Tuesday, January 22, 2019


            Got the coolest gift for Christmas—an Applewatch Series 4. I wanted it primarily for the fitness functions, as I work out with a trainer two days a week. It keeps track of everything: heart rate, duration of workout, calories spent. It can remind me when to move faster, stand up or even breathe!
            In its data base, I have my medical stats and meds. If I need emergency help, I simply press and hold the side button and the paramedics will rush over. It can even tell if I’ve had a ‘hard fall’ and will ask me if I did in fact fall or was I just getting carried away with the mambo lessons.
            So it was with great glee that I showed the new watch to my trainer, Natalie. She was duly impressed and we commenced the first of the twice-weekly folding, spindling and mutilating I call my workout.
            All went well until I hit the seated row machine. This is a contraption where you sit with your feet braced in front of you, as you pull with both arms on a handle, weighted with the number of pounds your trainer is positive you can handle but you can’t, not without a lot of grunting, grimacing and generally making a fool of yourself. I pulled twelve reps and eased the handle back into place with a gentle thud.
            My watch did not see it as gentle. It saw it as a ‘hard fall’, buzzed me and questioned, “Are you OK?” I kept my cool, and tapped the ‘I’m OK’ button.
My watch asked, “Are you OK?”
I tapped ‘I’m OK.” Nothing.
Freaking, I tapped feverishly. Nothing.
Applewatch called the paramedics.
A calm, deep-voiced paramedic came on, asking, “Are you OK?”
Co-freaking, Natalie, ever the willing helper, called into the phone, “No! It was an accident!”
Paramedic: “Where is the location of your accident?”
            By this time, another trainer, who is highly experienced in the quirks of the Applewatch, has run over, tapping, ‘I’m OK’ to no avail, Natalie’s trying frantically to explain that what she said was an accident, that there wasn’t actually an ‘accident-accident’, when the phrase ‘false alarm’ popped into my head and out my mouth.
            I picture an ambulance, squad car and SWAT team screeching into the parking lot with plenty of dollar signs floating above. Paramedics rushing in with stretchers, cardio-resuscitation equipment and invoices.
            “So there is no accident and everyone is OK?” the paramedic calmly asks.
            “Yes!” we all shout in unison.
            “I understand,” he deadpans. And he is gone.
            My watch vibrates. I tap it. The message reads, “Tell Natalie, nice work.”

