AFTER MULTIPLE VISITS to Grams Regional Park, Randy and I feel comfortably familiar with this 100-plus acre natural area. The Sherburne County park in Zimmerman has become a lunch-time stopping point on our way to a family lake cabin south of Crosslake.
We exit US Highway 169 onto county road 4, drive a short way, then turn left and snake back to the park across the road from Lake Fremont. Here, among the oaks, we eat our picnic lunch before stretching our legs.
The park features two miles of trails and boardwalks in a diverse landscape of open natural space, oak forest, tamarack bog and wetlands.
We’ve enjoyed the wildflowers of spring, the wild raspberries of summer and the flaming hues of autumn here in this quiet natural setting.
On our most recent stop in late May, we met a couple, Connie and Dale, lunching at the same picnic table we’d used prior to a hike through the park. It was a chance meeting which turned out to be a history lesson. Connie’s grandparents moved onto this land in 1919. She grew up here and eventually convinced her mother to sell the property to Sherburne County. The county, according to information on its website, acquired the park land from Howard and Marvel Grams in 2002.
Had the property not been sold to the county, it would have become a housing development, Connie said. I could hear her gratitude that the Grams family legacy is one of a park and not of houses. I shared how much we enjoy this natural space.
Connie also pointed to a nearby 200-years-plus-old oak tree, now under study. I couldn’t help but think how an oak often symbolizes a family tree. The Grams family may have owned this land at one time and grew their family here. But now the branches have spread to include the broader family of those of us who appreciate this place among the oaks.
Much-needed rain fell here in southeastern Minnesota over the weekend and into Monday, easing the drought that has left lawns parched brown and soybean and corn fields stressed.
Rain fell from late morning to late afternoon Saturday, with 3.5 inches collected in the rain gauge at our house. More fell on Sunday, although those were showers rather than anything substantial. Monday afternoon, just as I was about to hang laundry on the line, raindrops began falling. That ended plans to hang clothes outdoors. But I was OK with that given the steady rain.
I still think like the farmer’s daughter that I am with my dad’s words echoing in my brain. I can almost hear him saying, “They got more rain north of Echo.” No matter how much rain fell on his fields near Vesta, he always thought Echo, seven miles to the north, got more. Or that their crops always looked better.
I never understood Dad’s dissatisfaction. And I can’t ask; he’s been gone 18 years now. But if Echo got rain, good for the farmers near that small southwestern Minnesota town.
Right now all of Minnesota needs rain. And if you got some, no matter how much or where, then I’m thankful.
TELL ME: Are you dealing with a drought or rain shortage where you live? Or if you live in Minnesota and got recent rain, how much?
PERSPECTIVE DOESN’T DIMINISH challenges in life. Rather, perspective helps one to assess, to consider, to reshape thoughts.
On Thursday, the word “perspective” edged to the top of my mind upon learning about the collapse of a 12-story residential building in Surfside, Florida. Suddenly what Randy and I experienced this week doesn’t seem all that bad. Minor, really, in comparison to the loss of life and home in Florida.
As I write this, four people are confirmed dead with 159 missing. And then there are the injured and those who are now without a home. It’s a lot of loss. A lot of grief and pain and heartache and stress beyond comprehension.
When I view the rubble of the high-rise, I think of the fallen World Trade Center towers and of the I-35 bridge collapse. The visuals from Florida imprint the immensity of the catastrophe. Media reports, especially interviews with loved ones of the missing, cause an emotional reaction which leaves me in tears, feeling deeply saddened. My heart breaks at the humanity of it all—the deaths of loved ones in such a sudden and awful way.
As six industrial-sized fans and a dehumidifier roar in our basement, I focus on perspective. I see those media reports featuring search and rescue teams, eye witnesses, family members, government officials and others at the site of the Florida tragedy. I also hear the repeated word, “hope.” Hope rises, even when it seems futile.
But, like perspective and resilience, we need hope. Especially now in Florida.
JUNE PROMPTS MEMORIES of Junes past, when our then family of five headed south of Faribault to Straight River Farm to pick strawberries.
We made a game of it, seeing who could harvest the most berries. It added an element of fun as we collectively picked 20-plus pounds of sun-ripened strawberries.
Years have passed since the kids left home and Randy and I picked berries. But now our eldest daughter continues the family tradition by taking her two children to a berry patch. Together the three of them (the kids are two and five) recently picked close to four pounds. While that’s not a lot of strawberries, it’s not all about the quantity. It’s also about time outdoors. About being, and working, together. About learning that strawberries come from fields, not just the produce section at the grocery store.
My grandchildren are a second-generation removed from the land. I want them to understand the origin of their food and to appreciate that their maternal grandparents grew up on family dairy and crop farms. Agriculture is part of their heritage.
As their grandmother, I hold a responsibility to continue that connection to the land. This past weekend, when Isabelle and Isaac stayed overnight, we enjoyed the stunning summer weather with lots of time outdoors. That’s one simple way to link to the land. We packed a picnic lunch, with the kids “helping” to make their own sandwiches. Then it was off to North Alexander Park, where they learned to side step goose poop on the paved trail before we finally found a picnic table in a goose-poop-free zone. (Note to City of Faribault: Please place more picnic tables in the park among all those shade trees.)
While eating our picnic lunch, being in nature spurred conversations, which prompted questions, observations and more. Grandma, how many oak trees are there in the world? Leave that grape on the ground; the ants will eat it. The airplane is in the blue sky. Oh, how I love viewing the world from the perspective of my grandchildren. Life is so uncomplicated and simple and joy-filled.
Later that day, Randy and I took the kids to Wapacuta Park near our home. Rather than follow the most direct path up a steep grassy hill, we diverted onto a narrow dirt path that winds through the woods and leads to a launching point for disc golf. The kids loved that brief adventure into the woods, where we found a broken park bench (Note to City of Faribault: Please repair or replace.) and art flush to the earth. Exposed tree roots and limestone provided insights into the natural world and local terrain.
Randy also posed the kids next to a gigantic boulder near the playground while I snapped photos with my cellphone. Our three adult children responded with enthusiasm to the texted images. Wow! It looks the same as 30 some years ago! It has barely eroded. Amber and I will have to climb it the next time we are in Faribault.
A second trip to Wapacuta the following afternoon led to a lesson about storms as thunder banged, rain fell and we hurried home. Not through the woods this time.
I love every moment with my grandchildren. The time making cut-out star cookies for an upcoming July Fourth celebration. The time in our backyard blowing up a bubble storm. The time at the playground. The time reading and laughing and building block towers and putting dresses on the same Little Mermaid dolls Izzy’s mom and aunt played with some 25-plus (or less) years ago. These are the moments which link generations, which grow family love, which I cherish.
AS THE BAND PLAYED, as the scent of gyros wafted in the breeze, as the summer day drew to a close in Central Park during Faribault’s Heritage Days celebration, I engaged in a conversation that left me frustrated. The subject: COVID-19 vaccination.
For some 10 minutes, an acquaintance and I discussed the vaccine, specifically his refusal to get vaccinated. I tried to be respectful as I listened to his belief that COVID is no worse than the flu and his assessment that, if he gets the virus, he expects a mild case. He’s around my age, in his 60s. I politely disagreed with his assessment of COVID and stated no one really knows how their body will react to the virus. In our county of Rice 110 people, ranging in age from 24 to 104, have died from COVID.
I shared stories about those, with a connection to Randy and me, who have died of COVID. Those deaths didn’t seem to matter. He acknowledged hearing my concerns, but remained unswayed.
“PARANOID” VS. CAUTIOUS & CARING
When he called his co-workers at a local factory “paranoid” about COVID, I felt myself losing patience. There’s nothing paranoid about concern, about taking precautions, about preventing the spread of a potentially deadly virus. There’s nothing paranoid about caring for your own health and the health of humanity by choosing vaccination.
In hindsight, had I known I would have this conversation, I would have taken a different approach—emphasizing that the decision whether to get vaccinated or not stretches beyond our individual selves to our families, friends, neighbors, and yes, even our co-workers. Even to strangers.
