A kid on a bike

Startled by the sharp bbbrrring of a bicycle bell I stop and turn around to see who is coming up behind. It’s a steamy Okanagan afternoon and I’m happy enough to interrupt my jog.

Ice cream. Do you want ice cream? A small brown, very brown boy skids his foot on the loose gravel and brings his bike to a bumpy halt. The wheels on a white plywood box tethered behind bounce sideways and then rest. The lid, decorated with the peeled painted words Ice Cream, settles. The boy, catching his breath, looks relieved that his caravan hasn’t run him over and at the same time looks hopeful that he’s about to make a sale.

What do you have? I ask. Fudgicles, Revellos, Creamsicles, he says.

A Creamsicle, I say. Orange I hope.

Orange it is, he says. That’s 50 cents.

He closes one hand around my two quarters and pulls a brown paper bag out of his pocket with the other. He steadies his rig with his knee until the bag and the coins are stuffed safely back in his shorts. He smiles and pulls out a Creamsicle. He smiles again.

He says, thank you.

As the heat begins its assault on the ice cream I say, thanks and pull off the wrapper. I lap the drips with my tongue.

Where did you come from? I say. I’m not sure if I mean how did you just appear out of nowhere or what brings a young brown boy to this very white interior town? He doesn’t get my question either. He dips his head as if to listen harder. He squints his eyes as if that will help him understand. Then he fans his hand on his chest and says, I’m Portuguese. I’m from Brazil.

He hops up on his bike seat and pushes hard on the pedals. Slowly the rig edges ahead.

As he rolls away I call out, Thanks a lot for the ice cream

Without turning around he calls back, You’re welcome

I watch the boy and the bike and the white plywood box wobble up the road. Little did I know a few months later he’d be sitting at our dinner table eating chicken pasta casserole.

I say, He’s come to stay. He’s now part of our family.

Our kids look at him eagerly, hesitantly, curiously.

I say, You have another brother. He’s our family. Now there are six of us.

He smiles and scoops more casserole. Before I can explain that his foster family can no longer take care of him, that their dad and I agreed to take him in, that everyone will get their say later but he needs a home now…

He says, I picked this family. His English is better now. He says, I looked around this place and knew this is where I want to live. He fans his hand around the table. With you people. In this home.

I’m thinking, wait a minute. You picked? You’re the kid on the bike with the ice cream and the paper bag full of coins.

We hang a flag of Brazil in the room he will share with his new brother. We find a mason jar for all his 50 cents. This will be his permanent stop. He is home.

It’s been almost 35 years and I still wonder who chose whom and in the end, of course, it doesn’t matter. He’s a son, he’s a brother, he’s an uncle, he’s family. It was magic that brought us together.

Let them lead

The next generation of Olsens: Jack, Joey, Felix, Yetsa, Ella, Reuben, Silas, Maddy

It seems natural that in the order of things you come first, your kids come next, your grandkids after that, and so on if you live long enough to have great grandkids. In a linear world it’s the obvious way to arrange the family. Family trees go top to bottom—the old people on the top—the young people scattered below.

Living it out is different. When my kids came along I began getting the sense that they were out in front—that I was moving down the trunk and into the roots of the tree. Not when I was driving them to school, when dinner was ready or when there was chores to do. That’s when I was out in front dragging them along. In those days if I was behind them it was to edge them forward, to persuade them that they could do it. But I could feel the starting place in the chronological order of our family was the latest arrival not me, not my parents or grandparents.

When the kids were little it wasn’t so obvious but as they matured I realized that they “got” the world in a very different and much more current way than I did. What they brought to the world had a more immediate relevance. They taught me. Not in a platitudinous way but in an everyday, practical and essential way. I literally had to hustle to keep up.

This is not to say that I abandoned my role as teacher. I’m a historian and I believe that in order to go forward we need to know and understand the past. This also is not to say that I didn’t pursue my own learning. I didn’t go to university until the kids were half grown. I was in my late 30s when I got a BA. I got a Masters Degree in my 40s, almost finished another in my 50s and got a PhD when I was 61. I had and still have a lot to learn.

I’ve taught at the university for more than a decade and I still have a lot to teach. But increasingly my life has become less and less about me and more and more about the people who have come after me and who go out in front.

Like all families ours started with two, then there were four more and now there are eight more after that. Each one has access to what I bring to the table as well as what their siblings, cousins and extended family brings to the table along with their own unique contributions. It gets bigger. It gets broader. It gets better.

It’s a good thing that each new generation takes the lead and that my place is behind them edging them forward, persuading them that they can do it. Because they are pursuing things I never could have imagined; they are imagining things that are beyond my scope of possibility. And if ever we have needed new, innovative, extreme thinking it’s now. It is their minds and their energy that must lead us forward.

Happy Birthday Adam

The family that knits together

I know it’s your day but right now I can’t get over thinking about me. I’m the mother of a 45-year-old son. That’s something. Once I’m over obsessing about how old that makes me I’m going to celebrate your wonderful human beingness.

I only wanted one thing for my children—that they should change the world. I realized early that didn’t mean the whole entire world for all time. It meant their world, our world, and as much of the bigger world they could affect.

Adam started doing that at a very, very young age. He could talk before he could walk. He shared interesting ideas before he was out of diapers (don’t go there…he was trained before he was three, I’m sure). He began to read as soon as he saw words. He entertained us with stand up comedy routines before he went to school. He wrote political papers in middle school. He discussed books he’d read on anarchy and Marx and religion and more and debated philosophy in the smoking pit in high school. He was an interesting and wonderful kid.

Adam slammed into life when he was a teenager and beat it up for years trying to make sense out of the human condition. He did a deep dive…not fun for his mother nor for him and others, I’m sure.

But he didn’t just survive, he thrived and that’s his story to tell. My story is that I’m grateful for how he has changed my world. I’m grateful for how he unapologetically takes on the bigger crazy world we are all trying to navigate. He’s right sometimes, he’s wrong sometimes, but he’s real all the time and I’m grateful for that the most.