Turkeys on Parade

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
 Kurt Vonnegut

Because of the pandemic, I provide daycare three days a week for my grandchildren, ages nine, seven, four, and two. In addition, I serve up homeschool lessons for the oldest two and a dash of preschool curriculum for the four-year-old. My favorite lessons involve artwork. It’s their favorite too.

Many of our art projects are prompted by ideas from the internet. But Thanksgiving and childhood memories about bringing toilet paper rolls to school for art class inspire our latest project: Toilet Paper Roll Turkeys.

My turkey–he may be plain, but he inspired fanciful creations.

In art-teacher mode, I whip up a model paper roll turkey to inspire my three oldest grandchildren. (Two-year-old Charlie will be happy to play on the floor with an empty roll.) With pride, I text pictures of my model turkey to family and friends. They ooh and aah appropriately, much in the manner of a proud parent attaching a child’s work to the front of the refrigerator.

Before the grandchildren decorate their turkeys, I cover each roll with brown construction paper. On the day of our class, I sprinkle the table with scissors, glue, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, construction paper, stick-on faux gems, glitter foam sheets, popsicle sticks, and stickers. They eye the smorgasbord of craft supplies, eagerly waiting for permission to dig in.

I place my turkey on the table. “You can use this as a model, but decorate your turkeys any way you want. If you want to add googly eyes or something heavier, like pipe cleaners, to your turkey, I’ll hot glue it on so it stays.” My glue gun is heating up on the kitchen counter.

“I know,” Clara says. She’s nine years old and likes me to know that she already knows plenty. She also loves arts and crafts.

Michael, the seven-year-old, digs through the supplies and grabs a sheet of Caribbean-blue glitter foam.

“I don’t want to make a turkey,” Evan says. “Can I just cut and glue paper?”

“Sure,” I say. Evan’s four, and today decorating a paper roll to look like a turkey isn’t his thing.

Charlie is playing on the living room floor with his plain paper roll and toy cars.

Clara and Michael sift through the craft supplies searching for the perfect ingredients to bring their turkey visions to life. Clara chatters about her plans, sharing every artistic decision out loud. Michael’s hands do his talking as he grabs a pair of scissors, uncaps the glue, and adorns his paper roll. Evan cuts and glues random chunks of colored construction paper, but he’s stealing glances of Clara and Michael dressing their turkeys.

Evan yields to temptation. “Can I make a turkey?”

“Sure,” I answer, handing him the third brown-papered roll. He reaches into the supplies and gathers his fixings. I hand him a box of sparkly stickers because his little hands can manage them. He’s smitten with the googly eyes and amasses them in different colors.

Meanwhile, I’m slinging my hot glue gun, attaching googly eyes and wings and tail feathers fashioned out of pipe cleaners for Clara and Michael.

Evan’s ready to have his turkey’s eyes glued on. He points to a spot; I glue on an eye. He gets another eye, points to another spot, I glue. This cycle is repeated five times, and he’s on his way for a sixth eye. “Enough eyes,” I say. Past experience with four-year-old children and art supplies tells me if I let him, he’ll have dozens of eyes on his turkey. It will be creepy, but even scarier our googly-eye stock will be seriously diminished. “It’s time to decorate your turkey with some other art supplies.”

Charlie appears, his tiny fingers clutching the table. His eyes, barely rising above the table’s edge, scan the goods. He says, “Nana,” which covers a lot of ground. I hand him another plain paper roll and he scurries back to the living room floor.

After the turkeys are complete, I’m amazed by the personality of each one. The spiced-up creations made by my grandchildren eclipse my bland turkey.

Clara’s turkey is attired for Mardi Gras. Its twirled red, orange, and yellow pipe-cleaner tail and wings are combined with a sparkling red belt and a yellow hat topped with a red glittery foam feather embellished with a faux lilac-colored gem. Her turkey is ready to strut down Bourbon Street.

Clara’s turkey–heading out to Bourbon Street after the holidays.

Michael’s turkey, with glittery blue wings sporting shimmering purple and neon green spots and glittery blue legs, looks like a butterfly. “Very nice,” I tell him. I don’t question his color choices. I imagine his turkey as a butterkey or a turkfly wanting to flit from clover to clover. Perhaps it’s masquerading to avoid the axe and being placed on a platter at the dinner table.

Michael’s turkey–incognito until after the Thanksgiving meal.

Evan’s turkey is the most unique, in the way only a four-year-old can interpret a turkey. Asymmetrical, it’s a Picasso turkey. Its eyes look up and down, left and right, none of them aligned. Both its wings protrude from the right side, something Evan insisted on when I asked him if he was sure. A green foam airplane sticker flies from the left of its forehead to the right. Its beak is a mauve foam saxophone sticker. Its mouth is a glittery green J and its feet are two sparkling raspberry-colored F’s. Evan has channeled Picasso, whom he knows nothing about. But maybe Picasso channeled four-year-old artists.

Evan’s turkey–a work of artistic interpretation.

As each turkey is finished, I place it on the ledge of my kitchen window. The turkeys, including mine, strike impressive poses. Throughout the day, as the grandchildren wander through the kitchen, one of them will stop and admire the turkeys, always with special attention paid to his or her own creation. Evan asks, more than once, “Can I hold my turkey?” I hand it to him, he holds it, then hands it back to be returned to the flock on the ledge.

My sister, who lives in Dallas, was inspired. Using her imagination for inspiration, she adorned her paper roll turkey with foliage and cut up magazine pages.

Vonnegut’s advice, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow,” rings true. And his conclusion, “You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something,” shines on the faces of my grandchildren. They’ve created something.

I look at my turkey and remember the peace I felt while making it. And even though it’s ordinary next to my grandchildren’s turkeys, I feel joy because Vonnegut is right—I’ve created something.

It’s a good time to practice an art.

Bungy Jumping with an Electric Pressure Cooker

My sister bought an electric pressure cooker two weeks ago. She cooked sweet potato curry, steel-cut oats, and polenta. “Yum, yum, and yum,” she said.

A couple of years ago, my husband wanted one. I didn’t. I liked cooking the old-fashioned way.

But my sister’s been sharing her excitement about cooking with it, along with photos of her pressure-cooked meals. She tells me it cooks fast.

My closed mind cracks. I babysit grandchildren and write. On days my grandchildren are with me, I cook breakfast and lunch, so I’ve no interest in spending more time cooking supper. On days my grandchildren aren’t with me, I catch up on my writing and don’t want to stop to cook supper.

“It was on sale and with my membership discount, I paid $60 for it,” my sister says.

“Could I get one for that price? Could you order it for me? I’ll send you a check.”

Fifteen minutes later, she texts me a picture of the completed order with Merry Christmas written across it, so nice.

Monday morning, I tell my husband my sister bought me an electric pressure cooker and it’s being delivered today. He’s excited. We hope it arrives early enough to use it to cook supper because we bought ingredients to make green chili soup.

My green chili soup looks just like the photo in the recipe magazine.

It arrives at 4:00 p.m. Plenty of time.

I call my sister to thank her and get some beginner’s advice. “This appliance has more buttons than the jet you fly.”

“I don’t think so,” she says. She’s a pilot who flies people around in a private jet.

She answers my questions and hangs up.

A moment later my text alert chirps. She’s sent me a picture of the flight deck in the Falcon 900 she flies, with the caption, Pressure cooker on steroids. I concede because the instrument panel looks like someone took hundreds of buttons from the cookers and pasted them all over the inside of the cockpit.

I read the warnings and instructions provided in the two slim manuals. My sister has forewarned me the instructions need backup. She’s watched YouTube videos about using pressure cookers, so I watch a couple of short videos on getting started with the kitchen appliance that’s going to revolutionize my cooking time.

I call my sister, again.

“Hello, pressure-cooker hotline. How may I assist you today?”

“Did you do the test with the three cups of water?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” she answers.

So, I do the water test and successfully cook three cups of water in my cooker. Next up, green chili soup.

The first step is to sauté the meat. I add one tablespoon of oil, push the sauté button, and add the meat. The meat is cooking, but it’s definitely not sauteing.

I’m nervous. I imagine the soup having to be scooped into the garbage as inedible. I once told a woman who complimented a meal I cooked for ten, marveling at how it all came together, “Cooking for dinner guests is my idea of bungy jumping.”

Turns out I was supposed to add the meat when the digital display said, Hot. Because I didn’t, the pot didn’t heat up properly. I shouldn’t have skipped the chart about the cooking options when I read the instructions. It’s not an irredeemable mistake. I make another jump at it, following the instructions, and sauté the next batch of meat with better results.

Before I start the pressure-cooking stage, I call my sister again.

“Yes,” she says, drawing the word out in a bemused manner, teasing me.

“This isn’t the professional hotline greeting I received earlier.” We both laugh.

“I’m making corn on the cob in my cooker,” she says.

“You’re light years ahead of me.”

“No, only a week and a half,” she counters.

“Remember, when I finally got an answering machine, and one of the family said, ‘I can’t believe the Waltons got an answering machine’?”

“Good point,” she says.