My acquaintance, while seemingly unconcerned about his own health, should feel a sense of responsibility to his community. I wonder how he would feel if he exposed someone to COVID and that person died or suffered long-term health issues. I would struggle with guilt.
I DON’T UNDERSTAND
Not only do I struggle with my acquaintance’s refusal to get vaccinated, but I really struggle with those employed in healthcare settings who are refusing vaccination. At my local hospital, about 37% percent of staff remains unvaccinated, according to a recent story in the Faribault Daily News. They are putting patients at risk by that choice. The same goes for those who work with our elderly and most vulnerable in long-term care centers. Where is the sense of care for others, of respecting science, of maintaining health in a place devoted to health?
GRATITUDE MIXED WITH ONGOING CONCERN
To those of you who have chosen vaccination, thank you. Thank you for protecting yourselves, those you love and the broader community. Because of your choice, we are seeing a significant drop in COVID cases. Vaccines are working. That decline doesn’t apply everywhere, though. In states like Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, where vaccination rates are especially low, COVID cases are still prevalent, according to media reports. And the highly-contagious Delta variant is quickly spreading, accounting for 20% of new COVID cases in the U.S. This pandemic isn’t over yet and I’m concerned for those who aren’t getting, or can’t yet be, vaccinated. Like my acquaintance. And my young grandchildren. And others I know who refuse to trust and accept that vaccines work.
DESPERATE TO BE VACCINATED
In closing, I want to share one final story. A friend’s son and his family are flying from their home in Brazil to Minnesota to get vaccinated. Vaccination is many months away for them in a country hit especially hard by COVID. Their oldest daughter, who has Downs Syndrome and thus is especially vulnerable to the virus, is their primary concern. Think about that for a moment. We can’t give away vaccines in this country. People are refusing them. And here we have a family of four flying some 5,000 miles to get vaccinated. They trust the science. They want to protect themselves. They understand that COVID-19 can be worse than the flu. They are part of our global family and I feel thankful that they are choosing vaccination.
If you are not yet vaccinated, please get vaccinated. Your decision is about more than you. It’s about all of us. Your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your co-workers. Your community. Your world.
HE AROSE FROM HIS CHAIR, lost. I watched him stagger and collapse on Sarah’s chair, plunging his head into his big sister’s chest.
As that scene unfolds on page 297 of Unglued—A Bipolar Love Story by Minnesotan Jeffrey Zuckerman, I cried. I cried at the deep heartache adult siblings Joey and Sarah experience when learning of their mother Leah’s attempted suicide. I cried at the pain. I cried at the challenges Leah faces in living with bipolar disorder. I cried for those inside and outside my circle who have lost loved ones to suicide, who live with serious mental illnesses, who are brave beyond words.
Tears cleanse, releasing pain and emotions.
I feel grateful to freelance editor and writer Zuckerman for sharing his family’s story, which increases awareness, understanding, and, most importantly, offers hope.
Zuckerman writes about his wife’s “broken mind” with an honesty that is simultaneously heart-wrenching and beautiful. Although at times he literally runs away, his love for her endures and he never gives up. He never gives up through the manic episodes, the rage, the hurt, the personality changes, the exhaustion, the anhedonia (lack of feelings), the sleepless nights, the hospitalizations, the efforts to find the right medications that will help…
Through all of it, he learns. He begins to understand, to see bipolar disorder for what it is, a medical illness. He sees, too, the stigma, and he begins to open up. To neighbors. To friends. And also to those in a National Alliance on Mental Illness support group. He writes: It’s hard to explain just how listening to my story with grace and without judgment was exactly the help I needed.
THE 3 Cs
I listened to his story, taking notes as I read Unglued. Although I feel fairly informed about brain disorders like bipolar disorder, I find myself acquiring new knowledge every time I read personal stories like that of the Zuckerman family. This marks the first time I’ve read a book written from a spouse’s perspective. Even through the most difficult days, Jeff loves Leah and comes to realize that he didn’t cause her illness, nor can he control or cure it. He recognizes, too, that he must care for himself if he is to be of any help to his wife of 30-plus years.
