On Acorns and Tornadoes

On Acorns and Tornadoes

It’s finally Fall here in Dallas. The trees were green one day, and the next they were not. A few stalwart sweetgum trees changed colors, but most just went yellow then brown, their leaves fluttering down as if the trees couldn’t wait to be shed of them. The live oaks are a different story. They keep their leaves but aggressively hurl their nuts to the ground. They land like miniature grenades with great POWS, slamming earthward in a final statement of intention. These are not the adorable little acorns that come off of regular oak trees, with cunning little caps and round cheeks. No, the live oaks mean business. They sport huge, pointy lethal weapons meant to carry on the line. They are survivalist trees that endure scorching hot summers, no rain, and then bitterly cold winters. They have no reservations about bombing you with their fusillade of ground-penetrating nuts. The squirrels busily dodge about collecting them and then bury them to eat later. It occurs to me that whole forests have been grown by squirrels forgetting where they buried their nuts. At any rate, if squirrel activity is anything to go by, it’s going to be a cold winter this year.

In East Tennessee where we lived for 10 years, you could ostensibly tell if it was going to be a cold winter by looking at wooly caterpillars. The wider the band in the middle of the “wooly bear” – not to be confused with the actual bears that live in the forested mountains nearby – the harsher the winter. Texas is altogether different state, and doesn’t seem to have any decent animal prognosticators, four-legged or no-legged, squirrel activity notwithstanding. We rely on the weatherman. I don’t envy him his job. It’s just brutally hot for months on end, then you get to mid-November and its blazing hot one day and then cold for the next three months, with perhaps two nice fall days as a placeholder between.

The squirrels don’t want to be bothered as they stock in their winter food supply. They taunt my dog as we walk, letting her get thisclose before scurrying up a tree. They’ve been going the extra mile this year. One intrepid squirrel took advantage of my October squash display outside our door which I’d left out for another month since they are equally good as Thanksgiving decorations. The squirrel latched onto an ugly, nobby squash and dragged it to the edge of our porch and allowed it to defenestrate itself to the sidewalk below and, well, squash open. It left a tell-tail trail of weeping squashy insides to the bushes where the little rodent had its feast. I don’t mind actually. I like creatures in general, even if they are rats in disguise just squirrels, and can certainly share my porch decorations.

While discussing the weather here in Dallas, I cannot leave out the sudden arrival of not one but ten tornadoes here one evening a few weeks ago. The largest of them skipped along quite close to us, about a half mile north, leaving behind a swath of destruction. It came on quite suddenly, which seems to be a theme with the weather here in Texas. Fifteen minutes prior to the tornado warning sirens going off, the dog and I had been enjoying a balmy evening walk. There was a bit of sheet lightning way off to the east, but nothing that said a tornado was coming, let alone ten of them. Having grown up in Kansas, which is a whole ‘nuther kind of weather place that has notable and dramatic storms, I’m knowledgeable about what to do when a tornado siren goes off. I’m also the generation that learned how to hide under our desks with our arms over our heads to protect us from the nuclear bombs about to drop when these same sirens sound, so, you know, I respond with alacrity when one goes off.

My alacrity in this case was in the form of dragging my college-aged son outside to prove to him that, yes the sky does turn green when there is a tornado nearby. This no doubt earns me a nomination to the Darwin Awards of parenting (however I shall lose to the man who put honey on his child’s hand so the bear would come closer for the photograph. There are degrees of dumb). In my defense, I’d been politely eye-rolled and mmm-hmmm’d about this green-sky thing for years, and the ability to prove myself right was irresistible. I carpe diem’d and grabbed a teachable moment. We stood outside on our balcony as the wind gathered steam with enthusiastic whirling gusts. A good burst of lightning revealed an emerald green sky laced with towering black clouds. Truly emerald green, not just the muddy bruised green the sky turns when there is still time to get to the cellar. This was an alarming green, a this-sucker-is-right-on-top-of-us sort of green. We dashed inside and hustled into the bathroom (no basements in Texas) to ride out the storm with my husband and our dog.

