Today | One More Thing
Bless This Nest: Part Two
by Tyler Sjostrom
Longtime readers of this column (Hey, Mom!) might remember a piece from last year called “Bless This Nest.” For those who were busy with other things and missed it entirely (Hey, Dad!) below is an elevator synopsis, which my mother and her fellow Appleton Monthly devotees may skip.
This past spring, a family of finches made a nest on our porch and filled it with five blue eggs. My toddler son loved the nest, and I kinda did too, even though the finches wrecked my gutter leaf-guard building it. When a windstorm knocked down a few branches on our street and a similar nest was among the casualties — while ours remained safe — it became evident that our finches weren’t any better or worse than the nest that was claimed by the windstorm. They were just lucky. And that’s what we’ll tell our kid someday when he doesn’t understand why bad things happen to those who don’t deserve it.
In a year which saw civil unrest, a global pandemic, and not one but two new Taylor Swift albums, our nest of finches was among the brighter spots. So, imagine my delight when, a few days ago, I noticed a few more patches of my gutter guard strewn about the yard. My eyes lit up like Christmas morning. “Could it be?!” And yes, tucked beneath the awning of our house were our old finch friends, who we’ve named (obviously) Atticus and Jennie. These are like the friends who you’re always happy to have visit even though they don’t clean up after themselves.
In welcoming them back, I got to thinking about the place they’ve chosen to nest. As neighborhoods go, these finches picked a good one. And it’s not because our street is uniform in any demographic, be it age, race, or political affiliation.
From the same porch where Atticus, et. al., have staked their claim, I can see the house of the loveable, conservative gearhead who has helped with every mechanical issue I’ve had in the last five years. I can see the house of a couple who have built a life here over sixty years and whose staple gun I think I need to return. I can see the house of a couple our age, one of whom joined our quaint little enclave by way of Haiti, and who has a son the same age as ours. Birds of all feathers.
Most neighborhoods are this way; built of people who are generally welcoming and helpful when needed, and who can’t be painted with a broad brush as much as we’d like to try. Appleton is this way. Wisconsin is this way.
Much has been said in recent years about the so-called “death of the neighborhood.” This has been chalked up to myriad factors, from lives lived online to suspicion of “the other” to the effect of political signs on neighborly civility. But if neighborhoods are dying, it might not be because we’re all so different that they can’t be saved. It might be because we’ve been too willing to let them die.
My finch neighbors, Atticus and Jennie, aren’t perfect. They make a mess. They don’t respect our shared property as much as I might have liked. We have our differences.
But that doesn’t mean that the neighborhood isn’t big enough for all of us. The finches add more to the texture of our neighborhood than they take away. All of my neighbors — the gearhead, the young couple, the elder statesman who might be missing a staple gun, and now the finches — help to explain why we live in the nest we do.
A few more years of the finches sub-letting our porch and I’ll learn all the lessons a person could ever need.
Ode to an Aging Dog
by Tyler Sjostrom
Hey, buddy. Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy.
The other day, we were watching Animal Planet — your favorite channel, naturally — and there was one of those giant tortoises on the screen. The narrator revealed that they can live to be something like 150 years old, and I looked at you, with your creaky joints and stinky breath. I patted your head, and you blinked your increasingly cloudy eyes. “Not fair,” I said.
Now, I know that there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll never read this, because you’re a dog. But before time marches onward with ageless joints toward our eventual farewell, I thought we should have a chat. An appreciation. A toast.
Like so many good boys and girls before you, the day you moved in was the day we became a family. Before the fateful journey where we returned with a crate-bound ankle biter, your mom and I were just a couple of kids figuring things out. Immediately, our relationship had unavoidable subtext: Are they serious? Well, they do have a dog together.
History has shown that getting a pet can make or break a couple; after all, if a person can’t love a dog, then what likelihood is there that they’d ever properly love another human? In much the same way that working in the service industry should be a prerequisite for any position of power, good luck to anyone whose first helpless roommate has a human face.
For your mom and me, you were just what we needed to prod us toward a more permanent future. We both loved you and loved taking care of you, and we loved doing that together. We could proudly take you everywhere, and we really did just that — on road trips, on boats, to restaurants. You always behaved, and we have never been anything but proud to show you off. Your valedictory graduation from puppy class was possibly the crowning achievement of my first 30 years.
From the start, and in all the years since, you followed me everywhere — towards new homes, new jobs, and new pets. And eventually, memorably, you followed me down the aisle when I married your mom. There has never been a friendlier ring bearer.
And that brings us to today.
In the last year or so, you’ve gone from being an uncertain, skeptical presence in our toddler son’s life to being the second thing he asks about every morning, right after Blippi. (Note to prospective parents: Never let your child discover Blippi.) Our infant son doesn’t really know you yet, but he will. And likely, you will be the first thing our boys truly love that they have to let go of.
But that day isn’t today, and that’s why I’m glad to make you a promise. In return for all the great years you’ve given us so far, I can promise you that your mom and I will make your remaining years as great as possible. You always have a spot on the bed and on the couch and by my feet when I’m working. We’ll do dog parks and pup cups and all the Chuck-it you can handle. You made us a family when we brought you home, and you’ll break our hearts when you leave us.
I can’t give you 150 years. I can’t even promise you five. But I can make your remaining years the best you’ve had yet.
Because who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy. A very good boy.
What’s in a Name?
by Tyler Sjostrom
Among the early memories of my school-age life are a few that stand out for no particular reason – bread bags in my snow boots, the rusty, red playground slide that would probably be nicknamed “The Lawsuit” today, and thinking the Mr. Men book series was the height of literary culture. But one takeaway from my time in Mrs. Lutz’s kindergarten class remains vivid only because it became a recurring theme for the rest of my youth – no one, not the parents, other kids, or even the teacher, had any success pronouncing my last name.
Suh-jo-strum. Suh-jah-strum. Frequently, just Tyler S.
And so began a tenuous relationship with my own last name, where I spent more time correcting or, more often, just shrugging and forgiving the all-too-common mispronunciations. But the mistakes were only half the battle; there were also the nicknames that seemed to flow like Ecto Cooler from those who could pronounce it but chose not to. Tie-your Shoe-string and Snowstorm were only mildly less popular than being called the male body part that only slightly rhymes with Sjostrom. (We’ll allow your minds to compute that one.)
By the time I arrived in high school and realized during my semi-illustrious athletic career that the PA announcers weren’t even going to try to pronounce it (“Tyler Sorenson on the reception…”), I’d pretty much reached the uncomfortable conclusion that I actively disliked my own last name. I didn’t like that it meant “ocean stream” in Swedish. I didn’t like that I was apparently a distant relative of a famous Swedish actor. I really didn’t like the “J” that tripped everyone up like an uneven sidewalk when they saw it.
As I graduated into adulthood, I cared less about the childish taunts and tantalizing rhyming potential of my surname. It was just part of me, not unlike my distaste for sitcoms or love of Jeopardy! But one event made me realize I’d been losing my name’s value amidst all the confusion.
When my first son was born, my dad let out a whoop and a howl: “The name lives on!” And then he reminded me what he meant: up to that point, all the Sjostrom men of my generation had only had daughters. And while there could potentially be more Sjostrom boys scattered in the future, there would be no doubt now that the name would continue. Dad’s sense of relief and joy was palpable.
And I, after all the hemming and hawing of my youth, suddenly saw things his way. The Sjostrom name had never been mine to debate or despise or dismiss – it was his, and his dad’s, and so on.
My dad grew up as a descendent of homesteaders in a town literally called Swede Township. They talked in Swedish around the dinner table and in their country schoolhouse. No one there had any trouble pronouncing it, you can be certain.
When I met my wife over a decade ago, she had no trouble pronouncing it either. She’d had a college roommate with the same “Sjo” to begin her name, and I was smitten from the minute she didn’t choke on that first syllable. Today, she teaches her students to pronounce her last name – “Go to a show. Strum a guitar” – in the same way we’ll teach our two young sons.
Our boys may also experience the same growing pains that I did. They may wish they could just have an easy-to-say name like their friends. But they’ll just have to help all they encounter to say it right.
Go to a show – stum a guitar. Like an ocean stream, the name lives on.
To Be a Grandkid
by Tyler Sjostrom
One of life’s great delights, and one that we’re too busy scraping our knees to fully understand while it’s happening, is having grandparents. For me, and probably for so many readers, my grandparents were always just there. And then, gradually and with increasing frequency, they just weren’t.
There are so many things I’ve never experienced anywhere but at Grandma’s house — and even though Grandpa lived there too, it was always referred to as Grandma’s house. Fruit-at-the-bottom yogurt. Sandalwood aftershave. Aquanet. A breakfast of grapefruit and plums and cream-of-wheat. Being gifted outfits identical to those of your siblings. The list is long, though it becomes shorter as the memories’ edges begin to blur.
About a decade ago, I realized that maybe the most striking memory of both of my grandmothers, who passed away five years apart in the ‘90s, was succumbing to time: I could no longer remember what their voices sounded like. I had vague bullet points that I knew to be true — Grandma Sjostrom had an unmistakable Swedish accent, Nana Nickell’s laugh could shake the china cabinet — but that was it. I wouldn’t know their voices if I heard them, and this bothered me greatly.
