Monday, August 5, 2013

Sudden Angels Part 2: Instant Relatives

When I was a little girl, my summer highlight was visiting my grandparents' farm in Crawford County Illinois. I gathered eggs, made mud pies, and chased lightning bugs.

But the best part was the Saturday night picnic.

Relatives arrived by train, car, and pick-up truck. One of my dad's best friends came in a dazzling orange and white convertible. We carried all the tables and chairs outside, and if you couldn't find a place there, you ate on quilts scattered across the lawn. The washtub held ice and soft drinks, and no one kept track of how many the cousins drank. We had fried chicken, corn, baked beans, pie, and cake.

We made our fun.

I can still hear the crack of croquet balls and someone, usually me, begging my mother to turn cartwheels.  Everyone took a turn at cranking the homemade vanilla ice cream. Even cleaning up was an event because it was a monumental task on a farm with no running water.  Buckets of water were heated on the stove, and the men rolled up their sleeves to wash pans and plates. Women in aprons dried them. 

When I was still too small to help, someone would pretend I was lost and look for me among the yellow lilies bordering the wash house. I giggled and insisted, "Here I am! Look at me!" as the search continued.

I thought those picnics would go on forever. I thought my children would grow up in that kind of summer delight. It didn't happen that way at all. The families scattered across great distances, their schedules jam-packed with cruises and classes, texting their apologies for not being available. Generous souls passed away.

But my daughter Maggie got a glimpse of that kind of jovial event recently when volunteers with the Children's Literature Network gathered at the fairgrounds to get crafts ready for the Minnesota State Fair's Alphabet Forest. Because Sweet Moon Baby will be a featured book on August 22nd, the fair's opening day, Maggie and I will be there to help kids make a Sweet Moon Theater to celebrate an imagined adventure on the day they were born.

Some volunteers cut out puppet faces. Some measured yarn. Some sliced "noodles" to hold letters. Some folded patterns. But we all laughed--more and more as we got delirious from aching fingers and stiff necks.

I tried to stay quiet so Maggie would talk. (When you've got a teenager and a mother together, you've got ample opportunity for eye-rolling behavior from either party.) I did my best to avoid embarrassing her. I let her organize the details. I let her answer questions about her summer without my prompting.

She was surrounded by jovial adults, Aunt Kim, Aunt Debra, Aunt Sue, Aunt Lisa, Aunt Vicki, Aunt Cindy, Aunt Joyce, and Aunt Donna. And typical of all families, one good-natured relative was teased for not helping, although Uncle Steve assured us he was doing official work on his laptop and not playing Angry Birds.

Maybe we lacked fried chicken and aprons, but we pitched in together for a shared purpose that made for a really nice time. In a room filled with book people, titles and plot lines flew. Maggie, a reader herself, added her opinions.  

Every time I looked at her, she was smiling and busy, totally involved in the moment. The fine people at those tables made that possible.

My grandparents' farm is long gone, but I still have their yellow lilies, here in Ramsey County Minnesota. The blooms remind me of the little girl I used to be. While I can't re-create my own summer joy for Maggie, I know enough to recognize the value of good people in her life. Their presence, however it happens, is its own colorful quilt on the landscape of her memory.
I'll take a family wherever I can find it.


  1. Fantastic, Karen. I was right there with you as a little girl, and right there with as an adult. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing.

    1. You are one of my best memories from teaching high school, Janet. I'm honored to remain connected to you.

  2. Your observations are so fine, Karen. I feel privileged to know you and your daughter.

    1. We consider you and Steve to be among the great gifts of our move to Minnesota.