Later, seeing the damage the storm had inflicted, I felt chastened. It’s dumb to go outside during a tornado warning, as the things are so unpredictable and can level buildings in just moments. The whirl could have easily sucked us up into the vortex like Dorothy or chucked a roof at us. Acorns slammed down like good poetry are dangerous, but nothing to the full-on unpredictable rage of a tornado. Maybe I should re-think my idea that fall is my favorite time of year. Or invest in a helmet.


Photo by me shows the lovely little capped acorn surrounded by the lethal ones.


On Self-Publishing a Book and Gigging on Fiverr

On Self-Publishing a Book and Gigging on Fiverr

Being able to claim “published author” feels great. I’m over the moon about having my book up on Kindle and in a “real” paperback version. I keep going into Amazon and staring at the page they’re on. I even bought a copy to put on my own Kindle and am burbly (yes I know that isn’t a word, but it describes exactly what it feels like: half bubbly, half incomprehensible babbling) when flipping to it and reading my very own words in justified Garamond font flowing along.

Choosing to self-publish came with the understanding that there’s a certain amount of accompanying tarnish. That perhaps it’s a lesser  form of publishing. After all, there was no querying or submitting to agents and publishing houses involved. Amazon is happy to publish anything you want to write, as long as you meet their guidelines. They even give you a sixteen-page manual about how to format your book so it can become a paperback as well as an eBook. More about that terrifying manual in a bit.

I thought long and hard about how I wanted to publish my book. The rule-follower part of me wanted to go the old-fashioned traditional way of being rejected 47 times and use up three years of my life to perhaps find a publisher willing to take a chance on an unconventional author starting their authoring career at the ripe (some might even say stinky) old age of nearly-58. I even imagined boxing up manuscripts with string and brown wrappers the really old-fashioned way. No one does it like that anymore. You could make the case that I was making this choice even harder to justify my eventual course of action.

Truth is, I just wanted to have the book out there in the world. Since I’m donating half my proceeds to animal rescue and no-kill shelters, the hope is that it sells jillions of copies. I also hope to get to go do a book signing tour and hug people and let them know they too can get through the thing they are going through and no you don’t have to be graceful or smart to do it, you just have to keep trying and after a while the tries end up looking something like forward movement. So hey, book me. (Ha, no pun intended.)

There are some things I recommend you do if you’re thinking about self-publishing. First is that yes, you need an editor who can point out not only grammar errors and where commas don’t belong, but will also ask you things like, “Will your readers want to keep going after they read this part?” Pam my wonderful editor asked me that one, and my initial toad-like response was to puff out my cheeks and think, “well of course they will, don’t you know who I am?” Not out loud of course, I kept my snarky to myself. Irritated, I put the manuscript with the offending question in a drawer and stewed about it for a month. My excuse was that it was the holidays and I had to focus on baking and having my kids home. Pam was right – your editor is nearly always going to be right. In January I did a re-write specifically with the reader in mind. That was great advice. The other great thing about booking Pam was she had only a narrow editing slot she could fit me into, so it gave me deadlines. I recommend deadlines too.

Once you’ve written “The End,” the fun part begins for a self-publisher. You go to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and stare at their exuberant “how to” content for a week or so. Uploading the manuscript for the eBook was simple, even though I had lots of photos to insert. The paperback version was much harder. Lots of steps and requirements. If you’ve ever put together a serious piece of Ikea furniture with lots of fiddly bits and instructions that seem simple until you try to do them, you’ll know what prepping a manuscript for paperback publication is like. It took me 7 hours. I did it wrong three and a half times and nearly erased my whole document once. Word backups are key. You can’t fix a PDF, so be sure you have your trusty malleable Word .doc version so you can go back and try again. And again.

During the process, I learned that my Word program does all sorts of things besides be a glorified typewriter. That Styles scroll does a lot and ends up giving you a TOC (Table of Contents) automatically. That was cool. Layout and Inserting are very handy. Still, making sure my ‘front material” was correctly formatted was tough, as was figuring out page mirroring and how big my gutter should be. (I know, I’m chucking around all these terms, it may be just a teeny bit of showing off. I’ll stop now.) I wanted to get fancy and put in “drop caps” where the first letter of each chapter is bigger than the rest of them, but it eluded me. At 2am I pushed the glorious “Publish” button. And so, just shy of two years post-trauma, “On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything” became a real book.

