ON BEING A TOLLEFSON

I was born a Tollefson. I love my last name. I’m proud of it. In a few months I’ll have a new last name, and it’s been weighing on me to pen an ode to the incredible one I’ve signed and owned for nearly three decades.

I was born to young parents who had five kids after me. They’ve been married and making each other laugh for 31 years, and I got to be there for almost all of it. I was there for the dance parties in my dad’s old office when he stopped working to play “Barracuda” on the guitar while my brother and I ran around his swivel chair, after which we’d play “kitchen” in the basement with plastic food he found sub-par and told us so. I was there for the almost nightly games of monkey-in-the-middle, socks, and indoor wiffle ball, Tollefson Original Games played with wicker furniture pillows, dad’s rolled up tube socks, and broken picture frames all over the family room.

I was there when my dad stayed up all night trying to figure out how to feed all these people, when he started selling softball pants out of our garage, when my brother scolded me daily for folding inventory incorrectly. I was there that time we almost got kicked out of Olive Garden because we couldn’t stop snort-laughing at my then-toddler sister during a special dinner outing while dad was traveling for work. I was there when my mom, the most selfless person I know, nursed my baby brother while she taught me how to drive a car. I was there when dad got a warehouse with a cot for his budding business, and there were two little boys in our house who needed attention and diaper changes.

When I was 12 years old, I decided the universe was really cool, and becoming an astronomer was a dream worth working toward for a kid who hated math. My dad bought me a telescope and a book on string theory. Around the same time, I discovered how awful junior high kids could be, and I made a best friend in my mom. Almost 20 years later, I still have the same best friend. Neither of them ever stopped believing in me.

I got to watch these amazing parents provide for and love on their kids, no matter what it took. I got to watch a family get built. I got to be a part of the building.

My family is a team. We’ve cheered each other on while my dad created businesses and won state high school basketball championships, while my mom took exceptional care of my wonderful, diabetic little brother, while we kids figured out our futures. We’ve picked each other up. My dad was flying back to Chicago when I got my fourth and final graduate school rejection letter. He drove to Rogers Park, bought me Italian food, made me order a glass of wine, and strongly encouraged me to focus hard enough to stop crying in a public place. “Keep moving forward,” he said, “God can only steer a moving car.” It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given. Every time a Tollefson sibling graduates from high school, I write them a letter, telling them the exact same thing.

Dad was right. Things worked out, not in small part because I have parents who love each other and love me. Things worked out so well that a job, one that before I got I’d only ever dreamed of, put me at a meeting in Chicago the day I got a text message letting me know the man I’d marry one day happened to be home too, and I should come hang out this weekend. Things worked out so well that I get to know a love like the one my parents share. Things worked out so well that I’m adding a new last name in a few months.

A few years ago the polar vortex hit northern Illinois, and the eight Tollefsons were left without power in sub-zero temperatures buried under three feet of snow. It was just us. My dad put on several pullovers, all produced by that company he started in our garage more than a decade ago, and trekked outside just to find out that the gas in the generator had frozen. He came inside and read us the Christmas story while my mom and I, now worried that we were going to freeze here with our firewood supply running low, ceremoniously un-decorated and burned the Christmas tree. I cuddled up with my youngest brother on the couch by the fireplace, both of us wearing two winter coats and wrapped in several blankets. Everyone else found a buddy and did the same. It was just us, quintessentially us. It’s one of those memories that reminds me what I am as a Tollefson, what this last name means, and to whom it binds me.

Planning the party to celebrate this new love has gotten me thinking so much about the love I’ve known so long. It’s a love I learned from this family, this team. It’s been through tough financial stuff and disappointment and loss and joy and wonderful, stomach-cramping, delicious laughter we Tollefsons revel in, especially when my youngest brother is on his game.

Most of what I learned about love and life I learned from the Tollefsons. I learned that love is patient and others-serving. I learned that family means relying on someone when you’re having a meltdown about your future, and then being there for someone else when she can’t decide what she wants to be when she grows up. It means moving away and getting homesick and staying up talking with your mom until the wee hours of the morning. It means coming to fight for anyone on the team. It means holding kids while they grow up and make you proud, and make you laugh.

I learned that family shapes your life, makes you who you are. It’s an identity and they are lessons I’ll take with gratitude into this new season of family-building. This is a pride that, whenever I’m asked whose family I belong to, will make me stand up and say, “I’m a Tollefson.” I always will be.

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