Tamara Jorell

Writing life and the neighborhood

Writing life and the neighborhood

 

The arrest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I obeyed. What was happening?

Wait. That voice…

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

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

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

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

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

I sauntered towards Husband. His game was over.

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

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

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

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

 

Husband thinks he’s funny. The End.

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

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

Wednesday's children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just wrote Traynesha how it sounded.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no.”

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said. “You okay?”

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

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

“Maybe two or three years old?”

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

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

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

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

Hidden

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

But one summer day, Husband saw it.

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

And for the first time, I saw it too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we all really saw?

 

 

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

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

The smile

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

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

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

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

“They probably think you’re famous.”

I tilted my head. “Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But when they’re not, I mean.”

He shrugged. “They’re just nice.”

 

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

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

A smile for a stranger.

 

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

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

Water

My scrolling finger halted at her post.

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

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

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

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

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

He shrugged. “For fun?”

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

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

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

“Wanna go next?” Husband said to me.

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

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

The guide sauntered over to me. “Ready?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

No wetsuit required.

Shingle Creek Falls, Webber Park

Shingle Creek Falls, Webber Park

The family in Quebec, 2015 

The family in Quebec, 2015 

 

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

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

Good Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pac Pew,” she said.

“And in English? Is it basil?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose we better find out.”

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Okay?”

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

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

*Photo creds go to Susan Dyrud McDonald.

 

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

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

The grocery store

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

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

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

And so did its parking lot.

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

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

He grunted. “Not enough.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Hm. Six dollars.”

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

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

I narrowed my eyes. “I can imagine.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, why?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What was he shouting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

The art museum

Social media dripped muck, and whenever I rolled in it, it soaked into too many of my layers, leaving stains I couldn’t scrub out. So I let it go and drove to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, trading electronic screens for picture frames, negativity for creativity.

I had never visited the art museum alone, and on that weekday at noon I had the place almost all to myself. My attention first settled on a huge oil on canvas, The Union of Love and Friendship by artist Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Thirteen years earlier on a stroller-laden excursion, four-year-old Flicka had sounded out the words in the painting’s title.

“The Onion of Love and Friendship,” she announced at last.

“It’s Union,” I said.

And we had laughed along with her—and never let her forget it.

Often in the past, I had helped chaperone squirrelly elementary-age students on field trips to the museum. Some had stampeded through the place, threatening to topple precious antiquities with their romping. Others had sidled up to me like mice, flicking their gazes to my face. You’re doing a good job, I had whispered to them.

For the first twenty minutes of my solitary visit, I wore my pragmatism like a pair of comfortable yoga pants. What would I do if I owned all these artifacts? The antelope jade vessel from India’s Mughal dynasty would make a cute soap dish, the beaded moccasins crafted by an A’aninin artist would be cozy on my cold floors, the thirteenth-century earthenware bowl from Iran’s Seljuk period would be perfect for my salad at the next potluck, but the seventeenth-century glass drinking horn from the Netherlands would never survive my dishwasher.  

The works of art whispered to me as I neared them, sending my common sense on its way. And because my distractions were gone, I heard all the stories.

I forgot where I was going when I stepped into Gustaf Edolf Fjaestad’s painting, Winter Landscape. The floating snowflakes muted the sounds of the forest as I meandered through the trees. I found my way to the other side and for a few seconds, tufts of color in Dorothea Tanning’s Tempest in Yellow buffeted me. I swam through it, though, until I reached Edouard Manet’s The Smoker. I nodded at the brushwork, coughed, and moved on.

I joined the men in tempera who stood in line outside the barbershop in Reginald Marsh’s Holy Name Mission, but I squirmed, surveying the group. Would they ask why I, the only woman, had joined them? And would I dare ask them if World War I had smudged the darkness onto their faces—or had it been their own desperate choices?

Young Woman in Undergarments by artist Wilhelm List reminded me of my own list—my Target shopping list—and so I jotted down 'black tights' before I could forget again. Then, a locket, its chain snagged on a tree branch in Henry Koerner’s My Parents II, captured my eye. The elderly man and woman had their backs turned to me, but why did they sit so far apart in the woods? And where were their children, whose Hansel and Gretel-like faces peeked out from the locket? The painting refused to let me out, so I breathed in the shades of brown until I could slip away.

While I was trying to imagine the reason for a woman jumping, nude, from an upstairs window in The Barn by John Wilde, voices interrupted the gallery’s silence. Behind me, two men analyzed Paul Cadmus’ Aspects of Suburban Life: Mainstreet.

“See the dog on the leash out in front of the woman?” said one of them. “See the movement? The length of her stride? She’s going places while the men are watching her.”

I turned to look. The man who spoke wore his remaining gray hair in a ponytail. The other man leaned on a cane and sprinkled his own thoughts into the conversation. Today I had escaped ugly for beauty, but what had driven these gentlemen to the museum? Did they visit often? I approached them and explained who I was and what I did.

“Why did you come here today?” I wrapped my blunt question in a smile.

“Why do you write?” said the man with the ponytail.

“To make sense of the world.” The words had come out faster than I could think them.

“There you go,” he said, a smile flickering over his features.

“Have you seen the silver piece in the next room?” the man with the cane asked me. “It’s truly remarkable.”

“No,” I said. “But I’d like to.”

The three of us strolled into the adjacent gallery to admire the eighteenth-century silver wine cistern.

… whatever is lovely—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

“Have a beautiful day,” I told the men before I left them.

Refreshed, I exited the art museum and walked to the car. I had abandoned my to-do list and halted my hectic schedule that day for a necessary indulgence. In one of the galleries, I had left behind some burdens too.

And next week, maybe I would do it again.

 

*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 money: Part 2

Like moorings to a boat, I had affixed strings to my money, and as it floated away from me in the offering plates of the past, I had always felt a jerk—and then would come the worries. But no longer.

What now?

