I moved away from Minnesota when I was 18 and haven’t always been the best at communicating with family members back home. This is especially irksome to my mom’s mom, who happens to be a prolific letter-writer. Once, when I returned for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, Grandma asked me, “Have your hands healed?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my hands. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you never write! I assumed they were broken!”

Point taken, Grandma.

I have not been a good letter writer for some reason, which is weird because I actually enjoy writing. It’s just easier for me to pick up the phone and call. I like hearing her voice on the other end of the line, the Minnesota accent that thickens with age and the Scandinavian colloquialisms that make me quietly chuckle.

Grandma on her 90th birthday with my mom, sister, and niece (I’m always the photographer, never the photographed)

So, to kickoff my “40 Days to 40” project yesterday, I called my now 92-year-old grandma. I wanted to ask her if she remembered turning 40. I figured she would because this woman forgets nothing. Especially birthdays (I get a card every March 26 with $2 or $3 tucked inside). But, to my surprise, she did not actually remember! She reasoned this is because she was chasing after a 2-year-old at the time, and turning 40 just “wasn’t a big deal.” The extended family probably would have come to the house, and there would have been a cake, but the details are all lost, blurred together with her 91 other birthdays and milestones. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal,” she said.

That’s probably true, but since I don’t have 5 kids–including a 2-year-old–to run after, I suppose I have a lot of free time to make a big deal out of things.

I can only hope to look this good at 90!

My Grandma has spent most of her 92 years taking care of other people, mostly children. In fact, she still babysits! I think that’s one of the secrets to longevity – always having a purpose, knowing that waking up every morning will make someone else’s life a little better. Also, I imagine she has one heck of an immune system after caring for 3 generations of children with all their mutant flu and cold viruses. I’m rooting for her to be the first centenarian in the family, although she laughed when I told her this. “As long as I’m not stuck in no wheelchair!” Truth be told, I think she’s far too stubborn to get stuck in a wheelchair. If her legs stopped working, she’d will herself to move them and walk home. That’s the kind of person she is.

While children have dominated the landscape of Grandma’s life, there were other interests that speckled it with color. Back in 1943, “Pageant of Poetry” published one of her poems.  She showed it to me after her 90th birthday party.  I had known about the anthology for a few years but had assumed she’d never be able to find it. Surely, it was buried under 70 years of memories. Not so! She simply walked into a room and proudly emerged with it a minute later.


I was thrilled to hold that book in my hands, knowing that Grandma was the first woman (that I know of) in my family to be published.  It meant that my desire to write and be published came from somewhere.

“Do you wish you’d have written more?” asked my mom, who also happened to be there at the time. I had been wondering that myself, but there’s something in Mom that also loves to put pen to paper.

“Oh ja,” she’d said. “But you know it cost money to send things in and there were always kids to take care of…” There may have been a hint of sadness in that statement, but I could be projecting.  _dsc8898

As she talked, I thumbed through the book, and something caught my eye. Inside the front cover were a few, crisp sheets of paper. I pulled them out to take a closer look. They were the birth certificates of each of her 5 children! Again, I could be projecting, but I can’t help but think that’s significant.

I remembered this as I spoke with Grandma yesterday, contemplating existential anxieties and what it means to turn 40. And suddenly, something clicked for me.  For a while, I thought that Grandma put her writing on hold to put her duties as a parent and grandparent first. But, that’s not true–Grandma never gave up writing. She adapted her writing to fit her life. She expressed herself in the hundreds of letters she’d sent to me over the years.

It makes me think I should try a lot harder to write back. And, I should finish all of those writing projects that I’ve started.  I think I can make a big deal out of that.

Little Squirrel

My niece, Lilly, spent the better part of an hour collecting these acorns and then an equal amount of time hiding them in her shirt, too possessive to share even a glimpse. Eventually, she relinquished her loot to me for a photo project and then tore off to play in the park we were in, forgetting all about them. That’s how adults are too, right? The value of an object decreases with familiarity. A new, shiner object or opportunity will always present itself, and we’ll drop what’s in our hands to run after it.

The value of my family will never depreciate, and nothing will ever replace them. So, I’m a squirrel when I visit Minnesota – collecting as many moments with them as possible and carrying the memories back to Washington to provide nourishment in the long months in between visits. Like the time I woke up to find that my niece had snuck into my room and was curled up like a kitten next to my head. God, that melts my heart.

We should all be little squirrels.

little squirrel

Going Home

Minnesota has a lot of things I don’t miss – mosquitos, deer ticks and the ubiquitous threat of Lyme disease, the oppressive humidity. 90 degree temperatures. However, I can overlook those things because there are more reasons to be fond of the state. I’ll be thinking of them as I fly out of Seattle and into Minneapolis tomorrow.

Little people

1. Being called Auntie Jojo. Nothing beats waking up on your sister’s couch to two snickering little people, whispering and daring each other to poke you as though you’re a sleeping animal. You offer a fake snore to rouse their curiosity, and suddenly there’s a knee in your gut and a tiny face in yours begging for attention. “Get UP, Auntie Jojo!” DSCN3907-1 2. Thunderstorms. Unless you’ve lived in the Midwest, you can’t imagine the sky before a storm – heaving turquoise, warped grey clouds, and the air hanging heavy with anticipation. As a child, you can barely breathe. A crash of thunder on the heels of the first lightning strike provokes a blast of wind from the southwest. Your favorite cottonwood doubles over upon impact.  Hail clobbers the windows, forcing you inside. You hide. Pray in a corner of the basement that it’s not a tornado. But afterwards – that’s when the magic happens. Gold spills hot across the horizon and the breeze skims the waters of Lake Minnewaska, offering an apology for her brief, but violent, harangue.  All is forgiven. DSCN3946-1 3. Taking photos with my youngest brother. We’ve torn up rural routes all across Pope County in search of subject matter, escaped swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitos and evaded Lyme disease. He even let me photograph his wedding! I edited out no less than 50 mosquitos in the photo below…


Of course, there are so many other things I love about going home – breakfast with my dad at the Gingerbread Café, where you can still have a meal and coffee for under $10. My grandma’s stories about how she met grandpa. My mom’s cookies.

Pretending that I’m still a kid and the whole world is still before me.

In My Life

Kasteel; Oak Harbor, Washington

My friend Andy invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family in Oak Harbor.   It was great to be able to spend the holiday with a family, since mine is 1800 miles away.

On the drive back to Bellingham, I was going over ideas for today’s blog when this Beatles song started playing on the radio.   It reminded me of all the places I’ve been, people I miss, and memories of holidays past.    None of those things will ever lose their meaning to me, but what’s right in front of me and what is to come I need to love more.   The way we celebrate and who we celebrate with evolves over time.  Sometimes the rooms overflow with people and other times we sit quietly alone.  

So today, I am humbly thankful for what is right in front of me.   I am grateful for my friends, my family, and the abundant blessings in my life.  I want for nothing, and I love this life more each day.

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

Knock Knock

“Knock knock,” Ella says.

I know the routine.  “Who’s there?”

“Boo…” she continues.

I then ask her the only appropriate question, “Boo who?”

“Boo penguin!”  She giggles, knowing the joke makes no sense, but she can’t remember how it actually goes.  But  she’s five and it’s cute, and I love her to pieces.  We spend the next half hour online looking up real “knock knock” jokes and laughing obnoxiously at the punch lines. 

I was looking for just one photo to capture the essence of the day, which included a trip by ferry to Port Townsend.  I realized this one of my niece, which so perfectly highlights  her blue eyes, was the only possible choice.   My family lives in Minnesota, and I’ve never before in Ella’s life spent so much quality time with her.    I am so blessed to have been given this perfect day and all its little adventures. 

Camera:  Nikon Coolpix 100
Location:  La Isla Mexican restaurant;  Port Townsend, Washington