This week I came across a short Mother’s Day piece I wrote 22 years ago,
when my kids were four and two. What I would give to relive this day!
The day was beautiful: blue skies, warm but breezy—a delight after nearly a week of cold, rainy weather. Bill hadn’t slept well the night before, so in the afternoon I took the kids out so he could nap. We went to the neighborhood park. Helena was unusually serene and content. Maybe sensing his opportunity, Louis was even more talkative than usual. When other kids approached, he introduced himself with lots of additional commentary:
I’m a big boy.
If a bad guy comes, I’ll punch him in the belly button.
Do you know, do you know I really love Godzilla. And I like the Rugrats too.
God’s got the whole world in his hands, right Mama?
“Do you always chatter so much?” one of the moms asked him.
Louis seems to think that the coincidence of being at a playground at the same time somehow forms a commitment between the participants. When it was time for us to leave, he said to the kids who just happened to be near him, “Well, bye, we’re coming right back, we’re going to the Dairy Queen and then we’re coming right back.” As if these other kids care. It almost breaks my heart, he can be so earnest.
Anyway, we did go to the Dairy Queen, then off to a different playground. Louis found a live worm and gently played with it. He wanted to take it home, but contented himself with giving it rides on the swing.
“I’m going to watch its antics,” he announced.
A father on a nearby bench smirked. Meanwhile Helena just swung happily.
Truthfully, I’ve never cared much for Mother’s Day. There’s something that rubs me the wrong way about being told whom to appreciate and when, and that I should expect appreciation myself. But on this day, I celebrated being a mother in my own way: blue skies, warm sand on bare toes, a little girl’s red hair blowing in the breeze, and a little boy digging a home for his new friend, the worm.
Years ago, after my elderly mother-in-law passed away and we were sorting her things, I came across this Christmas card. I couldn’t throw it away. I didn’t know who Joan was or how she knew my mother-in-law, but what I did know was that this woman had a story.
HOW ARE YOU? THIS IS LATE, SORRY. I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SICKNESS THIS LAST YEAR OR SO. I LIVE ALONE, SO IT'S HARD, BUT GOD KEEPS MY DAMAGED HEART BEATING. I WASN'T MYSELF UNTIL I LEFT BEN, NOW IT'S EASY TO KNOW WHO UNDERSTANDS WHAT LOVE IS.
This short note has affected me as much as anything I have ever read. I’ve often thought that I should write about it, gently tug meaning out of it and piece together my reflections. But I’ve decided that there’s not anything to add. Joan was writing straight from her heart in a way few of us ever manage to do.
This holiday season, may God keep all our damaged hearts beating, may we truly be ourselves, and may we find others who understand what love is.
I have been irritable much of the day. I don’t enjoy the work I’m doing, and there is nothing to look forward to. It’s Good Friday, but there will be no family dinner on Easter Sunday, no dyed eggs or coconut cookies topped with jellybeans to resemble bird nests. Instead we’ll be trying our luck at our first-ever family video call. We are still in the early days of the pandemic, still groping our way through this miserable low-hanging fog that never burns off.
Around five o’clock, I sleep my computer and head out for a walk, listening to the Cowboy Junkies on my phone. Almost exactly a year ago, I sat 15 feet away from the Cowboy Junkies at a show at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. I look back at that night with a sense of disbelief: people crowded together, drinking and laughing and eating, nodding and tapping their toes to live music, with no reason to give any of it a second thought. On this bleak day, it’s like remembering a jewel: a flash of sapphire, the glow of ruby.
I haven’t lived in this area of St. Paul very long and am still getting to know the neighborhoods. To the south is Summit Avenue, lined with well-tended Victorian mansions. To the east is the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a behemoth of faith risen from the hills. Today I head north. Older two- and three-story homes give way to ramblers. Later I will learn that this is the old Rondo neighborhood—a thriving black community that was torn apart in the 1960s when government officials decided to route I-94 right through the middle of it.
The music in my ears does little to improve my mood. There are few walkers and even fewer cars. The absence of activity takes on a heavy presence of its own.
I come to Carty Park, which covers an entire square block. The last time I was here, maybe two weeks ago, a half dozen teenagers were hanging out in the usual way—voices loud, no masks, no six-foot spaces between them. But the hard truths of the pandemic have been sinking in. Today the park is entirely empty, except for one man who is walking his dog. He angles by me, stepping off the path to avoid getting too close. He won’t even make eye contact. I feel rebuked, unclean.
The path curves toward the swings, and it occurs to me that I could sit there for a bit. I’m not tired, but for some reason the idea of sitting on a swing is appealing. I will sit and sway and check my email.
As soon as my hips settle into the black rubber U, I feel it—the urge to swing. Swaying won’t do. Forget email. I will swing.
After a few pumps of my legs, Margo Timmins’s voice pours into my head:
Sing me a song about life in America
Sing me a song of love
I smile at the aptness of the lyrics even as tears come to my eyes. A love of country wells through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. What will become of us?
Sing me a song about life in your neighborhood
Sing me a song of love
I pump harder, higher. Before me are unbudded trees and silent houses. But I am swinging. I am a 55-year-old woman swinging in the middle of an empty park during a pandemic.
Tell me a tale about those who are dear
Sing me a song of joy
I’m swinging as high as I can go now. My ears are cold and I feel dizzy, queasy. But never mind.
I know what will become of us.
We will swing.
Our apps have a life of their own, don't they? Recently Google Pictures began sending me notifications: X number of years ago on this day...
I was a bit startled to see this picture come up on my phone, out of the blue:
Creepy! But let me explain.
Five years ago my parents moved off their farm to a house in town (Mountain Lake). They moved in March, but the folks who would be renting the homestead weren't going to be arriving until August. So every week or two that summer, I drove from the Twin Cities to spend a few days helping them clean out the house and some of the outbuildings. It was a hot, dry, Sisyphean summer: Would we ever, ever reach the end of things to be packed or sorted or discarded? Would it ever, ever rain again?
The dolls in the above picture had been stored for years, maybe decades, in what we called the "chicken barn" (even though no chickens had lived there in my lifetime). Those dolls were my well-loved and well-worn childhood friends. My mom made clothes for them out of fabric left over from the clothes she made for me—in fact, the orange dress on the doll to the right came from the dress I wore on my first day of kindergarten.
The day we tackled the chicken barn was supposed to be very hot, so we got to work especially early. And when I discovered my long-lost dolls, I set them out to catch the sun's first rays. After being shut away in the darkness for so many years, they deserved a little time in the golden glow of a July sunrise.
Among those in my age group (early 50s), helping parents move is a common scenario--exhausting yet brimming with memories. So I won't stop with the dolls. Here are more photos from the summer of 2012. Maybe some of you will relate.
I'm pretty sure this cowboy-themed toy bin helped me learn my letters and numbers. And then there's KerPlunk, a canister of Tinker Toys, and a leather-stenciling kit that belonged to my brother.
Also in the chicken barn: the remains of my brother's purple-ribbon 4-H bug box. I think he went to the state fair with it. At one point it held a prized luna moth as well as a cecropia moth—true victories in the world of 4-H entomology.
Now for something pretty! This intricate tissue-paper flower was made by my grandmother, along with several others. I wish I knew the occasion.
These pictures are imbedded in my brain. The mountain one hung over the organ in the living room. The fruit one was in the dining room—but the troubling thing is, I had to really think to remember where it had been. And it's only been five years.
More pictures that had been around as long as I could remember. But by 2012 they'd been relegated to the basement, where my dad had made room for a computer desk.
This work of "art" was my doing. I put this puzzle together during all the snow days we had when I was in seventh or eighth grade. That was the era of my maroon body suit. (For some reason that's what comes to mind when I think of working on this puzzle.)
A weed missed by the mower seized its chance to really show off.
Even a key can be a sensory memory...its smoothness and weight...
and the way you had to feel for just the right place to turn.
I remember spending the better part of a day packing up the pantry.
But what good old-fashioned farm pantry it was!
During one visit I worked into the night and then took a few pictures.
The lattice work cast an intricate shadow, and the picnic table seemed to float in midair.
The view from inside the breezeway, facing the yard light and granary.
A mama cat named Babe was happy for some company.
Headlights on corn...one of the eeriest images there'll ever be.
Hard to believe now, but as a kid I did undertake sewing projects now and then, mostly for 4-H (and always under the watchful eye of my mom). The tennis dress and the skirt I made from these patterns both ended up in my daughter's dress-up basket.
The dust of a summer's work covered my Sorento.
A few sparse raindrops turned it into a canvas.
My daughter, then 15, came out with me sometimes and amused herself by taking pictures. This is one of my favorites. It's how I like to remember the farm: both dreamy and substantial, and always inviting you to get up off your feet.
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two young adults and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree