A Fairy Tale Life

To hear her tell it, she's had a pretty rough life. She came into this world disadvantaged by having a brother four years older than her.She would not be allowed the "luxuries" an only child is given, or the privileges the firstborn receives, especially a male heir. She would have to fight for everything she wanted. While everyone doted on "golden-boy", she would be Cinderella, forced by cruel fate to sleep in the ashes of the hearth, to expect only the leftovers, her only clothes rags and her only friends kitchen vermin.

But that would be "her" story, not mine. And that would be her story on a "good" day, one of those rare occurrences when we don't "all hate her." For she stands on the threshold of womanhood, which is a polite way of saying I have a screaming, hormonal, preteen demoness on my hands. It makes you wish you could push her over the threshold, and lock the door behind her. She wasn't always this way.

She started out as a normal little girl. Her favorite color was pink, and dolls and stuffed animals were her primary joys. Sure, she had her colicky time as a baby, but that was short-lived, and by the time she was two, it was obvious that she was all girl. Which was a great relief to me, by the way. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, my greatest fear was that when she was born she would look like me. And even worse: look like me in drag! And then she was born, and she looked like me. Disappointed? Not in the least. Quite relieved, actually. Not only does she not look how I imagine I would look in drag, but if that's how I would look in drag, I'd look OK! My second greatest fear while my wife was pregnant with child number two was that she would have my temperament.

I am the first to admit that I am a less than jovial person at all times. I can be an old curmudgeon, but I can be a jolly old elf, too. My Grandpa Zimmy was much the same way. He was a rather gruff old poop. He died when he was 91. After the funeral, Grandma Zimmy asked me if I thought he had been a good Grandpa. I told her he had been a terrific Grandpa. She had forgotten all the times he had chased us around when we were just little kids, trying to pinch us with these incredibly thick, workingman fingers. He enjoyed hearing us squeal, I guess. He could also be very caring and soft, but that was usually hidden away from public view. He raised rabbits in back of their house in Jackson, MN., and we would have four-legged fried chicken when we would visit on Sunday. I don't know if my older brothers knew that Grandpa was raising those cute little bunnies for Sunday dinner, but I was not a math whiz and didn't put two and two together for quite a while. Grandpa just said we were having four-legged fried chicken. When he laughed, he laughed wholeheartedly. But usually he was just a gruff old poop. He died January 8, 1985.

On the drive home from the funeral, my wife began having contractions. Our daughter was not due until March 17th, but was apparently either feeling left out by not getting to see her great-grandpa before he died, or she just felt a need to fill the Zimmerli space Grandpa had just vacated. Either way, she was trying to make an appearance. Luckily for everyone, modern medical science, pharmacology and bed rest prevailed and she was denied early admittance. That was perhaps our first glimpse of her independent personality. Her next came when she was due to be born. After trying to join us six-weeks early, she decided she wasn't coming out without a special invitation. So two weeks after she was due, the doctor induced my wife and convinced our daughter to come out to play.

I've told you before how my mother-in-law took one look at our new little bundle of joy, her first granddaughter, and said "This is the one. This is the one who will test you."

When she first became mobile, I remember her crawling over to where her older brother was quietly watching television. How cute. She's going to lie on the floor next to her brother and watch cartoons. Not this girl. She crawled over to his head, grabbed a handful of hair on either side and pulled upward. He, of course, howled, but could do nothing about this new threat to his safety. He had spent four years as master of his domain, and now there was this thing which crawled around the floor and ate lint and cat food attacking him. Suddenly I had flashbacks to Grandpa Zimmy, chasing us around the house, trying to pinch us, just to hear us squeal. She had yanked on his hair just to hear him squeal.

I think one of the things which has frustrated her brother the most these past eleven years is the knowledge that boys can't hit girls. It is also one of the things she has exploited. I think she fancies herself a princess. Her father, the King, had to send her away for safekeeping from some unknown threat - like an evil stepmother - and had his trusted servants (us) raise her until he could bring her back home. This was made clear so very well on an early Saturday morning when she was about three. I had to be at work by six o'clock each morning, and on weekends I played in a band, so sleeping in on Saturday morning was pretty important to me. This particular Saturday morning I was roused from my deep slumber by the indignant cries of my daughter downstairs. I went to the top of the stairway and hollered down to find out what was going on. She came to the bottom of the stairs, long, blonde hair unkempt from sleep, a pink bathrobe on, and, princess-like, said "He hit me back!"

