Two Pairs of Keds

"One for dress, one for everyday."


That was then.

Black and the Big Toy Box

We’re being held accountable to our biases. To take a look. To think. Years after this experience, I want to sweep it under a rug. Claim it doesn’t inform how I think and how I react. And that would be a lie.

Black and the Big Toy Box at Sears

Jeri Sands [Preston] Sr Pic 1978

Alright, then. When I was in high school in the 1970s, a kid could expect to get a retail job during the holidays to put a bit of ready cash in our bank accounts, allowing us to buy family gifts and to save for college. Actually, it was almost pro forma; every one of my middle class friends were expected to do it.

And so, I happened to apply at the Jackson (MI) Sears store in Paka Plaza, as it was known at the time, for holiday employment. Many department stores converted warehouse and storage spaces into a wonderland of toys for the holidays, filled, at least early in the season, with Stretch Armstrong, and Hot Wheels, and Easy Bake Ovens, and Barbie Dream Houses. I got a job as Santa’s helper at the Big Toy Box at Sears. And on this job, I ran into Bennie.

One of the first nights I worked, he came around the corner of the Big Toy Box warehouse and I nearly jumped out of my white skin. He was the first black man I had ever encountered on my own. I’m sure that revealed my physical reaction to his nearness. I was too culturally insensitive and sheltered to hide it.

From then, on, every time we worked together, Bennie would advance on me. Make a gesture, like quickly twitching his shoulders or slightly moving his arms toward me. He would grimace and his eyes would narrow. And then, in unfeigned disgust, he would walk away. By these motions, I extrapolated that he meant me harm. I dreaded being assigned together on our Toy Box shifts.

Let’s turn back the clock one or two ticks. I had previously lived in Norwalk, OH, where I did not know one black or brown student until seventh grade. For one year, in eighth grade, I moved to Cleveland, OH, but my newly expanded cultural experience was by meeting Poles, learning from food and family gatherings of people with the last names Tomasko, Misechko, and Timko.

Jackson, however, was culturally divided by Francis Street. On my side, unbeknownst to me when I moved in ninth grade (1974), the whites lived. Cross Francis? That was the neighborhood of blacks. I had never lived anywhere like it. I saw life by spending the majority of my years in the sepia tones of rural America, but here, there was Francis Street and Stonewall Road. By my senior year, I knew you could define yourself by your proximity. 

And boy, howdy, did Bennie’s proximity scare me witless.

Bennie Williams Jr Sr Pic 1978

I never saw him there, but Bennie and I went to the same high school. Turns out at graduation, as I came sidling across the folding chairs toward the center aisle, Bennie came out from the opposite side. He caught my eye. He did a chin-up nod and cracked a smile, which made me suddenly realize he had beautiful teeth and was pretty good looking. We were walking partners to the stage.

Today, I look back at the Big Toy Box and wonder. Forty-two years ago, what would’ve happened if I had not been such a racist? What if, instead of jumping, I had smiled? Said hi? Asked about his favorite subjects at Parkside? Can you imagine going to work knowing some lily-white girl was going act like you were going to jump her, each and every time you saw each other, over the holidays? Why wouldn’t some exasperated, frustrated, harassed part of you act like you were the embodiment of her worst, inaccurate fears?

Black Lives Matter: #BLM

Growing up in white, rural Ohio, I was aware of MLK: he had a dream, but he was shot and died. When I was an adolescent in Cleveland, I heard vaguely about the Detroit riots: Black Panthers were armed and dangerous. When I lived in Jackson, MI, I knew that there was a white side of town and a black side of town. As an adult, I’ve moved across the country, from LA, to Philadelphia, to Detroit, and I thought I knew. I liked the phrase “all lives matter” because it made me feel better, more hopeful, less guilty. One day not too long ago, I repeated that phrase to a white friend and colleague. Her face – and she is one of the kindest people I know – said it all and started my education regarding racism.

For years, my kids and I have watched “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.”* To understand humanity, Claus is taken on a tour of the world to see children far and wide. In one scene, a feudal lord smacks his lips while feeding his family on the beets that were literally beaten from the hands of their serfs. The lord says to his servant, “Teach them to read! Before long, they’ll want what we’ve got. We can’t have that, can we, Jameson?” To which the retainer replies, in long British tones, “Of course not, sir.”

Of course they want what we’ve got: the ability to walk without being feared or threatened. The ability to get better jobs, live in better neighborhoods. Who wouldn’t? But if they rage against the injustice, appear threatening, make a motion, even take a knee, we quiver. Better to shut them down, we reason, for the smallest infringement in order to prevent the heinous. We do this even as we blithely excuse our white neighbors. A white person can rage against cops in a capitol building while carrying a gun. A black person? Shot, because we feel threatened. You’d think I would’ve made a more direct correlation to this Christmas show made not too long after my high school graduation, but I didn’t until I saw the video of Kimberly Jones, where she said, “And you’re lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”

There was plenty of space in the Big Toy Box at Sears even though, day after day, I jumped and jumped and jumped. There was room to walk toward a diploma together. For years, I had room to educate myself, but I didn’t. Of what was I afraid?

I fear the coronavirus, but you know what? At some point in the not-too-distant future, I believe society, especially our scientists and medical professionals, will master the testing and find a vaccination. This isn’t forever. You know what feels like forever? When people are too stubborn to look a black or brown person in the eye, to smile, to talk, to listen, and to share resources for four hundred years and counting. 400 years! Using the broadest definition of a generation, that’s 12 generations of racism in America, since we brought black people here and sold them into slavery. Not only was the ‘Toy Box’ big enough all four centuries, this country and its people are big enough. It’s time.


*1985 Rankin Bass
[The feature images is actually of a Marshall Fields store at Christmas, but it resembled the Toy Box enough for me to use it.]

A Grey Balloon and a Whole Chicken.

I’m not downplaying what’s going on right now. If you’ve been under a rock, it’s COVID-19, it’s a pandemic, it’s global, it’s in our nation, it’s in my town, and if it hasn’t arrived yet, it’s coming toward you.

No one likes this message. As a country, we were so adverse to it that we forestalled precautions which cost lives. I’m not here to blame any one person. First, China lied. Then, it swept across countries. Our administration thought the US could escape by closing its borders to incoming flights. History will tell the tale.

But there’s a here and now. And that story, which is playing out across our states and our cities, particularly across our metropolitan areas, is that we’re dying. We’re infected. We’ve been asked, by local and state officials, to “Stay in Place.”

There is so much evidence for pandemic spread that it could fill a blog post. I won’t add it here, because anyone who might be persuaded has been, already, and people who don’t want to hear it are willfully ignoring it. “It can’t happen to us. It’s not our problem. We’re small. We’ll escape. It will only impact our old and dying. We refuse to believe.”

Today, a seismic shift took place: people protested at Michigan’s capital against the perceived abuse of their rights. And this is where I cannot let the record stand without pushing back on a group of people who want to “make America great,” harkening back to some illusive period in time no one can really fingerprint.

I’m going to say that most are thinking of the “great wars to end all wars.” Or maybe something less tangible in between. Korea? Vietnam? Whatever. We’ve been “great” for so long, it’s hard to recall when we faltered, missed a stride, failed to represent everything a democracy has to offer.

But I’m going to push history down your throats, you willful deceivers of the truth and distorters of your ever-loving “constitutional rights.” We actually have been here before. It’s not the first time. It’s not the last that we will be asked to act in the best interests of our neighbors and or our nation.

Begin quote:
“In 1942, a rationing system was begun to guarantee minimum amounts of necessities to everyone (especially poor people) and prevent inflation. Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Gasoline rationing proved an even better way to allocate scarce rubber. In June 1942 the Combined Food Board was set up to coordinate the worldwide supply of food to the Allies, with special attention to flows from the U.S. and Canada to Britain. By 1943 one needed government-issued ration coupons to purchase coffee, sugar, meat, cheese, butter, lard, margarine, canned foods, dried fruits, jam, gasoline, bicycles, fuel oil, clothing, silk or nylon stockings, shoes, and many other items. Some items, like automobiles and home appliances, were no longer made. The rationing system did not apply to used goods like clothes or cars, but they became more expensive since they were not subject to price controls.

To get a classification and a book of rationing stamps, one had to appear before a local rationing board. Each person in a household received a ration book, including babies and children. When purchasing gasoline, a driver had to present a gas card along with a ration book and cash. Ration stamps were valid only for a set period to forestall hoarding. All forms of automobile racing were banned, including the Indianapolis 500 which was canceled from 1942 to 1945. Sightseeing driving was banned.”*

For my grandfather’s birthday, quite a few years ago, I collected family recollections. One was from my Uncle Roger, who recalled getting a grey balloon for his celebration during WWII. Today’s American citizen has no way to process this disappointment. I can’t think of one child of my acquaintance who would placidly accept this as their due.

Oh, but I’m not immune. Today, it took me three stores to find a whole chicken for a recipe I want to try. And was I frustrated? Yes, indeed.

Don’t look away. This happened in our country. And it is happening today. To you, who wish to live your MAGA lives, entitled and protected against anything that disappoints or diverts you from you willfulness, what are you actually DOING to prevent the spread of this disease? If you are not yet impacted, woe be unto you. This disease has no compassion, no consideration of your income, place in society, or personal feelings about who holds office. If you are in a rural area, I hope when the peak hits, your community hospitals can support you.

