Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Hate Santa

What is the point of Santa? I really don’t get it. My husband and I were never much on pushing this idea on our kids. When my son was two, I remember my sister saying something to him about Santa, and I had to reply that he didn’t really know who that was. This didn’t last long. Christmas is inundated with images of the red-suited fellow, and as soon as my son started preschool it was Santa, Santa, everywhere. So we went along with the lie because if your kid ruins it for other people’s children, you will be ostracized. So Santa became a “real” thing and therefore our next child believed in Santa too, although we still never made it much of an issue.

Sure, Santa can be used to enforce the creepy “he’s watching you so be good or you won’t get presents” theme, but I’d just as soon have my child do the right thing because it is the right thing and not because he thinks he’s on some sort of surveillance camera.

I just don’t see the benefit of lying to our kids. When my friends’ kids discovered that Santa was not real, they didn’t take it well. In some cases it even ruined Christmas for them. I remember one of my own friends from grade school sobbing uncontrollably for a full day when she realized that not only was Santa not real, but neither was the Tooth Fairy nor the Easter Bunny.

Again, what’s with all the lies? Is this really more fun for kids? Would the holidays have been less fun had they just celebrated them as they were? I probably have a slanted opinion on this for a few reasons. One reason is that I can’t recall ever believing in Santa. And guess what? I don’t feel the least bit cheated. Yes, that’s right, I didn’t believe in Santa and yet I loved Christmas as much as the next kid. I still got to eat chocolate schaum torte pie and krumkake and marshmallow cornflake wreaths dyed green; I still got to have a party with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins; I still got dressed up in a pretty red velvet dress and shiny black patent shoes and sang carols at Christmas mass; and I still dreamt of the untold wonders that could be in those gaily colored packages under the Christmas tree.

I was not raised without a Santa by design. The way my mom tells the story, I was four years old and sitting in my room talking with my eight-year-old sister Kris. My sister said how one Christmas Eve she woke up and heard bells and then peeked outside and saw a red light in the sky and decided it must be Santa and his sleigh with the reindeer, including Rudolph’s red nose shining through the night. After hearing this story I went to my mother and said, “I know Santa’s not real, but don’t tell Kris, because I think she still believes.”

Another issue I have with Santa is that he sounds a lot like God. He knows what you’re doing when no one else is watching, you can ask him to give you things, and he is a benevolent old man who rewards the good and punishes the bad. Who wouldn’t want someone like that watching over them? Santa is for children, and God is the adult’s Santa Claus. Now if you want your children to believe in God, I wouldn’t push the Santa idea too hard. Because once they realize Santa’s fictional, isn’t it a small step to think the same of God?

I want my kids to know that real money goes into the gifts they get, and that money was earned by real work. I want them to understand that giving gifts is a shared activity; that it’s not just about receiving. It’s a time to donate to those less fortunate than you and to get together with family, sometimes the only time of the year that you see certain people. And, if you are religious, you have your own reason for the season, and there are other religions celebrating their own important events that time of year as well.

Why force your kids to believe a myth? Why knowingly lie to them? Do you really get pleasure out of having to wrap presents in certain paper that they won’t identify and disguise your handwriting so they won’t recognize it? Why let them believe that there are some instances when it’s okay to carry on for years with a lie and keep secrets? In what way whatsoever does the idea of Santa benefit anyone?

It’s not fun, it’s stupid. It’s not beneficial, it’s harmful. And the fact that I have to lie to my kids when they’re young because I’m afraid they’ll “ruin it” for other people’s children is maddening. The first kid who tells the other kids at school that Santa isn’t real is looked at by the parents as being naughty and from some kind of undisciplined household.

No, my kids are not the ones who “spilled the beans”. My daughter was never very taken by the myth, and over the last couple years she said she’d “outgrown Santa,” as if he were a Disney princess or Dora and Boots. I’ll admit I quite like her perspective of the situation.

My son has known for a very long time but has never discussed it for fear of not getting gifts anymore. Though he did say once that he can’t understand why parents buy themselves presents, meaning that nonbelievers shouldn’t get gifts. One parent I know told her kids that “you have to believe to receive.” I’ll be damned if I can see the logic behind that. When they are old enough to know better, why do they still have to act like children? Yes, Santa Claus is a tradition, but one without any worthwhile value.

The anti-Santa attitude isn’t one that I’ve run across much … or ever. I think most people would conclude that I am a fervent Christian who is unhappy with Santa usurping Jesus’s rightful place. But the fact is that I’m not religious. My husband is not religious either. We were both raised as Christians and celebrated Christmas and we continue the tradition with our kids for various reasons, ranging from family expectations to the joy of giving. We keep the traditions that make sense to us and discard the worthless ones. We also believe in freedom of religion, and that includes our children’s decision to one day pick a religion for themselves. Therefore they know the real story of Christmas, just as they know about the eight nights of Hanukkah and the scientific reason for the winter solstice.

What the Santa issue comes down to for me, ultimately, is that I have to lie to my kids because you lie to your kids. I think that’s bullshit. It’s not like I treat my kids like little adults and let them watch horrible news stories or fill their vocabulary with curse words. But the blatant lying to our children for no useful reason is completely ridiculous to me.

Do I expect anyone to agree with me? No. Do I expect anyone to start acting differently? No. Am I just venting? Pretty much.

If I ever write my own fictional Christmas story, it will go something like this: “’Twas the night before Christmas , the date children like best, when kind old Santa stopped and clutched at his chest. He dropped to his knees, his skin paler than snow, and knew that at last it was his time to go….”

I’m still working on it.
RIP Santa

Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Close Encounter of the UFO Kind

As a science writer and hardened skeptic, I don’t take much stock in UFO stories. (Although I am apparently folksy enough to use the phrase “don’t take much stock”.) As an adult I find stories of “paranormal” events to be humorous and entertaining. But I was not so amused back in 1985 on the side of a dark country road as a UFO hovered overhead.

I was 12 years old and despite this being the only “close encounter” of my life, I cannot remember seeing the Unidentified Flying Object at all. I was in the backseat of the car coming back from seeing a movie with my parents and their friends. It was summertime and already dark but not yet 10 p.m.

We were well into the countryside when someone mentioned a strange light moving above us. We turned off the highway onto a deserted country road. My parents and their friends were growing excited now, and they pulled over onto the gravel shoulder to get out and take a better look.

What I remember of the event was the adults standing on the road, filled with agitation and excitement, chattering and pointing upward. And I remember myself, huddling in the far corner of the car, terrified. I felt like I was under a spotlight, beckoning the aliens to me, because the only light for miles on this country road was the one coming from the dome in the car. My parents had left their doors open and a dinging noise kept repeating this fact, drawing more attention to me in my bright cocoon. The car, parked on the side of the road, leaned toward the ditch and I allowed gravity to pull me as far from the open doors as possible, hoping that I would not be visible to any beings that were joyriding above us.

