I loved her voice and the way she danced and strutted across the stage, giving every song her all. She was power and elegance and talent.
As kids my sisters and I loved Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Rolling on a River.” We loved how they started the song out “nice and easy” because as Tina said, “we never, ever do nothing nice and easy” then halfway through they rocked the song like a river bursting over its banks.
We called Milwaukee’s Fun-Loving WOKY at 920 on your AM dial. They took requests. So we asked, “Can you play ‘Rolling on a River’ the way Ike and Tina Turner sing it?”
“Sure,” someone at WOKY said. After all, they were Fun-Loving.
Instead they played “Rolling on a River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Disappointed, we called again and again, asking for the “nice and easy” version. But we were kids, and we pissed them off with our insistence they get our request right. They told us they wouldn’t play Ike and Tina Turner’s version because they’d just played the CCR version.
We gave it a rest. But we called every couple of days, asking to hear “Rolling on a River” by Ike and Tina Turner. Fun-Loving WOKY at 920 on your AM dial never honored our request. After a couple of weeks we gave up.
Today I didn’t need to call a request line to hear Tina Turner sing “Rolling on River.” I’ve got YouTube. I watched three different versions of Tina sing and dance to the best version ever of “Rolling on River.” And I was twelve years old again.
I’m reading Last Circle of Love because I met Lorna Landvik, for a second time, at an author’s book talk in April. Lorna is a kind, funny person, and I enjoy listening to her talk about life and writing. When I met her for the first time in 2019, I bought her book Your Oasis on Flame Lake, and I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and their stories. In April, I bought Last Circle of Love, believing I would like it just as much or even more. Turns out I like this book even better. It’s a heartfelt story with interesting and diverse characters who come to life and pull at my heart with their stories..
What is this book about?
The women who belong to the Naomi Circle at All Souls Lutheran have just attended a luncheon at the Prince of Peace. Everything about the Prince of Peace is larger, shinier, newer, more opulent, and richer. But what really bothers the women from All Souls is the glitzy, full-color, professional-looking recipe book the women at Prince of Peace will be selling. The Naomi Circle of women are discouraged because they need a good fundraising idea to help keep All Souls’ doors open.
Someone jokes that the Naomi members should write a book called the ABCs of Erotica. The idea for their book isn’t meant to be pornographic, but rather romantic. The women and men who write pages for the book write about loving gestures, kindness, understanding, and sharing that have brought them closer to their loved ones. Of course, the Naomi Circle of women worry that some church members may think the book will be pornographic, but Pastor Pete, relatively new to the church and more open-minded than the last pastor, gives support to the women to explore the idea.
Will the ABCs of Erotica be the fund-raising savior All Souls needs? Or will the idea divide the church members, causing some to join Prince of Peace Church? Will Pastor Pete be hailed as forward thinking or sent packing?
Why is this book important?
It’s a cozy story with important themes. Many of the main characters are in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Landvik portrays them as real people with hopes, dreams, desires, and goals — people who want to embrace life, just like they did when they were young. In Landvik’s story, old people are complicated and vibrant, still trying to figure out life and what’s next for them. They are interesting.
While Last Circle of Love is set in a small fictitious town in Minnesota, the story is filled with a diversity of people and themes about diversity, such as sexual orientation, ageism, and sexism. Landvik’s gentle tale counters intolerance, anger, and ignorance with themes of love, acceptance, open-mindedness, and forgiveness. She delivers an important message with a spoonful of sugar. But more importantly with her novel, she accomplishes what a good story should. Even though we are entertained by mostly upbeat characters and a light-hearted plot, the story makes us think about important issues.
I look out my kitchen window. I can see Mrs. H’s house. She died last November at the age of ninety-one. Yellow caution tape runs from the road, past the side of her house, and toward the back of her yard where her magnificent gardens, filled with daffodils and tulips and other flowers I can’t name, bloom every spring. The caution tape evokes the feeling of a crime scene, but it’s simply there to keep the people at the estate sale from trampling through the gardens. Cars park up and down her block and the next block and on my block. People line up outside her front door, waiting to enter her home, hoping for bargains at the estate sale. I think about Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and the scene with gleeful characters scavenging through the belongings of the recently dead Scrooge.
