UNCLE ZACK

A single pink rose rested on the table.

This piece was written for a writing contest that required having a little black book and $20,000 incorporated into the story.

Ben and Nan sat at the side of their uncle’s casket, Uncle Zack’s casket. They had arrived early for the visitation and now were the only ones remaining. The room was silent, dead silent. Nearby, a candle on a small table burned with a steady flame and a single pink rose rested on the table. There were no other flowers. 

“A rose,” Nan whispered. “Of course, he would have asked to have a pink rose at his funeral.”

“For Mom,” Ben replied.

“He thought of everything, no flowers. Donations to be sent to Smile Train. Only a candle and a pink rose.”

“Mom would have approved. It feels like she’s here. They were real friends.” 

“She has come to journey home with him,” Nan agreed. 

“What flower do you want at my funeral?” Ben asked jokingly.

“A daisy. Just a single daisy,” Nan replied with a smile. 

“I’ll remember that.”

“The candle. The flame,” Nan whispered.

“I know, I was thinking the same thing.” 

“I’m glad the undertaker didn’t put concealer on his skin. He wouldn’t have liked that.” 

They moved close to the coffin and leaned in to look closely in their uncle’s terribly disfigured face.

I think he looks noble. The candlelight makes him look like he’s glowing,” Nan observed.

“It’s the taught skin. Remember, it always looked like his face was shining. No wrinkles. No worry lines, just skin pulled tight across his cheek and jaw bones.” 

“And no lips, no eyebrows or lashes,” Nan added. 

“If you don’t like the way I look, look the other way,” Ben repeated his uncle’s words.

“God doesn’t look on a man’s outward appearance. God looks on the heart,” Nan finished their uncle’s oft spoken dictum. 

“It must have been awful. Imagine the pain. He was only eleven. He didn’t know the difference between kerosene and gasoline.”

“He just wanted to get a fire burning quickly. He and Mom were cold. If it hadn’t been for her winter coat, she would have been burned worse than she was.”

“Her hands were terribly scarred,” Ben murmured. “I wonder if some of his face skin grafted onto them.”

“Rose petals. Mom always said the scar on her left hand looked like pink rose petals, “ Nan added.

The funeral parlor director busied himself arranging chairs and dimming lights. “I plan to leave in fifteen minutes,” he said quietly. 

“We don’t mean to keep you,” Ben replied. “It’s just that Zack’s estate executor asked us to meet him here this evening. He said he would arrive no later than seven.”

“It’s seven twenty now. I planned to be home by eight,” the director replied after checking his watch. 

Just then a short bald man hurried in. “Hi, Nan. Hi, Ben,” he greeted while shaking rain from his coat. “Miserable night. Rain’s turning to sleet.”

Nan and Ben looked questioningly at the parlor director. 

“Fine. Fine. Take as much time as you need,” he consented. 

Matt Downer joined the brother and sister at Zack’s coffin.

“Thanks for coming, Matt. Is the estate pretty well settled?” Nan asked.

“Yes. Your uncle was very organized. He started working on his will four years ago. Didn’t expect to make it to ninety-eight.”

“He was a master of order,” Ben agreed.

“However, even though his estate is huge – – stocks, bonds, property, settling it will be simple. All proceeds are to be divided equally between six charities and all donations anonymous.”

“That’s the way he was,” Nan affirmed.

“He was a very private man. Kept to himself. It was because of his face. He hated pity, and when someone appeared revulsed, he became angry. He didn’t like being angry,” Ben explained.

“It doesn’t bother you that he left everything, I mean everything, to charities?” Matt asked.

“Oh no,” Ben and Nan answered at once.

“He did so much for us. He paid for our schooling, even our children’s college,” Nan volunteered.

“He paid for our mom’s care after her stroke. He kept her at his home with a private nurse,” Ben added.

“If you don’t mind my asking, how did he make his money? You don’t have to tell me. Apparently, he wanted it kept a secret because nobody seems to know. There are stories about him bootlegging,” Matt looked at Zack’s scarred face when asking this question. “Accident at the still?”

“No. He wasn’t a bootlegger,” Nan answered. “It was oil. He left home after Mom married. He was sixteen. She had always been his go-between, but he didn’t want to go-between Mom and Dad, so he left.”

“He went to Texas and got a job as a wild-cater. Signed on with one of the Spindletop companies and became an expert at capping gushers,” Ben explained.

“He said he didn’t mind getting covered with oil because it covered his face. He also took risks other men refused to take. It’s not difficult guessing why,” Nan added.

One of the oil moguls recognized his skill, respected his work ethic, and long story short, Zack inherited the mogul’s wealth,” Ben explained. 

The conversation ended when the director stepped into the room and cleared his throat.

“We’re sorry. Didn’t mean to take this much time,” Ben apologized.

“Sorry,” Matt agreed as he handed Ben a manilla envelope. “Your uncle asked me to give this to both of you. He said you’d understand.

Ben undid the envelope clasp and looked inside. A smile spread across his face. Turning to Nan, he said, “You take it out.”

When Nan extracted a small black notebook, a smile also beamed across her face. “Oh my. Oh my,” she whispered.

“Your uncle said you would know what to do with it,” Matt commented. 

“Yes, we know,” Nan said softly.

“That’s all,” Matt added. “Like I said, he left his entire fortune to charities.”

“This is enough. It’s a game we used to play when we visited Zack as kids. He wrote clues in a little black book, and we scavenged while he and our mother visited. Over the years, he filled several books. We enjoyed many treasure hunts,” Ben explained. 

“The key to his house is in there too. I’m arranging an estate sale sale, so you better do your scavenging soon. I wouldn’t want his clues disturbed,” Matt suggested.

“We’ll go after the funeral,” Nan replied. “What a beautiful way to celebrate his passing.” 

Zack’s funeral was sparsely attended. By avoiding people, Zacchaeus Lindon made few friends. The estate caretaker, cook, and house keeper attended, as did Matt and two brokers. Pastor Tyson, Zack’s only close non-family friend, officiated. Ben and Nan’s spouses, children and grandchildren also attended. When the small group gathered at the gravesite, sunbeams shown through cumulus clouds and warmed rain-soaked grass. The air was moist and refreshing. 

“Today we lay to rest one of the finest men to walk the earth,” Pastor Tyson said. “Few know the goodness of this man’s heart. Few know the fact that he lived to give. Matthew 6:21 was his guiding text, Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also, and I Samuel 6:7 was his consolation, For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

While driving to Zack’s estate, a perfect rainbow arched in the sky. Tears streamed down Nan’s cheeks as she whispered, “He has crossed over, and his face will be beautiful.” 

The key rattled in the keyhole of the stately door, and it swung inward freely as though opened by a welcoming friend. Nan and Ben, sensing a sacred presence, stepped respectfully inside.

“Here we are,” Ben spoke softly. 

“Yes, here we are,” repeated Nan.

