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Better known as "The Pioneer Woman," Ree Drummond has captured the imaginations of millions of readers through her award-winning blog, ThePioneerWoman.com. Devoted readers log on daily to check out her latest photos, recipes, and musings about life on the Oklahoma prairie with her hunky cowboy husband (whom she calls Marlboro Man) and their four children.
Drummond's unlikely transformation from Starbucks-loving urbanite to rural wife and mother began in the mid-1990s, when she broke off a long-term relationship and moved from Los Angeles (where she'd gone to college) back to her Oklahoma hometown. It was to be a pit stop on the road to an exciting new life in Chicago. Then, unexpectedly, she met the man who would turn her world upside down.
It had been four months since I'd locked eyes with the Marlboro Man in a bar over Christmas, since he'd made my knees turn to overcooked noodles. And since he'd failed to call the next day. Throughout that time, whenever I allowed myself to remember his steely-blue eyes, his prematurely gray hair, his quiet manner that was so drastically unlike all the silly city boys I'd known, a salty wave of disappointment would wash over me. But it didn't matter, I told myself. I was moving to Chicago in a few weeks. I had zero business getting attached to anyone around here, least of all some Wrangler-wearing cowboy.
So when the phone rang one Saturday afternoon in April, I assumed it was a friend I'd seen the previous night. "Ree?" said a deep voice. "We met at the J-Bar last Christmas."
Twenty-six hours later he was on my parents' doorstep, his starched blue denim shirt illuminating his equally blue eyes.
"Hello," I said, smiling. I was wearing sleek black pants, a violet sweater, and spike-heeled boots. Fashion-wise, we were hilariously mismatched.
We talked through dinner. About my upbringing on the grounds of a country club; about his childhood on his family's cattle ranch. About my passion for ballet; about his for football. About my brother, Mike, who's developmentally disabled; about his brother, Todd, who died as a teenager. By the end of the evening, I had no idea what I'd eaten or said. All I knew was that I was riding in a Ford F250 diesel pickup with a cowboy -- and there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.
After two weeks, Ree was madly in love and decided to stay in Oklahoma. Following a courtship involving quiet dinners, starlit evenings on his porch, and more than a few awkward encounters with ranch animals, Ree enthusiastically accepted Marlboro Man's marriage proposal.
Word of our engagement spread through my hometown of 35,000. The fact that I would now be hanging up my black pumps to move to a ranch in the middle of nowhere -- Marlboro Man lived 20 miles from the nearest town -- raised a few eyebrows. I could almost hear the whispers through the grapevine.
"I just can't picture Ree riding a horse."
"She's the last person I would ever imagine in the country."
"Seriously? Ree? Marrying a cattle rancher?"
But Marlboro Man was no country bumpkin: He was poised, gentlemanly, and intelligent. And oddly, over time, I'd found that the prairie suited me. We loved taking drives together, and Marlboro Man showed me everything, pointing out pastures and signs and lakes and giving me the story behind all of them. The land made sense to him: He saw it not as one wide-open, never-ending space but as neatly organized parcels, each with its own purpose and history. For him, it pulsated with the heartbeats of all who'd lived here before.
I began to realize just how complementary our differences were. Where I'd always been quick to fill a conversational void, I now let the silence between us work its magic. Where I used to end dinner by calling friends to meet for a drink, now I'd sit on Marlboro Man's porch and listen to coyotes howl. He offered me a slower pace and permission to be comfortable in the absence of exciting plans. I, in turn, gave him a little something. I was likely the first girl he'd dated who didn't know how to saddle a horse.
On her wedding day Ree had a panic-induced sweat attack just moments before she was to walk down the aisle.
Once my bridesmaids had sopped up the last of my perspiration with an entire box of tissues, I heard the organ playing Bach. "Time to go," the altar guild worker announced. I darted into the bathroom to check myself one last time. I was sweaty and flushed, which I hoped would translate to "healthy and glowing." I gave my bangs a quick finger-comb and tried to take a deep breath as my bridesmaids and I began our march down the stairs.
Clouds carried me forward from there. I knew there were others in the church, but I saw only my groom.
My heart pounded in my chest as we kneeled. We repeated our vows and Father Johnson administered the blessing, ending with I now pronounce you husband and wife.
I hadn't considered the kiss. I suppose I assumed it would be restrained, appropriate, the way a wedding kiss should be. Real kisses were for when you were alone, after all. Not in front of everyone you knew.
But Marlboro Man had missed the memo outlining the rules for kissing in public. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed me like he meant it, right there in front of our families, Father Johnson, our wedding party, and some 600 guests. He kissed me exactly the way he'd kissed me the night of our first date.
Unexpected news from home forced the couple to cut short their honeymoon. Then, just five weeks after the wedding, a visit to her family doctor revealed, to Ree's surprise, that she was pregnant.
The nausea lingered for weeks as I acclimated myself to my strange new life. Since we lived 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, I had to keep remembering to buy more than 12 hours' worth of groceries at a time. I couldn't just run next door to the neighbor's house when I ran out of eggs. There were no neighbors. And there was no such thing as pizza delivery. Or Chinese food. Or sushi.