The other fun thing I’ve been doing on the sly besides finishing the book is gigging on Fiverr. I love that word, gigging. Makes me feel all Millennial with aspirations of hip-ness. What’s Fiverr, you ask? It’s an online clearing house for getting things done by freelancers. You can find people to do graphic design, build your website, do illustrations, edit your paper, heck even do research for you. The term “Fiverr” comes from the idea that most of these gigs are offered at prices starting as low as $5. The site is the safe connector between buyer and seller. I have a seller “gig.” I will read and do coverage and/or coverage and notes for your screenplay. It’s been up since November, and it’s fun. The writers I’ve helped have been creative and passionate. I love being of service, and consider the gig to be a way to give back. No, I don’t make anywhere near the $$ I made doing the same work in Hollywood, but I get to help people develop their dreams, and that feels really good. Part of my healing process.

I had my book cover done by another seller on Fiverr. I’m happy with the result that arrived about 48 hours after I asked for it, and made sure to give the designer full credit in my “thank you” section. Now to be fair, there is a valid “Fiverr is bad” argument. That people on there are usually undervaluing their work (true). That there is a cut-throat atmosphere of low-balling offers to get people to buy (not that I’ve noticed, but then I’m doing an odd service). The site does take 20% as its cut, which is steep. Up side is that if you want to make a little extra money, don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks to get paid, and are good at something, you can earn a bit of cash and maybe help someone too. And you get to sound hip because you are gigging.

You can find my eBook or Paperback here

For coverage/notes on script click here

On Bridges and Reunions

On Bridges and Reunions

A graceful bridge connected the Art Institute and the Children’s Theatre to the parking lot where our parents would wait for us, car engines running to keep either cool or warm, depending on the season. The bridge was artfully shaped, its high arch over the stream below reminiscent of something you’d find in a Japanese garden. It was lovely, but in cold weather during the space between drop off and pick up, that bridge would ice over to a black glossy finish that promised broken limbs if not navigated with care.

Those of us getting out of classes or rehearsals would gather our courage, grasp the wooden rails on the side of the bridge and haul ourselves up one side, slipping every step of the way, hoping that our little grade-school arms would hold up to the task. At the apex, we’d turn backwards and lower ourselves down the other side, sliding from rail-grasp to rail-grasp. There was always that show-off kid who’d Kamikaze it, running up the middle and if they made it intact to the top, shoot down the other side like a snowboarder before that sport was invented. The sides of the bridge were open so the opportunity to fall into the stream below was always present. No one got injured beyond a bruised hip or rear-end as a result of that passage, but it always took a burst of courage to make the crossing.

I was reminded of that process a few weeks ago when I attended my reunion at Northwestern University outside of Chicago. It’s the second college reunion I’ve been to. I haven’t been to any of my high school ones yet, but am contemplating going to the big one coming up next year. It doesn’t seem like forty years since I graduated from high school but hey, time flies when you’re having fun. Or when you’re living life. I’ve moved through the weird time when teen anthems graduate to “oldies” stations, become nostalgic movies, or get remastered into elevator music. If you haven’t had that particular jarring experience, just wait. Winter is coming.

What I loved about this particular reunion was that everyone I reconnected with could not have been nicer. It was such a good time. Part of it was good housing planning. Two of my best gal pals and I stayed at a VRBO down in Andersonville instead of jamming into an overpriced hotel. The Andersonville area was dicey when I lived in Chicago in the early eighties, but it’s great now. We each had our own room and bathroom, which is important as you age up. We ordered in deep dish spinach pizza from Giordano’s like you’re supposed to when in Chicago. I didn’t care that my one-time best friend cheese has declared war on my innards now that I am of an age to attend reunions in the double digits; that was some damn fine pizza. We invited local friends over to join us, and later met other friends for brunch at a funky little breakfast place. We laughed a lot, and if you were observing us you’d want to be at our table.

