Monday, December 1, 2014


Some people answer the phone like they are surprised the phone rang. As if the phone's purpose is not to connect you with someone else. As if they are so confused and unsure of what they are going to hear. "Helloooo?" An ever-present question mark hanging at the end of the word, their tone inflection rising up, up, up, like a roller coaster.

Others answer with a grumble, their mouths rolling the letters around like marbles or gravel that sticks between their gums, the greeting anything but friendly.

My grandpa, though. My grandpa had his own way of answering.


Not with a question mark, but a period. An emphasis on the end of the syllable, the "l"s rolling around happily, the word coming out slow and sure. Grandpa took his time answering the phone, and when he did, he answered with a sense of certainty. As if he knew you were the person calling (even before the days of caller ID).

Usually when I called Grandpa, it was almost always to see where my dad was.

"Hel-loh," Grandpa would answer in his traditional tone.

"Hi Grandpa, it's Lindsay." Whenever he answered, I straightened up and spoke louder, clearer, feeling a bit robotic and silly as I emphasized each syllable. Grandpa's hearing wasn't too keen with his old age.

"Oh, hi," he'd say.

"Do you know where my dad is?"

Grandpa would either answer with a, "No, I haven't seen him today," or "Yup, he left about 20 minutes ago." His voice was usually upbeat. I'd say thanks and hang up, go on about my day.

I had that conversation with my grandpa hundreds of times over the years.

I called my grandpa yesterday. Or rather, I called the phone number to connect to the phone line to make the phone in my grandpa's kitchen shrill. I could just hear the ring bouncing around his kitchen, echoing against the fridge in the corner. The fridge with the wooden magnet of a salmon fish I bought him when I went to Montana. The fish magnet holding up a newspaper clipping of an obituary for his best friend Johnny who passed away a week ago. The fridge where my little brother and I used to grab cans of Mountain Dew and Coke, then sit by the coffee table in the living room where we put coins into a wooden piggy bank.

"Have you fed the pig?" Grandpa would ask us. He kept change nearby so we could stick the coins in the pig's slots.

I have the pig now. Grandpa gave it to me for my birthday last year. I cried when he gestured towards the pig, saying the pig was mine. I remember my hands running over the smoothness of the wood, catching on the pig's wooden ears, tail, snout. The tears rolled down my cheeks that day because it was such an unexpected gift. Unexpected tears.

So many unexpected tears.

Yesterday when I called grandpa's house,  I sat on my bed, the cell phone stuck to my ear. I pictured the ring traveling across the phone lines, skipping and jumping along M-52 until my call cozied up in the hollow of Grandpa's phone, waiting to be answered. Like all of the other times when I called Grandpa's house, I was calling for my dad. But as I listened to pattern of the phone ring, pause, ring, pause, I realized I was expecting grandpa to answer. To say, "Hel-loh." To tell me where my dad was.

But no one answered. Dad didn't answer. He must have left, I thought. He was over there picking up some paperwork and forms and other things the funeral home needed to plan a burial.

Two weeks ago on this same day-- a Monday-- Grandpa was here. He was here, on this earth. And I was here, but I was worrying about a speech I had to make and if the hem of my yellow skirt looked bad because it was fraying and if the polka dots on my shirt were too much and if I was going to trip in my heels. I was worrying about saying the wrong thing.

Now I don't know what to say. Now I don't feel here, even though I am. I'm here and he's not. My grandpa is not here. My grandpa's heart and body gave out and now he isn't going to answer the phone in his certain voice and he's not going to tell me stories about Ireland and he's not going to make jokes about President Obama or talk about Michigan State sports.

How does that happen? How can I be worried about the hem of my mustard colored skirt falling apart one week, and this week, it's me I'm worried is going to fall apart?

Forty-eight hours. Less than, really. Maybe 46. That's how long it took for my life to change. One minute, I'm talking about wedding planning and signing contracts and sipping on Chai Tea, the next minute, I'm answering my phone and telling my mom that yes, I will go meet my dad at the hospital, and really, Grandpa has chest pains?

Forty-six hours and he's gone.

I loved my grandpa very much. In other seasons of his life, I've heard he did things and said things that the lessons of life and mistakes and burned bridges teach a person later. By the time I had come around, though, his edges were softer, his sharpness ironed out. He was the grandpa that made me "Happy Birthday Lindsay" signs and a cake and a fishing trip to his Canadian cabin when I turned eight. He was the grandpa that would pick us up at daycare sometimes and knew about politics and got a smirk on his face when he said a good joke or comeback.

He was my grandpa. Our grandpa. We all called him grandpa--Mom, Dad, cousins, sons, nieces, nephews. All of us. And now he's gone.

So now we pack up and we move forward. There's obituaries and memorial services and driving and phone calls. And though those 46 hours were painful, they were also moments I will never forget. Moments filled with words I needed to say and I needed to hear, and I'm thankful for that. I'm thankful for the moments and the memories.

But amongst it all, and above all else, I'm thankful to God. I thank God for faith and family and friends. I thank God for fishing for Northern Pikes in Canada and jokes about politics and stories about Ireland and trucker hats with well-drilling rigs and Michigan State Spartan T-Shirts.

I thank God for my Grandpa.

I know Grandpa is at peace now. And one day, once the pain and the grieving subside and I don't cry when I drive by his house or when I see a Hillsboro coffee can, I will smile when I pick up the phone, and I will pretend to hear his phone answering on the other line:


And one day, that's what Grandpa will say to me when I see him again. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Pool