There has never been a time when we need to understand and appreciate our history more. And there has never been a time when we have been so overwhelmingly gaslighted against believing it.



Honestly, I don’t have enough time to provide you with the evidence you need, nor would you read it. I realize that the people who are resistant won’t read this blog. My goal of “Two Pairs of Keds” has always been to make a story-record for my children. Peace be with you.









Lost People

At some point in my 30s, I was drowning in people. I had so many people to care for, I often couldn’t remember their comings and goings, so I wrote my friends’ itineraries on my calendar: so-and-so goes here, this one has a doctor’s appointment next week (cancer), friend back from trip to (insert location) now.

At the holidays, I kept elaborate lists of gifts, shipping times, and a budget. Throughout the year I would keep my eye out for good deals on great things or small things, but I got earnest in September. If I spread the spending out, it was more a slow bleed than a hemorrhage, but everyone got their share right down to the grandparents who, I’m sure, were never surprised to receive a Christmas towel or framed picture of the kids.

At work, I coordinated over 200 volunteer positions a year. I made it my goal to know personal bits about everyone, if possible. This was a lesson I learned by my mother telling me on my wedding day that one of the guests shared our now anniversary. In the receiving line, I said to Eleanor, “And congratulations to you, too.” You’d think I’d hung a star in her name. Note to self: people need to be seen and known.

I could never make my mother happy with any number of visits. I think she would’ve planned years in advance, if I’d let her. No sooner did we put away the dishes on a family dinner, she would ask about the next moment, holiday, or trip. One year, I was packing up the car from a visit with the kids (and without Bill) where I had struggled over the long weekend with a sinus infection. To this day, the thought of sitting in an aquarium watching dolphins leap for tiny fishes through hoops dangling high in moist, humid air brings the onset of a headache. I digress.

Kids were shouting, restless with energy they would pack into the car on the drive home. I carried last pieces, all the bells and whistles necessary to divert them on the five hour drive or six with potty breaks. My mom had the snacks.

And she said, “So about the holidays…”

The holidays?? I wasn’t even out the door on a sultry Indiana day in August. The anticipation of a return six hour drive made my head pound.

I replied, “Gee. I don’t know. I need to check with Bill and his family,” helplessly shrugging my shoulders, sensing impending doom, ten bags shifting in my hands.

“But, it’s just that with our calendar, we need to plan,” she pressed.

“I don’t know, mom. Can’t it wait until I get home?” I stalled.

“Well, if it’s too hard to make plans with your own mother, I just won’t ask,” she banged the door on our conversation. But I wasn’t done.

“Mom,” I heaved, “Quit making yourself a martyr.”

Her response? She threw a three pound bag of apples at my head.

mom christmas 2012
Mom: Who taught me how to wear the hats and keep plates spinning, at the same time. I owe my calendar to you.

At home, my kids were growing up. Not only did I work with a group of over one hundred preschool through elementary kids, I tried my best to fit in band, PTO, musicals, choir, soccer, a bit of la crosse, tennis, and befriend the good parents and volunteers. There were little gift bags and notes of thanks to make, signed in childish scrawl.

Oh, and the parties. There were Christmas parties for eighty-some people, open houses that I was sure no one would attend, and within the first ten minutes I wanted to cancel, until everyone showed up and the house was rocking. There were kids’ themed birthdays right up through Anne’s junior year (Sesame Street – another story), prom photo parties, Halloween trick-or-treating. One year, I thought my Sweeting side of the family should come and look through all the old photos my grandpa had shared with me. Another, when my dad’s health took a turn, I thought it was important to have his wife’s people over. When those photo booths were popular, I made enough snow man hats and Santa beards for about fourteen people, who all smiled through an open gilded frame.

shirley christmas 2012
MIL: Shirley. The best. 

We’d get phone calls on Christmas day: “What time will you be here?” My eyes would roll. Bill’s eyes would roll. We would say to each other, “It’s like the party can’t start until the grandkids arrive.” What time should we eat? Is it okay that Uncle Jim wants to sit by the TV and watch the Lions while we’re all in the dining room? Who wants a glass of wine? Or two? Or three? Who bought Sam a siren-ringing police car, roaring fire truck, and honking long-hauler, all in one year? Can someone just turn out the lights?

And then, we lost people. A few of those school mate parents stayed around, but my job change divorced me from the life of the church. Family members moved on or passed away, one by one. Within several years, we lost three of our parents, my dad gone years before. Siblings now take care of their own grown up families.

me christmas 2012
Me. Wearing all the hats.

Our last Thanksgiving comprised the five of us and my sweet nephew.

I said to my friend Kathy, over breakfast this summer, “I have to find some people.”

Do I sound like a martyr?

I feel like one. I’m not hard-wired for this. An extroverted introvert, I get myself up for the festival, the family, the finale. I love each and every one. I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, anticipated running out of people, of losing so many loved ones who can’t be replaced.

