A Good Friday Ledger


The bricks and cement of the back patio are slicked and wet when I run the kitchen garbage out, ducking into the carport to wrestle with the recalcitrant trash can, which is always unwilling to surrender its lid. The app on my phone did not predict rain–clouds with periods of sun, it promised–but rain seems fitting.

It is Good Friday, and steady somber weather feels just right.

“The pubs are closed in Ireland today!” Mark said this morning, looking up from the early paper. “They can’t buy alcohol!”

He seemed shocked. (I feel the Irish ancestors rising up in dudgeon. “Tell that boy,” they demand testily, ” we could easily forego a drop on this most serious of sacred days.”)

The alcohol ban seems fitting to me, Good Friday being a day of fast and abstinence. Although—I remember a daring Good Friday when my friends and I went to a hometown bar and tasted our first Manhattans and Rob Roys. And ordered up cheeseburgers to go with them, flagrantly flying in the face of tradition, proud rebels of spirits and cuisine. The drinks were unimpressive–I don’t think I’ve ever tried either concoction again,–and the burgers cold and uninspiring. (So that was meaningless and uneventful–real rebellion should inspire some sort of thoughtful, lasting transformation. That silly mini-binge night: huh. It didn’t change a thing.)

Coffee, in my family canon, is okay on Good Friday–it’s a day when I still do not eat meat, nor do I nosh between meals, but I drink coffee all day long today without a twinge of conscience. This morning I dump the too-dark syrupy dregs of my morning pot and set up fresh water for the next pot of decaffeinated brew.

I pull the duster and the vacuum from the back closet. This is a good day to clean, a good day to clear surfaces and suck up the dust and grit of the week, to organize clutter. The sacrifice of Good Friday demands austerity. The celebration of Easter is best painted on a clean slate.

I wick away the cobwebs and, to the crabby little dog’s dismay, I fire up the vacuum. She flees, staying a room away from its high-pitched whooshing noise. I curl the excess cord over my arm; I push forward and I pull back, and the rhythmic motions release tamped thoughts. Sadness flows, and sense of loss.

Last Monday, deep into planning a workshop on holding effective meetings–the irony of planning a meeting to talk about meetings bouncing in front of my awareness like a silly balloon–I felt the raw, insistent blatting of my cell phone. An electric jolt coursed. I knew before I picked up the phone that the text would tell me Kim had died. She was ready; she was at peace with knowing the end was near. She was suffering. This was a blessed Lenten release. And yet: the sadness and the loss were immediate and very real.

And this is the season of new life–of religious festivals of death and rebirth. My mother died a Lenten death, too, and she was buried from an Easter church. There were flowers and banners with butterflies-emerged, and we sang about eagles’ wings in the glowing of the Paschal candle. Symbols of resurrection everywhere: great comfort for my father.

A celebration for Kim might be a different kind of thing, I think, held in an outdoor ‘scape where grass pushes into woods. There would be wine and poetry; the singing might be softer and more yearning. Scarves would float and billow in honor of the lost one. There might, in fact, be drumming, pagan and pulsing, thrumming from those woods. Kim would like to hear some Wendell Berry recited well; she’d be lulled and transported by some authentic rhythm and blues.

And Spring nature itself proclaims the message–what was dead is bursting into life; what was dormant is transformed. Liturgical, ecological: truth interpreted whatever way the listeners need to hear. A death, a release, requires celebration.

On Good Friday, though, I recognize the loss and let the sadness stay.


I line up vases and pretty, thick-walled jars. When the rain stops, I’ll go and harvest daffodils and the waxy white flowers, drooping bells like giant lilies of the valley, that have blossomed in the sunlight behind the house. I’ll check to see if there are blooms on the stalky unkempt lilac bush neglected in the farthest corner of the yard. I’ll trim and sort and arrange, and carry flowery offerings to brighten all the common rooms. I’ll bring the promise nature makes inside to my dark corners.

