Can We Make Public Schools More Like Public Libraries?

I have worked at a public library for 11 years and been a public school parent for 14. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found myself wishing my kids’ schools could be run a little more like the library. Here are some examples:

1. Truancy. During a handful of years one or both of my kids had several colds and missed more than the “allowed” number of days of school. Whereupon I received an automated shaming letter chastising me for my child’s absences and explaining how important education is. These letters always lead me to thinking about the broader issue of how often school districts and the governments that fund school districts rely on a punitive approach to issues. I understand the concern if a student has excessive absenteeism when they’re not ill. But what will actually help get them in the door? Schools are frantic to have a good head count every day so they get full funding. If they can’t get the kids there in the seats, the district is financially punished. In turn, they punish kids and parents when the kids don’t show up. It’s been my observation that punishment is more likely to lead to dropping out altogether. It’s almost as if the students are there to serve the system instead of the other way around.

Wouldn’t it be worth a try to use some positive measures? When people don’t come to the library, the question isn’t “How do we punish them?” The question is “How can we better serve their needs so they’ll want to be here?” Community surveys are done on a regular basis to discover what residents like about what we’re already doing, what things we could do better and what new services folks might wish for us to provide. Occasionally, we’ve kept what are called “No logs” – listings of every instance where a staff member said “No” to a patron request. After a few weeks, it was easy to see what needs weren’t being filled. Several times a day we were saying “No, we don’t have a fax machine for public use.” Well, after realizing how often people were requesting to use one, we do. Now we can say “Yes, there’s a fax machine you can use.”  Same thing with notary services. And maybe when the person comes in to use our fax machine or get something notarized, they’ll notice a flyer for an upcoming program that catches their fancy. Or they’ll see our DVD collection and say “Oh, I didn’t know you had movies here.” And they’ll come back again. Or not. But at least we’ve found one way to be of service to them.

2. Choices.  At the library, you don’t have to do everything or be good at everything. You can choose how much of the library to do. If you want to come to several programs every week, plus checking out print books, ebooks, audiobooks, DVDs and music CDs, go for it! If you only want to use our downloadable music service from home, that’s fine. My 16-year-old is feeling really done with English at high school and he gets top scores on all assessments. Why does he have to keep taking it? Likewise, there have been classes that caught his interest, but the learning he’d already done in the subject happened outside of the school setting and so he didn’t meet the prerequisite. At the library, if a 6-year-old wants to participate in our Lego program, there’s no prerequisite that they must have attended storytime as a three-year-old. Also, you get to choose which books to read and we don’t scold you that they’re too easy or too hard. You can figure that out for yourself. The library doesn’t have a quota. Read one book per year or 70, we’re here for you. If there’s a book you want and we don’t have it, you can suggest we purchase it. If it’s a new book, published within the past year, there’s a good chance we will. What if students could suggest classes or even just have a say in the curriculum of the classes already offered? Would they be more motivated? More interested? Maybe.

3. Cooperation and sharing. Let’s go back to that book you wanted that the library doesn’t own. If it’s older than about a year, we probably won’t purchase it – BUT. We will try to find a library that owns it and request a loan from them. Libraries borrow from and lend to each other constantly in an effort to make as many resources as possible available to as many people as possible. It’s not unusual for a book to journey hundreds of miles to fill one patron request. With today’s technology I wonder if schools could do something similar. My son has had the experience of signing up for a class that didn’t happen because not enough students enrolled for it. But with Skype and other technologies, it seems to me schools working together could come up with enough students for a class that could meet via technology. Or they could arrange for the three or four students from one school to remotely attend a class happening at a different location.

4. Pacing. My library’s lending period for most materials is three weeks. But if you get finished sooner, you don’t have to wait until the end of that three weeks to start reading or listening to the next thing. And if the three weeks passes but you’re not quite finished, you can renew unless there’s a waiting list for the item. Even then, you can get back in line for it and have more time to finish. At school, you have a set amount of time to do the unit. Finish early? Okay, twiddle your thumbs for a while. Not quite done? Too bad. That was your only chance. (I do realize many individual teachers work with students to remedy this; I’m talking about systemic issues, though.)

