Two Pairs of Keds

"One for dress, one for everyday."


That was then.

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.

Happy at Halloween

It’s a widely known fact, at least between my family and friends, that I love getting ready for the holidays. It could be a childhood thing. We had some good ones: ones that took us back to the farm, into the arms of family, filled with food and faith.

It doesn’t really explain, though, why I love to decorate for them.halloween 006 People do, I know, but most of theirs appear sweet and bright and sparkley. My collection seems a little macabre, a little dark, a little creepy for little kids.

For quite a few years I was a Quester, so I was surrounded by members’ vintage and antique pieces. Some are lovely enough to make you weep, true art within the collectors’ homes: old candy containers and Belsnickles from Germany, paper ornaments from Beistel, celluloid statues. Except for a few pieces in moderate condition, I could not enter the market.

halloween 009But even before that, and certainly after, I’ve continued to assemble collections of Halloween and Christmas that are slightly vintage, slightly primitive, and a whole lot haunting. Oh, I have Easter, too, but it’s a lighter, springtime affair that tends away from the stories of haunting, of want, of characters that frighten, like ghosties and jack-o-lanterns and an old man who sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake.

Likely, my vivid imagination has allowed me to develop a world where past legends and lore collide with colonial decor.halloween 002 I love to read about Victorian holiday traditions, to picture children carrying carved turnips and gourds in an era when science hadn’t explained away the bogey-man and left something more terrifying – truly evil people – in his place.

No small thing, I also like that Halloween exists for candy and for children, and for celebrating the harvest after the bounty of summer. One is not required to assemble one’s family, buy gifts, then frenetically entertain. halloween 023On Halloween night, as the sky deepens into purple, then black, in the brisk chill evening air, we light our porches and encourage mini ghouls and goblins up for treats. It’s magic.

If you try, you can feel an arm reaching out from the past, through the  murky shadows, grasping hold, connecting us.  I’m happy at Halloween.


Shots of our house. My kids like it best at this season.

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halloween 022
One cat that doesn’t scare Katie.


halloween 031


If I were a kicker, right now, I would be wetting my pants. Or, at least, hyperventilating.

Heaven knows, while I watched my husband plow through the front line of his second Masters degree, I hadn’t much sympathy. We were up against a wall; his career field had become as empty as the losing team’s locker room, a fact that was confirmed by MESC research. “Retooling,” a word imagined by spin geniuses, was mandatory.

I watched him in his huge green chair, nicknamed “World Headquarters,” as he studied, attending EMU as one of 13 full-time students in the MSW Class of 2012. He kicked ass, but I fully expected it of him. Am I not a loyal wife?

If you don’t know me well, you don’t know what a college education means to me. I am the first child on my father’s side to complete college. Neither of my parents finished, although my mom’s brothers graduated and I count them among the most intelligent men I know.

When I applied for school, my parents were barely married anymore. No one helped me. There were no trips to see the campus, no promises of a fun-filled college career, and no possible way I was traveling anywhere abroad.  I applied for a student trust fund for ‘gifted’ students through a local bank via essay application and interview, and landed it. Armed with money (at a 1% interest rate – why does no one offer these to today’s students? ), I headed off to school.

College wasn’t a star player’s camera shoot for me. I started with a 3.8 GPA. My dad moved out of state, got married without my brother and I in attendance, and never looked back. I filled that hole in my life with marijuana, partying, and a “who the hell cares” attitude.

Except, I did. About three semesters into my “devil take the hindmost” living, I found it did not fit. It was uncomfortable, chafing around the neckline and strangling my love of learning. I buckled down.

When my trust fund bank found out my dad was out of state, they required another friend or family member in state to co-sign my loan. Lacking one family member in Michigan, I called all my neighbors from a phone in my then boyfriend’s, now husband’s, parents’ bedroom and begged prettily.

Dick  and Francis Swing took a deep breath and agreed. I was never late on my loan repayment, not once, even when I was so broke I ate rice, baked potatoes, and rice, in appreciation for their faith.

I graduated in three and a half years. It was hell. I had no money. My freshman year, after my dad left, I had left (symbolically?) a bag of pot in my mom’s car during the rebellion and she cut me off from even an occasional five dollar bill in the mail, not that she had many to throw around following the divorce.

My final semester, I had precariously balanced my limited funds and had come up $100 short. I called my dad – I never had received a dime from him, up  until this point – and asked for a graduation gift. He agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

And you’ll never guess what happened.

It got lost. No, it’s true. But he didn’t believe it and he wouldn’t send me a new check for several weeks. I called my grandpa. I asked for $100 that I promised I would repay as soon as possible. He was not much for lending, but he did it.

In the meantime, checks were bouncing right and left, as I had paid bills in anticipation of this (now) meager amount. NSF funds almost did me in. I cried almost every day, the last semester of my college career, until the money hit my account.

Just before graduation in December, my dad’s check arrived in a plastic bag from the US Post Office. “So sorry. Machine malfunction.” No recourse.

Even my husband, whom I love and support with my life, was encouraged in his undergraduate career. When he graduated, he got a new car. God! Like a game show. I would’ve sold my soul for that kind of support. Because the economy at the time was fragile, his parents enabled him to return for an MBA. I’m not sure he even wanted it, although he had his own demons and wanted to do the right thing by enrolling.

I love learning. I just love it. I have tried, in the only way I know, to impart this feeling of urgency to my own children, but I don’t think they feel it. How could they? Their own parents made it through. Although we are not well off, they have had people standing by, willing to co-sign loans and hand over gas money. But I don’t know that they have ever attended college with the burning fire in their guts that I had. And have.

When I applied to attend U-M, I was almost paralyzed with insecurity. I took the GRE, but my math skills were abysmal. I’ve been accepted NGC (no degree credit) to see if I can make the grade. If I do well, if the instructor sees me worthy and able to attend, they will change this status and admit me.

Second string. This is my Kickoff.

People say it will be fun. That being in the classroom will be enjoyable and…fun.

Not for me. That girl is still inside, the one who tried to treat it lightly and could not.

When I finally got my act together, I graduated cum laude, with a major and two minors. My mom and her boyfriend came to the celebration. My dad did not. My own boyfriend’s family brought me earrings, the only present and acknowledgement I received.

I would be lying to say I do not understand the insecurity and fear on some of the first-year students’ faces. It’s our Kickoff.


Photo note: I borrowed this photo of the WMU Broncos 1977 football team. I was looking for 1978, my freshman year, as I knew several of the players at that time.


I should say that this time around, I have multitudes of support from my husband, children, family, friends, colleagues – even Katherine Madden, my admitting advisor in the School of Education at U-M. Thanks to you – and you know who you are – for this. It makes my kicking leg a little less wobbly.

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