Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

WOI: An Ode to Frau

When I first started high school, a mysterious figure arrived at the front doors of Flinthills High.

She wore her dark hair in a boyish pixie cut, which struck us as odd since the only women we knew with hair that short were our moms. Her skin was pale, as though she was too busy reading novels to spend time outdoors. Her slim, athletic figure was often masked by chunky knit sweaters and loose-fitting polos that sometimes rose just high enough to tease us with the edge of a tattoo (we thought?); and her semi-angular face, framed with expressive and prominent brows, rarely displayed more than the slightest hint of artificial color.

Her effortless manner of existence was unlike any we’d seen before. She was so damn comfortable in her own ordinary skin, that she became anything but ordinary. Her very being suggested both careful consideration of her place in the world, and a quiet but firm refusal to adhere to societal expectations.

We came to know her as Frau.

Frau was our ninth and eleventh grade English teacher — and she was exotic, right down to her obviously-European sneakers. She spoke German fluently, we discovered, due to a year-ish stint in Karlsruhe — or was it Düsseldorf? (This life abroad, we came to understand, did not entail evangelizing or studying at a university or teaching young children to speak English; I seem to recall her admitting she spent much of her time washing dishes. I forget the specifics, now, but the puzzlement remains.) We were exhilarated by every mysterious layer of her being.

She kept miniature squares of Ritter Sport Schokolade tucked away in odd desk drawers: coveted rewards for particularly skillful writing or unusual participation in classroom discussions. She instigated heated debate sessions, forcing us to take a stance just so she could flip the tables and require us to defend the opposing point of view; all the while enabling us to understand the complexities of not-so-black-and-white issues, unbeknownst to us fumbling teenage idiots. She welcomed original student works, and suffered through many samples of my angsty teen poetry: some, she submitted to contests or anthologies; most, she returned, riddled with suggestions, scribbly stars, and questions.

One February afternoon when the grass lay buried and brown beneath mushy gray-sky snow, Frau read a poem to us: “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I have never forgotten how innocently the poem floated up from the silky pages of those Holt Literature books, right up to the last two lines: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / went home and put a bullet through his head.”

After a brief moment of silence following the sound of the last period, my peers issued immediate exclamations: That was STUPID! Why’d he do it?! I hate this poem. But I was enamored. How remarkably odd, indeed, that Robinson could so nonchalantly introduce the man’s abrupt suicide. My heart ached with startling pity: Robinson’s words had touched me, at the very core of my being. I don’t remember a time before this in which an author’s work had such a moving effect on me.

While many of my peers likely forgot the poem and the record player upon which Frau shared the musical version by Simon & Garfunkel, I still think of this poem often, ten years later. I remain haunted by Richard Cory.

Frau set the wheels in motion: my literary awakening.

* * *

She’s a bit romanticized in my memory, I’ll admit. It’s quite possible that some of the details of this recollection are a bit skewed. But I suppose that is normal: those rose-colored glasses are some sort of due process for a person with whom one has formed such an intimate but distant personal relationship.

Frau claims ownership (or perhaps, contributing-editorship,) to a fair chunk of what I claim as my actual self. She planted a seed of hope in the palm of my teenage soul that has never stopped growing. Certainly, sometimes that seedling has shriveled a bit or needed some coaxing to emerge from a particularly crusty layer of neglect and doubt; but the seed remains. She showed me how to nourish that seedling with exceptional prose and tidbits of poetry.

She also cultivated my appreciation for literature and writing into something much greater, something much more fulfilling. Because Frau walked through the doors of USD 492 some twelve years ago, I learned how to accept criticism of my writing, though sometimes frustrating or nettling. And through her steady stream of feedback and encouragement, a foundation was built for a lifelong need to write.

In the meantime, she hurled book recommendations at me like literary bullets. I grew whole in the fibers of those pages, filled with competing desires to read my life rich and to please this woman I had grown to love in the manner of student admiration. Few things became more satisfying than the affirmation Frau bestowed upon me when I completed another noteworthy novel. My appreciation for this beloved teacher grew into something a bit like friendship, and a bit like worship.

