In Memoriam

It’s my fiftieth birthday and I’m wandering around a graveyard.

It’s not that I am feeling morbid, or even that I am attempting to come to terms with my mortality. (Although it’s hard to deny that there is something about turning 50 that pulls the whole mortality thing into sharper focus.)

My younger brother is visiting from New York City, which doesn’t happen very often, and we have decided to take a drive into the country to visit our parents’ burial plot.

“Do you have any paper towels?” Vern asks, as we merge onto the interstate, heading south from Pittsburgh toward Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I point to the glove compartment and raise my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Remember the last time we visited?” he asks, and I do. We planted marigolds, and we scrubbed dried bird droppings from the marble headstone. We laugh and agree that this is par for the course in a graveyard surrounding a church with the word “pigeon” in its name.

Forty-five minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. A stone monument to the left of the wide front door proclaims the church’s historical significance:

The Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church was founded by John McMillan August 24, 1775. It is the oldest church west of the Monongahela River.


pigeon-creek-church-graveyardMy mother’s mother is a descendant of the Rev. John McMillan. Pigeon Creek was the home church of my mother’s father—and his parents, and their parents, and so on. This little red brick country church, perched atop a hill near the intersection of Brownlee and Church Roads, is in walking distance of the house in which my mother grew up, and in which I lived my first two and a half years.

Grandpa Hamilton was an elder at Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church, and Grandma Hamilton taught Sunday school and accompanied the choir on the piano. This is where Mom and Dad were married, where my two younger brothers and I were all baptized, and where my parents are buried, in a plot next to my grandparents.

It never fails to amuse me, as a person descended—through my mother’s line— from a long line of English, Scots-Irish, German, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to see the Maczuzak headstone adjacent to the Hamilton one. My father, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, married into a family of WASPs and is now buried among them.

I am descended from a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary who opposed the Whiskey Rebellion on the western frontier of America in the late 18th century. And I am the granddaughter of a brave Eastern European 18-year-old who sailed to Ellis Island in 1913 to labor in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. The presence of my surname in Pigeon Creek’s graveyard, just a few hundred yards from a handful of Revolutionary War interments, speaks eloquently of the American story—and of mine.


Since my mother’s and father’s funeral services, a decade ago and nearly three years ago, respectively, I have attended only one worship service in this building—the installation of its new pastor, my friend and former campus ministry colleague, John Dykstra. That intersection of past and present is a story for another time, and a bit of serendipity. Another chapter in my history with this church.

Today, we stand together in the center of the small sanctuary, and John catches us up on the modern-day happenings of this congregation. Vern and I reminisce about our childhood memories of this place—how much brighter it used to be before the clear windows were replaced with stained glass, how the Hamilton/Maczuzak clan always sat in the same pew—second row on the left, as you face the altar.

We walk to up to the chancel to investigate the inscribed plaque on the side of the upright piano which has graced this space for nearly 40 years, a living monument to our musical grandmother:

MAY 7, 1978

gravestone-gridWe step into the bright September sunshine and walk together down the steep bank to visit the matching marble headstones for DAVID A. & FRANCES F. HAMILTON and for JANET HAMILTON & JOHN ANTHONY MACZUZAK. My grandpa and my dad were both predeceased by their wives, and when visiting the graves, must have experienced the jarring sensation of seeing their own names and birth dates etched into the marble, a blank space waiting to be filled in at some future time.

By the time they were my age, my parents knew where their earthly remains would rest. I am now 50 years old, and I have no idea.


“Are you two related to the Hamiltons at the top of the hill?” John asks, and curious to find out, we climb the steep bank to check out the headstones closest to the rear of the church building. Catching my breath after the climb, I pull out my phone and snap a photo of an ornate headstone:

David M. Hamilton
Aug. 28, 1846–Apr. 26, 1911
Elizabeth A. His Wife
Mar. 15, 1855–May 16, 1933

I text the picture to my mom’s brother and ask, “Who is this?”

Uncle John replies within minutes, identifying my great-great grandfather. After some back-and-forth Q and A, he wishes me a happy birthday and teases me about how I have chosen to spend it.


I don’t visit this cemetery often, and I confess that I am never really sure what I’m supposed to do when I get here. I feel connected to my parents in all sorts of places—even moreso than on this quiet country hillside.

But this is where we gathered with our family and friends shortly after they died. This is where we shared memories about how grateful we were to have known them. This is where we chose to erect a monument to commemorate that, once upon a time, they lived and breathed and laughed and cried and loved.

Like my ancestors at the top of the hill, most of whom I never met, and the people buried in the nearly illegible Revolutionary War era graves, the headstones in this cemetery represent flesh-and-blood men and women who lived full, rich, complicated lives about which I know very little. But I do know this: if they had not lived, I would not be here.

As Vern and I say goodbye, my friend John assures me that it’s not too late to purchase a burial plot in the Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery, and we laugh. But then I wonder. Maybe I should. I’m not getting any younger.


Amy Maczuzak is a writer and editor who has lived most of her fifty years in or near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Dear Diary

“Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year old school girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.” —Anne Frank, June 20, 1942

“She found that when she didn’t have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.” ―Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy


I am 14 years old, sitting cross-legged on my yellow bedspread behind the locked door of my bedroom. A college-ruled three-subject notebook is open in my lap, and I scribble away, thoughts coming to me faster than I can get them down on paper.

