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.

 

Clouds

Nothing says family trips in the 1980s like a station wagon without adequate air conditioning.

As the carsick one in my family of seven, I soon learned all the tricks to stave off nausea: “Don’t read in the car”, “Put your head between your knees”, “Take deep breaths through your mouth”, and “Just look out the window”, which was hard to do when my head was dangling between my knees.

Perennially queasy in the warm backseat, I battled my way through childhood trips without asking Dad to pull over—except on June 16, 1983. Winding our way up to visit Mount Rushmore, I was finally out of options.

“Can you stop?” I said, waves of sickness threatening to drown me. “Now?”

I don’t recall Dad’s answer, but he wasn’t pleased by the interruption in our schedule. He pulled the car over and put it into park. I shoved my door open and sprang out. Crouching by a back tire, I emptied my stomach. And then I heard it.

I wiped my mouth and climbed back into the car. “Something’s hissing out there.”

“A snake?” One of my siblings said.

Dad got out and took a lap around the vehicle. He returned. “We got a flat tire.”

No one ever said it, but I’m sure the family thought my bout of sickness, however ill-timed, had saved the day.

The tire changed, we continued our ascent to the presidential faces. But the skies, thick with grey clouds, obscured our view.

“Maybe it’ll clear,” Mom said.

For hours, we waited. But the clouds—more stubborn than we were—persisted.

“I guess that’s it,” Dad said, hands on his hips. “Maybe next time.”

We kids snapped pictures of the hidden landscape. At least we knew what they were all about, and anyone sifting through our photos later would just have to take our word for it.

 

Today, I laugh at the vomiting episode, the flat tire, and our blocked view of the national monument. But isn’t life like this? My days lately have resembled June 16, 1983. The trip up to the stuff of my prayers is winding, and car sickness distracts me. But wait. A flat tire too? And now when I’m almost there, clouds are hovering, obstructing my outlook.

Is this your life too? I have an idea. Let’s capture some pictures for our photo albums anyway—to remind ourselves. Because the longings of our hearts are still there even when we can’t see them.

Everyone else will just have to take our word for it.

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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.

Winter vs. spring

One day last month, I contemplated the coldest season of the year, and my thoughts turned as icy as the sidewalk in front of me.

The City’s snow emergency rules had given me whiplash: “Because of the storm, park on the even side of the street now, the odd side tomorrow, and the even side again the next day—but wait! Because of the snowfall totals and narrowing of the streets, let’s now only park on the odd side until April 2—or until further notice. But hold on! Here comes a fresh dumping of snow, so let’s go back to the normal snow emergency rules for a few days—even, odd, even—and then we’ll resume the only-park-on-the-odd-side-until-the-spring-thaw rule, okay?”

It wasn’t the City’s fault. What else could they do? The weather had forced every last one of us into the competition of Winter vs. the Minnesotans. I grabbed my shovel, hoping for victory.

“Be sure not to park on the even side,” Husband said to one of the teenagers after another of the City’s snow emergency declarations.

But life is full and far too distracting for kids these days, so her dad’s warning fled my girl’s mind as she parked on the even side of the street the next day at school. A tow truck whisked her car away to an impound lot faster than she could say, “Dad, I need a new scraper. Mine broke.”

She texted me. My car got towed.

I sighed. Oh no... What are you going to do?

Use my feminine wiles to get it back.

My laugh startled the dog. Good luck!

Thirty minutes passed. My phone pinged.

Mom, can you transfer $150.00 from my savings into my checking?

Winter vs. the teenager. Winter won.

 

One night recently, I let Lala, our dog, out into the back yard to visit the facilities. She trotted down our brick walk, pointed in the direction of the garage. The motion sensor light flicked on, its brightness glancing off a miniature skating rink on her path. Of course she would see it, wouldn’t she? Dogs were smart that way. Instead, she hit it just right and slid, her four legs slipping out from under her. She toppled onto her side. Uh-oh. She wriggled to standing, did her business, and headed back toward the house. But her paws caught the same icy patch, and down went our sturdy girl—again.  

Back in the house, Lala chose the treat I offered her over my condolences. As usual, she was fur-wrapped exuberance—and unhurt—but my tolerance for winter plummeted to zero. If our four-legged loved one with a low center of gravity could lose her footing just like that, what hope was there for the rest of us?

Winter vs. the dog. Winter won.

 

“What were the newscasters calling this winter again?” I asked Husband two nights ago.

He scrolled through Hulu selections. “The winter of my discontent?”

“I mean, it was record-breaking, and the biggest snowfall since when?”

He landed on a show. “Who can know.”

I pulled myself out of hibernation mode to do some searching and found the National Weather Service’s claims. The Twin Cities received thirty-nine inches of snow in February 2019, breaking the previous record of twenty-six-and-a-half inches, set in 1962.

