Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I learned today that my younger son, Sam, is moving to Portland, Oregon, on Monday. I learned indirectly from my older son Ben, who posted on his Facebook wall: “my brother is moving out to Portland in a week, daaaammnnn.”

Good morning.

Sam called me about four hours later, relieved to learn that I now knew. We spent the next two and a half hours together running errands related to his moving: shipping off his computer, having his bike boxed for shipping, signing over his car to me, talking through the various small pieces of the big move. There were tense moments, funny moments, and many moments where I was too choked up to speak.

I am sitting here twelve hours later with a mother’s conflicting feelings. On the one hand, Sam is almost 19, has been working fulltime since he was 17, and has been out of the home and living on his own with little parental help for the past six months. Moving to Portland seems the natural next step: spread the wings yet a little more and try something new. Ben lives there and their father is in an outlying community. Initially Sam would live with his dad. So it is not as if Sam would be totally alone and without a family network. It was clear from Sam’s discussion today that he has given a huge amount of thought to the logistics of living with his dad and finding work. I am pleased and proud of him.

On the other hand, besides the sting of learning about Sam’s move secondhand, I am sad and dispirited tonight. My younger son—my baby!—is moving 2500 miles away.

In some versions of A Christmas Carol, Marley describes the third spirit to Scrooge as “more mercurial than the rest.” That is Sam in five words. A million and one memories of Sam have filled my mind and my heart all day long. I have watched my son struggle with wild mood swings, his parents’ divorce, and depression. At times he has made lifestyle choices, including dropping out of high school and getting a GED, that have made me cringe. But each time he has struggled, Sam has come back stronger and wiser and another step closer to adulthood. When he moved out of the house and into an apartment last October, I told everyone I knew that he had made a smoother transition to being independent than anyone else I had ever known. He was ready then and he is ready now for the next step.

When Sam was in 7th grade, he went out for track and ran hurdles. Sam was slender and fast with great form, and he usually led and won his heats. Once he caught a hurdle and went down, only to get up, bloodied and clearly hurt, to finish the race. Afterwards, Sam sat alone for the rest of the meet, full of pain and rage, fighting back tears. Not until we were walking to the car did he lean against me and cry. That is Sam: finishing the race, struggling on his own, and then turning to his family for comfort.

Come Monday, I will take Sam to the airport, hug him goodbye, and wave until he disappears down the concourse. There will be tears, of course. There will also be satisfaction in knowing he is prepared to tackle this new adventure.

I have seen Sam fly over hurdles when he ran track. I see him flying now.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Down on the Farm

According to the USDA, this part of Ohio is in Zone 5, which means that vegetable gardens should be planted in May, mid-month or later, after the danger of frost is passed.

I’m wondering if I can hold off my plants that long.

At the beginning of this month, I started seedlings—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, onions, broccoli, and artichokes—in homemade paper pots. Despite my worrying and fussing over them, the seeds knew what they were supposed to do, which is germinate.

Everything came up except two plantings of peppers. Those seeds came from a well-meaning friend who didn’t know how to save them and handed them over moist and almost moldy late last fall. I dried them out before putting them away, but clearly something didn’t kick back in this spring.

Otherwise—holy moly!—I’ve got a forest of seedlings out in the family room. It’s too soon to be counting my August tomatoes, but the eggs have definitely hatched.

Over the last two weekends, with the considerable help of my husband, I have prepared the first of three vegetable beds in the back yard. Bed #1, which is for the seedlings, has been the top priority. Although used in the past as a garden, it was in sorry shape and the soil was heavily compacted. Starting a week ago last Saturday and finishing this one just past, we shoveled and spaded it, worked in a half cubic yard of compost by hand, let it rest, then worked in another half yard of compost. All of this was by hand: spade, shovel, and lots of back muscles. The bed is now soft and fluffy, which is a good thing as I have broccoli (which is able to go outside early) ready to graduate from the seed pot to the outside bed, not unlike a toddler making the leap from crib to a Big Bed.

The compost is purchased locally from Price Farms Organics, which bills itself as a “recycling facility for organics using composting technology.” (We like to keep as many of our dollars as we can in the local economy.) My compost of choice is Barnyard CafĂ©, which indeed smells like a barnyard (horse or cow, I'd say), mixed with coffee grounds. Very enchanting. It reminds me of my grandparents’ farm when I was little.

I loved watching the compost steam in the bed of the truck as we shoveled it out. My new entertainment when not at symphony events or watching my husband perform? Watching compost steam. With two more vegetable beds yet to come, spring should be a hoot.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

March Madness Without the Hoops

Some people spend huge portions of March watching basketball, planning their work and their recreation around the games that winnow 64 teams to the Sweet Sixteen, the Great Eight, the Final Four, and then the last two teams standing. People pay into office pools, pack the sports bars, stock up on sodas and chips and anything else that can be consumed for tournament parties. If your favorite team was in some weird timeslot (meaning anything on the west coast), you may have found yourself sacrificing sleep and sanity and ranting, like my friend Karen did, the next day on Facebook: “[I am] so sad (and tired!) after staying up to watch VCU Rams lose by ONE STINKIN' POINT! :( ”

Some of us here in D-Town recently went through our own form of March madness, centered not on basketball but on the annual United Way agency review process. I have been involved with this for four years now, serving as a reader and scorer both at the grassroots level (the Impact Team) and the funding recommendation level (the Community Impact Council, or CIC). In a “normal” year, this means I would read and score several proposals and participate in two or three agency site visits over the course of two weeks, and attend one three hour meeting in March with my other Impact Team members to discuss the proposals in our impact area. Then, in April, I would meet with the entire CIC to discuss funding recommendations.

This year I co-chaired the CIC and my March became madness without the benefit of hoops, 3 point shots, or ESPN.

When you are co-chair of the CIC, you are responsible for not knowing just your own impact team (Health) but all of the UW impact areas: Health, Youth, Housing, Seniors and Core (essential community needs, like a food pantry). That means reading and scoring all of the proposals and splitting the site visits (I think there were 26 this year) with Bill, my co-chair. (He too read all of the proposals.) Just completing the two weeks of agency site visits was an accomplishment.

This week, now wonderfully ended, was Impact Team meetings week. Every morning at 9:00, the Impact Team of the day volunteers, Brandon (UW President), Tracy (Impact Team Coordinator), Bill and I met in a basement conference room and plowed through the proposals. Most days went two and a half hours, one team went three (lots of proposals, lots of discussion). Fueled on coffee and doughnuts and community passions, we talked and critiqued and agonized and debated where the needs and the dollars were. All of the agencies are feeling the lash of the Great Recession and we were all painfully aware that the needs are greater than ever while the dollars are not. The discussion stayed positive and constructive, a testament to the commitment of the volunteers.

The national slogan of United Way is Live United. Earlier in the year, Tracy asked us to give her some comments of how we put the slogan into action. I wrote that I lived United because I believe our community is strongest when we all come together. This week was living proof of that. If there was ever a community model that works, it is our local United Way’s review process.

In the end, Brandon, Tracy, Bill and I were so immersed in the process that we were slap-happy by Thursday and downright punch-drunk by the last session. The review process marked my dreams and dogged my days. It was Friday when I announced that I had dubbed this week “March Madness Without the Hoops.”

After the last session ended and we all staggered out, I walked home, giddy at it being over. What a great week! What an absolutely energizing, exhausting, draining, and uplifting week! I am deeply impressed by and grateful to all who participated, especially Brandon and Tracy of United Way and my co-chair Bill. My deep thanks to those three (and to all the volunteers) for their work, their dedication, and their vision, collectively and singularly.

You made this week sing for me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Community I

As a child growing up in the then small town of Delaware, Ohio, I would often stand on the downtown sidewalks and stare up at the buildings, wondering what used to be in the clearly vacant upper floors. As an adult, I was lucky enough to be able to write about my hometown’s commercial architecture for the local newspaper. Writing those articles, which ran for almost two years, gave me the opportunity to get into, under, through, and on top of many of Delaware’s downtown buildings and satisfy that long-held fascination with the buildings.

Delaware is gifted in that it has a fairly intact downtown commercial district. Much of the existing building stock is original to the nineteenth century and, except for changes to the storefronts of the buildings, reasonably intact. The predominant style is Italianate, an architectural style that was most popular in this country in the decades preceding and following the Civil War.

