Lariat Laureate

Jane Morton

Featured in "The Big Roundup," an anthology of the best of CowboyPoetry.com.

This is page two.

Page one.

Page three has a tribute to Jane Morton's father.

 


Colorado poet and writer Jane Morton often writes about her family's ranch history, which began with her great great grandfather, a circuit-riding Baptist minister who left Illinois and headed to Colorado in 1872. As described in our 2004 review of Jane Morton's award-winning collection of poetry and stories, Turning to Face the Wind, generations later, her mother was surprised to discover that her husband, a teacher and coach, was determined to return to the family farm. She faced a hard life with dignity. Jane's poem, "Summer of '34," tells about her mother often being alone in the house, pregnant amidst the unrelenting heat and dust storms, and piecing a quilt that has remained in the family. In a story about the next year's dust storms, which she endured with her 9-month old asthmatic baby, "Fine wind-driven silt sifted into the house through hairline cracks, coating...even the butter in the cupboard."

We invited Jane to share some of her writing for a tribute to her mother, Eva Lena Wolowsky Ambrose for Mother's Day. Jane shared photos and some of her mother's own prose and poetry. We've also collected some of Jane's poems about her mother.


Jane writes:

My mother, Eva Lena Wolowsky Ambrose, was born in Denver, Colorado in 1904. She grew up in a little house on Scott Place in North Denver near Rocky Mountain Lake, and she lived there until she married my dad in 1928.

She wrote about her early life when she was eighty-five, the year before she died:

Growing up in North Denver in the early 1900s, we had no money, no organized sports, and no TV. Yet we never lacked for anything to do. We climbed, we dug, we ran, we swam. We used a vacant lot, public parks, free offerings and our own imaginations to entertain ourselves for hours on end.

There were times when we came close to killing ourselves or each other, but somehow my brother, my two sisters and I survived our childhood and became healthy, hardy, responsible adults. Our fun was free, or nearly so. It had to be. Our father supported a family of seven, four children, a wife, and a mother-in-law on a salary of twelve dollars a week.

A huge cottonwood tree grew at one end of the vacant lot next door to our house. We climbed up into the crotch of that tree where we spent many happy hours reading books, eating apples, or just surveying the  land.

At sixteen, I went to work at Kennison's Drug Store. I waited on the candy counter, the cigars and some of the patent medicines. In no time I had things pretty well mastered. I worked there my junior and senior year when I went to North High School. I had to hurry home from school, about a two-mile walk, change my clothes, eat a bite, and then hurry over to the drug store. Week nights I worked until eight-thirty. Weekends I started in the afternoon and worked until ten.


My mother, Eva Lena Wolowsky, taken about 1920, when she was a junior in
high school. By the time she had her senior picture taken, she'd cut her hair.
She would have been 16 years old when this picture was taken.

I graduated in 1921, and although I wanted to go to college at Greeley and become a P.E. teacher, I didn't have the money, but I had saved enough working at the drug store to pay my way through Barnes' Business College. I took a nine months secretarial course. When I was eighteen I went to work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for eighteen dollars a week. I worked for them for six years as a typist and cashier and never made more than twenty-five dollars a week.

When I was about twenty-two and had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles where I visited relatives, I went out into the back yard and saw a young man with a white shirt on in the Blakely's yard. Mama told me he was Mrs. Blakely's nephew, Billy Ambrose from Fort Morgan who was staying with them while he went to Denver University. A new house was going up on the vacant lot next to our house where we used to enjoy the apple trees. One day, shortly after I saw him, I went over to see how the building was coming. He "just happened" to come over too, and we became acquainted.

After a few of these "chance" meetings and conversations, he asked me for a date. I forget whether it was to go to a picture show or just for a ride in his little Ford. Anyway, that's how it began.

I had him over for a meal every now and then, and one time when he came he took nearly all of the mashed potatoes. My dad jokingly told him to leave some for someone else. Billy said the whole dish was only a fourth as much as his mother cooked on the farm, and he thought there must be plenty more.

I finally made a trip to Fort Morgan with him in his little car. It was pitch dark on the way down, not a sign of a light anywhere, no farm houses along the road, and we only passed one car on the whole
trip. Never having been down that way, I wondered where we were going and when it would end.

I met his mother, father, sister, and grandmother for the first time. The grandmother was blind from cataracts, and she was the wife of William Harrison (Harry) Ambrose. She was buried in Fort Morgan on our wedding day, July 3, 1928."


My parents'(William E. and Eva L. Ambrose) wedding photo.

Mother's story ends here, but I think the poems I've written tell most of the rest of the story. Her family and her flower garden meant everything to her, and she devoted her life to us. She taught the grandchildren to play the card games she played while growing up, and they still remember the stories she told them when they were little.


Following are some of the poems Jane has written about her mother. Two additional poems "Mom's Job" and "Mom's Birthday" will appear in her forthcoming book (Summer, 2009), In This Land of Little Rain. The following poems are from Jane's award-winning collection, Turning to Face the Wind. The first three are also included on her Turning to Face the Wind CD .
 

Summer '34

Dust swirled across the plains that year of 1934.
My mother was expecting, and the wind blew evermore.

Mom hoped she'd have a son this time, July of '34,
As there was nothing in this world Dad might have wanted more.

My dad taught math and science then and coached boys basketball
In Platner, Colorado when the rain refused to fall.

"We'll move down to the farm," he said, "when school lets out in May."—
The farm down near Fort Morgan, nearly fifty miles away.

They'd gone there every summer since they started married life.
Mom did not know this was the plan when she became his wife.

Dad felt obliged to help his folks, who needed him he knew.
They had no means to hire more help.  They owed, and notes came due.

My mother dreaded going there. She knew how it would be—
Living with her mother'n law out of necessity.

My mother and my grandmother were never very close.
Mom worried more togetherness might be an overdose.

The heat was unrelenting during summer '34
My mother was expecting, and the wind blew evermore.

Dad's family worked out in the fields from dawn to dark each day.
While Mother stayed back at the house and supervised my play.

Alone all day, except for me and I was not yet three,
Mom missed small talk, companionship, and fun occasionally.

She didn't know a single soul that she could go to see,
And summer at the family farm dragged on interminably.

Each time she tried to go outdoors and take me for a walk,
She'd be assailed with barnyard stench that comes with raising stock.

The garbage set out for the pigs and piles of cow manure
Emitted nauseating smells she found hard to endure.

Day after day the clouds came up, and folks all prayed for rain,
But clouds dropped only topsoil that the wind sucked off the plain.

Flypaper hung from light fixtures attracting buzzing flies
Who died while struggling futilely to flap their wings and rise.

Mom felt as if she too were trapped that summer '34.
My mother was expecting, and the wind blew evermore.

She hungered for a piece of steak, or even thin beef stew,
But ate baloney sandwiches, the only meat they knew

They wouldn't butcher their own beef while tryin' to build a herd.
In this, as in so many things, their own needs were deferred.

Due to drought and hoppers both, the garden didn't thrive.
By using up last year's canned goods they kept themselves alive.

The heat, the sameness, and the wind all played upon her mind.
Never in her life 'til now had she been so confined.

She tried to tell Dad how she felt, but he could not relate.
"Well, make the best of it," he said.  "Now go to sleep.  It's late."

Aunt said that Mom could piece a quilt, and she would show her how.
Mom had her doubts and voiced them as a frown cut cross her brow.

My mother wasn't handy with a needle and a thread.
She liked outdoor activities and active sports instead.

But now she was so desperate that she'd try anything.
So she began to piece a quilt, a double-wedding ring.

Aunt pulled out scraps of calico that Mom could cut and use.
It'd cost her next to nothing for a quilt of many hues.

Mom pieced and pieced and pieced some more, that summer '34.
My mother was expecting, and the wind blew evermore.

I prize that quilt which she gave me. It speaks of many themes.
Her love, frustration, loneliness are stitched into the seams.

When she gave birth to brother Bill, July of '34,
Dad got the son he wanted, and my mother pieced no more.

© 2003, Jane Morton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



 

Yoo-hoo

My mother always called, "Yoo-hoo," so we would look her way.
She did it at the sale barn one cattle auction day.

Dad brought his cows to market there, as he did every spring.
He liked to watch the auction and his cattle in the ring.

Some Hereford cows were milling round, and others bawling loud.
The auctioneer was trying hard to stir the morning crowd.

My folks were in their usual seat where they had said they'd be,
And I had started toward them when my mother spotted me.

She jumped up quick and called, "You-hoo," and then she waved her hand.
She'd bid on thirty Herefords with our own CU brand.

The auctioneer looked toward my mom and gave a little nod.
A feedlot buyer raised her bid, and I was thanking God.

I didn't dare to signal her for fear they'd think I'd bid,
And Mom had no idea at all of what she almost did.

So needing to get down there fast, I headed for the stair.
Then came another, "You-hoo Yo-ooooo," that caught me unaware.

I'd almost closed the distance when my mother waved once more.
The auctioneer acknowledged her, the way he had before.

I watched the feedlot buyer as I slipped into my seat,
And when the fellow didn't bid, my heart near ceased to beat.

My dad sat focused on the ring completely unaware
Of all the action going on right there beside his chair.

From up in back there came a bid, and I could breathe again.
I prayed the field had narrowed down to real cattle men.

I took Mom's hand soon as I could and held it tight in mine.
I said, "How are you doin', Mom?"  She said, "I'm doin' fine."

Now Mom had been to auctions, and she knew what not to do. 
Of course a real no no would have been to call, "Yoo-hoo."

But Mom forgot herself that day and learned to her chagrin
How close she came to buyin' back the cows that Dad brought in.

When Dad caught on he realized, as he had not before,
That thanks to Mom his cattle brought a buck a hundred more.
 
© 2008 revised, Jane Morton 
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 


The Cows Came First

My mother said she realized
   with my Dad the cows came first.
If cows and she both needed drinks,
   she knew who'd die of thirst.

In any contest with the cows,
   Mom came out second-best.
She never gave up trying, though,
   To that I can attest.

If Mom had planned a dinner,
   or if they'd been invited out,
Dad promised he'd be on time,
   but she had cause to doubt.

So many different happenings
   had spoiled what she had planned,
She came to think that fate itself
   might well have played a hand.

It wasn't fate, it was my Dad.
   He'd start a task too late.
And thinking he had time enough,
   he didn't want to wait.

He'd run into some problem there
   he hadn't counted on,
And sure enough, before he knew,
   the daylight would be gone.

By time he got back to the house,
   my mom would be irate.
She knew not which excuse he'd use,
   but could anticipate—

"I drove out to the pasture where
   my Chevy truck broke down.
Before a neighbor came along,
   I'd walked halfway to town.

"That ornery Angus bull I bought
   went through the fence today.
Of course I had to get him home.
   He fought me all the way.

"I stopped to check a windmill,
   and I found a stock tank dry.
The cattle have to drink you know."
   I'd hear my mother sigh.

"A calving heifer needed help,
so sure, I had to stay.
I promised I'd be home, I know,
but couldn't get away."

He had to pull a windmill
   or he had to pull a calf
Mom heard it all so many times
   she almost had to laugh.

Dad said he thought that Mom had ought
   to take things in her stride.
That proved impossible for her,
   no matter how she tried.

And when the two got on in years,
   Mom was the first to go.
She'd asked for flowers on her stone,
   but did she get them? No!

Dad bought one stone for both of them,
   and he had it engraved.
A cow and the windmill took the place
   of flowers she had craved.

When Mother said the cows came first;
   she knew my dad too well.
Above her final resting place,
   that cow will always dwell.

© 2003, Jane Morton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 

 

Mom Thought She Married a Teacher

My mother lived in Denver
   when she met and married Dad.
A DU student at the time,
   he soon would be a grad.

Since he was qualified to teach,
   Mom thought that's what he'd do.
She'd spend her life a teacher's wife,
   and that was all right too.

As long as Mom was happy,
   well, my dad just let her dream.
He didn't tell my mother then
   he had a different scheme.

He'd played with marbles hours on end,
   When he was just a kid,
Except he didn't play with them
   the way that others did.

He rounded up his marble strays
   and herded them around.
The marbles were his white-faced cows,
   the hardwood floor his ground.

From pens between the table legs,
   he rolled them down the trail.
The trouble was that Mom hadn't heard
  this childhood cattle tale.

Communication was a skill
   my father never knew.
He never wasted two words
   When he thought that one would do.

And so one day to Mom's surprise,
   the future was revealed
When Dad announced he'd buy a ranch,
   a plan he'd long concealed.

Mom felt deceived as well she might,
   and she could not believe
The man she loved had hid this plan
   of ranching up his sleeve.

My mother was a city girl.
   She liked the city life.
She found it hard to see herself
   a cattle rancher's wife.

It turned out Mom was spared a while.
   Sometimes fate intervenes.
Dad couldn't go to to ranching yet.
   They didn't have the means.

He had to learn a living, though,
   and he was trained to teach,
So he taught school long as his dream
  was priced beyond his reach.

Mom helped him scrimp and helped him save
   until he bought some land,
And then they scrimped and saved some more
   until he could expand.

The only land he wanted
   was the land that bordered his.
Sometimes with cattle rancher folks,
   that is the way it is.

Land isn't what Mom wanted,
   and although she had her say,
It didn't do her any good,
   Dad bought it anyway.

Dad used the money Mom helped save
   and built a find big spread
Of fourteen thousand acres land,
   eight hundred Hereford head.

He challenged every nickel spent
   improving their small house,
But when he bought more land or bulls,
   she'd never hear him grouse.

At times Mom thought of leaving him,
   but she could never go.
She loved the man she married
   on that day so long ago.

Reluctantly she went along
   and helped him do his thing,
Which wasn't what she thought it was
   when he gave her a ring.

© 2003, Jane Morton
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

 


Bill and Eva Ambrose at their 50th wedding celebration.
 

Turning to Face the Wind also includes Jane's mother's own poem. Jane introduces it:

Sometime in the fifties a Denver TV station had a contest. They offered a small prize for the best letter about the average housewife. Mother wrote this little verse, sent it in, and won first prize. I found the poem in her scrapbook.

The Average Housewife

It's about the average housewife
You say you wish to hear
She works under an unsigned contract
Three hundred sixty five days of every year.

She doesn't belong to any union
So she can't go on strike.
She has no thirty-day sick leave
No vacation with full pay ever in sight.

She'll have no medals pinned on her
For the good deeds she has done,
No monuments nor statues erected
For the wars she's waged and won.

But when it comes to being happy
She takes this in her stride,
And her well-fed, well-kept family
Is her source of constant pride.

She has FAITH in the job she is doing
No matter how lowly the task.
By lightening burdens for others,
No more glorious reward does she ask.

She has HOPE as she greets each morn.
One goal causes her heart to sing.
Everyday she tries to find
Something new in the same old thing!

When all the accounting is done,
On one page of the good book above
Let one final entry by her name read,
AND THE GREATEST OF ALL IS LOVE

Eva Lena Ambrose

© Eva Lena Ambrose
This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.


 


 


Jane writes: Mom in her eighties. She was suffering from
cancer at the time, but she made every effort to project a positive
outlook and to keep herself looking as good as possible.
 

In "Mother, " a moving chapter in Turning to Face the Wind, Jane tells of her mother's funeral. These excerpts speak volumes about Eva Ambrose, her daughter, and her family:

She battled her cancer for seven years...when she was in remission, she had more energy, and she made the most of every day.

She found joy in her house and her yard. She said she'd never enjoyed life as much as she had these last few years after she knew she wasn't going to live forever...

She died in January 1988. She was eighty-three years old. The night before her funeral a blizzard swept down out of Canada and slammed into Fort Morgan and the eastern plains of Colorado...We decided to go ahead with the service. Planning the funeral wasn't as difficult as it might have been. Mother had taken care of many of the details for us...She'd written her obituary, selected the hymns, and given me general instructions regarding the service. "Make the whole service as simple and inexpensive as possible...."

She'd written it all out for me. Don't have a vocalist. It's the songs that make people cry. Have some happy songs, and let everybody sing....

I gave the eulogy. That wasn't part of Mother's plan, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to tell people how the family felt about her....

When I sat down my hands were shaking, and my knees felt weak, but I managed to say what I had to say without faltering. When people asked how I had done that, I said, "She'd suffered so that I prayed for her release. I did my grieving then," and I thought I had.

I thought I didn't have a tear left in me, but the casket going into the ground was such a final thing, the tears began to fall. It reminded me of the funeral scene from Doctor Zhivago. But, as dismal as those moments were, I felt that by going through this experience together, we, the family, learned something about ourselves and our relationship to each other. We realized Mother was the thread that held our family together. We learned about the comfort and support a family can offer, and we learned that even though one of us dies, the family goes on.

© 2003, Jane Morton, from Turning to Face the Wind


Jane adds, in 2009:
In the letter my mother left me before she died about funeral arrangements, she wrote:

Easier to write messages than to discuss arrangements. You know I always was a planner. Probably too much so.

If everyone could experience the wonderful life I have, it would be a pretty happy world. Good health and loved ones have all been mine, a great fifty year reunion with relatives on top of that! What more could there be! May you enjoy the same, and I'll be hanging around somewhere watching over all of you.
                                                                      Love, Mother
 

 

Eva Lena Wolowsky Ambrose
1904-1988

 


 

deepwestvideo07.jpg (19401 bytes)

The 2007 Deep West Video DVD from the Western Folklife Center's Deep West Videos project includes Jane Morton's film, "Turning to Face the Wind," about her family's ranch and the effects of "progress." A photo from Jane's ranch adorns the cover of the DVD, and you can see that photo and read more about it here in our Picture the West feature.

The 2008 Old West, New West: Grabbing the Future by the Horns DVD from the Deep West Video project includes Jane Morton's film, "Branding," made with Bob Luttrell, who also created and performs the music. Jane recites her "Branding" poem while rich, well-selected vintage photos bring the story to life. 

The 2009 Deep West Video DVD includes Jane Morton and Bob Luttrell's "At the Edge of the Aquifer," about a cowboy living on the Ambrose ranch in Colorado and the water issues he faces.

The films are all available for viewing at the Western Folklife Center web site area for the Deep West Video project.

 

Read more about Jane Morton and more of her poetry on page one.

Page three has a tribute to Jane Morton's father.

 

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