Belle of the Bell

It was a square room. The dishwasher lived on wheels and rolled to the sink, where it was hooked up to the faucet when enough mugs and cereal bowls had accumulated. Hanging at the entrance to the dining room was a swinging door–usually propped open, unless there was company for whom the sight of cooking might be jarring, at which times it was closed to protect their delicate sensibilities. Separating the bustle of food preparation from the living room, where my dad regularly gave voice lessons while we stirred the chili, was a set of wooden, slatted doors, the kind Deputy Sheriff Festus had to push through to enter the saloon on Gunsmoke. The floor, the design of which had my mom on her hands and knees periodically, scraping gunk out of the grey channels with a knife, was Of Its Time:

This was the kitchen in my childhood home, the heart of my youth.

In the kitchen we had:

  • skim milk and Dr. Pepper
  • grandmother-produced applesauce in Mason jars and factory-canned mushrooms
  • iceberg lettuce offered in small wooden bowls as our dinner vegetable, a smattering of carrot medallions like lily pads across the top, and a box of Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer
  • homemade noodles–rolled out on the counter, whimsically formed into all the letters of the alphabet before they were tossed into boiling chicken stock–and Dolly Madison pies featuring Peanuts characters

Skidding back and forth on this continuum, ponging between “good food” (skim milk, Grandma’s applesauce, iceberg lettuce, homemade noodles) and “bad food” (Dr. Pepper, canned mushrooms, Rocky Road, Dolly Madison pies), was my adolescent self perception.

I wanted to be thinner, smaller, granted space in the world by taking up less of it. But I was bigger, thicker than my friends, diminished for taking up more space.

I was enough in the realm of normal not to be “fat.”

I was enough bigger than normal to be called “fat.”

I knew what I wished to be: someone who met with approval–from friends to boys to parents–but I knew, thanks to my reflection in a can of Dr. Pepper, that I wasn’t entirely approval worthy.

A bad day was when boys on the school bus mooed at me.

A good day was when the world played along with my hopeful sense of self and refrained from commentary.

An even better day was when some small gesture or group of words granted me a feeling of No Need to Worry–when the world was my Jewish mother, urging me to “eat more,” rather than a WASPy one in a crisp oxford shirt who deliberately averted her eyes–a stricken whisper of inhaled breath when I tucked my shirt into my jeans and revealed the curve of my belly.

The very best day was one when my dad and I stopped at Taco Bell.

It was a glamorous place, one rarely visited. For some reason it was just the two of us that day, as though all the other contestants in life’s rich pageant had been eliminated, and we two finalists were the only ones left huddled on the stage, sharing a spotlight, wiping our smudged mascara, gripping each other’s hands as lifelines.

Standing at the counter, we contemplated our choices. Wanting to be budget conscious, wanting him to know I wasn’t overweight because clearly I didn’t eat too much, I ordered a single crunchy taco. He, budget conscious, having battled weight himself, ordered two.

He grabbed the plastic tray from the counter while I found some napkins, and we chose our seats in the dining area. Save for us, it was empty.

Two of us. Three tacos.

The silence was broken by crinkling as we unwrapped our meals.

I was so hungry.

The heft of the taco in my hand was satisfying, like one of my mom’s jars of Avon face cream. It was warm, like the heating pad I put under my head when my ear ached. It was a damn face-cream-heating-pad miracle, this taco.

Tipping my head to the left, I bit into the narrow end of the shell. Three drops of juice ran out of the meat and punctuated my bite as they tap, tap, tapped onto the parchment paper.

Crunching, I put my face close and examined the perfect waxiness of the shredded cheddar, the familiar sprinkle of iceberg. Every ingredient was a wonder of perfection.

As I watched the curls of cheese melting slightly on the warm meat, I heard the plink of my dad’s taco drippings hitting the tray.

Tipping my head again, I took a huge bite. Another. One more.

Then it was gone.

Dad continued to crunch. Across the laminate table, listening to him chew, I was inexplicably happy to be sharing crunches and drips with my dad–his sweetness always clearest when no one else was around. I wanted it to continue.

