Tamara Jorell

Writing life and the neighborhood

Writing life and the neighborhood

 

Yesterday's books

“Reading never wears me out.” Olivia, by Ian Falconer

What book from childhood did you like best? And why?

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

I’ll get us started…

I dragged my finger along the tattered bindings of Maj Lindman’s books. Inside their pages frolicked triplet girls from another time and place. I tagged along with them on their adventures—with a little dog, a new friend, their new dotted dresses, the girl next door, and the three kittens. Their mother always wore high heels in the house. And did she really cook for them all day long? Was that what life was like in Sweden even before my own mother was alive? The girls’ names—Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka—plucked at something inside me. How fun to say! Maybe one day I’d have triplets of my own.

Now it’s your turn.

And until next time… “But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’” Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak

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Flicka and sisters.jpg

*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.

Doris

I first met Doris at a neighborhood block meeting in 2003. Nothing fancy, that meeting. Just a small gathering of people perched on folding chairs on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor Marta’s house. A guy named Don told us about some troublemakers messing with his garage, and he peppered the air with expletives. I shot a look at my girls—just two of them then, ages one and three—wondering if they caught the colorful language. Marta reined in the talk, funneling it in useful directions. And Doris floated above it all; she leaned into my double stroller, making funny faces at my babies until they laughed.

Doris worked in Mr. N’s yard in the summers, her face mottled from heat and hard work, sweat dripping off her chin. She bagged leaves in the fall and shoveled snow in the winter for him too. We exchanged waves and small talk whenever I spied her outside.

Then came the gifts. Doris dropped off little surprises for our girls on holidays. She worked at Litin Paper Company and snagged some good deals, she said. Each of the girls got orange pumpkin-shaped bags of goodies on Halloween, trinkets in Santa bags at Christmas, and little baskets of treasures for Easter. We’d come home from our out-of-town New Year’s festivities to jolly noise-makers and candy on our back step. And her fondness for Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka on Valentine’s Day came in the shape of hearts filled with chocolates—one for each girl.

Inspired by Doris, we decided to do some doorstep treats of our own for the neighbors. We began our Christmas cookie venture in 2004, the year Dicka was born. Just because people don’t normally deliver homemade cookies to strangers in a city neighborhood didn’t mean we wouldn’t.

Doris ranked high on our list. We trekked over to her street, a plate of goodies in my right hand, the baby propped on my left hip. My walking littles clutched the hem of my coat, and we trudged to her door through thick snow. Maybe she was too busy shoveling for the neighbors to clear her own. My hands full, I assigned the job of knocking to the toddler and preschooler.

A face in the door’s window. The sound of an unlatching deadbolt, then a chain sliding off its rails.

“Look who it is,” Doris said, her smile warming the air between us.

Behind her, the inside of the house was dark, the living room stacked with newspapers and containers. Near the doorway, a cat curved around a cardboard box, slinking toward us to check our identities.

Flicka handed her the gift of treats. And after that, the girls took turns delivering holiday cheer on red plates each Christmas until the year Doris didn’t come to her door anymore.

“Does she even still live here?” Ricka said.

“I don’t know.” I headed to the woman’s back yard, my now preteen girls scooting along behind me.

We dodged snow-covered garden tools and antique crates, rusted lawn ornaments and a broken wheel barrow, crumbled bricks and bent chicken wire. Maybe leaving a plate of cookies on Doris’ back step was safer. Maybe if we left our gift there it wouldn’t be snapped up by a passerby or squashed by a mail carrier.

But that day, the truth blew through my winter coat: we only knew the gift end of Doris and nothing else of her life. And even then, something told me our visits to her house were almost all used up.

 

Last week—fifteen years after meeting Doris—I clicked through a Facebook page for neighbors in our small corner of the city. One man grumbled about the meth houses too close to ours. Then he tossed out some facts about a certain address I knew well.

Doris’ house is boarded up now, and there are squatters there. She died a few months ago.

My mouth dried up. Where did our friend spend her last days? Did she have friends or family to see her off to the other side? How did her story end? Did she know we loved her?

I didn’t have the details I wanted, but I knew this much: As sure as Christmas cookies and snow and gift bags left on steps, the City that had hammered up those boards could take them down again, and goodness could move back in.

Doris may be gone, but hope was a survivor.

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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.

 

That day

And just like that, everything changed.

(The following blog post was my first, published four years ago now.)

*****

September 11, 2001. That dark Tuesday for the country was the beginning of a new day for my family, but we didn’t know it then.

I heard the news of the terrorist attacks from a friend who called me, breathless, early that morning. In a fog, I watched news coverage later that day in the waiting room of a clinic in our town of Sierra Vista, Arizona. Ricka, just eleven days old at the time, screamed during her appointment when the nurse pricked her heel, squeezing out a single drop of blood for each spot on a card for the lab. Distracted, I took my healthy baby home when it was over.

Wide-eyed and incredulous, we sat in front of our television for days like the rest of the country. I nursed Ricka, and Flicka, who was only twenty-two months old, played on the floor in front of the TV. I recall several living rooms in those days. Our viewing of the nightmare rotated from our living room to our friends’ living rooms, as if watching the horrors on TV in someone else’s house would bring fresh answers, a sound conclusion.

As usual, we Border Patrol wives stuck together. Our husbands continued to go to their jobs on the Mexican border, their station located in the town of Douglas, Arizona. Just because the country was grieving didn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. Maybe even more work now. America wasn’t impenetrable anymore.

Husband worked hot, dusty shifts in the desert. He had been unsatisfied with his job since its beginning three and a half years earlier, and I wondered if he would ever be happy in a job. It didn’t help that his work on the border seemed meaningless to him. The same groups of people crossing over without documentation would be caught in the desert, gathered up, brought to the station to be “idented,” and sent back to Agua Prieta, Mexico, only to return the next day to the same agents, the same scenarios.

Husband came home with stories. Fathers abandoning their families in the desert to escape to the U.S. alone. Desperate mothers tossing their babies over the steel fence separating the U.S. from Mexico. Federal agents finding drugs in a desert also littered with garbage, discarded clothing, full and empty mayonnaise jars—and sometimes a dead body. Eventually, the government instructed the agents to look the other way from illegal border crossings. The success rates would look better that way, and it was all about the numbers. Husband wanted out.

The unabating sun, the choking sandstorms, and Husband’s uniform—stained from the red clay soil of the Sonoran desert—reminded us we were far from where we came. We had two babies, and their mere existence in the world nudged me daily.

Go back home!

