Brownies the Size of Rhode Island Located in Charlevoix, Michigan!

Left side of mural

Friday, July 30, 2021

It was the last day of my second trip to Michigan since the pandemic started.

I wasn’t going to Charlevoix again because I’d already been there twice on Wednesday. I swear more people were walking or driving up and down Bridge Street than on the streets in Manhattan when my mom and I drove through there on a Friday afternoon in September 1986. (Seriously, this is almost not hyperbole.)

Bridge Street is aptly named. The Charlevoix Memorial Drawbridge spans the canal connecting Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan, and it opens and closes every half hour, backing up traffic for at least a couple dozen blocks.

Because it was my last day in Michigan, I decided to walk on the shores of Lake Michigan rather than hunt for parking spaces in Charlevoix, Petoskey, or Harbor Springs then weave in and out of pedestrians along the sidewalks. I’d done my shopping and didn’t need any more caramel corn, stationery, or books.

Between Petoskey and Charlevoix, I stopped at a couple of parks and hiked along Lake Michigan, taking pictures and getting my feet wet.

After I left the second park, I planned to return to my mom’s in Petoskey. But that meant crossing traffic that was heading west so I could go east. It would be clear one way, but never both ways at the same time. So, I headed west, planning to make a left-hand turn into a parking lot, then make a right-hand turn and head back to Petoskey.

Before I found a place to turn around, I was almost to Charlevoix. I decided to keep going.

Center of mural

I parked before the Charlevoix Memorial Drawbridge, my strategy to avoid the long line of cars waiting for the bridge to open and close every half hour.

I crossed the bridge on foot and walked to My Grandmother’s Table, a bakery, café, and coffee bar located just on the other side of the bridge. I’d thought about this small eatery when I’d made the decision to keep heading to Charlevoix. Along the inside wall of the café was a stunning mural, its color palate suggesting delicate confections and scrumptious food. If the desserts and food were only half as delectable as the mural, my money and time would be wisely spent.

Right side of mural

“I’m here for dessert,” I said to a man in a white chef’s coat, making an effort to speak to him and not to the mural to the right of me. At 2:30 in the afternoon, their dessert trays were mostly bare. A few cookies sat on two trays and one large brownie, the size of Rhode Island, sat on a third tray.

“This is the best brownie,” the man in the white chef’s coat said, pointing to the lone chocolate rectangle sitting on a white paper doily.

It was so big. “Can you cut it in half?” I asked. He looked perplexed. Maybe he hadn’t heard me because of the mask I was wearing. I asked again.

“Well—” he said, then stopped talking.

“I’d like to eat half today and the other half tomorrow.”

“Well—” he said again, struggling to find some words.

I thought, “How hard can it be to cut the brownie in half?” Halfway through that thought, I had a moment of clarity and added, “I want to buy the whole brownie. I’d just like it cut in half.”

“Oh, okay.” He smiled and put it on a plate. He’d thought I wanted to buy only half the brownie—silly man. He pointed to a space behind me. “You can cut it if you’d like. There are knives over there.”

I turned and had a moment of surrealism. I looked at a silverware caddy filled with utensils and straws. During the early days of the pandemic these caddies had been spirited away and hidden behind counters, so when I ordered takeout, I needed to ask for utensils or straws. Now, like indoor dinning, the caddies had reappeared. I grabbed a fork and a knife. I cut my brownie in half, and the chef wrapped a piece of plastic over my plate. Even though indoor dining was open, I walked outside and sat down in their outdoor eating area.

I enjoyed the best brownie I’ve ever eaten. I only ate half of it, so I could enjoy the other half the next morning as I drove back to Wisconsin.

I returned to the café to tell the man in the white chef’s coat that it was the best brownie. Again, I reminded myself to talk to the man, not the mural. I asked if I could take a picture of the mural on the wall. “Of course,” he said, and we both turned to look at it.

The German shepherd that made me do a double take

I aimed my phone at the mural, but stopped before clicking. A German shepherd lay on the black-and-white tiled floor. I moved my phone to look at him. The dog wasn’t real—it was part of the mural. But he looked so real, I thought, “If a patron dropped food on the floor, the dog would rise and gobble it up.” The dog was the only image on the whimsical mural that looked realistic. He was part of the painting, yet apart from the painting. He reminded me of myself during my trip in this pandemic—part of the world, yet apart from the world.

