Freedom of Movement

Author’s Note: While the story is fiction, the details of life on the North Dakota prairie during the Great Depression are quite real. These are the facts of my mother’s childhood –which from the relative comfort of the 21st Century seems desolate and austere. I sometimes have difficulty believing that my mother grew up at a time when there was no running water, electricity, or heat other than wood stoves in her family home. It is also true that my grandfather was a rural mail carrier which is the only reason my family didn’t lose their farm during those desperate times. Without reliable weather reporting, it could be a dangerous occupation, though to my knowledge, he never was lost in a blizzard.


I was ten-years old the winter my father was lost.

My parents were homesteaders.  They didn’t come to Dakota for the free land, though that’s what our farm was – free –assuming you could stick it out for five years in such a harsh landscape. They came because they were driven out of their home in Minnesota. They had no choice in the matter. We are Mennonites, and Pa liked to play pool.  The story whispered about was he played one time too many and that there was money and a church elder involved. You don’t play a forbidden game and beat the pants and wallet off someone who holds your hope of salvation in their hands without consequences. No one questioned why the elder was engaged in a forbidden activity –the upshot being that Ma and Pa were shunned –cast out of the community. With nowhere to go, and no other options, they packed up their household goods, my brother Jacob and sister Anna and headed west to a small Mennonite community in southwest North Dakota.

My ancestors weren’t strangers to being evicted from their land. My grandparents were burned out of their homes in the Crimea by Tsar Alexander III, for refusal to comply with military conscription, though in my opinion, being conscientious objectors seems a more righteous cause than being expelled for the sin of playing billiards.

In 1920 when Ma and Pa arrived, the Dakotas were relatively new states, accepted into the union in 1889.  There were few people populating the abundant prairie land then, if you don’t count the Mandan, Sioux, Arikara, Chippewa, and Cree.  And to be sure, the U.S. government didn’t count them, which meant as far as anyone who counted was concerned, the land was eligible for the taking.  So my parents staked their claim-each receiving 160 acres, their allotted share of prairie. Pa had a bit of money saved and  was able to build a plank two- story house from lumber that was sent from Minnesota, trees not being abundant on the plains. On the hottest days of summer the pine boards oozed pitch, but released the sweet smell of evergreen –a whisper of cool northern woods and lakes.  There was no indoor plumbing in those days, or electric service either. But those weren’t viewed as acceptable amenities in a Mennonite household, even if they had been available. Pa dug a privy out back by the sod barn and water was hauled from a well. By the time I came along in 1928, joining another sister Lena, and brother Lenard, the farm was established, growing wheat, oats, and barley.

They never spoke of Minnesota or the folks they left behind. It must have been excruciating to be forced to leave everything they’d ever known with no hope of return, and a community to which they no longer existed. Out of necessity a new life was constructed, among fellow Mennonites, still apart from the greater world. If Ma placed any blame on Pa for their predicament, we children were none the wiser.

Pa was a man of few words and less affection. As a child his interaction with me consisted of all manner of correction, some of it verbal, much of it physical. Proverbs 13:24 “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” was his guiding rule when disciplining his offspring. Ma, a dutiful Mennonite wife, may have been pained by his attitude, and the sound of leather on bare flesh, but if she protested his methods it was away from our hearing and had no effect on future discipline.

Yet even with such a stark domestic landscape, my childhood was not without joy.  Watching the herds of antelope gambol over the hills and gullies in search of new pastures, on legs that resembled pogo sticks, gave me the knowledge that unrestricted freedom must be possible.  Learning to read delighted me as it was another door thrown open to the world beyond our tiny community.   There weren’t enough Mennonite children to populate a religious school so we joined other children in our area at the one room school house two miles from the farm. It may have been a difficult decision, as we would be exposed to the “English” way of thinking but Pa did see the benefit even for his girls, to receive an education. He was proud of my ability to pick up arithmetic and reading quickly but doubled down on church attendance to make up for our exposure to outsiders.  What Pa didn’t know was that literacy helped me imagine a life without the strict limitations of the Mennonite universe. It fired my imagination –a dangerous thing.  I learned to speak English at school, as our community only spoke a German dialect called Plautdietsch. Eventually my parents learned English, but it was always spoken and written with a distinct German accent.