Excitement about the cute boy on the bus who actually said hello to me today. Anxiety about the oral report I’m expected to give in social studies class tomorrow morning. Heartache about being ignored in the cafeteria by a girl I used to consider my best friend.


I am 20 years old, a junior in college, tucked into a wood-scarred booth in the campus grill. Snow is piling up outside, and I am settled into my favorite study spot with a hot mug of tea and piles of manila envelopes full of submissions to the literary magazine, of which I am co-editor. I arrange a stack of blank index cards upon which I will record my impressions of the poems and stories.

But first, I open the hardcover black and white lab book that has served as my journal since last term’s poetry-writing class. Now that I am no longer expected to periodically turn it in for review, I feel a new-found freedom to write without editing myself, comforted that no one will read my private thoughts but me.

I write about my confusing romantic feelings for a male friend who happens to be dating someone else. I vent about my concerns for my father, who is weathering the downturn of the steel industry and seems to be aging at presidential speed between my visits home. I jot down prayers and snippets of Scripture to comfort and encourage myself.


journalI am 29 years old, working in a job that I love, in a city that I love, involved in a quirky inner-city church that I love. I am sharing a quaint townhouse with two other single women who have become good friends. And I am falling in love with a man I met seven years ago, but started dating only after we lived a couple hundred miles away from one another.

Every evening before I go to sleep, I pour my heart out on paper, into fabric-covered journals given to me as gifts and filled at a record pace. It isn’t decision time yet, but what if this is the man I am supposed to marry? What will this mean for the life I am building in this place, with these people?

Over the next several months, in the pages of several more journals, those questions are answered. I am even more deeply committed my job, my city, my friends, and my church. I write with excitement about buying a house and living alone for the first time in my life.


The day after I turn 40, my mother, diagnosed seven months earlier with pancreatic cancer, goes into hospice care. I open a Word document on my laptop and type my grief and fear and rage onto the screen. Tears stream down my face as I hit save and shut down.


I celebrated my 50th birthday last month. For a decade or more, my journal entries have become more and more sporadic, as I check in to write at least twice a year—on my birthday and on New Year’s Day. Email and blog posts and social media have replaced my hand-written diary as venues for self-expression. Almost everything I write has an audience.

As I wrote my annual birthday journal entry in the leather-bound diary that I only occasionally crack open these days, I made a resolution. I haven’t missed a day of writing in my journal since.


Amy bio YAH

Unexpected Favorite Things

“…but don’t you think the gazebo looks a little bit small?” The voice of our Austrian tour guide settled comfortably at the top of the treble clef. Saccharine as Salzburg’s famous Mozartkugel, this woman might as well have been a recording playing from an MP3 player hanging from a lanyard around our necks.IMG_5017

“How could they do the sixteen-going-on-seventeen dance here?” She jutted her head forward, the rest of her body remarkably stiff.

At this point in the tour, I could see where her query was going. Similar rhetorical questions had lead to the revelations that the front of the Von Trapp family home was a different property than the back of the house, that we couldn’t get to the exact spot where the opening had been filmed, and that the free place to stay in the downtown was in fact the city’s prison.

While the Alps were, well, the Alps, just about everything else from the movie was a jumbled amalgamation of buildings, Hollywood soundstages, and private properties that we whizzed past on the tour bus.

When Josh and John Mark had invited me on their European adventure, the Sound of Music Tour had been my one stipulation, my “must-see.” I promised to trek with them to stare at the outside of houses Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived in and to check out the East Berlin Wall Gallery despite frigid winds, but this was my stipulation—to finally embark on my musical theatre pilgrimage.

I don’t know what I thought would happen on the Sound of Music Tour. That someone would hand me an outfit made out of draperies and teach me how to sing? That I’d share in an oddly steamy Austrian folk dance with Christopher Plummer? Or perhaps that I might stomp around downtown Salzburg with a guitar case wearing a dress that “the poor didn’t want” whilst asserting my self confidence in song. If you don’t know the moments in the movie to which I am referencing, you’re missing out.

Instead, at every turn, I was discovering that my childhood favorite movie was cobbled together from scraps of Austria and the Twentieth Century Fox Studio in Los Angeles. IMG_5026

I laughed nervously with my travel companions hoping for the transformative experience to start at any moment, so that the boys would think the tour was “worth it.”

Worth it.

It was the rubric I applied all along our trip to Europe, a notion I’d picked up in a frugal home where each dollar spent on vacation was squeezed like a wet rag till every last drop had been extricated. It was in the way my mom read every placard at the museum and it accompanied the anxious hum in the back of our minds; we may never get to come back to this place. So we’d hover a little longer, trying to stare hard enough at our surroundings to render them meaningful and worth it…

It wasn’t just Salzburg and the tour bus piping Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp Family Singers through its speakers, it was the Holocaust museum in Berlin, and Prague, with its corridors of gift shops filled with sundry items branded with their city’s name. At each stop, I longed to feel different and romantic, and at each stop I found myself tired, or introverted, or hungry, or craving a Diet Coke.

