Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Yesterday, a conversation with writers reminded me of the first time I had a character in a story who wouldn’t cooperate with my plot. I wrote this blog after that experience.

Writing Near the Lake

[“Whose Story Is It Anyway?” appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blogon July 9, 2020.]

At the end of the 1946 romantic comedy, Cluny Brown, Adam Belinski, animated by a flash of insight, tells Cluny, “I’m going to write a bestseller, a murder mystery.” Belinski and Cluny agree the victim must be a rich man because it’s pointless to murder a poor man, and Cluny asks, “Who killed him? Who did it?”

My first initial written in the bark

“For 365 pages, I will not know myself,” replies Belinski, “but when, on page 366, it finally comes out, will I be surprised and so will millions of others!”

The first time I heard Belinski tell Cluny he’d write a mystery without knowing who committed the murder until the last page, I laughed. Ridiculous, I thought. Of course, he’ll have to know who the murderer is when he starts…

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Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

Last Monday when I took my nearly twenty-year-old sewing machine to be tuned and cleaned, I looked at a new machine that was the same brand but a step and a half up from the one I own. I’m not sure I would’ve considered buying a newer model if there hadn’t been a pandemic.

The finished quilt top: I will machine quilt it and bind it, then give it to my sister-in-law. My next project will be another T-shirt quilt.

When the lockdowns happened in the spring of 2020, being able to quilt kept me sane. I was home alone during the week because my husband worked in a business that was deemed essential, and I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren because we all stayed in our own bubbles. With all the death and uncertainty, dicing up fabric and sewing it back together was familiar and calmed my nerves. I could quilt without leaving the house because I have a sizable stash of fabric. I made a T-shirt quilt, two lap quilts, and two wall hangings and gave them to family and friends. I made a throw pillow and gave it to my dogs for their stuffed chair. I wanted a second machine because if there’s another lockdown, and something happens to one of them, I would be able to keep quilting.

The new model had features that would make machine quilting and appliquéing easier, helping me expand my quilting skills. But I wanted to sleep on it, so I left my old machine for a tune up and postponed buying the new one. Long ago, I made a rule for myself: All big purchases could only be made after I slept on it for a night. Over the years there were many purchases I never made but very few regrets about the ones I did make.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I was still enthusiastic about the new machine, so after lunch I went back to the store and bought it. When I returned home, I unboxed it and put it on my antique dining room table, which I use for sewing. (Don’t shudder. The table isn’t dainty.) The new machine looked especially modern and sleek on the old oak surface. It stood among a cutting mat, rulers, a rotary cutter, and fabric, becoming a part of the quilting landscape. I turned my back on it and did some writing, cleaning, and cooking. I stayed out of the dining room and away from the new machine. My old one sat in a shop, waiting in a queue for service, unaware it had been replaced. Regret seeped into my psyche. My old machine and I had pieced many quilts together: quilts for family and friends; quilts to welcome new babies into the world. By suppertime I stood in the kitchen and cried, wishing I had waited two nights instead of one.

Would I actually do more machine quilting or appliquéing just because I bought a new sewing machine? For the rest of the evening, I left it untouched. I kept picturing my old one sitting on the technician’s workbench. When it came home, I’d have to store it in a closet instead of returning it to the oak table because I knew it would become the spare.

On Wednesday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and thought about the new machine with deepening regret. I decided to hide it in a dark corner of the closet and shut the door. An absurd idea. So, I set a goal for Wednesday: make friends with the new machine by making a quilt. I have a closet full of fabric and quilt kits that I’ve purchased over the years since I started quilting in 1994. I never had a sleep-on-it rule for buying fabric.

I selected a package of precut strips because I had a simple pattern for a Jelly Roll Race Quilt that would allow me to use all the strips to create a quilt that was quick and easy. (At the speed I sew, I should call it a Jelly Roll Stroll Quilt.)

I sewed a test strip with two short scraps. The new machine sewed a perfect quarter-inch seam. An essential feature. Then I sewed my strips together making one long strip. The new machine has a bigger work surface, making it easier to sew fabric together. A solid improvement. The redesigned quarter-inch foot did a better job of keeping the fabric in place as it passed through the feed dogs, so I didn’t have to keep repositioning it. A welcome timesaver.

Best of all, the new machine sounds like my old one because underneath its modern, sleek exterior, it has the same motor and frame as the old one, which I’d used for almost twenty years. Hopefully, I can use the new one just as long. I’ve got a lot of fabric in the closet.

