She called me by my mother’s name in the grocery store. Just three letters — Ivy. And the tears flowed. She caught herself quickly, and threw in a “Jodi.” “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…” She hugged me so tightly, trying to collect the water, build a dam. But I wasn’t hurt. I assured her as our coats meshed together. Groceries on the floor. It wasn’t a mistake, but a connection. What a gift to still be so close. So intertwined.
There are a million things I want to “get over” in this world. Loving is not one of them.
I suppose I have always been a feeler. Deeply. Wearing my Cardinal t-shirt this morning, I remember the teams. Not the individual games. Barely the competition. What I remember is crying in the locker room with the other teenage girls. I can’t say for sure what it meant for them, but for me, it was not about losing the game, but ending the season. Because with the season’s end, would I still be a Cardinal? Would I still be a part of it all? Decades later, in black and red, I can say that I am. We make the choices. Endings do not have to mean separations, nor exclusions. We decide. With hearts, hands and voices, how to stay connected.
And so it is with all whom we love. Miles between and breaths removed cannot take it away. We decide. Do you understand? Feel what you feel. Without fear or reservation. Fling your groceries to the floor and arms wide open. This is what will call you. What will hold you. What will save you.
I am a Cardinal. I am my mother’s daughter. Love continues to call my name.
I suppose it all takes time. To see the ordinary. And to appreciate it. Those of you that follow me here, have come, I hope, to know my grandparents, my mother, my schoolmates, and teachers. Some might say “just plain folks.” And that’s probably true. But maybe that’s the real beauty of it all. To find the spectacular in farmers, housewives and receptionists. To see the extraordinary in the daily living.
And in seeing them, it helps me see myself. Helps me find the gratitude of the day given. Of the toast for breakfast. The smell of coffee. The hand that reaches out for mine.
I am reading the book, “Love, Kurt (The Vonnegut Love Letters). I have this book, only because I have a special friend. Last year, together with our husbands, we went to Stillwater, MN. My friend and I stood in the bookstore as if before the Christmas morning tree. So many gifts in front of us, we had a hard time deciding. We each settled on our present. I loved her choice as much as mine. This year, she gave her book to me. Those simple words don’t seem to give it enough meaning, but I will tell you that it fills my heart. It brings me back to a laughter filled day on brisk streets and slow choices. It, for me too, is a love letter.
In the book, Kurt Vonnegut writes with his young pen, to his young wife, “Angel, will you stick by me if it goes backwards and downwards? Holy smokes, Angel: what if I turn out to be just plain folks?” Tears fill my eyes. I imagine we’ve all had the worries. Will I be special enough to be loved?
It’s these memories, of course, that give me that comfort. That give me the yes. My heart is packed full of the love from these glorious and plain folks. And I have loved them. Love them still. And I am one. Proud to be living with these extraordinary people. It is plain to see, they, we, are more than enough to be loved.
When I was young, and still believed that any conflict could be resolved with a “but,” I said things like, “but it’s not fair,” “but she got to do it,” “but I didn’t do anything wrong.”
It took years. On the playing fields. In the gym. On graded papers. During doctor visits. Within goodbyes to homes and family. I butted my way through it all. And nothing changed.
I suppose it was another gift from my mother that got me through. She gave me the gift of “and.” When I was sick of and sorry for myself after another surgery, she shook her head yes, “and we’re going to the mall.” When we would get lost, wandering without GPS or any sense of direction, and I would panic that no one would ever find us, “yes,” she said, “and look, there’s Herbergers!”
When Thanksgivings didn’t gather — “and look, we have bagels!”
When Sundays were too long — “and one day, we’ll have too much happiness to fill our days.”
We didn’t always have the power to make problems disappear, yet we had the magic of “and.” “And we have books. And we have music. And we have each other.”
With that love, we had everything.
The world is still trying to learn what my mother always knew. (I hope we’re still trying to learn.) Daily, I hear on the news the justification of horrors, from people and countries, all under the guise of “but they did this…” What if we looked within. Acknowledged the truth. And responded with kindness. And love. Looked around and said, “And we have all this. We have each other.”
So much to question. And the answer is still, and again, love.
I would always sit in the front row. I loved my English LIterature courses. I wanted to be a part of it all. My hand shot up before my mouth even knew what was going to come out. “You’ll think of something, ” my fingers encouraged as they waved in the air. It wasn’t about assuming I was right. Not about proving my point. I just wanted to be involved. To be among the words. Part of the discourse.
I sat slunched in my chair. Sweating. Sick. My roommate had told me to stay in bed, but I didn’t want to miss out. Within the hour, my mom was on her way to pick me up from college and bring me back home for an emergency appendectomy. When Dr. Merickel gave the diagnosis of acute appendicitis, I smiled. He asked why I was smiling. “You said it was cute.” We hear what we want to hear.
I went back to school two days later, a little lighter, but no less enthusiastic. All that learning prepared me for what was to come. Not in the way you might think. I didn’t learn any foreign languages. So when I moved to France, arms at my side, I feared the conversation. Even the most simple were acute! Trapped inside an introduction, I heard my brother-in-law introduce me as his belle-sœur, I beamed. I heard the word belle and thought “pretty.” And the word soeur meaning “sister.” It turns out that belle-sœur means sister-in-law. But once again, in this need to belong, to be a part of the conversation, I heard what I needed to hear.
I don’t always get it right. I don’t think it’s always necessary. What we do have to be is brave. Curious. Willing to open our hearts and get involved. Be a part of it all. When I raise my hand today, it’s to wave you in. Welcome to my conversation. I’m glad you’re here.
It’s ironic, I suppose, that we only played freeze-tag during our Minnesota summers. Lit only by the tenacity of the hanging summer sun, and the surrounding porch lights, we gathered in the vacant lot next to Dynda’s. It was usually Lynn or Shari Norton, being the oldest, who decided what game to play. I loved kickball. And softball. Even kick the can — though I’m not sure I ever understood the rules. The only game I didn’t love was freeze tag. If the person who was “it” touched you, you had to stop. Immobilized. Standing still. Alone. While others tripped in giggles and weeds, you had to just stand there. Excluded from the fun. Hoping that someone would come and touch you to free you.
It was just a game. I knew, standing there, I still had cool sheets to rest in. A kiss good-night waiting from my mother. But still. It became pretty clear to me, even then, that we need each other.
There are so many distractions in this world. It’s easy to lose sight of the lost. Those frozen in time and space. When maybe just a simple tag, a touch, a smile, could set them free. I’m as guilty as the next person. But I want to get better. And let’s be honest. It really doesn’t take all that much. A returned email. A letter. A phone call. A knock on the door beneath the porch light that waits. Maybe one day, we can all be tripping in the giggles and weeds.
It was my mother who taught me to be a come-with gal. Both by being one, and by asking the same of me.
When I started having surgeries in my teens, on every joint available, my mother was there. She made appointments during her lunch hours. She used vacation time for hospital stays. She overnighted in questionable parts of strange cities to be there when I woke the next morning. She was the driver. The nurse. The companion. The entertainment. Each and every step of the way, she came with.
Returning home, still releasing anesthesia through tears and hanging limbs, she would say, “Well, I’m going to the mall.” I didn’t want to miss out. She knew that. She also knew this would get me off the couch. On crutches, or slinged, sometimes both, I slapped on the lipstick that she already had raised from the tube, and I limped along beside her. She tried on every outfit that Herberger’s had to offer. Some to stun. Some just to make me laugh. And I did. I got over, because I came with.
Just the other day I sold a painting that turned out to be a two-fer. Sometimes when I run out of canvas, or panel, I paint on the opposite side. As I was wrapping up the painting of Lake Agnes for shipping, I smiled, because there she was, the woman on the other side of the painting — the come-with gal. How appropriate, I thought. On one side, the image of where I came to life, Lake Agnes of Alexandria, Minnesota. And on the reverse, the symbol of how I came alive, just by coming with.
No days wasted. My mother saw to that. The sun is calling, and I must go.
In the seventh grade at Central Junior High School, for approximately one week, it was decided that all students would learn the metric system. This foreign secret of measure, based in 10s and 100s, was brought out like a dirty, family secret on a Monday afternoon, and by bus time on Friday, we never spoke of it again.
I’m not sure why we gave up, but as I struggle to convert grams to cups and kilos to pounds, I think it may have been useful. I never imagined that I would take pride in being able to weigh myself in another country, but here I am.
