15 AND 51 by mia hinkle

[2004] Suddenly and without warning, I am the middle-aged mother of teenagers. Nearly 13 and 15 years old, my two sons are in a wondrous, frightening, emotional, frustrating, exciting, and beautiful decade of their lives—and of mine.

I am 51 now and have been a mother for only the last 15 years. Seems like forever though. Life before 35 is a little hazy to me right now. My boys are spreading their wings, ever so gracefully and ever so clumsily, yearning to be free—if not in free-fall—from the nest.

Youth is really an amazing condition. I am sometimes in awe watching those boys run like the wind, their brain cells firing on all cylinders and making a hundred calculations per second. Zipping, zigging, zagging, calculating the speed of their opponent and the position of their team mate, measuring the angle of the goal, sensing the height of the grass and the pressure of the soccer ball, and then compensating for all of it before making their move. It’s the littlest things about them that give me the greatest joy.

Hard to believe it is those same boys who can’t figure out how to turn in their homework or brush their teeth. The whole idea of thinking ahead is lost on them right now. Asking them to study for a test more than one night in advance or to drink a little water before a game in 90 degree heat or to warm up for the 400 meter track and field event is like asking them to build a space station—quite “other-worldly.”

Watching this kind of short-sightedness and the inevitable result is like sitting across the table from someone, watching him poke himself in the eye over and over and over. I just want to reach across the table, shake him by the shoulders and shout, “JUST STOP IT!” It’s the littlest things that frustrate the [expletive deleted] out of me!

So…this is a very good time for me to sit back and revisit my life before I became a mother.

But first this …

A woman standing next to me at the track meet last week (yes the same track meet where we couldn’t quite connect the dots between preparing for and succeeding at the 400 meter race) said to me, “May I tell you a story?” She must have sensed my frustration as I watched my son throwing up after a dismal and painful finish. It seems he was too busy chatting with his buddies to stretch or to warm up a little before the sprint. She began:

Last summer I was in Wisconsin with my teenage kids, and we went parasailing near the Dells. Afterward, as the boat was docking, I said to them, “Wasn’t that a beautiful sight? The blue sky with the white billowy clouds, the green hills and the rugged bluffs with the crystal blue lake below. Nestled in the valley was that charming little church with the white steeple, the winding driveway like a dark velvet ribbon, the sun reflecting off the windows was so stunning, the way the hills around it seemed to cradle it just so…”

The words were snatched from my mouth by the looks on their faces. It was a look that said, “Are you nuts?” Their words followed, “What? What? What church? What steeple? We didn’t see any valley with a church. You must have been seeing things. All we saw was the sky and a few trees.”

Again I tried to describe the scene in more vivid detail, explaining that it was just north of the lake beyond the bluff, becoming impatient with them that they weren’t paying attention and missed such a great part of the experience.

Our parasailing guide overheard our growing argument. He chuckled and said, “Excuse me ma’am, you are both right. Because you are an adult, I could let you up 500 feet. But the kids are minors so regulations prohibit me from letting them up more than 250 feet. There is no way your children could have seen the sight you describe from only 250 feet up.”

The woman became silent. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. There I was. Guilty as charged. Angry and frustrated by a 15-year-old who simply isn’t up high enough to see things the way I do at 51.

So today I ask myself: Who was I at that age? And can I relax a little and forgive my kids for being up only 250 feet?

When I was 13 years old, it was 1967 and I was in eighth grade. I lived in the suburbs but I felt like a country girl. My family moved there from a farm near Evansville in west central Minnesota. My Dad had been a farmer but at age 45 traded careers to become a flight instructor. My mom had been a farm wife and, you know, just our mom, but now she was a teacher’s aide at Minnetonka East Jr. High. The rest of the family consisted of my older brothers, Hans and Dick, and my younger sisters, Holly and Solveig.

I really was a farm girl, but now I lived in the ’burbs. Under great protest, we had given up 180 acres of free roaming. You know what that means if you grew up in an earlier and more innocent decade. It was a be-back-before-dark kind of freedom—climbing trees, swimming horses across a rain-swollen creek, bike riding on gravel roads, seeing puppies born under the granary, checking mink traps with my Mom, ice skating on a rink flooded between straw bales, cutting my little sister’s hair to the scalp, swimming in the slough, feeding little pigs with Hans, watching Dick drag home two deer my Mom shot in the ravine behind the barn (while my Dad and his buddies, incidentally, were in Canada deer hunting), flying in my Dad’s Piper Cub crop dusting plane to fly-in pancake breakfasts, driving our surprise baby sister Solveig home from the hospital without a car seat, and Holly and I riding a Greyhound bus four hours all by ourselves (at the age of 10 and 11) to see the Beatles in 1965 at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis.