[The mural, 35 feet wide and 12 feet tall, was painted by Gary Markley, a local artist from Torch Lake, Michigan. He strived to recreate the painting as its original artist Anton Pieck (1895-1987) intended it. A Dutch artist, Pieck’s paintings have a Currier & Ives quaintness that depict 1800s European life. My Grandmother’s Table: Facebook Page. To see information about three charming, independently owned bookstores in Michigan, click on the name of each bookstore: Between the Covers in Harbor Springs, Round Lake Bookstore in Charlevoix, McLean and Eakin in Petoskey.]

COVID Times: When a Root Canal Becomes a Social Outing

Paddle the Island 2021, the sign-up board

I needed a root canal.

It took one hour and fifty-two minutes from the moment I sat in the dentist’s chair to the time I got out of it. Not bad. Although, in that time I could’ve paddle boarded almost twice around Barker’s Island.

At first my dentist said he’d do a temporary root canal because it could take one to two months for me to see an endodontist who would do a permanent root canal. “You can’t have a toothache that long,” he said. I admired his philosophy about toothaches. A week had already been too long.

He drilled through my crown, surveyed the roots, and declared, “I can do this. It’s an uncomplicated root canal, but I don’t know until I see the roots.”

Besides presenting with cooperative roots, my other contribution during this procedure was holding my mouth open for almost two hours. But during another wave of COVID-19, I decided my trip to the dentist’s office should also count a social event for me.

My dentist is friendly, so between his wizardry with the dental tools, we chatted. I’m infinitely curious about almost anything involving tools. My dentist was happy to explain the procedure as he went.

So, I have root canal highlights to share. (Go ahead and make your oxymoron jokes.)

I liked the sound made by a drill small enough for Tom Thumb to use. The tiny drill, used for drilling into roots, held a thread-thin bit curled in a perfect spiral. It sounded like the hand-powered drill I use for minor jobs around the house. Both the dentist and his assistant were amused that anyone would find the sound of a dental drill pleasing. I got their point because it was the first dental drill I’ve liked.

There’s a drill bit called the White Shark. I didn’t need that one. Good thing. I saw Jaws as a teenager, and decades later I still have no desire to swim, surf, or sail in ocean waters.

There’s a drill bit called the X Bit. Rarely used, it’s for drilling into the jaw of a patient who isn’t getting numb using the normal techniques. My dentist doesn’t like to call it the X Bit because he thinks it sounds scary. Instead, he calls it “the fun drill” when he asks the assistant for it. I wondered if some patients might interpret “the fun drill” as verbal irony when they hear him request it. I didn’t need that one either. Double good thing. I saw too many Frankenstein movies as a child.

“Your tooth only has three roots; some teeth have four,” he explained.

“My tooth isn’t like Venice if it only has three canals,” I said.

He asked why.

“Because Venice has four canals,” I said.

“Really? I’ve never been to Venice.” He believed my three-canal line.

I couldn’t string him along, so I told him, “I making this crap up,” and we laughed like we were sitting on a patio with friends and family, drinking beer, and sharing funny stories. (Venice has 177 canals. I looked it up when I got home.)

After my roots were drilled clean of all dead and dying matter, he said, “Now I use Smear Gear to clean out any leftover debris from the canals.” The name Smear Gear (its real name) cracked me up. In word-association mode, I thought about childhood games of smear the guy with the football where we mercilessly tackled the person with the ball. No protective gear was used.

Next, he told me he had to fill my canals with a rubber from South America. (Its funny-sounding name didn’t stick in my brain.) At first, I thought he was joking, getting back at me for my four-canals-in-Venice joke, but it turned out he was serious.

“Tell me you use a tiny caulk gun to insert the rubber in the root canals,” I said. “That would be adorable.”

“Actually,” he said, “It looks like a tiny glue gun, and it heats up the rubber.”

Sure enough, when he used the rubber gun, it sounded like when I pump the trigger on my glue gun.

After my roots were filled, the dentist capped the hole in my tooth, checked my bite, and asked if I had any questions. I didn’t. The assistant removed my bib, raised the back of the dental chair, and said to call if I had any concerns. I said I would. The three of us said goodbye and wished each other a nice day.

