The Jeanne Tree

When my children—all grown up now––reminisce about going to Jeanne’s house at Christmastime, two things come up: the dollar presents they received and the dog hair in the macaroni and cheese.

You might not think that inexpensive gifts and dog hair make a love story, but they do.Consider this: to ensure Jeanne’s permanent status in our family, my eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth drew up adoption papers which she circulated to each of her six siblings. Everyone signed.

Consider this: to ensure Jeanne’s permanent status in our family, my eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth drew up adoption papers which she circulated to each of her six siblings. Everyone signed.

I met Jeanne McHenry in 1966 at Occidental Life Insurance in Los Angeles. I was a claims examiner; she was my supervisor. Her corrections to my EOBs (Explanation of Benefits) were composed in well-formed, aggressively slanted letters with long athletic tails and loops––the hand of an artist, one who used a fountain pen. My appreciation had the happy effect of distracting her from my errors. Our friendship began and continued through my family’s moves to Arizona and Washington State.

When her marriage broke up in 1984, she and her twelve-year-old daughter Wendy moved to Bellingham where we lived. She became a part of our family activities, lavishing affection and presents on our children.

At the beginning of every school year, she delivered individually labeled bags of school supplies—wide-lined paper, colored markers, glue sticks, erasers and #2 pencils. If she found half gallons of ice cream or past pull date cookies on sale, she dropped them off. When we went to the movies, she concealed candy bars and pop in her oversized purse because “Theater prices are outrageous.”

But: she did not hesitate to pull out her wallet when one of the kids was selling Girl Scout cookies or car wash tickets. She did not skimp on viola lessons for her daughter (who eventually earned a master’s in music and became a music teacher) or on expensive dog food for her three German Shepherds, Tasha, Jake and Bear.

Jeanne and Wendy spent most Thanksgivings with us. She arrived with three pots of food, swaddled with thick towels, and protected in a cardboard box. One pot contained oyster stuffing, another creamed onions, the third, applesauce. None of the children liked oyster stuffing or creamed onions, though all but the un-coachable youngest took polite helpings.

We all loved her hot applesauce, the air suffused with the scent of cinnamon as she entered. The taste varied according to the kind of apples scavenged. She maintained a gleaner’s eye while walking the neighborhood or out for a drive.

“Hi,” she’d say to the stranger opening the door. “I know you don’t know me, but I see that apples have fallen off your tree. Would you mind if I picked up some of them to use?”

Applesauce was standard at her pre-Christmas event, along with the boxed macaroni and cheese she knew the kids loved and didn’t get at home. Her version included cream added to the base and extra cheddar and jack cheeses, making it no longer a Kraft-recognizable concoction.

We were all excited to gather in her house across town, a modest two-bedroom, 1000-square foot craftsman. A freshly ironed decorative tablecloth hung low, concealing a door atop two sawhorses, the improvised dining table set with red plates and heavy glass goblets. Lacquered ebony napkin rings held cloth napkins.

After dinner, we sat on the floor around the tree. There were presents for all, but they came with a price: finding the answer to Jeanne’s question by locating the right decoration in the clustered mass of ornaments on her tall tree.

“Who is the person we honor at Christmastime? Hint: not Santa Claus.” “What sign shone over Bethlehem?” “Who came bearing gifts?”

When the Jesus, star, and Three Kings ornaments were successfully identified, Jeanne hugged the winner and handed over a present.

She shopped Good Will and Value Village, garage sales and remainder bins all year round, aiming to spend one dollar per present. She was remarkably successful with little pieces of jewelry, wallets, hair spray, toys, and her favorite, coupons from McDonalds.

In early 1995, Jeanne was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died in September of the same year. Jeanne, who had found solace in a local community church, didn’t want a fancy memorial. Wendy, Jeanne’s sister and niece, her friends from church and her job at a local bank, and all my family met at the edge of the bay for a short service of remembrance. We stood there on that windy day, hands in our pockets, extracting stories from our hearts and telling them in halting sentences, stories that symbolized many years of love.

As 1996 came to a close, I thought, what better way to honor our friend than to restore her tradition. So, for twenty years, we’ve hosted The Jeanne Tree, inviting extended family members, even though most of the grandchildren and many of the spouses did not know Jeanne. Disclaimer: I do not go to garage sales. I spend around $5 per present. I don’t serve macaroni and cheese at the Jeanne Tree, nor do I serve baked onions and oyster stuffing on holidays. There’s no seducing any of this generation of Lamberts into liking them.

I display Jeanne’s picture and say a few things about her. If sentimentality surfaces, one of my children gives me a nod and I stop, hoping that The Jeanne Tree demonstrates the values that she exhibited.

This year, although we established the date well in advance, two families of five were unable to come. Four others were iffy. With reluctance, we canceled The Jeanne Tree.

But only for a moment. I invented The Pop-Up Jeanne Tree, for this year only. On a visit to three sons and their families (9 grandchildren) in Logan and Park City, Utah. I carried with me a metal tree purchased by my daughter-in-law Leya, and outfitted by my wife Amory with small ornaments. From the time, I got there, my six-year-old granddaughter Harper asked, “When are we going to do The Jeanne Tree?” I asked questions, I hugged the winners. The grandchildren got presents.

Meanwhile, my two oldest daughters, Elizabeth and Deborah and her wife Leya—they live two hours away—wanted to come up on what would have been the Jeanne Tree weekend. “A relaxing time, girls only (which included our one-year-old granddaughter),” they said. “We’ll make lunch for you.”

They made lunch, then revealed that the day was in honor of Jeanne. They’d bought cloth napkins and a table runner at Good Will. They purchased a few roses and scrounged wild flowers and leaves in the neighborhood. We told Jeanne stories—how Jeanne tied a bike to the bumper of her car when she traveled so she’d have transportation if car trouble interrupted her journey, how she bought dollar bags of romance novels on the last day of the library book sale, and how we loved her laugh and her long brown hair, which she wore down to her waist…until the bank administration said it “wasn’t professional.”

Our conversation included references to dog hair, a memory that makes us all smile, but could never overshadow the canopy of love that characterized our decades with Jeanne.

Dealing with the Nix in Phoenix

Prior to my trip to Arizona, I skimmed The Phoenix Book: A Guide to the Valley of the Sun. Written by a native and a newcomer, the book begins with the newcomer’s breezy negativity: “During our first visit to Phoenix, the weather was an intolerable 107 degrees…the scenery, so brown and monochromatic, was monotonous after California trees and ocean. I concluded that the most important thing about Phoenix was the nix in its name.”

Fortunately, an attitudinal change resulted in joint authorship of a 242-page paperback. The authors note that Phoenix had “everything under the sun,” including “a lot of hot people in summer.” They promise hints for survival––helpful considering the 108-112 degree-temperatures predicted during my five-day stay.

The book’s pages feature original illustrations and hand-lettered marginalia. Lively chapters cover standard guidebook elements: sightseeing, shopping, the arts, restaurants, day trips. The chapter called “Indian Culture,” containing information on petroglyphs, the Yaqui Tribe and a recipe for Indian Fry Bread, generated a raised eyebrow on my politically correct countenance. Why Indian and not Native American?And what about those menu prices? Three dollars tagged as a “reasonable” price for dinner and over ten dollars, “very expensive”?

Citing these red flags is my backhanded way of drawing attention to the fact that The Phoenix Book was written and published 43 years ago by Anne Christensen, a longtime resident from a prominent Arizona family, and…me, the newcomer.

Joan Didion said, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether or not we find them attractive company or not.”

My former husband and I only lived in Phoenix for two years moving to Washington State in 1973. The Phoenix Book sat on my bookshelf, unread for several decades. Just before my current trip, it occurred to me that the writing in a book, like entries in a journal is an indicator of the author’s interests, style, and personality at a particular time. I tossed my copy into my backpack in case I’d have time for introspection.

I did not intend to use The Phoenix Book as a guidebook. I was accompanying my wife, a participant in the conference that would select a new Methodist bishop. While she was at meetings, my goal was to spend four days finishing a magazine article on smallmouth bass. I planned to hunker down either in our spacious, over-air-conditioned room at the resort or at the Scottsdale Library. Every day would include one or two swims in the hotel pool. I’d spend one day checking out the campus, including writing time in the library, of Grand Canyon University, eleven miles away, where my daughter was doing a distance learning graduate degree.

