The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 28, 2013

Yogurt for Tess: Saying goodbye to a sidewalk speech teacher

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

— 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.

We talked about what might be in the basket that was saddled so carefully on her forearm. Unimpressed with the notion that she might be carrying only eggs, my son rattled off a more inventive list that included tools, toy race cars and yogurt. (Who wouldn’t carry yogurt in a basket, if they could?)

We even walked by a few times. The last time was when my boy accompanied me to the office for a few hours on a Sunday. As we neared the bridge and the familiar stretch of North Second Street that would lead us home, I asked if he wanted to stop and say hi.

“Yeaaaah!” he squealed in that delightful toddler’s timbre that reminds adults of simpler pleasures.

When we pulled the truck over to the opposite curb, he raced across the street oblivious to traffic and waved “Hey!”

Upon the introduction, my little man promptly peered into the basket and asked with no small measure of exasperation:

“Gaga? Unh-unh yoke-gook?”

(Translation: Dad? No yogurt?”)

But Tess is gone now. She disappeared over the weekend, off to adorn another sidewalk, I suppose, in another town.

Maybe she’ll be eased instead onto a pedestal in some public park near Youngstown, N.Y. where her creator, Susan Geissler, keeps a studio and could occasionally drop some flowers, or turnip bulbs, or potatoes into the basket fixed to her arm. Or, perhaps Tess’ll be retired into an art gallery or museum where she’ll spend her days transfixed in some eternal errand.

Whatever her fate, we won’t forget her. I only wish she’d have left a forwarding address.

I’d like to know where to send a thank-you card and some yogurt.