A FAMILY MEMOIR OF SEARCHING FOR ROOTS
"I'm going to build a cabin," she told us. "I'm going to do it by myself."
She would have to. She couldn't afford to hire anyone; had just enough money to pay for foundations
A FAMILY MEMOIR
She ruined our dinner and scared us silly when she announced she had to get away. “I’m tired,” she said. “I need a sabbatical.”
The tired part was patently true, but in 1954 America mothers were not expected to need or get time to themselves. Mothers were the glue that held families together. Mothers were attractive and cheerful, wore skirts in the home and hats with veils at church. Mothers were there no matter the circumstances.
“I never get sick,” Marolyn would say. “I can’t afford to. I’m just a little bit tired today.” She was a little bit tired every day, but no one paid any attention until she said she was leaving.
“It’s only that I have to have some time for myself.” The words were an ultimatum not a plea.
She’d decided but was unable to explain in terms any of us could understand. Instead, she talked about how “the country” was straying from its core values and strengths. She idealized a time when people lived close to the land and both survived and prospered through hard work and self-reliance. “I had one great grandmother who trekked to Illinois on a wagon train and another who never would move out of her log cabin,” she told me to my mystification. What did that have to do with her leaving us? “Even my grandmother milked her own cows and churned her own butter. She’d spin her own wool.”
Her point was this: she’d launched her life in one direction, but here she was with nothing to show for her time on earth but three children and a husband whose core middle-class values were at odds with her own. She was half-way through her expected life span, and the thought was exhausting. She was a housewife who hated cooking and cleaning, who was locked in marriage by three children she loved but didn’t like, who had a cookie cutter life. And, if the latter fact wouldn’t send a person into a tailspin, nothing would. Trade her for any one of millions of other women and neither her husband nor her children would notice except, perhaps, to see an improvement.
Marolyn Dale Miller Reher was thirty-six, and her oval face was unlined except for a web of tiny wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and a slight roughening of her ivory-colored skin. Most people considered her even features as somewhere between pretty and beautiful, finding a small gap between her front teeth a charming anomaly, rather like a beauty mark. Then, they would notice the scar tissue cupping her chin. In warm weather it scarcely showed, but the winter cold highlighted ridges of white, tracing phantasmagorical designs like the intricate web patterns of a book plate.
She was on the tall side for her generation at 5’7 ½”. Her fine-boned frame was well proportioned, and she kept her weight down through almost constant dieting. High protein, high carbohydrate foods went on the table for her family while she consumed meals of canned fruit, cottage cheese, and iceberg lettuce, binging occasionally on sweets, a diet that didn’t help her problems with energy and depression. Our GP, Doc Dominic, prescribed thyroid medicine and iron tablets, which she mostly didn’t take.
“I’m just a little tired today,” she would say of her spiral into depression.
It was as though her decision to leave her many-roomed Chicago home, one filled with art and artists, politicians and writers, had started her down a road that had carried her, inevitably, farther and farther away from where she was meant to be.
Long ago, the study of landscape design had seemed a good way to combine her interests in art and agriculture, and she’d thought that if she attended a School of Agriculture she would meet a man who shared her dreams of making a life on the land. Oregon State and Al Reher had seemed a perfect fit. Except the program disappointed, while Al changed his mind about his career choice. And then it was too late. She’d already made her promise to “love, honor, and obey.”
Often she thought and spoke in aphorisms. “You make your bed, and you lie in it,” she would say. She had definitely “made her own bed.”
“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” was another of her favorite expressions. It was true enough, but recently she’d been thinking that maybe there were bits of silk stuck in the sow’s ear. Her life in Wyoming had proven grim and dismal but Wyoming’s mountains? She looked out her kitchen window at their rugged shapes and saw pure silk.
So she left us for the Absarokas, renting a cabin at Elephant Head Lodge near Yellowstone’s East Gate. There she let the direct rays of a high-altitude sun melt her chronic fatigue, let the sage and pine-scented air stir her imagination. For seven blessed days she thought of nothing and everything, her mind emptied of all her daily worries and concerns. In their place memories surfaced and filled her imagination with notions and ideas that sailed like slow-moving clouds across her consciousness.
Amazing what one week could do. In the evenings, watching the antics of flames that both warmed the skin and fed the spirit, she acknowledged a central fact: she was constitutionally incapable of being more than a shadow of the wife her husband wanted. She wasn’t a nurturer or a hostess. For fifteen years she had done what was expected, keeping a clean house, putting meals on the table, entertaining guests, ensuring her children had the same clothing as their friends and as many opportunities as she could manage with limited resources. But the rest? Trying to be what Al and her children wanted took more energy than she had.
She had gone through the motions for so very long. Could she keep it up? Should she? “There’s a world of difference between ‘could’ and ‘should,’” she liked to say, finally deciding she had to learn what she meant. One way or another from now on her life would be different.
So she sat on a high rock she’d come to call her own and let the land and its lessons seep into her soul. Her eyes, which had faded and begun to droop with habitual weariness, regained their color and sparkle. Her lips, which had once curved so pleasantly, recaptured a smile. Finally, on the day of her departure she looked into the small mirror of her cabin’s rustic bathroom and for the first time since coming to Wyoming saw the beautiful woman of her wedding pictures.
She drove back from the mountains with sun-rouged skin and a light spring to her stride. She returned to learn that the U.S. Forest Service would be opening up new lease sites for recreational cabins. Years earlier she’d submitted an application for such a site with the wild hope of becoming a lucky lease recipient. If one week in the mountains could regenerate her, think of owning her own cabin, her own retreat.
Soon, she was spending her free time bent over a drawing board, pencil in hand, at work on floor plans and perspectives. “This is how you make dreams real,” she explained to me, “You draw them.” She allowed no doubt. She would be one of the lucky recipients of a USFS lease. Someday soon she would sit in front of her own fire in her own log cabin.
“Right there,” she tapped the paper where a funny shape represented a fireplace.
I wasn’t so sure, but I agreed. We all agreed with her on almost everything that winter. We didn’t want her to go away again, because the next time she might not come back. Besides, at fourteen I still believed wishes could come true. But Marolyn?
Leaving her depression and her dreams aside, the core question remains. What possessed a seemingly sane middle-aged housewife with flabby muscles to imagine she could build what became a 1,400 sq. ft. house in continental America’s largest, roadless wilderness at an elevation of 7,200 feet? What drove her to pitch a tent and (with three children, one horse, hand tools, and a pick-up truck) set about her construction project.
“I can do this,” I would eventually hear her mutter when a log was too heavy for her to lift or a storm shut down her work. “I can do this,” she would say, sitting on a pile of raw lumber, drinking a cup of coffee. And, somehow, she did.
She raised the walls, set the roof tree and rafters, cut the moldings and fabricated the doors, all with hand tools. She persevered despite Al losing his job and moving the family to eastern South Dakota. She levered logs into place, scavenged granite for fireplaces, survived storms, and faced down bears, all while ignoring raised eyebrows and frank disbelief in the community. “I can do this,” she would say.
The World She Entered
They were in love with love, spooning by the Light of the Silvery Moon, serenaded by A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody, and ignoring the music from Europe. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was catchy but way too serious and, thank God, all that insane fighting was Over There.
He was tall and dashing with a smile that promised almost anything. She was a captivating brunette with the manners of a debutante and the elan of an equestrian. Both studied at the Chicago Art Institute; both considered themselves Bohemians, immersed in a Chicago version of life on the Rive Gauche. It was the Twentieth Century’s teens, an explosive period of creative growth, and the two young adults rode high on an euphoric wave of social change.
Then, the irrationality in Europe reached America and new songs appeared. Tunes with hard rhythms like I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier replaced the romantic croon of Moonlight Bay.
In a matter of months, the mood in street and classroom changed.
Marriage spread like a contagious disease. The two student artists were not immune, taking their vows as headlines screamed Germany Declares Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and American Shipping Suffers. It was not an auspicious start to a marriage. Neither had a job; nor could they afford housing. So, ignoring the recruiting posters papering lamp posts and walls, they set up housekeeping in her childhood bedroom. This may have motivated her sister in the next room to accept a proposal from a neighborhood boy. Whatever. The downstairs front parlor of the Smith girls’ family home soon became the scene of another marriage, and the house rang with the beat of yet another young man’s feet running up and down stairs.
But not for long. Those sounds faded into the solid tread of boots marching off to war. It was “over there” all right. The Yanks were coming. Most of them never did, of course, the war in Europe ending before they could get “over there.” Others of them never did because they, like second-generation American Willie Miller, adamantly opposed fighting against their German cousins. While his brother-in-law, Art Nielsen, loaded up for boot camp, Willie clutched an agricultural exemption and took the train in another direction —to his family’s farm.