A Grandma’s Letter to Her Fourth and Fifth Grandchild

December 27, 2014

Dear Grand-four and Grand-five,

You were over to visit this afternoon and I have to jot you a note. You are spending Christmas at Auntie Donna’s and seeing your dad’s family. But today your folks drove down here so we could see you on this trip. I wanted to have you all to ourselves, so I’d told your folks they’d have to leave. Grandpa and I wanted to take you to the new Maggie Daley Children’s Park just east of Millennium Park.

As the six of us got on the elevator, you, Grand-four, punched the number one button for first floor, and Grand-five, you began to scream “my turn, my turn, my turn.” And, just that fast, you ran out of the elevator and splayed yourself flat on the hallway floor. Your Dad instantaneously marched out after you, picked you up under the armpits, and plunked you back in the elevator. You were still yelling you wanted your turn.

We were off to a great start.

But you both were fine by first floor and your folks left to go out for breakfast at the Yolk. I took your hand, Grand-four, and Grandpa took yours, Grand-five, and we walked over to Millennium Park. You first had to sit on the cow statue by the Cultural Center—Grandpa lifted you up, I never could—and then, after crossing Michigan Avenue, you both ran ahead through a horde of people to find the Bean. You love looking at your reflection. Then you ran to the railing overlooking the skating rink and my heart started to jump. But Grandpa had kept up with you and you were safely hanging your arms over the rails watching the skaters.

IMG_3400After watching the skaters, we walked across the bridge over Columbus Street to the Maggie Daley Park. We hadn’t been there yet and thought this would be great fun for you. Well, think again! It started out to be, but I was without breath within minutes, as you wanted to run loose among hundreds of kids and parents also visiting for the first time. You first ran to tamer things, like a tire barrel swing and a swinging boat. You really couldn’t get hurt on either of these; Grandpa had to lift you to get you into them.

Then you darted ahead of us to the top of a thing that reminded me of the Tower of London with slides coming down from each end. Grandpa did a two-step following you up to the top of the bridge while I headed for the bottom of the slides. I soon spotted Grandpa standing high up on the bridge part, yelling and waving his arms. I couldn’t hear him above the noise. By reading his lips and contorted cheeks, I figured out he was screaming, “Where’s Grand-five? Where’s Grand-five?”

Well, how was I supposed to know?

At the same time, you, Grand-four emerged screaming, from the enclosed tube of a high double-curve slide. The bottom of your tennis shoe must have gotten caught on the slide and your left leg was bent under you and backwards. Your right leg was out straight. I was standing ready to take a picture of either of you if you came out of the slides.

I snapped a picture before I even realized you were screaming.

I rushed over to help you off the slide. You were grabbing your ankle, moaning. You could not stand on your left leg. I dragged you off the slide, before you got rear ended, and over the pavement about three feet. My limit. By first dropping down on my knees, I lowered myself to the ground. I took off your shoe and sock and inspected your ankle. I was sure something twisted that badly was broken. It didn’t help my lack of serenity that you were now gasping for breath in between painful shrieks. Not seeing an obvious break, I gently rubbed your ankle area. I said, “We should try to move over there and sit on that bench.” You said, “I can’t walk.” And you, whimpering now, in a high small voice, added, “I think I’m going to need crutches.”

You gave me such a laugh just then. How did you even know what crutches were?

Somehow, I don’t even know because it all happened so fast, Grandpa showed up and we spotted you, Grand-five, and got the two of you holding our hands and trotting over to try some open lower slides. (Well, one of us limped.) However, instead of taking the steps back up to the top each time, you both insisted on walking up the adjacent bank or rim, arms teetering out for balance and torsos tottering backwards.

By that time my heart was skipping beats, or maybe it was stopped; all I know was we’d planned to take you to Mariano’s, our grocery store across from the park, for pizza, but my mouth flew open on its own and barked at Grandpa, “I want to go home. NOW.” Grandpa started to say, “But I thought…” And I commanded, “NO. I want to go home. NOW. Hang on to Grand-five’s hand.” He must have seen the determination in my jaw, because he grabbed your hand, Grand-five.

