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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
I don’t think it makes me a serial killer just because I like my dishtowel to hang neatly. (They seemed to imply this in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy.)
I suppose I could have gone either way. My grandma’s kitchen was always, well, I’ll say it, a mess. Dishes piled head high. Pots still on the stove. My mother liked a clean sink. The dishrag hung alone over the faucet, testing the humidity level of her apartment. It was a good day for her if she woke to a dry rag in an empty sink.
It’s funny what brings us comfort. An ironed dish towel hanging neatly in the kitchen is enough to start my day off right. And it doesn’t mean I love my grandma any less, I just know what works for me.
There was a tiny plaque by my grandma’s stove. Above the picture of a very pregnant woman it read, “I should have danced all night.” Perhaps my mother took that advice to heart. She never taught me how to cook, but she did teach me how to dance. Her kitchen recipes included “Slow, quick-quick. Slow, quick-quick. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. A heel and a toe and a polka step.” And so we danced in that clean kitchen, never disrupted by a boiling pot.
I suppose there’s a little of both of them in my French kitchen. I know my grandma is watching as I boil the fruit from our trees to make jam. And it is my mother’s hand that gives me the slight nudge to change direction as she dances me through my clean kitchen.
When my son-in-law washes his hands and leaves the towels in a heap, I don’t really want to kill him. But I would like to tell him a story. Of a chubby woman laughing, a tall woman dancing, both leading me in love.
It’s a crazy world. We all have to find our own joyful way. Do what works for you. (And don’t forget to wash your hands.)
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’m not sure if the tellers were elevated, or if it was just my five year old vantage point, but everything at First National Bank of Alexandria seemed important. I held my mother’s left hand as she struggled to remove the deposit slip from her purse with her other. I needed her to balance me as my head circled the high ceilings. Everything smelled of wood and dollar bills. When the transaction was finished, the teller thanked my mom by name. She knows her, I thought. I was so impressed! She handed me a yellow safety sucker from the bowl behind her desk. (Red was my favorite, but I still said thank you.)
I was taught that it wasn’t polite to stare, but I couldn’t look away. I could see just the tip of it. It was a flattened cardboard pig with tiny slots filled with coins. “Would you like one,” the teller asked, “to start saving?” More than anything, I thought, and gazed up at my mom to see if it was ok. She was smiling, so I agreed. She handed me the empty cardboard pig and I thought my heart would explode. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was part of the transaction. And I felt as high as a First National ceiling.
My little pig got heavier with each dime and nickel slotted into place. Months later, when it was full, (from the random couch coin, or my weekly allowance), my mom asked if I wanted to put it in the bank. The real bank. I did, but I wanted to hold it for a while longer…feel the weight of it, the beautiful weight of my transactions. “Hold them as long as you need,” she said.
It feels the same with memory. Each day I place one in a heart slot, and hold on. Banked. Feeling the beautiful weight of all the joy of my days. All the hands held. The smiles exchanged. The love passed back and forth. The comforting weight of my transactions. “Can you still feel it?” they ask. “More than anything,” I reply…”more than anything!”
Hold everything dear.