I am from the nexus of
Hay Creek, Sandy Draw, and Sour Dough Flats
the borderland between the
High Plains and the Northern Black Hills
We are suspicious of outsiders:
folks from places of thousands
crammed together in one small spot
folks who have no connection
with the land, who
cannot tell a Herford from a Holstein
a chokecherry from a buffaloberry
a whitetail from a mule deer
Ours is ranch land populated with
magenta shooting stars, yellow johnnie-jump-ups
blue dragonflies and rainbow trout
killdeer and meadowlark songs
sung from nests in buffalo grass pastures
I am blessed.
B.J. (Jean) Helmer is a 4th generation resident of the border lands. A member Bearlodge Writers and Belle Fourche Writers, she writes of daily life in memoir and verse—and is addicted to pen, paper, chocolate and caffeine.
Life before retirement
Educator—high school and college
Director/chaplain, United Ministries /BHSU
Co-director of Dakota Writing Project and Sinte Gleska Writing Project
Life after retirement
Grandchildren, great-grandchildren, gardening
Recent Works from Publications
"What do you remember about the Summer of '57?" the reporter asked.
I stared at him wondering why I'd agreed to be interviewed,
wondering if it were possible to remember what I'd kept locked and buried,
what I’d spent thirty years trying to forget.
"What do you remember?"
What I remember most is the hail,
pink, where it lay in noon time drifts against the silver tin barn;
clear, when held to the August sun
to be examined by my inquisitive ten-year-old eyes.
And I remember the hail-ploughed alfalfa fields,
my father's grim silence,
my mother's face furrowed by worry.
"How come it looks pink when it's over there?"
"Maybe it has something in it."
"I can't see anything."
My parents exchanged glances but give me no answer.
"Can I taste it, Dad?"
"Don't imagine it'll kill ya."
He shrugged. Mom turned to her ravaged garden.
The reporter made me remember the spring that followed
Calves born with full bodies and stubby legs,
born with two noses and only one head.
And I remember autumn
with its herds of whitetail who ignored green alfalfa
who preferred instead old, moldy hay,
And I remember Dad
his blue eyes sliced the night air. He watched them, said
"Those deer know something we don't."
"And the winter of '58?" the reporter queried, "What happened then?"
I remember day after day of sub-zero weather.
I remember the calves in the feedlot,
calves who bumped fragile ears against corral posts,
calves whose ears cracked and bled chalky pink icicle earrings,
calves who strained and died from a disease no one was willing to name.
I remember the still, spongy bodies of last week's dead,
bodies my little brother and I walked across,
as we dragged the new dead onto the bone heap,
I remember the magpies who fed on the bone heap,
Magpies who flew drunkenly, then died.
I remember the spring of ’59 which arrived,
Bringing with it the black car filled with black-suited men,
Men too nervous and too unwilling to enter the corrals,
And Geiger counters with needles buried and clickers that buzzed. . .
I remember their words:
“It’s not bad enough to post an armed guard.”
And they drove away,
Leaving me to remember,
Leaving me never able to forget the words,
Published in an earlier version in Granite Island, Amber Sea: Black Hills Literary Journal
With my basket of laundry in hand, I bang through the screen door of our farmhouse and head for the clothesline. It is a bright, warm day filled with eager expectations—the kind of day that comes naturally with June. This spring, the second of our marriage, these expectations center around the any-day-now arrival of our first child. This morning, in a sudden burst of energy, I washed all the baby paraphernalia which had accumulated form recent shopping sprees and baby showers. As I hand the yet-to-be worn sleepers on the line, I giggle at the antics of our dog, Happy. She stops her squirrel chasing long enough to wag her way around my feet. I pin the last tiny garment to the wire and step back to admire my handiwork.
“Well, I’m glad I at least got to do this once,” I tell the dog.
“That’s a weird thought,” I say to myself. Suddenly, unbidden tears scorch paths down my cheeks.
“Does pregnancy make you crazy?” I ask Happy.
Happy cocks her head and looks at me qujestioningly.
“C’mon, woman,” I scold myself. “What’s with you? You just saw the doctor yesterday. Everything’s fine.”
I shudder as an invisible shadow moves across my day. I shake my head, trying to displace the feeling. I dry my tears, pick up the empty basket, and return to the house. The dog follows silently.
“Saw Fender today,” Gary tells me after supper. “He and Red want to go ahead and get that new tractor. Marv says they don’t need it. Granny was siding with Marv.”
I laugh. I can just see seventy-two year-old Granny punctuating her words with the wave of her pancake turner as she puts her two cents worth into the ongoing battle of her three sons.
Glancing out the window at the adjacent cornfield, I comment, “You can just about see that corn grow. What you been out in it?”
“Yea. It’ll be knee-high by the Fourth of July. Dad always said that meant it would run at least a hundred bushels to the acre. Gonna be a good year if I can keep the water poured to it.”
I agree, flinch and smile to myself as the baby tries to kick out my lower ribs. I look up and catch Gary watching my belly from across the room. He gives me a sheepish grin, then suddenly looks serious.
“Hey, we got to talking about funerals today.” Gary shifted in his chair. “I don’t know what brought up the subject, but I happened to think—what do they do for babies?”
“Hmmm,” I say slowly. “I don’t know—they must just have graveside services. Guess I’ve never paid much attention.”
“Me neither. Just got to wondering.”
The room goes silent. Our conversation dies for a second, then we shrug off the uncomfortable thoughts.
“Want to go for a ride? Maybe the house will have cooled off by the time we get back.”
“Sounds good. I got a little warm this afternoon.”
We head to the pickup. Gary chuckles as I heft my way up into the cab.
“Gonna need to use the loader to get you up there is you don’t have that kid pretty soon.”
I stick my tongues out at him. “Think you’re cute, don’t you?”
For nearly two days now, I have been stuck on the third-floor maternity ward. It’s hot and humid. The contractions start again, and get harder and harder, coming every two minutes. It’s getting old. I’ve been through this several times already, and we still don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Once again, the contractions slow to ten-minute intervals.
Mom’s here. She looks tired and worried. My sister-in-law Ardyth stops, still in her nurse’s uniform. She works for one of the doctors who shares a clinic with my doctor. Mom whispers to her. Ardyth seems upset. I hear the word toxemia but am too tired to even wonder about the word.
My grandfatherly doctor comes in. He checks me and shakes his head.
“You just get too tense when the labor gets strong. That causes your muscles to tense up and stops the labor. We are going to give you something to speed up the contractions, then I’m going to break the water. At that point, you’ll get something to relax those muscles so the baby can come.”
This time I make it into the delivery room. They strap my legs and arms down. The contractions are strong and rapid; the doctor breaks my water; the nurse injects the muscle relaxant. Everything stops. Nothing. Silent tears of exhaustion and fear cascade into my ears.
“She’s too tired. Take her back to her room.” Frustration and fatigue tinge the doctor’s voice. “We’ll try later, after she’s rested.”
It is eleven pm. Gary is ashen gray. I move my thick, dry tongue and manage to tell him to go up to Mom’s. I’ll have the nurse call him when it’s time. He leaves. I drift in and out of awareness.
Endless waves of contractions crash through my body. It’s been fifty-seven hours now…so I hear a nurse say. I’m back in the delivery room. This time they’re trying oxygen and ether. The taste burns its way into my throat. I know that I’ll never be free of the taste and smell.
The doctor finished the episiotomy. Finally, the crown forceps …ah-h-h…it’s a girl.
IT’S A GIRL! HEY! IT’S A GIRL!!
The nurse hold her up for me to see. I don’t haves my glasses. I see a dark thatch of hair. She looks…she looks blue. The nurse holds her upside down and taps her feet, gently first, then more forcefully. The pink returns only to fade again.
Make her breathe,” I pray—I demand—I cry. “Make her breathe!”
Finally, slowly, the pink returns.
I get to hold her for a little while, all nine pounds, one ounce, twenty-one inches of her. It’s five p.m. it’s Saturday. She’s beautiful. I’m happy. I’m asleep.
Seven pm. Gary’s with me again. They bring the baby from the nursery. Hey! We’re a family! We look at her and share a smile. Weeks ago, Gary had chosen Sharon as a name.
“Does she look like a Sharon to you?” I ask.
Gary looks at mi like I’m crazy, and I repeat the question.
“I don’t know. I don’t see anything wrong with the name,” Gary scowls.
“Yep. I think she looks like a Sharon,” I say to him, then look again at out daughter, “Hi Sharon! Say ‘hi’ to Daddy.” I turn her to face her father.
“Do you want to hold her?”
Gary looks suddenly uncomfortable and nervous.
“Nah. I’ll have plenty of time to do that later. You hold her.”
I don’t argue.
The nurse comes to return our daughter to the nursery. Gary and I visit a bit. I’m still exhausted. We say goodnight. I zonk out.
Twice during the night, they bring Sharon in to nurse. This morning she doesn’t seem very interested. Wanda’s on duty. I know her from the days when I used to be a nurse’s aide. She’s an excellent nurse, and I feel better just knowing she is here. I doze off once again.
I wake up as Wanda comes into the room pulling the door shut behind her. She’s usually composed and confident, but she seems on edge. Wanda begins to say something, stops, tries again, pauses, and then blurts out the balky words.
“Jeanie, we had some trouble with the baby during the night. I don’t like the way she’s acting. Doctor checked her last night, but I can’t get ahold of him now. He and his wide usually play an early round of golf before church. I maybe shouldn’t say this, but if she were mine, I’d call another doctor.”
I look at Wanda, uncomprehending, struck more by her tone than by her words. The realization of what she’s said finally penetrates my thick skull. I ask for the telephone. I stop. Who do I call? Ardyth. I dial. Ardyth answers. I try to explain but go numb. Wanda takes the telephone briefly. Ardyth’s on her way in. I call Gary.
Ardyth arrives. I don’t know how she got here so fast. They live in the country, yet she got here before Gary could get across town from Mom’s. Ardyth greets me, then he ignores me and confers with Wanda.
“I’ll be back,” Ardyth says and she and Wanda leave.
Gary arrives. Sharon is eighteen hours old.
Ardyth returns. “I was able to get a hold of Ted Redding. He’s with Sharon now. Apparently she began breathing before delivery and inhaled some of the amniotic fluid. Her lungs are filling. Dr. Redding wants permission to fly her to Denver or Rochester, whichever one we can get to first.”
We agree. Ardyth hurries out.
We’ve called both grandmothers. They called our brothers and sisters. The room fills with family keeping a silent vigil. It’s raining. The Spearfish Airport is socked in. No ambulance plane from there. Dr. Redding is a pilot. He’s offered to take her in his plane. We’ve never even met the man; he’s new to the community. I’m touched by his offer. He must be a very special person.
The Belle Fourche Airport is not socked in also. They will leave as soon as the weather breaks. Ardyth will go along. We wait, staring out the window—willing the clouds to leave.
In the next room, Dr. Redding, Ardyth and Wanda work frantically. They are eventually joined by my doctor. Sharon stops breathing. They bring her back one. Twice. Three times. But each time she slips further away. The doctors and nurses exchange glances. No one is willing to give up.
In my room, the heavy silence grows. Church is out. Our minister arrives. He’s driven thirty miles to get here. He speaks with us and we pray. I can’t pray—and yet, I don’t think I’ve stopped praying once in the last twenty-one hours. Everyone is silent again, and the silence grows louder.
On the bureau sits a velvety pink gloxinia, one of my mother’s home-grown beauties. “Pink’s for girls,” Mom said yesterday when she carried it in. I focus my attention on it, alternately trying not to feel and trying to feel—to feel something, anything. Numbness gnaws at me. Exhaling requires the force of pushing a boulder up a mountain.
I pull my eyes away from the gloxinia and look at Gary. He stands next to me, a frozen statue holding my hand. I turn my eyes back to the gloxinia. A blossom releases itself from the plant and slips slowly, silently downward. In that instant, I know our daughter has left. I wordlessly whisper, “Goodbye Babe,” and close my eyes.
In the next room, the futile struggle continues. No one is willing to concede. At last, there is no choice. The final consideration is made. They, too, are forced to admit the loss.
After a time, Ardyth comes into my room. One look at her face and the others see what I already know.
“we lost her. We tried, but she….”
Someone sobs, and the room again goes silent.
June 21,1969—June 22, 1962
It took until the fifteenth anniversary of your birth for me to find the courage to put your story on paper. Another fifteen years passed. When your sister’s baby died, I was compelled to share the story of your loss.
In three decades, little has changed in people’s reactions to the death of an infant. There is an assumption that parents who lose a child within a few hours of birth, or who lose a child to still-birth or miscarriage, have no cause to grieve. That attitude was most vivid in a woman’s words to me after your death: “Well, at least she died before you learned to love her.”
Simply, when a child dies, all parents grieve. We may not be willing or able to express that grief to others, but we do grieve. Several women who themselves had lost children told me, “We never ‘get over it.’ We do get through it. We will always carry that child in our heart.” Those words have proven accurate. May your story validate the grief of other parents. May grieving parents know that they are not alone in their journey.
Happy Birthday, Babe. We still miss you.
+++ +++ +++
As published in Black Hills Literary Journal: 2014 Volume I: The Family Issue
The night of my junior prom, I went only to the banquet. I joined friends at linen-covered tables in the armory-gymnasium that had been transformed into an undersea world. Twisted crepe paper streamers in three shades of aqua dropped from wires stretched between basketball hoops, to the floor where they were taped securely to the court’s boundary lines. In strategic locations, stage walls from the drama department formed two sea caves. One served as a backdrop for photos and the other backed the temporary bandstand. In a corner formed by the arched bridge entryway, a blue whale spouted a live stream of water. I had been on that committee. We were proud of our chicken-wire and papier-mâché sculpture. It took hours to get it to look like a whale. That challenge paled during the trial run of the recirculating pump. We discovered that adding water to tempera painted papier-mâché reduced our efforts to a soggy mass of newspaper strips drooped across chicken wire. We started over. Our second whale was more cartoonish. He was heavily enameled and shellacked. Seeing our masterpiece actually performing as imagined was the highlight of my evening.
I found the name card designating my seat at a table with other dateless teens. After a welcome and a grace had been delivered from the head table, sophomore servers began delivering our meals. The menu centered on chicken cordon bleu. We approached the dish with trepidation. Cautiously we cut into the rolled chicken breast. Exchanging glances, we looked carefully to determine what ingredients were hidden inside. This was foreign fare compared to that served at Watt’s Finer Café or at the A&W. We tasted tentatively. Not bad!
The emcee announced the conclusion of the banquet. A teen tidal wave swept out the doors leaving to change into tulle, taffeta and ties. They would return in about an hour for pictures and for the pageantry of the grand march. Then they would two step and jitterbug until the 2 AM breakfast, prepared by parents and served at the local Vet’s Club.
I joined the tidal wave flowing out of the gymnasium, hopped into my parents’ Rambler, and headed west. Twelve miles later, I parked in the garage and walked to the house. While my classmates changed into flowing formals, I changed in my work clothes and barn jacket, and grabbed the big flashlight. While boys escorted girls across the arched bridge into the undersea world of the gym, Herman, our collie-setter mix, escorted me across the frost-firmed mud path worn between the house and barns.
Twelve miles east, a crowd of parents watched from the shadows. Their juniors and seniors and dates stepped into a circle of spotlight where, in a rite of passage, they were formally introduced to the beckoning world of adulthood. I stepped into the corral. A crowd of heifers watched me from the shadows beyond the yellow pool of light coming from above the barn door. I shined my flashlight beam across each heifer, spotlighting them, looking for signs of impending birth. A couple of heifers had withdrawn from the others. I walked around each of them in a circle. Hooves, transparent through protruding water bags announced birthing times were approaching. They would need to be checked in two-hour increments throughout the night. We could not afford to lose another calf.
While my classmates turned into the arms of their dates and began gliding to the music, I reached down, patted Herman’s head. He leaned against my legs. Together we listened to plaintive coyote songs coming from the hills in the back pasture. Together, we returned to the house. Once there, I shed jacket and shoes. I poked my head into my parent’s bedroom. The room was dim, lit only by light from a living room lamp, light which spilled across Dad. His cancer was taking its toll on all of us. Mom sat on a dining room chair she had placed next to Dad’s side, listened for each labored breath. She dozed while she waited to see if I would need help with the livestock. I tapped her shoulder, roused her from her semi-sleeping vigil.
“Everything under control?” she asked.
“Got feet showing on two,” I said. Mom looked exhausted and haggard. “You better lay down before you fall down, Mom.”
“Guess so. If you’ll check them at midnight and two, I’ll check at four. That’ll give us both a little sleep.”
I grabbed a book and settled into Dad’s chair in the living room near the lamp. At the midnight check, I looked for the two heifers. One had given birth. Her still wobbly calf was sucking, his tail happily wagging.
At 2 AM, while my classmates were entering the Vet’s Club, I was re-entering the corral. My flashlight quickly found the second heifer that I’d identified on my first trip. She was lying in a corner away from the others. I flipped the beam of my flashlight on her, watched as contractions rippled through her body. The calf was well on his way to being delivered. After a few more contractions, there was a quiet whoosh. The heifer stood, turned, and began licking amniotic materials from her calf’s nose. I waited until the calf found his feet, then headed to the house and bed. And thus, the heifers, their newborn calves, my classmates and I made our way through one more rite of passage, moved one step deeper into the thing called adulthood.
*** *** ***
As published in Oakwood, 2019
Earth Mother has resigned. Quit.
Gone out of business.
Her all nurturing-teat is flat and dry.
Cow-faced males who bleat pathetically while
butting her atrophying orifices
will receive a well-deserved kick in the head.
*** *** ***
As published in Gyroscope Review: Crone Power Issue, 19.4 Fall 2019