On her 21st birthday (in which I tell you about Alisa Ruth)

January 17, 2015

Exactly 21 years ago today, at 12:34 in the afternoon, Alisa Ruth arrived on the scene two weeks before anyone expected her, the first-born child of my sister and her husband. With her first breath, she officially gave me the title of aunt, which is a wondrous title indeed.

From 600 miles away, I got the joyful phone call from my brother-in-law. “She’s here! She’s lovely! She’s wondrous! She’s a miracle!” I talked to my sister for just a few minutes. Already she was in the rocking chair, nursing her firstborn.

600 miles feels like from here to the moon when it separates you from your sister and your newly arrived niece. I wrote in my journal:

My sister is a mother. Her husband is a father. I am an aunt. A new baby IS! We celebrate!

What is it about new life that is so entirely overwhelming? So utterly breathtaking? So infinitely miraculous? Technically, it’s just another person, on a smaller and less-advanced scale, that for at least a few moments is quite wrinkled, crinkled, slimy, mewling, and flailingly awkward. Anyone who has either given birth or been present at a birth knows this to be true; true but of no consequence because a child livesbreathesis.

Newborns are my spiritual grounding point. If ever there are doubts about God’s existence or questions about God’s presence or confusion about God’s power or worries about God’s providence, there is this to fall back on: new lifebabesthe first breath of being.

For all of our human progress and advancement and development, we cannot create new life; we cannot knit together a new soul; we cannot bestow the breath of being. Ever. This is definitely not of our own making. This is certainly not of nothing’s making. This is of God’s making.

And so in my family that day, there was joy. Rivers and oceans of joy. Mountains and moonscapes of joy. Joy overflowing the dancing shores of our collective selves.

But less than two hours after her first breath, I answered the phone again, and this time instead of uncontained joy, I heard inconsolable grief – sobbing, speechless, overwhelming grief.

Trisomy 21Down’s SyndromeHeart condition. These words, and others I don’t remember, spilled out from rivers and oceans of grief, mountains and moonscapes of fear, despair overwhelming the battered shores of first-time parents. Already, nurses were gently lifting Alisa Ruth out from her mother’s arms, towards a NICU that would be her home for the next several weeks.

600 miles feels like from here to eternity when it separates you from your sister and your newly arrived niece who is unexpectedly more beloved and precious than she was just moments ago.

They told me that my sister sobbed; that my brother-in-law went blank. I know that the tears and the emptiness, at their very core, were not primarily about Trisomy 21 and Down’s Syndrome as much as they were about having held and adored their daughter for what must have seemed like mere seconds before she was whisked away, out the room, down a hall, into a Unit.

From 600 miles away, I wrote in my journal:

In a split second, all has changed. Alisa Ruth of K-12, senior prom, marriage, motherhood is gone. But Alisa Ruth herself is still here – a miracle indeed.

Those first few days were a painful muddle for me – the aunt, 600 miles away. For my sister and her husband…I cannot imagine. So many painful questions. So many difficult decisions. So many things to learn. So much responsibility to shoulder.

Alisa’s heart – the physical one – was not healthy. She needed surgery soon, and would need more as she grew. But other than that, she was a wonder. In a NICU filled with dangerously premature underdeveloped children, she looked misplaced, so big and strong was she. When I held her in my arms the first time – 600 miles are but a small skip when a niece awaits – she took my breath away. Fearfully and wonderfully made she absolutely was.

As so often happens when difficulty explodes into the very center of life, neighbors brought food. Friends ran errands. Relatives wrapped strength and hope and joy around the family-now-of-three. Hope settled over the land of home-and-work-and-hospital, hope that spilled directly from the fount of Christ’s love.

At one week old, Alisa had heart surgery that went very well. The doctor was confident and reassuring.

At two weeks old, she was recovering and gaining strength.

At three weeks old, things took a sharp turn.

At three-and-a-half weeks old, I wrote:

Things are critical. Meningitis. Pneumonia. Collapsed lung. Heart recovery. More. Very little is going right in her body. My sister – whose perspective is shockingly clear – said, “I can handle the Down Syndrome and the heart problems. That’s how she came to us. It’s all this other stuff I can’t handle.”

 “That’s how she came to us.” Meaning, “That is my child. That is my flesh. That is my love. That is my Alisa – just as she is.

Sometime during those very difficult days, someone said to my brother-in-law: “But didn’t you know she had Down Syndrome beforehand?” implying (even just writing these words makes my soul rage) that if they’d known beforehand they could have done something about it beforehand and avoided all this pain and heartache.

Silence, you! Do. Not. Speak. Be silent! BE SILENT! You speak the words of a fool! 

Avoiding pain and heartache is not the point. Avoiding pain and heartache is less than living. Avoiding pain and heartache is for people who run from all that matters. Life is pain and heartache. Love is pain and heartache. Joy is pain and heartache. The cross is pain and heartache. How dare anyone suggest that avoiding pain and heartache is worth the price of a life.

Did God plan this? Allow this? Will this? I do not know. Is He here? Watching? Caring? Holding tightly? I do know – yes. Always yes.

At four weeks old, Alisa was still fighting with all the strength and courage she had. Valiantly. Bravely. The nurses said so. My sister told me so. I know it is so. I do not doubt that in every breath she took, the Spirit’s strength poured through her soul.

At four weeks old and a day, after fighting as hard as she could, Alisa’s strength was gone. She breathed her last breath in her parents’ arms, right where she belonged.

I was not there, but I have watched that moment many times over in my mind. I see my sister and her husband more broken than I can imagine, but also more firmly held in the arms of God than I can comprehend.

Just a few years ago, my sister said to me, “Yesterday was the first time I didn’t think about her at least once.” I was stunned. How could I not have known that even after 10, 12, 15, 17 years, her first child still fills her heart?

Just last year, my brother-in-law said, “After 20 years, it still hurts, but it stings less.” I was silenced. How could I not have known that even after 10, 12, 15, 17, 20 years, his first child’s short life was still very real?

Just as importantly, he also said this:

God is good.
A mother’s love is extraordinary.
“No” is an answer.
It’s okay to scream at God. He can take it.
Tell your children “I love you” every chance you get, even if you aren’t feeling it.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be very cruel holidays.
To some people, a crying baby on a plane or in a restaurant can sound like a symphony instead of an annoyance
If a friend is going through something tough, don’t ask what you can do. Just pick something and do it.
Family and friends are important. They’ll be there when you need them. Keep those relationships healthy.
Dwell on the positive. Dwelling on the negative just sets you up for more negative.
I wholeheartedly agree with what Asaph said in Psalm 73:28.*
I can’t choose what circumstances come along in life, but I can choose how I will respond to them.
God is good.

Today is Alisa Ruth’s birthday. She would have been 21. She would have been a wonder. She was a wonder. By God’s infinite love and grace, she is a wonder. I celebrate you, sweet niece, over and over and over again.

Alisa Ruth.
Alisa Ruth.

*But as for me, how good it is to be near God!
I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter,
and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The amazingness known as Young Lives (in which I consider why we are all a-flutter on Day 0)

Tomorrow, 100+ teen moms and their collective 100+ babes, plus 70 or so mentors, will descend on a place in northern Michigan that really doesn’t matter much (there are, after all, lots of beautiful places in the world) except for the fact that it has been consecrated for the Lord’s work. And His work this week is to really truly fully love a population that doesn’t always get loved that way.

Tomorrow is known as Day 1 in camp speak. Which makes today Day 0. Which means today, 84 childcare workers arrive – people aged 16 to 70-something, who pay for a full week of camp in order to love and care for a young mama’s baby for 6 days so the mama herself can be a teenager.

It blows me away every single time I see it happen because, well, 100+ babies and teen moms.

In 24 hours, a thousand things need to get done. Strollers to be lined up. Highchairs to be hosed down. Toys to be sterilized. Nurseries to be organized, stocked, and set up. Carpets to be cleaned. Supplies and clothing and more supplies and clothing to be sorted. Prayer spaces to be created. And that doesn’t include all the other things that need to happen for any other week of camp – cleaning, mowing, prepping, straightening, beautifying, and also maybe a bit of resting.

