Rascal and the Coat of Many Needles

Rascal demonstrates his lack of tree etiquette.

The other day, while standing in the front yard, I studied our Christmas tree. Framed by the living room window, it gleamed with red, blue, and green lights. Snow drifted into my shoes, and Rascal, our short-legged, 17-year-old dog, waddled into a snow pile.

A combination of either corgi/German shepherd or black lab/basset hound (depending on the veterinarian you consult), Rascal struggled. I scooped him up before the snow could completely swallow him and placed him on more solid ground.

Early evening settled around us in a peaceful softness—dusky blue light seeped into the white landscape, streaks of red and pink painted the sky a rosy glow, and early stars highlighted the heavens. Rascal rubbed his nose in the snow and stared into space, as if he too appreciated God’s choice of palette.

Our Christmas tree, I decided, had exceeded all expectations. Taken from the Manistee National Forest, it was one of my family’s best trees, not our typical Charlie Brown selection. Homemade decorations, from pine cones and ribbons to twig reindeer to ornaments fashioned by young nieces and nephews, hung from its branches.

While the charm of our tree might have been unexpected, even more surprising had been Rascal’s complete disregard for tree etiquette. Back inside, Rascal once again ignored the tree, refusing to skirt around it, as if the tree were invisible. He made his unsteady way toward my husband on the sofa. Cutting beneath the tree, Rascal’s back rubbed against the lowest branches.

The result of this constant short-cutting is that Rascal wears a perpetual coat of pine needles, which he scatters throughout the house. At first, I frequently swept or vacuumed, but I have surrendered, unable to keep up with the shower of needles. His lack of manners even forced us to secure the tree to the wall when Rascal’s wagging tail tipped it over.

Rascal, finally, away from the tree (and clear of needles).

Like the biblical Joseph and his coat of many colors, Rascal too was betrayed by his first family, starting life as a stray, but the similarities end there. Taken in by my sister and her family, greatly loved by my nieces, Rascal has also lived with my mother, and now my husband and I have become his caretakers.

In the end, we have been more his people rather than he being our dog. His genes might have given him a slightly odd physique, but they certainly made up for it in lovability and longevity. For the past 17 years, he has been present through some of my life’s greatest sorrows, unknowingly comforting me and imparting vital lessons.

As Rascal taught me during the Christmas of 2021, expect the unexpected, embrace it if you can. He brought the northern woods inside, spreading needles and twigs everywhere he wandered, forcing me to choose between patience and grace or annoyance and harshness. I chose the former, hoping those two attributes will accompany me wherever I go.

I have been blessed to care for this eccentric mutt, one of God’s helpless, sweet creatures who has shown me companionship, love, and selflessness, made even more meaningful during this season of gratitude.

Merry Christmas!

It’s a Wonderful December: A Frank Capraesque Memory

Snowshoeing around Lake Emma.

December 2005 replays in my mind like a Frank Capra movie. The marquee reads: It’s A Wonderful December, but no bank auditors or near-death experiences mar my memory. Time has smoothed the rough edges until all that remains are ski tracks disappearing into deep woods. In my mind, the month was spent on skis, devoid of sleeping, eating or working.

And, based on the snowfall we received, that might have been a possibility. The snow began to fall during early December, leaving our already sleepy corner of northeastern Michigan even drowsier, covered in a thick, white blanket. Ice formed over our inland lake, which moaned and groaned as if protesting the early invasion, and animal tracks crisscrossed our yard.

Cross-country skis leaned against the wall next to the front door, and snow-shoes littered our entryway, slush melting around them. Discarded boots hovered nearby. The snow eased, but the temperatures dipped, preserving our winter wonderland.

One morning, while driving to the Black Mountain Recreation Area outside of Cheboygan, Mich., we took a corner too fast and spun off the icy road. Our car landed in a ditch. Within minutes, a vehicle stopped, and three men tumbled out. Ski boots covered their feet, and they jumped into the ditch with us, pushing and shoving our little car.

Soon the conversation turned to skiing — trail conditions, deep snow and winter’s blessings. Our car was almost forgotten as we swapped stories and shared memories. It seemed as if the early snowfall had infected them the same way it had us, and nothing could damage the cheerful mood. Another Good Samaritan with a truck eventually pulled us out of the ditch. The skiers, their conversation still on snow, clambered back into their vehicle.

Later that month, just before Christmas, we observed Rogers City’s annual holiday celebration. Dozens of trees in Westminster Park brimmed with lights. The moment spun with emotion, and I half-expected Jimmy Stewart to walk down the street, wishing me a happy holiday.