* * *

I’m a teacher of high school English, now, and more often than not I have a little cry at my desk at the end of the day, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. My students can be belligerent and cruel, my colleagues are often sharp-tongued and more critical than helpful, and society as a whole seems to have few kind things to say about educators. On those days, I usually end up calling my mom, who sits patiently on the other end of the line as I weep loudly and feel pretty sorry for myself. I wonder aloud why I even bother, what is even the point of being a teacher.

When the gasping cries subside a bit, she always asks, “Are you done?” and I nod, as though she can see my head bob through the phone. “Good. Do you remember Frau Krehbiel?” she starts.

And that’s really all she has to say.

WOI: True Grit

Last weekend, I laced up my Brooks Launch 2s, threw on a ratty old race t-shirt, and chugged what seemed like a half gallon of Arctic water from my Yeti Rambler as I passed through the doorway of my childhood home. It was race day, and I was not even remotely prepared.

At 7:00 on a muggy Eastern Kansas morning, I maneuvered the F-150 in robotic fashion toward a destination only somewhat known, the deeper part of my brain engrossed in a one-sided conversation that could aptly be dubbed WTF Have I Signed Up For? Meanwhile, my passenger sat only two feet away, equally silent — though her silence seemed much more serene, determined.

Sheila and I were on our way to our second race together, and our very first OCR (obstacle course race): the True Grit Challenge 5k.

In the weeks leading up to the race, we nervously shared photos and videos from Oz Events’ Instagram and Facebook accounts, often with nervous giggles that resembled desperate hiccups (at least, on my end of the line). I grew increasingly wary: I’ve been a runner for 14 years, competitive for 9 of those, but this OCR thing was unknown territory. Sheila, on the other hand, who has no history of running, only offered words of support and encouragement in the days prior to our race. We can do this, she texted me. We are warriors!

Though the course was not the most extreme or difficult of OCRs around the country, the back half would have been an agonizing tenth circle of hell if it hadn’t been for Sheila, who pushed and pulled and encouraged through her own exhaustion — she was a beacon not just for myself, but for others, as well. While my mantra was something along the lines of “OMG I’m out of shape – please don’t let me die today,” Sheila’s was an even, confident img_3866“We will succeed – we will finish this race.” Her tenacity was nothing short of incredible.

***

I’ve known Sheila for three years, now; two of those years we spent as colleagues and friends as teachers at the same school. My first impression of Sheila was that she was remarkable: her 2nd grade classroom ran like a well-oiled machine, her own children were respectful and kind, and her faith — that, my friends, could move mountains.

I quickly discovered Sheila to be an unstoppable, striking model of everything that a woman could be — everything a woman should aspire to be.

Sheila is a Woman of Interest (I know — I slipped up a bit on blogging about those) for a number of reasons; truthfully, too many to list in this post. First and foremost, Sheila is a fountain of encouragement. Seriously. In every frustrating situation I’ve endured over the past three years, Sheila has bombarded me with goodwill and heartfelt words of encouragement. Sometimes, these tidbits come from the Bible. Most times, these nuggets of inspiration come from the depths of her beautiful heart.

Perhaps due to this perpetual stream of support she supplies for others, I know Sheila to be resilient. During a physically grueling OCR, nothing could phase her; haybale mountains, cattleguard crossings, log carries — all of these obstacles were merely annoyances to be dealt with prior to crossing the finish line. A year ago, she ran her first half marathon; and though the going got rough, she finished with a smile on her face.

She is the picture of grace. Even in the face of divorce, Sheila has prevailed in her efforts to remain composed, dignified, and kind-spirited. Pettiness is not the stuff she is made of. At her core, she strives to better the lives of others around her, regardless of her personal feelings toward any given individual or situation.

I find myself awed, often, by her ability to go far beyond proclaiming a faith in Christ or her own status as a Christian; Sheila truly embodies the loving, forgiving, and compassionate nature that her faith asks of her. In her, you know that these elements are authentic; usually, they seem effortless.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit: unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” It’s almost as if the entry was composed with Sheila in mind.

