Riverdale

Growing up, Riverdale was a mythical place to me. Of course I never saw Riverdale back then. It only existed in my imagination, from descriptions and stories I'd heard. My grandmother who was writing a biography of her father, H.H. Nelson, loved to tell stories.

When she spoke of her childhood homes, Riverdale and Vandallia, I always thought they were from a place where things happened differently than the world I lived in. No cars--just trains, horses, sheep, cows, wildlife and ranch hands. I had never heard of places with those kinds of names. I grew up in Helena. I'd heard of Great Falls, Billings, Butte, and Missoula. Nothing had names with "-dale" or "-allia" at the end. Influenced by his native Denmark, H.H. had named them. These were mythical places—

Riverdale

I could hear in my grandmother's voice: her father was her hero. She missed him very much as he spent much time checking his many sheep camps. She loved nature and the things her father did. He brought home an injured baby antelope that became her pet. His name was Tom. One summer, when my grandmother was six, H.H. took her with him to visit his sheep camps along the Sun River. That was a dream come true for a little girl who wanted to have her father all to herself.

Grandmother's mother, Anna, was from Boston. She brought New England ways to Montana. She held many tea parties for the Shakespeare Club of Great Falls. Once, before a tea party, my grandmother snuck down to the forbidden barn where the ranch hands were butchering. There hung a carcass, blood draining into a bucket. One of the ranch hands said, "Try some. It'll grow hair on your chest." She did, and soon, not feeling well, she went back to the tea party. Anna offered her sugar water and milk as she wasn't old enough to have the black tea the ladies were having. The blood she'd drunk immediately started coming up. Her distraught mother began to make plans to take her to the doctor. My grandmother was in big trouble. She had to confess that she had disobeyed. When I first heard this story I thought, "How could anybody drink blood? What kind of a place is that world my grandmother lived in?"

Another time her mother and her club put on Midsummer Night's Dream out in the pasture. My grandmother played a part and they actually used a donkey for an actor. I wondered: a play in a pasture? Who would come to watch? How could they make the donkey act? A strange and mysterious life my grandmother lived.

Charlie Russell was a friend of the family. He was the closest thing my grandmother had to a playmate. She couldn't wait for him to visit because, unlike the other adults, he actually played with her. He told her Indian legends and carved little animals out of wood and vegetables. There is even a picture of him laying on the riverbank at Riverdale. Russell painted my grandmother holding her pet antelope, Tom, with two baby sheep in the foreground, surrounded by beautiful cottonwoods at Riverdale. How lucky my grandmother was to have one of Montana's most famous artists as her special friend.

Anna insisted Grandmother be properly educated and therefore she was sent East almost every year until she was married. She learned how to read and write and walk like a lady. She even ate with all the correct silverware. Reading some of her early writing is amazing to me. She was very well educated. She learned to express her passions in fancy little words.

All these experiences, added together, made up the whole of my grandmother. Not until my thirties did I venture to explore these mystical places. Where were they? What would they be like to see with my own eyes? I went there, to Riverdale, and felt history coursing through my veins. To stand on the ground where my ancestors once lived, loved, struggled and died filled me with wonder and connection.

Rivers were an important metaphor for Grandmother. In her book, she wrote: "Even as no river stands alone but is dependent on its headwaters, weakened or strengthened by the depths and moisture content of the snows, influenced by the land over which it passes, marked by images of grass and willows and trees in its moving watery mirrors, so also is no life a thing of itself but rooted in ancestry and circumstances, shaped by impact of persons and places that come and go across the years...It is fed by little streams of early living, by survival of droughts and floods, by falling into deep canyons and spreading to rest in placid lakes, yet flowing always on and on."

To Riverdale!