I’m not saying Mrs. H was like Scrooge, she wasn’t, or the people in line are gleeful, they’re not, but this is what I think about. I waver about whether or not I will go to the estate sale. Going into Mrs. H’s home — looking at her possessions, which under normal circumstances would have been in cupboards and closets and drawers — feels like an invasion of her privacy.
I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twenty-seven years. Mrs. H was here when I moved in, but I’ve never been inside her house. We were of different generations. But I liked her well enough and enjoyed our brief chats when she walked by my house, first with one Miniature Schnauzer then later on after that dog died, with another one.
Even though going to the estate sale feels like an invasion of her privacy, I’m curious about what her house looks like inside. It’s adorable from the outside — one of my favorites on the street. I might buy something as a keepsake.
I keep watch out my kitchen window, and when the line of people is gone, I grab my purse and walk to Mrs. H’s house. I don’t have to knock to enter, but I do have to take off my shoes.
The front door empties into the living room filled with used furniture. There is a three-person couch for $800, a small outdated stuffed chair and ottoman for $700, and a four-person couch for $900. So much for bargains.
I notice the picture hanging on Mrs. H’s wall has been straightened and marked with a $40 price tag. It’s from the 1980s, like something that hung in a middle-class hotel. For almost a year before Mrs. H died, the picture hung crooked on her wall. Every evening when I walked my dogs past her house, I wondered why she didn’t straighten it. Eventually, I came to believe the crooked picture meant something was wrong with her.
One afternoon, as I walked my dogs by Mrs. H’s house, I ran into her daughter. I asked how her mother was doing. She answered, “Not good.” Her mother was suffering from dementia. I told the daughter about the crooked picture on the wall, that it had convinced me something wasn’t right with her mother. After our conversation, I thought the daughter might straighten it, but she didn’t. The picture remained crooked for months, a signal flag of Mrs. H’s difficulties.
I wander through the house. Its rooms are small, but neat. Simply decorated but bland. Everything is clean. There isn’t much for sale in the house. I get the impression that Mrs. H didn’t like to clutter up her small home with lots of stuff. Objects are $10, $15, $20, $30, $50, $60, $90, and more. If this were a rummage sale, the same objects would be a fraction of the cost. I don’t buy anything, and I don’t stay long. I feel like an interloper. But once outside, I take pictures of some beautiful flowers in one of Mrs. H’s gardens.
Everything changes. Mrs. H is gone. Mr. H died eight years ago. The dishes and tools and clothes and knickknacks that made up their lives are being sold. Mrs. H’s gardens didn’t winter well, and the daffodils and tulips, usually plentiful and jovial, are sparse and lonely. Someone new will live in the house. Mrs. H’s daughter-in-law isn’t sure if the family will sell the home. Perhaps one of the family will live in the home. If they sell it, I hope someone with children will move into the house. When I first moved to this neighborhood, it was filled with children, including my own, and I miss the shouts and the laughter of children playing outside.
Yesterday I blogged about my struggles while trying to write a flash essay. By the end of the blog, I decided to write my story as fiction. The plan was to walk my dogs and brainstorm ideas.
Well, I walked the dogs. And I thought about the essay as fiction. But every story path I went down rang false.
When the dogs and I returned home, and after I gave them treats, I looked at the rough draft of my flash essay. It didn’t read as badly as I thought it did when I’d spent time with it the night before. Maybe we just needed a break from each other.
Yesterday afternoon I revised and edited then emailed my essay to some readers, both writers and nonwriters. The feedback was good, so I think I’ve done okay. I can hang out with the essay for a week before I have to submit it. I’ll check on it a couple of times a day, making sure it still looks okay.