When I think of summer, I think of the St. Charles Community Pool. Set back amongst pine and oaks in the corner of my hometown’s community park—the one with the rusty canon and the creaky swings and the water fountain within the mouth of a cartoonish-yellow concrete lion—this pool’s sidewalk perimeters are soaked with memories, permanently absorbed within the pools basin’s walls (along with the chlorine smell and urine, I suppose).
My mom signed my little brother and I up for swimming lessons at the St. Charles Pool when we were young. I learned the backstroke and the sidestroke and how to float on my back there. I learned to breathe underwater there.
I still remember.
The instructor took us to the pool wall, my small class of fellow students grasping the edge. “Kick,” she’d tell us, the sun beating down and the pool shining a not-natural aqua.
“Splash, splash, SPLASH.” I had a tendency to kick my legs a little too eagerly, my feet rising above the water, making flap, flap, gurgle noise with each hearty kick I made. Big splashes. Obnoxious splashes, really.
“Now,” our instructor would say, “Keep kicking, but gently.”  She’d look at me when she said this. I eased up. “Hold the wall”—my little fingers would grasp the edge, smooth and rubbery like a dolphin’s side—“and I want you to talk to the magic fish.”
We all gasped. Magic fish?
The instructor nodded. “It’s a secret,” she explained, “but there are magic fish in this pool. They are invisible, but you can talk to them and they will hear you.” She glanced at us, hanging on her every word. “Do you want to know how?”
“Yes!” we all cried. My brown eyes were huge with excitement, the water reflecting in my pupils.
“Okay,” the instructor replied, tugging at her dark curly hair held back in a ponytail. “Watch.”
She lowered her torso and began to kick. With her fingers still clutching the pool’s edge, the instructor put her mouth to the water, pursed her lips and blew outwards. As if a pop can had been opened underwater, tiny bubbles gurgled to the top. I was amazed. The instructor lifted her mouth.
“Now I’m going to listen to hear if they talk back,” she explained.
We watched intently as she turned her head to the side, placing her ear into the water. Her face broke into a wide smile, freckles from the sun scattered across her nose and cheeks like cinnamon flakes. I liked her freckles.
“I heard them!” she said, lifting her ear from the water to stand upright next to me.
She nodded towards us, our little bodies awkwardly kicking like puppies. “Now it’s your turn.”
Yes. I smiled. Then I began kicking hard and fast as I gripped the pool wall. I wanted to hear the magic fish, too.
Slowly, I put my lips to the water, just as my instructor had done. I hesitated, then blew outwards, as if the water was blue bubble gum. To my delight, bubbles popped up, tiny ones, dancing and bobbing. I grinned, looking at the instructor.
“Good, Lindsay!” she said. “Now turn your head and listen to hear if they talk back.”
Oh yes, I thought. The best part.
I turned my head and placed my ear into the water. It felt funny, the cold water flowing in the crevices of my ear. I listened for the magic fish. Nothing.
Maybe I didn’t talk long enough, I thought.  I turned my head and blew bubbles, more eagerly this time. I placed my ear back into the water. Listened. Nothing.
I blew bubbles. Listened. Blew bubbles. Listened.  And soon enough, I was breathing.
It was a great technique the instructors used, the whole magic fish-thing. A few summers later, when my brother was listening for the fish and I was off in the deep end with the advanced class, I knew the magic fish weren’t real anymore. I wish I did, I often thought. I wish I believed. But with things like that, it’s like Santa Claus. Your gut eventually speaks loudly, and your belief switch turns off. Still, I asked my brother then if he talked to the magic fish.
“Yes!” he claimed. I smiled.
As I got older, the St. Charles Pool inspired feelings of excitement, nervousness and anxiety for me. It wasn’t about magic fish anymore. It was about Tom the High School Lifeguard and swimming by his stand, pretending to “just happen” to pop up from underwater right where he sat with that hot dog-looking lifesaver. George Strait’s “Carrying Your Love With Me” blasted from the pool’s gated office. I asked for that George Strait cassette tape for my ninth birthday that fall. When I hear the song now, it takes me back to the pool all over again. Funny how songs and smells do that.
The pool was where I sometimes saw classmates, but more importantly, crushes. Every time my mom took us to the pool when I was older, the butterflies would grow as I looked for my crush’s bike outside the pool gate. If he were there, my stomach would both flip with excitement and flop with anxiety. I needed extra bouts of Play It Cool vibes. Once I took my required pre-pool shower and walked into the pool area wearing my favorite bathing suit—a hot pink one-piece with a white tie-dyed heart my mom and I picked out at Meijer—I would “nonchalantly” glance to see where my crush was. Once I identified his location, I would actively avoid eye contact and the side of the pool he was swimming, then pretend I never saw him. I liked him, of course, so I avoided him. Some things never change.
The St. Charles Community Pool is closed now. I think it had to do with money and costs to keep it open or something like that. Recently, I drove my bike around the paved path that circles the pool. I couldn’t help but look past the gate and see the empty concrete basin of a pool, drained and chipped and cracked and empty. The dark forest green slide tubes, dismantled and disconnected like broken bones. The chipped paint and the dull wood. It’s depressing, really.
But the memories don’t fade for me, to my surprise. Even now, almost 20 years later, when I look up at a blue sky framed with pine trees and oak tree leaves swaying in the breeze, it takes me back to the pool. Where I had the same vision of the sky and the trees while floating lazily on my back in the cool water.
That’s what the pool is to me. Sunny skies and floating and hot days. George Strait and concession stand beef jerky sticks, splashing noises and bare feet on hot sidewalks. Magic fish and Tom the Lifeguard and fifth grade crushes.
Since the magic fish are invisible, I’ll pretend they still live there. In the empty basin of a pool full of memories. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"I Was Born in a Small Town"

