How my mom killed Santa

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

When I was little, I went to Prairie Market with my mother to do the month’s shopping. Prairie Market hawked groceries at a grossly reduced rate, leaving everything in shipping cartons in an unheated warehouse. Since it predated the days of ubiquitous scanners, we dug cans of soup out of the crates, and wrote the price on each one using a red wax pencil. I got to ride around on a platform hand truck instead of in a janky cart.

In a weird, frugal way, it was awesome.

On one fateful shopping trip, however, I looked up from my can-labeling extravaganza to see my mother sneaking Christmas candy into our pile of supplies. This might not seem like a big deal to you. Keep in mind that–except for a pack of Trident gum in the kitchen cupboard–we never had candy in the house. I came unhinged. I made a huge scene. Demanding to eat it then and there, I fussed and begged and whined until my beleaguered mother thrust a small, foil-wrapped Santa at me, allowing me one single bite.

She wrapped the chocolate back up neatly and paid for it with the rest of our haul.

Then…weeks later…

On a cold and jolly winter’s morning, I reached into my stocking and pulled out a half-eaten Santa.


I immediately marched over to inform my siblings, two of whom offered feeble explanations; the last looked away, likely stifling a guffaw. What was this, I wondered? Could they not handle the truth? I squinted at them–perhaps with a bit of pity–not realizing the absurdity of the situation: a six-year-old unveiling life’s truth to a room full of teenagers.


Cut to this year.

At around 10:30 pm on Christmas Eve, I was crouched on the floor beside the bed, reading my godforsaken, depressing book by headlamp, trying to stay awake without disturbing the spouse.

Must. Stay. Awake.

I know. That was pathetic, given the hour. It’s not like I had to make it through midnight mass or anything. But, after two weeks of insomnia and holiday hullabaloo, I was really ready to hit the hay.

Trouble was, one of my kids was on the couch in front of the stockings, holding some sort of vigil. Whenever I thought she must have dozed off, I would tiptoe to the top of the stairs and look down, only to witness her stirring, waiting, watching.

I was torn. Don’t my kids know who plays Santa, anyway? Wasn’t that the reason for her vigil, to have real proof beyond past year’s mistakes and discrepancies, such as:

How come this present is wrapped in paper we have in our office closet?

Why is my friend’s Santa so much more generous?


Why didn’t Santa bring what I really wanted:  an iPhone?

If I just bailed and went to bed, I’d be fresh for the morning. I could stick some gifts in the stockings after sunup, right? It’s the same stash, either way.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming sense of empathy for my mother, the Santa-killer. I was by far the youngest of four kids. She had been willing herself awake for eighteen Christmas Eves so that some imaginary person could take the credit for all of her thoughtful work. That woman was done.


I’ve only been at it half as long. I can’t yet bail in good conscience.

Ho, *#^%(!), ho.

Dacryocystorhinostomy: When Youtube is a Terrible Invention

When I was twenty, my tear duct closed, which only happens to infants, the elderly, and me. No one could figure it out.

Tears leaked continuously down my right cheek, except when I walked across campus that winter, and my eye froze shut. There were many other downsides, and only one up that I can recall. I sought assistance from my microeconomics professor that semester, and he was unbelievably kind to me. And patient. And helpful. It wasn’t until after I left his office that I realized he must have thought I was weeping through class every day. Lord knows I felt like doing so.

Treatment began with “wait,”and “warm compresses,” followed by eyedrops and ointments. Incidentally, being able to smear ointment in my eye came in handy for the twelve times I got pinkeye from my students and children.

But when those ointments did nothing, they tried three unsuccessful rounds of irrigation—that is, stabbing a gigantic syringe into the opening, cranking the needle around parallel with my eyeball, and flooding it with saline.

It is terrifying to see a three-inch needle come straight at your eye—but I was not allowed to blink or flinch, as that might not end well.

Finally, surgery was scheduled.

I asked how long it would take.

Answer: about fifteen to twenty minutes, but they allow 90 minutes in case they hit a nearby artery while drilling a hole in the nose, in which case it could take upwards of 45 minutes to control the blood flow.

I’m all for honesty and disclosure and all that, but I really didn’t want to hear the whole story. Let’s leave out the part about when you might seriously botch it and I am spurting blood uncontrollably for an hour.