On the day I took the hotel shuttle to the Scottsdale Library, it was 110 degrees; I stayed in the cool library until dinnertime. The temperature was still 108 degrees. Neglecting to carry along my own guidebook, I asked the reference librarian for a good place to eat nearby. She gave accolades to “a little old Mexican place, Los Olivos Patio. It’s been around since the 40s.” The place was charming, the service was fast, and the nachos were excellent—generous amounts of shredded beef, cheese, and guacamole.

Back at the hotel, I checked the index of The Phoenix Book to see if Los Olivos was listed. Sure enough, it was! Anne had written, “In 1948, Los Olivos opened as a little taco, enchilada and pool place in the desert. It is not greatly expanded but retains the rough old Mexican feeling with the Aztec-style sculpture and bas reliefs done in lavender, purple and gold colors.”

Anne and I wrote an equal number of chapters and edited each other’s work. However, she had the resources to dine at most of the restaurants and to finance the book’s publication, though I went enough times to be able to comment: “We left some oversized tips to compensate for the carpet of crackers drenched by mirthfully overturned water glasses.” She had four children, I had one. She was responsible for most of the fun “Across, Down and Around” chapter which listied activities for children and families.

She solicited blurbs for the back cover from two former mayors (one, John Driggs, happened to be her brother) and one from the majority leader of the Arizona State Senate who became a member of the U.S. Supreme Court: Sandra Day O’Connor. Anne got our book into the Chamber of Commerce and for a time, it was a best seller generating multiple small print runs. I was grateful that by the fifth printing, my four-year-old was able to add a drawing alongside the Christensen kids’ illustrations.

Anne and I had met when we had collaborated on an editing-writing project for our church. Our mutual enthusiasm for the Valley and for working together resulted in The Phoenix Book.

Without committing gratuitous self-congratulation, I stand by the book we wrote and see that person who liked to write, who preferred an informal style, appreciated the talents of a co-writer, and enjoyed exploring are still components of who I am and what I like to do today.

I also recognize that the glass half-empty individual who first visited Phoenix, who had to be wooed by “the sunsets, the somewhat stately saguaros, the friendliness of the people and the leisurely pace of life” is still with me. I admire those who greet new situations with a sunny, positive, open attitude. Optimism is a more natural posture for me now, but I do have to nod at the unattractive person (not my wife!) who often wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. I have to shake my finger at this shadow side who ignores her abundant blessings of family, creature comforts, and the time and ability to keep on doing what I love to do: writing.

An American Cyclist from South Africa

A guy in plaid shorts and a shirt in the colorful geometric patterns of the South African flag, pushed his bike through the doors of the Extended Stay America hotel in Bothell, WA.

Bright yellow and red panniers hung over front and back wheels. Three water bottles were attached to the frame. Two flags, South African and USA, on 3-foot tall poles leaned over the bike.

My wife was at the end of the check-in line. I looked at the cyclist’s friendly face, thought about my youngest son Weston who’d just biked from Logan, Utah to Boise, Idaho, and said, “Where are you going?”

“Tomorrow is the last day of my 4200-mile trip from the Washington Monument to the Seattle Space Needle. Ten weeks.” No wonder he looked so happy! He was at the end of his trip.

“Why did you make this trip?”

“I got drunk one night” he replied, “and said I’d do the TransAm. Then my mates wouldn’t let me out of it.” He shrugged. “So here I am.”

Dave Rens usually works as a marine engineer; he’s also been a scuba instructor. He grew up in South Africa, enjoying a carefree childhood steeped in outdoor activity. Except for short trips to South Africa, he hasn’t been back since 1994, now calling Florida home. On May 31st, he waved goodbye to his two children, Storm and Morgan, officially beginning his journey on June 1st. He had a bunch of new equipment–the bike, navigational aides, and polarized sunglasses with little reader lens so he could read maps or look at his phone.

The bike I saw come through the door, the Disc Trucker by Surly, had “Roofus” painted on the cross bar. I didn’t get a chance to ask the origin of the name, but Dave was quick to tell me that the bike and tires were tough—“only 6 punctures during the whole trip.”

Being from Washington, I was pleased to hear that the last few days of his trip were his favorites, especially mounting Washington Pass (elevation 5477). “The sheer majesty was difficult to capture…it took my breath away,” he wrote in his blog. “Washington State was fighting to be the best on my tour and is winning.” Check out his text and photos at Dave and Roofus Do the TransAm.

Good luck Dave,” I said. You’re practically an Olympian.”

“No,” he said. “I’m better than them.”

That’s the kind of attitude that can make anybody a success when mounting an ambitious goal.

When I got up to my room, I contacted Seattle’s Channel Five about his arrival at the Space Needle and provided contact information. I left him a meal replacement bar at the front desk because my two oldest sons, Jason and Jules, are associated with PROBAR. Jason has also made the Logan-Boise trip on his bike. This blog and those gestures were the ways I could think to register my admiration for Dave’s ambition.

Congratulations are in order, not just for the medalists in Rio.

A Writing Residency in a Matchstick Factory


When I lamented the upcoming conclusion of my low-residency creative writing program my son said “Come to New Orleans for the first ever Matchstick Factory Residency. You can write. I’ll work on sculpture. We’ll have some good food.”

Weston was a faculty member in the art department at Tulane University. He lived outside NOLA in St. Rose in a derelict wooden match factory warehouse, at one time “the largest of its kind in the world.” Delta Match Corporation opened its doors in St. Rose, Louisiana in 1952, was taken over in 1970 by TransMatch, and closed down in the 1980s.

For $650 a month, utilities included, Weston got the space he’d always wanted. The video he posted revealed five thick-walled rooms cleaned and re-organized into a workshop, gallery, living space, photo studio, and bathroom. Not that the place was gentrified: it had an improvised kitchen containing a hot plate, bucket under the sink, and multiple not-quite-up-to-code electrical connections; the stained industrial toilet resided in a makeshift stall next to a gerry-rigged, open shower, operated by an elevated faucet connected to six feet of hoses and a heating element. The shower floor consisted of a slatted wood platform. The walls were decorated with driftwood.

Without hesitation, I said yes. Air conditioning in the living area, a good bed, compelling projects, and five days with my son was persuasion aplenty.

A few weeks later he collected me at the airport in his pick-up. We banged through the rutted streets of New Orleans, aggressively speeding and passing other cars. “This is how people drive in New Orleans, Mom,” he said.

Twenty minutes later we entered a wide, gated parking lot across from the banks of the Mississippi. A faded For Sale sign advertised eight acres of commercial property, the acreage that included Weston’s warehouse. He punched in numbers and the gate rolled closed as we maneuvered fifty feet forward toward the damp, weed-trampled entrance. The entrance, fortified by a heavy door, had proved an insufficient barricade for the heavy rain during hurricane season. Water penetrated the main living area to a one-inch level. Hurricane season was over but moisture still oozed into the warehouse. The landlord had said, “The tenant is responsible for drying out the floors.” Weston, motivated by soggy clothes and a ruined printer during the first rainstorm, wedged his possessions onto elevated shelves and purchased a pump.

The place was Weston’s and he loved it. He built enormous shutters for the tall windows, painted everything white up to the tall ceilings, crafted an outdoor hot tub and constructed a fire pit. The noble Volkswagen bug (1971) that transported him from the Northwest to the South six years earlier—an adventure shared with his brother Jon—was parked in the front.

More than twenty-five years ago, as a preschooler, Weston had regularly hauled out his sleeping bag, placed it next to the heating vent under my desk adjacent to the kitchen, and slept, lulled by the electronic rhythm of my red IBM Selectric typewriter.

Now that I was in his space, my command post was a seasoned pleather chair with a board stamped “Bullseye Glass” laid across the chair’s arms to simulate a desk. My Mac maintained an easy balance atop it. Weston either stretched out, sketch book in hand, on a Coleman cot, or spent time in his workshop, surrounded by the categorized shelves of saws, grinders, assorted hand tools, and stacks of stored raw materials for his sculptures—glass, stone, and wood––all at hand. On the two days that he taught and tended the studios at Tulane, I accompanied him and worked in his office or the capacious Tulane Library.

Mornings we indulged in cheap eats at the famous Waffle House. Evenings he prepared meals in a Dutch oven—tasty fish stew––over an outside fire. Once we scarffed up crayfish heaped upon large circular platters at the self-described “low-key neighborhood seafood joint” called Harbor Seafood and Oyster Bar.

I completed the last draft of my thesis, Her Name is Quintana Roo, two weeks before it was due, with time enough to revise, proofread, print, and send it in for digitization and binding. Weston finished pieces for an upcoming gallery show. We researched announcements of competitions for community art and studied applications for residencies for artists. We posted six months of goals on large monthly calendar sheets. We discussed the quote, unattributed, that he had taped to the wall–more applicable to me, 4o years older than he. We meditated, strolled the banks of the Mississippi, and talked late into the night about David Foster Wallace, Richard Branson, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

We declared the Residency a success for both of us. “Write your name on the door,” Weston said. I Sharpie-scrawled my name and the duration of the First Matchstick Residency on the backside of the door labeled Water Heater Room. Behind it was Weston’s living space area, where the dripping faucet and faulty wiring hadn’t jeopardized our creativity at all.

Z is for Zen and the Art of Writing

Z“Find a piece of heavy white paper that is the exact size of a book you admire, and cut some circles in it. Make the circles different sizes, some large, some small. Place the white paper over a page of the book. Some of the words will show through the holes. Write these words down. Repeat on another page, and another, until your poem is finished.” Ruth Ozeki’s Prompt #5 in the Preface to Choices (Borderline Press, 2016)

My variation of RO’s instructions:  I gathered up six books on zen from the library, listed here in alphabetical order by author–because aren’t authors the most important element of a bibliographic citation? Zen in your Garden by Jenny Handy; The Accidental Buddhist by Dinty W. Moore; Zen Socks by Jon J. Muth; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; Zen Doodle Unleashed by Tiffany Lovering; and Zen Dog by Toni Tucker and Judith Adler.

Then I cut a series of circles as directed, but opted to take only one small elongated oval so that I had enough width to extract partial sentences from random pages to make a poem. Though there are several several lines from each book, none are from the same pages. I placed Dinty Moore’s phrase “the quibbling Money” in the middle of Toni Tucker’s sentence from Zen Dog  which begins with “Where we sit” and ends with “The quibbling monkey.”

I decided to participate in the A-Z Blog Challenge because my friend Pam Helberg said “You should do this!” We were leaving two days later for the AWP (Association for Writers and Writers Programs) Conference in Los Angeles. I was reluctant because I had a website without content, I was ignorant of WordPress technique, and I was going to be traveling for much of the month. Pam, whom I have dubbed PG, Practical Genius, worked in technology for fifteen years, and continues as a freelancer, said she’d help me. And she has–for many hours.

Using Ruth Ozeki’s prompts was a last minute decision too. Ozeki, whom I’ve heard speak a half dozen times, is an author and Zen Priest. Using Zen, a faith that fascinates this mainstream Methodist, is a fitting conclusion for twenty-six days of blogging. I’d planned all along to use Ray Bradbury’s wonderful book,  Zen and the Art of Writing, but…I didn’t pack it in my suitcase and it wasn’t in the local library, so my Zen explorations included doodling, dogs, children’s literature, motorcycle maintenance, accidental conversions, and gardening, which may go to prove the assertion in the poem title, or that applications of Zen are limitless. Thanks for reading along with me.

You Can’t Define Zen

You can’t define Zen any more than

Rich air and strange perfumes from the flower

I’m walking backward in front of them

You may not use all the tools at one time.

Some spheres have a purity of form

Kindness works. Generosity.

Not every time, but always.

Now on the horizon I see something else

Where we

(the quibbling monkeys)

can learn to finally sit.

P.S. I’m happy to provide the source and page number of each of these lines, but who would want them except a bibliographic nerd?