SEPARATING THE INDIVIDUAL & THE ILLNESS
Theirs is a love story marked not only by loss and grief, but also by forgiveness, by strength and resilience. Zuckeman is able to see Leah, the individual, and not Leah the illness, first. From her, he learns to be more tolerant and less selfish.
Through his storytelling, this gifted Minneapolis writer personalizes bipolar in relatable and ordinary ways. Half-way through Unglued, he writes about stopping with Leah at Ben and Jerry’s for Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream before returning her to a psych ward. After 25 days of hospitalization, Leah is discharged and, writes Jeff, they begin gluing back together her life…and their long, fractured marriage. And that glue is love.
IN A WINDOWLESS ROOM of Armstrong Hall on the campus of Mankato State University, I pounded out a fictional obituary on a manual typewriter.
The year was 1976. And I was learning the basics of newspaper reporting. Lesson number one: Always spell a person’s name correctly. Never assume. Ask for the spelling. There is no reporting sin worse than misspelling a name. I remembered that during my first reporting job out of college when I interviewed Dayle. Not Dale.
I learned from two of the best—Robert O. Shipman and Gladys B. Olson. They were old school journalists, determined to teach Woodward and Bernstein-hyped students how to gather facts and report with truth, accuracy and integrity. They taught the basics—how to write a strong lede, how to infuse interest into feature stories, how to get the story right…
But beyond that, they cared. Deeply. They cared about the roles newspapers play in communities. To report hard news. To share human interest stories. To inform. To keep tabs on government and schools and other groups entrusted with public monies and policies. To share and express opinions on the editorial page, considered the heart of a community newspaper. To publish obituaries. And much more.
All these decades later, I remember those lessons learned from Shipman, Olson and others who taught mass communication classes at what is today known as Minnesota State University, Mankato. I graduated in March 1978 and shortly thereafter started working as a newspaper reporter at a small town weekly, The Gaylord Hub. My career would also take me to full-time reporting jobs in Sleepy Eye, Mankato and Owatonna, and to a short-term assignment in Northfield with freelance work also tossed in the mix.
Through the years, I’ve maintained my passion for writing and grown my passion for photography. Even while raising three children, with minimal time to write. Yet, I’ve had no desire to return to the long and odd hours of working for a newspaper at low pay with the stress and pressure of deadlines and a public that criticizes more than values the free press.
Much has changed since I typed a fictional obit in Armstrong Hall on a manual typewriter. For one, technology. Two: Newspapers charge to publish obits. I still struggle with that change. But I understand given the declines in ad revenue. Three: Attitudes. The easily flung accusation of “fake news” simply angers me as does constant criticism of responsible media. “Don’t kill the messenger,” I advise those who target the media for reporting “only bad news.”
I wonder what Professors Shipman and Olson would teach students today. I expect they’d still focus on the basics. On accuracy and integrity and spelling names correctly.
While writing this post, I wanted to assure I spelled their names right, which led me to search online. It was then that I discovered some interesting facts about Olson, a petite spitfire of a woman. Shortly before she turned four, Gladys and her infant brother were orphaned as a result of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. Their parents died within 24 hours of each other, among more than 8,000 North Dakotans who died of influenza in 1919. The siblings were raised by their paternal grandparents. I wish I’d known this when Olson taught me how to become a good, decent and fair newspaper reporter.
Today, as I read Olson’s 2016 obit, I understand her backstory, what shaped her strength and resilience and kindness. The list of her accomplishments beyond journalism professor emphasizes service to others. She lived to age 101. That she died only four years before the COVID-19 pandemic is not lost on me. I’m thankful she didn’t have to endure another pandemic. I’m also thankful that she, and Robert Shipman, taught me old school journalism style. To write with fairness, integrity and accuracy. And to value the role of newspapers in a democracy.
WHEN YOU CONSIDER THE WORDpocket, what flashes into view? A side or back pocket in your jeans? A place to tuck your cellphone or keys? A slip of fabric stitched to the front of a shirt? How about a garden? Yes, a garden.
Downtown Faribault features a pocket garden, a mini garden sandwiched in an open space between buildings. I love the concept, the artsy and practical use of a spot that might otherwise exist as unused and unsightly.
