Ode to Brown

Following is a List Poem from my Creative Writing class to pay homage to a familiar place. I have written about the employee parking lot at UPS where I work unloading semi trailers while going to school. The parking lot is dark yet illuminated. A variety of cars. A variety of workers. All come to […]

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Yonder Woods

The children were excited to be in their new home. They moved in just after Christmas and couldn’t wait to explore the woodland across the street. Jayden was the oldest, but not by much. She and her brother, Micah, were “Irish twins.” Their folks weren’t Catholic. Dad was a pastor and they hoped to fill a quiver with strong arrows. So far they were fulfilling their mission with four children under the age of eight years old. The older kids were able to enjoy a walk through the forest with dad after the boxes were unpacked and the family was settled in. On their first adventure, their younger brother, Elian, who was prone to wander, found a fort made from fallen branches. The kids were thrilled to see a shelter had already been built in their new wooded wonderland!

By summer, Mom had given birth to their next baby brother. Judah displaced Isaiah from his “baby of the family” rank but that didn’t shake him. Isaiah was known as “Isaiah the Brave” because he was fearless—always trying to keep pace with his older siblings. A new babe in the house meant it was time for Isaiah to be potty trained. He embraced the opportunity to be a big boy and quickly appreciated the freedom of toddlerhood, hoping to join his siblings on their adventures.

Jayden, Micah, and Elian told stories of the woods. Isaiah listened with intent, wondering when he could tag along. Jayden loved the songs the trees played as the wind whistled through the barren tree branches. Micah liked to balance on the fallen trees, pretending to be a gymnast competing for a gold medal. Elian simply enjoyed running. He would chase squirrels and rabbits until he was out of breath. Dad enjoyed the peaceful setting where he could work on his message for Sunday morning while the kids played nearby. Mom was happy to have quiet time with the littlest ones. Although Isaiah liked mom time without his older siblings, he wanted to be with them too.

One day Dad took the older kids to check on a new location for Sunday services. They had moved to town to start a new church and it was growing quickly. Mom stayed home to rest with Judah and Isaiah.

Isaiah was growing into a big boy but still needed an afternoon nap. He begged his mother, “Can I play with puzzles in my room? I’m not tired at all!” Judah started crying from the nursery. “Oh my–” Mom sighed. “Someone is awake and hungry.” She reluctantly agreed to let Isaiah play in his room rather than read a storybook until he nodded off.

Delighted to gain a little independence, Isaiah quickly crawled onto his bed with his favorite puzzles. Content for a short while; soon he was bored. Isaiah grabbed a book and thought he might read to himself. He didn’t know how to read but flipped through the pages, trying to remember the words of the story. Isaiah flopped back on his pillow, still bored and wide-awake. As he stared at the ceiling, something flew by the window. It was much larger than a songbird. Isaiah jumped out of bed and ran to the window. He spotted an owl with deep orange feathers and a purple tail, perched on their swing set. The owl winked at Isaiah then flew over the house toward the woods. Isaiah gasped and darted across the hall to the nursery. He peered out the window, trying to find the colorful bird. At the edge of the forest, the owl rested at the top of a barren tree. As soon as Isaiah spotted him, the owl winked and flew into the woods.

“Mom, Mom! Did you see that?” Isaiah exclaimed. His mother was sitting in the rocker but her head rested on the back of the chair and her eyes were closed. Isaiah whispered, “Mom, are you sleeping?” She didn’t flinch.

Isaiah the Brave was ready for his next step of independence. He tiptoed out of the nursery, down the stairs, and snuck out the back door. As soon as he was outside, he zoomed across the street into the forest. Isaiah was excited to find the owl. He darted through the brush as quick as a deer! He was looking up at the trees, searching for the beautiful, enchanted bird and didn’t see the fallen tree in his path. Isaiah tripped over the log, scuffed his shin, and stumbled to the ground.

The fall broke his trance. He sat on the forest floor and looked for the owl. It was quiet– very quiet. Isaiah’s heart was beating hard. He could feel it pounding all the way to his ears! His breath kept pace with his heart as he realized he was alone. A squirrel darted through the leaves nearby, startling Isaiah. It scampered away from him to the safety of a tall tree. Isaiah watched the squirrel intently, wondering if it was enchanted as well. The two stared at one another, neither moving—not even a blink an eye. Isaiah realized he was an ordinary squirrel. He sighed with disappointment, hopped to his feet, and brushed the dirt off his denim overalls. As Isaiah picked twigs from his hair, he noticed a fort in the distance. This must be the place his siblings had talked about!