I’d been nervous about seeing people again at the soiree for just our class. You know, comparing myself and finding myself lacking in some arena. It was unfounded fear. No one had anything to prove. Life had sanded off our edges. We were who we were. It’s relaxing about being around people who’ve become comfortable in their own skin. We traded stories about life and kids, ex-spouses, and favorite vacation spots. We relived moments from our college years. All of us were glad there was no social media back then recording the crazy things we thought were good ideas at the time.

A couple of universal truths emerged in those chats. The first was that without exception, terrible loss, a shock to our world view, or a bad health scare had taken our lives sideways at some point. We’d muddled through with varying degrees of grace, and now shared a wow-you-too? bonhomie. The second was that everyone had experienced at least one major career change. Very few saw it coming. A surprise ‘third act’, one substantively different from the vision we had traipsing the hallowed halls of NU all those years ago. For me, it’s writing books. Another friend became a hypnotherapist. One was voted president of a huge condo association in NYC. A poly-sci major turned into an urban engineer. A journalist turned psychologist. Story after story told without rancor or bitterness, of forging new paths and learning new skills, embracing the idea that there’s MORE to be explored even if we are past the half-way point in life.


I came away so impressed with my college friends — who they are willing to transform themselves to be. I don’t think this is limited to our particular university. It occurs to me that ours was the last generation who had music and art and gym hard-wired into our school schedules from kindergarten through high school. We had lots of recess and plenty of free time to play outside, mostly unsupervised. We pulled ourselves over icy bridges with nary a parent jumping from their warm cars to help out. I wonder if our third-act resilience, the ability to get up after a serious upper cut to the chin and head in a new direction was made possible as a result of those non-STEM classes building an out-of-the-box thinking ability. That the courage we found at ten to get over the icy bridge led to having the fortitude to embrace a third act with tenacity and confidence. Something to think about.


On Jolts and Strengthening the Core

On Jolts and Strengthening the Core

Tragedy comes jaggedly. It jolts you into a new awareness of the life around you. Just minutes before you were bumbling along in the usual manner, easily disturbed by trivialities – a cart in the checkout at the grocery store with more than fifteen items in it, a driver who didn’t signal to move in front of you. An unkind word. An unexpected bill. Then the jolt of tragedy, and new perspective is forced on you.

It’s a kindness that tragedy is nearly always unexpected. It would be impossible to live in the moment if you knew tomorrow your loved one was going to die. Your grief would be extended and the time remaining would be tainted.  I guess I’m grateful you can’t see that shit coming. It’s like falling down when you get older. Falling is no big deal when you are under the age of 40, but after that, shew-eee. It’s alarming as all get-out. Personal history tells me that at least once a year, gravity is going to win and I’m going to take a tumble. It’s always a shocker though. I tend to fall up stairs while distracted, which is not so bad, not a lot of distance to drop. My eighty-eight-year-old Mom falls with monthly regularity and breaks her bones in the process. The latest topple featured three of her ribs losing an argument with the bathtub. She gets angry with herself for the mishap, then stoically bears the indignities of strangers picking her up and other strangers mending her. She’s from another era, lived through people bombing her house in WW2 and travelled the world, but none of that helps her now, none of it stops the jolt of falling. Makes me want to take up yoga and strengthen my core.

The jolts come from other places too. There seems to be a lot more tragedy these days than there used to be. I’m becoming immune to being shocked, it comes from so many places. It’s losing its jolty-ness. I’ve hardened my heart and my core for the most part. Globally, there’s always a natural or ego-driven disaster somewhere in the world. Nationally, the insanity stemming from Washington, DC is a constant barrage. My old home state of California is on fire. Again. Locally, we live in a big city so I pass by car wrecks daily and move aside for fire engines. We live near a hospital, so I hear ambulances and helicopters hurrying there with their precious cargo at all hours. It wears on me, even if the news of tragedy is no longer very shocking. I yearn for a cottage in Northern Maine with a view of Canada from my front door, the sea shushing over black rocks, the cry of gulls above replacing the sirens. Away from all the fear and pain represented by those wailing sirens.

