“The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
I hadn’t read the Introduction the first time I read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. This little gem on page xxvi took my breath away because it is so accurate. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
My mother died in February of 1998 and while we were caring for her during her last weeks on earth, I jotted down little details about those weeks. This thing that was happening as we watched her shell diminish, this thing of care-giving for the dying, was at the same time, vast and tedious, energizing and exhausting. It left no solitude or space for writing or even processing what was happening.
She was diagnosed before Christmas and was gone the day after Valentine’s. It took all five kids and our Dad to manage all the details of pain medicine, comfort measures, meal prep, insurance fights, doctor appointments, visitors, mail call, and let’s not forget, cleaning closets. We all scurried around our mother 24 hours a day trying to fight off this intruder who had invaded her body and our family, this cancer, that in the end, was completely undaunted by our scurrying and tender care.
It wasn’t until well after the funeral that I pulled out all those little scraps of paper and began to put them in order. And then, very late at night, when the family was asleep and the house was quiet, I began to craft the story of my mother’s last weeks on earth. Night after night I would relive each scribble and recall the tiniest details of those weeks that had raced by in a blur. The tone in the doctor’s voice when he gave us the news, the countless meals magically appearing at dinner time, the sound of the doorbell announcing the arrival of one more visitor, the rattle of pills bottles (they each had their own sound), the daily mail-call, the smell of the bedside commode in the morning, the whirr of the oxygen condenser, the crunch of a bag of frozen peas applied to wherever the pain was that day (a never-ending game of hide and seek; what worked yesterday doesn’t necessarily work today), the sight of the school bus stopped in front of her house picking up kids the morning after she died (the very audacity, didn’t they know my mother had died?!! What could possibly be so important at school?!!)
I found myself bringing those scribbles to life as I crafted each sentence, every paragraph, the entire piece. I cried. I laughed. I added. And I deleted so as to not hurt feelings. And then I made copies for my siblings who made copies for their children who made copies for their friends. And each year on my mother’s birthday or death-iversary, one of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, now all grown up, discovers it for the first time. And then their spouses, who never met Grandma, get a glimpse into our family in our darkest and closest hour. A teacher friend in Minneapolis reads the essay aloud in class and uses it as a springboard for discussing death and dying with her inner-city middle school students. Death and dying and the pain that comes with it is completely universal it turns out.
Those many nights sitting in the dark with only the clickity-clack of the keyboard in the soft glow of the monitor with all those little scraps of paper, gifted me with something life-changing. At first, I thought this gift was from my mother, or from losing her, or from ever having her in the first place. But it turns out the gift came from writing it down. Toiling over each phrase, each comma, each ellipse (it’s full of ellipses used in all the wrong ways) resulted in more than a nice family essay. Writing it down laid my soul bare and spoke healing and comfort into my spirit. I could physically hear her voice, “Yes, you are sad. Yes, you are going to miss me. More than you know!! But I’ve lived a good life with God as my compass. I raised five good kids and I have lots of friends and I have a husband of 54 years. Go ahead and cry. Trust me, I know your despair is real. Go ahead and cry. And then, cherish each day we had together, the good days and the tough ones. And cherish each day ahead of you. And don’t forget to hug those babies!” What sweet words to live by. And so true. And “so Darlene” as my sisters would say. Completely authentic and exactly the way she thought about things.
But try as I might, I could not tie it up in that pretty little bow. I still find there are so many questions I want to ask her, so many experiences I want to share with her. I was 43 when she left us, barely old enough to know what questions to ask. I had the world by the tail, but in reality, I didn’t even know what I didn’t even know. I am perpetually amazed at how many times I catch myself picking up the phone to share some little things with her or ask for some life-altering advice. Even now. Decades later.
But death puts a period where you want to keep writing. And death puts a period where you want to keep reading. My mother may have given this life all she had, she may have left it all on the field, but there was so much more I wanted to hear from her.
Famous Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, once said, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. That! That right there is “so Darlene”! She told us in her last days, “I taught you kids how to live, now I get to show you how to die. People raised on the farm understand the cycle of life. As your dad likes to say, “Ain’t many of us gonna get out of here alive.”
Murakami also said, “There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” There I was in the deepest messiest despair of my life and writing it down was the thing that helped me make sense of it and to navigate the grieving. “The act of writing is its own reward. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises!”
It is October 2020 and watching the news is like watching Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only not as funny. We are 8 months into a once-in-a-century global pandemic with no end in sight. Every day it’s the same news of Corona-virus spikes and deaths, climate change, the accompanying natural disasters, and political polls, polls, and more polls!
Did I mention 2020 is an election year? America is more divided than ever and the political ads on TV look like they were produced by 4th graders! Actually, that’s an insult to 4th graders; I apologize to 10-year-olds everywhere.
Last week the FBI foiled a plot by some crazy-train militia wingnuts to kidnap the governor of Michigan and set her adrift in the middle of Lake Michigan because their little club prefers not to wear masks. Yesterday, a self-aggrandizing angry white guy in Maryland was arrested on charges he threatened to kidnap and behead Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on national television, just to ensure his leadership preference might prevail on election day.
Black Lives Matter protests continue around the world since the May murder of George Floyd and the subsequent relentless spotlight on the continued racism toward people of color at home and abroad. Unemployment continues to soar. Businesses are closing their doors for good or are scrambling to figure out how to survive the new normal. Patients are dying alone in hospitals and nursing homes because family can not visit them on their death beds. Meanwhile, the ninnies in Washington squabble over COVID financial relief for our most vulnerable citizens.
People close to me are testing positive for COVID-19 as this third wave of infection blows through the Midwest. Last week my husband fell down the stairs head-first, face-down, arms back; he didn’t break anything, but he bled all over the steps and got really banged up. Some days he is as weak as a kitten (stupid Parkinson’s). Our grandson, Christian (8), came last Saturday to spend his Fall Break with us, only to find out on Thursday that Fall Break didn’t begin until Wednesday, not Monday. Oops.
It’s getting more and more difficult to see the glory of God or find a moment of Zen around here. But we’re trying. Our family movie night choice this week was the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. It only served to remind us that this world has always had it’s share of mean people in places of power. But alas, Christian really admired Joshua’s boots and we all marveled at Charlton Heston’s awesome hair and agreed he probably got the part because of how he could say, “It is the will of Gggawd”. But watching three and a half hours of cruelty, bondage, the exploitation of an oppressed race of people, pompous deranged kings and queens, unimaginable plagues, and God’s provision to a whining people, only seemed to replay the 2020 Groundhog Day newscast.
Searching for a twinkle of hope, goodness, and light, Christian and I turned to popcorn reading Walter Wangerin’s 850-page paraphrased version of the Bible, The Book of God. Two days into the first chapter on page 20, Christian’s popcorn paragraph featured Sarai giving Abram permission to make a baby with her maidservant if the baby is born on the knees of the wife.
Wait! What? This ought to be interesting.
Can you even imagine writing an 850-page book? How disciplined would you have to be? How gifted? I began to read Wangerin’s stuff many years ago as it really stuck a chord in my heart.
His descriptive language in Reliving the Passion makes Easter week spring off the page to old Lutherans like me who have become anesthetized with the Gospel resulting from a lifetime of hearing old familiar Bible stories.
The Story of the Hornbill describes a mother bird as she commits to a level of parenting sacrifice unmatched among all the species on earth. But Wangerin parallels her process of building her nest and laying her eggs in complete dependency with the Christmas story; the story of Christ shedding his very nature to willingly lay down his sweet head in that dirty manger. Why? For the survival of His children. For us. (Karl used to read this story as part of his Christmas presentation every year; you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium.)
The Ragman’s vivid imagery of Christ taking onto himself all manner of human brokenness, carrying it with him into the grave, and rising anew three days later brings tears to my eyes every time. “Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”
A common theme runs through the writings of Walter Wangerin, Jr. who has been a Lutheran pastor (in Evansville Indiana), university professor (at Valparaiso), book reviewer, radio announcer, and published author of over 30 books. His narratives weave Christ’s redemption throughout. He begins with the everyday struggles of the common man; something we can all relate to, then magically spins the imagery to show the reader how God might be seeing a larger frame of the very same circumstance.
The Book of God gives us a glimpse into the characters and the events in a historical time and place as the eternal God somehow reached out and touched ordinary men and women.
This week I am talking to God about just how this ordinary woman might manage to see the bigger story in the daily news and noise. It’s been said that leaves are their most beautiful just before they fall. Dazzling jewels come from great pressure over a long time. The unprecedented turbulence we are experiencing in 2020, I gotta believe, is bound to result in something beautiful, something greater, and something more refined in each of us. More connection with what is truly important. More love and empathy. More grain and less chaff.
Today I remind myself that peace is not the absence of troubles; peace is the presence of God. Peace is always just a whisper away, available to me regardless of my circumstance. I can, at any time, invite Jesus into my troubles, into my pain, my fears, my anxiety, my confusion. I resolve today to walk in peace and leave this Groundhog Day of insanity behind me.
Oh, and I am also talking to God about how I might explain to my 8-year-old grandson about the revenge of Dinah’s brothers in Genesis 34:25 when our popcorn reading adventure takes us to those verses. Say a little prayer for me, won’t you?
SUNDAY NIGHT: YaYa! I’m not going to camp tomorrow. I don’t want to go to stupid camp. I’m not going.
Well, I paid. So you’re going. Why don’t you want to go to camp?
Because I DON’T WANT TO GET — GET — YOU KNOW — RABIES!
Well, I am pretty sure you won’t get rabies at Conner Prairie Adventure Camp.
Yes I will! I can catch rabies in the forest! From the forest animals!!
Trust me, Christian; you are not going to get rabies in Fishers this week.
Aarrgghh! OK. I’ll go. But I’m not having any fun.
Christian honey, you are exactly like your dad and your uncle and your grandfather. They always say, “I don’t want to go to this or that. Why do I have to go? I’m not going.” And then when they get there they’re the life of the party and the last one to leave. Trust me, you’re going to have a great time this week.
No I’m not. I’m going to hate it.
MONDAY AFTERNOON: Here’s my ID. I am here for my grandson, Christian Hinkle, 8 years old.
YaYa!! [Runs over to me, gives me a HUGE hug.]
Did you have a good time today?
Yes I did YaYa! I had so much fun! We got to go up in the hot air balloon; I could see your house we were up so high. Well, I sort of went up by accident. I got mixed up with another group and went up accidentally. We went swimming in the pond and I wore my shoes and they got soaked and the pond was full of mud and bugs and algae and worms and yuck. We shot a bow and arrow at the archery range and I got a bull’s eye like 21 times in a row. We played primitive ball, whatever that is. We played tag in the corn maze. And then we got to eat lunch indoors where it was so nice and cool. We refilled our water bottles with cold clean water. Then we climbed up in the really, really, really tall tree house. On the way back we pet the goats or sheep, I’m not sure which. We named our group the Cheetahs and I told all the girls in my group they were gorgeous and they told me I was handsome. They said, “I like your hair.” I’m so glad you signed me up for camp. I wish we could go every day.
