A Love Letter From Wyoming

Seventeen years ago, I married my husband, Tom,  in my mom’s Wyoming hayfield.  Today, I am back at my mom’s ranch for what will mostly likely be the last time as she gets ready to move on to the next phase of her life.  Unfortunately, my husband couldn’t come with me.  He loves it here.  We are saying good-bye to a lot of memories.  For me, the one I will always hold most dear is my wedding day.  I wrote this post for Tom several years ago and am sharing it today as a way to remember.



I am drawn to the spot where it happened. It’s been almost 15 years but I can still see our footprints.  I can still hear the echoes.  I can close my eyes and see us both, fewer wrinkles, definitely more innocent, but still recognizable as the people we are today.

Remember the day I first brought you here?  You looked at the wide open space and the iron red cliffs and declared it the closest place you’d been to home.

Remember when we rescued the Pyrenees pups from that enormous sheep ranch?  They had never been touched by humans. In the back of the car, on the long journey home, you cautiously gave each pup one of your smelly socks and forged a lasting bond.   No wonder they decided to escape the house that night, like naughty children who didn’t want to miss out on our festivities.

Remember dancing in the fields?  Even in the middle of nowhere, it began to feel crowded and the energy of the approaching occasion sometimes felt overwhelming.  When enough was enough, we would sneak away to twirl and dip to the rhythm of the wind on our 70 acre dance floor.

Remember the night before the big day, when all the different pieces of our lives came together at the Golden Steer?  Fanciest place in town. We laughed so hard when they asked me if I wanted my salmon deep fried. It didn’t matter, we barely noticed the food.

Remember how we walked through the mountains picking the flowers that would decorate the day?  Wild daisies, pasque flowers, lupine, all hung to dry in the summer sun.  At the end of our night, one of the cowboys filled the pocket of his best dress shirt with my favorite, a dusty, pale red bloom he called a prairie rose.

Remember that it never rained here in July except for at the exact moment we were to begin?  You came and held my hand as we listened to it beat down on the roof.  You reassured me that no one was going anywhere. And, just like that, the clouds passed.  Later that night, another cowboy told us the rain had come as our blessing.  It felt true.

Remember how we didn’t wait to see each other all fancied up?  We left the house hand in hand and walked through the fields, up towards the people who were gathering around our spot.  Waist high purple hay, sparkling from the rain, more perfect than anything Martha Stewart could have planned.  And the bagpipes, what a surprise to hear them.  A wedding gift.  It’s the only place bagpipe music has made sense to me.

Remember when we realized it was finally time?  We saw our families sitting side by side with the rest of our lives.  Every cowboy on the creek had come. Many we had never met but all came dressed in their finest.  They never questioned why we had chosen this spot.  They understood this land is sacred.

Remember that was the day we said forever?

Our life is so far from here now, from the spot where I sat today and watched a hawk soar over those iron red cliffs. We live in a world so different than what we might have imagined that night as we danced in the field and the rain began to pour down again.  Now, we have to reach over so much to be able to hold hands.  We have to wait with endless patience for each other.  We have created miracles, but the miracle of that day sometimes get buried in the riches of a child-filled world.

Before I leave to come home to you, I am going to walk through the hayfield one more time, brush away the blanket of early snow, and touch the soil where we stood.  Then, when my hand touches yours again, you will remember it all.

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Deeply Rooted

I remember it caught my eye the minute we pulled up to the house.   A dark green blanket of English Ivy spread out like a classy greeting to our new home.   It aged the ten-year-old house in a way that felt familiar to me, made it feel settled and mature like the places where I grew up.

Once we moved in, I smiled every time I pulled into our driveway and saw the ivy where others would have cut down the trees and planted grass.  I immediately started expanding the shade garden, creating room to incorporate new plants.  Coral Bells, Sweet William, Hostas, Vinca, Ostrich Ferns, wild flowers I transplanted from a favorite spot at camp, and Daylilies in the one section that gets a little sun.  Painting a picture with plants just like I had watched my mom and her sisters do forever.

But, no matter how many flowers I planted, what was always at the forefront of the garden was the ivy.

We’ve lived in the house for seven years now.  Hard to believe.  Over that time, as you may have guessed, my love for the ivy grew into a full-on battle to keep it from taking over every last inch of soil and creeping upward to pull down our house.  Finally tired of its bullying behavior, I began threatening to pull out every last trace.

I know that ivy roots grow deep.  Tough, persistent and sneaky.   Which is why I never got around to making good on my threat.  I’d pull up a few shoots here and there, clear another small spot and put in some more Vinca hoping it could hold its own.  But mostly, the ivy was winning and I just couldn’t find the energy to keep it in its place.

The time finally came to tackle some roots.

Like a gardening zombie, I found myself walking into the house one day and then suddenly turning back.  Before I knew it, I was yanking masses of roots from the ground.  It was like one of those never ending bowls of spaghetti. It didn’t matter how much I pulled out, the carpet of ivy never seemed to shrink. I would look behind me at the mound I was creating just to reassure myself that I was making progress.

Eventually, my bare hands were raw, my muscles were aching and I gave up for the day. Satisfied but knowing there was still plenty of work to do.

Later, a friend noticed my grubby fingernails when I went to pick up my daughter.  I told him what I had been doing and he quickly replied that I needed to get myself a big bottle of Roundup and kill those roots to the core.  Otherwise, no matter how much I worked, new shoots would continue to pop-up forever.  Plus, ivy roots can really damage your foundation.

I didn’t respond.  I knew poison wasn’t the answer.  I needed to win with my own ungloved hands.

For two weeks, I tugged and dug and piled and hauled.  There was an immediate sense of satisfaction in finding a big mother root and pulling at it until it finally gave in, it’s long, snaky tail revealing itself from under the soil.  My shoulders were sore.  My back was screaming.  My fingernails were beyond hope.  There was something deeply satisfying in feeling my progress so physically.

A week ago, I knew I was done.  I was confident that I hadn’t cleared all of the ivy roots, but I knew I had made enough progress that whatever was still hiding underground was manageable. I called it good and covered the newly naked soil with mulch.  And then I stared a lot.  At the empty space where there was once the thing I had loved and hated.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I felt slightly overwhelmed at the blank canvas.

Yesterday, a different kind of gardener emerged.  Confident and willing to go with a trial-and-error approach.   All of the lovely perennials that I had been adding to the shade garden had now multiplied and were ready to be divided.  I took my shovel and started transplanting.  As I dug deep holes where the ivy once grew, I encountered more roots.  Big, strong, stubborn.  Some I yanked out.  Some I plopped a plant on top of knowing that more ivy shoots would someday emerge.  I’d have to deal with them when the time came.

You have to decide how much getting-rid-of is enough.  You have to figure out what you can live with.  Deep roots can be tough on your foundation. But sometimes they are what’s holding the foundation together.

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When I Say I’ll Keep You In My Thoughts…



When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I’m driving alone in the car

And a song comes on that makes me pause

That says the things that I could not

I will replay the words over and over in my mind

And wonder if they could possibly bring you any comfort.


When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I am raking away the winter leaves

That spent months frozen to the ground

And I discover a small green shoot that miraculously survived

I will gently pat its roots more firmly into the soil

And know that beating the odds is real.


When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when I sit down with my family

And they challenge all my strengths

Or I endure another round of the same old battles

With the ones I trust to keep my world safe

I will be a different kind of grateful for my day.


When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that as I take my first trip of the spring

To see how the dunes have changed with the winter winds

I begin to understand that life shifts no matter how many fences we build

And the best we can do is stand strong together

Hold hands and face the wind.


When I say “I’ll keep you in my thoughts…”

I mean that when it is dark and silent

And everyone else is finally asleep

I am once again left alone to wonder what I believe in

And realize that in the end it doesn’t really matter what

It just matters that I believe.



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Of Report Cards and What a Great Teacher Knew

Last fall, I visited my mom in Wyoming.  She used the opportunity to do some major house cleaning which included the passing on of a lifetime of paper treasures.  Every finger painting, mother’s day card, letter to Santa and term paper I had ever created was ceremoniously dumped in my lap one evening.  I relived a lot of my childhood leafing through those papers.  Some good, some not so much. What I touched that took my breath away, what I couldn’t put down, were the report cards.

In my hands I held the perfect penmanship of my grade school teachers.  As I read their words and looked at their assessments of my abilities, I started to see how I had become and not become what I am today. Holding onto those fragile pieces of paper, I felt my adult-sized body begin to shrink until I was once again the girl wearing my favorite smiley-face jumper, the one my mom had made me at her Sears sewing class.

 I loved school.  I loved how it felt safe and you could always count on it to smell like a bologna sandwich and oranges.  I honestly can’t remember much I didn’t like about school.  Maybe that’s why I was caught by surprise when I read my old report cards and discovered that my teachers did not always see the perfect student that I had intended to be.

1st Grade – Mrs. Muzzey

“Oral: Good but needs to read a little louder…Writing: Melissa can do nice writing when she tries but sometimes she hurries too fast to do her best work.”


I can still feel it now.  That painful shyness.  The fear of being wrong.  The courage it took me to read my page of Tip and Mitten or Jack and Janet out loud to the class.  And I remember not wanting to be left behind. I was always running after, always trying to keep up, always trying to grab someone’s hand.  Because I was quiet, maybe I thought I would be forgotten. I’m not sure how to interpret the 1969 grading scale except to say I had a lot of check marks by the word “occasionally”.

3rd Grade – Mrs. Hunter

 “likes to talk to neighbors…can’t always listen…doesn’t always add to discussion even though she has good ideas.”


This was the year I discovered that my friends lived in worlds I would like to inhabit.  That they could take me places, even if just through a classroom conversation, that I could not go at home.  It was the year I began to understand what I was hearing and learned to block it out.  It looks like the fear of being wrong, of not putting yourself out there just in case you had made a mistake, was pretty ingrained by this time – even though I knew I had good ideas.  I knew it.

4th Grade – Mrs. Reddel

 “yes, but quiet…yes, volunteers…yes, dependable…yes.”


I guess by fourth grade I was learning how to work the system.  My grades were good enough but more importantly, I was pleasing. I was doing what I was told. I was speaking up – though quietly.  I think fourth grade may have been my academic and good behavior peak.

I entered 5th grade in 1972.  Our classroom was in a “pod” with movable walls. We had “learning contracts” which allowed us to complete our own weekly lesson plan and we did a lot of “alternative thinking”.  That was the year I fell madly in love with my teacher, Mrs. Molloy.  Just writing out her name makes me sigh with longing. There was something about her that I wanted to wrap myself up in.  I would have lived the rest of my life in her classroom if given the chance. She was magic.

Luckily, 1973 and 6th grade brought me back to Mrs. Molloy for language arts and social studies, the two classes where I really shined.  I survived the rest of the day just so I could sit in her room and watch her at the chalkboard. And that leads me to my last grade school report card.  The one that brought me to tears.

“Don’t you ever worry – I couldn’t be more proud. Love, Mrs. M.” 

I have absolutely no recollection of ever reading these words before that moment at my mom’s this past fall. What did she know? Even now, my heartbeats faster, I choke back tears, and I long to run to her and ask.  What did you see in my eyes?  What did you read between the lines of all of those stories I wrote for you?  Why did you write that?  Those words, I touch them over and over again. There is something in those words that only a great teacher could convey.  Something that now, 37 years later, makes me feel so understood.

Mrs. Molloy?  Remember when I thought my name was too different?  No one was named Melissa back in the 70’s.  I could never find my name pre-printed on a mug or a key chain.  Under the wise council of my best friend, Liza, I decided I’d like to change my name to Lissa.  Somehow, I even found the confidence to make this desire known to you, though I never told my mom.  I’ll never forget that moment when I raised my hand to answer a spelling question and you said, “Yes, Lissa?”  I shrunk back in my chair as the whole class turned to stare at me, but you stood there straight-faced and patiently waited for my answer.  Plus, you never returned my papers and asked me to use my proper name.


“Monkey’s First Day, by Lissa”

And, when I quietly started writing my full name on my papers again, I didn’t need to say anything, you knew that it was time to go back to calling me Melissa.

Then there was that time when I wanted to write the very best story you had ever read and I didn’t believe that I could do it without some extra help.  So I re-imagined one of my favorite picture books, Fredrick, about a field mouse who absorbs everything lovely and shares it with his family during the cold grey winter. I changed it just enough to make it sound like just maybe it had been my own idea. I remember you marveled at it, looked at me trying to assess whether or not I had written it.  You said out loud, “Wow, this is a great story.  You wrote this?”  And I couldn’t lie to you.  I was more afraid of losing your respect for lying than of getting into trouble for cheating.  So I told you the truth.  I don’t remember what happened next, but I know I never felt afraid or ashamed. And I always wrote my own stories after that.

You never let me do less than my best. You wouldn’t let me just get by. Maybe you knew that I could do that at home. There was too much other stuff going on behind our big red front door – as long as I wasn’t making waves, passing was good enough.  But not for you.  You made me feel like I could step out of my brother’s shadow and find my own way to shine.  And you always made sure to focus on what I was doing best before you gently implied there were places I could do better.

“Melissa continues to work independently and to achieve at a high level.  Please ask her about arithmetic homework.”

You saw the “needs to talk louder” me.  The” likes to talk to neighbors” me.  The “in a hurry” me.  The “not performing up to potential” me.  But you made it safe for me to show you the rest of me, too.  I don’t know what you knew exactly, but you knew something was getting in my way.  Even before you told me you were proud of me, I felt it.  And while your wish that I should never worry didn’t come true, it comforts me to no end that you dreamed that dream for me.

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Gold: A Gift to My 4-Year-Old Self

Dear Melissa,

It’s your 4th birthday today.  What good luck that Mrs. Pickering chose such a spectacular craft project for her preschool class on this day.

The shiny golden paper that sits before you looks like treasure. It’s all you can do not to reach out and touch it.  But, you don’t.  You’re a rule follower.  Mrs. Pickering said not to  and you want to make her happy.

Finally, you get to trace and cut and use the much coveted paper punch to create the perfect memory of you on that day.

You love your tiny golden hands more than anything.  As you wrap them carefully in green tissue paper, and use your best four-year-old penmanship to write “Merry Christmas Mom and Dad, Love, Melissa” on the tag, you are secretly wishing the gift was for you.

Instead, you present your hands of gold, your rule following hands, your quiet, shy, unsure hands, to your parents.  And you hold your breath. Will they treasure them the way you do?  Will they know how to take care of them?  Will they put them in a special place where they will stay safe from harm?

Here’s what I can tell you now, from the perspective of your 47-year-old self:

You need to believe that they did the best they could.  That’s the hardest thing to accomplish, but you’ll get there.

You were the easy child and so it was also easy for them to believe you were fine, just fine, with less guidance, less attention, less hand holding. Mostly, you weren’t. But don’t forget all of those other souls who reached out to you. Especially, Mrs. Molloy, your favorite teacher. She knew.

You had such huge eyes, they missed nothing.  A lot of that stuff is just better left behind, even though some days it feels impossible to do that.

You wanted to fix it and you couldn’t.  You still can’t, but it will all be okay.  I wish I could have saved you from all that worrying.

Little girl that I was, I have a gift for you this Christmas.

Several years ago, your mom returned the treasured hands of gold to me.  They were still in pretty good shape: the fingertips were curled a little and one thumb was taped back on, but they shined almost as bright as the day you wrapped them.

She had kept them safe, even though you worried about them.

Every year, I hang them on the tree, just like you did when you were a child.  I always pick a special spot, where your hands will be noticed but not harmed.

This year, I’m ready.  It’s time to give you the gift we’ve both been waiting for.

I’m taking your four-year-old hands down from the tree and holding them in my grown-up hands, the hands that echo the cliché “they look like my mother’s”.

It’s time for me to take care of you.

I won’t let go.

I know that’s all you’ve ever wanted.

Merry Christmas, Melissa.

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Be Careful With This

A few years ago, when our youngest daughter was just four, she tip-toed into my bedroom on the morning of Valentine’s Day as I was getting dressed to go to work.  She had caught me in one of those hurried intervals, between packing lunches and signing 4th grade reading logs, when I was trying to make myself semi-presentable. One of my few moments alone amidst the kind of craziness that ensues at 7:30 a.m. in households across the country.  Which is why she was probably tip-toeing. Because on more than one morning when she had needed my attention, I am positive I said something less than kind to her about giving me a few minutes to myself.

So there she was in her mismatched outfit, nest of sleep-hair still tangled in the back of her head, holding something so very carefully in her cupped hands.  It was the same way she held all of her treasures: the pretty rocks from the neighbor’s driveway; the wood chips from the Montessori playground; the seagull feather from the beach; a glittery plastic bead from under the bed.  This time, it was not something that she had found that she held with such care, but something she had made.

My Valentine.

With her still-pudgy hands she had cut two hearts, almost rounding the edges but missing the curve a little here and there so that there was an endearing imperfection in their outline.  She handed me those scotch-tape-joined-together-hearts so gingerly and with such expectation.  It turns out that the shape was of little importance.  What she had poured herself into was the message.

“Be careful with this. I Love You.”


Though I think she only meant to indicate that the paper hearts were fragile, her words could not have been more profound.  A reminder to me of what I signed up for when I became a parent.  Of the expectation our children have that as their parents, we will always keep them safe.  Not just their physical selves, but their emotional selves and the things they treasure most.  Always.

Somehow, I knew as I held those crooked paper hearts that it was a goal I would continuously aspire to and one I would have to fail.

Allowing my kids to feel the aches and pains of growing-up is one of the toughest life lessons I will ever have to learn.  It’s not the stuff of Hallmark Valentines. When they look at me with the expectation that I will make it all right, I will always struggle with the desire to hold onto them as if they were as fragile as those paper hearts.  Always. No matter how old they get. Even as I let them go.

Be careful with this.  I love you.

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Faith in a Moment

It felt like it came out of nowhere.  I had been struggling to find it for years, trying to reach this place, arrive at this moment. But I wasn’t expecting it – at least not then.

I had been valiantly searching for the little kernels.  The perfect memories caught in time, hanging there waiting for me. Even in those rare moments when I could catch one, I could never make it feel real.  As a result, I thought I was going to be formalizing my list of bullet points.  Writing them out.  Expanding the details.  Creating the book that would tell the poor-me story.

Instead, there we sat. In the moment. Side by side.  Eyes forward.  Shoulders just slightly grazing each other as we shifted to find comfort on the long wooden pews.  A warm summer breeze blowing through, stirring up the musty smells of the countless souls who had been here before.  Listening to the singing.  Young voices.  Full of optimism and hope.  Naive.

“Every long journey is made of small steps.  Is made of the courage, the feeling you get.  You know it’s been waiting and waiting for you. The journey’s the only thing you want to do…Every long journey, what drives you to go, it’s half what you know and it’s half what you don’t…”

I love this song but I found I could only silently mouth the words.  There was something about this moment. I knew if I sang too loud I would start to cry.   Trying to control my emotions, I took a deep breath in and once again felt her shoulder brush mine. I glanced over cautiously from the corner of my eye and, as I saw her tears freely flowing, realized those lyrics held the weight of a lifetime for both of us.

Then, out of nowhere, it came.  Suddenly, it was so obvious. Why had I made it so hard?

It wasn’t weight.  That was the wrong word, the wrong feeling. It was beauty.  It was pain.  It was life.  It was this moment.  This was it. The kernel.  Finally, it felt real.

In that small moment, I felt the burden of forty-seven years lifting from me.  I found faith in the process of life.

I understood.

I was not meant to go back.  I was meant to stand in this moment and step forward.  I could not recreate, but I had always possessed the power to create.  I just hadn’t wanted it.  I had wanted someone else to do it for me. Plus, I had the balance all wrong.  I thought I was supposed to make the past equal the present.  It never will.

I said a silent thank you to the journey that had brought me here.

I took a first small step onto the path that I had worked so hard to find.

I leaned in closer, allowing my shoulder to rest on hers.

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