108 Squares

About eight shirts – unwashed, of course. About eight shirts was all I needed to get 108 perfect, 3×3 squares. Blues, greens, plaids. A bit of red. It seemed paramount to work with them unwashed, protecting that scent that was so uniquely you. Old Spice, Stetson, and something….something from the garage. Gasoline? Maybe. You were always so busy working on a project out there, it seemed like the scent of it permeated everything you wore. Oh! And cough drops. Cherry Halls, can’t forget that scent. Always in your pocket, always in the truck console.

It took a few months; I remember starting the squares the fall after we lost you, and I was still finishing it a couple of days before Christmas. It was a slow process; first, carefully cutting off the button and buttonhole strips; next, the sleeves and collar. Laying the shirt out flat on the living room floor and pinning the makeshift pattern pieces cut from grocery store paper sacks onto the fabric, I began to cut. Slowly, slowly, carefully. Every clip of the scissors a measured action; I didn’t want to waste any of this fabric that could never be replaced.

Some days I had longer to work on the squares than others, a few hours perhaps; some days, the process was so exhausting, so painful, I could not spend more than a few minutes working, even after I had taken the time to haul the supplies up the stairs and into the living room. I would sit, legs splayed, leaning against the couch and holding the precious fabric in my hands, soaking in the scent of you and remembering.


Eventually, all the squares were cut. 108 perfect squares. Stacked evenly into towers, according to color. The machine was threaded, and the next phase began.

Pinning. Red, blue, green. Blue, plaid, red. Green, red, blue. Three squares sewn together and matched to another set of three, and then one more triple row. A simple nine-patch was formed.

And then, another nine. Over and over; slowly, carefully.

Pressing the seams, so the patch would lie flat. The pointy nose of the iron forcing its way into the tiny crevices where the corners of the seams met.

I would not cry on the fabric; I was afraid my tears would dilute your perfect scent.

Sewing the nine-patches together, it became so long that I had to lay the excess over my shoulder when working on it. I didn’t want this fabric to get dirty on the floor. Besides, I could imagine your hand was resting there on my shoulder, watching.

Finally. Nine rows by twelve. It was heavy already; the weight of it, comforting. On the table you once sat at the head of, I spread my 108 squares. One side face down, the underside with jagged bits of fabric teasing the seams, a few knots of tangled thread showing. I am not a perfect seamstress.

I brush at any small wrinkles with my thumb. It needs to be straight.

Unroll the batting. Slowly, carefully. Evenly. Line the edges up.

I ask the children to help me hold the topside above the rest; corner to corner, we wave the fabric up into the air, like a preschooler’s game of Parachute, and it glides down to rest peacefully in its own place.

The border is blue. A deep, navy blue, the color of the coveralls you wore daily. Shuffling about in the garage, those coveralls were as ever-present as the worn, brown work boots with the scuffed zippers that accompanied them. For many months, your coveralls hung on a peg near the door in the garage, waiting for you to take them down and shrug into them, ready to work.

The blue coveralls are gone now.

The border corners are always difficult for me. It can be tricky to taper them just so, keeping all four even, but I try. Sometimes I feel frustrated, but I keep at it.

Almost done, now. Navy crochet thread, and a needle. Down and up, down and up, I must exert a great deal of pressure to force the needle through the layers. Tying it off, effectively suturing three layers together.

It is finished.

The children clamor to lay on it; wrap themselves in it; hold it close; smell it.

My tears fall then, but I am careful to keep them from falling onto the blanket.

The quilt made with eight of your shirts. I could not bear to give them away.

108 perfect, 3 x 3 squares.

Nibbling Books

I remember Mrs. Lolly’s first grade classroom. Our little desks all faced the west wall of the room, and we practiced daily with “Dick and Jane” books.  I’m not sure if my memories are so vivid because of Mrs. Lolly herself, who was quite a unique woman, or because of her unusual style of teaching. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Mrs. Lolly was a former nun who had changed vocations. When the song, “Harper Valley PTA” came out, I thought it was written about her. I remember hearing parents and staff whispering about her and the way she dressed. Most days, she wore a short black miniskirt, a dress blouse, stiletto heels, and really big jewelry. Her makeup was heavy with lots of pink, and when she smiled, her white teeth sparkled against her bright lipstick. Her hair was a cloud of black swirls that framed her face and fell down her back in soft waves. I always thought she resembled Wonder Woman (as played by Linda Carter). In fact, I remember at some point thinking that maybe she really WAS Wonder Woman, hiding out at our school to protect her identity.

Mrs. Lolly was a talented artist. Each week, she would design a persona for the sounds we would learn and draw it on a large poster board, which would then be hung on the wall in the front of the classroom. We were allowed to help add details to the character and this became an exciting weekly ritual. Of course, I didn’t realize it then, but now I can see how this technique appealed to children of every learning style; visual, auditory, and tactile. Letter sounds became so easy to remember once I learned what each character stood for. “Mrs. A” was a woman formed from a capital  A, and we glued a tissue to her hands, because she was always sneezing and saying, “A-A-A-A-ACHOO!”. My favorite persona was “Ms. Double O”. I think she was supposed to be a spy. She rode a motorcycle and the wheels were shaped like the letter O. The sound her motorcycle made was, “VROOM, VROOM!”.

Once we learned the letter sounds, we would make up a story and put the letters together to form words. “Class,” Mrs. Lolly would say, “let’s see what story our letters will take us into today”. Then our little hands would shoot up and suggestions would be called out until we had enough letters to make a word. For instance, “Mr. R” (who had a kicking, dancing leg) might call up “Mrs. A” and together they would go out dancing with “Ms. T”, and we would have learned the word “rat”. Spelling and reading became a discovery to be anticipated, rather than the rote memorization that is so typical in many classrooms today.

I strongly believe that such creative literacy beginnings set the stage for a lifelong love of words and books for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have become the voracious reader that I am if this fire hadn’t been lit inside me at such an early age. If, like my son’s teacher, Mrs. Lolly had simply written the words on the board and instructed me to “write, say, and read” the words, would I have become so thrilled with learning to spell and read every possible word I could think of as a child? If I had learned to read by memorizing small paper books, as my children have, I would likely still enjoy reading to some extent, because I think I am just hard wired to do so. But, I wonder if that hunger, that passion, that I hold for the written word today would be so insatiable if my early literacy experiences had not been as joyful as I felt they were. It is rare that I have met another person with an appetite for reading such as myself. I was never a child who could merely nibble a book as an after school snack, I had to devour the whole thing in one sitting and that hunger is with me yet today. I once read a poem by Mark Strand (Eating Poetry), and in this phrase, “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth, There is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry”, I clearly saw myself. However, I have never been limited to just poetry and would happily read just about anything in ink: fiction or non, poetry, magazines, and, lacking anything else, I’ve even been known to read the back of a cereal box for entertainment.

As a child and teen, there were a few teachers who made a difference in my life, educators who gave their job everything they had, because they wanted to make a positive impact on the children they taught. I recall a middle school teacher who let us call her by her first name, which made us feel so grown up, and my high school English teacher, who went the extra mile and then some to help his students be successful in whatever they were doing. But, what would my junior high and high school years have been like if I hadn’t developed such a solid foundation in my first grade classroom? Considering this, I have to believe that the educators of the early elementary years, the teachers often disregarded as “just” a kindergarten or first grade teacher, may have the most impact on a child throughout their life. One fantastic teacher, like Mrs. Lolly, or conversely, one boring, apathetic teacher, could set the tone for a child’s success in learning for long after that child has left their classroom.

In writing this essay, I find myself nostalgic for that first grade classroom, for those tiny desks and the feeling of excitement and empowerment that learning to read gave me, and I wish that I could somehow contact Mrs. Lolly and let her know that she made a difference in my life. I’d like to tell her that, thirty-some years after leaving her classroom, I remember how hard she worked to teach us and how tirelessly she gave of herself. I know she was aware of the rumors and whispered innuendos that circulated the school about her, but I’d like for her to also know that to the children she taught, she was a hero. Maybe not Wonder Woman, but a hero to us nonetheless, and I’m thankful for being fortunate enough to have been in her class.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Four years; how has it been so long?

Sometimes I can’t believe

That it really has been so much time

Since the day you had to leave.

So much has changed; the kids have grown

You’d be so proud of them

I know that you would love to see

Them growing into women and young men.

Olivia is turning seventeen

She does so well in school

In Honors, doing clinicals

She’s so smart and beautiful.

(And Dad! We just bought her first prom dress. I wish you could see her

in it. She is perfect.)

And Savannah, Dad, her hair is blue!

She’s still playing the guitar

Thinks she’ll be a photographer

This year, she learned to drive a car.

Donovan has changed so much

You’d hardly recognize

This young man with the deeper voice

And wisdom in his eyes.

And Brennan, he’s a riot!

No more baby face

He just did the Pinewood Derby

Guess what? Dad, he won third place!

Our family has faced trials

We will not give up the fight

But it seems like since we lost you, Dad

Nothing has gone right.

And yet. And yet, Dad…..I know you are not completely gone.

Genetic echoes, they surround me

Alive in my own mirror

In my children’s laughs and snorts and shoulder shakes

Your legacy is clear.

Never will there be a day

When missing you hurts less

But there is still room for laughter

In this chaotic mess.

There is still room for beauty

Room for family, room for smiles

There is still room for happiness

And jokes, once in a while.

We have to take your memory

And shape it just to fit

The hole left by your passing

And the agony it left.

In doing so, we’re whole again

Broken; bruised and bent and battered


Still strong, still here, still pushing on

Although our hearts were shattered.

Broken pieces seem to have a way

Of melding back together

Not quite the same as once before

Still whole, but changed forever.

April 1, 2009

I miss you so much, Dad. If I had known the last time was really the

last time, I would never have let you go

Word Shortage

I have heard there are people with a shortage of words. They open their mouths to speak, or sit down to write….and nothing comes out. I feel a little bit sorry for them.

Then again, I seem to have the opposite problem. And that isn’t always a picnic, either.

Sometimes (most times) I am afflicted with an over- abundance of words. They bounce around inside my brain – much like an over-achieving silver pinball, fired out of its slot by the trigger and determined to hit against every bit of space, every obstacle, collecting as many points as possible – and the words clamor so loudly to be heard, to be noticed, that I often cannot organize them into one single essay or bit of poetry.

These words fight for recognition; enticing me into developing new characters; yanking my brain through an entire story idea in just a few minutes; rhyming themselves willy-nilly and without permission in my mind.

My folders are stuffed and my flash drives are filled; spiral notebooks are no longer fitting into the drawers allotted to them.

I simply have too many words. I need someplace else to stick my overflow of verbage, so they don’t get lost or mishandled.

And so I have started a blog.