Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.


Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.


Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.


Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.


Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?


And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.


But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.


Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.


And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.


Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.

How Things Look

I have this uncle. His name is Joe. Many years ago, Uncle Joe’s health took a startling turn, and he wound up in ICU in a coma. It was a somber time for his kids, as the doctors pulled them aside to talk about options. There was a point, the medical people said, where the kids would have to decide when to take him off life support.

Time crawled by; there was little change. Things did not look good, and finally, if I remember this correctly, my cousins made the tough call. It was time to disconnect the life support.

So the medical people did that.

And Uncle Joe woke up.

He recovered and went home from the hospital, and ever since then, he told me once, he celebrates a new birthday: the day he woke up from that coma, not the day he was born.


I have this friend. She’s one of the bravest, strongest, giving-est people I know. We all met up for our annual Christmas dinner last month, this year in a wonderful restaurant in Columbus: amazing food, wonderful friends, rich, funny talk that swirled and hugged us. We had the best time.

What we didn’t know until a few weeks later, when she texted us, was that our wonderful friend had, just days before, been diagnosed with cancer. She hadn’t wanted to spoil our celebration; she didn’t want to darken our holidays. So she waited until after to tell us that jarring news.

There was hopeful news, too; that surgery might well get it all, and that only radiation might be needed as follow up therapy. We are, all of us, connected in a web of prayer and hope, groping to figure out the best way to be a friend to a strong, proud woman who has mighty supporters by her side.

I just keep thinking about that day at the restaurant, about the real joy on her face at seeing everyone.


Connie, my fit-bit, continues to push. I will steal an hour for reading time, and she’ll nudge me after thirty minutes. ‘Want to stroll?’ she’ll ask. Or, ‘Only fifty more steps to 250 this hour!’ she’ll remind me.

Yesterday, I had a work-at-the-computer, go-to-meeting kind of day. I found myself walking around the block last night at 9:15, getting my final steps in so I’d reach my daily goal. I am not sure what Connie would say to me if I let her down on that.

Today, I decided to forestall her by getting a lot of steps in early. So I laced up my sneakers, pulled on my tomato-red coat, and wrapped my hand-knit, scrappy scarf tightly around my neck. It’s COLD outside.

And I set out for a walk.

The sun was shining in a sky only lightly scudded with puffy white clouds, and barely a dust of snow remained. The day was open and clear and free. I stepped around frozen puddles and navigated by manic squirrels. I laughed when unwieldy crows decided they really would have to flap themselves away: apparently, I wasn’t thinking about yielding the sidewalk to them.

There were some runners out, and a few other walkers, and nice people in cars stopped and waved me across the streets I have to cross.

A bright day, crisp and cold and champagne-clear air. It felt good to swing my arms and stretch my legs.

But there in the back of my mind was this nagging thought: it may LOOK nice out, but weather is brewing. Storm is coming. Tomorrow, I thought, I probably won’t be able to stride along happily. Tomorrow the snow will fall, despite today’s cheerful weather.

Things aren’t always the way they look.


I have this other friend. She is also brave and true, and she has been in my life for a long, long time. We were girls together, sweet, silly girls who didn’t know how that life-tumbler arranges to sand down our sharp edges, to polish our facets, to mold us into the people we need to be to meet the challenges we never expected to face.

One of the joys of my life is that, although our paths diverged, we reconnected several years ago, and have grown closer now than we ever were as girls.

This other friend went in for a kind of routine check-up yesterday and got news she never expected to hear. Devastating news, although all the reports are not yet in.

That news rides with me, lodges in the back of my neck, aches like a nasty infection. So how must that news bear down on my very dear friend and the people who love her best?


My younger brother Sean texted this week. Uncle Joe was in ICU, he said. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t look too good. In fact, it looked damned serious.

That message came when it was approaching ten o’clock one night.

The next day, Sean texted a photo. Uncle Joe was sitting in bed, grinning. He was holding the hand of a pretty young nurse, and she was grinning, too.

Once again, despite all appearances, he’d rallied.


I needed two thousand more steps to satisfy my hungry fit-bit, so later this afternoon, before I drove James to his book club, I went out, again, for a walk. The sky was milky now, thick with clouds. Six deer were in the street; they stared me down for a minute, and then flicked their tails at me and bounded for the woods.

I wondered why they were out in force in the middle of the day, and I wondered if they sensed, somehow, the storm to come.

And I thought of my valiant friends, and my indomitable uncle, and I thought that all I know is that I DON’T know. Things might look great, but there are no guarantees. Things might look bad, but they won’t necessarily stay that way.

What I need to do, I decided, is to stop taking things for granted. I need to cherish this time, and the people put here to share it with me.

A Day to Shop For Shoes


In the golden spill of lamplight, sitting cross-legged on the plump, white comforter of the queen bed in my Airbnb, I open up my traveling satchel and pull out my dressy shoes.

The satchel is shiny red, bought at TJ Maxx after I returned home from the second flight I took for work. I had waited, again, by the luggage terminal, waited with dozens of other people, for my black and gray wheelie to come around. I touched, and those other people touched, dozens of wheelie clones, before we each claimed our own dully identical baggage.

I’m getting a new bag, I thought then. Maybe in neon purple. Maybe in chartreuse.

I settled on the shiny red. Distinctive and sassy, the color serves me well, even though my travel now is mostly done rubber to road.

The color of the shoes I pull out of that bag–well, that’s not so accommodating. One is black, the other brown. The matched pair I had set out the night before, reached for in the early morning, plumped inside the bag quietly so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping spouse–half that pair remained at home. In its place, a stowaway.

All  by myself, in the quiet luxury of an apartment to myself for one lovely, tub-soaking, blissful night, I start to laugh.


I am on what I’m calling a ‘Recon’ mission–stealthy, focused, I am reconnecting with special people from whom, for one reason or another, I have been separated for much too long. Before I unpacked my mismatched shoes, I had a long, gossipy, wonderful dinner with Sandee. We have known each other forever, Sandee and me, since we were seven or eight-year olds at a mutual friend’s house and Sandee came barreling around a corner, in a scarlet pea coat on a crisp fall day. She was yelling, of course, “The red coats are coming! The red coats are coming!”

And so we all began to run in October exuberance.  “That girl is fun,” I thought, and then a span of two years and my move to a nearby city put us in the same class, on the second floor of a grim, boxy, three-story Catholic school.

Our teacher was Sister Fabian, and she was tiny and wiry and (even now I feel a twinge of frightened guilt–I look back over my shoulder apologetically as I write this truth) MEAN.  One day she grabbed Sandee by the collar of her blue serge uniform and shook her out of her bolted-down desk. I, a recent refugee from public school,–with all the laxness of discipline that involved,–turned and gasped, and the little nun finished shaking Sandee and glared at me, bearing down to check my work–which, thank a benevolent god, was neatly, completely done. Pacified, the nun swished to the front of the classroom, wooden rosary beads clicking, and Sandee and I exchanged a glance that contained horror and conspiracy and sympathy.

We have been friends ever since, even though my Catholic school stay that year was shortened by my older brother’s expulsion for unknown crimes against the sisterhood.  Sandee stayed; I returned three years later to do my eighth grade year and be confirmed. In between, my family moved to a house two blocks from Sandee’s, and we were well-positioned then to nudge and shove and shield each other through the harrowing events of our high school years. We kept that friendship habit through marriages and moves and kids and jobs, but when Sandee entered the chemo tunnel for thyroid cancer, my support had to be long distance. She was isolated from any kind of germs or contagion. Hugs had to be put on hold.

We spent a lazy day together the weekend before the chemo started; we had coffee and mooched through shops and had lunch and laughed and remembered; we talked about the disease and the treatment and the optimistic prognosis and we shopped some more. And then we hugged hard before parting, knowing it would be a year, anyway, before we met up again, and during that time, Sandee would be irradiated and medically poisoned, and she would lose hair and weight and her buoyant energy.

But the optimism was justified, and so we celebrated that night, the night of my Airbnb stay, with soup at Panera and a long-delayed chance to catch up.


I wore my sneakers to dinner with Sandee. And I can wear them to breakfast with Terri and Jo, and to lunch with Marsha and Kath. But after that, I am heading to see my friend Wendy. Wendy has a gift card to a fancy restaurant. I am going to need real shoes.


I call Mark and tell him about my shoes. He laughs and laughs, and then he says, “Hey: you left a pair just like that at home!”

Just go buy some shoes, he tells me. Buy yourself a pair of shoes.

And just like that, I regress to the autumnal excitement, back to what it felt like when Sandee and I first became fast friends. It is Fall, and I am going school shoe shopping.


Shoe shopping with my mother was fraught with both excitement and dread. Whatever new shoes we got would last me the whole school year. That could be glorious, or that could be disastrous.

My mother, whose poor feet were twisted by outrageous bunions earned by years of hard work in ill-fitting shoes on cement floors, was of the opinion that Oxfords were the only shoes that gave the proper support. And saddle shoes, she thought, were the best kind of Oxford.

Saddle shoes! Remnants of the Elvis Presley era! I wanted nothing to do with them in the swinging sixties. I wanted slingbacks or slip-ons or even earth shoes. I wanted–I really, REALLY wanted–penny loafers.

Your feet aren’t the right shape to wear loafers, my mother would tell me, and we would return from our shopping trip with another pair of dismal Oxfords, quite often of the saddle shoe variety.

I will be the weirdest kid at school, I thought glumly, and I tried to think of ways to carry those shoes off with panache.  (Maybe I could…paint them???)


Those shoes, though, built in me a work ethic. As soon as I could, I took babysitting jobs, and then I graduated to part-time work in a supermarket deli. I would save my money and buy my own clothes. I would wear shoes that I picked out.

Naturally, it wasn’t simple. I was tall and my feet were correspondingly big. I was a size nine-and-a-half, and in those days, ladies’ shoes went up to size nine, then jumped to size ten. I had to shop and try on, and hope that one style ran a little large so I could comfortably wear the nine, or that a ten would not flop off my feet. I pinched my toes a lot during those days, a martyr on the altar of fashion.

Serious work tempered that–walking up and down a classroom floor (at first, in that same boxy Catholic school, a place transformed in spirit from my fifth grade sojourn) was murder in ill-fitting shoes. I shopped for cute styles with foam soles, cushiony inserts, a little bit of a wedge, maybe, but something that would comfort and support all day, until, students gone, I could change into my sneakers.

And years went by. Marriage happened. Children happened. Moves happened.


And one year, I found myself signed up to walk a half marathon in Columbus with Wendy, briskly walking Wendy, who had walked that route before while I cheered her on at the finish line,–who had walked that route and made it look like fun. So early one spring morning we parked a car near Nationwide Center, lined up with thousands of other marathoners–some full and some half, some runners and some walkers–and we bounced to the pulsing music and we waited for the gun to roar, for the announcer to urge us on, to walk our 13.1 mile route.

And walk it we did, at a brisk, companionable, 15 minute-mile rate. But at the end, oh my feet were a mess. I had worn my nicely broken-in but not too old Nikes, and I hated them by the time I crossed the finish line. My feet HURT. And my poor big toes! The nails floated on top of punishing bruises, and within days, the nails had fallen off. Oh, oh, oh, my aching feet.