He made his way to the shelter and beamed with excitement. It was just like Jayden, Micah, and Elian had described! Isaiah noticed seven logs sitting in a circle, each with their names carved into the wood. He was glad to know they anticipated his visit.

Isaiah perched himself on the log bearing his name. He caught his breath and started looking at the treetops again, hoping to see the bright colored owl. Soon Isaiah realized what it was like to be alone—all alone. There wasn’t a sibling in sight to pester or taunt him. He lay down on a mossy patch in the fort to relish his newfound freedom.

Suddenly, the ground let loose and Isaiah dropped into a pit. He looked around to see if there was a way out. It was a shallow hole but deep enough that he could not reach the ground above. The opening was only as big as Isaiah so it was dark. He wasn’t frightened but he wasn’t feeling courageous either. Isaiah felt his way around the burrow. Maybe there was a ladder or something he could climb onto. There seemed to be small tunnels leading to other places underground. The passages were too tiny for Isaiah to fit through, if he were brave enough to try.

His shoe kicked a small something as he shuffled in the darkness. Isaiah bent down to feel for the trinket with his hands. He touched something spongy and soft. He picked it up and squeezed it. It felt familiar— oblong with pointed ends like a football. Isaiah brought it close to his face and could faintly see it was yellow. Elian had been missing his Nerf football and blamed Micah for losing it. However, this ball wasn’t the thing Isaiah had kicked. He stayed on his hands and knees, feeling around in the dirt for another treasure. He was feeling less anxious now as his mind was occupied with wonder rather than contemplating fear.

Isaiah’s hands touched something cold and hollow. It was long and narrow with a small round attachment on one side. This was also something familiar that he hadn’t seen for a long time. Isaiah put it up to his lips and hummed, “Dah, dah, dah, daaaaaah!” Sure enough, it was Jayden’s kazoo!

Before he could talk, Isaiah could sing. Jayden was happy to have a little brother to accompany her latest composition. Isaiah tucked the kazoo in the front pocket of his overalls and continued to search. Surely, if Jayden and Elian had forgotten treasures here, Micah had probably left something behind too! Isaiah’s small hands sifted through the loose dirt looking for another bauble. He was so captivated with the search; he forgot to find an escape.

Isaiah’s concentration was broken when he heard rustling in one of the tunnels. The sound was getting louder. He held his breath. Again, Isaiah felt his heart beating in his chest. A tear fell from his cheek as he realized his siblings weren’t around to defend him. He froze, sitting on the burrow floor with his arms wrapped tight around his knees. Isaiah watched in the direction of the tunnel to see if something would emerge. He stared into the dark. His eyes were open as far as they could, struggling to capture any light. Isaiah still could not move—not even to blink or breathe.

The darkness enveloped his vision. The air felt damp and cold. Another tear formed in Isaiah’s eye but he still could not move. The rustling was closer and louder. His heart was beating wildly in his chest. The rustling stopped. The smell of dirt was overtaken by an odor of fowl. The warmth of something near Isaiah’s side cut through the cool, damp air. He tried to turn his head but could only shift his eyes to one side. Wide eyes were staring at him. Isaiah jerked his head to the opposite side and tried to tuck his head between his shoulders. He pursed his lips together and squeezed his eyes tight, bracing for the worst.

A soft, deep voice cooed, “Whoooo…”

The muscles in Isaiah’s body suddenly went limp. His arms fell to his sides and he was able to look toward the voice. He was still frightened but more curious than scared.

“Whoooo are youuuuu?” the soft voice cooed.

Isaiah whimpered a soft reply, “Isaiah, the br-br…” He sighed then quietly whispered, “Just Isaiah.”

The creature came closer. Isaiah flinched and closed his eyes again. He cried, “Are you going to hurt me?” as he put his head between his knees.

The feathered being cooed, “Noooo… lessss goooo hoooommme.”

In a flash, the creature grabbed Isaiah by the back of his overalls with its talons. They flew through the hole in the ground, into the daylight. Isaiah opened his eyes, looked over his shoulder, and saw the beautiful owl carrying him. He looked down and could see the top of the trees and his neighborhood just beyond the edge of the forest. Suddenly, Isaiah felt brave again. “Weeeeeeee!” he squealed as they soared through the neighborhood. Isaiah saw his neighbor, Mr. DeWitt, mowing lawn. He noticed several neighbors had swimming pools and many swing sets dotted the neighborhood. There must be lots of kids nearby to play with!

In no time at all, they were in his back yard. Isaiah gently opened the back door, snuck back to his room, and crawled under the covers. How on earth would he explain this adventure to his brothers and sister? He soon succumbed to his overdue nap and fell into a deep sleep. He started to dream and found himself lying on the mossy floor of the woodland fort. All of a sudden, he fell through a hole in the ground with tunnels leading to various burrows. “Here we go again!” he said. This time he wasn’t frightened. Isaiah was ready to ride.

He felt a paw on his shoulder and a voice said, “Hey little buddy, it’s time to wake up.” Isaiah the Brave turned to look over his shoulder. His mom was standing over his bed, gently rubbing his shoulder. “You must have been exhausted—you almost slept through dinner.” Isaiah rolled from his bed; disappointed to realize his wild adventure was only a dream. He shuffled downstairs and saw his family waiting for him at the table.

Isaiah slipped into his usual seat next to Micah. He sulked in his chair, disappointed the dream ended so abruptly. He rested his head on his elbow and noticed broccoli casserole on his plate. Could this get any worse?

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” Dad said as he tousled Isaiah’s hair with his hand, “Are you still sleepy?” Isaiah sat up in his chair knowing his father would be praying a blessing over the meal. As he bowed his head, he noticed something on his plate next to the broccoli casserole—an orange feather!

Isaiah didn’t hear a single word of his father’s prayer. He wondered if his dream really happened or maybe he was still dreaming. Dad concluded the prayer. As soon as he said, “Amen!” Jayden looked at Isaiah from across the table and exclaimed, “Hey, where did you find my kazoo?”




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Life in the Bag

A poem written for my class last semester. The prompt– write a poem about an experience from a different perspective. I tried to put myself in the mind of a child coming to summer camp. Our camps serve kids in “the system,” bringing them to a safe place to simply be kids for a week. 

The poem has been edited from the longer version, describing the child’s bus ride to camp. She contemplates why she fits in with the other kids on the bus and relives the night she was removed from her home and placed in the foster care system.

Just six years old
But wise beyond my years
I am told

Just this one bag to fit a house
Filled with things
Piled high on the counters
Into corners and closets

Just this one bag?
Yes, now hurry child
So we can leave to go somewhere safe

Here, a pink teddy bear
To wipe away your tears
Of confusion and welcome
You to this new world

That pink bear doesn’t know who I am
I have twelve or more in my room, each
With it’s own name but you say
Leave them behind and take
Only what you need

I need my momma that’s what I need
But she cries
Screams that it was all a misunderstanding
The gun on the table was to protect our family
Family—   what we were
Before tonight
Daddy said not to touch it
We never did

Momma tries to explain the dirty dishes and
The doggy doo on the floor and the
Bottles she got from the pharmacy that
Have a name that I she doesn’t know
She has a lot of pain but wails with
Grief I’ve never heard before

Should I cry too…   I muster another tear
Squeeze it from the corner of my eye

My big sister is angry but she always is
Troubled about this or that
She is shoving her things into a bag
Black like mine     but with rage
She is angrier today than I’ve seen

The lady helps me figure out
What to take in my black plastic bag
I have shoes for every outfit most
With glitter and sequins because I am
Fancy and a free-range kid
That’s what they say as I run
In my heels through mud puddles
Like the other kids but dressed
To the nines

The baby of the family but a
Family no more
Fosters will be our new family
Our new home
Away from home with a bed time
So much sooner than here   at home
Where I watch life hacks on YouTube as
Mom sleeps in her recliner   Dad
On the couch with a bottle of medicine nearby
As always
He drinks then sleeps
He has pain in his bones and his heart

The bus turns a corner and I’m brought back to now
Awaked from my recollection    of then
When I started to live   my life
Out of a black plastic bag

We have arrived
At summer camp
For kids     like me

Outside the bus window I see a new stranger waiting for me
I know she is mine because my name is written
On a pink piece of poster board
Outlined with glitter and sequins
R – A – E – L – Y– N
That’s me.   That’s who I was.
Named for my mom and dad.

Now I’m not so sure.


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Summer | 1976

I am back to my hometown for the weekend. It’s a good time to release the memoir written for my creative writing class. Some details about my hometown are slightly different than it was because I started this piece as a fictional story. The second half told of my adult life with dad. That wasn’t the true end of our story. My instructor advised me to write the memoir rather than the fictional version. So here is the reality from the summer of 1976.

It was summer in our small town in northern Wisconsin. Unlike Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, Lakewood wasn’t cliché, but it was charming. The town was only five blocks long with sidewalk along one side of the road; not both sides, just one. Main Street was a state highway with a gas station on each end of town. There were more taverns than anything else but we had the essentials— Elmer’s corner grocery, Hank’s hardware store, Betty’s diner, Percy’s hotel, Jerry’s bait shop, and the U.S. Post Office where my father worked. img_0067Everyone knew my dad and he knew everyone in town, including the summer residents. Our town was named for its two best attractions—thick woodlands and oodles of lakes. The town population tripled in summer, as city folks would venture north for rest and recreation. Dad wasn’t the mayor be he was charming and represented our town well to all visitors.

This particular summer of 1977 was especially vibrant as we celebrated the Bicentennial year across the USA. Red, white, and blue were everywhere with stars and stripes forever! I recall Independence Day was especially patriotic and memorable that year. My sister and I had returned home from a week visiting our Uncle Tom’s dairy farm. She was a few years older than I and appreciated the exciting opportunities of baling hay and milking cows. My eight year-old attitude was anxious to return to the comforts of home– mom and television. We were only nine miles away but it felt like we were across the state. When we arrived at home, dad was painting the wood siding of our house, which struck me as peculiar, considering it was a holiday and all. Didn’t he know there was an All-You-Can-Eat Pancake breakfast at the town hall and a parade at noon? I had an agenda– so did he.

My sis and I didn’t know we were shuffled off to the farm so mom and dad could travel to the doctor’s office for tests. The best doctors were in the city about an hour away. They would make a day of errands and shopping for things we couldn’t find in town.

Earlier that year, Mr. Hansen asked my father if we would be interested in gardening on his land. He had a large patch of yard devoted to a vegetable garden but didn’t have the energy to maintain it any longer. He and his wife loved to grow produce in their garden but she had recently passed on and it was too much for Mr. Hansen to do alone. I imagine his love for growing faded without the love of his life to share time planting, working in the garden, and enjoying meals together too.

It was a very large garden. Dad put on a pair of bib overalls in the spring to till the soil. I never saw him wear farmer jeans. Typically he wore a dress shirt and tie to work or leisure clothes on the weekend so this was a new version of my father. Together our family worked in the garden to plant, weed, and water. Early in the summer, my father’s back started to ache from the extra work. He thought he might’ve twisted it while wrestling with the rototiller in the spring. Tending to the plants wasn’t allowing time for the muscles to heal. Several weeks of treating the backache with Doan’s pain medicine was not working, so he decided it was time to see a doctor.

Like I said earlier, we were pretty young so they didn’t tell the little kids what was going on. From what we were told later, the doctor needed my dad to stay in the hospital for tests. He X-rayed and said nothing showed up except the button on his pajamas, to which my dad replied, “I don’t have buttons on my pajamas.” That’s when they discovered he had cancer.

I remember coming into the living room to hear the news. My older sisters were already crying so they must have thought it would be best to tell them before they tried to explain the situation to the littles. My sister and I were the youngest in the family. The first five girls were born every two years, as if they were planned. There is a five-year gap to my sister then another four-year gap to when I was born. I am the baby and was reminded frequently I was an accident rather than a pleasant late-in-life surprise.

I guess the diagnosis was why my dad had a different agenda on Independence Day. It was just July 4th and a day off work to tackle some of the projects he had been neglecting. I’m not sure when exactly they told us about the cancer but, looking back, he must have been coming to grips with his fate when I was dreaming of pancakes and parades. The visit to Uncle Tom’s dairy farm was the first of many weeklong sleepovers my sister and I would have that year. Every so often, mom and dad would leave for the city and send us to another relatives house. We had lots of aunts and uncles so it became an adventure to eat different meals and have our own bedroom with a door. All the girls in our family slept in the attic of our house with beds anywhere we could fit them. It’s a good thing the older sisters were heading to college because we ran out of beds once the little ones outgrew the crib in mom and dad’s bedroom.

No one really explained cancer very well. Maybe back then, they didn’t know a lot about it except that smoking caused it to grow in your body. My dad was a smoker, from what I’m told. He only smoked an occasional cigar in my presence. I knew him to spend a lot of social time in taverns on the way home. The Post Office was only a block from home but there were three bars between his workplace and home. Our house was a tiny place full of bickering women. I don’t fault him for opting out. My older sisters say he spent a lot more time socializing as the years went on and often missed dinner all together. I was oblivious to any of this because I was in my own world as the baby of the family.

Eventually, after the cancer was discovered and after several trips to the city, dad started losing weight and his skin turned yellow. I didn’t know why and, like everything else, no one explained it to me. I just figured it must be the cancer growing in his belly or the medicine they gave him. As skinny as his legs got, and as thin as his face became, he never seemed to lose his beer belly.

