Category Archives: Family

“Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

I was born in Minneapolis in 1963, when the tallest building in Minnesota was still the Foshay Tower; Harmon Killebrew and the Twins, and Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings played ball at Metropolitan Stadium; the Guthrie Theater opened; and Hubert Humphrey was a senator.

Several famous people share my birth year: Johnny Depp, Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, Larry the Cable Guy, and Charles Barkley. We were born at the apex of the Baby Boom and Gen X, in the age of Mad Men, “Duck and Cover,” and the space race. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech two weeks after I was born, and JFK was assassinated in November.

My family at the time – Dad, Mom, Marty, sister Debbie, and me – lived in the then-burgeoning suburb of Bloomington. In 1966, my brother Matthew was born.

We lived on the west side on a street of newly built houses with enough structural variety that they didn’t all look the same. We lived there until I was 8, so my memories are mostly of a Leave it to Beaver, homogenized neighborhood, where husbands went to work in the morning and wives stayed home to take care of the kids. Neighbors held Fourth of July parades, backyard carnivals, and picnics in the summers, and in the winter, there was ice skating and hockey at the rink near the grade school. Mom made us put bread bags over our socks so we could pull on our boots more easily.

I didn’t know until I was much older that a pedophile lived among us, as did a drug dealer and murderer. My only bad memory of Bloomington was when I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool when I was 5.

I had asked my mom if I could go swimming in “Tyler’s pool.” Tyler was a little boy about a year younger than me. She thought I meant his plastic wading pool and I didn’t correct her. My plan was to go in the big pool with the slide.

Tyler’s parents were at the same backyard picnic as my parents, so there was no supervision. I don’t know if I thought it just came naturally, but I had no idea how to swim. There were a few other kids there, swimming and playing Marco Polo. I stepped carefully down the ladder, but being less than four feet tall, I didn’t clear the shallow end by much. As I floated into the deep end, I struggled to stay afloat and started gasping for air. I don’t know if it was grace, luck, or a guardian angel directive, but when I was no longer able to keep my head above water, an arm reached down and pulled me out. It was Mr. Hoard and he saved my life. (Mr. Hoard, from Little Avenue, if you read this, thank you!) He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to my mom, who offered a little sympathy, but mostly a good tongue lashing.

I took swimming lessons a few years later, but I never conquered my fear of water. I still need to be able to touch the bottom whenever I’m in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

In 1970-71, Vietnam was still abstruse to me, but not to the women in the neighborhood or my older sister. I recently asked my sister and mom (who will be 87 on Sunday) to fill me in on what I remember as “The Vietnam Coffee Cans” days.

Debbie: I do not recall whose idea it was to do this, but the women named the group “Little Avenue Neighbors.” Little Avenue was just a few blocks from our house. We got the names and addresses from neighbors, churches, etc. When dates were settled on when the cans would be filled, the families would start saving coffee cans of all sizes. The women would visit local businesses – usually drug stores – for donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, mirrors, sweets, writing paper, pens, air mail envelopes, etc.  

Mom: A neighbor on Little Avenue had the idea of sending packages to our service men and women in Vietnam. I am not sure how she got the names and addresses, but she ended up with many of them. She would go to grocery stores, drug stores and any other stores she could and got them to donate products to be sent.

Debbie: I only recall this event being held at our house, but I could be wrong. The evening before or the morning of, Dad would move the furniture in the family room against the wall and put in a few saw horses and some plywood for our work space. We circled the tables with folding chairs.  

Mom: We met at her home to pack the coffee cans, also donated by businesses and
neighbors. She didn’t have much room at her house. We had added on the family room, so I
volunteered our house and that worked out well. All the products were brought to our house the night before, so our living room was quite full.

Debbie: I would help make simple sandwiches for everyone in the morning for our lunch. Probably also had some chips, coffee and iced tea. All the ladies brought their non-school kids, so it was quite chaotic! We wanted to get the whole job done by the time the school age kids got home and in time for the ladies to make dinner, I’m sure!  

Mom: Even the kids helped when they had a day off from school. Also, some women brought their little kids with them, so we made sure they had things to play with. The women would bring food for lunch and treats for coffee. Being I furnished the house, I just had the coffee and Kool-Aid for everyone.

Debbie: We filled the cans assembly-line style, so we put all of the goodies in piles and moved the cans down the line. Everyone would fill out a recipe card with their name and address in case the guys wanted to write to us. This would go at the very top of the can before closing it. The lid would be taped down with masking tape, then we would wrap the can in brown paper and label it. All the cans went into large boxes and one of the men would drive the cans to the post office. Everyone pitched in for the postage.

Mom: All the things we were sending had to be put into individual piles. We had bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, candy, peanuts, you name it. We were not to pack cookies or anything that would crumble in the cans. We would write notes to them and change off jobs packing, typing addresses, etc. We worked all day and then some would pack up the cans and take them to the post office. The postal workers did not like to see them come in with all of the cans!

Debbie: I think our dinner those nights were very simple or take out! The whole experience was exhausting, to say the least.

Mom: It was a lot of work and we were all tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. We had a good time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. I do believe the families of all of the women knew they would have to take care of themselves for supper. We were all pooped! Your dad (now age 88) reminded me that we would have Chinese takeout with extra rice and extra noodles.

Debbie: I just looked at my letters. I have one from a guy from January 1971 and three from another guy in August, September, and October 1970.  I have two photos from the guy who wrote three times.  

Mom: Forgot one story. We found out that there was one woman we sent to. Her name sounded more for a man. Anyway, she wrote us thanking for everything, she used the shaving cream for hand lotion, said it worked great. The next can we packed for her we made sure she had all the right things.

Thanks for having me relive that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking more lately about my childhood, namely because all four of my grandchildren are old enough to remember things, and their kind, loving, grandmother (and my compatriot in grandparenting) Julia passed away in February. There are bits and pieces that 6-year-old Audrey will remember, and more than bits and pieces that 11-year-old Claire will remember from these days and beyond, and I hope I have the good fortune of being able to fill in any missing pieces of their childhoods, should they ask me when they are my age.

It’s their last day of school today. Audrey, Luca (10), Mae (8) and Claire.

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“Will Garage Sale for Salmon”

Last weekend, my daughter and son-in-law held their annual/sometimes semi-annual garage sale. Several of us participate, friends and family alike, and at some point alcohol gets involved. We can never predict what will sell, and we’re pretty laid back (some might say lousy) hagglers. But we always have a good time, rain or shine, and never fail to meet the most interesting people.

Carlene and Ben live a 90- to 100-minute drive from me. For this sale, in addition to the usual garage sale stuff I’d packed in boxes, I had a porcelain stove and display tables to haul. I’m…meh…OK/comfortable driving Jim’s pickup on a good day, but the stove took up the back window, and I had to rely on the side mirrors to see around me, so I was a little nervous. Thank goodness I had on my big girl panties that day. It rained almost the entire trip, sometimes so hard I couldn’t see the end of the hood. It took two hours and change, but I got to their house, and in the end, it was worth the work and white knuckles for the experience.

I talked to a woman who’d recently lost her mother and bought a lion necklace in her memory, and a little boy who bought a scooter because his mother said he refused to ride a bike. A guy (wearing a political hat representing a person I oppose with all my being) and his wife stopped by, and when she spotted the jewelry, he didn’t once say an unkind word to her (not that I anticipated he would, just to be clear) about her taking 45 minutes to go through the unsorted costume jewelry. He just seemed happy that the sun was out, like we all were. He even brought her back the next day. Lesson learned: garage sales can bring people of opposing views together if both parties are willing to rise above the rift and difference. There was also the guy who my son-in-law is convinced was flirting with me as he bought my Moody Blues and Elton John CDs, but I think he was just enthusiastic about music and talking about JBL (or was it JVC?) speakers.

God knows the proceeds of a garage sale won’t make any of us rich. This weekend I netted about $50, $10 of which went to pay for a tuna sub on Friday and a calzone on Saturday. The rest I spent on the way home at the gas pump and at Willy’s Smokehouse in Harrisville, PA (population: not too many), home of the most amazing smoked salmon and, I’m told, ham salad. The salmon was my splurge from the booty; the ham salad was Jim’s.

