Both, And. The 8th Graders

These are the 8th graders I got to teach this year:

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Good gracious, I love them all.

Yesterday we had a little ceremony for them. There was a cookies and cream cake with chocolate ganache filling that I’m still thinking about.  Also, I said a few words.

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I am to tell you good work, congratulations, and good luck in high school, and I will tell you these things, but first I want to tell you a secret: I had no plans to teach this year. All my lesson plans and “how to teach” books, everything I learned about teaching in college had all been thrown away years ago because, and I quote myself, “I am never teaching again.”

I suppose I said that because I was burnt out. Perhaps I decided that middle schoolers are insane (and you are), and I couldn’t keep up with them anymore. It could’ve been I said this because I was afraid to try.

But I know one reason I said it was because I was becoming a mother. I decided that I could not be a mother and be a teacher. I make up rules for myself, you see. I believe that if I am THIS, then I cannot also be THAT. There’s safety and security in this sort of rule making. I don’t have to worry about trying. I don’t have to worry about failure.

But like the little girl who wanted to fly in Only a Witch Can Fly, or the dinosaur who had a dream to dance in Brontorina, or like Bobby who wanted to be a musician in Sleeping Freshman Never Lie, I started to dream again of teaching. My dream scared me because it would mean I’d have to break my rule, and I don’t like to break rules.

Throughout this year though, you showed me that this is a ridiculous rule because nobody is just one thing. You are hard working, talented students concerned with doing what’s right and what’s best, and you are downhill skiers, speeding down slopes and surprising yourself with your fearlessness.

You are gamers who know the intricate design and mechanics of videogames, but you can also describe and define the difference between what it means to be happy and what it means to have joy.

You are quiet, maybe a tad overwhelmed, but you can give your classmates pause when you ask why To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a love story. You get your peers thinking about the different kinds of love there are in the world.

You are loud. So loud. And many times, so inappropriate, but you can write Tom Swifties, memorize Bible verses and have an understanding of language and how it works far beyond your teacher. You wonder about King David, and that statue of the turtle outside the preschool you attended. You sit on a bench during a soccer game, exhausted, and a family member asks you why you’re playing afraid. You decide to play brave and that is when you begin to think you’ve found your footing.

You might struggle in school, but you name what you’re afraid of: maybe it’s surgery, or what high school will be like. Whatever it is, you name it.

You are confidently quiet, letting your poetry, stories, and your stunning (sometimes haunting) sketches speak for you. And you can shoot paper baskets better than any boy in her class.

You’re beginning to see that the tedious work of skills and drills in a sport is bringing out a talent I don’t think you knew you had, but you also know that the best time to play this sport is at dusk, beneath the trees, with your brother or dad when no one else is around.

You don’t like to write but you relay articulate summaries and make astute observations about what we read in class. Like this one: “Romeo and Juliet is an action packed story that got interrupted by a love story.”

You are into sports – soccer, reffing for soccer, baseball, golf. Let’s be honest, homework gets in the way of these activities but you come to class and you write about the freshly cut grass on a ball field, the smell of hot popcorn, the crack of the bat, and I understand why writing about baseball isn’t the same as playing it.

You can’t stop moving or you won’t stop moving, I haven’t figure that out yet, and you insist you need to write with a sombrero on, and so I let you because you can come up with ten different metaphors for “slow” and when I tell you you can write about anything you want – just write something – you write, “I would like to pray.” And so you do. You pray on paper for five minutes.

You are quiet. Maybe you see yourself as shy but I think you’re taking your time figuring yourself out. You remind me of me when I was 14. And when you played Juliet, it was as though a light switch had been turned on and you proved to all of us what the quiet ones are capable of.

You can describe the difference between a split-finger fastball and a sinker, but you can also describe how it feels in a home when a sibling has gone away to college.

You make your classmates giggle. I know it’s you, though I haven’t been able to point it out yet. You’re subtle and sneaky, and you can write about loving to swim in the pool while at the same time worrying about the bees lurking behind the flowers nearby. I don’t know how you captured fear and excitement in one sentence, but you did it.

You are tired. I’m not sure if it’s sleepy tired or if it’s a mundane feeling that makes your eyelids droop and your footsteps heavy. But you write, “nothing beautiful has no scars,” and I think, yes, that sort of beautiful scarring can make one tired.

You write evocatively: about friends and playing cards late at night, about going to the movies and trying to sit next to somebody without making it look like you want to sit with them. And you look out for your classmates – making sure they are included, that they have the work they missed. Nobody asks you to do this, but you do it anyway.

You are a slow worker, often forgetting to turn in an assignment, but you can pick up Shakespeare and read it aloud to your classmates as though you’ve been in a professional acting company for years.

You are dramatic, creative, and I think you believe God is in the big things, the perfect things. And this is true, but then you get hot chocolate for your dad (and you don’t want to do it because you just sat down), and you are standing behind an old lady who can’t carry a tune and she’s driving you crazy and you realize God is in these anticlimatic errands and imperfect efforts, too.

You have so many questions, and you often say you have nothing to write about. And then you come up with an essay that tells the story of your adopted sister; in her voice.

You point out that you want to do great things, but you are afraid of failing. You say you hate to be sad. But, I think writing about these things allows a space for you to be fierce.

You are a jokestar. You come to class late because you fell asleep somewhere – in the previous class? In the bathroom? On a bench? No one knows, but you walk in and you can write about soccer and make us feel like we’re on the field with you.

You question every assignment I hand out, you are bored or you seem bored, and you are incredibly friendly, and all of you write in the voice of Bob Ewell, one of the most evil characters in fiction, and show that there might be more to him then what I allow myself to see: “I am thinkin’ ‘bout my wife again,” you write. “I wish she could make her famous cornbread pancakes. I wish I could stop drinkin’.” “I don’t know why I write you these letters and bury them by your grave, but it makes me feel better,” another one of you writes. “Every time I look at our children, Mayella especially, I feel an anger. I don’t know where it comes from but it consumes me.” You explore early childhood pains Bob might’ve endured: “Me and Atticus lived in the same neighborhood. We weren’t friends, though. I was jealous of him because he went to school. I always wanted to learn new things but my parents didn’t have time to teach me. Plus, they would be fighting every day.”

Your phone goes off during the public school kids’ spring break and you say, “Listen. This wouldn’t happen if we had the same vacation.” And I have nicknamed you the Professor because you find Shakespeare’s reversed thoughts in Romeo and Juliet as though you have a PhD.

One of you has to go to the bathroom every day at the same time, another is absent quite a bit, one of you is concerned with perfection, another walks into the room, slams down your books on the desk and asks saucily, “What are we going to do today?” But each of you is bold in your writing, always taking risks: you write about songs you sang with your mother while you were getting ready for school as a child, you write about worrying about your parents, what it feels like to say goodbye to a pet, and walking around the neighborhood at Christmas time, drinking hot chocolate and looking at the decorations.

You are a bulldozer of a student: quick and articulate with every assignment, but then you surprise me (and I hope yourself), and write in a voice that to be honest, I never thought you’d be able to pull off. You say it didn’t take time to write, but nobody could write in the voice of their beloved, deceased dog if he wasn’t paying attention. That is slow work.

You are all insane and delightful. Snarky and sweet. You are all both and.

And so, dear 8th graders. Good work. Many congratulations. Good luck. And thank you for helping me break the rules.

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Recently

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{Sat} on the Metro going towards Farragut to watch this year’s Listen To Your Mother performance.  Nothin’ wrong with a Metro ride into the city. That’s what I always say. The performances were fantastic. There’s something special and brave about getting dressed up and telling and listening to stories. I wished I could’ve talked to each of the cast members and asked them questions about how they did what they did. I always get to a point in my writing and think, “Meh.” I wonder if that happens to them, too. I’m always interested in how writers plow through it.

{Writing} literary magazine reviews for The Review Review.  Good way to learn about where to maybe submit my writing someday.

{Had an unplanned coffee break} with a group of gals I teach with a few days ago. That hasn’t happened since before my mommy days. I plan my days down to the second and it makes me quite content, but it’s exhausting, too. That day, it was a half day of school, so I had three hours to do work before I picked up the girls. But instead I ate pizza and cake on the field outside. And then someone suggested coffee, so a group of us sat outside of Starbucks and talked about Shakespeare and then fractals, and how despite how flawed we all are, we get to teach again and again.  I didn’t know too much about Shakespeare, and I barely understood the fractals (it’s math, Lord help me), but I get the flawed part.  I was glad to sit with these gals on a Friday afternoon. It made me feel like I’m a part of something great.

Seven Years Ago: A Little Trip to Colonial Williamsburg.

Six Years Ago: Elmo!

Five Years Ago: Afternoon Outing

Four Years Ago: At The Park

Three Years Ago: Beach Reads

Two Years Ago: Like Chocolate and Vanilla Swirl

One Year Ago: Storm

 

 

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Fragments

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The plan was to go fishing at Black Hills Regional Park, so I kept my camera close by because two girls who fish with princess fishing poles seemed like a good beginning to a story. I snapped photos and listened to Hadley and Harper while constructing a possible blog post.

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But the fish weren’t biting. It was one of the first warm days and the water was probably cold. Or, the other fifteen or so kids screaming on the dock clued the fish in that trouble was at the surface. So, after a while we headed to a little beach to see what there was to see.

IMG_1107IMG_1109IMG_1110 Hadley and Harper found these tiny shells along the shore.

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Hadley was focused on picking up whole shells, but Harper examined every fragment, turning it over, seeing if its lost part was somewhere else nearby, then handing them all to me to keep safe. “They’re broken, but they’re still shells,” she said.

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What I like about writing on this blog is the space it gives me to make observations. Unfortunately, that will never be a brand or platform.  I doubt I will ever have an elevator pitch as I’ve been told I ought to, and that is because I rarely know what it is I’m going to write. The reason I write anything is because I’m interested in exploring.  Sometimes I’ll have a whopper of a story, but other times what I have will be fragments, tiny notes that I’m turning over and deciding to hold in my palm so they won’t get lost.

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Lemon Cornmeal Cake

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Let’s just say it wasn’t all that bad.* The cake, that is. I made it on a Thursday evening a few weeks back. It’s a lemon-cornmeal cake but there’s also 1 and 1/2 cups of chopped almonds so I don’t know why it’s not called “Lemon-Almond-Cornmeal Cake.” I guess you can’t fit everything into a title. Besides, it’s good to have a little surprise: Oh! Here I am slicing myself a lemon-cornmeal cake and my goodness, are those coarsely chopped almonds I’m tasting? I didn’t know that would happen. My, my, my, isn’t life funny?

I bake when I’m troubled or I can’t write. Or, I’m troubled because I can’t write. Or what I’m writing about troubles me. Something about whisking eggs, rolling out dough, and sliding a spatula away from a freshly baked cookie so it can rest on a cooling tray satisfies me.

I told Gary Schmidt once that I bake when I’m having trouble writing. This was maybe twelve years ago and I was in a van Schmidt was driving. We were paying a visit to Patricia Polacco, who was going to talk to us about storytelling. When we pulled up to her home, she came around the side of her house to greet us, and a bunch of baby goats hopped about and trailed behind her. We sat on her porch and she rocked in her chair and she told us about walking into editors’ offices in New York city and passing along her stories. She took us to her studio, quaint quarters separate from her home, and I admired a long white drawing desk, cups of color-coded markers and pens, and her sketches. I don’t remember much else about the day except the baby goats, sitting on Polacco’s porch, and deciding I wanted color-coded cups of markers and pens on my desk.

And I remember telling Gary Schmidt that I bake when I can’t write.

“You bake?” he asked looking at me in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah,” I said, and I went on to explain how baking is the perfect remedy because you follow a set of directions and end up with something (usually) delicious in a short amount of time. Unlike writing.

“That’s a good point,” he said, and I know it was maybe twelve years ago, but I swear that’s what he said. Or maybe it was, “That’s a good idea.” It could have been, “Mmm, hmmm,” but he mmm hmmed with conviction. I swear it.

The recipe I used called for grated lemon. If you grate the entire peel of lemon you’ll have about a tablespoon. I learned that from Martha Stewart. A couple of turns of the lemon and you have a teaspoon. I only needed a teaspoon but luckily I needed the juice from the lemon, too. I write “luckily” because I hate using parts of an ingredient. It’s why I won’t bake anything that only calls for egg whites.  Throwing the yolk away makes me sad. Also, I tend to forget which part is the “white” and which is the “yolk.” Stupid, I know. It’s so obvious, but I crack the egg and I hold the two halves of it and I think, “I know I’m supposed to get rid of something but what is it? Doesn’t Jesus say something about a yolk in the Bible? Surely I shouldn’t get rid of that part.” And so I stand there and I forget which is the part I need to use and which is the part I need to throw away.

I suppose that’s one of the tricky parts of telling stories: figuring out what to tell and what to throw away. What should I catch, and what should I release? And if I’m going to use it all, which I tend to do, how do I write it so people will walk alongside with me? Because that’s what I’d like, for you to sit down and read my stories thinking they’ll be about one thing and realizing they’re about something else, and my, my, my, isn’t life funny?

Anyway, the cake wasn’t all that bad.  Thank you, Chrysta, for giving me the first line.

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A Walk to Ballet – Coffee+Crumbs

The three of us walk to Harper’s ballet class on what feels like winter’s end. “It’s hotter out here than it is in the house!” Hadley exclaims running ahead of us. Harper follows her, skipping. She’s wearing rain boots, pink tights, and her black leotard. Harper calls it a “leotart,” and I don’t correct her just as I didn’t correct Hadley when she used to call the library “wahbare,” or say, “ganks” for thanks. Hadley figured out the correct words, and so will Harper. I’ll keep the memory.

Harper’s underpants are smooshed and crinkled between her leotard and tights. “Harper,” I say as I dodge puddles the snow is leaving behind while it melts, “you forgot to take your underpants off!”

“Oh! Right!” She says as she jumps in each puddle splashing water up the length of her legs. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” she says climbing to the top of what’s left of a snow bank. “All the girls forget.” She’s standing a foot above me with her hands in the air like she’s rejoicing when she says, “Every week, we are all wearing underpants!”

Read the rest at Coffee+Crumbs.

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Stages of Writing

You read something that inspires you, and you say, “I want to do that! I’m going to do that!” So you begin.

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Sure, “A devilish return” and “first epic novel” seem like contradictions but never mind that.

IMG_1159You know your first sentence will set the tone for your entire “first epic novel,” so you want to get it right.

IMG_1160You know you have to have conflict, but you need to establish a little setting, a little character development before you jump right into it. You want your readers to pay close “antention,” after all.

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Your mother is going to be so proud, you think, as you put the finishing touches of Wedgie Woman’s underpants on her head.

IMG_1162Ahhh, the teenage kid. You are so interested in the teenage kid.IMG_1163(A cute baby that might have some orthopedic issues.)

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You’re really into the story now. You don’t have time to give the adult a proper dress or more than five pieces of hair.  Just go with one detail that shows readers this person is adult.  Hmmmm, what should it be? What should it be? Big lips! Of course.  All adults have huge lips.

Done.

IMG_1165Sometimes, when you reach the conflict, you find that all you can do is get it down. Maybe the conflict snuck up on you.  That happens a lot in writing. You think you know that you’re writing a fun story about a gal with underpants on her head and then something happens that you weren’t expecting. That gal talks back.  Just get the story down. You can come back to it later.

IMG_1166Or not.  Just end it.

IMG_1167Don’t forget to add an “About the Author” page.  That is very important.  Readers like to know about their writers. Don’t worry if you switch from the third person to the first person. Your mother has problems staying in the same verb tense.  She doesn’t let that stop her.

 

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My Week In Words

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Are you reading Wearing God? Goodness, it’s excellent.  Lauren Winner explores different ways to think about God – laughter, food, clothes, a mother. I want to go back to the narrator in her book Still and tell her, “Just wait.  You’ll find Him again. And you’ll see He was always there, perhaps just in a different metaphor that you couldn’t see.” But she sees Him now, and she’s sharing Him with us.

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What fun it is to try something just because you want to.  This is probably why I don’t like advice. Or why, when someone asks me for an elevator pitch regarding this blog, I have none. I have no clue what it is I’m doing. I have no clue what this blog is about. The things I do don’t make sense to me. That’s probably why I do them.

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One last book with the 8th graders before summer.  This one is about a kid’s Freshman year of high school.  I hope they love it.  I hope it helps them move into high school. I hope that when they read it they’ll see themselves in part of the story. I hope they’ll see a part of their identity in the book and say, “Yup, that’s me.  But it’s not ALL of me. There’s more coming.”

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I’m Doing My Best, Hillary

Hadley has many goals, and one of them is to be the President of the United States. That has never been an aspiration of mine. Luv-a-Bull? Yes. If I could add Luv-a-Bull to my list of accomplishments that would be top-notch. But since this is not Hadley’s dream, I tell her about my friend Laura who also wanted to be President.

“She’s a lawyer now,” I tell Hadley and she thinks that’s great, but what she really loves about my friend is two stories:

The first is that Laura made me good at floor hockey. I was the only left-hander on the team so I was always left-wing. Laura played right wing and she, along with most of the Chicagoland area, knew that because I was so bad at sports nobody ever blocked me.  She’d make it look like she was going to shoot so everyone crowded around her, then she’d flick the puck in my direction. And because I was notoriously terrible at all sports, I was always wide open.

“And so you’d shoot?” Hadley asks.

“And so I’d shoot,” and with as much drama as I can muster (because I don’t have too many sports stories to inspire Hadley with), I say, “and I’d score.”

The other Laura story Hadley loves to hear has to do with the time she and I were walking home from school when a boy decided he’d taunt us. “You can’t throw. You’re not as fast, or strong, etc. etc.”

This really bothered me. Not just because they were mean things to say, but because for me, they were true. But Laura didn’t seemed phased at all.  I remember watching her as we walked and thinking she looked as though she hadn’t even heard this kid.

At one point, he got in front of us and said, “You think you can catch? Catch this!” and threw a baseball at us, heading straight for our shins. I screamed and bolted out of the way, but Laura stood right where she was and caught the baseball with her legs.

“With her legs?!?!” Hadleys asks and her eyes are sparkling and she is laughing as she asks it. I can tell she’s found herself a hero.

“Yup. Just below the knees,” I say. “It was amazing.”

I’m pretty sure that was the day Laura told us she wanted to be President. At least, that’s how I remember it, standing on the corner of Jackson and Gunderson by the fence with the purple morning glories that had closed for the day. We frequently stopped at this corner and chatted before Laura and a few others continued down Jackson, their backs to the Sears Tower, and the rest of us turned and walked down Gunderson, towards the el tracks. This is what I tell Hadley.

“That’s what I want to do,” she says and I know she means be President and catch a baseball just below the knees when a boy chucks it at her.

I’m glad to give my girls stories of women they might want to be like, which is why, when I picked them up from school last week, I was glad to tell them that a woman is running for President.

The day was warm and even with the windows rolled down the three of us were hot. I looked in the rearview mirror at the girls and the hair along their foreheads was wet.

“When I’m President,” Hadley said, “there’s going to be a tomboy section in Target.” She extended her arms so it hung out of the window, and moved her palm so it fiddled with the air. She was deep in thought and I wondered what dream she was going to articulate next. “And if girls get hot while they’re playing soccer at recess, they can take their shirts off.”

That’s my girl.

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“No shirts, huh?” I said, making eye contact with Hadley from the rearview mirror.

“Well,” she said, “only if they don’t have,” she patted her yet to be developed chest, “you know.”

“Only if they don’t have homework?” Harper asked, finishing Hadley’s sentence.

Hadley smacked her forehead and said, “No, Harper!” But Harper wasn’t interested in being corrected. She was dreaming her Presidential dream.

“When I’m President,” she began, “no homework for any children.” She put both hands behind her head and added, “Unless you got coal for Christmas.”IMG_1073

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Hadley looked at her and rolled her eyes.  “And if you did get coal for Christmas?” Harper said, raising an arm and a finger, “Helloooooooo homework!”

Later that evening, I met Celena for dinner, just around the corner from Ford’s Theatre. Celena was in DC for a couple of days before she began her German Marshall Fellowship.

Celena and I crammed in every topic that came to mind as we sat pillowed between the White House and the Capitol: work, marriage, kids, all of it. She told me how excited she was for this fellowship, and also how hard it was to say goodbye to her son. I told her that while it isn’t exactly the same, I never got used to saying goodbye to Hadley and Harper before I left for residencies.

It felt good to share a pizza and drink wine and talk about how strange it is to be sad and afraid, excited and happy at the same time. These mixed emotions make it hard to know whether the path you’re walking (or running) down is the right one because they are all so palpable.  They demand a lot of attention. I confessed to Celena that as crazy as this year has been (a move, a new degree, a teaching position), I am having such a good time. But what is the most fun is that I have surprised myself. I really didn’t think I could be a mom and be a teacher. That was a rule I made for myself years ago and I broke it. I feel both very sad and very happy that I broke it.

After dinner, we walked to Ford’s Theatre because Celena wanted a picture. She walked into the middle of the street during a break in traffic, got out a huge camera lens and took a shot.

I stood on the sidewalk and wondered when it was Ms Clinton decided she wanted to be President.  Had she always known? Or did she surprise herself?

And does she have a friend or two to help her with the things she doesn’t think she can do? Does she have a gal who will let her know it’s OK to be afraid when a boy says, “You can’t do it as good as me?” And when she thinks it might be true will she have a friend who will prove him wrong? Or a friend who, when she’s afraid and excited, sad and happy at the same time, can say, “Me too, Hillary. Me too.”

I hope so. Because I don’t think we can do it all by ourselves. We need friends to help us play the game.

 

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Relief Post – “On Taking Note”

One summer, my family spent an afternoon riding bikes on Mackinac Island. During the eight-mile ride, I noticed several piles of rocks ranging from just a few stones to almost three feet high. I learned from the brochure I carried in my bike basket that these are called “cairns,” and they’re used to mark trails by hikers and bikers; mostly at points where the trail isn’t obvious or there’s a sharp decline. However, the cairns on Mackinac Island weren’t on trails. In fact, they were scattered over the shore. The Mackinac Cairns, I learned, served “as a memorial for having been somewhere or as a simple art form.” I laughed at first, and thought, “simple indeed” as I watched my six- and four-year-old daughters pile rocks on a break from riding bikes. I wondered about the memorial part of this practice as well. What was seen or heard, what was the weather like, and what else happened while rocks were being piled up? I was annoyed that I didn’t know the story, and instead, had to look at the lake, the sand—nature—and wonder what in the world would make someone get off her bike and stack four or five rocks in a pile.

Read the rest on Relief Journal. 

 

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Makes You Mom Post

We sit on a creaky pew, my grandmother and I. My grandfather is at the pulpit. It is summer in the Finger Lakes region of New York: sticky in the rolling hills that are scattered with ice-cream stands, bed and breakfasts, and vineyards.

My grandfather blesses everyone and encourages the congregation to pass the peace to those around us. I don’t like passing the peace. It makes me nervous, but my grandmother welcomes everyone cheerfully while I shake as few hands as possible before I start to sit down. A woman brushes up to my grandmother, puts her arm around her and asks, while looking at me, “And who is this?” I stand again.

 “This is…”my grandmother looks at me with a mixture of pride and love. She places her hand on my arm.

 “This is…”

  Her hand stays on my arm and I can tell she is realizing that while she knows I mean something to her, she can’t remember who I am or what it is I have to do with her. She cocks her head to the side and laughs like she is working on a fun puzzle and she’s pleasantly stumped. I study her in this moment. I can imagine how frustrating this must be but I am envious that my grandmother doesn’t let on. When I am frustrated, or sad, or scared, it is written all over my face. Plus, I bring everyone I’m around down with me.      

 My grandmother doesn’t let on to any of that when she asks, “Who are you again?”

I’m over at Makes You Mom today sharing a little bit about my Grandmother Jeanne Ives Lewis. She was pretty fancy. Stop over if  you’d like to meet her.

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