In 2018, two sisters and two artists created the 2nd Street Garden next to DuFour’s Cleaners thanks to funding from Faribault Main Street. That downtown-focused group secured a $15,000 grant from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Bush Foundation for six creative placemaking art projects, including the pocket garden.
With financial support, sisters Dee Bjork and Beth Westerhouse (who has since died) and husband-wife team Ann Meillier and Dave Correll (Brushwork Signs) designed and created the garden. It incorporates metal flowers, real flowers and plants, a bench and floral art.
The result is an inviting oasis that feels tranquil and welcoming. And unexpected.
Recently, I revisited the garden and discovered a mini stuffed bear on the park’s bench. An attached tag invited visitors to take a photo and to use #LovePeopleBeKind. The bear, with red heart connected, fits the garden’s theme of Love One Another.
It’s such a simple concept: Love One Another. But it’s not always easy to do. We say and do things that hurt others. We fail to listen. We blame and criticize and jump to conclusions. And with technology, it’s easier than ever to fire off words in the heat of the moment. Without thinking. Without considering. Without putting our fingers and mouths on pause.
I’d like each of us to step into a pocket garden. To sit on a real or imaginary bench, surrounded by natural and artistic beauty, and to contemplate. To think beyond ourselves. To think of ways we can grow more loving and caring. To consider that what we say, write and do matters. In either a positive way or a negative way. We can hurt people. Or we can choose to love one another. We can choose to show, and grace others with, kindness, love, care, empathy and compassion.
That strong visual of the empty chair before that Somerstein photo sparks within me the desire, the need, to look deep within myself, and then beyond myself. To learn. To begin to understand in some small way what it means to be Black in America. To read the history. To recognize how slavery affected generations of families. How the hurts and wrongs of yesterday remain.
The official declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday certainly prompts me to research, reflect and contemplate. But I hope this new national observance initiates community conversations that bring change in a nation reeling from racial issues and injustices. It truly takes each of us at a grassroots personal level to effect change.
Recently, I listened as an elderly white woman spouted angry words about George Floyd, murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. She claimed that Floyd was being portrayed as a “saint” when he was “nothing but a criminal.” I felt my blood pressure rising as she continued her rant about all the shootings in Minneapolis and how thankful she was that she didn’t live in the Cities. She missed the point of the protests—over police brutality, over racial injustices, over the needless death of a Black man (yes, one with a criminal record) while in police custody. I walked away. And maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have stayed and tried to discuss this with her. But I knew my efforts would prove futile. She saw this all as a metro, not a rural, “problem.”
I disagree. We are all human. No matter where we live, we ought to care about how others are treated, whatever their skin tone. Perhaps today, Juneteenth, we can sit quietly for a bit, contemplate and reflect on life in America today. How can we improve this country, starting right in our own neighborhoods and communities? Within ourselves.
FOR THE GOOD FOLKS of Janesville, the fiery “death” of Frankenstein last Saturday morning equates the loss of a community icon.
The 20-foot tall fiberglass and steel interpretation of Mary Shelley’s monster loomed on a downtown street corner in this southern Minnesota town of some 2,500. Until the early morning hours of June 12, when a 35-year-old man who lives nearby allegedly torched Frankenstein. He’s been charged with felony arson and damage to property. Only the skeleton remains of the sculpture valued at an estimated $14,000.
Janesville’s Frankenstein, originally a Vulcan displayed at the 1988 St. Paul Winter Carnival, was reinvented as a Halloween attraction in the metro before a local businessman purchased him from an auction in 2012. I photographed Frankenstein in 2016, finding him an oddity in this small Waseca County town.
But “odd” isn’t new to Janesville. For decades, “The Doll in the Window” was Janesville’s noted attraction. The mannequin, positioned inside an attic window and visible from well-traveled U.S. Highway 14 (which now bypasses the town), was the stuff of creepy legends. The man who displayed the doll died long ago and, from what I found online, a lot of unknowns remain.
Whether Frankenstein is resurrected remains to be seen. For now, folks are honoring him with flowers and other mementos placed at the base of his skeleton, drawing attention once again to this rural Minnesota community.