Great Men

My grandmother always said that she felt 18 years old “on the inside” her whole life. Even when she was 80, she still said this.  I don’t know what age I am on the inside. It’s interesting to think about, though. All I know for sure is that even though I’m at the age where most of my friends are already grandparents, and my hair is silver, and I’m starting to ponder things like retirement, whenever I see an obituary of someone my age, I always think, “too young.”

It happened again yesterday. We were next door neighbors when our kids were small. He was a carpenter and stone mason who worked with his hands his whole life in the same community where he was born. When our house needed a new roof, he roofed it. His sons played in our backyard and shot thousands of baskets in their driveway. Thump. Thump. Thump.  His middle son, Jordan, and our son are still close. This makes my heart glad. It’s a big, lonely, world without good friends.

He and his wife raised three sons. That’s a lot of groceries and gallons of milk and football cleats to replace. It’s a lot of scout badges to earn and pinewood derby cars to race. It’s hours and hours (and hours!) of sitting on hard bleachers in stuffy gyms and frigid football stands. His sons went to college where all three continued their athletic careers. This meant more stuffy gyms and cold football stadiums. Two have advanced degrees now. His oldest son is married, with a son of his own. All three sons are young men who would make any father proud.

Lately, it seems that society’s definition of what makes a man “great” has changed. The bar seems pretty low. This is particularly true if you turn on the news or spend even ten minutes listening to the bleating of a politician, professional athlete, or television personality. They’re all wrong.

It’s hard work for a man to be truly great. Really hard work. This is because men learn how to be men from watching their fathers. If their fathers are kind, they are kind. If their fathers work hard, they will work hard, too. The measure of a man is not what he leaves behind, but who.

Great men know this and live it every day.

They don’t need to shout it from the rooftops.

For Jordan…..Love, Ben’s Mom.



I have cold feet.

I should add that I do not live in a home without heat.  And that I have plenty of socks.  I’m wearing two pairs right now.  Along with slippers.  Really, really ugly ones.  Slippers that, had I seen them in the store, would not have even warranted a second glance from me.  Slippers that, in a final, desperate act of trying to get her father to buy me a “nice” Christmas gift,  my sweet daughter proclaimed to be the WORST PAIR OF SLIPPERS she had ever seen.    I believe that her exact words to her father were, “Mom will NEVER wear those!  GROSS!”

I am wearing them right now.   They are warm and fuzzy and have leopard spots with shocking pink fleece on the inside. They come all the way up to the top of my calves.  They are a testament to what is possible given some imagination and enough polyester in the world of high fashion. They stand as proof that sometimes, old husbands know more about their wives than their young fashion forward daughters think they do.

Because of my perpetually cold feet, I shy away from most wintertime outside activities.   I watched part of the televised broadcast of the high school hockey games played  on Lake Pokegama last Saturday.  The temperatures plummeted throughout the day and at one point, the broadcasters reported that the wind was blowing at 35 mph during the second game.   At various times, whiteout conditions on the lake made it hard for the players to see the puck.  Even so, the games went on.  No complaining. No postponing them.  Kids up here are used to the cold, after all.  And I am pretty sure that at least for the players from the northern teams, skating on a lake is no big deal even in twenty below wind chills.  Watching this confirmed what I have always known about myself.  I would have made a terrible Hockey Mom.

I must have been a lot tougher when I was a kid.  I remember the skating rinks in a town too small for an actual  high school hockey program.   My friends and I spent many hours there every winter.  Each evening after dinner,  as we walked toward the city park with ice skates slung over our shoulders,  we could see the floodlights in the distance and hear the soft clack of sticks and thump of frozen pucks hitting the wooden surround of the hockey rink.   Boys of all ages gathered there, learning the game from men in the community who donated time, talent and equipment during those years.  Proof that while composite hockey sticks, fancy pads, and indoor rinks may enhance hockey programs, they do not make hockey players.  Passion does.

There was no fancy, heated ice arena with concessions stands.   Instead, a small, cramped cinder block building with wooden benches  served as the warming house.  When we couldn’t take the cold any longer, we’d wobble inside for a brief respite from the crystalline air that burned our nostrils and frosted our eyelashes nearly closed.  The memory scent of wet wool mittens, sweat, wood smoke, and adolescence merge and define for me that place and time during the winters of my youth.