Something about the event in my essay wouldn’t let me turn it into fiction. I had to find a way to make the real story say what I wanted it to say, as best I could. Then I had to accept that it would never completely hold what is in my heart.
Years ago when my father and I were driving around his hometown, he pointed to different houses that had been built by the same carpenter. I’ve forgotten the name of the man but not the wisdom of my father’s story. The carpenter told my father that each time he built a house, he tried to improve upon the previous house he’d built. He wanted the new house to have a better floor plan and better function. He also told my father that each time he finished a house, he knew he hadn’t reached his ideal, that he’d always find something about the house wanting. The carpenter told my father that he came to realize he would never build the perfect house, no matter how many houses he built.
That’s good wisdom for a writer. Because that’s how I feel about each story or essay I write: It doesn’t match the ideal in my head, but sometimes I get close.
. . . but instead, I’m blogging about having a difficult time writing the flash essay. Probably because it’s about a moment in my life that has a lot of meaning and emotions attached to it. (I’ve already tried writing about this event as a long essay, and I have several versions of it in notebooks and computer files. But none of that was working either.)
Writing about something that is very near to me can be tricky. I want to capture the feeling of the moment without sounding trite or whiney. I want to express its importance in a way that gives it respect, but also in a way that says what I want it to say. And that’s the hard part. I can hear the words and emotions in my head, but when I try to put them on paper, they don’t always come out in a way that is even close to what I want to say.
So, I’ve been experimenting. I’ve started the flash essay at different points in time, and I’ve tried different tenses. There is less wiggle room with point of view. Most essays I write are in first-person. I’ve used second-person a few times when the essay is very brief, but only after I couldn’t make the essay work in first-person. Using the second-person point of view seems to give me permission to put a bit of distance between me and the raw emotion that is hampering my writing. But sometimes second-person doesn’t work either. How do I know these other attempts aren’t working? Because when I try them, they are clumsy, tripping over their own words, then falling flat upon the page.
On rare occasions, I take a third approach. I turn my essay into flash fiction or a short story. A couple of months ago, I worked on an essay but couldn’t make it work. I wrote and rewrote, trying different tenses and points of view, different starting points, more dialogue, less dialogue, more backstory, less backstory, more showing, less showing. I ruled out trying a second-person point of view because I knew that wouldn’t work. I was frustrated, feeling like a failure. Why couldn’t I write my personal essay? I gave up, and put it away. A few days later, I returned to it and wrote it as a short story in third-person point of view.
And ZING, it worked. Writing it as fiction allowed me to step away from the story that I couldn’t tell as nonfiction. I let my characters’ conversations, thoughts, and actions tell the story, and they were able to convey the emotional richness that I couldn’t capture in an essay. I also manipulated the timeline and tossed in some fictional details, none of which changed the emotional truth of the story, but rather made the story flow better as fiction. I wish I could write the flash essay as a flash fiction story, but I remember the submission guidelines as asking for nonfiction flash essays or poems. And I’m no poet.
I’m back. You didn’t know I was gone, but after I wrote the previous paragraph, I decided to take a shower, which is another way I try to solve writing dilemmas. And while in the shower, I kept wishing the publication took flash fiction along with flash essays and poems. The hot water smacking me in the head must have thawed something in my memory because suddenly, I thought I’d remembered reading that the publication took fiction too. But that was a few years ago when I submitted my first flash essay to them. This time I hadn’t actually read the submission details beyond the word count and the topic, because having submitted nonfiction flash to them twice before, that’s what stuck in my mind. As soon as I got out of the shower, I checked and, sure enough, they accept flash fiction too!
So, today, I’m going to try writing my essay as fiction. I can fiddle with timelines and factual details to give it the shape of a story. And I hope by letting the characters have the spotlight, I’m able to capture the emotional truth of the story, telling it in a way that will say what I want it to say.
The shower is such a good place to think.
I’m going to walk the dogs now and ruminate about my flash fiction story before I start writing it.
