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Month: May 2013

Designing My Headstone

Designing My Headstone

statuecloseShe rests on a stone chair. Her face is tinged with moss. The hint of a smile curls her lips as she stares into the eyes of a girl. Both carved figures wear long, old-fashioned dresses of gray granite masterfully shaped into drapes and folds. I found the tombstone on a web search and hungered to know more. The grave rests in the heart of Seattle’s oldest boneyard, Lake View Cemetery.  The internet told me nothing useful about the grave, no names, no dates, no pin-point location on a map. I would have to search out the answers myself.

After nestling my children into school, I drove across the lake, parked outside the cemetery grounds and walked. Cars whizzed past me on the thin road that ribboned around Lake View Cemetery. Nearly all of the cars were rentals carrying passengers to the graves of Bruce and Jason Lee, tourists eager to lay down a flower and shoot a picture. The Lees attract many, many visitors.

I wandered without direction until a crow caught my attention with his noisy caws. I followed him to the southern edge of the property, the place where our city founders were laid to rest. I studied the graves of these lesser known residents and then walked some more. I wound my way up a central hill and snapped pictures, crude iPictures because I have no skill in photography and no patience for my phone. The pink tip of my pointer finger should be my Facebook profile picture.

As I tiptoed down the shady side of the hill I was careful not to step on anybody.  I neared a crowd of people with cameras poised and realized I was nearing the Lee graves. People gathered around the impressive black and red gravestones. They were striking, but I wandered past and the strangers at the famous graves shook their heads in disgust as they dug tokens from their coat pockets to lay on the graves. “It’s okay, I’ve been here before,” I mumbled.

I ambled through a mausoleum and shiny, modern graves until I reached the property’s western border. I waved at a groundskeeper as he sped past in a cart filled with shovels and trimmers. He didn’t seem scary. The crow flew back up the hill and disappeared into the branches of a high tree and I followed from the road.

Beneath the tree rested the founder of Nordstrom department store, John Nordstrom. I said hello. I thanked him for being so nice to me when I was a young, co-ed at the U. His kindness made a lasting impression on me during those long Saturday afternoons I spent on my feet serving important people in the VIP booth at football games. My feet ached at the memory. I curved behind Mr. Nordstrom’s grave and there it was – the seated woman I had been looking for just feet away.

plaqueThe grave was so tall it reached the branches of a looming honey locust tree and was even more powerful in person. I was no closer to understanding what the sculpture meant, but I had found it and that was something.

I circled to the front and read the name, “Wilson” beneath a large plaque. There was no date, but from the flowing dresses on the figures, I guessed the grave was a century old or older. In the plaque, the same seated woman offered a horse a handful of oats. Around her other animals; chickens, a dog, a cow, sheep, and possibly a turkey, waited to be noticed by Mrs. Wilson. I was intrigued.

I turned my attention back to the statue on top. I was eager to study the young girl’s face in hopes it would reveal some secret meaning to me. Was the girl that Mrs. Wilson smiled at a younger version of herself? Was the older Wilson smiling as she told the child she would live a life well-spent? I pinched and prodded my phone into focusing on the face of the girl and gasped at what the screen captured. Age and erosion wore away the girl’s facial features. But erosion had worked to etch other features more deeply than the artist intended. The girl’s frozen face bore deep-set eyes under arching, angry brows. Her nose was gone, but her tiny, fragile hands were still exquisite and held onto what appeared to me to be a bonnet. Haunting.

What would I tell a younger version of myself?  Would I warn her not to make the same mistakes I did? No, I learned too much from those mistakes. Would I tell her of things that would work to undo me? No, she would think we were too weak to walk through them. Would I show her how we learned patience over the course of twenty years? No. She might lose faith and never try. Would I whisper to her that love comes when we stop looking? No. She would be more vigilant than ever.

No, I would say nothing. Like Mrs. Wilson, I would stare at the younger version of myself and smile. If the girl bothered to study my aged face she might note the wrinkles at the corner of my eyes, etched from laughing often, she could count the crescent shaped marks at the sides of my lips which marked the deep hurts I had suffered, but most of all, she would see me before her, a survivor, a lover of life and animals and plants and art and people and she could guess her life would be a wonderful journey.