On a basement shelf, I find a box; it’s labelled “Easter Stuff.” Some scant ceramics nestle inside: two bunnies, a little egg-shaped house, a pink-faced Easter lamb. I let them share a sunny table top, punctuated by candles, awaiting the arrival of blooms.


I shake the crumbs from the toaster into the sink; I remove the little trays hidden beneath and wash them sparkling clean. I completely clear the countertops and wipe all crumbs away. I fill the sink with steaming water, dollop in some cleaner, and plunge my damp mop in. I am mopping when the dog erupts, and the mail slides through the slot.

While the floor dries, I read my letter of acknowledgement from my pension system. More paperwork is coming, it tells me, but my retirement is on track. (The letter also offers helpful advice, like, “It’s important to let your employer know that you have plans to retire.” Aha. I make a note.)

Retirement will not mean, for me, an end to work, but it will bring great changes to the acts and facts of my working life. Another portent of new life coming, arrived on this mindful day.


I open the refrigerator to pull out salad dressing and celery to mix my tuna salad for lunch, and I smile at the turkey breast defrosting on the bottom shelf. We’re having a family mini-rebellion this year: Away with the Easter ham! We’ll have us some turkey instead!

So Sunday, we’ll chop veggies and sauté them into stuffing, mixing in the rich broth we made from roasted chicken bones last night. We’ll mash steaming potatoes with cheese and a touch of garlic, whisk the gravy, pour whole cranberries in their tangy sauce into Grandma’s old glass dish.

We will dine as if it is Thanksgiving, and maybe Thanksgiving is an undercurrent of this season:

Thank you for the safe end to winter.

Thank you for the joy of new growth.

Hams are good; they’re lovely, in fact. But this year, we’ll eat turkey.


There will be treats, too, of course. One day last week, James and I did a Granville run and stopped at our favorite chocolatier. We bought three scoops of special treats–English toffee, sea salt caramels, salted caramel turtles,–and had the lady wrap them up in bright Easter papers. We hid them in a pot on a way-high shelf, so we’d forget and let them be until triumphant Easter morning.

We bought a frozen custard cake, just the right size for three appreciators. It is tumbled high with chocolate chunks.

We will have much for which to thank our Easter bunny.


This afternoon, I’ll steal the time to read a new book* about the poet Robert Lowell, who studied at Kenyon College, not so very far from here. Lowell was a genius; Lowell was bipolar, and his periodic bouts of mania would whisk away his right mind and replace it with a wrong one. Every time the mania hit, he’d turn away from his wife and to some young and inappropriate lover. His tongue would leap with cutting, harsh words he couldn’t control, and he would hurt and shame his friends. He would stalk and drink and dance the night hours away–sleeping be damned!–until the whole thing got so bad the police would arrive to take him away.

Once he made them sit at his kitchen table and listen to a  poem before he went off willingly to his next institutionalization.

And then would come the pain of stabilizing, the long time of healing, until his right mind returned. And always he’d both embrace the return of life and burn with shame for all he’d done. A quirk of Lowell’s illness was a perfect memory of everything he’d done when he was out of control.

Lowell was a man who understood Good Friday, with its grim and unforgiving sacrifice. He was a man who knew that new life follows darkness.


I sit at the dining room table, and I watch, though the bay window, white petals floating from the tree that’s just outside. They stain the once-mowed grass–the lawn that needs mowing again tomorrow. They float to earth, making way for the leaves pushing themselves into the light.

The rain has stopped; the clouds are lightening, and here and there the sun cracks through.

The messages of loss and growth abound. It is Good Friday. I move a ceramic bunny closer to the brass candlestick, and I go to eat my lunch.


*Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire; A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. Kay Redfield Jamison. 2017; Alfred A. Knopf.

Rescuing the Remaindered


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept walking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged, my eyes on the books.

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

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

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


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

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

What will she….???

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

I felt an expulsion of relief from the newcomers.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOME, hissed the whisper. We are HOME.

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

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

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

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


Things Break

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
–Leonard Cohen, Anthem


Sometimes, things break.


