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Angels Among Us


My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.


My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.


Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.


Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.


A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014


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Cooking for Friends

House Rule #1: Maximum Fun!

One of the finest aspects of a work schedule structured around the academic school year is the three-month reprieve that marks summer vacation.  An educator devotes all of her year to working with students – long hours, wearying weeks and responsibilities that seem never to end, bewildering efforts that are seldom adequately compensated… at least, not by salary.  Boarding school life adds extra pounds to the professional weight, since school life is inseparable from home life.  A teacher or tutor remains a teacher or tutor, on-call even at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.  This uninterrupted stress is relieved on the last, blessed day of the school year.

We seize upon the freedom of summer as hungrily as if we’ve been on a yearlong cleanse.  I untether myself from tutoring appointments, becoming a freewheeler who runs at six in the morning and stays out late with friends if she feels like it; released from his second home in the classroom, my husband stays up all night and sleeps until noon.  We use the humble savings we’ve accumulated throughout the year to travel: visiting family, camping, and making the annual pilgrimage to the cabin my grandfather built for my grandmother, nestled deep in the woods of central Idaho.  This year, we invited friends to join us.

I love working at a boarding school.  I love the high school students’ energy, I’ve met incredible faculty families from around the world, and I have never had so many engaging, quirky lunchtime conversations.  My friends are some of the hardest working teachers, counselors, tutors, and administrators I know.  My life is better for knowing them, which is why I thought it would be fun to invite them to my own private Idaho – to commune, cook for them, and laugh without reserve.


I’ve been coming to the log cabin since I was a baby.  I have pictures to prove it: a chunky toddler, all pudgy thighs and blond ringlets in a flowered swimsuit, wiggling her toes in the riverbank’s soft, white sand; a seven-year-old brunette in a short sleeved red dress, gazing out the window of a car into a swath of established, fragrant ponderosas, blurred olive and amber brown; a gawky teenager, outfitted in silver braces and a strange black skirt, caressing her aunt’s thick-haired Kairn Terriers; a bride on her wedding day, resting on a bed of pine needles outside the kitchen window.  I married at the little church in the wildwood.  I catered my own reception and held it at the cabin, where we blew bubbles over the river and partied long into the night at the town saloon.

Of all the places I’ve lived or travelled to, the cabin feels most like home.  I feel most like myself there.  I remember how much my grandfather enjoyed inviting guests to the cabin, particularly in autumn when the sycamore trees flared golden before browning and shedding their leaves in the river.  He flourished in the company.  He loved playing Scrabble late into the night (and he usually won – with triple word scores using the high-point letters).  I think he also savored his guests’ appreciation of the home he’d built in the woods, of the area’s raw scenic beauty. I hope to perpetuate my grandfather’s legacy of laughter and communion by sharing the cabin with friends.


On this trip, I cooked:

Kielbasa with wild rice, green beans, green salad
Penne alla vodka, garlic bread, crisp salad
Pulled pork in spicy chipotle sauce, jasmine rice, black beans with green chiles
Gruyere egg casserole with mushrooms and tomatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes
Crème brulée bread pudding and margarita lime pie (a birthday celebration!)

My friends asked: “Are you sure you want to cook for us?” Unequivocally yes.  I would make a living out of it if I could.  The act of food preparation quiets my frenetic mind; sharing with others soothes my soul.  Their pleasure is my pleasure; their company, my extreme good fortune.  Cooking for them is an earnest gesture of appreciation.

While our children played in the river, riding its currents on ancient black rubber inner tubes and building castles in the sand, I held vigil in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and sautéing.  My friends went on hikes, biked the area trails, tubed, read books, and sunbathed.  I registered their comings and goings as I cooked, smiling into the pans sizzling on the stove, and squeezed in pockets of time to run, read, and write as well. When we all sat down at the dining table, huddled together under the big brass lantern, the rugged outline of pine trees silhouetted in dwindling evening light, I watched my friends dig into what I’d made, delighted by their enjoyment and delighted to share this time with them.

