Tamara Jorell

Writing life and the neighborhood

Writing life and the neighborhood

 

Travel stories: the Poconos

We cranked down the car windows, letting the hot summer air blast our faces.

“Ready?” Husband said, glancing in the rear view mirror.

“Yeah!” Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka, ages seven, five, and three, hollered from the back seat.

“On the road again,” we belted out, “Just can’t wait to get on the road again, the life I love is making music with my friends, and I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

We sang the next part of Willie Nelson’s song with Husband’s amended lyrics. “Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway, we’re the best of friends as long as we do things my way, on the highway, on the road again.”

We had already spent a week in New York City at my brother’s place in Queens, venturing out each day to perform our touristy duties of consuming pasta in Little Italy and making Flicka’s wishes for a funky haircut come true in a basement salon somewhere in Greenwich Village. We narrowly escaped the temptation to purchase miniature turtles at a shop in Chinatown, opting instead for paper parasols and silk pajamas. And we took the Staten Island ferry to Lady Liberty’s place to say hi.

The car now gobbled up the miles along I-80 until we caught sight of a chalet, our timeshare for the week, nestled in the Pocono Mountains.

“‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’,” I quoted Patrick Swayze’s famous line from the 1987 flick. “Fun that the movie was set here.”

“Pretty sure it was the Catskills,” Husband said.

I circled back to the eighties. “I think you’re right.”

We climbed forty-plus steps to our lodging, dumped our luggage on the living room floor, and the girls scattered to their new rooms. But Dicka took a spill, catching her nasal septum on the edge of the coffee table. Blood pulsed from her nose.

“Oh, wonderful.” I darted into the kitchen, grabbed swaths of paper towels, and returned to the scene of the accident where Husband was cupping his hands under the deluge.

The bleeding finally stanched, we tugged on our swimsuits and set out for water. We located the pool, teeming with vacationers, and jumped in. My ducklings, clad in swim wings and goggles, bobbed in the deep end with Husband and me.

New York accents mingled with Southern drawls. And was that German? Italian too? A sampling of the world floated in the pool along with us.

“I’ve never seen a suit like that before,” Flicka said, gazing at a Muslim girl in full-body swimwear.

I nodded. Then I peered at the water and wrinkled my nose. “And I’ve never seen so much hair in a pool before.”

Husband cringed. “Can’t be good for the pool’s filter.”

The next morning in the fitness center, I lowered myself into another pool for aqua aerobics class. My classmates, a handful of older ladies decked in floral swim caps and Long Island accents, chattered amongst themselves, their raspy voices betraying their habit which I had seen them stub out into the ashtray by the door.

We worked our arms using Styrofoam noodles, gripped the edge of the pool for our leg lifts, and hop-twisted—Jack LaLanne style—through a few songs. The women chitchatted again during the cool-down, and I wondered if I could: 1. say ‘Larry’ in a Long Island accent like the woman who so often mentioned her husband, and 2. find a swim cap as cute as any of theirs.

“Let’s run to Blockbuster,” Husband said when I returned to the chalet.

Since the family was ready to go, I slipped on my long grey sweater over my swimsuit and trekked out the door with them. We drove to a nearby town, but as I stepped inside the video store, reality smacked me: we were no longer in a resort, and my attire was utterly inappropriate for the setting. What was I thinking, not getting dressed? I squared my shoulders, closing my sweater tightly around me while we perused movie titles.

We found more than an afternoon’s worth of entertainment and proceeded to the checkout line. A male voice wafted to me from behind.

“Ma’am? Ma’am?” said the voice.

Was he calling me? I turned to face a young man. “Hm?”

“Your dress is up, ma’am,” he said, like he was pleased to save me from embarrassment.

My face heated. I extricated the hem of my sweater from the leg hole of my swimsuit—how had it gotten there anyway?—with a harrumph. “Thanks.”

I whirled to face forward again. ‘Your dress’? It’s a sweater, thank you very much, I felt like saying. To cover my swimsuit, if you don’t mind.

 

We remember our trip to the Poconos in 2007 as one of our favorites. We’ve still never witnessed a nose gusher like Dicka’s. “Ma’am? Ma’am? Your dress is up, ma’am” is a well-worn quote in our house now. And I shudder every time we recount stories of the hairy pool.

But would we go back to that timeshare in the Poconos? In a heartbeat.

 

*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.

Kris

I met her the day Prince died.

My phone pinged the alert of the celebrity’s death as I pulled up a chair at a table in the banquet room of a suburban church. What had happened to the musician whose work marked my teen years? He had collapsed in an elevator in his home, a news source said, but the cause of death was unknown. I slipped my phone into my purse, turning my thoughts back to the luncheon honoring Safe Families for Children host moms.

Kris sat at my table. And other women settled in too. Over lunch, we spoke of the unpredictability of nurturing kids who didn’t belong to us. Advanced cases of head lice, trips to Urgent Care for fungus or urinary tract infections, burs stuck in Afros, cussing two-year-olds. Because the call to be Jesus’ hands on this earth isn’t exactly glamorous business.

We talked about why we did it.

“I grew up in fear,” Kris said. “Fear of violence, but mostly the fear of never knowing what would happen to me and my mom.”

There was no space in her skin for self-pity. But from across the table, I could feel her resolve; over and over again, she gave kids a respite from fear.

“Let’s get together sometime,” she said to me when the event ended.

We exchanged numbers. Between us, ideas swirled. We both had our own older children, but we could arrange play dates for our new ones. And in a pinch, we could do childcare for each other.

We’re out shopping, Kris texted one day, attaching a picture of a tiny sweater dress on a store hanger. Then came a picture of the recipient of the dress—her newest little houseguest—riding in a shopping cart. The toddler, clutching a toy, peered out of the picture with wide brown eyes.

Cutie, I texted back. I want that dress.

I’ll grab you one.

Can I live at your house for a few weeks? And you can buy me toys too?

Well, yeah.

Kris’ place was Noah’s ark. Two retired senior greyhounds, a chubby brown dog, two big-boned cats, and a sassy bunny. And when little ones climbed on board to safety too, she used healthy food and a sensible schedule to turn them into happy kids in two days flat.

Kris and I met for lunches and chats and grew a friendship beyond the kids.

Do you like U2? she texted me one day in May. Her husband had a conflict and couldn’t travel with her to Miami for the concert anymore. All expenses are covered. Wanna go?

I used one full breath to think about it. I’m in! What do I owe you?

Just your life.

But she wouldn’t have had to say it.

*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.

Stuck

I frittered away two hours on the phone last night, struggling to communicate with a customer service person. English was her second language, and I tried to follow the important string of numbers she rattled off. I asked again, but still missed it. Could she repeat it a third time? We were disconnected, and I called back. This time, a new person came on the line. English wasn’t his specialty either.  

Stuck.

Garbage was strewn around the alley this morning again. More bills for co-pays arrived, reminding me we’re healthy in spite of our eight doctor visits in the past six weeks. Today the grocery list by the fridge spilled over, even though I shopped yesterday. A damp bath towel skulked around that one kid’s room—never mind my reminders over the years to not let damp bath towels skulk around her room.

Stuck.

My manuscript has its own special folder for rejections. “You’re an excellent writer, but we’ll have to pass”, “Don’t let this particular ‘no’ discourage you, and please consider us for your future stories”, “Your work is clever and has merit, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for at this time.”

Stuck.

My companion since high school—the pain in my back in that little spot under my right scapula—reminds me I’m made of flesh. And I clench my teeth at night, my dentist says. Probably because I can’t control my life during the day.

Stuck.

For years, I’ve battered the throne room of heaven for certain people I love, begging for their financial freedom, spiritual transformation, physical healing. On this side of eternity, though, I don’t see anything new.

Stuck.

But each new day has new mercies, so I sit with my French Roast now, asking for a reset, a fresh outlook. An unstuck attitude.

And then comes the soft reminder: it’s not what it looks like.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.

 

 

*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 goodbye

“Can I bring over a bottle of wine?” our next door neighbor, Dallas, said on the phone one evening in March. “I have something to tell you guys, and I want to do it in person.”

“Noooooo!” I said. “I know what you’re going to say.”

Husband eyed me, furrowing his brow.

Dallas chuckled. “So now’s good?”

“Of course. Come.”

Dallas came to the front door, his six-foot-six-inch frame towering on our front porch—always a welcome sight. He handed me a Cabernet, and I motioned for him to sit at the dining room table with us. Soon, my fear was confirmed.

Dallas was moving.

The day we brought newborn Dicka home from the hospital in 2004 was the day Dallas moved in next door. He had intended to fix up the house and flip it within two years, but had stayed for thirteen instead.

Husband and I listened to the details of his new house just a mile away in Robbinsdale. It was his dream—another place to renovate, away from the inner city and its intricacies.

Over the following weeks, Dallas painted and repaired and tidied the property. He passed from his garage to the house and back again, and I heard the voices of my little girls from summers past.

“Hi, Dallas!” they called to our neighbor as he emerged from his house and headed for the garage. They scrambled around our back yard in princess costumes, waving wands, or in swimsuits, toting squirt guns.

He hollered hi back and waved, disappearing into his garage. He reappeared with tools or materials, pointed for the house again.

“Hi, Dallas!” they shouted a second time.

He laughed and yelled hello. Into the house and back out for more supplies.

“Hi, Dallas!”

I cringed. “Oh girls.” Would their constant hooting get on his nerves?

Later I found out he hadn’t minded all the attention. He hadn’t minded one bit.

Over the years, Dallas accepted our last-minute invitations for pizza nights or fires in the fire pit. He insisted we snip his tulips or forage his gardens for berries, tomatoes, rhubarb, and more. If his yard was a polished adult, ours was an awkward teenager, but he was patient with us. We played the eternal game of Who Can Get Out and Shovel the Other’s Snow First? with him. He usually won. In 2006, I cried when I told him about Dad dying; in 2014, he cried when he told me about his dad passing away.

After a busy weekend of running loads over to the new place, Dallas phoned me on Monday morning.

“Well, this is it. I’m leaving now.”

“I’ll be right out,” I said. “I need a picture of us.”

We posed in front of his house, and my friend snapped our photo. Behind us, his tulips had finished blooming.

Later, I texted him: The only reason I didn’t cry when you left today was because I know we’ll see you soon.

He texted back: Love you 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.

The piano: Part 2

Flicka perched on the piano bench, squinting at a page of music.

“I can’t do it,” she said, flopping her hands onto the keyboard. She mashed the keys with her forehead. My girl’s drama skills dazzled me. Maybe she was better suited for the stage.

“You can do it,” I said. “But not all at once. Take one measure at a time.”

Four years of instruction were mandatory in our house. And each year, Flicka wrote No more piano lessons on her birthday and Christmas lists. Finally, her wish came true.

“Okay, you’re off the hook,” I announced.

She nearly squeezed out my innards. “Thank you, Mama. Thank you.”

Her sisters shared her opinion. Daily, I encouraged and cajoled and bribed them to practice. And most days, their tears dripped onto the keys. Where was their love of piano? Or their passion for making music?

Safe Families kids we hosted gravitated to the musical antique, and other guests sometimes plinked out melodies or showcased their talents on it too.  

But mostly, the giant sat in silence.

It acted as a shelf for artwork and mail, coffee cups and car keys. It served as a backdrop for photos and a surface for dust. I needed its bench sometimes, which I scooted to the dining room table for extra seating.

“We should get rid of the piano,” Husband said after fifteen years of ownership. “No one’s playing it, and it just takes up space.”

“What?” My eyes widened. “No! Every house needs a piano.”

“Okay.”

But I mulled over Husband’s suggestion as I chauffeured girls to badminton, volleyball, and softball. The thought of the piano’s absence rattled me, but the truth shook me more: We were a sports—and not music—family. My girls had traded scales for serves, chords for courts, and clefs for cleats. And by default, so had I. In spite of all my childhood piano lessons, I neglected the instrument too. It needed love and attention again.

I emailed Clark: We’re ready to let the piano go. Any idea who might want it?

He connected me with my second cousin Lars who lived with his family in a new house on the old homestead once belonging to Lars' grandparents, Chester and Helga, the original owners of the piano. Yes, Lars wanted the piano. Yes, he and his boys could come and get it. And yes, it would once again make a trip the length of Minnesota in an open trailer.

“Ready to make some music?” Husband said to Lars and his boys.

They inched the oak monstrosity through our front door and down the steps.

“Don’tletanyonegetcrushedDon’tletanyonegetcrushed,” I whispered, peeking through my fingers at their progress.

At last, our roommate of fifteen years creaked onto the trailer. The guys swaddled it in blankets and straps, tucking it in for the highway.

Goodbye, sweet tunes. Have a safe trip home.

Left photo: The piano looking on at story time. Right photo: The piano posing behind a masked Clark with a young Lars (the piano's new owner, left) and Maren (right).

 

*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 piano: Part 1

Moorhead, Minnesota; summer of 1988

Clark rubbed a knot out of his neck as he rode shotgun in the Suburban. It had been a long day, culminating in near calamity. He and his buddy Dick had muscled Clark’s childhood piano—a Kingsbury upright, manufactured in 1913—from the Moorhead American Legion’s barmaid’s sister’s house where the piano had stayed for a few years and helped out her kids. But as the two men hefted it out, the eight-hundred pound instrument pinned Clark’s leg to the stairs. Finally free of the weight and minus lasting injuries, he and Dick heaved it outside and onto a snowmobile trailer. They covered it with blankets and tarps and ran three straps lengthwise and two from top to bottom, securing it for the trip.   

Now at 10:30 p.m. on a warm June night, the musical giant was on the move again, headed for Clark’s apartment in the Twin Cities.  

Behind the wheel, Dick flipped through radio stations, clicking past some classical music: Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. Clark eased out a breath. Music from his past. After his father Chester passed away in 1975, he moved—at the age of twenty-nine—back to the homestead outside of Thief River Falls, Minnesota, to where his mother Helga lived in the early stages of dementia. Those were the piano years, and the most time Clark had ever spent playing the old Kingsbury.

As a young woman, Helga knew how to chord on the piano to accompany musicians, but she had never learned to read music, so she determined her children would. Now that Clark was home again, music swirled throughout the house. She beamed when her son worked hymns from the piano’s old keys; even when he played scales, Helga smiled. And he learned the first two movements of Sonata Pathétique, especially focusing on the slower one—the part he thought was the most beautiful music ever written.

“Not lookin’ so good back there,” Dick said, squinting into the rearview mirror.

Clark flicked his gaze to the trailer. The piano swayed from side to side. Dick signaled and took the next exit. The men checked their work.

“The straps are still tight,” Clark said.

“Seems so.”

“Let’s just go. If it makes it, it makes it. If not, fine.”

Dick slid behind the wheel again and Clark hopped into his seat. As they traveled along the freeway in the pale moonlight, Dick fiddled with the radio again, and they listened to the Twins playing a game in Oakland until after midnight.

They finished their trek from Moorhead to Minneapolis without another look back.

 

Minneapolis, Minnesota; fall of 2002

The phone rang. I glanced at the display: my dad’s first cousin, Clark. I hushed Ricka and Flicka, ages one and two years old, scampering around my feet.

“You never call me anymore,” I said into the receiver.

Clark’s laugh reverberated across the phone lines. “Say, I have an offer for you.”

“Oh, good.”

“Do you want a piano?”

My eyes pooled. Every house needed a piano, and our new-to-us home in north Minneapolis was no exception. But I had never dreamed I would have one—or at least this soon. “Yes.”

“Come and get it.”

Husband solicited the help of a piano moving company to collect the behemoth beauty from Clark’s place across town. It sprawled the length of one wall in our living room, as if it had been created for the space. As I ran a hand along its oak expanse, I smiled at the piano’s restoration. In the early nineties, Clark had paid to have the keyboard and hammers replaced after a Jerry Lee Lewis wannabe had given the ivories a good pounding.

I settled onto the bench, and my hands hovered above the keys. The first chord.

“Me, me.” Ricka had pulled herself to standing and now smacked the piano bench with her palms.

“Of course,” I said, drawing her into my lap. “This is for 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.

7 Mile

I posted a picture on the North Minneapolis virtual garage sale page along with the following plea:

ISO a belt like this one that I can buy or borrow for the Def Leppard concert Friday night.

“If no one comes through, check out 7 Mile,” said an administrator of the site. “They have belts like that for about $8.00.”

The next day, Husband and I set out for 7 Mile in North Minneapolis in search of my rock ‘n’ roll belt.

One foot in the store and I spied the belts hanging in the back, but clothing racks along my route snagged my attention.

“Nice,” I said, pulling out a pair of running leggings. “Thicker than I would've guessed. And only $11.99?”

Husband plucked a Dickie’s work shirt from a nearby shelf.

“That looks like you,” I said.

Then I spotted a romper in the next aisle and picked up a hat to go with it. “I want this outfit. Take a picture of it, will you?”

Husband snapped a photo, but then I remembered my many trips around the sun. Maybe three decades ago…

I headed for the belts, but the next aisles lured me. Wigs, weaves, and extensions of all kinds. I poked through the goods. I had always imagined showing up at an event with a ponytail as long as Marcia Brady’s. Two women who spoke Somali peered at the same packages I was eyeing. Maybe they had the same idea too.

Lost in the varying hair shades, but finding none that matched my particular blonde, I stopped myself. What was I doing? I had come for a belt.

I made a beeline to the back of the store. Belts of all colors hung like party streamers, and I grinned like a six year old as I sifted through the array, sparkles and studs abounding. My gaze landed on The One. Black genuine leather with grommets. Only $5.99. Then I frowned.

“Do you have any more sizes than these?” I asked the manager.

“Sorry.” He rattled off something in Spanish into his headset, then turned back to me. “We’re getting more in two weeks.”

An employee approached him. “A guy just stole a t-shirt.”

The manager jogged away.

“I can trim the belt for you at home,” said Husband.

At the checkout counter brimmed more temptations.

Husband pointed to some phone charging cords. “Only $3.99. We should get a couple of these to replace the ones that were stolen.”

Several nights earlier, our security camera had captured six guys rifling through our Jetta in the driveway. The only time we had forgotten to lock the car and just like that, our charging cords had flitted from our lives.

I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, that’s right.”

At least 7 Mile had us covered. We paid for our goodies and exited the store.

“I’m coming back here,” I said, smiling at Husband.

“I know you are.”

7 Mile Discount Clothing and Beauty Supply is located at 611 W. Broadway Ave., Minneapolis, MN, 55411

 

 

*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.

Still more windows

A few weeks ago, I invited my readers to share what they see from their windows. Twelve people submitted their views. You can read the first six here. Enjoy the final six today!

 

*****

Today, like many days, I stood at my kitchen window and watched a goofy pitbull bark fiercely at something. Lala comes out my neighbor's back door and barks. Barks some more. Does her dog stuff. Goes back inside. I like to hope she's barking at the squirrels who have taken up residence in my attic. I yell at them when I'm outside, too. And when I see Lala, I tell her that she's a good dog and to keep up the good work.

 

Paula, Minneapolis, Minnesota

 

*****

Windows - I love them! We are so thankful our new home/apartment has many of them. They serve many functions: to protect from heat, cold, rain, snow, wind. They also serve to let the world into one’s home. The first thing I do each morning is open the blinds. Without doing that I can start to feel claustrophobic. I need the light, the sun, and the breezes when they are open. They serve to refresh a person. I cannot understand how people can leave the shades or curtains closed all day. Just think of all they are missing out on in letting a bit of the world in to ones inside world. At our new home we discovered that during the winter months we get to see both the sunrise (through the window over the kitchen sink) and the sunset (through the window in the living room and in the two bedroom windows.) It is absolutely amazing to see God's beauty with such incredible colors and formations. We are very grateful for our windows.

 

Arleen, Fergus Falls, Minnesota

 

*****

Usually I look out on a brownish lawn seeing cars flash by as people begin their way to work. Today, there is a heavy, heavy fog down to the road itself. I see the brake lights on a car from my home waiting to get onto the road. I have watched it rise over the last 2 hours. It brightens up as the fog lifts. However, there is still no sun in the sky. Maybe later.

 

Amy, New Hope, Minnesota

 

*****

My kitchen has two walls of windows, covered with prints of so many little fingers and slobber from an overly eager black lab. But the view beyond is beautiful and not too different, I imagine, from what it was 150 years ago when the house was new. And everything I see—children on the playset, hummingbirds at the feeder, the line of poplars we planted a few years back—is placed in front of a watery backdrop. The millpond. The river running through it ending in a waterfall not far from the house. The pond is the first thing I notice each morning. It can be smooth as glass or flowing swiftly. It can be stirred up brown and muddy after a thunderstorm, occasionally even washing over the top of the dock after a particularly heavy rain. Or littered with colorful autumn leaves. In the winter it is white, flat, and dead. But in the spring it comes alive. As the ice breaks into white chunks, river otters slide and dive, chasing each other in the icy cold water. Eventually the Canada geese land and stay for a day or two on their way back north. The blue heron stands majestically in the early morning mist gulping down baby rainbow trout the DNR has just released into the pond. And bald eagles swoop low to snag daring fish swimming too close to the surface. The view through my windows is always beautiful. Always peaceful. Always serene. Unlike the view on the inside.

 

Hope, Cataract, Wisconsin

 

*****

After reading your piece, Windows, I looked out and spotted my first robin this spring. Here’s my morning view. Always looking up!

 

Emily, Minneapolis, Minnesota

 

*****

One of my views to the world this spring comes through a yet-to-be-washed window. The gnarled willow tree has witnessed events and people (family reunions, grandkids home for a short visit, even an outdoor wedding!) over many years here at the farm, long before we moved to this place. Now I see an unoccupied tire swing moving gently in today’s breeze. Like the faintly drawn balloons floating above the heads of the characters in the Family Circus cartoons, I also imagine people who once stood or played in that spot or climbed that gnarled tree. But that mind picture does not make me either melancholy or sad. Although I am frustrated after a strong wind which brings down more willow branches than I care to pick up, that tree makes my view a treasured memories scrapbook.

 

Avis, Newfolden, Minnesota

 

*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.

Finished

A local publication, The Lutheran Ambassador, asked me to write a story about the women of Easter, based on the account in the Gospel of Mark. This piece was published in the April 2017 issue (Vol. 55, No. 4). Enjoy!

*****

Jesus shifted on the iron spikes, and his head drooped. From a distance, my friends and I watched—and prayed. That morning, soldiers had shredded my Lord with their whips and strung him up on a cross to die, but now they laughed as if sharing a joke at the market instead of in this place where hell touched earth. My stomach roiled, and I took a deep breath to quell the nausea.  

Salome looped her arm around mine. “But he was going to be king.” Her features twisted, and she searched my face. “He can’t die, Mary. He can’t.”

Another Mary, the mother of James and Joses, peered at me, and her chin wobbled.

“Maybe we didn’t understand,” I said. “Maybe he knew something we didn’t. And it was better.” But my heart clenched like a fist, refusing to let go.

The one who is forgiven much, loves much.

Years earlier, I had loved nothing. My broken body had housed a shattered mind. Illnesses, accidents, and compulsions battered me. Once, I even thrashed into the flames of my cooking fire. Afterward, I writhed in the dirt in blistered skin; my hours melted into blackness.  

But then came Jesus. He rested his hand on me, calling out the seven demons that had tormented me.

“Mary Magdalene,” he said. And for the first time, my name had sounded like beauty. “It is finished.”

And it was.

The crowds at the cross scattered, exposing us women, huddled far from where the masses had jeered or sobbed. Many of Jesus’ followers had vanished too. But my heart anchored me to the soil. How could I leave my Lord to his pain when he had saved me from mine?

Jesus struggled against his nails and scanned the meager gathering. Then his gaze rested on me. Those eyes that had once seen through my affliction still saw me.

“It is finished,” he cried out.

The same words that had made me new.

His muscles twitched; his head slumped. The sky darkened, and although only mid-afternoon, shadows draped the body of my Savior. Jesus was gone.

A rich man named Joseph carried Jesus’ body to a tomb in his garden. Mary and I trailed him and hid behind a tree as we watched the man spread ointment and spices onto fresh linens. And then he wrapped our friend. The burial complete, Joseph heaved a stone into place to seal the entrance to the grave. Dusk was approaching; the Sabbath was near. And I had work to do.

I scurried home and scooped sweet spices into a bowl, my hands trembling. I thumbed away tears as I stirred. The day before, I had prepared the meal for Jesus’ supper in the upper room with his followers. If only I were mixing oil into the flour for bread tonight instead of oil with perfumes to anoint my friend’s body. If only I were roasting the lamb with thyme and rosemary instead of blending my tears with myrrh and aloes. If only I had known then what was to come.

 

On the first day of the week, I squinted at the early rays of light that sliced through the darkness of my house. The start of a new week without my Jesus. How would I live without him?

A knock at the door. I unlatched it. Mary and Salome stood outside, each holding a bowl. Grief had stripped their faces of color and rimmed their eyes with purple.

“I’m ready,” I said, my own bowl of spices cradled in one arm.

Gravel crunched under our sandals, and dew drenched the hems of our tunics as we trudged to the garden.

“Oh no,” said Salome. “How will we anoint his body? Remember the stone? It’s too big for us.” A sob jostled her words. “Who will move it?”

I inhaled a shaky breath. “I don’t know.”

Mary gripped her bowl in both hands. She stared into the distance, her mouth a straight line.

In the garden, the crocuses exploded in yellow and the hyacinths in pink. White narcissus curled around our path. Where were these flowers two days ago? Or had our sadness hidden them? They bloomed now—the bougainvillea as profuse as forgiveness and the lilies as fragrant as hope. 

We neared the grave. But what was that up ahead?

I gasped. “The stone’s already been moved.”

I hurried into the tomb, and my friends followed. A young man, in a robe whiter than light, sat inside. Salome shrieked. My heart hammered, and my bowl clattered onto the stone floor, spilling the spices. Terror clawed its way up my throat. Mary splayed a hand over her mouth.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the young man. “You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. But he’s not here. He’s risen.” He stood and gestured toward the door. “Go and tell his disciples.”

My friends and I clambered from the tomb and scrambled back onto the path. We clutched the fabric of our skirts and ran. Blinded by joy, we forgot all about our tear-soaked beds, our morning’s task at the tomb, and the spices we had abandoned somewhere along the way.

Because it didn’t matter anymore.

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

 

More windows

Last week, I asked you what you saw through your windows. Here are some of my readers’ views:

*****

There is a funeral home outside my office window. Most of the time the parking lot is empty, but occasionally it will fill with cars. Sometimes it’s only a few and other times the lot will be full. Invariably, people step out, women typically in dresses and men in suits or sport coats. You can easily tell which of the men aren’t used to wearing such attire by the fuss they make with their ties and their stiff gait walking in. The younger and middle-aged adults try to stall the inevitable: they check to make sure every door is locked, examine their reflection in the car window, look around (maybe for the nearest Menard’s?) and mourn the remainder of the cigarette they have to stamp out. Most of the seniors park in the front spaces as if they were reserved for them ahead of time. They walk in with a sense of duty. Children never seem to know the difference; they race up to the doors of the funeral home as if they were going to Target. I wonder if they know their chances of getting an Icee or a soft pretzel is pretty low...

One of the coolest things I’ve seen is a group of 20 or more Harley Davidson motorcycles pull in and form a ‘color guard’ of sorts around the parking lot. Without a word each of the leather-vested riders left their bikes and holding various flags, stood sentry along the sidewalks leading up to the doors. The flow of how this unfolded made me pretty sure they’ve done this before. Interestingly, a few of the riders did not go in for the service but remained standing, holding their flags. I wonder if that day, they were one biker short.

Jason, Plymouth, Minnesota

*****

My office is in the finished attic of our garage. Windows look out in three directions. From my desk I can look to the south to the road the ambulance came down the morning my forty-eight-year-old neighbor, an enthusiastic weekend visitor to our lake, dropped dead with a heart attack. Two windows look toward the lake—one to the left of my desk, the other over the little table where I refill my tea mug while I ponder the next scene of my work-in-progress. Today there are no leaves, and the water is steel-gray through the bare tree trunks. Soon it will be warm enough to open all four windows and catch the breeze along with the scents and sounds of the Northwoods, but by then my view of the lake will be obscured with leaves. One autumn evening a few years ago, I came out of my office and glimpsed the glow of sunset on the houses across the lake. I shot this with my phone. 

LeAnne, northwestern Wisconsin

*****

I’ll miss my bedroom window view from the homestead of my folks. It is beautiful with rolling hills, perfect for sledding, apple trees where the cows and we kids liked to munch, and the ever mysterious and beckoning woods. The next several weeks will be bittersweet as we clear everything out after the sale. The view in the near future will be a natural gas plant.

Today’s view, from my kitchen sink, is the trees (including a transplanted spruce from the homestead), the trampoline, now set up for summer, and the fort with the door and windows wide open.

Linda, Eben Junction, Michigan

*****

I notice as I look out of my dining room window this March morning that the dust and dirt from 5 long months of winter needs to be cleaned off.  The sun is coming up and promises a beautiful spring day. Because I am concentrating on the beautiful sunrise, I don’t immediately notice all the branches the winter wind has blown all over my yard. The snow is almost all melted except for a few small patches along the north side of the barn.  There was a time as a young wife and mother that I looked forward to the warm spring weather that is promised to me today. The children loved to be outside with me and “clean” the yard.  We would have such fun while we worked and the fresh air promised they would take a long nap that afternoon.  The farm fields I see from my window are now black with ribbons of water in the ditches waiting for the huge road ditches to thaw so all the water can drain to the river two miles away. My husband has lined his tractors, cultivators, and seeder in a row in the yard by the shop.  Each one is ready to be used as the sun and wind dry the many fields he needs to plant.  I watch him out there, with his cup of coffee, walking around each machine checking to see that it is ready to be used this spring. This is the 43rd spring that I have watched this ritual. I am grateful and I am weary.

Barb, Thief River Falls, Minnesota

*****

On the rare March evening when the jungle kingdom of northern Thailand drops below one hundred degrees, I abandon the dim cool netherworld of air conditioning and blackout curtains for the fan-propelled humidity of the city. Around six a.m., the room fills with the brilliant pink-and-mango glow of the sun—that relentless orange beast, friendly and excessive, with which we are so familiar here—and the neighborhood is greeted with the almost-musical cacophony of motorbikes and tropical birds. They wrench off in a blur of noise to start their days, and my eyes creak open. So much for sleeping late.

I sit down to my desk and peer out the front-facing window. Behind the stretch of balconied houses and banana trees rise the mountains in a wall of smoke-dappled violet. The burning has just finished. I think of my friend's parents, among the farmers who have harvested their rice fields and lit the chaff, filling the city with smoke. Most days we only notice for the slight tickling sensation in our noses, and even that, we don't mind much. It is a time of celebration, when skinny students bring back massive bags of their parents' crop and eat freely for months. And now has come the earned reward of long sleep, perfect for lethargic hot season—if you can sleep through the tireless beauty of this place. 

Dori, Chiang Mai, Thailand

*****

Love my big back yard

Two plus hours to beautify

Very worth the wait

 

Jay, Humble, Texas

*****

*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.

Windows

Today I want to hear about you.

What do you see from your window?

“All of us, at some point in our daily lives, find ourselves looking out a window. We pause in our work, tune out of a conversation, and turn toward the outside. Our eyes gaze, without seeing, at a landscape whose familiarity becomes the customary ground for distraction: the usual rooftops, familiar trees, a distant crane. The way of life for most of us in the twenty-first century means that we spend most of our time indoors, in an urban environment [or other], and our awareness of the outside world comes via, and thanks to, a framed glass hole in the wall.” Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views by Matteo Pericoli (preface by Lorin Stein.) 

Write a note about your physical view each day (photos are welcome too), and send it to me here (or if you’re a subscriber, simply hit reply to this email.) I will publish your writing (along with your first name and location) in next week’s blog installment.

I’ll get us started…

I shut out the world each night with two simple pieces of fabric. But when I open the curtains in the morning, I open them to the wild unpredictability of the city. I live among aging gingerbread houses; small bungalows dot the street. Like many of its neighbors, my little stucco was conceived at the tail end of World War I and born the next year.

It’s early spring now, and the hose—snaked around my front garden—is still in hibernation mode. Today a lone elementary-age kid inches by on the sidewalk, his backpack, like a turtle’s shell, dwarfs him. He bends down to pluck a long stick from my yard, and I hold my breath. What if he flips onto his shell and can’t right himself? But he manages to straighten up and taps his way down to the corner.

 

*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 arrest

I had plans for that spring day in 2011. I would root around in the dirt of my gardens, tucking in my seedlings for the season, and I would finally meet the new neighbors. A day of fresh beginnings.

It was also the day I was wanted by the law.

On my drive home from the nursery earlier, tender plants swaying in cardboard boxes in the back seat, I turned the car onto our street and glanced in the rearview mirror. Behind me, a black Suburban turned in the same direction. I drove past our house and turned right again at the end of the block. So did the Suburban. Halfway down the next block, I took another right, this time into our alley. The black SUV crept in behind me.

A vehicle behind me making a turn in the same direction as me onto our street? An everyday event. The vehicle following my second turn too? A common occurrence. But the same vehicle turning into our alley right behind me? Less likely. Was this the new neighbors’ truck?

Emergency lights flashed from the SUV’s grill, then came a quick woop woop of a siren. An unmarked police car? Meant for me?

“Stop your vehicle,” a voice blasted from a PA system.

I pressed my brakes and put the Honda into park. The black truck rolled to a stop twenty feet behind me. My mouth went dry. I couldn’t have been speeding. With neighborhood kids playing basketball in our street, I had even slowed down. But had I forgotten to signal my turn into the alley? Or did my car somehow look suspicious?

My heart did the jitter-bug, and my stomach joined the dance.  

“Ma’am, turn your engine off,” came the command from the PA.

I obeyed. What was happening?

Wait. That voice…

I squinted into the rear view mirror. Husband sat behind the wheel of the Suburban; his mouth curved into a crooked smile. I had forgotten all about the unmarked ride, a perk of his temporary assignment with a special unit at work. If in the neighborhood, why not practice a felony stop on the wife?

“Get out of your vehicle and put your hands over your head,” he said, his amplified voice resonating throughout the alley.

I climbed out of the car, my legs still weak from the scare. I laughed, shaking my head.

“Don’t turn towards me,” he said over the PA. “Walk backwards towards my vehicle.”

A movement behind Husband’s truck snagged my attention. A neighbor poked his head from behind his garage and peered at us. Wonderful. I flicked my gaze in the other direction. Two female neighbors—the ones I hadn’t met yet—peeked out of their yard. My reputation for not being the kind of resident who gets arrested in the alley in broad daylight was evaporating like the puddles from the previous night’s rain.

I sauntered towards Husband. His game was over.

“Hands over your head,” he said into the mic, an impish look still plastered to his face.

Surely by now, Husband’s voice over the loud speaker had reverberated throughout all of north Minneapolis. What if the local police drove by? What then?

I planted my hands on my hips and pulled out the look—the one reserved for squirrely kids in church. “Stop it,” I mouthed to him.

He issued another command, and my face heated. I resisted arrest, pivoting on my heel. On my way back to the Honda, my eyes met those of the neighbors, and I shook my head. Nothin’ to see here, folks. Nothin’ to see here. The onlookers returned to their yards. I started the car and drove into the driveway.

 

Husband thinks he’s funny. The End.

*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.

Wednesday's children

Last Wednesday, I handed my driver’s license to a woman in the main office of an elementary school in St. Paul. She looked at it—and me—and handed it back.

“I’ll let her know you’re here,” she said, scooting her chair back from her desk and exiting the room.

Minutes later, the final bell rang, and a teacher emerged from a classroom with seven-year-old Zeva. The girl clasped my hand and left the place with me, a stranger, skipping to my car like I had promised her ice cream instead of a ride back to her host family. I knew the mom of the home where she was going; the woman’s kindness was as irresistible as a frozen treat. And clearly, the girl felt it too.

Zeva was a collector of stories, and she lavished them on me as I drove from eastern St. Paul to a western suburb of Minneapolis.

“She’s white like you,” the girl said about a classmate. “And she’s my BFF forever.”

The storyteller’s eyes sparked with life, and I smiled. Next, she told me about her sister. At a stoplight, I jotted her sibling’s name on a notepad, along with the sister’s nickname, Honey, so I could remember.

“That’s not how you spell it,” Zeva said, tapping her finger on my paper.

“I just wrote Traynesha how it sounded.”

“I mean, her other name, Honey. It’s H-U-N-N-Y.”

“Okay, got it.” I made the correction at the next stop.

Then Zeva pulled me back with her to a winter night two years earlier.

“It was after Christmas, because I had my Elsa doll. And Mama woke me up.”

The girl displayed her story like a child bringing crime scene evidence to Show and Tell, and the truth whispered through her innocent delivery and speared me in the gut. Did she know what she was saying? How long until she pieced together the reality of that night?

“What happened then?” I said, not wanting to know.

“The cops came. They said, ‘What happened? What happened?’ But I said, ‘I don’t know. I was asleep.’” She shrugged, raising upturned palms. “Then they said other stuff, but I said, ‘I don’t wanna be a foster kid!’”

I released a slow breath, my eyes fixed on the freeway. What had I just heard?

Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child is full of woe…

Mother Goose had intended her pronouncements for birth days—not for a child I had happened to meet on a Wednesday. Only a silly nursery rhyme, I told myself. But still I wondered.

The traffic clipped along, and I let Zeva choose the music on the radio. Like a hummingbird, she flitted from one story to the next, classic hip hop playing in the background.

At last, I dropped off the seven-year-old with her host family. I had transported a ray of sunshine from St. Paul, and she had perked up my day, but the darkness of The Winter Night remained lodged in my chest anyway.

At 11:30 that night, Husband and I heard voices outside on the street. While I stayed in bed, he went to look. A minute later, he was back.

“The police just took some kids from Kaiya’s place.”

“Oh, no.”

Kaiya, a sixth grade girl, waited at the bus stop each day with Dicka and me. Like Zeva, Kaiya had a spark that ignited her stories during those few minutes before the bus hissed to a halt at the corner. Like Zeva, the life in Kaiya’s eyes danced like dappled sunlight on a tree-lined path. And like Zeva, the girl on our street knew about grown-up choices and the police and dark nights.

The next morning, Dicka and I strode to the corner to wait for the bus. There stood Kaiya, her feet shifting from side to side under the weight of a new story.

“Did you see the police car at our house last night?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You okay?”

A hint of a smile. “Two little kids were walking around outside by themselves, so we took them in and called the cops.”

The March night had been cold—temperatures in the teens. I shuddered. “That was nice of you.” More questions pecked at me. “How old were they?”

“Maybe two or three years old?”

The bus came and took the girls away, deserting me with my thoughts. But maybe there were answers. Maybe the word woe didn’t have to bind Wednesday’s children to dark endings. Maybe the adult hands that steered the kids this way or that—toward parents or away from parents—could also hold the burden of their stories for them.

And maybe one day those little ones would find the Light Who could finally guide them home.  

*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.

Hidden

I opened my living room curtains 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 over to him.

Husband introduced himself. “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 just 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 smile

The line snaked around inside the coffee shop and ended at the door. Husband and I waited behind a family of four. As we bided our time, I browsed the clearance t-shirts rolled up in a basket. Nearby on a shelf sat mugs for sale. Beautiful, tempting, overpriced.

The father of the family just ahead glanced back at us. Then he did a double-take. I looked at Husband and shrugged. Next, the boy shot us a look, then his sister—a girl of about ten years old. We put in our coffee order and waited on the other side to pick it up. The family waited for their drinks too. The boy whispered something to his mother, and she swiveled to look at us too.

I furrowed my brow. Did we look familiar to them?

“This is weird,” I whispered to Husband. “Why do they keep staring at us?”

“They probably think you’re famous.”

I tilted my head. “Right.”

The girl stood with her drink, facing me—and now gawking. Then she smiled. No flash of teeth—just a serene, kind smile. I smiled back.

We left the coffee shop. The memory of the girl’s expression plucked at my outlook—and heart—and undid the strange behavior of her family.

“Have you ever thought about a smile from a stranger?” I said to Husband when we were back in the vehicle with our lattés.

“Not really.” Husband sipped his drink and started the truck.

“It’s a private exchange between two people,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“Smiles aren’t always a good thing. They can be sinister or leering.”

“But when they’re not, I mean.”

He shrugged. “They’re just nice.”

 

The girl’s smile in that coffee shop was a tiny gesture. It took a second and cost her nothing. But I mulled it over for a week. And it warmed me.

A simple, silent gift with no cost attached to it. No expectations or hidden messages beyond “We’re both doing life in the same place right now, and I see you.”

A smile for a stranger.

 

*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.

Water

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 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.

Shingle Creek Falls, Webber Park

Shingle Creek Falls, Webber Park

The family in Quebec, 2015 

The family in Quebec, 2015 

 

*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.

Good Deal

The sign—“Smile! You’re on camera”—greeted us at the entrance of our neighborhood’s Good Deal Oriental Foods, but I didn’t need the reminder. The memory of crates of produce on the floor just inside the door had me smiling already. Stalks of sugar cane, stacked like firewood, filled a box next to other fruits, like rambutan, a tropical offering I had often passed by. I would try the prickly-looking food one day, I had told myself too many times. But when I finally decided to buy some, it was gone.

“When will you have rambutan again?” I asked an employee.

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “Next week?”

While we waited, Flicka and I bought the canned variety to sample, along with two of its cousins, lychee and longan. When Good Deal carried the fresh fruit again, I snapped up a package.

Back at home, we scrutinized the rambutan like botanists. The tropical treat was fun to peel, the spikes on its reddish-brown skin were rubbery and not sharp like they appeared, and the delicacy vanished like a box of chocolates in a house full of women. 

On another visit to Good Deal, I picked through the produce, plucking a Styrofoam tray of greens—an herb?—swathed in cellophane. Pac Pew, the labeled stated. If it was a kind of basil, I could use some for a recipe. I scanned the area for an employee and spied a woman transferring taro root from a box into a bin.

“Excuse me,” I said, showing her the package of greens. “What is this?”

“Pac Pew,” she said.

“And in English? Is it basil?”

“It’s Pac Pew.” The woman punctuated the words with a bob of her head.

“Hm.” I furrowed my brow. “Thank you.”  

I pulled out my phone and searched the name. Nothing. I moved on to a vegetable that looked like a cross between a cucumber and a zucchini. The sticker called it Moap Moap. But again, Google let me down.

While Flicka perused the merchandise in the candy section, I wandered into the meat department. I had read about the silkie chicken, a small five-toed bird with black skin and flesh, known for its rich flavor, and there it was nestled amid other varieties of chicken. Maybe one day I would buy one—and gather tips from my Hmong or Vietnamese neighbors on the best way to prepare it.

I strolled back to the produce department where Flicka held a young coconut in one hand and a mature one in the other.

“What’s the difference between these two?” she said.

“I suppose we better find out.”

She plunked them into my basket, and I went back for the Pac Pew and Moap Moap. Then I scooped fresh longan into a bag.

At the checkout, a teenage boy—all smiles—rang up our grocery items like it was his favorite game, his dimples playing along.

“The cashier was Handsome,” I said to Flicka when we got back to the car.

She shrugged. “Okay?”

“His name was Handsome, I mean.” I showed her the receipt with the proof.

And Handsome was the perfect conclusion to our otherworldly jaunt within our own neighborhood. Smiles at the beginning of our trip; smiles at the end.

*Photo creds go to Susan Dyrud McDonald.

 

*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 grocery store

A grocery store arose at the corner of Penn and Lowry in the middle of a federally designated food desert, but it was no mirage. With healthy foods, organic produce, and household items, the new Aldi was my oasis. The costs stayed low through small measures: no fancy displays, no free bags, no piped-in music, and grocery carts that cost a quarter—refundable when returned to their corral.

Instead of putting the carts back into their stall at the end of each visit, though, many of us shoppers handed them off to the next people coming in, accepting the quarters they proffered. Sometimes someone would refuse my quarter and I’d get a cart for free; other times I’d wave away the quarter offered for my cart. Every time, it made me smile.

Aldi’s inventory exploded and improved over time. Sometimes special items—kombucha or goat cheese—appeared on the shelves, making me smile too. The store always delivered interesting surprises.

And so did its parking lot.

“Got some spare change?” a man said one day, walking a little too close to me as I headed to my car.

“Just this.” I handed him the quarter I had gotten back from my cart.

He grunted. “Not enough.”

If you hit up enough people for their cart money, it adds up, I felt like saying. Instead, I shrugged and dropped the quarter into my coat pocket. The man shuffled away.

 

One day, I hopped out of the car and headed toward Aldi’s doors. A young woman approached me.

“Can I just get a few dollars?” she said, her face contorting. “I’m hungry.”

“I could buy you some groceries,” I said.

Her eyes lit up. “Really?” Then she turned all business. “So, what’s my budget?”

“Hm. Six dollars.”

She nodded and followed me inside the store. First, she snapped up a package of sandwich cookies. Sweets aren’t a good choice on an empty stomach, the mom in me felt like saying, but I sealed my mouth shut. 

“My girl's in private school in Edina,” she said, pulling a gallon of milk from the cooler. “It’s so expensive I can hardly make it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I can imagine.”

She filled her arms with a box of crackers, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips. We stepped in line to pay. The young woman dropped her items onto the conveyer belt.

“Will you be okay carrying all this home?” I said as the cashier rang up her items.

She nodded. “My house is just a block away.”

An older woman behind me in line tapped my shoulder, then leaned in, her voice low. “Are you buying those groceries for her?”

“Yeah, why?”

“She already asked me to buy these for her.” She indicated eight items on the belt behind our order. She cleared her throat and turned her eyes to slits. “Excuse me,” she said to the young woman. “You just said you live a block away, but you told me you were homeless.”

The young woman raised her shoulders and eyebrows. “By homeless I meant I don’t own the house I live at.”

The older woman let out a bitter snort. “Right.”

The cashier and I exchanged a look. And the young woman scurried away that day with a bag full of food, because no matter what, she needed it.

 

On another shopping trip, I strode across the parking lot. Icy winds sliced me, so I quickened my pace.

A man’s voice coming from thirty yards behind me cut through the frozen air. Something, something “—black backpack!”

What was he shouting?

The late-afternoon crowd zipped into the store, and I darted for the doors too. After a long day, I would make this one fast. Ciabatta rolls, almonds, avocados, eggs. I could be in and out in ten minutes.

Something, something “—black backpack!” the man yelled again.

Wait. I carried a black backpack purse. Was he hollering at me? I entered the store and encountered the chips section. My interest in Holler Guy’s incoherent communication style disappeared as fast as the Pringles would if I brought some home.

Something, something “—black backpack!” the man bellowed again from just outside the doors.

He entered the store and caught up with me in the trail mix area.

“That was me calling you,” Holler Guy said, his tone cheery. He tilted his head, assessing me. “From back there, you looked much younger.”

I bunched my lips to one side, harrumphed, and returned to my browsing.

Much younger? He appeared to be in his late fifties. Did he make a lot of connections shouting at much younger women in grocery store parking lots? I wrinkled my nose.

“I wanna dance with somebody,” he sang as he poked through the condiments at the end of the aisle. “I wanna feel the heat with somebody.” He plucked a bottle of ketchup from the shelf. “With somebody who loves me.”

I smiled, shaking my head. Only Whitney Houston sang the song better than Holler Guy. Maybe he’d have more success with the ladies if he stopped yelling and serenaded them instead. But I didn’t tell him that. I still had to find the ciabatta rolls.

 

Over the years, I came to enjoy the adventure that was food shopping in our neighborhood. It called for a roving gaze over the parking lot whenever I climbed from my vehicle. On most trips, someone asked me for money or blurted out unseemly comments for the world to hear. Different grocery stores in other neighborhoods made me yawn, however. While pretty and predictable, they were bland excursions with only one outcome: groceries.

But not our Aldi. With delicious eats and built-in entertainment, we came home each time with so much more than just food.

 

 

*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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