My Smart Mouth: Generations
Last updated 5/7/2019 at 4:39pm
Recently, someone introduced themselves to me as “[insert name here], fourth generation Montanan, ranching family.”
“Wow,” thought I. “This individual is awfully proud of their heritage – a sentiment I can understand – and wants everyone to know it.”
Although I have not noted announcing oneself and one’s lineage thusly upon first meeting to be the general custom among most of the ranching families I grew up around, I thought maybe I’m not up to snuff on Montana ranching family etiquette. So, to go with the flow, I followed suit - introducing myself in return and noting that I, too, hail from a ranching family. Fifth generation, since we’re counting.
My new acquaintance, perhaps thrown by my lack of Stetson, spurs or visible signs of cow manure, was flabbergasted by this information. He declared it a rarity to find a fifth-generation Montanan these days - a sentiment I found puzzling, as I feel confident I could name several just of my own acquaintance at a moment’s notice. Then again, my original impression could be correct and we fifth-generation Montanans of ranching background don’t go around announcing ourselves, which would make it understandably hard to keep track.
I realized this individual was quite keen on keeping track, when they went on to inform me of the amount of acreage still owned by their aunt in the part of Montana where their family had settled after coming here with all their worldly goods in a covered wagon. (Or was it a train, and a carpet bag? I can’t seem to recall the details.)
I’ll admit I might not be quite up to speed on what the ranching families consider de rigeur these days (as evidenced by my lack of Stetson), but I’m fairly certain that last time I checked, openly discussing acreage with random strangers one has met across a bar has been in poor taste since about 1887. Those of you who aren’t old Montana blood like me and my new acquaintance may not realize this, but asking a rancher direct questions about acreage or how many head of cattle they run is akin to asking a person how much they make a year, or what they have in their bank account – i.e. in poor taste, if not downright rude, unless you’re their banker.
Over Easter I had an interesting visit with my (fifth-generation Montanan) man’s eighty-year-old (fourth-generation Montanan) uncle regarding family history. I was delighted to learn of many interesting parallels in our family histories, dating all the way back to our great-great-grandfathers, both of whom were born in Germany. You may have heard of the place – a lot of American families originated there, although there were a couple of periods throughout the last century when having a German last name probably made for a few tense social encounters.
Montana has a rich frontier heritage of which many of us are rightfully proud. However, unless you’re of Blackfoot or Crow descent, around these parts we all came from somewhere. Of the thousands of families, many of them immigrants, who headed west in the hope of making a fortune, a living, a better life for their families, many failed. Many died. Many turned back or moved on. Those of us who are fourth- of fifth-generation Montanans are descendants of those who were hardy, lucky or ruthless enough to stay and make a go of it. Montana, for all her beauty, has never been particularly welcoming or forgiving to those not prepared to weather her foibles and fits. Those of us still here each stayed for his or her own reasons, be they love, fear or obligation.
Why does anyone stay in the place where they were born? It is a lucky few, in my opinion, who are born knowing just who and what they are. For the rest of us, finding our home is often a circuitous route.
Once, on the streets of New Orleans, I followed the sound of a woman’s voice, powerful and haunting, to an elderly couple seated on a bench, singing the blues. When the last strains of the man’s mandolin had faded, and the last lyrics of House of the Rising Sun had stopped echoing from the walls of the buildings framing Jackson Square, I struck up a conversation. When I asked them if they were from New Orleans the woman, Roselyn, shook her head.
“No, honey, but we got here just as soon as we could,” she said.
It’s a powerful thing, to find the place where you belong. For some of us, it was decided for us generations ago, took hold in our bloodline and has never let us go. Others may not boast an impressive-sounding pedigree and matching acreage to toss around in bars. For them the journey home was more recent, but they love this state and contribute to its greatness all the same.
So, here’s a shout-out to all of you non-fifth-generation Montanans, who got here just as soon as you could.