To the Foot from Its Woman of a Certain Age

…But this blind thing walked

without respite, without stopping

hour after hour

one foot and then the other,

now a man’s

or a woman’s,



through fields, through mines,

through department stores and ministries,


outside, inside,


this foot labored with its shoe,

it hardly took time

to be naked in love or in sleep,

it walked, they walked

until the whole man stopped.

                   From “To the Foot from Its Child” by Pablo Neruda

It is possible that faces remain taut and lineless, that eyes still sparkle, that hair—by art or by nature—flows lush and vibrant and free of any gray. A person’s countenance might mock and defy the influence of age.

But all an interested on-looker would have to do, to truly know the era of that seemingly youthful being, is to look at her feet.

We don’t need portraits moldering in an attic; our feet reveal the truth.

We ought to be more grateful to our feet.


When I was a child, the feet of adults embarrassed me.

I saw them rarely; they only emerged from their hard, black oxfords or cheap everyday canvas sneakers, on trips, say, to the beach. Parents did not, in my experience, wear toe-revealing shoes, not ever. The feet that emerged when we went to the lake were shocked by the sun, scalded white, looking like something long locked away.

My father would sit on the blanket, after everyone was settled, the cooler parked, towels and over-clothes tossed in a pile and bathing-suited kids running screaming to the water. He would sit on the blanket and unroll his thin black socks; he’d knot the socks into a tight little ball, light a cigarette, and stand up to walk to the water’s edge on feet that looked impossibly long and thin and fragile.

My father worked on the coal pile of an electric company; he drove the heavy machinery: bulldozers, cranes, sometimes the short connector train that picked up the box cars full of coal. He was outside in all weathers, and his skin was burnished like a fine wood by sun and wind and freezing rain—the skin on his face, and neck, and arms and hands.

His feet and his legs rarely saw the sun. In those days, men would come home from work and go out to toss a ball with their kids, still wearing hard black dress shoes, plaid button shirts, and creased and cuffed trousers.

For men like my father, the sun rested on his toes only at the beach. There, his long, thin feet stepped gingerly on the hot sand, avoiding sharp rocks; he parked them in the shallow water where it lapped the edge of land. He stood there, smoking and watching his kids in the water until his cigarette burnt down.

He’d push the stub into the sand of the beach, burying it deep, and then he’d swim out, with long, strong strokes, to the very edge, that place where ‘I’m okay here,’ crashed into ‘This is too deep.’ He’d park there like a sentinel. The bigger kids, the daring, strong swimmers, would join him there to splash and dunk and carouse.

My mother stayed on the blanket in a prim blue cotton gingham one-piece suit. She might venture down to the water’s edge to build a sandcastle or search for tiny shells with a little one, but she did not go into the water. Once, in the faded haze of history, she had been a child who jumped into a crowded pool and plunged to the bottom. Other kids jumped in after her; they knocked her back into the water, over and over.

She thought that she would drown, and when she didn’t, she vowed never to go swimming again.

And my mother’s poor feet! Twisted and knotted from overwork and years of poorly fitted shoes and a family tendency to bunions, her toes overlapped each other. Bones stuck out where they shouldn’t. A barefoot stroll on the beach was an excruciating ordeal.

She stayed on the blanket, a towel thrown carelessly over her toes, or she crouched in the damp sand with her castle-builder, her feet half-submerged.

Looking at my parents’ feet on those exciting summer days shot a chill through the adventure. Those feet had a message.

There has been pain, and it has been hard, they intoned.

Poverty and neglect can twist you around, they whispered.

I felt a painful lump in my throat, looking at my parents’ feet when we went to the beach. I ran into the lake to throw myself on waves where the water came just to my chest.


My mother had a bunion operation, and it went horribly wrong. Nowadays, it’s an in-and-out, healed in a week surgery, but not for my mother. Her bones shifted. One stuck out the bottom of her foot. She’d go to see the surgeon who caused the damage, and he’d perform some arcane treatment. When she came home, sometimes, the pain was so bad she would crawl from the car to the house.

It was a long, long time before she completely healed. There were very few shoes that she could wear.

“You take care of your feet,” my mother would tell me, “and they won’t look like mine.”


My father, on the other hand, believed in the power of shoe-free feet for kids.

“Take off your shoes!” he’d yell, when we came in the house, when we sat down to watch TV.

When the grandchildren came over, the first thing my father would do is pick them up and swing them around. Then he’d sit down with them and pull their shoes off.

“Better for them,” he’d say. Patient daughters-in-law would bite their lips.

Maybe my father’s feet resented their time in his steel-toed work boots, in his hard-soled black shoes.

And maybe, my mother hinted, he remembered his years as a poor kid in the Depression, standing in line for shoes his father couldn’t buy him. The ladies who gave them out, he told me once, treated the kids they favored with hand-me-downs like crap,—looked over and through them, saw not the pinched faces of children in need, but the wonderful glimmer of their own good deeds. 

They weren’t particular about things like fit.

“Those ought to do you,” I imagine one saying absently, handing a pair of old leather high-topped shoes to the scrawny kid that was my father.

He took them home and tried them, and they didn’t really “do” him; they were a little tight already and his feet were growing. But those shoes would last him, oh, two years, maybe; he’d squeeze his feet into them and make them work, because they were what he had.

No wonder he peeled the shoes off the grandkids as soon as they walked in the door.


Oxfords, some doctor told my mother, were the best shoes for growing feet. Good sturdy Oxfords were the thing. So during the years when she could still dress me, my mother made me wear saddle shoes or clunky black tie shoes. They were horrible things. How I longed for a pair of slingbacks.

By the time I got to high school I was babysitting, saving my cash, starting to buy my own shoes. I bought ugly, sensible earth shoes, yes. But I bought slingbacks, too. And I bought four-inch platform soles and clomped around, scraping the sky at about six foot three. I bought pointy-toed narrow heels and minced.

My feet were killing me, but what price fashion? I put band aids over the blisters.

And I bought sneakers for the everyday, sneakers so I could walk. I came late to the land of driving, and I walked everywhere, miles and miles a day. To classes from my apartment in college. To the supermarket where I worked. Downtown to meet friends.

My feet really were my locomotion. Did I think to thank them? Did I soak them and baby them? Did I insist on sensible, comfortable shoes?

Oh, no. Not once.


In college, I discovered Pablo Neruda, and his poem, “To the Foot from Its Child” especially spoke to me. I loved metaphors, and the foot as metaphor for life, the blind appendage, once soft, growing “…into hard horn”…oh, that moved me. The work of it, the grind, the never-stopping-ness, the pleasures those feet hardly took time for.

That, I thought sagely, was an everyday foot, and an everyday life. I would not forget; I would not grow callused. My life would be vibrantly different.


Then there was teaching, where the standing on pointy toed, heeled shoes all day long, slip-slapping down aisles to check work and answer questions and comfort the confused or wailing,—well, that was hurtful. I discovered foam-soled Mary Janes, and those became my teaching shoes.

And then there was parenting, comfy sneakers for backyard play, the arrival of a baby that never, it seemed, slept. Barefoot walking, back and forth, up and down. Shush now; shush now, little one.

And he was quiet while we walked.


That ‘baby,’ thirty now, stared down at my bare feet today as I worked in the kitchen, and said, tongue sharpened by autism-frankness, “Mom, your feet look really weird.”

I gazed at him, trying to formulate a suitable sentence. Thus encouraged, he went on.

“Your big toe,” he said, “it’s like it’s at a right angle. And the toe next to it is bent like a tent.”

“Well, James,” I said, “thanks for that. I guess.”

“Well,” he said. “I’m just saying.”


Later I go to pull on my hiking sandals, the ones that leave my hammer toes gloriously free and unfettered. I look at my feet through other eyes, and I know my son is right.

My feet look really weird.

I have beaten them up many times,—battered them in the name of fashion; pounded them through a half-marathon in shoes I would later learn were a size and a half too small (that adventure caused my big toenails to turn bloody and fall off; oh, my bruised and aching toes. And that was when a petite, impossibly chirpy young shoe clerk told me I’d been wearing shoes that were not nearly roomy enough.

“Our feet get bigger as we age,” she said sagely, in a voice so syrupy with sympathy, I wanted to add a batch of salt to the conversation. But did not. One day she too will feel the unexpected bumps and hollows of age; one day she’ll ignore the flaws and celebrate, as I do, the patina. I wish I could be there to comment, but I, of course, won’t be, more’s the pity.)

My feet have been workers, trudgers, occasionally dancing, sometimes running, kicking through turquoise pool water, scuffing the tennis court, and always, always walking, walking…


These days Connie Fitbit keeps me going, fires up my competitive urges, makes me walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I feel like a shirker on days I only reach 10,000; I like it when my phone peeps with a message: Whoa! Overachiever! You’re 4028 steps over your daily goal…

Damn straight, I think.

But I still don’t think to appreciate my feet.


And there are metaphors there, in the worn and bent feet of my parents, who hoped for better for me and my brothers; there are metaphors in the choices I made that battered my own feet and led me, late but appreciative, to understand.

Similes there be, like the under-accoladed feet are as the under-recognized workers…essential, but not glamorous. Not sexy; not front page news,…but nothing would get done without them.

I am an English teacher; I could go on, but I would never say it better than Neruda. Instead, on this Friday evening, storm clouds gathering, world gentling into night’s darkness, I will draw a hot bath.

I will soak my feet.

