A Quilt, a Painting, and a Connection

An early moon in January

Last week as part of Bloganuary’s writing topics, I posted “A Treasure That I Have Lost.” Sally, another blogger, read my post and liked it, especially the part about the quilt that my twelve-year-old son and I made for his grandpa. It reminded her of a similar story in her life when she and her twelve-year-old son painted a special picture for his grandfather.

Sally wrote a touching essay about the painting and how much her son’s grandfather treasured the painting. When I read Sally’s blog, I broke out in goosebumps, and I had to blink back tears. Both Sally’s father and my father have passed away.

To read her essay and see the whimsical painting she and her son created, click here: “Beep-Beep.”

One of the greatest joys of writing is when a reader connects with something you’ve written.

Bloganuary Post for January 10: Has a Book Changed Your Life?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. I’m a day behind. And I missed some days, but I was writing other stuff.]

Yes, all of them, even the books I don’t remember.

The first book I loved was “The Little Engine That Could.” It was my favorite bedtime story. My mother once tried to convince me to choose another story for her to read, but I became Little Blue Engine chugging away, steadfastly keeping the course up the mountain, refusing all other stories until my mother gave in and read it. I finally understood her point of view after I had children and had to read “Green Eggs and Ham” a bajillion trillion times.

Grandma Olive believed in books. She was a teacher and gave us books for birthdays and Christmas. She was also the organist and choir director at the Presbyterian Church, so the books usually had a religious theme. She lived eight hours away, and I think she suspected my parents were lackadaisical in the religious education of her grandchildren. She was right to be suspicious. Before every trip up north, my mother reminded us not to mention that we only went to church when we visited Grandma Olive. But I liked those children’s Bible stories too. On Sunday mornings while my parents slept in, my sisters and I created a circle of books by opening them, standing them on edge, and lining them up cover to cover. We climbed inside, pretending we were “Three Men in a Tub,” and recited the Mother Goose rhyme. Then because it was Sunday, I read Bible stories to my sisters, secretly hoping Grandma Olive could sense our piety.

Nana Kitty believed in books. She had a set of encyclopedias from the 1950s on a petite bookshelf in her doll-sized living room. Those volumes contained the world, from Argentina to Yugoslavia, from Aardvark to Zebra, from Mercury to Pluto. I sat on her sofa and played alphabet roulette, reading about Queen Victoria one time and Canada another time. Nana also had a handful of Little Golden Books. My favorite was Scuffy the Tugboat. After Nana died, I ended up with some of the Little Golden books, including Scuffy, which I sometimes read to my grandchildren.

When I was in elementary school, my mother refused to buy me a pair of black patent leather shoes. I was a tomboy and she believed I would wreck them before I could outgrow them, so she considered them a waste of money. But my mother believed in books. Every time I came home from school with a book order form, which was two or three times a year, she let me order three or four books. She never told me they were a waste of money, even when money was tight. Each time my books arrived and the teacher gave me my stack held together with a rubber band, I smelled their newness then hugged them to my chest. I had wanted patent leather shoes, so I would fit in with the patent-leather-shoe girls. But my shoes were never going to make a difference. The books, however, were great friends who took me to new worlds.

In fourth grade I read biographies. The library at Pleasant View Elementary had a series of biographies. Eventually, I read them all–Marie Antionette, Catherine the Great, Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell, Jenny Lind, Marie Currie, and others whose names I can’t remember. While I wanted to sing like Jenny Lind, the person I most admired was Madam Marie Currie. She was determined to get an education despite living through political upheaval and at a time when women didn’t routinely attend college. Between the biographies, I read Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mysteries, and Nancy Drew mysteries.

On Christmas morning there were always some books and new pajamas under the tree. My third favorite part of Christmas day (after the unwrapping and eating) was to climb into bed wearing my new jammies and read my new book. When I was in seventh grade, my mom bought me a complete, unabridged, two-volume set of Sherlock Holmes. She knew I liked mysteries. During Christmas break, I sat in a stuffed armchair with a dictionary tucked beside me and Sir Authur Conan Doyle’s wily detective and his sidekick on my lap. At first, I needed to look up lots of words, but before long I could read Doyle’s stories with only an occasional turn to the dictionary. I was Little Blue Engine, chugging away, up the mountain of new words. I felt so proud that my mother bought something so grown-up for me.

I read through high school and college. During most of my twenties, when I read for fun, it had to be a book written by a British author before 1900. I’ve been a reader my whole life, fiction and nonfiction. I always have a book on my nightstand and a book on the end table. I often have a book in my purse, and in a pinch I have a nook app on my phone with some witty, heart-throbbing regency romances by Jennifer Tretheway, books that are so much fun they are worth a second read.