We left behind that kind of farm freedom for greater opportunity in the cities—that’s what people from our neck of the woods call Minneapolis/St. Paul. I guess it was a good chance for my parents to earn a little more money and make a better life for their kids. My brothers were out on their own, and it was just us three little girls at home. But with greater opportunity came more people, busier schedules, and new stresses.

My family’s farm life was auctioned off the summer I turned 11 years old. I entered sixth grade in a strange new land near the cities…Chaska, Minnesota.

Initially, I was an extremely shy and quiet kid, kind of lonely and awkward. When I was 13, I met my best friend, Diane. She too had moved in sixth grade. “What a rotten time for a kid to move,” we agreed. We found friendship in each other. That was the beginning of my life as a grown up.

My first paying job was picking strawberries. It was the summer between sixth and seventh grade and my family of five was living in a two bedroom apartment. Working that field was awful and hot, muggy and buggy, and undoubtedly the worst job I ever had. See this: A bunch of kids riding in the back of a one ton truck with wooden slats around the box to hold us inside all the way to the strawberry fields. There were so many of us we had to stand up. The truck delivered us to the strawberry farm by 7:30 in the morning. Don’t believe what they tell you about Minnesota. It isn’t always cold there. In the summertime it is H-O-T hot: 9am-90-degrees-and-climbing hot. We picked berries all day for a quarter a quart, cash at the end of the day. I don’t think I lasted too long at this job; sunburn and heat stroke were dangerous for this little blonde Norwegian. My Mom finally had pity on me and let me quit, which was as simple as not showing up for the truck ride to the fields.

At 14 years old, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I got a job babysitting for a family in our neighborhood for $20 a week. Five days a week from 7:30am to 5:30pm I cared for a five year old girl, a boy just a year younger than I, and a girl my age who was mentally retarded [that wads the term back then]. Cereal for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, getting dinner started for the family, doing dishes, straightening up, and entertaining the children. Not much on daytime TV in 1968 and certainly no video games. I now wonder exactly what I did to entertain such a diverse group all day long all summer long.

By ninth grade, Diane and I were virtually inseparable and starting to spread our wings. We had class together, we hung out together, we had summer birthdays together, we rode the school bus together and then called each other the minute we got off the hour long bus ride, we dressed up and took the city bus downtown Minneapolis together, we went to school dances and football games together, we got dissed by the popular girls together, we snuck out together, we looked for trouble on Windy Hill together, we sipped cherry vodka together, we listened to Mason Profit through a Dave’s bedroom window together, we smoked cigars together when Diane’s surprise baby brother was born, we bought Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin albums together, we got our drivers licenses together, and we had our first hoodlum boyfriends together.

Oh…did I mention we were grounded for the better part of our freshman year together? Our folks thought we were no good for each other. But we knew otherwise. We are still good friends today. Many years later, I was living in Indiana and Diane was living in the Virgin Islands, we became mothers together at the ripe old age of 35. We are indeed kindred spirits.

I was 15 in 1969. I know there must have been important news going on in America, but I wasn’t paying much attention. That was the year I got my first W-2 job at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre washing dishes for $1.35 an hour. Actually, Diane and I got jobs in the dish room together. It was hot and sweaty work but we didn’t care…we had our own moolah! It didn’t take long, and we were both promoted to usherettes in the 600 seat dinner theatre. The play was Damn Yankees, and we got to dress in baseball caps and tight jeans. We were the cat’s meow! We were rolling in dough at $1.50 an hour. Gas was 47 cents a gallon. Over the next twelve years, the Dinner Theatre would offer ideal hours for me as I worked my way through high school and college; from the dish room to usherette to cashier to waitress to bartender to hostess. It was an amazing place with four professional theatres under one roof serving 920 dinners out of two kitchens in two hours before the plays would begin. My job at the Dinner Theatre became my social and educational life. In by 5:00 and out by 9:00, it was the perfect evening job for students, especially when the tips were good. For years after I left there however, I would have nightmares about serving salads in a panic as the lights were going down, unable to find my tables.

