The First Thing You Bought With Your Own Money



For me, it was a flannel shirt with a tag that read “Paula Lee Sportswear”  in rushed italics that looked like they were brushed by a calligraphist. I bought it from Kohl’s Department Store when I was 15.  It was in beautiful shades of brown and soft gold, and suited me perfectly.  I held onto that shirt for most of my life, never forgetting how that felt to take the money I had made from babysitting and my paper route and go to a store and buy something for myself.  It was in late fall, when the skies were the color of charcoal, brittle leaves skittering on sidewalks, frost on the windows, a time of year I have always loved, and I carried it out to the car in a white paper bag stamped with the Kohl’s logo.

The following spring, I remember buying a new bike from a hardware store, my first new bike, and a pair of desert boots that cost $11.00, and that summer, I worked in my grandma’s gift shop and bought all sorts of things I didn’t need at all.  For some reason, the memory of buying that first flannel shirt, that bike, and those boots, is still strong.

Do you remember the first purchase you made with the money you made?


Injustice in Third Grade



Again.  I couldn’t believe it.  She did it again.  My face flushed with rage as I stood there in the hall outside my third grade classroom, glaring at my dingy blue winter coat lying on the linoleum. Cheryl Watry had knocked my coat off the first hanger in the line of coats outside Mrs. Halloran’s classroom, as she had done every single time I managed to beat her to the number one spot, and replaced it with her long faux sheepskin parka with the fur-lined hood and cuffs.  We’d be outside, freezing in our winter coats in the cold sunshine with bare legs and knee socks; then, the bell would ring and we would all race, cheeks flushed, eyes watering,  to line up.  I wanted to be first as often as possible because that was the only way to get access to the first coat hanger.  It was a status thing. First in line gets the first coat hanger.

     I’ll get her next time, I thought, then picked my coat up by its dingy hood, slipped it on, and went outside for recess.  I couldn’t even get into the game of kickball, I was so hurt by what Cheryl did to me every day.  She was tall, lanky, with shoulder-length blond hair, and she didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.  If she wanted something, she would get it any way she could.  She would elbow, shove, stomp on your foot, holler, spit, whatever it took.  This was new to me.  I’d never seen a child, let alone a girl, with so much courage, power, and guts.  In contrast, I was small, mousy, fearful, and accepted whatever was given to me without question.

Until that day.  That was the last time Cheryl would knock my coat off the first hanger. I had a plan.  When we came in from recess, I hung in the back of the line, my hands shoved into my pockets, head down, and just let Miss Bossy have her first hanger.  She muscled her way to the front of the line, then charged for the first coat hanger as soon as the doors opened.  I sauntered in, waited until everyone had hung up their coats and went into the classroom, chattering and shoving each other.

Then I made my move.  I marched up to that first hanger and yanked her stupid faux sheepskin parka down to the linoleum and gave it a kick once it hit the ground — just as Mrs. Halloran popped her head out of the classroom to see what was taking me so long.  I stood there frozen, my coat limp in one hand, reaching for the Number One Hanger with the other hand. My mouth dropped open.  And the lecture began.

Mrs. Halloran, an Irish widow with a reddish nose, dragged me by the arm over to the corner at the end of the line of coats, away from the window so the other kids couldn’t see, and brought her veined face up to mine.  Stray fronds of gray and white hair sprung from her tightly coiled bun as she barked “Do you think you have the right to damage other people’s property? Do you think you are better than other people?  What gives you the right to knock Cheryl’s coat to the ground and put yours in its place?  Do you think you own that coat hanger? Maybe you should bring your own coat hanger from home from now on.”  On and on she went while a few kids got up and peeked through the narrow window in the classroom door.

