Saturday, April 8, 2017


I've loved trees since before I can remember. I remember rocking in my mother's lap with my blanket and loving the blue spruce outside the window. There was a tire swing in an enormous weeping willow that drew me in from the time I could walk. My dad loves to tell the story of how I once, at the tender age of four, climbed far too high in that weeping willow. When he called to me to warn me that I could kill myself up there I had called back with great annoyance, "Well at least I would die happy!" Laughter bubbles up inside my dad every time he tells that story because he knows how right I was.

We moved from that house and those trees when I was five. The trees at our new house were younger. Two apple trees, two ash, a maple, and a pine. The maple was uselessly spindly, the pine was a bit sticky, and the apple trees were too small to be an adventure. But the ash in the back corner of the yard on Harmony Drive had low, flat branches that wound up the tree just like a winding staircase. I could almost walk right up into that green tower, where I would sit still for what felt like hours with only my quiet thoughts.

When I was maybe eight or nine, walking home from school one spring day I stopped to pick up three silver maple helicopter seeds. I peeled the green shiny pods from their dead flaky crust and rubbed them in my palm with my thumb. Without too much thought I stuck them in a row in the empty flower bed beside my house and wondered if they might grow, and to my great delight, they did. I watered them and watched them with pride for a month or so, before begging my dad to help me plant them in the yard. I asked my dad, of course, because he was the soft one when it came to impractical nonsense. And he lovingly helped me transplant three silver maple weed-trees in a row beside our hedge. He helped me stake them up so they would grow straight and fence them off to keep the bunnies from nibbling. And I realize now that he mowed around those ugly trees for over a decade simply because they were "Kathy's trees."

After my maple trees were well established there came one day in a Ranger Rick magazine, a postcard that I could fill out to join The National Arbor Day Foundation, which I promptly sent back with $10.00 of my birthday money so that I could receive ten free trees. A few weeks later a large manilla envelope arrived, and I was thrilled to find ten spindly little Colorado Blue Spruce twigs inside. I think both of my parents helped me this time to cut the tops off of ten 2 liter bottles and fill them with some dirt from the back-yard to plant those tiny twigs in. I loved watching those saplings come back to life in that dirt, and grow stronger with my care. Five of those trees survived and were eventually planted around the edge of the yard on Harmony Drive, where I believe they all stand to this day. I had big plans of turning my entire yard into a forest at that time, but then I grew.

It's hard for me to realize now how the worries of life dried up my early love of green things growing. For so many years the garden was beyond my reach--in the Chicago concrete, in the dormitories, and the condos, and the rental properties where we never owned the dirt. Life was keeping everyone going, and time was for surviving and saving my strength for tomorrow.

It was Hannah who woke me: yapping on and on about the magnificent magnolia and how high she had climbed in the overgrown Arbor Vitae. It was Hannah crying when we moved away from that magnolia, and Hannah naming every tree at our new house before we'd been there a month. It was Hannah sobbing as the electric company's tree trimmers irreverently lopped off half of our sugar maple, "Belle," and Hannah sobbing again as the half-dead Elm where the woodpecker family lived came down last fall.

At first, to my own horror, I heard myself dismiss her. I heard myself spout practicalities and wisdom, and far too few tears. My aunt told me then that my Grandpa Johnson, who died the year before I was born, loved trees. She said he loved the great oaks by the old white farmhouse in Minnesota that I remember swinging under. I never knew I had so much of him in me… and in my daughter. I looked again at the ruined Elm, and this time I saw it. I cried with Hannah for the Elm tree then, and I ached for our loss.

It was Hannah who eventually wore that dead flaky crust off of my heart, and smiled at the shiny green seed inside. This spring she put me back in the dirt where my roots could drink deeply, and she is watching me come back to life. This spring Hannah and I are watching all the green things grow.

Hannah told me that our sun porch could be a greenhouse, and I believed her. We went to buy a few packets of flower seeds and decided to almost clear the shelf. We put six-dozen eggs in a bowl in the fridge so we could fill the cartons with seedlings. We passed the little display of fruit bushes and strawberry shoots and decided to grab one of each of those too. Naomi caught wind of our fever and asked if she could plant some pear seeds from the pear she was eating. I told her they wouldn't grow, but that we had plenty of dirt so she could give it a go if she wanted. And heavens, this spring our sunporch is growing!

The flowers are growing, hundreds of flower sprouts!

The fruit bushes and shoots are bushing and shooting!

And glory be, even the pear seeds came to life with their big, strong leaves pushing up and out and into the sun!

And we all feel just like we have new babies. We're gently watering, and carefully transplanting, and rooting for each seedling because they are growing right in our souls. We're researching D'Anjou Pear trees to make sure we can actually grow these babies, and then, when we find out that D'Anjou Pear trees need to be planted with a Bartlett Pear tree for pollination, we are eating Bartlett Pears as fast as we can and planting ALL the seeds because we REALLY need at least one to grow!

Then, because we didn't have enough things to grow, this week I helped Hannah join the National Arbor Day Foundation, and we are both eagerly anticipating the arrival of her ten free Redbud trees.

"Where exactly are you planning to put all of this stuff?" Matt asked one day.

So we all glared at him like we'd glare at the naysayer who forgets to say "Congratulations" to the mother who has unexpectedly found herself pregnant with a seventh child. And then we sighed and reminded Matt that trees are blessings, not burdens, and that I'm the one who'll be mowing around them anyway. And to this he had no reply. And so it is settled: our yard will be a forest one day.

And my soul will be happy. It will be full of green things, and life, like it should be. And Hannah's soul will grow strong with the trees, just like her mama's did. And if we die trying to keep all these green things alive, at least we'll die happy.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cono Morning (written fall 2008)

Tender new morning light peeks through my blinds
I hear the familiar thud and padding of feet
Clad in footed princess pajamas
Coming tentatively down the hall

They stop at my door
I pretend to be asleep
Wishing she will give up
And pad her way back to bed

The door cracks open
Through squinted eyes
I see such sweet wispy blond curls
Such hopeful blinking blue eyes
That I can’t help but smile

Her mouth, curled tightly around a shriveled thumb,
Breaks into a grin and her eyes leap with joy
She laughs, dashes for my bed,
Dingy pink blanket dragging behind,
And scrambles up beside me

Snuggling in, she wrinkles her nose in a grin
And nuzzles my face
“I wuv you, Mommy”
I nuzzle back and breathe her hair in

There is a thumping from the hall
A crib rail vigorously thudding back and forth
Then the banging of a sippy cup on the wall
Hannah is delighted, “Emma’s awake!”

I hoist my heavy, pregnant belly out of bed
Hannah runs ahead of me, “I want my juice!”
The banging continues, faster now
“Stop it, Emma!” an annoyed voice calls

Now it is me peeking in their door
Emma is pleased
She smiles, binky dropping from her mouth
And strains to reach me over the crib rail

Naomi rolls in her bed,
Brushes her long, frizzy hair from her face
“Mommy, Emma woke me up”
“Me too” I sigh

Now there are six feet clad in footed jammies
Toddling, thudding eagerly to the kitchen
Jumping in anticipation
As I dole out watered down juice into three sippy cups
They gulp happily

Hannah blinks up at me,
“Mommy is your baby kicking?”
“Not right now”
“I think our baby is nocturnal” Naomi advises
My baby’s kicking,” Hannah beams
Then lifts her shirt, “Wanna feel it?”

I place my hand on her tiny, thin tummy
And pretend to feel a kick, she is satisfied
I gaze at their faces, their eyelashes, chapped cheeks
And try to memorize each detail

Some morning I will wake up alone
It will be a foggy memory
I want this morning to be as crisp and alive then
As it is now

Some morning sleep will be plentiful
But there will be no wrinkled, grinning nose to nuzzle mine
No footed jammies to lead me to the kitchen
Some morning this morning will be a memory

Prognosis (Poem for Naomi, written around 2011)

Infinitely complex
Untenably marred
Boundlessly resilient
This child in my arms

Swollen belly
Crooked feet
Crossing eyes
Murmured beat

Liver scarred
Kidney cysts
Endowments of
A genome glitch

Devalued, dismissed
I cradle my girl,
Shielding her spirit
From a misjudging world

Which gene encodes
Her gift for art,
Her passion for books,
Her merciful heart?

What nucleic acid
Could portend
Her affection for horses
Her first best friend?

And which base pair
Might empower
Her compassion for
A frost-nipped flower?

Which locus holds
Her giddy smile?
What helix encrypts 
The soul of a child?

What white-coated Einstein,
What world-wide reserve
Of human insight
Can presume her worth?

Infinitely complex
Untenably marred
Beyond their prognosis
A child in my arms

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Wanderlust and Dinner

It isn't that there is anything wrong here
It's more that I am here again
Here at the kitchen sink with my hands in luke-warm water
Scraping bits of sticky dried bread from the bread-maker pans

Here pulling steamy silverware out, putting greasy silverware in
Crunching Rice Chex under my feet and sighing
And sweeping
And wiping

Here filling bread-maker pans with water, oil, and yeast
No measuring spoons needed
Each bit slipping in from memory
And I'm unsure whether this automated accuracy
Amazes or disgusts me
This orchestrated kitchen dance
My pride and my drudgery


Lord, I'm gagging here
Gagging on monotony
Send me anywhere, but not to dinner
Not to the quiet, not to the usual
Not to the faithful ordinary

Please, poet friends, take me away
Sarah, Audrey, Andrew, Rich
With my hands in the water
Sing my heart out of this
Lord, help me offer this

Deep breath in
Smile at these tiny hungry taskmasters
Catch them in a hug as they run by
Reign me back from wanderlust
From all the worlds I'd rather spend today in
Heart, don't choke on those sweet lies

Potatoes, wash potatoes
Slice the peppers, thaw the meat
Find the rhythm and the music
In the steady, in the staying
In the never trading them for me
The offering

In a world of leavers leaving
Wandering after their dislocated souls
Stay. Right. Here.
With your hands in the water, dear heart
Stay here and decide to sing

Stay and chop potatoes
Pour yourself out again
And again
In the ordinary
In the never-heroic, rarely-seen, often-snubbed
And when you stay, dance

Set a table with stability
Less of me
More of "How was your day?"
(I wanted to run screaming from the kitchen but I didn't)
"Are you hungry? I made a plate for you"
"It's in the fridge, do you want me to warm it up now?"

It isn't that I'm doing anything grand here
It's more that I'm cleaning up dinner again
In a world of leavers leaving
Here with my hands in puke-warm water
Elbow-deep in monotony
In less of me
This heart is set on staying
And tonight is set in peace

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Humbled Creator, a Poem by Hannah

Christmas isn't about the presents
Christmas isn't about the tree
Christmas isn't about the food
Or the stockings by the chimney

We celebrate Christmas because of a Manger
In a stable dirty and old
Inside lay the maker of the universe
But he wore no crown of gold

He came to earth as a child
Tiny, crying, weak
He humbled himself to a baby boy
Who couldn't even speak

But He made the mountains
He made the sea
He made the oceans
He made you and me

The aspens show
Even the mice know
He is the creator
We should be awestruck

by Hannah Eby, age 10

Monday, December 5, 2016

Christmastime, a poem by Naomi

At Christmastime we wish for snow
To build, play in, and have some fun
It's funny to think that in two months
We'll wish spring weather would soon come

At Christmastime I like night drives
We listen to carols on radio
And watch the houses flying by
Bedecked with lights that softly glow

At Christmastime we decorate
By hanging wreaths and strings of lights
We hang our stockings in a row
Then add the tree, oh what a sight

At Christmastime I love to watch
The twinkling lights hung on its boughs
As if they know the secrets wrapped
And can't help smiling at the thought

At Christmastime, family comes
Or perhaps we visit them
Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, and uncles
They're always great to see again

At Christmastime we count the days
Until that day arrives
Then the gifts are opened, and gone is the surprise
Until again, it's Christmastime

by Naomi

Monday, November 7, 2016

Junior High Girls, You’re Missing Out on a Fantastic Friendship

Listen girls, I understand. I was a junior high girl once too. I know that you’re busy figuring out who you are and who you will become. You want to know which clothes will tell the world the most about your unique personality, which song lyrics ring the most true in your heart, and which other junior high girls are the most like you. You are naturally drawn to other people with similar personalities, similar tastes, similar goals, and similiar convictions. It feels fantastic to be surrounded by people who are like you—the kind that you instantly click with—I understand.

But can I be your older sister here and help you see something you’re missing? You’re missing out on a fantastic friendship with someone you’d least expect: the quiet, somewhat odd girl who sits by herself in the back of the classroom, the back of the lunchroom, or the back row of your church..

Ah, you think you’re on to me now, you think I’m writing this to tell you that she needs you to be her friend, that you need to perform an act of community service and selflessly reach out to her even though it’s painfully hard and you have nothing to gain, but you’re wrong. I’m telling you that you’re missing out on a fantastic friend for YOU.

That girl is my daughter, and I know some things about her that you don’t know. I know that she’s actually only quiet and awkward until she gets to know you, and that the initial few weeks or months that you might have to spend on helping her develop a friendship will be an investment well worth making. I know that she is actually fantastically smart, and you’d never guess it, but she can be quite witty and crack some hilarious jokes when you least expect them. But more important than that: she is kind. She is genuinely, from the heart, kind in a way that is rare among your age group. She is loyal and would never turn her back on you, never trade you for a newer or more popular friend, never speak hurtful words behind your back.

It’s true that there are ways you could help her. You could take her by the hand and patiently lead her into the dizzying world of junior high friendships. You could overlook her sometimes-awkward laugh, or the way she blinks back tears whenever she feels strong emotions, or the small awkward silences that happen when she’s not sure what to say next. You could help her learn what to say next. You could teach her that it’s safe to trust and that you won’t abandon her as a friend when a more popular girl comes along. But I want you to know that she can help you too.

She can almost certainly help you with your math and science homework. She can teach you to draw shockingly beautiful horses, and recommend a long list of good books to read. These things you might have guessed. But did you know that she is the best listener you will ever hope to have in a friend? She will listen and listen with the goal of truly understanding your heart instead of jumping in with her own stories, and she will actually care about who you are, how you are feeling, and what you are going through. She is wise. She thinks deeply behind that quiet face and, if you are patient enough to wait for an answer, she will offer you advice that is mature beyond her years and yours. When you least expect it then, she will crack you up with wit and humor, you never would have guessed that she hid. 

Do you know what an investment is? It’s where you pay an amount first in order to gain access to something that will be worth more in the end. Some friendships are like investments—they don’t come as easily as others, but they offer greater reward down the road. You may have to be willing to do most of the talking at first or think of lots of questions to get her talking. You may have to patiently wait for responses from her as she organizes her thoughts.  Be patient. Keep trying. It’s worth it.

After you have spent a few weeks and months learning to understand each other you will realize that she taught you some of life’s best lessons: that people are not always as they seem, that some of the more rewarding relationships take work, and that a loyal friend is often more valuable than a popular one. You will begin to see the other quiet or awkward or disabled people in your life in a new light too—as unique, valuable, enriching, human beings that are worth the effort to welcome into your life—and that is a lesson you will benefit from for as long as you live. You can never repay her for that.

Trust me on this one. It took some work for me to get to know her too, but you will never regret that you did.

With love to you,

That Quiet Girl’s Mom