I wrote this column while working the city government beat at the Missoulian. It’s about my family and about the film, Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by the same name. I don’t particularly enjoy the writing of Annie Proulx, except for The Shipping News, but the movie had a big impact on me. She meant to explain, I suspect, and somehow understand the seemingly contradictory lives of some westerners, lives that are at once beautiful and self-destructive, limited and limitless.
Here’s the column, not quite as it ran in March, 2006.
Forget the din about the gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the Ang Lee movie nominated for eight Oscars.
For me, the film was less about unrequited romantic love and more about the beauty, poverty and isolation of some lives in the rural Rocky Mountain West.
That’s the part of the story that got me thinking about my own family. I caught a glimpse of my own grandfather, George Meakins, reflected in the life of ranch hand Ennis del Mar, the main character hauntingly portrayed by Heath Ledger.
For Ennis, as for every ranch hand, life was hard. The pay was marginal. The future held no promise but a shabby, rented trailer on a desolate, windswept piece of land.
But what a beautiful life!
My grandfather was born in 1899 in Mobridge, S. Dak. As a boy, he worked and lived in a livery stable in Great Falls. As a teenager, he searched the train tracks for coal and delivered milk and eggs to a brothel.
My grandfather spent almost his entire adult life, between stints on the railroad and in the mines, as a ranch hand. He never owned much more than what could fit on a horse or in the back of an old Ford.
Married and divorced once apiece, George and my grandmother Lillian met in the late 1930s. In 1949, when my mom was born, George worked for a cattle rancher in the Flint Creek area near Philipsburg, Mont.
The life of a ranch hand is transitory and tough. Even the smallest cattle or sheep ranchers seem fabulously rich by comparison.
And yet die-hard ranch hands like Ennis and my grandfather hang on to their odd place in the menial labor pool with a stubborn, tough-as-nails love.
It’s a love maybe something like the one portrayed in the movie, a love that bound together Ennis and Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
After one short summer herding sheep together in 1963, the two characters drift apart but always hold onto that clinching love.
The Ennis character displays the same level of ambition that my grandfather had — basically none. Ennis marries a local girl and starts a family and finds work helping a rancher.
At one point in the film, Ennis crouches in the bed of a slow-rolling pickup as it crosses a snowy field, throwing hay to eager cattle. The scene is lovingly shot, the stark landscape clean and pure.
But the idea that Ennis can support his family with such a job is a cruel joke. His family lives in desperate poverty. It’s the mid-1960s. Other families watch TV in carpeted split-level ranch homes, but Ennis’ wife scrubs their babies’ diapers by hand on a washboard.
This story sounds familiar.
My grandmother used a wringer-washer, not that she complained. (She never thought washing machines got the whites white.) But the constant labor of that life wears hard on a person. For the most part, the homes my mother grew up in had no plumbing. In the worst times, mice ran over her at night. Some of those shacks were fit only to be burned.
In “Brokeback,” Ennis’ wife reaches a point where she’s had enough. She takes her kids and leaves him, ostensibly because she saw Ennis embrace Jack.
But think about it. After the divorce, Alma marries a salesman who can afford to buy her a house. The fact of Ennis’ gayness is just one more reason why his future sucks. Ennis might have been tireless during calving season, but Alma worried about being able to buy groceries at the end of the month, never mind who would pay for health care and college for the kids!
Similar stresses must have torn at my mom’s parents, who divorced in the summer of 1963. My grandmother was 45 and, I imagine, tired of chopping kindling every day. There was no change in sight.
Like Ennis, my grandfather was a kind and charming man. He had an old-fashioned manner. He never swore in the house. He had a terrific work ethic and told funny stories.
But the idea that he might change to make life easier on his family? It wasn’t in the cards.
When I was a kid, my mom would tell stories about her horses and various adventures on the ranches where her father worked. I liked hearing how she and her sister Dolly would go to the bone pile sometimes to have a good cry over the remains of a favorite dog. The sisters performed tricks on their ponies before imaginary audiences.
Some of the stories have faded, leaving behind mere impressions. One is the summery feeling of newly cut hay on bare feet, the individual stalks soft as hair, stalks that dry and stiffen over time into sharp and stabbing stubble.
At the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” a scene between Ennis and his daughter, who had beautiful long hair like my mother, touched a nerve.
In Ennis’ remote trailer, father and daughter talked with an unstated affection. Also unspoken was a share of hopelessness and loneliness. She had come to tell her dad she planned to get married. He wanted to know her future husband would be good to her.
I don’t imagine it’s easy to be the daughter of a ranch hand, when his love for his hardscrabble life doesn’t leave much room for you.
But still, what a sweet dad.
My grandfather lived his hand-to-mouth existence until his death from cancer in 1975 in a hospital in Missoula.
On his deathbed, he talked in his delirium about my grandmother and his saddle horse. He’s buried in Valley Cemetery on a hill between Hall and Drummond.
Note: My grandmother died in 2010. I miss her.