I will clip the nails and rub the callouses with a little brick of pumice, and slather my feet with sweet, silky lotion. Then I will let my feet rest while I loll in bed, my hands doing the work of holding up that hardcover book, until I drift off to sleep, mid-chapter.

All that Neruda wrote is true, but I take a mindful minute now to ponder them: my feet, my over-worked, always dependable feet. Thank you, I think, sending that down the line of my body, right down to the toes, which I realize now that I’m paying attention, are just the least little bit sore.

Thank you. Don’t give up on me. Let’s keep on going on, together, a decade or two, or maybe even more.

Dispatches from the Land of Old

We are at the mobile phone store, James and I are. A perky, attentive young assistant we’ll call Kimberly (she reminds me of Andie MacDowell, if Andie MacDowell were 22) finds Jim the new phone he needs—bigger, faster and with a whole lot more gigs. It takes moments for the new phone to be up and running and protected by a sturdy new case, and for the old phone to be wiped clean and readied for recycling of some sort.

Then Kimberly takes my sad phone from me. She looks at the shattered screen. The old tiny, edgy cracks were nudged recently, by a full-frontal splat on a hard floor, into full spiderwebs that flare across most of the glass.

Kimberly makes the tsk, tsk sound, and then she looks at me fondly. She will help me order a replacement phone (I have no need for more or faster, so my new phone will just be a pristine version of the same old phone). That will come to my house, and she tells me I should bring it back in and get a case and protection glass for the screen. Her fingers fly across a keyboard while she talks, and she finds that we can get a discount for setting up auto-pay and another discount if anyone in our family is a veteran of the armed services (my stepson Matt served proudly in the Navy, and even though he is not on our phone plan, his service is good enough, Kimberly thinks, to earn us a chunk of change.)

She gets the replacement folks on the line, and a new phone immediately starts wending its way to my house. It will arrive tomorrow, and a service rep will arrive at my door soon after to help me set up the new phone and disable the old one.

While Kimberly is efficiently dispatching all these necessary jobs—effortlessly clearing details that would have taken me weeks to wade through, I tell her how easy she’s making the process. She begins to smile.

“I was at my mother’s house for lunch today,” she tells me, “and her elderly neighbor came over with her cell phone. She said, ‘Kimberly, can you fix this?’ And I saw what it was—it’s a glitch a lot of older folks run into—so I was able to take care of it in a couple of seconds. She was so happy! She said, ‘I don’t know how you DO that,’ and I said, ‘Well I have these skills, and you have other ones.’”

Kimberly’s eyes are a little glazed; she is immersed in remembering, and forgetting her audience. She muses, “She was just about—” and I see her stop and realize what she’s about to say, stop and swallow the “…your age…” that was about to pop out of her mouth.

“…the sweetest thing,” she amends, a little lamely, a beat late.

“Nice save,” I think but do not say to the red-faced assistant, and James bags up all his new phone accessories and holds the door for me as I totter my elderly self out of that bastion of techie youth.


I had been napping, my head against the window, when the pilot came over the intercom, loud and cheerful.

“Buckle up, folks!” he crowed. “We’re almost ready to land.”

I looked out the window just as we emerged from the clouds and a whole new landscape spread out before me. It looked nice down there; it was sunny, not too crowded, and there seemed to be lots of green space.

“You’ll find,” continued the pilot, “that you won’t need your jackets—it’s a balmy 78 degrees right now! Do make sure, though, that you have your elastic-waisted pants and your sensible shoes. And don’t forget to call your kids or your friends and tell them you’ve arrived safely.

“Sit back now. We’re just about to land.”

He clicked off, and the plane swooped down. There was a little jolt as the wheels touched down, but otherwise, all was smooth.

The plane was full, and we passengers looked around and smiled at each other as we reached for our bags in the overhead bins. We were all looking forward to joining friends and family, now that we’d arrived in the land of Old.


There is absolutely nothing good to say about a string of ninety-degree days that leech from late September into early October. It is wrong, and it is terrifying: climate change rearing its ugly face above the horizon once again. I was so relieved when, just last night, the heat streak cracked wide open, and clear, cold air rushed in to push the muggy denseness away.

I got up this morning, and I made some coffee, and I pulled on my walking clothes—capris, a long-sleeved shirt. I laced up my sneaks over soft white socks, and I tried to pull up the music app on my new phone.

I could get Van Morrison’s scowling face on my screen, but I couldn’t conjure up the little arrow that would bid him sing. Damn, I thought: my new phone and no music.

Mark came to look, and we passed the phone back and forth, checking this, checking that. Finally, I went into Settings and realized the phone was set for our OLD wifi. I typed in the new access code, updated everything, and went back to Music.

The arrow still did not appear, and Van remained mute.  I went for a walk with just my morning thoughts for accompaniment. It was a nice walk, but I was actually cold, and I wished I had dug out a light pair of knit gloves. The chill was good, though; I walked briskly and covered a lot of territory in a shorter time.

When I get home, I took some Tylenol.  Mark came through, rubbing his hip.

“I love this weather,” he said, “but my bones are aching.”

We mixed up batter and tag-teamed some awesome French toast and ham.

Jim smelled good smells and dragged himself downstairs.

I mentioned the phone music dilemma to him.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry to hear that. Did you turn it off for ten seconds?”

I turned off the phone, ate my whole grain French toast, and turned the phone back on again. The little arrow popped up on Van Morrison’s face. When I clicked it, he began to sing.

And I thought, again, Damn. Maybe I AM the same age as Kimberly’s mother’s elderly neighbor.

I popped a couple of glucosamine and wrestled the vacuum from the hall closet.


Maybe it’s harder for those of us born on the younger end of large sibling groups to get the hang of aging. We are too little for so long; we watch siblings go out and do daring things we won’t be allowed to do for YEARS. They hit all the milestones—Graduation! Big travels! Jobs! Weddings!—long before we are eligible.

“I can’t wait,” we think, “until I am old enough to…”

And then suddenly we ARE old enough. Suddenly we are, say, thirty, and an older sibling says to us, “You know, you USED to be a little kid, but now we’re all the same age.”

All grownups. All those hefty milestones passed. But still, we feel like we’re on the young end of things.

Until suddenly, we’re 60, and the doctor says things like, “Arthritis,” and “High blood pressure,” and “Decaffeinated coffee.”

Damn, we think.


I walk by a beautiful garden display—no blooms, just foliage,–and I think to myself, “I’ve got to try some of that…what DO you call that stuff?” And as I walk, I mull names. Pachysandra? No, that’s the ground cover. Not chrysanthemums; of course not, silly. The name is right there; it’s written on a sturdy piece of card stock, and it’s sloshing back and forth in the muck on the bottom of my brain.

But I cannot reach in and pick it up.

When I get home, I look up ‘plants with colorful foliage,’ and find the word I want: coleus. I smack my forehead, and the cardstock, word emblazoned, pops up from the muck.

“A little late, aren’t you?” I mutter, and it does a little dance before sinking away again.

My memory hits sluggish spots. My shoulders and my knees creak. I read ads about clever gadgets that cure bunions without surgery, and I think seriously about sending off a check.

When I need to use technology, I look around for a twelve-year-old to help me.

It is true. My feet are planted firmly in the Land of Old.


It’s not, really, such a bad place to be. The company is wonderful. I may be dragging sixty-plus years’ worth of baggage down the walkways, but so are all my companions, people who know what I’m talking about when I say things like “the Troggs” or “bomb shelters” or “plaid Bermudas and woolen knee socks.”

There are a lot of experiences to sift through from this lofty vantage; there’s a lot of meaning to be made.

And there is time, now, when I remember not to over-schedule myself, to think about those meanings.

There is the sense, too, of the less important things, the frivolous, unnecessary things, falling away, and there is the opportunity to really delve into the big matters, the important matters, the thoroughly engaging matters, that remain. There are books to be read; there are words to be written; there are still new things to be explored.

But now I am choosier. Now I can’t do everything, can’t make choices willy-nilly, can’t think, “Well, if that doesn’t work out, I’ll just try something else.”

Now I need to focus on the things I really want and need to do.

And, here in the Land of Old, I find a spiritual community too,…a group of compatriots steeped in gratitude. We made it through all that and have, now, the time to ponder. Many of our best ones finished the journey way too early. I didn’t earn the right to be here, I know: I was just blindly lucky. I will appreciate that luck; I will really, mindfully, dwell here in this time, foggy mind, aching bones, and all.


I take my new phone back to the mobile phone store, where I buy a case and a screen protector.

“Would you like me to put those on your phone for you?” asks the efficient young clerk, whose name, her badge says, is Devon.

“Yes, I would,” I say, and I hand her my phone. In seconds she has encased my new technology in protection from my haphazard ways. There are things I gladly hand to the young, things it would not behoove me to try to learn to do.

And there are things I’ve learned that they haven’t mastered yet. I still know a couple of tricks that they can’t do. So I’ll bring my Smartphone to that technology chapel, and then I’ll go back to my land.

But, my good companions and I, we’ve been here long enough to figure out the kinds of encouragement and support those young ones need. So we’ll watch for the times of need, and when they come, we’ll float out messages in brightly colored bottles, sending thoughtful dispatches from the Land of Old.


Oh, and I looked up Andie MacDowell, by the way. She herself is 61.

A Creature of Habits

…”Coffee-guzzling chocoholic,” reads the brief intro on my Twitter. Hah: THOSE were the days.

Because here I am, dancing ‘midst the debris of my lost, lamented habits….


Don’t feed whole grains to your autistic dear one, the article said, citing all kinds of recent research at reputable hospitals and teaching universities. Whole grains just are not digestible by the autistic gut.

Huh, I thought. In an effort to get fiber into Jim’s diet, we had bought whole grain breads and cereals and pastas. Maybe, what we thought was so good for him was really not so very.

We put white bread and sweetened corn flakes and semolina pasta back in the pantry, and I printed the article. I sent it off to our new doctor, who is smart and cares for  someone on the spectrum and who is vitally interested in nutrition and diet and exercise. Have we been feeding Jim all the wrong things? I wrote. I look forward to talking with you about this at my next visit.

A few months later, I went in for a check up; everything was fine, and we started talking about the whole grain thing, and she said yeah, probably pulling the heavy duty whole grains from the boy’s diet was a smart plan. We talked about vitamins and supplements, essential in the diet of one who will not eat anything leafy, green, or orange. And then we talked about wheat and how everything, it seems, has some kind of wheat by-product in it, unless it’s overtly marked ‘gluten-free.’

She told me that she’d been going without gluten for a long, long time, and she feels, really, much better–she’d been getting downright sodden there for a while, sick and dragging.

I told her about my former colleague who jettisoned grains and lost a whole slew of weight and gained a jetpack of energy.

We talked about wheat bellies and the importance of protein and all the wonderful attention that’s being paid, in cookbooks and on cooking shows, to the creative possibilities vegetables offer, culinarily. And then it was time for me to go; I pushed down my sleeves and slid off the table and grabbed my purse.

The doc handed me my papers to give to the women in reception, and she said to me, “So, are you really ready to do this?”

I looked at her, puzzled. “Do….?????” I began.

“Go gluten-free!” she said, smiling big. “No more wheat!”

Wait, I thought. Me? “No more WHEAT?” I repeated.

“GREAT!” she said, squeezing my shoulder. “You’re going to feel SO much better. I’ll get you back here in three months and we’ll see how it’s going.”

I took my papers to reception and I wrote out my co-pay check and I toddled out to the car, where I sat with the key in my hand, tracing the conversation backward.

“No WHEAT?” I thought, and I swore to myself I would never send my doctor another interesting article about my son’s diet, ever again.


I have been wheat-free for over a month now, with one tiny apple pie indulgence, and I have to admit it: I feel better. My joints don’t ache, and I have more energy. I may even, maybe, have lost a little weight.

But, oh, I miss my nutty nuggets, my go-to cereal, crunchy little pellets of wheat and bran. Sometimes, up for a change, I’d get me a box of wheat chex, pour my skim milk on that in the mornings, sprinkle a little sugar on top and chow right down while I read the news and did my word puzzles. But now—goodbye wheat chex. And nutty nuggets: no more.

Now I eat an egg for breakfast, fry up a little ham. And I purchased a stick blender and the stuff to make breakfast smoothies. Sometimes, even, I have a morning salad.

And I’ve been exploring cereals–there are many, I know, that are gluten free. But I miss my old nutty nugget habit.

It’s not the only habit these grown old years have stripped from me.


The worst habit, of course, was smoking, which I did from the time I was about 14, newly skinny and desperate to be cool. It was the Virginia Slims era, and my friends and I practiced gracious gestures, waving the long thin cigarettes in our long thin fingers. We thought it was especially effective, as the oldest among us acquired licenses, to drive around after school, past where certain young men hung out. Our elbows would rest on the open window ledge. Our hands would wave the lit cigarettes. Our gazes would be elsewhere, not noticing those boys who often yelled rude things as we trolled by. The essence of smoky cool, we were.

(I couldn’t stand that I wasn’t REALLY dangerous, edgy, daring–that I was in fact, just a very young version of the English teacher I would grow into.)

And the prop soon became an addiction, for me. My weight stayed down, but I was very quickly buying a carton of cigarettes a week.

I smoked through college (where, in the early seventies, so did the professors. Classrooms would be blue-hazed caverns of smoke, and ash trays sat on desks in every office.) I smoked through jobs and a brief first marriage; I smoked long past giving up the other vices college opened doors to, and I was still smoking when I was 29 and married Mark, who had asthma and allergies.

And I smoked anyway, for five more years, even though, more and more, I wished I didn’t. But it wasn’t until I had my gallbladder plucked,–I stayed in the hospital for 72 hours and kind Doctor Conti said to me, “You haven’t smoked for three days. The worst of the physical effects are over. Are you strong enough, mentally, to let it go?”–that I decided it was time, for real, to quit.

Of course I am strong enough, I assured that wonderful doc. Of course I will not smoke again, I told Mark.  And I went home to clean the nicotine residue from the television screen and the windows, to wash curtains yellowed from years of smoking, and to ponder the loss of that habit.

Hmmm, I thought, passing through days without the ritual morning cigarette, drinking my coffee without the plus of a ciggie in my hand, talking on the phone unassisted by nicotine. Hmmm, I thought: who am I if I don’t smoke?

I wasn’t one hundred per cent in love with the answer. I imagined going back to work, sitting in the break room and grading papers, and I could not see how to do it without the aid of a cigarette.

And a month or so went by, and Mark went away to a conference, and Matt went away to his mother’s, and I went away to the quickstop shop and bought myself a pack of Winstons. I had a thirty mile drive to get to where I needed to be, and I waited until I was out on the highway, and I lit up a smoke. I put it to my mouth. I breathed in, and I put it out.

Because two thoughts had occurred to me.

The first was that it really didn’t taste good. In fact: yuck.

The next was that, in all the brouhaha about the surgery and such it hadn’t occurred to me to remember to mark my monthly cycle. And just then I realized: I, who was never, ever late, was now late by at least three weeks.

And pregnant women should not smoke.

That was the last time I lit a cigarette. It was the last time, too, coincidentally, that I was thin.


But I baked. All the way through the growing up years of two special young men, I baked and baked: chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, brownies. I prided myself on a full cookie jar, and I was my own happy best customer. And there’s nothing like a home-baked goodie washed down with a steaming mug of high-test dark roast.

The nicotine cravings subsided. The coffee cravings did not.

And then,–fast forward many, many years,–a light-headed episode propelled me to a doctor’s office, and the doctor said to me, “YOU have high blood pressure.”

What???? I do NOT have high blood pressure, I protested. My blood  pressure is–always has been—LOW.

And the man in the white coat showed me my test results, and this is what he said: No more caffeine.


I slunk, sadly, away, and I stopped at Kroger and I bought a pricey bag of decaffeinated beans. And I ground those and began mixing them with the sumptuous, high-test Italian roast nestled in my freezer. The first week, it was half and half; the next week, three fourths decaf. An on it went, until the Italian roast was gone, and I was drinking 100 per cent decaf coffee. It tasted good, although there was a buzzy little humming effect that I missed.

And my blood pressure dropped by 60 points. I had to admit the no-caffeine regimen was good for me.


And at least I still had chocolate, right? My only vice, I often said. Well, that and cookies.


And a day came when a different doctor solemnly pronounced the word, “prediabetic.”

PREDIABETIC! I said. What do we do about that???

You can find diets online, he advised me, less than helpfully. I went out and did some reading, and I discovered the low glycemic index, and I began to jettison foods there were not on it. Foods like–oh my—milk chocolate.

No more chocolate??? But, the diet guidelines assured me, a little dark chocolate now and then was permissible.

I sat down and thought about that. First the nicotine. Then the caffeine. Now the milk chocolate.

Exactly WHO, I wondered, exactly who am I NOW? I poured myself a cup of hot decaffeinated coffee. I buttered a slice of good, fresh, crusty bakery bread. I munched and I pondered.

And then of course, we found our wonderful new doctor, and I found that darned article and sent it to her.


Yesterday, a little package arrived in the mail: one pound of King Arthur, Measure-for-Measure, gluten-free flour. I like that it has a kind of Shakespearean name. I like that it promises me I can substitute it for wheat flour in any of my recipes.

I’m going to bake up a batch of Italian chocolate drops for the boyos, bake ’em up and then glaze ’em, hot from the oven. The house will smell wonderfully of chocolate and cloves.

And then I will mix up a batch of gluten-free Scotch shortbread, and roll it out into cutout cookies. There are some traditions–some habits–that are very hard to let go.

But there are others, I am finding, that I can do just fine without. I look fondly at photographs of my silly, younger self–Ooooh, look: here’s a shot of me and a giant hot fudge sundae! I am grinning widely in that diner booth, bathed in smoke from the Winston smoldering in the ashtray besides the ice cream confection. Once, I couldn’t imagine life without a cigarette or a fudgy sundae–let’s not even mention life without bakery bread.

De-caffeinated, non-nicotined, unchoclified , gluten-freed…I am striding into a future that looks, despite those changes,  bright and rich and full. It’s amazing the things one can let go. It’s amazing the discoveries one makes when one does.

So, yes, I am dancing midst the debris of some unlamented habits…feeling a little lighter. A little brighter, maybe even. Who knew, that, at this late date, having jettisoned a few more unwanted habits, I would get to be excited I have a chance to discover just who I am NOW.

The Beginning of the Long Goodbye

James and I came home from the college at almost two o’clock, and the dog was not downstairs. I found her snuggled into the extra blanket on my bed.

Mark had texted at noon, “Dog seems fine but I can’t get her to go downstairs.”