I follow Lois Roelofs’ blog: Write Along with Me, Blogging as a Retired Nurse. Lois is a wonderful writer, and I enjoy reading her blog. When I started following her blog, she was already a widow, having lost her husband, Marv Roelofs. I also knew she was writing a book because she would occasionally blog about the book’s progress. When her book was published in the spring of 2023, I wanted to read it because I knew it would be well written and because Marv’s story about how he chose to live with his terminal diagnosis is an important one. I’m over half way through Marv Taking Charge, and it is a well-written, informative, and touching story.
What is this book about?
In January 2018, while vacationing in Arizona, Marv receives a call from his pulmonologist, who tells him he has lung cancer, small cell, the very aggressive type. The doctor explains to Marv that he needs to start chemo right away. Marv answers, “I’m not interested in treatment,” then hands the phone to his wife, Lois, who is a nurse.
The doctor makes it clear to Lois that Marv’s cancer is terminal, but that he must start chemo right away in order to have a chance of more time. Marv doesn’t change his mind, and he and Lois continue their vacation in Arizona. When they return home, Marv is enrolled in hospice care. Then he and Lois set about living their lives. They visit family and friends, and they do the everyday activities they’ve always enjoyed. Marv has a lot of good days, but Lois also writes about the difficult times.
Why is this book important?
Many people, like Marv, will learn they have a terminal illness, and they will face decisions about how they want to live the rest of their lives. Currently, most terminally ill cancer patients are treated with chemo and radiation, not because treatment will provide a cure, but because it may extend their lives a few months. However, those extra months often come with a decreased quality of life because chemo and radiation are harsh treatments with potentially severe side effects. Marv chose quality of life over quantity, then he and Lois made the best of the days they had left together.
Cancer is talked about with words like fight and battle, and patients are described as courageous. However, Lois, agreeing with Atul Gwande, who wrote Being Mortal, says terminally ill patients should be asked what is important to them.
Marv’s answer to that question was to live out his days without the side effects of medical treatments that were not going to save his life.
[This personal essay was published in the April/May 2023 issue of Our Wisconsin. Last year and this year, the editors asked for submissions on the theme “Lessons Learned from Mom”in honor of Mother’s Day. Our Wisconsin is a print-only magazine. Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who mothers someone.]
Mom taught us to think about how our actions affected other people. My sister and I were about 5 and 6 the first time I remember Mom delivering this lesson.
We lived in rural Franklin, Wisconsin, a mile north of the Racine County border. Sometimes Mom shopped at a small, independent grocery store. It was nearby, and she liked the store’s butcher shop.
On an autumn day around 1965, Mom loaded us into the car for a trip to the local store, which my sister and I relished. The vibrant-colored penny candy located by the checkout counter made our mouths water. Our pockets normally jingled with coins from our piggy banks, but Halloween was creeping up, so Mom had nixed buying sweets. “You’ll soon have plenty of candy,” she said. “Leave your money home.” We grumbled but left the house with empty pockets.
The store was old-fashioned compared to the supermarket where Mom usually shopped. At the supermarket, we had to stay with Mom, so we didn’t get lost. At the local store, we could roam. Mom could either see or hear us from anywhere in the store.
Mom walked to the back of the store to talk to the butcher. My sister and I remained near the candy. We yearned for Life Savers.
While Mom talked to the butcher, our chance arrived. The cashier left the counter while other shoppers browsed the aisles. I grabbed a roll of Life Savers and stuffed it into my pocket. “We’ll share them,” I whispered to my sister.
Mom finished shopping and paid the cashier. The pilfered goods rested in my pocket. My sister and I didn’t attempt to eat them in the backseat on the way home. Mom had something akin to eyes in the back of her head.
After returning home, Mom put groceries away in the kitchen, and my sister and I sat in the family room, opening the Life Savers. A debate about favorite flavors, eclipsed caution. Mom heard us arguing and appeared in the doorway connecting the kitchen to the family room.
“Where did you get those?” Her voice squashed our argument and dread rendered us speechless. We knew that she knew.
“Did you pay for those?” she asked.
We shook our heads. Lying to Mom wouldn’t work. She’d call the store to check.
“Get a nickel from your bank.” She glared at us. “You’re returning the candy, paying for it, and apologizing to the owner.”
The words, apologize to the owner, were the harshest part of the punishment. The butcher, a muscular man, owned the store. He wore a white apron splattered with blood. He chopped meat into chunks with sharp knives. Would he be holding a big knife when my sister and I had to stand before him and admit we robbed him? Would he yell at us?
Driving back to the store, Mom painted various scenarios, hoping we’d absorb what she said. She wanted us to understand the far-reaching effects our seemingly insignificant 5-cent theft might cause.
“You didn’t just steal from a store—you stole from the owner, a person.”
I hadn’t thought about that.
“He has a wife and children. If people steal from him, he can’t pay his bills. His family will go hungry.”
I pictured his starving children.
“He won’t be able to pay his employees, and their families will go hungry.”
I pictured more starving children. Guilt joined my apprehension.
“You stole from him, his family, his employees.”
I pictured a line of angry people.
“If he doesn’t make money, his store will close. His customers will be unhappy.”
Mom’s talk continued all the way to the store. I don’t remember what the butcher said to us, but he wasn’t holding a knife and he didn’t yell.
I never shoplifted again. When my 7th grade friends wanted to steal gum from a drugstore, I refused to go with them. I remembered Mom’s lesson—I wouldn’t just be stealing a pack of gum.
Mom applied this lesson to other situations, compelling us to be mindful of people’s feelings, explaining thoughtless behavior hurts people. But the hidden gem in her moral? We learned humanity.
Today my dear friend Sandi would’ve been eighty years old. She isn’t here to celebrate because she died almost five years ago. But if she were here, she would tell everyone she didn’t like having birthdays, she didn’t want to celebrate her birthday, and if anyone mentioned her birthday, she would be angry. One year her family took her at her word, and she was deeply hurt. (I hadn’t been so foolish.) I knew her birthday needed quiet acknowledgement: a card in the mail, a text, an invitation to lunch for “a chance to chat,” and a small inexpensive, but just-what-she-wanted gift.
The first time I met Sandi was in a law office. She was a paralegal, and I was a newly hired paralegal. When our mutual boss introduced us, he added, “Vickie has an English degree.” (I rarely tell people I’m an English major because I’ve learned they think I’m secretly judging their grammar. I also don’t want them secretly judging my grammar.) Sandi remarked, “Oh, good. That’ll be useful because I can never keep the possessive-apostrophe-s rules straight.” I told her I struggled with affect/effect and to lie vs. to lay. I thought about Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca. I suspected the sharing of our grammatical weaknesses was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Later we would laugh about this. She had been intimidated by my being an English major. But it turned out, having attended a private, rigorous Baptist school, she had some good grammar chops herself.
I was forty-five when I met Sandi, who was sixteen years older than me. And the first time I met her oldest son, he said, “I’m surprised that given the age difference you and my mom are such good friends.” I answered, “Your mom’s a little young for me, but I try to be tolerant.” He burst out laughing with the same raucous from-the-bottom-of-his-belly laugh that often erupted from Sandi. “Point taken,” he said. He knew exactly what I meant about his mother.
One year, just after Sandi had become sick, I cleaned her garage for her as a birthday present. Her son owned the house where she lived and he was coming to visit. Through no fault of her own, the garage was a mess and she knew he would be upset. She couldn’t get the responsible party to clean it, and she didn’t have the strength to clean it herself. However, she was embarrassed about me cleaning up the mess, until I pointed out to her that it was a free birthday present, and weren’t we always about free or very inexpensive presents? It took me hours over the course of a couple of days to sort, stack, and sweep the mess into submission. But Sandi and I had some good times going to the Goodwill and to the hazardous waste disposal site together. If you can have fun going to the dump with someone, that’s friendship. A week later when her son arrived, the garage was shipshape, and he complimented his mother on how good it looked. She told him it looked good because she had been given the best birthday present ever.
I think of Sandi every day, and on some days, I cry because she isn’t here. But I did my heavy sobbing when she was still alive. I’d come home from visiting her and sit on my wooden deck stairs and sob.
A picture of two white ducks paddling on water that her niece painted hangs on my family room wall. Because she knew I loved the painting, she gave it to me before she died. A quilt graced with cheerful red cardinals perched in pine trees that she made for me rests on my bed. And when I turn out the lights before going to bed, two LED nightlights glow from outlets in my house, ready to light my way should I need to move about in the dark. When she gave the motion sensor nightlights to me, I looked at her rather dubiously. I’m not a gadget person, but she was. She had a light-up-in-the-dark toilet seat that could be set to glow in different colors. She assured me I would grow to appreciate their usefulness. But what I’ve really come to appreciate is that I think of those nightlights as her watching out for me.
Sandi and I agreed on important stuff. Like Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich were the funniest, but the casting for the movie One for the Money was awful. That Antiques Road Show was binge-worthy, but we should always begin watching it with Dairy Queen treats in hand. That potato salad should always be made from scratch and only with real mayo. That sometimes husbands and children had to be humored.
We loved British sitcoms, The Full Monty, and inside jokes. We shared an irreverent, nonlinear, cheeky sense of humor. We could poke fun of each other, ourselves, and situations, making one another laugh out loud, sometimes hysterically, which always made her snort.
But we always knew when to batten down the hatches and look out for one another. That is, after all, why she gave me the motion sensor nightlights.
Like a gourmet chocolate bar, which I eat square by square over the course of a week, I have rationed Riordan’s books, reading one then waiting several months before reading another one. Even though I’m pacing myself, I hope Riordan will write a sixth book.
I’m almost halfway through Robert’s Rules, and it’s as wonderful as the first two books. My favorite kind-hearted, charming characters (and a couple of not-so-favorite, mean-as-snapping-turtle characters) are back. Some characters from the previous books have expanded roles, and a new character, Oliver Robert, an accountant from Milwaukee, has come to Washington Island to be Fiona’s assistant. I wonder if Oliver’s going to be an asset or a liability.
Fiona, the newly elected town chairman, faces budget shortfalls at a time when the Island’s harbor needs dredging and the fire department needs money for equipment and staffing. Fire Chief Gil, concerned about safety, threatens to resign if his budget isn’t increased. In the middle of the Island’s financial woes, Fiona and her boyfriend, Pete, have a falling out.
Ben is bullied at school, but won’t tell anyone. Ben’s father, Pali believes he should move his family to the mainland so Ben can learn the ways of the world beyond Washington Island, even though they all love life on the Island. Ben’s bully, Caleb, is a deeply unhappy and angry child.
Caleb’s mother, Emily, the know-it-all, busy body interferes in everyone’s business. Jim, the DNR ranger, still carries a torch for Fiona. The diabolical Stella has gotten over her embarrassment after losing the election to Fiona and has begun a Twitter campaign of innuendo to sabotage Fiona. Roger still enjoys yoga and his coffeehouse Ground Zero, but he needs to find a way to discourage all the yoga tourists who come to practice at his coffeehouse.
And mysteriously woven throughout the stories of Riordan’s characters, is the chilling voice of a new person whose identity hasn’t been revealed yet. However, we learn in the prologue that the character is fascinated by fire.
So far Robert’s Rules has all the interesting characters, masterful storytelling, and beautiful prose found in Riordan’s first two books of the series.
[I’m forever grateful to Honest Dog Books of Bayfield, Wisconsin, for hosting J. F. Riordan on a Zoom presentation during COVID. And I’m forever thankful that in my need to be connected to writers during COVID, I tuned into Zoom talks to hear many fine authors talk about their amazing books, many of which I bought, read, and enjoyed!]