Rest in Peace, Patty C.

I first met Patty in 1978. We were both English majors at Drake University in Des Moines. I was in my early 20s, she in her mid-30s.

We didn’t have a lot in common.

I lived with a roommate I didn’t like in a campus dorm. She lived with her husband and young son in a four-bedroom house about 15 minutes away. I was a poor college junior who spent my weekends drinking beer that cost $1 a pitcher. She spent her weekends with her parents, swimming in their indoor swimming pool and sipping cocktails graced with fruit from their lemon and lime trees.

Both English majors, Patty and I were paired up on a class paper we worked diligently on to earn an A. I no longer recall what grade we received, but we became good friends in the process. She enjoyed hearing my stories about dorm life, and I liked hearing stories about her parents’ home and lavish lifestyle.  

Looking back, what I think we enjoyed most was sharing our hopes and dreams with someone who not only truly listened, often for hours on end, but also believed in our ability to achieve those dreams.

A year later, in December of 1979, I graduated and moved back to Minneapolis where I went to work for the Minnesota Senate, first as a page and then as an intern researching DWI legislation.

In mid-August of 1980, out of the blue, I received a letter from Drake University’s English department offering me a graduate-school fellowship. In exchange for teaching two sections of freshman English and working 10 hours each week in the school’s writing lab, I would earn a master’s degree in English.

I wanted to accept the school’s offer, but I’d already spent all my savings getting my undergrad degree. And having been raised by a dad whose mantra was, “If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it,” I was reluctant to take on more student debt.

But then Patty invited me to come live with her. And suddenly my dream of earning a master’s became a reality.

The rules for living at Patty’s were simple: two dos and two don’ts. Do empty the dishwasher each morning and do grocery shopping with her once a week. Don’t smoke pot in the house and don’t have sex with her husband (she’d once found him in bed with one of her best friends).

We quickly settled into a routine. Her husband dropped me off on campus on his way to work each morning, and Patty drove me home each afternoon after we had both finished our classes.

We read books and wrote papers, and spent our free time penning bad poetry, drinking beer (her husband worked at Coors) and frying ourselves in the sun.

We also talked a lot about our hopes and dreams. Mine started out modest, but she encouraged me to dream bigger and set goals. It was her encouragement that led me to set a goal of someday writing a book. (Decades later, thanks in large part to her, I did: a book on goalsetting that’s been translated into five languages and is helping young people around the globe set their own goals.)

I liked being part of Patty’s family. Quiet early mornings at the kitchen table sipping coffee and writing in our journals. Afternoons playing catch with her son or helping him with his homework. Weekends hanging out with her parents or her husband’s colleagues.

After 18 months, with classes complete, I moved back to Minneapolis.

For years, Patty and I talked often, regularly exchanged long stream-of-consciousness letters, some of which held our deepest desires and our darkest fears and visited one another now and again.

Eventually she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Arkansas. She also got sick: first with a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed, then with tuberculosis followed by heart disease. Along the way, she made me promise that I’d be at her funeral—no matter when or where—and that I’d make sure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was played.

But as the years passed, our letters got less frequent. And although we did come close to getting together in person a few years ago when I vacationed about 50 miles from her home, we never did as she’d woken up that day not feeling well and had to cancel.

I still wrote a couple of times a year. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. Then, I sent several letters that went unanswered. I wasn’t worried at first, but then sent a letter asking if I’d said or done something to upset her. When I still didn’t hear back, I wrote to her sister who called me immediately to tell me Patty had died several months earlier, most likely from a massive heart attack. Patty’s sister and son had wanted to tell me but didn’t know how to reach me.

There was no funeral. I’m glad, as I would have felt terrible missing it.

But I did download Free Bird to my phone. In honor of our friendship, I play it now and again, always with a heart full of gratitude to a forever friend who made a huge difference in my own life, not only by encouraging my early hopes and dreams but also by being the first friend who truly believed I could achieve them.

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

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Sharing the Load

Canadian wildfires more than a thousand miles away filled Wisconsin’s northern skies with haze. Following another warm summer day slightly diminished by the loss of blue heavens and the company of pesky mosquitos, helping a neighbor harvest their lavender field made a small part of the world all okay. At eight in the evening, thanks to Canadian smoke particulates, the July sun appeared a gentle gold surrounded by a flaming ring. With humidity and heat lifting, the air felt just right to stay outside

She knelt next to the plants, cutting the flowered sprigs with a curved knife. I gathered handfuls, wound the end with a rubber band, then handed each to her husband to trim and load for moving. Their collies laid between the rows, noses resting on paws. A hawk screeched above as it circled the field. We talked about nothing much scattered with deeply important stuff.

We have other jobs that claimed the day, but like all plants lavender has a time to be harvested. They had already completed hours in the field and hung hundreds of bouquets in the barn to partially dry. In a few days the lavender would fill a roadside cart for customers. Sharing the work, an hour went by quickly. Mosquitos called an end to our time.

Some kind of magic happens when friends share the work of their days. Weeding each other’s gardens, making a meal, washing dishes together, sanding another’s wood project, painting a room, harvesting lavender. Formality slips away. The need to create conversation slips into comfortable talk. We move in each other’s space naturally, slipping into the dance steps of our real lives without practice. That’s where memories are made.

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Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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Seen and Heard

Recently, I was reminded that seemingly small moments can have a lasting impact. My mother-in-law told me about her visit with a local librarian. They got to know each other, and now the librarian chooses books for her as part of a library outreach program for people who don’t drive. Although the librarian came only once, her visit meant a lot to my mother-in-law.

Every now and again, acquaintances tell me about a time when something I said or did came at exactly the right time. Often, I’m surprised because I don’t remember the moment and wasn’t aware that I’d had any special impact. With that in mind, I try to be gracious when someone I don’t know well wants to talk. Maybe they need to be heard.

I love good tomatoes and there’s one vendor I look for at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, because his tomatoes are consistently good. We have a nodding acquaintance—we know each other’s faces, but not each other’s names.

The last time I saw him, he asked me if I liked the Tennessee Ernie Ford song that the market’s musical entertainer had just played. I agreed that it was a good oldie and recalled that a neighbor friend’s mother used to play it on the stereo.

Then the tomato vendor told me he loves to sing, and he sang a little of the song in a surprisingly rich bass. I complimented him, and he explained that when he was young, a voice teacher taught him to breathe properly. Now he shows the guys in his church choir how to breathe so they won’t strain their voices when they try to sing bass.

As I walked away, I realized that after our longer-than-expected conversation, I had a fuller sense of him as a person. I don’t know if the conversation meant anything to him or not. Maybe he needed to be seen, wanted someone to know that tomato farming was just one dimension of his life. Or maybe he was just bored and feeling chatty.

Either way, I’m glad I listened. There’s a gift to me in that.