A Freekeh Story: Of Love, Loss and Threshed Wheat

Sahtain.
I place the demitasse of thick coffee on the small table. Its steam curls up in soft wisps, seeking out and carrying my salutations to the land of the dead, in the spirit of burning incense in ancient Egyptian temples. My words are a silent prayer, invisible tendrils that stretch from my mouth and into the shadows of afterlife that hover nearby and palpable, in the days that followed my father’s death.
Today it is coffee. Tomorrow it may be a small plate of aromatic rice and chicken with pine nuts, or semolina cake with rosewater. On very bad days, when grief sits sharp and heavy like a rock in the pit of my stomach, these cups of strong coffee with cardamom are the only thing which binds me to the person who no longer is—who is now referred to only in past tense. Wary of explanation, I hide these small gifts away in the corners of rooms, under chairs and tables, tucked out of sight. I do it often enough that sometimes I forget them and am surprised to stumble upon their greyish, tepid remnants days later. Even then I am fiercely protective of the liberty they provide me: the unforgiveable sin that is not letting go.
My father’s spirit or soul, roh in Arabic, was extinguished in the early hours of a summer day in June. His physical form was reduced to ashes several days later. All this I witnessed and understood to be true. What I could not accept and had not anticipated was the fact that his death would in time absorb all memory, wearing away even the echo of his heavy gait on the stairs, the resonating timbre of his voice when he spoke my name, leaving behind a vacuum that weighed heavy in the space around me, threatening always to pull me in.
Before sickness wasted his body and quelled his appetite, my father loved to eat. And the dish that he missed the most from his childhood was freekeh, a kind of green wheat which is roasted then threshed. It is sturdy, coarse and filling. The first time I tasted freekeh was in Palestine, where my mother-in-law, prepared it with fragrant spices in a broth with chicken. When cooked, freekeh has a texture somewhere between brown rice and barley, but its flavour is nutty and more complex. It is considered “peasant food” because of how cheap and easy it is to prepare and because a bowl in the morning will keep your belly full well into the afternoon.
After my father died, there were days when I was consumed by a brutal and merciless sense of guilt. Among my many regrets was the fact that I had never learned to make freekeh. While he was alive, I never felt the need for anything more to bind him to me than his presence. Once he was gone, I yearned for anything that might bring him closer—if not back—to me.
There is a recipe for freekeh in a cookbook I own. Food from the Arab World was published in the 1950s and is a loving testament to the friendship between an American woman and her Lebanese friend. The cookbook captures a sentiment that seems impossible nearly seventy years after it was written: that of a Middle East that is relatable and human, if not somewhat exotic. The tone of the book in its explanations of traditional cooking techniques and the cultural rituals which surround them is approachable and strangely intimate. When I read it, I picture the American woman seated on the floor of a small, tiled kitchen, feverishly taking notes while her Lebanese friend, hair tied back with a scarf, pauses in the middle of filling marrow squash with rice and lamb to ensure that the author has correctly captured the balance of spices in the stuffing, or the thickness of the tomato slices which line the bottom of the pot.
The connection between food and the dead is well-documented throughout human history. In ancient Rome, family members were known to honour their deceased ancestors by visiting their graves and leaving offerings of cake and wine during the festival of Parentalia. The Mexican Dia de los Muertos, which predates Spanish conquest and is traced to an ancient Aztec ceremony, similarly involves the commemoration of the dead through food and drink. And in modern Vietnam, many family homes have an ancestral altar, where on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, generous offerings are made in their honour. I can’t say that my cooking was inspired by these traditions, but somehow I seized on the idea of food having the potential to close the space between me and whatever residual fragments of my father’s being were still floating around in the universe.
It took a good amount of time to perfect the recipe, and my experiments reflected the complexities of Levantine regional cooking. Over the course of many months—adjusting and omitting ingredients, knowing what to roast and when—my grief slowly became less dependable. The world of the living in the form of work, appointments, and children, stubbornly and persistently intruded on the soft shroud of mourning that surrounded me. Soon it seemed like there was less and less time for the cooking of intricate and unfamiliar dishes. Weeks went by without touching the cookbook, even as the gaping hole inside me grew smaller. My grief was still discernible to me, a dependable presence that moved with me through the daylight hours, but by the time a year had gone by, I no longer had the energy to sustain its demands. My offerings became smaller, less frequent.
This summer marks the tenth anniversary of my father's death. From time to time, the void that he left behind still demands offerings and I, for the most part, obey. Most recently, I made ma’moul: I mixed semolina, butter and rosewater together then filled the coarse dough with pureed dates. When they came out of the oven, I dusted them carefully with confectioner’s sugar and left two on a plate in the kitchen with a demitasse of coffee, this time unhidden.
Sahtain: its literal translation is double health, but its meaning is subtler. In the tradition of Arab hospitality, sahtain is a gracious wish for good health and a long life. It is a blessing on the person who consumes the food, but also on the person who cooked it, in that they have the pleasure of seeing the happiness of their guest.
When they go, our dead leave us behind. We remain in the land of the living, left to contend with the searing hunger of our loss. My small offerings started out as a way to bridge the distance between life and death, to selfishly prolong my father's passage into the afterlife. Now, ten years later, the demitasse and the ma’moul are the physical manifestations of my memories of him. Their fragrance, their taste of sweet or bitter or sour is a reminder of the space he once occupied, that no amount of thick, black coffee can fill.


Else Khoury is Palestinian by blood and Canadian by birth. She lives in Niagara, Canada, where she scribbles fiction, non-fiction and poetry at night and consults on privacy compliance during the day. Her work can be found in Sukoon, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, Full Grown People, and Dragon Poet Review (Fall 2018).Her twitter handle is @yaffawiya.

Else Khoury.jpg

Saving Adolf

This is not how my mother told the story. In fact, she wouldn’t have told it at all if my nephews, after Sunday breakfast, hadn’t asked to see old photographs, then wondered why the corner of their great-grandfather’s family portrait had been cut away. It was my father who said the picture-clipping most likely happened on the day when Adolf wouldn’t drown. My mother, Anna, was five at the end of World War II. We all laugh when Dad describes how she fished the family’s hollow plaster wall plate of the Führer from the pond grandma had thrown it in—inexpert iconoclasm foiled by a kindergartener’s innocence. We laugh because my grandmother laughed when, perhaps two decades later, she told my dad how she had to bust up Hitler with a hammer. We laugh because laughter forestalls terror, turning my grandmother’s frantic desperation in the hours between one army and the next into a funny anecdote. We laugh because we’ve never dared to cry.

I picture the day my mother saved Adolf Hitler as filled with springtime sun, an outpouring of unseasonable warmth upon the villages of upper Swabia. Children—even those who do own shoes—run barefoot in the lengthening grass, buoyed by a rare reprieve from endless chores: after listening with grim intensity to the drone of the Wehrmachtsbericht emanating from the radio, mothers and grandparents on Otterswang’s two-dozen farms have exchanged silent glances then sent all kids to play outside.
The big children vanish in a flash. Little Anna pouts as she squints after them; her older sister Elfriede, delighted that for once she has not been told to watch either Anna or baby Alfred in his pram, has flown off with her friends from school.
Anna swallows hard. Turning her back on the road down which the older children have disappeared, she wanders alone among stables and sheds. The dairy cows have not been turned out to pasture after the morning’s milking. Balancing on the lintel to the byre, she watches whiskered jaws perform their grinding waltz on last year’s hay. Dark eyes gaze back at her, round and patient, but Anna remembers the wet rasp of their long tongues as they explore backs of knees or crooks of elbows for salty sweat; she will not walk down the stable aisle. When the cat drops down the ladder from the hayloft, his black body curling and uncurling itself into a descending triplet of musical notes, Anna backs away, her eyes fixed on the cat’s stiff tail. She turns and runs across the barnyard, averting any chance that he might rub himself against her legs.
At the big puddle under the weeping willow she stops then squats, watching ducks take their pretend-baths, the minuet of dipping bills and heads, the pearls of water spraying rainbows as they somersault along white-feathered backs and shaking tails. When the ducks re-group into a line, Anna falls in behind as they meander through the grass under the apple trees and out beyond the orchard to the pond. At the water’s weedy edge, they launch themselves on the still surface in a low-voiced cacophony of private chatter, conversations no more comprehensible than those of the adults at home. Anna’s gaze follows them—ducklings, unlike children, are born already knowing how to swim.
As they approach the middle of the pond, a flash of white hooks Anna’s eyes. Squinting against sparkling water wrinkled by paddling feet, she catches another flash then another. Whatever is out there with them is much whiter than the ducks. Whiter than paper, Anna thinks. Whiter even than bleached laundry flapping on a line. White as the stucco angels in Saint Oswald, Otterswang’s baroque village church. Of course it isn’t possible for an angel from Saint Oswald church to be floating in the pond. But what if it really is? The clarity of calcined white shines out again, stark and ethereal against the water’s green.
The first step from sun-drenched grass into the shallows feels cool but not icy, not threateningly cold. The next two steps wash chilly wetness up above Anna’s knees; she yanks her dress up with both hands. Is the white thing worth ruining her clothes? Her arms and legs shudder with the memory of slaps raining down on them—Mrs. Klopp’s punishment for mud stains and rips in the brittle, re-used fabric of children’s skirts. For many months Anna, Elfriede, and their mother shared a room in Mrs. Klopp’s house in the nearby city of Biberach with another evacuee woman and her children, before baby Alfred’s arrival. In Biberach there was no choice: all children dove into the dirt in mid-play every time planes thundered low and fast over the neighborhood. Sometimes bullets whined and thudded anyway. Nevertheless, Mrs. Klopp regularly spanked the children before she made them stand in her kitchen sink to sponge them down.
