Musings, North Dakota Living

Grandma Extraordinaire

This week in Boomtown Diaries, I’m turning my focus away from the oil field, from teaching, from farming, from life in western North Dakota and am writing a few words instead regarding a very special lady. This Saturday, March 2, this very special lady turns 81. She is my Grandma Marilyn: Grandma extraordinaire, baker of beautiful cakes, sewer of baby blankets, coupon saver, North Dakota farm wife, and defender and protector of grandkids.


When you think of an ideal grandma, you might as well picture mine. When I was little, I used to spend days or weeks on her farm in northeast North Dakota. My grandma and I would walk the gravel road with the dogs, catch kittens in the old red barn, smell lilacs, swing on the stained wood garden swing, and take trips into town for donuts and milk. I would cry every time I left her to go back to my parents. (Although to be fair, I usually cried when I left my parents too. What can I say; I’ve always been a softy.)

When I was in 6th grade, she and my Grandpa Wayne retired from farming and moved to Bismarck permanently to be closer to their eight grandkids. It was a dream come true. Now my ideal grandma lived right across the cemetery from us, only a bike ride away. My parents made me mad? I would go to Grandma’s. I was craving homemade cake frosting? I would go to Grandma’s. I was home sick from school? Those were the best days! I would go to Grandma’s, and she would lavish me with attention, love, and cups of Sprite while we watched Price is Right together. I admit, I may have faked illness a time or two.

Before I knew Grandma Marilyn as my grandma, she was a fiery North Dakota farm wife for much of her life. She grew up in the Great Depression, was Valedictorian of her class in the small town of Michigan, received a teaching certificate from Mayville State, and taught in a one-room prairie schoolhouse before marrying my Grandpa Wayne. They had been in high school together but didn’t become a couple until after she scared off a pretty blonde he was with at a dance. Well, my grandpa says she was pretty. My grandma says she wasn’t. They lived on an Army base in Utah for a while and then in an apartment over a shop in town while my grandpa drove a truck for Sweetheart Bread, worked as a farm hand, and finally, purchased his own farm outside of Michigan when my mother was little.

Although they don’t farm anymore, my grandparents are true North Dakota pioneers. They have strong Norwegian roots, a rich history of scratching out a living from the eastern North Dakota soil, and some pretty entertaining stories of my grandma working as my grandpa’s farm hand, usually as a grain truck driver. My grandma also makes some mean lefse and krumkake in case you were wondering. She makes mean lots of things, actually. One mystery I’ve never figured out is why her smushed-up eggs taste so much better than mine do, and even her toast. What the heck?

I could never fit enough stories into one blog post to describe my Grandma Marilyn. It would take a whole book. Fast forward to her 81st year, and you have one award-winning grandma. At least, if there were Grandma Awards, she would get one. She shows up to everything even remotely involving her grandkids. She would show up at my high school and college cross country meets where it was sleeting so hard it was blowing sideways, just to watch a race that lasted for less than 20 minutes. In fact, she has shown up at every track meet, baseball game, basketball game, football game, soccer game (you get the picture) plus every piano recital, spelling bee and music festival in which my brothers, cousins and I have performed. On weeks of regional basketball tournaments, she usually doesn’t sleep. She is either too nervous thinking about the game the next day, or too excited thinking about the game the night before. Last fall, she and my grandpa showed up at a crowded bar to watch Danny and I play a Halloween show with our bluegrass band The Dwaylors. She chose a seat at a small table on the edge of the dance floor. When a tall young man dressed as a cowboy got in her way, she tapped him neatly on the shoulder and politely demanded that he move out of the way so she could see her grandkids. He moved. The best part was, within a few minutes, he became her personal bouncer and was clearing out all the other costume-wearing Halloween revelers who blocked her view of the stage.

Grandma at the Halloween show. That is actually not a creepy old man on the left - it is our cousin Adam in a mask!
Grandma at the Halloween show. That is actually not a creepy old man on the left – it is our cousin Adam in a mask!

Grandma Marilyn is more than just our #1 Fan.  Anytime my brothers, cousins or I need someone to have our backs, we have Grandma. If a ref calls a foul against one of my brothers, he is crooked. If a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks one of our hearts, he or she has no brains. If we aren’t named Valedictorians, the books are probably rigged.

But who doesn’t need at least one never-wavering supporter in life? Shouldn’t we all have someone who knows we can do no wrong, who has our backs no matter what and is always smiling and holding a plate of cookies? I know that the eight of us grandkids would consider ourselves the luckiest grandkids alive.

In her 81st year, I hope this very special lady, North Dakota pioneer and Grandma Extraordinaire, finds just a piece of the love and happiness that she has given all of us. And since she has, true to form, become the most devoted reader of Boomtown Diaries since blog post #1, I know she is reading this on her basement computer. So I love you, Grandma! Happy birthday week!

Grandma Marilyn (center) with Grandpa Wayne and some of her own biggest fans
Grandma Marilyn (center) with some of her own biggest fans
Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Just Another Hat

Teachers wear many hats. We are not merely instructing children on the arts of our subject areas, children who sit in straight rows with bright, shiny faces and raise their hands and remember their pencils, and whose lives are changed dramatically by our gentle encouragement to become the best they can be. I wish teaching was like that, but that’s for the movies. Teaching is actually more like this:

“Miss D., he’s poking me!”

“Miss D., I forgot my pencil! Actually someone stole it from my locker! Oh, and they stole my notebook and textbook too! I know, it’s weird someone would want to steal a grammar textbook, but I swear that’s what happened!”

“Miss D., are you seriously giving us a writing assignment?”

“Miss D., now he’s kicking my desk!”

“Miss D., are you seriously making us read?”

“Miss D., can we not do anything today? Can we just have nap time?”

“Miss D., now he’s trying to write on my arm!”

Teachers are mediators, nurses, counselors, referees, bosses, coaches, and listening ears — never mind attempting to squeeze in time for instructing the basic use of a conjunctive adverb. Last year, at the end of a particularly frazzling period with 7th graders, one of them looked at me and commented sincerely, “Man, your job must be so easy! You don’t even have to do homework like we do!” I looked at the stack of 65 research papers sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. I looked at my unfinished lesson plans for the next day and the next week. I looked around the room at 22 7th graders bouncing up and down in their seats. I felt my head pounding. I looked at the clock. It was only 9:45 a.m. Not good.

“Yep,” I said with a sigh. “My job is so easy.” He nodded, satisfied, and gathered his things for his next class.

Yesterday, I got the chance to try on a new teaching hat: Driving a bus. This is not something I signed up for when I went into teaching. I think I envisioned all the neat rows of students with bright, shiny faces raising their hands and having more fulfilled lives because of my teaching instruction – the ones in the movies. I did not envision getting up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to start a frosty yellow school bus and pick up a pile of speech kids who forget scripts and money and dress shirts at home.

But, when the athletic director informed me that I would be driving a bus to some of my speech meets, I swallowed my concern and nodded. I drive grain trucks and combines, I thought to myself. How hard can it be to drive a bus? I tried not to think of the fact that children whose parents love them deeply are a little more important that a heap of barley, and I tried not to think of the long train of oil trucks that usually accompany me to school in the morning, only yards behind my little SUV. Besides, this was one of the “short buses,” which is little more than a glorified 14-passenger van. Drivers don’t need a bus license for this kind of bus.

So instead of arguing, I got up yesterday morning at 5, drove to Watford, found my assigned bus in the bus lot, started it, scraped the frost off the windows (not an easy task when I am 5’1″ and the sad little ice scraper barely extends past my arm), messed around with the switches, figured out how to turn on the strobe lamp on top of the bus, turned on the heaters for the kids, and drove to the high school to pick them up. They piled on, faces excited for the first speech season of the year, and we took off.

And the thing is, it went just fine. The fog was a bit thick; the traffic was moderately heavy; it was early in the morning. But otherwise, I created a few rules in my mind and stuck to them:

  • Hug the white line
  • Keep distance from the oil trucks
  • Don’t let the kids know I’ve never done this before
  • Stop at railroad crossings (I only had to do this twice)
  • Avoid giving obscene gestures to jerks while driving a vehicle plastered with our school name on the side

I didn’t mind trying on another hat, in the end. It was a good day. I had to endure a few comments, of course. When I parked the bus at our destination, the driver in the bus next to me looked at me in amazement. He leaned out his window. “You’re the tiniest bus driver I’ve ever seen!” he yelled with a grin on his face. My friend Allie also about died laughing when she saw me climb into the bus at the end of the speech meet. She’s an English teacher and spent a few years in a Class B school, so if anyone understands what it’s like to get roped into things, she does. “Be good to her!” she called to my kids before snapping a picture of me in my short bus.

The best part: God rewarded me with a sunrise in the badlands on my way there, lifting the fog just enough for me to see, and a sunset in the badlands on my way back. It was absolutely breathtaking. The other best part: My kids gathered their things when I parked at the school, thanked me sincerely for taking them, proclaimed how fun it was, and went cheerfully home to their parents. They never knew all the anxiety I suffered beforehand.

Yes, it was a good day. And what would teaching be without a few more hats?