So much to melt away; so little patience for it all to go.

“It’s spring tomorrow, though,” I said, hoping to cheer myself, “so this should all be over, right?”

Husband clicked pause. “I hear there’s snow coming on April 2, but what do they know?”

I harrumphed. Maybe it wouldn’t materialize. Or maybe it would. Either way, when it was winter vs. spring, it was easy to choose a side. And I wouldn’t stop cheering until it was over.

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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.

Love (again)

Dicka was sick this week. While I changed her sheets, I found two photo albums by her bed—the ones with pictures of all the little ones we hosted through Safe Families for Children. The books are for us only, and we protect the images of those faces like we protect their lives while they stay with us.

I flipped through the pages, and my heart squeezed again. Here’s a story I wrote, first published here on the blog on January 21, 2016, about one of our twenty-eight loves.

*****

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.

 

I pulled the Honda up to the curb in front of Healing House. For the protection of the women who were enrolled and living there with their children, the address of the place was unpublished. I glanced at the placement information I had received in the Urgent Needs email. Mona, the woman I had come to meet—the biological mother—had gotten in a fight with another woman and was being kicked out of Healing House’s eighteen-month program. And now she needed coverage for her baby girl for one week while she found other living arrangements for the two of them.

I climbed out of the vehicle, glancing at the infant car seat in the back, knowing it would soon carry an eight-month-old passenger. I strode to the front entrance and pressed the buzzer.

A young woman came to the door. “Are you the host mom from Safe Families for Children?”

“Yes, I am. Are you Mona?”

She nodded, a shy smile playing on her lips, and motioned for me to follow her. “I already have her things packed for you. I hope it’s enough.”

On the floor next to the front desk sat several brimming garbage bags and numerous pieces of baby equipment. Our family had served kids who owned very little, and the five-month-old twins had come to our home with only the clothes on their bodies, a few diapers, and enough formula to get us through the first night. The sight of the large amount of baggage in front of me pricked my heart. “It’s more than enough.”

“Wanna see Adele now?” Mona’s eyes shone.

We walked down a long hallway to a sunny nursery. A childcare worker bounced a baby on her hip and handed a toy to a toddler who tugged on her shirt. When we stepped inside the room, the woman brought the baby to us.

“She’s darling.” I reached out for Adele and took her into my arms. She smiled at me, and so did Mona.

I gave her back to her mother for our walk out to my car. Mona buckled her baby into the car seat, kissing her first on the forehead and then once on each cheek. She closed the door and turned to me.

“Thank you.” Her words, warm with untold stories, lit her face.

I touched her sleeve. “I’m happy to help, Mona.”

 

Later that day, after dinner and playtime with Adele, it was time to say goodnight. I whisked her away from my girls, and they followed me into the guest room. They poked through the clothing bags, oohing and aahing over the tiny dresses.

I made funny faces at the baby while I changed her diaper. “Can one of you find something for her to wear to bed?”

Flicka handed me a pair of pajamas, and Ricka chose Adele’s outfit for the next day.

Dicka pulled something square and flat from one of the bags. “Mom, look. This was in there with the clothes.”

A Baby’s First Year calendar. I remembered recording the tender details of my babies’ first years in calendars like this one. And like Mona, I had captured all the firsts too—the first tooth, the first time sleeping through the night, the first step.

Dicka settled onto the guest bed and flipped through the calendar’s pages. After I zipped Adele into the fuzzy pajamas, I sat down too, snuggling the baby on my lap. I gazed at the document in Dicka’s hands as if it were a priceless artifact. Because it was.

Mona had chronicled Adele’s birth and filled in the family tree. Then in more blanks designated for the baby, she had instead written about Adele’s father, telling the story of how they had first met when he moved onto her block—just a few houses down from hers—one summer. As the warm winds swept in that July, so had their love, and the two were inseparable. He was her Once-in-a-Lifetime, a good man, and she was proud of him—and Adele would be too one day. Though her words were cheery, pain lived in the spaces between Mona’s sentences.

I drew in a deep breath and exhaled. “We should put this away.”

Dicka nodded, closing the calendar and tucking it back in with the clothing.

 

The days with Adele fluttered by, and she spent her waking hours glued to Dicka’s hip.

“You can let her have some floor time, honey,” I called from the kitchen while I made dinner one night. “It would be good for her.”

“No, that’s okay,” Dicka hollered back. “I don’t mind.”

 

At the end of the week, I met Mona again.

“We looked at the calendar you packed with Adele’s clothes.” I deposited the baby into her arms. “I hope that was okay.”

“Yeah.” She beamed, her eyes sparking with life.   

 

I remembered the other mothers we had served during our time as a host family. All of them had bigger dreams for their kids. All of them were brave. And all of them had the kind of love that could let a baby go to strangers for a while because of something better in the end.