As soon as my feet could bear it, I went to a legendary shoe shop in the wild hills of Ohio, the kind of place where they carefully measure your feet and squish the toe of the shoes you try on and do not let you leave the store in any shoe that does not fit. And there the perky little clerk informed me that I was no longer a nine and a half. No, my feet had broadened and flattened into robust size elevens.

“It happens as we age,” said the clerk, who might have been all of 21, sympathetically. “No wonder your poor toes were so sore!”

Out I walked that day in size eleven sneakers, sneakers that felt like clown shoes. Fwap. Fwap. Fwap.

But my toes felt so much better.


I was once again in that place where the store might not carry the size that I needed–many shops only carry women’s shoes up to size ten. But, ha: the Internet was here, and I could order online–order up a pair of respectable shoes, type in the 16 digits of a number on a piece of plastic, and within days a pair of lovely size elevens would present themselves on my brick front step. I would never, I thought, have to march my big feet into a shoe store again.

Until my Recon Mission, when I pulled a pair of mismatched shoes from my shiny satchel.


I awake in the cool and quiet of the Airbnb, make myself a cup of detox tea, check my email, read the news. I spend a lovely half hour on the little private porch with my book. And then it is time to go.

I drag my bags out to the car, stow them in the trunk, and do a last once-through, making sure all is in place and the keys are back on their hook in the kitchen. And then I set off to buy shoes before breakfast.

The big box store is the only place open, and I go in with trepidation. It is not a place I shop if I don’t absolutely have to. I do not like what I have read of their employment policies; I do not like that their goods may come from sweatshops overseas. And I am wondering what the biggest size they carry might be.

I am pleasantly surprised to find my size elevens well-represented. I pick out two pairs, one black and one blue, and I check out and drive off, just in time to meet my two old friends for a long and hearty, talk-filled breakfast. And then I am off to meet Marsha and Kath, for lunch and a visit to Kathy’s apartment and a wonderful pocket of time in which to re-establish old ties. And then I hit the road to Wendy’s, where, after arriving and unpacking and taking a brisk, muscle-stretching walk, I freshen up and change so I’ll be presentable for dinner at a nice restaurant.

I wear a flowy, patterned shirt and my good black pants and my new shoes: black, size eleven. Finally. By accident, maybe. But here I am: proud owner of those long-sought penny loafers.

In this small way–and in so many bigger ones–life is so darned good.


Of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the Patina of a By-Gone Era…

Used furniture 1
Today is a Murphy’s Oil Soap day. Today I am cleaning some brand-new used furniture.

This is how we came to buy it.


“Solid oak table,” says the posting on Facebook. “Three leaves. Top shows mild wear. $25.00.”

It is exactly what I want for my dining room renovation project. I’ve been prowling on-line second hand sites, wandering through local stores–antique emporiums, junk shops, and re-purposers’ paradises. I’ve gotten lots of great ideas, but nothing has been the bargain I’m seeking.

I want a sturdy round table that can be extended for parties and holidays. I do NOT want the chairs that go with it–my vision mandates three pairs of chairs, different styles, maybe even different colors. One set will have arms and be, when the table is at its full length, anchors at the head and foot. The others, strong and comfortable, but in some yet-to-be-discovered funky, fun design, will slide up to the sides.

And I want it all, of course, for next to nothing.

Nothing too matchy-matchy, I tell Mark bossily. I do NOT want to go out and buy a ponderous dining room suite. I want something unique, something we assemble. I want something we can spin in our own special style, but something that, put together in a new grouping, has not just a history, but a future, of its own.

Mark rolls his eyes. (He has been known to ask, a little plaintively, “Do you think, someday, we could have bedroom furniture that matches?”) He is intrigued by the idea of the mismatched chairs, though, if we could just find the right pedestal table to anchor them.

And then the ad pops up on my FaceBook feed.

“What do you think?” I ask him. “Should we go and look?”

“Why not?” he says. I message the seller.


We thought we were so organized. We took both cars. We’d cleaned out the trunks and folded some soft, old blankets into them. Mark carefully selected tools he might need for dis-assembly, and we were off, convoying to a set of storage lockers thirty miles away. Young James rode along with his dad to provide extra muscle.

The seller–we’ll call him Tom–was waiting for us. He was a big, bearish, youngish man with a broad, open face, glazed in sweat; he’d been moving furniture on that hot summer afternoon. The table was at the entrance to the storage pod; we inspected the pedestal and the top and the three leaves that would extend it. We looked at each other.

“Yes?” said Mark.


Money changed hands. We opened both trunks; Jim and I carried the leaves and slid them into mine. Mark removed the pedestal from the tabletop and angled it carefully into his back seat. Then he and Jim rolled the top itself to his trunk–his trunk being broader and deeper–and hefted it up to slide inside.

There was no way. They slid it back down and got the measuring tape. They looked at back seats and measured them. They rummaged in the toolbox.

Meanwhile, I was talking to Tom in the storage pod.

“I got to get rid of a lot of stuff by Wednesday,” he told me on that Monday afternoon. “I got a sale in Columbus, and I’m gonna need the room. Is there anything else you need? I got a nice dresser back there.”

Part of my dining room vision was repurposing an old dresser,–painting it, adding fun hardware, and then hanging shelves above it for plates–kind of, I thought, a home-assembled china cabinet effect. But the ‘dresser’ Tom referred to was, actually, a china cabinet. It had a glass door and three shelves and a drawer. Swirly bulls-eyes marched down the sides, and the carving was in mint condition: not a flaw or a chip.

It was gritty and dusty, but it was the perfect shape and the perfect size for the space I had in mind. I hesitated.

“Fifty bucks?” he said.

I thought of badly damaged cabinets I had seen in stores and on-line with tags that read, “Solid wood! $300. Great project!”

I bent to open the drawer, and Tom said swiftly, “Oh, that don’t open.”

But it did, revealing plastic place-mats printed with pictures of wine glasses, a deck of playing cards, and a child’s toy, unopened in its plastic bubble.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Tom, and he quickly scooped out all that treasure. He nodded at the cabinet.

“You want it?” he asked.

“I’ll talk to Mark,” I said.


But Mark and Jim had determined, meantime, that there was no way the tabletop would fit into any area of either car, and that dis-assembly was beyond the tools and inclination Mark had brought along. Tom rolled the top back into the pod, and we drove off to reconnoiter at a Wendy’s we had seen down the street–to make a plan to get that tabletop moved and to talk about the cabinet.


Friends are a wonderful gift. Sitting in the blast of air conditioning at Wendy’s, I texted Terry, and I asked if there was any way her patient husband Paul would have time to drive his truck and Mark out to those storage pods the next day. And Terry messaged back almost immediately: Sure. What time?

Mark and I discussed the china cabinet all that night; by morning, we had decided to buy it. So we messaged Paul that the load had just gotten a little heavier.

Tom was available at 3:30; Mark came home from work and changed, and Paul picked him up. James went along, too, which meant that Mark scrunched into the bumper seat behind the driver.

He had only twenties in his wallet, Mark did, and Tom did not have change. In the dickerings for the china cabinet, poor Paul, who was already donating his time and gas and resources, had to loan the boy ten dollars.

I was off that day on a wonderful road trip that is another story in itself. When I came home, the tabletop was leaning against the dining room wall and the china cabinet was perched in front of the fireplace. Mark was grilling chicken, and he and Jim were pretty pleased with how the whole day had worked out.

I’m not quite sure how Paul felt about everything.


Used furniture 2


So this morning, I will get to know the newest members of our furniture family. I’ll fill a plastic bucket with hot water and sloosh in a glop of Murphy’s, sudsing it around with my fingers until it melts completely. I’ll take my little hand vac and clean out the china cabinet, suck the loose grit out of nooks and crannies of the table, and then I’ll wipe everything down. And then I’ll dip a soft, white cloth into the bucket of suds, and I’ll begin the long, slow, exploratory process of getting to know my new china cabinet and table.

I’ll work from the inside out, shoving the rag into the smallest corners and nooks, making sure any dirt and residue is washed away. We’ll talk to each other, those wooden fixtures and I, while I scrub and massage and polish.

The treasure Tom scooped out of the drawer already lends me some clues to the china cabinet’s past–that the folks who owned it were practical types who liked a place-mat they could wipe down instead of laundering and ironing; that there was a special child worthy of a new toy (I imagine a grandma seeing a little something she knew the five-year old would just love at the dollar store, bringing that gift home triumphantly, putting it in the drawer, and maybe, forgetting it was there–the right time never quite arriving to give that treasure to the little guy.)

That pack of cards had been well-used; I imagine the china cabinet overseeing long games of euchre at the dining room table.

Washing the cabinet will tell me more–the soap may draw up and wash away layers of tobacco gunk, for instance, and I’ll think of a home like my parents’, blue with cigarette smoke and loud with jokes and laughter. I will imagine card games and jokes and laughter, smoke-free, in this cabinet’s future.

The wear on the top of the table will tell its own tale, about meals and other projects. Did a woman drag out her portable sewing machine and load it onto this table, shoving the corded foot pedal underneath, mending knees of jeans and sewing curtains for the Florida room and whipping up a special dress for her sister’s youngest’s wedding?  Are there marks and indentations from years of kids wielding sharpened pencils, intensely doing homework or drawing epic scenes of imagined historic battles?

I’ll imagine someone’s joy in getting this piece of furniture new, a long awaited purchase made possible by her hard work at a weekend job. I’ll think of the china cabinet coming into, maybe, a young couple’s home, a gift from his parents, a gift that had stood for many long years in his beloved, and now-deceased, grandmother’s dining room. I’ll imagine that cabinet settling in and watching the young couple become parents, the children growing, and the years passing–passing into a time when the cabinet, loved but no longer needed, gets passed away itself into strangers’ hands.

And I will sluice away the grit and residue of recent postings. If these pieces were kept in dank basements or spider-filled barns, moved about from pod to pod–THAT, I don’t particularly want to know. I want to bow my head to the rich history the pieces exemplify. I want to wash away any storage unit past.

I love used furniture–love it, of course for its bargain-rightness (I do believe that, somewhere out there, just the piece I need is being sold at a fraction of its ‘new self’ price; my challenge is to track it down and bring it back to  vibrant life.) I love it for its workmanship–for the careful joinings, for instance, so different from the glue and staples of discount buys. I love it for the use it’s had and the care someone has taken and for the future it offers us in its new home. I love it for its environmental responsibility, for the re-use of a resource that will not have to be harvested and stripped for my vision to take fruit.

There’s a patina and there’s a promise to the right piece of used furniture, lovingly restored.


Oh, we have projects. Before I buy the paint for the dining room, I need to finish up the details on the almost-painted car port, and then we need to get the drop-cloth curtains hung and the tables covered and the chairs arranged, and invite dear friends, and celebrate.

Before the painters come to start the house, we need to paint the garage and the long fence that delineates the way back part of our backyard. We need to cut back rambling neglected bushes. We need to root suckers from the lilac tree and buy some hydrangeas and sink them into sad, neglected garden spaces so that, in a year or three or five, there will be, henceforth from that time, an annual bloom of exuberant flowers.

