The Sewing Box

I sewed a button on a pair of shorts today, which was a momentous event. Simple mending at our house  can linger for months, perhaps years, just like clothing that needs to be ironed. I have found myself ironing a sleeveless blouse on a snowy day in February, simply because the OCD part of me can no longer stand to see it hanging wrinkled and abandoned, in the back of my closet.

I despise sewing and have no skills whatsoever with a needle and thread, despite the best efforts of my mother and grandmother to teach me. I can remember the hideous maroon jumper that I hemmed with scotch tape for a high school Home Economics project (that’s what it was called back in the day) which caused me to receive the only failing grade of my school career.

When I must sew on the occasional button, I grit my teeth and stitch through those little holes with a vengeance, anchoring it with an ugly glob of thread on the inside of the material. You better stay on this time, damnit! Anything beyond a button goes to the magical hands of the lovely seamstress at the dry cleaner.

I still use my mother’s little sewing box—a battered green tin once containing “Bowers Old Fashioned Creamy Mints, manufactured by Earle S. Bowers in Philadelphia” a company that according to Google, was in its heyday in the 1940’s. Nestled inside are two spools of cotton thread from McCrory’s, one of those great discount emporiums of the past and a cardboard packet of needles that came from Food Fair. There is the standard tomato of a pin cushion and a spool containing a yellowed strip of ribbon printed with my childhood last name, which I suspect was sewn into coats and sweaters to avoid confusion in the kindergarten cloakroom.  There is a tiny scissors and a thimble or two and an embroidered “R,” one of my mother’s initials from a mink jacket she owned. During the last year of her life, she removed her initials from the jacket, replacing them with mine.

My mother died in 1980 and I am still using her mending supplies, partly because I do so little sewing, there’s never been a need to purchase anything new. Fifty-year old needles and thread still work. I guess you can buy sewing supplies on Amazon now, but the five and ten was more fun.

I wonder how many junk drawers that little candy tin sewing box has been stowed in over the years. I wonder how many bell bottom jeans, polyester dresses and leisure suits were hemmed or repaired from its contents.  I can still see it on the table beside my mother’s chair, where she sat in the evening, doing a little mending while she sipped her Carling Black Label and watched Bonanza or Perry Mason.

It’s ironic that something as ordinary and mundane as an old candy tin filled with supplies for an activity I detest, connects me to the parent who has been gone from my life for so long. That once or twice a year, when I grudgingly open that sewing box and rummage around for a needle and thread, my mother comes back to me.

Naked Ladies

They magically appear in mid-August. Rogue flowers that look like some kind of miniature lily. Delicate pink faces on a smooth, crisp leafless stem, which I suppose explains why they’re called “naked ladies.” I never planted them and even when I thought I dug out all the bulbs in our front bed, there they are–incorrigible little beauties. They pop up in clumps of two or three in random places, bloom for about a week and along with the increasingly frenzied sound of the cicadas, remind me that summer’s almost over. That for those of us who are governed by the school year, the dreaded Sunday night of August is officially here .

For only the second time since I was five years old, I will not be going back to school this year. Our stint as part-time teachers is over, and that’s ok. We accomplished what we set out to do. But we still feel that sense of coming down the home stretch to Labor Day, of anticipating foggy early mornings walking into spider webs on the porch, driving home in oppressive late afternoon heat and watching the darkness arrive a little sooner each evening. The pool has grown bathwater-warm, my hanging baskets that were so lush in May are now straggly and tired, and my husband’s beloved Orioles should probably just forfeit the season and start over again next spring.

It had been a typical summer until last week when something happened that caused a seismic shift in our perspectives. In what we take for granted. In what we assume will never happen. When the phone rings because a close friend doesn’t show up for work and we are an emergency contact. When several of us arrive at her home to find her desperately ill and have to make decisions and do things we never thought we’d have to do. Things that probably crossed the line of getting into someone else’s business, but the circumstances offered no choice. A situation where you just take a deep breath, plunge in, and worry about the fall-out later.

