Oh, how I have loved taking pictures. My mom did, too. For me, photography is a little like singing, though: it’s dang hard to do when your heart is sad. Yesterday, I made myself go out and do it anyway.

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I went out in the first place because it’s been raining for days and days, and I loved how the grass was holding the raindrops. I know, raindrops on blades of grass are such rarely photographed phenomena. I like it anyway. And it is really hard to convince my camera to focus on anything in particular here. This one got some good texture and I like the little row of droplets on the edge of the grass just to the right of the center of the shot.


Then I noticed the ferns weren’t yet completely unfurled. I always mean to come out and take pictures when they’re wound tight, soon after the come up, all potential and beautiful and ready to burst, but I never quite catch them in that lovely state. Instead, I’ve captured that awkward teenage phase, when they look like angry muppet noses.

IMG_0885 This one looks like it’s just slow to open, but I took this shot so I could illustrate the importance of angle in photography. (Lord knows if you want to learn how to take good pictures, this is the place you come to. See this post from about 4 years ago if you don’t believe me). The shot above is just a mediocre picture full of young ferny-ness, caught just a day or two before it’s fully opened up.

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But this is that same fern frond (fern frond?) shot from above, looking down. See the double heart? See my sappy self get all verklemt? Yeah. This angle is much better, closer, and richer. It shows the loveliness, the process of unfurling.


Oh, sweet lilies of the valley. I have loved you since I was a little girl and first discovered they were May’s flower. They smell cloyingly sweet, and they will take over a good shady corner in just a few years, multiply so quickly they all but choke themselves out, but I love them so. The rich green leaves and those delicate white flowers: old school and gentle and gorgeous. Look at the little curls at the ends of the petals! So dainty! So self-effacing!

IMG_0897This here’s the grand-finale shot. Look at the veins in the leaves! How the whole plant reaches skyward while the flowers stay focused on the ground. And did you know that those tiny white blossoms had bits of pink up inside? Sneaky girls, hiding the best part just for those who really look closely, who get down to their level and really look.

Like singing, taking photos when I don’t feel like it manages to cheer me up a bit. I may need to try to do this more often.

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The day after Myra died, as Jess and I moved through her apartment, trying to get our brains around a life with out our mama, we kept thinking we needed to call someone to ask questions. This happens if your mama dies and you’re not ready for it, and she’s the one who helped you all the time.

Her two older sisters had already died, and I suddenly realized I was not at all ready to be any sort of matriarch. It made me weak in the knees. Even at 41, I’m not an actual grown up. It proved the universe had  made a mistake. Jess and I can’t be expected to fend for ourselves! This is unacceptable!

And yet, here we are. The universe made a sort of amends, providing us with my mom’s amazing friends and family. Her two younger sisters, Barbie and Linda, my dad’s sister Shirley, our friend Carla, and our honorary aunt, Bev K. all stepped in to help us right away. Since then, dozens (literally dozens!) of women have reached out to Jess and me, to offer love, condolences, happy memories…to let us know we are not fending for ourselves at all.  (Men, too, have helped us, in so many ways, especially Uncle Rick, our cousin Jonathan, and our friend Darrell. But it’s M for Matriarch today, not for Men. Thank you just the same, fellas).  I’ll always be grateful for this first year, as raw and awful as it’s been, because I still feel my mom’s presence everyday, through the love of the women whose lives she touched.

When I was in college, as part of Women’s History Month, the Women’s Center had butcher-paper posters rolled out where students were invited to write out their matriarchal lineage.  I looked forward to it every year. Mine reads like this:

I am Jennifer

Daughter of Myra

Daughter of Beulah

Daughter of Myra

Daughter of Sophia

Daughter of a woman whose name we do not know.

But I’m also the daughter of my hometown, of women around the world who knew my mother, and of women who never met her but know me, and have helped me through these last ten months. I’m the daughter of Janice and Marlys and Vickie and Mavis and Carolyn and Sharon and Carol and Marcia and Beverly and Shirley and Lynnette and Kathy and Mary and Charity and Trudy and Nancy and Shari and Crystal and Jenn and Emily and Sara and Sarah and Rebecca and Tenessa and Carla and Shannon and Lauri and Rachel and Leah and Karen and Ann and Marlene and Margaret and Beth and Leah and Clare and Darcy and Susanne and Colleen and Karla and Diana and Nicole and Tami and Jeni and Megan and Meagan and Logan and Kristen and Chelsea and Chelsey and Dana and Christine and Jessy and Jennifer and Barb and Heidi and Charlotte and Vinny and Judy and Andrea and Bonnie and MaryEllen and Teresa and Claudia and Connie and Pam and Erin and Charlene and Dawn and Amy and and …well, you get the idea.

I’m still not ready to be a matriarch.  With a posse like this, though, I suspect there’s not much we can’t handle together. And I am so thankful for that.

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If you thought the Andrea Doria was fun, why, just you wait. Today’s entry is the spectacular Lusitania! Fun for the whole family!

In one week, it will be 100 years since the sinking of the Lusitania (7 May 1915). I think everyone should pay attention. It was kind of a big deal.

The Lusitania was one of four shipwrecks that most interested me, growing up. I know I had read about it extensively before fifth grade, because it came up somehow in a reading we had, and Mrs. Buchholz stumbled over the name, and I excitedly and quickly corrected her. That day, I learned that it’s not polite to be too enthusiastic when correcting one’s teachers (Sorry, Mrs. B!). I also learned that no other fifth graders at Norman County West shared my historical shipwreck interest. Sigh.

Though the Titanic gets most of the shipwreck press these days (thanks, James Cameron), the sinking of the RMS Lusitania is a much more exciting story, in many ways. The ship was smaller than the Titanic, less fancy, and had been in use for over seven years when it was hit by German U-boat torpedoes, off the southern coast of Ireland. The Lusitania went down in less than twenty minutes. Shit, it took Cameron twenty minutes to get Leonardo DiCaprio out of his handcuffs. It took almost 3 hours from the time the Titanic hit the iceberg until it finally went down.

All those great lessons we’d learned from the Titanic about lifeboats and orderly progression were lost on the Lusitania, because there was so little time. After the initial blast of the torpedo, there was a huge explosion, and the ship immediately began to list to one side, making half the lifeboats unusable.

Germany had declared they would practice “unrestricted submarine warfare” on any ships they could find in “war zone waters.” And they meant it, apparently, sinking supply ships and cruise ships alike. Still, though the sinking of the Lusitania killed more than 1100 people (more than 120 Americans), President Wilson really, really, really didn’t want to get involved in this war. Germany sunk an Italian liner in 1915 that killed another 25+ Americans. It wasn’t until nearly 2 years after the Lusitania disaster, 6 April 1917, that America entered WWI.

This source lists 1962 passengers and crew members on board the Lusitania. 1201 died. Of 129 children on board, 94 perished. (761 survivors).

On the Titanic, of the 2224 passengers and crew, 1514 died. Of 109 children, 53 died.  (701 survivors). Again, though, the Titanic had six times longer to send out lifeboats, and the boats on both side were usable for much of that time. One reason more children survived on the Titanic, though, was that handy “women and children first” thing, which apparently didn’t hold up well with the chaos of the Lusitania.

Want to know more?? Of course you do! You’re in luck. I can’t even tell you how excited I am about Erik Larson’s new book, Dead Wake, about the Lusitania disaster. He’s the genius who brought us The Devil in the White City (Worlds Fair and mass murder?? swoon!), and I can think of no one better to metaphorically bring the Lusitania back up from the ocean floor.

Posted in Books, Dad, Hendrum | 2 Comments

Jess Karstens

Last year I screwed up JK and my sister got all pissy gently reminded me, so I’m fixing it this year.

Ah, Jess Karstens, my baby sister, the person most genetically like me in the whole wide world. She is 16 months and 1 week younger than I am, so I don’t remember this world without her.

 Christmas girls

She had classic Little Sister problems, like when our mom dressed us alike for about ten years. She had to wear that fancy blue dress twice as long as I did, because when she outgrew hers, mine was waiting for her.

As the baby, though, she was a little spoiled (and she will, when she’s in the right mood, admit this). My favorite story to illustrate this drives her crazy, but I’m gonna tell it anyway, because this is my blog and she’s not the boss of me.

Jess was (and still is) really sensitive to food textures. She didn’t like the crunch of an apple peel, for example, and don’t even start with her on bananas of any ripeness. My parents had little tolerance for such things, but they would try to accommodate her on occasion. Particularly with apples, which I remember eating often, growing up.

My parents were practical people. Myra grew a lot of our own food in her garden, and we weren’t exactly wealthy, so waste was something they actively avoided. To that end, when they realized Jess wouldn’t eat apple peels but they didn’t especially bother me, my dad started peeling the apples for her, and giving me the peelings.

Do you understand? You probably think I’m kidding, but I’m totally serious. My little sister got the smooth, juicy, appliness, and I got the waxy, between-teeth-inflitrating peeling. The part that we know now is made up almost entirely of cancer cells, dirt, and worm poop. She got the nutrition, I got the chemical bath it was wrapped in.

