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Fantastic Friday…The Dream of a Lifetime

Fantastic Friday…The Dream of a Lifetime


Funny, isn’t it, how our preferences change over the years? As a kid, a day like the one described below would have been a dream come true. Today, even more than 7 years ago when this story first posted, the thought of 3 McDonalds meals in 1 day turns my stomach. How about yours?

Wednesday morning, my brother and mom picked me up at 6:15 to attend my uncle’s funeral. We spent most of the day on the road. In the course of the trip, we realize a dream that would make most seven-year-olds salivate. We ate three meals at McDonalds.

In our family, this accomplishment is earth-shattering news. My siblings and I spent most of our childhoods begging to eat at McDonalds. Since the closest one was 25 miles away in Sioux City and money was tight, our pleas fell on deaf ears. Except, of course, when Mom had saved up for a big city shopping trip. Then, if we were also running short of the straws for Dad, we ate lunch at McDonalds with strict orders to save the straws, ketchup packets, plastic spoons, extra napkins and anything else not nailed to the floor.

Our taste buds have changed in the intervening years, so we weren’t thinking of Golden Arches when we started out Wednesday.  Later, my brother said he did have the Clear Lake McDonalds in mind since his mother-in-law would be there with her breakfast gang. She was, and we had a nice visit. My yogurt cup was delicious.

We arrived at our destination around noon. With the post-funeral light lunch three or more hours away, we decided to get something to tide us over. Pipestone, Minnesota’s dining options are limited. Once again, we chose McDonald’s. Their side salads are pretty good, I discovered.

At the church, Mom had time to visit with her sister-in-law before the funeral. The service was sweet and touching, a good end to my uncle’s life lived long and well. The cemetery was beautiful with dozens of fern peonies buds opening to the warm and welcome sun. During lunch back at the church, we chatted with relatives more than we ate and didn’t leave until after 5:00. By 8:30 we were close to Albert Lea, hungry as bears. Mom suggested we stop at the travel plaza that housed several fast food places. We agreed, but we weren’t hungry for Pizza Hut. We were hungry for Cold Stone Creamery ice cream, but after quick waistline checks we shook our heads.

Our third option was–you guessed it–McDonalds. I ordered a salad with grilled chicken, then caved and added a large fries to split with Mom. As we carried our food to the car, my brother said, “I think this a new record. Three McDonalds meals in one day.”

At that moment I realized we are getting really old. Forty years ago, a day like this would have thrilled us. These days it makes us green around the gills. No doubt about it, we’re slipping. I have proof. We didn’t even save our straws.

What childhood dream would be a nightmare for you now? Leave a comment.

Fantastic Friday: Endings and Beginnings

Fantastic Friday: Endings and Beginnings

Bryant schoolThis Fantastic Friday post, which debuted on Down the Gravel Road, is a look back at the last gathering of the last group of elementary students I taught. They were ready to graduate from high school in May of 2011. This year, many of them are graduating from college. Though Bryant School where we had spent their fourth grade year together, had been closed, it was still standing. Bryant School is gone now, replaced by single family houses. Time passes. Change comes. But the lessons learned at their Time Capsule opening 4 years ago still hold true. And when I think of them all grown up, the children they once were still make me smile and cry.

Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday’s Time Capsule Opening was a strange mixture of endings and beginnings. The graduating seniors who gathered were Bryant Elementary fourth graders in 2002-2003, my last year of teaching. Until this spring, the students returned to Bryant to open the capsule.

But not this year because Bryant School is no longer open. So we gathered in the new, bright, and sunny lunch room at Franklin School instead.  The seniors were so busy thinking about graduation and parties and new beginnings, they barely noticed. Plus, they were having too much fun looking through old pictures, sharing memories, and discovering what they put in the Time Capsule to get all mushy and maudlin.

I, on the other hand, felt like a kid in uncomfortable, new clothes that didn’t quite fit. This place wasn’t the well-worn school where we made fourth grade memories. Seven years older, the little children I taught and loved for nine months barely peeked out from beneath whiskered cheeks and prom sun tans.

Their eyes are on the future.
Their hearts are full of hopes and dreams.
Their lives are full of beginnings, not endings.

For me, this spring filled with endings: the end of time capsules, the end of graduation invitations from former students, the end of Bryant School, which will soon be demolished.

I am ready for this ending, as ready as these brave young people are for the end of this phase of their lives. I just need a moment to cry and savor these sweet and tender endings. Then, I’ll learn one more lesson from these fresh and lovely students.

With them, I’ll look at the future,
examine new hopes and dreams,
concentrate on beginnings rather than endings.
With them, I’ll finally graduate from public school.

Fantastic Friday: Mom’s Valentine’s Day Wish

Fantastic Friday: Mom’s Valentine’s Day Wish

This week marks the beginning of a new Gravel Road feature called Fantastic Friday. Each Friday a fantastic blog post from the past will be given an encore airing. I hope you enjoy what you read as much as I enjoy thumbing through the archives and choosing them.

With Valentine’s Day almost here, this post about Mom’s Valentine wish (circa 2012) sprang to mind immediately. It truly is a favorite post because it shows the depth of Mom’s love for Dad, who died in 1997 after a 38 year battle with multiple sclerosis.

When Mom and I kept our standing lunch date last Tuesday, I mentioned that our next lunch would fall on Valentine’s Day. “That’s kind of fun, Mom. What would you like for Valentine’s Day?”

She thought for a few seconds. “Well, what I really want for Valentine’s Day I can’t have.” She fiddled with her coffee cup. “So I might as well not mention it.”

“Go ahead,” I encouraged her. “What do you really want?”

“What I really want is a few more years with your dad before his mind went…” She paused and moved her fingers in a circle at the side of her head. Her brow furrowed, and her blue eyes looked sad. “…you know, before he was…”

“I know,” I whispered.

“He wasn’t with me that way long enough,” Mom sighed.

I nodded, not knowing what to say. There are no words for Mom’s loss. Dad’s diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age 29, less than 10 years after their marriage. The love of her life struck down by multiple sclerosis. The end of her dream of being the wife of a county extension agent and mother to an increasing brood of kids. The loss of the bread winner, the protector, and leader of the family she loved so much and taking on those roles for the next 38 years as Dad slowly failed and finally died at age 67.

Now, 15 years after his death, what does Mom want for Valentine’s Day?
Not chocolate.
Not flowers.
Not a card.
She wants a few more years with her husband as he once was.

I looked at her, across the table, and said, “We can’t know what life would have been like if he hadn’t gotten sick. But I do know the life you gave us was a good one. You raised us well.”

She nodded and smiled. “I did a pretty good job, didn’t I?”

“You did,” I agreed and helped her into her coat and out the door.

Hiram’s off tomorrow, so we’re going down together to see Mom. We’ll take her to lunch at Culver’s, one of her favorite places to eat. Mainly because she loves their frozen turtle custard.

Over dessert, we’ll tease her like Dad did. We’ll talk about his love of ice cream, his silly jokes, his infectious grin, the goofy songs he loved to sing, the cribbage rules he invented as he played.

Compared to what Mom has lost, lunch at Culvers doesn’t seem like much. But perhaps, sharing memories of Dad and indulging in the laughter and dessert he loved will bring him to her in some small way. Perhaps, over frozen custard, we can give Mom a memory of what she’s wanted for Valentine’s Day for years.

If you would like to see a certain post on Fantastic Friday, leave a comment in the box below, and I’ll try to find it. Happy Friday and Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

Lessons from My Father: Mining the Past

Lessons from My Father: Mining the Past

Harlan ruffled shirtYou know how certain family members tell the same stories at every family gathering? And it’s all you can do to keep from rolling your eyes and drifting off into a carb-induced coma? This chapter from Lessons from My Father may give you a new perspective about the stories you’ve heard a hundred times…

Mining the Past
It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure!
James 5: 3b

I gazed at the black and white photograph in the ornate standing frame. “Jolene, that’s your dad,” Mom informed me.

“No, sir, Mom. That’s a girl. Quit fooling.” The picture of the wide-faced child with chin length blond curls confirmed my opinion. “Look, Mom, she’s wearing a ruffled shirt. That’s not my dad.”

“Yes, it is, Jolene. Look at the short pants. That has to be a boy. Girls only wore dresses back then.”

“Mom, you’re teasing. Cut it out.”

“I’m telling the truth. Take the picture and go ask your dad if you don’t believe me.”

I grabbed the picture and headed for the kitchen where Dad and Clarence, our neighbor, were drinking coffee. “Dad,” I budged in, interrupting their conversation with childish self-righteousness. “Look at this picture.” I was brimming with eight-year-old superiority. I knew I was about to prove my mother wrong. “Mom thinks this is a picture of you. She’s crazy, huh?” My eyes moved from the picture to his face, awaiting his agreement. “That’s a picture of a girl, right?”

His eyes crinkled and his face contorted into a sheepish grin. “Well, Jo-Jo, I hate to admit it, but this time your mother is right. That is me.”

I was speechless as I looked from picture to person and back again. My thoughts were racing. Blond curls to straight brown hair…can’t be. Ruffled shirt, RUFFLED SHIRT to plaid flannel…impossible. Smooth, white cheeks to blackish whiskers…no. And from short little pants to farmer trousers…no way. I found my voice. “Dad, how could ya let your mom dress you like a sissy?”

He and Clarence swallowed their smiles. “Well,” he said, “Obviously, you didn’t know my mother. She really wanted a girl.” He didn’t elaborate.

I picked up the picture, not eager to return it to my mother, in whose presence I would be forced to eat crow. I headed down the hall. “Hey, Jo,” Clarence yelled above my feet stomping down the hall, “when you coming over to my yard with the salt shaker again? The robins are everywhere.”

“I’m not coming ever again.” Clarence had convinced me, a few years before, that if I sneaked up quietly behind the robins in his yard and sprinkled their tails with salt, I could catch one and take it home as a pet. I spent hours in his yard clumping along, shaking salt, to no avail. I gave him an afternoon of entertainment, my mother was rewarded with a child-free work time, my family received a handy little nugget of humiliation ammunition, but I went home empty-handed. I didn’t appreciate this reminder of my legendary gullibility, for it forced me to eat robin along with the crow my mother would soon dish up. She knew I hated casseroles.

“Well?” Mom watched me bang the picture frame on the dresser. “Careful, Jolene, that’s an antique.”

“Mom, what kind of woman was my grandma dressing a boy like THAT?” I felt like spitting feathers.

“She was a wonderful woman, Jolene, and your father was her only child. Shortly after that picture was taken, your grandpa had your dad’s hair cut short, and he always looked like a boy after that. Someday, I’ll find those pictures and show you.”

Once she brought them out, I was entranced. I loved those pictures of my father with his parents. They all looked so happy, my father obviously the center of both his parents’ worlds. Cyril and Fern stand proudly on either side of him, hands on his shoulders, touching him as if to see if he is really there, that this young life is truly their son. I looked at the pictures and wanted to know the stories behind them, information my mother couldn’t supply.

My father, normally so talkative and forthcoming about the past, was reticent about his childhood and his parents. He had lost them both in the last ten years, and now I wonder if his grief kept him from telling me his stories. He shared only a few silly tales about Virgil, his imaginary brother, and their adventures. With his parents dead and no siblings, the details of his childhood remained a mystery to me, with just a few snapshots to bring me clues. I was too young to realize that had I probed more deeply, I could have eased his grief and learned about his life while time remained.

“What are you thinking about, Dad?” I whispered some years later. I had just come home from school and found him in the living room, staring at the wall again. His eyes were unfocused, his mouth slack as the thumbs of his clasped hands moved up and down, up and down, in hopeless motion.

“Oh, hello. What’d you say?”

I had jolted him out of his reverie, disorienting him slightly. “Just wonderin’ what you were thinkin’,” I tried again.

“Oh, nothin’. Just rememberin’ the time when Jim Christy and I…say, Jo, do you remember Jim?” He was eager to tell me of his escapades, but I shook my head,

“No, I’ve never heard of Jim, Dad.”

“No? Well, he musta been before your time. Jim and I were showin’ our heifers at the Story County Fair. You remember where the cattle barn is?”

I shook my head again. “Dad, I never lived in Nevada, remember?”

“Guess you’re too young.” Frustrated by my inability to join in his memory, he gave up on his story. “Anyway, twasn’t much.” The eagerness drained out of his voice and trailed into nothingness as a gulf of time yawned between us.

“OK, well, guess I’ll start supper.” I retreated to the kitchen. As I backed away, I watched his shoulders slump, his eyes go blank, and his thumbs resume their useless movement. He left me sinking back into the dead memories that could bring to him comfort that I, a living child, could not provide. Wrapped up in my high school life, I couldn’t comprehend the treasure he was hiding from me. I did not know that I should nod and listen and share in his memories until they became a part of mine.

“Dad, I’m home,” I announced four years later, sticking my head into his bedroom. He lay there, motionless with his eyes closed, but he popped them opened as soon as I spoke. “Do you need anything?”

He shook his head.

“Have a nice nap?”

“Oh, I wasn’t asleep. I was thinking about…” Here he stopped, and his face grew animated as memory flooded in and invigorated him. He snorted a laugh. “…I was thinking about when Red Goblet and I…”

“Red Goblet!” I exclaimed with all the superiority of a college co-ed. “Red Goblet! Who’d name a kid a something like that?”

“Well, Red and I were playing football at Westmar, and…”

“Speaking of Westmar, Dad, I would love to hear your story, but I gotta get ready for play practice in a little bit, and I have to finish my costume. See you.” I kissed him on the head and walked into my present, and out of the past he offered to me. He closed his eyes and returned to the football field of his day dreams. The value of what he held was priceless, but I had no desire to hold it. My adulthood was just beginning, and I had no time to honor his.

“Harlan, Dad, hello,” I entered his room at the nursing home. “It’s me, Jolene.”

He looked at me impassively, not sure who I was. Nine years had not changed me as much as it had him, and still he could not connect my face with his life.

“I’m Jolene, your daughter, the second one.”

A smile lit his face. “Hi, Jole…” His voice trailed off before he could say my name.

“How are you, Dad?”

“Fine, I’m fine, I….” His voice drained away, his train of thought broken.

“Here’s Allen, my son.”

“Hi, Grandpa,” he piped, standing on tiptoe to be seen above the rails of the bed. Grandpa’s eyes wandered down to the source of the voice. Laughter filled his eyes as he looked at my child.

“Dad, we’ve been telling Allen how you used to judge cattle.”

Allen nodded and adjusted the cowboy hat perched on his round head. “I wanna be a cowboy, Grandpa. See my boots?”

Dad’s eyes grew bright, and I could see a memory stirring within him, carrying him to the past, firmly anchoring him there in a way the present could not. A lopsided grin puddled on his face, and he fixed his eyes upon mine.

“Can you tell him how you first showed cattle? Tell him what it was like when you were a kid.” Allen looked at his grandpa’s face, eager to hear the story he’d heard fragments of before.

“Well, it was….Story County…maybe a….” Dad stopped, thinking hard. “It was a…ba..b…” He looked at Allen, startled, newly aware of his presence. Then he looked at me and drifted back into the confusing present. Then his thoughts sailed away from him before he could frame them into words. I could see in his frantic eyes that he couldn’t remember what I had asked, couldn’t remember what he was going to say, couldn’t even remember who these strangers were beside his bed.

Allen waited patiently in the small room as the battle to recover and share the past waged in my father’s weary and injured brain. Dad closed his eyes, worn out by the task I had lain upon him. “Mommy, is Grandpa too tired? Does he need a nap before he tells me the story? Can we come back when he wakes up?”

I nodded and kissed my father’s forehead. Then I took my son’s hand in mine and left my father guarding his elusive treasure.

Too late I realized the value of my father’s past, how it needed to be passed on to my child. When I reached out to mine the wealth of memory within him, the door that had been so slowly closing inside of him clicked shut and locked me out.

Neither of us knew where to find the key.

Top Ten Things to Not Miss About High School

Top Ten Things to Not Miss About High School

jolene high school

Last week’s top ten was about what I missed and appreciated about high school. This week’s list looks at the flip side of those high school coming-of-age years in the early 1970s.

10.  Macrame anything.

9.   The lack of air conditioning in August and May.

8.   Listening to the really-love-your-peaches-want-to-shake-your-tree line from Steve Miller’s song, The Joker.

7.  Learning while sitting rather than learning while doing.

6.  Wondering about making it through high school and college, getting a good job, getting married, having a family, and every other adult rite-of-passage that scares high schoolers silly.

5.  Daily insecurity about clothes, hair, shoes, and anything else a high school girl can be insecure about.

4.  School lunches.

3.  Gym class.

2.  Zits.

1.  Homework.

What don’t you miss about high school? Leave a comment.

Top Ten Things to Miss About High School

Top Ten Things to Miss About High School

Jolene grad

On last week’s road trip, I spent an evening with one of my best friends from high school. Every time we–or any of our high school crowd–get together, we remember why we were (and still are) good friends. And we remember and miss what was best about those fleeting and powerful years.

10. Throwing good luck pennies on the Pizza Hut roof.

9.  Sitting in the stands and talking with friends during basketball and football games…and even watching the games now and then.

8.   English and history classes.

7.   Being part of a group that made sure everyone had a date for Homecoming, Twirp, and Prom.

6.   The speech and drama teacher, Mr. Hallum, who demanded the best from his students and gave so much of his time to help them grow.

5.   Looooong weekend band and speech trips on very uncomfortable school buses.

4.   Marching and concert band during the school year and city band in the summer.

3.   Church youth group and our leaders, Ron and Barb Ritchie.

2.   Play rehearsals.

1.   The best friends a person could ever have (in alphabetical order): Cheri, Jacki, Jane, Katie, Mary Anne, and Roxanne.

Okay, so what’s missing about what you miss about high school? Leave a comment.