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Montana Woman Celeste Shaw - The Heart and Soul of the Big Sky

“As I live and breathe,” remarks Celeste Shaw with a wistful gaze when asked about Montana. This expression is generally used to emphasize the truth of a statement, but for Celeste, who now wears many hats as a trauma nurse, entrepreneur, restaurateur and national magazine editor, the phrase conveys her feelings about her childhood home on the Hi-Line. Celeste was forever imprinted by her Norwegian grandparents, Hans and Selma Tveten, spending much of her childhood on a homestead farm situated on the remote plains of Northeastern Montana. The hallmark of her youth remains vital to her identity and the way she lives each day. Simply put, her soul longs for home, for Montana. It is a part of her. She recalls traveling across the Hi- Line, “We were small children my sisters and I, as we made the frequent journey between Great Falls and Vida -sometimes by car, sometimes by train. Sometimes, like now, in a daydream about going home. I’ve never seen a more beautiful view than Montana land.”

Traveling Hwy 2 into the badlands of the Missouri breaks, grand scenes of geologic wonders unfold. Space, much of it undisturbed, is the area’s greatest commodity. And, for the creative mind of young Celeste, the unending sky inspired the feeling to take flight. To soar. Her love for the land and the instruction of rural life were the fabric of her youth. Shaw reminisces from her home outside of Spokane, Washington, “I grew up rich on a poor farm. The lessons of hardship were the best education.”It was here, too, in the tight-knit towns between Hill and McCone County where Shaw learned the value of community. “Handshakes signify honor. Neighbors stand together. There is a raw, transparent authenticity that identifies a Montanan,” she reflects.

The air on the prairie is sweet and dry, overwhelming in its perfection. Of course, when the thunder cracks and a storm rolls in over the bluffs, the ground turns to gumbo. The thick clay soil starts to lay claim to boots and shoes; it is impossible to remove. Likewise, for Celeste, small town America certainly left it’s mark as she learned, like many Montana farm folk, to live by the seasons, to listen to the land, and to aim for self-sufficiency. The modest, insistent, and practical virtues of farming became the rhythm for life. “Plant, grow, harvest and then “can” everything you are able to. My grandma Selma would say ‘put-up’, so we did. Fruits, vegetables, syrups, butter, homemade soups and sweetened chokecherries, very little escaped a mason jar and a wax seal,”remembers Shaw.

The apron strings still dragged the floor when, at only two-years of age, her grandma put a wooden spoon in Celeste’s hand; she’s been cooking ever since. For the Tvetens, mid-day dinner was an open jar of anything “canned” and bread. Celeste remembers, “We made bread –a lot of bread. I believed my grandma Selma invented bread pudding. What else would you do with old bread except soak it in eggs and ham, cheese and fresh milk?”

More than just cooking and baking, Selma taught Celeste many cherished lessons which continue to manifest themselves today in how she cooks and how she serves others. She explains, “I have never received any formal training as a chef or a restaurateur. I am a trauma nurse by profession, but I have transcended to what is deliciously prophetic. In my home and in my 1912-farmhouse café, Chaps Diner and Bakery, we are all about comfort food. Friends and neighbors in our community gather together to enjoy delicious food, drink strong coffee, and listen to great music and conversation. Many recipes I once accomplished as a child, I have reconstructed successfully to now serve at my café Chaps.” The menu includes a farmhouse twist on French toast, something likened to a blueberry muffin cake topped with blueberry cream cheese – a dish featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-In, and Dives” with Guy Fieri. Grandma's baked oatmeal is a local favorite said to satisfy that homemade craving. The name of the bakery itself pays homage both to Shaw’s grandparents and her own parallel, life-changing adventure – opening her own restaurant without any experience in the business.

Growing up in Norway, her grandfather Hans dreamed of being a cowboy in far away Montana. As the story goes, at first, his mother adamantly opposed the notion of her son traveling to the wild and dangerous West. Eventually, she relented, going so far as to make Hans a pair of chaps to protect his legs while he was riding the range. Hans wore those chaps and settled down to stake his claim to a homestead on the frontier prairie of outside of Wolf Point in the early 1900s. “My grandfather was a war hero. Brave and relentless, I suspect he longed to leave home to be a real cowboy, to have his own land, to raise his own family, his own crops, to live his own life.” Celeste, a mother of two, concedes, “Imagine his mother, knowing she would never see her son again as she sat writing him the love letter of her life, saying goodbye, and sending him off to an unknown world with her blessing, and giving him freedom.” He left behind the fjords of Norway for the open range and a pair of leather chaps. Celeste explains her cafe “Chaps” was created, “As my tribute to Montana life, food and faith.”

While some people may not see the logic, or understand the leap of faith it took to switch careers, for Celeste, running a restaurant and nursing are very similar: serving others is serving others. “After attending the Masters program in Nursing at Gonzaga in Spokane, I jumped careers and opened a restaurant to represent my love of Montana and my grandparents,” elaborates Celeste. With the passion and work ethic of her homesteading grandparents, Celeste turned her dreams into a number of highly successful ventures. “My grandma Selma used to say, ‘decide to decide.’ Recognize your ability to be resilient. Courage starts with showing up and letting yourself be seen,” she adds. As a creative entrepreneur, Shaw inspires many women in a variety of fields. “I believe if you’re going to do something, do it with love,” advises Shaw. In addition to her roles as owner of the west Spokane restaurant, Shaw owns the boutique Lucky Vintage & Pretty Things. She is editor-in-chief for the international magazine Where Women Cook Holiday, and somehow, on top of all that, she also works part time as a nurse, caring for patients in the intensive care unit as well as serving with International Open Heart. Her desire to serve others also led her to found an orphanage program in Bucharest, Romania.

One may ask how a girl from a small town might enjoy such a big life, but if anything, growing up in rural Montana prepared Celeste to traverse her unexpected life journey. The landscape near Celeste’s childhood homestead is as rough as any mountain range. The land cuts away into coulees, or breaks, and then rises acutely into gumbo knobs. Sandstone spires, eroded cliffs, and crumbling buttes are loosely held together by sloughing dirt ridges. It's like a landscape made of biscuit dough; navigating it requires grit and courage. When asked about her move from rural Montana, she explains, “It takes a lot of trust to jump like that, doesn’t it? To really trust yourself, do you have to truly know yourself? I didn’t. But my faith was bigger than my fear. Although I didn’t recognize it as a child, it burned inside me.” While poverty often holds back a future of education or success, Celeste claims, “Not even close- you just get in shape to leap.” Rising above her circumstances did not happen without heartache, but Celeste doesn’t fear failure. “Big mistakes lead somewhere, usually to learning and creating in a new and remarkable way. Jump off cliffs! I’m a jumper- I wear many hats, and I love them all. I’m a big fan of education- not necessarily formal, but to continually ask questions, to listen and learn from others.”

Learning from others, from her grandmother or inspiring authors such as Maya Angelou, has allowed Celeste to appreciate perspective. “When you know better, you do better. We may encounter many defeats,” Shaw reminds us, “but we must not be defeated. Make every success matter. Your success as a woman is a success for all women. Part of that success is having a place at the table for other women.” For Shaw, building a community of women is an important, worthwhile endeavor. She instructs, “Collaborate, don’t compete. Competition thrives on insecurities. Identify those women you feel you’re sitting across the table from and sit next to them. Find a common ground. Wanting women to succeed without jealousy is the definition of grace.”

Her desire to inspire and to celebrate the successes of other women is evident in the pages of the magazine Where Women Cook. With its beautiful photography and storytelling, the publication features female chefs, farmers, homemakers, artists and other creatives. “While each woman’s story is unique, the messages remain universal. Women overcome adversity, and learn the power of working hard to achieve many of their goals. These women have, in many cases, inspired others and have become a role models for future generations,” explains Shaw.

Celeste’s role model, her adorable, Norwegian grandmother Selma, remains her most influential teacher. “She was a quintessential mother and farmer’s wife,” describes Celeste. “After her death, I needed to return home, to Montana, to the now- abandoned farmhouse if I were to save anything before it was destroyed by nature or looters. It was remarkably difficult to go; painful really. I couldn’t do it. It was all I knew of life. The place where I learned to feel safe, to know faith, to know the earth. This return, it felt poignant. I struggled with the ability to say goodbye to those memories and to the old house that I knew would soon be swallowed by the earth.”

Pained by the longing for home and the loss of her grandmother, Celeste dreamed of the Montana Hi-Line. She imagined her car rolling across the windswept prairie, through endless fields of golden wheat, the towering mountains in the distance. But the vast space and the haunting remoteness, seemed to be too much to bear. “A friend presented me with the gift of a pair of perfect, red ruby slippers made exclusively for my feet. ‘Go home Celeste’, she said.” With the power of friendship and the trust she could make this leap as well, Shaw drove the 28 hours from Washington to her “home” under Montana’s bluebird, big sky. Celeste recalls, “While stuffing my car with everything I could hold, I imagined the courage and conviction of those who came for land, to raise families, to withstand the perils of the earth, to homestead. It was then I really understood what it meant to be a Montana woman.”

This article was written for Montana Woman Magazine. Published in the March/April 2020 issue. It was such an honor to write about my dear friend Celeste as well as for all of us who could say of Montana - "as I live and breathe."

Visit Celeste's restaurant Chaps in Spokane and follow her here.

Subscribe to Montana Woman Magazine for other inspirational feature articles.

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