Author Archives: Marylin Warner

About Marylin Warner

Writing coach and editor, freelance writer with published short stories, essays, memoirs and articles in numerous magazines, anthologies and newspapers. Member of SCBWI, Colorado Authors League, and National League of American Pen Women. Her short story, "The Truth About Camels and Ducks" recently won first place in the ACC Writer's Studio contest and will appear in THE PROGENITOR literary journal. Follow her at



Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?

Aunt Mary? Mrs. Shepherd?



Beth knew the answer.

Beth knew the answer.


"...a rose by any other name..."

“…a rose by any other name…”

My mother’s two years as a kindergarten teacher in Kansas City were rich with stories that took place long before I was born. This is the third story from that time period.

Remember the large group picture of my mother in the back row, posed with the other staff and the kindergarten students? My cousin Beth was visiting that day, so she was included in the picture, too. What the picture doesn’t show is the intense argument she had with one of the little boys in the class. “That’s my Aunt Mary,” Beth told him proudly. “No, it’s not,” he replied indignantly. “That’s Mrs. Shepherd.”

“No, sir.”   “Is too.”   “Uh-uh.”   “Uh-huh.”   Back and forth it went.

My mother made it a teaching moment for the whole class: names can show our relationship to other people ~ Mom, Grandma, Aunt Mary, Mrs. Shepherd, or a nickname like Mary Ibbeth or Mary E.   Names can also make it clear what we do or who we are to others ~ teacher, writer, friend, neighbor. We can have many names, and if someone tells you, “Don’t call me that,” then be polite and don’t use that name.

Writers—including my mother, before the dementia—know that literature has many examples of the importance of a character’s name. “Call me Ishmael,” the opening line of MOBY-DICK, is a classic example. In Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, much importance is attached to the character learning his name and who he is: “Kiss a lover ~ Dance a measure ~ Find your name ~ and buried treasure.”

Jarod Kintz, author of   99 CENTS FOR SOME NONSENSE, had a different perspective. “Male or female, if my name were either Don or Dawn, I’d be up at sunrise to celebrate the glory that is me.”

W.C. Fields said this about the name issue: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”   Which he might have taken more seriously if he’d been bullied on the play ground. Or he might have shrugged and said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”   Oh, sure; children aren’t ever hurt by name calling.

My mother never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS, but she enjoyed T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was the core of the musical. “…Before a Cat will condescend…To treat you as a trusted friend…A cat’s entitled to expect…These evidences of respect…And so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name.”

The story of my cousin Beth arguing about whether my mother’s name was Aunt Mary or Mrs. Shepherd makes me smile. This Christmas Mom’s dementia is so advanced that I doubt either name—or any of the others—will mean much to her. She fades in and out of life as a child on the farm, and sometimes scenes from working with my dad or raising children.

For those of you who have a loved one in a similar situation, I wish you the simple joys of being together: gentle humor, genuine acceptance, delicious foods and holiday music. In difficult situations, feeling love and hugs are more important than remembering names.

"...and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name..."

“…and so in time you reach your aim, and finally call him by his name…”



Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, kindergarten lessons about life, life questions, memories for great-grandchildren, special quotations, teaching, writing


Mary Elizabeth as a toddler in buckle shoes.  No shoelaces to tie!

Mary Elizabeth as a toddler in buckle shoes. No shoelaces to tie!


My mother (in the middle). Look at the buckles on those shoes.  Tying shoes would have been easier!

My mother (in the middle). Look at the buckles on those shoes. Tying shoes would have been easier!

Last week’s story featured Tommy, the boy in my mother’s kindergarten class who needed to rest behind the piano until he could participate without distracting or hurting others.  

In that same class was five-year-old Billy, a sweet boy who had a very different problem. He couldn’t tie his shoes.

This was over seventy years ago, long before Velcro was an essential part of children’s shoes. Being able to tie your shoes was a learned skill back then, one of the eye-hand-coordinations on a child’s check-off sheet. Schools everywhere taught “bunny ears” loop-tying, or other techniques to help kindergartners tie their shoes. Billy struggled with every attempt, but nothing worked.

