My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

It’s a puzzle, ain’t it? How sometimes life gives you all the pieces but their edges are rough and the colors are blurry and it ain’t till you step a ways back and rearrange that you see the patterns. You know?  You asked what brought me here and I’ll tell you, but first I got to tell you something else. Since Pa died, I barely spoke, but after the ruckus in church a few weeks back my words is like a fountain. You don’t mind, Ma’am, do you? We got time. 

Anyhow, Ma and me live a ways out of town, near where the river bends like an elbow. You can see it from the train bridge, over there. Our house’s the one made of two squares, a big one and a little one, plus a shed out back where Pa kept things like hoes and threshing rakes for Ma’s garden.  The big square is where we done our eating and sleeping, Pa and Ma in a nook off the kitchen and us four children in the loft. Evenings, Pa’d tell stories and Ma’d rock by the fire knitting or sewing up the holes in Brother’s shirt. Sometimes I sat in Pa’s lap, sometimes on the floor. That was my spot, Ma tells me. Near Pa. 

It’s a puzzle, ain’t it? How sometimes life gives you all the pieces but their edges are rough and the colors are blurry and it ain’t till you step a ways back and rearrange that you see the patterns.

The time I’m needing to tell you was one of those days can’t make up its mind to be spring or winter. Ice melting and muddy, but the sun shining like a promise ring.  I remember Ma and Pa both was in a tizzy, though I did not know why. I’s fourteen now. Then I’s only six. Anyhow, we hadn’t a real preacher for longer than I’d been alive, the last one an itinerant came through for the christenings and deaths. Sometimes weddings. So Pa and the other men would do the preaching, telling stories that I thought were Pa’s stories but turns out belonged to Jesus and his own pa, which a course I thought was the same thing. That day we was supposed to get a new preacher and someone, Ma can’t remember, decided Pa should do the welcoming.

Me, I remember the kittens. Kitty had them in the shed in a little soft hole in the corner where Pa told me I could look but not touch, at least until they was weaned or their eyes opened. Which for me was the same thing. He told me I could have one when they’s grown, so I picked the runty one cause she’s little like me but I didn’t tell no one. I’d study them for hours and tell Pa’s stories to help them grow like Pa’s stories helped me. That day, four a them had their eyes open but my runty one didn’t. I knew I shouldn’t touch but I did cause the littlest one wasn’t moving and I wanted to get it to move. It was dead, which I knew but didn’t want to know. I remember running for Pa. He’d told us bout Jesus resurrecting from the dead and I thought Pa could bring Kitty’s runty kitten back alive like he done Jesus. I remember the mud squishing my toes and slowing me down like fingers grabbing at my ankles. I didn’t think I’d ever find Pa, but when I circled the house, I heard Pa and Ma telling my sisters and Joe our brother to settle, and then another voice I didn’t reckon. Both low and loud at the same time, like how thunder starts quiet then blows like a wave through the clouds. I thought, or maybe heard, I don’t remember exactly, that somehow Pa had knew and asked Jesus direct about Kitty’s kitten.

Well, I burst into the house babbling like Ma tells me I used to do and I seen a man who wasn’t Jesus at all but a man in black with a frown like Pa’s scythe and he’s helping himself to the last of Ma’s turnips. Children should be seen, not heard, he says, nodding at Ma to scoop another turnip on his plate. The only plate on the table.

I threw a tizzy, Ma says. I’s so mad cause Pa always told me I should ask when I need something, and here I was asking and he ain’t doing nothing but minding some stranger without manners enough to share. I must of said as much cause Pa said I’s being disrespectful and to wait outside till I find my own manners. I should be ashamed, he said, scampering all over Ma’s clean floor with my muddy feet and interrupting Preacher. Mind you, I did not know Preacher was Preacher until Pa’s service and then it’s too late to hush. 

The day after Preacher came, Pa died and I stopped talking to most everybody cept Ma and sometimes Schoolteacher. Miss Sophie’s the one what taught me to write my stories if I couldn’t see fit to talk them. She came year before last, after the measles took the last one. That ain’t how Pa died, though. Him and the other Pas was plowing the big farm in the hollow over there when one a the draft horses got spooked. No one seen why, least that’s what they told Ma who’s left with four children to raise, me being the youngest. Joe quit school and hired himself out in Pa’s place. Our sisters wasn’t much for schooling, not like me a tall. They stayed long enough to cipher and tally bills at the mercantile. First for us and Ma, then for they own husbands and children. Janie has two and Sarah has one, a little girl with green eyes like mine. I love her especially. She is three and fierce like a lion. Which I ain’t never seen but imagine from the books Miss Sophie let me borrow cause I take care of them and bring them back to school on Mondays and after planting and harvest. Preacher has the running of the school in between harvesting souls. The wheat from the chaff, he says, though he can’t tell a spade from a shovel if you catch my meaning. Miss chuckled when I told her on my slate. Then she told me to tell her out loud and I did. And then I told her about Pa.

Last month, I heard Preacher and Miss talking in the schoolhouse while I’s outside reading and the other children was playing marbles or some such so’s Preacher could have his word. I’d been feeling poorly, like I’d swallowed a bag of rocks, cause Miss said she’d done taught me everything she could and it was time for me to graduate. She’s planning a whole ceremony, she said. A commencement. I never heard that word before so I looked it up in the fat dictionary Miss keeps longside her desk. She’d got it wrong, I read. I wasn’t beginning something, I’s ending. There ain’t no secondary school anywhere near here and besides, Ma said it’s time I got a job like Joe and our sisters when they’s my age. I even wrote another story about it, trying to keep my innards steady, but every time I thought about leaving school, I swallowed another rock. 

Anyhow, my breath got hitchy when I heard my name cause I thought I was in trouble even though I hadn’t done anything wrong that I could remember. Mind you, I was not eavesdropping. Preacher is loud and forgets I can hear just fine. Miss’s voice was happy like sugar and she’s telling Preacher I’s the smartest she ever seen, like a dry riverbed drinking up the rain. She told Preacher she put some a my stories in the post and some school up north wants me to study there, the same school Miss told me she’d gone to. Can you believe it? Tuition included, plus a place to stay. I’d just need travel money and a few extras, which I could get working in the school kitchen once I got there, and Miss asked a course could the church help? 

Preacher, he just laughed. Mind you, there’s all kinds a laughs and you can read them like you read a book. Ever notice? Least I can, and Preacher’s laugh was like someone showed him a porcupine and told him he could magic it to a squirrel.  He said there had to be some mistake, surely one of the boys’d be a better candidate than a half-wit girl and he’d see to fix it. Well, Miss’s voice went from sugar to fire, like each word’s a match, till Preacher said something about contracts and options and how St. Paul certainly had it figured when he told Timothy’s womenfolk to hush. After all, if it ain’t been for Eve talking to that snake we’d all still be in Paradise stead a this Podunk town. Miss got real hushed then. I waited till Preacher left and I seen Miss sitting at her desk with her head in her hands and her face grim like…Well, I don’t rightly know. But she straightened right up when she saw me, she knew I heard. We’ll figure something she said, I shouldn’t worry.

But a course I worried. All Miss done was try to help me, I didn’t mean for Preacher to trouble her. It was like Kitty’s kittens when I’s little. After I interrupted Preacher’s supper, Pa and Ma shared a frown and Pa told me to get along outside, he’d be along after a bit. But the words in my throat was rushing and I did not listen. I hollered something ugly and ran to the shed for Pa’s shovel and some rocks cause I remembered the part about the angels rolling the rock away. Pa’s stories was all jumbled in my thinking, and a course I’s too little to figure the shovel. I cut up my feet something fierce and started wailing at the gush a blood. Pa and Ma both came running, Preacher a ways behind with his napkin tucked in his collar like some flag. Next day, Pa tucked one a the boss’ spare kitties in his pocket meaning to walk home noon hour to give it to me, ‘cept it got loose and spooked the horse. 

I ain’t supposed to know that but I do. I told you Preacher talks too loud.

Anyhow, try as we might, Miss and me couldn’t figure a way to raise the money. Ma had a little extra but it weren’t near enough, and Miss needs her extra for her own ma and pa back home. Miss even wrote to the school but they’s sorry they couldn’t do anything else but hold my spot awhile if need be. You’re right Ma’am, times is tough everywhere. Ma said it’s for the best but her eyes was contradicting her mouth. All this is yammering in my head in church last month when Preacher’s preaching bout prayer.  He’s saying how God is good to His children like our papas is good to us and that got me thinking about my own Pa. I closed my eyes so’s I could remember better. I’s thinking he could a figured a way, Ma said Pa could fix most anything. I missed him a course, but not as hurtful as it used to be. Mostly I missed how he used to explain things sweet and easy so’s I could understand. Pa’s why I loved school so much, least after Miss came, cause Miss learned us with stories like he done. Meanwhile, Preacher’s preaching about asking and receiving and I recollected how Pa used to tell me all I had to do was ask and Pa’d see what he could do. I also couldn’t sit on my behind, Pa said. I had to do some a the work. He said it’s kind a like when you lose something. The asking kind a quiets the yammering that keeps you from seeing what needs seeing. The rest is like walking through an unlocked door.  

But as I’m thinking this, I’m hearing Preacher and he’s telling it all wrong. Like he’s the only one can see who’s asking proper. That got me so mad, let me tell you. Ain’t no one more proper than Pa and Miss, and Preacher got no right saying otherwise. I scrabbled across Ma for a prayer book and turned to where Preacher’s railing and there it is. Matthew’s story, same as my own Pa’s name. Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. Can’t be anymore clear than that. Anyhow, I don’t even know what I’s thinking. I just stand up and tell Preacher he got it all wrong. He’s gone around telling me and Miss and near half the congregation we ought a hush when it says right there we gotta open up our mouths what God gave us. Ain’t no way He’d of ever wanted us to hush. I said I tried hushing after Pa died, figuring keeping quiet’d fix the mess I made killing my Pa in the first place, even though I ain’t mean to cause I’s little.  I told everybody I ain’t no half-wit like Preacher says, I’s smart and so’s Miss. Miss is the one what figured out my mess when nobody else seen it. She told me Pa wouldn’t of wanted me to feel bad about his accident. She told me Pa was a teacher like Preacher ought a be, telling stories and showing me the right a things. I told everybody about Miss’ school and how I’s gone write and tell them to hold my spot, even if I got to work till next year for the money. Everybody’s looking between me and Preacher then me again, till one of the pas Pa used to work with marches up to the altar and grabs the collection basket. Everybody starts filling it with pennies and nickels, even a silver dollar, and one a the Elders says they needs a meeting bout Preacher’s contract. Ma, she starts crying and hugging me and Miss. Miss just smiles big as a rainbow. Told you, she tells Preacher. She’s the smartest I have ever seen. 

A course I cried too and then I hollered a thank you so loud it woke the babies, but the mamas, they just let em cry.

Which is why I’m heading on the train like you, Ma’am, I got a ticket right here gone take me to my new school. Everybody chipped in, even Preacher. Though I could of swore he done it with a bellyful a rocks. Anyhow, Miss says if I study real hard and practice my speaking, soon enough I’ll be even smarter. I will a course, cause telling you this I figured the last piece a my puzzle. I’m gone write me a schoolful a books, bigger even than the one Miss says is at my new school, and I ain’t never gone hush again. 


ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE originally appeared in Stories That Need to be Told (TulipTree Publishing / Jennifer Top, ed.)


Coming next Saturday in Book Talk…. The Road Not Taken or, How My Life Plan Got Derailed in Seventh Grade

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.


In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.


Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.


Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.


The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.


My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

Approximately two weeks after my mother-in-law was granny-napped and installed at her oldest daughter’s family-owned care home, her daughters arranged to escort their mother to her bank and lawyer’s office. Her son (their brother and my husband), who at the time was her POA and property caretaker, had been seen on numerous occasions stealing furniture and other belongings from the house, some of which he had burned in the side yard. There were allegations of a more serious nature, as well, including mail theft, mismanagement of funds, and elder abuse, and they intended to stop it, first by accessing their mother’s accounts and then by revoking the original POA and installing one of them in his place.

While traveling to their arranged meeting place, however, the middle daughter was hospitalized with appendicitis, which required the oldest one to follow through with their plans. Whether they had overestimated their powers of persuasion or underestimated their mother Millie’s (not her real name) stubbornness and distrust, the daughters were only partially successful. Millie insisted on meeting her representatives alone and, because she could at times sound perfectly fine and reasonable while conversing, her representatives agreed. The original POA was revoked, but a replacement was neither created nor approved and oversight of her accounts and home remained in limbo.

Afterwards, they drove to a neighbor with whom my mother-in-law had routinely entrusted her keys, the other set six hours away in my husband’s care. Millie wanted to see for herself the damage he had wrought, inventory the things he had stolen. 

Upon entering, however, both were aghast, dumbfounded by what they saw within. Oldest daughter tracked her mother’s meanderings as she looped through the house repeating, He didn’t touch nothing. He didn’t touch nothing.

The house was exactly as Mother left it, she told my husband later. As if she’d just gotten up and left it, intending to return.

He’d never stolen or mismanaged anything. Exactly as he had told them.

