When a ranching couple decides to have little ranch kids, romantic dinners and gifts are traded in for Kleenex and cough syrup.

Mud is on the ground, contagious viruses are in the air, and Hallmark is marketing romance. I appreciate the sentiment behind Valentine’s Day, but orchestrating an annual day of elaborate romance here on the ranch is just not something we usually do in my marriage.  I envy the couples who exchange mushy cards and candy hearts, but we usually just give each other the flu.

With short cold days, long colder nights, and sneezes on every doorknob, it’s hard for anything except germs to thrive in February. Rather than boxes of chocolates and long-stem roses, we typically exchange bottles of NyQuil and packets of Kleenex. It’s a new definition of lovesick.

We haven’t always been ailing in February, though. For our first Valentine’s Day as a couple, Jim whisked me off on a weekend getaway at a romantic bed and breakfast in the Texas Hill Country. That proved to be our first and last Valentine’s Day getaway, mostly because the next pregnancy test I took was positive. After I gestated, nursed, and diapered the proof of our love, and I wasn’t about to fall for that again.

As love and poor judgment would have it, I fell for that twice more. With our children currently totaling one girl, two boys, and a crippled dog, our capacity for romance is pretty much maxed out by the time we take off our socks.

“Honey, do you think one day we’ll have time for fancy hotel rooms and lavish desserts one day?” I asked Jim as I smeared rash cream on the baby’s bottom.

“Sure,” he replied. “One of these days, February will screw up and find us both healthy at the same time. For now, how about a blanket on the couch and a spoonful of cough syrup?”

“I love you so much,” I said.

And I truly meant it. A romantic gesture doesn’t always have to be wrapped with a red ribbon and accompanied by a greeting card, although we have tried that approach before. One year, Jim gave me a pair of eight-plait rawhide reins that he braided from a hide he had scraped, cut, and cured himself. In return, I gave him a mixtape CD, thereby establishing myself as our relationship’s Crappy Gift Giver. It was a title I held until last year, when he gave me a red union suit. Because nothing whispers “come hither” like a onesie with a butt flap.

As we approached this Valentine’s Day, my husband and I both appeared healthy enough to exchange gifts that weren’t purchased from the pharmacy. We established a modest budget, mostly because Jim wanted to give me ample opportunity to regain my title. Also, we have several children who, while free and simple to make, are surprisingly expensive to grow and maintain.

We almost pulled it off.

“Honey, are you ready to no longer be the worst gift giver of the Young family?” I asked.

“Why?” Jim asked. “Did you sign me up for the Vegetarian Snack Of The Month club?”

“No,” I replied. “But you just kissed me, and I have a 101-degree fever.”

“Don’t worry, I got you,” he said and handed me a bottle of ibuprofen.

“Thanks,” I said. “These are better than any candy hearts.”

Then we each downed six and locked ourselves into separate rooms. After seven years, three kids and countless fevers, we have finally learned how to curtail the consequences of too much physical affection: quarantine—alone.

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After growing up in a ranching region of northern California, Jolyn Young moved to Elko, Nevada, in her early 20s to work on a local ranch. While helping some neighbors move cattle one day, she met a tall, partially civilized cowboy named Jim. He told her stories about starting 5-year-olds at the Spanish Ranch and roping horses in Owyhee on the Indian reservation. By the time Jim picked Jolyn up for their first date in a ‘92 single cab Ford, she was smitten. The two were married just before the birth of their first baby. Since then, Jolyn has accompanied Jim on a working tour of several ranches in the American West. So far, they have lived in Nevada, Arizona and Oregon. She is convinced that each time they move, he takes it as a personal challenge to move her farther from town. Jolyn now regards cell phone service as a luxury, and she isn’t afraid to build a fire in the front yard to cook hamburger goulash and a loaf of bread. The life of a cowboy’s wife is always challenging and often isolating, but it is never boring. Finding the humor in the hardships can lessen the struggle, and that is what Jolyn strives to share with others through her writing. She and Jim currently live at Mann Lake Ranch in eastern Oregon with their three kids, Grace, Milo and Levi. They have since upgraded from the ‘92 Ford.

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