Book Review: Burning Roses by S. L. Huang

Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring—not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.

I have been thinking about my mom a lot over the past week, likely because it was recently her birthday. Trying to make sense of things, of how our relationship changed over time, of what I could have done differently, of what I wish she would’ve been able to do differently. And also just snippets of good memories. I saw one of her closest friends at Costco and I learned a truth about my family that continues to gnaw at me (in a sardonic sort of way…I could only respond to this by thinking of course. Of course.) I dreamed about her once (but since her death my dreams of her have never been peaceful or good; instead, she is somehow alive and furious at me for thinking she could ever die, let alone sending her body to the morgue, and for getting rid of all of her stuff and selling her house) and I made one of the cakes she made a lot during the summers when I was a kid. My heart felt both heavy and buoyed: conflict mixed with the good memories.

(I feel guilty that even though she is gone I am still hampered by the negative thoughts. Shouldn’t I be able to just let it all go and only remember the good things, now that she isn’t here to defend herself or to explain?)

Burning rosesSo perhaps the timing of the novelette Burning Roses by S. L. Huang arriving on my hold shelf was not coincidental.

It tells the story of two characters out of legend, Little Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the Archer. Both women have grown larger than they began in their respective fairy tales, their stories more intricate and fully lived, dark, and troubled. Now they are each middle-aged, living together and using their respective strengths (gun, bow and arrow) to protect the villagers from whatever monsters come their way. When fire birds arrive, scorching an entire village, they set off on a quest to find the source of the birds so as to stop more from coming.

But this isn’t a book of fairy tales or of quests, even though it contains those. Instead, it is about each character dealing with the mistakes she’s made in her life and figuring out a way to try to atone for them. It is, in fact, a story about beginning to understand, when you are at the end of your usefulness as a mother, the wrong choices you made when you were actively mothering your kids.

(Which is not what I expected at all.)

This is a novelette, so very short (153 pages), and if I summed it up I might just ruin it. So instead I will say how it made me feel.

It is a book that brought me a sense of relief—peace, nearly—about both my relationship with my mom and my relationship with my own mothering.

Because isn’t it so deeply entwined, the way your mom mothered you, the way you mother your own children. You learn how to be a mom, in part, by the woman who mothered you. And I believe we all have things that we think “I’m going to do this differently than my mom did.” When I first had Haley, I knew I would be a fantastic mom. I would give her exactly what I had needed but not received as a child. And of course, as the years went by and I did my best, I made mistake after mistake anyway. I was an imperfect mother raised by an imperfect mother. “She’d regretted every toxic part of herself and her past with vicious self-loathing,” Rosa realizes, which is a realization I have had about myself as well. I didn’t want to be toxic, to make mistakes, to cause any damage, but I still did.

Maybe my own mom also had that regret.

“Love, even more than hate, could always sharpen anger to the keenest of points.” If I didn’t love my mom, I wouldn’t have this anger still with me. Actual love must be about the whole person, not just the good parts; it has to be about knowing—seeing—the flaws, too, but carrying on anyway, and that is complicated and messy. Anger follows. Even after they are gone, or at least for me.

When I finished the book, as I was closing it, I felt…I felt a lifting. A sense of forgiveness, or maybe just the first step towards it, for my mom. Like Rosa and Hou Yi—like myself—she made mistakes. Considering her biggest mistake, Rosa realizes it was “only a clumsy, flawed decision, like so many others along the twisting path that had brought her here.” Not every choice was wrong, not everything was bad, and nothing was truly horrible. My mom, and Rosa, and Hou Yi, loved her children but also wounded them.

I did, too.

There isn’t ever a moment in the book when this is explicitly spelled out, but what it left me thinking was this: mothers always make mistakes, but trying to hide from them or to keep them hidden is impossible. This is because mothering is difficult, and it is difficult because we love our children. And so while we can’t hide our mistakes—while we have to look at them and process them—we can keep working. We can keep trying. We can never give up on loving.

Near the end of the story, Rosa realizes that she “only had the tail end of a single lifetime, but she thought it might be just enough.” I don’t have that tail end left with my own mom, but I do with my children. I know that despite my good intentions I will continue making mistakes, but I will also keep trying.

So maybe this book also brought me a bit of self-forgiveness as well.

Book #4 of my Summer Reading Challenge.

"And Yet You Will Weep and Know Why": Thoughts on My Dad

Yesterday I listened to a scrapbooking podcast while I worked in my flowerbeds. The topic was documenting your dad’s stories, and as I listened I had some realizations. The timing was odd for me, as it is June, which holds both his birthday and Father’s day, when I already think about my dad more than usual. This July marks a decade since his death, but since he had an undiagnosed type of dementia, he has been “gone” for much longer…I think we had our last semi-real and meaningful conversation in 2006.


A few days ago, I was at the grocery store, and in the produce section I realized I must’ve come at the grandparent hour, as I was surrounded by old people. Mostly couples, one pushing the cart, the other gathering apples or onions or romaine, but there was one man who was by himself. He looked nothing like my dad but he made me think about my dad. What-ifs starting filling up my mind. What if his marriage had been happier? What if he had found fulfilling work after the steel mill closed? What if he could’ve recognized his inaction not as laziness, as my mom labeled it, but as depression? What if his dad hadn’t died when he was in high school? What if his parents’ marriage had been happier? What if his mom had loved him more? What if he’d skipped football on whatever day his skull was hit too hard, what if he’d skipped football altogether? What if he hadn’t stood in the open refrigerator, depression-eating mayonnaise out of a jar with a soup spoon bent by scooping ice cream from the container?

(I believe all of these things contributed to his early dementia.)

I looked at that old man putting a small bag of red potatoes in his cart and I wondered. What would my dad have been like as a real grandpa? What if he could’ve grown old and achey, his hair entirely white, still talking and telling stories and laughing at off-color jokes? What if he could’ve really interacted and known my children—how would he have loved them, how would their lives be changed? How would I feel, right now, nearing 50 and empty-nesthood and my own aging, if I had a dad I could turn to for help or advice or maybe just a good long phone call about a person he knows from down at the coffee shop?


When I sat down to write this blog post, I thought it would be a list of questions I wish I could ask my dad. Did you ever wish you had a son? How did you really feel about your marriage? Why didn’t you try harder to spend time with my kids when you could? Tell me a good memory about your dad. Tell me a good memory about your mother. Why did we never visit your grandparents’ grave even though we were in the same cemetery every Memorial Day? What did you love about football? What did you love about wandering around in the desert? Were you, like mom, disappointed in how my life turned out?

Or maybe I would write about the realization I had. When I dig into my family history, I am consistently disappointed by the lack of stories about my female ancestors. Even the short life-story someone wrote about the person I was named for—titled “Amy Simmons’ Life Story”—is mostly about her husband and sons. So I have told parts of my story, and of my mom’s and my grandmas’. But I have told very few of my dad’s stories, and all of what I have written down is about me interacting with him, not him as a person independent from being my dad.


