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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Yes, Jennifer, There Is A Santa Claus

Surprisingly, it was my mother who taught me about the magic of Christmas.  I say "surprisingly" because by all other accounts, Mom had a hard exterior.  She had a moral compass made of steel, and most of the time she held me to a standard I was never quite sure I could achieve.  (Case in point:  A 30 minute discussion about why I got one A minus on my report card, when the rest of the grades were all A's.  Sheesh.)

But Christmas brought out a different side of Mom.  Christmas is where the love, the abundance, the excessiveness, and even the embrace of straight up reckless consumerism came flowing out of mom.  She made sure that every detail was attended to and her Christmas spirit, even to this day, has left us steeped in traditions.  The weeks leading up to Christmas were filled with finding our own special live tree and decorating it with handmade ornaments, baking of cookies, making of candies, meticulous wrapping of gifts complete with homemade ornate bows, and parties large and small - lots and lots of parties.

In our house, Santa was kind of a big deal.  Oh sure, there were the usual transparent parenting techniques of dangling Santa's watchful eye over me to entice me to behave - which of course achieved only mixed results.  But the bottom line was that Santa was about magic.  I was a logical child, and I knew that this whole Santa business didn't make sense.  How could he make his way around the entire world in just one night?  How could he know this year we were going to be at Grandma's and not in our own home?  How could he really get a sleigh to fly?  How could he possibly have snuck into the house while everyone except Mom was at church, put the presents under the tree, and Mom didn't even see him?  This guy was good, I thought.  In spite of my suspicions, I knew in this family I was required to believe.  So I did.

But all of that came to a screeching halt when I was 9 years old.  I remember it distinctly, because I think it might be the first time my heart was ever broken.  A couple of weeks prior to Christmas, you see, my dad had misplaced a shoe.  He commissioned me to help him find it, and I searched that old farmhouse high and low on his behalf.  This led to me looking under his and Mom's bed, and I was quickly shooed away by Mom.  But it was too late - I had already seen the big, shiny, silver saucer sled underneath it.  Knowing the rules, I kept my mouth shut.  But imagine my surprise - or rather, my dismay - when on Christmas morning that very sled was under the tree and in big letters it read:  "To Jenny, From Santa."

WHAT????!!!  I remember staring at it in utter surprise.  I am certain to this day that Mom knew precisely what she was doing.  I know this, because as I looked back at her in disbelief, there was a twinkle in her eye.  Sure, there had been nine years of lies and ruthless deceit.  But this act was a nod that I was growing up, and it was time I got in on the secret.  It was time, because six months later we would be welcoming baby Jessica into our home, ending my days as an only child, and requiring us to all work together to pass the magic of Santa onto someone else.

Christmas now is very different from those innocent days in that old farmhouse on a hill.  But one thing remains:  everything about it is magical.  The joy of finding and giving the perfect gift, the laughter of sweet reminiscence, the sharing of great meals and the straight up comfort of togetherness.  That's what this Santa business is all about, and that is why a little part of all of me will always believe.

Merry Christmas, everyone...and may today have some Santa magic in it for you.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Wonderful Walt

For years my brother-in-law had spoken of his co-worker Walt with such high esteem that his very essence almost seemed implausible.  Walt, it seemed, was the kind of guy who naturally elicited phrases like "salt of the earth" and "a good egg" whenever spoken of.  I had heard about him so much and in such endearing terms I wasn't even sure I'd be able to relate when I finally met him.  I remember the first time I met him, too, and to compensate for my own feelings of comparative inadequacy I think I made a few cracks about needing to roll out the red carpet for the famous Walt.  But then I spent a little time with him, and right away I got it. No one had been exaggerating about Walt.

Over the years, I got to know Walt a bit, here and there.  There were the occasional gatherings at one place or another.  A couple of the gatherings were even at Walt's house, and it was fun to peel back the layers.  This was a guy who had some serious interests.  Baseball, Coca-Cola memorabilia, rockets, robots.  So cool, I thought.  I need some interests.  How does that even happen, getting some interests?  I have no idea. But Walt had a bunch of 'em.

So fast forward a good two or three years, and several of us were assembled for my brother-in-law's birthday at the Mineshaft of all places.  My friend and I were playing some of the silly games and drinking beers.  We were chit-chatting and making cracks at one another and doing what people do in those scenarios.  Walt popped by to say a quick hello and we did our cordial thing.  As he walked away, I said to my friend, "That's Walt.  He is such an interesting guy.  He's all into rockets and robots and all these fun things that I don't get."

My friend stopped cold in her tracks.  "Wait a minute.  His name is Walt.  And he likes rockets.  Is that what you said?"  I confirmed that indeed I had, and my friend put it all together.  She told me she was pretty sure he had been coming to one of our agency's group homes on a regular basis for years to take one of the residents with mental illness to the hobby shop to work on model rockets.

We quickly called Walt back and he confirmed that yes, he had a friend who lived at Jackson House and that for years he had been helping with model rocketry.  He had initially met this friend at the local rocket launches and had quickly realized he was "different" from everyone else - and sometimes, sadly, he was not so well received by others in the group.  Walt took it upon himself to take this man under his wing and lead by example.  He didn't just decide to help him at the monthly rocket launches and protect him from the scrutiny of others, he decided to get involved in a bigger way.  Almost every week from that day forward, he picked up his friend, took him to the hobby shop and spent hours with him working on model rockets.  He even arranged for the hobby shop to let them use a special room that was quieter and less stimulating.  As time went on, Walt got to know his friend's family and brought them Christmas gifts each year.  He took phone calls at odd times and sometimes repeatedly so.  Walt confessed that he was pretty sure that he got more benefit out of the friendship than the man he had befriended.

It takes a lot to blow me away, and in my line of work I sometimes think I have seen it all.  But I hadn't seen it all, it turns out.  I had never seen anyone do this.  Deciding to befriend one of our clients, without expecting anything in return.  Getting involved, and staying involved for years on end.  Becoming not just a friend, but an extended family member.  And doing so, for all of these years, so quietly and unassuming, without any call for recognition.  This, I thought, is the kind of human spirit we are all surely capable of, yet few achieve.  This is love.

Years more have passed, and I still see Walt every now and and again.  I always ask, and he always confirms:  he is still going to the hobby shop every week with his friend.  I have to admit, I look at Walt differently than I did in those first few years I knew him.  I look at him with a warmth and a respect on a level I don't often feel.  He reminds me of the good in the world and makes me want to do better.  And while that kind of good just doesn't happen every day, Walt has reminded me it should.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Some of you may not know this, but I actually have two sisters.  Of course there is my baby sister, Jess, and we all know my love for her runs deep.  But there is another sister in my life, and her name is Mindy.  Her name is Mindy, but I haven't called her that for years.  To me, she is Mila (the name she chose for herself in a college Spanish class), or occasionally Minders.  She has been a part of my life for a long, long time...by my calculations, about 89% of my years on this earth.  Believe me when I tell you, there is some history there. Some of it I am about to share, and some of it I just can't.  There are promises involved, promises to take things to the grave.  That is what sister friends sometimes have to do.

It all started in the most innocent of times, Mrs. Esbaum's Lowden Elementary School kindergarten class in 1974.  I don't remember much about those years, I suppose, but I do remember this:  I hated nap time. Which is weird, because now I love naps more than just about anything.  But back then, napping was not my thing and according to Mindy, I allegedly spent most of nap time laying on a mat and playing with the zipper on her coat.  This got our relationship off to a rocky start, and there are reports this may have led to Mindy's open hatred of me for some years.  I, of course, deny all allegations. I have no idea what she is talking about.

From there our lives were intertwined in this small Iowa town because, let's face it, there were only 31 people in our class.  In 4th grade, Mindy was the chosen one:  the one who got to come along with me and my family for my birthday dinner at Happy Joe's Pizza.  At the end of dinner, true to tradition, my mom said we could both pick out a piece of candy from the well-stocked candy counter.  I picked a licorice rope.  Mindy picked a glass antique car filled with gumballs.  She had a lot of nerve, that girl, but even then she had a convincing spirit when she knew what she wanted.  She went home with that glass car, and I went home with my stupid ass licorice rope.  Life isn't always fair, my mother reminded me.  On my birthday.

The friendship waxed and waned over the next few years, but really solidified junior year of high school after my mom passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.  I call that my "bipolar" year because I never cried so hard, nor laughed so much, as I did in that year.  It was a year of losses and gains, a year of ups and downs. But the revitalized friendship with Mindy brought me a good dose of distraction that I really needed.  I am telling you, there is no one who can make me laugh like my Minders, even in the face of grief. No one.

And she can make me laugh about the stupidest things.  Like the time I picked her up for school in my sporty little orange Chevette and upon entry into the car, she slid her foot across the carpet with a big smear of dog poop.  Never fear!  Mindy quickly sprang into action, ran back in the house, and upon return sprayed some of her mom's perfume on it.  (Author's note:  This did not put even the slightest dent in the problem, we discovered, upon return to the car at the end of a hot, sweltering Iowa day.)  The remainder of high school was filled with all kinds of bad choices and debauchery that I won't share in such a public forum.  Or, as I like to say, years filled with learning to make the right choices by making all the wrong ones first.  Luckily, and quite amazingly, we survived.

College rolled around and Mindy and I both selected Cornell College -  a small liberal arts school just 30 minutes or so from our hometown.  Did I follow her there?  Maybe.  I don't really know, but I do know that I found comfort in continuing our path together.  At the outset, everyone at Cornell got the two of us confused.  Not because we look alike - we really don't - but because that freshman year of college we were together all the time.  But by that first year's end, things had changed.  It was pretty clear we needed to each find our own way and develop our own sense of self.  We drifted, slowly, and eventually severed ties pretty much completely.  In the days that followed, my heart was sometimes broken about it, and I'm sure she had her days like that too.  But we had some growing to do, and it turned out the separation was just going to have to be part of that.

In the summer between our sophomore and junior year of college, however, there was a reconciliation.  I really can't even recall what brought it about.  But by that time we had both done what we needed to do, and it turned out we still needed each other.  From that day forward, the friendship has been unbreakable, even when miles upon miles have separated us.  We have had a million more laughs since that time, and more than once the laughter has resulted in me peeing my pants.  I'm not proud of this, but I'm not kidding.  (One time this involved Mindy doing a Russian dance in an elevator in Minneapolis; another time it involved a suggestion that our hotel housekeepers might benefit from the use of a Hazmat suit.)  There have been times I could not stop laughing.  Times I could not breathe.  Times my face hurt and my stomach hurt and I needed it to stop or something bad might happen.  That's what happens when you can say anything - and I do mean anything - to another human being.  It's a freedom you just don't enjoy in life very often.

After college, Mindy stayed in Iowa and I moved far away.  It's been that way ever since.  But that hasn't stopped us from seeing each other a couple times a year and always picking right up where we left off.  We've taken a number of trips together - Memphis, Washington D.C., Costa Rica, Philadelphia and San Antonio.  We left our mark in every city, and each time we've made memories that last - and even a few memories we wish wouldn't last, but do.  That's all part of the fun.

Today I love my Minders more than ever.  I love her because she can still make me laugh like no other, and we can still tell each other anything.  But in addition to that love I have for her, I've developed a deep admiration and respect.  She is an incredible teacher, inspiring high school students every day with her passion for education, her wit and her charm.  Even more so, she's an incredible mom. The kind of mom that loves her boys fearlessly and advocates for them tirelessly.  She's shown me what unconditional love looks like, and I have to tell you, it's a beautiful thing.

So there you have it - some of the story of Mila.  And perhaps, the only part of the story I shall ever dare to tell.  Happy Birthday to my friend, my confidant, my personal comedienne and one of the best people I know.  Happy Birthday to my other sister.