By 1938, the drought that turned the Great Plains into a dust bowl was devastating the Dakotas. The tiny Mennonite community that had welcomed Ma and Pa slowly disappeared as our neighbors abandoned their farms and moved back to Minnesota and Pennsylvania. We stubbornly hung on, made possible by Pa’s job as a rural mail carrier. Every day he would crank up his old model-T truck and head off to the post office – a one room shack by the schoolhouse — to pick up the bag of mail to deliver to the residents that still clung to farms in the area.

Wintertime was tougher –the harsh weather conditions required different methods of delivery, which is how we came to own a horse and a sled.

The sled was a large wooden affair, more of a sledge, with heavy steel runners and a small cab on top of the wooden decking that had kerosene stove inside. If the weather was frigid, as not infrequent on the plains, the driver could retreat into the cab to thaw his frozen fingers and toes, then continue on his journey.

But it was the horse I loved.  Her name was Bess, and in odd moments, Pa would call me Bess, instead of by my name –Betts. I think he found the horse more useful and certainly more agreeable than a ten-year-old girl- child, but I didn’t care. During the hottest days of summer I would slip onto Bess’s broad, brown, back and ride her into the nearby slough, where we both enjoyed the cool dark water.

Most years the slough was full of ducks, geese, heron, and other waterfowl. When Bess and I splashed thorough the shallows they’d rise in unison like a huge feathered storm cloud, creating a shadow over the surrounding marsh, and cotton wood trees. Bess would toss her head and snort as dragon flies buzzed around our heads, skimming the water, flitting from one cattail to another. I was enamored by the ducklings paddling around in the tepid pools in the reeds; their mothers herding them along with low urgent quacking sounds. The slough was often the source of dinner as one of my brothers was sent out to shoot a bird for the table. But during the drought years, the slough was all but dry, the fowl gone with the water.

Winter came early that year with October blizzards blowing in from Montana. Once a storm hits the eastern slope of the Rockies there’s nothing to impede its eastward progress as it rages across the plains. Summers were spent preparing for winter. Over the warmer months one of my jobs was making tight prairie grass twists, braiding the long grass together into firm thick ropes and piling whatever dead wood and dried cow piles I could find in a lean-to next to the kitchen door. The compacted grass twists would burn for hours in the stoves in the living room and kitchen, keeping those rooms warm. The upstairs bedrooms were another matter. At night I huddled under the goose down quilts my mother made with just the tip of my nose poking out as the water in the wash basin froze.


My brother Jacob had just finished tying the rope that ran between the house and barn during the winter so we could find our way to tend to the livestock in the worst weather. Huge dark clouds had been stacking up on the horizon since mid- mid-morning, threatening to consume everything in their path. It only took an instant to plunge the house into an eerie twilight that enveloped the farm with screaming wind and icy needles of snow and sleet turning a brilliant autumn morning into dusk.

Anna rushed about lighting the kerosene lamps, to abate the midday gloaming. Ma starred out the kitchen window into the swirling dark. “Your Pa’s out there somewhere. I pray he saw the clouds. It was clear when he left. He wasn’t expecting a storm.”

“He’ll be fine Ma.” Jacob pulled off his boots and brushed the snow from his pant legs.  “No doubt he got to one of the neighbor’s places when it started to cloud up. He’ll ride it out there.”

“It’s too early for a snowstorm like this. He’s not prepared,” Ma fretted, pulling her fingers with anxiety.

“Lenard and I put the extra blankets and kerosene for the stove on the sled before he left. I also loaded a bag of dried apples and deer jerky last week. Don’t worry, Ma. He knows what to do.”

“We need to hang a light so he’ll see us if he’s trying to get home.” Ma nodded. “Yes that’s what we must do. Put it in an upstairs window.”

Lenard looked skeptical, “Ma –no one could see that—“

“Do it!” The tone of Ma’s voice cut off any argument. Lenard scuttled off to light another lantern.


The supper dishes were washed and dried. Jacob read from the Bible. Ma rocked and muttered prayers, stopping to strain her ears hoping to hear Pa’s steps on the porch over the din of the wind and shutters banging   No longer needed I retreated to my freezing bedroom and wrapped myself in a down quilt. Puffs of cold air seeped through the cracks in the walls and ice formed on the window. My breath vaporized in the dim light of my candle. Sitting in the semi- dark I wondered what would happen if Pa didn’t come home.  It was just last week he had given me ten licks with the razor strop.

“I wish he was dead!” I’d blurted the curse to Lena, tears dripping down my face.