I remember lying on the sofa with dad, watching television when I was really small—probably before Kindergarten. His belly was so round, it would knock me off the couch if I didn’t hang on to the edge of the cushion. It wasn’t squishy round but firm, like a basketball was under his shirt. It’s kind of crazy to think of a tumor growing in someone’s body and even crazier to think that injecting poison into a body or zapping the tumor with radiation was the only hope for a cure. Death seems like a better alternative to all of that.

Contemplating death is probably why dad started going to church again. I hadn’t given much thought to why mom and my sisters went to church but dad always stayed home. Before his diagnosis, I recall asking my mom why he didn’t go to church with us and she simply replied, “If you ask him, he probably will.” I innocently quizzed him and he did go to church that Sunday. He dressed in his navy blue suit and sat on the end of our regular pew. At one point, he kept singing a hymn when only the first four verses where noted on the board. I think he was embarrassed because he didn’t come again, except for holidays, until after his diagnosis.

Dad rested in their bedroom most of the time and started reading the bible. He started going to church on a regular basis and would even go to chapel at the hospital if he had an extended stay for treatment. He wrote me a letter and made note that only a few persons were in church which made him sad. I think he was gaining new perspective on life and regretting some of the choices he had made at the expense of family time.

Sometimes I’d lay in bed with dad and read the Sunday comics. I recall asking him what he thought heaven would be like. He read chapters from the Bible to explain what he was looking forward to. That made me feel a little better about what I didn’t understand. No one really told me there was a chance he could get better. Everyone seemed to be preparing for the worst.

It was a springtime day when he told me about heaven. The asparagus was sprouting along the side of our house. I was excited to harvest the first crop and made a snack for us to share. He told me he didn’t really like asparagus much—only the top of the spears. I cut all the tops off and served them to dad with butter and salt. I had been pretty selfish up to this point in my life, being the baby of the family and all. That’s not to say cancer was life changing for me but it did change me in ways I wouldn’t realize until I was much older. I still think of heaven when I eat asparagus and my dad and how it’s a really nice feeling to give the best of something to someone you love.

Dad was pretty weak for a long time. There were days we couldn’t come close to his bed because any bump would hurt his entire body. I hated to see him grimace with pain so I stayed a safe distance away. I just wanted to curl up next to him like we used to do on the sofa but knew he needed time to rest. As hard as it was to see him suffer at home, it was harder when he was away from home for treatments. My grades slipped that year, as my mind would often wander when I was sitting in the classroom. Dad would help me with my homework on days he felt stronger. He was really good at math and logical thinking; especially helping me understand story problems.

A few years before cancer came into our lives, dad decided we should go camping. He hoped to retire at an early age to be a snowbird. He dreamed of buying a large RV to spend winters in Texas and returning for summers in northern Wisconsin. He settled for a smaller trailer until he would be old enough to retire. We would hitch the Trailblazer camper to the station wagon and head further north than we already were to enjoy the many National Forest campgrounds nearby. As our small town became more popular, sometimes we would park the trailer in the woods for a night to simply enjoy the sound of crickets rather than the tavern patrons stumbling around after the taverns closed. Camping trips were some of my more special memories. Dad would squeeze on the top bunk of the trailer to read the Sunday comics with me and share a bag of jellybeans. We both liked the black ones best. My father didn’t have another summer of camping.

The ambulance came in the middle of the night. Dad had fallen in our tiny bathroom and mom couldn’t lift him. My sister and I did not wake through it all; nor did anyone wake us. We woke up that Saturday morning for cartoons to find our eldest brother-in-law, Howie, making pancakes. He simply told us dad had been taken to the hospital. Our mom and older sisters were with him. We carried on as usual.

Dad had slipped into a coma when he slipped on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night. Later that day, he peacefully passed on. This is what my sister and I had been told. The days that followed were much the same with funeral preparations, meals brought to our home, cards of condolence, and a house filled with family. No one explained much to us, as per the norm.

He passed away in the spring, a few weeks after our meal of asparagus– one of the last meals he was able to keep down. I now realize my mother was coping with the loss of her love the same week of her 49th birthday and Mother’s Day. She was often sad, with justifiable reason. The experience also strengthened her faith. Cancer had consumed dad’s body but rejuvenated his soul– a gift despite the loss.

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Momma’s Rocking Chair

You are bright green, like an unripe avocado. So sunny and bright, you light up the room. Your entire body is square from top to bottom. Square from side to side; square from front to back. Your arms are wide and flat; able to hold several small children as mother rests in the middle of […]

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