The first quilt off the new machine will be a gift for my sister-in-law. The package of precut strips was originally purchased by her sister Jen who passed away from cancer in 2018 before she could sew them into a quilt. Jen gave me the strips before she died because she knew I liked to quilt. I’m piecing together the gift from Jen as a gift to her sister, connecting the past to the future while listening to the old familiar rhythm coming from the inside of the new sewing machine.

My new machine and I are going to be friends. But I will keep my old one. Perhaps each one of my grandchildren would like to sew a quilt, and my old machine will make new friends. I know where they can find some fabric.

[To find the instructions for making a Jelly Roll Race Quilt, click here. To read about one of my pandemic quilts, click here.]

Writing’s Daily Worries

Originally posted on October 9, 2020

Writing Near the Lake

[“Writing’s Daily Worries” appeared on Brevity Blog on December 18, 2019, and on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog on January 9, 2020.It was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poemsin 2020.]

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…

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I’m Thinking

The Thinker

“Nana, be careful. You almost stepped on me,” Charlie, my three-year-old grandson, said.

“I’m trying not to, but you’re walking willy-nilly around the kitchen while I’m cooking breakfast.”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m thinking.”

I stopped to watch as he paced the length of the kitchen and back. The top half of his little body leaned forward, his eyes focused on the floor, and his hands pushed against the sides of his hips. Damn. He was indeed thinking. I didn’t ask him for his thoughts. He kept pacing, and I kept making breakfast.

The next day we were back in the kitchen. I walked past Charlie and he started to twirl around. I did that as a child, spinning and spinning until I could barely stand. During one of his rotations, he smacked his hand on the chair.

“Watch where you’re going,” he said, rubbing his hand.

My three-year-old grandson often mimics phrases he has picked up from adults or his older siblings. I love it when he quips, “That’s not how my day goes” after I ask him a question or make a request. At his age it’s funny, but in a few years, he’ll be accused of being a smart aleck when he imitates adults.

“I didn’t bump your hand. You hit it on the chair while you were spinning around.”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was thinking.”

I wanted to tell him he needs to pay attention while he’s thinking. I didn’t because I would be standing on the San Andreas Fault as I said it. This past week I’ve come close to putting peanut butter in the fridge, dirty dishtowels in the recycling bin, and regular milk in my other grandson’s cereal. He’s lactose intolerant. If someone had asked me “What ARE you doing?”  My only defense would’ve been—“I’m thinking!”

My problem? I spend a lot of time thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane activities. It’s worse when I’m working on a specific story or essay. I’m surprised that the kitchen scissors don’t end up in the toothbrush holder and my toothbrush doesn’t end up in the junk drawer.

Cabela has many talents, but she’s not good at babysitting me.

At the end of January, I had a seismic-thinking episode. I was sitting at my computer writing a story but had to stop because Cabela, my senior dog, needed to see the vet for a shot. It was a subzero day with lots of windchill, so I went outside, unplugged the extension cord from the outside outlet, then started the van. Because it’s tough to unplug the cord from the tank heater cord, I decided I’d do that just before I left.

Five minutes later I was ready to go. I noted the extension cord was still plugged into the tank heater. I planned to unplug it, but first I loaded both dogs in the van and placed my purse on the front seat. Then I got in the driver’s seat and drove off. I was writing in my head. My hands might have left the keyboard, but my brain was still at the computer.

Cabela was a good patient. We were soon back home, and I was writing again. A few hours later, I took out the garbage and noticed only one cord on the driveway. Someone had pilfered one of our extension cords. But that was ridiculous, why not take both of them. Maybe an unselfish thief? Couldn’t be. Perhaps my husband had driven off with the cord plugged into his tank heater. I doubted it. He’s not a writer, so he’s never thinking about a story. I must have driven off with the missing cord hanging from my van. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t remember having unplugged it from the tank heater. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was my mistake.

My husband was going to think I was crazy. He was going to ask, “How can you not unplug the extension cord?” It would be a rhetorical question because he knows I’m capable of such things. He was going to be upset about his missing extension cord. But he was going to be more freaked out about me being okay. I was freaked out about being okay—I’m at that age.

My only excuse would’ve been “I was thinking.” His retort would’ve been “Yeah, but not about what you were doing.”

It had been hours since I’d been to the vets. But I got in the van and went to look for the cord. I drove less than eighty feet. Curled up at the corner of our lot, where the street intersects with the avenue, was our yellow extension cord sunning itself.

I stopped the van and retrieved it. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I gave thanks for the kind person who had picked up the cord, coiled it, and set it on the corner. Then I hoped it wasn’t one of our neighbors who would ask my husband, “Was that your extension cord in the road the other day?”

I wasn’t going to tell my husband. But I called a friend and confessed because I needed to tell someone.

To myself I vowed to always unplug both ends of the extension cord before starting the van. Promising myself to stop composing stories in my head while doing routine stuff would be futile.

No one has mentioned the cord to me or my husband. I haven’t mentioned it to my husband, and he doesn’t read my blog. And if he somehow gets wind of this story, I’m going to say, “I was thinking. Charlie gets it.”

Something I’m Reading This Week

The Radium Girls (2016) by Kate Moore

I ordered my copy from Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

I’m on page 200 of 403. This well-researched nonfiction book tells the story of the young women who started working in radium-dial factories just before WWI. Glow-in-the-dark products were gaining popularity, and WWI would significantly increase the demand for them. The dial painters were taught to point the bristles of their brushes with their tongues–called lip pointing–in order to paint fine lines. Supervisors told the painters there was so little radium in the paint that it was harmless.

As factory owners and managers learned that traces of radium weren’t harmless, they hid that information from the dial painters because lip pointing was an efficient, inexpensive method for painting dials, and because they didn’t want workers to become fearful and quit. About five years after the dial painters began ingesting radium, they started suffering painful side effects which were fatal. After the consequences of radium paint became known and proved, companies who employed dial painters kept denying that the radium was dangerous.

One of the women harmed by the radium, found a lawyer who agreed to represent her and some of the other sick women. The companies used high-powered attorneys, lies, and rumors to try and thwart the sick women from winning their lawsuits. Moore skillfully captures the twists and turns of the legal battle between the radium-dial companies and the women who sought compensation. I don’t know how their legal battle ends yet, but I’m rooting for the women.

As I read Moore’s book, I care about the young women, who never grew old. I care about the families they left behind. I want the companies and their executives to be held accountable for their cold indifference to the lives of these women. As I read this story, it strikes me that not much has changed. The story of the women harmed by the profit-minded radium dial companies is the kind of story that still happens today, both in our country and throughout the world.

Stories like The Radium Girls are important because companies still lobby for fewer regulations and for changes to laws that make it more difficult for a harmed person to sue. Without regulatory laws or the ability to sue bad actors in a court of law, people are left to the mercy of those who value their company’s bottom line above all else. The Radium Girls reminds us that we need laws to hold companies liable for their actions.

Every evening I look forward to ignoring the TV and reading The Radium Girls. Moore’s writing is excellent. I’m thankful she told the story of the doomed women who started out loving their jobs and believed their companies were wonderful places to work. We can honor the radium girls by remembering them and by valuing the lives of all workers.

[If you’re interested in hearing Kate Moore talk about The Radium Girls and her newest book, The Woman They Could Not Silence (2021) Click here: Honest Dog Books.]

Yet Another Frozen February Day

Normally, my dogs want to be outside with my grandchildren. But this was the position they took yesterday.

February has been cold. Yesterday was no exception. But when I asked my five- and three-year-old grandsons, Evan and Charlie, if they wanted to go outside, they were enthusiastic. It was snowing lightly, painting the already thick layer of snow with a fresh coat. The outside world looked enchanted—the kind of magic I remember from my childhood.

The temperature was in the low 20s, the winds about 11 m.p.h., and the windchill about 10°. The weather app on my phone doesn’t use the term windchill—the app and many weather channels now refer to windchill as “feels like.” Good for them, but I use the term windchill, and even the chill part of that sounds like a cover-up. Wind-polar-frozen-vortex-shatter-your-skin gets closer to the truth. “Feels like” is too nice. Think about it: That fabric “feels like” silk. The warm sun “feels like” gold. She “feels like” singing rainbows. “Feels like” is also used to soften a blow: She “feels like” crying—when what she really wants to do is throw a howling tantrum. (Just so you know, I’m not against all change. Unlike some people, I had no problem accepting Pluto being downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet.)

After I bundled up my grandsons, I offered each one a scarf. Charlie wanted a one. He always does. Evan never wants one to start with, but sometimes, like yesterday, he changes his mind after being outside for a bit. I wish I would’ve taken a picture of them. Bundled up children are cuter than kittens curled up in a wicker basket. Plus, I could’ve shown off the scarves that I’d knitted. I don’t know how to knit anything else.

After sledding down the side hill for a while, Evan opened the back door and asked, “Nana, can we take the picnic table off the deck and put it on the big pile of snow?” It’s a small plastic table designed for preschoolers.

I said yes, but I didn’t ask why. It was a reasonable request, much more reasonable than last week when Charlie asked if he and Evan could go outside and play with the squirt guns. When I told him no, he didn’t think “It’s too cold outside” was a good explanation, and he wanted to debate the issue.

After my grandsons had been outside for an hour, nature flipped the switch on its wind machine from low to high. That’s how it happens—a flipped switch. You can stand outside and experience the exact moment the wind kicks up from fluttering to roaring. The sustained winds were 28 m.p.h. with gusts of 38 m.p.h. The temperature dropped to the low teens. The WINDCHILL dropped to 8° below. I love my weather app—so much detail. Remember when you called the phone company, and all you got were the time and temperature?

The weather details convinced me it was time to get my grandkids inside to avoid hypothermia or being hit by a falling branch from one of the trees in the backyard. Neither one of them wanted to come in, so I sweetened the deal by offering hot chocolate. Of course, it worked.

When they were taking off their outerwear, Evan stared at Charlie’s face and asked, “Are my cheeks as red as Charlie’s?” He was concerned.

I smiled and said, “Yes, your cheeks are as sweet and rosy as Charlie’s.”

Evan grinned. Something his nana described as sweet and rosy couldn’t be bad.

Outside the wind had the final word as it wailed, its breath bending tree branches back and forth to their breaking points.

Litter Critters Redux

Reading the new Little Critter books

My mother carried the first Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer into our house. She loved Mayer’s stories and drawings, and she thought Just Go to Bed was hysterical. By the time my second son was four years old, we had eighteen Little Critter books.

Last week my grandson Evan, five, discovered Little Critter books are filled with humorous illustrations. After looking at the pictures in one of the books, he handed it to me and said, “Can you read this to me? It’s funny.”

While I read the book, Evan discovered irony. He laughed at the words Little Critter said and pointed out that Critter’s words didn’t match what he was doing in the pictures. “These are really funny books,” he said. I admired his ability to grasp the gap between what was being said and what was happening. So much of life is like that, and it’s not always amusing.

Evan enjoyed the books even more when I told him that most of them had belonged to his dad when he was a little boy, and a few of them had belonged to his uncle. Now, before I can read one of the stories to him, he asks who the book belonged to, his dad or his uncle. Most of the books have an inscription with a name and date on the inside cover. But some don’t, and it makes me sad that I forgot to inscribe on them.

After reading all eighteen Little Critter books to my grandsons in a marathon session, Evan asked if more books had been written. We did some research, and bought Just Fishing with Grandma (2003), Just a Little Music (2010), What a Bad Dream (1992), and Grandma, Grandpa, and Me (2007).

Minutes after the mail carrier delivered the books, my grandsons each grabbed two and scampered up on the couch. Evan looked at each book, silently studying each page. Charlie looked at each book, voicing his own dialogue for each picture.

I thought about my boys when they were young and how they loved new books. I remembered reading to each of them every night before went to bed.

After my grandsons finished previewing the new books, I read to them. Evan pointed out Little Critter’s small ironies. Charlie looked at one of the other books, while I read. He always feels the need to “read” a different book while I’m reading to him.

When I finished reading the books, I inscribed their names and February 2022 on the inside of each cover.

Book Review: Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

In the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been reading about pandemics. How depressing, you think! Not really. It’s more comforting than you might imagine. Most of the pandemics I’ve read about were worse than COVID-19, and I don’t say that to make light of COVID. It’s killed many people, caused long-term health issues, and disrupted lives and the economy, but it can’t compare to the Black Death or the Great Influenza of 1918.

My great-grandfather Frank died of TB in 1910.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a well-written sampling of killer pandemics. Her book covers the Antonine, bubonic, and dancing plagues, plus smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera, leprosy, typhoid, the Spanish flu (Great Influenza of 1918), encephalitis lethargica, lobotomies, and polio. She describes the diseases and how they killed people, but doesn’t dwell on the grotesque. Instead, she focuses on the development of medical treatments and the people who worked to end plagues and pandemics. She writes with a gentle humor that helps readers digest what is a formidable list of population-depleting diseases. Fortunately, most of them have been mitigated by cures, treatments, or vaccines.

My great-grandfather Joseph, in the vest and tie, died of typhoid fever in 1922.

Wright’s book provides historical perspective. The bubonic plague killed quickly and painfully, wiping out tens of millions of people in the 14th Century. Worldwide death estimates from the Great Influenza of 1918 range between 25 million and 100 million (p. 197). It, too, killed quickly, especially people in their twenties. And horrifically, smallpox wiped out entire civilizations in the New World. Those statistics provide some comfort when compared to COVID statistics. Modern medicine is another comfort. Medical scientists have been able to develop working vaccines and helpful medicines in a short time to help combat COVID deaths.

Also, the historical details Wright’s book provides can—strangely enough—be a soothing balm. Some of what people are doing and saying about COVID seems tame in comparison to behavior during past pandemics. Some suggested “preventatives” against the bubonic plague were to eat crushed emeralds, live in a sewer, avoid bad smells, place chopped onions in your house, drink your urine, and don’t look at sick people (Wright p. 29-30). Among the many bizarre and useless cures for the bubonic plague were bloodletting and poultices made with feces (p. 40). Often prescribed treatments made people suffer more. In defense of people from the past, medical science wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and people were desperate during frightening times, like they sometimes are today.

Wright’s chapter on tuberculosis was scary. I was in the camp of people who thought that tuberculosis was mostly a disease of the past. It’s not. Tuberculosis kills 1.3 million (Wright, p. 125) to 1.5 million (CDC) lives a year. Most of the cases of TB occur in countries outside of wealthy nations like the United States. But mutations in the TB bacteria make it more resistant to drugs, and when people with TB travel, they spread the disease. “Recent models show that unless we scale up efforts to address this growing threat, the number of people dying from drug-resistant TB will nearly double every 5 years” (CDC). There’s also the wise adage: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We need to pay attention.

In her epilogue, Wright discusses the AIDS epidemic. She didn’t give AIDS its own chapter because she feels there are people who lived through the AIDS epidemic who could tell the story better than she can. However, she wrote eight pages about AIDS, explaining how the epidemic was mishandled and how prejudice against gays made the epidemic worse. I believe she could tell the story of AIDS and make it as engaging and enlightening as the other epidemics she wrote about. And if she did, I would read that book.

Remembering Audrey and Malene

Malene Fylling on her 88th birthday, September 14, 1958

My mother-in-law, Audrey Smith, loved learning about her ancestors. During her 60s and 70s, she took genealogy classes, but in her early 80s, early dementia slowed her down. Then a broken femur required surgery and an extended stay at a nursing home. Audrey balked at being in the nursing home. To help her pass the days, I interviewed her about her life. When she returned home, we continued working on her life story, and we used her genealogy research to add stories about her ancestors.

One of Audrey’s favorite relatives was her paternal great-grandmother, Malene Fylling, née Tenfjord. Audrey remembered her great-grandma as “the sweetest old lady” who was always happy to see her. When Audrey traveled with her parents from Superior, Wisconsin, to Crookston, Minnesota, Malene doted on her, giving her cookies, asking her questions, and telling her stories. When Audrey and her parents traveled to Crookston for Christmas, they ate lutefisk cooked by Malene. Audrey’s great-grandparents had a large house, so they put their Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. After dinner the family held hands, circled around the tree, and sang Norwegian and English songs, blending their old world with their new world.

Malene was born in Geiranger, Norway, on September 14, 1863. She had an eighth-grade education. On May 7, 1886, she married John Fylling. They had seven children in Norway, but a daughter died before they emigrated. I wonder what it was like for Malene to know that after she left Norway, she could never again visit her deceased daughter’s grave. After they settled in Crookston, Minnesota, she and John had two more children.

In June 1903, Malene, John, and their six children, ages 16, 12, 10, 7, 3, and 8 months, arrived in Quebec, Canada, on the SS Bavarian, a steamship owned by the Allan Line. Steamships were faster and more comfortable than sail ships, but imagine making a transatlantic crossing with six children. From Quebec they traveled to Winnipeg and applied for permission to enter the United States. Their destination was Crookston, Minnesota, where John’s brother, Ole Fylling, lived. Ole wrote to Malene and John about opportunities in Crookston. For Malene and John, having family in Minnesota eased the pain of leaving their families behind. By 1920, both Malene and John were naturalized citizens.

