94 / 365 – North Dakota, the musical

JODI NILSSON

I was looking for some papers the other day in the cupboards in the upstairs hall, the ones we never look at. We’re still sorting through legal papers to finalize this divorce. Sometimes I can’t believe we’re still doing it, especially since it was all about Laura and Laura seems to be gone. But that’s how he is. Stubborn to an idea. Like a big combine in a field, started down a new row, won’t stop until he gets to the end.

I was looking for a folder about some of the settlements on my parents’ farm when they sold it. I couldn’t find it. We’re so disorganized. We were never so careful about the legal details of anything. If you were doing the right things with what was rightfully ours, I think we figured the rest would take care itself. I was digging around there and I did find a folder full of loose photographs. At first I thought it was pictures I was going to put into a photo album, but then I thought it might have been pictures I was pulling out of one. I don’t know, the photo album wasn’t there. There were a few from right after our wedding. Most of them from college, and most of them before Lars and I started dating and I settle down.

There was one picture of me with a group of friends, people from a cast of a musical we were doing. We all have our arms around each other and we’re jammed into the living room of someone’s apartment. You can tell in the background it’s a mess. I don’t remember that night, but we were obviously having a party. I have a big smile on my face. There were a couple of other prints from high school, I think. Me and my sisters, who I don’t really see any more. I have that same broad grin on my face, like I’m having too much fun. I had forgotten about it. I don’t smile like that in any of the photos we have around the house. I don’t think that’s my smile now. And why is that, I wondered. What tempers joy?

I had gotten this folder out, and I poured a cup of coffee and sat down with it at the kitchen table. I pulled out that picture again from college. I’m not sure what drew me to it. I was studying music then. I thought I might become a high school music teacher. The kids in the picture were all from the music department. We had just done a musical theater production, we had rewritten the musical Oklahoma to be about North Dakota, even though we were across the river in Moorhead, Minnesota. We changed all the character names to things like Hans and Carl and Horst, so they’d be good German and Norwegian names. And the fight between the farmers and the ranchers, somehow we got a bit there about anti-war protesters and the Rotary club. We thought we were pretty funny and daring. The picture must have come from a cast party afterward. Though it could have come from a party while we were rehearsing. We had a lot of parties then. Sometimes I wonder what happened to some of those people. Most of us weren’t headed in the best direction. We were studying music, supposedly, but we weren’t really working at much except our own gratification. We were experimenting with everything. I know some of these people dropped out. Some of these people, like Jack Heller, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up as a drunk somewhere, he was always carrying bottles around, starting the party. He was one of the first ones to leave. Maybe he turned things around like I did and started a family. I hope he did. There’s a boy standing next to him, I think his name was Rex, he’s looking at Jack and smiling. He was one of the boys we thought might turn out gay. There were a few in there. We didn’t talk about it that much at that time, like people do now, now that some people think it’s acceptable and they’re asking for rights to be very public about it. But we knew. I wonder what happened to them.

It got too wild for me. People were too fast. It wasn’t long after that that I met Lars. At a party. It might have been the last party we ever went to, except for church events. Let’s just say that there were a few weekends where things happened that come Monday I was having trouble living with. Things that seemed to be all right with everyone else, but I wasn’t feeling good about them. I will still following everybody, going out with this bunch, it was always the same cast of characters. But feeling dread when I did it. Sometimes I think that’s why people end up drinking so much, and even doing other things. It takes your mind off how you really feel about it. Because the Lord knows, you don’t feel as good as you think you do.

The way I remember it, it wasn’t ten minutes after I walked into this party that I saw Lars. He was kind of the wallflower in those days, at least that night. I saw him and at first I wanted to laugh at him, standing there and looking so obviously uncomfortable, not talking to anyone. And then I remembered that I felt a lot the same.

I didn’t walk right over, but pretty soon I went over to where he was standing. He was tall and lanky, like he still is. I don’t think I was nice at first. I said something like, “Did your friends glue you to that wall?”

He said something like, “No, but they dragged me to this party.” He said they had seen our production of North Dakota, that musical satire we had done of Oklahoma. They thought it would be fun to go to a party with the cast. We must all be fun and exciting. I could tell he didn’t think we must be exciting just because we were in a funny play. That made me a little nervous. I guess I liked being able to walk into a room and people just assuming I must be fun and interesting because I was in a good play. At the same time, I was glad. He didn’t seem to think anything, one way or the other. He said, “You were in that play, too, weren’t you?” I said I was. He smiled.

We introduced ourselves. We made small talk. It was a little awkward. So I was surprised when he said, “Well, Miss North Dakota. I’m thinking I might like to leave here and get a hamburger. Care to join me?” I had a moment of panic at leaving my friends, with this man I didn’t know. Even though he was tall and lanky he seemed firm. But also safe. I said yes.

There was a burger place downtown. We went and sat and had dinner. And then, because we were still sitting there, we got coffee. They were refilling us until the place closed. I remember talking about the tip. He left a big tip. At first I thought he was trying to impress me. He said something like, “It doesn’t have anything to do with you. She’s been waiting on us for four hours.” I liked how he thought of other people that way. The next morning he came and picked me up and took me to church.

He was in college but he said he had always known he wanted to be a farmer. I admired how sure he was of that. I wasn’t sure of anything, but that started to change. I might have said it was because of him. Things started to shift, and it wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to marry him, expected that we would probably be married. I had grown up on a farm but had been running away from it all my life. I just wanted to run away from who I was. Really, I think it was church that was bringing me around. I had gone as a child but it was like how I felt about the farm. I just wanted out. Now it started bringing me back. I ended up changing my major. Music took a lot of time, in the evenings. And I didn’t want to be in another musical production. I was starting to take things seriously, I didn’t want to just make fun of everything all the time. People said, “What’s happened to you?” It was hard to tell them how Jesus had filled up all the empty places. I thought, “I know what’s happened to me. What is still happening to you?” Mostly we just drifted apart.

If I had continued on the path I was on, I probably would have drifted down to the Twin Cities. The Lord knows what might have happened if I had gone. I think I would have drifted, as I saw so many drifting. It would have killed me, killed my spirit. I wasn’t made for that. In the Old Testament, Jericho was in the promised land, when the Israelites came out of Sinai with their new commandments, ready to found their holy nation. That’s what coming here was like for me. I had finally arrived at a rock I could stand on.

You can see how solid it’s been. Even though our daughter tested our faith, even though that test shattered my husband’s faith, at least for now, you can see how solid it’s been for me. It didn’t even shake me at all. I’m so grounded now. I know how things are. It would take a much worse temptation to tear me from here, what’s good here. Even though we’re working through our divorce, I still have faith, faith that the Lord will pull Lars back to himself. Especially now that Laura is gone. There may be hope. There is always hope.

So I wonder about that folder of pictures. I don’t know when I put those pictures in there. I understand why there are so many from the time in college when I was studying music. But I wonder about those two or three pictures of Lars and I, right before we were married. Why did I want them gone?

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