I found myself to be the same self I was in Chicago, except disillusioned that inhaling the European air hadn’t transformed me. In Europe, as in Chicago, real life was much more embodied and much less ethereal than it was in my daydreams. The hard things about being me, about being an adult, my depression and anxiety, and even the prickly hairs that sprouted from my chin, remained.

The Sound of Music tour guide continued with her characteristic refrain, dismantling the magical world created in the film. “How could they do the sixteen-going-on-seventeen dance in such a small gazebo? Hmmmmm? That’s because they didn’t. They built a larger one in Hollywood…”

We couldn’t even go inside the gazebo, because an elderly guest had recently broken her leg trying to dance on the benches as Liesel and Ralph do in the movie. Our passion for the film was a liability to the touring company at each step, as we were reminded to keep everything at an arm’s reach.

The tour ended in the town with the church where Maria and the Captain got married. The interior of the church had been painted pink. Pink. I took an obligatory picture in the aisle of the cathedral, wanting to stomp out of the building like a grumpy toddler. I had been promised magic and instead found altered buildings and relics beyond reach.

As she was wrapping up the tour, the guide suggested we try some “crisp apple strudel,” which was sold at several shops in town for the consumption of parents who had dragged their kids on the tour and retired couples who had watched the movie premiere in theatres. At the peak of my frustration and need for air, we took our strudel “to-go,” a phrase hardly ever uttered in Europe, and went out to explore the town.

I tried to check-in with the boys to see if they resented the fifty dollars spent on the tickets, trying to distract them with impressions of the tour guide and her underwhelming introductions at every stop. Josh and John Mark felt the disappointment of the tour, but it seemed they were able to brush it off, laugh it off… 

As we walked with our noisy plastic to-go boxes chasing the strudel around the base of the containers with plastic forks, we came upon the shore of a lake tucked in the mountains. It looked like something out of Middle-Earth. Long docks stretched their arms into the water and fog rested and pooled around rooftops painted with snow drifts. IMG_5089

It was a view similar to one in the movie, but begging to be examined on its own merits for its mountains, spiky pine trees, water smoothed as if with a frosting knife, and dissolving horizon, where the water seemed to fall off the edge of the earth in an interstellar waterfall as it disappeared from our eyesight.  

Maria Von Trapp, The Grand Canyon, or the Eiffel Tower may draw us to a certain place, but the experience we have there must transcend what could be reduced to a postcard. My experience of the “Sound of Music Tour,” once let loose of my expectations, expanded to more than I could have anticipated.

The tour was posing on the steps where Do-Re-Me had been filmed, but also the hostel we trekked to in the dark along steep gravel paths that seemed more like landscaping than legitimate passageways. It was feeling pretty in my vintage dress cinched in at the waist as we snapped hundreds of pictures at the mystical docks. It was the strudel in crinkling plastic containers, and even the monotone tour guide who disappointed my expectations at every turn.

The tour was a means to an unexpected end, as each stop begged to speak for itself and show us why it is special, the hills not so much alive with the sound of music, but asleep under blankets of snow.




Mix Tape


My exasperated, whispered command to be quiet is the loudest sound on the cassette tape. Repeatedly.

Through the whir of the nearly 40-year-old tape, I can hear the giggles of my younger brothers fade beneath the laugh track. Marie Osmond is singing about how she’s a little bit country, and her brother Donny is responding that he’s a little bit rock’n’roll. I hear the shuffling click that signifies a commercial break, abruptly followed by the resumption of the intro music and laugh track.


tape-recorderIt’s just before 8:00 on a Friday evening in the fall of 1977, and 11-year-old me is crouched on the shag carpeting in the family room of the house on Mt. Vernon Drive. While my mom, dad, and brothers lounge comfortably on the sectional couch behind me, I zealously guard the channel and volume dials of the console color television like it’s my job. My fingers are poised over the play and record buttons of the cassette recorder. As the clock strikes eight, I press down.

I am living in a time long ago and far away, before the proliferation of remote control devices or video cassette recorders or cable television. The likelihood of a member of my family storming the TV to change the channel from ABC to one of the three other options is unlikely. But I am not taking any chances.

There are six days and 23 hours between now and when the next Donny and Marie Show episode will air. By that time, I will have memorized the script and the songs of this one—and every shushing sound I make. From the opening musical number and ice-skating routine through the corny skits to the farewell strains of “May tomorrow be a perfect day,” I will have replayed in my head the images on the screen over and over. And over.


It’s August 1984, and nearly 18-year-old me is crouched on the shag carpeting next to the stereo system in my bedroom. This state-of-the-art piece of technology allows me to play a vinyl record or an eight-track or cassette tape. It also gives me the option to record from LP to cassette without the interference of outside noise.

mix-tapeI unwrap a blank cassette and click it into the front-loading slot. I press the play and record buttons just before dropping the needle into the groove of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America LP. I hum along with “The Logical Song” and “Goodbye Stranger” as I clutch my blue ballpoint pen and painstakingly copy the playlist from the record jacket to the lined cassette cover.

A growing stack of freshly recorded tapes is piling up on the floor next to the radio/cassette “boom box” I will be taking with me for my freshman year of college. My dorm room will not be large enough to hold my growing record collection, let alone a turntable.

There is a token Donny and Marie Show tape at the bottom of the stack, beneath Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. I will listen to that one when my roommate is not around.


It’s late June afternoon in 2006, and I have set up my laptop computer on my parents’ kitchen table, where I can enjoy the breeze wafting through the screen door. Mom is napping in her bedroom, recovering from her latest chemo treatment. Dad is on the golf course, taking a break from his nursing duties, and my brother and niece will be joining us for dinner in a little while. I am taking a break from laundry and food prep.

My iTunes library is displayed on the laptop screen, and I make a selection from the stack of compact discs from my parents’ collection—greatest hits compilations from Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Anne Murray, Kris Kristofferson, Helen Reddy, and Tom Jones. These are the CDs my brothers and I have given to my mom and dad for Christmas over the years, meant to replace worn vinyl LPs with their scratches and skips. This music—in addition to Supertramp, Culture Club, Billy Joel, and my extensive Osmond discography—is the soundtrack of my childhood.

I click a Carpenters disc into the CD drive of my computer and select “yes” to begin importing the tracks.

I walk over to the refrigerator, pulling out the makings for a salad. I chop cucumbers and tomatoes to the accompaniment of Karen Carpenter’s soothing voice. I shred lettuce to the melancholy strains of “Yesterday Once More.”


Amy bio YAH

Waking Up

I am three, and I’m waking up from my afternoon nap in the right way: Slowly. Contentedly. In my own time and space.

I’m in no hurry to open my eyes. The bedroom is dim from the pulled curtains, anyway, and I’ve memorized every sight I would see from my place on the bottom bunk.

6259167128_a64b881939_bAn airplane flies overhead. In our house, below a well-traveled flight path to the airport, it’s a sound as common as a truck roaring by on our busy inner-city street. Whenever the house is quiet and I’m quiet, it seems there’s the sound of a plane somewhere in the sky.

The window is open in the bedroom I share with my brother, who, at almost-six, is too old for naps. I can hear the neighborhood kids playing outside. Laughter and shrieking, then protests, complaints.

Now the sound of a hose as more water is added to the plastic wading pool in the yard next door. I can picture the blue pool, the grass clippings floating on the glistening water.

There’s the voice of the bossiest girl, who is not the oldest but is the most sure of what she wants and how to get it. Just the tone of her voice conjures a snapshot of her hands on her hips, one hip jutted out to the side.  

My eyes are awake now, primed by scenes my ears have fashioned. I get up, my pigtails lopsided from their time on the pillow, and leave my bottom bunk to follow the sound of humming to my mother.

*    *    *    *    *

We lived on the ground floor of the house on Walnut Street until I was five. It was my first home. There are photographs to inform my visual sense of that place, but I can’t really claim them as memories. What I truly remember, from deep in some audio file my mind, are sounds.

Like the sound of my mom humming.

Our living space was small, making it easy for sounds to travel from one room to the next. My mom loves silence, but sometimes I think she loves it because it’s like a blank canvas—an open space for her to hum or whistle into as she folds laundry or chops vegetables. In the house on Walnut Street, her humming was my homing beacon as I navigated the waters between independence and security.

Sometimes upon waking from a nap I could hear my grandmother’s musical voice coming from the kitchen—a one-way, joyful conversation that meant an “audio letter” had arrived in that day’s mail. With my grandparents far away in California and long distance phone rates too costly for either household’s budget, my mom and grandma regularly recorded newsy updates on small, table-top cassette players. The tapes were mailed back and forth in padded manila envelopes.

If Mom was recording a letter to Grandma rather than listening to one, she would announce my appearance into the small microphone, inviting me to talk. “Oh, here’s Krissy! She just woke up from her nap. Krissy, say hi to Grandma and Grandpa! Tell them what kind of cookies we baked this morning.”

My dad’s arrival home each evening was inevitably announced through the stereo speakers: the pop-and-crackle of the needle touching an album. When Dad was home, there was always music playing. Aaron Copeland, Miles Davis, Stephen Sondheim, Bela Bartok, the Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary—their electrifying, silky, surprising, earthy, and complex notes were the soundtrack of my childhood (the volume always a bit too high for my mom’s taste).

During warmer months, the sounds in our home mingled with the sounds of the world outside. In 1970s Michigan, no one had air conditioning—certainly not those of us renting old houses divided into duplexes in the city’s core. We opened windows, turned on noisy box fans, and spent as much time as possible playing outside with water, or sitting on shady stoops. Private lives were aired to the neighborhood: Everyone’s music and arguments, their clattering pots and pans and crying babies, were heard alongside the passing boom of car stereos, loud mufflers, and barking dogs.

After being tucked into my bottom bunk each night, the sounds of Walnut Street played on, each sound telling me a story. Some were as comforting and present as the hum of my mom’s sewing machine on the kitchen table; others were as mysterious and distant as another plane in the night sky, its seats filled with strangers traveling who knows where. 

*    *    *    *    *

Kristin bio YAH

Ukrainian Soul Food

“Mine look like bananas!” I apologized.

