The Case of the So-Called Conker: Mundane Mysteries #1

Dirk Zane leaned an elbow against the door frame.

“Hey, doll,” he said.

Patsy looked up from the carrot she was chopping, halting the gleaming blade in mid- air. There he stood, as if guarding the basement doorway. The dark stubble on his jaw was shot through with silver. He arched one eyebrow sardonically.

“What’s up there, big guy?” she asked nonchalantly.

He let out a long breath. “My bun feet,” he said, “are missing.”

Involuntarily, her eyes shot down to his battered sneakers.

“Very funny, Toots,” he said. “You know what I mean.”

He lifted his chin and jerked it toward the basement. She put down her gleaming blade and followed him downstairs.

All the cabinet doors were open; boxes were moved, their contents spread across the floor. He’d obviously been searching.

“I had a bag of wooden bun feet,” he rasped. “I want to take these cupboards off the wall, put the bun feet on the bottom, and make them into freestanding bookshelves.” There was a long, pregnant pause, and he added, “But the bun feet are nowhere to be found.”

For the next half hour, they searched the dark recesses of the house’s lowest floor. They didn’t find the bun feet.

“Maybe,” she said, “they’re out in your garage workshop.”

“Yeah. That’d be a good resolution.” He bent his head toward her, one eyebrow quirked. “But I’m afraid there’s more than simple misplacing going on here. To be thorough, though, I will have to go check.”

He swaggered up the steps, one hand patting his shirt pocket. Empty.

Then he remembered that he didn’t smoke, and never had. He dropped his hand to his side, coughed lightly, and headed out the door.


She watched him go, confident he’d find those bun feet. He was the best private dick she knew; they made a good team.

She bent down to pull out the drawer that held her food containers. The carrots were chopped and needed to be put away.

But something was strange. She found two small glass containers of just the right size.

But the tops were nowhere to be found.

She found three lids to just-the-right-size plastic containers.

The containers were gone.

She got down on her hands and knees and pulled out drawers. Perhaps containers and lids had fallen behind. Perhaps they were in the dishwasher.

Maybe the boy had left them in a bedroom.

She searched everywhere.

When Dirk came back into the house, she was sitting on the stepstool, shaking her head.

“The containers,” she told him. “They’re missing, too.

It was a desperate afternoon. Dirk and Patsy spread papers out on the dining room table. They listed where the missing objects had been last seen.

They plotted all possible scenarios.

They interrogated the boy, who was no help whatsoever.

They went outside, separately, and struck up innocent conversations with unsuspecting neighbors.

But as Dirk noted, at the end of the day, they were no closer to finding the bun feet or the containers. If anyone knew anything, they were good. They were VERY good. There wasn’t a hint or a whiff in their comments that could lead Dirk and Patsy to the missing stuff.

“Doll,” he said, “something’s rotten in Denmark.”

She nodded.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said.


She set off, striding, tensed, but, as the sunlight filtered through the falling leaves, she found her shoulders relaxing. Finding things: it was what they did.

She knew that she and Dirk would uncover the missing items.


Her foot struck a chestnut and sent it spinning into the street, its brown skin gleaming, its off-white belly a dull contrast. A memory jiggled, and then surfaced.

They had watched an episode of Escape to the Chateau the night before. The UK ex-pats had called the chestnuts “conkers.”

“Huh,” she had thought then, and now she stopped and looked at the chestnuts spread out on the sidewalk before her.

Growing up, they’d called these horse chestnuts.

Now, they lived in buckeye land.

But across the ocean: conkers.

Where did all these names come from?

THIS was a mystery she could solve. She headed home to her computer.


She started with the oldest term, and found that chestnut trees were brought to the United Kingdom in the 1500’s. The first game of conkers, though,–a game played with the chestnuts–wasn’t officially recorded until one was played on the Isle of Wight in 1848.

The author of the article she read speculates that there might be three reasons Brits call chestnuts ‘conkers’:

  • The term MIGHT come from an archaic colloquialism meaning “hard nut.” (Chestnut really AREN’T a hard nut; they are a soft one. But they are hard enough to sting like the dickens, she thought, if someone whips one at your noggin. “Hard nut,” she mused. Maybe she’ll start calling Dirk, “Conker.”)
  • The players of the game may have morphed the term ‘conquer’ to show what they were planning to do to their opponents.
  • And it just might be, the author speculates, that ‘conker’ is what a chestnut sounds like, when it hits a hard surface—including someone’s rocky skull.

So, in the UK, the name of the game came also to be the name of the nut.

“Conkers,” Patsy murmured.
“The History of Conkers”


She moved on to the name she knew the nut by as a child.

Here again, she found there could be two reasons for the term ‘horse chestnut.’ When the chestnut breaks away from the twig it grows on, the loss of its stem leaves a scar on the tree. And that scar, she was surprised to find, is horseshoe shaped. If one looks closely, the article told her, one can even see tiny nail marks.

The other thing is this: In the days before modern veterinary medicine, horse-handlers ground up chestnuts and fed them to their horses when those horses had bad coughs. There were medicinal properties in the resulting brew that actually did cure those horse-coughs.

But the ground chestnuts were not for everyone. Huge horses could digest them. To other creatures, though, the chestnut was pure poison.

“Those are two good reasons,” Patsy thought, “ for the name ‘horse chestnut.’”

She moved on to learning how chestnuts in the Midwest came to be called ‘buckeyes.’


The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jeff Seuss writes that native peoples called the nut a buck eye (hetuck in the native tongue) because it does indeed resemble the eye of a deer.

But outsiders used it as a term of derision for Ohioans. The buckeye, they said, was a soft, native-born nut…just like the people who live in Ohio.

But Ohioans appropriated the term, making it mean what they wanted it to. THEY said that buckeyes were good to look at. They were tough to kill. They were a valuable resource. Being a buckeye, then, was a very good thing.

This all came to a boil when William Henry Harrison (who was born in Virginia but claimed Ohio as home) ran against Martin Van Buren for president in 1840. Van Buren-ites said Harrison was “…better suited to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider.”

Again, Harrison’s supporters turned the insult into an accolade. They created a kind of logo for Harrison; in it he was depicted near a log cabin (made from buckeye logs.) On the walls, one could see strings of buckeyes. There was a barrel of good hard likker close by.

When Harrison supporters marched in parades, they carried buckeye canes and rolled whiskey barrels. They proudly claimed the name, “Buckeye.”

Seuss tells us that Ohio State made the buckeye its mascot in 1950, and Ohio adopted the buckeye as its state tree in 1953.


Patsy spun her chair away from the computer and went to share her findings with Dirk. He listened thoughtfully, then reached a gnarled hand to rub her shoulder.

“Nice work, Doll,” he said. “That’s why all the different names for a chestnut. That’s one mystery solved.”

They splashed some hard liquor into highball glasses and clinked. Then they gulped down the rotgut, and they went to watch Ted Lasso with the boy.

Solving the other mysteries, they agreed, would wait until another day.

What Can It Hurt?

It is still pleasantly warm in the late afternoon. Katherine’s attention is flagging.

“Hell,” she thinks. “I’m 75 years old. I’m ALLOWED to wander a little.”

She sits carefully back in her seat, crosses her legs neatly at the ankle, and puts on her paying attention look. Boffle Three is droning at the podium, using this occasion to drive home his political agenda. She will know when it’s time to resurface by the change in his cadence. So, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted as if ready to comment enthusiastically on the words she’s not hearing, she allows herself to drift away, to think what this 50th anniversary means.

She was 25 in 2025; she had been born on January 1, 2000. Her dad called her Y2Katy, and that was part of the charm the press found in quoting her.

She went to a town hall on climate change, on the desperate need to make change happen NOW. Katherine was a young teacher, and she thought of everything in terms of the earth her students—4th graders, mostly 10 years old—would grow up into.

The first Boffle—Boffle One—had the podium. He was a short man, a round man, and a bald man. He was not much to look at, that Boffle (because it was before Boffle Two and Boffle Three emerged, Katherine just thought of him as Blowhard Boffle), but he did have a way with words. And now he was telling the audience, many of whom were happy to be convinced, that climate change was a hoax. That all the violent storms, all the dying animals, all the forest fires and all the melting, changing landscapes, were due to natural cycles.

“Nothing we can do—we’re just people, folks!” said Boffle One, “is going to make one diddlysquat of difference. We’re at the mercy of nature. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up progress.”

Katherine looked around the town hall, and she saw people wavering. And something propelled her, although she was generally a quiet person, out of her seat.

“Mr. Boffle,” she called politely. “May I ask a question?”

The round man looked over, took her in—a tall, serious young woman, with neatly tied long hair and owl-y glasses, and he smiled.

“Of course, you can ask a question, miss,” he said kindly. And he leaned forward as if to catch her faltering words.

But Katherine, who was never much of a public speaker, didn’t falter this time.

“Well, here it is,” she said. “And I’m sorry if it’s lengthy. But it seems to me that if you’re wrong, and we DON’T pursue immediate changes, we can damage things beyond repair. We could leave the children I teach a world that they can’t live in.

“But if you’re right, and we do pursue immediate changes—well, the world will be better for it, won’t it? And those kids’ lives will still be better for what we’ve done?

“So my question is, Mr. Boffle, when it comes to treating this earth with love and respect—well, what can it hurt?”

In the sudden, sucking silence, the little man stared at her. His look clearly said, “I thought you were one of us. I thought you’d support me.” His betrayal was so abject that Katherine almost felt a pang of remorse.

But then, from the back of the auditorium, a voice rang out. “What can it hurt?”

And Katherine, still standing, turned to look. As she did, other voices took it up. “What can it hurt? WHAT CAN IT HURT?”

They chanted Boffle right off the stage. He was supplanted by a writer who had made protecting the earth his mission, and right then and there, in that middling auditorium in that middling city, they began to plot real change.


It happened because people happened. People said, “I’m not buying single-use plastic,” and they found other ways of living. They took up canning. They composted. They bought in bulk. They hunted down alternatives to plastic packaging.

They shared rides, and they turned off technology for big parts of their days, and they installed solar panels on their houses.

It was a grass roots movement, and each community figured out what they could do to make change happen. Shared gardens sprang up. Rapid transit improved all over, as more and more people traveled on hybrid buses. In one city, everyone pledged to turn off all but essential electricity for an hour every night, and they chalked up the amazing difference caused by that hour. A trend sprang up: blackout parties, they called ‘em.

And Katherine’s words…What can it hurt?…became the catch-call.

People crafted t-shirts that read ‘What can it hurt?’

