had a team and wagon and forked the hay on and off. Sometimes he had to sling bags of pellets over his saddle horn and together with the axe ride out to the cows. Dad did it because he loved the life style. But that was before my time. Sometimes, I think it has all been before, or outside of, or beyond my time. By the end of January, I am tired of winter. This year, winter was mild but particularly awful as Dad was unable to leave the house easily. So, going about the chores took on a lonelier cast with no good natured banter between us. Without the support and companionship of my sisters, it could not have been born. Every year, Dad expected a February thaw and promised it to himself as much as to me. Perhaps not coincidentally, he died smack in the middle of February on a day that reached fifty degrees. It had been warm for days before. The snow in the mountains released a glut of water and the creek rose and eliminated that ice chopping for the cows.

Dad had chosen his own burial site on Grandpa’s homestead. Mom and Dad had moved there, just a couple of miles away from my childhood home, after Dad’s parents died. They had moved the barn as well. The day we buried him was bright and clear and cold, and there had been a nasty little snow storm just a couple of days before. While everyone was there, his wife and daughters and grandchildren and some neighbors, I felt strangely disaffected. But I found it remarkably suitable to follow on horseback behind Dad’s casket on a wagon pulled by a team to that site. It felt appropriate too to lead his last best mare alongside, listening when she jogged to the chink of his spurs buckled through a cinch ring, just as if he were there. It was eminently fitting as well, I suppose, that I was cold and stiff and shivering, with tears and snot on my face and my feet stuffed stupidly into my cowboy boots. Just a few hundred yards northwest of the buildings, the site allows full view of either road coming into the creek and close access to first calf heifers grazing amiably by or rushing to the nearby feed bunks.  A hard, bitter wind beat at us the day we scraped an old wagon and some other deteriorated horse drawn equipment out of the frozen ground in our best attempt at preparation. Dad would be pleased we got rid of the junk. 

The Last Best Mare

That day, after the burial, the task completed, Dad would have told me to go to the house and get warm but he would not have been the least bit surprised if I had stood stubbornly there while his grandchildren covered the casket. But this time, with that watery half-light of a winter’s late afternoon slouched around the south facing door, I went back to the barn without him, my feet like blocks, his coat sloppy around my shoulders, to tend to the horses and remove the tack and spend a minute with his gear, comforted by horse smells and sounds, in the first best place I knew him. A place, no doubt, I will visit more often than the grave site to discover what I will do now in my own time, and who I will be, without him.



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