Grandma’s puzzles

As a kid, I spent hours digging through puzzles with my grandma. Putting together old-timey soda shop parlors and Rockwell Thanksgiving suppers.

Her wrinkled, careful, thoughtful fingers handed me a piece and always seemed to know the exact one I needed.

Over time, the jigsaw puzzle became its own form of communication. 

My grandpa recently retired, finally letting his aching bones rest after a long lifetime of labor. 85 years old, the majority of them spent on blue-collar jobs. He almost seemed afraid of retiring, afraid of allowing himself to exist in his own space. 

Last week, he did his first puzzle ever with my grandma. Letting her wrinkled, careful, thoughtful fingers hand him a piece. 

If he had done a puzzle with her sooner, I wonder if he would have retired so late in life. I wonder if he would have loved my grandma differently, sharing himself within her simple, unspoken love. 

North Dakota

Part one: Trains

When I think of New Salem, North Dakota, I first think of the trains. 

The trains that gave the slow town breaths, each exhalation of fumes a reminder of North Dakota’s excavated landscape; rolling plains, prairies, and badlands previously treasured by the indigenous Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes (among others), now a place for the teeth of capitalism to sink its dirty roots into. Still, life has found a way to make this violent greed pretty. 

Growing up, I could tell the time of day in New Salem by the trains that came rumbling through the town, shaking the doors and windows of every 100-year-old house like an angry wind that demanded to be felt. 

Each time my brothers and I visited my aunt Carol who lived in town we would take pennies to the railroad tracks and set them on the metal rails. Then we’d wait by the steps of her porch until the train came, which thundered by with such a ferocious intensity that it seemed as if the world itself was being flattened. After the train finished crossing we’d come and collect the newly rolled-out pennies —with elongated faces of Abraham Lincoln and stretched out words “in god we trust”— faded on the side of the track. Such curious souvenirs. Sometimes I still wonder if the conductors ever knew they took a small part in making art. 

The last time I went to visit, it was just me and my mom. We got cheap Chinese food in Bismark and ate it while watching the sun set on my aunt’s porch, the train disappearing over the never-ending horizon.

Every time I see a train now, I think of New Salem. The trains that rumbled by as my cousin and I would take the sap from pine bark rub it on our lips —the sticky sour gumming our lips together as we giggled—, the trains that shook the wind chime on the back porch and gave the lonesome midnights a quiet song, the trains that swirled the lukewarm water my aunt mixed the bright red powder of kool-aid into.

The trains, a constant reminder of movement through time.

When the world ends, I can imagine the trains still running. Graffiti-covered cars still crawling along the long-faded horizon, rusted engines forever caught in their whirl of motion.

Part two: Salem Sue 

New Salem has, and has always had, a population of a thousand people…but don’t quote me on that. It’s not “technically 1,000 people”; people come and go, are born and then die. But when the most exciting thing happening in the town over the last decade is the installation of a new grocery store, there’s a thousand people living there. A small, painfully small town.

But even in towns as small as this, residents find a way to draw tourists in. Introducing Salem Sue: World’s Largest Holstein Cow. According to a coffee mug my mom has that lists all of the fast facts about Sue, she was built in 1974 and stands 38 feet high and 50 feet long. Sue towers on a hill that overlooks the interstate, the only hill in miles and miles of flat grasslands and hayfields. I remember excitedly pressing my face up to the rear-window of my mom’s minivan to see as much of Sue as possible before we pulled off the interstate to visit my aunt and uncle’s house.

So New Salem decided to surround its town identity in cow culture. They had cow themed memorabilia line the gas station shelves, called the high school sports team the Holsteins, and created a festival they celebrate every summer called the Cow Town Hoe-Down.

As I only have the memories of childhood from the lens of, well, a child, I don’t remember what the Hoe-Down had to offer adults. Probably something like beer, bingo, and cow themed knick knacks. But as a kid, the weekend-long Hoe-Down had everything fun you could ask for. A bouncy house with a slide that practically begged kids to get rug burn from sliding too fast down its cheap nylon fabric, an egg toss in the middle of the main street where partners would see how far apart they could stand and throw an egg to each other before their egg dropped and broke, and a parade where participants of the dairy farmers or firefighters float threw excited little kids (like me) way too much candy. 

And, if you got bored with all of the festivities, right down the road was the playground, with a rusted and wobbly merry-go-round, a silver metal slide that burned hotly if you slid on it during the daytime, and large metal sea creatures on thick springs that squeaked as you rocked on them.  

While I didn’t grow up in North Dakota in the same way much of my mom’s side of the family did because we only visited my aunt and uncle once every year or two, New Salem holds many of my most formative childhood memories. Whenever my family drove up the windy trail on the hillside to stand beside Salem Sue, I’d peer up at her 38 feet tall body in awe, my little body barely even the size of her hoof. And I grew up with her. Over time, she became a piece of my home.


I understand in a purely rational and logical sense that many of the spiders I see making nests in my forgotten spaces aren’t poisonous; their bites simply zit on my exposed arm or neck, then disappear after a few days of irritation. 

But when I’m reading or sleeping or watching youtube videos, and their jagged bodies crawl like shards of glass across my relaxed consciousness, adrenaline cuts through my sense of safety and I spend the rest of the night on high alert. Like any movement I make might allow the glass to pierce fragile skin, regardless of whether I decided to kill the spider or show it mercy. 

And when they do bite, they leave the humbling red welt reminder that I can never be too careful. 

I’m not afraid of spiders, anymore. I used to be terrified of them growing up. 

For a few years, my family lived in this house with a huge backyard we called the Glen house (named after the street it was on). It was our family’s second house since taking the big leap from South Dakota to Montana. Before I began to form my own identity and before my sense of “home” kept flipping on its head. 

I loved it at the Glen house. We had a deep red wooden barn in the backyard—the kind that would immediately pop into your head when you think of an “old farm barn in Montana”—, a garden that blossomed with corn and strawberries and other fruits and vegetables that the deer would jump over the fence and steal, and a few apple and plum trees spread throughout the property. I spent endless hours playing outdoors with my brothers and our dogs over those formative years, exploring edge to edge of the first place I really felt at home. 

This being said, the Glen house had an overwhelming spider problem. My brothers leaned into this, collecting wolf and black widow spiders in jars filled with sticks and leaves that lined on the walls of our garage. I, on the other hand, would painstakingly try to poke out each corner I feared a spider might try and claim my small, brief life form. 

I now look at the Glen house and its nefarious spider problem as a premonition of the years to come.

In total, by the time I was a junior in high school, we had moved at least 12 times that I can count. As we moved from place to place, we continued to nickname our houses after the streets or areas they were at in the city— “The Bancroft house”, “The Big Flat house”, “The house across the railroad tracks”, “The house behind the Gyro Shop”. And as we continued to change and shift houses, it seemed like spiders seemed to follow my dad wherever he moved. 

He was an absentee father for the vast majority of my childhood. I didn’t know that at the time; I fully cherished each moment I had with him because I didn’t understand why he was gone so much, I only understood that I had little time with him. 

Because I cherished each moment, I would bend over backward to try and please him each time I could. Still no matter what I did, no matter what anyone did, it was only a matter of time before he would snare one of us in his web and bite. 

Disentangling yourself from his web after you were a victim of his emotional and verbal abuse felt confusing and disorienting. I have numerous memories where I would come to him hurting and would leave him feeling inexplicably guilty. I didn’t understand that he was manipulating me, I had never heard the term “gaslight” or “love bomb” before. I only knew, in some loose abstract sense, that living with my dad was like living with spiders. 

So that’s why reflecting on everything that I know and everything that I remember about my dad, I think the best way to describe our relationship is to think about the spiders that kept claiming each of our houses. 

For the summer of 2014, my brothers and I lived in Sturgis, SD, with my dad. There we worked full-time hours at the Indian motorcycle shop he ran, and it was my first taste of the 9-5 grind. I was an anxious and insecure kid, and being forced to spend all day selling merchandise forced me to come out of my shell quickly.

Every single day that we weren’t working, my dad wasn’t home. I lived in the basement, and each night as I tried to fall asleep I’d count the spiders that slipped between the ceiling tiles and lived in the corner of my bedroom that I was too scared to clean out.

The times when I felt most isolated and most trapped within his space, were the times that it most seemed like I was caught in a spider web. And I felt entangled in that house: because I didn’t have a car I couldn’t leave, Sturgis had beyond nothing to do in the summer besides the “world’s largest motorcycle rally” held every August, and I didn’t know anybody. My brothers have always had an easier time making friends than me and it seemed like they were able to spend time with random people as if they had always belonged. Which was great for them but it meant I was stuck, for hours or days at a time, alone with my comic books, kindle, and the dozens of spiders that infested the basement. 

The unknown was what scared me the most. If I could see the spiders I could catch or kill them. But more often than not they took me by surprise, crawling over my kindle in sharp shadows as I watched episodes of Doctor Who, or tickling my toes as I brushed my teeth in the bathroom. 

The general unease, always wondering where they could be hiding or when they would decide to show up. When they might bite. That’s what being around my dad felt like. I never knew when he would do something genuinely good, or when he would snap over seemingly nothing and mentally abuse one or more of his kids. And sometimes he would do something genuinely good, but then turn around and use that as a weapon against us. 

My dad builds beautiful webs, that’s something I can confidently say about him. He’s insanely intelligent and charismatic and can sell anything to anybody. Which is why he worked as a successful businessman for so many years; he could sell the dream of what would be better than anybody I’ve ever met. But those promises of what would be never were fulfilled. I wanted to believe that anything he said would come to fruition, but time after time after time he let me down. I learned to never trust anything he said. 

 I spent half of my childhood at my dad’s houses, and I can never think of a time when I was fully relaxed. Where being in his space felt like being home. I stopped being afraid of spiders after that first summer in Sturgis, accepting their coexistence with a numb defeat. But every time I go to visit his house I still stay on high alert. Where will my dad attack from this time? How much will it hurt? How will I ever be able to have power in a space where I always feel like prey? 


When I first broke up with my boyfriend of over two years, I felt immense shame. Not because of anything either of us said or did, but because I loved him so deeply as a friend. 

He’d been there for me through some of the most traumatic shit in my life so far, walking me through the raging flames of my mind with a fire extinguisher strapped to his back, helping me calm down the heat as best as he could. 

Then I crossed over the river, the burns cooled and healed—both literally and metaphorically— and I realized something.

I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in our relationship, my path diverted from his. The growth each of us had gone through throughout our time together had caused us to shape into different places. Which would be ok, people come and go throughout life, and it became clear to me that our paths were meant to stay diverged romantically. 

But, shame hung heavy on my shoulders long after we broke up. 

The shame stemmed from the idea that if you find a partner who’s a good person, a truly good and caring person who loves you for who you are, you should hold onto them with both hands gripped tightly around their torso. As a female assigned at birth, I had deeply internalized this narrative. Who knows when you’d find another good person to love romantically? What if you leave this person and then end up with someone who verbally, emotionally, and/or physically abuses you? 

The unpredictability of being romantically vulnerable has scared generations of women and f.a.b. people into settling into unsatisfactory relationships. This person loves you and is a good person, and no, they may not be meeting your romantic needs, but at least you know they won’t try to hurt you. 

I didn’t realize that this was a common phenomenon when I first broke up with him. All I felt was my individual shame, the guilt of leaving someone who I knew would love me unconditionally. But the more I vocalized my experience, the more I found other f.a.b. people who resonated with this. 

I believe it’s natural to be heartbroken over breaking somebody’s heart who you love; it’s difficult but necessary growth for many relationships. But the shame. The shame makes me reflect, inspires me to write. 

It felt, on some subconscious level, that I owed him my romantic love. He had been there when the flames seemed to create an impenetrable barrier around me, and he loved me with deep sincerity, which meant (to my mind) that I owed him my heart. As I found more people who shared a similar experience to me, I realized that the shame didn’t stem from my relationship in particular. Rather, the systemic depreciation of feminine identities has caused a foundational rift in our value as human beings worthy of love… Yet again. Thank you patriarchy. 

So no, I didn’t owe him my love. And if you’re reading this and resonate with this, neither do you. In the same way there will always be bad people who will try and hurt you, there will always be good people who will love you for who you are, romantically or platonically.