Category Archives: writing

One Night, One Day, One Month

Photos by Marylin Warner

(Photos by Marylin Warner)








Comedienne Rita Rudner once quipped, “All my life, my parents said, ‘Never take candy from strangers.’ And then they dressed me up and said, ‘Now go beg for it.”

Halloween. When we dress up to be someone else and go trick’o’treating. One night, the last night of October, is about dressing up, playing pranks, and getting goodies.

 church window  All Saint’s Day on November 1st, and All Soul’s Day on November 2nd are for honoring saintly people of the past and praying for the souls of those who’ve gone before us. In churches and cemeteries and homes, these days are for remembering others.

November 2nd is also one day for us to think about our own lives…and how we want to be remembered after we die. Nov. 2nd is PLAN YOUR EPITAPH DAY.

angel marker

During the early stages of my mother’s dementia, we took long drives together when I visited her each month. I’ve written about the ways we created story and poem ideas during those rides, but there’s something else we did. We sometimes visited cemeteries. On nice days we’d walk in the sunshine at one of the local cemeteries, read tombstones and pay our respects. One tombstone was my mother’s favorite, and mine as well.

It’s a wide, marble, double headstone: the wife’s full name and dates of birth and death are on side of the carved heart; the husband’s full name and dates are on the other. The husband outlived his wife by many years. On the back of the marble headstone are two carved hearts intertwined. Below are two girls’ first and middle names, but only one date ~ the same date of death as their mother’s death. Below the girls’ names is this epitaph: “They took their first breaths with God.” At this headstone we paused and prayed for the mother who died with her still-born daughters, and the father who lost them all.

Planning our epitaphs isn’t about deciding what will be set in stone after we die. It’s one day when we think how we want to be remembered, and in doing so, consider how we’re living our lives.

The entire month of November is LIFEWRITING MONTH. This is the month to take notes, to write essays, stories, poems (or paint pictures and organize photographs) of our lives or the lives of those we love, and events, people and places we want to remember.

If these November Days seem heavy-handed, realize that it’s also PICTURE BOOK MONTH, NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH, PEANUT BUTTER LOVERS MONTH, and NATIONAL SLEEP COMFORT MONTH. That’s just to name a few; there are many other choices. Depending where you live, the month of November might be a darker, colder month when trees lose their leaves and it’s more likely to sleet or snow than to rain, but it’s certainly not a month with nothing to do.

Computer, typewriter, pencil and paper, crayons or chalk: look at all the November writing activities.

Computer, typewriter, pencil and paper, crayons or chalk: look at all the November Days to express yourself.





Filed under autumn lessons, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, importance of doing good things, lessons about life, life questions, making a difference, memories for great-grandchildren, Spiritual connections, writing


If this 1958 Thunderbird was yellow with a white top, it would look like Old Yeller.

Instead of being pink and black, if this 1958 Thunderbird was yellow with a white top and had a smiling teen waving from the driver’s seat, it could be Old Yeller.

This is Sunshine, my amazing FJ Cruiser. I'm crazy about her!

This is Sunshine, my amazing FJ Cruiser. I’m crazy about her, and we’re going to grow old together.

Even Smokey the Bear likes Sunshine when I drive her as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service. (pictures by Jim Warner)

Even Smokey the Bear liked Sunshine when I drove her as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service. (pictures by Jim Warner)

In 2008, when my mother’s dementia was not yet overwhelming, I took her out to see my new FJ Cruiser and said, “This is Sunshine.” I had to help Mom up into the passenger’s seat because real off-road vehicles in Colorado need a lot of clearance. As I strapped her in, Mom looked around, smiled and said, “I know why you chose this color, Marylin. It’s because of Old Yeller.” I hadn’t thought of a reason other than I just loved Sunshine’s color, but Mom was right.

Many decades earlier, Old Yeller was the car my dad trusted me to drive during my senior year in high school after my brother went to college. She was a 1958 Thunderbird, which later was a much sought after classic, but in 1966 she was just a used car. A wonderful used car that was mine to drive and keep filled with gas, to use as practice for changing a flat tie and checking the oil and all fluids. Because of her I worked at the dealership more hours after school and on weekends to pay for her maintenance, but I loved her.

I am the daughter of a car dealer whose work commitment and love of cars built five successful corporations of dealerships and employed generations of mechanics, sales people, and staff. By the time Dad died of Alzheimer’s, he’d been out of the public eye for years, but at the visitation the line to pay respects wound its way outside, and at the funeral the church was standing room only. The stories about his honesty, fair play, kindness and generous help in difficult times were numerous and touching.

My dad had laughed when I named the Thunderbird Old Yeller, but I’m sure it worried him, too, because to name a car is to form an attachment. I had Old Yeller for only a year. We shook hands on that—with my dad, a hand shake was as binding as a contract—and a year later I went away to college, sad to leave Old Yeller behind.   But the new owner, and my dad, knew that a named car also has often received excellent care. TLC.

Old Yeller was not just my first car, but decades later she was also my first memoir writing sale. I had published a good number of short stories and articles by the time I sold “Memories of Old Yeller” to the national FORD TIMES magazine, but the editors actually paid me a dollar a word for my account of naming my first car and learning unusual lessons. This was exceptional pay, teaching me that memories make for excellent writing exercise, and also encouraged me to spread my writing wings into other genres.

This post is a tribute to Ray Shepherd, who smiled when his daughter named her first car Old Yeller. It’s also a tribute to my mom, Mary Shepherd, who worked along side him to build successful businesses that looked out for their employees and cared for them as friends. My parents went out of their way to help people who were having hard times replace bald tires and get the trustworthy service to keep driving safely.

October is “Name Your Car” month. Before their Alzheimer’s and dementia, my parents were happiest when any car they sold was loved enough to be named.

“General Lee” from THE DUKES OF HAZARD” (Grange picture)

“Christine”–star of the Stephen King novel and movie by the same name.

“Herbie” from LOVE BUG.
(R. Cartwright stock photo)


Filed under Dementia/Alzheimer's, lessons about life, lessons for great-grandchildren, making a difference, writing, writing exercises


My mom's favorite book to have read to her at bedtime.

My mom’s favorite book to have read to her at bedtime.  I think it reminds her of poems and prayers from her youth.







What is the mark we leave behind?  (All photos by Marylin Warner)

What is the mark each of us will make to leave behind? (All photos by Marylin Warner)

When I visit my mom, my favorite time is at night when she’s tucked into bed, and I pull up the rocking chair and read to her. Her favorite book—the one I always read several times from start to finish—is Joan Walsh Anglund’s A LITTLE BOOK OF POEMS AND PRAYERS. Sometimes Mom naps, sometimes she smiles, and sometimes she hums along with her own rhythm to the words and poems.   All else falls away.

This is the first example on the first page of Anglund’s book. Originally the page displayed only the title, but this handwritten addition was made later:

What you do ~ What you say ~ How you work ~ How you play ~ Day by Day ~  

It all matters ~ When all is done ~ It’s what you leave behind ~ Saying who you were.

Imagine taking a philosophy class and having the professor write this quote by Aristotle on the board: “We are what we repeatedly do. Greatness then, is not an act but a habit.” And then, instead of assigning some deep, intellectual essay to expresses the best way for individuals to live, imagine that the assignment was to write a very brief set of instructions, so simple a child could understand them. If a professor gave you this assignment, what would you write?  I’ve already shown you my simplistic answer. (Obviously, the assignment was not to write good poetry.)

August is WHAT WILL BE YOUR LEGACY? month. It’s intended to be a time for us to reflect on our past and present actions and vow to make positive changes that will affect the future and be the legacy we leave behind.

The suggestions for making the most of this month are numerous. Everything from thanking those who have made a difference in your life to “Playing The Legacy Game” and having everyone in your group tell how they would like to be remembered and what they can do to make this happen.

What you decide to do—if anything—is up to you. I’m fairly certain that if it weren’t for her dementia, my mother would say that since she and Dad were married in August, everything that came out of that union—including their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, plus the business they built and the differences they made—was their legacy.

If thinking about your legacy—or writing a bad poem about what you want to leave behind—isn’t what you want to do, August has numerous other opportunities. It is also Happiness Happens Month, Boomers Making A Difference Month, and Get Ready for Kindergarten Month. You’ve already missed Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Night and National Garage Sale Day (both on August 8th) and S’mores Day (August 10th), but you can go ahead and do those things anyway.

That could be your legacy…breaking the rules and doing things on the unexpected days!

P.S.  —  The link I gave for the 50-word Gotham contest had an “invisible space” (according to the very nice Gotham editor who responded to my email cry for help.)  Here is the correct one, which seems the same, but the space has been removed.   I tried it, and it works!  Jump right in and enter by the 17th!!!           black butterfly

grasshopper on leaf


Filed under celebrations, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, importance of doing good things, lessons about life, life questions, special quotations, writing, writing exercises


Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch  (Wikipedia photo)

Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch (Wikipedia photo)

CIDAR HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving.

CIDER HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving

Many years ago, before my dad’s Alzheimer’s distracted my mom’s writing, and then her own dementia stopped the writing altogether, she had an idea for an adult short story. Prior to that, she’d written children’s stories and poetry.

The idea for the story grew out of an actual event, a hurtful situation caused by a member of the family, and it had nagged at Mom for a long time. She wanted to write it just for herself—to sort it out and get it off her chest, like writers sometimes do—but in case it was ever accidentally found, she wanted to use a fictional location and names for the characters.

