A letter to my grandpa and other fathers of the fatherless.

Know that you simply cannot ever know how much you’re doing just by being around.

We almost bit it, right there on a Minnesota gravel road.

My grandpa had taken me out for a summer afternoon ride on his motorcycle, a Honda, and it had been a wonderful excursion of warm, sunny freedom. I enjoyed the wind rushing past me, how strangely heavy my head felt on top of my neck with the helmet around it, and feeling like one mass moving in unison: me, my grandpa, and the motorcycle.

I was 12, and I’d been going for motorcycle rides with him since I was little, at first in sidecars, and later on (I don’t remember the exact age), on the actual bike. It was always a little scary, but I’d beaten back thoughts of trepidation many times, and nothing bad had ever come of those rides.


I don’t think we were headed anywhere in particular that day. We were just enjoying being alive.

But something happened on the gravel road. I still don’t know what it was. It wasn’t a curve in the road or anything jumping out in front of us, but something just gave way in the dusty gravel beneath the tires and the bike got all swervy. It tilted for just a second or two, and then grandpa got it under control again. We were fine. We were alive.

But I think it scared him more than he let on. We took the truck everywhere for the next couple of weeks.

We were spending the summer together in Backus, Minnesota, that year.

We lived in southeastern Wisconsin  —  he and my grandmother, a few of my youngest aunts, and my little cousin  — in the house he built while he worked at American Motors. But he was retired by that summer, and he liked to go up to his little plot of land in Minnesota from time to time to get away.


My grandpa.

During this particular summer, my grandma put my aunt in the driver’s seat of her trusty car, packed me and my little cousin and my two other aunts in with her, and sent us off to surprise my grandpa in Minnesota during his alone time. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure she thought he had a woman on the side and wanted us to either catch him at something and report back or just throw a wrench in his enjoyment.

We didn’t catch him at anything. We got there, and he was surprised but happy to see us. We all stayed in the trailer he had on the little plot of land. We tucked away in various bedrooms and sleeper sofas, and we spent a week there with him.

I was having so much fun that when the week was up, I didn’t want to go home with my aunts and cousin. If we’d cramped his style at all, he certainly set it aside because he had no qualms about me staying there with him for the rest of the summer.

It’s an amazing feeling, to be welcomed as part of someone’s “alone” time.

For someone you really like being around to basically say, “I can have you around and still be alone.”

To this day, I still feel like that’s the best kind of companionship (and it’s the same kind I enjoy with my kids, too).

We played cribbage and war at a round maple table in the trailer kitchen that summer, a table sometimes covered with crumbs from saltines or ashes from his cigarettes.

I’d pull ticks out of the dog and we’d snuff them out in the ashtray. We went fishing at 5 a.m. on Pine Mountain Lake, with a thermos of black coffee that we shared and canned meat spread that we’d eat on crackers.

We’d bring home what we caught, clean it, fillet it, and pan-fry it for dinner. We’d visit his relatives on a farm and do farm work. I shingled the farmhouse roof with a new cousin I’d met that summer. I learned to shoot a rifle.

We visited his friend who ran an oat-processing facility, and I got to see how whole oats were delivered, and the process they went through to be turned into rolled oats.

He took me, on his motorcycle, to a Chippewa powwow in Hackensack, where I was welcomed to dance. We went to tiny diners in little towns where he knew the locals, and I’d eat delicious, greasy bacon cheeseburgers. Sometimes we’d just sit around and do our own things and not talk much at all. I liked to read, and my grandpa liked to think.

I didn’t have a dad growing up. In some ways, I didn’t have a mom, either.

Lucky for me, my grandparents really stepped in, and my grandpa was the closest thing to a dad I ever had. He was a farm boy from Minnesota who fought in the Korean War, survived, and settled in Wisconsin to work for American Motors, marry my grandma, and have seven kids.

He wasn’t highfalutin, but like I said, he liked to think. He liked to enjoy the quiet and be alone with his thoughts, and that’s something I picked up from him. He was, at his core, a planner and a philosopher. If he was a feminist, he never expressed it, but the manner in which he treated me implied the utmost faith in my versatility and competence as a human being, and I was never coddled, condescended to, or counted out.

I lost my little brother that summer to cancer. That might be the real reason I was sent to Minnesota to stay with grandpa: to keep me even further from the last weeks of the illness.

A couple of years later, I lost my grandma, too. I would have my grandpa for another decade after grandma died, until I was 25.

He’d been sick with emphysema and a broken hip during his last few years, and the doctors didn’t think he would make it out of the hospital alive that time. But he did, and I knew I’d been granted a chance to spend as much time as I could with him.

I’d been so busy before that with two small children, college, and work. But I resolved to find or make time however I could. I visited him on my lunch breaks nearly every day. I brought him his favorite catfish on Fridays. He wanted to quit smoking, something he’d done since he was 10 years old on his farm, and everyone in our family thought he was nuts. “What is the point?” “It won’t help your emphysema at this stage.” “That just seems like a lot of agony for nothing.”

But I understood. Sometimes I felt like I understood my grandpa better than anyone because of all the time we’d spent together. I understood that he knew it wouldn’t help, but he just needed to know that he wasn’t beholden to anything, that he was going out of this world his own man, addicted to nothing.

When I lost my grandpa, it was different than when I’d lost my brother and grandma.

I was so young when those deaths happened. But with my grandpa, I was old enough to know exactly what he’d meant to me and exactly what I was losing. I knew exactly how shaped I’d been by my time with him, and the grief was overwhelming and consuming.

I know now, 10 years after he died, that I was lucky to get to experience that agony and loss, because the alternative would have been having no one to lose.

I may not have had a father, but I had this man — my scrappy, minimalist, freewheeling-yet-planning-ahead grandfather who wanted me around and had confidence in me as a person.

I’m not sure I got a raw deal without a father at all. In fact, I think for me, it went the very best way it could have.

I’m a strong, accomplished woman, a wise mother, a person who thinks she can do lofty things just because she has decided to, and a thinker, a planner. I have never let anyone or anything entrap me or keep me stuck in a phase I don’t want to be in. I stand on my own two feet, and I’ve made a life for myself with these two hands.

Grandpa Loran: Without all the cues about who I am that I got from you, I don’t know that these things would be true today.

For those who are fathers to a person who doesn’t have one — whether you’re a stepdad, an uncle, a grandpa, an older brother, or a family friend — know that you simply cannot ever know how much you’re doing just by being around.

By saying: “I like having you around. You’re good company, and I much prefer having your help to doing these tasks on my own,” you're making a world of difference. It doesn’t take anything fancy, but it really does mean the world to the kid you’re sharing your time with.

Happy Father’s Day, all.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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