This is Major Pam to Ground Control

We roar, with the rest of the audience, when he ambles onto the sparsely set stage–there’s a fancy wooden chair with velvet cushions, a carved side table with a cut-crystal water pitcher and a gentleman’s cigar smoking paraphernalia. Ten feet away or so from that stands a wooden podium, also ornately Victorian.

He wears the cream-colored suit and the crazy white wig that brand him Mark Twain. And he greets us nonchalantly, picking up a cigar, trimming its end. Then he launches into a caustic tirade about politicians in Washington, DC.  He is bitterly funny.

In the first act, he wanders around the stage and from subject to subject. Tucked into the pocket of his creamy vest are half sheets of neatly folded paper; I imagine lines and columns of tiny cramped writing, etched in fountain pen. Sometimes he will meander to the podium, pull out the sheets, flatten and rearrange them, harrumphing.  We hold our breaths. Is this part of the act? Or–has he just simply lost his place, befuddled?

But he juts his chin insouciantly at the audience, clears his throat noisily, takes a big swig of whatever is in that cut glass tumbler.  And then he embarks on a tirade about Presbyterians. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if that little blank space was a personal lapse or a character-driven moment.

After the intermission, he picks up one of the old books from the stack on the table, strokes it fondly, and talks about his writing, and then launches into recitations. By the end of the show, he IS Huck Finn, twelve years old or so, shuddering with sadness on stage, fighting back the tears, torn between his duty to convention and his care and compassion for his friend Jim.

With the rest of the crowd, we jump to our feet and pound our hands when he is finished, roaring in appreciation for the show put on by Hal Holbrook.

Who just turned 91.

Sometimes, I will wake up in the morning, totter into the bathroom, and surprise myself by my reflection in the mirror.

“Holy shit,” I will think, startled, half-awake, into vulgarity. “You’re OLD!”

I am not quite sure how that happened so quickly, but random aches and pains, the crepe-iness of skin in certain geographical territories, and the unwarranted deference of youngsters, support the fact that indeed it has.

I have spent the better part of the last thirty years thinking, “Okay. When we just finish THIS episode [when the degree is earned, or the program identified; when we find the house or settle into new jobs, or when we do whatever]–when THIS brouhaha all calms down, THEN I will….”  I have a whole series of endings for that sentence, including organizing every cluttered space and thing in my extremely cluttered life, writing a book, learning to sew, and digging my paints back out of the plastic bin where they are buried in the basement.

Suddenly I realize that if I don’t DO those things now, I maybe–or probably–never will.

Life looks a little different through 61-year-old eyes.

This morning, I am having coffee with my friend and colleague Jeannette and Jeannette’s mother, Mary. I’m writing a story about Mary, who is 83, for a paper called Senior Times. Jeannette happened to mention, recently, that her mom went for a plane ride with our young colleague Phil last weekend. As the story unraveled, I discovered that Mary is a pilot. In their yard back in Kansas, back when Jeannette and her sisters were growing up, there was a dirt runway. That accommodated the four or five planes Jeannette remembers Mary having, the planes that she remembers skidding to stops on the gravelly dirt strip—just a fact of their lives in Kansas. An airstrip was to them like a driveway is to us: just the place you park your everyday transportation.

What the heck, eh?

Now Mary, who takes commercial flights quite often, who lives by herself and has a sweet little fur baby and goes on cruises and audits college classes and reads history voraciously, is losing her sight. And she mentioned to Jeannette that she’d probably never get back up behind the controls of a personally-piloted place, never again see the blaze of changing trees, the rivers twisting through our town, or the corn turning gold from the air.

Phil got wind of that, and up they went, he and Mary and Jeannette’s daring seven-year-old granddaughter. Despite disclaimers and denials, Jeannette is pretty sure that, for a significant part of the flight at least, it was Mary who was flying that plane.


I think about some other folks I know.

My widowed mother-in-law, Pat, has embraced the independent life thrust upon her in her early 80’s. She has fixed up her house and taught herself to use technology, and she just recently got a laptop so her computing could go mobile.

Wendy’s neighbor Joan just turned ninety. She showed up for her party with hair died a bright magenta. Why not? she asked the applauding crowd–Joan has a lot of children. And she ruminated that now, when things are finally starting to settle down, NOW would be a good time for her to start to do some traveling.

Larisa’s mom turned 90 this week, too. She celebrated the passage with a tasteful tattoo. She thinks she might just get another.


And think about this. There’s a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara–Christopher McDougall made them famous when he wrote about them in his book, Born to Run. McDougall was searching for ways to become a runner who didn’t endure various, constant injuries. He found the Tarahumara, who, often barefoot, just keep running. This people, an article on a site called Before It’s News tells me, are unconcerned with aging.

Or maybe no one ever told them they were supposed to slow down when they get older.

Some of the best Tarahumara runners are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Certainly, they don’t stop just because age encroaches.

Oh, all this consideration of age makes me ponder; it makes me ponder and search, English teacher-y, for a metaphor. And so I think that maybe, for women at least, aging is like the stages of a rocket-ship and its journey.

Childhood is assembly time: we gather our parts together, constructing ourselves, getting ourselves into working order. The chemistry of our compounds and the dynamics of our daily lives mold and shape us.

As teens, we launch, blazing, into a dense, thick atmosphere, where the friction of our frantic flight shapes us for the journey ahead. We jettison unnecessary parts. Some trappings of childhood fall away and burn to ash in an incendiary atmosphere.

And then we reach Space, where, after taking the time to calibrate our instrumentation, we insure the path chosen is the one we’re ready to take. There’s orbiting involved here. There are bold adventures into places, too, where no woman has gone before.

There are times when being beamed up becomes a necessity.

But it’s a rich journey, and its adventures are unexpected and enlightening in so many ways. We travel. We adjust. We encounter challenges and wonders.

And then one day we careen around an unknown planet and we can’t decide if it’s beautiful or frightening.

‘What IS that place?’ we ask our version of Bones.

‘Why, that’s Menopause,’ she answers in surprise. ‘You’ve been plotting this course for a good while.’

And we travel on, but something has changed; the urgency to explore is ebbing. Instead, we feel a need to go back to a safe, quiet place where we can spread out the treasures acquired, the lessons learned, where we can sort wisdom from folly and make sense of it all. Slowly but inexorably, we head for the re-entry that is the years of aging.

Like launching, re-entry burns things away.  We jettison, again, things that are extraneous: we need our lightest possible load for the return journey.

The long trip doesn’t always leave us intact. We may have glitches in our systems–they may be minor, and we may be able to ignore or accommodate them. They may be major and irreversible, and they may derail our re-entry plans.

Our computers, our brain centers, may have been affected or impaired. We call in every damned Scotty we can think of. We fight to maintain.

And sometimes we make it through, battered by our travels, but ready for the next stage that life affords us. A journey is not complete, after all, until the destination is achieved. Until it’s been examined and assessed.

Oh, ours is not a culture in love with old folks.  Sometimes they are discarded, ignored, or dismissed as ineffectual.  And yet.

Yet, there is Pat, sharing posts on Facebook, sending greetings to grandchildren whose lives have taken them to far-flung points on the map.

Yet there is Mary, flying over the golden fields of corn. I picture her dipping a wing, saluting something that, while still there, has quietly grown and changed.

There is Hal Holbrook, his talent and his memory bank crammed with wit and message, and the ability to enthrall and entertain still strong.

There is a 90-year-old woman with magenta hair, dancing. There is a tattooed great grandma, drawing her family tightly around her.

I think of these people, alive and making an impact, and I know it is no time pack things in.

And there is stuff to be done. We do not know the number of our days, but we know what we should be doing with them.  And I know, waking to being in my 60’s, that there’s no point in waiting any longer.  THEN has now arrived.

Today, I think, I’ll get started on sorting a little of that clutter.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Vet’s Tonight

I am perched on a little bench made for much shorter people to sit on. It’s so low to the ground, my knees form a roof peak. Tightly wound beneath them shudders my little dog, Greta, who is huddled and pressed and quivering uncontrollably. We’re in an immaculate green-tiled room room that is rimmed with locked cupboards. A metal topped table sits center stage.

A hum of voices, barks, and howls filters out from beyond a swinging door at the back.

We are waiting to see the veterinarian, my terrified pup and I. The kind, sweet vet tech has been in twice and taken Greta away, to be weighed, to have blood drawn. Both times, Greta went willingly enough, looking over her shoulder at me, making sure, maybe, that I wasn’t leaving her.

To her, this is a place where we leave her behind, in the care of strangers and the company of crazy companions, when we go away. This is the place where needles shine in fluorescent light, where harsh metal clippers make fast work of her nails, where a man with a shaved head pries her lips open and studies her teeth.

For me, this room provokes layers of memories. I have sat in examining rooms much like this one with other dogs, aging dogs; I have prayed, in those rooms, for miracles, or at least reprieves. Sometimes those have arrived, and a loyal friend has bundled back into the car with me. Going home: home to try the new medication, the rub, the bath…the thing that we hope will make life comfortable, livable, longer for the pet who has come to be a beloved necessary presence.

