The Echo of a Mother’s Steady Love

My mother died several years ago. No matter how old I get, I still have a pang of longing each Mother’s Day for just one more phone conversation, one more moment sitting together at the table, with our hands, so similar, wrapped around our coffee cups.

 

Mom was always extremely well-organized. A year or two before her stroke, almost as if she had advance warning, she shipped me a box of family letters that she wanted me to save.

I hadn’t really taken a good look at the box, other than to note that one envelope included my grandparents’ love letters.

Recently, I dug through my closet and opened the box. My intention was to read my grandparents’ World War I correspondence and perhaps get an idea for a story.

Instead, I picked up a stack of blue-and-red-bordered airmail letters from my grandmother to my mother. As I flipped through the envelopes, I immediately noticed the postmarks were out of chronological order.

So unlike my mother!

The top letter in the stack was dated in 1977, the year Grandma died. It must have been the last letter Grandma wrote to Mom. In her beautiful handwriting, Grandma said how hard it was to take out the trash during the harsh Iowa winter, and how she was worried about Grandpa slowing down. But her words still contained that upbeat contentment I so associated with my grandmother. She was looking forward to spring and already had some flowers blooming indoors.

The next letter, directly under the 1977 letter, was dated 1962. Apparently, my mother had written to Grandma that she was feeling depressed and adrift. My mother was in her early forties in 1962. Here is Grandma’s response:

“I suppose the 40’s are apt to be a time of reassessment. The glowing optimism of youth has become a little dulled. We may wonder just where we’re going and why.

But don’t expect to find all of the answers. I don’t think we’re supposed to, or perhaps we’d cease searching and struggling. It seems to me only the very smug pretend to have ‘arrived.’ 

Probably it’s a good thing we are already committed to our tasks and must carry on as best we can. The daily routine helps a lot when life may seem pointless for a time.

Natural phenomena helps me when I’m low. A flutter of wings always roused me enough to try to identify the bird. Flowers have always interested me, as you know. Sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations give me a lift.”

My grandmother goes on to remind my mother that she has good friends, including her husband, that she can reach out to. That she should remember not to take all of the burdens on the world on herself and not to worry about mistakes, they are part of life.

Grandma continues:

“Fortunately, you are not self-centered, you have always thought of others. To concentrate on oneself is a fatal mistake….One thing I’m sure you know you can count on, and that is our deepest affection, always. You have always brought us great joy, a daughter for which to be very grateful.” 

How often in our lives do we hear pure, heartfelt, unselfish love? At that precise moment, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, I found Grandma’s words encircling me with warmth, telling me to take time to both forgive myself for errors and rejoice in the world around me.

But there was more. Tucked into that 1962 envelope was another letter, much older, that Grandma sent to my mother on her 21st birthday.

“To Dad and me it scarcely seems possible that you are twenty-one. It seems but a few years ago that you were enthroned on Dad’s shoulders with your baby fingers tangled in his hair while we took our Sunday walks over the Arkansas farm…

And now you stand at the threshold of adult life. I wish I could guarantee you a life of great happiness, but I cannot, for that will depend largely upon yourself. I asked Dad what he would choose to give you as a life inheritance if it were possible and he said ‘good health,’ that with it you could win nearly anything else.

The joy of accomplishment has always meant much to me, be the tasks large or small. Your grandfather told me he never cared to be wealthy, just so he could make enough money to associate with the people he enjoyed being with.

At any rate, we wish you an abundant life, full of congenial work, and love and friends. Seems as though such a combination should produce happiness.”

And, indeed, this wish did come true. My mother had a well-lived life — teaching, reading, volunteering. Always busy with ‘tasks large or small.’

I now know why these letters were out of chronological order. They were at the top of the stack so that any time Mom could reach out, unfold the thin pages, and hear her mother’s comforting voice in this our sometimes painful, often confusing world.

My mother gave me a gift this Mother’s Day. These beautiful letters. They remind me that strong families are built, in part, on a mother’s steady love, echoing down the generations.

Happy Mother’s Day

 

Maddi’s Fridge, Live!

Wow!

I have Google and Twitter alerts set to tell me when webpages or internet users are discussing Maddi’s Fridge. Sometimes I get great surprises, like when the Seattle School District teachers were striking and, to pass the time, read Maddi’s Fridge out loud on the picket line. I ended up visiting some of those teachers at Queen Anne Elementary, an inspiring Seattle school.

I also got an alert when a dad complained on twitter that his daughter asked him to read Maddi’s Fridge every night and it was “so depressing.” I tweeted to the dad that Maddi’s Fridge was like that. Parents get all teary-eyed and kids get empowered. The dad never responded. Whoops! (Yes, the internet is a little scary. Authors are listening.)

Last week an alert notified me that Childsplay in Tempe, Arizona, was going to put on a production of Maddi’s Fridge during their 2017 – 2018 season. Look at the company Maddi’s Fridge is keeping!

GO, DOG. GO! NATIONAL TOUR: August 28th, 2017 – April 25th, 2018
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: August 21st – October 15th, 2017
TOMAS AND THE LIBRARY LADY: August 28th – December 26th, 2017
THE SNOWY DAY AND OTHER STORIES BY EZRA JACK KEATS: December 26th, 2017 – March 11th, 2018
MADDI’S FRIDGE: January 15th, 2018 – May 20th, 2018
FLORA AND ULYSSES: March 26th, 2018 – May 20th, 2018

When I checked in with Flashlight Press, they told me that they had just finalized the rights agreement. Double wow!

I am so grateful to Childsplay for discovering Maddi’s Fridge and turning it into a play.

Years ago when I opened my best friend, Liz’s, refrigerator I felt that the entire world had failed me. What kind of world do we live in where my best friend and her little brother didn’t have enough to eat?

But now, the artists at Childsplay are going to perform the story that my eleven-year-old self wanted to SHOUT OUT TO THE WORLD: Here, in one of the richest countries in the world, our friends and our neighbors are struggling to feed their children.

A big THANK YOU to everyone at Childsplay. I am so excited that you are sharing the story of Maddi’s Fridge.

Shootings, Riots, and Stolen Scoops of Corn

corn-scoops

I was eating lunch with relatives and the drift of the conversation was that charges of racism in this country are overblown.

Our own family history says otherwise.

Earlier in the week I had been reading some of my dad’s recollections about visiting his grandpa in Ozan, Arkansas in the 1930’s. Dad was a teenager at the time.

Great-grandma asked Dad to take two bags of corn to the miller. One sack would be ground fine as cornmeal and the other would be ground as cracked corn for the chickens.

I’ll let Dad tell what happened next: “I got in line with my sacks. The miller had a huge barrel next to his grinders, and he would dip his scoop into each customer’s sacks, dumping his share in the barrel. Some white farmers came up and he just took a little corn, but if the customer was black, it was amazing how much that scoop could hold.”

Of course, I’d heard and read stories of racism before. But Dad’s memory of African Americans being cheated at the miller’s was a fresh slap. It was the pettiness that really got to me. Dad’s story showed me that, in every way possible, white Americans had a systemic pattern of stealing from African Americans.

The true purpose of racism is to advance economically at the expense of someone else.

What worries me is the children who went hungry because of “how much that scoop could hold.” Imagine dinnertime in Ozan all those years ago. Parents always eat less so their kids won’t go hungry. But there would always be the day, or days, when that missing corn meant that children would go hungry. (If you don’t know the devastating effect hunger has on children’s educational, physical, and moral well-being, check out this article by Feeding America.)

Generation after generation of “scoops” have been stolen off the tables of African American families. And any time African Americans try to get a fair deal, there is a backlash.

In 1920, Tulsa, Oklahoma, had one of the most wealthy and successful African American communities in the country. My Dad, growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in the 1930’s never heard about 1921 Tulsa’s ‘race riot.’ (For some reason, Tulsans thought that if you didn’t put it in a book, no one would ever find out.) Let’s call the 1921 ‘race riot’ for what it was, the indiscriminate murder of 300 African Americans and the burning of 35 blocks of businesses and homes. Whites taking their ‘scoop.’

Backlash isn’t ancient history. You can see it clearly today. Everything from questioning Barrack Obama’s citizenship, to black men and women pulled over for ‘driving while black,’ to black men and boys being shot by vigilantes and police officers.

Racism is an insidious part of our American belief system. Not only for white Americans like my family who have slave-holding ancestors, but people who come to this country and adopt its customs without taking a closer look at our ingrained prejudices.

It would be nice if my great-grandparents, God-fearing Christians, had tried to stop the large and small thefts against African Americans being committed in their community.

They didn’t.

Like most people who go along with graft, they fell into the trap of believing that they were entitled to special treatment. To more cornmeal, to the best parts of a slaughtered pig, to the better acres for farming. That somehow it was okay that the cornbread on their dinner table was subsidized by hard-working African Americans.

The protests we have seen on the street and yes, even in the football stadium, are showing us the justified anger of African Americans.

And those protests are not enough. The next step should come from the rest of us. It’s time to pay back all of those families robbed in so many ways during the 200+ year history of this country. Scoop by scoop we need to make this right.

On September 11th, Write About a Peaceful World

It happened a few years after 9/11. Highlights, the children’s magazine, was having their annual writing contest. The theme was: “Write a children’s story set in the future.”

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The reason I write for children, the reason I read children’s books, is that children’s stories are stories of hope.  A children’s primer that I have from the mid-1800’s, which shows a couple grieving over an empty bassinet, says something like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith have lost their child. They are grieving, but perhaps God will give them another child.”

Grim, I know. But even during an era when the purpose of a children’s book was to prepare children for a hard and unpredictable life, there was always a drop of hope.

I wasn’t thinking grim thoughts years ago when I learned about the Highlights contest. I plopped down in front of my computer, excited to travel to distant worlds or explore some facet of scientific discovery.

I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

I, who grew up with Star Trek and all of the subsequent science fiction stories. I, who still read science fiction and thrill at new concepts, couldn’t think of one story set in our future that ended well, or at least had the hope of filling the bassinet again.

It occurred to me, sitting in front of an empty screen, that we will never see or know peace if we can’t keep an image of peace in our minds.

So every September 11th I try to fill the bassinet with hope. I draft a story about a peaceful world set in the future.

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Not all butterflies and kittens, but a story that brings me a little closer to understanding who we are. I write stories about how we, humans of all faiths and backgrounds, can, hope by hope, drop by drop, build a better world.

Join me. Write about a peaceful world on September 11th.

Here’s what you do. Sometime during the day or evening set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit down and write about a world without war. What would our lives look like without war? What would be on the news?

You don’t need to be a “writer” to join me. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen or sit at your keyboard. Dream.

If you like, you can join the Facebook event.

 

Hunger is…

This week I’m giving over my blog to some talented writers.

The students at McDonald Elementary School in Seattle has been studying hunger. Here are similes and metaphors from Ms. Roughton’s 3rd graders.

“Hunger is like walking through a desert with no end.” – S.

“Hunger is like a river with no water.” – anonymous

“Hunger is like a stray cat sitting on the streets having no food to eat except litter.” – M.

“Hunger is like when you take off on a plane when you are sick.” – W.

“Hunger is like the rain falling down on a fire.” – W.

“Hunger is like an empty table at dinnertime.” – S.

“Hunger is like a sickness with no end and no medicine.” – G.

“Hunger is like a dinosaur roaring in your stomach.” – O.

“Hunger is like a fruit tree you can’t climb.” – J.

“Hunger is like a fire without a flame.” – E.

“Hunger is an apple out of reach.” – E.

“Hunger is like a hamster that has no home in winter.” – S.

“Hunger is like a hiding place that does not hide you.” – L.

“Hunger is like a school without a cafeteria.” – B.

“Hunger is like a puppy at a puppy mill.” – G.

“Hunger is fear following you around.” — M.

“Hunger is your empty plate you have every day.” – M.

The Toilet Paper Superhero

You can sit down to a writing prompt and go to all sorts of fun and weird places. Recently, a friend sent me this prompt: “Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

My first thought was ugh, now I have to get all personal and deep. But then I remembered the toilet paper.

toilet paper

My dad always bought in bulk for his newspaper office, and one day this massive package of toilet paper arrived. This was long before Costco and bulk buying for the average citizen. All of that toilet paper in the back corner of my dad’s office was as good as a circus side-show to me and my friends. (I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade.) No one in my small town had ever seen so much toilet paper in one place outside of the Vasey Brothers grocery store.

Looking back, it’s possible my dad had misordered for his small company.

But for me, it was a sign from Jesus. I went to church with my family every Sunday. I knew that if something extraordinary appeared in your life, that meant that God had a hand in it. Not just God, but Jesus, who actually came down to earth and dealt with people.
So I started thinking about why Jesus could possibly have brought all of that toilet paper into my life.

superman

At the time I was a huge fan of the Superman real life adventure series. The one where a broad-shouldered man in a cape jumped off tall buildings and flew through the air. (One of the worst disappointments in my young life was that our small town didn’t have a phone booth.)

My best friends at the time were Cathy and Christy M., identical twins who loved fooling people by trading places. One of my claims to fame was that I could always tell them apart. We spent every day after school together, either at their house or at my dad’s workplace.

I decided that all three of us would become superheroes. We would jump off the top of buildings, just like Superman, and fly around and save people. Working for Jesus was somehow muddled into the plan, although the details were sketchy.

