Tag Archives: Michigan

The Words I Didn’t Know I Knew Until I Read Them

Have you ever read a line or two in a poem or a sentence in prose that you “recognize”? Words that seem to speak to you? I’ve had the thrill of that experience many times, and even so, it always feels like something rare and special. As if the words reach somewhere inside me and find a perfect match. A puzzle piece in the proper place.

I began a memoir piece I wrote about the bomb shelter my father built in our basement with lines from a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly:

while the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

These lines are from a poem called “Of Ancient Origins and War.” When I read them for the first time, I felt as if I already knew them although they contained fresh images that I had never read.

They reminded me of when I lived in the house with the bomb shelter under my feet. I previously wrote about the shelter here. When I last visited Michigan, I drove by the house. The trees are much more mature today, and the house is no longer white. Is the bomb shelter still there?

I think the reason Kelly’s lines struck me is because they felt “real” to me. The notion that the heart has a shadow. That’s not something ever said, but it’s true. It’s kind of frightening. There is love and there is love’s shadow. There is the beating center of our existence and there is a shadow created by our very existence.

And of course there is the world and the threat to the world, as well as the threat that comes from the world. What better representation of the threat is a bomb shelter. By trying to protect his family, my father terrified us.

Although “the crow back of the sparrow” feels so right here, my understanding of it seems to float. What do you think it means?

What fresh new words from a story or poem have you recognized?



Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Literary Journals, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

Call Me Slacker

It was three days ago that I promised to “get cracking.” Is that expression only found in certain parts of the country?

Anyway, I promised to respond to blog comments, to read other blogs, and I guess implicitly I promised to keep posting.  Yikes. I’m 30 pages away from the end of the memoir I’m reading (so I have no memoir review yet). And I have read some blogs, but have by no means caught up. I’ve responded to very few comments on this blog.

After getting back from Michigan, I had a lot of business work to handle.  In addition, I had to revise my poetry book manuscript, Doll God. Then I am putting together a package of pages and book summary to finish my certificate in nonfiction through Stanford University. I have a poem being published online tomorrow and had to record an audio version. The list goes on and on.

I will keep working at catching up, but in the meantime I feel like such a slacker. And yet I’m really busy! I swear I am!

So that you didn’t read this for nothing, I can offer you some photos of the covered bridge outside Centreville, Michigan. My grandmother loved covered bridges. She collected paintings of them. I think they reminded her of growing up at the beginning of the 20th century in rural Michigan.  This particular covered bridge is special to me. My husband and I drove through it on our first date, which was a drive in the country. We were high school juniors.

Covered bridge plaque

Covered bridge

Covered bridge interior

I’m closing comments on this post to give me more time to catch up.  Thanks for stopping by! xo

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Filed under Blogging, Creative Nonfiction, Doll God, Editing, Memoir, Nonfiction, WordPress, Writing, Writing goals

Exploring My Hometown

After my visits to Sedona and southern California, I traveled to my hometown in Michigan and just got back yesterday. I’m sorry I’ve been slow to respond to blog comments and am behind in my reading. I didn’t want to post online that I was going away, so I couldn’t warn you that I would be taking longer to reply. What an exhausting trip. My parents have moved into a retirement community and are putting their house up for sale. Lots of stuff going on, and it’s been difficult for them.

But what a beautiful time of the year to visit Michigan.

In the city

In the city

Hard to believe such a lovely spot on private land is visible to the public.

The blocks below are from the old synagogue that no longer exists. They have been erected at the site of the current synagogue.


The “cathedral” still towers over the highway, I was relieved to see. I never attended services there, but we did hang out on the grounds after football games.


It was fun and a little stressful visiting the old haunts and houses.  Meeting my new great-niece for the first time was best of all! She’s as cute as a bug’s ear. I don’t want to post her photo because she’s not my child, so I don’t think I should make that decision. But trust me: you can’t find a cuter 6-month-old anywhere!

As we drove to the airport out of town, we passed by Amish and Mennonite farms.


This week, I plan to catch up on my blog comments and, especially, reading your blogs!!!


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs

New Year’s Eve with My Dad

I first published this post last New Year’s Eve.  I’ve added an update at the end.

Although I rarely go to New Year’s Eve parties any more (cue: one big whine and then a hefty sigh of relief), when I was growing up NYE always meant parties.  My parents went to one or hosted one every year.

In the sixties, my parents held their parties in the basement of our house.  Mom draped a paper tablecloth over the ping-pong table and Dad stocked the bar he’d built in the corner.  He set up table games and placed ashtrays on every available surface.  When he dragged out the box with the hats and noisemakers and boas I scrambled to help.  My favorite was the noisemaker blow out.  When I blew on the pipe end, the little roll of paper unfurled with a sputtery raspberry.  The tin drums which spun on wind-up stems sounded a raucous blare, so Dad would grab one of those and twirl it.

In the kitchen, my mother made canapés and Chex Mix.  She refrigerated 7-Up and washed the “frosted” highball glasses. Gold leaves, which I was sure were 24k gold leaf, decorated the crystal.

These plastic clips identified which drink to refill: rum and Coke, Seven and Seven, etc.

These plastic clips identified which drink to refill: Rum-and-Coke, Seven-and-seven, Gin-and-tonic, Scotch-and-soda.

I’m not saying I was a snoop, but I could hear everything.  I could even see a flash of the neighbor’s shiny bald head or Dad’s hand dealing cards through the register in the floor right near my bed.  I sat on the floor for hours with my legs cramped up underneath me.

While I didn’t hear anything of particular interest, the social interactions between the adults—their jokes, the vibrations in their voices, the sudden bursts of laughter– kept me straining my hearing.  Dad’s loud, excited voice rose above the others.  Everyone else faded into a background buzz in comparison with him.  Dad was the life of the party.

For his 80th birthday I made him a video of his life, and when Dad saw himself on video, he said, “I didn’t know I was so obnoxious!”  I had to laugh to myself at that because it isn’t as if nobody has told him that over the years.  Mostly, though, his enthusiasm for having a good time has been infectious.  At eighty-four he still likes to stir things up.  I suspect he’ll be wearing a hat and sounding his noisemaker at midnight tonight in Michigan.

Dad is ready for the party!

Dad is ready for the party!


This year Dad is, of course, 85. I will be seeing my parents the day after tomorrow, so I can ring in the New Year with them just a tad late.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

Dutch-American Elms

Last week I discovered that some of my earlier posts that had cost me effort and time have never received very many views.  I posted a poll about whether I should re-post or re-blog these posts to free up some time this month to work on my book. The re-posts won, so here is a story I first posted on November 29, 2012. It’s about the elm trees in Kalamazoo when I was a kid.

At the end I’ve added a couple of new points.

Circa 1960

On a Sunday afternoon, my parents and I visited my grandparents who lived in the same house where my mother grew up. We ate our dinner at 2PM and then, predictably, all the women and my dad wanted to go for a walk.  Grandpa was determined to watch the game on TV, so I’m fairly sure that Dad felt a responsibility to stay with Grandpa and missed the exercise.

We walked all the way uptown, as my grandmother called it, through neighborhood after neighborhood of modest two-story homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A parade of old trees shadowed the sidewalks, which were blanketed by their colored, speckled, and spotted leaves.The garlands of branches overhead, the twinkling of sunlight in patches through those branches, and the crunchy path under our feet promised to launch me into a magical world.

Then I noticed that some of the trees, the ones with the symmetrical leaves, not the knobby turkeys of the oaks and maples, wilted drastically.  The leaves were pale, odd-looking, not merely turning their customary autumn yellow.

I asked why the trees were so thirsty.  Grandma looked sad.  I’d never seen her sad before.  Her Mrs. Claus face always beamed at me.  Mom and Aunt Alice mirrored her unhappy expression.  Grandma said that the trees had gotten the new plague, Dutch Elm Disease.

In the weeks to follow, I heard a lot of talk about the devastation of the elm trees in Kalamazoo from this disease.  I thought the disease local to our city because the city’s main ethnic population was Dutch–like much of my family.  Reasoning that the trees were Dutch, too, I figured that’s why they were susceptible to this illness.

Devastation of Dutch Elm Disease

I believe that the afternoon of that family walk I came down with pink eye.  I remember my eyes were sore and tired. As soon as we got back to Grandma’s, I fell asleep and Dad carried me to the car. The next morning my eyes wouldn’t open and I couldn’t go to my first grade class.  Instead, my mother had to bathe my eyes with a solution several times a day for a week.

Over the years, we took walks after many dinners, and considering the strange ways of memory, I can’t be certain that my pink eye occurred on the same day I saw the trees dying, but it feels that way to me.

Did my eyes really suffer after seeing so many trees in distress?  Or did I only associate the two events later?



Apparently, Dutch Elm disease is an international tree disease, which began in Europe in or before 1910. It had spread to Detroit by 1950 and to Chicago by 1960. Kalamazoo is halfway between Detroit and Chicago, so it makes sense that around 1960 or 1961, Kalamazoo’s trees were already looking ravaged.

In the past year I have been thinking more and more about the ways of memory. When I wrote this, I thought it probable that I got pink eye the same day I first noticed the diseased trees. But now I am leaning toward the view that I only associated these events in my mind. Do you have any memories you suspect might be two separate memories which have become “glued” together?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Writing

Vintage Trick-or-Treating, circa 1961: A Ghost Story

Tess Trueheart

Tess Trueheart

I’d been waiting at the door for the bell to ring, but I heard the scuffle of their shoes on the porch first and opened the door. Cindy and Judy, the big girls who lived next door, were taking me trick-or-treating. I recognized them because their costumes only slightly altered their everyday appearance.

“Oh don’t you look cute! I’m going to a hootenanny,” Cindy said, adjusting the bandana around her neck.

“What a cute gypsy outfit,” Judy tugged on my gold hoop earring. “I’m Tess Trueheart.” She loved comic book characters and could draw comic strip girls with curvy silhouettes just like a professional. “Are you ready? Let’s go.”

Mom kissed me goodbye. “Be careful, girls.”

“We’ll take good care of her, don’t worry!” Cindy smiled reassuringly at my mother. I wondered if Mom had paid the girls to babysit me. That took a little shine off the night. My hand moved to the scarf tied gypsy style on top of my head as if to make sure it was still there.

On our small front porch–a 4×4 foot cement block–we scanned the neighborhood, debating which route to take. The sky gleamed black as a witch’s cape and glittered its spangle of stars. I figured there would be a full moon grinning above us, but the stars and the porch lamps were the only light which broke up the vast blackness.

“Let’s go to Mark’s first and up and around Gull Road and then back into the neighborhood.” Cindy decided because she was the oldest.

As we began to walk, the black chow which patrolled the boundaries of the yard across the street ran along his property line, yapping and growling, until the man called him into the house.

In the dark, the houses looked like jack-o-lanterns with their dark opaque walls and windows lit up like cut-out eyes and noses. The ripe smell of decaying leaves hung in the crisp air.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Mark’s front door had a cardboard black cat silhouette taped up, and his mother gave us each a Tootsie roll. Their house looked like mine, with a front living room window and one bedroom window facing street side, and a one car garage set back at the end of the driveway.

The Smiths’ house was next. Mr. Smith let us choose hard candy from a bowl because Pam’s mom was busy with the baby. We each grabbed two pieces, not daring to take three. Mrs. Smith would have handed us one piece each.

At the top of the street, the only two-story house in our neighborhood sat waiting for us. Last year a fire had destroyed the furniture and some of the interior walls. One of the kids had set the fire by playing with matches, or so Mom had explained to me. “That’s why you NEVER play with matches!”

The rumor I heard was that a child had died in the fire, but I wasn’t sure if it was true. Nobody seemed to know the family. Now the house sat vacant and was said to be haunted.

When we got near the house, the girls stopped and Cindy said, “Who’s going to ring the doorbell?”

“Not me,” said Judy.

At six, I was too young to question why we were trick-or-treating at an abandoned house.

Cindy looked at me. “I’m not going to either because I have to be in charge. But we have to see if the spirits answer the bell. Maybe Luanne should do it.” At a tall eleven, Cindy’s form threatened from the shadows.

I glanced at the high, skinny house. Unlike our houses, this one was from before the war. The once-white paint glowed in the dark a smoky ghostlike color. The porch slanted down on one side. It gave the appearance of a building about to fall down to the ground.

Mainly I scanned the dark windows. Then I glanced behind me. Across the street, the only house I could see was the one bedroom bungalow rented by the divorced beautician who wore a big Madge ‘do and had a toy poodle that smelled of perm chemicals. Her porch light was not on. No backup support from over there.

As I looked back up at the second story of the haunted house, I saw a flash of movement. I didn’t wait to see what it was; I took off running.

Within moments, I heard a loud crash and the tinkling sound of glass breaking, then two sets of feet running behind and then alongside me. I held my long skirt tautly to the side so it didn’t wrap around my legs and trip me.

We didn’t stop until we reached Gull Road. Judy and Cindy panted on both sides of me as we leaned over and caught our breaths. I thought Judy was starting to throw up as she revved up her breathing, but then she coughed and spit up some phlegm.

“What in the heck was that?” Judy said.

“I don’t know, but we are going to be killed,” Cindy answered. “Did you see it, Luanne? Is that why you ran?”

“I did! I saw something.” My insides started twittering in fear that Cindy thought we would be killed.

“What was it?” Cindy said. I started to tell her that it looked like a kid that flickered like a candle, but she turned to Judy and grabbed her arm, shaking her. “You’re in so much trouble, you idiot! I can’t believe you did that.”

We walked into the lighted National parking lot. “I want a monster charm!” Judy said.

She put a nickel into the fancy gumball machine and pulled out a monster ring with glowing eyes which she promptly stuck on her finger. She shoved her hand in my face so I could see its smug face.

I had no money and didn’t understand wasting a nickel when it was Halloween. However, Cindy and Judy were my elders, so I held my tongue and watched in jealousy while they compared shiny charms. Sighing, I ripped open my tootsie roll and popped it into my mouth.

Eventually I realized that Cindy said we were going to be killed because Judy had broken the window and we would be punished, but that epiphany came many years later. Until then I lived in terror of the house up the street.

Have you ever lived by a haunted house? I’d love to read your story about it!


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing prompt

One Day in May

Not too many months before it happened, my husband and I had opened a small accessory and brief case store on South Street in downtown Kalamazoo.  He worked a job selling dictation equipment while I ran the store.  The store was long and narrow, with scarves and jewelry at the front, near the plate-glass window and glass door, the goods “hardening” to brief cases and attaché cases at the back of the store.  This rental space included a full, remodeled basement where I kept my desk.

On May 13, 1980, I was at the store with another woman who I will call Helen, for privacy’s sake.  When I heard on the radio that a tornado was traveling toward us along the old highway my first thought was for my husband who was driving back along that road from a call to customers located in South Haven.

Then the siren sounded.  I had lived through numerous tornado watches and warnings in my life.  Making the trip to the basement several times a year in the spring and summer was common enough.  Nevertheless, since I was right downtown, the siren from the National Armory sounded much closer, more threatening, than at home.  The winds outside had picked up to a roar.

Helen and I ran downstairs; as we took the steps two at a time, I heard the glass door banging alarmingly and because I didn’t want it to shatter and ruin my window display, I darted back up to lock the front door, while Helen screamed at me to get back downstairs.

Our store was just down the block from Bronson Park.  The park was built in the old-fashioned town square style.  Every outdoor event of consequence was held there.  I had attended art fairs, concerts, peace rallies, lectures, and art classes under its oak trees.  As we walked through the park on Christmas eves, the lights reflected off the icy outlines of the trees, forming a magical canopy.

I heard the sound of the tornado slamming the park as I ran back downstairs.

The wind and noise abated quickly.  Helen and I gingerly climbed the stairs and looked around.  Other than a crack in the glass, and a broken sign, we had no damage.   I think I was in shock because I remember being drawn to walk to the park, more than considering much else.  I still didn’t know that my husband was all right.

I walked alone to the park and stood at the corner of South and Rose staring across the street at the park.  Centuries old oak trees were leaning every which way like so many pickup sticks.  A few of them looked like macabre divining rods.

Photo by Amy Jastrzembski

Photo by Amy Jastrzembski

I can’t say the destruction of those trees truly entered the back recesses of my brain until weeks later, when most of the downtown cleanup had been accomplished and I saw the park denuded of its beauty.  Twenty-six oak trees had been downed or crippled.  One of those trees had sheltered Abraham Lincoln during an anti-slavery speech in 1856.

Kalamazoo Gazette photo

Kalamazoo Gazette photo

The tornado effectively bombed Kalamazoo that day.  As you can see from the photo above, the entire back wall of Gilmore’s department store ripped off, leaving an effect like a five story doll house, as if you could put your hand in back and set up the shoppers and merchandise in miniature.   But the trees, as I see them in my memory, are the most lasting image for me.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing

What Happened on My Birthday

Every year I ignore my birthday until people  close to me start to annoy me with it.

“What do you want for your birthday?”

“What are you going to do for your birthday?  Something special?”

Then, on my birthday, no matter how nice they are, I find something to make me cry.  (Does anyone else do this?) I vow to make today different.  So I am announcing my birthday instead of ignoring it.  Today, July 20, 2013, is my birthday.  On my Facebook wall I put up a photo and a video commemorating the day.

And for y’all, I’m sharing a very short story I published on Cowbird a year ago. In a previous post about The Space Race I mentioned this event, but here is the full story.


Apollo 11 Moon Landing: July 20, 1969

I was sitting at the end of the dock, draggling my feet through the lake water. Sometimes my toes caught on marsh grass. Behind me, Dad and his friends were grilling hot dogs and burgers just outside the screened porch. I could smell the singed meat and hear their beer-fueled laughter.

Mom called us to the table. As we approached, she placed a steaming bowl of corn-on-the-cob on the oilcloth. Salads and paper plates had already been set out by the ladies.

Everyone gathered around the picnic table. I noticed Dad disappear into the house, but we all sat—causing the table to first lean to one side, then the other—and heaped our plates full. Everyone talked so fast and loud, excited by the summer’s heat and the waterskiing and, for the adults, the beer.

The ear of corn on my plate dripped butter and I longed to sink my teeth into it. As I went to bite, I remembered my braces. I hesitated because, at fourteen, I already felt awkward. Not yet pretty and feminine, but no longer a careless child. My features had grown large on my narrow face, and my skin shone like greasy wax paper.

I felt the wires bend as my teeth plowed into the cob. I made a mental note to keep my mouth closed so nobody could see all the corn stuck in my braces.

Dad carried our 9” portable TV to the table and plugged it in under the window to the kitchen. He seemed focused, as though he’d thrown off the beer effect.

On the screen, we watched the hazy shapes of astronauts positioning our flag on the moon. Everyone stopped talking. We heard a motorboat in the distance, off in the horizon, but up around the tiny television, everyone was drawn like moths to the porch light.

Eventually my mother remembered and brought out the white cake with fourteen candles staked like individual flagpoles. They turned down the volume to sing “Happy Birthday” to me, then turned it back up and listened to Houston’s excitement.


WRITING PROMPT: Write about a memory you have of a historical event, but focus on your life during the event, not the event itself.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

How and Why I Don’ t Know Science

After I heard we had to dissect the body of a cat in tenth grade biology class, I requested to take a replacement course instead. Today many school districts are sensitive to this issue and students can opt out without creating a stir. But back in 1971, school administrators at my Michigan school had never heard of a college-track student requesting to skip the foundation of high school science classes—and all over a dead cat. (How and Why the cat would die wasn’t divulged). Although they were surprised by my request, they allowed me to switch over to a course called Earth Science, but the only connection it had with its name was interminable dullness like dirt.

At fifteen I saw the world through a lens like a microscope and never from the top of a cliff. My father often said, “You can’t see beyond your own nose. It’s the bigger picture that counts.” My father, though, only saw the world as if it were a coloring book—large geometric blanks to be colored in by him, sloppily, with loops passing wildly beyond the black lines.

My view worked well for the science projects I had performed at home for years. When I was nine, my mother had bought me a How and Why book with scientific experiments kids could do at home. I grew mold on potatoes, made a weather station, something different every week.

But Earth Science class turned out to be a playpen for students who would not much longer be called students, kids who had troubles at home and troubles at school. Because I didn’t have the capacity to look at the longer range consequences, I didn’t realize that by not taking biology I’d left science behind. I wasn’t able to study physics or chemistry as all the science classes were lined up like the begetters in the Bible—biology begat chemistry which begat physics.

The SAT didn’t require any scientific knowledge, and somehow, with my intuitive test taking abilities, I managed an eighty-something percentage on the science portion of the ACT. The next year I attended a college chosen for its proximity to my boyfriend and satisfied the lone science requirement by taking a course called “The History of Science,” which taught no science.

Today I don’t know much about science, but my conscience is clear where my four cats are concerned. Too bad I couldn’t have a clear conscience and science both.

Tiger Queenie Princess Mimi Josefina [ secret name]


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Photographs, Writing

Grandma and the Purple People Eaters: Re-Post

This week I need to take a little blog rest so I can focus on my other writing. In case you weren’t reading my blog back in December, here is a post from back then about my grandmother.


When I was little I stayed with my grandmother during the day while my parents were at work.  It was just Grandma and me at the house.   Grandpa worked down the block, at his Sunoco filling station.  Every day at noon, Grandma and I brought his lunch to him.  He’d climb up out of the pit where he worked under cars and smile when he saw us with his gray lunch box.

Sometimes I played with the girl up the street and other days I’d pick through the toys and books left behind in their bedrooms upstairs by my mother, Aunt Alice, and Uncle Don.  I found a giant printing set, a potholder loom and loops, and a collection of miniature furniture and animals.  In my aunt’s room, I read my first chapter book, The Bobbsey Twins.   Grandma and I fried donuts and sugared strawberries.  We sang Ethel Merman songs like “Anything You Can Do.”  I could always manage to sing louder and higher than Grandma.

Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can’t. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can’t. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Occasionally, we walked “uptown” to the bank, passing the thrift store, which fascinated me. I thought it was a combination antique store and fine dress shop.  Also en route was the home of the Purple People Eaters.  My overweight, matronly grandmother sang the song and danced right there on the sidewalk for me.  It was years before I realized the building was actually a dry cleaning establishment, painted purple.

Grandma carried the filling station’s bank deposit bag in her big pocketbook, which also held mints and pennies for me.   We stopped at the florist to say hi to some relatives and at the bakery for sugar cookies.

With all the fun Grandma orchestrated, I still got bored one time.  I was in “that mood,” the one where it seems that all is wrong with the world.  Grandma knew how to handle the situation.  She put me in an old work shirt of Grandpa’s and handed me a paint brush.

“Come outside,” she said.  On the back stoop, she’d placed an old wooden child’s chair on a spread-out newspaper. “Go to town, Luanne,” she said.  I worked hard for a long time, painting that chair, which seemed so big

When my mother picked me up after work that day, she laughed.  “Mom, you had her do the same thing you made Don do to keep him busy!”  Even today when I feel “at odds,” this example keeps me working, moving forward through the doldrums.

Grandma did her chores while I was at her house.  She cooked and baked and ran errands, which were all on foot or by bus, as she didn’t drive.  I helped her and learned at her elbow.  She ironed my parents’ clothes, too, while I played at the kitchen table and sang with her.   She didn’t waste our time cleaning too much, but everything else got done—and done well.

She devoted a half hour to herself every day, watching As the World Turns while I “napped” beside her on the couch.

Mostly, though, Grandma doted on me and made sure I could learn and use my imagination.  She sat me on her lap and told me stories “from her head.” Her attention wasn’t fragmented by a cell phone or computer.  She limited her telephone and TV usage.  She was completely there in the moment with me each day.

Can we say the same today for our children and grandchildren and the children we babysit?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir