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.

Emptiness

A shelf in the bathroom stands empty, and peace pulses through my veins as I gaze at it. It’s a space where a stack of bath towels normally lives, but I’m behind on the laundry right now. I drink in the void, and inspiration swells my chest. Emptiness equals possibilities.

I’ve left walls in my living room blank on purpose. Let the throw pillows sing; let the paint speak, is what I always say. Beauty fills the bareness.

I practice the art of restraint in my home décor, but what if I practiced emptiness more in my speech? I think of the tongue this week because the topic chases me down in three ways; a memory, a verse, and a good idea all come to me when I haven’t asked for them.

I remember my grandma, a woman who guarded her words. She released only the vetted ones and only when the time was right. Her language obeyed the checklist she had set in place: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

True. Helpful. Inspiring. Necessary. Kind.

THINK. A handy acronym for when I want to blurt an assessment of what I see in the world around me. But can I remember to use it?

 

I’m scouring the internet, searching for the brittle, plastic stuff of life—temporary things—as if they matter. I see a still open tab I don’t recall. I click on it.

When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.

I chuckle over the old language as well as the verse’s sharp relevance. And I savor it for a minute. I want this to be me. I want to be wise.

 

I fire off a text to Husband over something forgettable. My day requires me to relay a fact to him. I key in the statement, then add another sentence—a complaint coated in worry. But a good idea rescues me, overpowering my urge to press send. My finger hovers over the button. When do I think through my texts to Husband? Never. He can handle both my positivity and negativity, can’t he? That’s part of a spouse’s job description, isn’t it?

Or is it?

I take a breath and hit delete. My second sentence disappears—and it’s a wise thing. The truth of the first sentence is enough.

 

I think of all I can say about life, but today isn’t calling me to release those words. Instead, what’s calling is the shelf in the bathroom.

As pretty as the emptiness is, it’s time to fold some towels.

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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.

Receive

Lights frame the large mirror in the makeup room, and in the center of it, she glows. I gaze at my new friend, in her late sixties now. Like me, she models every week, and together we’re grateful for the sudden and steady work—work that came to us, instead of the other way around. But she goes beyond where I’m standing.

“God is right there, his hands open, ready to put you center stage.” She presses her lips together for a moment, then smiles, her ruby lip color as brilliant as her words. “Just step forward and grab hold. I did it, and it works.”

She says it like it’s easy. Grab hold. I imagine opening my hands to receive more. But something’s filling them. What is it? What am I already holding?

 

Back at home, the garden calls. Husband stands on the bed of his Ford F150, extending a box of plants to me.

“Give me a second,” I say, nodding at the bag of mulch in my arms, “and I’ll get that from you.”

I haul my load to the pile of bags we already stacked in the corner of the patio and drop it there. I return to him, arms empty now, and receive the box of pansies, fuchsia, bleeding heart, euphorbia, and astilbe he hands me.

And in that small action of emptying my arms first, then accepting the box of flowers, it all makes sense.

I know I can’t receive more—I can’t grab hold—until I release what I’m clinging to. But I finally see what that is: I’m gripping the desire to be grateful at all times—the need to be satisfied with exactly what I have now.

And there’s no more room to receive gifts.

But isn’t it good to be grateful? Isn’t it better to give than to receive? That kind of teaching rings out from pulpits and platforms everywhere, doesn’t it?

And so I give. We all do. Until it gets easy. And it feels so good to us that it becomes our everything.

But what about receiving? Ask and you shall receive.

Over the soil now, I think of my friend, blossoming in her modeling career, and I think of my own hands, full of contentment goals, my fingers so tight on the concept I can’t unfurl them.

Good gifts are limitless, though; there are enough to go around.

I set down my trowel and practice opening my hands for a change.

Let’s see what happens now.

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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.

The study

My soul churned with a desire to do something big—to love the world beyond our front door.

Pain strolled along the sidewalk—I could see it from our window—and even our doors couldn’t muffle the needs bellowing from the street corners in our neighborhood. But it was the spring of 2005, and I had three small forces—ages one, three, and five years old—pinning me to home life. How could I make a difference out there when I held the position of stay-at-home mom in here? What could I do? Could I improve lives beyond the ones I had birthed?

I raked around ideas when I rested with my girls during nap times. I mulled over scenarios as I whipped up dinners. And while I stared at the ceiling in the dark of our bedroom, I offered up an impossible request: Let me have a ministry at home—yet outside our home, if that makes any sense.

One morning over a steaming cup of dark roast, an idea fluttered to rest on me.

Host a ladies’ home Bible study.

I thought of those wounded by the church, those stuck in chains, those bankrupt of love, and purpose stirred me to action. I posted an ad in our neighborhood’s newspaper, inviting whomever would come.

The calls rolled in—the first from a man. His wife was interested in my study, he said, but he needed to know about me first. He zeroed in on my theology, pelting me with questions. I answered them. In stern terms, he showed me he favored his rules to my freedom; his wife wouldn’t be joining my group after all.

Next, a woman named Charlene phoned. She had spotted my ad, lived nearby, and was thrilled to be a part of a home group. After that, Linda, another woman in the neighborhood, called. Her challenges in life flowed through the phone lines. She suffered from hearing loss and also struggled with mobility issues, she said, and did I have front steps she would need to navigate?

After several more calls, the phone stopped ringing. My group was set at five women, and my next task was to choose a study. I browsed my options, searching for something nourishing, but doable. I landed on a six-week topical study on the biblical character of Hannah, a barren woman who begged God for a child, promising that if she got one, she’d give him back as a gift. (And that’s just what she did.)

I hired two young cousins to babysit my littles—and any others—during my gatherings. The appointed day in June arrived.

Tidy house. Check.

Babysitters. Check.

Fresh coffee. Check. 

A knock at the door. Then four more. My heart thumped. This was it. This was my ministry at home—and yet out in the neighborhood. My impossible request had been granted.

The summer calendar ticked along, and so did our group meetings each Wednesday morning at nine. They started out sweet, those gatherings. And then something happened: the women exposed their humanity. Could it be these new friends were showing their authentic selves right in my living room? My chest exploded with gratitude.

One day during our closing time, Linda prayed aloud. She emptied her concerns into the room, and her words flowed into a new language. Was it Hebrew? I sensed the weight of Love filling the room. My vision blurred. She finished, and the women left.

That evening, my phone rang. Charlene.

“Nice hearing from you,” I said.

Her tone was stiff. “I have a problem with what happened today.”

“Oh?”

“A person should never speak in tongues without an interpreter present.”

My thoughts ran back to Linda, spilling out her soul into my living room that morning. What Charlene said was true, but Linda’s life had bruised her in a hundred ways. I let out a breath. “I think of her heart, though, Charlene.”

Charlene explained if Linda did it one more time, she’d quit. That evening by phone, I chatted with Linda about practicing her gift, softening my words so she could hear me. But the next week, it happened again. Our group dwindled by one.

Summer plans whisked my ladies away sometimes. But we still gathered when we could, pressing together over the topic of an ancient mother who gave up her son to a higher calling. And soon we found out Hannah was us, and we were Hannah. And we hurt for her like we too had sacrificed our sons for something bigger.

August arrived, and so did our last meeting. My babysitters had a conflict, so I drove my little ones to their aunt’s house for the morning. I returned home, brewed the coffee, set out my study book, and planted myself on the couch.

But no knocks sounded on my front door.

Did the women remember it was Wednesday? Had they received my messages that this was our last time together?

For an hour, I waited. Where were my ladies? Like a balloon losing air, our last meeting shriveled to nothing, and only one person was left: me. An anticlimactic finale to my summer ministry.

Why was I alone? What had happened? I thought of how I had advertised the study, drawing women from the neighborhood. I had arranged the childcare, brewed the coffee, facilitated the discussions, comforted the broken ones, tended to the angry one, and seen the course through to its end over many weeks. This was a big deal.

Wasn’t it?

Quietness anchored me to my spot. And a familiar softness blanketed the room. I leaned into the silence.