Today all of this happened (plus so much more):

Work crew delivering strollers (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work crew delivering strollers (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Crew cleaning high chairs (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Crew cleaning high chairs (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Staff delivering supplies (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Staff delivering equipment (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Staff sorting equipment (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Staff sorting equipment (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Crew clearing prayer space (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Crew clearing prayer space (Photo: CKirgiss)

…so that this could exist (and so much more):

Strollers ready for riders (Photo: CKirgiss)
Strollers ready for riders (Photo: CKirgiss)
Young Lives Prayer Tent (near frisbee golf hole #6) (Photo: CKirgiss)
Young Lives Prayer Tent (near frisbee golf hole #6) (Photo: CKirgiss)

And with only 30 minutes until childcare workers arrived, this was happening:

Property and Work Staff prepping sod (Photo: CKirgiss)
Property and Work Staff prepping sod (Photo: CKirgiss)

…because every minute is useful when you are prepping for tomorrow’s arrival of mamas and babies and today’s arrival of childcare workers, who were greeted just as if they were a busload of teenage campers (though they were maybe only 1 or 2 cars of 2 of 4 people)…

A warm Young Life welcome (Photo: CKirgiss)
A warm Young Life welcome (Photo: CKirgiss)

…and whose suitcases were carried, even if they were just one person rather than a full cabin of campers:

Work Crew helping with luggage (Photo: CKirgiss)
Work Crew helping with luggage (Photo: CKirgiss)

Humility is a strange thing. It is active. It is visible. It is real. It is earth-shattering.

But mostly, it is obedient – obedient to a Father who loves us so deeply that the only possible response is to love and obey in return. We so often do these two things, loving and obeying, poorly. I pray that this week, we do them well. Not because we are awesome (oh gracious, we are not); not because we want to be noticed (please Lord, protect our hearts against such desires); not because they are the magic cures to a life of difficult trials and problems (love and obedience just as often invite their own trials and problem).

I pray that this week we do them (loving and obeying well) just because we should. Just because God told us to. Just because that is what we are commanded to do. That is reason enough. More than enough. No matter what the situation. But especially when 100+ teen moms and their babies are going to be arriving soon. Oh yes – especially then.

Purdue, Day Three: the hard realities of death and life

Purdue Memorial Mall, Day Three (Photo: CKirgiss)
Purdue Memorial Mall, Day Three 1-23-2014 (Photo: CKirgiss)

It was sunny today at Purdue. Sunny and snowy. Sunny and snowy and freezing. Sunny and snowy and freezing and beautiful. Which is to say, it was a day pretty much like every other wintry day on campus the past two weeks.

Except that it wasn’t,

because two days ago, Tuesday, January 21, 2014, someone was killed here. Most people know this already. The world is like that these days – something happens one minute and the world knows the next. And the world graciously and kindly and sincerely mourns and aches and supports from both near and far, until another tragedy strikes, which it will, because that is the kind of world we live in.

Things are quite back to normal here today for many people. On the surface, at least. It’s not always easy to know what’s going on underneath the surface, in the private corners of peoples’ minds, in the silent spaces of peoples’ souls. Sometimes we are not aware of those things even in our own selves because those private corners and silent spaces can be daunting, overwhelming, and (we might think) better left alone. Who has time to ask those questions? To face those fears? To navigate those emotions? Worse yet, what if there are no questions to ask, no fears to face, and no emotions to navigate?

I fear that on this Day Three of what has been called The Purdue University Shooting Tragedy – because we must have a way to refer to it – too many private corners of peoples’ minds and silent spaces of peoples’ souls will be left undisturbed, pushed aside because of busyness, or fear, or nonchalance, or something else entirely.

And that would make what happened just two short days ago doubly tragic.

It would surely be a mistake to contrive meaningless questions, conjure false fears, and navigate non-existent emotions just for the sake of being able to discuss one’s “personal grief process” or one’s “difficult emotional journey.” After all, not everyone has questions or fears or tangled emotions surrounding what happened here two days ago.

And that is absolutely fine. It really is. It is not a direct measure of one’s compassion or empathy or humanity.