But memories of Mona rose above the rest. Her words, bleeding out beauty on the page for her daughter to one day read, marked me and reminded me that in her life—as in mine—love had come first.

It always comes first.   

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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.

Future window

“Future window”

The man scrawled the two words in pen on the plywood on the west wall of the mud room that day in 2000 before the workers hung the drywall in his new house. Ever a visionary, he lived for the future. No “Possible window” or even “Window?” for him.

The man oversaw the details of his house’s construction, making his mark in other ways too before the paint dried. But he died in 2006, and his widow lived by herself in the house, unaware of his intentions inked on wood underneath the wall’s layers.

Even though she was alone, the woman loved the house she and her husband had built together. And she delighted in the rural property surrounding their home. She gardened all summer long, planting, weeding, and tidying flower beds and vegetable plots during the day. No enjoyment could take place outside after dark in northern Minnesota, though—the ravenous mosquitoes would see to that. If she were to linger in the evening air with the chirping crickets or freshly-cut grass, she would need to do it in a screened-in tent. And so she bought one.

Soon, a storm destroyed her tent. She purchased a second one. Strong winds tore it from her yard. She bought a third one. But this time too, the weather stole it away.

She voiced her problem to her adult children.

“Mom, you should build a sunroom,” one of them suggested.

“A sunroom,” she said. “What a good idea.”

With the help of her children, the woman determined the ideal placement for the room. She would build it, facing west—just off the mud room.

One day in the spring of 2011, contractors cut through the wall of her house. The noise ceased for a minute, and one of the men called out to her.

“Come here. You’ve gotta see this,” he said.

The woman hurried to the demolition site. The workman pointed to a board, once hidden away beneath the sheetrock. On it were written two words.

“‘Future window.’” She splayed a hand on her chest. “That’s his writing.”

How could it be that her husband’s dream of a window eleven years earlier matched her dream of windows too—in the same spot?

The days passed, though, and the woman forgot all about her husband’s writing. The crew worked for several months, erecting walls, pounding nails, installing fourteen large windows and a glass door, and painting the room a pale green. That fall, the woman’s brother, son, and son-in-law laid the bamboo floor. The sunroom was done.

In early 2012, the woman eyed the temporary steps going out of the sunroom to the yard—stairs that remained from the project. They could have stayed, but she had a better idea.

“Let’s build a deck off the sunroom,” she said.

The workers ripped off the old steps, and in their place, began building a deck that would branch out beyond her new room of many windows.

One day, the woman remembered the piece of wood with the two words.

“Whatever happened to that board my husband wrote on?” she asked a worker.

“I think we used it for one of the old steps,” he said. “I’ll go look.”

He rummaged around in the pile of wood torn from the house and found it among the scraps.

The woman gazed at the writing. Her husband had lived for the future. And maybe it could be said he lived for the destination instead of the road for getting there. But his focus drove him to love what was ahead, praying Light and Life for generations to come.

“I’m going to keep this,” she said.

 

I sipped coffee at Mom’s kitchen table during the Polar Vortex of January 2019. A windchill of almost minus fifty drove us inside for most of my visit up at her farm in northern Minnesota, and no amount of persuasion could convince me to enjoy the great outdoors. I shivered and pulled my sweater closer.

“Let’s drink our coffee in the sunroom,” Mom said.

I beamed. The room of many windows—my favorite room of all in her house. “Let’s do it.”

I refilled my mug, added a splash of cream, and headed with Mom toward the sunroom. I paused at the entrance and looked up. Above the doorway hung the piece we kids had framed for Mom in 2012 as a Christmas present. It was a rugged one, that gift, floating in its refined frame.

And there was Dad’s handwriting again, reminding me of his love for Mom—even beyond the years he would see: “Future window”

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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.

Wrestling

I’m facing an opponent on the mat.

It’s not death, although too many obituaries have been printed for ones close to my close ones in the past three months. It’s not lack, although for a while I feared it when the government shut down and refused to pay Husband for thirty-five days. It’s not destruction, although a crisis beyond our home rattles a branch of our family tree, threatening to snap it.

It’s something deeper.

While sipping coffee together on the couch, one of my own speaks up, showing me my opponent.

“I’ll always choose God,” she says, her chin wobbling, “but when I pray, I’m consistently disappointed.”

Her pain slices into my everything, and I would love to be the kind of adult who’s already glowing on the other side of hard. Instead, I only nod.

Because I’m disappointed too.

I’m called back to the mat again, my hopes hanging onto the hem of my sweatshirt. And there I wrangle and thrash around with disappointment—this time on my kid’s behalf.

