Though Europeans love a party, Thanksgiving is truly a unique North American celebration. Since it is not a holiday here, it was just another day for me to lecture students, grade papers and attend unproductive meetings.
On T-day, I arrived home from school after eight to an empty house, so no turkey this year, but no pity party for Patty. I am filled with gratitude! With a live in French chef I eat well all year round.
Every November with or without the big bird, I take time to count my blessings.
1. Family – remain loyal for the long haul
2. Friendship- sustains the spirit in hard times
3. Frenchman – my life partner keeps me grounded in reality
4. Freedom- to speak my mind, wear what I want and circulate without restraint
5. Airlines –despite glitches in air travel, flying allows me to soar between worlds
6. Internet- instantly connects me between continents, cultures and time zones
7. Children – offer hope for the future and fill my heart with joy
8. Readers – follow along, offer comments and give my musings meaning
9. Ball games – basketball, football, volleyball, handball, tether-ball, love ‘em all
10. Books- hardcover, paperback, e-books…books in any shape or form
11. Summit Lake- where sacred waters restore my soul
Summit Lake, Wis.
Happy Thanksgiving weekend. Safe travels. Slow down. Reflect in gratitude.
From the moment, I knew « it’s a boy, » he filled my life with joy and trepidation. Ten days later, the boy born on the go acquired his first passport. He made his first trans Atlantic trip as a 1 month old. He climbed out of his crib as at 8 months, walked at 9, kicked a ball at 10. As a hyper active, never-nap toddler he banged off the walls of our tiny Parisian apartment.
Insisting on doing everything himself, calamity followed in his wake. While trying to « help » me clean house, he broke the reclining chair, the remote control and the vacuum cleaner. His Aunt Karen insisted, « Send Nic over to help me tidy up. We need a new vacuum too. »
One Christmas, overjoyed to see his Aunt Sue, he gave her a flying, head-butt hug and broke her nose !
As a five-year-old, his body was so strong, we called him Bam Bam, yet his heart was as tender as a poem. When we moved to Switzerland, he told us, « Les nuages font un calin a la montagne. » (The clouds are hugging the mountains.) At age seven, perceptive, beyond his years, he lamented, « Mom, we’re growing up too fast. In five more years, Nathalie won’t live here anymore. »
As a kamikaze kid, he slit open his palm at age two, split his head at four, shattered his right ankle at fifteen. Each time the doctor stitched him up, I prayed, « Please keep my boy in one piece. »
always a high flyer !
The only time he sat still was when I read him storybooks. A friend once told me, « Nicolas is too cute for his britches. » He was. He dumped cereal or yogurt on the floor, then insisted, « Me clean ! » and made a bigger mess. But I could never stay mad. When he looked up at me with a mischievous grin, his turquoise eyes twinkling, all I could do was sigh and love him a little more.
I taught him to speak English, to drive the baseline and to write essays; he taught me patience. In the push- pull, anguish-awe of parenthood, I wondered whether I was saying too much or too little.
From his first footsteps, to first jump shot, to first Swiss national championship, in my role as teacher, coach, mom, I applauded each milestone. Whether he was skiing down the slopes of the Swiss Alps, or wake-boarding the waters of Summit Lake, I admired his balance and agility.
With his strong sense of injustice, he intervened when children picked on smaller boys. He gave up open shots to pass off to teammates who never scored. He helped classmates write French essays and rework math problems.
Due to conflict with an uncomprehending teacher and unruly class, we took him out of French public school when he was four-years-old. Yet his love of learning remained intact. At university, he pursues a teaching degree following in the footsteps of his mom, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents. Though teaching these days is a tough sale due to educational cutbacks and job shortages, he signed on to help out underprivileged children in the St. Paul school district and understands the attention problems of our cyber generation kids.
He has been a dedicated teammate, loyal friend, fun loving cousin, adored little brother and cherished son, admired for his witty sense of humor and courage to stand up for his convictions.
In today’s society, we honor boys for toughness, yet the world needs more tenderhearted men. Raising a son has been a wild ride, but I treasured every moment of the journey.
with sister and cousins
Though I will never again be on center stage of his life – bandaging skinned knees, reading nursery rhymes, or chauffeuring to activities – I will beam from the shadows back stage, as I watch my son pay it forward as a young man.
At the Heritage Center Museum at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, stands a replica of a one-room schoolhouse where the White Man first indoctrinated Indians by civilizing them into the White Man’s Ways and disseminating from their own people. Young Indians were taken from families into boarding schools to be brainwashed. If a child spoke Lakota, his mouth was washed out with lye. Lakota language, religion and customs were forbidden. White men annihilated an ancient culture that lived in harmony with the land, at peace with their souls, as one with the Great Spirit.
In 360 degree turn a bout, another kind of school now does all it can to preserve the Lakota culture. Red Cloud School educates 600 students in primary, middle and high school, by trying to give Lakota children the skills to compete in society, while retaining traditional values and culture of Lakota heritage. Along side basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic courses in ethics and religion, Lakota culture, religion and language are required.
Red Cloud indian school, South Dakota
Red Cloud, the Indian chief who led the most successful military campaign against the US by an indigenous group, saw that their way of life was ending. For his people to prosper, they needed to learn to walk in the way of the White Man. The school inspired by Red Cloud’s vision was started in by the Jesuits order in 1888. One hundred percent of its 2010 graduates went on to college, yet it receives no national or state aid. No longer a boarding school, some students ride an over an hour to get to and from school.
My brother-in-law’s Uncle, Mike Zimmerman, who entered the Jesuits, first worked in Argentina, before his transfer to the Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota in the center of the Oglala nation. He agreed to show us around the school.
I expected Brother Mike to be dressed in clerical black robe, but instead a tall, slender man in grease stained green work suit, thrust his large hand into ours. His eyes were soft brown and kind. I wondered who was this simple, soft-spoken, articulate man who had dedicated his life to serving the Lord.
Our greeting was awkward, for he rarely had visitors and here we were eight tourists from the Carlson-Zimmerman clan. When his colleague introduced us to the Indians on campus, she said, “These are Brother Mike’s family, either related by blood or the heart.”
First, Brother Mike stopped in front of the school and told us about the fire that destroyed it in 1996. He pointed to a display of flames devouring the wooden buildings, turning his head away. “It still pains me to look at the photographs of that awful time.”
Mike led us into the new church that had been rebuilt after the fire. The wooden pews formed a semi circle in front of the alter which the Indians requested be built in circle representing their belief. In a picture window, Jesus is surrounded by Asian, Eskimo, Indian and white children.
“Each window forming the circle around the worship area told a story, but in Lakota tradition all stories must be told orally,” Mike told us. “They refused to write it down or tape record it, for they said that it is not their way.”
Mike invited us to lunch. In a small cafeteria, we filled paper plates with corn, beans, salad and hot dogs and fresh fruit from the self-service counter. We were urged to take seconds, but I felt guilty eating knowing that they subsisted on so little. We offered to pay for our meals, only a mere two dollars a person, but Mike waved us away.
In the history classroom, where they learned world, national, state and Lakota history, the unabridged edition, phrases in Lakota, had been written on the blackboard. The school also had a new computer lab and the flat screens looked top of the line, but the desks were old, wooden relics from long ago. The textbooks were worn and outdated. Nevertheless Red Cloud School continues to draw interest in the wider community. For instance, Dr. Jane Goodall visited the school in several years ago to share her ideas.
As we left, I wondered what the Indians thought of us, this white-faced tribe invading their territory. Only our 6’2 “ daughter drew a few glances from the short, stout brown-skinned workers. With Brother Mike at our side, we were welcomed as special guests and I felt privileged for this peek into the life of the Lakota.
The school exemplifies Red Cloud’s dream for Lakota children to learn to walk equally in both worlds. As I walked across the grounds by his grave, I felt honored to follow in his mighty steps on this hallowed land.
Ever a kid at heart, every October 31st, as the fields turn from emerald to autumn hues of auburn, I watch the bold sun bleed crimson as it sets over the gray-blue Jura Mountains. As the sky changes from gold to pink, purple to black, I can picture witches flying over the treetops, goblins dancing through the apple orchards and ghosts floating out of the mist above the vineyard. Halloween fills even old hearts with a sense of mystery and excitement. It’s a night where even adults can imagine anything is possible.
Every Baby Boomer remembers a favorite Halloween costume of childhood. Mine was the time; I wore a football helmet, shoulder pads and a blue and gold jersey that my dad borrowed from his high school team. I swaggered down East 19th street ringing doorbells as a proud Sterling Warrior.
When we lived in Paris, I tried to celebrate the American holiday with my children without much success. The kids decided trick or treating at only one house – your own – is not fun. But when we moved to an in Switzerland, the All Saints Eve was celebrated with aplomb. Parents even bussed kids in to trick or treat in my international neighborhood.
Swiss farm with pumpkins
Halloween has always been sacred in my house. Late October, years ago after a full moon, our daughter Nathalie was born. She has long outgrown her nickname “pumpkin,” but I still buy a jack-o-lantern every autumn. A candle in an orange gourd, once thought to frighten evil spirits, now represents my hopes for my Norwegian-Scotch, Franco-American children.
That little girl who once trick or treated disguised as a doctor, now dons a white coat daily as she makes hospital rounds giving baby wellness visits as a pediatrician.
Alas though I never became an American football star, today, truly all things are possible. Wonders never cease. Times do change. My niece became a state rugby champion, not once but twice!
What favorite Halloween memories haunt your household?
Every October I see migrant workers with baskets laden with fruit strapped to their backs, crouching low to pick grapes. Though Switzerland may boast of some fine crus, nowhere is wine more divine than on the rolling hillside outside of Dijon where we lived for two years.
vines and a village in Burgundy
American children in Illinois, my home state, ,detassle corn as a rights of passage, whereas, French kids in the burgundy region of France pick grapes. Years ago, I accompanied my daughter’s fifth grade class, the day they helped harvest the grapes during the vendange. We weren’t picking just any old grapes – these were the world famous ones on Nuit-St. Georges domaine.
The vineyards on the Côte de Nuits on the outskirts of Dijon extending to Corgolion are 20K long and a few 100 meters wide. This strip of land, known as the Champs Elysées of Burgundy and Nuit-St. Georges, is the la crème de la crème of the Grand Crus Reds.
Originally, the vines grew wild and were pressed into wine by accident before 312 A.D. Image if the knotted ancient vines could talk the stories they would tell ?
Generations of French children will have their own tales of the harvest to pass on. The students skipped along the rows of perfectly aligned green vines that burst out of the dry, sandy soil and spilled down the slope toward the stone walls of the red-roofed village. Their small hands deftly clipped the vines that held the tight bunches of Pinot Noir grapes, while I struggled to bend low with an aching back.
les vendanges !
While the winemaker explains the intricate process, kids couldn’t resist popping the tart, purple grapes into their mouths. Though I love grapes, these were thick skinned and sour and inedible. The wine grape differs form the table grape in that they are smaller and tarter.
Most French wine growers still hire help to pick the grapes by hand. I will certainly never forget my sole back-breaking, grape-picking stint. After spending a sun-kissed autumn day with wine growers, witnessing first hand their art, I will never again carelessly gulp a cheap red. Instead I savored each sip and appreciated the complexity between the vine and land, the wine and the winemaker.
As my French husband likes to remind me, « Life is too short to drink bad wine. »
No wonder people love Switzerland. It’s a place where even the cows party. In October villagers throw a street bash in celebration of the livestock.
Cows were so commonplace in my childhood growing up in the Midwest, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would go out of their way to watch a herd of cattle, but during the désalpe, the day when cows come down from the mountains to the valley is a popular event, as much a part of Swiss tradition as Swiss cheese.
Thousands of visitors jam the cobblestone streets of Saint-Cergue perched on the Swiss side of the Jura, to applaud the herds of cows and sheep that parade through town. The désalpe festival honors the fat, four -legged fellows who keeps the country supplied in butter, milk and cheese.
The shepherds and herdsmen leave the highlands at the crack of dawn to arrive in the Swiss village on the lower slopes of the Jura mountains early in the day. The lead cows, wearing flowered headgear as elaborate as new brides wear, meander through town mooing. Leather collars a foot-wide hang around their necks, which attach to cow bells the size of lampshades.
For 24 hours at the end of summer, the quiet, ski village turns into a giant block party. The sidewalks and town square are filled with stands where merchants sell local Swiss specialties; raclette, crepes, sausages, soups, beer and wine. At overturned wine barrels tourists knock back white wine served in traditional tiny cups barely bigger than shot glasses.
Big burly-bearded men in jeans play the accordion, flute and violin. Bands of musicians dressed in traditional attire, black smocks embroidered with mountain flowers, black hats and gray pants, representing different mountain villages play the cor des alpes. The red-faced men blow into the the10-foot long straw-colored alpine horns creating sounds as forlorn as the nights of solitude that herders endure in the alpine pastures. Local choral groups sing equally mournful tunes. A short, stocky man in a black suit cackles when he demonstrates his whip cracking clearing a 100-foot circle in the crowd. A flag thrower twirls the red Swiss flag with a white cross.
In Switzerland the cow is sacred. Senntumsmalerei, herd painting, is a special part of Swiss folk art, depicting the semi annual pilgrimage of the cows up and down the mountain.
In the spring another festival will honor the cows as they return up to the highlands for grazing in the summer. Most likely, I will be there paying homage. After seeing the désalpe, I’ll never take cows for granted again.