Once I learned to read, I never stopped. I have a lot of books on my to-be-read pile, but that doesn’t stop me from buying new ones. Will I ever get them all read? Well, “I think I can–I think I can–I think I can–I think I can.”

Bloganuary Post for January 6: Why I Write

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

I write because I love words and sentences and paragraphs. I can play with them like a box of orphaned, mismatched Legos, combining them in different colors and sizes and shapes, building something familiar–yet perhaps not quite like anything anyone has ever seen before.

I write because I love to put an idea, an emotion, a story out into the world, hoping it connects with another person. My story in an online journal, accessible by anyone anywhere with a computer and internet. My story in a paper journal on a table in an art gallery in a small town in Minnesota, accessible by anyone who sits and turns a page.

I write because if I don’t, I’m out of sorts, at odds with myself, missing a piece of me.

Bloganuary Post for January 5: What Brings Me Joy

Bogey, my mother’s dog

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. The words in quotes are from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth. I first read this poem in college, and loved it. It’s still my favorite poem.]

What Brings Me Joy

Fields filled with swaying grasses, splashed with wild flowers, and hugged by trees are my joy. I wandered through those kinds of fields as a child when I lived in southern Wisconsin. And now, I wander along those kinds of fields when I visit my mother in Michigan and walk her dog.

Those fields are to me what William Wordsworth’s “host of golden Daffodils” were to him.

For even when I am absent from those fields, they can “flash upon that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude, / And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances [not] with the Daffodils,” for those belong to Wordsworth. My heart dances with the swaying grasses, for those belong to me.

[To read “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” click here. To view the slideshow below, click on the square on either side of the picture.]

Bloganuary Post for January 4: A Treasure That I Have Lost

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January. I’m a day behind.]

When my father, who lived in Tucson, died in 2016, there were three things I wanted from his estate: a bed-sized quilt I’d made for him, a lap quilt my youngest son had made for him, and a scrapbook of photos I’d made for him filled with pictures of him and my sons.

I got two out of three.

Dad’s quilt with a white background in the focus fabric and a dark blue border

The quilt made for my father arrived first. Years before, on a visit north, my father had gone into a fabric store with me on purpose. Maybe it’s a cliché but most men don’t follow women into fabric stores. My husband always sits in the car. I had a friend whose husband always sat in the car and sometimes napped while she bought material. But my father wasn’t a sit-in-the-car kind of guy. Once on an afternoon jaunt along Lake Superior, I stopped at a yarn shop, and my father came inside with me. He found something to like in that store–the owner’s dogs. While I perused the yarn, they chatted about their dogs.

After I picked out some lovely woodsy, snowy themed material in the quilt shop, my father offered to pay for it. He didn’t say, “Make me a quilt.” The gift came with no threads attached. But in that moment, I knew I’d make him a quilt out of the material. A few days later, I bought a second set of the same fabric in a different color scheme, and I made two quilts, one for him and one for me. I thought about the quilts as a gift of connectedness: he had one and I had one.

Weeks later the quilt my son made for his grandpa arrived. It was late coming because at first no one could find it. I wanted my son to have the quilt. On his own he’d decided to make his grandpa a quilt. He picked out a focus fabric with an airplane motif because his grandpa had a small private plane, which he used every summer to fly from Tucson to Wisconsin to visit us.

The airplane quilt

The making of the airplane quilt was a joint effort between my son and me when he was about twelve. He selected the material, chose a design, and sewed the squares together. I cut the squares using a rotary cutter. If you’ve ever seen or used a rotary cutter for quilting, you will understand why you don’t put one in the hands of a child. When the quilt top was finished, I machine quilted it and put a binding on it. During one of my father’s summer visits, my son gave his grandpa the quilt, who most fittingly put it in his plane when he left and few it home.

The scrapbook of photos never arrived. No one ever found it. I made it for my father around 2005. I wasn’t into scrapbooking, but I had a friend who made gorgeous eye-candy scrapbooks to memorialize family vacations. When I was a child, a scrapbook had plain white pages and people taped or glued articles, photos, ticket stubs, and other flat mementos in them. I have one I made when I was a teenager after my trip to Europe. But scrapbooking had evolved, and people used decorative papers, elaborate stickers, and fancy stick-on letters to create themed pages, which were slipped into plastic sleeves then inserted into a binder.

