Summer Solstice


It’s all about balance.

At least, that’s what the motivational speakers, gurus, and even her own therapist told Amanda.

Night and Day

Work and Play.

Summer and Winter.

Good…and evil.

            Amanda just needed to find that point of balance. In her mind’s eye, Amanda envisioned a set of ornately crafted, old-fashioned brass scales. On one side, a lead weight dropped – the impossible demands of her job and an impending promotion. The pan tipped nearly to the ground. Another weight fell on the other side – her responsibility to her widowed mother with Alzheimer’s.  Were the scales now even? No. Not quite. A phantom hand swept the pans clear. They teetered back and forth for a few moments until settling into equilibrium once more. Another weight descended. That unexpected windfall from her Uncle Percival and with it the dream of a Jamaican vacation. No sooner had the lead touched the pan than another descended on the opposite pan – the leaking roof overhead and the leaking water heater in the cellar below. Balance? Not even close. Again, the scales were swept clean.  Dropping with a force so strong it dented the pan – Amanda’s passionate love for Jonathan. Just as fast, and with even more force, the just discovered knowledge of his gambling addiction and string of affairs. Under that weight, the scales crumbled to dust.

            Just as Amanda’s vision dissipated, so was her reverie broken by a smattering of raindrops. She opened her eyes to look skyward through the canopy of birch and spruce to a roiling tumble of clouds. Where had the sun gone? It had been so bright and hot Amanda had sought shelter and shade amid the trees surrounding her rented, four-room cabin. The forecast had been for hot, fair weather all week.  Emerging from the forest overhang, Amanda was drenched by pellets of hail and a stinging downpour before she reached the cabin porch twenty yards away. Shivering, she leaned against the door. “How appropriate,” she thought. Just one more thing off balance – fair weather and storm.

            A week at an isolated cabin in the woods had been her therapist’s idea. Dr. Rogers had said some time alone, some time away from daily stressors would help Amanda find balance. Ironic that this day happened to be summer solstice – the longest day of the year. Tomorrow, the darkness would begin its victory dance, cumulating in the days Amanda would needs rise before the sun and make her way home from work beneath the orange glare of streetlights. Indeed, on this day, the tipping point of the year, the dark was winning – just as the darknesses – responsibilities, financial difficulties, and heartbreak – were winning in Amanda’s life.

            A crack of thunder so close it vibrated the boards beneath her feet startled Amanda sand she sought the shelter of the cabin’s interior. It was dark here, too. No electricity. No running water, no cell phone service – the place was truly rustic. Amanda lit two of the oil lamps in the tiny living room. She carried one into the equally small kitchen. The coals in the green and cream iron cookstove were still hot so she added more wood and set a kettle on to boil. Amazing how much time it took for the water to boil when Amanda could accomplish the same thing with her microwave oven in less than two minutes. While the water was heating, she found a towel in the closet in the bedroom, dried off, and changed to warmer clothes. Finally, the kettle whistled and Amanda made a cup of tea.

            The storm continued to rage as Amanda settled at the oilcloth covered table with her steaming mug. She stared at the small backpack on the table. Time passed as the liquid in the cup between her hands cooled and storm darkness gave way to twilight. Amanda continued to sit, her mind as blank as her eyes.

            Outside, the wind howled and shook the cabin. With one last, shuddering roar of thunder, the storm departed. The thunderclap roused Amanda from her stupor. She took a sip of her cold tea, grimaced, and rose to toss the bitter infusion out the front door. Then she shook out the contents of the backpack and there it was – the solution to her personal darkness – a full bottle of digoxin. Her mother’s physician had taken her off the medication but not before Amanda had gotten a refill. Digoxin – digitalis – the poison produced by the leaves of the enchanting, flowering foxglove. In medicinal doses, it strengthened the heart muscle and slowed a too fast heartbeat. More than that, and it slowed the heart until it stopped. Just like going to sleep, Amanda had heard. She uncapped the bottle. All her darkness – the demands of job and family, finances, betrayal – would be swallowed up in one great, unfeeling darkness. Her boss could find another employee. Her mother would go to a nursing home and be cared for. And Jonathan? Well Jonathan was welcome to whatever hell his life would devolve into. Water. Amanda needed water. She picked up the teakettle. Empty. Frustrated at being thwarted, she slammed the kettle down. Then picked it up again and went outside to the pitcher pump. Up and down. Up and down. It seemed to take forever for the water to gush forth. As she stood there pumping, the clouds parted and the crescent moon cast a beam of light on pump handle, on her hand.

            Amanda looked up. Partnering with the sliver of moon, the Milky Way blazed forth in the rift between the departing clouds. She stilled. A light breeze carried the perfume of spruce and cedar. Moonlight and starlight glimmered on the bedewed grass. A hooting owl broke the stillness for a moment then all was quiet again. In the quietness a question arose in Amanda’s mind. No. Not a question. A voice. “What are you doing, Amanda? What are you doing?”

            Stunned, Amanda’s mouth went dry. She bowed her head and fell to her knees. Then she lifted her face to the sky and screamed, “What am I doing? What am I doing? There is no balance! The darkness is winning! The darkness has won! I’m finally seeing the truth. I am giving up. I concede the battle. I can’t win. There is no balance! I am ending it!”

            “No,” the voice responded. “There is no balance. But what makes you think ending it will end the darkness? This world is not the end. Your darkness here may yet see a dawn, but the darkness you think you desire is so much worse and has no end.”

            “Then what? Then why?” She cried.

            “The reason there is no balance is because darkness cannot be balanced by light…the darkness will ultimately lose. You thought this day, this night is the tipping point of the world. The light decreases and the dark increases. But the darkness does not increase forever, for in just a few months, the light will increase once more and the dark diminish. In this world the cycle has repeated uncountable times and will continue to do so…for a while. For a day is coming when the light will reign victorious.”

            “So what!” Amanda spat. “So what! Good for the world. It does nothing for me!”

            “Ah, child. But it can. It can. All you see now is darkness. All you hear is the voice of despair. But you have heard another voice. Just listen.”

            A memory arose in Amanda’s thoughts. She was a girl again, sitting on the hassock by her father’s feet. The open book in his lap was large, with a worn, black, leather cover. Some of the pages were wrinkled and coming loose. Her father turned the leaves with care. His lovely baritone rumbled. “Listen, Mandy girl. Listen. This is what the very word of God says to you. ‘For God so loved the world…’ that means God so loved you… ‘that He gave his only begotten Son that whosoever…’ that means you… ‘believes on Him should not perish but have eternal life.’ There’s more. ‘The Light has come into the world but men loved the darkness more than the Light. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light. But whoever loves the truth comes to the light.’” He turned a few more pages. “Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” A few more pages. “Jesus also said, ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take hope, for I have overcome the world.’”

            “Mandy girl, sometimes life will seem terribly dark. It will seem like the darkness is winning and you will be tempted to despair. Don’t. You must always remember, the light wins in the end. Any darkness you experience on this earth is temporary. Cling to the Light.”             Her father’s voice faded with the memory. She had been so young when he died, she had forgotten the strength of his faith. In the moment, Amanda knew that strong as it was, his faith was not enough to carry her now. This night was indeed a tipping point. But not into inevitable, unremitting darkness. In this moment, in this tipping point, Amanda chose the light.


Christmas Thoughts


What a loaded word!

Etymologically, it’s two words: Christ’s Mass…literally Christ’s time. The time when the divine Son of the triune Godhead became incorporated into a fertilized ovum, grew into an embryo, then a fetus, and then born a human male child. Wow! I just used some triggering words there, didn’t I. Yet Christ was, and is, indeed a trigger. His appearance triggered a seismic change in the world’s calendar: from BC —  before Christ to AD, anno Domine – the year of our Lord. His birth triggered a megalomaniac, homicidal king to order the murder of innocent boy toddlers and babies. His life, death, and resurrection triggered waves of horrific persecution that lasted centuries. Disagreements over who precisely He was and is and over the specifics of what His recorded words mean have triggered divisions, persecutions, and even wars.

How’s that for a mini-dissertation on a time that is supposed to be infused with light, peace, and love!

Social media, television, newspaper and magazine ads, all present an image of sparkling homes, glittering table settings, cozy fireplaces, cheerful gatherings of people, excited children, and joy, joy, joy mingled with buy, buy, buy. Platitudes encourage us to bask in our memories, traditions, and make new ones. Oh sure, the media trots out a piece now and then on how to acknowledge those people for whom the holiday is not all joy, joy, joy, and perhaps there is a mention or two from church pulpits to be mindful of and reach out to the hurting, but it seems to me the only people who read those articles are those who actually are hurting, those who only have memories left to them.

I have memories. Memories of picking out crooked trees with my father, of being loaded into the family car to tour the brilliant, multi-colored lights of Racine’s swankiest neighborhood, North Bay. Memories of a small living room in a small house crowded with people around a crooked Christmas tree. Memories of a table with all the leaves stretching it out to completely fill a kitchen and a dozen or more family members talking, laughing, and eating a bounteous feast. Memories of aunts, uncles and cousins dropping by for a visit or driving out of town to visit them. And later memories of even more family members crowded into a sister’s living room with a dog, a cat, or child on one’s lap, and an even more bounteous feast.

Oh, but there are other memories. Memories of times when my father was lost in his illness and family tiptoed around him. Memories of a drunken uncle cursing and crying. Memories of a little brother with an inherited neurological disorder having a meltdown.

But what I wouldn’t give to revisit those memories, both good and the bad. But time never stops. Everything changes. The children that once sat on my lap now have grandchildren of their own. Three of my older siblings, along with my parents no longer walk this earth. My remaining sister and her husband are more than 1,000 miles away. Oh, but I’m not alone. I am the defacto, if not dejure, guardian for my little brother. A brother who is very much wrapped up inside himself, who speaks almost solely to the men at church and to his dog. A silent dinner companion who wolfs his food and then is gone to his own house next door. A brother who could not care less about traditions and celebrations and…Christmas.

Minimalism has become quite the buzzword on social media these days. And we, my brother and I are having a minimalist Christmas. We brought our sister and brother-in-law’s Christmas gift to them back in November. The only other gift I had to buy was the one for him.  (That’s done, but now I have to set it up) There’s a new pastor at church, so the Christmas celebration there is different this year – minus the fifteen dozen cookies baked by me. Ah yes, cookies. I haven’t baked a one. I have most of the ingredients along with the ingredients for fruitcake, but there they sit. I hung a wreath on the front door, put a battery operated candle in a window – and decorations done. No tree, not even the big Nativity scene – just a little glass one sitting on a lighted color-changing stand. But there is a half-full laundry basket holding pride of place in the living room. There’s no church service on Christmas Day, although there is an informal one early on Christmas Eve. I did send out a limited number of Christmas ücards and have received half a dozen. No turkey on the grill for Christmas dinner, although thanks to a good friend, a small venison roast. Mushrooms and wild rice instead of mashed potatoes and a broccoli salad instead of green bean casserole. Minimalist indeed.

Those who know me know that I am a traditionalist at heart. But traditions without people are hollow. I tried for years, no, decades to keep them alive, but it seems this year they have finally fallen away. I want them, I want the people back. Not possible. So, make new traditions, some might say. Hard to do with just the two of us, Little Brother and I. The dark, the cold, the snow have closed in this year. With the isolation, the realization has come that the memories, the traditions are something to be laid at the feet of that Babe in the manger…at the base of that cross. What can I say? It’s not grief…exactly. It’s not resignation…exactly. It’s not sadness nor depression…exactly. Yet somehow the heaviness is gone. Somehow, this quiet house is not quite so empty. Somehow, it’s okay.

No decorations, no mad rush to shop, wrap, and ship gifts. No traditional dinner. No traditional Christmas service. But something arrived on my doorstep today…a box of traditional German Christmas treats. Yup. Traditional, even though they are not part of my German-American family’s traditions. So sitting in front of an ice-rimed window, watching the juncos and chickadees and nuthatches and cardinals battle for supremacy of the bird feeder, I bite into a pfeffernüsse. It’s not quite as good as the ones I bought at Gabrielle’s German Bakery in Ashland. It’s not the gingerbread my mother made, that I made. But the spice explodes in my mouth and the mug of coffee in my hands is warm. And somehow, something, contentment perhaps, settles in around my shoulders like a shawl. Hmm…a new tradition.

Thank You, Jesus for pfeffernüsse.


Autumn Memories

Brrr…it’s Fall.

Autumn and memories…somehow they go together…so here are a few of mine….

Nut gathering. My dad loved the outdoors and planned activities for us no matter what the season until the summer I turned eight. A massive heart attack that year sharply limited his ability to get out and about for the rest of his life. But before that, every autumn he would take us to Sanders Park in Kenosha County, just about ten miles away from our home. Tucked away among the scarlet maples and rust-brown oaks were amber-leaved hickory, black walnut and butternut trees. Of course the squirrels had been there before us, but we still found a peck full of sweet, wild nuts. Getting to the nutmeats wasn’t easy; as we would help dad hull the nuts, our hands would end up stained brown from the hulls, a color that would stay on our skin for days. Sometimes getting at the meat of Scripture isn’t easy, either, but the “stain” of it colors our souls for eternity.

The smell of leaf fires. It is frowned upon as environmentally unfriendly these days, but one of the incentives my dad used to get us to rake up the fallen box elder and maple leaves in our neighborhood was the promise of a leaf fire. He would clear the last vines out of the garden and set up a fire ring on the bare earth. As dusk settled in, he would set the leaves ablaze. Siblings, cousins, neighbor kids, we would jockey to find just the right spot so we would not be chilled by the cool evening air nor overheated by the flames. There was such contentment in hearing the flames crackle, seeing the sparks dance against the darkening sky, watching the smoke curl upwards and breathing that sweet scent. No wonder God commanded the ancient Israelites to worship him using incense and the book of Revelation describes the prayers of the saints rising as a sweet aroma before the Lord.

Leaf gathering. One of my mom’s favorite things to do with us when we were very young. Our city block was populated mostly by box elders whose leaves would turn a rather drab yellow-brown. So we would walk through the wealthier neighborhoods by the lakefront that sported magnificent maples and gingkos that transformed into brilliant gold and orange and red and saffron treasures. With little brother in the stroller, I would run ahead of her, picking up one leaf after another just to hear her joy as she exclaimed, “Oh, that one is even prettier than the last one!” Once at home, out came the telephone directories (the big ones!) and our finds would be carefully pressed between the pages. I still have a leaf book I made in kindergarten. After 64 years, the colors are faded and the leaves are brittle, but they still call to mind those wonderful walks. God used many ways to help His people remember what He had done for them…setting a rainbow in the sky, piling up stones, inspiring the prophets to write… What kind of record are you keeping to remember what He has done for you?

Harvest moonrise. Our harvest moon this year, the first full moon after the start of autumn, is already on the wane. As a child, watching it emerge from the dark waters of Lake Michigan, especially when it was a late-rising moon, with my family around me, is an image that is priceless. At first, a dull purple-red spot begins to glow, seeming buried beneath the waters on the horizon. Gradually it lightens to red, then orange, as an enormous crescent pulls slowly heavenward and becomes a circle. Rising, the color fades as the moon becomes whiter, purer and a brilliant path, seeming solid enough to walk upon, streams across the water from shore to sky. As we rise from the waters of baptism, of new life in Christ, so we slowly become purer, casting our reflected righteousness out as a beacon to the world.

Getting the house ready for winter. Mom would be on the lookout for the last possible nice weekend of the autumn for fall chores. Our 100 year-old house had six-foot tall, old-fashioned windows with separate screens and storm windows. Bright and early on an otherwise too-pleasant-to-waste-with-chores Saturday, we were all equipped with glass cleaner and old rags. Precariously balanced on wobbly wooden stepladders, Mom and Dad would take down each screen. With one of us younger kids on the inside and one of the older siblings on the outside, we would wash each window, polishing until Mom was satisfied there were no streaks. Then we would race outside to wash both sides of the storm window and Mom and Dad would carefully raise it into position. One bathroom window, three kitchen windows, two dining room windows, two living room windows, and four bedroom windows would take all morning. Finally, Dad would remove the screens doors from the front and back of the house and the storm doors would be hung. All of the screens were carefully stored in the basement until Spring when we would reverse the process. Of course we grumbled. There were so many more fun things we children could be doing on a beautiful Fall day. But without the work, our winters would not have been nearly so cozy. Digging into Scripture, finding time in a busy day to get alone with the Lord, answering those nudges to be “Jesus with skin on” to that hurting neighbor…oh, there are so many more interesting things we could be doing…but without the work, will our winter days be filled with regrets?


Parable of the Pearl …Continued

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding a pearl of great value, he went and sold everything that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:45-46

A merchant gave up every earthly thing he possessed to possess one, singular pearl worth more than the entire world. Oh, how he rejoiced in the ownership of that treasure! There was none like it in all the earth. Soon, however, a conviction came upon him that this treasure was not his alone — it was meant to be shared. So, he took the pearl to his closest friend. That friend was awed and humbled at the gift. He too was convicted to pass the pearl along. And so it went — from one grubby hand to another — and each person who received it was touched to the heart.

In time, the merchant came to realize that while all who laid hold of the pearl were blessed beyond measure, by traveling hand to hand, only a few were able to experience the blessing. So he had the most gifted jeweler in his country craft a fine filigree housing of the purest gold for the pearl and an equally fine chain to hang it on. The merchant commissioned a roadside shrine and hung the pearl within. Now dozens of people could discover the blessings of the pearl at one time.

Word of the pearl of price beyond measure, whose blessings were freely shared with all, after many years, came to the ears of a wealthy noblewoman. She undertook a long journey to see the pearl for herself, and she too, was overwhelmed by its simplicity and its beauty. The original merchant and his friends had long since passed away. The roadside shrine continued to attract visitors, but could only accomodate a few at a time. The noblewoman, too wanted to spread the message of the pearl, but felt its environs too humble for such a magnificent jewel. So, she commissioned a grand cathedral to take the place of the roadside shrine and hung the peverarl on its chain high up on a splendid altar so many more could come and admire it. To show her own commitment, the noblewoman attached to the pearl’s finding the most precious and valuable gem she owned.

As the noblewoman had hoped, many more people came to the great cathedral to see the pearl. And many more had their hearts changed upon experiencing it. Those who were wealthy sought to honor the message of the pearl by adorning it with their own most precious gems. Over the course of many years, the pearl became surrounded by so many diamonds, sapphires, rubies and gold that the pearl itself was hidden from view. Pilgrims from far and near streamed in great numbers to the cathedral, but now, not so much to experience the power of the pearl but to marvel at the jewels encrusting it. People came and were awed. They paid homage to the gems upon the altar, but the hearts of very few were changed. Instead, pilgrims stealthily snatched bits from the display, carried them home, and built their own magnificent cathedrals in honor of the legend of the pearl.

Many centuries passed. A scholar who had visited many cathedrals and found them wanting, came to the first edifice which had been expanded into an enormous basilica. Day after day, he came seeking the pearl which lay behind the legend he had heard all his life. He hid in the cathedral when the massive doors were closed so he could search undisturbed in the night. On a night when a full moon cast muted colors from the stained glass upon the altar, the scholar finally found the original pearl. And like the first merchant, he rejoiced had found

Boldly, he removed the pearl but left all the other treasures untouched. He took to the streets proclaiming the message of the pearl. Once more it passed from hand to hand, transforming all who would receive it. The scholar welcomed students into his home to learn about the pearl’s true message, then sent them out to share it with all they encountered.

Time passed and the scholar died, and eventually all the students who had heard him teach also passed away. One day a student of one of the students, weary with travel, decided the best way to share it was for people to come to it. He built a chapel and hung the pearl upon the altar…


Labor Day Misadventure

            It was really too hot to be ironing. Janelle lifted her long hair off her neck and twisted it into a bun. Yes, definitely too hot, but if she wanted to get the quilted table runner completed before the entry deadline for the Central Wisconsin State Fair, she had to keep at it. She smiled to herself. Amazing really, how quickly this city girl had transformed into a country mouse. Just two years.

                Two years ago, Janelle moved from her rented duplex in Wauwatosa to her very own home in Marshfield. The move had been traumatic, after unwittingly becoming involved in an international, industrial espionage case in which her own life had been threatened. Janelle had been rescued by a police detective and his family who had not only taken her in but had found her a new place to live and a new career. Two years since she had begun teaching Technical Writing and English 101 at North Central Technical College. That had been fun. Scarcely had she taken the job than the pandemic hit and past the first three weeks, her first two semesters teaching had been entirely online. Now, she was permanent faculty and traveled to the main campus in Wausau on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the satellite campus in Spencer on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. She also conducted an evening, online class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even adding in office hours, Janelle had considerably more free time than she’d had as a technical writer for Carter Laboratories. Plus, it paid better, allowing her to purchase a small house. So, she had taken up quilting, and the table runner would be her very first entry in a county fair that ran for six days, concluding on Labor Day.

            With the last patch ironed, Janelle shooed Roscoe, her Maine Coon cat off the pile of squares and sat down at her sewing machine. She plugged in earphones, started her favorite playlist, and began to stitch. It wasn’t long before she became aware of a tapping which was not part of the music. “Why is it the phone rings or there’s a knock at the door only when I’m in the middle of something?” she muttered to herself as the knocking became more insistent. “Coming!” she shouted as she turned off the music and hurried for the front door. “Probably Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she thought. Anyone she knew would use the side door. Janelle could see two figures through the lace curtain. “They always come in pairs.” But when she opened the door, she was surprised to see one familiar face.

            “Officer, I mean, Detective Kieffer! What brings you here?” Janelle did not recognize the man with him, but the vibe he projected was similar to the Homeland Security agent she had encountered two years ago.

            “Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Walker,” Detective Kieffer began. “Could we talk to you for a moment? It’s important.”

            Puzzled, Janelle cast a backward glance at the scattered scraps of fabric and the partially pieced quilt top littering every piece of furniture in the small living room. “Uh. Sure. Just let me find you a place to sit.”  She snatched up the material and bundled it into a large wicker basket, grateful that the sink full of dirty dishes was not visible. Indicating the men should sit on the sofa, Janelle took a seat in her easy chair. “What can I do for you, Sam?”

            The other man’s gaze hardened at the familiarity. Sam spoke, “Well, obviously you know me.” Tilting his head, “This is Special Agent Osric Fitzwilliam of the Milwaukee office of the FBI.” The man showed his badge for a millisecond before snapping the case shut.

            “Osric,” Janelle mused. “Your mother must have been a fan of Ellis Peters.” If anything, Janelle’s attempt at levity appeared to further harden his gaze. FBI in her living room! Nervous now, Janelle cleared her throat and asked again, “What can I do for you?”

            Special Agent Fitzwilliam spoke, “Would you know the whereabouts of Jordan Lewis Walker and where we could find him?”

            Janelle choked. With raised eyebrows, she looked from one man to the other and back again. Detective Kieffer appeared concerned. The FBI agent registered only hostility. After the shock, Janelle’s own countenance hardened. “I have a nephew by that name. And you can find him in the Evergreen Cemetery in Kenosha County, just off Highway 31. And before you ask, he’s been there the last 23 years. If you had any research skills at all, you would know that. Now. Is there anything else I may help you with?”

            “Are you certain?” the Agent asked.

            “Of course, I’m certain. I was in his hospital room just before they turned off his life support. But I suppose parts of him are out there. My brother donated his son’s organs. Now unless there is someone else with my nephew’s name or someone has stolen his identity, I think we’re done here.”

            Detective Kieffer shuffled his feet and looked away as the FBI agent persisted with his questioning. “Do you know the circumstances surrounding his demise?”

            Janelle glared. “Yes. He wrapped his car around a tree. It took him ten days to die.” She was not about to volunteer that Jordan was high on meth and liquor when it happened.

            “And what were the family circumstances at that time?” Fitzwilliam pressed on.

            “Unbelievable!” Although she did not voice that thought, Janelle snapped, “I fail to see why that is any of your business.”

            Kieffer intervened, earning him an icy stare from the agent. “I know this must seem strange, Ms. Walker, especially after all this time. But we do have an active case before us, and every bit of information is important whether it seems relevant or not.”

            Janelle looked at him. He was actually blushing. Somewhat mollified, Janelle spoke only

to Kieffer. “My brother and his wife divorced when Jordan was three. My former sister-in-law was working on her fourth marriage. My nephew was living with his father after one of his stepfathers threw him out.”

            “And why was that?” The Agent.

            Janelle stared him down. After several moments, she said, “I don’t know. You would have to ask him or Jordan’s mother.”

            “That would be hard to do. She’s dead.” At Janelle’s startled expression, Fitzwilliam asked, “You didn’t know?”

            “No. My sister and I have had no contact with her since my brother died five years ago. She wanted several of his personal possessions and half the profit from the sale of his house. It got messy.” Now why on earth had she said that?  “When did she pass?

            “Two months ago.”

            Janelle made some calculations. “So, she would have been 73.”

            “She may have been 73, but she didn’t die of old age.”

            “Well, since my brother and nephew are gone, and I wasn’t even aware of her passing, I didn’t have anything to do with it. So why the subterfuge about Jordan?”

            Kieffer said, “Wasn’t my idea, but we needed a reason to talk to you.”

            “Sam, how many cups of coffee at church have we had together? You could have just asked.”

            “Still blushing, he said, “I know.”

            Looking back at Fitzwilliam who was again glaring at Detective Kieffer, Janelle said, “So my former sister-in-law did not die of natural causes. My sister and I did not like her for the heartbreak she caused our brother, but that was a long time ago and neither of us held a grudge. Neither do any of our aunts, uncles, or cousins if they even remember her. So why me?”

            “Your sister and her husband are in Florida, and we have an agent speaking with them at this moment. You, however, are still in state and just a short drive away. Your sister-in-law was a member of a prominent family, but there is virtually no mention of her since her marriage to your brother in 1974. Why is that?”

            “Because Kirsten’s grandfather disowned her mother.”

            “Would you know the story behind that? We could find no record of that beyond the fact that Mr. Holz secured guardianship of your sister-in-law and her sisters after their parents’ death.”

            Janelle sighed. “This is going to take a while. Would either of you like coffee or tea or water?”

            Sam nodded. The agent did not. Janelle smiled at Kieffer. “Just a dash of milk, right?” She walked into the kitchen to pour a couple cups, hoping the men would stay seated and not follow her into the messy room. Though he hadn’t asked for anything, Janelle added a bottle of water to the tray and carried it back to the men.

            “So, it’s the Holtz’s you’re really investigating, then? I’d be careful if I were you. Not only are they a prominent family, they do not take kindly to having their family name impugned.”

            “So, you know the backstory?”

            “Oh, I know it. The part you probably already know is that Sigmund Holz was the son of a Swiss immigrant. The parcel of land Sigmund Senior settled on was just beyond what were the city limits of Kenosha in 1890. But as the city grew, his 40 acres were surrounded on three sides by urban development. Rather than passing that property on to his son, Sigmund sold it to an Italian family for far more than it was worth and purchased 100 acres three miles west of the city. Sigmund Junior eventually inherited that. But he saw that money could be made in buying land cheap and selling it high. So that’s what he did – and all that without any interference from the Kenosha mafia.”

            Fitzwilliam interrupted, “Yes, we have that information. All but the mention of organized crime is mentioned in public documents.”

            “Oh, Sigmund would not have had any dealings with the mob. He was much too upright for that – a strict Lutheran who only consumed Communion wine – and beer.”

            “So, what about the daughter?”

            “Sigmund and Bettina had four children; three sons followed by a daughter, Birgitte. All the sons were sent to boarding schools, and then college, out East. Whether Sigmund didn’t consider educating a girl important or whether Bettina just wanted her daughter nearby, I don’t know. At any rate, just like some medieval romance the eldest was destined to inherit the property. He studied law. The second went into medicine and the youngest became a Lutheran minister. Birgitte attended local public schools. In high school, she fell in love with the son of a Danish immigrant who worked at the Nash Auto Plant – later, American Motors. Grandfather Holz did not approve of the relationship. When Birgitte graduated from high school, she and Nils eloped. Grandfather Holz disowned her and banned her from ever setting foot on his property ever again. Birgitte and Nils had three daughters: Gertrude, Kirsten and Marta. They lived in the upper flat of Nils’ parents’ house. On their fifteenth wedding anniversary, Birgitte and Nils went out for dinner, leaving the girls at home. They were hit by a drunk driver on their way home. Nils died instantly and Birgitte a week later. Gertrude was fourteen, Kirsten was ten and her younger sister Marta was six.  

            I think the girls would have been happy to live with Nils’ parents, but Sigmund was not a man to be seen not doing the proper thing. He had the money. He had the prestige. And he gained custody of the girls. I swear, it was something like “Flowers in the Attic.” He had a huge, six-bedroom, four-bathroom mansion, but instead of putting the girls in those rooms, he had the attic transformed into a dormitory and bath for the four of them. In a way, I suppose it was a kindness for them to be close together in their grief.”

           Janelle paused for a sip of coffee. “In some ways, they had an ideal upbringing. The Holz property was adjacent to a large county park. The estate had a tennis court, swimming pool and horses. The girls were expected to be proficient in the use of all three. But they also grew up with the understanding that as soon as they graduated high school, they would be expected to be out on their own. Holz set aside $1,000.00 for each of them which they would receive upon being accepted into a college or getting married, but otherwise, they would inherit nothing. Their parents’ life insurance was placed in trust, and each would receive a settlement upon turning 25. On Sundays, the family attended the Lutheran church Kirsten’s uncle preached at and then returned to the estate for a command family dinner. Kirsten’s uncles, aunts and cousins were quick to impress upon her and her sisters that their place at the table was only temporary.

          When Kirsten graduated, she found an apartment and enrolled in beauty college. She was allowed to take her bedroom suite and clothes with her when she left her grandparents’ house.

She got a job in a salon and met my brother when he went there for a haircut. They were married a year later. My brother was 21 and Kirsten 22. Jordan was born two years later. My brother had a good job, they had a nice house, but it didn’t compare to what Kirsten had grown up with. She had an affair with a much wealthier man and told my brother she wanted a divorce. As soon as the divorce was final, her lover dumped her.

         There! Now you know all the family’s dirty secrets. Satisfied?”

         “And what was the Holz family reaction to her marriage and divorce?” the agent asked.

          Janelle stared at the man. “How should I know? The only contact I had with Kirsten’s extended family was at her wedding – and I was twelve. I met her sisters and their families, of course at parties and such, but I never knew any of the others. I only know as much of her history as I do because Kirsten used to tell me about it when I babysat my nephew.”

         “You mentioned that Kenosha was a mafia town, and that Sigmund Holz had an extremely successful real estate business there. How do you suppose he managed that in a city controlled by the mob?”

          “I just told you; I had no contact with Kirsten’s family other than her sisters. And neither did my brother and sister. I don’t think she even knew anything about her grandfather’s business.”

           “Why do you think your sister-in-law was so eager to go through your brother’s possessions after he died?”

          Janelle sighed. “I don’t know. She just…well, she just always seemed somewhat entitled, entitled to everything. And, at the time, she was between husband number three and husband number four. Apparently, her uncle relented somewhat because she was living in the carriage house on her grandfather’s estate. I imagine she wanted the profits from the house because she needed money. My brother was a photographer, so my sister and I went through all his photo albums and gave her the ones that had pictures of her in them. She was also an amateur artist, and we returned a couple of paintings she had done when she and my brother were married. But she wasn’t satisfied, kept saying she needed to see for herself. When my sister and I refused, she got nasty. But really, they were only married for five years, and she hadn’t been part of my brother’s life, other than to share custody with my nephew, for decades. So, she had no legal standing. And since then, I have neither seen nor heard from her. And as little contact as I had with Kirsten, the contact with her family has been nonexistent. So, if you’re investigating the Holz family, I have nothing to give you.”

          Agent Fitzwilliam’s phone beeped. He retrieved it and looked at a text message. “It appears your sister has much the same to say about your sister-in-law and the Holz family.”

        Fitzwilliam looked at Detective Kieffer. To Janelle, it seemed that Kieffer was trying to silently encourage the agent to say something else. Fitzwilliam glared at Kieffer. Janelle thought back to the Homeland Security agent, Carbajal, she had encountered two years earlier. Was this some sort of mask all federal agents had perfected? The two men reached an unspoken agreement. Fitzwilliam’s expression softened. He turned back to Janelle.

         “Whoever murdered your sister-in-law was looking for something. They didn’t find it. We interviewed all three of her former husbands. They are all in the clear. But ex-husband number four indicated that you might know something. You have convinced me, and your sister has convinced my fellow agents, that this is not the case.”

          “So, do you have any idea what Kirsten’s killer was looking for?” Janelle asked.

        “According to our research, as you have said, Sigmund Senior sold 40 acres, during Prohibition, to a connected family for sufficiently more than its market” value such that he was able to parlay that into the purchase of 100 acres and the construction of a mansion. Then Sigmund Junior was able to conduct a lucrative business in a city with a prominent organized crime presence. Why do you think that was?

        “Sigmund Senior must have had something on the people he sold his land to and passed it on to his son,” Janelle guessed.

          “That’s what we think,” Fitzwilliam agreed.

          “But why go after Sigmund’s granddaughter? Wouldn’t it make more sense that information like that would have come down to his sons who still hold the estate? And besides, Prohibition was 100 years ago. Anything from that era, anything criminal, the statute of limitations would have long ago run out.”

          “Well, that’s the thing. Sigmund III died six months before your sister-in-law. The estate was put up for sale. I believe the asking price was 1.8 million dollars. When your brother and sister-in-law first got married, where did they live?”

          “Janelle thought. “The carriage house. But it was only for two months, and our family never visited there.”

          “After Kirsten divorced husband number three, she lived there again until she married husband number four. And we know that when the estate was listed, she visited it and toured the mansion and the grounds. We think she found something. We also think she may have told her killer that whatever they were looking for was among your brother’s possessions, which you and your sister now have.”

          “That timeline does not add up,” Janelle protested. Jack died five years ago. If Kirsten found something at the estate less than a year ago, there is no way it could be among Jack’s things.”

          “That may be, but your sister-in-law’s ex-husband thinks you might have whatever the killer is looking for…and more importantly, the killer may think so.”

       “Detective Kieffer broke into the conversation. “You do have a reputation for being in possession of incriminatory documents.”

        “One time, Sam! One time. That’s hardly sufficient for me to have a “reputation!”

      “So, what possessions of your brother do you have?” asked Fitzwilliam.

     “I have copies of the family photographs, his guitar, and half his coin collection. Judy has the original photographs, the other half of the coin collection, and his guns. I have copies of his will and the documents from the sale of his house. We sold everything else at the estate sale and all his tax forms and receipts we burned. There is nothing of interest to anyone but us in all that.

      Kieffer said, “I believe you. But there is someone out there who may not. Someone who was willing to kill to find whatever it is. That means your life may be in danger. We can run extra patrols down your street, but with the fair coming up in two weeks, there will be thousands of people in town. We will do what we can, but you will need to be especially vigilant. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t go places alone. Perhaps contact your friend in Wausau about added security.”

         With that, Fitzwilliam rose to leave and Kieffer joined him a heartbeat later.

     “That’s It?” Janelle was incredulous. That’s it? You waltz in here and tell me my life may be in danger and all I’m supposed to do is ‘be vigilant’? And what about Judy? If I am in danger, isn’t she also?”

          “Well, if you’d had whatever it is the killer is looking for, we could place you in protective custody,” the agent said. “As it is, since you don’t have it and we don’t know what it is, there’s nothing else we can do. As for your sister, the ex-husband didn’t mention her, plus, she is in Florida and has been for several decades. I do hope you will stay safe.”

          Rattled, Janelle showed the men to the door. Roscoe curled around her legs. Once the door closed behind them, Janelle sat heavily on the sofa. Her cat jumped onto her lap and began kneading her thighs. “Thanks Roscoe.” Janelle scratched his ears. Then she picked up the phone and called Pete. Two years ago, Pete and Martha Christensen had taken Janelle in when she had been attacked while on assignment for her boss. Together, they owned and operated a bed and breakfast in a Victorian mansion. Pete also had a sideline – running a security company. Janelle had remained friends with them even after moving to Marshfield.

          Pete answered on the third ring. Janelle related all that had happened that afternoon.  “Are your doors locked?” was his first question.


         “Go lock your doors. Martha has guests, so she needs to stay home, but Benjy and I will be down as soon as we can. Should be about an hour. Stay indoors and keep your phone on you.” Janelle heard the sound of a car engine. “We’re on our way.”

       After calling Judy and hearing of her experience with the Florida agents, Janelle returned to sewing quilt blocks. She needed something to distract herself. Ten minutes later, her phone rang. It was her pastor. “Pete called me. We’re right outside. If you want, we can come in or we can stay here until he gets here.”

        “You might as well come in.” She unlocked the door and ushered Arlen and Vonda in.   Vonda said, “We brought supper,” and before Janelle could stop her, headed for the kitchen. As she indicated Arlen should have a seat on the sofa, the next sound she heard was water as Vonda filled the sink.

         Just as Janelle thought she might die of embarrassment, her phone pinged again. She looked at the text only to find she was now on the church prayer list. Wiping her hands on a dish towel, Vonda joined her husband on the sofa. Janell was obliged to recite the afternoon’s visitation by law enforcement again. She was just finishing up when she heard a vehicle pull into her driveway. She went to the door to let in her friend and Pete scolded her for opening it before she knew who it was.  In the back of Pete’s truck were three doors. Before she could protest, Benji began removing her front storm door.   

          “There’s another door for the back and one for the garage,” Pete said. “While the glass isn’t exactly bullet proof, it is impact resistant and the locks are deadbolts. I may have to drill out your door jambs. By now Arlen was helping Benjy. In forty-five minutes, both outer and garage doors had been replaced, security cameras, window alarms, and motion detectors installed. Also in that time, Vonda had Janelle’s kitchen sparkling and supper on the table. The five of them crowded into the dining nook and as Arlen finished saying grace, the doorbell rang. Janelle started to rise, but Pete stopped her. “Look at your phone,” he said.

          Janelle took out her phone only to see the face of Sam Kieffer, now in civilian clothes. Pete nodded and Janelle went to the door. “Just in time for supper,” she said. Turning her head, she could see Vonda setting another plate. Janelle thought, “It’s a good thing spaghetti and salad stretch.”

          Sam stammered, “Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt your meal. I just knew you must be upset by all that you learned this afternoon, and I…”

          “Oh, come on in. You might as well join the party.”

          “Lock the door!” Pete called out.

           Janelle sighed but did as she was told. “Sam, you know Pastor and Vonda. The short guy is Pete Christiansen and the big guy is Benjy. Sorry, I didn’t get your last name. Pete, Benjy, this is Detective Sam Kieffer.” The men acknowledged each other.

         “Sit down and eat before the food gets cold,” Vonda commanded. Space was made at the table and Sam joined in. He was about to say something when Vonda said, “Eat now. Talk later.” The food was delicious. “I hope you saved room for dessert,” Vonda said. Blueberry cheesecake. “Janelle, why don’t you and your guests have seats in the living room. Arlen and I can clear things up here.” She protested but was overruled. Once seated, Vonda served them cheesecake and coffee, then she and Arlen disappeared into the kitchen.

         Pete filled Sam in on the security measures he and Benjy had installed. Sam whistled. “You guys work fast!”

         “Hey, if our Janelle is at risk, you better believe we work fast. I’d like it even better if she came to the B&B and stayed with us until everything is settled.” Sam nodded.

       “Oh no. Oh no you don’t! I have three more days to get this quilt finished on time and entered in the fair. And classes start on Monday. I’m not going anywhere. Besides, I am not in Kenosha. I’m not even in Wauwatosa anymore. Almost no one from my past knows where I am. I appreciate all your efforts, but now that I’ve had time to think things through, I doubt I’m in any real danger. Whatever is going on has to do with the Holz family and I’m not part of the Holz family.”

         The three men looked each other and shared a group shrug.

         Darkness began to blot out a spectacular sunset as Janelle’s company took their leave. Before he left, Pete handed Janelle a medallion on a lanyard. “It’s a personal alarm. Press the button and you will be connected to an answering service.”

        “Oh, so in case I fall and can’t get up?”

        “Well, that, too.”

        “Goodnight, Pete. Say hello to Martha.” She was careful to lock the door since Pete did not move until she had done so. “What a day!” she sighed. Without any motivation to work on her quilt, read, or watch television, Janelle sank into her easy chair and prayed, with Roscoe a comforting weight in her lap.

         The next morning, Janelle was wakened by a ringing phone. Who would be calling her even before Roscoe was demanding his breakfast? It was Martha, checking in. After assuring her friend that all was well, Janelle yawned and stretched. The easy chair really wasn’t a bad place to sleep. Realizing she was awake, Roscoe now let her know he was starving. Janelle fed her cat, showered, and dressed and wondered about breakfast for herself. Vonda had worked her magic; the kitchen was spotless. Not wanting to disturb the cleanliness, Janelle settled for a protein bar, orange juice and coffee. Leftover spaghetti and salad were neatly stored in her refrigerator, so she needn’t worry about lunch or supper.

          Janelle had a lot to tell God about her experience of the previous day. After a half-hour quiet time, she felt at peace. The rest of the day, she worked on her quilt…and the next day, and the next. Friday, she delivered it to the fairgrounds. Looking at the other entries, she was awed by the craftsmanship. Her table runner was nice but was nowhere near the quality of some of the other pieces. Yet, there were also quilts not quite as nice as her own. Then again, she was just a beginner.

          Sunday, Janelle was mobbed in the fellowship hall. People let her know they were praying for her safety, but she could tell they were also curious for the entire story. Vonda thankfully rescued her and Janelle was able to enjoy worship in peace.

         Monday, classes began. Janelle was happy to get back into her routine. Although she continued to be vigilant about locking her doors and checking her surroundings when she got in her car, each day the sense of peril lessened. By the end of the week, she was certain she had nothing to worry about.

     The fair began the following Wednesday and would run until Labor Day. The flexibility of Janelle’s schedule allowed her to attend the quilt judging on Thursday. She was surprised and pleased when her table runner received an honorable mention. That afternoon, she ran into Sam Kieffer as he patrolled the grounds. He wasn’t happy that she was wandering about unattended. When he got off shift that evening, he sat with her in the grandstands as they enjoyed a concert by the Oakridge Boys. Janelle returned to the fair on Saturday, this time with Pete, Martha, Pastor Arlen and Vonda. She assured them all that she was taking appropriate safety measures and showed them she even had the personal alarm tucked into her jeans pocket. They all enjoyed fried cheese curds, cream puffs, and root beer floats along with the draft horse competition.

       Sunday at church was back to normal, and Janelle was relieved. Sunday afternoon featured motorcycle races and Sunday evening a demolition derby at the fair, but neither of those events captured Janelle’s interest. She settled down with a good book, and even from a mile away could hear the roar of the engines as cars smashed into one another.

         Labor Day, Janelle decided she would like a Lion’s Club breakfast, so she drove to the fairgrounds. One good thing about having an entry in the fair was it came with a season pass. Even though it was officially September, temperatures were summery, the humidity was high, and the hazy blue sky sported only wisps of clouds. Early as she was, there was already a line. Most of the people waiting were exhibitors and had spent the night in the various barns, sheds, and motor homes so they could be near their cows, horses, llamas, chickens, and other livestock. By the time Janelle secured a seat at the counter, her hair was already limp and sweat trickled down her spine. But the eggs, bacon and home fries were tasty and the coffee strong. Refreshed, she noticed the clouds rolling in as she walked to her car. She would return in the evening to retrieve her table runner and ribbon. No one was supposed to pick up their entries before 5:00 PM, but she knew impatient exhibitors would be lining up by 4:00. She figured if she waited until 5:30, she could avoid the press.

         Back home, the day grew dark and the wind picked up. Attendance would be down for the last day of the fair. Janelle reviewed lesson plans for the next day, did laundry, had a light lunch, and took a nap. Thunder woke her. Rain would certainly keep most people away, but the exhibitors would be on the grounds. A few minutes before 5:30, Janelle left for the fairgrounds. She was able to park just a short way from the exhibition building and was surprised to find so few people about. Inside the building, she inquired about that and was informed that due to the inclement weather, officials had relented and allowed exhibitors to retrieve their entries beginning at 2:30. Janelle and two officials were the only ones left. Just as she showed her ticket to retrieve her table runner, the tornado sirens began to wail. She was handed her quilt, which she stuffed into a tote bag, and shown quickly to the door. Darkness, with an eerie green tint, had descended and the wind howled. Speed walking, Janelle made for her car but her progress was halted when an arm wrapped around her throat and a gloved hand covered her mouth. A cold cylinder pressed into her back. “Where is it?” a voice growled in her ear.

         Janelle dropped her tote bag. She bit down on the gloved hand and stomped hard on the instep of the man behind her as she reached in her jeans pocket and pressed the personal alarm button. He cursed and released her, but before she could take two steps, he had grabbed Janelle by the arm. She fought and he tackled her. Janelle’s shoulder hit the gravel hard, knocking the breath out of her. Her lungs cried out for air but she could take only tiny sips of it, as though through a straw. In an instant, the man was on top of her, and his fist hit her face. “Where is it?” he growled again, waving the gun before her eyes.

         Just then a voice called out, “Hey there! That ain’t no way to treat a lady. Get offa her!” Janelle’s assailant turned toward the voice. The gun came up. Though her arm was not working, Janelle still had command of her legs. She kicked out and connected with her attacker’s knee. The gun went off. The voice roared, louder even than the tornado siren, “Hey Rube!” Doors flew open on a half dozen campers and carnival workers poured out into the rain. The first voice yelled, “Gun!” The carnies spread out, circling Janelle and the thug. The next sound Janelle heard was a shotgun being racked. When her attacker turned toward the sound, two carnies hit him and he went down. “Told ya that ain’t no way to treat a lady.”

          Janelle would have giggled if she’d had the air to do so as a tinny voice came from her pocket, “What is the nature of your emergency?” Pain pulsed from her head, through her shoulder and side, and down to her hip, then began the run all over again…and again. “Lady, you okay?” the voice asked.

         Janelle managed a weak, “No.”

         “Don’t worry. Help’s comin’.”

         Another voice spoke from her pocket. Pete. “Janelle, what’s wrong? What’s happening?”

         Her rescuer startled, then responded, “The lady got mugged. But we got the guy. He ain’t goin’ anywheres.”

         Pete answered, “I’m on my way. Good thing there’s a location tracker on this thing.”

        Janelle closed her eyes. It didn’t help. Between the wailing tornado siren and crackling thunder, she could make out the higher pitch of police sirens that mingled with the roaring in her head and became one with the pain. But the raindrops were no longer hitting her face. She looked up to see an umbrella and the tattooed face of the carny. “Hey lady. Don’t you go passin’ out on me. I’m Robbie. Stay wit’ me. Help’s comin’.”

        When Janelle next opened her eyes, a uniformed officer had replaced Robbie. He was soon joined by two paramedics. The woman asked where she hurt. “Everywhere,” Janelle squeaked. Pete and Detective Kieffer showed up as the paramedics were rolling Janelle onto a backboard. She would have screamed but her lungs still weren’t taking in enough air. Then she was loaded into the ambulance. Before the doors closed, she heard Detective Kieffer. “Better call for another bus. This guy looks like he’ll need it and I don’t want him riding with the victim.”

       It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that Janelle became aware of her surroundings. Her nose itched, but she couldn’t move her right arm to scratch it. Some weight was holding it down. Janelle found she was in a cast from her shoulder to her wrist. “Ah. There you are. Dr. Singh smiled at her. “Welcome back. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

          “Best go with the bad news,” Janelle muttered through parched lips.

          “The bad news is you have a broken radius and a cracked rib. You also have a torn rotator cuff, which will need surgery down the road. The good news is that the break was clean and has been set. You’ll feel miserable for a while, but you will make a full recovery. Now. There is a police detective and an FBI agent here to see you. Are you up for it?”

          Janelle nodded.

         Special Agent Osric Fitzwilliam did not present as hostile a countenance as he had at their first meeting. He actually looked as concerned as Detective Kieffer. “Do you think you can answer a few questions?”


         “First of all, what were you doing out all by yourself? Weren’t you told by your security team to not do that?”

         “I wasn’t expecting to be by myself. I expected to be in a crowd of people. How was I supposed to know things would close up early. Besides, it had been two weeks and nothing had happened.”

          “Fine. Do you know the man who attacked you?”

          “No. But you have him in custody, so now there’s no more danger.”

         “I didn’t say that. He’s hired muscle. Probably the same hit man who killed your sister-in-law. We’ll know when the DNA comes back. But he’s not the brains. And he’s not talking. What did he say to you?”

         “All he said was, ‘where is it?’”

         Fitzwilliam released a frustrated sigh. “And you have no idea what or where ‘it’ is?”

        “No.” Janelle winced as she shifted in the hospital bed.

        “Well, that will be all for now. But I will be wanting a complete statement when you’re feeling better. Listen to your security team, won’t you? We’ll go, but there’s a whole line of people out in the hall wanting to see you.”

         The two men departed, to be replaced by Pete and Martha and Pastor Arlen and Vonda. Pete’s first words were, “What were you thinking?” He didn’t get any further as Martha elbowed him.

          Martha said, “I’m glad you will be all right. By the way, I contacted the Dean and told him about the attack. You’re off the hook for your classes this week and next. And, thanks to the pandemic, systems are in place for you to teach remotely until you are able to drive again. You also made headlines.” She handed Janelle the morning newspaper. The headline read, “Carnival workers Prevent Mugging.” Vonda read the article. “Carnival workers often have a bad reputation, but Tuesday, ACE Carnival’s employees were heroes as they saved local college professor Janelle Walker from a mugging at the fairgrounds. The carnival workers rescued Ms. Walker and held the culprit until police arrived. Though hospitalized, Ms. Walker is expected to make a full recovery. Detective Sam Kieffer stated there was no apparent motive for the attack. ‘Ms. Walker simply appeared to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ The alleged attacker is incarcerated in the Wood County Jail pending arraignment.”

         “Thank you,” Janelle said. Then Pastor Arlen and Vonda took Janelle’s hands and joined with Pete and Martha in a prayer of thanksgiving and for healing. Then the nurse bustled in and shooed them all out, telling them Janelle needed her rest.

          Two weeks later, Agent Fitzwilliam and Detective Kieffer, along with Pete, were once more ensconced in Janelle’s living room. Her sparkling clean living room. Vonda and several other women from church had descended upon Janelle’s house while she was hospitalized and cleaned and organized it to within an inch of its life. “I’ve had a lot of time to think,” Janelle told the men. “Perhaps we are looking at this missing object all wrong. We have been thinking Kirsten found something when her uncle’s estate went up for sale. But what if we’re wrong. What if Kirsten took something long ago, like when she first moved out of her grandfather’s house. What if she didn’t even know she had it, and it was only when she heard something during the estate sale that she realized what it was?”

          The FBI agent said, “I already asked you what possessions of your brother’s you had and those items don’t seem to be of importance.”

           “But you didn’t ask me if I had any of Kirsten’s possessions. When she walked out on my brother, she took their bedroom suite, but left behind the furniture from her room at her grandfather’s. When I moved into my first apartment, my brother gave me that set. Since it was after their divorce, Kirsten would not have known that I owned it.”

         Kieffer asked, “Do you still have it?”

         “Well, not the bed. But I do have the dresser and the nightstands.” She nodded towards her bedroom door.

          The three men were on their feet in an instant and headed that way. Pete paused and said, “May we?”

          Janelle chuckled. “Go ahead.” She was happy her bed was made and laundry put away. They tackled the dresser first, removing the drawers and checking every surface. Then they tipped it over to look at the bottom and the back. Nothing. Next they turned to the nightstands. The first one also yielded nothing. But behind the drawer of the second nightstand, they found an envelope taped to the inside. The envelope was once pink and featured flowers and 1960s  era peace symbols, though they were also faded and the cellophane tape holding it in place was curled and brown. Fitzwilliam laid claim to the object but Janelle interrupted him. This is my house. My furniture. And my envelope. I am not letting it out of my sight until I see what it holds.”

       “But…” the agent protested.

       “But nothing. If I don’t get to see what’s inside, you’re going to need a warrant to take possession of it.”

         “She’s right,” Kieffer and Pete said together. 

        Janelle fetched a pair of rubber gloves from beneath the kitchen sink and carefully removed the envelope. She slid a knife under the flap to open it. Inside was an even older piece of paper, folded in quarters. Janelle handed the gloves to Fitzwilliam. “I’ll let you do the honors.” Carefully, he unfolded the yellowed and brittle document. “It’s a plat map,” Janelle said. Four pairs of eyes examined the page. “And I know where it is! It’s Sigmund Senior’s original 40 acres. See. Here’s Highway 50.” A rectangle and several small squares indicated buildings in the lower right corner of the map. “This must have been Sigmund’s farmhouse and outbuildings.” But the most curious feature was three tiny skulls and crossbones an inch away from the house.

         Pete said, “I’ll bet those are graves. Did Sigmund Senior lose any family members?”

        “Not that I’d heard,” Janelle replied. But look at the date scribbled below them. Isn’t it before Holz sold the property?”

         “We’ll have to research that,” Fitzwilliam said. “But for now, may I take possession?”

         Janelle nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t want to impede your investigation.

         Three days later, Detective Kieffer and Agent Fitzwilliam were back on Janelle’s porch. She let them in and Fitzwilliam said, “It goes against policy, but Kieffer here insisted we let you know what we found. You said Sigmund Junior was too upright to have anything to do with the mob. I don’t think the same could be said about Sigmund Senior. You were right about the dates. The map precedes the sale of the property by a week. Most of the 40 acres were sold off for development, which Sigmund Junior handled. But a portion, next to the two acres the Gambini family retained for themselves, became a city park. We didn’t have enough evidence to get a warrant to search that property, but we did bring ground penetrating radar to the park. The graves were just over the property line into the park. Three skeletons…each with a bullet hole in the back of the skull. No telling if it was Gambini or Holz who executed them, but as you said, it was a century ago. Anyone involved with the crime is long dead.”

         “But why then, was there such urgency to get a map that only revealed a cold case which couldn’t be prosecuted?” Janelle asked

         Here, Fitzwilliam actually grinned. “Because the bodies weren’t the only things we found. A short distance away was a locked trunk containing more than 500 gold, $10.00 Eagle coins, along with some gems. On today’s market, they’re worth about a half million dollars. Somehow, the knowledge of that treasure was lost until recently. Members of the Gambini family learned that Sigmund Senior, and probably Sigmund Junior held the secret of it and they wanted it.”

          “But how did the map end up in my nightstand?”

         “Well, that’s an interesting story. It seems that Kirsten and her sisters liked to play a game of hide and seek with little “treasures.” With one hundred acres on the estate and 500 acres in the county park next door, they would put a few pennies in a bottle and hide it. Then the one who hid it would draw a map and the others would see if they could find it. We had a talk with the youngest sister, Marta. Making the maps fascinated her. Since her grandfather was a real estate agent, he had plenty of maps in his office. Although they were forbidden to enter Sigmund’s office, Marta would sneak in to study the maps. One day, she thought she heard someone coming so she hid under Sigmund’s desk, the one he inherited from his father. She bumped her head which opened a secret drawer. The map was inside and she took it. Gertrude and Kirsten insisted she return it, but she wanted to keep it. So, she hid it in an envelope. But rather than hiding it in her own nightstand, she put it in Kirsten’s. As she grew up, she forgot all about it until we questioned her. She said she never told Kirsten about it, but she thought somehow Kirsten knew, but believed it was only one of Marta’s own maps. We believe Kirsten heard something about a valuable secret and had a hazy recollection of what it might be, but she didn’t remember what it was nor where it was. And that got her killed.”

       “Do the people who were looking for the map know the FBI has it and that the treasure has been found?”

        “Yes, they know. The discovery of the murder victims and the treasure made quite a splash. I suspect the story will turn up on one of those explorer shows a few years from now. And that’s good news for you. You’re off the hook and should be safe from now on.”

       Sighing, Janelle said, “Good.” She showed the two men to the door. “See you at church on Sunday, Sam,” and locked the door behind them. Turning to Roscoe, she scooped up her cat with one arm and murmured, “and now things can get back to normal.




















































































































































Parade Day

Independence Day in Racine, Wisconsin is a big deal. In the middle part of the last century, it was an even bigger deal – carnival at the lakefront’s Pershing Park, fireworks over the harbor breakwaters after dusk, and the parade. Oh, the parade! Not until the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Parade came to Milwaukee was there a larger, longer and more magnificent parade than the Goodwill Parade in Racine in the entire state of Wisconsin.

Racine was the Drum Corps Capital of the World, so not only did the parade feature the local, award-winning corps such as the Kilties and the Boy Scout Chrome Domes, but it attracted corps from all over the country, with twenty units proudly marching the four-mile route. And then there were the floats. All the major manufacturers competed to produce the best decorated float – Massey Fergusen, Hamilton Beach, J. I. Case, Walker Manufacturing, Twin Disc, S. C. Johnson – just to name a few. Not to be outdone were the equestrian units, the clowns, the steam calliope, the VFW, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts marching along and the Mayor, Miss Racine, Miss Union Grove, Miss Wisconsin all riding in the latest convertibles. The two floats that always brought the crowd to its feet were the Boys of ’76 and raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Costumed men in bronzed clothing and skin performed as living statues, holding their poses for almost the entire route.

Fire trucks and squad cars, sirens blaring announced the parade’s beginning. Street sweepers cleaning up after the horses brought up the rear. Parade units gathered at the intersection of Main and High Streets, north of the bridge. Crossing the bridge over the Root River, they proceeded through downtown, then south past the elegant Main Street homes until turning west at Fourteenth Street where they dispersed between Villa Street and Grand Avenue. The Goodwill Parade was a glorious, cacophonous, colorful, celebration attended by tens of thousands.

We lived in a humble, century-old bungalow on Villa Street, one-half block from 14th Street. In the days before porta-potties, our home’s single bathroom was a strategic location. Although the parade began at 9:00 AM, the lead units would not reach our end of town until after 10:00. By 8:00, family and friends from Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee began arriving. Dad pulled his car as far up into the driveway as he could so that two more cars could fit behind it. Another two cars could squeeze onto the front and side lawns. Latecomers had to hope the other neighbors had not taken up all the spaces on the street. Mom had five pounds of potato salad chilling in the fridge and a huge pot of hot dogs boiling on the stove along with several pitchers of Kool-Aid and boxes of potato chips for the hordes that would descend after the last street sweeper passed the corner. My older siblings and cousins lined the curb and sidewalk abutting Beck’s Warehouse with blankets to claim our parade-watching spots. The aunts took turns minding the kitchen so that Mom would have the opportunity to catch at least some of the parade.

As far as I was concerned, the Fourth of July was the biggest and best holiday of the year, even overshadowing Christmas…until July 4, 1960. I was six years old…and I had chickenpox. A sick child was not about to deter the dozens of people who would avail themselves of my parents’ hospitality (and the all-important bathroom) on our nation’s birthday. So, I was relegated to quarantine in the hot confines of the attic. Oh, I could step out onto the roof where I could hear the commotion happening around the neighborhood, but I could not see a blessed thing. And, since it was believed that reading while having chicken pox could cause permanent eye damage, I was forbidden my books. Facing four hours of solitary confinement, I rebelled. Hearing the approaching sirens of the lead units, I knew I had to act fast. The house was empty of all save Mom, and she was in the kitchen tending the hot dogs. I slipped down the attic ladder and out the front door. Knowing I could not join the family at our usual spot, I headed north…all the way up to 12th Street for good measure, and then the four blocks east to Main Street. The sidewalks were packed six or more deep, but a small, six-year-old girl could slip between the standing adults. I found a few clear inches of curb and parked myself there. With children everywhere, no one took notice of me. Sitting in the hot sun, I looked with longing on the ice cream and soda vendors who pulled their coaster wagons along the route. I had no money with me, so they and their temptations passed me by. All too soon, though hours had passed, the steam calliope was playing its songs. The parade was coming to an end and I knew I could not stay any longer. I had to get back before my parents knew I was gone. Racing up the streets and through back yards, I cautiously approached our house. I could hear laughter coming from the front porch. Mom and the aunts were there, so I slipped in through the back door, to the middle bedroom and up the ladder into my sanctuary. I had done it. Even though I would not be permitted the carnival and fireworks this summer of 1960, I had seen the parade with no one the wiser.

Although I did understand that about a week later, there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the city.


God Haunted

To know

But not experience

To ask

But not receive

To knock

But the door remains closed

Then in that space

that space between waking and sleep

A song arises

Silent yet sung


But not heard

Verses, choruses, melodies

Praise and thanksgiving


New and yet familiar

Now just a whisper

Now gone.


Yet somehow more real

than the daily darkness

that surrounds.


Finding Uncle Vince

                A ringing telephone at 3:22 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. With any grace, it is merely a drunken misdial. Abby Morrow stumbled out of bed and across the darkened living room. Eyes still half closed, she picked up the receiver and managed a phlegmy “hello?”

            A gruff voice responded, “Mr. Morrow? Mr. William Morrow?”

            Sensing his presence behind her, Abby covered the mouthpiece with her hand and turned. “It’s for you, Dad.”

            Bill Morrow took the handset from his twelve-year-old daughter. His own voice was as gruff as the caller’s. “This is Bill Morrow. Who are you?”

            The phone was far enough from her father’s ear that Abby could hear the response. “This is Sergeant Michalski from the Second Precinct. We have a Vincent Morrow in custody. He was picked up a few hours ago on a D&D. We found a card in his possession with your name and number. He’s in pretty bad shape. Probably the D.T.s. We’re getting ready to transport him.”

            “If he’s still drunk, it’s not the D.T.s,” Bill said. “Where are you sending him?”

            “Saint Luke’s E.R.”

            “Any charges?”

            “Nah. The bar owner won’t press charges. Says he’s a regular. Just wanted him gone.”

            “Alright. I’ll be at the E.R.” Bill hung up the phone, rubbed one hand across his stubbly cheek and the other through his hair.


            Bill jumped. “Abby! What are you doing up? You have school in the morning.”

            “I answered the phone.”

            “Oh. Right. Go wake your mother. I need to go out. Then get back to bed.”

            “Uncle Vince?”

            “Yeah. Uncle Vince.”

            Libby Morrow was already awake, though still in bed when Abby entered her parents’ bedroom. “Bill? Oh. Abby. What’s wrong?”

            “I think it’s Uncle Vince.  Dad says he has to go out.”

            Libby threw back the covers. “It’s not even light. What time is it? She turned on the bedside lamp. “Three-thirty!” Yawning, Libby stood. “I’ll take care of it. You get back to bed.”

            Abby obeyed, but sleep did not come. Just before the alarm went off, she heard the weary tread of her father’s footsteps and muffled voices in the kitchen. Abby joined them. Libby looked at her daughter. The three of them had matching black circles under their eyes. “Oh, sweetie. You’re a mess. Don’t imagine you can go to school like that.  Well, it won’t hurt for you to miss a day. And Bill? You’re calling in sick, too. I’ll get us some breakfast.”

            Bill’s lips lifted in a half smile. “Already did, from the hospital. Thank you, honey.”

            As Libby measured flour and cracked eggs, Bill and Abby took their customary seats at the kitchen table. For a few long moments, Bill sat with his head in his hands. “Dad?” Abby broke the silence. “What’s wrong with Uncle Vince? I’m old enough to know.”

            Libby slid a platter of pancakes onto the table. “Eat first. Then talk.” She poured orange juice for Abby and strong coffee for Bill and herself. Sitting and reaching across the table, she grasped Abby’s and Bill’s hands. Bill clasped Abby’s free hand and the trio bowed their heads. Libby prayed. “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee. Bless this food to our bodies and give us strength for this day. Watch over Vincent and heal him. Amen.”

            The pancakes were soon gone. Libby made no move to clear the table nor did she prompt Abby to do so. Abby asked, “Dad?”

            The sound that escaped Bill Morrow as he scrubbed his dark stubble was long and low, almost a growl. “Your Uncle Vince is an alcoholic. He can’t live with his whiskey and he can’t live without it, either.”


            “Vinnie drinks to forget and when he is drunk, he does irresponsible things. But when he is sober, he can’t live with his memories.”

            “What memories?”

            “Oh, child. It goes back a long, long way. Our great-grandfather’s name was not ‘Morrow.’ It was Müller. He came from Germany and changed his name when he arrived at Castle Gardens. You know Vince had a twin brother, Francis, right?”

            “He died in the war, didn’t he?”

            “Yes. During the Depression, jobs were scarce. Vince and Frank enlisted in the Army. I tried to enlist with them but was turned down because of my eyes. I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, instead. That’s where I met your mother. But that’s another story. Anyway, when war broke out, Vince and Frank were in the same unit and they were sent to fight on the European front. If the Army had known they were German, they would have been sent to the Pacific instead. As it was, they survived D-Day and the fighting that followed. Whenever there was a lull, they were sent on burial details. Didn’t matter if the dead were American, British, French, or German…they all deserved as decent a burial as could be managed. Besides the fighting and death all around them, one of the worst shocks Vinnie and Frank had was when they found a dead German soldier. He couldn’t have been much older than fifteen or sixteen…and his name was Müller. It’s a common enough name, but Vinnie couldn’t shake the feeling he was burying his cousin. Then came Germany’s surrender. Vinnie and Frank took part in liberating Dachau, the concentration camp. What they saw there… Vinnie could never really talk about it. One day, when they were clearing the perimeter of the camp near the mass graves, Frank stepped on a land mine. Vinnie saw it happen. The Army sent them home, then…Frank in a sealed coffin and Vinnie in a straight jacket. Vinnie was in a psychiatric ward at Walter Reed for a year. They said it was shell shock. He was eventually released, but he was never the same. And once he was on his own, he started drinking. That’s where he is still today. The hospital doctors said they would put him on a 30 day psychiatric hold, so he will be safe for a while. This won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last.”

            “But Dad. That was so long ago.”

            “Sweetie, it’s only been twenty years. I know that’s way before you were born, but to Vinnie, it might have been yesterday. And just turn on the news and there it is right in front of us all over again. It’s just too much for him to take.” Bill turned to Libby. “Honey, I need to get some air. You and Abby should get some sleep.” He stood, kissed his wife, ruffled Abby’s hair and walked out the back door.”

            “Your father’s right. We could both do with a nap – right after we get this table cleared and dishes done.”


             Spring came early in 1965. By the first of May, temperatures were already in the 80s and even with the windows open, Abby’s classroom was unbearably hot. She couldn’t wait for summer vacation, just six weeks away. Uncle Vince had been staying with them since his release from the hospital. Abby had just about gotten used to being wakened in the night by his screams. After one of his nightmares, he would sit at the breakfast table hollow-eyed, over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Abby’s Mom didn’t like him smoking in the house, but recognizing his fragile condition, she allowed it. After class let out for the day, Abby walked over to the high school for choir practice. All the eighth-grade classes in town would be singing together at the Memorial Day service at Riverside Cemetery, and once a week the massed choir gathered for rehearsal. She hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as she walked. From the high school, she caught the bus and rode with her father as he drove his last route of the day. Abby loved riding the bus with her father. He was always kind to all his passengers and Abby would tease him about this woman or that woman whom she declared had a crush on him.  Parking the bus in the barn and clocking out, the pair rode home together as Abby chattered on about the events of her school day and the antics of some of the Jefferson school boys during rehearsal.

            Their happy mood vanished as a distraught Libby met them at the door. “He’s gone! Bill, he’s gone! I went to let Vince know supper would be soon and he wasn’t in his room. His closet is empty and his duffel bag is gone. And I found two empty whiskey bottles in the back of the closet. And there’s money missing from the teapot. We have to find him!”

            Bill engulfed his wife in a hug. “Sh, sh, sh. We knew this was likely to happen. This has probably been the longest time Vinnie has been sober in a decade.”


            Bill pulled Abby into their embrace. Libby sobbed, “I know. I know. But I thought that this time…this time…if he knew how much we cared for him, if he knew how much he was loved, that this time he might heal.”

            “Sometimes healing doesn’t come this side of heaven. You know that.” Bill nuzzled the top of Abby’s head. “Sweetie, why don’t you change and wash up. Your Mom and I need to talk.”

            “No, Dad. If it’s about Uncle Vince, I want to know, too.”

            Bill looked at Libby. She nodded. He sighed. “Alright then. Let’s go sit down and we’ll talk. They settled on the couch in the living room. Bill asked, “How much money is missing, Libby?”

            “A twenty dollar bill. There’s still another twenty in small bills and change left. He didn’t take it all.”

            “He wouldn’t. I might be able to find him if he’s stayed in town. But if he’s bought a bus ticket to Chicago, we’ll have to wait for him to come back. Of course, if he’s thinking clearly enough, he might be headed for the Veteran’s Hospital at Great Lakes. He’s done that before. I’ll give them a call. I’ll check the Rescue Mission and the AA club here in town. And I’ll check with Pastor Carrington. He’s been meeting with Vinnie.”

            “Will you be able to find Uncle Vince, Dad?”

            “I don’t know sweetie. I just don’t know. But I won’t stop looking.”


            A knock at the door at 3:00 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. Abby Morrow heard her parents’ footsteps outside her bedroom door and muffled voices in the front hall. She stumbled out of bed and into the darkened living room, just as her mother turned on the lights and her father showed a police officer and Pastor Carrington to seats on the sofa. The two men pointed a glance in her direction, but her father said, “She can stay.”

            Abby asked the question her family all had, “Have you found Uncle Vince?”

            The men nodded. It was the preacher who spoke. “Some teenagers out spooning found him at Walker’s Point. It took them a while to find a phone to call an ambulance. Then they took off. It looks like he was beaten up pretty bad. I was at the hospital for one of our parishioners who was dying when they brought him into the emergency room. He was still conscious, and as far as I could tell, quite sober. We talked about your brother Frank and Jesus and heaven. He said how grateful he was for the love your family had shown him. He…he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ and said he looked forward to seeing Frank again. And then…well, and then, he was gone. I suppose we could have waited until morning to bring you the news, but I just felt, and the police felt, that you should know as soon as possible.”

            Libby began to weep and Abby felt the tears welling in her own eyes. Bill cleared his throat, cleared it again. “Thank you. Thank you for finding Vinnie. Thank you for coming to tell us.”

            The men stood. The officer held out his hand. “My condolences on your loss. I knew Vinnie. He was an okay guy.” Bill shook the man’s hand.

            “If you need help with the arrangements, I will be available later today.” Pastor Carrington patted Bill on the shoulder.

            As Libby and Abby held each other, Bill said once more, “thank you,” and showed the men to the door. Then he gathered his family to himself.

            The funeral for Vincent Alexander Morrow was held on Wednesday. On Sunday, May 30, after church, Abby’s family drove to Riverside Cemetery. Abby joined her fellow eighth-graders on the risers in front of the chapel, each holding a small American flag. If she looked in the right direction, she could just make out the raw mound that marked a new grave. She wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and with her choir mates opened her mouth. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”



Amazing Grace

Grace Goodenow was a church lady…perhaps the quintessential church lady. She had served her time in the nursery and teaching and coordinating Sunday School, Awana, and Vacation Bible School. She had composed and printed the church bulletins and calendar before they had gone online. She had laundered, ironed, and mended altar linens, choir robes, and stoles – back when they had altar linens, choir robes and stoles. She had painstakingly rubbed Murphy’s Oil Soap onto dozens of pews, wooden pulpits, and offering tables, and altars – back when they had pews, wooden pulpits, and altars; shampooed and vacuumed plush, red, woolen carpets – back when…you get the picture. Yes, the quintessential church lady who had done it all.

            What Grace Goodenow was best known for was her culinary prowess. She could make a sheet pan of macaroni and cheese (back before it became popular) or scalloped potatoes and ham an epicurean delight. And her desserts! Hidden along the back wall of her pantry were thirty years of blue ribbons from the county fair for her pies, quick breads, and cakes. From the quarterly pot blessing dinners, to baby dedication buffets, to funeral lunches, Grace Goodenow was in high demand.

            Or, at least – she was.

            Grace had expected change when the new pastor was installed and was prepared to weather it. After all, hadn’t she survived the change from choir to worship band (in skinny and holey jeans instead of choir robes – on the plus side, they no longer had to endure the off-key soprano of Matilda Mortensen), from hymnals to computer generated and projected lyrics (complete with animation!) and from gleaming oak pews to comfortable padded chairs (complete with cup holders!)? However, there was change…and then there was CHANGE. The new pastor was young – young enough to be Grace’s grandson, that is, if she had ever had children. For Grace, the small congregation of fifty or so souls, excluding children, was all the family she had since her parents and elder siblings had passed. Pastor Trevor had been officially installed three weeks ago, but this coming Sunday, Easter, would be his first official service.

            Grace sighed as she unlocked the side door. Gone was the solid oak portal with massive iron hinges. Instead, she faced a sheet of plate glass – bulletproof – she had been told. It was just one of the renovations made possible by Evangeline Edmonton’s endowment. (Who knew Vangie had amassed such a fortune?) Grace stepped into the hallway behind the stage. This at least hadn’t changed and the red carpet was soft beneath her feet. What greeted her in the sanctuary was a world of difference. The shiplap behind the pulpit was an ultramarine so deep it was almost black. No cross, but the name of Jesus stenciled in white across the broadest board. The remaining walls were dove grey, accented with white and ultramarine trim, the flooring thin, dark charcoal grey carpet. Ironwork in the form of words, “believe,” “love,” “thankful,” “trust,” and “faith” alternated with color-coordinated, almost abstract paintings along the walls. A single Easter lily on a low column sat in front of the Plexiglas pulpit.

            Making her way into the lobby, she surveyed the same grey, white, and ultramarine colors. Tiny bistro tables with tall, metal chairs lined the wall opposite the coffee bar. Last Sunday, in a reversal of roles, Grace had observed frail Mrs. Harman and her grandson as the lad boosted the tiny woman onto the high chair where she sat with her feet dangling. The fellowship hall was more of the same – grey, white, deep blue. Grace missed the painstakingly stitched, embroidered and tatted lace wall hangings created by the women of past generations. Instead, abstract grape vines and sheaves of wheat in hammered metal snaked along the walls. It was all so trendy. It was all so…sterile. The grey pressed in on Grace like a sunless, cloudy November day. Grace noticed crumbs spangling the dark carpet beneath the children’s tables. The hired cleaning crew would get that before Sunday, but Grace could not leave it. She pulled the vacuum cleaner from the utility closet in the kitchen and suctioned up the debris. The kitchen was one room of which Grace approved. The renovations committee had run out of funds before they could do more than replace the aging refrigerators, freezer, and range. The birdseye maple cupboards gleamed with generations of polish and the buttercup yellow walls were as welcoming as sunshine after a storm. Grace

            Opening a cupboard, Grace took out the communion elements and filled the trays. She tsked. Ever since the pandemic, the church used pre-filled and sealed plastic cups with tasteless white wafers. The cups were nefariously difficult to open, especially for the older members of the congregation, so Grace used a butter knife to carefully pry up the little tabs – just enough to make them easy to grasp, but not break the seal. Grace glanced at the eight-burner, stainless steel range and sighed. She would not be needing it this week. She would not be coming the afternoon of Holy Saturday to boil and color twelve dozen eggs. She would not be coming in at sunrise Easter morning to prepare ten of her famous quiches for the traditional Easter breakfast. Instead, the new pastor had decreed their church would be joining five other churches to host a community brunch and egg hunt at the senior community center. Of course, Grace had offered to help but had been informed that the two largest congregations had it all under control.

            Grace carried the filled trays into the sanctuary, setting them on a side table. At least this tradition had not changed. Her task complete, she wandered through the nursery, the children’s room, the classroom, and the restrooms, double checking that all was in order. The cleaning crew would be in tomorrow, Thursday, to do a deep clean, but it never hurt to be certain. The worship band would be in later this evening to rehearse, but for now, Grace had the church to herself. She took her usual seat in the chapel and bowed her head but found it hard to pray. Before the renovation, the familiar sanctuary held the welcome of an old friend. Now she was distracted by every little difference. Finally, she rose, left by the side door, checked to be sure it was securely locked behind her, and went home.

            At home, Grace felt almost as lost as she had at church. With no family nearby, and none of her usual church chores to occupy her, Grace had no idea what to do. She watered the pot of yellow tulips on her dining room table and dusted the furniture. The only decoration was a crystal basket filled with Psanky eggs on the coffee table in the living room. She briefly considered going grocery shopping to purchase a small ham to prepare for Easter dinner as was her custom instead of attending the community brunch. She thought of calling her niece and wangling an invitation to celebrate with her family. Now that would be a change! Easter service with no Grace Goodenow. Wouldn’t that set a few tongues to wagging! Grace could do it. Her car was in excellent condition and if she paced herself, she could manage the 320 mile drive on Good Friday, have Saturday to recover, spend Easter with Dottie’s family, and drive back on Monday. But no. If Grace knew one thing, she knew where her duty lay. “Enough moping!” Grace thought. She would still attend the Good Friday service at the assisted living center. And if she didn’t need to bake for church, she could deliver eggs and cookies to the women’s shelter. Grace might not be needed by her church, but she could still find things to do to fill her week.

            Daylight came late on Easter Sunday and it was the roar of a snow blower instead of sunshine that woke Grace. She peeked out her front door and waved at her neighbor Chuck who was clearing three inches of April slush from her sidewalk and driveway. The sky overhead was an even darker grey than the church décor. Well, that would put a damper on the egg hunt on the community center lawn. With plenty of time, since she had no baking to do, Grace enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and still was one of the first to arrive at church, guaranteeing a good parking spot. But when she walked into the sanctuary Grace was astonished to find a stranger sitting in her spot…and not just her spot, his family took up the entire row. Grace knew precisely where each regular member of the congregation sat. There was no way she could usurp a fellow parishioner’s seat. That meant she would have to find a chair among the “Chreasters,” those folks who showed up only for Christmas and Easter. It was just too much, the last straw, the breaking point. Grace did an about face and marched out to her car.

            Grateful for the heavily tinted windows, hands upon the steering wheel and head upon her hands, Grace Goodenow wept. Her heart wailed, “Lord! Haven’t I served You all these years? Haven’t I served Your people? Why must You take everything I know and love and take comfort in away from me?” The tears didn’t last long. Grace was, after all, made of sterner stuff. Yet at the same time, she did not feel like attending the service. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on a napkin and leaned back in her seat considering her options. And that was when stern, practical, tradition-loving Grace Goodenow received the surprise of her life.

            “Grace, Grace. You are worried about so many things. Service and duty are all well and good, but do you not know how much the Father loves you? It is not for what you do but for who you are. Change is but an opportunity to grow, to prepare you for the ultimate change when you see Me face to face. Your friends inside have chosen the best part, to worship Me in spirit and in truth and it shall not be taken from them.”

            The voice was not audible, but the words were unmistakable. The impact of them hit Grace with a shock that set every nerve on fire. Her tears were no longer tears of frustration but of wonder. Wonder and love and submission. For a few moments she sat, breathing deeply and shaking. Then she grabbed more napkins and mopped her face. Once she felt more in control, she reached for the door handle. Grace was startled by a gentle tapping. Standing beside her car were Pastor Trevor’s young sons Timothy and Jonathan. Jonathan held a small, brightly colored basket. “Miss Grace? Miss Grace, are you okay? Daddy sent us to look for you when he didn’t see you. He asked us to come get you.”

            “Yes, yes boys, I’m fine. I was just about to come in.” Grace got out of her car. Jonathan handed her the basket.

            “This is for you. Daddy said we were s’posed to ‘company you to your seat.” Timothy reached out to take Grace’s empty hand. Together the threesome entered the church. They walked past the “Chreasters” in the back row. They walked past Grace’s usual seat in the middle of the room. They walked up to a row of chairs marked, “reserved.” There was one seat left. Filling the other seats in the row were the Sunday School teachers Fred Matthews, Jennifer Porter, and Cicely Brown, the Sunday school coordinator Melissa Patrick, and church secretary Connie Adams, Matilda Mortenson, and Walter Dombrowski, the former church custodian. The little boys waited until Grace sat down then went to join their mother.   

            Pastor Trevor opened with a reading of the Resurrection. The worship band led off with the old hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen, Today” before singing a medley of more contemporary songs. Grace entered into worship more deeply than she had ever done before, not even noticing Matilda’s off-key soprano just two seats away. Pastor Trevor stepped up to the pulpit again.

            “Change,” he said. “Today is all about change. It is Easter Sunday and the most profound change to ever happen on the surface of this planet happened this day some 2,000 years ago. For on this day, the mortal body of Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and the fate of every person living, dead, and yet to be born, who would place their faith in Him alone, was changed. As Jesus died as the atonement for our sins and offered the world His Father’s forgiveness, our fate, our deserved destiny, was changed from eternal separation from the glory of God to an eternal home in heaven.” He continued on for several minutes more. “Yet there is one more change coming. The Apostle Paul tells us that when Christ returns, we shall all be changed. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall be changed. What will that look like? I don’t know, but the Apostle John writes, ‘we do not know what we shall be, but we shall be like Him for we shall know as we are known.’ And that is a change worth looking for.”

            Pastor Trevor continued. “We celebrate the risen Christ and our new life in Him by sharing in the meal He instituted on the night before He was betrayed. All who are believers in the saving grace of Jesus Christ are welcome to partake. But before the elders pass out the communion elements, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the people who are sitting in the front row. You may have noticed upon entering this morning the reserved sign on the row of seats that typically, in most churches always remains empty. The very special people sitting in this row are those who have either in the past or to this day serve each and every one of you in this church, and whose ministry is every bit as important as my own. Would you please all stand?”

            Grace rose with the men and women seated with her to the applause of Pastor Trevor and the congregation. Her cheeks burned pink as she recalled her thoughts of the week past. But then the words she had heard an hour earlier echoed in her mind. “I guess change can be good after all,” she thought. And enjoyed the best Easter ever.   


The Ends Justify the Memes

We seem to be living in a meme-driven culture. The word “meme” did not exist when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact it was invented in 1976 by renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, to describe a means of transmitting cultural ideas and/or norms much the way a gene transmits information in a biological body. Common usage has shifted the definition slightly, from Dawkins’ original intent, to broadly mean any image, pictoral or graphic, and usually humorous or sarcastic, that reduces a complex idea to simple terms and makes it easily reproducible.

Like emojis, memes have become a common shorthand for expressing ideas and opinions. As a meme goes viral over the world’s information systems, it first informs, but as it becomes ubiquitous, it begins to influence. And that is where the problem lies. For, to the creator of the meme, that is its ultimate goal. To influence. The meme creator has a situation in mind, generally a situation of which he or she disapproves. Without laying out reasoned arguments as to why that situation is bad, a meme ridicules the notion, appealing to emotion rather than logic. As the meme is copied and distributed, i.e., goes viral, spinoff memes, either in support of or opposed to the original are created until the original concept itself becomes “common knowledge” and thus indisputable.

I did not intend to write a treatise on the development of the meme. Instead, I had been seeing a number of memes on the feeds of friends and family that have been raising red flags. Those are the memes regarding self-care. On the surface, the memes advocating for putting oneself first, avoiding “toxic” people and circumstances and being gentle with one’s own flaws and peccadillos, seem harmless and even beneficial. But are they?

I’m a Christian. I was raised in the Church, and not only the Church but in a parochial school organized, administered, and taught by nuns and priests of the Dominican Order. In the Roman Catholic Church, after the Jesuits, the Dominicans maintain the strictest academic rigor and discipline. Or, at least they did through the 1960s and into the 1970s. During the nine months of the school year, I attended church six days a week. I received religious instruction five days a week. Beside the institutional rules and regulations of the Church, the most frequent topic of instruction was the parables and words of Jesus Christ. One-hundred and eighty days a year times twelve years. minus a few sick days, equals more than 2,100 days of instruction. That tends to stick with a person.

So what did Jesus and by extension, my teachers have to say about self-care in the 1960s. Well, in the red letters, Jesus says, “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.” He tells the parable of the landowner returning after a long journey. The landowner says to his servant, “Prepare me a meal. Serve me. Then you can go have your own meal.” Jesus then says his followers are to consider themselves like that servant and when commended respond, “I am only an unworthy servant doing my duty.” Jesus tells men who say they wish to follow Him, but have other needs to take care of first, that they are not worthy to become His followers. The Apostle Paul tells us to be imitators of Christ. And then Scripture reminds us that “Christ, being the fullness of deity, emptied Himself to become a man.”


Duty, discipline, putting others first…that does not sound like self-care. So where did this idea arise? In the mid-1970s, as a college student, I began hearing many teachings on the Greatest Commandment. You know the one: “Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” The instruction went on to the Second Greatest Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Bible study leader invariably went on to explain, “a person cannot love his neighbor until he first loves himself.” For someone raised on the pillars of duty and discipline, that was an eye-opening interpretation. It was a valid and salubrious correction to legalism. If it had remained as just that, all would have been good.

However, it did not remain there. In the ensuing four decades, “loving yourself” has gone from understanding that we should have the same image of ourselves that God has, i.e., that we are creatures He loves and values and therefore so is everyone else, to idolization of the self. Having God’s perspective of our worth is strong and necessary medicine for a person who had endured abuse of one form or another. Loving oneself as God loves the individual is the only path to healing for someone who has been degraded by another. For an abused person to be able to say, “I did not deserve abuse. The abuse was not my fault. I will no longer tolerate being abused” is a healthy and good thing.

Airline safety instructions say that in case of an emergency, oxygen masks will drop from above. If a passenger is traveling with a child or disabled person, the passenger must first secure his or her own mask before attempting to help someone else. In other words, the person must first take care of him or herself before attempting to aid someone else. That is common sense. I hear that rationale applied now to everyday life. “I cannot be a good wife/husband/father/mother/adult child/employee, etc., unless I see to my own needs first. But what are those needs? Basic physical needs…food, water, clothing, sleep…of course. Yet now I see the list of “needs” ever expanding: affirmation is required for everything one does, says, or believes. Like C. S. Lewis’ drunk on a horse, we have gone from falling off on the side of legalism and being a doormat to falling off on the side of selfishness. And our culture is celebrating that mindset.

We need to find the balance once more. We need to have God’s perspective of who we are: loved and treasured by Him. Then with that knowledge firmly planted within our minds and hearts, we need to learn from Christ’s example. To heed the words of the Apostle Paul, and not esteem ourselves more highly than ourselves. To give ourselves in service and obedience to Jesus. To not only tolerate but love those “toxic” people. And in doing so, find that God Himself will take care of us and store up treasure for us in heaven.