We heard reports in our town of “particulate matter”—dried feces—in the air we breathed, higher rates of childhood leukemia, drug use amongst kids as young as third grade, the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and eventually it wasn’t just Husband looking for a way out. Something had stirred in me too.

We kept our ears open. Husband applied for jobs elsewhere—the northern U.S. border as a Border Patrol agent, anywhere as a Secret Service agent, and the Grand Canyon as a Forest Ranger. But it was 9/11—the bleakest of America’s tragedies—that was our way out. The Federal Air Marshal Service under the Department of Homeland Security was suddenly hiring hundreds of new air marshals to supplement their paltry number of pre-9/11 agents.

Nothing about the federal government moves quickly, but the hiring process for Federal Air Marshals was expedited due to a new national sense of insecurity. They demanded coverage, and now. Husband and most of his friends from the Border Patrol in Douglas, Arizona, were hired. Abruptly, our lives changed. The mild winters, monsoon seasons, and slow-paced desert lifestyle came to an end. By March 22, 2002, we handed our house keys to the landlord, slammed the U-Haul doors shut for the last time, tossed one last look behind us at the Huachuca Mountains, and started our trek north.

We spent our first night on the road in a cheap motel in Deming, New Mexico. A long enough travel day for a six-month-old and a two-year-old, we decided. Burrs peppered the carpeting in that motel room, so we kept our shoes on.

We hit blizzard conditions in Nebraska, and memories of my northern Minnesota upbringing smacked me in the face. Oh, that’s right. That’s how winter feels. I was sorry the little ones were wearing light fleece jackets and that I had stepped into flip-flops that morning, but it was cozy in the cab of the U-Haul truck.

Having survived the trip from southeastern Arizona to northwestern Minnesota in four wintry days with a baby, a toddler, our miniature dachshund, and all our earthly possessions, we wended our way to my parents’ home in Newfolden, Minnesota. It was my first time seeing their new house and new dogs—a fresh life together in their almost thirty-eight years of marriage. I pulled Mom and Dad into vice-grip hugs, relieved Dad wasn’t greatly changed from the last time I saw him. The fear I nursed on the trip was that he was worse and no one had told me. But he was between chemo treatments, enjoying an upswing in energy, and ready to play with his little grandgirls.

I looked at Husband. We had made it. I squeezed him tight. We were starting something new. He was a Federal Air Marshal now and would report the next week to a training academy. The girls and I would stay at Mom and Dad’s for as long as it took to find a house in the Twin Cities where Husband’s new station would be.

We didn’t know that in eight weeks, we’d have found our first home—a 1919 stucco—and be living in North Minneapolis, an area we knew nothing about.

We had no idea what was about to go down for us living in the hood.

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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.

Coco and the county fair

If the Marshall County Fair back in the late 1970s had been an opera, my older sister Coco would’ve been the prima donna. A true Renaissance 4-H girl, she was a judge’s dream. Only in junior high, she already had talents with a camera, canvas, cloth, cooking, and Checkered Giants (rabbits.) I was in elementary school at the time, and while my younger siblings may have entered items in the fair too, my memories of their efforts are fuzzy; I was too busy trying to emulate Coco to pay much attention.

In four frames, Coco captured the different stages of my cartwheel for a photo series entry. She baked the best julekage and carrot cake I, to this day, have ever tasted. She showcased her sewing skills by altering a dress and transforming it into a skirt/top duo. And she nurtured an all-white male rabbit named Dandelion to winning heights.

My industrious doings, on the other hand, sang an off-key tune. While my dried bean and macaroni kitchen plaque was solidly average, I stitched a misplaced seam on my sewing project, turning my striped skirt with patch pockets into a bag. And for the baking competition, I whipped up some biscuits using baking soda instead of baking powder.

“What’s the difference anyway?” I asked Mom after admitting my mistake in the kitchen. “Does it really matter?”

“Bake them and see,” she said.

The dog wrinkled her nose at the hard orange biscuits that emerged from the oven. I started my projects over, mixing my dough again and later ripping out the stitches in my “bag” too.

If thoughts of the fair judges’ scrutiny rattled us, the promise of the payout kept us motivated. A blue ribbon equaled $3.00, a red ribbon $2.00, and a white $1.00. A grand champion ribbon meant even more money, but I imagined the sense of satisfaction was higher than the dollars earned by winning one.

Coco secured all blue ribbons, with the exception of her julekage and carrot cake; those were grand champion winners. I don’t remember what I won on my biscuits or skirt, but I know I earned a red ribbon on my dried bean and macaroni plaque. And those two dollars made me grin.

The county fair was bigger than ribbons, though. For several shifts a year, we 4-H members and some parents performed a sweaty service manning the food booth, and that was where Coco and I shared equal ground; we both feared making change.

We kids took the customers’ orders, the hot grill spitting grease at us as we scurried by. We plated hamburgers, potato salad, rolls, and pie. We filled cups with coffee and milk. And then came time for the money to change hands.

“$5.15, please,” I said to an older gentleman with a mustache.

He opened his wallet, extracted a twenty-dollar bill, and rummaged in his pocket. He slapped a dime and a nickel down on the counter along with the bill.

I furrowed my brow, plucking up the twenty and waggling it in the air. “This is enough. You don’t need the coins too.”

His eyes smiled even though his mustache stayed even. He nodded toward somebody’s mother who worked the cash register. “Bring it over there, give it to her, and see what happens.”

Wary, I brought the twenty and change to the till. The woman handed me back a ten and a five. A light dawned, and my mouth sagged open. Mr. Mustache had shown me new ways of the world—and making change. I shot a look over my shoulder at him. He winked.

In the evening, we collected our fair items with the judges’ notes affixed to them—and ribbons too, if we were lucky—and loaded them into the station wagon. Coco’s champion baked goods, along with other people’s, had posed for public viewing all day on flimsy plates atop white-papered tables. Flies buzzed in circles over the edible winners, but that didn’t stop us from tearing into the julekage on the ride home and washing down the soft wads of Norwegian Christmas bread with ice-cold strawberry Shastas.

Back at home, we bathed, sponging away the dust from the fair while keeping our memories. Coco displayed her ribbons on a cork board in our shared bedroom, and of course I copied her. As if that year wasn’t success enough, I could tell my big sister already had schemes brewing for the next year’s entries. And maybe I did too.

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

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

Angels and bananas

“I drive around the block every night before I head to work,” Edward says, forearms resting on his back gate. “I check on your house too. Make sure everything’s okay over there.”

I try to think of what we did to deserve our own nightshift-working guardian angel who happens to live down the alley and monitors our block while we sleep, but I come up empty.

“I appreciate it,” Husband says, his head bobbing.

“What would we do without you?” And this time when I say it, it’s not a rhetorical question.

Edward’s eyes glow, and the back door of his house swings open. His wife Marie steps out and saunters toward us, a smile splashed on her face.

I exchange a hug with the woman who gave me her grandmother’s ceramic bowls—and warm memories of her whenever I eat soup from them. Before those dishes, though, she gave us something even better: her daughter, whose presence improved our basketball court out back. For years, the sight of that kid’s pump fakes and dribble drives, as she played with at least six other teenagers on our driveway, made my heart clench. In those days, Marie gave all the neighborhood kids stern warnings about practicing manners while they shot hoops at our place too. And my heart squeezes even now.

But we have to leave.

“We’ll have you guys over for pizza,” Husband says for the umpteenth time, even though jobs usually trample our intentions when we pull out our calendars. But hope and pizza live together in our neighborhood, so here we go again.

 

One summer day, Marie calls, telling me she’s got something for me. She drops off the present—a black garbage bag filled with overripe bananas—on my porch. She rescued the fruit, destined for the dumpster, from her workplace, because why should it all go to waste? I peel, slice, and zip the bananas into freezer bags for their cold sleep. In the winter, I’ll do some baking with Marie’s gift and think of Edward and his watchful rounds night after night. And of course I’ll think of her too, always making our lives sweeter than banana bread.

 

We fire up the outdoor pizza oven on a rainy Monday, but Edward and Marie are working and can’t make it over for a slice this time either.

“Why don’t you put in your order?” I tell Marie. “We’ll make you a couple for after work. I don’t care how late it is.”

She laughs. “Okay. Sausage, green pepper, and mushrooms for me. Just meat—or whatever you’ve got—for Edward.”

Around ten o’clock that night, she pulls her car up to the curb in front of our house. I head outside, balancing one pizza pan on each palm. She jumps from her vehicle, meets me on the sidewalk, and hugs my middle because my hands are full.

“I would’ve delivered to your house, you know,” I say.

She laughs again. She’s appreciative, she says, but I think I feel it more. While pizzas are nice, I’ll take angels and bananas any day.

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

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

Little things: beginnings

I couldn’t think about anything else until I peeked. Just one little look. I wouldn’t have to go further.

I peeled back the tiniest portion of carpeting in the bedroom, and lifting a few square inches in the corner revealed exactly what I wanted: a hardwood floor. Despite its roughness, I spied potential. I ripped further.

It was 2002, and we were new to the house and not in a position to do any renovations yet. But to me, the timing was ideal; Husband was at work.

Nervous excitement roiling my stomach, I tore the stinky old carpeting free from the nails that anchored it. I heaped the offending mass in the dining room, whipping up excuses for why it needed to go that day. Several young children had lived in the house before us. How many times had their bodily fluids puddled up on the beige fibers and seeped through to the pad underneath? And with kids of our own, how many times would we add our own muck to the hard-to-clean textile? It was better off gone.

My picking away at the flooring ushered in a big project, and my impatience propelled it to its end.

Over the years, many other small beginnings have zinged me in the gut too: the initial step into the kindergarten classroom for each of my girls, the starting payment on a large bill, the first word of a manuscript pecked out on my keyboard.  

Frustration floods me—anxiety too sometimes—because first movements seem too tiny to accomplish big things, and I don’t like them. I’d rather jump to the grand, satisfying conclusion: the graduation, the pay-off check, my story’s The End.

But outside of time and space, Someone else values the nearly invisible debut, the almost imperceptible start.

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.

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

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

Little things: the ten blocks

I drive along Dowling, a busy avenue in my North Minneapolis neighborhood. As I travel the ten blocks I know like my own hands, a quote swirls through my brain.

Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.

Small doings are in plain sight, but repetition has killed the landscape for me. I gaze at my surroundings now, resurrecting them. I want to see again.

More than a decade ago, the shoe repair shop with the clever sign—“We can heel you and save your sole”—at Dowling and Fremont vanished, leaving behind a blank plot of land. Today a man and woman, bent like twin hairpins, work the piece of earth where the shop once stood. It’s not an established community garden, but they till it up each spring anyway, hiding their vegetable seeds in the fresh furrows. The City isn’t onto them yet, or else the lot would lie fallow again. I want to clap for them, cheer for their success in bringing food from nothing right in the middle of everything.   

I roll on. Another farmer tends her property. But what is she doing? I’m happy for the red light, so I can see more. She lugs a watering can to the sidewalk in front of her house and sprinkles the length of one crack, then the next. Did she plant seeds between the slabs of concrete? Or is she nurturing the weeds that sprout from the gaps? I forget I have a passenger in my car—it’s Dicka today—and she’s watching the careful irrigation of cement too. She laughs, and the light turns green.

A block further, a three-legged pit bull hops along the sidewalk at the end of a leash, tongue dangling from his smile, his human affixed to the other end. The man’s strides are slow, matching those of his animal. I’ve seen that dog before—and his man—and those two own each other. The leash is just a formality society demands, because their affection would hold them together just fine.

Food coaxed from city ground. A drink for the cracks. Love on both ends of a tether. My ten blocks have cheered me today. And my eyes are open now.

What about yours?

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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.

Timmy and Trissa

Timmy and Trissa, ages five and three.

The kids were numbers sixteen and seventeen in our home placements through Safe Families for Children. We had hosted sibling pairs before, and our own girls were on a long break from school, so the timing was ideal. Two little kids to our three bigger ones? This would be easy. Lots of help, loads of fun.

The new guests burst into our house like unleashed puppies. But unlike puppies, they were potty-trained, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone piddling on the living room rug. Excitement glinted in Timmy’s eyes, and if that sparkle had a sound, I imagined it would make the same ping! as a dazzling smile in a toothpaste commercial. Trissa leveled a gaze at me that seemed to size up my soul—and plans—within a second.

The boy and girl barreled out the back door, because unlike all the babies we had recently hosted, these two could work doorknobs and deadbolts like the house was on fire and they better scram.

“Girls, go,” I said to my three, stabbing a finger toward the back door. “Follow them.”

The girls chased after the visitors who sprinted down the walk toward our back gate. Timmy made it there first, his sister drafting off him like a pro cyclist.

“Me too, Booty,” she hollered. “Me too!”

“Booty” jiggled the latch until it opened. Freed from the yard, the two of them galloped in circles in the alley, flailing their arms and laughing. A breath caught in my chest. We had committed our time to an organization with safe in its name. And we had made a promise that ours was a safe family. What if a car raced through just then?

My girls corralled the pair. And no cars came.

Safely back in the yard, I crouched in front of our houseguests, capturing a hand of each. “That was scary. Cars drive through here too fast, and you could get hurt. You’re not running out there again.”

Timmy nodded, but his eyes said, Yeah, we are.

“No running in the alley. Got it?” I looked back and forth between the two young faces, concocting a plan to slow them down. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s ride some bikes.”

I opened the garage door and dragged out the bike with training wheels and the tricycle. The kids hopped on their rides, and the girls and I steered them toward the double driveway next door, a perfect practice pad our neighbor had let our girls zoom around on when they were learning.

“Booty, watch me,” Trissa called out. “Watch me!”

The following days with Timmy and Trissa were a blur of running legs and closed ears. A buzz of snack requests and activity changes. A flurry of me snap-pointing at doors while barking commands at my girls.

“You,” I said, because a houseguest breaking loose made me forget the names of my offspring. “Trissa ran out the front door. Go watch her.” I turned on my heel to face another girl of mine. “And you. Timmy just took off out back. Go.”

 

A day or two later, we drove to the park because I needed some respite from door watching. I released our escape artists and the girls to the freedom of play and dropped onto a nearby bench. A handful of older neighborhood kids scrambled on and around the equipment, and our littles were no longer larger than life. Instead, I saw two small children, now navigating a world where they seemed cautious, even hesitant.

The girls guided them onto swings and bars. Timmy and Trissa stuck close. Some of the park kids edged nearer to my group. A verbal exchange, then they hooted over something funny about our little guests. Dicka, our youngest, scowled at them. I stood up and sauntered over.

“That’s only her name for him,” Dicka said to the laughing ones. “You can’t call him Booty.”

The other kids backed off, new distractions at the park tugging them away. All the freedom Timmy and Trissa could want stretched in front of them, but this time neither bolted. They played in one area, and when they were done, they clutched onto my girls’ hands, all smiles.

Our little runners weren’t running anymore.

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

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

 

The puppies

Wails from somewhere outside pierced the walls of our house and ripped me awake. What was that? A loud baby—or an animal? Another cry. Definitely an animal. If those neighbors across the alley had chained up a dog to its neglect—or if they were mistreating it in some other way—so help me. I looked out the kitchen window, eyes narrowed.

But nothing stirred on the plot of land beyond our chain link fence.

I set to work brewing a pot of coffee, memories of one particular dog across the alley flooding my mind and yanking something in my gut all over again. That poor thing had grown thinner and thinner—tethered to one spot under the elements—until Husband sauntered over for a talk with the tenants. But that was years ago.

Ten minutes passed. The mournful sounds continued. I abandoned my coffee cup and headed out back. No movement anywhere. Still, cries drifted to me from nearby. Was a dog caught somewhere—or injured?

I followed the noise, but before I stepped foot onto the neighbor’s property across the alley, a man burst through the back door of the house, his gaze trained on me.

He patted the air with an open palm. “It’s all good over here.”

With vivid colors, he painted a picture of the noise’s cause, explaining it was mating season for the dogs at their place. I shuddered. Too much information.

Too many puppies already wandered our part of the city, minus collars and supervision. Our neighborhood teemed with backyard breeders bringing more pit bulls into the world. And for what purpose? I had heard about the ones used for fighting or to guard guns and drugs in stash houses, but that was the worst case scenario, wasn’t it?

I walked back home, shoving away my thoughts so I could keep living in the neighborhood. But they caught up with me again a week later while sitting behind the wheel of my Honda at a red light on Seventh.

My pit bull, Lala, rode shotgun that day, scanning the landscape like a queen surveying her empire. A car rolled up on our left and honked. I looked over. The driver—a guy with a smile so wide I frowned—twirled his finger for me to lower my window.

“Boy or girl?” he hollered over, lifting his chin toward my dog.

“Girl,” I yelled back.

“We need to do some breeding.”

I wrinkled my nose. This wasn’t the first time a stranger had propositioned Lala. When I walked her on the streets of North Minneapolis, drivers of passing vehicles would often slow, roll down their windows, and propose “play times,” so their animals could mingle with mine.    

The traffic light snapped to green.

“She’s fixed,” I called out to the driver.

His smile slid off. “Too bad.”

I tromped on the gas, grateful for green lights and spay surgeries. Again, I shelved my thoughts, because life offered bigger dilemmas than an abundance of puppies.

 

One day, a few months later, Dicka peered out the kitchen window. “Mom, check this out. They’re so cute.”

Two pit bull puppies bounced outside our back gate, their skins too tight to hold their zest for life. Like so many before them, they looked eager to break into our yard—and lives.

I squinted through the glass. “Now where did these guys come from?”

“From over there.” She pointed at the house across the alley.

I did some quick math, and my calculations fit; these little ones were likely the result of That One Morning.

I sighed. “They’re actually smiling, if that’s possible.”

Beaming, my girl zipped out the back door and passed through our gate. In a second, the puppies bobbed at her legs, then glued themselves to her.

Where were the owners? How long would we need to double-check—no, quadruple-check—our rearview mirrors before backing out our vehicles? How many times would we herd the furry ones back home before they were gone—and then how long until we’d do it all over again?

I strode outside as a third dog bounded over to join the party. I released a breath and stowed my thoughts again. Happiness frolicked on our driveway, living in the moment. And in that moment, there were no calls to Animal Control or interventions with the neighbors.

For now, there was only love to give and ears to scratch.

*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 award (Sounds)

On July 14, 2018, one of my pieces won the Aspiring Author Award from Bethany House Publishers. Enjoy it here:

 

Sounds

In my tiny hometown, some people wedged air conditioners in the open windows of their homes in the summertime. As a kid, I saw those units as a sign of wealth, along with carpeting and wall murals. But in our little rambler, we only had fans. And I sang into those cooling machines and laughed at the quavering effect on my voice. They made me smile too on muggy Minnesota nights when I dreamed to the sound of those blades beating behind bars.

If I snoozed away my teenage summer mornings, the sound of distant lawn mowers jostled me awake, reminding me of my chore. I had to cut our grass too before the afternoon, because my sisters and I had the grueling task of sunbathing—back when frying oneself in baby oil was a good idea. After my lawn mowing, we wriggled into our swimsuits, looped beach towels around our necks, grabbed the boom box, and sneaked out to the back yard where we committed our act of luxury. But the slam of a car door—that was Dad coming home for lunch. And we couldn’t let him see us being lazy in the back yard or we’d get more jobs added to our lists. Greasy and giggling, we scrambled back inside for cover. 