I don’t think I’m done. I’ve been thinking about it, what it takes to bring people into your heart. To create family. To make spaces where people can reside, rest, have fun. But this summer and last, in somber retrospect, have been about facing the lost people. I miss you all more than words can say.


Photo credit: National Lampoon, “Christmas Vacation,” 1983.

No, we definitely had it worse than you.

Talking about your generation. (With apologies to The Who.)

People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation) [My Generation|The Who]
~c 1965. In which I was five years old…but I played the hell out of the song years later.

My youngest and I were discussing a recent article about the terrible burnout of the Millennial generation. Both the parents and children of this generation were led to believe things would continue an upward economic trajectory. The promise was alive: if you went to school and worked hard, you would prosper – at least as well, if not better – than the previous generation. And then 2008 struck America.

The gist of the author’s point.

They’re tired, this group. Turns out, their college costs escalated. Even though they’re one of the best educated generations, they owe enormous debt, took jobs that used to require less formal schooling, and are battling for their careers in the trenches with middle-aged people who had to restart, reset, and are frantically trying to cover retirement expenses. Move over, punk.

If it’s not enough, insult to injury means that the same old geezers who took these entry level jobs are the very folks who raised them to believe that every season of soccer participation deserved a trophy. That their inventive spelling was A-okay. That Disney stars and starlets were leading real lives. Then we handed them a mobile phone, thinking it was a safety feature while we were working dual careers, and flipped opened the world of digital unreality.

Now? Well, now, they are ‘adulting’, a verb applied to the types of transactions formerly associated with being an adult, but which do not always happen in 2018. Buying a home? Maybe not, because their student loan payments are the same as their parents’ house payments. Buying furniture? Not at Ethan Allen (my mother’s preference), sister. Maybe Ikea. Having families? Yes, but the birth rate is decreasing in the United States. They have less hope for the future, thanks to the national and global scene. In short, they are tired.

Our conversation turned.

At this point, I was ready to launch into my trek to school, uphill both ways. Ten miles. In the snow, in every season. It occurs to me, now, that this is the point of telling familial stories, of the recitation about how grandma and grandpa came to own the farm, how our great-grandparents found a way to craft a better boat.

Who the hell isn’t tired?

My generation? Oh, well, one of my earliest memories is of JFK’s funeral procession. And then Bobby Kennedy’s. And MLK’s. It’s blurry to me, through my child’s eyes, the sequence. But I can still see the war in Vietnam playing out over the TV during the dinner hour. My uncle was a pilot and I wrote a child’s letter to him, while he was…somewhere. Far. While my aunt and their four children lived at my grandpa’s farm, we waited for his letters back to us.

And the twins from around the block had an uncle who wasn’t quite right, who was home from the war. He slept on the couch. We weren’t supposed to bother him. He scared me. Nixon was impeached.

And the drugs. Everyone was worried about the Charles Manson gang, while a small book called The Electric Koolaid Acid Test was secreted about. Because, freedom, man. And free love. And Woodstock was somewhere in here, but these were all blurry, too, because we weren’t supposed to know. But a rocket landed on the moon. And again.

My dad lost his job at Plumbrook in Sandusky, OH, because nuclear power, turns out, was not something that the American public was ready to embrace. Cue China Syndrome. Goodbye, Norwalk. Hello, Cleveland. Then, one year later, Jackson, MI, which was already slightly depressed and which I hated.

There was a gas crises in high school; I can remember idling the car in a line at the Clark Station. Our nation celebrated its bicentennial. We painted fire hydrants in a show of patriotic loyalty (whose idea was that?). I graduated two years later.

Oh, but we were talking about the promise of adulting.

My version of adulting? No help applying for college. No one really cared where I went. No help with money, either. Some pocket change. My parents’ relationship was in trouble before the fall I entered college. My mom had received the equivalent of full-time expenses for her high school achievement as valedictorian in a class of 16 students, 24 years prior. She had no idea. Neither did I. I accepted WMU and off I went.

During those years, the energy crises worsened. One holiday season, President Carter asked American families not to hang electric Christmas lights outdoors, in solidarity. And they didn’t.

Hostages were held in Tehran. Not just one or two. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held 444 days, from November 1979 to December 1981, the month and year I graduated.

Jobs were still in short supply, particularly because of the poor automotive market, which tanked Michigan in particular. I moved to Los Angeles, where Bill had been transferred. I took two suitcases and two Pier One baskets tied with twine. From this point, I worked in the crazy-ass LA mortgage industry, got married, moved to Philadelphia, worked three months in accounts payable, moved to Detroit, went back into mortgage banking, and watched the whole preliminary to the mortgage banking crash by packaging jumbo loans (100K+), as real estate agents qualified just about any monkey who applied. Oh, and I was paying back my student loans.

