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May 22, 2007

When Mom Has a Secret

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At our booth at the Highland Grill, Fred recommends the salmon scramble. The diner has a small-town coziness — the kind of place with Capricorn coffee mugs and daily specials written on a chalkboard.

"I always tell people she wasn't a terrorist. She was an urban guerrilla," says Emily, smearing Blistex on her lips while waiting for the waitress to return. Like her mother, Emily has long hair and pale skin — a classic beauty. Today, she's wearing a pink blouse that's peeking out from beneath a worn black leather jacket.

Along with her looks, she's inherited her mother's passion for social issues, working as a Head Start teacher with homeless 3- and 4-year-olds from a Minneapolis shelter to help them prepare for kindergarten. "It's hard," she says. "A lot of these kids don't even have coats or boots."

"Head Start has a history that goes back to the '60s," says Fred, who graduated from Harvard and did his residency at the University of Minnesota. "I'm really proud of my daughter."

Emily watches her father intently when he speaks, especially when he's talking about her mother, describing Olson's interest in theater. She sighs. "They're so dedicated to each other," she says, leaning forward in her seat so she can hear the familiar story of how he and Olson met.

It was 1976. Olson, who'd been on the lam for months, had settled in St. Paul and was working as a cook for a University of Minnesota fraternity. Fred first saw her at a garbage facility behind the apartment buildings they lived in.

"You met at a Dumpster!" says Emily, gently teasing her father. "You thought she was kind of cute."

Well, yes. And they had a lot in common. Fred had belonged to a left-wing organization, Students for a Democratic Society, and supported antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Olson was into Nikki Giovanni, a radical black writer, and, naturally, Bob Marley. "She used to read poetry and be so intense and dramatic," he says. "A little overly dramatic," says Emily.

What was it like being raised by two hippies?

"We got everything we wanted," says Emily, recalling her parents' laid-back style of discipline. "Maybe they argued some. Dad was working a lot, and then he'd come home, and she'd go to plays. They were both long-distance runners, and they'd run marathons. We'd watch and cheer."

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