Christmas in the Park, painting by Debbie Stiller.

Then, a few days later, the rain arrived, melting the snow, as well as the magic. It was the moment in a Frank Capra movie when the main character tears up, and the audience leaves with a moral message. December 2005 taught me that when nature beckons, I must stop and listen.  And if she leaves a gift at my doorstep, crooking a finger at me to step outside, then I have no choice but to follow and unwrap it slowly, enjoying the moment while it lasts.

And I hope you too have similar moments during the upcoming season, where the true meaning of Christmas reaches out and holds you, wrapping you in a peaceful embrace that stretches across the winter and into next year.

(A version of this essay first appeared in the “Quiet Sports Colum” of Whisper in the Woods (Winter 2007/2008).)

Goodreads Review: Intriguing mix of strong characters, redemption, romance, and even a touch of mystery

Shattered: A Story of Betrayal and Courage by C. Lee McKenzie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This inspirational tale of heartbreak and courage is an intriguing mix of strong characters, redemption, romance, and even a touch of mystery. The plot revolves around 19-year-old Libby Brown’s fight to regain a sense of normalcy after becoming a paraplegic when a snowboarder hits her while she is skiing. Gone are her hopes to attend the Olympics and instead she must learn how to adapt to a life in a wheelchair.

The author, C. Lee McKenzie, has created realistic characters from Libby to her parents to wheelchair-abled friends. Harley, Libby’s buoyant, optimistic friend, is particularly refreshing and inspiring. An amputee, Harley never allows herself to feel anything but enthusiasm for her future. The story is strengthened by the ongoing search for the snowboarder who caused Libby’s accident and was part of a dark alliance to remove Libby from the Olympics.

This is the third young adult novel I have read by Ms. McKenzie, and her writing never disappoints.

An enormous thank-you to NetGalley for providing me with the ARC.



View all my reviews

Saying Goodbye to Facebook

After reading the Wall Street Journal’s five-part series about Facebook, I have decided to permanently delete my FB account. The headlines from the two articles that cemented my decision are: Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Many Teen Girls, Company Documents Show and Facebook Employees Flag Drug Cartels and Human Traffickers. The Company’s Response Is Weak, Documents Show.

And, since I was my sister Kelly’s legacy contact, her account will also be removed. Please know that I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but I truly believe she would agree with my conclusion.  However, her website Quilting Cancer is still active, and you can read her writings there, reliving her courage, optimism, and amazing perseverance. You can also purchase her book Quilting Cancer through Amazon (all proceeds go to charity).

She left us five years ago on October 8, 2016 and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. For many of us, she was truly a guiding light, someone who always listened, emanating empathy and patience, despite her own challenges. And I hope, as we approach this five-year anniversary, that her memory clings to all who knew her, making us better people because of her influence and reminding us, that no matter what life throws us, we can conduct ourselves with dignity, graciousness, kindness, and fearlessness.

Snake Wrangler and the Scorpion Kid

Another one of my short stories has found a home. Flash Fiction Magazine has accepted Snake Wrangler and the Scorpion Kid for publication. I am always thrilled when an editor likes my work, but this story became the basis for my novel Deathstalker Two-Step, a murder mystery. So, of course, I’m hoping that this is foreshadowing of more good news to come. The writing business is a funny place–you can go through literally years of rejection and then all of a sudden your work is accepted. So to all my writing friends: keep pushing forward and never give up. A publishing contract might be only a few pages away!

The Cowboy and Miss Austen

I just found out that my short story, The Cowboy and Miss Austen, has been accepted for publication by Inwood Press for its Small Hours anthology. I wrote this story years ago but it’s one of my favorites (a dude-ranch cowboy finds solace in Jane Austen’s books when a guest at the ranch dumps him), so I’m thrilled that it has finally found a home. Yay! It goes to show that perseverance often pays off!

Starry Memories: The Inspiration of Shaelyn Cheyenne

Shaelyn and her mom, Kelly (1997)

During the spring of 1997, my niece Shaelyn and I stepped into a star-filled night bursting with a celestial glow. Incandescent light from streetlamps pooled nearby but never washed over the dark corner where three-month-old Shae and I stood. She rode in my arms as we left behind my grandfather’s house. Adult chatter and inactivity had stirred Shae into an inconsolable restlessness for which the only cure was movement.

Shae tilted her head back, seeming to forget the dull world we had escaped. The inky night and slivers of twinkling lights mesmerized her. Squirming, she flung tiny hands to the heavens, grasping at the solar system.

My wishes were more earthbound. I simply wanted to memorize the evening, carrying it with me forever. It was one of my earliest experiences as an aunt, the first time I fully understood the breadth of a child’s imagination and a hint at how inspiring my nieces and nephews would become.

Shae and Billy (2006)

As the years went on, Shae never lost her desire for motion. One afternoon, while watching her ride her quarter-horse Billy during a 4-H competition, she again appeared restless. It was easy to imagine Shae and Billy sprinting across the arena and leaping over the fence.

In my mind, she bolted along the sagebrush-dotted fields. Her brown braid bounced on her back. Turquoise eyes narrowed into slits as she surveyed her escape route. Then she vanished from sight, a tiny speck galloping toward the Owyhee Mountains.

That scene grew in my imagination. Taking pen to paper, I transported Shae back to the late 1800s, added a lariat to her saddle, and ended up with a novel, The All-True Adventures of Shaelyn Cheyenne.* Her wonderful name—a mixture of Celtic princess, Shaelyn (meaning “one whom is noble” or “from the fairy palace”, depending on the source)—and rodeo queen, Cheyenne—had always deserved to be part of a title or on a marquee.

One of my favorite memories: Shae sliding off our garage during a very snowy winter in McCall (2008).

But the real Shaelyn was, of course, my preferred companion over the fictional one. From bike rides to Barbie dolls to books like The Napping House and a love for Harry Potter recorded books, we shared hours of entertainment and companionship.

Shae throughout the years.

I was there on the first day she skied and later marveled at her ability to snowboard. The poetry she wrote for a high school project impressed me with its depth—yet she was completely unaware of her talent—while her ability to mimic always made me laugh.

And now the girl who wanted to capture that starry night almost 24 years ago has her own baby, Hayden Kelly.

Shae and Hayden (2020)

She has opened her heart to not only a daughter but a family, including husband Joe and two-year-old Max. In Shae, I see her mother, my sister Kelly—both full of unconditional love and selflessness.

Shae continues to inspire, to be everything that I observed when she was a girl; however, her influence has strengthened beyond merely adventures and games. She has grown into a loving parent, niece, and sister.

Max, Joe, Hayden, and Shae (l to r, 2021)

In a sense our positions have reversed—when she was little, I tried to be her example. But now I follow her lead.

Happy birthday, Shae! Here’s to many more starry memories and a lifetime of inspiration!

 

 

 

 

 

* The plot involved a quest to rescue a kidnapped mythical horse—think the 1960s TV show The Wild Wild West.

October Passages: An endless voyage with Kelly and Sam

Sam

I had barely stepped off the porch before Sam Rohm enveloped me in one of his signature hugs. My mind immediately settled on “bear hug,” but that tired cliché didn’t do justice to an embrace from Sam.

He might have been built like a bear, but his touch contained a gentleness, a feeling of safety that came not only from his size but also his heart. And, despite not having seen Sam for more than a decade, the warmth of his hug made the years melt away.

Then came the voice—another one of Sam’s trademark characteristics. Deep and rich, it spoke of late-night disc-jockeys, recorded-book narrators, and opera soloists.* It was into that voice—that hug, that presence—I tumbled—we all tumbled—during Sam’s visit to my sister Kelly and her three daughters.

For several hours, Sam entertained us, telling stories, swapping recollections, and forging new memories. Kelly’s daughters sat at his feet, never seeming restless, never trying to escape the room like most typical teens. Together, we slid down Alice’s Rabbit Hole, a trapdoor into which we dove, a world, if even for a few hours, where Kelly’s long battle with cancer no longer existed.

Although Kelly and I hadn’t spoken to Sam often over the years, he had frequently permeated our conversations, remembering him as an unusually kind person. He had always, at least in our opinion, possessed an old soul: thoughtful beyond his years, consistently willing to listen to one’s problems and help out whenever needed, regardless of his own struggles.

Sam, Kelly, and their dear friend Shane.

And today, even though I haven’t heard Sam’s voice for more than a year—cancer having silenced both Sam and Kelly—I can still hear him in my mind. I can still feel that contradicting embrace, delivering power cushioned in tenderness.

But that is how it goes with the people we have loved and lost. Their constant, swirling shadows hover nearby, and, if one can be still long enough, you might feel a feathery touch brush against your hand or hear their laughter just around a corner, forever slightly out of reach.

When I published Quilting Cancer in 2017, I believed I had drained myself of all I needed to express about illness, love, and sisterhood. That was naïve. The bond we feel with the people we love transcends death, and to deny it, bury it within our souls, dishonors our beloveds.

My final acceptance of this need to document memories occurred on a wintry afternoon at the intersection of Idaho 75 and U.S. 20. The pull north held a magnetic attraction, tugging me toward Baldy, Dollar, and a Snowcreek condo, brimming with decades of memories.

Kelly and her three daughters at the top of Bald Mountain (clockwise from the middle: Sheridan, Shaelyn, Kelly, and Sierra).

Yet, I didn’t make the turn, continuing straight on U.S. 20, as my mind churned with bygone images: torchlight parades, slooow chairlifts, easy turns down College, and endless hot chocolates at Lookout Lodge with Kelly always by my side.

I realized then that the urgency to record and remember will never end—nor should it. For these memories are footprints embedded in our souls. Set in concrete, these tracks, particularly those made by people like Kelly and Sam, leave permanent impressions, influencing our actions and leaving traces of their impact wherever we go.

Recently, while visiting Kelly’s grave, a murmuration of starlings filled the sky over a nearby field. The birds darted and swooped, creating clouds within clouds, performing nature’s ballet. Kelly and I had witnessed this phenomenon before while feeding her horses. Caught off guard, we forgot our chores and watched, thrilled to have caught the show and happy to have experienced it together.

Kelly with her horse Indigo (behind her home in Parma).

Now, the starlings performed again, taking me down a path, leading all the way back to Kelly. I pictured her riding her horse Indy, galloping beneath the birds, past the farm fields, and out into the untouched Owyhee Desert, joining my Dad along cloudy ridges and celestial mountaintops. As they disappeared into the distance, they lassoed my heart, a memento of their constant, thrumming presence.

Sometimes reminders come in transitory moments, like the murmuration, while others are more permanent, like the blue bench at the Parma Pool. Made possible by Kristy Sterling, the Parma Swim Team, Mandy Pascale, and the COSSA welding class, it is a timeless, perfect memorial to my sister. I often imagine people sitting on that bench, thinking about Kelly and a life immersed in helping others and spreading compassion, particularly the love she felt for her three daughters.

The bench has also been the teacher of an important, yet difficult, lesson. Yes, Kelly and Sam left this earth too quickly. They were among the best people most of us have known, showering us all with kindness and empathy, intuitively understanding struggles. We mourn them, constantly, but buried in the sadness lies a truth, which is stronger than our mourning: we must celebrate their lives, for they made us better, stronger.

The Blue Bench, honoring Kelly, at the Parma Pool.

During one of my trips with Kelly to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, while waiting for her test results from a clinical trial, we visited the National Air and Space Museum, specifically to see the 1903 Wright Flyer. Kelly immersed herself in the day, pushing aside anxiety, and placing herself in the moment, finding joy, in spite of the grim circumstances that had brought her to Washington D.C.

The same enthusiasm met me during my last visit with Sam during August of 2019. Sierra—Kelly’s middle daughter—had flown back to Idaho the day before I was scheduled to see Sam, so I invited her to join us. “Of course, I’ll go,” she said, without hesitation. “I would love to see Sam!”

Confined to a wheelchair, his prognosis poor, Sam, nonetheless, spoke with optimism about the future, wanted to hear all about Sierra’s life, and reminisced about college and high school, even pulling out old yearbooks. He discussed his condition, hopeful but practical, but never dwelled on it, shifting the conversation away from himself. As we left, both Sierra and I received one of his distinctive hugs, modified because of the wheelchair, but still conveying a sense of calm strength.

The three quilts that Kelly made for her daughters.

As we drove away, I thought how proud Kelly would have been of Sierra. Her desire to spend time with Sam reflected not only on Sierra’s kind, generous nature but also her mother’s guidance, as well as Sam himself. Sierra and I discussed Sam on the drive home, hoping he knew how wide his influence had been, how he had shown us the path to true friendship through his many visits to Kelly.

The last time I saw Sam at Kelly’s house, my husband Keith also happened to be there. Even though Keith is not prone to hugging, Sam gathered him into an embrace. Escape was impossible, and Keith was frozen in the moment, trapped by Sam’s uninhibited welcome. Keith, good-natured to the core, accepted it, laughing when he was released, setting the tone for an afternoon of jokes and stories and easy companionship.

And, although Sam has been gone now for one year and Kelly four, we can still choose to live in Sam’s and Kelly’s embrace, honoring their lessons while recognizing our sorrow but never allowing it to replace a celebration of their lives. They may have passed, but I choose to join them in the passage, making them lifelong companions in an endless voyage, where their company is the guiding light.

 

* No one who attended Caldwell High School in the early 1980s will forget Sam’s smooth, powerful cheer during football games: “Ziggy, Zaggy, Ziggy, Zaggy, Oi, Oi, Oi.”