It is her favorite mug, the one with the cherries on it–a thick piece of crockery, sturdy and cheerful.  It came from a local potter who’s recently closed up shop, so there’s that little ping of irreplaceability: This is a piece we will never see made again. It keeps her coffee wonderfully warm.  It is the perfect curved shape to cup with both hands, to spread warmth from palms to soul on days when warming’s needed.

And then she drops it one morning, watches in awful slo-mo as it spirals toward the sink. A big chip flies off the base.  The handle detaches with a sharp, painful crack.

She picks it up.  Oh, this is silly, she thinks, as tears spurt,–silly to mourn for a mug!


The bicycle, thick-tired, unglamorous, sits covered with cobwebs and forgotten in the old garage–a building never, in her tenure here, used to shelter a car.  One day she thinks about bicycling, jogged by a scene in a movie.  Thinks, I could clean up the bike and screw a new basket onto the handlebars, and I could pedal for odd groceries, and to meetings.  Just for fun.

She grabs a pair of gardening gloves and the keys to the garage, and she goes and drags the bike from where it cowers in a far back corner.  She brings it out into the light.

And, oh, it looks sad.  The paint has flaked and the rust encroaches and the seat is flopping, barely hanging on, like a child’s desperately loose tooth.  She crouches down and tries to spin the pedals and she sees that the gears are obstinately, willfully, rusted in place.

Broken, she thinks, and she remembers riding, her son (now almost thirty) in the child seat on the back, both of them laughing at the wind whipping their hair.  She remembers riding that bike to work down the brick streets of a little college town–she can still feel the thrumming of thick rubber on bumpy brick.

She has left it for so long, and now she wonders if it can be fixed.


It is such a stupid lie.  He stares at her, defiant, insistent, and she stops, frozen, unable to respond.  The silence is his undoing.  Had she spoken, had she argued, he could have drummed up righteous indignation, defensive protection, but her lack of words pries off the veneer.  He begins to cry, and the truth comes out, bitter and ugly.

He reaches for her, repentant, but she gathers the frothy cloak of her silence around her, and she turns and walks away.

Can we ever get past this? she wonders.

And then she thinks: Do I want to?


Probably nothing, says the doctor, but let’s just check to be sure.  He uses the word biopsy.

Broken, she thinks. Is this broken? Her hand moves inexorably toward that bland and painless lump.


Things break.

Sometimes, they can be mended.


She sits at the table with the mug and the pieces, and she rolls the mug gently in her hands.  Maybe, she thinks–maybe, she can do this.  She uncaps the glue–oh, it’s pungent!–and she dots the contacts of the handles, presses them to the raw breaks, to where they split from the mug.  She holds it, patient, eyes far away, thinking of a recipe she saw in a magazine, of new curtains for the little bathroom, while she waits for the glue to seep and spread, to send tendrils back and forth in the porous interior of the pottery.  Tendrils to rebuild this well-loved mug.

She sits for five minutes, holding the pieces tightly together, and when they seem to have become one again, she repeats the process with the shard from the base.

Danny from the bike store comes out to the parking lot to help her.  He wrestles the bike from her roomy trunk, sets it on the ground, puts the kickstand down, and steps back. He is silent for a moment.

“I’ve seen worse,” he says, “and this was a good bike to start with.  Worth fixing, if we can do it.”

He pulls a little tablet from his pocket and hunkers down.  His fingers, rimmed in black from all his intimacy with the greasy parts of bicycles, touch the rusty gears.  They trace the brake lines, caress the wheels, ride up to the handlebars as he stands and shifts. He stops for a moment, just looking, and she has the sense he is seeing the finished product in his mind’s capable eye.

Finally he turns.  “It can be done,” he says.  He scrawls a figure on a sheet of his little notepad, rips it off, hands it to her.  “Take me the better part of a month, but I think she’ll be good for another twenty years.”

She puts the piece of paper in her wallet and shakes his hand.  She agrees that this will be worth the wait.

