Birdell and Bruce: Part 1

Last Thursday at 6:00 p.m., Birdell Beeks, grandma to the community, sat in her minivan at a stop sign at 21st and Penn in north Minneapolis, her granddaughter in the seat next to hers. But before she could step on the gas pedal again, violence exploded at the intersection.

“Baby, they got me,” Birdell said right before the stray bullet stopped her heart.

When the tragic news unfolded, I stewed under a dark cloud, thinking of the woman—cut down in the streets—who set extra places at the table for anybody at any time. And I thought of the one with the gun, so bent on bloodshed that he’d take anyone—even a grandmother.

We stood on the cusp of summer—not even June—and violence had already bubbled to the surface in north Minneapolis. Did the good in our part of the city outweigh the risks of living there? Or were we foolish to keep turning the calendar’s pages in that place?

The following day, a man from a local news outlet posted on a north Minneapolis Facebook page, asking if anyone would be willing to speak with him about why they continued to live on the Northside in spite of the incidents. Almost fifty people responded, and their reasons for calling the Northside home varied. I read through the comments, pondering my neighbors’ words.

Then I left the computer and strode into the kitchen. I poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Husband. We headed into the living room.

“Today, I’m forgetting.” I sat down and pointed at another chair, and he sat too. “Why are we staying here when we could go?”

Husband listed some reasons, and his words jarred my memory, bringing back the truth of the inner-city: the beauty that nestled within the sharp edges, the daily goodness that tamped down the evil, the peace that was louder than the gunshots. But discomfort squeezed me anyway.

I held my mug in both hands. “What would it take for us to leave?”  

“Maybe if the girls were afraid.” Husband took a sip of coffee.

“But they’re not. And leaving out of fear?” I shook my head. “That doesn’t feel right.”

We walked through our Memorial weekend, remembering those who had sacrificed their lives for freedom. And I again thought about those in our neighborhood who had given their lives to violence in one way or another too—either as promoters or as victims. And the cloud over me grew darker.


On Memorial Day, I heard the news that our neighbor, friend, and music teacher Bruce Jackson had passed away after a long fight with Mesothelioma.

Several years earlier, I had signed up Ricka and Dicka for piano lessons at our neighborhood’s Camden Music School. I had selected Bruce as their teacher. I hadn’t met him before I clicked on his name on the computer screen, but I had heard good things, and that was enough.

The first day of piano lessons, Bruce entered the building in a Hawaiian shirt and a straw Panama fedora. The corners of his mouth curved up under a bushy mustache, and his eyes sparkled with the promise of musical adventures.

Over many weeks, Bruce taught my girls to relax and feel the music. Dance off the page and go beyond the notes, he told them. I snickered to myself as I watched the girls—their previous learning-style rigid and their postures even more so—try to navigate improvisational waters. Bruce beamed at their efforts, tapped his foot, and played along on the mandolin. When Dicka voiced her interest in percussion, Bruce pulled out some drums, gave her a few pointers, and set her free.

The year before, I had relieved Flicka of her piano duties; the fussing during practice time at home had eaten away at my resolve. But now Bruce was in our life. Was there something else for my first-born?

“I’d like to play the autoharp,” Flicka announced one day.

“Cool,” I said. “I bet Grandma would loan us hers.”

I asked Bruce if he could teach Flicka to play the stringed instrument.

“Sure,” he said. “Have her come in.”

The autoharp had sustained some injuries from the kids’ and grandkids’ home concerts over the years, but I soon learned Bruce also repaired instruments. He tinkered the harp back into shape and taught Flicka the basics.

Eventually, though, sports burst into the girls’ lives and pushed away the music. We phased out lessons for a while, always intending to return to Bruce, even when the Camden Music School closed its doors for lack of funding. Bruce invited us to stay in his life and come to his home for piano and autoharp time, and I always meant to. But good intentions flit away sometimes.

I kept in touch with Bruce’s fiancée—and with the man himself—through Facebook. I learned that he struggled with cancer, having begun the battle six years before we met. And each day was growing harder for him.

Bruce’s passing on Memorial Day 2016 darkened the cloud that hung over my head. One more reason to stay on the Northside was gone.

But stormy clouds don’t last forever; into the dark moments of contemplation at last comes the light. And I would see my way again.

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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.