You got to the ranch by following a long empty dusty dirt road, dusty because it was always summer when I was there, smelling of hot pine needles. There were several buildings -- my aunt's house and then the barn with a pond in between, and a little further on the small one-story house where my grandmother and aunt lived.
Except for my grandmother's house, things were in disrepair. As a kid I'd seen an older cousin's foot come through the floor of the hay loft above me, something that made the other kids laugh and keep going without pause, but I didn't like being in the barn after that, every footstep suspect.
My grandmother wore housedresses and her gray hair thrown up on her head with a few invisible pins. She spoke in a voice thick with cigarettes and a strong accent. She sat at the kitchen table with a round tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette when she wanted one. She laughed easily and did not ask for much.
Neither did Billy, the aunt who lived with her. Known in the family as "mildly retarded" Billy was always a little off, but not scary. It was the other house that I tried to avoid without seeming to, the gray unpainted two-story house, dark inside, where no housekeeping was done, where the furniture was just whatever was lying around. Everyone else liked it there.
My aunt Moon lived there, smoking too, her hair short like a man's and gray, her face wrinkled and tanned, with a skinny body dressed in men's work clothes. It was her ranch, her land, the cows roaming, her cows. My mother, Moon's younger sister, told the story of Moon shooting a coyote that had been getting at her cows. Moon didn't seem to have much use for anyone who couldn't drive a tractor or throw a steer down on the ground for branding.
I prefer to think of this landscape as I have heard my mother speak of it in its beauty almost 100 years ago. Not the same piece of land, but close by. My mother saw the snow-capped Rockies every day for the first 18 years of her life, and she has described to me the alpine meadows they hiked to -- acres of color that have since been slaughtered by developers.
Though when she drove cross-country with my father in the first years of their friendship to show him her people and where she came from she refused to stop at the house she'd grown up in.
I was present a few months ago when my mother's younger brother called and I listened as she went into what felt like a different mode, hunkering down with her brother who ran a paint store all his life and is a dedicated member of the Elks, or the Moose. She spoke to him of the place they'd grown up and though she always spoke of this place as I was growing up so that I felt like I knew it, when she talked to him the detail was finer -- specific roads that I had never heard the names of.