I believed in his photo.
A Montana man who died a few years before I was born, Grandpa Lute came to life for me when a Life Magazine photographer took several pictures of him for a feature story on old-time cowboys in 1951, called “The Last Cowboys in America.” The photo I loved best of Grandpa Lute didn’t make it into the story, so Lute bought it from the photographer. A local bartender enlarged that photo into a giant-sized 5-by-8 poster; and for decades it hung in the Northern Bar in Hinsdale, Montana, where my mom, relatives and other locals hung out.
Even at age 4, slouched next to my parents in a fake-leather bar booth with my feet dangling (no one checked i.d.s – why? everyone knew everyone) as they sipped their beers and I slurped my Coke, I’d tilt my small head upward to that big poster, my eyes mesmerized by his. That’s how I knew my grandpa: larger than life.
My one-time cowgirl mom didn’t show me a smaller copy of her dad’s over-sized portrait until I was a teenager, when our family was transferred from Montana to a culturally chaotic factory corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago. In this brand-new foreign place called Wisconsin, I’d stare at my cowboy grandpa’s face, a face that embodied my homesick Montana memories where life was lived larger: mountains taller, spaces broader, air sweeter. Montanans were stronger, kinder, more decent, and more independent, yet they looked after their own. Montana cowboys, Montana pioneers: their blood coursed through me and they were mine, regardless of where I lived – even exiled to Wisconsin.
A cheap drugstore frame enshrined my precious photo of this cigarette-danglin’, leathered man in his white cowboy hat, staring hard off-camera – at what? a horse? a campfire? a sunset? a road not taken? Perhaps it was all those cowboy things I wanted to believe he was. If Grandpa were alive, I wondered, what advice would he offer his adoring granddaughter?
“Behave.” “Tell the truth.” “Don’t expect anyone to help you.” “Remember where you came from.” Where I came from was northeastern Montana homesteaders who scraped out hardscrabble lives and livings in cattle and wheat near Hinsdale and Glasgow. Above all, I think Grandpa would say: “Don’t put on airs or git to thinkin’ yourself too uppity. Act naturally.”
Act naturally. Just like that Buck Owens & the Buckaroos hit song I used to hear, growing up in Montana.
All I had to do was act naturally, and certainly Grandpa would have approved of me. I dragged Lute’s almost-Life Magazine photo around the world like a little girl drags her tattered rag doll around the neighborhood. To grad school. To Yugoslavia. To Seattle at a TV station desk. To Russia at a TV network desk. To Microsoft. I liked that my co-workers noticed Grandpa’s picture on my desk, picked it up with such curiosity, and always asked about him. They seemed so impressed that I – a seemingly accomplished, educated, well-traveled woman – had this Montana cowboy for a grandpa.
His picture-presence reminded me not to get “too uppity,” to remember where I came from. I hoped Grandpa would be proud of me; after all, look how far his blood line had come in just two generations, with his grandchildren’s prized education, work, and travels.
After living in Seattle for 24 years, my New York-born then-husband grew so bewitched by my Montana roots and childhood stomping grounds that in 2004 he insisted we pack up our bags and move to a 14-acre spread in Bridger Canyon, a stunningly raw and iconic area north of Bozeman, Montana. While opening moving boxes one day, I discovered Grandpa Lute’s worn photo. Staring into his far-away eyes, it began to dawn on me that I didn’t know this man at all, only what I believed him to be. I dialed my parents’ number.
“Mom, who was your dad, really?” I asked. “Was he nice? Was he a great father? Was he fun to be around?
“No, no, no, Mom answered. “We told you kids your grandpa’s cowboy lore, but there was more. When he was nine years old, Lute quit school and ran off to live with relatives because his own parents were so cruel to him. He married when he shouldn’t have. He had seven kids when he shouldn’t have. He had no steady job to feed seven hungry mouths, except cowboying and trapping coyotes for the government.”
“Lute despised all of us,” my mom went on. “His wife, us kids. He was so mean, cold as can be. The cowboy life was perfect for him because he’d escape the family for weeks at a time and didn’t have to bother with us at all. Lute just didn’t know how to love.”
“But Helen,” Mom added, “My dad didn’t know any better. He was just acting naturally.”
After we hung up, I tucked Grandpa’s photo back into the moving box and closed the lid.
These days, at work no one stops by my desk to check out the tattered photo of my cowboy-grandpa. It isn’t there. Instead, here are pictures of my young, vibrant West Coast niece and nephews; over there are vintage photos of my parents in their younger Montana years. Looking straight into the camera, they all look so happy, so very natural. As I stare back into their faces I know one thing for sure: I know who they are, really.
And that is enough.
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