Grace Under Fire

The Island’s charm captures you as you make the final stretch down the winding road before the ferry dock. The call of the gulls echoing through the air is its serenade to you, “All is well..…”.

Dad had the cabin on Washington Island completed in 2000. It stood looking out across the water as a stunning representation of 50 years of marriage.

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It was also the perfect place to celebrate those 50 years. My parents began making plans to have the members of their wedding party, family and a few close friends take the ferry ride and stay for the weekend.

Samsung 062713a 193Everyone was excited—no more tents!

Samsung 033While Dad was busy with the design and construction of the cabin, Mom took charge of the interior furnishings—complimenting the line of Dad’s design with durable elegance. She wasn’t expecting to discover that she needed eye surgery that would call for two weeks of healing time lying face down in a special chair. Though upset by the news and suddenly concerned about the condition of her eyes, she got through it one day at a time. But then there was a bout with shingles, followed by the loss of her younger brother Joel—leaving her as the sole member of her immediate family. Too sick to attend his funeral, she was already sad, sad, sad when the next news arrived—her cancer had returned.

With Dad’s support, together they decided to go ahead with their anniversary plans.

When in doubt, plan a party. Mom had the most delicious assortment of cakes made by a baker on the Island for the event. A good family friend/musician named Julian was invited to play and along with his band filled the celebration with music—everyone dined at Bitter’s Inn, dancing and singing well into the night. Mom took the stage briefly and shared her latest news with those she dearly loved saying, “But that’s not why we’re here. We are here to celebrate and that’s what we’re going to do!” And that’s what we did.


Mom directed church choirs and worship for decades and the Sunday morning following the anniversary party was no different. We all received our assignments for the service which Mom put together that took place at the cabin. It was followed by a breakfast including freshly made Island bagels delivered still warm that morning. There was plenty of coffee and the world’s best fresh air and glittering sunshine.

To paint the full picture, fast forward seven years. Mom and Dad took a trip to New York to get away and see some shows. Mom wanted to visit Brooklyn Tabernacle while they were there because she had been using their choir music for years so they took the subway to Brooklyn before their flight home on Sunday. They listened to Jim Cymbala preach and heard the choir which was led and conducted by his wife Carol. Someone told them about Tabernacle’s Learning Center and after the service they went across the street to visit. Though it began with a small number, it was now serving well over a 1000 students gaining skills in reading, writing, math and computers with many achieving their GEDs.

Mom saw a great need to strengthen the connection between her church and its community. A learning center at Eastbrook would be an opportunity to do that. The year following their New York trip, she was asked by the senior pastor to help train a new staff member for city ministry. Mom thought a trip to Brooklyn would be helpful. The staff member arranged for the two of them to stay with a Russian family that he was working with through his foreign missions.

It was important for the trip that they travel light so Mom flew to Brooklyn several weeks later with nothing more than a backpack. She ignored the pain in her ribs and shortness of breath which the doctors couldn’t explain and kept dismissing. She and the staff member used the train to get around the city and the young man’s eyes would light up when they experienced anything Russian. It became apparent to Mom pretty quickly that the young man’s interest was foreign missions not city ministry.

Mom commented later she really didn’t know how she was able to go up and down all those subways steps. She did it one step at a time.

The learning center Mom founded at Eastbrook

The learning center Mom founded at Eastbrook

Shortly after her trip they discovered the cancer had indeed returned and this time it had metastasized.

Mom’s will to live was strong. She looked to her faith for guidance through each and every twist and turn. She longed to know Jesus intimately and went deep. What followed next would be her greatest trial of all….the loss of her 54 year old son to an unexpected heart attack.

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The first moonrise I ever saw was on the Island. It amazed me how it looked like a path across the water leading right into Heaven….its metaphor calling to you, “Follow Me….”

But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark…. Philippians 3:13-14 KJV


Losing Mom

“It’s like a resort! They even have a coffee shop where you can go and sit in the afternoon and have a latte. They’ll make your meals and your dad will love that!” Mom was elated as she shared the day’s events with me that evening. “You wouldn’t believe it, Debs, we spent the entire day looking at assisted living facilities. I think this is the way for us to go. And you just wouldn’t believe how much I walked today!”

“That’s great Mom—you’ll be so close! You guys can walk over to the house and take Sam and Rose for walks, shop at Sendik’s, get your prescriptions at CVS. We can meet on Downer for dinner after work!” This sounded great to me. How does she do it I wondered. Every day brings the possibility of renewed hope for her. That’s what her mother taught her. That’s what her faith gives her. I reassured myself that everything was going to be alright as I walked down the Boulevard, crunching through the leaves, listening to Mom’s voice with Sam and Rose following after me. Cars were stopping to ask if it was my cat that was walking along with me and my dog. “Yes,” I’d whisper and nod. I listened to Mom describe Bradford Terrace, the assisted living facility Dad had designed over 40 years earlier. It had won an award for being the first elderly housing in the state with balconies in each unit. It’s funny how life circles back around—now they were considering moving into it.

It was a part of my daily ritual to convince myself that everybody and everything were all fine. How many times had I left Mom over the past several months and years in tears certain it was goodbye, only to hear her voice the next day full of new energy and inspiration? Just several days previously I had stopped by the condo expecting to find Mom in bed. Instead, she and Dad were pulling out of the driveway, top down in their little convertible with big smiles on their faces, Mom holding a bottle of wine, on their way to dinner with friends. Astonishing, was all I could think. Nothing made my heart leap more than these moments of unexpected normal. When life delivers a plan in place of the one you had hoped for—when you lose the people who mean everything to you—you can either lose yourself as well or look for a new way of living life—a new way of living within yourself. I was trying to find a new normal.

The next week I dropped Mom off at the hospital entrance in the parking structure marked with the crickets—the chirps and pictures were there to calm you and help you know your bearings. I told Mom I’d be right there and parked the car. By the time I got back to the elevator entrance she was gone. I had her purse with her phone in it and no idea which appointment she was going to or where she might be headed. I got on the elevator, pushed the 1st floor button and expected to get off at the lobby with the nice lady and the hand sanitizer. I couldn’t find her though—the lobby had disappeared. I went up and down in two different elevators, checking all seven floors but no lobby—only long halls. I started to panic and someone asked if they could help me. I must have been talking to myself as I pounded the elevator buttons and waited for the doors to open and close as people got on and off. “My Mom—I can’t find her! I dropped her off when I parked and I have her purse and phone. She needs her purse! I don’t know where she is!”

“I’ll help you,” the kind, calm, irritating woman replied. “Tell me where you came in.”

“Right here—where the lobby is supposed to be. They took away the lobby! I’m sure that’s where my mom is!”

“Follow me,” she said and started leading me down a long maze of halls which I knew couldn’t be right. By now people were stopping and staring. My voice got louder and louder, “This isn’t right—where are you taking me?!”

When we reached the window—which for the moment meant I was still in the world I knew—she pointed and said, “There’s the entrance. Is that where you came in?”

“Yes!! That’s where we came in and then parked the car on the other side, back over there by the crickets! That’s where my Mom is! Why did you bring me here? I’ve got to get back! I have to find her!” I started to run down the hall, retracing our steps. I heard her say, “Slow down, I have a bad hip,” as others were joining in to see what was wrong. I got to the elevator and held the door open for her, trying to stay calm as I waited. We returned to our search and by now I was close to hyperventilating. Down we went 7, 6, 5, Stop. Ding. Three people got on with a stretcher.

“Someone close the door for crying out loud! Heavens these doors are slow!” (I can’t breathe. Mom where are you?) The doors slammed shut and down we went. Ding. 2. The doors banged opened and would you believe it, there was my mom walking down the hall.

“Mom!” I yelled and squeezed my way passed the people and the stretcher to get out the door. She turned and smiled.

“I couldn’t find you—where did you go,” she asked. (Where did I go?!)

“I thought you knew I was coming up to meet with my dietitian,” she continued calmly. “I thought you were going to meet me in the lobby.” (What lobby?!)

“I lost you Mom. I couldn’t find you. I’ve been all over this hospital. I was so afraid I lost you.” Then the dam broke. I had been struggling to stay strong for months, doing whatever I could to help keep life normal for my parents; whatever I could to make them laugh and feel good but now I wept. “I’m scared Mom—I’m so scared of losing you.” We walked over to some chairs and I didn’t let her go. We sat down.

“I’m scared too Debbie.”

We sat there for a while as my pulse returned to normal.

Samsung 102713 084Then out of the blue Mom said, “I haven’t done anything important with my life.” A wave of emotion poured over me so strongly that I couldn’t speak. I sat stunned by Mom’s words, by the sound of her voice. The voice that read our favorite stories to us, soothed us, sang to us. Was there a better sound in the world? Mom the adventurer, always thinking ahead, leading the way to the next step in life—for our family and for so many others. I couldn’t imagine what would make her say such a thing except I knew this disease was cruelly chipping away at her sense of worth. I couldn’t think of anyone who knew Mom and wasn’t impacted by her. She had a special way of showing each person she met how incredibly valuable they were. She always asked how they were doing and listened carefully to whatever they had to say. People remember that. They remember her beautiful smile. It came from her heart. She met with so many one on one–supporting, guiding. Mom led the way for me.

Mom modeled and I then modeled. Though neither of us liked it much it gave me the opportunity to learn how to do the books for Rosemary Bischoff Agency which always provided me with a job throughout my life.

On the Skylight Rooftop

Mom and Dad on the Skylight garden rooftop

She took ballet then I took ballet which eventually led me to my job today. She performed at the Skylight Theatre and then I performed there and went on to years of travel and adventures. She confided in me and I confided in her, we talked and drank wine together, laughed, shopped together, cried and drank tea, yelled sometimes, drank more wine and went out to lunch. She loved so deeply. How much she loved her family, her church is beyond words. She showed us all how to love. How could she sit here now and question her value?

 La Traviata

Mom playing Annina in La Traviata

“How can you say that Mom after all you’ve done? You supported Dad through his career and then you made one for yourself, returning to school, earning three degrees, went into music therapy so you could help people, then chose church ministries because that’s what you felt called to do though you had many other choices. You helped build a church and used all of your gifts to support others. You bore and raised four children. You have seven grandchildren—the perfect number—and one great grandchild. Ask anyone who knows you, ask your doctors and the nurses here, ask anyone their opinion. They’ll say you light up a room when you walk into it. You have the most beautiful heart and smile.” (How could she be feeling this way?)

“…I’m afraid of dying Debbie….”

…I knew it wasn’t that she was doubting her faith…

“…I’m afraid of losing you Mom….”

I didn’t understand that day but I came to realize, Mom’s life was running through her mind like a film playing—hurts, misunderstandings, unresolved situations were the loudest scenes. She wanted to live long enough to be free of all of them. She didn’t want to take any of them along with her to heaven. Mom didn’t want to let Jesus, who had done so much for her, down…

“Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice. He has redeemed my soul in peace from the battle that was against me…”Psalm 55:17-18

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There Really is a Popeye

Strong to the finish

Strong to the finish

It was one of those incredible fall days that stays with you long after all the colors are gone. The crunch of the leaves, a craving for apples and Carmex lip balm are my cues that a change of seasons has arrived. The trees reflected the color of the sun and everything seemed to have a golden hue cast over it. It was Indian Summer.

I had gone to church alone that Sunday because Dad was still under the weather. I stopped to get his favorite salad after church and took it to him. I made him a tray and we talked for a bit but he needed rest. I gave him a kiss on his warm forehead and said I would check back later that day. I don’t deal with my concern very well—it’s aggravating to the one I’m concerned about. I often leave my dad’s feeling like I’ve said too much, fussed about things I didn’t need to and have worn him out instead of cheered him up.

I made a third stop that Sunday at one of my favorite stores—Beans and Barley. I was parking the car just as a beautiful choir started to sing on the radio. The sun was hovering over my sunroof, looking majestic against the blue background of the sky. Then all of a sudden I thought I heard Mom’s voice above the singers. I didn’t move. There it was—a single high voice that carried over and above the others. I couldn’t believe my ears—she was singing as clear as a bell— it sounded just like her. I shook my head not understanding why in this particular choral arrangement there would be one voice standing out above the others. Everyone knows that it’s a choir member’s job to blend in. How many times had that been Mom’s instruction to the choirs she conducted over the years? I sat mesmerized and then before I knew it, began to cry. How Mom had struggled with her voice in the later years of her life. Joanie had told her in her final days. “Just think Mom, how you’ll be able to sing in Heaven. No more clearing your throat!”

As oddly as this may sound, I sat there listening to what sounded like my mom singing to me and suddenly felt no separation between earth and heaven. It was like Heaven’s door had opened. I looked up into the sun’s brilliance and smiled my thanks. The song ended with the voice high and strong above the others. “Mom…” I said and smiled. Is she with me as I care for Dad, I wondered as I walked into the store.

I picked out my purchases for lunch and was standing in the checkout line. There was a conversation going on in front of me.

“No, he’s not here. I can’t take you home. There’s no one here who can give you a ride right now.”

There was more chatter as the customer in front of me named off more employees’ names.

“No, they aren’t here today either.”

“I’m dying!” These are pretty dramatic words to ignore and I snapped to attention. “I’ve been to the hospital eight times in the last month.” The man had a distinct voice. “They say they’re worried I’m going to commit suicide! Why would I commit suicide when I’m 90 years old, for crying out loud?!”

