There is a natural instinct, I suppose, when you experience something wonderful, to want others to feel the same. “You’ve gotta taste this,” we say. “You’ve got to see this!” And I enjoy sharing things from around the world. But these are the obvious things. The guaranteed positive response. The Eiffel Tower, example. The Vatican. I feel blessed to have stood beside the Colosseum. Floated in Venice. But it’s not a surprise really. I expect people to like these photos.
Winter in Minneapolis. Not the expected destination for travel. But there is beauty. And I see it. Maybe it’s all just a reflection of the people I’m with, but the light!!!! The beautiful light of this city. One that I claim. This is something! I shared the image with my French family. When she replied, in French, how beautiful she thought the light was, it made me feel special. Not just because I took the photo. But that she could see it too. We were a little more connected. Sharing this truth.
It’s why I share the stories of the places I love, but even more so, the people. When I wrote this poem about my mother, The Truth about you, I did it because sometimes I just can’t imagine the incredible luck, the pure blessing, of having such a mother, and I just want everyone to know. To see it. To see her. So pardon my repeats, as I keep spreading the news. The joy. The love I have for my mom, my city. This world.
The light is coming in from the window. I hope when you see it this morning, you will know, it’s for you too!
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.
It would be hard to see at first glance, I suppose, but the chairs I recovered when first moving to France, remind me of my grandfather.
He didn’t say a lot. My grandma was the talker. So to know him, you had to watch him. It was his actions that told the story. And the truth that I saw was that he could fix anything. His tools were simple. Most, it appeared to me, could fit into a small handled, rusted box that he could carry in one hand from the shed to the field, where the tractor waited patiently.
This was business. He took it seriously. But one time he let me walk with him. Two steps to his one, I bit my lips to mute the million questions in my head. Just watch, my brain kept telling my curious heart. The music of the tools rattling seemed to lead the dance. With great precision he flipped and turned. Jolted and eased. Mumbled under breath. And the tractor started again. I sat on his overalled lap and he drove me back to the house. I told him I would return the toolbox to the shed. It wasn’t just to be helpful, I actually wanted to feel the weight of magic. It was surprisingly easy to carry.
When I first moved to France, I needed to find a way to fix the time. The real “difference,” was not just seven hours ahead, but how it could be filled. I didn’t understand the television. My phone didn’t work. Stores were often closed. People spoke in an unfamiliar rhythm. I had my painting. My writing. But there was still time to fill. I went to my heart’s shed and grabbed my toolbox. I decided to recover two chairs. I had never done it before. Never even knew that I wanted to, but here they were, these two chair frames, so I began to work. With Dominique’s help, I found the fabric, the stuffing, the upholstery nails, the sandpaper, the paint. And began. The sanding and the painting went well. The stretching of fabric over the cushions took some trial and error, but I figured it out. Then the nailing — the endless nailing — hour after hour of nailing. But I did it! I did it, I said again to the heavens. And as I placed one in the entry and one in our library, I could hear the engine roll over, feel the puff of smoke, and the tractor wheels turn. It was magic.
Without saying it, he taught me to find a way. Each day has its challenges, but I’m carrying a box of magic.
According to the song, we were not yet even “puppies,” but each morning around 8:15 — just after being dropped off of the school bus at Washington Elementary, and just before Miss Green began our 5th grade class — we sang alongside the turntable with Donny Osmond, “And they called it puppy love
Just because we’re in our teens…”
Of course we weren’t in our teens, but even just having a record player, we felt old enough to experience all the emotions. The closest we actually got to boys was playing four square on the playground. We rotated through the boxes, never touching, hovering somewhere between wanting to beat them and wanting to be liked. I suppose we thought the answers would come in the next song. But none of us actually had the money to buy a new 45 at Carlson’s Music Center, so we sang it again and again, “
Someone, help me, help me, help me please. Is the answer up above? How can I, oh how can I tell them,this is not a puppy love.”We began to lean on Mr. Iverson, our music teacher. Each week he gathered us together to learn a new song — new meaning new to us, but certainly old, perhaps older than our parents. We were desperate for new. “Please please please,” we begged, “let us sing something from the radio.” Our hands shot up straight in the air when he asked for suggestions. “Seasons in the sun” was the overwhelming response. They played it constantly on KDWB, the radio station that intermittantly came in from Minneapolis. Unfamiliar with the lyrics, he said he would play the record and decide. He placed it on the turntable and immediatlely his face turned. None of us had heard the actual verses. We were all just mesmorized by the chorus — “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…” Unfortunately, the majority of the song was about dying. Somehow we had missed that. He scratched the record racing to get the needle out of the groove. I guess we were all in such a hurry to become older, at least puppies, that we missed it.
And that’s the gift, isn’t it? I’m always surprised as summer turns into fall. It happens year after year, and I’m still hovering between the bus ride and when class actually begins. Luxuriating in the 15 minutes of unsupervised freedom. Still ready to believe. To become. To begin again.
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,
My brother left VanDyke Road for the US Airforce. Barely leaving the ground, he swooped back into town, just as he promised he would, and built his high school girlfriend a house on Van Dyke Road. Right next to Vaseks. Tom became TomandRenae. I helped them stain the cupboards. They had a two car garage and two cars. Renae wore a fuzzy peach bathrobe. Tom mowed the lawn. They called each other terms of endearment. They got a big yellow lab. Everything we had lost as a family just up the gravel road, was coming to life again. And it was all as Big Ole had promised — the statue that guarded the near entrance to Van Dyke Road — this was indeed “The Birthplace of America.”
As they drove past Big Ole, on the way to the hospital to have their first child, he told her, “When we drive past Big Ole again, our lives will never be the same.” They brought Joshua Thomas home two days later, and all of lives changed. For the better. They were parents. I was an aunt. My mother was a grandma, and somehow we belonged to something again.
Three years later, when Rachel was knocking on life’s door, my brother was on a hunting trip. Freshly licensed, I was the one to drive with Renae past Big Ole. My mom stayed with Josh and I stood inside the miracle. I breathed in time and watched them pull Rachel out of Renae with forceps. Sometimes life has to be encouraged.
I am in another country now, and a world away from being able to lift either one of them, but I do still carry them with me. I always will. In so many ways, we were all born together. I suppose that’s what Big Ole meant, we would all be asked to change and grow, to star over, to let go, to begin, again and again.
I can still hear the gravel popping fresh beneath the tires. It’s the birth of a brand new day. And so it begins.
Happy Birthday, Josh Hills.