“I put all the ingredients in the pot before I push the pressure-cooker button, right?” I realized, considering how a pressure cooker works, it’s a dumb question, but the sauté phase left me in need of hand-holding.

“Oh, yes,” she answers, “and secure the lid too.”

I add the rest of the ingredients, secure the lid, and select the correct settings. I must wait thirty minutes to find out if this is going to be a thrilling bungy jump.

I wash dishes while I wait and realize I haven’t stopped once to stir, add ingredients, or adjust the heat. I chop cilantro and slice radishes for garnishes without interruption. The cooker is self-sufficient. I’m ecstatic. I actually have time to join my husband in the family room.

“It smells really good,” he says.

The cooker chimes. I quick release the pressure and wait for the float valve to descend, indicating it’s safe to remove the lid. I hold my breath for the final yank of my bungy jump.

The spicy smell of the tomatillo-based broth swirls out of the cooker. The green chili soup looks like the photo in the recipe magazine. Taste buds are sated.

After dinner I peruse the internet for Indian curry recipes. I’ve never had curry, but I’m in a daring mood. My cooker and I are taking our next bungy jump this weekend, and for an extra thrill we’ll be cooking a batch of rice a few hours before we whip up the curry

Marlon Dabrowski and His Dreamy Coffee Bean Eyes

“What kind of name is this?” Grandma asks. She’s helping me write birthday invitations to my first-grade classmates. I know exactly which name she means. “Who names their kid Marlon when his last name is Dabrowski? You can’t be president with a name like that. You might survive one of those names at the polls, but not both.”

“You named your daughter Geraldine Evelyn Mickiewicz,” I say. My mother hates her name, especially the Geraldine part. And she says she married dad for his last name—Andersen.

“Your mother was never going to be president.” Grandma peers at me over her cat-eye glasses. My cheeks burn. “You like this boy, don’t you?”

I’m silent. Truth is I love Marlon Dabrowski and have since the first day of school. Marlon has some bad points, besides his mother being our teacher. He’s pudgy. My grandma would say he still has baby fat. And he’s not a talker, so I have to do most of the chatting. His name is different, but it has rhythm when I sing it. Then again, Marlon has good points. His eyes are brown like the coffee beans my mother grinds every morning, and they’re surrounded with long, dark, dreamy lashes. He has a dimple in each chubby cheek, and he smiles a lot, so I get to see loads of dimples.

The next morning at school, I place an invitation on each desk. Reception is mixed. Jillian, Sherry, and Holly form a snug circle.

“Not going. She’s weird,” Jillian says.

“Me either,” Sherry says.

“I’m not showing this to my mother. She’ll make me go.” Holly crumples the invitation.

The boys aren’t excited either, but it’s not specifically about me.

“I hate girls’ parties,” Scotty says.

“Me too. Too much pink and Barbie stuff,” Todd sighs. “I’m tired of Ken and Barbie.”

“She has a trampoline in her backyard,” Doug says.

“Really? That’s different. I can put up with girly colors and sappy Barbie stuff if I can jump on a trampoline.” Todd bounces on the balls of his feet.

I don’t care what any of them say as long as Marlon comes. I ask him, “Are you coming to my party?”

“I don’t know. My mom doesn’t like you since she caught you eating paste,” he says.

“She caught you too!”

“Yeah, but I told her you dared me.” It’s true, but ratting on me to the teacher, even if she’s his mom, isn’t cool.

“Why’d you do that?”

He walks away.

“I have a trampoline in my backyard,” I yell after him.

At recess I ask Marlon again, “Are you coming to my party?”

“I guess. My mom says I can go as long as I don’t eat paste.”

I ball my hands into fists and slam them on my hips. My voice is deadly calm, “We’re not serving paste at my party.”

For two weeks, I’m on my best behavior in class. I don’t eat paste. Or smear thin layers of glue on my hands, let it dry, then peel it off, and ball it up. I don’t run into the girl’s bathroom pretending to cry so I can get out of class. I don’t read a storybook during math.

On Friday, the day before my party, I slip up. I’m supposed to write the alphabet over and over so I can memorize it because I still can’t recite the letters in order. I write it once and start reading.

“Put that book away and memorize the alphabet,” Mrs. Dabrowski says. She doesn’t have eyes the color of coffee beans or long, dark, dreamy lashes.

“Why do I have to memorize it?”

“Everyone has to memorize it.” She props her reading glasses on her head.

“But I can look up there.” I point to the banner above the board that has all twenty-six letters in order.

“Go sit in the hall.” She lowers her reading glasses, and her eyes appear to grow behind the lenses.