Sometimes, though the jolts hit close to home. You’re never ready for them. No amount of training can strengthen your core for them. This weekend contained one of those. The dearly beloved son of a friend was killed in an accident. He was just a little older than my oldest boy and was a brilliant saxophonist. This was the friend I talked to when my older son thought buying a motorcycle was a good idea and I wanted good arguments to throw down when I went to talk him out of it. She shared that her son rode a motorcycle, and that she was always a little worried about him on it, all the time. And then the news this weekend. Her son lost his life in a motorcycle accident.

I read once that a grief shared is a grief halved. I don’t think that applies to your kids though. When I read this terrible news via my friend’s beautiful, graceful post on Facebook, and understood that she had just lost her oldest boy, I flashed on my boys when they were young. Their gaze as newborns taking in the world for the first time, their joy at eating cake on their first birthday. Swing sets and waterslides. Parks, looking at dappled summer skies through the leaves. First days of school. That fraught process of growing your child that requires trust that they will come home intact from the first day of school, the first sleepover, the first road trip, the first trip to another country. There are so many goodbyes, and then – one of them – unfairly, unbearably – one of them becomes the unexpected final one. My heart ripped for my friend as what had happened sunk in. My next thought was incredibly selfish. Fear that my child might be next. Followed by a desire to help, to fix, to make it better for her, and then gut-wrenching inadequacy realizing there is literally nothing you can do for a parent who has lost their child. Too soon, too young.

How do you survive something like that, after raising your child past fevers and disappointments and joys and showing him there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed? I can see my way through the pain of losing a pet, a relative, or a friend. I’ve done all those many times in my 57 years. I can even see how you get through losing your spouse. But not my child. It’s just not right, outliving your children. Yet it happens all the time. In African villages of disease and hunger, at Sandy Hook, on a drunken Friday night after a football game, on a team bus trip, on the battlefield, in a hospital room after a valiant fight.

The price of love is pain. My instinct is to lean in to my friend, yet simultaneously I don’t want to intrude. Ungraceful, without the proper words, silently for now, I share her pain. I share it as a parent who loves her children fiercely, knowing the gutted hollowness I feel is less than an eyelash worth of what she feels. I will go to the memorial, I will let her know I love her. And I will hug my boys a little tighter tonight, even if they are too big for it now. And call myself blessed.

photo credit: mcGill.ca

On Having Good Teeth, Bad Gums

On Having Good Teeth, Bad Gums

A few months ago, a loose tooth that I had been ignoring for oh… ten years or so made it clear that it was DONE. That side of my face blew up as if Severus Snape had cast a spell on it. After a few days of downing Tylenol and trying to tame the beast with garlic, salt water rinses, and turmeric, it became apparent that this proverbial can could no longer be kicked down the road.

I’m lucky in terms of health. No chronic aches, not on medication for anything. The one trouble maker is my gums. “Good teeth, bad gums” was the pronouncement of my childhood dentist Dr. Mills. He was kind and gentle, and I was friends with his daughter. I’ve never had a cavity. I did get my wisdom teeth out when I was 17. After that surgery I had jowls like Richard Nixon for days, but you know, ice cream.  So overall, I don’t hate dentists.

Gums and their specialist periodontal docs are a different matter. I’ve had minor surgery on all four quadrants multiple times. This involves prodding tender areas, gadgets holding your jaw open, scraping and digging and needles jabbed in your gums. It’s one quadrant at a time, so you get to look forward to the invasion four months in a row when you have bad gums, good teeth. Thus, you’ll understand why upon arriving at the periodontal office, I couldn’t stop shaking. The Tylenol was wearing off too.

The hygienists eyeballed me from the back office and had a heated conversation over who was going to have to take me on. They foisted me onto the new girl.  She had to call in an experienced nurse to hold me still while they took x-rays of ‘the affected area’.  I did natural childbirth with no drugs whatsoever so don’t go thinking I’m a pain wuss, this was out of the park, a 12 on a scale of 10. The nurses spoke in very soft voices and patted the air near my arm, as if my pain were contagious. The doctor, when he finally came in also adopted sotto voice mode with me. “It looks,” he said in muted tones, “like you need to have this out.”  No kidding, I wanted to retort but didn’t.  Not good to goad or piss off your periodontist in any way.

The doctor went over my options. The tooth was coming out, he was going to need to do some extensive jaw reconstruction and while he was in there, scrape out all four quadrants too. He then continued. “Would you like a local anesthetic or to be put under“?  “BY ALL THAT’S HOLY, PUT ME OUT,” I shouted with the half of my mouth that was still functional. Maybe it just felt like shouting in contrast to the murmur maintained by the doctor and his staff. “It will be a three-and-a-half-hour surgery,” he said, and asked if I had any other questions, clearly expecting me to have none. “Where’s the bone coming from that you use to reconstruct my jaw?” I expected him to admit they were slicing open my leg to get fresh bone for the job, because all of this really couldn’t get any more horrible.  His eyes widened slightly, then the Doctor leaned forward for emphasis. “Cadavers.” It was extra creepy coming in the whispery voice. I paused, then had to ask.  “Is there a donor name?” He looked surprised, and said he thought maybe at some point there was, but by the time he got it, it was a number and it came in vials. My brain, being my brain, thought of the “Skele-Grow” that Mdm. Pomfrey uses on Harry Potter to grow his arm back. I was relieved by that idea.

I was given three prescriptions to fill prior to them rummaging about in my mouth. One was for extra-strength Advil, the second to get rid of the raging infection that my little tooth had imparted as its farewell hurrah, and the third was for an opiate.  I didn’t want to fill the opiate, but I’m a rule-follower. After applying my insurance, those 12 opioid pills cost me a grand total of eighty cents. Jeez. No wonder there’s an epidemic. Did I immediately realize that I could sell them on the street for a profit?  Yes, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t have thought of it too. I promptly squashed the idea, as I have a fondness for personal freedom.

On the day of the surgery, I warned the softly speaking nurses that anesthesia and I were not on good terms. That I would need more of it than they thought I would. They smiled benignly at me and nodded.  Maybe an eye roll. They didn’t LISTEN though, so it’s not my fault that I kicked one of the whisperers in the face when they started drilling. I wasn’t out yet. There may have been screaming as well as the reactionary kick, not sure if it was me or the unfortunate nurse. The doctor remained calm. “Looks like we need to up her meds, is your nose broken?” That’s the last thing I remember.

They woke me up and I saw my strong-looking tooth sitting forlornly on a wad of cotton. Evidence of successful extraction, and how bad gums beat good teeth. I felt sorry to leave it there, but I’m not enough of a packrat to want it rattling around in my sock drawer. They sent me home with instructions that I promptly forgot. Don’t remember any of the episodes of “Sneaky Pete” I watched either. I spent the next three days on the couch taking Advil (not the opioid) and applying ice packs and waiting for the weird-feeling stitches to dissolve.

It’s mostly healed up now. I poke my tongue in the surprising large gap my tooth used to live in and wonder about who my bone donor for the jaw reconstruction was, and if perhaps due to their DNA influence I will suddenly develop a new skill, like becoming a harmonica player. It could happen. Years ago, I had an emergency C-section that resulted in nearly all my blood being replaced, and for seven years afterwards craved fried chicken weekly. But that’s another story. Moral of this one is: floss.

photo courtesy of mentalfloss.com

On Making Fountains and Gal Pals

On Making Fountains and Gal Pals

*Ratatatatatat wham wham* Jackhammers pound outside my front door.  I live in the city, but this is not street construction. I’d love it if there were more street construction here in Dallas. The bumpity roads have caused me to replace all 4 tires after only a year of driving on them, then last week one of the new ones got a bolt in it, so was replaced again.  However, this construction *Ratatatatatat wham wham* is happening in my very own courtyard. The gated complex where I live is installing fountains in what were pretty, round flower beds.  This will be lovely when it is done, but it is unlovely and *Ratatatatatat wham wham* noisy now.  The noise, cement dust and general manly cursing have defined my last few days.  This is when it is NOT good to work from home. I’m trying to look forward to delightful splashing *Ratatatatatat wham wham* sounds of a fountain, but it’s eluding me.  Being a sometime cynic, my brain rushes to thoughts such as; “That fountain is going to attract more mosquitos than usual this summer.”  I know they don’t like running water, but my imagination has the fountains only working sporadically, becoming a murky thing filled with green slime.