People painted signs and stuck them in the veggie gardens that grew up in many front yards. ‘What can it hurt?’

At the grocery store, Katherine saw a woman loading her food into brown paper bags that her kids had decorated with pictures of plants and smiling animals. An owl was saying, “What can it hurt?”

The media loved it. They found her and interviewed her; they discovered the Y2Katy moniker, and they wrote about how a girl, born with the century, wanted to ensure that the earth was healthy in the centuries that followed.

She had a flurry of attention, Katherine did, and then it faded.

It faded because things really were changing. People were disconnecting from electronics, slowing down, looking at life a different way.

The amazing thing was that change bubbled from the bottom up, from the people who would be most affected, from that broad base of ordinary folks who wanted the earth to be a healthy, safe, happy place.

The movement simmered and boiled over. There was nothing for government to do, nothing for industry to do, but to get on board.

And Katherine plunged into her teaching and changed her own life.

She saved her money and bought herself a tiny house—a house she still lived in. She installed solar panels, which generated the power she needed for many things, including the air conditioning she only used on the hottest of days (fewer now than they used to be.) She used silicone storage containers and canvas shopping bags, and she mixed up vinegar and salt and a spritz of dish detergent to spray on the weeds that grew in the cracks on her old brick patio. That didn’t kill the weeds entirely, but it tempered them, made them manageable, and didn’t introduce poisons into the ground.

She mended things and she re-used things and she learned to bake and cook from scratch.

One of the best things about the whole movement, Katherine thinks now, was the social change. She began to get to know her neighbors, and they began to share their talents. Her neighbor Brian loved to can things. Rob was a skilled woodworker and his wife Sylvie could sew like a professional. Katherine shared her brownies and soups, the flowers she grew in her cutting garden, and the extra tomatoes that burgeoned despite inquisitive deer. Brian canned those tomatoes for her; Ron made her window boxes. One year, Sylvie gifted her with sturdy rugs that she had made from rags Katherine gave her.

Katherine still uses those rugs.

She still uses, too, the electric car she had bought almost 25 years ago, nurturing and babying it into a very healthy old age.

People had lived differently now for long enough that change was happening; the melt was stopping; the storms becoming less fearful; the animals becoming more healthy.

It looked, after this half a century, like they had chosen the right path.


But there were still Boffles. Of course there were Boffles. This one’s grandfather had left his legacy to his son, who spend a lifetime making speeches imparting wisdom that began with lines like this: “I’ll TELL you what it can hurt!”

But the movement, once begun, seemed mightily unstoppable, Boffle be damned. And ‘it’ didn’t seem to hurt anything, except maybe the bottom line of those who already had enough, away.


She pulls herself back as she hears the current Boffle switch gears.

“I still,” he says, “am not convinced that the change we are seeing would not have happened anyway. But I do agree that, in many ways, life is good. And a lot of that goodness came about because of the words of one woman, a brave little lady who asked my grandpa a question. That was Y2Katy, and here she is, still with us today.”

He sweeps an arm toward Katherine, and she smiles in what she hopes is a gracious way, and she stands up. She is wearing her heels, wearing them for this very reason: she walks over to the podium and she towers over Boffle Three.

“Maybe,” she says wryly, and her grimace is self-deprecating, “not such a LITTLE lady.”

The crowd laughs, and the laughter swells.

Katherine spreads out her remarks on the smooth wood of the podium. She wants to say she loves what her life has become; she loves the visits from her former students, many of who are parents, and some of whom are grandparents.

She wants to say she loves being retired and hanging her sheets out on sunny mornings, loves sleeping on those sun-baked sheets at night.  She wants to talk about the rich friendships she discovered after she put her smartphone down back when she was young and started looking into people’s faces, started slowing down to talk, starting bringing bunches of her posies to the elderly lady who lived next door and cookies to the harried young mom on the other side.

She wants to say that, when she started living a life that benefited the earth, her life did not become impoverished or laborious. Her life became richer.

But the crowd does not let her. The laughter simmers down, and a voice calls out, “What can it hurt?” And for the second time in her life, her words are chanted back to her, thrumming and uplifted.

And she realizes she doesn’t have to say a word. Grinning, she thrusts her seventy-five year-old fist into the air, and pumps it. The crowd roars.


She does not stay for the reception after the ceremony. She finds a bench and slips off her heels. She laces up her sneakers and walks the mile to her house, leaving the noise and celebration behind her. The movement would have swelled and happened without her, Katherine knows. But it’s fun that her question became a catch-phrase. It tickles her to be a foot-note to a grand historical happening, to a moment humanity can be proud of.

At home, she brews a small pot of herbal tea, and she wraps herself in a hand knit shawl against the evening’s cool, and takes her steaming mug out onto the little brick patio. She can hear the thumping bass of a band at the reception. And she is glad to be alone, glad to have time and health and community—glad to have a recovering earth to flourish upon—glad to be able to reflect.

She knows she did not cause the movement that led to this day, but she is proud to have been a tiny part of it. And she sips her fragrant tea and she admits that it didn’t have to wind up this way. She pulls the shawl more tightly around her, and she inhales the chilly truth: It could have been very, very different.

Teaching and Learning

Dell pulls onto the highway, past the one-lane wait where the long stretch of road is being re-paved, and she steps on the gas. The car moves forward, smooth and free, and she turns on NPR. What’s interesting this morning? she wonders.

“…they were locked in the hold?” asks the commentator.

The guest, identified as some kind of government inspector, demurs. They are not sure yet, he says; and they are still looking for survivors.

“The five they found,” the commentator presses, “are all crew members?”

“Yes…” says the guest reluctantly.

And Dell realizes only slowly that the others, the ones locked in the boat, were trapped in a fire.

A picture flares into her mind…of people stuck and terrified, of flames and screams and pounding pleadings at a locked door.

She turns off the radio and rides in silence.

She feels gut-punched.


Her first class is on the main campus in a little industrial city. Today is a grammar refresher, and the students sigh and roll their eyes.

“I know,” she always says, “that this is basic and that you know this stuff. But going through it gives us a common language. Then I won’t confuse you when I write comments on your papers.”

She reviews parts of a sentence. What a noun is. Verbs and tenses. Subjects and objects. When to use “I” and when to use “me.”

They groan and shift and they write down every word she puts on the white board.

Because they don’t all know this stuff: they have gaps and empty knowledge spaces, some of them. They guard their borders fiercely, but every once in a while, a student will sit back with that look on her face—the look that says, “Now I get it. Now I know how THAT works.”

She puts them in small groups—it’s an English class after all,–and they come up with nouns and verbs and create sentences. They add ridiculous strings of adjectives and adverbs, words and phrases; they craft sentences a whole page long. They forget their coolth, and they get silly.

They work so hard, and they finish so much, that she lets them loose ten minutes early.

On the way out, one of the young women, one of the most languid and bored of all the students, stops and shows Dell pictures on her smart phone. Her dog has just had its first litter. She’s thinking, this student is, how hard it’s going to be to give the puppies up. She’s talking to her mom about maybe keeping one, the little one with the white spot on its nose.

Dell comments on the sweetness of the puppies, and the student smiles. Then the veneer slides back into place, and she nonchalantly says goodbye and saunters away.


Dell’s next class is on a satellite campus, thirty miles away. She’ll drive on the four lane partway, veer off onto country roads, wind up on a four-lane again just as she gets to the satellite.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The tires thrum. She decides to see if there’s anything uplifting on the radio.

She turns it on to hear about another mass shooting. Semi-automatic rifle; seven people dead, including the shooter, who had lost his job that afternoon.


The students at the satellite campus are unabashedly NOT city kids. They are enthusiastic and cheerful. Dell starts going through the grammar review. “I know you know this, but…” she begins.

She writes the definition of a sentence on the board. They talk about subjects and predicates, nouns and verbs.

“Wait, wait!” says one student in back, busily taking notes, so Dell pauses. In the quiet, one of the students slaps her hand on the table in front of her. She is a senior in high school, taking college courses through a special program the state offers.

She says, “I am SO GLAD we’re doing this! I forgot all this stuff!”

“Exactly,” says the young man next to her.

The students eagerly break into groups. They work up until the very minute class is over, and they stop on the way out to tell her what they’re doing on the weekend. One, an older student, waits until the others are gone.

“I think,” she says to Dell, hesitant and nervous, “I might want to be a writer.”

Dell can see how hard that was for the student to say, and they talk for a bit about some of the joys and the challenges of a writing life.


The next morning, Dell heads—a true Road Scholar—to another satellite campus, this one in a suburb of the large city. The radio is filled with news of a devastating hurricane, of the dead and the missing, of whole cities flattened, of people stranded with no food or fresh water.

Dell grips the wheel, white-knuckled, feeling sick. So much pain. So much tragedy. Chaos reigns, and she is helpless. People suffer, and she is powerless and sickened.


Many of the students in this class were born in other countries. They wear, some of them, ethnic dress, and they talk with various lilts and inflections, and they are, many of them, very, very anxious about succeeding in this class.

This is a lab session and they work at computers, answering questions about Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay. The students have many questions, both about the content of the assignment and about the computer, and Dell works her way as quickly as she can through the raised hands, directing and reassuring. She smiles at Nadja, a tiny young woman with a gauzy head wrap and a soft, soft voice.

Before she answers Nadja’s question, Dell rolls her head and stretches, and she realizes that Edwina, the tall, elegant Ghanaian with the warm British accent, is working with the students in the front row. As Dell cracks her neck, Edwina shows Deanna how to access the submission portal on the class website. Deanna sees it; her eyes light and she sits back and grins.

Dell bends down to listen to Nadja’s question. She explains how to complete the assignment, and she helps the student open a Word document.

“But I don’t know,” Nadja says, “when I am done, how to get it to you.”

Dell tells her not to worry. Just concentrate on getting the work done. Then they’ll submit it together.

Nadja nods, troubled, but she peers at the screen, pauses, and begins, slowly, to type.

All heads are bent over keyboards, all fingers flying. Dell gives Edwina a thumbs up thank you, then retreats back to the instructor’s space. She keeps an eye out for raised hands as she grades discussion board posts.

Just before class ends, Nadja raises her hand. “I am done,” she whispers, and she asks Dell to check her work. Her answers are thorough and thoughtful, and she has nailed the MLA format.

Dell tells her that, and Nadja smiles.

Then, together, they save the file and close it, open the college website and click onto the class page. Dell shows her how to open the assignment submission link, and suddenly Nadja brightens. Her fingers fly; she attaches the documents; she hits submit.

The class packs up to go, and she waves them off, reminding them of Monday’s work, and wishing them a restful weekend. They say goodbye and hurry out the door.

Dell turns to gather her things, and then she realizes that Nadja has turned back. She is standing, uncertain, in the classroom doorway, and Dell hurries over.

“What is it, Nadja?” she asks. “Can I help?”

But the girl is not troubled. She turns her face to Dell, and it’s illuminated, glowing, kindled with hope.

“The computer,” whispers Nadja. “I understand now. Teacher! Thank you.”

And she bows just a little, a head-nod really, and hurries off.

Dells watches as Nadja wrestles the big door open, a tiny woman in beautiful flowing clothes, a strong, determined woman who is going to succeed. And then Dell turns and hurries to the instructor’s desk, her back to the door as she packs up her things.

She climbs into the car for the forty mile trip home. It is a sunny day, and she cracks the windows open just a little, letting a breeze dance as she drives. She leaves the radio off.

She is not in denial. Dell’s eyes are open; she knows what’s out there. But just for today, she’ll ride home on the power of hope.

Feeding Emily

Her crinkly slip scratched, and the elastic on the puffy sleeves of her dress cut into the soft skin of her upper arms. Emily closed her eyes and folded her hands together and offered it up as a sacrifice.

All around her, on this Easter Sunday, dressed up families were smiling, all shiny and clean and pretty. Emily’s dress wasn’t new; it was last year’s ‘good’ hand-me-down from Ellen. And her family never went to Mass all together, not even on big holy days. Somewhere else in this crowded church, her brother Andy was squirming in his pew, probably close to the door so he could dart out before Father Hamson, who wanted Andy to sign up to be an altar boy, could catch him by the collar. If indeed Andy was actually there, and hadn’t ripped open his collection envelope (sometimes Emily found the pieces scattered as she walked home) and kept the quarter.

Andy said ten was too old to start as an altar boy, and he said Father Hamson’s breath smelled like a dead fish, and he said if he wanted to find God, he’d look outside in the woods God made and not in some stupid, smelly church. So sometimes he skipped, Emily was pretty sure. She was afraid for his mortal soul, of course; Sister Angela had explained what happened to children who died with mortal sins on their souls, and skipping Mass was certainly a mortal sin. But she was more afraid of what would happen at home if she told. Andy would exact some kind of retribution, but worse, their mother would beat him, maybe with the broomstick like she’d done once when she caught him mixing wine with the grape juice.

Emily had hid in the back closet that time, on top of the empty burlap potato sacks and behind the winter coats, and covered her ears. Later Andy saw her there and laughed at her.

“What are YOU worried about?” he said. And added jauntily, “She can’t hurt me. But this is a doozy of a bruise. Wait till I show Donnie.”

Donnie was a wild boy, Andy’s best friend. He went to public school, and the nuns said parochial school kids should only make friends among their own classmates. But Andy was bold and fast and he didn’t care.

He’d make up a story about falling out of a tree or ramming into something with his bike, and then he’d pick up his shirt and show Donnie the bruise on his back, and Donnie would say, “Wicked!”

Emily had seen this happen before.

Her sister Ellen and brother Frank got up and went to 8 am Mass. They both preferred dragging their butts out of bed to waiting for High Mass to be over to eat their Easter goodies. The family rule was that no one could touch their Easter baskets until they’d gone to communion, and the 10 o’clock Mass was a High one, so it went on and on. Ellen had an alarm clock, so she got herself up and dressed and pounded on Frank’s door but never waited for him.

When Emily was ten, she could get working papers and pick strawberries and grapes when they were in season, and she’d save the money she earned for an alarm clock. But until then, no one thought to wake her.

Her brother Joey was only four, and he didn’t have to go to Mass yet; his mortal soul wasn’t old enough to be in danger. Her mother got up early and went to 7 a.m. Mass, and her father usually worked on Sundays. When your work supports a family, Mom always said, you get special dispensation from going to church.


The Gospel was so long on Easter, and Father Hamson droned on and on, and Emily knew she should try to listen. But she was thinking about her Easter basket and the one, solid, chocolate Easter bunny that waited for her. It was about as big as her hand. They got the same thing each year: that bunny, some foil wrapped eggs, a marshmallow peep and some jelly beans that rolled through the plastic grass and onto the bottom of the basket. Emily didn’t like the peep or the jelly beans—she always put them in the dish on the dining room table, and someone else grabbed them pretty fast, but she loved the chocolate.

Her friends got the most amazing things in their baskets. Once, Nancy C had gotten a hollow chocolate bunny two feet high. Even though it was hollow, the chocolate was really thick, and she brought chunks of it to school to share. Emily thanked her so much, but Nancy C waved it away.

“I’m not that crazy about chocolate, anyway,” she said airily. Which confirmed Emily’s opinion that Nancy C was just not right.

Her friends Abby and Mary Sue McCloskey, who were Irish twins and in the same grade, got solid white chocolate bunnies and little chocolates shaped like animals. They shared, too, and Emily especially liked the little chocolate ducks that, if you turned them a certain way, suddenly became bunnies instead. What was once a bill became bunny ears: a little bit of Easter magic.

And there wasn’t, she thought, too much magic about Easter. She didn’t remember ever believing that there was an actual Easter bunny. It was too obvious that her parents pulled the baskets out of the attic every year, and the chocolates often had price tags on them from the Nu-Way store where her mother shopped. But the having of chocolate all to yourself was a treat, for sure, and Joey did believe, so she kept her mouth shut.


When Mass was finally over, she slipped out the side door, so she didn’t have to shake Father Hamson’s hand; he terrified her, and besides, there was a big clump of people surrounding him. She ran home; their big old house was on the same road, not all that far from the church. When she got there, she ran upstairs and hung up the scratchy dress (maybe this would be the last time she ever had to wear it!), and put on her play clothes, a soft striped t-shirt and an old pair of dungarees. The jeans had been Andy’s, and they were a little too long, but they were just right across the belly. Because, as her brothers often reminded her, she was fat. Emily folded up the cuffs as neatly as she could and ran downstairs in her sock feet.

Her Easter basket was sitting on the dining room table, and the chocolate bunny was gone. Disbelieving, she checked all over the table, under the basket, and under the table, even on the end tables, the chair seats, the shelves. Her bunny was nowhere to be found.

“Mom!” she yelled, and her mother snapped “What???” from the kitchen. Emily pushed through the swinging door. She felt drawn with loss.

“My chocolate bunny’s gone.”

There was a silence. Her mother turned from where she was peeling potatoes; her hair was all crazy and she had on an old housedress. Frank, who had been out working on his bike, turned from the sink, lifted a glass of water to his lips, and smirked. Ellen had the long phone cord wrapped around her wrist, and she rolled her eyes and took the phone into the back hall.

It could have been either of them, Emily thought. It could have been Joey, who had recently taken to climbing on a chair and helping himself to things on the table. (But if it was Joey, there would be wrappers to be found. Joey wouldn’t think to hide the evidence.) She was bereft and shaking and angry. “Mom,” she said, imploring.

“What?” snapped her mother. “You shouldn’t have left your basket on the table. That means everyone can help themselves. You know that.”

Emily stared at her. It had always been the rule that they left their baskets on the table so Monkey, the dog, didn’t eat their chocolate. It never meant someone could just take your bunny.

Mom tsk-ed at her. “If you got your lard butt out of bed and went to early Mass you could have eaten that bunny by now.” She swung back to the potatoes, her back an unassailable divide.


Emily took all her foil eggs up to her room, even though they weren’t allowed. No food in rooms was a big rule, but Emily thought bitterly that rules seemed to change without warning. Her room was tiny, maybe a maid’s room once when rich people lived in this house, and she squeezed in between the bed and the closet door and sat on the floor. She peeled the foil from the eggs—there were seven, but there might have been more: maybe someone stole those, too. She lined them up on her blue-jeaned legs, and slowly, carefully, ate them one by one.

There was no use in crying, she knew that: often she got whacked just for crying. (Her mother would say, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” which was terrifying, and also made no sense. And of course then she couldn’t stop. Better just not to start.) But she also knew that she had been wronged: it WAS a big deal, taking that bunny. It was something she waited for all year. It was something she loved. Stealing the bunny was mean.

But if you whined and carried on, things did not get any better. You had to act like the martyrs: strong and brave, even if you were jelly inside. Emily knew the martyrs had horrible ends, but at least they went with dignity and were remembered forever because of it.

She wouldn’t become a saint over the loss of a chocolate bunny—even an eight-year-old knew THAT—but she could do the strong thing and rise above it. She would be cheerful and kind, and she would not give her mother a reason to say, “You’d better wipe that puss off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you.”

Somewhere in her, she felt being strong would be noble, and somewhere else, in a deeper, more devious spot, she also knew that it would drive someone crazy.

Her doorknob rattled and she bunched together the foil from the eggs and slid the little ball into her pocket.

“I hear you lost your chocolate bunny,” Andy said, and he wasn’t being friendly.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Emily said, practicing. She smiled at him. “I don’t really care that much.”

He stared at her or a moment.

“Yes, you do,” he said. “Of course, you do.”


Dad was home in time for dinner, which was ham and mashed potatoes, canned peas, and a chocolate layer cake for dessert. Emily didn’t really like mashed potatoes with no gravy, but she took a spoonful and made a ditch for the butter, which melted and made a gravy-like pool. She ate them without complaint, along with a spoon of the pasty peas. The ham had baked a long time; it was hard to cut with her knife and fork and finally, she just picked up her slice and chewed on it. But it was salty and good.

Mom cut everyone pieces of cake and Dad sat back and relaxed. He didn’t eat the cake, but he had a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette, and he looked around at all the kids and said, “So? Eat all the candy yet?”

There was a babble of replies, and then Mom looked pointedly at her. Emily made herself smile.

Mine’s all gone!” she said, and she scooped up a big piece of chocolate cake. She loved it with white frosting. Mom narrowed her eyes suspiciously, waiting for a follow-up, and Frank and Ellen swiveled their heads to stare at her. Andy snorted, Joey babbled, and Emily took another bite of cake.


That night she dreamt that she had an invisible friend who walked with her for hours in the woods out behind the backyard. Just before she had to go in, the friend said to her, “We’ll feed you.” Emily wasn’t sure why that made her feel so good, but she had that hazy happy feeling when she woke up, the kind of feeling when you don’t want your dream to end.

They had the whole week off, and she went to the library by herself, because eight was old enough to have your own card. She got four books, three biographies and one story to read with Joey. When she didn’t have chores, she read. She liked to read in the scratchy red chair in the living room, but sometimes her mother would say, “Get outside!” and Emily would take her book and go sit behind the old garage in a spot she’d made. There was a broken chair and an old sheet stuck between a short tree and the back garage wall; she’d wrap the sheet around her if it was windy or cold, and usually no one bothered her for hours.

