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Susan Miles

© 2004

Susan readingA Life Lesson in Cub Foods

            The white, rectangular piece of paper was small and could have easily been mistaken as a stray piece of confetti used to stuff gift bags. Had I not been obsessed with finishing the cleaning and packing for our upcoming move from Georgia to Minnesota to keep my mind off the fact that I had just put my twelve year old on an airplane all alone to travel to her dad and an awaiting soccer team, I would have overlooked it. Sarah must have written the words and then cut them out from the larger sheet of notebook paper. The smallness of the paper in her otherwise empty room suggested insignificance, yet my pulse quickened, and my heart began to ache. When I opened the crumpled strip and read the words, all the pent up anger, frustration, and fear burst loose. The words were simple, yet devastating,

“I will miss it here.”

I dropped to the floor and loosed the floodgates. How could this be happening to my daughters? How could this be happening to me? Jesse, my older daughter, had stayed behind to make the drive with me in a couple of days. She heard my wails and, alarmed, rushed into the room. Crying wasn’t unusual for me; sobbing was. She put her arms around me and whispered, “Mom, if it makes you feel any better, I’m kind of looking forward to it. It’ll be an adventure.” I think that I loved her more in that moment than I had ever known, but I’d already had this adventure.

            I still remember when John and I moved home to Georgia from our two-year stay in a cold, lonely, seemingly God-forsaken spot in the infamously wintry state of Minnesota. I had said then that I would never again leave Georgia. I had been miserably homesick for almost the entire two years that I had been away, and I thought that I had done the penance for whatever sin I had committed that required me--like the ancient mariner--to leave behind the comfort of friends, family, and the familiar to relocate one thousand miles away. The name of the city where we lived, Apple Valley, sounded more cheerful than I ever felt living there. Yes, I loved my newly wedded husband, and I suppose that I did, in fact, “live off love” for the two years I was there. But let me tell you, I jumped at the chance to pack up and go home when John announced that the merger of Republic and Northwest Airlines would allow him to transfer to Atlanta.

            Arriving in Apple Valley on June 5, 2003, nineteen years after my first move to Minnesota, I had no idea how prophetic and true Sarah’s words, “I will miss it here,” would ring for me. Still, the summer raced by; I was taking the dreaded Human Relations training for teachers at Normandale and writing the four required papers in one week; traveling to Wayzata, which looked deceptively close to Apple Valley on a map, until the reality of  I-494W traffic and summer road construction clued me in to the horror of that commute; attending endless soccer practices and games; trying to squeeze a family of four with only the belongings essential for survival into a tiny, two-bedroom apartment that would be home until we could sell our house in Georgia; reading two textbooks in preparation for a new teaching prep; and always, always searching for novel ways to entertain the disgruntled youth who had usurped the bodies and souls of my previously carefree daughters. For a brief time, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Then like waking up from the initial numbness following the death of a loved one, grief slowly began to fill me up.

            I grieved for my inability to see my father on a regular basis as he entered the first stage of Alzheimer’s disease. What if the disease progressed at a rapid rate and he forgot me? I grieved that my ladies supper club would carry on without me. Would I be replaced? I grieved that I couldn’t pick up the phone and call Janette and Catherine to drop every thing and come over to lounge with me on the back porch in well-worn rocking chairs, have a beer, and vent about our kids, husbands, bosses, or whatever else might be troubling us. To whom would I vent now? And I must say that I sweated the small stuff, too, despite my years of reminding others not to do so. I dreaded finding a new doctor and dentist, new Jazzercise buddies, and most frustrating of all, a new hair stylist. I also hated the fact that out of all the teachers and students at Burnsville High School, no one would call out my name as I walked down the corridor on the first day of school. I worried that my children would sit alone in their school cafeterias with no one to whom to talk and tell secrets. And when I most needed the ever-loyal companionship of my faithful basset hound, Miss Mollie Ann, I had to leave her behind with my parents because we had been unable to find an apartment that would accept dogs.

            However, not until the day that I fell apart in Cub Foods, following the cart of a woman who obviously had not offended the gods because she still lived where she knew every other person in the store, did I realize the depth of my heartache. I wept because I knew that I would not find one familiar face, that no one would stop and talk to me. I had always found happiness in small things; I had been that woman carelessly spending hours in my grocery store chatting with students, parents, and friends that I saw there. Now, here I was blubbering and struggling to catch my breath in the middle of Cub Foods. I had to get a grip. Okay, so I wouldn’t have an instant supper club with fifteen members, any of whom I could call upon and count on for any reason. And true, plenty of teachers and students at my school would have no idea who I was. I had been a newcomer before and had built those relationships over time. Once again I would have to join the ranks of those who believed that good things come to those who wait, but meanwhile I would find pleasure in the small things. I would focus on the positive, rather than the negative.

            Simple pleasures come in many forms. In the South, everyone waves at everyone. A wave, someone’s acknowledgement that I’m there and important, can brighten my day instantly. And so, I took on the project of teaching Minnesotans the fine art of waving: to strangers, to friends, to the young, to the old. I eased my grief and added humor to my first year by observing the looks I got from those to whom I waved: the “Do I know you?” look; the quick turning of the head avoidance of looking; the “Are you simple?” look; and the rewarding, “Maybe if I wave back, she won’t come any closer” look. I even started to keep a tally while driving and walking: ten encounters, one wave; twelve encounters, three waves, etc. Not a supper club, but a sign of friendliness.

            Janette and Catherine can’t fly up to help alleviate my rages, so I have taken to observing the rages of others. Watching Minnesotans drive could have further inspired my rage, but in some perverse way, it has added entertainment to my life, the kind of “I cannot believe this” type of entertainment, that is. Really, how can those practitioners of Minnesota Nice be such assholes behind the wheel? I am amazed by their total refusal to merge. I always try to drive up beside those cars just to see what kind of person could be driving in that manner, and it’s men in suits, yuppies, little old ladies, and mothers--not the inexperienced teen on the cell phone or the redneck in the hooptie that I imagined. And, absolutely no one here seems to know the rule “Slower traffic keep right.” This is a state full of self-appointed speed limit monitors, Gomer Pyles out for a “citizen’s arrest.” Finally, my personal favorite is the “ a red light is just a suggestion” mentality. I have come to a full and complete stop at a traffic light and had time to change the radio station when a car has whizzed by like the light was still yellow. I am amazed every time that I complete a trip that I haven’t come across numerous intersection accidents. I don’t know why I find these things so funny, but I do, and a little more of my grief has disappeared.

            I have also learned to glean pleasure from solitude. Not having a book club myself, I hungrily await the suggestions of new titles from students, fellow teachers, or friends. I wrap in the warmth of my great aunt Catherine’s quilt on the back deck with a glass of wine and forget about exile, grief, and loneliness as I am transported on journeys of the mind. I have traveled cross-country with Lief Enger’s Land family in search of Davey, their prodigal son; experienced new cultures and satisfied my curiosity with Alice Steinback, and searched for solutions from Mary Pipher for Ophelia’s, and my own daughters’, dependence and lack of self-confidence. And I have this summer returned to writing. How liberating to slap down the naked truth on a blank page and set free my soul’s secrets! I may not often be able to sit by my father’s side and draw comfort from his wisdom and humor as his disease progresses, but I can send to him my words, my stories, my love, and know that he is at his table remembering his daughter.

            As Sarah’s words predicted, I still miss it there. But I’ve stopped sweating the small stuff and have focused instead on the joy found in day-to-day experiences. One day this spring, my name was mentioned on the school’s daily announcements, and my students shushed one another and exclaimed, “They’re talking about our teacher.” When I arrive now at Jazzercise, I am greeted with a cheery hello from Colleen, Patty, Mary, Doug, and Delaine. My house is often full of rowdy, loud kids, new friends of my daughters with whom they talk and share secrets. Unbelievably, on a recent trip to Blaine, I had to merge onto 35E, and the driver of the car in the right lane moved over so that I could squeeze onto the congested highway. I gave the courtesy wave, and he returned it! And, hey, the other day I saw my new hairstylist, Denise, in Cub Foods, and we had a conversation right in the middle of the store.