Friday, October 26, 2018

Hangin' with Pie Face Voices from the Middle Volume 4, Number 4; November 1997 pp. 32-36
Kelley R. Chikos Language Arts teacher, Grayslake Middle School, Grayslake, Illinois
Literacy is indeed our life spirit, the connectedness of heart to mind and one person to another. It is that genuine and lasting sense of being less alone that has made literacy an integral part of who I am. I use it to discover and rediscover myself and to bond with others. I teach reading and writing to my students to show them how they can do the same—heart to mind, one to another.
Before I could read and write, I envied the adults who had that mystical power. One winter morning when I was about four years old, my mother, while preparing breakfast, asked my father to take the trash out to the curb for pickup. He teased her, saying he didn't think he could work it into his busy schedule. Mom gingerly sliced a banana onto his cereal, and with each slice spelled, "B-R-A-T." They and my older sister laughed, and I asked for an explanation. Once I knew, I felt part of their special literate world. Language has continued to be an essential part of my life; it is my friend, tool, weapon, and toy. As I grew and my life situation changed, sometimes chaotically, it was something I could always count on. It was consistent. It was there to serve me.
It did this in two ways. First, it helped me forge a relationship with myself. I was brought up in a family where there were definite ideas about right and wrong. This was not a bad thing. At least not until I cut my sister Peg's braids off so she would "look like the paperboy." I learned the consequences of stepping outside the rules. However, once I learned to read, a little red book about a likable Scottish terrier named Pie Face came to my rescue. When Pie Face's master puts a freshly baked lemon meringue pie on the windowsill to cool, he succumbs to his naughty urge to sample it. Again and again, I ran through the pages with Pie Face as he scampered, foam-faced and tickled, from the shouts of his master. Pie Face and I could break the rules over and over without getting punished!
Betty MacDonald (1947), through her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, took my hand and led me
further into the wide, precarious world. Through these stories, she taught me how to navigate the adult-to-child world of rules. The payoff rivaled that of Pie Face as Ms. MacDonald gently guided me around to the wisdom of her way of thinking. Her greatest insight lay in accepting children unconditionally as we learned the ways of the world. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books are still available and popular with children. I am not surprised.
Secondly, literacy helped me reach out to others and bring them closer. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle was easy to share with adults because there was something in the stories to which all ages could relate. For example, in "The Answer-Backer Cure" story (Chapter 3, pp. 37-50), a stubborn little girl is having difficulty obeying her parents and teachers. Her answer to their instructions becomes, "I'll do it because I want to, but not because you told me to!" Instead of punishment or a lecture, Mrs. Piggle- Wiggle gives a talking parrot to the little girl. The parrot quickly learns the girl's insolent phrases and promptly repeats them to her. Without the pain of adult disapproval, she realizes how she sounds and changes her ways.
When I was eight years old and dealing with the same problem, I shared this story with my mother. She liked it as much as I did. It became a running secret joke between us. Well into my adult years, when either of us had to do something we didn't want to do we would mutter, "I'll do it because I want to, but not because you told me to!" It brought us closer to each other.
My aunt further fueled my desire to read. She lived in a little basement apartment in our house when I was young. She worked at the local dime store and would, from time to time, bring home unsold stacks of comic books, the covers half torn to keep them from being sold outside the store. I remember the warm feeling of seeing this slender lady, her red lipstick in stark contrast to her ebony hair, come through the door after a long day at work, her arms laden with comic books and eyes twinkling as she watched our faces light up.
Before I could read, I would look at the colorful comic frames and imagine what the characters were saying. My friend Ginger, an auburn-haired, infectious giggler with a loving heart, was one year older than I and could read. Sometimes I would ask her what was printed in the dialogue balloons, to see
Copyright © 1997 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
how close my guesses had come. I don't remember how often I guessed correctly. I do remember the long afternoons Ginger and I spent curled up on opposite ends of e sofa, engrossed in our own comic, yet needing the presence of the other to make it right. Today, we live states apart. E-mail has replaced the comic books. But whether at separate ends of the couch or the country, we somehow still need each other's presence make things right.
Writing posed yet another challenge. When I first learned to write, I printed my name repeatedly on paper after paper, mostly in red crayon. I was fascinated with the manifestation of myself on paper as if, by the act of writing my name, I could reinforce my existence. I am still fascinated. That is what writing has become for me—a reminder to myself and others that I am here and I am unique. I write for myself, for others, for a bit of posterity.
One important way writing has served me is as a type of self-defense weapon. As a young girl, I was shy, prone to easy tears and blushing cheeks. I had a tied tongue when it came to expressing my feelings. When writing, however, I had time to ponder what I wanted to say, to consider my audience, backtrack my thoughts, and mold my message into a cohesive, effective whole.
When I was twelve years old, my mother became ill for an extended time, and mental depression followed that illness. It was a frightening, devastating situation over which I had no control. I picked up my pencil. I wrote humorous complaint letters to fictitious companies, mimicking those legitimate letters Mom had written in the past. With hyperbole, double entendres, and blatant lies, I crafted what I hoped would bring her out of her sadness and back to me. I would approach her with my letters as she sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, fighting tears. In a serious tone, I would ask her for her opinion on the letters I had written. As she read, I would watch her face. When she realized that they were parodies, her eyes would brighten, her shoulders relax, if only for a moment. My heavy heart would gladden. If I could get her to laugh, I would hear angels sing. Eventually, her illness passed; her depression lifted. In the meantime, I had learned the power of my pen.
