The rock walls of Rhode Island

One thing that has always fascinated me about Rhode Island, and perhaps this is true for other New England towns as well, is the rock walls. The walls are a distinctive characteristic of this area.

Country roads are flanked by these long sometimes straight and sometimes serpentine stone walls.

This was my third trip, that I remember, to Rhode Island where my dad’s sister lives. I went about 27 years ago to attend my cousin’s wedding and our family made the trip earlier, sometime in the late 60s or early 70s.

Like a song, the site of the rock walls brought back childhood memories of years before.

My cousin Michael graciously spent a few hours with us as we passed through his hometown of Ashaway, R.I. just across the border from Connecticut. Mike is two years younger than me, which seems like a lot in the world of my childhood memory, but not so much anymore. He remembers a pop-up camper from our visit all those years ago and I remember getting in trouble and then scrubbed down after running through the woods where poison ivy grew.

In the 40-some years since we played as children, Mike has learned to build stone walls. He says it is his relaxation; it is his “golf.”

The amazing thing about these stone walls is that they are built without cement or any adhesive. The walls are wider at the bottom and slant in towards the top. Stones are hand selected by the builder to fit. It is something like building a puzzle I imagine.

The builder hauls the stones to the site, or recovers them there. He places the first one and searches for the next of a perfect size and shape in the pile of stones. And slowly, one stone at a time, the wall is born.

For some builders, working outside on a fine spring day with a blue sky and mild breeze, with the silence of nature interrupted only by bird calls, I imagine it’s meditative, even spiritual labor.

I’ll enjoy thinking of my child cousin, who has grown into a man, building the rock walls of Rhode Island.


Annie Moore, Ancestors and Arthur

A top of the morning to you and a happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Here are three related Irish reflections—

Emmigrant Annie Moore at Cobh harbor in Ireland

At the harbor on the southern shore of Ireland in the town of  Cobh (pronounce “cove”) stands the statue of Annie Moore, looking back to the land, with her two younger brothers Phillip and Anthony, one of whom is looking out to sea. Annie left Ireland on her fifteenth birthday, January 1, 1892, for America. She was the first immigrant to the United States to pass through the Ellis Island facility in New York. (From When individuals left Ireland for America the friends and families left behind often held an all-night American wake, for they knew these people would never see Ireland again.

Theresa Farley Coughlin 1862-1945

Theresa Farley’s parents, Nicholas Farley and Margeret Farrell were born in Ireland and came to the shore of America sometime in the 1850s, most likely. Whether they came alone, with their own families or together, I don’t know. They made their way by carriage or wagon, on foot or by boat, or some combination of these, to Cincinnati where their daughter Theresa was born in 1862.

Theresa met and married Jeremiah Coughlin whose parents were also from Ireland. Theresa and Jeremiah were both from a strict Irish Catholic heritage so when their daughter Margaret married William Smith, of strict German Catholic heritage, sparks flew. From these sparks were born Margaret and William’s oldest son, James Edward Smith who married Katherine Wirrig and whose oldest son, respectively, is Jerry A. Smith.

Theresa Coughlin lived out her days on Cottage Avenue in Piqua, Ohio with two of her unmarried children after her husband Jeremiah died at the age of 55 in 1913. Theresa  died on March 28, 1945 at the age of 82. Other than the prejudice experienced from her German Catholic relations, I can’t say whether Theresa suffered much from the anti-Irish sentiment so prevalent in this country at that time.


And finally, we come to Arthur, my little Irish dog who is not smiling in this photo and who will be accompanying me today when I travel to Dayton to deliver homemade Brazenhead’s Shepherd’s Pie and Bread Pudding to Theresa Farley’s great-grandson, my father.

Weekly photo challenge: Home

We hung our children’s pictures on the brick wall above the mantle above the fireplace where flames danced on Christmas morning or a cold winter’s evening.

We sometimes filled the house with friends, with family, and with noise, but on the day our youngest went to 1st grade the silence roared.

Buddy the parakeet flew around the screened porch and Honey chased squirrels in the yard.

We played games around the kitchen table and ate outside on warm summer days.

I sat on the edge of beds in clean and tidy empty rooms after the kids left one-by-one to go to college, to a new job in another city, to a wife.

Memories kept me company as they came alive through every doorway, around every corner, in every room.

We left that house to go to doctors’ appointments, school, baseball games, soccer practice, rugby, swimming meets, driving tests, dances, weddings, funerals, Alaska, and the movies, but one of the hardest things I’ve ever done is walk out the door for one last time.

The house is no longer our house, but will forever be in my heart, our family home.

Fifty-four years of words

Family photo 1957
1957 - Jerry A. Smith, Mary K. Smith (holding me), Carol and Kathy

I’m fifty four years old today—that’s more than half a century and in all likelihood, more than half my life.

I’ve had to learn a lot of new words in those 54 years. When I was young we didn’t have computers, laptops, e-mails, google,,, cell-phones, smart phones, iPhones, iPads, iPods. We didn’t have microwaves, VHS, cds, blue-rays, DVR, Nintendo, X-Box, PlayStation or Wii. Blackberries were a fruit. If we wanted to travel, we found our way with a paper map that unfolded into an awkward size  and interrupted the view of the driver and was impossible to return to its original nicely folded shape. We didn’t have google-maps or GPS. Our books were made of paper—no kindles, no nooks.

We didn’t worry about recycling, energy-efficiency, global warming, hybrid cars, political correctness, dirty bombs, terrorists.

In those fifty-four years there are also words that have gone into retirement—vinyl records, 78s, 33s, 45s, cassette player, eight-track-tape (I actually never really heard that one much before), and my most valuable possession as a teenager—transistor radio, to mention a few.

Fifty four years. There are a lot of new and very special people in my life—Mark, Michael, Matthew, Anna, Mark Joseph, Gretchen, and Luke—a grandchild. Pure joy.

There are too many people who are permanently gone from my life—Grandpa Smith, Grandma Smith, Grandpa Lemmons, Grandma Lemmons, Uncle Jim, Uncle Mike, Aunt Nancy, Aunt Mary, Great Aunt Agnes, Dad Grote, Annie.

A lot happens in fifty four years.

Thank you Mom and Dad for giving me this life, for taking care of me before I could take care of myself and for teaching me how to live well.

I may live another 20, 30, or if I take after my Grandma Lemmons, 40 more years. But if I died tomorrow, I would have had a good life. I’m lucky, or as my friends, who I never see anymore, down at Our Daily Bread would say—I’m blessed.

So, to mangle a quote from a woman who once lost her head,

“Let us eat cake.”

The town where I grew up


One of my earliest memories is of a painting, hanging on the wall in the hallway of South Street grade school in Piqua, Ohio. Native American men are sitting in a ring around a campfire. In the center, a man rises from the flames. The men  exclaim, “‘Otaht-he-wagh-Pe-Qua,’  (He has come out of the ashes).  And from that time, that place was called Piqua.” (

On the rural edge of town, tucked into a dark wooded area beside a small cottage, a totem pole stands.

A very old Native American woman sometimes took care of my grandmother when she was small.

That’s the sum total of my personal knowledge of the Native Americans who once lived in an important settlement and trading area in west central Ohio, along the banks of the Great Miami River, now called the city of Piqua.

We lived on the edge of town just a few blocks from where the streets lined with houses turned to country roads bordering green fields and farmland.

There were six or seven small single-story brick homes on the block where we lived in the middle. At the back of our yard across the alley, in that same block were two properties—a manufacturing business of some sort fenced in with wire disguised by three-foot tall weeds in the summer months and a large single residence surrounded by an apple orchard—a childhood dream playground.

We had two cherry trees, a large lilac bush, a swingset and a large tractor tire filled with sand in our yard and could want for nothing more.

Rex Kaiser, our neighbor on the right displayed turtle shells along the top edge of his single-car garage beside the alley. Sometimes we watched him sit on a stool beside a table and gut and clean his fresh catch of turtles.

Two houses from ours on the left, Mr. Huffman kept chickens. I sometimes had the unfortunate timing of riding my bicycle through the alley right after Mrs. Huffman had decapitated one of the clucking creatures for dinner. I can tell you it was a frightening sight to see those headless chickens hopping about the yard.

The Piqua I was born in was a small town with limited opportunities, my Dad had to drive nearly an hour to work every day in Dayton. Had we stayed there, I might not have attended college. It’s hard to know what that alternate life might have been like.

But we moved away.

I will always think of Piqua fondly as the place of family, of fried chicken Sunday dinners at my Grandma Smith’s house; playing bingo at Christmas parties at my Grandma and Grandpa Lemmons’ house; and walking home from church in our brand new Easter dresses and shiny black patten leather shoes.

Remembering your happiness

Jerry A. Smith - 1933
Jerry A. Smith - 1933

“I came in on the 18th of January, 1933 at 715 Manier Ave. Piqua, Ohio. My mother was living with her folks. My dad was living with his folks on Cottage Ave. There was a big fight over there. I caused a lot of trouble. Lots of trouble, I was told, by my mother for one. My granddad Wirrig, he wasn’t happy about it at all. Uncle Paul said it got a little exciting around the house.” Jerry A. Smith

My dad was born right in the middle of the Great Depression. I always thought that name was ironic, there wasn’t anything great about it, if you use the definition of great as being “a generalized term of approval,” which we often did. “We had a great time.” Not so about the depression of 1929 – 1940s.

I was printing out some photos to take with me to my parents when I visit this week. I printed all the ones of my dad when he was young and with his parents—there is just a handful of these and I wonder how they even were able to afford those at the time. I also printed out photos of my grandmother and my dad’s siblings.

I bought a photo album at Christmas that I haven’t given to Dad yet. I read somewhere in Alzheimer literature that it can be a good idea to sit with your parent and create a memory photo album together to help them later if they forget. When my dad was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the winter of 2008, he said with tears clogging his speech, “I just don’t want to forget who you are.” Neither do I, Dad. Neither do I.

Grandma and Dad 1933
Grandma and Dad 1933

Anyway, after I bought the photo album, I decided not to give it to him. I didn’t want it to be a fait accompli. Maybe he wouldn’t forget. And he hasn’t so far. But I’m taking the photos and album up this week.

Yesterday Mom called and said that Dad seemed confused and not certain where he was so she asked him, “Do you know who I am?” She is used to being forgotten. Her mother forgot her on and off for the last 5 – 10 years of her life. Dad answered, “You’re Mary Lemmon.” Which is true, sort of. She was Mary Lemmon before she married him. I don’t know whether he was lost in the past, or just trying to be precise.

I love this picture of my dad with his mom. It was a rough start for her into a rougher life as it turns out my grandfather was mentally ill and passed through a stage of alcoholism before that was all sorted out. But that’s another story for another time.

Grandma looks so happy holding my dad. Children can do that for you—make you forget your sorrows, or perhaps a better way of phrasing it would be, they help you remember your happiness.


Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

Pink velcro shoes

I’m writing this morning from Annie’s room in my parents’ house where I spent the night last night. Annie’s old room, I should say, as my mom has begun to refer to it. And it doesn’t really feel like Annie’s room so much with the hospital bed lowered, its rail tucked down to the side, without the wheelchair and manual lift, without Annie.

But there are still items in the room that remind me—a homemade envelope of red construction paper decorated with a border of lace and labeled in large print with black marker, “Annie’s Schedule,” hanging from a hook on the wall above the bed. The pictures of our now deceased grandparents holding us when we were small, I framed when Annie was sick and I feared she was dying, “Annie has these angels in heaven,” I had said to my mom.

A crucifix lies on a doily on the bedside table along with a small pink fairy and a stem of artificial sweetheart roses. That’s all new. And the four pink posters decorated with silk orchids, that Carol and I made, propped against the walls on the dresser and cedar chest, covered with photos of Annie smiling—they’re new too.

When I woke up this morning my eyes focused on the wall beside Annie’s bed and I noticed some light scratches.  “That’s right!” I thought, “When Annie was young she used to scratch her headboard in the morning when she woke up. We’d hear it on the intercom and know she was awake.” A new memory reclaimed, even after the days, weeks and months of excavating my soul for memories to fill the pages of Annie’s memoir. I had forgotten that.

The dolls Mom hung from the crown molding on the wall opposite the bed so that Annie could see them still smile down from the height. The T.V. is gone, but the stereo is here, although I don’t see the stack of Barry Manilow, Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Rogers cds.

Two small decorative angels hang from the curtains at the windows. They might have been there before.

The green ribbons I tied on Annie’s bed railing to secure a foam padding and protect Mom’s arm when she started feeding Annie in bed near the end are still tied in bows there, although the padding is gone.

Mom put a throw rug over the threadbare spot on the carpet, worn down from minutes accumulating to hours and hours adding up to days where my dad stood to lift Annie from her bed into her wheelchair, or my mom stood to change Annie’s diapers, or dress her, or bathe her. The carpet hides the spot, but I know it is still there.

I think the pink gym shoes with the Velcro fasteners that wait on the cedar chest are the hardest to take.

After more than 18 months since Annie died, mostly it’s gotten easier. But some days, not so much.

Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

Not a photo from Italy

Rant warning.

I feel like Rip frappin’ Van Winkle.

In 1979 I graduated with a Chemical Engineering degree and started my short-lived career at Procter and Gamble. Three years later Michael was born and I left work never to return.

One year turned to five, then 10. One child turned to four. Ten years turned to 15—our youngest son Joe was only 6 and Michael required a ride to his high school a distance from our house. Fifteen years turned to 20. I went back to school part time for an English degree. 20 years turned to nearly 30.

When I first started at P&G we didn’t have computers in our offices. My desk was well-stocked with yellow lined paper tablets and pens. My bi-weekly reports were hand written and typed up by a shared administrative assistant.

When I left P&G in 1982, four or five of us shared one desktop computer in our lab office. We used it mostly as a database for our experimental results. We didn’t have e-mail. We had inter-departmental mail delivered in large gold reusable envelopes. We had telephones. And we had our feet.

Fast forward 29 years. I wake up from my domestic dream-sleep and venture out into the world. I have a compelling story I want to tell. My sister with severe brain damage has died and I want to tell her story. I want to give her a legacy. Through wakeful nights and cases of tissues, I type her story.

I buy books on how to get published, “Get an agent,” “How to write a book proposal,” “Author 101.”

“You need a platform,” they all say.

What the heck is a platform?

I start a blog. I send out notifications to my friends and family in my e-mail address book. I post it on my Facebook page, largely populated by high school friends, that my friend Marty encouraged me to start a few years ago. (If we older folks don’t help each other and pull each other along we are all going to be left behind.)

My kids sometimes help me keep up-to-date—introducing me to Netflix, insisting on texting, suggesting Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies games.

I ask my mom if she’s been reading my blog. She hasn’t. “How can I expect other people to read my blog when my own mom won’t?” I say. This comment is far more effective at igniting her anger than inspiring her interest. “I don’t like the computer,” she says.

My mom is 77 years old. She has lived most of her life without the need of a computer. She doesn’t see the need for one now. And it confuses her to try to learn it. She can’t keep up. I understand how she feels. She is used to waiting for information. She has no need for minute-by-minute updates on what her favorite actor or politician is doing. She likes hearing people’s voices over the telephone.

I generate a shortcut for my blog page and leave it on her computer desktop. I know I still have two loyal readers in my husband Mark and sister Carol.

“You need to have over a thousand followers,” the books say.

I join several Writer’s Digest online communities about writing, publishing, blogging. “You need to follow twitter to find out what the publishers and agents are saying.”

I sign up for a Twitter account. I start following the big publishing houses: Random House, A. A. Knopf, Simon Schuster—like I have even the remotest of chances of ever doing business with one of them.

