By Callie R. Feyen
It is a late summer night in Maryland, and I am sitting in a screened in porch sipping wine with seven or eight other women – all of us mothers of newly appointed first graders.
It is humid, as it usually is on Maryland August nights. Summer likes to hang on here. We’re all in tank tops and cut-offs. Our hair is haphazardly up and strands that didn’t make it into the knot stick to our necks. There is a sheen on our limbs from the night’s heat; the wind that barely blows rustles swiftly across our bodies – a whisper trying to taunt us, but we cannot be bothered, and so she moves on.
We are discussing pap smears.
“Girl,” one friend says to another, “you need to take care of your koochie.” She leans towards a platter of grapes, cheese, and crackers after she says it.
“Truth,” another friend says, raising a glass.
“Pap smears suck,” my friend says, and pours more wine in her glass. We all raise a glass to that.
The host’s husband steps out onto the porch. “Ladies,” he says, greeting us, and we nod a hello. This is the house he grew up in – a fact I find fascinating and that I turn over every time I’m here. What would it be like to be married – be a parent – in your childhood home? Would memories clash with those that were trying to form, or would they make space for each other?
My husband, Jesse, and I are far away from everything we knew growing up. It has been exhausting and overwhelming at times to find and define ourselves as married people, as parents, as individuals away from our Midwestern roots. Sugarloaf Mountain and the Washington Monument have replaced the Chicago skyline. Crab cakes are the new deep dish pizza. Politics and causes have been traded for Chicago Bears talk, salt water for fresh, Type A personalities for Saturday strolls to the Farmer’s Market for sunflowers and apple cider donuts.
I’m not complaining. Here is where I became a mother. Here is where I learned to run, where I became a graduate student, a writer. Here is where I made friends.
“Lots of bad decisions were made on this porch,” the husband says, and turns to leave.
“Dear Lord,” his wife says and rolls her eyes.
We all laugh, and then begin to share our stories of bad decisions – the wildest, and best sorts of stories to tell with friends.
I admit I was disappointed when Ingebjorg comes on the scene and made a note as such in the margins of the book. (“Ew!” I wrote, and “Oh my goodness this sounds awful,” thus proving my maturity and open-mindedness.) However, her personality stuck with me. Her talkative, boisterous character humored me. She reminded me of Phoebe Winterbottom in Walk Two Moons, and Hassan in An Abundance of Katherines – characters who knock the heroes around a little bit and show them a bit of the world.
When Ingebjorg loses her mind and runs into the woods, and Kristin follows her, I thought this would the point where the two would forge a friendship where it is dark and twigs crack and snap, and the path is hard to see or there is no path. I think Ingebjorg would’ve made Kristin laugh, and I think Kristen would’ve shown Ingebjorg a thing or two about risk and curiosity.
Instead, Kristin meets Erlend, and anyone can talk to me for 10 seconds and know I love me a love story but it makes me sad that Kristin doesn’t have a friend to test what she understands about the world against what she imagines and desires.
I hadn’t finished hanging my flannel shirts in my half of the closet or thumbtacking my Luke Perry posters to my dorm room wall at Calvin, but I had already been steeped in the Dutch, Christian Reformed culture. When your last name is Lewis, you have no chance of winning Dutch Bingo. Those first days I wasn’t sure if I was more terrified of predestination or if I’d never again hear the el rush by my bedroom window at night. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I’d gone to Timothy Christian once they heard where I was from, my college tuition would’ve been paid in 1995. (I hadn’t even heard of Timothy Christian until I got to Calvin.) If I had another dollar for every time someone asked me if I was PC or PCUSA when they found out I wasn’t Christian Reformed, I would be able to pay off graduate school. (I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know.)
My first English class, the professor gave us a grammar assignment with like 250 exercises to complete. She partnered us up and told us to work together – not in class, but on our own time – to finish them.
I am truly not a nice person. I do not work well with others, and I also never do anything I don’t want to do. So I told the my partner, a 10 foot 8 inch blond dude I’ll call Johannes Vandersmandersma, “How about you do evens and I’ll do odds and we’ll trade?”
“So you’re telling me what you want to do is cheat,” is what JV told me.
How does one get to be 18 years of age and think that circling nouns, verbs, and dangling modifiers in whatever is half of 250 (I’m not good at math) and then trading is cheating? “Johannes,” I wanted to say, “You can vote, smoke, AND get a tattoo. You can eat cereal and ice-cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and this,” and here I imagined fanning out the pages of our very large textbook, “is not cheating.”
Then I would tell poor JV a detailed story of what cheating actually was.
In the beginning, I was miserable at Calvin. There was something claustrophobic and confining about Christianity that seemed to hover and seep all over the campus. I was lonely. And angry. And homesick.
One day while I was feeling sorry for myself, and totally convinced that I was the only one in this place who had sinned and even better, liked it, and would most likely sin again, my suitemate, Valerie, walked in my room, smiling at me like she’d just been asked to the Prom. She pointed to my radio, and said, “I LOVE this song!”
The song was “Booty Call,” by HUGEL and Fast Eddie, and I knew every single word. So did Valerie.
That song ended and another one came on, and Valerie was equally as jubilant. I told her this was my summer ’94 mix tape. I dubbed them off B96, my favorite Chicago radio station.
“I LOVE B96,” Valerie said and went on to say that sometimes she could pick up the station if they were on the right road and held the radio dial just right.
“Where are you from?” I asked, and I suspect I asked it in a similar tone as Mary spoke to Gabriel when he busted in on her and changed her life forever. There are just so many ways to say, ‘WTF?”
“Walnut, Illinois,” she said, dancing against the threshold of the bathroom door like it wasn’t actually a door.
It would be Digital Underground, Salt-n-Pepa, and all the 90s hip-hoppers that would commence and solidify our friendship.
We hunted for places to go dancing that we didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat to, but we also spent copious amounts of time in coffee shops, where, yes we talked about boys and wine coolers but also faith, theology, and philosophy. I learned Valerie had a deep love for hymns, as I did, and a deep disdain for what we’d call, “Jesus is my boyfriend” music. We discussed the lyrics to and the back story to “Peace Like A River,” with as much passion as we did Salt ‘n Pepa’s, “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
Our childhoods could not be more different: her father was a farmer; my dad worked at the hospital at Northwestern University. I learned the first thing you did when you came home was lock the door. Valerie wasn’t sure her home had a lock. Valerie was the valedictorian of her high school. I had a solid 2.5 GPA. She is rational and cool. I am irrational and hot-headed. We spent four school years and one summer together, talking, laughing, crying (I cried), shopping, studying, becoming adults. I was fortunate to have a handful of fabulous friends in college, but it was because of my friendship with Valerie that I chose to stay at Calvin. She showed me that my faith wasn’t trying to suffocate me – I was just learning how to breathe.
I admire Kristin because she questions what she observes, and feels. I admire her because she acts. She pursues Erlend, she stands up to Simon, she questions her father. I just wish she didn’t have to go through it all by herself. I wish she had a friend along the way.
Eight years later, I am blooming – again – in a town where hazy IPAs and maize and blue reign; where the sky never seems to fully darken in the summer, where my first grader is now 15. I have been lucky enough to find another sisterhood of friends who are just as rowdy and vulnerable as my girls were in the land where Old Bay Seasoning wafts through the air like the Cherry Blossoms that can hang on no longer and so they fly.
Tonight, I’m sitting with them outside at a local pub. We have all embraced the winter outdoor gathering in times of COVID, and eagerly wrap ourselves in 400 layers and sit by a fire pit that will leave our clothes smelling like smoke for days if it means we can hang out. (I actually like the smell. It reminds me I’ve been somewhere.)
One of my friends says to me, “You’re reading Kristin Lavransdatter?” and she says it in that breathless way that tells me she’s had an enduring affair with this story. I tell her yes, but I don’t reciprocate her tone. It isn’t that I don’t like the story. It’s been well over day 30 of this year-long experiment, and reading Kristin for the first hour of my day is what’s getting me up in the morning.
I read her with trepidation, though. I am cautious of a female who is forever searching; who will always live questions, who is suspicious of contentment. Reading her feels too close to home. I want Kristin to be OK.
My friend clasps her hands to her chest and tells us a poignant birth story about her daughter’s birth, and what her mother said to her at a particularly trying time during labor and delivery: “’Be like Kristin,’ my mother said. ‘BE. LIKE. KRISTIN.’”
There is a collective pause from all of us, in part because most of the group doesn’t now who Kristin is, but from the way she says it, we all want to know about the woman who a mother would call on while her daughter is giving birth.
“Yeah,” I say, and smile bigger now, grateful for the shared knowing my friend and I have for a story we’re bonded to.
But I also look around the table at my friends, and I think of my girlfriends in Maryland, and of Valerie too, and I’m grateful that I don’t have to be like Kristin.
Not exactly, anyway.
Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.