The first time I met Grandma Sweetie Pie, I was pregnant. Aside from Ross and his parents, I don’t think anyone else knew. I was 31 years old and convinced children and marriage weren’t in my future, so this pregnancy was a surprise. After years of trying and failing to conceive in my previous marriage, the pregnancy was miraculous. Of course, my family was thrilled, and DG and Mary adjusted to the initial shock pretty quickly (DG sprang out of his chair to hug me), but the first time I met Grandma Sweetie Pie involved meeting the entire extended family.
It wasn’t actually Thanksgiving. One of the first things I learned about Ross’s family was that they celebrate when everyone can get together. The day doesn’t matter. The gathering does.
At the time, Grandma Sweetie Pie still lived in the small house where she and her husband had raised their six children. Inside was a surprise—steps too steep for someone who seemed so frail, a wide window with a view to bird feeders, music…music…music, and a whimsical basement.
I’m from Florida. Basements are terrifying, dark places where people go in slasher films to turn on the circuit breaker or inspect that weird thump or hide some loathing secret. At the least, it’s where people hide during roaring tornadoes.
Grandma Sweetie Pie’s basement was bright lights, long white tables, and the walls…the walls were forest trees and stumps and lakes and clouds and critters and dreams. In each brush stroke, there was a story of someone in the family who had held a brush and added an element, and did I want to add one, too?
I added the crooked tree. The one on the property where I grew up. The one that appeared in my first novel.
I met everyone. Literally everyone. All funny and clever and interesting. All kind and genuine and curious. And at the end of the day, stuffed with all the fixings and homemade pie, they invited me into the family photo. We hadn’t announced I was pregnant. I didn’t know what the future held. Ross and I weren’t married. What if I ended up being “that girl who showed up at that one Thanksgiving”? I thought maybe I could stand at the edge and they could crop me out. But no, I was herded into the group, wedged lovingly next to Ross and included with Grandma Sweetie Pie and all the people she loved.
Grandma Sweetie Pie had raised a family filled with artists and creators, people who used their hands to make things, with imaginations wide and hearts wider. And wild, curious things. Practical things. Tough things. People who faced challenges and brought bags filled with whimsy and practicality.
I heard stories of Grandma Sweetie Pie dressing up as Wonder Woman for Halloween, donning the costume without looking at herself in the mirror because she knew if she did, she wouldn’t come out. I suspect she would have come out anyway.
This was a woman who turned down an acceptance to Julliard to marry a man and move to Illinois and raise a family.
If you’re wondering what happens to an artist who is transplanted to the Midwest, to small town America, this is it. She brings her music with her. She grounds her children in faith. She teaches them to search for four-leaf clovers, to seek the shapes in the clouds, to never forget the beauty and wonder of a changing season, of a small kindness. She makes them strong. Stronger. She gives them her music, determination, art, and curiosity. She laughs. Mostly at herself. And then they learn to do the same. She accepts them. Just as they are.
Eventually the house was sold, and Grandma Sweetie Pie moved in with family, and then moved into a nearby nursing home, and was a light and delight there as well. Even when she didn’t recognize faces or names anymore.
I live with her legacy. My house is whimsy and music. We could do with some extra grounding, our pace too fast. She would tell us to slow down. She would tell us to savor more moments. She would tell us not to worry. To trust. To have faith. We need to remember this.
Last Sunday she was reunited with all these people she’s been missing.
But these people she left behind…
Yesterday when we celebrated her 98 years, I saw that first photo of the day I joined them for Thanksgiving. It was the first of many photos with new faces added.
At the church, I was entrusted with making sure some of the folks who couldn’t make it to the service could be there, via Zoom. I held them in my hand, angling the camera, trying to anticipate what they would want to see. The priest spoke of her service to others, her faith, her family, her humor, her intellect, her curiosity. I watched Aurora, my miracle, watching me, sending me hearts with her hands. I watched Matthew, a pallbearer, lift Grandma Sweetie Pie with his hands that dance across piano keys. I thought about the people, those who were present in person and spirit, who know without any doubt how much Grandma Sweetie Pie loved them.
The artisans. The educators. The musicians. The tenders. The problem-solvers and fighters and nurturers and finders of four-leaf clovers.
She gave birth to all of this.
May we all be so blessed.
Thank you, Yorkville Public Library, for the Poetry and Art event today.
And a special shout out to my new talented friend, Tracy Snicker, for the art she created, inspired by the poem I wrote entitled "Bundled."