Now that same little princess is in sixth-grade, and standing on the threshold of womanhood (a.k.a. a screaming, hormonal preteen demoness). I know someday in the not-too-distant future a prince will come along and take her away. And her mother will cry buckets and her father will even wipe away a stray tear or two. And then, when the coast is clear, we'll do the happy dance, pack our bags and head back to the King's castle to collect our big, fat bonus for raising the Princess!


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


The Changeling

We have always had children. Our entire married life we have had children. Our entire married life we have told those children that when they graduate from high school they will spread their wings and fly away. Graduation gifts will be a set of luggage and a one-way bus ticket to where they want to go. Then it will be just "us." For the first time in 22 years it will be just "us." The first year of our marriage doesn't count, by the way. We were busy getting to know each other and making plans for being a family. So when baby bird number two leaves the nest we can get back to being "just the two of us."

Suddenly, I'm having slight changes in attitude toward this coming freedom. We have successfully navigated through some of the rockiest portions of raising a teenager, and now he's changing the game. Sixth months ago we were counting the time until he graduates and moves out on his own. Then, quietly and insidiously, he began to metamorphose. Instead of being bullheaded and argumentative - as he was a half-a-year ago - he's being helpful and considerate. Not ALL the time, of course, but enough of the time that we notice the change. When his younger sister started at the middle school this fall and some rude oaf shut her finger in a locker and then spun on his heels and sauntered away without so much as a backwards glance, the Changeling told her "Not everyone has been taught good manners like we have." Pick me up off the floor! Six months ago he would have told her she deserved it for having her hand in the wrong place! NOW he's giving sideways praise to his parents? He can't change the rules at this late stage of the game, can he?

We have always known that a nice person was buried deep down inside of him, struggling to claw his way up through the teenaged angst to the surface, but we really didn't expect that person to gain purchase to the surface before he was out on his own. We figured he wouldn't discover the truths we had tried to teach him until he was forced to survive the battlefield of daily adult life. Six months ago he was telling us - quite loudly, too - how little we knew him. Well, let me tell you, I'm not convinced we know this person, either. But I like him. He's a much more than pleasant person to be around the other kid who was living with us. I think it would probably be a good idea to check the basement for large pods.

He has not finished his transformation, though. He still has flashes of anger when his sister is around, but who doesn't?!? She's just entering the phase he is exiting (there should really be a sign for adolescents which says "This way to the egress."). He still argues with us. He still questions authority wherever it may be. He still doesn't understand why we try to spare him from making mistakes instead of letting him experience them so he can learn from them. He's also learning to listen to us. And WHY is that not a good thing? Because he uses our own words and thoughts against us when he can. But at least he's listening.

I was talking to him recently, having a normal conversation about nothing in particular, when I realized I will miss this type of exchange someday. He has interesting ideas, and I enjoy getting a peek inside his brain. I take silent delight in watching him experience something for the first time. New things have a way of finding their way out of his head and into conversation. I fear I will be slightly less for not being able to continue that communion after he has grown.

Luckily, I have a backup. His sister is just coming into the "icky" stage of life, and I don't really think anything we learned with her brother is going to be of any use. They have been night and day since they were born, and I'm afraid they will continue the pattern in the years ahead. So it will all be new ground to walk again.

Everyone tells me "Girls are so much easier to raise than boys!" Right. I am the fourth of five sons in my family. No girls. Just five boys. I know absolutely nothing about raising girls. I know nothing about what goes through their heads when they begin changing and turning into "women" and hormones are coursing through their veins. I know so little about teenaged girls you'd think I never even saw one.

What I don't understand is how they can be so demonic around parents and family and so angelic to you if you happen to be a teenaged boy. When I was that age I never saw anything but the public side of a girl. I never got a behind-the-scenes look at what a teenaged girl is really like. If my glimpses of teenaged femininity, courtesy of my daughter, are indicative of what teenaged girls are really like, then I think Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" must have been a blossoming teenager. Their heads really do spin around. They get big black circles around their eyes. Vile, angry words spew from between their lips, the same type of lips I found so fascinating when I was in junior high.

I know what to expect - to a degree - from a teenaged boy. I am familiar with the bodily changes and the feelings erupting inside and the total confusion in his head whenever a girl notices him. I remember these things, dim though they may be in my 40-ish memory. Raising girls? Forget it. I'm a goner.

I just hope my mother-in-law is not a prophet. Her first words upon seeing her first granddaughter were, "This is the one. This is the one who will test you."

Oh, boy!


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


Grandma Zimmy

She was born September 10, 1898. When she was a teenaged girl she met a young man with lots of curly hair. They were married for 70 years. He died in 1985 when he was 91. They had six children. One son and one daughter left this world early.

The information above tells a story, but doesn't do any kind of justice to the longevity of my grandma. She's a grandma, not a grandmother or granny. She's the one and only Grandma Zimmy. And she is one of the main reasons why I take pride in signing "zimmy" to these little stories.

She and I have always had a special connection. We lived next door to Grandma Zimmy when I was born, and there was no other place a small boy would ever want to live. She is, and has always been, the epitome of grandmotherhood. The stories about sweet, silver-haired grandmothers were written with her in mind. When people remember their grandmothers and the good times they had with grandma when they were small, they remember Grandma Zimmy. They have never met her, never heard of her, or even seen a picture of her, but they remember her. I have the "mother of all grandmothers."

When I was two, my younger brother was discovered and brought home from wherever my parents had gone for a couple days. I, of course, stayed next door with Grandma Zimmy. Then, when my brother played the role of helpless infant with my unsuspecting mother, I would just scamper next door to see Grandma, who was never too busy canning, cooking, baking, cleaning or taking care of a baby to rock me in "Charlie Evers."

Charlie Evers was the name of the man who gave or sold my grandparents the rocking chair by which I measure all other rocking chairs. It is the rocking chair my Grandma rocked me in when my mother was busy with colicky Brian, and it is the rocking chair she gave me when my second child was born. Why would you name a rocking chair after the person who sold/gave it to you? I have no idea. But that chair has been called Charlie Evers all my life and will continue to be called that.

My grandma would rock me in Charlie Evers until I drifted off to sleep, and then put me down on one of the spare beds, sleeping peacefully beneath one of the scariest pictures I can remember. The picture - of two small children on a rickety bridge on a stormy night with a guardian angel hovering nearby - always scared the be-jeebers out of me. I don't know why, because when I see it now it invokes warm memories of naps at Grandma Zimmy's. The second scariest picture was in the same house: the picture of my great-grandmother. She was a large, stern-looking woman, and her eyes would follow you around the room, especially if you were doing something you weren't supposed to, like digging in Grandma's closets. Looking back as an adult now, it was probably the guardian angel from the other picture watching me!

Sometimes I dream about Grandma Zimmy. She has been very deaf most of my life, but in one dream, she could hear me talk if I put my head against hers. The next time I went to visit her, I tried it. Unfortunately, it didn't work. She just thought I was angling for a hug, which was OK by me. When I visit, I always put her hands on my face so she can feel my beard, since she is almost totally blind now, too. She rubs my whiskers and says "You're the one I've been longing for. My Michael," and then she gives me a great, big hug, driving a stake through my heart at the same time.

As much as I love her, I don't make the 350-mile trip to visit her nearly often enough. And when I do get to see her, it reminds that someday she will be gone, and I won't be able to get any more hugs from this tiny woman who used to rock me to sleep, and who would send me back home with sleep in my eyes and a fresh-baked cookie clutched in my hand (even though my mother would tell her not to give me a snack!).

I always leave the nursing home telling my wife I wished we lived close enough to visit her more often. And then I go home and get busy with work and forget all my secret promises to myself to get down to see Grandma more often. This time will be no different. So, with the best intentions a man with feet of clay can make, let me say: Happy Birthday, Grandma. I miss you. I think of you every time I rock in Charlie Evers, and wish you could still hold me in your lap and rock me to sleep.

And I sure am glad I got the chair instead of one of those pictures!


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


The Young Boy and the Sea

Once upon a time, there was a small boy with a small toy boat. And the little boy loved his small toy boat, and played with it in puddles after every rain, and in the bathtub, too. Then one day, his parents took him to the ocean. This was the largest puddle the boy had ever seen. His boat sailed fine in the puddles outside after the rain, and it sailed gloriously in the bathtub. Just think how much better the little toy boat would sail in such a large puddle. But there was no beach where the little boy's parents took him. There were big rocks, and the waves crashed against the big rocks, sending spray over anyone who came too close. There was no way the little boy's mother was going to let him get anywhere near the water. How could he get close enough to sail his treasured toy? He tried the usual tactic of a small child: the direct approach. He just headed straight for the rocks and the waves and the spray. Nope. Dad intercepted him easily with one hand and turned him around, sending him away from the beckoning water. But this was a boy with a purpose. He just had to get that boat on the water where it could really sail, and in the process take his mind's eye with it, so he could stand on the deck of his vessel and guide it through the waves and safely into port. Try again. Just walk calmly toward the edge. Mom and Dad are leaning against the railing, and making stupid grown-up talk. Every time a particularly big wave crashes, Mom makes this surprised sound, and her eyes flash, and they both laugh. They only have eyes for each other. No one is looking at the boy. Calmly. Just keep walking.

Bark! Bark, bark, bark! Against the noise of the waves, Dad's voice is reduced to an auditory feeling, a tonal command, but its message is clear: Get back away from the water or you'll sit in the car! Score 2 for Dad, none for the boy and his boat.

Now time was running out. He could feel it. They were going to leave, and he would have to get back in the car without sailing his boat in the real ocean, where real boats were supposed to be. Desperation takes hold. He has to time this just right. Pretend you've lost interest in the ocean. Throw cigarette butts at the seagulls to find out how stupid they are. They aren't. (Somehow they can tell the difference in the air between popcorn and a cigarette butt.) Play with rocks. Throw rocks at the seagulls. Amazing how they can avoid them, even at point blank range. Wait for the right moment. Dad turns his back. Up from his seat on the ground comes the boy. His little legs pump, his little feet planted one in front of the other, his arms windmilling, the spray of the ocean in his face, a little toy boat clutched in his hand. Dad sees him, and starts after. He's closing fast, but the boy got a good jump on him. He hears his father's feet coming closer, closer. The boy's arm cocks back like a quarterback's, and he throws. The little toy boat sails, sails through the air and then lands in the water. The boys stops in his tracks just a half an instant before his father scoops him up. The boat rises with swell of a wave, then slides down the backside. Away from the rocks. Away from the boy. He had done it. He was sailing his boat in the ocean. Out it went. Further from shore, slipping down the backside of each wave. Free to roam the seas skippered by the little boy, in his mind's eye walking the shifting deck and shouting orders to his crew as the waves sent spray blasting up the sides of the boat, arcing over the boy-captain's head and then fanning out and falling in a rainbow-studded mist .

Close, but no cigar. Actually, the "ocean" was Lake Superior, and the little boy was my son (now 15) with his little red and yellow plastic tugboat. We were at Canal park and he had thrown his boat into the bay, and it was riding out to sea. But he was not barking orders to his crew. He was crying very loudly because his boat was going away. There was nothing I could do. It was one of those moments we fathers have. The loss of a toy boat is a stupid little thing, but it's so big to a child. As fathers, we want to be able to do something, but we just can't. So we usually get mad and tell the child he shouldn't have done it in the first place. He'll have to live with it. Builds character. He'll think first next time. That sort of thing. That's what you do, and what you tell him, when what you'd really like to do is dive into the water and rescue the stupid boat and make your child stop crying and believe in your power to fix any situation.

We made some vain attempts to get the little tugboat back, mainly trying to make waves on the far side of the boat by throwing rocks and sticks past the boat. Our theory was that if you could create a large enough wave to counteract the natural waves, you might get the momentum of the boat moving toward shore, and hopefully close enough to reach with a stick or grab by hand. But nothing worked, so accompanied by the sobs of a small boy we walked around Canal Park tried to take his mind off it. After looking at the exhibits inside, we come back out for one last look at the "ocean" before we climb back in the car for the trip home.

We walked along the boardwalk, down toward the rocks and the waves and the spray. Suddenly we saw it. The familiar red and yellow colors. Tossed up on the rocks. A miracle if ever there was one. We all fixed our eyes on the little toy boat. We walked slowly toward it, scarcely able to believe our good fortune. And we all stood and watch slackjawed as a woman walking on the rocks reached down, picked up the boat, shook it for a second, then turned and tossed it back out into the bay!

My son turned into a whirling dervish. You could see the blood in his eyes. He wanted that woman's life in exchange for his boat. I had to physically restrain him. I had to pin his little boy arms to his sides and lift him up so his little boy feet thrashed against thin air. He looked at me and said "Go hit her, Daddy! Hit her hard!"

I did not hit her. I don't even remember if I said anything to her. I think we just got numbly back into the car and drove the 80-miles home in silence.

Eight years have passed, and many more trips to Duluth and Canal Park have passed uneventfully. But to this day, whenever we go to Canal Park, my son looks along the shore where his red and yellow tugboat went out to sea without him.

And then he throws rocks at the seagulls.

There is a footnote to this story: my wife says people who throw rocks at seagulls (meaning my son and I) are as bad as people who pull the wings off flies. She says, when we get to Heaven, God is going to pull our arms off so we can't throw rocks anymore!


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli



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