She meets him in the therapist’s office, and they sit down warily side by side.  He is staying across town; she has surprised herself by enjoying the solitude, the freedom to shape her day.  Some nights she eats a bowl of cereal in front of her computer for dinner.  Others, she cooks up a wonderful stir-fry with vegetables that would appall him. The house is clean and there are long stretches where the anger and betrayal recede, and sometimes she thinks, I am a capable, single, woman.

But there are other times, to her chagrin, when she wonders if he’s all right.  If he’s managing.  She knows his weak spots and his doubts and his need for company.

He is subdued and pale and seemingly eager for the therapy to bring them close again, and so they begin, cautiously, gingerly, looking to see if what’s been badly rent can be slowly, carefully mended.

The doctor’s face swims into focus.  She is groggy, still punch-drunk, but his words come through the haze.

Looks like we got it all.

Words appear like a banner in her waking brain: Let the healing begin.

Sometimes,–with care and skill, with the investment of resources and a big dose of mindfulness,–sometimes, things can be fixed.


Sometimes things break.

They break, and they can’t be restored to their original state.

But they can be put  to new use.


She pours steaming coffee into the mended cherry mug.  But when she slides her fingers through the handle, she feels an ominous slipping. Sure enough, with a wiggle and a twist, the handle comes clean from the mug.

She sighs and pours the coffee into her second best mug, puts the cherry mug sadly into the sink.

But later, home from work, she realizes just how much she loves looking at those bright and brazen cherries, loves the shiny shape of the mug and its cheerful, upbeat colors.  She washes it out and dries it carefully.  She takes it to her desk and gathers up wandering pens and pencils, and she ceremoniously morphs her favorite mug into her favorite pencil holder, a pleasant thing that she’ll still use every day.

It was a cheap bike in the first place; the price for repairs that Danny quotes is far beyond what she paid for it.  She can, he points out, buy a really good bicycle for less than that cost.

So she bundles the old bike back into the trunk and she drives home.  She pulls it out, sets it up on the black-topped driveway, and she ponders.  She fills a bucket with hot soapy water; she scrubs the old friend down and lets it dry.

The next day she spray-paints it white, uniformly white, from tires to handlebars to basket.

That weekend, she parks it in the front yard, maneuvering it to a completely upright status with sunken blocks concealed on either side of the tires.  She lines the big old baskets–one on the handlebars, two on either side of the back tire, with moss, and she fills the moss with rich, loamy dirt.  She plants the brightest petunias she can find and adds some trailing ivy that waves down the sides of the baskets and sways in the breeze. When the winds lifts, she thinks, it almost looks like the bike is in motion. 

It is cheerful and pugnacious, and she can shop now for a new bike that will serve well her augustly seasoned status.


Therapy has helped them to be civil, to understand what each of them needs.  But it has not brought them back together.

She revels in her independence, and she thinks now of a condo, a place with no yard work but with enough room to entertain and a kitchen that will allow her to explore her increasingly adventurous cuisine.

He admits that he doesn’t miss her in THAT way, that his interest in his pretty young colleague grows exponentially.

They still have the ability to hurt each other, even while they lose the means to make each other happy.  They work with the therapist; she helps them come safely through those woods.

Because, of course, there is Tess, who is only twelve, and who dearly loves them both. Needs them both; needs them to be civil and caring and moving forward, and moving without bitterness.

It is cautious and awkward at first, but they are both committed to the quest, united in this, if in nothing else.  It requires constant work; it requires mindful vigilance, but they come through.  Where once there was a marriage, a warm friendship begins to grow.

She sees Tess, who has been tense and worried, begin, at last, to relax.

There are ways to bypass what must be removed, the doctor tells her.  He sits down next to her, shows her a glossy diagram.  They’ll just remove this, re-route that, take a little of this from there to repair what’s missing here…and voila--she will be disease-free and fully functional.

She stares for just a moment at the chart in his clean, clean hands, stares just long enough for him to clear his throat uneasily.

And then she begins to laugh.

He looks at her, warily, and she explains.  She’s a great believer in re-purposing, she tells him.  She just never thought she’d be applying the concept to her innards.

Sometimes, things break.

And sometimes, they can be mended; sometimes they can be re-imagined.