In looking around downtown Delaware, we are reminded constantly of our past. The buildings that line our downtown streets are familiar to us, so familiar that we often walk past them without seeing them. We notice them instead by their absence, as with the gap on West Winter Street where Bun’s stood before the fire. Our downtown buildings are so familiar that they appear in our dreams and shape our expectations of what a “real” downtown looks like. When we travel to other communities, we feel most at home, without even recognizing it, in those whose downtown buildings and facades resemble our own. We know our Delaware streetscape well even if we don’t always acknowledge it.

What I find equally fascinating is the role of a downtown in a community. Winston Churchill said “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” In doing so, mere space becomes place and through a sense of place, a community comes together and thrives.

Our City Manager recently said that “there is a heart to this community and the downtown is that heart.” That was as true a century ago as it is today. We still look to our downtown as the core of this community. We no longer have the Pumpkin Show; now the Delaware Arts Festival fills our streets in mid-May. The downtown fountains are gone, but we have wonderful tile mosaics popping up on the sides and backs of buildings. The summer band concerts on the courthouse lawn ended when the summer band program did; the local symphony performs a free Fourth of July concert that attracts thousands from all over the region. The downtown Farmers Market turns our downtown into our family kitchen twice a week from May until October. Although we have changed in so many ways in one hundred years, our downtown and its role in our community has remained largely intact. The downtown is our heritage from past generations and also our legacy to future ones. Our community is richer because of it. Like having a local symphony, a local college, and a local Farmers Market, we are richer because of our streetscape.

Visitors to Delaware often exclaim over our downtown streetscape. It is charming; it is visually appealing. In Delaware, the past is our present. We have retained our old buildings, not as museum pieces, but as our identity. Unlike other communities that didn’t realize the important of place to a community, Delaware did. One only has to travel to a community that razed its downtown in the middle of the twentieth century to realize what a treasure we have in our midst.

If you own real pearls, I was told you are supposed to put them on hours before whatever event you plan to wear them to. Apparently pearls pick up the warmth and oils from your skin and are more lustrous as a result.

Our downtown is not unlike a string of pearls. We have worn it daily, sometimes casually, sometimes carelessly, for over a hundred years. Like those pearls, our downtown has taken on the warmth and the glow of that daily use. May we continue to wear it proudly.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Channeling Amy March

I am a huge fan of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s great novel about the four March sisters, whom Alcott takes from their Civil War girlhoods to adulthood. I stumbled across it early on in my life when family friends gave me a drastically edited Golden Press illustrated version for Christmas gift the early 1960s. I soon afterwards came across a more complete edition in my grandparents’ home and took it both home and to heart. I have probably read the novel fifty or more times since I was ten. I own three versions today: my badly dog-eared Golden Press copy, the battered copy from my grandparents, and a complete “uncut” version my mother gave me fifteen years ago.

In short, Little Women was a Big Influence on my reading life.

I wanted to be Jo, of course. Who wouldn’t want to be? Jo was bright and impetuous. Jo was not afraid to climb a tree or cut off her hair to raise money for her mother to travel to Washington to care for her wounded husband. Jo was funny and always her own person, even when that got her into trouble. She turned down the boy next door and found lasting happiness with a man after her own heart. As the novel closes, Jo and her husband are operating a boy’s boarding school on their hearts and minds and a shoestring budget. What bliss!

The other sisters float around the novel, although none are so vivid a character as Jo. There is Meg, the oldest and the most domestic, and Beth the do-gooder who dies heartbreakingly young.

And then there was Amy, the baby of the family. Selfish, silly Amy with her golden curls and her pretensions and airs. Amy who got to go to Europe instead of Jo because Amy had better manners.

I found Amy the most tedious of the March sisters, and the most annoying.

But the truth is I have my Amy March moments, although not in the curls and the dancing. No, I identify with Amy when she realizes that while she has some artistic skills, the brilliance of a true artist is far beyond her ability. Her trip abroad during which she hoped to hone her skills instead reveals her shortcomings. Amy announces that she is setting aside her dreams of being a “great” artist, “because talent isn't genius and no amount of energy can make it so.”

Boy, I’ll say.

All my life I have wanted to be a writer. Oh, I write—letters, a journal, press releases, this blog. At one point I wrote a monthly newspaper article about downtown Delaware architecture that won a community following. All satisfying, but my attempts at “bigger” projects—a short story, a novel, poetry—have all died on the vine. Repeatedly.

The writer Janet Flanner commented “genius is immediate but talent takes time.” I still like to think I may have a book inside of me, perhaps the story of Red Cross overseas volunteers during World War II, springing from the notes and records my mother-in-law left behind.

Only time will tell.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dancing with Mom

Mom stopped by to drop off some coupons the other day. “I know you don’t use coupons usually,” she said as she proffered them, “but I thought you’d use these.” She went on to tell me that she’d just come from having lab work and needed to get home to eat. I invited her in for a chat and some crackers.

That’s how far we have come as mother and daughter. There were decades in my life when we would have chatted at the door, me never opening it wide enough to let her in, or, if I was at her house, I never would have lighted long enough to warm the chair seat. Even when I was there, I wasn’t there. We were never estranged, but we were not all that close either.

Mom was very young when she married, eloping with my dad the winter of her senior year in high school. She never regretted it; she and my dad are still going strong after 56 years together. All the same, marrying and starting a family that young meant giving up other things, including being a carefree teenager. By the time I came along three years later, she’d already had two children, one of whom died in infancy, and life was moving fast.

There is no doubt I puzzled my mother. She wanted a girly girl and she got me. Her frustration shows in her entries in my baby book: “April shoved aside her doll to crawl after her brother’s cars and trucks.” “April hates dresses and prefers pants.”

As I grew older and more headstrong, the battles became more pitched. I didn’t want to learn to sew (mom was very good at it). I didn’t want my ears pierced (she pierced hers instead). I once asked a boy I was crazy about (and am now married to) on a casual date and she went ballistic: didn’t I know he was supposed to ask me? (Apparently not. Neither did he.)

And I wanted to go to college.

That last was probably our biggest hurdle. Her opposition started when I was in first grade and culminated my senior year in her throwing the acceptance letter at me from across the room, saying “I hope you’re happy.” The sound of the letter hitting the floor at my feet was the sound of my leaving: leaving my hometown, leaving my friends, leaving my roots, leaving mom.

For a long time afterwards, I kept my distance, even after I moved back to my hometown many years later. Nice to see you, mom, gotta go.

What brought us back together, in the end, was not the passage of time or my having children and finally “understanding” her or anything else predictable. What bridged the gap was being my being diagnosed with an incurable cancer five years ago and realizing in that instance that life really was too short and the present really was too achingly precious to hold mom at bay forever. And while I am not grateful for the cancer, I am grateful that I learned that lesson before it was too late.

When I was a high school student about to go to my first prom, my dad taught me how to box step. As my mom and I have reengaged, reconnected, reworked, and renegotiated the mother/daughter relationship, it is not unlike learning the box step so many years ago. One step forward, one step sideways, one step back, one step sideways, and then back forward again. Sometimes mom and I are out of step and sometimes the rhythm makes no sense, but at least we are finally dancing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Love, Ellen

I never got to meet my mother-in-law as my mother-in-law; she died four and a half years before I married her son. Fortunately, I had met Ellen decades earlier as a teenager dating her older son (now my husband) and, after he moved on to college and out of my league, as a friend and teammate of her younger son. Over the years, she kept me current on her older son’s life whenever she had a chance, knowing, I suspect, that he always occupied a warm spot in my heart. I like to think she would have been pleased to see us together finally.

I got to know Ellen posthumously after her son and I started planning a life together. I learned that she had served in England with the American Red Cross during World War II, despite the protests of her parents, and that it had been an adventure of a lifetime for the young, idealistic woman from Evanston. What I didn’t know until after I moved into my husband’s home (which had been built by his parents 45 years earlier) was that she documented much of her European adventure with letters, with photos, and with many of her Red Cross papers she worked with, and that those items, along with most of a lifetime of correspondence with her parents, were in the basement.

I have only skimmed the surface of the collection, which is in no particular order at present. The handful of letters I have read reveal that my mother-in-law was a lyrical and graceful writer, and that she gave deep thought to her purpose in life, whether serving her country or raising her family. All of them are signed the same way: Love, Ellen.

A picture of Ellen now sits on my desk, next to a photo of my husband. She is wearing her Red Cross uniform with her cap cocked at a precise 45° angle. Taken sixty-five years ago, the photo captures the confidence and pride she clearly felt in her civilian enlistment. Her wartime service lead to a lifetime love of all things English and the love of a lifetime when she met her future husband, a war-weary sergeant.

The writer in me thinks there may be a book in the basement in Ellen’s papers. I wonder whether she may have thought of telling her story herself one day, and that is why she held onto her papers. I think about doing the research and telling it myself. Whether I will be any more successful than she in getting it down on paper remains to be seen, but I already have a title: Love, Ellen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Up and At ‘Em in the Garden

My grandparents, my dad’s parents, always grew a vegetable garden. Always. There were just the two of them, but they planted enough corn, tomatoes, bell peppers (mysteriously called “mangoes” in the family), onions, and other vegetables to stock a small grocery. Some of the produce went to family members who were the grasshoppers to my grandparents’ ants or who had moved “into town” (in this case a village) and no longer had space for a garden. Some of it showed up fresh on the Sunday dinner table all summer long. Quite a bit of it got canned or frozen by my grandmother for future use. (When she died, my parents spent an afternoon tossing out ancient canned goods that she had “put up” sometime in the last decade.)

My grandparents gardened because they had both grown up in the “hollers” of eastern Kentucky without much money or resources other than family ingenuity and hard work. Putting food on the table was a year round effort and one that they never slacked off at as adults, even after the children grew up and even after their finances allowed them to go a little easy. Young newlyweds during the Depression, they never forgot the lesson of “not enough”—be it dollars or beans—and every year for as long as they were able, they planted to ward off that specter.

This year I am following in my grandparents’ footsteps for lots of reasons, including a love of cooking and a desire to cut food costs. While I was writing this post, 74 homemade seed pots were sitting on the back deck. I am sunning them outside every chance the weather warms up to give them a break from the platoon of lamps that I have kept them under for the last two weeks. The broccoli sprouted first; the tomatoes are popping up daily, sometimes hourly. Seed by seed, sprout by sprout, my garden is coming to life.

I picked the vegetables as much for their names as their qualities. With names like “Sweet Chocolate” and “King of the North,” how can I not be enchanted with the possibilities in the pepper patch? The weeds are still a distant haze on the horizon.

It turns out that I am a worrier when it comes to gardening. I worry that I waited too long to start the seeds, that I don’t have the soil warm enough for them to germinate (although the tomatoes are quelling that worry), that the seed pots will disintegrate before transplanting time (they’re only newspaper), or that when the time comes to put them in the ground, I will run out of room in the beds (which have still to be prepared) because the seed pots only cover the vegetables that need an indoor start and not the additional ones that can be planted directly outside (another twelve different vegetables, including pie pumpkins).

When I have worried myself into a knot, I remind myself of my grandparents’ garden. I am quite sure my grandmother, as no nonsense a woman as ever walked the earth, never fussed over seedlings or carried them in and out of the house to sun them. She knew what I am learning: the seeds will sprout, watched or not. I can hear her urging me back to my other tasks: There’ll be work enough in the garden without all of this nonsense! They’re plants! They’ll grow!

In the end, if Grandma is right, I will spend the summer feeding my family and friends out of this garden. Like her, I will can and freeze the surplus for the winter to come. For now, though, I have to be content with scanning the pots daily for the first shoot, the first slim green thread rising up out of the potting soil.

Seed by seed, sprout by sprout. And an occasional sunbath on the back deck.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Opening the Door

Many years ago I first read Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a small novel set in the Canadian Northwest about a terminally ill young priest serving an Indian village on a coastal inlet. There is only one other white man in the village, the government-hired teacher (who hates the village and his assigned post). When the priest is killed in a landslide, the villagers wait for his body to be found and returned for burial:

The village was waiting and listening, and it was the children who heard first the canoes coming up the river, and they ran down the main path calling “They come now. They bring him now.”

In his tiny house the teacher heard the running footfalls on the path to the riverbank, and he went quickly to the door and could not open it. To join the others was to care, and to care was to live and to suffer.

I once had lunch with a very good friend who questioned my volunteer commitments. Why did I waste my time when I could be earning money? Why bother? I paraphrased the above passage, then said “I can't not open the door. I have to open that door.”

Opening a door is a magical act. A door separates you from “here” and “somewhere else.” There is that wonderful, hold-your-breath moment in the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy opens the sepia farmhouse door to see the Technicolor of Oz outside.

Regardless of where the door is, or what it is, we all choose to open the door at one time or another in our life. Sometimes it does mean caring and living and suffering. Sometimes it is just a door.

And sometimes we step into Oz.