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.
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.
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.
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.
It still surprises me the amount of candy one could receive just by donning an old pair of sweatpants and a paper sack from Olson’s Supermarket over your head. Even if we would have had the money, I’m not sure it would have occurred to us to buy a costume. Surely better results could not have been achieved with a store-bought mask. Nor could it have been used as a backup sack when your premier trick or treating bag, also a sack from Olson’s, became filled, or the handles ripped off. Because the women of VanDyke road, and just beyond by the cemetery, would indeed fill your bag. Homemade popcorn balls. Carmeled apples. Full-size Hershey bars. Cookies. We said “Trick or Treat” with full confidence. We were only “treated.”
It would be hard to imagine now, I suppose. But it was real. Mrs.Vacek, beyond grandma old, opened her door, and walked us past the linoleum porch to sit at the kitchen table. Frank, her husband, perhaps only feigning affection, still managed to sit at the table, head in hand, and asked us one by one, not the standard question of “who are you supposed to be,” but he asked, “Who do you belong to?” “Oh, Frank,” Mrs. Vacek would say, knowing full well who we were. “The green house, on Van Dyke road,” I would reply. (Not completely comprehending, although we had walked far in the early setting sun, we were still on Van Dyke road.) Each of us responded with the like — the yellow house, the white house… Because we belonged here – in this neighborhood, in these houses, on this road. A real community, that was the real treat, I guess. We belonged.
It’s what I wish for you. For all. On this, and every day, that you have an easy answer to Frank’s question. Happy Halloween!
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.
I don’t know who it belonged to. It certainly wasn’t my grandma — even though we found it, my cousins and I, in her upstairs closet. Digging beneath the sombrero, the military uniform and the extra bedding, we jumped back, toppling over each other on the hardwood floor. Was it alive? It had eyes! Fur! What was it??? With a pool cue from the corner of the closet, we moved it into view. A dead fox. Long straight, headed and tailed. Did it crawl in from the field for a siesta (under the sombrero on this Minnesota farm)? And then died? We kicked it down the stairs beside my grandma standing in front of the kitchen sink. (She was always in front of the sink, yet the dishes were never done — but that’s another story.)
“It’s just a stole,” she said, “a fox stole.” Not understanding the word, we assumed the dead fox was now some sort of robber. “No, to wear around your neck,” she said. The explanations kept getting worse. It was unimaginable. We threw it at each other. Maybe she said who it belonged to, but I don’t think so. We soon grew tired of it. We would have left it on the kitchen floor, but she told us to put it back, never asking why she wanted to keep it. We loved her. So we did.
The only accessory we knew Grandma Elsie to wear was an apron. And that was enough for us. She donned what some called sensible shoes and house dresses, which made it easy, I suppose, for us to forget that she was not just a grandma, but a woman of this world.
Pardon the reference, but it’s hard to see “everything, everywhere, all at once.” We get bits of people, glimpses really. We grab onto the parts that serve us best, and a lot remains, well, in the closet. This is not to say we need to know everything about everyone. But I think it’s good to realize that we don’t know everything. People have riches and reasons that we will never realize. And instead of being afraid of that, we should respect it, celebrate it even.
I don’t know if my grandma was ever in Mexico. But in my head she was. Possibly even wearing a fox stole. Or maybe it was just Great Aunt Ellen’s. Maybe she bought it at Tvrdik’s garage sale, just up the road. It doesn’t really matter. What I love is that there was a world to discover in her home. A home where we were allowed to run free. To become exactly who we wanted to be. This beautiful farmhouse, with security and surprise, that grew so much, grew so many.
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.
My shipping department.
There is an empty space where the painting hung. It sold yesterday, Lake Agnes. My first thought, of course, was of joy, but my second thought was of Herberger’s. More specifically, the Herberger’s store that used to be in Alexandria, Minnesota.
My mom, served as the unofficial ambassador. She knew every clerk. Every shopper. For her, and a majority of the town, Herberger’s was not just retail, but social.
Carol worked in the shipping department, right next to the office. My mom would see her when she went to pay her bill. They became friends. It was only after a few conversations that my mom was retrieving empty cardboard boxes to bring to me to use for shipping artwork. I was shipping daily to stores and galleries, so my box bill would have been a fortune. They had a need to recycle — it worked out well for everyone. My mom would fill the back of her hatchbacked Ford Focus and drive them to me in Minneapolis. We then took the time for coffee, wine and shopping. By Sunday evening her car was filled with bags from Anthropologie or Sundance or Macy’s, and the joyful cycle continued.
Of course nothing was the exact size. I became an expert at creating boxes. I could score and trim and shrink wrap and tape with the best of them. It might sound odd to say, but I was proud of it. Still am.
Yesterday I went to the garage and found two scraps (I use the term with affection) of cardboard, and a large amount of bubble wrap. The cardboard was from some garden tool that Dominique ordered, and the bubble wrap from a guitar that was given as a gift to the kids. They weren’t dirty, but still I vacuumed and wiped each piece sparkling clean. I wrapped it with precision. The box is square and strong. The painting is, and will be safe.
I smile as it sits beside me. Knowingly part of my story. Even as I live a country away, and Herberger’s is long closed, I know what, who, helped get me here.
The world is changing. Artificial intelligence is nipping at our heels. People are contemplating if it will take over the arts. I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Sure, I suppose it’s possible to create the painting. But what you can’t manufacture is the story. The lives involved in one piece of art. Carol folding boxes. The Herberger’s store manager helping my mom load the car. My mom. Her love and support. Telling all who would listen. It fills me still.
This painting that I sell today is of Lake Agnes. One of the first lakes I knew in my hometown. It will ship from France and travel to Arkansas, carrying the stories of those who first lifted me.
We never make the journey alone.
I asked him if he wanted to draw with me. He was still in his overalls, tired, needing to wash up before dinner. I open my Big Chief notebook wide. Folded the crease of the binding so it lay flat and spread before the two of us on the card table my grandma had set up for me. “I don’t know how to draw,” he said. “Yes, you do,” I said. “I couldn’t even draw a straight line,” he said. “But I don’t need a straight line,” I said, holding up my ruler. He laughed and picked up one of my crayons. I knew he was tired from a day of farming under the sun. I just needed to know he wasn’t too tired. For me. He wasn’t. Soon I told him it was ok, that he didn’t have to draw anymore. I would finish the picture. He smiled and went to wash for dinner.
I drew a picture of him on his tractor. I had watched him earlier in the day. Moving with precision up and down the seeded field. The rows were perfect. Straight. Beautiful. I replicated them with my ruler.
When he returned to the table I handed him the picture. “It’s you,” I said proudly. He smiled. “See,” I said, “you CAN draw a straight line, only you use a tractor.” He gently held the proof in his hand.
There is always a way to connect. A way to find a place at the table.