When I look at this darling picture from 1974 or 1975, I am reminded that I come from The Sisterhood of Quietly Strong Women.
My mom, Joann, is the cutie on the left who splendidly put together a brown and white paisley shirt with a blue skirt. She was much too humble and focused on being our hardworking mama to know she was a trendsetter, but look at her. She’s adorable.
In the middle is my Aunt Ruth in pink, the consummate dairy farmer’s wife. She made the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had in my life and always seemed to have a plate full of it handy whenever we came to visit on Sunday afternoons. She always made time for conversation with Little Me, too, and she had a sweet impishness in her smile.
On the right is my Aunt Carolyn, the fancy sister who moved to exotic San Diego with her husband and three kids at a time when the norm was to stay close home. I seriously thought she was made of glitter by the way she sparkled everywhere she went. Even her voice was glamorous.
All three are little ladies, sitting together on that beige couch. They have similar hair, similar glasses, similar knees, and similarly clasped hands. You can tell they’re sisters, but you can also see their distinctiveness.
I am especially drawn to my mother and the joy that is radiating off her face. You can tell that she feels anchored—gloriously tethered to the women who nurtured, loved, and accepted her from the very beginning of her life. She is the Little Sister, just like me. She loves her Big Sisters, just like I love mine. She comes alive around them in a way she doesn’t otherwise, just like I do.
Her spirit has just taken a deep breath in the company of her sisters—I can feel it. Four kids, limited income, a stormy marriage, an avalanche of chores, isolated living out in the country, hearing loss—all of these things that I know weighed heavily on her in life are not present in this picture.
Instead—I see strength, togetherness, optimism, resilience, and faith in a power greater than everything else—a power that makes the flowers grow and the sun come up again, even after the darkest of nights.
My mom and her sisters were not in-your-face strong women. They were much too Finnish for that. Their strength came from knowing that unconditional love was the glue that held absolutely everything and everyone together. Even if they disagreed. Even if someone was imperfect. Even if life got in the way. Even if there were storms.
They loved one another fiercely and cared for one another always—especially as various forms of dementia claimed each of their lives, just as it had taken their mother’s life decades before.
My mom was the last Waltanen sister to make her way back home after 85 years of learning and loving. I like to think of them together now looking something like this—basking in the Light of Love and watching over the rest of us who are still doing our thing on this side of The Veil. If I listen carefully, I can hear their whispers of guidance and cheers of support. I can especially hear my mother.
“Put a smile on your face, Carleen. Everything will be better tomorrow.”
I come from The Sisterhood of Quietly Strong Women. Even though I was not fully aware of it at the age of three or four when this picture was taken, I feel it now. And I am forever grateful.
The glorious sun and the open road beckoned me with their siren song that fateful April Sunday afternoon. Just hours before, I had stood before the congregation of my little country church and professed my faith in all things Lutheran, thereby proving to the world that I was an adult and ready to take on great responsibilities.
The previous three months had been considerably less glorious. My older brother, Cedric, had quietly slipped away from us, disappearing into the frigid loneliness of January and emerging from the waters of the Mississippi River in late March, having given up on the exhausting journey that was his life. Cedric was my hero, my muse, my companion, and my substitute father, so losing him crushed all but random pieces of me. As we went through the motions of planning his funeral and slogged our way through the initial stages of the grieving process, I gathered those remaining wisps of myself together and made a bold declaration to my friends: they were forbidden to wear black to Cedric’s funeral. I desperately needed their laughter and their color as a lifeline to what remained of my carefree teenage identity, and because they had no idea what else to do or say, they all showed up to the Range Funeral Home looking like the wildly colorful eighties teens they were.
I, myself, had just purchased my Confirmation dress, a turquoise, ruffled extravaganza complete with a bow around my waist. I remember slipping it over my head the morning of his funeral, not knowing how I was ever going to survive burying my brother. Ions later—a few days, in all reality, I slipped it over my head again—this time for the occasion for which it was originally intended.
Several hours and a belly full of lunch and bakery cake into the afternoon, the ruffles lay in a heap on my floor, and I had a mission in mind for my best friend, Kerri, the family Ford LTD, and me that involved a short burst of fun and a cloud of dust.
“Dad, can Kerri and I practice driving?”
The driver’s license: the Holy Grail of every American child between the ages of nine and fifteen. More than just a piece of plastic adorned with an unfortunate picture and imprinted with our dream weight, that 2.5” X 3.5” card was the key to teenaged life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I wanted it more than curly hair and a date with Patrick Swayze. To get it, I had to practice, and to practice, I had to get the keys from my dad, the King and Protector of Matts Family Vehicles.
He set down his coffee mug of ice cream, reached into his jeans pocket, and pulled out his key ring, the leather of which was worn and blackened from taconite dust and motor oil. As he slid my freedom across the table, he looked at me over the top of his square, metal-framed, old-man bifocals and said, “Don’t go past Reino’s driveway.”
Reino was the Finnish bachelor who lived in a wooden shack of a house near the end of our country road. My direct interactions with him had been limited to friendly waves as he flew by in his brown Ford Bronco, but my dad took great pleasure in teasing us girls that he would be the perfect boyfriend.
“No problem! See you later!” Kerri and I called out as we grabbed our Diet Cokes and raced down the steps, three at a time.
Shut the door. Put on the seatbelt. Insert key. Turn key. Release. Open windows. Depress brake. Shift into drive. Ease up on brake. Depress gas pedal ever so slightly. Roll to the end of the driveway. Depress brake. Put on right blinker. Look left, right, and left again. Ease up on brake. Depress gas a little more this time but not so much as to kick up gravel. Crank the radio.
Is there anything more satisfying than cruising down the road with your best friend, giggling about cute boys and singing along with the radio while your permed mall bangs dance in the rush of the spring wind? Is there anything more beautiful than the green of the leaves emerging after months of breath-snatching cold? Is there anything more empowering than a steering wheel in your hands and a gas pedal underneath your flip-flopped foot? Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl chronically obsessed by the number on the scale and worried about whether you look cute enough to attract the attention of the senior you’re too paralyzed to talk to. Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old girl sick to death of sitting in a desk in a stuffy classroom, listening to her math teacher drone on incessantly about quadratic equations. Not when you’re a fifteen-year-old-girl who wishes she could make her dysfunctional family functional and bring her darling brother back to life.
Normally, all of those things would have been more than enough for me, a classic goodie-two-shoes rule-follower, but a magnetic force caught hold of my compass and set it spinning out of control: the need to blaze my own trail out of my angst, even just for a few minutes.
“Kerri. Should we go farther?”
“I don’t know, Car. You’re the driver.”
“He’ll never know. There’s a turnaround just a little ways past Reino’s house.”
“You decide. I’m not making the decision one way or another.”
I should have turned around. I could have turned around. I heard my dad’s voice in my head telling me to turn my butt around.
I didn’t turn around.
I hit the gas.
Everything was fine right up until the moment it wasn’t, and sadly, there was nothing I could do once the wheels of my disobedient stupidity were set in motion. I had forgotten that the county had just laid a load of gravel down on the turnaround, and I didn’t realize that the warm spring sun had softened everything up so much that the ground was more like mashed potatoes than firmament. The tired, rusted-out LTD galumphed its way toward the ditch, and I did exactly what a fifteen-year-old girl would in such a situation: I panicked. When we finally stopped, Kerri looked at me and let out a big sigh. “I’ll get out and push.”
Everything was fine right up until the moment it wasn’t—the one in which my flip-flopped foot got lost on its way to the brake and hit the gas instead. In an instant, it was all over, and the mighty LTD gasped out one final death rattle before it gave up its ghost and sank right up to its belly.