Economic hardship motivated Malene and John to immigrate to America. During the second half of the 1800s, Norway’s economy deteriorated. Steamships made it easier for Europeans to immigrate but also caused widespread unemployment among Norway’s shipbuilders, dockhands, and sailors. Farmers, who never had an easy time in Norway, were undercut by low-priced grain from Europe because of cheap transportation. Audrey often said, “The Norwegians had nothing but rocks.” She heard this repeatedly from her Norwegian relatives, who told her how difficult farming was in Norway.

Five generations. Seated, L to R: Audrey (Malene’s great-granddaughter); Malene; Jennifer (Malene’s great-great-granddaughter); Standing: George (Malene’s grandson); Alpha (Malene’s daughter)

Malene was forty when she came to Minnesota, but she learned to speak English. Her status on the U.S. Census was always “wife” and “homemaker.” She didn’t need to work outside the home that she and John owned by 1910. John worked as a carpenter and later had a small grocery store. After John died in 1937 at seventy-three, one of his sons ran the store. Another son and a son-in-law owned a creamery. Their youngest daughter became a bookkeeper and worked for the public school system then at her brother’s creamery. At a time when marriage was the usual occupation for women, their daughters married well and had comfortable lives. Malene and John’s dreams of a better life in Minnesota, for themselves and their children became reality.

Malene stayed in the family home after John’s death but later lived with one of her daughters in Crookston. She died in 1960 at ninety-seven. Her funeral was held at Trinity Lutheran Church, and she was buried with family at Oakdale Cemetery in Crookston.

Years later Malene and John’s home was either razed or moved (along with other homes) because the Red Lake River, which ran behind their home, flooded so often. “Imagine living on the bank of a river—a good-sized river—and watching those kids,” Audrey said—shuddering as she pictured Malene raising children near the river. But, Malene never lost any of her children to the river. Her census status as “wife” and “homemaker” may not be exciting family history, but Malene was an important force in the lives of three generations of children, most of whom made Minnesota their permanent home.

When I finished interviewing Audrey, I organized and typed up her stories. She had loads of wonderful photographs of her ancestors and family, so I was able to scan photos and add them to the book I made for her. When I finished, I took my file to a local printing shop, and they printed it on 8 ½ x 11 paper and spiral bound it. It was 257 pages. When I presented it to my mother-in-law, she thumbed through it, then looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe you did all this for me,” she said.

Once I saw this photo of Audrey (about 5), I knew it was the photo for her book cover. This photo captures so much of Audrey’s spirit.

“It was fun working with you on this,” I answered. What I should have told her was that she’d been the best mother-in-law a daughter-in-law could have. But neither of us were good with sentimental speeches. And we were both already choking back tears. A year later she passed away, about a month before her 87th birthday. When she started taking all those genealogy classes, it had been her dream to write a family history. I have so many fond memories of Audrey, but working with her to complete her book is my fondest memory.

Where Do I Go When I Need Solitude?

[Bloganuary wants to know. It’s the WordPress blog prompt for January 27, 2022.]

I hide in a book.

I’ve been doing it all my life.

I’m an introvert; I enjoy the solitude of a story coming off the page just for me.

In grade school I hid in Nancy Drew mysteries and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators and every biography in our school library. I read when I was supposed to be doing classwork. I read to keep my head down. I read to escape the everyday noise of a house filled with family. I read on long car rides to make the time pass. I read because people usually left me alone when I did.

In high school I read for all the same reasons. But my reading material graduated.

When I was nineteen, I worked in downtown Milwaukee. There are a lot of people in downtown Milwaukee. On my lunch break, I read while walking down Wisconsin Avenue. I fell in sync with the crowds on the sidewalk, moving and stopping with them, waiting for red lights and green lights, but rarely looking up. Solitude in a collective.

I read when I went to hockey games, before the ref dropped the puck and between periods. There are a lot of people in a hockey rink.

I read when I got on a plane, right after I buckled my seatbelt. There are a lot of people in an airplane. I put my head in a book and didn’t stop until after the plane taxied to the gate, and it was my turn to exit.

When I’m tired and don’t want to talk, I read.

When I’m upset or sad or discouraged, I read. Words and sentences and the rhythm of story pull me in and shut the world out. When it works right, it’s a mediation in solitude, even in a crowd.

I carry a purse that’s large enough to carry a hardback book, if needed. Solitude in a bag.