Eventually my parents returned to the car where they saw me squished into the crack between the seat and door. My mother burst out laughing.

Twenty years later I would stumble across a report of this UFO sighting, which allowed me to fill in some of the blanks.

In 2005, I bought a book called The W-Files: True Reports of Wisconsin’s Unexplained Phenomena by Jay Rath. At the time I was researching any and all minutiae about Wisconsin for a trivia and puzzle book I was writing (Badger Brain Twisters) and not even thinking of my own close encounter when I came upon the following.

The entry for August 2, 1985, begins, “Around 9:45 p.m., 10 people, in a region that spreads from Cross Plains to Blue Mounds, saw a UFO moving slowly eastward. It was white, brighter than a star and ... projected a beam of light that ‘moved back and forth like a searchlight.’”

One of the witnesses was Rogers Keene. Keene, a teacher at Wisconsin Heights Junior High School, was walking his dog around his rural home, five miles north of Black Earth. The car in which I was “hiding” during this time would have been parked on the shoulder of the road a mere two miles east of Keene.

I don’t know what subject Keene taught at Wisconsin Heights Junior High, but he analyzed the situation like an astronomer, noting that the object was about 75 degrees above the horizon and appeared to be the size of his thumb when his arm was stretched away from his body. He watched it for two minutes as it swept a beam of light across the ground. It then hovered and zig-zagged slowly downward until it was only 20 degrees above the horizon. The light then shrank until it disappeared.

Madison’s airport and NWS radar did not detect this object. And, even more strangely, on the same night, at the same time, witnesses in six other Midwestern states reported similar sightings.

So was it a UFO? Sure, in that no one has explained it. It remains unidentified. But was it an alien spacecraft? I think it’s fair to say that’s highly unlikely.

Yes, there are scientists who study “aliens”. However, they are not out tracking UFOs. They are working on projects such as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and analyzing the statistical possibility of extraterrestrial life with mathematical tools such as the Drake Equation.

One of my favorite stories concerns the physicist Enrico Fermi. One day he was having lunch with colleagues and they were discussing that if Earth is typical for a planet and the sun is a typical star, then life should also be a commonplace occurrence in the Universe. This is when Fermi famously blurted out, “Where are they?” Meaning, if extraterrestrial life is so abundant, shouldn’t we know of their existence? Many scientists and authors have tried to answer this question, and Stephen Webb did a great job of it in his book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody? But Fermi’s Paradox remains unanswered.

I have my own answer to the question, which plays a small part in a novel I wrote that is on my next-to-be-edited list. Perhaps someday soon I will finally finish editing my apocalyptic young adult book and it will find a home at some publishing company. In the meantime, I continue to write my astronomy articles, columns, and blogs for various media, occasionally explaining bright or flickering lights and helping to make more of the night sky identifiable to all.
Nothing "unidentified" here. The moon with Venus, Jupiter, and the Hyades Cluster in Taurus.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Which I am Not a Fan of Spiders

Have I mentioned that I’m terrified of spiders? I'm getting a little braver as I get older, but only under certain conditions. I have endless spider stories I could tell, including one literal nightmare in which I realized that octopuses are just giant ocean spiders. But here is a nice little story that will some up my fears.
One summer when my children were small, a big black hairy spider found its way into our house and was crawling above the windows in my living room. It was the middle of the day, both kids were awake, and it was hours before my husband would be home. Now if my husband would be coming home in a half hour, or even an hour, I would have just kept an eye on the thing and as soon as he walked in the door I would have brought him over and had him do the deed. It isn’t so much that I don’t want to kill them — you have to get them before they crawl off somewhere and breed more! — but it meant that I had to get close enough to them to kill them.

I got out my fly swatter and waited for it to crawl out on a flat surface away from the curtains so I could get a clean smack at it. The kids had not seen the spider at first, but now that they saw me poised in the middle of the living room with swatter in hand, they knew something was up.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” Kaden asked.

“I have to get that spider up there,” I told Kaden.

Lucy came up to take a look. I had to shoo her away. “Don’t get too close!” I warned. “Back away!” She didn’t seem to understand that just standing near a spider was a bad, creepy thing to be avoided at all costs. What if it jumped onto her? I would have had to use my swatter to smack it off her.

As I was ushering Lucy back, the spider made his move. He crawled from the curtains toward the painting on the wall above the fireplace. Now was my chance! I raised my hand to strike it … and froze. It was high on the wall and if I hit it, it could tumble down and land on me.

My swatter was frozen about five inches from him and he sensed my presence. His body squashed itself smaller and his little knees were bent into a crouch as if he were perched to jump. I backed off. This could be an ugly scene. I went into the dining room to fetch a chair. When I got back, he was gone.

“Where did the spider go?” I cried to the kids in dismay.

“He’s behind the painting, Mommy,” Kaden revealed. My good little watchdog!

“Okay, keep an eye out, Kaden, he could come out on any side of that thing.” I sat in the chair and tried to calm down. The muscles in my shoulders were taut.

“Wait a second!” I yelled. “Is that him there? See that dark spot on the top of the frame?”

“Oh boy!” Kaden yelled. He was getting pretty excited now too. Fortunately, he was excited in a four-year-old thrilled kind of way. So far I was doing a pretty good job of hiding my fear, I thought.

The spider crawled an inch above the picture frame and moved along the top. I still couldn’t do anything — he wasn’t on a flat enough surface to make a good swat.

Lucy started laughing and squealing. “Isn’t he cute? I love him! I want to hug him.” She was killing me.

“You don’t hug spiders, Lucy,” Kaden says with matter-of-fact knowledge gleaned from his years of living with me.

“Isn’t the bug cute, Mommy?” she insisted.

I couldn’t reply.

By now at least fifteen minutes had passed as I watched this spider make a slow crawl across ten feet of my living room. Any normal person would have smashed this disgusting thing with a shoe the minute they saw it. But not me, I had to prolong my torture.

The spider kept heading in the same direction, where it would soon come out from the picture and reach a large flat stretch of wall before the sliding glass door. It would be do or die time. He started to make his move. I stayed back at first, to keep from frightening me, uh, I mean him, and let him think it was safe to go.

“Stay back!” I shouted at the kids, as if it were an escaped tiger from the zoo. I climbed on my chair and moved my hand up again to strike. But again, he saw me coming and assumed his flattened position with half of his body close to the wall, the other half ready to dive.

Finally, I took a deep breath and struck. I think before I even hit him he had leapt to the carpet. The kids surged forward and I shoved them backward with my free arm, screaming, “Get away! Get away!”

Where was he? “Kaden, where is the spider?” I cried. “I don’t see him!” He moved to come forward and look but I pushed him back again. I instructed him to stand up on the raised fireplace hearth and help me look.

There was only one place he could be. There is a tall, heavy lamp with a large square black base that sits on the floor right next to where he dropped. He had to be hiding along the edge of the lamp. I moved my chair over to the lamp, but first I looked all over the upper regions of the lamp. I was planning to touch the lamp and wanted to be sure he was down at the bottom and nowhere near where I might grab.

I gripped the body of the lamp and started rocking it, back and forth, back and forth on the carpet. I thought I saw a dark spot so I shifted the lamp and then started smushing it and grinding it into the carpet. I carried on like this for approximately two minutes until I was sure that I had finished him off.

“I think I got it, you guys!” I exclaimed. “Okay, now stand back, I’m going to have to look.” And vacuum up its mashed remains from my carpet. At least the lamp can permanently sit over that spot.

I pulled the chair away and got down while the kids crowded around me to see what was left of the spider. I still had my swatter in my right hand as I slid the lamp away.

“AHHHHHH!” I screamed. The spider was alive! It took off like an Olympic athlete and raced across the carpet. I grabbed my swatter with both hands and started pounding on it as it ran. I lifted the swatter back up about three feet high with every thrust before slamming it back down onto the quarter-sized hairy monster. The house was filled with a trio unnerving sounds: the THWACK, THWACK, THWACK as I pummeled the now spidery carpet, a screeching noise coming from somewhere within my clenched mouth, and the kids howling with laughter behind me.

So that’s what I mean when I say I’m terrified of spiders.

Did you really think I was going to use a picture of a spider? No. No, I was not.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Secret I've Never Told My Daughter

I've never told my daughter this story and I've no plans to, so read this while you can. I won't leave it up here forever. This is an excerpt of a chapter in an unpublished book I wrote years ago, a travelogue that I am now editing (for no real purpose except to relive the summer in my life when my children were 2 and 4). I'm sharing this chapter because I think it can be educational for many different reasons, whether that be to remember to keep your pets' vaccinations up to date or to know that if you've made huge irreparable mistakes in your life, you are not alone.


            It was Friday afternoon, and we were leaving the next morning for our trip to Mackinac Island in Michigan. I still had plenty of things to do, including laundry, packing, bagging snacks for the road, cleaning our filthy truck, and so on. I was in the middle of these chores when I heard Lucy comment that our kitty was sitting on the computer chair behind Kaden. Kaden told her, “Yes, see, Mommy said I can turn around and pet him in between my computer games.”

            A couple minutes later I heard Lucy howl and she came running to me. She was crying and had a little mark on her arm, which looked like a small scratch from one of Kitty’s teeth. She must have been poking at the cat and he chomped down on her arm, and then she got scared and pulled it away, leaving the little scratch mark. I made a scene of telling Kitty to go to the naughty corner and giving kisses to Lucy’s owie. But that was it. It was not the first time she had been bitten by our cat because she was irritating him, and I never imagined it would be the last.

            I put the kids down for their naps so they would be well rested for the evening. Grandma and grandpa were coming after dinner so we could leave bright and early the next morning for our vacation with them. The kids woke up from their naps and found something on TV that amused them and I checked my e-mail quickly at the computer while warming meatballs on the stove. As I sat on the edge of the chair with the cat still napping on the chair behind me, I was shocked to feel a claw strike my backside. I hopped off the seat and looked back at the cat. He was thrashing on the chair as if having a bad dream. But I was the one about to enter a nightmare. Kitty fell off the chair onto the floor beneath the computer and started running in circles while lying on his side, flopping frantically. The kids stopped to look over at him and I jumped up on the window seat nearby. I was afraid. Something was definitely wrong.

            After about thirty seconds of this seizure the cat managed to come out of it and limp his way under the big recliner in the office. He meowed a long cry for help but I was afraid to reach under for him. I ran into the kitchen and called Jeremy at work. He was on the phone so I left him a voicemail.

Then I noticed that the cat had come out toward me in the kitchen. He was walking with a severe lean, as if someone were pushing on one side of him. He passed me and looked around the mudroom and then crossed through the kitchen (where I was perched with fear on the counter) and sat on the rug by the front door. He was quiet now and still, and he looked normal, at least for the moment.

            I picked up the phone and called Jeremy’s cell phone number, thinking that it wouldn’t be busy if he were on the other line. He picked up right away and told me he just finished his other call.

            “You have to come home now!” I yelled, my voice shaking.

            “I will, but I have a couple things to finish up first,” he tried to explain. He thought I was upset that I had so many things to do before leaving on vacation and his parents were on the way.

            “No, you have to come home now. Something is really wrong with Kitty. He is having seizures. I don’t know if he got into the Round Up weed killer or has rabies or what.” I knew as I was saying the word “rabies” that all of Jeremy’s alarms would start going off. He probably did not have rabies, but I didn’t know. I wanted Jeremy to know how serious it was and to come home. I questioned myself for saying those words, and I will always question myself for it.

            So Jeremy left immediately. While waiting for him to come home I took a bowl of water and set it down in front of the cat, hoping he would drink from it. He did not. He just sat there as if he were relaxing. The kids left the cat alone and stayed by the TV per my request.

Jeremy was home within 15 minutes. I had called around while waiting for him and found a 24-hour emergency animal hospital not too far away. We then had to undergo the battle of trying to get the cat in the carrier. At this point, Kitty was walking fine and acting normally. Jeremy had not yet seen any of the strange behavior.

Jeremy called me from the animal hospital. He had me check our records for the cat. We had not gotten the cat a new vet since we moved just over a year ago, and even then he was overdue with his annual check-up by a couple years. His last rabies vaccination had been 3 years and 3 months ago. A rabies vaccination is good for 3 years. We just missed the window.

            Our cat was an indoor/outdoor cat. He loved to go outside and chew on the tall grass and weeds around the house and to chase after bugs and mice. He had never killed a bird although he did manage to catch a mouse now and then, even with his front paws declawed.

            The vet told Jeremy that Round Up was not supposed to cause seizures. But I know just because it’s not supposed to doesn’t mean it can’t. She also told Jeremy that the only way to test for rabies was to destroy the cat and analyze the brain tissue. She recommended to us that we take our daughter to the doctor, show them the bite mark, and see what they had to say.