I knew the voice. I recognized the man—it  was Popeye. He sounds just like the cartoon character with the big biceps some of us grew up with. When my son worked at CVS on Downer Avenue, Popeye was often there talking to all the cashiers. He would tell them that young people today have gone to pot.

“I’ll take him home,” I spoke up. I wasn’t certain if the CVS guys called him Popeye behind his back and I didn’t want to offend him, so I was glad for an introduction. The cashier looked at me and smiled, “This is Warren.”

Anybody that has been up and down Downer Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side knows Warren. He’s a fixture who wears a tweed jacket with a tan sweater underneath. He’s always dressed up. You’ll never see him in blue jeans. He’s usually carrying a bag or two, looking like he’s been shopping. He’ll start talking to you before you realize it and you’ll soon be drawn into conversation—mostly his—whether you like it or not.

“Hi, Warren—I’m Debbie. I’d be happy to give you a ride.”

“Call me Popeye!” he announced as if to an audience then started to sway backwards like he was going down. I grabbed his arm and the thought crossed my mind that Popeye really could die.

“Is he okay?” I mouthed to the cashier, remembering the CVS guys saying Popeye was prone to exaggerations.

“He’s fine,” she mouthed back, only slightly reassuring me.

I paid for my groceries while Popeye continued on with his story.

“I was in WWII. I watched all my men die. I can’t eat anymore—I have to drink my food,” he was holding a can of Spirulina—his single purchase. “I have pain in my stomach. It’s a mess.”

I listened and believed everything he said as I gathered up my bag in one arm and took his arm in the other. We walked together to the parking lot east of the store but not before he took one more big sway backwards, almost pulling me down on top of him. We caught our balance just in time and continued to the car. “Lord help me,” I prayed to myself, and then pointed out my car to him.

“That’s a Mini Cooper!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, do you like it?”

“Why, that’s a beautiful car!  Who makes it?”

“”BMW owns the company.” I answered.

“”Germans! Those Germans know how to make a car!”

“I’m German,” I said with pride.

“I’m German too!” Popeye piped back.

I helped him into the seat and was a little leery. It was only a week ago my dad’s fever had done him in on our way home from the doctor’s office. He couldn’t gather the strength to get out of my car. I tried to lift him but he hit his back on the top of the doorframe and he let me know it. I thought he was buckling over, fainting, “It’s my back,” he said then. “I hit my back.” We were soon in a bit of a gridlock.

“Stay right here, Dad.” What a stupid thing to say—where was he going to go? It was an attempt at normalcy in the state of panic. “I’m moving the car over to the shade. I’ll call Todd and we’ll get your desk chair and wheel you inside.” We knew the drill—we had done this before when he got Pneumonia on the Island. Todd drove up within minutes and I tore into the condo to get the chair and wheeled it out to the car.

“Why did you bring it here?” he asked. “Drive me into the garage and I can get out by the elevator.

Right. This is an example of our relationship these days. One minute I feel like a mother, the next like a 12 year old.

As I turned the car around inside the garage, I noticed a wheel chair. We decided to use it, replacing it with the desk chair so the owner would know we were only borrowing it.Todd got him safely into it and we made our way into the condo and got him onto his bed.

“Dehydrated!” He said. “I just need to rehydrate.” He convinced us not to go to the hospital and after several glasses of water with electrolytes he was able to get up and walk. “Wow, that came on fast,” he said. “I’m doing much better now. See?” He sort of strutted back and forth in front of his bed. I drove home, packed a bag and stayed with him for several days.

Now back to Sunday with Popeye. He got into my car pretty well and pointed me in the direction of his home. He repeated the words, “I’m dying,” several more times, so I asked him if he believed in Heaven.

“Why, you have to have faith to believe that.”

“You don’t have faith?” I asked.

“I have a rational mind.”

“You sound like my husband.”

I told him I believed in Heaven, that it seems so close to me sometimes I can almost touch it. I told him I thought the best was yet to come, as I pulled up in front of his house and parked. There was a big red chair sitting on his porch. He got out just fine and we walked up the steps slowly together and he told me to knock loudly on the window of the door. “If no one comes, I have to walk around to the back.” I knocked.

“That’s not loud enough,” he snarled.

I pounded, hoping the glass wouldn’t break. No one came. We made our way back down the porch steps and as I prepared myself to say goodbye I asked if I could give him a kiss on his cheek. He nodded and smiled—the first I’d seen from him. As I told him goodbye I said, “I love you Popeye.” Really, I don’t know where that comes from sometimes—the words just fly out of my mouth. But I mean them when I say them.

I watched him walk down the sidewalk to the backdoor, cane in hand, feet turned out slightly, taking his carefully, calculated steps—his bald head gleaming in the sun.

So, this is Warren, who I came to find out just two weeks later had been sleeping somewhere by the bike trail until it got too cold outside. Last Sunday’s paper had a story about it. There was a picture of the house he lives in—I recognized the red chair. The woman who rents it has been known to take people in—“everyone deserves to have a roof over their head,” she said in the article and she provides a roof for Popeye.

I haven’t seen Popeye these last weeks and asked around about him, but no word.

I dropped off some groceries and a canister of protein powder at the back door of the house with the red chair. I thought how Heaven’s door really had opened up to me that day. I had practically stepped right inside it. You see, Popeye’s house is called the Blessing House.

Who would have thought it would be a cranky, old man without faith that would walk me right up to the front door of Heaven…

God Bless you Popeye.

Oh no, it’s a Lump

Many of us have been touched by cancer. Each of our stories is unique. My mom was a beautiful woman. A good woman with strong faith. She lived a healthy life but for some reason she got cancer. Not once but three times.The first two times, we all believed in our hearts it would be cured. I can’t speak for others but I never stopped believing she would overcome it and Dad never stopped praying, “Lord if it be your will, please heal Dolores.”

I remember the first time. It was October, 1996. I was in Chapel Hill, NC—a single Mom, living in a little house on Glendale Drive with Charlie….

Mom discovered the breast lump on a Saturday evening after spending the evening with Dad, getting the sailboat tucked away for the winter. A day later, she called her doctor and went in for an appointment the next morning. The doctor tried three times to aspirate the tumor then sent her to a surgeon who said he wanted to do a biopsy at the end of the week. He did a needle biopsy on the 3.5 cm tumor and she and Dad went to get the lab results together several days later. It was cancer. After listening to the advise of mastectomy vs. lumpectomy and hearing that the latter was done the majority of the time with the same results as mastectomy, they decided to go with a lumpectomy. Her surgery was two days after that on October 25, at Columbia Hospital. Her oncologist visited her beforehand and recommended chemo and radiation. That was new information because her doctor had said only radiation. There were a few tears but she trusted the oncologist’s decision.

She and Dad had a beautiful time together before surgery. She told him in case she was full of cancer, she wanted him to get on with a joyful life. She told him how deeply she loved him–also their children and grandchildren. Thankfully, the surgery went well and she was sent home.

Joanie and I both arrived and stayed for the week, cooking, going to doctor’s appointments and doing what we could to help. She got a good report–the tissue around the tumor was clear as were 17 lymph nodes. “Hallelujah! The answer to the prayers of many,” was Mom’s response. Not long after, she noticed redness and heat in her left breast. They put her on Augmentin and started her on arm exercises. Her good neighbor and dear friend Joyce Gudeman, who had a daughter dealing with breast cancer as well, took her to her chemo sessions. On November 21, her white count was going down but she was told it was okay.

Then the day before Thanksgiving I got an unexpected call. Dad told me they had given her an overdose and she was back at Columbia Hospital. I listened to the update then asked if he could put Mom on the phone. “Oh Debs.” her voice was weak. “John brought me some peanut M & Ms. I thought I ate too many because I got terrible pains in my stomach. But I found out the pains were because they had given me too much chemo.They killed too many of my white blood cells…..and my hair is falling out, Debbie.”

“Mom, I’ll catch a flight out as soon as I can. We’ll get you a sassy short haircut. I’m on my way, Mom.” I’ll never find a plane on Thanksgiving weekend, I thought.

But I did, and Mom was back in surgery when I arrived late afternoon the next day. The sun was going down when Dad and I went to the cafeteria to eat Thanksgiving dinner together.They brought Mom back to her room that evening. She looked fragile and pale. When I was a little girl, I used to worry someone would come and take her away. I would make myself cry thinking about it. Now I was faced with the reality of losing my Mom.

As I walked home to Shepard Avenue late that night, it started to snow. I decided to stop at a little café on Downer called Don Quixote. There was a long counter against a floor-length, wall-sized window with candles set across it–flickering light like fireflies against the glass. I sat down in the corner, ordered a glass of red wine and opened my book as the snow swirled around the street lamps outside. It wasn’t long before a group of jolly people entered through the door, ringing the hanging bells and filling up the seats at the counter to my right. They ordered a round of some sort of festive looking drink that was filled with lots of crushed lemons and spritzer. I asked what it was they were drinking and they ordered me one. I don’t have any recollection as to what the interesting concoction actually was but I told them about Mom and before long we were all telling stories and laughing together as the snow grew heavy outside. They warmed my heart and when I fell into bed that night, I slept soundly and peacefully.

The next day, Mom was showing improvement and we were hopeful all would be well once again.

At times of crisis in our family, we have a way of pulling together to make it a special time. We love being together and it seems sometimes that it takes a crisis to make that happen. Mom, Dad and I had a lively conversation in her hospital room the next morning because we were all so relieved she had pulled through the overdose. Then an idea came to me–knowing that Mom had always wanted Dad to design her a cabin on Washington Island, I thought it was the opportune time to ask if he would do it. I remember saying, “If you don’t think you can afford it, we can charge it to your credit card.”

And the plans for the Washington Island cabin were shortly underway.


Island loveliness–Mom liked this flower which grew and grew. Daniel would always mow around it. I think it was Sam who eventually knocked it down.



It seemed fitting that my devotion referenced Psalm 139 this morning. It was a special scripture to Mom. She memorized the entire Psalm years ago, along with many other scriptures and could call upon them for comfort and guidance at a moment’s notice in sickness or health, in stress or at peace.

Psalm 139: 7-12

Psalm 139: 7-12

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139: 7-12

Oh, do find the time to read the entire Psalm. It’s beautiful. I promised myself I would memorize it and I can still hear my mom’s voice reciting the words…

The Church in a Hill

If you know my dad like Harriet McKinney did, then you know that one of his first questions to you will probably be, “Do you have a church?” Is it ironic that Dad designed a lot of churches? I have to wonder if he was driven simply because he wanted to make sure there were enough places of worship to go around.

He was asked to speak this past weekend about one of his designs–Central United Methodist, 1976 —the first earth sheltered church in our country. It was a part of Historic Milwaukee’s Third Annual Doors Open—which is a tour of over 100 downtown Milwaukee buildings. I thought it would be great to share with those of you who didn’t get to hear him and if you did, his talks included different stories on each day. This is a general summary of the two talks and Q & As. It may get a tad technical for the layman–like me–but fascinating to hear and understand the thinking that went into the design of a “green” church 37 years ago.

View from 25th St on L View from the roof on R

View of tower from 25th St on L
View of tower emerging from prairie grass covered roof on R

The entire concept of the building is a reflection of the awareness of the role of the church in demonstrating to the community its understanding of the inter-relatedness of all of life, specifically as it relates to the reduction of energy consumption and the human need for green space in our urban environment. –William P. Wenzler FAIA, dedication March 28,1982 by Marjorie S. Matthews, the first woman to be a Methodist bishop in modern times.

4th St“I had been interviewed to be the architect for the project. The directions from the church to the building committee were that they wanted a building which was flexible, durable and energy efficient. The chairman of the committee was John Hickman. He had done a lot of study on earth shelter and concluded that was what he wanted for their church. That was one driving force. The second one was the pastor, Ensworth Reisner. He had a 30 foot sailboat down in McKinley Marina—it was a PJ 30 named Holy Smoke. His boat had a prism mounted in the roof of the V-birth. This reflected light throughout the entire cabin. Ensie, as he liked to be called, wanted that feature in his church.

As I pondered all of the direction from the congregation and the two driving forces (chair of committee and pastor) a design began to emerge in my mind. I could imagine a tall “bell tower” in the center of the north face of the church. This tower would be glass on the side of the tower facing south.

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This south face of the tower would become a solar collector that in the wintertime would collect heat which would be ducted by the mechanical system to the furnace and assist in heating the building. In the summertime, a damper at the top of the tower would be opened as well as the south windows of the main church. This allowed for a natural draft in during the summer to flow through the entire church, up the tower and out the damper–creating a natural ventilation. A solar reflector was installed at the base of the south facing glass. This reflector rotates so that it can take in sunlight and reflect in downward unto reflecting glass mounted between the beams. From there, it’s reflected across the ceiling of the church. This does require weekly adjustment depending on the angle of the sun.

Samsung 100113 041The main concrete beams extend to the north face of the church all the way through to the south face. These beams were arranged in a radiating pattern from the tower splaying out to the full width of the south end of the church.



All of the mains rooms in the church follow this radiating pattern which allows them to receive the reflected daylight. The north end of these radiating beams would normally be supported on the north wall, however, in this case, the beams stop short of it. They are actually hung with reinforcing from the concrete portion of the south facing tower which serves as a deep girder picking up all of the radiating beams. The purpose of the open space between the ends of the beams and the north wall was to create a lightness in the area of the chancel of the church instead of the heaviness of the concrete beams. The source of all the daylight of the church comes from the solar tower. The symbolism of this represents the true source of light—Jesus, the Light of the world–and this is Ensie’s prism.

Our office had heard a lot about earth sheltered design but had no experience in it. I sent one of our architect’s, Jim McClintock, to a conference on earth sheltered design. With this data plus the addition of a solar energy consultant being added to our design team, we felt confident to proceed. The radiating beams slope up from the south wall to the north wall which creates appropriate visual patterns in the church but also created drainage which flows from the roof–north to south. We created a valley to run the water off to the east and the west. The waterproofing of the roof system is a product called bentonite which is a clay material that was placed directly on the concrete. When this material gets wet, it expands and creates a complete seal for the roof system. On top of the bentonite, we placed six inches of drainage gravel.

On top of the gravel, we placed four inches of Styrofoam insulation, over that, visqueen and on top of that 12 inches of topsoil. The topsoil was seeded with prairie grass which allowed the footprint of the building by today’s terminology to be “green”.

On the interior of the church, everything in the worship space is flexible, chairs instead of pews, movable platforms instead of a fixed chancel, a moveable wooden alter, pulpit and baptism font. This created a total flexible space.

I remember the service after the etched glass folding doors were put in. They could be opened up to allow for more flow space. The pastor Al Eliason turned the whole church around and faced the glass doors to conduct the service, explaining the symbolism of each of the doors.

My wife Dolores was pastor of worship, music and the arts at Eastbrook Church. She had planned an all day choir retreat and arranged to use Central United Methodist. The chairs were placed in a large circle, creating an open floor space and visibility to the glass doors.

The congregation’s original requirements were met. Flexible–everything was moveable, durable–made out of reinforced concrete, and energy efficient–earth sheltered, solar assisted. John Hickman noted that the area of the new building was comparable in area to the old building but the energy bill was only 25% of the cost of the old building.

The old stairs were made out of railroad ties and repaired by Otto Sunderland and Mike Wenzler

The old stairs up to the prairie grass roof were made out of railroad ties and repaired by Otto Sunderland and Mike Wenzler for Doors Open Tour

I have come as a Light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer wander in the darkness. John 12:46

Who Would Name a Dog Assy?

By 1959, Mom was ready to spread her wings. Dad wasn’t big on moving but he happened to mention to the St. Edmund’s building committee that we were looking for a new place to live. One of the members said his father-in-law had something available in Brookfield. When Dad found out the rent was $75 a month, he became interested. When Mom checked it out and told Dad it was a ten-acre farm and there would be room for a horse or two, he was sold. So, that year,we moved to Brookfield when it was still mostly open farmland with some subdivisions tucked in.

Assy in the snow

Assy in the snow

Our farm was owned by R.J. Kiekhever who lived in what we called “the castle” and owned 150 acres in Brookfield. There was a mile long stone road through woods that connected our farm to the Kiekhevers. We would walk through it to go to school at Brookfield Elementary. This is where we would spend the next ten years, along with four horses, a couple sheep, some goats, chickens, Daisy the duck,



many cats, and a dog named Assy–no, an “L” isn’t missing, you read it right. It’s pronounced Ah-see. We had visited a church in Assy, Fance during Dad’s Fellowship. It was high up in the mountains and we went to see it. On the way back down we stopped at a restaurant to have lunch. While we were eating a boy came along with a little dog and my brother Ed asked if he could have one when we got back home. Mom and Dad agreed and said we would name it Assy.

In the barn with Peep-bo and Assy

In the barn with Assy checking out Peep-Bo. This was the picture Mom and Dad used to design our Christmas card in 1959.

Dad eventually purchased a couple additional acres of land, one lot to our east that had a house and an apple orchard which was great for tree climbing.  I was so excited because now we had access to all those trees.

Dad met our future tenants while he interviewed for a YWCA expansion project. Harriet McKinney was on the committee. In typical Dad style, he told the committee about the house for rent. Harriet was interested and when the meeting was over Dad was introduced to her husband Gerald McKinney who played fullback at the University of Wisconsin. Dad stood there with the two of them on the sidewalk after the meeting and said to her husband, “Well I didn’t know you were black. Do you guys know this house is in Brookfield?  You may get some resistance.”

“Oh, we’ve dealt with that before. We can handle it,” Gerry McKinney responded.

“Okay,” Dad answered and that was the extent of his tenant background checks in those days.

The two of them started coming out to the house doing painting and helping out with other fix-up jobs. During this time, Mom was at the grocery store when a woman came up and asked her to sign a petition.

“What for?” Mom asked.

“Didn’t you hear about the couple moving into the house on Gebhardt Road? We have to stop it,” the lady snapped.

“Why?” Mom wanted to know.

“Well, he’s a Negro and she’s white and Jewish.” Mom didn’t sign it. Then we heard they took the petition to the McKinney’s neighbors to the east. The owner answered the door and they went in and talked. Have you heard about the Negro moving in next door? You don’t want a Negro living next door to you, do you?”

The neighbor said, “I don’t know. I haven’t met him yet.”

It was necessary to have the signatures of the neighbors on both sides of the house so that was the end of the petition.

I thought Mrs. McKinney was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen—she was like a Modigliani painting, tall and statuesque with a long black braid cascading down her back. Mr. McKinney was a strong, robust man with a big personality and an even bigger laugh. We did a lot together including parties at their house and I still remember that they even invited us to share in their Seder dinner.

One day after school, not long after the McKinney’s had settled in, I gathered my two best friends to climb the trees. They told me their parents wouldn’t allow them to go on the property.

I came to understand that fear of the unknown drives many decisions and emotions. I don’t remember what my friends and I ended up doing that day instead of climbing trees but I will never forget that day. As life goes, weeks then months passed and the rules changed. My friends’ father came to know the McKinney’s. The tension in his face disappeared and he told his daughters, “Why the McKinney’s’ are such nice people, I don’t care if you play in their yard, as long as it’s okay with them.”  And that was the end of it.

The McKinney’s were our babysitters when Mom and Dad went out of town on business trips and they were there for us if we got hurt. I came home from school late one afternoon and found Ed lying in the ditch by our mailbox at the foot of our drive. Our horse, Sam had thrown him and Ed’s head was about an inch from a big rock. He was calm and he looked up at me with his big brown eyes. Then I noticed the bone in his lower leg was sticking out over his boot. Mom and Dad weren’t home. “I’ll go get the McKinney’s!” I yelled as I ran to them as fast as I could. Mr. McKinney came running back and jumped over a wire fence. He got his pants caught and tore them good. Mrs. McKinney was in the middle of cooking a special dinner and ended up driving Ed to the hospital because there wasn’t time for Mr. McKinney to change.