I could have tried to find a long-lost family video to hear their voices again, but that would’ve only been a temporary fix. Ultimately, what I was feeling was something closer to guilt; I’d allowed the memories to lapse, and it was maybe my fault that they’d gone missing. Tracking down a reproduction of their voices would be cheating. It was an unacceptable loss that I’d have to learn to accept.
Then, a few weeks ago, we had a FaceTime call with my parents, and my mom greeted my son, her grandson, with her standard lilting, sing-song, “Hello.” (This “hello” has between five and seven syllables.) And while my wife and son returned their greetings, I could feel my eyes welling up. I don’t know if my mom’s voice is a one-to-one facsimile of Nana’s, and it most likely isn’t. But the warmth, the cadence, the musicality of it all — it had so many shades of her own mother, and it was everything. And the response from my son, a shrieking, overjoyed “Nana!” — well, that was all me, three-plus decades ago.
I could’ve wasted years trying to find my grandmas’ voices, but that probably wasn’t what I was actually trying to pin down. I missed that feeling. I missed that comfort. I missed being someone’s grandkid. And even though I never really looked for it, it found me all the same.
I’ve always said that I won’t be a person who lives vicariously through his kids, but I might allow myself this one indulgence. Seeing my parents and in-laws take the mantle of their parents before them and don the Papa/Nana cape is an incredible thing to behold. When my son’s eyes light up at the sight or sound of his grandparents, it’s oddly transporting in the best possible way. And though I can’t call my grandparents or raid their knickknack drawer, watching my son evolve into a fully-formed grandchild might be all I need and more.
In February (or January, if you buy my wife’s prognostications), we’ll welcome a second baby boy to the fold. He’ll be my parents’ third grandchild, and my in-laws’ second. I hope he gets many, many years of odd scents and weird clothes from his grandparents. But if he loses their voice sometime after they’ve gone, I hope we can team up with his own kids to provide him with what my mom and son gave me: that warmth, that comfort, and that indescribable feeling of being someone’s grandkid.
It’s the Thought that Counts
by Tyler Sjostrom
So goes the telling of an ill-fated birthday tiramisu according to my two-year-old son, resident raconteur, and foremost deliverer of sick burns in our household. While his bullet points succinctly describe in four words what his too-verbose dad would take way too long to explain (Hey, spare a minute?), it really does complete the entire story’s arc. Papa picked up the cake, papa dropped the cake, boom. But it was only in death that this tiramisu truly lived.
Memorable not for its flavor but for its demise, the tiramisu joins a long list of similar foodstuffs that are now part of our family’s larger holiday narrative. I have nearly four decades of holidays under (and slightly over) my belt, but the meals I see through sepia-tinted glasses aren’t those that rendered me satisfied and sleepy. It’s the ones that ended up differently than intended — on the floor, in the garbage, on fire — that really make me misty.
There was the time that my now-wife made a batch of Brandy Slush and, for reasons that were totally reasonable at the time, left it to freeze on the deck in a foil roaster pan. The thinking was that once it set, it would be easier to transport and dispose of. But as an affront to our Christmas buzz, it didn’t set at all; a thin layer of slush disguised a viscous swamp of sugary liquid, and halfway between the patio door and the freezer, the center of the roaster pan gave way. We never found out how the Brandy Slush would taste, although we did discover that if you’re faced with cleaning a gallon of the stuff from a kitchen floor, maybe just consider moving out.
The list, of course, goes on and on. There’s the turkey that my brother tried to deep fry but, upon trying to carve it, realized he had gone “full Griswold.” To this day, whenever we share a turkey, it’s a race to say, “Save the neck for me, Clark.”
And let’s not forget the Peasant Bread that my father-in-law made a few years ago. He apparently missed whatever ingredient it is that makes bread deserving of its own grocery aisle, and the oven burped out a loaf-shaped brick that was more weapon than carbohydrate. His bread-making skills have improved through the years, which only makes his misbegotten peasant bread more rock-adjacent with each retelling.
The common thread throughout, of course, is that while each of these treats were disasters in their own way, each is remembered fondly. Do I like tiramisu? Maybe. But not as much as I like watching my dog eat it off the floor while we all laugh until we cry. Do I like Brandy Slush? Absolutely. But it tastes better when my wife and I get to tap glasses to our long-ago failure at the hands of a flimsy foil pan. Burnt cookies, runny mashed potatoes, a turkey that gasps like a geyser if nicked with a fingernail — in the right company, the story is well worth the do-over.
I hope this year’s holiday season goes seamlessly for everyone, of course. Lord knows we all deserve it. But if it must go sideways, my wish it that the mishap comes in the form of a kitchen catastrophe that’s so singularly bad that retelling its legend becomes a winter tradition.
On the floor, in the garbage or on fire, it can always be worse. The tiramisu may not have made it into our stomachs, friends, but it is always in our hearts.