1994: The Second of Four Elephants

This was an eventful year, but not in a way that is easy or fair to talk about. But I may have a story to tell even though I can hear the heavy footsteps of elephants in the distance. (Stephanie, if I cross any lines, let me know and I’ll edit judiciously. [If you’re not sure if your code name is Stephanie, you’re not Stephanie.])

Early in the year, I was preparing to be married for the second time. My fiancé and I attended several preparatory sessions together, conducted by a minister who seemed proper enough. At the end of one of the sessions, though, he cautioned us not to publicize his current profession too much: he’d formerly been a police detective, and some of the criminals he’d put on the inside might now be on the outside…and looking to settle a score. Whether or not that was true (why would a minister lie?), he certainly had our attention after that small request.

The church in which we were to be married held a lot of memories for me and for my family. My father’s parents, both of whom had passed away before I was 11 years old, had been two of the founding members of the church and had overseen its physical construction in the 1960s. My grandma, who gave piano lessons from her home, had played piano or organ or both for the church services. My own parents had been married in the same church.

This was the church where I attended nursery school and Sunday school, where we played Old Testament charades and learned about the power of a mustard seed, where I learned the names of the books of the Bible, and where my brother and I drew pictures in the programs when we were old enough to sit in the sanctuary with the adults but still too young to pay proper attention to the sermons. Even after we moved away to the country, we returned to this church for Christmas Eve services for many years; I learned suspense from holding my lit candle with a trembling hand while singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in the dark, only a tired paper circle protecting my hand from the melting wax.


It was a church where everything was positive but predictable. My father, on the rare occasions when he didn’t go to church, might look at his watch at twenty minutes past the hour and state that he knew what hymn they were singing. It was a friendly, comforting church, with the same families in the same pews week after week singing the same old familiar hymns. Yes, the minister who served for decades did eventually retire and was replaced (though not without some initial discomfort). Yes, the church did revise its hymnal to become more global and inclusive (though not without some initial discomfort and some hoarding of copies of the previous edition).

At Christmastime, this church was in its glory. Gradually, over the Advent season, poinsettias appeared on the steps to the altar, then spread across the full width of the steps, then seemed to explode in a lush profusion that filled the entire altar. Combined with a profusion of candles, the effect was stunning — and it happened every year without fail. It was the most beautiful place I could imagine to be married, whether or not my husband-to-be and I believed strictly in everything that the church believed. It was a special place, and that was where we were going to be married.

Christmas came, and the church was packed with poinsettias and candles and song. January came, and the wedding date drew nearer. My fiancé’s family drove in from out of state to meet with mine, rehearse the wedding, break bread, and have what was, frankly, the loudest congenial conversation ever held in my parents’ house. To be clear, no one was angry; it was just…loud.

The wedding day arrived, and I sat in a room by myself waiting for my cue. It was a small wedding, just for immediately family, but still there were protocols. I waited alone in a nondescript room I had never noticed before, never having had a reason to notice. My brother, my parents, and my future in-laws were elsewhere when there was a knock on the door. It was the minister.

“Can I come in? I need to tell you something.”

As time slowed, he haltingly told me that the Decoration Committee had come to the church early in the morning and removed every poinsettia from the altar.

“They assumed that you would want to bring your own flowers.”

His words hung in the air. What could I say? That I couldn’t afford to buy enough flowers to make the church prettier or more special than it looked at Christmas? That the poinsettias were one of the main reasons we’d chosen the church? That — why would a whole committee do such a thing without even asking first?

“You’d better see what it looks like before you go out there.”

The former detective led me out into the sanctuary to view the naked, starkly plain altar. He was right — the whole front of the church was stripped bare. Just two weeks after Christmas, everything was gone.

Somehow I incorporated the new image of the church. I waited in my little room, then came out on cue and was married. It was still beautiful.

Knitwise, I have now created two Baby Trekkie Washcloths and am ready to make two more — just try to stop me! They’re easy and quick, which are the main things they have going for them. I certainly don’t need to make more washcloths.

Last weekend I did unearth a large unfinished project that hadn’t seen the light of day in a year. It’s a Season 18 Doctor Who Scarf. This project is another dead-ender in that I originally began it eight years ago with yarn that has since ceased production. And it’s Lion Brand Yarn, too. You have to pick something pretty darned unpopular if Lion Brand decides to quit cranking it out. The project calls for bulky chenille acrylic yarn in orange, wine, and purple, and I’m quite certain that I don’t have enough of the orange yarn to finish the project. Nor, in the last eight years of casual searching, have I seen any available (meaning, I haven’t happened to notice any skeins of it at the thrift store). The plan is to pick up the Scarf periodically and plug away at it until I run out of orange, then (A) find more orange or (B) put it away again until I find more orange.

In the meantime, I have this little cycling event coming up this weekend. I’m training, planning, and packing. I’m also crossing my fingers that a few more donations will come in before Saturday and put me at or above the minimum I’m trying to raise. Thanks to you who have already donated. I’ll do my best and maybe even take some trip knitting with me. Hey, how about a washcloth?

Published in: on July 16, 2018 at 10:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

1983: Big Mom

I have already written about our twice- or thrice-annual drives from Ohio to West Virginia to visit my grandparents and my mother’s relatives, starting in Silver Anniversaries and also mentioned in Here, Kitty Kitty. Over the years the roads and routes changed, but the final stretch past Chelyan has always been the same: we drive east (though it feels like south to us Northerners) along Route 61 beside the snaking Kanawha River past Cabin Creek, through East Bank, and through Crown Hill before we arrive at Hansford.

Along the way, Mom would point out landmarks that gradually became memories: “There’s the house I grew up in, at the top of that hill, and Granny and Pap lived next door” became “Those apartments up there are where our houses used to be” and eventually “That space behind the fence is where our houses were, and I used to sled down that hill.” On the other side of the road, an elementary school became a high school and then became a patch of grass. Further down the road was my uncle’s house before it was someone else’s house and then just a place where a pink and white trailer used to be. Any hint of sadness was gone when we spied W. T. Elswick Fields (now the Pratt-Hansford Baseball Fields) through the trees and knew that our grandparents’ house would next appear, and our four-hour trip (eventually three and a half hours) would be complete in a matter of minutes.

