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THE NATION

Excerpts From 'Breaking Clean'

January 27, 2002|Associated Press

After supper one spring evening, my mother and I stood in the kitchen. She held her back stiff as her hands shot like pistons into the mound of bread dough on the counter. I stood tough beside her. On the porch, John had presented my father with a bottle of whiskey and was asking Dad's permission to marry me. I wanted her to grab my cold hand and tell me how to run. I wanted her to smooth the crumpled letter from the garbage can and read the praise of my high school principal. I wanted her to tell me what I could be.

I am sometimes amazed at my own children, their outrage if they are required to do the dishes twice in one week, their tender self-absorption with minor bumps and bruises. As a mom, I've had to teach myself to croon over thorn scratches, admire bloody baby teeth and sponge dirt from scraped shins. But in my mind, my mother's voice and that of her mother still compete for expression. "Oh, for Christ's sake, you aren't hurt!" they're saying, and for a moment, I struggle. For a moment, I want to tell this new generation about my little brother calmly spitting out a palm full of tooth chips and wading back in to grab the biggest calf in the branding pen. I want to tell them how tough I was, falling asleep at the table with hands too sore to hold a fork. . . .

That night when his dad left, John laid down the law as gently as he could. My smoking had raised more hell than it was worth. He must forbid me to smoke. There was too much at stake to stand on principle. If I loved him, I would do this for him. There was more, and I sat silently and listened. Everything he said made sense. I couldn't defend smoking, I found, without sounding selfish, a spoiled teenager. John vowed to help me quit and I nodded, and in a way the matter was settled, mapped out in clear lines. All I had to do was keep both feet on the right side. All I had to do was be good.

In August of 1986, I left Phillips County with a new divorce and an old car, with three scared kids and some clothes piled in back. We followed the sun west for hours, climbing mountain passes, crossing river after river, until we spanned the final bridge into Missoula. The kids started school the next morning, and within days I started my freshman year at the University of Montana, the four of us holding hands and stepping together into a world of mountains and shopping malls. Even the air smelled different--the rotten-egg stench of pulp mills blowing in from the west, or, as often, the clean, rich redolence of the Clark Fork river.

As the new century begins, I am fortunate to still have my family on the land where I grew up. I can drink coffee in the kitchen where I learned to bake bread, bathe in the same shallow cast-iron tub of sulfur and salts, visit the lopsided outbuildings where I once fed chickens, scouted new litters of kittens and roped milk pen calves. I can ride through a herd of cattle descended from cattle my grandfather knew. When I'm done, I get in my car and drive back to Missoula, secure in my sense that the landscape of my childhood remains intact, in place. For 50 years my parents have held the line, grubbing a marginal existence from marginal land. . . .

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