I had my first serious boyfriend when I was 15. Too steady and TOO serious. He was 6’ 6” as a junior in high school, a good Catholic boy who had just returned from seminary high school discovering in the nick of time that the priesthood wasn’t for him. When he was a senior, I was a sophomore at Chaska High School and he took me to prom. My hair was in a bee-hive which was old fashioned even then. I wore a pumpkin orange empire dress with a black orchid corsage. The picture is hysterical. By the next year, we weren’t a couple any more but I still have a tender spot in my heart for him.

Something astounding happened during the summer I turned 17 just before my senior year. I gave my heart to Jesus. A charismatic Catholic priest named Father Richard began holding prayer meetings in the homes in our area. Out of curiosity, my sister Holly and I began attending and at one meeting I had a vision of Jesus standing in the doorway with his arms outstretched toward us. That was it. I knew it was real. Thanks to my Mom, we had grown up in the Lutheran church and had been baptized and confirmed. But this was different. This was personal.

My senior year was great and everything you’d want for your daughter’s last year of high school. Involved at school, good grades, prayer meetings and Bible studies on the weekends, no boyfriend but lots of friends, Homecoming Princess, Jaycees Teenager of the Month (whatever that means), working hard, making money, getting along with my parents, planning for college. It seemed I had the world by the tail. I’m not sure if I was in denial or just plain clueless about the trouble brewing with my Dad.

I turned 18 the day after my high school graduation in 1972 and began a courtship with a guy from my class. Two years later we married just a month after my twentieth birthday. And this is interesting; our wedding ceremony was part of the Sunday morning worship service at my family’s church home—Lutheran Church of the Living Christ. I wore my mother’s wedding gown, said I do, and had coffee and donuts in the church basement afterward. That night we went to see Joni Mitchell in concert. The next day it was Monday. We went back to work. It was business as usual.

It didn’t take long for the marriage to begin to unravel and two years later we were divorced. In retrospect, I think we may have rushed the wedding just a teence. For me, I know it was just a good way for me to get out of the house. Seems silly now, but I didn’t have the courage to move out on my own. I had attended community college and lived at home for two years after high school. I was becoming more and more aware of my Dad’s drinking problem and my Mom’s misery over it. I remember the night we had decided to get married. My Dad was drunk again and my folks were fighting … something about some neighbors getting a little too friendly. I remember hearing the shouting, getting out of bed, pulling on my jeans, and walking uptown barefoot in my baby doll pajama top and jean jacket. I found a friend who drove me to Steve’s apartment where we made the plan and just a few weeks later we were married, no matter how fervently both sets of parents protested.

We were both born-again Christians, but we were the kind of superior new believers who thought we knew it all and really didn’t see the need for a church family. There were probably good churches all around us but we didn’t care to investigate or to become part of a Bible-based community. We lived separate lives. He worked and smoked…after he told me he had quit. I worked and went to school…and hated smokers. Our lives were on parallel tracks and heading nowhere together. A perfect petri dish for what happened next.

An older guy at work—a bartender with dreamy brown eyes who had been in the Navy—began paying attention to me. Twenty-two is a bad time in your life to feel like you’re taken for granted at home, so I began a five-year period of back-sliding in a big way. I left my husband, moved in with the bartender, which broke my mother’s heart, lived with him for two years, broke up with him, moved into my own efficiency apartment, and took up with a Native American story-telling horse trainer with steel blue eyes and curly hair 25 years older than I.

I worked as a teller at the local bank, showed horses in barrel racing and pole bending, and owned a dirt bike. I traveled to San Francisco, St. Thomas USVI, Kingsville, Texas, the Bighorn Mountains, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I finished my accounting degree and worked in a CPA office. I never stopped to open my Bible or darken the door of a church. My folks were disapproving but stood by me. My mom would drop off groceries outside my apartment door; she knew the only thing in my fridge was nail polish. She kept praying for me and one day—I forget why now—I moved back home and began to get back on my feet.

January 1981. I met my husband Karl on Super Bowl Sunday at my parent’s home. He was with the Wright Brothers Band. They lived in Indianapolis but often worked in Minneapolis. I wasn’t much for hanging out in smoky clubs listening to bands, but my sister had married their road manager and invited the band over to my parent’s house to watch the Super Bowl.

July 1981. The band visited my parent’s home again, this time for a picnic. Karl was miserable, sitting in front of a fan trying to get cool in our un-air-conditioned house. I asked him if he’d like to help me feed my horses that evening. He came with me and then asked me out on a date for that very night! We went to the drive-in movies – in Minnesota it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00pm in July. We saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and Airplane at the Mann France Drive-in. We knew we were made for each other when we both laughed hysterically at the humor in Airplane. I know it’s hard to believe but not everyone laughs at Airplane!

August 1981. I visited my sister in Indiana. Falling in love fast and furious. Karl lived in the same apartment complex as Holly. I did not see much of her that weekend.

September 1981. Very early one crisp autumn morning (I was just getting up in Minnesota and Karl hadn’t been to bed yet in Nevada) the phone rang. It was Karl calling me from Reno. He asked me to marry him. My heart soared. I said, “Yes!”

October 1981. I joined Karl in Nashville, Tennessee for the Country Music Awards. We stayed at the Opryland Hotel in the lap of luxury. There must have been country music celebrities and media there, but I didn’t notice. I only had eyes for Karl. We had an enchanted—and I do mean ENCHANTED—weekend. I cried like they do in the movies when I boarded the plane to go home.

November 1981. We had a huge reception open house at my folk’s house for friends and relatives to meet Karl. We stood at the front door and greeted guests coming and going all afternoon. Poor guy, the day was a blur for him.

December 21, 1981. Karl and I were married on a sub-zero Monday night at a local historic landmark. The first church built in Chanhassen, St. Hubert Catholic Church, was erected in 1887 and rented to the Lutherans when the Catholics built a bigger new facility in 1970s. We spent the next two days at the St. James Hotel in Red Wing and were back in Chanhassen in time to spend Christmas Eve with my family.

December 25, 1981. Karl and I moved all my earthly belongings to Indianapolis in my black Chevy pick-up powered by, of all things, propane. It was raining on Christmas Day. I thought I had moved to the Deep South.

So we began our life together: our honeymoon in October, our reception in November, and our wedding in December. 1981 was a big year for us. I began the year a perfectly happy single girl and ended the year an ecstatically happy married woman. Karl began the year playing in a regional band—a big fish in a little pond—and ended the year with a national recording contract with Warner Brothers—a little fish in a huge lake. The band had songs on Billboard’s Top 40 country charts and Karl was traveling 280 days a year. They played clubs from coast to coast. They performed on The Today Show and on Hee Haw. They warmed up for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Alabama, Oak Ridge Boys, and many other big names.

Fast forward through the next eight years, otherwise known as the Longest Honeymoon. During our pre-child years, we lived in a little love nest—a rented farm house on a country road near Westfield, Indiana. At $200 per month we couldn’t afford not to live there. I worked in the mergers and acquisitions business, managed John Biddinger’s Indianapolis office, and handled financial analysis of leveraged buyouts deals. Obviously it was the 80s. We made too much money and saved too little and used credit cards too freely. We saw too many movies and ate out too often. We vacationed in London. We paid more each month to board my horses than we paid for rent on the house. Life was relatively carefree. Perhaps I was in denial or just plain clueless about the trouble brewing with my husband.

There were three huge turning points during this chapter. First, in July of 1982 we discovered Northview Christian Life Church and Pastor Tommy Paino; both would become anchors in our lives personally and professionally.

Second, a secret addiction to prescription pain medicine brought Karl to his knees before family, friends, and God. When his head cleared and his body began to heal, he heard God’s call upon his heart and upon his music. He left the band, went to work at Northview as Youth Director, and later began a music ministry outreach which continues today. He became a licensed minister traveling to churches, prisons, the mission field, and special evangelical events proclaiming the Gospel of Christ with his words and music.

Third, our hearts began to yearn for children and at 33 years old I started infertility treatments. We ran through a truckload of dollars and a ton of tears before we began to investigate adoption. One day I was sitting in the doctor’s office lab waiting for results of my blood test. I casually mentioned to the woman next to me that this was my third month making daily visits to the doctor’s office and cheerfully proclaimed that I had a hunch the third time would be the charm. She hollowly replied that this was her eleventh YEAR trying to get pregnant. Hmmmm. I began to wonder just what was so special about our gene pool that would make us go through this kind of heartache for that long. It began to dawn on Karl and me that there just might be a child or two out there for us.

The dates are important here because it shows what a whirlwind the adoption process can be. It doesn’t have to take years of waiting. In June 1989 we visited an adoption attorney and got all the facts. In August we completed our home study and began to wait. On December 13, 1989 Walker was born and we got the call. “It’s a boy!”

On December 18 we picked Walker up from the hospital on a cold and snowy day. It was 19 degrees. He was five days old and SOOO adorable. I was 35 and Karl was 37. We just stared at Walker day and night. We were mesmerized by his very existence. We both got up for the 2am feedings. One held the bottle while the other watched. We made excuses to go out in public so we could show him off.

On December 22, Walker was nine days old. We boarded a plane for Minneapolis to spend Christmas with my family. What a sight! My Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews all showed up at the airport with balloons and banners to greet us and worship the child. The next day, my friend Diane brought her first-born to my parent’s house. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Two beautiful babies born just one month apart. So very different. One in blue and one in pink, one very dark and one very fair, one quiet and one not so quiet. Both with the same possibilities and opportunities awaiting them. Looking into their eyes, all we saw were their bright futures. Life would no doubt toss them around a little, but we just knew they would come out strong. We just knew it. We could see it in their eyes. We could see ourselves in their eyes!

Fast forward to summer 1992. We thought at 2 ½ years old, Walker might be ready for a little brother or sister. On July 27 we wrote our attorney, telling him we would begin the home study update and asking him to put us on the list again. On August 7, just ten days later, Jackson was born and we got the call. “It’s another boy!!” On August 10 we picked up Jackson from the hospital on a humid 91 degree day. He was three days old and SOOO adorable. I was 38 and Karl was 40. We discovered that one plus one is not always two; it might as well be five when you are adding kids to your family. Jackson was a really good baby, and once he started walking our family life was at full tilt.

The last 13 years have been a tilt-a-whirl ride: a thousand activities and committees and new friends, Little Lamb preschool, our first home in Carmel, Adirondack chairs in our side-yard, great neighbors, Cherry Tree Elementary, Clay and Carmel Jr. Highs, University High School, soccer, the loss of my 14-year job at Biddinger Investment, driveway basketball, summer camps, Smokey Row swim team, Sunday School, Youth Group at Radiant, Discipleship Walk, SIS (Sisters in Spirit) accountability group, SOS (Sisters of the Sand) pastors’ wives trips to Florida, deep friendships, vacations to Grand Marais on Lake Superior, Norway, the Black Hills, Destin, family visits to Minneapolis, sisters’ trips to Chicago and Ft. Lauderdale, hiking at Holiday Park, Springmill State Park, and Turkey Run, Karl’s music ministry and his ’60s rock-n-roll band, the best block parties in town, neighborhood night games, bon fires, travel soccer, caring for the dying and the passing of my mother and Karl’s mother and dad and Pastor Tommy, the murder of my boss and good friend Bill Rice, my Dad’s one-year AA Pin at the age of 83, the loss of our church in Carmel and helping to plant a new one in Westfield, my nieces and nephews growing up and having their own kids, my Scribes writing group, track and cross country meets, out of town soccer tournaments, a Belizean mission pilgrimage, a husband who loves me more year after year, two healthy and bright sons, soccer, soccer, and more soccer—and this week…the Unthinkable…the Unfathomable…Drivers Training!

But back to those two questions: Who was I at that age, at 13 or 15 years old? And can I relax a little and forgive my kids for being up only 250 feet?

I was a pretty good kid at my core who was loved by my Mother and Dad.

I was scared and insecure and pretty and smart.

I made good friends and good grades when I wanted to.

I made poor grades when I didn’t care.

I had great courage sometimes and great fear sometimes.

I made good choices sometimes and really stupid ones sometimes.

I broke my parent’s heart a time or two although I really didn’t set out to.

I put the needs of others before my own sometimes and only thought of what I wanted sometimes.

I did dangerous things that could have got me killed or hurt or pregnant or sick, but I really didn’t see it that way at the time.

I didn’t see the big picture or plan ahead very far to set my future in motion according to some grand design.

I didn’t live up to my full potential all the way every day.

And still…I think I turned out OK.

That’s how I see it today at 51 from 500 feet up. I thank God and my Scribes Group for this assignment. I ask that both keep reminding me to relax a little and rejoice in the fact that my kids are only 250 feet up right now.

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