My social outing was over.

But I’m having my teeth cleaned in November, and if the COVID numbers don’t drop, that will be my next big social shindig.

Flowers in a Summer of Pandemic Lull and Surge

Lake Michigan

July 27, 2021. I left my home on the western shores of Lake Superior to visit my mom on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a nine-hour trip across northern Wisconsin, through the Upper Peninsula, and over the Mackinac Bridge.

The delta variant, snaking its way around the South, hadn’t seemed to arrive in the North.

My last trip to Mom’s was three weeks earlier. My next trip was supposed to be at Christmas when snow and ice bloom and high winds roar off the lake.

I decided to visit again because the pandemic canceled last year’s Christmas plans. And I’m not hopeful about this year’s plans.

I came by myself, leaving my husband and dogs at home. I wanted to spend time alone with Mom. We shared stories, ate Indian and Thai takeout, and walked her dog along Lake Michigan in warm, Technicolor evenings.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures. The characteristics of light in the Harbor Springs-Petoskey-Charlevoix area are different than the characteristics of light in the Duluth-Superior area. I wonder if it’s because the sky reflects the different colors of the two lakes. I wonder if it’s because the latitude of Petoskey is slightly over 43 degrees, and the latitude at the western tip of Lake Superior is about 46.6 degrees. Doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a difference of 207 miles. Whatever the reason, I get a Land-of-Oz feeling when the sun is shining at Mom’s.

Flowers are everywhere in Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Charlevoix–in yards, in front of shops, along city streets, hanging from lamp posts. Flowers greet residents and welcome tourists with vibrant oranges, blues, reds, pinks, purples, yellows, whites, and greens.

Some gardeners plant only two or three colors together, but many mix all the the colors together and it works. If I tried to dress in the same array of colors, people might call me eccentric.

A friend and I once noticed how nature can toss together a salad of greens (lime, forest, army, olive, sage, emerald, fern, pea, mint) and throw them across the landscape and none of them will clash.

In the mornings, Mom and I ran her errands and went for rides. When she entered shops, I spent little time inside with her. I’d go back outside and take pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

The vaccination rate for her county is about 61% for people who’ve had at least one shot. The recommendation has been for unvaccinated people to wear masks. Less than almost no one wore a mask. Statistically, about 39% of the people should’ve been wearing masks.

I know some math.

I provide daycare for my grandkids.

My grandkids are too young to get vaccinated.

I wore a mask and stayed away from people.

I ate takeout.

And I took pictures of flowers, lots of pictures.

Rag Rug Art

Croc Art

I’ve fallen in love. My heart’s desire is a two-by-three-foot rag rug. It’s striped with crisp aqua greens and purple-tinged blues ranging from pale grey to dark cobalt. It’s a star-crossed love affair. Not because my husband doesn’t like the colors, he does, but because even though the rug won’t clash with our kitchen décor, it also won’t blend with it. “This is gorgeous,” I say, “but it doesn’t go with our kitchen.”

Still, the rug captivates my heart. My husband and I are in a home décor shop in Harbor Springs, Michigan, only a few blocks from the shores of Lake Michigan. We came to visit my mother who lives in Petoskey. Trying to be helpful, my husband points out other rugs. I spurn each one—too thin, too thick, too big, too small. And when a rug has the correct specs and compliments our kitchen décor, I say, “Too boring.”

I know I’m taking the bold rug home with me because it’s a color wheel for Lake Michigan. When we drove to Petoskey on July 3, the water in Little Bay de Noc, fed by Lake Michigan, was aqua green, the color of tropical ocean waters lapping at sandy beaches, the color of the aqua green in the rug I’m holding in my arms. As my husband drove along the curve of the bay, he said, “It looks like a tropical beach.” If I’d taken pictures of the water that day and omitted the deciduous and coniferous trees of the Upper Peninsula, I could’ve posted the pictures and claimed I was at a Caribbean resort. In a couple of days when we return to Wisconsin, the skies will be cloudy and grey, and the water, reflecting the sky, will mimic the deep purplish-blue color on my new rug.

