Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Relatives

That’s my 86-year-old mother on the back of a four-wheeler with my cousin Ginny. We saw lots of Minnesota in these types of off-road vehicles.

There are lakes, too, of course, that’s Minnesota’s true license plate tag line: the land of 10,000 lakes. And beside each of these lakes a family member from my mom’s side likely has a cabin. 

I told my mother I would be her travel companion this September so she could again visit her watery and forested homeland and see all the nieces, nephews, grands, greats, and great-greats. She’ll be 87 this year and all the trouble made these days through TSA, along with the degeneration of the state of air travel that has become more like taking the bus now, is a bit too much for this octogenarian. 

Back in the day, my mom was a stewardess on Continental airlines. From behind her federally mandated COVID mask, she told the Southwest Airlines flight crew this bit of her personal history as we stepped aboard in Denver.

“Her uniform now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.,” I explained to reiterate that they had something of a legend on board.

When we disembarked that plane the captain spotted my mom on the way out. 

“How did we do?” he asked. 

She gave him and the rest of the flight crew a thumbs up.

We took an Uber to where the rental car was. Mom stood in the parking lot and asked Jesus to help us. I fumbled around on a newer app I hadn’t used before and wondered why there were so many black Hondas in Minneapolis. But soon enough, we were off, cruising north toward my mom’s hometown of Deerwood, pop. 553.

Mom’s getting strapped into her life jacket for our boat trip across Sunset Lake.

Country roads through thick forests of maples, elms, and pine gave way to large lakes with reedy shores. Green hayfields undulated into the distances and eventually led us past my two cousins’ houses and my aunt’s house to a cabin my Uncle Hub and his family built a couple decades before he died. 

The first morning at this cabin on Sunset Lake I sat behind a giant wooden desk writing in the loft overlooking the water. Bright morning sun lit up sparkles across the blue of the water. And having re-read Huckleberry Finn this summer I was a bit intrigued with the island in the middle of the lake. 

About lunchtime I convinced my mom to get into the metal rowboat that lay overturned on the shore at the cabin and adventure out to the island in the middle of the lake for a picnic. It didn’t take much convincing as she is likely the source of some of my adventurous spirit. Getting in and out of the boat was a little tricky for her, but once she was settled, I waded shin-deep into the muddy shore of the lake and tugged at that aluminum craft until we were waterborne.

I couldn’t figure out the oarlocks, so I ended up Sacagawea-style at the bow, kneeling and paddling like I was canoeing through lands yet uncharted with Lewis and Clark.

Mom wanted to take a selfie of us on the island.

Actually, the island is quite familiar. My mom said they used to take her mom there for Sunday outings. We stepped ashore and sat in the tall grass on a beach towel while we ate sandwiches and photographed the views. I found some old songs on Apple music on my phone and that seemed like pure magic to my mom. 

Mother’s prayers were going up nonstop on the way back, especially when we were trying to get her back out of the boat. Finally, I hoisted her up under the arms and she was back on dry land and happier than Magellan to find shore again.

Meanwhile, my lake-water-soaked shoes spent several days drying on the deck and several days convincing me that something had died in my suitcase.

We visited with my Aunt Frannie, and her kids, and their kids, and some of their kids’ kids. We also saw kids and grandkids from my other aunt’s brood. They all drove us around their acreages and farms in ATVs. We went up and down dirt paths through woods, beside rivers where swans swam, through fields of cows and deer, and to other cabins, farms with honey, chickens and ducks, and wood piles that would impress Paul Bunyan. We ate meals together with family I’d never met or hadn’t seen in decades. 

My mom cleans the sunfish and bass she caught in the lake.

My mom caught fish in the lake, and we watched deer parade across the grass and through the forest. As we drove the winding blacktop from one relative’s house to another, we watched carefully as each late-summer day made more and more green leaves turn yellow, orange and bright russet. 

My cousin said she and her family started this cabin as a homeschooling project when her kids were in high school. It’s glampy and adorable.

Two nights we were booked at my Cousin Ginny’s more rustic cabin. We reminisced around a campfire eating s’mores and listening to my mother tell tales of the long, long ago. But the romance of clamping wore off the first night with my mom, for whom outhouses at midnight, loft beds, and carrying in your own water are memories from a poor childhood on a farm, rather than a way of living in her 80s. So, she spent the second night in my cousin’s house. 

I spent a glorious few hours in the cabin alone. Surrounded by trees, the sound of wind in the leaves and birds chirping, I wrote and wrote. Late at night, lying in bed, I listened as coyotes came to dance and sing in the forest.

A dream space for writing.

This introverted moment seemed to surprise some of my relatives, maybe because they are so often surrounded by kinfolk. So, I thought about it a lot. In some ways I always feel alone—even surrounded by so many family members welcoming us into their lives for a few moments, asking my mother about the history of her clan, offering us chicken dinners. We are all part of others this way, but also, separate selves. Maybe, since I’m not from Minnesota, I’m less like a maple tree, dripping syrup into a bucket to boil down and share. Maybe, being from Colorado, I’m more like an aspen, singularly standing beside all the other aspens, yet deep down also linked together with the same roots that bind us all.

The moon over Sunset Lake.

Dear Afghanistan,

Note: I want to write about our next adventure in Nashville, Tennessee, where we landed after Florida, but too much has happened in Afghanistan the past few weeks, so the stories from Music City will have to wait a little. 

Winter in Istalif, Afghanistan, 2006

The first time I landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, was 2004, just after the Taliban had been ousted from the capital. The airport was barely open, freshly remodeled by bombs and bullets. We landed on a runway flanked on both sides by the wreckage of planes. Little grey donkeys pulled wooden luggage carts to the terminal. Large windows in that building faced the tarmac, but they contained no glass. But as each year went by and we returned to continue helping with humanitarian aid efforts, we saw more and more improvements come to Kabul. The airport got window glass, and mechanized belts for luggage and security, computer systems, and speakers for announcements. 

The streets of Kabul changed too, from mainly rubble and falling down buildings, to large, chrome and glass high rise wedding halls and shopping centers with escalators. Broad avenues were repaired to accommodate all the traffic of Afghans returning home, ex-pats intent on helping to rebuild, and a coalition of military forces patrolling the streets of the city.

We spent our time helping with distributions at refugee camps, visiting medical clinics and hospitals with foreign doctors, and touring schools to teach lessons or encourage the staff with special luncheons. I could tell a thousand stories about any of this. But here is just one.

Each year I visited Afghanistan I made one stop consistently–Chicken Street. In 2004 this market area was a hodgepodge of dusty wares housed in shops that had somehow weathered the bombings of the city. I remember seeing so many strange things. Fur coats hung in one shop window along that street. They weren’t mink, or rabbit, but more exotic spotted and striped furs I couldn’t place—maybe animals from China, my translator thought. In another shop I bought slippers—palace shoes, my translator explained. They were Afghan red, embroidered with gold thread, and pointed at the toes, like something out of 1001 Arabian Nights

Next, was an icon on Chicken Street—Rauf’s rug store. Business picked up here over the years, as well, and when I stepped inside in 2007, I was immediately surrounded by stacks of carpets, mostly Afghan red, piled high all along the walls of the store, and on the floors. They were hand woven, I learned, with the tightest warp and woof and the most intricate patterns. 

Me, sitting on rugs at Rauf’s store in Kabul, circa 2007.

Rauf greeted my friend Wakil with the barrage of pleasantries customary in a country where so many layers of hospitality are interwoven in everyday interactions. The greetings were all in the Dari language, but I knew they were always begun with a wish for peace—Salaam. (It’s ironic that all over this land that is again embedded in violence, people are wishing for peace by just saying hello.)

Rauf asked after Wakil’s health, and Wakil reciprocated. Then, each man asked about the health of every other person connected to each of them—family and friends. (Just stopping by to say hello in Afghanistan can take a while.) And an Afghan would never come straight to the point and begin talking business before firmly reestablishing or establishing a relational connection. 

Anyway, once the greetings were finished, we were urged to seat ourselves on the stacks of rugs and a tray of tea was brought out. Small glasses were filled with steaming drinks and a plate of biscuits (the British style, not the Tennessee style) and some candies in shiny foil wrappers came to accompany the tea. We sipped our tea politely, grateful to our hosts. 

I sat in a headscarf I was constantly adjusting and made sure my legs were not too exposed. (I was wearing pants and a long dress.) It is a conservative culture, and I was many times teetering on the edge of a faux pas I am sure. My thoughts constantly rehearsed what I had been told: Women should avert their eyes from men. Greetings do not involve touching. Clothing should cover everything but hands, shoes, and the face—sometimes the hair can peek out from the top of the forehead if the scarf slips back, but it should be adjusted for modesty, no matter the situation. 

At some point Rauf got the idea that I wanted to buy a rug that was not too big. He began commanding rug after rug to be brought out by black bearded shop men who snapped to obey and trotted into the guts of the store to hoist yet another carpet onto their shoulders. They dramatically unfurled the rug in the middle of the floor just below where I sat. 

I felt guilty shopping this way, in this country, where the victims of war and oppression treated me like an honored guest. But it is their custom. And they are among the best hosts. 

Afghan girls at a camp for displaced people in Kabul, 2004.

When I decided on a carpet, the yelling began. It was a ferocious bargaining in an even more wild sounding language. Wakil and Rauf had switched to their mother tongue—Pashto, a language my Pashto friend likens to nails being dropped in a bucket.

The noise of the arguing must have made my face wince. Wakil stopped for a moment and reassured me in an English aside, that he and Rauf were just playing a game and even though it sounded incredibly angry, it was just Pashto. 

Still, there were likely threats of shame on Rauf’s family for selling a rug for more than it’s worth. And there were equally likely threats of shame for Wakil putting a poor rug dealer out of business.

In the end I came home with a modest-size Afghan rug, mostly black rather than red. I hope I paid a fair price. I’m sitting on it now as I sit in my office desk chair typing this. And whenever I step on it in this room, or vacuum it, or watch my daughter’s cat stretch out on it in the shaft of sunlight that comes through the office window, I think of Rauf, and of Wakil, and of all the Afghans I met over the past 20 years. I hope they can hold on again, like they did before. And I hope they have a rug, too, or at least one thing, one tea glass, one headscarf, or one shalwar kameez, to remind them of their place, and maybe better times that may yet come again.

“The world lives in hope.”

Afghan Proverb