Thanks be to God, our friend will recover. We will go to restaurants and concerts and spend time at the beach just as we always have. But last week’s events rattled us right out of our late-summer malaise. Reminded us that just like those chalkboard signs you see in the gift shops, friends do become our chosen family and sometimes that means you’re there when the ambulance comes.

Meanwhile, summer continues to drag herself toward fall. The hummingbirds are starting to tank up more often at the feeder in preparation for their long journey south. I always rejoice at the sight of the first one in the spring and reluctantly take the feeders down when they go untouched for several weeks in the fall. The naked ladies have run their course and are wilted and brown.

I simply take for granted that I’m going to see those little pink flowers every year, poking their heads out of the forest of hydrangeas. Just like I take for granted that things are always going to be the same. But, like the naked ladies, our fragile beauty only appears for a brief time and we bloom best when grown in clumps of two or three.

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Beach Memories

 I’ve been a beach person since the days when my family would go to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, stay in a seedy motel painted green with a  lobster on the outside and where the bathroom sink was in the same room as the beds. From there, we moved up the coast to Ocean City to stay with my mother’s best friend who  lived  there year-round. Adulthood brought annual treks to the Outer Banks with a group of friends and now I happily set up my beach chair on the Maryland shore where we have a vacation home.

Our Outer Banks trips always included a dear friend who we lost at way too young an age. When several of us were sitting on the beach in Ocean City recently, (during the week with beautiful weather, not the monsoons) I couldn’t help but think about her, especially since last week marked twelve years since she’s gone to heaven.

She was one of a kind. Her soprano voice could make the angels weep, she constantly won radio trivia call-ins, and had amassed a vocabulary of truly spectacular profanity. One minute a prim and proper elementary teacher, the next a potty-mouth who would make us all burst into laughter with one of her creatively obscene expressions. She loved the Outer Banks and when she was there, her appetite knew no bounds. One of us would be foraging around the kitchen for a snack and she’d give us a guilty look—“Umm, the salt air makes me so hungry, I sort of ate the whole box of Wheat Thins.” Her first question in the morning was where we were going for dinner that night.
Deb eating 2

We spent our Outer Banks evenings watching movies (she knew almost every line from “Finding Nemo”) or sitting in the hot tub under the stars, sipping cocktails, eating Twizzlers, and solving the problems of the world. How were we to know that those movie and hot tub moments were so fleeting and precious, that in a few short years, we would look back and desperately wish for one more movie, one more night in the hot tub?

She did things that made us cringe and roll our eyes—powdering her sweaty underarms in the lobby of a restaurant, singing  an impromptu “Lonely Goatherd” from the open sunroof of my car while waiting for the Ocracoke ferry, (she was obsessed with “The Sound of Music”), vividly describing an erotic dream in the dining room of a bed and breakfast. She was unabashed, uninhibited, and completely her own person. She was also deeply spiritual, devoted to her God,  her family, and to her students at the school where she taught fifth grade.

She fought her illness valiantly. She lived Dory’s line from “Finding Nemo”—“When life gets you down, you know what you gotta’ do? JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” I can still see her getting in our faces and yelling that when we were whining about something. She showed us how it’s done.

Dory and Nemo

Twelve years later my friends and I are older, crankier, more set in our ways. After she died, it was like a tire flew off the vehicle of our friendship. Part of what we had together became like those truck treads you occasionally see along the road—ripped from the wheel and left shriveled and abandoned. We were torn away from her joy in life, her wonderful irreverence. The loss of someone we could indulge with an almost parental love, left us off-balance and we’ve never fully regained our equilibrium. Now we occasionally find ourselves driving along with clenched teeth, gripping the wheel too tightly, earnestly insisting that we’re still having fun while the car skitters from one side of the road to the other.

