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Julia Blenkush


Julia BlenkushSnapshots

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city of about 250,000 and one of only two sizable cities in the state.  Even though I attended college in Northfield, MN, a town of only 10,000 inhabitants, I never really considered making my home in a small town.  When I graduated from college with an English Education major in 1981, the job market was awful.   Friends and family would ask if I was coming back to Nebraska, and I rather haughtily replied that I would rather find a teaching job in northern Minnesota than western Nebraska, which is ranch country and hundreds of miles can separate towns of only a few hundred inhabitants.  I really didn’t mean it.  I wouldn’t have moved to a small town in northern Minnesota either.  I had come of age in the seventies and while my eyes had been opened to the many opportunities available to women who actually chose careers over marriage and families, I was still blinded by ignorance about life in a small town.  Friends who had grown up in these towns still complained about neighbors who knew all about their adolescent misdeeds, church ladies who held old-fashioned moral values, and high school peers who never grew up enough to leave.

I don’t remember who first penned this phrase, but it’s certainly been significant in my life:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans.”  I had a plan for my life, and it didn’t include living in a small town.  But God was indeed laughing.  It would be awhile, however, before I could join in.

At the age of thirty-four, I met my husband, Steve and agreed to move to Mora, Minnesota, a town of about 3,000 people.  While I didn’t go kicking and screaming, I did go with another plan, my “five-year plan”.  I’d give this gig in Mora five years—no whining or complaining-- no “if onlys” or conditions.  I’d give it my all.  Then we’d move back to the Twin Cities where I could neatly separate my real life from my work life, my Monday to Friday life from my weekend life, my life with my family from my life as Mrs. Blenkush or the pastor’s wife.  I certainly had a plan, but what I didn’t plan for was what the people in that small town would teach me about community.    Over the course of thirteen years, my mental photo album of life in a small town changed significantly.   Three particular snapshots tell this story. 

The first picture is a rather sheepish Steve telling me that he had purchased a deep freezer at the local appliance store.  We’d only lived in Mora for a few months, but I had opened an account at Rick’s Furniture and Appliances before we were married.   The credit card still carried my maiden name and St. Paul address, but Steve was able to access my line of credit simply because he told them he was the new pastor and that I was his wife.  Unlike one of the big box stores in the Cities, no photo ID was requested; no second form of identification or a pin number, not even MY signature was required.  The entire transaction occurred on the assurance that Steve’s handshake and good name was enough.  

My five-year plan soon morphed into an eight-year plan after the birth of our two children only sixteen months apart.  I was immersed in the joys, and yes, exhaustion of teaching and caring for my family.  We’d move when Teddy started kindergarten, I thought.  That added three more years to “the plan”, but it was still do-able.

The second snapshot took place a few years later.   Steve and I are in the backyard with our children  watching the local volunteer fire department monitor the house next door as a practice burn.  While Katie and Teddy were mesmerized by the flames and fire trucks, I distinctly remember looking out at the street as the firefighters gathered after the burn and  realizing that I could name every single one of those men.  Some of them sat next to me at church; some sat across from me during parent-teacher conferences as we talked about their children, my students.  One of them lived behind us and plowed our side street within an hour of snowfall; one of them sold us Katie’s first bike.   If I needed them, they would be there, most likely calling out for each member of my family by name to make sure we were okay.

The third snapshot is simply a pillow in the back seat of a car. I was now forty years old, my children were three and four, and I had found a lump. My life plan did not include breast cancer.  I made it through surgery, two rounds of chemo, and 33 daily trips to St. Cloud for radiation.  One Sunday, a church member  passed around a sign up sheet during coffee hour to rally volunteers to help with driving.  I think every single retired person in that church, and even some of their friends, signed up to help.  Sometimes two would sign up together just to keep each other company on the two-hour trip there and back.

About a week into my radiation regiment, I started dozing off on the return trip.  I’d be chatting with my drivers, then wake up to a gentle shake as we pulled into my driveway.  No one said anything to me but they must have talked to each other.  I can imagine their conversation:  “She gets a bit sleepy on the way home.  You might want to put a pillow in the backseat for her.”  And so they did.  Each day there was a new driver waiting in my driveway and each one had a pillow in his backseat to make my journey back home a bit more comfortable.

Life in this small town wasn’t idyllic: neighbors did seem to know more about me than I sometimes wanted, sometimes it did seem as though conservative values dominated coffee hour talk on Sundays, and oftentimes I felt a slight feeling of failure when I saw one of my former students hanging out at the local bars instead of going off to college.  But these seemed like trivial matters when I consider what I gained from this experience. A friend of mine once told me that she knew what community meant when she heard her neighbor yelling at her son to get out of the street, and she wasn’t addressing him as “young man” or “hey you”, she was calling him by his first AND middle name.  It is significant when someone calls you by name, whether out of concern, anger, fear, or joy.   Living in community means that you can’t escape notice, whether you want to or not, whether you’ve planned it or not.  

I may no longer have a five-year plan, but old habits are difficult to change.  I now have e-mail, Facebook, and a cell phone to plan my life.  I’d like to think that I’ve learned something about living in the moment, about being fully aware of the space I occupy at any given time, about putting away the plans and just living, but  I haven’t mastered this completely yet.  However, I can admit that there are times, perhaps when I am drawing arrows to the margins of our family calendar to fit an extra activity in, or when I tell my seniors to take out their students planners so that I can fill in my semester plans for them, there are times when, if I listen very carefully, I can now smile as I hear God laugh.