This was one of the small things.

“Oh,” I said into the empty room. And newness warmed me.

From where I sat, I hadn’t known the size of what I was doing. And I needed to be alone now to know the truth: my study was a small thing.

A small thing. But I smiled anyway, knowing it was big enough.

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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.

Revisiting the garden

We haven’t dropped seedlings into the ground just yet, but early May always plants thoughts in my head of blooms to come. Enjoy this blog post from June 4, 2015. (Hopefully Husband’s and my gardening skills have improved over the years…)

*****

Both my mother and my mother-in-law had sprouted into this world with verdant thumbs, and vegetables and flowers sprang from their efforts. But as kids, Husband and I weren’t fans of gardening. He recalled working in gardens—as big as city lots—spreading bales of straw for mulch and truckloads of manure, surrendering much of his summer days “ministering to the vegetables,” as he would say. I remembered trailing my mom, enduring the mosquito-biting hours while weeding long rows of vegetables on my grandparents’ farm. The only high point for me was plucking carrots from the earth, wiping their dirt onto my jeans, and noshing them while they were still gritty.

Husband and I had never owned a garden together until we settled into our home in north Minneapolis. Since childhood, my tune had changed about gardening, and I was delighted the previous homeowners had left behind some presents: peonies, strawberry plants, lily of the valley. I even counted the sprawling lilac as ours because it spilled its sumptuous scent—for a week and a half every spring—over the fence into our yard from the Isenbergs’ place.

Since we were entwined in home improvement projects that first year in the house, we didn’t venture into the garden much. By the next summer, though, we itched to dig in the dirt and grow stunning things just like our mothers had. But Husband and I were uninformed about the ins and outs of gardening, and our naiveté probably trumpeted the truth across the yard to our neighbors.

“Do you mind if we grow clematis along the chain link fences?” I asked Glenda on the north and Mrs. Isenberg on the south. “I just wanted to be sure you’re okay with it, because it’ll be thick and cover the fences completely.”

While both of them gave their consent, our lack of horticultural skills prevented us from knowing some basic facts: establishing clematis takes time, and it doesn’t grow well in the shade.

Undaunted and thrifty, we bought flowers—late in the season one year—at discounted prices from Malmborg’s. I created a puzzle piece-shaped garden, and we took a stab at it, plunging autumn sedum, columbine, bleeding heart, creeping jenny, and some new hostas into the soil. On the other side of the yard, I plugged in some annuals—pansies, celosia, impatiens, coleus, and marigolds—for instant gratification.

The following year, we eagerly awaited the return of spring. When the weather warmed, I inspected the flower beds. The sedum was okay and the bleeding heart had made a valiant return, but the dianthus with its normally fringy blooms, looked more raggedy than it should have. I looked over at the next plant and gasped.

“Any reason why our columbine is black?” I called to Husband across the yard where he turned over soil with a shovel.

He stopped his work and swiped an arm across his forehead. “Maybe the dirt is too acidic? Too much watering? Or some pest got at it?”

So it was a mystery to him too. I sighed. Then I tossed my gaze to Dallas’ yard. He had moved in just the year before when the Isenbergs had moved out. They hadn’t left him much, so whatever he had in the garden was all his. He bustled about the yard with his wheelbarrow and the kind of confidence that could turn the head of a sunflower. His monarda shot its fireworks in the corner of the yard, his daylilies showed off in a dozen colors, his tulips and irises—in straight lines—took turns blooming in the front yard, and his wild echinacea, black-eyed susan, and aster speckled the landscape.

As I gawked at his property, I saw the grass was truly greener on the other side. In fact, over there at Dallas’ place, it was the Garden of Eden. How could he have grown a mature perennial garden in such a short time? Didn’t it take years to coax and nurture one? My envy was much greener than my thumb and just as honorable as Eve’s.

“How does your garden look so good?” I said, baffled.

“My mom has a green thumb.” Dallas shrugged. “I guess I got it from her.”

“So does my mom. But I didn’t inherit the Midas touch.”

Good-natured and humble, Dallas laughed that laugh that reverberated across the yards.

