Social Distance

Pamela Park Social Distance 040720

Social distancing, in general, is not hard for me. I’m an only child AND an introvert AND a Minnesotan, which means I’m a social distancing triple-threat. Still, this is different. We all know it –even those of us spewing nonsense about the current state of the economy causing more pain than the disease itself.  Give me a break. I won’t even go into why people matter more than money –you either get that or you don’t.

I digress, kind of.

This is a lonely time, even for a natural introvert like me. I saw my dear friend Emily at the grocery store last week and we air-hugged from 10 feet away. I got a little teary, to tell you the truth, and I don’t think she would mind my telling you that she did, too. Seeing Emily in person felt so good, so important, that I drove around to some of my other friends’ houses after that, texting that I was parked in their driveway or on the street and could they come to the door and wave for a minute? It makes a difference, seeing people’s faces in real time and space – I’ll remember that, even after all of this is over.

My friend Angie was coming home just as I pulled up in her driveway and called me. “What are you doing in my driveway?” she asked.

“I just wanted to see if you could come out to your sidewalk and talk live for a minute,” I said.

If she heard my voice shake, she didn’t let on. “I’m parked on the street. Park across from me and we’ll talk from our cars,” she suggested. So we did, exchanging our typical what-fresh-bullshit-is-this faces and diving down into the center of things the way we like to do, missing only our usual coffee and pastries (we’ll get that right next time). We rolled up our windows when people passed between us on foot—Angie is thoughtful like that—and it made a difference to be there with her, even across the street. If you happen to be looking for a real way to feel more connected, I recommend it. Keep at least six feet of distance between you, please, and wear a mask.

I tend to travel dark roads in my mind at times like this. Dreading the worst feels like a kind of psychological training, but of course it isn’t; how could anyone ever prepare for the right situations?

My friend Rachael knows someone who said we’re all in the same boat, but we’re weathering different storms. That feels true to me. I don’t know what your storm is like, but mine is a windstorm, stirring up every old thing in my life that I thought was settled and still. Old grief, anger, fears, even old grudges and injuries I believed put to rest are spinning through the air towards me–I’m aware of every crack in the door.

Some days I watch myself from a kind of distance, noticing that I am acting in much the same way I did when my mom and dad were each dying from cancer: I cook and bake a lot, I wrap myself in blankets and cry in the basement, I rearrange things in my house, and I listen for the phone. It’s a jarring time, the familiar experience of grief woven in with the strange new rituals of a pandemic.

I feel these days like I sometimes do walking the halls of my son’s high school, which has been elaborately renovated since I went there myself 30 years ago. I can travel down one of the new hallways, not knowing exactly where I am, and then suddenly I’m in the old auditorium where I took the ACT and voted for Homecoming Court, a place so frozen in time that I half expect my dad, who was vice-principal back then, to step up to the microphone and tell everyone to settle down.

I am afraid –deeply afraid—of losing another person who is important to me, and I know that’s likely, given the staggering number of people expected to die from this virus. I just don’t know who it’s going to be or when. It’s hard to calm down and then I worry about myself: what if I had a heart attack or stroke, worrying about coronavirus? I don’t want my kids to lose their mom this young. I tend to travel dark roads in my mind at times like this. Dreading the worst feels like a kind of psychological training, but of course it isn’t; how could anyone ever prepare for the right situations?

Still, experience has taught me how to make happiness bloom in the midst of an uncertain time. I spent dozens of happy hours listening to all seven Harry Potter books on Audible, for example, and I have already tried 30 new recipes this year. I opened all the windows last weekend to rinse the house with sweet spring air and made my bed slowly while it worked its magic.

We went north instead of south for Spring Break last month, and watched for cracks in the ice on Lake Hubert. We slept late and watched trash tv; that was lovely, even if we couldn’t go to the beach. There’s a new season of Top Chef on these days, gorgeous Instagram concerts by Hozier or the cast of Hamilton, and Trevor Noah to make me laugh at even the scariest parts of this. Beauty and comfort are out there and in here. We’re okay so far, even though my husband works at a hospital. We’re okay, even in our loneliness or helplessness. We are okay. Keep saying it, my friends, until it feels true.

Red Charm Festiva and Cora Louise peonies June 2019

Credo II (Morningside After Dark edit)

Three times a year — once in January, once in February, and once in April– a sympathetic and broad-minded crowd gathers in the basement of Morningside Church in Edina for a night of stories and songs on a particular theme. The event is free (donations to the church are always appreciated but not required) and always both life-and-spirit-affirming. 

Last night, I did my third MADark reading. I’m always honored to be included, but last night felt particularly special somehow. Anyway, here is the essay I read, a version of “Credo” I edited for last night’s theme: Growing Pains.


Lizzie on Henry's shoulder


First and most of all, I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best.


I stand for Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God.


I believe in deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once at Camp Lake Hubert the summer I was 15– it felt like flying. I believe in an Afterlife … not harps and fluffy white clouds so much as a clarity, an understanding, a lifting of all the veils that make us think our stubborn, self-destructive thoughts. I am for a Heaven that reconciles my vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”


I’m for Grandma Betty, who kept rosaries in her desk and fed me soft, pillowy doughnuts rolled in sugar on Sunday mornings after Mass. I’m for the tiny, Technicolor strawberries she grew in her garden, which I picked and brought to my dad and grandpa in a metal pail, one by one.


I am for Grandpa Skluzacek, whose pickup truck smelled of wood shavings, tobacco, and the fish he caught alone in secret lakes and I am for Grandpa Thacher, who took me to get stitches on my chin when I was 4 and told everyone how brave I was when I wasn’t.


Camp Lake Hubert


I am pro-cabin, pro-camp, pro-canoe. I’m pro-Constance, who meets me at the back fence now and then to exchange lemons, eggs, sour cherries, solidarity. I’m for the teary girl I saw at the elementary school last October, willing herself down the hall. I was her once. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness.


I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale cemetery where my dad and other members of my family are buried, but against all the reasons it’s full. I am in favor of tough old ladies and soft old men and I am all in for Minnesota. I believe in flannel sheets, down comforters with the windows cracked, the romance of a December wedding. I would relive mine a thousand times if I could … I probably have.


Yes to my dad and stepmom, who honored me by dying when I was right there in the room and yes to my mom and stepdad, who spared me that sorrow. No to a crystal ball, though I badly want one. No because I would use it irresponsibly.


I swear by birthday cake for breakfast and I swear by my mom, who taught herself the Club Med line dance with a tape she bought at the gift shop and practiced in our living room until it was perfect. I am passionately pro-nerd.


43rd birthday cake for Brian 2015


No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to both phone and in-person solicitation. Yes to bread, GramBea’s rice pudding, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it.


I believe in the peonies my dad grew and brought to my house in vases each spring; the Eames chair where I sat in his lap when I was five, watching Little House on the Prairie on Monday nights; I believe in the bronze stars and purple heart he brought back from Viet Nam. I believe in anyone brave enough and wise enough to choose tenderness.


I’m for the brilliant nurse who helped me bathe my toddler at Children’s Hospital when she had wires glued to her scalp and I’m for the brilliant neurosurgeon who performed her brain surgery at Mayo when she was three years old. I’m against staying in the hospital with your child alone – don’t do it.


Sweet Brian and Carolinbe post EEG


I am for raising yourself as you raise your kids, I am for Dad, who worked at my high school and would make a convincing camel face for anyone who asked and I am for Mom, who called me Lamby and Lovebug right up until she died when I was 41.


Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the beautiful connection between my children, which is what I have always hoped for. Yes to the way my dad and his sister would laugh together in a kind of harmony and yes to letting your kids see you cry. No to anyone who makes you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much.


Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to growing up together, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway.


Yes to you, my friends from long ago and far away and yes to you, my friends from always. Yes to everyone who is here now and yes to those who couldn’t stick around for one reason or another.


I stand for you.
I stand for me.
I am for you and me.


Bridesmaids 121199


Henry blue onesie 8


I’m for love –the kind you need and want from the people who give it best. I’m for Wonder Woman and wonder women, Dreamers and underdogs. I am against scapegoating, nepotism, and recklessness.


I stand for democracy, honesty, and integrity. I believe in voting for presidential candidates who have studied the United States Constitution. I am pro-Obama, both Barack and Michelle.


I am firmly pro-camp-song, pro-knitting, and pro-cookbook. I am for gluten, butter, and sugar and I am against discussing the amount of carbs, fat, or evil in food before eating it, especially if someone else made it.


Christmas Croissants 2014
© 2015 Marta C Drew


I am staunchly pro-understanding, pro-empathy, and pro-humanity. I believe in birthday cake for breakfast and I believe in mothers who taught themselves French with language tapes and sounded exactly like Julia Child when they practiced. I am pro-nerd, anti-glitter.


I stand for deep quiet, loons, and swimming with horses, which I tried once and which felt like flying. I believe in an Afterlife … not harps and fluffy white clouds so much as a clarity, an understanding, a lifting of all the veils that make us think our stubborn, self-destructive thoughts. I am for a Heaven that’s about reconciliation between our vision and God’s, a big explanation, God saying “this is why and this is why and this is why.”


I’m for God – believing in Him and trusting Him, even when I don’t understand …especially then.


I am against racism, narrow thinking, and sanctimonious bullshit. I am for  including my friends in my family, forgiveness (though I’m not good at it yet), compassion, and generosity. I am for staying in touch. I will always be for connection, devotion, and affection.


I am anti-bully, anti-narcissist, anti-terrorist, anti-gun. I am passionately anti-Trump. I stand against cynicism and against women selling each other out. I am for Hillary and I always will be – she would have been fantastic.


I am pro-men, anti-mansplaining, manspreading, manhandling, and mancolds. I am pro-mama, pro-family, and pro-choice. I believe in music, art, and teaching lots of both in schools.


I am for Harry Potter. I’m for the friends who fought with him and I’m for Snape, who didn’t but still fought for him. I am for the inimitable Alan Rickman, gone too soon. I am for heroes who stand up for the vulnerable and I am for all of us encouraging each other to be our full, best selves.


I am anti-liar, anti-coward, anti-hypocrite. I am against wanting to be cool when you’re a grown-ass adult, against anyone who’s mean to waiters, and against political whores (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan).


No to mealy apples, no to fake vanilla, and no to gratuitous violence. No to entertaining yourself by watching videos of people –especially children—getting hurt. No to humor that’s designed to humiliate, no to both phone and in-person soliciting. Yes to romance, lake swimming, being up late at night. Yes to wilderness and protecting it. Yes to fat, sweet blackberries on top of a vanilla cheesecake that’s more custardy than cakey. Yes to Rose Levy Beranbaum, who taught me how to make one.


I am pro-cabin, pro-campfire, pro-canoe, and all about Camp Lincoln and Camp Lake Hubert. I am against mocking people for believing in God and I am against mocking people for not believing in God. I am particularly pro-waffle but not necessarily anti-pancake.


Camp Lake Hubert


I am pro-late-night, pro-early-morning, pro-privacy. I am both pro-Western and pro-Eastern medicine. I am for the old crabapple tree behind my grandma and Grandpa’s house on Cooper Avenue and I am especially for the rosy pink, tart applesauce GramBea made with its fruit. I will never be able to recreate it, but I’m still for it.


I am for the roses, hostas, and peonies my dad grew – he knew all their names—and I am for Simon Pearce glass, which is both beautiful and practical. I am for Simon Pearce himself, whom I met a couple of years ago. He was lovely, just as I expected him to be. I am for Chef Thomas Keller, the poet Mary Oliver, Meryl Streep, Leslie Odom, Jr, Patty Griffin, and all others who devote themselves to beauty and understanding the human experience.


I am anti-mid-winter, when everything is the same color and looks like the inside of an ashtray. I am also against overhead lighting and music that doesn’t match the occasion or location.


I am in favor of the simple, peaceful Lonsdale graveyard where my dad and many other members of my family are buried, but against all the reasons it’s full. I am in favor of tough old ladies and soft old men and I am all in for Minnesota. I am for flannel sheets and down comforters with the windows cracked.


I believe in silent understanding and I believe in singing together – my Uncle Will taught me how important that is, how healing it can be. I believe in daydreams, naps, nostalgia, and Expressive Math. I don’t believe in making people guess how I’m feeling.


I am pro-humility, pro-unity. I am pro-aloneness, anti-loneliness. I am pro-Brussels-sprout, anti-beet. I am pro-flower and pro-flour. I am for GramBea’s rice pudding (no eggs) and I am for Sue Burritt’s World-Famous Chocolate Cake, which may or may not actually be world-famous, but should be. I am anti-canned-cranberries – you won’t change my mind about that.




I am for giving teachers and administrators the benefit of the doubt, unless you’re ready to stand up and take on the job yourself (trust me, you’re not). I am against hyper-competitiveness and unreasonable standards for kids and I am guilty of both, though I’m working on it. I am pro-public-schools, pro-public-libraries, and pro-public-lands. I am for dads who make very convincing camel faces and I am for moms who call you Lamby and Lovebug right up until they die.


I am pro-lilac, rosemary, lavender, and peony. I cannot support cooking vegetables until they’re gray, nor can I support desserts that don’t taste as good as they look. I believe in putting a dash of almond extract in my sugar cookies and I believe in bourbon. No beer for me, thank you.


Yes to GramBea playing piano out on her four-season porch as I was coming in from school, yes to the people who camped out with me at the hospice house when my mom was dying, yes to the beautiful connection between my children, which is what I have always hoped for. Yes to the way my dad and his sister would laugh together in a kind of harmony and yes to letting your kids see you cry. No to people who make you feel like you’re crazy for feeling too much. No to Mitch McConnell, Devin Nunes, and Fox News. Shame on all of them.


Yes to reminding people they are not alone – including myself. Yes to friendship and shared history, to people who are afraid but keep trying anyway. Yes to women reclaiming their time and yes to men who really listen. Yes to singing in the hospital and yes to therapy animals because really, what other kind is there?


Yes to you, my friends from long ago and far away and yes to you, my friends from always. Yes to everyone who is here now and yes to those who couldn’t stick around for one reason or another.

I stand for you.
I stand for me.
I am for you and me.


White Peony II


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A confession: I have always believed I have to be a star.


To be clear, I don’t mean I am destined to be a star; just that I am supposed to be one. Stardom feels like a responsibility, a debt I owe my parents, teachers, classmates, and anyone else who sees me as a writer who hasn’t done anything legitimate with her talent yet. It’s also a kind of unspoken, unwritten contract I entered into with my attorney mother when I decided to stay home with my kids instead of pursuing a Career-with-a-Capital-C:


She would allow me to choose this path, which she did not respect because she believed it made me dependent on my husband and because she considered it beneath the dignity of intelligent, modern women. In return, I would keep writing while I changed diapers and did the laundry and kept fevers down and made dinner. I would keep practicing and eventually, when my children were studying at their respectable colleges, looking gorgeous and being unimaginably charming (the least I could do if I wasn’t going to accomplish anything else in the years they were home with me), I would emerge from my drab domestic chrysalis in a shimmering caftan, expensive bifocals dangling on a golden chain around my neck, and rocket to the top of every list that mattered to her.


At some point, I must have agreed to this, I must have signed that contract. It might have been when I was 20, the day I told my mother I wanted to stay home with babies and bake lovely cakes and muffins and make quilts. We were in her kitchen and she gripped the counter, leaning forward with her shoulders up around her jaw, which couldn’t find the right position. “Okaaaaaayyyy,” she half-sang, half muttered to her gorgeous fingernails, which she still manicured herself each Sunday night while she watched Masterpiece Theater. She couldn’t relate to this.


Don’t be too hard on her. I was two and she was 35 when she started law school in 1974. There were few other women in her class and even fewer with young children. She had been a 5th-grade teacher for 11 years before having me and spent another year or so afterwards earning a Master’s degree in Pyschology from the University of Minnesota. She used to tell me that Watergate saved her from the punishing boredom of being home with a newborn. What can I say? It’s a good thing she didn’t want to write greeting cards.