I could tell you a lot more about the surgery and the aftermath, about how I was severely bruised, with black stitches under my eye, and everyone was afraid to ask me what had happened. Or how they sewed a red rubber tube into my nose so it didn’t scar shut. Or how the stitches were too loose and the tube would dangle out the end of my nose…and how I did not get great tips during that period of time.

I had a lot more to add, actually, but I then googled dacryocystorhinostomy to check my spelling and discovered that I could watch the procedure on youtube. Why, oh why would I want to look? Though I managed to watch while they cut into the eye socket, I freaked out 20 seconds in, because DID YOU KNOW THEY PRY INCISIONS OPEN WITH OYSTER FORKS??

As I said, I don’t want to know the whole story.

By now, you would think I would remember not to go looking for it.

No longer a country girl

A Hogna Wolf Spider from
A Hogna Wolf Spider from

I used to pride myself on being part country/part city.  Hey, I’ve handled mice AND muggers.  That might have made me feel a wee bit superior now and then.  I was once in front of my inner-city classroom, going over the daily schedule, when I noticed a half-dead mouse wriggling maniacally, stuck irretrievably on a glue trap in the front of the classroom.  As I continued to talk my students, I walked to the closet, fished out a plastic bag, scooped the poor creature into it, sealed it, and handed it to some unsuspecting truant in the hall to “please dispose of in the bathroom.”  My eight-year-old posse never suspected a thing.  (If I have disturbed your pacifist nature, remember that a) rodent fecal matter in an elementary school is a serious health issue, and b) glue traps are the only legal means available from our school district.  And what was I going to do?  Scrape it off and rush it to the vet?  Let it flail there indefinitely?)

Sadly, last year’s trip to the country convinced me that I am mostly just a run of the mill city girl/coward these days.

The first clue was after a very difficult bedtime.  Not my bedtime.  I would love to go to bed at a reasonable hour.  The spouse was dog-tired, and had fallen asleep long before the girls.  I tried semi-successfully to get them into bed.  I read and gave kisses. Next thing I knew, one or the other was screaming, “there’s something on my leg!!”  Lights back on, we would examine their beds inch by inch, inspecting the covers and the pj’s,  inside and out.  Eventually they would calm a little; I’d read another chapter aloud and turn out the lights.  “I hear something!” the other would yell, just as I got back down the stairs.  After three or four false alarms, I may have gotten a little cranky.

It was midnight when they finally gave up and went to sleep.  Relieved, I fetched my book and sat on the couch, trying to relax enough to be able to sleep on the world’s least forgiving mattress.  It’s the kind of bed that makes you want to punch the quality control guy at the factory.  Imagine a concrete slab with a little less give.  Top it off with an itchy, mildewed wool blanket, and a lumpy brick for a pillow.  I love my parents, but how their marriage survived forty summers on this abomination, I have no idea.

Not that I wouldn’t want to read in bed, I just plain couldn’t.  The bedside lamp could light up the neighboring forty acres, and a headlamp would be relentlessly dive-bombed by moths and mosquitoes.  Couch it is.

I read a few chapters and was just starting to doze on the couch when I scratched my thigh.  It was not the right shape.  I scratched once more, and again encountered strangeness.  I closed my fingers around a large something.  I had a handful of something in my pajamas.  Dropping my pajama pants, I saw that gigantic spider, and then it disappeared.  That was way worse than having to crunch a large freaky thing.  Was it still in my pajamas?  Was it on the couch?  Would it follow me to bed?  I was no longer sleepy.

A couple of nights later, the spouse had already left for the city, and I tried to cozy myself on the concrete slab.  I read the teensiest bit, and as my eyelids drooped, I turned off the light and slipped into a happy slumber.  Wait.  What was that?  I was itchy again.  After the pajama problem, I was a little skittish.  On went the lights.  Off with the pajamas.  Nothing to be found.  Now the bed felt impossible again.  Everything itched.  

I spent an hour or so reading on the couch, trying to calm down enough for sleep.  This happened two more times.  By now, it was 3 or 4 am, and I had had enough.  I ripped off the covers, one by one, looking, looking.  I inspected my pajamas repeatedly.  I took the headlamp and gave the sheets the once over.  I ran my hands over the moth-balled gingham sheet.  Lumps.  Lumps.

Under the bottom sheet were creatures. That is not supposed to happen.

I’d been sleeping on these sheets for three days already, but trapped under that bottom sheet were two crickets–one live, and one dead.

I know. They’re just crickets. They are charming outside, just like spiders are fascinating in their amazing webs outside. The bed is sacred, though. The bed is where one goes for a peaceful respite, not for the zoo.

I was being ridiculous.

But I couldn’t wait to get back to the city.

Not Their Real Names



Mrs. Steinbeck taught ninth grade English; Mr. taught social studies across the hall.

They were constantly feuding.

While we were diagramming sentences, she would moon about, saying things like, “If only I’d met Ted Danson before marrying Mr. Steinbeck.”

During tornado drills, we crouched in the hallway with textbooks over our heads, while Mrs. Steinbeck dropped bombs. “It would take a pretty big wind to lift you up, wouldn’t it, Mr. Steinbeck?” she yelled, trying to get a rise out of him. He narrowed his eyes and tightened his jaw, but always kept his cool.

Then one day, Mr. marched right into our class, raging that Mrs. had stolen his desk chair.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, shrugging. “I’ve had this chair since the beginning of the year.”

She tried to continue our lesson.

“I know my chair,” he huffed through clenched teeth. “If I pick it up, the back right caster falls off.”

Mrs. Steinbeck sat very still. Nobody breathed.

“If that’s really your chair, Mrs. Steinbeck, you wouldn’t mind if I tried picking it up, would you?”

Mrs. Steinbeck stood very, very deliberately, staring him in the eye all the while.

He grabbed and hoisted it triumphantly in the air.

It hung there for a long, silent moment.

Then, lo and behold, the back right caster hit the floor.

Nobody said a word as he wheeled it out the door.

Now, back to dangling participles.

How right you were, Mrs. Rosine

My eighth grade English teacher made us memorize poems and recite them in front of the class.

“Someday you’ll thank me,” she said. “What if you’re sent to prison? How will you make the time pass?”

Two years later, we stopped for tea with relatives before starting a 200-mile drive.

I gripped my warm mug and eyed the drifting flakes, tuning out my aunt’s cheerful banter.

Then, rolling at last,

The heavens opened

And deposited a great wall of snow in front of our Chevy.

Piled atop each other, we spent the next cramped hours


Emily Dickenson

Robert Frost

Edna St. Vincent Millay


William Shakespeare

The Brother of Invention

Our campsite--without my brother's addition.
One of our campsites–without my brother’s addition.

For years we slept together in one tent,

All six of us

Plus cat and dog.

As the youngest, I was tucked into the seams, farthest from the snoring heap of dad…

An unfortunate location on rainy nights.

When he hit high school, middle brother learned to sew.

Out of ripstop nylon and seam-sealer, he carved a modicum of personal space for the hours between dish duty and daybreak.

Groggy and stiff from hugging the lumpy terrain, we drank Tang out of Solo cups, stamped our feet to keep warm, and crammed back into the Chevy for the next 500 miles.

From Happy Fortune Vintage on

Potluck: A Brief Horror Story

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

The word potluck makes me anxious, even now that I am old enough to have scheduling conflicts.

I can still feel the warm weight of paper plates sagging precariously in my hands,

Odd juices running together as I make my way

Across gray, industrial tiles,

Fluorescent lights blazing upon:

Norwegian Chop Suey

Potato salad slathered in Miracle Whip and pickle relish

Jello with grated carrots and cottage cheese

Fruit salad with Cool Whip and marshmallows

Hamburger Helper

Broccoli with Cheez Whiz

“Hot Dish”

Anything involving a can of cream of something soup

Or canned peas

And then, at the end,

Mincemeat pie.


In case you’re wondering “Wait! What’s wrong with pie?”…let me assure you that real mincemeat pie involves meat. Like rump steak and beef suet. As well as piles of sugar and raisins. Don’t believe me? Click here for a recipe.

On Being Scandihoovian: Probably Part One

©2010 Beret Olsen
©2010 Beret Olsen

Not long ago, an acquaintance walked into my entryway and stared at a photograph I had taken of my daughter holding her pet hamster.  “Is that guy dead?” she asked me.

I suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or ashamed. I picked both.

She looked at it for a long, uncomfortable moment before announcing: “That is sooooo Scandinavian.”

I had no idea what she meant, but since I’m 100% Norwegian, I figured she might be on to something. It was time to investigate.

I have relatives who swim daily in the ocean off the coast of Oslo, and run around their mountain cabin naked in the middle of winter–no doubt after a good dose of Aquavit. I can assure you that this is not what it was like for me in my childhood home. My parents are the sort that drink a thimble-full of red wine for medicinal reasons, and comport themselves in a dignified manner at all times. I think I’ve heard them raise their voices three or four times in my entire life.

Growing up, I was carted off to Junior Sons of Norway on Saturdays, where I learned the Norwegian national anthem–which I can be easily enticed to sing, with great enthusiasm–and Min Hatt, Den Har Tre Kanter (My Hat, It Has Three Corners, a deep and lyrical song, as you ca imagine). I was fed Lutefisk (fish soaked in lye) once a year, and taught to say grace in Norwegian whenever we excavated the dining room table and broke out the china.

I associate my ethnic roots with a palate-numbing dose of pickled herring, passed like treasure in a tiny, silver-rimmed dish at Christmas dinner. In fact, Christmas arrived with a long list of Scandinavian things I can’t and/or won’t eat:  Swedish meatballs, fruit soup, lefse, herring, rice pudding. (Sorry, Mom. I love you.) My mother would hide an almond in the rice pudding, and whoever found it got an extra present on Christmas Eve. I loved this tradition, but despised rice pudding. I would shove a spoonful around on my plate, and if I couldn’t find a nut, try to reorganize it in a polite way which simulated ingesting an honorable amount.

But I think it goes much deeper. Those Norwegian immigrants were unflinching, hardworking, stoic powerhouses in the face of the adversity and desolation of the Plains. In fact, my name was plucked from Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, a chronicle of Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest. I have visited his house multiple times, read articles, and listened attentively to stories about him, but I have never, ever been able to make myself read the book. Here’s why: from Wikipedia, “The novel depicts snow storms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land.” What’s more, I heard my namesake has a paralyzing case agoraphobia.

“Is it true Beret goes crazy in the book?” I asked my mother. “Why would you name me after a character like that?”

There was a quiet pause.

“She really pulls it together in the second book,” my mother said, finally.

How Scandinavian.

Back to the Future

In the very back of my sister’s closet was a tall, quilted dress bag. It was made of pale pink plastic and filled with my mother’s fancy dresses.

One was a Dutch-blue satin dress she had worn in her best friend’s wedding. It was off-the-shoulder, tea-length, in a simple and flattering style I don’t associate with bridesmaids’ gowns. I loved the feel of the fabric as the flared skirt swayed and brushed against my legs.

There was a floor-length pink gown that had been chopped and altered, once for my sister on Halloween, and once for me when I played Glinda in the fifth grade musical. It had a scratchy layer of tulle over the top, which was uncomfortable, but extra glamorous.

There were several more dresses, but the only other I vividly recall was the one my mother had made for a tea dance in high school. It had a brocade bodice and a wine-colored satin skirt. It was simply divine. That one I put on repeatedly.

If no one was around, I liked to sneak a pair of white gloves from my her bedside table, the ones with a tiny flower of seed beads on each wrist and an impossibly small button.

Then I might poke through her jewelry drawer, the bottom of which was covered with a flat of egg carton material, so each item could be investigated and laid reverently back into its soft gray cup. I might try on everything, but I always ended up with a single strand of pearls from my Grandmother.

One day in high school–nearly a decade since I had played dress up–I happened upon the dress bag in the closet, and decided to try on that tea dance dress once more.

What happened next is difficult to articulate. Each seam fell exactly into place and the hemline was perfect. I stared in the mirror and was overwhelmed by a creepy sensation. It was uncanny. Not only had my mother made the dress, and tailored it perfectly to her frame, she had made me, too. Suddenly the concept of genetics was no longer textbook essays and double helix diagrams. It was concrete and intensely physical. She made me.

I know she had help; I get it. But it wouldn’t have been the same to try on my father’s trousers.

Seventh Grade

Summers were the antidote
For wounds inflicted by the words and silence
Of the cruelest people I know:
Blissfully unaware of empathy or mercy.

I donned a skirt I’d never worn–
Ill-fitting, handmade, and hand-me-downed–
Perhaps an attempt to play a different role in this year’s performance.

It was inappropriate armor for my return to battle.

On the front porch,
My father tried to coax a smile,
Or at least turn my sullen gaze toward the camera.

From there, I walked alone,
Clutching a bag lunch and a binder
Too grown to admit fear
Past the smokers
And knots of cool kids
To the front doors.