The drawing

“We’re going to draw the four seasons of the year,” Mrs. Young, my first grade teacher, said.

She plucked a piece of chalk from the tray and drew two lines on the board, one intersecting the other. This made four quadrants, and she snapped her pointer stick on each, assigning the seasons. On the top left, she wrote S P R I N G. Summer made its appearance in the top right. Then came fall in the bottom left and winter in the bottom right.

Mrs. Young distributed pieces of paper, her posture erect. A polyester dress in shades of brown and a tan cardigan hung from her thin frame. Her shoes, chocolate brown patent leather, were slip-ons with a square heel. All of it was neat—and exacting.

When I got my paper, I dragged a pencil across it, making a vertical line, then crossed it with a horizontal one, imitating my teacher’s example. I would label it later. I positioned my 24-pack of Crayolas nearby but would save the coloring until my pencil drawings were done.

I gazed at Mrs. Young, now pacing the room. Contrary to her name, she was old. Fifty years old. How was she still alive and teaching? She had turned fifty weeks earlier and had written the digits on the chalkboard for us in writing so precise it was indiscernible to me from the font in my math book.

I jerked my thoughts back to my task. A few students around me had completed one season and were already onto the next. Yikes. If Mrs. Young saw me daydreaming, I might get in trouble. And she was no stranger to tugging a kid’s ear when the occasion called for it.

I sketched a tree in the top left square of my paper. I set to work drawing leaves on the ground. More skittered in a breeze that was stripping the tree of its foliage. A pumpkin squatted under the tree; a rake leaned against its trunk. I would fill in the leaves with shades of brown and gold when I was done with all the seasons, but for now, on to the next.

In the top right corner of my paper I drew a snowman. But there better be a kid by it, if this were to be as realistic as I envisioned. I created a boy. The wind in my picture blew, ruffling the scarf at his neck. I smiled. It was genius, this picture, if I could say so myself. Mrs. Young had asked for a simple drawing of every season, but I was a true artist and would give her a beautiful, intricate rendering of each.

I glanced around me. Several students already worked on picture four. I was behind—way behind. I moved on to the lower left. I shaped baby birds and fresh leaves on new branches and could almost smell the damp earth as I applied the final touches. In the bottom right came my favorite season of all. The sun shone on the boy, now wearing shorts. Sunglasses would complete his—

Oh no.

In the distraction of my creative bliss, I had messed up. It was supposed to be spring in the top left square, followed by summer in the top right. I had started with fall, then winter. My mouth went dry, and my hands moistened, the two body parts swapping jobs. What now? I snapped my attention again to the students around me. They were finishing their pictures, and I needed to start over. Would Mrs. Young be angry? Would she punish me? How could I survive this mistake?

My heart banged in its cage; my face ignited. I had only one solution. I turned over my pencil—pink rubber tip down—and went to work on my Rembrandt, erasing my creation.

The student next to me, apparently telepathic, leaned into my space and tapped a finger on my masterpiece. “Or you could just put the names of the seasons in the different boxes to match your pictures.”

Light doesn’t usually have a sound, but I heard the bulb in my head ping. She was brilliant. I could leave my pretty pictures where they were and just apply the labels to each where they sat on the paper. So what if the top left box was fall? If I labeled it F A L L, it would still be correct, wouldn’t it? Even though mine would be different from all the other students’ papers, it would still be right.

 

Back in first grade, I didn’t know what “thinking outside the box” meant, but with a classmate’s help that day, I practiced it. Today I’m almost as old as Mrs. Young was back then, and yet here I am, often fretting about how my picture looks different from the others’.

Be a little wild today. Make your picture stand out. And if you want to plunk fall into that top left box, so be it.

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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family 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.

Hidden

My busyness has blocked my view lately, and I needed this reminder from myself, written in 2017. What have you seen lately?

*****

I drew my living room curtains open on almost three-thousand mornings without seeing it. Husband had a knack for identifying makes and models of vehicles, describing clothing down to the types of fabric, and naming obscure colors, but he had missed it too. Not even our girls had noted it, and at the time, they caught everything: the heaves in the sidewalk, the dogs at each house on the block, and the gardener at Ms. G’s who spritzed the soil with fertilizer and the air with his swears.

But one summer day, Husband saw it.

“What—?” he said, squinting out the front window at something across the street.

And for the first time, I saw it too.

He hustled out the door, and I followed. The lot kitty-corner from us was no longer empty. A narrow path led to a tiny blue house withdrawn to the back of the lot, as if too timid to join the other homes up near the sidewalk. A behemoth oak and bushes concealed the small structure. I had noticed the tree and the lawn in the past, but the house? Never.

An older man stood on the lot’s grassy expanse. He whistled to his unleashed golden retriever, and the dog bounded toward him. We made our way over.

Husband introduced himself, then me. “How long have you lived here?”

“Twenty-seven years,” said the man, motioning for the dog to sit.

We chatted with our new-to-us neighbor like it was the most natural thing in the world, as if his house hadn’t materialized—like Brigadoon from the mist—into our consciousness that morning.

“That was weird,” I said to Husband when we returned home.

“I know. All this time here, and I never saw that house.”

How many other things had we never seen in our neighborhood? Where did I place my attention, my perception, my focus? For years I had strolled by the little blue house but had never seen it—or the man who lived there. So, what about the other people around me?

I had often looked at the man and woman who screamed at each other in the street at the end of the block, but I had never seen them.

A woman—thin like a blade of prairie grass—walked by our house each morning, a backpack-clad child tethering her to the earth. I was aware of her, but I had never seen her.

What if I sharpened my gaze to the life around me instead of simply looking at it? What if my attention followed slim paths back to secret houses and city sidewalks into hidden lives?

What if we all really saw?

 *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 obituary

Today I’m writing Husband’s obituary.

He sits across the living room from me—still breathing—and slurps from a cup of coffee as he tells me the events of his life. No pressing reason why we need to get it written today when his expiration date is a fuzzy question mark off in the distance. Or maybe that fuzzy question mark makes today the perfect day to tackle the job.

From the point when I became a dot on Husband’s timeline, I learned facts about him. Many of his earlier details, however, are blurry and out of order in my mind. So, as he talks, I type up the noteworthy parts—parts the masses expect to read regarding the deceased when the time comes.

My hands come off the keyboard, though, when Husband relays the pure gold, the stories too entertaining and earthy and precious to make the back of the funeral bulletin:

He mowed lawns for money at eight years old—before he was tall enough to reach the handle on the mower.  

Before he hit double-digits, he got caught for shoplifting a box of Hot Tamales.

On his paper route at age ten, a dog bullied him daily from behind a gate. One day, the animal popped the gate open, knocked Husband down, and stood on his chest, snarling, for what felt like thirty minutes.

On a mission trip at twenty-two, while he was driving a van of college students around in Brazil, a truck ran him off the road.  

Before we started dating, he came to a fundraiser where I was selling popcorn balls. He asked how much they cost. “A buck a one,” I said, and my face reddened at my fumbled words. And that was the moment he fell in love with me.  

But these—and other stories—don’t make it in.

Husband recounts the last of the history we need for his death document, and I finish typing it up and save it. While it’s bland and outlines only what he’s done—not who he is—it would please the kind of funeral director who likes to check the boxes. Because when someone dies, our culture prefers the table of contents to the book.

I reread the record of my man’s life up until now; it’s satisfactory. But we’ll keep the warm, living, and amusing tales to ourselves to enjoy today while he’s sitting across the living room from me, drinking his coffee.

Because those stories are too good for the obituary.

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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 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 fifth birthday, My Blonde Life!

This past week, my blog celebrated a milestone birthday!

Here’s what I wrote in the card:

 

Dear My Blonde Life,

Happy birthday! It’s hard to believe I’ve been tending to you every week since you came into the world five years ago. And since then, you’ve grown! I remember when you were just a few little installments; now you’re a big 260 posts.

Sometimes I’m too tired, too sick, or too uninspired to meet your needs. Thanks for being patient with me. You’ve made me better—better at commitment, consistency, and creativity. And when we spend time together, I enjoy you.

Here’s a cookie to celebrate your big day! (Okay, it’s a three-day-old treat and a step down from the cakes of yesteryear, but hey! It’s been busy around here.)

Love,

Your mom/writer/friend

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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 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.

Of trips and water

7,032.2 miles in all.

Yesterday we returned home from our family’s twenty-one day road trip covering about a quarter of the United States. I have countless memories to savor.

And a box of mail to tackle.

And calls to make for appointments, and emails to return for work.

And a garden as demanding as a cranky one-year old who needs lunch and a nap pronto.

While I toss in my third load of dirty laundry—yikes! The swimsuits in that plastic bag are still damp from the hotel’s pool two nights ago—enjoy this story of a vacation we took in 2015.

*****

My scrolling finger halted at her post.

The woman’s message of water rang out above the rest on the internet, because beauty is louder. I drank in the picture: a waterfall in North Minneapolis. Residents commented on the post; some had never before heard the news of the phenomenon in our neighborhood. And I had forgotten all about it.

I clipped a leash on our dog Lala, and she and I broke away from life to refresh my memory of the crashing water—too alive to only be locked up in a photo circulating Facebook—and strolled to Webber Park on a sixty-degree day in February.

At Shingle Creek Falls, water exploded in freedom over the rocky edge, and its mists passed the handrails, speckling my arms with droplets. A question—more fitting for an elementary school kid than a woman my age—formed in my mind: If I had to, could I navigate this waterfall in an inner tube or raft and live to tell the story?

The question washed me back into my wetsuit and helmet, back to our family rafting trip in Québec in 2015. We had chosen the stimulating Class 4-5 rapids excursion at the Expedition Nouvelle Vague. Even so, our guide, a college-age California surfer type with a French accent, pulled us over to the riverbank at different points on our watery adventure to offer exciting swimming opportunities.

“And why would we want to do that?” I whispered to Husband.

He shrugged. “For fun?”

“When I say ‘go’, dive in and swim upstream toward that rock,” said the guide, pointing to a stone column in the distance. “Then, when I blow the whistle, flip onto your back and put your feet up like this.” He dropped to the ground and put himself into La-Z-Boy recliner position. “And ride the rapids down to that quiet part. Okay?” He jumped back onto his feet. “Who’s first?”

One of my eyes twitched as I watched my three ducklings—wide-eyed and silent—line up on a broad, flat rock on the river’s edge. My stomach did a flip. If I lacked confidence, would I survive the stunt? The guide wouldn’t let me drown, would he? And if my children witnessed my death today, would they ever swim or travel again?

One by one, my ducklings jumped off the rock, swam upstream until the guide blasted his whistle, then obediently pivoted and rode the rapids down into the still patch of river—exactly as instructed. They swam to the side and hopped out of the water.

“Wanna go next?” Husband said to me.

“Not really.” My heart thrashed like the waters around me.

Husband dove in, not swimming as far upstream as the girls had, swiveled at the whistle, and the rapids carried him beyond the girls’ stopping point. If he drifted much farther, would he hit the portion of the river called The Meat Grinder? The guide paddled to him in a kayak and towed Husband back to shore.

The guide sauntered over to me. “Ready?” 

“I don’t think so.” The hammer in my chest nearly pounded a hole through my ribcage.

“C’mon,” he said, all surfer charm. “You’ll love it.”

Did I want to be the adventurous mom, game to try anything with the family? If so, it was now or never. Now or never! I jumped.

The girls had made resurfacing look so easy. I swam hard, fighting for the rock, but it was much farther upstream than I had hoped. FWEET! Was that the whistle already? I rolled onto my back, popped my feet up as instructed, sucked some water, and choked through the churning rapids. Panic clawed its way up my throat. The lashing waves finally spewed me out into the calm, but I flapped around like a baby in a kiddie pool anyway, gasping for air.

“Here,” said the guide, his expression as serene as the water around us. How had he rowed over to me so fast? “Grab on.”

I flopped an arm over the end of his kayak and gagged all the way to the riverbank. Husband and the ducklings shot me pity looks as I dragged myself back onto dry land.

The next out-of-raft diversion was a twenty-foot cliff jump into the Jacques-Cartier River.

“Are you ready?” The guide smiled at me.

“No,” I said, still shaking from the swim.

Husband and the girls scaled the rocky climb, pointed for the top of the cliff.

“Aw, c’mon. Chance in a lifetime,” said the guide.

“This is a hard pass this time,” I said, my open palm patting the air. “A definite ‘no’.”

I had survived my adventurous mom duties minus any spinal cord injuries—or even scrapes. I reclined on a rock and basked in the sun as everyone else plunged into the river.

 

Lala tugged me back to the secret waterfall of North Minneapolis. Like the river in Québec, this water was a far cry from the staid stream coming daily from my kitchen faucet. This water was an awe-inspiring thing, and I could appreciate its savage beauty from a distance.

No wetsuit 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 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 trips

Last week, I asked you, my readers, what your favorite (or most memorable) trips were as kids. Three of you shared your memories. Enjoy the stories!

*****

It’s sounds and smells, mostly, and of course sights, that hold the strings to my memories. Since my dad worked for the airlines, we took advantage of flight benefits. One of the best trip memories was when I was twelve, visiting my aunt and uncle, missionaries to Liberia, Africa, prior to the civil war.

Getting off the plane in the middle of the tarmac with a crowd of people surrounding us was intimidating. The heavy scent of unbathed humanity was overwhelming. I don’t remember people wearing uniforms and wondered why they were there and what did they want? Fortunately, my uncle arrived to wave the crowds away and we whisked to his house in a car. I think I was too young to know how lucky we were to have seasoned relatives navigate the unknown for us.

I recall watching a boy pointing out baby crocodiles snapping feistily in an oil drum. Respectful of a gigantic colony of army ants making their way across a road, my uncle warned, “they’ll eat your tires if they crawl over them, and anything else they find.”

In the recordings of my mind, I hear the voices of kids through the screen door selling green and yellow oranges and calling out, “Bock, bock!” (the sound of a hand knocking). I remember screaming when the iguana fell from the ceiling, bouncing off my sister’s head and landing on the floor.

We drove to the “bush” as the country was called, in a Land Rover. My dad had to hop out and guide my uncle across a log bridge over a creek and mushy ground. That was scary for me, but we made it! We ate in a hut without a door with chickens wandering in and out, hoping I might drop something tasty. Swimming in the salted surf, not realizing how tides worked and having waves hurl me down onto the reef below, rolling me in sea urchin spikes so that they embedded in my palms and soles of my feet. I recall my mom with a needle, getting the little ends out, which of course had broken off under my skin.

I recollect trying to climb a coconut tree—and being completely unsuccessful. How could those little kids shinny up the vertical smooth bark trunks??!

It was in Liberia that I discovered that powdered milk chilled by ice cubes is not so bad, and that heads are made for balancing big heavy things. Not mine, though. The heaviest thing I seem to balance are these memories, that come to the surface when I smell a mango or taste plantain, or see a chicken at my sister’s place greeting me as I come close, to see if I might drop some morsel for their snack.

Jill, Kansas City, MO

*****

As a 12-year-old, with my brother, 5, and my parents, we went from Indiana to California in a 1974 2-door Chevy Vega with no air conditioning. In the summer.

I think I slept through the entire state of Nebraska, drowsy on Dramamine.

We stopped in Colorado Springs to see my cousins and an aunt, and thought that the brakes were failing in the mountains because they squealed so loudly.

My uncle and his family lived in New Mexico. I remember surprising everyone by eating authentic, really spicy Mexican food.

In Arizona we saw the Grand Canyon. It went on for forever.

Through the desert in summer, it was 112°F when my dad registered at the hotel in Needles, California. He was so hot he couldn't remember his name to sign in.

Los Angeles's Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm were huge hits. My brother was obsessed with the huge feet of the cartoon characters, especially Goofy. I enjoyed the rides even though I had sat in the car for a week+. My folks took a side trip to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Our end destination was grandmother's house, near San Francisco in Richmond, CA. She was a welcome respite from our major car travels. She and my aunt took us around Berkeley to bookstores (I've always been an avid reader) and San Francisco for more shopping, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Pam Pam's Steak Restaurant. We relaxed in her yard under the lemon tree and played in the court with the neighbor kids.

Over the years we drove (once), flew (many times) and even took trains (twice) to see grandmother and the Golden State. Each time was a thrill, but 1974 was the most memorable.

Kip, Saint Paul, Minnesota

*****

As dairy farmers, my parents didn’t vacation often, or really at all.  The last vacation I remember our family taking before the Holsteins came into play was a family reunion in the rolling hills of Western ND.  I remember not listening to my mom and tumbling out of the back seat of the old yellow hatchback with my bare feet and not heeding her warnings to put on my shoes.  I promptly stepped right on a cactus.  Lesson learned.  

 Once at the family farm where the reunion was held, we set up our tent, which is where I found myself napping one day.  I woke up to find the saltine I’d spread with spray cheese (fun, portable camping snacks!) had been eaten by a farm cat. I remember I was upset at the loss of the cracker, but happy for the cat sighting! 

Jen, Grand Forks, North 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 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.

Trips

“Oh, the places you’ll go!” Dr. Seuss

 

Today I’d like to hear from you.

As a child, did you travel with your family or friends? If so, what was your favorite trip? What made it memorable?

I’ll get us started.

When I was a kid, my family of seven traveled the country by station wagon for our vacations. Birthed by education-loving parents, my siblings and I learned a few things when our car stopped at the following places (to name some): Robert Frost’s grave; Arlington National Cemetery; the Library of Congress; the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Capitol, the White House; National Gallery of Art; the presidential libraries and museums of Hoover, Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon; the Smithsonian, where I remember the dresses of the First Ladies, FDR’s wheelchair, and Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis; and Ford Theatre where Lincoln was shot and the house across the street where he died, the narrow bed still stained with his blood.

But not all were history lessons. We kids frolicked in the powdery sand of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. We splashed around in the pool at the Sip ‘n Dip Motel in Montana, entertaining patrons of the tiki bar who had an underwater view of our aquatic tricks. And we watched Dad climb out of the vehicle in Yellowstone and edge a little too close to a bison. The animal charged him, and I can still see Dad sprinting back to the safety of the car in his short shorts, dark socks, and Florsheims.

Now it’s your turn. Write me a note about a memorable childhood trip and send it here. Subscribers, simply hit reply to this email. I will publish your memories in next week’s blog installment. Please include your first name and location (city and state.)

Until then, happy trails!

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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 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.

Kindness (again)

“Kill them with kindness,” Dad always said when we kids aired our frustrations about difficult people.

It wasn’t a fresh quote—many people before and after him used it too—but it still etched a groove into my life.

As an adult, I see the simplest advice can be the best—but the hardest. And when it comes to kindness towards strangers, stopping to help might shake up one’s day. What do you think?

Enjoy this post, first published in 2016.

*****

We arrived at La Gare Montparnasse, one of Paris’ six largest train stations, after a three-hour train ride from La Rochelle. Dr. Janis, our chaperone, disembarked with us nine college students. We had spent the previous six weeks that summer of 1994 in a study abroad program, and now our adventure was almost over. One night in Paris, and we would all go our separate ways.

Right there on the platform, Janis—as we called him—caught our attention one last time with a flamboyant wave of his arms. He lowered onto all fours and kissed the quai, pronouncing himself libre of his responsibilities. Then he stood up, brushed himself off, and walked away, leaving us with our overwhelming piles of luggage.

To save our dwindling francs, we chose to take the metro instead of a taxi to the youth hostel. But we were unwise in our planning; each of us had three monstrous suitcases to manage, made heavier and more unwieldy by the added weight of purchases we had made during our stay.

We scraped together our ingenuity, inventing ways to make it through the turnstiles before they closed on us, and we devised techniques to get on and off the train in the twenty seconds the doors stood open at each stop. But despite our best plans, all but one of us made it onto the train at the first station. We darted frantic looks at each other and at our lagging friend who struggled to load her carrying cart onto the train. As she strained, red-faced, the warning buzzer sounded. Five seconds left. Two of us lunged for the door, hoping to help her board. But would we make it?

Just then, a man inside the train reached out and lifted her cart inside for her, and she scrambled on after it. The doors closed. I steadied my breathing, contemplating the close call.  

When it was time for us to get off, the doors opened, and the countdown began. Twenty seconds to unload our burdens from the train. But someone removed our suitcases for us and set them on the platform. How could they have carried off those behemoth nightmares so quickly? I scanned the area, but couldn’t find the helper—or helpers—who had saved my friends and me.

After three trains, two transfers, many sets of stairs, and almost two hours of travel on the metro with our ridiculous baggage, we arrived at 151, avenue Ledru-Rollin, our clothes drenched with sweat and our hands swollen.

That evening at the Bastille Hostel, I reclined in my bottom bunk and remembered the kindness of the strangers on the train who had helped us that day. It was probably nothing for them, but their assistance had made life easier for nine traveling students.

 

Early August’s driving rain assaulted the pavement in the church parking lot. So many cars this Sunday morning in 2004, and I hadn’t arrived early enough for a front row spot. I pulled the car into an open space and turned off the ignition. For fifteen seconds, I considered my exit strategy. Husband was working, so I’d do this thing alone. After forming a plan and summoning the courage, I jumped out, looped the strap of the diaper bag over my shoulder, and poked my head inside the back seat.

“See how hard it’s raining, girls?” I glanced at Flicka and Ricka—my four and two year olds—in their car seats as I detached three-month-old Dicka’s infant seat from its base. Rain pelted my lower back as I worked. “Now listen. We’re going to get inside the church fast. You two hold onto me as we walk, okay?”

My oldest ones released themselves from their seats and scrambled out of the car. Flicka grabbed onto the hem of my shirt, but Ricka scuttled off toward the nearest mini pond. A vehicle rolled by a few feet from her. My heart lurched.

“Ricka, come back.” I hooked the infant seat on my arm. “I don’t want you getting hit by a car.”

My two year old looked at me. “Okay, Mama.” Then she examined the puddle again and tapped her toe into it.

Lightning split the sky, and thunder cracked. I locked the car with my gaze glued on Ricka. She scampered back to me and clutched onto the edge of my shirt. We began our trek across the parking lot, pointed for the door. But on the way, the torrent soaked us, and the baby sputtered; the canopy of the infant seat kept out the rain as well as an open window. I shook the wet hair from my face. Hair styling and makeup application was all vanity anyway, I told myself.

“Can you have thunder without lightning?” Flicka skipped at my side, tugging down my shirt with each hop.

“I don’t know.” I side-stepped a pool of water. “Maybe not?”

Ricka, distracted by another puddle, dropped her grip on me, and I tossed a prayer into the soggy, grey sky. Please let us all just get inside. We hobbled at a snail’s pace. Only twenty yards to go…

A man exited the church doors, popped open an umbrella, and bounded toward us.

“Looks like you could use a little help.” He held the umbrella above my head as he walked with us.

I laughed, imagining black lines of mascara streaking my cheeks. “You have no idea.”

During the service, I recalled the kindness of the man with the umbrella. It was likely nothing for him, but his gesture improved the day for one mom and her three kids.

 

One day in 2014, Husband drove down Fremont Avenue on our way to the store. He squinted at the car ahead of us. Then he flicked on the headlights, flashing them back and forth. Brights, dims. Brights, dims.

I furrowed my brow. “What?”

“They left their cell phone on their bumper.”

Before reaching the stoplight at Dowling Avenue North, the driver pulled over to the side of the road. Husband drove up behind her, put the car in park, and hopped out. He plucked the cell phone from the bumper of the vehicle and headed with it to the driver’s side. The woman rolled down her window and spoke with him. Husband handed her the phone, strode back to our car, and slid into the driver’s seat.

“How did it go?” I said.

He shrugged. “She was happy.”

Later that day, I thought of Husband’s kindness toward a stranger. It was nothing for him, but maybe his help made life less stressful for the woman who got her phone back.

 

A hand to lift a heavy suitcase off the metro, an umbrella over the head of a struggling mom, willingness to stop long enough to return a cell phone. The world brims with people’s small deeds of kindness. They don’t make the news, and they aren’t dazzling enough to be captured for YouTube. But for the giver and receiver, those little actions tear apart boredom, shake up apathy, and dent a person’s jaded outlook.

Big opportunities to save someone may never come. But every day the small needs of others speckle our paths and invite us to act.

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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.

Escape

Dexter was an escape artist.

Our miniature dachshund’s life with us was so charmed I assumed he’d want to stay, but no; he sought adventures beyond our yard whenever he could wriggle through a hole in the fence or gap in the gate.

In my memories of corralling our dog, I’m always wearing a denim skirt and flip-flops, a baby on one hip, and running pell-mell through strangers’ yards to find him. Our animal liked to scramble under bushes or vehicles, and my frustration mounted with every minute he scared the living daylights out of me. If he was brave enough to rip around beyond the security of our yard, he was bold enough to dart into oncoming traffic too.

After Dexter died of natural causes at the age of fourteen and a half, I brought up the topic of his continual straying with the family.

“Of course he wanted freedom,” Flicka said. “He was raised in captivity.”

And so he was. From the moment we purchased him from a pet store at Columbia Mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to his final breath at the veterinary clinic on a corner in our North Minneapolis neighborhood, Dexter lived in confinement. And his freedom within our property’s boundaries was never enough.

After Dexter, we rescued Lala, our pit bull. Her life was different from our entitled wiener dog’s. At four months old, before she found us, she was already gaunt from wandering the city streets, her fur riddled with mites. When a kind man scooped her up after the tornado of 2011, she snuggled against him. When he stroked her patchy fur, she peed on him. And when he drove her to a rescue place, her eyes gleamed. Maybe she already sensed the love to come. When she became ours, she chose our companionship over the freedom to escape—until a gate was left open one day.

Frantic, I scanned the back yard for our newest family member.

“Oh no,” I said to our girls. “Lala’s gone.”

Our combined efforts to hunt for her, though, took only twenty seconds. We located her, planted on her haunches on our front steps, staring at the door. When our eyes met, she wagged her entire body. And forever after, her freedom within our property’s boundaries has always been enough.

 

On this 4th of July, when we roll freedom around in our thoughts, we think about our gift to choose where we want to go—and where we want to leave. Whether it looks like it or not, we have options to escape back yards and explore; we have opportunities to pass through fences and sniff out worlds beyond our own.

So, while a dog like Lala—sensible and safe—is preferable, be like Dexter today.

And if you see an open gate, run through it.

Lala probably knows I’m writing about her.

Lala probably knows I’m writing about her.

*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 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.

Remembering the bus ride

My brother-in-law and his wife sat across from Husband and me at our dining room table. Dinner dishes cleared, we commiserated over books that had bruised us and movies that had ripped holes in our lives—good things, of course. Then we landed on the topic of public transit, an innocuous subject, until I recalled one particular day that had left its own mark—and not in a good way.

“Remember the girls’ first bus ride home from downtown?” I said to Husband. “A few years ago, I think?”

“That was pretty bad.”

I turned to our guests, feeding them several details to jar their memories. “We’ve told you the story, haven’t we?”

My sister-in-law’s eyes widened. “I don’t think so.”

And maybe this story, “The bus ride,” first published on the blog on October 13, 2016, is new to you too. Here it is.

*****

A work meeting, an oral surgery consult, a volleyball game, and five other commitments. It had been a coffee-to-go and a wolf-down-a-handful-of-trail-mix-at-the-stoplight kind of day. And now at six o'clock, I fought through the evening rush hour traffic in downtown Minneapolis, each minute at a standstill twisting my stomach into a tighter knot. I would drive my girls home, then turn around and head to an evening gathering in a southern suburb twenty miles away. If I made it by the scheduled time of seven o'clock, it would be a miracle.

"Mom, just drop us off here," Ricka said. "We'll catch a bus home."

"Yeah, go, Mom," Flicka said. "We'll be fine."

"Really?" I blew out a breath. My first real exhale of the day. "I appreciate this, girls."

Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka hopped out at the next stoplight. I looked at the three of them—ages sixteen, fifteen, and twelve—standing on the corner and gawking at their surroundings like a pack of tourists. At least it was still light and warm on this Wednesday, September 28. No fear of hypothermia at the bus stop today.

I signaled right, turned the corner, and buzzed down the street until I saw signs for 35W South. Thanks to my girls, I would make it to my engagement on time. And hopefully, they would make it home on their first city bus ride without incident.

 

Ricka led the way up the steps of the 5M Northbound bus and flashed her GoCard. She scanned the place, packed with commuters.

"Right here," she said over her shoulder to her sisters, pointing to some empty seats near the front. The girls settled in for their ride to North Minneapolis.

Ricka's day had been a long one. School, volleyball practice, homework. Her stomach rumbled. Since Mom was gone for the evening, she and her sisters were on their own for dinner. She'd bake a frozen pizza before burrowing into Advanced Algebra.

At the next stop, four teenagers—two boys and two girls—boarded the bus with their Footlocker bags. All the seats were full, so they stood next to Ricka and her sisters, the two girls grabbing onto the hanging straps while they faced the boys.

"Then I got this one," the guy in the blue hoodie said to his friends, pointing to a tattoo on his wrist. "Still hurts just as much as this one." He rolled up his sleeve to show off more artwork. One of the girls grabbed his arm to get a closer look and poked at the new design. The guy in the red shirt laughed.

How was the kid able to get tattoos? Ricka guessed he was seventeen—at most. His parents would've had to sign permission for him to get the work done. Not something that would happen in her house. She listened as the teens’ talk turned from ink to plans for the weekend.

Twenty minutes later, the bus driver pulled up to a stop along bustling 7th Street. The two guys split from their female friends and headed to the front of the bus. When the door opened, Red Shirt jumped off and followed the sidewalk to the right. Tattoo Boy darted down the bus steps and around the front of the bus to the left, dipping out of sight.

Bang!

A car blasted Tattoo Boy's body ten feet into the air. He plummeted headfirst back to earth. Ricka jumped up, nausea punching her in the gut. The other passengers scrambled to their feet too, and stared through the front windows. Tattoo Boy lay on the pavement in front of the bus. The driver of the car swerved to the side of the road, then zoomed away. The boy's friends bolted from the bus and ran to his side. The commuters' commentary rose to an uproar.

A woman with long, gray hair stabbed her finger in the direction of the runaway vehicle. "It was an SUV. No, no—a Jeep! A black Jeep."

"Why would he do that?" said a man dressed in a suit, craning to see the boy lying in the street.

"It's obviously a suicide," a woman said. "He must've had stress on him."

Ricka's chin quivered, but then she looked at twelve-year-old Dicka who was planted in her seat with her face down, shaking, and she swallowed the urge to cry. A woman with an African accent stroked Dicka's head.

"It's okay. It's okay," said the woman, handing her some tissues.

Ricka remembered the day she had witnessed a classmate have a seizure. He had convulsed, slipping from his desk, and there was nothing the teacher could do about it. Fear had grabbed onto her that day too, stealing her innocence—and now this. But Dicka...

Ricka searched her sister's face. "What did you see?"

Dicka shook her head.

"How about you?" Ricka said, turning to her older sister.

Flicka's gaze was fixed on the body in the street. "I didn't see it happen either."

A squad car pulled up, then a second one, and a third. Police officers crouched around the victim and other officers climbed the bus steps to speak with the driver. 

"Let's go," Ricka said.

Her sisters followed her past the commotion, down the steps of the bus, and out onto the street that held the broken boy. 

 

When I returned home that night, Husband met me at the door.

"The girls witnessed a hit-and-run tonight," he said.

Pleasant memories from my evening vanished. "Oh no."

Red splotches dotted Dicka's face, and she sat in silence while the other two girls told me about the sound of the impact—much louder than the expected thud of metal meeting flesh. They spoke of the other passengers, the kind African woman, and their sixteen-block walk afterward because Dicka refused to board another bus.

I pitched back and forth in bed that night recalling the accident I hadn't witnessed. I offered up a teenager whose name I didn't know and begged for the life of a kid who wasn't mine.

Let him live!

Following a lead the next morning, I made a call to North Memorial Hospital.

"You don't have a name?" said a man on the other end of the line. "We can't tell you anything because of patient privacy."

"I just want to know if he's alive or not," I said. "That's all."

But I had to give up my need to hear the end of the story.

A few days later, Husband had an idea.

"I posted the details on Facebook, asking anyone in the neighborhood if they happened to know anything," he said.

Husband had chosen a North Minneapolis Facebook page with more than three-thousand members, and my mind filled with images of needles in haystacks. But minutes later, the answer came.

"I work with his aunt," a woman wrote. "He's doing okay."

 

Tragedies happen every day, and strangers witness atrocities without ever learning the outcomes. But that night, we celebrated the miracle of an answer—and the life of a teenage boy who was given another chance.