She was a Grinnell graduate, a Wyonegonic camp counselor, and an Edina teacher. She played flute and sang beautifully, never met a kid she couldn’t somehow charm and discipline at the same time, and had an organizational system for everything. She was the first female partner at her enormous downtown law firm, which she eventually left to start her own practice. She wore power suits with shoulder pads, mentored young lawyers, held season tickets to the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota Orchestra. She did the Sunday crossword and dabbled in Sudoku, sat on hospital credentialing boards, and knew the Minneapolis skyway system like the back of her hand. She was already the star she wanted me to be.


I am so proud of her. I have never aspired to what my mom dreamed for me, but I love what she dreamed for herself and reached for and achieved. I still brag about her all the time, but she’s gone now and the contract is null and void. I’m off the hook, I don’t have to succeed her way, so what next? What am I going to dream for myself?


I do want to write and publish a book in my lifetime, though I don’t know what kind. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s useful to anyone who reads it. I want it to be the kind of book someone can melt into and maybe hide out in for a while. I don’t need critical acclaim or celebrity …or at least I’m trying not to need those things, which feel like part of the old contract.


Staying at home with my babies was a good decision for me, it turns out … not because kids always need their mothers at home –you will never hear this attorney’s daughter say something that reductive—but because I love being at home.  My work is a natural extension of who I am. I have tweaked the original vision: I expanded my baking repertoire beyond the original cakes and muffins and replaced the quilt-making, which involves too much geometry for me, with knitting, which is a better waiting room skill.


I am living the life I dreamed for myself, just like my mom did. Of course there are mistakes and detours and whatnot, but I love what I do and I’m proud of my work. Isn’t that dignified? Isn’t that intelligent? Isn’t that modern, even if my name isn’t on a paycheck? (It should be).


I think my mom saw my decision to be a hausfrau as a kind of betrayal, a refusal to acknowledge what she had to go through to achieve what she did in the ’70s and ’80s, but I absolutely acknowledge that and I am so grateful. Watching her bravely go to work when the “respectable mothers” were at home is precisely what has given me the courage to stay home when the “respectable women” go to work. The point of our striving for equality should never be what kind of work we do, the point should be fighting for the choice and granting each other the space, the respect to make that choice, even if we don’t understand it.


I will keep one part of the original contract: I will keep writing, though I write for my own reasons now. I write to reassure, to be a voice in the dark, not for approval or recognition. I will send these letters or essays or whatever they are out to You in hopes that they are useful, maybe a place to rest for a minute and let yourself off the hook.


And I will send them out to my brilliant, brave, inspiring mother, gone for almost four years now, in hopes that these reflections reach her through increasing time and space, through the darkness and silence that always seems to exist between two stars.


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Between Two Years

South Carolina riverboat 082217


Have you ever felt stuck between two years? I do. The problem is this: 2017 was so scary and heartbreaking, from start to finish, that I think I’m afraid to enter 2018.  Despite the fresh sting of my dad’s absence, I had my loveliest holidays in a long time at the end of 2017. I made dinner with my step-sister Kerry for our family like we used to do at our parents’ house years ago and it was such a beautiful party. There were candles and fresh flowers, enough snow for a light cover, delicious food and easy conversation.


I miss that night already –I wanted it to last a lot longer. When dinner was over and we were all sitting at the long table, a vision flashed through my mind of us all in an old wooden boat, floating through a stormless channel between What Was and What Will Be. I felt less afraid for a while but as we crept closer to school starting up again, my fear returned.


I don’t typically get paralyzed and technically, I’m still doing what I need to do: I go to the grocery store, show up where people are expecting me, water the plants, feed everyone. Yet there’s a strange sense of life happening to me these days. Ordinarily, I make choices –good or bad– and my life, like water, finds its path around them. Since my dad died, I feel like the path is fixed and my choices have to find their way around the inevitability of loss and grief.


When my dad got sick two years after my mom died, I had a good cry, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. We talked every day on the phone about what he might be able to eat, how much weight he was losing. Sometimes he would tell me about conversations he had had with Father Pirkl, his beloved priest from church, about forgiveness and whether God would consider his choosing an easier chemo regimen a kind of despair (NO).  Once in a while, we mistakenly drifted into politics and had to spend a day or two licking our wounds. It was never more than that … we knew we didn’t have that kind of time.


I spent the first half of last year in waiting rooms, exam rooms, infusion rooms. Maybe because I’m an only child, maybe because I spent my childhood and adolescence moving back and forth between my divorced parents’ houses, my hobbies are portable. I would knit or write while my dad retreated into his own thoughts or slept in his chair. Last January, when he was in so much pain that it made him cry, I cried with him. I participated in the last months of his life. I walked him all the way through to the end and I never shrank from any of it.


I was in the room when he died, an honor both he and Linda, the love of his life, gave me and a sorrow both my mom and Steve, the love of hers, spared me. I am so grateful to all four of them for the way they departed, for sharing their most vulnerable selves with me. I had four anchors when I got married 18 years ago. One by one, they’ve been pulled and now here I am, trying to start my first year without any of them. It’s so strange, not being anyone’s daughter.

I read this poem aloud at my dad’s burial in the Lonsdale cemetery:


In Blackwater Woods
By Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


So that’s the work ahead of me this year and beyond – making the choice to love fully, despite the fixed path, the black river of loss. My original anchors are gone, yes, but my boat is filled with people I can love right now. It is a new year and we mortals are leaving the quiet channel together, letting go, choosing What Will Be.

The Thumbsucking Witch

Little Marta Easter 1977


Well, hello and happy new year, my dear friend …


You probably never did this, but when I was a little girl, I sucked my thumb. Long after other kids had quit, I was still doing it. Losing patience, my mom tried painting my thumbs with some gross-tasting liquid to make me stop. Instead, I sucked my poisoned thumbs and wept with indignation. She put me on incentive programs, offered me prizes, rolled her eyes, issued dire warnings about other kids not wanting to be friends with me, but it was all in vain. I was an only child and prone to tears – I wasn’t about to surrender my only reliable source of comfort for a Barbie doll or some vague threat of social isolation.


So my mother told me about the Thumbsucking Witch.


The Thumbsucking Witch was supposed to be nice, but every child knows there’s no such thing as a nice witch.  Witches are mean, fairies are nice. Elementary stuff, but Mom insisted the Thumbsucking Witch was good-natured. When she caught me sucking my thumb, she would give me a friendly little pinch and I would remember to stop.


A witch who pinched me just at the moment I had achieved a temporary and uneasy peace? This was my mother’s idea of “good-natured” and “friendly?” What, then, qualified as evil? These were the kinds of questions that kept me sucking my thumb.


According to my mother, I couldn’t see the Thumbsucking Witch but she could see me. Was she invisible or just hiding in the room somewhere? Could she see me when I was in the bathroom? The closet? Was anywhere safe? Was she ever NOT watching me?


I believe both the Cold War and my mother’s fascination with James Bond spy movies provide relevant context for my surveillance paranoia.


I believed in the Thumbsucking Witch. I didn’t believe she was nice – I was no Pollyanna—but I believed she existed and followed me everywhere, waiting for me to screw up so she could punish me. This, by the way, is a pretty typical GenX origin story.


Anyway, I met her. I met the Thumbsucking Witch late one night when I couldn’t sleep. She poked her head and torso through my window, wearing standard-issue pointy black hat and billowing black robes, though no wand — curious.  Nothing about her was friendly. She stayed for about half an hour, shaming and reprimanding me for my disgusting, babyish habit. Again and again I would bring my thumb to my lips and then force it back down under the covers, delirious with fear and longing.


When the witch flew away, having first extracted my trembling promise to quit sucking my thumb and threatening to return if I didn’t, I climbed down from my playhouse bed and ran to my parents’ room. I had been right the whole time; the Thumbsucking Witch was not nice. How dare my mother lie to me about something so fundamental? How dare she?


Mom was unimpressed with my hysterics. “Marta, the Thumbsucking Witch isn’t real. I made her up so you would stop sucking your thumb. You must have just had a bad dream.”


I would have none of it. “She was in my window, she was MEAN and she scared me.” I can only imagine what this scene must have been like for my mother, who had a Master’s degree in psychology and had just graduated from law school. How to counsel such an irrational client?


My mother was not the type to indulge drama and sent me back to bed, bawling I’m sure, afraid to suck my thumb and yet needing it to calm down. I wanted to believe that my mother was telling the truth, that the Thumbsucking Witch was just a character she had made up to get me to quit a bad habit — it made sense — but I had seen the Thumbsucking Witch. I had heard her.  I knew she had visited my room and frightened me. Didn’t I?


How is a five-year-old supposed to reconcile the rational truth with her perceived experience? How is a 45-year-old supposed to do that?


So odd, the things that cross your mind as you listen to the news.


I hope you’re well and happy, ready for whatever comes next. I, for one, am wishing for a dull,  quiet year, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get one. Never mind … we have each other.


In love and solidarity,

Mom & Dad

Misty Park


Dear Wonderful You,

Have you noticed how some people seem to have these misty, soft-focus end-of-life experience with their parents? That’s not how it happened for me. To tell you the truth, both of them were giant pains in my ass.


My mom, with a brain tumor, had no business driving her Lexus Death Star in the middle of a polar vortex. She, of course, would not concede this fact, so while she was at the rehab center after her surgery, I took her keys – and her car batteries for good measure.


I confessed the day I picked her up to go home. I was loading her things onto a little cart to take out to my car and had to hold onto it when I told her I was keeping her car keys, my legs and hands were shaking so badly. She yelled at me, I cried and took her home. Once she was sure I had left, she dug out a secret set of keys, likely congratulating herself (again) for being way smarter than her daughter.


Of course her cars wouldn’t start, so she called to lecture me about my negligence in exercising them regularly while she was out of commission. Brian took the phone and I sat on the stairs eating my hands while he broke the news about the batteries, which he had hidden in our garage in case one of her friends decided to help her do a break-in.  We knew of a couple who might.


We fought near the end of her life like we had when I was a teenager, only the roles were reversed: she wanted to be allowed to take the car; I insisted on more supervision when she was home alone; she couldn’t believe how controlling and overprotective I was being; I said the way she was talking to me made it LESS likely I would acquiesce, not more.  It would have been funny if cancer hadn’t stolen her insight and fear hadn’t stolen mine.


Carol & Marta 1977


My dad, who had always been gregarious and considerate, became sullen, self-centered at the end of his life. He was embarrassingly rude to waiters and cashiers and claimed my time with neither acknowledgment nor apology:


“On the 24th, pick me up at 1:00,” he would say after the briefest of greetings over the phone. “I need to be at the clinic by 1:30.”

“Okay …you know the 24th is my birthday, right?”


“Okay. See you then.”


It was 23 minutes to his house in Apple Valley, then another 30 back up north to the clinic, another 20-30 of waiting to start the appointment, another 20-30 once we got in. Then I would go back out to the waiting room for two hours until he was done and drive him home in rush hour traffic. Sometimes I was able to run  to the grocery store or go home to check on my kids while I was waiting.


Those appointments were for stent replacements. Once he was diagnosed, in December of last year, he got a port and a more permanent stent and started chemo. He wouldn’t take pain relievers stronger than Tylenol, so in January,  he had a nerve block procedure to manage his pain. We accidentally entered the wrong building  and he walked 20 steps ahead of me all the way through the tunnel to the other one, never saying a word to me.


I could count on one hand the number of actual fights we had ever had until the year he died, but we were on opposite sides in the 2016 election. Our political discussions, which used to stop short of doing real damage, started hurting.  Once, while he was getting one of his chemo infusions, I (stupidly) asked him what he thought about Betsy DeVos being Secretary of Education. He was a public school educator and I wanted to hear what he thought about such a catastrophic appointment. It started out okay, but eventually he told me I should move to Canada or Europe with the rest of the snowflakes and I cried because he was being mean, he was dying, and I was ashamed I had started the conversation. The nurses attended to him without looking at either one of us. We worked it out, but I still get a stomachache, thinking about that day.


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We hung out on the phone a lot. Sometimes our conversations were just like they used to be. We would talk for a couple of hours about raising kids in competitive, challenging Edina,  loneliness, how hard it is to believe that who you are is enough, how important it is to listen to God. I loved those conversations, but they became fewer and further between. More often, he gave me detailed accounts of what he was eating, his pain, how quickly he was losing weight.


I would do anything to have those two know-it-alls back.  I miss them all the time.


How are you? Do you feel like some giant drain has opened up and all the good is leaking out of the world? I hope that’s just me.


I’m glad we’re back in touch.

In love and solidarity,

Hello, Old Friend

Cinnamon hearts


Hello, Old Friend. I’ve missed you.


I am returning (I believe, I hope) from a long absence. I buried my dad in late June, three years after my mom died, and ever since I have felt like my moorings are slipping. There are still plenty of people who love me and whom I love in equal measure, there are still places I want to see or return to, still recipes I want to try and books I want to read. I don’t feel lost or permanently broken – just lonelier and a little bit beaten up. I miss belonging and connection, so here I am, writing to You.


I spent about a year and a half writing an essay about my time working at a greenhouse outside of Cleveland. I think I have rewritten it 20 or 30 times, submitted it to 15 literary magazines, and been rejected by 50. That’s not true of course, because the math doesn’t work out, but it feels true. Rejection always feels bigger than my efforts, why is that? It shouldn’t.


Anyway, if you’re a writer (or even if you’re not), you’re rolling your eyes and telling me I haven’t even begun to try. You’re telling me I have to keep going and send my essay out again. You’re talking to your screen about how many times very famous writers sent out their manuscripts before someone finally accepted them, published them, made them famous, and produced movies or built amusement parks in honor of their books.


And yeah, I know, I’ve heard those stories too, but nobody is going to ride an orchid-themed roller coaster.


So with love,

I say this:

Shut up.


I am retiring (for now) from my failed career in literary-magazine-writing. In fact, I may bake myself a retirement cake, since I really like cake and happen to be a fairly excellent baker. See? I have plenty of confidence. Self-doubt is not the problem; rattling a locked door is the problem. I do that a lot, especially with people, but we can talk more about that later. Or not. Let’s not.


These might be letters, not essays. They might be essays, not letters. I don’t know, we’ll see. My therapist has retired early – a decision for which I am trying hard not to take personal responsibility—so I am all yours. I am trying to stop trying so hard to be “writerly” so I can enjoy writing again. I am trying to let go of writing for redemption and start writing for connection. That is all more difficult for me than it should be, but I intend to try.


I want to feel better, braver, more hopeful than I currently do. I’m guessing I’m not the only one, which is why I am sending this out into the shrieking chaos of the Internet. Write back if you feel like it. If you don’t or can’t right now, I’ll keep writing to You anyway. I heal by healing –we all do.


Love and solidarity,

The Modern Romantic

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“Do you believe in soulmates?”


My rational husband swears I asked this on our first date, but I’m sure I waited until at least our second or third. As far as I was concerned, time was a luxury I couldn’t afford.  I was already aware of at least two obstacles to our long-term viability:


  1. We were astrologically incompatible
  2. He was math-and-science, I was liberal arts


We were probably doomed. So if I was going to go on watching action movies and dealing with his weird roommate, I needed him to grasp the Fundamental Principle of Romanticism: The Girlfriend is Everything You Have Been Looking for Since Forever. Otherwise, why bother shaving my legs?


“So do you?” I was leaning against his chest, so I couldn’t see his face. I waited, feeling pressure build in my chest and behind my eyes. Shit. Shitshitshit.


He was quiet for a long time.  A looooooong time. Then:


“I think you become soul mates, you don’t start out that way. You spend time together, you get to know each other, and you make your own soulmates.”


Now, 20 years later, I can see a kind of practical romanticism in his response, but at 23, I was looking for a lot more nostril flaring. Damn it, was I The One or not?  How long did it take to make a soulmate? A couple of months? That would bring us up to Valentine’s Day — what if we hadn’t become soulmates by then? What kind of Valentine’s Day would that be? I imagined myself in a silky bathrobe from Victoria’s Secret, eating Spaghettios out of the can and watching Sleepless in Seattle alone. That’s what kind. Bullshit.


But what could I do? He was an excellent kisser and I wasn’t willing to give him up, even if he was being stubborn about declaring his undying love for me.  I would teach him. I would show him by example how to be Romantic.


And I have, but so has he shown me.


“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke, from  Letters to a Young Poet


As a young(er) woman, I wanted full possession, an exhaustive inventory of my lover’s heart and mind. And I wanted him to demand the same from me. True romance meant there could be no distance, ever.  I was desperate to know and be known, to understand and be understood.  I wanted the merging Rilke warns against, I wanted two-become-one.  Tear down all the boundaries and there was love, waiting on the other side. I believed that, thanks to a dramatic, romantic nature and seeing Titanic in the theater six times. Love was all-or-nothing: you either grabbed hands and leapt into the churning, icy Atlantic together or you died alone.


Brian, who could barely get through a single viewing of Titanic, let alone six, didn’t see it that way. “I would find another thing that was floating, tie it to hers, break off a couple of pieces to row with, and find a rescue boat,” he said after the movie. “He wasted all of his energy at the end, talking to her.”


I mean, really. Sometimes it was as if he had never spoken to a woman before.


But I couldn’t help loving him. He didn’t talk much, but he was smart and funny when he did. He was a good problem-solver and impossible to rattle. He was disciplined about his work and never complained about how much he had to do, even in the middle of a surgical residency. Best of all — though it took time and wisdom to value this about him– he  was a guardian of my solitude. He granted me the space and freedom to be wholly myself.


At first –for a long time, really– all the space he cheerfully gave me felt like disinterest, a rejection. Gradually, though,  his easy support of friendships and projects that didn’t necessarily include him made me bolder, more confident, and more willing to grant him the same independence.


And Romance, confined for so long to one kind of relationship and diminished by my possessiveness and anxiety, grew to fill the “infinite distance” between Brian and me. He loved me and I loved him. He didn’t have trouble remembering that, so what if I took my worried eyes off of our relationship for a minute?  What if I rested my gaze on the rest of my life, which had just as much of a right to grow?


When I did, the romance I had sought so desperately in my relationships showed up everywhere else –the kitchen, the garden, east-coast cities, northern lakes.  I found it in hospital rooms, in restaurants, on porches and in living rooms.


“We do not want merely to see beauty … we want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

~C.S. Lewis


That is what romance is –to become part of the beauty that surrounds us all the time, whether we are looking or not. Six months after my daughter’s brain surgery, I went up to my old summer camp to celebrate its 100tth birthday. I spent 11 summers there as a girl and a young woman — Camp Lake Hubert is what my heart looks like on the inside, I’m sure of it. My friends and I wandered up and down the old paths and sat around the campfire like we had when we were 14, sifting sand through our fingers and toes while woodsmoke perfumed our hair. My breath and pulse slowed, I slept without moving. I felt I was returning to a self that had been waiting there in the woods while I ferried my little daughter from EEGs at Children’s Hospital to surgery at Mayo Clinic. I was both a woman returning and a girl welcoming her back. I don’t know if that makes any sense — it does to me.


My friends and I were staying at my dear friend Lisa’s family lake house, right on Lake Hubert. I awoke early on the last morning of the reunion and crept through the semi-darkness with my camera. I let myself out and walked barefoot down  rough wooden steps to the dock, where the sun was just beginning to rise over the lake. I knelt on the dock and wept from relief and gratitude for that sunrise. It was all for me, I knew it.


The September air smelled of earth and metal. The sun spilled golden light on the silver lake, diamonds flashed among the mellow waves.  Like my wedding ring. I had never felt closer to the very center of my life. I was kneeling alone on the dock, but my friends were still with me. Brian was still with me. Everyone who had watched over me during the horrible months of my daughter’s seizures and tests and surgery was still with me. I had dozens of soul mates, whether or not they believed in the idea or would say I was theirs. I didn’t need them to.


Was that morning really romantic? Is that the right word? My people –and especially Brian– are present in all of the places I love and all of the places I love are present in them. They are always with me, part of the beauty surrounding me even when I am alone. There are infinite distances between us, yes, let us allow them to be there as Rilke urges. Let us “see each other as a whole and against an immense sky.” There is romance in that. I can agree to that and Brian taught me how.


Yet let us also invite each other now and then into the infinite distances between us, the parts we don’t easily share. The wildest, most vulnerable kinds of beauty live there in those spaces — the parts of ourselves we protect most fiercely because they have made us whole and recognizable to ourselves. That is right and good …we don’t have to dissolve into each other for love. But we do have to know each other. We can’t hide out in those infinite distances between us, floating alone in our imaginations while those we love stand on the opposite shore, guarding our solitude. The beauty we want to be part of includes each other. We can’t be whole without each other. That is what I know.


© 2015 Marta C Drew


My mom died from lung cancer (no, she wasn’t a smoker) in March of this year. Yesterday, we all gathered at the Minneapolis Club downtown to express our love and respect at her memorial service. It was beautiful — perfect, really– and I know my mom would have loved it. I delivered a eulogy for her (somehow without tears, though I lost my place a couple of times).  For those of you who couldn’t be there and have asked to read it, here it is …


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The wisest mothers — and mine was absolutely among them– know that our ultimate purpose is to teach our children not to need us. To know and love us, yes, to respect us, absolutely, but not need. Carol Thacher was not the kind of mama who ever wanted to hear her daughter say “I would be lost without you.” She made sure I would never be.


So you may be surprised to hear me say that the hardest part of losing my mom has been losing her protection.  If you knew her for at least five minutes, then you know hers was not a nervous, fluttery kind of maternal protection. It was way better than that — more generous because it made both of us strong, not just her.  She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it.  There were  a few times when my mom stepped in to fight a battle for which she didn’t believe I was ready, but that was rare. For the most part, her protection came in the form of empowerment –coaching me towards independence, sharing her community, and showing me how to experience motherhood within the context of womanhood.


I did not come home to milk and cookies after school, unless I was at my grandma’s. If I wanted cookies — and I ALWAYS want cookies– I was going to have to learn to bake them myself. So I did. My mom loved to talk about me as a 5th or 6th-grader, home alone after school with the television and stereo both blaring, teaching myself by trial and significant error how to follow recipes. In her office downtown, she would take a call from a client about a lease she was negotiating, then a call from me.


“Um, Mom? Sorry to bother you, but my recipe calls for corn syrup and all we have is corn oil. I can use that instead, right?”


Then a call from another client seeking her counsel about a tenant dispute, then another from me, apologizing for the egg white that dripped into the silverware drawer. She giggled at the juxtaposition and answered everyone’s questions. She didn’t tell me to stop baking and she didn’t rush home to take over — she let me make my messy mistakes, trusting that I would ultimately work it out. 


She was not here to shield me from the world, she was here to get me ready for it.


I know there were — and maybe still are– people who felt sorry for me because she wasn’t home with me after school, but I love what I learned to do on my own. And I love my mom for giving me the space and the trust to do it. I love her for sending me to Camp Lake Hubert for a month every summer, where I found my best self, and I love her for teaching me how to rescue myself instead of doing it for me.  She rolled her eyes on my behalf when someone was thoughtless or petty, but then came the smile, the slow nod. “I know you can handle this, Lamby.” So I did — sometimes well, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The point was that she believed I could and expected me to try. That is still the point now.


There was plenty of time alone in the house, yes, but I was never alone in the world.  From the beginning, she surrounded both of us with powerful nurturers, thoughtful teachers, creative problem-solvers, wise counselors –to raise us both, through childhood and beyond. She shared everyone : her big, loving, musical, complicated family; her devoted, brilliant, meddlesome friends, her accomplished, formidable, deliberate professional network.  I was welcomed and loved in your homes; GramBea’s rice pudding is still my ultimate comfort food and I wouldn’t DREAM of any other birthday cake besides a Sue Burritt’s World-Famous.  Some of you graciously consented to interview me after college when there was still a chance I might turn out to be employable.  A few of you even bravely tried to teach me math.


There you were, every time. And here you still are. You’re checking on me, inviting me to the theater with you, walking me through the estate stuff, helping me plan today. You get credit for that, absolutely, but so does my mom. For me, your comfort and aid always were and still are an extension of my mom’s comfort and aid. If she trusted you, I trust you, almost without exception. My mom died, yes, but I am not motherless. I have you, if you’ll have me. The best mothering happens in community and communities don’t die unless we let them. This is not to say that we all have to go to each other’s birthday parties — though you really should invite me because I make excellent birthday cakes now. What I’m saying is that all of us who loved her are torches lit from the same fire. We’re related in this singular way, she brought us together,  so whenever we’re together, I  feel her taking care of me.


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She was my mother,  always. She was clear about that from the beginning. In junior high and high school, when describing one’s mother as a best friend was in vogue , my mother would have none of it.  “There are elements of friendship in our relationship, but I am your mother, not your friend. You will have all kinds of friends throughout your life, but only one mother.” At the time I resented it, because I  understood it was my job to resent EVERYTHING she said and I took that job very seriously, but it was a loving distinction, one she never abandoned. When Steve, my stepdad, was dying from melanoma thirteen years ago, I told her she should lean on me.


“I am a grown woman now and I have experience with this disease,” I told her. “Just let me help you.”


“No,” she said. “I am your mother. You lean on ME. I don’t lean on you.”


I was frustrated — and not a little bit insulted– but she understood her purpose better than most, I think. Her job was to prepare me for life as a modern woman — whatever that meant then, whatever that would come to mean.  She couldn’t do that if I related to her as a peer.  Peers are the people who have gone no further than we have. She had gone much further. She was never my peer. She was my mentor, teaching by example the most essential and difficult lesson of my adult life: remembering to grow myself along with my family. For her, motherhood happened within womanhood, not the other way around.


She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small.


Her great gift to me was allowing me to know her as a woman, the one she had been growing into all her life, long before I  arrived. She loved music, James Bond movies, raunchy humor, singing along with Handel’s Messiah on Christmas morning, giving advice, finding the most efficient way to do anything and everything, her career, her friends, and travel (though not packing for it). She hated gravity and woodpeckers and being inconvenienced and losing her husband. She had a wicked little computer solitaire habit, she was disciplined, competitive as hell, and threw giant tantrums when she broke a nail but was a rock in an actual crisis. Because she was a loving mother, she shared her life with me. Because she was a strong, wise woman, she never handed it over. She would do anything for me except dissolve into me. Mom, I thank you deeply and sincerely for that — not only because I got to know you as a real person, but also because I got to see what all of your hard lessons about independence and growth were for: they were for learning to live my life on my own terms.  I’m not quite there yet, but I understand.


My mom built an enormous, delicious, satisfying life for herself, full of the people, work, music,  theater, travel, and  causes she loved. Why shouldn’t she?  She could have built her life inside of mine, engineering my every experience in terms of her own latent ambitions, but then we both would have turned out small.  By living her own life, by pursuing what was meaningful to her, she taught me how to do it too, to be a grown woman.  I don’t always feel like one — nothing has ever made me feel more like a child than losing my mom. But I know I can figure it out and I know I am not alone. I have a big, beautiful life to live — different from hers but just as satisfying. I have a family to raise and a self to raise with them. I will not ever be lost without her. Because I am not without her — she made sure of that, too.


Carol & Marta 1977