In the winter of my Minnesota seventh grade, I took my first airplane ride to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I didn’t know what a snowbird was, and I must admit there was a small part of me that hoped they would be donned in feathers. I spotted them immediately at the gate, my grandpa still in overalls and my grandma in a flowered dress, only missing the apron.
I heard the ocean before I saw it. The sound was as big as the sight. I stood in the sand, paralyzed by one thought — that it all was real. It had taken 6 years for Mrs. Bergstrom’s globe to come to life. But there it was! All the blue that she had passed around to us. The blue that we spun with our hopeful fingers. It was right there in front of me. I turned back to my grandparent’s. They shook their heads. I took off my shoes. My pants. And ran into my first dream come true.
It didn’t take long for my lavender winter skin to turn a bright red. I slept soundly on their condo floor.
They took me to all the attractions. Cape Canaveral, the dog track, the outlet mall, and the 4:30pm dinner special. We didn’t go to the “happiest place on earth,” but to be honest, I couldn’t imagine being happier. I basked in the unexpected warmth of winter sun, and their full attention.
Returning to Central Junior High, all smiles, and one less layer of skin, all the other seventh graders, knowing I went to Florida, asked how I liked Disney World. We didn’t go, I said, to their utter shock and dismay. I had no photos. I didn’t own a camera. I had no souvenirs of Mickey or Minnie. “So what did you see?” “Snowbirds,” I said. “They’re real?” “Yes,” I smiled. It was all real. And I had everything. Still do.
Bracing her hands against her knees, still looking up at the painting, smiling, joyful tears filled her eyes. I stepped closer in, wanting too, to be caught in her moment of happiness.
It isn’t often that I get to finish the sale in person. Normally it’s online, and then I ship it out. The grateful emails are nice, but nothing like being face to face. Yesterday, I got to witness her reaction. In real life. In real time. Of course the money is always nice. There is validation to the dollar amount. But to see the reaction. To know that this painting brings her and her husband home, this is priceless. This is why I keep painting.
There is an intimacy to this life, that should never be missed. When people allow you into their moments, be it tears of joy, or sorrow, go all the way in. Stand beside the raised arms or bent knees and feel the moment. It is the most precious gift we have to give. We have to receive. It takes courage, for sure, to do both, but the rewards are immeasurable.
I hope you see these words each day as doors. As windows. Come in, you and your heart sit down.
I can feel her eye roll all the way from heaven as I sit in the hotel breakfast lounge. Not for me, of course. She would never have allowed me to go out into a public area dressed like that. She led by example. Hair, make-up, clothes — even when at their most casual — impeccable. And I wanted to be just like her.
When I was old enough, she got me my own starter kit for make-up. Most likely they were the free gifts from her purchases. She wanted me to learn with my own products. And not to mess up hers. This was clear from my earliest of memories. If I wanted to dunk my cookie, she gave me my own cup of coffee. And so it was with make-up. With clothes. I could admire her shoes, but never walk around in them. Because these things were special. They meant something. She took pride in herself. To be tall in stature was good, to be tall in self-worth was priceless.
And so we dressed for the occasion. Each day was just that. Whether we were toasting, or just going to the lobby for toast. I finished my morning coffee, not in judgement, but in thanks. I stand tall. Every day. My mother still sees to that.
When I moved to France, I left behind my Christmas decorations, but certainly not my Christmas spirit.
The first thing in my new collection was a cardinal that I painted. A female cardinal. A symbol for me in so many ways. A visit from those who had passed on. A vision of hope. Not to mention my high school mascot. A winged collection of all that I am. All that I can be.
And never was it more true. I carried it all with me. Hope won’t weigh you down. Nothing is lighter, except perhaps joy.
I have added to my collection through the years, but it’s these wings that begin my celebration of the season. Long before Thanksgiving. They can’t be contained by calendar or country.
I’m writing to you today from Paris. But no different than yesterday from Aix en Provence. I am just here. With you. And what a comfort that is. Knowing it, I can believe my mom sits beside me, planning her outfits and sipping her latte. My grandma fills her purse with extra snacks. My grandpa perches his pipe between silent lips. My husband smiles at me, knowing our table is always full.
I don’t need the Starbuck’s cup to tell me that it’s Christmas. My heart and wings already know.
It was just after recess. Even on the coldest of days, we were always sweaty. We hung our coats back on the pegs. Mrs. Erickson stood at the front of our third grade class. She had a stack of papers in her hand. She told us to sit and take out our No.2 pencils. She gave a handful to the front person of each desk row. We passed the sheets back to the person behind us, along with our comments and guesses of what was to come. Each pass was like a short game of “whisper around the world.”
I held the horizontal lined paper between my fingers. It seemed all good things started with paper at Washington Elementary. The paper was lined, but not just single lines. Groups of three. Two solids middled by a dotted line. I was certain they were little highways. I would turn out to be right.
She used a three pronged chalk to make the same lines on the blackboard and began our cursive journey. She had the most beautiful penmanship I had ever seen. Upper and lower cases flowed along the paper highway, and we were off! We had already learned to read. Mrs. Bergstrom saw to that. But this, she said, was how we would communicate. It would be part of our identity. I opened the windows of my imaginary car. The wind blew through my hair and hand and I began to write. My name. My address. Sentences. Tiny trips at first, and then I was out on the open road. Faster. Longer. Free!
In the tenth grade, they taught us “behind the wheel,” in Driver’s Ed. But it was Mrs. Erickson who first gave us the keys.
I suppose we all have different destinations. I used to walk down Hopkins Crossroad and take a left onto Minnetonka Blvd. The obvious attraction to many was the bright red roof of the Dairy Queen. But not for me.
It was no accident, I suppose, that there was usually a Dairy Queen next to the softball fields of my youth. In dusted and grass stained uniforms, with skinned knees and sweat matted hair, all the young girls gathered behind cones, and cups. Celebrated or commisserated with frozen cream. Intolerant, being a word well above my reading level, I just knew I would get sick. (After two very unsuccessful attempts.) Sometimes I opted for the Mister Misty – the DQ’s version of shaved ice – but mostly I just went without.
I could have felt sorry for myself. My mother didn’t allow that. “Look around,” she said, on her way back to work, “You have a banana seat bike and a beautiful summer day, figure it out…” So I rode. I rode that bike to lakes. To swingsets. To ballfields. And neighbors. The North End. Parks. On gravel and hills. In cemeteries. Empty school yards. To the public library. Ben Franklin. Hugo’s field. I saw everything. I pedaled the paths and when the paths got too thick, I dropped my bike and walked. And walked some more. As I wore the flowers from my banana seat, and the soles from my bumper tennis shoes, without my knowledge or permission, I was indeed figuring it out.
I still think of it as my superpower — seeing beyond the obvious red roof. During my Minnetonka stay, I saw it almost every day, the weeping willow just before the DQ. One autumn, after dancing with it for an entire summer, I came home and gave thanks on the canvas. For the willow. The road. My mother. The love of the dance.
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 can’t say it was the most comfortable lap, my grandfather’s. If you wanted something soft, you went to my grandma. Her lap was pillowed with sugary treats, and as soft as the toasted marshmallows she loved to eat from Jerry’s Jack and Jill grocery store. You could easily get lost in her folds of love. So what was it that my grandfather had? First of all, I rarely saw him seated. He was skinny. The farm saw to that. He smelled of earth and pipe tobacco. And just where my head would reach, between his chest and shoulders, were the hooks and buttons of his overall straps. The real comfort came, I suppose, straight from the heart. To be let in, this was the magic. To be offered these rare moments of respite. Between the field and the plate wiped clean with a sheet of bread. To be given the time, when time was currency. This was pure love. Perhaps it’s not visible to the naked eye, but I know the button imprint remains on my cheek, and somewhere deep in my heart.
People often ask me, “Do you come from a long line of artists?” My first thought is the quote from Vincent Van Gogh — “There is nothing more artistic than to love people.” My grandmother’s quilts still keep me warm across the sea. The portraits I painted of my grandfather keep me safe. Protected. My mother’s blouses wrap me in a love that will never die. I was loved. I am loved. Still. I walk daily within this gallery given. So, YES! The answer is always yes! I come from a long line of artists. Today, in my most humble of ways, on canvas and paper, I attempt to pass on the line. To pass on the love.
The first set of paper dolls I received was for my 7th birthday from Wendy Schoeneck. My mother had always taught me to smile when receiving a gift. I didn’t know why she had made such a point of it. I suppose up until then, I had always been thrilled with my presents. Wendy was smiling so intently, watching me tear the wrapping paper. So pleased with what was about to be revealed. I scraped the yellowed Scotch tape from the last reluctant piece, only to reveal, to my horror, Buffy and Jody paper dolls. Not only had they spelled my name wrong, but Jody was the boy. I glanced up at my mother. I knew she knew. I guess her constant reminders paid off, because I forced a smile in Wendy’s direction. She couldn’t seem to tell that it was more pain than gratitude.
We played music. Pinned the tail on the donkey. Dropped the clothespins in the bottle. Passed around the presents. Laughed and held sweaty hands in circles. All had been forgotten and forgiven.
One of my presents was a Winnie the Pooh giant story book. We all started to sing the Pooh song, when one of the girls noticed that Winne the Pooh could quickly and easily be translated to Wendy the Pooh. Others joined in. Some giggled. But not Wendy. I knew she felt bad. I opened the box of paper dolls and my mom got out the scissors. We cut out the clothes and quickly forgot about both Poohs. It was a good gift after all. Wendy was smiling. My mom was smiling. And so was I, for real this time.
Sometimes it’s hard to see life’s gifts. They often come ill-wrapped at unwelcomed times. But even the hardest day is kind enough to pass. Find the good. It’s out there.
I suppose everything is about context. It’s not like I’d normally be afraid of a pony. (I’ve even painted them.) But yesterday, when I looked up from the path to turn the corner and almost ran into one, I must say it was alarming. And he wasn’t alone. There was a donkey. A llama. Many sheep. Rams. Other ponies. I don’t know who was in charge of this gang by the river. There were no other humans in sight. Neither the sheep, nor the donkey seemed to care that I was there, but what I can only assume as the lead pony, looked at me like I was the suspicious one.
After taking pictures, I kept walking. The whole path seemed different. I felt disoriented. This path, that I could normally navigate in my sleep, suddenly felt completely strange. Had that always been there? What about this? Did I miss my turn?
I started to take inventory. I knew this rock. This tiny bridge. To walk up the slope on the left side. The smell of these trees. The purple flowers growing out of the concrete fence. I knew this path.
Life can throw you the strangest curves. And you can’t prepare for everything. And sometimes each step can become unfamiliar. When it happens, it may sound silly, but I always take my own inventory. Am I safe? Yes. Am I loved? Yes. Do I have to be afraid? No. I step aside from the wayward pony, smile, and keep walking.