 

In April each year, Dallas’ yellow and purple crocuses kicked off the growing season, and in October, his chrysanthemums drew it to a close. He had timed it all just so; at any moment, the color spectrum splashed his gardens. His flowers were healthy, showy, and well-established, and then I’d watch in horror as he’d dig it all up and change the configuration the next year, relocating his plants to other parts of the yard or scrapping certain varieties of flowers altogether if he tired of them. Meanwhile, on our side of the fence, we found a few good spots that worked for certain plants, and we kept it that way, not daring to tempt the cosmos—or the other kind of cosmos with its pretty pink flowers.

“Hey, knock that off over there,” Husband would holler over when Dallas was out working in his garden. “You’re making us look bad.”

Dallas would laugh again and then stop for a minute to chat, maybe even handing us a perennial or two over the fence.

We shared the same stretch of land in the city. So, green thumb aside, how was Dallas’ patch of earth so fertile while ours struggled? As I gazed at his burning bush—with its vibrant red foliage in the fall—I thought of the biblical patriarch and wondered if Dallas truly lived on holy ground. But before I kicked off my flip-flops in reverence, he shared with me his secret.

“I use what our family calls ‘brown gold’,” he said, pausing from splitting some plants. “It’s manure from the farm.”

His ‘brown gold’ explained some of his success, but his talents were undeniable and his generosity unparalleled.

“Bring your girls over with scissors and cut all the tulips you can,” he said one spring. “I’m heading out of town, and they’ll be done blooming when I get back. You might as well enjoy them.”

And year after year, he’d urge us to bring our baskets to his harvest.

“Please come and take all the tomatoes, peppers, and ground cherries you want,” he’d say. “I’ve already canned more than I can eat.”

 

Over the years, Husband and I made peace with our gardening skills and saw Dallas’ yard for what it was: a gorgeous backdrop to our plot of land. And with no work for us, we could savor the man’s artistry, eat his vegetables, and enjoy front row seats to Eden’s opulence. Living next door to a gardening master was just as good as being one.

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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.

Upside-down gifts

I zip J.J. into fresh pajamas after his bath and pull him into my lap to brush his hair. My mind swirls with tonight’s jobs: Transfer his laundry from the washer to the dryer, don’t forget to pack his special blanket in the morning and his rain boots that are parked by the door, take a sweep under the living room furniture for toys he chucked around yesterday, have him try the fresh berries with his cereal bar for tomorrow’s breakfast.

My brain clicks through all the tasks we do to keep this little guy—and others—healthy, safe, and happy while the space under our roof is theirs too. People see what we do and think we’re the difference makers. But they don’t know how it really works.

When Providence is in something, the whole act is turned on its head. And the upside-down gifts flow. We spend our dollars, but more funds return to us. We donate our days, but we gain more hours. We invest our hearts, but the affection that comes back dwarfs our deposit.

Tomorrow J.J. goes back, and his time with us is done—for now. I pull my gaze away from our guest’s hair and focus on his little face now. He looks right back at me.

“Mama,” he says, grabbing at the brush.

Like any healthy twenty-two month old, he wants to do the job himself. I let him.

But every time he calls me that name, it nicks me in the feelings. And it’s another upside-down gift. I think of the mama who birthed him, her life splintered in ten ways right now, her future already bleeding before it’s even cut, and I know she wishes she could dress him in jammies tonight and detangle his still-wet hair like I get to.

Suddenly I feel selfish that my small giving gets me something big. But I might as well enjoy it, because this is the way of it—with J.J. and in everything that’s first spun in the eternal, then planted in our minds to live out in the temporal.

And so I smile at the upside-down gift perched on my lap and open my hands for more.

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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.

The cashier

The young cashier dragged each of our grocery items across the scanner, his moves smooth and slow. His expression was neutral—serene even?—but I knew that look; his soul was back at home, sapped by life and hiding under the covers.

I shopped at Trader Joe’s with my girl Flicka that October day, and our trip was more for fun than necessity. The location—Shoreview, Minnesota—was new to us, creating an adventure. And we smiled at our favorite of all adverse weather, a rainstorm, dampening the world outside the glass.

But this person in front of us now… What was his story?

I switched my focus to our small stash on the conveyer belt, forcing my thoughts back to the task.

“Thirty-seven forty-five,” the cashier said, his voice soft.

I inserted my debit card. Waiting for the prompts to complete the purchase, I glanced at Flicka. She had already bagged the items, and now her gaze was fixed on the employee serving us.

We carried our bags from the store and crossed the slick parking lot. I blinked away the pelting raindrops, hoping the sky would wash away my thoughts about the cashier while it was at it. My girl reached into the bag and extracted a pomelo. She hopped into the passenger side, and I slid behind the wheel.

As I drove, she peeled the large citrus fruit.

“Looks like a mess waiting to happen,” I said.

“It’ll be fine, Mom.” She grinned, tearing off a section of flesh, and held it out for me.

I took a bite. “Tastes like grapefruit.”

She chewed the fruit too, but her smile eased off, her eyebrows coming together. “That cashier was profoundly sad.”

“Yeah.” My heart pinched. “I saw it too.”

“I’ve known people like that. It’s hard to watch.”

“I know.”

As we drove along 694 West, my girl and I went silent. Then together, we gave away our worries about the cashier to the One who kept his days and knew what it took for him to get out of bed each morning.

And we left it there.

 

One day two weeks ago, I lugged groceries in from the car. Rain drizzled the April landscape, droplets darkening the brown paper bags I carried. As I fumbled with the door, down came the memories, soaking me.

The Trader Joe’s guy—that cashier—from six months ago… Where was he today? Was he okay?

My memory of his face, although blurry, reminded me of the weight of his life. A pang swept through my chest. Again, I released the guy’s unknown-to-me story into bigger hands than my own.

And I left it there.

 

On Monday, Flicka and I savored an hour on the couch with the dog and coffee before our day’s schedules split us apart.

“You know who I just thought of yesterday?” my girl said between sips.

I swallowed some dark roast and shook my head.

“That cashier at Trader Joe’s from months ago. The sad one.”

A lurch in my stomach. “I just thought about him the other day too.”

Her eyes widened. “Really?”

“Do you think he’s still there?” A dark thought tiptoed into my mind. “Still… alive?”

“If we’re both thinking about him now, yes.” My girl’s wisdom wrapped around me like a hug. And I knew she was right.

And so together, we did it again; we gave away the cashier at Trader Joe’s to the One who still sees him and gives him breath.

And we left it there.

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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.

Still more toys

This is our final week about childhood toys. Thank you for your responses, readers. Enjoy the rest of the stories!

*****

A doll with soft, brown curly hair was my favorite but more important were the outside toys. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and so there was not much grass to play on. That didn't matter as the sidewalks, alleys and streets were great places to use our toys. The toys were: ropes- both a short one and two long ones, chalk, a little pink ball, roller skates and a stick. I could go on and on about how all those toys were used in the streets but won't here. All the games we played helped us to form strong bones as our feet pounded the hard ground. In the summer it was goggles, an inner tube and a small boat, and oh a swim suit that wore out when it was just midway into the summer due to all the play in the salt water of the Long Island Sound. Growing up in the city was a blast that country kids would not understand.

Arleen, Fergus Falls, MN

*****

 I used to dress up in an old shawl of my mother's. It was soft cream-colored Kashmir wool with long fringe twisted with gold thread. A triangle tear sent it to the dress-up box. I used to drape that shawl over my head and imagine it was long golden hair like Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Only as an adult did I realize how ridiculous I must have looked, but inside I felt beautiful. I moved with grace and elegance. I WAS Aurora. After all, you are how you feel.

LeAnne, northwestern Wisconsin

 *****

 A back-and-forth between two friends:

 Kathy: I played with Dawn Dolls. They are about 3-4 inches tall. Switched out outfits.

Shelby: I loved my Dawn Doll! *Showed a picture*

K: Oh, they were 6 inches… I thought 3 inches!