Many of us can be convinced lies are truth and act accordingly, spreading falsehoods and, sometimes, adding new ones to the mix. Even when all the evidence, all the facts, contradict those beliefs, we struggle and often fail to change our minds.


While Julius Caesar is based on historical events and, according to Frank Kermode, relies heavily on Plutarch’s Lives of Brutus, Caesar, and Antony, it is not a documentary. Rather, Shakespeare’s method in this and his other histories is “the double one of dramatizing an extensive historical narrative and achieving a sharper focus on the relevant political issues and personalities.”1 In other words, the playwright’s invention functions as a lens through which to investigate Elizabethan concerns and also, I would argue, contemporary ones.

That’s what I have always LOVED about literature, how a well-crafted story not only transports us to other times and places but allows us to live within them. Reading entertains, yes, but more importantly it enables us to experience others’ struggles vicariously and, having done so, more clearly understand our own lives and our shared world. 

So what can Brutus teach us?

In last month’s post, I suggested oldest sister’s argument with her hairdresser shared similarities with Brutus’ Act II, Scene 1 soliloquy wherein he justifies assassinating Caesar. I asked why he is convinced murder is his best–his only–option when he is reputed to be an honorable, noble man. As Act 1 reveals, part of the answer lies within his nature: He “[loves] the name of honor more than [he fears] death.” Part of it lies within his judgments: He erroneously ascribes to Cassius a similar motivation and thereby sets himself up to be manipulated by him. Cassius recognizes that Brutus’ “honorable mettle may be wrought from that it is disposed” and confesses in his own soliloquy that he has forged testimonials supporting Brutus over Caesar and will, obscured by nightfall and a portentous storm, throw them through Brutus’ windows. “For who so firm that cannot be seduced,” he muses.

Turns out, many of us are like Brutus, susceptible to those like Cassius.

No, I am not arguing we’re all capable of murder, nor that arguing with one’s hairdresser about politics is the equivalent of plotting an assassination.

Rather, I’m suggesting many of us can be convinced lies are truth and act accordingly, spreading falsehoods and, sometimes, adding new ones to the mix. Even when all the evidence, all the facts, contradict those beliefs, we struggle and often fail to change our minds. Millie’s daughters made just such mistakes in judgment when they believed, spread, and acted upon lies about their brother.


As part of the Apple News in Conversation podcast series Think Again, host Shumita Basu discussed those tendencies with author Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, we receive new information and experiences through the filter of what we know (or think we know) to be true. Revising those initial impressions can be difficult if not impossible for some of us, not only because as individuals we hate to look stupid, but because there is such an intense public stigma attached to being wrong. Particularly, he argues, in the political spectrum, wherein those who change their minds are labeled hypocrites or worse, their careers and reputations jeopardized.

Changing our minds becomes even more difficult when we only accept information that agrees with our viewpoints and reject that which does not. This confirmation bias creates a kind of idea echo chamber that amplifies extreme voices and claims, then worsens the divide between dissenting viewpoints.

In “That’s What You Think”2 Elizabeth Kolbert comments on that phenomenon, citing The Knowledge Illusion by cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Ferbach. “‘People,’” they say, “‘believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people….’ Where it gets us into trouble…is in the political domain. It’s one thing [for us] to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another…to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what [we’re] talking about.” Kolbert suggests further insight can be found in Denying to the Grave by psychiatrist Jack Gorman and public-health specialist Sara Gorman, his daughter, which “[cites]  research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure–a rush of dopamine–when processing information that supports their beliefs. ‘It feels good to “stick to our guns” even if we are wrong.’”

Does that mean there’s no hope for us? No way to bridge our differences? 

Whereas Kolbert’s article ends on a pessimistic note, Gladwell’s interview offers strategies to develop an intentional open-mindedness, starting by recognizing that people and circumstances change, that our collective knowledge evolves. 

Think about it this way: 

If our personalities remained fixed, we would be the same at age fifty as we were at age five. If our knowledge remained fixed, we would still recommend smoking to stay thin and whiskey to soothe an infant’s painful teething, common practices in my childhood. We wouldn’t have developed rocket ships or cell phones, electric cars or life-saving gene therapies.

Opinions can and should also adapt accordingly, especially when we’re trying to address shared problems. Once, humans believed the sun revolved around Earth, that disease was caused by demons and witches, that women  lacked the requisite intelligence to vote, that slavery was a just and necessary institution. 

Now we reject our forebears’ ignorance. Now we recognize the absurdity of such arguments. 

Now, can we please do that for ourselves?

As a novice teacher in 1991, I planned each lesson to the minute. I even wrote scripts, anticipating each and every question my students could possibly ask. I told you, remember, I DID NOT want to fail. I DID NOT want to look stupid.

LOL, as my former sophomores’ sophomores would now say. 

That model lasted a mere few days. Not because it was too much work, but because it didn’t work

It didn’t allow for the fact that we all had different learning styles.

We all brought unique backgrounds to the classroom. Unique perspectives and needs. 

Instead of fighting that awareness, I embraced it. 

I embraced them, and in so doing became a better teacher and human being than I could have otherwise done. I am forever grateful for their lessons. Forever grateful for their insights.

If only Millie’s daughters had done the same with their brother, I’d be writing a different story. 


In March 2020, no one expected my mother-in-law to survive.

Nights, we visited her in the hospital. Days, my husband called his oldest sister to update her on their mother’s progress, and she updated the middle sister in turn.

They were good conversations. Open, honest. Sincere. While their relationship had never been easy, he wondered–hoped, perhaps–whether this time things might be different. Maybe this time, they could get it right. 

They didn’t. 

I may live to regret it, oldest sister told him. But if I have to pick, I’m going to pick [middle sister].

Mid-April, Millie was discharged and came to live in our home. By June, her mobility had improved, as had her swallowing, and even the rotation of in-home nursing had ended. She insisted she’d made a full recovery and had been clamoring to return home, six rural hours away. However, the damage to her vision and cognition was permanent and would most likely worsen over time, rather than improve. 

We had told her–the doctors and nurses had told her–that she might be cleared at some point for a supervised visit, but she would not be able to live independently. 

Nonetheless, she had talked herself into a miracle and was furious when none was forthcoming. 

Furious with me. Furious with my husband. 

TBIs can wreak terrible havoc with one’s personality and judgment. Hers certainly did so.

Later, we learned she’d been telling the most god-awful lies about us to anyone who would listen, anyone who might take her back home. 

Later, we learned she had told similar lies about the oldest daughter and her husband. 

In a letter the middle daughter wrote to Millie while in the care home, she cautioned her mother against those lies, not because they were lies BUT because saying the same thing about oldest daughter that she’d said about son wouldn’t look good if they ended up in court. 