I saw Harriet recently at a friend’s visitation. We talked about–what else?–the meaning of a life. She told me in her “Book” if a person can save a life they earn a universe. I told her it seemed that with both my parents—first Mom and now Dad—there was a sense that as they neared the end of their days on earth they questioned if they had done anything of any real significance. “Forget about all the beauty your parents created,” she said to me. “Forget about all the amazing places your dad made for people to worship in. Forget about all your Mom’s beautiful piano playing and singing, that and all the other things they did. They touched lives. You know your dad would always ask me if we had a church. When he couldn’t get us to visit his he tried to get us to go to the synagogue. When he wasn’t successful with that either he actually bought us tickets to an event at the synagogue and we finally went. Did you know I ended up becoming a teacher there and all our kids attended the school? Adam and David both taught there and Shahanna became Principal. Your parents have many, many universes.”

There’s something inexpressible about seeing people you love live on in those whose lives they have touched–like I felt Mom and Dad alive in Harriet McKinney that night. I would say that’s worth a universe. Oh yes indeed, life does go on and on!


Mom with her perennials and Morning Glories which grew on the trellis behind her. I could never understand how those little flowers knew how to sleep at night and wake up each morning but I see them now as a metaphor of life…

Therefore, we do not lose heart, thou externally, we are wasting away yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I Ate All the Chicken Salad

“We ate the chicken salad for lunch, we need more, and we need to have jello around all the time,” Mom said as she laid on her bed recovering from the adjustment to her pills the caseworker had convinced her to try in order to “simplify” things. It had not gone according to plan.

“Okay Mom, I’ll make some.” I had stopped by during lunch.

“You can make some ham salad so we use up that ham.”

“Okay. How do you make it?

“Just onions and mayonnaise. Debbie, we need to have big jars of mayonnaise and salad dressing around all the time. I don’t like those squeeze bottles.”

“You have a big mayo, Mom. Joanie got it.”

“We do?”

“Yes. Are you sure you don’t add pickle relish to your ham salad?”

“No, only onions.”

“Okay. Got it. Mom?”


“You’re dehydrated.” Her mouth was dry as she spoke. “You need some water.”

“I’ll get some” Dad said. He had been sitting quietly at his desk. He was frustrated that the nurse had put Mom through undo suffering. “Honey, do you want ice?”

“Yes.” Dad left to get the water.

“Dad needs to swiffer mop the kitchen each day.” Mom continued. “Joanie says it gets dirty fast.” Joanie, my sister, came from Arizona to be with Mom and Dad through the months of Mom’s chemo. “He can do that. He needs some things to do or he’s just wandering around here.”  Dad had recently retired so he could be with Mom to watch over her.

“Here’s your water, sweetheart.” Dad handed it to her.

“Where’s the ice?  I said I wanted ice.”

“Right, I’ll get it.” Dad wore his concern on his face.

Oh marriage, I thought, if it’s a good one, it’s the place we feel safe to say what we really feel.


“Never mind.”  Mom took a sip.


I looked at Dad and then at Mom. That’s when I could feel the flu setting in—confusion and weariness—there was too much information stirring in the air, in my head. I had brought a stew along with me which I had made the night before and had put it in the oven to warm for dinner. My cure all. Make a stew—it comforts and soothes as it transforms everyday air into a whiff of heaven. We were waiting for the hospice nurse to return for her second visit. We needed to have a stew in the oven.

StewI got up and went into the kitchen to make the jello and ham salad. When I pulled the two pieces of the old metal meat grinder and the heavy blade out of the drawer to be assembled, I remembered all the Saturdays Mom and Dad had made Spam salad together for our lunch when we were kids. I started chopping onions and Dad took over the ham grinding. I thought of the song Grandma Wenzler used to sing to us when we were little–there was a little butcher man his name was Dunderbeck. He’s very fond of poodle dogs, sauerkraut and speck  For pussy cats and long tail rats are no more to be seennever mind, I’ll stop there.

Mom had come from her bedroom and was sitting at the dining room table ready for the nurse’s second visit. Dad laid a newspaper on the floor, hooked up the grinder to the side of the kitchen table and started grinding the meat.

“Are you sure you don’t want any pickle relish in this, Mom?” I was certain we always put pickle relish in ham salad.

“Okay, maybe a little.” Mom agreed, so I mixed some in along with the onions and mayo.

“Lots of mayo Debbie–I like it moist.”

I presented the concoction to her for inspection as Dad cleaned up the ham that had fallen onto the newspaper on the floor.

“It needs a little more mayonnaise.”  I returned to the kitchen. “And more pickle relish or I won’t be able to taste it.”

That’s the spirit Mom!

It took Mom three days to determine what it had been that hit her so hard that first meeting we had with our hospice nurse. She called me before breakfast on the third day and her voice was strong.

“Oh Debs, I figured it out. I told your Dad that it was the first time I felt as though I was being treated like I was dying–that my body was giving up. The nurse said there was no need to worry about my blood or liver tests. No need to take vitamins anymore. It was a change in approach as to how I was to live my life in the days ahead.  I have always lived each day of my life with hope. People need hope, even if it’s just for a day.”

I thought every new nurse should be required to memorize that statement. ‘Everybody needs hope, even if it’s just for a day.’ As soon as Mom could articulate what it was exactly she had experienced, she regained her dignity and spunk. She went to bed that night and slept soundly. Meanwhile, I knew we needed a new nurse. Dad agreed but gave me some instructions, “Whenever your brother Ed would have to deal with an ornery client that was giving the firm a hard time I would tell him, ‘Be sure to take the fruits with you.’ So I’m reminding you to take the fruits when you make the call. Do you know what they are Debbie?”

He made me smile, “I do Dad–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control.”  (Galatians 5:22,23)

“Very good. Don’t forget them when you make the call. We want to help her be a better nurse not beat her down.”

And that little story summarizes my parents approach to life—live with hope, have compassion and don’t forget the fruits. I made the call to Hospice and we were assigned a new nurse. Nurse Lucy. She was everything we needed in the days ahead.

I went to bed that night grateful for Mom’s strong spirit, Dad’s wisdom and our new, gentle nurse. I tried to come to terms with the fact we had no idea what Mom would be facing. She looked me in the eyes and told me she barely cried when her own mother died, “And you know how much I loved Mother. I just knew it was her time and that she was ready. I don’t want anyone crying over me. Okay?”

“Okay, Mom.” I lied.

No One Wants to Say Goodbye

I remember the day hospice came to call. It’s that day we keep at bay for as long as possible. Our caseworker was supposed to arrive at 1:00 pm. Mom had asked me to be there for the meeting. It didn’t help that at 2:00 pm she still hadn’t arrived. It might have been better to have tried to reschedule but we all waited—feeling like sitting ducks. I had carelessly kicked my boots off, was lying on the bed beside Mom, trying to be patient and began to feel an ache throughout my muscles. It was hard to be a cheerleader for hospice. This was not what I wanted–what any of us wanted. We only wanted the cancer gone, out of Mom’s body for good. Dad never stopped praying the words at every meal, “…and Lord, if it be your will, we ask that you heal Dolores.”  But Mom had suffered enough and was really preparing for it to be over.

When the doorbell finally sounded, Dad buzzed our guest in and joined Mom as she made her way carefully to the dining room table. I greeted the caseworker, all hostess-like, at the door asking if she’d like something to drink but she declined. I probably didn’t fool her or anyone else that I was really pissed off from having to wait for over an hour and that that frustration was further compounded by my deeper resentment that we were in this situation of needing hospice at all. I would never stop trying to understand how any of this was even possible.

My sense was that we were not off to a good start but I led the caseworker into the dining area where Mom and Dad were doing their best to be hospitable.

“We don’t need to check your blood or liver levels today,” Ms. Caseworker said as she settled into a chair next to Mom.

She was talking too fast. Her phone rang and she took the call. Mom, Dad and I sat there waiting for her to finish the call, tension building. I could tell Mom was not doing well. Get off the phone lady!  I wanted to scream. What are you doing?!  She finally hung up her phone.

“Are you taking any pain meds?” the caseworker asked Mom.

Oh come on. You’ve got to be kidding. What kind of question is that? My mom has fourth stage metastasized cancer. They had tried final rounds of radiation to help with the pain, but it didnt. They ended her chemo because it wasnt working and this woman is asking her if she has pain meds?  Arent they briefed? I sneezed. Oh no, I thought and sneezed again. I’m allergic to the caseworker.

Then the woman’s phone rang again. She answered it. I sneezed again. I’m grabbing that flippin phone and smashing it. Take cover Mom and Dad, Ive got this under control.

“Tell me everything you’re taking.”  Ms. Caseworker said as she closed her phone once again.

What? Can’t you get that from her doctor? Dont make her expound unnecessarily. Save her strength.

“Can’t you get that information from her doctor?”  I asked innocently enough but was ignored.

The caseworker kept asking questions in a low mumble so that Mom couldn’t hear her and had to keep asking, “Excuse me, what was that?  

Speak up Nurse Ratchit! I wanted to shout, giving her the name of the nurse she reminded me of from the Jack Nicholson film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Mom explained that the tumor in her skull made things sound like she was in a tunnel and politely asked if the caseworker could please speak up. Then she asked,

“What about my vitamins? Should I keep taking those?”

“No, you can stop taking those.”

I winced. What’s wrong with a few vitamins?

“Eat what you want. Are you eating? Do you have an appetite?”  The caseworker next asked.

Not anymore!  I wanted to say standing from the top of the table but the look on Mom’s face stopped me from moving. We sat there, Mom, Dad and me, sort of paralyzed by the situation.

Then Mom started going through all her medications for the caseworker, patiently, one by one. I sneezed again and everyone looked at me. Mom continued with the list and schedule of her pills. A debate soon ensued about the Docusate and Perdium she took to ward off any dreaded irregularity caused by the onslaught of all these meds. Mom made it very clear she wanted to take one of each and Miralax at bedtime. It wasn’t something she wanted to change. The caseworker insisted she take two of each and skip the Miralax.

”Let’s keep it simple,” she demanded after a back and forth until Mom finally conceded.

I was trying to like this woman. There was a faint resemblance to a childhood friend there. I was really trying to work with that and trust that this woman who was sent to be a nurse to my mother knew what was best for her and would help her “live” with cancer.

“What are in these two boxes?” I asked with forced sweetness, trying to change my approach as I reached for the two mysterious looking boxes she had ignored throughout the meeting. I shuffled through the pack of cards that sat on top of each box. The cards listed the names of the enclosed medications.

“You won’t understand. You don’t need to worry about those.” The caseworker said, preparing to leave. “Keep them in the refrigerator so you’ll know where they are.”

“So, we won’t have to administer any of them?” I asked, hopeful that we wouldn’t.

“Oh no. You will.” She clipped.

“Well then…I’d really like to know what they are for. If there’s an emergency, I might panic. That won’t be the best time for me to decipher what’s what.”  I was beginning to feel competent in my approach with this woman. No one was going to push us around. I felt a rush of blood in my cheeks.

“We have given you an entire pack of papers regarding the contents of each of these boxes—they are complete with every side effect known to man,” she said.

I only wanted a little translation of each Latin word–I never took Latin. For example, this one is for nausea and that one is for anxiety or whatever they are for. This woman was really taking me on. Was this a competition?

The caseworker’s voice rose as she proceeded into a lengthy monologue about the various levels of seizures that might lie ahead.

Seizures! No one wanted to hear about seizures.

I couldn’t stop her in time. Mom let out a shudder and then lowered her head to stifle her tears.

The caseworker turned to Mom, “Are you all right?”

“I’m just….It’s just…” then finally, the tears she’d been struggling to hold back since this woman told her she could stop taking her vitamins, flowed.

The caseworker turned to me and said, “See? That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

My eyes stung and I too lowered my head feeling responsible for my mom’s tears.

Luckily for Nurse Ratchet, Dad had remained quiet. Not because he was being kind or tolerant of her lack of bedside manner but because Nurse Ratchet had succeeded in confusing and confounding the wits out of him—out of all of us—with her terse instructions. He, as much as any wise soul knows, it’s best to keep quiet when you’re not sure of your position.

I, on the other hand, clearly hadn’t learned this yet.

Mom's favorite flowers grow back every year

Mom’s favorite flowers grow back every year

The Packers and Chili

It had been the week Hospice came to call. I couldn’t kick the cold that was settling into my chest. I’d given it to Todd and feared passing it on to Mom and Dad. All I needed, I thought,  was a day in bed and was grateful it was Saturday. Shuffling up and down the wooden stairs, back and forth across the chilly hardwood floor—bed to kitchen, kitchen to bed—I didn’t get dressed until 3:00.

Mom had just clipped some recipes from the paper that week and given them to me thinking Dad would like them. One was for Salisbury steak made with hamburger, onions and gravy, and the second was a pasta dish with shrimp. Getting enough calories into Dad, with food he could swallow easily, was a priority for her these days. She had always loved cooking for family and friends, trying new recipes, entertaining, but those days were gone and it was hard for her to accept. I tried to make up for it by searching for any comfort food recipe I could find—showing up at their condo with stews and casseroles. It made me happy to watch my parents appetites suddenly appear with good smells, candlelight, music and laughter.

On this Saturday afternoon, I was glad to find hamburger and chicken in the freezer. I made the Salisbury steak recipe and put together a pot of chicken soup. By 4:45 I was making mashed potatoes. It was already dark and the day had slipped away. I fought off the melancholy sneaking in. I needed to see Mom and Dad and know they were alright. They weren’t calling as often lately—I was the initiator now and I didn’t like it.

“Todd, I need to take this food to Mom and Dad’s. I want to get it there by dinnertime,” I said, knowing this wasn’t his plan for Saturday night.

“I’ll get the car out. We can go to the movie store after we drop it off.  What do you think—popcorn night?”  He asked.

“Awww, sounds perfect.” Could I love him more? He was there for me. My lonely feeling slipped away..

In less than 15 minutes we were in the car. “Hi Mom,” I said on my cell with a deep voice. “We’re just on our way out to run some errands and I’ve made a little extra food.” I didn’t want her to think I was worried about them. “We won’t stay because I don’t want you to get my bug.”

“Oh, Debs—we’re all set to make chili.  We’re going to make it together and watch the game.”  I had a sudden flash of normalcy. It didn’t take much for me to convince myself the cancer was gone and everything would go back to normal.

“Well, now you don’t have to make it.”  I said as I held the dish with the hot Salisbury steaks wrapped in towels on my lap, and balanced the pot of chicken soup between my feet. There was a long pause. “Or…you can have this tomorrow. See you in a minute.” I said goodbye and clicked my phone off.

“Can you believe that?” I said to Todd. “They’re making chili and watching the game. Everything seems fine.”

The condo was warm and cheery as always when we entered.  Mom was busy chopping green peppers and onions but holding her arm as she chopped in a sort of make-shift sling. I could tell she was in pain but she gave us a winning smile.

“Are you in a hurry?  I just need a little help chopping these vegetables. I can’t seem to make my hand work,”  Catching my cold was the least of her worries.

“Sure, I can help,” my voice was crackly, I struggled not to cough and put the food I had prepared in the refrigerator. Todd settled into a chair in the living room in front of the TV with his coat on.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“He’s tired. He was at the store for two hours!”  Her expression suddenly changed with concern. “I’m worried about him. It took him all that time to find the food on my list and he got the wrong things. Luckily, I had some extra beans. He got all small cans and the wrong tomatoes.

“Can you stir the hamburger, Debs?”

I grabbed a hot pad which gave a little pop as the slightly worn and frayed edge got singed by the gas flame.

“Don’t burn my kitchen down!”  Mom said as she walked out one end of the kitchen and Dad walked in the other, fresh from a shower.

“You’re doing my job!” He said, giving me a big hug.

“You chop vegetables, Dad. I’ll finish the meat and open cans.”

“Okay. I had a hard time finding everything on your Mom’s list.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out the list, unfolded the paper with the tiny, neatly scripted writing on it and gave it to me. I could barely read it myself and thought how my parents fit more words on a piece of paper than anyone I have ever seen. They never waste anything.

“That’s quite a list Dad and the store is really big. If you don’t know where things are that would take a while. I think you did great.”

Once the chili was assembled, I went to find Mom. Passing the living room I noticed Todd was out cold–head back, mouth open. The movie and popcorn might have to wait until tomorrow night.

Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed doing a crossword puzzle. She looked up at me—I’ll never forget how bright and innocent her eyes looked. I smiled. My porcelain doll, I thought–so delicate and so beautiful you’d never know her body was ridden with pain. I leaned over and gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and would see her tomorrow, then went to wake up Todd.

Food for the Soul


Making a Home in NYC

I didn’t actually own a home until I was 48 years old. I was in my second marriage–a second chance. Dad was helping my husband Todd and I move and he asked me to count how many times I had changed residence since I left home for NYC in 1978 with all of my belongings in a friend’s VW bus. He knew it was a lot. This took a minute for me to come up with the answer…I started counting…New York–at least five moves there. Short stop  back in Milwaukee with my parents before jobs as artists in residence at Tulane University in New Orleans, onto Steamboat Springs, back to New York, then back to Milwaukee, back to Steamboat, then to San Francisco for Dracula, Los Angeles–now that was a story–,  Cashiers, NC, Boone, NC, back to Milwaukee, Valdese, then to Chapel Hill, which another story… “Forty-two times,” I said after a long pause. I was in the theatre, an artist nomad, always onto the next gig.

Being in the theatre kept my first husband Justin and I on the road—or on the run some might say. We traveled from job to job, coast to coast and back again several times, in our old Ford Van named Hamlet. “He” carried everything we owned.

Newly married, our first place together was a six floor walk-up in New York, on the corner of Hudson and Perry Streets in the West Village. It was freshly painted white which was very appealing and covered a multitude of…well, let’s just say it made things look nice. Our bathtub was in the kitchen. The bathroom was a toilet closet with a pull cord hanging from the ceiling and it was also in the kitchen. The apartment was boxcar style–you walked from the kitchen through the dining/living space and into the bedroom. My favorite thing about it, apart from the light that streamed in through the windows, was that it overlooked someone’s garden. There was no hot water—we boiled that. We didn’t have any furniture when we moved in except a mattress and boxes with candles on top which served as our dining table. I always had flowers in vases. We collected odd pieces–cute little chairs, shelves, drawers–off the street which people had discarded and set on the curbs in front of their brownstones. We furnished most of our apartment that way.

When Mom and Dad came to visit us for the first time, they brought their sleeping bags–I must have told them our apartment was modest.They drove from Milwaukee to New York in their VW van packed full with a couch, a table and some real chairs. We had a fun time riding the subways together, sharing the sights and sounds of Manhattan, and cooking good meals in our “extravagant” kitchen

The apartment was great but the rent was high and we soon learned from other actors that you could be a superintendent (super) of an apartment building and get your rent free.

Justin found a new apartment for us where we could be supers just two blocks away. He was handy. In addition to making Hamlet run when he didn’t want to, he could fix a leaky pipe, or bring a radiator back to life.

Moving all of our belongings was a bit of a challenge because Justin was busy waiting tables and doing renovation work for the owners of a restaurant in the garment district. I was a nanny. One morning, I happened to notice a big pushcart on the playground of an elementary school. When I finished work that day I stopped by and asked the custodian if I could borrow it for a few hours. He said yes.

I pushed it home to Perry Street and parked it in front of our building. I carried our packed boxes down until I filled up the locked front corridor. I didn’t want anything to get stolen sitting on the sidewalk while I ran up and down for more things. I’d load the cart, push it down the streets, get the stuff up to our new apartment on the second floor, and go back for the next load. I had done this several times when suddenly Justin appeared. Someone had called the restaurant and told him his wife was pushing a big cart filled with things up and down the streets of Greenwich Village and he had better get home quick.

“Super” man to the rescue, he decided to fit everything else we owned on that cart in one load so he could get back to work. I had my doubts but he stacked it as high as his arms could reach. We set our cat Lady Randolph on top of it all like a queen in her castle. We said goodbye to Perry Street and pushed the cart together down Hudson Street to our new home. We did great—until the final corner. A wheel hit the street grate at the stop light in front of our new building and everything fell into the intersection. Lady Randolph took off. Justin was all sweaty and mad but all I could do was laugh as I ran after the cat. It was a skill I would develop—laughing in the face of adversity, looking for comedy in place of drama.

Justin and our son Charlie 1985

Justin and our son Charlie 1985