Golly, I miss her.

We’ve always marked anniversaries in our family, happy or sad. My mother’s father died on November 19, 1979, and though we never had cake or anything, I remember November 19, 1991, my first year away at college, I thought of how across the Midwest I had aunts, uncles, and cousins who were likely cognizant of the importance of this day, in our family history. It brought me great comfort.

As death moves closer in, though, I find the anniversaries less comforting, overall. Or maybe two years is just not far enough away. I think about how two years ago today, I was teaching summer classes. I called my mom from my office phone, and when she didn’t answer I assumed she was uptown having coffee with her friends. I think about how Shaun and I were in marriage therapy that afternoon, and my sister called my cell phone so many times I finally turned it off, because the vibrating was getting annoying, and I thought to myself, “How rude! Nothing is so important you have to call me over and over again like that.” How naive I was. How stupid. (I’m sorry I didn’t answer, Sissy, though I know it wouldn’t’ve changed the outcome, for either our mother or my marriage).

I recall how in the lobby after therapy, I checked my messages to find one from Bev K., in her kind voice, telling me to call Jess at either my Mom’s or Jess’s cell phone. Right then, I knew something wasn’t right, because why wouldn’t Jess have left the message? I love Beverly like an aunt, but she never had reason to call me. I said to Shaun: “I think something’s wrong.”

And just like that the whole world fell away, and V started screaming because I was crying, and Jess said “Just come.” So, as Shaun took V home, I drove from West Fargo to Hendrum, alternating between screaming in grief or staring at the highway through tears. I desperately wanted to wake up in my bed. Somehow this couldn’t be true.

I parked outside my mom’s apartment building and Mike, Hendrum’s police officer, was there with several`other, younger officers. He did not smile when I arrived. “She’s still upstairs?” I asked, and he nodded. “I’m so sorry,” he said. If Mike says it’s true, it must be true. The other officers, so awkwardly, muttered “Yeah, sorry,” as I took a deep breath and walked past them.

And so it came to pass that I became a grown up, sort of, and these are the things I think about today: the raw shock of losing my mama when we did not expect it; the visceral, furious, heart-split-open grief response. Bits of songs and movie dialogue played over and over in my head for weeks, trying to help me understand.

I don’t have anything new to say, today, really. My grief is still suffocating at times, and I still feel the sting of loss every day. The platitudes do help, some, sometimes, a little. When I was 16, my mother’s mother died, and I remember telling Myra after the funeral, “But, Mom, at least Grandma Beulah’s at peace now. And she will never have any pain again.” Myra sighed, deeply, and said, “I know, Jenny, I do. But golly, I miss her.”

I know, now, exactly how she felt.

 

Posted in Grief, Mama | 3 Comments

Home

Deciding what to have for supper is often overwhelming to me, so it does not surprise me that I have struggled with a much bigger decision over the last year.

In February of 2002, Shaun and I had just gotten engaged; he was a director of a local evening news broadcast, and I had had a very good year teaching in Crookston. The next logical step was to find a house together, where we could have a dog, and a garden, and eventually raise our babies. At 29, I’d never made such a tremendous decision before, but I was young and in love and it felt like the beginning of the rest of our lives.

We looked at nearly a dozen houses before we found this one: in our budget, with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a large, lovely, fenced in back yard. We closed on it on 28 February, and spent the next month moving boxes and furniture from our Fargo apartment over to our new Moorhead mansion.

So many people came to help us that March: dear friends recruited to tote boxes and sofas. Aunt Shirley and Jonathan came and helped me tear out 700 pounds of carpet. Myra, Jess, and Bev D. came and painted furniture, cleaned and unpacked boxes. Shaun’s parents helped move furniture and stock our pantry, and Carla, the queen of paint, did all 4 downstairs rooms for us, with a little fumbly help from me. We brought Dad to visit by driving the nursing home van up on the front lawn and bringing the lift down on the top of our front steps, and he wheeled himself in like he owned the place. When he took a little chunk of the doorway to the kitchen out with a corner of his chair, Myra scolded him to be careful, but I was happy he could come leave his mark with us. He checked the window locks and water pressure and deemed it acceptable.

That June, Shaun and I got married in the backyard, with only 6 days of planning. Our immediate families came, and Jess sang, and Beth and Steve read, and both our mothers cried, and it was a gorgeous, perfect day.

This is the house to which we brought V home. Where she learned to sleep through the night, and sing, and walk, and say whole sentences. We hosted almost a dozen Thanksgiving dinners here, and so many birthdays.This house held a lot of joy.

Since 2014, when Mom up and died on us, though, my heart has been torn into pieces. The first six months, I could barely breathe. And then Shaun moved out as our marriage ended, and I found myself in a frightening, tunnel-like place of trying to keep my emotional head above water, maintain a semblance of sanity while teaching and parenting. It was exhausting, like living in the thickest fog you’ve ever seen.

This summer, as the fog is finally, finally starting to lift, I find the house doesn’t fit my life anymore. I chose this place as a spot to grow old with my love; to raise our babies and welcome our grandbabies. Now, though, as V and I rattle around in this 4 bedroom house with our two little dogs and far too much crafting materials, I feel disconnected. This space doesn’t serve us anymore, though it’s not the house’s fault, of course. Our family has morphed into something different. Glorious and hilarious and ornery, still, but different.

V and I have decided to move.  We found a lovely family who wants to buy our house (to fix it up and resell it, so we don’t have to…so if you want this house, you’ll get another chance in a few months), and found ourselves a sweet little two bedroom rambler. The yard is smaller, the house is smaller, and there are no trains, where we’re going.

I’ll stay at the college where my colleagues are my second family, where my students inspire, terrify, and irritate me every single day. This move will triple my commute time, from 10 minutes to 30. V will start fifth grade in a new school, where instead of 200 5th graders, there are only 24.

We’re going back to Hendrum. I feel a little like a cliche: I mean, we could go anywhere, V and I. But right now, I want to go back to the town where both my parents were born, where I grew up and where my sister and her family live. There are plants my mother nurtured that still grow there.

The air in Hendrum is sweeter than any air I’ve ever breathed. It’s not a perfect town, but it will be a good place for us, for me and my daughter and our little dogs. I hope you’ll come and visit us.

(And I also hope the six people I know who have pick up trucks will answer when I call them in the next month, because if you own a pick up truck and you’re not a farmer, you’re legally obligated to help your friends move, I’m pretty sure).

(Also, if I become super famous, I’m gonna have to give Hendrum a different name throughout the blog, because with just over 300 people, we won’t be able to hide there very well. I was thinking Chicken Timpani. Or Fowl Snare. Your thoughts?)

 

 

Posted in Daughter, Family, Hendrum, Love, Nostalgia, V (potato) | 3 Comments

Zoo

Will and Emmy were done with school before Memorial Day, but V had 3 days after, so last week I got to hang out with the niece and nephew on their own. One of the things we decided to do is Emmy’s favorite: go to the zoo.

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Our little local zoo is growing, slowly, but is very lovely as it is, with wolves and koi, a pair of red pandas, several wandering peacocks, and a newly opened petting-zoo area.

IMG_0075For one of V’s last assignments of 4th grade, she had to research how animals were treated in the circus and in zoos. She decided that both were inappropriate to animals, and unkind, and she would need to boycott them from now on.

I respect a good boycott as much as the next person, and I agree with her on the circus front, especially. But I’m not sure a cow’s life in a stationary petting zoo is necessarily worse than a cow’s life on a farm. The cow, above, for example, got lots of pets from Will and Emmy. And I think zoos can help with education and conservation, as they make people more keenly aware of what’s at stake on this planet.

It’s not my choice, though, so if V doesn’t want to go, we won’t go.

Except when she’s not here.

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Our zoo also has lots of artwork, integrated and lovely alongside the exhibits. IMG_0103

And I love the birds. Cranes, ducks, swans…I would never be able to get this close to birds in the wild. IMG_0073

Even pygmy goats! This group would probably upset V less, because one of the things that most bothers her is how animals in zoos get taken from their families. These guys get to hang with their family all day long. IMG_0082

Some day I’ll own a pair of peacocks, if V will allow it. I just adore them. Adore, I say!IMG_0108And I adore these two, too. Here’s to making the summer of 2016 our best one yet, kiddos. Giddyup!

Posted in Daughter, Family, Hendrum, Photography, Play, V (potato), Wildlife | Leave a comment

The Bee’s Knees

As I mentioned, my sister and her family have moved. It’s all very exciting, but one of my favorite parts about moving into my house (14+ years ago) was getting to know my new garden. And the same is true for Jess. She’s got peonies, hostas, and near the front door some sort of amazing shrub/bush/thing with cascading white flowers. But also, she’s got a whole posse of toads, birds, and squirrels.

Today, I was with Will and Emmy, and I went to peruse their new gardens. I found the tiny blue flowers heavy with bumblebees.

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They shook the plant each time they landed. After about 40 photos, I put down my camera to go back to the childcare which was my job, after all, and a hummingbird flew 18″ in front of my face, hovered a moment, and then flew on. It was so lovely, and surprising.

A lovely day with lovely people and lovely critters.

 

Posted in Family, Hendrum, Photography, Wildlife | 1 Comment

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:

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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 | 3 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:

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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.

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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