            So Jeremy left the cat at the vet and we rushed the kids to the nearest emergency room. We called Jeremy’s mom, Ethel, and his step-dad, Clyde, and told them to meet us at the hospital. They would be able to put Kaden’s car seat in their car and drive him home when the ER visit got too long.

            When we reached the hospital, the emergency room was quiet. A doctor and nurse saw Lucy right away. They remarked on how tiny the scratch was, yet it had clearly broken the skin a fraction. They also delivered more bad news. There was no test for rabies. The only thing that could be done was to start the round of rabies vaccinations and monitor the cat for signs of rabies or destroy him and have him tested so we could stop the shots before the entire battery was complete. A complete vaccination would require tests on days zero (today), three, seven, fourteen, and twenty-eight.

            I felt trapped. Because of my negligence as a pet owner, I could not prove that the cat did not have rabies, although I strongly suspected he did not. It was the Round Up. I had sprayed it around the deck where he often bedded down at night before being let inside in the mornings. When I had sprayed the weed killer, somehow it just never occurred to me that my cat would be exposed to it. Stupid shortsightedness, I suppose. And now that the cat was having seizures, the only responsible thing to do was to start Lucy’s round of shots. And to put the cat down so that she didn’t have to have the shots any longer than necessary.

            We sent Kaden home with his grandparents and waited for the medical staff to bring in the first dose of the vaccine. I stared at the plastic bins on the rolling cart across the bed. They were all labeled, and my eyes gazed unseeingly at the words for many minutes before I finally realized that one of the labels read “Anal dilator.” It was the only genuine smile to cross my face for the next few days.

            The doctor and nurses finally came back with their dose of rabies vaccination. It was the only dose in the hospital. They said that they had only ever given one other dose of rabies before. In fact, a dose of rabies vaccination would prove hard to come by. In order for Lucy to get her shot on day 3, we would either have to come all the way back from Michigan in the middle of our vacation to get the shot that they would order for us, or we would have to walk into an emergency room and hope that a hospital up there would take pity on us and give us a shot. Or we could cancel the trip. None of this even mattered that much to me right then.

            Lucy had turned two less than a month earlier, and she had had her annual required vaccinations, which at two was one Hepatitis A shot. I told her at the time that she was going to get a pinch in the leg but then it would be all over. She lay back on the crackling white paper on the doctor’s examining room table and took my hands and stared up into my eyes while the nurse administered the shot. She never made a sound. As soon as it was done we told her it was all over and she sat up and we gave her some fruit snacks as a treat. The nurse was amazed at her toughness, and so was I.

            Now it was time for her rabies shot. The shot would first be administered under the bite mark in her arm, and then the rest of the shot would be put into her butt and thigh. I told her the same thing I had told her at her appointment earlier that month. She was getting a shot and it would feel like a pinch. She lay back compliantly as two nurses and I held her down and the doctor began administering the shot. Jeremy watched from above her head. The shot was not easy. He had to slowly inject the liquid so that the skin puffed up around the scratch. It felt like it took nearly a minute as he carefully squirted the fluid under the small slash on her arm, and Lucy’s face went from calm, to surprise, to painful agony. Her eyes became big and they beseeched me to make it stop, but she didn’t make a sound. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I asked her, “Lucy, does it hurt?” And she opened her mouth and said “Yes!” and began to bawl. And so did I. I put my head down by hers and my eyes filled with tears. Finally it was over. They let me pick her up and we shushed her and calmed her and they left the room. She had some blood on her arm so we put a couple of circular bandages over her wounds. After a couple minutes she was fine again. Then they came back into the room to finish the dosage.

            This time we had to put her on her belly on the table, and she knew it was coming and began to fight and scream immediately. The doctor was not needed this time, as the nurse could do the straight shots themselves. I helped hold my pain-riddled and terrorized little daughter down as they pulled down her diaper and gave the first shot in her buttocks. Just as the nurse began to insert the needle, Lucy bucked. I kept my head low by Lucy’s face so I couldn’t see anything, but I heard Jeremy gasp. In a couple seconds they had moved on to her thigh, and then, gratefully, it was over.

            Around 10:30 we were finally discharged from the hospital, after they waited a while to check if she were going to have any immediate bad reactions to the shot. Watching Lucy in that pain, I knew what we would have to do. Lucy fell asleep in the car as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. When we got home everyone else was already in bed, so we changed Lucy into her jammies and put her to bed too. Jeremy left to head back to the vet hospital. I stayed behind. I thought it would just be too hard.

            We got our Kitty in Nashville. We had only lived there a couple weeks when we first saw him. He was still small, but not a tiny kitten anymore. We would go on walks in our apartment complex and he would be outside, looking for a friend. After seeing him a couple times it was clear to me that he didn’t have a home. Someone had enjoyed him during his kitten days and then dropped him at our huge apartment complex, hoping that a kind soul would take him in.

That kind soul was me. Jeremy and I had been married the day before we left for Nashville, where Jeremy was to attend law school. The night of our wedding, out on the dance floor, Jeremy told me what my wedding gift was. He had asked my family if it would be okay for us to take the family cat with us. He had even gotten sleeping pills from the vet to make it easier to transport the cat in the car with us down to Nashville. But I said no. I loved the cat, which was already in his teens, but I knew that part of having a pet meant having to say good-bye someday. And I was just trying to insulate myself from that pain.

So, back in Nashville, I opened the door to our apartment one day and saw the black kitty of the complex sitting on my doormat. He immediately stood up and walked into our apartment, but with a limp. He had gotten injured, and instead of going to the closest person, he sniffed me down and climbed a flight of stairs to sit on my doormat.

I took pity on him and got him a bowl of water and some lunch meat. He was hungry and thirsty. Then I played with him for a little while before he fell asleep in the window in a patch of sunlight.

We took the cat to the vet to see if they could treat his injury. Unfortunately they couldn’t tell us what had happened to him and couldn’t do anything for the limp. I explained that this was not my cat but a stray, and they said that the humane society was next door. So we took him over, but it was closed for the weekend. So we brought the cat back to our apartment. I made a sign for the mailbox area of our complex, asking if anyone wanted the cat that was hanging around the area. At one point I saw that one of the pull tags had been ripped off with our phone number, but no one ever called.

After the weekend we talked to the humane society and they told us that they did not take in stray cats that were injured except to put them to sleep. So we kept the cat at home. I planned to only keep him until his leg healed, but things didn’t work out that way. He became my constant companion those first couple months when I had no job, no friends in a brand new city and brand new state, and my husband began the long hours of law school. I don’t know what I would have done without him.