I made one of those upscale, themed, gorgeous eye-candy, fancy scrapbooks for my father. I filled it with pictures of him and his grandsons. Pictures of him holding them as babies. Pictures of them fishing with him. Pictures of them with him when we visited Tucson. And, most sentimentally, the pictures I took each year of him and his grandsons in front of his plane, just before we stepped away and he climbed inside. We’d listen to him yell “clear” before he started the engine. We’d watch him taxi to the runway then take off. We’d stand on the ground and wave, and my father would tip his wings back and forth, waving goodbye to us.

The scrapbook is a treasure gone missing. No one is sure what happened to it. One year my father, who lived in a raised ranch, had water damage in the lower level in an area where he stored a lot of stuff that had to be thrown away. Maybe the scrapbook was part of the flood.

I have copies of all the photos, but it’s not the same. In the scrapbook, those remembrances were gathered in one place. I wanted to be able to open the scrapbook and wander through those collected memories of my father with his grandsons. I could’ve made another scrapbook, but I haven’t. I think of the one I made for my father as perfect, something I couldn’t replicate.

But I use the quilt I made for him on my bed. The gift-of-connectedness quilt that I made for myself hangs on the quilt rack in my family room.

My quilt with a tan background in the focus fabric
and a sage green border

Bloganuary Post for January 3: What’s the Earliest Memory I Have?

My sister and me, a few months before our trip to Pulaski Park

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

My earliest childhood memory? That would be the morning my younger sister (2) and I (3) took pity on my sleeping mother, left the house early in the morning, and walked a handful of blocks to Pulaski Park in Milwaukee. Mom was tired. Who wouldn’t be with two busy toddlers around the house? So, we didn’t wake her up and ask her silly questions like, “Can we go to the park?”

We also didn’t worry about getting dressed. My sister and I each wore a stylish combination of cotton training pants and summer pajama tops. During a hot Milwaukee summer, we didn’t bother with pajama bottoms.

Pulaski Park was our favorite because Nana Kitty took us there when she came to visit. She put each of us on a swing and pushed us up, up, up, into the always robin’s-egg-blue sky. And, our best, most favorite part? Nana sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” to us while she pushed us on the swings.

It was my favorite song. And on that morning, it was my idea to go to the park. If my nana couldn’t take us, I would take us. I wanted to go to the park because I wanted to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” just like Nana did, even though I didn’t know all the words like she did.

I held my sister’s hand, and we walked down sidewalks, waited at stoplights, and crossed streets without getting hit by a car. We walked on the path into the park and crossed a concrete bridge over a small creek. I helped my sister into the swing, and I pushed her up, up, up, into the always robin’s-egg-blue sky. I sang some of the words from “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

A woman who was at the park, pushing her child on a swing, asked me, “Where is your mother?”

“In bed,” I replied. “I’m taking care of my sister.” I smiled. I felt proud as I pushed my sister into the sky and sang about Puff, the childhood friend of Little Jackie Paper.

And that’s where my memory stops, and my mom’s memory begins.

When my sister and I were older, Mom told us how our trip to the park ended. She woke up shocked and panicky to find we weren’t anywhere in the house. But she had a good idea where we went. She put our German Shepherd, Fritz, into the car and drove to Pulaski Park. So relieved to find us there, she hugged and kissed us over and over again.

A couple of weeks later, Mom woke up and my sister and I were gone—again. We’d gone back to Pulaski Park on our own—again. Mom and Fritz came to get us—again. But the second time, Mom was so upset to find us there, she gave us spankings!

Something Published: “How to Keep a House”

My short story “How to Keep a House” was published by Rathalla Review in their fall issue. To read the story click here and download the PDF. My story is on page 26.

I want to thank Felicia Schneiderhan, a wonderful and kind teacher, and Lake Superior Writers. In January 2021, I wrote the rough draft for “How to Keep a House” in a class called “Rules of Engagement” with Felicia, which was sponsored by Lake Superior Writers. We had to decide on five rules for our story before we started writing it. After we started writing, we could bend or change our rules if something wasn’t working. At first, having a set of rules before I had a real story idea was frustrating. Then it morphed into a creative process that I embraced. I began to like my characters and their story, so I kept revising. For an interesting take on this process read “The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity” by Amy Goldmacher on Brevity Blog.

I also want to thank Kim Suhr and Red Oak Writing. The final revisions I made on “How to Keep a House” were after attending a Red Oak Writing Round Table. Kim Suhr, the director of Red Oak, led the Round Table writing group. After receiving some excellent feedback from her and the other writers in the group, I revised my story once more. It was at this point that I felt my story was truly finished. I submitted it to Rathalla Review, and they accepted it a few months later. For information on Red Oak Writing Round Tables click here. To learn more about Kim Suhr, who is an amazing writer and a supportive mentor, click here.

Finally, I want to thank the editors at Rathalla Review for publishing my story and for their enthusiastic words about it.

Just so you know, I submitted “How to Clean a House” twenty-one times over the course of a year and a half before it was accepted. It’s hard being rejected so many times. But I think about when I was in gym class, and always the last one chosen to be on a team. It smarted, but I learned that eventually someone had to pick me, and then I’d get to play! I loved gym, even if I wasn’t the best athlete.

Bloganuary Post for January 2: How am I Brave?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

I don’t know if I’m brave because I’ve never been in a situation requiring bravery. I could offer insignificant bits of times when I’ve been microscopically brave, but those examples are dust and easily blown away. However, there are stories of bravery among my family, mostly it’s the kind of bravery needed to get through the beating life sometimes hands a person.

My great-grandfather Joseph, in the vest and tie, died of typhoid fever in 1922. His wife Mary is holding my Nana.

My great-grandparents Mary and Joseph, both orphaned young, traveled from New York City to West Bend, Wisconsin, on different orphan trains when they were small children, most likely with notes pinned to their clothing, listing their names, their destination, and the names of their new families—who they met for the first time at the station. Later, Mary and Joseph fell in love and married. But Joseph died young, leaving Mary with seven children and one on the way.

Grandpa George and Grandma Olive with their first child, my father.

My grandpa George and his three younger siblings became orphans at 11, 10, 8, and 3. They went to live with an aunt and uncle. But young George felt it was his responsibility to provide for his siblings, so he went to work at a copper mine. While riding in a wagon and holding a container of kerosene between his legs to keep it upright, some kerosene slopped on his legs and caused serious burns because George didn’t tell anyone until he got out of the wagon. His aunt put her foot down, refusing to let him work at the mine. He was, after all, only 11, and she and his uncle had the means to welcome the four orphans into their brood of children. Later, George started a business, married, and had three children. For the rest of his life, he quietly helped people in need. In his old age, he lost his sight, and to keep busy he cracked pecans, filling jars with nuts to give to family and friends.

Grandpa Howard as a young man

My grandpa Howard fought in World War II for four-and-a-half years. He was shot in the leg while fighting in Italy, and for that bullet he was awarded a Purple Heart. I don’t know if Howard ever carried a wounded soldier to safety or saved his fellow soldiers from enemy fire. He never talked about the war that gave him two permanent souvenirs: a limp and nightmares. The limp was constant, and the nightmares were frequent. The war wrecked his first marriage. He became estranged from his children. And he drank heavily until he became sober in his late 50s, eventually helping other alcoholics.

My beautiful sister and her beautiful daughter, circa 1994

My sister has a special needs child who almost died from seizures at three months old. My sister was brave on that night and has been brave many times since. Doctors told her that her daughter suffered brain damage and would probably never walk or talk or feed herself or learn to use the toilet. My sister spent as much time with her infant daughter as she could, stimulating her, talking to her, moving her limbs. Now an adult, my niece walks, talks, uses the bathroom, swims, plays soccer, and much more. Was it my sister’s love and bravery? Or the neuroplasticity of an infant’s brain? Or a combination? Because of my niece’s cognitive disabilities, she still struggles, and my sister is still brave.

Someday, I will probably need to be brave. And I hope my family stories will give me courage.

Bloganuary Post for January 1: What Is Something You Want to Achieve This Year?

[Bloganuary is hosted by WordPress. A new topic is presented each day during January.]

I gave up making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago. Maybe because I never kept them any better than the resolutions I made at any other time of year. I also don’t stay up until midnight anymore. The arrival of the New Year finds its way without my shouts of “Happy New Year,” and when I wake in the morning it will still be January 1.

But I have an ongoing list of ways I try to improve that I keep in mind throughout the whole year:

  • Be kind, as much as I can, to both people I know and strangers I don’t know.
  • Move around more and eat better.
  • Socialize more. Because I’m an introvert, my first inclination is to stay home, content in my own world with just my dogs and husband for company.
  • Revise and polish some of the rough drafts of stories and essays that I’ve written.
  • Share.
  • Understand and use commas better.
  • Remember that it’s okay to make time to do the things that I want to do.

The New Year gives us a chance to reflect and start again, to make resolutions and become better people. But any other day of the year can be a good day to reflect and start again, to make resolutions. So, Happy New Year throughout 2023, for today and any other day that you may need it the most.

Show and Tell to Remember

[“Show and Tell to Remember” was originally published by the Bacopa Literary Review 2022. It earned an honorable mention for humor.]

Inside my dress pocket, I had the best thing for show and tell. In 1964, I was new at Pleasant View Elementary, and having started in October instead of September, I was an outsider. My kindergarten classmates were going to be impressed. The popular girls would envy me and ask me to jump rope with them during recess. The cute boys would elbow each other and try to sit by me at snack time. My pretty teacher, with bouncing brown hair that flipped up in a long continuous curl around her neck, would look at me with approval.

“Vickie,” the teacher said, “it’s your turn.”

I snapped out of my daydream, rose from the floor, and stood next to the teacher who sat in a chair. My dress was clean, my saddle shoes were polished, and my unruly hair was combed into pigtails. It was my moment. I slipped my hand into my pocket.

“I brought a balloon,” I said. “Each one comes in its own wrapper.” My classmates leaned forward. My teacher turned toward me for a better view. I opened the package and pulled out the balloon.

“Let me see that,” my teacher said. Her hand clutched the balloon and its wrapper. She told me to sit down then called on the next student.

My face burned. At five and a half years old, I had enough sense to know I had done something wrong. But what? I wanted to ask for my balloon back, but I didn’t dare.

Me, circa kindergarten

After show and tell, I saw my teacher on the phone and heard her say my name. I was in trouble, but I didn’t know why. Too embarrassed to ask her what I had done wrong, I waited for a punishment, which in my imagination grew in magnitude as the afternoon dragged on. My graham crackers and milk didn’t sit well in my stomach, and naptime wasn’t restful. Usually, I rode the bus home, but at the end of the day, my teacher told me my mother would pick me up. My classmates left without me.

Mom arrived shortly after the buses rolled away. The teacher invited her to sit in the chair next to her desk but told me to wait in the hallway. They would talk about me, find me guilty—of what I didn’t know—and punish me forever. It had to be bad, very bad, but they didn’t talk long.

“Where did you get the balloon?” Mom asked after we got in the car.

“From your dresser.” Lying would’ve made it worse. My mother always seemed to know the answers to the questions she asked me.

“Don’t go in my dresser again. Or your dad’s dresser. Understand?”

I nodded in agreement. That was it. Not a word about punishment. No “wait until your father gets home.” This confused me because Mom had been called to school. My classmates said nothing about my show-and-tell offering either, and my dreams of popularity remained buried in the playground sandbox.

Because of the eerie silence that followed my kindergarten show and tell, I never forgot about it. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school that I realized I had taken a condom to school, and that Mom had said nothing more about the “balloon” because she didn’t want to explain condoms to her five-year-old daughter.

After I figured it out, I never asked, “Hey, Mom, remember when I thought I took a balloon to kindergarten for show and tell and the teacher called you?” Like any other teenager, I didn’t want to talk about birth control or sex with a parent. The where-do-babies-come-from talk Mom and I had when I was nine, still made me squirm with embarrassment.

After I had children, I appreciated that my kindergarten teacher and Mom handled my show-and-tell blunder with the calmness of an air traffic controller communicating with a pilot as he makes his final approach to a busy airport during a raging thunderstorm. But they never knew how much I suffered that afternoon.

Years later, I wondered if Mom might have been embarrassed because my teacher called her to school to discuss why her five-year-old daughter had a condom in her pocket. If Mom was mortified, she hid it well. She was twenty-four and had three daughters ages, five, four, and one. She may have been more horrified by the wasted condom than my taking it to school. Our family didn’t have the kind of lifestyle where condoms grew on trees.

Having graduated in 1958, Mom was six years out of St. John’s, a catholic high school, from which she almost didn’t graduate. She had written an essay scolding the pope and the Catholic Church for banning the use of birth control by its members. If she had, instead, written an essay describing her struggles with her Catholic faith and questioning the existence of God, the nun who taught the religion class may have said, “God expects his followers will experience a crisis of faith now and then. Keep praying.” But questioning the pope’s stance on birth control was sacrilege.

The school threatened to withhold Mom’s diploma, but she refused to rewrite her essay. She stood ready to see her high school diploma burned at the stake for the right of women to use birth control without fearing God or Hell or nuns who taught religion classes.

But Mom was also practical: She called the Wisconsin Department of Education, who made it clear to the school’s administrators they could give Mom an F in religion, but they couldn’t deny her a diploma because the state didn’t require a religious class for graduation.

For Mom, having to talk to my kindergarten teacher about my birth-control-show-and-tell balloon was probably child’s play. She had already taken on the pope and the Catholic Church and St. John’s High School and a perturbed nun. Besides I went to a public school, and no one threatened to keep me from graduating kindergarten.

[The Bacopa Literary Review 2022 can be ordered by clicking here. To read the complete list of winners and honorable mentions in humor, fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, click here.]