I was ashamed and furious. I spent the rest of the day in a cloud of dark anger which carried me pretty much through the week.  At home, I looked through our coat closets for any kind of hanger that resembled the hangers at school, which were attached to the pole so they couldn’t be removed.  I had a new strategy.  I would bring my own coat hanger, as Mrs. Halloran had suggested, in a paper bag every day and hang my coat up in front of Cheryl’s.  That way I wouldn’t have to knock her coat down, and I could still beat her.

But my mom foiled that plan, seeing me with the hanger in a paper bag.  She told me to put it back and stop being ridiculous. I came up with my own way to exact revenge on Cheryl Watry.  For the rest of that year, and fourth grade as well, whenever we were in a cluster or group or squiggling line, I would kick, trip, or elbow her as hard as I could, always making sure there were enough people nearby that she wouldn’t know where the blow came from.

I learned something that year, as one of the kids who were bused from a different town.  Teachers back then treated us differently because we were not from that town, not one of the elite.  I remember Doug Bauman, the butcher’s boy, one of those kids who always had that raw chapped ring around his lips, a boy from a family with some status in that town.  He wasn’t a bad kid at all, good student, polite and all, but Mrs. Halloran knew who his family was.  We were presenting our math homework for correction one day, and Doug didn’t have his with him.  My eyes widened, waiting to see what his punishment would be.

“What do you mean, you don’t have it with you?”  Mrs. Halloran asked him, her hands on her hips.

“I did it at home on my chalkboard, and my dad checked my work,” he answered, shakily.

Mrs. Halloran paused, thought, then said “I accept that, Douglas; just make sure next time your write it down and bring it with you the next day.”

What?  I thought.  WHAT?  He “did it at home on the chalkboard?”  I stared in disbelief.  In what universe did that COUNT as doing your homework? Why don’t we all just “do our math homework on a chalkboard at home?”  Doug licked his chapped  lips and Mrs. Halloran moved to the next desk, holding her hand out for homework.  The injustice!  Unbelievable.

Did you have a year like this, where you became aware of injustice?


A Gift You Received


first communion

My mom thought it was inappropriate as a gift for a first communion:  A stuffed dog, a long-haired blond Yorkshire type terrier with button eyes, a soft velveteen tummy, a gold chain, and a green plastic brush attached to the end of it.  My aunt gave it to me, and I wonder if that might have had something to do with it, since she was from the side of the family that was Lutheran and not Catholic.  I wasn’t aware of the undercurrent of disagreement between my mom’s and dad’s side of the family, and I suppose that is a good thing.

My aunt Andrea was from England; she married my dad’s brother when I was five, and I was the flower girl in their wedding.  I don’t remember much from the wedding aside from how uncomfortable the dress and the shoes were, but I do know that the gifts I received from “Andy” were precious and memorable to me.  She was class act, something clean and pretty and stylish in our world of German farmers. I remember a little brown purse she gave me for my birthday when I was six.  It had an all-day sucker in it, and six shiny  new pennies.  I was enchanted that someone would think of something so special to give to me, but I think my mom scoffed at her gifts as being cheap.

I was still in the phase of my tender young life where a real dog was something I wanted with all my heart.  How Andy knew that I don’t know, but I know she was a dog lover too.  She had stuffed dogs in her apartment, including a giant black poodle in the corner of her bedroom that was as tall as me.  Its head sagged to one side a little and it wore a bow around its neck.  But the gift of this little dog out-shadowed anything else that happened the day of my first communion.  The white dress, the cake, the cards, the money — none of it mattered because now I had a dog!  My cousin Judy told me I should name him “Buttons,” but the name Toby came to me from out of nowhere and that is what I named him.

I slept with Toby every night for the rest of my childhood, even after I got a real dog,  and he sat on my bed the rest of my young life.  I might have even taken him to college with me, his fur long gone from brushing, the chain broken, the little green brush lost.  Eventually he lost one eye as stuffed toys will do, and his front paws lost their integrity so he always canted forward and fell on his nose, since his head was disproportionately large. I still have him today.  He is in a Rubbermaid bin in the attic with the rest of the important relics of my childhood and my children’s childhoods. If I ever move into a larger house, maybe there will be room to display some of those friends from long ago, but I am happy he has stuck with me for the past 50 years, a precious gift from someone who knew enough about me to pick out just the right thing.