Many of the writers in my classes use books of baby names, search telephone books for name ideas, or read headstones at cemeteries.  Another way to study names for characters is read a lot of stories and novels.

Author John Irving’s books contain a variety of fictional characters’ names: Garp, Egg, Owen Meany, Piggy Sneed, etc. One of my favorite Irving novels, CIDER HOUSE RULES, features Dr. Wilbur Larch’s orphanage for children whose mothers did not come to him for abortions, but ended up abandoning their babies after giving birth.

One of the babies who was unsuccessfully adopted several times had been named Homer by Dr. Larch. As an adult, Homer helped choose names for other orphan babies, so the book is full of names. One charming practice at the orphanage is Dr. Larch reading aloud to the orphan boys each night, and closing with this tribute: “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” I suspected Mom would choose one of the female characters’ names for her story, and if her story had included a male, she might also have considered the name Wilbur.

If I had a son, I would not name him Wilbur. But through good writing and story telling, I have appreciation for the name. In E.B. White’s 1952 classic, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the barn spider’s friend is Wilbur the pig.  Wm. Joyce’s book, A DAY WITH WILBUR ROBINSON, is about a twelve-year-old searching for a pair of false teeth. And then there’s Wilbur Wright, co-inventor and co-pilot of the first successful airplane.

Even though the dementia has erased the story Mom wrote and the search for alternate names, I close this post with a tribute to her: “Good night, you princess of Kansas, you queen of kind living and gentle lessons.”

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig.  His name?  Wilbur.  Their advice:

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig. His name? Wilbur. Their advice: “Don’t get too close. He’s hungry.”


Filed under Books and book titles, Dementia/Alzheimer's, Kansas, lessons for great-grandchildren, making a difference, special quotations, writing, writing exercises


ROYGBIV X 2 = a double rainbow.  (picture by Jim Warner)

ROYGBIV x 2 = a double rainbow. (picture by Jim Warner)

M & Ms are acronyms for Mars and Murrie's, the last names of the candy's founders.

M & Ms are acronyms for Mars and Murrie’s, the last names of the candy’s founders.

A golf cart For Sale.  It's a BMW, meaning "Bavarian Motor Works."

A golf cart For Sale. It’s a BMW, the acronym for “Bavarian Motor Works.”

I was in fourth grade when the teacher taught us a tool for remembering the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Thank you, Roy G Biv.

Today we’ve moved beyond teaching tools and abbreviations. Acronyms are used in every industry, in all walks of life. Texting and instant messaging make up a whole new series of acronyms. AFK says we’re away from keyboard; BRB assures we’ll be right back; and if you’re guarding what you’re sharing, POS tells the other person Parents Over Shoulder. BF is Best Friend, BFF is Best Friends Forever; BFFL is Best Friends For Life. It’s touching to know that even the act of identifying and ranking levels of our most important friendships can now be accomplished in acronyms of 2-4 letters.

Some acronyms we know “in general” what they mean. For instance, we know SOS is a call for help, but technically it means “Save Our Souls.” The Latin meanings of the acronyms for i.e. and e.g. are long, complicated, and well…in Latin. The useful meanings are “in other words” for i.e., and “for example” for e.g.   And most of us probably know what a TASER is, but do you know that TASER is the acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”?

If we’re going to use acronyms, we really should know what they mean. LOL means “laugh out loud,” and therefore shouldn’t be used as part of the message on a sympathy card because you think it means “lots of love.” Sometimes it’s better to write out what we feel instead of taking chances that the acronym might be misinterpreted.

While my parents were still living at home—before my father’s Alzheimer’s and long before my mother’s dementia—I was visiting them when a young girl dropped off some writing materials for my mom. As the teen put them on the coffee table, Mom noticed her colorful bracelet and asked what the letters stood for. The girl smiled and held out her arm to show off the WWJD. “It’s a reminder,” she said. “A question to ask myself…’What Would Jesus Do?’”

Ever helpful and pleasant, my mother smiled and patted the girl’s hand. “Oh, sweetheart, you know there’s a book that actually tells you what Jesus did do.”

The world is changing with acronyms providing faster ways of communicating. It is not TEOTWAWKI—“The End of The World As We Know It”—just another new thing we can choose to embrace or not.

To all of you I say BBS (Be Back Soon) and TTYL (Talk To you Later).  To my mom I don’t say HAGN or TYVM, because she wouldn’t know what those mean. So I say “Have a good night” and “Thank you very much” for being a wonderful mom.

One of the most popular acronym message bracelets of the 1990s.

One of the most popular acronym message bracelets of the 1990s.


Filed under Different kinds of homes, friends, lessons about life, memories for great-grandchildren, writing



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


"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