I love smoked salmon, but it’s spendy. I’m not much into the thinly sliced stuff you get in a flat package that you pay $10 for 4 ounces for at the meat counter (although in a pinch…lox and bagels…). I prefer a filet-o-fish, one that looks like this:

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I forgot to take a photo before I dug into it for breakfast yesterday, but you get the idea.

I had in mind two specific purposes for this lovely filet: smoked salmon on an English muffin with a dippy egg (yesterday’s breakfast), and this no-fail, amazing recipe for quesadillas:

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Even though the recipe comes from one of the companies that sells the thinly sliced stuff you find at the meat counter, I can attest that it is best with the kind of smoked salmon you flake off a filet.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about how tight $$ is (see Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels). And it still is, like it is for many millions of us sometimes or all the time. The $50-minus-gas profit would have paid for some groceries, part of the phone or electric bill, or more petro. And that’s what makes this salmon so special. For me it was like splurging on a pack of fancy-ish underwear or a pair of flip-flops. When you have an extra $20…money can buy a little happiness, even if it’s fleeting.

I will garage sale for salmon (and ham salad because I love Jim). The next sale is in August. If you’re in the area, stop by. We’ll get you a lawn chair and a plastic cup of something, and you can watch and talk to people with us. Bring something to sell. You just might make enough to buy a little something for yourself.

Sometimes We’re Our Own Guardian Angels

Have you ever put on your spring jacket after a long winter and found a $5 bill in the pocket? Or looked in the glove box for a pair of sunglasses and found a Hershey Kiss?

That’s Past Us taking care of Present Us.

We don’t plan those little surprises; they just work out that way.

For instance, last month, money was really tight. Zu needed to take her monthly heart worm and flea medicines. I knew I had a heart worm pill, but I was out of the flea pills, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 each if you buy in bulk and $17 if you buy one. I didn’t have the $60 for the bulk discount, and $17…well, it was going to be hard to come by. When I dug through the crate in which I keep Zu’s treats, brushes, and toys, I found the heart worm medicine AND, tucked way on the bottom, one flea pill. Thanks, Past Me!

Also last month, I thought I was out of Zu’s favorite dog chews. It would be a few weeks before I could buy any more. Then I spotted a package behind her bin of dog food. Thank you, Past Me!

When I was working in the garage, sorting things to eBay, I was jonesing for something sweet. I opened my desk drawer looking for a paper clip and found a Salted Nut Roll I forgot was there. Thank you Past Me!

The other day, I was feeling really low, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. Then I found this photo of 19-year-old widowed me with my daughter Carlene.

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Thanks, Past Me.

 

 

A Wake-Up (Scam) Call

It was the week that nothing I planned got done, and instead, I earned a degree in Phone Scams 101.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been on the phone with bankers and doctors and computer experts and a plethora of other people to help get back the $9,500 phone scammers stole from my brother, a vulnerable adult with short-term memory loss.

Some of you might recall that in 2011, Marty suffered a grand mal seizure, and the post-ictal period (the time during which the brain recovers from a seizure) lasted several hours. It was the next day before he recognized anyone, and five days later, he still had no sense of time. Eight years later, he lives independently in a senior living community, but his short-term memory is almost nonexistent, and so our younger brother Matthew and I serve as his power-of-attorney.

We’re not sure if it was the Social Security, IRS, or Microsoft scam because Marty can’t remember the details, but how it played out is in keeping with the description reported recently in the New York Times: “In some cases, the criminals are quite aggressive and try to scare their targets into action. In one common tactic, the fake callers tell the potential victim that his or her Social Security number has been ‘suspended’ because of suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime. The callers may ask their victims to confirm their Social Security numbers. They even say that the victims must withdraw cash from their bank accounts and that the accounts will be frozen if the victims don’t act quickly…Some people are scared enough that they follow the caller’s orders to withdraw money and put it on a gift card, then give the card’s number to the criminals.”

In Marty’s case, the pieces-of-sh*t (toned down from what I originally called the thieves) convinced him to transfer money from his line of credit at his bank to his checking and then they took it from there. Literally.

They also convinced him to go to the nearest retailer and buy a $500 Google Play gift card, which he did. But before he called them back with the card number, something in his fuzzy brain told him to report it. He went to the police, but they did nothing but call the county adult protective services to report Marty as a vulnerable adult. I was mad at first, both at Marty for not calling Matthew or me first and at the police for making a report. It turned out to be a blessing, though, because the social worker gave us some invaluable advice and information on how to protect Marty from future scams. His case, for now, is closed.

Thanks to the manager at his apartment complex, Marty was referred to a computer expert who cleaned up his computer, erased the malware, and created a Fort Knox-like wall that (we hope) no one can break through or climb over to gain access to Marty’s computer again.

There’s a special hell for people who prey on vulnerable adults.

I’m sure you, like everyone, get fake calls almost every day. I choose not to answer any call that isn’t from someone I know because the one time I did, it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Lynn! Is that you? (like she was my best friend)

Me: Um…who…

Caller: I’ve been trying to get a hold of you! I’m a professional solicitor…

Me: Click.

I apologize to any of you who are employed as a “professional solicitor,” but that’s one job in the gray area of ethical. No legitimate solicitor should pretend to know the person they’re calling. For people like my brother, they could get confused and believe (and do) whatever the caller says.

My boyfriend Jim regularly gets calls from someone claiming that if he doesn’t pay his student loans, he will be prosecuted. Jim has never had a student loan, and he tells them that, only in a very…colorful way. He enjoys messing with phone scammers. So does my daughter and our milkman. They say it gives them a moment of satisfaction.

Matthew is in possession of the Google Play gift card, and thankfully Marty didn’t give the scammers the card number. We’ve also made sure his bank account is locked up so tight that he can’t withdraw $5 without us being notified. The only satisfaction I’ve gained from this scam is that it was a wake-up call to yet one more way in which my brother is susceptible to fraud. Matthew and I have said many times this week that we “should have been” more diligent, but we can’t figure out how we could have prevented this scam without taking away more of Marty’s ever-shrinking independence.

Have you ever had to take away Dad’s car keys? Move Mom into a nursing home? It’s a fine line we walk being responsible for a vulnerable adult. In many cases, they’ve entrusted us to make the right decisions for them when they can’t or won’t see the big picture, but love and a long history make these decisions emotionally difficult. We have roles as children or, in our case, as a younger sister and brother, and those roles are part of the emotional fabric of the family. It’s not “natural” to tell your mom or dad or older brother what to do, and yet we must.

If this is you, if you’re in the position of being responsible for a vulnerable adult, how are you doing? How do you walk that fine line? How do you make those decisions, and how do you feel when you do?

Thin Places

How this happened, I don’t know, but I’d never heard of “thin places” before this morning. (And I’m not talking about skinny.)

I was listening to Nikki Mirghafori’s weekly Happy Hour guided meditation. The topic was thin places. As she was explaining what it is, I started to tear up, realizing that I was in a thin place several weeks ago without realizing it. Too restless to finish the meditation, I decided to write about thin places instead. Meet the divine at my computer, so to speak.

Lacy Clark Ellman from A Sacred Journey blog defines it this way: “A thin place is a term used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and Earth grows thin and the sacred and the secular seem to meet. The term comes from…Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Christians, who were deeply connected to the natural world and considered every aspect of life to be infused with the presence of the Divine, even (or perhaps, especially) the ordinary elements of everyday life.”

When I saw my friend Julia in early February, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand and talking with her about our grandchildren. (Julia is my daughter Cassie’s mother-in-law.) With only a short time left to live, Julia was consciously aware that she was in that thin place between Earth and the eternal world, and by holding my hand, so, too, was I. She said she was going to meet Jesus. She was certain. I said I was sure she would, but inside I was angry at Jesus.

Is it possible to encounter the divine with awe and anger?

Thin places inspire intimacy with the divine, but we have to be willing and open to the encounter. Perhaps I need to finish the meditation I abandoned this morning and feel what there is to feel; to enter the memory of that thin place and consider the certainty of Julia’s conviction that the divine was ever present as she lay dying.

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Julia with two of our shared granddaughters, Mae and Claire, Thanksgiving 2018.

Running Naked Through a Graveyard (in loving memory of my grandmother)

Leave it to my Grandma Signe to die on a leap day. (February 29, 1996)

Unusual is too strong a word to describe a woman who chews gum with her front teeth, but to me, my grandma was eccentric for keeping a small bottle of Southern Comfort in her refrigerator.

Signe had an Andy Warhol eye for color, and was a slipper knitter and a first-rate doily maker. A coterie of widows were her loyal companions. She drove a big green boat of a Chevy, and with her right foot on the gas and her left foot on the brake (usually at the same time), and on Thursdays, she’d pick up her friends and road trip five blocks to the senior center for potluck and gossip.

Signe never forgot to send a card and a couple of bucks for every grandchild’s birthday, and when she came to visit, she always played games and talked to us about us, never about herself. She was careful to stay away from stories about her past. It’s as though she didn’t have one, like she was always a grandma, never a girl. To me, Signe was born at age 60 and simply grew older as I did.

We all have defining moments in our lives, some more difficult than others. Signe’s was when her husband Martin died. She was 33 and eight months pregnant. My dad, also named Martin, was 6.

When Martin died, Signe never spoke his name again, and insisted my dad be called by his middle name, Donald. Maybe she didn’t see the point in talking about something she couldn’t change, but I suspect she loved Martin so much that his death knocked the wind out of her, and the only way she found to breathe again was to not talk about it.

Signe and Martin grew up on farms just a few miles from each other. She went to college and eventually taught school a half mile from Martin’s homestead. They dated for many years, marrying in December 1930. My father was born in February 1931. You do the math.

Martin was good friends with Signe’s siblings, and was known around the area as the guy with the fancy car with a canvas top and side curtains.

Signe was never an overly-talkative person, but she was no wallflower. She had a way of letting you know you did something she didn’t like. My dad’s memories of his faather are few, but clear. He told me how one day, Signe poured Martin a cup of coffee. When it was full enough, Martin yelled, “Whoa!” Signe kept right on pouring, letting the coffee spill over the cup and onto the table. She said curtly, “Don’t you talk to me like you do your horses.” It never happened again.

Maybe her refusal to speak of Martin seems strange in our modern world of readily available therapy and support groups. But in 1937, a farmer’s widow with two small children didn’t have much time to feel everything she was feeling, let alone cry or talk about it. My guess is she simply shut off those emotions and went on with the business of raising her children in a world wary of single mothers.

Signe obtained a loan to buy a house, which she fixed up as a boarding house for single female school teachers. For extra money, she made donuts and sent my dad down the street selling them for two bits a dozen. He never got more than three blocks from home before running out.

During World War II, she went back to the classroom, teaching school until she retired 20 years later.

Signe’s parents moved in when they retired from farming, and from then on Signe kept busy with choir and Bible study and playing cards with her friends. Apparently, Signe’s mother griped about her never being home, but if you knew my great-grandmother, you’d hardly blame Signe for getting out once in a while.

And that’s how I knew Signe: as a woman who got out once in a while.

Toward the end of her life, Signe suffered from dementia. She said some things that, in more lucid moments, she would never have said. But with dementia, she no longer lived in the present, as she had since Martin died. Her past was all she had. She spoke of her parents, her siblings, her friends, and of running naked through a graveyard.

I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, but I hope a long time ago she did run through a cemetery, carefree, happy, beautiful, and spontaneous. I hope the last few years, weeks, and hours of her life were filled with the thoughts she spent all her life trying to forget. Warm, wonderful thoughts of how much she loved and was loved.

 

“I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…”

Forgive me if that obnoxiously grating song becomes your earwig today. It has been going through my head all day as I work on this new year blog.

What do I want? What do I really, really want in 2019?

Every year, I want the lofty and obvious: lennon

  • I want world peace;
  • I want an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, physical and sexual abuse, hunger, poverty, and opioid addiction;
  • I want citizens in every country to be an engaged, informed, and thoughtful electorate that will help to end the abuses to our planet and the abuse of innocent immigrants seeking shelter.

Even at age 55, I “Imagine” the world as one.

What I really, really want on a more personal level in 2019 is this:

  • As the new year unfolds, I want to be a better friend and better listener;
  • I want to think first, and only judge (if completely necessary) when I know all the facts;
  • I want to read a headline and not assume I know the entire story;
  • I want to go to Europe;
  • I want to finish my first book.

Many of my family members and friends will greet 2019 with heavy hearts. For them, what I also really, really want is this:

  • As you grieve, may you find peace.
  • When you are sad, may you be open to joy in small things.
  • When you get angry, may you seek perspective.

I leave you with this picture of a plaque in my doctor’s office. (I had to look up xeriscape, too.)

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Wishing you a hopeful new year, my friends.

A Memory for Claire, Who is 11

Claireleaves My first grandchild, Claire, turned 11 years old yesterday. And while I mostly, and not altogether reluctantly, accept that she’s 11, I will always cherish her younger childhood. I wrote this on March 17, 2010. I remember and I still feel this day in my heart.

Claire, 2 years, 5 months old – Visiting Grammy in Clarion PA

I used to think of walking as merely a way to get from point A to point B or a means of exercise. Sometimes both. A walk is a walk is a walk… That is, until I walked with Claire.

The girl doesn’t know it, but she always knows exactly what to do and say to put things in perspective.

We decided to walk uptown to the post office and library. She put on her Dora sneakers and tan jacket, and I surprised her with new purple mittens with hearts and rainbows that I bought her on winter clearance. This made her very happy.

I put on my pink backpack loaded with the envelopes that needed to be mailed, my phone, and some money since I was pretty sure I had library fines to reconcile. Claire put on her Dora backpack and off we went.

The weather was lovely – sunny and about 40 degrees. Since sidewalks are inconsistent for the first few blocks, we cut down an alley to avoid street traffic. As we passed a garage, Claire asked, “Where’d my shadow go?”

“What, honey?” I asked.

She stopped. “My shadow, Grammy.”

Shadow? But of course! I hadn’t thought about my shadow since I was a kid.

“It’s hidden by the garage,” I told her. “Let’s move back into the sunshine.”

“There it is! It’s big!” she said. “You have a big shadow, too, Grammy!” and she waved. “See my hand?”

I waved back with both hands. She giggled.

“I see your fingers in the shadow,” she said.

When we turned the corner we were back on a sidewalk and our shadows were in front of us. Claire hopped over each crack for the rest of the block, thrilled that her shadow kept up with her.

We got to a corner and had to cross a street. I was holding her hand and was just going to walk her across when it dawned on me that I could teach her how to properly cross a street.

“Always stop before walking out on to the street,” I said. “Look to your left. Do you see a car coming?”

Looking very concentrated, Claire peered down the street. “No,” she said seriously.

“Now look to your right. Any cars?”

“Nope.”

“OK, that means we can cross safely.”

We walked down a street I’ve walked for years, but I’d never really noticed that the old Victorian house on 7th Avenue was blue or the rental next door had green trim until Claire pointed it out. Then she spied tiny purple flowers in the next yard.

“Those are crocuses,” I told her.

“Crocheches,” she repeated. Close enough.

I wouldn’t have noticed them on an ordinary walk. I long to see them in my own yard after a long winter, but crocuses are even better when you’re not seeking them out, and spectacular when you unexpectedly get to introduce them to a 2-year-old who loves the colors purple and green.

“I run real fast, Grammy!” and she took off. I kept up by walking more briskly, but it was fun to let her get to the next house a little before I did.

We were getting close to another corner and she took my hand. We stopped, she looked both ways.

“No cars,” she said, and led me safely to the other side.

We went to the post office first, which is next door to the library. I handed the envelopes to the mail clerk.

Claire pulled on my jeans. “I wanna see.” I lifted her up to sit on the counter.

“I like your mittens,” said the clerk. Saying nothing, Claire smiled and looked down at the hearts and rainbows.

“Can she have a lollipop?” he whispered to me. I nodded.

“Would you like a lollipop?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said rather boldly, and I thought, Yeah, I’ve always preferred candy over compliments, too.

From under the counter, he produced a brown grocery bag. Claire reached in and pulled out a small chocolate flavored Tootsie-Pop. She’s definitely my granddaughter.

“What do you say?” I asked her.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, staring again at her mittens, but he heard her.

“You’re welcome!”

Claire insisted I open the wrapper before we left the post office. I didn’t want her to bring it into the library, so we sat on a bench out front and she ate her lollipop.

“A black truck,” she pointed to the street. “That’s Papa’s truck.” Her dad’s dad is Papa and drives a pickup.

“No, that’s not Papa’s truck, but it looks like it,” I said.

“That’s a red car,” she continued and crunched her lollipop.

“Hear that?” she asked.

“That’s a blue jay,” I said.

“Blue jay,” she repeated and took another bite of her lollipop.

After going to the library, we walked home in similar fashion. Birds. Cars. Flowers. Cracks in the sidewalk. Watching Claire observe the world around her, the world I’ve very much taken for granted, I felt a profound sense of belonging. I have a shadow. I know love. Oh that the world could feel such peace.

Things

I listened to a heartbreaking interview on WBUR’s Here & Now on Wednesday with a woman named Katy Brogan, who last week lost her home in the Pawnee wild fire in Northern California. She offered a raw and honest account of her experience, including her bewildering feelings about the things she and her family lost, and the often not-so-helpful words a few people said to her following the loss. (Hint: Don’t be a sanctimonious ass and tell someone who has suffered a catastrophic loss that it happened because you didn’t love (G)od/Jesus enough.)

I’ve said it before in this space years ago (see “Fire”), and I say it again: “Things” are important. Not as important as life (usually), but “things” are often what help us remember and honor our own life, as well as the lives of those before us. For instance, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who emigrated from Norway in the early twentieth century, were very poor, and they brought their things over in one trunk each. I have the great fortune of owning both of those trunks, and I would be very sad if I lost them, as they reflect part of my history.

History in the Kitchen

A few years ago, my daughter Carlene rearranged her kitchen to make room for the items she received when she got married. However (and this made me happy), she kept many of the things I’d given her over the years, including loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and decades-old dishes that we used when I was a kid. I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff in particular, including how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my the lefse stick and roller when the grandma (with one of the aforementioned trunks) passed. Her initials, K.H. (Katinka Hagebakken…you can’t make that up, folks), are still printed in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse. I also still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 37 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. I won’t part with any of these items until 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing.

The folks in California who lost their homes to wild fires also had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and dishes and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways. Katy Brogan lost “Memories of my dad, pictures, some family heirloom jewelry. All my Carhartt stuff. I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, so all my Grateful Dead stuff’s gone — just kind of things that might seem stupid to somebody else.” These aren’t stupid, Katy! We all have that “stuff” that may not make sense to anyone else, but that’s not their business. Losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective is painful, and despite what the “well-intentioned” say, “At least you got out alive” isn’t very helpful when it comes to needing empathy and comfort from others.

It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your great-grandfather used to fry the walleye he caught in Lake Erie when the family camped on the weekends; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from that six-week Asian cooking class. Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways.

When we witness the suffering of those who have lost their things, rather than offer pithy, moralistic, and priggish sentiments that suggest they’re simply lucky to be alive, we’d be better off to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal “things.” Look at the loss from their perspective. Think about the stuff we still have the good fortune to touch, look at, and use. Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup or flour for cookies. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up.

Using your things or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives. And when those lives are gone, “things” can offer comfort in the memory of how, and by whom, they were used.

Love Always Trumps Weight

Today is my 31st Mother’s Day, and it’s also 31 years since I first weighed 200 pounds. Kind of a strange two things to put together, but if you’re like me, you remember what you weighed at momentous points in your life.

I made my formal debut in the 200-pound zone when I stepped on a scale in the labor and delivery ward of Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on March 10, 1983. I made my husband Bruce stay in the labor room. Anyone who didn’t wear scrubs to work didn’t need to know how much I weighed. Bruce was a hair over six feet tall, weighed 170 pounds, and had no clue that when we were married a year earlier, I weighed just 10 pounds less than he did.

