by Michelle Leon • I pulled up in my blue Honda SUV. “New Orleans, Proud To Call It Home” read the bumper sticker. I had just arrived at my new house—the house I bought without ever seeing. In my life, at that moment, that decision made perfect sense. It was a time when things much more unthinkable than buying a house without ever seeing it in person made perfect sense too. An unthinkable world had been my reality for the last year: New Orleans AFTER. I was gone eight years and was just now returning to Minnesota, where I had grown up. I had left all those years ago, a dreamy young bride, all velvet and chenille, and returned, a shell-shocked divorcée, all knowing smirk and wise sage. I scraped off my bumper sticker two days later—that was one of the hardest moments, really. I really had been proud to call New Orleans my home.
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I could tell the neighbors had been anticipating my arrival. The house had been vacant for over a year. Later they would come around with brownies and bottles of wine—for real. Welcome to Swede Hollow! And, there she was—my little hot dogger. She is a Victorian dating back to 1887, painted dusty rose, with mossy green and sunshine-yellow trim. The minute I saw her picture at 3 a.m. on realtor.com, I knew she had to be mine. She had a rusty iron gate with little bells hanging off the bottom. Hundreds of lilies of the valley come up in the spring and now I have a mailman—Mr. Mailman, I call him! The mail, it comes everyday. We didn’t have that in New Orleans.
Swede Hollow—the very name sounds sweet, like the kind of place where strudels cool on white Victorian windowsills and blue birds land on your finger tips in the morn. I heard tell of the olden days here. The scratchy black-and-white movie that plays reel to reel in my mind tells the tale of shanty shacks with tin roofs and children running round in lederhosen (did Swedes wear those?) crossing wooden bridges over streams. Neighbors talked to neighbors and sang songs together while stars shone brightly over the valley. Front porches doubled as living rooms on hot summer days and in the wintertime smoke billowed out of brick chimneys as old folks huddled under scratchy gray blankets in their johnnies during the long nights.
The truth is that this place was not so ideal. In fact, all the homes were burned down in the 1950s because of inhumane living conditions and pollution in the nearby stream. It was home to poverty-stricken immigrants who worked hard manual labor until their hands were raw and their bodies exhausted. From this view in the valley, the onetime residents looked up to the opulent Victorian homes on the bluff as a reminder of a faraway dream.
Okay, I’ll admit it: in the past, winter and I, we have had our differences. Now it was time to make friends. It really was the only way this all was going work out, the whole coming home thing. My friend Hayley told me that the only way I was ever going to find peace with grumpy ole man winter was to get out and walk with him. Walk. Walk outside in the snow. So we did. We put on vintage Dr. Zhivago hats and coats and we went—two little Laras. It was –5° and we headed down into the hollow. Dried cattails, sumac, and milkweeds pushed brittlely out of soft white snow. The trees were covered with glassy white icicles. It was quiet—shivery white quiet. We turned a corner and saw green and gray mallards gliding on an icy pond with silvery steam rising. It was at that moment that I knew everything was going to be all right.