Dismantling the Bench

Nestled under the pine tree was a rustic heavy duty five foot wooden bench. A sitting spot for kids waiting their turn on the diving board. For over ten years the bench fought against the elements. Snow, ice, hail, and summer sun grayed and pitted the wood. Year after year, the bench a fixture, just was. Cumbersome, awkward, and weighty, a few simple pieces of wood. A forgotten backdrop of many photos.

Engraved on the back of the bench in large letters was, In memory of George and Mary K Smith. When I became the recipient of this bench the letters were in front. I promptly turned the bench slats around. I didn’t need a constant visual reminder of my parents though I was pleased that I was the beneficiary of the bench instead of my siblings. I felt like I had pulled something over on someone. The fact was, no one wanted the bench or had a place for it. Heavy as it was.

Recently, our backyard was being landscaped. Pines removed. I yanked at the bench to drag it from its place. The bench complained and its right leg crumpled. Other joints also appeared ready to give way.

Would I miss the bench?

I tugged and jerked the bench to the side of the garage. Returned to retrieve its leg.

After a couple of weeks, I called the neighbor to see if he would use his chain saw to take apart the bench. That seemed to be the quickest and easiest way to discard it.

Wood shavings and a small pile of wood were in a corner of my driveway when I came home from work. I couldn’t believe that such a burden was reduced to so little.

Little by little, week by week, I fed the pieces into our waste container. I was careful not to overload the bin and have the waste be rejected. Now it is gone.

What I didn’t know was at this same time, our homestead was being sold. When I learned of this, I felt a punch in my chest. It’s finally done, I thought. It really happened. Our homestead is no more. Like the wooden bench the farm is gone.

I had no financial stake in the homestead. Only emotional. What I miss is in my heart already. Aunt Kate, the pond, a sledding hill, the smell of popcorn, ice cream bars in the freezer. Those memories I can always draw on.

If it was Aunt Kate’s name on the bench, I’m not sure I could have ever let it go.

My Personal Abortion Story

It’s personal. How could it not be? It’s my body. I was 14 years old. In 1973, abortion had recently become legal in Minnesota. I didn’t know that. What I knew is that the doctor had just told me that I was pregnant and asked if it was one of my brothers.

I didn’t question why he asked me if it was one of my brothers. That would come years later when I made an appointment to request a copy of my doctor visits and health history. Then, I was on a search to claim myself. Bear witness to that teen girl who had raised herself up on the exam table and screamed, “No!” My abrupt movement viciously scrunched the white parchment paper underneath me. I was overcome with fear. What must have I looked like to him?

I saw a similar expression on his face when I asked for my medical records. Fear. I wasn’t there to hurt him. What I really wanted to know is why he asked me if the pregnancy was one of my brothers.

“I ask everyone that,” he said. I knew that not to be true. By then I was able to trust my senses.

The truth of my pregnancy is that it likely was one of my brothers, but it could have been someone else. I didn’t know.

That mid-summer morning when I was 14, the doctor quickly left the room and called my mother who was at home. She had dropped me off for the doctor visit, saying, “Call me when you’re done.” I was complaining of stomach pain.

Waiting for her to arrive at the doctor’s, I leaned against the sunny part of the brick building. My stomach didn’t hurt anymore. I couldn’t feel anything. I was in freeze mode. I thought about my options. How I could run away, leave town, walk the opposite way from home. Take the side roads and make my way out. I’d still be pregnant. I nodded at my mother when she pulled up.

“I wish it was an appendicitis,” she said on our way home. She never asked me about the pregnancy.

My father was summoned to their bedroom. Phone calls were made. Then I was beckoned. “You’re going to have an abortion,” my mother said. All I felt was relief. She was going to take care of this problem.

Before my mother died, she told me that she wished she wouldn’t have had that abortion. I didn’t correct her by saying that I had the abortion, not her. She was dying. I’m guessing the Catholic priest didn’t give her absolution, which caused her regret. She said the abortion took her a year to get over.

I have no regrets. Not an iota of sense that I murdered someone. That I am a killer. That I’m going to hell. If any of that was true, I would know it. I spent 30 years in therapy getting to know myself. I’d know.

When I feel sadness, it’s not because I had an abortion. It’s sadness for the child, teen and adult who was left to navigate her past, present and future.

Living with a Freshman College Student

Prior to our daughter leaving for college, Jody and I hosted a self-defense class in our front yard with Crystel and other young women who would also be leaving for school in a few short weeks.

Addressing the girls, the instructor said something like, You will drink. Then he looked at the parents and said, Your daughters will drink. They will go to parties.

That’s not going to happen, I thought. Not our girl.

Directing himself back to the young ladies, he said, How will you keep yourself safe? 

Fast forward. Sixteen weeks into her freshman year, I was shocked when I learned she had discovered drinking, gummy worms, and the sweet smell of liquid THC.

I had to ask myself, What did I think she was doing in college? After much thought and self-reflection, my answer was, Making choices.

I recalled my college years. I had attended parties. I had made choices.

It was her decision, would always be her decision, whether to attend parties and imbibe.

I was not ready for my college student to come home different than how I had sent her. She was always independent but now even more so. She had her own agenda which did not include her parents.

I realized that it was me who needed to adjust. She was growing up. She was adulting.

What finally gave me comfort is coming back to my center. Looking at my choices. My growth. Knowing that my daughter now had the very same opportunities that I did.

I’m writing this blog while she’s practicing Clair de Lune on the piano. I watch her hands move across the keyboard. Clair de Lune, soothing and calming, turbulent and emotional. Sad and triumphant. A perfect backdrop for my emotions.

Coming back to writing, I know without a doubt, What’s important, absolutely the most important, is for me to be there when she calls, and, in between, to enjoy the sweet music that she makes.

Crystel has approved this blog.

Sometimes

“She’s staring again,” Juan Jose’ remarked to Crystel on Tuesday. The three of us were dining at Pizza Luce. The 19-year-olds sat across from me. I was looking past them, merely looking, not staring at all, at the people coming in the door, the servers rushing into the kitchen, dodging for silverware, the water pitcher, the food that was ordered.

Crystel shook her head back and forth, “She always does that, you know that.”

It could be a girl Crystel’s age that will pull me back to the horror of being raped. A toddler sitting on my lap, dozing, her limbs a rag doll. Trusting. Safe. No worries. What would she have to worry about? She’s 2 years old. At 4, adorned in colorful scarves, beads, and unmatched socks. A Jasmine Princess at 5. Loving Johnny Depp at 8. Being the first to jump in the pool, the first to ride her bike, the first…

“I’m writing stories,” I say in my defense.

I’m studying people. Their familial relationships. Body language. Emotional state. Piercings. Tattoos. Eye contact.

That morning I studied a photo of a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl. She had long brown hair, parted in the middle, smiling eyes, smooth face. She looked happy.

I pictured the 14-year-old who raped and killed her. How much bigger he would have been than her. His height, weight, and strength. My stomach tightened.

I was her.

8 years old

8 years old.

The young girl with a smooth face. Smiling.

I was no match for a 14-year-old.

My four older siblings just kept getting older. And I would always be the younger.

The running track already set. An oval that I would run round and round.

Never getting away.

I asked for help when I was 9. I was afraid. They were bigger. I needed help.

None was forthcoming. I became that 10-year-old. Only I didn’t die.

It lives within me. The assaults. The rapes.

The watching of others.

My Sixties Echo My Twenties

Volunteering, embracing new ventures, and self-learning described my twenties. I ran marathons, took week-long bike trips with Jim Klobuchar (Jaunt with Jim), and was flooded with personal insights. Not long before this, I was a two pack a day smoker, didn’t own a bike, and hadn’t yet begun any inner work.

Springing into my twenties, I embodied two mottos: “Say Yes! to everything if it isn’t illegal or dangerous,” and “Don’t let fear stop me from doing things alone.” Do it anyway. Outer and inner work was simultaneous. I was desperate to understand myself. I wanted to be my own wise person. Seek my own counsel. Only then could I really be free to live my best life.

I rollerbladed marathons with a nephew. Volunteered at a week-long Christmas pageant, dressed as a Shepherd, herding live sheep. Often, I cat, and house sat for others while they were on vacation. After many attempts, I quit smoking.

Going it alone opened my world to many possibilities. If I wanted to do something, I could do it. I didn’t know anyone on my initial ‘Jaunt with Jim’ bike trip. By week’s end, I had lifelong friends.

A sense of déjà vu came over me the last week of March when I volunteered to be a Brand Ambassador for the Title IX Celebration at the Mall of America. There were eight days of family-friendly activities, games, and performances to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

I stood under the basket on the Fastenal Sport Court in the Rotunda shagging balls for the free throw contest.

I still hadn’t learned. Just like I biked over a rumble strip on my inaugural bike trip, spilling out, scraping my arms and legs, I was hit twice in the face with a basketball before I determined that positioning myself under the hoop was best left for others. I came home with black eyes.

My next volunteer assignment was the selfie booth. That might have been a mistake on the organizers’ part. The only person taking selfies was me. I can still entertain myself. That hasn’t changed one bit.

A familiar fear came over me when I started strength training. Crystel helped me over the hump and accompanied me on my first BodyPump group training at the YMCA. Sometimes, it’s good to have a friend. After one group session, I realized that my weights were not evenly placed on my barbell. No wonder I was unbalanced during the class with one end going up and coming down lopsided. I thought something was off.

Teresa, Crystel, and I volunteering concessions at Twins game.

Last week I started volunteering at Achieving Dreams. The program is entirely comprised of volunteers. All proceeds are focused on our mission to help families afford meaningful and positive experiences in organized activities and education. Jody, Crystel and I, along with friends are donating our time to fundraise for Crystel and others’ educational expenses.

How much time do I have left in this life? 10 years, 15? A day?

What’s next? Perhaps, biking across Iowa on my electric bike, grey hair askew, steering away from rumble strips, lifting my legs up when I go through puddles.

I’ll figure it out. I’m my own best counsel. I’m living my best life.