Tuesday, April 28, 2009

There's No Place Like Home

It was my home away from home. Two blocks east of us on Main and three blocks south on Larson lived my grandparents. It was one of the first places I went by myself after I was allowed to cross the street (because there weren't many streets to cross.) I usually went for a visit at least once a day, sometimes many more. I could coast my bike all the way down Larson Avenue without pedaling because of the downhill slope. Enormous elm trees on either side of the street converged overhead forming a shady canopy for many blocks. I'd ride my bike up the gravel driveway and toss it down in the grass without bothering with the kickstand.

"Yoo-hoo, I'm here!" I'd announce, letting the screen door slam behind me. I always knew if Gram was home because I could smell her Occur! It followed her like an aura and no one else smelled the way she did. (Also, whenever she was home, the TV was on.)

"Yoo-hoo, come in!" she'd reply, as though all day long she'd simply been waiting or me to arrive. She would beam at the sight of me and pat a spot next to her on the black davenport.

My grandparents had only had one child--my father. My Gram always wished for a little girl so, when I arrived, it was a big deal and she never let me forget it.

I always thought my grandparents were rich. They had built their house when my dad was 10 years old, so it seemed very new to me. In fact, the year before they had built the 2 bedroom rambler, they had finished the basement and lived there for one winter. The following spring, the house had arrived on the train in sections and carpenters assembled it in one day! It all seemed unbelievable to me. Inside, it was immaculate. There was gray wall-to-wall carpeting and real wood paneling on the walls. (What did I tell you? Rich!) They had a long black davenport (so much fancier than a couch!) and matching chair, an oak coffee table which Gram had "antiqued" white, and a wood-grain, formica-topped table with sides that dropped down and chairs with metal legs. Gram loved to rearrange her furniture and repaint rooms. Whenever we went to her house, we never knew where we'd find things--or what color they'd be next.

I loved the set of black ceramic lions she had on her coffee table. Their mouths were agape like they were roaring and sometimes I imagined they fought. They were two of her things I wasn't allowed to touch. She also had a red glass candy dish that sat in the center of the same table. It was always filled with Bridge Mix or Circus Peanuts or sugar-covered Orange Slices and I could touch that all I wanted.

The glory of the kitchen was her old Fridgedair. You had to pull really hard on the handle to get it to open. Gram was always worried we'd pull it over on ourselves. We never did. She also lectured us a lot about never ever climbing into a refrigerator if we saw one outside because some little child had done that once and suffocated to death. (I always looked for a fridge outside but I never did see one.) Her fridge was always filled with good things like Snack Pack Pudding in tiny metal cans that we had to be careful when we pulled the sharp tops off not to cut ourselves, and peanut butter that she hid in there so the ants wouldn't find it. She couldn't keep ice cream frozen in the tiny freezer section so, if we were inclined to eat some, she'd have to get her purse out and send us to the store.

Her cupboards were equally bountiful. She had a red step stool beside the counter that we used to scale the heights and explore. On the first level stood the copper cookie jar where she kept bought cookies like Pecan Sandies and Fig Newtons and, on the REALLY good days, homemade Chocolate No-Bakes. The cabinets held cans of Spaghettios and Pringles. If she was absolutely out of everything else, she'd let us open the bags of chocolate chips and shredded coconut to make our own Mounds bars.

We were polite children. We always ASKED before we helped ourselves to anything. We'd say, "Gram? I see you have some cookies in your cookie jar."

And she'd say, "Oh, my yes--have all you want. I got them/made them for you!"

I learned lavish generosity from my Gram, not moderation.

She also let us raid her cupboards for non-eating activities as well. We used her flour to make play dough and then painted our creations with her food coloring. We made bubble solution with her dishsoap. We fed bread to the birds outside, and not just the stale crusts, either. We took her nice blankets outside to lay on in the grass. We clomped around in her old shoes, used her tape, scissors, string, Bandaids, and make-up for all kinds of projects and dug in the dirt with her good silverware.

Sleepovers at Gram's house were a retreat in indulgence. She wasn't fond of cooking and had a sign hanging in her kitchen that said, "Stamp Out Home Cooking." For supper we got to eat Spaghettios or hot dogs and Pringles dipped in Snack Pack Pudding. Or maybe we'd have corn on the cob and nothing else! (If ever she did happen to serve something we didn't like, Grandpa was happy to eat it off our plates for us.) Then she'd have us fetch her purse and we'd bike up to Capper's to pick out our favorite cereals to eat for breakfast. If Renee and I couldn't agree on what kind to get, she'd let us each get a box. Grandpa didn't have very good manners and she growled, "oh, Ken-ny!" at him when he walked around the house in his underwear or burped after meals. He just smiled and did what he wanted--we laughed behind our hands. Renee and I got to stay up "as late as we wanted" at Gram's==which was thrilling except we got tired and usually went to bed at our regular time anyway. I loved laying in her soft bed and looking at the lamp by her dresser. It was made of two glass globes with pictures of moose on it. The bottom globe was bigger than the top and you could have on just the bottom, or just the top, or both by turning a key. Gram always wore pretty nighties with slippery fabric and she snored when she slept, but I didn't mind.

One of my favorite things to do with my Gram was watch game shows. She liked Card Sharks, and Family Feud, and Hollywood Squares, but she especially liked word games. She got very impatient with people on Wheel of Fortune or Password who didn't know the answers to the questions and would yell at the TV, even though they couldn't hear her, and we'd burst into gales of laughter. Gram always solved the puzzles before the contestants did.

In the late afternoon or evenings, we would sit out in the backyard to cool off. Gram would watch from her lawn chair as Renee and I would run races--counting to see how fast we went. 'Funny how we got faster and faster every time... I did chin-ups on her clothesline pole and push-ups in the grass. She thought I had impressive muscles and unbelievable speed.

Gram's yard contained several points of interest. Since she had a real basement, there were window wells that sometimes trapped salamanders and toads after it rained. There was a lone, straggly pine tree behind her garage. My dad had planted it there on Arbor Day when he was in the 4th grade and, though it offered no shade or beauty, she would not permit it to be cut down. Sparrows sometimes made nests in the ends of her clothesline poles and I was forever hanging upside down, poking my fingers at them. Gram had a white lilac bush and some fascinating bell-like flowers called Lily-of-the-Valley which she told us were poisonous, "Don't touch them or you'll get sick." But my favorite were the spunky moss roses that grew in the heat on the south side of the house, closing up during the hottest part of the day and reopening at night. I don't think anyone ever watered them or did anything special for them yet they thrived.

Our grandma was able to make even rainy days fun. She would hide a thimble for us and we'd look and look, following her hints, "warmer, warmer, colder!" We also played "I Spy." She liked to hear stories about what we did at school and she liked to tell us stories about when she was little or about when our dad was little. The best story she ever told was how she used to take the train from Alexandria to Thief River Falls in the summer to visit her Grandma Gran's farm. Our great-great Grandma Gran had a big mean bull that our grandma, little Dolores, was scared to death of. It got really hot some days on the farm and the only way a little kid could cool off was to soak in the stock tank by the barn. One day, Gram was ducked underwater in the tank and, when she came up for air, she came face to face with the BULL who had lowered his huge head over the tank for a drink of water! Gram said she never moved so fast in her life; I always wondered if she scared the bull...

Gram had lots of hobbies. (I don't recall her ever having any kind of toy box at her house but she shared all her toys with us, or let us make up our own, which was way more fun.) Gram liked to do oil Paint-by-Number and ceramics. She loved Bingo. She had an organ with keys that lit up when you turned a light on under the keyboard and music books with letters to match the keys. She would give us concerts and play, "Beautiful Dreamer," and "Camptown Girls Won't You Come Out Tonight," and "Amazing Grace." When it was our turn, she applauded no matter how awful it sounded, and never asked us to turn down the automatic rhythm feature--which must have driven her nuts. Gram was an avid reader. In the front bedroom there was a shelf that held many volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, to which she subscribed. I read many novels that were far above my reading level just because they were there. Gram had an mesmerizing aquarium on a desk in her dining room. There was a nasty Angel Fish who picked on the other fish and she would tap on the glass to scold him. That fish, named after a bully at our school, looked right back at her in anger until his black stripes turned white like the rest him. She also had beautiful, sweet Black Mollies that gave birth to live babies that hid (from the Angel of Death fish) in the weeds floating at the top of the tank. Some of the time, Gram must have taken a break from her hobbies to work because once or twice a year she'd go through her closets and send us home with her extra treasures; leftover oil paints, half-used craft kits, fancy Soap-on-a-Rope. I never understood why our mother wasn't more excited when she saw us drag home all that loot.

We were Gram's little helpers, accompanying her to many of the places she went. She brought us to Bingo at the Legion and we helped her slide the little windows down over the numbers and giggled when she got mad that someone else won. She took us to the City Restaurant and let us order whatever we wanted--even if it was "two scoops of mashed potatoes and gravy" in the middle of the afternoon. My favorite dessert was a square of white cake frosted on all sides and rolled in chopped nuts. And, of course, orange pop--which I drank all by myself and ended up with an orange mustache. I loved sitting in the restaurant, looking at all the wildlife. The high ceilings were lined with glass cases containing dozens of birds and woodland creatures--all stuffed by a taxidermist. It was like a zoo of dead animals. The walls were adorned with framed Norman Rockwell prints. I especially liked one where some boys were running naked away from a pond that said, "No Swimming." The big wooden booths had mirrors on the inside walls and, while I ate, I made faces at myself and happily chewed with my mouth open. Gram took us to her ceramics class and let us paint our own chewing gum holders. Some days we went along to her Thursday beauty appointments to Chili's Beauty Shop in her home and looked at magazines while she had her hair washed and set. If we were good, and we always were, she'd reward us by getting out her purse and sending us off to buy ourselves a treat. One week out of every summer, Gram brought us on Vacation to a motel in Alexandria. Gram, Renee, and I laid around on the beds eating snacks and watching as much TV as we wanted. We'd walk to The Traveler's Inn for our meals and Grandpa drove up from Ashby after work to have supper with us. There was an outdoor pool to play in, and an ice machine and all the pop we could drink. It was the best vacation ever!

Gram was tougher than she looked. She could clean a dead chicken with her bare hands. She wasn't scared of anybody--not even my crabby band teacher. She had lots of physical ailments but never let them get in the way of enjoying our company. So it was no wonder that my favorite thing about Gram's house was Gram herself. She loved me completely and I knew it. Whenever I came to her house, she'd drop everything just to listen to me, looking at me with her sparkling blue eyes. She wanted to hug me a lot but respected that I wasn't very snuggly. So when I sat by her, enjoying the sweet scent and warmth of her companionship, I'd occasionally allow her to rub her soft old hand on my young, tan arm. "Such perfect skin," she'd murmur to herself. Or she'd stroke my cheek with her thumb and remind me, "You have my mother's dimples..." Such affection usually prompted me to get off the couch, out of range, with a smile.

Many years later, it was me who moved closer. Gram was in a hospital bed, dying of congestive heart failure. She was beyond talking now, and I was beyond retreating from her touch. I sat for an entire day, and half the night, just holding her hand--stroking the frail skin over her pronounced blue veins, tracing her hallmark red nails with my own finger. By now, I realized that Gram had never been rich at all, but that it was she who had made my life rich. I would periodically ask if she felt okay. She nodded. I would ask if she needed anything. She'd shake her head, no. Once or twice, she opened her eyes, looked a little bewildered as though she'd been somewhere far away. Then she'd see me beside her and smile. She mouthed, "I love you," and closed her eyes again. I put my head down on the bed against her arm and asked the nurse to bring a fan into the room. Her dying was the thing I'd had nightmares about since I was small. There just wasn't enough air.

My Gram was there the day I was born and I was there the day she died. We shared 33 years together on this planet and not a day goes by that I don't think of her and miss her still. The older I get, I wish I could tell her, "You were right!" about so many things she'd said through the years. Someday, I will sit with her again, see her smile, and let her hold my hand as much as she likes. Home for me, will be when I call, "Yoo-hoo, I'm here!" and she answers, "Come on in, I've been waiting for you!"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

It's a Small World After All

I was four when my parents bought their first home. It was a 1 1/2 story frame structure built at the turn of the century which boasted six rooms. The heating system was an oil burning stove in the middle of the living room. An ornate iron grate above the stove allowed [minimal] heat to rise into the largest of the two bedrooms that I shared with my sisters and the stove's blower, activated by a pull-chain, helped move the warm air around the main floor; though the pipes in the cold, lean-to kitchen addition were in danger of freezing 7 months out of the year. The upstairs floor felt like ice when we rose before dawn each winter morning. My sister and I would race down the narrow steps to get the best spot in front of the stove's "fan," wrapping ourselves in crocheted afgans, and snuggling like puppies to get warm. On the coldest days our mother brought our clothes down and warmed them before we got dressed.

Our house, as most those days, did not have a basement but a dirt-floor cellar whose only access was a trap door in the bathroom floor. The cellar fascinated me, in theory only, with it's dungeonesque charm for it sported a host of spiders and a gas water heater that roared to life without warning. The few times I visited during storms, I'd have preferred to have remained upstairs taking my chances with a tornado.

There were no closets in our house, but we did have a single bathroom that was closet-sized. There was just enough room for a tiny sink, toilet, and a cast-iron tub that recessed partway back into a corner of the room--where more spiders lived. All the flooring throughout the house was floral linoleum--except for a piece of carpet that covered the center of the living room. There was patterned wallpaper on all the walls, and patterned drapes. I don't recall that the patterns matched and I don't remember caring. At least once a week I fell down the steep stairs, bouncing from wall to wall until I landed, bruised and crying, at the bottom on the floor where the carpet didn't reach. I remember the day that I realized I was too big to cry every time I fell down the stairs so I stopped, teaching myself to rub my wounds in silence.

The oil burning stove was the heart of our home. In the brief Minnesota summers, it was ignored, or used as a plant holder for trays of seedlings or folded laundry waiting to go upstairs. But in the long winters, it worked over-time. In the mornings, it was our sole source of comfort from the bitter cold. To this day I love the feel of warm metal and the sensation of hot air blowing on my face makes me sleepy. When I was sick, my mother would heat a glass bottle of camphorated oil and a clean cloth diaper on top of the stove. Then she'd rub my chest with the warm oil, wrap a diaper around me like a bib to keep the oil from my pajamas, and secure it with a safety pin behind my neck. I'd fall asleep with the smell of the scented oil opening up my sinuses. The stove was the first place we stopped when we came in from playing outside. We'd throw our snow-encrusted mittens on top of it and hear it sizzle as chunks of ice melted off and dripped down the grate while we crouched in front of the blower rubbing our red feet until the feeling came back into our toes. On the coldest days, we'd huddle by the stove to look at books or color or watch TV. Dad kept a metal pan of water on the stove all winter to add humidity to the air. The stove was our friend.

When summer came, we spent most of the day outside. Mom was always up early, hanging out the wash, but she made us stay on the steps until the dew on the grass dried so our feet didn't get wet. Sometimes she gave us bread crusts to crumble and scatter for the birds while we waited. Our entire block consisted of only three houses, one on either side of ours. The yard to the east had a fenced-in, overgrown garden we were not allowed to enter. I would hang on the wire fence with my bare toes and fingers, wishing I could play in, what I regarded, a genuine jungle. Our own [tamer] backyard contained a simple swing set and an old tractor tire filled with sand where I wiled away most mornings--always watchful for spiders, of course. We got so dirty Mom gave us baths twice a day--once after lunch and once before bed, I'm sure--to keep as much of the sand out of the house as possible.

In Ashby, you always knew when it was time to go inside to eat lunch (we called it dinner) because the fire whistle blew exactly at noon. I would cover my ears with my hands and all the neighbor dogs would howl. My dad walked across the street from his shop, "Al's Repair," and we girls scrambled in from the sandbox for soup and a sandwich. Sometimes, Mom gave us each half an orange for dessert. I'd suck all the juice first, squeezing it upside down into my mouth, then turn the whole thing inside out and eat the pulp. I thought that's how everyone ate oranges. I didn't know people were allowed an entire orange for one person.

Kitty-corner across the street from our house was the tall, brick school building for grades K-12. Before I was old enough to go to Kindergarten, I'd hurry outside after lunch to wait for the high school band students to come and practice marching on the street in front of our house. I'd parade up and down the sidewalk in my little red tennies, keeping time to the drum cadence and loudly singing the melody of the march. I'd wave at the big, grown-up teenagers in the band and watch them until they disappeared down the street. When they came back up the street again, I was waiting for them on the curb. My favorite part was when the director blew his whistle signaling the end of class and they all stampeded for the lunchroom--instruments and all. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to be in the band.

Afternoons were not so exciting as mornings. I napped until I started Kindergarten and sometimes it took awhile for me to fall asleep. I remember laying on the bed listening to "As sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives," droning from the TV in the living room. I'd pick my nose, pull lint out from between my toes, and eventually fall asleep.

The hours dragged on long and hot. I would lay on the living room floor in front of the box fan and let it blow my hair back from my face and giggle at how it distorted my voice when I sang. "Keep your fingers out of there or the fan will cut them off!" reminded Mom. Then she'd send me outside where I'd sit on the sidewalk and watch the ants build houses between the cracks. I gazed wistfully at the tall utility pole in our yard that had metal "steps" going all the way to the power lines. But the steps didn't begin until far off the ground. I pushed my trike over to the pole; stood on the handle bars, stretched as tall as I could reach for the bottom rung--but always came up short. Too bad...it would have been fun to have climbed that pole.

On the hottest days, Mom would connect the sprinkler to the hose and let us run through it. No matter how long you let it run, the water this far north never gets warm but stays a refreshing temperature just above freezing. We'd put on our bathing suits and dash through the icy water ever so briefly before retreating to our towels in the sun to shiver and warm up again. Some days, Mom would whack a Popsicle on the counter to break it in half and give one to Renee and one to me. It was always a challenge to see if you could finish the Popsicle before it melted off the stick and dripped down your elbows.

The best bonus of summer was the crop of dandelions that grew everywhere. We would take a dish of water and sit on the sidewalk with bunches of picked flowers, popping the heads off and swabbing pollen under each others' chins asking, "Do you like butter? Let's see..." Then we'd separate the stems into thin strands with our fingernails and watch them curl up magically as they hit the water in the bowl. Another of Nature's toys was something we called "chalk rocks." I was always on the lookout for soft stones that could be used to write on the sidewalk. Real chalk was a rare treat, but chalk-rocks were free--if you could find them. There was so much to learn those long summer days--how to play jacks and jump rope, how to snap your fingers, how to whistle, how to tie your shoe laces--and we had the time to do it.

Once each summer, a pickup truck would pull alongside the curb on our side of the street. We would run out to watch as two men used a big wrench to open the little red fire hydrant to drain the lines. Rusty colored water would gush out and fill the gutters in a torrent. We'd splash and play and float Popsicle stick boats all the way down to the Standard Station 100 feet "downstream." I wasn't allowed to cross the street but, lucky for me, plenty of exciting things happened on our side!

Sometimes, guests came to our house and I greeted each visitor with great enthusiasm. There was the meter man, the Culligan man, the paper boy, and the Avon lady--Myrtle. Myrtle had blue hair and smiling eyes behind her thick glasses. She would knock on our door and we would yell, "Ding dong--Avon calling," just like the commerical, and run to bring her in. She carried a large tote bag full of interesting things--colorful pamphlets and free samples of lipstick and perfume. Mom always bought Skin-So-Soft and Gram never wore anything but Occur! cologne. Renee and I had pink bunnies with fluffy tails that dispensed talcum powder that we got to use after our baths.

At 5:30 sharp every evening, my dad came home from work. His fingernails and the creases of his hands were always black, even when they were clean, from the grease and oil he worked with every day. As soon as he washed up, we ate supper. Dad usually looked tired at the table. He'd had to work in a hot cement building all day with no air conditioning. Some nights, he'd take us down to Pelican Lake and it was an especially Big Deal if he put on his own suit and came into the water with us. Other evenings he'd putter in the yard or garden with Mom. I remember watching them thin out baby carrots and radishes and throwing away the extras. I crouched on the grass feeling sorry for the discarded baby plants. Sometimes Dad just wanted to read the paper or watch Hunt and Brinkley on the news--even though it was very boring to me. Brinkley's first name was "Chet" and I thought that sounded an awful lot like a word I wasn't supposed to say.

My parents still live in the same house at 302 Main Street 44 years later. After many remodels and updates, it hardly seems the same place. The oil stove is long gone. So is the lean-to kitchen and tiny bathroom. The stairway was remade to be wider and not so steep and cushioned with carpet. The profusion of red tulips and unruly bachelor buttons in the front flower bed have been replaced by low-maintenance landscaping. The yard seems to have shrunk in size over the years. But what has changed the most is me. It's hard to believe I am the same little girl who skinned her knees on that sidewalk and thought it thrilling to roll down the neighbors' hill--which is barely even an incline. I remember a child who laid awake nights in the front bedroom watching patterns of light on the ceiling from the stove grate in the floor below and held a teddy close, rubbing its soft ear over her nose in a drowsy ritual. As I nestled there in my line-dried sheets, powdered and damp-haired from my bath, watching the curtains billow away from the open window I could hear the sounds of the TV downstairs and I felt safe. Sometimes, it's good when the world is small.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yo Ho Ho!

