The angel’s pedicure


My son, the Cadillac man, and I stand looking at the angel statue.

Specifically at her pink toenail polish.

“Really?” he says in disgust. “Painted toenails?”

I giggle. “I know! How many depictions of angels have you seen with painted toenails?”

He shakes his head. “I’ve never seen an angel with feet.”

I start to laugh, but . . . the way he says that . . .

He turns, walks off in his unassuming, old-soul way. I watch him go, wondering.

I said depictions.

He said he’d never seen an angel with feet.

Not that he’d never seen an angel.

Happy St. Patrick’s

Happy St Pat's

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Hailey E. HerreraCC BY

Last year on this day, I wrote about being St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

My grandfather, born in 1906 in the far reaches of Beaufort County, North Carolina, was named Columbus St. Patrick. (Read the post if you like).

You’d think our family would be Catholic, celebrating this day with the best of them, but we aren’t and we don’t. What a mystery, his having that name. Legend has it that his grandfather came to America from Ireland, but records are sketchy. One of these days I’ll have my DNA tested by to prove how green my blood really is (it’s metaphorical, Mr. Spock. Although being related to you would be . . . fascinating).

I love Irish things. My wedding band bears a Claddagh. Hearing an Irish tenor takes my breath, stirs my soul, fills me with an ache, a longing. Whenever I visit New York City, I have to stop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral; I could stay inside indefinitely, savoring the profound beauty, the grandeur, the reverent hush. It’s one of my all-time favorite places. I adored Frank McCourt and met him years ago when he came to speak at North Carolina State University—it was snowing that night. Magical. I have a shamrock growing in a pot on my kitchen table and I even had an Irish Setter once. His name was Dublin. I grew up eating Irish potatoes grown by my grandfather or from the potato sheds of his farming community; Granddaddy’s pronunciation was ishe (for years I thought he was saying ice) potatoes. I’d love to visit Ireland.

I thought, to commemorate this day, that I’d post a lovely quote from St. Patrick and reflect upon it, maybe in verse.

This, however, is the quote I found, and for the life of me (remember the Irish keen sense of humor), I can’t find another one to top it at present.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, one and all—with a special nod to Harry Potter fans:

Do you suppose it’s true, that St. Patrick was a Parselmouth, and his Muggle friends never knew?

~David J. Beard (1947–2016), tweet, 2012 March 17th



The birthday

Birthday fairies

Birthday Party – Fairies Watch Over Us. Alicia ChenauxCC BY-SA

I recently wrote about a professional development activity at my school —”finding your why”— based on the work of Simon Sinek. The principal led staff in recording life moments that left us changed, somehow. These peaks and valleys don’t have as much to do with who we are and what we do, but why.

Here’s one of my childhood valleys, and how it shapes my why even now.

The setting is my birthday. I believe I was turning ten (double digits), or maybe it was twelve (the last birthday before becoming a teenager); it’s odd that I can’t remember, because I didn’t have many birthday parties. I don’t know exactly why my mother decided to throw this one, but it seems turning ten or twelve is right.

I just remember . . . well, here, see for yourself:

More and more people cram into our small living room. Extended family members, some kids from the neighborhood, a couple of friends from school and church. Mom has balloons up, has put out party hats and noisemakers. A stack of  presents in brightly-wrapped paper grows larger. I haven’t received this many presents for my birthday before. 

I don’t even know what to do with myself, what to say to everyone. What are they going to do besides eat cake and watch me open presents? Is this going to be any  fun for them? I grow more uncomfortable each minute. When the doorbell rings, I run to open it, to have something to do.

And there he stands.

I can’t believe it.

What are YOU doing here?” I shout. 

My party guests turn to see what’s going on.

He looks down at me with those glittering, snake-green eyes. He’s not smiling. “Your mother invited me.”


Oh, she’s right here beside me.

“Come on in,” she says to the meanest boy in the neighborhood. 

I can’t stand him.

He’s awful. 

He’s maybe thirteen, lives next door with his dad, and when I’ve been outside playing with my sister or other neighbor kids, he’s made fun of me, called me names. He threw my bike once, took a ball and wouldn’t give it back. He acts like he hates me and I’ve never done anything to him; I try not to get near him.



 “Mom!” I suddenly quit caring that everyone else is watching. I stomp my foot.”Why’d you invite him? I don’t want him here! It’s not fair!”

The boy looks like he really doesn’t want to be here, either.

Go! Just go! I want to scream. My heart pounds hard.

My mother looks at me. A long, dark look, her brown eyes nearly black. Her face is tight.

He’s here because I want him to be. You. Will. Be. NICE.”

She ushers him into the crowd of guests, introduces him.

I am stunned.

I almost can’t enjoy the cake, the presents, or any of it, partly because of him, but mostly because of her.

She didn’t tell me, then, in front of our family and friends, that his mother had left his father, that he was having a hard time living with his dad.

I saw a hateful bully; she saw an angry, hurting boy. Who probably felt unwanted before this party.

I saw injustice; she saw a chance for grace. And redemption.

I saw myself; she saw another.

When I saw this boy again, he didn’t call me a name. He didn’t try to terrorize me. He greeted me, not in an especially friendly way, but at least with some decency.

