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Stroller pains

I left it, all dusty and alone, with bags of used clothes piled on its seat and tray. No one was there to receive it, and no one came out to the loading area despite the loud click when I unfolded it and the rattle of its wheels against the pavement as I set it down. Ah, well…someone will find it, I thought as I rolled it out of the sun and locked its wheels, careful not to let it touch the miscellaneous things around it. (I didn’t know where they’d been.)

Then I got in my air-conditioned van, very slowly drove away, and abandoned it there with all that other stuff strangers no longer want or use at the back of a charity thrift store. I had been so impatient to get rid of it, but as I glanced back in my side mirror, I felt a sudden, painful constriction in my chest.

I turned the corner, and a panicky voice began to plead, Go back for it! What are you doing? What were you thinking? Don’t leave it with all that junk. I breathed deeply and tried to let go, but the voice took on a tone of logic, No one’s going to want it, anyway. It’s too old and faded and it has that orange crayon melted in the pocket. Yes, true. I had taken great care to vacuum it out and wipe it down, but the orange crayon remained as well as some dust I hadn’t noticed on its frame. There, then, said the voice of sentiment, go and get it before anyone finds it and tell the thrift store you changed your mind. All four of your babies rode in that stroller, every single one of them…save it for the memories.

I was already on the street and going through a light, but even as I made my way to pick up my two oldest from school, the lump in my throat was growing along with an urge to turn back. Those tall, skinny kids who were about to be dismissed from class had once been tiny little things, riding in that blue and yellow stroller. And then their two siblings had occupied it after them. All of them had snacked in it, slept in it, thrown tantrums in it and gone for long strolls on city streets, in nature or shopping centers in it. All of them had been nestled in the crook of my left arm many times as I pushed their empty stroller around one-handed.

I thought back on all the baby-rearing history and adventures as I inched through the car line at my kids’ school. I couldn’t take the remorse anymore. I needed support and pragmatism, so I called my Man up.

“Honey, I dropped off the stroller today,” I said. “Do you want me to go back and get it?”


I swallowed several times before saying carefully and tearfully, “Because all four of our babies rode in that stroller…”

There was a pause and then a long chuckle and a gentle reproof, “Silly woman….no, we don’t need it anymore. Let somebody else get use out of it. It’s fine.”

Would somebody else get use out of it, though? Would they sense all the residual love clinging to its fabric and honor that despite its appearance? Or would they cruelly beat it with sticks for being so used and sorry-looking? Surely I had made a mistake in offering it up to the great unknown.

“We could get a lap dog and push it around in it.”

“NO. I’m not doing that.”

I didn’t even mention how my sister had used hers to push around shopping bags on Black Friday. Maybe I could have used it for Christmas shopping, too, with an attached disclaimer that read, “No, I didn’t forget my baby. This stroller is retired and hauls merchandise for a hobby.”

“We should have had more kids,” I said, jokingly.

He replied very seriously, “No, we shouldn’t have.”

As I hung up I felt better, still shaky but fortified. Then my older kids got in the car, and with one look at their sweet faces, the tears came back. Berto watched me sniffling for a while in silence and then asked, “Mama, why are you crying? Is it the paper again?”

My boy knows me too well and my propensity for crying at news stories. I tried several times to tell him what was wrong but faltered on the words. When I finally spilled it out, his response was much like his father’s.

“Oh, Mama…”

Silly woman.

But I still wish I had saved our stroller.

— Hillary Ibarra

Hillary Ibarra is a mother of four and a writer at No Pens, Pencils, Knives or Scissors. She has been published multiple times at the humor site Aiming Low. She lives in Arizona where she takes every chance to explore Native American ruins and natural wonders.

A reunion fit for heaven

My mother possessed the gift of hospitality. All who knew her marveled at her remarkable ability to charm people with spontaneous generosity and kindness.

But her benevolence wasn’t limited to humans. She had the greatest affection for animals, too, especially the many dogs that inhabited our home over the years.