One day during Story Time, Billy sat in his little chair in the circle the children formed to listen to the story. As the teacher read, Billy leaned over in his chair and began working oh-so-diligently to tie his shoes. My mother watched him try again and again, and she hoped this might be the time it all worked out. Finally, after a painfully long time, Billy looked up and proudly smiled. Success!

It was like a bad dream, Mom told me many years later. In quick succession, several things happened: Billy beamed triumphantly; the fire alarm went off; and as the other children stood and formed a line at the door as they’d practiced, Billy remained seated. His eyes got big, his lower lip trembled, he pointed down at his shoes, and his eyes filled with tears.

Billy had succeeded in tying his shoes all right…together…and around the leg of his chair. Plus, bless his little over-achieving heart, he’d even tied the shoe laces in knots.

That day, when the kindergarteners and first graders marched down the stairs to the main floor, blended with the other students and filed out the front door, the principal and her secretary checked off how long it had taken everyone to leave the building during the fire drill. One teacher and one student took longer than everyone else in the building.

My mother was last out that day, carrying Billy out the door.  He still sat in the chair, his feet still tied to the chair leg. Children giggled, staff members clapped, and Billy buried his face against my mother’s neck.

The “sole” lesson from this story is the reminder that to really understand others we need to walk a mile in their shoes…or at least down the stairs and out the door.   But the other lessons my mother taught by example over and over were these: We’re all pretty much just doing the best we can, so our first response should be helpful instead of critical. It also helps to keep a sense of humor…but never laugh while another person is sobbing against your neck.

Current baby and toddler shoes.  No buckles...but they do have shoe laces!

Current baby and toddler shoes. No buckles…but they do have shoe laces!

Or, just go bare-foot!

Or, just go bare-foot!


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, memories for great-grandchildren, spending time with kids, teaching

(the other) MARY’S MUSIC

St. Augustine: "He who sings prays twice."

St. Augustine: “He who sings prays twice.”

Hummel figurines of young children singing, blowing horns, and beating drums.

Hummel figurines of young children singing, blowing horns, and beating drums.

With only a few weeks until Christmas, I want to make it clear that this story is about my mother, Mary, and not THE well-known Other Mary. This is one of my favorite stories about how my mother used music in a surprising way to teach young children.

See the picture below of my mother in her 20s, weighing 98 pounds, and teaching kindergarten in a Kansas City school. Mom is in the top row, third from the left end. My cousin Beth, now a grandmother herself, was 5 and visiting my mother’s class that day; she is in the first row, left side at the end.

This story is about a young boy in Mom’s class, a very active, non-attentive, uncooperative, rambunctious boy. One day, after he’d pushed a child, punched another, and grabbed crayons from a third, my mother broke away from the expected discipline. She put her hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Oh, Tommy, you must be very tired or I’m sure you wouldn’t act this way. So I’m going to help you find a place to rest.”

She took his nap mat and spread it out behind the old upright piano that sat at an angle near the corner of the room. Tommy had plenty of private space to stretch out behind the piano, but he could neither see nor be seen by the others.

Mom seated all the other children on the floor and she sat at the piano. She began playing and singing nursery melodies about little hands that go clap! clap! clap! and eyes that go blink! blink! blink! and so on. One song, then the next, happy children singing loudly and laughing along with their teacher.

When they stopped to catch their breaths, a little voice behind the piano called out. “I’m all rested, Teacher. I know how to act now.” And he did. Tommy was very helpful after that. And any time he began to slip, she asked if he needed another rest. He didn’t.

Many years later, when I was teaching Transcendentalism to my high school English students, one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau was this: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

It was then that my mother told me the story of Tommy. She laughed, adding, “That works, as long as the individual steps to his own music without stomping on others.” She was very encouraging of individuality, of each person following his own inner beat of a different drum, as long as it didn’t hurt someone else.

This ends (the other) Mary’s lesson, for both children and adults, just in time for the push-and-shove, sugar-high, holiday chaos. And also, if it weren’t for her dementia, my mother would probably remind us to never give young children drums for Christmas. Or any time, actually, unless they live somewhere else and will take the drums with them.

