Tamara Jorell

Writing life and the neighborhood

Writing life and the neighborhood

 

Mr. Neighbor

“Look who’s feeling festive today,” I say to the family, nodding toward the front window.

Across the street, Mr. Neighbor is taking advantage of the almost sixty degrees in late November like the rest of the city. He strings up green Christmas lights first, then red. I smile at the swags of old-timey bulbs and memories of the man’s words from years ago. It’s a secret code, that outdoor illumination of his. And the warm message shines through our windows just fine.

But life wasn’t always so good between Mr. Neighbor and us.

The man first pounded on our screen door one day in the spring of 2004, fuming over the installation of our new central air unit (read The air conditioner for the full story.) I was eight months’ pregnant with baby #3, and my other two—only two and four years old—clung to me like my worries, so when he extorted an apology, I caved. I only wanted to disappear inside the house again with my babies and deadbolt the door.

But Mr. Neighbor's issues went beyond our new modern amenity. In the days to follow, erratic behavior exploded all over his property, its shrapnel ripping even deeper into my sense of security.

After a while, though, the jagged times smoothed. I set my attitude to cheery and baked cookies to share. I summoned my resolve and clasped onto hope. Persistence. Patience. Presence. But my efforts with our neighbor across the street were met with six years of silence.

At Christmastime in 2010, Mr. Neighbor showed up at our front door. No pounding this time. Instead, he beamed, thanked me for the Christmas card which meant more to him than cookies, and held out a promise: “Tell your girls I’ll put up Christmas lights next year. Just for them.”

“And every year for six years now, he’s made good on his promise to you,” I say to the girls after retelling the old story.

Across the street, Mr. Neighbor fastens a wreath to his front door. Ricka heads out of the house, steps onto the porch, and opens the screen door. She calls his name. He stops his work and turns toward her.

“Thank you for the Christmas lights,” she says.

And he’s beaming again.

 

(*You can read the happy 2010 story about Mr. Neighbor in the final paragraphs of Dexter.)

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

The Thanksgiving ride

The truck gobbled up the miles on Highway 94W, and I sipped my latté in the passenger seat. I slid on a pair of sunglasses and eyed the snowless landscape flying by outside the window. Our family of five was all together, something that was growing harder as the once littles matured into bigs. Across state lines and on the other side of the day awaited more family in Valley City, North Dakota.

I turned my gaze to our teenagers in the back seat. “What are you thankful for, girls? Let’s each say something.”

“Food,” Ricka said, popping a French fry into her mouth.

“My dog,” Dicka said.

The day before, I had driven Lala, the family dog, to meet our friend Trixie who agreed to watch her for us over the Thanksgiving holiday. During the transfer at a place in Woodbury, our exuberant animal bounded from the car and hurtled through the open door of Trixie’s Jeep. The canine wagged her entire body, and I already knew what she was thankful for: three days of playtime with Trixie’s Great Dane, Sarge.

“And that dog left me pretty easily yesterday,” I said. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“If you were,” Flicka said, “she would’ve stayed.”

“I’ve got another thing,” Ricka announced. “I’m thankful for my sisters.”

Flicka smirked. “I’m so glad you thought of us after food.”

But Ricka was on a roll. “And I’m glad I passed my driver’s test after three tries.”

“You’ve said three things already,” Dicka said to Ricka. “Hey, stop touching my blanket.”

I shifted my focus to Dicka. “Anything else to add?”

“I’m just gonna stick with my dog, I guess.”

“I’m thankful I have a good relationship with my family and that God has helped me figure out what I’m doing in life,” Flicka said.

Behind the wheel, Husband straightened, tweaked the rearview mirror, and peered into it. “He has?”

Flicka tilted her head and shot him a look.

“Okay, I’m thankful for my family,” Husband said. “And for friends who make going to work enjoyable.”

“I have one more thing,” Ricka said, waving her hand. “My heart is beating, and I’m breathing. So that’s good.”

She laughed, but her words lodged in my chest. Heartbeats and breaths—the essence of our time in skin. The gift of momentary life.

For in him we live and move and have our being.

Life in a family: our hearts beat in sync as we make our plans, and our lungs breathe together through whatever days we’re given.

Car rides laced with happy chaos along the way are good too. They’re very good.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

More scars

Last week, I asked you about your scars. Here are some of my readers’ stories:

*****

I have two older brothers. They used to beat me up ... a lot ... for no reason! I was very small and they were not, so my normal defense was to run as fast as I could for as long as I could in the hope of finding some place safe to hide until they got bored and left. At home, that was usually in the bathroom where I could lock the door. That sense of relief only lasted a few moments before they were able to unlock the door with a nail and then I would collapse in terror and scream. 

On one occasion, I was caught out in the open, with no safe haven in sight! It happened somewhere between 4th and 6th grades, outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, at the corner of South Latah St. and West Cassia St. in Boise, Idaho. My older brother was, once again, chasing me in order to beat me up. He will claim that I was calling him names or something, but it was probably an unprovoked attack. I was running for my life! I soon realized that I was about to be caught, so I dove behind a tree that was near a corner of Sacred Heart. If my brother went one way, I went the other way, keeping the tree between us. This didn’t work for very long before my brother dodged one direction and then quickly reversed, causing me to turn in a panic and run right into the corner of the concrete sill of a beautiful stained glass window. I fell down. Suddenly my brother wasn’t attacking me but he was trying to be really nice to me. I put my hand up to my head and stuck my finger into a mushy hole. Then I started to cry. I was sure I touched my brain! My brother guided me across a playground, which seemed inordinately huge, and down Berkeley St toward home. I thought that I was plugging the hole in my head with my finger, but blood was still pouring down over my face. When my mom saw me, I don’t remember her saying anything, but she shoved my head under the faucet in the kitchen sink and went at it like she was trying to cleanse my soul with a scrub brush. Later we took a trip to the emergency room for stitches. 

I’m sure my brother still feels remorse for what he did to me. The scar is only visible if I shave my head.

Scott, Minneapolis, Minnesota

*****

Because of the scar on my chin, I would never name a son Douglas!

My favorite winter activity was ice skating, and I lived only a few blocks from the Riverside Park skating rink. Though my skating skills were not advanced in any way, I loved being on ice, no matter where I found it.

An ice-covered sidewalk outside Monroe Elementary School in south Minneapolis provided the setting for a fun recess-time activity. We fourth graders treasured those minutes outside the classroom. For some reason, my friends and I decided to slide on an icy sidewalk near the school. In our rubber boots, we could make a running slide great fun. However, in the midst of our simple entertainment came some older boys, determined to show us how to do it the right way. In the process, a boy named Douglas slid into me and knocked me down. My chin and the icy sidewalk had an encounter.

The school nurse called my mother who called my dad, and I was soon sitting in an exam room in the Bloomington-Lake Clinic. To close the gaping, bloody cut on my chin, the doctor used several tiny metal clamps and quickly bandaged my chin. Unfortunately, that bandaging made me think I looked like a goat!

In time, my chin healed, the clamps were removed, but the scar remained. It became a good source of entertainment as I retold the story to my children and grandchildren, but there was really no lesson to be learned, just an aversion to the name Douglas!

Avis, Newfolden, Minnesota

*****

My most memorable scar, and the one I have told my kids about most, came when our dog Tina bit my cheek when I was around eight. Tina was in the midst of having her first and only batch of puppies when I decided to crawl into her doghouse to count how many puppies she had delivered. Apparently, mama dogs in labour do not like to share that experience with anyone else. She growled and then promptly snapped at my cheek. 

I did not go in right away for stitches since Mom was in Grand Forks that week for grad school (Mom, please feel no guilt!) and the older sisters were in charge. Once Mom was home, she had a friend come over who was an RN to see if the cut could still be pulled together. It could not. If felt like years that I regularly rubbed vitamin E on the scar to diminish its appearance, but maybe it was months. The scar has certainly faded now, and I rarely think about it. 

It has made for a good story over the years, especially for children who like to pester animals.

Ingrid, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

*****

I have a centimeter-long, barely-there scar on my left palm. I got it thirteen years ago when I thought I could cut an apple by myself while Mom was napping. The accident happened when I tried to pull a knife out of its sharpening case, and I slit my hand in the process. It was pretty deep, but surprisingly didn’t hurt that much. I tried to get a Band-Aid for it, but Dad wrapped it in gauze instead.

Inga, Minneapolis, Minnesota

*****

In September of 1995 I entered Army basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. During one portion of our bayonet training, we had to run up to the top of a rocky hill, stab some targets, and the run down the other side of the hill and through the rest of the course, stabbing targets as we went. As I crested the hill, I tripped and cut my knee open on some rocks. There was a significant amount of damage and blood, so a drill sergeant, appropriately named Sergeant Battle, took me back to the barracks to clean up the wound. He handed me a scrub brush and some rubbing alcohol and told me I could clean the gravel out of the gash, put a bandage on it, and get back out there, or I could go to the doctor, get stitches, and start basic training over.

Rubbing alcohol and a scrub brush really hurts.

Scott, Minneapolis, Minnesota

*****

When I was younger, my older brother and I were messing around in the garage with all the power tools. My brother accidentally bumped me while the table saw was on, and I lost my pinky down to the second knuckle. There’s definitely a scar there.

Jimothy, Aberdeen, South Dakota

*****

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

Scars

Today, I want to hear from you.

“To be alive at all is to have scars.” John Steinbeck

“Scars are tattoos with better stories.” Fear Like Us

Send me your scar story here (or if you’re a subscriber, simply hit reply to this email.) Photos are welcome too (if they're not too gross.) I will publish your writing, along with your name and location, in next week’s blog installment.

I’ll get us started…

Like a carnival for us kids in the 1970s, Market Fair, a grocery store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, was a place of wonders: the cash registers’ coin returns—at precisely my eye level—spewed change for no apparent reason, we scored packages of Chiclets when we played the shopping game right, and the promise of amusement (a.k.a. grocery cart) rides dazzled us.

One day in 1974, we kids clambered to board a ride. Mom plugged my two-year-old brother into the baby seat in the front, and four-year-old me crouched in the back with the macaroni and tuna. When Mom’s list pulled her away from us and into the canned soup aisle for “just a second,” my eight-year-old sister entertained us. She was now the operator of the ride, and the cart was a roller coaster, bumping along its course. She spun us in circles. We clapped. She whipped us in dizzying figure eights. We squealed for joy.

But back near the meat department, a steel pipe poised along the floor like a dormant serpent, and that’s where the ride pitched me out.

Soon, I was on my back on a table in Deaconess Hospital’s emergency room, bright lights glaring down at me. A feathery tickle teased a spot on my head near the hairline, but I couldn’t scratch it; my arms were strapped to my sides.

“It itches,” I howled to a nurse. “It itches!”

