Glad to Get Back to Work Without a Paycheck

IMG_9044 WHEN I FIRST GOT AN iPHONE, a friend told me that her husband also owned an iPhone and initially spent lots of time messing around on it with Siri — the name of Apple’s computerized fetchit girl.

At one point, after peppering Siri with all sorts of trick questions — something he practices in the courtroom as a lawyer — he tested her programming by proposing.

“Will you marry me, Siri?” he asked once, my friend said.

“Let’s just be friends, OK?” Siri quipped from her script.

Apple on its website invites customers to “talk to Siri as you would to a friend.”

She is, of course, a technology genie with a voice programmed to sound pleasant and helpful.  If your question stumps her, she always can direct you to other resources off the top of her virtual head, thanks to her binary coding brainstuff.

But I wonder how she answered a boy at bedtime who in the dark clutched his smartphone and whispered: “Siri? Is my Mom going to die?”

He did not know that his father lingered in the hall after switching off the lights that night when they came home from the hospital and she stayed.

“She” is another mother named Pam, a person I barely know after meeting her just once in San Francisco to celebrate the 40th birthday of a mutual friend there in spring 2007.

These days, though, I ask that mutual friend more about her because that Pam is fighting leukemia, and lots of us are praying.

In the latest update, our friend told me that for the first time when he called the other Pam’s husband to check in during her most recent hospitalization, the husband sounded down — especially after overhearing their 7-year-old son pop a question only God knows how to answer.

The story sticks with me for lots of reasons, but mostly because on Labor Day weekend it seems timely to rethink the privilege of providing labors of love.

The phrase means “a task done for pleasure, not reward.”

IMG_4498Anyone in the parenting trenches now or in the past knows that this job sometimes feels like that, feels like Christmas morning for all of the surprising delights that go along with caring for children.

It tickles me still to think of my third son giggling for the first time as a baby when I acted all business with him as I followed new physical therapy directions to help him roll over on the livingroom floor.

What a pleasure, indeed!

We both beamed at each other then, even though Ray — my boy with low muscle tone related to Down syndrome — remained flipped like a turtle in a home PT session that clearly had tanked.

Truth is, though, that labors of love often come without memorable moments.

Is anything special about doing laundry, making meals, going to the park, and helping with homework?

IMG_4048Yet, a framed poster hanging in a pediatrician’s office at the Longmont Clinic — one titled, “How to Really Love a Child” — says it all in the first idea of the many listed.

“Be there.”

I hope the other Pam enjoys that simple pleasure with her son again soon.

Unlike Siri, she has gotten sick and tired as we all do upon occasion.

But the other Pam is the real deal, a person who knows how to labor out of love, and the tension of her predicament spurs me to gladly get back to work without a paycheck.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.


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Grant’s ground zero

AS LITTLE RAY PEEKED UNDER the American flag attached to President Grant’s pew earlier this month, I began a new process of understanding the complicated man who made my hometown famous — a Civil War general some dubbed “the butcher” and a man remembered also for his devotion as a husband and father of four children.
This year marks the sesquicentennial of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) at the village of Appomattox Courthouse, Va.
As the nation looks over its shoulder to see this military man and two-term 18th president more clearly through 150 years, I just drive from my home in Colorado back to where I grew up in Galena, Ill., to visit my folks.
Galena is Grant’s ground zero.
From here, he and eight other generals headed to distant battlefields beginning in 1861 when the town’s population was about 12,000 residents.
We still see him at every turn in our community, which now holds steady at about 3,400 residents.
A statue of Grant stands in his namesake city park, a green spot along the Galena River where I once played in the fountain and later attended Easter sunrise services.
There he stands again with his generals to shake Lee’s hand in Thomas Nast’s 9-foot by 12-foot “Peace in Union” oil painting that hangs on the second floor of the Galena Historical Society and U.S. Grant Museum.

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However, as of late my thoughts wander more toward where Grant sat — where he reposed and recharged.
We see his dining room table and chairs on display with other furniture and artifacts in the hillside brick home our town gave the Grant family following his Civil War victory.
Yes. We gave him a house, and a nice one with a view at that.
He sat down with his family there to enjoy dinner every evening.
Every Sunday morning, the Grants sat in a pew I noticed after my three boys scampered up the steep narrow steps to the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church on Bench Street.
We arrived there on a Monday afternoon in early June for a week-long afternoon vacation Bible school.
Ray in five minutes spotted the small American flag posted on a pew left of the pulpit about eight rows back.
A college-age church member and VBS volunteer told me that they tag that pew with the flag because they know without a doubt that the Grants used it.
In those days families apparently rented pews the way city folks rent parking slots, and the church kept the records.
Of course, I already knew this was Grant’s church.
I probably knew that since I attended VBS there as a child in the 1970s , a girl already steeped at school in local Grant history.
But I pictured the past better after seeing this little flag under the pew arm and studying a blurry black-and-white photo in the foyer that shows the church festooned with bunting and a giant “Welcome” sign posted during Grant’s homecoming parade in 1865.
The Ohio native’s youngest child, Jessie, was just 2 when the family boarded the paddle-wheeler in St. Louis that brought them up the Mississippi River to Galena in April 1860.
Grant, then 37, came to town to work with two of his brothers in the family’s leather goods store. His wife, Julia, was 34, and their three other children were Frederic, 10; Ulysses, 8; and Nellie, 4.
A very different world ensconced those kids.
How glad Grant would be to know that 150 years after the high point of his service to this country my little boy, Ray, 5, would enter his church as a visitor and find a special friend in a member — a dark-skinned girl about his age adopted from Haiti by a local family.

Grant supported the 15th amendment to the constitution, which during the Reconstruction era allowed former slaves to vote.
Before the second term of his presidency ended in 1877, he also supported the Enforcement and Civil Rights acts of 1875 to give more freedoms to blacks that included the right to peaceful assembly and entrance to certain events.
It was a start.
And we are nowhere near a finish.
But it spoke to me that Ray ran his fingertips over this girl’s neatly braided corn rows with beads, and then she giggled as they clasped hands. Happy Fourth of July, America!
Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942. For more photos and stories, visit Mommy Musings online at



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When F-bombs Drop in Church

Andy, 7, watches the last of the homeless folks leave our church -- Crestview Church in Boulder -- for the streets at 7 a.m. after he shared snack packs on March 7, 2015, that the Sunday school kids assembled.

Andy, 7, watches the last of the homeless folks leave our church — Crestview Church in Boulder — for the streets at 7 a.m. after he shared snack packs on March 7, 2015, that the Sunday school kids assembled.

AN ANGRY YOUNG HOMELESS MAN in charge of cleaning up the makeshift shelter at our church caught my ear this winter when he raged at another homeless man volunteering to help for not following directions.

“This is my f_ _ _ _ing church!” the man, I’ll call him Ted, shouted to underscore his authority.

Ted dropped the F-bomb in front of a wooden communion table carved with “Do this in remembrance of me.”

When not in use at the front of the sanctuary, this table backs against a partition wall built of brick glass in the fellowship hall where the incident happened. Above it, our congregation mounted an ornately framed replica of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” — a closeup of God’s index finger extended to touch Adam’s index finger to awaken life in him.

To make matters worse, in the midst of this religious stuff there was a child with open ears.

My son, Andy, 7, and I stood just 20 feet away to hand snack packs assembled by the Sunday school kids to about a hundred homeless people leaving the church for the streets by 7 a.m.

For many reasons, Ted’s outburst offended me.

But as my boy and I moved on to spraying window cleaner on the bathroom mirrors and disinfectant on the toilets, I started coming to my senses.

Thank you, God, for bringing me to my senses.

I began to think about how much I care about the man, despite the sacrilege, and how much I appreciate Ted’s ownership, however roughshod, of sacred space.

He wanted to clean God’s house, after all, and had been up all night checking in latecomers and keeping watch on the slumbering group.

In the weeks following the incident, the word “offended” gradually lost its usefulness in helping me process the event.

It started sounding like a doily sort of word, one a great aunt might use to indulge a sense of self-righteousness while she cleaned already spotless glasses with an embroidered linen hankie.

How tempting to practice social grace at church instead of practicing the real thing.

Our church’s office and facilities manager made an impression on me in this area years ago when we first opened the church as an overnight homeless shelter.

Some church members complained to her that they had found tiny empty vodka bottles in the library stashed behind bibles and books about prayer, marriage restoration, worship, stewardship, and the like.

Debbie listened when some folks in our 100-member congregation reported yet another coffee or Kool-Aid stain on the new carpet after big snowstorms pushed 130-plus homeless people inside.

Ultimately, she said that if carpet stains closed our doors to this ministry, the carpet needed to go — not the needy men and women on it.

This is exactly what I hope my sons understand of the faith their Dad and I share.

I hope they can see how empty vodka bottles and carpet stains too easily can frustrate God’s grace moving between people, and why we all need to look up again and again.

Michelangelo likely painted his “Creation of Adam” fresco around 1512 in Vatican City on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling for that reason.

In the centuries since people of from all walks of life have entered that space and looked up at an image of God as a greying, muscular man full of purpose and energy reaching to invigorate Adam.

The two share great eye contact.

Our church’s framed replica of their fingertips has begun to bubble, to reveal that it is a cheap imitation in a pricey frame.

How much better to be an authentic work — a work in progress — in a modest or even damaged frame.

Andy himself had words for the concept after we visited a friend of mine recently.

“Mama? You know their house looks poor on the outside, but it is rich on the inside,” he said as we drove away.

Amen, son.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Michelle’s Next Move

IMG_3926THAT THE BLOODIED AND  BARELY conscious woman asked to clasp the hand of the Longmont cop who found her, it lights a candle for me in the recent Craigslist-related fetal abduction case.

Other mothers may remember lumbering through the final trimester of pregnancy in elastic waistband pants and in shoes with laces loosened more by the week.

With that in mind, I picture this young woman seven months along ambling in to buy baby clothes and instead clumsily scrambling to defend herself and her unborn daughter against someone with a kitchen knife.

Such a craven attack — unprecedented in Colorado until now and reported 17 times nationwide — could trap Michelle Wilkins in that bedroom crime scene for life, for the same yawn of time the perpetrator may face behind bars.

There, this mother in deep mourning endlessly could relive and rework the attack that doomed her baby girl.

But Wilkins reached for the officer’s hand. They waited together for the paramedics to rush in and spirit her to Longmont United Hospital where she began to recover.

Already, she was holding on for the sun to rise on a new day.

“… She was barely conscious and fought like I’ve never seen anybody fight,” Billy Sawyer, the Longmont police officer who responded first to Wilkins, 26, told the press. “She was fighting for her life. She was not willing to die at that moment. She was using every ounce of strength to stay where she was.”

Now, I hope Wilkins marshalls every ounce of strength to leave the nightmarish bedroom where for three hours she fell forlorn — a woman ravaged and left for dead.

I am holding on to that for her and holding my breath waiting for her next move.
Gently, gently now, may she find ways to redeem this jinxed defining moment.

Otherwise, Wilkins could survive and not thrive — a pottery teacher misshapen by the terror and treachery she faced on Wednesday, March 18, 2015.

In media coverage of her case thus far, even official sources fall back on the word “evil” to describe and explain what happened.

I do not know what others mean by this term.

But it captures something essential about the case, and people from many different backgrounds use it without theological hangups.

To me, evil implies a dark spiritual force within that connects to a dark spiritual force greater than ourselves to deprive or otherwise harm another.

Then, there is the holy, a term I understand in the same rubric to opposite effect.

Already we see this holy moving through our community to heal her and to heal us as we reflect on the sharpest shards of our brokenness.

In vigils and through other public events, strangers have stood up for Wilkins.

I wonder if many more privately have kneeled for her and for all of us to recover, to recast the legacy of this tragedy.

We may never know how she goes.

But in good faith we stand by, a silent majority represented by Sawyer, 33, who held Wilkins’ hand to share help and hold some of her hurt.

“… Being able to go in that room and take some of that load from Michelle, and to be able to run with that for the rest of our lives with her — she’s not the only one that carried that burden. That’s why we’re here,” he said.

To help Wilkins with her medical expenses, visit

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.

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Gentleness from the Man with the Needle

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WITH DOZENS OF BLOOD DRAWS at hospitals and clinics under his belt, Ray and I know what to do.

We strap on our crash helmets.

He never raised a ruckus as a baby.

Then, he felt so lackluster, so beset by a form of leukemia, that he took sticks without flinching or crying.

That terrified me, made visions of a graveside service beside a tiny casket well up.

So, that Ray — now 5 — freaks out these days during blood draws feels right, feels like him flexing his life force.

Until six months ago, he and I survived blood draw drama by huddling in a special chair reminiscent of a 19th century classroom for the way the desktop flips up and down to corral the patient and provide arm support.

Ray cringed and bawled on my lap as I pretzeled my arms around him to quell jiggling during the stick.

Some phlebotomists — we love you, Dawn! — consistently hit the tiny, rolly vein in the crook of his left arm the first time.

But plenty missed it, too.

That escalates the theatrics, especially since botched sticks can blow out a vein and cause a massive bruise.

Then, late last fall, we met Abe.

Ray stopped crying. I started.

Abe invited me during our first visit to take a seat on an upholstered chair, not the 19th century-style chair.

I stared at the new staffer at this clinic with mixed feelings.

“Oh, you don’t need to touch him,” he said.

Who wouldn’t relax in the presence of someone so relaxed?

On the other hand, sharp needles and 5-year-old boys don’t mix well in my experience.

Wouldn’t a competent phlebotomist charged with getting a blood sample from a new patient take some precautions?

So, I sat in the chair with Ray in my lap, just in case things ramped up to lion tamer level.

Abe pulled on his latex gloves, spotted the vein, and kneeled before us — a miracle on the verge.

I did not catch on and viewed the scene with guarded optimism.

“It’s OK, baby,” Abe cooed.

He presented the needle, and Ray whimpered.

Phlebotomists typically do not let him look at it or know when the stick is coming.

Then, Abe cupped Ray’s elbow in the palm of his hand for support during the draw.

“It’s OK, baby. We can do this,” he said, looking Ray in the eye at eye level.

Ray whimpered a little more and stared sort of aghast at his bare arm as the needle slid into the vein.

Blood zipped up the tube into the vial, and Ray held steady without restraint.

No restraint. At all.

Abe pulled the needle out slowly a minute later and stood.

He smiled.

The power of this man’s gentleness ranks among the top five most remarkable things I have witnessed in my adult life.

My eyes turned to puddles as he dropped the used needle and tube in the sharps container, tossed his latex gloves in the trash, and labeled the vial.

When we visited Abe three months later in February for our standing appointment, I wondered if it would happen again.

Was it a fluke? Beginner’s luck?


I have deduced with help from my friend known as “The Greek,” that Abe gives Ray different cues on what to expect and how to handle the stressful event. The phlebotomist/kid whisperer brings no fear, no anxiety, and no force to his delicate work with children.

He gives them different cues altogether, cues that speak to gentleness, confidence, cooperation, and even playfulness.

After Ray’s second no pressure, no tears blood draw with Abe, I asked him about this.

He shrugged.

“It’s my gift,” he said, looking up and pointing to the ceiling tiles in a more private version of the appreciation NFL players show on national TV after a touchdown.

Ray scrambled out of the chair about then and trotted toward the door.

But not before turning around and grinning at Abe.

“Thank you!” he sang.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.

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Children as Orchids



But I threw that word into our conversation as she gently probed for reasons that might explain why my son, Andy, 7, stood on chairs, banged his head on his desk, or burst into angry tears when demonstrating his worst behavior in her first grade classroom.

“I wish I could say that there was a divorce brewing at home,” I blurted.

Of course, that came out sideways as so many of my comments do.

But if it were true, that would explain handily why my boy’s behavior too often moves him on the class behavior chart from optimal green to warning yellow and, sometimes, to red — the color that flags privilege loss.

That afternoon, as he and I sat on the couch together, I asked Andy again why he dusted up at school some days.

“I’m one of the strugglers, Mom,” he said, matter of factly.  “There are five of us.”

Though I already knew that, his response prompted me to visit my online shrink — the American Psychological Association website — to learn more about me, why I am a struggler, too, a mom obviously in need of a tune up in the parenting skills department.

At the APA site, I read more about risk factors related to poor behavior kids in preschool through fifth grade. Many factors did not apply: a mom with multiple boyfriends; parents in trouble with the law; frequent address changes; parental substance abuse or mental health challenges; and poverty.

As the researchers expected, kids living in homes with one or more of these conditions tended to externalize that stress by acting out in the classroom and fighting. Or, they internalized the stress by withdrawing or feeling depressed.

Yet, more garden-variety stress — the kind produced by parents working and trying to keep up with obligations at home — also can make some kids act out. Those kids feel last on a parent’s long “to do” list, like they get only leftover time and energy from mom or dad.

“We often treat our relationships—which are like orchids—like a cactus, and then when inevitably the orchid wilts or has problems, we tend to think that there’s something wrong with the orchid,” wrote David J. Palmiter, Jr., a Pennsylvania psychologist and author of “Working Parents, Thriving Families” (Sunrise River Press).

The quote worked like a mirror.

“Give me a minute, please!” I say to my kids, sometimes with unveiled exasperation. “I’m right in the middle of making dinner, doing laundry, writing a story…”

Such housekeeping and work activities fall into the urgent category. Without stepping away for these reasons, the family would starve, run out of clean underwear, and be stuck with a mother depressed by no typing time.

Still, the image of my children as orchids, as lovely creations exquisitely sensitive to the environment, motivates me to press on in finding ways to make our home less stressful and more hospitable.

Chores won’t go away suddenly, nor will the stress associated with getting them done in time.

But carving out more moments to relate and recreate with the kids might turn the heat down on my boy who hits the boiling point too often at school and at home.

Last week, Andy overheard me talking to my parents and my brother about renting a houseboat on the Mississippi River for a midweek vacation this summer.

The next morning, I found him drawing the cast of family characters on the houseboat and in the water.

“Like it?” he said.

Yep. I sure do, Andy.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or 303-746-0942.

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In Praise of One-Arm Wonders

20150124_095428TWO WORDS CAUSED A COMPLETE work stop at our house on a recent Saturday morning.

I finally had gotten motivated to tackle the tsunami of rumpled clothes that grows every week in baskets behind the closed door of our bedroom closet — the security measure we use to keep the cats from confusing unfolded laundry for kitty litter.

My husband, for his part, had hauled the frame, mattresses, hardware, and drawers of a used bunk bed from the garage to a second story bedroom to reassemble it there for our oldest son Carl, 8.

Then, out came Daddy’s tools.

Clearly something about the worker bee activity prompted our youngest son — the one with special needs and a profound speech delay — to express his wish to move from audience member to participant.

“I help,” Ray said, ever so softly.

David and I could have cartwheeled over the words, by our count only the second sentence ever spoken by our boy though he turned 5 in early December.

Usually, Ray jargons — speaks fluently and often passionately with a helter-skelter arrangement of vowels and consonants in a foreign language understood by God alone.

More and more, though, one English word pops out of that mix. Words like “snowflake” and “keys.”

He started calling me “Mom” at age 3, and since then this one-word repertoire has snowballed, albeit in slow motion.

As I stood at the stove last week sauteing mushrooms and stirring boiling pasta water, Ray poked my leg and pointed at a pizza illustration in his Scooby Doo book.

“Pizza!” he near shouted, tapping the picture.

It sounds like he is getting it, getting English down like the rest of us do, one word at a time, and beginning to string those words together.

At such a juncture, I think again on the complaint a friend once shared regarding her mother.

“If she lost an arm, she would be happy because she had one left,” this friend said, rolling her eyes.

When others minimize pain, loss or struggle — especially when it is not their own — it can be insensitive and hurtful.

But this post is in praise of all of those one-armed wonders, in praise of Ray and other kids and adults who keep truckin’ without benefit of standard-issue gear, such as the 100-point (give or take) IQ most of us rely on to communicate.

When he was born, a simple analogy helped me deepen this appreciation.

I began thinking about using my left hand versus my dominant right hand to hold a fork, to write a letter, to apply mascara.


The exercise exposed the efficiency, elegance, and artistry I took for granted.

It also sharpened my sense of how we all operate one-armed or left-handed in some area.

Lots of folks battling the bulge or hoping to forgive wrongdoing can relate to this.

Yet, parenting a boy like Ray reminds me that tough goes can be the most worthy ones, and that progress can be deeply in the works without many obvious signs.

Ray spoke his first sentence on a 100-degree day in July as I tried to tug off his rainboots and replace them with sandals before we left the air-conditioned car.

As I tugged, he tugged back and jargoned frantically in his exclusive foreign language.

Then, as if by magic, he spoke in perfect English:  “I want boots!”

His brothers and I looked at each other and then at Ray.

The boy wore boots that day.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

Better hearing equals a better chance at talking. So, Ray underwent the minor surgery at the Longmont Surgery Center to have tubes put in his ears on Jan. 20, 2015. He looks like he's ready to tell you about already, huh?

Better hearing equals a better chance at talking. So, Ray underwent the minor surgery at the Longmont Surgery Center to have tubes put in his ears on Jan. 20, 2015. He looks like he’s ready to tell you about already, huh?

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Grandma’s rings ride again

Grandma Alida Mellskog holds me as Grandpa John Mellskog looks on after my dedication service at Calvary Baptist Church in Evanson, Ill., on July 30, 1967.

Grandma Alida Mellskog holds me as Grandpa John Mellskog looks on after my dedication service at Calvary Baptist Church in Evanson, Ill., on July 30, 1967.

AS MY MOTHER AND I chatted together at the farm over winter break, she cleaned out the drawers of a marble-topped chest and found two rings — both stripped of diamonds, the shanks sawed off, the gold dull.

Inspecting the empty setting with her felt very much like peering through the broken windows of an abandoned mansion.

The rings appeared just as forsaken and debased without their rightful sparkle, without the nine tiny diamonds that once lined the wedding band’s channel and the solitaire once flanked by three smaller diamonds on either side of the engagement ring.

Turns out after my Grandpa Mellskog died in 1968, Grandma Mellskog eventually asked the jeweler who catered to Swedish immigrants in Chicago then to cut the size 7 1/2 ring from her finger after 36 years of constant wear.

With those diamonds, Mr. Gustavson designed a platinum ring, a glittering ring my Mom inherited before Grandma passed away at 95 in 1993.

After we recovered the rings no one ever missed, I have carried them with me everywhere protected by Saran wrap in my wallet.

Finally, in early February, I stopped in at Snyder Jewelers in Longmont to dream a little, to get a fix on what it would take to rebuild the rings and wear them.

