Archive for the 'Stories' Category

Shirley

Thanks to my aunt, who reminded me to tell this wonderful story from December 2010.

As I took my aisle seat on the tiny plane from Minneapolis to Sioux City last year at Christmas, I was greeted by a great big smile and a hopeful set of eyes from the older woman seated next to the window. That woman was Shirley.

I endeared myself early on by helping her out of her jacket and stashing it in the overhead compartment for her. We had plenty of time to get to know each other, as our flight sat on the runway for twice as much time as it spent in the air.

Shirley is a 78-year-old woman from Yankton, South Dakota, though, as I told her, I honestly would have guessed her in her late 60s. She has that spark that my grandmother had; that glint in her eye that betrayed the reality that life had not always been so easy and comfortable, but the fire that assured her if she could overcome that, she could face anything.

She, as they say, had me at “hello.” But I truly fell in love with her spirit at her description of her sister-in-law, who had been born and raised in the north of England before moving to the U.S. “She was real stylish, real stylish. Oh, kiddo… she knew how to dress, she did. And she knew how to use makeup!” Shirley always wished she had gone to visit her, but young children at home in South Dakota had made the trip seem impossible. She has since passed away, Shirley told me with no small pang of regret.

When we found out our tarmac-bound plane was to be even further delayed, we both called our loved ones to let them know to delay their trips to the airport. After Shirley hung up with her son, she started relaying to me every word he had said—while I remained on the phone with my parents and tried to make sense of the little bit of conversation I could hear through the cacophony of voices. She told me about the son who was picking her up, about her daughter, and about another son, the one she had lost. He had a heart condition, the seriousness of which he kept from them as long as he could—until the day his father found him dead in his bed. “That was real hard on Charlie,” she told me. “It was real hard on him…”

Charlie was Shirley’s husband. “Oh, he was an absolutely wonderful man. Just a wonderful man,” she declared, a smile on her face that was full of equal parts gratitude, pride, and sadness. Because he, too, is gone. He died last year, two days after Christmas, while shoveling snow near their farm. They were married 53 years. She told me that he loved to brag to their friends that they never fought once in all their decades of marriage. “But then I’d say, ‘Tell ‘em why, Charlie.’ And he just told ‘em, ‘Anytime Shirley starts to get a little off kilter, I just smile and walk outta the room. No one for her to fight with then!’”

My paternal grandmother grew up on a homestead in South Dakota. Her childhood, and for the most part, her life, was defined by austerity. She was a child of the depression, no doubt. But she could laugh. And she could love. Both my grandmothers shared those two wonderful qualities. Shirley was cut from the same fine Midwestern cloth—her hardships had only made her stronger. I was moved to tears as she spoke about loss after loss, and told her so. She simply smiled and said, though it had been tough, she was “real blessed.” Real blessed.

She was also real talkative. I got precious few words in during our hours together, as I learned about her job at a print shop in South Dakota; how lovely the dress she wore to her granddaughter’s wedding had been (“You shoulda seen me, kiddo. With earrings, and everything. Oh, it was a real pretty dress, honey. I was a sight.”); how she was a 20-year veteran of her hometown’s sensible eating support group, and how now, in her 70s, she mentored newcomers of all ages (“I teach them how to cook some nice vegetables. I’m a great cook.”)

As we got off the plane and my parents rushed up to meet me, I watched out of the corner of my eye to ensure Shirley found her son. I was attached to her now. If her son hadn’t shown up, I would have made my parents give her a ride to Yankton or take her to lunch. Three hours together in a prop plane, and she had become my newly adopted grandmother, adorable in her collared sweatshirt and admiration for well-dressed British women.

At baggage claim, I introduced her to my family, gave her a hug, and wished well to Snickers, her “sweet little dog,” whom she said had kept her company since Charlie’s death. And then we were off, both going our separate ways.

But I’m still thinking of her, all these months later. Spring will be coming soon to South Dakota. She’ll have fresh grass in her yard and leaves on the trees in her backyard that overlooks the river. I hope she’s traveling again soon; maybe that trip to the UK that she had always regretted not taking. I hope Snickers is well.

But more than anything, I pray the people in her world realize how blessed they are to have a mighty woman like Shirley in their midst.

Use Your Words

Istanbul Skyline

I’ve called myself a writer since I was five years old. I have a vivid memory of writing a series of illustrated story books about the Rainbow princess and her tribe of valiant warriors, each of whom bore a costume in a color of said rainbow. Apparently, even as a child, I understood the power of franchising opportunities.

So, from a young age, I’ve been good with words. Able to express myself. Well-versed in getting my point across, in print, on the phone or in person. I’m a smart girl, if I do say so myself, and I can talk to just about anyone.

But that’s all in English.

When I studied in Spain in 2000, I first grasped the frustration of not being capable of saying what I was thinking. I spoke Spanish reasonably well, but in a 400-level literature course analyzing the poetry of Ruben Dario, I quickly realized how maddening the limits of my vocabulary were. (I still don’t know how to say “existential crisis” or “I believe the imagery in the third stanza symbolizes the enduring struggle between the Id and the Ego” in Spanish.) Incredibly frustrated, I finally announced to my professor one day, “I am not stupid. I sound stupid in Spanish, but I am not a stupid person!” To my credit, I’m pretty sure I managed to say it in Spanish. But expressing myself on that high of level, day in and day out, in a foreign language was absolutely exhausting.

But that was just Spanish. And I was wearing clothes.

I spent two weeks in Istanbul last year to kick off my trip to Europe, spending time with American friends who live there. I wasn’t planning on learning a lot of Turkish for my 12-day stint, other than the requisite “Merhaba” (hello) and “Tesekuleh” (which I know is spelled wrong, but hey, I’m pretty proud that I remembered how to say thank you in Turkish a year later).

My lack of language skills proved to be a bit more of a challenge than the average tourist faces, as I was staying on the Asian side, far away from the English-speaking tourism touts. I brought home nearly a pound of baklava from the corner bakery because I couldn’t manage to explain that I really just wanted one piece. The Turks’ famous hospitality and friendliness neatly accommodated my complete inability to communicate in most instances, but I felt consistently helpless and utterly reliant on the help of others. It’s a rather instructive place to be once in a while. I was loving every minute.

Until I went to the Turkish bath. A language barrier is all well and good when you’re trying to navigate the bus system, but try being naked. My friends, in an effort to make my experience authentic, save me from getting ripped off, and help me avoid the coed baths frequented by European travelers, sent me to a bath at a mosque on the Asian side. I went clutching a hand-drawn map with key vocabulary words: “massage,” “soap,” “men,” and “women.” And thank God for those last two, because the full impact of stumbling into the wrong door became evident to me when I walked out of the rain, through a beaded curtain, and straight into a room with a whole lot of large topless Turkish women just sweating it out.

Between my crib sheet and the fact that money tends to communicate pretty well all on its own, I managed to pay and be shown to my changing room without incident. The trouble came when I was down in the baths themselves. There’s a whole system to the thing: get yourself wet with water, but not too much, and not too hot, and don’t use soap,well, not yet, then go the sauna, but for how long?

When the people on both ends of a conversation are mostly naked, some of the normal coping mechanisms we use when communicating with someone in a foreign language are rather less effective. Subtleties of body language are overcome by–well, by bodies. One must be delicate when gesturing when one is talking to someone unclothed. Add to all that the general frustration of not being understood. It’s like I had a dream that I was back in that Spanish classroom, trying to wax intelligent about Dario poetry but I’d forgotten to get dressed. But I was awake. And still naked.

The bath lady was twice as frustrated as I, which didn’t help. There was a lot of yelling in Turkish. She threw some water at me, in what I sincerely believe was an intention to be helpful. Finally, a young woman about my age who spoke a little English gave me some pointers. During my massage (which was awkward all on its own; marble slab + soapy lather = slippery), my bather used some of her very few syllables of English to get me to roll over: “Laa-dey, move.” She said “lady” as if it had three syllables and followed up her command with some pretty brutal scrubbing.

Not the most relaxing experience of my life, but I left with the softest skin I’ve ever had, a new perspective on cross-cultural communication, and extreme gratitude for clothing as I conversed with Turks for the rest of the week.

I’d like to say that I stuck around, befriended my masseuse by the sheer power of authentic eye contact and learned Turkish vocabulary and scrubbing techniques from her over a nice cup of tea, laughing over our previous gaffes and learning to communicate in a language that transcended words.

I didn’t. I went to the mall. Yep, there are malls in Istanbul. (And before you judge, I will maintain that there was intense cultural learning in this experience, too. Have you gone clothes shopping in a Muslim country? All very modest. Great for tall girls, actually.) And then I drank a latte at a German cafe in the Turkish mall. (Starbucks was full.)

But as I drank that latte, I sat down and wrote about it all. Because sometimes you just have to use whatever words you’ve got. They’re never enough, words, but when used well, they inspire us to dig deeper and express the shadows of that which can’t be said. My words couldn’t make me understood at the baths, but using them helped me understand myself and my reaction to my surroundings a little bit better. And I think it’s that process of reflection that makes all the difference. Even if we’re too exhausted or not equipped with the resources to make all the dots connect, at least we’re giving it an honest try.

Even if I do sound like a stupid person in Turkish.

Telling Stories

As I gear up for another big—though, this time, much shorter—trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the incredible stories that last year’s Europe sojourn both included and inspired.

I’ve long proclaimed that traveling is good for the creativity. Being in unfamiliar situations makes us vulnerable. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that stability and familiarity tend to be the enemy of creative production. I heartily disagree with the concept that genius is only born out of madness, but, in my experience, it never hurts to shake things up a bit.

All that said, I’m going to start sharing some of my travel stories here. As I alluded to above, posts in the “Travel Stories” category are both from and “inspired by” my travels. Some are nothing but the truth, and some are absolute raving fictions set in a location with which I fell in love.

I’ll let you guess which is which…


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