Last One to Leave, Bring in the Dock

cabin

We are selling the family cabin this week, the last thing my father left us. He built it in 1968, with the same independence and drive he showed in everything else. He pored over plans for vacation homes, contracted the work himself, and kept meticulous records of it all. I know because forty-six years later, I still have the receipts, stapled together in thick stacks and tallied in his neat handwriting, detailing every purchase from the stones in the fireplace to a 45-cent package of nails.

The plan he chose featured a spacious layout, with huge beams in the living room and a wall of windows overlooking the lake. And although the decor is classic ’70s and the furnishings just as dated, it still stands as beautiful and solid as it did then. Good bones, don’t you know.

On Jan. 4, 1970, at age 45, my Dad died in a horrible accident. He spent one summer at the lake, doing the things he loved and putting up with a host of friends and family. And now that the cabin too is passing away, it seems like someone should tell his story. Not the whole story, but some of it. I wouldn’t want anyone telling my story bit by excruciating bit after I’m gone. I’m sure you wouldn’t either.

dad army

My father’s name was Andrew Simon. He grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, the second of six children of Lebanese immigrants. They owned a small grocery store where all the kids at one time or another were compelled to work. Northeast in the 1940s was a patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods. Dad was the rebellious kid. He ran around with his friends, got in trouble and in general just caused a world of grief for his parents, who weren’t the most patient people in the world to begin with. I’ve heard some stories; there are many more I haven’t heard and never will.

I know Dad was kicked out of a Catholic high school for boys and had to finish up at the public school. I know once he got mad at a streetcar, stopped his car on the tracks and refused to budge, throwing the streetcar line off-schedule and all the passengers into a tizzy.

When World War II came, he joined the army, serving most of his time on steamy little islands in the Pacific. At the age of 19, while still in the service, he married my mother, the smartest thing he ever did. She was a farm girl, sweet, lively, independent and good good good.

Lu-Andy-in car_2

After the war, with a wife and two small daughters, my father worked all kinds of jobs. He had always been smart, but who knew he was industrious and ambitious too. At various times, he sold vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, owned a nightclub (briefly) and a successful insurance agency (for several years). He opened a liquor store. He bought a small plane and learned to fly. Finally, he started a business installing coin-operated equipment in apartment buildings throughout the Twin Cities. The business grew and grew until he became, for his place and time, a rich man.

June 1963 #2

Dad wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a perfect husband or a perfect father. But those stories don’t need to be told here, I think, if ever. He was fair and generous to a fault. He understood human frailties. He took care of us and left my mother well off. Well, she never loved any man but him her entire life. With only a grade school education, she kept the business running for 25 years after he died, always underestimating her gifts.

And Mom kept the cabin. In the summers we raised our kids and grandkids there, watching them swim and ski, fish off the dock and paddle around in the paddleboat. We cooked, played games, sang along to country songs and watched hundreds of sunsets.

At the cabin there is a little Jesus shrine near the lake with a plaque engraved with Dad’s name. I imagine the new owners will take it down now. I have no desire to go back. Losing the cabin is a hard, hard thing, but let’s face it, families are about loss and families are about building up. Memories fade, memories are made. Really, that’s all it’s about.

June 1963 #2

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The Fourth Star on the Left

LEE'S A STAR
LEE’S A STAR

I added a star to the tattoo on my ankle yesterday in honor of my sixth grandchild, Lee, now 9 months old and definitely star-worthy. It was a little hard finding exactly the right position for star #6 and then it ended up slightly bigger than I expected, which is the kind of thing that happens to me, but nevertheless I’ll be taking my six-star ankle to the grave, unless of course a seventh star comes along, but what the heck, let’s just put the whole damn galaxy on grandma’s foot.

Today five-year-old Cosette called several times saying we needed to go to Target right away so she could show me what to buy for her birthday, just around the corner next September. I felt guilty saying no until she said, okay then, she had to call Auntie Jessica, goodbye. Her brother Toddler Bret calls me regularly as well. For some reason he always seems agitated on the phone. He left me a happy birthday message recently that sounded like he was being attacked by pirates.

On Thursday I drove for an hour through snow and sleet to watch Christian’s wrestling match only to find it was cancelled due to the weather. (It’s almost May, for cripe’s sake.) Now eight, he just started wrestling and takes it very seriously. He came out of his first practice and told his mother, “I can’t show you any moves, Mom, because I might hurt you.”

A few Saturdays ago, 12-year-old Maria came over to get help building a model of the Eiffel Tower for a school project. I have never built the Eiffel Tower before, but apparently my expertise in this area is legendary. We made it out of shoeboxes, of which I have an ample supply. Well, not really out of the shoeboxes but from hundreds of little pieces cut out, glued together and sprayed heavily with black paint. I figured the Eiffel Tower was easier to build than some other famous structures I can think of. Her friend Madeleine chose the Colosseum in Rome, which her father helped her build out of a laundry basket and I’ll bet that was no picnic.

Which brings us to seven-year-old Grace. The last time she was at my house, she watched me applying face makeup with endless questions about what different products were designed to do. I explained, for example, that due to some unfortunate over-tweezing in my youth, I have to pretty much draw on eyebrows now, and that should be a lesson to her not to go around mindlessly plucking at things, and anyway her eyebrows are perfect so it shouldn’t even be an issue. Always take advantage of these little moments to teach, that’s what I say.

NEW STAR JUST SOUTH OF BIG TOE
NEW STAR JUST SOUTH OF BIG TOE

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Little Guys

BOYS BEING BOYLIKE
BOYS BEING BOYLIKE

I never had any sons. Never missed it. Had three daughters and was glad of it. Now here I am with these grandsons, and it’s interesting. It isn’t really what I expected at all.

Looking back, I suppose I thought of little boys as just small men. And being just miniature men, I assumed, they must be somewhat oblivious. Unaware. Insensitive. Less drama, you see. This is not the case, I know that now.

For example, when Christian was about five, he got a sliver in his foot at my house and his mother had to use a needle to take it out. Try to take it out, that is, since death by sliver was imminent. It took a long time and everyone involved was an emotional wreck when it was over. And then there was the time Toddler Bret bumped his head at his sister’s birthday party, climbed into an armchair, and refused to budge until a decent level of attention had been payed. So there’s another tragedian in the family.

Baby Lee, on the other hand, looks to be a typically placid male. I babysat over there last weekend, and one of the instructions was: when you take the dog out, be sure to put Lee in his bouncer, because if you leave him on the floor the other kids will roll him. This is the kind of thing up with which he will put. He lies on the living room floor like a rock, people and dogs stepping over him with impunity on their way to somewhere else, and doesn’t flinch.

Of course, boys can be more aggressive than girls. Christian exhibited a fondness for sticks before he could walk. Sticks, stick-like objects, anything really with the appearance of a weapon. And then it seems all males are born with the wrestling gene. Little boys wrestle little boys, big boys wrestle big boys, little boys wrestle big boys, men wrestle little boys, big boys and anyone else willing to roll around on the floor. What is that about? Wrestling makes me nervous.

Finally, it is commonly held that girls are more verbal than boys. Yet it seems to me that every one of my three grandsons started jabbering away as soon as they discovered their vocal chords. Not that you could understand what they were saying, but why would that deter them. Even Baby Lee is turning into a blabber, although I put that down to the influence of a sister who talks from sunrise to sunset and a brother who talks almost as much lest he go unnoticed. It’s noisy at their house, that’s all I’m saying.

So what have we learned? We have learned that boys are different and complex. Toddler Bret is apt to chuck objects across the room (train cars, food) without regard for human welfare. And in the middle of the night he only wants his mother. Christian finds it amusing to throw ear-splitting fake grenades on the floor two feet from his unsuspecting grandmother. And then he tells me he’s sorry he drooled on the pillow in his sleep because it means I have to wash the pillowcase. Baby Lee will play by himself on the floor uncomplaining. And when you pick him up he smiles and smiles, happy to be noticed.

But mostly I have learned this: there is a sweetness in little boys that is so touching you almost can’t bear it. It can put a knot in your stomach and a lump in your throat. It can surely break your heart.

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Stories from Drawer #3

PALEOLITHIC BARBIE?
PALEOLITHIC BARBIE?

I am having my house painted. I mean I am having my entire house painted, every room, every closet, every wall, every ceiling. And of course, once you commit to painting every room in the house, you notice all the other stuff that’s been irking you for the last twenty years, and hey, why not put those projects on the list too, until you realize you have kind of a big thing going on.

I can’t say why, after living with my home’s flaws for years, I chose this particular time to tackle them. I hate to think it might be because my subconscious knows I haven’t long for this world. (Time to get your affairs in order, spruce up the house before the kids have to put it on the market.) That’s how my mind works. That’s exactly how my mind works.

The painters arrive tomorrow. The first thing they’re doing is removing all the 1970s-era popcorn ceilings. It’s a fairly messy job and it means everything in the area where they’re working has to be moved out. Consequently, I have the contents of the guest bedroom, playroom and office squashed into my bedroom with the existing furniture. It looks like the Goodwill in there.

It was cleaning out the office that nearly did me in. I’ve been meaning to do it periodically for years. Now and then I’d make a half-hearted effort – maybe toss out some old bank statements – but nothing that made a dent in the ever-replenished stacks. Sometimes the only thing that works is the imminent arrival of workmen.

Which, if you’re still with me, is how we get to Drawer #3. That’s the bottom drawer of my file cabinet, where I tend to throw all the oddball stories I’ve run across, clipped, saved and forgotten over the years. Of course, much of Drawer #3 went into the recycling bin. But you’d be surprised, some of this stuff holds up remarkably well.

Like this letter that the Smithsonian’s Paleo-Anthropology Division sent to a man who kept mailing them objects he believed to be of enormous scientific value. (Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune but undated. I’ve edited it down a lot.)

Dear Sir:
Thank you for your latest submission to the Institution, labeled ‘Hominid skull.’ We have given this specimen a careful and detailed examination and regret to inform you that we disagree with your theory that it represents ‘conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man 2 million years ago.’ Rather, it appears that what you have found is the head of a Barbie doll, of the variety of Malibu Barbie.

Without going into too much detail, the specimen looks like the head of a Barbie doll that a dog has chewed on. Sadly, we must also deny your request that we approach the National Science Foundation’s Phylogeny Department with the concept of assigning your specimen the scientific name ‘Australopithecus spiffarino.’

The entire staff speculates daily on what you will happen upon next in your digs at the site you have discovered in your backyard. We are particularly interested in hearing your theories surrounding the juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex femur you recently discovered with the deceptive appearance of a rusty 9mm Sears Craftsman automotive wrench.

Harvey Rowe, Curator, Antiquities

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Photo: Google Images, ioffer.com
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Just a Little Christmas Horror Story

Such a busy weekend I had. I shopped for toys and gifts, baked bread and made soup, played Christmas music and danced around the kitchen. I did all these happy things so that I wouldn’t have to think.

I haven’t been watching TV or going on news websites. I turn the front page face down before reading the rest of the newspaper. I tune the car radio to the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time channel, and I don’t even like most Christmas music.

I won’t look at pictures of the first graders who died in Connecticut on Friday or the adults who died with them. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want to hear the comments from their families. And I don’t want to think about the phone calls that went out to all the grandmas.

Because I am a grandma, of a sweet, smart, thoughtful first grader, and also a preschooler, second grader and sixth grader. I don’t want to think about what it would be like to know they wouldn’t be at my house on Christmas Day or any Christmas Day in the future.

I am angry and sad and sick to death of it all. Of mass killings that have become commonplace. Of turning on the local news and learning that another child was gunned down in their own neighborhood. I’m sick of the NRA and the enormous power of the gun lobby, the excuses and convoluted logic. I’m mad at people like me who didn’t fight harder for gun control.

I am going to two school Christmas programs this week. They will be fun and silly, and the kids will do what kids always do. But this year I will bring tissues.

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Saturday With Grace

THE SKY OVER PARKER’S LAKE – BY GRACE, AGE 7

My granddaughter Grace, who just turned seven, came over last Saturday to visit and spend the night. Gracie is sort of quiet and reserved, so it isn’t entirely clear how she ended up in the family. Even when she’s feeling giggly, it’s a subdued kind of giggly. No need to make a spectacle of yourself. There are plenty of others around to do that.

Grace and I did several subdued, tasteful things together. She designed a number of lovely outfits on the computer and printed them out. We played Cootie and she beat me twice, fair and square. She’s a Cootie master. We went out to eat and she found every word in the Wordfind on her placemat. (She’s only going into first grade but already can read words like marshmallow.) We mowed the grass and watered the pots.

I showed Grace my blog and asked her if she would like to write something. She said she would. Here it is.

I LOVE MY GRAMMA BECAUSE SHE LOVES ME SO MUCH SHE WILL LOVE ME NO ,MATTER WHAT.
MY NAME IS GRACE. MY BEST FREIEND IS GRACE
H. WE PLAY GAMS, TO GETHER.
ME AND MY GRAMMA ARE GOING TO TAK PICTURES OF NATURE.

Oh yes, we also drove to a little nearby lake and walked around, and Grace took lots of pictures, 134 to be exact. Here are some pictures she took of clouds. Because why not.

At the end of the day, Gracie and I blew up the airbed in the living room and watched a movie. And when the movie was over we went to sleep, because we were already in our bed!

Life is hard a fair amount of the time. We get sad and tired and overworked. Sometimes it seems like things will never sort themselves out, and we will never have a happy or restful thought again. Then it is good to have a grandchild like Grace around.

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You Can Call Him Lee

3 DAYS OLD AND RESIGNED TO BEING OUT

You can call him Lee because that’s his name. He finally arrived, a big, chubby baby who couldn’t make up his mind whether to stay in or come out, sending his mother back and forth to the hospital like a wind-up doll and distressing the entire family for the past two weeks. I personally am exhausted.

As it happened, when the moment came, I ended up driving to the hospital with Cosette, just as she predicted several weeks ago. I don’t know how she knows these things. The neighbor guy came over to sit with Toddler Bret, who was already in bed. I was tired and anxious, of course, trying to find the hospital with a four-year-old who never stops chattering in the backseat. “That’s 36, Grandma, you go that way. That’s 3-5-W. There’s 280, Grandma, take that.” For the love of God, I thought, give me a break, Cosette!

Both siblings were beside themselves with excitement at bringing the baby home. He didn’t care. But then he probably doesn’t know they see him as a big, almost lifelike toy. Cosette has been honing her mothering skills for months.

He’s a good-natured baby, fortunately, and cute as a button. Doesn’t cry much. He’s already survived being poked in the eye by his brother. No tears but it did make him screw up his face. This is good. He should get used to it.

Welcome to the family, baby Lee. We love you very much.

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Has It Been Four Years Already?

The Summer Olympics start tomorrow in London. I must admit, I’m a nut about the games, summer or winter. My children know this about me. “Don’t bother asking Mom to do anything while the Olympics are on,” they’ll tell you. “In fact, don’t bother Mom at all when the Olympics are on.”

It’s true. I will be glued to the set watching things I have no interest in at any other time. Javelin throwing. Sculling. The 200-meter backstroke. Of course, some events are too boring to watch under any circumstances – speed walking comes to mind – but for the most part I’m enthralled.

There always seems to be some drama surrounding the Olympics too. This year it’s been one thing after another for the Brits. People were worried the venues wouldn’t be finished in time. They had to call in the military when the security firm they hired couldn’t cut the mustard. Several of the city’s main routes have been closed to everyone except athletes and visitors, to the disgust of Londoners just trying to get to and from work. And yesterday, someone who wasn’t paying attention put up pictures of North Korean soccer players next to a South Korean flag, prompting a one-hour delay in a preliminary match and ruffling Communist feathers everywhere.

I like the British. They tend to be self-aware and inclined to say what they think. Upon seeing the Olympic flame arrive in London this week, one man commented, “Oh Lord, let’s just get the bloody thing started.” On the other hand, at least one Englishwoman predicts a change in the mood once the games begin, with people “behaving in ways we wouldn’t normally behave – waving flags and shouting and cheering and indulging in other wildly disinhibited acts, such as maybe even talking to strangers.”

Well, I for one will be watching, even though I’m sure something will happen to tear me away at the most inopportune moment. It wouldn’t surprise me if that baby decided to be born right in the middle of rhythmic gymnastics.

I WISH I COULD DO THAT.

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Photo: Google Images, afg-gymnastic.af
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Pages from Grandma’s Diaries: Bret Jr., Part 2

NOW I AM BIG.

Toddler Bret had his second birthday this week. I think I can still call him Toddler Bret since he just entered the Twos, as evidenced by the minor meltdown at his birthday party yesterday. “Just leave him alone and he’ll stop,” his sister said. Which proved to be the case after everyone – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – studiously avoided looking at him and certainly made no attempt to engage him in speech.

What really brought him around was his mother’s suggestion that he open his gifts a little early. It was an amazing turnaround. His favorite present was a little remote-controlled dog from his 93-year-old great-grandma. It didn’t matter how many times the dog walked off the end of the coffee table, he found it hilarious every time.

He liked everything else after that… the Happy Birthday song and the cake and the candles, which he blew out all by himself because he’s a big boy now. Soon he will be a big brother to someone. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, here’s a few thoughts from the last two years.

December 31, 2009
The most exciting news I got over the holidays is that grandchild No. 5 is on the way. Gina and Bret like to surprise me with this kind of thing. When she was pregnant with Cosette, they gave me a bunch of photos to look at, including one of the dog next to a sign that said, “I’m going to be a big sister.” I thought they were getting another dog, which seemed odd, but not for them.

You’d think they’d learn to give it to me straight, but no. This time they gave me a jar of spaghetti sauce for Christmas. I thought maybe it was homemade. It wasn’t. Then I thought, “What a stupid gift.” Finally, someone yelled, “She’s prego!” There are no Hallmark moments in our family.

September 8, 2010
I babysat for Cosette and Baby Bret Sunday night while their parents went to Stillwater for a good night’s rest. It’s hard to make it through the night at their house, mainly because Baby Bret has some baby reflux thing going on, which is seldom bad enough to wake him up but enough so he complains in his sleep.

The complaints are hard to describe, but they’re enough to set off the super-sensitive baby monitor sitting on the nightstand next to your head. As a result, you’re in his room roughly every half-hour, because maybe he really is awake and needs something. You never know and you never will until you get up and check. I sort of gave up on sleeping after a while, which is why I was washing dishes at 3:30 in the morning.

December 30, 2010
I watched Cosette and Baby Bret last night. He’s a pretty easygoing baby, especially if you carry him around without stopping. I guess he’s hungry a lot, because I’ve never known a baby so determined to suck your face. Which is hard to avoid when you are, as I say, carrying him around nonstop. As soon as his little face gets next to yours, he’s sucking your cheek or your chin or your eye socket. It feels weird. It is weird.

Also, he never stops talking. I call it talking because I don’t know what it is. It’s loud and comes from down in his throat somewhere. Along with Cosette’s never-ending dialogue, it’s noisy at their house. I would be very surprised if that changed in the new year.

January 28, 2011
I’m babysitting for six-month-old Baby Bret tonight while the rest of the family goes ice skating. Haven’t seen him for a while, but I imagine he’s as chubby as ever, and since he obviously can’t propel himself anywhere, I’ll have to lug him around. It isn’t going to help my back, which is still achy from last Saturday night when I slept with ten-year-old Maria, who will sleep smack dab in the middle of the mattress and good luck trying to move her.

He’s a cheerful little guy though, Baby Bret that is, as long as you keep him fed. Which I do whether it’s feeding time or not. My job, I believe, is to keep them happy by whatever means necessary and let their parents deal with it later. It is free babysitting after all, by someone who really loves your kid and doesn’t care what time you come home. Not surprisingly, parents find this very appealing. I figure they can deal with a kid who’s a little off his schedule.

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Let Freedom Ring…But Not Too Loud

I GOTTA GET ME ONE OF THESE.

Time again to celebrate America’s #1 national holiday and favorite excuse to let loose. While we proudly wave our flags and grill our brats (a German invention, I believe), let us not forget what the day is all about, i.e., our independence from those damn Brits, who wanted to tax us for things like tea and sugar. We’ve built a nice little country here, with an income tax rate of 10 to 35 percent admittedly, but at least we have our own flag and national bird.

In the meantime, be careful with those fireworks, which we used to have to buy across the border in Wisconsin but which are now available at fine retailers everywhere. Well, not the big stuff that’s capable of launching a small rowboat into outer space – this is still the state settled by serious Germans and Scandinavians after all – but nonexplosive, nonaerial things like sparklers and party poppers, which should be more than enough fun for anybody.

And while we’re on the subject, don’t forget to… Drive safely. Swim with a buddy. Use sunblock (SPF 30 or more). Don’t leave the potato salad out in the sun. Watch out for poison ivy (three serrated leaves per stem). Check the kids for ticks. Wear a life jacket in the boat (it’s the law). And if you haven’t had a tetanus shot within the last ten years, you might want to stop at the clinic before heading up North. The 4th of July – what fun!

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Photo: Google Images, micsmarket.com
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