Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Goodbye to Doug

My mom’s husband Doug died last week. The great thing about Doug was how great he thought we were. I’m not sure my family always thinks of themselves as great. Most days I’m happy with normal. And when you see yourself through someone else’s eyes, the picture isn’t always pretty. But our family, all of us, seen through Doug’s eyes, was always great.

A couple of years ago my sister and I took my mom and Doug out for a Mother’s Day brunch. Some uncomfortable questions came up, and the answers weren’t all that satisfying. There was an awkward silence. And then Doug said, “Your mom and dad sure raised a great family.”

There you have it. When Doug showed us to ourselves, we were always great. His view of me made me want to try a little harder at being great. And when normal seems like it’s got to be good enough, or worse yet when normal seems completely out of reach, I’m going to remember how great Doug thought we were.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Itasca State Park

On Valentine's weekend Scott and I stayed at Grandview Lodge in northern Minnesota, dined on Walleye, then headed west to North Dakota to take my nephew who is studying in Grand Forks to dinner, then on to Fargo for a museum job. On the trip west, because we had a couple of hours to kill, we stopped at Itasca State Park to see the head waters of the Mississippi.

Even living in Minnesota my whole life I've never been to the head waters before. But I knew all about them, thanks to William Thoma. William Thoma was in school with me from grades 1-12. That's important, because I went to Catholic school grades 1-6, and then moved to a public junior high and met the public school kids for the first time. The kids who went to the Catholic school with me were special, because we had been together the whole ride, 1-12.

William Thoma lived and breathed Itasca State Park from day one. Every report, every science project, every speech, every poster board was always about Itasca State Park. I am not exaggerating about this. At first we didn't notice. Then about third grade, I thought, "Now that's funny, I remember him covering this topic before." By sixth grade, everyone was like, "Really? Another report about Itasca State Park?" By tenth grade, when we had joined the public school kids, we talked about it openly, as in, "Does that kid ever want a date?"

But William never wavered. I remember he had a younger brother, and I wondered whether he too was a one note wonder about Itasca State Park. By the time I graduated from high school I considered myself an expert on the park, even thought I'd never been there.

All this came rushing back to me as we pulled into the visitor center at the park. The ranger behind the desk (yes, to all those not in Minnesota, our state park visitor centers are staffed in the winter, by hardy rangers ready to hit the cross country ski trails at the drop of a hat), showed us on a map how to hike into the headwaters.

"Ever heard of the Thoma family?" I asked her.

"Oh yes," she answered. "Mr. Thoma was the Itasca State Park historian. He and his family lived in the park every summer for over forty years."

I swear tears sprung to my eyes when she said that. If you've ever had a little wonder turn into a deep and heart-rendering awe in an instant you know how I felt. "Do you ever hear about their kids?" I asked.

"No," she said, "I was more friends with Mrs. Thoma."

We hiked to the head waters, and on the way I recognized every word on every interpretive plaque we passed. What a gift I got from William Thoma. And I savored it standing there in the snow at that little creek that further south becomes a mighty river. I'd been shown that spot so many times before, and now I finally knew it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Goodbye to Kathleen

I grew up in Willmar, MN but when my dad died and my mom moved to Minneapolis, I didn’t think I would ever get back to Willmar. No friends or family there anymore. Not that I was sad about it. Small town Willmar wasn’t always a happy place for me. I did go back for the funeral of my brother-in-law’s mother.

Me in front of the Willmar house I grew up in.

And then last Sunday, the mother of my best Willmar school friend died. As I got ready to head back to Willmar for her funeral, it hit me. I will get back to Willmar, probably more and more now, for the funerals.

About my best Willmar school friend. She lived two blocks from me, and we spent so much time together that her family became my family and my family became hers. We really grew up together, and had the kind of relationship where I never knocked at her door and she never knocked at mine. We just walked in.

I had a dream the other night that I was in her house. It was exactly as I remembered. In my dream I just walked through, examining all the rooms. There was no one there with me. Even though it wasn’t the house I grew up in, in my dream I felt at home.

My friend’s mom Kathleen was a hoot. Mom to seven kids, my friend the youngest, I was in awe of her brood. I was the oldest in my family, so I looked at my friend’s older brothers and sisters as fascinating celebrities from another planet. Kathleen communed among them so easily, playing cards and golf, a cocktail in her hand. Her wit was famous. She had a straight back with an upright lift to her, so her head was always set back on her neck slightly. That ramrod straight posture gave her a regal air, and so she could always catch people off guard with her hilarious sense of humor. Example: I grew up during the red dye no. 2 scare, when it was discovered (rumored?) that red dye no. 2 caused cancer. One afternoon we found Kathleen in her kitchen, decorating sugar cookies with red frosted crosses. “They are my red dye no. 2 cancer causing cookies,” she explained, with a completely straight face.

So it’s back to Willmar, and goodbye to Kathleen. I will always remember her as one of the wonderful fixtures presiding over my childhood. And even though it will be a sad day for that family, I’m looking forward to seeing my friend, and being among the fascinating celebrities from another planet again.