She read about George Washington Carver one day and thought she probably wouldn’t be a farmer. She read about Jane Addams and Hull House, and she thought maybe she would like to work at a mission in a big city and teach poor people to read and cook and shop for groceries. She read about Helen Keller and plugged her ears and closed her eyes and tried to figure out how a deaf and blind person could learn to talk.

On Thursday morning, when she woke up, there was a Hershey bar next to the lamp on her nightstand. She hid it in her underwear drawer and tried to figure out who left it there. But nobody said anything, and she couldn’t see any clues on their faces. She broke off a row each day and ate it before she took her bath and brushed her teeth; it was a little secret waiting for her at the end of each day, a reward for being strong and good. It was gone by the time she started school again on Monday.

On Wednesday, Andy’s teacher, Mrs. McLean, saw her in the hall after school and asked her to come to the fifth-grade classroom. She said she didn’t have any fifth graders who were interested in washing the boards and clapping the erasers, and she wondered if Emily would do it. Emily lit up; she had looked forward to the day she’d be old enough to do these chores. Mrs. McLean showed her how to wash the board, and she went with her to the side door by the playground and put a wedge in the door so Emily could get back in after the erasers were clean.

When she came back, Mrs. McLean inspected the erasers very seriously and smiled. “Good job,” she said. She was a short teacher, and fat, and she looked jolly. “Especially for your first time. I knew you’d be a good worker.”

Mrs. McLean went to her big old wooden desk and pulled open a drawer. She winked at Emily. “Now, I’m not going to pay you every time you do this, but I just happened to have this left over from the Easter party, and I thought you might like it.” Mrs. McLean’s husband ran a pharmacy that sold candy, and her class always got the best and biggest treats.

It was a solid white chocolate lamb, a big one. Emily’s eyes got wide; she couldn’t believe it. It was way too big to eat at once, so she and Mrs. McLean decided she could work on it each day after the boards were clean; she’d leave it wrapped up in cellophane in a bag in the teacher’s desk.

On the way home, Emily, skipping, stopped as a thought occurred to her. Had Andy told Mrs. McLean about her rabbit? That would mean he felt bad about it, and it would also mean Mrs. McLean felt sorry for her.

But then she realized she was EARNING that chocolate, doing work no fifth grader would do, and so she started skipping again.

A few weeks later, after the white chocolate lamb disappeared, the lady at the library checked out her books and commented on what an interested reader Emily was. She told her that the rule was only four books at a time, but that they were going to change the rule for Emily: she could take six.

“But don’t tell your friends,” the lady laughed, and then she invited Emily back to the room where librarians take their breaks, a room like a kitchen. She poured Emily a glass of milk and gave her three chocolate chip cookies. “I baked those for my grandson,” the lady said, “but he got braces and isn’t supposed to have many sweet things.”

Emily bit into the cookie; it was crispy and chewy and loaded with chocolate chips—chocolate chips in every bite! Her mother’s cookies were soft and plump and usually one cookie only had two or three chocolate morsels. She ate all three cookies, trying not to wolf them down, to be polite. And then she thanked the lady so much and took home six books.

She savored every treat. It seemed that something special would happen, and that would give her a little happy boost for days or a week, and just as the glow wore off, something else would take its place. The man at the five and dime stopped her one day and asked if she liked chocolate covered peanuts, which she did of course. He gave her a little white bag full; they were all that was left, he said, and he wanted to clean the bin. Another time she found a dollar on the sidewalk; she asked her teacher what to do with it, and the teacher said it wasn’t enough money to report and she could keep it. She bought candy at the drugstore and took it home to share.

At first she wondered if someone felt sorry for her because of the missing Easter bunny, if someone in her family had told a teacher or someone else, who went around to all their friends and said, “Here’s something very sad which happened to this little girl.” And she started watching, a little breathless, for the good things to happen. Eventually, something always did.

And surprising things kept happening even after her family moved in fourth grade, to a smaller house that was closer to her dad’s work, and she went to a different school, where nobody could possibly know about the missing bunny when she was eight. She remembered what the invisible friend had told her in that dream,–“We’ll feed you!”– and gradually she came to accept this: that life can be very, very hard, but that sometimes good things can happen, especially if you don’t whine, and if you are brave and strong.

Why Not Now?

She wakes with the sense of a strong dream—vivid images, dynamic people, important words—receding just ahead of her conscious thought.

Don’t go, she thinks, but the dream whooshes around a corner of her waking mind, just out of reach.

But a memory immediately fills the void. Almost forty years ago, in another December, she was working in a supermarket deli, and she had a young colleague, Kathy, whose father was retiring. Kathy was blond and bubbly, and that week, she was even more effervescent than usual: she and her brothers were going to Florida to help her parents set up housekeeping. They’d bought a little vacation home near the ocean, saved all their lives for it. They’d given up dinners out and treats for the kids and family vacations.

When Dad retires…they’d said, for years, and they spun out tales of the fun they’d have: the whole family would come down to Florida, and they would have the most amazing barbecues.They’d walk to the beach, and the kids would dash into the ocean, and everyone would get sun-toasted. There would be endless beachy days.

So that week, Kathy was giddy with excitement. Her dad would retire that Friday. He and her mom would spend five days tying up loose ends, getting the paperwork in order, making some plans for the old house…and then, the following Saturday, all of them would fly down to Florida.

A family dream was coming true, and we were happy for our colleague Kathy, the rest of us, woven fast into a snow-deep western New York winter. We were happy, and a little bit envious. We trudged out to our cars after work, crunched open doors glazed with sleety rain that had frozen into snow. We turned reluctant ignitions, cranked the heat up as high as it would go, pulled the long-handled brushes from our backseats, and started, in the whipping wind, to clean off our poor vehicles, marshmallowed with snow tufts during our shifts.

Brrrr, we said. Lucky YOU, Kathy! Next week, you’ll be in the sun…

That Thursday, Kathy didn’t come in to work. Her father, our boss informed us, had had a massive heart attack. He died that afternoon.

And the Florida dream died with him. Kathy’s mother couldn’t bear the thought of going without him. She sold the property and settled back in to the old family home—the one that had endured so many sacrifices (We can live with the old linoleum! We don’t need central air! The kitchen is fine for one more year! Just think; next year, we’ll be in Florida…)

In a week or two, Kathy came back to work, the excitement gone, the glow erased.

The door to someday had closed abruptly.


It is one of those perfect Saturdays…they drive to Easterville to spend a good chunk of time at Half Price Books. Joe takes in a bundle of books and movies and videos games; they browse while the staff at the ‘Sell us your stuff!’ desk examine and evaluate. Finally, “Joseph! Your offer is ready!” floats out over the intercom, and he hurries over to hear the news.

He comes back, grinning, with the receipt in hand. He has turned the cache into cash.

They disperse, each to their own pursuits. In the clearance section, she finds two books she’d been meaning to request at the library. Two dollars each! She buys them both, snuggles in to a chair in the store window, waiting for the boyos to finish their shopping.

Later, they go to a local coffee shop where they brew the BEST decaf. They splurge on wonderful cookies, breaking their wheat-fast just for a day.

They drive home, gleaming at their bargains, sated with coffee and looking forward to satisfying reading to be done.

The next morning, as she pours her coffee, she thinks, Someday, I’ll live in a place with a bookstore and a coffee shop, and I’ll walk downtown in the mornings with my perfect book; I’ll go to the coffee shop and order something wonderful, and I’ll spread the book open, sip my steaming decaf, and I’ll read, unencumbered for an hour.  

Maybe even more.

It’s a well-worn dream, soft from handling. Suddenly she sends tendrils out into the future, sends shoots searching for a concrete concept of when ‘someday’ might happen. Those green shoots whip out and flail and roll back up. Empty.

She cannot find the ‘someday’ of her dream, cannot make it real, and a small voice says, piping but clear: Why wait for someday? Why not NOW?

The next morning, she puts Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ Small Fry and a notebook into the beautiful quilted bag a dear friend made for her, and she drives to the new coffee shop on Poplar Avenue. She orders a slice of quiche, and they bring her a brimming, steaming mug of decaf, and she reads for an hour, the quiet murmur of morning conversations blending into white noise around her.

It is a good way to start the day, and she goes home ready to tackle the long list of to-do’s that awaits her.


At the supermarket, she runs into a friend, Lisa, from church. She and Lisa are about the same age, and they share a strong interest in services for adults with disabilities. They serve on a committee together, and they stop and talk for a little about the work that committee has been doing.

And then Lisa looks at her watch and grimaces. She has not yet retired, and she needs to get back to the office. Lisa waves and hurries her little cart toward the check out.

She waves back, and she admires Lisa’s outfit: a jeans jacket and a long, ethnic-y, patterned skirt.

When I lose some weight, she thinks, I’m going to get a denim jacket.

She pushes along the dairy section, inspects a carton of free-range eggs, sets it gently in the bottom of the cart. She moves on to the cereal aisle.

Later, as she is mopping the kitchen floor, she thinks, Wait. Why couldn’t I shop for a gently-used jacket? What am I waiting for?

That afternoon, she drives to the thrift shop. She finds a jacket in the men’s section. It is soft and broken in and it fits her perfectly.

She takes it home and launders it. She sews up a couple of fraying seams, and secures some wobbling buttons, and she irons that old jacket briskly.

It is just what she’d been looking for, this five-dollar wonder, and she wears it that weekend with her long, crinkly black and white skirt and a comfortable black t-shirt. Three people tell her how nice she looks.

This does not mean, she tells herself wryly, that I DON’T need to lose the weight. But I love my new jacket today.


She loves the old cabinet in the dining room. It is not an antique; it’s not even especially well-made. But it is the style she likes and the size she needs, and it fits perfectly into the space. It holds what needs to be held and its broad flat surface acts, when needed, as a serving space or a counter top.

It would be perfect, she thinks, if it were white. Distressed white; she imagines painting it, then hitting it with the sander, softening edges, making the department store cabinet look like a seasoned, heirloom-y piece.

When I get time, she thinks, I’ll buy some chalk paint…and then she pulls herself up short.

After lunch, she drives to the little shop on Overdale Drive, and she buys white chalk paint and a bottle of protective glaze.

That night, she cleans the cabinet out, stacking the contents neatly into three boxes, and she vacuums the dusty corners, pulls out the drawers, and gives everything a good, hot-soapy-water scrub.

The next morning, she gets up and brushes on the first coat of chalk paint. By the time she is done, the decaf has brewed. By the time she finishes her first cup, the paint has dried.

By the weekend, the cabinet is transformed; her vision is realized.


She thinks about faraway people she misses, and instead of longing for a far off time when she can visit, she makes phone calls and touches base, or she reaches out via email, or she sits down and writes a letter.

She takes the clippers out to the back yard and she hacks down the overgrowth on a scraggly old bush that’s been driving her crazy.

She walks every morning.

She has coffee with a friend she hasn’t seen in way too long, and she makes plan for lunch with another.

She organizes a long-neglected sewing project and works on it after lunch, every day, for half an hour.

She sorts through her bookshelves and makes a stack of books she’s been meaning to read. That night, she lights the fire and takes the first book off the stack, opens it, and enters that world.

Once or twice a week, at least, she takes the book and heads down to the coffee shop. Often, she wears her jeans jacket.


Life’s hard edges become more rounded, more pleasing. There’s a little pilot light that flares up at least once a day. She becomes aware of satisfaction, of contentment. She becomes aware at random moments that what she is feeling is JOY.

She carries the memory of Kathy’s young face just under her everyday awareness—Kathy’s glowing face, anticipating; Kathy’s muted face, the dream dispelled. She hopes, wherever Kathy is now, that life has been good, brought her happiness and wonder, given her a long beachy vacation with screaming kids and laughing adults and a wonderfully generous barbecue.

And she schools herself. Whenever she begins to think, Someday…, she stops herself abruptly.

Someday! she snorts. Some day???

Why not now?

Have Yourself A Party (A Loolie Tale)

“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”

She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.

I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.

Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.


We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.

We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.

Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.

Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.

The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:

“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”

Borges Quote

“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”

She studies the paper and she grins.

“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”


Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.

As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.

“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.

“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”

Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.

“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”

“Oh, NO,” I said.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”

She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.

“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.

“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.

“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.

“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.

“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”

“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”

There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.

“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”

TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.

“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.

“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.

“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.

“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”

Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.

“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.

“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”

We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.

“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going  to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”

We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”

“So much better,” I agree.

We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.

Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.

We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.

Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?

But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through.  It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.

And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.

I never learned those tricks.

And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.

You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.

You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.

I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.

But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.

I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”

“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.

Marbled Paint

She wakes up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, propelled by a sense of urgency.

“What…?” she thinks, and then it floats in to her: she and her brother are finalizing their parents’ gravestone today.

And then she realizes it is happening again: a story is unspooling in her head, demanding her attention. She swings her feet over the edge of the bed. Leans back on her hands. And listens.

There is a little girl, Lucy: thin and brown with snapping eyes and long dark hair. She must be…third grade?

“I’m eight,” Lucy says to the old lady. Lucy is sitting next to the old lady’s bedside. The old lady, she sees now, is called Mae, and she is, maybe, Lucy’s great-grandmother.

Mae holds out her hand and Lucy puts her tiny brown hand into it. Both so delicate, both so fragile. And yet. The hands grasp, and the bond is strong.

“I’m 93,” Mae is saying, answering Lucy’s question. “That’s’ very old! It’s old enough, in fact.”

“Are you dying?” Lucy asks, baldly, and Mae answers in the same way.

“Yes, I am,” she says. “But I think we have enough time to really get to know each other.”

Her phone rings—at 6 a.m.?—and she lets Mae and Lucy go, reluctantly. They slide away; a door snicks shut, but doesn’t lock; and she answers Devin’s call. No, she says; not today. Today is the gravestone day. Don’t you remember?

Clearly, he does not, but he backtracks quickly, promising to call her later, and she clicks off and heads off to take her shower.


Lucy and Mae dance in the back room of her consciousness as she dresses and makes breakfast. She sees that Lucy is troubled, does not fit in at school; that she is smart, but maybe not in ways teachers appreciate. She sees to the core of a person, Lucy does, and she reacts, and acts, according to what she sees.

Mae is much the same way. She sees that Mae has lived a controversial life…there may have been many men, many leave-takings. Mae did not stick around if falseness ruled; she insisted on honesty and integrity, and when they were absent, so was she. She has a picture of Mae, much younger, and a little girl who is crying. They are getting on a train, porters are stashing their luggage, and Mae is explaining, softly, to the girl, who seems inconsolable.


Her brother is at her door at 8; they climb back into his car. It is almost a three-hour drive to the cemetery where they have finally decided to inter her parents—her father, who’d died of a sudden heart attack two years ago. Her mother, who’d had a harrowing cancer death four years before that. They’d each been cremated, at their request, and they had left no demands about the final disposal.

Before her mother had died, she’d said, “Whatever you decide to do, make sure I’m with your father.”

And her father, whose death had taken him by surprise, had only joked.

“What do I care?” he’d said. “I’ll be dead.”

When he was dead, shockingly dead, she and her brother were frozen. The cremation went forward as decreed, but they couldn’t, in that moment, make a decision. It had taken time and distance to see that, of course, the place to put their parents was with their brother Danny, who’d died from leukemia at age ten and was buried in the city where they’d all lived at the time.

She had been twenty when Danny died; her brother had been 22. Danny had been a beloved surprise.

The city was three miles away.


Her brother drives and rain falls softly and she leans back into the seat and dozes. And there are Lucy’s parents: she is fair and has a tumble of reddish hair; she is Rachel. She calls him Zeus; Lucy gets her coloring from him. He is sharp and dark. Electric things—love and tension—crackle between them.

They are arguing about Lucy and Mae.

“What happens when Mae dies?” Zeus demands. “Where does that leave Lucy?”

“It leaves her having had one more person who loved her,” Rachel retorts. “One strong, amazing person. It’s better to have Mae for a little while than never at all.”

Then they are hugging; he rocks her, and she murmurs, “It’s too late anyway. We can’t ask Lucy to unlove her.”


A raw, ripping sound bolts her upright. She turns to her brother, who looks sheepish.

“Sorry,” he says. “Getting hungry.”

They turn into an Applebee’s so he can grab a bite to eat—her brother, the champion belcher.

Rachel and Zeus fade; it’s like they see her watching, and each reaches out a hand to softly close heavy doors. The doors come together with a smooth and final shush, and they are gone.


The stone is lovely. It says ‘O’Malley,’ in bold letters across the top, and has each parent’s name below, with their birth and death dates. The names are punctuated by a beautiful Celtic cross, and a line reads, Together: still, again, and forever.

They’d argued about that. She wanted something funnier—her father had always said that bit about being in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. Maybe, she thought, they could adapt that somehow, but her brother won out. Simple, he said. Dignified. We can share the funnier stories another way.

Finally she’d agreed, since he wasn’t budging anyway. And now, she admits it looks just right. They would like it, and like the thought of sharing a green, peaceful spot with little Danny.

The woman at the monument maker’s office is actually an old friend of their mother’s. She tears up, working with them, but they complete the paperwork speedily, handle the payment, work out the details of installation. She wants them to come to her house for coffee or a meal.

She nudges her brother in the heel with her foot, and he declines in his best charming way.

“Sis has to work tonight,” he says, “and I promised my wife I’d be home in time to tuck the little one in.”

The woman flutters; her brother shows her baby pictures. Finally, they depart, disentangled from tearful hugs.


She drives home; her brother snores. And she watches the road—she really does—but Lucy and Mae come back to her. Mae, it seems, has been pared away; she is leaner—she is LESS—than when she saw them talking this morning. And Lucy knows what’s happening.

“I don’t want you to go,” Lucy says, and Mae’s frail hand reaches out to take the girl’s. There is strength in the clasped hands.

“I know you don’t,” says Mae. “I’m not really excited about going, but I think it will be all right.”

There is silence between them, and then Mae says, “Did you ever make marbled paper?”

Lucy looks at her, puzzled. And Mae says, “YOU know. You put paint on a piece of paper. Different colors. And you put it in a shoe box. Then you thrown in a few marbles, and you put the top on and shake it. Have you ever done that?”

Lucy nods, slowly.

“Well, we’re like that,” says Mae. “You’re one color, and I’m another, and we’ve been shaken up together. When I leave, I’m taking part of you with me. And when I go, part of me will stay here with you. Our colors have blended. We’ll be in different places, but we’ll never be really apart.”

Lucy puts her other hand on Mae’s and they are both crying now.

And her brother snorts awake, and Lucy and Mae fade away.


He plays with the radio; she cracks the window open to get a little fresh air in the car. She is going a comfortable five over the speed limit. A huge SUV roars past them, and she smiles.

“I don’t know if he’s fatter than me or faster than me,” she says, and they both laugh.

“Both, I’d say, maybe,” says her brother, and then they are quiet, remembering. That had been a Danny-ism. He’d been three years old, and they had taken him to the playground, where he’d had, with another kid about the same age, a long conversation. Finally, Danny had come over to talk to her.

“He wants me to race him,” he whispered loudly. “That kid.”

“Well,” she said, “do you want to race?”

“I don’t know,” Danny whispered urgently. “Is he fatter than me, or faster than me?”

It turned out the kid, like the SUV, was both, and the line became a catch phrase they invoked before making risky decisions. Although they had stopped saying that after Danny died; it seemed to hurt them all too much.


But it feels right to say it now, and she sees a streak of paint spreading across a piece of paper: green for Danny, young and hopeful.


It is just after three when he drops her off; she does not have to work until six, and she settles in to the comfy chair with a book; she closes her eyes and lets the day seep in. And there are Rachel and Lucy, both wet-faced. She knows that Mae must have died.

Lucy asks Rachel where people GO, and Rachel says she doesn’t know.

“But,” she says, “physics tells us that you can’t destroy energy. And so the energy that was Mae has got to be somewhere. I don’t know, baby, if that’s heaven or something else, but I know she’s out there someplace.”

“Never really apart,” murmurs Lucy, and Rachel is puzzled, but she gathers the little girl in and they huddle, comforting each other.


She gets off work at 2 a.m., and she comes home and types the story of Lucy and Mae. She prints it out and puts it in the story box she keeps.

The next day she buys marbles and acrylics and she puts a piece of parchment paper in a shoe box. She pours in smears of paint. Blue for her mother and red for her dad. Green for Danny. Purple for her brother, a balanced mix of hot and cold. And orange for her, because she stills simmers, hot and unsettled.

She throws in five marbles, puts the top on, and rolls them around.

She does that nine times, and she lays the papers on her kitchen table.

The next day, before work, she picks the one she likes best, and she gets out her matting machine and an ornate old black frame. She cuts the matte, and she trims the picture, and she puts them in the frame. She turns it over to look; there is a riot of intersected color, uproarious, blended. Sometimes, one color will track away from the others, separate, but changed by the contact.

Perfect, she thinks, and she slide the cardboard backing in. She pencils onto it, “Marble painting. Never really apart.” She initials it and adds the date.

She pounds a nail into an empty space of wall right above her bread box.  The painting adds a bright splash of color.

She cleans up her project detritus, and then she gathers her things and goes to work.





A Little Matter of Christmas Cards

Marianne has a rule for herself: she never opens a Christmas card until she has sent hers out.

Cards start to arrive in the first week of December, and she puts them in a special basket which she keeps on the little half-moon table by the front door, handy to the mailbox. That week, she helps her daughter Phyllis settle in.

Phyllis is 36 and has recently left a bad marriage–to a lazy, lying man who has taken advantage of her for many years. Marianne has watched her sweet daughter grow grimmer and grimmer, watched her usual dance through life become a burdened trudge. She has wanted so many times to say, “Leave him! Come home and rest and get ready for something better!”

But all she said was, “If you need me, I’m here.” Marianne’s own first marriage was a mistake that had to be lived through; she did not appreciate people who pointed it out at the time. Her mistake, her decisions to make. She wanted to treat Phyllis with respect, give her some dignity. Leave her some hope.

Because after she finally gathered up the energy to leave that first man, Marianne had thought her chances of happiness were shot–that her life would be a single one, a working one, one in which she’d hope for invitations to a niece’s house so she could experience a family Christmas once in a while. And she had set about building a worthwhile, solitary life, plunged into work and joined a gym and found a church that spoke to her. And she was happy and not lonely at all.

And then she met Hank, Phyllis’s father. They had, in their mid-thirties, produced Phyllis and her younger brother Danny. Danny was a graphic designer who worked far away, on the other coast. Marianne and Hank had taken the train out to see him the year Hank retired; they meandered across the country, and spent two weeks in a cottage helping Danny settle in, exploring his new town.

Two years later–which was, Marianne realizes now with a bolt of shock, three years ago–, Hank had a sudden, swift heart attack. He clutched his chest, looked at her in total surprise, and was gone.

So, although she doesn’t rejoice in the reasons for it, it is still a joyful pleasure to have Phyllis with her this holiday season. Phyllis is a sweet, strong woman, sturdy and affectionate. She works at the library, 9 until 6, Tuesday through Saturday; she gives Marianne a certain sum each month, and Marianne puts it in a special savings account. She’ll give it right back to her at some point, all the money that accumulates, but it’s good for the girl to feel like she’s paying her way.

And Marianne has a life: she goes to the gym four days a week; she has a book club.  She plays cards. She meets friends for lunch, and she sews and crochets. She has her housework down to a science, and every year, she redecorates a room. She never stops missing Hank, but her life is full.

Still, it’s awfully good to have Phyllis with her.

So the first week in December, the two of them fix up Phyllis’s old room. Phyllis asks if, maybe, she could turn the spare room into an office space, and Marianne thinks that a great idea. They spend a bustle-y couple of days cleaning and moving furniture up and down the stairs, from basement to second floor; back down again with rejects. They survey curtains and ponder color.

After Christmas, Phyllis says, maybe she’ll paint both rooms. If that’s okay with her mother.

And Marianne, who loves the transformation of an underused space into one that’s vibrant, says that of course it’s all right.

She did get out the Christmas cards–two hefty boxes of beautiful cards; she’d bought them at an after-holidays sale last year, seduced by thick, creamy envelopes with a little golden inlay under the flap. One has a vintage Saint Nick on the cover; the old saint looks both jolly and wise. And the other has a madonna and child. Marianne’s cards aren’t usually overtly religious, but this rendering just spoke to her: the young mother’s face illuminated and alive, not saccharine or saintly sweet. She looks strong and scared and filled with wonder…which is pretty much, when you get right down to the bottom level, Marianne thinks, the human condition.

The baby sleeps in the young Mary’s arms, his dark eyelashes long on plump cheeks. The picture called to Marianne, and she bought the two boxes of cards and put them in the armoire where she keeps gifts and things to save.

Now the boxes sit, waiting, on her bookshelf.

In the second week of December, Phyllis’s church has a benefit for a children’s program they sponsor. It’s a wonderful program, providing before and after school care for kids whose parents can’t afford it. The kids get hot meals and transportation; the church insists on homework time before play, but they provide tutors and materials. Marianne has tutored math there, her accounting background coming in handy. The church makes everything fun, a challenge. The kids learn to cook in teams of five, and a different team makes dinner every week, and they can stay at the church until 9 PM if their parents work late.

It’s a tremendous program, a make-a-difference program, and it needs lots of money and resources to keep up.

So during the second week, Marianne bakes batch after batch of cookies. Julia, the director of the early childhood program at the church, drops off a garbage bag full of pretty quilted materials. Marianne takes that, and scraps and remnants from her own old projects, and she designs and sews fifty Christmas stockings. It’s like working again: she gets up at 6:00 each day, and by the time Phyllis leaves the house at 8:30, Marianne is at work, too. She breaks for lunch and finishes up just about 4:30, when she contemplates what to fix for dinner.

The pile of cards in the basket by the front door grows.

Marianne does get her Christmas card list out from the drawer. She opens it up at lunch one day, and spreads it out onto the table. It’s in alphabetical order; the list marches along with the names in her address book. And the very first name is Lisa’s: Lisa, her friend since she worked in New Concord, twenty years ago. Lisa, who died in April after a long and valiant fight against a cancer that started in her uterus and slowly, slowly, poisoned all the healthy parts of her body.

Lisa A. Marianne looks at the list smoothed out in front of her and folds it back up. Lisa’s name is not the only one that needs to be removed from the list this year.

Marianne goes back to her sewing.

Phyllis notices by the third week in December.

“Mom,” she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t done your Christmas cards yet! You’re always the harbinger of the holiday season!” Phyllis, in her quiet, organized way, has sent her cards out. She set up her computer and printer in her new office; she printed out labels for the cards she had ordered from the office supply store. She had her name printed on them, then added little personal notes on most.

Marianne liked to do her cards by hand; and there was never a question of sending cards out from “Marianne and Phyllis.” Phyllis was not a dependent child; she was a strong and independent woman who had her own life and friends.

“I’ll get to them,” Marianne says to her daughter now. She goes as far as getting the address book from the side table. She puts it next to the card boxes.

The address book is thirty years old, probably. Bits of envelope stick out–bits with addresses that have changed and that Marianne hasn’t yet had time to record. Some of the pages are thick with change. When she can, she cuts the address label off the letter and tapes it over the old address. Some people–Jenny Cobb, for instance, the student intern who worked with them twenty-five years ago, and has stayed close and in touch ever since–have moved several times. Her little address spot has a lump where six new labels have been carefully cut out and taped in.

The address book is a lot fatter than it was when Marianne picked it up at a clearance sale at TJ Maxx. She was out Christmas shopping that day, she realizes–out shopping with her beloved Hank.


That week they decorate; they pull the tree boxes up from the basement. They lug the heavy plastic bins that hold wreaths and garland, ornaments, and the pretty ceramic nativity set Marianne’s Aunt See had made her when she was in high school.

They dust and polish furniture. They exclaim over statues of Santa and ceramic penguins and ornaments painted by Phyllis’s and Danny’s young hands.

The basket by the door is filling up; each day brings at least two or three more cards. After her initial comment, Phyllis says not another word, treating Marianne with the same respect she’s given. But she looks at her mother with concern.

And Marianne faces the fact: she’s got to get those cards done. So on Saturday, when Phyllis goes to work, she gathers everything–the list, the address book, a yellow highlighter, a green ball point pen, a black gel pen, a waxed paper envelope with three books of Christmas stamps. She gets the boxes of cards from the shelves; she puts them on the table. And she sighs–she feels reluctance; she feels dread. But she sits down, and she picks up the black pen, and she starts.

She pulls the list to her; she takes the highlighter and draws a firm line through “Lisa A.” She opens the address book and runs her finger over the three addresses she has for Lisa A–the first, with the partner who broke her heart, the second for an efficiency apartment. Finally, Lisa stayed at an assisted living complex that gave her the right proportion of independence and increasing care. Marianne remembers all the visits she made there; she remembers that Lisa had a big bulletin board where she pinned all the cards and letters she received. There was a whole section, Lisa had showed her proudly, just for ‘Stuff From Marianne.’

Marianne takes off her glasses and stands up. She goes to the powder room and brings back a full box of tissues. She takes her first weeping break with Lisa A.

She uses the whole day to do her cards, paging through the address book, looking at the history there. There’s a place in the beginning for ‘This belongs to…’ and ‘In case of emergency, contact…’ It still reads ‘Hank Byers’ there. She picks up the highlighter, but her hand hovers; in the end, she can’t quite highlight Hank’s name away.

She cuts out address labels and pastes them in place for an aunt who has changed retirement communities, and for friends who have adventured out to Arizona, snowbirds happily ensconced in an RV community nine months of the year. Nieces and nephews, young former colleagues–all of these entries are thick with change and exciting new events–many have added spouses and children’s names to their entries, along with new homes at new addresses.

She consigns some entries  to the natural attrition of change–people who were present and important at one stage and era, and, that era having ended, who faded into their own busy lives, tenuous cords severed. Others names have reappeared–important friends from high school and college who have re-entered her life.. That, Marianne thinks wryly, is the joyful side of FaceBook.

She takes a weeping break at David’s name, too–Hank’s stalwart best friend died of cancer early in the year. After Hank passed, David and Annie had made sure Marianne was included in parties and adventures, had holiday invitations to their big, raucous family events–she never went, feeling an invader among the tumble of kids and grandkids, and last year, the first great-grand, but the fact of having an invitation to turn down had been a comfort many days. David came over at midnight once to chase a bat, and helped her connect to a company that would do that, too– “If ever,” he said, not yet knowing, “if ever I’m not available to do that for you.”

She thinks of Annie’s first Christmas apart, remembers how hard that is. She blows her nose and swabs away the dampness on her cheeks and writes a special note.

And Rita–oh, cancer has taken its relentless toll this year. Rita from her card club, tiny dynamo Rita, who often derailed the game with a wonderful story. No one could tell a story like Rita did, tell it at her own expense, making herself a hapless, Lucille Ball-style heroine, hoisted on her own petard. She would have them gasping with laughter,and when they were done, they had to think for 15 minutes to remember whose turn it was to lead a card. It’s so hard to accept that an elemental force like Rita’s has been quenched.

She finishes just before Phyllis walks in the door, and Phyllis hangs up her coat, puts down her purse, and comes in to see her red-eyed mother, hand flat on the last page of the address book, sitting at the table with three stacks of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed, and ready to mail.

“Pizza!” Phyllis suggests, but with a kind of firmness that doesn’t brook no for an answer. “Pizza and a trip to the post office.”

Marianne rinses her face and changes her shirt and grabs her coat. She closes the address book, folds up the Christmas card list and slides it inside, and they are off.

On Monday she begins to open the cards stacked in the basket. She reads each one, and she clips new addresses from envelopes if needed. And then she uses baby doll clothes pins she’s had since Phyllis outgrew doll-play; she hangs the cards from a tough green cord she’s strung over her picture window.

Many of the cards yield photos–smiling families, loved and missed; growing kids. Some folks include pictures of new houses or beautiful pets or vacation delights. Marianne carefully writes a description on the back of each photo. She pins these to a big canvas that hangs in the family room; after Christmas; she will sort through and put the keepers in a special photo album for Christmas card treasures.

Some of the cards have letters–newsy form-letters or handwritten scribbles, catching her up on what the year has brought and wrought for special people. There have been losses; there have. But there have been weddings and births, new jobs and new friendships. An old friend, at age 63, is headed back to college for the degree she always wanted and lamented. Another is taking an exciting trip through Europe. There are seven retirement announcements.

Marianne takes her time, opening five or six cards over her morning coffee, savoring the artwork, pondering the choices and what they reveal about their senders, absorbing the news she’s been sent. Opening that once-stuck door, reveling in reconnection.

She opens the last card on Christmas Eve, shows Phyllis a new-baby photo, clips the address and sticks it in the drawer with her address book. And then she runs up to change.

Phyllis has twisted her arm; she’ll go to church services, bask in candleglow and sweet music (tonight, Phyllis assured her, is a sermon-free zone). They’ll come home and have their annual toast and open their gifts to each other. Tomorrow, they’ll Face-Time Danny. And they’ll have an unexpected crowd around their table–a neighbor, Sis, who’s had a falling out with her family, will join them, and Joey, a young colleague of Phyllis’s, who can’t get back to Buffalo because of the blizzard his hometown is enduring. And Jannie and Kevin, Phyllis’s oldest friends, who had a miscarriage this year, have decided they wouldn’t go to Detroit for the riotous family Christmas.

Marianne and Phyllis have warned them all: they are cooking their shared favorite meal: a giant tuna casserole. Kevin said he was bringing a sliced ham to augment it, and Sis is bringing bread and a green salad.  Joey commented on their motley-crewness, and asked if it would be okay if he brought a Rudolph DVD. It’s a film he watches each Christmas, and maybe, he said, they could relate to the Island of Misfit toys. Of course, said Phyllis, and she touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

It will be a Christmas laced with the knowledge of loss, thinks Marianne, pulling on a velvety blue tunic and fastening her silver snowflake necklace. She will not be able to look too long at her daughter’s face as the carols play and the candlelight flickers in the church, to know the aching pain of her little girl and not be able to assuage it. She will reach across the miles to her baby boy, hoping he is safe and happy.

She will ache, remembering the people she cherished and laughed with, cried with and leaned on,–the people she will never see again.

And they’ll eat their unconventional dinner; they’ll learn about their guests. They’ll watch a silly movie and maybe play a rousing round or two of Apples to Apples, or deal out some cards. They will laugh and hug and share a day together.

And later, she and Phyllis will look through Christmas card photos, share this year’s news from both their batches of holiday greetings, pondering the ebb and the flow and realizing they can’t make sense of it. The pattern–if one is there–only emerges, she thinks, when the tapestry is completed, and Marianne is in no hurry for that to happen. She is lonely; yes, she is, but she is filled, too–with love for her children, with the need to contribute, with the potential of new friends and new discoveries.

She may well be sending Joey a Christmas card next year–who knows? He might be one of those ‘keeper’ people, someone she thinks of every time she hears Burl Ives warbling about holly jolliness. Other friendships may deepen; other losses may accrue. Her arms may be needed for comfort and her smile for celebration.

Her address book will fatten a little. Marianne knows that this is the truth; she dreads it and she welcomes it, and she runs downstairs to let her daughter take her to church.

A Quiet Kind of Thanks

She gingerly sorted through the frozen turkey breasts, looking for the absolute smallest one. She wasn’t that crazy about turkey, Ella wasn’t, but she bowed in recognition of the day. She would have a slice or two; she would freeze the leftovers.

One day in cold December, she would bake a turkey pot pie.

She pushed her little cart down the vegetable aisle, and added two cans of green beans and a big container of French fried onions to the mix. Prowling, she found boxed stuffing and a bag of pecans, corn syrup, and a carton of heavy cream.

She backtracked and picked out two big potatoes.

Cat food and kitty treats and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. She was ready to check out.

Allen, her favorite stock boy, watched over the self-check-out, and he grinned large when he saw her. She knew, with her teacher’s eye, that Allen had some sort of developmental disability. He was as large as his smile, big-bellied and booming voiced, and he had adopted her as a favorite customer. She knew all about the miniature train tableau he kept in his mother’s basement, how each payday, he added a tree or a figure.

The train had been his grandpa’s; his grandpa, now, was dead. But Allen felt close to him when he ran the trains, when he added to the display.

She checked out her groceries, hefting the turkey into its own bag, and bundling up the rest of the stuff, and Allen loomed at her side.

“Special dinner!” he said, and she smiled and agreed.

He insisted on carrying her groceries to her car.

“Thank you, Allen,” she said. “You’re very good at what you do.”

He grinned, beet red, delighted.


The library was quiet, and Sallie at the desk waved to her.

“Miz Graham!” she said. “Your reserve is in!”

“Wonderful,” said Ella, and she reached for the hardcover mystery. It was the fifth in the series; she’d been waiting for it. This was a pivotal story: the detective would find a new lease on life, or he would not. This author didn’t give things away, and she wasn’t afraid to disappear major characters. This mystery really was a mystery.

Ella surfed through the new books, taking a few of the novels out to read the dust jackets. She selected a new memoir, a story of the autistic boy who found a friend in Siri. It was written by the boy’s mother. Ella’s grand-niece had autism; her parents, Ella’s nephew Tim and his wife Gayle, barely had time to do the dinner dishes. She wanted to read the story, and she wanted to ruminate on how that mom made time to write.

She checked out both books, looking forward to the time to read.

“Thank you, Sallie,” she said, smiling at the beaming clerk. “Have a happy Thanksgiving.”

“Thirteen people!” Sallie groaned, and she rolled her eyes. “Do you have special plans?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ella. “A very special dinner.”


She put the turkey breast in the refrigerator, packed the rest of the groceries away, and picked up her buzzing phone. It was her oldest, dearest friend; they’d met in Grade Five and never lost touch. She sat down and had a wonderful talk.


On Wednesday, she roasted the turkey breast, and that night she had a turkey sandwich, with mayo and salt and pepper and one crisp slice of lettuce. Afterward, she cleared the table and wrote a letter to her niece, a soldier in Afghanistan.


On Thanksgiving day, she slept in—slept all the way until eight o’clock!—and she was still in her robe when the neighbor, Ginny, knocked at the door. Ginny had a plate of turkey-shaped cookies, and she wanted to know if Ella had dinner plans.

“I do, indeed,” Ella said. “Very special ones. You’re very kind to ask!”

Ginny came in for a cup of coffee, and they lamented the tree that still had not dropped its load of leaves.

“We’ll be raking in January!” Ginny said. Ella shook her head and dunked a turkey cookie into her creamy coffee.

After Ginny left, she dressed in her maroon sweats and quilted vest; she put a Wonder Woman stamp on her niece’s letter, and she walked it down to the postbox.  Her cheeks were crimson when she came back.

“Time to turn the oven on,” she thought. She rolled out crust and whipped eggs frothy; she constructed a pecan pie.

At two she made her dinner: a big pan of green bean casserole, made with white sauce instead of canned soup. She liked to add cheddar cheese, and she used every single French-fried onion. She ate it from her best china, with a side of Stove Top stuffing. She shared some with the cat, who much preferred his slice of turkey.

After the dishes were washed and put away, Ella turned on the gas insert in the fireplace, and she kicked off her sneakers. She got her favorite knitted blanket; she bundled up, and opened her book. She was asleep within minutes.

She woke at seven. The fire snapped, the sky was dark, and the cars were pulling away from Ginny’s house. Ella imagined stuffed daddies and cranky children and tired moms who’d spent hours cooking a meal that disappeared in minutes. She smiled, and pulled the heavy cream from the fridge and poured it into the bowl of her Mixmaster.

When it was whipped into high, snowy peaks, she cut herself a generous piece of pie. She took it to her chair by the fire, and this time, she read her mystery. She made the rich slab of pecan pie last for the better part of an hour.

The cat jumped on her lap when she put the empty plate on the side table, and Ella sighed and turned another page.

At nine o’clock, she shagged the cat off her lap and did up the last of the dishes. She turned off the fire and locked the doors.

The weekend loomed, with visits and meetings; she had promised to bake cookies for the social time at church, and her brother and his wife would be coming on Saturday. There would be busy days.

She thought back on the day just past and sighed. It had been a perfect day. It was, maybe, not everyone’s idea of a Thanksgiving celebration, but it had all the elements she needed. She had wonderful food, and a visit from a neighbor; she had touched base with people dear to her.

She had discovered, to her delight, that the detective survived and solved the perplexing mystery. She was rested and refreshed and ready for the whirlwind the weekend would bring.

She shut off the lights and turned down the thermostat and shooed the cat up the carpeted stairs, and she whispered a soft “Thank you” in the quiet dark.




Pagoda 2.jpg

Their new house, tiny, two-storied, two bed-roomed, was the last house before downtown started. On the downtown side was a squat brick building where a man did picture framing; in the back a “whole health therapist” had her offices. Beyond were antique shops and ice cream parlors, a deli and lunch room, gift shops and a hardware store. The print shop where her mother worked was down two blocks and around a corner. Until they got back on their feet, they would not need a car.

On their other side was a big house with a triple lot and a wrap-around porch and flowers, flowers everywhere. An old lady lived there. She was an active old lady. Every morning, from the first August day they moved in, Sheila saw her out walking, every morning right at 9:00. Her name, Sheila learned from her mother, was Mrs. Ruby Candell.

Mrs. Ruby Candell was tall with gray hair, neatly pulled back with a big barrette, that came to her shoulders. When she walked in the morning, she wore a skirt and a button-up blouse whose sleeves came below her elbows. Her shoes had two-inch heels and straps to hold them on; she strode along, every day, as if she were wearing tennis shoes. Usually she had letters in her right hand and Sheila guessed she must walk to the post office each morning.

Who does she write to, Sheila wondered. And how many bills could she have to pay?  Who generates that much mail?

And then Sheila thought how pathetic she was, a twelve-year-old with nothing better to do than wonder about her elderly neighbor’s postal life.

In the afternoon, at 1:00, Ruby Candell worked in her garden. She wore neat jeans and a rainbow of matching, wordless, t-shirts. She pulled her hair back with a scrunchy. Sheila thought she looked as though she was in a costume: Woman Working in Garden. She thought that the morning clothes were the clothes that really expressed Mrs. Ruby Candell.

When Ruby Candell walked past Sheila, she nodded solemnly, a smile fighting to lift the corners of her mouth. She did not speak.

Sheila spent a lot of time on the porch that August, waiting for [dreading] the beginning of school.

She was going to a new school; she’d be in grade six, changing classes. At her old school, she had been known and liked and elected class president. Here she would be a stranger amid kids who knew each other, had their own leaders and established cliques and processes and habits Sheila knew nothing about.

The teachers would like her right away; she was smart and conscientious and offered answers when no one else cared. The kids would not. They would look at her and see a dull dumpy fat kid. It would take forever, Sheila knew, to make new friends, although she hoped it would happen, gradually.

Her mother was not helpful. Sheila reminded her about school clothes; they ordered online without pomp or ceremony. The packages came; everything fit: end of story. They walked down one afternoon to school to register her; her mother took the afternoon off work, and they stopped at a little coffee shop and had drinks on the way home. This was a luxury; Sheila knew money was tight, that her father was fighting sending child support.

Her mother said, “Well, they seem nice,” and Sheila nodded obediently. She thought the woman who talked them through the process was impatient and condescending; she imagined a thought bubble above her head that read, “Oh, JOY,” when she learned that Sheila was a new student.

But she would give it a chance. They walked home and sat on the porch a minute. Then her mother’s phone rang and she sighed and went inside, went to fight with her father over legal fees and money for Sheila’s upkeep.

She read a lot, those days on the porch, having discovered the library that was around the corner on the not-downtown side. Sheila turned at the big brick apartment building and there were city offices and a sprawling playground and, set back behind, the huge library. She loved to read. The library was a place to go that wasn’t her sparse, sad home. She brought home stacks of books–dystopian series, graphic novels, teen romances,—and she read through them grimly.

When she wasn’t reading, she was drawing. She brought a packet of looseleaf out on the porch, and she set a sheet on a big coffee table book her mother had (The Great Gardens of Europe was its title) and she drew whatever came to mind. Lean, nasty-eyed girls wearing clothing that was ripped and tight and dangerous looking. A rocking chair and a cat, in a corner with a vase of flowers and a rag rug. A fantastic landscape, rocky and tumbling, mountainous, with a tiny, long-legged figure balanced on top of the highest peak–just balanced, looking as though she might tumble into the abyss any moment.

More angry-eyed teen rebels.

One windy day, a sheet lifted and blew into the yard next-door, where Mrs. Candell was working. She was crouched on the ground, digging, and she sighed, sort of, and rotated her shoulders, and then straightened up and snatched the paper before it fluttered again. She held it carefully with two muddy fingers just at the edge of the page, and she looked at it a long time.

Sheila jumped up. “I’m sorry!” she said. “It just got away.”

Ruby Candell stood up, arched her back, and stepped over great blooms of flowers and a stretch of lawn to hand Sheila the drawing. It was one of the angry teens.

“There’s something,” she said, “in those eyes. Those eyes hold mine.”

Sheila looked at her a moment, not sure what to say.

“I taught art,” said Mrs. Candell. “You have something.”

Sheila thanked her for the paper, folded it into The Great Gardens of Europe, and took her books and drawings up to her room.


The next day, Mrs. Candell asked if she’d like to help her weed two afternoons a week, a job that would continue after school started. She would pay her two dollars an hour.

“I don’t know much about gardens,” Sheila said, honestly.

“I can teach you,” said Mrs. Candell.

So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Sheila weeded. They started in front, where there were flowering shrubs–azaleas and rhododendrons, a gloriously wild forsythia bush that would be a riot of yellow in the spring, said Mrs. Candell; flowers that were perennial, flowers that needed to be planted each year.

Mrs. Candell told her they had vagabond deer who would eat just about everything. She tried to plant deer-resistant blooms; she mixed up a foul-smelling batch of homemade, organic repellent and put it on the rest after every rain. Sheila could smell it, old-eggy and ripe.

Mrs. Candell showed her how to get under the roots of dandelions and pop them out. “We’ll never conquer them all,” she said, “but we keep at them.”

They worked their way to the gardens on the side closest to Sheila’s house; it took two full weeks of weeding. Mrs. Candell told Sheila to call her “Miss Ruby.” It was friendlier, she said, than Mrs. Candell, which made her feel like a teacher again.


And every night Sheila’s mother came home at 5:25; they scrabbled together a dinner–hot dogs, chunky soup, grilled cheese sandwiches. They did the dishes and sometimes they watched TV–Gilmore Girls re-runs, old episodes of Lost.

And school started.

It was just the way Sheila expected it to be. No one was mean, not one person was sarcastic, but she felt pretty much invisible. She had a music class; in Spring semester, it would switch to art–something to look forward to. They were reading Hunger Games in English. She brought two library books with her every day, and read, by herself, all through lunch.

The teachers liked her.

One night, her mother had a different kind of conversation on her cell phone; it was the lawyer, she said, and child support would start arriving in October. So that, she said, was a good thing, at least.

That night, Sheila heard her sobbing through the thin wall that separated the bedrooms.

There was, apparently, no visitation agreement. Her father never called or emailed.


At Miss Ruby’s, they started planting mums, offsetting the ones that were budding up, that had survived the winter and the hot summer and were getting ready to bloom. Miss Ruby gave her a hard-bound sketch pad, three wonderful pencils, and a  little pencil sharpener. She waved away Sheila’s thanks.

“They were sitting in a drawer,” she said, “and they’re meant to be used.”

Life settled into a pattern. There were agreeable parts, and Sheila watched her mother carefully for signs that she was growing stronger, happier, more interested in life. Some days she swore the signs were there.

And then one Sunday, coming in from a drawing binge on the porch, she found her mother curled up, sobbing, in the battered old barca lounger. “Las Vegas tragedy” read the banner on the TV screen.

“Sixty people,” choked her mother. “I can’t stand it.”

She jumped up. Sheila rushed to hug her, hold her tight, but her mother put up a hand.

“No,” she said. “Don’t.” And she pulled the throw tighter around her and went upstairs.

Dread settled: this wasn’t right. The only thing Sheila could think of to do was get Miss Ruby.


Miss Ruby spent a long time with Sheila’s mother; she heard their voices rising and falling from her mother’s bedroom. Gentle. Soothing.

Finally she came downstairs.

“She’s going to sleep a little,” she told Sheila. “I said we’d wake her in an hour. Then we’ll all have dinner. I think,” she said, “we’ll have beef stew. You can help me make it.”


After dinner was eaten–the rich broth and tender veggies, the meat that fell apart when touched by a fork–they settled Sheila’s mother in the lounge chair and sat on the porch.

“She’ll have to have help,” said Miss Ruby. “We’ll start on that tomorrow. And you, too,” she said. “You need someone to talk to.”

Sheila told her about an advancement at school: that just this week, another girl joined her at the lunch table. She brought books with her, too. They read in companionable silence, and awkwardly shared rudimentary information as they packed up to go.

“Promising,” said Miss Ruby. “But you need a little more structured conversation that that.”

They were quiet for a good stretch. Then Sheila asked, “How do you cure sadness, Miss Ruby?”

Miss Ruby stretched out her hands and slowly cracked the arthritic knuckles. She stared across the street, watched a young mother hump a stroller up the porch of an aging duplex. She sighed.

“You don’t cure sadness,” she said. “It’s always there. The best I can do is to temper it by growing something. Making something.” She smiled at Sheila.

“I plant my sadness in my garden,” she said. “You can draw it in your pictures. We use it, like Rumpelstiltskin. We weave it into something we can live with.

“Your mother,” she said, “has it all packed tight inside. She needs someone’s help to start teasing it out, letting it go. We’ll call a counselor I know tomorrow, and she’ll want to talk with you too.”

There was quiet again; Sheila felt dread and a little squirrel of hope battling in her stomach.

“It will get better,” Miss Ruby said softly. “Not with a crash and a bang, but slowly, and one day you’ll wake up and find out you’re looking forward to the day ahead.

“But the world,” she added, “is always going to bring us unspeakable things. I’m sorry, but it’s true. You’ll get stronger; you will. But somehow, we need to put the good stuff out there. The best way I know is to make something beautiful grow.”

They sat for a moment more, and then Miss Ruby said briskly that they’d better get at those dishes. They filled the sink, and set up a rhythm; to Sheila’s surprise, her mother came out and grabbed a towel to help her dry. Afterwards, they walked downtown to get ice cream.

The panic in Sheila’s gut subsided, although it didn’t go away.


That night she took her bath and then she stood in her bedroom window, surveying Miss Ruby’s gardens. She was thinking of doing a sketch for her for Christmas–maybe of the whole garden from a bird’s eye view, a little abstract, with colored pencils. Or a focusing in on just one detail–the stone pagoda tucked in by hosta, maybe.

The gardens were huge, she thought; it would be hard to pick what to draw. And then she thought about what Miss Ruby had said, and she thought about the work it must have taken–she appreciated that work now–to make the gardens what they were. There was planning and shopping and planting and tending. Fertilizing and weeding. Pulling out. Starting over. Seeds and cuttings and mistakes, and poison ivy, bees and insects and pesky deer.

And yet: Miss Ruby’s garden was a splendor. How much sadness is planted there? Sheila wondered, and then it was like a small door cracked open, and she saw what it was like to grow up, to have to deal with  senselessness and insanity. She wondered why people killed each other, and she wondered why parents would refuse to give their kids the money they needed to be healthy, or even to call those kids and say, “Hey, how are you?”

She wondered how you could love someone once and then hate them afterwards, hate them and want to hurt them.

There are bad things, she realized, but the life that was right around you could get better, too. I can grow something, she thought. She gripped her new pencils, looking at the expanse of Miss Ruby’s garden.