Decades later, Mom's own great-grandchildren; Grace is about the age Mom's kindergarten students were in the big picture.

Decades later, Mom’s own great-grandchildren; Grace is about the age Mom’s kindergarten students were in the big picture.

Mom (top row, third from left) ~ a young kindergarten teacher.

Mom (top row, third from left) ~ a young kindergarten teacher.


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Henry David Thoreau, kindergarten lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren, special quotations


"Red Hot Jello" (also known by other names.  All pictures by Marylin Warner.)

“Red Hot Jello” (also known by other names. All pictures by Marylin Warner.)


Federico Fellini said, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

Maybe he was right, but this soon after Thanksgiving, I suggest you try a different combination: a Red Hot Coke recipe, and a no-entry-fee-but-cash-prizes mini-writing contest.

First the recipe. This is easy, everyone loves it, and it’s been a favorite in our family for a very long time. We don’t remember who first shared it, and we’re not even sure what the actual name is. My grandchildren call it “Red Hot Coke Salad” and “Cinnamon Bubble Salad,” and the picture is above.

Here’s the ultra-easy recipe:

Pour one cup boiling water over one large pkg. of Cherry Jello mixed with 1 cup of red hot candies

Whisk or stir until mixed completely together

Add 1 cup of very cold water and 1 cup of chilled applesauce (we like chunky) and stir well

Stir in one-half cup of cold Coke (or Pepsi)   Pour into a bowl and refrigerate

You can stop here and it’s VERY good. You can make it AMAZING by adding Cool Whip–use creamy.

When the Jello mixture is starting to set up, stir in ½ of a small container of softened Cool Whip and put the mixture back in the refrigerator. When it’s all set up, smooth the other ½ container of Cool Whip across the top.   Serve to rave reviews.

Now that you’re energized, jump right into a very short, make-yourself-think-and-take-a-challenge writing contest. Remember several months ago when I published a blog that included a 10-word-max. writing contest. (Remember Hemingway’s 6-word story: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never Used.”)

Well this contest gives you much more room to write. Create a piece of prose between 20 words and 40 words that tells, shows or evokes a complete story idea. Oh, and anywhere in the story–just once and ONLY ONCE–use the word “refrigerator.” 

Oh, wow! This ties in with the refrigerated Jello recipe, too! Is that serendipity or what?

The salad can be served any time. The story deadline (submitted online) is next Friday, December 5, before midnight (Eastern Time). No entry free. Cash prizes. Details at:

Before her dementia, this is the kind of the thing Mom and I used to do long-distance.  Now she’ll still love the Jello, but she won’t know who I am or that I fixed it. And she’s not writing any more, not even 20 words. But I’m doing both the Red Hot Coke Salad and the mini-writing contest, and I hope you’ll try either one—or both—with me!

One of my mother’s favorite writers, Erma Bombeck, once said, “I am not a glutton ~ I am an explorer of food.”   What a magic combination: exploring both food and writing opportunities!


Another thanks to the Brits for the "Keep Calm" philosophy; I say "have a cupcake and WRITE!"

Another thanks to the Brits for the “Keep Calm” philosophy; I say “have a cupcake and WRITE!”

Need something besides Red Hot Jello to buzz you up for writing?  Stay calm and try cherry-Cherry-chocolate-fudeg cupcakes!

Need something besides Red Hot Jello to buzz you up for writing? Stay calm and try Cherry-chocolate-fudge cupcakes!


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, special quotations, writing, writing contest with cash prizes, writing exercises


What words would "Mr. Wonderful" say to impress a woman?

What words would “Mr. Wonderful” say to impress a woman?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful's words?

What would John Bunyan say about Mr. Wonderful’s words?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

What would a patient Grandpa say to his grandson about fishing?

In 1871, Lewis Carrolll wrote the nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky.” It begins “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves ~ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” It’s a well-known poem, often praised for the flow and sounds of the words, and in every English class there are always some students who swear they understand exactly what Carroll was saying.