Other times, nothing helps.

The mug shatters on the concrete patio, explodes into tiny needling shards too small to do anything but pierce and harm. She sweeps them up and throws them away.

The rust seeps through the paint, the tires are bent; the bike leans precariously.  Even as a planter, it is untenable.  She puts it out on Big Trash Day; the boisterous sanitation guys throw it into the masher, and she can hear, from where she sits with her writing and her morning coffee, the grinding as her dear old bike is mangled and eaten.

He has made fervent promises; he does not want, he vows, to lose what they have built together.  She even–where was her head???–sleeps with him again.  The next day–the next DAY: what is wrong with him??–she discovers that he has cleaned out her savings and maxed out her credit card, and her friend Bessie sees him canoodling cozily with his new young thing at the coffee shop.

She is bereft and impoverished in more ways than just financially.  She needs the chance to rebuild.  Resolutely, she dials the lawyer’s number that Bessie found for her. There is no fixing here: a clean break is called for.


The doctor sits with her in the quiet after their talk.  They have walked a long road together–she has walked it with hair and without, walked it seemingly plump and healthy, and walked it clearly gaunt and exhausted.  He has taken her midnight calls and talked with her through other patients’ appointments; he has been honest and caring and innovative. Together they have tried everything they could find to make her healthy.

And today, he has admitted that they have come to the end of all that doing. They have walked together to the limit of the options.  They are standing at the end of the road, standing together at the lip of the abyss.

But only he will turn and walk back down that road. He grips her hand, as the firm friend that he’s become.

She thinks:  I am going to die.

She thinks: No more treatment.  I will be able to taste my coffee again.  I will be able to sit in the sun.

That is one of the things she has missed the most–sitting in her tiny backyard garden, watching the squirrels fight, enjoying an occasional hummingbird visit.  Her friend Roger has built her an amazing bower with roses and daisies and cone-flowers and trailing ivy; he fills it in each year, sweet man that he is, with splashy annuals and fragrant herbs.  It is her favorite spot in the entire world.

And now, soon, as the medications leave her weary body, she can sit out there again.  Take her books, take her colored pencils.  Take the healing naps she has longed for so much.  Just sit in the sun and prepare.

The end of fixing, she thinks, will lead her back to light.


Things break.

Things break and sometimes, with long and careful work, they can be mended.

And if they can’t be mended, sometimes they can be re-purposed, becoming something vibrantly new.

And sometimes, broken things are just that: broken.  Broken beyond repair, beyond use, and the decision has to be made to let them go.

Their leaving opens a space, and in that space, there may be growth, there may be silence.

There may be, for a miraculous little slice of time, the chance for bright clear light to shine.


Sometimes, things break.

There’s a Place for You

The first day, her mother marched her from the school to the library. It was three blocks, and Tillie would have to cross a big street.  But there was a light, and, Mama said, on school days there would be a crossing guard.

“Do you get it?” asked Mama.  “Can you get yourself here?”

Tillie nodded, but her mother tested her anyway.  She drove her back to the school and left.

“You walk there and I’ll wait for you,” she said.

Tillie walked back the exact way they had walked before.  Crossing the street at the light was a little scary, but she waited until the light was red, she made sure there were no turner cars, and when she saw it was okay to go, she ran across, really fast.

She got there, no problem.  Mama was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette in the car.  When she saw Tillie coming, she ground it out, and she got out and slammed the door. She walked up to Tillie and grabbed her by the hand and tugged her up the steep gray steps of the library.

At the big glass doors, Mama showed her a button to push that would make the doors open.  Tillie liked that. She itched to do that herself. Tomorrow, she thought.

Inside there were more steps, shiny marble steps that went up to a big room that had a big desk in its center. Radiating out behind the desks were shelves–big, tall wooden shelves, loaded with books. It was very quiet.  A pretty lady with big glasses and her hair pulled back sat at the desk.  She looked up as Tillie and Mama came in, and she smiled right at Tillie.

“THIS way!” Mama said gruffly, and she pulled Tillie off to the right, where there was a door and a stairway going down.  The stairs opened into a big hallway.

“There’s your bathroom,” said Mama.  “See that?  Lady with a skirt?”

Tillie nodded.

“You need to go?” asked Mama sharply, and Tillie quickly shook her head.

Mama tugged her into the big room then.  There were books here, too, but the shelves were shorter. And there were little round tables, wooden tables, with chairs that were just children sized. Books lay open on the tables; next to one there was a fuzzy puppet, and Tillie could see the puppet was also in the book.  She walked around, a little bit amazed.

There were some other kids in the room, and one or two other mothers, but they were very quiet.  There was a big desk here, too, like upstairs, but the lady behind it was old.  She had a crinkly face, and she smiled at Tillie.  She nodded toward a table where there was a plate of cinnamon graham crackers and dixie cups of juice.

“Would you like a snack?” the crinkly lady asked Tillie.

She opened her mouth to say, “Yes, PLEASE!” but Mama answered for her.

“She don’t need none,” she said, and she pulled at Tillie’s hand.  “This is where you come, you get it?  After school, you come here, and one of us will fetch you.”

Tillie nodded, a growing excitement bubbling. Everyday after school, she would walk here and see the pretty lady, then the crinkly lady.  She would have a graham cracker and she would sit at one of those tables and look at books until Mama or Daddy picked her up.

This wasn’t scary.  This was wonderful.
Tillie was five years old.

The pretty lady upstairs was Miss Gail; the crinkly lady was Miss Dell. Every day, after she pushed the big flat button and the doors swung open wide, Tillie ran up the stairs and said hello to Miss Gail before she ran downstairs.

Some days were just ordinary days in the Children’s Room. Then Tillie would have a graham cracker and some juice and  go sit at the table with the big stack of books Miss Dell had gathered for her. Miss Dell knew all about good books, and she picked ones that had few words and wonderful pictures–sometimes made-up stories and sometimes about real things, like a zoo or a farm.

When there weren’t a lot of people, Miss Dell would come and sit at Tillie’s table, and they would read a book together.  Miss Dell read in a gentle, happy voice, and she would point to the word and then to the picture.  After they were done, Tillie would turn the pages, slowly, and she would point to the word and the picture, too.

Other days were special.  Sometimes there was a circle of kids and Miss Dell read to them.  The stories might all be about the same things–dogs, maybe, or the way leaves change color in the Fall, Hallowe’en stories, going to school,–things like that.  Often Tillie was the oldest child there–the other kids had to have parents with them, and they mostly sat on their laps; that’s how little they were.  Miss Dell asked Tillie to show them how to act, and so Tillie always sat very still with her hands in her lap and looked right at Miss Dell when she was reading.

“Such a good listener,” one of the mothers said once, and Tillie’s cheeks burned with happiness.

Sometimes a visitor came and talked to them and read to them.  Once it was a fireman in his slick yellow coat and big boots, and he talked to them about Stop! Drop! and Roll! and then read them a book about a fireman who rescued a silly cat from a tree for a little boy named Johnny. Another time a dental hygienist came and talked about tooth brushing.  He gave them coloring books and a little bag with toothpaste, fluoride rinse, and a new toothbrush. Tillie decided to keep her bag with Miss Dell.  Everyday after school, she took her bag into the girls’ room and brushed her teeth and then rinsed.

When her rinse ran out, a new bottle appeared.  Miss Dell said the dental hygienist had left a whole lot of extra ones.

Around 5:00 someone came to get her. Usually it was her mother.  Sometimes she would come in and sit down and let Tillie show her a book.  Sometimes she stood in the doorway and hissed, “Get your little ass OUTA here.”  Those days her breath had that strong, funny smell, and Tillie knew better than to argue.  Some days, her daddy would come, and he would say hello to Miss Dell and ask what everyone had done that day.  Miss Dell always told him what a good child Tillie was, and what a good helper.

Daddy would put his big hand on her head and smile down at her, and Tillie didn’t care that there was black in the creases of his fingers from all the greasy cars he fixed. That hand felt good right where it was.


By December, she was reading, the words Miss Dell pointed out painting pictures in her mind even without the ones in the books.  By then, too, Mrs. Grace, her teacher, was walking her to the traffic light and watching her across.

“It gives me a little chance for fresh air before I go back and grade papers,” Mrs. Grace told her.  On rainy days, she loaned Tillie an umbrella.  Tillie just left it at the library, and Miss Gail, who was a friend of Mrs. Grace, made sure it got back to her. When it snowed and the sidewalks were icy, Mrs. Grace kept a tight grip on her hand and watched her all the way up the street after she crossed by the light.

After the Christmas break, during which Tillie didn’t get to go to the library–that made her very sad–Miss Dell announced something new.  Tuesdays were “Read to Me” days, and Tillie was going to be reading to Miss Dell, and sometimes, even, to Miss Gail, who liked to switch with Miss Dell every once in a while. Tillie held the books just like Miss Dell did, so her audience could see the pictures.  She was getting, the library ladies told her, better and better and better. Sometimes, Tillie read to the little kids.  Just like Miss Dell, she would point to the word and then point to the picture.

As the year wore on, her daddy came to pick her up more and more. One day he took her to a diner for dinner.  They had fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and peas, and pie, and Tillie had a big glass of chocolate milk.  And after dinner, before he handed Tillie her jacket, Daddy said, “Do you know your mama is a kind of sick, Tillie girl?”

Tillie looked at him.  “On bad breath days?” she asked, and he smiled at her, but it was a sad kind of smile.

“Yes,” he said. “On bad breath days.  She gets mad on those days, too, doesn’t she?”

Tillie hesitated, but then she nodded.

“Well, baby,” said her daddy, “Mama’s going away to try to get well.  Tomorrow, Grandma Judy’s coming, and then Mama will go to a kind of hospital on Friday.  She’ll be gone for a good while.”

He helped her get her arms in her jacket, and they went off to a home that was, suddenly, changing.

Grandma Judy stayed all summer.  To Tillie’s delight, Grandma Judy took her to the library every week.  While Tillie read her books, Grandma Judy would go upstairs and find books for herself.  Sometimes she got a book or a magazine for Daddy, too. They got books to bring home, and Tillie had a special spot to keep them in, on a shelf in the living room.

Daddy said they were all turning into bookworms.

On Sundays they called mama.  Sometimes she cried when she talked to Tillie.  She said, every time, “Baby, I’m so sorry!”

Once, in the middle of the summer, they went to visit. Mama was thinner and pale, and her hair was neat and shiny and pulled back in a pony tail. She showed Tillie her room.  They couldn’t stay long, but before they left, mama hugged Tillie so very tight.  Her breath was sweet and minty.

In the Fall school started again.  Tillie had a new teacher, but Mrs. Grace still met her each day and walked her to the light; she told Tillie she hoped she didn’t mind.  It was just a nice kind of habit, and she’d miss it if they stopped. Tillie said, “Of course!” and she grabbed Mrs. Grace’s hand and she skipped when they walked together.

Grandma Judy stayed, and she picked Tillie up every day, and then Mama came home.  She had to rest for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon she started picking Tillie up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When Mama came to the library now, she would say hi, shyly, to Miss Dell, and she would sit with Tillie and look at all the things she was reading.

“You’re my smart girl, aren’t you?” she said.  Mama started going upstairs and asking Miss Gail about books.  She would take only one home at a time, but she read them fast; sometimes she returned them next day and got another.  “I like me a good romance,” she said to Tillie, and Tillie smiled brilliantly at her.  Maybe when she grew up, she’d like her a good romance too.

Grandma Judy stayed on; she helped Tillie’s mama.  The house was always clean, and they had home-cooking for dinner. Some Saturdays, Tillie’s mama and daddy went out to a movie or for dinner at the diner.  Tillie and Grandma Judy would rent a movie and make popcorn in the whirligig, and Tillie would read to Grandma Judy for a long time.  She was reading chapter books now.

It was the best time of Tillie’s life so far, and she still got to go to the library every day.

When Tillie was nine, her daddy took her out for another dinner, and he wasn’t smiling.  This time, he told her, Mama was a different kind of sick–sick on her insides, with cancer.  She was going to have to have some treatments, and the treatments would make her even sicker, but they might make her get better for good.

“But, Tillie,” said her daddy, “I have to tell you something.  There’s a chance the treatments might not work.  There’s a chance we might lose your Mama forever.”

“Don’t cry, daddy,” whispered Tillie.  Her stomach hurt, and they went home.

At home, Mama was resting and Grandma Judy was crying.  “It’s not FAIR,” she said to Tillie’s daddy.  “She’s been trying so damn hard.”  Daddy hugged her for a long time.


Mama died when Tillie was eleven.  Mrs. Grace, Miss Gail, and Miss Dell were all at the funeral, and they hugged Daddy and Grandma Judy, too.  When she went back to the library the following week, Miss Gail gave her a book called, Losing a Parent: a book for young people.  Tillie and Grandma read it together.

Tillie also started looking in the non-fiction section.  She would take home craft books.  She took home books of recipes, and Grandma Judy taught her to cook.

When she was in sixth grade, Miss Gail and Miss Dell invited her out to eat.  Tillie was, they informed her, too old and too good a reader to read in the children’s room any longer.  Miss Gail solemnly handed her an adult’s library card.

And then they offered her a part-time job, two hours a day, four days a week, helping out in the children’s room.

In eighth grade, she started working five days a week and shelving in the upstairs room.

When she turned 16, she added six hours on Saturday to her library working schedule. Miss Gail said Tillie had a knack for helping older children and junior high kids find just the perfect book.

“You don’t think about what YOU like,” Miss Gail told her.  “You think about what they like.”


She went to the state college in town, and she majored in English.  “Getting A’s for reading books,” she grinned.  “That’s pretty good.”

They were all there when she graduated with honors: Daddy and Grandma Judy, Miss Gail, Miss Dell, and Mrs. Grace.  Grandma Judy and Miss Dell were getting a little frail; Miss Dell said she was trying to hold on for two more years; then she’d retire at the library. Daddy’s girlfriend, Abby, came too.  She was pretty, plump, and kind, and Tillie hoped that the two of them would decide to get married; they were good together.

Tillie didn’t have a boyfriend now. For a long time, she’d thought Bobby was the one, but Bobby grew to have a drinking problem. Bobby’s bad breath days, thought Tillie.  It made him lie and cheat and cuss at her. You need help, she told him.  I don’t need YOU, he’d said.

It was a good time for no entanglements, Tillie knew, but the thought of Bobby would always make her sad.


That afternoon, Tillie took her library book and she drove to the cemetery in her noisy old car.  She had the place to herself, so she knelt on  her mother’s grave and talked to her. “I graduated today, Mama,” she said, “and I’m working at the library again this summer. And then,” Tillie pulled an envelope out of her purse, “I think you’d be proud.  I’m going to Kent State to be a librarian.  I got this letter this week; I have a scholarship from the university women.”

A car pulled up, and two chubby old women climbed out with potted plants and trowels and a watering can.  Tillie stopped talking to Mama; she wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but she felt like their talks were too private to share with strangers.  She sat on a stone bench next to Mama’s grave, and she read in the sun.  The breeze riffled her hair.

The ladies huffed and talked and grunted and planted, lunging up off their knees and groaning dramatically.  They took a long time watering the flowers they’d placed on the grave of their someone special, but finally they finished.  They slammed back into their car and drove off.

Tillie closed her book and slid off the bench to hunker by her mother’s grave.

“Mama,” she said.  “I just have to say thank you. I don’t know how you knew to do it, but thank you for sending me to the library when I was five. Mama, it’s my place, and I found it because of you.”

She put one palm flat on the cool marble of her mother’s grave stone, and then she sighed and stood up.  Her people were waiting; there was a special graduation dinner in the works.

Tillie dusted off her jeans and walked to her car, and she drove off into her future.