I lowered myself gently onto the bed next to Greta. Her head rested between her paws, and she rolled her eyes to look at me. Her tail thumped slowly. I stroked her silky head, gently rubbed her back, and I felt her little heart pelting frantically against her rib-cage. Her back legs were tucked beneath her.  She turned her head to lick my hand.

“Want to go downstairs, pup?” I asked her, and she sighed gently and laid her head back down between her paws.


We got Greta at the Animal Shelter a few months after our beloved Holmsie died. We missed that sweet presence so. The house seemed empty.

“Never again,” we’d said, grief tearing us. But one Sunday, the car turned in at the shelter, maybe of its own accord.

Just to look, we said.

All of the dogs were named for celebrities. In one kennel, Roseanne, big and fluffy, bounced and crashed, barking for attention. In the kennel right next to her, Greta huddled in the farthest chain link corner, tiny, shivering, wanting to be alone. She was brown and black and white–there was a beagle among those terrier forebears–and her eyes, like Holmsie’s, looked as if they’d been outlined in kohl.

“Look at this,” I said, and Mark and Jim turned away from frolicking puppies and crouched with me by Greta’s cage.  She inched over; she licked our hands through the chain link. A volunteer appeared.

“She’s never done that before,” she said. “This is the first time she’s shown an interest in anyone.  Would you like to see her?”

Keys jingling, she went to let the little dog out of her pen.

“Yeah,” Mark said later, “they probably tell everyone that: oooh, she really responds to YOU!” But it didn’t matter: true or not, the imprinting was done. Greta was our dragon. She came home to stay about two weeks later, after a rigorous home visit and the requisite surgery.


I could count on Greta’s routine. When I got up in the morning, she got up, too, marching to the back door and waiting while I turned the coffee on. I’d mix her food while she ran into the backyard, took care of urgent business, then stood at the door quietly until I let her in.

She’d wolf her breakfast greedily, then trot back upstairs, snuggling into the still warm spot I’d vacated, nestling behind Mark’s knees. I’d shower and dress, and when I was done, she would follow me back downstairs. She’d curl up under the chair at the head of the dining room table, sighing in that little cave, while I wrote my morning pages. She was waiting,–hoping, I always thought, that there might be some sort of breakfast meat.

That happened every day, a regularity since we’d moved into this house. But then suddenly, recently, everything began to change.


We got Greta almost thirteen years ago, and the folks at the shelter weren’t sure how old she was. One vet guessed seven months. Another thought she was much older than that, maybe as much as two years old.

What the shelter people knew was how she’d arrived: a projectile heaved over the ten foot fence by someone who burst out of a running pickup truck, threw the dog, and left. A male volunteer, new to the work, ran to get her. When she wouldn’t budge, he slipped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she whimpered, across sixty feet of gravel yard.

By the time someone ran out to intervene, her head was permanently turned away. And she definitely did not want to deal with men.


This spring, Greta started reacting to storms very differently. She had never liked thunder, but usually we could tuck her up next to us, talking to her soothingly, and she would settle down. But now she could not be comforted. She shivered violently. She panted. She followed me from room to room, tight at my heels.

Soon, thunder didn’t have to roll to bring on this response. A hard soaking rain was enough to send the little dog into hours of frantic shaking.

We tried a thunder shirt; she tolerated it, but it didn’t quell the tremors or the panting. The vet prescribed a pill, which seemed to work. But once the shaking started, we could not get the little dog to open her mouth and swallow the tablet.

We tried a blue gel, squirted between cheek and gum. She squirmed and struggled. She had a blue grin for days afterward.

Then she started rousing us every night, storm or no storm. I would startle awake, the little dog’s face pushed up next to mine. As soon as she knew I was up, she’d pace over to Mark’s side of the bed, and wake him, too. She panted, paced, and shook, until finally we got her settled between us in the warm bed, shivering into slumber.

Two hours later, her snout would be next to my face, jolting me awake.

I’d read somewhere that, in elderly humans, urinary tract infections produced symptoms that looked like dementia. Maybe dogs are like that, too, I thought. Maybe this is all Greta’s kidneys talking. I brought a sample in and had it tested. The dog’s kidneys were fine.

The vet prescribed different medications–some zonked Greta out completely during the day; she refused to eat or sleep, but by nighttime, the panting would resume. One pill made her nasty and snappish, not unknown behavior for a dog who didn’t much like visitors, but never before had she bared her teeth at us.

We were frazzled from lack of sleep; we were concerned for the little dog’s health. The vet did a complete physical and finally prescribed Prozac.

When she came in to talk with me after the battery of test results were in, the kind, compassionate vet sat down on her bench and sighed.

“Physically, it all checks out,” she said, and she paused. “This is all,” she said carefully, “consistent with what we sometimes see in elder dogs: early signs of canine dementia.”

Greta pushed her head beneath my knees and shivered.

Oh my, I thought. I took the dog, and her big bottle of Prozac, home.


Greta circled us warily when she first moved in; we could see her tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for…yelling? Violence? We didn’t know. When we reached to pet her, she flinched.

She followed me throughout the house, avoiding the boyos.

She dragged her food dish underneath the kitchen table. She would only eat when no one else was in the room. She did not want to be combed. She would tolerate only a certain amount of petting. She was wary, on guard, waiting.

Then one day, I took her out into the side yard with me. I was weeding, kneeling on a little cement walkway. It was late spring; there was a warm sun. The air was pleasant and the concrete radiated sun-baked warmth. The dog sat, alert and watching for a few minutes, then she lowered herself to the cement warmth. In a few minutes, she had surrendered; she was sprawled and sleeping–sleeping deeply and heavily–the kind of sleep one is drawn into, the kind of sleep that, like seawater, closes over your head when exhaustion has reached its very peak.

I swear that, when she woke up from that deep bout of sleeping, she was different. I swear that, after that, Greta knew she was home.


The Prozac helped the dog make it through the night; she would wake us only once, and then she’d hop up into the bed, circle and sigh, and settle down for the rest of the night. And so we could sleep too, a very good thing.

But the changes didn’t stop. She was slowing down, and now we saw–the loving time-filters peeled away,–the pure white muzzle, the cloudy eyes. The toes bent and twisted by arthritis. Greta sighed when she heaved herself up after a long rest. She didn’t always run to get her dish when dinner was served. The mail would fall through the slot–an occasion that had always brought her, barking and challenging, right out of a full, deep sleep. But now she’d perk her head up for a moment, consider, and sigh herself back to snoozing.

I’m sure the mail carrier was relieved, but grief settled into our awareness.


We thought, in those early days of Greta, that if we just loved her enough, treated her kindly enough, that she would morph into the friendly, wonderful sort of dog her predecessor had been. We noticed enough to suspect former abuse. She tensed at men with facial hair, growled and threatened and ran to hide. She went into full alert-mode when sharing a couch with someone and that someone lifted the TV remote. We imagined the back story there.

It took her months to realize no one was going to steal her food.

And she did settle in. She would jump into our laps in the evening when we gathered to watch TV; she would nudge our hands to pet her.

We went for long walks. We would take her, on weekends, to an enclosed ball-field at a nearby park. We would unclip the leash and yell, “Go go go!!” She would explode into movement, streaking around the base paths, a tiny blur.  She would run and run and run.  But she always came back; never once did she attempt to break away, to get shet of her restraints. The safety of family seemed much more compelling than the lure of freedom.

But she never opened up to other people. I remember my friend Kim, a true dog-whisperer, working with her gently, coaxing, narrowing the gap between them, until finally it reached a point past comfort and Greta turned and growled at her.

Kim was startled. “Animals LIKE me,” she said. “I’ve never had an animal I couldn’t win over.”

Greta was the first, stubborn and untrusting.

I talked to the vet, who sighed. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s because of the abuse, and you can work, gently and patiently, and the dog might blossom, might accept new people. Sometimes, it’s just who the dog IS, a wary, suspicious little being. And you can do your best.

“And sometimes,” the doctor said slowly, “sometimes you’re dealing with the effects of abuse and neglect on a little creature who’s wary and shy to begin with. And then it’s really, really hard.”

She paused and looked at Greta, curled up under my bent legs, her back firmly to the doc who had poked and prodded her. “I think,” the vet said slowly, “I think, you’re dealing with both.”


I couldn’t talk the dog downstairs. Her tail thumped when I talked to her, but she didn’t budge. I hated to leave her upstairs alone (What if she DIES? a panicky little voice entreated in my mind), so I pulled out my cleaning tools and attacked the bathroom. I scrubbed and sprayed; I threw towels and rugs down the laundry chute. I swiffered the floor.

I could hear the dog sighing.

I opened the closet door to put the mop away, and I saw the vacuum. Ha, I thought. That will move her. I plugged the machine in, and I pulled it out into the hallway and turned it on. I pushed and pulled down the hall, getting closer, watching the dog from the corner of my eye.

I wrestled the vacuum into the bedroom. She opened her eyes but didn’t budge. I circled around the bed, giving her a clear escape route, but she stayed, immobile, a stubborn little lump. I finished cleaning, shut off the machine, emptied the dust bucket, and went downstairs to get my book. I snuggled in on the bed with the dog, reading, her silky head under my hand.

Soon we were both snoring gently, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap on a cool spring day.

She finally went downstairs while I was in the bathroom, and she waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. She went outside agreeably, and she ate half a bowl of food.

In the evening she curled up on the carpet while we watched Doc Martin, and she climbed the stairs willingly to go to bed. But we knew that we had turned a corner.

Something had changed, and a new era had arrived.


Some days, now, the dog stays upstairs long after I’ve started the coffee and poured my cereal. Today is a good day: today she came downstairs with me, trotted right to the back door, ate her breakfast greedily. She’s sleeping now, Greta is, in her special corner of the couch. She is interested when the mail arrives. She rouses herself to sigh at the boy when he comes down for breakfast.

But an ominous countdown has begun in the back of my mind. The changes happen quickly. Our little dog, loyal and skittish, anti-social and demanding, is failing. The tethers begin to slip.

The rhododendrons have come back strong this spring; the little rosebush is covered, already, with buds. The Whomping Oak in the backyard released, quite suddenly, its winter load of old dead leaves and burst immediately into green-leafed glory. The birds are raucous, and there are three bunnies that meet to munch on clover in our backyard early every morning.

It is a spring when new life pushes boisterously. It is a spring of  last days, too, a spring, we realize, a spring when we begin to say the long goodbye.


Here’s one source on canine dementia:


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.

Ride a Painted Pony

Bugged Babe
“You gotta see this,” says Jim, coming in from mowing.  He is not a nature boy.  His voice is a little shaky.

I follow him out to the front yard.  He mowed the patch beneath the big tree, and, grass cover gone, exposed thousands of cicadas. These are the old brown exo-skeletons–they look like a dense field of peanut shells–shells with legs and heads and antennae.

Mark goes out that night and finds the same tree covered with live insects, crawling upward.

The cicadas inhabit the front yard.  They hang under leaves.  The live ones are shiny, black and purply with gossamer wings.  Very occasionally I see one execute a clumsy, chittering flight.  More often I see them squashed and flattened on the driveway.

Babe the stone pig has a live cicada stuck to her nose and one dry old carcass clinging to her shoulder. Empty husks speckle her gravel.

It’s an infestation, almost; it’s a visitation that seems dramatically overdone, and biblical, and portentous.

I worry that this is some sort of global climate change effect (I worry about that with lots of nature’s phenomena, these days), so I head to the Internet and find  I learn that this is the peak of a long, long cycle–that we are meeting the citizens of Brood V, who emerge, this spring, when the soil reaches 60 degrees Fahrenheit. (Colder, more northern climes in our ‘cicada zone’ still have the emergence to anticipate.)

I learn that the females of the species lay their eggs on tree limbs, in grooves; hatched, the babies eventually fall to the ground and burrow, feeding on roots, actively, in the case of OUR cicadas, for 17 years.

Seventeen years underground! And then, something calls them out. They surface as ‘nymphs’–although they are not at all the picture of mythic nymphs I hold in my mind.  They ditch their exoskeletons, leaving them for Jim to find moldering under the tree…or on the front walk, or in the carport.  Or stuck to Babe’s front quarters.

Then, once their wings and skin have flushed into health, the cicadas go looking noisily for love.

And the whole cycle begins again.

It gets me to thinking.

Because, of course, the cicada cycle, unfolding so loudly and dramatically in Year Seventeen, is not the only cycle in place.  There is the cycle of the seasons, with spring and the cicadas rolling in tandem right now, two big heavy juggernauts lumbering through time, feeding each other.  The warmth of sun-warmed soil wakens the cicadas, the growing trees lure the mamas, on their quest to find a safe spot for their eggs, up the rough and peeling bark.  These two cycles are in tune, aligned; an athlete could jump on top, put a foot on each, dance to their rolling.

At least for a while.

There are other cycles swirling, though, that slant into these, that spin perpendicular, and that jut and jag into others.  There are lifespans and the cycles of friendship and revolutions of job growth and learning. There is leadership chaos in a country and in an organization; there is war and peace and the turmoil of seeking acceptance for disenfranchised groups. In some ways we are all tumbling in a great washer, all thrust and chugged, round and round, by the same cyclical forces of nature and culture and society.

In other ways, we are like the characters in climactic scenes of action movies–trapped in the workings, say, of a great and relentless clock tower.  The wheels and the gears move into and around and in spite of each other. These are specific, unshared turnings. It requires a seasoned stunt actor to hop and dance and stay safe, to avoid being sucked into the powerful workings of one great wheel or another.

I have to be alert, I think. I snooze,–I hibernate–and I wake abruptly to the fact that Greta is now a senior dog, with a white snout and a back leg that trembles, and that she doesn’t need the same kind or amount of food I’ve been used to feeding her.

“When,” I lament, “did the young dog years slip away?”  But I was there for that unfolding.

Perhaps with my blinders on.

Mark will mention something about the prosecutor’s office, and I will smack into the fact that the law school cycle is far, far behind us: the lodestone that was our goal and beacon for such a large and long chunk of years has been reached. We passed on by.  Cycle completed; other goals rise up now on a new horizon.

One son, this year, turns forty; another puts down his thoughts of school and steps into the world of work.  Grandchildren grow and one will graduate, and, oh, the little one now has double digits in her age.  We kick the outgrown plushies down the stairs, load up, instead, on fancy polish and nail decals.  And I say, “How did this happen?  She was just a  baby yesterday!”

And the dog comes and rests her white-rimmed snout on my leg and rolls her eyes at me.  She IS a nature baby; she’s in tune with all these cycles, has seen and read their daily approaches, knows about their advances.  She may not like them, but she accepts them.

I need to do the same.

And this is the season to help me read the signs. We plunge into celebration: shiny-eyed graduations, rueful rites of passage, joyful welcoming of new babies. Nuptials. Explorations into the realities of impending retirement.  Maturing of friendships. Deepening of understanding.  A time, I think, when spirituality sheds its New Age sugar-high and becomes something else entirely.

I am tempted to look at the cicada cycle and draw comparisons, to talk about my burrowed years as if it had been necessary for me to bury my head, ignore the passage, hunker down and take care of just that one essential thing.  But I know that as a cop-out: awareness is always essential. To be mindful is to be as much alive as possible. All I can do now is stay awake and pay attention.

I do not like all the things these revolutions are bringing me.  I do not want the news about the report an oncologist carries to one dear friend, or the fact that another has reached the time of no more treatments. I grieve to learn of a shattered relationship, of two people, sundered, moving away from each other, hurting and confused. I do not want to see the cloudy film softly shading the crazy little dog’s eyes.  I do not want to accept that launching into life is going to mean falling, failing, tender young people getting hurt…and toughening.  I look at those young ones, poised and excited, waiting for just this one moment before they leap, and I want to run out with a giant trampoline, to make sure they bounce, and when the bouncing’s done, to drag them back inside to have some cookies.

To keep them safe.

But that part of the cycle is gone; the wheels have turned. Dancing here on my own, self-chosen set of gears and cogs and turning things, I can see them, those young leapers, but these old feet can’t move fast enough to go and synchronize their revolutions with mine.  I have to leave them alone.  I have to let them figure out their own crazy dance steps.


I do, however, have good company. Mark’s dancing right beside me, new knees making him ever more nimble, on a very similar round. And friends and family members share the passages.  Wheels turn and bring smiling, loving faces close for a time before spinning them out to the proper next phase, and the sharing of those moments is essential.

And there is much yet to be discovered, a whole new phase beginning.  Time, perhaps, for a new dance: I can’t let the fear of learning the steps cause my feet to falter.

Today is the first day of a four-day weekend, Memorial Day, a weekend when we remember, when we rest, when we make plans to move forward. So I gulp down the last dregs of morning coffee, and I trail through the house, de-cluttering. Jim gets up, and we plan for the day.  We’ll be meeting some wonderful life-friends for lunch. I put a load of laundry in.  I lift the last cookie bars from the tray–leftovers from cookies made for a bake sale at one place of work and a farewell luncheon at another–and I swirl hot soapy water to clean the pan.

The sun, despite dire predictions, warms the morning.  I go outside and take the push broom from its car-port nook and I sweep those crunchy brown carcasses away from the back door.  I move them off the driveway.  I clean the dead cicadas from Babe’s cement hide.

I see a prowling cat on the ground and I see a hummingbird high above, and I find fresh traces telling me some deer friends spent the night. A mallard duck couple has been calmly working the neighborhood yards this week; I’m hoping they have a taste for cicada. The purple flowers are blooming; the last creamy-white iris has shriveled and gone.

Life may be built of cycles–like a turn-table, like a merry-go-round; like interlocking gears stuttering and catching–but that means the circle turns and returns.  There’s comfort in the image; there is knowledge and sureness. And there is the next revolution to anticipate.

I wonder briefly what life will be like seventeen years from now, in the spring that the new-laid cicada eggs surface to mate and reproduce.  But who’s got time, really, for long pondering on things we can’t control?  There are things to be done, and there people to talk with; there are passages to celebrate, right here in this arc of this fine revolution.

I put the broom away and go inside to get started.

Up Before the Others

It is 6:54 AM, and the clouds are rimmed with a special shade of insistent pink that only happens right here, right now, in this burgeoning time of day, at this spiked and waiting time of year.  The trees limbs, mostly bare as yet (budding coming soon) stand out against that color in crisp, dark, stark relief.

Below that pinkening sky, the junipers that line the far side of drive and the shaggy hedges on the closer edge are sprinkled with a consistent dusting of snow.  It’s almost like some careful child with safety scissors neatly cut two photos from a magazine and glued them together. The brightness of the spring sky, the coldness of the white-dusted evergreens: they just don’t go together.

I have been sitting here pondering the world outside the window–and the other, weirder world inside my head–since just after 5 AM, when my bladder and my buzzing thoughts propelled me out of bed. The little dog came downstairs too, of course, tippy-tapped down after me, waited at the back door to be released and then charged back in, hell-bent on her breakfast bowl and her “Good girl!” goodies. And then she curled up in the embrace of the couch’s cushioned arm, snoring softly, while I grabbed my binder and my special pen, to spend an hour or two releasing all my brain-buzzing .

I love the early quiet. I love to be alone with my thoughts in a sighing, contented house–with the hum of the fridge and the chug of the furnace and the knowledge that the boyos are fast asleep upstairs.  I love the opportunity to open up the hinged lid of my head and spill its contents, ramshackle, wholesale, unsorted and unscripted, onto college-ruled, blue-lined paper.  I love the opportunity to sort through those thoughts and see if there are any little nuggets gleaming, keepers among the dross–things to scavenge; seeds, maybe, to plant for future growth.  Or embers that might need immediate fanning.

The sudden dawning moment comes; the pink is washed from the sky by the pale golden sun, the clouds are backlit and empty, and I realize my early hours are up.  Mark will soon be, too; I’ll pull the breakfast bake from the refrigerator, get the oven heating.  I’ll set the second pot of Seattle’s Best to brewing.  The day will begin, and I’ll be a little more ready for its challenges because I’ve had that solitary writing time.

It wasn’t always thus.


I think about the way we remember people from our halcyon days.

“Oh, she was the one with the funky hats, right?” we might say, or, “Oh, he had that hair! Remember his hair???” And then we meet the primly suited, carefully coifed professional she’s become, or shake the hand of a burly man with a bald and shining pate, and we ponder how we change.  I suspect people might say of me, “Oh, yes: she liked to nap!” because sleep was a state I was always, as a young person, seeking.

I couldn’t wait for work to end, for classes to be over, for the visiting people to go home, so I could grab a blanket and close my eyes for, oh–just twenty minutes.  The twenty minutes would, of course, become two hours; the appointment might be missed, the event completely scotched.

“She’s sleeping,” my dear ones might say, and then they’d roll their eyes.

There was work and there was school and there were other obligations–things I’d signed up to do, books that needed taking back, chores and projects, parties to attend.  The parties might have been a big part of the problem, bleeding into the wee hours, offering lubricated socialization and the illusion of wide-awake, wee-hour wittiness.  After a party, I was always catching up.

‘Morning’ to me meant eleven AM; getting up early meant eight o’clock–and I would not be happy. Three or four o’clock in the afternoon were perfect times for napping, but I could also grab some shut-eye while studying in a library carrel, head cushioned on a stack of books, or sitting in the car outside the pharmacy waiting for my ride to pick up her prescription. Or after dinner, in front of Jeopardy.  Or in the midst of grading a batch of sixth grade essays.

I remember one weekend in a college summer, when I was working the graveyard shift at an ice cream factory, a job which sounds a lot more idyllic than it was.  I arrived home after the sixth day of work–we always worked six days in those hot and busy summers–put away the ice cream treats I brought home for the happy family, washed the fudgesicle residue from my person, and crawled into bed.  When I rambled downstairs at 3 PM, I was shocked to find it was Sunday, and I had slept through the Saturday night bacchanal–and my mother had let me sleep through church.

“Oh NO!” I thought, mourning the potential adventures I had missed, but feeling, too, for a rare and memorable moment, completely rested.

I drank so much coffee in those days that I think it had the opposite effect–it pushed me from jazzed-up into sleepy. My psych prof told me that was exactly the philosophy behind giving kids with ADD big batches of caffeine.

I poured myself another cup and pondered my next nap-time.

After college, I always had two jobs.  When I taught sixth grade, I also worked retail, and I would careen through the weeks, niche-ing lesson planning, paper-grading and bulletin board creation into nooks and crannies of time: the thirty minutes before I ran off to the department store’s lingerie department, the ten minutes before I left for school.  My friend Joan called me, every single morning, making sure I was up and out of bed–I slept so hard and so desperately that sometimes my blatting alarm clock didn’t wake me.

Start the coffee!  Hit the shower! Let the craziness resume!

Once a month or so, during those teaching days, I would grab an early Friday night dinner, then curl up on my bed with an aghan at 6:30 or 7:00, and sleep right through till Saturday lunch.

“Sleep debt,” people told me.

“Slow down,” some advised.

“Nap time?” I asked hopefully.

Then marriage and children. No one tells you what happens to sleep when you have kids, do they?


Mark was a single, custodial dad when we got married; Matt was seven.  And Mark, who’d been Matt’s primary care-giver for almost four years, slept the light sleep of the parent-on-call: one ear always open.  Matt would roll over in his trundle bed down the hall, and Mark would bolt up, head-cocked, listening.

Within one week, I swear to you, one WEEK of being married, I was the bolter-upper, and Mark was snoring through my 3 AM conversations with an inquisitive second grader.  How does this happen? I pondered.  Is it some lady-gene?

And how do people with kids ever catch up on sleep?

On weekends when Matthew stayed with his mom, his newly minted step-mother stayed in her bed, resting up for teaching and for Sunday re-integrations.

And then, seven years later, along came James, a rollicking bundle of joy.  And here was the thing: I was going to be a stay-at-home mommie, at least for the beginning.  I gathered up my baby books, reading everything from T. Barry Brazelton to What to Expect During the First Year.  And this is what those books promised me: the baby will sleep. A lot.

Get yourself a hobby, they advised.  Take naps yourself.  Use the time to clean your house.

Oh, I had visions.  There I’d be: the perfect mommy, rested and beaming, carefully coiffed, with a  smiling infant, a gleaming house.  And drawers full of hand-knitted gifts for the holidays.

James arrived in the wee morning hours of a snowy February day; the timing was a portent I failed to read.  The only time he slept through the night in his first year sent me into a panic:  My God, he must be ill!

My house was a mess; my HAIR was a mess.  My infant was often crying.

Of course, we didn’t realize then that Jim’s brain is wired differently; he was never a napper, and his night sleep never capped out (still doesn’t, I suspect) at more than seven consecutive hours.

WHERE’S MY NAP TIME????? I demanded of the authors of those books, but they turned their backs to me, mute and shuttered.

So I gave up and threw myself into the vortex–going to grad school, working at a college, embarking on the path to law school with my husband.  We sent one boy off to the Navy and the other to classrooms where his connection never quite clicked.  I had classes to teach and advisees to see and parent conferences; we planned trips out of state to visit law schools. There were counselor appointments  and there was baby-sitter searching. We had households to move, and move again.

Gradually, sleeping ten hours became a nice but distant memory; afternoon naps were rare twenty-minute luxuries.  Our bodies change, accept reality. Our minds accept reality too: our needs grow different as we age.

Life, I have decided, is like a big swim in pounding surf: I flail and fling myself against the waves, practicing my imperfect crawl, fighting the undertow, pushing against the current.  And then suddenly, here I am, spat out upon the rocky beach, wondering what sharp object it is I’m sitting upon.  Thinking, “Hey. I don’t need no stinkin’ sleep.”

And enjoying the peace and the treasure of the early morning.


Mark, in his fuzzy bathrobe, has shlupped, yawning, down the stairs.  The dog, who came to beg a chewy bone, now sits growling at my feet (WHAT?? Do my feet seem hungry? Do they twitch as though they might steal that chewy???) I pulled the breakfast bake from the fridge, replaced its plastic lid with a cover of aluminum foil, and put it in the heating oven. I ground the beans and brewed the second pot.

Today I have floors to clean and papers to grade and calendars to calibrate, the week ahead to envision. Jim and I have an entrepreneurial project that needs some shaping before we meet with experts who can help us achieve the dream.  There are meals to plan and reservations to make; there’s a cookie jar almost devoid of its pathetic store-bought cookies.  I have a stack of books to read and I have clothes to iron and there’s a craft table in the basement that badly needs sorting. There are letters to write and there are bills to pay.

But we’ll sit and have breakfast first–pour juice, make plans, portion out the day’s to-do’s.  Once, I would have been buoyed by hours of sleep; now I am buoyed by hours of quiet, time to settle into self, to lighten my thoughts while the sky does the same.

How we change, a wry, amused voice in my head murmurs. How we change. 


But maybe, this afternoon, I’ll take a nap.

Tales Told By Friends

February stumbles into March. Things are up, and things are down.

Sunday afternoon, the sun shines. It’s 60 degrees; we shed our jackets on our walk.  Crocuses bloom and daffs push up, and the world seems washed and ready for newness.

The next day, the sky pushes close, gray and glowering, and snow begins to fall. The heat churgles back on, the heavy coats come back out, and it feels just as though an opened door has abruptly slammed shut.

Then there are changeable days of pouring rain, of gentle shine, and of wind that rattles the stubborn brown oak leaves.  It’s an unsettled time, and it’s a time of concern. People are sick.  Deadlines loom.  There’s stress, and there’s pressure, and there’s uncertainty.

And then, into this uncertain, late-winter mix, slid beneath the doorway of fret and worry, three stories arrive.  They are stories from friends:

–Linda–a friend from the early times–all the way back to grade school and high school years.

–Sharon–a friend from the after-college days, those heady days of young adulthood and claiming identity.

–Larisa–a friend met through the place I work now, and a friendship forged through such adventures as trudging half-marathons together.

Their stories speak to me of  bravery and endurance, of answering calls for help even in the darkness, of the spirited embracing of life. Their stories ground my thoughts and remind me of things that are important. Linda and Sharon and Larisa are generous with their stories, and I know this: these stories are things to be shared.


Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

Al went through a lot of steel-toed boots, Linda says, during his years with the railroad.

He was only 22 when the railroad took him on. They must have been glad to get him: a big strong kid, a hard worker. And, young as he was, a family man.  Al and Linda–she was such a pretty girl: red-haired, bright, and lively–got married in 1972, the year he graduated from high school. Their daughter Tracy was born in March 1973; Linda picked up her high school diploma that June.

They lived in Dunkirk, their hometown.  Scott arrived in October of 1975. The next year, Al laced up those steel-toed boots and joined the railroad. They hired him as a laborer; he’d barely worn out his first pair of boots when they made him a welder.

The railroad moved Al and the family to Geneva, Ohio, in 1978.  He broke in another pair or two of boots before the railroad made him a foreman.

Linda turned her gift for nurturing into a vocation; she provided daycare for other families’ children in her home.  She was good at it, and popular, and, in 1986, she and Al became the proud owners of We Care Day Care.

Linda ran the business for seven and a half years; Al traveled for the railroad most of that time. His boots touched down in a lot of different places, a lot of different states.  He rode from Boston to Chicago to Miami, and to a lot of less well-known places in between.

The railroad made him a supervisor. He went through more pairs of boots. He worked a lot of 16 hour days.  He took good care of the gang he supervised; they knew they could count on Al having a bagful of roasted shelled nuts for them and a cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Al talks about watching Amish children playing in green fields as the train sped by; he remembers street corner entrepreneurs hawking their wares.  He ate at a lot of mom and pop diners and restaurants.  He had a lot of rich and interesting conversations with strangers; he met a lot of strangers who became his friends. He remembers those he worked with, the people who worked for him, with a great deal of fondness.

The railroad made him a manager.

Kids grow; boots wear out; careers careen in unexpected directions.  In 1999, the railroads merged, and CSX sent Al and Linda, empty-nesters now, to Scherville, Indiana.  They stayed there for two and a half years…long enough, just about, to wear out another pair of boots.

Al bid out in 2003, and, writes Linda, “We say we’ve come full circle.” They moved back home to Westfield, New York.  Their home town, where they graduated from high school, is about 15 miles away.

When Al retired, he took off his steel-toed boots for the last time, and he told Linda to throw them away.  He went out and got himself some comfortable gym shoes and he started wearing those.  He even, recently, bought himself a pair of walking shoes, and when the western New York snows melt this spring, maybe he and Linda will go walking on some of the local woodland trails or explore some of the tree-lined streets.

But Linda couldn’t bear to throw the boots away.  There has to be something, she mused to herself, some way to use them.  And–gifted with taste, and an unerring eye–she found just the thing.  When they celebrated Al’s retirement, those boots held place of honor, filled with flowers: a steel-toed tribute.

How do you show the measure of a man?  Maybe using boots that symbolize his dedication is not such a bad way.  During his years with the railroad, Al and Linda raised a family, moved that family, and worked hard for their family.  Al grew into management.  He grew into manhood.

You know the times weren’t always easy, but Al and Linda were not the ones to give up, to wish for the easy way out. The boots wear out, you get a new pair.  You lace them up and you get out there and you work.

It’s what Al did, Linda says, every day of his life with the railroad.  He laced up his boots, he showed up, he did more than a day’s work, and he did it unfailingly well. And he did it healthy, and he did it sick, and he did it even when he really didn’t want to leave his family and his warm home.

All those years, says Linda, and never, not even once, did Al miss a day of work.


Sharon’s Story: The Curious Incident of the Whisper in the Night-time

It is 3 AM [Sharon remembers], a deep November night, and she is suddenly–as if summoned–wide awake.  She lifts the shade of her bedroom window, and sees that, in the pouring rain, some sort of large animal prowls the backyard. ‘Coyote!’ is her first thought, but this wet beast is bigger.

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

Sharon manages the estate of a well-known Harvard professor. She lives in a jewel-box of a home on the grounds.  From her front door, she can survey the pool and the rolling yards.  There are security lights that shine all night long.

The pool at night

She watches the animal approach in the glow of those lights.  When it gets close enough to activate the motion sensor on her porch, more light floods on. Sharon sees this is a dog–a big dog–one with a collar.

She tries to decide what to do.  I could go out, she thinks, and bring it in out of the rain, make some calls, and try to find its owner. 

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

While Sharon ponders, the dog explores the edge of the pool, which is coated, in that November darkness, with fallen leaves. In the slickery rain, those leaves may have looked like a solid surface for walking.  The dog puts out a paw, shifts its weight, and falls abruptly into the water.

Sharon is galvanized.  She calls 911 and she grabs her raincoat and a flashlight. She runs out to the pool where the dog is thrashing and crying–really, heart-breakingly, crying.  And Sharon knows that she has to go into the pool and get the dog.  By the time helps arrives, it will be too late.

She says a prayer, and she is in the water.

She grabs the dog’s collar and then it’s like unseen hands are helping. Sharon feels as though the dog, which stops thrashing, is LIFTED from the water.  It puts its paws on the pool’s edge; Sharon pushes gently. The dog is out of the pool. It shakes itself off, and it follows its dripping savior gratefully into the dry garage. Sharon rubs it down as best she can, and she discovers the trembling beast has tags with not one, but three, phone numbers to call if found. Someone, she thinks, really loves this animal. She reassures the dog that all is well.

Sharon leaves the dog in the dry garage, and takes her flashlight out to the top of the hill to flag down the police.  They arrive quickly; they call the owner; they bundle the shivering dog into the back of the patrol car.

Sharon–soaked and freezing–hurries back into her house. And she thinks: What woke me at that moment in the middle of the night? 

Another minute, the next day, and Sharon would have missed her.  The dog’s owner pulls into the long drive just as Sharon is leaving. She is, the owner, a middle-aged woman with an armful of flowers, two ecstatic cards declaring Sharon a hero, and a special needs son, waving from the car. The dog is the little boy’s devoted companion. The dog, the owner tells Sharon, is a rescue dog itself.

There are teen-aged siblings in that household; one, the mama thinks, left a door ajar, and the dog was just bound to explore.  There are busy highways to cross on the route it must have taken to get to the pool by Sharon’s home. Something kept it safe. The next thing it knew, it was five miles from home and drowning.

Except that Sharon heard a voice in the night, and she listened to its call.

A rescue dog, a child in need: Sharon figures a whole army of guardian angels were at work that night, and one of them woke her up.  That angel must have known that Sharon would not hesitate; that angel must have known she was another rescuer waiting to help that child, ready to save that dog.


Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

Larisa, the youngest of nine grown siblings, balances between two dear women at thresholds.  Her mother, Janette,–she’s Mimaw to the kids–,will be 90 this year.  Larisa’s daughter, Cassie, just turned 18.

They are close, Cassie and her Mimaw, who now lives in an assisted living situation–a nice place, but not the family home where Janette raised and launched her brood.  Larisa and  her husband Aaron built their home right next to Mimaw’s.  Their kids were in and out, every day.

Janette misses that.

But they visit, all the time.  When Cassie comes, she and Mimaw talk about birthdays, and Mimaw wonders what special thing Cassie would like for her special day.

Cassie confides that she wants a tattoo–something her parents have told her could only happen when she turns 18.  Mimaw gets interested.

When she sees Larisa alone, she confides that she’d like to be a part of that.  Maybe, suggests Janette, she and Cassie should get tattoos together.


Larisa is shocked at first, but the idea flutters down, settles gently in, and takes root.  Maybe, thinks Larisa, they could all get tattoos.  But first she calls her mother’s doctor, who is intrigued.  Ninety-year old skin IS different, the doctor agrees, but it could work.  The artist would have to thoughtful and gentle and observant.  The design would have to be simple and monochromatic.

Larisa calls her siblings.  Some share her shock, at first, and some seem disapproving, and Barb signs on to get a tattoo, too.

They research designs and take them to Janette, who selects a simple heart that weaves into the word, “Family.”

They research tattoo artists and find Six, a local legend (Six is, students tell me, the rock star of tattoo artists in our county.)  Six is not fazed; he has known older folks who wanted tattoos, and he knows how to proceed.  They will do a test dot first and see if Janette’s skin will take the ink, or if the ink will run or smear. Or–it might just hurt too much. If any of those things happen, Six assures Larisa, they will abort this mission.

There are four of them at the tattoo shop that day, and the thing goes off without a glitch. The four women leave the parlor with tasteful hearts on their arms, permanent reminders that family is what’s important.

The staff at the assisted living facility waits for Janette to return from her foray to Six’s domain.  Many of those caring souls have ink on their arms, too.  Janette, on her arrival home, gets a standing ovation .

But Larisa worries about healing, so she visits the next day.  Everything is fine, her mother says, and she’s glad she got the tattoo with Cassie as her granddaughter celebrated her 18th birthday.

Now it’s time, Janette tells Larisa solemnly, to think about her own milestone, that birthday coming up in a couple of months.  She’s thinking another tattoo might be in order.  What does Larisa think about…hmmm…maybe a butterfly?

The artists and his subjects


I think about the different kinds of bravery owned by these three women I’m lucky enough to call friends.

I think about Linda and Al, and their dedication and devotion.

I think about Sharon’s unflinching response to a mysterious, inconvenient, challenging call.

I think about Larisa, the connecting link in a chain forged by love of family and a spirit of adventure.

Gratefully, I take their stories and I hug them close, and I push, past puddles skimmed with ice, out into this particular March morning.

Vocation, Vocation, Vocation

They hadn’t been to church in over a year,–so long that their church of tentative choice had a new minister, for heaven’s sake–but something nudged her that Sunday.  Her husband reluctantly put the New York Times aside and accompanied her, although she assured him it wasn’t necessary. But it was good, they both felt, to see friendly faces; and the cadence of the liturgy, the swell of the organ, the smell of the candles, soothed and inspired.

After the opening prayer, the children were called to the front, and a talented mom shared an abbreviated story of Jonah. The small heads leaned forward avidly.  Refusing to do what you’re told!  Trapped in the belly of the beast! VOMITED out and repentantly, belatedly obedient. Now there was a story.

The pastor, in his sermon, took up the thread of Jonah. “Let’s talk,” he said, “about answering God’s call.  What’s God calling you to do?”

She almost laughed out loud.  She was 63 years old–63!–and suddenly it seemed like the concept of vocation was stalking her.

A little child–a blond, solemn boy of maybe three and a half, four years–in the pew three rows ahead, was playing with a wooden Johnny Jump Up toy, his back to the altar, staring, unseeing, right at her.  She closed her eyes to concentrate better on the pastor’s words, but the wooden click-clacking intruded.  It sounded familiar, she thought; it conjured a long-forgotten sound. It was the sound that wooden rosary beads made as the Sisters of Saint Joseph navigated her grade school classrooms.

In third grade it had been Sister Mary Agnes who rustled and clacked up and down the aisles of the Perpetual Life schoolroom, placing thick packets of official-looking paperwork on each child’s desk. Some of the nuns were rough or stern or abrupt; Sister Mary Agnes was quiet, kind, encouraging.

When she reached forward eagerly to read the instructions, Sister put a gentle hand on her head and urged her to wait.  They would discover this together, as a class.

And it was something to discover.  This packet, Sister told them, was an APTITUDE inventory.  The questions it contained would cleverly worm their ways into each child’s special core of being, winnowing out and revealing the talents and leanings each child had.  Revealing vocations–God’s special call to each one. For each, Sister Agnes assured the third graders, had a special call.  It was their lives’ work to discern what that call was.  Sister searched the faces of her charges, her eyes, lashless behind un-rimmed spectacles, were hopeful but realistic; some, she said, might even have the special vocation for the religious life.  Although, Sister acknowledged sadly, that call seemed to come less and less, these days.

It was 1960.

The children took up their sharpened number two pencils–each had a spare, just in case; there would be no talking, no asking a neighbor for help if a pencil point broke during this exercise.  Take your time, admonished Sister.  Give honest, thoughtful answers.  The results we’ll receive could truly plant the seeds that shape your lives!

At last she could begin.  What interesting questions,–things like, If I had free time, I would choose to…a.) play kickball b.) read a book c.) play with my dog d.) take a walk. Oh, that was hard–would there be friends over?  Would her father be able to play in the yard with them?  Or would it be during a rainy summer afternoon when chores were taken care of and the house was quiet? No questions were allowed, and she wasn’t sure if she could just choose a scenario.

What would be the most likely thing? she asked herself.  She thoughtfully, carefully, bubbled in her answer and moved on to the next question.  They were all like that, boundary-less; she had to decide what the background was to respond.  The room was silent save for the scratching of pencils as the children blacked in their answers. They considered the questions–these little bundles of words that might magically change their lives–for two full hours. When Sister picked up each packet and carefully stacked them on her desk, the children were ready for lunch, ready to run out onto the courtyard and stretch their stiff and twitchy legs.

It was two long weeks before the results came in.  She’d walk home from school, in the interim, imagining what hers might say.  Something interesting, she hoped–maybe something ladies didn’t usually do–like exploring or being a white-coated, beaker-wielding, scientist.  She was a little worried about the whole religious thing; in first grade, when she had Sister Mary Theresa, who was young and beautiful with finely arched eyebrows and porcelain pale skin–Sister MT was what she thought of when she heard the term, “A bride of Christ,”– she had been sure she had the Call.  She wrote to different groups of sisters–orders, her mother called them,–and got responses with glossy brochures and programs of study, picture of missions, letters admonishing her to pray very hard for her vocation.

She also, that year, wrote to the New York Yankees and got autographed flyers from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.  But she wasn’t going to be a baseball player.

And she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be a nun, either.  But, she thought uneasily, what if the Results said she should?  Could she run away from God?  Look what Sister said had happened to Jonah when he tried that little trick.

Maybe she could be a writer, and maybe she could draw pictures for children’s books. Maybe there was a job for her she’d never even dreamed of.

The day the results arrived, she hurried home; Sister said to open them with a parent when there was time to sit and discuss. She hoped her mother would be ready.

Luck ran her way. Her mother, tall and thin, with a long mop of glossy auburn hair, was languidly running the feather duster around the French windows that enclosed the staircase; she stopped to look at the packet.

Oh, it was exciting, the moment before knowing!  She held her breath, sitting at the big formal dining room table, as her mother slit open the big envelope, pulled out a stack of papers, and took a long pull on her Lucky Strike.  Then she flipped open the official letter.

There was a pause,–ah, a breathless, fraught moment. And then her mother snorted.

“For Christ’s sake,” she said.  “Just like your brother!  They think all the kids outside the city are hicks!”

Her mother slapped the paper down on the table, where she could see it. “Your scores indicate,” read the printed form, “that    FARMING    would be a good match for your aptitudes and skills.”

“Farming!” she gasped, looking at her mother in despair.

Her mother laughed and reached a long, slender hand over to ruffle her hair. “You’re no farmer, kiddo,” she said. “You don’t like dirt and you don’t like animals.  You’re gonna have to figure it out yourself, just like the rest of us.”

Oh, it was disappointing.  But the concept that she had a vocation, a special role to play, never really left her.  She tried on different roles all the way through school–for a long while, she was captivated by the idea of working in a shoe store (oh, the leathery, promising smell of new shoes! And the happy faces of children picking out a wonderful new pair!)  Her brother pointed out, though, that she would have to touch stinky feet, maybe even diseased feet.

She set that idea aside, picking up new ones–waitress, nurse, rock and roll diva.  Reporter.  Designer.  Artist.

She still had no idea when she got to college so, loving books and enjoying writing and research, she took an English degree.  An advisor told her vaguely that employers cherished the ability to communicate. Those words were not entirely true, she found when she started shlepping her degree around, looking for work.  She worked for a dentist, training in the office to be an assistant, holding the suction, helping people to spit.

She liked the hours; the money was decent. But, oh, she was bored.  She went back to school for her master’s, and she vowed that she would figure out what she should be doing, only determined, in those Seventies days of exhilarating feminism, that she would neither teach nor type for a living.

And she wound up, of course, doing both–there she was, aged 26, in a middle school language arts classroom, coaxing seventh graders to write thoughtful essays, enticing them to read an abbreviated form of the Odyssey, a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet.  During breaks, she typed graduate school theses for extra money.

She hated herself for it, but she loved teaching.  She moved and married, moved again, and in each place she found a little bit better job, but always in the education field, always involved with students. She took time off to have her daughter.  Teaching, she liked to say, stalked her.  Jobs came and found her, even when she wasn’t ready to be found.  She moved from classroom to administration, and from middle school to high school.

Although she didn’t track it down, didn’t figure it out, she realized somewhat belatedly, that education was, for her, a vocation.She moved, finally, to the College level, and now, here she was: the Dean.

That was the pinnacle, and she thought suddenly, as the pastor’s thoughtful words sank like rainwater into the thirsty soil of her soul, that she was done.  Sixty three.  THIS career: over. Time to move on.

She laughed a little and her husband looked at her a little oddly, gave her a mild stink-eye, and she wondered where the pastor had gone with his sermon–oh, was she laughing, maybe, at the description of ultimate sacrifice?  She coughed lightly, patted her husband’s arm, returned to a contemplation of the pastor’s words.

Until she started thinking about the workshop she’d gone to recently that talked about continuous growth: sometimes, the speaker said, we need to make a drastic change, move to a new field entirely.  That week she’d picked up a book about ‘finding your hedgehog’ at the library–the hedgehog being that thing that one is really, ultimately, meant to do.  TED talks popped up on the subject of vocation; her daily devotionals urged her to discernment.

Sixty three! she reminded herself, standing there in the church she’d been neglecting, a smear of yellow light from the amber glass in the window staining her cheek. A little old for new careers, new choices, don’t You think?

As if in response, excitement leapt in her stomach. Finding something new. Something completely and surprisingly different.  What IS it? she thought.  She grinned at her husband, who tried to look at her in mature disapproval, but caught in the rays, he grinned right back.

The service moved toward its conclusion; music swelled. She thought about moving forward, too; she would pick up her Julia Cameron book and start doing her morning pages, walking meditation, artist’s dates. She would pray for discernment.  She would go to the women’s workshop her cousin had been urging her to attend. Something’s coming, she realized: a change, a lift, a whole new role.

They shook the new pastor’s hand, affirmed that they would see him next week, stood and talked with friends for a moment, leaning on their car in the parking lot. They climbed in the car–his car, the Sunday car, a long, sleek sedan–and drove home.

She stared out the window at houses with lovely gardens, fluttering ‘Welcome’ flags, planters burgeoning with beautiful blooms. She didn’t know what the next step was, only that there would be one, and it would be exciting.

But–she thought of the tiny terrace on their condo, with the dead flowers in their expensive container pots, and she knew this one thing for sure: Farming still wasn’t her answer.