If you have ever been to St. Charles, Michigan, you know how small of a town it is. Not the smallest in the world, no, but definitely small. Smaller. Small-ish. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it-type of town, but not in a bad way, just a “these are facts” kind of way. You drive through it to get to the state capital-kind of way.
It’s a town with one stoplight. Three main roads. Restaurants that look like  taxidermies, with duck and deer and moose and elk heads on the walls. Jukeboxes in the corners, pictures of the ‘99 State Championship football team hanging at a slant, showing tinged wallpaper. We got a Subway when I was in high school, which was the Highlight of Life, those chicken teriyaki subs, aside from the McDonald’s that came several years earlier.
Near the high school, there’s a road leading to the football stadium that might as well be the paved path to the pearly gates. Football is a form of worship here, with the lights and the field and the sky. Bleachers are the pews, the town coming together as a collective red, black and white “Go Bulldogs” group sitting on the silver metal, the constant sound of the “clang, clang, clang” as others walk up the steps.
There are thousands of towns across the country like this one. I grew up here.
I didn’t know my hometown was a small town. Not really. Not until college, anyway. That’s where I realized not everyone gets stuck behind turbines and farm equipment on their dirt road. Not all people hear cows mooing at night. Not everyone gets school cancelled because of opening day of deer hunting season. In turn, I didn’t realize Tiffany’s jewelry is not just for celebrities and people graduate with classes bigger than 300. It doesn’t take everyone at least 15 minutes to get anywhere that’s somewhere.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to leave the Small, allured by the Big the flashy and the bright and the bustling. The city. I had my heart set on New York City. Chicago would do, I supposed, but I wanted skyscrapers and glossy magazines and editors and subways. As a freshman in college, I applied to Seventeen magazine. I didn’t get the internship.  At the time, I was frustrated, angry, upset, but in the end, it all works out the way it’s supposed to. It all does.
I realize now that where we grow up, where we’re from, how we live in those formative years becomes the perimeter in which you base your life around—you can reject it and leave, or accept it and stay. Neither is better or worse, in my opinion. It’s just a choice. Even if you want different, even if you leave and prove the saying right, the one that’s all “You can never go home again,” even if you wanted to leave the town or the city and the people and the memories, it’s still a part of you, whether your hometown is a small town or a big city.
It seems when you’re from a small town, the breadth is smaller, the depth deeper. The fabric is woven just a bit tighter in your life tapestry because it wasn’t just where you lived, it was the knowledge that came with it. You knew who lived where and who’s dating who and what’s what. There’s a bonding there because of the proximity. Big fish in small ponds. Then the question becomes: Do you want to swim here or move on to a bigger pond? A lake? An ocean? Either way, you can’t erase the waters you first swam in.
We all have our past that becomes a part of our present. The things that happen behind high school walls and on gymnasium floors, in the backs of cars and beyond the burnings of a bonfire, it affects us and how we choose to live after the fact. 
Where we grow is just as important as how we grow. The deepness of a tree’s roots depends on the soil.
When I was in elementary school, my daycare provider lived across the street from the football stadium. One day, I was allowed to walk halfway up the road towards the football field, past the bus garage and turn around when I reached the gate near the softball field. I felt brave and independent, until I looked down at the concrete and saw giant paw prints. Alternating red, black, red, black paws stretched out in a line down the road before me.
“A monster has been here,” I thought, feeling the fear turn my legs to jelly. “I have to turn back. NOW.” I ran as quickly as I could back to my daycare provider, hurriedly explaining my fears about the monster and what I saw. She assured me that no, there was no monster, the cheerleaders had recently painted those paw prints because they represent our bulldog mascot. Whatever, I thought. I don’t care. There WAS a monster.
These memories stay with me. Who I was when I lived here stays with me. Who I wasn’t stays with me, too, and how I’ve changed and grown from that girl scared of the monster on the paved path. A part of me will always be that little girl. I will always be grateful for growing up in a small Midwest town with deer heads and cow fields and farming because that is engrained in me. That’s part of my history.
And when I feel lost or can’t find myself or don’t know who I am anymore, maybe it’s good to go back. Even for a day. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes it is good to go home again. Once in a while, anyway. Just to remember who you were in order to see who you are now.
Go back to where the monsters are, and you’ll see they’re just paw prints and paint.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sometimes You Have to Leave to Grow

It’s hard growing up. But they don’t tell you that when you’re a teenager.
No, when you’re 16, you tell them. You scream when you’re grounded, you pout when you’re sad, you try to get the last word, the last say, the last quip because you know more than your parents do and all the rest of your friends have curfews at 1 a.m., so why can’t you, too??
WE tell THEM. We tell them we can’t WAIT to be adults, can’t WAIT to stay up as long as we want, doing whatever we want, eating whatever we want and not gaining weight in the process.
Then it comes. Adulthood.
Suddenly, all we want is someone to tell us what to do. Wait, let’s backtrack a bit, OK? I’m not ready for this. We realize that maybe, just maybe, we really didn’t know everything back then, since we sure are aware of how little we know now. Because all of these decisions? Making all of these life-altering, mind-boggling, often expensive, sometimes painful decisions?
It sucks.
It sucks because we aren’t on the same page anymore. We aren’t all in the same grade, learning about the Revolutionary War and the square root of pi. Life isn’t split into freshman, sophomore, junior, senior years. Our days aren’t divided by first period English, second period Geometry, who’s in first lunch, who got to second base, bathroom whispers and hallway swagger. High school is hard, and yet the boundaries, the rules, the rigidness, can give us a perimeter to live within.