Well, honey, you’re in luck. You get to go back in the morning!
TUESDAY MORNING: Hello, good morning, did you take your temperature before you left home this morning?
Yes, we did.
Does anyone in your house have a temperature? Is everyone in your household feeling okay? Have you or anyone in your household showed symptoms of COVID-19 in the last two weeks like coughing or breathing issues or the tips of the toes turning purple? Have any of you been around anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days?
Wait! What? Purple what? No. No. No. and No.
OK, thank you. You are free to check in right over there, Trail Blazers #1.
Hey buddy! Good morning Tony! Glad to see you back, buddy!
Well, good morning, but this is Christian Hinkle. [I put my hand on his shoulder.]
Sorry ma’am, he asked us to call him Tony so we are calling him Tony.
Well, alrighty then. Have a good day, Christian. [Big hug]
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Hello Sweetie Pie, did you have a good day?
YaYa! I had a GREAT day. It was even better than yesterday. The counselors are Cedric and Sophia and they are super nice; they helped me make this cat out of play dough, I know he looks really creepy and his back legs fell off, can you help me glue his back legs on when we get home? [He hands me a paper plate with the name “Tony” written in sharpie and sitting on the plate is a little black cat with huge green eyes that looks like he may have grown up near Chernobyl.] We went canoeing and I fell out of the boat 21 times and the counselor fell out too, and it was so hilarious. They taught me how to steer the canoe; watch me YaYa, you have to put this arm like this and your other arm like that and then you pull like this to make the canoe turn this way, are you watching me YaYa? Wait! Keep your eyes on the road when you’re driving. I was so happy to have water shoes today; they worked just perfectly for the canoe time. I find it very important to protect my feet in the water. My new best friend is Matthew, he’s that little fat kid I was talking to when you came, but I never use that word FAT when I am talking to him; he is perfect just the way God made him, and I told him that. I also made a point to tell all the girls they were still gorgeous today. Tomorrow is horseback riding. I can’t wait.
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Did you take temperatures this morning?
Yes. And no, no, no, and no.
Hey hi Tony! Glad to see you back here this morning!
Ok, have a good day, see you this afternoon.
WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON: Hey Sweetheart! Did you have fun today?
YES YAYA! IT WAS AWESOME! Best day yet! We made slime and I put some on my forehead, I won’t do that again. We went zip lining OVER THE WATER, and I didn’t even hold on but I was safe since I had a helmet on. Then I got to ride a big black horse, when I kicked him gently and he went faster and we rode into the forest, and that was scary and so much fun. I ate all my lunch inside where it was cool. After that we went fishing and gathered worms on the way, I didn’t catch anything but my friend Matthew who isn’t fat caught 21 fish in a row! We went down this huge hill filled with air and it had a slippery surface, we went really fast on inner-tubes that had wax on the bottom. I hung out all day with that girl I told you about, we talked about water bottle holders, can you order me one like hers on Amazon when we get home? She is really easy to talk to; we talked about all kinds of things. We talked about camp and what our favorite activities were. And we talked about lice.
Wait! What? You talked about lice?
Yes. Lice. They had this can of smelly spray and they sprayed into the helmets between each kid riding a horse or doing the zip line. To kill the lice. And the Corona-virus. But mostly the lice. What would happen if you accidentally ate lice? Would you die? I can’t remember the girl’s name but I told her she was gorgeous. Have you ever been to Adventure Camp? Can I go back to camp tomorrow?
THURSDAY MORNING: Did you take temperatures this morning?
Yes. And no, no, no, and no.
Hey hi Tony! Glad to see you back! Welcome, welcome, welcome!
Ok have a good day, see you this afternoon. By the way, good job making your own lunch this morning, Christian!
THURSDAY AFTERNOON: Tony, your grandma is here to pick you up. Got everything? Is your shirt in your backpack?
Hey Sweetie Pie, did you have any fun today?
[Big hug] Yes YaYa I had the best time! Look at this cool tie-dyed shirt we made. We’re all wearing them tomorrow. Have you ever seen a foam mat so strong that 5 adults can stand on it and it won’t sink into the water? We went swimming today and there was one pad for horsing around and one mat for relaxing and chillin. Guess which one I chose!? And Matthew pushed me off and tried to drown me. It was so much fun! And then Matthew said, “I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Can you ever forgive me?” And I said, “Of course, Matthew. I forgive you. Why would I not forgive you?” And then I reminded him that God made him just the way he wanted to and that he was perfect inside and out. It was super fun because the water was super clean. And then we had lunch inside where it was nice and cool and we refilled our water bottles. But YaYa, I wish you had put more food in my lunch.
You made your own lunch, remember?
Oh yeah, that’s right. Well, Riley really likes your homemade chips so I shared mine with her. I hung out with Riley and Abriella (they are so gorgeous and I told them so) we hung out together for most of the activities. We talked about how fun it was going to be to roll down the big hill and then we all rolled down the hill with Banana Man (his real name is Easton) and Matthew. I told them that I actually have 2 families, I am so lucky, and that one of my families lives in China. Adventure Camp is so much fun. Can I go back tomorrow?
FRIDAY AFTERNOON: Hey Sweetie Pie how was your last day of camp?
Last day? What? It can’t be! Over so soon!? This is an outrage! I won’t stand for it! Can you sign me up for some more camp? The same week that Max and Annie go? Today we pretended like it was 1836 and we got to walk around an old village with an old schoolhouse and a bunch of other old wrecky buildings made of logs on dirt roads. We learned that children had no toys; they just did the best with what they had. And did you know there was no air-conditioning in 1836 and they even had to sleep in the heat? I am really glad I had my bug spray with me today; there were lots of mosquitoes and bugs in Prairie Town. And people dressed up funny and talking too much. I like to explore on my own better than listening to someone talk too much. Today it was so hot! I’m glad we have air conditioning at your house. We saw a tumble weed rolling around. We saw baby goats and they were so cute. A white goat is one that can be milked. And then we went to Civil War town and saw a house where the soldiers had taken everything from the people who lived there and then wrecked the stuff they didn’t take. They even took the horses so they could ride them into battle. Horses are such magnificent creatures. And so are spiders; I’m not afraid of spiders anymore, I just don’t like to touch them. Did you know that Indiana fought on the side of the North? YaYa, why are police still hunting down black people and killing them? I don’t think that’s very nice. Isn’t everybody free now? Anyway, I ate lunch with Banana Man aka Easton and the counselors handed out awards to each camper. I got the award for “Random Acts of Kindness” but I was embarrassed when I read it because kindness should be random and anonymous. I told the girls, Riley and Abriella all about my baby sister and how cute she is and how she is more adorable than most babies. And you know what they said? “Aaawww!”
YaYa, you were right. I loved every single day. And I want to go back again. Can we sign up for next week?
 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.
[January 2014] My Mom was a nut. She would have been 90 this year, but she’s been gone for over 16 years now. My boys were 5 and 8 when cancer whisked her away from us. They are now 21 and 24; it occurs to me they barely knew her at all. I was 8 when my Grandma Tody died and over the years my Mom often remarked, “Oh you would have loved my Ma, and she would have loved you kids so much.” But my memories of her are pretty foggy.
So I thought it might be time to put some Mom stories on paper.
If you ask my husband, Karl, who is a fabulous singer and has recorded several albums, he would tell you that his favorite Darlene story is the time she asked him if he could do her a big favor and get her a copy of his latest album, “you know … just the music … without the vocals – no singing, OK? The music is just so beautiful.” Wait, what? What a nutty request; no one had ever asked him that before … or since.
If you ask my youngest sister, Solveig, about her favorite Mom story, she might tell you about the time they went to New York City together for a weekend of shopping, sightseeing, and theater. Just the two of them. Low and behold, Solveig grew up to work in the theater business. Growing up in the burbs, Mom dragged us to every play she could. Against all odds she was determined to make sure we got a little culture.
Or maybe Solveig would tell you about our family vacation to the Black Hills and Wyoming when she was about three years old. Mom made sure that Solveig’s imaginary friends, Misa NeeNee and Toke, were invited along but Solveig assured her they wanted to stay at home. We were all elated when they caught up to us on the plains of South Dakota in their red convertible. Solveig and Misa NeeNee and Toke hopped and skipped circles around us all the way around Devils Tower. Mom loved to tell that story, even though embracing your little girl’s imaginary friends may have sounded a little nutty to some.
If you ask my sister, Holly, she might tell you about Mom taking us girls to Flying Cloud Airport where my Dad worked, to watch airplanes take off and land, just for something different to do. In 1965, we had just moved off the farm where we were busy 24/7 and now had time on our hands. With lots of time and no money, Mom would invent free and fun things to keep us occupied. Holly grew up to work at the airport behind the desk for a time. She loved the action and energy of the airport and she loved working with my Dad. When our friends would say, “Why would you spend the whole day watching airplanes take off and land?” we’d say something like, “I don’t know, our Mom is sort of a nut.”
If you ask the grandchildren, they might say their favorite Grandma stories would include King for the Day or Queen for the Day which was a special day designed by Grandma where each grandchild would choose the activity and spend the day just one on one with Grandma. Movies, shopping, Mall of America, fishing, museums, lunch, manicures, amusement parks or whatever their little hearts desired. On Grandma’s dime. Or they might tell about their 70-something Grandma driving all across the Minneapolis- St. Paul seven county metropolitan area to watch a 10pm hockey game in the dead of winter. She looked like the nuttiest grandma in the stands, blowing kisses to her grandson doing his time in the penalty box.
If you ask her friends, they would tell you that Darlene was always learning, learning, learning. We lived in Sunrise Hills, which was a sub-division with lakefront property and a nice swimming beach where all the kids hung out all summer long. She had never learned to swim as a child so she took swimming lessons in her 40’s so she wouldn’t be so nervous at the lake.
Over the years she saved a boatload of money by clipping coupons and one summer day when she had saved up enough, she purchased a little Sunfish sail boat, then she signed up for sailing lessons. She took her friend Myrna Carr and me to Lake Minnetonka where we learned how to launch, set sail, steer, and load the Sunfish back on the trailer.
Sometime in the middle of their 54 year marriage, she felt like she wanted to learn more about her husband’s profession, so she enrolled in Aviation Ground School so she could learn about flying.
When my brother, Dick, was building his business, she learned all she could about sales and sold vacuum cleaners on Dick’s team, and then took her commission money and started college funds for his kids.
When my oldest brother, Hans had horses boarded west of Chanhassen she would drive out on the weekend to help take cockleburs out of their tails. And years later when he was ordained at his church, she was front and center at the ordination service.
She loved working at Minnetonka East Jr. High helping kids learn and learning a lot from them along the way. Learning and growing every day, that was my Mom. Some of these things may have seemed a little nutty to us growing up, but I think I get it now. I think it was all about investing quality in others, in her family, in her kids.
Perhaps my personal favorite Mom story might be the one where we were shopping for clothes together and I tried on a low-cut tight-fitting sweater dress. It was fabulous and it looked like it had been custom made for my young shapely figure. We were at Braun’s at 7-HI. I must have been 16 or 17 years old. It was so sexy, I knew it was out of the question but I had to try. She took one look, tears welled up a little in her eyes, and to my surprise she said, “That is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and you have the perfect figure for it. I can’t believe how my little girl is growing up into such a beautiful young woman.” She hesitated a moment longer looking me up and down … and came to her senses, “But you know honey, most men are quite a bit taller than you are and they might be able to see right down into your cleavage. Do you really want ‘Mr. So and So’ down the street to look at you like that?”
As you can well imagine, I could not get that dress off fast enough! The thought of that middle aged dad down the street I used to babysit for looking at me in ‘that way’ made my stomach turn and it was back to blue jeans and flannel shirts for a couple more years. Mission accomplished! She didn’t say anything like, “Over my dead body are you wearing that out in public!” No, she got me to say that it to myself. Oh, and she managed to tell me I was a beautiful woman, all in one fell swoop. Nutty like a fox.
If you ask my older brother, Dick, about his favorite Mom story, he might tell about the cold winter’s day she shot two deer on our Minnesota farm, while my Dad was away in Canada deer hunting with his buddies. Dick was 9 years old and was watching cartoons (“Ruff n Ready” to be exact) on a snowy Saturday morning. He was enjoying the lazy winter morning without chores when suddenly Mom burst through the door from outside all bundled up with sweat on her brow. “Come on, Dick! Get dressed! I need you to help me haul the deer I shot home so we can get them gutted.”
“Whaaat?” Dick lazily quipped, “There is no way you shot a deer. I don’t believe it.”
Our neighbor, Osborne, was right on her heals. “Oh yes she did. Two of them! I saw them. A doe and a big buck. Now get dressed and help us. Time is running out. We’ve got to get them field dressed right away.”
My sweet little Mom had used a high powered 30 odd 6 – illegal btw for hunting on farmland because of the one mile kill range – to shoot a small doe, but the doe had kept running and died out of her sight. She thought she had missed, so she took a second shot and hit a big buck on the ridge. She watched him tumble down the snow covered ravine all the way to the creek at the bottom. She stashed the 30 odd 6 in the bushes and carried the more legal 12 gauge shot-gun to the scene.
Once they got the carcasses back home – which was quite a struggle for my skinny 9 year old brother and my 120 pound Mom – they gutted them and hung them in the machine shed where they remained frozen until my Dad returned from hunting up north … empty handed, I might add.
In the meantime, one of the neighbors drove by and saw the deer hanging in the shed. He went into town and spread the word that a couple of deer must have wandered into Donny’s machine shed and the little woman had shut the door and shot them inside the shed. He knew my dad was out of town so that must have been what had happened.
Ha! We knew the truth. We still have that box of Rifle Club trophies around somewhere with her name on them. Not so many with my Dad’s name but LOTS of sharp shooting awards with my Mom’s name engraved on them.
If you ask my oldest brother, Hans, about his favorite Mom story, he would say it was that she always brought home more trophies than Dad from Rifle Club competitions.
Over the years when this story would resurface, she would quietly tell us girls that it was the last time she hunted. She said she just didn’t like the way it made her feel. She would run her mink traps for extra money, but she never hunted again.
That is until four decades later when a blue million chipmunks were invading her suburban Chanhassen yard. By this time she was in her 70’s and early in the morning, she would sit at the dining room table, sipping her morning coffee. She would silently slip the screen out of the window and aim her pellet gun at those speedy little varmints. Every few minutes she would shout, “Donny, I got one! Run out there and put him in the trash before anyone sees!” What a nut!
If you ask my niece, Dawn, she might stay her favorite story was the time that Grandma delivered homemade chocolate chip cookies to Prince’s house and invited him to church.
During the early 1980’s when my Mom was in her 60’s, and Prince, riding the success of Controversy and Purple Rain, was newly rich and famous, he lived in my home town of Chanhassen.
When Mom told us kids what she had done, we were mortified because we were Prince fans and we had heard the rumors about all the stuff that went on behind those gates. Oblivious to all that, my Mom had baked cookies, packaged them up pretty, hopped in her rusty old Honda Accord, and drove out to County Road 117 to the very same address where my high school friend, Ron Lybeck, used to live. The guard house at the end of the driveway was new since Ron’s family lived there.
Whatever possessed her that morning we will never know! She pulled up to the gate and a huge and handsome and very polite black man with a ton of gold chains draped around his neck stepped out in front of her car. He slowly walked up to her rolled down window.
“May I help you, ma’am?”
“Good morning, young man. Is Prince home?”
“Why no ma’am, he’s not. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Well, yes you can. I brought him these cookies I baked this morning. And a bulletin from last Sunday’s service at my church. I would like to invite Prince to visit my church sometime. Oh, and you are welcome to come along too, if you’d like.”
Still chattering, she handed him the tin of cookies and the bulletin. “The name of the church is Lutheran Church of the Living Christ and I’m sure you’ve seen it. It’s just south of Chanhassen out on Hwy 5. We really look forward to seeing you there. Service times are in the bulletin. Have a nice day.”
“Yes Ma’am. Thank you Ma’am.”
Well, I probably don’t need to tell you that Prince never did darken the door of my Mom’s fine little Lutheran church. But it made for a great family story, a story all her kids and grandkids love to tell each for their own reason. All the way from “My Grandma is so gutsy” to “Mom took every opportunity to share her faith with new neighbors” to “I think my Mom is losing it” to “Do you think that really happened?” I am sure the polite man in the guardhouse just thought she was nuts.
A few years later when my niece, Dawn, brought her new boyfriend over to meet Grandma, out came the ritual cookies and coffee. His name was Shawn and he was way too quiet. But in time the conversation meandered around to Shawn growing up in nearby Chaska. It turns out that when he was in high school, Shawn hung out with Prince’s bodyguard’s kids. Hmm, small world. “Big Chick” Huntsberry and some of the Prince entourage provided a free and easy place for his kids and their friends to hang out, and Shawn was one of the crowd.
Dawn piped up, “Oh yeah! Hey Shawn! Did I ever tell you about the time my Grandma brought cookies to Prince’s house and invited him to go to church with her!?”
Relatively aloof up to that point, Shawn choked, nearly passing coffee through his nose. When he regained his composure, he said, “THAT WAS YOU!!??”
Dawn couldn’t believe her ears. Shawn recounted one day back in high school he was hanging out with the Huntsberry kids when one of the bodyguards had come back to Big Chick’s house with home-made chocolate chip cookies which he shared with everyone, saying something about a little old church lady who had invited them to church. They had all had a good laugh as they munched on the best chocolate chip cookies in Carver County. When he stopped talking, my coy little Mom quietly looked at Shawn and asked him, “Well, why didn’t he come?”
My Mom believed for the best in people and she met them right where they were. While she could always be counted on to be the voice of reason in any given situation, we learned early to expect the unexpected from her. I can’t help think that my boys would have loved her and would by this time have their own favorite Grandma stories.
[March 20, 2020] Flying up the interstate from Seymour to Indianapolis in his buddy’s ‘68 Plymouth Road Runner, 4 speed, 383cu, V8, royal blue. He glanced over at the speedometer: 110 mph! Passing cars like they were standing still! The Road Runner was pretty new on the road, third only in popularity that year to the GTO and the Chevelle. Those were the days!
Running on leaded, windows rolled down, burning through southern Indiana.
Why the big hurry? It was the Battle of the Bands at the Indiana State Fair Grounds and the first place prize was warming up for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. They couldn’t be late or they would lose their spot.
The year was 1969 and Indy’s garage band scene was hot. The band was The Knightsmen out of Arlington High School and they were good! All the guys were excellent musicians and their harmonies were spot on, but their lead singer was awesome! And I’m not just saying that because he grew up to be my husband. Karl had just turned 17 in May of that year.
That weekend, Karl had been camping with his childhood friend, Dan Lawhorn, on the banks of the Muscatatuck River down by Camp Atterbury. Dan’s dad owned an old trailer near the river and ever since Jr. High, the boys would often get dropped off down there to just be boys for the weekend to roam free. Canned beans, junk food, campfires, a rowboat, true crime reenactments, and firearms in the forest. A boy’s dream come true, am I right?
But that weekend, Karl had to be back in Indy for the Battle of the Bands and a chance at the first prize. His band mate and lead guitarist extraordinaire, Mark Tribby agreed to come to pick him up. The deal was that Karl would have to walk out of the river bottoms up to the highway because Mark wasn’t about to drive his brand new Road Runner into the woods. Miraculously, Karl made his way to the highway just in time to see that blue Road Runner roar by, make an illegal U-turn, and screech to a stop. Karl hopped in and away they went. Indy-bound and 20 feet from stardom!
I probably don’t need to tell you the Knightsmen ended up winning first place in Battle of the Bands and they warmed up that very day for the one and only Kenny Rogers back in the First Edition days.
This was well before Kenny’s crossover fame and fortune but after the New Christy Minstrels. Before the white hair and beard. Before too many plastic surgeries. After three of his five wives and before his last two. It was before “The Gambler” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and before his friendship with Dolly Parton and “Islands in the Stream”. At that point, he had been in the business 14 years longer than Karl had.
For Karl, The Knightsmen was after being the little kid entertainment at his parents’ house parties and before another garage band called “Jubal” and before a band called “Wright Brothers Overland Stage”. After campsite shenanigans at the Muscatatuck River and before national exposure on the Grand Ole Opry, NBC’s Today Show, and Warner Brothers recording label.
The guys in the band all remember meeting Kenny Rogers that day at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and they all had the same impression; that he was a real nice guy. Relaxed and down-to-earth, just a regular guy on the road trying to make a living at something he loved: music and storytelling.
RIP Kenny Rodgers. Thanks for the great memory!
[NOT ORIGINAL WITH ME: Kenny Rodgers dippin’ out in the middle of an apocalypse is the most “know when to fold them” shit I’ve ever seen. #coronavirus #COVID-19]
We met our son’s birth father. And here’s how it all started.
11/03/2014 12:35 PM Dear Mr. Beasley, you don’t know me. Forgive the intrusion; I know this is a long shot but I am trying to help my 22-year-old son find his birthfather. His name was Dennis Beasley. His birth mother’s name is Vicki Thompson. My son was born in August 1992 in Indianapolis. Feel free to message me back or call my cell. Thank you, Mia Hinkle
11/05/2014 3:10 AM I’m currently out of the country, I’ll return on Thursday. What’s his name? I believe that I may be his father, Vicki told me she put a child up for adoption that I may have fathered; she told me this in early ’93. She showed me a picture of the child and I believed him to be mine by appearance. I checked your page, but not many pics to view. I’m anxious yet don’t know what to expect, nor what is expected of me. My FB page is open to be viewed if you’d like to learn a little more about me. I’ll call or message you when I arrive back in the country. Please feel free to message me before then if you or he desires.
11/05/2014 11:09 AM Thank you for your quick response. His name is Jackson Hinkle. We met Vicki in the fall of 2010 and Jackson has been curious about his birth father ever since. He is actually the one who located your Facebook profile and when he showed me some of your pictures, I could see the likeness. I think he has hesitated to contact you himself because he didn’t want to risk (a) getting you in trouble with your family, (b) that it might not be you, or (c) he didn’t want to risk rejection again. So that’s when I decided to reach out to you to see if you might be interested in meeting him. We completely understand if you don’t want to open this chapter. But if you are open to a meeting, I can help facilitate it. Jackson has an older brother, Walker, and he met his birth mother and sisters a few years ago; it continues to be a really nice relationship. It gave Walker a more complete picture of who he is and where he came from. I have set two of my Fb albums to public; one is named “Jackson” and one is named “Walker and Jackson”. There you can see many photos of Jackson growing up. Looking forward to hearing from you.
11/06/2014 8:11 AM Good morning Mia, I’m back in the country, apologies for the delay in response. I agree with avoiding FB initially, and would much appreciate your facilitation with our meeting. My wife and I viewed pics of both of your children and must say we praise God for what appears to be a job well done. Gratitude to both of you for stepping in where I couldn’t. Please feel free to call or continue to message me. Before Jackson and I meet, I’d like to meet or speak with you first unless you feel differently. Thank you for your efforts in reaching out to me.
So that very evening, November 6, 2014, at five o’clock pm at the Starbucks on Rockville Road on Indianapolis west side, Karl and I met Dennis and Carla Beasley for the very first time. I really can’t wrap words around this kind of experience. But I will do my best to try.
Jackson was three days old when he came home from the hospital and into our arms. And just like with our older son Walker, just two and a half years before, our bond was mysterious and instantaneous and spiritual. Adoption is crazy like that. He was born on a Friday and came home on Monday morning. But the moment we got “the call” and we heard the words, “It’s a boy”, that little infant nestled right into our hearts for good!
I had spoken to his birth mother, Vicki Thompson, on the phone while she was still in the hospital. I sensed she just wanted to hear my voice, looking for a little reassurance she was doing the right thing by signing those forever papers. She was pleased to hear that we already had a biracial toddler so that Jackson (she called him Brandon) wouldn’t be alone. When we met her at a little café in Fountain Square 18 years later (2010), she seemed nervous, but she was kind and polite and answered all his questions.
“Any medical history I should know about?” How tall were the men in your family? How tall was my birth father? What was his name?”
After that day she disappeared. We reached out a few more times over the next year, but letters came back “return to sender” and phone calls went unanswered. That was on October 9, 2010, and for the next four years, Jackson would cruise around Facebook from time to time stalking the profiles of anyone named Dennis Beasley. Occasionally he would come bounding down the stairs mimicking each pose of each Dennis that remotely fit the bill.
“Hey, Mom! Look at this picture. Look at my smile. Look at his eyes. Do we look alike?”
Then one Sunday morning in 2014 (I think it was Labor Day weekend), out of the blue, Jackson and his girlfriend, Kaycee, showed up at our house all dressed up!
“Hey Jackson, hey Kaycee, nice surprise seeing you. What’s up?” “We’ve been to church!” “Really? What church?” “Dennis’s church.” “Dennis who?” “Maawm, you know who! Dennis Beasley! I found him on Facebook and figured out where he goes to church. First Free Will Baptist Church of Indianapolis. Then I put the address in my GPS: 2433 Barnes Avenue, Indianapolis. But we must have been like really early. Like over an hour early.
And then we started thinking about it. Like if we do see him, what are we going to say? “Hi, my name is Jackson and I think you might be my birth father.” What if he’s not? How embarrassing! What if he is? And he’s with his wife and kids? At church! And they don’t know anything about me? I wouldn’t like it if someone did that to me. So we left.”
Well, this was all news to this mom who prides herself on knowing everything, but we’ve always told our sons, that if they ever wanted to search for their birth families, we’d help in any way possible. So I waited for it to come up again. And it didn’t. So two months later, I sent that Facebook message to Mr. Beasley.
November 6, 2014, 5 pm, Starbucks on Rockville Road, west side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Dennis and Carla had just returned from a Caribbean Cruise that day. He had been FB messaging me from ports in paradise wherever they could get internet and trying to process this new bit of information the best he could. He told us about breaking the news to Carla, standing on their cabin balcony with the idyllic turquoise blue sea stretching to the horizon. They both cried. And then they prayed that God would use this turn of events for His purpose and His glory.
Just days later, we ordered coffee on Rockville Road and the minutes turned into hours in the blink of an eye. There were so many unknowns on both sides of the table. So many questions. It turns out that Dennis and Carla had just been married a few years, since 2010. Within 5 minutes we could tell that she was the secret sauce in this relationship. Carla is a glowing African American woman, Godly and strong and professional and compassionate. It was apparent that she had been sent by God at the behest of Dennis’s praying family. Dennis is a handsome Black man with a twinkle in his eye who makes you feel like he is listening to your every word. Now in his forties, he has been kept fit and solid by his occupation as a sheet metal worker. His nerves of steel enable him to work at heights that are too risky for the average guy.
Dennis asked how this search came about and we told him about that Sunday back in September when Jackson and Kaycee visited his church on Barnes Avenue. Dennis and Carla excitedly spoke over one another, “What? Are you serious? I wish they had stayed around and asked for me. I am sure we were there. I am a Deacon, the one with the keys to the building. We are always the first ones there in the morning and the last ones to leave in the afternoon. Every Sunday.”
We tried our best to sum up the first 22 years of Jackson’s life in just a couple of cups of coffee. Dennis listened intently to our every word. Descriptors like adorable, energetic, bright, intuitive, observant, inquisitive, tenacious, strong-willed, and loving were just a few of the adjectives we used to tell Dennis about Jackson. Places like Little Lamb Christian preschool, Carmel Public schools, kid-friendly safe neighborhood, Northview Sunday School, Radiant Youth Group, mission trips to Central America, vacation destinations around the country, and summer camps dotted the map of Jackson’s youth. Natural aptitudes like physical condition, intelligence, confidence, good grades (especially when procrastinating), comfortable in conversation with people of all ages, always pushing the envelope, and life of the party were phrases that spoke to Jackson’s genetic hard-wiring.
Dennis paused. “Tell me, is Jackson athletic at all?”
“Oh, yes!” we laughed, “I guess we left that part out. Actually, over the years, Jackson excelled at CUSC travel soccer, Carmel High School Varsity soccer team, was on the Smokey Row swim team, played a season of basketball, and took gymnastics when he was little.”
“Wait, he was a gymnast?” Dennis’s eyes widened.
“Well, not really. He took lessons for a season when he was little, but they just wanted to teach him how to be safe and stand in line and take turns. He quickly lost interest. And besides, he already had taught himself to do a back handspring. He was 4.”
Carla interjected, “Oh Lord! That clinches it! To this day I cannot take this man anywhere where we don’t run into someone from his past and they ask if he can still do that back handspring like when they were kids. And be darned if he doesn’t stand right up from the table and launch into a back handspring! 42 years old and he is still doing the back-flips like he was a boy!!”
We all laughed. “Well, I guess we don’t need to see a DNA test. We just need to see your back handspring!”
The very next evening, November 7, we met at the Cheesecake Factory, Dennis & Carla, Karl & me, and Jackson. It was fun to watch them interact. Jackson was the floor director of the conversation and he wasn’t shy about asking about those burning questions that had been rattling around his adolescent mind for years. I felt Carla, Karl, and I shrink back to the edge of the exchange, almost as if we were spectators. Dennis and Jackson’s eyes locked like we weren’t even there. Dennis was frank as he revisited some really painful parts of his life. Jackson’s questions were all over the place.
“What about Vicki, my birth mother? Did she tell you about me?” “How tall are you? Do you think I will get any taller? I am 22 and only 5’5”. My mom keeps telling me that I will grow, but I don’t think so. I heard about an operation in Germany where they can break your legs and put rods in them to extend them and make you taller. What do you think about that?” “Do you have any other kids? Are they bi-racial too? How old are they?” “How do you afford to go on all those cruises?” “What are your views on legalizing marijuana? I think it’s only a matter of time before the laws in Indiana will catch up with the times.” “What kind of diseases are in your family? Anything genetic?” “I want to buy a Tesla. That seems like a super awesome car. I’m going to work hard and save enough to buy one cash. There is a dealership in this mall. You want to go sit in a Tesla after dinner?” “I want you to know that I have two awesome parents. They are sitting right here. They are my REAL parents. You know that, right?” “Have you always lived in Indianapolis?”
Listening to the banter was like watching a ping pong game until Jackson asked, “What did the people in your family die from?”
“Jackson, can I be real with you? My father died from a heroin overdose. We found him on the bathroom floor after the last time he shot up. I was 9 years old. It was the day after his 29th birthday (12/9/1981). We had just returned home from Christmas shopping; my Mom, Grandma Lula, my sister Dianna, and my uncle Jeffrey who was like a brother to me. I remember it was a cold moonless night as we carried our Christmas purchases into the house. My sister, Dianna, was only 11 years old at the time and she discovered his lifeless body on the bathroom floor. It was the most devastating moment of my life. I believe he was still alive when they tried to get him on his feet, but then I watched as he took his final breath. Everything changed that day. I had been raised in a loving, working-class, two-parent home for the first decade of my life. Everything changed that day. Everything got really hard really fast.
I was just 9 years old when the Devil began telling me lies about who I was, what I should do, and all the reasons it didn’t matter. I saw the pain my father’s overdose put my family through and I vowed never to involve myself in drugs and alcohol, but almost immediately I began to feel destruction tearing at the edges of my soul. I came from a family of God-fearing people, but the pervasive culture around me had me compromising a little at a time until at age 16 years I became a father for the first time in 1989. Although witnessing the birth of my oldest daughter, Denisha, was a great moment for me, raising a child while I was still a kid myself would prove to be more than I could handle. Two years later in 1991 my second daughter, Victoria, was born and the pressures mounted.
More lies from the Devil. I was convinced that I deserved all the privileges of being an adult without any of the responsibility. I was so young when I started having sex and babies and yet I was still depending on my own mother for food and shelter. I couldn’t see it at the time, but this was one of the first areas of my mind the enemy began to attack; the fact was I was not equipped to take care of the two baby girls I had brought into the world. I felt so defeated and lost, Satan found it easy to build a stronghold against me. Proverbs 23:7 says “For as a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” I became a slave to the Devil’s deceit. He kept pouring on the lies and I kept right on believing them.”
Carla piped up, “Oh now, we ‘bout to have church right here at the Cheesecake Factory!”
Dennis continued, “Jackson, should I go on?”
“I felt so restless. I was trying to fit in with friends, to be a man, earn a living, and be there for my baby girls, but I was doing none of it well. The Devil was sinking his claws deeper and deeper into my world view. Temptations were everywhere and I completely bought into living in the flesh. In time I knew something had to change.
I enlisted in the United States Army at age 20 and I fully expected to serve until retirement. I wanted to head out of town and make something of myself, be all that I could be, you know the drill. I married the girl I was seeing in 1993 and we enlisted together, hoping to make a fresh start. Just before I left for Boot Camp there was a knock at the door. It was Vicki. I didn’t even know she knew where I lived. I don’t think I even remember knowing her last name. She showed me a picture of a baby I now know was you, Jackson. She told me about the adoption. I was married and heading out for Active Duty. I fully intended to be stationed far away from Indiana for the next 20 years. I wished her well and that was that. Until last week when your mother messaged me.”
The noisy clatter of the restaurant had all but melted away as Dennis continued, “Jackson, I was a different man back then. I can see now that God was watching out for you by giving you the parents he gave you. I was so happy to get the call from your Mom that you wanted to meet me. But Jackson, your parents have given you way more than I could have at that time in my life.”
Jackson interrupted, “Oh yeah, I know that for sure! My folks are awesome! Can I ask, what made you change?”
“I was discharged from the Army on June 1, 1996. After serving for a few years, I knew the whole lifer thing wasn’t for me. I wanted out of the service for one reason and one reason only. I couldn’t wait to be free from random drug screens so I could smoke weed like all of my friends. More lies from below: I thought everything would be okay if I could just get high. A year after joining up, our son, Dennis Beasley III, was born. We call him Tre.
Being a husband and father to an infant while serving in the Army carried its own set of stressors, and the pressure continued to build. Satan kept on with his lies, telling me that everything would be okay if I could just get numb.
Once I was out of the service, I found a good job and I vowed I would do better by this child. But soon the whole world of alcohol and drugs called to me and I answered. Consequently, I lost that good paying job and I figured out I could make some good money selling marijuana. I didn’t even recognize the evil trap I was walking right in to. After all, I was the center of attention (which I loved) and I was making a lot of money (which I also loved). But I was never content, always restless.
Everything was so difficult in my life, ever since I was 9 years old when my dad died. Nothing came easy for me. Except for women. Women came easy for me. But the backwash of easy hookups resulted in 4 babies in 5 years with 4 different women; four children I could not care for. Satan’s lies were unrelenting and were reflected in the lies and broken promises I made to those women. Over and over again I broke my covenants with my wife, children, my family, friends, even with God and my deceased father.
The more money I made, the more I wanted and it was never enough. So I turned to sell crack-cocaine and before you know it, I had become my own worst enemy and best customer. The more I used, the more my wife and I fought, the more I used, the worse I felt, the more I used, the more I let my son down, the more I used. It was a vicious cycle and I saw no way out.
I remember my little boy pleading with me, “Daddy, come play a video game with me, please Daddy, please?!” And I would say, “Okay Tre, I’ll be right there.” But then one more pipe and six hours later I would wake up to see my little boy sound asleep waiting for me to come to play with me with the controller in his little hand. The shame I felt was so intense. I loved my little boy and didn’t want to hurt him in any way. And then my wife and I would fight. Again. And again.
I knew my mother was praying for me. I knew others in our family lifted me in prayer every day, but I wanted none of it. The lies of the evil one drowned out any inkling of hope.
Then one day, my wife had had enough. She had heard it all a million times before. All the broken promises. All the deception. All the bargaining. After 11 years of marriage, we had the fight of our lives and she took our son and left. I was shattered.
Satan whispered in my ear, “See? Isn’t this hard? Too hard to continue? Don’t you think your little boy would be better off without you and your crack? After all, you and your dad are cut from the same cloth. Life was too hard for him, too. Was he weak like you? You’ll feel better if you just get high. You are an empty shell with nothing to offer anyone. You are like an oyster in the sea without a pearl. Even with all your accomplishments, you will never amount to anything. You are nothing of value.”
His whisper in my ear was soothing and alluring. They say the most damaging lies are the ones you tell yourself. The devil had been lying to me for so long, I had become accustomed to hearing those same lies from myself and to me they had become a slippery truth.
It was a warm autumn night. In my despair, I gathered up all the drugs and booze I had in my possession and set it all up on the patio table in the back yard. Hennessy, weed, crack, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, uppers, downers, pills of all kinds; you name it, I had it. And I set my mind to consume it all that night.
Sometime during the night, deep in a fog, I remember saying out loud, “I think I’ll go to church in the morning.” Then I passed out.
When daylight came, I somehow found my way to church. The First Free Will Baptist Church on Barnes Avenue. I looked and smelled like last night. My hair was long and natural and huge. My beard was not trimmed. My clothes were yesterday’s.
My nephew, Nuke (14) saw me walk into the sanctuary. “Hey, Uncle Pookey!” (My family calls me Pookey. Always have. Don’t know why. They like to call me Pookey.)
“Hey, Uncle Pookey! Come sit with me!”
My family had attended First Free Will Baptist Church in the Riverside area of Indianapolis for many years. That morning, the guest preacher was delivering a fiery message from the Book of Jonah. The message was clear: God gave Jonah a specific assignment, but Jonah chose to ignore God’s call and thereby chose the alternative, which, by the way, if you remember, didn’t turn out so well for Jonah. The call and response lines were “choose the assignment or choose the alternative”.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. The rhythm of the chanting called to something deep within my soul.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. The veil was being lifted from my bloodshot eyes.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. I was beginning to see how God had put a call on my life, had given me an assignment, but Satan had pierced the soul of my 9-year-old self and had obscured my vision with the sight of my father’s final breath. Why? Why did my daddy abandon us to fend for ourselves?
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. As I grew up, the evil one had used money, sex, drugs, ego, and all manner of fleshly diversions to cloud my vision until I couldn’t even see God, much less His assignment for my life.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. Just like Jonah, choosing the alternative hadn’t worked out so well for me. It had only produced a life of heartbreak for everyone close to me. My children wanted nothing to do with me because of the hurt I had caused their mothers. And it’s killing my mother to watch her only son wander down the same path where she lost her husband so many years ago. I need to make this right.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. Is this thing for real? Can I really get a do-over? Can I really begin anew? Can God really forgive me? Can the blood of Jesus Christ really cover all I have to cover? It was time for the altar call and people all around me were going forward for prayer. My young nephew, Nuke, elbowed me, “Come on Uncle Pookey, let’s go to the altar.” I resisted and looked straight ahead.
CHOOSE THE ASSIGNMENT OR CHOOSE THE ALTERNATIVE. “
Come on Uncle Pookey! Let’s go forward!” By now he was grabbing my shirt sleeve and tugging me into the aisle. “Let’s go forward. Come on, I’ll go with you!”
Whether my teenage nephew understood the gravity of the moment as he slowly walked me to the altar, or if he was simply being obedient to the Lord’s prompting, we may never know, but when we reached the front of the church the praises of the saints raised the roof! A crowd gathered at the altar. Church leaders laid hands on many and anointed with oil. Their prayers sounded like the voices of angels, but not the cute little cherub-looking angels. This sounded more like body-building soldier angels engaged in a battle with dark principalities for the souls of children. The loud and authoritative, bold and unflinching voices of those who have read all the way to the end of Revelation and know how the story ends.
Soon it was my turn. The prayer and attention turned specifically to me. The volume rose like a rush of wind. Someone anointed my head with oil and it ran through my enormous Afro and dripped onto my shoulders. They prayed a prayer of deliverance, a prayer of power and love and grace and complete forgiveness and unconditional acceptance. I felt the warmth of a cozy inviting fire coming in from the cold. The prayers continued. The cozy warmth began to turn hot and I became short of breath.
And then above the voices of the saints, I heard a clear audible voice, “Wow, it sure is getting hot in here. Isn’t it getting hot in here? It’s so hard to breathe right now. I think we should get some air. Yeah, let’s step outside and get a breath of fresh air. It’s so hot in here.”
I felt myself backing down the aisle toward the back door. Slowly walking backward, the altar getting smaller and further away, I was sweating and I could not breathe. That dark voice in my ear prodding me to GET OUT OF THERE! I had nearly reached the door at the back of the sanctuary when I observed a couple of large ushers in black suits at either side aisle and by the time I reached the last pew I felt them swoop me up by the elbows and glide me back to the altar.
The prayers of the saints continued. My tears mixed with anointing oil and I received deliverance. Deliverance from past mistakes, from my fleshly life, from old wounds, from addictions that had controlled my life. Instantly I felt brand new and I could not stop smiling!!
The date was October 10, 2004, I will never forget it. I was 32 years old. After service, I drove directly to my cousin who also happened to be a minister. I brought a pillowcase filled with all my remaining drugs and paraphernalia, scales and baggies; I poured it out in front of him and said, “I need your help. I gave my heart to Jesus this morning and I need all this stuff gone.” He took care of it and that was the last of my old life.
Things were never the same after that. God removed any cravings I might have had and I began to live a new life in Christ. Now, I’m not saying that was the end of my struggles or that we all lived happily ever after. I had one more failed marriage before I married Carla. My daughters and I continue to work on old deep wounds. But I now carry the love of Jesus wherever I go. It’s a whole new paradigm, a whole new way of seeing people and the world around us. It’s a freedom I never knew existed.
I am now an active member and a deacon at that very same church, First Free Will Baptist Church, and I freely share my testimony with anyone who needs to hear it. By the saving grace of Jesus Christ, I am an open book. No more secrets. No more lies. Only a witness for the glory of God!
I married the love of my life, Carla, in 2010 and we have adopted two sons through the foster care system. I could not be there in the ‘90s for those 4 babies in 5 years, but I am making a Godly difference in the futures of 16-year-old, Zario and Michael, whose parents cannot be there for them now. I make a good living as a sheet metal worker and like to go on cruises. God has been gracious to me and my family. He is using my story to reach others for the Kingdom every single day!”
Carla punctuated Dennis’s story, “I told you we were going to have some church right here at the Cheesecake Factory!!”
We all laughed.
And Jackson piped up, “Hey you guys! You wanna go sit in a Tesla?!”
These three essays were written shortly after we met our oldest son’s birth mother in 2008. I wrote the first one about our meeting with Bobbie Jo, the second was written by Bobbie Jo from her perspective, and I wrote the third one about my feelings about all of it.
My Son Has Three Sisters! By Mia Hinkle
Wednesday – My son has three sisters! What a curious thought! I always knew he had a birth mother.After all, I am his adoptive mother. I remember the cold snowy December morning my husband and I picked him up at Wishard Hospital downtown Indianapolis. It was December 18, 1989. He was five days old. But sisters? And three of them? It’s hard to wrap my mother-brain around that. Walker has been my son for over 18 years now and for most of that time, he has been the eldest of two brothers. So the thought of him having sisters is wild! And three of them! Wow!
We received an inquiry today from his birth mother asking to meet him, and saying he had three sisters, ages 20, 16, and 14 who would also like to meet him. What do I think about this? How do I feel? Since my kids were babies, I have always boldly proclaimed that if they ever wished to search for their families of origin, I would help them however I could. I was sure that when the time came, I would be secure in the fabric of our family and certain that my sons would know without a doubt who their“real” parents are. Ah … so young – so certain. Today I am faced with real people asking for a real meeting. Wow!
Ultimately, I believe that this is my son’s information and his choice. Whether he wants to (a) meet his first family now, or (b) if he has no interest in ever meeting them, or (c) if he wants to wait to make a decision, I think birth parents and adoptive parents should honor that decision, whatever it is.While it is true that he IS eighteen, he is FAR from an adult. Is he too young? How can I keep this overture from him at this point in his life? I can not. It is his. How can he choose one of these options? What frame of reference does he have with which to even consider the choices? After all, I don’t think he has researched or read up on the effects of open or closed adoptions. I doubt if he has given it much thought beyond the magical thinking in which adopted children sometimes engage when they are having a sad day, i.e.: “My birth mother must be Reece Witherspoon and I just know she is coming back for me!”
What unspoken feelings does he have about his birth mother? Longing? Rejection? Curiosity? Resentment? Questions? Indifference? So how can we prepare him to think it through? How can we provide him with enough information to choose?
How can we tell him about the reunions that end up answering haunting questions,giving the child a sense of completion? Has he even considered that those questions might exist? On the contrary, how can we let him know about reunions that have turned out to be a can of worms, where birth mothers want more from the relationship than the adoptee is able or willing to give? How can we present all this in an unbiased fashion? How much will he pick up from us in drawing his conclusion? It’s a lot to think about.
Saturday –just three days later We arrived at Starbucks early. We had decided that my husband and I should meet her first before presenting the prospect of a meeting to my son. My husband was skeptical. I was hopeful. So to get the real scoop, we had to meet. I told myself I wouldn’t cry, but alas. We had never seen one another but recognized each other by the look in our eyes. As we embraced, hot tears clouding our eyes and messing up our carefully applied mascara, I wondered if those around us realized the enormity of what they were witnessing as they casually sipped their morning blend. We exchanged photos. Three beautiful bi-racial teenage girls. One handsome bi-racial boy, nearly a man.
When she looked at his photos – mostly school pictures from junior high forward, she broke down again. I could hardly understand her words, and in retrospect I am not sure she was really talking to me. Perhaps it was more to herself. It sounded something like,“I have always second guessed my choice. For years I have wondered if I did the right thing. It hurt so bad. But now looking at these pictures, I know I could never have given him a life. Not with the mess my life was in then. I did the right thing. Just look at him!”
We spent the next few hours hanging onto one another every word. My husband and I did our best to condense 18 years of our son’s stories, traits, skills, aptitudes, family life, school life, church life, health, sports, and music into just one cup of coffee. His birth mother was frank as she shared with us her life over the last twenty years. How she had a baby girl with her high school sweetheart when she was only 17. How she had signed over guardianship to her mother because she was in no condition to provide for a newborn. How her first baby was raised by her grandparents and had never lived with her mom, although they have always enjoyed a close relationship. How she lived with her boyfriend and his mother after the baby was born. How she got really ill and went to the hospital in 1989 and that’s where she found out she was pregnant again. How she was heart-sick over the choices available to her, her life still mixed up. How she had spoken with adoption attorney Steven Kirsh about making an adoption plan and when she expressed her doubt, he had said, “You don’t have to place your baby. You can always move into a shelter. ” Though it sounded callus, he was right, she admitted. As messed up as things were at the time, she acknowledged she could never take a newborn to a homeless shelter. She broke up with her boyfriend (Walker’s birth father) and got involved with another man with whom she had two more daughters, now 16 and 14. He was murdered in August1995.
And then during the last few years, things had really turned around for her. She now loves her job as a legal secretary at the State Capitol and was married four years ago to a man who is good to her and good for her girls. Her oldest daughter was her maid-of-honor at the wedding. She told us how much it means for her oldest daughter to meet her full biological brother – our son. She said she had never intended to contact us, but that the new TV commercials for Kirsh & Kirsh with “that beautiful birth mother” had stirred up thoughts and emotions she thought were sound asleep in her heart. “I have never stopped thinking of him. I think of him everyday,” she said. We left Starbucks all in agreement that whatever our son decided about meeting his first family, we would all support. When we got home, we took Walker to lunch and laid it all out for him. He didn’t say much, but when he did speak he said, “I always knew I wanted to meet her. If she hadn’t called us, I had planned to search for her one day.”
Friday, Leap Day 2008 – 7 days later Dinner at The Journey. What an appropriately named restaurant for this meeting at this time with these people. Table for five: my son, his birth mother, his older biological sister, and his adoptive parents. What an experience! Our son stood up as they approached the table. She was breathless. He was beaming. They hugged for a long time. The next two hours were a blur of comfortable conversation, hard questions, teary answers, and compliments all around. I observed virtually no resemblance between them. She says he looks exactly like his birth father; slightly built, neat in appearance, loved jewelry and the latest hairstyles, neat and clean, really a nice guy but a little care free. He has seen his first-born daughter only twice in her twenty years. He was exactly our son’s age when they were a couple. During the five years they were together in high school and after, they had two children together and he had a son with another girl. She said he was about 5’ 6” as an adult. Walker is already 5’ 9”. That was important to him. His older full biological sister was raised in a neighboring suburb by her grandparents, where she had all the opportunities of a two parent home and a suburban school. She graduated from high school in 2006. She calls her mother by her first name. She calls her grandparents mom and dad. She is a beautiful girl with a confident manner of communicating. She was very involved in high school where she participated in color-guard, show choir, musicals, and was voted Homecoming princess and Prom Queen in her senior year. She went to Ball State for one semester and is now going to Ivy Tech and living back at home. She was really chatty with her brother asking him about soccer, high school, music, and FaceBook, and Guitar Hero.
The conversation lulled. I asked him if there was anything he would like to ask his birth mother. He nodded and said, “What were your thoughts the last time you saw me?” She was blindsided. She tried to choke back tears as she began to recount the day he was born. She was living with her sister at the time, her five year relationship with his birth father on the rocks. She was 19 years old. She tried to explain just how torn she was about signing the papers when it came right down to it and had thought about changing her mind, but she knew she had to do the right thing. She said it was the hardest choice she ever has made in her life, but by far her most mature decision. On the third day after his birth, she signed the papers to relinquish her parental rights. The nurses brought him in so she could say good-bye. They pulled the curtain. She said it hurt so much and felt so final, she wasn’t sure she could stand it. He was so peaceful. She had never even heard him cry. The next time they pulled the curtain, he was lifted from her arms. That was the last time she saw him … until today.
By now she was sobbing, recalling it like it was just yesterday. “Wow,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting that.” She said the pain was eased a little as time passed, by the letter sand pictures and updates she got from us over the following years. She thanked us and told him what great parents he had to be so kind and open with her. While it still hurt, she was comforted by and grateful for those communications.
His second question was also well thought out. “What do you think it would it have been like if you had raised me?” She didn’t even hesitate. She and her daughter glanced at one another and raised their eyebrows at the same time. It would have been very different, they agreed. She explained that she had lived her own life, making poor choices about boyfriends and behaviors until she was about 27 years old, when she was forced to make some changes with two pre-school daughters depending on her. He would have been caught in the middle of all that. Her two younger daughters are a testament to how very different it might have been. They were raised by a single mom with little money or vocational training in bad neighborhoods and poor school systems. Had she raised him, she said, he wouldn’t have had opportunities to be involved in sports or school activities or lessons or extra help with school work or Sunday school or youth group. Just recently, since she was married four years ago, are her girls able to get involved in these kinds of things. Playing outside in a safe neighborhood wasn’t an option for her girls when they were little. Having the support of a father figure around the house was non-existent. She stressed that her younger daughters have some tougher issues to face today as a result of all these factors. He listened intently. She reiterated that it is clear to her now that she had made the right decision and that his parents – she nodded toward my husband and I – had done such a beautiful job raising him. “I never could have given you the life your parents gave you.” He smiled.
The conversation turned to hobbies, vocations, interests, likes, and dislikes. It turns out that she had always wanted to be an architect and that she loves to draw. My son loves to draw and is really good at it. He thought about getting an architectural degree until he figured out how much math is involved. They both laughed in agreement. It seems his birth father loved jewelry and the latest styles in hair and clothes. There sat my son with a big chunky glass diamond necklace around his neck hanging to his waist. His sister loves to sing and dance in live performances. My son has a great voice and likes to work up hip-hop dance steps and is usually the center of the circle at school dances. His sister is going to Ivy-Tech. My son plans to attend Ivy-Tech in the fall. And this we found amazing … they are both considering degrees in graphic design as it pertains to clothing. We took pictures of one another with cell phones and digital cameras. We hugged goodbye at the end of the evening and promised to be in touch. Our son was pleased with how the meeting turned out and so were we.
We learned a few things at The Journey that night. On the way home, we talked about how God doesn’t make mistakes, and about how uncanny it is that his genetic and environmental influences turned out to support and compliment each other.Genetically, our son comes from creative people who think outside the box and are not tied to conforming to the expectations of others. For instance, over the last twenty years his birth mother has had three long-term relationships with Black men, which is outside the norm for a Caucasian woman in Indiana. She made an adoption plan for her baby,which is definitely problem-solving outside the box (the vast majority of women faced with an unintended pregnancy choose abortion or to parent). Her parents raised her first daughter after raising four kids of their own; an example of grandparents thinking outside the box. Our son’s birth father loved to dress and look the part of someone outside mainstream America. His sister is artistic and loves to sing and dance. Walker’s birth mother loves to draw. So does our son. Then God brought our son to us and his environmental influences, in many ways, support his genetic heritage. My husband is a singer, creative enough to make a living at music ever since he was 13. He runs a music ministry on an offering basis which is definitely thinking outside the box. I love the creative process of writing and photography. And of course, my husband and I thought outside the box in terms of what our multi-racial family would look like.
What all of this means for our son remains to be seen. Just how his own journey will unfold is just over the horizon, still hidden from view. But we now know that he will probably be one who marches to his own drummer and thinks outside the box, and that with God’s hand of protection and direction, it will all turn out just right!
Through My Eyes… A Birth Mother’s Perspective By Bobbie Jo Martin-Hughley
I wrote a letter February 18, 2008, to Attorney Steven Kirsh regarding the adoption of my son he handled 18 years ago. I was not really able to speculate the outcome and I half expected no results at all, but I asked if he could possibly arrange a meeting and / or written correspondence with my son and his family. To my surprise, my son’s adoptive mother called me just two days later. I was speechless and wanted to cry but I held my composure. I’m often at a loss for words. She asked if she could meet with me first. “Yes, certainly,” I said. We arranged a meeting at Starbucks for the following Saturday.
The rest of the week I was a nervous wreck. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to know that I simply would like to meet my baby now grown up, and to possibly get to know him a little. Nothing more. Saturday came. I wondered what to wear. I even wondered if I should buy the coffee. I was so nervous, my husband prayed with me before I left the house. As I got closer to the coffee shop, I was so excited and anticipated I might be a bit emotional. After all, I thought, I am meeting the parents of the baby I gave up 18 years ago. I hoped that I would not say something silly. As I walked into Starbucks, they stood and greeted me with hugs and tears. They handed me an envelope of pictures they had gathered for me.
As I stared at first picture I was totally speechless and finally the only thing that came out of my mouth was a tearful, “I could never have raised him as you have.” The two people sitting in front of me were warm, patient, funny, and intelligent. I saw then the kind of love my baby had grown up with. I desperately wanted them to know that I would never want to interfere with that. After an hour or so of an emotional first meeting, I left totally filled with a sense of peace. But I still wondered if my son would in fact want to meet me and his sisters. A few days later – it seemed like forever – I received a phone call from his mom saying that he did in fact want to meet us. We agreed to meet for dinner at a restaurant called The Journey on Friday, February 29, at 5:30pm. I was elated with the news and could barely finish working the rest of the day. I arranged to get off work early so I could prepare for my meeting with him. I called my husband and everyone else I could think of to spread the wonderful news, then and only then was I able to finish my work.
As we approach the restaurant I begin to nearly hyperventilate. What will he think of me? Will he be disappointed? Will he be embarrassed? All these thoughts go through my head as we walk towards the entrance of the restaurant. I suck it up and go in. I search for them, and I see his mom walking towards us. My son is sitting next to his dad. Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! This is it! This is really it! I am really meeting my son! A lump swells in the back of my throat and I swallow hard. He stands up with a big smile on his face as I walk toward the table. I stand speechless with my hand to my mouth. No words can express that moment which is forever engraved in me. He spreads his arms and embraces me as I embrace him with tears of joy and pain. My pain finally has closure. I can heal now. I can move past all my wrongs and replace them with the comfort of knowing I made a good decision for real, for once in my life.
My daughter hit it off very well with her brother right away, which does not surprise meat all as she is very outgoing and self confident. The two of them made connections with their musical interests and abilities as well as their possible career choices. Although they look more alike in early pictures, they are clearly brother and sister possessing the very same genes as their birth mother and birth father. This moment blessed me richly.
The evening went very well. He was able to ask me two questions which evoked emotional answers. I was so happy to be answering these questions and I want to answer more. I felt at the end of the evening that there was more he wanted to ask but was not able to. As we parted we all hugged. Feeling anxious, I went home and after pacing for a few minutes with millions of thoughts running through my head, I went to my bedroom and cried. These were tears of joy, pain, old memories, years of wondering, and envy. I wanted, no I needed to talk, but my husband was at work and my younger girls just don’t understand the intensity of my feelings about this. So instead I internalized it and remained a quiet mess through the night.
Then a few weeks later on March 22, we again met for dinner, this time at my home, which as it turns out is just 20 minutes from where my son grew up. My husband and younger girls were happy to finally meet him – the girls had really wanted to meet him right away. My parents and my oldest daughter were there along with my son, his parents, and his 15 year old brother. It was a real houseful. All five kids between 15 and 20 sat at the kitchen table and talked and laughed and teased one another like old friends. We shared more photos and stories, and watched March Madness college basketball on TV. The evening was over too quickly. In hindsight, it felt more like a regular family gathering than the momentous occasion it really was.
A Carnival of Pain, Uncertainty, and Hope By Mia Hinkle
I made a promise over 18 years ago. A promise to become mother to a child not of my genes, nor of my womb. A promise to love and support this child with everything in me…from warm baby blankets and formula, to safety and education, to building character and integrity in someone now on the verge of manhood. A promise to recognize and embrace the divergent forces of heredity and environment in my own home.
My promise was to do things that were “good” for my child. One of those “good things” was to provide an accurate and loving view of my son’s birth mother through open conversation and positive stories. And ultimately to one day provide an avenue for a meeting should he desire one.
Family life – indeed perhaps all of life – is best described as a carnival of pain and uncertainty and hope. Some of its magic and some of its tragic, as the songwriter sings. You see … for every ecstatic adoptive mother holding for the first time, a newborn baby suddenly hers, there is a birth mother reeling under a stabbing pain like none other. The circle of emotion is large. It is immense. And it is balanced.
The unbounded joy and hope the adoptive mother feels is precisely counterbalanced by the pain and despair lodged in the birth mother’s heart. And right in the middle is the newborn … a blank slate … a vessel of uncertainty. The birth mother is uncertain if she made the right choice; uncertain if she will ever see him again; uncertain if given a little time and a few breaks maybe she could make it as a parent after all; uncertain how people might judge her if they only knew — labeling her as an abandoner or as a hero, neither of which is even close.
And she hopes beyond hope that he will have the kind of life she dreams for him.The adoptive mother gazes into the baby’s eyes, uncertain what he will look like all grown-up; uncertain what his aptitudes will be; uncertain what his talents are; and uncertain how his adoptive status will affect him at ages 5, 11, 18, and 40. And yet, she is nearly blinded by the hope and promise she sees in his eyes.
And so the carnival begins. A wild spiral of pain and uncertainty and hope and joy. And before you know it, 18 years have passed and the pages fall open to a new chapter. My son’s two families recently met, and I know you are wondering how I feel about it all. Let me begin with how I DO NOT feel.
I do not feel threatened. It never occurred to me that my son would feel a new loyalty tohis birth mother, replacing his love for me. One well-meaning friend tried to comfort him with these words (incidentally I don’t think he was aware that he needed comforting). She said, “I remember the day your parents picked you up at the hospital.You must understand how freaked out your mom would be about this whole birth mother thing.” Insinuating that he was once mine and now he is hers and I am in misery over it. This could not be further from the truth.
I don’t feel territorial. After I gave my sister the news we had been contacted about possibly meeting my son’s birth mother, she told me had felt just yucky, hung up thephone, and cried. Fear of the unknown. Fear that our family dynamics might change. Fear that he would now somehow be “less ours.” My other sister said, “Oh my gosh! I totally forgot!” Insinuating, “I totally forgot … he wasn’t ours!” It took these precious words for me to realize that I no longer see him as a possession to be “ours” or“hers.”
I do not feel loss. In fact, I feel a greater connection with my son because I was able to bethere at this pivotal moment in his life. I do not feel defensive, like I have to post guards at my property line. When he was ababy, I did feel I had to keep our names and address from her. But not now. It even seems kind of silly now. I do not feel unsafe knowing that she has our identifying information.
So how DO I feel? I feel excited. I feel grateful. I feel connected.And I feel open.
Excited for the opportunity to get to know my son’s first family. Excited to learn more about his hard wiring and what makes him tick.
Grateful that she and her family are delightful people and that she is on the same page with me in terms of putting his wishes before hers or mine.
Connection, new and hard to put into words, with my son.
And open. Open to the risk of what the future may bring. Open to expanding our family. Open to conversations with my son about the implications of it all. Open to conversations with his birth mother about her thoughts, views, and experiences before and after her decision 18 years ago.
The following poem was given to us at his baby shower and it still hangs above his desk in his deep purple bedroom. An unknown author penned these words giving honor and insight to both kinds of mothers.
Legacy of An Adopted Child
Once there were two women Who never knew each other; One you do not remember, The other you call “Mother.” Two different livesShaped to make you one; One became your guiding star, The other became your sun. The first one gave you life, And the second taught you to live it; The first gave you the need for love, The second was there to give it. One gave you a nationality, The other gave you a name; One gave you talent, The other gave you aim. One gave you emotions, The other calmed your fears; One saw your first sweet smile, The other dried your tears. One sought for you a home That she could not provide; The other prayed for a child And her hope was not denied. And now you ask me Through your tears … The age old question, Through the years. Heredity or environment … Which are you a product of? Neither … my darling … neither, Just two different kinds of love!
I wonder if Alvin Lee of Ten Years After fame knows he is the reason I memorized the Stations of the Cross. Probably not. I should sit down and write him a thank you note; it would only be about 40 years late. Better late than never, right?
I am certain this is the only time in the history of all things written that the amazing and legendary face-melting blues guitarist Alvin Lee might ever see his name in the same sentence with the Stations of the Cross. When he was shredding his iconic 20-minute version of I’m Going Home at Woodstock in 1969, he could have never guessed that he was playing a role in the spiritual awakening of a little teenager in Minnesota.
In other words, God is so big he can use the most unlikely of circumstances to reach his children.
First, a little background for non-Catholic readers. The Stations of the Cross are found primarily in Roman Catholic churches and are designed to help the faithful make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer through meditating upon the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death. These devotions find their roots in the experiences of the earliest pilgrims to Jerusalem, who walked the “Via Dolorosa” as part of their spiritual pilgrimage. As Christianity spread during the Middle Ages however, it became impossible for pilgrims to make this journey, and a “spiritual” Way of the Cross became increasingly popular in churches throughout Christendom.
Some of the most powerful religious art over the last thousand years or so features the Stations in a variety of mediums; paintings, frescoes, wall reliefs, stained glass, and sculptures. These artistic expressions were a means of teaching the congregation the events of Good Friday; remember that commoners didn’t have Bibles like we do today and many congregants couldn’t read anyway. The Stations were also a way of teaching people how to pray as they entered in to Christ’s humanity, suffering, and sacrificial death. The fourteen Stations depict the following scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death.
Jesus is condemned to death
Jesus is given his cross
Jesus falls the first time
Jesus meets His mother
Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
Jesus falls the second time
Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
Jesus falls the third time
Jesus is stripped of His garments
Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus’ body is removed from the cross
Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense
It’s only in recent years that a 15th Station has been added displaying the resurrection of Christ. [Side note that has nothing to do with this story: I find it ironic that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Super Star was met with so much resistance from mainline denominations in the 1970’s because the rock opera ended before Jesus rose from the tomb, when it took the church a millennium to complete the Stations of the Cross with the Easter scene.]
