My Week In Words

My sister-in-law turned me on to a blog called Reading My Tea Leaves by Erin Boyle, and I became a subscriber soon after. My favorites of hers so far are her posts titled, “My Week in Objects.” She displays a few pictures of things that had something to do with her week, then writes a sentence underneath them beginning with, “Because.”

I think that’s a great practice and I’m copying the idea. Only I’m doing it with words.  It seems fitting for me to say I’ve always been a collector of words. I’ve scribbled phrases and sentences I want to remember down on paper since I could write. Sometimes, though, especially since I’ve begun to write seriously, I feel burdened by what I want to remember.  I guess it makes me sad that I can’t reflect on them like I’d like to.  So writing them down in a journal (with a  cute stamp, a nice pen, and a date stamp because I want so terribly to be a DIYer), and jotting down a sentence seems like the right thing for me to do these days. Maybe I’ll designate Fridays to being “My Week in Words” days. IMG_0431

Because it is lovely learning that you don’t (always) have to be the way you think you are.


Because I’m not sure why, but I was relieved when I read this verse in church last Sunday. I guess it felt good to know I could be afraid of this day.


Because she has such a blunt reflectiveness that haunts me and I wonder what she felt when she saw the apple tree that she planned on climbing being taken away.


Because these are the notes I took in a recent faculty meeting and I thought, “This is what I try to talk about when I write.” Sometimes, I think all I can do is take note of the wonderful mysterious things I don’t understand. Sometimes I wonder if I’d take note of them if I did understand them.


Because my friend Jill told me in this essay why it is I write.

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Around Here – It’s Beautiful Here




















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I’m so disappointed that I’m not posting here twice a week like I have been for the past few years. I have a lot to say; so many stories I want to tell you about. It turns out though, that I can’t produce the things I want to produce in the time I think I ought to produce them.  I wish I could work faster, but I seem to process things at the clip of a turtle.

We went to a Fancy Nancy show (you can see the girls with Fancy Nancy and Bree in the pictures above) at the Black Rock a couple of weekends ago.  In the story, Fancy Nancy was gearing up to be the dancing mermaid in a school play, but instead, her teacher assigned her the part of a tree.  You can imagine the disappointment.  Also, Bree got the part of the mermaid, so talk about conflict.

But if you know Fancy Nancy, you know she became the most beautiful tree there is.  The leaves and trunk sparkled as she twirled and leapt on stage.  And when her best friend pranced on stage to join her, the two complemented each other as only best buddies who illuminate the other in the best of ways can do.  I guess it was hard for me not to grab a lesson from it: I can’t do all that I think I should be doing, all that I think I’d be really good at, but I can try to make what I am doing sparkle.  So I am. I’m trying.

(Most of you already know this but I have an essay called “A Subtle Grace” up on Art House America.  This site is one of my favorite places and I am thrilled to have a piece up there.  I’d love for you to check it out.)

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It’s a beautiful, story book fall day and I could care less because I’m fighting with my freezer. On Mondays, there are about 45 minutes in between getting the girls from school and Harper’s ballet class. Get home, empty backpacks and lunch boxes, get a snack, start homework, put on a leotard – tights first, Harper, then the leotard – hair in bun, grab your shoes, let’s go.

But Hadley’s ordered what feels like 2 million dollars of Clare’s Gourmet for a school fundraiser, and all of it must be kept frozen. Our freezer is about the size of a DSW boot box, and it’s already stocked. I don’t have room or time to put away corn dogs, cookie dough, and frozen pizzas.

I hate school fundraisers, I think as I pour out 101 pounds of ice into a bucket to stuff another hundred pounds of pretzel rolls into. I should’ve told Hadley no, but I couldn’t because she loves her school and she thinks that buying 2000 pounds of cookie dough will make a difference.

So we’re walking down the sidewalk that’s blanketed under the most colorful leaves and the ones that have fallen make that great scratching sound on the cement when they’re swept up by the wind or kicked by Hadley or Harper.

“C’mon, enjoy this,” I tell myself. “This is all so pretty.” But I tell myself to can it because I have pizzas the size of hubcaps on my kitchen counter that I need to find a place for before all that artificial cheese thaws and I don’t know, becomes nuclear.