(Masks removed for photo only)
Fifty steps into this thicket
I sift through the thick of it.
I am layered and lined,
coated and proofed,
booted and bundled,
fleeced and sure-footed
in all I’ve purchased
to protect from whatever
I am called to weather.
Yet I do not grieve the fallen leaves
cushioning my steps,
veined and wedged
between earth and foot.
I envy the flesh-colored pillows
their naked demise,
their release from the bough,
their twirling death-spin
as they drift
under the mighty branches,
a down shroud between the quickening cold
and the soil where seeds slumber.
They do not bind to branches.
They do not long to be pressed between pages.
They are left, far from bereft.
I am a walker of the woods,
a preserver of prose,
as if words will never wither when
we are without breath and buried
beneath this dusty trail.
Such simple flesh-colored drifters,
bundled and born to turn tattered,
aren’t we merely threads in the thickest of blankets
made to be worn?
That’s how my dad described folks he liked, and he liked lots of folks. He also described some individuals as “that sonofab*tch.” He liked them, too, grinning when he said it. There are different kinds of liking people.
He only met Tim Miller once, I think, the first time Dad and Vicki visited us in Illinois. If my memory serves, DG and Mary hosted, and Tim Miller was either there or swung by, as he did. They might have talked fishing. Tim definitely had a beer. That was enough for my dad. Like Mary and DG, Tim was “good people.” When I’d catch Dad up on folks here, my dad would ask, “Now how’s that buddy of DG’s doing? Tim?” I think if we’d all lived closer, DG, Tim and my dad might have gotten into some mischief.
We lost my dad and Tim this year.
Yesterday, Tim’s family and friends finally got to gather and honor him. The yellow roses in an oversized martini glass included fishing bobbers. Pictures of Tim greeted everyone—of course Tim on the boat; young Tim, freshly married to Linda; moments captured with his children, grandchildren. A wooden sign, crafted with care, included the image of Tim’s iconic white beard and handlebar mustache, the words ensuring us all that he was heaven bound and “gone fishing.”
And there was a newspaper clipping of Tim greeting some newcomers to Ottawa: the Wheelers.
I stared at the grainy picture of my in-laws and the Millers, and I remembered when I met Tim Miller, the very first time I ever stepped foot in Ottawa.
I was living in Chicago with my mom. It was spring. I wanted to see more green, be in a wider space. The guy who was performing in Forever Plaid, the one who I’d worked with on the auction for Season of Concern, knew just where to go.
I left a note for my mom: “Gone to Ottawa. Be back tonight.”
Of course I was greeted like family at the Chinese restaurant Ross’ family had eaten at for years and years. Of course we hiked in St. Louis Canyon. It was a beautiful day in Ottawa. Sunny. The air a little crisp, so we swung by the docks, and there was DG and Tim Miller, just about to head out onto the pontoon.
Would we like to come?
My childhood was speedboats and sailboats, sandy beaches, waves. Tim steered us along the river, DG pointed out landmarks. I’d craved green; I’d needed wind and water, and here we were. As much as I loved the rush of Chicago and the lake in the city, it wasn’t this. This was like my childhood. These men were like my dad.
It was a magical day, with Tim at the helm.
When I got home, my mom was relieved to discover that I had not taken off to Canada. But you know, they did lure me away from home, all these good people.
In the years that followed, Tim took care of our eyes. All of our eyes. He’d always been the Wheelers’ eye doctor, and when I admitted I hadn’t had my eyes checked in maybe ever, I scheduled an appointment. He confirmed I was 20/20. He told me I was blessed with good vision. Everyone else in our house needed glasses to see.
It’s only been in the last few years, after Tim retired, that I’ve needed glasses. Just readers. I only need them to see things up close.
Yesterday, I left them at home, so the newspaper photo of Tim Miller greeting DG and Mary Wheeler was blurry. My vision blurred a heck of a lot more when his grandchildren spoke. They listed off memories with him. He’d taken them fishing. Attended events. Cheered. Helped with homework. He’d even woken them up for school. So much love. Linda’s hugs were so warm.
It was a beautiful day in Ottawa. Sunny. The air a little crisp.
A good day for fishing, I think, with Tim at the helm.
My dad would have said, “Good people.”
Charlie Brown needs black pants
That’s what I scribble on a sticky note as I’m sitting in my living room. There are other items on my sticky note:
stripes on house
I will do these things later, and I jot more notes as I remember. I sit in a brown leather chair facing my living room window watching as these words, the ones you are reading now, rise up from my computer screen.
I should be entering grades.
A happy change this year: I’m no longer bound by "shoulds."
Through the door to my right, I hear a woman talking about graphs, re-learns, and excels. As she speaks, I can hear another sound, a coo. I recognize it as an infant, and smile. Like me, this woman is teaching from home, and I marvel at her, talking through my own son’s screen, my sixteen year-old son who long ago made cooing sounds, too.
When he and his sister were infants, we often sang Snoopy’s song from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to them. "They like me. I think they’re swell. Isn’t it remarkable how things turn out so well?"
I wonder what his Calculus teacher sings to her baby. She has no idea how much love I am sending to her, to her baby, through her Zoom call.
I’m on a Zoom call of my own, just outside my son’s door. I’m muted, but I’m available, as students work on the papers I won’t have time to grade this week. I’m here if they need me. If I unmute myself, they will hear my son’s Calculus teacher and her child’s coo.
My son is muted on his own computer. I know this because he is now playing a jazz piece on his keyboard while the teacher talks and her kid coos. He’s been composing this song for weeks. He plays the same sections over and over and over.
I know his screen is dark. He would never let his teacher see him, even though he sees her and her cooing kid.
He might be paying attention to the lesson. He might not be. I’m glad the teacher lets her kid coo. I’m glad my son is playing the piano. We’re all learning.
I’m a teacher, and I don’t care about grades. At all. Not this year.
I don’t usually work from home, but it’s Wednesday. The rest of the week, we are in-person, but every Wednesday is remote so the maintenance staff can thoroughly clean the building. It’s a nice mask break mid-week, but this afternoon, my husband, son, and I will head back to my school.
Because it’s Tech Week. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown officially opens tomorrow. My husband is the technical director. My son is Schroeder. I’m the artistic director. We have rehearsal tonight from 3:00-8:00pm.
I recognize that this is a miracle.
It was in the sixties earlier this week. It’s turned cold, a high of 48 today. I’ll pack on layers. The mask will warm my face. But I’m trying to figure out when I’ll find time to go shopping for the black pants. I don’t care if it’s cold, but I care if Charlie Brown is. Charlie Brown only has black shorts. I'm wondering if Charlie Brown needs black pants. It needs to be right. In a year where so much has gone wrong, Charlie Brown deserves to be warm.
Last year’s show didn’t happen, but I don’t spend much time fretting about it. A lot of things didn’t happen. I wasn’t there when my dad died. I wasn’t there when folks gathered. Instead we held our own small ceremony at a nearby forest preserve where I once took my dad and step-mom when they visited one winter. My son and I have been driving there after our rehearsals, watching the setting sun as the crunching snow and frozen lake morphed into patches of vibrant green. I’ve learned there is nothing special about our losses.
This is happening, though. The play.
It’s just a play. It’s not just a play.
It is play.
I’ve developed an obsession with sidewalk chalk.
When I was assigned to outside morning duty this semester, in January, in Illinois, someone asked me, “Who did you piss off?”
The truth is I really like morning duty. People trudge up the sidewalk, and I’m a caffeinated ray of sunshine. Annoying, I know. I bring the chalk. I offer every person who walks up a chance to draw on the sidewalk, If they say no thanks, I ask if I can draw a smile for them. They always let me.
They think I do it for them, but I do it for me.
One day back in February the sky had the audacity to snow after a week of temps in the fifties. As students slushed up the sidewalk, I brandished the chalk like a sword and yelled, “Are you feeling rebellious?”
The students know me. They were only mildly puzzled.
“Defy the weather!” I told them. “We will draw with sidewalk chalk. No slush will stop us!”
We didn’t care that chalk dissolves pretty fast in slush. That wasn’t the point. Turns out the colors are more vibrant when wet. When the first bell rang, I only had tiny nubs of chalk left. I love those nubs.
I spent thirty bucks on a box with 150 sticks of sidewalk chalk. My goal is to use the whole thing before June.
I used ten sticks of sidewalk chalk to direct folks from the parking lot to the check-in table for our show. The messages includes arrows and guidelines: this way, do you have your blanket, your folding chair, dress for the weather, follow proper protocols. Check-in here. Stick figure drawings show how to have a member of your group check-in.
It’s a bit unnecessary, my messages. I’ll recognize all of the faces. It’s just the families and friends of the cast, crew, and pit. It’s not much, but it’s more than I thought we’d have. I’ve made a seating chart for the 50 people who will attend each outdoor show.
Our principal and the maintenance crew have drawn 22 circles, separated by six feet, on the grassy hill in front of the lunch patio. Four people can fit comfortably in a circle.
We’ve spent a year inside small circles, and this is no different. Except it’s entirely different. Our circles are facing the same direction, toward the stage.
They will see the lunch patio transformed into a comic strip. The bright yellow fence, the cartoony brick wall and purple couch, Snoopy’s iconic red house.
It’s so simple.
All of those comic strips, each square holding everything.
It had to be Charlie Brown. And so it is.
I haven't fretted over any of it. I haven't been holding my breath. I was prepared for it to end before it even began. The process matters, I told myself. The auditions would have been enough. Then the rehearsals. The set build. And it would have been. But so much could have gone wrong--the numbers, the weather, the whims of it all. I've realized what a relief it is to let go of such things.
I will not get Charlie Brown the black pants, but it’s okay.
Bitter cold can come. The sun, too. We might bundle in our circles on the grassy hill. Or not. We’ll weather it either way.
And I won’t be able to explain why I cry when the music starts, when I see us gathered, songs lifted, so bright and joyful and simple.
"Isn't it remarkable how things turn out so well?"
I shouldn't be surprised when the play goes on.
I wrote this poem after Vicki died, and I read it again tonight.
We lost my Daddy this week, Rusty Hill, that icon of a man, who showed up when you needed him and always knew exactly what to say. Tomorrow he would have been 79. They told me he was on the couch, stretched out like usual. Looked like he was sleeping.
He's with the love of his life now, Vicki Lancaster Hill, but damn, this is hard.
I hate our basement
unless the sirens sound.
It is unfinished and dark
and stores boxes with pieces of who we used to be
and unfinished business
we will sort through later.
Where I come from, there are no basements.
If you dig, you drown.
The house I grew up in has a garage
where things get used or rot and ruin.
The garage is for laundry,
a mop or broom, the extra fridge, or tools, or Christmas.
It does not frighten me,
even with the spiders and palmetto bugs
and occasional slithering snake.
Home is home.
I visit Florida when I can,
see who I can,
but the sofa and the wall of windows are
There’s nowhere to hide when sirens sound.
And after everyone has gone
the television is our soundtrack.
Rusty turn that thing off
I’m watching Vicki
A blanket tucks around her,
a soft one,
A thin robe covers her while
she uncovers others.
We are midsentence when my father snores.
He does not wake himself, and
he does not wake at her first call, Rusty.
She is too soft,
but she tells me, He can’t hear
as though this is news.
His eyes open.
He does not turn to see us.
He knows who is where and what has woken him.
He says What
but he already knows.
Go to bed, she says.
He might grunt.
He might say I’m fine Vicki.
He might claim he’s still watching.
I will in a minute.
He might roll and prop and lift and leave.
Jesus H Christ.
He knows how to laugh at himself.
Sometimes I forget he listens
when we talk,
Vicki and me.
It makes me smile,
these well-worn parts they play
in that way that I’m comforted by
the steady promise of daybreak.
His coffee making
Her one ice cube cup
Her leg tucked under
Her perfectly placed pause
After I’ve said what I’ve said.
The pause that makes me think
I want to listen more.
In recent years,
I’ve been tired
Retiring to bed before midnight
To rise at 4
I’ve missed the moments
I knew I could lose.
I would have told you that
I longed to stand on a sandy shore
and look to the Gulf of Mexico
and the wind
to wisk the webbed mess
from my own dark basement.
I thought it was the sand and salt.
I thought it was wind and waves.
It was the wall of windows
and the woman tucked
who reached out her hand
to slow my spinning world
and asked and waited-
waited and asked-
the questions I wasn’t brave enough
to ask myself.
She’s in another room now,
one we can’t reach.
But my father-
My father is in Florida.
My father on the sofa by the wall of windows
listening to a longer pause.
And it makes me want my coffee black
with one ice cube.
instead of light and sweet.
He makes me forget oceans and storms.
He weathers it all.
He always has been,
always will be,
Day 2 with students. After school every day, everything goes in the wash. Lanyard, too. Fell asleep around 8pm, woke at 11pm, didn’t get back to sleep until later. Appointment set with eye doctor to get contacts to avoid foggy glasses and ear irritation. Projecting voice and energy through a mask is challenging. A few tips for those who are returning to hybrid model: If your school allows it, and you are using Zoom, consider appointing an in person student as co-host to field remote learner questions, waiting room (if they get knocked out), and any tech issues. Assign students jobs according to room location: windows, AC, sanitation distribution. Wear a shield for your larger classes (mine is 16) and hall duty, even if you feel like an idiot. Prop doors open to avoid using handles. Remember how we used to tell kids to use the bathroom between classes? Now they should only use it during class to avoid traffic in halls. Make sure the passes you use are laminated and cleaned after handling. No tornado or active shooter drills. Remind the kids: if they want to come to school, we have to take care of each other. Remind your friends to follow the procedures. Parents and community can say what they want, but it’s always been the kids and the teachers in the classrooms figuring it out. I know this is new territory. I know you are anxious about how to reach your students in this truly unchartered water. Put your tips into the world and help each other. Sending love and light to each of you, but this is not a light burden.
And while you're at it,
take it all in.
Do we dare
greet at doors?
Six feet from
those dim and distant,
Empty the class
Miss what does not exist.
We have a substitute.
in what must be sterile.
Hope for health.
Brace for heartache.
Practice in the mirror.
In theatre, we call “hold” to temporarily stop the action in a scene. Everyone goes silent and stays still until we make sure we are safe. Hold also means to cradle or grasp or carry. We are told not to hold. We hold tight to those we hold dear, but we also hold farther than arm’s length. We hold hands that are washed and washed. We hold still. Hold sounds like holed. Holed up. Hidden. Tucked away. Hold on, friends. Hold.
April 3rd would have been opening night for our show. I know we are all doing what we are supposed to. I know this is not important in the big workings of the world. But I don’t want to let the night fly past without taking a moment to acknowledge it. Sending extra love to our team, our cast, our crew, and our pit tonight. Drama Club members from the past, you get this. Once a member...always a member. Hold.
The above photos are from our virtual Drama Club Awards ceremony. Christy, Dawn, and I delivered candles, messages, and awards to our cast, crew, and pit. We held the candles to the screen. How could I not cry? How could I not?
Boxed In (Zoom)
I am reduced to a box on a screen.
My studio backdrop
is the leather chair
I never sit in,
the red rose curtains
I keep closed,
that houses all I’ve already read
and can’t part with.
The wall my husband painted red
is richer than I am,
bolder than I am.
It’s who I think I want to be.
They cannot see
the glaring spotlight
to my front
to make me visible,
than I feel.
I don’t let myself squint.
I am told to keep it natural
but my laptop balances atop
an upside down plastic laundry hamper
and the whites it usually holds
are rumpled in a stack by the washer.
I am precarious at best.
I invite people into
a corner of my room,
a place I’d never bring strangers,
but they can’t see what I keep hidden
my life beyond the camera’s range.
Keep it natural.
I am caked with more makeup
so I look better rested than I am.
This is what it is teach now.
This is how it goes.
I schedule the meeting.
I post the link.
I sip my coffee.
I count the minutes.
I secure the sound.
I exile my family.
I hide in a corner,
bind myself to all that’s in the box.
It’s just me looking back at me.
I click a button to hide
my own face.
I silence myself.
It occurs to me:
What if no one comes?
And then faces appear,
one by one by one.
That one with the bookshelf
and the blue wall.
That one with the poster.
That one wrapped in a burrito blanket.
That one who stays muted, dark.
That one scrubbed and clean.
That one who just woke up.
That one with the cat, the dog, the turtle,
the little brother.
Our collective “Awww!”
Shadowed and seen
and in their own boxes.
But one glitches.
You, who lags.
You, whose mouth moves
like you are underwater
and we watch helplessly
as you disappear.
I want to wait,
but everyone is waiting.
I act like I am moving on,
but I’m scanning the screen
there you are.
On another device.
I see you scramble.
I hear you apologize,
for us to hold on.
Please. Hold on.
This is a poor substitute
for what I didn't know I'd miss.
My God, I’ve missed their faces.
We wave and grin and glow.
How are you?
How are you REALLY?
And I am grateful for these small remnants,
these tiny boxes,
that hold everything in the world.
When I was little,
too little to run outside with the big kids,
I stood on our hand-me-down sofa
and smudged the glass
with my face and fists
and watched those that pedaled past
and roamed free-range
"Kids, Mommy! Kids!"
I was hard to contain,
shedding my diaper in the middle of
the inky dark
and climbing my crib
and slipping outside
and find my cat
and play in the grass
and when the neighbor brought me home
to my mom's fear and worry,
I held her chin and pointed skyward
"Stars, Mommy! See?"
Now I am still
grateful for glass partitions
waving at distant stars
far from the woman who
tried to contain me,
to contain everything
I once wanted to escape.
I am grounded.