Elephant of Love


Photo of African elephants by Gorgo, Wikimedia Commons

My youngest graduated high school this month. The milestone has triggered some reminiscing in me. He was the one they had to cut from my belly when he was born eighteen years ago. Before the doctors lifted him out of that airless world, the anesthesiologist said, “Now, you’ll feel like an elephant is sitting on your stomach.”

I was glad for the warning because that’s exactly what it felt like – a deep pressure that I never experienced before and hoped never to again.

Despite his rough start, we both recovered quickly. The nurses were charmed by his big blue eyes and dark hair. They also liked that he was loud. “He’s a good baby,” they said. “He’ll always let you know when he wants something.” They joked that it was hard to keep diapers on him because, “Your baby has no butt!”

My son’s roars and spunky nature garnered him the nickname of “Tigger,” after the bouncy stuffed animal from the Winnie the Pooh books. He met his big brother and seamlessly fit into our small family.

He took his first trip at four months when I had to go to New Orleans for a work meeting. He wasn’t one of those babies who cries on flights. Instead, he smiled at everyone and had all the stewardesses wrapped around his tiny pinky finger by the time we arrived. He got to ride the St. Charles Streetcar and stay at the Inter-Continental Hotel downtown. Pretty good for a little guy.

He was so cute that sometimes I actually welcomed going away to work because it helped me avoid “cuteness overload.” Just to test whether all his cuteness was in my head or not, when he was two, I entered him in a Cute Baby Contest held at a local mall. Turns out, the judges agreed with me. He won first place for his age group for Prettiest Eyes, and second place overall. He could have advanced to more contests, but he did not enjoy the experience, so I spared him. I had the proof I needed by then, anyway.

On the first day of kindergarten, he was so excited, he ran down the street to the school at the end of our block. Soon, he knew the names of everyone in his classroom, and even those of kids from other classes.

The only pause he gave us growing up was his accident-proneness. Once, he wore his Superman pajamas (complete with red cape) and tried to fly off the basement steps onto the concrete floor below. That did not go as he planned. (Concussion.) Another time he tripped in the kitchen and hit his forehead on the corner of a wooden bench. (Stitches required.) Then when we went to Mexico and were eating at a restaurant in the sand on the first night, he turned quickly and ran his face into one of the poles that supported the hammocks. (No stitches, just lots of crying.)

Weird accidents with other kids happened on the playground and in school. There were black eyes, bruised hands, sprained ankles, and innumerable scrapes. Oh, and I mustn’t forget his third-degree arm burns when a classmate mishandled a hot glue gun.

He kept us busy with swimming lessons, baseball games and soccer practices. His transition to high school seemed to go well at first but he had a hard second year. He became quiet, elusive, moody. He rallied in his third year when he was chosen for the varsity soccer team and was required to keep his grades up to play. He finished his senior year as one of three co-captains of the team.

Even though a torn knee ligament sidelined him for part of the season, he earned the title of “most dedicated” player. And when he returned to play, he completed the most beautiful head shot into the net that I have ever seen.

Now, he has a long-term lady friend, a job, and he’s poised on the cusp of a new life stage. We are having a graduation party for him this weekend, and I expect that sometimes during it a certain feeling will overtake me — a deep pressure in my gut that I hoped never to feel again.

But I will be glad to feel it, because this time, it’s the big-assed elephant of love.

Here’s to you, my son.

Invisible Gold Medals for Mom


My parents in 1946, when they were married.


My parents on their 60th wedding anniversary in 2006.








My mother Dorothy passed away this week. She was ninety-two. Her passing was expected and it was peaceful. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.

I was looking through some of my parents’ old papers last night and I came across a one-page tribute that my father (an avid jogger who passed away this summer) wrote for my mother for their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration twenty years ago. It’s a fitting tribute. So this is a guest post written posthumously by my father.

I want to thank each and every one today for helping us celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.

Dorothy is the master of ceremonies today, but this ceremony is for her, the master. In the Olympics, Carl Lewis was hoping to be the first one earning 10 gold medals. But alas, Dorothy just beat him out.

Her medals are invisible because they are coming from my heart. They are:

#1 Gold medal for best travel agent.
#2 Gold medal for best highway navigator.
#3 Gold medal for best mind reader.
#4 Gold medal for best budget maker.
#5 Gold medal for best psychiatrist.
#6 Gold medal for best homemaker.
#7 Gold medal for being a model mom.
#8 Gold medal for being my love.
#9 Gold medal for being my wife.
#10 Gold medal for putting up with me for 50 years.

(The script here says, “Tell her you love her and give her a big kiss.”)

I love you  XXXX

(Hold her hand and raise her arm.)

I recall that he really did kiss her, and then he raised her arm at the end of his speech, like they’d finished a big race together.

In the end, they both crossed the finish line of life not far from each other.

We will miss you, mom.

The Typical Motions of Love


I had to return a birthday card I bought for my dad to the store. The reason? He died before I could give it to him for his 98th birthday.

Returning the card was hard. I didn’t say anything to the clerk about why I was returning it, and she had sense enough not to ask. If she had asked, I might have started to cry.

I’ve been unusually unemotional through the death of my father. Part of it is due to being busy with funeral details and all the other things that go along with the death of a parent. But I suspect another part is because I realized long ago that my father didn’t have it in him to demonstrate his love to me in the ways that I needed, or recognized.

Sure, he loved me in his electrical engineer sort of way, but it wasn’t enough for me to form a strong connection with him.

Even his own mother begged him to demonstrate his love to his children more. She did so in a letter I found in a family scrapbook. I remember feeling so exonerated when I found that letter – so free. It wasn’t just me who noticed the absence of the typical motions of love.

But you know what I received instead? A father who asked me to jog around the neighborhood with him. A father who told me it was okay to get a low grade in college, or even to flunk a class. A father who stuck by my mother although she broke their wedding vows. He was a husband who missed being apart from her even when he was in his 90s and his brain was beset by Alzheimer’s. He always knew who she was and who his children were up until the end.

He wasn’t the father I needed, but he was the father I got.

These are the things I was thinking as I returned his birthday card.

Okay. I am getting emotional now.

My Father’s Passing


My father is inside this piece of ham radio equipment.

My dad died last week. I’ve been wrestling with whether I should write anything about it, and if so, how deep I should get into our relationship. As you can perhaps tell from the photo, I’ve opted for quirkiness over soul-bearing.

My father lived a good long life, made longer because he took care of himself. His body continued to function even when his brain didn’t work so well. He was father to four children and grandfather to six. He recently got to see his first great-grandchild, but I don’t think it really registered.

In addition to his passions for stamp collecting, coin collecting, listening to classical music, and jogging, was my father’s passion for ham radio (amateur radio). He contacted people all over the world with the radio he made by himself. My childhood home was notable in the neighborhood for the tall radio antenna in the back yard.

My father wanted to be cremated. When my family was at the cremation society office talking about details, the topic of an urn for our father’s ashes came up. One of my brothers had the idea of using a piece of our dad’s ham radio equipment as a container instead.

It might seem weird, but we all agreed immediately to this unusual container. And I’m sure my dad would approve too, if he knew.

A Mind of One’s Own


Credit: National Institutes of Health.

I’ve written about my father a few times in this blog. It’s time to give my mother some attention.

My mom is 91, and she and my dad are still together, living in a memory care facility in the Twin Cities area. When my brothers and I moved our parents from my city to their current home last fall, I inherited a hope chest, of sorts, in which my mother stored blankets.

Once I got home and was cleaning it out, I discovered the chest was where she also stored some of her journals. I never knew she kept journals. And to think, all those times I was writing journals and squirreling them away at home, she was doing the same thing!

To ease some of my parental separation pangs, I read her journals, which spanned a period of over thirty years. Recently, I went back into one to look up a piece of information. I found the info, but also got caught by a short comment, where my mother mentioned that an acquaintance of hers complained that my mother was “willful.”

This is true. My mother is the sort who puts her foot down on a decision, and that is that. The problem is, she’s not good at explaining why she made the decision. She makes up her mind, and that is how it is going to be, gall dang it all to heck.

However, instead of her acquaintance’s comment eliciting self-reflection, my mother went on the offensive in her journal. (A good offense is the best defense, right?) But she didn’t go on the offense against the acquaintance who made the comment. Instead, her next entry was a complaint about how I had a mind of my own.

Now, I take that as a compliment. Why would I want anyone else’s mind, anyway? (Smirk.) I suspect my mom wanted my mind to be the same as hers.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while could tell you that I think a bit differently from most. The world needs different viewpoints, and as long as I’m not getting into huge conflicts and arguments over it, I think that’s okay.

The problem is, my mom’s style generates conflict, and she is too stubborn to change her mind once she makes it up.

This all reminds me of something I read recently, which described how people who don’t fit into groups shouldn’t necessarily feel bad. It might mean that they are leaders rather than followers. That gave me some comfort. There have been instances where I’ve felt on the fringes of groups, and maybe that’s why. (Besides the fact that I’m 60% introverted. Grin.) I have also successfully led groups, but it takes a bit of prodding to convince me to do so.

In any event, I love my mother, even if she is willful. And as for myself, I wouldn’t have it any other way than to have a mind of my own.

Kissing in the Coat Room in First Grade

ValentineFrontLast night, as I rummaged around in a box of extra cards from Christmases past, I came across a story. I had stored a Valentine’s Day card from my first grade boyfriend in the box until I had time to return it to the scrapbook it came from.

Even though first grade was a long time ago, receiving the card left a lasting impression on me. It wasn’t one of those small mass-produced valentines that every grade-schooler gives out. This one (pictured) was at least six inches tall and it was covered with GLITTER. It said “With Sunny Thoughts of You” on the front, and on the back, my “boyfriend” had written his name (Chris) large and outlined in pencil.

Given that I was such a flirty kindergartener (see “Rockin’ the First Day of Kindergarten”), it may not surprise you that I had my first boyfriend by first grade in Piedmont Elementary School. Our teacher, Miss Bestul, had a rule that if we were done with our work, we could play between assignments.

Chris had short brown hair, full lips, and a ready smile. We must have enjoyed playing together because we would rush to complete our work so we could drive the classroom’s large wooden trucks in the aisles between the other students’ desks.

These “play dates” eventually led to our first kiss in the privacy of the classroom’s coat room. Not long afterwards, romantic tragedy struck. One day, Chris was not in school; nor the next; nor the next. When I asked someone where he was, they said he moved.

He was never coming back.

We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

Although life went on, I kept his impressive Valentine.

Twenty-five years passed. I had graduated from college and was working in an old sandstone building that used to be a college dorm. The organization I worked for shipped a lot of packages, so we kept UPS busy. The same brown-uniformed UPS Man was assigned to our building. I saw him at least once a week. Almost every time I saw him, something would “ping” in my head. He looked familiar.

I never had time to dwell on it until one day, after months of those nagging feelings, the “ping” became more like a “bong.”

The next time I saw the UPS Man, I asked him if he had ever attended Piedmont Elementary. He said yes.

“Who was your first grade teacher?” I asked.

“Miss Bestul.”

It was Chris, my long-lost first-grade boyfriend! I introduced myself and asked him if he remembered me. He thought he sort of did remember. I told him about the Valentine – how much I enjoyed it and how sad I was after he moved away. We caught up on life since first grade – we both had families and full lives – and then it was time for him to go pick up another package.

I remembered I still had the Valentine in my grade-school scrapbook, so I dug it out and brought it to work to show Chris the next time I saw him. He looked in wonderment at his signature on the back of the card, tracing the letters with his fingers. I don’t doubt he was freaked out to see a paper relic from so long ago, and by whatever emotions had encouraged me to keep it for so long. We talked some more, and then his duty called.

After that, when we would see each other and say, “Hi,” it was with a new recognition, tinged with a bit of first-grade wistfulness.

A few years later, I took a different job, so I was the one who left him this time. But I’ve still got his Valentine.

It’s time now to put it back in the scrap book.


The Rachel Files: Final Entry

This weekend, my temporary housemate who moved out a year and a half ago came to pick up the rest of her stuff that I was storing in my garage. “Rachel” was finally able to get her own apartment (after moving in with another, more suitable housemate).

I was happy to have the space in my garage back, and I was happy that she hadn’t been living with me for that whole time. Can you imagine how insane I would be by now? (To read the beginning of the three-month saga from 2013, start here –Half-Empty Nest Syndrome— and read onward.) As it is, we were able to hug and wish each other well.

I sure hope her building has a good plumber!

A Glimpse Into the Northern MN Inner Sanctum

The "Pioneers."

The “Pioneers.”

I spoke with THE most delightful group of fifty elders yesterday about my books. They meet monthly along the shore of Lake Superior north of Duluth. For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call them the “Pioneers.” I spoke in a church basement after their business meeting but before lunch. The rituals and small-town nature of the event made me feel like I was in an episode of the Red Green Show or Northern Exposure, which are some of my favorite television shows, so this was a good thing.

The meeting began with the pledge of allegiance. O.M.G. I haven’t said the pledge since grade school. I was surprised I still remembered it. Then came opening jokes. Several were shared, including a priest/rabbi joke and an Ole and Lena joke (a Minnesota favorite). The latter dealt with Lena reading “one of dem romance novels,” and the former dealt with “the pleasures of the flesh” – all of which provided perfect unintended lead-ins to my presentation.

But it wasn’t time for that yet. After introducing visitors (which was only me — introduced as a writer of “one of dem romance novels”) the meeting moved onto birthday announcements (complete with song), anniversaries, minutes of the last meeting, a moment of silence for the deceased, a treasurer’s report, and committee reports. At this point we learned which of the Pioneers were absent due to recent heart attacks. Much discussion ensued about next month’s picnic meeting and how to procure and handle the industrial-sized cans of baked beans.

The formal part of the meeting ended with a prize drawing. I don’t recall what the prize was because I was getting ready to talk, which induced momentary panic and a memory lapse, but I’m sure the prize was fabulous.

This was the first opportunity I’ve had to talk about both of my novels at the same time, so it was good practice. And I was surprised by how many Pioneers had heard about recent sightings of piping plovers on a local beach. (Plovers are the topic of my second novel.) The audience asked lots of questions. In the tradition of “Minnesota Nice,” we managed not to get into any fights over wolf management or the existence of climate change (other novel topics).

Afterwards, people were almost throwing their money at me to buy books – another good thing. We ate “a little lunch,” which consisted of finger foods like homemade pickled devil eggs, half sandwiches, and dessert bars. LOTS of bars.

The event was punctuated with much laughter and good humor. The structure reminded me of my family reunions, which are conducted every two years in central Minnesota. While we don’t have jokes or prizes or as much laughter, we do have ice cream, which makes up for a lot.

Although this glimpse of northern Minnesota social heaven was a privilege, I left the church feeling bittersweet. In our current era of online meetings and cyber conversations, I fear that social groups like the Pioneers are a dying tradition. Will the teenagers of today gather in church basements or town halls on a regular basis when they are senior citizens? Or will they invent some new form of support group? If they do, will it be as fun? More important, will they have bars?

Only time will tell.

How NOT to Deal With a Bad Relationship: Lessons from “Gone Girl” and “Anna Karenina”

Amy Dunne from "Gone Girl."

Amy Dunne from “Gone Girl.”

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina







I had the serendipitously synchronistic experience of reading Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” at the same time. Although the stories take place in different eras, I was amazed by the similarity of some parts — especially if you just ignore most of Tolstoy’s ramblings about farming and equality for the peasant class. (I know, how dare I say that. Insert gasp from literary community here.) Both are about bad relationships and various ill-advised ways to deal with them.

In Gone Girl, Amy (the wronged wife) decides to deal with her husband’s infidelity by faking her death and framing him for it. But she still really loves him in her twisted way, so they patch things up (sort of) and resume living together, trying to recapture the magic of their early years. But their situation is not sustainable because it’s based on manipulation and power struggles. And Amy’s husband Nick only buys into it because she leaves him no choice. Especially after she announces she’s pregnant with his child.

(I hope there’s a sequel because something’s going to blow, and it’s going to blow big! Maybe their child will be the instrument of the familial explosion. I can’t imagine a baby raised in such a twisted environment would come out unscathed.)

Anyway, in Anna Karenina, Anna is the one who has an affair, and it’s her husband Karenin who thinks that remaining together in the same house is a good idea. As long as her lover stays away and she keeps things discreet, he’s all right with Anna continuing the affair, but he wants to keep up appearances for the sake of his career and social status. Like Amy, Anna also becomes pregnant. But it’s with her lover’s child, not Karenin’s.

Of course, it’s not a sustainable situation, either, and Anna keeps looking for a solution. She thinks she’s found one when she has a premonition that she will die during childbirth. Yes – that’s the answer – don’t deal with the situation, just die and get out of it! Although she comes close to death, she survives. Then it’s her lover’s turn to think about death, but he botches his suicide and survives also.

In Gone Girl, Amy’s original plan was to commit suicide as a final act of vindictiveness after successfully framing her husband for her death. But ever the narcissist, she decides he’s not worth killing herself over.

In Anna Karenina, Anna does eventually commit suicide as the solution, even though she and her lover Vronsky are at last free of Karenin and living the high life together with their daughter. Why does she do it? Out of vindictiveness and fear. She feels the romantic love between her and Vronsky slipping. He’s actually asserting some independence and (gasp!) doing some manly things without her. She can’t handle it and throws herself under a train – mimicking an incident that happened when they first met. Thus, despite overcoming many societal struggles, their relationship implodes from within.

As mentioned parenthetically already, I expect the relationship in Gone Girl will also implode. But only if the author gets on it and writes a sequel! Does anyone know if a sequel is planned?

I suspect that a creative writing graduate student could make a good thesis topic out of comparing these two novels. And that they could do it much more thoroughly than I. Feel free to use my blog story as an outline and go for it! I just thought it was amazing that these two authors spanning so many years were essentially writing about the same thing: human nature. It apparently hasn’t changed much, although if Gone Girl is any indication, human nature may have gotten even worse.