What Matters

Lisa Burkhardt’s anger surfaced on her skin just like her frecklesslapdash and intense. She bragged she inherited her Irish temper from her mother and I believed it. When Mrs. Burkhardt took walks around the neighborhood without her usual thick ’80s makeup, I couldn’t tell mother and daughter apart. And Lisa could rant for hours using only swear words and the occasional “off” or “balls.” A neighborhood boy once teased me in front of her about being her boyfriend. She leveraged her lanky 14-year-old body to pin him against a tree and asked “Why? You jealous, little boy? Do you want me to give you a smooch?”

I worshipped her.

It helped that her green and black tri-level house peeked into our living room whenever my mom opened the drapes. But I didn’t need a reminder to visit her because I helped her with chores after school every day. I never knocked; Lisa said anyone willing to help clean her house was welcome. Together she and I scrubbed their already-spotless kitchen and bathrooms while blaring MTV.

Lisa wasn’t always angry and swearing, though. She liked to call the mop Boy George, as in “Grab Boy George out of the closet, will ya?” One time when I asked her why Boy George, she jabbed a finger at its shaggy locks and its mascara-thin black seam and said “Are you kidding? It looks just like him!” Then she dipped him in a bucket and sang over the sound of dripping water: Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry? On Monday afternoons when her mom worked late at the cable company, Lisa liked to take shots of Southern Comfort. She always offered me some and I always politely abstained, then lectured her on the perils of teen drinking. My words never stopped her, though. That’s pretty much how our friendship worked.


One morning before school around Halloween 1985, I watched an ambulance back into the Burkhardt’s driveway. Blue and red lights flashed but no siren blared. EMTs opened the van’s back door. I couldn’t see who they carried out on the stretcher, but after the ambulance pulled out of the driveway I watched as the orange leaves settled back down on my quiet street. I didn’t see Lisa that day or the next. The rumor around school was that her mom had died of a brain aneurism in the shower.

I waited exactly a week to climb the steps to Lisa’s front porch. The open-door policy felt revoked somehow, so I knocked until Lisa yelled for me to come in. As I passed the bathroom I noticed perfume misters and several cans of Aqua Net hair spray and the telltale pink of hair curlers jumbled on the counter. Lisa was sprawled on the floor of her room, dirty dishes fanning around her head like pets waiting for attention. Her eyes stayed closed.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything.”

“Do you want help with the bathroom?”

“No,” she huffed. The red in her eyes matched the red in her hair, and I found myself in a stare-down that didn’t break until she looked up at the ceiling. “Don’t you know that doesn’t matter anymore?”

I slouched back across the street soon after, feeling like I’d failed a test. Our street widened after that. Lisa found girlfriends in her grade and spent less time at home. Despite the constant gaze of her tri-level, I never visited her again. She entered high school; I followed quietly two years later. She said Hi to me in the hallways sometimes and drove me home once with a cigarette jammed in her mouth blasting Guns-N-Roses the whole way.

Twenty years later, she friend-requested me on Facebook. A private message popped up. Lisa asked how I was. I told her about my life in Chicago, about my partner.

—Does he treat you well? she typed.

—He does. He takes care of me when I’m sick. He sings to me when I’m sad.

—Good. That’s all that matters. 

The flashing green light in the IM window went solid gray and she unfriended me the next day.


My childhood is a lockbox in the attic
securing the slow sound of sandpaper
stripping veneer by a medium-grit woman
at ease on the floor of the garage,
a vintage afghan dozing next to the Siamese cat
on the squat couch in the living room,
and the day-old smell of varnish rising up
from a garnet of a man deep in his own basement
on a lean Saturday afternoon.

Sandwiches Cut Diagonally: Memories of My Grandfather

The only grandfather I knew passed away in 1978 when I wasn’t quite 4-years-old. As with most people’s childhood memories, I have doubt as to whether what I remember of him is true or whether I fabricated him from the family stories I’ve heard.

I am confident I attended his funeral. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I remember my mother sobbing next to me; I’d never seen her so upset. I grabbed a tissue from my tiny suit jacket and offered it to her. She smiled sadly as she took it. That smile told me what I needed to know to feel safe again.

Memories of Grandpa that I’m not sure about:

  • Grandpa sitting in his recliner near the living room window reading a newspaper. Lawrence Welk waved his baton on the tv, his trademark bubbles falling diagonally across the screen. Grandma was shouting accusations at him about not cleaning up after himself. She did not see him roll his eyes, turn down his hearing aid, smirk at me, and go back to reading.
  • I was spinning around on a merry-go-round in the park near their little house with the car port in town. My brother was eating an enormous scoop of ice cream that was seconds from falling into the dirt. Years later, my brother confirmed that Grandpa took us to the park after church most Sundays as an excuse to buy us ice cream cones without my mother knowing. Mom didn’t like us to have sweets.
  • Grandpa and Grandma in their kitchen arguing over whether my brothers and I wanted pickles with our peanut butter sandwiches: Grandpa for, Grandma against. He cut our sandwiches on the diagonal and used a brand of peanut butter that had a logo of a boy with a pompadour and freckles. I still cut my sandwiches diagonally in his honor.

These memories probably make Grandpa sound more mischievous than he was. Grandpa was a quiet, humble man most of the time. His parents owned a farm just outside my hometown in Michigan where they grew flowers for florist shops. Before the 12 of them immigrated across the St. Clair River in 1919 my great-grandfather owned another flower farm near Hensall, Ontario. Flowers were the family business until auto factories in the area started hiring in droves.

Mom loved visiting her grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) farm. She remembers watching the fish in the man-made pond at the side of the house. She loved the sight of the differently colored flowers in the fields.

Every fall, Grandpa dug up his dahlias— his favorite flowers— in the small garden at the back of the house in town and stored them for winter, and every spring he’d bring them back out and replant them. Grandma would see mud tracks leading through the house and out the back door and she’d be livid, yelling that he wouldn’t rest that night until every speck of fertilizer was scrubbed out of her carpet.

James Nelson Harburn left us at the ripe age of 77, but, being his youngest grandchild, I only got 3 years and some odd months with him: not enough time for me to know him well or vice versa. His 114th birthday just passed. Happy birthday, Grandpa! You are remembered and loved.

Cupboards Filled with Cookie Tins

This is Part 4 of my series of interconnected short stories about my grandparents’ wedding day. You can start from the beginning here, but you don’t have to do all that reading to follow along in this story.


Nelson had wanted his brother’s shop in Flint– the one he helps out at– to provide the flowers for today, but decided to ask his sister, Jennie, to fill the order instead. Her shop was much closer. She and Merrill ran the large greenhouses just over on Coutant Street in town. His brother got his flowers from Merrill, so either way Nelson was still supporting his family’s small empire of dirt and bulbs.

Can you imagine committing yourself to the same plot of land for 54 years?
Jennie Harburn jumped from one family of florists to another when she married Merrill Bump in 1927. The Flushing Florist still stands today in my hometown.

He imagined his sister earlier this morning, her hair hanging loose and inches above her narrow shoulders. The bob she wore remaining perfectly quaffed despite the hard labor required of her job. Every day, she wore her uniform of a simple white cotton blouse and a powder blue A-line skirt around the shop–presentable, but easily washed when the inevitable dousing of water or dirt occurred.

Nelson knew his older sister’s routine. She surely would have helped her husband with the day’s load and it would be a large one today being so close to Mother’s Day. She would put the flowers he had purchased in the space behind the driver’s seat, so she could check on them from the passenger’s seat, making sure they didn’t tip on the ride over. Then she and Merrill would fill up the truck with the rest of the orders. Knowing Jennie she hummed a hymn as Merrill drove them to each stop, and, eventually, to Minnie and Fred’s home tucked back from the road where Nelson stood now.

As Nelson walked closer to the kitchen, the combination of smells of the flowers, whatever was cooking in the oven, and his own nervousness made him feel sick to his stomach. He stepped through the narrow threshold of Minnie’s kitchen, the cloying aroma of flowers fell away to a thick smell of ham. He saw the backside of a man, Minnie’s father, stooped over the oven door, basting the ham with either pale maple syrup or dark pineapple juice. Nelson said hello and then wondered if he should start calling the older man Pawpaw like Bernice did.  But, Mr. Porterfield . . . Pawpaw being 74 with ears to match didn’t hear him. Nelson knocked on the counter to announce his arrival in the room. Pawpaw turned his head to the left, gave a quick nod to Nelson, and went right back to ladling juices over the ham using a large wooden spoon.

“Grab me a knife, young man, would you? Before my daughter walks in and insists each part of this hog go into separate tins!” In order to hear himself, Pawpaw tended to shout. Pawpaw? Mister Pawpaw? He felt absurd even thinking about calling another man Pawpaw.

“I was just wondering, sir, if you had any preferences on what I should call you. That is, now that I’ll be a part of your family.”

“Yes! It’s the second drawer to the left of the sink!” Pawpaw said, pointing to the only drawer that was ajar in a horizontal row of identical white drawers.

Nelson opened the drawer further to find long, thin cracker tins wedged neatly into one another in order to fit the space. None of the tins had lids, but every last one of them was full to brimming with silverware, sorted according to their use. It looked like one of those children’s games where a picture is cut up into squares with one piece missing and you’re supposed to move the pieces around until the picture is whole again. The empty space in the drawer contained a small rolling pin. He found the carving knife in a tin along the left of the drawer.

Steep cupboard kitchen popular in the 1930sAfter carefully handing off the knife to the other man, Nelson looked around the rest of the large kitchen. He’d been in the house twice before—to plan for the wedding and to bring his and Bernice’s parents together to meet—but he was struck again by the conscripted order of the room. He knew if he were to open the steel cupboards he would find a similar display of perfectly aligned coffee and cookie tins spaced evenly apart. He knew this because his mother had asked Minnie about her caliber of cleanliness when they had visited. Minnie just said it was the only way she could think of to “ward off her husband’s tendency toward clutter” and looked over at her husband with a playful air. To which Mr. Wilson, in his low growl of a voice, responded, “Don’t let her fool you; she’d never tolerate being married to an untidy man.”

Minnie’s smile stretched to her dimples as she said, “It’s true. Fred comes back behind me and cleans up what I missed.” Then she placed her hand on his forearm and moved the conversation toward the new pastor of their church. Later that night, after the dishes were washed and the playing cards were put back in Fred’s rolltop desk, after the Harburns said their thank yous and their goodbyes, after they got in the car waving to their hosts on the porch, Nelson’s mother leaned back toward Nelson and marvelled out of the corner of her mouth about the time and energy it must take that couple to maintain the pristine condition of the old porcelain sink or the perfect bunting-shape of the tea towels on the rack underneath it.

And today standing in the middle of it once again, Nelson thought, the towels, the sink, the whole kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been used since that day months ago, except for one glaring difference: the cutting board on the hoosier bowed under the burden of plate upon plate of cakes, cookies, and tarts.

The Corsage

Start at the beginning of this story: Ties.

Read Part 2 of this story: The Jitters.

++++++ PART 3 ++++++++

“Oh, Nelson, there you are,” Minnie said, as if he’d been hiding from her all morning. She held out the corsage for him, and he took it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.”

“I thought it would be nice if you pinned it on her. A break in tradition, of course, but so is your seeing Bernice before the ceremony.”

“She’s calling it an elopement,” he said to ease the sting he sensed in her voice, “but I suppose it’s not really one if everyone already knows about it, is it?”

Minnie ignored the question. Nelson cleared the smile from his face and looked down at the flowers in his hand. He immediately regretted mentioning it. Their decision to be married in Indiana must have been the reason for Minnie’s countenance in the window. Probably she’d prefer their wedding take place in the Baptist church in town. A church as full of flowers as friends and their pastor presiding over the ceremony. Certainly, that’s what Minnie would prefer. Nelson looked back up at his fiancee’s mother and was surprised to find a small smile on her face.

“We spent all morning on Bernice’s hair, Wilma and I. It seems to be as stubborn as she is. Of course she wanted to look in the mirror and fuss over it herself, but I stood between her and the mirror so Wilma’s work would be a surprise. She’s nervous, Bernice is, she’s never been one to want attention, not like her sister. Well, you know that, of course, otherwise you would have decided to keep the wedding here . . . Look at you! You look fine, just fine. That vest, is it new? Seems like I would have seen it at church if it weren’t.”

The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.
The Durant Hotel, largest hotel in Flint at the time, named after the founder of General Motors, William C. Durant.

“It is new, yes.” Nelson said, slightly disappointed that his hand-me-down vest was noticed but not his tie.

“Are you hungry? I’ve made a cake, Wilma’s whipping up eggs for us now, the dear, and Father just brought over a ham that would put the chef at The Durant to shame. He seems in better spirits today. He has his ups and his downs, you know. It was hard enough to lose my mother; seeing him dowse about in his grief all day may be harder still. Some days I have to pull him by his shirtsleeves out of that house of his. Of course, having him right next door keeps him from loneliness. I feel like a pest to him, but I do have to shake him about from time to time or he’d sit by the fire with his bowie and his twigs till services come Sunday.”

“It’s good that you do, ma’am.”

“Oh, Nelson, thank you for saying so. But, we’re to focus on happier things today, aren’t we? We should get you in to see everyone. Your family came by this morning with impressive zinnias and hyacinth, and Bernice’s bouquet? It’s gorgeous, just gorgeous. Between the flowers and the ham, my nose just doesn’t know what to follow. Now what’s taking her so long?”

Nelson followed Minnie into the house. Minnie continued down the hallway that led to the bedrooms—he assumed to check in with Bernice—leaving him in the parlor for a moment alone.

Jennie had indeed come by. A smell of the flowers had nudged him at the door, he had thought it was Minnie’s perfume. So it was a bit of a surprise to see the parlor erupting in vases of flowers—on top of the china cabinet in the corner, the side table next to Fred’s favorite chair, the low buffet along the window displaying all the pictures of the family, any flat surface had a vase. Some even had two or three. For a room so full of fresh flowers, the smell was not cloying. Probably because it was early May after a cold April. In a month when the flowers were more mature, the pollen would absolutely saturate the room, even now the sweetness was strong enough to make him pause.

He imagined these flowers hanging on the walls in the church, wreaths on every pew, every pew full of their family. He imagined the bouquet in Bernice’s hand. And then he remembered the corsage Minnie had given him at the door, still in his own hand. He placed it on the table with the pictures, moving two vases of flowers aside and picking up the photo nearest him. It was of the family, back when Bernice, Wilma, and George were still in grade school.

Minnie, on the bottom right of the picture, looked pretty in a way young mothers tend to be—self-assured, ready for whatever’s next, necessary. Wilma stood in the back on the left, her hair draped and pinned creating a veil over her left eye. George’s thin eyebrow cocked at exactly the same angle as his father’s beside him. His hand rested self-consciously on Fred’s shoulder: a pose that would never occur without the suggestion of a professional photographer.

And his Bernice, in her circular glasses set askew on her nose, her mouth pursed, her head angled slightly to the right toward her younger sister. Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sisters looked as if they may have been haggling for the center of the portrait a few moments before the picture was taken. It occurred to Nelson that this was his first look at his bride on their wedding day: a modest picture of an 11-year-old girl with the same unblinking look that had flashed on her face when he first suggested she marry him.

circa 1922
The Wilsons, circa 1922


The Jitters

The first chapter of this story can be found here: Ties.


The sedan sputtered because of the series of divots the spring storms pounded into Potter Road. He’d need to check the suspension before setting off for Indiana later. But once Nelson had passed the Conoco station and turned left onto Dillon, he heard the engine ease back into a sturdier rhythm, and he relaxed his grip on the steering wheel.

Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan, circa 1929 - source: gaspumps.info
Conoco Station, Flushing, Michigan – source: gaspumps.info

Pulling into the driveway, he saw his soon-to-be parents-in-laws’ faces in the front window. The morning sun illuminated them. Minnie was saying something to her husband, Fred, her chin pointed toward her shoulder, but her eyes looked directly out the window at Nelson’s Chevrolet rolling to a stop.  She wore a red cardigan, and a skirt with a vaguely floral pattern of red and light green. Her hair was twisted back into a loose bun; she’d obviously been cooking recently.

Minnie’s right hand held the lace curtain to the side. The glare off the window blurred the line between her cuff and the curtain. To him, it looked as though her sleeve dripped with lace, like the overstated frocks Queen Victoria wore in her portraits. He imagined Minnie with a crown and a choking collar, but the image didn’t hold. Although she didn’t look too friendly just then, he knew Minnie to be down-to-earth, not at all a queen.

Nelson’s stomach lurched as he pressed down on the brakes. He could gauge Minnie’s tone of voice by the way Fred was standing behind her and to her left frowning: she was getting her way about something. Fred’s already arched eyebrow curled even higher. His eyes moved from Nelson’s car, past the houses across the street to the manicured Michigan fields of young soybeans and corn. Nelson was sure Fred was thinking of his fields, of the quiet, hard work of the farm to be done after the percussions of this morning. Nelson had always felt he had that in common with Fred: an appreciation for action over words.

Nelson jittered out of the car much like the engine of his Chevrolet sputtered. He checked the front wheel, patted the hood twice—all to prepare himself to be the center of attention for the day. It was a role he was not comfortable with; a role he would usually avoid. He looked up at the window again to smile or wave—a conscious decision to start the day out well—but saw that his fiancee’s parents had disassembled their tableau in the window and that Wilma and her husband, George, were seated around the dining room table. A pink and thickly frosted cake sitting between them. No sign of Bernice. He wished she’d been waiting for him on the porch. He felt like he needed her as a buffer, having never been around her family before without her. No occasion to until today.

He heard the side door open. Footsteps on the stoop. Minnie, holding a corsage of lavender zinnias and lilies-of-the-valley, was the first to greet him.


The folklore of our family members meeting their in-laws can give great insight into all of their personalities. Do you have any good stories about these occasions in your family tree?


Read Part 3: The Corsage.


Flushing, Michigan
May 1934

Nelson remembered to slow down before he came up on the Wilson’s house. He swerved between the patches of loose dirt to avoid kicking up dust. Starting this particular day out with dust on his clothes wouldn’t bode well for what was to come. He drove his Ford dressed in his finest clothes—a crisp, gray tweed suit he had bought with his first paycheck from the plant, a navy vest inherited when his younger brother stopped boxing and found that his clothes no longer fit, and a brand new tie.

He and his fiancee had discussed the necessity of a frugal wedding, but he just couldn’t bear the idea of walking down the aisle without something new. A keepsake of his life before marriage and family.

A few days before, he had driven down an entirely different street for Bernice. It was after a morning shift at the plant. He had stopped by his brother’s flower shop. He was helping his mother and sister-in-law unwrap the newest shipment of flowers from the farm when he mentioned his want of a symbolic tie. They tried to convince him he needed a woman’s touch.

“Bernice will be disappointed if the tie didn’t match exactly.”

“Men just don’t know how to dress themselves anymore.”

“Your mother and I can find you a deal and anyway it’s slow here.”

It was five days before Mother’s Day, just before the rush. After several minutes of debate though, he pinned up the argument with “Honestly. You two make it sound as if I’d show up to the church in just my stocking feet if you didn’t go with me.”

“It’s not far-fetched. Your brother nearly did,” Elsie said, cackling as she reached for the list of the day’s orders, and Nelson knew the subject was settled. They wouldn’t insist, and he was glad for that. He was 33-years-old; he’d soon be the head of a household. Making the purchase himself would be the first act he’d commit for the sake of his wife. Besides the proposal, of course.

The Harburns traded employment from one definition of plant to another when they moved to Flint.
A few of the Harburn men traded working with plants to working in a plant when they moved to Flint. Flint City Directory, 1931

He decided to drive the six blocks from the flower shop to the clothing store. Driving felt more formal to him and formality was what the occasion called for.  He sidled his car in between the other Fords along Saginaw Street, turned off the engine, and joined the spattering of people on the sidewalks. It was a Thursday afternoon and the first day of the year so far that the light breeze didn’t carry a twinge of moisture in it. The office workers from the bank were enjoying their lunches sitting on the benches scattered throughout the park across the street. The people and the flowers in the beds beside them pointed in the same direction– facing the sun, letting it nourish and warm them. These were the unwitting audience members of his processional.

"To suit every man's needs."
“To suit every man’s needs.”

He walked straight into Crawford & Zimmermans to the display of neckties. They were folded elegantly in six vertical lines across the broad plain of a cedar table. Each line of ties pointed with their ends in opposite directions, right then left then right again, as if ties could show modesty. The effect made the customer’s eye following the arrows to the finely-made suitcoats and felt hats that surrounded them.

Nelson thought a scarlet tie with a white maple leaf pattern would be best. The colors and pattern represented his native country. The maple leaf further added a sense of stability and growth he thought appropriate for one beginning his husbandhood. But there was a solidity to the tie with cream diagonal stripes trekking across a navy field that reminded him of the stars and stripes. He quickly decided since marriage was a commitment to the future, never the past, the navy and cream tie was the better choice.

He folded back the ties atop the navy blue one, plucked it from the series, and carefully reset the pattern to cover the gap he’d made. His decision was over before Mr. Crawford’s son, who had been occupied by a somber, walrus-mustached customer, could even make a salesman-like suggestion. When Nelson looked up, young Crawford was standing on the other side of the table from him.

“Ah, a man with aim, I see.” Mr. Crawford held out his hand to take the tie. “May I interest you in a homburg or a navy kerchief to match, sir?”

“No. Just the tie presently, thank you.”

Nelson smirked, more to himself than to Mr. Crawford, both his heels left the floor for a split second. Quick and concisely done, he thought as he opened his wallet and gave the man three coins, and this is how it begins.


It’s funny how the little things in life can signify such momentous occasions. Are there any similar stories like my grandfather’s marriage tie in your family tree?

Read the next ‘chapter’: The Jitters.