We girls did not play hockey and as such, were relegated to the smaller, oval rink where we huddled together visiting and skating while the younger kids  played  games of Crack the Whip and Tag.  The rinks provided a gathering place for teenagers just a few blocks away from the watchful eyes of adults.  It was our main source of entertainment and possessed just the right amount of danger and romance for us before we were old enough to drive to places more dangerously romantic.  Like Grand Rapids, for example.

If I close my eyes, I still remember one skater perfectly.  I see her skating alone, spinning in perfect circles…a dark haired, graceful girl on an oval of  dark ice banked by snow that sparkles with diamond dust.  She leaps and skates on one foot, the other leg held parallel to the ice, arms outstretched…weaving and aloof, deep in thought.   She has the  posture of a dancer or gifted athlete and is silent and sure.  The rest of us  watch her, enthralled by her gift. We all know how to skate, but she is different. She is an Ice Skater.  We were  girls who’d grown up learning to love the cold by leaning into it.  Did her gift allow her to hear a song that none of the rest of us could hear?

I pull my chair closer to the fire and think about the gifts we are given throughout our lives.  The ones we don’t go looking for.  Like slippers.  And memories.  I think of  a girl I knew once who skated to her own melody on silver blades. The woman she is today.   We are still friends.  The fact that this is true is just one more gift that keeps me warm.

Fair weather

The chickadees are out of hiding after our recent cold snap here in the woods. It’s good to see them filling up on suet and seed in anticipation of the next cold front. They are polite little birds who wait their turns and cause no drama, from what I can see.  An enormous woodpecker arrived to see what was on the menu yesterday, and the tiny birds with black caps took to the balsam a few yards away to wait until he’d had his fill.

I can’t say the same for the rotund gray squirrel who, at the moment, is trying to steal one of the balls of suet. I tap on the window to scare him away from the feeders, and he glares with small piggish eyes, sticks out his tiny pink tongue at me, and keeps working. Humans don’t have the market cornered when it comes to being greedy.

There are deer tracks around the raised garden box we filled with cracked corn, too. They are filling up with whatever they can find during their respite from sub-zero temps that make the snow squeak, the trees crack, and the ice on the lake rumble.

In other news, by the time this goes to print, Minnesotans will either be celebrating with “SKOL!” or uttering a different S word where the Vikings are concerned. I’m the fairest of fair weather Vikings fans. During the regular season, if they win, great. If they lose, I’m always glad I was doing something else on Sunday afternoons. I know a lot of super fans who paint their faces purple and gold and wear jerseys on game days even if they are just watching it on T.V.  Actual humans who can recite statistics about the players on the field. I am not one of those people. I’m okay with that.

I hope they win today, though. It would be nice to see the home team play in our spanking new stadium. I hope it snows a great deal in the Twin Cities right before Super Bowl Sunday, too. I think the rest of the world needs to see how people in a state like Minnesota throw a party in February. The first things they’ll notice is that we have trouble zipper merging on the freeway because we are just too darn nice to budge in line. We say “Uff-da” and play “Duck-duck-gray duck”and eat a lot of hot dish and bars.

We are sensible people who bundle up and never travel without a winter survival kit and jumper cables. We learn to ski, skate, drive snowmobiles, and ice fish when we’re kids so that when our parents tell us to “go outside” we have something to do. As adults, we do a lot of hunkering down in the winter. In fact, we can hunker like nobody’s business. It’s in our D.N.A.

But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a January thaw. We peel off a couple of layers of clothing and re-fill the bird feeders. We check the propane tank level in the yard or haul in another armful of wood for the stove. We make wild rice soup and get out the Top the Tater for our potato chips.

And if we’re lucky, on a particular Sunday, even die-hard fair weather fans like me watch the Vikings play for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Because win or lose, it’s nice being a Minnesotan.


Cold hands

I have been grumpy, frumpy, and downright dumpy lately. If you have been, as well, take heart. January is work both physically and mentally for some people. The struggle, as the kids say, is real.

It is hard not to take January in Minnesota personally.

