Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Today is Wednesday. Wednesday comes around once a week and we repeat our routines, meetings, and tasks like any other day. But this Wednesday, December 7, has special significance to me. Forty-seven years ago, in 1975, I gave birth to my son. Benjamin Grant Davis, 20 inches long, 6 pounds 2 ounces. It was a day of many feelings…joy, wonder, love, excitement, fear. On that day I became a mother. I had no idea what I was doing, and no idea of what was to come.

On December 7, 1941, Japan decimated Pearl Harbor in an attack that changed the world. As Ben grew up, we wondered at the significance of his day of birth because he was fascinated by war. His dad was a Conscientious Objector, and we were hippies who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. But there it was, hundreds of little green army men, books about the Civil War, GI Joe action figures and endless games of Risk, with Ben wearing a beret, or sometimes his grandfather’s Navy hat. His ultimate goal was to be of service to his country and become president of the United States.

Ben worked hard and lived his dreams, becoming an officer in the United States Army, stationed in Germany. He married and had two young boys of his own. Then the illness struck, a glioblastoma brain tumor that appeared soon after chemical warfare training in Poland. What happens to time when dreams are destroyed? What day it is no longer matters. Only tomorrow.

Ben’s birthday is still one of mixed emotions…love, anger, pain, sorrow, and longing. A day to celebrate, and a day to deeply feel his loss. Time stops for the dead; time ticks on for the living. Ben died eighteen years ago on July 25, 2004. Every second that goes by takes him further away from me.


New Quilt, Old Treasures

         I’m again at a crossroads with my handsewn quilt, which is part creative expression and part investigative learning. I finished my first quilt during the 2020-2021 pandemic years, which is its own story. Since I was doing it at home alone, the internet became my best resource. Hand quilting is almost a lost art, and it’s been challenging to find answers to my many questions. I watch videos about quilting, and then adapt what I see to what I’m trying to do by hand. It’s interesting to watch a variety of quilters and their personal techniques, which helped me realize that although I’m doing a traditional sewing project, it’s also an open platform for my own creative ideas. I can literally make it however I want.

            I enjoyed quilting so much that I immediately started making a second quilt. I found a wonderful local quilt shop and proprietor who listens to my novice questions and admires my stitching. She often posts photos of new fabric and packets of squares already cut, and I fell in love with a bold color palette of retro prints. After agonizing for weeks about what to use as a neutral, I chose one of the prints in the set, a light gray with tiny dominoes. The quilt pattern I chose is called June Squares, and the blocks are now pieced together to form the body of the quilt. The next step is adding any decorative stitching I choose inside the neutral borders, thus the temporary halt.

            The gray thread I’m using doesn’t show up well with the tiny domino motif, so I had the idea of trying some different weights of thread for a bolder look. Also, my needle is very small, so I retrieved my sewing box out of the hallway linen closet in search of larger needles with bigger eyes.

            My sewing box is a Converse shoe box that I’ve moved around with me through the years. It contains the usual jumble of basic sewing essentials, but I found only small needles. The I spotted the vintage sewing box that belonged to my husband Gaylon’s mother, which has been in the closet for years. I decided to look through it for things that might be useful for my quilting project.

            Gaylon and I married later in life, and both sets of our parents died long before we found each other. I know my mother-in-law only through photos and stories and snippets of history she left behind. She had a helpful habit of putting small handwritten tags on heirlooms with information about who it belonged to or where it came from. I found this note inside the lid:

            “Sewing box used by Leona Carter in the 20’s thru 40’s, then by Vivian”

            Not only were some of the items inside the sewing box used by Gaylon’s mother, Vivian, but also his grandmother, Leona, starting in the early 1920s. Respectfully, I lifted things out one at a time. On top was a hefty pair of stainless-steel scissors, in excellent condition, and I instantly claimed them for my sewing table. There were various hooks and eyes still sewn onto cardboard, loose buttons, colorful spools of thread, a requisite red pin cushion with the little strawberry hanging off the top, and into it poked a wide array of needles. I also found a small silver thimble which fit my finger perfectly. I took the thimble plus a couple of needles and put everything back in order, the way she had left it for future sewers.

            I’ll add the handful of buttons to my own mother’s button box, also in the closet. I have memories of sitting on her bed, my small hands sifting and sorting the buttons like precious jewels, some 60-plus years ago. I’m excited to work on this next phase of my quilt using my newly acquired treasures. The shiny silver scissors are now in full view on my sewing table and have already become integral to my process. These newly found treasures are symbols of our joined lives, the piecing together of family histories into a new, colorful piece of art.

Love with Grace

My eyes teared up as I read the post on social media, written by a high school friend of my son, Ben. She’s recently posted several times about her sister who is in the hospital, hanging onto life as one body function after another fails. But the information has been limited with no other details.

That is, until today when she posted a message from her sister, who revealed that she has abused drugs and alcohol for most of her adult life, and it has ravaged her body. She wants everyone to know the truth of what is happening, and why. Her desire to come clean to people she doesn’t even know caused my tears. In doing so she’s also confronting herself, her reality. She’s in crisis but alert enough to know that if she survives this, it’s a gift to start anew.

There are parts of this story that speak directly to me. My son’s friend, now a woman in her mid-40s, is a beautiful, successful, happy person with a family and fulfilling career. Her sister seems to have taken a different life path. But they have a sibling bond that is strong as one takes care of the other in this most dire circumstance.

I take care of my younger brother who is in prison. My parents died years ago, as did two other younger brothers. He has no life partner or children, only me. Now a 62-year-old man, he’s docile, introverted, settled into a sparce life in a small cell with another inmate. He works in the kitchen, reads books and magazines, and watches TV. He calls me often and I always answer, hoping it’s only because he’s lonely and not because there’s a problem. I send money and give him sisterly, and often motherly, love. “Love you bunches,” we say to each other at the end of each call.

Some people turn their backs on a troubled family member that they perceive has made bad choices or see as weak or ignorant. We make choices to protect ourselves, especially when there are long established patterns of hurt. I think I choose to help because when I look back at my family life, unlike my brothers, I was lucky to have opportunities and outside support that changed my life path. I have survivor’s guilt. How did I get so lucky? And why?

The other part of the woman’s story that I relate to is harder to reveal. In my late 30s/early 40s, as a newly single woman, I got involved with someone who drank a lot of alcohol and did cocaine. This lifestyle felt familiar to me because of my alcoholic father, and my brothers drank and used drugs. I was devastated by the loss of my marriage and found that taking such a drastic turn from my past life into one of partying helped numb my pain. Then my first grandchild was born, and I stopped doing drugs. But I was involved in a lifestyle of drinking alcohol that I continued while dealing with my ongoing circumstance. It took a few more years to break that cycle.

It wasn’t all bad; there were successes and good things of which I’m proud. I earned a college degree and performed live music. I enjoyed my work and friendships. I spent quality time with my sons and their growing families. I also had to handle hard things including several deaths, my mother’s depression, and the arrest and conviction of my brother. But I still have regrets about the past. I put myself at risk, wasted time and energy on partying and hangovers, and lost my self-control and common sense. Eventually I reclaimed my life and gave myself another chance. Again, somehow, I was blessed with luck. I am extremely lucky. I’m thankful I didn’t harm anyone else, and I found a life partner who has helped me come to terms with my past. I believe that what I went through ultimately changed me for the better.

My life experience has given me deep empathy for people. I lost my precious son Ben to brain cancer in 2004. When I visit my brother in prison, I see other inmates’ loved ones ranging in age from newborn to elderly. Each one hurts just like me. How our life will evolve begins with the luck of when and where we are born. Life is hard. Trial and error, mistakes and redemption. I understand what my son’s loving friend is going through as she sits day and night by her sister’s hospital bed, hoping for a miracle. I also understand her sister. Love with grace. Have mercy.

Toilet Paper Is the Least of Our Worries


The United States is late to the party. The nation’s top leadership is unreliable, and we’re spoiled. We’ve been force-fed a superiority complex for years, meaningless against an unknown, fast moving virus for which we have no immunity. I could stay away from social media and news sources and live in a cloud of denial. Or, I could question the ramifications of the privileged way of life I live.

At the beginning of the pandemic I laughed about the toilet paper rush. The Covid-19 virus attacks lungs, not intestines. Why are people panicking over a lack of toilet paper? But as days go by and the threat of isolation looms long, I’ve started questioning my own dependence on toilet paper. For one thing, I now pay attention to how much I use. Do I really need a handful? Am I that afraid of touching my own bodily waste, created from the food I eat for nourishment?

Then I read an article written by someone outside of the U.S. who said that Americans don’t use toilet paper correctly. He listed the toilet habits of other countries, and their use of water for a thorough rinsing. He even suggested one could use soap and water…with their own hands. You’re washing your hands anyway, he said. Americans walk around with “stinky butts,” he claimed. No amount of scraping with dry toilet paper was going to help with that.

A good friend shared a personal story on social media about her upbringing in the Ozarks of rural Missouri. Her family of thirteen siblings had no inside bathroom or running water. She grew up using an outhouse and drinking water from a stream. Her main point was that she and her family survived that, and we can survive this. An incredulous reader asked what they used for toilet paper? Her answer is just what you’d expect…the siblings all vied for the index pages from the Sears catalog because they were the softest, she explained. Her post was directed at those hoarding supplies. But the overall message is that for the most part, we’re strong, resilient and adaptable.

Another friend emailed a group I’m part of and mentioned she had stocked up on facial tissue which she could use for TP if necessary. Except, I once read an article about the things we should not flush down the toilet, and the most surprising item was facial tissue. It’s made using a stronger weave of fibers that’s not meant to dissolve like toilet paper and clogs up sewer pipes. Who among us has flushed facial tissues down the toilet? I don’t now but I didn’t know any better the previous 60+ years of my life.

When I heard that schools were closing for the rest of the semester, my thoughts went to a friend, a retired teacher, who lives 70 miles outside of Kansas City. She is also a minister, and volunteers at the local food pantry serving meals and interacting with the people who utilize this service. She once told me that that over 70% of school children in that community rely on subsidized food. There are many, many issues more important than toilet paper, which is way down the list of things we can live without. As we spend more time in social isolation, watching the number of deaths rise and the financial world break down, our priorities will surely change.

In the meantime, stay home and stay safe. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Create home projects, read books, write your memoir, make phone calls to friends and family. Ration your use of toilet paper — and everything else — while we figure this out. Peace.



An Angel on Earth

Photo by Tejas Prajapati on

          She reached out to me online, inviting me to join a women’s holiday singing group. We connected on social media; I think she may have posted that she was looking for women harmony singers and I responded. At that time MySpace was still popular for musicians, and she found my page and listened to some of my original songs, noticing our shared love of strong harmony vocals.

We met at her house in a sketchy part of town, but that was Emily*. She loves people and lives without fear, and her neighbors seemed to watch out for her. Her home was full of reclaimed furniture and eclectic décor, reflecting her bohemian nature. The group of women she gathered were from different parts of her life, including me, a stranger that she trustingly invited into her fold.

Emily and I became instant friends, bonding over singing, arranging music, and shared life experiences. The more we talked, the more I revealed about my unhappy marriage and desire to make a change. She offered observations, but mostly she offered a kind ear as she listened to me work through my situation and possible outcomes. One night she showed up at my house in a snowstorm with a bouquet of tulips she bought at a flower shop sale. She seemed to intuit when I needed support and encouragement.

Finally, I made the decision to leave my husband and start a new life. I rented an apartment nearby and gave him the news, which went horribly. My new place wasn’t available for two weeks, so we agreed that I would sleep in the guest room as we transitioned into a separation. But our problems escalated, now heightened to a new level by my decision to move out. Living in the same house together became volatile. I was in crisis and barely breathing.

A week into this arrangement, Emily called to check on me. I had a bad headache, and she could tell I was upset. Suddenly, she said, “Hang up the phone, get into your car and come to my house. You can stay with me until your apartment is ready.” I gathered up some work clothes and incidentals and was in my car within minutes.

When I parked in front of her house, I saw white twinkling lights strewn about on the porch. Upon entering, candles flickered in the dimmed light. She guided me to the guest room, where the bed was made up, surrounded by plants and more strings of lights. It felt like walking into a spa; warm, inviting and comforting.

The next morning, I awoke to coffee, warmed slices of challah bread and the sweet tones of Joni Mitchell. We sat together, chatting about our schedules and planned to meet back at the house that evening for dinner. The rest of the week went on like this as I rested, cleared my head and made plans for my future.

That was a little over ten years ago. I don’t see Emily as much these days, as both of our lives evolved and grew in different directions. She surfaces once in awhile to invite me to vocal concerts or to do something fun, usually spur-of-the-moment, as is her way. Once she called out of the blue to see if I could pick her up from the airport after a trip overseas. “Of course!” I said. Recently she texted, asking if I could meet her at a recording studio to record vocals for a song she wrote to be included in a Jewish anthology of music. I was there in an hour. I’m happy to do anything she asks. Emily is a true example of an angel on earth, and I’m forever thankful for her presence in my life.

*Emily also appears in my story, “Changing My Attitude.”

So You Want My Return Business? Try Great Customer Service

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Finding Balance Through Yoga


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Watching for Signs

Digging for keys, I felt around in my purse for the fob and yanked it out, with a frustrated force that usually accompanies this search. As the keys popped out, a loose penny escaped as well, hurling itself toward freedom. The penny remained airborne for at least a foot before landing on the concrete parking lot and rolling toward the curb. I stooped to pick it up but decided, instead, to leave it for someone to find, a little surprise luck for the day.

The newly sprung penny landed with its tail on top. Some folks only pick up a found penny if it lands heads up. I pick up every penny, heads or tails, believing it’s lucky just because I found it. If I find a dime or a quarter, even better; ten or twenty-five days of good luck! I love finding money lying in wait for me on the ground. Once I found a fifty dollar bill. That’s a lot of lucky days!

Some people believe finding a penny is a sign from a lost loved one in another dimension. In my song, “Shadow,” I wrote this lyric: “When I’m alone are you with me, dropping a penny for thought?” We miss our loved ones and want to feel a connection, even a symbol as small as a penny.

After my adult son died from a brain tumor, I felt lost in grief. Walking became a survival tactic, forcing me to get up, go outside, and keep moving. I would spend that time thinking, or not thinking at all, or crying. I randomly walked my neighborhood, turning a corner on a whim or because I saw another human I hoped to avoid. One time, very soon after my loss, I set out for a walk and within a few blocks of my house, a little boy ran up to me out of nowhere. He proudly handed me a slightly wilted flower picked from the yard. Whether it was a sign from my beloved son, or just an innocent little boy waiting for someone to happen by, who knows. But, the gesture touched me and meant so much in the context of my recent loss.

When my dad died at age 66 from heart failure, I felt relief. His alcoholism strained our relationship for over 30 years. I worried constantly that he would hurt someone, or himself. In the final years of his life, my dad’s favorite hobby became feeding birds in his backyard. After he died, I realized I thought of him every time I saw a bright red cardinal. Now when I see one, I say, “Hi, Dad!” Sometimes a cardinal sits in a bush outside my living room window, and I like to think my dad is checking in on me. This pretty bird has become a healing connection between us.

According to some spiritualists, if we pay attention and watch for them, signs are everywhere to help us navigate through life. Did you hit every red light on the way to wherever you’re going? Take a breath and slow down. Flat tire on the way to a date or job interview? Maybe it’s not the one for you.

A few years ago a new friend – and potential suitor – invited me over for dinner. That evening, as I drove to his house, a big truck sideswiped my car, ripping the driver’s side mirror clean off. Upon arrival I was a bit shaken, to which my spiritually minded dinner date said, “Do you think this is some kind of sign”? During dinner I learned that this man had the same birthday as my recent ex-husband. Later, he told me, “I think I should tell you that I like to date a lot of women.” Good to know. Three warning signs = no thanks.

As you travel on your daily journey, whatever the token or thing might be that prompts a memory, provides joy or comfort, or opens your eyes, I hope you see it. If you’re anywhere near the parking lot just east of the Fine Arts building at The University of Missouri-Kansas City, there’s a shiny penny waiting to be found!


P.S. You can read about animal symbolism and seeing things a different way in my recent essay, “Changing My Attitude.”


An Old/New Writer

I can’t seem to stop writing. As I navigate the “Third Act” of life, as Jane Fonda calls it for people age 60+, I find myself wanting to write all of the time. Not because I think I have anything important to say, but because it’s a way to make a deeper connection with people than by the flash of a social media post. I want to connect with others who also read, think and write. The journey is ongoing and learning never ends.

Today is my poetry-reading eve. Tomorrow night will be the first time I’ll present my poetry in a public setting. Although I wrote poetry in college, and graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I directed most of my creative energy into music and songwriting. I didn’t read a book for a long time – reading and writing under the pressure of assignments took the joy out it of for me.

I went back to school in my mid-30s, and my music career didn’t take off until I was almost 40. For the next 25 years, I had a lot of fun playing live music and being part of the local scene. During this time I also became a grandparent. By the time I was almost 60, the unpleasant part of playing music – booking gigs, late nights, dirty bathrooms, drunks – overtook the pleasure I had previously enjoyed. It felt time to turn this over to the next generation.

That’s when I started writing again. I sought out workshops and retreats. I wrote poems and essays. I joined a writing group. I started my blog, Along the Way. I read books and blogs and poetry. I entered the literary world and began connecting with other writers. The more serious and intent I became about writing, the more I learned. I hired a writing coach to read my work and give me professional feedback and guidance. That investment continues to be invaluable.

I’m a seasoned musical performer, but standing up at a podium to read my poetry to serious writers and listeners is new, and a bit daunting. Today I’ll practice some opening banter and a couple of anecdotes to round out my allotted time. I’ll read each piece out loud with confidence and hope something resonates with the listeners. I’ve got an essay on standby in case I’m left with minutes to fill.

Hi! I’m Elaine McMilian. I’m a writer. Thank you for being here!


Changing My Attitude


On Christmas Eve, Gaylon and I invited our friend, Joe, and his son, Ben,  who was visiting from California, over for dinner. They brought huge crab legs flown in from Alaska and cheesecake from André’s; we prepared a green salad, creamy scalloped potatoes, and warmed Italian bread to round out the meal. Later we relaxed by the fireplace with dessert, after dinner drinks and conversation.

One of our discussions came around to the new supermarket under construction just a few blocks away. As always, when the topic of grocery shopping comes up, I blurted out, “I hate going to the grocery store! It’s my most despised chore. I’d rather clean toilets.”

Ben laughed and replied, “Oh, really? I love going to the store. I make it a whole experience!” He went on to explain that he doesn’t cook much because of his work schedule and instead visits the local market almost daily. Upon arrival he buys a cup of coffee. Then he circles the aisles a few times while he sips, casually enjoying the atmosphere and looking at displays. He says hello to the butcher, who is a good conversationalist and usually offers up a sample of salami or something fresh. Finally he picks up a few items to eat that day and goes on his way.

Ben added, “I will say that the grocery stores in California are remarkably different than the ones here, full of colorful fresh produce and wide open aisles.” The two grocery stores I most often frequent are located within a mile of our house. I almost always go to the older, more accessible store with a diverse clientele. The other store has more exotic fare, like red lentils for a Moroccan soup, or the dark chocolate cocoa mix my husband prefers, but it’s always a quick run in and out. We live in the Midwest, and this time of year the produce is mostly imported and not always pretty. Both of these grocery stores are crowded with narrow aisles.

Later, I was still thinking about this. I live in a metropolitan area with a plethora of markets and stores from which to choose. What stops me, other than the convenient location, from trying out other grocery stores or supermarkets where I can enjoy a nice shopping experience? Or simply changing my attitude about the grocery store where I regularly shop? It doesn’t offer coffee, but there are two coffee shops nearby where I could easily grab a to-go cup for my shopping trip. Instead of hurrying to get in and out, I could thoughtfully consider my grocery needs and casually walk around, looking at what’s on sale and getting ideas for meals. Why the rush?

The next day, on Christmas morning, something happened that triggered a memory of another story about seeing things in a new way. Gaylon went outside to fill the bird feeder and scatter bird seed on a couple of benches near the back fence. After he came back inside, I gazed out the window into our backyard, covered in fresh, new snow and now filling with an array of colorful cardinals, mourning doves, wrens and sparrows. And a rat. I watched a few minutes to be sure it wasn’t my imagination. Maybe it was a squirrel with a wimpy tail. But when it jumped up on one of the benches to get more food, it was clearly a brown field rat. “Gaylon!” I yelled, “there’s a rat eating the bird seed!” As he quickly opened the back door the rat scurried behind our neighbor’s garage. A few minutes later, the allure of such an easy food source brought it back out again. This time Gaylon grabbed the Super Soaker squirt gun he usually reserves for squirrels and ran outside, spraying water as he headed toward the bench. He squirted water heavily behind the neighbor’s garage and soaked the area next to the birdfeeder. That seemed to scare the critter from coming back, at least while we were watching.

I hate rats! I love snakes, and I have a deep respect for spiders, but rats are my nightmare. In our neighborhood, called Brookside, people openly talk about the “Brookside rats.” Most of the houses and sewers are old, and we’re not far from a park with a large pond. The area is highly populated, and there are restaurants nearby. The neighborhood to the south of ours, Waldo, is now talking about its own “Waldo rats,” thanks to new restaurants and ongoing road construction. I understand that living in cities means we live among all kinds of vermin, but I don’t want to see them!

However – and I concede this is a big stretch – there is another way to look at rats. First of all, Gaylon likes to remind me that rats eat garbage. He sees them as an animal with a job to do. But I also remember another story about rats. A few years ago, I drove with my friend, Emily, to eat dinner at her favorite Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. We pulled into the shopping center parking lot and Emily suddenly exclaims, “Oh! There’s a rat!” It was running on the sidewalk next to the building.  I freaked out! This is not what I wanted to see, especially right before eating dinner.  But then Emily added, “Seeing a rat is good luck! It’s a sign of prosperity!” Later, I researched this idea and sure enough, in China, a rat is a symbol of industry and prosperity. As an animal totem, it means survivor. In Greek symbolism, a rat means wealth and abundance. To see a white rat is even more fortuitous.

I’ll always be horrified to see a rat. But if I do, I’ll also think of Emily’s positive way of looking at life and remind myself of my good fortune. I’m lucky and blessed despite times of loss and heartache. When we watch the evening news, Gaylon and I often remark that we have absolutely nothing to complain about. We have food, shelter and warmth; loving family, friends, and good health. Going to the grocery store is a small chore that I can make more appealing with a change in my own mind and a cup of coffee. Hey, I saw a Christmas rat! Best wishes to all for a prosperous and happy new year!