As I walked to the scale, I felt the air on my bare back since my stomach took up most of the gown. The nurse held my hand as I stepped up. I looked down at the round monitor that brushed against my lower belly. 205.

“Please don’t tell my husband,” I begged.

Not that Bruce would have cared that I weighed over 200 pounds. I was the one with scale issues. When I looked at myself I saw a double chin. When Bruce looked at me, he called me beautiful. I told him he was just being nice. He told me he never lied.

I’d gained 45 pounds in nine months, 15 more than my obstetrician recommended. It’s not that I didn’t care about my health; I’d just never been told by a doctor to gain weight, only to lose. So when chubby, self-conscious, 19-year-old me was given permission to gain 30 pounds, I went a little food crazy for the first seven months.

I was free to “eat for two.” I didn’t have to “suck it in.” I made grilled Spam and Velveeta sandwiches on white bread, doused salads in full-fat salad dressing, ate ice cream late at night, and put half-and-half and brown sugar on my cream of wheat every morning.

When I developed high blood pressure in my fourth month, I watched my sodium intake and cut out cheddar cheese, ketchup, canned soup and TV dinners. But there isn’t much sodium in baked potatoes with sour cream, prime rib, fried eggs, Hershey Kisses or zucchini bread.

We were farmers. Bruce and I had moved back to the family farm when his parents retired. We had a couple hundred cows, three sows, a bore, and a couple dozen feeder pigs. Bruce and his brother also farmed several hundred acres of corn and soybeans. There were endless chores every day.

When I blew out of my maternity coat late in my eighth month, I dressed in layers and wore Bruce’s coveralls when I went outside. My fur-lined boots were heavy, but twice a day I trudged through knee-deep snow to the silo, then the pig shed, and then the water trough. I even cleaned out the silo room a week before my due date, thinking I could “help things along.” I burned dozens of empty pellet bags that had accumulated over the winter. It took 10 trips back and forth between the silo and the area where we burned trash – easily a 100-yard hike one way – and for my efforts, I was rewarded with eight hours of Braxton Hicks contractions.

At week 40, the baby was still a few weeks from coming out on her own. The doctor predicted she weighed more than eight pounds and measured longer than 20 inches so, certain she was “done,” he decided to induce labor.

Returning from scale, Bruce helped me into bed and the nurses hooked up a Pitocin drip and fetal monitor. After the first contraction, I didn’t think any more about my weight. Scale shock gave way to labor, and for 13 hours, my body cramped and pushed until Carlene was born, all 9 pounds and 22 inches of her.

In the recovery room, a nurse brought Carlene to us and offered to take our picture. My hair was matted to my forehead, I had IVs in both my hands, my face was swollen, my breast was exposed, and Bruce was still wearing scrubs. Normally I’d have protested, but this was not a normal night. Bruce and I were smiling and gazing at Carlene as the nurse took our first and only family photo.

The next morning, the water weight bloat from the drugs was mostly gone and my blood pressure was normal. As I waited for the nurse to bring Carlene to me, I laid in bed and touched my stomach. I gathered its soft folds of deflated skin in my hands. I’d heard it was called an “apron,” the skin that folds over the top of your pelvic bone and rests on the crease where your thighs meet your torso. I followed the rivulets of squishy stretch marks with my fingers and remembered how upset I was when I noticed the first one – a small, light purple line just to the right of my belly button. My mother birthed five children and never had a stretch mark. After one baby, I was littered with them.

I kneaded my skin gently and smiled. I still weighed around 200 pounds, but I had a perfect little girl and an awesome husband.

I’ll lose the extra weight, I thought.

Until his death 10 days later, Bruce and I spent our time figuring out how to be parents. He got up with me for every feeding, especially the ones at 2 a.m. when a Sioux Falls TV station aired “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” In the evenings, he rocked Carlene and sang to her while I slept. In the mornings, Carlene sat in her infant seat on the kitchen table while we ate breakfast. While I moved gingerly and leaked profusely, it was…to this day…the most contented I’ve ever been. A lesson in love, which always trumps weight.