The first thing we needed to do was open the gigantic package of toilet paper and spread the rolls on the ground below the roof of my dad’s building, just in case we needed a couple of tries at flying.

Maybe at the back of my mind there was a worry that I didn’t have the kind of superpowers that enabled me to fly. Maybe not. I’d been recently experimenting by jumping off the couch onto pillows. Every fifth time or so it did feel like I was getting extra lift, maybe from Jesus, before I crash-landed.

I was sure that all of that toilet paper was a sign that I would finally get to fly. All I needed to do was convince the M. twins to jump off the roof with me.

“That just won’t work.” Christy was always the spokesman when they disagreed with one of my plans. Cathy wasn’t quite as eloquent.

“But we have to try,” I said. “For Jesus.”

“We’re not jumping off the roof.” Christy crossed her arms and got a hard look in her eyes. She wasn’t budging.

This was the beginning of the end. About a year later I was no longer best friends with the M. twins. They decided to find a best friend or friends who were a little bit more grounded in reality.

I remember exactly where I was was standing, next to that wall of toilet paper of course, when Christy turned me down. And I remember the shock of discovering that three kids who believed in Jesus could have such differing opinions on how to proceed.

So maybe my brief almost-stint as a toilet paper superhero was a bit personal and deep after all.

Your turn. Where will this prompt take you?

“Write about an early memory of faith, religion, or spirituality. This can be yours, or that of one of your characters.”

Two Americans

I’ve been on the road doing a lot of school visits. Here are two Americans that I met:

American #1

American

I met a young girl who comes to school every day for breakfast. She doesn’t have access to a shower at home and washes in the school bathroom. Her clothes are dirty, her long hair uncombed.

I was in this girl’s classroom to lead a writing workshop. I gave the kids a choice of writing  either a story that was sticking in their heads or a story from a prompt I provided. This girl chose to do a spin-off picture book, playing with the beginning, ending, and the characters. Her story was first grade brilliance at its best.

Okay, I’ll be honest, I know picture book authors who can’t come up with a first draft that solid (myself included).

One problem that many children face is that they are so focused on basic survival that schoolwork and learning can’t be priorities. We are hardwired that survival always comes first.

But at least until school is out for the summer, this girl has a place to eat breakfast and wash her hair. Her school. This girl has a principal who is actively aware of each challenged child. This girl has a teacher who supports her learning and helps to gather resources as needed.

At least for one year, this girl has the freedom to learn.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. The family may move, change schools. This girl may get a different teacher who cares less. I don’t know.

What I do know is that if this brilliant little girl falls through the cracks, that’s a loss for our country. We will have thrown away the life of a loving and motivated child. No Kickstarter campaign is going to save her. Your tears won’t help her. As a country we need to change the way we do business. We need to pull families out of poverty. But to do that, first we have to admit that there is a problem. Which leads me to…

American #2

American

I met American #2 while speaking to adults. When book clubs, service organizations, and nonprofits invite me to speak, I’m sure they have no idea how weepy I get when I talk about the difficult conditions our children grow up in.

I don’t cry on school visits, even when children tell me very sad stories.

But there is something about talking to fellow Americans about childhood hunger that I find overwhelming. How did we get to this situation where 51% of American children are raised in poverty? How did our country produce this huge learning gap, where my children are practically guaranteed a road to college and other children will not even graduate from high school.

My ‘adult’ speech is about self-deception, how an entire country can tell itself the wrong story. We tell ourselves we’re the greatest country in the world, but how can this be true if we are failing our children?

One group was wonderfully open to my message. But a member of the audience did come up to me afterwards and say, “Well, what about obesity? How could so many American children be poor if there’s an obesity epidemic among children?”

Sigh. I don’t always think on my feet. What I should have done was ask this person why they were asking the question.

Instead, I answered the question at face value. Good food is expensive, and parents make hard choices between soda ($1) and milk ($4), between expensive vegetables or a cheap starch that will make the hunger pains stay away a little bit longer.

As I was driving home I thought about what had prompted the question. We’ve gotten to the point in the United States where it is acceptable to challenge any fact, no matter how solid the study or reputable the source. Climate change, the birthplace of our first African American president, even the moon landing, have all been targeted as fiction.

I’m not quite sure how we got to this point where nothing is real. Where no statement is fact and any fool can question basic math. Let me repeat. 51% of American children are living below the poverty level. Even if I didn’t know the numbers, I see the truth of this when visiting schools and food banks.

In town after town I come across young children who just need a little help to have a decent life.

For us to change the life of American #1, we are going to somehow have to open the eyes of American #2.

Any ideas on how to do that?