“Shush! Someone will hear you.” She patted my hair and did her best to comfort me.

“You know you shouldn’t sing songs other than hymns.  Where did you learn it?”

I sniffled, “I didn’t learn it. I heard it in town playing on the radio when we picked up supplies.   It’s called Pennies from Heaven, I think. The tune is so catchy –I didn’t even realize I was singing it.  I don’t see what’s so wrong with a little song.”

“It’s worldly. Pennies have nothing to do with Heaven.”

“Pa played pool. That’s worldly. I don’t see what harm humming a song does.”

“And look where it got him!  Shunned!” Lena shook her head.


Was Pa dead? Did my wish come true? Did I have that kind of power? Was God punishing me for being such a willful girl?  I hugged my knees and rocked back and forth. If Pa froze to death it would be my fault. I thought of him alone, frozen with Bess in the screeching cold. What if we never found him? What if he’s buried so far under the drifts he lays there undiscovered until spring? What if he drove the sledge into a gulley? The terrifying thoughts chased themselves in circles around my brain.

Morning came but it looked no different than the night before as the storm boiled on, snow piling up to the eves of the second story on the western side of the house. Ma’s lips were set in a grim line as she turned the breakfast griddle cakes.

I glanced around the kitchen. “Where are Lenard and Jacob?”

Anna shook her head, a slight motion meant only for me to see, and continued setting the table.

“They went out to the barn to check on the animals over an hour ago,” Ma slammed the spatula down on the stove.  I told them the animals would be fi…”

The door blew open, a gust of frosty air filling the room.  Jacob and Lenard stomped in, striped off their frozen mittens and blew into their hands.

“I told you boys not to go out there!” Ma’s gaze was furious as she whirled around to confront her sons.

“It’s a good thing we did, Ma.” Jacob answered. “Bess made it back through the storm. How she did I have no idea, but she banged the barn door open. If we hadn’t gone out this morning, all the chickens in the coop up front would have frozen.”

“The horse is back?” Ma was stunned. “Your Pa’s back?”

“No.” Jacob shook his head. “Bess was still wearing pieces of harness, which means she broke away.” He closed his mouth abruptly as the finality of the statement sunk in.

“Pa’s dead,” Ma said the unthinkable aloud. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Your Pa’s dead. If he’d made it to a farm, the horse wouldn’t have been loose. Your Pa’s in Heaven. There’s nothing else we can do.”

We sat, all afternoon, numbed by the thought of being without Pa. Finally the boys had to go out to bring in more grass twists and cow pies to keep the fires burning. Anna and Lena began the borscht for supper, cutting the beets and onions. Ma sat in her rocking chair and starred out the window.  Late in the afternoon the sun broke through the clouds. As suddenly as it blew up the storm had passed.

No one spoke during supper that night. Jacob and Lenard had inspected the barn and house for any wind damage, and other than where Bess had broken the door, pronounced everything sound.

I made myself small in the corner by the wood box near the kitchen stove. How could I tell them this was my fault, that I had wished death on Pa?  I sat alone in my misery. Lena would remember what I said. If she told Ma I would be cast out –maybe sent to an orphanage or workhouse. And what would happen to the farm? Could the boys take care of it? My guilt and fear consumed me.  I started to cry, my sniffles turned into great gulping sobs that shook my body.

“Betts –stop that wailing! Your Pa’s in Heaven. We’ll miss him, but he’s saved.” Ma stood up and beckoned me over. I buried my face in her skirts. She drew me to the rocking chair and pulled me up onto her lap. “Shush, little one. It’s a terrible day, but we must endure. I lay my head on her shoulder and let the familiar German cadence wash over me.

Warm in Ma’s embrace, I dozed off and dreamt. In my dream I heard sleigh bells. I jumped up and ran to the window. I was delighted to see St. Nicholas in a cheery red sleigh, driving Bess, who was high stepping through the snow. The sleigh bells got louder. My dream was suddenly interrupted by a shout from Lenard.

“Look – I think it’s Pa!’

“No, I said, rubbing my eyes, it’s St. Nicholas.”

“We don’t believe in St. Nicholas you silly goose! It is Pa!” Anna ran to the window.

Ma jumped up dropping me out of her lap. We crowded behind Ma as she threw the door open.