With Grandpa grinning, watching you kids running around having a good time, it’s as if I’m watching three kids instead of two because he’s oblivious that you could go missing without a warning or saying goodbye. IMG_3418Later, when I told a friend about this nerve-wracking hour, she said, “When I babysit my grandkids, my goal is always to come home with as many kids as I left with.” I thought that was so funny, and I said, “And in the same shape as when we got them, with no broken bones.”

But it was not funny at the time.

When we got back home, I asked you to wash your hands before we had supper. You called from the bathroom. The soap dispenser was empty and neither of you seemed to know what the bar of soap was or what to do with it. So I showed you how to wash your hands using bar soap, and the three of us simultaneously and happily washed the bathroom walls and floor. And mirror.

For supper, Grand-five, Grandpa gave you cheese and meat. You wanted a cheese sandwich. I gave you a piece of bread, and you put the cheese on it and folded the bread over. You did not touch your meat. Grand-four, you liked the meat and cheese. Plus, you each had a chocolate covered peanut.

I loved standing by the bar, watching you chatter and laugh, and almost sit safely on your chairs.

IMG_3422After you ate, your folks came back. Grand-five, you worked on puzzles on the rug. Grand-four, you sat by me on the couch and colored until you scooted down to the floor and took one of Grand-five’s puzzle pieces. Grand-five, you rose up on your haunches to grab the piece from Grand-four, but she leaned father back so you couldn’t reach it.

Sensing impending meltdowns from both of you, I said, “Grand-four, let me show you where the toy box is.” You’d asked earlier. So with you distracted, Grand-five was happy with his puzzles and you and I got our wicker toy box from our little bathroom, full of junk because I don’t really have toys anymore. So you draped Mardi Gras beads, perched plastic Easter eggs, and tossed a few other things on our skinny apartment-sized tree. The incentive spirometer from my last hospitalization didn’t drape very well, but it worked well as a silent horn.

When you finished, Grand-four, you came to snuggle by me on the couch and said to your mom sitting in the rocker across from you, “This is my favorite home.” She said, “Really? Why?” You said, “Because Grandma lets me decorate her tree.”

Favorite home. Imagine that. Precious!

When the four of you left, after only two hours, Grandpa and I fell into our chairs, so happy you’d come. “They’re really such good kids, aren’t they,” I said to Grandpa, inhaling luxuriously for the first time since you’d arrived. Grandpa, in his usual understated manner, said, “Yeah, they are. Active.”

We love you so, but do slow down for us next time. And don’t fall. And don’t scare us like that again. Or, I guess I should say scare me. Nothing scares Grandpa. He’d say as a kid he fell out of the barn all the time.

Lots and lots of love,

In Memory of My Mother on Our Mutual Birthday


Regal. That’s what folks would say. Like a queen, sitting on her throne. She sits, silently, in the right-hand corner of room 2139E in the nursing home. Sitting as always in her blue satiny upholstered recliner. She rarely reclines anymore, though, because she hasn’t got the strength to pull the lever to lift the footrest. Her purple-striped veiny hands clutch a paper napkin saved from breakfast. A stack of other saved wrinkled napkins lies on the floral tray table next to her chair, along with her diary, Bible, church paper, and a collection of typed sermons.

Her name is Tess Hoitenga. She is ninety-five years old. Today, Saturday, January 17, 1998, is her birthday. She looks, as the books say, frail and fragile. She weighs 115 pounds, down from the 125 she meticulously recorded in her life-long diaries. A tiny woman, scrunched by osteoporosis, she stands only about five feet tall. Fluffy waves of silvery-gray hair frame her face. Her startling blue eyes, always an attention getter, now stare vacantly, though expectantly, through her pale plastic-framed glasses, at the doorway. She wears her new red and white polka dot dress. Bright and perky with its shirt collar, gold-buttoned front, three-quarter length banded sleeves, and permanently pleated skirt.

The red polka dot dress was a gift by special request. One of her daughters once wore a new blue polka dot dress. When Tess spotted the dress, her eyes lit up like the overhead light above her hospital bed. Instantly she demanded, “That’s what I want, a polka dot dress. Only I want red.”

“Okay, Mother,” her daughter, resigned to shopping, replied toward her hearing aids, “I will be on the lookout for one.” It took two years to find the red polka dot dress. On sale. Tess was thrilled. Tess loved bargains.

I must not forget her beads. Tess always wore beads. Always. Today she has on her lavender and cream twenty-two inch beads, no matter they don’t match, beads that were new for her husband’s funeral four years before. A dainty gold cross lies on her throat. Her bony left wrist looks weighted down by her husband’s bulky Bulova watch. Her left ring finger displays a loosely fitting thin gold engagement band and solitaire diamond. Reset, of course, somewhere along the road of sixty-seven years of marriage.

Completing the picture, Tess is wearing nylons. And black oxford shoes she doesn’t like. She’d rather wear dress shoes—she never is not dressed up—but she needs the support now of lace-up oxfords for her slow, unsteady hunched-over gait.

FullSizeRenderSitting there in her chair, Tess really does look regal. Folks always say so. She glances up at people passing by in the hall. Now and then she smiles wanly—it takes too much energy to do more—and waves listlessly. This woman who was a grocer’s daughter, minister’s wife, mother of five, piano player, fifth grade teacher. A competent, courageous, compassionate woman.

One wouldn’t know about Tess’s accomplishments today. Her life is reduced to her blue chair, floral tray table, and hospital bed covered with a ribbed-cotton, teal-colored bedspread. At the foot end lies a donated crocheted lap robe of clashing colors.

Oh, and don’t forget her pictures on the wall. The wall arrangements are about the only thing this once take-charge person can control. Tom, the maintenance man, knows Tess well. She asks for him to come to rehang her pictures regularly. They must be hung just exactly so. “No, a little more that way; no, a little more to the left,” she directs, sternly pointing her teacher finger. Pictures of her wedding day in 1928, her husband in his WW II military chaplaincy uniform, and her fiftieth wedding anniversary.

When a daughter came to visit the day before this birthday, Tess, blue eyes sparkling, announced, “I think ninety-five would be a good round number to die.” It was as if she had taken a dose of alertness. Her daughter, delighted to see her mother’s sense of humor wake up, quipped back, “We gotta get through your birthday, Mother. People are coming for lunch. So you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

So Tess did. She waited—until after her party. As two of her daughters were putting her to bed, she clutched her chest in pain. She got a dose of morphine. She waved for her daughters to leave. “Get going now. You have a long ride.” One daughter leaned over and whispered in her ear, “I love you little, I love you big,” Tess, weary eyes now shut, weakly finished the phrase, “I love you like a little pig.” Their private expression of love.

Tess soon lost consciousness. She died forty-eight hours later. She was buried in her red polka dot dress. Regal to the end, folks would say.

Me, too. She’s my mother. I’m her baby. I was born on her thirty-ninth birthday. That Saturday was my birthday, too. I bought her the red polka dot dress. I loved her little, I loved her big, I loved her like a little pig.

FullSizeRender ~

A version of this essay was printed as “The Woman in the Red Polka Dot Dress” in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, January 14, 2001.

Now, January 17, 2015, if I could still chat with my mother, I would tell her about my life now–about my husband, my kids, my five grandkids, my life downtown, my thankfulness for health on my seventy-third birthday, and my thankfulness for her example of living a faith-based life. And I would tell her I still love her little, love her big, and love her like….

Riding the Rails – Christmas Greetings of Majesty and Mystery!

The Canadian Rockies, from our recent rail trip, possibly the most beautiful place on earth, reminding us of God’s majestic creation during this season commemorating the mystery of His birth:

Luke 2

(From The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language / Eugene Peterson / 2002.)

The Birth of Jesus

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

When they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped hm in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was not room in the hostel.

An Event for Everyone

There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their Sheep. Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and Gods’ glory blazed around them. There were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, world wide: A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you’re to look for: A baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”

At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:

Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who elapse him.

As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s go over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.

Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!

From our home to yours, we wish you peace, joy, and happiness this Christmas Season.