But there is nothing to be afraid of here, only another flash of white, as the drifting object bobs in the wake of passing ducks. Another step then another; Anna pulls her hemline up to shoulder-height as frigid water circles from her belly button to her lower back. Bunching fabric in one fist and stretching it high above her head, she steps again, her toes in search of purchase in the mud. She reaches with her other hand, inches the thing towards her with her fingertips.
Wading ashore, she squeezes it tight against her chest, wraps it in her apron as she stumbles towards the farm’s tiny annex house. There is no time to examine her catch. She needs to take it home, right now, to show it to mother, because mother loves beautiful things. Often—too often—she brings home flowers from the farm down the road where she works. Anna has to bite down anger on those nights; delight in arranging lupines, larkspur, or bobbing globes of peonies makes mother forget that the farmer once again showed his appreciation for her under-paid hard work by handing her a gift of something easily expended—flowers from an over-flowing garden bed—instead of giving her some food.
When he comes to visit from far-away Essen, Grandpa Wilhelm always spends his days in Swabia wandering from one village to the next, and each night when he walks back to Otterswang, his knapsack—emptied of cigarettes, extra sheets, and small items the family can do without—bulges with potatoes, bread, and eggs. But for mother, it is flowers, only flowers. And you can’t eat them; not even the sweet-smelling peonies, not even the lupines that turn to pods like peas after their petals drop. The white thing, Anna knows, will make mother exclaim with delight. It must be better even than the whitest rose, because the rose, after a few days, will droop and die. Angels last.
The stone tiles in the entrance to the annex chill Anna’s naked soles. A shiver runs along her spine as yet again she wonders if old Mrs. Lang, their landlady in Otterswang, might be a spirit now, lurking in the dark below the stairs. The few remaining village men carried Mrs. Lang’s coffin out the front door a week ago. Grandpa Wilhelm, looking after them, took off his cap with one hand and gave Anna’s shoulder a squeeze with the other. Only when the procession had reached the road down to St. Oswald church, he said: “They don’t know how lucky they are. Essen has no wood for coffins left. I sat with your grandma Sophie for five nights before I found one for her.” Anna still wonders why lack of wood might make grandparents sit up at night, but somehow it means that Grandpa Wilhelm, even though he left just yesterday, will be coming back to Otterswang to live with them for keeps. She hopes it will be soon.
The village women have aired and scrubbed old Mrs. Lang’s rooms on the first floor of the annex; soap and ammonia still tinge the whiff of mold and old potatoes wafting up the basement stairs. The wooden steps to their own two rooms on the second floor reassure Anna’s toes with roughness as she climbs. Having no hand free, she nudges the door to the living room open with her shoulder then stands, dumb-struck, in the unexpected heat.
The little pot-bellied stove blazes orange. The room’s small windows—one above the sofa, where Grandpa Wilhelm sleeps at night, and the other by the table, where they eat when mother cooks a meal for them instead of shooing them over to the farmhouse kitchen, where the cat inevitably brushes against Anna’s naked calves as they eat with all the Langs—gape wide to dissipate the scorching air.
But mother isn’t cooking. Anna can’t see what she is doing sitting at the table, hunched over a box and several fat books. As Anna walks towards the table, something smooth and sharp-edged sticks to the bottom of her foot. She tries to scrape it off, left sole against right shin, struggling to balance while she clenches the heavy, sodden thing against her chest.
Snippets of glossy paper blink all around her mother’s chair. Anna takes another step. Rip, go mother’s hands, dislodging a photograph from the album. Snip, go the scissors, setting another clip adrift from lap to floor. Anna inches closer, drawn by the forbidden scissors’ metal glint. Too well does she remember that day in Essen, long ago and far away, when she yielded to the scissors’ siren call. One by one, the fabric flowers fell from her parents’ bed spread as she maneuvered the blades around curved petals, cutting carefully between one printed blossom and the next. Mother had interrupted that day’s thrashing with the carpet beater only to hold the scissors up to Anna’ face: “Don’t you ever, ever touch these again.”
And Anna hasn’t touched them, not today. She also hasn’t broken anything! Not like the day in Essen when she found the hammer and brought it down on her parents’ bedside lamps—she had been angry then, though now she cannot quite remember why. At Elfriede, maybe, who said that Anna was too small to play? Or at Mother, who had grabbed the laundry basket and run down to the clotheslines in the yard, saying that she had no time to finish reading the story they’d just started in the basement, before the sirens sounded the all-clear and they all climbed back upstairs? Whatever it had been, it wasn’t like today. Anna wasn’t angry when she saw the angel’s whiteness beaming from the pond. And now its cool solidity against her chest and arms feels reaffirming in the heat. She has saved it, has brought it home for mother. She has not broken anything.
Sweat worms its way down Anna’s neck. She meant to present it with a flourish—look at what I found for you!—but now, her voice sticks in her throat. Slowly, she takes another step, lifting the wet package onto the table, next to her mother’s books and cardboard box. The snip-snip of the scissors stops. Without looking at her mother, Anna unwraps one apron tail and then the other, pushes the thing into the table’s center, steps away. The liberated fabric’s slap against her thighs chases waves of goose bumps up across her ribs and neck. In the dim room, the angel’s alabaster sheen dulls to a sodden gypsum gray.
“Oh no,” mother’s voice comes out beside her, sounding—not of carpet beaters—but also not at all like Anna has imagined it would sound. It is all flat, without a trace of lupine-purple joy.
“It was in the pond,” Anna says, licking her dry lips. “It was drowning!”
“Drowning,” mother’s voice repeats, with no tone at all.
For a moment, it seems that old Mrs. Lang’s ghost reaches a long arm from beneath the stairs, swirling must and tangs of ammonia against their ankles. Then Anna’s eyes follow mother’s, from the table upward to an empty nail on the wall above the stove, and back down to the table top.
“Yes,” mother says, still tonelessly, “I suppose I should have known he wouldn’t drown.”
Color rushes across mother’s cheeks as she shakes her head. Chair legs scrape against the floorboards; her steps quickly fade down the stairs.
Anna looks at the angel. She now can see that it is just a face, shaped from plaster in an oval plate, not an entire figurine. Its nose and mustache seem familiar. Her eyes wander back to the nail on the wall. She suddenly remembers that none of the angels down in Saint Oswald’s Church wear mustaches. Is that why this one has been banished from the church? Is that why father, when he visits in between surgeries in the military hospital, stands in silence, his arm in its plaster shoulder cast sticking out at an odd angle, and stares sternly at this angel’s face?
The baby moans. Anna glances towards the crib. Alfred’s arm, naked and moist with sweat, rises and drops back down, once, twice. Again, as Anna’s left foot tries to dislodge the something stuck beneath it, scraping itself against her shin, her eyes travel to the empty nail: Is the angel she found really the same one that used to hang above the stove? She knows they brought the other angel, the wooden virgin Mary in the bedroom, with them each time that they have moved. At night, Anna often drifts to sleep while mother and Elfriede talk to Mary in a low drone. But Anna can’t remember either one of them speaking to the angel on this wall. Except once—that time when mother’s voice sounded like ducks scolding the cat. Has this angel always been here then, like the stove? Or did it come with their furniture on the train from Essen, very far away, from where their old apartment now stands empty without window panes?
Footsteps creak back up the stairs. Turning towards the door, Anna’s eyes find the hammer dangling from mother’s hand.
“Step back,” mother says.
Will she pound in another nail? If the angel on the table is the one that used to hang here, then maybe one nail was not enough to keep it from flying out the window and falling in the pond? Anna takes a step backwards, her eyes glued to the plaster cast.
“All the way back,” mother says. “Get on the sofa. And put your face in the pillow.”
There is no give in the voice, no room for questions. It is the voice from long ago and far away; the voice that tells Anna to hold on and run as a hand yanks her from sleep and down three flights of stairs, the voice that knows the bombs are coming down. Anna does what it says. The sofa’s leather grabs her shins as her face prickles in the pillow’s velour.
The hammer’s smash is followed by the baby’s wail then, each time the baby pauses to catch his breath, the dull clink-a-clink of plaster shards and paper scraps, the swish of broom straw over unwaxed boards. Anna’s face turns from the pillow’s scent of grandpa Wilhelm’s soap and sweat towards the sofa’s back for air. Her fingers pry itchy curls from her damp forehead then scrabble at the stubborn cardboard triangle still stuck to her left foot. Peeling it off, she curls herself around it, her back a shield against her mother’s eyes. Cradling the snippet inside her hand, she tilts it into the sun slanting through the tiny window. It is part of a photograph, showing just the shoulder of a man, severed by the scissors’ snip. Above the dismembered shoulder is another picture, framed and hung upon the wall. The man in the framed picture wears his hair parted severely on the right. Just like the angel. And there, under the familiar nose, is the angel’s small mustache.
Behind Anna’s curving spine, the wailing baby draws a breath. Shards and paper skitter from the dustpan’s metal; the stove door jolts her body with its clang.

I’ve asked my mother if she cried when my grandmother smashed the plaster plate. She says she didn’t because her mother’s distress seemed so much bigger than her own. I’ve asked what she thinks my grandmother was so upset about. She says she didn’t know, but later thought it must have been because her mother realized how easily her daughter could have drowned. I’ve never pressed mom to imagine other possibilities, reasons why on this day her mother’s initial shock did not dissolve into relief, a hug accompanied by tears.
A five-year-old’s memories are fragments, a kaleidoscope of moments, not a logical sequence of events in which the Wehrmachtsbericht predicts when French troops will arrive in the villages surrounding Biberach and frightened women rush to destroy evidence that might incriminate the family. The details of this story—the landladies, the older sister who wouldn’t play, the stove, the sofa, the wooden stairs, the lupines, the scissors and the bedspread, the bashed-in bedside lamps—all appeared in snippets over decades of tea time anecdotes. By everyone’s accounts, my great-grandfather Wilhelm really did refuse to go to the basement for five nights and sat by the body of his wife as she lay on the sofa in their living room and bombs fell all around. But my mother, who refused to look at any films or books that touched upon the war, never connected finding Hitler in the pond to the storm her own mother saw brewing on that sunny day’s horizon. Instead of talking about soldiers, she tells me of the dream in which she drives over the black cat: her youngest grandson gets out of the car, picks up the cat, and lays it on the seat between them. She wakes herself screaming as its fur touches her skin.
The scientist in me pored over census data, weather records, maps, the movements of French troops through upper Swabia. But early childhood is coded not in words and dates but in sound and taste and touch, a clenching in the belly, a quiver in the knees. And so I found the curve of five-year-old Anna’ spine, the turning away from her mother as she curled around the picture on the leather sofa, not in her telling, but in the way she hung up the phone a hundred times, whenever my grandmother began to speak about the war: “Mother, I don’t have time for that right now.”
A generation of wartime children slammed down the phone’s receiver, refused to look anywhere except ahead. A generation of parents, having brought down the world in smoking rubble around everybody’s ankles, smashed the busts and burned the pictures, hid Mein Kampf behind the linens in the closet, and never knew how to explain. Only in Oz do munchkins dance and sing after the house has crushed the wicked witch. In Germany, the clang of the oven door left only silence to reverberate in children’s ears.
The farm pond, which my mother sought with then-inexplicable urgency when we re-visited Otterswang on a last trip with my grandmother decades ago, no longer exists: one of the Lang’s children told us it had been filled in soon after the war. If anything was discovered on the muddy bottom after it was drained, he failed to mention what it was.
And so, like a kindergartner clutching a necklace of sparkly beads, here I am, seventy years after my mother pulled Adolf Hitler from the pond, proffering this storyline I’ve threaded from the way in which she—the mom who picked up spiders by a leg to carry them outside, the mom who asked if she might pet the iguana at the reptile zoo—recoiled in horror when my sister and I brought her the homeless cat, and from the way in which the water always was too cold whenever we asked her to swim. “Look, mom!” I hear the kindergartener saying as her pudgy fist dangles sticky plastic trinkets, a half-dissolving string of pink and purple cows and ducks and cats, “look what I’ve made for you!”


Catharina Coenen is a plant biologist and first-generation German immigrant to Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her creative nonfiction pieces are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.

Photo credit: River Branch

Photo credit: River Branch

Okanogan

My teenage hometown lures and beckons me back. This summer my forty-year high school class reunion adds pull to home. It took my family twelve hours to drive from Utah to Okanogan, Washington. Each of those hours separates me farther from my current harried world. I sit still as familiar sagebrush-speckled hills glide by my window. In early evening my family pulls into my parents’ dirt driveway and nostalgia washes over my brain. The old white barn sits waiting in the same place with Dad’s tractor parked next to it, ready to pull up a tree stump. Wind chimes tinkle as they sway from tree branches.
As would be expected from the name of the town of Okanogan, there are many Native Americans in the area. The Colville Indian Reservation takes up much of Okanogan County.
This is the place I call home. When my family moved to Okanogan, I was a young teenager dreading the change. The home we moved into started out as several “pickers’ cabins.” Apple pickers in the area threw up shanty cabins for temporary residence during picking season. The cabins are roughly the size of three parking stalls in a row. I started out instantly disliking Okanogan, though I had mixed feelings of excitement for something new. Mostly, I didn’t want to be here where the jobs available comprised of picking apples. It didn’t seem very exciting or progressive.
With the aid of hydraulic jacks, the small cabins were lifted and placed over a formed basement. A roof was built on top of the conglomeration of structures. Mom and Dad have lived in Okanogan for forty-five years and over time their house has evolved. There have been additions and renovations both on the main floor and in the basement. It has become a beloved cozy corner of my world. The damp dirt and concrete smell of that basement wrap around me gently where, as a teen, I escaped from my siblings or parents. New inner stirrings emerged into young girl dreams in that place, where boys became central to my thoughts. Just like me, my children like the smell of Grandma and Grandpa’s basement. The area is always cool and quiet. Maybe the charm of that peaceful space has something to do with the chaos swirling around in our world. We grasp onto places of tranquility.
Mom and Dad wanted to make room for visiting children and grandchildren so they framed in a couple of bedrooms down in the basement, adding a waterbed to the largest room. This was back when waterbeds were in. There was always an argument among the children over who got to sleep on the waterbed. After years of that bed resting down there, it only took an enormous nest of spiders in the gap between the bedframe and the waterbed bladder to change the children’s minds about that bed. It became the place they said they were not sleeping. Ever. But the attraction to downstairs always remained. Maybe it was simply the smell combined with the peace it inspired. Even now when I smell someplace dank and musty, home floods my mind. It propels me back to that basement where much of my time was spent dreaming of boys, wanting them to like me and worrying they didn’t. I would plop myself down on the cold vinyl couch, the cracked texture crunching as I would swoon to the voices of “Bread” on the record player.
As I became comfortable with where we lived, I noticed that outdoors brought its own kind of serenity. I would periodically venture out from the basement to discover the land around our home as a gray sea of aromatic sagebrush. Harsh winters and sparse rain in the summer is the ideal environment for the unseemly looking brush which radiates a perpetually pungent smell—unless it is under a foot of snow. The land looks dead. Sagebrush, though living, looks dead. When I walk through the fields around my home, the sagebrush branches scratch my legs. Near the end of summer, the sagebrush looks the same as it did at the beginning of spring, but there is the added element of tumbleweed scattered by an occasional breeze. It is a scene out of an old western movie, tumbleweeds scattering around the city cemetery. A hike through the land, dotted with the wicked plants, brings a discovery. Hidden in the desolation are various live critters. Rabbits zip away as I approach. I’ve never encountered a skunk but their scent testifies they are there hidden from view. Squashed bodies of dead rattlesnakes litter the road.
Much of the area looks this way, but it is also graced with the beauty of fruit orchards. Rows and rows of apple trees stand guard like sentinel armies. Cherry trees replace many of the apple trees. There is a stark contrast between the orchards and the sagebrush land.
I marvel at the patchwork scene on the ground below me when I’m flying with my father. He is an airplane mechanic and would fly the small Cessna planes he’d rebuilt. Once in a while he would take me for a ride.
Coyote Mountain, an attraction for my sister Sherri, lies beyond our home. Sherri and our neighbor friend would spend time up on that mountain with their horses, pretending to herd the cattle that roamed up there. Sometimes snakes on Coyote Mountain spooked the horses, but the coyotes kept their distance. At dusk, you could hear them howling. All of that sagebrush is a natural habitat for the coyote, and there were plenty of those beasts out there. They never did come down to town, but you knew they were there. My brothers wandered the mountain and would periodically traipse home showing off their finds of a skull or bones from Coyote Mountain.

The house I grew up in is about half a mile from the city cemetery. The creepiness of the place from younger years has all but evaporated. Old tombstones poke up from the ground sending shivers through young visitors. When I’m home I enjoy strolling to the small graveyard and walking laps around it. Mom and Dad’s teen grandkids like to walk to the cemetery at night and scare each other. After dark, the old headstones remind me of horror movie scenes, though the place is inviting during the day. I try to discourage the grandkids from venturing to the cemetery because, unfortunately, at night the cemetery becomes a den of iniquity. Liquor bottles and condoms are sometimes strewn among the headstones.
By contrast, the townsfolk flock out to the happy, bustling farmer’s market every Saturday during the summer. The nearly 100-degree dry heat doesn’t seem to discourage many. Local vendors hope to sell their produce and wares. A middle-aged woman adorned in stark make-up has a booth filled with every colorful homemade beaded jewelry and bobble you can imagine. She explains that she has crafted a new design of foot bracelets to wear as a slipper. Sitting at the edge of her stool with a gaudy foot bracelet on, she unleashes her smile, waving her foot back and forth attempting to attract customers. Her behavior seems childish, but people don’t seem to mind. The market brings in the locals, including the Colville Indian population, who run many of the booths at the market.
Family members who visit my hometown see it as a backward hick place. I used to feel the same way. Lately my views have changed. Back home in Utah, life is at a frenzied pace. There is constant chiming on my phone, alerting me to meetings I need to attend or e-mails I need to respond to. The grass is too high; there are too many weeds in the flower bed; I have a visitor coming to stay and no clean sheets; the children need to be signed up for school last week. I chose that lifestyle, but Okanogan brings rest and focus to me. I always have a desire to go back to Utah and slow the breakneck pace down after spending time with Mom and Dad in Okanogan. The people in my past represent a time I want to hang on to. The tranquility enfolding Okanogan is refreshing.
Utah’s population is escalating rapidly. The population growth in Okanogan has had a very slow climb, but is now leveling off. I suppose that’s why the place feels the same as it did forty years ago. Residents have a casual manner and a lack of obsession with appearance. In a society fixated on beauty, it is refreshing to have a town where looks are irrelevant. Driving down the freeway from Salt Lake City to Provo, the billboards are plastered with advertisements of every kind of surgery possible to perfect our bodies. Okanogan billboards tend to showcase things like county fairs and farm equipment.
The land and its inhabitants are intertwined and intimately connected. Many of the faces I associate with Okanogan are the same through time, age etching their features. These people work hard. They conquer the land, producing fruit from a space that would seem daunting to most. There is a sense of camaraderie out in the orchards and when people bump into each other in Walmart. The land and the people are one. This became obvious to me as I think back on flying with Dad over the land he loves, the ocean of sagebrush below us.
As we drive back to Utah, the hum of busy begins to get louder. I start thinking about the huge to-do list I have waiting for me. My college classes I’m finishing up didn’t get any more done while I was away. Housework and the children’s sports don’t rest. My husband and I have phone messages stacked up. When we pull into the driveway it’s as if home shouts, asking us why we took so long and when are we going to get back to all we need to do. My husband and I look at each other wondering when we can head back to Okanogan.


Julie married her college sweetheart. Together they brought eleven children into the world, creating a swirling, exciting, busy life. Until recently, her schooling was put on the back burner. She is working on her bachelor's degree through BYU with an emphasis in writing.

This is Julie’s first publication.

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