In school, literacy sometimes wore an anguished face. As I advanced into middle school, the demands of literacy left the familiar ease of basal readers and book reports. The new challenge was to extrapolate from my base of knowledge a way to identify and express who I was in relation to myself and the issues and people in the world. This was intimidating, as I had little idea who I was, much less the ability to convince the world of it. Exposing my ideas and feelings and concerns to others involved taking a risk. More than anything, I feared being a cliche, one of
the crowd, glaringly mundane. My fear seemed especially real when, in class one day, my Latin teacher referred to me as a living example of the word "docile." I cringed inside; it felt like an indictment, melding me back into the sea of classmates.
As I struggled with these academic and personal challenges, another blow was dealt. My family moved from the spacious suburbs back into the crowded city, leaving friends and familiarity behind. I was crushed. Wasn't life itself at thirteen struggle enough without having to start over in a new location?
In response to these stressors, I retreated to my books. Textbooks, that is. Books did not move away from me. They did not reject or intimidate me. Books helped me ignore the longing for girlfriends and boyfriends and the familiarity that was suddenly impossible. All that risk could be postponed as I returned to the consistency of the printed page. I made honor roll every semester.
Writing spun a thicker cocoon around me. I would determine what I thought the teacher wanted to hear and give it to her. With forty-plus students per class, our exhausted teachers had little energy or time to question or nurture a single student. I meticulously read and wrote the assignments—novels, plays, and whatever else they cared to give me. My self- consciousness was not a problem when outlining a chapter on the respiratory system. My insecurities posed no threat as I memorized the declensions of "amo. . .amas. . .amat. . ." or rode with Jody, another lonely child, through the pages of The Red Pony (Steinbeck, 1937).
I wish I could describe a type of renaissance at this point in my life—how my frenzy of literacy spun off into an epiphany of self-actualization. It did not happen. My middle school years continued to be a struggle, a silent railing against the powers that be, and an unrivaled period of self-doubt. I became expert at pretending I didn't care about the social life that was so important to the rest of the kids. My academic honors betrayed my emotional needs.
All the while, however, there was good to come of this. The lessons of this period of "heart to mind" internal and external struggle give me particular insight into the needs of my middle school students. I am as vigilant toward the needs of high-achieving students as I am of others. Quiet students gain at least as much of my attention as my more rambunctious charges.
I have found that good usually comes from struggle. It may not always be the consequence we hope for, but the mere investment of self into a challenge can be its own reward. It was with ambivalence that, at age 26 and mother of two, I
Voices from the Middle; Volume 4, Number 4; November 1997 copyright NCTE
decided to begin college. I questioned how far I would get, how well I would do after so many years away, or if I would even like it.
The answers are: I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English; I did fine; I liked it— a lot! I found, without the social and emotional encumbrances of adolescence, I was free to enjoy learning for learning's sake. A whole new world opened up to me: new and classical ideas in philosophy, music, psychology, and literature. Where high school had scratched the surface of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ideas of morality, my college professor dug a trench! In political science, I found teachers who not only encouraged me to seek my own truth, but to scream it at the world, which I did. In psychology, the instructor insisted we apply our knowledge to observe and reach our own conclusions. I observed everything from mice to the instructor himself. I read. I wrote. I learned.
Yet, there was a difference in what I gained from this literacy adventure. I was no longer hiding behind literacy as a defense. I was experiencing the joy of learning, challenging my capacity for growth. I grew in knowledge and confidence. This was a path to my own truth. Literacy had become a precious toy.
I played with this toy through eleven years of part-time study as I raised my children. After graduation, I landed a job in the consumer service department of a major food manufacturer. For one year, I wrote letters to customers explaining such phenomena as how mold forms on cheese (mold happens!) and how Thousand Island Dressing got its name (don't ask). One day, as I read a consumer's delineation of the role of our cheese product in his sex life, I knew it was time to move on.
But where? I hadn't a clue. Once again, my literacy served me well. I took a day off work and sat down at my kitchen table early in the morning. With me were my old friends—a book, What Color Is Your Parachute? (Bolles, 1970), a pad of paper, and a pen. I thumbed through the section on identifying my skills and ideal job, and worked halfheartedly through some exercises to no avail. Then I spied the next exercise—the writing of my autobiography. It took hours, during which I reminisced and rambled, cried and laughed. I felt embarrassed, self-conscious, bored, angry, and sometimes borderline hopeless. At the end of it all, with glaring clarity, was the profession that embodied an intense focus on literacy, creativity, and emotional and psychological connectedness—teaching.
I went back to college and earned my certification. For the last ten years, I have taught language arts to seventh graders. I read with them. I write with them. I challenge them. I show them how to connect within themselves and to the world—heart