Like a nest to tuck our wings.
Last summer, a robin built a nest in the pine tree in our front yard. The mother bird worked hard to build a sturdy nest out of clay, twine, leaves and cotton. After a few weeks, the blue eggs broke open to reveal bulging eyes and fluffy feathers. Three baby birds.
Since the nest was built about five feet from the earth—right around my eye level—I would easily sneak a peek or two at the nest each day. As weeks passed, I watched the babies go from writhing naked bodies to little fluff balls with gaping mouths to almost full-grown robin birds, all gray feathers and red breasts.
Then one day, the baby robins were gone. They had flown away.
Well, all but one.
The Lone Robin
I knew it was coming. The baby birds were getting so large they barely had room. They looked like chubby marshmallows in between graham crackers, all stuffed in the nest. So I was surprised to see the nest not entirely empty that day, but occupied by one lone robin. He sat, eyes beady, looking unsure of what to do with all of that room without his brothers and sisters.
“Hey, little guy,” I said, taking a nonchalant step towards the nest. Just then, the mama bird swooped in and began angrily chirping at me.
 “Alright, alright,” I said to the bird, now staring at me from a nearby oak. “I’m walking away.” I took a step back from the pine tree and started walking towards the sidewalk.
Suddenly, I heard a rustle of tree branches and noise. I turned around and looked down on the ground. The last baby bird, alone in the nest just a second ago, had flown out of the nest… he just sort of missed the flying part. Now the bird was sitting in a low bush near the ground, about a foot next to the pine tree.
Oh no, I thought. He’s scared. He’s scared to leave the nest. And now I was scared he was going to be eaten by a barn cat.
Out of the nest, but stuck on a limb
The baby bird sat on the bush, his weight making the branch sag down. His mom was chirping quickly from her oak tree, helpless. Flying out of the nest is like squeezing toothpaste of the tube. You can’t really put it back in. It’s a done deal.
I walked back inside the house and sat near the front window, watching to see if the baby bird would complete the mission. He had already flown out of the nest successfully—flew or hopped, I’m not sure—now he just needed to go out into the world.
I sat there for about 10 minutes. So did the baby robin.
It must be so strange, I thought, to have one view up for your entire life. To be surrounded by others in the same situation as you. Then, one day, you’re on the bottom looking up and you’re all alone and you can’t go back, no matter how hard you try.
I decided to walk away from the front window. It was too hard to watch him just sit there, knowing I could do nothing to help him. He was on his own.
Later that afternoon, I looked out the front window and took a peek at the bush where the baby bird had retreated. The branch—once sagging with the bird's weight—was now empty.
I opened the front door and walked outside, stopping right in front of the pine tree with the nest. No scattered feathers, I thought. So he wasn’t eaten.
The Lone Baby Bird had used his own wings and had flown away.
It’s scary to leave the nest. It’s hard to take on the world by yourself—without the agendas and the lunch hours and going with the flow in a school of fish.
But we have to.
Whether we’re 16 or 60, life is full of leave the nest-I’m scared to death-fight or flight-speak now or forever hold your peace-moments. Moments where we have to leave the Comfort Zone and buckle up for the bumpy ride.
But leaving your comfort zone is the only way to stretch as a person. Whether you’re the bird leaving the nest, or you're leaving a guardian, a house or a hometown, a job or relationship, if you are stuck feeling empty, it means you need to go get full again.
So leave the nest. Expand your comfort zone. Stretch yourself. If you know it’s the best thing, if you know you can only grow by leaving, the answer is often hard yet so simple: