For many a long year, Karen Hauge was the administrator at Bridger Vet. She did the billing, inventory, asked appropriate questions to determine if a cow had prolapsed, answered the phone, knew how to track my dad down on the radio, cajoled anyone heading into Billings to pick up orders at Western Ranch, and when Matt and I were small, minded the two of us as well. I’ve repeatedly told dad that finding someone to work at the vet clinic and to mind two young children nowadays would be an impossibility. I think he is just now starting to believe me.
In 2013, Karen turned 71, and there are many things for which I can credit her: learning to tie my shoes, the importance of sharing, how to be a good friend, but she also gets some blame. To this day, I will not touch cottage cheese, and this apparent character defect can be laid squarely at her feet. She would doctor it up with sugar, tomatoes, salt and pepper, and promises about how good it was, but trust me, it was not. And it’s not just me–my brother won’t eat it either.
I saw Karen and her daughter, Juli, a few years back for Sunday at brunch at the old Grand Hotel in Big Timber, along with another old friend, Hilda Thomas. As would happen when friends get together, we got to telling stories. Karen was the person to first drive me from Bridger to Chicago, and as luck would have it, we had a flat tire outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. A teenager, a woman, and two horses on the side of I-94 is enough, it turns out, to make truck drivers with glass eyes stop and help. We laughed over how Karen was scared out of her wits by a nocturnal pot-bellied pig in a sleeping bag. Hilda had forgotten to warn Karen of Blizzard the pig’s presence, and it’s a little terrifying to see sleeping bags move suddenly for no apparent reason. We remembered old dogs, old neighbors, and old friends, and even remembered to take home a caramel roll for my dad.
When I look back at my childhood, what I now know is that Karen was our version of Mr. Rogers, provided that Mr. Rogers drove an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser and wore soft, button-down shirts rather than red cardigans. Karen was kind, caring, the person that taught us the gentler arts of humanity and unconditional love and how to make a peach milkshake. I remember being angry with her that if a friend was over, then the friend had the first choice on popsicle halves. Now I understand that it was her way of teaching me to put the needs of others before my own.
Karen’s natal day celebrations included a trip to the Grand Canyon with her children and grandchildren, where the phrases “Get back from the edge!” and “Did you put on enough sunblock?” will ring out. They’ll probably ride the train, have a great dinner in one of the hotels to celebrate a long day of hiking, and with any luck, the sunburns will be kept to minimum. Karen made 71 look pretty darn awesome.
So happy birthday, Karen, as you look down from heaven. May you always know love. May you always have good stories to swap with friends. May you know that there are two children that turned into halfway decent adults in large part because of your tireless efforts. And for the record, you can always have my cottage cheese.