Absence

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
—Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Burning the Old Year”

The shouts of the grieving form
a collective wail, a rising lamentation

that stings the eyes, chokes the throat—
the absence of so many loved ones,

locked away for the duration or
buried in haste for fear of the virus.

We miss them, the departed, as we’ve
not missed others; the dissonance

throbs in our chests. Come back!
we plead as we realize there is no

going back. It’s a new world, one
we must remake without them,

one in which we must turn to
each other when we emerge

from isolation, all of us aching,
looking for some place to share

a word, a touch, our love.
Might that be with you?

Putah Creek, UC Davis Arboretum / Photo by Jan Haag
Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A doofus kinda love

Diego and Georgann, Dec. 12, 2016, at Jan’s house.

Diego, the big doofus, loves to lie on people, and here he sprawls on my BFF, Georgann (Taylor) Turner, on this day in 2016. I believe this may have been her last trip to Northern California, despite her tremendous pain as she dealt with metastasized colon cancer.

Never one to pass up the opportunity to take advantage of a warm blanket and person, Diego and Georgann rested together for a while that afternoon and evening. She, a kitty person, too, accepted Diego’s love (and enormous purr) as the great compliment it was and is. (And it is great—he’s a whopping 15-pounder of feline.)

Thinking of my BFF who died in August, as I do pretty much daily, grateful that she survived a dozen years with cancer. She wanted as much time on the planet as possible, and she got it at her home in Bremerton, Washington, thanks to the love and care of her family, particularly her husband, Ron Turner.

Thank you, BFF, for all the love… and your parking fairy, who found me a super-close spot today as dear friend Lisa and I went to the theater. We thanked her, as one does the parking fairy, as you taught me. That’s one way I know you’re still around!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Repose

These days of the falling
I look to the gutters where

gold gathers along with
burnished red going to rust,

delicate saffron fans
having fluttered their last,

garnet maple leaves
the size of my hand

scattered belly up—
not quite dead but dying,

yet I see no gasping
or clinging, no resistance.

There is repose in
the glitter of the fallen,

a kind of peace there
with their brethren,

an acceptance of a
changing season,

an absolution, this
release from obligation.

You are forgiven,
the ginkgos say.

You can let go now.
Rest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Stranded

The Sea Ranch, Oct. 26, 2021

I’ve never held so many stars, but
the October storm washes them ashore,
bright points of light wrapped in knotted
ropes of yellowed kelp and dulled mussels.
Wave after wave bounces them to the sand,
and, as the water recedes, I run to their rescue,
scoop up as many as I can, return dozens
to normally placid tidepools.

But the ocean is having none of it,
churned and frothed as it is, crashing
into the crevices and pools with the force
of an angry god. I continue my vain efforts
to restore the sea stars to their rightful home.
Perhaps they—like the bent-spined purple
urchins and oval gumboot chitons I send
into the surge—are already lost.

I cannot tell.

For an hour I collect their carroty                    
five-pointed bodies from the debris,
cradle the rust, the crimson, the cranberry,
one the color of a mottled lizard,
ferry them to the corner of the cove
where tide kisses land. I can do so little—
the proverbial drop of water in a vast sea—
but I fetch and toss the little invertebrates                      
with great hope, small beings I can try
to save in a lifetime of watching death win

again and again.

Shell Beach, The Sea Ranch, Sonoma Coast

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Advice from a dead best friend

Put on your shoes and walk in the world,
talking to me. I’m right here with you;
I’m always within reach. It’s a good time
to chat, so go ahead. You’ll know it’s me
when you know it’s me. But even when
you’re not sure, I’m listening.

Sure, I can help you find missing things,
but I’m not one of them. I have not
gone astray. Death is just a change
of address, remember? You wrote
that a long time ago, and you were right.

No, I can’t give you my new address—
it’s not a place—but when you stand
in the back yard, hose in hand,
watering the last yellow zinnia
that insist on popping up its sunny
head, even if it is October,
listen with your whole heart.

When you sit in the loft with others
and see what shows up as you type,
when you let the words appear,
take good notes. You’ve gotta
whole cheering section here.
I’m just the latest addition.

You did it better than you thought you did.
You’re doing it better than you think you are.
What it? Every it. You always have done.

Yes, it’s fall, the dying season,
not your favorite, though it was mine.
Now, as you walk, inhale the cool.
The heat has finally shifted hemispheres.
Scuff your feet like a little kid through
leaves on the path. Stop, crouch, admire
their fallen state. Soak up golden
gingkos and blushing maples.
Pick up acorns and their jaunty caps
that have separated in the falling.
Relish the crunch of brittle sycamores.

Every leaf is born, lives, dies.
Tuck them into your heart, where
the ebbing summer and I will carry you
through every winter, into every spring.
As one does.

This is no ending, my friend.
Trust me. It’s not.

Georgann Turner on her wedding day, Sept. 26, 1996, with her best gal, Jan Haag

You can hear Jan read this poem here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Bidding Georgann farewell

Rocks by Laurie Aboudara-Robertson of Napa, California.

About 50 people gathered in Sacramento the day before Georgann and Ron’s 25th wedding anniversary for a ceilidh. That’s pronounced kay-lee, and it’s Gaelic for a party, which Georgann loved. Her brother, Bill Taylor, opened his former restaurant for the ceilidh, and her oldest kids—Andy, Tiff and Jena—did the heavy lifting the day before to set up the place for what turned out to be a grand gathering.

A number of folks spoke about the extraordinary human who was Georgann Taylor Turner, and we ate and reminisced, and there were certainly damp eyes. But I can’t help but think she enjoyed the ceilidh in her memory. She promised to show up for us, and I don’t doubt that she did.

The same evening I’d been invited to read at a Sacramento Poetry Center outdoor reading. I decided to read four poems about Georgann. This was one of them.

Ceilidh

for Georgann

Two days after our hemisphere
shifts into autumn, your loved ones
gather for a party, a wake, a meal,
a social gathering in your memory—
though without a good Irish band
for dancing.

Still, you’d call it a ceilidh, as you
named a cat that you bequeathed
to me long ago. I never could
spell her name without looking it up,
but Ceilidh, the sweet calico, graced
my house until it was her time to go.
As it was yours just a month ago.

You, who saw the spiritual in the ordinary,
who preferred the overcast cool of fall
to searing summer, who bestowed upon us
her fierce devotion, who found the holy
in repetitive tasks—cooking, planting,
raising children—who loved a good ceilidh.

Yours was a vibrant light, even as
it faded, even as our side of the planet
begins its tilt away from the sun,
as the wings you’d grown lifted
you into mystery, as we celebrate you,
at last unencumbered, and carry
your essence with us as we traverse
all the seasons to come.

My BFF and me over the years.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Big red box

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because my partner, a 40-year photojournalist, recently chronicled the decommissioning of The Sacramento Bee building, and I provided some words to go with those photos (which you can see in the September issue of Sacramento magazine here). Maybe it’s because working for newspapers has provided me with some of my greatest colleagues and experiences, as well as some pretty awful ones. Maybe it’s because ink seeped into my veins as a kid who started her own neighborhood newspaper and later as a teenager hanging around Linotypes at a small-town paper. Even though the ink of newspapers makes me sneeze, I have a soft spot for words and photos on newsprint.

Last year as The Bee, shuttered by COVID, began taking apart the building where it had made a daily paper since 1952, it began disposing of surplus. I got excited when, in my final year as a journalism professor, advising students who had not put out a physical newspaper for three years, I learned that The Bee was giving away its old newspaper boxes—the kind that sat on corners holding newspapers. Boxes into which you’d feed quarters, lift the lid and take a copy of that day’s paper.

My City College colleague Randy, with whom I advised the Express, was also a former Bee photo guy. We decided that we’d use his vehicle to snag each of us a Bee box. The Bee wanted people to promise to paint out The Bee logos on the boxes, particularly if they planned to display them as, say, free little libraries, which is something that’s now done with old newspaper boxes. I had no plans to paint anything. I wanted a beaten-up old Bee box to sit in the urban jungle that makes up half my back yard as an artifact of journalism, not unlike the old, rotting typewriters there. I consider it a writer’s garden art.

But it was not to bee. The guy giving away the boxes who was supposed to have our names on a list didn’t contact us about pickup, and when we eventually reached him, we eventually learned that all the boxes were gone.

I was a little disappointed, but that’s how things go. I only worked for The Bee for a few years—nowhere near Randy’s or Dick’s tenure. Instead, on the last day of the decommissioning process of the building at 21st and Q, Dick and I were given the last two rolls of newsprint in the building—demos, if you will, that used to sit in the lobby when they’d sell the end rolls to people for a few bucks. Blank newsprint makes dandy wrapping paper, especially if you’re moving or need to wrap, say, dishes before boxing them. We were tickled to have the end rolls and their price tags.

Still, I wished I could have snagged a newspaper box.

Well, I got my chance on the 20th anniversary of 9-11, a somber day for sure. That’s when I learned that the Sacramento News & Review was giving away its newspaper boxes. Bring a vehicle to their parking lot and pick one up. They had a number of them that had been painted by artists, but by the time I arranged with my friend Timi Poeppelman to drive me over in her SUV, those were mostly gone.

Not to worry—they had plenty of their original, bright red boxes with Sacramento News & Review stickers on them, too. And that’s what I wanted for the urban jungle.

Timi and the SN&R box

Timi confessed on the drive to the SN&R that she’d been feeling guilty because she knew I wanted a Bee box… and she had snagged two of them. One for her and one she took to some kids in Oakland, where they turned the box into a little free library. She hopes to turn hers into a library, too, which will require painting it.

“I should’ve helped you get one then,” she said. But honestly, we were both busy teaching, and Timi is the person who made it possible for me to teach online for two and a half semesters. She coached me on the Canvas platform that colleges use for everything from assignments to tests to class discussions. She taught me how to teach on Zoom. And she was always available for my panicked phone calls when something didn’t work correctly—usually me. I literally could not have done my job without her. (Thanks again, Timi!)

“No, no,” I said. “This is even better.”

And it is. The Snooze (and I have long used that name for the SN&R with great affection) and I became good friends after I became a full-time journalism prof, missing newspapers. I’d become professional acquaintances with its founding editor, Melinda Welsh, when I was the editor of Sacramento magazine in the early 1990s. After I started teaching at Sacramento City College, I volunteered to work a few hours a couple of times a week at the SN&R with some of her editors. They were smart, competent young women, learning the ropes of journalism, and I loved working with the two Rachels and one Laura. They all went on to bigger papers and fine careers, and I served as backup copy editor to Laura, who was no slouch herself.

Melinda and I have remained friends all these years, sharing writing and having occasional lunches. I’ve long loved the Snooze and have had I-don’t-know-how-many journalism students intern and eventually work there.

So Timi and I found a red SN&R box in pretty good shape and loaded it into the back of her SUV. Before I could offer to buy her lunch or a coffee, she said all she wanted in return was a matcha, so we went to our neighborhood Temple Coffee Roasters. Her husband Rick joined us there, and after tea, coffee and conversation, we rode back to my house where Timi and Rick carried the red newspaper box down my driveway, into the backyard and plopped it in the urban jungle. (Thanks, you two!)

The next day I cleaned it out (why people think newspaper boxes are trash cans is beyond me) and hosed it off, delighted with this bit of newspaper history in my yard.

I hate that the SN&R is no longer printing copies you can pick up from those boxes for free, and that it’s easier to access The Bee online, too. But I’m happy that one of my former students is currently writing for the SN&R online (go, Casey!), and that, despite its many trials—including a vastly reduced staff—Bee journalists work diligently to produce good journalism. It’s not what it used to be; few newspapers are.

Dick and I consider ourselves lucky to have worked in print journalism as long as we did. I’m proud to have coached thousands of student journalists, many of whom worked or are working in the field today. There’s still a need for good, carefully reported news and quality visual journalism. Much of it is no longer produced in the great quantities it was on newsprint, delivered to people’s homes or distributed in boxes like the one in my backyard.

But I’ll look at the newspaper box and think of my former colleagues who toiled in newsrooms and had their stories and photos printed on newsprint and give thanks for them all. I’m proud to have been one of them.

Timi and Rick after moving the SN&R box to my backyard.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Sept. 11

The Wall of Names can be seen in the foreground before the grand opening of the new memorial in 2015. The boulder in the background rests on the site of the crash. (Photo/Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

for Clifford, 20 years after

Sitting in front of the TV, horrified, mesmerized,
thinking, I’m glad you’re not here to see this,
because, awful as it was, I was still wound up,
sometimes in a ball on the bed, after your unexpected
death six months earlier. And ever since, on this day,
as others mourn a national tragedy, my mind falls
to you, someone I grieved as the towers fell,
as word arrived of a plane crashed into a field in
Pennsylvania, another into the Pentagon. As images
appeared of people fleeing down staircases in the dark,
of firefighters going into the fray, never to return,
of stunned, ashen souls walking for miles and miles,
trying to get home, of those who never got home.

It’s how I feared your soul experienced those first
seconds, minutes, hours after your sudden departure.
Did you wander in the bardo, wondering what
had just happened, where you were, what came next?
Or were you plunged into nothingness, your
essence released into the air, bits of energy
sparking as you transformed into spirit?

If it sounds beautiful, perhaps it was.
Perhaps only those of us on the ground
called it tragedy. It’s not easy to go on believing
in an afterlife amid a horrific aftermath. But perhaps
those of you escaping bodies of ruined flesh
felt freed, even as you blasted off, leaving
the rest of us behind.

Tower of Voices at the Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo/John Rucosky)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Best Cheese(cake) Pie in All the Land

In June, newly retired from teaching, I decided to tackle the art of cheesecake and began practicing in earnest so I’d be ready to whip up what ended up to be three cheesecakes for my mother’s 90th birthday celebration in early July.

I learned to make a classic, cake-y, springform pan cheesecake. I made cheesecake from the recipe on the graham cracker crumbs box. And I made Margery Thompson’s cheesecake, which is really more like a creamy cheesecake pie—one that her family (of which I am a happily included part) deems The Best Cheesecake In All the Land. Actually, it was Marge’s son Mitchell who declared it so, though he died much too soon at age 43. When we in the family who have been tutored by the master (mistress?) make the cheesecake, we do so in honor of Mitchell.

I’ve been asked by a number of folks for that recipe, so here’s the version I took down, step by step, as Marge tutored her daughter Rebecca and me in cheesecake. I have to add that Marge got the recipe from an old church cookbook (the first version in the early 1950s, a later one that she still has in 1961). It was Helen Miniaci’s recipe, so we pay homage to her, too, with every incarnation.

“It’s easy,” says Marge, who has made this hundreds of times, and once you get the hang of it, she’s right. Easy-peasy, super yummy, not too sweet and very creamy!

Margery Thompson’s cheese(cake) pie

Heat oven to 350°

For crust (mix in 9-9.5-inch glass pie plate):

• 1 cup graham cracker crumbs

• 3-4 tablespoons melted butter

• 2 tablespoons sugar

(Press into plate so that crust goes up sides of plate nearly to the rim. Plate doesn’t need to be greased; “there’s enough butter in there so it doesn’t stick,” Marge says.)

For filling (in a large glass or ceramic bowl)

Beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:

• 16 oz. (2 8 oz. packages) of room temperature (“makes it easier to beat”), full fat cream cheese (“low fat doesn’t set up properly”) To make it easier to whip the cream cheese, beat in one egg with the cream cheese.

• ½ cup sugar (“basic white sugar is smoothest and easiest to whip”)

• 1 more egg

• ½ teaspoon lemon juice (“no pulp; tart lemons are best”)

• ½ teaspoon vanilla

In a separate smaller glass or ceramic bowl, beat with hand mixer or food processor until very creamy, almost runny:

• ½ pint (half a pint container) sour cream

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• ½ teaspoon vanilla (“rinse lemon out of measuring spoon first to avoid curdling the cream”)

Fold sour cream mixture into cream cheese mixture “sloooowly to avoid air pockets,” Marge says, using rubber spatula to gently turn the sour cream mixture into the cream cheese.

Pour into crust, smoothing “gently so it doesn’t pull up the crust” on the sides of the pie plate. (Optional from Mrs. Miniaci: Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on top.)

Bake 25 minutes (“Do not over bake!” warns Mrs. Miniaci.) Remove carefully from oven and cool on a wire rack till completely cool (“a good four hours”) before covering with plastic wrap and putting in the fridge. Allow to chill in fridge at least overnight (“24 hours is better”). Can be refrigerated for up to two days before serving.

Optional: Serve with a berry topping (frozen or fresh). But honestly, it’s perfect all by its ownself. Very rich, and a little goes a long way!

The peace of cheese(cake) pie!
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Letterpress

Printer Barbara Hennelly (her mask off for the photo) demonstrates the Vandercook proof press.

Old wood type holds the patina of years of fingers caressing it, tossing it, placing it on metal trays or handheld composing sticks, and, once arranged, transferring it to the bed of a vintage printing press. I like to think it contains memory, too, of the words each letter built. I’ve long loved handling type, whether chunks of metal that lie heavy in the hand, or the lightweight wood, often larger, used for posters and announcements and headlines.

So I was delighted to sign up for a letterpress printing class that, as it happened, took place in the back side of an art gallery five days after my best friend finally died. She spent a dozen years living with colon cancer, much of it in reasonably good health, and I got to spend time with her about seven weeks before she died. I count myself lucky in many ways, but seeing Georgann for a week, despite the fact that she spent most of it sleeping, is one of those ways.

Even a death that’s expected upends the loved ones who weather it, so I walked into Myrtle Press a bit unsteady. Death always feels like a gut punch, and the closer we are to the one who dies, the harder the punch. We try not to walk around doubled over, but it’s hard not to. And whether they’re aware of it or not, the dead walk with us, especially in the early hours and days of their new status. We think of them almost nonstop. We wish they hadn’t left. We wish we’d said or done something we didn’t say or do.

One of the manuals for Barb’s press

So it was that my newest companion spirit accompanied me into a space of old type and a Vandercook cylinder proof press from about 1950 to meet a young woman named Barb, who was both printer and teacher. When I looked into the plastic bins of large wood type and some smaller containers of smaller type, I smiled. I have lots of old type at home, both wood and metal, but it’s fun to see someone else’s collection. Even better to be allowed to touch it.

After she introduced herself, Barb gave us each an 11×17 empty metal printers tray. “That’s your template,” she said. “You’ve got that much space to say whatever you want to say.” She waved at the bins of type. “Dive in!”

Since I was already standing by a big bin containing letters about four inches tall, I plunged in and ran my fingers over the smooth surface of much-used type. I had no idea what I wanted to say. I hadn’t arrived with anything specific in my head. But just like in the writing groups, if you put yourself in the environment and relax a bit, things show up for you. In this case, I picked up a ligature—a word I’ve long loved—two letters put together on one piece of wood, a lowercase double f. ff, it said. What could I do with ff?

And there was Georgann’s laugh in my head. “BFF,” I heard her say, as though she was standing next to me. For decades she had signed off handwritten letters that morphed into emails and texts with BFF. I began searching for a lowercase b to go with the ff ligature. It appeared easily, and I set the two pieces of type on my tray. I saw a large ampersand, one of my favorite pieces of punctuation that looks a bit like a treble clef. Grabbed that. Pawed through the bin to locate a G, then an A and a T. BFF GAT! Georgann Turner.

Missy Anapolsky prints on the Vandercook proof press with a hand from Barb Hennelly.

I giggled. Next to me, Missy Anapolsky searched through another bin. Missy is a graphic design professor at the college I just retired from. Several years ago she and I did a book together about the first century of the college’s history.

Missy looked at my tray. “Is that your friend who just died?” she asked.

Missy’s print

“Yep,” I said. We stood there for a moment, looking down at the initials.

Then Missy’s hand dove into the bin in front of me. “Here’s a J!” she said.

I blinked. It took me a few seconds, but I saw where she was going.

“Oh!” I said, and I started looking for my other two initials: an L and an H. They appeared, which seemed a bit miraculous since Barb’s type collection was definitely not a complete font. But there, in uppercase, to match the ampersand, were my initials.

I added a lowercase s, and this is what appeared on my type tray:

There we were in upside down and backwards type that was probably older than both of us:

bffs gat&JLH

At least, I thought that’s what it said. Barb locked up the type on the bed of the press, snugging it in with various pieces of wood furniture, along with two quoins—slender pieces of metal that, with a special key, can be expanded to hold the creation in place. She put a piece of brown kraft paper (aka cardstock) on the platform atop the press and cranked the handle that drew the paper onto the great silver cylinder and over the type. Barb pulled the paper off the cylinder, and to our surprise it read:

Printer Barbara Hennelly with Jan’s boo-boo

Lowercase b looks a lot like a lowercase d, and I laughed, remembering similar mistakes long ago at a small newspaper in my hometown, as I put away larger type used for headlines or posters in the giant Hamilton job cases, easily mistaking b’s and d’s or lowercase l’s with the number 1.

Furniture (spacers) in an old Hamilton case.

I remember the nearly deaf Linotype operators who, when I expressed my desire to become one of them, told me that theirs was no job for a girl, and besides, they wouldn’t be around that much longer. They were right: Within a few years the old hot type letterpress days had ended in favor of electronic offset typesetting machines that resembled giant IBM typewriters. Those produced long strips of copy that had to be cut into different lengths, run through a waxer and stuck to paper pages that would be photographed and turned into metal plates for the press. I spent many hours pasting up newspaper pages as a young journalist. That technology gave way to computers that produced similar galleys, as the strips of copy were called, and eventually to digital systems that sent completed pages directly to presses.

Me printing (mask off for photo purposes) with Barb lending a hand.

It has not escaped me that I have lived through the end of hot type into cold type into computer-generated type to no type at all of online publications. Perhaps that’s why it was so satisfying, as I weathered the fresh loss of an old friend, to put my hands on wooden letters, set them into a satisfying arrangement and print them on a press older than I. Even if it did have a boo-boo (aka doo-doo).

Placing the paper

Missy found the proper b and handed it to Barb, who removed some furniture to replace the letter and then locked it all back up again in a matter of minutes. She cranked the handle and made another print. Voila!

“Now you do it,” Barb said.

I grasped the handle that had been turned thousands of times and cranked it, grinning with delight at seeing red inked letters appear on paper—tangible proof of two of my longtime loves.

(Thanks to Karen, a printing classmate, for taking the photos of me!)

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments