Stories I tell my students: Is that a tattoo on your forearm or are you just happy to see me?

In December of 2014, Jess and I were grieving so hard we could barely breathe, so we decided we needed new tattoos. We made a shared Pinterest board to share ideas; she already has a butterfly on her back for Dad, so chose hummingbirds for Mom. I decided to do a monarch, for both Myra and Dewey. I chose a photo I had taken a few years earlier of V holding a monarch we’d watch transform in our little bug cage. Myra had it blown up to an 8×10 and it was hanging in her apartment when she died.

Here’s mine, 14 months after initial ink:


We went to Libby at 46 and Tattoo, and were both pleased with our results (sorry I don’t have a photo of Jess handy. Take her out to lunch and maybe she’ll show you).

I have tenure in my Instructor position, so I wasn’t worried about causing too much kerfuffle at work; I did not anticipate, though, how much student interest there would be. Most of the time, on day one, someone in each class asks about my tattoo and what it means.

Now I’m no tattoo purist: I think you should ink your body if you feel like it (so long as it’s not hateful), and not everything has to be a metaphor. But this one does have significance for me. So I tell them this story.

When I was a little girl, my dad built big wire mesh cages for my mom to take monarch caterpillars to school, so her kindergartners could watch the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to monarch. All summer long, he’d bring back caterpillars he’d found out in the field and Jess and I were charged with replacing the milkweed every day until they hung from the top of the cage. It was always magical, even after watching hundreds of butterflies emerge, to get to witness this metamorphosis up close.

When my dad died in July of 2002, my mom, sister, and I were on our way to the funeral home in Ada and pulled off onto a dirt road near a particularly promising looking clump of milkweed. In the late 70s and early 80s, we just had to look and caterpillars would practically fall into our laps, but on this day in late July, we found none. Literally none. We stopped 3 times, and each time turned over leaf after leaf. It added to our heartbreak and felt natural at the same time: of course there are no more caterpillars, with Dad gone.

A few days later, at the graveside service after his funeral, Mom and I and Jess stood nearest the grave while the rest of our friends and family stood a little way behind us. Our cemetery is out in the country, and the day was bright and lovely. Pastor Tim said soothing things and as he spoke, a monarch butterfly flew over to my mom and swirled around all of us, flying in lazy loops, then flying away.

You think I’m making that up, but it really happened.

I don’t know that I believe in an afterlife at all, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t sure Dewey Johnson was in that butterfly that day.

(at this point in the story, students tend to shift, and smile gently, and sigh, because it’s sad and lovely. But it’s not over, gentle readers).

For years when we saw a monarch, we would all say “Hi Dad,” or “Hello, Dewey.” It was our good luck charm, one thin thread that kept us from despair.

When our mother died unexpectedly in July of 2014, Jess and I were awash in grief again. With no grown-up to guide us through this, we spent the days before the funeral weeping, and raging, and sorting Myra’s things. The day after she died, Jess had gone to Halstad and texted me on her way home.

“You won’t believe what I just saw,” she said, laughing. “Two monarchs, flying and mating, right along the highway.”

That’s right. My parents couldn’t even wait until Myra was in her grave to get it on again.

So, dear students: My tattoo is about a love so big that death couldn’t stop it. It’s about ghostly reincarnation sex. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Posted in Dad, Grief, Mama, Teach, Universe | 2 Comments

2016 Gift Suggestion List

Just in time for your last-minute shopping plans, Languishing returns triumphantly with things you only WISH you’d thought of. I’m sure you’ve already got piles of delights under your tree, but in case you’re not quite done, read on.

Everyone’s got that difficult friend who buys herself everything she wants well into December: how on earth can you get her something special? One way is to buy her something she didn’t know she needed: a new waffle iron, perhaps. Or a cake pop maker. Another is to donate to a charity in her name. The World Wildlife Federation has some cool adoption options that come with photos and even plush toys. May I recommend the three-toed sloth?  Hurry, though. You have to order by the 15th for Christmas delivery. (If you’re shopping for me, I’m quite fond of narwhals).

Did you know you can give memberships to other people? Costco memberships, gym memberships (how rude!)…and in our current political quagmire, the ACLU. The American Civil Liberties Union is an organization worth supporting at any time, but we are going to need it so terribly much in the upcoming months and years. This is a marvelous gift for someone who shares your political views, and a hilarious one for someone who doesn’t. Memberships start at just $35.

Perhaps you’d like a more traditional gift. A book, perhaps? We, along with much of America, are big fans of the musical Hamilton these days. Now, we will not likely see a live version of the show before V gets herself a job and starts earning her keep, so we bought this lovely text at Costco (where it was $26.99, I believe). It means we can follow along with the soundtrack more easily, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s notes are fascinating and often hilarious.

Another book I recommend is by a woman I met in grad school in the mid-90s. Liz Kisacky Severn has written a lovely novel full of the kind of details that will make you feel like you’re standing alongside her characters. I really liked this book, and I think you would, too. Plus it takes place in Minnesota, on our very own Highway 10.

Are the above gifts just too mainstream for you? I know, I know. How about an accordion? I loved the accordion even before I knew about Weird Al Yankovic. If you are an aunt or uncle, consider this toy version for your niece or nephew:  their parents may hate you, but if the kid gets really good, think of all the credit you’ll get! (again, if shopping for me, I’ve not had a chance to explore my accordion fascination. Yet).

Since we’re talking about musical instruments, what child wouldn’t love her own Glockenspiel? I mean, seriously. It even has a carrying case. Look how happy the children are in the photos! Isn’t it time America had more gifted Glockenspiel players?

After all that music-making, perhaps you’d like to relax with a card game. V got Sushi Go while out shopping with her dad on Free Comic Book Day, and it’s a dang fun game, we’ve discovered. It’s cute and easy to play, but there are cool strategic elements too that make it just compelling enough to keep everyone interested, at least through a few hands.

Meine Liebchens, that’s all I have for this round of gift ideas. My grades are due in a week, so it may well come to pass that I have many more compelling recommendations for you in the days to come. What’s the best Christmas gift you ever got, gentle readers? What’re you most hoping for this year? Do tell.



Posted in Books, Music, Play, Read, Toys | Leave a comment

Master Homemaker

Ah, moving. It’s a little astounding to me, this practice of just up and moving to a different house. It didn’t take long at all for this to be our place. We did, though, have lots of marvelous help. Photographic proof, you say?

All right.

First, a couple of befores:

living room before

The living room carpet, above, which has held up pretty good for the last 50 years. It’s what we tore out that led to the floor pictured in the last post.

into kitchen before

And the kitchen before, above. Look at all those cupboards! And the windows!

house clutter

And the kitchen/hall today: you’d think with all those cupboards, I’d have plenty of room for everything. And I do, but I have a bit more everything than I need. (I’m working on it. Thanks for your concern). Special thanks above go out to Ms. O’Brien, who helped me hang dozens of shelves and pictures, and to Colleen and Jon, who gave me the picture above the trash can. And apologies to Jen Patrick, who, when she left, had helped me clear all the kitchen counters completely. And very special thanks to Steve and Kathy, without whom my beautiful floors would still not be installed.


This picture is supposed to show the entire hallway, but instead just shows the floor. The bathroom is the first door on the left; V’s room is just past it, and my room is the far one on the right. I’m so glad you’ll all know your way around now, when you come to visit.

family feud corner

Finally, a rarely photographed corner of the living room, because there are no sofas or chairs to hold the people I love. Credits here are numerous: to Meagan, who helped move that shelf (twice); to Shannon, from whom I bought that lovely shelf; to KC and Crystal, who helped move that shelf originally; to my Grandpa Art, who made the elephant; to Tami, for the ceramic panda bear; to Crystal, for the Jen Sock Monkey; to Jess and Brad, for my niece and nephew; to Beth, for my other nephew; to Auntie Bev for the Dala horse; to Mildred K for the best. lamp. ever; to Myra and Dewey for the small but mighty record collection. And to the inventor of air conditioning, because summertime.

We’re still working out the kinks, here and there: I just found my alarm clock today (whoo!) and those neat but persistent piles in the kitchen will be moving on shortly. Plus, V starts 5th grade on Tuesday (go Panthers!) and I’ve already served 2 weeks of my 17 week sentence…er, semester. Plus, I have to invent a new system for recycling, because no one will come pick it up for me. I have to drive it to the dumpster myself.

And there’s a whole basement, none of which is prepared for photographing, really, but which V and I are looking forward to setting up to our liking as autumn begins. Please come and visit us! We have a guest bed, plus two comfy couches, plus two dogs who need extra petting. Think of the fun we’ll have!

I’m not an expert homemaker, but it’s fun to pretend.

Posted in Hendrum, Love, V (potato) | Leave a comment


Mercy, moving is terribly hard work. I know that this will pass, and eventually I’ll figure out where my salt and pepper shakers went, and the three dozen bruises on my arms and hips will heal. I hope V will love her new school, and make some lifelong friends. And I hope my dogs stop barking maniacally at the bulldog next door.

We’re here! To get here, though, we bought a house, and then we tore up some fifty year old carpet (which, to be fair, didn’t look a day over 35). That brought us to this stage.

floor 1

This stage was the ickiest. But Jess and Brad came and helped and we got up all the staples and carpet strips and most of the gunk.

Then, the man I hired to lay laminate during the first week in August came to measure the room and get things squared away. He said I needed 650 square feet of flooring (my measurements were just under 550, but I’ve never laid laminate before), and he’d be ready to start on August 19th. I pointed out that August 19th was not the first week in August, and he shrugged and said “It’s as close as I’ve got.” So I gently asked/begged my dear friend Steven if he could help, and though he’d never laid laminate before, he said “Sure!”

Steve and his wife Kathy (who became my mother’s dearest friend in 1961, when they were both freshmen at Moorhead State, living in Dahl Hall) came up last week, the day after I closed on the house, and got to work.

Kathy washed all the interior windows, then painted V’s bedroom (three different colors!) and the bathroom vanity. In the meantime, Steven laid a new subfloor, to bring the living room and hallway up to the same level of the dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms.

floor 1 point five

It was a huge job, and wasn’t even the main event. 10 sheets of plywood (delivered with the kind and generous help of Crystal and Todd, one of the dear friends with a pick up truck I mentioned here). I’m not making Steve stand in a corner here, for the record. He’s starting the first row of laminate over there.

Anyway, after many days of hard work, with a trip back to their home in Minneapolis over the weekend, Steven finished the floor (including mop boards, quarter round, and threshold transitions) yesterday. He used 550 square feet of flooring. And it’s so marvelous.

floor 2

See? Even Seven can’t take his eyes off it.

I will post better photos, I promise, when more things and totes and bags have been tucked away into their new homes. And you really have to see V’s room! Now I’m mostly just looking at my new floors, and my dear family in this new house. Move 1

And also looking for my salt and pepper shakers.


Posted in Excellence, Family, Hendrum, Seven, V (potato) | 1 Comment

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


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) | 4 Comments


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.


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.


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