Some evenings back then—if the mosquitoes weren’t too ferocious—we sat on our front steps, sipping limeade. Our view was a gravel road, and beyond it, a field that stretched out forever—or at least as far as the place where sky kisses soil. Crickets chirped the soundtrack for those evenings, and fireflies ignited the ditches.

A decade and a half later, I traded the bucolic sounds of my youth for the jagged noise of inner-city living. Street fights in the night replaced the sound of purring fans, sirens trumped the buzzing of lawn mowers, and booming music choked out the crickets’ songs. But the commotion outside soothed my city babies to sleep. And Husband and I heard the pops of fireworks—or gunshots?—somewhere close, and the sounds lulled us to sleep too.

 

One Saturday night not long ago, I drove home from an event. As usual, I turned the car west at the exit and onto Dowling Avenue North. But what was up ahead? Inactivity on the streets snapped me to attention. I straightened my posture and glanced at the digital clock on the car’s dash. Midnight. I narrowed my eyes. The area was naked of violence and flashing lights. Why? I rolled down the driver’s side window to listen. Only the distant hum of freeway traffic floated into the car. As I drove deeper into North Minneapolis, I swiveled my head to scan each intersecting street. Something was awry.

Where were the police cars? And the sirens? Where was the normal activity—as common as jam on toast—of officers making arrests? Where was the yelling I had come to expect? Or the screeching tires that told me I was almost home?

That night in bed, I stared into the darkness. Like the whirring fans of my childhood, the clatter of unrest in our part of the city had become my white noise. I remembered two earlier conversations.

“A police car just went by,” an out-of-town guest had said, rushing to our living room window. “And it had its lights on!”

“Oh?” I shook my head. “I didn’t notice.”

On another occasion, a neighbor said, “That’s the third time this week police helicopters have circled over our houses.”

I shrugged. “I guess I didn’t hear them.”

Turmoil had become commonplace; dissension, humdrum. My senses had dulled, turning my gaze inward and blurring my motivation to serve the neighborhood. And one peaceful night on the streets felt wrong to me.

The next day, I let the dog out into the back yard. She sniffed the air, and I followed her outside to survey my garden. The usual sounds swirled around me: squeals from nearby tires, the bang of a dropping garbage can lid in the alley, and faraway sirens screaming toward crisis.

I breathed out a prayer for a fresh outlook, a renewed perspective—for ears to hear once more.

The bells from the church on the corner—louder than the neighborhood now—pealed out an old hymn, and I perched on a garden stool to listen. Memories of the song’s lyrics wafted to me on spring winds, nudging me out of complacency and back to my purpose.

Faith of our fathers, we will love

Both friend and foe in all our strife,

And preach thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life:

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,

We will be true to thee till death.

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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.

Hair stories: Part 2

Husband and I pulled into the parking lot of 7 Mile Fashion, a store on Broadway. At least one vendor had set up shop outside its front door, and people milled around near the entrance.

The last time I had visited the place I was alone, and it was one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon—not a risky time to shop. On my way into the store, though, several men in the parking lot had plied me with various comments and requests. So on this trip, I wanted hair and not harassment; Husband would stick with me and make sure of that.

I entered the North Minneapolis business, making my way to the weaves and extensions aisle. I glanced around. Alone again. Where was Husband? I retraced my steps to the door and spied him outside the glass, chatting with a man. I returned to my quest for a long blonde ponytail to clip into my hair—a new look for summer. I picked through the merchandise.

Soon Husband rejoined me, clutching a container. “The guy out there lured me in with these homemade cookies.”

“No doubt.” I pointed to a package of clip-in hair extensions. “Do you think this’ll work for a ponytail?” The picture showed long blonde artificial hair hanging from a strip of elastic.

He shrugged. “Maybe?”

“I could wrap it around a few times.”

A woman appeared next to me. She tapped her bejeweled fingernail on the package I was eyeing. “Nah, that’s gonna be too heavy for you.”

I turned to her. “Really?”

“We’ll find what you want,” she said, her confidence as bright as her splashy blouse.

I liked her already. “You work here?”

Her laugh sparkled like her nails. “No, but I know what they got.”

I asked her name—it was Shonda—and described what I wanted.

“They keep those up behind the counter.” She planted her hands on her hips and scrutinized my hair for a full second. “You’re a number six-thirteen, honey.”

“Okay.”

She flicked a finger for us to follow as she plunged into our mission. Husband and I tagged along behind her like two kids scampering to keep up with their mama at the grocery store. She charged toward the checkout counter.

Two employees rang up customers, but Shonda butted up to the front of the line and slapped an open palm on the counter’s surface. The nearest employee shot a cool gaze at her.

I grimaced at Husband. My new look for summer wasn’t that important. No style emergency here. We could probably wait our turn for help.

“We need a long blonde ponytail, ten or twelve inches,” Shonda said, her head bobbing. “Color six-thirteen.”

“We’re out,” the worker said, not missing a beat, still punching keys on the till.

“No, you’re not.” Shonda flicked her hand at one section of the shelving behind the two employees. “The ponytails are right there.”

“We don’t got ‘em,” the second employee called over from his register.

A few more back and forths, and my new friend won. Like magic, some suitable options materialized.

Shonda held up an eighteen-inch-long piece—black streaks running through pale blonde strands—for $84.99. She wrinkled her nose. “Not what you’re looking for.”

I agreed. She pushed it back to the employee.

“But this one…” She snapped up another package. “This is it.”

And it was. Ten inches long. The perfect match to my hair. Only $11.99. She gave me the rundown on how to fasten it in. Expressionless, the employee tolerated Shonda’s impromptu lesson for me right there at the front of the line.

“You’re amazing,” I said to her. “You need to work here already. I’m serious.”

She snorted out a laugh. “Yeah, maybe.”

I extracted my card to pay for my new do. The transaction complete, I looked around. But Shonda was gone.

Husband and I headed for the door.

A voice, glittering with adventure, floated to me from somewhere in the store. “Bye, Tamara.”

Shonda.

I turned around to wave to her. But she was already back in the hair extensions aisle, doing what she did best.

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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.

Hair stories: Part 1

The chemical odor wafted away, and the temporary salon reverted to our home again. Flicka’s two friends left, their job completed. I eyed my girl’s hair, the result of their afternoon labors. Only her bangs and a strip down one side were changed, the processed portions stark white.

What had happened? Had the girls even tried to follow the instructions on the box of silver hair dye?

I spruced up my face with a smile. “So, uh, are you happy with it?”

“Neither one knows how to work with white people hair.” Flicka chuckled. “They said it was too slippery. Anyway, it’s no big deal.”

She was right; it was no big deal. Just like when I allowed my girls—early elementary age at the time—to color their hair with Manic Panic semi-permanent hair dye in Rock ‘n’ Roll Red. A couple of mothers at church had gasped over their transformations, one finally giving sound to her thoughts.

“How did you let your girls color their hair like that—at their ages?” Her mouth flat-lined, and she shook her head.

“It’s just hair,” I said.

Her tone switched to sing-songy. “You’re a better mom than I am, apparently.”

Now, years later, I felt the same way about what had transpired on Flicka’s head: it was just hair. But what captured my thoughts most in the coloring snafu that day was the cultural piece.

From hosting dozens of little ones through Safe Families for Children, I already knew my shortcomings fixing black hair. I could manage a simple puff bun, but I usually passed the harder job of freshening hair twists or redoing Bantu knots on to Husband, the resident stylist, who bested me in patience and dexterity.

Husband's talents aside, hadn’t I heard how generally unskilled white people were with black hair? Flicka’s words returned to me. Neither one knows how to work with white people hair. What a relief now to see some equality—at least in this. What a nice surprise to learn the ground was level at the foot of the salon chair.  

So, what if we spent more afternoons trying to do one another’s hair—maybe even messing it up sometimes? What if we practiced making beauty for each other more often?

What if we tried harder to understand?

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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.

 

Freedom

With each explosion of fireworks, Lala, our dog, presses harder against me, and I feel her trembling. She doesn’t understand there’s a celebration going on and no one’s really bombing us.

Our dog isn’t the only one who struggles; I’m told the neighborhood’s many canines quake in their coats around this time each year, sometimes even refusing to step paw outside to answer nature’s call. They’re free to go out, of course, but to them, the pyrotechnics in the night sky signal sure terror, and the endless pops imprison them in fear inside their houses.

Unlike Lala, I know I’m free. And I’m free in more ways than I live.

Freedom frames my thoughts as I drive east on Dowling Avenue, pointed toward the grocery store where I’m free to spend my money how I like before it closes early for the July holiday. On my way, I pass a house where several large tents festoon the side yard. Ribbons of smoke curl skyward from two grills. A tall slim man approaches one of them and maybe he’s holding a spatula, but who cares, because he’s dressed in exactly two clothing items: a red Speedo and an American flag worn as a cape. Husband’s at work, but I have to phone him this minute anyway, because the brand of freedom I just witnessed should be shared with others.

As I drive on, I count my freedoms on Independence Day, and like the sighting of the guy in the Speedo, they surprise me:

I’m free to live a life that doesn’t look like the next person’s.

I’m free to do the right thing, even when it's hard.

I’m free to serve others more than I do.

I’m free to keep the words that are in my head out of my mouth.

I’m free to not worry today. Or tomorrow.

I’m free to tell people I love them, even when it’s likely they won’t return the sentiment.

 

How are you free?

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

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

The mirror

Chris, the handyman, knocked on our front door. I let him in and explained the job I had planned for him. Lugging his tool bag, he followed me down the stairs to the basement bathroom.  

“Here’s the mirror to be installed,” I said, pointing to the slim box leaning against the wall.

He plunked his tool bag on the floor. While he rummaged through it, he told me about his handyman work and about his other job speaking on restorative justice—something that had started twenty years ago with kids and continued now with inmates in the Stillwater, Lino Lakes, and Faribault prisons.

“It’s all about forgiveness,” he said. “If you realize you’ve been forgiven much, you’ll be able to forgive much.”

The handyman’s assessment of life and freedom pinned me to my spot. Wisdom had walked into my house with a tool bag, and just like that my to-do list upstairs stopped hollering to me.

“When someone wrongs you, it’s like they owe you a debt they might never repay.” He sliced the tape along the edge of the cardboard and tapped the mirror’s bag of fasteners into his hand. “There’s a parable about a man who owed a king a lot of money.”

I nodded. “I know that one.”

In the parable, a servant was unable to repay all the money he owed the king. As a result, the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and all he owned be sold to repay the debt. The man dropped to his knees before the king. “Please be patient with me! I’ll pay back everything I owe you in time.” The king took pity on the servant, canceled his debt, and let him go free. But the man went out and found his fellow servant who owed him much less than he had owed the king. He grabbed the man and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” The fellow servant shook with fear. “Be patient, and I’ll pay you back everything!” But the first servant refused. He demanded his fellow servant be thrown into prison until he could repay the debt. The story traveled back to the king, and he became angry, calling the first servant back in. “I canceled your debt because you begged me to,” he said. “Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” In anger, the king threw him into prison to pay back his debt in full.

“If you realize you’ve been forgiven much, you’ll be able to forgive much,” he said again, rifling through his tool box. “And then there’s the whole topic of forgiving yourself, but hang on. I forgot my stud finder in the truck.”

Chris jogged up the basement stairs, and I heard the front door open and close again.

Forgiveness for others. How many talks had I heard on the topic? Many. But self-forgiveness? I couldn’t recall even one sermon on the subject.

I strode to the nearby TV cabinet and located a pen and tablet, because I didn’t want to forget.

Chris reappeared. “Now for our next episode of 'Deep Thoughts with the Handyman'.” He chuckled. “Where was I?”

I perched on the arm of the couch just outside the bathroom door, my pen ready. “Forgiving yourself.”

As he penciled marks on the wall where the mirror would hang, he told me his story of rebellion and about the following years of regret. “Then God turned on a light. I finally realized I didn’t need to keep punishing myself for my past choices. My suffering didn’t bring anything of value. I laid it all out for Him.”

I too wished I could snuff out some of my past choices. Long ago I had relegated them to a place far behind me as I looked forward. They were gone, weren’t they?

The memories only stung now when I dredged them back into my consciousness. So, what about self-forgiveness? Had I done it? Was poking the past back into its box when memories threatened to climb out and ruffle my peace the same thing?

Finished with mounting the clips that would hold the glass in place, Chris turned toward the mirror I had propped against the wall.

“Need a hand?” I said. “It’s pretty big.”

“That’d be good.”

We pulled the thirty-six by sixty-inch mirror out of the cardboard packaging, muscled it above the two sinks, and slid it into the mounted clips. I pressed the glass against the wall while Chris tightened the screws.

With the new mirror in place, I could finally take a good look at myself.

Forgiveness. And now self-forgiveness. I couldn’t do the work alone.

And I didn’t have to.

 

*Click here for more of Chris' story.

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

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

More secondhand stories

Two weeks ago, I invited my readers to tell me about their favorite secondhand items. Nine people submitted their stories. (You can read the first five here.) Enjoy the final four today!

*****

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It was an if-you-haul-it you-can-have-it situation. Of course we couldn’t pass up a 20 x 30-foot above-ground swimming pool, even if it was secondhand. We had eleven children to keep entertained in the summer, not to mention all the guests and friends who hung out at our house.

My husband and a few kids traveled several hours to haul our great prize. By that evening we stood looking at the pile of metal sheets and posts lying in our yard. Never mind the thing had been already unassembled by the time my husband arrived. Never mind there was no instruction manual. We knew it was supposed to be oval. How hard could it be to set up? We would just have a pool-setting-up party. Invite a few neighbors and guys from church.

“We’ll probably be done by lunch,” my husband said.

The workers arrived; I had 17 extra people at my house that day. I served them lunch. Then I served them supper. By 10:00 p.m. we had ten posts standing. The project dragged on through the summer. There were many days of workers and extra meals. We brought in a surveyor... and a skid loader... and sand. And there were many setbacks. We read that oval pools are the most difficult to set up. We understood why.

Winter came upon us before we got to use our new-to-us pool. But by the following summer, we were open for business. That pool became the focal point of the yard... and the summer. We entertained many guests in it and had lots of heart-to-heart conversations with friends on the deck next to it while we watched our children swim. Poolside there were brats hot off the grill, guitar jam sessions, and naps in the hammock. In the pool there were volleyball games (not only with a volleyball, but also with our small children as big brothers gently tossed them over the net to waiting arms on the other side—they loved it), countless races and games of Marco Polo. Our pool even had the honor of hosting several baptisms.

As the years passed, rust became its enemy, increasing until one year we feared the pool would burst in spite of the large piece of sheet metal we’d used to support the weakest area. We knew our beloved pool could not last another year. It was with a bit of sadness we took it down in 2016. It had served our family well for fourteen years, saving us hundreds of dollars in pool passes at the local pool. All our children had learned to swim in it.

The disassembled old pool left a gaping hole in our yard. And we realized we had grown accustomed to having a pool. We used our tax refund to buy a new one, slightly smaller but still oval. (We were much quicker setting up the second one; we’d learned a few things.) But of all the secondhand items we have acquired over the years (and when you have eleven children, you learn to love garage sales and secondhand shops, believe me!), nothing quite compares to our first pool. It lived a long, good life and served its second family exceptionally well, right up until the end.

Hope, Cataract, WI

*****

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Here is a secondhand item I bought for $25 after hearing it advertised on a local radio trading post program many years ago—a bicycle built for two! This bike has entertained riders of all ages and never been in a serious mishap. Just a few weeks ago, it served as a prop for a wedding photo!

Avis, Newfolden, MN

*****

I got a pink secondhand shirt from a friend. It looked metallic and felt like it weighed ten pounds. I wore it to a cousin’s church, and we all stood in a giant circle, staring at each other while communion was passed around. I thought it would be a good idea to drink the juice with my lips wrapped all the way around the little cup. And then I spilled all over my ten-pound shirt. I never got the stain out.

Thora, Minneapolis, MN

*****

When I was seven years old, we went to Salvation Army. Mom bought me a pair of bright red, swishy athletic pants (the kind with a mesh layer on the inside.) I’m pretty sure they cost five dollars. I loved those pants. And when I got home and found a five-dollar bill in the pocket, I loved them even more.

I heard on KLOVE radio that even five dollars could make a difference in someone’s life, so I sent the money to the station with a note written on a little scrap of paper. After that, I was on their mailing list for many years. I never gave to them again, but it felt good that one time.

Inga, Minneapolis, MN

*****

*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.

 

Secondhand stories

Last week, I asked you about your secondhand stories. Here’s what some of you sent me:

*****

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I love everything second hand!  I shop for things that I could find in the stores (like clear glass canisters, or quality wooden toys from the new Hearth and Home collection at Target just waiting for some little visitors to play with) but I know this way I'll be saving a ton.  I shop for things to add to my collection like globes (so many globes), vintage quilts, or milk bottles.  I shop for things that you just can't find in any store, one-of-a-kind, never-seen-before things (like this vintage sheet that looks like it has cross-stitching on it or the rainbow and red plaid vintage xylophone).

For me, it's a combination of things that make rummage sale time the best time of the year.  I like the thought that I'm saving something from the landfill that I can still get some use out of, and I love having something that's a conversation piece and something I can connect with someone else over.

Also, to be honest, it's the thrill of the hunt.  I got lost on my way to an estate sale today, and came across the garage sale of the century.  They were charging so little for some very good things.  I can't wait to incorporate them into my home!

Jen, Grand Forks, ND

*****

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It was a gift given to me from my husband. I had just junked my first one because it was so bad. I was feeling kinda bummed about it too as I love trailering the horses to the Crow Hassan park to ride. Without my knowledge, he got on Craig’s List, found a trailer, showed it to me, told me to get in the car and off we went to look at it. It was exactly what I needed… It was the action that was the biggest part of the gift and not the gift itself, if that makes sense. All from a guy who is allergic to horses but sees the joy they bring to my heart.

Shantell, Corcoran, MN

*****

Our Kentucky Goodwills tend to have clothing on the rattier side of secondhand, so instead, I shopped there for books. It’s amazing the classics people give away. On one occasion, I had a stack balanced between my hands and chin like the cheese-greedy mouse, Gus Gus, on Cinderella, and more than one shopper ogled at me as I teetered over to the purchase counter. I guess I could have gotten a cart.

The book I remember best from that particular haul was St Augustine’s Confessions. I had never read it before, but something about the tiny ripped Penguin edition caught my eye. Perhaps because I’ve always had a Baptist’s untrained affection for stained glass, of which there was a vibrant print with a halo-wearing Augustine on the cover. Looks aside, I read that book slowly, meditatively, through the Advent season of 2014 and loved it: his thoughts on God, his anticipation of healing in Christ’s coming reign, words of such comfort during a doubtful time in my graduate school years. I took the book with me everywhere and wore more softness and holes into the binding than was there before me. I could not be parted with it, and it was one of the few books I slipped into my bags to Thailand.

