Tuesday, June 14, 2011


We spent the winter after our marriage in New Mexico. It was for work but it felt like adventure. Everything was new.

We learned about Hatch chilies for one thing. It maybe sounds a small thing but it signifies that we were exposed to a whole different culture. The Southwest desert was compelling, colorful and infinitely interesting in every way to this couple with deep Midwest roots.

We came back in the spring to a new location. Al's career moved him around and this was one of those times.

There weren't many rental options in the small town. There were few apartments. Houses were out of the question. A young couple then didn't dream of owning a home right off.

"Better than nothing," we said, renting a trailer home to make do while the rental search continued.

The first summer was a wild season with many tornado warnings. I was uneasy in the trailer. Tornado sirens sounded frequently. There wasn't a nearby shelter to head for.

Rain made a heavy drumbeat on the trailer roof. It sounded eerily like hail. Even the gentlest of rains could sound ominous on that roof. We would think we had a gullywasher only to find it had been hardly more than showers.

Fishing, boating and work friends saved us from a none too sterling start. A trailer court wasn't our idea of a first home. The locals we met weren't especially friendly. I missed the shopping and interests of bigger places.

Early in the spring we used the lengthening daylight to fish from shore in the evening. Many came to try for pan fish at this popular spot where the river, which flowed through town, formed a lake.

Al enjoyed getting in a few practice casts before the fish opener. The fish opener was always in May. It coincided with Mother's Day weekend. Until then it was illegal to catch the game fish - walleye, muskie, pike - for which Minnesota is known.

Although I didn't fish from shore I enjoyed the mild sun, the river, keeping Al company and being with others also enjoying the start to spring.

After the fish opener we had the boat in use all summer long. We were fortunate in living in lake country. There were several great area lakes from which to choose.

One of the lakes we particularly liked had June roses growing on the gravel road to the boat ramp. The lake had a reedy shoreline. There was great serenity to the lake which made it different from some of the others, such as the lake closer to town that was our swimming beach.

In this town, and the next places we lived, I came to know some very special elderly women. Meeting senior mentors was one of the rewards of our mobile career life.

Being in a cramped trailer (it measured 10 x 55 feet), we spent as little time in it as possible. We couldn't always be fishing. Al missed a place to put in a garden.

There was no Craigslist for launching a query about garden rental. I imagine we found our garden via a bulletin board at the local store or through some small printed sign noticed when driving by.

This is how we were led to Isabelle. She had garden space for us on her property. She was in her seventies or eighties. She was a widow. She wore her white hair in a bun atop her head as her generation did then.

She was born in Scotland. She came to this country as a war bride. I suppose it was the first world war although I didn't think to ask.

We found we went to the same church, a nice bit of common ground when you trade information as you break the ice.

From our experience of being new in town, feeling measured up by some of the locals, I wondered how she was received all those years ago when she came here so young and full of love.

People in small towns know the same families over several generations. Someone new can be considered a calculated risk.

When you know practically everyone you can't help but notice the faces you don't know. The unknowns are curiosities. It's part of the way of a small town to watch and puzzle newcomers out until they're a proven pattern or they show they can fit in.

I wondered if Isabelle had difficulty in settling in. The handsome soldier in uniform - who did he become when he came home? Did she ever sigh inwardly at how romance can sweep you off your feet to put you in a totally foreign place where you then spend the rest of your life?

Did the strangeness of life in America recede over time as she got busy in her church, raised her children and brought zucchini and garden mums to her neighbors? Or, after awhile, did the pride of being different take precedence over the desire to blend in and be conventional?

The Bridges of Madison County hadn't yet come along to address or at least suggest answers to these questions. My experience was limited enough at the time to not think much about it.

It did dawn that there must have been some bravery on Isabelle's part to make life work here. Certainly gardening was one of the tools she used to make it home.

One thing Isabelle said registered with me. She said she hated to listen to the news. Whether on the radio or TV the news upset her. "The news is all so bad," she said. "I don't want to hear it anymore."

"That’s the world, you have to take it as it is” I said to myself, thinking that here was a narrow view. "You can't close yourself off from the world" is what I almost told her.

There was a strong wish to counter her comment. Her sweeping indictment against the news sounded unfair to me. There's something to be said about paying attention to someone without blurting out your mind's words. If I said anything I picked the words a little more carefully.

These days, when the world appears to be in crisis with every new headline, I think of Isabelle.

I can imagine saying to her, if we were to stand again in the garden where I've come to pick our Swiss chard or carrots or tomatoes, “I’m with you, girl. I don’t like listening to the news either. It's gotten so bad.”

Today at the store the newspaper grabbed on the way to the cash register was the first item rung up by the young cashier.

He was friendly. He made some comment about the news I'd find inside the paper. Without giving much thought to it I found myself practically echoing Isabelle.

"There's no good news in there," I said. "We have to make our own good news because it's sure not going to be found in there."

"The Twins won," he ventured. I laughed, inwardly pleased that here was someone who aimed to see the glass half full.

"And we have two Minnesotans running for president," he added, pressing his advantage on the good news theme.

"Of course, that can be good news or bad news depending on whether they're your candidates," he clarified, an example of Minnesota nice if ever there was one (sounding impartial may be dull but it can save a lot of ruffled feelings or worse).

"But they're Minnesotans," he emphasized, as if that was all the good news you needed in one day.

It was a pleasure to hear this young man talk up the tenor of the news. Habit had let me speak with disenchantment of it. He had the young person's optimism to see it in a different light.

The few remarks with the cashier left me trying to recall that visit with Isabelle, the visit of the "bad news."

I trust I did for her what this pleasant cashier did for me. He bolstered my attitude and readjusted my day.

As she lamented the state of the world I can only hope I came with a response as helpful and pleasant as his. There was a need for comfort, I believe this now, in the view she shared with me.

Ro Giencke - June 14, 2011

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