I was in LA last week with my daughter, Erin. We worked with a client making outfits and doing some wardrobe editing. We usually see her in Marin but she spends a lot of time at her LA home, and her closet down there had gotten out of sorts. We also worked with her husband and his wardrobe, which is always delightful.
Getting out of town is fun. LA is a treat for me. I lived there for five formative years in my 20s. We weren’t far from my old neighborhood in West Hollywood. My son, Trevor, was born in our home on Laurel Avenue. It was a home birth. That’s how I rolled back then.
Anyway, before I left I came across a story I wrote over twenty years ago about going out of town to work. It’s that type of story that gets better with age. It was not entertaining to me at the time.
It takes place after my divorce, and before I became a published author. Mom and my youngest brother Todd were alive. I talk about a client named Teresa who was also alive but has since passed. I was a single working mom with three kids. I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer.
It all starts with a great idea
I’d gotten this entrepreneurial idea to book a speaking gig in Fargo, take my kids with me, visit my family, and write the trip off. It should have gone well. And part of it did. Mostly, I ended up having a trip that could have been the pilot for a sitcom.
Setting the scene
It starts out at Dead Lake in Minnesota where Mom and Dad had their lake home. Most of the time they were in West Fargo, North Dakota in the house our family mostly built. Our friends and classmates would go home after school and have Cass Clay ice cream squeezed between two graham crackers and watch cartoons. The Reiten kids came home from school and sanded woodwork and applied varnish to doors. By the time I graduated from high school, the house was finished and I was headed for Los Angeles.
Put yourself with me in the early ’90s and let’s get this story started.
My Working Vacation
It seemed like a good idea—schedule a lecture in North Dakota, take the kids to visit their relatives, make money and write the trip expenses off. What could go wrong?
It was July, the lecture wasn’t until Thursday, so we got out of Fargo and headed to the lake where the kids went swimming, caught frogs, and picked raspberries from Mother’s berry bushes across the road.
I had time to practice the opening lines of my talk out on the dock. I was opening my talk, Smart Women, Smart Choices: Getting Accessories Right, with the “intensely personal hello story” technique I’d learned at a National Speaker’s Association (NSA) workshop. In the first two-three minutes of the talk, you tell something that happened to you, something that changed your point of view forever, and makes you the only one who could stand up there and give this particular talk.
I’d decided on the story about working with Teresa. She didn’t have breast cancer when I first started working with her but, one day she called me and said, “Brenda, the good news is it’s time to work with you again; the bad news is that I have cancer. I need your help accessorizing.”
She was going to lose her hair, so I got my hands on an American Cancer Society video about how to tie a head wrap. For a week I covered my hair and wore a head wrap every single day during my other appointments.
I’d never gotten as many compliments as I did in that week. No one thought I was a chemo patient. They just thought I was fashionable!
I could easily fill the 90-minute talk with all the tips I’d repeated in countless other lectures. Besides, I knew my audience. I’d grown up here. This would be a cinch.
Mom and I left the lake the night before my gig and drove my dad’s brown Buick back to West Fargo in a thunder and lightning storm with warnings of tornadoes. The next morning Dad took the Buick and left for the western part of the state on business. He wished me luck. Who needs luck when you’ve got experience?
The presentation was at seven. At 5:15 I started loading up Mom’s car, the one that has the little funny thing going on with the gears. I asked her to show me the funny thing, so she got behind the wheel. I leaned over her shoulder to watch.
She said, “You have to jiggle the shifter a little to the right of ‘Park’ to start the car. Then jiggle a little to the right of ‘Reverse’ to put it in reverse.” Mid-explanation she said, “Oh my gosh! The dial isn’t moving at all! This happened a couple weeks ago. I took it to the mechanic, but it didn’t do it for him, and Don has the decent car. What are we going to do?”
“I’ll call Todd at work,” she said. She tells me his car is filthy, but if we put some sheets across the seats, I probably won’t get grease on my clothes.
“Okay, good. I’ll go get dressed then.” I got into my pantyhose and buttoned my silk blouse. I still had plenty of time. I paid a visit to the hall bathroom and flushed the toilet. The water rose, and rose, and spilled over onto the gold and orange indoor carpet. I ran into the garage and saw the curly tops of my mother’s strawberry blond hair and my brother’s mousy brown hair. Their full focus was still on that gearshift.
“Mom, Mom! There’s an emergency in the house. The toilet overflowed.”
This didn’t seem odd to her. “Oh, that happened last month, but then it didn’t happen again,” she said. “Get Ready, Todd will take you. Just don’t say anything about this in your talk.”
Right, I was going to ditch my opening personal story for this one where the toilet overflows, and I feel like I’m twelve.
Getting ready at the auditorium
I arrive at the auditorium, and there aren’t grease stains on my clothes. I’ve only lost 15 minutes. I do a sound check, line up all my props on the table, and hang a few outfits on the clothes rack I requested. I’ve got time to slip off to a remote bathroom to practice my “hello” story. I got two sentences into it when Gladys Brusven walked in the door. She’s one of Mom’s best friends and one of my favorite people of all time. We hugged and chatted, and I decided I’d practiced the story enough. It’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.
The woman introducing me told the audience how I’m a former West Fargo girl, a graduate of the University of North Dakota. I look out and every seat is filled. “Here’s Brenda Reiten Kinsel,” she says.
I jumped into my “hello” story; the room was hushed, just like the NSA guy said it would be. I had them. Then I sailed along. I shared with them the accessories that make you look ten pounds lighter and ten years younger, which ones should be tossed, the ones to wear when you mean business, and which ones to wear when you want to attract a date.
I end on a funny note, my insistence that there be an Academy Award for Best Accessory. Kissing Kevin Costner at the end of Bodyguard in a zebra print square scarf gets a big laugh. I’m mobbed afterward with questions and comments about how they’d love to have me back next year. I think about going home to the flooded bathroom. I smile and say I’ll do my best.
Mother insisted we stop for Dairy Queen ice cream on the way home. I just wanted to go home. Home-home. California home, back home to my rental house where if anything goes wrong, someone I’m not related to fixes it. A home where the toilets work all the time.
But there’s more
We got home and no one was talking about my lecture or who was there and who was wearing what because Todd announced that water was running down the walls of his basement bathroom from the upstairs bathroom. Not dripping, not trickling, running.
Water is an adversary that the Reitens are equipped to handle. Living next to the Sheyenne River, I remember lots of flooding in the spring. Dad had vacuums and heavy duty fans to dry carpet out. But this time there was concern that the downstairs bathroom ceiling might fall in. Mom called Dad long-distance at 11:30 pm. The calls continued until 1 a.m. when all the things she tried still hadn’t worked. The decision was made to turn all the water off in the house and see if that makes it stop.
The next morning, Mother told me the water was back on, and so far, there was no water running down the walls. In fact, maybe I could even try the shower. Me? The shower? Are you kidding? I’m not that adventurous. A sponge bath would do just fine.
Mother suggested we get out of the house and go to a matinee movie and see Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. We’re sitting in the theater, sharing popcorn. Harrison Ford is shackled and on his way to life in prison. It’s in the dead of night when the bus he’s in rolls over a bunch of times, lands on the railroad tracks and we see a train barreling toward the bus. He gets out of the broken window without a second to spare. “Gee, his day is going like ours is,” Mother quipped.
She got me. She got me big time. My steely, stoic exterior started to melt like butter.
We watched the rest of the movie and decided to go to the Dairy Queen afterward. This time I enjoyed every lick of that soft-serve ice cream. It was summer and I was with Mom, and we were having fun. She drove us home in the car that wouldn’t let her know what gear she was in. We got home just fine, and Dad was there busy with his tools. I sort of hated to be leaving the next day for home, my California home.
I rounded up the kids the next day and we all headed for the airport. When we got out to check our luggage, Mom and I did what we always do: hugged each other tight and cried. We could barely let go of each other.
The flight back to California was arduous. It would be a week or two before I fully landed-in my home in Fairfax, back in my business, back again with friends who’d never been to North Dakota. It can be so lonely living so far from home.
Before the credits roll…
I’m going home in a few days. Mom’s not there, Todd’s not there, and as of last month the lake home on Dead Lake is owned by someone else. Dad’s in his assisted living apartment complex nearby. He keeps insisting that I stay a month. We’re already planning how I can spend the whole summer there next year.
I asked him what he’d like to do this time. He said he’d like to go for drives out into the country, look at the fields and the farms. We’ll do that. We’ll also go to Fargo to visit with Lois Peterson, my second mom. She’s turning 90. I went to first grade with her son, Greg. He’s flying in from Atlanta. We’ll have so much fun.
The last time I visited Dad it was in January. When it came time to say goodbye, Dad and I held each other in our arms, hugged, and we both started crying. I felt my heart breaking. How could I possibly walk away? He said, “This hurts.” I agreed. But then Dad said something that was very comforting. “It hurts, but we’ll get through it.”
It’s true. We’ve gotten through a lot. We’ve had a lot of practice.
I pray for more practice.
My lovelies, do you have summer memories to share? Or stories about being a daughter? I’d love to hear them right now.