The story of the rock

Not the Rock. That’s his story to tell. (Though the fact that his given name is Dwayne Johnson delights me to no end….) No, today I’m here to tell you about this rock:


For the record, this is a photo of my sister’s new front yard. Please don’t stalk her. She’s busy enough as it is.

But that big rock? It just got moved there, today, by some dear friends of ours, because it was in Jess’s old front yard, and before that, it was in Myra’s front yard for about 35 years. And before that, it was out on the farm where my grandparents raised most of their family and into which my father spent all his working years pouring his sweat.

Of course, rocks don’t move to town all on their own, unlike people (I’m looking at you Minnie and Ernie, circa 1942….). To be fair, Myra very much wanted to move back to the farm in the mid 1970s, but there was no running water and no electricity. But I digress…

One day in the early 1970s, Marlene Hetland, who lived about three blocks down the street, had been reading Better Homes and Gardens or something, and they suggested that decorating with big rocks was a good idea. Her husband was a mechanic, one of my dad’s best friends, so naturally she approached Dewey and said “Hey, Dewey, can you get me a big old rock from out on that farm of yours?” Those of you who are not familiar with farming may not know that rocks are kind of the bane of the plow: they can damage equipment before you can say “Monsanto.” So my dad was more than happy to oblige, and delivered a sizeable rock to Marlene’s yard within the week.

Myra, of course, was not one to be upstaged. She told me once, “I figured if Marlene could have a rock, I could too!” Within a month of delivering Marlene’s rock, Dewey found himself delivering an even bigger rock to his own front yard.

I’m not sure of the exact year, but I know we bought that house in 1974, and I know it’s one of my earliest memories, using that rock as a slide, when I was about three. So it must’ve arrived sometime between ’74 and ’76. When Myra moved out of her house, we moved everything we cared about except the rock, because it is a mighty heavy rock. Luckily, the folks who bought it on contract  for deed moved it to Jess and Brad’s out of the kindness of their hearts. And today, as Jess and Brad and their babies settle in to a new house, a block and a half away, our friends Matt and Angie (and Connor) moved the rock, one more time.

I don’t know why we both love the rock so, exactly, but it came from our dear farmland, and our mother wanted it very much. Maybe it’s because it represents how much our dad loved our mom, or how much our mom wanted to keep up with the Hetlands. Regardless, we are very fond of that rock, and so glad it’s staying in our family.



Posted in Dad, Family, Hendrum, Mama, Nostalgia, Rocks, Universe | 2 Comments

Our Nostalgic Rabbit Hole

Above: My grandparent’s store; my dad’s first (and only) new car; Dewey took selfies before they were a thing.

After Myra died, Jess and I (with help from several gracious friends) cleared out her apartment, donated several car loads of stuff to various thrift stores, and gave away to friends and family lots and lots of odds and ends. Here, Jess is sorting out Myra’s extensive teacup collection, five days after Mom died:


What we couldn’t face, though, were 1. The Christmas decorations, 2. Her jewelry box, and 3. Her photos. So we boxed them all up and stuck them in Jess’ basement.

Now, Jess is in the process of moving (just a block and a half from where she is now), and though this house is considerably bigger, it’s just silly to keep toting these things of Myra’s from place to place. We decided we’d better get to work, at least on the photos.

Turns out, it’s still heartbreaking to go through your mother’s belongings, even 21 months after she died.

So far, we’ve thrown away thousands of photographs. Don’t get all excited, though, becaue they weren’t pictures of you. Mom loved flowers, and took lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of photos of them. Many of these were blurry, and many more were copies she had printed to make into greeting cards. She sent, on average, about five cards a week to various folks: her sisters and brother and nieces and nephews; her friends near and far; anyone from Hendrum who happened to be sick or lonesome, as far as she knew….she’d make a card, scrawl some kind words, and send it off. I can’t even imagine how hard the Hendrum Post Office has been hit by the decline in mailings since she died.

She also made scrapbooks, often in triplicate. After Dewey died, she traveled a lot with friends from high school and college. After every trip, she’d order copies of all the pictures she’d taken, put them into as many scrapbooks as she’d had travel companions, and send out the scrapbooks.

Above: Dewey and Jack, one of their pet rabbits; Myra and Toosk, their dog; Christmas girls; me and the ‘rents.

We found thousands of snapshots from our childhood, and copies of really old photos of our great grandparents. There are two photo albums I’ve never seen before from my mom’s four years in college, including her notes for each photo: “My half of the dorm room in Dahl Hall.” We found so many slides, I don’t quite know what to do…Costco will make them digital for us, but it costs $.32 per slide. We have probably 2000 or so slides, so unless upcoming boxes of Myra’s stuff reveals a hidden $640, I’ll just have to save up for a while.

All of this nostalgia has been both nourishing and exhausting. I’m remembering times I’ve long forgotten, and learning things about my family I never knew. I have photos of almost every emotion my mother could experience, and a record of places that have since disappeared, and for all of this, I am thankful. At the same time, my heart aches with the enormity of loss. I’m tremendously thankful that my mother held on to so many pictures, and simultaneously overwhelmed with the task of curating them. It’s a lucky thing to suffer this way, I suppose.


Above: me at age 8 or so, sitting crosslegged on our picnic table next to a monarch cage my dad built. I’m eating watermelon and making a funny face, as one does.


Posted in Dad, Family, Grief, Hendrum, Love, Mama, Nostalgia, Photography | 1 Comment

My job is hard sometimes

I do believe I was born to be a teacher. As a typical older sister, I’ve been bossing people around since 1974. In college, my sister and I liked to throw parties. Crochet parties. That’s right: in our late teens and early 20s, we spent our weekend evenings with lots of friends and lots of yarn, teaching other people how to start a scarf or an afghan. Wild, I know.

I did not get any official teacher training. Wait, that’s not true. I took one class in grad school where I was a teaching assistant of sorts. But I distinctly remember driving to my first day of teaching at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, my palms sweaty with terror, thinking “What if I’ve made a horrible mistake?” Then I got up in front of my first class and never looked back.

I could go on for days about the joys of teaching. Seeing students finally understand something they’d been struggling to wrap their brains around is an honor to witness, and to help facilitate it feels like a damn superpower. This is my seventeenth year of teaching, and in that time, roughly 3,500 students have come through my classrooms. They didn’t all love me (and I certainly didn’t love all of them), but almost every one of them showed me a bit of their own hearts through their writing, and I am so grateful for and humbled by that opportunity.

But also, as you might expect at any job, sometimes things get really hard. I’m not talking about being swamped in grading (although that’s hard, and a constant, ongoing struggle, and the bane of my existence in so many ways). And I’m not talking about students whose personal issues flare up at the worst times and sabotage their education (and those are heartbreaking, and infuriating, and exhausting). I’m talking about when students waste my time, or disrespect me or my discipline.  The most difficult example of both of these issues is when students think that somehow they have purchased a product in paying for my class, and I am supposed to serve it up to them, when and where they feel like it, with them needing to put forth sometimes literally NO EFFORT at all.

Case in point. Yesterday in my College Writing 1 classes (I have three sections of this class, so 75 students registered), we began the exciting, painful process of their major research project. A multiple source research project is part of the course description, and I have been teaching research papers for my entire career. Last week I worked to make them understand what topics might be good choices, and handed out lots of things: a two page explanation of the research assignment, including definitions and suggested vocabulary words, if they don’t know how to write about sources (which most of them don’t); a detailed, two-page example of the kind of writing I expect them to do, which I wrote myself a few years ago when my explanatory assignment sheet wasn’t enough to help them understand; and a full page of links to helpful online writing labs where they could go if they needed still more guidance. I also explained, gently but firmly, that to miss a single class in the next four weeks would potentially catastrophic. “We’re going to be active learners. I’m going to walk you through the entire process one step at a time, and if you miss a day I cannot reteach it to you. You will be missing more than you can imagine.”

These are not the kind of classes where I can just hand students a sheet of Power Point slides and you can understand everything we covered.  These are the kinds of classes where I have devised exercises and examples to help them have meaningful, hands-on experiences that will guide them through a process of writing that many of them have never properly done before. I love teaching this section: this is often where light bulbs start coming on above students’ heads, and I feel that, for the most part, I am a good and thoughtful guide for them on this journey.

So the email I received yesterday, while not really unusual, was still disappointing. Here it is, exactly as it appeared in my in box.

“Hi I wasn’t able to make it to class today due to illness. Please tell me anything that I missed or need to know. thank you”

First of all, I teach college level English. When I was in college (cue the old coot voice), I would never have dreamed of saying to Dr. Purdy “Please tell me anything that I missed or need to know.” He is a goddamned expert, and I’m a fool for missing class. I would talk to other students and read the syllabus carefully and hope I hadn’t missed so much that I ruined my chances to pass. Also, I would recognize that to assume that somehow he’s going to be able  or willing to encapsulate an entire 80 minutes of class time for me in a summarized form would be fucking insulting to him. Plus I would know that as just one of his many students, I had no right to ask for him to use his time in such a way!

Secondly, while I was an undergraduate just as e-mail began to be a thing, and therefore never e-mailed any instructors ever, I certainly would have been embarrassed to send any sort of message that included any errors, much less three or more. I am an ENGLISH teacher because I love written language. And proper use of punctuation. I am not perfect, and this blog is a testament to that, but by god I expect students to have some semblance of respect for my profession and do a basic proofreading before they hit “send.”

It was all I could to not write back to that student with a diatribe explaining how  how insulting that message was to me and to all the students who showed up and worked hard in class yesterday. Instead, I said this: “You missed an entire day of active, exciting learning about research and understanding the library database. Best of luck on figuring that out on your own.”

Maybe this student was really very sick. I have no idea, but if that was the case s/he welcome to come and meet with me and I will try my best to get the student caught up. And I will also spend time explaining how to best write to your instructors for help, because messages like this make a job I love less lovable.  And that’s not good for anybody.


Posted in Teach | 1 Comment

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Oh, loves. My life is crazy right now, crazy good and crazy awful and just, you know, life. I think of posting here almost every day. I have so much to say and I’ve already said most of it and oh, look, is that a cookie?

So I wait to be inspired, for some outside force to knock the wind out of me and make me sit down and share with you. Boy, inspiration doesn’t just drop by unannounced if you just keep sitting here eating cookies, it turns out.

Until today! Oh, today, most ridiculous of holidays. I’m Irish, by the way, through my paternal grandfather, and V is more Irish, through both her paternal grandparents. Most years I would wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, despite the fact that, as a Protestant, I should’ve been wearing orange. The one year I tried that (third grade, I believe), my classmates all pinched me before I could explain. I’m Irish, but I’m not stupid, so I learned.

I should add that 98% of what I know about being Irish comes from a record my dad had by The Irish Rovers, called The Unicorn. (Here they are singing “The Orange and the Green.“)

Anyway, that’s not why I’m writing. First, I’m out of cookies. But second, we have a new dog. Remember when I told you about him? Well, he’s a lovely fellow, Dipper Pixel Languishing. He’s only 15 months old, so he still has some puppy quirks. Mostly, he loves to chew. He and Seven share a large variety of fun, interesting, expensive dog toys, but Dipper does not have time for those. He prefers the challenge of finding unexpected things to chew up.

He likes pencils. Especially the good ones, Ticonderoga, apparently.  And toilet paper. Oh, that was a fun day. Yesterday, he found a purse-sized pack of tissues and made it snow up in here. He’s chewed on a few markers, but mostly just chomps up the ends and hasn’t yet gotten the cap off. (I swear, as soon as we realized his hobby, we put everything chewable up and out of his reach. He’s a magician, he is. A wizard).

Thankfully, he has not yet chewed any of my shoes, and he’s adorable, and we love him, so we can bear the cost of some pencils and tissues. And keep trying to distract hiwaterm with real toys and appropriate chew things, of course.

Today, though, I came home from running errands all morning to find this in the water dish: Which is troubling, sure, because I know I didn’t put blue water or gatorade or whatever this is in their bowl this morning. Considering Dipper, I immediately assumed he’d finally cracked open a blue marker. So I headed into the other room to pick up the pieces. But I found no marker.Then I looked at his face.



“But Jen,” you’re saying, “his mouth looks green, not blue. How could this be?” I know, right?

Near the bathroom door, I found a brand new pack of food coloring that had been ripped open. Oh, man: I don’t know how on earth he got that! I found the bottle of red, intact. (thank god! Can you imagine if he’d broken the red food coloring and I’d found him covered in blood-red fur??)  Then I spotted the bottle of green. This one was slightly chewed, but also unbreached. Hm, I thought. I looked at his adorable, stained face again. Then I remembered the water bowl again. And then I found two nearly drained (mostly because they had seeped into the carpet) food coloring bottles. One blue. One yellow.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. My dog used color mixing theory to bring you a specially decorated shih tzu for St. Patrick’s Day. You’re welcome.


For good measure, here’s the better-behaved/less Irish dog. Or the accomplice, depending on your perspective.

I’m off to buy more cookies. And some area rugs. Happy day to you, dear readers, whether you’re orange or green or some other color of the rainbow!



Posted in Dipper, Family, Seven | Leave a comment

30 years

10 January 1986 was a pretty typical winter’s day, as I recall. I was in seventh grade, and Jess was in fifth. The morning started earlier than usual for us, as Myra called us down from upstairs at 6:30am.

She and Dad were in the kitchen, drinking coffee and having toast. We joined them, half an hour early, eyebrows arched in question of the reason for our early wake-up call.

Mom had asked me, the night before, to “keep an eye on Dad.” She went to Bingo at the Legion hall, and was worried about Dewey, apparently, who was having some numbness in his right arm. “Okay…” I said, in the way any twelve year old would say when asked to look after her extremely strong father.

I watched him that night, and saw him fold his hands on our dining room table, and then take away his left hand, leaving his right static, unmoving. I saw him pace for the first time in my life. I was confused, but had no idea why he was nervous. I went to bed before Mom got home from Bingo.

At our 6:30 impromptu family meeting, Mom explained that Dad was having this weird numbness in his right arm, so they were going to drive in to St. Ansgar’s to see Doc Brown. Dr. Brown was our family doctor, located 6 miles away in Halstad, but two days a week he spent his mornings at St. Ansgar’s Hospital in Moorhead. My dad had called him at 6 that morning, and explained the numb arm he’d had for almost a week. “You’re young, Dewey,” the doctor had said. “It’s probably a pinched nerve. You farmers are always pinching nerves. But you better come in and let me check it out. Meet me at St. Ansgar’s at 7:30.”

So Jess and I would have to make our way to school on our own, and Uncle Harry and Aunt Junice would drive Mom and Dad to Moorhead.

Everyone was calm, though Dad was unusually quiet. When he got up to put his coffee cup in the sink, his right arm brushed against the jelly jar on the table, and he nearly knocked it over: it was clear that his arm was really, really numb.

Jess and I walked to the elementary school, three blocks from our house, where she stayed for fifth grade and I caught the bus to Halstad, where grades 7-12 were. After lunch, during Phy-Ed, Carol, our secretary, came to the door of the gym and called me over. “Your dad’s in ICU, and they’re taking good care of him,” she said. I returned to running laps, but I knew that no one went to ICU if they were not very, very sick. I tried to focus on the second half of what Carol said, the “they’re taking good care of him,” but I kept coming back to the “ICU” part. My blood ran cold.

When my bus arrived back in Hendrum, I went to Auntie Bev’s, as we’d planned, where Jess had already arrived. Around Bev’s dining room table, she explained that Dad had had a stroke, and that Mom would try to be home to put us to bed tonight, but nobody exactly knew what any of this meant. The grown-ups around us were terribly quiet, and Jess and I both knew this couldn’t be a good sign.

Mom came home before bedtime, somehow, and brought with her a lengthy pamphlet titled “Someone you love has had a Cerebrovascular Incident (CVI).” I remember Auntie Bev standing next to Mom in our little kitchen, while Jess and I sat at the table. Bev said “No matter what happens, this will make your family so much closer.” It was many years before I agreed with her, much less knew what she was talking about.

Dad never walked by himself again, and never spoke, really, beyond muddled “yeah” and “no.” My mother went from wife to caretaker in an instant, and Jess and I went from children to assistant caregivers at the ages of eleven and twelve.

Thirty years later, I can barely believe it’s been so long. Mom, Dad, and Auntie Bev are all dead now. Twelve year old me couldn’t even imagine living in a world without those three people. Frankly, 42 year old me can’t quite imagine it, either.

It seems odd to mark this anniversary now, with so many of the major players gone. But to Jess and me, it’s still an important day. A horrible, life-changing, childhood-ending day. I’m glad I still have her with me, at least.

Posted in Dad, Family, Hendrum, Mama, Nostalgia, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Adonis to Zeus

Tomorrow, we hope to add a second dog to our little family. Seven is still so dear to us, but when he’s with other dogs, he does like to play, and Shaun’s leaving was hard on all of us, but especially Seven, for whom reason was little comfort. I’m hoping a one year old Shih Tzu from the Humane Society cheers us all up a bit.

I’m hesitant to post this; we’ve been fully approved and are waiting until tomorrow, because he’ll be neutered in the morning and we’ll get to bring him home in the afternoon. Yet I’m a bit of a “glass half empty” girl these days, and I do hope we won’t jinx it. But the last week V and I have had the best conversations on how to agree on a name.

First of all, have you ever tried to agree on the name of a dog or cat with a ten year old? I mean, this dog will likely live well into V’s college career. I don’t want to be calling a dog “Cinnamon Bun” in 2026. It’s not dignified.

Another name V loved was “Pixel,” which is cute and retro now, but would be like naming a dog “8 track” in a few years. Plus it sounds too close to “Pistol,” and I’m a pacifist. We can’t have the neighbors thinking I’m calling for weapons.

I wanted “Gus,” which one of my favorite names of all time for almost a dozen reasons, or “Bear,” which has all those sexy gay community connotations as well as being a hilarious name for a little dog. Then I got to thinking about how funny it is to name animals other animals, and I listed “Turtle,” “Wombat,” and “Panther.” Really only “Turtle” makes sense to me, but still.

To test the names out, V and I tried to use them in a likely sentence. “This is my dog Cinnamon Bun, and my other dog, Seven.” Or “Ah, here’s Doctor Nutbucket now.” Having another dog does up the ante, of course. We can’t very well name the new dog “Professor Higgensbottom Awesomesauce” without giving Seven a complex.

For a few days, V was committed to the name “Cream.” The new dog is, I’ll admit, partially cream colored, but he’s also black and brown (hence the Cinnamon Bun contender). I had to explain that when one already had a truly cream colored dog, and one gets another dog which wasn’t really fully cream colored but named that dog “Cream,” one was just messing with people’s heads. It’s like having a black lab and a yellow lab and naming the black lab “Yeller.” It’s just not done.

We do find the addition of titles or last names especially hilarious. “Nuttley McGee” was at the top of both of our lists, yesterday, and we were both quite fond of “Tim Burton” night before last. “Mr. Wiggles” is a hilarious name for a little dog, though I’d get the Wiggles’ hit song “Mashed Potatoes” stuck in my head too often, I fear.

There were many other iterations of this name game, too, including Banjo, Cory, and Ponyo (I still like Banjo, but I have a cousin named Cory and Ponyo rhymes exactly with our last name, which is even sillier than Mr. Wiggles, apparently.) So, for your reading pleasure, I present the short list, the list which took us five days to agree upon, and upon which are five names we both like, through some miracle. It  may or may not contain the final name, but I promise to announce here just as soon as we’ve agreed.

Drumroll, please…..





Reggie K.

Reggie K is a very long story, but to sum up, about 6 months ago, V and I watched an old episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Kenny G, the famous saxophonist, was a special guest. V had not heard of Kenny G before this, and we didn’t talk about him too much afterwards. But when it came time to think of a name for this new dog, she said, out of the clear blue, “I know. Reggie K. He’s like Kenny G’s less famous cousin. He plays the accordion.”

It took awhile, but Reggie K. is starting to grow on me. At any rate, we will let you know, gentle readers, as soon as we do, and we welcome, as always, your suggestions, just so long as they are not “Cream.”  And we’re probably in the market for a dog-sized accordion.





Posted in Daughter, Family, Seven | 3 Comments

Ye Olde Thanksgiving

You guys, I know the holidays are upon us. No more pretending we have plenty of time to dust windowsills or shop for those weird onion things we only use on the Green Bean Bake. We need to get ‘er done, now. But also Be Thankful! And think about Christmas! And don’t screw up the Pecan Pie!

I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about Thanksgiving. There is much to be afraid of, in our world today. There are politicians to rally behind or wish plagues upon. There are racist, homophobic, ignorant people (some of whom are likely to be with you at dinner tomorrow). There is murder and heartache and terrorism… And of course there is wonderfulness and lightness and happy bloggers and lovely vintage dishes to find at thrift stores if you just had an hour to your self. I know. It’s a lot.

I tell you what, though: when both your parents have died and your divorce is final, Thanksgiving is a lot more low-key.  So mostly lately I think about what I wish I had known, the last Thanksgiving with my mama, or Thanksgiving of 1985, less than 2 months before my dad’s stroke.

Just to be clear, I hope this is NOT your last Thanksgiving with your mama, and I hope your dad doesn’t go and have a massive stroke that leaves him with aphasia and hemiplegia and a seizure disorder for good measure. Lord, I hope that so much.

But maybe, just thinking about it being possible, even just a little bit, will help you overlook some of the more grating parts of family gatherings. Maybe instead you can talk about your favorite Thanksgiving memories, or take time tomorrow to get your favorite recipes: your dad’s chocolate cake, for example, or in my case, Myra’s vegetable beef-dumpling soup.

My first fall without my mama, I suddenly realized I never got her recipe for  soup.  I’d gotten the banana bread recipe, and Grandma Beulah’s frosting, and the potato dumpling recipe. But somehow I never thought to get the soup. I was devastated: for me, there was nothing better when I was sick than Mom bringing fresh soup with fluffy white egg dumplings. She made some for me after V was born that seriously boosted my milk production and made me strong again. It was magic soup.

I called my sister, half-panicked. “Do you know how to make Mom’s soup?”

“Sure,” she said. “A knuckle bone, some vegetables…it’s not that hard.”

“Yeah, but did she WRITE IT DOWN FOR YOU?”

“Well, no.”

I almost hyperventilated.

A few days later, through a happy, coincidental exchange on Facebook, out of the blue one of Myra’s good friends said “Say, girls, I have a couple of knuckle bones in my freezer that your mom liked to use for soup. Do you want them?”

I thought, Want them?? WANT THEM?? You just saved my life! Instead I said, “Yes, please. Do you know how to make the soup?”

“No,” she said. “Didn’t she tell you?”

You could hear my heart break from 27 miles away.

Then, through some crazy twist of fate, my Aunt Barbie, who only seems to be on Facebook about once every three months, joined in. “The vegetable soup with the egg dumplings? I know how to make that. Grandma Beulah taught us all.”

Relief flooded me. I sat and cried. It’s a year later, and I still haven’t made the soup, but knowing now that I actually can do it, from an authentic recipe, brought me so much peace. I am so grateful it’s not lost.

Tenessa had a dear friend a few months ago whose mother was given just a few weeks to live. It was devastating news, and my only suggestion was “Get the soup recipe. Right now.” It seems crazy, but trust me. In the midst of all the heartache and awfulness, it will seem like it doesn’t matter. But it does. The food we give each other is magical.

You don’t have to tell your family it’s because you’re afraid they’ll die soon, if you don’t want to. But instead of the usual fighting over the last piece of lefse, consider what it is from tomorrow, or from years past, that you want to remember always.

NPR is on board, and has a project going for just this purpose (well, not so much the soup purpose, but you know what I mean). There’s literally an App for that! Check out NPR’s Listening Project here.  Download the app, look at their suggestions, and please, whatever you do, get the soup recipe if you can.

When the time comes for grieving, hopefully many years from now, you’ll have one less loss to ache over.


Posted in Dad, Family, Grief, Hendrum, Love, Mama, Nostalgia | 4 Comments