Why Are All the Characters Named Jack or Emma?

Years ago—decades, really—I bought a book called “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” published in 1991. I bought it not to name a child, but to name the characters in a story I was writing. I was in middle school in the early ’90s; yes, I’ve been writing forever.

I discovered “The Baby Name Personality Survey” at my then-beloved local bookstore, the Tudor Bookshop. In 2008, the Tudor closed it doors for the last time, citing “rent issues and the economics of independent bookselling.”

The Tudor sat at the corner of Wyoming Avenue, a main road in my Pennsylvania hometown, and East Union Street. Today on East Union Street, there’s a new-ish Italian bakery called AmberDonia, and whenever I’m “back home,” Stanton and I usually stop by here for a lunch of their Romeo and Juliet wood-fired pizza. To get to AmberDonia, we pass the old site of the Tudor.

Growing up, I loved the Tudor. I spent hours of my childhood browsing the titles on the bookshelves and poking through the display of charm bracelets, and corresponding charms, up front near the cash register. Back at my parents’ house, in my childhood bedroom, one of the dresser drawers (top left) still holds a charm bracelet from the Tudor.

If you’re a fan of “The Office,” there’s an episode (not sure which season, unfortunately) in which a coffee mug featuring the Tudor’s logo is on one of the characters’ desks. When I first saw that episode, I nearly burst with pride for my little bookstore, which was located about 20 miles from Scranton, the location of the fictional, Michael Scott-managed “Office.”

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Bookstores still stock baby-name books, but not “The Baby Name Personality Survey,” from what I can tell. It’s been years since I turned to “The Baby Name Personality Survey” myself. I did think of it the other day, though, as I worked on a story I’m writing.

I needed to name some new characters. They’re secondary characters, and I tend to give my secondary characters more original names than my primary ones. They’re not quite as essential, so more wiggle room exists for creativity (kind of like middle names).

I think this is true for a lot of authors. For example, the name Jack. How many main characters have you read whose name is Jack? “Jack” is relatable, an everyday guy, a “good guy.” Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books): Jack Ryan, Jack Taylor, Jack Irish.

Historically female names have a little flair, are a little more fun, are a little varied. While we won’t find a Mary or Emma, say, leading the action in 9 out of 10 plots (not like Jack), we probably will find a female protagonist with a similarly short-and-sweet, not-too-unique moniker: Olive (Kitteridge), Lisbeth (Salander), Eliza (Sommers). To be fair to all the Marys and Emmas out there, though, yours was the name of choice for the heroines in classics like “Mary Poppins” and “The Secret Garden,” as well as “Madame Bovary” and Jane Austen’s aptly titled “Emma.”

In my last published piece of fiction, my main character was Heidi.

Thus, Jack is everywhere, including headlining numerous TV shows (many of which are based on books)…

So I was working on this new story, and I needed to name some secondary characters. As I have for many years now, I turned to Nameberry, which bills itself as “the world’s biggest baby name database” (online, of course). Maybe you yourself used Nameberry as you prepared to welcome a child into your family (or, like me, tried your hand at fiction).

Nameberry is a fun website, and it easily can become a time suck and rabbit hole. Out of curiosity, you might click on the link “Vintage Baby Names.” Thirty minutes later, you find you’ve “Joined the Conversation” on “Unfortunate initials?” or “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn?”

OK, admit it: You have an opinion on “Katherine, Katharine, or Kathryn,” don’t you? 😉 No worries, friends; I do too. (Katharine.)

Thanks to Nameberry (with an assist from the Social Security Administration’s “Top names of the 1980s” list), I found what I needed for my story.

The majority of the characters in my story were born in the 1980s. I also was born in the 1980s. (Side note: Melissa comes in at No. 7 on that Social Security Administration list, after Jessica, Jennifer, Amanda, Ashley, Sarah and Stephanie. I’m a product of my time, friends. A product of my time.)

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself (for example, born in the same decade, generation cohort, etc.) is that readers sometimes think the character is the author. This is especially problematic if the author is the same sex as the character, or grew up in a similar setting as the character, or has the same job as the character.

I’ve never been the character in any of my stories, friends. I wasn’t Heidi, for example. I made up Heidi; Heidi is fictional. Experiences from my real life informed my development of the character Heidi, but Heidi does not equal Melissa Leddy, the author.

Still, there are folks who don’t believe authors when they try to explain this. That’s OK; that’s just how it goes.

Because of this issue, though, I try to make all my characters different enough from myself so that people don’t say, “You were Heidi, right?” when they read my work. I also would never name any of my characters Melissa, even if it would fit the story. For an ’80s-bred female character, it’s easy enough to simply go with Jessica or Nicole (No. 8 of the ’80s, according to the Social Security Administration).

Now, a problem an author has with creating a character who shares similarities to him- or herself … is that readers sometimes think the character is the author.

My children are going back to school, very soon. We’re all excited about this…and we also know it’s possible (probable?) that school will need to close again and go remote again, at some point. And at this point, the girls will be back home with me.

My goal, then, is to finish this story before that happens. Finish it, and then get it accepted for publication somewhere. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I would love to get it published somewhere big.

For the moment, however, it’s a work in progress—all of it, from my story to back-to-school plans.

I’m sure there will be a plot twist or two. Conflict, of course. Always some conflict. And somehow, in some way, things will wrap up; “The End.”

Every good storyteller knows the ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it has to be satisfying. Maybe Jack or Emma didn’t get what they wanted—or what they thought they wanted—but there was a journey, there was growth, there was change.

Change for the better we always hope, in both stories and real life.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

Almost Normal

Last week felt almost normal. On Monday morning, I went to the dentist. My appointment originally had been scheduled for mid-March, but, like myriad other early-spring plans, had been pushed back because of the pandemic.

“Would it be OK if I brought my two daughters with me?” I had asked beforehand. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get a babysitter for 8 a.m. that day.”

The receptionist, also a mom, had said, “No problem, I completely understand.” She asked, though, that the girls wear masks.

Masks? Of course, I’d replied. Face masks have become part of the “things” we pack up as we’re leaving the house.

Wallet, phone, keys, masks? Check, check, check, check, ready to go.

Face masks have become part of the “things…”

Many more buildings and businesses have reopened here in the Capital Region of New York, which is encouraging to see. On Tuesday, the girls and I drove over to Stuyvesant Plaza. Our main destination: Stride Rite for new sneakers for the girls.

The outdoor shopping village featured more benches than I remembered—in an effort to facilitate alfresco social distancing, I guessed—and the flowers in the omnipresent hanging baskets were in full bloom.

“This is awesome!” Grace and Anna cheered. They were delighted to be somewhere other than our backyard or the local bike path. I was too (dentists’ offices usually aren’t that much fun, even in the best of times).

The three of us wore our masks into Stride Rite, and used the complimentary hand sanitizer upon entering.

Everywhere we went, we discovered, had hand sanitizer abundantly available. Meanwhile, everyone we chatted with, from store employees to other customers, was friendly and patient. It seemed as though folks were glad to be out and about again, while respecting the value in sanitizing and social distancing.

After the girls decided on their sneakers, we picked up a book of stamps at the post office and then stopped at Starbucks for coffee (me) and sweets (the girls). The three of us arrived just in time to grab the last remaining table outside.

It felt like a win, friends. #littlethings

…the flowers in the omnipresent hanging baskets were in full bloom.

Later, I needed to call our bank. During the call, the customer service representative asked if I would update some information.

Sure, I said. First, I verified Stanton’s and my email addresses.

Next, the woman asked my occupation.

I paused. “Hmm…”

“Homemaker, or unemployed?” she helpfully suggested.

Are those the only two options? I wondered. “I’m a contract writer/editor for a college,” I said, “but they haven’t needed me for a few months.”

“OK, so…”

“Right, so…” I don’t know what the customer service rep filled in for my occupation. It shouldn’t have seemed like a trick question. In this time of widespread layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions, however, it was.

“Next time, just say ‘writer,'” Stanton said later. “You are a writer, Mel.”

I really can’t express the gratitude I feel for my husband’s (my best friend’s) respect for my writing, despite its current state of diminished paychecks, and lack of Pulitzer Prizes. ❤

Are those the only two options? I wondered.

Crazily enough—or maybe not so crazily enough—this pandemic and its accompanying repercussions (stay-at-home safety measures, overwhelming news reports, etc.) have given me the time and space to work on some fiction writing.

Many an afternoon, I glance at Google News so that I have a general sense of what in the world is going on in the world. Then I set my phone aside and, while the girls are playing in their inflatable pool—arguably the best $99 I ever spent—I write in a notebook with a pen, old school style.

The notebook I’m currently using started out as Grace’s. It has doughnuts on the cover (all shapes, sizes and colors) and 60 sheets inside, the first handful of which feature drawings Grace did in both pencil and crayon. The drawings are very good, and I didn’t mean to poach my 8-year-old’s notebook. I had filled up another one, though (one of my own), and the doughnuts one just happened to be right there, when I needed a notebook.

Grace said it was OK.

You see, if I use my laptop to write, it’s too easy for me to break away from Microsoft Word and begin clicking on websites. Same with my phone. Then before I know it, I’ve spiraled down an online rabbit hole of information overload (and anxiety), or selected “Place Order” for another picture frame, throw pillow or other home decor item that we really don’t need (even though “Up to 50% Off Everything AND Free Shipping!!”).

Note to self: Beware of multiple exclamation points in advertising copy.

😉

Thus…in this time of supercharged video conferencing, remote communication apps and technological prowess, I am retreating (regressing?) from my devices in favor of a doughnuts notebook and ballpoint pen…at least momentarily.

I have found when I write like this, pen to paper, writing in my own hand, that I am very much in the moment, in the zone, with the story. Writing fiction right now, also, has been wonderfully refreshing escapism. And who knows—the end result may even be something some folks will want to publish, and other folks will want to read.

If so, I’ve already decided: We’ll celebrate with doughnuts.

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Speaking of doughnuts (and why not keep speaking of doughnuts?)… Last Thursday, the girls and I went to Indian Ladder Farms, our first time there this whole year, I think.

Grace and Anna stuffed their pockets with quarters. Once we arrived, they cranked their bounty into the animal-food machines, cupping their hands underneath as the food flowed out. The girls fed some goats while I snapped the obligatory pictures for our summer-fun family photo album.

After running out of quarters, the three of us walked over to the market. Inside, we bought a half dozen of Indian Ladder Farms’ regionally famous apple cider doughnuts (yes, we’d like the ones with the sugar on top), as well as a large Jamaican Me Crazy coffee for, mm-hmm, yours truly. “I have not had this coffee in so long,” I told the lovely lady behind the counter.

She smiled and told us to enjoy.

Indian Ladder Farms is a century-old agritourism site, located in a space of breathtaking natural beauty. I had been concerned about its sustainability during this difficult time, but was encouraged to see about 20 new picnic tables that had been dispensed outside the market, inviting folks to enjoy their market fare outdoors, or carry out takeout from the adjoining Yellow Rock Café (indoor dining is currently unavailable). So many local businesses are making huge efforts to safely serve their customers, and I hope they all come out OK and possibly even better than before.

As always, the apple cider doughnuts did not disappoint, and I drank every last drop of my Jamaican Me Crazy.

Speaking of doughnuts (and why not keep speaking of doughnuts?)…

It’s been good to begin feeling “almost normal” again. There’s still a long way to go, of course, and there’s also no going back. Moving forward, things will be/stay different. But really, I have no idea what’s going to happen.

In addition to forgoing my laptop in favor of a doughnuts notebook, I’ve been trying to be—cliché alert!—present. I’ve been making an effort to really be in each moment, to look my daughters in the eye when we’re together and be there, and most of all, to take each day as it comes and not get too bogged down with what might happen a few weeks out, a few months out, the rest of our life.

For me, it’s been helpful to center on one day, only. Today.

Today, I can get up. I can get moving. I can make my girls breakfast (and then a snack half an hour later). 😉

Today, I need to do these three things. I can do that, today.

I can handle today, what is right here in front of me today.

…I’ve been trying to be—cliché alert!—present.

Yesterday, I was in the backyard with the girls. They had been swimming, but were taking a break in chairs near the pool. Earlier, I had brought out two bottles of Gatorade and a box of Ritz crackers for them to share while I wrote nearby (doughnuts notebook and pen: check!).

“We’re probably going to eat this whole box of crackers, Mom,” Grace said, ripping apart another sleeve.

“And drink all the Gatorade,” Anna added, guzzling from her bottle.

I kept scribbling in my notebook, not completely paying attention. “OK, girls.”

The girls began laughing triumphantly. “Oh, my gosh! The whole box of crackers and all the Gatorade!”

Now I looked up and started laughing too. “OK, just…just hang on a minute.”

It was a normal moment. We were in the backyard, livin’ large on Ritz crackers and Gatorade, inflatable pool nearby. But when I looked up from what I was doing, looked up and joined my daughters in that present moment…it was beautiful, and felt almost holy to me.

To be together. To be there.

Cheers to TODAY.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

To Love and Funny Moments: A Toast for All Occasions

In all our years of being married, I don’t think Stanton has ever written a grocery list. Never started one, rarely contributed to one. This isn’t a criticism, friends, just a fact.

Food: In our relationship, it’s my thing, I guess. Kind of like how, say, pest control is his. We all have our interests and skill sets.

The other day, I started a grocery list. Mayonnaise, wine/beer, I wrote. Then I put it aside.

Later, when I returned to add to the list, I blinked. Now there was a third bullet point, featuring handwriting not my own, stating hot sauce.

I started laughing, somewhat maniacally (this is what weeks of social distancing can do to a person). Nearby, Grace smiled and said, “What, Mom?”

I held up the list. “Dad.”

Grace squinted at Stanton’s neat, precise penmanship. “Hot sauce?”

“Dad never writes grocery lists,” I explained. “So for him to do this, he really wanted hot sauce. If, God forbid, we had to be quarantined…Dad didn’t want to do it without hot sauce.”

Canned goods? Tylenol? People-can’t-get-enough-of-it toilet paper?

Uh-uh. Not even in the ballpark, friends. If the Leddy family finds itself quarantined, what we’ll have stockpiled is, that’s right, hot sauce.

As well as mayonnaise, wine and beer. #prepared 😉

I started laughing, somewhat maniacally (this is what weeks of social distancing can do to a person).

Stanton and I celebrated our 12th anniversary earlier this week. Grace and Anna very sweetly surprised us with decorations and party hats for breakfast. (If we’re connected on Facebook, then you might know this because of the picture I posted. 🙂 ) We had a different celebration than originally planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic of course. It was a very sweet anniversary, though, and I genuinely loved it.

For dinner that evening, Stanton and I ordered takeout from a local Thai restaurant we’d been meaning to try for a while. We ate in the breakfast nook with the girls. It was, simply, very sweet.

I asked Stanton to make a toast. The four of us raised our glasses.

“To love,” Stanton said. “And happy moments—we’ve had lots of those. And you know…” He paused, smiled. “We’ve had some funny ones too.”

The girls laughed. I thought about the hot sauce (and a few other things) and laughed too.

“To love and funny moments,” I said, clinking my glass with the three others surrounding it.

A good anniversary toast, and everyday-family-dinner toast too.

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A couple of days ago, my sister emailed me the link to John Krasinski’s new “Some Good News” YouTube show. Stanton and I watched it together. Totally loved it.

If you’ve been reading my writing for any length of time, then you probably know I’m also all about “some good news.” Thus, a disclaimer: This post is, like all my others, fairly light. There’s positive energy, even during difficult times.

I understand that this brand of creative nonfiction doesn’t jibe with everyone, especially now. I get that. So if, like John Krasinski’s, my glass-half-full perspective causes your eyes to instinctively roll and your index finger to automatically reload the CDC or NPR website for the latest COVID-19 updates…I get that, I do.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to take a moment, take a breath…then maybe keep reading here.

There’s positive energy, even during difficult times.

Something I’ve started to do, which I haven’t done since becoming a mom, is…locking the bathroom door. Yes, this is my new normal. Why, you may ask?

Here’s why, friends: Zoom meetings.

Toilet paper shortages and Zoom: These are two of the things we’ll most clearly remember, years from now. I’m convinced of this.

Both Grace and Anna have been “meeting” with their classes through Zoom. Also, Google Meet. Whatever the platform, however, there often are technical difficulties.

“Mom!” Grace will jump up from the couch, laptop in hand, looking for me. “I can’t un-mute my microphone! People can SEE me, but they can’t HEAR me!”

A few times (for instance, yesterday morning), I’ve been in the process of finishing getting dressed. Exactly: not yet fully clothed. A few times, then, I’ve had a mini panic attack. My daughters’ classmates—and their parents, who are un-muting their microphones—are going to get to know me on a whole other level. Aaagghhh.

Thus, after an eight-year hiatus, I once again lock the bathroom door.

Toilet paper shortages and Zoom: These are two of the things we’ll most clearly remember…

This past weekend, Stanton and I converted our guest bedroom into a home office. Previously, Stanton would catch up on work at the desk in our room. His “work at home” has increased, though, and I wanted our room to feel more like a personal, peaceful space again, and less like a corporate headquarters.

Stanton disassembled the guest bed. He moved all the pieces, plus the mattress and box spring, to the basement. Then he moved the desk into the former guest bedroom/current home office (after also disassembling and then reassembling the desk, once realizing it was too wide to fit through various doorways).

The furniture rearranging revealed dust bunnies galore, as well as dusty flooring that the girls immediately wrote their names across and drew smiley faces into.

“Please let me just clean this up,” I said, in between dust-bunny-triggered sneezes.

Fun times, friends. Fun times.

The desk Stanton’s using now, actually, is my desk. It literally is called a writing desk, designed for writing, and resembles this one. I found my desk not at Pottery Barn, though, but a used furniture shop. Vintage, you know. 😉 What can I say, I love a good bargain.

Although I love my (writing) desk, I usually write and work in our family room, at the rectangular table in the dining space. I like to be in the mix of things; I get good energy here. So it made perfect sense to furnish Stanton’s new home office with my desk.

But that day, I looked at my desk…and I felt a twinge in my heart. The majority of my work and writing projects are on hold for the moment, and I understand why, 100 percent. I understand, and it’s OK. Looking at my writing desk, though, it was as if I were seeing, physically, another pause in my path as a writer.

When this global pause passes, one thing I’ll welcome back, happily, is the ability to tell more stories again.

…dusty flooring that the girls immediately wrote their names across and drew smiley faces into.

Like many others, our family is spending lots more time at home now. Lots. The girls have been riding their bikes and scooters around the neighborhood, on the nearby Rail Trail, all over.

“I hope we’re not making too much noise,” I recently called over to my next-door neighbor on the right, a retired gentleman.

He smiled. “No, it’s nice to hear some noise.”

I’ve seen and chatted with so many of my neighbors so much these past few weeks, and it’s been really nice. It’s also been really funny at times.

My other next-door neighbor, on the left, celebrated her birthday yesterday. “Happy birthday!” I said, and then mentioned my birthday was soon too. Her wife’s birthday was the day after mine, she replied.

“So many April birthdays! Wait a minute.” I shook my head, remembering. “That’s right—we had this conversation last year.” And I kind of think we had the same conversation the year before that too.

All good, friends, all good. My oldest friends and I joke that we, too, have been having the same handful of conversations over and over again, across 30+ years. Some things don’t change, and they don’t get old either.

“…it’s nice to hear some noise.”

I’m no John Krasinski, but I am curious: What’s your good news? What’s going on in your life that’s made you smile lately?

Here are some of my things:

1.) I started playing the piano again. I took lessons when I was younger, but stopped sometime in high school and haven’t played much since. Grace has been taking piano lessons for two years now, but we’re taking a break because her music studio is closed, currently.

So I’ve been helping Grace with the songs from her lesson book, and enjoying playing them myself too. The girls get a kick out of hearing me tap out single notes at a time, with a chord thrown in every now and then. I’m not breaking out the “Moonlight Sonata” or anything like that, but it’s been fun.

2.) A very sweet friend kindly dropped off a six-pack of cupcakes from my favorite local coffee shop/bakery. It was the sweetest surprise. Ironically, I had driven past Perfect Blend the night before, on my way home from grocery shopping, and thought to myself, Man, I really miss going there. This gesture, then, truly touched my heart.

3.) Around the same time as this cupcake surprise, another sweet friend texted me with a question regarding a technical difficulty. Amazingly, I knew how to help answer this question. I believe this was the first time in my life I’ve ever known the answer to an IT-related question, so…not only is that some good news, it’s also record-breaking.

To sum it all up… We have answers to questions (as well as technical difficulties). We have cupcakes. We don’t have the “Moonlight Sonata,” but we have music nonetheless.

And we have hot sauce. We will, in fact, always have hot sauce.

Cheers. ❤

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

Birthday Party: A Short Story

The rain drip-dropped on the windshield, slow but relentless. Inside the Corolla, in the passenger seat, Alex slurped the last of her latte.

Behind the wheel, Caroline smiled. “Nice milk mustache you’ve got there.”

“I do?”

Mm-hmm.” Caroline rummaged through the center console, found a napkin. She held it out to Alex.

Alex folded her own hand over Caroline’s. Looked at her. Gently, Caroline pulled her hand back. The napkin fluttered back onto the console, between them. Alex rubbed at the milk mustache she couldn’t see, but was there.

“Alex…I’m sorry, I can’t.”

“Fine.” Alex kept rubbing. The skin above her lip started to hurt.

Caroline folded her hands together on her seersucker skirt. “I’m sorry.”

“I said it’s fine.” Alex began tapping the empty Styrofoam cup against her leg.

“I’m still figuring things out…you said you are too…”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Tap, tap, tap. “Just forget it.”

Caroline took the cup. “Let’s talk, OK? We always have good conversations. Come on.”

Alex thrust open the door. She didn’t have an umbrella, or a hood. The spray of rain on her face was cold, but felt good.

“Alex!”

“I have to go. My sister’s birthday party, I told you.”

“I know, I’ll drive you.” Caroline leaned over, and bumped the Lot A Student Parking Permit hanging from the rearview mirror. The plastic tag seesawed in rhythm with the rain.

In response, Alex slammed the door shut. She strode to the gazebo near the parking lot. Its weathered pine wood held years’ worth of lovers’ histories, pairs of initials carved into nearly every surface.

Alex blinked.

She fished out her phone, thumbed the Uber app. She kept her head bowed, but still saw when Caroline finally drove away.

She sniffled, wiped her nose on the back of her denim jacket. Drip-drop, drip-drip. The rain didn’t let up.

About half an hour later, Alex trudged toward the stoop of her parents’ house. Her mother had taped a neon-pink poster board announcing, “Happy Birthday, Maggie!” to the front door, as if her sister were celebrating her first birthday instead of thirty-first. There was glitter.

Alex hated glitter.

She walked inside, and tripped over a pile of wet shoes. Alex kicked off her own, adding the checkerboard-printed Vans to the pile.

“Hey, honey, we’ve been worried about you.”

Robert MacDonald joined her in the foyer. He wore a cone hat the same shade of neon pink as the front-door sign. It clashed with his striped sweater vest.

For the record, I’m not putting one of those hats on.

Robert shook his head. “I was by the campus, I could have picked you up. I called you, even texted you…”

“I was in a meeting. My writing tutor.” Alex cleared her throat. “I took an Uber over.”

“Your mother and I don’t think those are safe.”

“Well, if you would let me have my own car on campus…”

Ah, this conversation again.” Maggie joined them, holding a glass of wine.

Alex hugged her. “Happy birthday. Why didn’t you and Mitchell make a reservation somewhere, just the two of you?“

Maggie smiled. “We thought about it, but…you know Mom.”

Yep. “Where’s the booze?”

Robert trailed after them toward the kitchen. “This isn’t some fraternity party, Alex.”

Alex looked at her sister, and they both laughed. “I know, Dad.”

In the kitchen, their mother peered up from behind her oversized tortoise-shell glasses. “Alex, I said six, sharp.” Susan stirred at the wok, hissing on the stovetop.

The sweet-sharp scent of madras curry wafted from the kitchen to the adjoining den. Alex gagged. “Maggie picked Indian?”

Well, she wanted my chicken potpie…”

“My favorite,” Maggie interjected, handing Alex her own glass of wine.

“But,” Susan continued, spooning rice into a bowl, “I saw this recipe in the paper and had to try it.” Hiss. Susan snapped off the burner.

Alex glanced back at Robert, who had settled into his recliner in the den, returning to whatever he was watching on TV—a World War II documentary, it looked like. “You and Dad are the only people on earth who read the paper. Like, the actual paper.”

“Actually, not true, Alex.” Mitchell appeared, along with her brother, Bobby. “My stepfather’s subscribed to The Wall Street Journal for years.”

Alex just looked at him. Mitchell adjusted his cone hat (of course he had put one on), then retreated to the den. Bobby lightly punched her shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“School sucks. I forgot Maggie’s present in my dorm. What about you?”

Bobby drummed his fingers against the island. “Let’s see. Work sucks, and I forgot Mags’s present at my house.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “You guys didn’t have to get me anything.”

Bobby smirked. “I didn’t. Juno did.”

“And you couldn’t even remember to bring it.” Maggie smirked back. “Impressive.”

Alex tried the wine. It was white, and tasted like water. “Wheres Juno?”

“Oh.” Bobby waved his hand. “Something with work.”

The sisters exchanged a glance. “Juno doesn’t like us,” Alex said. “Just admit it.”

“No, that’s not true…” Bobby cleared his throat, glanced at the documentary in the den. His body language said, Yes.

Susan approached their huddle at the island. She hugged her right arm around Maggie’s back. “I’m glad we’re all together.”

Alex set down her glass.

“Thirty-one years, gosh.” Susan pulled off her glasses and dabbed at her eyes.

Oh, Mom.” Maggie patted her arm.

“I’m sorry to be sentimental, but…” Susan pushed her glasses back on. “You’ll understand, when you have children of your own.”

Maggie paused. “If dinner’s ready, why don’t we eat?”

“Yes, everything’s ready. Robert, turn off the TV!”

The MacDonalds had bought their home three decades ago, an old, classic Cape Cod with all the accompanying character and coziness (or confined spaces, depending on one’s perspective). The two of them, along with their three children and Mitchell, squeezed around the mahogany table in the dining room. Susan had adorned the circular surface with a mason jar of flowers, and splash of neon-pink confetti.

No plates, though.

“Bobby, grab some, will you?” Susan began pointing to the various serving bowls and platters. “Rice. The curried chicken, and you can garnish it with the cilantro and sliced almonds. I heated the naan with olive oil and sea salt…”

Mitchell rubbed his hands together. “Everything looks great, Susan. And this was your first time preparing this dish? Unbelievable.”


“Oh, stop.” But Susan glowed.

Alex picked at a piece of confetti. “Mom.”

“Yes, honey?”

Any Hot Pockets in the freezer?”

Susan ignored her. Bobby returned with an armful of plates, and everyone began reaching for food. Alex filled her plate with rice and almonds.

Mitchell kissed Maggie. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

“Happy birthday, sis,” Bobby chimed in.

Maggie smiled around the table. She wore a sleeveless white lace top, and her long, dark brown hair lay in a loose side ponytail across her left chest. “Thank you, everyone. And thanks for being here.”

Robert smiled back, adjusted the cone hat on his head. “We love you, honey.”

Alex speared some rice.

After dinner, there was cake, and presents—the ones that had been remembered.

“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have!” Maggie clutched a thick bracelet, its smattering of precious gemstones sparkling in the light. Again, Mitchell kissed her, his cone hat bopping against her forehead. Bobby checked the time on his watch, while Susan oohed and aahed over the bracelet.

Alex slipped to the kitchen. She squatted down and opened the wine refrigerator, in search of a red. Aha, an open Pinot Noir—her lucky night. She poured the rest of the bottle into a neon-pink plastic cup. Took a long sip. Breathed.

Her sister’s sudden appearance in the kitchen startled Alex. Maggie wiped a hand across her face. Her new bracelet kept sparkling.

“Maggie?”

Maggie gasped. “Alex.” Tears had gathered in her eyes, their shine matching that of the bracelet.

“Mags, what’s wrong?”

Maggie cleared her throat. “Nothing.”

Alex set down the cup. “You can tell me…”

No, everything’s fine.” But Maggie was shaking her head. She grabbed the empty wine bottle. “I’ll recycle this; be right back.” She hurried outside, just as their brother entered the kitchen, holding a half-full serving bowl of curried chicken and some plates. Why hadn’t Mom just made the chicken potpie?

“What’s Mags doing?”

Alex paused. “Recycling.”

Bobby unburdened his full hands by the sink. He glanced back at Alex. “I have to take off. Want a ride back?”

Alex nodded. She finished her red wine in a few more gulps.

By the front door, Susan hugged them goodbye. “Tell Juno we missed her,” she told Bobby. “Dad and I will add more money to your debit card,” she added to Alex. Robert waved from the den; the documentary was back on.

Alex sighed, opened the door. “Thanks.” She wasn’t thinking about her debit card, hadn’t even brought it up.

But the rain had stopped.

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Bobby started the car. The radio station was tuned in to a football game; Bobby turned the volume up. They careened through a puddle. Alex’s stomach did a cartwheel; she winced.

After Bobby drove through the campus entrance, he slowed down. “Do you want to go to your dorm, or…?”

“Dorm’s good.” Alex pointed. “That way.”

Bobby maneuvered slowly along a winding road, flanked on both sides by residence halls. Alex’s came into view. She started to gesture, but then gasped. On a pine bench in the front sat Caroline. Her stomach began cartwheeling again. “No, don’t—drive that way, drive away.”

“What?”

“Bobby, please.” Caroline looked their way, and she and Alex made eye contact through the passenger window. “Drive away, that way.”

Bobby kept driving along the winding road, until they were away from her dorm, and away from Caroline. Alex clutched her stomach, exhaled…gagged. “I don’t feel good.”

Huh?”


“I have to throw up.” She opened her door. Bobby was still driving—he ground to a stop, and Alex lurched out, onto a patch of lawn. She leaned over, threw up.
She saw pieces of almonds in the wet grass.

Her throat burned. Alex wiped her hand across her mouth. She glanced around. It was a Friday night, a little after nine o’clock, and hardly anyone was around now. Most people were getting ready to go out, and if anyone had seen her…well, she would just look like the typical dumb college kid who had pregamed too hard and gotten sick.

“Are you OK?”

Bobby was beside her now. Alex cleared her throat. “Yeah, I just didn’t feel good…”

You drink too much, or too fast? Or was it the curry?

She hadn’t had the curry

Bobby was looking at her. “What’s going on?”

“What?”

“What’s wrong, Alex?”

She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket. She gazed out into the night, then back at her brother. The way he was looking at her, waiting—she wondered if he already knew, or understood. She had read (online) that sometimes people did.

“Shouldn’t you go home, be with Juno?” she asked instead.

Bobby paused. “Juno and I—things probably aren’t going to work out with us.”

Alex blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“Yeah…” Bobby zipped up his gray fleece jacket. “She’s been staying at her mom’s for a couple months now.” He met her gaze, shrugged, then nodded.

“What happened?”

“Well…I don’t really want to get into it, but…basically, it’s my fault.” Bobby paused, reconsidered. “Mostly my fault.”

“I’m sorry, Bobby.” Alex sidestepped the almond-specked vomit on the lawn to give him a light hug.

He hugged her backtighter than she had hugged him. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”

They let each other go, and Alex looked at him, still wondering but more certain. “Um…have you told anyone else yet? Mom and Dad?”

Bobby smiled slightly. “No, but I have to. Juno told me Mom’s been texting her about a girls’ night out…”


“Ugh, she’s been texting Mags and me about that too.” Alex did not do girls’ night out.

“I’ll tell them soon, and Maggie too.”

“Something’s going on with Maggie.” Alex’s hair blew in the wind. “I tried talking with her about it, but…”

Bobby toed his boot in the mud.

You know what’s going on?”

Bobby paused. “I don’t know anything for sure.”

That made two of them.

From behind Bobby, a figure appeared near the road. Alex would have recognized the tall red rain boots anywhere. Caroline walked over to them.

“Hey.”

Alex nodded.

Caroline stuck her hand out to Bobby. “You and Alex look related.”

“Brother,” Bobby confirmed, shaking her hand. “Bobby MacDonald.”

“Caroline Shelburne. We go to school together.”

Bobby looked at Alex. “Do you want me to stick around, or…?”

Alex glanced at Caroline. “No...it’s OK.”

Bobby glanced from her to Caroline. “OK, well…call me if you want. It’s just me at home.”

OK.”

Caroline waved goodbye. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Bobby lumbered back to his car, then drove away.

Part of Alex wished she was in the passenger seat again. Another part of her wanted a toothbrush.

“So.” Caroline nodded toward a nearby pine bench. They were everywhere. “Can we talk?”

A third part of Alex needed to talk. So she said yes.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books on Amazon.com. Short fiction and creative nonfiction writing that’s engaging, witty and from the heart.

Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art

The chrome escalator wound up three floors. On the third floor, Tinseltown-inspired red carpet flowed forward, toward the hallway of smaller theaters. Life-size posters of the latest blockbusters and box-office bombs lined the walls: “Toy Story 4,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Men in Black International.”

Stanton and I had come to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s newest film. The last time we had seen a movie in a movie theater together was—shake your head if you must, friends—more than four years ago. Little kids, work, Saturday-morning soccer games, visits with family and friends…all good things, but movie-theater date night had tumbled toward the bottom of our list of priorities, right there with meticulous personal grooming. 😉

I shared all this with the bespectacled young woman at the ticket counter. “The next time we’re here, it will probably be four years later,” I added. She smiled politely, and slid our two admission tickets across the counter.

“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Stanton said, as we walked away hand in hand. The pervasive, ultra-buttery scent of movie-theater popcorn seemed to fall into step with us.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers,” I agreed. Then I gasped. “Maybe a title for a blog post?”

“Mel, no.” Stanton gestured around—just a regular day in our life. “This is not a blog post.”

Instantly, we looked at each other, eyes wide. Stanton smiled, sighed. “OK, that’s a good title.”

And it was, until Grace and Anna told me they liked “Once Upon a Time: On Life/Art” better.

“I can’t help telling stories to strangers…”

I try to update this, my website, with new writing (in the form of blog posts) at least twice a month. I’m always working on longer pieces behind the scenes…er, screen. These pieces take more time, though: fiction such as short stories, nonfiction like corporate press releases. I want to keep my site as fresh as possible, which Stanton knows. Thus, he knows that I often “think in blog posts.” What a cool quote, cool launching pad for my next post.

I don’t want to exploit my life for my art. It’s a common dilemma among writers, musicians and artists of all kinds. Personal experiences spark creative turns in our professional work. An aha moment hits us, and we try to create something from it without debauching the beauty of our real world.

Of course, truth is stranger than fiction. No doubt. The conscientious writers among us, however, recognize that some stories aren’t ours to tell, no matter how much we camouflage the identifying details of our characters. (We also balk at starting family feuds, or being banished from friends’ speed dials.)

Sometimes, I wonder how many bestselling plots and million-dollar lyrics never saw the light of day (or pages of The New York Times Book Review or Billboard Hot 100).

There’s art, and there’s life.

Then there’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

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I’m not a film critic, so I won’t share an amateur-hour movie review here. All I’ll say is wow. Talk about conflating life and art—this quasi-historical, pop-culture fairy tale centers on Sharon Tate and the Manson Family murders, with a twist…actually, several twists. Totally engaging plot, complicated yet relatable characters, and white-hot, feels-like-L.A. lighting.

And oh, yes…Brad Pitt. Wow again. Wow for both churning out a super-cool yet charming performance and—sigh—still looking mighty fine at age 55.

For our first Valentine’s Day together, back in college, Stanton gave me a “Fight Club” poster featuring Mr. Pitt in all his shirtless, prime-of-life glory—pretty super-cool and charming of Mr. Leddy himself, I’d thought. My college boyfriend turned standing Friday-night date knew I was a fan of the two-time Sexiest Man Alive, as well as “Fight Club.” (I’m not a rom-com girl, which often surprises people. Give me David Fincher, QT, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson any day…although, like everyone else, I do enjoy Nancy Meyers features for the interior design inspirations.)

Coincidentally, this past weekend I stumbled upon an old photo album from college. And there, in the album, was a picture of my very first, freshman-year dorm room. And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

That was 17 years ago, and it felt like yesterday.

Seventeen years. How did that happen?

And there, in that picture, was the “Fight Club” poster on the wall.

I believe very strongly in living in the present, making the most of the here and now. From time to time, though, I can be sentimental. I can have a moment of nostalgia.

I had a moment then, friends.

I flipped through a few more pictures. Smiled at the late-teen/early-20s faces of some wonderful college friends, who grew up to become wonderful life friends.

There was another picture, of myself with a good friend who passed away much too soon. He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

This person actually introduced Stanton to me, and meant a lot to us both individually and as a couple.

I held the picture out to Stanton. He looked, and gave me a little smile. Half happy (for the memory) and half sad (because we’d never again have more than that).

“We were all so young and happy,” I said.

“Yes.”

He had his arm around me, and we were both laughing, the carefree moment freeze-framed forever.

The girls and I were at our town library three days in a row this week. It just kind of happened; there was no grand plan. One day, we returned an overdue DVD; another, we stopped by after playing at a nearby park (and stumbled upon an outdoor concert on the green, complete with complimentary popcorn and temporary tattoos for the kids).

The girls marveled at our good luck. We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The guitarist was strumming the chords to “Edelweiss,” from the classic motion picture “The Sound of Music,” and singing along, the lyrics coasting across the library green: “Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…”

I said hello to a librarian I know, and mentioned that we often ended up at the library.

“It’s not a bad place to be,” she replied with a smile.

I smiled back. “Totally agree.” (I knew I’d put it in a blog post.)

Where do we end up? What are we doing? How does it all happen?

These can be hard questions, but at least one answer is easy: It all happens fast.

We are lucky, I agreed. And not just for the tattoos and popcorn and music.

The girls go back to school after Labor Day. “Summer went fast,” Grace noted. “I remember the first day of summer vacation.”

Tell me about it, girl. I mean…I remember college. I remember my “Fight Club” poster; I remember 17 years ago.

Once upon a time, we were all so young and happy.

I’ve had some dark days, but overall, I am happy. And incredibly grateful. Not as young as I used to be, though.

I wrote much of this post freehand, old-school in a notebook with a pen, at a park this week, while the girls were playing. It was a picture-perfect summer day, and I did snap some memories. As I did, a quote crossed my mind, and it beautifully sums up the message I’d like to share today:

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” (Gerard Way)

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Mom, Stinky Is NOT a Good Nickname

A sign of your closeness to someone else often is a nickname you have for them. These terms of endearment range from the classic (dear, darling, love) to the more creative (boo) to the downright delicious (honey, sugar, sweetie pie).

The ones we love best, we rarely call by their given names. This is based on my personal experience, anyway. I love my husband’s unique first name (Stanton), but hardly ever address him with it, instead using the shortened form “Stan”…and some other pet names that I won’t embarrass him with by sharing here.

Both our daughters’ names are deeply meaningful to us. Still, I usually shorten the already-short and sweet “Grace” to “G” when I greet my older daughter. We call Grace “Gracers” too. I’m not sure how this silly but affectionate habit started. And I have no clue when or why I began calling my younger daughter, Anna, “Stinky,” which may be as silly as you can get.

The other day, I overheard another mom call her daughter “Turkey.” I had never heard that one before, and it made me smile. The mom told me that, like “Stinky,” “Turkey” just kind of happened…and stuck.

Soon after, Anna looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, ‘Stinky’ is not a good nickname.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. I promised to try to stick to “Anna” or “boo,” my other frequently used phrase for her. Then we headed to Perfect Blend, our favorite local coffee shop.

The ones we love best, we rarely call by their given names.

Right now, one of the seasonal blends at Perfect Blend is Kenyan Peaberry. It’s really good. I ordered a medium size for myself, and a couple of other items. Then I opened my wallet to pay, and saw my credit card wasn’t in there.

Note to self: Do not let the girls play Grocery Store with my wallet again.

“I might have enough cash,” I told the young man behind the counter.

He kindly told me not to worry. “We could start a tab for you,” he said. “You’re always here; you could pay next time.”

I thanked him for being so kind, and I did pay then. I did have to laugh, though. Was I really always at Perfect Blend?

“Yes, Mom,” Anna told me. “This is your favorite place.”

Sometimes the ones we love best know us better than ourselves.

I do love Perfect Blend. As a good local coffee shop should, it provides a warm, welcoming space for folks to gather, to replenish.

Many times I stop by with one or both of my daughters. Sometimes I meet friends there, or go alone to write.

On our most recent visit, Anna was rummaging through my bag. She pulled out a My Little Pony mini puzzle, Owl Diaries paperback, and handful of notebook paper. Anna waved the paper at me.

“What’s this for?”

I sipped my Kenyan Peaberry. “Mom always has paper in case she comes up with a good story idea.”

“Did you, Mom?”

“Well, the pages are still blank, Stinky…Anna.” (Life is one long lesson in humility, as J.M. Barrie once said.)

Anna stuffed the paper back in my bag, and got to work on the mini puzzle.

“This is your favorite place.”

Sometimes when I’m out and about, I overhear snippets of conversation that strike me. I don’t set out to eavesdrop (really!), but every now and then, my ears perk up at an especially quote-worthy moment, and I wonder about the rest of the story. For example, an older gentleman at Perfect Blend once said to the other older gentleman with him, “Now that was a good fortune cookie.”

Months later, I still wonder…what did that fortune cookie say? I wonder too…did the fortune come true?

(Let this be a lesson to any of my local friends who may be reading this: If you see me at Perfect Blend, and I’ve got notebook paper with me…lower your voice, lest you end up in a blog post. 😉 )

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Yesterday evening, both my daughters and I went to another of our favorite places, the Rail Trail. We took a walk and ended up at a nearby park. The girls started playing hide-and-seek.

There are lots of good hiding spots—behind trees, benches and stones. I watched for a while, and then the girls begged me to hide. “OK,” I agreed.

“One, two, three…”

I hid behind a stone. Seconds later, Anna found me. She laughed with delight and then said, “Now we get to chase you!”

“What!” I laughed too, and ran away.

Grace caught me easily enough, and the three of us collapsed on a bench, still laughing.

Anna rested her head against my chest. “Wow,” she said. “I can really feel your heartbeat, Mom.”

I didn’t have any notebook paper with me, or my phone or laptop. But that sentiment—I can really feel your heartbeat—struck me, and I knew I’d incorporate it into a piece of writing.

(Here goes.)

In my writing life, my goal is to get one piece of work published every year. Just one…at least one. A short story, an essay—anything to keep my portfolio current, and my standing as a writer credible.

It’s June now, and that hasn’t happened yet this year. One literary journal editor did email me one of the nicest rejection letters I ever received, and I appreciated his encouraging feedback on the short story I submitted. Still…no publication.

It can be easy to feel down when things don’t go according to plan. It can be easy to default to doubt.

I’d been feeling some doubt.

Then Anna told me she could really feel my heartbeat.

As unexpected as it seems, there’s amazing grace in hide-and-seek. There’s awesome energy in childlike games like that. Moments that allow us to really feel our heartbeat.

Moments in our favorite places, with the ones we rarely call by the names we first gave them.

Anna’s right, though. “Stinky” is not a good nickname.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

The Road to Wish Things

Down the street and around the corner from our home is a nature trail. Our family of four loves this long, paved path; almost every day, we walk or bike on it. (And sometimes, I end up carrying my younger daughter’s bike, and occasionally her too, back home. If you’re one of my neighbors and you happen to be reading this, then you know this is true. 😉 )

One afternoon recently, Anna and I were on the Rail Trail together. Anna pointed to a sunscreen dispenser, and wondered if her scooter could use a few squirts. “Scooters don’t need sunscreen,” I told her.

“But it would be fun, Mom.”

We moved along.

Spring is in full bloom, and Anna and I admired the deep-green grass and myriads of wildflowers on both sides of the path. Then Anna exclaimed, “Look, Mom! A wish thing.” She squatted down and pulled up a dried dandelion, not yellow anymore but puffy white—perfect for blowing.

Anna blew it, of course, after she made a wish. She spoke it out loud, so I heard her wish—and it made me smile—but it’s not my wish to share here, so I won’t. I’m sure you understand, friends.

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Possibly the best thing about parenthood, for me, is having the chance to experience childhood again. Moments like that—stopping to admire “wish things”…taking a deep breath…exhaling a wish.

Believing it will come true.

What we wish for evolves the older we get, the more life we see. In my experience, the wishes of our youth tend to be longish, and specific. For example…“Please can I have one of those watches that lets me talk to my mom from across the playground, that I saw another kid talking on to their mom? In pink, please, please, please.”

Flash forward about 20 or 25 years, and when we blow on dandelions (if we do anymore), we often exhale wishes for good health, or more good times together.

I read once that it’s similar with job titles. When you start out in your career, your job title usually is longer, more specific. One of my first job titles was something like “community programs and public relations assistant.” Or maybe it was coordinator rather than assistant. Still, I had about six words after my name in my email signature, when only one word is needed to describe the person in the top leadership position: CEO.

  …the wishes of our youth tend to be longish, and specific.

Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And I am. I’m not Jane Austen famous, or J.K. Rowling rich, but I’m so thankful to be doing what I love to do. I am grateful every day that I get to work with words for a living. It was a wish thing, from my childhood, that actually came true.

Would it be nice to, someday, be rich and famous too? If that were to happen—a huge if—it probably would be nice, sure. But by now, I’ve seen enough of life to know that those are not the things that make me happy…that take my breath away, as a dandelion through my daughter’s eyes does.

Because I’m a writer and, by default, book lover, I read to my daughters quite a bit. A couple of months ago, we read a book together for the first time that we just loved: “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney. This is a beautiful story about a little girl named Alice Rumphius who dreams of traveling to faraway places, living in a house beside the sea and making the world more beautiful. She, too, makes her childhood wish things come true.

Miss Rumphius makes the world more beautiful by (spoiler alert!) planting lupine seeds near her seaside home, eventually covering “[f]ields and hillsides…with blue and purple and rose-colored flowers.”

This story is beautifully illustrated as well, and the girls and I marveled at the celebration of nature in the pages of “Miss Rumphius.”

But by now, I’ve seen enough of life to know that those are not the things that make me happy…that take my breath away, as a dandelion through my daughter’s eyes does.

Yesterday evening, Grace, Anna and I were on the Rail Trail together. We stopped at a park; the girls practiced cartwheeling and played Pirate Ship on some outdoor exercise equipment. I had left my phone at home so that I wouldn’t be distracted, so I sat on a bench and…well, that’s it.

I could have attempted some pull-ups on the exercise equipment, or joined in the fun of Pirate Ship, but…yeah, I just 100 percent loved sitting on that bench. 😉 The evening sun felt good.

As we got ready to head back home, Grace exclaimed, “Look!” She was pointing to a cluster of tall, skinny blue flowers. “Lupines!”

“Are you sure?” Anna and I looked.

I’m not positive, but I think Grace did find lupines in the park. The girls were delighted to have found something they had read about in their beloved story. I was happy they could get just as excited about lupines as they could about pink smartwatches.

As my daughters get older, I hope they still take the time to stop and admire lupines, squat down and blow wishes on dandelions.

I hope their wishes come true.

I hope yours do too.

The road to wish things.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

28 Quarters in a Ziploc Bag: A Laundromat Story

A sign next to the front door offered a welcome, of sorts: “Use machines at your own risk.” Lines of washers and dryers (front-load, high-efficiency and large-capacity) wrapped around the rectangular space. The voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain filtered through the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh and whirrr-whirrr of the appliances. The sole TV hung overhead, in a corner and turned to “The View.” I don’t watch daytime TV—this isn’t a judgment, just a fact—and I had to Google those names together, “Whoopi Goldberg Meghan McCain,” to confirm exactly which show was on (I’m slightly embarrassed, but only slightly, at my lack of morning-talk-show trivia). 

That day, a late-fall morning, I was at a laundromat, for the first time in a very long time. It’s been a random, persistent convenience in my life that all the spaces I’ve called home have come equipped with a washer and dryer. My parents’ house, where I grew up. The house I rented with a friend, after college. The five addresses my husband and I have shared during our 11 years of marriage, from rental apartments to family homes we’ve owned—every one of them had a washer and dryer. 

I set my pink plastic laundry basket on the white-tiled floor. Overflowing from the basket was a comforter, very much in need of a clean. Which is why I was there, to wash my big comforter in a large-capacity washer. 

I made a fist around the Ziploc bag of quarters in my bag, making sure it was there. The metal on metal clinked and clanked. I had no idea how much it would cost to wash my comforter, how many quarters I would need, and I did something earlier that morning I’m not proud of: I shook some extra coins out of my younger daughter‘s piggy bank, just in case. 

My older daughter noticed, of course, saw me mid-shake. “Mom, what are you doing? Stealing from Anna?” 

“No, no…” 

It had been that kind of morning, already, and it was not even 10 o’clock.

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Clutching the bag of quarters, I peered at the pair of large-capacity washers. Another woman, about my age with similar shoulder-length brown hair, was using both of them. I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette. I wasn’t sure, so I asked the woman, “Would it be OK if I used one of these when you’re done with it?” 

She nodded yes, then added, “This one has twenty minutes left on it.” The little girl who was with her smiled at me.  

I smiled back, then thanked the woman. “I’ll be waiting over there.” I gestured to a row of chairs under a window, across from the TV, on which Whoopi Goldberg and Meghan McCain now seemed to be exchanging heated words.  

She nodded again, and I retreated to a chair, with my comforter and quarters. 

Besides myself, the woman and her daughter, a few other folks drifted in and out of the laundromat. Two youngish men, in their early twenties. One of them wore a scarf that looked to be more for style than function; they were both hipster types. And then several older women, grandmother types, and one old man. After loading their laundry, the young men passed the time by fiddling with their phones, while the septuagenarians chatted with one another. 

What type might I be, I wondered? “Clueless, But Has Quarters”? Maybe…probably. 

I had brought a book to read, “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” a creative nonfiction writing guide. Because when both girls are in school, as they were then, that time is (supposed to be) my writing time. Like many maternally disposed writers before me, though—and all moms in general—“my” time sometimes becomes “theirs.” The grocery store, post office, laundromat. When I find myself running errands for our family, I try to tuck in some writing-related work too. 

Thus, my book about writing. 

I wondered if there was some sort of laundromat etiquette.

When the woman gestured to me that her load had finished in the washer I was waiting on, I headed over, lugging my comforter. I fished the bag of quarters out of my bag. I gazed at the machine. Lots of dials. Lots of options for settings. Aaahh…what do I do? 

“I’m super sorry,” I interrupted the woman again, “but how does this work? Could you help me?”  

She helped me.  

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot. Clink, clink, clink. In case you didn’t know, as I didn’t, it costs $7 for one load in a large-capacity washer—at least, it does at that laundromat. More money than I’d thought it would be. 

“Now press that button,” the woman said, pointing to one of many buttons on the machine.  

I pressed that button, and the machine turned on and began washing my comforter. “Thank you so much.”  

The little girl beamed, clearly proud of her mom. 

I had 28 quarters in my Ziploc bag, and I inserted every last one of them into the coin slot…More money than I’d thought it would be.

Unlike me, my sister has lived in apartments in cities for years: Sunnyside, Queens, and now downtown Philadelphia. She’s used laundromats for years too. When I told her about this post I was working on, she said, “I hope the point of your story isn’t that people in laundromats are nice because of course they are.”           

“No, that’s not the point,” I replied.  

Although everyone had been nice. After my comforter was clean, I stuffed it back into my laundry basket. I didn’t have time to dry it because I had to pick up Anna from preschool. (Besides, I was all out of quarters.) The comforter was wet and heavy in the basket. As I was struggling toward the front door, one of the older women walked over and held it open for me. I so appreciated her kindness. 

But what was the point? I kept thinking about why that morning at that laundromat had resonated with me.  

The point is…sometimes I have no clue how convenient my life is. How easy things are, relatively. How much I take for granted—so many things, and the littlest things.  

Since that morning, I’ve been noticing laundromats more. Some have clever names, like Missing Sock and Dirty Harry’s. Others have signs that simply announce, “Laundromat,” as mine did. 

Weeks later, I was flipping through my book, the writing guide. A crumpled Ziploc bag floated out—the bag from the laundromat, the bag with my quarters. I had repurposed it as a bookmark and forgotten about it.  

I skimmed the bookmarked page. The author, Lee Gutkind, writes about the richness of experiences, which offer writers “more material, more reference points, more ideas” (page 237) for their work. I bookmarked that page because I agree.  

You can only learn so much from a book or sound bite. You have to have experiences.  

Even ordinary ones, because they offer insights too. 

Photo credit: Pixabay 

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

When Your Life Feels Like a Sitcom: Mom/Holiday Edition

It was a somewhat typical weekday afternoon. Anna, home from preschool, perched on the family-room rug, safety-scissoring the cover of a Crate & Barrel catalog into hundreds of pieces. I sat nearby at the dining table, which doubles as my home office. My laptop screen was open to a style guide, and every now and then, I glanced at my phone. I would be talking soon with a writing-industry friend about some freelance work.

“Now remember, Anna,” I said. “While I’m on the phone, play quietly, please.” I would have turned on the TV, but had taken away TV earlier that day for…some good reason, I’m sure.

The phone rang. Anna gave me a thumbs-up. I began talking.

A few minutes later, things fell apart.

“Mom, Mom! I had an accident in the bathroom! Mom!”

I closed my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I told my friend. “You can probably hear Anna in the background.”

My friend laughed, incredibly kind and understanding. She has young children too.

Anna ran up to me. She tugged at my arms, my legs. “MOM!”

“I feel horribly unprofessional now,” I apologized again, “but I promise I’ll do a good job for you.”

Again, she was very kind, and we hung up soon after.

I helped Anna. As I did, I said, “You knew that was an important phone call. Did you have to yell so much?”

Anna cupped my chin in her hands. “I needed you.” She looked so sweet, and helpless, and…mischievous too.

I sighed.

A few minutes later, things fell apart.

Not long after, we picked up Grace a bit early from school. She had a well checkup with our pediatrician. Traditionally, these checkups occur around a child’s birthday. Grace has a summer birthday, and now it’s December, so…yes, I was a smidge behind scheduling this appointment.

“Mom, will I get any shots today?” Grace asked.

“Well…” I had just signed for both girls to get the flu shot. “Let’s not worry about that right now.”

Grace groaned. A nurse called out, “Leddy!”

As the three of us walked over, Anna smiled, pointed at Grace and said, “We’re here for my sister. Her.”

Grace and the nurse looked at me with knowing smiles. I sighed…again.

Yes, Anna was not pleased when she discovered she was getting the flu shot too.

Before we left, the pediatrician asked Grace to leave a sample. He handed her a blue plastic cup. The three of us crammed into the family restroom.

Anna stopped pouting to say, “I can’t believe Grace has to tinkle in a cup.”

“This is a little crazy, Mom,” Grace observed.

Let me tell you, friends… I stood there, in that family restroom, with both my daughters, one of whom had sabotaged my work-related phone call earlier and the other holding a blue plastic cup, currently… I stood there and I thought, Yes, this is a little crazy.

At that moment, it was only 3 p.m. Later that evening, Grace had her performing-arts class, and I was going to a book club. Stanton had thought he’d be home in time to be with the girls, but found out last-minute he wouldn’t…so a super-sweet neighborhood babysitter was helping us out.

Logistics. Changes of plans (or, Plans B, C and D). Mad dashes to the ATM for babysitter money.

Blue. Plastic. Cups.

Life can be a little crazy sometimes.

Sometimes my life feels so “a little crazy,” I almost can’t believe it. Maybe you’ve had this feeling too, at some point: your life as a sitcom.

hollywood-sign-1598473_1920

I don’t like to complain. I’m deeply grateful for my family, our good health, everything. I’m also conscious that there are folks with much graver circumstances, compared to my “a little crazy” inconveniences.

Still…it’s healthy to acknowledge whatever level of craziness exists. To take a breath, maybe even vent. Or, simply, laugh out loud.

I was venting and LOL-ing with my sister. Jenna is everything you could want in a sister. She listens, she’s objective, she often answers on the first ring. During one of our recent conversations, she said, “I can’t believe that happened. I mean, that is actually your life.”

Now, let me clarify: The words “that is actually your life” contained no envy, awe or admiration of any kind. Just bewilderment, friends. Straight-up bewilderment.

Some of our day-to-day moments can feel like an episode of “Modern Family” or “The Simpsons.” Life is happening, unfolding, getting a little crazy now…cue the laugh track…moving along now, keep it going, just keep go-go-going…

Life is happening, unfolding, getting a little crazy now…cue the laugh track…moving along now…

The sitcom-like sensation may appear particularly strong during the holidays. Stanton, the girls and I were driving home one evening, and we were admiring all our neighbors’ Christmas decorations. Strands of lights, homemade wreaths, candles in windows…

“Wow, Mom and Dad! They have a Christmas dragon!”

I peered out the window. Indeed, our next-door neighbors had set up a seven-foot, red-and-green inflatable dragon complete with sparkling lights and Santa hat in their front yard. Joy to the world.

In the spirit of Christmas, I had positioned a poinsettia in our front bay window. And had thought about lights for the front porch. But so far…just the poinsettia.

“Can we get a Christmas dragon too?” the girls asked.

I love my neighbors, and I honestly love their big, festive outdoor holiday décor. But… “I’m sorry, girls, we’re not getting a Christmas dragon.”

We didn’t even get a real Christmas tree. One year we (probably) will. I imagine the four of us would love heading out to a tree farm, all Griswold-like, and choosing our very own Christmas tree. Maybe even cutting it down. You can do that, I’ve heard.

But this Christmas…mm-hmm, we unfolded our artificial tree in the family room. The girls loved decorating it. For some reason, though, the tree leans forward, no matter what we do to fix it. Our tree refuses to stand straight up.

(“It’s pretty straight,” Stanton said, laughing, after reading a draft of this post.)

A lone poinsettia in the front window, and a pretty-straight artificial tree. Merry Christmas from the Leddys.

The sitcom-like sensation may appear particularly strong during the holidays.

Does your family send out Christmas cards? We do. We haven’t yet, but…we do…

Anna and I stopped by the post office to buy holiday stamps. I have a penchant for winter scenes: birds on branches, footprints in the snow. When it was our turn, I told the postal service clerk I needed holiday stamps.

“Do you want Santa Claus, the menorah or Kwanzaa greetings?”

“Um…do you have footprints in the snow?”

“All we have left is Santa Claus, the menorah and Kwanzaa greetings.”

I looked at Anna; she looked back. “Well, if those are our choices…we should probably get Santa Claus.”

“Santa Claus,” Anna affirmed.

Choices abound during the holidays. Santa Claus, the menorah or Kwanzaa greetings? Artificial or tree-farm-chosen?

I’ve also had the opportunity to check yes or no for some holiday-related volunteer opportunities in our community. Party planning, group play-date hosting, fundraiser T-shirt selling. Forgive me, but…no, no and no. I just simply can’t do one more thing right now, I’ve tried to explain. I don’t mean to be Scrooge, but I am not Superwoman.

My apologies…but I’m not.

I just simply can’t do one more thing, I’ve tried to explain. I don’t mean to be Scrooge, but I am not Superwoman.

This past week, a short story I wrote was published in a literary journal. Friends and family very kindly shared their congratulations with me. I was chatting with a college friend, who’s also a mom, and she said she was impressed by me.

“Please don’t be impressed,” I told her. I meant it, 100 percent. If you only knew how “a little crazy” things can get around here…and the countless creative-writing rejections I get for every once-in-a-blue-moon email that begins with, “We’d like to publish your piece…”

Do you know what makes an impression, for me? What catches my breath, touches my heart? People—families—who power through.

Power through imperfection, and disappointment, and the darkness that can fall. Power through Plan B’s, C’s and D’s to find light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyday survivors.

Life as a sitcom. We all have our own cast of characters. Each of us plays the hero in our own story, of course. Then there’s the buddy character, the love interest. Beyond the characters, we have recurring themes, conflicts and punch lines.

Sometimes we’re the punch line.

But if we get to the closing credits…and see we’ve come this far, with our crazy but lovable cast of characters intact…let’s take a bow, shall we?

Because we made it, blue plastic cups and all.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.

Published in The Sunlight Press

Friends, I’m delighted to share that The Sunlight Press has published my short story, “Imposter.” Check it out, and enjoy! Many thanks to this wonderful literary journal for sharing my work with the world.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s latest self-published short story, “Backtrack.” An engaging read that’s can’t-put-it-down good.