When I think of my word for 2019, expectancy, I think of only good things to come—or at least I did when it came to me. What could it mean for me and the ones around me? The finale to a nagging health issue, freedom from a forever debt, healing for a crisis of faith?

Maybe I’m expecting the wrong things. Maybe I’m anticipating good things, but not good-for-me things.  

It’s only two months into the new year, and now I see the match is set; and I’m afraid someone around me might get pummeled before good finally pins evil on its back.

I think of a day not too long ago when Husband, reclining next to me, watched something. Whistles, shouts, and applause piped from the screen in his hand. I leaned over to take a look at the event unfolding on his phone: wrestling.

Behind that screen, my nephew in Valley City, North Dakota, overpowered his opponent, putting him in a cradle in the center of the mat. He was agile and smart, and he won more than one match.

When I’m alone again, I stumble on the story of a patriarch—the one who has trouble telling the truth. He sends his family on ahead across the river—along with all his possessions—and he’s alone too, because that’s where we are when we really fight. And he wrestles all night long with the One who knows him best.

What a strange story, I thought when I was a kid. Who would actually wrestle with God?

The man prevails—and receives a blessing—but hobbles away from that match, his hip socket touched for forever by his struggles in the darkness.

I struggle too with my expectations of how life should be and when. And it turns out I can put up a good fight. But in the end, I know Who’s better at this, Who knows what I need, and Who loves me best. So, I’ll step away from the mat sooner rather than later and let Him take down my disappointment, putting it in a half nelson before the final pin.

Because I really don’t like limping.

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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.

Love does

In 2006, I dropped out of life.

For months, I retreated into our family’s story to care for my sixty-seven-year-old dad, a post-bone marrow transplant cancer patient. The church we attended at the time was big, but we were small—a family of five among a multitude of others. We didn’t know too many people, I reasoned, so we probably wouldn’t be missed. But through a friend outside the church, word of what our family was doing leaked to the congregation.

And the church ladies came.

One by one over many weeks, those ladies drove to our house and climbed our front steps to drop off tuna noodle casserole, fried chicken, tater tot hotdish, burritos, rice dishes, salads, cakes, brownies, garlic bread, and more. Twenty-six meals in all.

And each bite tasted like love.

Sometimes the ladies called first to let us know they were on their way. Sometimes they knocked on our door to signal their deliveries. Sometimes they deposited their edible gifts—without a word—into the designated cooler on our porch and tiptoed away.

No one left her name. No one paused for a thank you. And no one expected anything of us, strangers to them, caring for our immunosuppressed loved one.

Even though our three girls were tiny and Dad’s care was intense, we didn’t need the meals, I told myself. Those meals should be for those struggling more than we were. Feeling undeserving, I phoned the warm meal ministry coordinator to thank her.

“God must think you really need it,” she said. “The response has been overwhelming.”

No sound made it past the lump in my throat. Instead, I nodded into the receiver, absorbing all of their love through the phone lines.

 

Because our culture says to, I think of romantic love each Valentine’s Day. But only for a few seconds. Then I remember those ladies who delivered casseroles instead of counsel, salads instead of sermons, and homemade desserts instead of stories of their own pain.

Love. It’s everything, which goes without saying. But what I learned from those church ladies was that love does without saying too.

 

… let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

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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.

Hey there, reader!

Hey there, reader!

You’re out there somewhere on the other side of my screen. You live all over the world, I see. Whether I know you or we haven’t met yet, you make me smile.

I write for you—and me—to make sense of life, the neighborhood, and the world. We’ve been through a lot together over these past four and a half years, but I do most of the talking.

I’m brainstorming blog topics today, but can we do it together instead? It’s more fun that way. Grab your coffee or tea, and let’s chat.

What have you enjoyed most about my blog? What would you like to read (or read more of) in future posts?

Here are some new and/or used topics:

1.      Neighborhood stories

2.      Family service to the neighborhood and beyond

3.      Childhood stories

4.      Spiritual topics or faith-based perspectives on issues (examples: fasting, prayer, mercy, forgiveness, depression, disappointment, injustice, anxiety, anger, death, etc.)

5.      Travel stories (example: coverage of our family’s upcoming California road trip, summer of 2019)

6.      Healthy living, eating, and recipes (just kidding about the recipes! I’m not that person.)

7.      Business, movie, or book reviews

8.      Humorous stories

9.      Marriage and/or raising kids (I’m no expert, but I’ve been at it a long time.)

10.   My hobbies/jobs (grant writing, creative writing, modeling, hosting kids in crisis, donating plasma, thirty years of diary writing, etc.)

It’s your turn now. Readers, click here to send me a message. Subscribers, simply hit reply to this email.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Tamara

No, this is no one we know. (Thank you, Pixabay stock photos!)

No, this is no one we know. (Thank you, Pixabay stock photos!)

 *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.