Throughout her life, Mom remained utterly convinced that she would one day be reunited with her earthly menagerie in heaven. With the hint of a smile on her face, and just a faint mist in her eyes, she would remind us every so often to include a box of dog treats in her final resting place. She said it was essential to be equipped with the dogs’ favorite snacks when she was reunited with her departed canine friends.

But not everyone would share my mother’s conviction on the fate of pets.

Preachers tell us that the path to heaven involves redemption. But unlike humans, who are apparently awash with wickedness, animals have never sinned. (Note that being a “naughty boy” on grandma’s priceless, antique Persian rug does not constitute a biblical sin.)

So the question of redemption — and being judged accordingly — simply does not apply to animals.

Perhaps a more fundamental issue revolves around the question of animals possessing a soul.

According to the Rev. David Carucci of St. Bede the Venerable Catholic Church, if a soul is purely defined as a living creature’s “principle of life,” then animals and even plants have “souls” simply because they are alive. But, he says, there is a distinction between animals and man.

“Animals do not have immortal souls,” said Carucci, who points out that God breathed his spirit into man, but not animals. “When they die, their life breath dies with them.”

However, some scripture suggests that animals will exist in heaven, such as the 2 Kings 2:11-12 account of Elijah taken up by a flaming chariot and flaming horses.

And in Revelation 19:14, the description of Jesus returning to Earth indicates armies following him from heaven on white steeds.

But hold your horses. Does this mean your favorite childhood pony will be tied to the Pearly Gates awaiting your arrival? By extension, will dogs be wagging their tails and cats purring sweetly in anticipation of their masters coming “home?”

The Rev. Andy Hepburn, pastor at Taylor Road Baptist Church, also sees no biblical evidence that there will be a meet and greet with pets in heaven.

“In the creation, animals were created for man’s use and pleasure,” he said. “Man and animals have unbelievable bonding relationships which are wonderful and fulfilling. But animals are to be ruled by man. We have them as pets, as beasts of burden, for food, etc. I personally do not believe that animals have a spirit.”

In the end, perhaps that’s just as well, especially for those lifelong meat-eaters among us. No one wants an afterlife encounter with a herd of angry cows, pigs and turkeys eager for divine revenge.

But the real issue for most people is the fate of their pets, rather than avenging farm animals.

“I taught high school for seven years and invariably made some sophomore cry ever year when I told them that their pets don’t go to heaven,” Carucci said. “I try to stress to them, that in heaven they will not miss their pet, because they will be with God, and he is the only thing that can ever make them truly happy.”

My mother, of course, entertained none of that “no pets in heaven nonsense,” as she called it. She was utterly convinced that all her dogs would enter a kingdom free from fleas, worms, baths, thunderstorms and vets. She would say if any creatures were deserving of a special place of eternal peace and comfort, after giving a lifetime of unconditional devotion and affection, it would be her beloved dogs.

Mom left us several years ago. It comforted her to believe that a canine welcoming committee would greet her, to experience her hospitality one more time.

— Nick Thomas

Nick Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 270 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. Read more of his work on his blog, “Along These Lines: A Little Silly Seriousness, in a Seriously Silly World.”


Publish your book for free

Greyden Press is accepting completed, unpublished manuscripts in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books for the Greyden Press 2013 Book Competition.

Deadline to enter is June 1, with winners announced Nov. 1. The grand prize is worth more than $3,000. Greyden Press will design and print 50 copies of the winning book for free.

Manuscripts must have been completed in 2011, 2012 or 2013 and should not exceed 45,000 words.

Click here for the prizes, rules and entry form.

Greyden Press, a book printing company in Dayton, Ohio, works with authors who want to self-publish their books. Greyden Press is a co-sponsor of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.

Think positive for kids

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids will contain 101 stories about issues that are important to children. The submission deadline is June 30. Stories should be in the 500- to 1,200-word range.

Some guidelines from the editors:

Stories should be written in a way that kids can understand, but contributors do not need any special ability to write for children. Just focus on one theme per story, keep the message clear, and don’t talk down to kids or try to use “cool” language. They see right through that. We are looking for stories from your own childhood, or about children you know, written in the first person, that both entertain and educate children, and that expose them to positive thinking and good values. These stories will show children how to make good choices — even when no one is looking — how to respect the needs and feelings of others, how to develop their own self-esteem, and how to stay true to their convictions. The stories will remind kids that each day holds something to be grateful for and show them that they are not alone in dealing with difficult issues.

Some of the themes and issues the book will address are:

• Bullying
• Relationships with friends and family
• Divorce
• Moving
• Crushes and relating to the opposite sex
• Self-acceptance
• Helping others
• Being different
• Physical and mental disabilities
• Following rules
• “Telling” on someone when it will help them
• Doing the right thing even when it’s hard
• How it feels to do the right thing

The book will not include stories that might be too mature for younger readers, such as stories about abuse. “We are also a “Santa safe” company — we keep the magic alive for all our readers,” the editors say.

If your story is chosen, you will receive $200 and 10 free copies of your book, worth more than $100. You will retain the copyright for your story and you will retain the right to resell it.

Submit your piece here. Select the “Submit Your Story” link on the left tool bar and follow the directions.

A Mother’s Day lament

Whose bright idea was it to place the Minnesota fishing opener on Mother’s Day weekend? I long for a lovingly prepared breakfast in bed, leisurely late church service, followed by a sumptuous 20-foot-long buffet enjoyed along with my adoring family.

Instead, I get a cold bed because Jack went fishing at three a.m. Breakfast is dry toast lovingly prepared by our kids, whom I have to hustle to church solo, while mediating the bickering over who gets to sit in the front seat (which in the era of air bags may not be such a prime location). My buffet consists of cheese and macaroni. When Jack’s gone, I don’t have to cook.

Some think Mother’s Day is just another opportunity for Hallmark to rake in the cash for sappy sentimental cards. Jack takes this view: “You’re not my mother. Why do I have to get you a card?” Perhaps to set a good example for our Jack Pine Savage saplings? Nonetheless, I am still expected to buy his mother a card.

I’d like to meet the bureaucrat in the upper echelons of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who thought he’d placate Minnesota mothers by tossing them a freebie. (Normally I’m a sucker for anything I don’t have to pay for — not this time.) “I know,” he said. “We’ll still put fishing opener on Mother’s Day weekend, but we’ll let all the little mothers fish free on Mother’s Day.” I wonder if his own mother is still speaking to him?

I’m sorry, but that’s like playing a carnival game and winning the cracked plastic bird whistle from under the counter, when you had your heart set on the five-foot, pink, stuffed panda hanging from the marquee.

Aren’t we worth the panda? Is one day of unadulterated worship too much to ask? Mothers are more than women who give birth to progeny. We’re the chief cooks and bottle-washers, the ones who stock up on toothpaste and toilet paper  — and most importantly, the finders of things invisible to any naked eye but our own.

I wish video technology had been invented when Jack and I got married. I’d play the vows backwards to discover the hidden message where I’d promised to love, honor and be “The Keeper of the Stuff.”

There is one person in every household who always knows where an item can be found on any given day. Nine times out of 10, it’s the mother. I’m not a neatnik with a blueprint for a brain, but I either know exactly where to find the warranty for the bug-zapper we bought five years ago, or I can tell you two alternate locations, one of which is sure to be paydirt.

“Where are my keys?” Jack hollers 30 seconds before going out the door.

“Where did you put them?” I reply in auto-replay mode. Does he think I take pleasure in hiding his stuff? Is there a sadistic joy in knowing he is totally dependent on my producing the keys so he won’t be late for work?

His voice rises to a frenzied pitch: “They’re not there.” I wearily walk over to the counter, move aside one of the scraps of paper that he’d deposited along with his keys, and voila, there they are.