Test me… and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing…

Maybe blessings would come in the form of no more home break-ins or packages stolen from our front steps. Maybe they would be new, delightful people we would meet. Or maybe instead of a hectic family calendar, they would come as a streamlined schedule. More security, stronger connections, less frustration.

But God’s ways are not our ways.

After church the next Sunday, our friend Mark caught us before we exited the sanctuary. He handed me an orange envelope.

“This is for you,” he said. “Just something we wanted you to have.”

Too late for Thanksgiving. Too early for Christmas. Months away from my birthday. A card for no reason?

“Thank you,” I said, a question mark lining my voice.

Mark headed off to visit with someone else, and I broke away from our girls and wended my way over to Susanne, Mark’s wife.

“Thank you for this,” I said, raising the envelope. “Should I open it now?”

She smiled. “It’s up to you.”

Inside the envelope in a greeting card was a Visa gift card for $350.00. I started crying.

“Instead of giving our Thanksgiving offering to Safe Families, we wanted your family to have it,” said Susanne, “for all you do for those kids you host.”

I wanted to tell her everything—how I had gripped our finances in the past and how I had recently accepted an ancient challenge—but tears washed away my words.

“This is unbelievable,” I said, hugging her. “Thank you.”

I rejoined my girls.

“Mom?” Flicka said, her eyes soft. “Are you okay?”

“Why were you crying?” said Ricka, leaning in for details.

“I’ll tell you in the car,” I said.

Dicka looped her arm around mine, her eyes searching my face as we strode out to the parking lot.

On the drive home, I told the girls the story of the Divine dare and what had come of it. I had expected good things from our step of faith, but not a financial gift. And not so soon.

“He told the truth,” I said, tears blurring my vision again.

Grins sang out in the silence of the back seat.

“Oh, Mama,” said Dicka.

 

After church the next Sunday, the girls and I ambled out to our vehicle. Ricka frowned, her gaze dragging along the ground as we went.

“What’s going on?” I asked her after we climbed into the car.

“I have to give all my money away,” she said with a sniffle.

“Why?”

Shaking her head, she shrugged. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it all morning during church.”

Ricka always had shopping goals—$130 shoes, an iPhone, or other—but most recently, she was building her coffers to help pay for an expensive volleyball club she had joined. If she had ever given away money, I hadn’t witnessed it.

“Okay,” I said. “Maybe pray about who it should go to.”

“I already know,” she said.

“Really?”

She stated the name of a woman—the mother of Tabitha and Tia, the girls we had hosted many times through Safe Families for Children.

“That’s perfect,” I said.

The last time the little sisters had stayed with us the friction between fifteen-year-old Ricka and six-year-old Tabitha had worn me down. So, who was this new girl in the back seat? And what had she done with my lover of material things? 

When we got home, Ricka checked her savings account online. Then she rifled through her purse for cash and emptied her change jar. She added up all the amounts on a piece of paper and handed it to me: $350.00.

“I’ll write a check for that amount and send it off tomorrow,” I told her.

“Thanks, Mom,” she said. A smile flickered across her face as she took her empty purse back to her room.

Ten days later in the mail came a small envelope for Ricka. The return address belonged to Tabitha and Tia’s mom. Ricka opened the note, read it, and showed it to me:

I wept again. The money had flowed through numerous hands in a grand adventure far beyond us all. The Keeper of Promises had done it.

And the blessings were better than 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 money: Part 1

Tithe.

Millennia hadn’t quelled the ancient word, which meant to give ten percent of one’s earnings to the church. Followers of Jesus Christ still bandied the term about, but although I shared their faith, whenever the topic arose, my stomach soured. I had heard too many sermons on the subject. And they all sounded like thinly-veiled fundraising pleas—and as pleasant as sleeping on a broken-down futon.

“Think of it this way,” a speaker once said, “God lets you keep ninety percent.”

“You’re not tied to just the ten percent,” said one teacher. “You can give more.”

“When you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God,” said another pastor.

Other preachers slipped the subject into pretty frames, edged with the promise of blessings, but I still heard the same message amplified by their microphones: Should. Should. Should. Parishioners in discussion groups quibbled over the ins and outs of the discipline: “Do you tithe off the gross or the net?” “Do you have to give to the local church, or is it okay to give to other ministries?” My attitude bristled even more.

“The tithe is an Old Testament concept,” one of my friends said with a wave of her hand. “It’s all about grace now. Whatever you give is the right amount.”

Varied human opinions echoed through my thoughts. But what was true?

As our home’s holder of the purse strings, I thought about money daily. And I clutched our family’s finances to my chest, squeezing our checkbook close. Whenever I paid the bills, the niggling should of the ten percent entered the equation, but it felt like one more obligation. Another payment. And there was never enough money. Guilt seeped in. Maybe next time.

I donated my time and energy to good causes without a second thought. And I loved surprising someone in need with the occasional financial gift. So why did a regular tithe feel like wearing a scratchy wool sweater in July?

I picked up the phone and dialed the most generous person I knew. Maybe she had some answers.

“It’s about a heart that’s willing to give something up. It’s about trust.” I heard a smile in Mom’s voice on the other end of the line. “And when you give away your money, just wait and see what happens.”

Mom’s biggest delight was giving to those in need, and her words infused me with motivation. But the next time I sat down to pay the bills, reality happened, and our needs and “needs” gobbled up our funds.

I took my struggle to the mat and sat in the presence of the One who owned it all. I wanted to give like Mom and live with open hands in every way. What was holding me back?

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.

A picture of a bicycle formed in my mind. Maybe the tithe wasn’t The Ten Percent after all, but instead, a set of training wheels—an invitation to something bigger. Maybe it was a gift to us—a place to get us started on the wildest adventure of our lives.   

Suddenly, freedom blew my hair back, and the winds were nothing like the dictates gusted from pulpits and Sunday school classrooms throughout my life. It was time to take my placid walk of faith off-road. It was time to really ride.

The next Sunday in church, excited nervousness bubbled up inside me. The offertory began and soon the familiar brass plate made its rounds, gliding between worshipers’ hands until it came to me.

I stifled a smile. Joy had replaced duty, and anticipation had kicked out burden.

I dropped a check into the plate. Let's do this, God.

And the training wheels came off for good.

 

 

*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.

Willingness

“She’s so annoying,” Ricka said, dodging Tabitha and making a beeline for her room.

Sisters Tabitha and Tia, ages six and four, were back with us for the weekend. They had been our houseguests through Safe Families at least eight times over four years. And they were smart girls: they knew the rules of the house, the foods I usually bought, the activities we had enjoyed in the past—and how to push all the buttons.

“She just wants a hug,” I said. “She hasn’t seen you in a while.”

Tabitha locked her arms around my fifteen year old’s waist, letting her legs go slack.

“She doesn’t have to be obnoxious about it,” said Ricka, attempting to peel off the seventy-pound dead weight.

“Stop this.” I skewered Ricka with a look. “Just hug her back.”

“Fine.” Gazing at the ceiling, my girl flung loose arms around the kid for a split-second. Tabitha dragged her tongue along Ricka’s sleeve, released her grip, and bunched over in a forced laugh that bounced off the walls.

“That’s disgusting!” Ricka said and stomped off.

I squatted to make eye contact with the six year old. “Listen. You need to be respectful. You can give a hug, but no licking. Got it?”

Tabitha ran into our home office, pounded on the computer keyboard and poked at the printer’s keypad like a woodpecker trying to bore a hole.  

“We’re done in here,” I said, nudging her from the desk chair. “Time to do some drawing. In the dining room.”

I stocked the table with crayons, markers, and paper. I raised my eyebrows at twelve-year-old Dicka. “Could you oversee some art time while I get dinner going?”

She doled out supplies and the little sisters flanked her, snapping up writing utensils. Soon artwork turned the blank pages into beauty—except for Tabitha’s piece.

Ricka is ugly.

A stick figure of a girl with a scribble over her face accompanied the spiteful words.

“Aw, that’s not very nice,” I said, my tone set to breezy.

She’s not nice,” said Tabitha.

This wasn’t the first time my teen and the first-grader had sparred. I drew in a deep breath and released it, returning to the kitchen.

Only forty-six hours to go.

 

The next morning over coffee, I formed a plan. While I hoped my bright attitude would banish any stinky behavior in public, I laid down an all-hands-on-deck mandate anyway.

“Everyone’s going to Dicka’s volleyball game.”

The visitors wiggled with excitement. Ricka wrinkled her nose. Flicka’s eyebrows drew together, and she bit her lower lip.

“Oh, I forgot,” I said to my seventeen year old. “I promise you’ll have time later today to get your research paper done. Okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, but her mouth sagged.

At the game, the two little visitors dropped to the floor in the doorway of the gym. The contagious Limp Noodle Syndrome—again. Heat rose up my neck.

“Come on,” I said, reaching for Tia’s hand. Flicka grabbed onto Tabitha’s. “Big girls walk on their own. Let’s go.”

But instead, they writhed on the floor, giggling, and three adults almost tripped over their flailing limbs before I could quash the girls’ fun. 

When Dicka’s games finished, we headed home. The afternoon still held one more volleyball match for me to conquer with our weekend companions. Would we all survive?

After lunch, Tabitha fell asleep.

“I have to go to Ricka’s game now,” I told Flicka. “Stay home and do homework. Dicka will hang out with Tabitha when she wakes up. I’ll take Tia.”

At the game, the four year old whined during the entire first set and into the second.

“This is boring,” she said. “I wanna gooooooo.”

Her fussing cut through the ref’s whistles and the spectators’ cheers. I held her on my lap, and she swung her legs, kicking the man seated next to us. I readjusted her, but she found a way to kick him again. Finally, she whimpered herself to sleep in my arms.

That night after the girls were in bed, Flicka approached me in the kitchen.

“Dicka napped this afternoon and didn’t help with Tabitha. So I had to. I didn’t get anything done.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll have a talk with her, because that’s not—”

“Mom, it’s okay.” Tears spilled from her eyes, but a smile leaked through. She shook her head. “I have so much work to do. But know what I thought of today?”

I reached for her hand. “What?”

“I usually don’t feel like helping you.” She laughed through the tears.

I chuckled. “You don’t?”

“But today I actually wanted to help you with those girls.” Another laugh. Then more tears. “I don’t know why I’m crying. Or laughing. I’m so stressed.”

“We’ll get through this weekend, okay?”

That night when the house was quiet, I remembered the advice I had gotten from one of the social workers. “You have to be stern with those girls. Like their mom is.”

But it was too late now. From the start, I had messed up. In my happiness to see Tabitha and Tia, I had paved the path in feathers instead of pouring concrete.

Only twenty hours to go.

 

Like the grand finale at a fireworks show, we finished off our weekend with an explosion of sparks that wowed us all.

“You two have to make it right,” I said, one hand on Ricka and one on Tabitha. The bickering had stripped away the last of my energy. “Now.”

Tabitha birthed new artwork with different words scrawled at the top of the paper.

I am sorry. I love you.

Ricka hugged her—and didn’t roll her eyes this time.

“Tabitha,” I said. “I’m keeping this picture on the fridge. That’s how beautiful it is.”

The front door opened. Husband, home from a work trip.

“Hey, who’s this?” he said.

Tabitha and Tia squealed, dashed across the room, and smashed into his legs.

“You know us!” Tabitha laughed, tugging on his jacket.

Tia bobbed in front of Husband, beaming.

An hour to go.

 

I folded the little girls’ clean laundry and packed it in their bags. Over the weekend, my girls and I had delivered a wobbly service. We had started out with good intentions. But one of us had traded prickles for prickles, one of us had nursed doubts about our calling, and one of us didn’t get her research paper done until Sunday night. But although rumpled, our willingness to do it again was still alive.

And maybe for now, that was all that mattered.

 

 

*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.