I took every stick of furniture thrown my way. The first time my brother came to our apartment in Farmington Hills, he said, “You’ve done alright with what you had to work with.” And wasn’t that the truth?

“You’ve done alright…”

This is the T: every generation before us, and I do mean each one, sat down at the end of the day with a heavy sigh. A worry. An insecurity. A fear.

I am no historian, but one thing I do understand is the ever-present trial of mankind. Sometimes we get it right. And many times, we do not. Sometimes, we benefit from our cleverness. And other times, we suffer as fools.

PBS made An American Experience of Coney Island (1991), in which they talk about the fire that burned New York’s favorite amusement park, Luna Park, in 1944. The owner posted a sign on the fence to encourage future guests: “I have trials today I did not have yesterday. But I had problems yesterday that I do not have today.” Although the park never reopened, the indomitable spirit of hope shone through.

Who had it worse?

Possibly the worst thing we could do to our children is to leave them without a possibility of hope. The problem with the trekking-in-the-snow-uphill story is that it negates the current suffering. Oh, suffer, we will. But we will also have moments of the sublime.

You laugh. You see a sunset. You breath in. You dance. You hold hands. You taste. You love.

No more, with the self-pity. My generation definitely had it worse.

[Source: Wiki. Luna Park, 1905, “Electric Tower” in the foreground.]

. . .And faith.

You’ll have to look this up, if you want sources, but studies have shown that people of faith have more hope than those without. This may mean Christianity, but more, it understands faith in divinity and a hope for tomorrow. I’m not here to preach, but if you find yourself short on hope, you might look into faith-based cultures. I have a
C.S. Lewis book I’m willing to lend.



As time went by.

Written 4.30.18.

[Enjoy “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Fly Me to the Moon” while reading. Cheers.]

I met her lake-blond haired, sun-tanned son first. He used words like “groovy” and “out of sight” in the early 80s. Things were “killer” to him. He liked one of my favorite places, Sunshine Subs, a co-op in Kalamazoo, and played guitar like a pro. He was quick to anger, but he had a faster draw on his laugh. I never met someone who spent hilarity so freely. I thought it was a good idea to accept his invitation to their lake house for the 4th of July, family sight unseen. I sewed a new sun-shirt and bought a bottle of Blue Nun to give as a hostess gift. On the four-hour drive, I almost exploded with nervousness. Poor her, acting graciously over a crappy bottle of grocery store wine with a picture of piety on the label.

A year later, she worried about her son’s choice when I spent an afternoon in their home, calling neighbors to co-sign my student trust fund loan because my dad had moved out of state and my parent’s divorce was ugly. When my surfer dude was corporate-transferred to California after graduation, like heralding a sun disciple home, I called her to say that I really loved him and hoped that made it okay for us to live together.

I had improved my taste a bit by the time we got engaged, but taste without money is a sow’s ear. Good friends of hers planned a couple’s shower with boxed dinners from the country club. Realizing I was out of my element, I asked for the dress code. Those days, you couldn’t just Google “club casual.” I missed it by a few marks, but I learned.

In newly-wedded days, our arrival at the lake meant a bud vase on a bedside table, a freshly made bed, turned down. Cocktails were at the sunburnt hour of five o’clock. While the guys fished before dinner, we would do the Reader’s Digest vocabulary test together. I learned that you can bake spaghetti sauce for hours and talk people into staying from the aroma wafting from the kitchen on a late summer breeze.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard her set the dinner hour. It was always up to somebody else, even though she was most often the cook. We played Gin into the wee hours. Once, she convinced us to go skinny dipping in the dark and the way I remember it, she jumped off the dock first.

When her first granddaughter arrived, I had poured over a variety of parenting books including Dr. Spock, because I lacked any real experience with babies and have always believed in the written word. We were gutting our way through a dinner on the sun porch while letting Child #1 cry her brains out (from the “don’t give in to their temper, parents” advice). She listened more and more fretfully, like waves churning up in the wind, until she put down her utensils and said, “In my day, we didn’t let them cry like that.” I thought I would sob with relief that I could give in and go.

Until her grandchildren were grown, she would go up and say goodnight to each, initially because that first, ruler-of-the-world grandchild would queenly say, “Send grandma up.” The lake house holds sets of Mickey Mouse Golden Books and Beatrix Potter board books that were read one thousand times. We still played Gin until the wee hours. I would get to sleep in while grandchildren crawled into her bed as the sun came up over the lake. She let pancake batter get beaten by small, eager hands to the point it would not rise, frying “calm pancakes” every morning.

Her taste in kids’ clothing was perfect: motifs of sail boats and bunny rabbits, tartan plaids, even a kilt and matching sporran-purse brought back from Scotland. She and her husband were like Santa Claus on adrenaline, buying red fire trucks, rescue vehicles with flashing lights, American Girls dolls and accessories like they were an investment. One birthday, they brought my three-year-old son a Power Wheels Jeep. We have a video of her laughing while I’m yelling, “Don’t run over the bushes.”

I passed some sort of “keeper” test when I was given the real family recipe for her world-famous cheeseball. She had fobbed off some fake version a few years before, claiming she couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t work.

She knows I hate bugs, but I will still save their lives. I know she loves to have her hair brushed and her feet rubbed. She has the most beautiful skin and tans without wrinkling, even though I have never had a good tan to save my life. We both love setting a nice table. A winter or so ago, when her house lost power, she came to our heated one and we immediately went to Home Goods, a trip from which I have twelve linen napkins.

I think she should be listening to Frank in heaven; she could play the same damned CD all summer in her convertible, driving up and down M-22. I was the first person to get her to put her top down in the Sebring, but I could never teach her how to use the Bluetooth in her Lincoln. Up until a few weeks ago, I was still trying to get her to gently touch her iPad screen, instead of poking at it. I don’t think I ever saw her use a camera properly, even though she always blamed it on the technology. She threw away more directions than I have ever read, usually along with the gift wrapping.

She ruthlessly grubbed around her garden with dirty fingers, never gloves, and her flowers thrived and thrived, especially coral geraniums. This is possibly why my garden always looked stingy next to hers, as I stubbornly hold on to hand coverings and garden tools.

Her signature clothing color was a cross between sky and aqua blue, the same color as the frigid lake as I drove away. We said goodbye. We are each the best thing ever, best mother-in-law and best daughter-in-law, practically “Perfect,” which is the way she addressed my cards.

She’s seen angels, friends, family, husband, and old boyfriend, lined up in heaven. They’ve all told her it’s a “good time up there,” and so she wants to go, because she’s one of the most social people I’ve ever met and the first to enjoy a party. I hope it’s a doozie. I’ll be up, by and by, for a hand of Gin and a glass of wine, which she will hold like it’s about to spill, but it never does.


How many words are in a child’s goodbye?

In two days, we fly to Florida and say goodbye to my mom. I’ve known for a long while that there was no getting better for her. In my less selfish moments, I wish for her peace. There’s a little girl inside, though, who’s raging.

Both my parents will have entered life eternal without their full cognitive ability. This makes saying the words harder. I’ve decided to make a list of memories to read to her, because hospice says, though she may be resting in the drugs, she can hear. How many words will this little girl say?


Mom, I remember coloring with you on the swing set. You always outlined your figures in black, which made them look professional to a four-year-old.

You wore a headscarf and tin foil when you laid out in the sun.

You bought me two pairs of Keds every summer; one for dress and one for everyday. There’s a couple of pair in my closet right now.

You made me take dance lessons, because I was tall and you thought I would have bad posture. You were probably right. I walk straight and tall, so thank you.

You planned our vacations with fun and learning. I never plan a trip without a museum visit.

You packed our pop-up camper like a pro. On the trip to Arizona, you used the mattresses as a clothes press for each of us. Brilliant.

You loved teaching. Me, too.

You have an eye for detail. Some would call it “perfectionistic.” Okay, many would. And do. You passed this on to me, for better or worse.

You made the most beautiful presents, when I was little. You said that you and dad would stay up late before Christmas to make the packages wondrous. This lives on every holiday.

You sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. I sat pressed up against you in the pew at church and grimaced at your voice. I also sang every verse to my first colicky baby, as I walked up and down the driveway.

You took care of your mother, after she was an invalid and couldn’t marshal a farm house any longer. You never really talked about it. I believe in acts of service and I don’t believe in talking about them.

You were an amazing seamstress. You made me join 4-H for Home Economics and Sewing. I can sew a straight seam. I rip out my mistakes.

You told me I had a genius IQ. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. But I believed you.

You let me read anything I wanted. I read The Exorcist, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Love Story in fifth grade. I asked you what “sonovabitch” was and you told me. You gave me your childhood books, written in the vernacular from the 1930’s: Pollyanna, Heidi, and Girls of Silver Spur Ranch. This may be the greatest gift you gave me.

You were on the Altar Guild. When you are small and next to a shining, wooden communion table draped with starched lace, you are next to God.

You told me anything worth doing is worth doing well. This is your second greatest gift.

You played volleyball like a mad woman. Your pinky is crooked because of this.

You made dad paint the house on Woodlawn in three different color combinations, until you found the right one.

The only “dirty” joke you told made you laugh like a teenager. I was a teenager, at the time, and rolled my eyes. But I remember it: “Have you ever smelled moth balls?” (Yes.) “What did you do? Spread his little legs?”

We drove to Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor to do our most sophisticated shopping. And then we went to the Gandy Dancer, every time. I look at the Gandy Dancer now and think, “Wow. Why didn’t I realize this was so special?” Teenagers are a special brand of clueless.

You went all out on the holidays. We lived modestly, except for Christmas. Christmas was a wonderland. Dave and I have many differing memories of childhood, but we both remember the one with desks, bikes, a toboggan, and every toy we picked out at the Big Toy Box at Sears.

I knew something was wrong by the time I was in high school, but I thought it was fixable by a new location. Our moves to Cleveland and Jackson went okay. So I made you and dad look at different houses, because I thought it would change things. I talked to realtors on the phone. And you let me. It didn’t stop the divorce. You let me deal with it my own way. When the time came, I fought it less. I knew.

Shoe shopping with you was a free-for-all. If you found your size (at that store in Sandusky), you bought them all. I can still see gold brocade slippers on your feet, and four or five 11 AAA shoe boxes stacked up, ready to go home. Ah, shoes.

You made me weed in the garden.

You made sure I had a piano when we moved to Cleveland. It saved me. And again, when I moved to Jackson. I don’t play now, but I imagine it could save me, still.

You were about 35, I think, at the time I remember you visiting with all our elderly neighbors in Norwalk. My next door neighbor, Carol, who is 81, is on her way over this evening.

Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup, Nabisco Saltines, and 7-Up: your cure for the common cold.

You went back to school to learn the computer, so that you would qualify for a better job later in life. I am finishing my MA.

You ironed every little thing in your wardrobe when you were getting a divorce. All my cloth napkins are ironed and ready for service, stored in vintage picnic baskets.

In the days when Beaver Cleaver was the norm, you were a pretty damned good cook. I have a vintage cookbook collection of recipes from this time. The dishes I know how to cook from memory are yours (or Bill’s mom’s). I remember you were in a ‘Dinners for Eight’ group in the 1970’s and you made – tres exotique! – pepper steak.  There are no words to express caramel bananas, only feels.

You were before your time: you signed us up for a food co-op, so that we could eat cheese without coloring and other “whole foods.” This was somewhere in my high school memories, but the current organic movement has nothing on you.

I can still feel the summer wind on my face as we drove back from Holiday Lakes, sun-burned, ready for a treatment of Sea-Breeze, and happy.

“Bright, and bold, and ten feet tall is how I feel today. A sunflower towers above every flower and brightens the fields as she plays.” Script from a Mother’s Day performance at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Norwalk…around 1968.

Bowling at Cedar Lanes in Sandusky was a guilty pleasure. You and dad bowled. Dave and I ran around with the other kids like banshees. Didn’t you notice? I think every single employee hated our Band of Brothers. We knocked down signs. We shrieked. We terrorized the hotel pool. And afterwards, we had Tin Roof Sundaes. Bliss.

You made us take swimming lessons at the city pool. Was this for self-preservation? Or your sanity? At any rate, I ended up getting my Red Cross Life Guard certificate.

You also signed me up for tennis lessons in Cleveland through the National Junior Tennis League. Another life saver. Keep your racket back and swing level.

At an Easter Egg Hunt at the Norwalk Reservoir, in one moment I had the most eggs in my basket then, after a trip, I had the least. Eggs spilled all over the grass, competitors swooped in and got them, and I was left with nothing. This was the last group egg hunt I recall. Thanks.

You helped my Girl Scout troop go to Washington DC, when I was just out of elementary school. What were you thinking? Today, the security arrangements would fell a horse. I recently saw the article I wrote for the Norwalk Reflector and smiled.

Perms. Oh, my god, mom. My straight hair has always been the bane of my existence. To this day, I have no idea what to do with it. But I am not getting a Toni.

If Dad was the “party” in my childhood, you were the rock. I can honestly say, I seem to have decided to be the rock, in honor of you. It’s fun to be around the party crowd, but at the end of the day…at the end of a life…the rock is where it’s at. “All men are like grass. And all their glory, like the flowers of the field, withers. And the flowers fall.” (I Peter 1:24)

My inner child knows this…












Your Treasure Buried

Tempted to Tarry.

The mountain rumbles.

You can feel it. Beneath your feet. In your chest. As you extend the awning over your courtyard.

A change. There is something cataclysmic under the surface.

Should you move? Take cover? Go to higher ground? Maybe you should visit a distant relative, whether the journey bodes pleasant or not?

The mountain coughs. Spews smoke.

Your children are playing in the street, some sort of ball with changing rules and shouts of laughter. Pull them from the game?

Business is being conducted. The magistrate’s marble hangs importantly over the lintel. Surely, if the village required shelter, he would sound the call?

FullSizeRender (1)A few tiles fall from a roof across the corsia. Shoddy workmanship? No, for the earth moves.

There is a moment, that paralyzing space that comprises fractions of seconds, where you realize that choices are few. What to take? What to leave? To whom do you call?

Pompeii in Ashes.

I have always had a fascination with the visceral story of Pompeii. That fleeting moment where decisions are made to leave, to flee, to stay, to ride it out, captures me. My breath is suspended. What would I have done? What would I do?IMG_2785

I am a terrible material creature. I like my things. I collect. My children know that there are separate collections of holiday decorations, china and dishes, art, and ephemera. By its very definition, ephemera is not meant to last. Why hold on?

Families, time immemorial, have saved the remainders of clans, tribes. We dig for reminders. We crave connection. We want to know that we have and do belong. We wish to leave, for posterity, that which we could not take with us.

Your treasure buried.

Today, I saw the buried treasure of the city of Pompeii. Certainly, there were surviving urns from trade vessels. Marbles and cement, statues, busts, lamps, urns. Wine casks. Pieces of floor and of frieze. Signs, like the one chiseled by a mother to her son upon his death. And IMG_2777amazingly fragile glass. How, precious flask, did you survive twenty-eight feet of ash?

And gold jewelry, the adornment of adults and of children. Was it not so hot that a child’s bracelet would melt? Or was it meant, historically, to be left behind?

I ask myself, what would I take, were I on the run, fleeing for my life? Today’s Syrian refugee experience requires the same question and response. And what, if I knew that my household life would be embalmed for all time, would I wish to be buried?


Thanks to the Kelsey Museum, at the University of Michigan, for its free exhibit. 

Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii
February 19–May 15, 2016




Idealist: a swear word?

The other night, in my graduate class on philanthropy and development, I was called “an idealist.”


We were talking about what philanthropy entails. Is it okay to be a philanthropist and use your money as leverage? An example: Andrew Carnegie (I’m sending you to an NPR article* for more information) leveraged his money to spread libraries across America.


He believed that reading–the ability to read and access to reading materials–would lift Americans out of poverty and increase American prosperity. It had worked for him, you see. As a child raised in poverty, he read each and everything on which he could place his hands. He attributed reading with his own success.
When he proposed his offer of libraries to communities, he agreed to provide the mortar and brick to build the structure, but communities would have to show strategic proof that they would staff, heat, light, care for, and keep the library in working order. His money was leveraged in this way.
This is the defining difference between charity and philanthropy. Charity alleviates. Philanthropy seeks solutions.
I said that, in thinking about the money that our class will give away (we are a part of and have been gifted $25K to distribute according to our agreement), I felt a responsibility.
Is it really enough to give money, if you’re not directly involved, to the extent that your circumstances allow? Is it okay for me to believe that students need tutoring resources outside public school venues, provide money, but not offer to tutor?I certainly have the resources to tutor. Is money enough, if I want the game to change?



And so, I was called an idealist.

I called my oldest daughter on the way home to see if she agreed, or how she felt about having a mom that was an idealist. I told her I was considering whether or not I was going to own it. She did not seem shocked or concerned.

I also had to look it up. I thought that it meant considering ideals as a norm: one has ideals and one lives up to them (or tries). As a pragmatist is pragmatic, a pessimist is pessimistic, and idealist would be working toward ideals.

Surprisingly, the first thing that popped up was not a definition, but a website called IndeedJobs/Idealist ( Next was a group entitled Action Without Borders (, which claims to show 100,000 volunteer positions for idealists, like me.

I had no idea. (Apparently, I just have ideals, not ideas.) There must be many of us. Legion.

When I finally got to, I was slightly surprised. (See the entire definition, below). Being an idealist is not as laudatory as it sounds. “Impractical”? “Seeing things as they should be, rather than they are”? Sounds like fighting words to me.

I decided I liked it, right then and there.

It also said “a writer who treats subjects imaginatively.” Okay. Although, why this is a trait of an idealist, I’m not certain. Are pessimists not also imaginative?

I’m not sure how the attribute was meant, but I’m going to keep it. I would like to see the world as it could be, not as it is, currently. If you’d like to call yourself an idealist, you can join me.


Carnegie Library
Carnegie Library

Wynchwood Branch Library
Wynchwood Branch Library


*There’s an audio version of the NPR Carnegie Library story. You might enjoy a listen (from 2013).

a person who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles, purposes, goals, etc.

Antonyms: pragmatist, skeptic, cynic.

a visionary or impractical person.

Antonyms: realist, materialist.

a person who represents things as they might or should be rather than as they are:

My friend is an idealist, who somehow thinks that we always agree.

a writer or artist who treats subjects imaginatively.

a person who accepts the doctrines of philosophical idealism, as by representing things in an ideal form, or as they might or should be rather than as they are.

Happy at Halloween

Happy at Halloween.

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