Sometimes the visit ended in harsh reality, in bowing to time’s inexorability, in knowing we could not subject our liquid-eyed dog to a life of unending pain.

Greta looks up at me as I rub her silky, bony head. She shoots one message from her big black eyes: Homehomehomehomehomehome…

“You’re not staying tonight,” I murmur, soothingly.

Then I hope I’m not lying. The tech, Melissa, says the dog has lost four pounds. Suddenly, Greta empties her big water bowl every day. At night, she wakes, panting heavily. Her scratching shakes the house.

I have found a lump on her back; there’s another on her belly. When James and I took her out to the car, she had trouble, my nimble little hound, jumping up onto the seat.

I am confronted with the reality of time’s relentless march.


Cleaning files the other day, Mark found our adoption papers for Greta. We looked at the date–2005–and looked at each other and shook our heads. Eleven years.

An eye-blink.

We got the dog at the animal shelter. Something pushed us, almost physically, to stop one Sunday afternoon. It was spring, and still cold; the death of our beloved Holmsie was not that far behind us. We weren’t sure we were ready for another dog.

We’ll just look, we said.

The kennels were full; volunteers were bringing food around, and big dogs were jumping against the chain link walls joyously. Little dogs were running in circles and yipping. Puppies were tumbling obliviously.

But Greta–she was huddled in a corner of her kennel, quiet, sad, so very alone. She had the brown and black and white markings that belied a beagle ancestor. Holmsie, too, had been a beagle descendant; she also had a strong German Shepherd strain–she was big, solid, a rock.

Greta must have had terrier forebears; she was smaller. She was quivering.

“Look,” I said to Mark and Jim who were laughing at the antics of a fat, woolly beast whose name tag read, “Roseanne.” Roseanne was jumping against her cage walls to get the volunteer’s attention, then dropping down to the ground to preen and flirt.They came over to where I knelt by Greta’s kennel, and the little dog crept over to see. The boyos knelt down too, and the pup put a paw on the chain link, stuck her snout through the metal to try to lick Jim’s hand.

A volunteer, crepe-soled, stood suddenly behind us.

“I’ve never seen her be so interested in anyone,” she said. “Would you like to meet her?”

And in that moment the die was cast.

We had to wait, though, for shots and neutering. We had to be–no pun intended–vetted by the staff; they wanted to know our house was clean enough, our yard was fenced, we had no toddlers. Greta was not a dog for a toddler household. We waited several weeks in a cold, wet spring, when Mark would toss at night, and murmur, “Do you think she needs a blanket?”

The staff brought her home to us, watched the interaction, watched her settle in, and finally, satisfied, they went away, and Greta was our dog—our twitchy, nervous, sensitive, ill-treated dog.

The staff had told us stories about her origins. How they found her huddled in a corner of a kennel–someone had apparently driven up, after dark,and lofted her, dirty and flea-ridden, over the ten foot high fencing that kept the dogs from bolting. How the former volunteer who’d discovered her had clamped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she wailed and whimpered and resisted, across the pebbled driveway to intake. How after that, she turned her head away and didn’t want the company of human or beast.

Until we came. It felt like she was always our dog. It felt like if we just loved her enough, we could heal the wounds and bury the memories and make her over into a loving, trusting pup.

The first night, she paced and searched. She dragged her tupperware bowl of kibble under the dining room table and huddled over it. She didn’t eat the food during daylight. When we got up in the morning, the dish was empty, and the dog was quivering under the table.

We cooed and held out hands to sniff. That afternoon, I took her out into the fenced in side yard with me, company while I was weeding.  She paced and prowled as I inched my way down a wild, weedy flowerbed. She wandered over to the sun-warmed cement sidewalk  three feet from where I worked. She circled and sat, and suddenly, I realized she was sleeping–deep and urgent, sleeping as if she had never slept before. And I thought that finally, finally, the little dog felt safe.

She came to love us, Greta did, sometimes treating Mark and Jim like they were annoying brothers. I was always, to her, the alpha dog, the center of safety. Often, she followed me around the house, upstairs and down, just staying by my side.

We took her out to fenced in ball fields and she would soar around the base paths, running and running until she ran herself out. She always came back; this was not a dog we would ever have to worry about wandering away.

We took her for long evening walks.

We bought her toys. We realized she had no idea of how to play.

She settled in; our home became hers, but she never got comfortable with visitors.  No matter how much we loved her, claimed her, kept her safe, Greta was who she was: a nervous dog who didn’t much like change or company.

She moved with us, five years ago, settled into a new home after some days of consternation, but changed her nighttime place. Greta had always snuggled into a corner of the couch to snore the night away. After the move, she slept with us, starting in a cozy dog bed we bought for her.  When we woke up in the morning, she’d be snuggled between our feet.

She was never sick. We took her in for yearly visits, practiced flea and heart-worm prevention, walked her in our new neighborhood. The only time she needed doctoring was the night she greedily swallowed chunks of pork bone, which lodged in her intestines, making her feverish, taking her to the animal hospital for three scary nights.

We bought soft food instead of kibble for the healing time; she refused to eat bare kibble ever again. She gained three pounds.

They started calling her a ‘senior dog’ when she turned eight, and we snorted: Greta was still spunky and nimble and anxious, each night after dinner, for me to get the leash and head outside to wander. We didn’t register the facts of age.

But sitting on that bench, I had to face the truth. We don’t really know how old she is. One vet guessed that Greta was eight months old when we adopted her; another was sure she was at least two years. We settled for the younger age; we gave her a birthday in May.

So the truth is that the little hound is at least eleven. She’s 77 in dog years–and maybe more than that.

The truth is, that she has moved from ‘senior’ to ‘elderly.’

The truth is, she will not be with us forever.

The nice vet, the young man with the shaved head, wearing his green polo shirt emblazoned with the name of the practice, came smiling in to see the little dog; she turned and hid her head beneath my legs. He coaxed her out with gentle hands; he stroked her head and examined her lumps and he searched for anything internally that might alarm.

The lumps, he said, were harmless cysts.

She had, he surmised, a UTI.

Her lower back was raw from some sort of dermatitis.

And it was true: arthritis is setting in.

He sent us home with shampoo and pills–antibiotics and anti-itch pills. And when those are done, we can start the anti-arthritis pills; those are pills she’ll take now, forever.


Oh, it could have been much worse.

I didn’t lie to my little friend; we will go home and start the medication regime, and maybe, tonight, she’ll sleep better than she has in a long time.

But time’s drumbeat is louder to me now, like that moment when the background noise–the thrumming of the furnace, or the backbeat of the band from the bar down over the hill–rears up and becomes the prominent, important sound. My little dog is entering those last days. I hope there will be years full of days in this era.

Our time with her will never feel endless again.


Once, jokingly, a few months after we got the dog, when she’d bared her teeth as he playfully tried to steal her rawhide bone,  Mark said to me, “Tell me why we felt compelled to get this nasty little beast!”

I was stumped for an answer. Why do we invest so deeply in these furry friends, these emissaries from another land, who change our lives and shed in our houses and demand our love and care and time?

But we do. On sad days when the house is empty of the tick-tacking of unclipped nails, the residue of hair on the couch, then we wander and we grieve.

“Never again,” we say, “never again. This hurts too much.”

And then the car stops, of its own free will, it seems, and the little beast comes to the fence…

I cannot find a reason; maybe this is one of those things that goes deeper than thought or practicality, some kind of inherited need to which we willingly accede.  For we need her just as much, I know, as she needs us.


This time, I  clip the leash on and take the dog out to where young James waits. Greta looks at him, sniffs, and raises her snout snootily in the air; Jim has been petting the fluffy, caramel colored cat that prowls the practice. Greta is not amused at this defection. But she lets him take her outside while I pay the bill and gather the pills and head out into a sunny, cloud-scudded autumn day–a day when I’ll take my dog, healthy for the most part, home.

Rescuing the Remaindered


It started–well, hell, doesn’t it always start this way??–with an email. Simply worded, starkly phrased, politically correct (no suits would be offended or alarmed by this message), the gist of it was this: there were endangered books at the campus library, hidden in a back room.

That back room was really the Last Chance Hotel. If someone didn’t come and claim them,  the trash heap was the next stop for those books.

I gasped a wrenching gasp, and my nice colleague Linda, walking by on her way to the Keurig, poked her head in to see if I was okay.

“I’m fine,” I said, smiling brightly. I hit ‘send’ to share the desperate message with my peeps in the network. I knew they, too, would respond.

It was mid-morning before I could work my way over there: I had a meeting on that side of campus; I insisted I would walk across–alone–on that beautiful day… I carried a voluminous, sturdily lined bag with me. It is a bag I keep in my office for just this purpose. It is both thick and yielding; it will not quickly reveal what it holds within.

The library was hushed at that time of day. In a far corner, a study group met, and the lowered, insistent mutter of their search for meaning simmered. But there was no other noise beyond the whir of machine, the hum of fluorescent light. One lone student worked at the circulation desk; she was someone I’d worked with before. I dropped a word; I flashed my ID. The student jumped up and grabbed a clipboard.

“Sign in,” she instructed, and she winked at me.

Yeah, right, I thought, and I winked back. Grabbing the pen, I scrawled, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The student jerked her head toward the labyrinthine nether region of the library.

“You,” she said quietly, “know your way.”

I nodded. I passed Tracey’s desk; we shared a look fraught with meaning. Amy, on the phone, kept her eyes downward, but she gave me a barely discernible thumbs up.

I wound my way through the corridors, and I found the back room.

My colleague BJ was there before me. A retired high school instructor who couldn’t break his academic habit–he now teaches a full slate of American history and western civ at the college level–BJ is an inveterate reader and a Damned Liberal. I should have known I’d find him here.

He’d been busy; as I entered, he slipped a slender volume onto a small stack on an empty corner of the table closest to the door. I surveyed the room. Books covered three rectangular banquet tables,–covered the tables, teetered in stacks, and threatened to fall off their edges.

“Oh, BJ,” I said, and he threw up his hands.

“So many books!” he said, an anguished rasp in his voice. “But–Dreiser?  Henry JAMES?” He slanted me a look. “You read James?” he asked.

Then, without waiting for an answer, he added, his voice filled with remorse, “I CAN’T. I can’t take Henry James home.”

We worked in silence then, sorting and stacking.  We were, between the two of us, deciding futures. We were issuing reprieves. We were leaving other tomes, perhaps even some that were infinitely more worthy than our chosen ones, to the caprice of fate.

BJ left, toting a hefty stack of books, after a fervent ten minutes.

I eked out another fifteen minutes of agonizing selection. Oh, the things I put back, hoping other hands would find and cherish them! My bag, ironically, held a biography of Wollstonecraft, whose name I’d borrowed to sign in. I also saved Lillian Hellman’s Life. Volumes of Willa Cather were hidden in my bag. I had all of Herrick’s poems. I had the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. I had a GK Chesterton omnibus, and I had a volume or two by Kay Boyle.

And I hadn’t been able to keep myself from saving An Episode of Sparrows, by Rumer Godden. It had been one of my mother’s favorite books.

I knew it was time to go when Janelle, the library’s director, walked by and coughed discreetly. I bundled everything into my bag; it was heavy and clumsy. I wrestled it to the door of the room, and I stood looking at the silent books I left behind. I saluted them; I wished them the redemption I couldn’t offer.

I wanted to say I’d be back, but I knew it was a promise I probably couldn’t keep.

I retraced my steps and hurried out the library exit. My bag set off the meep meep meep of the alarm.

I kept walking.

I didn’t stop until I’d reached my car, popped open the trunk, and gently pushed my bag full of refugees into its darkness.

I locked my car, and I went back to work, trying to be normal, trying to forget that hidden cargo. At odd times I would remember, though–I’d think about the book that had been so handled and used, read time and again, that its cover was separating from its binding. THAT book, flung onto a discard table.

Was that sadder, I debated with myself, than the pristine book, twenty years old, whose ‘date due’ card revealed it had never been checked out?

What is worse, I’d debate, book abuse or book neglect? I would ponder; I would be paralyzed by sadness.

And then the phone would ring, and I would be compelled to shake it off and trudge through my daily commitments.

My son helped me drag the bag into the house when I got home from work, and he gently unpacked the volumes onto the dining room table.

My husband came home just as we were surveying the stacks; it seemed like a healthy rescue there on my modest table, but I couldn’t stop thinking of those left behind.

“Oh,” sighed Mark, “what have you done?”

I shrugged, my eyes on the books.

“We’ve talked about this,” he began, but his voice was gentle.

I snaked out a hand; I plucked a biography of Teddy Roosevelt from the top of a stack. I thrust it at him.

Mark took the book, and he gave me an agonized look. And then he went to sit in the reading chair and pore through the  table of contents.


We worked the rescued books into the shelves; the resident books sighed and shuffled and made reluctant but understanding room. I went to chop onions for the stir fry, leaving them to work things out.

Later that night, when Mark and the boy were both long in bed, I stood in the doorway of the living room and listened. The new books were softly anxious.

What will she….???

No worries, whispered the resident volumes. They all love books here.

I felt an expulsion of relief from the newcomers.

Then: Will she READ us? asked a plaintive little voice.

There was a pause, and then an answer came from the cooking memoir section.

Well, it said, she ain’t as quick now as she used to be. But yeah. I think she’ll read you.

This wasn’t my conversation. My cheeks burned at intruding. I grabbed the Father Brown Omnibus, and I took it up to the bathroom with me. In the sighing of the sleeping house, I murmured, You’re privately owned now. You have a home.

And I tried to pry off the Library of Congress sticker on its spine. The years, though, had done their work; the sticker had become part of the cover. The library years would always be evident.

Well, I ruminated, that isn’t the worst thing in the world.


Just before sleep, I checked my texts, and two of my peeps had sent photos.  More books were in safe hands that night.

And we were not the only ones; there were network members whose names we’d never know, whose faces we’d never see–or people quietly walking the hallways, going about their business, whose cars held rescued cargo, waiting to be transported to a new and welcoming home. People we worked side by side with every day, hidden rescuers, keeping the words safe.

I slid into bed, and Mark rolled over to say goodnight.  He sensed, I knew, my sadness. He murmured, “You just can’t save them all.”

The Roosevelt bio rested on his bedside table, a marker thrust into its pages, one quarter of the way in.

He’s right, I know: we can’t save them all. I thought of the left-behind books in that dark back room. I tried to block out the strident voice of a gleeful pharisee who’d once explained to me that the unclaimed books were ground up to make bedding for cows.

Cow bedding! Don’t TELL me this, I pleaded.

And then, in the quiet dark, I heard a whisper, a whisper that wound upstairs from the bookshelves in the living room, a whisper emanating from the books I’d brought in that day.

HOME, hissed the whisper. We are HOME.

Yes, I thought, yes! You are home, and safe. Safe for the time. Safe as we can make you, safe as hardcover books can be in a digital age.

I pulled the blanket around me. I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I got up and went to work. And I carried with me that capacious, sturdy bag. Who knows when the next call will come, or the next email arrive.

I cannot predict the day or the hour. I can only know that, when it does, I’ll be ready.


Considering What to Write on the First Cold Day of Autumn

First, I thought I’d write about history.

I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.

And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.

They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.

But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.

There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep  receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.

Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.

Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?

Is it always better to know?

I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.

And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.

The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”

We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.

I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.

I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’

And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.

So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.

I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.

It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.

By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.

The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.

I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.

We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.

I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings.  I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.

I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.

And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some  water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.

The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.

I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.

The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.

Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.

And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.

The wind blew.  I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks.  Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.

And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.

Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.

Season of Change


In the early mornings, the little dog Greta goes outside, and she skitters and twitches. Acorns dead-fall from the trees; they land on the street with a pocka pocka. Their hard berets snap off and roll. The dropping acorns make the dog dance.

Some mornings there is fog, too. As Greta steps forward, into the street, out of the driveway, a deer might loom up out of the mist. The dog will turn and bolt for home.

Dark begins to spread at 7:30 PM now; the dog goes outside then, and there are whole families of deer grazing in the gloaming. Greta stands and sniffs, wary. Up on the hill, up by the Helen Purcell home, six deer stop, silhouetted. Two are mature, watchful mamas; two are tiny, leggy, still spotted. One of the inbetweeners has antlers just beginning to sprout. Their heads turn; they gaze at the dog. Their ears rotate like radar panels.

Then they turn and lollop down the wooded hill.

Squirrels dart and scrabble up trunks, clutching acorns in their teeth.  Greta cautiously feels her way in the teeming early dark.

It is autumn, and things are changing.

Jim sets up a work space in the bay window of the dining room; he has a new tall table that just fits into that nook. He plugs in a new laptop, and, once it’s up and running, loads it with new software. He borrows a bedside table from the little guest room and sets up the printer-scanner when it arrives. He has successfully written a grant for this equipment; the local disability services program has funded his purchases.

In the afternoons, from 2:00 until 5:00, he sorts recipes, types them neatly onto pages with headers and footers, creates tables of contents and indexes. He prints and punches and puts things into binders, creating order out of chaos and creating family cookbooks from shoeboxes full of long-kept recipes.

A local advocacy group asks Jim if he might be able to write a skit for them. He attends a meeting, listens as a group of gentle people brainstorm how to demonstrate what it’s like to be an adult with a disability. How can they show children how bad it feels when people are mean and cruel, and also how nice it is when people are kind and welcoming? They percolate a scenario: a boy on a beach, a careening kid smashing into his sand castle. Two possible outcomes.

Jim types it up, adds a strong narrative voice, sculpts the two endings, a sad one and a happy. He emails it to Missy, the group’s facilitator, and her feedback is warmly enthusiastic. They will take this skit on the road.

Jim has his own small business, a daily purpose, and a skit in production. He walks a little taller.

It is autumn, a time when things are changing.

Things are changing for some very dear people.

A lifetime friend texts on her way home from chemo–her second to last session. Done by Thanksgiving: let’s hope there’ll be reasons for her to give deep, fervent thanks. Her illness has forever transformed her life, but surely this treatment will bring change for the better.

A talented friend who has devoted herself to scholarship, juggling family and job and graduate school, pushing, pushing, gets a call with an offer of a dream job. Her hard work has opened doors. How nice, how just and nice: people who deserve to snatch the golden ring sometimes get to do that. She is open, welcoming change.

I have coffee with a friend and colleague. We talk, and I remember what it was like to be young and hurt, bereft and deeply betrayed. I remember what it’s like, first, to learn to trust, and then, to learn to dare. She is going on a date, and this carefully thought-through outing could truly be a game-changer, the first step on a path to new richness.

It’s autumn, when people dare to take chances. They dare to change.

On a cool September Saturday morning, Wendy and I park on the grass beyond a school in a lovely suburban community, and we follow the crowd to the commons. A band plays and an announcer’s voice blares from a dais. Our official numbered tags, with the computer chips glued to the back, are safety-pinned to our t-shirts.  We mill in the crowd; we bounce on the balls of our feet, neither of us entirely sure about our new sneakers. We find our corral, in the back, with the other 10K walkers who are participating, not competing.

Others have long sleeves and layers in the morning cool; we rub our arms and hop up and down, and we are glad when we begin to move.

We’re glad, too, NOT to have layers to peel as the sun burns off the mist and we walk by a sapphire man-made lake, by wooden bridges leading from walkways to golf courses, by sprawling, lavish, pink-bricked houses. And by a violinist serenading us from atop a hill.

We chose the 10K over the half-marathon this time–a challenge still, but not one that required focused, manic training all summer long. We chose to walk just for the sake of walking and not to be timed or ranked. It’s a good push, a worthy walk, and we gather up our bling at the finish line, eat a quartered Asiago bagel each, accept plastic cups of organic chocolate milk, and then we find the car and head back to Zanesville.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

Mark and Jim go to the used book store and come home with three stout boxes of beautiful note-cards, discovered on the clearance rack. They hand them to me, grinning. I open up a pack that night and write a letter to a friend.

At work, one day, I find a basket twined with scarlet and gold silky leaves on my office table; it is filled with squash and gourds and sweet potatoes and apples, all nestled around a round pie pumpkin. There is a little basket of ripe pears.  I think of a home-baked pie, slices of apple and pear, the warm scent of cinnamon, a sugary, flaky crust.


The next day, outside my office door, two burlap bags heavy with golden and red skinned potatoes wait for me. That night, I coat a chunk of boneless pork with olive oil; I roll it in a thick coating of herbs and spices, and I surround it, in the heavy glass baking pan, with neatly cubed potatoes. I crumble herbs, dash salt and pepper.

They roast for two hours, the potatoes and the pork, perfuming the house with their sizzle, crisping and browning. We sauté up a panful of veggies, the last of the summer squash, onions, carrots, peppers, all fresh from a friend’s bountiful farm. And we feast, that night, on things grown in the dirt of this place we call home.

At a meeting, Terry hands out bags of homemade party mix, salty and sweet and crunchy, and coated in a butterscotch-y glaze. I bring it home to share, but it’s so good, I rue the generous impulse. Mark and I race each other to get to the bag.

I’m glad Terry included the recipe.

It’s a time of gifts and plenty.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

The days are warm still, but not nearly so humid.  The morning word puzzle tells me this: Summer’s heat ripens the apples; autumn’s heat turns them into cider.

On Friday nights, the blare of the announcer–as bland and opaque as the voice of a Charlie Brown grownup–floats up the hill from the football field.

Some mornings it’s too cool to sit outside with my coffee.

My work hours shift.

Fall meetings begin, and Saturday mornings become busy times. The yards need tending; rain has persuaded the grass to grow. Bushes need to be trimmed and flowering plants, their leaf tips browning now as the growing season winds down, need to be clipped for their winter’s dormancy.

We read, over and over, that the Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be a harsh one. Plenty of snow, deep levels of cold.  We clean the coats that go safely in the washer; we take the coats we cannot wash to the dry cleaner’s. We pick them up, soft and fresh in their plastic, bag-tied coverings. We hang them, ready, in the front hall closet.

It’s autumn, and things are changing.

And the shelves of supermarkets and drugstores bulge with fat bags of candy sheathed in oranges and browns, candy glitzy in golden wrappers. The frozen custard stand has pumpkin milkshakes.  Panera offers sugared pumpkin muffins. The Riesbeck flyer highlights pumpkin roll, freshly made in their bakery.

Campaign rhetoric grows more rapid and more rancorous. I carve out campaign free zones, places of civility, but there is no doubt that the elections are coming.

It’s autumn, and there WILL be change.

In person and on FaceBook and in letters, many people say this: Autumn is my favorite season. There is a sense of both motion and comfort.

There is a drawing in, as daylight shortens and the growing time ends. The freezers are full. There are gleaming jars, filled by other industrious people’s hard work, of jewel-toned jams and jellies and salsa on my pantry shelves. The long push of summer is done; classes are back in session. Energy seems to lift and settle.

At night, I have the urge to knit.
I begin to plan for holidays.
I turn from the light and frothy books of summer and I settle in with some serious reading.

There is a looking forward to a season of tournaments and holidays and families and friends reuniting.

There is a sense of calm urgency: time to bundle things in, time to clean things up. Time to get ready for the winter.

It’s autumn. It is time for change.


I’m wandering down the hallway, past conference rooms and faculty offices, to the open area where the copy machine co-exists with the kitchen and the mail cubbies. My head is down, and I’m mulling the copies I’m collecting and the next steps in the project. I look up to see a vibrant young faculty colleague, who stops abruptly.

She says to me, surprised, “YOU look nice.”

I grin at her implication, and she back pedals.

“I mean, you ALWAYS look nice. But today–” she sputters, and then she recovers. “Well,” she says. “That’s a great color on you!”

I thank her kindly as I gather in the pages of my report; she scoops her mail from its compartment and hurries back to her office.

I know why she was startled. That day, I wore a DRESS to work. It may have been the first time in five years,– or more,–that I went to work in something other than slacks.

For me–and, I’m guessing, for lots of other women my age–there’s still a hint of victory and empowerment in the freedom to wear pants. In the late nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the years of my early childhood, women wore dresses–they wore them to school and church and work. They wore them around the house; they wore them to burp babies and mop floors.

Think Beaver’s mama with those pearls and the perfectly baked roast on the immaculate, groaning board when the family gathered for dinner. I came into clarity in THOSE days.

House-dresses: that was what we called the work-in-the-home uniform our mothers wore. The garments were cotton, often, and easily cleaned, although still they needed to be ironed. (Everything needed to be ironed in those days; hence the presence, in every home I knew, of a bushel basket full of tightly rolled clothes and household linens, sprinkled with water from a glass ketchup bottle with holes poked in its lid. Dampened so the wrinkles wouldn’t completely set, the clean laundry waited for ironing day. The basket never really emptied, even though, in that era, we weren’t nearly so profligate about throwing gently worn clothing into the wash.)

The five-and-dime had racks of inexpensive house-dresses for five, or six, or (oh, extravagance!) nine dollars; those dresses, which buttoned all the way down the front, had flowers printed on yokes and hems and plackets. They were plaid and gingham and checked and striped. There was a clear attempt by manufacturers to dress up a garment that symbolized long days of unending work.

At home, my mother wore ankle socks to work in, and cheap white canvas sneakers. To go out, even to the grocery store, the rules said a woman must wear hose. Before Mom would drive the tank-like Buick to the Nu-Way to go shopping, she would go trudging upstairs to snap on her stockings.

She favored the kind with seams in the back, still available even though they were passing quickly out of style. She held them up with garters–not at all a risque’ endeavor, as those garters were attached to a iron-paneled girdle. My wiry little mother–5’4″ and 120 pounds–had no real reason for that kind of reigning in.  But women, in those days, wore girdles. A careening child who banged up against a mama’s belly would boomerang; those tummies were tautly stretched trampolines of rayon and elastic.

Hose were also required at church and ladies’ club meetings and at the playing of cards around card tables in polished living rooms. Card club had its requirements, for sure, and ash trays, lipstick, and panty girdles were chief among them.

There were strict gender rules governing dressing, of course. Boys could go shirtless. Girls: never. Boys never wore skirts, unless they were Scottish, like my uncles, who wore kilts for ceremonial events. And kilts, they sternly explained, were NOT women’s skirts. Girls did not wear pants to church, ever; they did wear hats there, always. Boys NEVER wore hats in church. Even when I was very young, the rules seemed random and unfair.

Little girls like me got away with pants at times. I had three older brothers, and I was the glad recipient of hand-me-down blue jeans (we called them dungarees; I don’t know why) and corduroy pants with warm flannel linings. I could wear those out to play in mud and rain and snow. Summer brought shorts. (I don’t remember my mother in pants, in those early days, but she and her contemporaries gladly donned demure shorts in the summer.)

The first chinks in the must-wear-dresses armor that I remember were wool plaid bermuda shorts, which high school and college girls wore to football games and dances. The bermudas were topped by crew-neck cable knit sweaters  worn over shirts with button-down collars.  The outfit required that knee-high socks matched the sweater; those socks must stay crisply up and never slouch. I remember my babysitter, Phyllis, showing me her secret trick: rubber bands. She slipped tight rubber bands under the tops of her knee socks, folding the ribbing over. Just below the knees, she had angry red indentations, but her knee socks never faltered.

Little girls wore anklets or sturdily knit knee highs; wearing stockings was an eagerly sought rite of passage to glamorous teenager-hood. My first adventure into big-girl hosiery involved a panty girdle and stockings that clipped on. That must have been grade six or so; by the middle of that year, the revolutionary new panty hose had hit the scene.

Panty hose were a clear advance, but they were imperfect at first. Colors were sparse–you could have ‘nude,’ or you could have ‘suntan’; forget anything else, no matter your skin tone. Fit was tricky.  To get the waistband accurate, the legs might be too short–awkward!–or too long: puddly. I was devastated by my best friend’s mother’s critique of my appearance as narrator at our sixth grade holiday program:

–Red velvet dress: very nice.
–Panty hose: very droopy.

Manufacturers quickly made improvements, and walking into seventh grade, we were a panty-hose clad girl army.

The mamas  at this time were moving, too–they were, in the aftermath of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and a new movement of women into the workplace, wearing slacks. They were dress slacks, to be sure–I can’t remember Mom putting on a pair of jeans until well into the 1970’s–and those panty girdles were dropped, too, by many. A woman could  look very professional with knee high sheer stockings under the nicely creased pants.

I walked into high school wearing a dress and panty hose, and I walked out wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket.  It was 1969 when I began, and at my small city high school, the dress code still demanded that girls wear skirts. We grumbled and muttered; many parents, my mother among them, maintained that slacks, in those days of mini-skirts, were actually a more modest, less provocative way of dressing.

The next year the school relented so far as to allow pant suits, horrible inventions for the most part. I remember my first one: it was turquoise polyester. The pants had an elastic waist.  There was a voluminous turquoise vest, and a silky, long sleeved  rayon blouse in a wild print. The whole thing was breathless and scary looking, and the pants, when the waistband stayed where it was supposed to stay, were too short.

That era was short-lived, thank goodness. By my junior year, the school had thrown in the towel, so to speak. Long bell-bottom jeans became our uniform–they were best if the legs were so long we trod on the backs, breaking down the fibers with our heels. Scraggly dangling threads trailed behind you if your jeans were long enough for you to be cool. I liked to wear dressy tops–velvet jackets, suede vests, gauzy long sleeved shirts–and glitzy costume jewelry to contrast the distressed denim.

Dresses were for fairly formal events–proms and awards ceremonies, for instance.  My graduation dress was so mini that two years later, in college, I wore it as a tunic. (Another argument for long graduation gowns.)

Fashion, in those wild days of the 1970’s, became a statement of many things. Some august males–priests, pundits, and politicians–snickered at the thought that women felt their clothing was such a big deal. But the ability to wear pants represented new worlds open to women and girls–professionals worlds like police work and manufacturing engineering and piloting and medicine. Close-to-home worlds like Little League baseball and varsity tennis and other sports opened their doors.  There was even  a girl kicker on a local high school football team, a thing that would have been completely impossible just five years before.

Clothes were important. Gloria Steinem reminded us that the political WAS personal. And vice versa, as well.


I wore dresses, a lot, when I got my first teaching job at a wonderful little inner-city Catholic school.  I shifted more and more to dress pants and jackets as I moved into the post-secondary world, until finally–after marriage and kids and long, long commutes shaped my style in a kind of whirlwind fashion tumbler,–I didn’t wear outfits, very darned often, that demanded a pair of panty hose.

Even though I’ve left the teaching realm and work year-round, the Fall semester still brings that sense of openness and possibility that ‘back to school’ engenders. There’s a feeling that it’s time to buff up the wardrobe, to get my new fall clothes in line. So this year, I threw open my closet doors to investigate, and I thought–Gosh all get-out, I actually own a couple of dresses. And some suits with skirts.  And a fun plaid full length maxi.

Why, I wondered, don’t I ever wear those?

So I decided that, once a week from now on, I’ll dress up. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d done so until I encountered that young faculty member’s shock.

I like both things–the dressy, official feel of a jacketed suit, the free-wheeling freedom of a nice pair of slacks.  I feel good–although differently good–in both.  They remind me how much things have changed. They remind me that my generation–and the generations of women that follow us–has a wonderfully dazzling array of choices.

They remind me of the limitations women of my mother’s era, and oh, yea, those eras before, had to function within. They remind me that women in some other cultures don’t have nearly the options I am lucky enough to enjoy. I am the beneficiary of lots of gritty hard work and daring sacrifice by many determined people. (When I think that women in the United States were granted voting rights less than one hundred years ago–that there are women voting now who were born before their mothers had that right!–I am rocked into appreciation.)

The ability to choose, to carefully iron a nice skirt, to pick up a pair of comfortable and decidedly UN-droopy pair of panty hose at Kroger, and to choose a day, once a week, to ‘dress up,’ reminds me that I have a lot of freedom. It’s freedom that’s changed and grown and deepened during my very lifetime.

The personal IS political, isn’t it? So here’s what I’ve decided: every week, one day, I’m choosing to wear a skirt.

Using What We’ve Got

We climbed the sweeping stone staircase into the Carnegie wing of our local library–into the oldest, original part, lovingly preserved through several renovations.  We walked through an arch into a long, high-ceiling, gracious room; it was a room which curved forward and beckoned visitors in and on.  The late afternoon light gentled in through soaring windows.

People mingled, chatting softly; a man bent to sign a guest book on a little table, mid-room, that also offered visitors a dipper of punch and a sweet little nosh. But mostly people browsed and angled, stepping up close to, backing away from, cocking their heads at, exploring from every angle, the colorful art of John Taylor-Lehman. (

He’s a bottle cap artist, Taylor-Lehman is.  He pounds and flattens, cuts and trims; he molds and he builds up and out.  He works with the colors of the bottle caps themselves; he gradiates, for instance, the bottle-cap blues of a sky, deepening into the almost navy of Bud Light.

Mark stepped close to see how the caps attached to canvas. Nail gun, he posited.

There was a simple flower in a vase–happiness.  There was an intricately realistic sideview of a car (that one was ‘NFS’–claimed, already) On the grand piano, a dog sculpture stood about two feet high, complete with red, lolling, bottle cap tongue. Animals. Flowers. A leering skull, a preying water beast.

We marveled at the creativity.  We joked about the sacrifice many people must have made to empty all those bottles.

On the way out, we stopped to admire a sign Taylor-Lehman made to welcome people. It’s a carved and polished wooden bottle cap, maybe 18 inches round. “Use what you’ve got,” it reads.

I think about that all week.

I think about, for instance, another local artist, a man known as the “Old Man from the Mountain,” “Blind Sculptor,” and “Boom Maker,” Rick Crooks. Crooks has been blind since age 16, when a gun accident robbed him of his eyesight, but he sees, ironically, things other people don’t. Crooks takes scraps–rusted metal gas cans, spent spark plugs, discarded tools, and he turns them into pieces of art–dragonflies and pelicans, turtles and alligators, tall giraffes and lumbering elephants. He uses the materials at hand. He hones the senses available to him.

Crooks’ work has been featured in private galleries. At the Y-Bridge Art Festival in Zanesville, Ohio, this August, his art won The People’s Choice award. Crooks takes what anyone else might call trash, what anyone else might throw away,–he takes the things he has– and he makes them into something compelling. (

I think about a wonderfully crafted, historically rich, mystery novel by Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club. Dallas tells the story of a group of women quilters in Dust Bowl Kansas in the 1930’s. They are farm wives and widows, mostly, or the businesses their husbands run depend upon the success of local farms to stay afloat. It is a time of parched drought and dangerous winds.

Queenie is the narrator, a valiant, young woman, buoyed by the love of a good man. Which is essential, because she has lost everyone else–parents dead, no extended family, and the baby she and Grover tried so hard to conceive born early with no chance of survival. The women of the Club surround and protect her, and still she is lonely–lonely for spark and adventure and youthful fun.

And that’s when Rita, the flashy, big city wife of Tom, Grover’s best friend, enters the scene.  Rita is rash and blunt and perfectly turned out.  She doesn’t understand the kind of life these women endure–the daily grind of farmwork appalls her.  And yet she tries to fit in, to match her hurried, slapdash stitches to the careful artistry of these women who have been quilting together, in one configuration or another, since the oldest of them received a gift of Persian Pickle fabric from her brand new husband years and years and years ago.

Rita comes to the quilters’ group with her mother-in-law; she admires the work of the women. She says that she wants to be a quilter, too, and she says she thinks that she’ll send Tom down to the five and dime to pick her up some  fabric so she can start.

There is a careful silence; the women don’t want to offend this hot-house flower, this exotic creature with whom Queenie longs, so deeply, to be friends. And then they reach into their bags of scraps, each of them, and they snip off bits of fabric.  They pass them to Rita. They tell her stories of where that fabric came from–whose dress, which shirt, which bridal bower. They anchor the swatches in time and place.  They give Rita the history of the bits and snippets of cloth they pass her way.

Because they know something Rita, for all her city ways and worldly knowledge, does not. They know that true art is created by salvaging the usable parts from the finally unredeemable dress, saving the scraps from the careful piecing of a shirt made for a hard-working brother, cutting the sheet–worn thin in the middle, into pieces for the scrap bag. Real art is made by taking these and crafting them into a blanket, a thing of beauty and vision.

Real art, Queenie knows, but cannot find the words to share with Rita–real art is made by using what you’ve got.


Quilting wasn’t invented in the United States, but it seems to me a representation of the best kind of American spirit–that frontier, figure-it-out, what’s on hand, kind of passion and ingenuity. So you have the amazing creations of the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated hamlet that somehow encouraged generations of poor women to create bold, imaginative, out-of-the-box creations celebrated in a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.(

You have the bridal quilt, carefully folded and wrapped in tissue, kept in an aging cedar chest–a gift to a young bride in 1890 from her new mother-in-law.  Made from scraps, made into what most women recognized as the wedding ring pattern, the quilt warmed the marriage bed, soothed sick children, flapped on a clothes line in an autumn wind, became a treasured heirloom.  A thing created from leftovers, castaway bits, become a family treasure.

Now we try to buy that quality, rather than creating it.

Don’t get me wrong. There is something wonderful about purchasing a piece of art from a creator like John Taylor-Lehman, about proudly displaying one of Rick Crooks’ sculptures on the family shelves. But it seems to me we’ve lost that urge to improvise, that creative spark that says, Hmm. What do I have that I could use instead?

So we watch Chip and Joanna Gaines uncover and celebrate the ship-lap paneling in an old Texas house, and we think, “I want that!” And we go out and buy ship-lap paneling to apply to, say, our northeastern walls. And it looks great, probably–it’s wonderful to recreate a warm and welcoming household ambience.


The point of a ‘fixer-upper’ is to fix what you’ve got. Maybe I should be thinking, What’s under MY wall?

I think about artistic friends, Kay and Brian, who renovated an old gas station into an amazing sprawl of a funky, innovative, smile-making home.  In their little bathroom, parts of the plaster wall have chipped away, revealing the brick beneath. Brian and Kay, instead of patching or covering, have celebrated and highlighted the exposed brick, and the bathroom’s charm benefits incredibly.  Exposed brick: the north’s answer to ship-lap?

Only if you’ve got it. Use what you’ve got.

There’s a reason we loved MacGyver so much, loved that he cracked an egg into an overheated radiator to plug up its leaks and make his escape in a rusting, supposedly useless, beater he leveraged in an arid southwestern town.  MacGyver could take what was on hand, spread out his choices, pick and choose and cut and trim to fit. He could make machines work and messages fly and bad guys stop.  MacGyver had that thing we called ‘Yankee Ingenuity.’

If he didn’t have what he needed, he used what he had to make it.

These days, we’d often just go out and buy it.

I’m missing something, I think, when I do that. I’m missing something when I run out of disposable wet-pads for my Swiffer and think, Well, I can’t wash the floor! Then I run across a pattern on Pinterest that tells me how to knit Swiffer pads, and I think: Wait a minute. I go searching for my rag bag, and I pull out a batch of soft white t-shirts, worn thin and holey in the armpits, that Mark has just let go of.  I trace a Swiffer pad onto the stack of t-shirts. I cut the soft cloth, which fits snugly onto the cleaning tool. I mix up a batch of cleaning potion, and I dip the improvised Swiffer pad into it.

Huh.  Looky there. I AM able to clean my floor.

I slip old socks onto my duster instead of buying disposable refills for that, too.

I amaze myself by being able to clean without shopping.

Use what you’ve got, I think.

And what else could I be doing? We need baskets for the eternally messy cubbies in the dining room, and I think about running to the home store to buy them. And then I remember the stack of boxes in the basement, shoe boxes and packing boxes–boxes that, when I bring them up and slide them into the openings, fit perfectly into the cubbies.  They’re not pretty, though, and they don’t match, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to make them do.

I think of mod podge and my stack of glossy magazines and I think I can morph those boxes into organizing containers that fit snugly into the currently messy spaces.

I find a children’s book in a stack in my closet. It’s boldly illustrated in blacks and reds and yellows–the colors, in fact, are the same colors I favor in my kitchen.  The book is old and tattered and not worthy of sharing with a child, and I could throw it out. Or–I could dig out the old picture frames and my matting tools, buried under those boxes I want to re-purpose. I could cull the prettiest, brightest pictures. I could matte and frame and hang them in my kitchen.

I’m thinking of using the sad, limp veggies in the crisper to make some broth.

I’m thinking of crunching up the last of the frosted flakes to make tiger cookies, a recipe I loved as a child.

I’m thinking of long-simmered stews and casseroles and skillets that deftly, tastily, combine the things we have on hand.

I’m thinking of gift wrap and greetings and the yarn patiently waiting in my big craft basket.

I’m thinking, this week, of quelling the impulse to shop out my needs.

I’m thinking of how to embrace the challenge.

I’m thinking I need to get better at using what I’ve got.

Once: A Whiter Shade of Pale in a Coppertoned World

The prompt in my writer’s book of days instructs, “Write about a chronic failure.” The slip of paper from my prompt jar (I’m greedy, I know: I always take two prompts, in case one is just awful) suggests “sun.” The two converge, and, I realize, this is the story prompted, needled out: that tale of a youth spent chasing a suntan.


This summer, for the first time in decades, I pulled on my granny bathing suit and went to the swimming pool.

I was visiting a dear friend, a swimmer, who lives in a town with a community pool. And that community pool has what I like to call a ‘maturity hour,’ from 5 till 6 PM, when everyone under 18 is ejected.  The ejection of children means the young parents leave, too, and the ejection of pretty young women means all the interested young men exit voluntarily, as well. What’s left is the senior contingent, a gentle, friendly, group, non-taxing in terms of fitness or fashion.

While there were some eye-rollers–like the saggy, 80-year-old scrawny man in a Speedo–in that group, mostly there were people in modest suits, people of indeterminate body shape, varied skin tones, and different degrees of outdoor exposure.  There were a lot of people, I was gratified to note, whose legs, like mine, shone pale and white when we climbed out of the pool and into the shaded Adirondack chairs as the youthful horde was re-admitted at 6:00 on the nose. It was nice to be in company with some proudly pale–nice, because it certainly was not always thus.


“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

Someone would say that, and my mother’s head would pop up smartly. She’d march over to where I sat in the comfortably fuzzy red armchair, reading, maybe, one of those little biographies of historical people, or the story of Mrs. Mike, or a compelling tale about Freddy the Pig. She would pluck the book from my longing hands and point me abruptly outdoors.

Somedays, I’d be able to smuggle a book outdoors with me. I’d read in the shade of the scrubby old tree by the old brown, rickety garage–positioning myself BETWEEN tree and garage, so if Mom looked out, she wouldn’t see that I’d just moved my activity of choice to a place with rough bark and biting spiders.

Somedays, there’d be a wiffle ball or a kickball game in full play, and I would be allowed in, allowed to join the game that took place in our backyard ball field, where the base paths and pitcher’s mound were irrevocably pounded clean of grass and dandelions–bare dirt paths, always, despite determined seeding.

Somedays, friends would come over, and we would venture into the fields out back, to a little rise we called “the island,” and we would act out stories from books–Swiss Family Robinson adventures, maybe, or the lives of made-up lady explorers patterned on people we’d read about in our aging geography texts at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.

But it didn’t matter. I could be outdoors from dawn till dusk, and the next day, a visitor might say it again.

“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”

I didn’t care about my paleness until the summer after eighth grade  That year, I lost a great deal of weight. That summer I became aware of rules of attractiveness and attractivity.

That summer, in the waning years of the 1960’s, a time of Coppertone ads and aggressive tanning all based on the actual sun,–that year, I began to want a tan.

Back then, my red hair was natural, and I had a redhead’s pale, milky-blue skin. One of my brothers told me that I was actually a rare kind of albino–there are only a few, he said, that have red hair and pigment in their eyelashes; only a few, and they tend to die very young. Probably, in fact, he said, around age 14,–and I, of course, was almost 13 then.

As gullible as I was ashen, the knowledge of my doom kept me awake for about a week. Finally, tiredness etching purple circles even more deeply under my eyes, and my mother wondering if perhaps an emetic of some sort might be in order, I confessed to her my imminent demise. She went tearing through the house in search of my helpfully informative brother. Relieved to know my paleness didn’t signal an early death, I went back to yearning for a golden, sun-kissed glow.

It was not a time of SPF’s or sun-blockers; it was an era of baby oil and foil reflectors. We made the reflectors ourselves, covering torn chunks of folded cardboard boxes with aluminum foil filched from the kitchen cupboard (“PAMELA!!!!  Where is my foil???????”), holding them under our chins so the friendly sun would bounce up to warm our winter-white faces, intensifying the tanning purportedly taking place, unenhanced, every place else.

Maybe those foil reflectors worked.  Some of my friends had perfectly tanned faces. Some had batches of freckles (“the map of Ireland,” my father called those friendly spots) that intensified; they threatened to connect, they were so dense.

My face burned a bright vermilion. I would take off my glasses at night, and the shape of those glasses would still be there, crisp white lines etched perfectly onto the burned skin.  I would rub Noxzema lotion into my hot red cheeks.  Friends told me not to worry; their burns always morphed gently into tans.

Two days later, my face would once again be pale.  My legs remained resolutely white.

Someone suggested, or a book somewhere opined, that mixing iodine into the baby oil would call out a tan.  I used babysitting money to buy a bottle of iodine at West Drug, walking downtown one exciting morning on this quest.  I mixed my potion and placed my blanket down in the backyard–scrupulously regular, in those summers before working obligations messed with tanning time–between 11 AM and 2 PM each day.  I wanted the sun’s peak rays.  I wanted to evenly offer up both sides to the possibility of sun-kissed skin.

Sometimes, I imagined Looney Tunes vultures circling high above, squinting at my oil-soaked body and trying to decide if what they saw was indeed a giant slice of well-marbled bacon. I endured the visits of the boy next store, a nice guy with a unibrow (“He has a crush on you,” my mother insisted, but I knew he pined deeply for my dear friend Sandi), who always threatened to get the hose and soak me.

The iodine seemed, maybe, to increase my chances of burning. And I never seemed to get the equal toasting of each side correct.  Often my front would be raging red, while my nether parts were forlornly white. Sometimes my shoulders would burn so badly they blistered, and the wearing of dainty underwear was a socially necessary torture.

The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I discovered tennis. I became passionate about the game and about the nice group of people who hung around the tennis courts. They were mostly a year older than I; they were oh-so-nicely tanned–some had natural sun streaks in their flippy hair. They were mostly boys, cute and smart and funny. I spent hours on the tennis courts, falling in and out of love.

The courts were new. They glinted in the sun, reflecting its rays–someone told me they were an environmentally friendly mix of paving materials and ground up glass. A miracle happened: by the beginning of July that summer, my legs had warmed to a soft creamy beige. My friends still laughed as they stretched their bronzed limbs beside mine.  But there was color there–color like the hue of a teaspoon of coffee mixed with a cup of skim milk.

It gave me hope. See? I thought. If I just work diligently enough, sun-warmed color IS possible.

There followed years of foolish pursuit–of nights, in the college years, spent working at the ice cream factory, and days falling asleep beside my good friend’s swimming pool. Water, they say, intensifies the burning power of the sun.  I would wake up hours later, the baby oil baked away, in pain and howling. One side would be neon, with the other side looking like unbaked dough.  And then I’d rush home to pull on painful white polyester work clothes and go to the land of popsicle packing.

One night during that particular summer, after a long day of sun-sleep, parboiled and aching, we went to dinner, some of us, at our friend Polly’s.  Polly was a complete original, short and round and fearlessly magnetic. Long before it was a practice, she was living with her fiance, and too bad if her parents didn’t like it. You didn’t dare Polly, and you knew, if there was a new and dangerous thing to be tried, she’d be the first in line for the trying.

That night,–that humid, 90-degree night,–she had decided to cook a full-out turkey dinner in her stuffy upstairs, un-air-conditioned, apartment. And we, because being in Polly’s circle was so much fun, we trooped up to eat turkey, despite our sweaty trepidations.

I was especially taken by the stuffing, which had a zingy herbal shimmer, and Polly, glinty of eye, delighted in spooning more onto my dish.

We ate the dinner; we quaffed, unwisely, a chilly glass of wine or two, and we took it in turns to don our work clothes in Polly and Ken’s tiny bathroom.  And then Polly asked, moments before we trooped down the stairs to work our graveyard shift, just how we’d liked the stuffing.

“It was good!” I said. “It was different.  What kind of spices did you use?”

Polly beamed. “Marijuana!” she said. “I sautéed marijuana in the butter with the onion.”

I thought about the six or seven helpings she had scooped onto my plate.  A little bubble of panic rose.

“Ah,” I said.

And then the panic bubble softly popped. Behind it rose a cluster of giggles. We bustled down the stairs; we punched in at the factory floating a few inches above the popsicle-slicked floor.

“Ladies!” greeted our brusque, rough boss.

“Ah,” I replied softly and I positioned myself in front of the rows of marching popsicles. That evening I played those pops like a Fantasia symphony, flipping and packing them, gentling them beautifully into their boxy cardboard cradles. When people spoke to me, I smiled and answered with a whispered, “Ah.” The work shift floated by, and I went home to sleep, and then to wake with a horribly raging sunburn I hadn’t much noticed the wafty night before.

I  decided against repeating the pot remedy for sunburn  pains; I was smart enough, at least, never again to report for work, in that scary place of immense sharp chopping things, under that kind of influence.

At last I determined, instead, to try to fake a tan. Coppertone’s QT–that was the product then, guaranteed to turn legs a satisfying shade of beautiful bronze.  One rubbed it on; one waited a mere three hours. Color began to bloom.

Permanent and un-staining, the color was guaranteed to last a week.

Don’t do it! friends warned. It will turn your skin an awful shade of orange. And they cited sad examples.

I looked at the tube. I looked at the mushroom white of my uncooperative skin, and I thought that ANY color would be better than no color.

I slathered my legs with QT, and I waited to orange up.

Three hours later, my legs were the same sheltered shade of white they’d been when I had started.

It was time, I finally realized, to give up. I was never, by any means, going to achieve a glorious golden tan.

And then the connection between skin cancers and overtanning became widely evident, and I could feel a little justified in my white, white tones.  I cultivated gauzy, soft, pants; I explored floaty shirts with three-quarter length sleeves.  I swam, of course, with kids and students and at family get-togethers.  I swam, and then I covered up.

And then the vortex of the middle-aged years swept in, and even family swimming in the midst of busy summers ceased happening. Reasons to be abashed by my whiteness in a sea of healthy tans just up and disappeared.  The quest for even a pale, fine tan: it fizzled out and faded away.

Until this summer, when swimming in the company of other unconcerned people brought those memories roaring back.


It is good, I think now, good to be at an age when I can gently laugh at my young yearning for some kind of physical perfection,–something, of course, that is always out of reach. How nice–how wonderful–to be so far beyond those days that the things that were the underlying pleasure–like the splash of chilly water on a muggy, scalding day–can be appreciated without self-consciousness.  Enjoyed merely because it’s refreshing–and not because I look good doing it.

What I had then, my friend, was a failure to tan, and an unwise worship of an unrelenting sun.  My quest was always doomed to failure.  I think I must have learned something from it, something about individual style and being happy with who I was–and something about always asking Polly for a list of ingredients before eating anything she fixed.

Now I enjoy my outdoor times early in the mornings and in the last warm glow of summer nights. I can sit and listen to the cicada harmonies and smell the spice of Ohio outdoors after a lovely summer rain; I can stretch my long, white, battle-scarred legs, propping my feet on the coffee table Mark made from an old swinging door, and I can be content. I am who I am; we glow how we’re made. It’s enough.

And anyway. I’ll always have  that one, glorious, tennis-playing summer when I, actually and proudly, achieved beige.

And to Think That I Saw It On the Drive to Mount Vernon!

(With apologies for mine  to you know wheuuusss…)

I was driving, on a Sunday,
in my car, down Maple Street,
anticipating conversation
with good friends
I sped to meet,
When I spied a cheery figure,
her magenta hair in rows,
and her boisterous sky-blue tunic
topping vibrantly pink hose.
She clutched a fuzzy puppy;
she had her neon laces loose
And I thought her a creation
from the pages of Doc Seuss.

It occurred to me
as I sped by
my Hyundai’s wheels a-turnin’
That I never know
what I might see
while driving to Mount Vernon.

Down by the mall
I saw a man
A pullin’ on a cart
emblazoned with a Bible verse
to chill the sinner’s heart.
He pulled the cart
He marched along
Flags, behind, unfurled.
Stared straight ahead,
His visage grim,
A message for the world.

Cart man.jpg

I drove on past
that messenger
his public passion burnin’
There really is a lot to see
While driving to Mount Vernon.

And then I left the busy streets,
Turned onto country roads
All empty but occasional
big trucks with
heavy loads.
In a clearing,
on my left,
old schoolhouse, sagging roof.
A bent-back building where once,
I think,
young scholars sought their truth
Ghosts of teacher, rowdy kids,
A bit of history crumbles
on the roadway to
Mount Vernon.


I passed an old Impala
that was Pepto-Bismol hued,
and a confederate-flag-decked
pick up truck:
rear-view message, RUDE.
And I passed a sky-blue Prius–
bumper sticker: “Co-Exist.”
And I guessed that Mr. Pick-Up Guy
Would read that,
and be pissed.

Truck better

So I saw a lot of slogans
Presenting varied
bents and turnin’s.
There’s LOTS to notice
if I look
while drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

And I passed some country churches.
Some just humble.
Some, big-steepled.
And it was Sunday morning, after all:
those places were well-peopled.
And I like to read
the signs out front.
One offered,
“Baked steak supper!”
Another told me
Jesus is
The Quicker Picker-Upper.


Quite unsure
what that
meant to mean,
I hoped
the steak-bakers
had great earnings,
and I pondered different kinds of faith
As I was drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

I rounded a curve, slid windows up:
the air was getting muggy.
And it was getting sort of perfumed, too,
behind an Amish buggy.
The girls and women,
headed for church,
their horse, sedately clopping.
But up ahead,
the men raced fast,–
one on horseback.
They weren’t stopping.


I zigged and I zagged
past horse-propelled folk,
past wooden cart wheels
I saw many different
modes of life
While drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

And so I arrived a little late;
those sights had made me pokey.
I tumbled out to talk about
Michelle Obama’s karaoke
and well-read books
and recipes
and thoughts on faith and living,
About leaky pipes
and petty gripes
(these dear friends are forgiving.)

The talk meandered, rich and deep,
just what I’d been yearnin’;
A wonderful gift,
a great reward,
for drivin’ to Mount Vernon.

A Freshening

Bathroom Map 2

I dismiss the basement half-bath when we move in.  It is a scary little space, tucked into the back of the basement, behind the stairs. It is cobwebbed and dank, with thin walls abetting its cinder-block sides. It hints of other, lesser beings–spiders and blind-eyed crawling things, rodents, and unknown invaders–who might have taken up residence.

I shudder, and Mark uses the space to store the many shutters we remove from the windows throughout the house. He stacks and leans them inside the ramshackle wall.  There is no door; the only privacy comes from an old pink patterned shower curtain that pulls across a sagging bar. As nice as it would be to have three working bathrooms in the house–imagine, three people: three commodes!–I write off the little space and walk off into busyness and forgetful time.

Some years pass, and Jim grows into young manhood, and he becomes interested in the basement, a warm, dry, claimable space–a space that could be a suite, an efficiency apartment, almost. We start thinking about possibilities.  Mark moves his tools and his workshop out to the unused garage, rigs up a fan, cleans and organizes.

Jim moves his desk and TV and video game systems into the basement.

We go to funky restaurants and look up at the bare-beamed ceilings with their industrial style pot lights, urban, hip, and fun, and we think: our basement ceiling is made of beautiful beams.  It could look like that. We could create this look, this feel.

To make it a fully functional space for Jim, it would be great to have a little kitchen, and it would be great to have a working bathroom, too. And so, one day,–after Mark confessed that he often went downstairs to iron a shirt of a morning and availed himself of the little commode,–“Works great,” he said,–I thought: Okay. Let’s clean it up.

We have, after all, dozens of pails of paint left over from our initial transformation of this house. There is a lovely sky blue, especially, in quantity.  And there are tubs and tubs of glossy white.

So I pull on some plastic gloves and Mark moves the shutters, stashing them under the basement stairs. We throw out the old mouse bait (I tuck fresh bait up into the rafters, just in case); we plug up some suspicious holes with steel wool, and we fill a tall kitchen trash bag with various stuff that had been moldering.  I fire up the shop vac and rid the space of a thick patina of grime and detritus, the nasty, hanging-down fuzziness of neglected basement.  Cleared and open, the space seems safer, more possible.

And now I can fill buckets with steaming soapy water and scrub–scrub walls and ducts and sink and toilet, scrub floor and cinder blocks and pipes.  With my hands in the hot water, wielding the rags, rubbing the outlines of the essential components of this small, forgotten space, I begin to know it. I begin to see what it could really look like, how it could be made to feel.

This could be more than functional, I think.  This could be clean and fun and welcoming.  We could–and then I think: We WILL–transform this space.

And so, of course, we go to Lowes. We buy high-powered, darned near explosive stuff to put in the toilet tank, stuff guaranteed to blast off years of grime and and crud. (It works.) We buy a pristine white toilet seat to replace the translucent gold one, the one that has triangular floating shapes frozen into its amber, a look I sort of remember from friends’ homes way back when, new builds in the 1960’s.

We look at sinks to fit the little niche where the tiny, vintage, corner sink is now, working but rusty. We buy, instead, a paint kit to rejuvenate the aging, perfectly-sized ceramic fixture.

We buy kick-butt cleaner, and we buy cement floor treatment.

Armed, we go home and work.  We paint the upper walls blue. We paint the duct-work and the cinder blocks (real cinder blocks, black and powdery-dense on their insides) a bright white. We scrub the sink. We sandblast the commode. We soak all the fixtures in a pungent solution of sanitizing bleach.

The little bathroom, like a sad and matted, neglected beast, seems to stretch and sigh and expand. We are rubbing away the filthy false layers. We are honing in upon the true.

And, oh, it feels good to do that.


I know this to be true: I was an odd child. I did not dream of horses or get lost in the dressing of my dolls.  But when we drove, each summer weekend, to Cassadaga Lake to swim, I would watch for the little shack that perched on the side of a hill, jutting out from a new-growth woods, and I would virtually engineer its transformation. Thick plaid blankets, I would think, could insulate the walls against the snow-bearing winds of winter. I would imagine innovative heating–fireplaces made from stacked stone–, and rustic beds, and hand-hewn furniture. I would imagine a comfortable life in the woods on that hill, in a space that others had overlooked and dismissed. I would ponder possibilities in a space reclaimed, re-imagined, transformed.

That was the activity that engrossed me, the silly, childish kind of daydream I had buried until transforming the little bathroom woke it up.


From beneath my cluttered craft table, in a box of treasures to one day be formatted, matted, and framed, I pluck three plastic maps. They are bas-relief geology maps; the mountains punch up, rivers snaking through them to the broad blue sea. I found them years ago in the trash-bin of a geology classroom that was being repurposed; I begged permission, and then I took them home to ponder them.

Now I think they might be the perfect artwork for a young man’s bathroom.

Mark buys wooden molding, and we find a tin of rich mahogany stain on the paint room shelves, and Jim treats the wood.  Mark takes it out, when dry, to his garage workshop. He uses his scary, venerable chop-saw to miter corners and build us some frames.

The maps, framed, transform the bathroom space.  On the blue walls, they stand out, capture interest.  They say, ‘This is a cared for space.’  At a junk store, we find a kind of wooden pillar to hold rolls of toilet paper. We rescue the goofy ceramic moose toothbrush holder from its stashed-away obscurity. We remember a couple of decorative shelves we can mount, and a painting that would be perfect to lean on the ledge. The tiny neglected powder room, tucked away in the recesses of the basement, begins to glow.

At odd times, in moments of sudden quiet, I run downstairs to visit it.

I scrub the floor with the special cement treatment, and I paint it a battle-ship gray, covering splots and scratches. The clean new floor transforms the space completely.

Visiting a friend, hitting a wonderful second hand store, I find rugs and a thick white shower curtain to provide privacy until Mark frames out the new doorway. I throw the old pink monstrosity into the wash (drop cloth!), and I soak and scrub the chunky shower curtain hooks. At night, images of the floor float in my mind.  Could I use paint and sharpie and polyurethane to create faux tiles?

The little bathroom is reborn, and I see an article in Country Living about a laundry room, transformed, and I go down and eye the side of the basement that houses the washer and dryer.  Stashed in the paint room is the indoor-outdoor rug I had in my former office, a cheerful expanse with splashy green and purple and orange asterisk-stars emblazoned.  Wouldn’t that look nice?

I grab Mark. We head to Lowes.


Because if we can transform these little places, these inanimate things, what else could happen? If our labors peel the layers and reveal these potentials–well, think of it.  Well else might we be able to do?