Being raised Lutheran I had very little knowledge about the Stations of the Cross. They were not included in my church building. While we were taught Bible facts in Sunday School, we didn’t physically take part in the Stations of the Cross devotion like my Catholic friends did during Lent.
So back to the Alvin Lee story. Just who is this Alvin Lee, you may be asking if you are too young or too respectable to have been following Woodstock rock in the 70’s. Think Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Jonny Lang times 10. Alvin Lee was once tagged by rock critics as “the fastest guitar player on earth” and it stuck. Brave and experimental with his 335 Gibson 958, he set “no limit” with his pioneer speed style.
Anyway, it’s 1971 and Alvin Lee and Ten Years After are coming to town and I’ve got tickets. We all have tickets. We are 16 years old and juniors in high school. We are so excited. We can’t wait! There’s only one teensy glitch. When my friend Diane and I tell our folks we have tickets for a week from Friday, we are met with a unanimous, “Oh no, definitely not! That’s Good Friday. We don’t go to rock concerts on Good Friday. We go to church on Good Friday. It is a somber day, not a day for the blues!”
But Maawwmmmmm, we have tickets. We have to go!”
“Absolutly not! Out of the question! Not on Good Friday.”
“But Maawwmmmm! We bought the tickets already. We have plans. All our friends are going. We have to go!”
“I don’t think so, you can go another time.”
“But Maawwmmmm. There IS no other time. It’s ALVIN LEE! What can we do? How can we sway the court? We’ll do anything! We’ll go to church every day all through Holy Week if we can just please skip Good Friday. Please, please, please????
A long silence. Then, “Every day? You’ll go to church every day?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes!!! Every day!! We’ll do anything!!”
Negotiations complete. Compromise reached. Deal sealed. It was agreed Diane and I would go to mass every day during Holy Week. In return we gained permission to go see the most amazing, the one and only Alvin Lee & Ten Years After on Good Friday! We were psyched!!!
When Friday came we went to the concert and had a great time — didn’t we? Funny thing, I can’t remember many of the details. I do remember thinking it was sooo worth it just to be able to see the astonishing Alvin Lee in concert, but 40 years later I can’t recall the simplest details of the evening. I’m sure it was loud and adrenalin fueled and awesome, but I can’t really pull it into focus. I can’t picture who went with us – I know it was Diane and I, but beyond that I really can’t remember for sure. I can’t really be certain where the concert was – the St. Paul Civic Center or Minneapolis Auditorium (I am certain it wasn’t the Labor Temple like I found on the internet when trying to jog my memory through google research – btw, this started out to be a piece on how you can’t believe everything you read on the internet but that seemed a little too obvious). I can’t remember who drove or if we got home on time. I can’t remember if Ten Years After had a warm up band or if they were the warm up act for another band. I can’t remember if they played our favorites songs like Love Like a Man, Sweet Little Sixteen, Slow Blues in C, or I’m Going Home, featuring Alvin’s blisteringly searing lead licks like non other.
Now 40 years later, what I DO remember are the hoops Diane and I had to jump through for our moms to let us go to a rock concert on Good Friday; they sent a clear message what was to be important and lasting in life.
I remember carving out time every day that week to go to church with Diane; lesser obligations – like work and school – ended up on the back burner.
And I do remember walking the Stations of the Cross around the interior of the nearly century old St. Hubert’s Catholic Church.
I remember gazing upon the little relief wall sculptures with aqua blue backgrounds hanging high between stained glass windows depicting the events that crystallize the very essence of Good Friday.
I remember thinking this was a very new way for me to experience a very old story.
I remember feeling a still small stirring in my heart as I gazed upon those images day after day.
I remember realizing that the events of Good Friday must have been really important to have inspired millions of people throughout history to pour so much time, talent, and dedication into keeping that day in history fresh in minds of generations to follow.
It’s funny how God uses the most unlikely events to reach his children. I think sometimes church-raised kids end up a little “inoculated with the Gospel.” But that Holy Week I remember the story of Good Friday coming to life for me.
And for that, I have our amazing moms – Darlene and Elaine – and of course the legendary Alvin Lee and Ten Years After to thank from the bottom of my heart.
As I set foot off the plane, tears filled my eyes. I hadn’t expected this emotional rush simply landing at the airport. What was it? Jet lag? Fatigue? Finally arriving after months of planning? It may have been a touch of all these, but at that moment I sensed it went much deeper. Standing on the very edge of Norway, an overwhelming giddiness filled my throat.
The coming days would reveal source of these feelings as we roamed the majestic countryside. We celebrated “Syttende Mai” (the 17th of May) in Oslo and marveled at the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. We traveled the treacherous mountain roads to Stalheim, amazed at the site of farms perched on mountainsides – perhaps the sort of tiny farms our people had come from. We saw homes with sod roofs and couldn’t believe our eyes when we actually saw a goat grazing upon one! We sailed the crystal clear fjords and filled our lungs with the crisp arctic air. We strolled the colorful fish market and the narrow streets of Bergen and gazed upon the rainbow-painted houses standing watch along the “Gateway to the Fjords” (many of my mother’s people on the Leraas side came from the countryside near Bergen). We listened to the captivating music of Edvard Grieg as we stood inside his summerhouse where he composed his finest work. We toured the Vemork Heavy Water Plant where we learned of the heroics of anti-Nazi resistance fighters. We wondered at the 1,000-year-old stave churches — the oldest wooden structures on earth. We visited a real glacier, and stood atop the Olympic ski jump in Lillehammer. We snapped each other’s pictures in front of landmarks such as a restaurant called Huset Solveig, and a music store called Musikk Huset, translated literally ‘music house’. We saw actual Viking ships, the likes of which carried the first Norwegians to the New World some 500 years before Columbus.
That lump in my throat, I came to realize, came from a feeling of connection to a land and to a people I had never laid eyes on … sort of a genetic homecoming.
It was May 1996 and I had traveled to Norway with my parents, Don and Darlene (Christenson) Huseth, and my sister, Solveig. Our family is unusual – perhaps in many ways – but primarily in that we are 100% of Norwegian heritage. Quite unusual in America in 1999! So when the opportunity arose to visit “the home-country” with my parents, it was a dream come true.
As breathtaking as the sites and wonders were however, the thing that stands out in my memory is the time we spent with family … with distant relatives we had never met, who took precious time from their busy schedules to come share of themselves with their American shirt-tail cousins.
Kjetil and JoAnne Nerland were the first to greet us at our Oslo hotel. They were a young couple perhaps in their thirties (who incidentally, later had a baby and named her Mia). We chatted for some time until Kjetil’s father, Harold Nerland, arrived and invited us back to their home for dinner. His wife prepared a delicious Norwegian meal for us and we visited the evening away. We talked about the relationship of their ancestors to ours who left Norway to come eventually to Minnesota: Dora Huseth’s mother, Grandma Marit Jensted was from the Furu family, cousins to the Nerlands. We talked about the ones that went to America but returned to Norway. We played with their grandchildren and talked about how hard it is to get little ones to go to bed when it remains light until 11:00 PM. We admired their multiple sets of encyclopedias and the ingenious height of their coffee table. We talked about Norwegian government and how it differs from American government, about taxes and benefits, and the price of gasoline. We learned that even though many things are paid for by the Norwegian government — things like medical care, college tuition, and a one-year paid family leave for both mother and father after the birth of a baby — the down side is that taxes are very high as is government involvement in everyday life. For instance, when naming your baby, you must get government approval for any non-Norwegian name. The evening was gone before we knew it – one of the most precious memories of the trip.
The next day we traveled to Lillehammer where we again were greeted by more relatives, a cousin to Harold Nerland named Ivar Furu and his wife Magnhild, and another cousin named Britt. They had traveled nearly 4 hours from Furugrenda to have dinner with us at our hotel. Again we visited the evening away. We talked about American and Russian politics. We talked about the upcoming presidential election and the pros and cons of a second term for Bill Clinton. We talked about the volatility of Russian politics and what a real threat instability in Russia presents to Norway, being so very close geographically. We heard about their interesting careers in the Norwegian parliament. We discussed farming in Norway vs. in America. We talked about aviation and teaching, about children and grandchildren, about current events at home and abroad. The next morning they joined us for breakfast and then followed our tour bus for the morning coffee stop, as they made their way back home. They had taken two days out of their schedules to come visit with us – what a gift! Dad stayed on in Norway for a week after the tour ended, lodging at the home of Ivar and Magnhild where he got to know the rest of their delightful family. He also spent some time with a pilot friend in Bergen named Knute Helbekkmo, to whom he had given a multi-instrument rating (Donald was a flight instructor) in Minnesota some years before. We all wished we had been able to stay on as well, when Dad got home and began to describe how he really got to experience the people of Norway and their way of life, along with seeing the sights. What a treasure for him!
I tell you all this to say that the power of family is a strong bond … stronger than I had acknowledged before my trip to Norway. It is a bond … a connection that transcends oceans, cultures, generations, and yes … even blood. It is a bond that says, “I’ll walk along side you in good times and bad. We are the village it takes.” It is a connection that says, “I share a history with you. I have some of the same memories as you do. It is our shared knowledge … our shared memory that becomes a cultural force. We do not stand alone.”
So as I stood in the Oslo airport, what was this lump in my throat and the tear in my eye? Was it God preparing my heart to show me just a glimpse of the roots that support and nurture my branches? We probably all agree that our past shapes us and gives us identity, but what I learned in 1996, is that our past goes back beyond our own personal memories. I am who I am, due to the forces at work generations before I came along. Those strong and innovative families who eked out a living perched on the side of a mountain. Those adventurous – or perhaps desperate – men and women who left the only home they had ever known for a place that promised something more for their children. Those courageous pioneers who traveled by ship through Newfoundland, by train through Chicago, and by covered wagon to settle in Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington State and many points in between. Those industrious folks who carved out a new life in a new land rooted in hard work and community, education, beauty, and God. Those fun-loving families, who knew the value of making their own fun in a sometimes cold and dark world. These are the ones who set the stage for me and for my children. These are the roots that give life to my branches.
Now standing on the edge of a new century, I again feel that overwhelming giddiness – an excitement for my future and a gratitude for my past.
If you are young, begin now to ask questions about your roots. Begin today by listening with a new ear to the memories that shape you. Make a plan to go to the places that cradled your forefathers.
If you are old, keep telling your stories … keep imparting your values … keep sharing the histories that only you know. Write them down or record them on tape, for these are the bricks and mortar that form us here today and the Huseths and the Christensons and the Leraas’ of the new millennium.