Sippy Cup Art

I adore the rug because it reminds me of trips to Petoskey to see my mother. The first time I went was in 1992. Since, I’ve made the trip with my sons; a beloved friend, who passed away in 2018; my husband; and alone. The rug is a memory of my visits to Petoskey on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan.

Two days after laying the rug on the kitchen floor, my grandson sheds his Crocs on the corner of it. The rug and purple Crocs become art on my floor.  I take a picture with my cellphone and text it to family and friends with the caption, Croc Art.

A few days later, my youngest grandson either drops or tosses a sippy cup from his highchair. Serendipity. I take another picture and text it to family and friends with the caption, Sippy Cup Art.

Yesterday my dog lay down on the rug. Another picture. Another round of texts with the caption, Poodle Art.

Poodle Art

It’s a game now with two rules. One, I don’t put objects on the rug—I have to notice something that ends up on it. With four grandkids, who visit often, and my two dogs, I never have to wait long. Two, I decide if an object on the rug is art-worthy. (Poodle Art was an iffy choice, but I don’t need much encouragement to take pictures of my dogs.)

The rug, like Lake Michigan, color shifts in different lighting. It makes me smile. It feels good under my bare feet. And it lays near the backdoor, so it doesn’t provoke envy from the mossy-colored rag rug in front of the sink.

Before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have taken up with a nonconforming accessory, even if the colors enchanted me. But after a year and a half of strange events, I’m going with what moves my heart.

[Author’s notes: Alas, my cellphone camera doesn’t capture the vibrancy of the rug. My mother lives within view of Lake Michigan, and I live a few blocks from Lake Superior. When we visit each other, we enjoy each other’s Great Lake. Vote for your favorite picture by clicking on “Leave a reply” and casting your vote in the comment box. I purchased the rag rug at Finishing Touch in Harbor Springs, Michigan, at 237 East Main Street.]

Art On!

Clara, my nine-year old granddaughter, has wanted to be an artist, then a scientist, then an artist who is also a scientist. Michael, my seven-year-old grandson, once stated he wanted to be a doctor.

Last week things changed. On Tuesday, Clara wanted to be a scientist. But on Wednesday, she decided to be a fashion designer, and Michael announced he wanted to be an artist.

I didn’t ask questions like, What’s your day job going to be? Or make statements like, I guess you’ll need to learn the phrase, Do you want fries with that?

Clara’s Art
Clara’s Art

Fashion design is a form of art, so Clara hasn’t strayed far. She loves to draw and create art using different media: colored pencils, paint, stickers, beads, sequins, sticks, leaves, fabric. (I’ll stop the list here, or I’ll exceed my word limit.) Michael loves art too and is becoming more experimental and playful.

During Wednesday’s art-at-my-kitchen-table time, Clara drew portraits of people wearing masks. COVID is part of our lives, so I wasn’t surprised to see masks show up in her artwork.

Clara’s Art

“Look, Nana,” she said, holding up the first portrait.

“Very nice and colorful,” I said.

She drew another portrait of a person with a mask, then another.

“Look, at these, Nana.”

“Nice. I like the designs on the masks.”

“Thanks.” She wiggled in her seat and grinned. “I’m going to be a fashion designer and design masks and hats.”

“Your designs will turn masks and hats into art people can wear,” I said. She liked this idea.

Michael’s Art
Michael’s Art

She began drawing people wearing colorful hats but no masks, and said, “It’s easier to draw people wearing masks because drawing a mouth is hard.” I agreed with her, mouths are hard.

Michael drew one portrait, then used stencils to create an intergalactic scene and whimsical hodge-podge. Much of his artwork is scenic.

Michael’s Art

Evan, my four-year-old grandson, is into drawing beings that look like creatures. He’s discovered he likes colored pencils over crayons because his older siblings use them. He drew a doleful creature with a frazzled mouth, then left the table to play with toys.

Evan’s Art

I babysit my grandkids three days a week, and when they’re here, we make time for art. Whether it’s a drawing project or a project involving supplies and the hot glue gun, the grandkids enjoy creating.

Next week or next month, my grandkids may have new career choices, but we’ll still have art-at-my-kitchen-table time. Art develops imagination, spatial awareness, and problem-solving skills. But best of all, their faces are full of joy when they hold up their artwork and say, “Look at this, Nana.”

Art-on!

Cold-Weather Book Buying during a Pandemic

Superior, WI, Monday, February 8, 2021, 7:00 p.m., -5˚F, Windchill -15˚

Cabela, 77 in human years, nestles on the right side of the couch. Ziva, 66 in human years, nestles on the left side. I’m 61, yep, in human years, and sitting at my desk, joining a virtual author chat hosted by Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin, an hour-and-a-half away.

Ziva (in front) and Cabela on a warm summer day in 2020.

It’s excessively cold outside, which explains why the dogs and I aren’t going for a walk. At our combined age of 204 years, our enthusiasm for walking at night in subzero temperatures has ebbed, so this evening we’re opting for warm intellectual stimulation.

We’re going to listen to two authors talk about their books set in immensely cold parts of the world, places that make the western tip of Lake Superior feel like a tropical vacation destination, even in winter. Miniature snowballs of marshmallows bob in a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands. On the couch the dogs remain curled up in heat-conserving positions. While other attendees join the author chat, I leave my seat to slip on a pair of thick wool socks over my flimsy book-themed socks.

Andrea Pitzer (Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World) lives in Washington, D.C., and Blair Braverman (Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) lives in northeastern Wisconsin. Around another 140 people join the event. Miles and even time zones apart, we’re all together this evening listening to Pitzer talk about her narrative nonfiction book and Braverman talk about her memoir. Because both authors and the audience are having a good time, the authors, along with most of the audience, stay another fifteen minutes or so before calling it a night.

Superior, WI, Tuesday, February 9, 2021, 1:00 p.m., 3˚, Windchill -14˚

The polar vortex, having parked its big-mass front over much of the country, intends to overstay its welcome for at least another eight or nine days. In search of relief, I make plans to call Honest Dog Books and order both deep-freeze books from last night’s talk. (Books always make me feel better.) During this arctic cold front, I could read books set in warm locations, but I decide it takes daring to read books set in the Arctic where winter submerges itself in darkness. I’ll also need more hot cocoa, another pair of wool socks, and a flannel-backed quilt.

I could order the books via Honest Dog’s website, but I miss going into bookstores. I bypass technology, which allowed last night’s virtual gathering, considered futuristic when I was in high school, and call the bookstore.

“Is it okay if I order books by phone instead of using your website?” I ask.

“Oh yes, certainly,” the clerk answers.

I miss perusing locally-owned bookstores, places where the books I pile on the counter to buy become catalysts for conversation, places where clerks are as thrilled to talk about books as I am.

I order Icebound. And we discuss Pitzer’s research methods.

I order Ice Cube. It’s one of the clerk’s favorites.

I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. He wasn’t at last night’s author chat, but I’ve heard him talk about his book (another online experience). I don’t usually read young-adult novels, and I don’t read fantasy novels. But my pandemic-mode response to life has been to be more adventurous.

I order first one, then two, then three Valentine-themed packages of chocolates. The clerk and I chuckle each time I increase my chocolate order. (Chocolate also makes me feel better.)

The clerk and I talk for seventeen minutes. More than half our conversation is about books. After I hang up, I feel like I’ve had a near-small-bookstore experience. I smile.

Superior, WI, Thursday, February 11, 2021, 3:30 p.m., -1˚, Windchill -13˚

At three o’clock the mail arrives, and my nine-year-old granddaughter retrieves it.

“Nana,” she says, dashing up the stairs, “you got a package.”

My four grandkids, ages two-and-a-half to nine, know boxes arriving in the mail have potential.

As soon as I say, my books, the older grandkids lose interest.

I lift the books from the box and lay them on the kitchen table. The two-and-a-half-year-old, with the speed and dexterity of the Artful Dodger, seizes one and runs into the living room.

“This my book, Nana, this my book,” he says, with the cadence of a parrot.

“That’s Nana’s book,” I say.

“No, Nana, this my book. This my book, Nana.” He sits on the couch and looks at the cover.

He’s grabbed Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. I’m certainly not telling him the name of the book. In my mind I can hear his parrot-like repetition of the title. I can hear his parents ask me, What did you say to Charlie?

“That book doesn’t have pictures,” I say.

The mention of pictures redirects his attention, and he exchanges my book for a children’s book on the coffee table.

I retrieve my book and place it on my bookshelf. By six o’clock the grandkids will be gone. By seven o’clock, I’m planning on hot cocoa, a quilt, one of those deep-freeze books, and at least one piece of the Valentine-themed chocolates from my hidden stash.

[Check out Honest Dog’s upcoming author chats at http://honestdogbooks.com/events/]

Do Drop a Line

“Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.” –A wise woman, age 95

Texting and emailing are fast, but let’s write someone a letter. If we text and don’t get an immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.

If we email and don’t get a nearly immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.

If we write a letter and don’t get a reasonably-timed response, we think the other person is busy. It takes time to write a letter, address an envelope, put a stamp on it, and drop it in a mailbox—it might be weeks before we believe we’re being ignored.

Let’s write someone a letter. We’ll write to someone we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone we haven’t talked to in a long time. Or someone who lives down the block but we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone who lives in assisted living or a nursing home whom we’re not allowed to see because of the pandemic.

The pandemic has shrunk our worlds. Maybe we don’t have much to say in a letter. Yet, we can say something, almost anything. Remember our 95-year-old wise woman, It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.

On the table, our blank piece of stationery resembles a wide-open prairie unbroken by forests or mountains. We grab a pen and write words, our tracks across our prairie. Perhaps our minds become as blank as the endless prairie sky on a still day. We need to look down, think small, see the individual prairie grasses and flowers.

We can write about

  • our dog who scratches its back on the cedar bush when it’s outside.
  • our cat who’s playing with our pen while we’re writing.
  • the green beans growing in our garden.
  • the rabbits who ate our tulip blossoms.
  • rearranging our furniture. (This counts as an indoor workout during the pandemic.)
  • our four-year-old grandson who told his mother, “Well, if you don’t look in my room, it’s nice and tidy,” when she asked him if it was clean.
  • the book we read, the TV show we watched, the movie we streamed. (But we’ll play nice and avoid spoiler alerts.)
  • unexpected objects we found when cleaning our drawers and closets. (Eventually, we’re all bored enough to pandemic clean.)
  • finishing the sweater we started knitting five years ago.
  • the 1,000-piece jigsaw we completed in a week.
  • the spicy chili we made that makes our eyes water but clears our sinuses.
  • our winning streak at Yahtzee.
  • our favorite sports team.

We can grumble about

  • the weather. It’s expected. We want to know if it’s hot, cold, rainy, snowy, windy, or foggy. Honestly, we do. (It gives us permission to fill up some of our prairie land on our paper with our weather report.)
  • work, spouses, children, parents, pets, anything. We want to know we aren’t the only ones who don’t have a Brady Bunch life. Thankfully, handwritten letters don’t live in cyberspace.
  • the upcoming forecast. If we still have space on our page to fill, we can end with more weather. (It’s not the same as complaining about our current weather because this is forecasted weather.)
  • our favorite sports team.

We can describe the setting in which we’re writing our letter:

  • the waning daylight or the full moon shining outside our window,
  • the sleeping children down the hall or the dog curled up by our side,
  • the falling snow or the drenching rain,
  • the orchid that bloomed yesterday or the Christmas cactus that’s fading,
  • the Irish folk music or Madam Butterfly springing from our radio.

In our letter we can thank

  • a parent, a sibling, a child, a relative for some kindness, past or present.
  • a friend who’s always there for us.
  • the former neighbors who welcomed us into their homes when we were children.
  • our eleventh-grade teacher who believed we could write.

If our letters aren’t that interesting, we’ll take comfort because even if we’re boring someone paragraph by paragraph, they can’t interrupt us. But they’ll read our letters because they came from us, and we wrote to them. Our ho-hum letters ease the pressure on them to entertain us with subtle wit and scintillating stories. And we’ll read their letters because they wrote to us and answered our letters.

We’ll write letters because we’ve run out of drawers, cupboards, and closets to clean.

[This essay was inspired by my friend, Phyllis, who turned 95 years old on January 31, 2021. She also inspired the title. I send her cards and letters, and when she thanked me the day after her birthday, she said, “Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.”]

Christmas Lights in the Time of COVID-19

In 2015, I named this evergreen The Twinkling Tree because some of the lights gently winked while the rest burned steady. When I took my dogs for a walk, I’d say, “Let’s go see The Twinkling Tree.”

Almost every night I take my dogs for a second walk, sometime between the end of Wheel of Fortune and nine o’clock. During our winter walks, the cold air is warmed by Christmas lights strung on houses, trees, and bushes. I never tire of seeing the lights sparkle on a cold winter’s evening. From a house with a single lit wreath to a house with strings of lights illuminating every possible structure, tree, and shrub, I love them all.

This year, because of the pandemic, I expected to see fewer Christmas lights. I based this on my experience around Halloween, having noticed fewer Halloween lights and decorations, in keeping with fewer trick-or-treaters.

Christmas lights remind me of my childhood Christmases in the 1960s and 70s. Our house was a busy place. Both my parents worked and had four children born within eight years. But at Christmas my mother created magic in our living room and dining room, which flowed together as one long rectangle.

She strung multicolored C7 lights and hung old fashioned ornaments on a Christmas tree she chose for its perfect shape, fullness, and generous size. She stopped using tinsel sometime before I was old enough to remember, but I have a picture of my sister and I sitting in front of a Christmas tree festooned in the silver stuff. My mother said with a dog and two toddlers, tinsel was everywhere.

She framed the big picture window in the living room with a string of pastel lights sheathed in plastic opaque icicles. In the corner of the dining room, we had a built-in, floor-to-ceiling hutch. She created a winter wonderland on the part of the hutch meant for serving trays, first laying out fresh boughs of pine, then weaving twinkle lights through the boughs, and finally spraying the arrangement with canned snow.

The lights made the rooms glow because before she decorated, she cleaned and polished every surface. Humble and old, those rooms in our 1907 farmhouse shone with warmth and welcome.

And when the schools closed for Christmas vacation, my siblings and I spent many hours in those rooms. We played a version of twenty questions in front of the Christmas tree. Taking turns, one of us would silently pick an ornament, and the rest of us would start asking questions, trying to guess the ornament. We lifted wrapped presents from under the tree, shaking them, attempting to guess what our faraway relatives had sent us.

At twilight we sat on the couch in the sparkle of the pastel icicles, staring out the picture window into a farmer’s field and the woods beyond, talking about we wanted Santa to bring. When my mom bought a used upright piano and put it along a bare wall in the dining room, I played Christmas carols and my siblings and I sung, our small voices combing as one rejoicing sound.

On Christmas night my siblings and I sat around the dining room table, playing with board games and art supplies we received every year. Christmas lights shimmered and music played on the stereo. The relatives, who’d joined us for dinner, had all gone home, and the dishes had been washed and put away.

I remember those Christmas-light days as peaceful and other worldly, a respite from our hectic childhood days. Twinkling lights on a tree or a house or a city light post carry me back to the magic my mother created.

Although I expected to see fewer Christmas lights this year, I was amazed by the number of people who decorated their homes for the holidays. Walking my dogs up and down the streets has turned into a warm hug from Christmas Past, a wonderful gift in this year of uncertainty and anxiety.

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

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.

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 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 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 will soon join their companion. Gone. All gone. Only eight headless stems remain, each encircled by pointed leaves that failed to protect them, their buds sheared off by some animal’s guillotine teeth, most likely one of the hordes of rabbits pillaging the neighborhood.

I want to have a wailing cry. But I stuff my tears because decapitated tulips are nothing to cry about during a pandemic that has caused so much havoc. If I start crying, I wonder if I’ll stop.

An image of Elmer Fudd singing, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit, from the cartoon parody of a tragic opera interrupts my thoughts. Fudd, performing an aria about killing his prey, sings what I feel. I sing with him, kill the rabbit, kill the rabbit. But Fudd is lampooning tragic opera. The parody strikes a chord with me because rabbits will not 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 brain retrieves the song “Circle of Life” from my memory bank. The tunes spar in my head. I smile at my dark humor, but the rabbits have won. Spring has been late in coming, and the rabbits are hungry.

I hope they enjoyed their fillet of tulip buds.

Elmer Fudd pops back into my head, singing, kill the COVID, kill the COVID.