Just at that moment, the deep gong of a grandfather clock reverberated through the room accompanied by a cacophony of chiming clocks: cuckoo clocks, musical clocks, a rooster clock that crowed, bird song clocks. Nan and Ben looked at each other and laughed. “He loved his clocks,” they said simultaneously.

“Okay, the book,” Nan directed. “What is the first clue?”

Ben opened the book and read, “I will wash away all sins. Hebrews 10: 10.” 

“It’s got to be in the bathroom,” Nan surmised.

“Which one?” Ben asked.

“The one we used when we were kids.”

Sure enough, an envelope was tucked beneath a soap dish on the sink. 

Nan opened the envelope and together they read, “Full turn right 3 times. Stop on 0. Turn left. Stop on 68.”

“Only four more to go,” Ben said before reading the second clue, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap. Galatians 6:7.”

“I remember that one,” Nan said. “It’s in the solarium where he started his seeds.”

Nan was right. A hand trowel rested on an envelope in the center of the potting table. 

Nan opened it and read, “Full turn right 2 times. Stop on 95.”

Next Ben read, “Look at the birds of the air. Your Heavenly Father feeds them. Matthew 6:26.”

“The taxidermy display,” Nan said. “He’s used the same ones he used when we were kids.”

“Well, he knew we’re getting up there in age and probably didn’t want to make it too difficult.’

“Or he enjoyed going down memory lane.”

The third envelope was taped to the glass dome covering a display of stuffed songbirds.

After opening the envelope, Nan read, “Turn left. Stop on 55.”

Ben read the fourth clue, “Hast thou entered into the treasure of the snow? Job 38:22.”

“The snow globe,” Nan stated confidently. 

Beneath an unusually large snow globe was the fourth envelope. The scene in the globe was serene: a spiraled church, a horse drawn sleigh, and pine trees. Ben turned the globe over and then righted it creating a snow storm. “He loved the snow. Do you remember?” 

Nan nodded. 

Nan opened the envelope and read, “Turn right. Stop on 7.”

“And now the last clue,” Ben announced dramatically. Once again, he read from the little black book. “Be ye kind one to another. Ephesians 4:32.”

“The kindness jar,” Nan said confidently.

They walked to the front entry and found the final envelope tucked under a large glass jar placed in the center of a side table. A notepad and pencil were also on the table. The jar was filled with yellowing slips of paper. 

“You know, we were blessed. Zack was amazing. Before anyone entered his home, he asked them to write down a good deed that they had done or seen someone do,” Nan reminisced. She pulled a strip of paper from the jar and read aloud, “I saw Maxine give a pencil to Billy.”

“Sure brings back memories,” Ben mused. 

After opening the envelope, Nan read, “Full turn left 2 times. Stop on 10.”

“And now to the vault,” Ben commanded with dramatic authority. “You read the combination, and I’ll turn the dial.

Inside Zack’s office, Ben slid a familiar bookcase aside to access the vault. After turning the dial clockwise several times, he directed, “Okay, start.” 

“Full turn right 3 times. Stop on 0. Turn left. Stop on 68.

Full turn right 2 times. Stop on 95.

Turn left. Stop on 55.

Turn right. Stop on 7.

Full turn left 2 times. Stop on 10.”

Gears clicked and the vault handle turned easily in Ben’s hand. 

The vault was empty except for one envelope. 

“You do the honor,” Ben directed.

Nan carried the envelope to Zack’s desk, snipped it open with a thin pair of scissors, and 

slowly withdrew two $10,000 bills and a note written in Zack’s barely legible script. 

“Those bills were discontinued many years ago,” Ben said. “They’re worth much more today.” Then he added, “Let’s read it together.”

And so, together they read, “I ask that you each donate $10,000 to those in need, for the best gift that I can give you is the gift of giving. Love, Uncle Zack.” 

Heart Hugs

To Aboriginals, dreams and inner promptings are as real as the telephone or radio to us. Carl Jung called these connections synchronicities and suggested that they lie outside the normal confines of causality and physical law. They are not restricted by time or space and transcend the boundaries between matter and mind.

– Physicist, David Peet

Early in the morning when I’m sitting in my third-grade classroom, usually after math class and during silent reading, I get a warm feeling, a cozy feeling, a feeling that I am loved. When this happens, I know that my grandmother, Gram, is taking her morning walk and has sent me a heart hug.

I live in Tucson, Arizona, and my gram lives in northern Wisconsin. According to MapQuest, we live 1,893.3 miles apart. However, my gram’s heart hug travels all that way and finds me.

You might be thinking that this is impossible, but it is beyond possible, I believe it is REAL and amazingly interesting. Let me explain some of the things I’ve learned about heart hugsand how they work. 

Last summer, I flew from Arizona to Wisconsin to visit Gram. She and Grampa John live in a little log cabin next to a beautiful lake. Every morning Gram takes a long walk, a very long walk all the way around the lake, and when I visited, I walked with her. During one of our walks Gram told me that every morning while on her walk she sent heart hugs to her children and grandchildren. She explained, “When I send a heart hug to you, I think about how you look and who you are. Then I fill my heart with love, smile, and send you a heart hug.”

I told her I liked the idea, and she said it was more than an idea, that it scientists called physicist say it’s scientifically possible.”

“How does it work?” I asked. 

“Like a cell phone,” she replied. “When you talk on your cell phone, your voice changes to an electrical signal that travels on radio waves to another phone. You can’t see the radio waves. They’re invisible, but they are real.” 

“Do computers work the same way?” I asked.

“Yes, basically. Both rely on electrical signals, invisible electrical signals, that can travel around the world and over 200,000 miles to satellite stations in space.” 

“The people who figured out how to do it had to be very smart,” I observed.” 

“For sure,” Gram agreed. “But,” she continued, “I believe it’s possible for people to send messages with just their minds.” 

“Really?” 

“Yup. Some people are able to send thought signals. It’s called telepathy, and scientists are studying how it works. It’s also called brain-to-brain-communication. Australian Aborigines have talked to each other this way for very long time, but they call it heart-head talking.” 

“How do they do it?” I asked. 

“From what I understand, they think about what they want to say and send messages with their minds. They also believe that it’s not enough to think something, you have to feel it in your heart because they believe the heart is a transmitter and a receiver of feelings. Aborigines also believe that if someone is not being truthful when sending a message, the connection will break and they won’t be able to communicate using head-heart talking. 

“But, how do they do it?” I asked again. 

“Well, all living things, plants and animals, are made of cells, think of cells as building blocks of the body, and every cell has electrical energy. This energy is what keeps us alive and makes it possible for us to move, think, and feel. We are actually run by electricity.” 

“Sort of like robots?” 

“I suppose you could say that, but a robot uses very few electrical signals compared to a human, and a human doesn’t need to be plugged in or charged the way a robot does. Comparing robots to humans is kind of like comparing cars to horses; the life force operates in a very different and much more complex way with living beings.” 

“I understand, a robot is a machine, but a human is alive,” I replied.

“That’s correct. You are made of living cells. There are around 37 trillion cells in your body, and each cell has an invisible electrical signal.” 

“There’s electricity inside of me?” 

“Yes, there is, but invisible electrical signals are everywhere. They are in our bodies, in the air around us, in outer space. And there are even more electrical signals now because of computers and telephones. Think of these signals like electrical paths or trails that build a very intricate web of pulsating energy.” 

“Do you think the air could be filled with too many signals?” I asked. 

“Some scientists think so. They even think that electric signals cause migrating birds to get confused and that this might actually be what is causing some species to become extinct.” 

“That’s terrible!” 

“I agree, it is a big problem that needs to be solved! And in order to solve a problem, we first need to understand the problem and what contributes to it. One thing Scientists have determined is that migrating birds have tiny magnetic particles in their brains that act like compasses. You know what a compass is?” 

“My dad showed me how it works. The black end of the needle always points north.” 

“You’re right, and these magnetic brain particles help tbirds determine which direction is north; this helps them figure out where to fly. But now that the air is filled with so many invisible electrical signals, the particles have become jumbled and so some birds can’t tell where north is.” 

“Oh, that’s awful! I wish there was a way to keep that from happening.” 

“I agree, and maybe you and other kids like you will care enough and work to figure out some way of helping fix the problems that these electrical signals are causing. But as sad as this is, it does help to prove the fact that invisible electrical signals fill the air and effect all living organisms. Understanding this helps explain why heart hugs work. Basically, a heart hug is a very subtle electrical signal sent from someone’s brain and heart to another person. It’s not the same type of electrical signal as a phone or computer. The brain heart signal wouldn’t cause a bird to get confused, probably because it is gentle and has a softer energy frequency,” Gram explained.

“But how does the brain know which path to use to send a message? To send a heart hug?” 

“I believe something else makes this possible. I might be wrong, but it makes sense to me,” Gram answered. 

“What?” 

“Well, scientists using powerful microscopes have discovered that inside every cell are extremely small things called molecules. There are millions of molecules in just one cell, and every cell of every living thing has these very, very tiny molecules. 

“So, our body is made up of how many cells?” I asked. 

“About thirty-seven trillion,” Gram replied. 

“Trillion? How big is a trillion?”
“It’s so huge that it’s almost impossible to imagine, but we can try! One trillion is a million millions or one thousand billions, and if you write it as a number, it is a one with twelve zeros after it. One way to think of it is with time. One trillion seconds is about thirty-two thousand years. And think of this, if you spent one dollar every second – – not every minute but every second, it would take you thirty-two THOUSAND YEARS to spend one trillion dollars!” 

“Holy cow! A trillion is a huge number!” 

“It sure is,” Gram agreed. “But there’s more. There are thirty-seven trillion cells, and each cell has molecules. A human cell can have as many as two trillion molecules!” 

“Holy moly! Trillions of trillions of trillions! Molecules must be very tiny! How do they know there are that many?” 

“I don’t understand it,” Gram replied. “But there are scientists called physicists who calculate this type of thing using special microscopes, electron microscopes. But there’s something else. Inside molecules are even smaller particles called atoms. Physicists estimate the average cell contains 100 trillion atoms. The number of atoms in a molecule is about the same as the number of cells in a body.” 

“Holy moly, moly! That’s a lot of atoms! They must be very, very, very tiny!” 

“Yes, there are a lot of really tiny atoms! But these tiny atoms are made up of even smaller things called electrons, neutrons, and protons. So, inside a cell are molecules, and inside molecules are atoms, and inside atoms are electrons, neutrons, and protons.” 

“It’s kind of like a Russian Nesting Doll,” I suggested. “You know, one doll inside of another, inside of another, and how the dolls get smaller and smaller?” 

“That’s a good way to remember it, Gram agreed. “But just because they are small doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Actually, the movement of the electrons inside the atoms causes the electrical spark that keeps every living thing alive. The electrons move from one atom to another, and when this happens, a tiny electrical path or current is made. This is why you and I and every living plant and animal are loaded with electricity.” 

“Is that why I can make a spark when I touch the doorknob after sliding my feet across the floor?” 

“It might be related, but there’s something more, and this something is what I believe makes it possible for me to send a heart hug to you. Atomic physicists, the scientists who study atoms, discovered that tiny particles inside of atoms twist around each other. They call this entanglement.” 

“Sort of like when my hair gets tangled?” 

“Well, sort of, but tangled hair is just a mess. However, there is something about entangled atoms that is fascinating. If an entangled atom is split, cut in half in some way, and each part is separated over a long distance, even thousands of miles apart, when one of the entangled parts is poked, the other part immediately reacts as though it was also poked. Somehow the halves communicate with each other at the exact same moment, faster than the speed of light, instantaneously!” 

“You mean, like if I had an orange and I cut it in half and sent half to my dad, if I squeezed it here in Wisconsin, juice would squeeze out of the other half in Tucson?” 

Well, that’s a way to think a very mysterious fact. Now, I’m going to return to talking about heart hugs – – I believe this entanglement fact proves why it’s possible to send heart hugs to family members and friends. I believe it’s because we share entangled electrical pathways with people we love. Remember I explained how Aborigines send mind-heart messages? Well, long before there were molecular scientists and atomic physicists studying cell entanglement, Aborigines knew that their hearts and minds were connected to people they love. Poets know this too. Poems have been written about people being connected with what poets call “heart strings.” 

“Are heart strings like electric pathways?” 

“Same thing,” Gram stated. “I know this is mighty complicated. It is for me. Are you sort of understanding why I’m able to send you a heart hug?” 

“Yes, it’s sent on an electrical path from you to me.” 

“Yup, that’s the way heart hugs work,” Gram agreed. 

Gram and I didn’t talk for a while. We just walked. Then suddenly an amazing idea flashed into my mind. I stopped walking, looked at Gram and said, “I think prayers are sent on electrical pathways the same as heart hugs.” 

Gram looked at me and smiled. 

Bibliography 

Peet, D. (1991). The philosopher’s stone: chaos, synchronicity, and the hidden order of the world. Bantam Books, New York, NY.  pp. 4-5.

Varnum, K. “The Wisdom of Real People.” Trans4Mind. 1997-1921. https://trans4mind.com/counterpoint/index-spiritual/varnum2.html

Lumenwaymaker. “Carbon and Carbon Bonding.” Lumen Learning. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-nmbiology1/chapter/carbon- and-carbon-bonding/ 

BBC News“First Image of Einstein ‘Spooky’ Entanglement Particle.” 13 July 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-glasgow- west-48971538

Helmenstine, Ann. “What is An Electron?” Science Notes. 31 August 2020. https://sciencenotes.org/what-is-an-electron/ 

Science Learning Hub.“Seeing Atoms.” Science Learn. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1652-seeing-atoms 

McGrath, S. “Cracking Mystery Reveals How Electronics Affect Bird Migration.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/5/140507-birds- migration-electromagnetic-robins-henrik-mouritsen-science- broadband/ 

Helmenstein, A. “What is a molecule?” Thought Company. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-molecule-definition-examples- 608506

The Valentine Box

The Valentine Box

I love Valentine’s Day. I love red hearts and lace doilies, heart shaped boxes of chocolate candy, sentimental messages in beautiful cards and silly messages in funny cards – – “Roses are pink. Your feet really stink.” I love large February snowflakes that can be heard and felt when they thud on my parka. I love memories of exchanging valentines in elementary school, of slipping carefully selected cards into classmates’ decorated valentine boxes, usually a decorated shoe box with a card slot on the top.