Many of the tweets contain symbols. I feel like I am reading shorthand. I have no idea what the symbols mean. I will google it later.

I am notified by e-mail that I now have six followers on Twitter. I panic.

All I want to do is tell my sister Annie’s story. I think it is a good story. I think it is an inspiring story. It is the only legacy she will have.

I’m willing to try to do what it takes. I’m willing to try to build a platform whatever that looks like. I am willing to do it for Annie.

I wonder how many 50, 60 even 70-year-olds are out there with really good stories that we’ll never read because they simply haven’t been able to keep up.

When I started this post-a-day-2011 challenge I told myself I would post whatever was in my head when I woke up in the morning. And if my head was empty, as is sometimes the undeniable case, I would simply slap up a photo from our trip to Italy.

I’ll bet you’re looking forward to seeing some of those photos.


Procter and Gamble on Reed Hartman Highway 1979
My shared brick-walled office located beside a lab
You charged in, past my desk, to speak with Wayne
I thought, “Finally, another new-hire is here.”

Wildwood off of Rt. 4 in Fairfield 1979
My apartment furnished with hand-me-downs and a brand new sofa-bed
You rang the doorbell, bearing a single red rose, promptly at 7:00
I thought, “He’s the one I’ve been waiting for.”

A two-bedroom apartment in Camelot off of Rt. 4 1980
Our wedding gifts covered the dining table
You cleaned the frost off my windshield in the early morning
I felt warm, loved and protected

3416 Ferncroft Dr. Cincinnati Ohio 1982
Michael was born, then later Matthew, and Anna
You walked our babies through the house at night when they cried
I thought, “What a good father you are.”

1269 Hickory Lake Dr.  1991
Joe was born in the large stately brick home — more than I ever expected
Your administrative assistant called to say your ambulance arrived
I thought, “It isn’t worth it.”

5882 Countryhills Dr. 2008
Your father died
You bought a new suit
I held you while you cried.

5843 Woodthrush Ln 2011
The bedrooms are all empty
You say you’re really going to retire this time
I wonder, “Where do we go from here?”


Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote

What a day to be an Egyptian

What a day to be an Egyptian.

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to the nonstop commentary, but I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge and applaud this moment in history.

What a day to be Egyptian!

In my soon to be 54 years of life, I can’t remember knowing any feeling of broad-sweeping elation such as that the Egyptians are experiencing today. Probably most people don’t ever have such an experience in a lifetime.

My dad was 12 year old in 1945 when the allied forces achieved victory in Europe and the forces of Nazi Germany surrendered on what we now commemorate as VE day. Dad remembers a huge party in the streets of his small hometown of Piqua, Ohio. My dad had two uncles fighting in the war. Many, if not most or even all, families were impacted by the news of the end of WWII. Elation was experienced and celebration ensued.

The people took a stand in Egypt. A hope became an act and the act became a movement and the movement grew and gained a life of its own.

On a vacation to Philadelphia years ago, we stood in the room where the U.S. Constitution was signed years after the Declaration of Independence and a bloody war of Independence. I saw the depiction of the sun on the president’s chair in that room where the Constitutional Congress met to take on the onerous task of putting on paper the rules to govern this new nation they had fought for and won.

Ben Franklin, at the age of 81, “attended most of the sessions and was troubled by the recurring signs of opposition to the draft Constitution. In a notable address toward the close of the Convention, he gently urged dissenting delegates to put aside their legitimate criticisms — he himself had several — and recognize the version before them as the best compromise possible.” (

A lesson our legislators today sorely need to learn.

In 1787 as the last of the delegates were signing the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin pointed to the sun on the president’s chair and said, “I have often … in the course of the session … looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

The people of Egypt have a lot of questions to answer. They have pushed their situation from a known, albeit unsatisfactory even intolerable one, into a great unknown.

We can only hope that the voices of individuals with sound and reasonable judgment will be heard and that human rights and justice will prevail.

But for today they deserve to celebrate.

What a day to be an Egyptian.

1998 - Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA