Community: Blessed Be the Tie that Binds

Written August 26, 2013.

On the surface, I just bought a few cool drinks at The Fremont Store and watched the Gladiolus Days Parade while my kids loaded up bags with candy.  It was just typical summer stuff.

But The Fremont Store isn’t just any store.  It’s the country store where my grandparents bought groceries when my mom was a little girl, and it still looks almost exactly the same as it did back then.  And the parade wasn’t just any parade, because it’s is my hometown parade.  It’s the parade I watched surrounded by my family on the curb; the parade where my mom and three of her grandkids were actually in the parade itself.

 The Fremont Store: Our stop for a cool drink and a little slice of community history.

The Fremont Store: Our stop for a cool drink and a little slice of community history.

Those two events brought to mind the importance of a connection to community and family, and the phrase “the ties that bind” popped into my head.

Wondering where the phrase “ties that bind” came from, I headed to the internet.  I found John Fawcett, a Baptist pastor in the 1700s, wrote a hymn titled “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.”  According to Wikipedia, he apparently wrote the hymn to commemorate a time in his own life, when instead of moving to take a higher paid position elsewhere, he chose to remain in the community already lived.  Reading the lyrics of the hymn, Fawcett expressed more elegantly than I can some of the thoughts I had in my head.

I’m not going to reprint the whole hymn and make people’s eyes glaze over, but I will give you a snippet.  To me, these lines exemplify what it is to be connected with others in the community:

Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

Even though everyone has their own personalities, agendas, and political leanings, in so many ways we all want the same things.  When things are good, we celebrate one another’s accomplishments, and when times are tough, the burden is shared by many.  That is community.

The Fremont Store 
I saw it in The Fremont Store last Friday.  We really just pulled in to the store on a whim on our way to the Mississippi after after my daughter asked, “Can we stop at that really old store?”  Since we hadn’t been there in a year, I altered my route to make the stop.

I snapped a picture of my kids on the porch front of the little country store, standing in their swimming suits ready for a day at the river.  I told them my mom went to that store as a kid, and the store looks pretty much the same as when their grandma was a girl.  Every time I go there, I can’t believe the store really exists.  It feels like stepping back in time.

I let each of my kids pick out a cool drink from the cooler and then we paid.  If you’ve been to the store, you know that means I pushed the button to open the cash drawer, and made the change myself.

Instead of moving along on our way, we talked for a few minutes to Martha Johnson.  In no time flat, she made the family connection that Barbie Baer, who lives just down the road, is my aunt.

While standing there, my little daughter held up her fingers to show that she is two.  I laughed in disbelief when Martha counted out her own age on her hands.  I guessed 70-something, was impressed that she continued to 80, and then she finally stopped at 97. Wow.

I left the store with a cool drink and such a huge sense of awe about that woman who’s 97, still sharp and telling stories and running a quiet store in the country.  She mentioned in passing, “People today say things are bad.  They don’t know what they’re talking about.”  If anyone can be an authority on knowing about good and bad, I’d say it’s a 97-year-old.   That cool lady made my day.  I need to stop in Fremont more often.

The Parade
On Sunday the whole town of St. Charles looked alive and bustling as we headed into town to see the parade.  Passing the fire station, we saw all the trucks lined up, sparkling clean and shining in the sun and decked out with gladiolus flowers.  For some reason, seeing that sight just flooded me with a sense pride for the town.  Knowing that the fire fighters in St. Charles are all volunteers made the sight all the more impressive.  Trucks look immaculate in the parade, and more importantly, fires are put out, because people take time out of their busy lives to serve the community.

After watching the parade, I have to say the best part of the parade was seeing my mom dressed in character as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother riding on the library float. Yes, I am entirely biased.

My mom, Mary Kramer, waving her magic wand during the Gladiolus Days parade.

My mom, Mary Kramer, waving her magic wand during the Gladiolus Days parade.

First of all, I’ve never seen my mom in a costume before.  Ever.  But just to do something different, when the library held a character costume contest, she decided to dress up.  I headed up to her attic and unearthed my long-unused homecoming attendant crown for the cause.  A great dress find in the clearance rack and some dollar store sparkles and fluff completed her costume.  And lo and behold, my mom the librarian won the “13 and over” category for her costume, thus earning her a place on the library float for the parade.

Prior to this year, the last parade float she rode was in the 1950’s when she was an attendant for Lewiston Heartland Days.  Yes, it’s been a while.  My mom had a huge smile as she waved her magic wand to the parade crowd.  Her favorite parts were all of the people spotting her and saying “Hi, Mary!” as she rode past, and seeing the sheer number of people along the entire parade route.

I also watched two nieces go by with their sports teams, and a nephew pounding the bass drum.  There’s a comfortable familiarity in watching a parade that I marched in when I was in school, and seeing family doing the same.

After the parade my family headed to my mom’s house.  There I noticed her Reader’s Digest magazine folded open to an article that caught my eye.  The article described a study that questioned children’s knowledge of their family history.  In the study, they found children who scored highest in resilency also knew the most facts about their families (such as where the grandparents grew up, or where the mom went to high school).  They suggested that knowing those facts signified a strong connection with family, an inter-generational connectedness that helps children face the onslaught of life’s troubles.  Knowing some history gives them a place in the world.

Reading that article just felt like a confirmation of what I already believed.  The connections of family, and by extension, being connected to a community, give all of us a resilience to handle the trials of life.

Following that line of thought, it’s good to dress up like a fairy godmother and wave to friends in the local parade.  And retelling “remember when Grandma dressed up” during subsequent years of Gladiolus Days will actually help make the grandkids more resillient in life.  There really is magic in that fairy wand…it’s a tie that binds.

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Are You Settled Yet?

The peaceful view from the front porch makes it easy to feel like we’re home.

“Are you settled yet?” Ever since we moved into our new place in late March, people every so often ask me that question. I never really know how to respond. What exactly does it mean to be “settled”?

For some reason, I have this irrational, nagging fear that if I say yes to the question, somehow people will instantly have x-ray vision into my house, where they’ll scan our rooms with a tally sheet and determine scientifically if we are indeed settled or not.

And when they walk in, they’ll see how I never really got my summer clothes out of the laundry baskets and hung up in the closet, see the boxes stacked in the toy room, notice that our stuff in the attic and basement doesn’t get addressed, and my perennial garden is really mostly a weed patch. Seeing all the “someday” projects, there will be an official woman in a schoolmarm outfit with a tight bun in her hair saying, “Ah ha! It appears as though someone’s NOT really settled, are they!” And then hanging my head, I’d receive my ten demerits.

These guys have many friends up in the attic, all waiting for some attention several months after moving.

If “settled” means life is organized, like a nice, smooth running machine…well, then that answer is no. Not only am I not settled here at our new home, but I’d have to say by that definition, I maybe haven’t been settled in my whole adult life.

Maybe feeling settled means comfortably knowing all the back roads and every nook and cranny of your town. Then the answer to that is no, too. Our house is just on the far edge of the Lanesboro school district, so our kids go to school in a town that is still pretty new to me. Growing up north of St. Charles, Minnesota, the town of Lanesboro,  though just a half hour away, seemed like a quaint little town in a faraway distant land. Turns out, it’s not so distant at all, and now it’s home.

In Lanesboro, my kids now know exactly where to find ice cream, the school there has become pretty familiar, and I’m very well-acquainted with the city park and playground. But I know I’ve got a few years before I have that insider local knowledge of where to find all the really cool things. Someday, I’ll show people around the town and say things like, “Just past the house with the three-legged dog, and right before the crazy lady with 50 cats and a purple porch swing.” (I’m not sure that exists in Lanesboro, but please let me know if it does.)

I don’t mind not feeling settled in that way. In fact, I love it. I’ve both moved back home, and at the same time, to a new place. It’s the best of comfortable familiarity and the excitement of new things to discover. In so many ways, though, I look around and see a to-do list that reminds me that we are long from “settled.”

On the other hand, maybe the question “Are you settled yet?” really means, “Do you feel like you’re home? Do you breath a sigh of relief when you pull in the driveway after being gone?” And then, the answer to the question is a big, resounding “yes.” This is home.

The notion really struck me on Labor Day. During the lunch time downpour that day, our kids sat outside dry and cozy under the shelter of the porch roof, eating chicken noodle soup on the wicker loveseat, wrapped in blankets. We had a quiet, lazy morning, tired from a busy weekend of my sister’s move. I had absolutely no desire for anything or anywhere else but being right there.

Unfortunately, though, our baby girl was sick with a fever and I also suspected a bladder infection. I made the call to take her in, and I headed to Rochester with her.

Sometimes it’s fairly enjoyable to head to Rochester and run errands with my kids. This was not one of those days. Sometimes I hate Rochester. It’s not Rochester, per se, it’s really any big town. And perhaps hate is too strong of a word, but I do certainly enjoy leaving when I’m done. There is something about traffic, continual stoplights, and endless stores that drive me crazy.

Add that usual town tension to carrying an antsy baby into a waiting room with a dozen sick and/or injured people ahead of us, and I really just wanted out. Out of the waiting room, out of town, out to our porch to listen to rain in the rocking chair on the last day of summer vacation.

On the way home, the further I got from town, the happier I felt. Turning south heading out of Utica, I felt my shoulders loosen. I pulled into yard utterly relieved, and it struck me how much this place feels like home. Like a refuge. Three kids lined up on the steps to peek over the railing to see me pulling in the driveway, just the sight I wanted to see.

It was supper time and the bowls of chicken noodle soup still sat on the porch from lunch, but I’d have to say I feel settled into our busy, peaceful life out in the country. It’s nice that we’re alone out here, and at the same time, also feel like part of the community. There are still so many names to put to faces, and faces to put on places along the roads by our house. But after just moving in at Easter, we are thankful to know enough friendly neighbors to have a full night of trick-or-treating stops for our kids on Halloween.

I feel like I’ve planted my feet into the dirt up to my ankles, and I have no desire to go anywhere. It is awfully nice black dirt, after all. So to answer the question, “Are you settled yet?”, the answer is yes. When we pull into the driveway, our three-year-old no longer says, “There’s our new house!” He simply says, “We’re home!” And we are, unpacked boxes and all.

My Gladiolus is Acting Up Again: A Hometown Reunion

Back in high school one of my favorite times was driving Mr. Diesel home from cross country practice with the windows down on warm days, blaring “Small Town”.  Mr. Diesel was my decidedly unsexy by 16-year-old standards ’82 Oldsmobile Delta 88, and the John Mellencamp tape was pretty much worn out by my older sister, but in those moments, I felt completely at one with the universe.  Driving down country roads, wind in my hair, livin’ the small town life, I knew that John Cougar Mellencamp (yeah, he’ll always be “Cougar” to me) and I were completely simpatico on small towns.

My small hometown, St. Charles, Minnesota, is everything that people dream of when they think of great small towns.  Like many people, though, I felt the need to strike out on my own and make a life for myself.  I moved 1,000 miles away to Montana for college, and for the most part, lived in Montana ever since.  Six months ago, though, I moved back home to Minnesota with my husband and four kids.  Life’s a whole new adventure back home again, taking in all that small town life has to offer.

By my best count, it’s been at least ten years since I last meandered the streets of downtown St. Charles, taking in good old Gladiolus Days, the annual hometown celebration.  That’s nearly a third of my life with no parade, no street vendors, no garage sale mania, no Gladiolus Days Road Race.  Living in Montana during those years, the timing never worked for us to come to Glad Days since school always starts there the week before the big bash.  After a ten-year hiatus, it’s really fun to be back.  Or perhaps I should say, I’m glad.

When I first told our kids about Gladiolus Days, they wrinkled their faces into a questioning glance and said, “What’s a ‘gladiolus’?”  I do admit, if it’s not part of your common vocabulary, the word sounds more like a reference to some sort of disease than a flower, as in “I need to go to the doctor, my gladiolus is acting up again.”  All kidding aside, I enjoyed telling my kids about Carl Fischer and how he made the town of St. Charles legendary for his work with the gladiolus.  I told them how I remembered as a kid driving past his big field of flowers on the way to swimming lessons in the summertime, how everyone in town knew and respected his work, and how he remains famous for his glads still today.

Behold…the Gladiolus.

When we rounded the corner onto Main Street on Saturday, my six-year-old spied buckets of flowers for sale on the corner of 14 and Main, and said, “Oooh, are those gladiolus, Mom?”  So, yep, my little Montana natives now understand “gladiolus.”  My hometown festivities began on Saturday morning when I headed to the road race.  I met up with Alison, who was my cross country and track teammate and friend all through junior high and high school.  I don’t know how many miles we logged together over the years, or how many workouts we gutted out together, but I do remember the many crazy ways we entertained ourselves over the miles.

We haven’t seen each other since high school graduation, though, so logging another 3 miles together during the race meant all the more.  Getting to chat during a run with a friend of 20 years and catch up on some details of our lives, we discovered we both married mechanical engineers (good taste, obviously…).  She’s a doctor; I’m a mom.  And we still crack up at remembering the couple of times we made clandestine detours to the Oasis during practice.  (Sorry Mr. Arnold, I think it was mostly in junior high.)   Most importantly, courtesy of Gladiola Days, we both had a reason to get together on a Saturday morning and reconnect a friendship that’s endured through distance and time.

After the race, I hung around long enough to meet a friend’s new baby and watch my friends’ kids compete their little hearts out in the Marky Fun Run activities.  Then I took my sweaty self and my family downtown to indulge in some street vendor fare.  As we baked on the pavement enjoying pronto pups, pitas, and pop, I saw old neighbors walk by and had a chance to chat in line with our former veterinarian.

My mom repeatedly told me to never, ever put a plastic bag on my head. But when it’s the candy bag on the way to the parade…well, then I make four exceptions.

Saturday was fun for me, but Sunday was definitely the main event for my kids.   Before the parade, we steeped them in parade etiquette.  Wave to the people throwing candy, and you’ll get more candy.  Say thank you.  Don’t get too close to the tractors.  When the motorcycles circle around, get off the road and give them room.  And if you’re lucky (unlucky?), the dragon might blow smoke on you.

The pink tractor, running on girl power, was my daughter’s parade favorite.

After brunch at Grandma’s, our two oldest kids hopped on their bikes, and our two little ones climbed in the stroller.  We wove down the streets and made our way down to sit by my high school friends.   With our four little kids all geared up to see fire trucks, horses, tractors, beauty queens, and grab gobs of candy, anticipation was high.

My six-year-old daughter waved for the full hour and a half of the parade.  Her reward?  Her gallon-size Ziploc filled way beyond capacity with all her loot, including a pair of sunglasses, a beach ball, and a paint stick, and endless candy.

My husband, Jarred, who’s never seen the Shriners on motorcycles before, thought the weaving formations, locking brakes, and tassels flying on fez hats were a fine bit of parade magnificence.  He marveled that they are even allowed to do that in this age of extreme safety measures.  In a role reversal, my five-year-old son, in contrast, was not impressed.  After the Shriners whizzed past a few times, he said in the disgusted voice of a grumpy old man, “When are those stupid, loud motorcycles going to leave?!”

And like any good small town parade, we hung around and talked to friends until the kids were crying and begging to leave, feeling sweaty, hot, thirsty, and tired.  We didn’t have as much time to catch up as I hoped, but our baby was fully coated in sugary stickiness and bits of grass and sported a dirty diaper, and the stroller was weighed down with all sorts of candy and brochures from politicians.  I believe that fully covers a complete Gladiolus Days Parade experience.

By the time we made our way back to Grandma’s, my baby girl was dead to the world, and never even opened an eye as I changed her diaper and laid her down in the crib for a real nap.

A trip to the Oasis capped off the afternoon.  Word spread at Grandma’s that Sunday was the last day for the Oasis, and in record time, the mention of ice cream gathered a crew of 15 nieces and nephews and parents meandering down the street toward the Oasis.  While we waited fairly patiently in line, the cousins filled the mechanical ride-on pony a fair bit beyond the ordinary load, and a half dozen kids all enjoyed a 25-cent ride several times.

Finally, cones in hand, we licked up the last tastes of summer ice cream.  And like a good mother, I helped rescue my three-year-old from drippy cone mess by making a quick licking pass all around his cone a few times.  Unfortunately, in saving my son from getting ice cream drips, I neglected my own cone.  A huge blob of my cherry dip cone wax and ice cream landed squarely on my sister’s toes and flip flop.  Sometimes, my efforts at looking like a respectable adult are just completely futile.  I’m still pretty much that same five-year-old that struggles to get through a dip cone before it completely covers my hand in white rivers of sticky, melted ice cream.

I’ll try to master the dip cone next summer.

Ice cream from the Oasis, the Gladiolus Days Road Race, and the big parade all added up to a great weekend in St. Charles.  After living out of state for most of the last 14 years, there’s a comfortable familiarity in crossing paths on the streets of St. Charles with people I’ve known for a lifetime, having 30-year friendships in my mid-thirties, and holding a lifetime of memories at every corner of a town that is clearly a thriving community with so much to offer.

The appeal of my hometown didn’t escape my five-year-old son, who told me, “When I grow up, I’m going to live in St. Charles.  It has a HUGE parade!  And all kinds of garage sales!!  And good ice cream!!”  What more could you want?  It’s good to be home again.

A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins with a Little Panic and Denial

Written January 16, 2012.

Six weeks from now our plan is to move from Montana to Minnesota. That’s six weeks to pack up a family of six, pack up a welding shop full of gigantic tools and equipment, and tie up an infinite number of loose ends. Quite frankly, I don’t know yet how it’s all going to happen by that time. But I do know a few things for certain: I am utterly overwhelmed, a touch panicked, and still in a mild state of shock and denial that this move is real.

