A Vagabond Song

In October I leave home, headed home. Seven hundred and forty one and a half miles lie between my yellow brick house on a hill in this city and the white farmhouse which still holds my roots and my heart. In October the leaves begin turn to flame and in the dark before the dawn I load my children into the van and set off, bound on a vagabond journey back to where I began.

As we drive across the green rolling hills of Ohio as they begin to turn golden, we read this poem:

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood-

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With the yellow and the crimson and the purple keeping time.

 

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry

Of bugles going by.

And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the smoke of asters like a frost upon the hills.

 

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

-Carman Bliss 1861-1929

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Out of Dormancy

Today is the birthday of my sister Mary. Last week, she wove a crown of flowers for me to wear on her farm on Wildflower Ridge.

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My sister is a flower farmer and a shepherdess. She tends the land. She sows beauty. Eight years ago, she planted the idea of this blog. She believed that the story of four sisters who grew up together in a big white farmhouse in the Driftless hills of Southwestern Wisconsin dreaming of a greater world and venturing forth in it was something worth writing about. She believed that people would want to read about life in the big city of Pittsburgh PA, trips to Paris, mud on the farm, running and baking bread and heading off to college and wearing babies in city streets and farmers fields.

She was right but all that living of life was fairly time consuming and for almost four years this blog fell by the wayside while the adventures continued.

In the time since I’ve last written, I released an album with my husband.

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We’ve toured across the East Coast, South, and Midwest, including two tours with a newborn this summer after our fourth child was born. We’re currently recording a Christmas carol which will be released next month.

Mary was married to our sister-in-law Aurora’s brother Austin on a rainy windswept day in May.

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Since then they have had the most beautiful baby AND moved to one of the most beautiful farms on God’s green earth, complete with sheep, goats, horses, wildflowers, and Great Pyrenees.

Colleen continues to love running, and was married to the tall, handsome young accounting major she met in college.

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Their son Finn just turned two years old.

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Clare, youngest of four sisters and nine children, had a spectacular semester abroad in Rome and is a senior in college, and the Student Government President of the University of Dallas. This comes as no surprise to any of her elder siblings who noticed early on her desire to run the whole wide world.

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Our (now double) sister in law Aurora is now the mother of eight gorgeous children, and has simultaneously been breeding extraordinary horses at Devils Hole Ranch.

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If you look closely at that last photo you’ll notice that it was taken by Nicole Elizabeth Photography, which brings me to our second sister in law, Nicole, who in the years since the blog went dormant has become a famous photographer. We’re both very proud to be related to her and grateful for all the photos, which include every single one in this post except for Mary’s wedding picture.

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What with all the weddings and music and world travel and babies we’ve been busy but lately I’ve found myself with many things to say, and I do believe this is the place to say some of them.

So hello again! And happy birthday to my beautiful sister Mary, who plants flowers and blogs and creates beauty in this world. Here’s a link to a birthday post I wrote to her seven years ago today. I’m so happy we made it to the present day, flower crowns and all.

To the Ocean

By Colleen

When did I first see the ocean? Well, to be honest, I feel a bit foolish, because I was 21 years old before I finally actually saw it. Before you make your exclamations, let me tell you that I’ve heard them all: “What?! No way! How in the world have you not seen the OCEAN?” Yeah, they’re all the same. But give me a break; I’m an Irish farm girl, and I grew up in very landlocked country in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We had a river (thirty miles away) and we had plenty of ice-cold creeks to splash around in, snapping turtles and leeches and all. But, far away, way across the state, we had a lake, a GREAT lake.

When I was little, the trip across the state to visit my grandmother who lived exotically close to that lake seemed an eternity. The packing of the car itself was an ordeal. Do you realize how hard it is to pack seven to nine children (depending on age and willingness to make the trip) into one car? And we didn’t make it a “light” trip. My two younger siblings, James and Clare,, and I had an ongoing contest of who could pack the heaviest bag for the (at the longest) weekend trip.

