Sunday, December 21, 2014

O Tannenbaum, Across the Sea

Our family Christmas tree ritual was the same every year when I was growing up.

My dad, Bill Henry, and I shopped in the lot beside the grocery store. Searching for the perfect pine was always better if a light snow fell, which was highly likely in Ohio. My dad shook it to see if the needles held tight or fell. He twirled it around to discover bare spots. It had to be taller than he was. He brushed the branches downward to check for symmetry. When he finally asked, "What do you think?" I knew he'd found the winner. All I had to do was agree.

My mother always said it was too tall. He never agreed. When the angel was placed on top, it missed the ceiling by an inch or less every year.

My dad knew what he knew.

Attaching the lights was tedious. Because 1950s bulbs were large, they got hot, making it necessary to place the strings turned off. When they were lighted, invariably, too many burned in some places and none burned in others. My mother's eagle eye spotted each error. Patiently he unclipped and relocated until she was satisfied.

He sat in his rocker and called out the blank spots as she and I hung glass ornaments dusted with frosty glitter. Then she added the icicles. Because my dad and I had haphazardly tossed them onto a tree once, we were never allowed to try again. She meticulously draped each one, resulting in tiered hula skirts of shimmering tinsel.

Each year my dad announced, "That's the prettiest one yet, Betty." She assured him it was because we'd found the perfect tree.

"Karen and I just got lucky," he'd answer and wink at me.

But my dad wasn't always lucky. Fate dealt him some bad cards.

He was an amazing high school athlete, scouted by the St. Louis Cardinals to join their farm team. Playing professional baseball was his childhood dream, and just as it was in sight, a tragic accident, as he slid into second base in his senior year, left him with a broken ankle. Pieced back together with metal pins and bands, he never ran again.

But our backyard bordered a school playground where he'd take me to play baseball, hoping I'd learn to throw and catch. If a ball didn't fall into my glove, I wasn't motivated to run for it. But the neighborhood boys did. My dad drew them like flies to honey. A powerhouse hitter, each crack of his bat sent them running like rabbits. And he could pitch every kind of ball, too, making them drop and spin and loop as the hapless boys swung at thin air. And they loved him.

During World War II, he had a second chance at recognition. Because that old injury kept him off the battlefield, he was a crackerjack at running the office where he was stationed in Chicago. He knew how to manage people. He was easy-going, charming and had an endearing sense of humor. He saw nothing but the best in his staff. And they loved him. So the army scheduled him for their London office to work as an aide to General Eisenhower. My mother always said it was the honor of his life.

But the war ended before he went overseas. Another chance gone.

Instead he was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, IL, to oversee German POWs. He never talked about it, but my mother said he had a grand time with his assigned prisoners. He didn't bark orders and stand aside as they worked on camp projects. He rolled up his sleeves and worked with them. On Saturday nights he slipped in beer and played cards in the bunkhouse with them. When he was criticized by his superiors for being too easy on them, my dad insisted they'd been through enough already and would return to very little. He knew the reality of their ravaged hometowns and scattered families. When his squad was shipped back to Germany, the men gave my dad gifts--a handkerchief and a carved wooden soldier. He kept them in his top dresser drawer all of his life.

The war had been over many years before I learned what else they gave him.

After our tree was decorated each holiday and my mother and I had gone to the kitchen to bake or wrap gifts, my father turned off the living room lamps and stood alone at the tree and sang "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") in German, the way his men taught him at Camp Grant.

I don't know what he was thinking, but I'd guess it had nothing to do with winning or losing a war. It had everything to do with a band of men who just happened to start out as the enemy and ended up being his friends. My dad saw them for the heroes they were. And they loved him.

Somewhere across the sea, I believe they remembered him, the kind American soldier, for the rest of their lives. And they sang "O Tannenbaum" for him.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Clark Family Hijinx 2014

Dear Everyone,

The Chinese offer these important words: “May you be born in a time of transition.” You’re left to decide if it’s a blessing or a curse. Whichever, that’s squarely where we are at present—in transition, closing and opening doors.

After 41 years in education, Cliff retired in June. In terms of teaching and administrating, he left no stone unturned. Finally he’s free to travel every season and is never happier than when he’s got a suitcase in hand and a stretch of open highway ahead. He visited friends and former colleagues in NC in August. He learned to fly fish in CO in September. He traveled across AK in October for the trip of his life, visiting far-flung fishing villages, watching nearly 100 salmon swim idly down a roadside stream, and sailing across glacial bays filled sea lions. After Christmas, he’ll take off again. He’s worked brilliantly for a long time to have this chance. We’re repeatedly asked how we’re doing together 24/7, and I explain real estate’s LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION mantra applies. All couples continuously navigate relationships with vague borders, invisible fault lines, shifting sands. Distance is never the issue. Space is. We’re simply finding North on a new map.

For reasons unknown to science, I’ve had another amnesia episode. Frighteningly, this time I drove a car and went on about my life for several hours before realizing I wasn’t myself. I describe it as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, an apt simile for a children’s author, inside my own head. I continue to write and will study with celebrated author Jane Yolen at her MA farmhouse in March. Countless thanks to those of you who read my erratic but well-intentioned blog “For All I Can Tell.” I appreciate each comment you leave. A writer is nothing without readers.

Maggie races through her senior year. In the fall play, a British farce, she was a woman disguised as her dead brother but returned to her female self by the end. (Is that range or what?) She’ll apply to colleges from Ohio to the Pacific NW. Her senior speech was “The 5 Things You Don’t Know about Adoption,” delivered to an auditorium of 400 deeply attentive people. I cried silently through it. While I know her story, I’d never heard her tell how she began life on a doorstep in China. So this is the perfect picture for our card. Standing in that doorway, she is uniquely herself: beautiful, bright, and brave. She’s spent 18 years getting to that door, supported by the devotion and faith and love from people on opposite sides of the world. Now she will step through alone. On her own merit. Recently she bought herself a necklace engraved with “Be Calm. Be Strong. Be Grateful.” Too Oprah for Cliff, he muttered, “Be careful.”

Good advice whenever you find yourself at a new door.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014


Tara Lazar invited me to write a post for her 2014 Picture Book  Idea Month Challenge in November. Typically authors and illustrators offer helpful, encouraging strategies or as Maggie might explain: "magical-rainbow-universe stuff."

I told my hard truth. An overwhelming 500+ people commented. So I turned out to have been helpful and encouraging after all. Copy and paste this link to read their interesting remarks.

By Karen Henry Clark

PiBoIdMo readers arrived today with packed suitcases, believing I had the inspirational ticket for guaranteed passage on the gleaming picture book express.

This is not that train.

Once upon a time I thought I had the golden ticket, but it turned out to be a day pass. Here’s the story.

By the time I was four, I wanted three things: a husband, a daughter, and a book that I wrote myself. I was sketchy about how to accomplish the first two, so I tackled the book. In purple crayon, a popcorn ball rolled through perilous adventures across our living room walls. My mother patiently explained that books belonged on paper, and my father wrote my story on a notepad as I recited it.  

I kept writing (on paper) and eventually received a master’s degree in English. I had official jobs, but secretly I wrote picture books.

Then I found my husband, an elementary teacher who believed my stories were wonderful. He read them to his classes and asked students to draw their favorite part. He believed I had promise.

In a twist of fate, I met Florence Parry Heide, a successful children’s author who told me to join SCBW, long before they had added the I to their name. Early newsletters had pages of editors and addresses. I submitted manuscripts for almost seven years. When I complained about my rejections, Florence said, “Do you want to see mine? I have boxes of them.” So I kept trying. An editor finally called because she loved my story, but the project ended when a new publisher was hired. The editor told me not to stop writing, but I did. It seemed pointless.

Then we adopted our daughter Maggie from China. Her government document said: Baby found forsaking. I realized eleven months of her life would always be a blank page. When her first English word was moon, I imagined it had been the magic in her orphanage nights. Perhaps her favorite toys represented animals she had seen in China. I invented naptime tales about her adventures with them. [Insert picture of toys.]

When Maggie was five, she asked what I had wanted to be when I grew up. I read her the manuscript that had come close to publication. She liked it and said, “You should write more, Mama.” How could I expect her to believe in dreams if I gave up on mine? So I put her on my lap and began to type a story called Sweet Moon Baby. 

Rejections arrived, but Maggie’s faith in me never wavered. In second grade, she wrote to me as Editor at Clark House Printing and Loving Company. Not only did she love Sweet Moon Baby, she asked if I had others as “wonderful and enchanting.” [Insert picture of Maggie’s letter.]

Then one day I received the long-awaited yes I had waited for almost my entire life. Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, illustrated by Patrice Barton, was published by Knopf in 2010. [Insert picture of Maggie and me at book launch.]

The three-point dream of my four-year-old self came true. Entering the Random House Lobby to visit my editor was my Homecoming Queen moment. At author events when parents announced: “This is our Sweet Moon Baby,” I was proud to have given a lovely name to adopted Chinese children.

But things change. Now my book is out of print. None of my other manuscripts have worked for an editor. My agent search is unsuccessful. I’ve derailed at the station. My engine flew over the edge, crashed at the bottom of the canyon, and someone spray-painted loser on my caboose.

Still, I can’t quit. And for that I thank my mother and the picture books she read to me constantly. Because she grew up on a farm with no electricity or running water, she favored stories about hard work. Wispy princesses and their vain wishes did not interest her. The Little Engine that Could was her favorite. Through chores, we chanted: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

My mother (and Watty Piper) gave me the metaphor for my life.

Determined little engine that I was, my first story was about a journey.

Sweet Moon Baby was about a journey.

What I’ve come to understand is that success requires more than writing a great story. You have to understand your writing journey. Whether you’re published or not, your writing can derail. Sometimes you land in the canyon, but you can write down there, too. I am.

My adventure is mine, stop by stop. And that’s not failure. It’s just my track.   

Karen Henry Clark has been a high school teacher, college administrator, advertising copywriter, newspaper essayist, and book reviewer. Earning ISBN 978-0-375-95709-3 for Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale was her proudest professional achievement. She chugs on, hoping to earn another one. Meanwhile, she blogs erratically (but with good intentions) on “For All I Can Tell” at  

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Hosta Daily News

I began with the best intentions when I walked Maria the other day.

I cleared my mind of grocery lists, crabgrass removal, our daughter's mounting school deadlines. I strolled along and welcomed the day.

That worked for a few blocks.

Next thing I knew, I puzzled over dinner. Didn't I just make chicken and pasta last night? Hasn't Maggie decided she's tired of asparagus? Did Cliff tell me he couldn't look another salad in the face? They both like vegetable soup. Do I have potatoes?

How many times, by the way, should a lawn service have to spray for crabgrass? For two years we've professionally chased this stuff, and it's still there. If Cliff mentions poisoning the water table one more time...

Why on earth was Maggie playing some neon-light-show game on her phone last night? She has to give her senior speech at the end of the month, and she said she had the first sentence in mind. FIRST SENTENCE? Are you kidding me? Does she have any idea what it will take to hold the attention of a packed auditorium? Okay, I know high school kids would see a one-sentence speech as a gift, but still. And what about her college admission essays? Does she even have a first sentence for them?

By this point, I'd picked up the pace considerably. I yanked Maria all over the place.

"No, that squirrel won't come down the tree for you."

"The cat is busy. Forget it."

"It's just another hosta. It doesn't smell better than the last one."

As I pulled, she pushed her head even deeper into the leaves.

"Funny isn't it," a woman watering her garden said to me. "I used to wonder why my dog was interested in a patch of grass or clump of plants. It drove me crazy. I thought I'd never get home from every walk."

A kindred spirit. I agreed. Who did Maria think she was anyway?

"Then one day a neighbor watched me hurrying with my dog and mentioned that plants were like their newspapers. They get all kinds of news that doesn't interest us one bit," she continued.

I'd never thought of it that way. Maria had her reasons, too, for enjoying a walk. Those hosta leaves were her entertainment section, political cartoons, daily horoscope.

Who was I to think the paw prints of a rabbit weren't compelling commentary? (They beat my crabgrass obsession any day.) If I walked to clear my mind, despite my brain's chattering struggle, it stood to reason Maria had her reasons, too. A constant napper, she didn't need to empty her mind. She needed to fill it.

Those green edges held the scents of chipmunks for following, children for petting, birds for chasing. The wonderful stuff of her dreams.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Icing Magic

When Maggie was in kindergarten, she attended a birthday party with at least 50 children and their parents. I'd never seen anything like it.

Gifts covered every surface inside the house. Screaming children swarmed the pool. A chef grilled burgers, chicken and hot dogs. An ice cream vendor dipped cones and sundaes. A bartender poured wine for adults. An artist oversaw bead and paint crafts. A pirate organized sword fights.

It was a suburban festival, not a child's birthday party.

Maggie, always a quiet child, spent a lot of time on my lap. Frenzy was never her best thing. Overwhelmed myself by the increasingly inebriated adult chitchat, I was relieved to sit quietly with her in the shade, remembering my first birthday party.

When I turned six, we had only lived on that street for a month, so I was basically unknown. But my mother figured out who had children my age and made contacts. Social media was different back then. Mothers were home all day, for one thing. It was common for people to knock on the door and for residents to answer. Our neighborhood had a telephone party line, so you waited your turn to make a call, but you also might introduce yourself and excuse yourself at the same time if you interrupted someone's conversation. Mothers were often outside, hanging laundry on the clothesline, getting freshly delivered milk from the porch, sweeping the sidewalk, sharing baked goods with a neighbor.

I honestly remember borrowing a cup of sugar from next door. It really happened back then.

I'd never had a birthday party and couldn't remember the one I'd attended when I was four, so I had no idea what would occur. Six children arrived with gifts. I was astounded. They just showed up with wrapped boxes and cards for me. One gift, an Anchor Hocking dish set, is still with me because my mother and I believed I might have a daughter who would enjoy it, too.

We played pin the tail on the donkey, tossed pennies into bowls, and dropped clothespins into milk bottles. My mother awarded dime store trinkets to everyone, careful to find a way for each child to win. My dad blew up balloons and we all jumped and laughed as my mother tossed them to us.

We were extraordinarily happy in that backyard, just six little children and two devoted adults. I was so proud of my parents, that they knew how to create joy on the lawn for me. It couldn't have been a simpler party. It couldn't have meant more.

But there was more.

As we sat at the picnic table, my parents emerged from the kitchen, carrying a white bakery cake. Although I could barely print, I knew THAT was my name in pastel script. There's something about a capital K in sugar curves and loops that thrills me to this day. Some people fly to NYC or enjoy spa retreats for their birthday bashes. All I need is my name glistening in candlelight on a white cake. It's hardly a remarkable thing these days. But it reminds me of being dearly loved by two people who wanted to see me be surprised by the happiness that was possible because of my birthday.

When I see my cake each year, I see them. Betty and Bill. All over again. That's who deeply loved my birthday. In those icing letters, they magically return to me every September.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Be Surprised

I think I know almost everything.

Even so, I believe if I googled one more thing or finished one more book or attended one more conference, I'd discover the truth. The ultimate answer. The pivotal secret. The knowledge that would allow me to sashay down a straight and narrow road with white doves fluttering beside me and a radiant sun before me.

I spend so much time in front of a screen, trying to think myself out of whatever paper bag that consumes me, that I forget to look up. I know so much that I forget about the power of being surprised. And I mean the kind of surprise that makes you blink. And then blink again.

I saw it yesterday on a county road in Minnesota. Out of nowhere, a leaning village of tangled sticks stopped me cold. (Yes, it was sponsored by grant money and took three weeks to build, but that's beside the point. Stop over thinking. That's too much like what I do.) I was completely surprised. That predictable catch in my heart between beats opened up, and I slid through.

I was transported. I walked through its round, woven rooms and had no reference point.

I was Alice, free falling down a rabbit hole. I was Dorothy, inching along a yellow brick road. I was delighted. This structure was the stuff of myth, but elves are not common in the Midwest.  It was a living fairy tale, and I was in it.

Mystery and amazement are rare in my life. I miss that. Knowing a lot of facts gets to be a burden finally. It makes you responsible, which is an overbearing nuisance when you get right down to it. It forces you to put every square peg in its square hole. But as I stood at an oval window in a basket-ish wall that overlooked a meadow, I remembered driving with my daughter when she was four.

We lived in Rockford, Illinois, a city surrounded by cows and fields. One day she pointed to the round hay bales scattered cross the landscape and asked, "What are those?" I explained, and she was quiet for a long time. Then she said she always thought they were a sign of magic. "How so?" I asked.

Maggie believed that cows in a field were turned into round bales of hay. She didn't know how it happened or why, but she thought I would know the answer. Her sweet certainty made me blink. Twice.

No answer would ever be equal to her innocent assumption that something that fantastical was possible. My logic couldn't hold a candle to her imagination that created something adorably impossible as a way of understanding the world. At four, everything was a surprise. She stepped into each one with an eager heart.

Yesterday, I did, too. For the first time in a long time. The view was incredible.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

After Spandex

I'm no more adept at exercise now than when this was published by the Milwaukee Journal Magazine 23 years ago. Unfortunately.

I was in trouble. Electronic music crashed off the walls while fiercely determined women charged into place. Never had I seen so much Spandex. And bodies, bodies everywhere, in neon flashes and waves and zebra stripes, with matching ankle weights.

I was feeling awfully dowdy in my husband's baggy gray sweat suit.

When my friend Kelly invited me to this fitness class, I had a feeling it was a mistake. In high school, gym classes and gang showers had scarred me for life. Clearly some girls thrilled to the sight of softballs and tumbling mats, but I was never among them. I was the one forever slinking to the end of the line, praying never to be summoned to climb the rope dangling from the ceiling.

Foolishly, I thought an adult exercise class would be worlds removed from the cement-block gymnasium that so long ago had stolen my self-confidence and frizzed my hair each Tuesday and Thursday at 9:10 a.m.


The evening instructor, Juta, a no-nonsense Germanic woman resplendent in black and silver, flew across the front of the room, arms pummeling the air.

"Kelly!" I shrieked, dashing to my left, "I feel like I'm auditioning for the Rockettes!"

"I know. It's great!" she said, beaming as she nimbly executed jazz squares and tried not to notice my stumbling feet.

Suddenly Kelly and I knew why she had always been picked to be captain of whatever team sport was on the gym teacher's agenda, and why I had always been the last chosen.

And here I was--surrounded by women who had always fit in. They had been student council officers in high school, and now they were executives, directors, consultants. They had been born competent. They had been born able to do push-ups.

I was out of my league. I could see it in their sneering sweatbands. They knew I couldn't even get elected as a student council alternate.

I decided to try a morning class. Surely housewives would be a less aggressive bunch and more casually attired.


Once again the look was beyond me. They were into cute. Their leotards were pink, lavender, yellow. They had matching warm-ups appliqued with ducks and bunnies. I knew they had all shopped together for these ensembles, probably lunching on salads.

Yes, in high school they had been cheerleaders or pep-club members, straining through rhythm-keeping hands and feet to have access to the glory on the playing field.

These were the perfectly petite girls who had skipped naked through those gang showers while I struggled to vanish behind a skimpy white towel.

Admittedly, the choreography in this class was less tricky. We hopped around to early Beatles' music. But despite the less aggressive movement, there was an energetic flip to each step that would never come naturally to my joints. Theirs was a perky spring developed over years of jumping and twirling before a cheering audience, always hoping to catch the eye of the quarterback.

In my plain sweats on the last row, I was quickly spotted for what I had been: a National Honor Society member, school newspaper editor, gym-class klutz--someone who had faithfully turned in her homework on time, someone who only went to prom once.

They had no intention of returning my weary smile.

I checked the exercise class lists again. Only one more choice was left: "Forever Young." I joined it the following day.

No flash. No squealing. No loud music frightens us into submission. No one preens in designer outfits. When we get tired, we stop. And we smile a lot.

Our instructor, who must be 30 years my senior, can touch her toes 100 times in rapid succession without bending her knees.

When I start wobbling, she winks at me encouragingly.

No one much cares what happened in high school. And no one has ever heard of Spandex.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rickrack, Metaphorically Speaking

When I grew up, all seventh-grade girls took Home Economics. No questions asked.

Yes, we were encouraged to attend college, but not for any sense of personal ambition. The assumption was that we would all marry but might need a profession to fall back on in case the husband died young and we became sole support for the children. College was Plan B.

Housewifing was every girl's main duty. We had domestic skills to master.

So one day Miss Uhl explained the important task of sewing aprons because we needed to wear them for the cooking unit. My mother, a self-taught seamstress, crafted beautiful clothes that could have hung in department store windows. She put the song in a Singer sewing machine. My pleated apron, Mom explained, would be black and white gingham, sporting a pocket (to hold a hankie or tissue) with appliqued red apple and green leaf.

A row of red rickrack would grace the hem.

That rickrack was the death of me.

Outfitted with my heart-shaped wristband pin cushion (which inexplicably I still have), designed by my mother to fulfill an earlier class assignment, I was prepared. I'd been laying out patterns for doll clothes under her eagle eye for years. I was a wizard at threading a machine, and I knew about sewing in reverse to catch the last stitches. I understood that speed did not lead to accuracy. I embraced the magic of clipping seams and pressing them open, despite the extra step.

Other girls finished quickly, unconcerned with bunched gathers or wrinkled waistbands or lopsided ties. Finished was all they cared about, but I labored on as if I were seeking the approval of Coco Chanel. Well, I kind of was. My mother would know the difference between a slipshod effort and brilliant precision.

Finally Miss Uhl told me to finish mine over the weekend because we started the cooking unit next Tuesday. If I didn't have an apron, I'd have to sit it out and be marked down accordingly. Preparing capable wives was serious business back then. Of course, she'd never looked at my project to see why it was taking me so long. The poor woman oversaw a room lined with thirty machines that had to be kept humming from 8 am to 3 pm five days a week--a suburban sweat shop of giddy girls. She was too worried about gum chewing and note passing, the kind of distractions that could lead to needle-pierced fingers. I was the least of her concerns.

My mother was distraught upon learning I was the last to finish. "How is that possible? Let me see what you've done," she said, leaning against the kitchen counter. I held up my apron with its dangling trim. She crossed the room to examine it.

She smiled. "Oh, honey," she said. "Look what you're doing."

You have to think about rickrack to understand this. Do you know how it angles right and then makes a sharp left? Only to turn a quick right again? And how it continues doing this for the entire length?  Do you know about sewing machines? How you have to pick up the lever for the foot under the needle to release the fabric and pivot it slightly for each of these turns and then lower it and stitch again and stop and lift...?

No wonder it was taking forever.

"You're making this harder than it has to be," my mother said softly. And she showed me the trick to rickrack.

You sew right down the center. One straight line of stitches holds it in place.

I amazed my parents regularly where practical matters were concerned. My dad once wisely said, about a history project that was running away with me, that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. Rickrack was yet another example of how adept I was at getting in my own way, at perceiving roadblocks that were figments of my imagination. I wish I could say I'd learned that lesson once and for all, but that wouldn't be true.

The good news, however, is that I'm quicker now to see those random oaks and sharp turns that overwhelm me. I understand my internal compass is capable of spinning east and west simultaneously. I know that north, right down the center, is hard for me to find.

That's a start at least.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Trouble With Teenagers

Back when I wanted a career in journalism, this was my first serious piece for the Milwaukee Journal Magazine. When Reader's Digest reprinted it, I was astonished. I even received fan mail. Now that I have a teenaged daughter, I read myself with even greater interest.

People say teenagers are no good. They make too much noise in shopping malls. They drive recklessly up and down America's main streets. They carry chips on their shoulders as big as the Sears Tower. And at least some of the time those things are true.

But we shouldn't forget there are hard moments in the life of a teenager, too.

I watched such a moment not long ago at a woman's funeral. I didn't expect the event to affect me. She was the wife of the man who owned the company where I'd worked for only a short time. Through much of the ceremony, in fact, I remained unmoved. One daughter sang her mother's favorite song; another read from The Prophet; her son read from the Bible. A priest spoke about her devotion to the church, the community, and about God's plan for us all. The smoothly organized service assured us that everything is controllable and understandable and fine.

Then her teenaged grandson, with golden hair and flushed cheeks, stepped forward. With his very first deep breath, every heart in that church was achingly reminded of something long ago forgotten. Softly he began:

"My grandmother was the nicest person I know. When my dog jumped up on her and left dirt on her dress, she said, 'Oh, what beautiful markings he has.' That was Nana's way.

"She took a back seat to my grandpa, who was a successful businessman in this city, but she was the one behind the scenes who provided the strength and support for his career," he said with a voice now trembling. "That was Nana's way."

Through a muffled sob, he continued. "Whenever she did anything worth recognition, you'd have to hear it from a different source because she was never one to brag. That was Nana's way."

Finally, in a voice breaking free of sorrow, he looked up and said, "Nana taught me courage. She put up an incredible fight to the end, when she died peacefully, which is how she lived her life. That was Nana's way, and I hope I can carry on in the same manner."

There are no hearts as delicate as those of teenagers because everything is happening to them for the first time. And despite their swaggering charm and flippant commentary, teenagers are scared about what to think, to say, to feel.

When the grandparent dies who has been the truest ally of an insecure teenager, nothing about the world ever feels quite right again. Not that death is easy for the adults involved either, but they have things to do: a service to arrange, flowers to select, relatives to call. Young children remain thankfully unaffected because the impact of a life lost has yet to strike deep notes in their brief world. But the teenager sits helplessly alone. Nothing but the loss occupies the time while neighbors arrive with cakes and casseroles. 

The perfunctory obligations of death and funerals spare adults who have learned to be controlled. They've accepted the safety provided by surrendering to a greater power. They've learned how to appear to be fine.

Structure deadens the immediate pain.

The trouble with teenagers is they haven't learned to be controlled. Living life right down the middle, with all its attendant land mines, is all they know. It hasn't occurred to them to run a zigzag pattern.

When that boy rose to speak about the woman who surely had been his truest ally and dearest friend, his honest voice dragged each adult out into the open, no longer able to hide in the calm of ritual. He exposed the truth about this real woman who believed in a boy who probably tried the patience of many adults. He reminded us that his grandmother was more than another dot on the predictable chart of life and death.

All over again, each adult felt the powerful losses crisscrossing their own hearts and knew that saying goodby to a beloved grandparent meant saying goodby to something unconditionally happy in a life.

That something never really returns. That pain never really goes away.

The trouble with teenagers is that they keep adults from forgetting about how they once were.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

No One Needs To Be Smarter Than A Fifth Grader

Fifth graders have life figured out.

Every spring my husband Cliff, an elementary school principal, invites his fifth graders, five at a time, into his office for milk and cookies. Information from these chats is used in the final assembly, attended by parents, to honor their children's time at the lower school campus. He says a few things about each student.

He contends that fifth graders know the importance of people. One boy told him that "being around someone you love makes you nicer." A girl suggested that a lonely person should watch the playground carefully because someone else is all alone, too. Just go over there.

They know everyone needs a friend.   

They understand effort. A child recited a Thomas Edison quotation: "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Many know homework is only bad when they wait until the last minute. "Always pretend the deadline is now," one advised.

They know everyone should try their best.

Causes now matter to them. They pay attention to examples of courage. Ghandi's statement, "Be the change you want to see in the world," is as important as Olaf's, the snowman from Frozen, who says: "Some people are worth melting for."

They know everyone can make a difference.

At this age, a sense of humor deepens beyond knock-knock jokes. With understated irony, they can create an effect. One boy said his favorite quotation was from Richard Nixon: "I am not a crook." When Cliff announced this at the characteristically sentimental assembly, it brought the house down.

They know everyone loves to laugh.

By now, they have a sense of personal history. They've succeeded, and they've failed.  They know life can be overwhelming. One girl embraced the saying: "Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue."

They know everyone struggles.

While a popular TV game show insists we should be smarter than fifth graders, I'm not so sure. The announcer asks fact-based questions, as if that's all there is to wisdom. It isn't.

Just ask someone who is eleven years old.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Sudden Angels Part 4: Each Dime

My mother died in 1999. That's when I realized what mattered.

Until then, I thought I had every last thing--wonderful husband, wonderful daughter, wonderful chance to publish a book, that turned out to be Sweet Moon Baby.

But the devastating loss of my mother, a larger-than-life presence who squeezed the best out of each day, left me paralyzed. My mother could do at least fifteen things at once to perfection. She did them with a single-minded intent, grabbing me by the hand to share the adventure beside her. The task might be routine, but she jollied me into thinking it was the chance of a lifetime. She was wise and funny and devoted to my valuable contribution. She saw to it that I succeeded at whatever it was, quoting from The Little Engine That Could who climbed an impossibly steep mountainside track. As I grew up, the challenges were increasingly harder, but she convinced me that with another tap, turn, or try, I'd make it. Quitting was never an option.

"Anything worth doing, is worth doing well," she said with a smile that shot sunbeams of possibility through my doubting heart.

Without her steadfast encouragement, I couldn't see how I'd rise to accomplish anything again.

She'd been gone for three days when I found the first dime.

While Maggie, who was two and a half, napped, I cried silently in the rocking chair. I was sinking. Then my eye caught a glimmer. In the distant corner, a single dime sparkled from the most unlikely location. Something about it did not seem random, so I placed it on my dresser.

The next day, as I carried groceries into the house, a wave of despair overtook me. Grief does that. With no warning, it covers your soul with the cold fingerprints of regret. As I placed the sacks down to find a tissue, I saw a dime by our door. I picked up the blinking comfort.

This appearance of dimes continued, sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs. They always seemed to radiate something about my mother. Maggie found them. Then Cliff. We couldn't explain it. We'd never found dimes in our lives before. Maggie named them Nana dimes.

We took her to Disneyland for a distraction after losing my mother because the heartbroken toddler could not comprehend why her grandmother would leave without saying goodby. Sadness swept through me when we approached the "Small World" ride I'd ridden with my mother at the New York World's Fair in 1964. It had been her favorite attraction. I knew she would have loved taking Maggie through it. Overwhelmed by her loss, I hesitated, trying not to cry in the world's happiest park. There on the pavement ahead, gleaming alone, untouched by the passing crowd, was a dime. I picked it up, believing my mother would indeed ride with us.

The people who helped my mother at the end of her life all found dimes within months of her passing. It made sense; she always sent thank you notes. Her housekeeper's skeptical husband said, "I don't think God works that way." I answered, "Maybe not. But I believe my mother could." He dropped by several days later to say he, too, had found a dime.

In Sweet Moon Baby, I searched for a way to include her dimes in the story. Maggie's arrival from China was the grandest day in my mother's life. Perhaps no one ever loved a grandchild the way she did. Widowed at forty-six, she'd packed away a trunk of certain joys. But Maggie was her unexpected blessing. And so I wrote:

          They crisscrossed a hundred roads. Coins twinkling like scattered moon beams
          took them from corner to corner.

By now I've found almost 350 dimes. Each one appeared on a day when I struggled or on a day when I was elated. The same is true for dimes found by Cliff and Maggie. Their arrival feels linked to something we would have shared with her.

There must be a way to calculate the odds for finding dimes. An equation surely exists to explain this event.

I don't care about numbers.

The other day Maggie helped me plant grass seed. I don't like yard work. She doesn't either. Like any teenager, she was not at her best. I remembered my mother patiently overlooking my poor attitude about things I didn't want to do. So I started telling her about my mother's yard-planting joy and how she hoed huge expanses, removing every twig and pebble, raking the space for all it was worth, faithfully watering twice a day. "Those seeds knew better than to disappoint Nana," I told her.

Maggie forgot her misery. We talked and laughed until we'd finished. No one would have been more proud of us than my mother. By now I don't have to tell you what I found in the seed the next morning.

Once my mother died, I understood what mattered. At first I thought death meant I'd lost her forever. But she wasn't about to let that happen. Not my mother. She had no intention of letting anything get in her way. Ever. While death is a powerful reality, it can't hold a candle to the certainty of love.

In each dime.  

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Oklahoma Winds

Almost no one has ever spent time in Oklahoma.

Whenever people ask about my life, and I mention my time in the state, they nod and say, "I passed through once on my way to Dallas/Los Angeles/Memphis. Not much there." I can't disagree. The Indians, who were marched in on The Trail of Tears from their beautiful homelands elsewhere, felt the same way.

I've said plenty of times that if I'd been on a covered wagon headed West, I'd have turned around and gone back upon rolling into Oklahoma.

The Wichita Mountains near Lawton are the country's oldest range and, in their hey day, would have looked like the Rocky Mountains. Now they're on their way back into the earth, which explains why they're reduced to piles of colossal rocks. Even the mountains want out. Enough said.

Yes, Oklahoma has cities with air-conditioned malls and elaborate suburbs like any place in America. Their universities are impressive. First-run movies play there. They have Starbuck's.

But the lay of the land defines any territory. Despite its post-card pretty spring azaleas, it's basically a hard place with far too many flat acres sliced up by barbed wire. During summer droughts, people give up on lawns and daisies and tomatoes because water is rationed. The blamed hot wind burns the life out of everything green.

So it's an everlasting wonder to me that Broadway's first modern musical was Oklahoma! Set in a simpler time, it's about everyone getting all dolled up to go on a picnic. Such a sweet notion. If you know the story at all, however, you know it takes a bad turn. Tap dancing and fringed surrey aside, a menacing darkness roars through the fun.

That is Oklahoma.

Smack dab in the center of Tornado Alley, it is a horrific place to live. I've seen my share of twisters. They are a swirling, mesmerizing wonder. Dropping out of a bottle-green sky, they massacre the landscape with an unforgiving tunnel of wind.  I've hidden in hall closets and underground shelters and never been hurt.

But that wasn't true a year ago when twenty-four people died from a tornado in Moore. Our relatives there suffered serious property damage. Life is still not back to normal for many and never will be for some.

If you live anywhere in Oklahoma, you know it's a dangerous place. Powerful loss can ride in on the next brutal wind.

So I was especially touched when we saw Maggie's boyfriend in his school's production of Oklahoma! They captured the romantic spirit of a farm on the plains. They whooped and hollered through ambitious dance sequences. They had ruffles and paper lanterns and picnic baskets. But best of all, they had a collection box in the lobby for donations to the Moore High School Theater Department because that 2013 tornado destroyed their construction equipment. A portion of ticket sales went toward the fund, too. These sympathetic students in St. Paul wanted to help.  

Annually in Oklahoma, "where the wind goes sweepin' down the plain," countless valuable things are carried away.

But every now and then, good winds blow in, too. Generously. All the way from up here in Minnesota.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Happiness of Lady Chang

I know she looks like a statue to you.  But she has a story.

It begins with Maggie's hardest year in grade school. The teacher was not adept at creating community spirit, so chaos prevailed. Whenever I volunteered to help with a classroom project, Maggie ran to me as I arrived and held on for all she was worth.

Often when I picked her up at dismissal, she was exhausted, quiet, worried after her tumultuous day at the "zoo." I understood.

Sometimes retail therapy seemed like the best medicine. She rode in the shopping cart's child seat, her hand over mine, as we looked at towels and mirrors and sandbox toys.

One day at the sale table, she pointed to a pile of garden trinkets. "Oh, Mama, look at her. She's so sad," she said, pulling a scuffed white wooden Asian statue from the mix. I agreed. We talked about her perilous journey from China to North Carolina. We wondered how it felt to be beautiful but overlooked among the chintzy plastic lawn accessories. We imagined what would make her happy.

Marked for Final Clearance at $3.99, we were her last chance. We shuddered to think where she'd be sent next. We had to take her home. 

She was lovely in our yard, placed beneath a pink dogwood. Maggie called her Lady Chang. I don't know why. The tree's petals fell around her, just as that horribly challenging school year was ending. Maggie insisted she looked happy for the first time. I could see the difference, too.

When we moved to Minnesota, Maggie started middle school, not an easy thing. We brought Lady Chang with us. She's had a hard time in the front garden.

We don't have a pink dogwood tree. Squirrels and rabbits have eaten the flowers we planted beside her. She has been covered by snow for seven months every year.  Happiness has been elusive.

Maggie moved on to high school. Boys can be rude. Girls can be mean. Teachers can be thoughtless. She didn't always get the part she wanted in the play.  

In desperation, I planted a bleeding heart in the garden last summer. A heat wave took its toll, despite my watering efforts.

Sometimes all a mother can do is wait and hope through a bitter season.

But this spring has been good.

The bleeding heart bloomed.

Maggie attended the prom.

I've never seen Lady Chang look happier. 

Trust me.

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