Being eleven meant my body was a constantly changing terrain, and my friendships were a lasagna of petulance layered over love tucked under resentment dusted with competition. My grades were good, but during gym class the bully, a popular blonde boy, would whisk close to me and mutter “You’re so lame. Next time, you better kick the ball better, or I’m going to kick you where the sun don’t shine.” At home, in the neighborhood, I would discover I was bleeding, run inside to put on a new pad, and head back outside to play Cops & Robbers on bikes with the next-door neighbor, a girl a year younger who rode bra-less and shirtless up and down the boulevard on her ten-speed. At age eleven, I was fine except not.

Plink, plink, plink.

Forever, if I could, I wanted to sit in that all-but-empty Taco Bell dining room, the safest place I’d been in years, and share the sounds of a meal with someone whose shadow protected me.

“That was so good,” I ventured, teetering on a wire of fear that he would respond with a warning that we needed to be careful about how much we ate.

But this was the father who heard my smallest comments. He had heard me say, one time, “I sure love chocolate milk.” After that, sometimes a half-gallon would show up on the top shelf of the fridge, next to the skim.

Another time, I noted, “That lemon chiffon yogurt is the only flavor I’ve ever liked,” and a half dozen small containers appeared, crowding the container of chili leftovers.

My dad was a man who would drive five miles across town to save $.18 per pound on ground beef–and laugh self-deprecatingly at his compulsion to do so–and he would go to any lengths to seek out a symbol that he’d registered an offhand comment. Always, he absorbed my words without judging my hips. Always, he showed me love by hearing me.

At the Taco Bell that day, impressed–not appalled–by the way I’d shoved that taco down my throat in four bites, he smiled, enjoying my appetite, lighting the room from napkin dispenser to trash bin.

“Well, then, how about another?” he asked.

$.59 and four bites later, we gathered our plastic tray, tipped our crumpled papers through the swinging mouth of the garbage. I kept my half-drunk cup of water, clicking the straw between my front teeth as we walked together across the blackness of the parking lot, feeling the sun on my face,

the fullness of unconditional love in my stomach.


The inspiration for this post came from a piece that appeared in the Life in Chains series on The one that ran there is a vastly superior essay, but I nodded the whole time I read it, thinking, “I had something much like this in my life.” You can read that excellent essay here: “Finding Home at Taco Bell.”

It is hella good, so I’m almost afraid you’ll go read it, for mine suffers in comparison.

Also, my friend Brooke, the person who shared the Life in Chains essay with me, wrote her take on “fast food family memories” which was then posted on a blog called Well Fed, Flat Broke. You can read Brooke’s post here: “The Golden Days.”

In return, Emily of Well Fed, Flat Broke wrote a post that appeared on Brooke’s blog, Miss Teen USSR. Emily’s take on family life and Dairy Queen can be read here: “Dairy Queen.”

If you care to share, click a square:
birthdays dad

Drag Your Feet to Slow the Circles Down

If your browser allows it, click Play:

[audio:|titles=12 – The Circle Game] ——————————————-

One year, when my dad’s birthday rolled around, my mom didn’t know what to buy him for a gift–he already lived under Montana’s Big Sky and possessed a lovely tenor voice, both of which made the case for him as A Man Who Had Everything. So she did as many a clever gift giver had in the past: she made his present.

She made him a baby, and that baby was me.

I was wrapped in a soft blanket and presented to my dad on March 25th, 1967. That day, I was zero; he was thirty-two. The day before, his own mother–born in a dugout sod house forty miles away from the hospital where I was delivered–had celebrated turning fifty-two. Thirty-three years and six days later, Baby Jocelyn would give birth to her first child, a Girl. From March 24th to March 25th to March 31st, the last week of March has always been loaded with birthdays in my family.

One of the many beauties of my life has been my status as Baby of the Family. As the third of three kids, I enjoyed the best of everybody: I was Mamma’s Girl, Sister’s Girl, Brother’s Girl…and, of course, as his special present in 1967, Daddy’s Girl.

As the years passed, we always enjoyed sharing a birthday. Naturally, Dad didn’t get feted the same way I, a kid, did. For me, there were party hats and friends gathered ’round and much-observed blowing out of candles.

But for adults, life is just life, including birthdays. I blew out candles; my dad went to work. Then the next day would come, and then the next week would roll around, and then it was April, and then it was summer, and then there was gardening.

Mixed in to every year were the birthdays of others, such as my sister below, turning twelve, much to my delight (CAKE!).

Then the summer would end, school would begin, and it would be fall, then winter, then a new year, more holidays, more birthdays, more life.

Always, my mom was there, my brother was there, my sister was there. My dad was there. We took road trips; we ate chili; we watched tv; we dusted the knicknacks.

Eventually, it was our birthday again. Eventually, I turned sixteen.

All words–all possible apologies–fail me as I try to make amends for the hair on that sixteenth birthday. Chalk it up to 1983 and the exuberance of youth.

I blew out the candles. I opened gifts. I wished my dad a mutual happy, happy day.

Cake demolished, we carried on. Back to life. Back to studying and practicing and visiting. Always back to music.

Here, Dad is all tarted up for his role in The Magic Flute. Is there really a dinosaur-lizard creature in Mozart? I was too busy frizzing up the back of my hair to pay proper attention.

A few more years passed, and I went off to college, where I was surrounded by new friends, foregoing even silverware on my 19th birthday.

As ever, March 25th was followed by March 26th, which then spun back into studying and dancing and lolling.

At home, in Montana, the music continued.

At some point during college, I became enough of an adult that Dad and I could share a cake on our shared day. I’d started from him, gone off onto my own, and come back to rejoin him with more deliberation.

Of course, as children do, I then hopped back in my car and drove away. For Dad, there was gardening, music, tv. Life.

I graduated and began my own career. And then my grandma, born on March 24th in that sod dugout on the prairie, died.

I sat next to my dad at the memorial service and pressed my leg against his, absorbing the shudders of his body as he wept. Later, in both the hollowest and most meaningful of gestures, I put my hand on his knee.

Then I got in my car and drove away. He taught. Gardened. Sang. Observed.

As the seasons went ’round and ’round, my brother got married and became a father. I became an aunt. My dad became–most joyful of things!–a grandfather.

With a few more spins of Earth’s axis, I, too, married and had a child. My parents’ joy grew.

But then we all would get in the car and drive away. He would dig in the dirt, watch his shows, look for coupons. Always and ever, there was music.

Sometimes, he and my mom would get in the car and come to us. His thousand-watt smile never beamed more brightly than when we was with his grandchildren.

My father has four grandchildren, but he only ever met two of them. He was in his final decline in the hospital as I gave birth to Paco. Fifteen days after that emergency C-section, Dad died, alone, still hopeful of a recovery, his heart and lungs finally giving out after years of chronic ailment. Two months later, his fourth grandchild was born.

It’s his not knowing his grandchildren as they grow up that slices me most. Now, a decade later, they are, to a one, intelligent and creative and funny and poised. His death at age sixty-seven means his most amazing legacy will never know what they missed.

Now it’s March 25th again, and he would be seventy-seven. This is my tenth birthday without my father. I am not maudlin or overly-sentimental about his passing. His death means he was alive.

That he was alive means I’m alive

and that Girl can spend all day holed up in her room with a book

and Paco can ask to play baseball at dusk.

Birthdays are, of course, our way of marking time, of slowing down long enough to take stock, of noting where we are in the arc of our lives, of taking a guess as to how much more we might still have in front of us.

Dad and I won’t share a cake this year. We won’t wish each other “insider” birthday greetings. I won’t put my hand on his knee ever again, nor will he ever again slide into the driver’s seat, snap into his seat belt, and put me at the center of everything by asking, “Where do you want to go?”

I was his most-original birthday present.

He was my gift of a lifetime.

If you care to share, click a square:
dad family legacy music

Above the Horison: Postscript

Stop running away at the sight of this title, ya scaredy-blogger.

Really. I’m done exhausting and exhuming the story of my grandma and dad. But at this point, before I move back to the usual programming of posts that detail how Jessica Alba is somehow like a Shamrock Shake–and other random pop culturized profundities that are, in truth, what actually occupy my brain–I thought I’d squeeze one more drop out of this family tale.

By now, it’s not much more than a vanity project. Interestingly, the vanity has come about because–and hold your mullet here, Wayne!–I’ve actually learned how to use our scanner, and therefore I am veddy, veddy proud of my small, delicate, “copy-button”-pushing finger, the one what has bravely helped a host of old family photos to become computer friendly. Honest to Edison, before these past weeks, when I’d use pre-2004 photos on my blog, I’d just prop them up on the counter out on the back porch and take pictures of them that way. Good, old-fashioned digitization and all.

So as long as I’m feeling flush with pride over my techno-smarts, and so long as I’m struggling to grade the work of 90 online summer students and therefore have smallish writing time, and so long as we’re pondering family and how its members resonate through the generations, I thought I’d provide this mini-album of photos.

My dad? Was talented and pragmatic and gentle and awesome. My eight-year-old girl, who is talented in her own fashion but not necessarily musically, is doing her best to occasionally hit the right note and sporadically find the dominant beat. But she LOVES her music, as did my dad. And she’s definitely pragmatic and gentle and awesome.

Look at these two Beethovens, in photos taken decades apart. Legacy, indeed.

Dad at the wheel

Girl in her first recital, last weekend

Dad, as I remember him best

Girl, feelin’ groovy

Dad, in tails, directing his college choir

Girl, taking direction and managing to use her hands and voice simultaneously

And then.

There’s Wee Niblet Paco Dinko, the five-year-old here in the house. As resident goofa$$, he is clearly mine. But how, exactly, can he be traced back to my dad and that serious branch of the family?

This might be our only evidence of a relationship.

If you care to share, click a square:
dad death grandma Memorial Day

Above the Horizon: Part the Last


My great-aunt Ethel and Grandma Dorothy as girls in Montan

The Saturday after his mother’s memorial service, my Finnish father, who would regularly answer the direct question of “What are you thinking right now?” with “I don’t know,” talked to me about his life. As it turns out, he was more than just my parent, the guy who mowed the lawn and directed choirs and churned out homemade pear walnut ice cream (using Thomas Jefferson’s recipe); he was a fully-historied human being with a holster of experiences I’d not known about.

Francis and Dorothy as a young couple, holding new baby Larry; my dad is the three-year-old in the front.

On that Saturday night, as Dad and I sat at the dining room table alone, I learned that my grandfather–reputed as gentle and taciturn in family lore–had, through wordless reproach, made my father feel stupid, even worthless, for my dad had the ill luck to be born with a beautiful tenor voice into a world where handwork was valued. On the ranch, that this boy, my young father, would someday sing Die Fledermaus was secondary to his inability to fix a broken combine.

My dad (looking a bit uncomfortable), my grandma Dorothy, my grandpa Francis, and my uncle Larry

Because of family expectations, my elegant, artistic dad spent his teen years on the back of a tractor, circling in the fields; it was then and there that he began to shout songs to the clouds, angling for any activity that would make the time pass and draw his attention from the worry of a mechanical breakdown–which would require he seek help from big men in dirt-covered overalls, men who would squint with quiet scorn at his “useless,” tapered pianist’s fingers.

That night, as words poured forth from my father, he admitted to me, “My father and I never had conflict. We always got along. But we were never close. In fact, Dad would never assign me chores or tell me what to do on the farm–I could have stayed in the house all day, as far as he was concerned. It was Mom who, to keep peace, would notice what needed doing and then send me out to work. I’ve noticed that Finnish families, maybe all Scandinavian families, are matriarchies in which the women take the initiative. And the men like it that way. They’re comfortable with letting someone else take the lead and make sure things get done; that’s one of the things I like best about your mother and what my dad liked best about my mom.”

Awash in my dad’s reflections, I also learned that after high school, Dad was going to attend the University of Montana-Missoula but first won a scholarship for the summer to Billings Business School for being the 3rd-fastest typist in the state. So he took shorthand there and a vocabulary-building class in the mornings. He lived that summer just outside of Billings on his Aunt Louise’s farm (she who sang “How Great Thou Art” at the memorial), where he slept in the bunkhouse with his cousin Stanley. Everyday, Louise made my dad a lunch to take to school: a baloney sandwich. Part of the agreement about his living in Billings that summer and being released from ranch chores was that he would have to work, so he got a job with Service Candy and spent his afternoons filling vending machines with candy and cigarettes.

Then, one day, Phillip Turner, the conductor of the choir at the private liberal arts college in Billings, Rocky Mountain College, came into Service Candy and said he’d heard about my dad’s voice (from whom, no one knows) and asked that he consider attending Rocky that fall. When Dad said that he already had a scholarship to attend the university in Missoula, and he needed that money, Mr. Turner pointed out that Rocky had a “valedictorian scholarship” for $300, and my dad would qualify for that. Thus, in the July before he started college, my dad changed his plans. Grandma liked the idea of Rocky, as it was a church-affiliated college. With her approval, his course was reoriented.

