My Father’s Hands (but not his soda)

I have my father’s hands. My knubby-knuckled fingers upon my keyboard are his knubby-knuckled fingers, our pinkies, inward crooked, brave in their stretch to meet the A and the L. My manner of typing is just like his was, my short fingers tapping furiously like the bones of ancients punching out words that refuse to be quiet. The backs of my small but sturdy hands, are, like his, bony and painted by prominent veins, weathered and textured with life. Since my father died, when he was barely 57 as I will turn myself this year, I have not wished for the smooth perfection of the model hands in skin cream advertisements. My hands are far more lovely, freckled with memories of my father.  

Shared, these hands of ours, like our flagrant foreheads, forceful minds, and fierce opinions, delivered through thin lips, not pursed so much as certain in the forthrightness of the words they breathe. I miss my dad, especially since Mack died, the loss of them entangled in a knotty central ache that resides in my solar plexus. Whereas Mack’s spirit sits upon my shoulder every day pointing me in the direction of joy, my dad’s spirit rides shotgun on my conscience. Mack reminds me to giggle in the present, and my dad reminds me to do right and plan for the future.

Every year since Jim Pratt left this earth, I have honored his joyful life by drinking a Pepsi on his birthday. He was passionate about Pepsi, a Pepsi zealot really, preaching its virtues over godless sodas like the Dr. Pepper I favored as a child, although it was not allowed in our household where Pepsi was religion. Even though I no longer drink soda (my dad called it pop), and despite the fact that I observe a tradition of no-sugar Januarys, for love of him I have a Pepsi every January 17. It has been my Pepsi-for-Pops tradition.

Although I have my father’s hands and his forehead, I do not share his love of Pepsi. I never have. I hate it, in fact. It is too sweet, too syrupy, or too something I’m not sure what. My dad was right about a lot of things—like the wonder of words and baseball and candy and ice-cream drumsticks and showing off while shooting pool. (Thanks to my dad, I can still make a great shot with the cue stick behind my back, my ass perched up on the edge of the pool table).

But my dad was wrong about Pepsi, poor dear. And after twenty-two years of consuming 250 calories of the wretched liquid in no-sugar Januarys, I’ve decided to alter the tradition to make it a more palatable one for me. I will still break the sugar fast and have a soda in honor of my dear old dad, loved and missed like the dickens. But henceforth it will be a delicious Dr. Pepper that I consume. I trust my father will appreciate the sentiment of my continued sugar-fast-breaking-soda toast to him on his birthday and also approve of his daughter’s newfound sugary beverage independence.

A Pop for my Pops, a new tradition that honors us both.

Stumbles, Restarts, and Stories

The year 2022 has been a struggle for me. In many practical ways, it was the first year for a fair evaluation of this new life of mine as a big-city-minded single woman in a small college town. The pandemic years were a false test, a stunting of my regrowth, and 2022 taught me nothing if not that I am still hoeing, most of the seeds remaining in my pocket for this project of my replanting. Hoeing is damned hard work, and my hands and my heart earned new calluses this year.

It was a year of head-down working, writer’s block, doubt, and lethargy. I was overwhelmed and scattered, wading in new waters of worries, some real but most imagined. I struggled to stay on task, giving in to uncharacteristic procrastination, and I was prone to wallowing in sorrow, like a sad little pig stuck in the mud. Walls and little dogs in the middle of the night are uninspiring audiences for a storytelling chatterbox, and my purpose in 2023 will be to seek a balance to my determined self-sufficiency and my tendency to be forlorn.

For all its struggle and sorrow and evidence for the need of self-improvement, 2022 was not all sad-sack and serious. I made some memories. I am wizened enough from grief to know that light exists in the darkness. I was busy and productive this year, working full-time as a joyful editor of the Jane Addams Papers Project, finishing up two years of work on an 800-page manuscript. I spent 650 hours writing and researching and pacing and thinking about the unusual book I am writing about my relationship with Abraham Lincoln. I planted and tended to my growing yoga garden, maintained a nurturing yoga practice, and settled into my volunteer activities. I enjoyed several weekend visits with my daughter and old friends, walked more than 1,500 miles, hosted a fall gathering around my fire pit, and read books and served craft cocktails on my peaceful porch. I took a few fun field trips in Mary Arizona, the brand new Ford Escape hybrid I purchased after finally letting go of my beloved Ellie, an 18-year-old Honda Element. I also enjoyed two short vacations, one to Washington, D.C., with my sister and niece, and another to Annapolis with my dear Springfield Sallies. Throughout the year, I had my writing group meetings, chats with neighbors, and so much good food at my sister’s house.

And I read 52 books. Although I lost the thread of my own story a little this year in the daily grind of getting by and getting through, there were stories all the while. Beautiful books, take-me-away tales, and stories of being human. Reading lifted me through the darker days, and I am grateful, always indebted to the magical quality of books to give me perspective, to transport me to other lands, to introduce me to other lives, to entertain me, to make me laugh and to cry and to think. The reading list this year was lighter than reading lists of the past, but perhaps the selections were my subconscious mind giving my busy, hard-laboring brain a break. There were stories of a fig tree, sexism and talking dogs, tragedy, grief, American slavery, and the Great Depression. Among the protagonists were native Americans, displaced Cypriots, dysfunctional families, a robot, grieving spouses, an African immigrant living in London, a lexicologist, orphaned boys, and flawed middle-aged women figuring shit out, the latter sometimes too much like me. There were stories about love, death, travel, war, marriage, ghosts, and honey bees, and, interestingly, nine books I read in 2022 spun stories about the power of words, the magic of book stores and libraries, or the truth that books can literally save our lives.

Below I offer you my humble reading list, complete with brief descriptions and my love ranking. The 21 great books with five or four hearts are ranked in the fairly precise order of my affection. The remaining books are merely categorized as the “The Good,” “The Pretty Good,” and “The Truly Awful,” the latter of which there are three. The Island of Missing Trees is my book of the year, and if you take any recommendations from my list at all, read that one. A more creative, beautifully written story, which weaves a tapestry of nature and humans and the present and the past, will not soon, if ever, be written. It is a story of all stories, inspirational and vast, intimate and true. I think I’ll take my cue from Elif Shafak, the novel’s gifted author, and keep my eyes open in 2023 for the inspirational and the true, existing in the wide world around me as well as in the corners of my own home and heart.

My Year of Stories

#1) The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021): This is a gorgeous story about love and grief and ethnic divisions, which bends and sways like trees in an island breeze, across the distances humans create in their own hearts. At the center of this poetic tale is a fig tree, a unique historian and storyteller who understands the roots of the human characters’ emotions better than they to do themselves. And on every page is Cyprus, beautiful and tragic, and the trees and the birds and the insects, and the impermanence and the continuity of life. ♥♥♥♥♥

#2) Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (2022): Elizabeth Zott is my favorite fictional person I met all year, and her dog Six-Thirty is hilarious. Bravo, bravo, Bonnie Garmus, for making me laugh while I raged against the men and the sexism that kept thwarting the main character’s perfectly reasonable ambitions. Lessons in Chemistry is smart and funny and right on the nose about the power of women to do what they want, in the way that they want, and to succeed on their very own terms. ♥♥♥♥♥

#3) The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (2021): Wait, what?!! This book is the author’s follow-up book to her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel? Holy cow. Oh, Louise, you wonderful word wizard, you. I want to be friends with Tookie, this book’s lovely and flawed main character who is bursting with soul. This book is real and mysterious, humorous and deep, and offering the best pandemic reflections I’ve read to date. I selected the audio book because it was read by the author, and I urge you to do the same. It is an exquisite story written and narrated by one of the best authors writing today. ♥♥♥♥♥

#4) The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (2020): Words are the star characters of this imaginative, alternative story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pip Williams has written a feminist and human portrait of words and their meanings on the tongues and in the imaginations of the people who speak them. It is such a treat to read fiction that allows the reader to escape to the past, but at the same time offering real-life food for thought for the modern world. Esme, the heroine of the novel, is another of my favorite characters this year.  ♥♥♥♥

#5) Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout (2021): This is the story of Lucy Barton that finally touched my heart. It took me longer than everyone else to get on the Strout bandwagon, but I am a happy passenger now. Lithe and also profound, this novel is the story of a marriage and the miracle of forgiveness. Strout is tender in this telling, and now I appreciate her gifts as a writer. ♥♥♥♥

#6) The Reading List by Sarah Nisha Adams (2021): Widower Mukesh is an isolated widower when he ventures out to his public library, and this heartwarming tale is the story of how this delightful old man learns, through the power of books, that he has so much more to live for and to give. I adore the intergenerational friendships in this novel and how reading books in common has magical power to connect us to each other. ♥♥♥♥

#7) The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (2021): I love and need good stories about grief, and this book is a treasure, the charming, human story about sorrow and lost souls, healed by the magic of unexpected friendship. The main character is a widow who throws herself into beekeeping and takes comfort in sharing her love of bees with the two misfits she hires to help her expand her business. The rich details about bees, beekeeping, and honey are a delicious bonus. ♥♥♥♥

#8) In Love: A Memoir by Amy Bloom (2022): This is a touching memoir about a wife honoring her husband’s choice to die on his own terms, before Alzheimer’s disease steals his essence away. Bloom is a terrific writer, and this is a heartbreaking, matter-of-fact memoir that is not overly sentimental. ♥♥♥♥

#9) Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro (2022): This beautifully spare and vastly human novel is the story of the ghosts that haunt us and the spirits that connect us. It begins with a fatal car crash in 1985 that takes the life of a teenaged girl, a story that breaks the lives of the people who survive it. It ends with the ways in which the people we lose keep on living, providing love and hope and connections we find in the rubble of our broken lives. ♥♥♥♥

#10) This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019): I am not on my own drawn to coming of age stories of boys, but on the recommendation of my friend Sandra, with whom I share a love of books with deeply human themes, I listened to the audio version of this superb book. The story, set in the Great Depression, follows the desperate travels of a group of orphans, but it is about so much more than want and survival. It is an epic narrative about the families we choose, the experiences that shape our becoming, and the stories we keep to make us feel whole. ♥♥♥♥

#11) The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (2020): Erdrich won the Pulitzer Prize for this book based on the story of her grandfather’s life, and it is compelling and classic Erdrich. Native American spirit meets struggle meets transformative human narrative that transcends race and ethnicity. This incomparable writer never disappoints me. Her voice is loud and clear and breathtaking. ♥♥♥♥

#12) The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland (2017): This story of the unfortunate life of Loveday Cardew made me laugh and cry and cheer. I stumbled across this book and didn’t expect much, but it is among the best audio books I enjoyed all year, artfully narrated by the incomparable Imogen Church. The heroine of the novel keeps on keeping on and eventually shines through; uplifting and lovely, and driving a story I did not want to end.  ♥♥♥♥

#13) Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022): I didn’t need this book to validate the way I am—a serious person who tends toward the melencholy—but it sees me in ways I never knew I needed to be seen. I am not a sad sack or a gloomy Gertrude, dammit, I am beautifully bittersweet, able to balance the hard and the soft and to see snippets of sunshine through the clouds of doom. I don’t embrace sad at the expense of happy; I simply understand that the happy means nothing in a life devoid of sorrow. Thank you, Susan Cain, for giving me my word: bittersweet. ♥♥♥♥

#14) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014): I am late to this novel, but better late than never, because this is a damned good story well told. Horrible and beautiful, it is an elegant tale of war and love, death, the living, and the memories that bind us all up together in this shared, fragile, tragic, lovely, human existence, no matter the political or national boundaries or the divisions of our own hearts. ♥♥♥♥

#15) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (2019): Who am I? is a question that occupies the mind of every human being at some point in our lives. Are we our biology? Our upbringing? And what happens if what we thought we knew about ourselves is shaken to the very core? This book is the fascinating and beautifully written story of what happened when a writer took a little DNA test that turned her identity upside down. All I learned when I took my ancestry.com DNA test was that I am a white AF, Anglo-Saxon all the way back to the big bang, but this story offers a very different outcome. ♥♥♥♥

#16) The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson (2022): One of the features of fiction I adore is the relationship the reader develops with a character over the length of a great novel. It’s the same reason I am not a lover of movies; I want to spend 10-20 hours with a character I love in the pages of book. This book, a sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, follows the life of the daughter of the packing horse librarian in the first novel, another strong, extraordinary woman character to respect and to admire. ♥♥♥♥

#17) The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (2019): What an unexpected pleasure this novel was with its quirky characters and the merging of fairy stories with the dark and the light of everyday, human life. The protagonist finds it easier to connect with books than people (I resemble that character), but she learns her heart is more open than she ever imagined. The book wins three hearts for being enjoyable and the fourth heart for surprising me, which is a rare and welcomed treat. Never underestimate a well written book to overcome the low expectations of its cover. ♥♥♥♥

#18) Love that Story: Observations from a Gorgeously Queer Life by Jonathan Van Ness (2022): I discovered Jonathan Van Ness when the rest of the world did: on Queer Eye, and he is one one of my favorite follows on Instagram. The world needs more lovely and wise humans like JVN. He is kind and honest, an original sweet spirit in a time of hateful public discourse. This book of essays offers dead serious commentary and is also a spontaneous backflip of good cheer. I listened to the audio version of the book, read by the enthusiastic and uproariously funny author, and I recommend you do the same. ♥♥♥♥

#19) Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty (2021): Moriarty is for the middle-aged woman what Dickens was for Victorian orphans. I always connect with her memorable characters, and I appreciate the darker side of her tales. This novel is about the Delaney family, the members of which love each other but might also want to kill each other, too. ♥♥♥♥

#20) Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (2022): Strange, lovely, and provocative, this book bends time and broke my brain, which I loved. Books that make me want to stay wide awake and look alive to keep track of the clues and the characters are always winners with me. Futuristic stories are not my jam, but the story and connections of the characters in the future hellscape Mandel created helped me see beyond the genre. ♥♥♥♥

#21) Vladimir by Julia May Jones (2022). This is a dark comedy about sexual relations in a sleepy college’s English department. I laughed. I gaped. I yelled, “NO WAY!” The story is hilarious and crazy. A book way out of my reading lane, but I’m glad I swerved to read it. ♥♥♥♥

The Good..

Wintering: The Power of Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (2020): This book did not make me love winter weather, but it was a thought-provoking book about wintering—for the season, for an illness, or for a deliberate stepping away from the world to find peace. The story of May’s own break during an illness will give me the courage to look at my wintering in 2023, during the winter months of January and February, quite differently, not as a banishment from the bad weather but as a time to rest, reflect, and renew my spirit, while keeping warm inside my cozy bungalow. “Life meanders like a path through the woods,” writes May. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they will grow again.” Good advice, dear woman, and thank you for it. ♥♥♥

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018): Intriguing. Strange, in a good way. Descriptions call it a novel about grief and love and dogs. But I think it’s more of a novel about how to write a novel from life and a story about unusual people. ♥♥♥

Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman (2022): Gorman’s melody is clear and crisp and all her own. There is brilliance in this volume, but the poems are uneven; some are lost, a little off Gorman’s beat, others are a symphony of emotion and truth. She is a talented, intuitive young poet, and I will read whatever she offers. ♥♥♥

French Braid by Anne Tyler (2022): Not the best Anne Tyler novel by far, but even a mediocre novel by her is better than many great novels by other novelists. This book, which is the story of Garrett family and a family vacation in 1959, has all of the charm Tyler always breathes into the lives of her ordinary, yet eccentric, families. It is a joyful story she plaits here, about the fun and foibles of family. ♥♥♥

Eating the Sun: Small Musing on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders (2019): This little book is a perky and poetic collection of musings on science, our bodies, and the natural world. Great writing that makes science accessible always makes me happy, and when there are small stories within the big stories imagined in the telling, which there are here, all the better. ♥♥♥

Family Remains by Lisa Jewell (2022): A family murder mystery about secrets and lies, this thriller is fast, fun, and twisted. It is delicious junk food with no nutritional value whatsoever, like greasy potato chips you keep eating until the bag is empty. ♥♥♥

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (2017): The premise of this book is as dark as I’ve ever read—a missing child. I should not have read it. It was too painful. Too close. But I couldn’t stop turning the pages, which is the happy danger of a good thriller, right? The author also provided some of the truest observations on grief I’ve ever read, in fiction or nonfiction, like this one: “Losing a child ages you faster than a lifetime spent chain smoking on a beach.” ♥♥♥

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (2022). Set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the story is an engaging one focused on the life of an Irish immigrant who is a mail-order bride and the way in which a horrible natural disaster set her free. I enjoyed the story and the pace, but I suspect the characters and the details will quickly melt away from memory. A tad better than junk food, but far from a memorable meal. ♥♥♥

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (2021): I listened to this seventeenth instalment of the Inspector Gamache series (which has had two excellent narrators). I love this series for the artful unwinding of a mystery, the delightful Three Pines characters, and the literary, historical, and cultural references Penny always supplies. ♥♥♥

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (2018): This is a creepy story set in a swanky neighborhood of Bristol, England. Are the characters what they seem or something dark hiding beyond appearances? I thought I cracked this mystery in Chapter 60, but I was so wrong; and I love that! ♥♥♥

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (2010): I picked up a copy of this book while I was swapping books from my Little Free Library with another Little Free Library in town. It was a decent story with passable historical context. I admit that as a historian of race, it is hard for  me to read fictional stories about slavery in the American South. I am too critical, I suppose. The enslaved women in this story, however, are compelling, with souls that soar beyond the horrible circumstances of their physical lives. ♥♥♥

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell (2020): This is a solid thriller with an interesting plot about a lost guy who leans toward creepy and becomes embroiled in a mysterious disappearance. I discovered Lisa Jewell this year and read four of her novels. I like her style of unveiling a story, and her books helped me escape this year. Jewell is a page-turning master, but the downside of thrillers like this one, however, is that while they take me away, I seldom return home with any of the characters with whom I traveled. ♥♥♥

A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver (1994): I fancy myself a poet, a bad poet of course, but a poet nonetheless. I picked up this old book in an effort to become a better poet. There are useful nuggets in this slim volume, but I refuse to accept Oliver’s opening statement: “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” I love Oliver’s poems, but I finished this guide feeling very disgruntled with her. ♥♥♥

The Hangman by Louise Penny (2010): This is a novella of the Inspector Gamache series I somehow missed. I listed to the audio book one night while I ate a leisurely dinner. Love, love, love Penny’s characters, and her style shined through even in this short murder mystery.

The Pretty Good…

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018): This story is set in the Scottish highlands, which is half the fun, and it swept me away on the winds. But, if I’m honest, I cannot remember a damned thing about it. Reading Foley is kind of like eating sugar all day and going to bed starving. ♥♥

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (2022): I selected this novel because it was set in Oak Park, Illinois, a town with which I am very familiar. It is the story of a family of big personalities whose lives revolve around the family restaurant. The members of the family experience a catharsis when their patriarch dies and the Cubs win the World Series. It is a decent light summer read, offering a few giggles and some observations about bad omens, like what happens when the Cubs finally win and Donald Trump wins the Presidency. ♥♥

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (2016): I would not normally choose a philosophy-of-life book written by a millennial man, but it was recommended so I gave it a listen. There was some wisdom within it, and I jotted down in my journal a couple of golden nuggets, but it ruined my affection for the word fuck. Now instead of dropping f-bombs I think I’ll switch to dropping oh-my-lands-bombs, instead. ♥♥

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021): Artificial intelligence and friendship are the key themes of this odd story about what, I am not at all certain. A robot, yes. Teenagers, yes, but surely there is something else going on here in this book by the Nobel Laurette. I did not like this book, but perhaps I didn’t understand it. One heart for finishing the book, and a second heart because it confused me. ♥♥

The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020): A wedding from hell could be the subtitle of this book. I enjoyed the audio version well enough, but even the mystic Irish landscape cannot forgive the outrageous coincidences employed to move the story. ♥♥

Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh (2022): A somewhat convoluted story about an obituary writer who discovers that his wife, the love of his life, is not who he thinks she is. The narrative is a little too slow to unwind, but the relationship at the heart of the story kept me reading, as did the main theme of the tension between the things human beings believe and the things they hide. ♥♥

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014): Did I love this book? No. Did I like it? I suppose I did. Kind of. I read it because I enjoyed Sea of Tranquility. Station Eleven is the story of what happens to a handful of people after a flu pandemic kills off most of the human population. I do not care for dystopian scenarios, but a couple of the characters in this one were compelling enough for two hearts.

The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick (2022): This is a cockamamie story of a voracious reader and house cleaner who works for a best-selling novelist who dies and bequeaths the house cleaner to finish her last novel. Hmm. I listened to the audio version of this book, and I think I might have liked it better if I had read it. The reader was fine in the main voice, but the voice she used for men scratched my nerves. Patrick’s story was zany and she is a good writer, but this book lacked the flit and the flare of The Library of the Lost and Found. ♥♥

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (2021): This book about a young mother who goes missing offered me a good summer read for the porch and hard liquor. But one of the villains, who is a mother, was unbelievable to me. In fact, now I think about it, all of the characters were a bit off the mark. I hold all books I read to a high standard in terms of character development, and this thriller missed the mark by a kilometer. ♥♥

The Binding by Bridgett Collins: Slow, slow, slow burn this novel, with enough flame to keep you reading but by the end you are rubbing your hands together in front of the dying embers. Imaginative, I suppose, this fantastical story about how books are the stories of real people, bound to forget and for profit. One heart for the premise and another because I finished a mediocre 448-page novel about bad men. The story is kind of good, but the writing is awful, with sentences like “They laugh, like machines clanking.”  ♥♥

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult (2020): Starts strong, naps like a sleeping baby in the middle, and then falls from the sky, like the narrator’s airplane, landing with a thud. One heart because it was about an ancient book and Egyptology and another because I hoped Picoult might bring it in for a crash landing. She did not. Picoult is a popular writer, but she has disappointed me for the very last time. ♥♥

The Sisters of Glass Ferry by Kim Michele Richardson (2018): This novel followings the story of sisters in the South, whiskey, and family secrets. It is good, perhaps, if you like southern gothic. I do not. Nope. Not even Faulkner works for me. ♥♥

The Paris Apartment by Lisa Foley (2022): Far-fetched and disappointing, another best seller that left me cold. This novel is the story unlikeable people who lie and swindle. I finished the book to see what happened to Ben, even though he’s kind of a shit (although less so than the others), but this is a formula thriller that made me feel led by the nose. I wasn’t compelled by the characters and couldn’t get lost in the suspense like I did in the author’s other books. ♥

The Good Left Undone by Adriana Trigiani (2022): Too damn slow to unwind, this family epic set in Italy was disjointed and disappointing. The matriarch at the center of the story is somewhat compelling as a character, but the plot progress was contrived, and that letter at the end, a lame effort to wrap it all up, is the proof that I am right in my assessment. Whoever recommended this book to me, please wait a full year before recommending another one. Even though I can’t remember who you are, I’m mad at you. ♥

And the Truly Awful …

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides (2021): Not sure why I read this at all—a book about a male professor who collects women, one of whom ends up dead, will never be my cup of tea. The audio version was engaging enough to keep me listening, but I actively disliked the story and the characters. Don’t read it, but if you do read it tell me what you think. Maybe I missed something? ♥

The Private Librarian by Marie Benedict (2021): Oof. This book was a disappointment. I was excited about it because it followed the glamorous story of the female librarian J. P. Morgan hired to curate a collection for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Had I been reading it, I would have bailed, but since I was listening to the audio version and could walk or work on a jigsaw puzzle while I listened, I finished it. The main character is lacking, there is too much telling and not enough showing, and the dialogue is too modern. If you like good historical fiction, avoid this book. ♥

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015). Yikes. Couldn’t finish this one, because nothing about it was historical. Hannah frustrates me. She is a good story teller and a decent writer, but some of her historical fiction, like this one that opens in France in 1939, is truly awful. Sorry. I realize she is beloved, but she has a lot of explaining to do about this WWII bomb.

Love Ratings

♥  Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one heart.

♥♥  Pretty good story, writing meh.

♥♥♥  Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.

♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something or took me away and I was happy to go.

♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.

October 7

In late September 2019, I was emerging from the dense fog of grief, but I was still wobbly with heartbreak, and I was terrified. I was facing a new life on my own, packing and preparing to close on a new house in a new town at the end of the month. Change is a challenge in the best of circumstances. It can uncomfortably bend or break us even when we are strong and well-prepared. It is risky and daunting when you are grieving. It had taken every grain of grit I could collect from the ruins of my old life to set in motion this plan for building a new one. Even small things like a superficial papercut from a cardboard packing box could provoke an anxiety attack. I was a wreck that month, and before I moved I knew I needed to calm my nerves and find my courage.

So the weekend before I was scheduled to close on the house, I drove from St. Louis to outstate Missouri to visit some old friends from my Springfield days. Kurt and Alicia are two of my most calming influences, and I needed to soak up their good sense and soothing natures. I was relaxing on their beautiful deck, just settling in for a peaceful weekend, when my realtor called to tell me that he needed to push back my closing by one week, a minor glitch regarding the title. He said the closing was now scheduled for October 7.

October 7.

I sucked in my breath.

“No…No….No,” I whispered into the phone. “I can’t do October 7.” I told him I’d have to check my calendar and call him back.

Oh, Mack, how I miss your face.

I could not possibly start the new life I was planning on the very day my old life fell apart. October 7, 2014, was the day my darling Mack was taken from me, and every October 7 since had been a horrible reenactment of that nightmare of a day. October 7 was not just a day on the calendar. It could not be scheduled or rescheduled. It was a memory, a misery, a mark in angry, black Sharpie upon a terrible page of my life.

Kurt calmed me down, and then I called Savannah. My savvy and sassy elder daughter is my joy and my salvation. She is the reason I keep breathing, and she was my inspiration for taking hold of my life and making this plan for moving forward. I told her the realtor wanted to reschedule my closing for October 7. She sucked in her breath, and then she sighed. “Oh, my God, Mom, they want me to start my new job on October 7. Maybe we both need to say yes. Maybe Mackenzie wants us to remake this day.”

And so we did.

On October 7, 2019, Savannah started her exciting and better paying new job at a tech start-up in Chicago, and I closed on my charming 1919 bungalow and moved into my new life. It has not been an easy path for me. Learning to live alone, to maintain an old house on my own, and to build a new life in a very small town has been a struggle. The pandemic also interrupted my adjustment, of course, and I am still plagued with doubt and anxiety. However, I have made some great strides here in this old house and new life. I have discovered hidden talents, developed new skills, and collected a lot more grit in this effort. Most importantly, I have accepted my new life and my new self as a collective work in progress, an unpredictable journey upon bumpy roads with glorious scenery as far as my eyes can see.

I have survived three October 7s in my cozy, quiet bungalow. This year, I will survive a fourth. I will, if I am lucky, survive many more. October 7 remains more than a date on a calendar. It will always be a memory and a misery, marking the passing of my beautiful girl. But now it also marks the moment I began curating my own peace in my own place in honor of both my daughters. Savannah inspired this remaking of October 7, and Mack’s spirit may well have engineered it.

On every October 7 for the rest of my life, I will relive a mother’s nightmare and feel the loss of Mack more keenly. I will also give myself permission, with a happy license from Mack, to acknowledge every October 7 as the first day of my bold beginning. I have come to believe that all dates on a calendar are more than dates on a calendar. In the end, every day we breathe is momentous, and no date over the course of a lifetime is all darkness or all light. Each date of the year in every year of every life is a collection of stories, snippets of who we are and all we have experienced in our lovely and fragile human existence. Dates on a calendar make up an index of our history, marking our memories in time.

Mine All Along

Since April I have been writing and writing and writing, hard at work on my unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln. Nearly 80,000 words have flowed from my fingers, revealing the need within me to get my relationship with Lincoln and the field of Lincoln Studies out of my body and safely onto the page where it will no longer be unfinished business. Fits and starts, this writing, as strange to me as this biography-slash-memoir-slash battle cry, because everything I write since Mack died is hyphenated with battle cry. Writing this genre-bending book has been a scary struggle, artfully melding history with personal narrative has posed new challenges for me. I am making progress, but the process has been messy and painful. I’ve lost myself and my way a dozen times these past five months.

There have been crazy flurries of frenetic writing, words flowing onto the page like refreshing cold water gushing from a garden hose on a hot summer day. However, progress has often been followed by historic droughts, which leave my mind and my heart parched and thirsty for the words that will not come. Words abandoning me and my fingers sitting idle on the home keys are new experiences for me. I’m not used to these dry spells. I have been lucky in my writing life, rarely blocked or conscious of writing, the writing itself a joy and the research or preparation for writing the difficult task that paralyzes me. I’ve always been a weird historian that way, and I do not like this new feeling of writer’s paralysis.

Yesterday, when I was supposed to be writing on a free-and-clear Saturday reserved for working on the book, I was instead sitting on my porch, rocking and staring out into the front garden. As I was working up the nerve to return to my computer and risk another rejection from words, the mail arrived with a neatly addressed envelope postmarked Kirksville, MO. I knew my writing was done for the day. Because I also knew the letter was a handwritten thank-you note from the latest Truman State University recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship. The eighth such letter. The eighth scholarship bestowed on a creative writing student at Mack’s alma mater. These letters are a solace. Eventually. After good a cry and a little distance. First, however, they must do their damage. They must crack open the wounded side of my heart, scabbed over since last year’s letter arrived. The scholarship is a beautiful legacy to my beautiful daughter, but it is a starling reminder of all the life my baby has missed since the previous scholarship recipient was named.

Dammit. It never gets easier. It gets different, but it stays brutal, hard, and unforgiving.

This is why, for me, writing and grief and life have been braided all together into a thick strand of rope. Some days the rope is around my neck, threatening the breath within my body. But most days the braid is a lifeline. Thankfully, I have learned not only to see that lifeline but to take hold of it and let it save me. The arrival of this year’s letter coinciding with my cursing the failure of the writing was a reminder that life is the reason and should also be the respite.

Aha.

I think right now I am struggling because for the first time the writing threads of my braided lifeline are loose or a bit frayed. For eight years the writing has supplied the tension necessary to hold my weight, allowing the balance of grieving and living to be less burdened. I am far less adept at striking a healthy balance without the writing. I need the writing, and it scares me that the words have failed me. I understand these truths. I accept them. But I also know that writing this very personal biography of Abraham Lincoln has stirred up a brand new cocktail of emotions, opened old wounds, and triggered doubt. My work, my writing, my life, Mr. Lincoln, and my darling Mack are tangled up all together in this project, and I took for granted the power of the writing to make sense of the knots.

And so, on a day of writer’s block and the arrival of a letter, I gained some clarity. I have no answers, really, and the doubts they do linger. However, I have named the trouble and it is mine, not the writing, to tackle. A dear friend who is also my writing therapist recently told me I needed to step away from the writing in order to play. In other words, I need to let life carry the heavier burden of my braided lifeline.

The trouble is that I have not been so good at living these long eight years without my girl. I have rarely had the energy or the mindset for play. Work and writing, along with yoga, have been my saving graces. My challenge now is to lean into living, which a recent long weekend away with four of my oldest and dearest friends showed me I can do with energy and with joy. I need to cut myself a little slack and live. I can no longer take the words for granted, because it turns out my Lincoln book needs more of my own grit. I have been confident in this unusual writing project of mine, but I have doubted my ability to do it justice. The fear, I think, has scared off the words that have always flowed naturally and unencumbered. If I want to complete this project—and more than almost anything I’ve ever attempted I want to complete this project—I need to dig deeper. I need to locate in my bones the belief that my life is the power, not the words or the writing.

My life is the reason this unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln is possible. My knowledge and my experiences will guide me if I let them. Mack and the grief and my writing texture the story I want to tell and need to tell, but the living must fuel the narrative. Because this is a story of my life, and I cannot tell it on autopilot. I need to be present for the process and remember that I have all I need to do the work. I still have a full year before the manuscript is due. I have 80,000 words already. I have the historical expertise and a damn good story to tell. There is time to find myself in this project, to make sense of what I have written thus far, and to write what will be needed to complete the story. If I let myself live while I’m looking for the truth this work requires, the words will come. They will arrive when I am ready to summon them, because I they were mine all along.

Write, Rest, Repeat

I am a writer. And writers write. That’s what we do.

I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard nearly every day of my life. In my profession as a scholarly editor, I write annotations and blog posts. As a historian, I write articles and books. As a grieving mother, I blog my emotions. As a wannabe poet, I assemble words in pretty collections of my feelings and observations. As a diarist, I release my pain and share my joy on the pages of a journal. I share my wit (ha ha) and wisdom (ha ha ha) on Instagram. And true to the old-fashioned soul I am, I pen handwritten letters to my friends.

Along with my flesh and my bones, I am words. Words are me. Writing steers the ship of my life across both smooth and roiling waters.

Currently, I am working on a book project. A biography of Abraham Lincoln told through the biographies of the women in his life. I am telling the stories of his mother, his lovers, his wife, his female friends, and some of the women who were his legal clients and political constituents. I am seeing Lincoln through these women’s eyes, as well as through my own, which are cast in the light and the shadow of being a woman myself. I can write this new biography of Abraham Lincoln. I edited Lincoln’s papers for twenty years, published widely on his life and times, and wrote a biography of Mary Lincoln. I have the Lincoln chops to complete this project, and I have the advance contract to prove it. However, this book project is a challenging one. It is personal. The doubts creep in, and I get scared. The fear of failing a brilliant idea, my unique perspective, and my creative approach to tired old narrative biography beats a cacophonous rhythm inside my chest.

I am a writer, yes, I know. Writers write, and that is what I am doing. But writing is hard. It tests your mettle. It is not always catharsis. It can also be a pesky task or a wretched responsibility. At times it is a chore much like washing the dishes. There are some days you get on with it and wash the damn dishes. There are some days you need to let the dishes stack up and go outside to play in the sun.

When the fears and the doubts push aside the confidence and determination it is time for a break. All writers know this is true, even as it is hard to admit it and give yourself permission to do it. I denied my need for a break for a month or so, head down and straining against the reality of it before fessing up and throwing up my hands, prescribing myself a two-week rest. A hiatus. A vacation I never take, but a vacation that was as imperative as air. Stepping away and going away would be deep breathing.

I spent the second week of my book vacation in Washington, D.C., where I communed with the spirit of Mr. Lincoln on the National Mall and at Ford’s Theatre. I spent time with family and friends, enjoyed great food, walked my legs every day to happy exhaustion, and consumed beautiful cocktails and gallons of sweet sunshine. Most nourishing to my writer’s heart and my ever-grieving soul was serving as moderator for the Lincoln Ideas Forum on Grief and Loss at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Mack’s spirit was with me, and so was Abraham Lincoln’s. The public program made me good nervous, allowed me to talk about Mack, evoked cleansing tears, sealed a new friendship, and introduced me to four people who know as well as a I do that grief is the flipside of love, that it is natural and universal, and that in our grief-averse society we all need to do better bearing witness to the suffering of others.

I spent two weeks tending to my heart and my brain and my body. I’ve communed and connected and breathed. I am refreshed and revived. The doubts and the fears are moving away, making room for the full bloom of confidence and determination. It is time to return to the book. To get back to work. To put my fingers to the keyboard.

I took time to sit among the tulips in the sunshine.

Now it is time, again, to write.

Eight Birthdays

Eight birthdays throb in the marrow of my bones, the combined power of a birth and a death propelling the mallet that makes for such pounding.

I am a shell, standing in the sounding sea of sorrow, the pulsing all memory and ache and longing. Still…I…am…standing.

Great love means great grief, and my grit is that I know it. I will not release my death grip on the former and so I cannot forsake the life in my white knuckles.

How does a mother withstand the violent timbre of one birthday, or two birthdays, or eight fucking birthdays? How do I stand this booming echo, bone deep and crushing, I ask every morning of the sun.

To stand is enough, answers the warmth on my skin. To weather is to gain strength against the bitter winds.

Because, there is only beauty in the life we give and the love we know and there can be no death in that human truth.

I am alive, and she is alive. In my breath. In my veins. In the blood beating through a heart half hers.

Resting my mind’s eye on her face, her freckles can dance to the throbbing in my bones.

The dancing recalls her laughter, which composes its sweet symphony upon the painful pounding.

Her laughter is a joyful, infectious giggle,

Demanding…commanding…compelling

An answer. She always refused to laugh alone.

You are here, I whisper. I hear you. I feel your joyful life.

Sorrow is not the whole of me, my darling girl. Because of you, I know laughter, too.

The Seriousness of Silly Soap Stories

In the shower the other day, I threw a bar of soap with an uninspired floral scent over the glass shower wall.  I am an afficionado of strong scented, beautifully crafted soaps, and this bar was a dud. I deserved better. I was aiming for the sink, where the soap loser could await its fated deposit into the garbage bin. Instead, the thick bar slid down the inner side of the sink nearest the shower, traveled across the bottom of the basin and picked up speed, ramping up the other side of the sink. The soap then flew up into the steamy air before landing with a plop into a small drinking cup perched on the top of the sink. I squealed. It was like a three-point shot from midcourt at the buzzer.

But there were no cheering fans to adore me. No partner to call to the bathroom to share the story of my sensational shot. No handy family member or friend to regale with my dramatic telling. No one but me to care that a story of soap was a joyful beginning to another morning of my life on the planet.

You see, along with the momentous moments of life, I also need to share the mundane and the absurdities. When I read an interesting news article, get lost in a great book, or see a person in a taco suit on my noontime walk, I want to tell someone about it. I need to tell someone about it. For me, it’s less interesting, less great, and far less funny if I can’t share it. Mack was like that, too. She wanted the people around her to take part in the things that amused her, and those amusements were enhanced by the sharing. She is the one I most wanted to call to share the story of Stacy’s spectacular soap shot.

Instead, I threw the soap in the bin where it belonged, got dressed, and went downstairs to my home office to start my day. No one to tell, so I put the soap out of my mind; what do little dogs know of soap and midcourt shots at the buzzer? I did wonder, however, if my ex-husband Kevin got a little twinge in his stomach at the moment I squealed over that soap. The twinge like a ghost of the past giving him a strange sense that he had been saved from another drawn-out telling of a silly story, Stacy’s eyes wide as she told it with her hands and her eyeballs and her words, fast like a child, chattering on and on and starting the story all over again.

Clearly, I didn’t forget about the soap. I’m writing about the soap story because it got me analyzing myself in the context of this new quiet life of mine. I am a storytelling chatterbox living alone, and that has been of surprising consequence to me, I suppose, and I’m just now realizing it. Oh, I text or call my daughter Savannah several times a week, and she indulges my stories when I tell them. My sister will tolerate my stories while she has a cocktail in hand. My mother, who lives far away, always appears to be listening to my stories when I tell them, but really I think she is just measuring the size of my eyeballs as I jabber on, telling the story two or three times to make sure she hears it all. And, I also have friends, near and far, with whom I will relate a story or two, if I remember a good one when I see them.

Yet I think it is true, that living alone has altered the rhythm of my storytelling, narrowed my eyes and dimmed the sparkle. This realization of diminished, daily storytelling is another clue to me that I am struggling to adjust to living alone, to relying on myself for everything that I want and need. For fifty-three years I lived with my family, then college roommates, and then a husband and daughters. For fifty-three years, I had a captive audience. I’ve only been solo for two years, and almost all of that time during a global pandemic. Such a change was bound to be dramatic, radical even, and it has altered many rhythms of my life.

And that’s okay. Good, maybe. Or, perhaps, even great. The altered rhythm of a heart demands attention, requires assessment, suggests treatment. Why not the rhythms of a life?

What the altered rhythm of my storytelling means going forward, I do not know. I realize now that I have always found joy in sharing the stories of my life, particularly the silly ones, and also in sharing my observations about the world. Perhaps that is why since living alone I have taken to Instagram. It is no true substitute, of course, but it has given me an outlet, especially on the many days in each week when there are only the walls and the dogs to hear my stories and random observations.

I miss the chattering, the animated telling, and the instant gratification of getting the words, the thought or the story, into the ears and the heart and the funny bone of someone I care about. Not a great reflection of myself, centered as it is upon my ego. But that statement is the truest statement I have written about myself in a long time.

Perhaps I should learn how to enjoy unusual occurrences like spectacular soap shots all by myself  in the same way I learned how to use a drill and to cook for one. With practice. And cursing. Lots and lots of people are content to live quietly, laugh on the inside, and leave it to other people to tell the stories. Why couldn’t I just be one of them? Because, if I am honest, I am not and likely never will be quiet. I’m a talker. Talking is what I do.

Perhaps I should start a special journal to record my soap stories. Writing them out and reading them later might provide a similar feeling to the satisfaction I get from talking to people. Nah. This option sounds like a lot work, a little pathetic, and slightly off the mark. Before this introspective rambling, I never thought of myself as a performer, but now I wonder if that might be part of it.

Perhaps living alone is not for me, after all. Maybe I am one of those people who needs a partner, a captive audience with whom to share my daily soap stories. Or maybe it is going to take so much time to get used to living alone that I will never get used to living alone. Goodness. I hope not. On both counts, I hope not. Because I am a long way from healthy enough to live with somebody else, and I may not be for a long time or ever. Besides, although I admit I am needy of attention, the peace and privilege of making all the rules and curating every corner of my house and my yard, all on my own, is too lovely to give up. And, I know for certain, that having to compromise only with dogs and myself provides the most blissful environment in which to figure out what ails me and what heals me.

For now, maybe I’ll just talk to the walls or tell my stories to myself, out loud, while I take my daily walk. What if some, or a lot, of the people we see muttering to themselves on city streets, aren’t mentally ill, but people just like me. Chatterboxes with no one to tell their stores. Hmm… That’s an interesting idea to ponder on a Saturday afternoon, blustery with indoor weather.

I think, I’ll just try telling my stories to the dogs, and see how it goes.

Writing away the Shadows

The Winter Solstice, which I passed with a small group of lovely (vaccinated and boosted) new friends, was, as it always is, a charm against my onset-of-winter melancholy. Though the prairie winds blow cold, now that the days are slowly lengthening as we stretch our way to spring, I am okay. I am well, I promise, but I need to write a few bitter shadows off my heart.

I have survived another set of holidays. Another four seasons. Another year without her, my baby girl, my Mack. I have passed another 365 days of missing her grin and her giggle and her light against my darkness. This year was not easy. Nor was it easier than last year, or the year before that. It is not getting easier, despite the promises of well-meaning people trying to make me feel better. For me it will never be easy. It will just be different. Different the way summer feels different with every additional year between the human I am now and the human I was when I was barefoot and ten in the backyard of childhood.

I know myself well enough to accept and to admit that from Thanksgiving through Christmas, I am the worst of me. Sorrow, anxiety, and impatience override joy, productivity, and peace. The short days and long nights and my false cheer for the holidays and my shame for humbug plague me, and they will, I suspect, forever conjure the ghosts that haunt me. My grieving-mother sadness is the primary source of my melancholy, of course, but I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which rubs like course sandpaper against the raw edges of my grief. This is an annual torment, and it always takes me three cycles of the moon to accept the end of warm and joyful summer.

Yet this December I leaned sadder than usual. My divorce being finalized and my beloved dog Pepper’s health problems cast menacing spells against my spirit and made the melancholy debilitating for a number of days. Burying a female house sparrow who died on my porch on December 19 made the last two days to the Winter Solstice a moody struggle. And although I have tried to keep other negative emotions in check, I have also been angry and filled with despair. My fury and frustration rising with every new report on the climate crisis, deadly tornadoes in December, and the pandemic going on and on and on because so many selfish Americans falsely believe that public health policy is a violation of their individual rights.

“What about my individual rights,” I screamed as I paced through my empty house these past few weeks. “Don’t I deserve during my hardest time of the year to be surrounded by people without having to worry about my health and the possibility of making my loved ones unwell?” Family and friends are my medicine against grief, and this fucking pandemic has withheld in large measure the remedy that sustains me.

And then there was the added insult of writer’s block.

In early November, I began a new scholarly project, which during my struggle season was unfortunate timing. At the beginnings of big projects when I am setting my head to a difficult task, the intellectual power that effort requires zaps my energy, stealing away the creative power I usually ration so well for my personal, therapy writing. The writer’s block this year has been as difficult as anything to endure. Writing is my solace, especially when I am at my worst, in my seasonal doldrums, when I need most to turn my emotions into words and sentences, paragraphs, prose, and bad poetry. This year that coping mechanism failed me. Next year, I will be more cognizant about keeping safe the ration for personal writing, because although I make a great many mistakes, my grief has made a good student of learning what I need to survive the difficult and beautiful condition of being human. Already with the packing away of another year of holidays, made as joyful as absolutely possible by my good and cheerful sister Tracy, and with my new project well underway, my attitude is brighter even as I pen this last blog essay of 2021.

You see, I really I am okay. I struggle, yes, but I am capable of finding my way back home. Now that I have written away the bitter shadows, I feel lighter. I am lighter. Even as my head is filled up with the brains of a cynic who ascribes no tangible value, no magic, to the turn of the New Year, I am hopeful I will find purpose and peace in 2022. Perhaps it is simply the pleasant surprise of my survival of another year which has provided this shift in perspective. I forget sometimes that I can do hard things, and when I am reminded that I can I am grateful. Gratitude frames my mind to see the long winter in front of me as time to work on another book, to rest, and to wonder. And as each passing day gets a little longer, I will be stretching my spirit toward the spring.

Here is to a productive and peaceful winter to us all.

The Dorothy-Parker inspired ditty below is the only thing of any value I managed to write in the past two months. More bad poetry, I know, and I’m sorry! But Mack would appreciate it, and that makes it okay by me.

Writer’s Block
Some days I can write on for hours,
So clever I am with my pen;
But then comes a clog in
My thick, stupid noggin,
And I think I shall never write again.

In our front yard in Springfield, May 2012, this is one of my favorite photos of me and Mack
(although it is a rare serious pose and one of her in a dress!).
To me she was was always larger than life, and in so many ways she still is.

Egg Noodles and the Blues

I don’t cook much from scratch anymore—since Mack died, there are a lot of things I don’t do anymore—but every year for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house I make egg noodles. They aren’t hard to make, although making them is a little annoying and a lot time consuming. And messy. The flour gets all over me and the kitchen, and dried, eggy dough gets stuck to the counter top. I can’t stop rolling the dough until all dozen eggs and three pounds of flour are rolled out because my hands are encased in wet dough and getting it all off my fingers takes almost as much time as the rolling.

But no matter all of that. I make the egg noodles. For more than thirty years, I’ve been making the egg noodles. For all of the years Mack was here to eat those noodles, I didn’t mind making them. But Thanksgiving, a food holiday, was Mack’s favorite, and making noodles and eating noodles and thoughts of passing another Thanksgiving without Mack suck some of the magic out of those damned noodles. I half-heartedly try every year to get out of the noodle-making business and suggest that someone else pick up the tradition. But my egg noodles are special, pillowy and delicious, a family legend, and no one, particularly my niece Zoe, will let me off the hook. I need to make the egg noodles, and that’s okay. Some traditions should continue no matter how annoying or grief provoking, and I suspect I’ll make the family egg noodles until I’m dead.

So here I am, standing in my kitchen working up the courage to make noodles. It is quiet like death in the house and I shudder at being alone with my pre-holiday grieving and my noodles. I used to love to cook while listening to music, but one of the other things that I don’t really do any more since Mack died is listen to music. Music summons the ghosts, which stir up my grief into a hopeless melody of sorrow and self-pity. But a few months ago I started listening to 1920s jazz for brief intervals; and a couple of weeks ago I started listening to the blues. Shemekia Copeland specifically. Something about the old music calms me, and the spirit and humor of Copeland’s songs and the bad-ass-I’m-here-and-you’re-gonna-like-it sound of her voice give me strength.

Okay, then, I think, let’s invite Shemekia to this noodle-making party and see what happens.

I ask Alexa to shuffle Shemekia Copleland, and I get started on the noodles. The next thing I know I’m singing along and my hips are swaying and I’m rolling the dough in time to the music. I am shaking off the cobwebs of ghosts and grief with Mack laughing and cheering me on, helping me face another holiday without her. I am happily making noodles for the people I love most. Savannah will be here for the holiday, and she enjoys my noodles almost as much as Mack did. We will eat them together and remember our Mack, the food-loving, silly, joyful girl whose motto was to eat until it hurts, baby, and then eat some more.

I roll out the last of the dough and think to myself, wow. Instead of dreading Thanksgiving and letting my grief weigh me down low, I’m just here in my kitchen making noodles and singing the blues.

Ice Cream, Grief, and Becoming

Dear Mack,

I had vanilla ice cream for dinner the other night at 9 p.m. I drizzled it with local honey and topped it with salted, roasted peanuts. I convinced myself it was food, an easy meal that would fill me up for the night. I was too tired to cook, too beaten up by the first day of October, a month that has haunted me since you left us. Anyway, I thought ice cream with nuts made the meal at least a notch above junk food. Not so bad, I lied to myself while I plopped the three small scoops into the bowl and added the toppings. When I added the whipped cream from the pressurized can, piling it up above the sides of the bowl, my “meal” went the way of indulgence, unwise for a lactose intolerant, middle-aged woman who should not eat anything so late, let alone ice cream.

But, of course, you showed up and nudged me, your face in my mind’s eye and your voice in my ear. “Eat it, Momma Bear,” you whispered. “Just do it.”

The ice cream was delicious, and I enjoyed it, even as I cursed myself for eating it so late. It tasted like a Payday candy bar. I love Paydays! Remember those, Mack? I often had one in my handbag when we were traveling all over the world for your basketball games. In the absence of gummy worms or sour Warheads, you would eat a Payday, in a pinch, even though you said you hated peanuts. Like you said you hated oats but always asked me to bake oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries. Like I say I hate ice cream because I hate milk, but I eat it often anyway because it is delightful and worth a little tummy ache.

You always come to me when I want to break my rigid rules, when I am pausing before something I enjoy, trying to talk myself out of it because I think I should. You help me see my truth and embrace it. You come to me almost every day, and you come for a million reasons, but when you come to absolve me of useless guilt and regret for being human, I am particularly grateful.

You are looking at me right now, smirking from the other side of my laptop screen. You’re giving me your crooked grin and shaking your head because I’ve spent too much time worrying about eating that late-night ice cream, and now, here I am, writing about it. Life is too short for lament, you say. Your stomach got over it and your heart was happy eating that ice cream, you say. I know you are right, but I cannot do it alone. I need backup. I need you. I will always need you.

You won’t want to hear this, Mack, but I am still grieving the loss of you. In that grief, I fight each day to live, and I power the struggle with my desire to make you proud. And because of you, because of my promise to you, I eat ice cream. I daydream on Sunday afternoons in a rocking chair on the porch when I should be doing the laundry or scrubbing a sink. I laugh out loud at myself when I trip on my own feet or bump my head on a kitchen cabinet I left open. I stop in my tracks to smile and giggle when some human absurdity catches my attention—like a middle-aged man walking down the street with his white socks pulled up over his calves, or pumpkin-spiced everything at the grocery store, or Pepper waking me up for a sip of water from the cup I keep for her on the bedside table. I know you are happy I can find laughter in this silly stuff, which lightens the burden of missing you. And I know the silly stuff is what gives me my best chance to see myself through the sorrow, to show me I need to go a little easy on myself.

You might like knowing that you taught me how to find joy, humor, and perspective. You continue to teach me these precious skills on which I must work but to you came naturally. You keep my serious in check, Mack, reminding me to laugh out loud every day if I can, especially on the days when all I really want to do is cry. You enable ice cream and pass no judgment. You are my guide in grace and gratitude and gusto; and all the positive attitude I am able to muster is all you, baby girl.

It would please you to know that am healthier than I was two years ago when I began charting a path all my own. I am becoming the human I need to be to live without you, to be independent, to put myself out there, and to find the right balance of productivity and pleasure, purpose and peace. I am still up and down, a little sideways, off and on, lonely, and uncertain. I am a work in never-ending progress. I still stand on wobbling legs, my heart skipping occasional beats to the broken rhythm of grief; and my progress of becoming is slower than I would like it to be. But my becoming is in progress, your spirit keeps me grounded, and though I don’t know where the path will lead me, I am walking there with you. I am moving forward in my remaking, in my becoming, and I am making a wish of it in honor of you.

A day without you is an eternity. Seven years? Infinity beyond an eternity.

And that is why I keep you with me. You are with me now and always. You are still laughing at me, making it a mission to keep me in balance. You are still lighting up what passes for my life without you.

You are not gone, my darling girl. You are here for ice cream. You are here to temper my grief. You are here to witness my becoming. No, you are here to be a part of my becoming.

You are here. You are here. You are here.