I was sitting at the work table in back of the room, correcting math papers--as is my custom. Mrs. S was at the board explaining the sounds that oi and oy make. She wrote, "hoist" in black marker and asked if anyone knew what the word meant.

One second grader, who rarely talks and who often appears as though he isn't listening, replied in his most convincing pirate voice, "Hoist the anchor, ye scurvy dogs!"

I met the teacher's gaze only briefly before I needed to leave the room to laugh.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Yesterday, Victoria and I were at Home Depot purusing a Buy 1 Get 1 Free Sale on seeds and vegetable plants. We walked around the outdoor enclosure filling the cart with various baby herbs. I stroked the cilantro lovinging, daydreaming of the not-too-distant future when those few leaves would be a bush and I'd make homemade salsa...

As my cart fiiled up, I began to realize I'd need a new planter and considered my choices--terra cotta pots, glazed pots, and plastic window boxes. I found some rectangular planters that looked interesting. They were about six feet off the ground on a wire shelf. I didn't want to trouble the clerk so I put my toes on the lowest shelf and stretched as tall as I could, reaching the highest edge of the stack with the tips of my fingers. Now I just had to lean the pile toward me and slip the top one off....WHOOSH! At least a gallon of melted snow-water that was trapped in the lip of the planters hit me full in the face! I gasped, unable to speak. My hair was drenched and plastered to my head. My sweatshirt was soaked through to my skin. Victoria burst into gales of laughter.

I got a discount on the planter.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

If the Shoe Fits

There must have been a hundred in every shape and color; spiky-heeled dress pumps, glittery flats, and strappy sandals--all banished to the floor of Grandpa's closet as though the mere sight of them would be too much for his poor wife to bear. Due to vascular issues, my Gram had been forced to abandon her shoe fetish and don an orthopedic leg brace with its twin black shoes. The closet was a footwear graveyard that drew my sister and I like a magnet. We spent hours clumping and stumbling around in them, or sorting pairs by style and hue. Maybe that is where my love-hate relationship with shoes began?

Don't get me wrong--I am not one of Those Women (Shoe Tramps) who own a pair of shoes for every day of the month. On the contrary, I am much more of a Shoe Monogamist. I fall in love with one pair of shoes at a time and wear them until they fall apart. I can even tell you where the only shoe repair shop is in town because I have tried, on more than one occasion, to resurrect shoes that have lived past their prime.

In truth, my first choice would be to not wear shoes at all, and I have the callouses on my heels to prove it. I love the texture of grass and sand under my feet and, as a child, my feet were naked from spring thaw to first frost. I remember sprinting across the hot asphalt in July and picking my way over thistle covered fields in September. (Sliver removal consumed a lot of my spare time.) I once lost a toenail when I tripped (barefoot) over a tent stake in the dark and later made a trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot when I jumped (still barefoot) off the top of the picnic table driving a rusty nail into my big toe. But on those days I was forced to wear shoes, the most important factor was that they be comfortable. And I had some strong opinions about style.

As a preschooler, my favorite shoes were a pair of red Keds with a white rubber bumper on the toe. I cried when my mother threw them away because
they were worn out. I also remember a pair of black cowboy boots that I wore (even though they pinched my toes) because, what could be cooler than cowboy boots. Seriously? Except maybe chaps and spurs and a pony...

The end of every summer we got new tennies for school. They felt strange on feet that had been unfettered for months. But I'd lace them up and do a test drive for my Gram.

"Hey, Gram, watch! See how fast I can run in these shoes? See how high I can jump?"

I loved even the smell of the new shoes and went to bed at night with them on my pillow, drifting off to sleep to the sweet aroma of new rubber soles.

I received my favorite footwear one year for Christmas in the
form of a craft project (ages 8 & up.) It was a Make Your Own Moccasin Kit with pieces of pre-cut suede and leather cord. My dad ended up putting them together and I insisted on bringing them to school even though it was the dead of winter. Every morning, I'd leave my snow boots in the 4th grade cloakroom, slip on my moccasins, and slink around the school hallways like the Indian I always knew I was. One day, during reading group, we were clustered on the floor around the radiator when I felt something wet against me. The radiator had leaked hot water onto the wood floor and it had soaked onto my precious moccasin. It never looked the same after that--dark and smooth and worn. I was deeply grieved.

My most memorable footwear was probably the first pair of shoes I picked all by myself. Fall shoe shopping at our house was an event. We had to drive all the way to Alex or Fergus to the shoe store and it was a big deal. We'd slip off our old, too-small shoes, and the shoe guy would put our sweaty stockinged-feet against the cold meta
l of the foot measurer to see how much our feet had grown. Mine had always grown a lot. I was about to go into the seventh grade and, this summer, my feet had grown even more than usual, apparently. I was in a women's size 8. I looked and looked through the racks of [boring adult] shoes when suddenly I spied the most perfect pair ever! They were suede oxfords in a patchwork of vibrant colors--orange and purple and green. I tried them on and was instantly smitten. (Bear in mind this was the 70s.)

"Oh, please please pleeeeeease, can't I have these?! I love them so much!!"

My mom w
as skeptical. "They're the only ones you're going to get. You'll have to wear them all the time. What if you get tired of them?"

"Oh, I WON'T!!" I promised. "No one has shoes like this, I want them!!"

I was the happiest 12 year-old alive as I left the store in my patchwork shoes, my old ones in the new box tucked under my arm.

I didn't get much of a response about my new shoes at first. People politely smiled when I'd thrust my foot out for their admiration. But one night, on a rare treat of eating supper at the City
Restaurant, my shoes got noticed:

We were sitting around the back table--my parents, my grandparents, my sisters and I--happily eating hamburgers and drinking orange pop. Liz Borg (a 4th grader who lived across the street from us) walked in with her mom and began chatting with the adults.

"How do you like my new shoes?" I asked Liz, proudly bringing forth my brightly clad appendage.

"Oh, gosh, they look like CLOWN shoes!" she gasped with round eyes. "They make your feet look HUGE!"

My face burned with humiliation. I swallowed my mouthful of hamburger, yanked my foot back under the table, and kept it there the rest of the meal. My feet felt enormous--as though they were swelling by the moment. I could almost see the garish glow of their suede uppers through the oak tabletop. As soon as we got home, I ran upstairs and pushed the offending shoes as far under the bed as I could reach. Then I pulled out the old pair from the new shoe box and wore them, even though they hurt my toes. I hadn't realized how shamefully big my fe
et were and I vowed never to draw attention to them again.

I have long since grown into those big feet and make no further apologies for them. My feet have served me well over the years and I regard them, callouses and all, with great fondness. Once again, summer is approaching and it will be time to shed my winter footwear and display my ample feet to the world. The th
ought of digging through summer boxes hunting for my worn out flip flops makes me very happy. Rest assured, if you ever have to walk a mile in my shoes, at least you'll be comfortable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Parental Warnings

Don't fall out of that tree--you'll break your neck!

Don't cross your eyes--they'll stay like that!

Don't play your music so loud--you'll go deaf!

Don't eat all that candy--your teeth will fall out!

Don't bite your nails--you'll get sick!

Don't go near the lawn mower--it'll cut your toes off!

Don't stick your tongue out--a bird will poop on it!

Don't pet that strange dog--it'll bite your hand off!

Don't run with that stick--you'll put your eye out!

Don't fall off your bike--you'll crack your head open!

Don't play with those scissors--you'll cut your finger off!

Don't hang your arm out the car window--it'll get cut off!

It's amazing I grew to adulthood with all my parts intact.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Broken for You

We sit in groups of six to eight, perhaps a hundred in all, young and old together. It is dark save for the light of single candles burning in the center of each table. The mood is somber, reverent. A basket is passed from person to person containing portions of a larger loaf of unleavened bread and all that can be heard throughout the room is the murmured phrase, "The body of Christ, broken for you...the body of Christ broken...the body of Christ..."

As the basket circles each table, from every corner comes the sound of flat bread cracking as sections are distributed to each person. "The body of Christ broken... the body of C

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
Isaiah 53:4, 5

"...for you." Broken for me. My grief, my sorrow, my sin caused The Only Innocent to be smitten, afflicted, crushed. For me, he was broken. All around, the snapping sound of brokenness.

One person from each table leans forward to extinguish the flame and the room is plunged into darkness. Out of the darkness we raise our voices in harmony, an acapella verse of Amazing Grace swells and fills the room: How sweet the sound, the broken body of Christ--now Christ's Body; recipients of grace undeserving, a covenant unfathomable, love without measure!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Say Uncle!

Every summer, as far back as I can remember, he came to visit; flying into town in his zippy sports car like a breath of fresh air from a far-off land. My Uncle David was a handsome guy—tall and tan, with a head full of naturally curly hair and twinkling blue eyes. He arrived the same time each summer and about the same time of day so we kids would be watching for him when he drove up. We’d run out to greet him, suddenly shy at not having talked to him for a full year. He was single, and didn’t have kids for us to play with, but he was sufficient entertainment all by himself.

To a nine-year-old, he seemed pretty old, though he was only in his mid-twenties. He kept us laughing long and hard at his silly antics and the Pepsi flowed like wine—at least to the adults. We kids hung on the periphery, eyeing the pop bottles as they piled up, exchanging knowing glances. At a nickel apiece for the empties, we’d be rich when he left!

Most summers, David’s visits centered around the 4th of July and he always brought an arsenal of munitions with him. I wasn’t allowed to light fireworks, but I held the smoldering punk with a sense of duty and helpfulness. David and Dad did all kinds of interesting tricks with things called M-80s and cherry bombs. They launched tin cans from buckets of water like rockets. They exploded apples in mid-air; ducking and giggling like little boys as applesauce rained down on them from the sky. Once, they took the broken handle of our old Radio Flyer, dropped a firecracker inside, and the explosion peeled back the iron like a banana skin. Perched atop the safety of the picnic table, I looked on with envy. We kids were given little black tablets that turned into ashen snakes when they were lit, and sparklers. We loved writing our names in the dark sky with those flaming, sputtering torches. When they ran out, we spent hours on the sidewalk bent over rolls of red caps, smashing them with stones and pretending they were firecrackers. To this day I love the smell of burnt gunpowder!

One of Uncle David’s favorite destinations was Eagle Lake, with its crystal clear, spring-fed water. Sometimes we’d take supper there, or make a fire and cook hot dogs. David was fun because he’d get in the water and swim with us. He’d disappear and could hold his breath so long we thought he’d drown—then he’d grab our legs underwater and scare the daylights out of us. He and my dad would take turns throwing the older cousins into the deep water, but I was too afraid and kept close to shore, trying to act like I didn't care. Once, we saw a snake swimming in the water and Brave Uncle David caught it by the tail. He killed it by smacking it against the grassy bank and a half-digested frog went flying out of its mouth. That’s a sight you’ll not soon forget!

My mom always cooked up a storm before David’s visits. She knew he loved rhubarb pie and she made plenty, warning us not to touch—they were for David. Sometimes at night the adults would make a new food called “tacos” that we kids were not impressed with. Tacos were reserved as A Treat Adults Ate After Kids Went to Bed so, naturally, we learned to love them. We grilled a lot (I know this because it was my job to scour the grill) and when Uncle Buzz came from Spokane one year—we had fried fish and hush puppies. My Grandpa Swartz spent a lot of time at our house when David came. David was his baby and Grandpa was always so happy when he was around. My mom made Grandpa’s favorite spice cake and set out pickles that the two of them had canned for everyone to eat.

When David was in Minnesota, all the other relatives came around that I hadn’t seen all year. Some of the cousins lived nearby. But the Postons, our most prolific relatives, came all the way from Kansas in their jam-packed station wagon. I would reacquaint myself with cousins who had grown a lot during the year—some of them too cool to associate with me. But I felt really proud that David stayed at our house—like we had special dibs on him because of that. Sometimes I would just sit and stare at him. I thought he was the most handsome man ever—even cuter than Little Joe on Bonanza. I figured I’d marry him some day.

Imagine our surprise when, one summer, he came to Minnesota with his new bride! The younger set eyed her with suspicion, not even attempting to hide our jealousy. David didn’t have much time for us that summer because he was so distracted by Margaret. They were always snuggling together on the couch or at the lake. One day, we cousins were all piled in the back of the Poston’s station wagon on the way to the lake and David and Margaret were following in his little sports car. My cousin Carl yelled, “Look! They’re kissing AGAIN!” While they were driving! Eewww. We hid our faces and groaned.

My baby sister loved Uncle David. Kathleen would stare at him with her round, hazel eyes, waiting. He’d make silly faces one minute, or pretend to ignore her, then startle her by suddenly yelling, “HEY!” and slamming his hands down on the table. She’d jump, then grin at him with her shiny baby teeth. She never knew what to expect next and that was exciting.

The year I was nine, I had a pet chipmunk aptly named, “Chippy.” Renee and I had worked all summer to get him tame enough to take peanuts from our hands and he would even come when we called. One day, I looked and looked for him. I finally found him, bleeding and limp under the lilac bushes. I carried his broken little body downtown to Kenny Borg, the druggist. He was the closest thing Ashby had to a doctor at that time. I showed him the chipmunk and begged him to do something. He told me, “You need to take him to your dad, Dawn. It looks like he’s been shot.”

Shot! Who would do such a thing?

My dad had a car up on the hoist when I went into his shop. He came out from under the car and wiped his greasy hands on a rag. He brushed sweat from his brow with a dirty forearm and looked at what I was holding.

“We need to take Chippy to the vet, Dad. He’s dying!” I whimpered.

“There’s nothing we can do for him.” Dad answered with a frown. “He’s suffering.”

He took a rag from under his workbench, sprayed it with ether, and put it over Chippy’s face until he stopped breathing. Shedding torrents of tears, I carried the little animal home to plan his funeral. I later learned that my beloved uncle had been shooting sparrows with a BB gun and it was he who had shot my chipmunk. He didn’t know it was a pet.

Year after year Uncle David returned to Minnesota for his summer visits. Sometimes he brought Margaret; sometimes he came alone. Some years he was heavier, some years thinner. He got a different car. His hair grew grayer. Grandpa Swartz died, followed by Uncle Jerry, Aunt Sally, and Aunt Kay. The kids who used to hang on him grew up and left home. Some went to college. Some, like me, got married and had babies—a whole new generation of admirers for Uncle David. My kids were weaned on the spicy pico de gallo he made and grew up with the same corny jokes and bantering:

“Can you touch your tongue to your nose?”

“Can you spell antidisestablishmentarianism?”

I don’t give any explanation to them about why my uncle is so special to me, yet when he comes around each summer, they scramble to make time to see him. So I know he means a lot to them, too. This week, my granddaughter, Paisley, is in Texas (with her parents Amy and Ryan), enjoying the company of Uncle David and his sweet wife. And though so much has changed over the decades of his annual visits here, I am thankful for the one thing that has remained constant: The love of family.

Today, my uncle is 65 years old. I am so glad he was born. To him, I want to say:

You’ve been a huge part of my life, Uncle David, as far back as I can remember. Thanks for the laughter and the joy you’ve given as well as the more serious ponderings shared…I love you more than words can say.

Your adoring niece,


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You Don't Say!

Just talking” is an activity that I immensely enjoy, though anyone who knows anything knows that there is no such thing. Conversation, or the lack thereof, tells a great deal about the inner workings of the human mind—for better or for worse.

My daughter Amy and I have spent a considerable amount of time “just talking” about the various styles of communication—especially those that we find off-putting:

The first are the Not That So Much As… variety. You will say, “I am really concerned about how all this moisture will affect the farmers next spring,” and they will reply, “Well, it’s not that so much as the price of diesel fuel that’ll keep them out of the fields.” They are begging to differ, but wanting to appear pleasant about it.

Closely related are The One Uppers. You will tell the story about how you had to take your child in for stitches on her forehead and they will tell you about the time they nearly cut their own leg off with a chainsaw. No matter what experience you've had, they've had one more exciting, horrific, thrilling, embarrassing.

Another variation of these competitive conversationalists is the Know-it-all. Whatever you are talking about, they already know all there is to knoweven if they don’t and you know it. Unless you are feeling especially combative yourself, it is best to listen quietly and change the subject ASAP. But good luck. The next topic won’t be any better.

Then you have The Detail Police. They take classes in college for verbal accuracy and approach every mundane exchange as though you were in court and they were sworn to absolute truthfulness. They despise poetic license in storytelling and hold you to factual precision—challenging every minor discrepancy. You could be on a roll, relaying a hilarious story that involved the pizza delivery guy and Grandpa Joe’s car and they will cut in: “No, we didn’t order pepperoni pizza on Friday last January! I specifically remember it was sausage pizza (because I had to take a Tums) and it was Saturday, because they canceled church the next day when it snowed. Besides, it was in February—right before Valentine’s Day.” My response to all these corrections is: WHO CARES?!!

Next you have The Compulsive Gossips. Who will cast the first stone here and claim they have never talked about other people? Surely, you’ve heard about the woman who said, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, sit by me!” We all like to hear “news” and much of our conversation revolves around the actions of others. But how uncomfortable to be around someone who is sarcastic and malicious and spreads rumors without getting the facts straight! But honestly? The really scary part is knowing that this person is just as content talking about you when you aren't around!

Not all talkers are overbearing and negative. Some are just as annoying by their unbridled enthusiasm. Have you ever met The Smile-Nodders? You become so distracted by their positive body language, as they push you along in your story, that you lose your train of thought. An add-on component to these friendly prodders is the Smile-Nodder-Finisher. They’re like little dogs that walk ahead of you on the road, tripping you every few steps because they think they know where you are heading. You say, “Last week I went to the Cities…” and they finish the sentence for you, looking up hopefully, nodding and smiling. “Oh, LUCKY! I wish I could go to the Cities. I’d love to go to the Mall and do some shopping.” “No,” you begin again, clearly taking a different path. “I had to have eye surgery at the U…”

A similar vocal enthusiast, one who never learned to take turns, I have dubbed The Butter-Inner. You talk and they talk at the same time—like you’re on cell phones with a delay. “Oh, sorry,” you mutter. “Go ahead.” And that’s how you spend your entire time together—tripping over each other in a poorly choreographed, and exhausting, verbal dance.

And then there are those who don’t understand the subtle nonverbal rules of engagement—The Smotherers. They lean toward you when they talk, locking you into their monologue with their eyes, blatantly violating the universally understood 24-36 inch boundary of personal space. You retreat to catch your breath (and composure), fighting panic and feelings of infringement. They advance, still talking, until they have you trapped against a wall. While you appear to be smiling on the outside, inwardly you’re writhing on the floor, frothing at the mouth, hoping they will soon get to the blasted point. These affectionate folks are best matched with Smile-Nodders (who give abundant nonverbal feedback), as they suspect you are simply not tracking with them. Smotherers are easily identifiable when they ask rhetorical questions, then demand a response: “Do you know what I mean?” You’d better tell them you do or they won’t move on or move over.

One of the most challenging styles for me is The Lazy Loafers. Talking with one of these guys is like playing catch with someone who won’t throw the ball back. You end up exhausting yourself trying to find a topic to engage them. “Nice day!” you observe. They say nothing, leaving you to fetch the ball yourself. You sprint back with it, panting, for another try: “One time, I was walking on the beach and I tripped over buried treasure!” Still nothing.

Lazy Loafers come in two flavors. Type 1 LL is palatable enough. They laugh at all the right places and appear to be enjoying your monologe, though wild horses couldn’t drag an opinion or personal vignette from their lips. If they laugh often and convincingly, I am motivated to keep talking until I am completely drained and sickened by my own lack of verbal restraint, as I attempt to provide the entertainment they so desperately seem to need. Type 2 LL is the most distasteful of all. These people exhibit no discernible sense of humor. They contribute nothing to the conversation AND they fail to find me amusing. I avoid these people and duck into hiding when I spy them in public.

If you’re a parent, you regularly engage with Juvenile Jumblers. You know there are vast variances in the number of words children speak in a day and it is your job to interpret. On one end of the spectrum are the little guys who take 45 minutes to tell you every last detail of a ten-minute cartoon and you listen until your ears bleed. At the other end—reticent teenagers who make you feel as though you’re conducting an interrogation at Guantanamo Bay: Where are you going? Nowhere. Who are you going with? No one. What do you have planned? Nothing.

I am sorry to report that I have been most of these individuals at least some of the time. My least developed conversational skill is listening. Sometimes I find that, as we say around our house, “I forgot to pay attention.” I daydream when others are talking or I concentrate on what I plan to say next. I interrupt, I force awkward segues toward subjects I prefer, I prattle about myself endlessly. I have a delightful friend who is so adept at listening and asking pertinent questions, I find we are nearly through an hour-long coffee date and I have done most of the talking—about myself! “But enough about me, let’s talk about you: What do you think of me?” Ugh.

Verbose as I am by nature, I don’t want to simply hear myself talk. How thankful I am to have found many who fall into the Soul Enrichers category! These are people with whom you have a symbiotic connection—everything seems to fire just right and in rhythm. You give and take equally. You read each other’s nonverbal cues and more is communicated than is actually spoken. You come away from this kind of exchange refreshed and understood—a better person. And you discover credos you want to imitate:

Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Col. 4:6

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers.” Eph. 4:29

The ability to communicate is a tremendous gift—a tool that can be used for infinite good—where talking becomes so much more than “just talking.”

And where we aren’t merely speaking—we actually have something to say.