Harper practices her plies and leaps while she waits outside her classroom door. Her black leotard is a tad small but I couldn’t find one in her size, so she has a bit of a wedgie each time she moves. Her ballet bun looks more hipster than professional and as I watch her dance I think I should’ve shopped for a leotard earlier; should’ve taken more time to do her hair.

Another mom whose daughter is in the class asks how Harper likes it. “She LOVES it,” I say and regret it immediately because the mom’s face falls slightly. “What about your daughter?” I ask and feel terrible that I don’t know the girl’s name. She’s told me several times but I’m about as good at remembering names as I am at finding places for 500,000 pounds of Clare’s Gourmet Chocolate-Chocolate Chunk cookie dough to go.  But she knows Harper’s name and it’d be nice if I allowed space in my brain for other people besides myself.

“She doesn’t like it,” the mother says, and I enter a conversation with words like, “strict, regimented,” and “not fun.”  I nod. I was in ballet for about five minutes and quit when I found out I couldn’t wear a tutu and the teacher kept insisting I suck my stomach in so that it felt like it’d drip down my spine.

And I won’t go so far as to say I think Harper has talent, but she loves ballet. She loves the technicality and precision of it, she loves the vocabulary. She loves the prancing.

I’ve read about ballerinas. I know a couple ballerinas well enough to understand both the damage and the loveliness in the dance. I don’t know if Harper will stick with ballet long enough to get wrapped up in it this way, but I just don’t want to think about all that right now. It’s not so much that I have 44 billion pretzel dogs stuffed in my freezer, though that doesn’t help, it’s that I’m tired of the fact that I can’t just enjoy that my daughter likes something and that can’t be enough. I have to think of the next thing. What does this mean? What’s next? Should I push Harper to get to Level 3?  I’m so bored by this kind of thinking. I have 235 apple dumplings that are sitting in the trunk of my car and I don’t think Jesse will buy it if I tell him I forgot they were in there (though the days are getting colder so maybe they’ll be fine).

My head hurts. It’s 4:02 and the ballet class hasn’t started yet. All the little girls in their black leotards and pink tights are prancing around the reception area and I think the ladies at the front desk are getting ready to tell them to stop. I make a move to get Harper so they don’t have to reprimand her, but stop when I hear a little boy roaring with laughter around the corner.

“Oh my goodness!  Oh boy! Oh man!” he says between bursts of laughter.

Harper pays no attention but Hadley and I both look to see what’s so funny. He makes eye contact with both of us, but fixes his eyes on Hadley when he says, yells really, “You’ll never guess what I just did!”

Hadley takes a step forward, smiling, “What?” she asks him.

“I forgot to read the sign on the bathroom door and just went in.” He slaps his thigh and howls with laughter, and Hadley’s smile gets bigger.

“Turns out,” he says, “I used the girls’ bathroom and not the boys’!”

He holds his stomach and Hadley’s giggling now.

“Also?” he says, holding up his hands, and I’m thinking, Oh no, he’s going to say he saw someone’s butt and I don’t think I’ll be able to not laugh.

“I didn’t wash my hands!” he says and laughs again. It’s the kind of laughter that, when it happens to you, you think you ought to stop but that only makes it worse.  Or better, depending on how you look at this type of laughter.

Harper’s ballet teacher opens the door and Harper sachets towards her, then leaps over the threshold. “Bye, Mommy!” she calls, and I wave goodbye and turn towards Hadley.

The little boy is gone. I guess his class started, too.

Hadley and I walk back home, to the 22,000 pounds of Clare’s Gourmet I need to put away, but we re-enact the scene the entire way.

“You’ll NEVER guess what I just did,” Hadley says, giggling.

“Also? I didn’t wash my hands!” I add, and we are howling and holding our stomachs.

The walk home is short, but by the time we’re home I say, “Maybe we should have those pizzas for dinner tonight.”

“And the apple dumplings for dessert?” Hadley asks.

“Why not?” I say.

And then we are in the house, and Hadley’s helping me find room for all this food, and we are going over the scene again, laughing and getting louder and more animated the more we say the words of the little boy who will never know how he turned our afternoon around.

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What To Read in October

What to Read in October


For the littles:


I suggest Spooky Spooky Spooky! by Cathy MacLennan. Adorable pictures, fun, pithy words to chant as you turn the pages, and in the end everything that is spooky, spooky, spooky, is just the kiddos dressed up for Halloween.


It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is a must have for Halloween fans.  It has buttons to press that help tell the story (I like the ones that play jazz while I read about Linus’ dream of seeing the GP. That Charles M. Schulz was one classy lad.)

Only a Witch Can Fly is my all time favorite Halloween book, but we read it all year.  It’s about imagination and doing things you think you can’t do.  I don’t have a picture for you today because it’s in my classroom.  I’ve been told time and time again not to read pictures books to middle schoolers, but I sneak ‘em in, especially this one because I think they need to know about a little girl who tests her belief in herself while the rest of the world sleeps.

For the elder kiddos:


I think Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is absolutely spectacular.  I used to read it to my sixth graders, and both boys and girls love this story.  It’s a Cinderella story with the best twist (the main character actually HAS character and chooses to think for herself), plus there’s ogres and giants and the sweetest love story. On a recent trip to the midwest, we listened to this book in the car and both Hadley and Harper loved it.  However, we made the mistake of watching the movie and that was just a bummer.  If you have a hankering to see Anne Hathaway, go check out The Devil Wears Prada.  If you want to see Minnie Driver, find yourself a copy of Circle of Friends (good gracious, read that book first, though) or Return to Me.  You’ll be better off.

For you:


How about Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier?  A good friend of mine recommended this book to me when I was pregnant with Hadley and now I’m going to delve into a backstory that’s mildly depressing: I was pretty nervous about being pregnant with Hadley because before her, I’d had a miscarriage and I didn’t think I could go through it again, but here I was with child and I was pretty nervous about the next nine months.  At the time my friend recommended the book, I was also really sick with the flu or a bad cold. Maybe it was SARS. I can’t remember.  Anyway, this story took my mind off of all the worry and I will forever be in debt to her because she gave me another story to step into while Hadley grew and grew and grew into the almost 10 pound baby girl she would turn into October 23, 2006.

This story has not a thing to do with the plot of Rebecca, but I will tell you that it is deliciously suspenseful and absolutely haunting. I suppose the moral of the anecdote I just told you is that you should always have a friend ready to hand you a book when you are overwhelmed.  Not a how-to book, but a keep-you-up-all-night-reading book. Once you find a friend like that, keep her close by.

What are your favorite October reads?

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More Prayer Journal Entries

Every time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I’m startled by something I didn’t notice the last time I read it. The first time I read the book I couldn’t believe Mrs. Dubose’s story was minimized to just a few seconds on film (“Don’t you say ‘hey’ to me you ugly girl!”).  Yes, I am one of those people who watched the film first and God bless the day I was sick and my mom brought the movie home for me to watch. I’ve been marked ever since.

Another time it was Mayella’s red geraniums growing in slop jars in the Ewell front yard.  What’s beauty doing in the Ewell yard? And what do I do with this beauty now that I’ve acknowledged it? (I created a treacherous assignment for my students having to do with them pointing out beauty in unexpected, even awful places.  It was a real pick-me-up for them.)

A few weeks ago, I noticed this quotation and thought, “Of course! Isn’t that what we start to do at thirteen and fourteen?”

“Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for awhile, until enough time passed. Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out. When he was able to think about it, Jem would be himself again.”

So I made this prayer for my students:


Ten years ago was the last time I taught To Kill a Mockingbird and I had the students write essays on a character in the book. I chose to write about Aunt Alexandria because she drove me crazy, so when I picked up the book this time around every time I saw her name I cringed a little. That must be a warning sign that I am about to be startled by something- when I’m on high alert- and sure enough I read something about her that made me see she wasn’t all that bad.  It was her reaction to Tom Robinson’s death that I missed ten years ago, and then one of the last scenes, where Scout makes it home after being assaulted by Bob Ewell and Aunt Alexandria hands Scout her overalls instead of a frilly dress.

IMG_0268IMG_0269IMG_0270“She left it at that. She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would have never let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. ‘Put these on, darling,’ she said, handing me the garments she most despised.’”

That’s nice, isn’t it? I mean, it’s nice what Alexandria did, but it’s nice that Scout noticed it. It makes me think about the people who confuse, anger, annoy, and I guess baffle me. There’s more to them then that, and probably, it’s up to me to stick around and find out what that is.  Good gracious, I need prayer to do that because God knows I don’t have an ounce of patience for that type of work.  So I wrote one for me and for my students.