to mind, one to another. There are decades between their ages and mine. There are infinite differences between the post-World War II world I grew up in and the technological frenzy of the 1990s. Yet, we are unequivocally all standing on that ship holding hands and trying to help each other feel less alone, more alive.
So, why does literacy matter so much? It matters for all of the reasons described above. But it is more than that. It matters because of its pure, pure pleasures.
I read because I like it. I like to be told stories and listen to the author’s thoughts. I like the solid feel of a good book in my hands, the edges of the paper soft and raggedy to the touch. It feels good to carry it around, to rest it on my lap, to close it with a little thud. I listen contentedly to the pages crackle when I open it again, my fingernails delicately pulling at the tops of the last few pages toward the bookmark. With library books I have borrowed, I ponder the list of due dates of readers who have borrowed the book before me and wonder how they felt when they read it and what they are doing now.
I like bookmarks. My sister sends me sentimental bookmarks with poems such as "I Said a Prayer for You Today" (author unknown). She signs them on the back with love and I think of her late at night as I nestle into my bed and unseat the bookmark for a few pages before drifting off. I buy bookmarks when I travel. They're inexpensive and lightweight and remind me of my adventures and the people I shared them with. I use picture Christmas cards for bookmarks in my cookbooks. Each time I open the book, a brief glance reminds me of people who have touched my life and I, theirs. Once, I had red and blue initialed bookmarks custom embroidered for my young sons. I loved them. My sons did not. I use them now to mark my dictionary and thesaurus, the books I use the most. The sons are grown and gone, but their bookmarks are reminders that they and I are still inextricably connected.
My bookshelves are a splotchy hodgepodge of textures and colors. Big, almanac type books salvaged from someone's musty basement rest next to small, fat paperback anthologies from college days. And for some reason, an old math textbook that never gets opened, yet has survived years of my half- hearted we've-got-to-make-room-on-this-bookcase whirlwind. The changing inventory of books on those shelves have reflected the years. They held our high school yearbooks and college textbooks when my husband and I were first married. Before long, nursery rhymes and Golden Books were added, then Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Jane Eyre (Bronte, 1848), followed by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, 1884) and Animal Farm (Orwell, 1946). A
Voices from the Middle; Volume 4, Number 4; November 1997 copyright NCTE
mini-library of "fact" books—Guinness Book of World Records (McWhirter, 1960), The Book of Lists (Wallechinsky, Wallace, & Wallace, 1977), The Old Farmer's Almanac (Thomas, 1991) and the like—were the fascination of my son Bob. His forte has led him to Jeopardy auditions. When my son Tim majored in French, an English-French volume was added. When he married a French woman, she added a French-English dictionary. Before long, I suppose, Barney Beagle will reappear for the next generation. My home is wedged with caches of my literacy. The "computer room" as it is now called, holds the computer, printer, reference books, and supplies that I use for my professional writing endeavors. But a glance around the house shows a family room end table with a steno notebook and pen atop Marshall Cook's (1992) How to Write with the Skill of a Master and the Genius of a Child, ready for casual musings. Resting under my bed are several personal journals that over the years have sifted into types. There is a small diary with a padded cover decorated with pansies, violets, and lace that a friend gave me years ago as I recuperated from surgery. A white satin ribbon keeps the place where last I wrote. This diary includes bits of personal thoughts that aren't especially profound, but somehow I wanted them committed to paper.
Also stashed under my bed is a more practical journal—a thick spiral, with a deep blue and pink geometric design on its cover. This is my "deep and dark" journal, where I sort out thoughts and problems, analyze dreams, explore feelings and, well, vent. Carefully preserved within are sentences, fragments, drawings, notes written in shorthand, and a few pages punctured with a pencil point when the venting was at its best!
The final journal, a burgundy spiral bound at the top, which rests under the bed until it is "time," is for travel. This journal has been driven across America, has flown the Atlantic, sailed the Irish Sea, and ridden the rails of the TGV across France with me. It carries memories of a trip home to Michigan when my mother lay dying, and a visit to my son's graduation from college in Tennessee. Rereading the pages in this journal creates pictures more vivid than any Kodak moment, because the sights, sounds, touches, smells, and tastes are there, all wrapped up in the emotions of the time.
We come to know ourselves through the process of dealing with the struggles, successes, failures, and surprises of our lives. I have come a long way since my romps with Pie Face! Literacy has been a powerful adventure helping me to survive and thrive. With a learned, sustained passion, I share these gifts of language with my students and receive validation:
literacy is our life spirit, the connectedness of heart to mind and one person to another.
Bolles, R. (1970). What color is your parachute?
Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed. Bronte, C. (1848). Jane Eyre. New York: Smith
Cornhill. Cook, M. J. (1992). How to write with the skill of a
master and the genius of a child. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest. Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird. New York:
Doubleday. MacDonald, B. (1947). Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. New
York: HarperCollins. McWhirter, N. (1960). Guinness book of world
records. New York: Guinness Superlatives. Orwell, G. (1946). Animal farm. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich. Steinbeck, J. ( 1937). The red pony. New York:
Viking. Thomas, R. B. (1991). The old farmer's almanac.
Dublin, NH: Yankee. Twain, M. (1884). The adventures of Huckleberry
Finn. New York: Bantam. Wallechinsky, D., Wallace, I., & Wallace, A. (1977).
The book of lists. New York: Bantam.

Voices from the Middle; Volume 4, Number 4; November 1997 copyright NCTE

Saturday, September 15, 2018



            I’ll tell you when you’re older, she said. That’s, like, forever. That’s like, I couldn’t even fathom that I could remember what I wanted to know that long in order to bug her when I’m older to tell me. Well, phooey on it. It probably wasn’t that good of a secret anyway.

            But I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was nine years old at the time, but it make me look at my sister Nancy, five years older than me, in a whole different light. What was the secret about her that Mom wouldn’t tell me?

            I defaulted to my, well, default person—Grandma! She and I were besties. She and I spent long hours together while Mom tended to my chronically ill younger sister and Nancy was busy with ‘grown-up-kid stuff’.

            It was in the middle of a game of Go Fish, Grandma’s and mine favorite card game, that I nonchalantly asked her, “What’s the secret about Nancy?”

            Grandma, usually so honest and forthcoming, hesitated. “What did your mother tell you?”

            “Nothing. She said she’d tell me when I’m older.”
            “Well, if she won’t tell you, I’d better not either. Do you have any Jacks?”

            “Go fish.”

            The irony being, of course, that it was I who was doing the fishing. I decided to try the direct approach. “Nan, what’s the secret about you? Is it good?” I was getting concerned that she had privy to something I didn’t.

            “Well, it’s kinda good and kinda bad,” she answered.

            This was getting me nowhere.

            “Is it money?”



            “Do you get to stay up late after Peggy and I have to go to sleep?”


            “Give me a hint.”

            She thought about this for a moment. At fourteen, her conniving prowess far exceeded mine. “Well, it has to do with Daddy.”

            What? I knew Daddy very well. Could wrap him around any finger I chose. How could she have something on me with Daddy?

            Then I started to look at Daddy in a whole new light. What did he know that I didn’t? What secret did he have with Nancy that he wouldn’t let me share? I just figured I was Daddy’s favorite and I wanted it to stay that way.

            For several days, I sulked, hiding around corners, eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations. And, for all intents and purposes, Nancy was now in their camp. I decided to move in the other direction.

            Cornering my little sister Peggy, I asked her if she knew the secret about Nan. Just nineteen months my junior, she stared at me with her guileless pale blue eyes and grunted, “What secret?” She was no help.

            Exasperated, I told her of my plan to hide in closets and around corners where the grown-ups gathered to talk. Promise of a toasted almond from the Good Humor man secured her complicity.

            But before we could get the lowdown on the QT, the doorbell rang. Mom opened it and a Grandma-aged couple stood on the porch. I thought Mom would tell them they were at the wrong house or didn’t want what they were selling. Instead, she invited them in.

            Everybody was acting weird, clasping their hands in front of them, giggling nervously and half-smiling at each other. Who were these people?

            “Nice to see you, Kaye,” the lady said to my mom. “Is Nancy ready?”

            “Yes, she’ll be right out.”

            Nancy emerged from the bedroom and got the same shy smile as the grownups. What the heck was going on?

            “Hello, Nancy dear, “the woman said.

            “Hi,” Nan responded, staring at Mom.

            “Are you ready to go?”

            Nan nodded. Mom bundled her in a heavy sweater and the strange couple left with my sister! This was getting serious. How could Mom let these oddball strangers take my sister! This had to do with The Secret, and I just knew it was much bigger than I’d imagined. As she closed the door, Mom looked at me directly and said, “It’s time I told you.”

            Now I was not at all sure I wanted to know this secret. Were they going to bring Nan back? Were they going to take me next?

            Mom sat me down on the sofa. “Before I married Daddy, I was married to another man and Nan was our little girl. That man was killed in a car accident. Soon after, I met Daddy and we got married and had you and Peggy.” She paused to let that sink in.

            “So….does that mean Nan isn’t going to be part of our family now?”

            “No! We will always be a family together.”

            “Is Nan still my sister?”

            “Well, actually, she’s your half-sister.”

            She looked whole to me.

            Mom went on, “That means that she and you and Peg have the same mother, me, but Nan had a different father. It doesn’t change anything for our family.”

            That’s where she was wrong. It changed everything. I thought I had two sisters, but I actually had one and a half. I thought our family was complete with Grandma, Dad, Mom, Nan, Peg and me. Now we had these intruders horning in, expecting us to let them grab Nan any time they wanted.

            “Are those people going to bring Nan back?”
            Mom smiled, “Of course they’re going to bring her back! They are the parents of Nan’s father, so they are her grandparents.”

            “Are they my grandparents, too?”


            Well, that was a relief. I had two grandmas and a grandpa, and that’s all I could really handle.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

Author with her traveling companion Et2Fay

by Kelley Callahan Chikos

My first ‘Erma,’ Erma One, was a smack-in-the-face rush. I’d been to other good writers’ conferences, but EBWW had something pleasantly unique. I just didn’t know what it was.
My aha moment arrived at Erma Two.
I told myself on the flight to Dayton not to get my hopes up, that, as wonderful as Erma One had been, sometimes elements just come together once, never to be replicated. I told myself it would be a good, educational experience with nice people and that would be enough. It didn’t have to be the Workshop of Wild Wit and Wonderment that my Erma One had been. It was highly unlikely to happen again.
Yet there it was—the same waves of ease, of feeling instantly valued by these excited strangers, their first curiosities being, “Where are you from? What kinds of things do you enjoy writing? Is this your first Erma?” Instead of, “What do you do for a living? Have you been published? Where? How often? Can you make a living at it?”
 I never met Erma Bombeck but I’m aware of how a legacy can be created for others’ personal or monetary benefit.
But Erma was the real deal. Even within the self-teasing, jab-in-the-ribs comments about herself: “The last person to see me in a pleated skirt went blind!” it was always clear she valued herself and her family. She was ‘just folks,’ and that was her magic.
I have decided to call it the Spirit of Erma. The Spirit that, regardless of publishing successes or frustrations, we are simply ‘just folks,’ using our time on earth to write, to express, to share and grow. To “use everything the Creator gave us”. To ride that EBWW three-day cloud of synergy that rises from this unique group of creatives who gain strength from one ‘just-folks’ woman who went to Dayton University and was told she could write. And that is enough.
This Spirit pushes my introverty self into the dinner ballroom early and alone, to sit at an empty table, and enjoy watching the table fill with new faces. The eager introductions. The smiles as we ask each other, “Are you having fun?”
The Spirit emanates from the Bombeck family, ever present, smiling and listening graciously to yet another writer tell them how much their mother meant to them. As her writing reflected her love for them, they reflect their love for her. That’s all it’s about.
This Erma we crowned a man ‘King of Erma’ and an 89-year-old newlywed woman Queen. She wore a tiny tiara and he a Crown of Burger King and we all laughed together.
Just folks.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I pulled up his Facebook page, just to see if I could connect. I did, at least to the page of pictures he had posted. He stood several inches taller than when I had last stood beside him three years ago at age thirteen. He had his arms around a pretty dark-haired girl about his age. She looked happy within his embrace.
            As happens with grandmothers, it took me back to the day after I’d heard he was on the way. The news still sinking in, I headed to my teaching job. It was like every other day, yet unlike any other day; I was going to be a grandmother.
            As I passed the science classroom in the early-morning hush of the school, I poked my head in the door to see if Ms. Hop was in. She was.
            Head bent, she was polishing lesson plans, but glanced up when I appeared. “Good morning!” she said in her usual cheery tone.
            I stared at her, mute. She looked puzzled. I tried to speak, but my throat seemed to be closing up.
            A small, anticipatory smile, “Yes?”
            Tears filled my eyes and the look on her face turned to concern. I choked out, “It’s happy news.”
            She laughed a bit. “OK.”
            I took a deep breath and announced, “I’m going to be a grandmother.”
            Her eyebrows shot up; she leapt from her chair and threw her arms around me. “That’s wonderful news! Um, why are you crying?”
            I didn’t know then and I’m still not certain. It wasn’t that I felt old; age has never been a concern for me. It wasn’t surprise; my son and his wife were hoping for a child.
            Looking back, I think it was the huge life transition that was pulling me along, ready or not. And, silly as it sounds, it was worry about whether I would be a good grandma.
            I had told my older sister Nancy about it. Nan loved kids; she had five of her own and had been a grandmother for several years. When I told her my worries, she assured me, “I’ll show you how to be a grandma.” Yet, two weeks after Pauly’s birth, Nan died suddenly of a heart attack. She never got to hold him. I never got to hear her advice on how to be a grandma.
Two weeks after Pauly was born, his maternal grandfather passed away in France. My daughter-in-law flew there to attend his funeral. My son’s job took him far from home almost every day, so I temporarily moved into their apartment to care for Pauly.
            His mother had left detailed instructions regarding his newborn care and it came back to me readily. Caught in the whirlwind of bottles and burping, changing diapers and soothing baby tears, often it was early afternoon before I realized I hadn’t gotten dressed or brushed my hair! How wonderful it all was.
            One afternoon, after Pauly had been bathed and changed and fed and burped and tucked into tiny navy knit pants with matching socks and a gray knit top with black cartoon squiggles on it, I settled with him into the big rocker in his room. As I eased back, his head fell heavily onto my shoulder, his baby breath soft on my neck. Little feet dangled against me, and tiny hands rested on my shoulder, unmoving, yet seeming to claim me for his own. Lids closed heavily over baby blues, pudgy cheeks pursed tiny lips, in perfect peace.
            As I gently rocked, my brain flashed onto auto-pilot. I should put him in his crib so I could do laundry and dishes and empty trash and brush my teeth.
Then something odd happened. Something that had never occurred to me when I was a new mother. I realized I didn’t have to do any of those things. They would all get done eventually, but I may never again have a chance to cradle my grandson, soft and warm, collapsed on my shoulder, as if it would always be his favorite place in the world. I knew I shouldn’t do anything but stay exactly where I am and love him.
            Way too soon, he’d be crawling, then walking, then running through his life toward school and girlfriends and career. But at this moment, with his mother and father so far away, with a grandfather and aunt he would never know, with laundry and dirty dishes and burgeoning trash baskets, it was just Pauly and me.

Just as I suspected, the years flew by. I don’t see Pauly or his family anymore. Sometimes things just happen to divide a family. I may never see him again. But I will always have that afternoon when Pauly laid his head so contentedly on my shoulder.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


So I get this opportunity of a lifetime—an invitation for a trip to Aruba with free lodging, thanks to my lifelong friend (and I do mean lifelong, since she was two and I was one when we met which, BTW, makes me one whole year younger, a fact she lorded over me in our youth and which I lord over her in our senior years) Ginger who, with her husband Bill, owns a condo there. Right on Eagle Beach.

Oh, mama!

Once I got there, there were big decisions to make: how late to sleep in, which beach to loll around on, how many pina coladas to have before lunch. Heavy stuff. The word ‘paradise’ is over-bandied, but this came pretty close, especially since I’d just left 17 degrees and four inches of new snow in Chicago.

We got to the pool this one particular morning, making great fuss over securing beach towels to our lounge chairs with colorful plastic parrot-clips. Sun block: slather, slather. Shades, check. Sleazy novel, check. Are those angels singing? Yes, melody riding on the island breeze.

Right about the time I’m getting to the chapter where Slade finds out that Bridgett’s chin is actually an implant and he is seriously considering calling off the wedding, Ginger chirps, “I’m hungry. I sure wish someone would make me a sandwich.”

I, basking in the tropical sun and gratitude over her invitation into this glorious place, jump up and offer to run up to the condo and do the Dagwood bit.

“What kind do you want?” A simple question, right? It should take me about 15 minutes tops.

“Um, let’s see, “she contemplates. “We have ham and turkey, Gouda and Swiss. How about a turkey and Gouda, with mayo and lettuce and butter.”

“Got it,“ I say and head toward the condo.

“Wait!” she cries. “It has to be put together in a certain order.”

“OK, what order?”

“Sourdough bread, then butter, then lettuce, then Gouda, then mayo, then turkey and more lettuce, then the sourdough.”

“BBMGLTLB,”  Got it.” I step away.

“No! You got the mayo and lettuce mixed up,” she says.

“Why is the order so important?” I ask, sorry the moment it was out of my mouth, remembering the time when we were five and six (did I mention she’s a year older?)and I got a fifteen-minute explanation about why her bedroom clock was set ten minutes ahead of the actual time so that if she was running late getting ready for something, she could take comfort in the fact that she was actually ten minutes ahead of where the clock told her she was and thus ensuring her prompt arrival at said destination.

Back to Aruba: “Well, duh! Because the lettuce keeps the butter from sticking to the Gouda and what would be the point of having lettuce between cheese and turkey? It’s illogical.”

“What happens if I make it upside down—with the lettuce and the mayo on the bottom?”

“I’ll know if you do.”

I get a flashback to when we were kids living in Detroit across the street from each other. Did I miss this side of her back then? She seemed so normal when we would sell Kool-Aid on the front lawn. We had agreed that first the pitcher was filled with water. Then the Kool-Aid was added. Then the sugar (the olden days). Then ice. Simple.

At this point I should explain that I have always enjoyed yanking her chain. I say, “OK, let’s see if I have this straight: sourdough bread, butter, lettuce, Swiss, mayo turkey and more lettuce, then bread.”

“Right. No! Gouda, not Swiss. We are in Aruba, after all.”

“Oh, sorry.  Butter, lettuce, GOUDA, then mayo, turkey and lettuce.”


“All on marbled rye.”

She pulls her shades down and gives me that ‘I’m barely tolerating you’ look I first saw the day I surreptitiously floated a water beetle past her in our kiddie pool.

“Ok, ok, I’ve got it straight.” Once again, I turn toward the condo.

She calls after me, “Don’t forget to cut it on the bias. I’ve seen how you cut your sandwiches all right-angled.”

I trot back to her chair, giving her the ‘Are you serious?’ look I gave her the day we’d ordered the hamburger platter lunch at Woolworth’s fountain and found out we didn’t have enough money to pay for it and she refused to use the money her mom had given her to buy potatoes on the way home.

I’d had enough. She was winning this battle of wits. I sauntered over to my beach bag and pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen. “Here, draw me a diagram of how you want your sandwich,” I said, entertaining the urge to include real sand.

Her face lit up, and she got right to work. Before long, she had a diagram that could rival any architect’s skyscraper proposal, including a stack of ingredients floating vertically, as if by a ghostly presence. On the top of the diagram floated a piece of bread, with a picture of an old man holding a pan.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That’s a picture of a Gold Rush miner in San Francisco, where they invented sourdough bread. It’s to help you remember.”

Beneath that rested a small square with a little cow smiling next to it. Obviously, butter.

Then a raggedy leaf drooping from a bunny’s mouth.

Then a circle with a little Dutch girl next to it, complete with Dutch girl hat and wooden shoes. Gouda.

Then a shape reminiscent of an amoeba I saw under a microscope in ninth grade. “You want an amoeba in your sandwich?”

She grabbed the paper and squinted at it. “That’s a blob of mayo,” she asserted.

“Then why’s that icon for the Internet next to it?”

Again, she frowned at her list. “Anybody could tell that’s an oil well. Mayo’s made from oil.”

And finally at the bottom was a neat square divided in half by a precise diagonal cut.

Grabbing the diagram and scurrying up to the condo, I quickly assembled said ingredients in said order, cut saidly diagonally.

Delivering it, I was paid with a big Aruba smile and a heartfelt, “Thanks!”

I settled back with my novel, hoping Slade will cut Bridgett some slack with her chin issue.

“Ahem,” comes from the next chair.

I look over at her.

“Remember when we were about seven and we were playing Parcheesi and I said you cheated and threw the board up and scattered all our pieces?”


“Well. I know you didn’t really cheat. Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” I counter. “Actually, I did.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


         A crash and screams from the living room. I dashed in, praying “Please God, no blood.”
         “What happened?” I shrieked at the two stunned faces of my young sons.
No blood.
“Timmy knocked down my Wegos!” three-year-old Bobby screamed, blasting a fistful of Lego pieces at Timmy’s face.
         “He smashed my puzzle,” Timmy shouted, throwing a handful of puzzle pieces at Bobby, then lunging at his throat.
         Dashing into the crossfire, I pulled them apart, holding the two wrigglers as best I could. They flailed at each other, hoping to score one more hit, since they knew they were already in trouble.
         “Stop this!” I growled. “Brothers are supposed to love each other.”
         Bobby glared at his brother. “I don’t wuf you. I hate you!” he declared.
         Timmy spewed, “I hate you too!”
         “Enough! Both of you, wash your hands and brush your teeth. We have to be at the dentist in half an hour.”
         Grumbling and glaring at each other, they headed for the bathroom with me between serving as firewall. I stood in the doorway as they begrudgingly completed the assigned tasks, elbowing each other away from the sink as much as they figured they could get away with.
 We piled into the car, combatants secured by snugly drawn seatbelts.
Shaking my finger, I threatened, “And I don’t want to hear a peep out of either one of you.”
As I started the car, muffled sounds from behind me.
At the dental office, Bobby fared well, but Timmy needed a tooth pulled. As they readied his brother for the procedure, Bobby contented himself in the waiting room by trying to dismantle a toy truck, while I tried not to think about what my little boy was going through in the dentist’s chair.
After many long minutes, the nurse appeared and said, “All went well, but Timmy needs to rest awhile before going home. You can join him if you like.”
I walked gingerly into the dimly lit room.
Timmy lay in the chair, still, his eyes half closed, bloody gauze held between his teeth; a thin stream of blood-tinged saliva ran quietly down his chin. My heart sank.
Bobby, puzzled and shocked, stopped at the doorway and quietly eyed his brother. He walked slowly to the chair, staring, then stretched out his chubby little hand and covered his brother’s.

“I wuf you,” he whispered.