On Vacations and Balance

On my walk this morning, I saw a dog owner trying to round up at least four dogs  — none on leashes – after a visit to a nearby park. I understand the need to let dogs run, particularly big dogs, which these were. But I cringed when one dog headed straight for the street. It’s not a busy street, but it has traffic.

A lady walking ahead of me, also toward the park, was pushing a baby SUV (one of those large, complicated strollers) plus she had a small dog – maybe a Jack Russell – on a leash. Of course, my thought on seeing her was: “A baby AND a Jack Russell – she must never sleep!!”

The small terrier took off after the big dogs, too, and strained at his leash. But the young woman pulled him back and waited at a safe distance for the man to gather up the big dogs.

Today is my first day back from a week long beach trip. I feel a little like the guy trying to round up the dogs – big projects and promises I’ve made need to be corralled onto a list and/or put on the calendar. Emails need to be written, and phone calls need to be made. But I also feel a little scattered like the Jack Russell terrier, jumping and barking, trying to go play with the big boys.

When you are self-employed, weekends, days off, and vacations are difficult to manage. I want to “take care of business” in a timely manner and be available to my clients, but sometimes I need to rest and just plain relax.

I’ve also found that when you love what you do, it’s not really “work.” But there are so many other elements that are distractions – records need to be kept, tax documents need to be prepared, and laundry never stops.

As I turned to head back home, I heard the terrier bark a time or two and that made me smile. I enjoyed the bright purple and white and blue and pink morning glories growing next to the sidewalk, and for just a minute, let myself be on vacation again.

I knew my lists and phone calls would wait.

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Don’t Whine

Some writing teachers or coaches will tell you that you need to write every day. Most of my productive writer friends set goals for writing a certain number of words per day. All of this is good advice.

When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poetry that I sometimes shared; I wrote stories I never showed anyone. I was disappointed when a dark look at the future of our town didn’t win a community essay contest. My English teacher looked at me over her glasses and said, “Ann, they didn’t want to read this. They wanted something happy.”

Sometimes I find it difficult to write every day. I want to spend time with my husband. Then there is that pesky laundry that needs to be done. My office needs to be shoveled. We all have commitments to friends and family.

But while I go about my dishwashing or filing or toilet cleaning, I try to think about characters and plots. One of my writer friends likes staring out the window to contemplate plot points. Still, nearly all the writers I know spend periods of time avoiding putting pen to paper or hands to keyboard. But then you start jonesing for “it” – that feeling you get when the words come together, the plot revs up and your characters come tearing through the house.

What’s a writer to do? Put your butt in the chair and write. Don’t whine.

Here are some tips:

* Discipline to write every day can be scheduled.

* Remember not everything you write is going to be magic, nor does it need to be.

* Keep an idea notebook/file folder handy.

* Cut stories out of the paper or print them off. Or have a “stash file” on your computer for those “so weird it’s got to be true” stories.

* On your computer or somewhere, keep a list of prompts. Use them for free writes.

* Go to a writing workshop or even sign up for a class.

* If you’re a fiction writer, sign up for a poetry class to challenge yourself and to experiment with using words in a different way. Or if you are a poet, sign up for a screenwriting class for the same reason.

* Stay off social media sites.

* Work on a blog. Make a schedule for this, too.

* Write fan fiction. Not going to get into that whole story here but using existing characters to write a story just for yourself can be fun and can help you work on plot without having to invent characters. (One novel I wrote is based on existing characters. It will never see the light of day but I finished it, which feels good.) Be aware, too, that many authors do not like fan fiction so it might be better not to share it with anybody. Such things can also be considered a violation of copyright, which is another reason to just make this an exercise.

* Some people like journaling. I’ve kept journals for years but I’m not sure how helpful they are sometimes. Still keeping a journal helps with that “habit” of writing.

* Go write somewhere different: a coffee shop, the library, a park.

Above all, find ways to write that work for you.




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“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” ~ Chinese Proverb

The house on Oak Street where I grew up had a big old oak tree in the middle of the front yard and an equally big one in the back yard. Both trees had been trimmed so the branches started at least as high as the roofline of our one-story house so the trees weren’t good for climbing.

I was particularly fond of the tree in the back yard. When I was in grade school, my pop managed to loop a rope around one of the big branches and made a tire swing. I loved it. Since the tree shaded a large part of the yard, it was much cooler out there in summer.

Pop also had lightning rods installed on each tree. I think I was maybe five or six years old, and I remember my mother fussing about the cost. I don’t remember lightning ever striking one of our trees, but I have a vague memory that lightning did strike one of the trees on a neighbor’s property. I remember wondering if the metal rope snaking down the side of the tree would hurt it.

I am around my hometown fairly often, but I don’t usually go through my old neighborhood. One night a year or so ago, I went on Google Maps and found the old address. When I pulled up the actual view, I was startled to see the front yard oak tree was gone. Since there wasn’t even a stump, I realized the tree must have been gone for some time. I think that even if I drove by the house and noticed that the tree was gone, I must have blanked it from my memory.

I dream about the Oak Street house sometimes. It’s usually a setting for a dream “plot” that doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the house or my real memories of growing up there. The trees in the yard are an integral part of my real memories.

The city where I now live is known for its “tree canopy.”

Currently the city has been doing a major water/sewer project on the main road in my neighborhood. In the last several weeks, due to this project, they have cut down two wonderful old trees. I cried as I watched them take limbs off of a tree this morning, a tree I have seen every day for the twelve or so years we’ve lived here. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend.

Goodbye to an old friend

Trees add so much to the neighborhood and the streetscape. Trees offer shade, refuge and help filter our air.

When my husband and I sit in our backyard, we admire an old oak down the way. We worried after an ice storm several years ago caused several big limbs to break. Despite the damage, the tree has come back and we often see birds of all types in the branches.

Trees represent life and while rooted in the earth, a tree’s limbs reach for the sky.

Now there’s a lesson for us all.


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For Pop, On Father’s Day

My dad was Mac, short for McIver, his mother’s maiden name.  My Pop, as I called him, and I weren’t very close. My mother, Opal, always said we didn’t get along because we were too much alike. Thing is, I don’t remember not getting along with my dad. We just never talked very much.

When he died in 1982, he’d been sick for a while. Opal was worn out from taking care of him.

He wasn’t a religious guy, and he’d stopped going to church with Opal and me when I was in junior high. I have this memory that it was because the choir director gave me a role in the Christmas pageant one week and at the next rehearsal, gave my part to another girl. I don’t remember why — probably because he discovered that I couldn’t do a solo singing part. But my dad was furious and boycotting the church was how he dealt with it.

Pop was a frustrated artist. The only books I wasn’t allowed to touch on the shelves in the living room were a set of three or four books of art. I realized later these books had reproductions of work by his favorite artists. I wish I still had them. He bought endless artist’s kits for me – remember Jon Gnagy? — hoping, I think, that I would develop an interest and sure somehow that I had talent. I tried but could never quite understand how to draw. But I did a lot of paint by number projects. I guess he hoped I would absorb something from those.

He sketched a lot on odd pieces of paper, and sometime after he died, Opal gathered a bunch of these into a scrapbook of sorts. The faces he drew were not attractive, and I’ve wondered if he was drawing the demons that haunted him.

I think now that he was simply shy. At some point, he channeled his love of art and drawing into a love of photography that he did pass on to me. He took tons of snapshots, a lot of posed photos of me in Easter dresses or beside the Christmas tree.

By the time I was in high school, I knew that I couldn’t pick out the right shirt as a gift, but I could give him film for his cameras. He loved Polaroid cameras, and there are boxes and boxes of photos. I still have one of the Polaroid cameras – I rescued it as Opal was about to sell it in a yard sale – and, I think, the last camera he bought, an early Canon point and shoot. He loved the point and shoot — it was easy to carry, and he could take the casual snapshots he loved wherever and whenever the mood struck.

My mother drove him crazy – she drove me crazy in some of the same ways: she had to be right about everything for one thing — but I do think they loved each other. She liked being the center of attention and he was content, I think, to let her. They were always affectionate, and he never hesitated to tell either of us that he loved us.

He supported my college choice – an expensive private college — although he often said that if I had chosen NC State University, his alma mater and a much cheaper state school, that “we could all be driving Cadillacs.”

He grimaced when I would retort that I didn’t want a Cadillac.

I also inherited his fine but thick head of hair and his long tapered fingers. My mother thought I could be a concert pianist – she understood music better than art — but I turned into a really great typist. He kept the clipping of the announcement of my first newspaper job, framed on the wall in his office. I think he understood that in a way my mother never did.

I still hear them both in my head: my moody, artistic, sometimes befuddled father and my no-nonsense, self-centered mother.

Heaven help me!

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Exercise Your Brain

Walking for exercise these days. As a way to chronicle my walking, I posted a couple of lines on Facebook about what I saw one day. The second time I posted about what I saw, several friends also posted what they saw on their walks.

A writer friend who walks said she found the posts inspirational, and I must agree.

Walks can be important to writers because you can work on your observational skills.

As a writer, I am constantly looking at the world and picking out details to use in both fiction and nonfiction. For example, if you are writing a fictional scene and the character hears a dog barking, then you have the context to be able to accurately describe hearing a dog bark.

When you observe something — for example a tree — then you can also use that observation to prompt your memory. These prompts can be wonderful for “free writes.”

For example, yesterday I saw a bit of white fluff floating on the breeze. For a moment I thought it was a feather. The first thing I flashed on was that Houdini told his wife, Bess, that if he could come back after death, he would signal her by floating a white feather. Then I realized the white fluff was from the wonderful pink and white blossoms on the mimosa tree up ahead. The mimosa tree connects me with my childhood. There was a mimosa tree in our back yard.

Details are important building blocks for your stories, memoirs and novels.

Here are some other prompts I’ve developed from my walks:

  • Describe in detail the cat (or dog or other animal) you saw today.
  • There’s a blue tarp on the roof of a house and the broken trunk of a tree nearby. Write about the house itself or the tree. What kind of tree is it? What color is the house? Write about the storm that caused the damage.
  • Why is an old, rusty car with a flat tire parked on a street of homes with tidy yards and SUVs in the driveways?
  • Describe all the flowering plants that you see on your route.
  • Why is the guy waiting at the bus stop so impatient?


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Why I Don’t Forget Mother’s Day

Once, when I was around ten or eleven years old, I forgot Mother’s Day. I can’t take all the blame. My dad forgot as well.

I remember the three of us were at the old place on Lake Norman that weekend; we had a small trailer parked on a lot near the Stumpy Creek Access Area, which was about 20 minutes from town.

I think I was trying to watch a movie on television. The small portable TV was equipped with the antennas known as “rabbit ears” and picked up maybe two channels, three if it was cloudy or I added a couple of inches of aluminum foil to the ends.

Not being much of an outdoorsy kid, I was kind of bored out at the lake. Mostly, my dad drank beer and sometimes fished. My mother tried to create what she considered a proper yard around the trailer and the screened deck we’d added on the front of it. She planted flowering bushes and areas of irises. We’d cruise the dirt roads around the then relatively new lake looking for what I called “old house places” – that is the sites where farmhouses had been torn down to make way for the development of the lake. Though the structures were mostly gone, sometimes there’d be piles of old gray lumber or two or three stone steps to the ghosts of a front porch. Nearly always there were rose bushes and Opal would get cuttings or dig them up to replant around the trailer or at the house in town. She would also dig around and find the bulbs for irises. I have a vague memory of some other bulb she would look for – possibly buttercups? I don’t remember.

I remember the smell of honeysuckle and sometimes finding blackberries to pick.

Anyway, that day, inside the dark and musty smelling trailer, Opal asked me if I knew what day it was. I probably said, “Sunday.” We hadn’t gone to church that day, so I didn’t get a reminder there. In those days, the media didn’t over-saturate the airways with ads and stuff about Mother’s Day. Anyway, she gave me a hard look and blew cigarette smoke out the side of her mouth. I’m not sure what she said next but it was something along the lines of “It’s Mother’s Day. Did you forget? How could you forget?” And I am sure she added something about what a hard time she had giving birth and implied that I owed it to her to remember things like Mother’s Day.

Suitably chastised, I began to cry and ran to my room. After a few minutes, I dried my eyes and scrounged around, trying to find something with which to make a card. I probably had some colored pencils, and I have some memory of making a card out of a white paper plate. Or maybe it was a page from a notebook.

I gave the makeshift card to her before we left the lake to go back to the house in town late that afternoon. She said something along the lines of “if I have to remind you, it doesn’t mean the same thing” and then asked, “What am I going to tell my customers about what I got for Mother’s Day?”

What did my dad do? I have no idea.

Needless to say, I never forgot Mother’s Day again.


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Moments & Memories

We finally finished rehanging photos and other artwork in our stairway and upstairs hall a few days ago. Sounds simple. But, almost three years ago now, we had to take everything down because of some water damage and repair work. We managed, after about a year, to rehang the art in our stairwell. But we never got round to the photos in the hall.

Why? Are we lazy? No, but there always seemed to be laundry to do, vacuuming to be done, stories to edit, recordings to produce. Then, because we bought a new piece of furniture, all the art on the stairwell had to come down again. And I was glad we didn’t have to worry about the family photos in the hall.

Rehanging the photos brought back memories. The photo I took of Mark’s dad, Bob, and his three brothers, Jerry, Gene and Jack, where Mark is looking sideways at a fly always makes me smile. We didn’t know it then but the gathering that year was probably the last time the four brothers were together.

There’s a black and white studio portrait of Opal, Mac and me from sometime in the late 50s. I might be four years old. Both of my parents are seated, and I am standing on a table between them. I am laughing and, as Mark puts it, beaming sunshine. My dad, on the left, just looks a bit confused. My mom looks dour. She never smiled much in photos.

One of the photos I like the most is a group shot of the whole crowd at our wedding celebration. Mark and I are seated on a bench and the crowd is spread out behind and beside us. The best day of my life.

Life changes but with photos we can preserve a moment and a memory.



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Daydream Believer

Davy Jones (1945-2012)

When I was 12, in my daydreams, I was Ann Moses, the editor of Tiger Beat, my fave teen magazine that featured stories and photos of bands and actors. She always wore groovy clothes, white or light pink lipstick and had bright red hair. She talked to Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz on the phone. Bobby Sherman called her “babe.” She was cool.

My reality at age 12 was I went to church camp for a week in early summer. I was awkward, sweaty and about as far from my definition of cool as you could get. Plus, I was homesick.

On Wednesday evening of that week, I waited in line at the phone booth to call home. The counselors told us to keep the calls short because a lot of people were waiting. When it was finally my turn, I made the collect call and my mom had news.

She and her friend Frances, who was also my friend Jean’s mother, had bought tickets for Jean and me to see The Monkees – Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and my fave, Micky Dolenz – on July 11, 1967. Two young women, one of whom worked with Frances, had agreed to take Jean and me to see the band at what was then the Charlotte Coliseum. I started screaming into the phone, and my camp counselor later told me that she thought someone in my family had died.

The indignities of camp life receded as I anticipated seeing Micky in person. I was first and foremost a fan of The Beatles. But The Monkees antics and songs on their weekly television show had made a fan out of me.

When I got home from camp, my mom and I went shopping as the concert was coming right up. I picked out a blue sleeveless jumper, which I never wore again, although it hung in my closet for years.

At the show, I remember we were up near the top of the coliseum, to the left of the stage. The screaming was unbelievable.

I have to admit something. I don’t remember the opening act. Local lore has it that Jimi Hendrix was booed off the stage but I really don’t remember. I was there to see Micky. So sue me.

I can’t tell you what songs they played. I cried even though I wanted to be cool like Ann

Program from show, 11 July 1967

Moses. After the show, Joan and her friend hustled us out, but instead of going straight home they maneuvered the car around the coliseum parking lot and managed to get behind the bus – yes, the bus carrying the band. We followed the bus across Charlotte to Morehead Street and the Red Carpet Inn. Sadly, they didn’t stop – I doubt we could have gotten into the hotel, but who knows? Still it was fun to report back to our friends that we followed the bus.

In the midst of all this Monkeemania, Charlotte Observer Columnist Kays Gary got a brilliant idea to raise money for Holy Angels in Belmont NC, a program of the Sisters of Mercy that helps children with disabilities. He hustled to the hotel, retrieved the sheets the guys slept on and had them cut into one-inch squares. The pillowcases were left intact. If you sent a dollar and a stamped, self-addressed envelope, you got a square. I still have my square – in the luck of the draw I got a piece of the sheet Micky slept on. Sigh. I think the pillowcases were raffled off separately.

After that first concert experience, I saw many shows at the coliseum on Independence Boulevard: Chicago, The Rolling Stones (with Stevie Wonder opening), Elvis, Bob Dylan and the Band, Eric Clapton, Santana, Billy Joel, Marshall Tucker, The Kinks, Jimmy Buffett, Tina Turner (with surprise guest, Mick Jagger), Willie Nelson.

In the mid-1980s, reruns of The Monkees’ show proved popular on MTV, and Peter, Micky and Davy went back on tour. When that tour was announced, the closest show to Charlotte was in Chapel Hill, NC. Road trip! That tour was successful enough to be extended, so the guys came to Charlotte and again played the old coliseum. I was happy to be there, again. With much better seats this time.

Flash forward to 1996. A 30th anniversary Monkees tour is announced and Charlotte’s Blockbuster Pavilion is one of the stops. Several weeks prior to the concert, as part of my job, I try to channel Ann Moses in a telephone interview with Micky for a story about the show.

The day of the show, I found myself in the lobby of a hotel close to the Pavilion. A writer friend of mine had met and interviewed Micky a year or so before. She lived in Atlanta, but as the band wasn’t stopping in Atlanta on this tour, she decided to come to Charlotte to see Micky and the show.

I was rather stunned to see Micky walk out of the elevator. My friend showed up minutes later with her sister and another friend in tow. After introductions and to escape the whispering, growing crowd in the lobby, Micky ushered us all into a private dining room. I gotta say that dinner was fun but also a bit surreal.

After dinner, Micky graciously invited us to ride with him to the gig on the bus. Turned out he was sharing a bus with Davy, who seemed surprised at the entourage and was a bit standoffish.

Once at the gig, we were issued backstage passes and trouped after Micky to his dressing room. He told us about gargling with tea tree oil for his throat. He posed with each of us for a photo. He asked us all to wait in the hall while he dressed, so we were standing around when Davy popped out of his dressing room next door. A huge wardrobe “trunk” was in the hall as it was too tall to fit inside the dressing room door. Davy, oblivious to us, stood there going through his wardrobe. I reached for my camera but then thought, “No.” Although I was sure that no one would believe I saw Davy Jones in his underwear, I knew Ann Moses would never have taken such a photo.

I watched part of the show from the audience but it was raining like crazy — and the Pavilion is an open-air shed — so after the break, I elected to watch the rest from the wings.

After the show, we very briefly went to a “meet and greet” at the venue, then boarded the bus for the ride back to the hotel. The hotel bar was kept open for the band and crew, and we commandeered a small table. Peter held court across the room at the bar with a full entourage. Davy wandered from group to group, talking and laughing with folks, much more relaxed than before the show.

At one point, Micky and my friend went for a walk, and Davy came to our table. He sat down beside me, swirled his gin and tonic and flashed that blinding, charming grin. We chatted about the gig and tour, and I probably told him that I’d seen the show back in the 60s. I don’t remember. Now, I really wish I had asked permission to take a photo. He flirted with us, mostly the younger ladies, but all I could think about was that 12-year-old girl who screamed in the phone booth and how she would be amazed that her 40-something self would have had dinner and drinks with a couple of The Monkees.



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Spinning Wheel

When I was 16 years old, I dated a guy who was 21. He was a sly dog, courting my mother as much as he courted me. She loved him, and the fact that he was so much older than me didn’t seem to matter to her. At 16, I was intrigued with him because he was not like the boys I knew.

He was also a preacher’s son, and his family had moved around a fair amount.  His life experiences were very different from mine. And he drove a red sports car.

But I was not in love, and I somehow knew that even at 16. Infatuated, certainly, but not in love. The night we went to the county fair started as a normal date. I think we may have even double dated with his younger brother. We rode a few of the rides: The Scrambler and the Tilt-a-Whirl. We ate junk food and maybe we even played a game or two. Then he said he wanted to go on the double Ferris wheel. I said, “Have fun.”

“No, no,” he said. “You have to ride it with me. Are you chicken?”

He thought this was an insult. I smiled and said, “Yes, I am a chicken. Have fun. John will ride it with you. Not me.”

I am afraid of heights. Once when I was small, I had to be rescued from a miniature Ferris wheel. The double Ferris wheel had two regular size Ferris wheels at either end and the whole shebang turned on the connecting arm, going twice as high as a normal Ferris wheel.

He would not give up. He pouted. He shouted. He wheedled. He threatened to leave me at the fair without a ride home.

Finally, I gave in. I don’t remember why, except that I was tired and wanted to go home.

The guy strapped us in and I got a death grip on the bar that was lowered across our laps. He wanted to hold my hand, but I would not let go of the bar. He rocked the car and I screamed. This was before we even left the loading spot.

I closed my eyes and wondered if I could throw up without letting go of the bar.

I felt the car move and he said, “Look, look!”

I opened one eye and felt my stomach clinch. I closed my eye and tried to breathe deep. He rocked the car again, laughed, and I screamed, “Stop. Please stop.”

He was excited, ignored my distress and talked about the view or something. I tried not to think. The next thing I knew, the Ferris wheel lurched to a stop. I halfway opened one eye. We were on the very top; the car gently rocked in the breeze. He put his arm around me and again tried to hold my hand. I still would not release my death grip on the bar.

I gulped, tried to swallow, and not throw up. I was sweating.  He leaned over and said something, whispered it in my ear. I had no idea what he said.

Finally, he said, “Did you hear me?”

“No,” I said “What? Just get me down from here.”

“I said I love you,” he said.

I was furious. I opened my eyes and looked at him. “Just. Get. Me. Down,” I said.

He looked hurt. At the time, I was not sorry. I was terrified. “Aren’t you going to tell me that you love me?” he said.

“No!” I screamed. “Get me down. I don’t care. Just get me down.”

Finally the wheel lurched and started its descent. I was out of the car as soon as the guy lifted the bar, and I staggered away from the mechanical monster.

He stalked away with me trailing after him. We didn’t speak all the way back to my house. We went in the house, and he went to talk to my mother. I went to my room and went to bed.

I cared about him, but that was the beginning of the end of the relationship. He thought he loved me, but he was clueless about how to really make me happy.

Every relationship, romantic or not, teaches us something. If we are open to the lesson.






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Traveling the Road

We have all had the feeling that we have forgotten something. Sometimes it’s true. You forgot the broccoli at the grocery store. Or you forget to return the library books on time. Sometimes I can’t think of a word. I know what I want to say and sometimes can picture it in my mind, but the word is slow in coming.

But there are some days I feel like I should be somewhere else. Like there’s been a meeting called and someone forgot to tell me. Or I had a dentist appointment and didn’t write it down. It’s a vague feeling of being unsettled.

Some years ago, I had a broken finger and because I type for a living, my doctor prescribed extensive physical therapy. I was going three times a week for a while, then twice a week. At least once I showed up for an appointment to be told my appointment was the next day.

The experts say some forgetfulness is natural as we age. I admit I am more paranoid about forgetting things because my mother developed dementia and her memory loss was pronounced.

I remember the first time I knew my mother wasn’t pretending not to remember something. We were doing her weekly finances, and I realized we needed to pay her estimated taxes. Although she was retired, she was a self-employed beautician for almost 50 years.

I was filling out the check and the coupon from the accountant. When I handed her the check to sign, she looked at it and asked, “What’s this for?”

“Your estimated taxes,” I said.

I expected my explanation to be followed by her usual grumbling about paying taxes. Even before she developed the dementia, she never seemed to grasp the connection between the taxes and the government services she received. I had heard this harangue over the years and had also learned just to let her talk.

Instead, this time, she looked at me and said, “We’ve never had to pay this before. Why are we paying this now?”

I thought for a moment she was kidding, but when I looked into her eyes, I knew she really didn’t remember.

I explained that she had to pay the taxes, and indeed had paid them for many years. She accepted my explanation, and the check was sent.

Not the first page in this story, but a moment when I saw the road to be traveled.

I won’t forget.



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