That knee-jerk default to dark thinking is why gal *Ratatatatatat wham wham* pals are so necessary in my life. Talking to gal pals help get these dark thoughts out of my head, where they jab me awake at 3am and make it impossible to go back to sleep. Leaving my friends of the past ten years when we moved last year was hard –the women I walked with, read books with, and cheered for the swim team with. There is something so bonding about losing all feeling in your rear sitting on those cold metal benches yelling for the kids to “whoo-hoo swim faster”.  Those gal pals kept me sane in the years my children went through puberty and moved on to college. You can’t replace those friends. If you want to stay sane and not yell inappropriately at your spouse or the workers who are simply following orders by putting in a damn fountain, you must make more when you move. It requires one to be brave *Ratatatatatat wham wham* and say hello, find commonalities, and ask for cell phone numbers. As an introvert writer, getting out and meeting people feels like a thousand-pound weight every time.  It requires fixing in your mind the reason you are doing this – it will make life bearable and might even be fun. Secondly, you make plans, get dressed, do your hair, and go out for coffee. Then the worst part – after all that bravery — many times you must accept the fact that while you might like the person you are coffee-ing with, they may not like you back, or more to the point, they don’t have time for someone new in their lives. Ghosting is a thing for us older folks too, it’s not just for Millennials. It’s hard texting someone for a 2nd get-together and then… you just don’t hear back.  It feels like middle school all over again, and let’s be honest, none of us had any fun in 7th and 8th grade. I wish we could come up with a better way of being dumped as a new friend.

I am happy to report I have made some outstanding new gal pals here in Dallas. I’m so grateful for them. They’ve kept me going through this most difficult year, helping me to laugh and to escape my dead-end thoughts as I listen to what is keeping THEM up at night. There are always shared similarities – body parts that are no longer behaving as they should, adult children going through their own crises, plans that fall through.  Politics and issues of the day. There are joys too, and it’s the shared joys that hold the most healing.  Its good to feel happy for someone else. You forget the *Ratatatatatat wham wham* of your inner critical voice “should-ing” all over your actions or inactions. Sharing time with my friends – old and new — make my own mental construction zone a little less noisy and obtrusive and then it’s possible to hear the musical tones of a delightful fountain in my future.

On Aunt Helen and Kingston, Iowa

On Aunt Helen and Kingston, Iowa

My Aunt Helen’s birthday falls on March 17th, St. Patricks’ Day. Being a teetotaler her whole life, shots of Jameson and copious amounts of Green Beer never factored into her celebrations.  Aunt Helen left this earth three years ago, at the age of 93. Most of her life was spent in Kingston, Iowa which is 15 miles past Burlington, but before you get to Mediapolis. Kingston is tiny, clustered around an unimposing intersection off State Highway 99.  There are a few houses and one general store which doubled as the post office. It also boasts a now-shuttered hall above it that held rousing dances in its heyday. A Methodist church that Helen’s husband, Willard helped to build stands just down the road from the general store. My parents were married there. Willard also built their snug home across the gravel road from the church.  Built as in — built it on his own from pouring the foundation to putting  on the roof, and all the plumbing in between. This home is about 5 miles away from the “Home Farm” where my Aunt Helen and my father and their brother Howard Lee (who died on the kitchen table at the age of 7 from a burst appendix) grew up. There are still 2nd and 3rd cousins who live out on that same land.  Most of it is used to grow corn now, corn is still a pretty good crop, better than hogs, and without the smell.

