I believed in his photo.
A Montana man who died 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 the 1950s, 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 five-by-six-foot poster; and for decades it hung in the Northern Bar in Hinsdale, Montana, where my mom and dad, relatives, and other locals hung out.
Even at age four, slouched next to my parents in a fake leather bar booth (no one checked id cards – why? everyone knew everyone in this town of 200) as they sipped their beers and I slurped my Coke with my feet dangling, 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 Racine, 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, and they always 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. It goes like this:
“They’re gonna put me in the movies / They’re gonna make a big star out of me / We’ll make a film about a man that’s sad and lonely / And all I gotta do is act naturally…”
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 college. To grad school. To Yugoslavia. To Seattle at a CBS TV station desk. To Uzbekistan at a Soviet TV network desk. To Russia at an ABC 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 bewildered that I – a seemingly accomplished, educated, well-traveled woman – had this Montana cowboy for a grandpa. Surely the portrait of his struggles reflected well on me.
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 25 years, my New York-born then-husband grew so bewitched by my Montana roots and childhood stomping grounds that 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 came across 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, none of that,” 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 hard on him. Life at home was tough. Lute married when he shouldn’t have. He had seven kids when he shouldn’t have.”
Mom paused, as if weighing whether to go on. She did.
“With the Great Depression, my dad didn’t have a steady job to feed seven hungry mouths, except cowboying and trapping coyotes for the government. He did his best, but a hard life hardened him.” Mom said the Great Depression changed everyone, including her family: Lute lost his homestead land, and the family of nine moved 700 miles to Sandpoint, Idaho hoping for a better life. There were supposed to be jobs, but it turned out that wasn’t true. After a year they packed up again and moved back to Montana, squatting on an abandoned homestead for years until Lute could afford to buy it.
Squatters. So desperate, the family became squatters…
“Lute didn’t care for us kids, maybe because he couldn’t take care of us,” my mom went on. “His wife, us kids. He was short-tempered and so cold. The cowboy life was perfect for my dad 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 Lute’s photo back into the moving box and closed the lid. As a child growing up in Montana, I had long imagined my cowboy grandpa’s life to be as inspiring and majestic as the mountains around me. I was wrong. It was a harsh landscape of a life; I had gussied up Grandpa Lute like some Hollywood Western movie, shoeboxing what I imagined him to be into a palatable version that reflected well on me, instead of honoring who he genuinely was.
These days, no one stops by my desk at work to check out the tattered photo of my cowboy-grandpa. It isn’t there. I feel I have abused Grandpa Lute’s memory and the reality of his life, and instead molded him into someone who reflected well on me. I am ashamed that I publicly displayed his photo in a workplace setting, where I might – albeit unconsciously – garner attention so that co-workers might be impressed with me. These days, I keep Lute’s photo in a treasured place at home, resting with the reality of who he really was: resilient, hard-working, tough, imperfect – one who acted naturally as only he could in his own, hardscrabble world. Grandpa Lute’s photo is placed among pictures of my siblings and young, vibrant niece and nephews, along with 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 – not larger-than-life caricatures and Hollywood movie versions I’ve conjured up of them, but who they are, really.
And that is enough.
(Top feature photo: Lute Schultz with his seven children on the family homestead near Hinsdale in northeastern Montana. His wife – my grandmother – died a few years earlier at age 49. A hard life. It is the last photo of Grandpa Lute before he died at age 55.)
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