Today, write about a gift you received at some time in your life.  Who gave it to you, why, and why is it precious to you?

The Houses Where You Lived

home - Copy


I just did a quick mental tally of all the places I lived, including one apartment with my parents before I was old enough to remember, and I came up with 27.  I have lived in 27 different places, including homes, apartments, dorm rooms, a trailer, a tipi, the back of a truck, and a tent. This is a person who would like to just settle down and stay in one place.  Home is definitely where my heart is.  Some of those places I lived for years, some for weeks or months.  In some of those places I was happy; in some I was miserable. But each place had its role in shaping my life journey.

Think of the places you have lived.  If you are young and you have only lived in one or a few places, describe that place or those few places in detail: the view out the window, the vegetation, the driveway, the sounds you hear at night, the birds in the feeder, your mom’s car in the driveway, the neighbor next door.

If you are older and you have moved around a bit, list all the places you have lived.  If you are still in a writing place after you make your list, pick out a few of the places, either where things were very good, or very bad.  Write out the floor plans, the views, the sounds, the smells, your dreams while you were there.

Ninth Grade


When we are poised on the precipice of puberty, we decide if we want to rush headlong into young adulthood, or if we want to stay behind and jump rope and climb trees for another year.

I definitely wanted to stay behind.  I was in no hurry to become an adult.  I was fine walking people’s dogs and babysitting and riding my bike and putting on puppet shows.  But a handful of my friends decided it was time for me to cross the line.

So there was a Christmas party at my friend Julie’s house.  I remember staring at the invitation, reading “Christmas Cheer will be served.” This was the polite way to tell kids’ parents that there would be alcohol.  Apparently in 1974,  parents could do this.

So a dozen thirteen to fifteen-year-old girls clomped down Julie’s parents’ basement stairs and danced to the Christmas records they played on the record player, and did each other’s hair and make-up and talked about the boys they liked and didn’t like.  I ate potato chips and cookies and stayed clear of the Christmas Cheer and watched my friends drink pink sparkly booze out of festive paper cups decorated with reindeer and mittens. I watched as they slid and sloshed and giggled and made prank phone calls.  I wondered how I could leave this party early.

And then the girls all decided it was time to launch my young womanhood.  They trundled me over to a cold beige folding chair, plunked me down in it, and held my arms back as the make-up was brought over.  I protested and squirmed and turned my face away as they troweled on the foundation and blush and eye shadow and strawberry lip gloss.  Oh, they had a great time.  But I was uncomfortable and angry that they would think I had to go through this initiation in order to be considered a friend.  If this is what adulthood was, I wanted no part of it.  When I got home, I ran upstairs to the bathroom and washed it all off before anyone could see my face.

I still stay pretty much clear of the make-up aisle and beauty salons, surprise, but that is my strongest memory of the social side of ninth grade.

Today, write about a strong memory from ninth grade.  It could be from school or home, good or bad.

How Did You Get that Scar?

I have two visible scars:  One on my left hand, in the webbing between my thumb and finger, and one on my left arm.

The hand scar resulted from a scratch from a boy in fifth grade who raked me with his claw while reaching to tag me in a game.  I was under the slide on the playground, I remember, when James reached and swatted at me.  I backed away and he grazed me with his index finger, which had been injured in a farm accident.  He didn’t have a normal fingernail on the finger, but a gnarled claw that I was already afraid of.  The scar is shaped like a shark.

The other scar is from a staple in a refrigerator box.  We had gotten a new refrigerator sometime in the early 70s, and my sister and I claimed the box.  After we rolled down the cemetery hill inside it a few times, it fell apart at the seams, so we flattened it out and used it as a dance floor on the front lawn.  I slid on my side after a certain dance move, and a staple cut my arm.  It’s a little one-inch scar, nothing distinct about it.  But looking at it takes me back to that day, and I am always careful around staples today.

I have been lucky in that I have suffered few injuries.  But I know you have some scars.  What are they and how did you get them?  What was happening in your life the day you got that scar?

Staying Home From School



desksThis is something I have absolutely no experience with, so I am hoping everyone else does.  Here it is:

I never stayed home from school.  Sick or otherwise.

In first grade, our family drove to Florida at Easter time to visit my grandparents, and I missed five days of school then.  In high school, I missed one day for my grandma’s funeral, but never, in all my 13 years of public school did I stay home from school, me and my mom, me on the couch watching TV with a glass of 7-Up and a box of Kleenex, witnessing what my mom did all day.

I never got sick and the only time I got hurt, I borrowed some crutches from the girl down the street and wrangled my way onto the school bus and made it to school anyway.

But I  know other people have stayed home from school.  What was that like?  What did you do all day? Did you watch the clock and think “Now my class is on its way to art.  Now they are at recess.  Now they are at lunch.” Did you watch TV, did you lie in bed, did you wonder if maybe you should have gone to school, did you enjoy the time at home without all the other kids there?

Write about staying home from school today.

Choose a Cousin

Let all of your cousins parade across the stage of your memory, and choose one.  It could be the one you are closest to, or the one you dislike the most.  Write about that person today.  Go back to find some of the earliest memories.  Today, write about a cousin.

Up on the Roof


At one point in our lives, we have all been up on a roof.  Recall a time when you were there.  Why were you there?  How did you get up there?  What did you see?  Did you get caught or get in trouble?  What makes us want to go up on the roof in the first place?





I pulled into the parking lot of Grand View Elementary School, now closed, now functioning as a museum in the small town of Waubeka, Wisconsin.  I was on my way to my niece’s house so I could help her move into the house she just bought, but Waubeka was on the way, so I thought I would stop and just have a peek at the old school, where I attended third through fifth grade.

If you’ve ever gone back to your school after decades away from it, you have, I’m sure, experienced the same sensations. Your childhood rushes up to you.  You can’t believe the playground is that small.  The swings squeak on their chains.  The screams of children echo in your ears as you recall the day you won the kickball game, or got pushed off the slide, or got wet or muddy, or tackled, or tattled on, or any number of the thousands of things that happened during recess.

It was a bright August morning when I stopped at Grand View Elementary.  Not a soul in sight and the sun was glaring down on the bleached blacktop.  The swing set was gone, the slides, the teeter totter where Tami Palmer let me slam down in 4th grade, all gone.  Grass and weeds grew up through the buckling cracks in the blacktop.

But the large tree at the edge of the field was still there, spreading its enormous limbs even further across the stretch of grass.  The hill we used to run down when we played pom pom pullaway seemed much much smaller, not really a hill at all.

The circle driveway was the same, the sidewalk where we lined up after recess.  The flagpole.  The carport roof where we huddled when it rained.

I recalled the day James Brunquell scratched my hand while reaching for me in a game of tag, a scar I still have today on my left hand.  I recalled the day Billy Weiman beat up my brother Gary by the bike rack, and how terrified I was.  I recalled the day I made 18 baskets, playing basketball by myself that one day for some reason.  I remembered watching boys play football and something called “Kill the Guy.”  I remembered the girls balancing on the concrete strips that prevented cars from parking too far forward.  I remembered the day they told us we could now wear pants to school.  That happened right here.

If anyone had passed that school parking lot where I sat in the cab of my truck that morning, they would have seen me, my eyes filling with tears I didn’t understand, or they would have seen me standing in the center of the empty playground, turning around slowly, listening for ghosts.

Today, write about recess.  What happened, with whom, what did you play, how did you keep warm, who were your friends, who were your enemies, did you ever get hurt . .. whatever comes to mind.