There is a lot to do. But in there, in the near-enough-to touch future, we will be cleaning,  spackling, and prepping the dining room; we will be rolling on bold new paint color. We’ll be repainting the existing low boy. We’ll be treating the venerable wood floor, and we’ll be beating the dust from the heavy carpet.

And then I’ll be moving in the new pieces–new to us, but seasoned in their experience of dining rooms, bringing years of service to this new story we’ll unfold. New story for us, but new chapter for these venerable pieces, lovingly cared for, lovingly restored.

Used furniture–the right used furniture–brings with it a sense of past, a comfortable present, and a promise for the future.

And it brings a smile to my frugal face.

Walking Out the Kinks

After dinner, I run upstairs and grab a pair of footie socks.  I dig out my IPod (I know, I know,–old people’s technology) and attach its ear buds, and I pull on the socks and my comfy sneakers. It is time to start walking every night, to build up from two miles to four miles, and then to push on further.  I am signed up for a walking 10K in September, and wouldn’t it be nice to be among the first walkers to finish in the Old Girls’ category?

I crank up Leonard Cohen; he croodles pulsingly in my ears, and I push on out the back door, swinging out the driveway, down the hill, out toward Dresden Road.  Every night: a good, stretching walk, an opportunity for meandering meditation.  I am committed to this routine.

I blame it all on Wendy.


Wendy is one of those blessed people who burst into our lives when we needed exactly what she shares, someone whom we felt, from the beginning, as if we had always known. She was Mark’s academic advisor when he earned his paralegal degree, the testing ground before law school. Mark was in a life-changing situation; he hadn’t been back in college in–hmm—27 years.  Wendy was in a life-changing situation: she hadn’t been a single person in just about that same length of time.  As Mark worked toward his degree, Wendy set up a new household, established her independent identity.  And between us two bossy women,–he was armed, too, of course, with his own determination,–we nudged Mark firmly onto the road to law school.

In the process, Wendy became more than a friend: she became family.

And so, every year after we moved to Ohio, Wendy would come for a visit.  One year, she called to say that she had signed up to walk a half-marathon in Columbus.  She was walking in honor of a friend, Dan, who was fighting cancer; she had collected pledges for him and was excited to complete the race and help him out in a wonderfully healthy, meaningful way. She’d walk the race, she said, and then we’d have the long weekend to visit.

It was a beautiful Spring weekend.  I drove Wendy to the race on Saturday morning, saw her walk off in the midst of thousands of bouncing, excited walkers, and then found a convenient Starbucks.  I pulled end-of-term essays out of my valise, and while Wendy got to know Columbus, up close and personal, I sipped dark roast and graded papers.

After three hours or so, I took my schoolwork to the car and made my way, on that cool sunny morning, back toward the finish line. It was thickly  rimmed with waiters and cheerers.  A medley of people continuously finished–runners who’d opted for the full marathon, walkers who’d selected the half, the 10 K folks who’d started later.  Music pulsed.  The perked-up celebrity announcers roared each person’s name as he or she crossed the finish line, and an official race-person ran over to drape a medal–anchored by a hugely impressive piece of bling–around the completer’s neck.

Friends and family surged to hug and snap photos and congratulate.  Continuous applause pounded a back beat, excitement simmered, happy tears spurted. The completers were beaming and exhausted. Just as I turned on my little digital camera, here came Wendy, striding along with barely a sweat broken, smiling at newly met walking companions.

“And…it’s WENDY! ” blared the announcer.  “Congratulations, WENDY!”

A girl ran out and looped the medal over Wendy’s neck. Wendy stopped and executed a jazzy little dance.  I snapped her picture, and I ran to give her a hug, and then we navigated down the row of replenishing foods, finding her half a bagel, a banana, a bottle of water.

Oh, it was exciting.  We strode back to the car–Wendy wasn’t even winded: 13.1 miles!–and I said, impulsively, “I’d do this next year.”

Wendy, dear and sincere friend, took me at my word.

That November, she sent me the link to registration, and I signed up.  Snug in my chair with an afghan and a book, the thirteen mile walk seemed like a fine idea.

It didn’t seem quite so lovely along about March when it was time to start training, but I did it, grudgingly.  Every night after dinner, I’d get out there and walk.  Well, almost every night.

Well, at least two nights a week.

I worked my way up to a four mile circuit, and on weekends, I’d push a little further.  A young colleague from work who was planning to run the race would stop in my office to talk training; he kept me motivated and moving.

By the time the race date rolled around, I hadn’t quite walked a full thirteen, but I’d made it to ten or eleven.  I was confident.  I had read up on distance walking; those writers recommended not breaking in brand new shoes for the race, so I cleaned up my cozy old size nine-and-a-half Nikes, put on two snug pairs of fleecy socks, and off we went, Wendy and me, in the bright early hours of a Spring morning, to walk a half-marathon.

Oh, it was exciting. We bounced along with the other walkers in our corral, screaming in one voice as batch after batch of runners were released, feet flashing, hands flailing, into the sunshine.  And then finally: us.

We walked.

Bands played on every corner.  Residents sat on porch steps with coffee, cheering and encouraging.  Grinning volunteers held out cups of water and Gatorade; we grabbed and gulped and kept on going.

We found that our paces matched pretty well.

We found that energy sagged at just past the halfway point. And we found that then we hit a zone and it ramped back up, an expectation of movement plugged in, and our feet kept moving.

But, oh, my big toes were hurting.

We made it to the bling and the celebration, to the bagels and bananas, back to the car in a ‘we did it’ happy haze, and we drove the hour back to the house, where the boyos waited to congratulate and feed us.  I showered; I napped; I noticed my toenails were kind of…black.

Within two days, those nails had fallen right off. Ick! Ouch!  I hobbled a bit for a week or two, and then, healed, I went to a famous shoe store, nestled in a country town thirty miles from my home, to get me some new and better walking shoes.

The perky young clerk–she probably was legal age, but she looked about thirteen,–asked me my size, and I told her nine-and-a-half.

“Well,” she chirped, and I could see she doubted me, “let’s just measure, shall we?”

She pulled out the metal foot tray, and I snugged my heel in the cradle and stood.

And topped out, to my shock, at size eleven.

“Our feet grow,” said my diminutive young clerk, sympathetically, “as we grow older.”

What’s this ‘WE’ business, Sherlock? I thought sourly, looking at her tiny, teenaged, size twos.  She went and got me a couple of pairs of sneakers to choose from: Which of these sets of lengthy canoes do you like best?

I tried; I chose; I forked over an outrageous sum of money. Perhaps they charged me by the inch.

I fwapped out to the car, feeling like I was wearing long-boats, like I had clown shoes on my feet.

But I had to admit, the shoes felt better.


Appropriately shod, I marched off into the future. Wendy and I walked the half marathon for a few more years, even dragging Larisa in with us on the fourth go-round.  That was the day the President made a visit to Columbus, and the police were pulled off the race to concentrate on a different kind of safety.  Halfway through the route, the beaming Gatorade volunteers disappeared, the bands packed up their instruments and went away, and a police cruiser came along and told all of us walkers to get out of the street and on to the sidewalk.  We walked the last six miles dodging ordinary Saturday morning pedestrians intent on coffee or laundry or a bagel run.  It slowed us down; it sapped our glee.

The finish line was a deserted anti-climax; the bling, that year, seemed not so bright.

We sent letters of complaint to the race organizers–Respect the WALKERS!!! we wrote–and decided against a fifth reprise.


But the walking had become a reluctant habit.  Creativity guru Julia Cameron writes about the necessity of walking; she likens it to moving meditation, and I find that to be true–when I hit my swinging, oblivious stride, tension drains, and there’s an almost musical intensity to a long, well-paced walk. So, despite woeful excuses and jazzed-up schedules and the fact that there are always too many chores and tasks to squeeze into the precious hours after the dinner dishes are done, I bow to what I know is true: walking season has, again, begun.

Having a goal and a challenge inspires me, gets me out of the reading chair, makes me put down my knitting.  And it will be fun and worthwhile this September to join that 10 K, to lace up and jump into a field that is ONLY walkers.

But the race, I’ve come to realize, is not the thing–it’s the every night walk that’s really important.  It’s the freshness of the air and the looseness of my muscles and the sense of moving forward.  It’s the luxury of listening,  during a solitary, slogging march, to music I have chosen. It’s the magic of thoughts unwinding, of tenseness being stretched out and hammered away, of the realization of the beauty of streets and the friendliness of people–appreciation of all those things that just blur by when I pass them in my car.


This summer, I’ll visit Wendy, and Wendy will come here, and chunks of those weekends will include long meandering walks through Mission Oak Gardens or around the rim of the pretty gorge in Wendy’s hometown.  We’ll look forward to September and the walkers’ race it brings.  But walking will infuse my ordinary days, too, a habit inspired by, a practice that’s a gift from, a wonderful friendship.

I’ll lace up my flapping size elevens, point those long-boats toward the north, and sally forth, walking out the tension, stepping into a habit that enriches and energizes my life.

Our friendships bring us many gifts, and for the gift of nightly walking, I thank Wendy.

Tales Told By Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Linda’s Story: Al’s Boots

Al's boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The railroad made him a manager.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

She pulls on a robe and hurries downstairs.

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

The pool at night

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

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

But this is a strange, large dog.

It could be mean.

It could be rabid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Larisa’s Story: Mimaw Gets Some Ink

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

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

Janette misses that.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The artists and his subjects


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

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

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

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

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

The Oldest Friend She Never Knew


Hashing it Out With Loolie

Hash and a side of green beans...
Hash and a side of green beans…

Searching through the little chest freezer for the package of boneless chicken I know is nestled somewhere down near the bottom, I dredge up a meaty hambone.  Hmm, I think: what can I do with that?

Upstairs, I pull my Joy of Cooking off the shelf and find the recipe for black bean soup; it makes a rich and tangy, wonderful pot of comfort, using a ham hock as inspiration.    I bookmark it.

That evening, Jim fixes the chicken for us with a cheesy pasta side–yum.

The next morning I wake up to my phone bouncing and burbling: the College is on a three hour delay.  I sip my coffee and watch the gentle, inexorable snow, and I think it’s a perfect morning for throwing together a big batch of hearty soup.  Soon, I’m at the counter, happily chopping celery and onion and carrots.  The little dog smells the hambone waiting in its tupperware at my elbow; she comes out and sits next to my left ankle, snout pointing up to the counter, hoping.

The veggies go into the hot olive oil in the pot; the rich smell swirls as I start to cut the ham from the hock, and a memory, floating above my noggin, finds an opening and seeps into my head.

This is just like that time Loolie came, unexpectedly, to visit, I think.

That was a Saturday, and I was up early making black bean soup that day, too.  The veggies were sweating in the pot–the aroma woke Jim up.  He floated downstairs–Damn! If he didn’t remind me of a cartoon character buoyed on curly, misty lines of scent!–and said, “Mom! What smells so good?”

Then he looked in the pot and said, with deep disappointment, “Oh. Veggies.” He went into the family room, dragged the Book Woman blanket off the lounge chair, and wrapped himself up on the love seat. He was snoring within minutes.

I went happily back to my chopping. And then, just like today, my phone started to burble and bounce on the counter.

That time, though, it was Loolie.

She was, she informed me, marooned at the Columbus airport, unable to get her connector flight to Chicago, so she could fly from there to Montana, where her sister Jules lives.

“This is so frustrating!” she bellowed.  “There’s no chance I can get a flight before tomorrow morning.  They said they’d get me a room in the airport hotel, but what would I DO all day?”

I grinned, thinking of Loolie, that high-pitched bundle of energy, ping-ing from wall to wall in a tastefully tiny executive hotel room.  “Absolutely NOT,” I told her; “you’re coming here.  Do you want Mark to pick you up?”

I could hear huge relief in her voice.  No, she said, she’d get the airline to rent her a car instead of springing for the room.  She’d see us in a couple of hours.

By the time she arrived, just before eleven, the soup was doing a long slow simmer, and the house was awake.  I had the vacuuming done, the sofa bed pulled out and made up, and the living room closed off and turned into guest space. One load of laundry was chunking around the dryer; another, splooshing in the wash. Mark and Jim had gone out to pick up a few things, food-wise; the dog had been walked.  I was ready for Loolie when she gusted in.

We took big mugs of coffee to the dining room table, and she told me her tale of woe–how her 45 minute layover in Columbus turned into an overnight stay.  She was on her way to Jules’ house because Jules’ oldest son, Trevor, was getting married in the spring, and the bridal shower was that Sunday.

“Looks like,” she said bitterly, “the best I can hope for is to get there about two hours after it’s finished.”  She sighed a heavy sigh.

Then she shook it off, just like that.

“Oh, well!” she said.  “This way I’ll get to visit with my sister for a week without having to help her cook for the shower.” She grinned wickedly, delighted at her unexpected reprieve. “AND I get a nice long visit with you! Hey, this isn’t such a bad deal after all!”

By the time Mark and Jim came back in, Loolie’s ordeal had turned into her adventure.  She enveloped the boyos with great big hugs; she helped them unpack their bags–“Ummmm! What is this?” she demanded, pulling out the crusty loaf of sliced french bread Mark picked up at Giacomo’s.  Jim opened it up and grabbed a slice for himself and a slice for Loolie; they ate it like candy, like potato chips: no butter, straight from the bag, marveling and ‘ahhhhhhing’ at its goodness.

“Save some to go with the soup!” I reminded them.  Jim ran down to get a frozen pizza to pop in the oven for his own, non-vegetative, lunch.

While I putzed around getting lunch ready, Mark and Jim re-connected with Loolie, whom–since I usually visited when I was traveling solo,–they didn’t often get to see.  It was fun to listen as I chopped the ham into tiny morsels and stirred them into the rich, fragrant soup–fun to watch them all spreading the past year out on the table like a funny, lumpy hand of cards, picking out things of interest and delight to snatch up and examine.  By the time I brought big bowls of steaming soup to the table, garnished with little rings of green onion, they were caught up and comfortable.

We sat and ate the soup–we actually each had two big bowlsful; it was tangy and good, pure comfort food. Jim chowed down on his pizza. We watched as the blue winter sky clouded over and the snow began, first gentle, then fierce.  Loolie sighed with satisfaction.

“I am so glad you were home! I was afraid you’d have meetings or plans or visits scheduled,” she said.  “This is so NICE.”

“After lunch,” said Jim, “Aunt Loolie and I are going to watch Star Wars.  You want to join us, Mom?”

“And I’m making dinner,” said Loolie firmly.  “This was a wonderful lunch, and you’ve cooked enough for the day.  James, you’re making dessert, okay?”

Jim saluted.  “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!” he said smartly.

We finished our soup, mopping up the final remainders of the rich broth with the good bread, and everyone crowded into my tiny kitchen to clear away the mess.

“I’ll get the movie ready!” Jim said, and he slipped out of the chaos to the family room. The kitchen sparkled in ten minutes, and we grabbed comfy seats in front of the TV, dragging in the big round ottoman so the love-seat-sitters had a place to park their feet. I sat in the plaid chair; I pulled the old foot rest closer, and I grabbed my knitting–a scarf I was making from scraps for a vibrant young colleague who shared a passion for repurposing.  The uplifting, regal Star Wars music filled the family room, and we settled in.

The snow fell, the beloved old movie played, the knitting slipped from my fingers.  I surfaced a couple of times–once to hear Loolie say, gleefully, “See? See? Han steps right on Jabba’s tail!” Jim launched into some back-story he knows about that particular scene and I drifted away again, waking to the distinctive music and the final credits rolling out on the TV screen.

“Oh, my gosh! What a hostess, eh?” I said, and we all laughed, and then somehow,–I think it was Loolie who suggested it–we were all bundling up to go outside and conquer the snow.  We divvied up the push brooms and the snow shovels, and the four of us, hooting, a few snowballs flying here and there, cleared the driveway and the front walk, the back steps, and the paths from the carport to the front door. The snow had gentled down; the neighborhood was hushed and lovely.

And we, we realized, were getting hungry again. It was 6:00. Loolie took charge.

“How are we on beer?” she asked, and she sent Mark and me off to the Wine Rak with clear instructions on what to buy.

“Can I use anything I find in here?” she asked as we were leaving.  Her nose was deep into my freezer.

“Sure,” I said.  “And Jim will help you find anything you need in the cupboard.”

James, gathering the ingredients to make a brownie mix, nodded in agreement.

Mark and I went out; we got the Sam Adams; we came home to find a merry mess in the kitchen.

Jim had his IMac on the little glass table; an episode of “How I Met Your Mother Was Playing,” and he and Loolie were roaring at something Barney Stinson said.  The rich smell of brownies baking perfumed the air.    My counters were covered with potatoes in various stages of undress, chopped onion, garlic bulbs, and some cooked, indeterminate meat Loolie had plucked from the freezer.  The microwave was churgalating merrily. The little dog was everywhere, hoping for free-fall, as Loolie chopped, chopped, chopped.

She whirled as we came in, brandishing the serious knife I bought at the College bookstore, a knife recommended by and intended for the culinary arts program.

“You two,” said Loolie, happily in her element (which is to say, in charge), “grab a beer and go sit in the family room.  James and I have things under control. I am making,” she added, “HASH.”

“Hash!” said Mark reverently; he believes it is one of nature’s perfect foods.

“Hash?” I said questioningly.  “I’ve never MADE hash. I’ve only OPENED hash.”

“Oh, honey,” said Loolie, brightly, “you ain’t lived, then. You just wait.”

With only a tiny jot of guilt–Loolie LIKES to be busy; she has, we often joked, two speeds: high, and asleep; she is NOT your typical guest–Mark and I settled into the cozy chairs in front of the set and found an old episode of “Salvage Dogs”.  Loolie poked her head in once.

“Do you still get,” she asked, “those wonderful eggs from your buddy Heather at work?”

I assured her that we did.

“Yes!” said Loolie, triumphant, as she whirled back to the kitchen.  More pans clattered, and I envisioned my entire shelf of pots and pans denuded, each pot coated with dregs of some concoction or other and flung haphazardly around the kitchen.

“Hash and eggs,” said Mark dreamily.

My first taste of home-made hash was a revelation.  Loolie had diced potatoes and onion and garlic; she had chopped up the meat, which we theorized was a chunk of leftover pot roast. She had stood at the stove and stirred and sauteed, stirred and sauteed, until flavors blended and shared their secrets with each other.  She stirred in the broth she’d microwaved; she poached eggs.  She took out the thick and sturdy Fiori-ware plates and put a steaming scoop of hash on each, topped with a perfectly cooked egg. She seated us at the dining room table, and insisted on bringing our plates to us.

Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet...
Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet…

As she served she sang, a riff on Sting’s “Fields of Gold”:

You’ll remember me when I serve you HASH
with EGGS from HENS of

You will sigh with JOY
when you cut inTO
those eggs with yolks of GOLD!

The song might have been boisterously off-key, but the meal was so GOOD.  I thought Mark would float away from the table, he was so uplifted. The hash was perfectly cooked, a little bit crusty, tender and savory.  The fresh eggs DID have yolks of gold, and the flavors were perfect together.  We had our first helpings with egg–vegophobe James had a sandwich–and then we divvied up the rest of the hash in the pan and ate every single morsel, scraping the crust off the cast iron skillet with forks and fighting, to the little dog’s dismay and disgust, over the tiniest remaining shard.

Mark and I cleared away the preparation mess; we ate Jim’s brownies, still warm, with scoops of ice cream (CHURNED ice cream, I consoled myself guiltily, after a day of rich eating–only half the fat) drizzled with Hershey’s syrup.  I poured coffee for Loolie and me; Mark and Jim steeped themselves mugs of tea and hot cocoa; we pulled out the playing cards from the sideboard and dug around for nickels.  We played game after game of ‘skat’–uproarious games that elicited groans of dismay and crows of delight, and that ended–no surprise–with Loolie heavier by a hefty stash of coinage.  Then, realizing that Loolie’s flight could require an early morning departure, we bundled everyone off to bed.

We were up by 6:00 AM, and that was good, because Loolie called and found she needed to be back at the airport by 10:00.  She packed up quickly, expertly; she ate a fast breakfast of bran flakes, gave us all big hugs, and was gone like the whirlwind she is.

She called me a couple of weeks later, and she said she and Jules had a great visit.  Loolie loved meeting Trevor’s intended, a feisty young woman named Amy who volunteered as a ski guide when she wasn’t working as a CPA.  Loolie and Jules cooked up a storm together and went to all the local sites and had a big family dinner to make up for the beloved faces Loolie missed seeing at the shower.  It all, she told me happily, turned out GOOD.

Things have a way of doing that when Loolie is involved, I thought.  And now, as I slice the ham from the hock, getting it ready to go into the pot, I muse about visits with Loolie: they always yield unexpected gifts, surprising dividends.  Homemade hash has become one of our family staples–I begged Loolie for her recipe, but she could only natter about a hint of this, a pinch of that, and what’s in your freezer and your pantry? That’s a little loosey-goosey for me, I’m afraid–I need structure, instructions,–so I start with the Joy of Cooking method (here’s a link to their ‘Farmers’ Market Hash’ recipe: and give myself free reign to improvise.  Hash is a warm and comforting Saturday night supper, and the memories it evokes of a visit from the Whirlwind make it taste even better.

The soup is simmering; it’s starting to perfume the house, and Jim, once again, drifts downward, following the good smell.  The snow has stopped; in 90 minutes or so, I’ll head off to work.  For dinner, we’ll cook up a big pot of rice and scoop the black bean soup over the top; we’ll tear apart slices of Giacomo’s french bread and mop up the last remains of rich broth.  Jim will eat his pizza, and we’ll reminisce about the time that Loolie got stuck in Columbus.

Mark will mention how good some hash would be; Jim will say how impressive Loolie’s Star Wars knowledge is; I will think to myself that travel season is coming upon us. Time to think ahead, maybe planning a visit with Loolie, to connect with her and Kerri and  some of our high school buddies–a time to recharge  and revitalize.

And to, maybe, discover a new recipe.  Spring is coming.  I can’t wait!