I won five stitches that day and a scar big enough for show and tell.

Now what about you?

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Business review: the nail salons

“Let’s get pedicures,” Dicka said one day, her eyes bright. “It can be our thing.”

I thought of how little I cared about my toenails. Clean and trimmed was the goal—nothing showier usually entered my mind—but to have my girl request a thing with me? How could I resist?

I didn’t tell Dicka I had ticklish feet or an irrational fear of contracting an infection at a nail salon. I had read horror stories of places where the tools floated, minus cleaning, between clients. I gazed at my exuberant twelve year old’s face, but Rahm Emanuel’s eclipsed hers. As a teenager, the mayor of Chicago worked at an Arby’s where he slashed his finger on a meat slicer. Neglect and a swim in Lake Michigan spurred on an infection and emergency amputation down to the second knuckle of the middle finger on his right hand. (Note to self: If cut at a nail salon, avoid a dip in the lake.)

“Absolutely,” I said to my eager girl. “Let’s do it.”

Our first adventure in pedicures occurred in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, at CQ Nails. The place was expansive, the massage chairs and foot soakers so fancy.

“I’ll take the blue polish,” Dicka said, pointing at a bottle, “with a flower sticker. No sparkles, please.”

I kept it natural, opting for the French pedicure for an extra five dollars.

The leg scrub was divine, although I strained to understand the pedicurist’s English. I kept nodding, which might have led to an extra service, but it was hard telling.

At the end, Dicka wrinkled her nose. “I got sparkles.”

Tickle factor: Unmemorable.

Quality of service/product: The polish lasted about six weeks, which is a long time to be stuck with sparkles if you’re not a fan.

Overall good time: Delightful! I got to hang out with Dicka.

On our second excursion, Dicka and I met up with friends, another mom/daughter pair, at Calhoun Nail Spa in Minneapolis’ Uptown. A Groupon had selected the place for us, and it had similar chairs and foot baths to the first place, telling me the salon in Oconomowoc was more standard than special.

Dicka chose a pink polish, and I went out on a limb with coral. Having gone haywire, Dicka’s massage chair convulsed during the appointment. It thrashed her through the sugar scrub and jarred her during the cuticle trim.

“Ouch,” my girl whispered. “Sharp tools.”

At the end, I strode over to the desk to pay.

“Use coupon next time,” the woman said. “We give you same deal today.”

With another customer hovering nearby, I struggled to engage my math brain. “Uh. Okay, sure.”

Later, I compared notes with the mom friend who had joined us that day and checked out after we left.

“I didn’t appreciate how they pushed me to save the Groupon for the next visit,” she said. “I just said no.”

Tickle factor: In the medium-high range, Dicka and I agreed.

Quality of service/product: Not as long-lasting as our first pedicure, but still good. We returned, but might not have, if not for our unused Groupon.

Overall good time: Fantastic! I got to hang out with Dicka.

On a recommendation from my friend Murphy, Dicka and I next visited LA Nails in Vadnais Heights. The nail ladies were fashionable darlings, clicking around the place in heels so high, I almost twisted my ankle watching them.

This time Dicka selected a light blue polish; I ventured into noticeable territory with a deep rust color.

“You cut your nail too short,” Dicka’s pedicurist said to her with a light laugh. And then she cut them shorter.

I got a nick during the cuticle trim, but the leg massage distracted me. And when I thought the bliss of the foot rub was over, out came the hot stones for an extended massage time.

“Are they using vegetable oil?” Dicka whispered.

I reached down to my shin, faked an itch to swipe up some oil, and sniffed my hand. “Maybe?”

When I went to pay, the woman gave me a discount for Dicka.  

Tickle factor: Higher, but through no fault of theirs; it’s a personal issue.

Quality of service/product: The nick was minor (no antibiotics or amputation required), the lengthy massage ramped up the experience from nice to wonderful, and the kid discount was a sweet surprise.

Overall good time: Excellent! I got to hang out with Dicka.

My friend Murphy recommended another place too: Lexi Spa Nails (not to be confused with Lexi Nails) in New Brighton. The owner’s mother was a chef at Chino Latino, and she shares her culinary talents with the salon clientele.

Dicka and I haven’t gotten pedicures there yet, but I hear the egg rolls are amazing.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Why me?

Denise’s life was a beautiful tapestry. But she lived on the other side of the work of art in the tangled mess of threads, and that’s the side of her life we saw too: the one with the senseless knots. When she couldn’t stomach couch-hopping anymore, she made a change. But now homeless, with four kids by as many men, her chance of buying groceries was almost as distant as her hope for an education.

“If my circumstances had been the same as hers, I could be in her spot,” I told my girls while they played with Denise’s babies. “And so could you.”

But when our family was between places, we had my parents’ home for refuge, and through no merit of our own, we slept in safety, our stomachs full.

Why? Why me?

A few nights ago, I stumbled onto an online quiz. Its title, “How privileged are you?” (or something similar), coaxed me to play. I clicked through the wide array of questions and scored a 43 out of 100. No, I hadn’t been handed everything in life, and yes, I had weathered some adversity. But 43 was something—a bigger number than for some. I frowned. I didn’t need a test to point out the obvious: My life was sheathed in goodness—and it always had been. I hadn’t somehow attracted the nice life through positive actions, though, because I hadn’t always made the right choices.

So, why me?

The internet buzzed with personal pronouncements of private pain in the #MeToo movement. As I scrolled through social media forums, victims of sexual harassment and assault—my friends—stated their realities in those two simple words. No details needed. And some kept silent, even though I knew their stories of pain. The masses of the walking wounded stunned me, and even more so, because I couldn’t claim a place in their circle.

Why me?

The question grew louder, strangling my thoughts. Nothing was fair about the protection and provision I enjoyed while others struggled. So, in the quiet hours of the early morning, I took my wrestling match to the living room rug and again asked the question: Why me?

Words cut through the silence, both comforting and jolting me:

From everyone who has been given much, much will be required.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Larry Campbell (revisited)

Two nights ago at 2:29 a.m., six gunshots shattered the air. They sounded as close as our yard. I jumped out of bed and called 911 to report them.

Before I fell asleep again, I thought back to our earlier days in the neighborhood. Here's a blog installment I first posted on January 8, 2015. Years have passed, but the message remains.

***

When we entered through the back door that day in May 2008, I felt it before I saw it. I crossed through the kitchen and dining room, and when I got to the living room, my stomach flipped. The front door stood wide open, sunshine streaming in from the porch. The door’s lock mechanism was on the floor across the room.

“Something’s wrong,” I said to the girls, ages four, six, and eight. “Go back outside.”

I phoned the police from the back yard. Two officers arrived in minutes, and I assured them we hadn’t been inside the house long—just long enough to see the open front door and missing lock.

“We’ll have a look around,” the first one said. “Stay out here.”

The officers disappeared inside our house.

“We’ll go back in soon,” I said to the girls. “First, let’s see who can run fastest across the yard.”

Minutes later, one of the officers called to us from the back door.

“You can come in now. It’s all clear,” he said, pulling out his notepad. “Take a look, and let us know if anything’s gone.”

I passed from room to room, checking the house. Nothing. Not even a mess—other than our own—was left behind.

“It looks okay,” I said.

“Dexter was hiding under your bed, Mama,” Ricka said, holding the trembling dog in her arms.

One of the officers jotted some notes on his pad and gave me his card. Then I watched our sense of security walk down our front steps and drive off in a police car.

I called Husband who was at the airport ready to board a flight for a three-day trip to Amsterdam. I told him about our afternoon surprise.

“Can you come home?” I said.

“I can’t get out of the trip at this point.”

“Not even if you tell them someone kicked in your front door today?”

“No.”

I sighed. “Okay.”

“You’ll be all right.”

I paced while I talked with him, and then I noticed something. “I can’t believe it.”

“What?”

“I guess I only locked the lock on the door knob when we left earlier—not the deadbolt. I usually lock both.”

“Good. Then you can deadbolt the door tonight. I’ll replace the lock when I get home.”

I scrutinized the door. “And another thing. The glass is covered with fingerprints.”

“Well, we have kids.”

“But the prints are shaped like parentheses. Like someone cupped his eyes to see in.”

“I’ll deal with it when I get home. Don’t wipe them off.”

 

“Let’s all sleep together in my bed,” I said to the girls that night, switching on a smile. “It’ll be fun.”

The four of us slid under the covers. I turned off the bedside lamps, and my little ones snuggled inside my arms. When the excitement of the “sleepover” melted away, they drifted off to sleep. I steadied my breathing. In spite of the company, I felt alone in the dark.

In the shadow of His wings.

My ears perked up at the sound of each passing car, each horn in the distance. I stared at the ceiling.

I will lie down and sleep in peace for You alone make me dwell in safety. Safety.

 

The next day, the girls and I talked about the intruder.

“Maybe Dexter was barking so loud it scared him away,” Dicka said.

“Maybe so,” I said.

“I bet he saw an angel in our living room, got scared, and ran off,” Ricka said.

I nodded. “It’s very possible.”

 

When Husband returned from his work trip, he inspected the front door. He picked up the phone and dialed.

“We need someone to come over and dust for prints,” he said. “How soon could that happen?”

The cast of “CSI: Minneapolis” was at our front door within the hour. Exhaling male bravado, the men muscled their suitcases inside the porch and snapped them open. They swirled their brushes around on the glass of our front door—inside and out—and examined the doorknob with a magnifying glass.

Husband got a phone call from the police a few days later.

“Do you know a Larry Campbell?” an officer asked him.

“No,” Husband said.

“That’s the name of the guy from the prints on your door. Sixteen years old. Doesn’t live in your neighborhood.”

The girls prayed for Larry Campbell that night. And every night after that.

 

Two months after the break-in, a salesman came to our door peddling security systems. Husband and I listened to his pitch. We liked what we heard and agreed to the protection plan.

“Do you get tips from the police and then market these systems to people who’ve had recent break-ins?” I said.

“No,” the man said with a chuckle, “but that’s a good idea.”

We ate our dinner at the dining room table while the man installed a keypad on the wall a few feet from us. Would it make any difference? Brian, the previous homeowner, had staked a sign for a security company into the soil of the front garden when his family lived in our house. We hadn’t activated the system—just left the sign there as a scarecrow. But it was a tin lie, backed by nothing. And Larry Campbell probably hadn’t noticed—or cared.

The idea of paying for safety now felt ludicrous. As if we could hold our lives in our own hands and trust a system—managed by humans—to bring us security. Although we agreed to the protection, I knew I couldn’t rely on it—or even on Husband, away so often for work—to protect us. I could only trust the One.

And in the shadow of His wings was the only place I’d ever find safety.

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*Note to new subscribers: For previous installments of this continuing story, visit www.tamarajorell.com/blog and scroll back to the beginning.

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

The Rock

Unless she’s turned on a faucet, a homeowner doesn’t want water coming into her house. During a recent torrential rain, however, the dreaded event happened: I heard the sound of unrestrained nature in the basement when I hadn’t done a thing.

Husband and I investigated. Like a garden hose gone rogue, water gushed from a small hole—the size of a quarter—in the foundation behind the washing machine. We were quickly losing a battle that five minutes earlier we hadn’t even known we were fighting. We stood motionless; no fast moves could fix the nightmare that was pooling on the cement floor.

“Wow,” Husband said.

“Unbelievable,” I said.

The rains stopped, and we mopped up the mess. We spied a patch of black mold some shelving had hidden. Bleach and a brush became our friends, and Uncle Jim who was visiting helped us fill the hole with concrete. The dehumidifier put in some long hours, and our fans worked a few overtime shifts. Soon the floor was dry, but during the sunnier days that followed, I forgot about the hole. Then an old Sunday School song rushed into my thoughts.

“The foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the rains came tumbling down. The rains came down, and the floods came up, and the house on the sand went ‘splat!’”

Thankfully, the cautionary tale, set to music, had a hopeful ending. “The wise man built his house upon the rock, and the rains came tumbling down. The rains came down, and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

We examined our house. It wouldn’t go ‘splat!’ any time soon, but in what shape was our foundation? When the sun shone, we didn’t think about the condition of our dwelling. Only in bad weather did we question our footing.

The rains came again, showing us other weak points in our cinder block basement wall. And outside our home, the news revealed damaged underpinnings elsewhere too. Bullets rained down in a concert crowd in Las Vegas, arguments raged about hurricane relief efforts, and political dissension about anything grew a vicious mold on the country.

So, which are we? Builders on rock, or builders on sand? Wise—or foolish?

Maybe it’s time for the Rock.

The patching of the wall.

The patching of the wall.

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

My car lessons

Applying makeup. Putting in contact lenses. Knitting. Hanging one’s leg out the window. Watching a movie. Shaving. Picking one’s nose.

My eyes widened as I read the online list of things people do while they’re driving. Were humans coordinated enough to pull all this off in traffic? I understood multitasking and seizing the time, but what had become of us? And what would Karl Benz think of how we used his invention?

Pre-motherhood, I had my ideas about car rides and life. “When I have kids, no refined sugar for them,” I said.

But then I had babies, and they sometimes fussed in the thick of rush hour. My lofty intentions plummeted to their death.

“Here, catch,” I’d say, tossing marshmallows to my little passengers in the back seat. They squealed and gulped down the fluffy treats. And I swallowed my pride.

Back then, there was other excitement in the car too. Before Dicka could articulate her feelings, she had a penchant for carsickness.

“Mama, my mouth feels funny,” the toddler would say, her sentence always followed by two short coughs, then The Big Mess.

I learned to carry a bath towel in the car. And I could ball it up with one hand—the other on the steering wheel, my eyes trained forward—and pitch it back to Dicka before she got to the two coughs part.

But the girls didn’t remain tiny creatures who required marshmallows and towels during travel. They soon had other needs. And that period of time—when they were deeply involved in extra-curricular activities, but not yet old enough to drive—called for a parental chauffeur to simply move out of her home and relocate into the car.

Was anyone hungry? Dairy products were in the cooler; non-perishable foods in the tote bag. Anybody chilly? They could grab a blanket from the stack. Any need for a personal hygiene product, first aid item, or wardrobe remedy? The inventory included (but was not limited to) the following: hand sanitizer, bobby pins, Band-Aids, a lint roller, toothbrush, phone chargers, and even an extra pair of black tights.

The job as chauffeur was lowly but unavoidable. It looked like a necessary distraction on the road to something better. But it stripped away my personality and muted my sense of purpose. Was I created for this? I waited and transported. Transported and waited. Transported. And waited some more. While I frittered away my days behind the wheel, I gazed through the car windows at passersby who appeared to take their freedom for granted. Did they know how those of us on the inside felt? I marked notches on the armrest to count down the hours until my release.

But one day, something inside me switched.

What could I do to redeem my time while I wore down my tires? Spotify, Pandora, Audible, Duolingo, and YouTube entered my waiting. The time lag between points A and B became its own legitimate activity. The car morphed from mode of transportation to counseling office for us to grind out the details of life, work out schedules and futures, and soothe the wounds of the day. The vehicle transformed into a sanctuary where I sang, cried, and prayed. And our ride broke down sometimes too, rubbing the temporary discomfort across my rough edges like sandpaper and reminding me my First World issues only looked like problems.

While not as thrilling as kissing or working on one’s laptop while on the move, maybe character refinement during the long hours running up the odometer counts for something.

And maybe my car lessons could be added to the online list too.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Happy third birthday, My Blonde Life in the Hood!

My blog celebrated its third birthday this week. I wondered how to make the day special. What would other three year olds like? Then it came to me. A trip to the park!

Follow us to Folwell Park in North Minneapolis for some fun today.

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

The shoes

Images of my friend flicked by on the two large screens at the front of the church. She and her husband in a vineyard in New Zealand. The two of them posing in Africa, an elephant behind them. Her baby propped on her hip at dusk, the ocean their backdrop. Snow falling on the family of three in Victory Memorial Parkway for their last Christmas card. That bright smile of hers; that characteristic tilt of her head. Her forty years now encapsulated in 2-D for some short minutes before a service.

Was Lorna really gone?

Her mother, Debbie, strode up the aisle to the pew where I sat. She reached for my hand, and I squeezed hers.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“We were just sitting outside on the patio with her, weren’t we?” Her eyes were clear like a day when the rain has just stopped.

I did some quick math to figure the time since our last visit in June, before cancer snapped Lorna out of the circle. I nodded.

“Can you come over to the house this week and help me go through her clothes?” she said. “You can take anything you want.”

Her beautiful clothes. Sorting through them… So personal. And taking them away… So permanent. “Of course. Thanks for thinking of me.”

Later at my friend’s house, Debbie approached me with a shoe box, a smile stretched across her face. "Here you go.”

I lifted the lid. If Lorna’s life were a pair of shoes, these were it. Exotic, elegant, fun. I slipped off my boot and stepped into one of the high heels. A perfect fit. “I love these.”

I plucked the shoe’s twin from its box and examined them together. Pretty. Then I looked at the bottoms. Scuffed. Lorna had worn these shoes—and not just once. I saw parties, weddings, dances, and galas in the soles. These beauties had been loved.

Lorna’s shoes spoke a good word: Life is fleeting. And stuff is only stuff, so use it. Burn the gift candles, break out the guest towels, eat off the good dishes.

And wear the fancy shoes.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

The state fair

“When was the last time we came here together?” seventeen-year-old Flicka said as we passed through the entrance to the Minnesota State Fair.

I shrugged. “Well, we had the double stroller, so it’s been a while.”

No stroller this time. We would cover the place with three teenagers who could walk on their own. Who knew the state fair could be this easy?

At the girls’ request, we frittered away time in the livestock barns, shuddering at the largest boar who was slabbed out in his stall looking more like a three-quarter ton rock than an animal. We oohed at the cows who cuddled with their owners while they awaited their show times. We aahed at the sheep and goats who often shoved their heads through the bars to get a scratch behind the ears just like our own creature at home.

We floated through the agriculture building and the global market, the art exhibits and the butterfly room. We breezed through the gathering of humanity like we were riding a bike on a freshly tarred road, unlike the baby days when it seemed we were rollerblading through sand. And we ate many goodies: walleye cakes, fried pickles, multi-flavored cheese curds, poutine, honey ice cream, chocolate chip cookies. No sugar-induced meltdowns this time.

But as we sauntered by food offerings too numerous to conquer in a day, one particular aroma wafted me back to another time.

I was twenty years old again and drifting through the state fair with Boyfriend. We had managed to pay the entrance fee, but we were college students on a suffocating budget. Once inside the gates, we were strapped. Not even a dollar between us.

“That roasted corn sure smells good,” Boyfriend said.

“The best,” I said, eyeing the charred husks and the butter dripping off a patron’s chin after she chomped from a fresh cob.

“Maybe next time.”

But I had an idea. “Or this time.”

I shared my plan, and we strolled the fair with new purpose, our eyes trained on the ground. We most often found pennies, but went ecstatic when we spied silver.

“A dime,” Boyfriend said, his face splitting into a grin. “Lucky break.”

For an hour we were as alert as a dog hanging out under a dinner table. We scoured pay phone change slots. Then the mother of all ideas sparked: the arcade. Why hadn’t we thought of it before? We entered the house of games and searched every coin return.

I was breathless. “Three quarters!”

Finally we had what we needed for one cob. We scurried to the corn stand and dumped our fistful of change into a worker’s hand. We took our first bites. Now our chins were slick with butter. We sighed; roasted corn had never tasted more delicious.

Hardship probably creates the best memories. But visiting the state fair with a few easy teenagers and enough money for a cob of corn is okay too.

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

Little things: the lawn

Another rainy day.

The patches of grass in the back yard seem to withdraw from the lawn’s bald spots like they don’t enjoy getting muddy any more than I do. But Lala, our dog, doesn’t share our feelings. She finishes her duties in the drizzle and bounds for the back door, first making certain to gallop through the slimiest section of the yard.  

“Wait,” I tell her when she steps inside.

She knows what I want. She raises one paw at a time as I wipe off her feet with an old towel.

“Okay, go,” I finally say, and she lopes toward my new white couch.

But I didn’t get her feet well enough, and the kitchen is now stamped with her signature. I sigh and wipe down the tile. By now, she and I have memorized our routine.

“Big dog, small yard,” the lawn treatment guy says with a knowledgeable sniff the next time I see him. “Yeah, you can’t have nice grass with all that going on.”

I already knew a lush lawn and a sixty-five pound dog were mutually exclusive. If we didn’t have Lala, we wouldn’t have all the mud in the house on a sodden day either. But we’ve made our (dog) bed, and now we lie in it.

Later, this animal of ours snuggles with the girls while they watch a movie. She repositions a pillow under her head for maximum comfort, opposable thumbs apparently optional. The tip of her tail flicks the air while she snoozes. When she switches her eyes open again, she licks the girls’ toes like they spent the day working barefoot at a meat-packing plant.

And when it’s my turn for bed, Lala plops down next to me, presses her flank against mine, and gazes at me with eyes like the oceans. I know that look.  

“I love you too,” I say.

Fine. We’ll take the scrappy lawn.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

Little things: colors

I roll to a stop at a traffic light on Lake Street. While I wait, my mind flits a thousand miles away to things that don’t matter—and won’t matter—even tomorrow.

On my left, a woman, holding a sign, stands on the sun-soaked median. The driver of the car in front of me lowers his window and extends a hand to her. A tattoo sleeve decorates his arm; man-made beauty sprawled on God’s skin. And I smile at the gift he gives her too. Maybe it’s just a few coins, but a grin explodes her features, blasting away the darkness around her.

At once, gratefulness and regret needle me. I’m happy I don’t wear monochromatic lenses; the Asian woman squeezes the black man’s hand, and I get to watch the scene in color. But I’m disappointed I didn’t capture the fragile exchange on camera to keep as a reminder for the days when I forget.

That evening, my neighbor sends me a private message. “I have something for you. It was my grandma’s, but it looks like you. I want you to have it.”

She hauls a cardboard box across the alley to my house and unloads its contents onto my dining room table. Delighted, I clap at the sight of it all. She knows me well. A collection of ceramic bowls. Pretty, like her, and in different colors—like the two of us. I feel that familiar pain in my chest that only gets better when I hug her.

The stoplight and the dining room table. The wide range of beauty I see humbles me, and it doesn’t end here. Even heaven needs different colors to be perfect.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb.

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*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

Little things: the tendril

I watch the green baby each day as he twines his way up, clutching onto the rungs I’ve provided. He’d grab onto me too, if I stayed still long enough. Then he claws at the air in front of our back door. Maybe he thinks coming inside the house with me is a good idea.

“Oh, you don’t want what’s in there.” I brush him away from the doorway and poke him back into his trellis with Mama Morning Glory. “You’re better off out here.”

But soon I can see he doesn’t believe me.

I think of a little girl who once stayed with us. Her plate was always filled with food at our table, but she still reached for more. At one meal, she scooped up a man-sized serving of chili and circled an arm around the big—and only—bag of corn chips, pulling it to her chest. My family gazed at her scramble to have it all.

“How about eating what’s on your plate?” I said, hoping not to embarrass her, making sure a smile lifted my words. “You can always have seconds. And thirds. I’ll make sure you get full.”

But the look on her face told me she didn’t believe me.

The morning glories’ tendrils grasp for more when they have what they need. The little girl snatches another helping when her plate’s already full. But when I choose to live in the future—in the fear of scarcity—so I can’t even see the enough of today, am I so different?

… Be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

Little things: the height pole

Sometimes life is tracked in pen or pencil; sometimes it’s scribbled in Sharpie marker. But no matter what, it’s art. And it shows us we’re growing.

On a supporting beam in our basement is artwork in progress, evidence of lengthening bones and stretching skin. Most days, I’m too busy folding the laundry or shelving new rolls of toilet paper to notice it. But the days I open my eyes, I see its messy beauty, and I wonder about the methods used to draw the lines. I’ve even witnessed the shoddy approach of the artists involved, their markings imprecise and inconsistent. And I’m glad I’ve never made rules around it that could’ve quashed the fun.

We’re not the only ones who have marked the height pole. Our visitors want to see if they’ve grown too, and they have, I exclaim, when they go in for another measurement months—or even years—later. Except for our friend Melissa, who in her thirties has probably topped out at her 5’11”.   

With the height pole, as in other parts of our lives, we compare ourselves to others when it doesn’t matter. “Flicka was taller than Dicka at that age, but not as tall as Ricka.” Who cares anyway? We’re all growing, aren’t we? Even those of us whose inseams have stayed the same.

I think of another mother millennia ago. Did she have a special way to measure her boy who grew outside of space and time? Her measuring tape went in all directions: before and in, over and through. And her son’s purpose made him the tallest of us all.

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

 

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

National Night Out

I tied the yellow CAUTION tape around the tree at the corner and stretched it across the street to the stop sign on the other side. The other end of the block got the same treatment. But would drivers really obey my flimsy blockade? Or would cars blast through anyway?

“It’s official now,” a neighbor said, eyeing my work as she watered her boulevard garden.

I laughed. “I guess so.”

“I’ll be over soon with my tabbouleh salad.”

My first year as the block leader. My first National Night Out running the thing. We had always enjoyed the annual invitation from the next block, but it was time to host the event on our own street. Now who would come?

We set up the table in the middle of the road and toted out the hotdogs, chips, and rhubarb cake. Over the years, I had seen pictures of the event from other block parties in North Minneapolis: water balloon fights, door prizes, streamers, tables crowded with potluck dishes, and laughing neighbors-turned-friends. But at our place, we had simple food, camp chairs, a bucket of chalk. And room at the table for all of us.

A few neighbors sauntered over, then several more. Our gracious hosts from previous years popped by with hugs and a pan of curried rice. Some kids rolled in. I recognized one boy—no more than thirteen now—who had played basketball in our driveway a couple of years ago. His most recent adventures were captured on our back yard security camera one night in April when he and his buddies rifled through our Jetta, swiping our cell phone charging cords.

“Here you go,” Husband said, handing the kid a hotdog.

More children—minus their adults—swooped in and out. A five-year-old boy lingered to doodle chalk designs on the pavement with our teenage girls.

And then came the stories. One neighbor, now in his sixties, had once been the young guy on the block, surrounded by senior citizens. From inside his house one winter night long ago, he had heard someone call his name. He peered through the window to find an elderly woman splayed out on his front walk. He provided her with company and a warm blanket until the paramedics arrived. One of our girls shared a creepy light rail story from her day, and a neighbor gave her sound public transit advice: when in doubt, hit the emergency call button. Another neighbor’s meal with us was interrupted when she was notified that her fifty-four-year-old brother had died unexpectedly.

We packed up our evening with old and new friends, putting the bocce balls to bed in their case and leaving the chalk art to sing in the dark. There was nothing glamorous about sharing a hotdog with a kid who had ripped us off or with a neighbor whose life was sliced open by sudden loss, but it was real. Like family-real.

Some celebrate National Night Out as a festive event with all the sparkles. But on our block, we don’t get cleaned up for the party. We come as we are.

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

The proposal: She said

Husband proposed to me on January 8, 1992. We married on July 18 that same year.

Every story has two sides. This week, I tell mine.

***

“We’re here,” Boyfriend said. “You can look now.”

I peeled off the bandana blindfold. The University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus.  

He hopped out of the driver’s seat and came around to the passenger side to open my door. He guided me through January’s winds into the student center, down the stairs, and into the bowling alley in the basement. Then he plunked down cash for one game and two pairs of shoes. I frowned, eyeing my too-snug dress.

When I had taken the day off from my job at the Marie Sandvik Center at Boyfriend’s request, it was for a visit to a special exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. For some reason, though, the plan had fizzled. Was this the alternative? Bowling?

Boyfriend waved a hand for me to throw the first ball. One, two, three, slide—just like the old 1950s instructional video in gym class, only 100% less impressive. Unable to bend over much in my dress, I squatted awkwardly, and as I released the ball, I remembered my thumb, its skin bubbled from a run-in with a searing pan of curly fries the previous night at Kids’ Club at work. The blister ripped away, and I gasped. Gutter ball.

“No big deal,” Boyfriend said, gazing at my still-standing pins.

“I don’t really care about my score.” I raised my raw thumb for him to see.

He sucked air through his teeth. “Ouch.”

For nine more frames, I tried to bowl without using the finger holes, and he tried to play while walking on eggshells.   

“Let’s go to dinner,” he said, his tone flat.

Our reserved table at Muffuletta in the Park was dim and intimate. Music from a violinist and a cellist soothed my stinging thumb, and the decadent food spirited away the evening’s bumpy start.

I dabbed my mouth and gazed at Boyfriend over the flickering candle. We had talked about marrying in the near future. Would tonight be the night for the proposal? Should I chew more carefully to avoid chomping down on an engagement ring in the dessert?

“Too bad things started out the way they did,” I said.

“You weren’t too happy.”

“I wish I had known about the bowling. I could’ve dressed for it.”

“You told me you wanted to dress up and go bowling sometime.” He set down his glass. “Remember?”

I narrowed my eyes. “When?”

“Forget it.” Boyfriend waved down our server and asked for our check and for a to-go box for the dessert I was too full to finish. “Maybe we call it a night?”

A museum trip canceled in favor of bowling, and now a beautiful dinner that seemed like a precursor to a gift of jewelry, but no proposal? Was he canceling that too?

“Already? It’s too early to go home.”

The server returned with a tinfoil swan that had swallowed my carrot cake.

“So what then? A movie?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

But on the way to the movie theater, the car filled with old and new thorns, and the more we struggled through them, the more they tore at our attitudes. My thumb throbbed.

At the theater, Boyfriend shoved some cash under the little window. “Two tickets for The Last Boy Scout,” he said, not looking at me.

On the screen, Bruce Willis strutted around with a gun, doing something heroic for almost two hours, but I rewound the mental footage from our date. Maybe Boyfriend’s request that I take the day off from work on a Wednesday for a day full of surprises didn’t have any special meaning attached to it. Maybe it was just a date.

On the ride home, silence blasted us. We pulled into the driveway of my house in Dinkytown. Regret—heavier than my winter coat—settled on my shoulders. The thorns from earlier were really only prickles, and I should’ve seen it then.

Boyfriend came around to my side again and opened the door. He held out a gloved hand, and I took it. He scooped me up into his arms.

“So you won’t ruin your shoes,” he said.

And I thought of his nice shoes as he carried me through the driveway’s slushy snow.

Inside the house, he set me down in the foyer and kissed me. He opened the door to my room, letting me enter first. Candlelight warmed the space. By the window was a painting—of me.

My vision blurred. “You did this?” I spun to face him.

But he was already on one knee, offering me his future.

 

A week before our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Husband told me not to schedule anything on the big day.

“I have plans. And don’t even try guessing,” he said, “but pick a dress you can move in.”

I tried to nibble away a smile. “I think I know where this is going.”

The morning of our anniversary, we bowled a game at the student center at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus. My dress felt good—and so did my thumb. Lunch at Muffuletta was just right, and the movie Lost in Paris made us laugh. We drove by my old place in Dinkytown and asked the renter’s permission to snap a picture in the driveway. Husband scooped me up in his arms again.

When we returned home, Husband kissed me and opened the door to our house, letting me enter first. No candles needed today; our years together warmed the space. On the wall was a new painting—of me.

“I had it commissioned,” he said. “This was the inspiration.”

He showed me a photo on his cell phone. Me in the purple dress from our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary.

My vision blurred. Life was bigger and better than the too-tight skirts, the blisters, the thorns, and the prickles along the way.

I turned to face him. And there he was, still offering me his future.

The anniversary painting. Oil on canvas, 15" x 30", by artist Rachel Orman

The anniversary painting. Oil on canvas, 15" x 30", by artist Rachel Orman

 

*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date

*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.

 

© 2014 Tamara Jorell. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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