The sand and surf bring the memories tumbling back. Three of us who shared those Outer Banks trips with her stayed late on the beach one day last week, enjoying the quiet after the crowds left, watching the evening ritual of life guards pulling in their chairs and whistling everyone out of the water. We sat reading our books, sipping our drinks, and passing around the bag of slightly sandy Twizzlers. The ocean was calm, and it was one of those rare, perfect summer days you don’t want to end. I closed my eyes and I could see our beloved friend coming back from her usual late afternoon walk. She flops down in the vacant chair beside me, reaches for the bag of Twizzlers and says, “I’m starving. Where’re we going to eat tonight?”

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Pool Days

Welcome to the adult pool. A few of us long-time lap swimmers have become the self-appointed standing committee, the arbiters of pool ethics and acceptable behavior. We want to make sure everyone is familiar with the rules and offer a few insights on the best way to enjoy the pool.

First of all, you need to be old to swim here. The sign says, “over 18” and most of us are way past that. We’re happy to no longer be sitting vigil at the big family pool, making sure a child’s head is above the water or dragging screaming toddlers out to use the bathroom. But admission to the rarefied atmosphere of the adult pool comes with its own set of responsibilities.

The chairs stored on the wooden racks belong to members, and we do not look kindly on weekend guests who help themselves to one of our chairs, thinking they’re provided by the pool management. And while we’re speaking of chairs, the pool is like church where woe be to the person who unknowingly sits in the wrong pew. Lap swimmers are very territorial about their space at the one end of the pool. Cocktail party swimmers, those who come to the pool to socialize, (Don’t get me wrong, we love you, too.) usually gather along the sides or in the patio area at the far end. You need to decide if you’re a Swimmer or a Socializer and set up your chair accordingly. Umbrellas are in high demand and it is highly frowned upon to move an umbrella, or, as apparently happened recently, take one home with you.

Now, a word about the lanes. Several years ago, a sign-up system had to be instituted  due to (seriously) fights and arguments breaking out about people hogging the lap lanes. (Yes, this is an adult pool.) Some individuals would paddle for hours in a lane or there would be a secret relay system where as soon as one person finished, they would allow one of their friends to slide into the lane regardless of how long others were waiting. It was ugly.

We now have four lanes, two of which may be reserved for a half-hour of swimming alone and two which are “open” but you may have to share with another swimmer. For the most part, the violence has subsided. However, it is not appropriate to give a swimmer the stink-eye because you’re waiting for a lane and you refuse to share the open lanes or insist on always using the lane beside the wall. And if you’re wearing a visor and sunglasses and trying not to get your perfectly-coiffed hair wet—umm, sorry, but you don’t belong in a lap lane. Lap lanes are for swimming back and forth, not standing at one end to chat or practice water aerobics.

A few years ago, a sort of lagoon area was built at one entrance to the pool, with inflatable palm trees and Adirondack chairs in ankle-deep water. Recently a lap swimmer made the mistake of sitting in one of these chairs while waiting for a lane to open and was immediately told that chair was “reserved.” No one appeared to be making a beeline for that chair for at least the next hour, but regardless, lesson learned. The Adirondack chair folks also do not appreciate other swimmers using that entrance to access the pool and interrupting their conversations.

Insider tip—one of the best times to come to the adult pool is when it first opens in the morning (although the chlorine is strong) or in the late afternoon and early evening. You don’t have to walk a mile across the steaming parking lot, the French-fryers have been dialed down so you’re not breathing in greasy air as you swim and it’s not as hot and crowded. And you may see something in the off-hours that makes up for all the craziness.

Last week, one of my fellow lap-swimmers (affectionately known as “the mayor,” always willing to fish out the errant frog or mouse who strays into the pool) brought his elderly mother out for an evening swim. I hadn’t seen her in years and I remember her as a strong swimmer, cutting through the water in her striped seer-sucker bathing suit. She is now frail and bent over and clung fiercely to my friend’s arm as she shuffled along the pool deck. I thought perhaps they would just sit at the edge while she dangled her feet in the water to cool off.

But, no. He and another one of the lap swimmers got a giant innertube and gently, gently walked his mother down the steps into the water, (the Adirondack chairs were mercifully vacant)  and eased her withered body onto the float. Up and down the lanes they went. His mother laid her head against the plastic ring and closed her eyes while her son and the other swimmer pulled her through the water. For a half hour. Her feet, which barely moved on dry land, were kicking the whole time. Muscle memory, I suppose. But it was beautiful to watch and although this woman seldom speaks anymore, you could tell being in the water brought her comfort. For a brief time, she was back in her seersucker suit, swimming laps.

Welcome to the adult pool.


Taking it to the Streets

Sometimes you need to get out of town to get a fresh perspective. I had the opportunity to do that recently as a first-time attendee at a conference sponsored by Chorus America, an organization committed to supporting and promoting community choirs across North America. I’ve done my share of music educator conferences and a few writing conferences, but this was different. I expected to hear great performing ensembles and get lots of information about how to better support the chorale that I currently sing with. What I didn’t expect was to be astounded at how the choral art is changing lives (and in some cases, probably saving lives) with a mission that has gone far beyond bringing people together in the pursuit of vocal excellence.

Choirs are now going through all kinds of technical gymnastics to stream concerts so that elderly residents gathered in the community room of a senior living facility can experience performances they may be physically unable to attend. So that family members anywhere in the world can watch a child or grandchild sing or conduct or hear his or her composition performed in real time. So that members of a choir can receive an email that says, “I am a choral singer currently serving in the armed forces and being able to see and hear my choir’s Christmas concert was the greatest gift I could have ever received.”

In many urban areas, choirs are literally taking it to the streets. I was privileged to hear truly superb performances of youth choirs whose members were recruited from city neighborhoods infested with poverty, gangs, and crime. One was a gospel choir who sang with energy and conviction and then came out into the audience at the end of the performance to share their message of love with each one of us. This stodgy old Episcopalian was moved to tears and that doesn’t happen very often.

A select ensemble from the Chicago Children’s Choir, an organization which includes nearly 5,000 children from all over the city performed works ranging from Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” to stark and painful texts about lynching in the south to songs about striving for racial equality in South Africa. They told their story in plain truth and sublime beauty. Two long-time members spoke eloquently about how the choir has impacted their lives and that the opportunity to make music with people from all walks of life has made them better human beings. One of the singers quoted in the program said, “We respect each other’s differences and are drawn to each other’s uniqueness.” What a powerful affirmation for the world we live in now.

I heard a brilliant researcher talk about the incredible, scientifically documented evidence that music enhances brain development in all stages of human life. No hocus-pocus, no spin, just the simple truth that music makes us smarter and healthier, and she showed us the data to back it up.

I heard someone who arrived here as a child speaking only Vietnamese and whose family could not afford nice clothes and a decent haircut, describe how an early morning choir rehearsal was the only thing that kept him coming to school. That he found a home in the choir room, where a music teacher welcomed him and changed his life.

I sat at tables and listened as representatives from choirs across the country talked about how they’re trying to expand their reach. Whether that means providing a vocal ensemble for those in their 80’s and beyond or funding more scholarships for a youth choir or figuring out the best way to address concert attire for those in the LGBT community, choir people are all in. They’re swinging at every pitch, not just paying lip service, but doing something. Trying in some small way in their own community, through their own organization, to heal a broken world.

Although I spent my professional life teaching instrumental music, my heart is in the choir. Most of us who do this are not paid. We do it because we love to sing beautiful music with other people, and if we’ve had the opportunity to work with fabulous conductors, as I have, all the better. I met many of the people I am closest to, including my husband, through singing in a choir. My life has been enriched from the relationships I have found there, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of us.

After what I have seen and heard in the last few days, I have never been prouder to be a singer. To know that I’m part of something bigger than just getting the notes and rhythm right. That the product of grueling rehearsals and aching backs from standing on risers for hours, can touch someone, change an attitude, soothe a hurting soul. That thousands of us around the world are truly taking our healing message of music far beyond the concert hall and into the streets.


Examining Our Prejudice

I sat in a meeting recently where a consultant told us to “examine our own prejudices,” before interviewing candidates for a job opening. That how each of us personally feels about an individual’s age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity could affect our perception of his or her ability to do the job. No matter how vehemently we deny it or how politically correct we see ourselves, we all harbor prejudice of some kind. It’s part of the human condition. The tough part is knowing when prejudice is whispering in our ear, trying to exert undue influence in our decision-making.

I grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar small town. There were certain black classmates I could invite to my birthday parties and others I could not, because they lived on Front Street and didn’t always dress well or smell good.  My grandmother was educated in the south in the early 1900’s. If there was almost-spoiled food in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable she would say, “Give it to Marian.” Marian was a kindly black woman who served for years as my grandparents’ housekeeper.  No one questioned giving something to her that we wouldn’t eat or wear ourselves. The unspoken implication was that Marian was poor and would be happy to accept our cast-offs.

My parents often referred to a highly successful local businessman as being “light in the loafers” because he was gay, a statement usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and knowing looks. My family members were not terrible people, and I don’t think they saw themselves as prejudiced. Their behavior reflected the social norms of the day in a conservative small town.  I look back on that era now with horror and amazement.  

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My life has been blessed and enriched by people I’ve met along the way who are different from me. I can point to the individuals and situations that have vastly changed my perspective over the years and I am so grateful for those God-given opportunities.  But I still have work to do. I freely admit prejudice against those who choose not to be educated, who close their minds, who refuse to give something new a chance. Who judge based on appearance or lifestyle. Who bully those they perceive as inferior to them. Who indirectly condone the murder of school children because they’re afraid someone will take away their hunting rifle. Who blame others for choices they themselves have made. Who blaspheme Christianity by using it as a defense for acts of political or ethnic hatred.

Sadly, we live in a time where those 1960’s attitudes are once again not only prevalent but encouraged by some. The sentiments that used to be whispered in the board room or the roadside bar are now not only plastered on our car bumpers but promoted all over social media, where the poison spreads even faster than it did in the last century. The unspoken message is “It’s ok to be cruel and trample others as long as you come out ahead.” Abhorrent rhetoric from the leader of our country has re-ignited racism and prejudice in unprecedented and truly frightening ways.

So, where does that leave the rest of us who are trying to do the right thing, to live as God intended? Does blatant and publicly acceptable racism force us to take a harder look at our own attitude? Yes, we’re shocked and appalled when police are called to remove black women from a local golf course for no apparent reason. But is there a tiny part of us that is angry and frustrated and under the right circumstances, may be forced to confront some racism and prejudice of our own? Is what we say on the surface reflective of what we’d do in a given situation or are we just giving lip service to maintain our appearance of political correctness?

 Examining our own prejudice is a tall and painful order. I’m working on it before those interviews start.

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Zombie on the River


Chiques Hill, a high out-cropping of rock near my hometown in southcentral Pennsylvania, provides a breath-taking view of the Susquehanna river. To the north, like a vision of Oz, lie the giant cooling towers of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Thin white plumes of steam spiral out of the towers for Unit One, the only reactor still in use.  From up here, it all looks so placid, like a futuristic settlement on a far planet.

I remember seeing the massive turbines roll through town on flatbed trucks, headed for the new power plant being constructed on a sandbar on the Susquehanna known as Three Mile Island. We just landed a man on the moon, and now this clean, modern energy produced without smoke or pollution, would be generated twenty miles north of us.

Ten years later, on a day in late March, we heard about a minor incident occurring in unit two of the nuclear reactor. I was out shopping for wedding shoes with my mother. We listened to the reports on the car radio and then went to our favorite restaurant for lunch as planned. My mother was fighting breast cancer, so I was just happy to spend a normal day with her.

Outside there was no evidence of anything amiss.  No mushroom cloud or strange light in the sky. It was a typical end of March week in the mid-Atlantic, still more winter than spring. There was no assault on the senses that made you think something terrible had happened or was about to happen. We joked about holding our breath and glowing in the dark.

News reports told us that a pressure valve in unit two failed to close, and contaminated water drained into adjoining buildings, causing the core to dangerously overheat. Emergency cooling pumps were activated but human operators in the control room misinterpreted the readings and mistakenly shut down the pumps and the reactor. Residual heat from the fission process was still being released which caused the core to overheat to just 1000 degrees short of a meltdown.


Most of us had no concept of what any of this meant. Men in short sleeve dress shirts and narrow ties reassured us from our television screens that all was well. Governor Thornburgh, calm and professorial in his horn-rimmed glasses, initially suggested a precautionary evacuation of nearby towns but was quickly silenced by the corporate owners of the plant.


The core had come within an hour of a complete meltdown and over half the core was destroyed, but it had not broken its protective shell. No radiation was escaping. Sighs of relief. Crisis averted. No need to evacuate or scurry into those buildings with the ubiquitous yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs leftover from the Cold War days.

On March 30, we were told there was a bubble of highly flammable hydrogen gas within the reactor building created two days earlier when exposed core materials reacted with super-heated steam. The day of the incident, some of this gas exploded, releasing a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The sound at the time was attributed to a ventilation door closing. The experts weren’t sure if this bubble could create a further meltdown or possibly a giant explosion. Residents were ordered to stay indoors. The governor advised all pregnant women and young children who lived within a 5-mile radius to evacuate. The floodgates of panic burst open.  

My uncle, a retired physician, who had been shepherding my mother through her cancer treatment, tells her it’s time to head out, especially for someone with a weakened immune system. Schools and businesses closed. We decided to leave until whatever was coming was over, if it was ever over.

Lines formed around gas stations, banks were emptied of cash, roads were jammed with cars packed with possessions. People who never dreamed they would be refugees suddenly found themselves leaving their homes, not knowing if they’d ever return. With the looming specter of nuclear annihilation now a reality, those duck and cover drills we did at school during the Cuban missile crisis seemed utterly absurd. 


 My parents went to the New Jersey shore to stay with my mother’s best friend from college. It was the last time they would see each other. For my mother, who found it ironic that she was being evacuated to avoid radiation exposure, this was a brief reprieve from her radiation and chemo treatments. By the first anniversary of TMI, she had been dead for a month.

I went to my fiancé’s apartment outside Philadelphia where we practiced being newlyweds while waiting for Armageddon. We were young and idiotic, so we drank cocktails and watched TV, cooked meals, and walked the dog, all the while pretending we were grown-ups, just in case we didn’t get to do it for real. We found it darkly romantic. Huddling together safe from the sinister bubble. Waiting for news.

We returned to our homes after President Jimmy Carter toured the plant in his haz-mat suit and reassured us that the danger was past. TMI became a touchstone, a reference point. “I started teaching the year TMI blew up.” “Our first child was born during TMI.” “We live just south of TMI.” To this day, I never think of those three letters as standing for “too much information.”


In the years following the accident, disturbing studies on cancer rates of those who lived within a close radius of the plant popped up on a regular basis, only to be quickly discredited by representatives of the company’s owners. Investigative reporters dug deep, but that data was banished into the far recesses of the state department of health. Hard copies probably now long destroyed.

 TMI is once again back in the news because it is to be permanently shut down in 2019.  Nuclear energy generation is no longer profitable and at this point, the state is not going to bail out the company. This morning an article in the local paper described the potential dangers associated with long-term storage of nuclear waste. Beyond the environmental impact, there is concern that with reduced security at closed plants, the waste itself could be more vulnerable to attack by terrorists or anyone with a deadly agenda.

 40 years after a nearly catastrophic nuclear event, the dancing atoms will at last be stilled. Insidious spores of radiation will no longer be spewed into the atmosphere. TMI will become an island wasteland, an abandoned behemoth rising out of the river, a permanent shrine to one of the greatest human screw-ups in modern history, its deadly innards sealed in lead and concrete but always with the potential to come back and destroy, given the right circumstances. TMI is our zombie on the river. It will never really die.