Riding the Rails – A Modern Day “Gold Rush City”

Reading in our compartment, I felt the train slowing down, so naturally I stared out the window to see what I could see. I purposely was just going along for the ride and not tracking everyIMG_1743 moment on GPS like one couple or diligently following maps like many others. When the train came to a full stop, I spotted the sign for Williston, ND, right outside my window. Our crew had told us that the oil boom there was the cause for the increased delays in the last few years, so I perked up and got out my camera.

IMG_1738Imagine living in a town where the technology of hydraulic fracturing, first introduced in 2008, has made the state the country’s fastest growing economy. A town just under 8 square miles in size, where the population has doubled since 2010, and where there are the highest wages, worst housing shortages, and highest rents–a 700 square foot apartment averages $2,394.00 per month.

Imagine what that influx would do to your neighborhood.  Perhaps you saw The Overnighters on public TV last October. It’s a film by Jesse Moss that won the 2014 US Documentary Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking. I haven’t  seen it–we were on the train when it aired–but hear that viewing it was helpful to understand the many aspects of change that an oil boom can cause in a small town. A review says, “The Overnighters almost casually establishes a lingering sense of place, juxtaposing natural beauty against the blight of industry.”

Williston is 18 miles from the Montana/North Dakota border and 60 miles from the Canada/US border. Note the wide-open landscape in the following photos, and imagine what it’s like, both for long-term residents and newcomers, to adapt to the changes that the fracking industry has brought to their everyday lives: oil drilling, oil tankers, line-ups of new mobile homes–all drastically changing what once was.

I would have loved to stop, hang out in a coffee shop, and talk to the locals. But the best I could do was read more about this interesting town once I got home. I’ve cited some resources below.

Learning about other people who live in our own country, yet under very different circumstances than our own, I believe is the value of local travel. Somewhere I’ve read that exposure of this sort enriches us as a humanity and helps us develop empathy for all kinds of people. I agree.


City of Williston, North Dakota – Homepage.

Welcome to Williston, North Dakota: America’s new gold rush city | Cities | The Guardian.

What Life Is Like in Williston, North Dakota, the Most Expensive Place to Rent an Apartment in the US – ABC News.

‘The Overnighters’ shows dark side of North Dakota oil boom | Reuters.

Williston, North Dakota – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Have you ever felt stranded?

Lois Roelofs:

If you’re not aware of Palliative Care nurses, here’s a wonderful example from a blogging friend of mine what they can do for you. The whole you.

Originally posted on marysarthritis:

Have you ever felt stranded?  Sick …Painfully so…But did not know who to call. Maybe too sick to figure it out.

This happens a lot to those of us with autoimmune disorders. I am seeing many doctors, each a specialist who oversees a section of my body.  For me, I have a rheumatologist, an oncologist, an endocrinologist, an ENT Doc, an internist and a podiatrist. However, there is no one who looks at the total me.

This week I am in trouble. Things just are not working well enough. The protocols that are to be followed when I am in trouble are not working.  What do you do when your painful issue does not fall into the neat little slot of a specialty? When you are plainly worried that all is going to hell?  Who do you call? Unfortunately, not GHOSTBUSTERS.

Here’s what I did. Then I will tell…

View original 495 more words

Riding the Rails – Amtrak’s Empire Builder

Imagine being old and set in your ways and having to live out of a backpack. To me, backpacks are for books, but on our recent rail trip cross the US and Canada, we had no access to our suitcases while in transit on the trains. Imagine, then, living out of a backpack from the time we left home at noon on a Saturday until the following Tuesday at 1:30 a.m.

Our group at Chicago's Union Station ready to roll.
Group, ready to roll, at Chicago’s Union Station

Packing smart is mandatory, so I took along minimal stuff: two books, one magazine, one change of slacks, two changes of tops, a nightgown, some undies, one cosmetic bag with cosmetics and one with medication.

Consistent with being old, I’d had eye surgery a few weeks before traveling and an emergency molar extraction five days before, so my medication bag also contained eye ointments, drops, and pads and an irrigating syringe for the root canal sockets. The oral surgeon had warned me that “dry” sockets are not a good thing, and I, for sure, did not want my sockets to dry up.

IMG_0223Our roomette was 6 feet 6 inches long and 3 feet 6 inches wide. Two seats faced each other, flanking a picture window. At night, the two seats became a berth (6 feet 6 inches) and an upper berth (6 feet 2 inches) folded out from the wall.  There was just enough room to stack my backpack and my husband’s duffel bag on the floor between the lower berth and door. Of course, that left no standing room, but who needs to stand at bedtime?

When we were both seated, we alternated knees to avoid knocking them together. Otherwise, the space was comfortable, and we could slide a door shut and pull curtains that would give us privacy from passersby.

Restrooms and a shower were at the end of hallways. I was happy I did not encounter some Don Juan on my nightly trips dressed only in my black floral nightgown and black windbreaker with my bare feet in sandals. There was no room in my  backpack for a robe and slippers. I thought I looked stylish with my color-coordinated nightgown and jacket, but wouldn’t have wanted to take a chance meeting some exciting new man in my life while my husband hung on for dear life back in the top berth (a fish net thing hooked into both the berth and the ceiling caught potential falls).

IMG_0222We stopped over 30 times, most of the times while we were sleeping (due to delays, we missed daytime stops in Glacier), but the few times during the day when we were allowed out, we jammed the exits to escape, and I race walked the platform, trying to log as many steps as I could on my pedometer. Difficult to do, though, as stops were only five minutes, and maybe twenty minutes during refueling. My husband would use the time to stretch his limbs against the train car. Crew cheerfully cautioned us not to leave the platform, not to enter the station, and to listen up for the “all aboard’ announcements.

Once, in either Idaho or Washington, we were stopped for almost two hours. The Amtrak crew told us that some of their members had worked their twelve hours, so wherever we were at that IMG_0219point, we had to stop at exactly the twelve-hour mark and wait for replacements. They had notified their superiors about the time running out, but something must have gotten mixed up with availability of Amtrak crew, because we finally got crew from Burlington Northern (owner of the tracks). We were stopped at the edge of a town, so there was no getting out (at least legally) and exploring, so I made the most of the views. This charming blue home with a red roof was home to several cats. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you’ll see them lounging around on the front porch. I wondered what they thought of us: staring people on a stopped train, trying to find a distraction. Did they worry about us going nowhere when they had the freedom to scamper about? Or was this a common sight for them? Our presence didn’t seem to bother them, so maybe they were used to being the object of trapped people.

Moving down a few cars, I came upon this wonderful view of a lake. So peaceful. If I could have gotten out, I’d have loved to have taken along a hammock, strung it between some trees, and read a good book.

IMG_0220The day continued to slow down from there, time wise. The Empire Builder schedule says we were due in Seattle at 10:25 am on Monday. And, since we have children there and have been there many times, we had arranged to skip the three-hour tour of the city and meet up with our kids and a grandchild. As the delays heaped up, I texted. And texted. And texted. Until I finally told them to go ahead and eat lunch, then afternoon tea, then dinner, and we’ll see them in few months. We arrived in Seattle around 9:00 p.m and boarded a bus immediately for Vancouver, Canada.

Because the Amtrak crew had not planned on us after breakfast that Monday, we were offered hot dogs, hamburgs, or canned stew around 1:00 p.m.  The next time we ate was when our bus stopped at a McDonald’s at 11:00 p.m. Those of us that wanted food hustled out in the rain. I was very hungry for something other than carb snacks, so bought a chicken salad. We had to keep moving along, so we ate on the darkened bus. Try successfully stabbing salad pieces in something like a closet with the door closed. Without spilling. Since some were trying to sleep, I didn’t want to turn the light on and was thankful that a man kiddy-corner from me was reading from his lighted iPad, allowing me to aim my fork for the plastic container and not my thighs.

Imagine then, after a stop at customs where we all had to get out, how overjoyed we were to reach our lovely hotel in Vancouver, the Blue Horizon, at 12:45 a.m. With our suitcases finally arriving atIMG_0224 1:30 a.m. and instructions to have them out for pickup by 8:30 a.m., we fell into bed for one of the most luxurious half-nights I’ve spent in my life.

I think it was about that time that our fearless group started using the word “adventure” to describe this trip. Those really wanting to see Seattle had to be satisfied with only a fleeting view of the Space Needle as we bussed up I-5 in the dark rain of night.

To be continued!