Six weeks from a big move, this box and all the others sit woefully empty.

I know the gravity of the short time frame of our move is sinking in because I simply can’t concentrate on anything. Add that to my usual sleep deprivation from a teething baby with a stuffy nose and a two-year old night roamer, and while I look like my usual self on the outside, on the inside I’m just running around yelling, “AAAHHHH!!!” with a bit of hand flailing thrown in for good measure. This week, I created the beginnings of five different columns. At some point, each one of them will probably make an appearance for your reading enjoyment.

None of those that I started to write, though, held my attention. The whole time that I worked on any one of them, one part of me was busy sorting out details of my topic at hand, but that voice screaming in panic about an impending move kept yelling, “How can you write about feeding the baby?!! Don’t you know that you should have something packed up by now?!” And so, here I am. I am finally succumbing to the voice in my head. Perhaps if I get all my demons down on paper, they won’t bother me as much.

Maybe six weeks to moving sounds like a far-off date, perhaps too far away to have that nagging nervous feeling. I am overwhelmed, though, because I’m a procrastinator and not an organizer by nature. Our Christmas cards are still patiently waiting to be sent out. Oops, I mean “New Year’s” cards. Good thing the message printed next to the photo says “Happy Holidays.” This year, I’ll take “holidays” to include Groundhog’s Day, as well.

Delayed Christmas cards aside, though, it’s not that I want to just put things off until the last minute. Procrastination was my modus operandi throughout college, and I still graduated with highest honors. It really is motherhood that is forcing me for the first time to become better at planning out life and getting things done before a deadline. With this impending cross country move, I fully realize the enormity of the task before us. Because of that, my modest goal last week was to start the packing process by boxing up the summer clothes in our bedroom. I envisioned a happy stack of boxes in the corner of our bedroom, patiently waiting to be put on a truck and driven to their new wonderful home in Minnesota. And guess what. A week went by, and I can count the number of boxes I packed not on one hand, but no hands. Zero boxes packed. Gulp.

This is where the utterly overwhelmed feeling becomes a touch panicked. How in the world is this house going to be empty six weeks from now? With at least three kids at home at any given time, the day to day routines more than fill a day. In the past week we were fortunate to have no new incidents of ironed, melted carpet. But of course, there are always the bowls of spilled cereal, wet beds that kids don’t mention until the next time they want to sleep in them, and oh yes, the great benevolent milk provider in the house (me) had to ward off a case of mastitis last week. All of this makes me think wistfully of our newlywed days, when we made a 2,700 mile move from Poulsbo, WA to State College, PA by ditching our crappy second-hand furniture and moving ourselves in just our two cars. I don’t think today that we could even pack the kids’ toys in two cars.

These boxes might require a little reinforcement, but the essentials inside are ready to go.

While I swim in a sea of mild panic, organization and a plan of action also come hard because we are frankly in a state of shock about it all. It’s been nearly three years since we started looking at real estate in MN, and about five years since we started throwing around ideas about making a change from our lives here in Broadview, MT. Last year at this time, we thought Osseo, WI was our next home. We had a signed purchase agreement on a business property there, but then encountered road blocks at every step of the way, and what seemed like nearly a done deal eventually dissolved. But now, we officially own a home on acreage south of Utica, MN and I still can’t really believe it. After working so hard toward this move back to the midwest for so many years, we can’t quite wrap our heads around the fact that it really is happening. Finally! This is real.

Of course, as soon as I tell myself “this is real,” the other part of me says, “no, not really.” For eight years, Broadview, Montana has been home. Home. We can’t really be moving. Our kids were all born at home, right here in this little tiny town. Montana born and bred little tikes, they are. They regularly call up Grandma and Grandpa and invite them across the street to our house for supper or Saturday morning buttermilk pancakes. Our oldest daughter dearly loves her best friend, the only other girl in their kindergarten class of three. Our 4-year-old and our 2-year-old each have cousins here just their age. That means our kids could grow up, play with, and get in all sorts of trouble with cousins in their close knit classes at school.

But wait, that’s not going to happen. As completely overjoyed as I am about making this move back to Minnesota, I also completely dread saying goodbye. I hate long-term goodbyes enough that I often avoid them altogether. In six weeks, though, I am going to say goodbye for now to all of the family and friends that have made Broadview, Montana a great place to call home. We will head east 1,000 miles to Minnesota, back to where I grew up, where our family and friends there will help make our new house become the place we call…home.

© 2012