I was assured that, first of all, they did not look like bananas. And even if they did, who would care? Once they’d been boiled, smothered in sautéed onions, and served with a giant dollop of sour cream, they would taste amazing.

“It’s more important that they’re sealed tightly so they won’t break apart when we boil them,” my mother assured me. “The shape doesn’t matter at all!”

It was late December, and Mom, my younger brothers, Aunt Mary, Uncle George, and I were gathered around our newspaper-covered kitchen table. Hands dusted with flour, we had each set up our individual work stations with the proper tools: a square of waxed paper, a communal canister of flour, and a narrow-mouthed cocktail olive jar, which would serve as a mini-rolling pin. When we finished our project, the olive jars would be returned to a corner of the pantry to await next year’s pierogi-making party.

In the center of the table was a wet loaf of sticky sour-creamy dough, from which Mom cut small chunks to distribute to each of our work stations. We sprinkled flour onto our waxed paper and coated our olive jars with the same, and then we rolled the dough into something approximating a circle the size of a flattened tennis ball. We dropped a spoonful of filling—either the mashed potato and cheese concoction or my favorite, the sauerkraut, onion, and cottage cheese mixture—onto one side of the circle. Then we folded the dough over and sealed the filling inside by pressing our thumbs along the edges.

Voila! A perfect pierogi.

Which may or may not resemble a banana.


homemade-pierogi_kz6bdbGrowing up, the pierogi-making party was an annual ritual, an Advent tradition as familiar as candles and wreaths and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Our Christmas Eve dinner, or “Holy Supper,” followed the tradition of my father’s family, imported from his parents’ native Ukraine. It was a completely meatless meal, to follow the tradition of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I think its original form involved multiple courses and a lot of symbolism—including straw under the tablecloth, to represent the baby Jesus’ manger birthplace. And raw garlic cloves served up like pickles or olives.

The version of Holy Supper with which I grew up was significantly abridged. We skipped the straw and the raw garlic and served only two courses: kapusta (a sauerkraut and split pea soup, which looked and smelled as appetizing as it probably sounds) and pierogies. Both of these were topped with onions sautéed in a pound or more of butter and were accompanied by unleavened bread, stuck with cloves of garlic before it was baked, and served with generous drizzles of honey. The strong flavor of the garlicky honey bread is the only thing that made the kapusta even remotely appetizing to me.

But I loved the pierogies. We would boil them on Christmas Eve, and for Christmas morning breakfast, we would fry up the leftovers in a skillet, along with the buttery onions.


My mother grew up a decidedly White Anglo Saxon Protestant dairy farmer’s daughter, and she used to tell me that she never tasted garlic before she started dating my father. She was raised with a predictably bland meat and potatoes diet, but she grew to love the food of her eastern European in-laws.

To my father’s delight, after a couple of false starts, she mastered how to prepare most of his childhood favorites. They often laughed about her first attempt at making halupki—or stuffed cabbage, or pigs-in-a-blanket, depending on your vernacular. She didn’t realize she had to steam the cabbage before rolling it around the ground beef and rice concoction, so she fastened the rolls together by securing them with toothpicks.

pierogiesWe ate pierogies and kapusta on Christmas Eve, and on Easter, cold kielbasa and potato salad and hard boiled eggs dipped in a shredded beets and horseradish mixture. The one delicacy of my father’s childhood that my mother never attempted to prepare is studenina: jellied pigs’ feet. My Uncle Paul likes to joke that, “You can spend an hour convincing someone that you can make jello out of pigs’ feet, and then you blow it when you tell them that you pour vinegar over it and eat it for breakfast.” My dad loved it. I’ve never been able to bring myself to taste the stuff.


When Mom first asked my grandmother for her pierogi recipe, Grandma shrugged. After decades of making pierogies every Friday, she cooked by instinct, not by measurement.

So Mom followed her around the kitchen, writing down everything she did to prepare the dough and mix the fillings. A pinch of this, a handful of that—with the end result enough pierogies for us to eat well that evening and for many meals to come. Our freezer would be well stocked for the twelve months that tended to lapse between pierogi-making parties. And we were following the steps my grandmother had followed week after week, when the “recipe” yielded only enough to feed my dad and his many brothers and sisters for a single meal.

The irony is not lost on me that what we have come to regard as an exotic, once-a-year treat is really eastern European peasant food—or what my dad affectionately used to call “Ukrainian soul food.”

It continues to feed our souls.


Amy bio YAH

Outer Banks

Tears streamed down my face as I huddled in my corner of the backseat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I was crying as quietly as I could, not wanting to attract concerned attention from my parents, or ridicule from my two younger brothers. As the car sped north and west—across the causeway to the mainland, away from the Atlantic Ocean and toward my western Pennsylvania home—I was convinced that my 12-year-old heart would break.

The Best Week of the Year had come to an end.


I was nine years old the first time my family vacationed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That first year, it was me, my parents, my two younger brothers, and the family of a man my dad worked with. Three years later, my dad’s three brothers and their families had joined us on what would become an annual pilgrimage and a de facto family reunion.

Every year, we journeyed to Kill Devil Hills, to The Cavalier by the Sea motel at milepost 8.5 of Beach Road. It was a week I looked forward to all year, when I would reconnect with cousins who were so cool, they probably would never notice me in the school hallways if (a) we lived near each other and (b) were not related.


A typical day in my life during the Best Week of the Year went something like this:

The aromas of brewing coffee and frying bacon would greet me when I awoke, mixing with the scents of saltwater and Coppertone suntan lotion.

I would emerge from my bedroom, hair hastily combed, swimsuit on, to find Mom and Dad sitting in bamboo chairs at the Formica table of the main room, finishing breakfast and watching morning TV. My bare feet would shuffle across the grainy, sandy texture of air-conditioned linoleum. After slurping up a bowl of cereal, I would be out the door, a brightly colored beach towel slung around my neck.

A quick stop at the pool in the courtyard to see who was already swimming, and I’d continue on, under the archway and onto the beach. Stumbling across the already hot sand toward the crashing waves of the Atlantic, I would drop my towel next to the cluster of beach umbrellas where my tribe had already set up camp for the week.

nags-head-family-picUncle Mike and Aunt Mary would be sipping their morning coffee. Uncle Paul and Aunt Barb would be slathering suntan lotion on my littlest cousins. Cousins closer to my age would be stretched out on towels—exposed skin glistening with baby oil, as was the naive custom of the 1970s—or jumping the waves.

After lunch, my cousin Mike would start his latest sand sculpture masterpiece, and my brothers would help our younger cousins fill plastic buckets with plastic shovels-full of sand, building castles and digging moats.

As shadows grew longer, we would wander back to our rooms to shower and change clothes before dinner—hot dogs and watermelon by the pool, or fresh seafood at a nearby restaurant, or spaghetti and meatballs prepared in one of the kitchens.

Later, we would return to the pool, or pile into cars for a trip to ride go-carts or bowl or see a movie. We would play cards until bedtime.

Then the aromas coffee and bacon and Coppertone would signal the beginning of the next day.


Around the time I graduated from high school, our family stopped going down every year—but the uncles and aunts and cousins did not.

While I loved these beach vacations, and so did most of my family, my mother was never a fan of the sand, and she wasn’t a swimmer. She didn’t like the beach, but she knew what this week meant to the rest of us.

The last time my whole family made that trip together was in the mid-’90s. My brothers and I were now young adults. It was a hotter-than-usual summer, and biting sand flies and stinging sea lice and the lack of a discernible ocean breeze served as the proverbial heavy last straw. Mom made it clear that we were welcome to go back again—but she was done with beach vacations.


In July 2007, it had been more than a decade since I had spent that summer week with my cousins. As we approached the first anniversary of losing Mom to cancer, my family returned.

Everything felt so much the same. And completely different.

The swimming pool and the beach were mostly unchanged, as were the Cavalier’s cottages—even with cosmetic upgrades of indoor-outdoor carpeting and fancy new pleather furniture. Traffic on the Beach Road was heavier, and there were more restaurants and hotels and houses between the causeway and milepost 8.5. Cousins I had played with as children were now husbands and wives and parents, and their children looked forward to this week as eagerly as we had at their age. Our tribe still set up camp under the rented umbrellas near the ocean, and we now spanned three generations and seven decades.

But even as we made new memories, introducing my new sister-in-law to the Atlantic Ocean and teaching my 12-year-old niece to play euchre, I missed my mom. I was aware that memories had been made in my absence that would never be mine. I was 40 years old and way past the age of wanting to live in my bathing suit.

At the end of the week, driving my own car across the causeway, away from the Outer Banks and toward western Pennsylvania, I let the tears flow.

This was still The Best Week of the Year for my cousins. It just wasn’t mine anymore.


Amy bio YAH

Ash and Light

Sometime in between “we are through” and actually being through, I got a new job and moved to “his town,” the town where my (now ex-) boyfriend lived during part of the time we were dating. He lived in an apartment above a store that sold brightly colored men’s suits. One of a handful of stores and restaurants in the downtown main street square of a small Georgia town.

After I moved there, I drove downtown and parked in one of the nose-in angled spots on the street where he used to stand by my car and kiss me good-bye. I strolled past the storefronts, saw the entrance to the apartments above with the push button intercom where I would call up and he’d buzz me in. He was no longer there but that was his building. Up those stairs, we would laugh and talk and I would roll my eyes at his corny puns. On the nights we watched a movie, cuddled on the couch, he’d stand up as the credit music began to play and offer me his hand, pulling me into a slow dance under the skylight above our heads.


A couple of months after he moved away from that town and our relationship gained geographical distance, he called me one weekend to say he was in town. He wasn’t there to see me, not specifically anyway. There had been a small fire at his old apartment. The landlord had called him. I was confused as to why he was notified, why any of his stuff was there.

“Oh. I just kept renting the apartment,” he said.

By this point in the relationship I was used to convincing myself to believe what he said. Used to ignoring questions in my gut and flipping down red flags. So, I accepted the explanation and jumped straight into planning when and where to meet up for an impromptu date, swept up in the romance of the unexpected.


That day I moved to the town there was still a long aluminum chute that emptied into a dumpster hanging from one of the back windows of his building, evidence of the fire clean up.

I stared at it – wondering what blackened belongings of his had been thrown down it.  Did the couch where we dreamed about the future survive or was it in ashes?  What was left of the kitchen counter where I would sit and listen to him narrate his way through preparing dinner as if he had his very own Food Network show?

The last few months he lived in that apartment I was never inside of it. He called me one day and won my heart a little more by saying, “I think we should make sure that we don’t hang out alone in my apartment anymore. I want to be better at honoring you.” Reluctantly, but admiringly, I agreed. I treasured his leadership in our relationship.   “Honoring,” in our shared vocabulary at the time, meant no more kissing (or more) in private.

I had been raised to believe that men lead and pursue and I wait and follow. I was told that a godly man would lead in godly ways.  More than one youth group story had centered on a young man who went to pick up his date and then turned around and left when he saw her, because he was lusting so they needed to not spend time together in order to honor God.  And here I was with my very own godly leader who put God above me.

Yet there was that aluminum chute and a dumpster full of ash and rubbish.

I wondered what belongings of hers were in the dumpster. The other girlfriend that had moved in a few months before he left. The one that stayed to finish out the year at her teaching job while he took his new job a few hours away. The one who called and told him about the fire. The woman he was living with while he was “honoring” me.


After the fire but before I knew about the other woman, I called him and choked out, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t feel like this anymore.”

“Are you breaking up with me?” he asked, surprised.

“Yes.” He didn’t fight, he just got mad and hung up.

I blamed myself. Over and over, the same message played in my mind: I wasn’t strong enough to make the distance work, to make him work.  After trying for years,  I was tired.

A couple weeks later, he called and renewed my hope by saying he wanted me back. I drove two hours to surprise him, my stomach in knots the entire way down because subconsciously I knew the one who was more likely to be surprised was me. I needed to not be able to lie to myself anymore. I needed to physically see and hear and know so that I could move on.

A woman yelled from inside for him to answer the door. With wide eyes he called inside to her, “It’s someone from work! I’ll be back!”

creative commons free - unsplashWe sat near a river bank and I watched with the muddy water flow by as he told me that he chose her, that he wanted someone who was physically close, that the long distance was too much.

“Why didn’t you just break up with me?” I questioned.

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” he said.

I drove home in tears. Mad at him. Mad at God. Mad at myself because the signs littered the road for the past three years.


I stayed in my new, his old, town for two and a half years. The aluminum chute was still there when I left.  

He visited once.  I visited once.  He called often.  I blocked and unblocked his number. He stayed with the other woman. He told me I was better than her. I begged him to let me be, to let me go. I told him I didn’t know how to walk away. I was addicted.

My brain  didn’t know how to stop forgiving him, to stop believing that the good outweighed the bad, to stop my heart from trusting that things would improve and that my fantasy would come true.

I didn’t reclaim that town those years. I didn’t even reclaim my life.


Ten years after the fire, I drove through that town again. The aluminum chute was gone. In the years between, I had learned to sort truth from lie from unknown in the jumbled web of memories from the years spent with him.  I had quit my addiction and gained a clarity about myself that is perhaps only possible when forged in fire.


Nicole bio YAH


Pretending that Nothing has Changed

I married a beautiful woman and we moved away, across state lines and  dark oceans and into new skin. Ten years passed—ten years of having children and getting lost and finding ourselves over and over again. After those ten years passed, we moved back. We moved home.

I was introduced to home when I was six years old and my family moved from the scorching, dusty heat of Laredo, Texas, back to the cold, wintry farmland of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where my ancestors had farmed and lived for hundreds of years before me. It was December, and the sky was low. The slate grayness of it scraped the tops of the rounded silos and tugged on the rooster weather vane standing watch at the peak of the tallest barn.

That was the year I learned what a cousin was, and how to tie my skates together so that I could hike through deep snow all the way to the frozen pond. That was the year my father taught me how to ride a bike by letting me drift over the steep bank in the front yard, where two tall oak trees watched over my shoulder. That was the year I learned how to put a wriggling worm on a small hook and cast it into the creek without snagging the low branches.

That was where I learned a place can feel as familiar as the wrinkled hand of your first child the moment they’re born. You can know a place before you even live there.IMG_1034

I’ve wondered for years now how that can happen.

* * * * *

Not long after returning to these familiar back roads and broken road signs, still not fixed or set straight, I decided I wanted to take my children to the creek that runs behind the old church, the one across the street from the farm where I grew up. It was a small, brick, steepled church with a parking lot full of fool’s gold that I had, once upon a time, pried from the macadam with an old dime.

So we drove there, and as we drove, I told them all the old stories about what made the loud breathing sounds in the deep shadows of the barns, and what flashed just out of sight in the empty other half of the farmhouse, and how the cemetery beside the church where we played hide-and-seek shifted and sighed, and how we always ran home scared of ourselves.

Some things had changed. The two old oak trees were gone. The church parking lot was newly paved and painted with fresh white lines, and other trees had been taken away. We slid down the steep bank behind the church and I realized the field along the creek, the one that used to be full of grazing cattle, now stood tall with late-summer corn, seven feet high and staring at us. The creek moved slower, as if old age had mellowed it.

But other things were there waiting to be reclaimed. The old tree, for one—the same one that used to steal our fish hooks—stood with its hands outstretched. The smell of the mud. The snagging tug of a small fish on the line, and the way it gasped for breath while we carefully removed the hook, the way it paused in the shallows, elated at this chance at new life. The way the time passed, slow and heavy in the heat.

It is a relief to me, and it is a sorrow, the way these places wait for us to come back, the way they welcome us as if nothing important has been lost. And we go about our business, trying not to look directly at the empty space that once held a crucial thing: an old oak tree, or a fishing buddy.

I tell my children to cast in the line one last time. I fix my stare on the small plastic bobber, and I pretend that nothing has changed.

shawn bio YAH

Tongue Depressors and Other Teaching Relics

I curate a small store of relics from my years teaching in Chicago—

cMerediths-In-Her-Shoes-Pencilsrayon-drawn cards, apology notes with misspelled superlatives, and portraits where the size of my head dwarfs my torso. In one early drawing, a student depicted me with flowing red hair and a bikini. I have two guns in holsters at my hips and a rainbow behind me.

I’ve packed away most of my memorabilia in a catchall file in our spare bedroom, trying to organize and place memories from a time that spilled outside of any boundaries I tried to create for it. One lone tongue depressor has made it through three apartment relocations and three school changes. Each time, I considered tossing the stick, but I always ended up keeping it, laying it back amongst my pens. It’s small enough, important enough to keep.

It’s Corvell’s stick. I met Corvell in my first year of teaching, and he was my first student to disappear.

I showed up to teach in Chicago’s inner city with more experience teaching stuffed animals than actual children. I took the alternative certification track to gain my teaching credentials along with many non-teacher types who cared about social justice and/or had seen the documentary “Waiting for Superman.”

We came tugging our Photo 217liberal arts educations behind us, hailing from some of the top universities in the country and swearing our scout’s honor that we worked hard and could make it through a few years teaching in the inner city.

By my second week student teaching, my childhood expectations of education came undone. When I played school as a kid, I propped my stuffed animals into position, neatly stacking papers and fastening them with paper clips. I taught my plush class whatever I wanted, and ears full of cotton, they still listened. Back then, I mimicked the lessons delivered by my own teachers, tidy women with pant suits and coordinating jewelry.

My teaching experience looked nothing like this, I looked nothing like this.  My days didn’t form into an inspirational narrative, but instead finished with a sense of mere survival. Instead of matching jewelry, I wore hardened streaks of oatmeal on my coat from eating on the way to school.

Teaching overflowed into every corner of my life. Jayla’s empty stomach leaked into my thoughts at night and lesson plans edged into spare weekend hours. Carefully constructed reading activities got interrupted and sloshed aside to be buried under math tests and leveled readers. The education system proved much sloppier than I ever imagined. And yet, Corvell’s disappearance still knocked the wind out of me.IMG_1580

His Dad picked him up for an early dismissal, and by 3:00 p.m., we got his transfer papers. Someone at the school called DCFS on Corvell’s parents. This report added to many others on file, and as had become their custom, the family moved onto a new school, away from the prying eyes of the well-meaning teacher who called in the report of neglect.

The principal and case manager did not bat an eye. They told me the news as a point of business. The school secretary laughed at my shock and said, “One less copy to make!” Corvell’s story was a familiar one in Chicago, but I was still a newbie.

That day after school, I cleaned out his desk, slid his reading circle book back into the classroom library, and cancelled other evidences of him around the classroom. I pulled Corvell’s stick from the small tin bucket with a whole class set of tongue depressors inscribed with each student’s name. My co-teacher and I rifled through the sticks when eyes got sleepy during a read aloud or when only a few hands darted up in a math lesson. If I drew your stick, you were on the line, responsible as the next person for our classroom learning.

The last time I worked with Corvell, I made him cry. I told him he wasn’t trying hard enough on his reading test. As I chided him and repeated the test question again, his usually swinging legs held still. He traced over his name with his pencil again and again as he let tears splash on his paper. And that was the end of our story.

There was no shiny ending, no epiphany. I stowed the stick in my desk, to remember Corvell always, to remember the lesson learned that day, that kids sometimes disappear.

I grew accustomed to Corvell’s story or one’s like it.

I stopped keeping mementos for each student. Corvell’s stick has become the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the memento to represent my utter lack of control over the faces in all of my classrooms. For a year, or sometimes less, I poured my whole self into my students, thought about them, fixed their hair, wiped their tears, went to bat for them, drew smiley faces with ketchup on their burgers, and then they disappeared into chaos.

My last year teaching, I lost track of Corvell’s stick and found it while drawing sticks out of the jar of tongue depressors in my first grade classroom. My co-teacher must have found it and decided to repurpose itIMG_0162 for another student in our room. Like any relic, its meaning was held in the knowledge of the one who owned it, like the rag of an apostle’s robe or the heel bone of a saint.

I looked at the faces of my first graders and thought of the ones already missing from their rug spots. Now my fourth year in the classroom, I’d better learned how to rise above the rubble and teach in the moment, but I still mourned my Corvells.

He was every student I couldn’t help enough, couldn’t reach, couldn’t follow, or hold forever. He was every student from my years in CPS, kids I cared for deeply and will likely never see again.