Nostalgia in the Form of Books

The vast Nebraska countryside offered long car rides. We drove through rolling farmland to visit grandparents, buy groceries, and go to school or church. My parents divorced when I was six years old, which meant more car rides, and even more waiting as the every other weekend transfer became a constant. I found comfort in Skuttles, a seagull stuffed animal I carried under his wings, and a pile of books. In the back seat of cars and in front of house windows, I read. I was cozy in an imaginary world separate from my own existence, which staved off both boredom and conversations I didn’t really want to hear.

I remember the first time I made the connection between letters and the power of storytelling. I was 3 or 4 and home ill from my preschool where we played with a small kitchen and sat in circles. My mom, a full time working mother of three children under the age of 6 was with me, and I savored that one-on-one interaction because in my memory, those times were rare. We sat in our wood-paneled living room in a yellow house in the heart of town and played school. With the easel before me and my mom prepared with a piece of chalk, she wrote “D-O-G” We sounded out the letters, and to my delight, a word rang into the air. “Dog!”, I exclaimed. She wrote more letters, and we sounded out “cat” with the same amount of glee. I beamed. The connection fired in my mind, and the freedom that reading words brought me never escaped me from that moment on.

I didn’t see my father much – just four days out of the month – but, when I did, the visits were impactful. How he chose to spend that time with us when it was already so limited, stuck with me. More often than not, we did one or both of two things: drove around gravel roads, marveled at sunsets and old graveyards, and strolled in bookstores. My dad, a non committal, handsome man who lives on the mantra of “no worries, ever” never took me to the library as I can recall because his history of never-returned books put him on a list he vaguely referenced with a smile, a shrug, and no further details. We didn’t often buy too many books from the stores we frequented, just perused, chose a select one or two, and became curious on so many more topics than we had time. My sister, as I recall, walked around pouting at times, and my brother brought his gameboy to an open chair. We all meandered. I devoured the titles and covers and opportunities to transport myself to another time, another life, a parallel existence. 

My dad’s favorite bookstore was a brick-front shop of antique books in the heart of the city. A ladder leaned against the tall stacks and piles of books littered the floor. Cozy nooks in which to curl up were scattered throughout the store and sometimes you were greeted by a cat. When I connect moments of happiness from childhood it is often here with the musty smell of old books or in my blue bean bag chair at home with my own stack. 

I was in my 30s when I was gifted two first edition novels from family members: “The Tale of Two Cities” and “Gone with the Wind”. My father and maternal grandparents both used words like “cherish” and “you’re the reader” when they handed them to me. In the cover of the Dickens novel are the words, “Luther Peters, 1907”, featured in cursive writing. My dad’s grandpa bought this book as a young man while taking a break from his work as a tailor. I can’t help but notice his cursive letters look just like my own. I trace my fingers on the handwriting lingering on the drawn out L. I have even put the book in my own daughter’s hands, letting her marvel over the age and her own similarities to the writing. 

These books sit on the top shelf in our den, the room in which I feel the most comfortable in a home I love more than any that came before. My own books are now overtaken by children’s stories, and for that, I am grateful. I am in a stage of young parenting and active family life where I do not have the luxury of free reading as often as I would like. Instead, I read as often as I can with our daughters – meal time, car rides, before bed. I savor the quiet moments of book reading and the delighted looks on their young faces as they explore the stories hidden within. And even despite much time for reading on my own, I will sometimes pick up the green covered, antique novel and feel the weight of it in my hands. I open the cover, read the opening lines, and I am reminded of stories so powerful I feel at once rooted in the present moment, yet also floating in the possibility of what may still be. 

The literary magazine, Motherscope, published this personal essay. You can also read it here

In loving memory of my Uncle Dave

My dad asked me to write his brother’s obituary. My Uncle Dave never had children of his own, but he sure had an impact on my siblings and me. I was honored to write what is published below, his life story.

David Roger Peters was born on September 1, 1950 in Omaha, Nebraska at Immanuel Hospital to his loving parents, Roger and Virginia. During birth, his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and his doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy. At the time, they were not confident he would be able to walk. His parents remained devoted to his physical therapy and took him to the many appointments and taught him not only how to walk, but also how to ride a bike. David never let his handicap define him. 

He lived in Shenandoah, Iowa until he was three years old and Roger took a position at KMTV moving the family to south Omaha. At the age of six, David became a big brother to his lifelong sidekick, Mark Peters, whom he lovingly nicknamed dog-breath as an adult; the two shared interests of music, books and cars. Their family of four moved to a home at 5356 North 47th Avenue in Omaha, which was where Dave lived for the rest of his childhood. He often cited his deep friendships made including one with his longest friend, Tom Maher. The two met on the bus on their way to kindergarten and remained close. Their many adventures included trips to Colorado, Minnesota, New Orleans, and the entire west coast. 

David’s childhood adventures included five long bike rides with his father, Roger. It was his idea to take the first of many bicycle trips because he wanted to earn a Boy Scout merit badge. From eastern Nebraska, they traveled to Yankton, South Dakota, Lake McConaughy, and Big Thompson Valley, Colorado camping all along the way. Dave loved the freedom riding a bike offered and continued to ride through his adult life.

While still in high school, he was active in the youth group at Emmanuel Baptist Church, and he worked for the American Baptist Convention in Green Lake. In 1968, David graduated from North High School and happily worked as an ice cream truck driver the summer before attending Kennedy College in Wahoo.  While in college, he would travel home to help his family with the building of their lakefront home in Ginger Cove. Dave graduated with a degree in history in 1972, and always enjoyed reading about historical events and politics. 

His professional path took him to Grand Island, Omaha and Valley working for various companies and in many roles, including that of a shipping auditor. He lived for the last 15 years in Leshara, Nebraska tending to his garden, hosting bonfires, and remaining deeply connected with his family. He is a beloved son, brother, uncle, great-uncle, cousin, nephew and friend. 

Dave’s infectious, hearty laughter and optimistic, carefree attitude uplifted all those around him. One to not give in to worry or stress, he helped to teach others to go with the flow of life by both his example and by his penchant for jokes and hawaiian shirts. His gift for humor, presence in conversations, and his love for his family will be dearly missed. 

On February 14, David passed away and joined his mother, Virginia in heaven. He is survived by his father Roger of Valley, brother Mark and sister-in-law Judy of Valley, nephew Andy (spouse Amanda), niece Libbi (spouse Ben), niece Bekki (spouse Dan), nephew Andy, great-nieces and nephews, Linnea, Willa, Madi, Nolan, and Ansley, and many loving relatives.

In Dave’s memory, please consider reading a good book, planting a garden this spring, finding humor in the everyday, and/or making a donation to the Valley Public Library or United Faith Community Church.

Howard’s Story

We had Howard before our girls, our house, our marriage. On June 9, 2009, we adopted him from a rescue 364 days before we officially adopted one another. He was a bundle of golden fur, a former stray from Espanola, New Mexico. Just one week separated from his siblings due to kennel cough, he sat cuddled in the back corner of his crate. Once I saw him, I didn’t leave his side; when Ben came around from looking at other puppies, he smiled immediately sensing I was already attached. We asked to play fetch and while we kneeled, gently throwing the ball, we chuckled as he dutifully brought it back. We knew he would be the one. Once we paid the fee, signed the papers, snapped the photo, we climbed in our car, eager to bring our guy home.

I held him close in the front seat, wrapped snugly in a blanket, as he shook with nervousness. He sort of tumbled out of our blue honda civic once we arrived to our apartment complex and sweetly struggled up the stairs. We gave him a bath and he ran from us once out of the tub, eventually jumping onto the low shelf of a plant stand willing us to come closer. I remember feeling so happy in that moment – chasing our fluffy puppy, laughing at him and ourselves, so much time before us. 

The end of that month, we moved into our first house – a cozy, 1939 stucco surrounded by wonderful neighbors we had yet to know. That home was Howard’s favorite by far. He staked claim on the front ottoman in front of our picture window and there he stayed until we moved five years later. He would see us pull into the driveway, jump up, and run through the dog door to our backyard waiting for us to walk out of the garage. We came to expect his greeting: a dog so happy he couldn’t stand still, jumping as high as our heads, rushing back in to beat us inside. He approached everything with this same gusto – the potential for a walk, shoveling snow, chasing squirrels. We loved Howard through muddy paw prints on hardwood floors, five pairs of leather shoes, endless destroyed Christmas presents, and a neighbor’s phone call informing us he was galavanting through our hood midday with a neighbor dog as his partner in crime.

And when our life brought us changes – beautiful baby girls, a bittersweet move, sudden job transitions – Howard was always there, by our sides, greeting us with glee.

We didn’t take too much notice of the warning signs – perhaps didn’t want to see them for what they were – the loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, lethargy. We chalked them all up to him being older. His beloved day companion, Mary, Ben’s aunt, first noticed the blood in the snow. Same thing happened six months prior, which the vet diagnosed as a urinary tract infection. I met Ben at the vet that morning, a Tuesday in mid-October. We thought – hoped – it would be the same diagnosis. I remember looking at an older dog in a crate thinking how terribly sad it was that he was locked in there, all alone, grateful I would be taking our dog home with me.

The next morning, October 17, the veterinarian walked into our small room, took one look at Howard, then us and said, “the blood work is bad”, the shock spilling over us like a cold shower. We pored over the results, made what meaning we could from the heartache. The focus was on the fluid therapy for two days, hoping it would flush out whatever it needed to from his kidneys. The blood work on Friday was worse in some areas than it was on Wednesday, even after the therapy. His appetite was dwindling, but he still seemed mostly o.k. The vet prescribed him a steroid and other medications to help him be comfortable; he warned us we likely didn’t have much time. We made heartbreaking phone calls – arranging what we could for a comfortable end of life.

That weekend, we stayed home. Ben missed the state championship game of his school’s softball team without an ounce of regret. We lay in the green grass of our front lawn by Howard, the girls hugged him, snuggled him, talked with him. Anything he had an appetite for, we gave to him, nutrition be damned. He walked slowly around the property – looking at the girls, us, the yard that was his home.

He did so well, we were fooled into thinking we might have more time with him than we originally thought. On Tuesday night though, reality set in, and he woke us up with his pacing, not able to get comfortable. When he wanted to go outside at one in the morning, I went with him, and we stayed for nearly an hour. He stood in one spot for at least 15 minutes, simply staring out in the yard. I took a piece of chalk from the girls’ bin and – for whatever reason – marked the outline of his paws. He looked up at me and just stared, he round black eyes, looking sad and tired. And in that moment, I could feel his goodbye.

Howard died the next day at about 9:45 in the morning, on our back stone patio, as the leaves fell and birds flew above. Ben and I were there with him, giving him what comfort we could.

Linnea planned a memorial service and seemingly handled this first encounter with grief with grace and understanding. If you ask Willa about Howard, she will say, “boo, boo”, “night, night” or “bye, bye”.

Back in September when life was still chugging along, I marked the full moon on my calendar – October 24. Since our time in Denver, I would try to sit outside for at least a little bit to see it, and my trusted companion came every time without fail. If it had to be his time, perhaps it is fitting Howard died on the day of the full moon. And on November 23, I will think of him once again.

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Chunking Adulthood

I felt the lure of impending independence as a teenager: the steering wheel, the passport, the journal of thoughts known only to me. I was seduced by the taste of bitter coffee in a corner European cafe, the freedom of an open gravel road, the pure darkness of the nightime sky, planning a world of my own, a life of my own, a me imagined.

I sat on a boat moving slowly on the Mosel River, the July sun shining down on me, surrounded by friends who represented the stretches of the Earth–Japan, Montana, Latvia, Germany, Denmark, even Syria. We toasted to my 21st birthday with sweet Riesling, the drink of the region, the drink of the last five months. We felt the time fleeting, breathing fully in the moments of train travel, college lectures in a foreign tongue, Sunday afternoon fussball matches, community kitchens, the absence of commitments.

Ben said his vows from a napkin, written the night before. Tears welled as I said my own. I held my grandmother’s bible, the rosary beads of Ben’s late grandma Mildred, and his hand as I spoke of vows carefully considered for months. We stood, barefoot, six people surrounding us in a semi-circle, the sky gray from a fresh rain. Grounded and content, I longed to let the festitivities finally settle and for us to do the same.

I am cooking dinner–pasta with a spinach salad–in our kitchen, one daughter wrapping gifts by the tree, the other sleeping soundly in my growing belly. And for a moment, it is quiet until it is not. The little one can’t find the scotch tape, the pasta is boiling over, and my husband poses a question from the den. Silent or not, I sense contentment embedded in the thick of adulthood, the connection between the romantic and the real.

 

 

 

 

A Duck in a Princess World

Note: This was written at the beginning of November as a potential editorial. 

My daughter chose a duck costume for Halloween, a decision that took all of 30 seconds. When it arrived, she immediately strutted her fluffiness around the living room, beak proudly perched on head, confidence evident in every waddle. “I love baby animals,” she proclaimed to her daddy, dog, and herself.

Because of this excitement, my husband and I took her to community events where she could wear it. It was at one such event that she seemingly took notice of the other girls her age: shiny wigs, sparkly costumes, uncomfortable looking shoes clicking on the tile. “I hate my duck costume,” she said. I was struck by the emotion, watched her excitement wilt before me, and asked what it was she wanted to be. The response? A princess.

I felt, for the first time, the pendulum of influence tipping in the direction of her peers, the culture, even Disney. All it took was for one hug from a friend dressed up as Ariel and the realization that she was the only girl in what could be perceived as a gender-neutral costume.