But everyone, absolutely everyone, should know without a shadow of a doubt that what happened here on Tuesday was indeed a tragedy. Not because it happened at Purdue. Not because some of us were in the vicinity. Not because some of us were directly affected. Not even because some of us knew the people involved.

What happened here on Tuesday was a tragedy simply because it happened at all. Every single time a life is taken, regardless or where or when or why, it is a tragedy of unspeakable magnitude.

Every single time –

because life is inherently miraculous. Mysterious. Amazing. Wondrous. Breathtaking. Sacred.

If it were not, there would be no reason to mourn what happened here just two days ago.

If life matters, then certainly we must mourn its loss. (And oh my gracious, I cannot begin to imagine what that mourning and loss looks like for families, those who love longest and deepest.)

But more importantly:

If life matters, we must live out that reality each and every moment of each and every day with each and every person. Period.

If we do not, then how dare we presume to mourn a lost life? How dare we presume to struggle with death’s sorrow? How dare we band together in a show of support and solidarity for a life cut short?

Someone I greatly admire said today, through heartbreakingly wrenching tears, “I feel as though I have lost a child.” We should all feel that way — not because this is about us or how we feel, not because our sadness is what really matters, and certainly not because we are in a position to understand the pain of those who in reality did lose a child — but rather because a life was taken. And when a life is taken, we all lose something.

Please: in the normalcy that defines so many Third Days such as these, do not fail to stop, to think, to contemplate, to listen, to reflect, to consider the reality of what has happened. Do not make this tragedy worse than it already is by missing the indescribable magnitude and significance of a single lost life. And do not make this tragedy worse than it already is by failing to pay close attention and learning something.

For we all have much to learn. Not just about death, but also about life.

birth and war – a day to remember

(I posted this last year. It’s still true.)

It would have been his birthday today, my grandfather. For three years, I lived just one small town away, and I suspect – based on all I know of him – that for those three years, I spent much of my life draped comfortably over his arm (where babies were most content), held gently on his lap (where toddlers were most relaxed), or settled happily alongside him at ‘work’ (where children were most eager to be).

When my family plucked itself up from the Nebraska soil and migrated east to the suburban cement, the distance between me and my grandfather might as well have been from here to the moon. Holiday and summer visits, whether 10 hours in a stuffy car or 14 hours on the click-clacking Zephyr, were much too far apart. A child can’t possibly wait a whole year to see again that tall figure, measured gait, broad grin, and leathery hands, all carefully sheltered from the glaring sun by a hat that set my grandfather apart from all other grandfathers in my suburban desert. Cowboy. Farmer. Man of the land. That he was. I was proud he was mine.

Photo: CKIrgiss – ‘Working’ with Grandpa

In the 1940s, while my grandfather was working the land (to feed the people), his brother – a United States Lieutenant Colonel – was stationed in Europe (to free the people). I knew this brother, my great-uncle, but not well. He looked like my grandfather. Smiled like him. Spoke like him. Strangers could have pegged them for brothers with nothing more than a passing glance.

A long while ago, I was back at the farm for my grandfather’s funeral … the man I’d always lived too far away from and missed too much. In search of a quiet, alone, crying place, I climbed the creaking stairs of a battered shed into the upper storage rafters that were empty but for some stacks of crumbling newspapers, piles of rotting rags, and a neatly bundled, carefully saved packet of handwritten letters. Real letters. From my great-uncle to his parents during World War II … people he was too far away from and missed too much.

For the next two hours, while I cried for the grandfather I’d lost, I read those letters. All of them. Every word. And then I cried for this other man, who I’d never known well enough, who’d lived through hell on earth, and who’d been much too far away from the place he loved and the people he adored. I was sad for all he’d lost, all he’d seen, all he’d experienced, all he’d known. Sad that I’d never thought to thank him for what he’d done. Sad that I’d never realized my great-uncle was set apart from so many other great-uncles across the land. Soldier. Veteran. Defender of freedom. That he was. I am proud he was mine.

Photo: CKirgiss

Groundhog Sonnet

Photo: CKirgiss
Photo: CKirgiss

Groundhog Day 2013 is fairly mild in the heartland. The snow is dusted sugar. The air is misted grey. A person can breathe without shellacking her nasal passages into a frozen wasteland.

But in northern Minnesota, Groundhog Day is never mild. Never sugared. Never shadowed.

It matters naught what Punxsutawney Phil does or does not see in faraway Pennsylvania. If he were brave enough to live in the northern tundra, he would always be quite shadow-free on February 2.

Truth be told, most northern tundranites like it that way. Cold and snowy, that is. Cold and snowy and beautiful. Cold and snowy and beautiful and substantial. Cold and snowy and beautiful and substantial and magical. Cold and snowy and beautiful and substantial and magical and real.

Still – every now and then, sunbeamed shadows on February 2 in the northern tundra would probably be most welcome.

Like when there’s been snow on the ground since Halloween. Like when the collective preschool population is riotously climbing the city walls. Like when the ice-fishing villages have become so established that it’s hard to distinguish whether their sprawl is seasonal or permanent – or whether they will ever yield up their devoted inhabitants (who hopefully still have jobs and families somewhere on the mainland).

I’m long gone from the northern tundra and suspect I would not survive another of her winters. But at one time, her frigid air was shellackingly familiar. Sonneteering was one of several (quirky) strategies to survive the season. And so this, from 1999:

SPRING? ME THINKS NOT

Hark! What sound doth I hear out my frozen
Window payne on this early and frigid dawn?
A scraping, snuffling, earthy noyse; chosen
Claws and whyskers scratching the earth upon.
Ah! thinks I, ’tis the February’s moon
Day two – Candlemas, Purification –
A day whereupon northerners cry, “Soon,
Oh dear God we beggeth a vacation.”
But the scraping, snuffling, earthy thyng laughs
Softly in its fur, yawning at the syght
Of a dark and shadowless land what hath
No shine, no thaw, nor any ‘morrow’s light.
Up here are froze our fannies and our cars.
But in their sacred course, we’ve still the stars.

Wishing you and yours a Blessed Groundhog Day. Go ahead. Have a party.

Treasure Island

I grew up in a typical ’50s ranch. 3 (tiny) bedrooms. 1 (tiny) bathroom. 1 (tiny) dining room. 1 (tiny-to-average) living room. And 1 (tiny) galley kitchen. You know. The kind of kitchen that doubles as a hallway. So that a person must walk through it in one direction, then turn left to access the dining room. Or walk through it in the other direction, then turn right-ish to access the living room.

At least it was a through-street galley kitchen. It may have been squished for cooking but it was ideal for running circles around the inner core of the house. In pairs. Going opposite directions.

My first adult-apartment-galley kitchen, not so much. It was one of those architectural wonders tucked into a back corner of nothing. You know. The kind of kitchen that doubles as a hallway. To nowhere.

I’m all grown up now and I have a kitchen that still serves as a hallway in some respects. But that doesn’t matter because now I have an island.

That place around which crowds gather.

For a long time.

To talk. And feast. And talk some more.

It is quite possibly the 8th wonder of the modern world.

Late on Wednesday nights, after a crowd of college women depart my house (where they have consumed several loaves of banana bread, many tall glasses of milk, some mugs of coffee, a few cups of tea, and a portion of Scripture) my island is tangly. Busy. Scattered.

Lovely.

Wednesday's treasure island
Wednesday’s treasure island

It’s my favorite night of the week. It’s my favorite view of the island.

Except for those very rare occasions when the power goes out just before dinner on another night. And the only way to eat the 9×13 pan of goulash is by candlelight. Candlelight that evokes Advent. (Or maybe radioactive elbow macaroni.)

Thursday's treasure island
Thursday’s treasure island

What’s more lovely than enjoying a candlelight family dinner around the kitchen island? The glow is joyful. The ambiance is restful. The quiet is soothing. And the goulash is especially splendid.

Of course, the looming question soon becomes this: what, exactly, happens next? After we take our last bite? After this unexpected sweet dinner vigil is over?

Because, well, you know, there’s no power. There’s no way to use anything requiring electrical juice or internet bandwidth.

Panic. (I can’t live without modern conveniences which makes me an immigrant-descendant super-failure.)

Stress. (So are we supposed to just talk all night?)

Sadness. (We used to know how to play board games.)

And then sweet relief. (Oh look – the power’s on. We are saved from our pathetic selves.)

…and then…

Sadness. (It was prettier by candlelight.)

Stress. (We’ve become those people – the ones who are defined by their power adapters.)

Panic. (How can I recover just a tiny little sliver of that peaceful beauty, proving I’m not one of those people?)

With a flip of the power-company master-switch (and the hard work of many devoted employees), my kitchen island went from being an oasis in the dark to being a harsh glare of manufactured light. Which changed everything about the room. And the meal. And us.

Sure, we could see better.

But it wasn’t as sweet. Or as peaceful. Or as (dare I say it) holy.

So I acted. With a flip of the electric-customer kitchen-switch (and a few puffs of breath to soften the candlelight even more), my kitchen island went from being drenched in glaring rays to being cloaked in whispered light. And it changed everything about the room. And the meal. And us.

Thursday's recovered treasure
Thursday’s recovered treasure

For about 5 minutes. Because powered habits are really hard to break. So the electronics are running full force. Like usual.

I find that sad.

Even so, my kitchen island – whether lit by a satin-nickle triple-globed ceiling fixture, 10 candles, or just 1 – is a treasure, more than adequate for hosting a feast, surviving the darkness, or welcoming the occasional castaway. Or all three.

I think Robert Louis would approve.

Knowing and Known

Photo: CKirgiss (Otto and Alice Jacobsen)

Eighty years ago yesterday, my Norwegian immigrant grandparents were wed in Orange, New Jersey – separated from their parents by both an ocean’s roaring expanse and a generation’s widening gap.

My bestefar died when I was only seven, my bestemor when I was eight. That was a long time ago. So long that I don’t remember much about them. Hardly anything at all, in fact. What I do remember certainly doesn’t look anything like the picture above.

Grandparents have a certain something that identifies them from a distance. A look. A gait. A tip of the head. A style. An air. It has little to do with age in some cases, and much to do with wisdom in most cases.

The people in this picture are not my grandparents. They are strangers to me. I don’t recognize their youth. Their style. Their poise. Their intimacy that is so mysteriously visible it makes my heart ache. With joy. With sadness.

Who are these people?

I want to meet them. To hear their story. To ask them questions. To know who they were before they became my grandparents, before they were the quiet man who carefully peeled his boiled potatoes and the kindly woman who gently cared for the quiet man.

The years make little sense. Youth. Age. Past. Future. Then. Now. Was. Is. Here. Gone.

It all starts to jumble together after awhile. We wake up one day and realize that we are no longer grandchildren (but will always feel like we are), that our own children have grown (how did this happen?), and that with each breath, we move ever-so-slightly closer to becoming someone’s memory, whether in fact or photograph. (Yes – the seasons of the year often mirror the seasons of my soul.)

This would all be desperately heartbreaking if not for the promise of new life and new breath that waits for us not just on the other side of this world but in the here-and-now. The sadness of my grandparents’ deaths does not define my soul. The weight of my own mortality does not measure my existence. The reality of all life’s fragility does not color my faith.

Rather, it fills me with wonder. With awe. With expectant pause. Because though I will never really know the people in this picture (and oh, I would so very much like to know them), the Almighty Creator knows me.

I. Am. Known.

And that is enough.

Dry cereal delight

Fact: sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than dry cereal. The snacky kind. Not the breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal-of-the-day kind (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t really even exist since there’s nothing remotely healthy about processed, packaged, preserved ready-to-eat-grain-in-a-box, regardless of how many vitamins are pumped into it. Ninety percent of them are nothing more than candy / caramel corn / cookies dressed up as Real Breakfast Food (in other words, delicious). The other ten percent are nothing more than crackerish / popcornish / brannish chunks (in other words, blecch) requiring so much sugar to be edible that in the end they’re no healthier than the pastel-colored-candy-called-cereal and are a lot less appealing to the eye, sort of like moistened dog food suspended in a milky sop.)

Because I descend from immigrant farming stock, I grew up eating oatmeal (read: lumpy mush), Cream of Wheat (read: grainy mush), and Cheerios (read: stinky mush). Because at least one of my immigrant farming ancestors had a sweet tooth (sprinkled sugar on his lettuce and tomatoes, my grandfather did), to each of those various mush varieties I added a hefty serving of sugar – brown for hot, white for cold – so that the oatmeal and Cream of Wheat looked like tanning-bed regulars, and so that when the Cheerios were gone, there remained a layer of gritty silt settled in the milky dregs, thick enough to trench with my spoon. As an adult, this sounds pathetic. And dentally irresponsible. But as a kid, it only made sense.

On very rare occasions, my mother was gripped with indulgent impulses. The result? Lucky Charms, that duplicitous candy-plus-grain concoction that besnookers all attempts at simplistic categories, the only cereal that doesn’t lie about its candy contents (“Featuring Brilliantly Dyed Stale Marshmallow Bits!”) but instead increases their celebrity status by hiding them among a crowd of pale and shapeless oat commoners. Marketing brilliance.

Lucky Charms provided my training ground for dry cereal snacking. One hour of after-school TV, a big bowl of dry Lucky Charms, and immigrant farming stock genes taught me this: plow through the pale and shapeless oat commoners first, then savor the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits en masse. Delay gratification. Save the best for last. That kind of thing.

I’m older now. And immeasurably wiser. I know that cold cereal is one of the biggest scams of the grocery world, that the prescribed serving sizes wouldn’t satisfy an ant, that the added nutrients are essentially worthless, that the marketers have shamelessly targeted young children, and that I would be better off eating two eggs and 4 strips of bacon (or a donut).

In spite of all that, every now and then dry Lucky Charms is what I crave. Because I’m older and wiser, though, I no longer eat the duplicitous concoction in two phases. I have neither the time nor patience for that kind of neurotic precision. Which is to say, I have neither the time nor patience to waste my snacking energies on pale and shapeless oat bits, but I have all the time in the world to pluck out the brilliantly dyed stale marshmallow bits.

All of them.

As an adult, it only makes sense.

Of muddy boots, cricket calls, and grandma’s love

In case you haven’t heard, it’s too hot to breathe across much of the US. That, plus the fact that my grocery store is no longer stocking one of my favorite snack foods, has pretty much killed today for me.

Except for this: the heavy heat, plus the sound of evening crickets, plus the faintly pinkish tinge of the sunset, plus the dried mud that I had to dig/smack out of my work-boot soles (it’s been there since May so was especially stubborn, with all of its stray grass clippings impishly poking out from the edges as though daring me to try and remove them), plus the smell of an old book I recently picked up at a junk shop, plus the smell of outside (cut grass and dryness and weeds and the field across the way), plus post-travel refrigerator reality (a lot of stuff but nothing to eat) all converged – collided, really – into a tangled mass of stuff that reminded me of my grandmother, which has pretty much resurrected today for me.

Technically, I’m old enough to be a grandmother myself (which is too weird to even contemplate). Certainly, I’m old enough to be past the granddaughter season of life.

But the fact remains that I will always be Viola’s granddaughter, and certain things will always remind me of her. Certain smells. Certain sounds. Certain words. Certain people.

Except for the first three years of my life, I lived several states away from her and saw her only several times a year. Still, she taught me lots of things, like how to braid, how to knit, how to manually beat egg whites into frenzied peaks, how to polish Grandpa’s Sunday boots, how to wash and dry dishes by hand, how to sift flour, how to skim fat off the milk, how to hang clothes to dry, how to save things (ALL things), and how to use an embroidery hoop.

I rarely utilize any of these skills in my daily life.

She also taught me how to pry dry mud out of boot soles using a combination of hard smacks on the cement and the rigid, rounded tip of a dinner knife. This is a useful skill indeed.

So tonight, when I headed outside with my month’s-old muddy-soled boots (and a dinner knife), I thought of her. And when I breathed in the hot, grassy, dusky, pinkish, crickety air – air that smells and sounds and feels almost Nebraskan – I could almost hear her voice and her laugh though they’ve been silent for many years now. What an unexpected, surprising, and sweet gift.

And I caught my breath with both sadness and joy, for I miss her dearly because I loved her much.

Such is the mystery of memory. Such is the power of a grandmother. Such is the grace of God.

Grandma love