I’m mostly over this obvious injustice, but I still like this story. And I know that as she’s reading this, she’s plotting her reply. She’ll tell you that Dad cut the peeling off with generous apple attached, and that I didn’t want for nutrition growing up. But the truth is, one of us ate the peelings, and one of us didn’t. If that’s not a metaphor, well, you’re not trying very hard.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until I went away to college that I appreciated her (I know. Such cliches!) but now I can’t imagine my life without her. She is a kick-ass musician, hilarious,  and stronger than you’d think, having had so few apple peels in her life.  She was beside me when Dad died, and the loss of Mom without Jess to share this burden of grief is unimaginable to me. She is the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.

I love you so, sissy.

Myra's Birthday Party

Posted in Family, Hendrum, Nostalgia | 3 Comments

Ichabod Crane

There were lots of stories that kept me awake at night as a child, not just tornadoes and blizzards and squirrels. I was a little too old for R. L. Stine or the “Scary Stories” series growing up, but we had a copy of The Headless Horseman in some sort of pseudo-children’s book form. It’s really not children’s book appropriate, people. There is nothing child-friendly about decapitation, and even though poor old Ichabod replaced his own skull with a jack-o-lantern (or perhaps because of it), that story terrified the bejeezus out of me.

Runner up for this letter I entry is Isabella, which was my name in German class in high school. I think that all classes should allow you to choose a new name. “What’s your name in Women’s Studies?” should be the kind of question everyone asks. Ooh. Maybe I should assign new identities to students on the first day of class, and they must research their namesake and introduce their new selves to the class. I love it when blogging gives me new teaching ideas.

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I grew up in a small town that has no interstate exit, so it’s a rare day I meet someone who knows where it is. In college, I began to tell newly made friends “It’s like a chicken with a percussion instrument,” because apparently “Hendrum” was hard to wrap their heads around.

Today, there are 309 people, according to the sign, though when I lived there we sat at around 365. Both my parents were born in this town. My paternal grandmother, too (I think). My mother’s parents moved to Hendrum around 1940, where he was the only Swede for miles around. He sometimes read out loud to himself from his Swedish Bible just to hear his native language.

It was, by and large, a good place to grow up, and I’m still stunned that V’s elementary school has more students than my entire home town has people.

Hendrum is a big part of who I am, who I was, and who I will be. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Growing up in a town of 300 people, with no cable TV, we had a full time job just keeping ourselves entertained. Mostly we ran around town like rabid monkeys, riding bikes, swinging on swingsets, jumping through sprinklers. But in the car, especially, when we couldn’t get out and play with amphibians, my sister and I would get bored. So we invented a few (brilliant, if I do say so myself) travel games.

The first was the simplest, and it may be that our dad invented it. It involved careful watching out the windshield once we were past Perley, and the first person to see the Hendrum water tower, that clear evidence that we were almost home, would chant, excitedly, “I can see the watertower! I can see the watertower!” Emphasis on the first of each pair of syllables, as in I can SEE the WAterTOWer.  (This may have been when my love of iambic language comes from, now that I think of it.) Now, this may not seem like much of a game to you, but with two Johnson girls in the backseat, we could raise holy hell trying to shout louder than the other. Then we’d usually devolve into pinching and shoving over who saw it first.

It’s a miracle our parents let us live to adulthood, frankly.

The second, and more impressive, game is one Jess insists I invented, but I’m pretty sure it was her idea. This was one we usually saved for longer car trips (to White Bear Lake or Brookings or Eagle Bend), when we were more than 100 miles from our water tower. It was called, brilliantly, “Lip or Tongue?”

As you might imagine, it was a game of illusion, where one or the other of us would try to trick the other into guessing wrongly as to whether what was at the bottom of our closed, giggle-stifling mouth was actually our bottom lip or our cleverly disguised tongue. This game could actually be quite challenging, though I imagine my nearsightedness helped Jess win quite a few. If you really couldn’t tell, and you were mad enough, you could reach out and poke the lip or tongue to see which it felt more like. This was, obviously, against the rules, and usually led to one of us punching the other in anger. The winner of each round was whoever managed to fool the other person, or if you happened to guess correctly.

This is very hard to explain without a visual aid. Let me assist you.





Now, sure, those photos may seem clear and ridiculously identifiable now. But try it when you’re 4 years old and your 3 year old sister has a smooth baby tongue and wily ways to convince you that you don’t know what you’re seeing.

Now that I’ve admitted my most treasured childhood games, I’m feeling vulnerable and I’m pretty sure I should delete this whole post. But I won’t. Because some day, when the iPads all run out of power, we’re going to need to remember how to entertain ourselves. This story, and stories like it, will carry us all through. I’m certain of it.

Posted in Hendrum, Nostalgia, Play | Leave a comment