We found that letter among Millie’s things after she passed, along with several opened pieces of our mail which the post office had erroneously forwarded to the care home. Instead of returning them to us unopened, the care home had given them to Millie. 

Middle sister was right about one thing. Ultimately, yes, they did head to court, as my husband needed to clean up the mess the three women had wrought. He’d made a promise to his father, you see, before his father passed. 

He promised to take care of his mother.

No matter what.


In Julius Caesar, Brutus’ struggle evokes a sense of inevitability. Things don’t have to happen this way and yet they do–because Brutus adjusts neither his thinking nor his actions when confronted by evidence of his mistakes.  That, I believe, is his real tragic flaw.

The same is true of this story. This story was never going to end happily. 

For every lie told about my husband (and me) there is either no evidence to support it or plenty of evidence to refute it, including letters and texts written by Millie’s daughters themselves. That’s why the Orphan’s Court judge ruled in my husband’s favor, restoring the documents his mother established years before her fall. 

That, and Millie herself. 

When deposed by her court-ordered attorney, she could not recall the August meeting with her former lawyer. She could not recall revoking her POA,  nor of removing her son as her caretaker. In fact, she said, she would never do that.

It’s clear, my husband was told after the ruling. You’re the only one of her three children that she trusts. The neighbor to whom she’d given her keys? She’d also given him a note instructing him to allow no one into her house except herself…

And her son.

He has that note in his files.

And yet….

Millie’s daughters wanted to believe the worst of him because doing so made them look better by comparison. Doing so made them the victims in the family drama, not the villains.  That’s why their lies continued. After the ruling. After her passing. It didn’t have to be that way, and yet it was.

No wonder the hairdresser can’t get it right. 

No wonder we can’t get it right in our country. 

We can’t even get it right in our families.

And that’s the real tragedy.


  1. “Julius Caesar” by Frank Kermode, pp. 1100-1104, The Riverside Shakespeare (1974).
  2. “That’s What You Think” by Elizabeth Kolbert, pp. 66–71, The New Yorker (February 27, 2017).


I usually post the first Saturday of each month.

Next up, July 1st: THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIE, On 5-Year Letters and Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist

And coming August 5: Original flash fiction inspired by May’s recent StoryADay Challenge

Thanks for reading 🙂

(part one)

At some point after the 2020 election, my husband’s oldest sister had to find a new hairdresser and was terribly upset. COVID restrictions had been somewhat recently lifted, and she’d been looking forward to her cut and color ritual, the meandering and soothing chitchat that typically accompanies such salon appointments. However, instead of the usual innocuous topics–families, movies, meals, vacations–the hairdresser talked politics non-stop. Despite months of speculation, investigation, and bipartisan evidence that the presidential election had been neither rigged nor stolen, the hairdresser remained convinced that the defeated candidate had actually won, repeatedly offering debunked and fallacious conspiracy theories to support their claims. 

She told my husband the story as an aside to one of their phone conversations about their mother’s care. Her retelling was peppered with f-bombs that carried across the room to where I sat, trying to read a book. She’d felt trapped, assaulted almost, by the virulence with which the hairdresser condemned those who disagreed with them, by their refusal to accept evidence that disproved their conclusions, and by their professed willingness to act on conjecture rather than truth. They couldn’t be reasoned with and she couldn’t justify continuing to patronize a business whose hate-filled vision ran counter to her own. She just did not understand how people could be like that.

I nearly dropped my own f-bomb, because that’s EXACTLY what she had done to my husband, when she and the middle sister conspired to granny-nap their mother.

Have you ever done something that later you really regretted?

Have you ever been talked into something really stupid?

Of course you have. Me, too.


In Act II, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus awaits dawn in his orchard, musing about joining those plotting Caesar’s assassination. While I’d read the play several times before, I first taught it in December 1990, as a UN-backed coalition of international forces prepared to defend against Saddam Hussein’s annexation of neighboring Kuwait. A TA in the University of Delaware’s English Department, I had taught ESL, remedial English, and Freshman Comp throughout my graduate program, but the convoluted requirements of public school certification mandated I student-teach a five-week Winterim. 

Thus, I found myself assigned to a cooperating teacher a few months shy of her retirement. Before taking over her sophomore classes, I observed from the back of the room as she lectured leaning against the chalkboard, arms crossed behind her back. She ignored her students’ questions, ignored their chatter. Ignored their spitballs missiling non-stop at her head, and come time for tests and quizzes, ignored the blatant, rampant cheating. Every class, every day.

To paraphrase the aforementioned oldest sister, what the effity eff?

I was dumbfounded.


Not with the students.

With the teacher. 

She was the adult, they were the kids. Sophomoric, by definition.

And she was stealing from them. Not money or things, but opportunity. Possibility. Theirs and ours. Recall please, that humanity benefits from an educated populace, not an ignorant one.

Good luck, she said when I stepped in. 

I should probably mention, I also had to teach a research paper unit and three units of vocabulary. 


She expected me to fail.

I refused to. 

Not only for myself, though I do HATE to look stupid. 

I refused to fail for her–for our–students. 

But Shakespeare? Lordy.

In high school, I used to watch recorded BBC performances in the library while reading along, just so I could figure out WHAT was happening, let alone WHY it was happening and WHY it mattered. And I loved to read. English was my favorite subject. 

Fortunately, I had some pretty terrific teachers throughout my schooling, and I drew on what they’d modeled for me: Education isn’t merely the absorption and regurgitation of information, but rather the ongoing acquisition and development of critical thinking, communicating, and creative skills that enable us to navigate our shared world, regardless of discipline and post-secondary vocation. 

In other words, the complex becomes accessible and actionable when first made simple and relevant. 

So I focused and layered my units’ objectives. I determined what I wanted my kids to know and be able to do at the end of our time together, and then I worked backwards to locate my starting point. I asked them, Have you ever done something that later you really regretted? Have you ever been talked into something really stupid?

Of course they had. 

Of course YOU have. Me, too.

Now let’s discuss WHY. 

Brutus’ s Act II, Scene 1 speech is a soliloquy, a literary convention in which a character is alone on stage and we have direct, unfiltered access to his thoughts. To his version of truth. On first reading, it seems like he’s debating killing Caesar, but he isn’t. He’s already decided to act and is justifying that decision to himself.

Just look at not merely what he says but HOW he says it. His monologue begins with his conclusion that “It must be by his death,” and what follows lacks concrete, verifiable evidence to support that claim. Instead, he offers his  “reasons” in the conditional (would, could, may, might), a tense used to SPECULATE rather than REPORT on events. Brutus even discounts his own firsthand knowledge of Caesar’s character and admits he’s lying to himself, saying “since the quarrel will bear no color for the thing he is, fashion it thus.” In other words, he’s perfectly willing to MAKE THINGS UP if doing so will enable him to get what he, Brutus, wants. Even if that means murdering a man in cold blood. 

Okaaay, but WHY? 

What does he want and why does he want it? And what about all those other senators? Brutus doesn’t act alone. Cassius woos him. Casca flatters him. Dozens of senators join and execute the plan to murder Caesar which–SPOILER ALERT–precipitates the fall of the Roman Empire. The very thing they claim–alone and to each other–that they are trying to prevent.


And HOW?

And while we’re on the subject, what does any of this have to do with hairdressers and granny-napping? With anything really, in the right here and now?

Come back again next month and I’ll tell you.


May means the STORYADAY writing challenge, which I’ve participated in since 2019. As I write this, it’s Day 5 and Story 5, though my rough drafts are more rough than story. Oh well! Revising is for June. Here are some links to stories I wrote to past STORYADAY prompts:

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

7/10/98, A Truish Story

Lesson Plans

I hope you find something you enjoy 🙂

Thanks for reading!


I usually post the first Saturday of each month.

Next up, June 3rd: IT MUST BE BY HIS DEATH, Part 2

And coming July 1st: THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIE, On 5-Year Letters and Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist

(Warning, the following contains spoilers for Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.)

If I hadn’t retired, I’d be hanging kites in my classroom and prepping my Kite Runner unit, which I taught to my seniors every spring. I don’t miss being a teacher, but I miss teaching, and I miss spending spring with Khaled Hosseini’s glorious book.

Three springs ago, when Covid quarantines forced physical schools to close indefinitely, I wrote about teaching it through Google Meets.

Like nearly everyone we knew, my husband and I were juggling exhausting schedules of working remotely and caring for family. In our case, his mother, who moved in with us and our two young adult children after a fall from her kitchen chair nearly killed her six days into quarantine. I never finished the series I planned, and she’s partly why.

Continued effects from her TBI had worsened her physical and cognitive health and stolen her independence. She couldn’t keep track of the days or her medication. She awoke convinced her dreams were real, her paranoias manifest. She couldn’t see to read, let alone drive, and she couldn’t prepare food more complex than a peanut butter sandwich. Which was just as well, because the few times she tried she left pots simmering on the stove while she meandered my back yard or sat on the deck, arms crossed and staring at the neighbor’s house. She hadn’t merely forgotten to turn off the stove, she’d forgotten the hunger that prompted her to turn it on in the first place.

While she had never been the easiest of people to get along with, the TBI also fed her worst tendencies and strangled her better ones, ultimately endangering her well-being to the point that her doctors told us she needed to be re-hospitalized for evaluation and treatment. 

The breaking point came mid-July, when she disappeared for several hours and wouldn’t answer her cell. My daughter waited at home in case she came back, and I drove the neighborhood in increasingly wider and more frantic circles, alternating calls to her cell with calls to my husband, who was six hours away checking on her home and mowing her overgrown fields. I’ll try one more time, I told him, and then I’m calling the police.

Finally, she answered. Turns out, she’d been wandering the neighborhood and struck up a conversation with a stranger who “seemed nice,” so she asked said stranger for a ride to church. They’d been to Mass, recently reopened to small, socially distanced gatherings, and ignored the phone’s ringing. My daughter and I paced at the curb until they returned. The driver was embarrassed and apologetic, concerned I’d still call the police. My mother-in-law was confused and disoriented, but thankfully unhurt. It could have been so much worse.

Four days later it was. 

Four days later, her daughters granny-napped her from the hospital, the same daughters with whom she’d barely spoken in years. 

The oldest daughter hadn’t visited in nearly a decade. The middle one occasionally popped in unannounced, on her way to a lengthier stay somewhere else. And when their father struggled with Alzheimer’s, neither had offered her help or solace of any kind, instead telling their mother to just put him in a home and stop complaining.

Meanwhile, in the years before and after her husband’s death in 2016, her son (my husband) called every day, visited one long, chore-filled weekend every month, and scheduled twice yearly weeklong “vacations” to cut firewood for the stove because it comforted his dad.  Even our kids and I helped out every summer, in whatever ways we could. 

The girls, she always called her daughters, and rightly so. They never outgrew the narratives each spun in adolescence.

They promised to take her home. 

They lied. 

Instead, abetted by the oldest, the middle child drove their mother five hours across Pennsylvania with only the clothes on her back and a grocery bag of undies, then dumped her at a care facility owned, in part, by the oldest child’s husband, after which the middle one drove back across the state for home. 

No money. No identification. No phone and no food.

And no medicine. 

None of her life-saving prescriptions, not a single pill. 

She went for nearly two days without. 

Two days, before the oldest could get them refilled. 

Did I mention the oldest used to be an RN?

Shortly thereafter, she reluctantly admitted to my husband that she should have believed him. Although the girls had accused him of misrepresenting their mother’s condition, he had been entirely truthful. Their mother was, in fact, no longer able to live independently. My husband had been following doctor’s orders for her care.

Now what?

When you eff up, you fess up.
And then you strive to fix it.


“Granny-napping” is a form of theft in which the perpetrators remove an older person from their caregiving situation, usually to establish physical and/or financial control of said older person. That is exactly what happened to my mother-in-law, even though later her daughters claimed they “rescued” her.

Tomato, to-mah-to.

In The Kite Runner, Baba explains to his young son Amir that theft is the worst sin, that every sin–every crime, in fact–is theft in disguise. 

Commit murder, and you’ve stolen not only the victim’s life but someone’s spouse, sibling, friend, and their impact on the greater world. Tell a lie and you’ve stolen the truth, you’ve stolen the opportunities truth engenders. And when you thieve, you not only steal from the present. You steal from the future.

Things can be replaced, yes. But theft is permanent. Its effects, immutable.

As an adult, Amir nearly dies learning that lesson. Turns out, Baba lied by omission. Baba was no paragon. Griefstruck over his wife’s death, he had sought consolation with his servant’s wife and conceived a mixed race son whom he never publicly acknowledged. 


Rahim Khan confesses this to Amir, after Amir visits him in Pakistan. Nearly everything Amir has believed–about his father, his heritage, himself–has been a lie. And acting on those lies has abetted  horrific consequences throughout all of their lifetimes…

And the lives of those to come.

No choice, after all, lives in a vacuum.  Not for Amir, and certainly not for those of us navigating the real world.

Fortunately, there is a way to be good again. 

Amir finds it, yes, but does he take it

Does it even make a difference?

No more spoilers.

Read the book, please. No cheating.

Because discovering answers to that question is why I always ended our school year with Amir’s journey. His struggle is in many ways our struggle, and relevant to my once-upon-a-time students facing graduation and the real world beyond. I wanted them to identify and evaluate their own choices, their own potential impacts on our shared world. 

Because we do share it, this flawed yet beautiful world.

Year after year, despite characteristics and experiences that separated them–that defined my students as somehow “different” from each other–every single one of them wanted similar futures. Futures defined by basic human rights. Worlds in which they–and therefore, we all–are welcome. 

So how do we get there, I’d ask them. How do we create the world we want to live in? 

Of course, I’m neither so naive nor arrogant to think I or my students figured out all the answers. But on this we always agreed:  


And then you strive to fix it.

That’s where the girls got it wrong. 

Confronted with the truth, the evidence of their own eyes, they chose instead to manifest their paranoias and prejudices.

In the months and years that followed spring 2020, they continued to lie. About my husband. About me. About the care their mother received in our home. 

Rather than attempt to fix what they had broken, they chose instead to make a difficult time far worse than it ever needed to be.

Just ask the Orphans Court judge who ruled in my husband’s favor.

My mother-in-law spent the rest of her life in a care home, and passed in December 2021. 

I wonder if she’s found peace. 

I doubt her daughters ever will.


Looking for the other posts in this series?

You can find them here:

Part 1: A Thousand Times Over

Part 2: Ghosts in the Grocery Store

Part 3: Choices and Consequences

And coming next month, IT MUST BE BY HIS DEATH, on character assassinations and the lies we tell.

Thanks for reading 🙂


All winter she planned her garden. 

Then, when the last ice melted, mud dried to soil rich and nourishing, she  gathered her trowel and cultivator, a weeder thin and sharp, and–hands sheathed in unstained gloves–cleared deadfall around a sapling oak beneath which green fingers already stretched.

Shortly after we moved, my daughter wrote to Santa Claus. She worried she’d be getting coal  and whether Santa knew our new address. ‘I’ve been trying my hardest to be good,’ she explained, and thanked him for ‘what you are doing for me and other children.’ She was 11.

She’s twenty-five now.

Along with a U-Haul box of loose photographs, photo albums, and VHS-C home movies, I recently found her letter while cleaning out our basement. I also found quite a few things I’d forgotten we had, things I have no idea why we saved: snow boots and snow pants long outgrown, my son’s seventh grade notebooks, faded coffee mugs, a cardboard box of statements and bills circa 1992. Cleaning was long overdue. It had become increasingly overrun and difficult to navigate, as the kids moved back home from college, then back out to their own adult homes. Stacks of boxes teetered and tottered, an avalanche threatening more chaos.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt nearly crushed to death by things. Aside from moving my own household’s houseful, I’ve helped empty my mother’s, my mother-in-law’s, and a family friend’s, as well as the classroom in which I taught for 31 years. All told, nearly THREE CENTURIES of things.

My cane, my pocket change, this rings of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book, and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we are gone.

–Jorge Luis Borges (Translated, from the Spanish, by Stephen Kessler). The New Yorker, 22 March 1999

My mother kept the Easter egg tree I made in preschool. In 2016, my sister found it while we packed.

The family friend had a Sears catalog from the year I was born. It was covered in mold, so I had to toss it.

My mother-in-law had a kitchen cabinet overflowing with mostly expired medications and salves, the oldest filled for my father-in-law the month before my husband was born. I found it in June 2022.

I kept projects created by my former students, lesson plans for courses I hadn’t taught in decades. Diaries and journals, notes from eighth grade friends. We used to fold them like origami and pass them behind our teachers’ backs.

And I kept my husband’s letters. The ones he wrote to me in college, the ones I wrote to him.

Like the persona in Jorge Luis Borges’ sonnet ‘THINGS,’ I read those objects like stories as I sorted and cleaned, tossed or repurposed or boxed for another day’s deciding.

Why do we gather and keep so much stuff? 

The reasons, of course, are as varied as the objects and their owners.

The constant, however? We can’t take it with us. We will leave this earth, and we will leave our things behind. And someone will have to clean out our underwear drawer. Someone will be privy to our secrets. 

My mother-in-law used to joke she would be the one to figure out how to take it all with her. She didn’t, and in her passing she left a carnage I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

So many of us are good at things, not people. Stuff, not relationships. She was like that. I strive–albeit imperfectly, I know–to be the opposite.

So I donated the snow gear and the still usable mugs. I shredded the files, and I re-crated my son’s notebooks like he asked. ‘I bet there’s some lost, esoteric knowledge hidden in those old books,’ he texted. ‘Lol.’ I wonder what he’ll think–Someday–when he flips through their pages.

Last week, my daughter read her letter when she and her husband joined her dad and me for dinner. She laughed and rolled her eyes, then the four of us reminisced for hours while our dirty dishes waited in the sink.

Next week, I’m taking the video cassettes to a nearby studio for digitizing. The photos I’m planning to organize and place in albums. A daunting task indeed, as I also have pictures on my phone, on my laptop, and on a collection of old phones and thumb drives, and I stopped organizing them in 2011.

As for my letters and journals? I moved them to a secure location, wink wink, and am slooowly making my way through them, black Sharpie in hand. My husband says I should just toss them. Too personal, he says. Embarrassing.



But I can’t. Not yet.

I want to endure beyond my vanishing.


(My daughter’s letter…. See the Chapstick smudge in the top corner? Clearly, she was hedging her bets!



What cringy or gotta-keep-’em treasures lie boxed in your basements? What stories do they tell? And what do you think I should do with my journals and letters? Drop a note below…I’d love to chat 🙂

Brother, she said. I fed you your bottle. Give me your soul in exchange.

As if that matters.

As if that changes anything.


You never drank her poison. You spat, then smashed its vial beneath your boot.

She should have followed your example. 

You tell me this as we leave its deep woods grave, our son swaddled in your arms, our daughter nursing at my breast. Yellow Xs encircled its infertile soil. Danger, they screamed. Keep out. 

You vow, Our children will be warned when old enough to wander.

Old enough to wonder which way lies home and healing.



Cupid may get all the US press in February, but I think love is more than romance. Check out some of these posts about love in its many forms….

HERE’S ANOTHER THING ABOUT LOVE, a true story about roads, cemeteries, and happily-ever-afters.

COME LIVE WITH ME AND BE MY LOVE, an original flash.


Happy Valentine’s Day, and thanks for reading =)


Valentine’s Day is next month, but I want to tell you a love story.

There’s a boy, yes. And a girl. And they are young, though they feel like adults. They have recently been separated but are now reunited, ablaze with certainty in themselves and their future together. When our story begins, they stand, improbably, in a bookstore.

Spoiler alert: This story has no happy ending. This story ends in a cemetery on a muggy afternoon in August 1986.


How could I have been so stupid? 

I fell in love with love because of Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, which I read at least a dozen times before I myself turned that age. Fifteen year old Jane Purdy is an ordinary girl dreaming of finding her first boyfriend and wondering if she’s found him in Stan Crandall, the delivery boy who rescues her from a near catastrophic babysitting session with the brattiest child in town. 

Like the fairy tales with which child me was equally fond, the novel suggested happily-ever-after isn’t only possible, it’s guaranteed. If you know the formula, and if you follow the steps. Stories offered not only a momentary escape but a kind of roadmap toward the life I wanted. However, while Jane desired romance, I desired independence, and so fall 1985, I left home to begin college five hours away from home. I knew no one, not even my roommate who, inexplicably, never arrived on campus. 

It was terrifying.

And liberating. 

No one knew who I was, so no one knew who I had been.

Which meant I could reinvent myself.  

So I did. The End.

Lol, if only it were that easy. But life, like stories, contains obstacles. Detours. Black ice moments when you careen toward certain (metaphorical) death. For Jane, it’s kissing Buzz. Despite their growing relationship, Stan takes Bitsy to the school dance. His motive is reasonable. His apology, sincere. Yet Jane wants him to hurt like she did. She regrets the kiss immediately, but the damage is done. Stan promises to call after work but never does, leaving Jane alone and wallowing in her foolishness.

My moment? Starting my second semester with only $40 to my name (approximately $108 today). In December, I’d had close to $800 in my checking account from paychecks and college loans but had spent some on Christmas presents, some on a road trip to visit my boyfriend who lived four hours away.

The remaining $600?

My father took it.

He said he needed it more than I.

Surprised? I wasn’t. He’d ‘borrowed’ my money on several occasions before–without asking and without repayment–and he often made promises he’d no intention of keeping. In high school, I halfsied on a used VW Bug with a transmission that stalled every time I downshifted at a light and rust holes that unspooled the road beneath my accelerating feet. I loved that car. He promised to restore it. Instead, he sold it and bought a used Rabbit for himself that he eventually gave to my younger brother. The same brother for whom he had started (then spent) a college fund shortly after his birth. I was a girl, you see, and needed a man, not college. After all, he’d done well enough for himself without an education.

Yes, the irony of that proclamation was evident to me even then.

One promise my father did keep: If I were so foolish as to pursue a college education, I would do so with no help from him. It was a challenge I determined to win, so when he drained my account, I did what I always did: I kept quiet and figured I’d figure my way out. 

Except this time, I couldn’t. I’d been so focused on enduring winter break so I could return to school and my boyfriend that I’d forgotten I’d need books and supplies for the semester. Until I stood in the university bookstore, awash in shame and fear as my boyfriend easily found what he needed and placed a small (and expensive) mountain at the register. The salesclerk bagged his purchases, each item vanishing like everything I’d worked for and dreamed of until then. I dug my nails into my palms until they bled. I have notebooks, I told him. (I didn’t.) I’ll borrow textbooks from the library (I couldn’t.) 

How could I have been so stupid? 

Because when you are raised to believe you don’t matter, to look and plan no further than today-ish, you don’t even know the questions to ask, let alone whom to ask or where to find answers.  You are driving in the dark with broken headlights and no map–You never even anticipate the craters until your tire blows and your car flips and rolls, metal screaming, down the embankment. 

That was me in January 1986, a wreck on the side of life’s highway.

Except this time, someone saw me swerve. Someone pulled over to help. My boyfriend of five months, who refused to leave the store until I told him what was wrong. Who gave me $200 to buy what I needed. Not a gift, he said. A loan. Come summer I’d pay him back.  A little each week from my paycheck, whatever I could afford. In 1986, there was no Venmo or PayPal, no online banking or cell service. Only snail mail, landlines, and twice monthly road trips. By August, I’d repaid $180 by tucking a five, ten, or sometimes twenty in my thrice weekly letters. Bring old clothes, he told me on our last visit before school. You’re going to work off the rest. 


Which is how I ended up in a cemetery hauling rocks and pulling weeds on a muggy, gray sky mid-August day while he, its part-time groundskeeper, trimmed headstones.  Overtime at his full-time refinery job had recently taken precedence, but he wouldn’t renege on promises he’d made to the cemetery’s caretaker. Nor would he renege on those he made to himself: to work and save as much as he could over summer in order to prioritize his engineering coursework come fall. 

You see, the $200 he gave me wasn’t a rescue.

It was a roadmap.

He wanted me to find a long term happily-ever-after, not a short term happy ending, and he knew I needed directions.

What’s the difference?


Consider stop signs. They mark places in our travel but neither predict nor control it. Some drivers brake completely, while some of us roll, then pause. Some of us inspect the intersection and oncoming traffic before proceeding. Some of us blow through at full speed, heedless of other travelers. An ending is the sign itself: one episode finished, another about to begin. A happilyever-after is the ability to deliberately or intuitively call on everything you learned from all your other stops before you accelerate, before you decide where and how to navigate. It’s the confidence gleaned from knowing, You’ve done something like this before. Now you can try to do better.

Progress, in other words. Not punctuation.

That’s where Jane gets it wrong. That’s where Fifteen is misleading. After she and Stan reconcile (he had appendicitis, not cold feet), she returns home cherishing their first kiss and his silver ID bracelet now clasped about her wrist. “Smiling to herself, Jane [turns and walks] toward the house. She was Stan’s girl. That was all that really mattered.”

Um, no. 

Jane has achieved her happy ending, but not necessarily her happily-ever-after. She has no guarantee their relationship will last, nor that it will be perpetually happy. Life happens, and she is only fifteen, yet she idles at the stop.

Attaching our happiness to something–or someone–external is foolish and counterproductive. It robs us of agency in our own life stories. Makes us subservient to the whims of others who may–or may not–prioritize our well-being. I lived that way as a child. I sure as hell didn’t want to live that way as an adult.

So I paid my debt, I kept my promises, and I hauled rocks until my palms blistered and my back ached. When we returned to his parents’ house, his dad corralled us into hauling billboard salvage from a nearby farmer’s field, 24′ x 2.5′ steel sheets that bowed like smiles as we wrestled them into the wagon, after which we cleaned up and headed to the fair downtown.

That day is one of my happiest memories. 


I promised you a love story, and here it is: 

When you love someone, you don’t give them what they want.

You give them what they need

That day in the bookstore, I wanted to figure a way out of my mess. I needed to figure out a way to ensure that mess never happened again. That’s why he didn’t just give me the money. He knew I needed to learn how to take care of myself– independent of him, our relationship, and anyone else–and he loved me enough to teach me.

I am forever grateful.

Because here’s another thing about love: 

Sometimes, you have to learn to love yourself before you can love others.

Before you can see yourself worthy of another’s regard. See yourself worthy of big dreams and all the mileage needed to reach them. Whatever and wherever they are.

In the eight months following that awful day, I learned to budget, live within my means, and prioritize my goals. I opened my own accounts, saved more than enough money for school, and took control of all my university aid and paperwork. Late August, I began my third semester more confident and focused on the road ahead. I hadn’t yet reached my destination, but I had my toolbox packed and contingency plan drafted for the inevitable road block.

And I knew how to change my own tires.

If that’s not happily ever after, I don’t know what is.

As for my boyfriend, dear reader? 

Years later, eventually, I married him.

But that’s another story.


Lila starts, awakening on the family room couch, a blanket noosed about her torso and legs. In her nightmare, a monstrous tree leafed in violent red thrust skyward along their yard’s furthermost edge, its roots mounded with freshly turned soil like a grave. Her grave. She’d grabbed a shovel. Advanced, then stopped. Poison ivy, her husband Henry said. An accusation. She crossed a field of poison ivy like fingers pointing to her neglect, a dot-to-dot of failure, the tree not a tree, but a towering ivy bush throwing their house in shadows. It was her responsibility, removing the vines, yet each time she dug they grew. Multiplied. They bored through her shoes and hobbled her limbs so she could neither reach nor resurrect the buried thing coated with toxins that flamed then boiled her skin. From somewhere unseen a baby had cried, soft at first then like a wave, becoming somehow both Alicia and Chris, their children, twisted and strangling in the ivy’s red and green arms.

The crying child was not a child but her phone, its alarm a frantic reminder she has to be somewhere rather than on the couch, heavy and stiff with dread. She thumbs it off. Considers.

Upstairs, the shower runs. Henry. She runs her tongue along her achy teeth.

They’d fought again last night. He said he needed her help removing the ivy, but really he wanted to hurl accusations, none of which were true, just true to him. He’d coldcocked her, knocking her to the ground when she tried to explain. “I don’t need to justify my decisions to my wife,” he said. Wife a curse, oily with scorn. He’d misunderstood, was wrong, would not listen, and she crouched alongside their white picket fence—plastic—hair stuck in her mouth like a gag and tasting blood. He’d never hit her before. Had the children seen? She longed to tug her hair free but couldn’t—her hands were sheathed in gloves, protection against the ivy scourge she’d been digging resolutely from their yard. For him. He couldn’t do it—the merest brush or whiff a violent assault on his too thin skin—and refused to hire help. He hadn’t meant to strike her, he said. Look what she’d made him do. A fallen woman on her bed of poison. She rose calmly, talked calmly. She didn’t want to fight. They always fought. The fighting always turned her inside out, exposed. Not Henry, though. Henry never saw her. He never even talked, after. Instead he manufactured contempt like armor beyond which he retreated, deliberately mute, for days until…What? She never knew. He never said. You are a fool, she’d told her reflection, scrubbing her arms and legs at the mud room sink, after. She tasted blood and spat.

The children’s anxious whispers pierce the ceiling. Witnesses, then. Her stomach revolts.

‘The Poison Tree’ originally appeared online at Sad Girls Club Lit.

Enough. She swings her legs to the floor and checks her skin. No rash.

Last night, spine stiff and heart a pounding, angry knot, she’d studied the dark swallowing their bed and timed his snores, his breathing and snuffles, then slowly, carefully, headed to the couch, pillow and blanket and phone in hand, and made an appointment at the bank. “Money first,” the lawyer had said. “Secure it all so you’ve something to negotiate.”

The kitchen clock chimes the quarter hour. Time enough for one more step before he leaves for work. She searches Locksmith, presses Call. Above, the shower ceases. A razor hums. The children walk back and forth, back and forth, straightening their beds before school.

Lila opens the curtains. Blinks in the sunlight. Uneven hills of dirt mar the yard, but the ivy is gone, bagged like trash at the curb. “Your website says same-day appointments. How soon can you get here?”


The Story of a Story: ‘The Poison Tree’

Writers are magpies, gathering story snippets like treasure. ‘The Poison Tree’ originated from one such collection.

The tree, a dying maple choked by poison ivy vines, pokes skyward through the finger woods bordering my neighbor’s yard and is visible from my deck. The nightmare is mine-ish, borne of anxiety for my husband who is horribly allergic to all Toxicodendron radicans.

However, he is not Henry and I am not Lila. Those characters arose organically in one of my Swiss cheese drafts that later became ‘The Nail Club.’ As I wrote that piece, I was unsure of their credibility and so wrote backstory scenes to determine whether their reactions to radically different settings and situations remained consistent. One of those scenes morphed into ‘The Poison Tree’ and occurs years after ‘The Nail Club.’

Bonus points if you recognize the title’s allusion to William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’ ( Read it here), which I chose for its thematic similarity: Think duality and the toxicity of silence. How might Lila’s story have been different had she not overheard her children nor asked for help?

Finally, while imagination curates such seemingly random items, critique partners provide valuable insights throughout the creative process. A special thanks to writer friends Marta Pelrine-Bacon, Judi Wildfeuer, Julie Duffy, Leslie Stack, and Neha Mediratta for their feedback and support as this story evolved from idea to publication. I treasure you all 🙂


As I write, Thanksgiving is a few days away, but I’m already listening to Christmas music while cross-stitching ornaments. Usually I wait until after Santa arrives in Herald’s Square to start prepping, but this year I started early. The ornaments take awhile, and the music… I credit my son. Recently, my daughter accompanied me on my first ever train ride to visit him in Rhode Island, and one night after dinner he had it playing in his apartment while the three of us hung out.

Confession: I miss my kids terribly. I love and am so, so proud of the adults they’ve become, but I miss them and I miss what Christmas used to be like when they were little and dancing like goofs to Rudolph reruns.

Thank goodness my daughter lives nearby.

And thank goodness for music.


If you haven’t already, sign up for emails whenever there’s a new post. I promise not to flood your inbox 🙂 November, I posted several new pieces to (re)introduce you to my site. In case you missed one, check out the links below. Starting in December, I’ll be posting new content the first Saturday of each month.

In BOOK TALK: How My Life Plan Almost Got Derailed in Seventh Grade

In WRITER’S JOURNEY: A Writer’s Eye Read: 5 Takeaways From ‘The Road Not Taken’

In original FICTION: Ask and Ye Shall Receive

And a bonus link, for those of you who’ve ever wondered how writers get their ideas: The Story of a Story: ‘Ask and Ye Shall Receive’


Thanks for reading!

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