Jeremy came home from the animal hospital around midnight. He was quiet. I didn’t want to ask what happened. I already knew and I didn’t need any details. We went up to get ready for bed. Right before getting in to bed, as I was walking out of the closet I heard a noise that sound like a loud, deep purring. I stopped dead in my tracks and strained to hear more, or where it might be coming from. But then it disappeared. It had probably been the sound of trucks on the road. I got in bed and tried to read myself to sleep. As soon as we turned off the lights I started to cry.

If only I had stopped Lucy from picking on the cat. If only I had gotten Kitty vaccinated. If only I had not sprayed that Round Up. But it all amounted to the same thing. I was clearly at fault for the death of my cat. Since I had my kids I had spent less time caring for him. I hoped he knew how much I loved him, even if I did not show it like I once did. I was just not responsible enough to own a pet. I had a hard enough time trying to keep the floor swept under my kitchen table every day. Sure I could say I loved him, but if I really did, then wouldn’t I have taken better care of him?

It was the worst thing I had ever done. Not the worst thing that had ever happened to me. The worst thing I had ever done. And it wasn’t the kind of error that you can work like mad to fix: pull an overnighter, throw inordinate sums of money at, knock on doors to beg for help, ask everyone you know for forgiveness. It was the kind of mistake that stands eternally, that you will never escape, that you can never rationalize. It was the kind that taught you how precarious life was and how important every action you make or don’t make can be.


The only reason I don't want my daughter to know this story (besides that it's sad), is that I wouldn't ever want her to feel it was her fault. It most definitely was not. In later chapters in the book I describe how our cat was tested for rabies and found not to have it, which I knew to be true all along. We continued on our vacation to Mackinac Island, where Lucy had a bad reaction to the shot in the middle of the night and we had to walk to the little clinic that was available to us. But it was just a blip and Lucy was okay. She is 9 now and has no memory of the events that summer. She has always loved cats more than anything else and asked nonstop for a cat for a couple years before she wore me down and we got another one. I take very good care of Perseus by not letting him outside and making sure we all take him to the vet together once a year. While I love the cat, I have instinctively put up a protective wall, not letting myself care too much, because I know that one day he will leave us, too.

Lucy and Perseus, November 2010

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Diarist

I wish I had kept a diary my whole life. I have written in scattered journals for a week or so at a time, but nothing consistent and nothing that really captured the moments in my life that are getting harder and harder to remember. My fortieth birthday is next year, and so last winter I wrote a “40 by 40” list of 40 things I wanted to accomplish before I turned 40. One of them was to keep a journal. So I started using this beautiful leather-bound journal I got from a friend and once a week I jotted down how I was doing on my list items. Then it was once a month or so. Although now I couldn’t tell you when I last wrote in it.

But one good thing about having been a writer all my life is that I have captured some of my life events in the stories that I’ve told. Recently I was cleaning out a drawer in my office and came across old poems that I had written 10 or more years ago. They give me a glimpse into my past but they are also cryptic. Why did I say what I did? What is it that I was really thinking at the time that made me feel this way? The ideas seemed so important at the time and are lost to me now.

I have written various books, from the nonfiction puzzle book Badger Brain Teasers to the children’s book Solar System Forecast to my novel published on kindle The Gathering Storm. I have also written a sequel to The Gathering Storm that still needs to be edited and then published. And in between those two I wrote another unrelated novel that is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written, though it needs a lot of editing before I submit it for publication.

But the first book I wrote from beginning to end almost no one has ever read. It’s a travelogue about two trips I took in 2005. I recently started reading it over again and editing it. As my first full-length book, it is in need of much more editing than anything I’ve written so far and will require a couple passes at it. But one of the things I like so much about it is rediscovering moments I had with my family that I had completely forgotten about. The book is basically a journal of the summer of 2005, both the thrilling and the heartbreaking.

So, as an example of a snippet of my life that I had completely forgotten until I edited my travelogue, I present to you a scene from the book featuring my children, Kaden (who was 4 at the time) and Lucy (who had just turned 2).


Kaden took over the reins that night and told his own bedtime story. His traveling companions on this trip were now his traveling partners in a rocket ship to the planets. He started at the sun and worked his way outward, naming every planet in order and relating facts about each of them. “Grandma liked Jupiter best because of the storm called the Great Red Spot.” He even remembered to mention the asteroid belt in the right location and Sedna, “discovered in November 2003 and farther out than Pluto.” This was when it first hit me just how fascinated he was by space.

After the trip he would continue to learn about the planets, checking out a book on a different planet every couple days when we went to the library. He would sit right down in the aisle and read them to himself, then at home he would quiz me to see if I knew what the names of the planets’ moons were. I had to start reading them with him so he wouldn’t catch me with a puzzled look on my face. Soon the different colored toy balls in our house became planets. And somehow Lucy’s favorite became Uranus. Only to Lucy, it was Myranus. Not Your Anus, as she apparently thought, but Myranus.

We would ask the kids what their favorite planet was. Kaden’s would change by the day, but Lucy’s was always Myranus. Kaden even tried to correct her.

                “Lucy, it’s not Myranus. It’s yuh, yuh, yuh, yuh YOUR Ranus. Can you say that?” he would instruct her.

                “No! Lucy’s Ranus!” she would respond.

                A couple months later after a story time at the library, Lucy was playing with toys the instructor set out. She was playing with a toy that required her to manipulate different buttons to pop open the lids where Disney characters appeared. She was not acquainted with Disney characters, so I pointed them out to her.

                “There’s Mickey Mouse. There’s Minnie Mouse. That one’s Donald Duck. There’s Goofy. And that one’s Pluto.”

                “HEY!” Lucy shouted. “WHERE’S MYRANUS?”


 Kaden was the solar system that year for Halloween. Fortunately, Lucy was just a princess.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Snake in the House

My father-in-law used to live way out in the country the sticks, as they say, or the boonies or the middle of nowhere. All were accurate descriptions. After driving to a place that can’t even be found on the map, you had to turn onto a dead end road, then a long dirt driveway bordered by a cow pasture, then pass a vacation home owned by out-of-staters who never visited, before you finally found his house nestled into the start of the 40 acres of forest that he owned.

My husband and I drove out to see him one day, having the afternoon off and time to kill on a Sunday drive in the country. We didn’t know whether or not he’d be home, but the rolling hills and bucolic scenery was worth the drive either way. I had been to his house before, a small A-frame with a detached garage. As a single guy, he didn’t need much space, and he didn’t have much. The door opened into the galley kitchen, and then a living room, bathroom, and bedroom completed the first floor. The bedroom contained bunk beds where his sons occasionally slept when they would come to visit. Upstairs was a loft that made up my father-in-law’s bedroom, a space I imagined to be quite small but had never seen myself.

Despite not needing much space, my father-in-law had embarked on a project to create an enclosed breezeway between the garage and his house. When we arrived that afternoon, we found the garage empty and knew that he wasn’t home. But my husband had to use the bathroom, so he retrieved the hidden key and we made our way carefully across the construction area and to the door. We let ourselves in and I stood in the middle of the living room, staring into space with nothing to do, as my husband shut the door to the bathroom.

I don’t have any idea what I was thinking about as I stood in the living room and just outside the bathroom door, my gaze looking at nothing at all as I faced the general direction of the downstairs bedroom. But within moments of my husband leaving me alone in the living room, I caught sight of movement in the bedroom. Along the base of the far wall, I saw the back half of a large snake as it slithered under the bunk bed.

“Jeremy?” I called, my voice sounding reasonably brave and steady under the circumstances.


“There’s a snake in the house.”

Maybe you’ve heard the expressions “coolheaded” or “grace under pressure” or even “he was my rock when I needed him”? I’ve heard those expressions too. Perhaps someday I’ll witness such a thing. This was not the day.

“A snake? Where?” His voice was already at least an octave above mine and completely panicky. In bad situations he has always been the one to freak out, overreact, and completely abandon any sense of calm. Oh, the stories I could tell. And will, eventually.

“I just saw it go under the bed.”

“Get on a chair!” he instructed me. I didn’t think it was necessary as I knew where the snake was – under the bed. But I did as I was told and stepped up onto a metal folding chair. (My father-in-law is an ace decorator.)

“What kind of snake was it?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I only saw the end of it. It was long. And thick. No markings. Black.” I wasn’t about to go peek under the bed to get a better look.

“No rattle?”


There was quiet and I waited for him to get out of the bathroom to rescue me. “What’s taking you so long?” Apparently, knowing there is a big snake outside your door makes it hard to relax and finish.

I finally heard the toilet flush and then he called out in his same rushed, agitated voice, “Is it safe for me to open the door?”

“Yes,” I said from my high perch, getting a bit exasperated.

He came out into the living room and joined me on a chair. I pointed into the bedroom. “He’s under the bed there. I saw him gliding along from the right. He was probably halfway under already by the time I saw him. He looked long and fat. Let’s leave a note for your dad and get out of here.”

“We have to barricade him in there so my dad knows where he is.”

“Is there not a door?” I asked, looking into the bedroom and seeing a dresser against the wall where I thought the open door should be.

He looked at the same dresser. It was solid and old and met the floor without any gap. There would be no sister snakes hiding underneath it. “Let’s move that in front of the door.”

We climbed down from our chairs and crept toward the bedroom. Keeping one eye on the bunk beds, we pulled the near side of the dresser as it began to groan across the hardwood floor. We managed to wedge it in the doorway and block the room off without the snake ever coming out to say hello.

We stepped back to admire our work and then Jeremy exclaimed, “Oops, I forgot about the pocket door.” I saw then that the missing door was just slid back in between the walls. That would have been substantially easier than lugging the dresser.

“Do we put it back?” he asked.

“Nah.” I was not interested in spending any more time in the house. “Let’s just write a note and go.”

So we left my father-in-law a note on his counter and ran for the car.

                According to my father-in-law, he left the door barricaded for a week so the snake would be good and ready to come out. Then one evening he turned off all the lights in the house except for the light of the TV. He pushed the dresser away from the opening, lay on the floor in front of the TV with a baseball bat, and waited. It didn’t take long for the snake, all five feet of him, to come out at top speed, head off the ground, looking for a fight. What he found was the solid side of a wooden baseball bat. My father-in-law said it was a blue racer, a large, angry snake that, while not poisonous, would give you quite a fight.

                I suppose I could draw a lot of conclusions from this, but I’m going to leave it simply: Don’t live in the woods.
The woods can be pretty, but just think of all the snakes in there. Not to mention, spiders.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Solar System Forecast

My first children's book is out! Solar System Forecast is a picture book explaining what the weather is like on the planets (plus the sun, Titan, and Pluto). The book is available at in hardcover, paperback, digital, and Spanish!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

This Is Why I'm Going to Hell

I was raised in a devout household. My mother was a devout Catholic and my father was a devout Agnostic. The product of such a union was a bewildered girl with a strict code regarding what I’m not sure I believe in. But as a child, on Sunday mornings while my father was either working or fishing, my mother took my sister and me to mass.

            My mother, having been educated by the Jesuits, knew all the complex rules and elaborate codes of her faith. You would think I would have been spared knowing these things, being fortunate enough to have a cheap mother who sent me to the public (read: free) school with all the other little heathens. But my mother made sure to pass along all her Catholic wisdom to my sister and me. For instance, we were not allowed to eat before going to mass, so we would be “pure” to receive the host. Another rule we strictly adhered to was that we mustn’t wear shorts to church or else we’d burn in hell.

            But my mother’s favorite rule was that no wine could be left over after the service ended. So every week after mass, as people streamed out of church toward the pancake breakfast or the bars downtown, my mother directed us to the room behind the altar known as the sacristy where she volunteered for her Christian duty of finishing off the wine. It did not seem to matter to her that every member of the congregation had either dipped their host in the chalice or sipped their share from it outright, she grabbed it with both hands and guzzled Jesus’s blood just the same.

For many children, attending church for an hour a week isn’t for listening and learning, it’s a test of patience and a chance to see just how entertaining your imagination is. Each week I tried to will God to send a lightning bolt through the skylight above the priest’s head at the altar during the consecration of the host. I wasn’t trying to kill him, just wow the congregation with a sign from God. I would work on other psychic abilities too: trying to get the cute boys to turn around and sneak a peak at me, or dropping a ceiling fan on the old lady in front of us who warbled when she sang. And then there was the day I thought I acquired the unusual ability of being able to smell over extraordinarily long distances. I was staring in boredom at the flower arrangement below the lectern and then … I smelled the fragrant blooms. From fifteen rows back! (I counted!) I thought maybe God had given me the gift of superolfactory perception. It was a couple years before I realized it must have been perfume from one of the ladies nearby.

On typical Sunday mornings as children, we would attend Sunday school classes at the Catholic school on church grounds at 9:30 a.m. before heading to mass at 10:30. Introduction to Sunday school came with my own mother, who was the religious education instructor for the kindergarten class for more than a decade. I may have been only five at the time, but I can recall some of her lessons. One of them involved all the kids in class having to say what we thought God looked like. After a handful of “Santa” answers, my mom was overjoyed to hear me say I thought God looked like a cloud.

Another facet of teaching catechism to kindergarteners, according to my mother, was reading us Jewish literature, or at least Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. She read this book to her class every single year and still could never keep herself from sobbing at the end and terrifying all the children.

In fourth grade, our Sunday school teacher, Miss Miller, tried expanding our horizons by teaching us about other faiths. She drew the symbols of other religions on the chalkboard and then described to us what they stood for.

“This one is the cross. We are all Christians and our symbol is the cross because Jesus died on the cross.” We all nodded our heads. This we understood.

“This one is called the Star of David. It is the symbol for the Jews and may be what King David’s shield looked like when he was a young warrior.” Our eyes were beginning to glaze over. We lived in a small farming town in Wisconsin. What was a Jew?

Next she drew what looked like two tadpoles canoodling. “This is the Yin and Yang. It’s about things that are opposites. Day and night, summer and winter, empty and full. It is a symbol for people who believe in the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism and Taoism.” Okay, we got the opposites, but that’s where it ended.

There were a couple other symbols she showed us that I have completely forgotten. At the end, Miss Miller asked us if we knew anyone who was a religion other than Christianity, symbolized by the cross.

My hand immediately shot up. Because I was the only one in the class raising her hand, Miss Miller called on me.

“Kelly, who do you know who has a religious faith represented by one of the other symbols on the board?”

“My dad.”

“And which one is it?”

I had already decided on my story the first time I saw the symbol on the board. I liked space and wanted to think I partly came from some place cooler than Earth. “The star,” I told her.

“Oh!” Her facial expression was awash with wonder and acceptance. “The Star of David,” she gushed. “That means your dad is Jewish.” She was clearly fascinated to learn that a half Jew was sitting right here in front of her, in Catholic Sunday School. Jews for Jesus! That would also explain to her why my father was never at church with the rest of my family.

A little later that same year as we were studying the sacraments, we were taught how to baptize someone in an emergency. If there was not a priest around to perform the sacrament for an unbaptized person who was on death’s door, any individual could perform the rite. Therefore, the nine-year olds in our class were given instructions on how to wet one’s fingers and make the sign of the cross over the afflicted individual.

I was trying to think of a situation in which one of us could possibly find this information of use. Perhaps one of my little classmates would stumble upon a beaten-up drunk in an alley on the way home from school. Or maybe someone’s parents would still be in bed Saturday morning as one of the fourth graders sat up watching cartoons, and there would be a knock at the door. The child would open it, only to have a man pitch forward into the room with a bloody knife sunk in his back. Of course the kid wouldn’t really know if these men had already been baptized, but why take the chance that they hadn’t?

Fortunately for me, and everyone else in the class, Miss Miller already had a situation in mind when she decided to teach us emergency baptisms.

“For example,” she said, scanning the room until her eyes found me. “Kelly, let’s say you’re playing catch in the backyard with your father when he suddenly clutches at his heart and falls to the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head. Find some water, or if there is none available, spit will do, and wet your hands. Then make the sign of the cross over him, touching his forehead, heart, and shoulders as you say, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” As she said the words, she drew a big cross in the air with her hands, blessing my father’s imaginary dead body in front of her.

I committed to memory the lesson of that class. Although I never did have to perform an emergency baptism on my father, I did put the lesson to use a couple years later.

My mother had found a “cute” holy water font. I would love to know at which store she was shopping when she ran across this item. The font was made of porcelain and meant to hang on the wall in a home. Above the small bowl for the holy water knelt a little angel praying. We decided to hang it on a nail above the light switch in my bedroom. In the lobby of our church was a little tin barrel with a spigot that was filled with holy water. Church members were welcome to take some of this water home with them to use for I-cannot-even-begin-to-imagine-what-purpose. One Sunday my mother took an old used cottage cheese container to church with us and filled it with holy water to put in the font in my bedroom.

Besides doing the sign of the cross when I entered and exited my bedroom, I soon found another use for the holy water.

My sister and I rarely got along. Four years older than I, she was in high school at the time and headed down the road toward becoming one of the world’s few female serial killers. She appeared to me to be nothing but evil. Her days consisted of spewing out insults at me, physically harming me if I so much as crossed the threshold of her room, and listening to an unhealthy amount of Prince on her record player. So for the most part I stayed out of her way and hid in my room, organizing my filing cabinet or rearranging my furniture, while she stayed in her room, trying on clothes, putting on makeup, and making lists of who she was going to kill first. Pretty much everyone in the house avoided her, except for one helpless little soul: her cat. And so it happened one night, after a particularly violent tirade that had her storming back in her room, slamming the door, and cranking up When Doves Cry at an obscene volume, that I whisked the vulnerable Kitty into my bedroom, locked my door, and performed the emergency baptism to save him from my sister, the Devil.

I dipped my fingers in the holy water in the font on my wall and recited the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It was a bit tricky, because I wasn’t sure exactly where a cat’s shoulders end and the neck begins, but I fumbled my way through it, touching what I figured was close enough to the proper body parts.

Kitty lived to the ripe old age of twenty-two, and my sister never did become a serial killer. (That I know of.) My sister took it pretty hard when the cat died. She had the cat cremated and the ashes put into a little vessel that was small enough to wear on a chain around her neck. (Totally normal.) I never told her that I baptized her cat, but I like to think about how surprised she will be when she gets to Heaven and finds Kitty waiting for her.

After the sixth grade, religious education classes were taught on Wednesday nights instead of Sunday mornings. It was common for all school districts to hold sports practices Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, with Fridays free for our own recreations and Wednesdays for the kids to attend church classes. For my junior year, the classes were held in the basement under the rectory. There were two classes held in separate rooms, each taught by a volunteer from the church.

My class was taught by an older lady named Ms. Kulwicki, who was kind and maybe just a little too gullible. My friend Melanie and I could get her off topic and chatting endlessly until class time had run out and we had accomplished nothing on the curriculum. One day we got her going on the subject of capital punishment. We fueled the flames of her rant by asking innocent questions such as, “Why does the government think it can play God?” or “Doesn’t Jesus say that an eye for an eye is an outdated teaching and that we should learn to turn the other cheek?”

And then there was the day that Ms. Kulwicki didn’t show up. The fifteen or so kids in our class sat around the long table in their cold folding chairs and talked amongst themselves. About 10 minutes after class was supposed to have started she still hadn’t shown up. Someone decided to head upstairs and look in the parking lot for her. The rest of us thought it would be funny to turn off the lights. The room, being a windowless cement cell in the basement, was pitch black. A few kids started crawling under the table, poking at the other kids.

The student who had left returned to say there was still no sign of our teacher. We were not yet ready to ruin our “night off” by reporting her absence to the alternate teacher in the neighboring room or the priests upstairs. Kids began turning the lights on and off at random, walking in and out of the room, breaking off into groups to make jokes, sitting on the table, and hitting each other with their folders. The noise in the room was turning into a dull roar. After 45 of the 60 minutes of class time had elapsed, Melanie and another girl, Anna, volunteered to preach from the bible as a joke. The other students sat around the table and watched the stand-up routine while I said I would take one last look upstairs for our teacher. I walked out the door and turned the corner in the hall and nearly ran right into Ms. Kulwicki.

“I was just coming back out to look for you!” I exclaimed, unable to hide my surprise.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, rushing by. “I accidentally fell asleep!”

She opened the door to the classroom, and there, seated around the table, were a dozen 17-year-olds quietly listening to two of their female classmates taking turns reading from the bible. Our teacher was overwhelmed with the wholesomeness of her class and thanked Melanie and Anna profusely for taking over for her.

God has an amazing sense of humor.

            But all was not fun and games in the Catholic Church. After I left home for college, the stories first began to break about the sins of certain Catholic priests and how the church had been hiding the fact that a number of their own had been molesting young boys. This did not come as a surprise to everyone. As many had already asked, What man feels a calling to a vocation where women are dressed in black obscuring sheets and are not given equal status to males? Or one that forbids marriage? I think it is a little telling that there is an old joke that says, “How do you get a nun pregnant? Dress her as an altar boy.”

            I had my own version of this joke. I first told it to my sister on Christmas. I had just attended Christmas services with my boyfriend at his Protestant church. When I returned home my mother insisted that my sister and I go to Christmas mass with her. I was furious to be forced to attend two holiday services on the same day. We arrived at church just as the ceremony was starting, and since all the “faithful” had suddenly come out of the woodwork for the holiday, there was a full house. We were forced to stand in the back vestibule for the next hour, peering through the windows at the service with the other latecomers. It was at this point that I turned to my sister and whispered, “How do you get a nun pregnant?”

She gave me a blank stare.

“Fuck her,” I said.

It was good that we were standing outside the chapel, because there’s a chance that the priest didn’t hear us laughing till we cried. And now you know why I’m going to Hell. I’m going to miss Kitty.
Back when I was still going to Heaven.
First Communion, May 1981

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paying Respect

I didn’t notice the little boy at first. I was sitting in the front row of the church, fixated on my grandpa’s coffin, and the boy was somewhere in the very back. Even when the service ended and we all filed out, I still didn’t see him because I was embarrassed that I was sobbing while having to walk past all the firemen from my town, who were there for the funeral in uniform, honoring my grandpa who had been the Fire Chief for many years.

We left St. Aloysius Catholic Church, where my grandpa had also served as an usher until his multitudes of cancer became too much for him to get out of bed, and his family and friends got into their cars to head out to the cemetery. My grandpa’s coffin was loaded into a hearse and my grandma rode along with it, led by a police car and a restored antique fire engine.

My dad turned the lights of our car on, which is standard procedure in a funeral procession, but the chilly and rainy October day might have necessitated it anyway. People stopped to stare, as they do for any funeral procession, as we drove down Madison Street toward Highway 12. The cars moved slowly, slow enough that a young boy, perhaps ten or eleven, could keep up with our progress on his bicycle.

I was old enough by that time, eighteen and had just started college, that I didn’t feel that this boy was my peer. I didn’t recognize him and didn’t give him much thought. The old fire engine would be a draw to any kid, and I didn’t think that his pedaling alongside our group was anything more than a child interested in a fire truck.

When we got to the cemetery, we gingerly stepped out onto the fallen leaves and wet ground. The casket was placed onto the little elevator that would eventually lower it into the freshly dug hole after everyone left. The family and closest friends of my grandpa then gathered around the coffin once more while the priest said a few more words. My grandma and her three daughters, including my mother, linked arms and stood closest to the coffin. A huge profusion of red carnations was draped over the casket. After some final words, someone in uniform, standing apart from the group, was given the signal to give my grandfather a final gun salute in honor of his service in World War II. I remember the first of the three-volley salute, the way it blasted through the air with violence, upending the quiet, reverent moment and causing my grandma to jump in fright. It was also then that I noticed the small boy, who had followed all the way out to the cemetery on his bike and was standing off to the side.

When the final words of prayer were over and my aunt had distributed red carnations to each of grandpa’s female relatives, the funeral goers moved back to their vehicles. As the young boy was getting ready to get back on his bike, my grandma approached him.

“Did you know Doc from the river? Were you one of the kids who would fish with him sometimes?”

“No, ma’am,” the boy answered, holding his jacket tight around him with his head bowed. “I just came to pay my respects.”

“Well, thank you,” my grandma replied. We walked back to the car and she mentioned that she had also spotted him in the church.

As is tradition, the funeral and grave-site visit was followed by a potluck in the church basement. We all headed back into town and gladly trooped out of the rain and into the cozy basement. A series of tables had been set up along the walls with more casserole dishes than I had ever seen in my life. The other attendees hung back to partake in the feast until my grandma had gone through the line first. But she saw the boy, who was lurking alone in a corner, and encouraged him to get a plate of food as well.

Once we all had gone through the line and sat at the tables to eat, the room became loud with the buzz of everyday conversation. I was sitting kitty corner from my grandma at the table and watched as one person after another came up to her to tell her they were sorry. There are not  many words that can be said on this topic, besides I’m sorry and thank you, and every time it felt awkward and made us all teary. When the priest came up to talk to my grandma, she asked him, “Do you know who the little boy was?” By this time he had eaten his fill and disappeared. The priest said he did know him. He attended funerals of the townspeople on a pretty regular basis. I remember the priest half apologizing for this, and also conveying the message that the real reason he came to the funerals was because of the hot meal that was served afterward.

I took a lot away from that day. Besides the red carnation that dried long ago and has now been sitting in my closet for more than twenty years, I received a deeper insight into the human condition, from those who were at the center of attention that day and those who were at the periphery. My grandpa had a great life, with a remarkably kind wife, three beautiful daughters, a successful business, an active life in the community, and a peaceful refuge found in the surrounding countryside. But his life didn’t start out so bright. His father died before he turned five years old, leaving just his mother and baby brother. The little family struggled to make ends meet, including distilling their own alcohol during prohibition and bootlegging into neighboring states and running from the notorious competition. Somehow my grandpa still managed to be salutatorian of his graduating class and go on to open an ice cream shop with his younger brother before starting his own electrical company. But it would have been possible to imagine him, around the age of ten or eleven, attending funerals of people he didn’t know, all in search of a hot meal.

My grandpa as a little boy

My grandpa ("Doc") and his little brother ("Shimmel")

My grandpa during his Fire Chief years