Saturday, March 30, 2013


Circles.  Radiating ripples that pulse through my life. Circles on circles. 
I wear one on my finger, speckled with diamonds. 
They shine with energy around our kitchen table on Sunday evenings, all achatter and thick with love.
They are warm and white in sacred rooms in sacred places. 
They wrap soft cotton towels around my grand babies, fresh from the bath, all scented with No More Tears.
They are hands placed on my weary head, circles of Priesthood power.
They are bearers of pall, and keepers of the campfire flame.
They are helpful hands wiping white dinner plates.
Circles on circles.

On this warm autumn day the men I love stood in a circle to erect our new flagpole.  When David had completed his 12 years of public service as a city councilman and then as mayor, our dear friends and neighbors had pitched in and surprised us with a flagpole in our front yard.  It was a beautiful, extremely thoughtful gift.  I remember driving into our cul-de-sac after a trip to Michigan that summer and noticing Old Glory waving from a tall silver pole in our front yard.  They had purchased and erected the pole while we were gone.  It is one of the most meaningful gifts we have ever received.  But in the wicked winds of December 2011 the pole was bent.  So we finally replaced it last autumn.  The men who mean so much to me gathered in a circle and raised the pole, like they had done in my mother's yard a few years back. It looked rather like that famous photo of soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. 

My man is a patriot.  Every time we drive into our driveway he comments on how lovely the flag looks, its sharp crisp colors looking so noble against the deep red brick of our house and the emerald green of the oak and pear and evergreen trees.  That patriotic bend is something my mother and husband share.  I feel them both encircling me with their devotion, to God, to family, to country.  And I am grateful that the circles of people in my life love the things and places and people I love.
My favorite circle, I must say, is made by the arms of the man I love, wrapped around me.
Delicious, yummy, squeeze tight circles.
(Happy Birthday, man of my dreams.)

Friday, March 29, 2013


"That's where we used to catch the school wagon, right there on the corner." Mom looked wistfully over the landscape, out there in the desert on the outskirts of Blackfoot, Idaho.  We stopped and gathered a handful of sage at the side of the road, bringing its fresh aroma to the car as we drove back to Salt Lake. I imagined our mother as a girl, a small dark haired bundle who ran after her sister Mae, jumping up onto the horse drawn wagon, its canvas top rolled up in the warmth of a late spring day. I inhaled in my imagination, with the aid of that sprig of sage, the scent of her daily ride two miles into town: the pungent blend of horse sweat and sage combined with sandy Idaho dust. It's a smell you could grow to love,
My mother's lifespan covered a remarkable time in the history of our world.  From the days of riding a wagon to school, to taking classes online from a computer on the kitchen table, she was witness to the shifting of seasons, both figurative and literal. She was one of the first in her profession to use computers, back in the early 70's.  She learned to input information and retrieve it on massive archaic machines in her real estate office in Pittsburgh. She didn't love it, but she did it.
I still remember our first colored television, years after the old black and white tube TV in the console with the record player had given up the ghost. .  It was previously owneed by a neighbor, and it had a remote control with a wire attached to the TV.  You could actually change channels and adjust volume without getting off the couch!
I recall that first car mom bought with a loan in her own name.  It was a pivotal event in our lives.  Dad had abandoned ship and we were stranded in Idaho, with school starting in Pittsburgh in a few days. Mom's Parrish name gave her good standing with a dealership in Blackfoot, who gave her a loan. Off we drove in a brand spankin' new green Charger with an eight track tape player.  We listened to Shirley Bassey and Perry Como all the way across the country, that new car smell embracing us, our new found sense of self rising with the miles behind us.
In her last peaceful days at home mom listened to her favorite music on the iPad Ann Marie bought her, which Kate had loaded with thousands of songs.  Some of those old tunes retrieved from the iPad were ones that had played on the old wind up Victrola, then on the old family radio, then the eight track, cassette, Cd and iPod.  The constants were the songs.  Only the vehicles changed.

Here is a photo of the last vehicle our mother rode in.  Reminiscent of her first:

Mom was a lover of all things sentimental, though in many ways she was a pragmatic.  She was, after all, a child of the Great Depression.  She embraced the new, but she loved the old.  She was a collector of fine old things, not just for their monetary value, but for the emotion her antiques evoked.  Her home was filled with beauty, and tender sentiment. Not only was she willing to trade her hard earned money for beautiful old items, she was a lover of old places.  She took advantage of the fortunate setting of my childhood, there in the eastern US, where so much history had unfolded.  We made numerous trips to Williamsburg, Jamestown, Plymouth Plantation and Boston and the rocky coast of Maine, to the ghostly fields of Antietam and Gettysburg, the patriotic atmosphere of Annapolis and Washington DC. She travelled with us to the sacred grounds of old Nauvoo, before it was restored as it is today, and we walked on quiet feet into the Sacred Grove in upstate New York. Philadelphia and New York and Niagara Falls and so much more.  I bless her name when I think of all she took advantage of.  One day she read in the Pittsburgh Press that there was a special exhibit of Grandma Moses paintings being shown in Vermont, so she loaded us into the car after school on Friday.  We slept in the car as she drove.  Next morning we all walked into the exhibit hall and  by that afternoon we knew who Grandma Moses was.  One of the finest things my mother left me was the belief that I can continue to change, to grow, until the day I die.   Grandma Moses began painting in her 70's, and at age 88 was selected by Mademoiselle Magazine as Young Woman of the Year.  Mom's zest for life followed the path of Grandma Moses in many ways. When her legs stopped working, she was happy to use a wheel chair because it could get her where she wanted to go. She was spontaneous and vivacious, willing to adjust plans immediately when opportunities presented themselves. Our car veered off the paved road more often that I can recall, something or other having caught the corner of her eye.  She taught us to see peripherally, while still being conscious of the important objectives ahead of us.  That's a real art, you know.  The longer I live, the more rare I see that ability to be. Capture the moment.  Seize the day. Be willing to leave the plan for the opportunity.
When I was a senior in high school the Bicentennial Wagon Train was passing through Pittsburgh on its way from California to Valley Forge.  School was almost out.  A friend of my Aunt Mary was driving the Alaska wagon with his beautiful team of horses.  The oldest wagoneer on the train, Zavan invited us to hop on the wagon and ride for the next month.  We had to go home to finish the last few days of school.  But when it was over, Mom drove us to where the train was camped and dropped us off, leaving us in Zavan's care, with a case of Campbell's chicken noodle soup, some peanut butter and crackers, and a bit of cash for emergencies.  Libby and Ann Marie and I rode and walked to Valley Forge, flirting with the outriders, waving at citizens lining the streets of small towns tucked into the hillsides of Pennsylvania.  It was an incredible opportunity, one never to be relived but in my vivid memory, and I am thankful that she was willing to let go and let us go. One month later I met a fellow named Dave Connors and less than a year later I was married to him and a year after that I was a mother. Thanks, Mom, for seeing the moment and grabbing it for me.  
The last ride my mother took was fitting for one such as her. An old horse drawn hearse, restored with stunning beauty.  We presented my mother for her final viewing in the chapel of the old rock church on Main Street in Farmington, the one where the first Primary was established in the late 1800's.  The mural behind her casket depicts that first meeting. 

Her five daughters spoke, each of us choosing a word or two that represents our mother to us. Mine was "Beauty".  Sherry's was "Cultured", Libby's was"No Fear".  Ann Marie spoke of "Quiet Strength" and Sue talked about "Knowing When to Be Still." Our children recited poetry they had learned from their Gram, and John and I sang.  The grand-daughters sang Where Can I Turn for Peace, with such lovely harmonies I could almost hear the sighs of the angels.   After our friend and bishop sealed his love with tender words, Gram's grandchildren gathered around her pine casket and bore her to the waiting hearse in the back of the church.  Girls, and boys grown into men and women:  all strong and able and proud to bear her.  The only ones missing were Joseph, who is serving a mission in Prague, and Clayton, who may have been there, we just couldn't see him. I have no doubt he was there with his Gram.
We who loved her and were able to walk travelled behind her, the pace of the horses being just right for our mournful legs.  It was one simple mile to the cemetery.  The Farmington Police were gracious and kind, holding traffic so we could cross over State Street.  Nanette and Harv Jepson, sensitive to the heat of the late August day, ran up ahead and bought cases of cold water from the Chevron gas station, handing it out to all of us as we passed.  Elliott walked directly behind the hearse, watchful of his Gram, owning the labor of love he had given in the building of her casket. He was going to get her safely to her resting place. Dave and I walked beside Mark who noted that this 100 degree day was maybe not the best time to wear black. As we walked we sang.  As we sang we laughed, and cried, and laughed again, wiping the sweat from our brows.  I lifted the weight of my black skirt to allow the air to cool my legs. 
At one point there was a hub bub up ahead, and I lifted my eyes from my watchful steps on unsteady feet to see my son John and son in law Jordon scaling the rock wall between a small subdivision and 200 East.  Apparently there were roofers working on a house.  When the horse drawn hearse appeared around the bend in the street, with a crowd of mourners following behind, one of the workers was so stunned he fell off the roof.  Fortunately it was a single story house and he was OK, but our boys were sure quick to scale that wall and make sure of it.   Now, when we drive to visit our mother's grave, we pass by that house and cannot help but smile. 
When we got to the corner of the cemetery, where we turned up hill to the grave site, Marilyn Hone stood with her grand daughters, their hands over their hearts.  It moved us to tears.  The love among the people who lined that street and who walked behind her hearse must have radiated to the heavens. 

We laid our mom under the restful arms of a beautiful Sycamore tree.  We have placed a lamb at the spot where we will set her headstone.  Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we laid a spray of palms under a small red heart her great grandson Calvin had placed on her grave. They fanned out toward the sweet purple hyacinths my sisters placed there a couple weeks ago.  Spring is finally returning, bringing with her the hope of new life.

Had my mother, when she was young and I was sitting beside her in the front seat of our car, seen such a lovely sight as that funeral entourage coming up the street, she surely would have turned the car around, made us get out to the car, and told us to be reverent as it passed. 
Gram's Greats follow behind her.
She was a grand lady.  With a grand exit.  How we loved her. How we love her still.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


I am sorry I cannot show you the photo that triggered today's musings.  It's stuck in my head.  I've kept it back there in my bank of memories nearly all my life.  It shimmies to the front of my brain now and then, like it did this morning when my eyes first fluttered open at dawn's early light.  It's an image of my mother and me, in the basement of our house on Old Clairton Road.  We are folding laundry.  I suspect I am pairing socks, since that was my usual task in those days.  I'm finding mates and putting them in piles.  When the counter is full I roll each pair and tuck the two socks into themselves.  We are singing as we work, one of the many familiar songs of my childhood.  My mother is young, her hair dark and her skin taught. Her fingers are long and slender.  I watch them dancing with the fabric as she irons, smoothing and tugging and passionately pressing into crisp submission, coaxed where necessary with a sprinkling of water or a mist of of Niagara Spray Starch. I can hear the steam rising from her hot iron, smell the aroma of clean infused with warm.  All the while we sing, or hum.  Nothing premeditated.  There was always music. I thank her for this.  Because she always sang, she gave me unspoken permission to sing. And so it was.  And so it is.
On this particular day my mother has asked me to match her note.  Not in any condescending way.  More as an exercise.  I was singing along and I must have ended up either sharp or flat, or on the wrong note altogether.
"Here Cor, here's the note.  Can you match it?"
I slid the pitch up to the note, matching hers.
"Good! Now try it again."
I started low, where she told me, and we slid together up to the pitch, hanging there.  My lips turned up, altering the timbre of the note, but not the pitch.  We were dead on.  I hung there, her voice embracing mine on the pitch, for a few extra victory seconds.
My sense of pitch, flawed as it may be, is as strong as it is because she taught me to listen, then to imitate.
I laid in bed this morning, begging for the image to stay, but it sifted out into the daylight and I am old and she is gone. 
I am thinking about my own children; about doing the same with them.  I am thinking about their lovely voices, each of them unique and yet how beautiful they sound together.  And I am thinking also about their children. Yesterday Calvin was singing "ABCDEFG, How I wonder what you are", a nice blend of two songs with the same melody.  His pitch was surprisingly solid, especially for an 18 month old.  His mama walked into the kitchen and began singing with him, their pitches matching each other.  I felt my belly button pull up toward my heart, knowing that way leads on to way.
Today is Maundy Thursday, a Holy day.  It is the day we remember that Christ introduced the sacrament to his disciples.  It's the day He washed their feet.  And it's the day He gave to those who follow him a new commandment.
"Love one another, as I have loved you."
I can hear him say this, and his voice becomes that of my mother.  "Here," she says, "match my pitch."
And so this day begins with a prayer, that the Maker of all good things will tune my heart, and that my life, in the end, will be (on pitch) a song of loudest praise.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Life is bulging with them - magical moments.  If you live long enough you can end up with a nice little pocketful, all different shapes and sizes, colors and sheens.  Some people forget they have them and they lay at the bottom of a bucket of sorrowful tears, covered with barnacles of self pity. Others keep them tucked in little journals or diaries.  They take them out occasionally and polish them with remembrance until they obtain a nice glowing patina.  In the end they get to take them with them, tucked in their pockets, when they jump into heaven. Some are hefty nuggets, obvious life changing moments.  And others are sweet little pebbles, like the night all the kids were fed and bathed and in bed and actually sleeping before 9 pm and the dishes were done and there on the tip of your tongue was a new song ready to be born and you had the energy to birth it.
I found a piece today, while scanning the pictures on my computer.  A nice little piece in my satchel of memories.  Somewhere between a little pebble and a nugget.
It was a magical week that began with a pang of sorrow.  We had decided to spend Thanksgiving in Sacramento with my sisters.  It was our first Thanksgiving without our mom, and we needed to huddle to get through it.  We spent a peaceful day, we of the top layer, the older generation.  You get to feeling a little exposed when there is no longer anyone above you in the living genealogical line.  The only one of the younger generation that was there was Kate, and that's because she surprised us with a visit (that's another story for another time). We set the table with a red tablecloth, and white napkins tied with red ribbons, into which we had tucked large dried leaves from the sycamore tree that hovers over our mother's grave.  Ann Marie gifted each of us with a hot water bottle wrapped in a knitted red cozy, in memory of Gram.  We wept and laughed and nibbled until the night came and the blessed dreaded day was over.  That Saturday Ann Marie and Michael cleared out their large inviting family room and set up nearly 100 chairs.  Ann Marie had baked enough to feed 5,000, all sorts of yummies for which she has become wildly famous in her neck of the woods. They opened their front door and that evening I sang for a warm and welcoming bunch of friends at a Holiday House Concert.  Such a treat for me to sing for a new audience.
We drove home through the beautiful Sierra Mountains, back to the foothills we call home. Two days later Dave and I went to Salt Lake City, driving through the twilight to the Governor's Mansion.  The mansion was bespangled for Christmas, all a glitter with elegance and charm.  The chefs at Backman's Bakery had just finished trimming a large replica of the mansion in fragrant gingerbread. Fresh pine bows draped over the mantelpieces, over crackling fires.  Glamorous trees sparkled in every room. The warm lights of that lovely old edifice reflected off polished wood and brass, falling onto soft woven fabric on down filled cushions. We had come upon this invitation:
Greeted by Governor and First Lady Herbert, as well as Lt. Governor Greg and JoLynn Bell, we dined in the intimate dining room at the mansion.  Blessed to share the table with our state leaders as well as corporate sponsors from AT&T, Zions bank, and our dear friends "Anonymous" (whom I will say only here are known to me as Lynn and Ann Summerhays of the humble hearts).  The table settings were silver chargers, plates and utensils that had been retrieved from the USS Utah, which had sunk in Pearl Harbor. I was seated next to the Governor, who was so friendly and hospitable I felt like an old friend. What a treat!
The Governor's Mansion Artist Award is given a couple times a year to people they deem represent artistic excellence in their fields.  I shared the honor with Tom Holdman, a glass artist whose extraordinary work can be seen in public and religious buildings around the world, including many of our sacred temples. Tom and his wife Gail were delightful and down to earth.  What an amazing honor to share time and space with such talent, not just artistic talent, but leaders in the public and private sector.  The table only seats 16, so it was an intimate feast.  But when we were done we were greeted in the grand ballroom by about 100 others who had come to help celebrate.  Most important among these were all our children, other family members, and friends, including the Gardners, Fergusons,and Bradburys. We were also surprised to see good friends James and Carole Christensen and Bruce and Mary Smith, fabulous artists. James had been the first to receive the Governors Mansion Artist Award years ago. I am humbled to join artists like James, Donny Osmond, Arnold Friberg, Brian Kershisnik, Mack Wilberg, Fred Adams, Ballet West and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a recipient of this award.  Holy Toledo, how did I get on that list!? My friends Mark Robinette, Merlyn Schofield and Kelly DeHaan joined me on stage there in the ballroom.  We sang for about 40 minutes, telling the stories behind the songs in between.  It was just magical, at least from my vantage point.  Afterwards the Governor presented me with a large bronze medallion, and spoke of the great joy he and his family had shared in this ballroom for many Christmases. He mentioned my song You Would Have Loved This, then got choked up as re reminisced about his last Christmas with his father in that very room. It was a rare and tender moment, not represented well in these words.  But hopefully the words will trigger the actuality of the memory for my family and me.
 The First Lady presented Tom with his award. Both Tom and I spoke briefly, mostly feeble attempts to thank the givers and our families.  Afterwards we retreated to the main floor for delicious desserts and mingling.  When the fires had turned to embers we offered our thanks and walked back down those grand stairs out into the winter night, that big blue ribbon with an oversized medallion still hanging about my neck.  It felt like that final scene of the first act in the Nutcracker Ballet, when all the guests go home from the grand Christmas party, the music of Tchaikovsky playing in the background as we wrapped our cloaks around our shoulders and went out into the night.  
Two days later we were back on stage, my friends and I, for the first of three Christmas concerts.  These concerts have become an annual event, and I love doing them, mostly because I love the people who come and the people with whom I play. All three performances had sold-out.  Seeing "Sold Out" on one of your concerts is always a thrill, until someone you love a lot wants tickets and there aren't any.  
The thing I love most about my Christmas concert is that I can be completely myself.  Because of the nature of the holiday I am able to testify without offense to anyone.  I can sing the songs I have written with full heart and real intent, and I feel as much love coming back to me as I send out when I sing.  I hope my concerts are like parables; I hope people can take from them what they want.  If all they want is pleasant music, I hope that's what they find.  If they want something deeper, I hope they are able to discover that as well. There is nothing in this world like hearing your own creations wrapped in the musicianship and harmonies of talents like Merlyn, Mark and Kelly, or Dave and Carla Eskelsen, Michael Huff or Melanie Shore, with the masterful hands and ears of Eric Robinette at the sound board!  
Only one thing could have made the events of that one week in November more magnificent for me.  That would have been the presence of our mother.  I ached to see her there before me, her snowy white hair capturing the residual light of the stage, her hands folded gently in her lap or dancing to the rhythm, her lips moving with every word to every song.  No one knows my songs so well, or sings them with less restraint in public settings.  How I miss her.
But she taught me to imagine, and so I do. I imagine her peeking over the edge of heaven, smiling as she sings, blowing kisses as I take my bows.    
Time moves forward and we move with it.  Some moments are so magical that we are certain we will never ever forget them.  And yet, I can attest, we do forget.  We move on and we are caught in the moment of the present, as we most often should be.  But those nuggets of magic are gifts to us, and we get to keep them if we will do the work to preserve them. And so on an early spring day I retrieve one from my pocket, a magical winter memory.  I polish it up with inadequate words and put it back, hoping the sheen will only improve with age.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Yesterday I spent a memorable chunk of time on the phone with Glen Leonard, LDS Church Historian and friend.  We're working on a project together and needed to discuss some details.  In the course of the conversation Glen talked about another project he's working on, a history of Farmington, Utah, our hometown.  I love talking to Glen because he knows so many delicious little tidbits that no one else knows, and he fills in holes that have been empty for generations.  For instance he mentioned that children in the early days of the church did not attend Sacrament meetings.  And since most children could not be left alone, most Sacrament meetings were attended by mostly men.  Eventually they built a little red Sunday School house for the kids, and then the Primary was founded right here in the old rock chapel on Main Street in our peaceful little town. I look forward to the publication of his book in the coming year.