One of those landmarks was Big Mom’s house, perched at the base of a nameless mountain. When we went to visit her — my grandmother’s mother, widowed since 1958 — we had to park on the other side of the road in the lot of an auto repair shop next to the CSX tracks, then cross 61 and haul ourselves up a set of concrete steps set into the embankment in front of her neighbor’s house (gone now, replaced by the pickup truck in the photo below), with the passive aid of a railing made of plumbers’ pipe (also gone now). Then we staggered up a trail that took us further up the hill to her house, after which the mountain’s woods took over sharply. This wasn’t a place where you could play in the yard. There were houses further up the mountain from Big Mom’s, but we never saw them. In fact, there had been a whole world of houses, businesses, and trails up the mountains back in the day (and the days before my mother), but most of it was gone by the time we visited the area. Whatever man puts on the mountain, the mountain will eventually take back.

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Big Mom was ancient and gruff and could have been scary, but it was clear that she loved us, so we didn’t worry. Mom settled on the couch to catch up with her over tea while my brother and I wandered around the compact and unfamiliar house, trying to explore without touching anything. She may have had a dog the last time we visited her, but I clearly remember her Siamese cat (having been impressed with their evil nature when watching Si and Am in Lady and the Tramp). Even at fourteen I was still at the age where anyone with a pet was my friend, and I visited — carefully — with the cat while my mother visited her grandmother.

The last time we visited Big Mom was either Christmas 1982 or the summer of 1983. I don’t remember the season or the date as much as I remember the long, curious look she gave me. Then she went into her bedroom to retrieve a photograph. It was one I had seen many times before: my mother and me, she in her poufy late-1960s hair and I in my chubbiness. I didn’t know she had a copy of it, too. “Here,” she said. “I want you to have this.” In that moment when our eyes met, I knew that was the last time I would see her alive. I knew that she knew it, too, and I accepted the photo.


Big Mom — otherwise known as Margaret Miskell — passed away in September 1983, just after I began my sophomore year of high school. Interestingly, her husband had died when my mother was a sophomore in high school. And it may not be interesting, but it is curious that Margaret’s husband was named Wilbur, they named their only son Wilbur, and their middle daughter married a man named Wilbur. Some of the name’s popularity is surely due to Wilbur Wright’s achievements and fame in the early twentieth century, but it was growing in popularity before then as a form of the German name Gilbert, meaning “trusted.” In the years since then, my family has tended to hand down my grandfather’s middle name, Austin. And the landmarks continue to fade away, but we have our memories — and our photographs.

Knitwise, last week I used up the first skein of grey bouclé, leaving an enormous, tightly wound ball of more yarn that eventually revealed itself as a ball wound double. This means that two strands of yarn, for whatever reason, had been held together while the former owner wound a new ball of yarn. I would have to separate the yarns before I could continue to knit on the shawl, but how?

My first solution required a ten-story building and a friend of equal height. Not having any takers for this plan, I kept brainstorming. With my #1 son at home last weekend, we devised an alternate scheme that used a large orange plastic bowl, two ball winders, and, eventually, a Phillips-head screwdriver. It eventually worked like a charm, and the two skeins were separated into two yarn cakes. Now all I have to do is the knitting.


While waiting for the Grey Bouclé Solution to present itself, I decided to cast on for a smaller, more portable project that I could leave at work in case I, for some mysterious reason, might actually forget to bring my current knitting project to campus on the day when the campus knitting group met. Not that this would ever happen. I decided to use some bright red cotton yarn for a washcloth whose pattern I made up and never wrote down. The best thing about it is that, even if the design does not prove to be spectacularly interesting, it will still be a washcloth.

Published in: on April 30, 2018 at 10:27 pm  Comments (1)  

1978: The Blizzard

When my family moved to the country, we found ourselves on an unexpectedly steep learning curve. There were school buses to ride, new living arrangements, new chores to do, and new routines to learn. Boots slunk through the house pressed up against the walls for a long time before she was brave enough to venture into the rooms’ open spaces. One of the things that was surprisingly hard to adapt to was how dark it was at night.

I hadn’t even realized that I was accustomed to the glow of headlights sweeping their way around the walls of my bedroom as cars passed our house at night on our comparatively busy city street (only compared to the one-way streets which ran parallel to it). The lights and the mild road noise of the cars must have been soothing to me, for without them I found myself wide awake on the top bunk in the room I now shared with my brother. There were no lights from other houses, and no streetlights.

The nights at our new house were dark, but they certainly weren’t quiet. Outside of a Disney movie, there is no such thing as one cricket chirping; they must have contracts that prohibit them from singing in choruses of less than a million. The ropes in our old pulley windows were broken, so my bedroom window was propped open with a slat of wood to let in all that fresh country air. It also let in all the loud and mysterious country sounds, all night long.

Eventually I was able to sleep through the night. This was proved on the night when the wood-slat slipped and the window crashed down to the sill and woke my terrified parents, who were convinced that I had fallen out of the top bunk. They arrived at my room to find me and my brother sleeping soundly.

We had moved in August, so there hadn’t been time to put in a vegetable garden. That would have to wait until spring, when we also learned about hanging clothes on the line about two days before we learned about the manure spreaders used by the farmer who lived on the adjacent property. (Several months later we learned why people don’t, under normal circumstances, plant twenty hills of zucchinis.) Dad learned how long it would now take for him to drive to work, Mom learned how long it would take us to get home from school, and my brother and I learned how long it took to walk from the house to the road and wait for the school bus. We learned that no one would come to trick or treat at our house on Halloween (I was sick with the chicken pox anyway; my costume-and-candy days were over). We learned that the Columbus paper would be dropped off at the end of our 600-yard driveway, not at the house as promised by the circulation department.

On January 26, 1978, we learned about blizzards. I woke in the middle of the night to a howling noise that swirled above my head, which was positioned in the uppermost spot in the northwest corner of the house. Scared, I crept down the ladder at the end of the bed and tried to sleep on the couch instead. I lay still and realized that now, with all the space between myself and the ceiling, the winds were even louder and more frightening. I don’t know how I made it to morning, but by the time everyone else woke up the noise was easier to bear. When the wind finally died down, we found that we had been snowed into the house. Literally. I couldn’t budge the front door for the three-foot drift on the front porch. It was a Thursday morning, but it was obvious that school was out of the question for quite some time.

snow beetle

Not my father’s Volkswagen.

I remember parts of the Blizzard like snapshots from an album. With my brother, I dug tunnels in the six-foot snowdrifts behind the barn. I sat in the passenger seat of Dad’s green Volkswagen Beetle as he attempted to clear the driveway by driving to the road; the Bug stuffed itself in the drifts when we reached the top of the hill, and we returned to the garage to fetch snow shovels and dig it out. I trudged through the drifts with a broom, using the handle to pole for several days’ worth of Columbus newspapers that we had to carefully dry out over the floor registers (competing for space with boots, and sometimes Boots). When we were finally able to reach the road, the snowplows had created eight-foot walls of hard-packed pure-white snow all the way to the state highway. We were living in a world beyond our control.

snow tunnels

This was not our road, but this is how it felt to drive on it.

We didn’t run out of food at our house; if the power went out, we must have coped somehow. From the point of the view of a ten-year-old, it was an extra vacation with all the snow forts, sledding, and tobogganing anyone could possibly want. From the point of view of an adult it was a killer storm that claimed dozens of lives, across Ohio and the rest of the Midwest, mostly those of highway motorists who had abandoned their cars. But as a child I didn’t know that, and I never heard the term “white hurricane” applied to this storm. For us it was always known as the Blizzard of 1978, and no subsequent winter ever measured up to this one.

downtown blizzard

Just give us our paper, darnit!



Knitwise, the project-after-the-Olympic-cowl is done. I’ll have to contact the recipient to see if she wants delivery right now or in time for next winter. Meanwhile, I discovered a slipper project that I abandoned for some reason after finishing the knitting (but not finishing the finishing) of the first slipper. I hadn’t left myself any helpful notes, but I looked at it carefully, cast on for a second slipper to match, and compared the two projects all the way along, until I cast off the second slipper and found that it was clearly larger than the first slipper. I have since cast on for a third slipper in hopes that it will match the second one (or even the first one; at this point I can hardly afford to be picky). Time will tell.

Published in: on March 26, 2018 at 9:40 pm  Comments (2)  

1977: Transitions

Sometimes I look to the past and think about how an event was “so many lives” ago. In this context, a life is just the length of time it takes you to feel as if you have become someone new, someone distinctly different from your prior self. The first time I can draw such a line between lives is in the summer of 1977, when so many things changed for me, never to change back.

The most obvious change in my life was that my family moved — out of the gentle edges of the city into the green and decidedly fragrant countryside. We changed houses, schools, counties, and friends. My parents must have been preparing for this move for a long time, because I remember going along on visits to several houses that were for sale. I loved inspecting the empty rooms while my parents asked serious questions of the real estate agents. My brother and I explored closets, basements, garages, back yards. I don’t remember visiting the house we bought in Orient before we actually closed the deal, but I do remember taking the long trip to it via Grove City, and the whole family being absolutely overwhelmed by the stench of a road-kill skunk as we approached a small town that was no more than a stoplight and a sign. The sign read “Pleasant Corners.”

Century 21 logo

During the time that my parents were house-hunting, one of my father’s brothers was trying out a career as a real estate agent. It was his company’s sign that was erected in the front yard of our Westgate house, so I assume that he was the selling agent. He was, however, less than impressed with the property that we ultimately purchased. Someone’s sanity was definitely called into question. The acreage was more than we could use, and the parts of the yard that weren’t overgrown were covered in cow manure, goat droppings, and/or chicken…manure. Electric fence ran almost all the way to the house from a cinder-block barn that had basic electric service but no running water. The house itself had one bathroom and two bedrooms for a family of four, a basement that took on water after a hard rain, and lights that dimmed when we made toast. My father rented something called a “bush hog” to clear the land — though he did let us take a few whacks at the tall grass with a rusty sickle — and started improving everything that he could.

The house also came with a dog, Toby, who was the son of the dog of the folks who lived next door. At the time, my romantic mind thought him to be a Gordon Setter based purely on his coloration. His mother Pookie, however, was a tiny scrap of brown and black fur that looked like a Yorkie, and his father could only be imagined. Toby was a real country dog who didn’t hesitate to challenge the local groundhogs, snakes, and raccoons to combat. It didn’t matter — I finally had a dog! Maybe this “moving to the country” thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

And now…I even looked different. I had loved my long, thick hair and putting it up into ponytails that flew out behind me from under my baseball cap when I ran the bases, but my mother gradually complained more and more about how hard it was to take care of. One evening before we moved, she sent me down the street so a family friend could cut my hair. I wasn’t in on the plan, and cried when my long waves were cut off and the remaining hair sprang up into tight curls. I didn’t recognize myself, but there wasn’t much that I could do about it.


That 70’s vacation.

And now I was ten years old. We had taken our summer vacation to visit Niagara and Horseshoe Falls and make a brief trip into Canada. We were on the road on my late-June birthday; a waitress brought out a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting on a ceramic plate that rotated and played “Happy Birthday,” and I was embarrassed at being the center of attention. But on the same trip we visited what must have been a corner drugstore, shopping for road food or other supplies. I wandered over to a newspaper stand and picked up a copy of the local paper, and the store owner snapped at me to put it back, as if I were a thief. My parents didn’t hear him. I felt scared and didn’t know what to do. I put the paper back. I was furious at having been falsely accused, and it was decades before it occurred to me that the storekeeper had probably been the victim of young shoplifters and was just looking out for his store. He probably couldn’t imagine that I just wanted to read the newspaper.

Pickaway Darby Twp 1937

The ‘new’ gym was added in 1937.

And now we had a different school to attend. My mother drove us there in the early August heat and let us play on the playground while she attended to the administrative details. My new elementary school, where I would be in fifth grade and my brother would be in second, was an immense brick structure built in the early 1900s as a K-12 institution (replacing a school built in 1886). There was a large central staircase that, supposedly, had been made wide enough to accommodate girls ascending and descending in hoop skirts. The story was utterly credible. In my single year there I wasn’t brave enough to explore much but I found three staircases. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be told there were more. The whole place was a woodworker’s dream, with hardwood floors and walnut-stained railings. But once school started I had a lot of adjustments to make — the new school used different reading books and no one was sure which level I should be in. My classmates all seemed to be related to each other somehow, and even if they weren’t, they had still known each other since they were born. Their country accents were so thick that sometimes I didn’t understand what they were saying, and some of them made fun of me for doing my homework in class instead of taking it home. I became more shy and withdrawn, hesitant to either make a mistake or do well.


And there weren’t Camp Fire Girls in the country — just Girl Scouts and 4-H. I had heard of 4-H groups as the ones who trained seeing-eye dogs, so that was what I picked. Luckily, there was a much wider range of activities under the 4-H umbrella, and it was a good organization for me to join. I took projects to the county fair in birds, cats, dogs (attempting to show Toby in the middle of the sheep barn was a memorable experience), photography, and creative writing over the next several years.

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And the next year…I would be off to the middle school, mingled with kids from the other two elementary schools in the county. Our teacher promised that everything would be harder. And I’d have to make friends all over again.

Knitwise, I finished and gently blocked the Olympic cowl. The colors were bleeding while I was working on it, so I did some Internet research and gave it a cold-water vinegar rinse before laying it out to dry on an old towel. We’ll see if that does the trick. It’s a pretty thing, and now it’s soft as well.


See? I really do knit.

Then I started to collect yarn for a future project: Nakia’s Infinity Scarf, which is designed by Jeff Giles, featured in “Black Panther,” and free on Ravelry. I have NOT started this project yet, as I have not yet finished the project I said that I would finish before I started my next project. Sheesh. All I did was print out a new pattern and buy one LOUSY FREAKING SKEIN OF YARN and put them in the same project bag. (Okay, it was Noro.)

Nakia Shawl

Gotta finish some stuff before I start some stuff. And I’m in the mood to start some stuff.

1974: This is not a drill

If you’re even a casual student of history, you’ll know that several society-shaking events took place in 1974. (I’m not even counting Seth Green’s birth on February 8 or the meteoric rise of Barry Manilow’s recording of “Mandy” on the Billboard charts: thank you, Wikipedia!) Patty Hearst was kidnapped. President Nixon resigned. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. The first UPC code was scanned (in Ohio). And the Cleveland Indians held a Ten-Cent Beer Night they’re probably still trying to forget.

Another event that year shook the ground and the skies. In the first week of April 1974, lines of storm cells formed that were eventually called the “Super Outbreak,” a spawning of 148 tornadoes that ranged from Mississippi to Ontario. The deadliest of them struck Xenia, Ohio on Wednesday, April 3.

Xenia was about an hour’s drive away from where I lived on the West Side of Columbus (okay, the Hilltop). I had never been to Xenia by the tender age of seven, and now that I think about it, I’m not sure I ever have been. But on April 4 the mention of the word “Xenia” was enough to give an Ohio kid chills in a way that didn’t happen again until 1981, when a tornado wiped out downtown Cardington in Morrow County.

Our own sky was an odd color, and it was eerily quiet outside. Dad banished us to the basement to take shelter, but stayed on the front porch as long as he could to scan the skies. The next day he let me ride along as he drove around to survey the local damage from the F2 tornado and surrounding storms that had struck Franklin County the previous night. I remember a concrete structure, a beer/wine drive-through, that had been turned into a pile of cinder blocks. It was one block east of Hilltop Hardware and just a few blocks from our house. Dad didn’t say anything, but I sensed that we’d had a narrow escape.


If you grow up in the Midwest, you have to come to terms with two main natural disasters: blizzards and tornadoes. There is nothing you can do to prevent either one, but you can learn to prepare for them and cope with their devastation. If you survive, you’ll have a story to tell. They share an essential unfairness of spirit, as they hit hard and seem determined to cause the maximum amount of damage. Tornadoes in particular seem driven to show you how erratic and cruel they can be: they’ll toss cars through the sky, skip over random houses, and cause power outages and floods when you have no safe place to go. An image from a film shown in elementary school sticks with me: a blade of straw driven into a telephone pole by gale force winds, sticking out boldly as a nail.


The expert analysis of home movie footage from Xenia, shot by some very brave souls with Super 8s, led to the debunking of several tornado-related myths. I remember when our teachers used to tell us to open the windows to help equalize the pressure in the house and potentially reduce the damage. Nowadays the convention wisdom is that the tornado’s winds are going to blow out all the windows anyway, so you would be better off to spend your time taking shelter. But not in the southwest corner of the basement! The next advice was to get under a mattress in the bathtub. I think that these days they just want you to get to the lowest part of the house, away from windows, and if possible under something heavy that probably won’t break. And of course neighborhoods now install and test tornado sirens that will give you an extra minute or two to get to that safe place.

Weather Radio

“Weather station KIG86, broadcasting on a frequency of 162.55 megahertz from the National Weather Service office in Columbus, Ohio.”

Many years later, when I was in graduate school, I wrote an essay titled “Tornado Nights” about the time my family spent taking shelter from potentially dangerous weather. I don’t remember feeling scared; I looked back upon those nights as a time of closeness and security, even if that security was just an illusion my parents felt compelled to provide. (Perhaps I felt a bit too secure; that same year I was playing tennis with friends in some questionable weather when my college roommate uttered the immortal words, “I don’t know about y’all, but where I come from, when the sky turns green we go inside.”)

Time passed; now I was the parent and it was my turn to change scary times into fun times, defusing anxiety with stuffed animals, blankies, video games, and light chatter. And next they became old enough and big enough to bring their own supplies as well as treats to calm a nervous dog who isn’t sure why he’s suddenly being led into the cellar. Now we’re scattered in different locations more often then not, keeping an eye on the sky when the sirens sound, hoping for the winds to pass us by.

Published in: on February 26, 2018 at 11:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

1973: Here, kitty kitty

When I was little, I desperately wanted a dog. My near-neighbor and default best friend, Joe A., had a succession of dogs: an elegant Collie named Princess and her unworthy and hyperactive successor, a Shetland Sheepdog named Kipper. Though Kipper was probably the right size for a small city house, there was unfortunately no flock of sheep for him to herd. Each time the doorbell rang he flung himself into action, barking furiously as he turned quicker and quicker laps on a short track comprising the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen.

I still wanted a dog. I watched Lassie and Rin Tin Tin on TV — so intelligent! such faithful companions! — and continually lobbied for a dog of my own. Of course I was far too young to think about the more practical concerns of where a dog would stay and who would take care of it. I petted Kipper — when I could catch him — and played with my Ohio grandparents’ dog Simon whenever I visited. Simon liked to fetch but he didn’t like to return whatever it was he had been fetching, so I had to go out into the back yard with two tennis balls at a time: one to throw initially, and a second one to throw to trick him into dropping the first one. Fetching sessions continued until the tennis balls were too wet from dog slobber to try to pick them up.

My West Virginia grandparents had a pair of dogs at this time, but since I only visited a few times a year there was not much satisfaction to be gained. Mickey was a scruffy black terrier mix of some sort, and Annie was a Dachshund. Both of them were getting along in years and not terribly fond of playing with a girl whose other source of fun on vacation was skating on the concrete sidewalk on metal strap-on roller skates.

The memories of my childhood are highlighted by encounters with unexpected dogs — the English Bulldog that Joe D. brought to school for show and tell, the Boxer we found in the park and who waited stoically in our back yard until his owner came to pick him up, when he sprang ecstatically to life. Real dogs, cartoon dogs, storybook dogs, movie dogs — they were all fine with me. I read a book called Follow my Leader that not only offered me practical tips for coping with unexpected childhood blindness but also made me wish, for decades, to raise a seeing eye dog for the blind.

But the dog above all dogs, the dog of my heart, was a Collie. I don’t think Joe A.’s dog was as responsible for this desire as much as the ubiquitous Lassie was. If there was a smarter, friendlier, more beautiful companion on earth I couldn’t think of it, and it seemed a great travesty of justice that I could not have a dog when others could. (Come to think of it, this attitude probably led to my great empathy with Fern Arable in Charlotte’s Web, at just the age it should have.)

Somewhere in the midst of this canine adoration, my father came home one day with a pair of kittens in a cardboard box. They had been left outside the hardware store where he used to work. (Did he still work there every once in a while? Dad always had several jobs as a time, and I’m not sure when some left off and others began. However, when he took me with him to Hilltop Hardware, he was clearly familiar to the current owners.) The other abandoned kittens had found homes, and these last two littermates would be ours: Boots, a grey female with four white paws and a white bib, and Bounce, a male orange tabby. Bounce wasn’t ours for long, as he spent too many of his waking hours climbing up the draperies and being generally incorrigible. But Boots was ours for keeps.

One problem with your first pet is that you tend to assume that its qualities are the qualities of all pets. It turns out that Boots was an unusually jealous animal, exacting a calculated revenge for each infraction you committed, such as petting another animal. Revenge usually consisted of her peeing in an inappropriate location, such as under my bed on the hardwood floor. If you followed her rules, she settled into a kind of benevolent queenship. (Hmm. Now that I think about it, perhaps Bounce was framed!)

Oddly enough, Boots and my father didn’t get along well. She slept on my parents’ bed until one morning when she didn’t get up as usual and my father suspected the worst. “Vickie,” he said, “the cat’s dead. Get a bag and I’ll put her in it.” When the bag was brought over she leapt up with a scream and ran out of the room. They didn’t seem to trust each other after that, and for years the only thing I heard my father say about Boots was, “When that cat dies, we’re never getting another.”


Boots and a boot. Get it?

Boots occasionally went outside in the back yard, and though she had all her claws she really couldn’t climb trees. If something spooked her she would race up the nearest tree trunk, then look around as if puzzled at how she came to be there. I’d have to go out and unhook her from the tree to bring her down.

She had an epic confrontation in that same back yard. Both sets of next-door neighbors were retired couples, but while the Meginnesses let me come next door to practice on their piano and sit with them to watch the “Lawrence Welk Show,” the Millers were on the grouchy side. Doc Miller surprised us with his acquisition of an English Springer Spaniel, a young purebred whose name was Sonny. I’m sure that as an active child with neighborhood friends I was an annoying neighbor to Doc Miller, but Sonny was insufferable. Every time he was let outside he would race up and down the Millers’ short sidewalk, barking at everything in existence until he was let in again. Usually I would give up first and go inside to get away from him. One afternoon, however, I was in the backyard with Boots while Sonny was out. Boots sat on the sidewalk that ran up the center of the yard, facing the white picket fence that separated her and Sonny as they fell into a staring match. With the tension at its peak, Boots spat at the spaniel, something I never saw her do before or since. Sonny erupted into a fury of barking, lunging ineffectively at the fence while Boots got up and walked to the house with the calm demeanor of a matador.

Boots went on to tolerate a pet goldfish and a pet hermit crab and, after we moved to the country, our own succession of dogs (none of them Collies, alas). But they were outside dogs, and she ruled the interior. She settled into being jealous only of other cats to which we paid attention, and enjoyed the rare indulgence of a sudden romp down the hallway that recalled her more active kittenhood. When she wasn’t dozing in a sunbeam, or surviving the winter’s cold by seating herself directly over the furnace vent, she accompanied me as I wrote my way through high school and college. I have had other cats and now enjoy the company of a dog, but there will be no cat like Boots.

Boots in drawer

Circa 1987.

Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 10:13 pm  Comments (1)  

1971: Before I could read

A few decades ago, my father asked me if I thought it was possible that someone who knew how to read could view text in their native language and not be able to read it. I never asked him why he had asked the question, but I believe that my answer at the time was No – I didn’t think that a literate person could not be able to read something.

I still think that answer is basically true. A stroke or a bout of aphasia could impair your ability to read for a certain amount of time, and acute trauma could impair your perceptions to a degree that might include reading or speech, but I don’t know that personal literacy is something you can voluntarily disable. (Officer: “Didn’t you see that stop sign back there?” Driver: “The red sign? I saw it, but I decided not to read it. Did it say something important?”)


When I went off to kindergarten at age five, I could not yet read. I remember the thick workbook that we used that year, full of colorful pictures and words and phrases in simple black type. I remember the meaningless, the flatness of it before I was able to crack the code. I also remember the thrill that came over me when I realized that I could do it — I could read the words! I could read all the words, including the ones on the previous pages. Yesterday I was going through the motions, but today I could really read!


Because my birthday is in the middle of summer, I can guess that I learned to read when I was about five and a half. But I had been surrounded by words much longer — probably all my life — and my parents thought I already knew how to read. I was outed during a visit to West Virginia, when I sat with my great-grandfather and we read my favorite book, “Hop on Pop.” Everyone was impressed with my precocious abilities until Grandpap turned two pages at once and I proceeded to recite the text printed on the skipped page. (You would think that my family members would have been even more impressed by my ability to memorize an entire book, but that was apparently not the case.)

After I did learn to read I was rarely without a book, or any other collection of words. I strayed from the shelves of books at my reading level so that I could try something more advanced. At the public library this meant moving from the children’s books room to the shelf just outside that held the Encyclopedia Brown series, and later to a book on how to write Chinese characters. At the school library this meant leaving the Matt Christopher sports series (and exciting titles like Catcher with a Glass Arm and Slam Dunk!) for the thickest book on the nonfiction shelf (which turned out to be a stultifyingly dull book about wildflowers or botany or something; ugh). I read voraciously in the two newspapers that came to our house every day, the Columbus Citizen-Journal in the morning and the weightier and more conservative Columbus Dispatch in the evening. I typed up my own attempt at a neighborhood newspaper on my manual typewriter in the fourth grade (there was only one edition; it’s quite the rarity) and eventually I began writing my own short stories and longer pieces.

Kids these days are a bit quicker on the draw than I was, and all of mine learned to read before I did. My third child, probably out of sheer boredom, taught himself to read at age three by playing Pixar movies with the captions on. His younger brother thought this was normal, and duly copied him. But all four of them have discovered, enjoyed, written, and illustrated stories much more complicated than “Hop on Pop,” to which dozens of homemade chapbooks detailing the adventures of Toilet Man, Captain Chale, and the TIME HOLE attest; the elder two are writing fan fiction and moving on to create their own complex and realistic fictional worlds, for which I occasionally serve as a sounding board and consultant.


Can they look at something and not read it? I’ll ask them without telling them why I want to know.



Knitwise, I have finished the two pairs of slippers for my grandmother; I only have to seam them up. That’s close enough to actually being done to let me think about the next project I should finish: Oliver’s blanket. I will have some crocheting to do for that blanket to realize my original vision. (Actually, my original vision called for someone else to crochet the squares.) Alternatively, I could frog the squares I’ve knitted and just knit a regular freakin’ blanket, which might take less time but would have more joins. Where’s the fun in that? (To hasten my work I’ll try to think about how cold that poor newborn child must be during our round after round subzero temperatures, and I’ll ignore all the cuddly, snuggly Facebook pictures already posted by my friend, his doting grandmother.) When I’m done with the baby blanket it will finally be time to finish the Swedish Surprise.

Published in: on February 5, 2018 at 10:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

1970: The very creaky chair

NOTE: As I find, or take, pictures of this chair I will use them to illustrate this post.

In my home library there is a rocking chair in which no one ever sits. Its spindled back, these days, is draped with a blanket I knitted a year ago; on the seat rests a round gold cushion that I use on the extremely rare occasions I decide to sit zazen. A tote bag with my current knitting projects hangs from one of the back posts. At night, my discarded daytime clothes lay atop the gold cushion; during the day, my pillows sit on the seat after I convert my futon from bed to couch.

The chair is positioned in the corner of the room, in front of a bookcase that houses sheet music for piano, guitar, and saxophone; books about musicians ranging from John Denver to Leonard Cohen; books about guitar building, playing, and repair; and at least a hundred compact discs, a few cassette tapes, and dozens of record albums. The cherry-laminate bookcase is topped with stereo components and flanked by speakers. If I want to find a disc or an album, I must first drag the rocking chair out of the way; that’s when I see the grooves that the rockers have pressed into my carpet.

Why do I keep this chair in such an awkward spot? The short answer is that it literally won’t fit anywhere else. It’s too wide to fit through the doorways of the upstairs bedrooms (I’ve tried), and none of my sons has expressed a desire to have it in his room. There’s not enough space for it in any other room in this house, and moving it to the basement would probably destroy it through heat and cold cycles, floods, and vermin.

A longer answer is that this chair isn’t something I want to use every day. It’s a family heirloom, and I’m afraid that if it were used more often it would break. When my children where little, just big enough to climb into it and really get it going, I was terrified that they would over-rock it and topple over backwards (they came close). I don’t even remember how it came to be my chair; perhaps when I started living on my own in my twenties, I had room for it when others did not and never subsequently gave it up.

There’s nothing particularly special about this chair’s construction. In fact, if you sat in it you might be convinced that its construction was about to fail at any second. It creaks when you sit in it, creaks when you rise from it, and practically screams if you rock in it. Yet it has surely been in my family for at least a century.

At some point several years ago I did a bit of research and found that this type of chair is called a grandfather chair because of the breadth of its seat; narrower chairs are called, predictably, grandmother chairs. In my family’s case this is a bit ironic, as the story goes that my father, now within one moon of turning 84, was rocked to sleep in this chair as an infant in his grandmother’s lap. I’m not sure which of my father’s grandmothers it was who did the rocking. Grandma Grace had four sons, including my grandpa; Grandma Naomi had two sons and three daughters, including my grandma. Either way, the chair had probably been used to rock many babies before my father came along – perhaps even the entire previous generation.

My great-grandmothers passed on in the 50s and 60s, and then Grandma passed on in the 70s. Her youngest son – of eight boys! – was just twenty years old when she died. Many years later I told him that I had the rocking chair. A smile spread across his face and he asked, “Was it really creaky?” He couldn’t have heard his brothers being rocked in the chair; perhaps he watched and listened as my cousins, his nieces and nephews and maybe even myself, were rocked in it. (If it were that creaky by the 1960s, it must have given us Lamb babies a tolerance for high levels of ambient noise, which is not necessarily a bad thing.)

It’s not a Windsor chair, an Adirondack chair, a Bentwood rocker, a Mission rocker, or anything you can call up on the first (or second) page of a Google Image search. It could be oak, might be maple, might be store-bought, might be homemade (generations of woodworkers and cabinetmakers run through all my family trees). But it’s irreplaceable to me and I will continue to take care of it.

This chair is the source of my first memory. My mother sat in this chair in the summer of 1970, rocking something in her lap that I thought at the time was a kitten. It turned out to be my little brother, and life would never be the same.

In my knitting life, I did in fact miss a day of knitting at least one stitch – last Friday, when all was chaos. That’s not so bad over the course of a month. There’s been more than enough going on to keep me busy and cause plenty of stress, which has driven me to do more with my meditation. It can’t hurt, and neither should the knitting.

I have finished knitting three of four slippers for my grandmother; after I finish the fourth slipper I will seam them all and then work on squares for a baby blanket for a friend who recently became a grandmother. Why is it that I am constantly knitting for grandmothers? I suppose that the blanket is really for Oliver, not Jenny. When Oliver’s blanket is done I will have some project choices to make: cast on for a local knitalong, or finish a project that was promised three years ago? Cast your vote in the comments.

Published in: on January 29, 2018 at 9:50 pm  Comments (1)  

Week Fifty-Two: All Good Things

This week WordPress sent me a little “happy anniversary” notice. It was seven years ago when I registered my first blog with them — the one you’re reading now. I’ve started several other blogs since then, to focus on different fringe interests, but this is the blog that keeps going and growing, and gradually absorbing the other topics back into itself. I wonder why December 23 was the special day, when I had a six-month-old baby Tommy and three older children to take care of. It was probably time to switch to a blog from my e-mail newsletter, Wisconsin Crafter, because it was the end of a year.  I like starting new things on January 1, on Sundays or Mondays, or on the first day of a month. Launching a new initiative on, say, May 17 just wouldn’t make sense to me. How would I ever keep track of it?

But since WordPress is keeping track of it for me, well, happy anniversary to me! Hallmark’s website tells me that the traditional gifts for a seventh anniversary are wool or copper. (The modern gift is a desk set. I do have an antique desk at which I sit in front of my modern computer and write, and I do have a desk set somewhere; maybe I’ll tidy it up and use it.) I think I have bought enough wool for myself that I could knit up a little something special just for me. Copper is a bit trickier. Jewelry seems like an obvious path to take, but I don’t have pierced ears and I don’t wear rings, watches, or necklaces. I do have a few friends who make custom jewelry, and maybe they can give me some suggestions for some sort of commemorative item. A copper pen? A little hand-hammered copper bowl? I’m not sure.

Scratch that; I just found and ordered a hank of wool/silk laceweight yarn in a gorgeous tonal copper colorway. As my son James would say, “Achievement get!”

Well, now, since I’m closing out the year, I’d better be honest and take one last look at those resolutions I published 52 weeks ago.

Thusly, I resolve that, in 2013 (!!!) I shall:

  1. Blog on Chocolate Sheep again, and regularly. Dare I say, weekly?
  2. Finish the Doctor Who scarf I’m knitting for my friend Ginnie.
  3. Complete my calculus class.
  4. Learn one new cast-on.
  5. Find a Most Excellent Job in my chosen field of technical and scientific editing.
  6. Learn one new cast-off.
  7. Help my kids be awesome.

Seven looks like a good number, don’t you think?

I think I can honestly say I accomplished numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7. Number 6 just didn’t get much attention, and Number 3, as mentioned in greater detail a few weeks ago, was a spectacular failure. Overall, though, I think I did pretty well. The weekly blogging was sometimes a challenge, but I did learn how to use the Schedule function for posts so that I could publish pre-written ones when I was traveling. After a while I got used to the rhythm of writing what was essentially a weekly column, and I found I could usually produce something mildly entertaining by Thursday (sometimes Friday).

So, do I have any new and impressive resolutions ready for 2014?

No… not really. I still have a lot of unfinished business around here. I would like to become more monogamous with my knitting, and finish the really large projects I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. I’d like to start quilting again and make some more durable and functional quilts that the kids and I can use. I’d like to deepen my friendships. I’d like to be braver. I’d like to be a better cook. I’d like to study more math and physics. And most of all, I’d like to keep writing. I can’t (and won’t) promise that I will keep to a regular weekly schedule for my posts here, but it’s quite possible that I’ve picked up a very good habit and that’s when the writing will appear.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good year for me. See you on the other side!

Week Fifty-One: Chocolate Versus Cancer


Are you sick of cancer? Are you afraid of cancer? Are you angry at it? Do you feel helpless in the face of it? Decades ago the mere word “cancer” was a death sentence. What power the word gained over us! These days we have screenings, treatment options, special diets, alternative care, and support groups. But hearing the words “you have cancer” still means that your life has significantly changed and you need to prepare for battle. This week I’m going to give you some suggestions to help wipe out cancer, or make it easier to deal with. And I got a lot of help from my friends, whose contributions are shown indented as quotes. They have been there, and they know from very hard experience what they’re talking about. I cannot thank them enough for sharing their stories with me during the preparation of this week’s post.

1. GET TESTED. This is the Number One thing you can do for yourself. Many, many cancers are treatable if detected in their early stages, so that’s when you should try to find them. Make that call, set that appointment, and get checked. If you don’t have health insurance, look into programs like the Well Woman Program in Wisconsin that covers uninsured and under-insured women. Set money aside. Ask for help to cover the cost. But get checked on a regular basis for everything that you should, and make sure you are performing self exams as well.

2. REDUCE YOUR RISK. Stop unhealthy habits as soon as you can, and replace them with healthy ones. I shouldn’t have to give examples here — you know what changes you need to make. If you don’t know, ask your doctor or an honest friend. Losing weight and stopping smoking won’t guarantee you will be cancer-free, but it certainly improves your odds for avoiding cancer or for surviving rugged courses of chemotherapy or radiation.

3. TALK ABOUT IT. Many cancers take root in “private” places. We may not want to talk about breasts, testicles, or cervixes (cervices?), but we need to be talking to each other about breast cancer, testicular cancer, and cervical cancer to make sure we know the latest information, know what we should be tested for, know what treatments are available, and know how we can support friends who are fighting for their lives. Our shyness and ignorance help cancer win when we can’t afford to lose. In October and November this year I got back some “bad” test results, and was waiting for weeks for a follow-up procedure and then for the results that would tell me whether or not I had cervical cancer. I shared this information with only a very few friends, only to find out that a cousin was undergoing a similar cancer scare at the same time. How many women would have benefited from my sharing my experience sooner rather than later? I’m sorry I was shy… I just didn’t want to make extra worry for my friends. Anyway, as of right now, I’m cancer-free. Now go get yourself tested!

4. BE THERE. Talk to your friends with cancer. Talk with them about the cancer, or about whatever they want to talk about. It might be cancer, or it might not. Keep being their friend, and keep being there. Be reliable. Be helpful. Fighting cancer is hard work, and it’s harder if you feel alone, abandoned, or ostracized because of an illness you didn’t ask for. So call them. Email them. Visit. Be there. Show up.

Talk to them. So many of Mark’s friends did not know what to say to him — so they said nothing at all. He felt so isolated and alone, especially when he was really, really sick. Even if it is just a card or phone call — it is really important. — Sarah, caretaker

Keep visiting! Call, write, visit as much as you use to if not more. Of course, be guided by the person’s cues. Your visits may need to be very brief. — Anita, caretaker

Be a true friend by asking the person with cancer to do things to keep their mind off the situation. Don’t treat them like they are sick and exclude them from activities. The person will decline the offer if they aren’t up to it, so don’t decide for them what you think they may want. Exclusion sucks, we’re still the same people we always were! — Michele, 2X cancer survivor

My experience is that cancer can be very isolating and consuming. I would suggest making a sincere effort to connect with the person fighting cancer. Don’t just ask, “how are you.” Really make an effort to ask about the kind of things they are dealing with since being diagnosed. If they have no one to go with them on appointments, offer to go along. Ask if you could come sit with them during chemo treatments. Ask the person out to do something fun. It could be something simple like coffee or ice cream but it might give the cancer patient an hour of his/her day to NOT think about cancer. — Deb, caretaker

5. PUT YOUR MONEY IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Buying a pink object to “raise awareness” of breast cancer mostly raises the profits of the company who manufactures the pink object. You know who needs the money? People fighting cancer, that’s who. Have you ever heard a cancer patient say, “Thank goodness my health insurance covered everything! I’m completely cured and don’t owe a penny!” Me neither. Look around your neighborhood and talk to your friends. Ask around. You do know someone who needs financial help, even if you don’t know them yet. You can give them money to help with their bills, which are likely to be huge. Every bit helps. Ask at your bank to see if they are accepting donations to help out a local family who is struggling. You can give anonymously, but give. They need you, and the time is now. Besides, do we really need to spend waste another dime on “awareness”? We’re aware already. Let’s move on to treatments and cures, please.

6. MAKE YOUR COMPUTER GO BOINC. My friend Cory told me about BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, which lets you add your computer’s untapped resources to a worldwide network so that scientific projects can get access to the extra computing power they need for their research. He set it up on my computer in a couple of minutes, and now my computer is running calculations to help combat AIDS and childhood cancer while I sleep. Check out the website. If you’re interested in participating with me, leave a comment. If there’s enough interest, I will start a team you can join. Personally, I can’t think of a better use for my plethora of vintage Macintoshes.

7. LET THEM DRIVE. Each person is an individual; people fighting cancer, more so. Each body reacts to disease differently and responds to treatment differently. When you’re being attacked by cancer, you need to understand what’s working and not working for yourself, and what your limits are for each different activity. If it’s your friend or family member who’s fighting accept that they are driving the car on this trip, and you are their crew. You may not like how fast or slow their car goes — you may have wanted to map out a different route — but you need to respect that they are in charge now, and you are there to assist in the way that they need your assistance. Check your ego and assist.

Dean and I talked about this and decided that the one thing would be UNDERSTANDING. This would be to understand the kind of FEAR the family is facing with the prospect of no longer having this person around. An understanding of what multiple doctor’s APPOINTMENTS mean to the family planning and how to handle them. An understanding of how ONE’S HEALTH CHANGES affect the whole family. An understanding of the LIFE CHANGING process that happens to an entire family with the diagnosis of cancer to one of its members. Basically to be UNDERSTANDING of the fact that this diagnosis doesn’t just impact the person, but the whole family. If someone is distracted it isn’t because they don’t want to talk about it, but they are dealing with the cancer on so very many levels it is hard to see past all the things it impacts. — Bonnie, 2X cancer survivor

The most important thing you can do for someone with cancer is let it be their journey. We discover that a loved one has cancer and that affects us tremendously. Sometimes, and it’s human nature, it can be difficult to stop thinking about ourselves and really allow the patient to absorb, come to terms with, and dictate their own cancer journey. We just want to help. We want to swoop in and save the day. But, we are not superman. Being angry at our own lack of ability to DO anything can take away for the true matter at hand. The one best thing to do? Let go. Let it be about the person with cancer every minute you are with that person. Let him or her tell you what that journey looks like and accept it as it is. — Paula M., caretaker

The one best thing that I feel you can do for someone fighting cancer is to make sure that they understand that this is their battle and that they have to make their own decisions regarding their own treatment. — Paula R., caretaker

8. BE POSITIVE. Telling your cancer-fighting friend about your other friends who have died from cancer IS NOT HELPFUL. Neither is it supportive, kind, or necessary. Take your friend seriously and give them credit for their perspective. Don’t undermine them by comparing their cancer to your inconvenient hangnail, or whatever. Don’t pester them with “facts” you picked up from WebMD, recommend quack cures, or suggest they need an attitude adjustment to make everything all better. They have a whole medical team thinking of appropriate treatments to try: YOUR job is to provide emotional support. Stay their friend, hug them and touch them if it’s safe and welcome, and keep smiling.

Moral support. — Ken, 4X cancer survivor

9. DO SOMETHING. If you want to help, ask what you can do. This is not the time to treat someone as you think you would want to be treated; take the time to find out how they want to be treated. You can’t make their cancer go away, but maybe you can pick up that gallon of milk for them so they don’t have to make an extra trip. Maybe what they really need is for someone to just tackle that mountain of laundry so it doesn’t upset them any more. Ask, then do.

Be as supportive as the person in need WANTS and ALLOWS you to be. This may mean dropping everything else to be by someone’s side. Or graciously backing off and giving them the space they need. Or taking care of their loved ones by grocery shopping, picking their kids up at school. — Rona, caretaker

10. REMEMBER THE REST. Cancer may reside in one person, but it attacks a whole family structure. It saps strength, strains relationships, and adds extra tasks and expenses. Often the primary caregiver at home is rapidly becoming as worn out as the cancer patient. Giving them attention or respite care can ease their burden for a bit.

I thought it was really great when people came and did things with the other kids too! Sometimes they felt a little forgotten… and really loved a little bit of attention. The meals were also fantastic!!! We were spoiled. — Liz, caretaker

and, of course….

11. NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER! Life on earth is rare, precious, and all too short. You do not get a do-over, so don’t give up. Live the best life possible. Ask for help if you need it. Offer to help when you can. Love the people you love.

Published in: on December 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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