He never mistreated me again.

I think of “Sleeping Beauty,” the only story I remember my mother reading to me when I was little. How the fairies came to bestow their gifts on the newborn Princess Aurora, how an uninvited evil fairy, angry, shows up to curse the baby to an early death, how the last fairy intervenes and lessens the curse.

My mother intervened to lessen the curse.

For him. For me.

This one tiny episode is among my life’s greatest in seeing the story behind injustice, a deep lesson in empathy, in forgiveness, in choosing to take the high road even when you’re hurt. That what’s fair is not always what’s right, and that what’s right isn’t always fair.

A valley that shapes my why, even now.

And maybe this memory calls me to write it for another reason. Maybe because, in real life, good people, like good fairies, go wrong sometimes, and it helps to remember them the way they were.

Before the greater valleys to come, before the brokenness.

That’s what this birthday party has become to me now—a fragment of the good, to keep.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Cadillac man


When he was little, he spent hours lining up his Hot Wheels just so.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s the parking lot at church,” he told me. Car to car, he explained who each owner was according to where they parked every Sunday morning.

He’d matched his toys to the real cars by the types of spokes and wheels.

A mother can be worried and fascinated at the same time.

Around the age of six, he announced: “I’m going to get a Cadillac when I grow up.”

“Oh, you are?” I responded, attempting to keep a straight face.

He nodded his head emphatically. “Yes. A blue one.”

His grandparents drove a blue Sedan de Ville. My husband’s stepfather bought it new in 1989, with forty miles on it.

I could understand the appeal. My boy was obsessed with cars. When I was growing up, I loved my grandparents’ car, too: a vivid red 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 (see A long time ago in a Galaxie far, far away).

The boy has always known exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants and doesn’t want. There are no proverbial shades of gray with him. He loves dogs. He loves music, especially old gospel songs. I joke that he was born seventy-five years old and he has never disagreed. When he fell in love with Cadillacs at age six, it was forever.

He began collecting Cadillac memorabilia, knew all the latest models and years. He knew the old ones, too.

“Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa say the Cadillac goes to me when they’re gone,” he said, his big brown eyes aglow, around age ten.

The de Ville was, at that point, twenty years old.

“I’m glad they want you to have it,” I tell him, even as I think Buddy, by that time the old car won’t be worth having . . . 

Pa-Pa, a jolly, larger-than-life Scotsman, took meticulous care of his Cadillac, but after his death in 2014, it just sat in the driveway. Undriven. The seasons came with their ravages, year after year: summer’s blazing sun, autumn leaves gathering layer upon layer, winter’s snow and ice, spring’s thick coating of pollen.

Ma-Ma died last fall. We began cleaning out the house, my husband’s childhood home.

Our boy said, “It’s time to get the Cadillac.”

My husband and I looked at each other.

We looked at the de Ville.

It looked forlorn, awful.

But, to honor Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa’s promise to their little grandson long ago, we decided to see what could be done.

We had the car towed to the place where Pa-Pa bought it almost thirty years before. With a new battery, it fired right up, despite four years of sitting completely idle. It got new brakes, new fluids, new tires, and a much-needed bath.

The service rep called my husband: “You’re not going to believe it’s the same car. Everyone here thinks it ought to be in the showroom.”

We were skeptical . . . but the rep was right.

The boy—now a man—drove his father and me to the dealership to get the Cadillac, to bring it home.

It sat in the service area, waiting, gleaming, as if age and time had no meaning.

Touching the hood lightly with his fingers, our son whispered, “I wish Pa-Pa could see it.”

He took the wheel. His dad rode shotgun beside him.

I followed behind, marveling, as my son, at last, drove his shiny blue Cadillac down the country back roads into the setting sun.

Somewhere over the rainbow

skies are blue

and the dreams that you dare to dream

really do come true.

I note that when Judy Garland sings this line in The Wizard of Oz, she’s leaning on a big wheel.


On the de Ville’s front grille is a medallion with the Roman numeral VI. Our son learned that this is a Heritage of Ownership emblem given to Cadillac owners for each vehicle. 

This was Pa-Pa’s sixth Cadillac.

Heritage emblems are not given anymore.



“Waiting …” jmcmichaelCC BY-SA

When I write personal narrative, memoir, and even realistic fiction across elementary grade levels, I usually give students choices of topic for the writing I’ll model. Many times they’ve chosen for me to write about my dad not wanting any pets when I was growing up, despite my desperate begging for them.

Students rejoice when I overcome my dad to get a dog or a cat.

One of the things I haven’t fully explored with the children is why my dad didn’t want pets. Truth is, it took years for me to fully understand . . . 

That’s where I’m going today.  

To set the stage, here’s a modeled excerpt, the scene when my mom, my sister and I have brought not one but TWO puppies home from our neighbors’ house across the street. It’s getting time for my father to arrive from work, and he has no idea we have these puppies:

“Will he make us take them back?” my sister whimpers. She has her puppy, Bagel, wrapped in a pink doll blanket. She cradles him in her arms like a baby.

“I don’t know,” says Mom. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

She sort of sticks her chin out when she says that.

The three of us sit in the living room, waiting, and when I hear the car door slam, I jump. I hold my puppy, Onyx, so close I can smell his puppy breath.

He’s home! What will he say? Will he yell?

I can hear his work shoes coming up the steps. I watch the doorknob turning . . .

Here he is, in his blue uniform with the white hard hat on his head, his big, gray lunchbox in his hand. He looks at us.

He sees the puppies.

He wrinkles up his face: “What in the . . . ”

“Surprise, Daddy!” yells my sister, holding Bagel up high in the air. “We got you some puppies!”

Suffice it to say the man knew when he was outnumbered. And defeated.

Bagel, the collie-colored, long-haired dachshund mix, was still with us when I got married.

As was Moriah, my black cat: 

Free kittens.

Take one.

The sign stood on a chair beside a disheveled guy leaning against the wall at the college bookstore entrance. This guy—another student, I guess—held a cardboard box in his arms. Kittens! I hurried over to look inside.

Only one dark, little shape huddled in the box.

“Is that the last kitten you have?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped the kitten up and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail, just a stump.

“What happened to her?” I wanted to know.

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black kitten looked up at me with her big yellow eyes.

She meowed.

She rode on my shoulder as I drove home wondering exactly how to approach Daddy.

“Please,” I said, clasping her close to my heart, where she purred against me. “No one else wanted her. I’ll keep her in my room.”

You’re allergic to cats!” he thundered. “Find somewhere for her to go!”

I didn’t, and once again, my poor father was defeated.

Moriah developed an endearing habit of running up the leg of my jeans and my shirt to my shoulder, where she liked to ride while I walked around. 

 One day, my father roared from the bathroom: “FRRAAAANNCESSSS!”

My whole first name. 


Had to be something really bad.

I flew down the hall to find him hunched over the bathroom sink. He’d been shaving. White cream all over his face.

When he shaved, he never wore a shirt.

Moriah, watching him, had decided his shoulder looked inviting.

She ran up his leg and his bare back to his shoulder, where she was now hanging precariously by her nails. Embedded in Daddy’s pink skin.

GET-THIS-CAT-OFF-OF-ME!” shouted Daddy. His blue eyes, reflected in the mirror, blazed at me. (Note: He actually said a few  more words than this. I’ve chosen to censor.)

I extracted my cat and we hid for days, until Daddy’s scratches healed.

Two years later, when I was about to be married, the apartment where I’d be living had a no-pet policy. I couldn’t take Moriah.

The night before the wedding, I handed her collar to my dad. “She’s yours now, Daddy.”

Here’s the crazy part: He looked pleased. He kind of half-smiled. 

Weeks afterward, my mother told me on the phone: “Your dad buys turkey at the deli for Moriah. He tears it up in tiny pieces and puts it in a dish for her.”


He did it for Moriah until she was gone. Then he said, “That’s it. The last of the pets.” 

Until my mother brought home a little Shih Tzu. She named her Bridget.

Daddy grumbled for months, but was soon buying deli tidbits for Bridget, too. 

When I was expecting my first baby, I came home for a visit, and Daddy told me this story: “When you were born, your mom and I had a cat. A big, orange tabby named Tiger. He kept getting in the crib with you and we worried you’d suffocate. I ended up having to take him to the pound. It was terrible. I swore I’d never do that again.”

I looked at his face, this face that had frowned about pets all these years, saw the pain-shadow cross over it.

All this time, I thought he was just being hardhearted. 

One night, Mom called. “Bridget died today,” she said.

“Oh no. Are you okay?'”

“I’m all right. Your dad buried her underneath his camellia bush.”

A pause. Then:

“He cried like a baby. I’ve never seen him sob like that before.”

My throat wrenches. Tears burn like fire.

Oh, Daddy. Daddy. I’m sorry for everything.

And there was one more dog to come, yet another that my mother brought home without warning. A Corgi.

Daddy sighed, complained, vented for weeks on end.

He named her Foxy.

He taught her tricks, played with her every day after work. Foxy knew when to expect him; she sat on the back of the sofa, watching through the picture window, waiting for him to come home.

Maybe it’s a case of saving the best for last, for, out of them all, Daddy loved Foxy best.

He never had to give her up, suffer her loss. 

She suffered his. 

For weeks on end, she sat at the picture window, watching for him. Sighing, whining. Day after day after day, waiting, forever waiting, for him to come home . . . 




“Ripe Tomatoes.” Robert Duncan.

When my first child was born, I thought I knew what love was.

But then . . .

Alone for the first time this day, I’m lying in the hospital bed, looking at the bulletin board with a few cards from friends and family already pinned to it, thinking of my mother and grandmothers.

How they warned me.

Three different times, unbeknownst to each other:

“I delivered all of my babies quickly, so don’t wait around when the time comes . . . ”

How each of them nodded sagely after giving their own individual versions of this pronouncement. Like lesser, more amiable versions of the mythological Three Fates. 

Good thing I listened, I tell myself.

I beat them all.

He came so fast.

Less than an hour after I walked in here.


The doctor, thinking he has plenty of time, arrives almost too late. As soon as his gloves are on, it’s over.

“A boy,” he says. I get only a glimpse of tiny flailing arms as the doctor immediately hands my son to the nurses, who sweep into a side room to suction his mouth and nose before he draws his first breath.

Loud, remarkably strong cries reverberate through the rooms.

“Whose baby is that?” I ask the nurse attending me.

She chuckles. “Yours.”

Gracious. I never imagined a newborn’s lungs could be so strong.

Within minutes, another nurse brings him to me, puts him in my arms.

He’s already quit crying.

His father, standing by in green scrubs, weeps audibly.

This tiny face. The nose. It’s uncanny. “He looks exactly like pictures of your father,” I tell my husband.

“I know,” is all he can manage. 

Now, more than ever, I wish I could have known my father-in-law, who died when my husband was twelve. But the pictures are enough to know that his namesake, here in my arms, is a living replica.


I feel a rush of something that surpasses euphoria. I recall a friend telling me about this sensation: Right after your baby’s born you feel like the most powerful person on Earth, like you could do anything. It’s almost superhuman.

The neonatal people come to take my baby.

I say I’m starving. 

My nurse brings me a breakfast tray.

After the first three bites I promptly throw up. On the rest of my breakfast.

“Sorry,” I tell the nurse.

So much for being superhuman.

My nurse, chuckling again, takes the tray away. “That happens a lot. It’s just your body stabilizing.”


It’s all still a big blur, really. Family members coming, going. Grandma calling to see for herself that I’m okay, saying what she always says when she calls: “I just needed to hear your voice.”

The room is still now, strangely silent for a hospital. I hear muted voices down the hallway where my husband is glued to the nursery window, staring at his son.

The chilly gray morning has apparently turned into a sunny afternoon befitting late April; a ray of light shines through the high window above my bed onto the bulletin board. This golden finger of light illuminates a card with a little boy in overalls standing on the front: Congratulations on Your Baby Boy!

My baby boy. 


An internal switch flips. A floodgate opens, some kind of dam bursts with a force too great for words. It surges through my entire being. My body shakes with the ferocity of it. Tears flood my eyes; I can’t see the bulletin board anymore, just the light.

He is mine, he is MINE. If anything, anyone, tries to hurt him, they’ll have to take me out first. 



The moment it kicked in remains vivid in my memory, many years later. My son was just hours old; looking at the sunlight on that congratulatory card, the sudden thought of something harming him nearly turned me animalistic. I knew I’d move heaven and Earth, I would fight to my death, to save my baby boy: Take me instead. I’d have been completely consumed by this force if a voice in my brain hadn’t said, Look, just be wise. Take care of yourself. Live so that you can keep him safe.

I don’t know why some women are infused with intense motherlove and others are not, for there are women who bring harm to their own. I don’t know everything that can go awry with a person’s psyche or all that causes internal barometers to not function properly. I only know the power of this moment and that the force of it is with me still, even now when my two boys are grown and beyond the protective bubble I could cast over them when they were small.

That doesn’t mean the love is any less fierce.

Mine. They’ll always be mine, as long as I am alive, and even when I am not.

For, once begun, motherlove never ends.


My thanks to Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, whose post “The Cariest” on her blog Courage Doesn’t Always Roar in January brought back the intensity of these moments. 

The Valentine

Broken heart

Broken Heart. David GoehringCC BY

Here’s a mentor text, a modeled memoir originally written for a fifth grade class a few years ago. It’s a true story from my own fifth grade year. These long-ago events etched themselves on my young heart as they unfolded. Some of the minor details are fuzzy, but I remember the intensity of these moments. I see every classmate’s face; I recall every name, although I’ve opted to alter all but my own for a comfortable anonymity in the face of hard truths.

For it’s a hard slice of life.

Today I dust off that Valentine’s Day I’ve never forgotten, reinforce it with a bit of word-glitter and glue, and give it to you  . . . 

On a cold but sunny February afternoon, my fifth grade class gathers on the kickball field to choose teams. The two captains flip a nickel to decide who’ll go first; my friend Shannon wins. She and Davy stand side by side for a moment, scrutinizing the rest of us as if they are drill sergeants and the rest of us are boot camp recruits.

“Allen,” says Shannon.  Allen is always the first pick because he’s a go-cart racer, competitive and very popular. He likes to win.

Allen jogs over to stand behind Shannon.

“Jon,” says Davy.

I think, That’s kind of surprising.

Jon came to our class late in the fall. He used to be the last pick for our teams, since he wears big, thick glasses and doesn’t seem very athletic. At first the boys called him Four-Eyes and the girls said he looked like a little old man because of the way he hunches his shoulders up to his neck most of the time, in addition to the bowl-style cut of his hair. We really don’t notice him that much any more, as Jon is so quiet. When Davy calls his name, Jon trots in his stooped-over way to stand behind him.

“Fran,” says Shannon, after a pause.

YESSSS!” I whisper. I take my place behind Allen, who gives me a high five.

I love kickball. Next to jacks, it’s my favorite game to play with the class—these are really the only two games I’m any good at playing. Once when I slid into home plate I peeled up a whole strip of turf in my shoelaces, but I was safe!

The captains continue choosing players, until only one girl remains.


She, too, is new to our class, arriving just after Christmas break. Eloise is unusually tall, taller than Shannon, who’d been the tallest girl in the school until now. Eloise is as big as a grown woman. Her brown, frizzy hair puffs out from her head like a cloud. It flutters when she walks. One of her front teeth is chipped. Her eyes are the color of the summer sky, and at the moment, they’re a little teary.

Davy sighs: “All right. Eloise.”

Eloise scurries to the end of Davy’s line, looking at the ground.

During the game, Eloise tries with all her might to run and kick the ball, but she misses and loses her balance. When she falls, we can’t help laughing. Eloise, her face pink, gets up by herself and runs to the back of the line once more.

I don’t know what makes me keep my eyes on Eloise, and why I began wondering what it must be like to always be picked last, or to hear other kids whispering things like Neanderthal and  Amazon, never when Mrs. Peterson might hear. I try to imagine how embarrassing it would be if I was too big to be comfortable in the classroom desks and if regular girls’ clothes wouldn’t fit me. I am already clumsy, which is why I’m not good at most sports. Except kickball.

What would I do if no one wanted to sit by me at lunch or went the long way around my desk, the way we do to Eloise?

Watching Eloise with her face turned toward the ground, I suddenly don’t feel like laughing anymore.

Back in class, after a stop at the water fountain, Mrs. Peterson passes out sheets of Manila paper.

“Today, Class, you will write the first letter of your name in cursive on the paper and turn it into an animal or a design that represents you.”

Mrs. Peterson’s first name is Felicia; she holds up  her paper to show how she’s turned her cursive “F” into a giraffe.

Everyone gets to work. Except me. I am stumped for how to turn my own cursive “F” into anything artistic. I have trouble making a cursive “F” in the first place. Everyone says my “Fs” look like “Ts.”

I have no idea what to draw.

To waste time, I get up and sharpen my pencil. I pass right by Eloise’s desk, where she’s bent hard at work. On her paper, she’s written a large, elegant cursive “E,” the fanciest one I’ve ever seen.

She’s turning it into the open wing of a bird.

Before I know what I’m doing, I blurt: “Oh my gosh! That’s beautiful, Eloise!”

Mrs. Peterson comes to look. “It’s lovely. Why don’t you show the class?”

Eloise, looking alarmed, shakes her head. Her fuzzy brown hair bobs like ocean waves.

“May I show them?” asks Mrs. Peterson.

Eloise nods, turning pink again.

Mrs. Peterson holds the paper high. “Just look at what an amazing artist Eloise is, everyone.” She turns slowly so all can see, the way teachers do with pictures in books.

“Oooooo,” breathe my classmates.

Someone says “Wow.”

Eloise’s pink face glows. She smiles, revealing her chipped tooth; her sky-colored eyes sparkle.

I want to freeze this moment for Eloise, and for myself, to capture it for the wonderful and powerful thing it is, but it is quickly gone, and the next day at lunch when she knocks her milk carton over, we all laugh at Eloise again.

Even as we laugh, I feel bad inside.

What’s the matter with me? Why do I laugh when it doesn’t feel right? 

After lunch, Mrs. Peterson gives a speech:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as tomorrow is February fourteenth, you may bring Valentines to exchange. Listen carefully: If you bring Valentines, you will bring one for everybody in this class. Do you understand?”

Her dark eyes stare right through us.

“Yes ma’am!” we answer in unison.

We know why she makes this point.

Eloise knows, too, and keeps her eyes on her feet.

I’ve already got my box of Valentines and can’t wait to give them out. Inside my box there happens to be a bonus Valentine; I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s about five times larger than the other little cards. It has to be unfolded several times to show the gray, fluffy dog decorated with silver swirls all around. The dog holds a big red heart in its mouth, which reads You are special. This big Valentine is just too beautiful to give away. I am keeping it for myself.

The next day, Mrs. Peterson makes us wait until after lunch to distribute our Valentines. We have to open them together, all at one time.

“Hey, thanks for the candy!” Shannon tells Allen.

“Cool—gum!” says Davy, even though he has braces and isn’t supposed to chew it.

Just then, Eloise cries out. It’s a loud, terrifying sound.

Everyone turns to look at her.

Everything just freezes.

She’s sitting at her desk with her hands over her face, sobbing.

No, I think. Tell me someone hasn’t given her a mean Valentine. Or put something gross in her bag.

Then I recognize, from several desks away, that open Valentine on Eloise’s desk.

The fancy silver dog, the big red heart, the message. You are special.

“Who gave you that?” someone demands.

I walk over to read what’s written at the bottom of that most beautiful card:

Your friend, Jon.

Obviously, Jon’s mom shops at the same store where my mom shops, since we have the same box of cards.

Unlike me, however, Jon has chosen to give his best card away.

To Eloise.

She continues to wail, but we all look from her to Jon, who’s sitting slouched worse than usual at his desk. His face is a darker shade of red than Eloise’s has ever been. He won’t look at the rest of us.

“Oooooo!” says one of the girls.

A boy starts chanting: “Jon and Eloise, sittin’ in a tree . . . ”

But something new is happening here; the energy in the room is changing. This isn’t the regular boy-likes-girl situation. I feel it.

So does Allen.

“Hey, stop it, guys!  Leave him alone!” Allen gets up to stand by Jon.

Mrs. Peterson  is there, too. She places her hand on Jon’s shoulder, her wide brown eyes glimmering with tears. “You, young man, are a noble person.”

I don’t know exactly what “noble” means, but I know that Jon, all of ten years old, is the biggest hero I’ve ever seen.  My emotions swirl inside me like the silver designs on the card—shock at Jon’s choice, guilt over not treating Eloise better, sadness that I hadn’t been the one to give so freely. I look at Jon, the boy new to us this year, who’d endured teasing, too, until he faded into the background in a way Eloise can’t, and I know I want to be like him. Today he isn’t in the background; today he’s the champion of us all. Today he taught us—or at least me—the power of kindness and selflessness, to forget yourself and help someone else.

Perhaps that’s what “noble” means.

I want to be as noble as Jon. I want to help Eloise. So after Mrs. Peterson calms down, I sit beside her.

“You can make Valentines prettier than these, Eloise, the way that you draw.”

“Maybe.”  She shrugs, her face splotchy.

“Don’t you live in my neighborhood?” I ask. “I think I’ve seen you walking that way after school.”

“Yeah. I know where you live. I’ve seen you playing in your yard with your sister.”

“We could walk together sometime. If you like,” I offer.

Eloise looks at me. She smiles. I think of the elegant E-bird she drew; I imagine it stretching its wings just now, preparing to fly high and far in the wide blue sky.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll walk with you.”

So after school, that’s what we do. We walk together.


Beautiful lady

beautiful sign

It took me a while to figure out the tiny, nondescript building in the heart of the rundown side of town. I only noticed what it was when I needed it—there, in the tiny window, a tiny sign:

Dry Cleaning.

My first thought: So that’s what that little place is!

Second thought: Time to take that mountain of cleaning . . . 

Back at home, I grumbled all the way to the car with my armload. Too much of my family’s wardrobe required dry cleaning. Suits, coats, some of my dresses . . . this is ridiculous, this is IT, I am reading every tag in the future and I am NOT buying anything else that has to go to the cleaners. I could buy several more outfits for what this is going to cost!

The tiny parking lot had only three parking places. A pretty tight fit.

Fortunately, two spaces were free.

I got out of my car, gathered my garment mountain unto myself, and somehow maneuvered through a sliding glass door to enter the shop. I made it to the counter where I let it all go—thunk!

Yes, the weight of the clothing was enough to thunk.

Then, as if by magic—I didn’t see exactly where she came from—a young woman materialized.

“Hello!” she said, smiling at me. “Welcome! I am happy to help you today.”

Her Korean face shone like the sun; I actually blinked. I could feel the warmth she radiated.

She clasped her hands. “Oh, you are such a beautiful lady!”

Tears stung my eyes.


I almost wanted to hide.

I had been feeling—acting—anything but beautiful. I am quite sure my face looked like a thundercloud when I walked in.

“Oh my,” I said, feebly. “Um, thank you.”

She beamed.

She catalogued my family’s clothes, said they’d be ready next Tuesday, and she walked me to my car. When I pulled out of the parking lot, she stood there waving good-bye with fervor.

My first thought: Grandma used to do that. Used to wave after the car when I left, even ran out into the old dirt road to keep waving until she couldn’t see me anymore.

Second thought: How can this lady be so exuberant? Is ANYONE really that happy?

But I realized, as I drove away, that I was smiling, too.

Thus began years of visits to this dry cleaning shop.

Always when I walked in, the young woman dropped what she was doing and flew to meet me: “Beautiful Lady!”

I stopped ruing the fact that I had so many clothes needing to be dry cleaned.

I started taking things that needed mending. A hem come undone, a blouse pulling apart, hateful buttons that fell off of coats because they weren’t sewn on properly to begin with. A zipper that broke, needing to be replaced.

She fixed them all.

Once I took a challenging piece to her. A jacket with torn lining.

For the first time, I saw her brow furrow as she examined the tear.

“Is it fixable?” I asked. “If it’s not, that’s okay.”

She held her head up, sticking her chin out just a bit. “I will fix it. Not on the machine. By hand.”

And she did.

When I picked up the jacket, I marveled at the tiny, perfect stitches. They were machine-precision. I looked at her in awe. Sewing, I’d decided long ago, was just about a lost art. My mother and grandmothers sewed; they made clothes for themselves, my sister and me when we were children, and for others. My mother even crafted a slipcover for a sectional sofa. I can barely sew on a button.

And here in my hands was some of the prettiest handiwork I’d ever seen.

“It’s beautiful!” I said.

My dry cleaning lady smiled, good cheer emanating from her entire being: “It must be beautiful for the Beautiful Lady.”

I swallowed, too humbled for words.

Her habit now was to carry my clothes to the car—she absolutely would not allow me to do it—to hang them and to open the driver’s door for me. And there she stood, waving good-bye to me until I was out of sight.

I had taken to rolling the window down and waving back until I was well down the road.

I met her children as they began learning the business. “Look!” she exclaimed on one visit, as soon as I entered.  “Look at this report card!” Her son had received straight As.

“That’s awesome work,” I said to him as he rang me up on the register.

“Thank you,” he said somewhat shyly, handing me my receipt.

“Listen!” said my dry cleaning lady another time. “My boys are taking piano lessons.”

There against the wall by the entrance stood a piano; when did that get delivered to this little shop?  The two boys, in turn, sat and played without any sheet music:

The Entertainer.

Fur Elise.

Moonlight Sonata.

My musician son was with me on some of those visits; he listened, nodded his approval, and was invited to play.

He played his favorite.

Amazing Grace.

My dry cleaning lady and her boys nodded.

“Beautiful music!” she clapped, hopping up and down, when my son was done.

“Your boys also played beautifully,” I told her.

“I am taking lessons, too,” she said, glowing with obvious joy. In that moment, I realized just how much I admired her. Her generosity of heart, her effervescence, her genuine zest. The utter freedom with which she honored life—her own as well as others’.

I didn’t know, still don’t know, her back story, whether she was born in America or came here when she was a child. I never met her husband. She labored long hours in and out of that tiny dry cleaning shop, tireless in her dedication to her work, her family, and her customers. She raised three stellar boys, paid for their piano lessons, got that piano for them to practice as she taught them the dry cleaning business after school, and decided to play herself.

I wonder how long she harbored that dream of playing.

One day I walked in and an old man greeted me. When I inquired where my dry cleaning lady was, he explained with a heavy accent: “I am her father. She is gone to open another shop.”

In another town.

That shop will do well, I thought, thinking of her smile, her magnetic energy.

But a great light and warmth had gone from this shop.

I saw her first name written down once and asked her how to pronounce it. She coached me on it until I said it perfectly. I recalled it this week, and looked it up: It’s derived from the old Chinese “Ming,” meaning bright, brilliant.

It’s too perfect. Dead-on. Life is like that, so seemingly random at times, but always, always moving with purpose, like realizing a nondescript shop is a dry cleaners and oh, maybe I should bring that mountain of cleaning, never expecting to come face to face with the most alive human being, whose ability to make another person feel valued is unparalleled, whose very name means brightness.

I’ve been in the presence of greatness in a tiny shop in the heart of the rundown side of town. I needed to be there, but not for the kind of cleaning and mending I thought I needed. For a different and deeper kind: A lesson in blessing others at the hands of one luminous, amazing, incomparably beautiful lady.

You are beautiful.

If we could all see one another that way, and could say so sincerely, if we honored each others’ lives because we believe it . . . what a different world it would be.


Calling The Roll

Old telephone

Vintage rotary dial desk telephone. Joe HauptCC BY-SA

Kindergarten is fun.

Most of the time.

We have two pet turtles. They are green with bright orange stripes on their necks. They fit right in our hands when we take them out of their tank to race on the floor.

One turtle crawls so fast. “Go, Speedy, go!” we shout, scrambling beside him on our knees.

The other turtle stays in one spot.

We try tapping his behind.

He won’t move.

“Oh, Slowpoke,” we sigh.

I love the turtles so much that Mama makes me a dress out of turtle fabric she found. It’s “navy blue,” she says, with white turtles all over it. She sews on a ruffled white collar trimmed in red and blue. It’s a little bit like a clown collar. 

I am so proud of my turtle dress. I wear it for Picture Day.

But that is not my favorite part of kindergarten.

And I do not know why it is called a garden — I don’t see a garden anywhere.

My favorite part is the rocking boat.

It is brown. It has two benches, so that two of us can sit on one side and two more on the other. We can rock it kind of like a seesaw.

“Row, row, row your boat,” we sing to each others’ faces, “gently down the stream . . . “

Our Teacher teaches us how to sing a Round.

It is SO MUCH FUN, singing the Round, rocking the boat, holding our toys we brought for Show and Tell.

In a box on the floor there are things we can put on — hats, costumes. 

I put on a wig so my hair can be long and not short with two cowlicks in the front.

I wonder why a cow would lick my hair and when I ever saw a real cow anyway. I do not remember this. But, during circle time, when The Teacher asks us one by one what we want to be when we grow up, I try to think of something different from everyone else. When my turn comes, I say, “A cowgirl.” 

Maybe my cowlicks made me think of it. Or maybe because I love boots (since they don’t have laces that need to be tied) and that job lets you wear them all the time.

I don’t know any cowgirls or cowboys, though. We live in the city.

The Teacher stares at me for a second. She doesn’t smile. She moves on to the next student — a boy who says “astronaut.” 

Anyway, I love my long hair when I put it on. If I can’t get anybody to rock the boat with me, I will rock it by myself, wearing my long hair. And sunglasses.

But then is the worst part of kindergarten.

“Class. It is time to take your seats. I am going to call The Roll.”

Our Teacher is very tall. Her voice is very . . .  unhappy. Someone has made her unhappy.

We all go to our seats without a sound.

What’s wrong? What have we done? I can’t figure it out.

She’s going to call The Roll.

Is The Roll like The Police?  What will The Roll do to us? 

Does The Roll wear a big shiny star like The Sheriff in cartoons? Does The Teacher have a secret phone somewhere on her desk, to call The Roll if we aren’t good?

Is this about the cowgirl thing? Maybe I should have said I want to be a Teacher. Like the other girls did.

I am scared.

I do not want her to call The Roll because of me so I stay very, very quiet.


It took months, seriously, for me to understand what my stern, no-nonsense teacher was doing after she made this daily “calling The Roll” announcement. She never picked up a hidden phone to make a call. A shadowy figure wearing a law enforcement badge never materialized. After days and days of wondering why in the world she was just reading our names out loud, I finally figured it out.

Oh. THAT’S what calling The Roll means.

What a relief.

It’s my most vivid kindergarten memory. As much as I treasure the humor of my misconception now, it reiterates several important things to me, as an adult and an educator (for no, I never became a cowgirl, as I thought of that only in the spur of the moment, so to speak).

My takeaways from this trip back in time:

-We forget how literal young children are. How easily misconceptions occur. Someone once told me about hearing this line in Psalm 23 as a child: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” It frightened her: Who is Shirley Goodness? Why are she and somebody named Mercy going to follow me around forever?  She kept looking back over her shoulder for them to show up. When my youngest son was little, he didn’t understand that “satisfied” was something good and fulfilling; he interpreted it as “sad-is-fied”: Why would anyone want to be sad? When someone asked him, “Are you satisfied?” he took it to mean Are you sad? and replied, “No, I’m fine.”

-Atmosphere is everything. We will never know what kids are thinking if they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or if our body language, expression, and tone send the message that we’re unapproachable. Reliving the memory, I can now attach names to my five-year-old feelings: Confusion, apprehension, fear, inadequacy.  Remember, calling The Roll is my most vivid kindergarten recollection.

-Beware of what really causes harm. The sale of small pet turtles is illegal now because of salmonella. Multiple children sharing wigs or hats (IMAGINE!) is not permitted anymore because of lice (thankfully, we didn’t get them). Those changes were made for the safety of children, yet the turtles and the head coverings were a big part of the joy in our long-ago classroom. Of course we don’t want to breed disease and infestation; that would be unthinkable. But what about breeding — just as unintentionally — confusion, apprehension, fear, or the subliminal message that a child’s own thoughts, ideas, feelings, perspectives, experiences are not important? How damaging is that to young psyches? Should it be any less unthinkable?

-Time to imagine. The moments of play, of make-believe, kept the atmosphere in my kindergarten classroom from becoming one of complete compliance by encouraging some healthy free-spiritedness.  While academic expectations have changed dramatically for primary grades over the years, play, encouraging imagination, is still vital. I’ve never seen another wooden rocking boat and have forgotten what we actually called it. When my classmates and I were in it, we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be. We sailed out on a sea of our own making; we weren’t even in the classroom anymore.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.

Extremely deep philosophy, there, when you think about it.

I’ve heard it said of late that children don’t have imaginations anymore, that they’re all into video games and devices, that they can’t entertain themselves.

Maybe. Maybe not.

What I do know to be true about children —then, now, and for all time — is that they are always trying to make sense of the world around them, because it’s all still new to them. Children are virtually covered with invisible antennae, receiving and interpreting volumes of sensory experiences, some of which they’re not able to fully process, just yet. The world’s a busy place; there’s so much to learn, far beyond the confines of the school day. Infinite seas of thought to sail, so many adventures to have.

Remember being that age, Teacher, Grown-Up? Remember the uncertainty?

It pays to slow down a bit now and then, for you are the seasoned Guide. Readjust the sails as needed, for the children, for yourself. Row gently down that stream, for your living cargo is priceless and reading every one of your signals, all along the way.

And may no one ever need to call The Roll on you.

Memory box

Memory box

Memory Box. AntaraCC BY

This weekend I caught a bit of an interview with Jon O. Newman, a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Newman has written a memoir entitled Benched. The subtitle is rather epic, something you should experience on your own . . .

What caught my attention, however, was the Judge’s statement that “everyone should write memoir, for your children, your grandchildren.” He went onto say how valuable a person’s memories are to the successive generations, especially for the unique knowledge they impart.

These statements were both invigorating and validating to me for a number of reasons.

First: I’ve been writing a good bit of memoir here on Lit Bits & Pieces. It may well be my favorite thing to write. When I am composing a piece, it’s almost like I have “street view” of moments and people as they were long ago; I can see it all from so many angles, from within and beyond my childhood self.  Judge Newman said, “The more you write, the more detail you will remember.” It’s astonishing, really, the little things I begin to recall, one after the other, once I start writing. The images return in startling clarity. I write in scenes, small moments. I tell writing teachers that memoir is really small moments on steroids, all pumped up and full of meaning.

Secondly: I write these pieces of memory because they hover so vividly, begging a landing place, and because I truly love the time-travel. They’re meaningful to me, so I try to preserve them as best I can. What’s astonishing is the response I sometimes get from a  reader; I never anticipated such deep chords would be struck. It leaves me, every time, in wordless awe at the power, the “magic,” of writing.

Lastly, having watched my mother-in-law and grandmother suffer the ravages of dementia — and the loss of their dignity — I write to celebrate the human brain at its most glorious, the triumph of the human heart over its darkest moments, the joy and the story of lives well-lived.

In this way, my blog serves as a memory box for me, homage to those who’ve gone before, and perhaps a gift to those who come after. As the photographer of the beautiful image at the top of this post wrote: We should save part of our memories in a box . . . we may need it later . . . 

Tonight I celebrate memory. My own and the bright fragments given to me by those I loved — those I still love, for in truth, when I write, they are ever so near.