The Blue Parka (2008) by Mia Hinkle

It was a perfect spring day! It was unusually warm. The sky was a vivid bright blue. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees. Though the last traces of dirty snow had melted just days ago, the temperature soared into the seventies. “Just heavenly!” everyone thought.

It had been a long dark cold winter, but today baby bunnies poked their heads out of their grassy nests. Puppies born under the granary finally opened their eyes and were nosing their way into the light. Kittens in the hay mow suckled at their mother’s belly. Red-winged blackbirds darted between the cat tails in the slough. And a little colt kicked up his heals in the pasture behind the house as he ran circles around his mother grazing in the morning sun.

Yes, it seemed that all was right with the world, but there she sat … straight faced and arms folded. It was the first day of kindergarten. You see, in 1960, the children were so bright and capable, they only required six weeks of kindergarten in the springtime before entering the first grade. On a lovely April day, this hot and sterile classroom was the last place she wanted to be. But her mother insisted, saying something about “a pushy mother being the next best thing to a good education”, and wasn’t she lucky … both were in the cards for her.

The little girl didn’t speak when her mother introduced her to the teacher. She didn’t reply to the other children when they said hi. She didn’t utter a word when the teacher offered to hang up her coat. She wasn’t letting go of that faded and stained light blue parka that had hung with all the other barn clothes in the corner of the kitchen for the last several months. When she put it on that morning, her mom conceded under the agreement that they would leave it in the pick-up before entering the school. But no dice!

When her mother gently reminded her that the parka smelled like livestock and didn’t really go with the first-day-of-school dress she was wearing, she might as well have been speaking another language. So in they walked, hand in hand, past the office where the secretaries waived at the adorable little five year olds coming to school for the first time, down the cavernous hallway with shiny floors and metal lockers, and into the classroom where all the other children seemed to know one another. She figured they must all be “townies” and that she was the only farm girl. She just wanted out of there! She wanted to go back home to play with the puppies.

Finally her mother left the school and she was on her own. Class began. Children fanned themselves. She sweltered in her parka. No air-conditioning. The other children chattered and wiggled. She sat as still as she could and stared straight ahead, her hot little red face and blonde hair poking out of the top of that smelly blue parka. The teacher offered again to take her coat. She didn’t speak but it was clear the answer was, “No, I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”

Weeks later, her mother still dressing her up for school, she still put on that faded blue parka and wore it TO school and IN school, suffering in silence. Recess was the worst. The wild children careening down the sidewalk to the gravel playground where they would continue running, jumping, skipping, and yelling until it was time to go back inside. She would invisibly hang to the back of the line, slip around the edge of the building where she would stand in the corner overlooking the Monkey Bars of Broken Bones and the Merry-Go-Round Spin of Death … and all the other children happily playing … without her. One day her dad was at the blacksmith shop right across the street and saw her standing there all by herself. It broke his heart. “What ever would become of her,” he thought, “so quiet, so painfully shy and awkward.”

Twenty years later, things were quite different much to my parent’s delight. I had survived and thrived in school after all, and had many friends. I got a degree, got a job, got saved, got married, got divorced, got out of town, and got married again. But I never forgot that first day of kindergarten and how terrified I felt in all that chaos.

That’s why it wasn’t curious to me when my little blonde niece disappeared into the bathroom and locked the door just as her guests were arriving for her fourth birthday party, where she remained throughout the entire afternoon. The rest of the family tried to coax her out with cake and presents and promises of fun. But no dice! Last time the family was all together, she had crawled inside a hexagon coffee table, pulled the doors closed, and stayed in there until everyone was gone. No amount of bargaining would persuade her to come out and join the fun. Some worried but by that time, I knew that everything would all turn out alright.

Both girls grew up to be anything BUT quiet and shy and terrified of people. They both grew up to be smart and pretty and confident and independent. They both grew up to be unique individuals and not tied to convention. No one would force their square peg into a round hole. They both grew to be leaders in each their own corner of the world; advocates for the forlorn and the forgotten, at home and abroad. They grew up thinking outside the box with a deep compassion for those around them.

In her teens, Dayna worked with Habitat for Humanity and other service groups bringing tangible help to the underprivileged. In college she worked at a home for autistic adults showing unbelievable patience for those in her care. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in social work where she, along with the State of Minnesota, could help those who were down on their luck get back on their feet. She volunteered weekly at a home for displaced teens doing art therapy. She worked with St. Stephen’s Services, a venerable Minneapolis nonprofit supplying a wide range of help for the poor, women and children, victims of domestic abuse, and the homeless. She raised money for St. Stephens, the lymphoma society, suicide prevention, breast cancer research, and a variety of other great causes through walk-a-thons, marathons, and other means. With a heart for humanity and in the growing tide of economic need, she continues to “throw back into the sea one starfish after another, because” as the story goes, “it makes a difference to that one.”

Aunt Mia found purpose over the years in making connections with those around her. No longer terrified of people, she developed a heart for adventure and an interest in what makes people tick. Over the years, this sense of adventure has taken her to Europe on a history tour, horseback camping in the Big Horn Mountains, canoeing in the Boundary Waters, dirt biking in local gravel pits, barrel racing in Minnesota, bussing from Indianapolis to Reno, touring Norway, snorkeling in Belize, riding the rails though the Copper Canyon, and sunning in St. Thomas. She and her husband have spent over 25 years working in ministry and in the church sharing the Gospel throughout the Midwest and with the mission fields of Belize, Mexico, England, Ireland, Russia, and Nicaragua. She finds it fascinating to discover cultures different from her own and their histories and their stories.

Now she is the mother of two teenage boys and finds that parenthood is an amazing frame of reference. Parents talk with other parents about their children’s successes and struggles and achievements and challenges. And they commiserate over their frustrations. It is amazing how they sometimes get all caught up in the present moment as if all of life hangs in the balance; an assignment not turned in, a goal missed, a poor choice of friends, a GPA under potential, a disrespectful tone, detention. Could these perhaps be signs of growing and changing, and NOT permanent character traits?

Note to self: Next time I over-react to what appears to be shortcomings, let me try to recall how very different those terrified little girls became after years of growing and changing. Stop and think. Give them some love. Give them some space. Give them some grace. They are after all, kids, whose job it is to grow and change and develop into who they will become.

Today on this beautiful spring day, things are very different and very much the same. Baby bunnies are probably venturing out of their nests and red-winged-blackbirds are darting around somewhere, but today I am sitting at the edge of a soccer field, cheering wildly for my son’s winning team. Other enthusiastic parents join in the chorus and drown out the sounds of birds chirping and the breeze rustling through the trees. Our eyes are so fixed upon those boys racing up and down the field crashing into one another at break-neck speeds, we barely notice the vivid bright blue sky.

And yet, it is another perfect spring day!

1979ish. I remember this day just like yesterday. Dick and Carleen and the kids were staying with us in Chan for the weekend. Dayna was “non-negotiable” about getting her head wet. Somehow I talked her into washing her hair in the kitchen sink, but I was the ONLY one she allowed do the honors.

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