The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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March 28, 2013

Yogurt for Tess: Saying goodbye to a sidewalk speech teacher

I knew Tess’ time would come some day.

I just didn’t know I wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the simply dressed and sweetly smiling old woman who greeted passersby on Second Street near Veterans Memorial Bridge.

For the year that Tess was included on the CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour, she became a fixture in my daily routine.

You see, my son has a chromosome disorder that, among other afflictions, has prompted a rather mysterious speech delay that has persisted since he was a baby. Now at 5 years old and on the cusp of kindergarten, he has developed a rather complex system of words, word approximations and sign language to communicate.

Over the years, I’ve (often painfully) watched my boy struggle to be understood by his peers and adults, his thoughts and emotions locked behind a tongue that seems physically unable to form the speech he craves. Though doctors have been so far unable to explain the exact cause or nature of the delay, and though four years of intervention services have been unable to pinpoint a therapeutic cure, he remains blessed with an insatiable appetite for social interaction and a bottomless reserve of curiosity.

Which makes him a terrific, if challenging, conversation partner.

In order to continually hone and develop his speech skills, we talk all the time — about everything. If you’ve ever pulled up next to us at a stop light, we’ve probably talked about you, placing nickel bets on whether you’d pick your nose and speculating as to what kind of music you’re listening to.

But whenever we crossed the Veterans Memorial Bridge, heading south on Second Street, our conversations often turned to Tess.

We heaped playful invective on the rotten vandals who stole her chaffs of wheat last summer. Then in the frozen, saturnine afternoons of January, we wondered if the jacketless woman was shivering from the same cold that forced us to turn the heater all the way up in the cab of my truck as we motored toward preschool and daycare.

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