I worry I’m not showing my students enough about this book. It seems though, that one can only grapple with a story this wonderful and haunting in bits and pieces; picking up a new thing and turning it over to see what’s there.

It’s probably a lot like trying to figure out grace.  I suspect I’ll never figure that out which is probably why I’m constantly startled by it.

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The Next Station Won’t Be As Hard

For crying out loud I’m in the middle of a transition and I HATE transitions. HATE THEM. Every week is different. I can’t catch up. I’ve stopped writing a to-do list because THERE ARE NO MORE LINES. I know I can use my time better – to write, to read, to workout, to plan lessons, etc. etc., but I just don’t see how to do that right now. In my more rational moments, I know this won’t last. I know transitions are good and I get better after going through them, but I HATE THEM.

So I’m sitting at the kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon trying to sift through all there is to do when Hadley comes downstairs and says she’s prepared something for us.


She’s made math stations for everyone in the family including all the stuffed animals in the house to participate in. To the right of the chart is a behavioral chart.  Harper and I are in a group.

People of the world: don’t ever put Harper and I in a group and ask us to do the following: 1)be nice to strangers and make small talk with them; 2)complete math problems.

I hate math and I hate transitions.  I have no time for either of them.

But Hadley’s put Harper and I in a group and given us a set of problems to work on.  They’re all addition problems, triple digits on top of more triple digits.  Harper and I sit down next to each other and Harper says, “I don’t know what any of this means, Mommy.”

I can tell she wants to play the game of school Hadley’s set up so I try my best to explain what “plus” means and how to add, but I only have so many fingers and it isn’t working.  So I write a note:


Note my default: ask if I can just write instead of do math. It’s how I held onto my 2.0 GPA all throughout high school, folks.  They didn’t call me “Academic Lewis” for nothin’ back then.

Of course Hadley is going to let Harper practice her lowercase letters, I think.  As long as we’re playing the game, certainly she’ll let us do another school thing, right? After all, writing is just as important as math.

Here’s Hadley’s response:

IMG_0166Harper hands me the note and asks what it says.

“We have to do these problems, Harper,” I say after reading my seven going on eighty-eight year old’s note.

We sit at the table again and I tell Harper to go get a calculator.  Miss Feyen didn’t say how I had to help Harper.  She just said I had to help her.  So I show her how to enter in 345 + 765 = into the calculator.  Harper smiles as she pushes the buttons, sees the answers, then writes it down on Hadley’s worksheet with a pencil.

While she works, I pull out my planner again and look at my list. I study the things I’ve wanted to get done since August: essays I want to start, blog posts I want to write, ideas for teaching I want to plan, things I want to learn, a birthday party to plan. A little voice, I think it’s the devil, says, “You don’t have to write. You don’t have to blog. It’s all too much. It’s all too hard.”

I fold Hadley’s note up and stick it inside my planner. “I’m sorry if it’s a bit too advanced,” she tells me. “Did I mention,” she writes and reminds me that when things are hard, we are supposed to help each other.  Also, she adds, “the next station will be easier,” my little teacher tells me.

I hate not knowing when I will get things done and I hate not being on a schedule. I hate multi-tasking and rushing around. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. But I love everything I’m doing: teaching, writing, mothering. I’m sorry it’s a bit advanced, but I’m not giving any of it up.  I just need a calculator and faith that the next station will be easier.

“You are not in trouble,” my sweet girl tells me.

But figure it out.

Harper and I might’ve bent the rules, but we are still in the game and I hope Hadley never ever lets me off the hook.

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Around Here








IMG_0040 I couldn’t let an opportunity go by to strike a pose in front of  the OPRF Varsity Drill Team poster with Celena and my girls.

There’s Hadley in action on the soccer field.  Hadley loves soccer, but you know what? Hadley loves everything that involves a group of people doing something.

I found a new (to me) sandwich shop that is probably the cutest place in all of the DMV.  They’re the sort of place that has about 200 sandwiches on white, tri-folded menus that were probably typed up in the late nineties. I love these kinds of places.  There are knick knacks and trinkets all over, and the  tables and chairs are mismatched and sturdy and it seems like the kind of place a girl could could be happy sitting in for a while. “Your story starts here,” read one of the plaques on the wall.  I thought, “OK,” as I took a bite of my turkey/gouda/granny smith apple/spicy mustard sandwich.

What do you think of Harper’s Halloween costume?  I take full responsibility for it.  Blame me all you want. I totally encourage her. If there was one in my size I would’ve bought one.

We went to a Bounce U “after dark” birthday party. So what you do is turn off all the lights and put on glow necklaces, socks, whatever you got, and run around in the bounce house while music blares over head.  I was not interested in going but my goodness it was so much fun. We don’t know the family who hosted the birthday party too well, Hadley’s on the same soccer team as the little girl.  But she sat next to Hadley while they watched a safety video before entering the bounce house.  She put her arm around Hadley and whispered something in Hadley’s ear, and the two giggled: Hadley in a “I have to pay attention to this video because THAT’S THE RULE but also, what you said is really funny” sort of way.  The other girl laughed with a wild abandon, her eyes shining with glee. She looked exactly like Celena did when she was a little girl, and I thought, “Oh Hadley, just laugh with her. Forget the rules for a second and laugh.”

The last picture is my head shot for Coffee + Crumbs.  I am now an official writer for this wonderful website, and you can read my October post, “In Trouble” here.  I’m so excited to be  a part of this group of writers who take a good look at motherhood and share their experience with readers.  They are funny, thoughtful, honest, and if I could, I would take them all out to the new-to-me sandwich shop and buy them all lunch.

Hope life is well wherever you all are.  Thank you very much for reading and for subscribing to this little blog of mine.


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For My Grandpa

I was able to say a little about my Grandpa at his memorial service this past Sunday and this is what I wrote:

Two things would be sure to happen on my wedding day: 1) I would wear a dress that Scarlet O’Hara would be envious of, and 2) my Grandpa would do the ceremony. Jesse asked me to marry him one crisp evening in November. The following I day, I asked my Grandpa if he would officiate it. And then I began my search for the largest dress made out of tulle that I could find.

Of course my Grandpa said he would marry Jesse and I. He said yes because I am one of his granddaughters, but also because Reverend Stanley Lewis was the friendliest man in the world. But it was the sort of friendliness that stemmed from a genuine interest in other people. What you told him, what he observed about you, he remembered. He would ask you about it, tell you he was praying for you, tell you he always knew you could do the thing you could barely admit to him that you wanted to try. My dad and I, we would shake our heads in bewilderment at Grandpa’s friendliness. “He makes it look effortless,” we’d say.

One Christmas when we had a little party at the King Home, and I asked Grandpa how he was doing here, he told me about his friends: who has lost her voice, who tells good jokes, who likes the Yankees but keeps it a secret (because after all, Callie, we’re in Chicago). He told me he prays for all his friends, a statement I found impressive but perhaps not as impressive as the fact that he’d barely moved in and knew all these people.

I think Grandpa’s friendliness was a God-given gift. My dad and I joke that we don’t think this gift was passed on to us. We think it might’ve skipped a couple of generations and found a home in Grandpa’s great grand – daughter, Hadley. But I think what my Grandpa did pass along to me was the idea that it didn’t matter so much what it is you are good at, rather, you figure out what that is and you work really hard to make it better.

While we were planning the wedding, my Grandpa gave Jesse and I some dogged-eared books with his notes in the margins to help us write our vows. He thumbed over familiar phrases like, “until death do us part,” and “in sickness and in health,” and pointed out a promise he thought Jesse and I ought to consider making to one other. That is, to help each other find what it is we are good at and encourage each other to pursue and develop that gift.

So he married us at Calvin College on a day in January when the sun was shining and you could almost get away with not wearing a winter jacket. I stood with him, and Jesse, and several of our friends and family members in the dress of my dreams realizing that it takes a significant amount of shoulder and back strength to gracefully hold up the amount of tulle I was flaunting. And I listened carefully to what my Grandpa said so that I could say my promise back to Jesse.

I’m glad I didn’t have to memorize my vows. I’m glad Grandpa gave me the words I would say to Jesse in little pieces, and now that I think about it, he showed me how to live out that promise little by little over the years as well: he always asked Jesse about his graduate school work and then hurricane storm surge and the folks in New Orleans. He asked me about teaching and whether I would consider going back to school for writing. When she turned three he gave Harper a birthday card with Diego and Baby Jaguar on it because he knew those were her favorite TV characters. She still has the card and when she looks at it every so often she asks, “How did he know I liked Diego and Baby Jaguar?” She asks it in the same tone my dad and I use when we were equally impressed by Grandpa’s friendliness.

I have no doubt my Grandpa enjoyed being friendly. But I also think he was holding up what it is he thought were gifts, our vocations, our hobbies, our children, and helping us to develop and care for them. That sort of friendliness, I think, takes a great deal of work. I think Grandpa understood that and he also understood that it’s the sort of work you can’t do by yourself.

One summer before we had kids, Jesse and I visited my Grandma and Grandpa in Naples, New York. At that point, my Grandma had had a stroke that left her memory a tad jumbled and she had trouble walking.

We went for a drive one afternoon and as we cruised up and down the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes region, I admired a pink purse that was in between my Grandma and I in the backseat. “I like your purse, Grandma,” I told her, and she said with a grin that Grandpa took her shopping one day recently and this is what she picked out.

My grandpa stopped for ice cream, and as we were sliding out of the car, I handed my Grandma’s purse to her as well as a walking cane she was supposed to use. My grandma hooked the purse around her forearm, but quickly shook her head at the cane.

“I don’t need that,” she said, flicking her hand and shooing it away. I pivoted and put it back in the car. She grabbed my grandpa’s arm then, clearly leaning on him in order to walk up and give her order for ice-cream.

“Would you like your cane?” he asked gently, unaware of the quick conversation she and I had seconds ago.

“No,” she said, hugging him closer. “I don’t need that.”

It wasn’t just that my grandma had trouble walking and trouble remembering things. She also couldn’t write the way she wanted to anymore. My grandma had the most beautiful cursive you’d ever seen. It was as gorgeous as a dance performed by a trained ballerina. I don’t remember much of what her letters to me said, but I do remember staring and her script and studying it so I could replicate it (I cannot). I get not being able to do something the way you once could and so giving it up all together. I understand how lost one might feel when what you once had is not there anymore.

And maybe she was relying too much on my Grandpa when she refused the cane and grabbed his arm. Maybe my Grandpa thought so too. But he held on to her anyway and guided her to the ice cream stand.

Their slow shuffle to get ice cream is one of my favorite memories of my Grandma and Grandpa. Like the vows that he helped me make on January 16, 1999, my Grandpa showed me that finding what the other is good at isn’t always easy. Sometimes neither of you will know, and that can be pretty terrifying. But, like he showed all of us, you are never by yourself.

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Right Now



{Home} after a weekend in Chicago where I went to my 20 year high school reunion on one day, and a memorial service for my Grandpa on the next day.  I’m quite conflicted about this pairing of events. I spent a lot of time writing about high school for my thesis and back in Oak Park, as I walked around the halls of my high school, I felt like I’d gotten a lot of the story right. But at night, during the reunion, I started to feel worse as the evening progressed. I don’t quite know why but I think it has something to do with how many memories those faces contained. The room felt too small for all of them and by 11, when a couple generous grads bought more open bar and DJ time, I had to get out of there.

It’s not that I didn’t like seeing everyone. Well. I just can’t figure it all out.  Then this morning I read these words from My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman: “An artist is conscious of always standing apart from life, and one of the results of this can be that you begin to feel most intensely what you have failed to feel.”

Do you think that’s why I write? Because I can’t (or won’t) feel what I’m supposed to feel and so I have to look at it again and again until I’ve said, “There. That’s what I think. That’s  how I feel.”  I’ve always found comfort in this practice but today I feel a little sad about it.

{Getting ready} to talk about the most heartbreaking scene in To Kill a Mockingbird. That small paragraph after Scout describes what the Ewell home looks like, and then this: “Against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums, cared for as tenderly as if they belonged to Miss Maudie Atkinson…people said they were Mayella Ewell’s.” I want to ask my students what we do with that kind of beauty; the kind that shocks and haunts and doesn’t seem like it ought to be in places like the Ewell yard. I don’t have an answer for them, but I think it’d be good for me to point this beauty out to those thirteen and fourteen year olds. I think they should look for that kind of beauty, think about it and cling to it for the rest of their lives.

Things feel heavy, as they always do this time of year.  Someone told me once that the fall always makes her sad because it reminds her of death. Fall has always been my favorite season but she is right, things are dying.

Jesse pointed out all the boats on Lake Michigan as we drove along Lake Shore Drive after my Grandpa’s service.  The sky was its bluest, the lake was glistening, and Jesse says, “They’re all out there while summer takes its last gasp.” I thought, damn that kid for coming up with a phrase like that. You can’t save people from hurricanes and be a poet, too.

And on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, as we drove home, I studied the trees to see if they’d changed in the 72 hours we last saw them. They had. There were these red leaves that coiled around the trunk of the trees that I’d never noticed before. It was like they were reaching up to join the other leaves that were changing; as though every inch of the world wanted to be a part of this glorious death.

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A Letter to my goddaughter

Dear Mabel Day,

Once upon a time your daddy and I had nothing to do on New Years’ Eve. We were in high school, I was a junior and he a freshman, and our parents, your grandparents, left for the evening’s festivities with their friends, leaving your dad and I by ourselves.

We called some friends and we thought that, at the least, we’d watch Karate Kid, and maybe The Bodyguard if I could convince Geoff, and at midnight, run around outside and scream about the New Year being here.

Your dad and I, we had good friends.  Not the kind that were good in the “they keep kids out of trouble” sort of way, but the kind that made Geoff and I laugh. The sort of kids that jumped out of the car at red lights and started to dance because the song that was on B96 was too good to just sit there buckled in. They were mischievous, but it was a benign, creative mischievousness.  Like once, when we got our licenses and our parents told us we weren’t allowed to drive past Harlem, our friends shrugged and said, “Well. They didn’t say anything about going the other direction, did they? To the city?” Your dad and I confirmed that no, our parents never said anything about driving towards the Chicago skyline – just away from it – so of course they wouldn’t mind if we took the convertible down to the beach for a round or two of volleyball while the October waves crashed and the cars along Lake Shore Drive zoomed by.

I don’t remember all the details of the evening, Mabel. I don’t remember how the idea came about, whether it was your dad’s idea, or it was mine.  Maybe it was one of our friends. At any rate, your dad was in the band and he played the baritone. The baritone is the granddaddy of the brass section.  You can’t just pick something like that up and say, “Let me give this a try.” You need bicep muscles. Lung capacity. Me? I played the flute (I was first chair for a while, thank you very much). The flute fit neatly and perfectly in my backpack to and from school.  And the days I got to play the piccolo? My walks home were a breeze. It’s like having a few toothpicks in your backpack. No big deal.

This is not the case with the baritone and I don’t know what your dad was thinking when he agreed to learn how to play it.  Not only was he subjecting himself to years of, “Not yet, Geoff, it’s not time to come in yet.” “Not so loud, Geoff.” “Remember you need to blend in with the rest of the brass, Geoff,” but he had to lug that thing to and from school every day.

Your dad was a better student than I was, and he brought more textbooks home and they were heavier.  When you don’t do your homework, when you take the remedial classes, when you play the flute, your walks home are easy.  I wasn’t book smart, but my goodness, I could’ve helped your dad think this through before he decided to play The Big B.

Anyway, maybe it was after The Karate Kid that our eyes fixed on the baritone (did we call it Barney?) sitting in the corner of the basement underneath  the stairs like Harry Potter might’ve sat in the Dursley’s home.  Maybe one of our friends tried to pick it up to play it, had a near hernia and plopped it back down on its stand. I don’t remember how it happened, but that New Years’ Eve, your uncle and I, along with our friends decided that it would be hilarious if we got in the car, found people on the sidewalks walking to and from parties, and slowly drive alongside them while Geoff played the theme song from Jaws.

So that’s what we did for the remainder of 1992. I drove while your dad sat in the back seat holding the horn across his lap until we found people to scare. We had a caravan back then, before I crashed it (but that’s a story for another day), and Geoff had the entire back row to himself because of the baritone. One person sat shotgun, and everyone else sat in what we called, “the way back.” The part of the car with no seats. Your dad and I would beg your grandparents to let us sit back there and “drive really fast around corners” so we could roll around like ping pong balls.  This was before the law that said kids need to be in carseats until they can successfully say the Declaration of Independence backwards.

The person in shotgun (I wish I can remember who it was. I want to say it was my friend Lisa, but I’m not sure.) held the sliding door open just a tad so that Geoff could begin to play quietly, as the song begins, when we found some victims. As we got closer, Geoff would play “da dum, da dum, da dum” faster and louder until it sounded like that damn shark was in the car with us ready to eat us alive.

I don’t remember if we scared anybody and maybe that disappoints you.  But here’s what I do remember: I remember laughing so hard it was difficult to drive. I remember your dad taking it really seriously and telling me to stop laughing because it we won’t scare anyone that way because my laugh is so loud. His voice hadn’t changed yet, and he wore glasses that even today are not considered Geek Chic.  Have your parents showed you To Kill a Mockingbird yet?  He had Atticus Finch glasses. It’s OK. Atticus Finch is a hero and so is your dad so let’s let them wear whatever kind of glasses they want to.

I remember coming home at night close to the same time as my parents, all of us exuberant from being out in the freezing Chicago cold with our friends. We stood around in the living room and shared bits of the night with each other. Certainly this wasn’t the first time that happened, but I love this memory of the four of us standing in the living room laughing about our night before we went to bed because it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Your dad and I had no intention of hanging out with each other that night. Our parents probably assumed we’d be in bed, or watching TV when they got home and they’d say goodnight and head to bed themselves. But we’d all been out in the world and we’d had fun and now here we are in the warm house, the streetlights on Gunderson glowing through the bay window in the living room, their light sparkling from the wind outside.

Your dad and I, we love this story.  I don’t think anybody has as much fun telling it as us. We try and tell it to other people and they aren’t as entertained as we’d like them to be. Once though, I told it to somebody and he said, “You and Geoff. You guys are the best brother and sister.”

I think that’s why I like this story so much, and it’s why I’m telling it to you for when you’re ready to know it. Sweet Mabel, there’s not much you’re going to need from me. You have two incredibly capable parents who adore you and will look at everything you do as a delight and a surprise – even the bad stuff.  So as your godmother, I promise to pray for you, but the way that I think I pray best is to tell you a story, and I think this story about your dad and I is a good one to start with because one day, you might say, “My dad’s no fun.” Or, “I can’t believe my dad won’t let me do (fill in the blank, there’ll be lots of them).” You’ll need to say these things because you’ll want your parents to sting like you are stinging, and your words will be effective. I tell you this story not just to tell you: “Look. Your dad IS fun. Your dad IS the best.”  But to tell him that, too.

You won’t understand this until you become a parent, but the heaviness of life, all the things that could go wrong, seem to sit on either side of  your shoulders when that baby is born.  I can’t even conceive of a time when your uncle Jesse and I will just go out and leave your cousins at home with nothing to do. They’d need dinner! They need to have cell phones with our number plus the number of at least five of our friends on speed dial! If they don’t have plans to go out then we don’t have plans to go out! We’ll have family night! This kind of thinking is exhausting. It’s a buzz kill. It’s desperately depressing, but it’s so easy to sink into.

Maybe your grandparents were hesitant to leave that night, though I don’t think so. I remember my mom putting on earrings and spraying Shalimar on her neck, her cool brown heels, the ones I secretly put on when she wasn’t around, clicked confidently up and down the hallway between our bedrooms as she put on the finishing touches. She was excited to go out with her friends.  My mom and dad shut the front door, walked down the steps, and left Geoff and I with a night to wonder what it was we would do with this one wild and precious life of ours. I don’t know if there’s a better gift you could ask from a mom and a dad: to give you life so you can live it.

So I tell you this story so you can see your dad in a funny situation, and so you can know a bit about your grandparents. There will probably be several nights around a dining table where your dad and I will start to reminiscence about this and other stories (there are lots), and you’ll roll your eyes.  That’s OK. Your uncle, mom, and cousins will probably do it, too.

May God give you eyes to see and create stories from your life, Mabel Day. May you hear a still, small voice in the humorous, in the happy, in the scary, and in the sad events of your life that says, “You are wonderfully and fearfully made. Now, go! Live that wild and precious life!”


Aunt Callie

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