At the end of the two years I lived and worked in that country, I had acquired too many odds and ends from my travels to fit even that small paperback. I left it with a dear friend in the hopes she would find as much joy in it as I had. Eventually, my parents gave me a new copy for Christmas, and I’ve slowly been reading Augustine’s story again. Yet part of me still misses my tiny Penguin copy. While I agree that well-crafted words should resonate in the soul regardless of format, there’s a trick, a visual cue of a kind, in yellowed pages, crackly binding, text grayed from years of exposure to air, light, and thought, to awaken you to the agelessness of their wisdom. Yet books should touch many hands. One day, I will leave my own newer copy behind, not so new but battered and beautiful, for another doubter in need of an ancient light. And I pray they find it.

Dori, Mankato, MN

*****

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My neighbor held a clothing swap and I found a tall pair of boots. Would they fit the bill for a Minnesota winter? I brought them home.

My sister found my last pair of boots. Eight Minnesota winters later, they were worn paper thin but I had not thrown them away. Now I can. I have bona-fide replacements.

I tested the new-to-me black and white boots made in Canada on a mile-long hike to a neighborhood coffee house. After weeks of brutal cold winter, the mid-30’s thaw was irresistible. The snow melt landscape looked treacherous, however.

Those Canadian castoffs conquered the icy Minneapolis sidewalks. Friends and family noticed the new boots. I described how I found them. Then I lifted a foot so they could examine the underside. A maple leaf is replicated over the soles of the boots.

I love crunching through snow and look back over my tracks for those perfect maple leaf tread marks. It’s my new way to embrace winter.

Monica, Minneapolis, MN

*****

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The chest of drawers in my bedroom is not second hand, nor is it third hand or even fourth. I am the sixth owner in a series that passes from mother to daughter since sometime around 1840. My dad did not like antiques. His mother graciously agreed to store the dresser for my mother when they were married rather than get rid of it, so my childhood memory of the chest of drawers is in the spare room at my grandmother’s. (Sadly, I did not inherit the high four-poster bed that was also in that room.) My husband doesn’t mind the look of antiques, but he’s not enthusiastic about drawers of odd sizes held together with pegs. They do NOT slide on smooth modern runners. Most of his clothes are stored elsewhere. But every time I lift a drawer slightly to fit it back into the chest, I am conscious of a long line of women of which I am a part. Someday I will add my daughter's name to the list taped to the inside behind the top drawer, and she will become the seventh in that line of women (although she may use the dresser to store out-of-season clothes rather than wrestle with the drawers on a daily basis.)

LeAnne, northwestern Wisconsin

 

*Tune in next week for more secondhand stories from my readers!

*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.

Secondhand

“Let us not be too particular; it is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all.” Mark Twain

Today, I want to hear about you.

Do you have a favorite secondhand item in your life? A perfect pair of jeans? A useful tool you couldn’t find anywhere else? Or a book that falls open to the previous owner’s special passage?

Write a note about a secondhand item you’ve had and send it to me here (or subscribers, simply hit reply to this email.) Include a photo too, if you wish. I will publish your writing (along with your first name, location, and photo, if provided) in next week’s blog installment.

I’ll get us started…

When I first spied it on a rack at Salvation Army in 2007, I saw the marriage of versatility and style. The long gray sweater was perfect: soft, not too thick, not fussy like cashmere or scratchy like wool. The washing instructions were a breeze; it could even go in the dryer. I imagined it as another layer for a winter ensemble, a jacket for a cool spring evening, a swimsuit cover-up in the summer, fall’s perfect accessory. I snapped it up and wore it like I’d never take it off. Sometimes I even slept in it.

The family noticed.

“You’ll wear that thing anywhere and in any condition,” Husband said the day I got the sweater dirty in the garden, but wore it to Target anyway.

Flicka pointed to a picture of me on a family trip. “Mom, there’s you in your gray sweater. Again.”

“It’s your favorite of all, isn’t it, Mama?” Dicka said.

“Maybe we should bury it with you when you die,” Ricka said, laughing.

And the thought of the family balling the old thing up and tossing it into the casket before it slammed shut warmed my heart.

 The sweater this morning. Loved as much today as ever.

The sweater this morning. Loved as much today as ever.

*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 firewood

“Check this out,” Husband said, nodding at his phone.

I focused on the screen, and he pressed play. And in a snippet of footage from our backyard security camera, three older teenagers—or adults—emerged from the rental property across the alley. They made a beeline for our place, filled their arms with firewood, darted looks both ways, and jogged back home, leaving a trail of scraps strewn behind them for us to clean up.

Husband’s mouth settled into a hard line. He had cut and stacked that wood a week or two earlier in preparation for family time around the fire, pizzas in the outdoor oven. But my memories wandered beyond the work of wood-splitting. I recalled our frequent efforts to collect those same neighbors’ pit bull puppies that roamed the alley day and night, because the broken fence with its makeshift gate couldn’t contain them. I had hoped those—and our other small, kind acts toward the new tenants—would amount to something over time.

Instead, we were no more than a source of firewood.

A dark cloud formed over me, a sure sign of a storm brewing over my perspective. But thefts were common in the neighborhood—and wood was a small thing—so I doused my thoughts.

“I watched a good video,” Husband said the next day. “Makes me think of the neighbors stealing our wood.”

In the video’s story, a guy named Matt drove to a gas station. A man approached him, asking for money to fill his tank. Matt agreed, but while he was inside settling the pump, the man was outside stealing his full gas cans. He confronted the guy, but God dropped an idea into his mind: not only could he pay for the stranger’s gas, Matt could give him his gas cans too. And that’s what he did.

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m going over there.” Husband’s gaze flitted to the house across the alley. “I’ll tell them, ‘I saw you come over and take our wood. In the future, instead of stealing from me, just ask.’”

Husband had always addressed injustice on our big-city block with his small-town honesty. And his tactics had worked. The neighbor who had chosen to keep Husband’s ratchet set decided to return it, the kid having fun with rocks and a slingshot near our house stopped his games, and the owner of the lonely dog freed the animal from its prison in the blistering sun.

I watched Husband leave through the back door. Good timing; the neighbors were home. How would the conversation go? Before crossing the alley, though, he paused by the gate and filled a nearby box with our firewood. He headed over and rapped on their door. No answer. A minute ticked by. Still no answer. Husband left the box on the neighbors’ back step.

I frowned at the unopened door, the unfair gesture, the unmerited gift. Love’s actions, ignored.

And it all looked familiar—and just like Someone else I knew.

heartwood.jpg

*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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