One of my earliest Valentine’s Day memories involved a contest, a valentine box contest. I was six and in first grade, and, like most of my classmates, had never exchanged valentine cards. My older siblings had, so I knew about the tradition. 

My teacher, Miss Green, also loved Valentine’s Day. By mid-January she had covered the tall classroom windows with hearts and hand-cut snowflakes. She also displayed beautiful valentine cards on top of the piano. But what really made the occasion special was a bag of candy kisses tied with a pink ribbon. Miss Green had placed it on the corner of her desk after explaining, “The student who decorates the most beautiful valentine box will win the candy.” Then she added, “You may have someone help you decorate your box, a brother or sister, mom or dad.” Apparently, Miss Green intended this to be a family project. 

I wasn’t especially interested in winning the candy, but I knew exactly who I would ask for help. I would ask my big sister, Betty. She was fourteen years older than I was and was a busy mom, but I knew she would not be too busy to make me a valentine box. Betty was an artist, a real artist. I loved watching her fingers when she drew. Her pencil strokes could magically make Snow White or Bambi appear on a scrap of paper. After I explained the contest to Betty, she agreed to decorate the box and promised, “It will be perfect.” And it was. 

On the day of the party when I placed my box with the others on the long shelf beneath the classroom windows, my fellow first graders stared at it in awe. “You won!” Billy loudly exclaimed. Billy was the loudest kid in the class. All of the other children agreed, and so did I. It wasn’t that the other boxes were not beautiful, it was that my sister’s creation was stunning. She had first covered the box with red construction paper and over this had glued paper lace doilies. On the lid of the box, she had glued a garland of red and pink paper roses with green leaves that she had cut from construction paper. She had curled the leaves and petals to make them appear real. Finally, she tied the box with a red ribbon topping it with a beautiful bow.   

Yes, I was awarded the candy and now sixty-eight years later I don’t remember whether I gave it to my sister or shared it with my classmates, but each year during valentine season, I remember my sister’s valentine box for A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Keats. 

Excerpt from Lost and Found and Found Again: A Math Mystery

We Encounter Hitalittle

Bear Dog had been waiting for me at the door. He was talking to an old man who appeared to be able to understand dog talk. 

Bear said, “Here comes my friend.” 

            And the old man answered, “I’ll open the door. It’s a little big for you and your buddy.”

            “Thanks,” Bear Dog replied. 

The old man nodded and winked his right eye. I waved to him, and he waved back. Then, Bear and I started our walk home.

            “He was very nice. Could he understand what you were saying?” I asked.

“Yes. Some humans understand everything I say, especially the old ones. That old one’s name is Pete, and he said he has lived with a little cocker spaniel named Samantha for sixteen years. When he told me that, I said, ‘Sixteen . . . that would be a lot of cookies.’ Of course, he didn’t know what I was talking about. He seemed a little confused. I was going to explain about my learning to count with cookies, but you came.”

“A cocker spaniel named Samantha? What is a cocker spaniel?” I asked, and then added, “Would you like a lollipop?” I had been looking at the lollipops in my bag trying to decide which one to eat first.

            “No thank you,” Bear answered pleasantly. Then he continued, “A cocker spaniel is a certain kind of d .  .  . .” Suddenly he stopped talking! He stopped walking too! 

            I looked up in time to see the boy we had met earlier, the one who had been eating out of a bowl! He slowly stepped from behind a shrub . . . but he didn’t have a bowl this time! No! He had a big stick!  And he kept smacking the side of the stick across the palm of his left hand! He walked slowly toward us! 

            “Hey! You!” he snarled. “Do you live with that mutt?’

Mutt?” I thought to myself. “What is he talking about?”    

             “What’s your name?” he snarled again.

             I just stared at him.

            “You got a problem? Maybe you don’t have a tongue! Maybe you don’t know how to talk! I asked your name!”

            “Just smile,” Bear Dog whispered. “Just smile and tell him your name.”

            I smiled. I smiled real big, but when I opened my mouth to speak, I couldn’t make a sound!

            “Got a wise guy here, eh? Well, maybe if I tell the wise guy my name, maybe he’ll tell me his. Is that what you want? You want me to tell you my name? Sure . . . sure, I’ll tell you my name. It’s Hitalittle. Did you hear me? Hitalittle! Or do you have ear problems too?”

            “No, no . . .” I answered softly.

            “No? No?” the boy questioned. “Ya! Ya! My name’s Hitalittle, and do you know why my name’s Hitalittle?”

            “Noooo.” I managed to answer.

            “Well, it’s easy to figure out,” he said slowly. It’s because I HIT A LITTLE!”  

            As he said this, the boy hit Bear Dog with the stick!

            Bear yipped in pain and looked confused! He staggered backward a little but then turned quickly and raced away with his tail tucked between his legs!

            “Why did you do that? Bear didn’t do anything to you?” I asked in a shaky voice. I could barely breathe.

            “What? What?” Hitalittle demanded. “Are you asking me a question? But you haven’t answered my question! If you want me to answer your question, you have to answer my question!”                             

“Question? Question?” I thought to myself. “What question did he ask?” I couldn’t think! I couldn’t think at all! I looked for Bear Dog, but tears filled my eyes and made it difficult to see. I blinked to clear them away, and they squeezed out and rolled down my cheeks. I was having a very difficult time breathing.

            “Oh, what’s this? Tears?” Hitalittle asked in a sassy sweet voice. “Ya, that’s what I thought. You’re a little baby, a little cry baby. What’s your name, little cry baby? Hey, little cry baby, what’s your name?”

            I gasped for air and tried to answer. “My name is Tai . . . .” That is all I said. I had been looking down at the sidewalk and it started spinning. I fell to my knees. I could see nothing, only blackness. 

Then, I did see something. I saw a little girl wading in shallow water at the edge of a river. She was picking up small stones and putting them in the pocket of her dress. She had blond hair and was smiling. 

“Oh, this is a nice one,” she said.  She held the stone up so that I could see it.“It’s an agate.” She bent down to pick up another stone, and then suddenly, she vanished! 

            The next thing I remember was feeling something tugging at my arm. I turned and looked into the furry brown face of a river creature. It had beady black eyes and was pulling at me, trying to drag me!  I screamed and screamed again! As I screamed and stared in the creature’s furry face, it slowly transformed into the face of HITALITTLE!!  

The bully was pulling at my arm and shouting, “Hey you! Kid! Shut up!” But I kept screaming! He let go of my arm and said, “Okay, I’m going! I’m going!” As he turned and walked away, I heard him mumble, “What a wimp!”

I lay sprawled on the sidewalk.  I couldn’t move, but I could hear Bear Dog shouting. He had been hiding quite a distance away between a house and a garage.

            “Don’t just lay there! Get up!” he hollered. We’ve got to get out of here! He’ll come back!”

            The urgency in Bear’s voice made me scramble to my feet. I grabbed the sucker bag and ran! But as I ran, I heard feet pounding against the cement behind me! The sound kept coming closer and closer! Someone was running, running after me! I pumped my legs as fast as they would go! My throat burned! I could hardly breathe! I knew I couldn’t run any faster, but the pounding kept getting closer! Then, just when I thought I would collapse, Bear Dog raced past and shouted over his shoulder, “There’s his house! Don’t look! Just run!”

After passing Hitalittle’s house, I slowed down. My side was hurting very badly. “We’re almost home! Can we stop for a while?” I pleaded.

            “No!” Bear called back. “We’ll stop after we get inside!”

************************

Lost and Found and Found Again: A Math Mystery is a unique child’s story that seamlessly weaves primary level mathematics into a fantasy adventure. Ideal as a classroom read-aloud, for homeschool math instruction, or pleasure reading. Mathematics that focuses on solving word problems and developing number sense is carefully sequenced to correspond with the developmental stages of children’s thinking as outlined by Cognitively Guided Instruction. A dice game accompanies this 164 pp book (book and game $25, tax and shipping included). To purchase, contact the author at hankes@uwosh.edu.

Coon Hunting

Besides being a trapper, my father was also a hunting guide, mainly guiding nighttime racoon hunts. This was a popular sport in Illinois during and after the Depression. Besides being a great way for men to get together at night to swap jokes, wade through bogs, and chase baying hounds, if a coon met its demise, they could also acquire a pelt worth one dollar. Farmers welcomed coon hunters too and for two reasons: racoons love corn and can devastate a corn field, and they also love fresh chicken and are clever enough to open a chicken coop’s hook-and-eye door lock. 

Besides being a trapper, my father was also a hunting guide, mainly guiding nighttime raccoon hunts. This was a popular sport in Illinois during and after the Depression. Besides being a great way for men to get together at night to swap jokes, wade through bogs, and chase baying hounds, if a coon met its demise, they could also acquire a pelt worth one dollar. Farmers welcomed coon hunters too and for two reasons: racoons love corn and can devastate a corn field, and they also love fresh chicken and are clever enough to open a chicken coop’s hook-and-eye door lock. 

My father had a reputation for being one of the best hunting guides in the area. Papa also had his own well-trained redbone and bluetick hounds that served as lead dogs. Men who wanted to train a green dog, a young untrained hound, would contract with Papa to go on a hunt. 

When I was about four years old, I listened as Papa described to Mama details of such a hunt. And from his descriptions, I conjured up images of dogs running through the woods, of Papa telling men to stop and listen when the dogs treed a coon, of Papa describing the sound of dogs singing, of Papa blowing his hollowed goat horn to signal the dogs to return. 

“Please, please, let me go with you,” I begged. Then I added, “Ted and Steve got to go.”

“Pinky,” Papa replied. “I don’t think your little legs are long enough to keep up with the dogs once they start running a trail.”

“I can ride on your shoulders,” I persisted.

“Well, I don’t think you would really like it,” Papa replied.

“Oh yes I would. I know I would,” I asserted. 

“If you get tired, you can’t complain. I have to stay with the men and dogs.”

“I won’t complain,” I promised.

Papa looked at Mama, and she nodded.

So on a hot August night, I found myself holding Papa’s hand while he and three men walked their hounds to the edge of a cornfield and turned them lose. 

“Go get ’em, Blue!” Papa commanded. “Show ’em how it’s done.” 

The dogs quickly disappeared while yapping into the cornfield.

Though the night was moonless and dark, the men turned off their flashlights and stood quietly listening.  

Shortly afterward, the dogs started baying wildly, and Papa said, “They’re running one.” And when he heard Blue’s deep baying change to more rhythmic howling, he announced, “It’s treed.”

Papa quickly lifted me to his shoulders and started to run with the men in the direction of the baying dogs. He held my ankles as he ran, and I leaned down close to his head to avoid being slapped in the face by branches. Flashlight beams danced wildly reflecting tree trunks and men stepping over logs and pushing back brush. 

Blue’s distinct deep baying guided the hunters to a large elm tree. The dogs circled the tree baying wildly and jumping against its trunk. When flashlight beams searched the tree’s high branches, a large raccoon was illuminated, its eyes reflecting the light. 

Then I noticed for the first time that one of the hunters was carrying a gun, a 22 rifle. I watched as he aimed at the raccoon, and I heard a shot. The coon fell from the tree instantly, and just as quickly, the hunters grabbed the collars of their hounds, and Papa yelled, “Back Blue! Back!”

It all happened too quickly! 

When Papa lifted me from his shoulders, I walked to the dead raccoon. 

One of the hunters said, “Wow! It’s a big one! Maybe Jaffe will pay a dollar fifty.”

I knelt next to the coon and stroked its soft fur and whispered, “I’m sorry.” I swallowed to keep from crying and looked up questioningly at Papa.

He lifted me gently, “Let’s to go home,” he said. 

Part of the coon hunting tradition was participation in Coon Dog Trials. These were events where hunters got together to test their best dog’s ability to track and tree a coon. The summer of 1955 a Coon Dog Trial was held at a tavern close to a wooded area near Plano, Illinois. Hunters from around the state, some from neighboring states, arrived in pick-ups with hounds in truck beds: redbones, blueticks, redticks, black and tans. There were a few large beagles, but most were heavy joweled, large boned, long tailed, long eared, sleepy eyed gentle hounds. Men came mainly to meet old friends, swap stories, drink beer, but prize money also attracted them to the event. Ted and I accompanied Mama and Papa on one of these outings, but only one. 

The Coon Trial proceedings were well established. A fake trail was made by dragging a dead raccoon from a starting point down, around, up and through a wooded area, eventually hanging the carcass in a tree located near the starting point. A pack of four or five hounds would be set loose on the trail, and the first dog to find the end-point tree was the winner. Such trials were run throughout the day. 

The culminating trial was for hounds that qualified by placing in pre-trials and involved a live raccoon. This final trial was designed not only to test trailing ability but also obedience. The plan was that late in the afternoon after all the day trials had been run, a coon would be released at the edge of a wooded area, and towards evening, the owners would meet at the release site with their qualifying entries and set their hounds on the trail. Then the men would follow the dogs, and after the coon was treed and shot, an experienced hunter would watch to judge how well the dogs obeyed. Did the hounds immediately go to their masters when called or did they rip at the raccoon and cause pelt damage?

As the afternoon dragged on, Ted and I wandered around the grounds petting and talking to hounds that seemed especially friendly while Mama and Papa visited with other hunters and their wives and watched as trials were run. We were the only children. There were some teenagers, but no kids our age. I was five and Ted was seven. Like me, Ted knew all about coon hunting. Papa had taken him on a hunt, and like me, afterward he felt badly for the raccoon. He even cried.

During our afternoon wanderings, we explored several sheds behind the main building, and in one of the sheds, we found a cage holding a live raccoon. It was adorable. After poking bits of grass and scraps of paper into the cage, we hurried back to Mama and Papa and asked if they would buy some popcorn, which they did, and we returned to the raccoon. It loved the popcorn. We laughed as it poked its long black fingers through the cage wire and gently took the kernels we offered.

“You’ve got such soft fingers,” I whispered. “Feel its fingers, Ted. Aren’t they soft?” 

We watched as it washed the kernels in its water dish. 

“Don’t do that!” Ted scolded. “Look, now your popcorn’s soggy.” 

We must have been watching and talking to the raccoon for quite a while because when Mama came walking around the building she said, “Oh. There you are. We were wondering where you were.”

“Look at him, Mama. Isn’t he adorable?” I asked. 

She nodded, smiled a sad smile, and added, “Just stay around.”

“Judy,” Ted said quietly. “You know what’s going to happen to him, don’t you?”  

We stood silently thinking about the fate of treed raccoons. 

“Oh, that’s awful!” we whispered simultaneously.

Then, also simultaneously, we looked at the clip lock on the cage. We didn’t say anything. Just nodded to each other. Ted undid the lock and I swung the door open.

“Hurry! Run!” we encouraged. And within a matter of seconds the raccoon had escaped into a grove of trees. 

Ted and I closed the cage door, latched it, and quietly continued to a shed where we climbed a ladder up to a low-ceilinged attic and rummaged through boxes filled with old clothes and magazines. Eventually, we returned to Mama and Papa and were given a root beer to share. 

“So, what have you been up to?” Papa asked.

“Nothing,” we replied. 

Suddenly there was a commotion! 

“It’s gone! Someone let that damn coon out of its cage!” a tall man blurted from the side door. “An’ it weren’t no accident. No coon would latch its cage after escapin’.” Then he added, “An’ there’s popcorn kernels in its water bowl!”

While looking at Ted and me, Papa turned to Mama and said, “I think we better go.”

Mama’s Goat Barn

(Excerpt from the memoir Nettles and Roses)

Mama’s goat barn before it was condemned. Oil painting by the author.

In the summer of 1965 Mama placed a two-hundred-dollar silent bid on an abandoned house and the three acres on which it sat; the property abutted her land. Actually, the house had been a cozy cottage at one time. However, the elderly woman who had lived there, being crippled and unable to use the outdoor toilet, had emptied her pot on the floor of a spare bedroom creating a disgusting odor. The stench and the fact that the electrical wiring was outdated caused the property to be condemned, but the old house was a perfect acquisition for Mama. The barn where the goats and sheep were penned was large and drafty compared to the little house.

After shoveling, shall we say, a deep layer of “used food” from the bedroom, Mama filled the room to the ceiling with sweet smelling hay, and once the broken furniture and trash from the kitchen and sitting room were cleared, she spread a layer of hay on the floor, and introduced four nanny goats, all milkers, to their new home. Landis Spurbeck, one of the elderly bachelors Mama had befriended, built a raised milking stanchion with a feed bin in what had been a kitchen.

As for lighting, Mama could milk her goats by the light of a kerosene lamp as she had in the barn. The fact that the building had no electricity was almost a plus, since when the summer sun set late, light for milking wasn’t necessary, and when the winter sun set early, the glow of a kerosene lamp reflecting off the loose hay covering the floor created for Mama a sacred space. 

Over time, the goat barn became Mama’s preferred living space. She still slept and ate meals in the house, but the quality part of her day was spent in the barn among her growing family of small animals. Besides goats, she had chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep, ponies, cats, dogs, and even a pot-bellied pig. As her farm family scratched for corn and munched on hay, she would often sit on a bench reading her Bible and was inspired by the words in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me. 

At the beginning of October, planning for a spring birthing season, Mama arranged to have a neighbor release his billy goat in the pasture with her four sweet and even-tempered nannies. The billy’s disposition was quite the opposite of the nannies’, but worse than his temperament was his stench! There’s a reason for the expression “stinks like a goat”! Nannies have no odor, but billies stink with a strong musky scent, which comes partly from their urine and partly from glands located near their horns. During rut, billies usually spray their faces, their beards, the inside of their front legs, and their chest with urine. Nannies find this disgusting scent irresistible and will rub admiringly against this fragrant ladies’ man.  The consequence? When Mama positioned each nanny in the stanchion and rested her head on the animal’s side while milking, the stench got on her barn clothes and in her hair. Lack of modern bathing facilities added to the problem. When a basin or a bucket is the only bathtub, and one’s hair is pinned up in long braids that wrap around the head, a full top-to-bottom bath was typically taken once a month. Consequently, during the rutting season, Mama was scented with the oduer of billy-goat musk.                                                                                                                

Mama was never fashion conscious. Her printed cotton summer dresses, winter corduroy slacks, sweaters, jackets, and coats came from rummage sales or second-hand stores, as did her shoes and boots. During warm-weather months, she usually wore cotton print dresses whether she was planning to go to town or working in the barn, but her winter go-to-town and barn attires were distinctly different. Her winter-town-attire was fairly conventional: corduroy slacks under a cotton dress, a quilted car coat, and a diagonally folded wool scarf tied under her chin. But her winter-barn-attire resembled that of a Tibetan yak farmer. She wore wool pants over long johns, layers of sweaters, a long coat cinched snuggly with a giant safety pin, a stocking cap, and a muffler wrapped around her neck. On her feet were oversized rubber-bottomed, leather-topped boots with grubby liners. Most of the time Mama was dressed in barn attire.                                        

Occasionally, Mama went to town during the week to buy grain, dog food, and a few groceries, but she went every Saturday to attend services at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It typically took Mama two hours to complete barn chores: carry buckets of water to fill watering pans, feed grain to all the grain-eating creatures, milk nannies, give milk to all the milk-drinking creatures, and strain the milk. Sabbath mornings were especially hectic, since Mama’s favorite part of the Sabbath service was Bible study, she had to head to town by 9:00 a.m. to arrive on time. So, she did chores in her church clothes, nylons and a dress, while wearing her barn boots. After straining the milk and setting it on the back porch to cool, she quickly washed her face and hands, unpinned her braids, fluffed the hair around her face, re-pinned the braids tightly, put on her church coat, grabbed her Bible and rushed out the door.  

Having nannies enamored with an odiferous billy goat altered where Mama sat while at church. From the time I was a child until I left home to attend college, she typically sat on the right side of the sanctuary in the central pew section. Post the billy goat’s entry into her life, she sat in the back row — you might say in “her own pew.” She knew she smelled, and she knew she couldn’t do anything about it. Even if she had bathed the night before, she realized there was no way she could avoid coming in contact with the billy’s musk in the morning. It was to her advantage that several of the elderly men were farmers and emanated the distinct scent of “cow barn.” 

A granddaughter shares memories of Mama’s goat barn: I recall evenings with Grandmother when I would nestle into the hay as she milked the goats and prayed. There were a lot of goats and the prayers went on and on, blending with the sound and rhythm of the milking. All of the prayers were for blessing and protection, with frequent requests for wisdom and understanding. She would begin with her nearest and dearest (which included her animals as well as the pets of family and friends) and would then make her way through the names of every person she knew in the little town nearby and then those she knew personally throughout the state and the country. She would pray a blessing for each of the states of the union and for the nation’s presidents past and present. At the time of my particular memory, she would have been praying most fervently for President Ford. After praying for the entire country and for all the newscasters and movie stars that she could name (Phil Donahue being one of the important ones at this time) she would proceed to name and ask God to bless each continent and then each country. Prayer times were always sealed by her requesting of God to “send myriads of your blessed holy angels to encompass each of us and the entire planet round about.” My grandmother’s prayers not only influenced my young mind to consider the entire world, but also ingrained in me a sense of connection, care, and responsibility for all beings.
In this moment I can see her twinkling blue eyes, I hear her giggle, and I feel her prayers touching me. My relationship with her continues outside of time and space and her influence continues to inform my understanding of the spiritual interconnectedness of all that is. I am deeply grateful to have such a spirited, soul-full, and loving Grandmother. We are blessed beyond measure.

Outhouse Spelunking

Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses

Papa, with Charles’ help, dug a new hole for the outhouse when the contents of the previous hole had almost reached ground level. One day shortly before a new hole was dug, Ted and I found ourselves examining Mama’s new refillable ink pen. Ted was nine years old and I was seven. The year was 1953.

The pen fascinated us. When the tip was placed in an inkbottle, and a little lever on its side pulled up, ink was sucked into the body of the pen. Ted and I knew that we were not to fiddle with it for two reasons – we would likely spill the ink or manage to break the pen. But the thought of making squiggles on scraps of paper tempted us to quietly remove the pen from the top of the dresser where Mama kept it, tuck it and the inkbottle in pockets, and slip outside.  

We filled the pen and took turns drawing and attempting to write elegantly on old envelopes and scraps of paper. Our artistic and literary endeavors ended when I had to pee. We walked to the outhouse, and I kept the door open, talking to Ted while relieving myself. After pulling up my panties and picking up the pen that I had placed next to the toilet hole, I was suddenly compelled to hold the pen over the hole. Ted watched mesmerized by the thought that I might drop it. I looked at him, looked at the pen, and for a reason that still eludes me, my fingers opened, and the pen dropped into the muck below. Ted and I looked at each other in disbelief. Then we both looked through the hole and could barely see the end of the pen. 

“We’ve got to get it out,” I said quietly.

“You’ve got to get it out,” Ted replied. 

I agreed that it was my responsibility, and I was small enough to fit through the opening. So, we devised a plan – boards for standing on would be dropped onto the muck and Ted would lower me down on a rope. After acting on our plan, I found myself standing on boards that were sinking slowly into foul smelling excrement. I pulled the pen from where it protruded, wiped it off with a page from the Sear Roebuck catalog that Ted dropped down to me, and stuck it in my pocket. Looking up, I could see Ted’s face staring through the toilet hole. 

“Okay, pull me up,” I said.

I felt the rope tightening on my waist, but I remained standing on the boards.

“You’re too heavy,” Ted called. Then he added, “I’m going to tie the rope to the tractor.” Luckily it was parked nearby. “You’ll have to climb out on your own.”

And that’s what I did. Holding the rope tightly, I braced my back against the base of the toilet wall and climbed hand over hand until I could reach Ted’s outstretched arm. He then grabbed the collar of my dress and pulled me through the opening intended for expulsion rather than extraction.

We looked at each other, and he said, “You stink.”

Together we walked to the river and waded in fully dressed. I scrubbed my shoes, and Ted scrubbed the back of my dress. I carefully removed the pen from my pocket and rinsed it thoroughly. Afterward, we sat in the sun while our clothes dried. Mama waved to us from the garden, and we waved back as though nothing was amiss. 

“I’ll put it back on the dresser. You wait here,” I whispered.

When I returned and sat down near Ted, he looked at me and asked, “Why did you drop the pen?”

I looked at him with bewildered eyes and shook my head. I didn’t have an answer. That evening, to silence my troubled conscience, I told Mama about the incident, and she asked the same question, “Why did you drop it?”

“I don’t know. I just couldn’t stop myself. I held my hand over the hole and opened my fingers.”

“Well, the next time you feel the urge to do something that you know is wrong or just plain stupid, remind yourself of the toilet hole,” Mama wisely advised. She knew that I felt sincerely remorseful.

When I think back on this experience, I still don’t know why I dropped the pen, but one thing is certain, if my childhood home had had the convenience of indoor plumbing, I wouldn’t have had the unusual experience of rappelling and spelunking in a well-used outhouse. 

The Owl Catcher

Oil Painting of a Screech Owl Painted on A Wooden Panel by Author

The child dragged a five-foot ladder as she walked the grassy path between a ripened cornfield and the bank of a slow-moving river. The child’s foraging bag hung from her shoulder and in the bag was a pair of her father’s work gloves. She wore a faded cotton dress and was walking barefoot. The year was 1955 and the child was nine years old. This was a time when little girls wore dresses, even little girls who climbed trees and caught frogs along muddy shorelines. 

The child had walked this path at sunrise when dew clung to blades of grass, and her destination then as now was the same. She leaned the ladder against the trunk of a dead oak and carefully climbed each rung until she was level with a hole, a hole large enough for an arm to reach inside. When she visited the tree earlier, she had knocked loudly with a knuckled fist and had placed her ear against the trunk to listen. The occupant clicked a reply, and the child smiled and said aloud, “I’ll be back.

Now, balancing herself on the ladder, feet spread and leaning her body against the trunk, she pulled on her father’s gloves before reaching with her right hand into the hole. When she touched the soft body at the bottom of the hole, a thrill raced through her fingers and into her heart. “Don’t worry,” she whispered, as she gently lifted a tiny screech owl from its home. “Don’t be afraid. It’s just me. Remember?”

Still leaning against the gnarled trunk, she cupped the small owl with both hands while stepping slowly down the ladder to the ground. The little creature stared at her with startled eyes, and bit fiercely at the work gloves. While blowing gently in the face of the little owl, the child soothed, “I won’t hurt you. You don’t have to bite,” and the owl stopped biting.  

Leaving the ladder leaning against the tree, the child walked hurriedly home. There, she placed the little owl in a cage, one of her mother’s empty canary cages.  It hopped to a perch and stared at her through large black pupils set in golden irises. Its feathers were several shades of brown, light and dark shades that formed patterns, with white under feathers.  

The child carried the cage to the garden where her mother was picking the season’s last green beans and tomatoes. The mother bent and looked into the cage, “Ah, your friend,” she said softly. The child knelt and looked closely at the little owl, and the mother knelt beside her. 

“Isn’t she cute?” the child whispered excitedly. 

“Yes,” her mother agreed, and then added, “Look, her feet are covered with feathers, and she has little feather horns.” 

“She looks angry,” the child said softly. 

“The feather pattern above her eyes makes her look that way,” her mother replied, nodding. 

The two sat for several minutes studying the small owl, then the mother returned to picking green beans. The child sat quietly next to the cage. She felt somehow connected to the little bird. She knew it was a wildling, that she couldn’t keep it, that it needed to hunt at night for food, and that it needed to spread its wings and fly. Still, she felt comforted just knowing it was alive and that it knew how to fly, that it knew how to find its own food, that it knew where its home was. This little owl and she shared something. They shared life.

“I think it’s time,” the mother directed.

 “I know. It’s time to return her to her home,” the child replied. 

Her mother answered with a smile.

The child carried the caged owl back to its home tree. After setting the cage on the ground next to the ladder, she gently lifted the small bird with a gloved hand and then carefully climbed while leaning into the ladder and graspingone rung at a time with her free hand. She placed the little owl inside its hollow oak. “There, you’re home,” she assured. 

While still standing on the ladder, the child looked across the cornfield to a line of orange and golden maple trees. The sky was a glorious blue, and the song of cicadas, warmed by the autumn sun, filled the air. She leaned close to the opening of the little owl’s home and whispered, “Thank you.”


Playing with Dead Rats: Searching for Humanbeingness

During lunch break, a group of teachers, all women, had gathered in the lounge to savor cups of hot coffee, check out catalog bargains, and talk about home and school. In one of the conversations, a second-grade teacher shared that several little girls in her class regularly brought Barbie and Ken dolls to school. She remarked that their play episodes mirrored the drama of TV soap operas, and her comments sparked a lively conversation about the loss of innocence, about premature sophistication, and about the powerful influence of television. 

The conversation also led teachers to reminisce, and they shared their experiences with dolls, baby dolls mostly. They talked of dressing them, putting them to bed, playing school and teaching them. They spoke of favorite dolls, described how they looked, and recalled their names. The conversation triggered memories for me also, and so I shared.          

“I really didn’t like store bought dolls,” I explained. “They were never real enough for me. You see, my father was a trapper. Each winter morning, he would leave the house before daybreak to check his traps and would return home around breakfast. I remember eagerly waiting for his return, waiting for the sound of him kicking snow off his boots outside the kitchen door. If when he stepped inside, he smiled and nodded, I knew that there would be a baby muskrat, one drowned in a trap but too small to skin for its pelt. So, I would hurry to his hunting jacket and search its pockets for the little furry creature that would become my doll for the day. A muskrat baby was a perfect doll. I would diaper it, would cut a hole in little squares of cloth for its tail – it would actually mess its diaper, and if I pried an eyelid open, there was a real eye inside.” 

I was so engaged with relaying this treasured childhood memory, that I was unaware of how silent the room had become. My story was abruptly ended when a teacher gasped, “Oh my dear! She played with dead rats as a child!”

“They weren’t dead rats,” I defended. “They were clean, silky young muskrats, and I would only play with them for one day. They never smelled.” The looks of horror registering on listener’s faces cautioned me not to relay that too much handling caused blood to ooze out of the tiny nose. Neither did I explain that I knew Papa would feed the carcass of “my doll” to the dogs at the end of the day.

Prior to this conversation, I had never considered the idea of handling the carcasses of dead muskrats anything but a reasonable act. As a child I often watched my father skin-out pelts in the main room of our home, in a corner away from the wood stove. He would, having hung a muskrat head down suspended from the ceiling on two wires, one through each hind paw, carefully slit around the tail and hind legs and then skillfully pull the skin off as though turning a glove inside out. Papa sold the pelts. This was how he made money in winter. Muskrat pelts were what made Christmas gifts possible. 

“Now we understand,” one teacher blurted out. “We understand why you are the way you are.”

I did not consider this comment an insult. I knew that my colleagues regarded me as a creative and successful Gifted and Talented educator. But, during the fleeting moments of this interchange, I realized that my early years differed drastically from those of my peers. What I grew up believing to be a wonderful experience, one of the fondest of my childhood, was being viewed with disgust and misunderstanding. Isolated from the context of my family life, using a dead baby muskrat as a doll became playing with the carcass of a dead rat.   

Though time has distanced me from this conversation and the stories shared by my fellow teachers have been forgotten, the emotional impact of the experience will remain with me forever. I had always thought that my childhood was different, but not very different. The opportunity to reminisce about a shared experience, playing with dolls, affirmed likeness. I, like the other teachers, played with dolls; it was just that my dolls were young muskrats, dead young muskrats.  

At the time of the conversation, shock and horror communicated by my colleagues isolated me for several moments. In that isolation, I was able to step away from myself and view my memory from a different perspective. I understood the teachers’ horror and attempted clarification to gain their understanding, but I also knew the circumstances of my childhood and defensively refused to compromise my memory. This attempt to uncompromisingly clarify left me speechless, and I sat in silent reflection. Though my childhood was unique, I had really never considered myself culturally different, but this talk of dolls had forced me to consider the error of my assumption. It also illuminated another reality, my peers, having never had the opportunity to play with silky muskrats, would never appreciate the pleasure of that experience. I came to realize that I was of an “other culture”, and realization of my “otherness” allowed me the opportunity to reflect on my perspective in its relationship to a different perspective. To this day, I consider my reflection during this conversation about dolls and dead rats an awakening.

Herein lies the purpose behind sharing this story, a purpose that might not appear to follow logically. I assumed that others would have no difficulty relating to my childhood memory. As strange as it may seem, I had never considered that playing with a muskrat carcass would be considered offensive. I had never had reason to question the family culture in which I had been socialized. Now, after my awakening, I propose that one reason racial schisms exist and threaten to deepen is because members of separate cultures view other culture members as “different” and rarely consider the shared values and beliefs that underlie differences – the teachers heard my story and responded with repugnance, and I listened to their responses through my dual-culture, my childhood memories as well as common beliefs about dead animals. I understood their repugnance yet treasured my memory. I could have been hurt by this conversation, by assumptions that my childhood was deprived, even depraved, but I knew differently, and I also knew that my colleagues and I shared a common experience – playing mother.

 After telling this story to Dr. Carl Grant, a black scholar and UW Madison Professor Emerita, Carl shared his concern that the focus on diversity in multicultural education threatens to separate rather than unite people. When discussing racism with Dorothy Davids, a friend and Native American elder, Dorothy commented, “We must celebrate “humanbeingness.” She recommended accomplishing this by identifying and discussing underlying values shared across cultures. 

I believe application of Dorothy’s and Carl’s wisdom, the wisdom of two elders, can bridge today’s racial divide. I believe that it is imperative for parents, teachers, professors, and journalists to consider how divisive focusing on diversity has become. Perhaps searching for cultural commonalities should be the purpose of multi-cultural education. Perhaps the most important questions to be answered by Critical Race Theorists today are, “How are differing culture groups alike, and what does it mean to be HUMAN?”