As the jeweler cleaned and inspected the half rings, I felt on the verge of tears.

My affection for my Grandma Mellskog comes from so many odd places.

I smell vinegar, and I think of her.

Let me explain.

During my childhood, when she lived at Fairhaven Christian Home in Rockford, Ill., about 90 miles away from our farm, she visited us for a month every summer.

Besides flipping dozens of Swedish pancakes for breakfast, she baked apple pies and braided Swedish cardamom bread — all things she learned to do as a girl in the Old Country.

She also scrubbed the bricks around the Franklin stove in our livingroom; cleaned the kitchen cupboards inside and out; and snooped in my parents’ checkbook to make sure they had enough money.

By the end of each day, Grandma’s knees ached. So, she asked me to rub vinegar — a home remedy — on them.

It never occurred to me then. But it occurs to me now that before my nightly Florence Nightingale job, Grandma still dropped to those sore knees into her 80s to pray in “Swinglish” — a mix of Swedish and English — with my brother, sister, and me. All of us kneeled in a row, our heads bowed, hands clasped, and elbows propped on her bed.

I already treasure her faith, work ethic, and generosity.

What more could her old rings bring?

But they are so storied that I study them sometimes and consider the holes as tiny portals to the past.

Grandpa Mellskog gave them to her in 1932, the year these two Swedish immigrants finally finished attending English night classes and getting established — he as a carpenter and she as a nurse.

On her hand, the rings went through all the motions of motherhood I have since assumed — from changing diapers to buttoning shirts to patting sons on the back and pulling the tabs off Band-Aids.

Those rings touched my Dad, newborn in a January 1939 snowstorm when she was 40.

They touched me, too, because I was born in 1967, eleven months before Grandma became a widow and changed the setting.

They vanished after that.

But now they are found, and that, too, makes the rings more precious than metal and stones — a reminder to me on many levels and in plain view every day perhaps some day.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Tigers Against Teasers

Erie Elementary School tacked anti-bullying student artwork on the wall outside of the library in mid January. Andy, 7, placed third in the contest called "Tigers Against Teasers" with the poster featured here. A tiger is the school's mascot.

Erie Elementary School tacked
anti-bullying student artwork on the wall
outside of the library in mid January. Andy, 7,
placed third in the contest called “Tigers
Against Teasers” with the poster featured
here. A tiger is the school’s mascot.

AS THEY TIPTOE FROM THE bedsides of their half-asleep children, parents get last calls — usually bids for a glass of water or one more story.

But a few days ago, my first grader said something unexpected from his place on the bottom bunk in the dark bedroom as I gently pulled the door shut.

“Mama? Guess what? I got third place in the Tigers against Teasers poster contest,” Andy, 7, said.

Anti-bullying posters tacked to hallway walls at Erie Elementary School where a tiger is the mascot spell out the players in this story –who is a bully, who is a target, and who is a bystander — and choices each one can make.

The contest aims to enrich learning by challenging students to make their own poster, to draw and write about what good they could do as bystanders.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Tigers against Teasers poster contest coincides with the Jan. 15 birthday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed this year on Jan. 19.

Students get a G-rated version of what black people suffered and still suffer at the hands of white bullies through an MLK unit.

Teachers spare them the details of his last days — the bomb threat that delayed his plane from leaving Atlanta for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis; the bullet that ripped through his right cheek as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel; the hatred he weathered for rallying targets and bystanders to resist bullies without violence.

Yet, they get the point.

Everyone has a playground, and not everyone on that playground plays nice.

Andy’s poster, with its cave wall-like drawings, reflects that understanding.

He drew a red circle and slash across a bully stick figure thrusting some sort of weapon at a target stick figure gushing tears from a submissive position on the ground.

Andy listed the word “No” in the left column under this illustration and wrote, “No teasing. No being mean. No pushing.”

In the next frame, he drew a bystander stick figure reaching down to the crying person to give the target of bullying a hand up.

A list of the word “Yes” — as in, “Yes, you should help. Yes, you should be nice.” — stacks up under this illustration.

When I was in first grade in the mid 1970s, MLK had been dead just seven years, and it would take until 2000 for all 50 states to recognize the federal holiday honoring him on his birthday.

I am uncertain as to when elementary school textbooks wove his life and legacy into the curriculum.

But this addition, along with projects such as the poster contest to raise awareness, heartens me– makes me feel the press of progress as our youngest citizens learn about MLK’s message and good fight.

That is especially true since his work remains unfinished across discrimination’s waterfront, and bullying continues to rock our boat.

MLK wrote as much from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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Looking Past Christmas Kitsch


WHEN “SHIRLEY” JOINED US FOR dinner last December, our house suddenly felt like a den of Christmas kitsch, a regular truck stop full of holiday whatnot for all traveling passerby.

In the living room, a fake, pre-lit Christmas tree — a store floor model we bought 75 percent off full price in late December 2007 — glowed, but with dark patches of burned out bulbs.

On the half wall sat a cutout of the word “Peace” with a stylized Mary and Joseph touching foreheads over a baby to form the letter “a,” a letter topped with a yellow-painted coil sprouting a star.

A nativity cast in ceramic by my former first grade teacher, the late Marge Grossinger, cluttered the mantel above our gas fireplace.

My husband’s coworker, a Chinese native stateside to visit the company’s Colorado office, blinked in the midst of it before telling us the story of China’s relatively newfound infatuation with Christmas.

Turns out that since the 1990s the Chinese government has allowed a bit of Christmas into its communist public spaces.

After all, the Chinese like the idea of spending money on the things they manufacture for the rest of the world to wrap and unwrap in December.

And while controversy dogs the holiday — some Chinese consider it western imperialism — Christmas continues gaining popularity precisely because the story comes to the masses sterilized of its religious beginnings.

Even Americans familiar with the nativity scene and Christian religion often overlook the shepherds to emulate the wise men bearing expensive gifts.

My first grade teacher painted them with two-toned metallic colors and glued rhinestones on their fancy hats and robe hems. She adorned the camel blankets the same way.

But at my church earlier this month, our pastor reminded us that the first ones invited to celebrate the birth of Christ were not the the well-educated astrologers, the wise men of regal bearing and high social standing.

The angel and its choir first fluttered to the shepherds, a nomadic people working the graveyard shift guarding animals, who could bring nothing more than themselves to the manger.

For fresh perspective, some of us in the congregation met with the pastor after the sermon to picture the Christmas story rolling out in modern day Boulder County.

We figured Jesus would have been born in Ward, perhaps in the back seat of a car or in someone’s garage, before growing up in Nederland.

A modern day shepherd might be an over-the-road trucker sharing the wheel with a spouse or a homeless person watching over his buddies sleeping overnight.

The wise men could be technology mavens driving BMWs to Ward from their mountain homes in Estes Park.

Ultimately, this story shows us that God welcomes all to perceive this manger behind an army of Santas and a forest of Christmas trees, that he prompts folks across social classes to move from their usual spots for a closer look.

As the kids and I unpacked our kitschy Christmas decorations again this year, I remembered our dinner in late 2013 with Shirley — our Chinese friend who picked that office name to spare English-speaking coworkers from stuttering over her birth name.

I may never know how her understanding of Christmas evolves.

Yet, a timeless mystery swirls around the nativity and all those who step into the scene, and that mystery speaks in so many ways.

This month, for instance, I better appreciated that my nativity set — a Christmas gift from my parents in the late 1990s — includes shepherd doubles.

Did Mrs. Grossinger miscount?

Or, is this set just as it should be, with extra attention given to the ones God honored first with the news of his birth?

That question, at least, will not go back into the box with other holiday trimmings at the end of this month.

Merry Christmas!

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.


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