“Just because they didn’t pop out and say ‘Here I am,’” I mutter, as he scoops them up and dashes out the door.

This pattern repeats itself with clothes on his side of the closet, “Where’s my plaid shirt?” and condiments in the refrigerator, “Have you seen the barbecue sauce?” My personal favorite is, “Who hid the TV remote?” (I did, of course. When my last afternoon soap opera was over, I shoved it into the bon-bon box and slid it under the couch.)

Being a fishing wife is trial enough. Don’t expect me to fish. I’m still trying to calculate how long I have to keep the leeches in the back of the refrigerator before I can justify throwing them out. Like leftovers, they’re never used again. They just take up valuable shelf space as they slowly grow fuzzy little sweaters.

Maybe this May, when the ice goes off the lake and his thoughts turn to jigs and lures, I can finally turn the whole situation to my advantage.

“Jackie, have you seen my tackle box?”

“Tackle box? Gee, dear, I don’t know. Where did you put it?”

— Jodi Schwen

Jodi Schwen’s humorous essays, Northern Comfort: The Musings of Jacqueline Pine Savage, have been published  in Minnesota’s Lake Country Journal, where she has been editor since 1999. Her credits include Guideposts and Minnesota Monthly magazine. She has written dramas and monologues, and presented workshops on journaling, creativity and “how to freelance.” In her “spare time,” she enjoys being an adjunct communications professor. Schwen once had a child in toilet training and one in driver’s training at the same time. Spare time? What’s that? Read her blog, “Northern Comfort,” here.

Listen to your mother

The Listen To Your Mother Reading Series this spring will feature more than 300 inspirational women in 24 cities across the United States, giving “Mother’s Day a Microphone.”

The Listen To Your Mother Reading Series is a unique national event that showcases moving, socially relevant and humorous stories about a range of modern mothering experiences. In each city, the series will feature local established writers and performers taking the stage with local first-time writers and performers as they share poignant personal essays in front of live audiences, making for an unforgettable experience and celebrating motherhood in a meaningful new way.

Some of the participants who will be performing include Stacy Morrison, editor-in-chief of and former editor-in-chief of Redbook; Adrian Culp, former vice president of TV development for Adam Sandler and Chelsea Handler; Liysa Callsen, who was raised by deaf parents and will sign her story; comedian Jaime Fernandez; and Barb Patrick, a mother from Newtown, Conn.

Born of the blogosphere and mothers who publish online, the Listen To Your Mother Reading Series is changing the way America celebrates Mother’s Day, one story at a time. Started in Madison, Wisc., in 2010 by humorist and blogger Ann Imig, it has evolved into an exciting national storytelling series. Every show’s process — from auditions to rehearsals to the final performances — are shared online via social media. Each show/city also donates 10 percent of all ticket proceeds to local nonprofit causes that support women and families in need. Last year the series took place in 10 cities.

The live-reading series features a number of Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop faculty and attendees. This year’s readers will include Tracy Beckerman, Nancy Davis Kho, Wendi Aarons, Marinka (Motherhood in New York), Amy Wilson, Yuliya Patsay and Karen King. Alexandra Rosa is producing and directing the show in Milwaukee. Founder Ann Imig’s 2012 EBWW roommate, Shari Simpson, is the assistant director for the New York show.

Past participants have included Anna Lefler, Lisa Page Rosenberg, Molly Campbell, Kyran Pittman, Jennifer Sutton, Missy Stevens and Alexandra Rosa.