Marlboro Man had to spend Thanksgiving weekend weaning the calves that had been born the previous spring. Since I was finally feeling better, I no longer had a get-out-of-jail (or sleep-in-till-nine) card. He woke me that Saturday morning by poking my ribs.
"C'mon," he said. "Come wean calves with me."
I opened my eyes. My husband was fully clothed in Wranglers and a starched plaid shirt. He was rubbing my belly, a favorite new habit of his.
"I can't," I said. "I'm pregnant."
"Yep, you are," he said, gently poking my ribs.
I wriggled and squealed and finally relented, getting dressed and heading out the door with my strapping cowboy.
We drove a couple of miles to a pasture and met up with the rest of the crew. I rode in the feed truck with an older cowboy while the others followed the herd on horseback. All the while I watched Marlboro Man out the window. He darted and weaved in the herd, shifting his body weight and posture to nonverbally communicate his wishes to his loyal horse. I breathed in slowly, feeling a burst of pride. There was something magical about seeing the man I was crazy in love with riding his horse across the tall-grass prairie. It was more than the physical appeal of his chaps-cloaked body in the saddle. It was seeing him do what he loved, and what he was so good at doing.
When Ree arrived at the hospital to give birth, she and Marlboro Man were both certain that their firstborn would be a son.
It's an indescribable feeling, the throes of hard labor -- that mind-numbing total body cramp whose origin you can't even begin to wrap your head around. Wanting to be strong in front of Marlboro Man, I gripped the bedsheet and clenched my teeth. Finally, though, I gave in and pushed the nurse button, whimpering, "I can't do this anymore." My salvation arrived in the form of an eight-inch needle; when the medicine hit I nearly wept with relief.
I was so blissfully pain-free that I fell sound asleep. When I woke, the nurse was telling me it was push time. After a few tense moments that involved my repeatedly reminding Marlboro Man not to cross the line south of my ribcage lest he see something we'd both regret, our baby boy was finally born.
Except it wasn't a baby boy. It was a seven-pound baby girl.
Once the baby was assessed and deemed healthy, Marlboro Man phoned his parents. I drifted in and out of listening to him talk, but toward the end of the conversation I heard him ask his mom, "So...what do you do with girls?"
I chuckled softly. For the first time in our relationship, Marlboro Man was the fish out of water.
That September, storms swept the area, driving Ree and her two-month-old baby into the cellar of a boarded-up house on their property.
A pot roast was in the oven and dark clouds had moved in.
"I'll be home in an hour," Marlboro Man said, calling from his cell phone. "Have you looked outside?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's eerie." The sky was a frightening shade of pink. I hung up, flipped on the TV and immediately saw a radar map. The weatherman was pointing directly at the area surrounding our county -- a swath of dark red in the shape of a hook. Yikes, I thought.
Sound asleep in her swing, the baby didn't flinch when the phone rang a second time.
"Take the baby and get in the cellar of the big house," Marlboro Man said, a new urgency in his voice.
"What?" I said, my pulse racing.
"There's a tornado moving east-southeast," he said. "You need to get over there just in case." He wasn't kidding. And he loved thunderstorms.
I grabbed a huge throw from the sofa, a pillow, three bottles of water, a flashlight, a granola bar, and my baby. I ran outside, crossing the yard and scrambling up the steps of the yellow-brick house that we'd boarded up months earlier. There was no electricity, so I used the flashlight to guide me to the stairs. I walked down into the basement without hesitation. Not because I was deathly afraid of the tornado or because Marlboro Man had told me to, but because I was a mother now. My protective instincts overrode my fear, allowing me to forget that rattlesnakes once had built a nest in this deep, dark hole.
I parked myself on a bench against a wall. A faint hint of the early evening sky was visible through a rectangular window. Slowly rocking my child back and forth as the wind howled above us, I reflected on the months that had brought me to this moment. The transition I'd made from a city girl fleeing a failed relationship to one head-over-heels in love with a cowboy. From starry-eyed new wife to clueless and confused new mother. From vibrant, sexual being to baby-feeding machine. From a child...to a hint of the woman I would one day become.
It wasn't about me anymore. I had a child and a husband who needed me in the midst of what was turning out to be a terrible time to make a living in agriculture. I no longer had time to get mired in my own angst. My new family was all that mattered.
Chocolate Heart Cookies
I've been making these Valentine cookies for friends (mostly of the male persuasion) ever since I was a kid. I use letter stencils and powdered sugar to spell out special messages. This year's batch is dedicated to -- who else? -- Marlboro Man.
Work: 30 minutes
Total: 3 hours
Makes 3 dozen
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1. Stir together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and cocoa powder in a medium bowl. In another bowl, cream butter and brown sugar until fluffy, then add egg and vanilla and mix until combined. Add flour mixture in two parts, mixing gently and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer dough to a large zip-top bag and flatten into a disc. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and roll to 1/8 inch thick. Cut with a small heart cookie cutter and place cookies on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely.
3. Place a stencil letter on each cookie and dust with confectioners' sugar. Remove stencil. Repeat to spell out valentine phrases such as "Love You," "Be Mine" and "Kiss Me."
Adapted from the forthcoming book The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels -- A Love Story, by Ree Drummond. Copyright 2011 by Ree Drummond. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2011.