I didn’t grow up here, not even in North Dakota, but it’s a lot like where I grew up in Wisconsin. Not the countryside, lord no. When we used to visit Tom’s family, which wasn’t even until after we were married, this seemed like the most barren empty place on earth. Coming up through the Red River Valley it’s ungodly flat, but at least there are lots of breaks of trees. You get up the hill onto the prairie here and it just opens up. Like I say, when I first came it seemed empty, a big void, nothing. It would suck the breath out of you, especially when the wind blew. You drive across from Grand Forks or Grafton or Cavalier and you’re dying for breath until you see sign of the next town — the watertower! Where is it? You feel like you’re in no-man’s land until you see it.
But it grows on you. You start to see things — that even though there aren’t trees, there are farms. You can see the houses, the barns, the grain bins, and then you start to see the farm even in the open land. The furrows, the rows of wheat or sunflowers or canola — once that just looked like flat nothing, but now it’s like a fingerprint of the farmer on the prairie. And you see that the whole prairie around is marked by the farmers, almost all of it. Yes, there are open lands, like the wetlands out by Lake Vermillion or along the creeks, but it’s marked.
When we moved back so Tom could take over the seeder plant and the farm, I didn’t know how I would endure. The land still felt empty to me then. But it’s very midwestern, in some ways, and that’s why I say it reminded me of Wisconsin. I think the sense of humor is a little different — North Dakotans have a more fatalistic sense of humor. I’ve heard men make grisly jokes about farm accidents that I don’t think anyone would have said in the town where I grew up. I won’t repeat one now. It was kind of shocking to me the first time I heard someone talk like that. But people here are friendly and down-to-earth in that way that was familiar. And they share the bad news and the gossip in that indirect way I used to hear my mother’s friends share stories, gossip really, about other people in the town. First pretending to be discreet, as if … “Oh, did I accidentally say that?” … and then letting it fly.
So as I got to know people, these stories came out, about the Tillarys. About the men, I guess. They swoop in and take over when things are hard. And then pretend it’s their domain. This house — it was the second house on this homestead, but the one the family built when they could finally afford a wood house — it wasn’t built by a Tillary. I think people call this the ‘Tillary place’ or ‘Tillary’s farm,’ but the family name was Amundson. It was the Amundson farm — and they ended up owning several sections, they did so well — and then it was the teens and there was drought and the only sons Mr. Amundson had had — and this was one of the sons of the man who had first brought his family here from Norway — the sons had drifted off, there was no work. I think a couple of them died in the flu epidemic. And so there was Mr. Tillary — Tom’s grandfather — who had come down from Winnipeg but who had no farm. Hard worker, worked at the lumber yard — there was a lumber yard then, I guess, by the rail station — and he married one of the daughters and then suddenly he’s got the farm. And now it’s the Tillary farm. And all that those first two generations of Amundsons had done — patiently buying up sections, building this house, being one of the elders of the community — it all disappeared. There are few Amundsons around in the county — second-cousins I think, or further distant — but nobody thinks of this as the Amundson place anymore.
I got told that story when we moved back. I think people were trying to make the point that there was a parallel to Tom coming back and taking over the seeder plant. In this town, you are either a farmer or someone who works with farmers, or you work at that plant. And Tom taking it over … It wasn’t as thought he put the family name on the factory or the machines or anything. But people implied, “Oh, there’s another Tillary, taking things over, going to take it all for himself and forget all the people who worked at this, who built it up.” I still hear echoes of that. Little things people say, comments parents might make when they come in to school for conferences — “Oh, you’re related to that Tillary,” as if they didn’t know already — or, I don’t know, when we’re doing things at church. It seems to be getting life again, since the union contract negotiations are dragging out and the union has been doing it’s best to make this an issue of the workers versus Tom. They try to personalize it, so he’ll give in. He’s trying to explain to them that the plant will end up closing if they can’t make good money building equipment there. But the union is trying to tell this different story, about Tillary taking over something else that doesn’t really belong to him. It’s like two stories competing, fighting it out. It will be interesting to see which one wins. It might say a lot about whether the town wins in the end, or not.