Raising the West - Free Sample

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A Beautiful Thread

The people of the earth are woven together like the threads of an enormous tapestry. Some threads are weight-bearing, and, if pulled, could cause the entire tapestry to fall to shambles. Other strings, while not necessary, add life and color to what would otherwise be a bland sheet. Most of the threads aren’t important individually, but as a whole, are the substance of the work of art, not standing out, but providing support. Lastly, certain threads fray, break, and generally cause disarray. It would be said that these threads are the ones that give character to what would otherwise be a flawless masterpiece. While perfection is something many strive for, it’s also something no one should acquire. To put it quite simply, perfection is boring, and a perfect tapestry would be nothing but a sham.

We’re all a piece of that tapestry, whether we are the weight-bearers, the substance, the color, or—for lack of a more endearing term—the troublemakers. Once in a lifetime we have the fortune to meet someone who is all four types; a person who has been so beautifully molded by life, to have obtained the essence of each thread, weaving his or her life through the tapestry, touching the hearts of all those who look upon it. Margaret Hoss is one of those people.

She was born to Barbara and Ted “TJ” Bussen on the sixth day of February in 1931. As the second youngest of nine children, she found life an adventure and grew to find pleasure in even the simplest of things. When Margaret reflects on her childhood, the mischievous look of adolescence flashes on her lined face. As the second youngest of nine children, seven boys and two girls, she quickly learned to utilize her position. “I usually had a companion in my little brother,” she said. “I think we got out of a lot of work together than the rest of them.” One of her favorite pastimes was playing dolls. “I got a new doll every year from Santa Clause under the tree. I played house, I had tea parties… I played dolls a lot.” While her family would play card games, she would curl up behind the stove, where it was warm and carry on with her imaginary adventures. “I had cutout dolls that I cut out from the old magazines that had Campbell’s Soup Kids, real round, rosy cheek kids, and I’d paste ‘em on cardboard, and I’d make little stands, and I’d make a little family.” Sometimes she would get wrangled into playing a game of casino, a card game. “I would do it, but I never enjoyed it much,” she admitted.

To get out of less desirable situations, like work, she said, “I played in the river in the summer time and built little mud castles out of the gumbo mud that was along the river banks.” She and her siblings found a common interest in the river that ran by their house. “One time, we built a whole town. We got mulberries, and crushed ‘em up, and we made the buildings purple and red. It was pretty cool until the river came up.” In the winter time, “we would back up the water with a dam and go ice skating. My brothers was into that.” Their differences were made apparent when she spoke of another pastime of her brothers. “They were also into going coon hunting along the river. They’d sell the hides for a few dollars. That was a sport that was fun for them.” While Margaret never begrudged hunting, she never found interest in it herself. Even as she was different, she was the same, and she found family traits she wanted to embody. Being born in the beginning of the Dust Bowl shaped Margaret. “I remember those years vividly, even though I was born in ’31.” The glasses of youth colored her understanding of the trying times her family faced. “I remember one night waking up and hearing this odd noise that was like a ‘chomp chomp chomp’ noise, and I was waking up the next morning, and my mom and dad was very sad. I said, ‘What happened?’ They said, ‘Well, a herd of grasshoppers had come through.’ Like a cloud of grasshoppers, and they landed.

 “We had an almost an acre garden planted and it was just up to where most of the work was out of it, where you felt good about it, and the garden was a big part of our livelihood and [the garden] was just little slender sticks. They’d just cleaned it up and flew off onto somebody else. I guess they had to survive, but whatever.”

Grasshoppers were only one of the concerns. “We’d be playing outside and my mother would call us in. It’d start to get dark in the middle of the afternoon, and like a kid you don’t think about it. Maybe rain. It would get darker and darker and she would call us and tell us to go to the cellar—just a homemade dugout. I hated it. Full of spiders. I’d rather blow away I think. But then we’d say the rosary down there… ‘cause that would console my mother I guess.