The cities taking part this year are:

New York City (5 p.m., May 12, at Symphony Space)

Austin (7 p.m., May 9, at the University of Texas)

Boulder (7 p.m., May 12, at the Dairy Center for the Arts)

• Cedar Rapids (2 p.m., May 12, at Legion Arts)

• Chicago (2 p.m., May 5 at the Athenaeum Theatre)

• Denver (7 p.m., May 7, at the Elaine Wolf Theatre)

• Fayetteville, Ark. (7 p.m., May 30, at the Walton Arts Center)

• Indianapolis (7 p.m., May 2, at the Indiana Historical Society)

• Kansas City (7 p.m., May 11, at Unity Temple on the Plaza)

• Madison (3 p.m., May 12, at the Barrymore Theatre)

• Milwaukee (3 p.m., May 5, at the Wehr Hall at Alverno College)

• Lehi, Utah (7 p.m., May 9, at Thanksgiving Point)

• Oklahoma City (2 p.m., May 5, at the Will Rogers Theatre)

Plumas County, Calif. (7 p.m., May 15 at Plumas Arts)

• Providence (2 p.m., May 4, at the Providence Public Library)

• Raleigh (7:30 p.m., May 8, at William Peace University)

• Sacramento (7 p.m., May 12, at the Crest Theatre)

• San Francisco (7 p.m., May 12, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco)

• Spokane (7 p.m., May 12, at the Bing Crosby Theater)

• St. Louis (11 a.m. and 2 p.m., May 11, at St. Luke’s Hospital)

• Twin Cities (7 p.m., May 9, at the Riverview Theater)

• Valparaiso, Ind. (7 p.m., May 10, at the Memorial Opera House)

• Washington, D.C. (2 p.m., April 28, at the Synetic Theater)

• Wilmington, Delaware (6 p.m., May 12, at World Cafe Live)

For more information, click here. Videos from all the shows will be posted here during the summer.

Hot beach reads

The 2013 Beach Book Festival will hold a day festival on Saturday, June 22, at the Radisson Martinique on Broadway hotel for its annual event honoring the summer’s hottest reads in the world publishing capital.

Those interested in participating as a vendor or speaker should send a note to for more information. The day festival is free and open to the public.

The 2013 Beach Book Festival has also issued a call for entries for its annual awards spotlighting the hottest reads of the summer season.

The Beach Book Festival will consider self-published or independent publisher non-fiction, fiction, biography/autobiography, children’s books, teenage, how-to, science fiction, romance, comics, poetry, spiritual, compilations/anthologies, history, business and health-oriented books.

The grand prize for the 2013 Beach Book Festival is $1,500 cash and a flight to the event on June 21 at the Grolier Club in Manhattan, one of the world’s publishing landmarks.

Submitted works will be judged for general excellence, i.e., the potential of the work to be an engaging beach read this summer season. More information and registration available at Deadline for entry is May 25, 2013.

Heartbreak motel

In Mexico there is a significant difference between a “Hotel” and a “Motel.”

Without putting too fine a point on it, this distinction can be summarized as follows: the “H” in Hotel stands for Hospitality. The “M” in Motel stands for Paid Sex.

If only I had known this 18 years ago when, along with my wife and mother-in-law, I steered my truck through the entrance of what turned out to be a drive-in whorehouse. How did this happen? How did something as simple as a one-night sleepover in Guadalajara go so wrong? 

My wife and I were on our way home to Puerto Vallarta at the end of the first buying trip for our shop. To save money, Consuelo (Lucy’s mom) had flown into Guadalajara, instead of Vallarta. By the time we’d picked her up at the airport, it was too late to undertake the five-hour drive home, so we went in search of a place to spend the night.

The camper of our pickup was crammed full of the merchandise we’d  been collecting all summer, and we were a little leery of parking it anywhere but a highly secure location. After lunch in nearby Tlaquepaque, we’d asked around for a hotel with secure parking. A friendly man in a cowboy hat informed us that el Motel Melanie had the most secure parking in the area. And so, following his directions, off we went.

 The Motel Melanie had a gated entrance, manned by a security guard. Once he let us in, we drove halfway around a small circle until we were stopped by a woman dressed like a waitress. I told her we needed a room for three people.

“Señor,” she informed me politely, “this is a hotel de paso, not a hotel familiar.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

The woman glanced uneasily at my elderly mother-in-law (a devout Catholic) who was sitting beside me finishing up her fifth rosary of the day. “Señor,” the woman said, “in a hotel familiar, you pay by the day. In a hotel de paso, you pay for 12 hours at a time.”

Blinded by my urgent need for secure parking, I missed her meaning entirely. “That’s okay,” I said. “We’ll just pay for two 12-hour periods.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

 “As long as the room is clean, we’ll be fine.”

“The rooms are very clean, señor. We change the sheets various times a day.” She gave me a severe look and pointed her chin at my mother-in-law. Clueless, I shrugged my shoulders.

The parking turned out to be unbelievably secure. You actually got to park your vehicle in its own garage, behind a steel accordion curtain! Once parked, you climbed up a short flight of stairs to your room. So enamored was I with the parking, that I’d made up my mind and paid in advance before actually seeing the room, which was probably a mistake.

The room had the weakest lights I’d ever seen. I turned them all on, and the room was still dark. The bed was heart-shaped and covered in bright red bed imitation velveteen. And attached to the ceiling above the bed was a king-sized mirror.

Consuelo excused herself to use the restroom.

Lucy and I looked at the bed, the mirror and then at each other.

“Whoops,” I said.

“That woman,” Lucy recalled, “told us the TV only gets four stations.”

“Right,” I said, reaching for the remote, “we better check.”

Station number one appeared to be a “public affairs” channel and was showing a topless panel discussion. Station number two featured sports and currently displayed a nude mud wrestling match. Stations three and four appeared to be broadcasting non-stop XXX-rated smut.

“There’s something odd in the bathroom,” my mother-in-law said, rejoining us.

“What’s that, Mom?” I asked, hurriedly turning off the TV.

“There’s a metal bar in the middle of the bathroom, hanging from the ceiling. I wonder what it could be for.”

I poked my head into the bathroom. The bar was suspended at the ideal height for hanging someone by their wrists —n ot high enough to dislocate a shoulder, and not so low, you’d have to slouch. “Well, Mom,” I said, “to me it looks like one of those all-purpose hanging bars. You find them in the best hotels.”

“Oh,” she said. “Can we turn on the television?”

“TV’s on the fritz, Mom.”

“Well, then, maybe I’ll just take a nap.”

“Good idea.”

“Honey,” my wife said, “could I speak to you a minute?”

After surreptitiously unplugging the TV, I followed Lucy into the bathroom.

“We can’t stay here,” she whispered urgently. “If my mom catches on, she’ll have a stroke!”

“You’re right,” I said. “But this place is perfect for the truck. Houdini couldn’t break in here.”

“My mother,” Lucy whispered forcefully, “is not going to spend the night in a whorehouse!”

“Okay, honey, I’ve got an idea. I’ll stay here with the truck, and you get a taxi and take your mom to someplace more respectable.”

“Are you joking?”

“We must protect the merchandise at all costs,” I said.

“If I were you,” she said grimly, “I’d be more concerned with protecting my testicles.”

Then we heard the sound of the television, and a moment later Consuelo saying, “It was just unplugged.”

Diving for the outlet, I reached out, upending a lamp, got my hand on the plug, and yanked.

“I can’t believe,” I proclaimed piously, “the kind of filth they show at a respectable hotel nowadays!”

From then on everything went fine and somehow, after dinner, we all managed to get to sleep without incident. Until 4 a.m., when a knock sounded on the door, followed by a voice yelling, “Time’s up!”

“No, no, no!” I shouted from my makeshift bed on the floor, “I paid for two entire 12-hour shifts. Don’t do this to me! I’m in here with my mother-in-law, for God’s sake!”

 “Your mother-in-law?” the voice yelled. Shame on you!”

— Gil Gevins

Gil Gevins is the author of the hilarious best-seller, Puerto Vallarta on 49 Brain Cells a Day, and three other books.

Reflections of Erma