Author Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a prominent novelist, poet and short story writer who was also known for Gobblefunk, his own language. Two examples are “swigpill” (disgusting food), and “splath-winkled” (hurrying about). Despite this special language he scattered through some of his writing, his also wrote this: “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Sometimes words work; sometimes they don’t. All writers know this, and most agree that one place where this is particularly true is when they write dialogue. It either works, or it doesn’t. 

To loosen up the writers in my classes and workshops, I often jumped right into exercises on writing dialogue. My favorite prop was Mr. Wonderful, a 12” doll with a flashy smile, a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and real-tie brown leather shoes. Press the palm of his hand and he said sixteen different phrases—all from the heart—and all as fake as his smile. Two of my favorites were “You know, I think it’s really important that we talk about our relationship,” and “You know, Honey, why don’t you just relax and let me make dinner tonight…and do the dishes.”

It was obvious to both males and females that Mr. Wonderful’s words were stilted and didn’t work.   So the writers were to act as his “coach” and choose any three of his phrases and write what a “real guy” would say. After they’d finished, they were to hand the sheet to another writer who would write what an imaginary Ms. Wonderful would say in response. Everyone relaxed with the dialogue of this fake-to-the-core doll. It was a great way to get started.

Before my mother’s dementia, once when she was visiting I introduced her to Mr. Wonderful. She listened to his phrases and laughed. Then she said that some of the hardest dialogue to write was how children talk, so another exercise for my students could be to write what a young girl or boy would say to Mr. Wonderful, telling him how to dress and what to say. I really liked her idea, and asked if she wanted to try writing some examples.

Mom looked around, shook her head and smiled. In her opinion, the best way to write dialogue was to get comfortable and sit quietly, in a waiting room or a classroom or anywhere adults or children talk and do things. Then listen to what they say, how they pause or move when they say something, if they chatter on and on or speak in short sentences, if they mumble or whine. That’s how you learn to write like people really talk, she said. You listen.

And then she laughed and added that you didn’t want to sit quietly too long. You might fall asleep and then some uppity writer might write about how you sleep with your mouth open or snore.

My mother taught me that getting words right is important, but so is watching and learning. And getting your heart involved, too. As John Bunyan, author of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, wrote: “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The same is true in life.

This "borrows" from Keep Calm and Carry On.  Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.

This “borrows” from Keep Calm and Carry On. Write your own version, or choose another well-known saying and rewrite it in your style.


Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell where the men are.

Use the title of this book. Write for five minutes and tell what happened to the men.


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, lessons about life, special quotations, teaching, writing, writing exercises


"Weaver's Dream" ~ the only woven wall art I own. (Pictures by Marylin Warner)

“Weaver’s Dream” ~ the only woven wall art I own. (I had to adjust the overall color to show the “mistake”–in reality it’s only slightly different in hue from the rest of the weaving.)

Mom's bird sampler quilt ~ the only quilt she ever made.

Mom’s bird sampler quilt ~ the only quilt she ever made.  (All photos by Marylin Warner)

The 2003 movie/docudrama, EDGE OF AMERICA, is based on the story of a black teacher who is hired to teach English at Three Nations High School in Utah. He’s never been on an Indian reservation, and to make ends meet he agrees to also coach the girls’ unsuccessful basketball team. He is the teacher and the coach, yet he’s the one learning many of the lessons.

One of the most important lessons is about making mistakes, and his biggest one is the demand for perfection. Based on his own experiences, he teaches the girls that out in the real world, their only chance is to first achieve perfection on the basketball court and defeat the prejudice of white players.

The tribal Wise Woman has been weaving rugs all of her life. She says that each is slightly different, leaving openings in the design for growth. This is seen as an imperfection by some, but she believes imperfections are actually spiritual outlets. “Imperfection is beauty,” she says, so in each rug she weaves a mistake…on purpose. Otherwise, “The spirit becomes trapped in perfection…”

EDGE OF AMERICA is an excellent movie; it is also a compelling clash of cultures, philosophies, beliefs and values. I dare say that many of us grew up adhering to the dictionary definition of mistakes: “actions or judgments that are misguided or wrong.” And even Einstein’s well-known comment–“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”–implies that mistakes are necessary in learning, but not desirable for ongoing intentional spiritual outlets. 

My mother’s first quilt was a series of bird patterns. It took her several years as a teen to create twenty blocks of different birds, each hand sewn with a series of basic and combination stitches. It was a training quilt, an introduction to perfecting stitches and developing discipline. When all the blocks were correct—with mistakes carefully taken out and re-stitched until the birds were perfect—then her mother and great aunt helped her piece together the blocks with pink and green accents and borders, and then quilt the design top to a solid pink fabric back.

Years ago I found the quilt neatly folded away among blankets in the closet. It was Mom’s only quilt; when it was finished, she was never interested in doing more than just assisting in others’ projects. It was later that I realized from her comments that the requirements for perfection had dulled her joy of creating. I think she would have agreed with the Wise Woman in EDGE OF AMERICA: “The spirit becomes trapped in perfection.”

I own one hand woven wall hanging. It’s called “Weaver’s Dream” and contains one “mistake.” I have no idea how the weaver accomplished it, but I was assured it was not added on, carefully bleached or altered to look different. It was woven into the pattern…intentionally. The vendor told me the “mistake” had made many buyers choose other wall hangings. I chose “Weaver’s Dream” because of it. It’s a matter of perspective, and although it may be a flaw in my character, perfection has never been my ultimate goal in anything.

Be careful what you wish for.  Personally, I wouldn't waste coins wishing for perfection.

Be careful what you wish for. Personally, I wouldn’t waste coins wishing for perfection.


One block from a quilt of "The Flying Windmill" pattern.  Turn it on it's side and it's the Nazi symbol.

One block from a quilt of “The Flying Windmill” pattern. Turn it on its side and it’s the Nazi symbol. It’s a matter of perspective.


Filed under art, art projects, Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren, Lessons from birds, Quilting projects, sewing, special quotations, Spiritual connections


Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)

Bull in front of Kansas barn (all pictures by Marylin Warner)


Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? or science fiction?

Consider the possible genres: horror? mystery? romance? true crime? science fiction?

On May 2, I wrote a post about a game Mom and I played during some of my visits when she was still in the early stages of dementia.   As I would drive around town, she’d choose a house and answer the question, “What’s Behind the Door?”    It was intended to encourage her to remember tastes, sounds, smells and feelings. We had a lot of fun with the game, and we usually went for an ice cream cone afterwards.

Several of you have asked if I made up other writing prompts.  Here’s another: “Genre-flecting” (thinking about story ideas based on genre types.)

The purpose with my mother was to use different writing genres to inspire ideas for stories and poems. We talked about various genres–mystery, memoir, western, romance, horror, children’s, fantasy, science fiction, etc.–and also combinations of genres: women’s mainstsream, malice domestic mystery, romantic western, narrative poetry, children’s adventure, etc.

We used buildings as the prompts, and once we chose a place, the next step was to create characters, animals, situations or events that happened there. Since I was driving and she was in the passenger seat, I would cite the genre prompt, she’d think about it, and then she’d create a story or poem idea.   For instance, consider the top picture of the bull in front of the barn. If I asked, “What’s going on here that could make a children’s adventure story?” ~ your answer would be very different than if I asked, “What’s going on here that would make a sci-fi/mystery story?”

For those of us who are not participating in this November’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or National Memoir Writing Month, we have another option.  November 14 is both “I Love To Write Day” AND “Loosen Up, Lighten Up Day.”  

Combine them.  Shake your shoulders loose, grab a pen and write.  Choose one of these pictures or use one of your own or from a magazine; consider a genre you especially like to read—or don’t like to read at all—and set a timer.  Write about “What’s going on here?” for 20 min. or an hour, or for half a page or a full page. Write, and see what ideas or memories emerge. 

The wonderful novelist, essayist and short story writer Anais Nin reminds us this about the importance of writing: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection…”  

This November—throughout the month, or on the 14th, or any day—write…and taste life twice.   My mother would be the first to tell you it’s okay to treat yourself with an ice cream cone.

old house at pond      

cabin on open plains

tejon st


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, Different kinds of homes, lessons about life, special quotations, writing, writing exercises