On Saturday, the hour of my party arrives. But not Marlon. Three girls and four boys come. But not Marlon. At first, I hope he’s just late. But then it becomes too late for him to just be late.

The boys keep looking out the window at the trampoline. “That’s a real nice trampoline you have,” says Todd, bouncing his fingers on the edge of the dining room table my mother has dressed with a lace coverlet and set with plain white paper plates and plastic forks. He’s not going to get to jump on the trampoline—my mother doesn’t want anyone getting hurt—but at least he doesn’t have to look at Barbie stuff.

The girls, mostly silent, take no pains to hide their boredom, and the cat’s got my tongue. I’m scared to talk to the girls, who don’t like me, and none of the boys are Marlon. Playing pin the tail on the donkey, eating cake and ice cream, opening presents, passing out party favors—it’s all a blur. It’s hard to be sad and pretend to be happy.  I’m done with birthday parties.

On Monday I walk into class, sit at my desk, and open a book. I don’t even look for Marlon.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring Marlon to your party,” says Mrs. Dabrowski, her voice all soft and sweet like my mother’s when she’s explaining to the milkman why we can’t pay the bill. Mrs. Dabrowski is standing by my desk. “We had something come up unexpectedly.”

“That’s okay,” I say, “With a name like Marlon Dabrowski, your son can’t ever be president anyway.”

For a moment empty air hangs between us, then anger puffs out of her and washes over me. Flashing through my imagination, like pictures in an album, I see her yell at me, my mother yell at me, and Marlon look at me with disgust, but none of that happens. Instead, Mrs. Dabrowski takes her bug eyes, which are the color of mud and rimmed with stubby lashes, and zooms back to her desk. I hear her shuffling papers, and if they were panes of glass, jagged shards would litter her desk.

“Marlon,” she calls, and he walks to her. I don’t hear what she says to him, but I don’t have to.

My heart squeezes, and I keep my eyes on my book. If I watch Marlon walk back to his desk and he looks at me, I’ll burst out crying and run to the girls’ bathroom, and my tears will be real.

All morning I’m a perfect student. If Mrs. Dabrowski thinks it’s to make her like me, she’s wrong. I need the cocoon I’ve spun around myself. Truth is I still love Marlon Dabrowski.

Throughout the morning, I steal out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye glances at Marlon. During one glance, I notice he’s folding paper. If his mother catches him making paper airplanes again, she’ll bite his head off. She’s in a mood.

At recess I sit alone on the wooden bench farthest from the kids playing kickball. My eyes are closed and my head is tilted toward the sun. A shadow crosses my face, and when I open my eyes, I expect to see a cloud but see Marlon instead. He hands me an envelope made out of writing paper. “I don’t even want to be president,” he says. He shoves the letter into my hands and runs back to the kickball game.

I open the folded paper. Inside he’s written happy birthday and placed a dollar. It’s his whole allowance for the week. He knows I don’t get one.

Refolding the paper around the dollar, I look for Marlon across the way. He’s looking back at me. I’m smiling and he smiles back. Aah, those dimples, loads and loads of dimples.

A version of this story was originally published by UW-Eau Claire-Barron County Campus in their annual Red Cedar Review in June 2020.

Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids

The synapses in my brain zing snarky impulses from neuron to neuron, causing my mind to fire on all cylinders with crankiness and snarl, feed me serotonin.

I have to write because that’s what the old gray mass wants. At this point, my brain is past accepting substitutes—walking, chocolate, reading, or cleaning won’t short-circuit the cranky electrical impulses as my brain begs, write, you know you want to; write, you know you need to; just bloody hell write.

***

I’m retired and days should be my own, but my grandkids need daycare, and being the only available option, I’ve been babysitting now for two-and-a-half months.

Most weekdays my four grandkids fill the house with the discordant sound of a young orchestra struggling to play on key and in time. I love them, but by the end of the day, their continuous, overlapping voices and sounds of play erode my energy, leaving my mind worn down like a piece of driftwood partly buried in sand.

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides. It’s been days since I’ve attempted any writing, and the front and rear bumpers of my soul are almost rubbing together.

Each morning I’ve grand plans to write after my grandkids go home. But after they leave, I descend into a stuffed chair, stretch my legs over its ottoman, and muster up what I need to get through the few hours I’ve left before going to bed. Writing rarely makes the cut.

My weekends are grandchild-free, but I’m spending them working on a sizeable editing job for a client. The work is stimulating, and the client’s writing is enjoyable, but it’s not the same as doing my own writing.

