Grass Range Mercantile

Click here for audio: Grass Range Mercantile

So if it were me reading this post, I would already have a visual in mind merely from the sound of the title. But for those of you who don’t have anything come to mind when you hear the word “mercantile” I will fill you in.

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A sunny demeanered Saturday morning found me driving to Grass Range. A tiny little community that consists of mostly a truck stop called “Little Montana”, The Wrangler Bar, a school, and the Grass Range Mercantile. Grass Range is equal distance from our ranch the opposite direction of where we usually do our business, church, entertainment, groceries etc. Well I have found myself more and more interested lately in going to Grass Range to pick up my ‘Bountiful Basket’ every other week. At first, I started going to Grass Range because it was less crowded than my other options. But I continue to go there for reasons other than fighting off the crowds and battling it out for a parking place.

I arrived a few minutes early and got my baby girl out of the car, bouncing her infant carrier on my hip, hooked in the crook of my elbow, holding my plastic bags in my other hand to bring my fruits and veggies home in. Before I even made it to the swinging red wooden door of the mercantile I found it being opened for me. I looked up to see our organ player from church, Cathie. With a big smile she said, “I always see you either here or at church!” I laughed and replied, “Both good places to be I suppose!” We both entered the mercantile only to be greeted by more smiles and warm countenances.

A couple of the gals volunteering that morning called me by my first name even though I didn’t know theirs. And rather than being shocked or offended, it warmed my heart to feel familiar to them. This was only my second of third time at the Mercantile. Three women and an adorable little blue-eyed girl helped me gather my produce, pack it up, haul it out to my car, and clean up my basket. Meanwhile, making googley eyes at a smiley baby girl in her carrier, a conversation arose between the women about one of the items in the baskets this week.

“What is this?!” Asked Cathie, the organist from church, holding up an odd leafy green stalk.

“Bok Choy?” Someone answered sheepishly.

“Never heard of it!” Said Cathie laughing.”No idea what to do with it!”

“I think it’s kind of like a cabbage? Used in Asian food?”

I looked up upon recognizing the name. I had used ‘baby bok choy’ in a poem I wrote for my College Poetry Workshop when I was a sophomore. The poem in which I compared myself to a pomegranate. Wierd…I know.

“My sister cooks that I think? Or has eaten it? I dunno,” I’m not sure why I am talking at this point realizing my input is irrelevant and unhelpful. “She lived in Japan. For her mission.” I know this isn’t clearing up the Bok Choy mystery but my mouth just keeps moving. I know Cathie knows what I am talking about by “mission” but I doubt anyone else is really following. Everyone is just smiling their friendly, genuine, happy-Saturday-morning-at-the-Mercantile smiles.

“Here…take mine!” Cathie says. Pushing her bok choy into my bag.

“Oh! I don’t know what to do with it!” Laughing nervously, my eyes dart around to my pile of veggies. “Do you want my celery? I despise celery.”

“No. Just take it. I can’t eat all that myself anyway.” Cathie insists I take her bok choy so I graciously accept, remembering City Mouse’s post on “awkward social circumstances” I accept her offering, wondering in my mind how I can repay her act of graciousness. But the more I offer the more she declines. Not because what I’m offering isn’t good enough, or that she expects more, or even anything in return for that matter. She’s just being kind. And giving. She proceeds to give me all of her green bell peppers, radishes, celery (even though I told her I despise it. I take it because I know it makes her feel good) and even gave me her lemons. I cannot believe this woman just gave me over half of her Bountiful Basket!

I thank her again and again as she smiles and heads out the door saying, “See you at church!” And I walk back into the store full of smiley, friendly, cheerful, neighborly people.

I wander around the store looking for something to eat. It was 10:00 in the morning and I hadn’t eaten breakfast and was continuing on to Billings, and hour and a half drive. I snagged a sack of trail mix off one shelf, then circled my way to look for a drink. Finding myself in the hardware aisle (mercantile remember…it’s like a cure-all for your hometown needs.) There are two skinny little ranch boys with huge grins on their faces, looking about 8 and 10 years old. The older one, buzzed dark hair, big metal rimmed glasses, and freckles to boot, holds up a gallon of vanilla ice cream and smiles.

“I asked my mom but she said I cain’t get the 5 gallon bucket!”

“Better than nothing!” I say. Imagining how that ice cream will probably be gone by the time the two walk home. Which isnt far in Grass Range. Which, for the same reason, is probably the mother’s reasoning for shutting down the 5 gallon vanilla ice cream request. Among all other reasons of course.

I find my drink and some Cracked Pepper Spits for the drive, then I step up to wait in line at the little one-teller counter. Three men in wool caps, Carhartt and camo are in line with hardware supplies. I set baby girl in her carrier down on the floor as my arm is much to weak to lug around a 17 lb 7 month old for extended periods of time. The man up to bat at the counter says, “Ah. Let this gal go. We ain’t in no hurry.” Referring to himself and the two men behind him, who appear to be in a different party. I thank him, graciously, and step up to the cutest, round-faced old gentleman at the cash register. He rings up my soda, then looks back and forth from the trail mix to the sunflower seeds. There was no price tag. I panic, run back to the spot where I got them….no price there either. I’m sweating, feeling awkward about the nice man that let me cut him and half the store in line, now I’m holding up the line with a complicated order. The old man just shrugs and says, “I will just ring it up the same as these seeds.”

I know darn well that doesn’t equal out. Especially when my total is only 3.47 and that included at can of pop, a large bag of seeds and a large bag of mixed nuts and dried berry trail mix! But I have learned in my short 20 minute visit to Grass Range Mercantile that these folks are genuinely happy to be alive today. Happy to serve. Happy to share their veggies, share their good news about ice cream and share their place in line with me. Me: geek-chic,big-haired, makeup-junky ranch wife who dresses like she just walked out of Urban Outfitters, not off the cattle guard!

That drive to Billings was so pleasant having had my morning jump started by such pleasant folks. It just made me so happy to live where I live. I found beauty in such an unassuming place. And as I drove the sun spilled over winter-brown rolling hills. Which may sound less worthy than green fields or white beaches but I loved seeing the freckles of sage brush over the shoulders of hillsides that later jet rocks out that spike up like stegosaurus fossils. I just love how raw and unadulterated it is out here. How people aren’t trying to be anyone they aren’t and are unashamed to make others feel good. I hope I can remember that and treat others with the same regaurd. Maybe a pay-it-forward is all I owe Cathie, a widowed, lonely woman who found ‘peace of heart’ in sharing her vegetables with someone since she has no one to share them with at home. Today I told her at church she would have to come have dinner and reap the rewards of her bountiful sharing nature!

Something I learned long ago from a dear family member, “Being charitable includes allowing others to be charitable.” And the best example of that is Christ. If you have stories of charity, or recipes for bok choy please feel free to comment!

Xoxo-Country Mouse

安心

Awkward social circumstances are bad enough. Awkward social circumstances when you don’t understand the cultural context and unspoken undertones are pretty miserable. First, some backstory:

I have a dear friend named Jing. She’s a doctor from Xi’an, China who I originally met in Japan. At that time, I was a missionary, and when we met her she was studying Japanese, trying to pass an exam to get into a post-graduate medical research program at one of Japan’s top universities. Now, years later, she’s a graduate of that university and is a medical professor back in China. She recently got a job in Shanghai at a research hospital specializing in pediatrics. And she’s a Mormon. Don’t you think that would make an awesome one of those “I’m a Mormon” commercials? Well, she’s more than just awesome commercial material, she’s an angel of a human being.

In Chinese culture, there is a complex set of rules surrounding social relationships. Friendships and kinships are interwoven with webs of reciprocal obligation. When people do nice things for you, it is expected that you will do nice things in return for them when the need arises. I would do nice things for Jing no matter what because I love her and she is a dear friend, but as it is, I don’t think I will ever “get even” with her in this lifetime. Every time I see her she does things for me and gives things to me. Once when we were still in Japan we rode our bikes to her apartment and it was raining so I had my rain suit on. She insisted that my rain suit wasn’t warm enough and gave me a down coat to put on underneath it. I tried to give the coat back later and she said it was “too big for her.” A few years later, while I was living in Taiwan, I visited Japan for a week and stayed at Jing’s house. Of course I showed up with a cold and allergies because my body likes to make good impressions on people, so she wrapped me up and stuffed me full of expensive medicines and fed me everything she had. Later on that week I complimented a parasol she owned and she gave it to me. When I left, she snuck a beautiful shawl into my luggage.

This time when I met up with her again she promptly bought us dinner and tried to give me another beautiful shawl and another coat because the one I was wearing “wasn’t warm enough.” Then she gave me some more expensive medicine because my body was trying to make an impression again with a lingering cough. I started thinking about what I could do to pay any of this kindness back. Thinking I’d like to be spending some of my free time doing helpful things and especially after my experiences of a few months ago being admitted to a hospital in China, I told her I’d like to volunteer at her hospital and wondered if there were any volunteer activities available.

That turned into her finagling me an under-the-table job. She set me up with the volunteer department but said that when I came to volunteer I could come work in her office and help her make publicity materials and translate things. She then told me she found some money she could pay me for some of that work, and I found out later she was intending to pay me out of her own pocket.

For these couple weeks, I’ve been coming to the hospital three or four days a week, awkwardly shuttling between my friend’s office and the official volunteer department, who had me join in a couple activities at the beginning but hasn’t seemed to have anything valuable I can do for them with my limited language skills. So it’s turned, for the most part, into me working on things for Jing in her office and eating lunch together with her in the cafeteria, which they give me a free ticket for since I’m a volunteer.

Well, I guess there’s stuff going on under the surface and I really try my best to be savvy and on top of things, but it’s really hard at this point to make a good decision about the reality of this whole situation.

This morning, the lady who supervises the volunteer office where I go to sign my name and get my free lunch ticket each day asked if I had some time today to talk. Sure, I said, I can talk right now. So I sat down and smiled and got into a conversation that would have been full of awkward silences even if I had fully understood what was going on. She asked me about myself, what I study, why I’m here. She asked me how long I would be here and what my schedule was like. These were things that I’d already told them when I signed up as a volunteer, and I wasn’t quite sure where it all was headed. We spoke standard Mandarin, which I can get along in as far as simple conversations, but I felt like we might as well have been speaking Turkish for all I really got about what was really going on. She talked about how it sure would be nice for me to work with the college-aged volunteers. She was sure I had some wisdom and experience I could share with them, and they’re all young and speak the standard dialect. (In many areas of China, families speak their native dialects at home, many of which are totally unintelligible to those who have only studied the standard national dialect, and older people don’t usually communicate well outside of that native language.) So I said of course I’d be willing to do whatever she thought was helpful with the younger volunteers.

“Oh, they’re all in school now, of course,” she said. They won’t be out of school until the summer, by which time I won’t be here anymore.

“I mean, I guess I could arrange to come in during later hours on a weekday sometime,” I said. She nodded vaguely and then said they don’t come in on weekdays.

“I don’t know if you have college volunteers on the weekend, and I usually have other activities on the weekend, but maybe I could arrange a time?”

She kind of nodded half-heartedly. She asked for my phone number and told me to have a nice day.

I have no problem with the fact that there’s not actually much for me to do here. I realized a few days into my start as a volunteer that my abilities to help would be hampered a lot by the fact that I don’t speak or understand the local dialect. But I appreciated all of the trouble my friend had gone to to get me set up and I wanted to do the most I could to pay her back for her kindness. Even though the hospital didn’t have a lot for me to do, I thought that working for her in her office and helping her translate emails and lay out little posters and booklets was a legitimately helpful thing to do and resolved to come down as many days as possible. But now it seems likely that not only does the volunteer department not have any use for me, they might be trying to tell me to leave so I stop “taking advantage” of the free lunches. And I’m afraid most of all that I might have gotten my friend in trouble or be causing her some problems here in a new job because of all the strings she tried to pull for me.

I came back to Jing’s office after the conversation with the volunteer coordinator and told her briefly what had happened but I noticed that she looked very sad and distracted. She told me that her mother is missing and that she’d have to leave for today. She’s been taking care of her parents, who came back to live with her after the Chinese New Year holiday, and apparently her mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and hasn’t been doing very well. So as soon as I came back to my friend’s office with this social awkwardness I’m trying to figure out, I find out that she’s been waiting for me to come back so she could leave to go find her mother, who wandered out of the house this morning and can’t be found. She was trying to hold it all together but I could tell that stress and worry were gnawing at her. I asked her if there was anything I could possibly do to help out, and told her to call me if there was. I asked if she needed to contact the police and she said no – and I’m culturally clueless and powerless enough here to even know where I could look for outside help. So all I can do is sit down and write things out and try to piece together enough of a coherent understanding of the situation to know how I can best help out my friend. The only thing I can come up with right now is to pray.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to get back to an internet connection to post this. I don’t know what use an open-ended story full of anxiety is for anyone else. I wonder if prayers can work retro-actively. In the hopes that they can, I’m going to send this little story out there and ask anyone who might read it to send up a little prayer for Jing and for her mother and to ask that she might be found and safely returned home. And I realize that you may not even read this until long after the situation gets resolved, but in the hopes that God’s mercy isn’t limited by our timeline, I’d ask for your hopes and prayers to be with us.

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I just had the best conversation with Jing. Once again, she’s somehow pulled through and not only is everything OK, everything is better than it was before. In Japan, I was ostensibly teaching her, but she constantly teaches me. Here I am in her office, ostensibly helping her, but she is helping me.

She came back and said she’d found her mother and had gotten her safely home. I was so happy to hear that, and I said an immediate silent prayer of thanks to Heavenly Father and to anyone whose prayers might have come back in time and helped out. (I still like that idea of time-traveling prayers.) She sat and rested a little  – I’m finishing up the booklet she had me laying out and I was about to move from her desk but she said not to worry, she’s off to a meeting at the hospital’s other location and was just going to rest here for the few minutes before she had to leave, and so we chatted about things.

I recently helped her write up an email in really polite-sounding English. She’s been trying to get some help from a professor she worked with in Japan and he’s being weirdly uncooperative. A separate professor responded gladly, but she says this one was always hard to work with and tried to sideline her work while she was there so she suspects he may be trying to be political or vindictive or something in all of this, which is pretty ridiculous since what she’s trying to do is cure disease in sick kids. But we tried our best and sent a newly worded email out and I told her I hoped it would work.

Then she told me, “When I was in Japan I got a lot of nice things. Like, physical things and good living conditions. But the best thing I got there was the things having to do with the Church – the peace of mind and the good feelings it gave me. The …” she struggled to find the Japanese word, because when we talk about Church things it’s best to do it in a language that won’t be overheard – “the jiai that I learned.” Charity.

“Those people,” she continued, referring back to the cranky professor, “just don’t understand those things. They have an easy life in some ways but they’ve never learned the most important things that can make you truly happy. And so they hold on to their anger and competitiveness because to them those are the only things that matter.”

It was so overwhelming to sit there and talk with her – I almost wanted to cry, but held it in – about how much the basic tenets of Christianity had meant to her. Forgiveness, charity, love for others – these are what she considered the most important things she’d gained. And all my worry and fret about my social shortcomings melted away as I was able to again feel 安心 about it all. That’s a great word – it’s pronounced almost identically in Chinese and Japanese as “anshin.” It literally means peace-heart, and it’s just that. We’d translate it in English as “peace of mind,” but I like to think of the feeling as peace of heart because that’s exactly where you feel it, as the huge knot of tension in your chest melts away. While it sometimes describes a fleeting feeling, like the flood of relief felt when someone lost is found safe, it can also be an over-arching state of being. It can be a calm assurance in the eventual resolution of trouble that leads us to be confident in our unease. It leads to gratefulness rather than distress when you’re faced with people who are being confrontational or difficult. It helps you to face them with compassion and understanding rather than anger. And the dear lady I met and taught these things to all those years back just taught me again why it’s such a blessing to have in our lives.

Welcome to the Country

It’s somewhere between 11 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit this sunny Central Montana morning. And that is a heatwave compared to earlier this morning where it stood at a whopping two degrees! I will certainly take the Weather Channel’s word for it while I stay indoors snuggled up to my sweet baby girl, contemplating what to cook for the guys when they come in for lunch. Although it is bitterly cold we are in post-blizzard mode, my husband and little son are out assessing the damage, checking for newborn calves, and feeding hay to some hungry mama cows. The wind the other night raged for hours. Visibility was so poor that our Sunday evening company had to stay in the spare room on bunk beds overnight.

On the upside, I live in the most beautifully balanced wide open space I could ask for. Twelve miles from town (with a population of 6,000 there were more people at the Carrie Underwood concert in the Billings Metra last week than live in our town) and only one mile off the highway, we live on a gorgeous cattle ranch of about 2500 acres, with an additional 3500 acre mountain ranch where we summer pasture. In the winter the fields are golden along a royal blue mountainous horizon capped with crisp white. A vision.

Days like today are a photograph from my living room window, overlooking a pasture of black Angus mama cows and their skipping, bucking, happy baby calves. In a short while my husband and our hired man will bring the tractor out and leave a line of chopped green hay for the hungry cows to bury their cold noses in, rooting for the good flaky bits that fall to the bottom. Like the delicious morsels of oat clusters in Honey Bunches of Oats! Even cattle know what they like!

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Since about January we have been in the thick of calving season. Which, in a nutshell, involves sorting cows (according to when they are going to have their babies) into heifers, heavies and lates. The lates are usually good out in the field to graze until they get close to delivery (heavy) when we will move them into the calving pasture outside the barn where we can easily keep an eye on them. Checking every couple hours for mama cows in labor. Most can instinctually have their baby on their own, lick him clean and mother up to him. But sometimes they can have a troublesome labor and delivery and may need to be brought into the barn and assisted. I won’t get too gory on ya just yet but having babies is a messy business. Sometimes a cow will have her baby just fine but if the baby is sick, cold, or not latching on to nurse we bring the pair into the barn and placed in a jug (a smaller penned off area) to keep a close eye and give mom and baby time to figure things out. The heifers, are first time mamas. They need extra TLC as this is their first bought of pregnancy and motherhood. More often than not, they will need a helping hand. This is only one phase of the ranch. Like seasons, we will go through several stages of production this year just like last year, and just like the years to follow.

Some of the big events on the ranch following calving (which is a marathon event in comparison to the other big ranch events) include branding which is coming up in April, then trucking all the cattle to the upper ranch in June for summer pasture to graze and fatten up all summer long, also giving us a chance to grow alfalfa, cut, rake and bale it up for winter feed before we bring the cattle back in the fall. Then we wean the calves, now huge from grazing all summer, and ship them off. The most anticipating part of the year, to see what our hard work and sacrifice has brought to fruition, in form of what our calves sell for at auction in the fall.

In a nutshell, that’s the ranch for ya. Bare bones. I will get into the meaty part (no pun intended) as we blog along our happy way. My goals for this blog are to expand not only on the tough, long days as a rancher, but from my stand point as a rancher’s wife. Mostly this will be comically amusing because I grew up in the mountain valley of Souuth-Western Montana where there is agriculture yes but a lot more hippies and summer-homers. Much different from central Montana ranch life where your neighbors are 4-5 miles as the crow flies…close enough that my little Freddie and neighbor Lane could ride horses back and forth from Wild Wild West Ranch to Deschemaeker Ranch. This is a new, evolving process for me. Along with motherhood and all the goodness that comes with it. I will share ranch stories, mom stories, music stories, trucking stories, auction stories and gospel stories. Because despite all else my life is made of, the first and foremost entity in my life is the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as a member of his church, my responsibility and desire is to live his gospel in and out every day of my life. Regardless of where I live. But I will say, Christ’s love and our Father in Heaven’s love is abounding. I truly feel his presence here on the ranch and I am blessed with lots of family and loved ones to share that with here at home. And my purpose is to share and teach it to any that read this blog.

Xoxo-Country Mouse

Welcome to the City

“I was talking to Beth and Lacey today,” my husband told me a few weeks ago.

“Oh, your classmates from Nanjing? I’m glad we’re not the only ones who moved to Shanghai for our internships. We really need to invite them to dinner one of these days,” I answered.

“Yeah, actually, guess what? Beth works just one station away from here, on line 2. But the two of them are living way over by Hongqiao.”

“That’s so far!” I said, thinking about my husband’s own 1-hour commute every day. Beth’s must be at least an hour and a half.

“Yeah, I was thinking since we have an extra bedroom in this apartment we should have seen if she wanted to rent it,” he continued, “you know, it would be a lot more convenient for her and it would help us pay the bills. We still haven’t come up with the rent for May.”

“That would be really cool, but we can’t ask her that now. That wouldn’t be fair to Lacey.”

“I know. But it would have worked out perfectly.”

Well, a few weeks passed, everyone got back to town after Chinese New Year, and my husband started back to his leave-the-house-at-7-get-home-at-7 schedule. And then last week he got a call from Beth. He called me right afterward to see what I thought. Some after-the-fact technicality had come up in Beth and Lacey’s housing contract and she wouldn’t be able to stay there after all. Kind of par for the course in the chaos that is finding a place to rent in China. Add to that, though, the expense of living in a city like Shanghai and the short-term schedule that my husband and his classmates are all on, and it’s understandable why Beth was in such a tough spot. She had called asking my husband if he had any recommendations for a good real estate agent, one who preferably could handle emergencies. We offered her the second room in our apartment.

So mild-mannered but witty Beth moved in last weekend, and we all celebrated by going out to dinner in a neighborhood that didn’t actually have any viable forms of dinner. We were trying to see a movie afterwards, and apparently Movie Neighborhood and Affordable Dinner Neighborhood are not a very close commute. Shanghai is kind of two cities smashed into one. One of those cities is in China. It’s the kind of place where you live on the seventh floor of a building with no elevators, where you have to dump a bucket of water in your toilet sometimes to get it to flush, where you can buy a whole chicken out on the street and they kill and pluck it for you, and where dinner is about $1.50 US. $3.00 tops, if you want to get fancy. The second city is like an amped-up Manhattan with a Ladies’ Club outing to get to. It’s all finance companies and shopping malls, but there’s not anything you could actually afford in those malls. The stores you stroll past in those malls have names like St. Laurent Paris, Miu Miu and Mont Blanc. Those malls hire dudes to stand next to every door and you feel bad walking out of them because you’re wearing your running shoes and you’re pretty sure the door dudes are going to go home and talk about the shabby American they had to hold the door for today. And that second city is where you have to go to find a movie theater, and there aren’t a lot of places for get-to-know-your-new-roommate dinners in that city.

We paused at the door of a Japanese place that looked sort of affordable. There was wheatgrass growing on stainless silver trays in the window. I counted the bills in my purse, coming up with about $8 total. The movie tickets had been a lot more than we’d been planning on, since they told us the student discount only worked during the day.

“Let’s go out and see what we can find down the street.”

It was one of the last cold evenings of the year. March was apparently coming in with its last burst of lion energy. Even now, five days later, I’m opening my apartment windows and the rickety heater has been resting silently for at least 48 hours. But that night the wind was cold, and the three of us rambled past the subway stop, down a little street south of the expat housing developments where people were walking around and it looked like we might be getting closer to China again. We saw some flashing lights; they were all spas and massage parlors, but I thought I saw a convenience store up ahead and we might just have a shot.

A lady was helping her little boy pee on the side of the sidewalk. Afterwards, she bundled him back up in at least 14 layers of padded clothing that made him toddle around like a marshmallow, round except for the sewn-in slits that exposed his little bum in the back. Beth was talking about the kinds of fruit she wanted to look for and how they compared here to the prices at her grandmother’s house in Taiwan, and I was getting hungry thinking of the prospect of finding some mangosteens or dragon eyes. “Where the heck am I and what am I doing here?” I thought, watching the lights from the department stores behind us reflect in a lazy blink from the darkened windows lining the street ahead. The cold wind bit at my cheeks and inflated my bangs yet again and something my husband was saying was punctuated with a little corny joke that was supposed to be my cue to laugh.

I snapped back to the conversation and joined with a joke about duck stomachs being packaged like candy and we all giggled together. My husband squeezed my hand and rubbed the back of my fingers to warm them up and I thought, “Nevermind. I know exactly where I am.”