Connie Schultz on Roots
(Pulitzer Prize winner and author of “Life Happens,”
a collection of her columns from The Plain Dealer)
A Gift That Mom Would Have Loved
For some years now, I have meant to frame a square little black-and-white photo of my mother.
It rests against another framed photo by my bed, its sides slowly curling toward an eventual union. She is peering playfully around the corner at the top of a stairway, her right leg extended to show off a little calf under the poufy skirt. Her right arm stretches straight out, too, and she is holding her high-heeled party shoes in midair, a striking rebuff to the scruffy slippers on her feet.
It was 1958, and she was the twenty-one-year-old mother of one-year-old me. She is flirting with the man behind the camera — her husband, my father. He, too, was twenty-one.
This is my favorite photo of my mother, even though it sometimes makes me sad, especially in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I flick on the light, and there she is. It is a perfect snapshot of where she came from and where she hoped to go, a tidy composition hiding a messy start.
On the night of this photo, I imagine my parents thinking that maybe everything was going to be all right. You don’t know from looking at the smile on my mother’s seamless face that their young marriage began with a doctor’s surprising news and an elopement in the middle of the night across state lines. You don’t know that the stairway doesn’t belong to them, but to the great-aunt who kindly took them in. And you don’t know that the girl in the picture hoped to be a nurse one day but never was.
All you know from that picture is what she wrote in her own loopy backhand on the back: “Chuck and I had just got home from Ma Schultz’s — Sun. eve.”
My mother always said her life was a good one. She raised four kids, loved four grandchildren, and told me a week before she died that she still got butterflies when my father walked into the room. But over the years, she gave up on her bigger self, the one who was going to go to night school to get a degree.
I still remember the night she surrendered. I was in high school when she enrolled in a typing class. She was so flustered after the first session that she drove up an exit ramp to the freeway.
“That’s it,” she told me later that night, her hands trembling as she wiped away tears. “I’m just not good enough.” And that was that. She worked as a nurse’s aide the rest of her life, in a hospital and then later for a hospice. She was only sixty-two when she died. More than eight hundred people attended her wake.
Nearly six years later, my father is slowly sifting through the cards and letters, the photos and Post-it notes that chronicle my mother’s daily life. A recent batch he mailed to me included a folded, handwritten list that began, “I AM SOMEBODY!”
The list continues: “I AM A HUMAN BEING ... I AM AN IMPORTANT PERSON ... GOD LOVES ME ... I AM SOMEBODY!”
I imagine her tucking this into her purse, or slipping it into her Bible, someplace where she could easily find it and pull it out as a reminder of something we obviously failed to make clear. I stared at the list in my hand, then looked over at that photo of her, the one where she seems so full of her young and capable self.
“How?” I wondered aloud, shaking the list at her. “How could you not have known this?”
Sunday is Mother’s Day. I could rattle off a whole list of the gifts I bought her, the cares I mailed. But I can’t describe a single time when I sat my mother down on that special day and asked her even one question about her life. She would have loved that, and by showing an interest in her life I would have learned so much about my own.
A month after my mom died, my daughter asked me a question about my childhood while I was driving.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Grandma.”
My daughter stared at me as I slowed the car for a moment and sucked in air.
“Mom?” she said.
Only after my mother was gone did I realize how much of me she held captive in her memories. Now, whole parts of me are lost to her for good.
My mom was somebody.
Yes, she was.
Excerpted from “Life Happens” by Connie Schultz.
Copyright ÃÂ© 2006 by Connie Shultz.
Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
Michael Ruhlman on Change
(Author of several books about chefs, including “The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen,” an exploration of the evolving role of the chef.)
In the kitchen, Thomas Keller, dressed in a crisp, clean chef’s coat, walked back and forth near, but not at, the pass in his busy new kitchen. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t place it. At first I thought maybe it’s all this craziness — there’s simply too much chaos and noise in the kitchen — this doesn’t happen here; it felt like a mess. Maybe this was what was bothering him, why he looked off center. But then, no, there was more to it — he didn’t look right physically.
Then I recognized the strangeness. He was a couple of inches shorter than normal. Keller is tall and lanky, about six-two with trim dark hair and dark eyes — and now he shuffled rather than walked, sliding instead of striding on the tiled kitchen floor. He was in stocking feet in the middle of this crazy service, and he was obviously self-conscious about it. He passed me, saying hello, adding, “I can’t find my shoes.”
* * *
A window looks from this kitchen into the Per Se kitchen, and Keller fell back against the ledge here.
I said the first thing that came to mind: “How is your mental health?”
Keller shook his head, looked at his toes, looked at me, and said without irony or humor, “I’m losing my balance.”
* * *
I’d arrived at culinary school in 1996, more or less at the end of perhaps the finest stage in the evolution of the chef — the chef still in the cultural role of artist-monk, its most romantic form. … I’d learned not only chef skills but chef language; I knew my way around a kitchen, and so was particularly suited to watching and writing about this world. And the world had changed since I’d entered it. The kitchen door had opened on a grand, exciting, and mysterious vista. Some chefs had already left the kitchen for the land of milk and honey, and most of the rest craned their necks to see what was out there.
* * *
For better or for worse, chefs were stepping out of their monk’s robes, slipping off their clogs, and donning pairs of hand-stitched John Lobb loafers. They were moving into the realm of commercial branding. …
So what will happen to our perception of the chef? The chef is in transition. The chef is looking for his shoes.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “The Reach of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman.
Copyright ÃÂ© 2006 by Michael Ruhlman
Joe Mackall on Beginnings
(Ashland University English associate professor, co-editor of the creative nonfiction journal
River Teeth and author of “The Last Street Before Cleveland,” a memoir.)
But on this sun-bleached day with a new girl in the neighborhood, life and its mysteries are clear and true. The young boy has something his sister wanted — a scarf or a handkerchief, memory tells me. He speeds away from her. She stuns me still. Still, she stuns me. Her shoulder-length golden hair catches the sun. No, her hair draws the sun to it. She screams his name, but the scream isn’t harsh or crude; it’s a mixture of determination and a hint of the plaintive. Soon I join the golden-haired girl in her attempt to rescue her scarf. The kid in the striped shirt throws it to the new boy in the black shorts who’s being chased. Several kids, munchkins all, flee and hide, getting into something or somewhere, disappearing and reappearing, retaining their interest in the game long after the girl and I have given up. We pant and pant, I more than she.
I’m panting still.
“Hi. I’m Joe.”
“Hi. I’m Lisa.”
“You’re the ones that moved into the Drolls’ house.”
“We’re over there.” She points to the Drolls’ old place.
“Sorry I couldn’t catch that kid.”
“He’s my brother,” she spits out beautifully.
“I live in the brick house,” I point.
“Well,” I say.
She turns and walks away.
I hang around for a bit to watch her departure. Her face stays with me. I long for her to turn around so I can gaze at it again. That wide smile, diminutive nose, several perfectly placed freckles. She’s thin but not gawky, tall but not too tall. All girl, but tough and smart. I’ve come to these conclusions about her toughness and intelligence in a matter of minutes, of course. Natives judge the immigrants in the neighborhood based on far less than wild chases and clipped conversations. She’s beautiful, and she didn’t run away from me. That’s more than enough.
* * *
Taking one final glance at Lisa’s house, which is now lived in by God knows who and I don’t give a shit, I head back to my car.
Maybe my middle-aged life needs a little sentimentalism, or just plain unadulterated emotion. Save me from my own dark dross! For years, I’ve nurtured suspicion and cultivated skepticism. I felt then, I want to scream. More than now, more than any time since. What happened to me? Why must I always pierce feeling with intellect, optimism with cynicism, authenticity with irony, light thoughts with dark facts? I do not know. I want to know.
Looking at Lisa’s house that day and remembering our first meeting, I had no idea of what this trip back in time had yet to teach me.
Reprinted from “The Last Street Before Cleveland” by Joe Mackall by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ÃÂ© 2006 by Joe Mackall. Available from the University of Nebraska Press, (800) 526-2617 and at
(On hearing from an attorney what her husband’s sentence was likely to be.)
Gene Kraig on Freedom
(Shaker Heights native, artist and author of “The Sentence: A Family’s Prison Memoir,”
the story of how her husband, Jerry, went from serving as “Czar of Pornography”
Reuben Sturman’s attorney to prison.)
“Two years is outrageous. I figured with all of your experience you’d get it down to six months. It’s going to be hell,” I said.
“I told you. You brought me a loser. Two years is a good deal. You’ll be lucky to get that,” Messerman grinned.
“A two-year sentence is some luck,” I mumbled, wanting to smack the smug smile off Messerman’s face.
Messerman’s eyes played. “Do you know what all the wives tell me?” he asked, conspiratorially. I had baited him and he was taking me out. “They tell me that they have more fun while their husbands are gone than when their husbands were home. They get a break from the grind. They travel. They get their freedom and they love it.”
I stood abruptly and smacked my hand on his desk. “Well, you know what? I’ve already got my freedom. I don’t need my husband to go to prison to liberate me.”
* * *
On Sunday morning, we were in the parking lot waiting for May Company to open. Jerry wanted to be the first customer, to avoid running into someone who might guess that he was buying a two-year supply of prison wear.
At the bins of jockeys and boxer shorts, Jerry consulted the list that he’d studied before we left as if cramming for a test. “Seven sets of cotton underwear, white or gray, but no colors,” he read. I grabbed two packages of Hanes jockeys. I was a careless shopper but this was a no-brainer. I felt as conspicuous as Jerry. I’d have us out in fifteen minutes. Jerry grabbed the packages from me. “We can’t buy these,” he said, as if he’d caught me red handed in the act of mutiny.
“What are you talking about? They’re on the list,” I thumped at the sticker, “size thirty-six, white.” I raked my fingers through my hair as if it would move him along.
But Jerry rattled the paper in front of me and read, “All issue must be newly purchased, in its original packaging and in the exact quantities. Seven sets!” He threw the packages back in the bin. “These are sets of three.” He eyed a salesman arranging ties, deliberated for a second, and decided not to ask for help. “We’ll have to go somewhere else.”
Look what was lost by putting Jerry in the pen. He should be working and paying taxes instead of costing tax payers thirty-thousand dollars a year .... Instead, we’d been destroyed financially and we were being ripped apart emotionally. We’d pay with these wounds as long as we lived. I came to the conclusion that first-time nonviolent offenders should never serve time at all.
Reprinted with the permission of Greenpoint Press from “The Sentence: A Family’s Prison Memoir” by Gene Kraig. ÃÂ© 2006 by Gene Kraig
Les Roberts on Awareness
(Author of 13 Milan Jacovich mysteries and one nonfiction work,
“We’ll Always Have Cleveland: A Memoir of a Novelist and a City”)
When I asked him straight out, “Is it cancer?” he said, “It could be cancer.”
Well, hell — I asked, didn’t I?
* * *
The next thing I remember was waking up not knowing where I was but feeling someone’s hands on and around my face, pressing down on me, and I took a panicked swing and connected with what felt like a jawbone. Despite the physical violence of which I write often in my novels, this was the only time since I was eleven that I’d hit someone, and I hereby apologize to the male nurse on the receiving end who was administering the oxygen through a mask held over my nose and mouth. Since I was flat on my back at the time, about thirty minutes post-op, I can’t believe the punch had too much juice behind it.
* * *
With an eleven-inch incision in my chest and abdomen I didn’t get around with much alacrity. The day after I finally came home to embrace Sonny and everything else I’d been missing for nine days, things that were personally mine, I was attempting to descend the steps, and Dawn was walking backwards in front of me in case I lost my balance and fell. Having to deal with feelings I wasn’t used to and tried to avoid, helplessness and rage overcame me. I started to cry halfway down the stairs, telling her there was no way I could live like this. She assured me that within just a few days I’d be scampering up and down those steps just as I always had, and to allow myself this time to heal and get better, and of course she was right.
* * *
I can’t even watch the news most evenings, because each time I hear of a brave young American dying in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that don’t even exist, something in me dies, too. Like the football player from eight years ago, I don’t know any of them personally, but they break my heart, because they are all my children.
Some might say that getting kicked in the butt by cancer has turned me into a weak-kneed wimp, but I don’t think so. I prefer thinking it turned a fairly self-centered and egocentric man into someone who can tap into the very real human emotions of compassion and sympathy.
From the book “We’ll Always Have Cleveland:
A Memoir of a Novelist and a City” ÃÂ© 2006 by Les Roberts. Reprinted with permission of Gray & Company Publishers n