The harvest moon lit up the rolling landscape as if it were morning, illuminating a large sleigh with a two horses plowing through the drifts. Stars winked on and off, bright –seeming close enough to touch in the cold air.

“You’re safe, Pa!  Goodness, get inside and sit by the stove. God is merciful –we thought you got caught out in the storm.  There’s soup and a hot kettle to make the coffee.”  Ma, normally taciturn, couldn’t stop talking. We crowded behind her on the porch, not believing our eyes.

“Bah!” Pa waved us off. “Of course I’m safe. Frau Friesen fed me well, but a pot of coffee would take the chill off.” He jumped off the sleigh and made his way laboriously through the snow to the house.

“Herr Friesen,” Ma addressed the driver of the sleigh. “I‘ve forgotten my manners. Could we invite you in?” Ma asked. “The coffee’s hot and I baked pheffernüesse the day before yesterday.”

“No, make no fuss over me. I have to get back. There are chores to do.”  Herr Friesen glanced at the sky. “We’re lucky the moon is so full. Otherwise, your husband might not have been returned to you so promptly. I would have to put him to work,” Herr Friesen chuckled. He waved and clucked to his team and they made their way slowly out of the barnyard, sleigh bells tinkling merrily.

We all sat in quiet anticipation as Pa drank his coffee. When he had swallowed the last drop and set his cup down, Ma softly asked, “Have you been at the Friesen farm during the entire storm?”

Pa nodded. “I pulled into Friesen’s place when it looked like a blow. But it cost us a good horse. I was removing the harness, the wind picked up, the barn door slammed and she bolted. Herr Friesen said he’ll bring the sled over tomorrow or the next day. Not that it will be much use. We don’t have the money for another horse. Without the mail route…” his voice trailed off.

“We don’t need another horse!” I was so excited to give him the good news that I forgot not to speak unless spoken to.

“What’s this? We don’t need another horse?” Pa scowled at me.

“No, Pa –Bess made it back. She’s safe in the barn.” Jacob diverted any reprimand coming my way.

Pa nodded. “Good. I don’t have to listen to Friesen’s sleigh bells again. He’s getting too worldly, that Friesen, spending far too much time in town. Bells,” Pa frowned and shook his head.


Pa didn’t die that day in the blizzard. He lived for another twelve years succumbing to a heart attack the year I graduated from college. Education assisted my physical escape from the confines of my Mennonite prison, though the scars of that severe life remained. My brother Lenard flew fighter planes in Europe during WWII and became a teacher after the war. Anna married a lumberjack and moved to Washington State. She never returned to the prairie. Lena settled down in North Dakota with a husband and children, content to be a house wife and mother. She learned to dance, an activity denied her for so long. She reveled in this freedom of movement up until her death in 1983. Jacob stayed home and cared for Ma and ran the farm in the years after Pa died. Without a Mennonite community there wasn’t much reason to remain with the church. Even Ma became a Lutheran.

Ma died in 1984 at the age of 96.  A few of her folks came from Minnesota for the funeral. I had trouble swallowing my anger watching their guilty faces. I was never one to put much value on ‘better late than never,’ or maybe they genuinely missed her. I didn’t bother to ask.

The boys sold the farm after Ma’s passing. They didn’t consult me about the sale, I’m a woman after all, and even though the boys didn’t identify as Mennonite, women’s opinions were still only women’s opinions. But my brothers were shrewd. They retained the mineral rights to the land. There is supposed to be oil deep in the earth and energy companies keep sniffing around talking about oil leases. Maybe it’s true, though I doubt I’ll live to see it.


 I’m old and the only one left now. Sometimes I think back to those difficult days and wonder how we survived the elements, the isolation, and the unyielding demands of our God. These things war within me still.

Looking for answers I’ve come back to the prairie for the last time. They grow sunflowers on the farm now. When I stand on the hill in the ruins of the old farmhouse foundation I see nothing but bright yellow for miles where I used to see rippling golden wheat.

I decide my arthritic legs are strong enough to get me down to the slough one last time

These days it’s protected by the state as a wildlife refuge. I am pleased that what lies before me is as I remember it to be. I grab the branch of a weeping willow for support and strip off my shoes and socks. I dip my feet into the water. It’s colder than I remember, but feels good on my skin. I close my eyes and in my mind I see Bess and know she’s somewhere in the shadows behind the cattails and the young cotton wood trees, just over there. She tosses her head and snorts, just like in the old days.