“Then we’d come out and it’d be over, and there’d be this fine silt over everything. We’d go to the house and you couldn’t see the color on the floor. And the curtains had this fine silt, finer than sugar, like flour I guess…

“It never affected me the way,” she paused, pensive. “I guess when you’re young like that, I wasn’t discouraged, you know, as long as the crick run, and I had a place to play in the summer time, we had fruit trees, mulberry trees, and prairies and a good garden. I felt rich. I think we probably were poor, but I always felt rich.” She expressed her feelings of good fortune compared to the neighbors who didn’t live along the river or have a good garden due to soil and water constraints.

Sharing her family’s good fortune was a virtue Margaret learned from her parents. Her mother, Barbara, impressed Margaret with her ability to make a meal for eleven stretch for unannounced visitors, and one tale of her father impacted her outlook on generosity.

“Well, in the ’31 Blizzard, when I was only six weeks old— I don’t remember this, but it was told—my mom was out working in the garden in the middle of the afternoon, it was a beautiful warm day I guess. I’m trying to think, the ’31 Blizzard was the middle of March and the horse—our horse’s name was Patches—a black pony, and he brought our three milk cows into the corral, and [my mother] stopped what she was doing, maybe getting ready to plant, because the garden and it was the last part of March, but she got up and closed the gate on the milk cows ’cause… maybe three and a half hours later they would have actually been milked. But it got within like an hour and a half the temperature supposedly dropped from like 50 to 55… almost into the single digits. My dad worked in at the elevator in Wallace, and he made it home. I think he walked about two and a half miles and he got there. And the storm hit in the middle of the night and it was a cattle-killing blizzard, and when it was over all of our neighbors lost their milk cows except for us.

“This is one thing that stands in my mind that I thought was very altruistic of my dad, is that we had some neighbors named Maude and some neighbors named Yale and they’d lost their milk cows in the blizzard and he loaned each one of them a milk cow. We had one milk cow for our family. We loaned each of them a cow until they could get on their feet and purchase one on their own. That was very generous. I guess you know those things impress you when you’re growing up and you think, ‘That’s the way I want to be.’”

Another part of her education was in a one-room schoolhouse she shared with her siblings and a neighbor. However, her formal education ended at eighth grade—at least for the time being. “My dad didn’t believe in higher education,” she said. “We just went to a little country school, so when I was thirteen I was out. I just did any kind of work, because work’s what you did. If you didn’t, you shouldn’t be on the face of the earth. I guess that’s kind of the impression I got growing up. So you did something, you babysat or you helped the neighbors, or you had operations, or you worked in the garden pulling weeds.”

While Margaret has proven a hard-working, loving, generous person, worthy of her family’s name, she set herself apart from others, and considered herself a “loner.”

“My dream was one day to live in a cabin all by myself in the mountains far away. I felt I never had enough space or privacy. I was just a very private kid.” While time turned this dream into a childhood fantasy, Margaret came close to her dream, starting in the aftermath of a harsh blizzard.

“The first time I met Walt was in the ’48 blizzard. I would have been seventeen. Pete [my brother] and I were staying at a house there in Wallace [in my brother’s house]. [My brother] had gone to see in-laws in Mitchel County, and this blizzard came in, unannounced. Not forecast or anything. He had a big consul radio, and I remember my brother [Pete] knocking on the door saying, ‘You gotta come in; you can hear every station under the sun.’ And the radio’s clearer than it’s ever been and we sat there and just marveled, because usually you only got like three stations, static. But we didn’t know why—it had something to do with the pressure of this huge storm, but we didn’t know that. So when we got up for breakfast, he got up and tied a rope around his waist.

“‘You hold onto this rope, you follow me. We’re going to go out and try to close the door on the sheds,’ [he said]. We didn’t shut ’em up at night. But we had to close the door so the snow don’t get in. You couldn’t see, it was a total whiteout. I held onto the rope, so we both got back into the house safe, and for three days, that’s the way it was.

“On the second day, my brother Pete and I was out scooping snow trying to find the pigs. They were alive. They had air pockets and we were scooping snow off of them, and Walt rode in on his horse, and he rode in from out [North of Wallace], which must have been about twelve miles out. I don’t know, maybe more. And he asked us if we had saw any stray cattle, and that’s the first time I saw him.”

Margaret got a gleam in her eyes and a slight smile found her lips. “I was very impressed. Very impressed.” She paused. “So I guess you could say that’s where I met him.”

Walt wasn’t the typical “knight in shining armor.” When asked to describe him, Margaret quickly supplied, “Unpolished. Very unpolished.” She went further, saying, “I mean he was unrefined. But, he was very kind-hearted. He liked people. He was pretty short on social skills, but so was I, so we was probably a very good match.” As Margaret spoke of him, it wasn’t hard to imagine her as the young, sheltered girl gazing at this sharp-witted albeit unconventional man, with cheeks red from the cold, kind eyes looking down at her from his steed.

Five years later, at the age of 22, Margaret and Walt began dating. “Our first date… we went to a roping or something at Sharon Springs, and we went to that and watched them rope calves.” Six months later they were wed.

“Nobody approved,” she recalled. “We came from two complete different backgrounds. He was considered to my family as a rowdy, whisky-drinking pagan. [He] swore a lot. My family was devout Catholic. We didn’t cuss. We didn’t drink. I mean my brothers did, but we drank ‘socially’… you know, ‘appropriately.’” These challenges were exacerbated by the fact that Walt, born in 1909, was 22 years older than Margaret.

“But anyway,” she pressed on, “nobody approved. So we got married at the Catholic Church at Goodland because I was working as a nurse’s aide up there. He took instructions to join the church. Mostly I think I did it to please my mother because I think it would have broke her heart for me to be married in a ceremony she didn’t recognize, and I think he did it for the same reasons, too. So it was a rather mundane sort of thing.”

Regardless of the wedding’s simple nature, Margaret Dorothy Bussen became Margaret Dorothy Hoss, and was successfully united in marriage with Waldo Emerson Hoss, and that was all that mattered. She readily recounted the details of her new home.

“To me, it was a chance to get that solitude and, you know, freedom and alone time that I always wanted growing up. And, you know, growing up in a small house and that many siblings and never feeling like I had enough—I just liked having the privacy.”

Even though she didn’t get her solitude in the mountains, she did was able to find quiet in the rolling prairie with her new husband. Before long, they found themselves not quite so alone, with three children: Cindy, Joe, and Maralee. With the children, Margaret and Waldo developed routines and experienced changes.

“We had a big long tub, and we’d take baths on Saturday night. We’d heat up the water and carry it out.” Before too long, they gained other amenities. “I think Maralee was three, so I’d say we’d been married about seven years [when] we got electricity. I don’t remember how quick we got running water. Probably a year or two.”

Electricity and running water definitely changed Margaret’s experience, but, staying true to her nature, she found peace in the simplicity of country living. “I didn’t miss it so much because we used coal oil lamps in the evening and I went with [Walt] a lot in the daytime. But, then, you know, after we had the kids the outhouse and all that was a tad inconvenient. Especially on snowy nights…” She chuckled. “Kids wasn’t too thrilled.”

The Hosses’ lifestyle was somewhat of a marvel to the rest of Margaret’s family, who overlooked their initial hesitation at Margaret and Walt’s union. “Of course, after we were married, all was forgiven. All of the Bussen cousins, like my brothers’ kids, they liked to come out here. I think just because it was rather primitive and different from their own house.” The Bussen cousins also had plenty of cousins to play with; after twenty years of marriage, Margaret and Walt had seven children: Cindy, Joe, Maralee, Lisa, Carmen, Wyatt, and Dalton.

“I really enjoyed my kids. Enjoyed them a lot.” As children do, they helped Margaret remember the joys of her own childhood. “I’d do just, like, fun things with ’em. Like, Sunday afternoons take them to the river, build sand castles.” Raising seven children was quite the experience, especially with changing technology. “It was easier with the last four because I had more modern conveniences,” Margaret imparted. “Pampers was invented, so, you know, you used cloth diapers like I did with the first three. That was really nice. I also had electricity and running water, so that helped with getting the laundry done… Actually, I think Lisa was a year old before we got a washing machine and dryer. And they made Pampers, you know, throw away diapers.

“That was cool because [Lisa] had really sensitive skin, and the cloth diapers, I could never find soap that wouldn’t irritate her skin. It didn’t matter what soap or how many times I put ’em through a rinse, hung ’em out in the sun, she’d get a rash. It was an uphill battle, but with the Pampers she never had a reaction. I don’t know what it was, must have been the soap, but it was great,” she finished.

In addition to the routines of everyday life and outdoor adventures, her children experienced the labor as Margaret did. “They went along with us on the farming or ranching… We had 100 head of cattle, and then we farmed some. We were fortunate to get enough water to get some wheat. We had some money from that. And then we tried to raise some feed to feed cattle. We almost always milked a cow. I usually milked the cow. And we had our own butter and cream and milk. We had a few hogs, so we’d give the extra milk to the pigs. We had chickens for eggs.”

Farming and ranching wasn’t easy, but, according to Margaret, “It’s kind of like Dalton said: ‘If you enjoy it, it’s not work.’ … We enjoyed it. We didn’t make a lot of money, but I never felt poor,” a sentiment she had carried over from her youth, and one she attempted to instill in her children. “I tried not to say things or do things so my children felt poor. Like, if they really wanted something, like… a certain outfit and it was very expensive, I said, ‘Yes they can have that, or they can have, like, three pairs of jeans.’ They had a choice in what they make. So hopefully no one ever grew up feeling poor.”

After years of working on the ranch, and raising her family, her family continued growing with grandchildren. “I just had Dalton, and I found out Maralee was going to have Jeremy and I wasn’t very thrilled, and I said something like I wasn’t ready to be a grandma, and it hurt Maralee’s feelings and her husband’s, Bob’s. So, then, to compensate, I bought a bumper sticker that said, ‘Ask me about my grandbabies.’ And, of course, once [Jeremy] was here, it was cool because he and Dalton played together as brothers. They was eight months apart.”

From then on, Margaret’s family quickly expanded to include eighteen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren. However, according to Margaret, none of her grandchildren are spoiled. “I indulged them all, but I really don’t like the word ‘spoiled.’”

With her grandchildren and other family members, Margaret has left a trail of light, happiness, life, and humor. With so many accomplishments, she was hard pressed to guess what her greatest achievement was.

“Staying alive,” she quipped, with her typical sense of humor. There was a contemplative pause. “I don’t know, staying healthy?” The lines between her eyebrows deepened, and she set her mouth. “Well single-handed, I mean, everything was joint effort as paying off the farm, holding onto it, not losing it, managing our money, and you know, we hit hard times,” she conceded, “but that was all joint effort, so you know, I don’t know.”

Finally, “I guess my greatest accomplishment, I feel I have a strong bond with my kids, which I value very highly.” A characteristic mischievous gleam entered her eyes, and her lips twitched with a hint of a smile. “Plus staying alive.”

Reflecting back on her time “staying alive,” she said the “happiest” time of her life was “when the kids were small and life was simple.” Still, Margaret attested to the power of word choice. “Because when you say things like [happiest] it’s like as compared to unhappy times. There’s been times, like when we lost our oldest son. Of course that was a very depressing time. I don’t know I want to use words like happiness and unhappiness. I just say I had a pretty fortunate, blessed life overall.”

Margaret was fortunate, and with so much experience, including an honest-to-God, until-death-do-us-part marriage, she proved the perfect candidate to offer wisdom. She advises her family to, “Never consider divorce as an option. I mean, I’ve already given that, not that it was taken,” she chuckled. “Nah, I really believe that commitment. I mean, you could say compatibility is so important, you could say common interests, same faith, same lifestyles, see yourself in the world the same way, or, like, having the same set of values… I think ultimately it boils down to having total commitment. Also,” she added, “divorce was a lot rarer when I was younger because divorce wasn’t considered. It was a bad word. It just wasn’t there, so I feel commitment.”

Her advice wasn’t bound only to marriage. The most adept words of advice she could give were simple, honest, and powerful: “Enjoy life. Whatever you do, whatever path you choose. Be true to yourself. And, honor yourself, respect yourself your entire life.”

To write in entirety about the intricacies of Margaret’s life can’t be done. Not because of limited time, failing memories, or a lacking vocabulary, but because it is impossible to capture the essence of such a complex person. Nor would it be possible for one to count the ways in which Margaret has personally touched the lives of those around her. She is but one thread in the tapestry of life, but that thread, that beautiful, unique, once-in-a-lifetime thread, has brought forth so much life.

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