The day after Christmas in 2020, Eric and I packed The Beast (our nickname for the camper) and headed to Florida to rest, rejuvenate, and escape the cold New England winter. Sanibel is very low key. Folks tend not to congregate in large groups, and it’s not a reckless party spot, so even with the virus still a concern, we were able to comfortably stroll the beaches and bike around the island in relative solitude.
We ate one meal out while we were in Sanibel. I chose a restaurant that had top reviews and that we’d not been to on previous trips--The Sunset Grill. We enjoyed a fabulous meal on the outdoor patio as the sunset cast hues of lavender and mango over the Gulf, and then it was time for dessert. I didn’t even need to look at the menu. We shared a slice of heaven. Florida Key Lime pie.
And so it began, the world took on a silky texture bathed in chartreuse and scented with citrus – The Sunset Grill became the jumping off point for the two-year-long Key Lime Pie obsession.
Before I launch into the results of my jaunt on what I’ve dubbed the “Key Lime Pie trail”, first a bit of background on the trip. My husband and I have been married for 25 years. A milestone achieved largely because we have two homes and live separately most of the time. That being said, on this particular trip, we had spent three solid weeks traveling together, sharing a 150-square-foot living space – The Beast.
While socially distanced from everyone else in the world, the lack of distance between us was magnified. I credit part of our survival to our shared sense of purpose – finding the best Key Lime pie.
Our path ultimately stretched from Captiva to Key West, over two trips, with the final sampling in February of 2022. During our time in the Key West campground, friends goaded us to join them for drinks, but we declined. I had three goals in Key West: 1) to sit at our waterfront campsite and read; 2) to visit the Hemmingway home; and 3) to sample Key Lime pie from Kermit’s.
In total, we sampled pies from three places in Key West, and as we made our way through the islands on the Overseas Highway, we stopped at Amara Cay to try the ‘deep fried’ key lime pie I had read about in a food review sent by a friend.
Back on Sanibel, we stopped at Jerry’s market – self-proclaimed “best key lime pie on the island”, and over the next couple of years, sampled pie at three other locations between Sanibel and Captiva. The trail ended this February at my friend KD’s kitchen in Cape Coral, where I had the hands-down best gluten-free key lime pie on the trail!
I had imagined extending my jaunt into this foodie adventure, but after seeing a disturbing article in the Miami Herald, I knew it was time to go public with the blog post. The future status of Key Lime Pie may depend upon it! The infamous dessert is threatened with none other than political overthrow by a scheme to “support” strawberry farming districts (i.e., to get their vote). Seriously? Dessert is now political too? Apparently, nothing is off-limits.
You can read about the ongoing controversy here -- Florida makes strawberry shortcake official dessert | Miami Herald.
Don’t let this happen! A survey in that same article showed overwhelming support (262 votes out of 296) for keeping Key Lime Pie as the poster dessert of Florida. Strawberry shortcake came in with a pathetic 12 votes, below even the slippery custard, flan, which had 25 votes.
Take a stand with the Conch Republic Key Lime Pie Council for this silly momentary diversion from the suffering in the world. Lift your fork in support of the crumbly, tart, graham-crackery goodness of Key Lime Pie. You can sign the petition against the overthrow at change.org, but if you need more convincing first – or a tastier means of support -- here are the rankings from the Key Lime Pie trail. Bon Appetit!
Note: I ranked the following pies #1 – 10; with #1 basking in the limelight as the best overall. The results are not statistically significant (there are many more pies to sample!), however, they will still provide a mouthful of gastronomic insight. Locations are given after the ranking, followed by a description of the pie and comparison to others sampled.
#1 Overall best: K.D.’s house, Cape Coral (private residence). Although geographically a bit off the trail, the final pie I sampled, took the number one spot for best gluten-free pie, and the number one spot overall. Aside from the lovely presentation, which was the only pie served with lime zest, the whipped cream was freshly made in front of me. The flavor of the pie was tart and refreshing, the thickness of both the filling and the crust was substantial, the crust was not overly sweet, and there was an opportunity for seconds without anyone raising an eyebrow!
#2: Sunset Grill, Sanibel-Captiva. A close second, their artful presentation made a great first impression. The pie was accompanied by a generous amount of fresh whipped cream. Hail to a thick pie and a thick crust! The subtle flavor of the crust included a hint of brown-sugar, that perfectly mingled with the subtle graham flavor. The substantial filling had a lively tang, balanced with just the right sweetness and held by a sturdy cheesecake texture. The one drawback -- the crust was only on the bottom of the pie.
#3: Moon Dog Café, Whitehead Street, near Hemingway home on Key West. An impressive presentation with lightly browned meringue topping. This pie had a generous, thick filling, with a crisp tang and creamy-silky texture. The flavors of butter and graham stood out in the crust, and the texture was sturdy yet crumbly. The filling had a better mouth feel than Sunset Grill and was the only sample of the group to include meringue, but together these strengths were not enough to boost it into the #2 spot.
#4: Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill, Sanibel. Their presentation included an artful swirl of raspberry sauce, a ribbony dollop of whipped cream, and a fresh mint leaf standing on end, showcasing the slice of pie on a rectangular off-white plate. The whipped cream was non-dairy, a disappointment, but the merits of the pie somewhat atoned for that. The filling, although not as thick as others, was the perfect density, with a creamy-silky-smooth texture, and just the right tartness. The crust was more of a traditional graham cracker, could have been thicker, but did not have the brown sugar overload. It was rather subtle in flavor, but better than overwhelming sweetness of other crusts. Flavor of filling stood out as one of the best, but lack of thickness kept this one from ranking in the top 3.
#5: Sanibel Grill, Tarpon Bay Road, Sanibel. Simple, yet inviting presentation with raspberry puree, and slice of lime. This pie had a dense filling, with intense flavor, and a lively tang. Their filling was not as thick as The Sunset Grill, but the taste was comparable. The whipped cream was non-dairy, but good, light, and airy, and not overly sweet. The crust – although a decent thickness and density to complement the filling – had too much brown sugar. The excess sweetness of the crust was somewhat balanced by the lime tang of the filling.
#6: Mangoes Restaurant, Duval Street, Key West. Presented with small dollops of sweet, whipped cream on the crust end, and rested on a swirl of raspberry puree. Filling thickness was similar to Kermit’s, less than Moon dog and Sunset Grill. This pie incorporated lime zest, which was a nice touch. The texture was more cheesecake-like but had a crystalline-grainy texture on the tongue which added a little too much sweetness. I wasn’t a fan of the sugar crystals, but the raspberry puree added a nice complexity to the citrus and graham flavors. Their crust broke cleanly with the fork, and was not overly sweet, but the thickness could have been more substantial.
#7: Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shop, Key West. After rave reviews from friends, I walked a significant distance to sample this pie. Was it worth it? For all the glory of the recommendation, Kermit’s had a disappointingly simple presentation with pre-packaged whipped cream (tasted non-dairy), that had an oddly sweet marshmallow taste, and dense texture. Their pie was not as thick as Sunset Grill or Moon Dog, and the texture of the filling was more cheesecake-like. It had a clean citrus flavor, but was missing the tang of Moon Dog, and the complexity of Sunset Grill. Graham flavor of the crust was good, not overly sweet, but the crust was thinner than others sampled, and had a rubbery texture.
#8: Amara Cay, Islamorada, Overseas Highway. When we arrived, I was disappointed to hear from the staff that they no longer serve deep fried Key Lime Pie. Nevertheless, we had stopped there, so we sat at their tiki bar looking out at the white sand, swaying palm trees, and aquamarine ocean, and ordered a slice of what they had to offer. They served their pie on a sheet of tropical parchment paper with a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar and fresh slices of strawberry on top. The absence of whipped cream was a disappointment. The filling had a creamier texture and a tang that danced on the tongue, similar to Sunset Grill. But the thickness was less than many of the top ranked pies, and a bit disappointing. The crust broke clean with my fork (not rubbery) but was thinner than Sunset Grill (similar to Moon Dog) and had too much brown sugar which gave it an odd aftertaste.
#9: Bubble Room, Captiva Island. Their cheerful presentation included lime, kiwi, and strawberry slices, and flowers of whipped cream. The pie, however, was disappointingly thin, an upsetting trend, similar to Kermit’s. The whipped cream tasted as though it was non–dairy, but had a subtle citrus tang to it, which was unique. The brown sugar in crust overpowered the tastebuds. The filling redeemed the crust a bit with its’ tart flavor, clean, refreshing lime tang, and creamy texture. This did help to balance the sweet crust, but the filling needed to have a more substantial thickness to effectively tone down the power of the brown sugar crust.
#10: Jerry’s Market, Sanibel. For a place that touts itself as having the best pie on the island, it was not an impressive presentation -- pie in a cup – with no option for a single slice. The ‘crust’ consisted of loose graham cracker crumbs in bottom. The pie filling was like a key lime pudding topped with whipped cream and dusted with more graham cracker crumbs. The filling taste was low on the tang and a bit too sweet. The texture was creamy like the Sunset Grill, but this alone was not enough to lift it in the rankings. Whipped cream was on the sweet side, but not overly so. As far as their claim to ‘best pie on Sanibel’, they might want to sample their competition. They would have scored higher had their “pie cup” had a crust. To be fair, I didn’t want to buy an entire pie in order to include them in the competition. They might consider mini-pie tins or serving single slices, rather than a plastic cup for presentation, and the ability to properly include a crust.
And now you know the Zest of the story! Long live Key Lime Pie!
Winter winds have ravaged the beach. Storm waves crashed, pounded, churned, and dragged several tons of sand into the powerful longshore current and banished it to the deep waters of the sound.
The landscape of the beach reflects this battering as steep scarps are left at the backshore and boulders litter the mud flats at low tide. Wind and waves, the great artists of nature, work within the shoreline studio, endlessly creating, destroying, transforming. A walk on the beach is a stroll through the most magnificent gallery in existence. One that changes over days, hours, and often step by step.
Today, the surf had draped broad swaths of ruby and graphite sands over the buff-colored beach along the length of the strand line. Meandering brushstrokes stippled with glittering flecks of mica. Sheets of mud and sand folded into geometric, repeating wrinkles that extend to the twin rocks offshore.
The fabric of the beach is adorned by a collection of objects strewn along the water’s edge, some smashed and jagged from the pounding surf, others smoothed and rounded, having endured the same forces over a longer time. My muse focused on a lone bleached, Channeled Whelk whose chalky abandoned home fit in my palm.
The whelk’s form can be described as a logarithmic spiral. It’s well-known to humanity as one of the most ancient and mysterious of symbols. It has been used to represent growth and rebirth, the path of the soul’s evolution, and to signify a link between humans and the divine. Some suggest that focusing on the image of a spiral leads to self-exploration, and the awareness that the entire universe resides in the present moment.
In addition to spiritual or philosophical meanings, the spiral also has been used extensively in art -- from the extraordinary spiral shapes of Newgrange in Ireland to ancient, decorated pottery of the Minoan civilization. In nature, the spiral is found in tornadoes and hurricanes, human fingerprints, and the flight paths of raptors.
Of the many types, the logarithmic spiral pattern is found within the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the national flower of Ukraine. Jacob Bernoulli, a renowned mathematician, called it the "miraculous spiral", because even as the size of the spiral increases, its shape is unaltered. This property is known as self-similarity. As with human evolution, the miraculous spiral has evolved in nature and appeared in a variety of forms from whelk shells to sunflower heads – different on the surface, but underneath, the pattern is the same.
Likewise, there is a smooth and invisible fabric that connects all of humanity in the unbroken spiral of compassion. It connects us to those who, as Desmond Tutu described, have “overcome the most horrendous circumstances and emerged on the other side, not broken.” My hope for today as I walked the beach in silent prayer, fingers tracing the curve of the whelk, is that the people of Ukraine and all those who suffer, may emerge unbroken.
May we all be, as the miraculous spiral within the sunflower, a symbol of resilience and support, as we pray for peace in this everchanging world.
(Sunflower photo credit: L. Shyamal - https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=895745)
Shane waited until we were out in the driveway before he brought up the memoir.
He lifted a hay bale from the bed of his little white pickup truck. He brought the hay for Mom’s ducks and set it down as he spoke. “Your book, Julie,” he turned and faced me. “I cried for days, sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed.”
I stood silent; eyes fixed on him as he spoke. This was the first time we had seen each other since he read the memoir. He rested a palm on the side of his truck and continued. “Jan was worried about me. I’d read a little and have to put it down because I’d be sobbing. But I needed to do that. I felt better. Your book helped me so much.”
The contract of silence was now just gravel at the top of the driveway. The place where Louise backed the rambler out of the yard in 1973, waving and smiling. Right near the patch of grass where the angel plant sprouted just a few years ago. The statue of Mother Mary stood on the small outcrop of ledge watching us.
I took a breath. “Thank you for that.”
His big crystal-blue eyes, glossy with tears, looked right into mine with seriousness “Thank you for writing it. There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to finish reading it.” He paused to wipe his cheeks.
I nodded. “There were times I didn’t think I’d be able to finish writing it.”
I knew how significant those tears were. He has Bardy genes too. We shared a big, warm two-arm hug. Brotherly love.
He wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. “I have something at the farm you might want. It’s been out in the garage. I told Ma about it several times, but she never came to get it.” He paused.
“It’s little Mary’s diary.”
“Oh my god. You have her diary?” There were few words for me in that moment. It was as if someone offered me the world. Time stopped and for a nanosecond, Mary and I were once again sitting in her little room with the daisy wallpaper. She sat at the small desk writing in her little square diary with the gold lock. I watched intently, memorizing the way she held her pencil and formed her letters. I wanted to be just like her.
“There’s not much written in it.”
“But I think she mentions you.”
I couldn’t wait to see her diary. To hold the little book that she wrote in. Run my fingers over the ink or pencil that she put on the page. “Would you mind if I stop by later and pick it up?”
“Sounds good. I’ll be home.” He got in his truck and drove toward the farm. Grama and Dziadzia’s house, where Mom grew up, and Mary and I cooked and cleaned, weeded the garden, tended the animals, and played marbles in the driveway.
In typical procrastination mode when facing something important, I ran some errands and stopped at the town garage to fill two, 5-gallon buckets with sand and salt. I dropped the buckets at the compound and headed to the farm.
The dog barked inside the house, and I could hear Shane talking to his wife. “Julie’s here. Can you get the dog? Come in,” he called.
The three of us sat down at the dining room table, and Shane handed me the diary. “Here it is.”
“Oh, wow.” Instantly, I recognized the yellow cover, the gold clasp, and the Holly-Hobby-looking girl on the front, with her pink hair tie, matching dress, and white apron. She sat in a chair, chin and eyes lowered, smelling a bouquet of daisies. The small pleasures of living in the moment. Like the moments Mary and I had spent with the seashell pressed to our ear, listening to sounds of the shore. Up until this moment, that shell was the only one of Mary’s possessions I had.
I rested my palm on the diary. A book where she recorded her life moments. Slowly, respectfully, I opened the cover, and fanned the pages carefully. Shane was right. There were not many entries. But each one was precious. Noteworthy details from April 29, 1974, in the life of a 12-year-old girl included having roast pork for dinner, and a field trip with her class to the state library in Hartford. “It was fun. I wish we could go again,” she wrote.
As Shane began talking, I closed the diary and listened. He shared deeply personal stories I’d never heard before. His experience searching for our sister, Louise. Dad driving the green Volkswagen beetle, Shane in the passenger seat. Driving, endlessly driving, everywhere and anywhere looking for Louise. From town to town, dirt roads, back roads, cabins, and campsites. Shane, thoroughly exhausted, would fall asleep and wake up staring at the ceiling of the VW bug. And afterward when Louise was found, bearing the whispers, the unimaginable anxiety. The alternating silence and chaos at the house.
We talked about how that trauma was fused to his nervous system. Horrible experiences and memories stored in the body. As a child in the 1970’s, there was no outlet to process them.
He paused and then spoke again about the memoir. “I’d read a little and start crying. I’d have to put it down. But then I’d get drawn back. I had to read it. There were some things that you didn’t have in the book.” He paused. “But they wouldn’t have made it any better.”
Coming from Shane, my brother, that was so satisfying to hear. Because it is his story as much as it is anyone’s in the family. And it was absolutely non-negotiable to get it right. Up to that moment, I didn’t realize how important his affirmation was to me. Now, I’ll never forget it.
It was twilight when I walked out of the farmhouse and over the large steppingstones of dark gray, metamorphic rock. Their lines and folds and glittery flakes of mica record a history of unimaginable stresses, and hardships overcome. I ran my fingers over the little gold clasp of the diary in my pocket and smiled. This journey has indeed been one of reclamation which continues to unfold in magical ways.
Within 15 minutes on that warm December afternoon, everyone knew Jacob’s name.
It was the day he disappeared.
We had been returning to Periwinkle Park from the beach when we ran into Jon. He raced toward us on a bicycle and seemed quite upset.
“Have you seen my son? He’s riding a blue bike.”
Eric glanced quickly at me and back to Jon. “No. We didn’t see any kids. What’s his name? How old is he?”
“Jacob. He’s five. He knows he’s not supposed to leave the park.” Jon turned his bike toward the back gate.
“We’ll get on our bikes and look for him,” Eric shouted.
Jon glanced back at us, “Thanks!” And sped away.
Periwinkle Park is a gated community dotted with palm and coconut trees, near the white, shell-covered beaches of Sanibel Island in Florida. It is a curious mix of tent-camping spaces, RV sites, mobile homes, and a bird sanctuary. I never thought of Sanibel Island, or the park, as a place that might be dangerous. Until the day Jacob went missing.
We hurried back to our little shack, grabbed our cell phones, and rushed off on Rosey and Buttercup, our bicycles, in different directions.
Eric looked back at me and shouted, “do you have Jon’s number?”
“No. But I have yours,” I replied and rode off over the crusty limestone gravel and shell hash.
We pedaled through each winding road in the park. The chain turned; the tires spun in time with my thoughts which circled around the name Andy Amato. Little Andy, only four years old, lived near my hometown. He was last seen following his older sister and her friend into the woods near their home in 1978. Only his toy Weeble was ever found. Jacob would not be like Andy. He couldn’t. I pedaled faster, eyes scanning the surroundings.
I scoured each driveway, parking space, and square foot of lawn, searching for any trace of the missing little boy. Nothing. Until the Phaeton RV at site 227. There, leaning against the electric hookup, was a small blue bicycle with white training wheels. I called Eric immediately.
“Does Jacob’s bike have training wheels?”
“I don’t know. Where are you?”
“I saw a little blue bike at site 227.”
“Ok. I’m almost there now. I see it. I’ll call Jon.”
But the bike was not Jacob’s.
When I exhausted each corner of the park I joined a large group of resident searchers, expanding by the minute, who had gathered outside of Jon’s residence. One woman asked, “has anyone heard anything?” Mumbles of no, nope, not me, filtered through the group. I asked about the blue bike. “He doesn’t use training wheels” one of the men said. “The police are on their way,” someone else offered.
The police. Suddenly I was three years old, and watching the police in my parent’s driveway,. Decades ago, when the whole town was searching for my sister Louise. Louise never came home.
The sun sank toward the horizon along with the hope that Jacob was still in the park. If I were five years old and taking off on an adventure, where would I go? Buttercup and I headed out of the park, toward the twinkle lights on the bike path.
After pedaling for about 10 minutes, my phone rang. I glanced at the screen. It was Eric. My heart paused, “Did they find him?”
“Yes,” he said. “He was at a friend’s house.”
“Oh, thank God.” I began breathing again. Jacob was fine. I was grateful for all his parents would not have to endure.
In 2020, 30,396 juveniles (under the age of 18) were reported missing in the United States alone. 8% of those cases remained open at the end of the year. Some, like little Andy Amato, were never found.
Although Jacob's story had a happy ending, it is a powerful reminder of how things can change in an instant.
At the close of 2021, Jacob’s story is a reminder to be vigilant. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “When recovering a missing child, the most important tools for law enforcement are an up-to-date, quality photograph and descriptive information.” Please consider one of your resolutions to complete a Child ID kit for your children. Set a reminder to update it every six months.
All my love and best wishes to you and your family for another year of happiness, celebrations, and watching your loved ones grow. Cherish each moment.
Bob’s recipe for 3,000-pound cement.
(3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch) Use a ratio of 1 pail of cement (preferably Portland) to 2 pails of concrete sand. Add 1 pail of pea stones; mix dry with cement hoe (a garden hoe with holes), then add water, about a pail, ½ pail at first, then the rest incrementally, as you keep drawing in the dry stuff. Let dry 1 to 2 weeks before pressure test.
Dad loves cement. The process of making it for him is an art, but also a mental salve. Especially when he’s upset. He’s always kept busy, but when something is on his mind, there’s no other way you’ll find him. “When you’re upset, just keep yourself busy”, he’s said. I passed that sage advice on to my first-year students at SCSU this fall, and I live by it myself. It works. Mixing a batch of Portland cement is just one of the possible diversions.
When the mind is upset trying to mix ingredients to get conclusions that make sense, there is really nothing better than keeping busy. Coming from a meditation instructor, this may seem counterintuitive, but consider for example, the relationship between yoga and meditation.
Yoga has traditionally been practiced in order to tone down physical and mental restlessness, before sitting in stillness to meditate. First, stir the ingredients well, and then let them be still.
When the mind is a stinging swarm of thoughts, especially when the worry is beyond our control, activity works out the nervous energy in the body, created by the mind’s need to “do something”. Simple actions are best -- gardening, mowing the grass, scrubbing floors – because they allow us to work with our emotions at the same time. Mixing water, soap, and dirt, scrubbing swirling them together, rinsing the floor clean. All while letting worry float somewhere in that bucket of dirty water, getting it off the floor. At least for a time. Giving our mental processes time to slow and settle. To downregulate and manage our stress so that it doesn’t become chronic.
So, when Mom was hospitalized this month for COVID-19, Dad and I got to work. Cutting branches, clearing grapevines from the stone walls, and raking the yard. We were worried, but not worried sick. We kept busy.
Ultimately, this mode of self-care gives us the energy we need to continue to be strong for others. Because we can’t give to others what we don’t possess ourselves. Kindness, compassion, and deep understanding of our own process is critical. So, in sage advice from Dad, “Get to work. And it will work itself out.”
As I was paddling on the lake today, I went searching for Pink Water Lilies which usually bloom around this time of year. I found their cheerful, cotton-candy-colored blooms floating among clusters of glossy-green, saucer-sized lily pads in the two northern-most, shallow coves.
I’ve always loved to photograph these aquatic plants but until today, I didn’t know that their essence is used in naturopathic treatments. It wasn’t until after the photographs and a brief session of paddleboard yoga that I went back to the dock and read more about these velvety beauties.
According to Cynthia Scherer, a flower essence practitioner and researcher, Pink Pond Lily flower essence helps to clear old paradigms related to self-image and the perception of others. Scherer suggests it also helps to clear unsafe feelings left over from old traumas.
As I learned while writing the memoir, Finding Mary, trauma causes the unconscious to experience a persistent lack of safety. This may lead to the “stuckness” I describe in the memoir. As a defense against uncertainty, the mind attempts to keep things familiar – causing our perceptions of self, others, and life circumstances to appear fixed. This view limits opportunities, whether they be accomplishments or relationships, because we literally are not allowing ourselves to see or trust new possibility. Change is unknown, and unknown can be scary.
Each time I offer my book to a stranger or a new venue, I feel that fear. The book is a deeply personal story, my first inclination is to keep it to myself. What if people don’t like it? Even after the amazing support I’ve received from vastly different groups of readers, the doubt still lingers like old trash. I realize I need to face the fear and move forward into the foggy grey of reality.
I’m not planning to try the plant essence anytime soon, but I can attest to the solace water lilies provide, when paddling into a quiet cove amidst blue skies and birdsong on a warm summer day. Their optimism and courage reach from the murky depths of the lake bottom into the sunlight and remind me that there is indeed a season for everything. To fight change is to fight the tide. Yet risk can be paralyzing. To be open to change is to be vulnerable, and that can be scary. Perhaps I can take cues from the water lilies as they are a graceful role model. For there is both possibility and beauty in unfolding.
(--part of this blog is an excerpt from my memoir, Finding Mary: A Journey of Reclamation.)
“I always believed in living for today because I might not be here tomorrow.”
June 17, 1973 was a beautiful summer day. My 16-year-old sister Louise woke up and lived for that day. None of us knew she would not be here tomorrow.
It was Father’s Day, and the compound buzzed with the energy of children – eight of them. I was the youngest at the time, only four, and don’t remember if I said goodbye to Louise that warm summer afternoon.
Louise had her license and a car, and in only a week, she would have finished her junior year of high school. An honor society certificate hung on her bedroom wall, next to an award for perfect attendance. Despite being an introvert, Louise had a large group of friends and eight younger sibs who adored her.
She filled her days with school, work at the shoe factory, trips to the ocean, baseball on the neighbor’s lawn, and mini-bike rides. I recall the smell of eucalyptus and menthol as I stood on tiptoes near the bathroom sink, and she swiped some Noxzema across my cheeks. Of course, where there are teenagers there is mischief and at our house it seemed like someone was always getting caught smoking cigarettes or teaching me to write swears in the sand, but our home was lively and fun, and always felt safe. Until that particular Sunday in June.
That day, Louise pulled on a comfy pair of patched, hip-hugger, bell-bottom jeans, and a flower-print sleeveless blouse. She brushed her shoulder length, straight, blonde hair, sliced a perfect middle part, and tucked each side behind her ears. Just a sweep of Yardley Cheek Gloss would suffice. She wiped the residue from her fingertips and tossed the compact into her brown leather purse. She grabbed her Dr. Scholl’s sandals slid her feet under the red, buckled straps, and bounded down the stairs.
It was just before noon when my pretty, petite, 16-year-old sister climbed into her pea-green ’64 Nash Rambler with her sidekick, our sister Tammy, ready for an afternoon of teenage fun in the 70’s. Peace, love and good vibes.
“Happy Father’s Day!” she shouted to Dad, waving an arm out the driver’s side window as she and Tammy left the yard in Louise’s Rambler. Louise never came home.
I hope I said goodbye. I hope I told her I loved her. But I don’t remember. I was busy riding my big wheel in the driveway, trying to spin out in the gravel like the commercials on TV.
It had seemed like any other day.
The message today is to cherish your loved ones and the precious gift of time you have been given with them. Be in the moment 100% as often as you possibly can – that is where lasting memories are made. Don’t ignore the fact that someday, these memories may be all that you or they have.
The opening quote was printed in the first page of the 1974 Tourtellotte Memorial High School Yearbook -- the yearbook dedicated to my sister Louise. As I write this post on Sanibel Island in Florida, I pick up the phone to call Mom and Dad and tell them I love them. On this day, more than any other, I take care to live for the moment.
It’s June 17, 2021, and it’s a beautiful summer day. I love you, Louise. And yes, I live for today, because none of us know if we’ll be here tomorrow.
Imagine for a moment, that you are a good-hearted, hard-working person who has chosen to spend your life in true service of the public – not with words, but with actions. You are willing to give up your own life at any moment of any day to save the life of another. Now imagine being spit at as you drive down the road by some of the very same people you swore to protect. Imagine having to stand in a “peaceful” protest as “peaceful demonstrators” spew horribly rank and humiliating language in your face, and chant “die pigs”. Imagine reading news about officers being attacked, ambushed, and killed, as you button up your uniform, polish your badge, and kiss your family goodbye knowing any day – that could be you on the news.
Now imagine that happening day after day, every single shift, without an end in sight. Put yourself in THOSE shoes.
I know some of you already have. I know some of you are spouses and partners of police officers and you see their hope, their belief in humanity, fading. You see them questioning why they even put on the uniform anymore. Who are they protecting? Who are they serving? People who hate them? People who won’t take a supportive stand because they are afraid to be labeled a racist? Blue is a community of color too. In fact, it is quite a diverse mix of race, religion, and gender. Please pass this message along to those who need to hear it.
Change will not happen by bashing the innocent. You will never experience peace by spewing hate, filth, and violence toward the peacekeepers. You will never feel respected by disrespecting others. You will never feel safe by dismantling law and order.
I honestly believe Dr. King’s words that people should only be judged by the content of their character. It seems silly for me to state that I do not tolerate discrimination in any regard—because I live my life that way. But remember, and please pass it on: You can support law enforcement AND be against racism in All forms. It does not have to be, as some politicians or the media would have you believe, one OR the other. Actions should be taken to combat discrimination wherever and when ever it exists.
Look at the law enforcement statistics in YOUR state. Particularly all you mask wearers (of which I also proudly wear, because as part of the blue community, I believe in protecting others). There are problems that need to be addressed in law enforcement –YES. ABSOLUTELY. But they are not equal in all states, cities, or towns. You want lasting change? Then stop stamping your feet and spewing nastiness. Stop spreading hate. Stop doing nothing. Start looking up REAL robust, reliable data – you know, like the science stats we use that tell us to wear masks-- and tell politicians to use that data to make sensible, thoughtful, considerate, lasting REAL change in the places that actually need it. Don’t let knee-jerk, political pandering screw things up further. Action is important. The RIGHT actions are paramount.
All communities of color matter. We should stand up for ALL of them. And Let’s be smart about it. I am asking you to take two simple actions. First, please use your circle of influence, your voice, your heart to reach out to those who are tasked to protect us. Let them know without a doubt, that they are still appreciated. Because, trust me, morale is at an all-time low. Second, send a clear message to politicians that actions need to be taken based on the history of each department. Not on what they and other politicians think will satisfy their voters or quell the violence.
Through kind-hearted and intelligent actions, let the world know you will not stand by and tolerate discrimination in ANY form – class, creed, race, religion, or color—brown, black, or blue.
Another black Friday flyer. Dozens line my recycling bin. Small business Saturday, cyber Monday—I’m not tempted to shop on any of these days. What I want for Christmas can’t be bought, it can’t be seen, it isn’t possible. I want my sister Mary to come back.
One spring evening just over four decades ago, an asthma attack woke her in the middle of the night. Mom tried the inhaler, but it wasn’t helping, so Dad rushed her to the emergency room. I went back to sleep thinking the doctors would make her better. Mary died on the way to the hospital, one month before her 14th birthday.
I was almost seven years old at the time, and Mary was my entire world. She loved any excuse to celebrate, and Christmas was her favorite holiday. We started by decorating grandma’s house. Up into the snowy woods we trudged, with a small handsaw to find the perfect white pine. With teaspoons and tiny, sap-covered fingers we dug into the frozen gravel of the driveway, lined a coffee can with cold, grey rocks. We brought the tree into ‘Siberia’, the term grandma used for the lonesome living room that stayed shut after Grandpa died, except when we slept over. Mary and I opened the door, started a fire in the fireplace, wedged the trunk of the white pine into the coffee can, and stood it up, straight and proud, ready for decorations.
We cut red and green construction paper into strips, bent them into loops and linked them together with scotch-tape to form a chain. We popped corn on the wood stove in a cast iron pot and strung the kernels together with a sewing needle and thread. I jabbed my tender fingers so much, that Mary found a thimble for me. We colored scenes from a Christmas coloring book, cut around the figures, threaded ribbon through the tops and tied them onto the thin, rubbery branches of the white pine. Finally, my favorite part --Mary cut out a star shape from an old saltine box, covered it in reclaimed tin-foil, and secured it to the top of the tree with bread ties. Viola!
When my younger sisters were old enough, I rekindled the tradition of the white pine, but ‘Siberia’ always felt hollow and cold, no matter how great a fire I built. Mary was the warmth and light. She crowded out the emptiness that no black Friday sale can fill.
In writing for the past two years, I’ve realized that losing Mary created a hesitance toward trusting the good of life, toward connection. And I’ve realized that I’m not alone. Just this year I’ve met many people struggling with loss, and the shame, guilt, and other feelings that go along with wondering why you survived and your loved one didn’t. And for many, the Holidays are a powerful trigger. Perhaps it’s the year coming to a close – another type of ending, or the pressure to be happy when you are feeling alone and missing someone deeply. This year, I will try to have a little more compassion, a little more patience, a little more understanding for myself and others.
So please, pardon me if I don’t get excited by super sales and holiday bargains. I’ve never found happiness there. Mary and I created happiness with our own hands – not in what we created necessarily, but in the experience of spending time together.
My family never grieved, we never talked about Mary. It was what we needed to do to survive. But at Christmastime more than any other, I remember her. This year I am also remembering who I was when she was alive. Just now I am admiring the small Christmas tree in my living room. At the top of the tree is a handmade tin-foil star that my nieces and I made two years ago. That is what I am reaching for. And if this resonates with you, I hope you reach for your own tin-foil star with both hands. It is something no cyber sale can ever provide.
I wake early, as my body gives in to the relentless tugging of my busy mind. The sunrise brings with it another birthday, some quiet reflection, and perhaps a bit of angst. I grab a mug of coffee and walk down the hill to the beach, where sand hugs my toes like an old friend.
The grains are cool and slightly damp, as this part of the earth is just waking up to enjoy its hours in the sun. As the tide retreats, it litters the strand line with slipper shells and oysters and clumps of bright green seaweed. Small flies buzz about with delight. A large branch of driftwood adorns the beach, a treasure washed up by the tide. This is a perfect place to smooth my tangled thoughts, breathe the salt air, and watch the darting and flitting of the shore birds.
The surface of the sea is bent into subtle folds of steel-blue satin, as it yields to the 30-foot-long, stone groin built to keep the sand from eroding. As humans, we spend significant time and energy to keep things as they are, even when we are unhappy, because the unknown seems more frightening. Several groins are lined up in succession on this stretch of the shoreline; great stone arms of quarried granite reaching toward the sea, trying to capture the beach, announcing our resolve.
Yet the sand moves regardless of our plans, our engineering, or our determination; caught up in the longshore drift, a flow that has existed billions of years before the Anthropocene. I wonder about blockades I’ve placed in my life, driven by a decades-old fear of the unknown or a need to latch onto some stable ground. I wonder if there will ever be a time when we will accept the movement of the sand; when I welcome the changing conditions in my life and begin to see them as potential. That would take courage, trust, and resolve. That would involve the willingness to accept and adapt to unintended consequences.
I can’t speak for the engineers, but perhaps this will be the year I raise the hammer and chisel and begin to dismantle the blockades and impoundments. Perhaps this will be the year I return to the fresh, oxygenated, intuitive flow of life. So I roll up my sleeves as I make my wish because I know without action, wishes vanish like clouds absorbed into the bright blue sky on a dry summer day. On this birthday, I wish for the strength and trust to welcome the unknown as an unexpected guest, investigating with curiosity rather than fear, that which she may have brought with her.