Because I’ve the reserves for escapism but not the stamina to write, I hide from writing, pretending I’m being productive by reading a novel for my book club, embroidering dishtowels for friends, and watching British police dramas with tortured detectives, hence phrases like bloody hell slinking into my speech. (In one police drama, the storyline featured a detective winning third place in a prestigious writing contest. It was the character’s last episode, and with no explanation for his exit, I’m assuming he left the force to pursue a rewarding writing career. I decided the show was mocking me. But I still watch it.)

***

Today, mercifully, my 22-month-old grandson falls asleep on the daily car ride my grandkids and I take after lunch. I carry him into the house and place him on the couch. He curls up like an armadillo and slips back into a deep slumber. If he follows his routine, he’ll sleep about two hours. His older siblings migrate to the rec room to play with a marble run and building blocks. An enticing silence replaces the din of chatter, constant questions, and chirps of “Nana.”

I brush aside plans to catch up on housework and slip into my writing hole. I ease in by organizing a few items on my desk. Next, I slide a little deeper by doing some research for an article I’m writing. Finally, I burrow in and start writing this essay about how hard it is to write after caring for grandkids all day.

***

A friend of mine often tells me I’m doing an important job (the babysitting not the writing). I agree with her that caring for children is important, but I don’t say that for me, it’s not enough.

Writing isn’t my hobby, but it’s not my job either. I started writing after I retired, and I grapple with its place in my life, but if I ignore writing, it picks and prods at me. If I don’t write, writing finds me, invading my thoughts, diverting them from the world around me. I start composing in my head and later find I’ve driven to the end of my day, but don’t remember the scenery along the way.

***

After more than two hours at my desk, except for quick breaks to check on my grandkids, my brain is swimming in a pool of serotonin. So, when my sleeping grandson awakes calling, “Nana,” I know I can handle whatever he tosses at me for the afternoon. We meet halfway between the living room and family room. He reaches up for me and I reach down for him, scooping him up in a big hug.

At six o’clock my son picks up his children, and I write for another half-hour, but I’m tired because it’s been a ten-hour day. I take a break to eat, but I don’t want to leave my writing world, so when I join my husband in the family room where he’s watching TV, I read a book about writing essays. The book, a bit academic, isn’t what I thought it would be, but the writer’s prose is wonderful and I find myself lulled by the rhythm of his sentences, enjoying his contemplations about essays. I’ve entered a Zen-like calm. It’s the best I’ve felt in days.

Even if it’s just in snippets of time, I resolve to write more, to read more about the craft of writing, and to sign up for writing classes. If I don’t, my brain will hunt me down, nip at my heels, and bite me in the behind. And, having started writing after retirement, behind is what I feel. At sixty-one, I don’t see unending days and years stretching ahead of me, like I did when I was twenty and thirty. It’s harder to say, I’ll write when life settles down, because that doesn’t happen. Life pushes in, but with keyboard at fingertips, I need to push back.

“Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on September 8, 2020.

A Cracker Jack of a Story

Nana Kitty

My nana, a petite woman, had merry eyes and a high-wattage smile. Her face was framed with large curls of chestnut brown hair. She played games with us and sang to us. She took us to parks and pushed us on swings. She turned on the radio in her kitchen and danced with us, her moves livelier than the orange and yellow pattern prancing across her linoleum floor. Occasionally, we walked ten blocks with her to the grocery store, and she kindly let us carry the bags of groceries back to her house, all ten blocks.

Sometimes she bought us Cracker Jacks. Nana was a widow on an egg-and-toast budget, and she counted her pennies like Silas Marner, but Cracker Jacks were cheap and came with a toy surprise. For Nana, who worked as a waitress at a pancake joint in downtown Milwaukee, it was a bargain.

Nana was a reader but rarely read to us. Instead she regaled us with stories, and like all story tellers, she retold them, like her Cracker Jack story. So, when she gave us Cracker Jacks, she gave us the story too.

I can close my eyes, smell the sweet and salty Cracker Jacks, and recall Nana and myself sitting on her front stoop . . .

As she starts her story, I open my box.

“One day, when I was a little girl,” Nana says, “my brother Jake brought me some Cracker Jacks.”

I start nibbling caramel corn.

“I sat on our front steps, eating my treat,” she says.

I tip my box, letting caramel corn and peanuts fill my left hand, which I have cupped into bowl.

“I savored each piece,” she says. But my brother could’ve done more for us than bring us Cracker Jacks now and then. He only gave my mother a dollar a week.”

*****

When she was a child, Nana’s family became Tobacco Road poor. Her father died of typhoid fever. He left behind seven children and a pregnant widow, who donned a black dress and never recovered from her grief. Shortly after her father died, a representative from the West Bend Aluminum Company, where he’d worked, delivered a life insurance check to his widow. It was a lot of money, but not enough to care for the family long term. Nana’s mother handed the check to Jake, her oldest son. He wanted to buy a gas station. It was 1922. He told his mother, “I can support the family. The automobile is on the rise. Our family will be on the rise.” Jake was half right. He made lots of money, but only he rose. Jake broke his promise to help the family. Instead he bought crisp white shirts, snazzy suits, and a new car. He lavishly courted girls. When he landed a beauty from a well-to-do family, he bought a grand house and fancy furniture.

******

I squeeze the short sides of my box, creating a circular opening at the top. I peer into it.

“It took me a good part of the morning to eat those Cracker Jacks,” Nana says.

I tilt my box to the left and look, then tilt it to the right and look.

“Finally,” she continues, “the only thing left was my toy surprise.”

I set my box on the stoop next to me. With my free hand, I grab the bottom of my T-shirt, pulling it out and up, forming a cloth bowl. I dump the Cracker Jacks from my left hand into my T-shirt bowl.

“Slowly, I opened the toy package,” Nana says. “It was a diamond ring! I’d never seen anything so sparkly. It fit my finger perfectly.”

I grab my Cracker Jacks and pour some of them into my T-shirt bowl. I look in the box again and see the package that holds my toy surprise.

“I went to play,” she says. “I felt like a princess.”

I hold off retrieving my toy surprise and start nibbling again. My favorite part of the story is coming. It involves Mean Mildred.

“Mildred,” Nana says, pressing her lips together before spitting out the name, “noticed my diamond ring and asked to see it.”

I put a piece of caramel corn on my tongue. I don’t chew. The caramel coating melts in my mouth.

“I didn’t want to, but I took off my ring and let Mildred see it,” she says. “That r-a-t ran off with it!”

In Nana’s world, calling someone a rat is so bad that when she calls Mildred a rat, she says she has to spell it. I wonder if this is because Nana is Catholic. My mother was Catholic but married a Presbyterian, so we’re not much of anything.

“Why didn’t you keep the ring on your finger and just let her look at it?” I’ve asked this question many times. I pick a Spanish peanut out of my T-shirt bowl and rub it between my thumb and finger to remove the red skin.

“I never thought she’d steal it,” Nana says. “The r-a-t refused to give it back.”

I ask the same question I asked the first time I heard this story, “Why didn’t you tell your mom or her mom?

“Her family was rich and important.”

“But it was your ring.” I say this every time—I know my part in the telling of the story.

“No one was going to care about my troubles. I was poor and lived on the wrong side of town in an old log house,” Nana says. “That house had no bathroom, no electricity, and no running water.”

Each time Nana tells this story, I want it to end differently. In my version Mean Mildred’s mother marches Mildred to Nana’s house and makes her daughter return the ring.

Nana starts another story, and I reach for my toy surprise at the bottom of my box.

*****

When I was young, I believed Nana’s story about the diamond ring. I was joyful when she found the ring in her box, sad when Mean Mildred stole it, and angry when Nana was powerless to get it back.

As I grew older, I came to doubt Nana’s story. All the rings I’d ever found in my Cracker Jacks were made of cheap metal and plastic gems. I wanted to ask, “How could a real diamond ring get inside a box of Cracker Jacks?” But didn’t. I wanted to tell her, “You were so young—you just thought it was a diamond ring.” But I didn’t.

I didn’t because half a century later, she still mourned the loss of her ring. The unspoken part of her story was her life might have been different if she hadn’t lost her “diamond” ring. For Nana that moment stamped a lifetime of struggles in concrete: going hungry, picking beans in the fields when she was nine, being told she couldn’t go to high school, marrying a man who became an alcoholic and couldn’t hold a steady job. But Nana survived. She scrimped and saved and bought the smallest house in a middle-class neighborhood. She worked in the cafeteria at a Catholic school to pay for a proper education for her two children. She put meals on the table and paid the mortgage while her husband drank and was, at times, out of work.

In 2012 Cracker Jacks celebrated their 100th anniversary of toy surprises by giving away thirty winning tokens that could be traded in for real diamond rings valued at $1,000 each. But Nana had passed away. If she’d been alive, she’d have said, “That’s nothing! When I was a girl, I found a real diamond ring in my Cracker Jacks!” And, she’d have told her story again.

“A Cracker Jack of a Story” earned an honorable mention in the Indianhead Writers’ 2019 Contest for nonfiction. It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poems in October 2020

Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again

[When COVID-19 caused dangerous spikes and lockdowns in April and May, I became too anxious to write. I’d only been writing over a year, and this was my first serious bout with writer’s block. But I needed a creative outlet, so I turned to a cherished hobby.]

COVID-19. Schools are closed; nonessential businesses are closed. But I worry about my husband, an essential worker, getting sick. I fret about my 79-year-old mother living alone in Michigan. I miss my children and grandchildren. I think about death.

And, I can’t write.

Fellow writers describe their new writing routines. Breathlessly, like excited young lovers, they talk about the hours they spend writing. I flutter between cleaning, cooking, walking dogs, and checking email. I’m not admitting I can’t write. Scariest thought racing through my head: Do I ever want to write again?

A writer writes, even in tough times. I wonder, Am I a real writer? I have ideas, but my concentration has jilted me. Then I read an essay by another writer who says that it’s okay to not write at this time. Validation. Perhaps I need a break.

I turn to an old love—quilting.

A stack of my son’s hockey T-shirts, which I’d cut and ironed to fusible interfacing months ago, squat on the dining room table.

I look at the T-shirt blocks and freeze. I’ve no pattern, and it takes precise measuring to create one. The blocks taunt me, much like my writing when I’m away from my desk. At this point, both are unrequited lovers.

Just start the quilt. Or write. Make a choice.

I begin surrounding each block with a black border, difficult because each block is a different size. I abandon the quilt and mop the kitchen floor.

Stop it. Start sewing. Make a mistake? Use a seam ripper—the delete button of sewing.

I return to sewing borders around each block until I come to the black T-shirt. Dilemma. A black border along the black T-shirt lacks contrast. I delve into my fabric stash. I find a gray print with a hint of pattern, which compliments the black T-shirt. Audition time. I place the black T-shirt on the gray fabric and return it to the other blocks. It screams, “Look at me!”

Cabela, our standard poodle, helps with the layout.

Egad, it’s a little darling. I kill it by replacing the gray border with the same black border I used on the other blocks. It no longer causes a scene and it works. Harmony returns to the quilt. Yes, the little darling had to go.

I arrange blocks on the floor. Blocks are sentences. Rows are paragraphs.I move blocks around. I exchange one row with another row. Reordering my “sentences” and “paragraphs” until the quilt reveals its best version.

I stitch the blocks together in vertical rows. Time to add narrow strips of bold color between each row. I select fabrics of blue, green, and red to enhance the bright colors in the final border. But the quilt is already bigger than I expected. I could cut a row, but each row tells a story about my son’s hockey days as a player. I study the T-shirt blocks on the floor. They float on the black background. Separating each row with a color would be superfluous: “words” that don’t belong. I stitch the rows together without colored strips. My son’s quilt is ready to go to the machine quilter.

The finished quilt top before it went to the machine quilter, who quilted it with a pattern of hockey sticks and pucks. My son now has the quilt to keep him warm this winter.

I escaped the pressure to write by quilting. My hunger for creativity was satisfied, and my pursuit of serenity was realized. But writing followed me throughout the composing and editing my son’s quilt. As I pieced the quilt, I wrote the rough draft of this essay, first in my head then at my desk. Quilting calmed me and gave me space to think about writing. It carried me back to my desk.

I’m writing again. But when I become too antsy, I throw myself into the arms of another quilting project.

“Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on June 17, 2020.

From Journal Entry to Flash Essay

Below is my journal entry from May 8, 2020, after discovering bunnies had eaten all my tulip buds but one. The journal entry was published by Passenger Journal’s Pandemic Diaries on May 12, 2020. I later developed the journal entry into a flash essay called “Tulips Beheaded.”


Journal Entry May 8

Only two daffodils bloomed, but the tulips showed great hope. Yesterday I counted nine tulip buds that were ready to burst open in red. This morning I walked to the back garden and found one red tulip with its petals fully opened to the sun. It caught my eye with its vibrant red. I looked at the other buds to see how close to blooming they were. Gone. All. Gone. Sheared off by some animal’s guillotine teeth. Probably some overly cute bunny. This has happened in past years, and this year we have lots and lots of bunnies in the neighborhood, so I wasn’t surprised to see my tulips decimated. What’s different is that I wanted to have a good, wailing cry. But I stuffed my tears because if I started, I wondered if I’d stop. 

Tulips Beheaded

Only two daffodils have bloomed, but the tulips show great promise. I count nine tulip buds ready to open and reveal their dressy reds: the color of tunics worn by the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. My tulips will stand watch in a humble stretch of garden that is nestled behind my house, allowing them to avoid cold spring winds advancing from Lake Superior. Because of the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, I await the triumphant return of my tulips with sharpened enthusiasm.

The Lone Survivor

The following afternoon I return to my garden. A solitary red tulip, its petals open to the sun, stands at attention. I look toward the other tulip buds to see if they’ll soon join their companion. Gone. All. Gone. Only eight headless stems remain, each encircled by pointed leaves that failed to protect them. The buds were sheared off by some animal’s guillotine teeth, most likely one of the hordes of rabbits pillaging the neighborhood.

I want to have a good, wailing cry. But I stuff my tears because decapitated tulips are nothing to cry about during a pandemic that has claimed so many lives and caused so much havoc. And, if I start crying, I wonder how long it’ll take me to stop. I won’t be crying about the tulips.

 A musical image interrupts my thoughts. It’s Elmer Fudd singing, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit, from the cartoon parody of a tragic opera. A rabbit hunter performing an aria about killing his prey, Fudd sings what I feel. I sing with him, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit. But Fudd is lampooning tragic opera and its depths of darkness. The parody strikes a chord with me because I know that no rabbits will die by my hand. Tragic opera is about fatal flaws, vengeance, and remorse, and I can do without the remorse.

With kill the rabbit still echoing in my head, my synapses retrieve the song “Circle of Life” from my memory bank. The tunes spar in my head, and I smile at my dark humor, but the rabbits have won. Spring has been late in coming, and the rabbits need food.

I sure hope they enjoyed their fillet of tulip buds.

Elmer Fudd pops back into my head, only now he sings, kill the COVID, kill the COVID.

Tossed

Ruby had started at the new school right after Labor Day. The new army base was a slightly different version of the old one. She had known from the first week of school, she would be on the perimeter again. The last one chosen for a team in gym. The partner no one wanted for a group project in class.

The bag of marbles was her only triumph.

At recess, she played marbles. Most girls didn’t. The boys had been excited to play her. “Easy pickins,” they whispered among themselves. “Do you play for keeps or funzies?” a boy asked. “Keeps,” she said. But Ruby didn’t lose. Every day, her bag swelled with marbles. She stashed her spoils in coffee cans at the back of her closet.

By the end of September, the boys stopped playing her for keeps. Playing for funzies bored Ruby. Holding her bag of marbles, she sat on a concrete bench. She watched the girls jumping rope and thought, I could jump rope. I just need to jettison my marbles and focus on my new mission.

Next to her, jutting toward the sky was a round piece of playground equipment. Inside a red metal ladder led to the top. Outside four shiny poles were anchored to the ground with rusted chains. Ruby clutched her bag and climbed. Instead of sliding down a pole, she hoisted herself above the top. She looked like a soldier protruding from a tank. 

She slipped her hand into the bag, pulled out a marble, and dropped it. A small mushroom of dust rose as it hit the ground. For a moment it lay undisturbed before being snatched up. A legion of boys gathered under her tower. Ruby dropped one marble at a time, waiting until a boy seized it before dropping another. 

“Ruby, here,” a boy yelled. They pushed and shoved like the pigs she slopped one summer when she lived with her grandparents. The snorting boys gave her pleasure. She fed them cat’s eyes, crystals, solids, aggies, bumblebees, rainbows, and steelies. 

Each day with military precision, she timed her marbles to run out as recess ended. “You bringing more marbles tomorrow?” Arnold, a pink-faced, chubby boy asked.

“Maybe.” She turned on her heel, head high, chest out, ramrod straight.

Each evening she reloaded her bag. Friday, as she dropped her last marble, a teacher appeared at the bottom of her tower. “You, get down here,” she ordered and marched Ruby to the principal’s office. 

First came the command, “You cannot toss marbles from playground equipment. Someone could get hurt. Understood?” 

Ruby conceded. She had no marbles left, no plans to replenish her supply. She was done with marbles.

Next came the query, “Why were you dropping marbles?”

Ruby looked at her folded hands resting on her faded calico dress. She thought about the boys rooting for her marbles, squealing her name. She had been intoxicated by her power over them.

Ruby looked at the principal and said, “I just wanted to share.”

On Monday, she would be bringing her jump rope to school.

“Tossed” won the Lake Superior Writers’ 2019 Contest for short-short fiction. It was also selected by WritersRead 2020 and performed at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. It aired on Wisconsin Public Radio on February 11, 2020. The reading of “Tossed” can be found at 1:14:45 on the program.

Writing’s Daily Worries

Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)

I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.

“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.

“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.

Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?

When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.

Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”

“I forgot,” I say.

But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?

The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.

I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .

After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.

Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.

“Writing’s Daily Worries” appeared on Brevity Blog on December 18, 2019, and on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 9, 2020.