Happy birthday to me!

It finally happened. I am almost old. Almost …

Melissa Doroquez@Flickr
Melissa Doroquez@Flickr

My mom, who just celebrated the big Eight-O this fall, tells me, “You’re finally catching up to me!”
And I say (patiently, mind you), “No, Mom–I’ll never catch up to you. You will always be twenty-two years older than me …”
“Well,” she says, “It just makes me feel good to think you’re almost sixty–that’s pretty close to 80!”

I’ve still got a couple years ’til I get there–and I’m not afraid to use them. Who knows what will actually happen (I am learning to live and love One Day At A Time), but here’s how I see those two years unfolding:

1. I’m getting ready to retire after 24 years of teaching. It’s hard to believe that at the end of my career I’ll have had about 3,000 teenagers sit in the seats of my classroom. Un-frickin’-believable. It will be difficult to say goodbye, but I think I’m ready. In that time “my” kids have watched me remarry, lose a parent, and become a grandma. Together we watched 9-11 unfold. I’ve had a blind student and students with hearing loss in my classroom. A student who was battling brain cancer, and a student who had cystic fibrosis. Students with Asperger’s. I’ve watched teens lose a parent to cancer, a brother to suicide. More than a few have run away or found themselves homeless. I’ve helped build homecoming floats, hosted Swirl and Prom and piled 50 fifteen-year-olds onto a Greyhound to travel to Mackinaw Island. I’ll never be the same because those 3000 sixteen-year-olds touched my life. And changed me profoundly.

2. I’ll welcome at least one new grand into the family–right now the total is at 2 1/2. Never in my life did I think I would turn into “one of those” grandmas. But it happened. This week while babysitting, Jonas took a kiwi and spinach food pouch out of his diaper bag and tried to twist the top. What did Grammy do? Why she uncapped it for him, of course, and let him have a snack! He wanted to carry around my bracelet. Why not, little fella? Oh, you want to take off your shoe? Go for it! I had no idea that on this end of the parenting spectrum I’d throw discipline to the wind and give my little babes whatever their hearts desire. It’s a heady thing, this grandma love, and I’m looking forward to whatever new additions come my way–and much more babysitting.

3. Hubby and I have weathered our share of life’s storms and I am oh-so-ready to head towards calmer waters. I’ve learned I’m learning my way is not the only way and he’s learning … well, that’s his story, not mine. Between us we’ve lost a parent, a step-parent, and three grandparents. We’ve sat watch in the hospital room of a critically ill parent more times than we’d like to admit. We’ve said goodbye to our beloved lab, Trixie, who was the same age as our marriage. We’ve lost a lot. We’ve gained … maybe more? Time will surely tell. I hope in the next few years we can tick off a few items on my bucket list. Like Italy. The Canterbury Trail. Lewis and Clark’s route. But even if none of that pans out, I can still say my life has been sweet, in part because of a man who is bold and courageous and darn good lookin’. So, if nothing else, we’ll pack up that camper and head to the Lake. The U.P. Out west. Because there is nothing so sweet in life as sitting beside the campfire, saying nothing at all. And maybe that’s enough.

One more assignment

In high school’s everywhere (but especially in mine right now) the last week or two of the semester vibrates with a kind of frenetic energy.papers to grade

It’s almost like the beginning of the school year when everything was new and fresh and possible. Kids–especially those with their eye on the scholarship prize or a dream school–hustle to make up, rewrite, turn in, retake, and otherwise pull out all stops to nudge their class grade up a few points. The semester grade counts. For credit. For GPA. For class standing. And so we teachers keep long lists on our desks of who’s coming when to make up what. When Academic Advising period starts, we shuffle papers like the best of any Blackjack dealer.


We wheedle and cajole and exhort a kid who is close (so close!) to turn in even one missed assignment–or two or three. These are the kids who have thrown their hands up. (Or put their heads down on their desks.) Not necessarily because of the school or the work or the teacher. But her mom had a heart attack. The booze or pills or whatever are back in Dad’s closet. Big brother went to jail. They lost the house. He sleeps in a garage. The baby was up all night. *Shoulder shrug* Why bother? Please–get that credit, graduate. It’s possible, I swear. One. more. assignment.

And then the Scantron machine works overtime zap, zap, zapping those  bubble sheets. The last Powerpoint slide on the last presentation transitions into the grade book. My own head aches, eyes blur from scoring over two hundred essays in the past week and a half.

And it is what it is for all of us … before it starts all over again on Monday.

A reading life: 10 Bookish Things About Me


1.One of my earliest memories is walking with my mom down the hill from our third story apartment in an old turn-of-the-century clapboard house to the public library on the edge of downtown Kent, Ohio. I must have been only three–but I still remember (hazily, mind you!) participating in the circus themed summer reading program where I made some sort of lumpy play-doh circus animal (I think it was an elephant!) that was added to a diorama in the children’s room.

2. I read Tom Sawyer in second grade. The real deal. Now mind you, I didn’t know what the heck I was reading, but I knew, somehow, the book was important. It was the first book I chose after I was allowed to check out a book from any shelf of the school library (not just the early readers section) and I was so proud. But to get there I had to prove my mettle and read through an entire series of books with my teacher. I was quite insulted. I still remember one page to this day: “Up. Up. How far is up?” Are ya kidding me?!

3. My aunt gave me Sendak’s Nutshell Library a couple years after it was published, even though I was (technically) too old at age 10. Still, I knew the stories frontwards and backwards, so when we did poetry writing in fifth grade, I was indignant when another girl submitted Pierre as her own poem. (And now that I think of it, I’m rather flummoxed the teacher didn’t recognize Sendak!) Sure, I ratted out the other kid, but in my mind I was defending my real friend, the book.

4. I have hundreds upon hundreds of books. My biggest furniture purchases have all been bookshelves–I buy a new one and think, “Oh my gosh–I’ll never fill all these shelves” and start stacking books on the floor all over again a few months later.

5. My best job ever was working part time in an independent bookstore for several years. A reader’s dream come true: publisher reps with Advance Reader’s Copies and all the latest news on who was publishing what and when (this was before the internet, mind you, and the fastest way to get information was USPS mailed catalogues); aisle after aisle of books to browse (and shelve, I might add–a pox on the travel and antique sections); coworkers who R.E.A.D. as much as I did and actually talked about books; customers who did the same (and also a few who asked for “some book with a red cover that was on Regis and Kathy Lee …”); borrowing books minus the dust jacket to read very, very carefully at home.

6. Probably because of #4, I love, love love the movie You’ve Got Mail.

7. By the time I was about twelve, my parents didn’t know what the heck I was reading. Because of that I often read some books I probably shouldn’t have–like the provocative Daddy Was a Number Runner in seventh grade. (Which, I found out a few years ago, is something of a classic but definitely not reading material for a naive junior high student.) But I learned to be discerning. I learned to sniff out quality. And I did it on my own–talk about empowering.

8. I was worried my kids would grow up to hate reading because I usually had a book in my hand, and I thought they might be jealous of my attention. Granted, sometimes the book was a children’s  book, but still. I cooked dinner with a book on the counter, I sat on the porch and read while I “watched” them play, I nursed them and read. But they turned out okay. Better than okay, actually–all three are readers.

9. I had a phenomenal English program in high school. We took 9 week courses (I think I remember there were thirty-some choices) whose topics ran deep and wide: Modern Novel, Creative Writing, American Lit 20s-40s, Shakespeare. How fun for the teachers to have the incredible freedom to design a class around something they loved. (That American Lit course was taught by a teacher writing his Masters thesis on … F. Scott Fitzgerald.) But I was assigned Catcher in the Rye twice, so there’s that! Not quite curriculum-y enough by today’s standards. Students could also elect a humanities track, too, but those kids read Greek and Roman classics and took Latin–for this reading addict, that was just too limiting. Yikes, I now think–what an opportunity I missed.

10. Following in the steps of friend Denice (she of the bookstore staff in #5) I now leave an Easter Egg in many of my books–a photo, a ticket stub, a receipt, a postcard, but rarely something as pedestrian as a bookmark. So when I’m dead and gone and my kids are divvying up my books, they’ll find a bit of this ‘n that–maybe an inside joke, maybe a secret message, maybe a clue to the me they didn’t know–hidden in the pages of the books that I could never put down.


As the shopper rushed home with her treasures: Bailey & James Boutique

Bailey & James Boutique
51 1/2 Bridge Street, Rockford

This time of year I daydream about an idyllic Christmas shopping experience that is a far-stretch from mall shopping: pretty store fronts, quaint little shops, lighted trees, carols in floating on the breeze. Throw in a few fluffy snowflakes and I’ve got a perfect evening, something a little Norman Rockwell with a dash of Chicago boutique. Yesterday that daydream came alive for a couple hours–minus the snowflakes (we’re having a rec0rd-breaking “heat” wave in Michigan this December!).

Shop owner Amber Kneibel opened Bailey & James Boutique  several months ago  hoping to “create a space that is fun, warm, and welcoming”  and where customers would feel like family. Nestled in downtown Rockford, the cozy shop combines a homey atmosphere with some very classy gift items (most created by local Michigan artisans) and vintage decor pieces. Amber says, “Our vintage pieces are heavily sourced from the 50 and 60’s. We embrace color, the farm chic movement, and we adore those that make handmade goodies right here in the mitten!” I had no problem leaving the store with a few unique gifts for some special people on my list: a guitar string bracelet, a hand-stamped wine bottle charm for gift giving (maybe!), and a cute little something-something for a Special Gal who (rumor has it!) just might get a sparkly ring for her left hand this holiday season. Nothing makes me a more satisfied shopper than to leave a store with gifts my loved ones won’t see in every other store in the mall.

Bailey & James Boutique
Bailey & James Boutique

 I attended a private event Amber held for local bloggers–something I think other small shop owners would be smart to do. The quiet afternoon hours gave Amber time to talk to each blogger, answer questions, and share her love of All Things Pretty. Small businesses often take root and grow when friends and fans share the love. Smart business woman, this Amber!

And Bailey. Don’t get me started. A dog rescued from a dog fighting ring, this sweet girl gives each customer a gentle (and very polite) welcome. I was so wrapped up in hearing Amber tell Bailey’s story (and also a little teary) that I didn’t even get a photo of the shop’s namesake.

But you can be sure I’ll be back–and probably fairly soon. (Like this week?!) I didn’t get a print that would look perfect in my kitchen …

*this post is not sponsored by Bailey & James Boutique, nor was my opinion solicited. All opinions are entirely my own.

The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.