A year later, having completed his freshman year at Rocky, Dad was ready to get away from Billings–more accurately, to get away from the ranch that was a mere 40 miles from Billings, a place he was still dutybound to each weekend, a place with an endless expectation of willing work. Plotting his escape, my dad applied to three Minnesota schools (liking the fact that his dad had grown up there): Hamline, Macalester, and Carleton. Ultimately, he decided on Hamline…but his folks told him he couldn’t go–they’d not help him.

He said he was going anyway. And he did.

For the next three years, every semester, just when Dad didn’t know how he would pay the tuition, a check for $500, the exact amount of tuition, would come in the mail from his mother, my grandma Dorothy. Even thirty-five years later, both of Dorothy’s sons remembered fondly, “If it weren’t for Mom’s egg money, we never would have gone to college.”



years and then in a professional picture a few years later

My dad during the Hamline

If it weren’t for my father’s talking that night in the wake of his mother’s death, I never would have known that my grandma, the woman who, at the end of her life, needed an elevating chair to help her stand up, had loved to dance. My grandfather would not dance, being too shy, but while he leaned against the wall, she would circle ’round the floor at the dances held in the local schoolhouse, turning, swirling with other fellows in the community, a fact that made her two sons elbow each other and snigger that another man was touching their mother, and she was having fun at it, too.

Because of the words her death inspired in my father that night, I don’t picture Grandma Dorothy in heaven as I remember her on earth–sitting in a purple recliner with an oxygen tank next to her, complaining of dizziness, elevated blood sugar, shortness of breath.

Instead, I see her younger,

more vital,

kicking up her heels

against the backdrop of a broad Montana horizon

as she waits for her cows to come Home.

If you care to share, click a square:
dad death grandma memorials

Above the Horizon I


I never felt particularly close to my paternal grandmother. She was pessimistic; she groused that I sat on the couch and read too much (“Don’t you ever go outside?”); and the candy jar in her living room only ever housed lemon drops and restaurant-style peppermint circles, which are the Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of the candy world: ubiquitous and completely without redemption.

However, she knew how to cook a goose, and I respected the fact that she was–and remains–the only person I’ve ever known who could actually cook my goose (and trust me, it’s needed a good basting on occasion). Also, she was, fundamentally, a good person, and especially in junior high, a big part of me understood that finding a fundamentally good person was a rarity. I didn’t “get” Grandma–we’d never hitch up into a shoulder-to-shoulder percolation of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang–we’d never hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

But Grandma was all right.

In the 7th grade, when I was assigned a biology project to collect and identify a slew of wildflowers, it was my grandma (having never sat on the couch and read all day thanks to the 80 cows on her Montana ranch with bulbous udders that had them lowing for relief twice a day) who walked the acres with me, plucking flowers out of the ground and handing them over for cataloguing with a terse, “Think this one’s called Shepherd’s Purse.”

So when she died in January of 1999, at the age of 83, her passing meant something. On a deeply personal level, I wasn’t affected, to tell you true. But she was emblematic of something bygone, and that fact moves me still.

She died in Montana, a handful of miles from her birthplace: a sod dugout on the family ranch, that passle of acres where she spent the majority of her life milking cows, feeding cows, cooking beans to feed the pigs, baking pies to sell to local restaurants. At 18, she married a Finn, and they raised two sons on their ranch of nearly a thousand acres (small stakes in Montana terms). In sum, she was a classic 20th Century Western woman, placing value on work and work again over words and emotions and how big and open the sky loomed above.

Despite my recognition that Grandma had represented something classic, her death came just as I was facing the first week of a new semester, just as personal debt was at an all-time high, just as I was willing to acknowledge that I had never felt intensely linked to this grandmother. I wasn’t sure I’d be flying to Montana to attend her funeral.

Then a sage, in the form of a friend, planted herself firmly in front of my head-down horizon and made my flight to Billings possible, telling me, “Funerals and the like, these kind of things are more important than you know. I think you need to go do this.”

I made my way to Billings to find that my friend had been smack-on right. On that trip, I found that, even though I hadn’t felt a one-on-one connection with Grandma Dorothy, I could, after her death, appreciate anew all those she had left behind, the crazy-quilt of individuals who were patched together due to her life, stitched more tightly in her absence.

Wednesday, January 13th, 1999, was my grandma’s day of memorial.

If you care to share, click a square: