The One About Sixth Grade

A month ago, I starting writing what I imagined to be a simple, sweet piece about when I was in sixth grade. But I’m forty six years removed from sixth grade, which became apparent as I wrote a few paragraphs, erased, and tried again. The problem, if problem is the right word, is that writing about when I was eleven years old when I’m now well into my fifty-somethings is tricky because what’s coming out is an interpretation of the seconds or perhaps few minutes of the moments I’m writing about. Is what I’m writing a true representation or just what I grew up telling myself happened?

I ask this both to challenge me as a writer who often writes about the past and readers who read writers who write about the past to consider the slipperiness of truth. Our long-term memories are usually subjective, some are even biased by a subconscious wish that things had been different, and no two people remember a shared experience the same way. I’m always interested, though, in why we remember what we remember, and how, years later, our interpretation of events – what we told ourselves is true – has impacted our lives.

Anyway, that’s way heavier than this piece actually is. You won’t need an advanced degree in psychology to get through it, I promise. (But I can’t promise you won’t need a cup of coffee!)

The One About Sixth Grade

My daughter shared a video recently of my eleven-year-old grandson playing Legos with his two younger sisters. They are sitting on the floor in the girls’ bedroom, building something and singing a song. Luca’s most reliable companion, his lime green blankie, worn thin over the years, is draped over his shoulder. Luca doesn’t bring his blanket with him everywhere, but in the house, it’s always there whenever he needs its friendly, nonjudging presence.

Watching Luca singing and building, and blissfully subconscious of his blanket, I thought about when I was eleven and in sixth grade. I had a blankie, too. Like his, it was practically see-through, more of a rag, really, but it was still soft in a few places and it helped me fall asleep every night.

In sixth grade, I didn’t yet hate my hair. Baiting a fish hook was still fine to do, and a bra wouldn’t be necessary for another year. I played tetherball and skipped rope, and I didn’t care that I sweat and probably stunk. We all did. Our classroom was thick with pre-hormonal kid stink after recess.

Yet, for all its naivete, sixth grade was when my childhood starting bumping into adulthood with increasing regularity. My underdeveloped understanding of the world, informed mostly by my Lutheran upbringing, was often challenged by more adult-like issues such as “bad” words, otherwise kind people being mean, and sex.

One of my more enlightened teachers, especially regarding sexuality, was music, even though at eleven the meaning of a lot of lyrics eluded me. I bought Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and while the lyrics were printed on the inside cover, “All the Young Girls Love Alice” flew over my head. Many songs didn’t, though. When I heard “Lorelei” by Styx for the first time, I thought, People can live together without being married? and quickly decided it wasn’t a question I would ask my parents. I also knew enough about sex to turn down the radio when “Chevy Van” or “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came on. That was not a conversation I wanted to have with Mom and Dad.

Growing up in mostly protestant white bread rural Minnesota, I assumed everyone believed the same thing I did. You didn’t say “Geez” because that was short for Jesus, and “damn” was the worst four-letter word I knew. Playing “soccer” one day during recess (in 1975, our understanding of soccer was that it was like football with a kick ball), I got in my best friend’s way as she attempted to kick a goal. “Damn you, Lynn!” she yelled. I stood there, stunned. According to everything Lutheran, she was damning me to hell.

“Damn” was not a word I heard in my house, and I for sure wasn’t supposed to say it because, well, my parents said the Bible said I couldn’t. So why could my friend? Where did she hear it? Was it because her father went to the bar sometimes or that her family didn’t go to church every Sunday? Religious “rules,” as I understood them, started to feel a little unfair and not all together right. My friend hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt for saying “damn,” and in fact, her life seemed perfectly normal, if not a little more fun than mine.

I had a boyfriend named Ricky and we held hands on the bus during our sixth-grade field trip, which felt all kinds of good in all the wrong ways my mother (and the Bible) warned me about. My first kiss, though, was not with Ricky, but a boy named Todd from Anchorage who was in town visiting his grandparents. It was not at all like a Fonzie kiss, but it wasn’t awful either.

Todd’s grandmother asked me if I’d show him around town and include him in activities while he was there. I doubt she had spin the bottle in mind, but anyway, a bunch of us were playing in a little clearing of brush behind our house. When it was my turn, I hoped the bottle would land on one of the cute boys, but instead it landed on Todd. I didn’t think of Todd as cute, although maybe he was. To me, he was just someone I watched Happy Days reruns with in his grandparent’s living room. Now I had to kiss him.

I insisted we go to the garage so no one could watch. He agreed. We stepped into the dark tin building and looked at each other in awkward silence. The pressure was on him to make the first move because I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned in, I closed my eyes, and it was over in two seconds, just enough time for me to process his lips, which I could tell he’d licked right before they landed on mine .

That’s all I remember except that we didn’t kiss again and we never talked about it.

Sixth grade was, for many of us, a pivotal time when vulnerability was something we started to feel, but couldn’t yet name. There were those who offered and those who took that bite of fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden, and those of us who took notes from the sidelines. We shed our innocence, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Either way, we discovered that the world was much bigger than we thought. I remember one boy in particular who was not academically gifted, but in music class, he would sing his heart out, every note off key. Oblivious to pitch, he sang for the pure joy of singing, whether it was “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Streets of Laredo.” Did he have a blankie? I hope so, because the next year, no longer within the relative safety of elementary school, he was pretty much forgotten and remained on the fringe throughout high school. I asked my cousin recently where that boy was these days and he said the last he heard he was dealing drugs in Minneapolis.

Hmmm…

Watching Luca again with his green friend wrapped over his shoulder, I thought about my old blankie. My mom threw it away one day while I was at school thinking I didn’t need it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night, I felt so alone. But I figured it out, like we all do to some degree, how to live without the things we grew up telling ourselves we needed, when the world was still small and one-dimensional.

For Barbara…

It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about has died, especially if you’ve kept that person alive in your mind for a long time because a good fiction is sometimes better (well, maybe not better, but certainly easier) than the truth. For more than four years I’ve told myself that my friend Barbara probably moved away from her apartment in Edina (Minnesota) in 2015 and forgot to send me her new address.

I met Barbara in the spring semester of 1996. I was finishing my degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and she was my advanced nonfiction writing professor. She’d come out of retirement to teach the course, however “retirement” for Barbara, then 70, was hardly like most of us imagine.

We became friends that semester, and when I moved back to Pennsylvania later that year, we began a once-a-year correspondence that lasted nearly twenty years. Every Christmas, we sent each other a letter detailing the events of our year. Some went on for pages, and hers often read like mini-memoirs. Hands down she led the more exciting life. She traveled the world, each year to a new country, and when she was 80, she climbed Kilimanjaro.

In the early 2010s, when she was in her late 80s, her handwriting became more difficult to decipher and her once long correspondence filled only the blank inside of a Christmas card, but her tone never changed. She was always upbeat and joy-filled, never a word of complaint.

Except for the sympathy card I sent her in 2011 after I read in that year’s letter that her cat of nearly twenty years had died, we didn’t respond to each other’s letters except at Christmas. That was part of the unspoken understanding of our friendship. We were bound and committed (almost in defiance of the pithy nature of email) to writing once-a-year epistles that were meaty, vivid, dense, and time consuming, both in writing and reading. I looked forward to her letters with almost childlike anticipation, the kind that Christmas invokes, and I always saved her previous year’s letter to refresh my memory before reading the new one. I also mentally crafted my letter throughout the year, noting the big stuff, of course, but more importantly, the little things, like the details of a moment working in the garden or rocking a grandchild, a habit she stressed all writer wannabes should adopt.

In 2015, I was excited to tell her that, at 52, I’d started a master’s program in composition and literature, and that my decision was largely based on her example of not letting age define her. My letter wasn’t returned to sender, but neither did I receive a letter from her. My first thought was that she had become physically unable to write anymore, so I resolved that I would keep up my end of the correspondence. In 2017, when again I didn’t receive a letter, I allowed myself to think, for a few seconds, that maybe she had died, but I chose not to find out. I kept her 2014 letter in my Christmas card basket, just in case, and I imagined she was living somewhere, perhaps in Ireland, with a new cat.

Writing the Acknowledgement page for my book* last week, I included Barbara, and in typing her name, I knew it was time for the truth. I wrote an email to the alumni association at Augsburg and they forwarded it to a professor in the English department, someone I knew vaguely from back in the day. In his email this morning, he confirmed that Barbara died in 2015 after several months in hospice care.

As I formally grieve my friend, I remember and honor the role she played in my writing life, not only through her teaching and encouragement, but in how she lived and wrote about her life. Her writing was exemplary, often a model for some of my columns and blogs. While she is no longer here in the flesh, her influence will be with me for as long as I write.

Still, I will always miss her most at Christmas.

* Tentative release date for my first book is December. I will have more information about it in the upcoming months.

Let’s Do the Time Warp. A Photo Time Warp.

Over the last several weekends, I’ve been (finally) sorting through photos from each of my daughters’ photo albums, the ones I started when they were born. When they grew up and moved into places that weren’t dorms or student housing, I gave each of them their photo album, then in late 2018, they gave them back to me because I promised to have them digitized. They sat in a box in the garage until…well, let’s just say right now I have no excuse not to get this project done.

As of today, I’ve sorted through each photo, and in the process, I came up with my own weird Dewey Decimal System for categorizing them. What is abundantly clear is that for every one photo of Cassie alone (the younger), there are five of Carlene (the older). Part of the reason is the wholly different circumstances in which they came into this world (see “Twin Daughters of Different Fathers”), but mostly it’s because, like many parents, second children – when they are young, at least – simply aren’t photographed alone as often as their older sibling was. Besides, even if I wanted to take a picture of just one, they were almost always together.

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Carlene (left), 4 and Cassie, 2

It’s not just faces in photos that make them special or memorable. In one photo I found, my mother – who is talking to someone outside the frame – is holding one-year-old Carlene on her lap in my grandmother’s apartment. They are formally dressed. There’s an unlit cigarette in an ashtray on the kitchen table and a bit of red wine in a water tumbler. I know it’s wine because it’s next to my mother. Within the frame is the side of Grandma’s refrigerator, decorated with cactus and cowboy magnets, gifts no doubt from her sister, my great-aunt Martha, who wintered every year in Arizona. I was able to deduce that the photo was taken in February 1984 on the weekend of my grandma’s eightieth birthday celebration. My dad and his brother, her only children, bought her a curio cabinet and each of us grandchildren and grgirlpigeat-grandchildren – about 10 of us at the time – bought her curios. I remember I chose a small figurine of a child dressed in coveralls and riding a pig. My husband had died the year before and I wanted something that represented the memory of us: Carlene, him and me raising pigs on a farm not far from my grandmother’s apartment. This memory led me to eBay and to the exact figurine and $7.50 (including shipping) later…it will be here on Friday.

Just as one photo can make you smile, another can bring up a worry you’ll never forget. This is definitely one of them:

CarleneBurn

My little sister, who was nine, is holding up Carlene, who was about fourteen months, on her bike. Notice the thick bandage on little Carlene’s hand. A few days before, I was in the bathroom putting on makeup while my curling iron heated up. Carlene toddled in, and before I knew she was there, she grabbed the curling iron. Just typing that makes me sick to my stomach. She screamed, I screamed. I grabbed her and ran to the kitchen to put her hand under cool running water. As she cried, I called the pediatrician’s office (I’m surprised they could hear a thing I was saying) and they told me to put her hand in ice water and get her to their office as soon as possible.

When we got there, Carlene was staring out the window, and her cries were now a staccato-breath whimper. The doctor carefully opened her hand and the poor thing had first and second degree burns on her palm and halfway up her little thumb and index finger. I didn’t cry because I didn’t want to scare Carlene any more than she was, but I assure you I felt like the worst mother in the history of motherhood. In the days that followed I didn’t let her out of my sight, and she fell asleep in my arms every night to me whispering “I’m sorry.”

Looking at so many photos is bound to send anyone down a few rabbit holes and into a time warp coma. But going through my girls’ photos has helped focus my attention, if even for a few hours, on a time that wasn’t always perfect, but isn’t right now.

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Oh, the cuteness!

 

Looking Back… (kind of the Get-Outta-My-Yard-You-Damn-Kids version)

While December 31, 2019 is not technically the end of the decade, it is the end of the 20teens, and despite my fussiness about calendar time (which is arbitrary anyway), I was still drawn to a question someone posted on Twitter a few weeks ago: “As we near the end of the decade, what is one thing that 2010 you would be extremely proud of 2019 you for doing/being/experiencing/achieving/overcoming/discovering?”

I was drawn to it because my answer is: Do we really want to go down Memory Lane?

giphy

What concerns me about any exercise in reviewing the past is that we often have to consult that mental file drawer that contains folders marked: “Well, That Didn’t Work Out,” “Crap, I Forgot About That,” “I Never Did Get Around to Doing That,” and my favorite, “What the Hell Was I Thinking?” Thumbing through those files can drag a person down, and if this is you (and it’s definitely me), shut the damn file drawer!

Looking back for one thing might be fun for some, or it might be quickly apparent for others, but it can often become a walk through Regret Park. I have no ill will toward 2010 Me, not at all, but I prefer to stay here in the present and ask more helpful questions with less potential for psychological disaster: What am I thankful for? Who do I think about and like to hang out with? What is something I’d like to challenge myself to do in 2020?

Because here’s my truth: What 2019 Me knows that 2010 Me couldn’t know was that everything and everyone in the last 9 years, every loss, every moment of WTF, anger or aha, and every kiss, hug, tear, and discussion over a cup of coffee coalesced to make me content with my life, as it is, in all its complexities, anxieties, and unknowns right now, at the end of 2019. I was not defeated, and – while cautious – I’m looking forward to the next 10.

I think that’s the best any of us can want for ourselves.

If there is one thing you are proud of, I truly am happy for you. Just don’t forget to thank 2010 You for helping you. No matter who we are now in 2019, 2010 Us had a hand in some way.

As Edith Wharton wrote, “We’ve but one life to live, and fifty ways to live it in.” Here’s to the forks in the road, the decisions we make, and the mistakes, disappointments, and triumphs to come. May your 2020 be a year of hope, self-care, and positive change, if that is what you desire.

Some Woman to Some Man
by Edith Wharton

We might have loved each other after all,
Have lived and learned together! Yet I doubt it;
You asked, I think, too great a sacrifice,
Or else, perhaps, I rate myself too dear.
Whichever way the difference lies between us,
Would common cares have helped to lessen it,
A common interest, and a common lot?
Who knows indeed? We choose our path, and then
Stand looking back and sighing at our choice,
And say: “Perhaps the other road had led
To fruitful valleys dozing in the sun.”
Perhaps—perhaps—but all things are perhaps,
And either way there lies a doubt, you know.
We’ve but one life to live, and fifty ways
To live it in, and little time to choose
The one in fifty that will suit us best,
And so the end is, that we part, and say:
“We might have loved each other after all!”

Remembering 9-11

911I wrote this column a week after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, when I worked for The Clarion News. Reading it again today, on the 18th anniversary, I vividly recall the fear, confusion, sadness, and anger almost everyone in this country felt that day. Some things you can never not feel or see no matter how much time passes. I wish you all peace as you remember where you were when you heard the news and how it changed your life.

Life Can Never Be Normal Again

September 20, 2001

The word “normal” isn’t written or talked about as much now as it was last week. For a few days after planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in southern Pennsylvania, all anyone wanted was for things to be the way they were before. But during the last week, the initial shock of the attacks has turned into sadness and anger, and we’ve added “as near to normal” to our speech, which is more in line with what we can do.

We can get close to what we knew as normal, but we’ll never live there again. We now live in a new kind of normal and in a new kind of world. Last week’s attacks stripped this country of its naivete, and dragged us into a world community already familiar with the hatred and destruction of terrorism. Our confidence and sense of security in a rich and powerful nation may not be destroyed, but we are certainly disorientated. After all, you don’t get kicked in the gut several times and then catch your breath right away. It takes slow deep breaths, a straightening of posture, and the awareness of the dull aching bruise to begin walking again.

And while I catch my breath, as I try to find some semblance of normalcy, I wonder about so many things, worry about so many people, and think about the anger I feel toward people I don’t know.

At last count, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11. On average, if you take into account parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, coworkers, and friends, there are more than one million people who knew them personally. One million people. I can’t wrap my head around such a number. One million people’s lives are left with a gaping hole that their loved one and friend once filled. One million people will never again feel their mother’s or wife’s or daughter’s arms around them, hear their child’s laughter or cries, tease their brother or sister at family gatherings, attend their grandson’s wedding or witness the birth of their best friend’s first child. One million people will grieve all their lives and wonder what could have been.

Then there’s the rest of us. A couple hundred million of us who could only watch in horror and try to comprehend the number of lives lost as buildings collapsed and planes burned. We know it could have been us and in a way it was us. When those 3,000 people died, a piece of our souls went with them because this was an attack on our country. We can go back to work, shop, play, and laugh again, but nothing will be the same. Something will always be missing.

Also, as I try to breathe again, to put this all into perspective I can understand, I wonder about the rest of the world and how it, too, has changed. What will happen to the little boy who was among the small group of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip “celebrating” the attacks? He was eating ice cream and wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt. If you looked closely, one of the camera operators seemed to be directing the crowd. Using children, feeding them with someone else’s hate – is that the tactic of our enemies?

I am afraid for the people in Afghanistan who have so little because the Taliban and the war with Russia took it all away. I’ve wanted justice for the women so inhumanly oppressed by the Taliban, but not like this. More innocents should not die, but they probably will, and that reality is what makes “normal” impossible.

I am concerned for Muslims living in this country and abroad who believe in a loving God and not the tenants of a fanatic section of their faith. They had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on our country, yet they are being singled out, and acts of hate have been carried out against them. Where will that get us?

We must remember that Christians, too, have their own fanatics. Jerry Falwell blames “…the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way,” he said “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’” Pat Robertson said, “We have sinned against Almighty God, at the highest level of our government. We’ve stuck our finger in your eye. The Supreme Court has insulted you over and over again, Lord. They’ve taken your Bible away from the schools. They’ve forbidden little children to pray.” They conclude that perhaps we, as a nation, deserved to be attacked.

How have we turned away from God when it is God so many of us across this country, including children and members of the Supreme Court, are praying to? Personally, I pray to a loving and caring God, one who doesn’t manipulate us or purposely put us in harm’s way. The god Falwell and Robertson worship is a puppeteer, a jealous and self-serving god. No loving god encourages terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No loving god destroys the lives of 3,000 people. This kind of religious fanaticism will not help our country heal. It can only make us angry and divided, and divert our attention away from the root cause of the attacks: terrorists. I feel so sorry for people who follow fanatics like Falwell and Robertson. It’s that kind of hate and intolerance in any religion that inspires terrorism.

We’re all trying to adapt to a new kind of normal. And it will take more than a few prayers, a few days, and a few tears. It will take more than a few minutes of silence, a few memorial services, and the reconstruction of buildings. Not that these things aren’t important. But it will take constant patience and determination. President Bush uses the word “resolve.” Do we have what it takes? I hope so. It’s all I can wish for right now.

We’re sad, we’re angry, we’re worried, and we’re tired. And while none of us wants to be paranoid, it’s hard not to wonder what’s next in this new world of ours.