Robin kept a nice house, tending to her family well, but lived life facing outward. From her front windows, she looked out on the grassy parkway in north Minneapolis. From mine, I saw houses lined up just across the street. But we shared the same view of the neighborhood anyway.
After meeting at Jim’s memorial service at the Jay Cooke Park, our friendship quickly sprouted. We met for coffee at either her house or mine, or at one of the local coffee shops. She had two girls, Ava and Ana, woven in between my girls in age, so we compared notes.
One day, Robin had an idea. Why send our kids to different summer programs when together we could plan our own fun? She brimmed with creativity in sewing and crafts of all kinds, so I signed us up for whatever would come.
The girls’ club started in the summer of 2008. Robin’s niece Quinn broke away from her family of only brothers to join us. At the first meeting, we circled up the girls, handing them scraps of paper and pens. They suggested possible names for the club. “The Mega Fun Club” was born out of their brainstorming session that day in June and won the vote.
Life with girls under the age of nine is regularly about decorating something or someone. That first summer, we did face-painting and fingernail painting, sidewalk chalk art and drawing in journals. And to this day, the two husbands still wear the tie-dyed t-shirts that sprang from the girls’ first club meeting.
Robin hosted The Cooking Creation Day. Of all the ingredients lined up on her kitchen table, a handful were foundational requirements: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder or soda, oil, milk, and eggs. Beyond that, the array of extracts, sprinkles, and chocolate—in many forms—was dizzying. The girls set to work. Robin and I snapped pictures. We jotted down ingredients (and amounts) each girl had chosen. The oven was busy for hours. The girls named their creations, and once they cooled, Robin and I acted as judges.
Dicka’s Strawberry Cake didn’t have any strawberries in it—and wasn’t much of a cake either—but was chocolate and sprinkled with M & Ms. The mixture of peanut butter, marshmallows, and orange extract in Ricka’s Peanut Butter Sprinkles Cookies gave us pause. And the need for some water to get the thing down. Flicka’s Termite Hills were strange lumps of oatmeal and coconut, overwhelmed by orange extract. Ana’s Cookielicious Cookies were reasonably normal and speckled throughout with white chocolate chips. Quinn’s Yummy Cake and Ava’s Coconut Cake were pretty, but bland. At least they had abstained from the orange flavoring, opting for vanilla instead. Robin and I tasted each recipe, running from the room now and then to hide our nose-wrinkling and laughter. A cookbook emerged from the event, but it didn’t land on my kitchen cookbook shelf. Instead, I stowed away copies in the girls’ memory boxes.
By 2009, “The Mega Fun Club” took a vote and changed its name to “The Wild Wonders Club” which set the tone for the summer. We caught butterflies and insects in nets at the North Mississippi Regional Park and took a short class on bugs. We hot glue gunned our way to some scary creatures birthed from hacked up parts of stuffed animals and dolls mishmashed back together, courtesy of “Misfit Toys Night” at The Walker Art Center. And the girls erected a vegetable stand and sold produce from Robin’s garden on the sidewalk in front of her house.
In 2010, “The Wild Wonders Club” became “The Rosebuddies,” and the club made soap, lefse, and chocolate suckers. By 2011, two more kids joined the club. Trent and his sister Tina’s parents were from Vietnam, and Robin was watching the kids that summer. Everyone voted on an amendment to the club’s name. It became “The Rosebuddies and Trent.”
One day, “The Rosebuddies and Trent” went to the kiddie pool at a park. The kids ran off to splash in the pool, but other children swarmed around Robin and me. I had seen it before; Robin’s warmth attracted neighborhood kids. They didn’t need face paint or sidewalk chalk—just someone to push them on the swings. That had always been the story in north Minneapolis: too many kids played at the park alone and navigated the neighborhood’s streets by themselves.
When Robin took her kids home a couple of hours later, my girls and I lingered at the pool. I watched all the kids flapping around in the water. What appeared to be three siblings played together in one corner. I shot a look around. Again, no parents to watch them. Then the older brother and sister began picking on their little brother. They shoved his bike into the pool, and he started crying. I was about to talk with them, but I heard them speaking Hmong, so I sat back down on my bench. Then they all got out of the water—dragged the bike out too—and undressed down to nothing right there in the bright sunlight before pulling on dry clothes and leaving.
Just then, a small boy riding an adult bike pedaled inside the chain link fence. He jumped off, letting the bike fall with a clatter onto the cement, and hopped into the pool. I noticed his swim trunks were adult-sized too. He held up the waistband with one hand while he dove around in the water.
I watched him for a while, and then rummaged through my purse. I frowned—no safety pin. But I found something else that might work. I walked to the edge of the pool.
“Come here,” I said when I caught his eye. “I can fix your shorts.”
He jumped out of the water and came to me. I squatted down in front of him, gathered the excess fabric of the waistband into a “ponytail,” and twisted a rubber band around the whole wad.
“There you go,” I said.
He beamed, dragged the back of his hand across his dripping nose, and ran back to the pool, breaking the water’s surface in a cannonball.
I settled back on the bench in the sun. I thought of “The Rosebuddies and Trent” and how they had lots of activities and games to amuse them. They had created, cooked, played, and painted for four summers in a row, under the attentive eyes of two moms. But what about these kids at the park? There was no one to watch them and clap when they pumped spectacularly high on the swings or did a pull-up on the monkey bars.
I realized I couldn’t fix those kids or their parents. But when I was there each week, I could be the mom at the park for just a few hours.
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*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.