When you backtrack towards Burlington on 99, on the hill side of the road you’ll find a faded signpost that reads “Basil Cemetery”. If you have a 4-wheel drive, you can ascend the hill via a faint track to the cemetery, or park and walk up if you don’t.  There are fifteen or twenty markers scattered among the trees on that hill. They overlook the green cornfields, and not far off, you can see the glint of light that is the mighty Mississippi.  It’s a beautiful, restful spot, and several of my relatives are buried there.  It’s mostly forgotten now and hasn’t seen a burial in many years.  Helen chose to be buried up in Mediapolis next to Willard, who got a 21-gun salute at his funeral.  I suspect once I go, no one will know Basil Cemetery is there. Hard to get the caskets up the hill. My Aunt Helen and I would go up there on Memorial Day to clean the headstones and put fresh flowers out – early roses and giant-headed peonies just coming into pink bloom from her side yard.  And always sweet Lily of the Valley, which seem to bloom in every ditch there is in May and June in Iowa.

Aunt Helen taught in the one-room schoolhouse that served the kids in the area all the way up to the 1950’s, when the county decided to close the school and bus the kids to Burlington.  She started teaching at age 16, to avoid working in the local chocolate factory. She had tried the chocolate factory when she was 14, and hated it, so quick went and took the correspondence classes to become a teacher.  Helen was a fine teacher, wrote in perfect copperplate, and could teach you advanced math faster than you could learn how to spit. She’d ride her horse seven miles to the school early in the morning from the Home Farm so she could get the stove going to warm the place up.  She’d have the bigger boys go chop more wood when they needed it.  My father went to this school and suffered through being taught by his sister who was 12 years older than he for a few grades before my grandmother moved him to Burlington schools.  They remember seeing electricity finally making its way to that schoolhouse, and the wonder of an electric heater. Helen said the old wood stove worked better.

Aunt Helen married Willard just shy of her 19th birthday, as he was shipping out to active duty in WWII. He was stationed in the Pacific, fixing the planes, and getting shot at a lot. He never said much about it to me, or anyone else that I can tell.  Willard was a staunch pacifist in his later years. Always a man of few words, he’d take me back up in the hills when I would visit them for a few weeks each summer and showed me how to spring the traps left there by hunters.  He was also a whiz at finding Indian arrowheads.  Sometimes I wondered if he planted them before our walks.  He’d just point to the ground and say, “Well lookee there”, and give me the joy of discovery. 

Those were some fine, hot summer weeks that I spent with them.  I was put to work helping Helen “put up” the vegetables and fruits from her garden for days on end, the kitchen steaming from sterilizing the Mason jars in big pots, taking the finished projects down to the blessed dark cool of the cellar.  I am proud to say I could still put up vegetables if I needed to.  Summer nights were for sitting on the porch, hand cranking fresh peach ice cream, and watching a million fireflies light up the grass and trees like Christmas lights come early.  I loved getting my aunt to tell funny stories about my dad when he was little, it made him more emotionally accessible.  He would certainly never tell me about the time he jumped off the roof wearing a sheet pretending to be Superman, but Helen would.

Helen was never the same after Willard died.  She tried to stay active at the church, and made wedding dresses for the children and grandchildren of the kids she had taught at school until she went blind.  We’d send her books on tape, she liked those.  I took my boys to visit, and she gave them a few things from her house – knew right where they were, even though she couldn’t see them anymore. Those got burnt up in The Fire, as were all the photos we had of Helen and Willard, and my grandmother’s wedding silver Helen passed on to me. Helen finally had to move out of the home her husband built and where they had lived for over 65 years.  She hated being in the nursing home, got confused often, and demanded to be taken home.  When the doctors and nurses wouldn’t let her leave, I think she used her formidable willpower to pass over to be back Home with Willard.  Helen lived what many would deem a small life, but both she and Willard made a difference in their community and passed on things that were important to them; being kind, doing for your neighbor, the ability to fix, and mend, and cook. The joy of sitting on the porch in the evening savoring sweet peach ice cream made from peaches you had grown in your very own back yard.