WOI: Sister, Sister

When we were six and eight, we built a fort between our beds, using the coveted, reversible horse blanket. Our beds were only four feet apart, you see, and the blanket was plenty big enough to drape over both twin mattresses. We’d turn off the lights in the room, pull down the shades on the windows, and stuff every pillow and stuffed animal we had into that dark tunnel between beds, where we’d tell each other stories or read by the narrow beams of miniature flashlights.

When we were eight and ten, we read American Girl magazines and books like they were going out of style. She was drawn to Molly, of the WWII era; and I was obsessed with Felicity, who dwelled in colonial New England and shared my love of horses. We would play school with the dolls, and read their stories, and dream together about how different our lives would be had we been born decades, even centuries, ago.

When we were sixteen and eighteen, we bickered spitefully — about everything. But when I was treated like dirt by petty girls on the track team, she took up arms for me, my she-knight in shining armor. Nobody could listen to me scream, I hate you! and still come to my rescue when others tore me down; nobody, except for her.

Some sisters are admirably (and possibly sickeningly?) close growing up — they plait each other’s hair, they play together peacefully, they hold hands on the sidewalk that leads into the school building. My sister and I? We were not that idyllic pair. Sure, there are many memories from our youth that are pleasant and peaceable; but for every good moment of sisterhood, there’s at least one or two moments of intense sibling rivalry.

Brianne was born just 18 months before I came along, you see. We were close enough in age that we should have had a great deal in common — but we fought like hellions, instead. Looking back, I can’t tell if this is due to our many differences, or our many similarities; at any rate, I can tell you that as middle children, we both ran a completely unnecessary but nonetheless grueling race to distinguish ourselves in our parents’ eyes. (Again: completely unnecessary. Dad told me a few years ago that I’m his favorite.)

Mom always worried that we would regret those years of fighting as children; she’d sigh with exasperation, sometimes with tears in her eyes, and she’d say My sisters and I never fought like this! I don’t understand why you two can’t get along!

Well, Mom, I have to tell you — I don’t regret the fighting all that much. That childhood/teenage sparring produced resilience and stubbornness, two characteristics I value most in my sister.

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“Do something that really embodies your relationship.” Nailed it. Photo creds: Steve Coleman.

Things you should know about Brianne:

  1. She’s resilient, and stubborn as hell. Nobody — I mean, nobody — can change Brianne’s mind when she knows that she is right. And, while this is often a major pain in the butt when discussing anything even remotely political, these traits are responsible for her success as a human being. On top of this, I’ve never known my sister to be swayed by popular opinion or peer pressure; she stays the course and does what she knows to be right, ethical, and appropriate.
  2. She’s not tied up in body-bashing. Our world is full of girls who are increasingly concerned with their outward appearance, and who put themselves down repeatedly and publicly. It’s socially acceptable for girls to condemn themselves, and others, based on the numbers they see on their scales or the number of blemishes on their faces. Brianne is refreshingly unapologetic about her appearance, and doesn’t allow me to get negative about my insecurities in front of her. She’s supportive and embracing, not hypercritical — and that’s about as beautiful as it gets, friends.
  3. She’s chasing her dreams. We live in a world of sell-outs. We’re told to “dream big!” as kids, but as we advance through the school system, those dreams become more and more stifled by societal pressures to land a respectable job, earn piles of money, and meet expectations that have been predetermined based on our gender. Brianne, however, defies this sell-out norm. She earned her MFA in acting, and has relentlessly pursued her dream of becoming a stage actress in the big cities that comprise the Northeast. Her road has been dotted with disappointments and near misses and flat-out no‘s, but she trudges on.

My sister probably doesn’t know she’s an idol to me (I’m sure I’ve never told her), but she is. She forces me to look for the positive or encouraging or possible in even the worst situations. She challenges me to stay true to my dreams, never giving me the opportunity to make excuses for shoddy work or mediocre effort. She persists, she encourages, she inspires.

She is my sister, and I couldn’t live without her.