S: I’m pretty sure I lost one of her little white shoes within days, if not hours. I also loved my Barbies; though I wasn’t allowed to have Ken, my brothers’ GI Joe made a fine husband and was a bit more “manly.” I liked to make my own clothes for my paper dolls and liked Liddle Kiddles/Lucky Lockets too. I also loved my Velvet doll-cousin of Crissy, with the hair that “grew” when you pushed the button on her tummy and pulled her hair down—or shortened when you turned the knob on her back—which was my present from Santa. While we were in church a few months later, our naughty baby squirrel (we were playing nurse to him after he fell out of his nest), escaped his box and wreaked havoc all over the house. During his hour of mayhem, he chewed off Velvet’s fingers and nose. I was devastated. Oh, I can laugh… now.

K: I had the Velvet doll too! I loved her purple dress and longgg blonde hair.

S: Looking at photos, Crissy was much more mod-looking. She was supposed to be a young teen. Velvet was her younger cousin. I wanted a blonde because I was blonde as well—not as bright as Velvet, though. Ha!

K: My sister and I both wanted the Velvet doll, not the Crissy doll. So we fought over who would get stuck with which doll. I think Crissy had red hair. We didn’t like red hair. My friend had Crissy, and I remembered her long red hair and her super mod clothes. Yet, when Velvet came out, I had to have her. Now I see photos of her, and she looks a little bit like an elf!

 Kathy, Brooklyn Park, MN, and Shelby, Crystal, MN

 *****

 I have a childhood story about Christmas and my dolly.

I knew Mother hid the toys (our gifts) up in the attic. And so, when our babysitter came over, I asked her if she would help me get into the attic so I could see what I had up there. She did. And I had a baby buggy up there. Now, how would I take care of having cheated? I didn’t know I was cheating but I shouldn’t have done it, because it ruins what you’re getting! And Mother never did know I had seen it, and I had to pretend I hadn’t. That was my story. And the babysitter helped me do it. She said, “Now don’t tell anybody you did this.” I was seven or eight years old at the time, and I never confessed it to Mother.

Kath, Valley City, ND

*****

My favorite toys were Johnny West and Geronimo action figures with Breyer plastic horses. I had a fantastic backyard at 39xx Kootenai St., in Boise, Idaho, where my heroes could roam. It had a two-story fort, built by my dad, trees to climb, and a large-for-me-at-the-time ditch running behind it that served as a rushing river. It was a spectacular and dangerous wilderness for some plastic toys and a kid with a pretty active day dream cycle.

Part of what made these toys spectacular was the whole process of getting them. Every year, before Christmas, my parents would take us to the most spectacular place on earth! It was a mall, on the outskirts of Boise, but that mall contained THE ICE CREAM PALACE! We were allowed to go through the mall and give our parents options for one gift that we may or may not get. After I finally scored both Johnny West and Geronimo, my “options” were always the same, one of various Breyer horses. After the shopping was finished, we got to go to The Ice Cream Palace! If I were to see it now, I would probably think it was gaudy and ostentatious, like a Trump Hotel on steroids, but in my memory it will always be the greatest ice cream shop ever created! 

After the shopping came the waiting. Waiting until Christmas Eve. We went to the Christmas Eve service at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, won a bag of candy, peanuts, an apple and an orange for making it through the service, and then rushed home to get in our pajamas and open presents. We were allowed to stay up playing with our new toys for as long as we wanted, long after the parents went to bed, and most Christmas Eves I would fall asleep in my dad’s recliner, pulled up in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket, with my new trusty horse and my partners, Johnny West and Geronimo, tucked under my arm.

Scott, Minneapolis, MN

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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 toys

Last week, I asked you, my readers, what your favorite toys were as kids. It turns out this was a really fun topic for you.

Here are the first six stories you sent me (and come back next week for more!):

Milky the Marvelous Milking Cow! It has to be the weirdest toy ever created... how many kids dream of milking a cow for fun? She drinks when you crank her tail? What exactly is in this “pretend milk”? None of that mattered, though - she was so fun and made such a huge, sloppy mess on my mom's clean floors. Plus, the commercial was priceless. (Click here to watch.)

Melissa, Golden Valley, MN

*****

Back in my day, we did not have a lot of toys. One thing my sister did that I really enjoyed were “shadow picture stories.” She would have a good-sized cardboard box that she would cut a square hole in and I think put a piece of white paper over it. She had cut-out men, women, and children and told a story about a family.

I do not remember any story, but Mom, Dad, Grandma, and the siblings would sit there watching her tell the story. There were probably five of us kids watching the story. I remember being so enthralled in the story; I never wanted her to stop.

We had a simple life; but thoroughly enjoyed it.

Amy, New Hope, MN

*****

My favorite toy was a doll too! It was a little rubber doll that just happened to be black. I called it my favorite. And I loved it so much. Fast forward 40 years to when I adopted my two African American real live babies! Yup, they are for sure my favorites! And just like I thought my black doll was cuter than all my other dolls I also think my real live ones are cuter than all the other white babies out there! Maybe I am just a little biased!

Karen, Sacred Heart, MN

*****

I have many fond memories of playing with my Fisher Price Town and Farm sets as a preschooler. I would take out all the pieces and put the people in different spots and create many scenarios. Even as I got older and saw my little brother come along, simply dump out the bucket of people, vehicles, animals, etc., then proceed to walk away, I would sit down and make those people come to life yet again.  

My joy now, is that I am able to watch my girls play with those same wonderful toys and create new scenarios, characters, and adventures in this classic little town. A special thanks to my mom for being willing to stash this gem away for 25+ years before it was to see the light of day again!  

Mandi, Fond Du Lac, WI

*****

Here's Gordy's memory from 85 years ago, when he was around 5:

He says Orv (his brother), who owned the toy, was probably 10. “The best toy we had was probably Orv's steam engine.” (From Gordy's hand measurement, it was 8-10 inches tall.) “We'd light something cottony in a cup at the base that must have had some flammable fluid in it. That would heat up the water that propelled a wheel at the top. Sometimes we'd rig it up to Tinker toys to power a windmill. I'm not sure that it worked so well, but we tried anyway.”

Faythe’s memories: The Dyrud kids didn't have anything that sophisticated—except for the doll house with “electric lights” from Esther Larson. I would guess my sisters will list dolls. A ball in hand was always my favorite, even in the house in winter, although there was a standing rule that throwing balls in the house was not allowed. When one hit an Aladdin lamp, an expensive chimney (Gordy says the word chimney works with kerosene lamps, maybe not Aladdin) could be broken and a mantle (fancy wick) destroyed. Maybe that could even rise to spanking possibility.

Gordy’s memory: “We broke more than one mantle trying to light cigarettes we made by rolling coffee in a piece of newspaper.”

Faythe and Gordy (written by Faythe), Minneapolis, MN

*****

3 words… Easy. Bake. Oven. For Christmas I would get jumbo crayons and a coloring book which I tore through in a matter of days. And of course… anything Equine.

Shantell, Corcoran, MN

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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.

 

Toys

“No matter how old you are, if a little kid hands you a toy phone, you answer it.” Dave Chappelle

 

Today I’d like to hear from you.

Did you have a favorite toy as a child? What was it? And what made it special?

I’ll get us started.

I was a doll kind of girl. I spent my preschool years toting one around at all times. My three favorites were David Joy, Judy, and Tiny Tears. I came up with the first two dolls’ names, but Tiny Tears kept her name from the box.

David Joy and Judy were low maintenance babies, but Tiny Tears could perform bodily functions. A doll that cried actual tears and wet her diaper? What fun! When I fed her a bottle of water, the magic happened. And the extra work thrilled me.

Much later, I discovered Tiny Tears had another talent: she could grow black mold inside her rubber body. But that’s a story for a different day…

Now it’s your turn. Write me a note about your favorite toy from when you were a kid and send it here. Subscribers, simply hit reply to this email. I will publish your memories (along with your first name and location) in next week’s blog installment.

Until then, happy playtime!

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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.