Prompt Me! Gina Szafraniec: Writing Letters Growing up on the Farm

Gina Szafraniec: Writing letters at home

I grew up in the 1960s on a family farm one mile out of town. My world was one of working on the farm–feeding sheep, driving trucks, and being by myself–taking my horse out on adventures on the 90 acre home place or riding down to the Big Horn to explore the tree lined shores of the fast moving river.

Our family raised Suffolk sheep and sold the ewes and rams as breeding stock. Part of that process was to compete in livestock shows and sales to promote the herd. For years we were part of the Big Horn County Fair in Hardin, the Montana Winter Fair held in Bozeman and the Empire State Fair in Billings. These events took me out of our local community into the wider livestock arena, and allowed me to meet like-minded farm and ranch kids from around the state.

These friends were 4-H club members from around the state. Competing at the fairs became the gateway to participating in state-wide 4-H events which in turn became a rich environment to meet even more kids. But to stay in touch and cultivate friendships in those days required an art form that is rapidly vanishing in today’s tech driven culture.

Many hours a day I would sit in my room, at first in a wing chair with a 1×12” board resting across the armrests as my desk. Later, a second-hand desk appeared and I had a more comfortable workspace. As the youngest in the family and with a gap between my sister and me of over seven years, I didn’t have to share a bedroom for most of my conscience life. I spent much of my limited disposable income on buying stationery and stamps. And I would write.

Torian Donahoe was one of my best friends growing up. She lived on a fabulous ranch in the Absarokee mountains in a real log home. I wrote to Torian at least weekly. We once traded weekends staying with each other, a huge effort given we had to have parents drive us to eachother’s homes, a distance of 125 miles one way on two lane roads. Torian raised and showed Hampshire sheep. When I went to visit her, I found her in a barn about a mile from her home, milking a cow. She was sitting on a stool, her face resting against the cow’s flank, her hands automatically and rhythmically squeezing milk into a can.

Marjorie Krause lived outside of Lewistown and showed Columbia sheep. Marjorie’s mom had what I remember as flaming red hair with a personality to go with it. Marjorie’s sheep had white faces, and Suffolks had black faces. She too lived in a mountain-like area. Our letters spanned years, and later we re-connected in Denver where we continued our friendship, face to face. When Marjorie was about 14 and I was about 11, she painted a picture of Columbia and Suffolk lambs, noses together, like our friendship. I just ran across the painting in my latest move.

Karen Wolfe lived in Stevensville, Montana, which is in the Bitterroot Valley, a picture perfect setting in Western Montana. It’s over 400 miles from Hardin, my hometown. She raised Suffolks like me, and we must have come across each other at the Montana Winter Fair. I was always fascinated by where Karen lived, as my brother-in-law also grew up in Stevensville, but was over ten years older than us. Karen recently found me on Facebook through an app called Checkmate. Um, it’s a little weird since checkmate scans for criminal activity…

Not all my correspondence was with those who lived far away.

Susan Kerrick and I corresponded for many summers. Susan was one of my childhood friends who lived in the town of Hardin, a mile away. Unlike my own kids whose summers were filled with soccer, tennis, summer classes and play dates, I never saw my town friends once school ended. I stayed connected by writing letters, mailing the letters by putting them in our mailbox on the highway in front of our house and raising the red flag that signaled there was outgoing mail.

Cathy Miller went to school in Hardin, but lived about 20 miles east of town on Sarpy Creek. Her dad and my dad went to high school together and were good friends, and Cathy and I were best friends, too. Our letters were necessary because she lived so far out of town, but I actually saw Cathy more than most of my town friends, as we had many sleep overs. We would ride horses along the sand rocks across the road from their house, having adventures in the scruffy pines, sagebrush and rock formations. One night her mom had made pork chops for supper. I remember each of us kids getting one pork chop and dollop of scalloped potatoes, her dad got two pork chops. I then understood why Cathy was a wiry, skinny little thing. At our home, I would eat three or four pork chops by myself (they were, after all, sliced pretty thin, not like a beef steak).

Not all my correspondence was with girlfriends.

My first “real” boyfriend was the AFS exchange student from Sweden. Sven (yes, his real name) and I went to Prom when he was a senior and I was a sophomore. We wrote letters weekly for over three years. I often think Sven got me through high school and through the first months of college by being my confidant and “safe” boyfriend. He also encouraged me to be more “intellectual” and look beyond the borders of my Montana world. Because of Sven, I became an AFS exchange student myself—spending the summer of 1971 in Finland; he challenged me to read more; he let me dream big. I often think of how expensive it was to write those letters to Sweden but there were two things my folks never questioned me buying—postage and books.

And as prolific a letter writer I was as a youth, even more exciting was receiving letters in return. The walk to the mailbox was filled with anticipation—finding letters addressed to me, pages filled with ongoing sagas of summer romances, or mundane daily life; counting the days to the next fair or trip to town when our paths might cross; planning for the upcoming school year.

I saved many of the letters from that era. For years I had every letter from the Swedish boyfriend. But time takes its toll. Moves forced me to jettison non-essentials. Getting married and having kids put a big dent in my letter writing time. I had less time to reflect, more time was spent getting through the day, meeting the demands of work and family. And email, texting and Facebook have changed the communication process.

Some may think that technology ruined good old fashioned letter writing, but I don’t. I love technology, I love how Facebook has connected us in a way letter writing could never do. I can “write” on Facebook and reach hundreds of friends. I can go offline if I want to say anything personal. And photos are so much easier to share now than in the olden days.

I would never go back, but no one can ever take away the thrill I still feel of seeing my name on an envelope, the anticipation of opening a letter with words crafted for my eyes only and the satisfaction of knowing for a brief moment, worlds aligned.

One thought on “Prompt Me! Gina Szafraniec: Writing Letters Growing up on the Farm

  1. Julie Matt says:

    Elaine, I remember so well writing letters to others that I met either going to the East Coast for a few summers, or to my pen pal that I had in British Columbia,and I too would wait and wait for their return letters, that was so exciting for me to read what they were up to and what different lives they lived versus me growing up on a ranch in Lame Deer, Mt. Thanks for those memories which I had truly forgotten.


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