It’s striking how much dirt one ear can hold and how deeply rocks can burrow into your knees when you’re desperately trying to free a car from the earth with a tire iron and your bare hands. Furiously we worked at it, clawing and scratching and commiserating about how much trouble we were going to be in should Dad ever find out. My innards threatened to burst out of my gut and assist with the recovery effort, and my ears started to ring in advance of the tirade that was assuredly mine once Dad DID find out what I had done. He ALWAYS knew exactly when we kids were up to something even marginally deviant (so we usually behaved ourselves out of fear), and he never hesitated to let more than a few choice words fly as he transformed from my father into a EF5 tornado of wild eyes, crazy gesturing, and reddening skin.
“Ow! I broke a nail!”
Hearing Kerri cuss made me stop hard in my mud-caked tracks, for it meant only one thing: Morris had arrived.
My shoulders caved and a sinkhole formed in my stomach as I turned to face my judge, jury, and executioner. He and his massive, long-sleeve-shirt-encased belly methodically navigated through the ruts that directed him right to Ground Zero. Kerri and I dropped our tools and rose to our feet, clasping our hands behind our backs. We knew from experience that excuses would only make matters worse, so we kept our mouths shut and our eyes down.
Dad walked up to me and said one word: “Keys.” I fished my freedom out of my pocket and searched his face for an indication of when the storm would commence, but all I saw were stony eyes, sun-leathered skin, and a pair of thin lips pressed firmly together and turned down at the corners.
This was going to be bad.
I expected that we would be in the midst of the nuclear reactor meltdown and the resulting apocalypse for at least an hour, but Morris conjured up what I have later come to understand was Finlander Black Magic. Like Yoda raising dejected Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing out of the Dagobah swamp, my father extracted his faithful work car from the depths of its muddy grave, drove it to stable ground, turned off the engine, and shut the car door behind him. Then he walked back to his car, got in, and drove off.
Kerri and I picked up our jaws and our eyeballs. We two girls, infamous for four-hour long phone conversations, were suddenly rendered mute. The only choice we had was to get back on the horse.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent hiding out in my room, bandaging up our wounds and fearing for our lives (or at least our chances of ever using another of his vehicles). Much to our surprise, the Wrath of Morris never descended upon us, at least for that particular incident, and I went on to successfully earn my driver’s license on the first try.
Fifteen years or so after “The Car Incident,” I was finally brave enough to ask my dad why he had never yelled at us because let’s face it—such behavior was completely out of character. He put his coffee mug down on the kitchen table that had witnessed so much family joy, drama, and sorrow and said with a grin, “I knew it should have taken you about fifteen minutes to go there and back. I kept checking my watch, and when you were gone too long, I came looking for you. I saw how forlorn you looked when I got there, and I knew that you were punishing yourselves more than I ever could. And besides…I couldn’t say anything. I would have burst out laughing.”
And then we did.
* * *
My dad struggled to express his love for his family in the right way for most of his life, but he always made sure our cars were working and our gas tanks were full. He slipped away from us Thanksgiving morning after an unexpected battle with a fungal lung infection in 2004, but I am certain that if any of us ever end up stranded on the side of the road, he will find a way to get to us with a car carrier to bring us home.
If you want to experience wild beauty, you can find it in a region of northern Minnesota known as the Iron Range. Every season has a magnificence that is deeply rooted in the souls of the trees.
There is nothing like sitting on a dock in the summer sun, listening to the wind in the poplars…or the energy of the reds, golds, and oranges of the Laurentian Divide in the fall…or the diamond-sparkle-frosting on the pines of Giant’s Ridge…or the joy of seeing baby buds begin to pop out of branches you were beginning to believe were going to stay bare forever.
My childhood home was nestled in the woods—forty acres, to be exact, a wonderful playground of delight and intrigue. My big brother Cedric used to take Little Girl Me for walks through the swamp on trails he could navigate with his eyes closed. Out there, we weren’t nerdy and awkward, like we were in real life. Out there, he was the king, and I was the princess, and together we ruled with stories and laughter.
Later, when I was about nine or ten, my friends and I used to dream up all sorts of adventures in clearings we named “Wonderland” and “Thousand Islands.” Our outdoor world was vast and full of promise in those days, and the trees called to us incessantly while we were stuck doing chores or eating Campbell’s Soup and wieners on white bread.
We didn’t need Playstation or XBox. We had water and old pots and pans and sticks.
We didn’t worry about violence, drugs, or creepy guys giving out candy. We had a Springer Spaniel who sniffed around and barked at even the slightest whiff of a predator.
We didn’t need adults shuttling us to carefully supervised activities with objectives. There was a pecking order, but it was understood that we were to look out for one another.
In other words, we spent our time just being kids, something we all know is somewhat lost on our own children today. We ran wild for hours with our imaginations in tow until our mother’s voices ordered us home for dinner.
Watching over all of this was The Big Tree, a massive white pine that grew in my parents’ yard. I used to lie on my back on the grassy hillside of our far-from-manicured lawn, watching the clouds slip by the branches that were swaying back and forth hundreds of feet above me.
Its needles were wishbones that ended up in our mud soup, and its roots were the perfect place to sit with my big brother and talk about life, the universe, and everything.
After Cedric died in 1987, I used to tuck myself between those roots in an effort to feel closer to him. While it was never quite the same without him, there was a modicum of comfort in the embrace of The Big Tree. Sometimes I even heard traces of his voice in the wind blowing through branches that were much closer to heaven than I.
When I was older and went out walking by myself in the woods, I was almost always able to follow my Finlander sense of direction. If I ever got turned around, though, all I had to do was look for The Big Tree to guide me back to the road.
One time, when a hailstorm overtook us on the way home from a graduation party, my dad simply pulled the car under the protective branches of the tree and waited for the ice boulders to stop falling from the sky.
Not once did we worry that The Big Tree was going to come down; it was too big, too grand, too much a part of our collective consciousness. It was our guardian, it brought us joy, and it whispered of constant strength whenever our family life dipped into dysfunction. That tree was home.
Sometime in the late nineties, when I was a married woman and a gainfully employed teacher, The Big Tree got sick from a beetle infestation. It started going bald as the top branches began to die. The whispers grew fainter, and soon the time came for it to come down.
Trained professionals put it out of its misery, first by strategically lobbing off the top and then by cutting down the trunk in chunks.
My mom documented the event with her camera and sent me pictures that knotted up my stomach with grief. My dad hauling away branches in his truck for days, and soon all that was left of our beloved tree were some forlorn logs in the field. Coming home for the first time and seeing the remaining stump of our Giving Tree was pure agony.
As always, though, life went on, and my brain went to work figuring out a way I could bring part of our tree home with me. I decided that a cross-section of the trunk would make a great coffee table.
During one of our trips home, then-husband and I revved up the old cross-cut saw and cut several pieces from the logs (under Dad’s careful, eagle-like supervision, of course). We stacked them in the boat garage for “later” and went back to our busy lives. We hardly thought about that wood after that day and assumed that things at home would always be as they were.
On Thanksgiving Day 2004, however, my dad passed away after battling a fungal lung infection he had picked up while cutting firewood one summer.
I don’t care how long you have; there’s no way to prepare to live in a world without one or both of your parents. Doing so requires you to step into a completely different dimension of reality that feels colder and infinitely more uncertain.
As the “oops” baby of the family, it was difficult to lose my dad when I was only 33 years old, especially after having lost one father figure already when I was fifteen.
Losing them both—as complicated and as maddening as they both could be—was a cruel hand to be dealt so young.
For several years after, I felt like a lost little girl, not recognizing the landmarks around me or the position of the sun in the sky. However, I had to get up every day and put smile on my face so I could be a mom, a teacher, a wife, a friend, and a productive member of society. But I was hiding a brokenness underneath it all.
Every day was an exercise in survival, and for a while, I completely lost my sense of direction. I became a different version of myself that I didn’t recognize. I fell apart.
Not many people knew how deep my pain was, of course, because the world keeps spinning with or without you, and no one really has the time or energy to deal with your stuff when they have enough of their own to manage. That’s just how it goes.
Eventually you learn to continue with life–it really is your only choice.
A few years after my dad’s death, my mom started spending time with a very nice man who our family had known for years. They started having coffee and watching Laurence Welk together, and soon Bob was her date for concerts, weddings, and anniversary parties. He was a talented carpenter and woodworker, and he fashioning gifts for her with his hands.
After seeing a beautiful plant stand he made for her birthday, I asked Bob if he would make my coffee table out of my “for later” wood. He did so gladly and beautifully. He took such great care in leveling it, sanding it, varnishing it, and giving it new legs, and he even meticulously counted all 109 of its rings.
He also took great care of my mother until she no longer remembered who he was. His last act of love for her was to stop visiting—it made her too upset, he said.
It must have been hard for him to say goodbye to her for the last time—to slowly walk out the door, leaving her behind and trusting that God would hold her tightly.
We all had a hard time saying our final goodbye to her not long after that. But we knew she was home—with my dad, with my brother, with my dog, and maybe even with The Big Tree.
One morning, I ran across some pictures my sister-niece Amy posted on Facebook of the new white pines starting to thrive in the absence of The Big Tree. As I marveled at how big the trees had grown, some familiar thoughts rooted in old hurt began to surface.
Why have I experienced such a ridiculous amount of loss, so early?
What truth do I possibly need to learn that I haven’t already pondered incessantly?
How many more tears must I shed before I catch a glimpse of my real smile again?
How much longer would it be before I would feel joy as deeply as I did when I was a sprite running through the woods?
Once those familiar thoughts passed, however, an unfamiliar one poked its way to the surface and handed me a new truth:
Perhaps in the absence of something great—something that you couldn’t imagine living without—growth and beauty become sudden possibilities because the world eventually reorients itself with creation.
Yes. Yes, that’s right. I remember now.
Every summer, the wind rustles the leaves as the sun shines on the lake.
Every fall, the hillsides are covered in color.
Every winter, the trees glisten against the post-snowstorm blue sky.
And every spring, the buds poke their way through the bark.
They just do…it is their nature. And so it is with us.
I was That Girl when it came to gym class.
Don’t get too jealous. I didn’t say I was an It Girl. I was THAT girl. You know the one…she who was not known for her coordination, speed, or grace and was never picked first for any team.
I hid in the back of our “squad” (what our gym teacher called our starting positions in the cold, drafty girls’ gym at Virginia High School), preferring to bleed out from my ears than be called on to lead the warm up.
When we played volleyball in fifth grade, I strategically chose the position right next to the server. This was so I could put off as long as possible the moment when I’d disappoint everyone with my abysmal attempt to get the volleyball over the net. Underhand.
I could not do the flex arm hang, I never once made a layup, and I cheated on my mile run around the track without meaning to. (I should have known by the disbelief on Mrs. Witty’s face when she saw my time that my partner had counted my laps wrong.)
The only units I tolerated were kickball and square dancing because it’s kinda hard to screw those up.
So, yeah. I hated gym class. The only thing worse was swimming class, but that is a horrific story for another day.
(Okay, so I was a decent downhill skier, a pretty good water skier, and a b*tchin’ right guide in my marching band, so it’s not like I was a professional couch potato or anything. However, let’s just say I was a much better athletic supporter than athlete at a time when being talented on a court or field carried some capital.)
Other than a couple of obstacle fun runs and a brief stint as a cardio kickboxer (hello, angry hysterectomy belly), my general suckery when it came to Organized Physical Activity That Most People Do followed me right into adulthood. I ran exactly one regular 5K and then retired from that nonsense. I am always the one the yoga teacher has to “adjust.” And I will never-ever-ever play in the student-staff basketball game at my school. Nope. That’s a big, fat negatory.
But a funny thing happened when I hit 46: I woke up one morning and realized I felt like a complete stranger in my body. My hormones were wacky, my clothes didn’t play well with the extra 13 pounds I put on post surgery, and I hurt in strange places when I slept too long on a Saturday morning.
On top of that, the ghosts of some past trauma started showing up and refused to be shoved to the back of my brain for one.more.second.
So what’s a girl to do?
Well, dance, of course.
**This is one of those posts I need to finish another time because there’s a lot I need to untangle, and 10:00 on a school night is not the time for that. But I thought I’d give you the exposition with a hint of complication, anyway.
A couple of years ago, I had a “funeral” for someone who was (is) still living. Okay, fine—it wasn’t really a funeral, per say, but more of a goodbye ceremony for someone who used to be a central figure in my life but now…isn’t.
To put into words how important this person was to me when I was younger would be pure foolishness at best, but still–I try. Whenever I felt myself twisting in the wind, this person anchored me. Whenever I felt like a discarded piece of garbage, this person helped me see that I was solid gold. And whenever there was joy to be had—in music and experience and adventure, this person was the one to invite me along for the ride in a really sweet vehicle.
To try to construct the reasons why our relationship is so different now would be as futile as trying to convey how important he was at one time (and, if I push aside the pain of my rejection, my spirit would tell you that he still is…of course he is). This is harder.
I don’t understand how love can go from completely unconditional to completely conditional, unless it was never pure and free in the first place. And if I ever were to hear that that last bit is actually true, my heart would surely stop beating.
There’s no one thing I can point to as the reason why this person is no longer in my life. The truth of the matter is that our relationship sprung a slow leak when I left for college 28 years ago, and it never, ever recovered. I know I have made missteps along the way—some of them were absolute doozies—but so has he. And we are both good people.
Can’t we still love one another? Can’t we see one another for who we truly are? Can’t we look past the ugly bits and see that while both of us have been hurt deeply, we can still love deeply because we are family?
I’ve tried to repair things. I’ve tried to reach out. I’ve tried to put the hurt behind me and start again. I’ve tried to lob my love over the top of a 50 foot wall. Over and over and over, I’ve tried. Nothing works. The messages are the same every time:
I’m not interested in knowing you anymore.
I’m not interested in your family.
I’m not interested in repairing anything.
I’m not interested in what you think or feel.
I’m not interested.
There comes a point in situations like these where you have to stop crying, blow your nose, wash your face, and just get on with it because there is absolutely no one in this world you can control but yourself.
There comes a point when you have to put up some protection around yourself so that you no longer feel like you are experiencing a person’s death over and over every time the hope you were raised to embrace falls flat on its face and then chides you for actually thinking it would be different this time.
There comes a point when you have to accept that you may never know the why or whether or not it has ever had anything to do with you at all.
There comes a point when you have to love yourself enough to say, “That’s enough now,” and put an end to your madness. You realize that happiness has to shine from inside of you and is not dependent on what anyone else says, does, or thinks outside of the sacred space that you occupy because you have the light of God in you, and you are worthy of love.
Finally, after all of this, there comes a point when you realize (with the help of a really kind therapist) that it’s okay to grieve the loss of the person who was so important to you at one time but is no longer present. It’s okay to say thank you—for the laughter. The music. The adventures. The support. The love. The gifts. The stability. The protection.
It’s okay to say goodbye. To forgive. To release the Spirit of What Once Was to the wind.
So that’s what I did. I picked out a beautiful, deep pink mini rose bush and planted it in my garden two summers ago.
It bloomed last summer.
It died this summer.
When I was showing some friends my garden, I mentioned it—how strange it was that that rosebush didn’t grow this year, and neither did the perennial blue flowers I planted in another spot to mark the ending of my enslavement to another unfortunate bit of my past.
My friend looked at me and said, with quiet resolve, “Maybe you are done with them, then. You don’t need them anymore.”
In the same flower bed, right next to my mother’s orange lilies (which are descended from her mother’s orange lilies), new flowers bloomed a few days ago that I didn’t plant. A stray seed from a bird? An old annual from the previous owner that has been dormant for three summers? Or some sort of message?
I don’t know. But I see symbolism in everything.
My father, Morris. As a character, he’s a writer’s dream. He had incredible gifts and incredible flaws. Golden moments and dark complications. Laughter and rage. Robust health and debilitating disease.
I will probably spend the rest of my life writing about him, a kind of slow-motion therapy to unravel the tangled web of light and darkness that came standard when you were his daughter. It’s slow-motion now because Dad has been a member of the Dead Rellies Club since Thanksgiving Day of 2004.
Sidenote: I don’t mean to be crass or insensitive by calling the insanely large group of people I’m related to who have died and it’s ridiculous the “Dead Rellies Club.” To be quite honest, it’s a term of endearment. I picture all of them sitting around a big, antique wooden table on a sunny patio, drinking coffee, laughing until they can’t breathe, and eating as many sweets as they want—because of course, bars and cookies and little squares of cake have absolutely no calories in heaven.
And when a new member arrives (most recently my cousin Cindi), I’m quite sure that they shower that person with those really soft caramels you buy in a gift store, three for $1.50…except in heaven, it’s 1000+infinity for FREE.
Okay, so where was I? Oh, yes. My father, Morris. Daddy on the Other Side.
Dad LOVED his boat, and his boat loved him. It was a 1970-something Crestliner with a 70-horsepower Evinrude on the back—a motor that was powerful enough to pull water-skiers but not so powerful as to be out of his price range. It had one of those flip-windows in the middle of the expanse of windshield (the kind that, when closed, made anyone who was sitting in the front of the boat feel like an airlock between segments of an Apollo spacecraft had been closed off). When he first got it, its painted accents were a lovely shade of teal. Later on in its life, the teal gave way to metallic powder blue.
I remember the thrill I felt every time Dad made that engine growl to life, spewing water to each side like a member of royalty parting a crowd of commoners. I’d feel the front of that chariot rise up in the air, and I could hardly breathe from the power of the moment.
That boat was more than just a sleek machine that roared around Lake Vermilion during our few precious months of summer. It was the cure-all to whatever was making my dad hurt. Or angry. Or crabby. Or sad. Or mean. When he was sitting in the captain’s spot, nothing else could touch him. Not his insecurities, not his grief, not his regret, not his money worries, not his pain, not his strained interpersonal relationships with just about everyone, and not even Lupus, which nearly killed him several times by making his body attack itself. Nope.
When he was behind the wheel of his boat, Kristin (named after my older sister), Dad was happy. Dad was not yelling. Dad was kind. That magnificent boat turned Dad into our tour guide and our protector. It made him into the best version of himself.
He never let anyone else drive it (except sometimes my brother Kevin, who owned half of the new motor and had given it its makeover). I can’t blame him. It was the one place he felt God.
My heart hurts when I think about the fact that it hasn’t been in the water of Lake Vermilion since the summer he died. Kristin sits in Kevin’s garage, packed full of stuff that needed a place to be behind a set of shelves in the left stall.
I saw her once during the summer of 2017. The real Kristin and I were invited to look through our mother’s clothing to try to find something fitting for her to wear for her initiation into the Dead Rellies Club.
My sister spied her namesake through a crack in the boxes and cried out, “Carleen! Look!” I immediately reached in to touch the family relic I had assumed belonged to someone else now, just like my childhood home. I had never had the chance to say goodbye to either of them. And of course, I cried. Summer of 2017 was a season of crying.
The electricity I felt–a mix of melancholy, longing, regret, and relief–is something I will carry with me forever, along with the sight of my father in his black jeans and plaid, peering over the windshield to get a better look at his surroundings.
When that version of my father was around, I could breathe deeply into the corners of my body and exhale every worry, every fear, and every particle of stress right out into the wind to be reborn as pure joy, at least for that moment.
It was July of 1989, the summer before the start of what I had been anticipating my whole life—my senior year at Virginia High School. There was a detailed script to follow, and the first item on the official agenda was getting my senior pictures taken.
Even though we probably couldn’t really afford it, my parents let me make an appointment at G.W. Tucker Studios, the “it” place that all the cool kids went to for their photo shoots. (This is not to say that I was cool by any means, but I did okay in the middle of the pack.) The studio was on the south side of Chestnut Street, the main drag of our town where we all cruised on Friday and Saturday nights, back when the police were okay with kids being there.
Back in the Eighties, senior pictures were quite the production meant to capture every possible iteration of the “Real You.” This photographic circus required weeks of preparation. I picked out the perfect outfits (red dress, white dress, turquoise dress with ruffles, peach and white dress, turquoise striped shirt/turquoise pants, royal blue sweater, turquoise blue sweater, pink sweater, marching band uniform, crazy school-spirit outfit, and a fluorescent Montego Bay t-shirt/acid washed jeans).
I gathered shoes, jewelry, and props. I planned out who would pose with me (my friend, my dog, my brother, and all of my stuffed flamingos). I wrote out a list of poses I had to have and for whom. I got my hair freshly cut and permed a week ahead of time. I put neutral polish on my nails the day before. I went to sleep early and made sure I woke up with enough time to do all of the necessary primping (especially my bangs). Everything had to be perfect to craft the perfect image to kick off my perfect senior year.
I sat there nervously as Gerry adjusted the lights just so and thought about a movie I had seen in which a nervous girl who was also new to modeling was encouraged to “make love to the camera.” I didn’t know the first thing about what that really meant, but I decided that I needed to look at that camera and smile every smile for the boy I was dating (long-distance) at the time.
The boy I thought I was going to marry someday. The boy who made my stomach flip and sent me yellow roses. The boy who wrote me the sweetest letters and the made the best mix tapes. The boy who had come all the way from central Minnesota through a snowstorm to take me to my junior prom. I was his “Lady in Red,” as the mixtapes proclaimed, so I wore a red dress with red shoes with bows on them.
Gerry and I hit it off that day (as I often did with adults, being the youngest child with only child tendencies of older parents). He liked me enough to hire me for the rest of the summer to help out around the studio. I starting out as the person who vacuumed the teal shag carpet with a monstrous red Kirby and later rose to the position of tie straightener and flower children wrangler at some of his weekend wedding shoots.
I soaked up Gerry’s lessons about his craft, watched his assistant Rosemary do the important work of retouching photographs, and helped out as much as I could. There was a calm rhythm to the shop right there in the heart of downtown, and I could hardly believe my luck to be working there—where the cool kids went.
The day came to look at my proofs—My.Senior.Pictures. My mom and I were so excited. Gerry, being the cutting edge photographer in town, had a PROJECTOR in a darkened room that he used to show his customers their much-anticipated images. Oooo! We felt like absolute royalty! Rosemary clicked through the roll, and I could hardly believe what I saw. That was me up there on the wall! The pictures were pretty darn good for a first timer!
We ordered a bunch of prints—two prints for the wall, two poses for a million wallets to exchange with friends, one for my brother, one for my friend, one for the boy who sent me roses, a set of proofs for my mother…we got everything we needed. (Well, we didn’t need the big bill, looking back. But my mother was as gleeful as I was, and I was her last child. She wanted to pull out all the stops. I really should have told her I didn’t need so many, but I didn’t. I wish I had.)
When the telephone call came that my pictures were ready to be picked up, I flew the twenty miles to town, screamed into a spot on Chestnut Street in front of the studio, and heaved open the heavy front door that had a bell on it. Rosemary pulled out the order and went through them all with me, one by one.
What do you think I focused on the most?
My belly. My Belly in Red. With the seam of my inside-out nylons showing. Right there next to my sassy hand on my hip.
Guess who didn’t get a copy of this picture, even though I was smiling coyly, just for him?
I was much too embarrassed to ask Rosemary to retouch it, even though I knew she could.
What’s sad is that when I look at this picture 28 years later, it’s still the first thing my eyes go to, even though I am WELL versed in the language of positive body image and feminism. I am also the FIRST person to tell another woman that she is so much more than her physical appearance. Why is it so hard to get yourself to believe it? Or to recognize that you should be grateful that you are healthy? Or to be glad that your parents sprung for the expensive photographer? Or to appreciate any number of other things about yourself besides the fact that you happen to have a little pooch-pooch? We women are our own worst critics, and it is such a hard habit to break.
Ah, well. My bangs look pretty good. And I AM wearing ruby slippers.