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Unlikely lessons from a vagabond cat.

The morning is grey.  Clouds and a haze of snow obscure the mountains that flank the valley, incising them from the landscape.  Snow has settled in the ridges of the giant oak tree on the west side of the house.  Frost crusts the windows on the deck.  Across the street, Mr. Speakman and his family have just pulled their blue minivan into the icy road on their way to church; the roof of their small saltbox house, a doll’s dream in mint green and white, is tufted with fresh snow.  This sort of morning doesn’t announce itself.  Usually, sunlight pours through the east-facing windows in the bedroom.  Today, the bedroom is dark, all blackout thermal curtains and muffled silence.  Lily rests by my husband’s feet at the corner of the bed, a warm, purring mass of white fur.  My children are still asleep, judging from the silence of the floorboards upstairs. I shuffle into the kitchen. Ethel, a mottled longhair tortoiseshell with sharp green eyes, waits on the back steps for food.

Ethel chose us.  She appeared last May, her fine coat thickly entangled, fur falling out in handfuls.  At first, she annoyed us with her low, aggressive mew. Lily eyed her, twitching.  Our town has a problem with feral cats.  We live near a feral colony hangout, but somehow Ethel didn’t come across as wild: she was too eager to be petted, too comfortable in our company.  We assumed she was probably dumped.  My children, Kai and Rory, imitated her bawdy mew as she weaved through their thin legs.  I distracted her with treats as I cut the mats from her fur. We mused about a good name for her, settling on Ethel, because I enjoyed hearing Kai and Rory say her name.


Effel!” calls Rory.  Ethel materializes from somewhere in the garage, flopping over at Rory’s feet and rubbing her whiskers against the driveway.  Whatever her name was before, she’s Ethel now. “Who’s a good girl,” asks Rory, puffing out her lips and petting Ethel on her matted belly.  “Who’s a good girl?”  The house shades the driveway from the morning sun as Rory and I play with Ethel.  The weekend’s snowstorm has moved on; the sky is a rich, promising blue above the western hills.  Rory’s face pinkens in the cold air.  She smiles at me, revealing an appealing line of rounded teeth and her singular dimple.  When I look at Rory – tiny hand patting Ethel, blond hair falling over her face, the flit of mischief in her golden-green eyes – my focus sharpens, makes a clear, precise picture, and sets right an unbalanced frame.

Two years ago, I decided to leave my full-time job in order to stay home with my children.  I’d lost my mom, and her loss dramatically restructured my priorities. My husband and I also lost our children’s caregiver (not to death, only fate).  The small town in which we live has no daycare providers and the elementary preschool, officials informed me, was only an option for special needs children over 4 years of age.  The logistics grew too difficult.  I quit.

Switching gears between career and family presents challenges that I grapple with nearly every day.  For the first few months, I felt a steady nagging sense of guilt about not reporting to work, to some physical place where I had a documented set of responsibilities, an order, a reachable goal.  For me, the hardest part about not working in a ‘proper’ workplace is its attendant sense of isolation.  Entire days pass when I don’t see anyone other than my family; on a cumulative level, this lack of social contact suffocates.  I find ways to deal, even if it means going to the grocery store to buy a single kaiser roll from the bakery.  I have not regretted my decision to be with my children, to be present in every moment of their lives… and every moment in mine.


The differences between my children astound me.  Rory is a telegrapher.  Her feet have communicated her state of mind since she was two months old.  If she is not singing, she is mid-conversation.  My son, Kai, who is two years older than Rory, is a heavy kettle that releases only an occasional cloud of emotional vapor before returning to a steady, quiet boil.   We call him the Professor.  Perhaps we should call him the Situation, since he finds it important to continually define what “the situation” is.

Kai loves first grade; he can’t wait to tell me about his day when he comes home from school.  Sometimes, he flails his legs and skips, a young Gene Kelly.  Once, when Rory and I painted our toenails, Kai asked to me paint his as well.  I said, “Boys don’t usually paint their toenails…” He persisted, so I painted his nails; it seemed like a harmless way to make him happy.  He wiggled his powder blue toenails with pride at his winter gymnastics performance.  Rory loves preschool like Kai loves first grade.  She adores her teachers, and their goofy, indulgent smiles confirm that they love her too.  Rory occupies herself for long stretches with drawing, painting, and bedazzling, usually while singing or telling jokes.  She has a perplexing habit of suddenly losing touch with gravity, though, tumbling sideways at random moments.

When Rory eats something that pleases her, her body dances a small, unconscious rumba of appreciation at the table.  She might have learned this by watching me, or perhaps it’s a basic human trait: good food = happy.  Kai is a beanpole who wears clothes intended to fit children half his age.  When he finds a food he enjoys, predominantly sweets, he inhales it, just like his dad does.  His eyes hone in on me if I so much as crinkle a wrapper.  “What’re you eating?” he asks, the tiny synapses in his mind firing in anticipation of something sweet.

“It’s cheese,” I say, perhaps a little too perversely.  “Would you like to try some some?”  He doesn’t want to try my cheese.  It isn’t made from sugar.


At breakfast, Rory says, “Hey, mommy! Why did the refrigerator talk to the other refrigerator?”

“I don’t know,” I say, staring blearily at my water glass and wishing it was a triple espresso.  “Why?”

“Because the refrigerators wanted to get refrigerator married!”  She cracks herself up with this joke; tiny blueberry muffin crumbs splatter across the table. Rory weaves a forked piece of cantaloupe through the air.  She builds towers of muffin and scrambled eggs on her plate.  Daily chores start to tick off in my head: laundry, sheets from suspended student, dishes from earlier this morning, dishes from last night, four students coming over for tutoring today, mop the floors, edit the essay I wrote a month ago, find Zen place for once.

Though I cherish the time I spend with Rory while Kai is at school, I can’t wait to drop her off at preschool so I can go for a run. I embrace the solitude; solitude embraces me. Running helps me enlarge my world on days when it feels too small: it lifts the ceiling of small town insularity and demolishes the self-imposed walls that I have built around what it means to be a good wife and a good mother.  My legs sing with pride when I get home.  I shower in silence.  I get dressed in silence.  I am ready once again to un-pause my world.


After I read the children their bedtime stories and tuck them in, I turn on their lamps and nightlights.  I say, “Goodnight!  Sweet dreams!  I love you!” as I descend the stairs.  Kai and Rory chirp back: “Goooood ni-ight!  I love you, cupcake face!  Sweet dreeeeeeams, dear mother of zucchini!  Farewell until tomorrow!”

Though people frequently tell me how sweet and funny my children are, I berate my parenting skills.  Every other word from Kai’s mouth is an apology.  “Sorry, mom,” he says, sighing into his shoulders, when I ask him to zip his winter coat because it is freezing outside.  “Sorry,” says the bony hunched figure playing his Xbox in the wicker chair upon my suggestion that he move to more comfortable seating.  Loving observations turn into reproaches that prompt the inevitable: “Sor-ry.”

Rory’s catchphrase is: “K, mom.”  I can’t deny the charge I get from her agreeability.  She has independently dressed herself for over a year now.  If I compliment her outfit, which is as likely to match as it is to mismatch, she beams: “Thanks, mom!”  The other day, she played with a garbage bag, pretending it was her cape.  As she twisted the bag over her shoulders, she inadvertently knocked over a picture of my mother and me.  I gasped when the frame clattered against the wood floor.  Rory’s eyes brimmed with tears.  “It’s okay, honey,” I stammered, rushing to hug my terrified child, whose face clearly telegraphed her fear of my rage.  “It’s okay,” I said, hugging her, massaging her back.  “It was an accident…  Accidents happen all the time…  It’s just a picture.”  But insecurity flooded me: How did she think I was going to react instead?

It is my responsibility as a mother to encourage the individuality of my children and bolster their confidence as much as possible in preparation for the grueling adolescent years. I want to build them up, because I know that there will be plenty of people trying hard to tear them down as they grow.  It’s a shame, but that is the reality of life.  I can’t control what other people do or act or think or say, so I build and build and build, controlling what I can.  But I can’t shake the fear that, no matter what I do, it won’t be enough.  It breaks my heart to hear Kai say “sorry,” to see the look of terror in Rory’s eyes.


Cats exhibit a total responsiveness to touch.  They don’t know the meaning of subterfuge; you know without doubt when a cat likes you.  This may be why I identify more with them than I do their domesticated canine counterparts.  I know all of Lily’s pulse points: she likes to have her chin scratched, and she presses her head into my hand when I flatten her ears and pet the sparsely covered patches above her eyes.  She finds me irresistible in my smelly, panting, post-run state.  She does not like it when I tickle the muscles of her hind legs.  Ethel, on the other hand, likes to be petted simultaneously on both sides of her rib cage.  She skooches just beyond reasonable petting distance and is prone to flopping sideways when spoken to.  Ethel responds well to manhandling.

I worked full-time when Kai was a baby.  My husband worked towards his PhD at the time, which allowed him freedom to stay home with Kai while I worked.  I got myself ready for work, and then I woke Kai for his morning feeding; that is, if Kai didn’t wake me first.  I fed him in the dark, burped him, changed him, and returned him to the car seat in which he slept when he was very little. (He didn’t sleep in his crib, so my husband and I made do.)  If Kai didn’t fall back to sleep right away, I rubbed his forehead with my thumb in soft, soothing motions: my beautiful, little owl-eyed worry stone.  The more I rubbed, the glassier his eyes became and the heavier his eyelids drooped until, finally, he went back to sleep.  I placed him, car seat and all, next to my husband still sleeping in bed, and crept out the front door to work, making as little noise as possible and praying for Kai to return to sleep.


Ethel was still here, encamped under the giant shrub in front of the house, when we returned from last summer’s three-week vacation.  Though we had arranged for someone to provide care for Lily in our absence, no one knew what to make of the furry vagabond: should they feed and encourage her, or should they ignore her and hope she wandered back into itinerancy?  They ignored her.  She remained.  We found clumps of her fur discarded randomly around the lawn. She was thin, the sides of her body freed of hair, a bodyhawk in feline form.  I grew fond of Ethel’s multi-colored whiskers and delicate paws.  I smiled when I sometimes caught her creeping around the neighbors’ yards.  She became dear to me.

I tried to lure Ethel indoors throughout the summer and fall, despite my husband’s protests and a wicked adult-onset allergy to cats. I left trails of treats leading inside the house and left doors open for longer than necessary.  I even physically placed Ethel on the living room floor.  Her rear end twitched; she sniffed furniture.  But she found the nearest exit and sat by it, looking outward, until I relented and let her back out.  Ethel settled in the hay-filled cranny underneath the unused chicken coop adjacent to the garage.  We’ve seen her slinking out of it on cold mornings.  Now that the snow’s arrived, she’s a little more eager for her morning bowl of food and she’s bolder about coming into the house for small stretches, but she seems to have found her true home somewhere in between the chicken coop and the crannies of our lives.

Ethel leaves us love letters in the form of dead farm mice.  The ragamuffin persists.  Her winter coat has come in thickly, and her belly has rounded.  I am not sure what she sees in us, but I see her in vivid detail: an announcement, a warning, a challenge to memory, an enigma.  Sometimes you have to add members to your family who aren’t related by genes or blood, but feel entirely right to you on a metaphysical level.

Every day is a lesson.  When I open the back door and see Ethel, I place my hands on the small bowling ball of her body, lift her front paws off the ground, and kiss the top of her raggedy little head.  She chose us, but I want her to understand that we choose her right back.


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