Through the years, the metric system became very low on the scale of “I wonder why we never talked about it.” There are so many things that got brushed under the rug. So many hurts. So many feelings. Confusions. As I stand here smiling before the scale, I imagine how many other things could have been so much easier had we only talked about them. I don’t say this in regret, but as a prompt, to keep things out in the open. Feel them as I feel them. A reminder to wear my heart on my sleeve and my face, giving it away at any measure.
Adding the flour to the bread dough this morning, I don’t use cups, nor grams. I have done it so often, I go by feel. A mixture of farine complète and farine de blé, my own special recipe. And it feels right. It feels like me. Heart wide open — this is where life becomes delicious!
We were never asked the question when we were young — “How do you identify?” I smile now, thinking about it, because I probably would have answered — “A cardinal.”
I didn’t see it for the blessing that it was at the time — maybe that’s the way with all blessings — but despite time and distance, it has stayed with me, this feeling of belonging, being, and I remain a cardinal.
Even on the teams we didn’t play for, we still came together in our red and black. Sometimes on the field. Sometimes in the band. Sometimes in the bleachers. Forever donned in our mascot, the Alexandria Cardinals. Because no matter what we were, hoods, geeks, nerds, jocks, preppies, we were always cardinals. We stomped and clapped to the Cardinal beat. Competed. Learned. Fought. Made up. Grew. Fell. Got up. Together.
I put on my second-hand Cardinal T-shirt yesterday. Wondering why it couldn’t all be this simple. Weren’t we, aren’t we, all a part of something bigger? I’d like to think so. Maybe the red and black is never all that black and white. But it is something to be connected. To be a part of the bigger picture. I want that. For all of us. For this world. We could come together. And identify as one.
I know you know that’s not a typo. Those who knew you called you Alek, not Alex, or even Alexandria, for we, I, knew you with an intimacy that required something familiar, a term of endearment, like Alek.
And we were intimate, weren’t we? Those hot summers, almost endless with the first sun, the first swim…rolls in that green grass. And then bundled together in the whites of winter. Yes, I knew you. I knew you on school buses, through mutual friends. and fleeing family. You made me smile, you made me cry. You heard me sing. And watched me hope.
But if we’re being honest, I couldn’t get away from you fast enough. After high school, I ran as far as I could. I hope I said something like “we can always be friends,” but I’m not sure I did. I think I didn’t look back.
There was so much to see. So much I have seen. And Alek, the world is really
beautiful. So beautiful. It has taken so much time, as I suppose all good things do, for me to see that you too are part of that. You, who knew the beginning, should deserve to know the middle – I pray it’s somewhere near the middle… Because life is good, Alek, so good, and I can share that with you now. I can tell you that I’m happy. And I can see you now, so much clearer, and I need to tell you that. I need to tell you that I hold everything dear. The good days remembered, the bad forgiven. I hope you can do the
same for me. Remember my good days, forgive my bad. Because we had something special. We gave our love, didn’t we? We even gave it big, sometimes. And that has to matter.
So, Alek, you gave me my youth, and I thank you for that. If I may be so bold, I ask for just a little more. Take care of my mother’s memory. She gave you her heart, the best heart maybe you will ever know. And watch over my family, especially the young ones, they will give you the future that you so deserve. And one more thing, Alek, keep me in your heart for a little while, you are forever in mine.
All my love,
I began using the paper purchased this summer at the Fontaine de Vaucluse. It’s handmade. The mill sits right next to the river. It is the most beautiful, accepting paper I have ever used. I suppose because it’s natural. Nothing to fight against. The paint goes on so smoothly and becomes a part of the paper. And the most amazing thing is I’m low on paint. I need to reload. I’m down to my most average. But even this paint takes on a whole new life when combined with this paper.
And the paper is far from perfect. No, in fact, that’s probably what makes it so special. You can see, feel, all the flecks that go into it. The scraps of life and growth. Beautiful!! No shame of imperfections.
Maybe it’s too simple to say, but I’m not sure everything has to be so hard. I think we need each other. And I’m pretty sure we can bring out the best in us if we want. So I come to you daily, with my humble, most average of self, and ask you to join me. You, the imperfect paper. Together, we can make something beautiful. Together, we become!