Tiana

January 3, 2017. I snapped the lid onto the container of decorations. I would touch those ornaments again in eleven months and they would feel new then, but for now, they were stale. I vacuumed up the scattered pine needles from our tree’s stubborn exit, reclaiming the living room that Christmas had monopolized. Ah, a fresh start in a pristine year bursting with hope and second chances—and still unsullied by death. Or at least that of anyone I knew.

My cell phone pinged, alerting me to a text.

This is Tiana from across the alley. Don’t know if you heard, but the mother of the kids next door died of an overdose yesterday.

The Alley Kids. My stomach flipped.

I had first encountered the three little ones years earlier when their dad had dropped them off in our yard—along with their dog Daisy—for an unexpected visit, then disappeared. They had toddled about our property, exuberant and trusting. I smiled back at them, tucking away my worries so they wouldn’t see. When would he return? Did they have a mother who wondered where they were? Was anyone thinking about them?

Over the years, the kids played basketball at our place. And on our driveway we watched them grow. The boys, ages ten and seven, clumped around in untied high tops. One of them wore adult-sized shorts that reached his ankles. Five-year-old Laya’s too-small shirts always popped up, exposing her belly.  

My neighbor Tiana and I commiserated over the kids. She braided Laya’s hair whenever she could. Husband and I had our talks too that drifted into our pavement classroom out by the garage. Pick up your garbage. Respect other people’s things. You’re good kids. We believe in you. But the lessons didn’t seem to stick, and we said goodbye to the basketball hoop, our only link to The Alley Kids.

I texted Tiana back: I wonder if there’s something I can do…  

As if she knew the secret of how to repair the gouge from losing one’s mother.

Her response: Want to go over together?

 

The next evening, I headed out the back door at six o’clock. Tiana emerged from her house. Crossing through her dark back yard, she brought Light.

“Hi, honey,” she called out, then wrapped me in a hug in the middle of our alley.   

Gifts in our hands, we inched along the icy path until we reached the sidewalk.

“Two days ago, there were police cars and an ambulance over there,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking about those kids.”

I blew out a breath. “Same here.”

Eight people streamed from the duplex as Tiana and I climbed its steps. Inside hummed life. The smell of cigarette smoke mingled with chatter and laughter. A boy played a video game in the living room. Laya scampered by and Tiana patted the girl’s head, covered in a swirl of braids.

T.J., the kids’ dad, cut through a cluster of well-wishers and ambled over to us. Tiana gave him a plant and a heart-shaped box of chocolates. I handed over my gift, fresh cookies, which suddenly seemed like a strange offering.

“How are the kids doing?” she said.

“When everybody leaves, then it’ll hit ‘em.” T.J. nodded, his mouth wobbling. “It’ll hit ‘em good then.”

“If there’s anything I can do—” She gave him a hug.

Our condolences spent, Tiana and I left for home. We had lived across the alley from T.J. for a decade and a half, but Tiana and her family had been in the neighborhood only a year. And in that time, she had often checked on the kids next door, braided hair, and illuminated her part of the block.

Light, set in a dark place, only knows how to shine.

 

 

*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.

Chamomile

I've written some fiction for you today. Happy New Year!

 

Ann dried the roasting pan—the last of the Thanksgiving dishes—and put it away. When the water came to a boil on the stove, she poured herself a cup of chamomile. Never anything stronger. How her fellow accountants at the firm could crunch numbers on loads of caffeine was beyond her. 

Her chin quivered as she dropped into a chair in the living room to drink her tea. Thanksgiving had been a carbon copy of the previous year—and every year for the past ten, in fact. Her family members had phoned the week before the holiday asking what they could bring. As usual, they would come to her house. Her parents’ place was out of the question. Stacks of magazines, newspapers, and store flyers littered every surface. Her sister Gwen’s house wouldn’t work either. It was a crumbling mess and plunging headlong into foreclosure. Her brother Greg, a traveling salesman, didn’t own a house. But her home was as neat as an integer—and just as predictable. Like her.

Earlier that day, Gwen had arrived first, plunking her pickle tray onto Ann’s kitchen counter.

“I made these,” she said.

Ann masked a grimace. Gwen always did her own canning, and she wasn’t one to follow a recipe. Her parents had entered next, her mother toting her annual cranberry salad. And then came her brother Greg, empty-handed, except for his obligatory brown paper bag.

The family had relaxed in Ann’s living room while she tended to the food. Soon, it was time to eat. The turkey had been tender, the mashed potatoes smooth, the Brussels sprouts roasted to perfection. Candied sweet potatoes, savory dressing, spiced cranberries, and orange rolls had decorated her table.

“I have a headache,” her mother said before the pumpkin mousse made it around. “We’ll have to go soon.”

Yes, the yearly headache. As usual, Ann’s father had opened his mouth only long enough to fork more food into it. Greg dismissed himself, making a beeline for his brown paper bag. Gwen eyed the clock twice in a minute.

Twenty minutes after they had downed their meal, Ann’s parents left. Gwen muttered something about her sump pump, zipping out the door on their heels. And Greg fell asleep on the couch. Again, they had left Ann with the dirty dishes, her brother’s snores, and her nagging thoughts.

Would the next holiday be any different?

 

A week before Christmas, Ann’s phone rang.

“What can we bring on the 25th?” her mother said.

Ann examined a hangnail she had forgotten to trim. What if she got a manicure on Christmas Day instead? But her mind darted back to where it belonged: the holiday grocery list. Anxiety zinged her stomach. Like every year, she would prepare ham, potatoes, homemade rolls, asparagus, and a variety of Christmas cookies. Her mother would bring a sweet salad, Gwen would show up with her pickled beets, and Greg would be too busy with work—and coming from too far—to bring anything other than his brown paper bag. Her mother would eat, mention a headache, and the whole thing would collapse. Ann would be alone with the dirty dishes and her chamomile. Until Easter.

“Are you still there?” said her mother on the other end of the line.

I’m always here. “Bring whatever you like,” she said.

On Christmas Eve, Ann lay in bed staring at the ceiling. If she disappeared, what would become of her family and their holidays? What if one year she didn’t make the meals they had come to expect? What if they wanted her in their lives the other days of the year too? Nausea blasted her, but it soon passed, and her forehead relaxed. She exhaled a slow breath and drifted off to the sounds of a holiday party next door.

Early Christmas morning, Ann awoke with a plan. The family would arrive at noon, so she had work to do. She got dressed, slipped on her coat and boots, and headed out to her next-door neighbor’s recycling bin. She plucked out several empty liquor bottles and scurried back into the house. She turned on the tap and filled different amounts of water into the vodka and gin bottles. Then she added drops of red, green, and blue food coloring to the rum bottle. She filled it half-way with water, and the dyes blended into a shade of brown.

Ann changed into a bathrobe and slippers. In the bathroom, she did her makeup: a touch of mascara she smudged below her eye with her pinky. She tussled her hair and added some hairspray to flatten some sections while fluffing the others. She made a phone call.

“Want to come over later?” Ann said to her friend. “Any time after twelve. They won’t be staying, after all.”

She clicked the phone off, filled a juice glass with brown water, and set it on an end table in the living room. She sank into the recliner next to it, propped up her feet, and closed her eyes. Her heart raced.

Three cars rolled into the driveway, snow crunching under the tires.

The family.

A minute passed, then a knock at the door.

“C’mon in,” Ann bellowed from her chair.

Slowly, the door opened. Ann’s mother stuck her head inside. “Hello?”

Her gaze landed on her daughter. First, her eyes widened, then narrowed to slits.

Ann’s father, brother, and sister stared too, their mouths sagging.

“Are you okay?” Gwen said.

“Never better,” said Ann, careful to slur her words as she raised her glass. “I’m just gonna stay right here. You come in and get comfy.” She pasted on a smile and closed her eyes.

“This isn’t right,” her mother said to the others and marched into the kitchen. “What about our family time? What about Christmas dinner?”

“Let’s just go,” said her father. “Maybe she needs a break.”

Footsteps. The door shut with a thud. Ann opened one eye. The family was gone, except for her brother who stood in the kitchen next to the bottles. He lifted one to his nose and sniffed, then he whirled to face her. He smirked, shook his head, and sauntered out the door.

When she was alone again, Ann got out of the recliner and walked to the kitchen. She emptied the bottles into the sink and dialed her friend.

“You can come over now.” She filled the tea kettle and set it on the stove. “Chamomile okay?”

 

 

*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 week of mess

The holidays are like us humans: messy. We scramble to make it just so. But this is what it really looks like...

Besides Christmas cards, what exactly is going on here?

Besides Christmas cards, what exactly is going on here?

A pile of ingredients for the baking. (Hey, I spy a butternut squash peeking out from under this cabinet!)

A pile of ingredients for the baking. (Hey, I spy a butternut squash peeking out from under this cabinet!)

Don't forget the dishes. Ugh.

Don't forget the dishes. Ugh.

"Girls, wanna pick up your boots?"

"Girls, wanna pick up your boots?"

I thought I just did the laundry!

I thought I just did the laundry!

"Where's the tape?" I said. "Last time I saw it, it was in the bathroom," said Flicka.

"Where's the tape?" I said.

"Last time I saw it, it was in the bathroom," said Flicka.

 

Disorder. Confusion everywhere. And not just in our homes with the small stuff like laundry and dishes. (And a roll of tape on the back of the toilet, for some reason.)

Millennia ago, He came from order into our world of chaos. For love. And because we couldn't tidy up on our own.

And yet, here we are, still making our messes. Tangled choices, mucky hearts, jumbled lives. Because we keep forgetting.

But then there's Christmas.

 

 

*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.

Traditions: Christmas Eve

When the men of olden days

To the King of Kings gave praise,

On the fife and drum did play,

Tu-re-lu-re-lu, Pat-a-pat-pan,

On the fife and drum did play,

On this joyful Christmas day!

 

As the choir sang the cheery French carol, we sidestepped into the last pew and sat down. Arctic air rushed into The Basilica of Saint Mary each time its doors opened, persuading us to keep our coats on. Husband held seven-month-old Dicka, a sleepy ball of rumpled velvet. Five-year-old Flicka and three-year-old Ricka, decked out in their dress coats and berets, had been elated to leave home way past bedtime for Christmas Eve’s midnight mass. After the initial charm of the late outing wore off, though, how long would they sit still—or stay awake?

“Once in royal David’s city,” sang a soloist, his voice a stream of light piercing the dimness of the church.

The choir joined his plaintive song, and I settled in for a glorious night. Although not Catholic, Husband and I had attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica whenever we could over the years. And now we shared the tradition with our girls.

I closed my eyes. December. During the previous weeks, we had visited the magical 8th floor of the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s, maneuvering our double-stroller through the life-sized storybook and crowds. We had tripped through snow banks to deliver our homemade Christmas cookies on flimsy plates to our neighbors. The girls’ eyes had sparkled as much as their dresses at their first ballet, “Nutcracker Fantasy”, at the State Theatre. They had danced their own jigs all through our family’s celebration of Lille Julaften, the Norwegian ‘Little Christmas Eve’, on the 23rd. And this evening, they had opened their gifts on the living room floor, shredding wrapping paper with fast hands and the air with their squeals.

Ricka rested her head on Husband’s lap. The baby snoozed on his shoulder. The church darkened. Choir members, in white robes, broke from their places at the front and streamed down the aisles of the church until they surrounded the sanctuary. We clutched our candles and waited for the flame that flickered from one person to the next. Soon, the glow of hundreds of candles warmed us. The Light of the world was born!

“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,” a soloist sang from the balcony, “from tender stem hath sprung!”

I inhaled a shaky breath and stared at my candle. Eternity in one flame. Word made flesh. And that life was the Light of all mankind.

“I don’t feel so good,” Flicka said, tugging on my sleeve.

Back to earth.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” I whispered.

She nodded, and panic flashed across her features. I flung a look at Husband. Although draped by two little ones, he still managed to hold a lit candle and not see me. Flicka let out a cough-gag.

I snuffed out my light. “Let’s go,” I said, sounding more like a coach than a mother in church.

The priest strode by, a censer swaying from his hands, and the choir circled us like cherubim, blocking our way. How could we escape them all and make it to the bathroom in time?

Flicka and I scooted past Husband, and he raised his eyebrows. We dodged choir members and stares and made a beeline for the narthex. In front of the grand doors, I darted looks back and forth, and then I saw it: a sign heralding the good news of restrooms downstairs. I jogged toward the steps, dragging my kid along with me. But all color drained from her face, and her hand flew to her mouth.

“Out!” I said a little too loud.

One step into the frigid air and Flicka bunched over, emptying her stomach—splat!—right onto the pristine, stone steps of The Basilica of Saint Mary. The Christmas Eve moon shone its light on the circle of sickness. We had made it out in time, but new worries smashed my relief. What if the puddle of vomit froze, creating a slick step and causing an elderly individual a dangerous spill?

Husband, his arms full of groggy littles, bolted through the door. “What on earth?”

“We better go home,” I said, fishing through my purse for a tissue for my girl.

The next year during the prelude of Christmas Eve mass at the Basilica, Flicka jerked on my arm again, this time during the candlelit “Silent Night.” I shot Husband a look. He hustled our girl through the grand doors and out into the chilly night’s air just in time for her Christmas dinner’s exodus onto the steps. This time, I was the one to scurry out after them with the drowsy others in tow.

“Again?” I shook my head.

“Apparently,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

 

“I can’t believe you threw up twice at the Basilica,” I said to Flicka twelve years after the first momentous occasion.

“I think it was actually three times,” she said.

“It was? I must’ve blocked that out.”

“I’m pretty sure it was four times,” Husband said. “And it always happened on the steps on the left-hand side.”

I shrugged. “I guess nice traditions don’t have to be perfect.”

Maybe the smell of incense, too much candy, or the late hour had caused Flicka’s annual dash to the steps during midnight mass all those years ago. But nothing—not even a troubled tummy—could have disturbed our thoughts of that first silent night, holy night.

And then, like now, all was calm and all was bright.

 

 

*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.

Traditions: the food

I tromped through the back yard in my winter boots, scrutinizing every corner of our property. Where was it? I better find it soon—if it still existed—and locating it outside was better than inside at a later date. Lala loped along next to me, sniffing the ground.

I squinted into the raised garden and peeled back some soggy leaves to search one of the dog’s favorite hiding spots. “Where is it, Lassie?”

My dog eyed me, the old TV show reference lost on her.

Inside the house, the beginnings of turkey soup—a kick-off to the holiday season—simmered on the stove. The aroma had turned our house into a home.

Earlier that morning while preparing the ingredients for the soup, I had tossed the turkey neck to Lala and she trotted to the nearest rug to enjoy it. She was one to savor her snacks and not gulp them down like the average canine. She also had a tendency to hide them for later—either in the house or outside—as though I would steal them back if she didn’t squirrel them away. Treats had gone missing before, so this time I wasn’t taking any chances.

For a few minutes, I kept a sharp eye on the dog as she nibbled away at the chunk of flesh. But in came two texts, an urgent email, and a phone call, and my attention darted away as fast as Christmas money at the mall. Soon, the dog huffed at the door. Distracted, I let her out. But had she taken her snack with her?

As I checked all of Lala’s outdoor hiding spots with no success, I imagined the meat inside the house somewhere, a putrid smell rising throughout the month of December and finally leading us to a maggoty mass under one of our beds on Christmas morning.

“I’m sure she ate it right away,” Husband said later when I relayed the story of The Missing Turkey Neck.

I stirred the soup on the stove. “Boy, I hope you’re right.” Then I looked at Lala, dozing on the rug by the kitchen sink.

The animal switched her eyelids open, gazed at me, and winked.

*****

 

“This tastes like passive aggressive hate in an edible substance,” Husband said, his tone even. He nodded like a food critic.

I stared at the gelatinous slab of lye fish on the platter between us. I hadn’t grown up with lutefisk at Christmas, but Husband and I had been willing to evaluate it for possible admittance into our family’s holiday traditions. We had bought our trial-run sample from Morey’s Market in Motley, Minnesota, and prepared toppings—melted butter and two cream sauces—for the dish.

“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” I said, helping myself to a serving. I picked out numerous bones and raised a forkful—although the jiggly cod may have done better on a spoon. After a bite, I took a swallow of water. “At least it goes down like Jell-O.”  

“It reminds me of hitting a glob of fat in their feijoada in Brazil,” said Husband, reaching for the cheese tray. “I’ll pass on seconds.”

Another kind of fish—pickled herring—also graced our table. Years earlier, our wedding guests had gobbled up five gallons of it at our reception before I had even had a chance to sit down.

“I think I’ll stick with this.” I speared two kinds of herring—in honey mustard and lingonberry sauces—onto my plate. No competition with guests this time. “Let’s say lutefisk won’t be our tradition, okay?”

“Good call,” said Husband.

*****

 

“This is a strange sensation,” Mom said. “Seventy-five degrees outside, and we’re making lefse.”

Lefse had always been a Christmastime delight during my childhood in northern Minnesota, and its appearance each year was as sure as the snow, its perennial backdrop. But while there was nothing cold about Mom’s visit to us in Arizona in 1999 for Thanksgiving, a piece of the wintry North had still come with her. A lefse grill and all its tools—the corrugated rolling pin, pastry board, and stick with rosemåling on its handle—had been her traveling companions on her flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix.

As we rolled out the dough and turned it onto the hot grill, Mom and I listened to Christmas music. Three-week-old Flicka snoozed nearby in her baby seat. And desert breezes floated through our screen door, reminding us we had a saguaro in our front yard instead of a snowman.

After Mom left, the lefse grill was mine to keep, and I used it beyond the winter holidays. The Scandinavian confection linked me to my roots, which were still nestled in the earth almost two-thousand miles away. And sometimes—even during Arizona’s monsoon season—I needed a taste of home.

Regular use of the grill improved my skills at the potato-y art, but Husband became an expert.

“You don’t have a drop of Norwegian blood and yet look at you,” I said, watching him roll pieces of lefse as round as full moons.

Dough shaped like ragged underwear or Africa emerged from my rolling pin back then, but the tradition wasn’t about perfection. Instead, it was about magic. More than any cookie in the world, the taste of warm lefse spirited us home—home for Christmas.

The lefse stick (a.k.a. "The magic wand")

The lefse stick (a.k.a. "The magic wand")

 

 

*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.

Traditions: the tree

For years, I searched for one with flaws. Tall, skinny, and scraggly topped my list of desired attributes. But a blemished specimen eluded me.

Until this year.

At last I located the scrawny, misshapen Christmas tree of my dreams, and we brought it home. After its first night in our house, though, I awoke to a surprise; the wood floor wore a carpet of pine needles too thick to excuse. I dropped to my hands and knees and poked my head under our holiday guest’s lowest branches. Usually in the first twenty-four hours, our trees sucked water like a wet-dry vac, but this time the stand was still full.

I picked up the phone and dialed Husband. “You did make a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree before bringing it in, right?” 

“Of course.”

“I don’t think it’ll survive the next four weeks.” I plucked a twig from my hair. “It’s already too dry.”

Husband agreed to return the tree, and I performed the messy task of dragging its remains outside, a trail of needles following on my heels.

“It’s always something with the tree,” Flicka said as I swept up the remnants of Christmas before the season even started.

“Not really.” I furrowed my brow while I emptied the dustpan. “Why do you say that?”

“Last year, the lights kept shorting out, so we undecorated it, put on all new lights, and redecorated it. Remember?”

I washed sap from my hands at the kitchen sink. “Oh, that’s right.”

“And then there was that year when the tree kept tipping over.”

“It’s all coming back to me now.”

That night, Husband brought home a fresh tree from a different lot. By the following morning, its branches had settled, so I could see the stark truth: this new one was short, fat, and the general population's definition of perfect. I sighed. There was always next year.

 

"Who gets to put the star on the top this time?" Dicka said.

"Uh..." Husband traced his finger down a copy of The Christmas Ornament (and descriptions) List. "You do."

She pumped her fist in the air. "Yes!"

The Christmas tree—naked, except for its white lights—stood in the corner like a stout elf who had overdone it on Thanksgiving leftovers.

Husband sank into a living room chair. “Same as always, girls, you’ll take turns putting on the ornaments as I read through the list. We’re starting in 1992, Mom’s and my first year of marital bliss—before you freeloaders came and cramped our style.”

“Thanks a lot, Dad,” said Ricka.

Dicka shuddered, wrinkling her nose. “Don’t say ‘marital bliss’.”

Husband cleared his throat. "Here we go. From the top. The gold heart represents Mom's Victorian period."

Flicka went to the dining room table and picked through the ornaments, locating the heart with roses etched into it. She snickered and shook her head. "'Mom's Victorian period'."

"Our apartment was filled with dishes of potpourri back then," Husband said.

Over the next hour, we marched through The List. The girls' ornaments highlighted their interests over the years, from baby mittens to ballet slippers to Converse tennis shoes. And the family ornaments drove us back to Tucson, Puerto Vallarta, Seattle, Asheville, and more. Pewter skis from Vail, a wooden boat from Charleston, a plastic King Kong from New York City, and hockey skates from Quebec again told us vacation stories. 

"This is still the cutest." Dicka dangled a clay miniature dachshund on a ribbon from her finger. "1996, the year you got Dexter."

"And 2011, our first year with Lala," said Ricka, cradling a ceramic pit bull in her palm.

At the mention of her name, the ornament’s inspiration lifted her head off her nearby cushion and eyed us.

"Speaking of Lala," I said, pointing at the list in Husband’s hand. "Check out that note."

“’In 2011, Lala ate the Queen Elizabeth from the Westminster Abbey gift shop, the painted gourd from Bisbee, and two of the straw pine cones from Grandma Mathilda’," he read.

“Naughty girl.” Dicka nuzzled the sleepy animal.

I rummaged through the box of Christmas decorations and extracted the ugly sweater vest and reindeer antlers for the grand finale. And like every year, Husband put on the items and opened the book ornament, The Cajun Night Before Christmas, from New Orleans.

“’De moon on de bayou was so bright it glistened. Even de bullfrogs were quite and listen’n,’” he read in his best accent, sounding more like an early twentieth century Norwegian immigrant trying on an Irish brogue than a dweller on the bayou. “’When what to my wonder’n eyes should appear, but a flying pirogue, and eight gators coming near, wit a petit ole driver so red and dedicated to his cause, I knew at dat moment it got to be Santa Claws!’”

 

*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 Thanks List

I’m thankful…

… my house is too small for more things.

… when the baby we’re hosting is still breathing in the morning.

… when next-door neighbor Dallas beats us to the shoveling.

… for neighbors and friends who love Lala (the dog) while we’re on vacation. (And she loves you back, Glenda, Veronica, and Trixie!)

… for North Minneapolis.

… when Target’s end-caps brim with clearance items.

… for our neighborhood Aldi.

… Flicka rubs my shoulders when she passes through the room.

Napoleon Dynamite still wins a unanimous family vote. (It’s yes.)

… when other parents give my girls a ride home.

… Ricka speaks the truth into the noise, even if she stands alone.

… creativity flows from a stormy day.

… Dicka discerns the hidden pain or motivations of those around her, and she’s moved.

… Husband and I laugh together at least once a day.

… Flicka sees art in life’s shadows; her pencil ignites the mundane.

… when I’m off the hook for cooking dinner.

… The Light spilled from heaven and stepped into flesh, so we could see our way.

What are you thankful for?

 

*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.

Beauty

A black cloud blotted out the sky over The Problem House down the street. The property belonged to our friends, but some young adults rented it from them, earmarking our summer and now fall of 2016 with drama we could hear all the way over at our place. Marijuana smoke and screams wafted from the open windows of the house, and we counted at least fifteen people coming and going. Which ones were actually on the lease? The driveway was a used car lot and somebody at the residence fancied himself a mechanic and serviced vehicles all hours of the day and night.

Eventually our friends, the owners, told us the young people would be evicted if they continued to neglect the rent. And the tenants had dodged their other bills for long enough that the water was shut off, and the City was next in line to kick them out.

The main guy on the lease had grown belligerent with our friends, slinging around threats of arson and bodily harm. He had also done his own brand of home renovations in their charming 1919 home, violating code and undoing their painstaking work to update and beautify the property.  

Then one morning at the bus stop, a woman approached me.

“Did you see all the graffiti on our block?”

The familiar churning in my stomach. “No. Where?”

She and I walked through the alley, and she showed me the affected properties. Swastikas, anarchy symbols, a racial epithet, and directions for where to find drugs—with arrows as long as my arms, pointing to our friends’ rental property—disfigured three garages.

When would the ugliness end?

At one o’clock in the afternoon a few days later, the girls and I arrived home. A young woman, half-naked, was squatting on our house’s landscaping stones, relieving herself.   

I put the car into park and jumped out. “What are you doing? This is my house!”

Still crouching behind our rain barrel and now bewildered, she shifted her gaze to me and squinted for a few seconds. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Since she didn’t move, I edged closer. “Who are you?”

She tugged her footie pajamas back on then, zipped them up, and shuffled to an idling car in the middle of the street.

The previous night, The Problem House had had a party that raged until morning. Had she come from there?

Two weeks later, our friends employed Husband’s assistance; it was time to move the renters out. The tenants hadn’t done much to pack, though, and like a child too stubborn to help his mother clean his room, the main guy on the lease watched them haul out his possessions. Amid the items headed for the driveway were three pellet guns.

The day after the rental property was free of its abusers, the window in its front door was shot out. Husband found damage on our Honda too, and it didn’t take a crime scene expert to recognize the pockmarks on the windshield and side of our car were consistent with a pellet gun. Where was the ex-renter now? Living in his car, parked in front of our friends’ property.

My thoughts, laced with fear and anger, twisted my attitude, so I set out for a walk. Even in a city, nature—stronger than concrete—erupted in beauty. Before my stroll could start, though, I spotted a used maxi pad splayed out on the sidewalk in front of our house, its presence eroding my outlook even more. I stalked back inside, grabbed some disposable gloves and a plastic bag, and trudged out again.

Ugly circumstances threatened to urinate on my spirit, but then I looked up.

… whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

After soaking in the Living Water and some bathwater too, I lit a candle and grabbed Luci Shaw’s Sea Glass like it was a life preserver instead of a volume of poetry. Then I scrolled through an online friend’s Facebook page to drink in the loveliness she captured in photos: her stainless steel crock-pot sitting on a marble countertop, poised to simmer a batch of apple butter; her palm brimming with rare November raspberries; her pink and salmon-colored zinnias flirting with the camera.

Softness rested on my shoulders again. Darkness could be pervasive, but beauty was persistent too, and it always carried peace with it.

 

 

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

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

The same

Wednesday morning, my alarm clock jolted me out of bed at the usual time. The coffeemaker brewed my customary dark roast, and with the normal splash of cream, my coffee tasted the same too. 

Like I do every weekday, I walked Dicka to the bus stop at the end of the block. And again, the fallen leaves and garbage fluttered by our feet as we strode down the sidewalk together. I side-stepped the trash and sighed; it seemed the identical litter appeared every morning, even though I picked it up daily on the way back to the house.

But something about the day was different.

“I don’t want to go to school,” Dicka said.

I assessed her face. No red, drippy nose. No glassy eyes. “Why not?”

“Because everyone will be talking about the election.” She tugged her hood forward to cover her ears. “I just want it to be over.”

I curled my arm around her. “I hear you.”

At the corner, we waited for the school bus. The sixth grade girl from across the street plodded toward us like she always did. And as usual, an invisible weight—bigger than her backpack—pulled her shoulders down. My heart pinched, and I greeted her. She said hi back and then patted her mouth as she yawned, keeping an eye on me the whole time. 

I accepted her non-verbal invitation. “So, you’re pretty tired today?” 

“I watched the election last night,” she said. “I got to stay up until it was over.”

“Wow. That was late. I was asleep by ten-thirty.”

Her posture straightened, and her eyes sparked. “Did you hear Trump won?”

“I did.”

“He’ll be impeached soon. Like Nixon.” 

I imagined the conversation swirling around her TV the night before as states on the screen lit up in red or blue. What else had the adults in her house told her to make the world right for her—and for them?

The bus pulled up and the door screeched open. I kissed Dicka on the forehead and said goodbye to the neighbor girl. The two of them climbed the steps and were gone.

I walked back to the house, plucking the garbage along my path. This morning, the citizens of the country dressed in new clothes: elation, hope, shock, fear, anger. Groups had decided to protest, and others had threatened to unleash riots throughout the nation on neighborhoods like ours. But our street was quiet at eight o’clock in the morning, and the message for me and my family again reverberated off the pavement and houses that lined our block. In our changing times, our calling stayed the same.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.

If the national debt rose or fell, if immigrants were ousted or welcomed, if discrimination stamped out love like some feared or acceptance for all became the rule, nothing would change for us. We’d still talk to the girl at the bus stop, remove snow in the winter for the neighbors, take in kids in crisis, pick up the garbage. We’d still notice the invisible ones living among us, respond to the needs that were delivered to our door, and say no to the deeds that were good but not meant for us. 

And we’d stay rooted in the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

 

*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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