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.
If Herberger’s was ever low on pantyhose, there was a distinct possibility that my mom just restocked her drawers.
She was always prepared. Had she been a scout, and they offered a fashion badge, her sash would have been decorated immediately. Eagle status. Not only did she have the right pair for every outfit, and any future outfit, she kept them in pristine condition. After wearing and washing, she folded them back into their original packaging and filed them neatly, easily visible by color, into her pantyhose drawer. On days when the world just didn’t make sense, I, we, could look to that drawer and find hope.
Sure, it may sound silly. And it probably was. But so what. It brought her joy. It brings me joy. Still. When I see the advertisements to “Shop Small,” this holiday season, I think of her drawer. I think of all the little things she gave to me.
I think we can all get caught up in the “it has to be bigger, grander, more expensive,” to mean something. But, I suppose, it’s always the little things. With gifts. In life. In love. It’s the small things that we will carry. That will fill us for our entire lives.
I bought a pair of green pantyhose two days ago. They match perfectly with my green dress. I wore them yesterday, with all of my mother’s pride. And I saved the packaging. My heart is filled with small mercies.
We never had a lack of things to judge each other by, and Central Junior High made sure that we never ran out. Of course there was the usual hierarchy of those in advanced courses. The grading system. The hands raised in class. The sulking heads in the back of the room. But then they sent us to gym class. They timed us around tracks and arm-flexed hangs. They measured and weighed us. Tested us through units of gymnastics and every ball game. With no self-esteem to spare, they sent us to the pool once a week. It would have been enough to be on display in our one piece suits and skin-capped heads in front of the other 20 or so girls, but the pool was adjacent to the lunch room, separated only by glass windows. Like the theatre view in an operating room, the 9th grade boys eating cafeteria pizza had a thirty minute view. We longed for the “eyes on your own paper” rule of law.
I suppose the greatest gift was the lack of time. The allotted 5 minutes to shower, dress, and speed walk (no running allowed) with wet hair flinging down the halls, to math, or English, or Social studies, didn’t allow much time for scrutiny. It’s only as I’m typing this that I realize there was really no need for the social studies class, we were living it, from beginning to ending bell.
I only mention it, because I use the skill they gave us, almost daily. I can get trapped in the moment of self-awareness. How do I look? How do I appear? Am I being judged? But really, nothing has changed since junior high. I don’t have the time to worry about what everyone else is doing…so certainly others don’t either. (And if you do have the time for judgement, maybe it’s time to switch course. Quickly. Down another hallway.)
There is so much to learn. I hope I continue. I’m sure I stumble on my way to daily social studies. But then I see you, my friends, my fellows, my human contacts, all trying to make our way, and I smile.
The assignment was on perspective. Maybe it was because it was my first time away from home at university. Maybe it was because my eyes were always filtered through my heart. Because I needed my world to get bigger, broader, more open, I saw the perspective in reverse and drew it. Instead of everything narrowing to a point, looking down the long hallway of the campus dorm, I was the point. Everything at the end of the hall got bigger. The other 18 year olds in class laughed as they displayed their drawings, one replicating the other. The teacher smiled. She gave me an “A.”
We were watching videos with friends last night, showing them tours of Aix en Provence. They were so excited. Ooohing and aaaahing over our ordinary. This is the street, next to the statue of the king, where I buy paint. The church where we laid Dominique’s mother to rest. Cezanne’s house. The place for the best pastries. Where I bought earrings. The fish market. The view of the Sainte Victoire. As their excitement grew, our ordinary felt spectacular again. Perspective.
It’s so easy to get stuck. To lose sight of the glorious things all around you. Trying to force everything to make sense — bring it all to a point. I learn the lesson again and again. To open my eyes. Open my heart. Change my view.
I guess that’s what real friends do — Oooh and aaah you into falling in love with your own life again. They are the point that opens all perspective.
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.
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.
In the “wee, small hours” of the night, when thoughts can get so big, I have a practice to calm them down. She has been gone for so many years, my grandma, but she continues to walk me through those uncertain hours. And it could be for anything really, tiny chaotic thoughts, or grand concerns — she’s there, unworried (as she always seemed), as I recite the poem of her life. It’s a long poem, as is her legacy, but it usually only takes the first line or two, and I am saved…
“She was a beauty like he’d never seen,
When Rueben looked back
He knew for sure
That she’d be in his heart for a while.”
These words are the hands that held my mother’s, and my mother’s hands that held mine.
I have a weird little pinky finger. I will need a small procedure to fix it. The condition is apparently genetic. He asked if I remembered my mother’s hands. My heart’s response, of course, was to say I’m still holding it, and my grandma’s too… but certainly I remembered no imperfections. How could I? Their beauty will forever be unmatched.
Maybe it’s all the imperfections that make us beautiful. Or how we use them. I only know this for sure — they held, they gave, they touched. Beauties, that I’ll ever see…
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.
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.
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.