Those were my thoughts this morning when I checked the weather and made the decision to head to town for groceries before the rest of the world stopped for milk and bread on its way home from church. My car hadn’t been out of the garage since last Tuesday. I kicked the frozen slush chunks out of the wheel wells, started it, and made my way (slowly) into town on icy roads.

At the store, I shuffled up and down the aisles in my Sorels, tossing in all the things on my list as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast at all, actually. It is hard to be speedy in Sorels. I began to sweat because of the long underwear and down jacket I was wearing and peeled off my gloves. Everything is more difficult in January, I complained to myself. Everything is harder. Even grocery shopping.

At the check-out, I was behind a pleasant-looking young woman in a fleece jacket. She had longish blonde hair and looked to be in her thirties. Her cart was only about half full. Good, I thought. This won’t take long. I shifted my weight and waited. And then waited some more. Here’s why…

The young woman was unloading her grocery cart. Without hands. Carefully and masterfully. An item at a time. It was not until she got to the full length mirror in the cart and struggled to lift it that the cashier and I both realized that both arms ended at the wrists. I asked if I could help and so did the cashier. She told us she could do it herself. I told her I was amazed at how well she was managing. She smiled and told me she was new at it. I watched as she loaded her bags and walked out of the store. I thought about how pushing a shopping cart across a parking lot full of ice and snow had to be so much more difficult without hands. How managing a key in a car door lock was accomplished without fingers. How hauling grocery bags into the house and putting everything away on a cold January morning would take much longer for her than it was going to take for me.

And so, if you have also been feeling a little grumpy, frumpy, and kind of dumpy this month, I have the perfect cure for what ails you. Look down at your hands right now.  I have been doing it the whole time I’ve been typing this.

Really.  Look at your hands. Notice them. Are they cold? Good.

That’s good.






In order

It is New Year’s day and what’s left of the Christmas tree is in a snow bank by the back door.

It had a good run. It shed at least half its needles as I removed ornaments mainly because I had a heck of a time getting some of the lights off. A month ago, when I strung them, I carefully wrapped each branch, continuing to add extra strings as I worked my way up and around the crooked balsam. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  This morning, I tried to unwrap the darn things in some logical fashion but ended up simply stripping some of the branches of their needles as I pulling the strings off the ends. It wasn’t pretty. I apologized to the tree’s ghost with each tug.

Putting Christmas away is never as much fun as putting it up. Even so, it feels good and right have things back to whatever “normal” is. New Year’s day is good for getting our literal and figurative houses in order, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why people make resolutions as they wrestle with lights and vacuum up pine needles.

This year, I will strive to drop fewer F-bombs (even the silent ones.)

I will read more books and fewer Twitter feeds (which will, no doubt, help with that pesky F-bomb issue.)

I will watch more sunrises and less morning cable news.

I will sit in the sunshine whenever possible. Even in January in Minnesota. Even it means sitting in my warm car in the Walmart parking lot like a pale, shriveled up junkie and letting the sun hit my face for several precious moments before I go in.

Finally, I will be grateful and present and will give myself a break for being human  which can be a challenge for pale, shriveled, sun-deprived, humans, especially. Especially in January in Minnesota.

That’s what I came up with, anyway. Maybe your goals are loftier than mine.

So here’s to 2018, whatever it brings.

And Happy New Year!































A Christmas Story

He didn’t miss the bus. The bus missed him.

That’s what he told the officer.

It was the first day he was supposed to take it, but for whatever reason, the bus had not come. Maybe the driver hadn’t been told, or perhaps there had been a miscommunication between the school and his parents since English was not their first language. Whatever the case, they had left for work believing that the bus would be coming along shortly.  The boy waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more.

Then, fearing he would be late for school, the fifth grader began to walk.  He wasn’t completely sure which direction the school was. He waited at intersections of streets with names like Hamline and Lexington and Snelling until the lights turned green during the morning rush hour. His red backpack full of books began to get heavier with each step. His stomach began to growl. He thought about the lunch his mom had packed for him that morning. Food that didn’t smell or taste like the lunches his friends brought to school. Food that tasted like home to a Somali boy crossing busy streets all alone in a huge, gray, city on a blustery December day.

The yards were bare and it was in the 30’s as he started out. He passed houses strung with bright Christmas lights. A large plastic Santa in a bright red suit smiled at him from one yard. As he walked, he looked for anything that looked familiar.  His tennis shoes made soft smacking sounds on the sidewalk.

He was more alone that he’d ever been before, and more alone than any 5th grader should ever be in the middle of a city. He didn’t have a cell phone.  His mom and dad were at work. The school probably thought he was home with the flu.

Suddenly, he heard a giant clap of thunder that made him jump and it began to rain. He kept walking. The rain turned to sleet, and then to snow. His shoes got wet and he could feel the beginning of a large blister forming on his right heel. His thin Dollar Store gloves were soaked. He pulled them off to blow on his hands and dropped one into a puddle of slush. The boy began to limp because of the blister. He could feel fear creeping in next to the cold.

This is where the story gets a little miraculous…

The half-frozen, very lost boy stopped a burly, red-bearded, young man wearing a green Camo jacket to ask for directions outside my daughter’s apartment. The man had already called the police and explained that he was waiting with the child until help arrived.  The miserable, shivering, boy stood a few feet away stealing glances in our direction as we talked about where the school he was looking for might be.  I walked over to the boy and told him that I was a mom. That everything was going to be okay and that I was going to take him into the building to let him warm up until the police came.  His dark eyes welled up with tears and he nodded, limping behind me up the stairs to the building.

Inside, I took both of his hands in mine to warm them up. He told me his name was Abdullah. I asked him where his gloves were and he told me how he’d lost them. I offered him hot cocoa and a Christmas cookie and he stopped sniffling. After a few minutes, the police officer arrived. She asked the boy a few questions and made a call to the school. Finally, he climbed into the back of the police van. The man with the red beard went back to his life. I went back to mine.

I have thought about Abdullah a lot this week.  How, in the midst of fear and confusion, he reached out to a stranger.  How it was possible for a fifth grader to be lost for over two hours while his parents were at work, unaware. How a kind young man with tattoos and piercings on his way to work stopped to help a child, and then stayed. How a mom who looked nothing like his warmed his very cold hands between her own.  How a police officer called him “Sweetie” as she asked him questions. Years from now, when the boy remembers the day he was lost in a city of strangers, I hope he remembers all of this. All of us.

Because here’s the thing. We are all connected in the most remarkable ways, Abdullah. You, the man with the beard, the police officer, me.

We just are. Trust that. Always.

Merry Christmas.


Keeping warm

He got one nearly every Christmas. In our family, this was as predictable as the oyster stew, divinity, and rice mush my grandmother served on Christmas Eve.

It was always wool, with two pockets that buttoned, and it was always, always, plaid.

It is hard to shop for older men. What they really want – their youth…more strength… bones that don’t ache…money can’t buy. This is why they generally end up with Pendleton shirts on Christmas Eve.

A week before Christmas, their wives or daughters (because, let’s be honest, it’s always their wives or daughters) rush to the only clothing store left within sixty miles that still sells quality clothing for men and pick out a shirt. Then, they have it wrapped in heavy, foil paper and a plaid bow, go home, and place it beneath the tree.

The fact that my grandfather received a plaid shirt every Christmas became a running  joke with his grandchildren. Every year, as he opened the box he would look in our direction, eyes twinkling, and yell “Oh! A Pendleton shirt! How did you know? It is JUST what I needed!” then throw his head back and laugh as only he could. But he wore every one, and sometimes until there were holes in the sleeves at the elbows.

I remember my favorites. One was navy and deep forest green. Another was tan and teal. After decades without him, all the rest have faded from my memory but one.

I’m wearing that shirt right now.  It is a rich plaid of brown, gray, black, and red. There are patches on the elbows. I had the shirt tails cut off years ago because there were burn holes left from too many years of too many cigar and pipe ashes.

Each December, I take the shirt out and toss it over a turtleneck on the days when I need a little extra warmth and encouragement to get All the Things done. I remember how the wool scratched my cheek when I hugged him hard and how the smell of Old Spice and pipe tobacco lingered in the wool for at least a year after he wore the shirt for the last time.

The shirt that warmed him decades ago still warms his grand-daughter. Isn’t it amazing how long a good wool shirt can last? How long a memory does? And don’t even get me started on love. We’ll be here all day.

Remarkable, really, when you think about it.

How long some things last.