5. Mixing of age groups. One lovely thing about a public library is how it’s for everyone. We might have a 17-year-old and an 80-year-old in the same “How to Sell Online” class. While there are some general common-sense age guidelines – a 3-year-old can come to story time but not sign up for a gardening seminar – there’s a lot of intergenerational mixing, which is good for everyone. If you’re 90 years old and have never used the public library, you’re welcome to start today. Even programs aimed at a certain demographic aren’t as narrowly restricted as grades in school. Our teen programs have 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds.  Siblings can attend together if they have the same interest.

Looking back over my list, what I see at the core is a desire for schools to be more flexible and less punitive. I know change is hard and complicated, and almost always brings with it unforeseen consequences. But I can dream, can’t I?

Every Day for a Year


For the past decade or so, I’ve noticed a spate of books and articles in the vein of “The Year of…” fill in the blank. “The Year of Living Biblically.” “The Year of no Internet.” “The Year of Eating Only Locally Grown Foods.” I keep thinking I could write one called “The Year of Doing Nothing Much Special.”

Ah, but 2014 was the year I celebrated my 50th birthday, and I did set myself a goal for the entire twelve months. It wasn’t a hugely transformative change, nothing like learning to make my own clothing from organic cotton and then wearing only things I produced myself, or moving to a cabin in the woods with no electricity or indoor plumbing. My goal was simply walking a minimum amount every day.

I wanted a number that was meaningful in terms of my age milestone. I wanted to make it attainable and not too overwhelming so that I wouldn’t give up and not do anything at all. With two teens at home, managing things for an elderly parent, plus my day job, my life often resembles a frantic game of Whack-a-Mole. Time is a real issue. And money’s an issue. I can’t commit myself to something if it requires a lot of equipment. But I didn’t want to make it too easy. I wanted to have to make some effort and get enough exercise to benefit my health. I settled on 5,050 steps per day minimum. With my stride length, this works out to about 2 1/4 miles.

I’ve been writing down my numbers in a little journal, like Rain Man with his notebooks, each night before I go to bed. Date, steps, miles. I’m not sure why I need the documentation, but I have it.To be honest, I figured I’d have a at least a few off days where I didn’t quite make it. But I was wrong, peeps! I’ve met my minimum goal every single day for 365 in a row – January 1 through December 31.

Many days were easy. If I didn’t have to drive my son to school, I could walk to work. And once there, I’m often on my feet. I work split shifts two days a week, which means two round-trips on those days. If I’m able to walk both times, I can break the 10,000 mark without much extra effort. On days when I didn’t work and the weather was terrible (I’m talking ice storm terrible), I found myself doing things like walking in place as I stirred food on the stove. As my 16-year-old observed, “You can get a lot done if you don’t mind embarrassing yourself.” The biggest challenge came in early April when I had a terrible cold. But I made myself move. I’d get up off the couch every half hour or so and walk circles in my house while heating a tea kettle. Then I’d collapse and remain in a heap for another half hour while sipping tea.

I have an old friend who does nothing by half measures. One of his obsessions is physical fitness. As a friend, he’s 95% wonderful and 5% completely annoying. The 5% reveals itself when it comes to the topic of out-of-shape people. He used to be a little chubby himself, and you know how nobody is so fanatical as a convert. Several weeks ago, he posted a rant on Facebook about people using pedometers and how 10,000 steps a day was nothing as far as exercise. 10,000 steps should be a baseline and you had to do something else in addition to walking, he said. I started to respond with something along the lines of “Come live my life for a few months and then we’ll talk.” But then I realized this kind of thing is the reason there’s a “hide this post” option.

Yeah, 5,050 steps isn’t a huge number. But’s not nothing, either. It’s not even next to nothing; it lives in a different neighborhood. Yeah, my weight hovers on the line between what the current medical charts call the “normal range” for my height and what they call “overweight.”  But I had all of my middle-age tests done and got excellent numbers on my report. Cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure – all great. My doctor actually used the word “optimal” and said she wished her numbers were as good as mine. So I figure whatever a bathroom scale has to say falls into the “hide this” category along with my friend’s fitness rant.

It feels good to have stuck with it. I find value in making myself  keep going, even when I don’t feel like it, in order to meet a bigger goal. And no matter how little in the mood I am for walking, once I start I always remember that I love it. I love walking. There’s a however coming, though…

However, for 2015, I’m allowing myself an occasional day off. I’m upping my overall minimum steps goal, but measuring it in weekly increments. I plan to count weeks Monday-Sunday. If I have my steps in by Saturday, I can relax for a day. If I’m behind, Sunday is a good day to catch up. My target for the new year is 45,000 steps per week. If I meet it, I will have walked 1,000 miles by the end of the year.

Goodbye 2014. I’m closing the book on you.


Onward to a new year.



How to Handle Critique

Critique. I merely type the word and my breath feels shallower, my airways a little constricted. My hands shake a bit. Critique – so dreaded and so necessary. Like a trip to the dentist.

It’s hard, when I’ve had to fight even to carve out time for my creative efforts. Then I’ve wrestled down every word in succession, pinning them to the page. I’ve labored and worked, but it’s been worth it, because at the end of it all, I’ve produced this beautiful thing, an item of wonder. I’m exhilarated by my amazing feat, having brought forth a newborn baby piece of writing. But when I show it off, someone comments that it smells like someone needs a diaper change, oh and maybe I should do something about that case of cradle cap on the infant’s scalp. And its head sure is shaped funny.

Criticism of your writing. It’s going to happen unless you don’t let anyone read it, ever. Even now, I’m already anticipating what people will think of this post. Too many metaphors and similes smashed all together at the beginning? Probably. So how  can you handle it without being crushed and giving up? I can’t say for certain what will work for you, but I can share what’s helped me over the past few years.

*Is the criticism unsolicited, from a family member perhaps, who wanted to see your writing and so you shared? If the work is still unpublished, give yourself a few seconds to consider whether their comments are helpful. If not, feel free not to think about it any more. One of the most frequent complaints from family members is “But it didn’t happen like that.” Upon which the author  patiently explains that of course it didn’t, because here’s what the word fiction means. You don’t even have to explain much, though. You don’t have to justify or defend your writing. You can end the conversation with something like “That’s an interesting perspective.” Then turn your mind to more pleasant topics – kittens, puppies, flowers – whatever makes you happy.

*Is the criticism solicited? Have you asked for feedback from beta readers? When you receive it, remember it’s what you requested. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but if you trusted someone enough to ask for their advice, then you should weigh their words with deliberation, an open mind and gratitude. Nobody has an obligation to read your work. Everyone is busy. Everyone. If someone has volunteered their valuable and limited time to read your writing and do what they can to help you make it better, thankfulness is a better attitude than butt-hurt.

*Have you asked someone for critique and then realized it was a bad move because their advice is bad? True example: I was once in a group where a member had a written a short story with a conceit centered around the name of the main character. I found the idea clever and touching. Someone else suggested the author change the character’s name because it was too old-fashioned. Of course, then there would be no story. If this happens to you, do what this author did. Say, “Thanks for your ideas” and then ignore it.

*If everyone in your group makes the same criticism, they’re probably right.

*Not every beta reader is mentally healthy. I’m fortunate in the extreme to be included in a writing group that includes genuinely nice people who are all good writers and who all want everyone in the group to succeed. But some writers are insecure in the extreme and their critique of others is based more on a desire to cut the person down than to help them become better. It might take a few encounters to recognize this dynamic, but if it happens to you, there are a few options. You can stop asking for advice from that person. If they’re part of a group you don’t want to leave, go back to “Thanks for your comments” and then do your best to ignore them. You can defend your choices, but I find this usually bogs down group discussion and leads to nothing good. If you see Insecure Cutter doing this to someone else in the group, don’t be shy about saying, “I had a different take on the piece.” The good news is that folks like this tend to bounce from group to group, so if you wait them out, they’ll likely go on to be a thorn in someone else’s side soon enough.

*No one person can provide everything you need in terms of feedback. No matter the level of their own writing/editing skills, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how diligent their reading of your work, nobody is going to give you perfect advice. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people have a good eye for plot structure, others have a good ear for character voice, some will catch all of your inconsistencies and help you make your writing more cohesive. And each reader has his or her own reading preferences, personal issues, and experiences that will shape their own experience of your work. If you’re writing science fiction, but your writing group buddy is a western writer, both of you might have limitations in what you can offer the other. A good story should transcend genre, so you’ll still have a lot to give. The western writer can still spot plot holes, character motivation and more. But she might not be the best one to ask about whether your description of the space ship is believable. I swap manuscripts with a couple of writers who work in the young adult field. They tend to tell me my paragraphs are too long. Sometimes I shorten my paragraphs. Other times, I decide they’re thinking in YA terms and it’s not applicable to my novel. Read “Life of Pi” some time.

*If different beta readers express disagreeing opinions on the same bit of text, it’s likely a matter of personal taste. Go with what you like.

*Even someone who generally offers excellent, dispassionate comments on your work can get derailed if you hit on an issue that’s personal to them. I once, long ago, had a reader who insisted I needed to expound on the backstory of a minor character, and in fact, make that backstory more central to the plot. As the conversation progressed, I discovered my character reminded my friend strongly of her aunt who had married a man much like the husband of my character. For her entire adult life, the friend had been bewildered about her aunt’s choice of spouse and this was what she wanted me to explain. Well, I couldn’t explain her relative’s life choices to her. I could only tell the story I was telling.  I’m sure I’ve gone on similar tangents a time or two when I was the one critiquing.

*Sometimes it helps to be specific in your requests. You can say things such as, “What I’d like for you to look for is whether the dialog is realistic” or “Can you follow the action in the action sequence?” or “Is my main character’s motivation clear in this scene?”

*Above all, remember this is your work. Your creation. Stay true to your artistic vision. When considering whether to follow a beta reader’s suggestions ask yourself if the advice helps you fulfill your artistic vision or asks you to change it. Here’s another analogy, because I love them so much. If you love bowling, get advice from folks who will make the bowling experience better, not from people who want you to switch to tennis.

Is that one too many analogies? Thanks for your input. I’ll consider it.

Sibling Writerly

I’m reading a narrative written by my brother, when I see the catalpa tree sitting there right in the middle of the page.  He has transplanted it from our childhood back yard into the thick of his prose. I snort out a mouthful of tea. That’s my tree; I was already using it. It’s an important symbol in the story I’ve been working on.




This isn’t his first offense. The same thing happened with a lilac bush. I’m the one who accidentally dug up the remains of our pet parakeet while playing in the shade of said bush. Surely this gives me some custody rights. I suffered for those lilacs, and he usurped them.



Every writer I know evokes personal history in the practice of his or her craft, even for fiction pieces. In fact, workshop leaders all over the place are teaching us how to do it effectively. The problem for me comes with having another writer in the family, a sibling near my age. We’re both drawing from the same well.

My brother and I are creating parallel universes, where our characters drive identical Chevy Novas and own twin tortoise-shell cats. Despite my entrenched status as a grown-up, I find myself willing to share no more graciously than I did as a child. Perhaps I could be more generous if he wasn’t such a good writer. I suspect any resentment I feel is rooted in the fear that he’s putting our memories to better use than I am. Showing me up again.

My writing brain is becoming tinged with a new paranoia. One morning, I begin penning a description of a character, basing him on a former next-door neighbor. I stop mid-word, suddenly worried that my one-eyed vegetarian has a doppelganger residing somewhere in the pages of my brother’s notebooks. Worse, the hypothetical double could be a more fully realized individual than my guy, leading a more interesting life.

I falter for most of a day, returning again and again to my computer, only to sit and stare and wonder what to do.  Should I call my brother and propose a division of historical assets? Perhaps we could make a list and split it in half, like when we put masking tape down the middle of the living room as kids, saying “That side’s yours; this is mine.”

Or I could stick to events and people I encountered independently of him. Surely I have a wealth of my own material waiting to be garnered from unshared classrooms, solitary outings. I should have enough, I think, without dipping into his past at all. I almost convince myself I can be satisfied with this solution. Then I picture myself, six years old, saying I don’t want anything to do with your smelly old Matchbox cars anyway. The toys in my own room are more fun. Oh dear.

I did want to play with those cars. And I do want to use these memories. I feel the steam building inside again. I have as much right to them as he does. More, in some cases. I should be able to use whatever material I see fit.  I’ll just have to get to it first. I’ll out-write him, race my characters through the (dramatically enhanced) events of my own life before he has a chance. I must hurry that girl into the wagon she will crash into a rose bush, shatter that boy’s teeth in a bike wreck, get the elderly neighbor started on her valium habit. Then I’ll have two young siblings race each other to the car, vying for the front seat.  Or not.

I do need to be an adult, I realize, if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing. I close my eyes, counting my breaths, clearing my mind.  When I lift my lids, I see with a new clarity.  There is more than one catalpa tree in the world. There’s no reason the streets in my stories can’t be traversed in Buicks. And as for the one-eyed vegetarian?  I pick up the phone, dialing my brother’s number.  “Do you remember that old neighbor of ours with the eye patch?” I ask. “Are you using him for anything?”


This is a piece of creative nonfiction. A few details have been changed in the cause of making my life seem more interesting. It originally appeared in the now defunct ByLines Magazine.

How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.


Penciled In – Short Story

Did you know May is Short Story Month? I found out rather late in the game. But since it’s still May for a brief while, I’ll share a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. This story originally appeared in the May, 2009 issue of THEMA – the “Box Under the Bed” issue. Before I get to the actual story, I’ll use this opportunity to say that THEMA is an excellent little magazine. If you’re looking for something good to read, and/or if you’re looking for a prospective market for your writing, take a look at it. Even when they’ve rejected me, I’ve received thoughtful and helpful responses on my writing.

Now the story:

Penciled In

I was written in pencil. This represented a compromise between my grandmother, who believed Mama shouldn’t waste a name on me because I wasn’t a keeper, and my mother, who swore I would live and believed I should be listed in the family Bible in ink with the rest of the family. My grandmother kept the Bible in a locked pine box under her bed. I never did get changed to ink, though Mama asked about it occasionally. Granny always claimed she’d get around to it, but then would add, “It might be wise after all to wait a little longer just to make sure.”

The way she’d look at me made me feel like I was shrinking away to nothing already, as if I’d be gone without a trace in just a few minutes. I hesitated to go to bed some nights for fear I’d simply disappear in my sleep.

I was the only thing Mama ever stood up to Granny about. Mama told me how she insisted on having a bed set up right next to the wood stove when I was born. She’d hold me there between the warmth of her body and the heat of the stove, making sure I didn’t have a chance to go cold and stiff. Once I overheard my two aunts talking. They said when Mama realized I didn’t have even the strength to suckle, she soaked up her milk with a clean rag and squeezed drops into my mouth.

Granny never forgave Mama for being right, never completely admitted Mama had been right. I remember her arguing with Mama over whether I needed new pants. Granny told her, “The boy’s never going to get to any respectable size. He doesn’t outgrow his clothes but once every couple of years. If he’s too big for his breeches it isn’t in any physical sense.”

She used to short me on food too. Sometimes she wouldn’t set a place at the table for me until Mama reminded her. Then Granny would say, “Oh, I clean forgot he was here.” As if I hadn’t been there every dinner time my entire life. More often she’d serve out tiny portions onto my plate. If Mama then dipped out more for me, Granny would shake her head and ask, “How much do you think that little thimbleful of a child can hold?”

Granny’s always been substantial, sturdy, every bit as strapping as any farm hand she hired. And she doesn’t make room in her life for those who are too small and weak to make room for themselves. She’s never lost an opportunity of telling people she weighed over 10 pounds at birth, as did all three of her children. I was about a third of that when I was born, according to what I’ve heard.

Mama had me too soon. My early birth was due to her emotional upset at losing my father so unexpectedly. He got into a barroom fight, or else he was trying to break up a fight, or he walked in just as one man was shooting at another. Somehow he found himself in a bar and ended up taking a bullet. Nobody ever was arrested. The story was too confusing for the sheriff to unravel. I’ve heard about eight different versions myself. Well, all the witnesses were drunks.

My father was big, like his mother. I used to look at the only photograph Mama had of herself and Daddy together, taken just after they got married. In the picture they were standing close to each other. Daddy stood there broad and tall, taking up most of the space; even his whiskers seemed extra thick. He had his arm around Mama, a little wisp of a thing, with the top of her curly blond hair just grazing his shoulder. She wore a white gauzy dress. Daddy looked something like a bear who just ambled out of the forest, and Mama like a woodland fairy he’d found and carried with him.

Granny didn’t consider my mother to be good for much of anything; couldn’t understand why my father had brought such a person into the clan. My grandmother measured out her days in complaints over the meals Mama didn’t cook, the garden she didn’t cultivate. Of course, whenever Mama did try to help, Granny wouldn’t allow it. She’d grab the hoe right from Mama’s hand, declaring, “ Whacking the top off a weed’s no good. You have to be strong enough to get it by the root.”

Sometimes I thought Mama poured so much energy into taking care of me just to show up Granny. Keeping me alive was the one thing she could accomplish, against the predictions of just about everyone.

It was because of me that Granny had to keep Mama after Daddy died. Mama didn’t have any family of her own to go to. I know Granny hoped I’d take after my paternal side and serve as a replacement for Daddy. Or failing that, she wished I’d have the decency to be prompt about the journey to my heavenly home, preferably taking my mother with me.

Instead, I arrived early, extraneous and runty, neither condition ever to be remedied during my time in Granny’s household. When I first went to school I had to sit on a dictionary to see over the top of my desk, even though the teacher put me in the littlest seat at the front of the room. Embarrassed for anyone to know I came from her family, Granny tried to convince Mama to enroll me under a false name. By the time I started seventh grade, this past year, I had only moved back two rows. I’m still not tall enough to see over the heads of any but the youngest children.

I doubt I’ll be going to eighth grade. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end of this summer. Right now I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t seem to think any farther than getting some food into my stomach and figuring out where I’ll sleep tonight. Once it’s dark, I can probably sneak some vegetables from a garden somewhere, maybe find a barn to hide in.

Mama died last week. She took ill one night shortly after dinner, and passed on two days later. I put on my best shirt and trousers for the funeral. That’s what I’m still wearing, though they’re not looking so good now. I’ve ripped a hole in the left knee of the pants. The shirt is stiff with mud and old sweat and grass stains. It’s amazing to look at it and think it used to be white just a few days ago.

I rode to the graveyard in the buggy with Granny. She didn’t tell me to; I just saw her climbing up behind the horses and assumed I should too. Not many people attended, only Granny and myself, my two aunts with their husbands and children, and the preacher. The service was brief; everyone seemed in a hurry to get out of the hot July sun. If there’s a minimum requirement for the number of words that can be said at a funeral, the preacher barely met it. I don’t remember much more than “God’s will be done.”

Next thing I knew the wagons were driving away. Everyone forgot me. I didn’t mind; I wanted to stay there with Mama a little while. I don’t know how long I sat by her grave. A couple of hours maybe. I talked to Mama, told her how much I missed her already. I asked her now that she was in heaven, could she be my guardian angel? Then the men came to shovel in the dirt. They told me I should go, so I walked back to Granny’s house.

I thought the family would gather there, bringing food, like people do after funerals. But when I came in sight of the house, I didn’t see any extra horses or wagons. Apparently they all went back to their own homes. By that time, I only wanted to go lie down in bed anyway. I was hot and my shirt was sticking to my skin; my head hurt and I felt like there was a sharp rock inside my chest, ripping a hole in me.

I walked on down to the house thinking that once in bed I might not get back up for several days. However, when I put my hand to the door latch, I found it was locked. I knocked, but didn’t hear anything inside. I stood there for several minutes, pondering where Granny could be. Finally I decided all I could do was wait for her to come home. I went around back and drew up some water from the well. I took a long drink and then poured some over my head. It didn’t do much to revive me. Feeling a thousand years old, I dragged myself up to the top of the small knoll beside our house and let myself drop under the shade of a maple tree. I fell asleep right off.

I woke up at dusk, groggy and confused, wondering why Mama had left me outside, sleeping in the grass, instead of bringing me in to my bed. Then I remembered. I looked down and saw lamplight through the window. Granny was home. Once again, I made my way for the door, aiming to get to my own bed. Once again, the door was locked. I could hear Granny moving around inside this time. I banged my fist on the wood and hollered, “Granny, it’s me.”

I received no reply. Eventually, I climbed back up to my maple tree and watched the stars begin to dot the sky. I wondered if Mama was looking down on me. “What should I do Mama?” I asked. No answer there either.

True night had come by that time. The dark seemed like it was grabbing at me, and the mosquitoes were eating me up. I ran back toward the house, stopping in the front yard to catch my breath. I began to tremble all over, standing there completely alone. I felt smaller than I ever had before. The thought came to me that if I shouted loud enough for long enough, someone somewhere would hear me and come to see what was the fuss, a thought immediately followed by the fear that it might be coyotes or wolves who heard me. My legs felt about as substantial as pudding by this time.

Wobbling a bit, I crept closer to the house. Instead of the door, I headed for the window. I peered inside, not knowing what I expected to see. There was Granny, sitting at the table, the wooden Bible box next to her. She was snipping a photograph with her sewing scissors, the picture of my parents. She was cutting them apart. When she finished, she lay Daddy down on the table, smoothing him out. Then she took Mama and threw her into the wood stove.

Next she went to the shelf where she kept her writing things: paper, pencils and such. She picked up something and brought it back to the table. Taking a key from her apron pocket, she opened the pine box. She lifted out the family Bible and opened it up. After staring at it for a moment she put her hand to the page. I saw then what she was holding – an eraser.

Copyright: Ida Bettis Fogle

Poem: Seeds


Here in the middle of the U.S., we just passed the frost date. So it’s time to plant. Here’s a seasonally-inspired poem I wrote:


“Here it is,
The start of my first garden,”
she tells him.
Two dozen flat seeds
the color of milk, round with a point,
pour from a paper packet.

He wants to know what else she plans to plant
other than bell peppers.

She hasn’t decided yet,
but thinks it will be wonderful
to raise her own food.
She’ll cook more from scratch,
maybe even learn to can.
Gardening is great exercise;
she knows she’ll lose weight.
She hopes to figure out that sewing machine
she picked up at a garage sale
to make her own dresses.
Who knows?
She may need maternity clothes soon.
Healthier living should improve their chances.
At least she thinks so.
She wants to know what he thinks.

He thinks it seems like a lot to expect
from one little handful of seeds –
to grow a whole new life.


This poem originally appeared in “Mid-America Poetry Review.”