When we first moved to Farmington, 30 years ago, there were no stop lights.  There was the small Bowman's grocery store on State Street, and Farmington Drug where Walt Bain was the owner and pharmacist. And the post office and the barber shop.  Haugen's Auto Shop and Farmington Texaco, Security Title and Davis County Bank.  And of course, Lagoon. That was about it. On the north end of the city were those three large red barns with the crisp white letters POTTER BROTHERS HEREFORDS. They stood at the edge of the Potter and Leonard property where thick green fields of fresh alfalfa grew all summer, the aromatic scent of their harvest travelling up the hillside to our neighborhood. When the old Leonard barn fell down under the weight of too many winters, we retrieved a sturdy beam and used it as the mantle for one of our fireplaces.  Through the last three decades we have witnessed the trembling and collapse of so many old timbers, figurative and literal, so that now the landscape would hardly be recognized by old Truman Leonard or any of his wives. I remember the hubbub over the installment of our first stoplight, on the corner of State and Main. I paused for a moment to to try to count the stoplights we have now. There used to be not an inch of Farmington I did not know, at least casually. I am sorry to say that I stopped counting at a dozen.  I'm not sure what new developments may have sprung up recently.

The other day I sat at a light in the neighboring town of Kaysville as a train passed through.  It was a large one, requiring a couple engines to pull the weight.  I noticed the graffiti on the cars of the train and thought how the world had come to us, these little farm towns in northern Utah.  Cars that were tagged in big old cities, where crime was common and grime prevalent, where gangs of kids climbed over fences and marked their territory on moving objects.  Those big old engines brought the marked territory to our town.  The dim light of our streetlights shines on them as they pass on through, the stench of their exhaled breath staining the scent of fresh cut alfalfa that floats in our gentle summer breezes. And yet, the freshness overtakes it and something of the small town innocence remains.

Last fall we were hit with graffiti on Main Street, down by the Brass Comb beauty parlor.  It was disturbing, for sure, to see that someone would defile anything in our little piece of heaven.  And yet I was amused and relieved when these were the words they chose to write:

The city has since removed the sentiment, but it made me chuckle every time I drove past.  Some rebel with a philosophical bend.  That's about as hard as we get, here in Farmington. We are a charming quirky little town, with what the world would call a pretty weird past.  Why should the future be any different?
Such a dandy little town we call home. 

Monday, March 25, 2013


I stood before a vibrant wave of energy, the pulse of enthusiasm pushing toward me tempting me to find a chair and hang on tight.  Next to me my daughter, Kate, spoke in a rather non-Kate voice, loud and commanding.  (When I talk to her on the phone I have to always ask her to speak up.)  But here, she insisted on respect because this…THIS…was Gummy, her mother, and her students were NOT going to show anything but respect! (Yeah, I thought, listen up y’all!) 

The kids immediately responded, lowered themselves to the floor and crossed their legs.  They are in 6th grade, and they come from a place and culture much different from Farmington Utah.  Our pioneer stock came westward to the mountains. Their Latin roots sent the branches of their trees northward into Houston.

Last Monday I spent the whole day teaching Kate’s classes at the KIPP Preparatory School where she works.  These kids have a pretty long school day, from 7:15 am until 5 pm.  That’s hard on an adolescent kid.  But let me tell you, that long school day just about did-in this old grandmother!  Holy Tamale! I have no idea how Kate does it day in and day out, for 11 months a year, with Saturday school as well. (But that’s not really my point here.  I’m just exhausted all over again thinking about it.)

I stood before Kate’s class to teach them a little bit about Utah history.  The 6th grade class at KIPP is making their annual class trip to Utah in May. They travel by bus and sleep in tents.  This year they will visit northern Utah for the first time, and we are really excited that they will be able to see the beauty of this place we call home.

“Last week during spring break Ms. Connors and her Aunt Libby and I visited San Antonio,” I began. “Have any of you been to San Antonio?”

Most of their hands shot up. 

“Do you know who first settled San Antonio?”

They stared at me, puzzled.

“Have you ever heard of the Alamo?”

Again, their hands waved.

We talked about the Alamo, which began as a mission.  We discussed the string of missions that the Spaniards built along the San Antonio River.  We talked about the displacement of Native Americans, and the religious fervor, and making a beautiful city out of a desert place.

“Utah has a similar history, only the religious group that settled Utah’s desert place was not Catholic, they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Some people call them Mormons.”

I asked them what kind of character traits it would take for someone to leave the familiarity of their homes, travel many miles over oceans and trails, sometimes in a wagon, sometimes with a handcart. What kind of person could start with nothing and make something of it, and interface with strangers, some of whom don’t even speak your own language?  I expected responses like courage, and strength, and faith.  What I got were these words:

Social Intelligence
…and Hope.

I nodded my head.  “Indeed!”  “Absolutely!”  I was stunned that they would choose these uniquely fitting words to describe the kind of character pioneers might need. We’re talking eleven year olds here.

I asked them if they knew what a pioneer was, and surprisingly they did not.  So I told them.  And I followed my explanation with the suggestion that they might be pioneers.  They might be the first in their family to go to college.  Or the first to work at a different kind of job.  They may be one to break a chain of abuse or unkindness, or the first to not join certain groups that everyone else belonged to. They would need to know and seek and find those unique traits in themselves.  I felt their genuine interest…and not just because I was Ms Connors’ mom.  I felt them calling up something from inside themselves, even if just for a moment, and I silently prayed that they would have the courage to act on their positive inspirations.

We showed them pictures of pioneer children, and of the Salt Lake Valley then and now. We explained why the seagull is the state bird, and what a yoke would be on a pair of oxen.  I sang them pioneer songs, some delightful, some serious, some funny.

The night before, Kate and her co-teacher best buddy, Cassetta, had helped me make a triple batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, pressing huge circles into large cooking sheets and baking them into small pizza sized cookies.  Kate cut out pieces of cardboard and we wrapped the cookies (16 of them) and hid a handful of them in the classroom for each of the classes.  I sang them this song I had written years ago, to be sung by a young pioneer boy (cue music):

It’s my job to gather buffalo chips
I’ve done it every day since we started this trip
It’s not so bad, I’m a happy kind of guy
‘Cept when the chip I’m pickin up it isn’t dry.

Out on the prairie it’s hard to find wood
And a buffalo chip is almost as good
We make our fire with what the buffalo ate
And it makes our mama’s cookin’ smell great

It was pretty funny to watch the faces of the kids as they listened.  One or two would raise their eyebrows and look around, as if to say “Is she singing about what I think she’s singing about?”  None of them knew what buffalo chips were before.  But now they do J

The kids searched for buffalo chips in the classroom (giant Choc Chip Cookies), and as each kid answered review questions they got to come up and get a piece of “chip”.  When the bell rang I stood at the door and high fived each of them, breathed a sigh of relief, then inhaled as the next class entered.  Like I said, I don’t know how Kate and Cassetta do it!

There were many sweet and meaningful things that happened that day, including a tender and intimate round table with half a dozen young girls in the counselor’s office.  (She wanted me to tell them that you can be raised with less than wonderful circumstances, especially in the way you and your mother are treated by your father, and still grow up to be loved and well adjusted and marry a man who treats you with love and respect.  That was not hard for me to say.)

I admire the people Kate works with, and the people she serves.  Mostly though, I admire Kate. 

When I went into her classroom to pick her up the next morning, so she could drive me to the airport during her planning period, I noticed the following signs on the walls of her room.

She and her fellow KIPP workers are teaching those kids how to be pioneers.  Strong, courageous, faithful pioneers.
(good thing it's them taching...I need a nap!)


We stood, on that chilly fall evening, in the sacred place with the people we loved, the aroma of fragrant flowers mixing with the scent of burning pine. The beautiful, manly body of my eighteen year old nephew, Clayton, rested under the rounded top of a lovely casket. We wept and laughed and wept again as we remembered him; recalled his terrible string of jokes at our family reunion, his escapades in scouting, his artistic gifts just on the early spring side of brilliant blossoming when that piercing irretrievable moment came and his motorcycle laid him down on a concrete road. We burnt our names in the wood of his casket. Little love notes to hover over him.
I stood next to my mother.
"It's out of order, don't you think?"
She was referring to the fact that she was burying her grandchild rather than her grandchild burying her. Mom turned to my nephew Elliott, Clayton's cousin, who is a master builder.
"I want you to make me a plain pine box when I go. Nothin' fancy...just a plain old pine box. Promise?"
Elliot smiled.
"You know I'm serious."

He smiled again. Then nodded.

So when the dreaded day finally arrived, when my mother closed her eyes, drew a breath, and leapt into heaven, the nudger of truth kept poking Elliott as we huddled in our sorrow and made plans for our matriarch's final bow. He whispered his commitment to fulfill his Gram's wishes, and we embraced and wept again.

So began the space in time when the earth turned round and round and round again, but the lights in the shop at Atmosphere Studios never went dim. Atmosphere is where Elliott and his wife Katie work. Elliott had begun as a carpenter and moved on to other things in the company. But he knows those tools well. And they know him. The generosity of the Atmosphere staff, especially the foreman and carpenters in that shop, will never be forgotten. They moved their tools and supplies and current projects to other work tables and allowed Elliott to design and oversee the building of his first, and he swears his last, casket. With the assistance of his father, (my brother John) and my son John, who is also a builder, they set to work. It began with the selection of the best wood they could find. Straight, true, well seasoned and beautifully grained pine of a certain thickness and width.
They planed and shaved and cut and trimmed. There are carpentry terms I don't know that would do better justice to their labors. My husband, and brothers, and sons and nephews and grandsons all pressed their hands against that wood in some form or another, helping the project to completion in the short allotted time. Meanwhile we who know less of such things ordered flowers and wrote tributes in word that fell short of her magnificence. We swept and cooked and cradled and fed. And late at night, when the rest of the city had watched the news and fluffed their pillows and turned out the light, we drove down to Atmosphere Studios and took nourishment to the boys. There in the silent summer night, when the only other sound was the distant moan of a train whistle, we listened to the anguished squeal of a sharp steel blade pushing her way through good soft pine. It echoed against the walls of the building across the parking lot. We inhaled the smell of earthy fresh sawdust, swept into pile after pile under the table. They worked in a sort of sacred silence, no construction worker laughter or crass joking. Just good, steady labor with intense focus, and a nice selection of well written music in the background.
One morning, when my sisters and I were there, the foreman opened his door, which was up a small set of stairs just above the main workspace. He stood with a cup of coffee in his hands, and looked down at us.

"This is a real nice thing you are doing for your mom." He paused for a minute to clear his throat. "I've never seen anything like it before. Real nice."

There are no nails in my mother's casket. No screws either, except for the simple hinges that hold the top that lifts. The edges are tongue and grooved. And the wood is bound together with biscuits, little oval shaped pieces of flat wood that fit into holes sawed into the edge of the wooden planks. The little biscuits, about two inches long, are covered with glue and inserted into the holes created in two pieces of wood and the result, when dried, is screwless, almost seamless bonded wood. The names of every one of Gram's kids, grand kids, great-grand kids, and sons and daughters in law, are written on the biscuits that hold our mother's casket together. You can do things like that when you build your own casket.

Day after day they worked, coming home in the wee hours of the morning weary with the labor and the sorrow. I cannot imagine the burden Elliott felt, having never before designed nor constructed such an intimate and yet public thing. His love for his Gram is so deep, and his desire to give her exactly what she wanted in the most perfect form possible, had to have weighed heavily on him. I see his face in my memory, his brows pursed and beautiful eyes focused, his hands on his hips and his head bent to the ground just slightly as he thought through the process. Measure twice - Cut once, his Gram always said.

Finally the construction was complete. They sanded and sanded, blowing away the powdery residue, their faces down close to the wood, as if they were blowing her kisses. Then they brushed soft satin finish to seal the wood. While they did this, we daughters met at an old well worn building in Salt Lake City and chose a simple cotton fabric for the liner on our mother's casket. On the first floor of that place were a number of imported coffins, all made of lovely woods from exotic places. The owners were not all that impressed that we would want a pine box for our mom when we could have one of these elaborate dark wooden ones, all polished and fancy. It doesn't matter that they did not understand.

There is something therapeutic in moving one's body with real intent, sweating away the sorrow in a time of loss. There is something about the creative process that keeps the mind alive and active when its tendency is to micro focus on the deep loss and freeze frame in that empty place. Something about falling bone-tired into bed and letting sleep take over.

Blessed with a mortician who is also a neighbor and friend, we were able to offer our mother a deeply personal and highly personalized vehicle for her departure. I can see her shaking her heavenly head and saying, in the end, that all that really mattered is that her spirit got home safely. And yet I can also see her stopping whatever it is she is doing up there, and biting her lower lip as her angel heart races, calling out to those around her: "Well will you look at that! Look what my kids did, just for me. Isn't it just so lovely! Just so lovely!"

We cleared the living room at our mother's house, which is also our sister Libby's house. Cleared out the couches and bronze statues, and we placed our mother's blessed body in her pine casket over against the east wall. We flung open the tall front door and her friends and family lined all the way down the front stairway out to the street. The light of a late August sun streamed through the windows, falling on masses of flowers, releasing with that bit of warmth an aroma of spring. So much love passed through that door it was almost beyond our ability to contain. It still spills out each time we open the windows.

That night, when the outer circles of love had embraced and departed, we of the inner circle gathered around the casket and Norris Nalder, our friend and mortician, taught our children's children what the word casket means.

"The word coffin means a box for burial that is shaped like the body. It uses less wood, and it kind of scares some people. But the word casket means a treasure box, often holding precious jewels. This casket is unique. There is not one other like it in the whole world, because it was built especially for Afton Hansen, by the people who love her. She is the treasure for which this box was made. And she is the finest kind of treasure God ever created."

In the end, Elliott led the pall bearers when that beautiful casket was given to the earth. Elliott, his sister Emily, and their cousins.
There are twelve of them...Gram's grandchildren. Like her own set of disciples. They all lifted her earthly weight and allowed it to go where Gram always wanted to she always wanted to go: The hands of her posterity sending her off. All her grandchildren but two: Joseph, who is on a mission in the Czech Republic. And Clayton, who is with Gram.


Saturday, March 23, 2013


This lovely girl owns my heart.  She, and a couple dozen other young women who are beautiful souls trying to maneuver the treacherous path of life; that individually designed road that weaves in strange and interesting ways through temptations and challenges, struggles and successes. Her name is Megan, and she is fourteen years old.  Actually she’s one of those forty year old spirits in a teenage body, except she has the delightful personality of that teenage girl.

One day after I had taught a lesson on the value of mistakes and trials, she came up to me, commented on the lesson, then gave me a hug.  While we embraced she whispered in my ear:

“Cori, sometimes I pray for trials, because I know they’ll strengthen me.”

I pulled her a little closer to my heart and whispered back:

“Oh Honey, don’t pray too hard!”

In this blurry phone-ograph Megan is speaking at the pulpit in our church.  It wasn’t a Sunday meeting.  It was a weeknight.  She and her fellow Young Women are used to standing at this pulpit, so to them it’s not a huge deal, though I can tell you some turn the other way when they see you coming toward them with a certain clipboard in hand.  I am immensely proud of all of them when they stand at this wooden pulpit and share words of wisdom and inspired words of living prophets and apostles as well as sacred words from ancient scripture.  I served as their YW president for just over three years and was released last year.  That was, I tell you, a very sad day at our house!

Megan is at the pulpit this day because one of the sweetest, kindest, most beguiling and guileless girls in our neighborhood (who happens to be one of her closest friends) was doing this:

This is Stephanie. And that’s her brother baptizing her.  Stephanie’s parents, to their credit, allowed Stephanie her free choice as to where she decided to plant her faith.  And while she has lived in a relatively “LDS” community her whole life, and most of her family were members of the LDS church, Steph, for reasons essential to only her, had decided not to be baptized.  But she was very much a part of us, joining us at weekly activities, occasionally coming to Sunday services, trekking with us at Girl’s Camp, sitting around my firesplace at Christmastime.  When I first got my rosters as YW president Stephanie’s name was not on the Beehives list.  “She hasn’t been baptized, so her name is not on the church records for YW”, the clerk told me.

“Yes she is,” I replied, “check the records again.” I simply could not believe this girl so full of the spirit of love and goodness, who was so comfortable among us, was not a member.  But they were correct.

And so, last year, her courageous friend who prays for trials asked Steph if she would like to meet with the missionaries at her house and learn about the church. And you know what?  Well, I guess you know, because that’s Steph in the water and that’s Megan at the pulpit.

So I’ve been thinking about pulpits.  I’ve been thinking about how few pulpits are made of wood.  I think more often they are made of fresh mowed summer grass, all fragrant and clean, where a circle of girls whisper life dreams late at night.  They are made of soft living room couches, or accommodating beds at a sleep over.  I think they are invisible as they move with the masses of kids in the hallway at school, in the curb on the street when the neighbor is taking the garbage cans out and the kids are a little rowdy in the swimming pool.  Pulpits are rivers with girls strung together riding them in the heat of July, their bums skimming the surface of water through the center of a large black inner tube.  They are blazing campfires with angelic voices singing ‘round them.  They are tearful apologies for feelings harmed, and giggles of acceptance in circles on the playground. They are thresholds at open doors, with hand delivered invitations to join us for this or that.  They are people genuinely loving their kids’ friend’s parents, and those parents genuinely loving back without judgment.

Blessed young men who taught our Stephanie on those many evenings at Megan’s home.  Blessed family of Megan’s who opened their arms and supported that gathering.  Blessed parents who allowed her to choose.  Blessed girls.
Those missionaries taught her much about the gospel, in the correct order, so she could make an educated and spiritually driven decision.  But before those young men taught her, there were many who taught her from various pulpits.  Their lives are testaments.

When my daughter Kate was on her mission in Hong Kong I sent her a little sign that said this:


Such wonderful wordless teachers…these Young Women I love!
That's itty bitty Steph in the front at Girl's camp a few years ago.  We will always have your back, Steph!

Friday, March 22, 2013


Directed by the quiet girl at the front desk I made my way down the sterile hallway, past the residents’ rooms and the beauty parlor, and turned right at the activity room.  I plunked my gig bag on the counter next to the popcorn maker and while I unzipped it I was greeted by the activities director, a pleasant and caring gal whose name, I am sorry to admit, I could not remember two minutes after she told me. I lifted my instrument from its case and unrolled my beaded guitar strap, instinctively threading the pegs through the strap holes and binding my guitar to my body like she was a natural born appendage. Clicking the code on my iPhone I chose my guitar tuner app and turned the tuning pegs, compelling the tones of the strings to align themselves. As I did this, various aides were wheeling the audience into the activities center, so that by the time I started singing there were maybe four dozen beautiful eyes set on me.  Four dozen eyes, and four dozen lovely wrinkled hands, and a few less than two dozen heads of snowy white hair, the rest of them having lost their covering altogether or having visited the beauty parlor and a bottle of dye.

“Hi.  My name is Cori and I have come today as part of Heart and Soul.  We want to bring good music to you, so is it OK if I sing for you?”

Usually they’ll answer yes, though there is always someone in every group who grumbles something that looks like it might be no.

At least twice a month I visit various nursing homes, rehab centers, schools or hospital units on assignment with a non-profit organization called Heart and Soul.  I’ve been doing this for years, and I have done well over 100 shows for them. Their objective is to take quality music to people who are not able to get out to it. Often the people I sing to do not understand the words I am singing, either because their ears don’t work like they used to, or their brains don’t work like they used to.  It’s fine either way, because music is a universal language, and so is presence.  

I have had to reschedule twice in the recent past, and so today, when I woke again with a wet pillow and achy body, I forced myself to rise and dress despite my condition.  My throat is not sick. I’m certain it is an internal infection and not anything contagious.

Standing there, before the rows of well blessed wheelchairs, I began. My left hand found the position of a C chord on the neck of the guitar, and my right hand plucked in 4/4 time.  The words of an old love song, one of my mother’s favorites, fell from my lips:

See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sunrise from a tropic isle
Just remember darlin’ all the while
You belong to me….
 I sing so often the words come naturally, like breath. I offered a combination of tunes, some sacred, some old time romantic, and some original.  Every one of those songs I sang today were sung at my mother’s bedside in the waning days of her life. I always see my mom when I give Heart and Soul service.  I caressed the notes, gazing at the hands of those lovely aged bodies, looking into their cloudy sparkly eyes, at their legs and slippered feet cradled by their trusted wheelchairs. They smiled, some of them, because they are gracious and wanted me to feel appreciated.  I see my mom in that. I stood before them, my hair all disheveled with the evidence of riding the roller coaster of chills and sweats.  I wiped my brow, walking the thin tightrope of thinking of Mom and thinking of Mom too much so that I can’t function, and I begin anew:

Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed
Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee
How Great Thou art….

In the back of the room a tall slender gentleman sang along.  Every word of every verse. The tiny Hispanic woman with the never ending smile over by the door closed her eyes and rocked back and forth.  The Native American fellow on the front row, just in front of me, tapped his cane in time.  He is blind and I imagine the pictures the lyrics paint for him. Because I know these songs so well I can perform and carry another whole train of thought at the same time.  I am blessed by this, because I can witness the results of my ministry immediately. And I can, and do, offer up silent prayers for each individual in that room as my eyes fasten on them. I acknowledge this as a tender mercy gift from the Lord. I know they are not all believers, but I hope they don’t mind good thoughts about them rising heavenward.

I am touched, always, by the tender care I see staff give to those in their stewardship.  The girl whose name I cannot remember noticed a younger woman who seemed agitated.  She quietly slipped over toward her, pulled her wheelchair back out of the group and tucked her in next to where she was sitting, patting her jittery hand and looking her in the eye with great affection. I scanned the room as I sang, pondering the stories behind those aged bodies.  These were the people who paved the highways we drive on today.  They led Brownie troops and Boy Scout troops and taught restless children in summertime Bible School. They fought in wars and supported fighters in wars and peacefully resisted wars. They dropped their hard earned money in the Salvation Army buckets at Christmastime.  They made mistakes and we learned from their mistakes, and they did much good and we grew from the good. And now they are old. They have earned old, it did not just fall upon them. 

By the time I finished my performance today my hair had dried, and my fever was gone, and I felt much better.  I think I needed a dose of geriatrics.  I am quite sure of it, actually.  I receive far more than I could ever give. My body speaks, in a setting like this, that universal language of music and presence.  But it hears the universal language of love.

For more information about Heart & Soul click HERE.