What surprised me about writing this—knocked me on my back, so to speak, with an absolute flood of tears—is how raw it all still is. How I have put away unexamined so many ugly and painful truths about our family, simply because he died. I haven’t really processed any of it, my parents’ shaky marriage and how it impacts still, to this very moment, my own. The way I loved my dad and I know he loved me but how I also have a lot of buried anger at him, and how if I could hold it up and look at it, I think it would look a lot like the anger my own children must have for me. How I am just like him in many ways, not all of them positive.

Ten years ago, my dad died. I thought it was a life event, a thing that everyone has to face, and while it was unfair that I had to do it at 39, at least I had good memories to hold on to. Those summer weeks in Lake Powell, the look on his face when I stood on a first-place podium after a gymnastics meet (which was the same look when I stood in 9th place or in no place at all), that one time in the car driving him home from the airport with Haley in her carseat and he sang “you are my sunshine” with her and that’s the only time I ever heard him sing.

I thought: he died and I miss him and so I have to let go of all of the rest of it, the complications and the disappointments and the wounds and the struggles. But ten years later, if I let myself think about it, if I stop to be within it:

I only put the things on a shelf. They are still there, unprocessed, unspoken, still being carried around. His death didn't negate them and it didn't heal them.

I still miss him.

It still doesn’t feel any better since he started leaving by stopping speaking.

None of it is resolved, none of it is repaired, and it can’t ever be. Not really. I can work through my own issues over our history, give voice to my own angers and sorrows, write down what I loved about him and my favorite memories and the fact that I will likely never go back to Lake Powell because Lake Powell is my childhood and so it can’t exist without him.

But me processing it doesn’t help him. It doesn’t fix his wounds and his damage and his anger (which he never, ever voiced).

Me processing it doesn’t give him the chance to go to his brother’s 80th birthday party last month.

It doesn’t let him be at my kids’ graduations.

Or let him have a good, long, loving but hard conversation with my son who is his generational twin.

Or stand in the grocery store as an old man buying potatoes.

You live with it—grief, loss. Sometimes it feels less heavy, but I think that is only because life, the living of your life, lets it weigh less. And then something happens, some small thing, a stranger in a store, and you start to feel the weight of it. I don’t want to not feel it, honestly, because it is the only way I have of interacting with my dad anymore. I miss him and part of me will always be mad at God for not letting him have more joy in his life.

And I guess I just needed to put this out into the world today:

I wish my dad was still here.

101_0176 amy don edit b&w

On Corona Conspiracies: Two Truths, or, The Group You Don't Want to Belong To

Two truths I have learned about medical issues over the past twenty years:

  1. What happens to one person in a family happens to every person in a family.
  2. Doctors, hospital, medical procedures: these things fix you. They repair you. But “fixed” doesn’t mean “the same.” Afterwards, you will always be repaired. There will always be a scar; there are always repercussions.

Facebook_1587048003638_6656561789854605205_683115615255973As we’ve reached this phase of the corona virus pandemic—the phase where people start to say things like “see, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be” and “the number of deaths didn’t justify the shutdown” and even “it was a hoax designed to strip us of our liberties”—I keep thinking of these two truths I have learned.

Until you have experienced severe health issues within your own family, you cannot understand the full impact of the issues, how they pervade almost every aspect of your life, how the fear, once ignited, is sometimes less noticeable but never stops burning.

Once you fully understand the frailty of the human body, once you witness it with your own eyes, you can never stop knowing it.

So when I read things like “people are overreacting” or “this isn’t as bad as the media is portraying it” or even (especially!) “we should all just get the virus and move on with our lives because then we’d all be immune” I almost can’t breathe in the face of such unknowing ignorance.

It’s a luxury, really. A privilege to be in the group of people who don’t understand those two truths. I almost envy that person I used to be, who didn’t know these things.

(I say “almost” because I will never not value the pieces of knowledge I have gained in my life, even if it hurt to learn. Especially if it hurt to learn.)

But I’ve learned them, and the other truth is that these are painful pieces of knowledge to acquire. Part of the staying-home, part of the mask-wearing, part of the everything-is-closed: all of those efforts will help some of you never belong to this group. I think of the people I love who nevertheless do not belong in this group, and I want to spare them this inclusion. (Even though I know life can bring it to anyone at any time.)

When you mock or doubt the quarantine procedures you are illustrating you don’t know these truths, and I hope you never have to learn them with your own body and psyche. So here: I will expound.

  1. What happens to one person in a family happens to every person in a family.

I don’t only mean that if one person in your family catches develops COVID-19 you’re likely to all get it (even though that’s true). Let’s say, just for the sake of illustration, that only one person in your family develops COVID-19. Let’s say it’s your 17-year-old daughter. She is the one who will suffer physically, with the fever and the body aches and the inflammation and all of the other symptoms. Maybe it gets so bad she has to be put on a ventilator. All of these things she experiences within her own body. It happens to her.

But it will also happen to you, too. If you are her parent you will anguish over not being able to heal her. If you get to be in the hospital with her, you will anguish for days by her unresponsive body, watching machines move her lungs, while you wonder in terror what the outcome will be. You might be faced with impossible decisions to be made in behalf of this person you love but can no longer communicate with.

You, yourself, will forever be changed. It will scar you emotionally forever. And it doesn’t matter if you are the parent of this sick person, or the sibling. The sick person experiences the sickness but the whole family suffers alongside of her. Her brother watches their father weep and is changed. A husband cannot console his wife; a preschooler doesn’t receive the emotional help he needs because everyone is consumed with fear and worry.

And it’s not just the days of sitting by her bedside. Your relationships with your other children will be affected, as will your marriage. You will see your parents in a different light. Sometimes you will look at your friends or your extended family members who didn’t have that experience with bitterness. How blithely they go about their lives, making decisions without ever having had to stare right at death.

“Let’s all just get it and move on” is not a solution. It is a hypothetical concept that is only appealing if you do not know completely how medical challenges change everything.

Your family will never be the same.

  1. “Healed” doesn’t mean “restored.”

Let’s go back to that teenage girl hooked to a ventilator. Let’s say you don’t have to make the choice; let’s say she starts to improve. She comes off the vent, she breathes on her own, the medications work their way out of her body and she wakes up.

Let’s grant her no mental deficiencies from being on a ventilator.

She will still never be the same. On the vent, her body has broken down some. Her muscles have deteriorated. Her body has changed. From now on, on the other side of COVID-19, she is different. We don’t know all the ways, exactly, she will have changed, because this is a novel virus. Novel here doesn’t mean fiction. It means new. It means we don’t know the story of how it will continue to affect the body.

We don’t know exactly how, but it will.

Once your body has experienced such devastation, you are always, from now until your death, fixed. You are always repaired.

Because our bodies can’t be restored. They can’t be remade to their former non-fixed, non-repaired condition.

That’s not how bodies work, and this is true for any medical condition.

You can have cancer and be healed, but your body is changed.

You can have a heart attack and survive; they can fix your heart with surgery but you will always have a repaired heart.

Even ortho surgeries: they can replace your knee or your hip, possibly your ankle if you are truly unfortunate, and the surgery will (probably) fix the pain. But the replaced joint will never be the original joint.

Are you doomed to a life of horrible weakness because you’ve had a medical crisis? Of course not. There is life and happiness and everything else on the other side of it. Once you heal.

But you have to learn your new limitations. You will eventually realize you are not the same, and you will grieve for what you lost.

And this grief and those changes will also affect your family.


These two truths rotate around each other endlessly. You will all move on, your family and your repaired daughter.

But none of you will ever be the same.

I share this knowledge not because I am a doomsayer or full of fear or overreacting, but because of the empirical data my life has brought to me.

Some things you can’t avoid. Cancer, congenital heart defects, diabetes, lupus. Arthritis in your hip or knee or back. Alzheimer’s. Life just happens.

But a virus? With a virus, you can make choices that at least will make smaller the possibility of you having to experience it.

You can protest.

You can reject social distancing.

You can seek out sources that dispute scientific facts.

You can refuse to wear a mask.

You can refuse the eventual vaccine.

But none of your refusals will change those truths: everyone you love is affected and no one is ever the same.

This is bitter knowledge. This is a group no one wants to belong to.

But I am saddened in knowing how many will soon be joining me within it, especially knowing they didn’t have to.

Choose wisely, my friends.

Stone Bracelet in a Jewelry Box

For the past five years, every January you could find me in my scrapbook space, making layouts about Christmas. Christmas in January—that was my thing, because I never could really manage making any layouts during December. (Scrapbookers who make projects like December Daily make no sense to me. I can barely get Christmas together, let alone an entire daily album.) This was my way of coping with January, of bringing light and memory and prettiness to a month that, in Utah, includes too much air pollution and so many smoggy days.

Well—for the past five years except last year. In January 2019, I spent most of my time with my mom in the hospital, and then at her home while she was in hospice, and then planning her funeral. And then the next three months were consumed with cleaning out her house.

During those months of sifting through the possessions acquired during an entire lifetime (really, more than one lifetime, as there were also my dad’s possessions still in her house, and both of my grandparents’, including some items of my dad’s dad, who died in the 50s), something shifted in me. When faced with the quantities of stuff at my mom’s house, I started questioning what kind of legacy I want to leave for my own children. What possessions matter the most to me? What might matter to them? (Because I don’t think these are always the same things.) I realized that without stories attached, most of her possessions are just items.

For example, I kept a beautiful bracelet I found in her jewelry box, made of a sort of bronzed gold and what look like rocks that have been polished smooth and then sliced into thin slivers. Stone bracelet 01
I think it is striking and unusual, so I kept it and I wear it—but that is its only story. I don’t know where she got it, or if she loved it, or why she kept it. I don't remember her ever wearing it.

I wish I knew the story, even if she just bought it at Dillard’s one day because it was on sale.

Stories matter: this is one of the pieces of knowledge that cleaning out her possessions taught me.

Which should bring me around to more scrapbooking, because I have always been drawn to it through the story aspect.

Instead, I have almost entirely stopped scrapbooking.

I’ve still been taking notes and writing some stories. I’ve still been taking pictures. I’ve even still been buying supplies.

But I only made about twelve scrapbook layouts last year.

This is because every time I sit down to scrapbook, I am filled with the same feeling I had when I first started tackling my mother’s collection of fabric. She had so much fabric. I understand this, buying things you think you might use and then never getting around to actually using them. It’s why I have supplies in my scrapbook drawers that are ten or twelve years old—because I bought it but then never got around to using it. I can look at it (a piece of patterned paper, a sheet of alphabet stickers, whatever) and still see how could use it. But there isn’t enough lifetime left to use it all.

I saw her fabric stash and I thought about how many quilts she finished—in her house, there were only three finished quilts. Dozens of partly-finished quilts, with all the supplies packaged together to be finished—one day. She made and finished others, of course, as gifts for many people. But in her house, three quilts. Four daughters. I decided to be the daughter who didn’t get a quilt from my mother, and I decided that without rancor or passive aggressiveness. I already own quilts I have made. I wanted my sisters to have my mother’s. I thought I will just finish one of these that she didn’t finish and it will be the same thing.  I thought about the quilt I own that was made by my great grandma Amy, and how that should be enough. None of my sisters have that quilt, I thought, so they should have the ones our mother made.

That quilt—maybe that is where it starts, really. This heritage of making things. My earliest memories, which are really only feeling memories (rather than story memories), are deeply attached to that quilt. The patch with the salmon-colored floral, the hue of turquoise that unites the other pieces, the fraying cotton thread, its vaguely musty scent: those aren’t just sensory details, but they are in essence what my childhood feels, smells, looks like. If I hold it I reconnect with the child I used to be, sitting under the quilt in my grandma’s bedroom while she told me stories about her parents.

I treasure this quilt. I “treasure” it by keeping it safely stored in my linen closet, where, true, it can’t really be damaged, but it also can’t make any new connections. Upon my death, my children would find it in the closet and know it was the quilt the grandma I was named for made…but that is all. That is the only bit of connection they would have, because I kept it safely in the closet.

Like the stone bracelet in the jewelry box.

It is all tied together—scrapbooking, quilting, making things. My mother’s jewelry, her china and clothes and the boxes of pictures and the yarn and the fabric and the half-finished quilts. The doll with her head hanging on by a thread, kept because the sound it made reminded her of Michele as a baby. All of her possessions were part of who she was, but our relationship didn’t allow for us, somehow, to know each other’s stories. (If, to flip this, she were to clean out my house because I had died—she wouldn’t know the stories of the possessions I value the most, either.)

So then I must bring this to myself, sitting down to make something. It’s become easier to make quilts than scrapbook layouts. Because quilts—quilts say something. They are useful, and soft, and warm. They are items that touch you. They are intimate, but without the potential for damage that intimacy can hold. They are items that can exist when their maker is gone, and it is almost like touching that person, to touch the quilt she made. You can be gone, as the maker, but the person wrapped in your quilt might still hear a little echo of your voice. They would certainly, at least, feel less cold.

Since I didn’t get a quilt my mother made, I can only have that if I finish what she started, and then it is not from her but from me.

I bring myself to this process of what I want to make. (Not making anything at all isn’t feasible for me. Making is how I cope, even if the making is unnecessary and superfluous.) I want to tell stories but I am, deep down, wondering: why am I telling stories and then shutting them away in scrapbooks? It is the same as the quilt in the linen closest, the bracelet in the jewelry box. It is—it is this truth? Is this the truth:

Am I just like my mother?

Do I keep my stories to myself? Am I shuttered up? Have I made relationships with my children that don’t allow for openness and connection, that don’t really breathe, that aren’t deep enough to allow for the real, actual person who exists?

Do I want to scrapbook not really because I want to leave my memories here before I’m gone, but because I don’t know how to truly connect with the people I love?

I know my mother loved me—but I also know she didn’t really know me. This is both of our faults, and it is also the reality of death. I can’t fix it anymore. (I don’t know if I could fix it even when she was still here. Even if she’d been her for twenty more years.) I wanted her to see me for who I am, not for who she was disappointed I didn’t become, and I’m not sure she did that. I’m not sure she could.

And that is the legacy I don’t want to pass on to my own children.

When I sat down to write this, I thought I would write about my scrapbooking goals. But here I am, in true Amy fashion, mired deep in existential thinking. Which is a pattern I keep repeating, every time I try to scrapbook. I start making a layout and end up wondering if I have managed to make a life with any meaning.

And then I start making another quilt.

And I know I am not following any healthy routes here. I know I am walking toward a cliff, but never jumping off. I know I am not ever managing to address the real issue, which while it grows from the soil of my relationship with my mother, isn’t about my mother. It isn’t even about me. It’s about healing what is in the future. It is about the fact that when I die, I hope the scrapbook layouts and the quilts have meaning for my kids, or for their spouses if they have them, or for my grandchildren if any arrive here. But more, I hope our relationships have meaning. I hope they know why I loved the silver necklace I wore the most (not just because I bought it on a trip to Mexico, but because my mom, Haley, Jake, and Nathan were in the jewelry store with me when I bought it, and because I had gone running on the beach that same day and I had a blister on my big toe from the sand in my running shoes, and because my hair was curly that day and my left shoulder sunburnt but not my right, and because I spoke in mangled Spanish to the store owner when I bought it and because the air smells different there than anywhere else I have ever been, and so when I put on my silver bead necklace it isn’t just a piece of jewelry, but it is the memory of that day in San Lucas and the feeling that my mom was glad I bought it) but even more I want them to know I loved them for exactly who they are.

Those words are repeated over and over in their scrapbook layouts.

Repeated and then put into a sheet protector and closed into books that no one looks at very often. That might become just some other stuff they have to sort through when I am dead. I don’t want them to have to feel what I felt during those three months of sorting my mother’s possessions. The way every choice (keep? discard?)  was like murdering her.

I want that knowledge to live inside of them. Not only after I’m gone, but right now. Right this second. Because I don’t want them to have to feel what I am feeling right now, a year after she died, that my mother loved me but she didn’t really love me.

They won’t be without quilts.

They won’t be without stories.

I hope they won’t be without the knowledge that I love them.

Stone bracelet 02

2019 Quilting Finishes

Your mother’s death influences you in ways you couldn’t ever anticipate. For me, one thing that impacted me after my mom passed away in January was the process of dealing with her fabric stash.

My mom has always been a collector of fabric. When we were kids she had a sewing room in our basement, and the floor-to-ceiling cabinets were full of fabric. Back then she made clothes for us, and then sometime in the 80s she transitioned to quilting. (There was also a brief stint of making animals.)

As a scrapbooker who’s been invested in my hobby since 1995, I understand how supplies pile up. You see something you love and want to do something with, you buy it, you intend to use it by making the thing, but sometimes (ALL THE TIME) other things also grab your attention and then over the years you just accumulate a whole bunch of stuff. Some gets used but not everything, and if you saw my scrapbook stash you’d understand why I’d never judge or criticize my mom for her fabric stash.

I understand.

But when my sisters and nieces and I went through her fabric, it was…stunning. We gathered fabric from all different corners of her house and piled it into different colors, and by the end her entire basement was full of fabric. A lifetime’s accumulation. She had made quilts for each of her granddaughters when they got married, and for great grandchildren as they came, but in her house she only had three finished quilts.

As we sorted and shared and discarded yards and yards and yards of fabric, that contrast hit me: so much accumulation, but only three quilts in her house. This made something shift in my crafty psyche. It made me feel determined to accumulate less and to make more.

Plus, I think that quilting was a way of processing my grief while feeling a connection to her. She didn’t teach me everything I know about quilting, but she taught me enough to have the confidence to learn and to develop. I’ve been quilting off and on since I was pregnant with Haley, and (obviously) much more since I got my own machine in 2004. (Before I had my own I would go to my mom’s house and use hers.)  But this year was a year of quilting.

I didn’t finish everything I started. I have a fat, fluffy flannel quilt I made for Jake that I just need to bind. I have a Halloween table quilt that is pieced and pinned but I feel intimidated to quilt. I made *some* progress on my black and pink quilt but I didn’t put it all together. I found a pattern and bought the fabric for a quilt for Kaleb but I didn’t start piecing it yet.

But I did finish quite a few things.

I wish I had blogged more about the process of making these. Hopefully in 2020 I will accomplish that goal, too. But I’m glad I gave myself the time this year to make things, to sit at my machine and let my thoughts wander while I pieced and measured and strung fabric together into made things instead of just accumulating raw supplies. Here's my list:

1.  Book Print Mug Rug #1. I made this for a bookish Galentine's swap I signed up for. I sent it with a copy of Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin. I'll probably sign up for this again in 2020!

01 book rug mug

2.  Rag Baby Boy Quilt. I made this for my friend Jamie's daughter Rachel's baby. The dark blue flannel on the back came from my mom's stash.

02 rachels quilt rag patchwork

3.  Book Print Mug Rug #2.  I made this for my friend Mindy when she left the library. She is one of my favorite people I've worked with and I still miss her every day! I bought a TON of this book print fabric and if you look closely you'll probably notice it in a lot of the scrappy things I make.

03 book mug rug for mindy

4.  Emmy's baby quilt. A big log cabin for my grand-niece Emmy. Read more about it HERE.

04 emmys quilt big log cabin

5.  Running Shoes Mug Rugs. When I went to the Skirt Sports retreat, I needed to bring a gift for a basket some of the ambassadors were putting together. I decided a mug rug would be good, but why make one when you can make four? Actually I made five. I think because of the corners being cut on the bias but I had the hardest time getting the binding corners to look nice on these. Hence the fifth one because the one I kept was THE WORST for corners. I gave one to Becky, one to my friend Lynne, one to someone else I don't remember! :) 

05 running shoes mug rugs

6. Ian's Baby Quilt, Midnight Feeding. I decided I should start naming the quilts I made. I didn't actually name them all but I'll share when I did, and this is the first one I named. I made this for my grand nephew Ian. It's backed with a dinosaur print flannel because his grandma, my sister-in-law Cindy, told me she hopes one of her grandsons will love dinosaurs.

06 ians quilt log cabin

7. Gus's Baby Quilt, Imagination. This is actually one of the first things I made after my mom passed away, but Gus (another grand nephew) wasn't born until the spring and I didn't give it to him until July! This took me FOREVER because I was learning how to make log cabins and didn't know the ways to make them faster. I have a half-written poem called "Grief Cabins" inspired by making this quilt that I hope to finish in 2020. It's backed with a flannel cowboy print.

08 guss quilt log cabins

8.  Hot Pad for Sarah. I made this for a family friend's daughter who got married this fall. We've known her since she was five or six! I paired it with a bundt pan, a cake stand, and the recipe for the chocolate bundt cake I used to make and take to their house when they had us over for dinner.

09 hot pad for sarah

9.  Aiden's baby quilt, Summer River. This is for another grand nephew, same sister-in-law is the grandma! It has some of my favorite blues and greens from quilts I've made for Kaleb, Jake, Nathan, and lots of other babies. It's backed with pieced flannel and a few other squares.

10 aidens quilt scrappy patchwork

10.  Patchwork Scrappy Pumpkins hot pads. I totally meant to write a tutorial for these and will do that next fall when it is seasonally appropriate! 

11 hot pads pumpkins

11. In the Stacks Quilt. I made this for a beginning quilting class I helped to teach at the library. I have a tutorial all written up so I definitely should write a blog post about it. I keep this on the chair in my craft room.

11a library quilt in the stacks

12.  Gloria's Quilt, Aspirations. This one is for my friend Julie's granddaughter. The baby's mom has a fashion degree so I HAD to make something for her with those dresses. I can now whip up a log cabin square in the blink of an eye! I had this one quilted because it needed some elegant curves. I love the way the arrangement of the logs also suggests a circle without actually making a circle.

13 glorias quilt 4 log cabin squares

13. Baby Patchwork Quilt in a Day. I made this one for one of Kendell's coworkers. He was in Denver for a conference and I was going out later in the week to meet him, and I literally made this is a day. It was fun to challenge myself!

12 patchwork baby quilt in a day

14. Halloween Table Quilt. This one ties for the oldest thing I finished, along with #15. I made this quilt top in 2006 I think; when I finished it I didn't love it at all and so I put it in the closet under the stairs and forgot about it. I found it when I was organizing my fabric this February and March and decided, why not use it anyway? I redid the back because it was too small, had it quilted, and then bound it. (I LOVE the binding. Fabrics with prints are my favorite.) It still will never be my favorite quilt I've ever made, and I actually love the back more than the front, but it's OK. I like it because it reminds me of all the things I've learned since I first started.

14 halloween table quilt

15. Dancing Skeleton Hot Pad. I have had this little pieced piece sitting in the drawer with my Halloween scrapbook supplies since I made the above quilt. This was my FAVORITE part of the panel and I wanted to showcase it somehow. I think I thought I'd maybe make a pillow, or maybe put it on a piece of wood somehow so it could hang on my wall, but I never did anything with it. When I found the quilt top it matches I decided to pull it out and make a hotpad instead. I many hotpads do I need? but I love her. I backed it with purple polka dots. I didn't remember to take a picture of it before I packed it up with my Halloween decorations, but here it is before I quilted it. I will likely use this image if I ever get around to writing a tutorial about self binding.

15 halloween hot pad dancing skeleton

16. Hotpad for Margot #1: Anne of Green Gables. I got to meet in person my friend Margot this year, who I've been friends with online for a long time. I gave her three hotpads—one was a Christmas one I made last year—this one, and #17. I picked Anne of Green Gables because we are kindred spirits!

17. Hotpad for Margot #2: Utah National Parks. Margot came to Utah mostly so she could hike Utah's redrock desert. I found this fabric online and it was perfect. I need to make one for myself, too! I had fun setting each park square at a random angle; I wanted it to look like a scrapbook page with photos on it, because she is also a scrapbooker!

17 margot hot pad utah national parks

18. Black & Pink Hotpad. This is a wedding gift that I still need to get something else to go with and then actually give it to the person I made it for. I have SO MANY black & pink half square triangles because I just keep making them and finding a new piece of black I love and then needing a pink to go with it and then suddenly I have 16 more matches which means 32 more, yeah. Probably a black-and-pink something is in a lot of people's future. I quilted this using masking tape which is another thing I want to blog about!

18 hot pad black and white

19.  Autumn Leaf Table Quilt. I had so much fun making this and I learned that I can freeform quilt. Not perfectly but clearly what it takes is just some practice.

19 autumn table quilt

20. Anne of Green Gables Hotpad for Chris. Chris is my oldest best friend and definitely a kindred spirit AND she has red hair so how could I not make this for her for Christmas?

20 chris hot pad anne of green gables

21.  Christmas Table Quilt. I will still write a blog post about this. It's highly imperfect but I love it anyway. And I'm including a photo of the back because I might like the back more than the front.

21a christmas table quilt front

This is the front.

21b christmas table quilt back

And here's the back. I love the back so much.

22. Another Running Mug Rug. This one has yoga ladies on the back. I made it for a secret Santa swap. 

22 rug mug running

23. Christmas Tree Hotpad. This made me happy for all the days I had it out—I finished it relatively late in December, though, so I will get more love out of it next year. It reminds me of my mom but it feels like my style. Still annoyed I ran out of the striped background fabric!

23 christmas hotpad pink tree

24. The Kitty Quilt, or, Misty, Noelle, Emily. I made this because I wanted Haley to have something comfy to sleep with when she was home—home sleeping on the floor because we don't have extra beds! I don't think she actually slept with it, but that's OK. I love it. I will blog about this one too. It was my last finish of a very productive year!

24 cat quilt

Not sure if I will quilt as much in 2020 as I did in 2019. BUT I do have a 20 projects in 2020 sheet that my local fabric store gave me, so, we'll see. I do know that quilting this year has brought me peace and happiness and a few pretty quilted things, and that is enough.




Something Comforting that Murmers

When I was a kid, I lived within two or three miles of my cousins (on my dad’s side), but we only saw each other once a year: at Christmas. Until I was 9 or 10, we went to my grandma Elsie’s house (my dad’s mom) every Christmas afternoon, where we’d eat dinner and open presents. When my grandma got older, we switched to the Cousin Party, which rotated between the three houses each year; we opened gifts and Santa came.

But that was mostly it: the time I spent with my cousins.

I grew up thinking that the reason for this was that Grandma Elsie loved my dad the least out of her three sons, and so by proxy she loved me and my sisters the least out of all of her grandkids. I don’t know if the memory I have of my mom saying that is a memory of me overhearing her say it to someone else, or if she said it to me directly, but it is one of the surest childhood memories I have.

So all through my childhood, I both revered and feared my cousins. I thought they were so glamorous and beautiful (I was a decade younger) and just cool, while I was the perennial uncool baby. (They gave me dolls as Christmas gifts for far too long.) Of course they must’ve had something I didn’t, because my grandma loved them more.

Today, I went to the hospital to visit my aunt, who was married to my dad’s brother (they’ve since divorced). She is dying from congestive heart failure and diverticulitis, and is going home to receive hospice care today. I had planned on going running, but Becky called and I decided not to run but to go there instead.

I am so glad I did.

Cousins bw

When we got into the hospital room, I hugged my aunt. I also immediately started crying, because even though it was a different hospital it felt the same: the strangeness of the end of a life, which is still so raw to me.

Some of my other cousins also got there at the same time, but my aunt was holding my hand, and she told me a story about how she had written a card to me after my mom died (my mom was her sister-in-law), even addressed it and put a stamp on it and carried it around in her purse, but she kept forgetting to send it to me. Then she squeezed my hand and said “I want you to know that I always loved you, and I’m sorry we weren’t close when you got older. I wish we would’ve been closer.”

Then I pulled a chair up to her bed and sat silent for a few minutes, while Becky and my cousins chatted, because I was feeling overwhelmed.

My aunt didn’t have to say any of that. Maybe it was just the Dilaudid talking. But as I sat in the aftermath of her words, I felt something strange happening in my psyche:

A little bit of healing.

I thought about my mom, who I loved, but who had a very strong personality. And my grandma Elsie, who also had a strong personality. How much of the third-best grandchildren feeling was actually a result of both of their strong personalities? Their inability to put aside their differences so that the four of us could feel like we belonged and were loved?

No one is around anymore who can answer that question for me.

But my aunt saying she loved me and that she regretted us not being closer? That was like someone taking that little girl I used to be, wrapping her in something soft and warm, and whispering a soothing murmur: you matter, you matter.

I sat thinking and watching, feeling something sharp lose some of its edge, in a sort of reverie, until my aunt laughed. Some of her grandchildren had come in and brought her presents, and she laughed in exactly the same tone of delight she used to laugh in, when we were kids opening presents at Christmas, and for a few seconds I felt just like I did as that little Amy version of myself, young enough to love dolls and happy that my aunt love what I loved.

When we left, one of my cousins said, “you know, we might not be as close as we should be, but we are…we are something important and strong.”

And maybe for the first time in my life, I felt like that “we” included me, too. That I mattered just as much, that I had as much to offer as anyone else in the room, that maybe other people love me, too, that I don’t know about.

I’m so sorry this had to happen on the day that marked the beginning of my aunt’s death. Why couldn’t I have known this twenty years ago, why couldn’t we have all been closer and supported each other through babies and divorces and crises and weddings and joys and losses?

But today, right now: I feel different. I feel stronger and a little less bitter and brittle. I feel lighter: not as heavy, but also more full of light. Less damaged.

In the End All We Are is Stories (a sort-of review of the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson)

Favorite Quotes:

Save your favorite dildo—but throw away the other fifteen!

(OK, no really….that doesn’t represent this book at all, but it made me laugh simply because it is so out of tone with the rest of the book.)

(Here’s a real favorite quote.)

If you give an old desk to a young person, make a story about it, not a lie of course, but tell them what kind of letters were written on it, what documents were signed, what types of thoughts were entertained around this desk—and the story will grow as it is passed on from young person to younger person to younger person. An ordinary desk becomes extraordinary through time.

Gentle art of swedish death cleaningI really wanted to give this book to my mom for Christmas last year, but I didn’t because I thought it would hurt her feelings.

Then I checked it out to read for myself, but then she got sick. Then she passed away.

Then my sisters and I had to do her death cleaning.

What is death cleaning? It is decluttering your possessions with an eye to help your family after you are gone. Sometimes death cleaning is writing small notes about the meaning of the objects you keep. Its purpose is to give meaning to your objects—what is left is what matters to you.

I didn’t read Magnusson’s book until after we had finished cleaning out my mom’s house. I discovered that it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had given it to my mom, and by some miracle it didn’t hurt her feelings and she actually read it, because the thought processes captured here are so different from hers.

Consider, for example, the giggling doll. This was a doll she bought for my oldest sister Michele, when she was about four or five. When you shook her, she giggled. (Clearly this was in the days before shaking babies was discouraged.) When my mom moved from her house in Springville, the giggling doll came with her. Even though she was filthy, and her head was literally hanging on by only a few threads. When I asked her why she was packing the giggling doll, and she said (after some annoyance and avoidance and after I literally held that dirty baby by the arm behind my back so she couldn’t touch it, maybe not my finest moment) that she wanted to keep it because the giggling sound reminded her of the days when Michele and Suzette was little.

I understood this. I thought about my Rubbermaid of Halloween decorations, which has those three cat handles in it. The cat handles I got for free from Baby Gap one fall when my Bigs were little. 2000 I think. The cat handles were made to put on a trick-or-treating bag, so when the kids opened it, the cat handle meowed. Howled, really, like a scary Halloween cat. I never used the handles on bags (because my kids liked buckets), but those cat handles. That sound. That sound takes me right back to those very specific years, with their happinesses and troubles. With exhaustion and sweet baby nibbles, Haley’s sticky hand in mine, Jake’s little voice naming off all the dinosaur names he knew.

The cat handles take me back.

The giggling doll took my mom back.

This is so hard. It is hard to do on your own because possessions, while they don’t entirely define us—they are tied to memories. And memories are tied to feelings. So I’ve kept the cat handles because of how they make me feel.

So that is why, even though my mom had passed away and we did her death cleaning for her, I wanted to read this book. (Also, even though I am not dying.)

When Magnusson wrote about that desk, I started to cry. Because that is why it was so hard to go through my mom’s stuff: because I had that memory of the giggling doll, and it made me realize that everything she kept made her feel something—but I didn’t know the stories.

So what I didn’t keep, or what someone else didn’t keep, felt like sending my mother’s feelings to the Goodwill.

Now her house is empty. Now her car is sold and the house is clean and all of her possessions have been spread out into the world, and now I need to turn to my own house. My own possessions.

I can’t help it. I know it is maudlin and maybe a little bit morbid, but I do think about the time after my death quite a bit. And I don’t want my kids to feel like I felt, death cleaning my mother’s house. I want them to go through my things and know the stories, know where I got this desk I am writing on (it was my grandpa Fuzz’s desk) and what I did with it (not just writing blog posts, but lots of different writings, and I sew on it, and I craft on it, and I remember my grandpa sitting at it and figuring out the rent payments). I don’t want them to feel like they are throwing or giving away things that are meaningless to them but had meaning to me.

Right now, my front room is full of a bunch of my mom’s stuff. Knick knacks from her curio, fabric from her stash, a few clothes, some dishes and cooking tools. Photos—so many photos. And it just keeps sitting there because I don’t know how to start. I don’t know how to start processing my stuff in order to make room for hers.

I was hoping The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning would give me a check list: do this, do that. It doesn’t, really. Instead, the author discusses her process in a kind and rambling sort of way, but always coming back to that central fact: having too much stuff is a burden on everyone, you while you’re here, your family once you’re gone. I don’t want to be my mom, toting around a dirty old doll because it helps me remember a different part of my life. I want to find a balance between remembering and looking forward. And I think Margareta Magnusson doesn’t spell out an exact process because it must be different for everyone, it must be individual.

Death cleaning my mother’s house was difficult. It broke my heart to get rid of some of her things. But more than anything, it broke my heart that I didn’t know more stories. That we didn’t have a strong enough relationship for her to tell them to me or for me to ask her about them. That I have the aqua and gold vases, the floral-print oval-shaped china bowl with silver chasing, the tea cups. The images of faces I am related to but who I don’t know. These are all beautiful things and I kept them because they tie me to my mother, but the only stories I can tell are the ones I make with them.

Which is true of all of my stuff.

So, the biggest thing I took from Swedish Death Cleaning was this reminder: without stories, nothing means anything.

And if, in the end, all we are is stories…then if we want to still be stories, we have to tell them. With our voices or, if no one wants to listen, with pen and paper.

Spring Flowers

It rained today. It was chilly and windy and grey, and finally, in the afternoon, the tension broke and the rain fell.

Then the clouds cleared and the world lit up. The mountains were soft white with a new layer of snow against the blue sky. Water droplets sparkled on hyacinth blooms, daffodils waved in the wind.

Daffodils 2019

I thought about my mom, who loved spring. Earlier in the day, I took Kaleb to her house so he could clean her yard as part of the preparations for selling her house. He cleared weeds, trimmed bushes and plants, raked up leaves. It was a mess when he started, clean and tidy when he was done. Her daffodils weren’t blooming yet, or her tulips, but the leaves were out.

I remember this feeling from when my dad died. How, the next spring, the grape hyacinths he had planted still bloomed, even though he wasn’t there.

My mom didn’t stay in that house in Springville, the one where we all grew up. She sold it and moved so she could be closer to me and my sisters, but I’m not sure she ever forgave us for pushing her to move. Now that’s she’s gone and we are finishing cleaning out the house she lived in for such a short time, I find myself filled with regret. Maybe we should’ve just left her in her house in Springville. Where all the memories were, my dad’s rocks and his tulips, his lilac bush and his saw blade nearly swallowed by his honey locust. Where every spring my mom filled containers with flowers. Where things grew. Where we laughed, fought, cried, played, celebrated.

But, here we are in this reality.

I touched the leaves of the tulips. I thought about her planting them, and now she’s gone. She’s gone, but the flowers are still here.

Then I came home to my own house, my yard where every living thing was planted by me. The daffodils I planted when I was pregnant with Haley are still coming up every year, even though she is grown up and in a different state now. The hostas I planted one spring afternoon with Jake’s help the summer he was three, while Nathan napped and Kaleb was still only a wish—they are poking their heads up, too.

I love spring flowers. There might not be anything more joyful than the scent of a hyacinth on the cool air. They are reminders that cold doesn’t last forever, the world cycles, things change, but they also repeat.

Those bulbs I planted could last longer than I do.

And again I am hit with that strange feeling, one I don’t have an exact, single word for. The way that we come into the world, and we do something. Even if it is only loving other people, we do something. We have a work. We plant flowers, we take photographs, we write our memories. We raise children, sometimes, and we make mistakes, even though when they were born we promised them we wouldn’t. We leave scars. Hopefully we leave knowledge, too. And the surety of being loved.

We come, we stay for awhile, we leave. Other things last longer than us: trees, rosebushes, quilts, photographs. Hopefully, though, something of us still remains, in the curve of a cheek or a shade of hair, but also in a way of doing things that our descendents don't even realize was ours and yet they do it anyway.

My mother loved spring flowers; my grandmother loved purple flowers. Maybe one day I will have great-great grandchildren who plant purple hyacinths, windflowers, crocus, just because they love them, not knowing their mother's mother's mother loved them.

(If there are still flowers, and spring, and water, and blue skies in that future.)

Every spring, my flowers bloom the earliest of anyone I know. Every year, when they start blooming, I would tell my mom: the flowers are blooming! Winter will end!

How strange I cannot tell her that this year.

How strange that I am here to see them. That any of us are, really.

How miraculous.

Hyacinths purple

Photos and Stories are a Legacy

On Saturday, January 19, my mom made a decision: Rather than undergoing another surgery, one that would result in her losing her independence, she decided to enter hospice care. We brought her home the next day. My sisters and I made sure that one of us was always there, but there were also other family members and friends who came in and out, saying goodbye.

On the second day, my sister Becky got antsy and needed a project, so she decided to bring up all of the boxes of photos. She’d previously helped my mom pack these photos, which she’d gathered from various places around her house in Springville back when she was in the process of moving.

In these boxes there were photos from all different times. A studio portrait of my mom at age nine or ten had a family photo from 1991 underneath it, and then a stack of random snapshots anywhere from 1989 to 2005. Some school photos of each sister, including a few class pictures. Black and white portraits of my great grandparents and their siblings, some dating back to the 1920s. Mounds and piles and stacks and envelopes of photos. Some ruined, some dusty, some torn, some in fine shape. I found photos of myself that I have never seen before or forgotten existed, photos of my grandparents I will cherish now that I have them, even a photo of my Grandma Elsie standing on a trail in Bryce Canyon in the exact same spot where I have also stood for a picture.

It was thrilling and discouraging and moving and more than a bit overwhelming.

Old photos

Over the next few days, I ended up sorting through all of those photos. I made a pile for myself and each of my sisters, a pile of photos to scan for the funeral, and one of old family photos that seemed important for everyone to have.

And I threw away photos.

I threw away so many photos.

Photos I’d given her of my family that I also had copies of. Blurry photos. Photos that were torn. Entire stacks of pictures that had stuck together and couldn’t be pried apart. We used to have a cat, Noelle, who would lick any pictures she found, and there were quite a few she’d irreparably damaged.

But a lot of the throw-aways were pictures of scenery and places and buildings.

I could guess where a lot of them were taken: London, southern Utah, Mexico, the beach, the mountains.

But without any words or stories to go along with them, they were entirely meaningless to everyone.

And honestly: even some of the photos with people in them felt inconsequential, somehow. Void of context, that photo of my mom and another woman I don’t know, for example, posing in their bikinis on a beach was, yes, a picture of my mom. But what does it mean? What beach were they at? How did she feel about her body? Why did she pick out that swimsuit? Who is the other woman in the picture and what kind of relationship did they have?

Oh how I wish she had written down the stories to go along with some of those photos.

I know not everyone understands my scrapbooking hobby. It’s easy to see it as sort of silly, a grown woman sticking down stickers and playing with paint and colored pencils like a kindergartener.

Sorting through my mother’s pictures was so moving to me. It was amazing to see how faces appear and reappear, my mom and dad’s features showing here and there in a child or a grandchild. Those piles of photos are evidence of a life that was lived: family, travels, holidays, houses and parties and snowstorms and rainbows.

But it also reinforced something for me: what I do isn’t silly. Even if there are stickers and glue and ribbon and flowery paper.

Because there are also stories. Thoughts, impressions, funny tales, personality quirks. Details of a life, context for the images.

I haven’t told all of the stories. Not mine, not my kids’. If I died tomorrow, there would be so many stories I haven’t told. Stories about races and running. Stories about motherhood, about being a wife and a friend. Stories about my job. Stories about the places I’ve traveled to.

At least some of them are told. At least, if I died tomorrow, my kids would have my words in writing. Not just my voice saying “I love you,” but my hand writing it, too.

Photos are images of places and people.

But photos paired with words are a legacy.

That experience of sorting my mom’s pictures (and o! how I wish I would’ve asked one of my sisters to snap a photo of me sorting the photos, surrounded by piles and piles of photos) taught me many things. It will change how I take photos in the future. Some wisdom I am still trying to put into words. But this I can say:

In the end, scrapbooking isn’t about the supplies. It is only about the photos and the words. Everything else is fun and pretty and colorful, but the stories—the stories are where the meaning is found.

And I feel something else. It isn’t really inspiration. It’s more of a prodding. A spurring: tell more stories. Not really scrapbook more things. But to simplify; to make sure the stories I want people to know about the photos I have taken are written down, because no one can do that but me.

I don’t want my kids to have to face boxes of meaningless photos. I want them to just have the stories and pictures that held meaning for me, so they know: their stories matter. My stories matter. The stories of a life are lost unless you write them down.

Middle-Aged and Older: Why I'll Always Be a Scrapbooker

All day yesterday, I found myself thinking about this post I read on Cathy Zielske’s blog that morning. (I admire Cathy quite a bit, partly because I think if we met in real life she would understand my need to avoid titchy fonts, widows, and bad rags, and I wouldn’t even have to explain what those words meant. So this isn’t me criticizing her ideas; more, it is me exploring my response.) In her post, she writes about how, as the middle-aged mother of two older kids, she is finding that she makes more cards and fewer layouts.

It took me all day to figure out why this made me bristle a little bit.

It’s not that I disagree with anything she said, especially about scrapbooking your adult children. As my kids have gotten older and started leaving home, I do scrap less about their current experiences. This is because I am less involved with their daily lives, which means I have fewer stories to tell and fewer pictures

Scrapbooks on bookshelf
My dad's old brownie camera

of them. And, the fact is, I’ve made very few scrapbook layouts about experiences my kids have had without me. This isn’t because I make their layouts about me (I try not to), but because I only feel…well, I first wanted to write “capable,” but really, the right word is “responsible”: I feel responsible to tell the stories I know. So even when I have photos of trips they’ve gone on without me, it’s rare that I make a layout with them, because what would I write? So as they go out into the world, I make fewer layouts about them, and what I do make is mostly about holidays, because they are (sometimes) here for them.

But more important is this fact: I’m finding this part of parenting to be far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. Much of what I am now capable of is telling my reactions to their experiences, which I “witness” mostly through social media and texting. These feel more appropriate in a journal than a scrapbook. Their stories are becoming their stories. Their choices are not really influenced much by me anymore, nor their consequences. I feel less of a responsibility to record their stories for them. Plus, it would just feel sort of…weird, somehow. To try to record things I didn’t experience. Like I was invading their space or controlling their experiences.

All of which Cathy says in her blog post.

I think what made me bristle is the suggestion that once our kids are of a certain age, the need to create scrapbook layouts diminishes and can be replaced by other crafts.

Don’t get me wrong; I do make things besides scrapbook layouts. I made quilts! And sometimes I make cards.

But there is a certain type of satisfaction that scrapbooking gives me. It is something I’ve written about before, the way that it gives me a space to pair a photograph with words; it gives me a chance to write. That matters most to me, more than pretty paper or alphabet stamps or even my current obsession, which is puffy stickers. (Even though those matter, too.)

But there is also something else I get from scrapbooking, and it has something to do with that word: responsibility.

And it also has to do with me and my own quirks, even when I am making layouts for and about my kids, so I know this is my response and not necessarily universal.

One of my clearest memories from my childhood is the day I found an old check register. It was one kept by my dad, so it was in his squared-off handwriting. And it happened to be the register from the months before and after my birth. I don’t remember what checks they actually wrote during that time, but I will never forget the feeling I had, sitting in the basement by the record player looking at that check register. It felt both mysterious and enlightening—that so much had happened not just in the world at large but in my family members’ lives that I didn’t know about or remember. Or that I didn’t exist yet to witness. Maybe it was the first time I realized how small my place in the universe is. (Maybe I was just a weird kid.) But it ignited something within me, a need to know about the things that happened to people I knew before I knew them.

Flash forward roughly twenty years later, to a day not long after my grandma Elsie died. She was a reader, and my dad took on the responsibility of going through her massive collection of books, looking for valuable editions or rare titles. As I am also a reader, I helped him with this task. But I didn’t really care about the books themselves (which were mostly paperback mysteries anyway). What I was looking for was a diary, or a journal, or a date book. Or even a check register. Something written in my grandma’s hand about her life. I assumed that since she was a reader, like me, she’d also be a writer (like me). But if she ever wrote any journals, or any stories about her life, we didn't find them that day.

Now flash forward another almost-twenty years, to the morning my dad died. His brother Roe brought some photo albums to us, photo albums my grandma Elsie had put together. And then, on that morning which was already swimming in tears, I wept other, sweeter ones. Because there they were: her words in her handwriting, telling her story. And telling my dad’s story. Not all of it—barely even anything. But she wrote “beautiful Bryce Canyon” next to some photos of Bryce Canyon, and so I learned that my grandma, like me, loved Bryce Canyon. On the back of a photo of my dad standing next to a tree in her yard when he was middle-aged—perhaps even my age right now—she wrote “Don planted this tree when he was a little boy.” And so I learned that my grandma, like me, looked for patterns and relationships between objects and time and people.

Photos from my grandmas album
Photos from my grandma's photo album. Yellowed and scratched but so important to me.

(It’s really a shame she died before she learned about scrapbooking. She would’ve scrapbooked the hell out of stuff, I think.)

That is also why I scrapbook: because it raises a sort of desolation in me that none of the people who came before me left a record of their lives. Maybe this is a thing my children will never care about—maybe that desolation is just my quirk. But by making scrapbook layouts I can lessen the possibility of any of them ever feeling that same desolation. So in that sense it is for them—but it’s also for me. Time is circular, remember, or it is somehow, and it feels like I am assuaging that ache in my own heart by making layouts about other people. Which makes no logical sense—but it still makes sense. Heart sense.

Or maybe it’s just that when we are parents, what we try to give our children isn’t necessarily always what they need, but what we needed that no one gave us.

So yes: I can see as my kids get older, I will make fewer layouts. About them. At least, about their current lives. But I still have so many stories to tell. And not just about them, but about me, too.

Sometimes I worry that, when I’m the one who’s passed away, and someone is cleaning out my house, the scrapbooks will feel like a burden. Like my kids will see them as stuff they have to figure out what to do with. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s a possibility.

There are a lot of layouts.

But the other side of that fear is hope. Hope that they’ll be glad that some part of their story is recorded. Hope that they’ll be glad that a little part of their mother is put down on paper. Hope, even, in a day sometime past my own death, when a grandchild or a great grandchild discovers their parent’s scrapbook, and then they discover something about me, too. Some similarity, some likeness.

And that is one of the reasons that even as a middle-aged mother, and even when I am actually and literally old, I will still be scrapbooking. Yes, it’s about fulfilling that creative need. But it’s also, for me, about feeling responsible, for whatever reason, for the stories, and for making sure that if someone in the future needs their parent’s story, or their grandma Amy’s, they will have it.

Photo of me and elsie on my 12th birthday
Elsie and me on my 12th birthday.