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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 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.

Tell me a story

Once upon a time, there was a wise shoe repair guy in Dinkytown.

He stood behind the counter at Fast Eddie’s Shoe Repair, ready to help. I plunked down my problem—my brand-new espadrille sandal with its already unraveling heel—on his counter.

He squinted at the side of my shoe, then delivered the diagnosis. “It’s probably a factory defect, and it’ll start happening to the other one too.” He puffed out a breath. “I could fix this, but it’ll be ugly, and you might not want that.” He described his solution: he would need to tack large stitches throughout much of the shoe’s sole to make it hold together.

“Hm,” I said, shaking my head.

He set my shoes aside and folded his hands on the countertop. “Have you heard the story of The Three Little Pigs?”

Who hadn’t? “Yeah.”

He breezed through the synopsis like he hadn’t caught my answer. “You know what the straw house and your shoes have in common?”

“I get where you’re going.” I smiled, holding up a palm. “Say no more.”

But since I didn’t fear wolves blowing my sandals down, I probably wouldn’t take his advice to purchase quality footwear the next time either.

My laziness to package my sandals and trek to the post office to return them to the online seller drove me to the cobbler in the first place. I didn’t get the repair I sought, but my trip to Dinkytown wasn’t wasted. After all, I got Fast Eddie to tell me a fable during his work day.

And it was fun.

*****

I’m faithful to visit the dentist and committed to seeing an optometrist, but it’s like trudging through wet sand in clogs to schedule myself an annual physical. Maybe setting up a date with my doctor will bring on a malady, I think. My thoughts are ridiculous, of course. So, every few years, out of guilt, I force my sluggish fingers to make the call.

Some time ago, I gritted my teeth and found my way back to the clinic on the appointed day. My only comfort was the entertainment value; my doctor is quirky and always wears a bow tie. I sat on the white paper of the exam table, alone and freezing, trying to distract myself by guessing what seasonal print would decorate the fabric of his tie.

After a long wait, the man knocked and entered, my chart in his hand. He peered at it, and my heart hammered. Of course I was being silly. I blew out a breath.

He flipped the folder shut, dropped it on the desk, and turned to me.

“There once was a young man who demanded his inheritance from his father,” he said, his pointer finger raised.

I fidgeted my hands on my paper-gowned lap. Where was this going?

“He took his money, went to a faraway land, and squandered all he had. Once his inheritance and friends were gone, he worked as a farmhand, eating what the pigs ate. But one day he came to his senses.”

My mind rushed to make connections. Of course I knew the story. But why was he telling it?

“The young man had an idea. He could go back to his father! And so he did. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, ran to him with open arms, and welcomed him home.” The doctor smiled.

“Okay.” I dragged out the word, squinting at him.

“It’s been three years since your last exam.” He opened his arms to me. “Welcome home.”

But since I didn’t see myself as the prodigal son, I probably wouldn’t take his advice to visit him every year after that either.

The storytelling over, my appointment was all business, and the allotted minutes ticked away. But for the first time, I didn’t think my trip to the clinic was wasted. After all, I got Dr. Bow Tie to tell me a parable during his work day.

And it was fun.

*****

Life is short. If you see me around, tell me a story—and I’ll return the favor. We may not take each other’s advice, but one thing is sure: it’ll be fun.

Oh yeah. His tie was floral.

Oh yeah. His tie was floral.

*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 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.

Indispensable?

There’s nothing like planning high school graduation receptions two years in a row to make a mom feel indispensable.

I draft a master to-do list for Ricka’s open house, and it covers even the tiniest tasks to prepare for the event. The activity of writing it all down soothes me. But it also transports me to the familiar territory of If I Don’t Do It, It Won’t Get Done which sits adjacent to If I Died, Nothing Would Happen Around Here, a treacherous piece of property to tromp around on, because self-pity lives there and she owns a shotgun.

I jot down more jobs, feeling compelled to ask the question—again. I set down my pen.

“What would you guys do if I died?” I say to Husband. And maybe my question is rhetorical.

He clicks through TV channels, no change in expression. “We’d fumble along until we die too.”

And fumbling along doesn’t include throwing parties or sending Christmas cards or repainting rooms for fun or any of the other extraneous things I do for my family. And for a second, it bugs me. Then I’m cheered. Fumbling along means paying the bills, finding something to eat, and covering the other essentials. Fumbling along indicates forward movement. It would be okay. In reality, Husband would make it more than okay.

I pick up my pen again and plug in the names of family members next to my list’s jobs, as superfluous as they are. Because while I’m still here, stringing up paper lanterns in the backyard feels super important.

*****

For the story about last year’s hijinks of a bad back and broken toe while preparing for our first graduation party, click here. Enjoy!

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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 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.