We would hold our breath as we each placed our bags on the scale, normally used to weigh squash and asparagus. “Ha! Mine’s twenty pounds!” James would exclaim, Clare and I would clamber over each other to check the verity of his proud statement. “No way!”we’d groan in dismay. James was the victor most often, but that’s only because he packed the most books. We should have just done away the books to even the playing field. There’s no way he could have won if we’d only weighed our clothing. I swear that boy wore the same, striped red t-shirt and tan, cargo shorts for the first ten years of his life, along with the same bowl cut for his sandy, stick-straight blond hair.

After the bags and children were packed, we finally settled down to read all of those books that we packed. The average number of books finished on our way to Grandma’s was 2.3, but if you were a big kid, it was more like 3.2. When we did eventually get to our destination, hands sticky with laffy-taffy and corn nuts, successfully begged from our parents at gas stations along the way, the first order of business (after the dreaded hug from Grandma and awkward hellos, directed more at our shoes than at Grandma) was to go down to the lake.

“Mom! Dad! Can we go to the lake? Can we take a walk ALL the way out to the lighthouse? Please, please, please!” We would dance around mom and dad’s feet in anticipation of an adventure. More often than not, an older sibling would take us down the four blocks or so to the lakefront. Mom and Dad would stay back home with Grandma in her quiet and intimidatingly clean house.

We always wondered how Dad with his knack for making messes came from such an ordered home. How did the man who regularly hacked and slashed away at mysterious cuts of beef and pork on our dining room table (so much so that I was determined to never sit at the first right hand spot from the head of the table ever again), blood dripping down to the floor in rivulets and flecks of fats and gristle flying every which way, grow up on white carpets and sit down to eat in that spotless kitchen? The spaces in between the pink and white linoleum on her floor never even had any dirt in them. I know because I’d seen marveled at it as I bent to hastily pick up piece of chocolate chip cookie, stolen from her cookie jar one time. And nothing ever changed at Grandma’s. It was a rule.

Anyhow, we would sprint down the street and finally, finally see the “ocean”, Lake Michigan, right there before our astonished eyes. The path down to the beach in front of the azure mass of clear, fresh water was perilous, and up until you were about twelve, you’d need an older sibling’s hand to cling to if you wanted to avoid tumbling down the sharp embankment, through the briars and burrs, and onto the cold, white sands before the foaming water.

But once you were down there, down on the beach, it was pure magic. I always thought I was looking at the ocean. I couldn’t imagine anything as beautiful and grand not being what all those writers talk about in books. It was enormous! And I was so small! When I got old enough to realize the reality of the “smallness” of Lake Michigan, I persisted in calling it the ocean. It was. It was my ocean. The water hit the sky at the horizon, perfectly flat and still, and stretched out and out and out. It was my ocean. The waves were always cold.

The blue-green water prickled my skin into a thousand goosebumps, and made me and James and Clare scream when we jumped in. Slipping underneath the waves and into a shock of cold, my hands numb, my hair flowing about my face, I was in my ocean. And then I would resurface with a scream of success.

And so, if you ask when I first saw the ocean, the answer is that, technically, I first saw it after a nineteen hour road trip in college, off the coast of the Atlantic, in Charleston, South Carolina. Really, it was too dark to see much when we finally arrived at the waterfront around two A.M; the air smelled different, though; there was something wilder in it, something raw. The water was quiet that night, and it shone blue-black under a waning moon, all the way out past human sight. I whooped and hollered, and truly, I loved the air, the night sky, the ocean. But some part of my heart asked, “Haven’t I been here before?” It wasn’t my ocean.

 

Easter in Paris

By Mary

Last October my friend Havilah called to announce not only that I was to be the godmother of her child, but also that I was to come to Paris to where she and her family live to visit and attend the baptism. In response to her invitation/command (you have to know Havilah to know exactly how direct she is, and how she makes things happen-big time!), I said I would think about it which proceeded in such a manner that I thought about it, got excited about the concept, then completely forgot about all travel plans before revisiting the option and putting it into my prayer intentions and just letting the trip form as it should. Nor only did the trip manifest, but it turned out to be a trip of exceptional blessings that was filled to the brim with good humor, wonderful company, amazing food, and more importantly than amazing food, amazing cheap wonderful wine.There was also beautiful sights especially when seeing the heart of Paris with my friends, and than the sea when my French friend Morgane took me on a ride alongside the English Channel as a special surprise on a rainy spring morning.

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During the few days in Paris I saw many sights.

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Some reminded me of home like the bucket filled with sauerkraut at the farmers market…

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The piles of fresh vegetables…

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And the pasture full of horses that Morgane took me to visit.

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Other sights were totally distinct and bore no resemblance to home.

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After seeing some of Paris and the surrounding countryside, it was time for the baptism of my Godson, baby Gabriel.

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And his big brother Anton.

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The baptism was a long formal affair followed by another long formal affair- a 7 course meal with an abundance of amazing food.

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Despite all the wonders of the day by the end of the night I was starting to think about home and by Tuesday I was happy to depart back to Wisconsin via a long flight back that took us to Helsinki Finland overnight, then to Rome, then Chicago and finally Madison. All in all, it was a wonderful adventure. Upon getting back I had many people ask me about my trip which made me reflect about what stood out to me the most during my eight days away. What I realized was that the very best part of the trip had nothing to do with the majestic atmosphere that France is so elegantly shrouded in. Far more wonderful than any sights I saw or wonderful food I consumed was the time I got to spend with those that I shared the trip with.

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The laughter and the memories shared were epic and for that simple fact I am grateful.

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Resolution

By Kate

Today is New Year’s Eve. Last year on this day, for the first time in a long time, I sat down with a notebook and a pen and wrote out resolutions in longhand script. One of them was to make music with my family. When I met my husband, music was a constant part of our courtship. I played the harp for him in a courtyard with blossoms falling down. He built a guitar and carved my name into it. Then, we got married and had three children and began to build a life and a home together. Our music fell by the wayside. He stopped playing entirely, and I played less and less.

I didn’t know what playing music as a family would mean. Piano lessons for the kids? A Von Trapp scenario of some sort? For a long time, nothing happened. Then, on a Saturday morning in the late summer, in the middle of the kitchen, I asked my husband if he wanted to play music with me. I’d never done that. We’d never done that! In the entire time we knew each other, we’d played for each other occasionally, but never once played together. As a classically trained musician, I’ve always had a horror of jam sessions. But that morning, that is what we did. We were sitting in the middle of the kitchen, surrounded by coffee and newspapers and goldfish, with the baby climbing on my instrument and the big kids watching cartoons in the living room. We started to play, and it was amazing.

I didn’t expect our musical instruments and styles to fit together so perfectly. When love is new, everything seems to join and shimmer. Time brings out the rough edges and discord. But the music we made together? Not only did it flow, it was beautiful. It was compelling. It was different than everything either of us had heard before. We realized we had to pursue it. Suddenly, I wasn’t just playing music with my family- I was working on an amazing album with my talented husband.

That morning, we began a journey that has already taken us in unexpected directions. We turned the attic room into a simple studio space. We’ve been swept upon a historical journey, traveling through the centuries in our own neighborhood, which is rich in history dating back to the Civil War. It’s been a great adventure, and not just because we still have a baby at our feet and two other children building forts in the next room.

My New Year’s resolution has turned into a voyage to explore the resolution of so many others. The resolution of a young immigrant mother with her baby in her arms, crossing the stormy sea. The resolution of a farm boy turned Civil War Soldier. And the resolution of married couples who fall in love and then, after the fireworks and the fairytale wedding, grapple with the grit and the pain and the beauty and the grace of building a real life, and all that entails.

This New Years, on the Eve of 2016, we’re working on our first album, Ballads and Battles, featuring songs of civil and marital strife. We hope to release the album this spring. If you’re interested, you can sign up for our mailing list here and see our brand new website here. We believe that the album will be a good one, and we look forward to sharing it with you.

What is your resolution for 2016?

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Fall Colors

By Mary

The beauty of colors is a bold sight to behold. It’s a true gift of joy to notice how colors encompass so much and are in constant transition. Now that it’s October the colors here in Wisconsin have changed. In June I would wake up in a stream of pale and beautiful early morning sunlight, Now when I open my eyes I see black or gray. On some days of fall I feel like the sunlight in the evening seems dim, on others it seems amber. My sister-in-law Nicole came upon amber sunlight and captured it with her camera in a valley out at the ranch.

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Nicole always seems to find breathtaking beauty with her camera. The other day I came back in from picking raspberries and she was out in the yard with her boys and camera. She managed to capture some of the last blooms of fall out by the picket fence in the garden.

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Another great shot Nicole got was from the fall roundup a few weeks back at the ranch. It was a busy weekend but by the end of the day all the horses got to get turned out and their halters were left at the gate to catch them for another day of work the next morning.

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To see more of Nicole’s amazing work (or to book her for a family portrait, because she is amazing at them!) click here.

While Cale and I are not nearly as photogenic as the rest of Nicole’s great shots, here is a picture of us post round-up. The two of us cousins are 11 months apart and both celebrate our birthdays in the autumn.

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One of my very favorite colors of autumn comes from the sharp red flower pods of chinese lantern flowers I cut and dry before selling in bundles. They have such a intense color and when their pods turn from orange to red, I know fall is here.

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Raspberries are also one of my very favorite things/ colors of fall. The ones I grow are called Autumn Bliss and they certainly do live up to their name.

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I like the leaves too that fall that with reckless abandon. They are the polar opposite of a spring shower but they have a similar way of cascading about.

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Come sprin, the leaves will get raked up upon muddy ground. But for now they can blow about. After all it’s fall and they world is full of new kinds of color and autumn excitement. Keep warm everybody and happy fall!

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Re: Letting Go

By: Clare

I never write blog posts. I have sworn off blog posts for the rest of my life. And yet here I am, writing this, and there you are, reading this, and somewhere 3 sisters of mine are sitting behind a screen grinning gleefully because I promised “By: Clare” would never appear on the sweetridgesisters page again. But Kate was right, she has inspired me to do many things, including write a blog post, You got the oldest’s view, now you can have mine, which is valued at a higher price than Donald Trump.

All my life I’ve undergone The Interview. Meaning, I meet a person. Person learns I am the youngest child. Wait, I am the youngest of how many? Eyebrows shoot up. Eyes scrunch together. Then I hear The Question: “Sooo, do you like being the youngest?” My answer is always, “Well, there are pros and cons.” Then I give a soft chuckle and sprint walk away in the politest way possible.

It’s true, there are many, many pros and cons. But by far the biggest con has always been the niggling knowledge in the back of my head that whispered in my ear yearly and told me that I would always be left behind. And I was. The truth unfolded quietly and slyly; I never knew things were changing until it had already happened, like a rug being pulled out from under my feet.Six-year-old Clare discovered her siblings didn’t like playing Blind Man’s Bluff on the trampoline anymore.

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Eight-year-old Clare accepted the fact that her siblings would never agree to play tag again.

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Ten-year-old Clare saw Raph leave for college and knew the indoor games Raph directed would cease. At 14 her best friend/sister left, at 16 her worst enemy/brother. My siblings grew up so fast, and I was so eager to join them. I puffed up my chest and tripped over my feet to get there, but somehow always felt like I was lagging behind.

In a day I leave the cocoon of my home, where I have tracked my siblings’ adventures and dreamed up my own. In a day I will stand at the door and receive a final blessing and cross the threshold into adventure. It seems almost surreal, because I’ve seen it done so many times before, but always with me in the background. I thought I had my whole life planned, but I only just realized that goodbyes can be so hard, and the future can seem so vast, so mysterious, and so lonely.

Yes, there are perks to being the youngest, but there is always a gentle, yet unrelenting burden pressing on my shoulders. There are pages and pages of stories my siblings have written in our Slattery Book of Life, and mine has always and will always come last, just before the “The End.”  Everywhere I go, I leave a wreckage of red stamps that read “Finished.” Everything I do is carried on a wind of nostalgia and is narrated as “the end of an era.” Because of this, in some ways, it feels like I let down the family just by growing up.

My hands hold my childhood tightly tucked inside my heart. There you can find me sailing through the stormy seas of the English Channel on a trusty ship greatly resembling our hammock, or me carrying three antique schoolbooks down our dirt lane to a one-room schoolhouse greatly resembling our chicken shed, or me winning an Olympic gold medal after my killer serve was left unreturned by my Russian opponent, who greatly resembles the side of our white farmhouse.

For me, letting go means giving back. I want every other child to feel the innocence and love I was blessed with as a child. I want to dedicate my life to that cause and follow God blindly and humbly. I just have a lot of work to do on my way.

Like packing. Lots of packing.

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