Princess costume or not, I simply want her to be her own person: Independent. Free thinking. Confident in her choices. If she is going to dress up as a female movie character, let it be of her own accord.

Although this was our first experience with peer pressure taking hold, it most certainly won’t be our last. Lisa M. Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, found through her research that halloween costumes actually become more gender-typed the older children become.

As a child, I watched Disney movies, played both Barbies and G.I. Joes, and grew up to be a believer in equality on all gender fronts. It is not the princess culture that has me worried, it is the thought my impressionable child can be so swayed so soon by her peers.

There is much talk about raising our children to be independent in their actions, but how do we encourage independence in their thinking despite any other influences? Or is that a naive notion even to spend time considering?

As a society, we do not encourage independence in our children when we expect all kids of one age group or gender to be interested in the same fill-in-the-blank. Pompoms to the girl, football to the boy; the same items on most children’s food menus; school projects allowing little to no room for choice; gender-marketed food and toys; or even the expectation that all kids have seen a particular movie or show.

We recently waited in the doctor’s office for a check-up. Because pretenses do not exist among children, two girls eagerly brought their mother’s phone to the same table where my daughter was sitting. The popular song, “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen” belted from its speakers as the twins sang along, my girl sitting in silence. The fact that she had not seen the movie nor knew the song by heart was cause for surprise of those nearby and comments were made. The implication was that every four year old should love that film.

A wise colleague once told me it is the stories we tell ourselves and create in our minds which make up our realities. I wonder then how we shift our stories so that more independent thinking can be modeled, encouraged, and valued.

As educators, are we lifelong learners modeling the pursuits of an academic or creative passion? As parents, do we stand firm in the wake of decisions, unswayed by comparison? And as a society, do we eliminate stereotypes and biases in our messages to and conversations with the youngest among us?

In an ideal world, children can dress unique to their taste, spend free time as they choose, and explore the depths of their own imagination.

Diversity should be celebrated, independent thinking insisted upon, and costumes made as unique as the children wearing them.

A Link: Less Censorship, More Reading

My fourth article was published in The Denver Post yesterday. Here is a link if you are curious

My BFF from childhood, Carin, might remember the brief story at the beginning. I didn’t mention that by “muddied”, I really meant covered from head to toe in cow poop, and the smell is still seared in my memory. Playing on her family’s farm was one of my favorite things about being a kid.

Four-fifths of a marriage

When my husband and I arrived to the hospital on this day four years ago, a midwife gave us advice when she sent us back home, the baby not yet ready. She encouraged us to savor the last bits of time alone, just us, explaining how much further in the future it would be before we experienced that again.

So, we went home. We–Ben, Howard (our dog), my big belly, and me–went on four walks that day mostly to encourage labor (being three days past my due date), but also to do just what that midwife encouraged: Savor.

I still show my daughter the stairs I walked up and down, and at one point ran, much to Ben’s chagrin. The stairs are on a college campus in the neighborhood we once lived in and loved. We tell her about the neighbors we ran into that day–many in mid contraction, the day of many walks. I remember our dog’s constant silly grin, the wobbling, the steady hand of my husband’s on my lower back as he guided me down the streets we knew by heart.

About 24 hours after our last walk, we held our baby with chubby cheeks and pouty lips close to our chests. And when he got into my hospital bed that night to lie next to me and our new little girl, I could think of no better definition of happiness. We were sifting the waters of sleep deprivation and parental worry for the first time, yet it didn’t feel so scary because we were diving in together.

Naturally, as I watched my almost-four-year-old celebrate her soon-to-be birthday today (her actual birthday is Oct. 12), I thought a lot about her through the years, but I also thought a lot about my husband, about us, about our marriage.

Four-fifths of our marriage has been wrapped up in the loving care of this co-created human being, who talks with a bit of a sass and says ‘what’ with a sharp t. Her age reflects most of our marriage, but not all of it. That first year, we traveled, but also just enjoyed the comfort of being at home together. I remember feeling grounded in a way I had never experienced, and I still will myself to not take that for granted.

I like to think our marriage started much sooner than June 8, 2010, edging itself into our lives just as dusk eventually turns into night. Eight years of dating can fool you into thinking there can be no more surprises. Yet, in now five years of marriage, I did not expect many things: that he would be so handy on our home, so loud in his snoring, and so adoring in his love for our daughter.

Tonight, we lie on the bottom bunk of an almost-four-year-old’s bed. Ben, closest to the wall, Linnea’s right in the middle, and me, next to the railing, peering through the darkness to the closed eyelids, thinking once again, this might be my closest definition of happiness.

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