I wandered back to the entrance gates and shuddered. No, I wouldn’t like to be buried under a fancy sculpture. I want something much simpler than that.

I found my burial place more than a year ago. After losing two family members in five years, two relatives that gave not even the slightest suggestion of how they wished to be laid to rest and honored, I vowed I would make a plan as a gift to my husband and children. In the days after the deaths, I watched grieving family members scrape together bits of conversation, hints and suggestions until they resembled a plan. But they really had no idea if their choices were good ones. I wouldn’t cause that kind of pain and confusion. Besides, I always have an opinion on things, why should my burial plans be any different?

Not meaning to be eco – or green – or pc in any way, I stumbled upon a cemetery in the Methow Valley that is simple and to me, wonderful. They lay you to rest in the earth shrouded in simple white muslin cloth. If you pay extra you can be buried in a thin, wooden box. But the idea is that you become part of the living earth again and soon. Come spring, the cemetery is a carpet of blooms. I don’t think there are headstones of any sort to mark the bones buried there, and that is fine because the truth is we don’t know how to mark the place where a soul rests.


The Funeral

The Funeral

wing detail
Crow Wing Detail,
original pen and ink by J.L. Hotes © 2013

I knew the minute I turned the car onto my block that something was wrong. Two crows perched on the powerline across from my house and shrieked. Coming home to noisy crows is nothing new to me. My crow friends are often waiting for me after my morning school run, because that’s when I fed them. But on this day, their shrill noises told me there was something more pressing than hunger on their minds.

“Fix this! Fix this!” is what I heard the birds scream.

I parked the car in the garage and raced to the street where I spotted a black heap. I rationalized that it must be a wad of clothing, lost by one of the many bikers that speed down our block on sunny days. As I neared, I saw the unmistakable structure of a wing, the feathers splayed out white against black and I knew. My hands shook as I returned to the garage for a shovel. I ran because I worried a car would thunder down the street and smash the bird beyond recognition. I didn’t want to see my friend’s guts.

Thank heavens I had on black. Then again, black is my color of choice. It masks puppy slobber and coffee spills better than any other color. My denim blazer felt too perky for a makeshift funeral, but I was in a hurry, so it had to do. I tucked my Bazooka Joe necklace beneath my t-shirt. Bubble gum jewelry doesn’t belong at a funeral.

Romeo’s not allowed to lick his chops at my crow friends

The crow had been hit by a car and laid lifeless in the middle of the road. Only minutes before my friend the crow became past tense. She was the baby of the trio I fed. I had a special toothy whistle that signaled to the crows that food was on its way. My crows loved old hot dog buns and hated kettle corn. I never let our two house cats lick their chops through the panes of glass at the feeding birds. I shooed them away, always explaining that the crows were my friends and I loved them.

As I returned to the street with the rusty shovel I did my best to gently roll the crow’s body onto the metal scoop. Her body was too soft and pliable and flopped free. I grabbed a second shovel and used the tools like oversized chopsticks, carrying her to my yard. I dug a hole as her two friends shrieked and cawed from the powerline at my back. I wiped away tears and dug. I hit stones, I cut through roots, I smashed fronds of a neighboring rosemary bush.

IMG_4474When the grave was deep enough I placed her small body into the hole. I watched carefully to make sure the bird was truly dead, not temporarily stunned. Her neck twisted backward at an unnatural angle, so I knew she was gone. I piled dirt over the crow and muttered a sort of eulogy. I told the bird how much joy her life had brought me. I said thank you for teaching me so much about the intelligence of crows. I confided that I would miss her.  I promised her she would forget being hit and killed soon. I didn’t tell her she would forget all about me. I couldn’t say that part out loud.

As I tamped down the dirt, I grabbed a handful of English daisies and splayed them across the fresh mound. Above me, her two companions grew quiet. They cocked their heads at me. As I turned to go inside the house, the crows dove from the powerline in unison and soared toward the lake. They circled in the air, finally landing on the branches of a tall pine. I don’t know if my friends will ever return, but I will never forget them; the creatures that taught me the importance of small things.

A Wish Is Not a Small Thing

A Wish Is Not a Small Thing

Girl and Sculpture, original watercolor by Jennifer L. Hotes

A wish is not a small thing. It isn’t a delicate fluffy white puff that breaks free of a dandelion gone to seed. It is worth more than a penny. It is bigger than two fingers twisted together into the shape of an ‘x.’ It burns longer than the wick of a birthday candle. It proves sturdier than a Thanksgiving wishbone left on the kitchen counter to dry.

Is any wish as easy to break as a turkey’s dry collarbone?  Nothing worth wishing for is destroyed that fast.

I once wished for an answer to why my daughter’s hair fell out. I wished for her fever to go away, I wished for the thermometer to read any number smaller than one hundred and seven. And as I carried her to the car, I wished for the doctor to find an answer. At the hospital I wished for the tests to go quicker. I wished for her blood to be analyzed faster. I wished for the bacteria in her veins to wither. And then my daughter got better. That was the big wish I was granted. What was the worth of it? I’d say much more than a penny.

My daughters in silhouette against a sunset.

All around us wishes are being granted, but do we notice? If God assigned granted wishes a special sound, like the ding of a new text on our phone, would we take notice? They are worthy of a ding, granted wishes. Would their sound be the clink of a fork against a crystal champagne glass? Or the giggle of a child? Or the music of an ice cream truck?

How many wishes do you make real for others?  You’ve tossed change into the Salvation Army buckets. You have fostered a stray animal. You spend time in your child’s classroom and ask nothing in return. You attend benefit auctions and buy things you don’t need to support a cause. You empty your pantry to fill the shelves of food banks and pass gently used clothing onto others. You serve on the board of a community service organization. You vote. You feed your family organic, home-cooked meals.

But you do other things as well, small things that matter.  You hold the door open for the next person. You keep your phone stowed as you drive. You buy Girl Scout cookies, and magazine subscriptions, and awful car washes, and gift wrap from the neighbor kid.

You keep your promises. You kiss your child good night. You whisper loving words into his ear after a terrible day. You smile at a stranger.

Thank you for granting wishes without knowing it, because you make the world a better place. And I am honored to know you.



If I’m Giving God My Leftovers, What the Heck Am I Serving My Family?

If I’m Giving God My Leftovers, What the Heck Am I Serving My Family?

jewelry boxMy pursuit of God is complicated. In my reality God is a parent–albeit a well-dressed, eternally patient parent, and I am a yappy Pekinese. I know God stands there, arms crossed, foot tapping, lips pursed waiting for me to notice Him. But, regrettably, I as the Pekinese circle and bark at His ankles and nip at the air around His shiny Italian shoes. There are moments when I lie at God’s feet and look up reverently, rolling onto my belly for a quick scratch. But more often than not, I shuffle away from God to sniff and bark at things of my own choosing. God stays put, foot tapping, lips pursed, and waits.

As a young child I am told I loved watching TV evangelists. I’d blast the volume and watch riveted to the service until closing prayers. Afterward, I’d wander the house repeating the sermon, same words, same inflections, same overly-pregnant pauses, until my mother forbade me to watch Sunday TV all together. My happy mornings with God came to an abrupt halt. I continued to pray, but it became a secret activity, joining the list of other things I did in private that included:

1)   Double-checking to make sure the white eyelash was still safely tucked inside my jewelry box. This freak lash grew three times longer than the normal black ones. When my brother spotted it looming above my eye, he swore the lash held a special piece of good luck. He sounded so serious that I plucked out the lash immediately and hid it inside the jewelry box, the one that played the theme to “Love Story” when the lid was lifted.

2)   Writing and editing my Last Will and Testament on edible paper. For the majority of my pre-school years I was convinced I had a non-detectable form of breast cancer. Mind you, I was five, a good decade from having something of note grace my chest. But, logic had no hold on me then! The Will paper was made of caramel, really old, stale caramel which would keep most people from actually eating it. Not me.

3)   Scripting and choreographing television spots for Slippery Soap, a detergent that could make the scummiest surfaces shine, fictitious of course. Though the full glory of this secret activity would not be realized until I was ten and we moved to a house with a linoleum-coated basement.

4)   Checking myself for breast cancer.

5)   Imagining the pain my family would feel when I died of an undetectable form of cancer.

Fast forward to the college years. (Spoiler alert: I lived) On campus, strangers urged me to fill out personality tests and join religious clubs. After months of urging, I attended a Christian gathering (JOSH IS HERE!) in the HUB. Midway through the presentation I caught a whiff of something that smelled like a cross between bacon and burnt popcorn. As I squirmed in that hard plastic chair I realized I was smelling me, my own sinning flesh was metaphorically burning. Yes, according to JOSH I was the definition of sinner. I thought back to those TV evangelist ridden days when I had been good and innocent. Well-intended, I was that, too.

When exactly did I stop praying? Was it after the move to the house with the linoleum floors when I introduced roller skates and a mop to my choreography? And where did that Precious Moments figurine go? The one that glowed from the inside as the tiny girl crouched on her knees and prayed. I rushed from the HUB and called my mother from the dorms. She claimed the Precious Moments girl got lost in the move… maybe burning flesh is genetic.

Fast forward to the present. For years I have been asked by my lovely sister-in-law to join her Bible study group. With young children and a busy husband, it was easy to reject her. This year though, I knew I could make the schedule work. I did a little research on the Bible to see if it was worthy of study and was shocked to learn of the lives that had been lost over the years in an effort to hide, protect and save the pages of the Bible from destruction. I found out that the Bible was one of the most hated and banned books on the globe. I was intrigued!

It’s been nine months since I picked up the Bible and I am more intrigued than ever. My mornings begin with a shot of espresso and the daily lesson. Sometimes I get what I read. Most times I don’t. Often as I read, highlight, struggle to answer questions I am simultaneously arguing with God. “Why so many men? Where were the women, huh? What were you thinking, Abraham? What the heck is ‘Shiloh?’ I thought he was a beagle in a movie.” And on and on it goes.

This winter the leader of our Bible study asked us, “Are you giving God your leftovers or putting Him first?” It was a great question. I pray as I brush my teeth, as I drive my children to school, as I walk the dog, and yes, as I piddle in the dead of night. And suddenly my midnight potty prayers seemed sick and wrong.  I vowed right there in the chapel to stop praying in places that weren’t decent. I thought about how I fire the best directives to my family from behind the bathroom door and vowed to stop doing that as well.

My mind lingered to the humans under my roof. If I’m giving God my leftovers, what am I feeding my family?

The other night, with my husband far away on business, I was nose down in a John Green novel. The cat rubbed against one leg, then the other and when I scanned the clock I realized I had forgotten to feed him, and the children, and the puppy, and me. It was only 5:30pm, but still…we eat early! I scrambled into the kitchen, threw hot dogs on the grill and picked up the book once more. I stood reading at the kitchen counter as the “food” cooked. I was just pages from the end of Looking for Alaska, so I read. After lingering on the final words of the book (a joke you would get if you had read LFA) I glanced out the windows to the yard. Smoke leaked out the lid of the grill.

Main course? Nummy!

I raced outside and flung the burning dogs inside buns. “Dinnertime!” I yelled in an extra cheerful voice to convey accurately the raw enthusiasm I had for the food I was about to serve. In hindsight, it would’ve been easier to throw cigarettes into the fluffy white buns, same carcinogens as the burnt dogs I suppose. As my kids tried to chew what had become beef jerky, I laughed. Sometimes even my main courses aren’t enough. Guess I should’ve used that magic white lash to wish for a ticket to heaven!

//Disclaimers// The author meant no insult/hurt/harm to cancer survivors. She had an overactive imagination and breast cancer was the worst death she could dream up at the time.  Since then, the writer has broadened her causes of imaginary death to include being crushed by a log falling off a logging truck, being shot by a home invader, and killed from the inside by a demon from hell (obviously).

Also, the author meant no harm to those readers that are or know someone albino whose eyelashes are naturally white. She only asks that you, alright beseech, him/her not to pluck them out like a crazy macaw and make wishes. White eyelashes do not equal wishes.