Family Friday: What My Mother Did During My Father’s Foreign Service Career

Robert and Nancy Amerson, Cape Cod
Robert and Nancy Amerson, Cape Cod

So, Nancy, what did you do while you were overseas?

A question posed to my mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, at a Cape Cod dinner party of accomplished retirees

Here’s what she wrote in 2004 about that encounter.

Nothing

Feeling wicked, I found myself answering, “Nothing.” I don’t usually consider myself capable of irony, but this answer could only have been understood by another Foreign Service wife. To soften my rather abrupt response, I continued with the usual recounting that no Embassy wife could work in a foreign post without the ambassador’s approval, and that the only jobs we could accept were as a teacher or nurse.

My answer seemed to satisfy the casual curiosity about how I could have spent 20 years overseas, unoccupied.

Since that night, I have tossed over in my mind just how I could have responded to the women who were years younger than I. In their generation, almost all women have held some paying job and that is, as it has always been for men, the peg that identifies their place in the larger community. So DOING equals BEING PAID.

Homemaker

The women of the early 50s, when we were first married, still were mostly, for want of a better term, homemakers. Some had a taste of earning a salary during a few years of teaching after college, as I did, though few in later years have ever identified themselves as teachers, as I think would be the case now.

Ten moves, four countries, two languages

So, during our 20 odd years overseas, I continued in my homemaker role in an ever expanding way. I was responsible for resettling our family during our 10 moves. For learning to shop in four foreign countries using two new languages. For seeing that our girls were settled in the many different schools.

Hostess, guide, ambassador support

For running large and small parties in our home to fulfill our obligation to promote our country. For being an unofficial guide for visiting official visitors, be they pleasant or unbearable. And for being available to the ambassador’s wife when she required help.

Having a ball

Of course, I was not paid, nor would I have ever even considered such to be a thing. The truth is, I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be having all of these new experiences. I was having a ball.

State Department “Pink Paper” changed it all

A new generation of wives joined our ranks, women who were wary about “being taken advantage of for no pay.“ The old idea of a foreign service team of husband and wife just was not in their vocabulary. No need to go into detail here, it changed the community feeling we felt within the embassies. The state department geared up to produce what was called within the ranks The Pink Paper, delineating rules on the roles of wife overseas.

A killer of fun times was what it amounted to.

Robert and Nancy Amerson served in the United States Information Agency from 1955 to 1979, representing our country through public diplomacy in Venezuela, Italy, Colombia, and Spain.

Robert and Nancy Amerson, Jane and Susan, 1962, Rome
Robert and Nancy Amerson, Jane and Susan 1962, Rome

Family Friday: A family drama in my backyard

Fledgling bird

Like lots of families living through the pandemic, one mother had all the time she could take with her teenager and kicked him out. Or her. It’s hard to tell with a fledgling mockingbird.

When I first spotted the little bird, I thought it was one of the lizards that flash their orange neck fan for the girl lizards to see, or, more likely, to show off to the other male lizards while the girls just roll their eyes. A closer look revealed the orange body part to be a beak, which a very young bird nestled in the grass just outside our patio was opening and closing in silence.

Rescue plan

Poor thing, I thought, too weak to even chirp. Remembering rescuing a baby squirrel in Albany on another spring day years ago, I found a small paper box and ventured outside to save another life.

I bent down to scoop the wee bird up, and two unexpected things happened: the fledgling chirped and hopped a bit — teenagers are such drama queens — and the mother bird dive bombed me.

Backing off

This was not an abandoned or lost bird. This, the wildlife rescue volunteer told me, was an expected rite of passage. The mother boots the fledgling out of the nest but continues feeding the insatiable teen.All I had to do was back off and let the process unfold.

Do not put the bird in a container. That will scare off the mother.

Mary, the volunteer wildlife rescue coordinator

Nature nurture

Even so I heard these words, the mother flew in with a beakful of lunch. After carefully assessing her surroundings, she hopped over to her kid and deposited the morsel in his yawning orange mouth. He immediately chirped for more.

Kids. Ungrateful.

She was back in a few minutes with the next bit. And so on all afternoon while Junior ventured a bit of jumping and flexed his new bony wings.

Mockingbird mother feeds her fledgling in my backyard. It took her about five minutes to scan the surroundings before she hopped down to him. Nature is amazing.

Evening intervention

If the bird is there when evening comes, you can bring it indoors so it’s not killed by an owl, or a snake, or a cat. Or an alligator. But put it right back in the same place in the morning.

Mary, the volunteer wildlife rescue coordinator

The fledgling was gone when we went out to bring him in for the night. I am hoping that he was able to take wing or at least hop to safety. It’s too sad to think that, after all those hours of feeding by a devoted mother, the fledgling was taken by a predator. But, then again, there are all kinds of babies out there needing to be taken care of.

It’s just the beginning of fledgling season. Click here for Palm Beach County information on Florida wildlife.

Family Friday: How to Introduce Your Pandemic Pup to a New Dog

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that we rescued a black Lab just before the pandemic hit last year. Kumba was sweet, rail thin, and nervous-aggressive around other dogs. We had just one session with trainer Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training to begin helping Kumba to get accustomed to another dog before we locked down into quarantine.

Kumba looking in, Pancho looking out ….

As Alison said in a recent post of ours, social distancing has helped dogs be around other dogs without being forced into being buddies. Nose to nose greetings between leashed dogs sounds like a good idea to humans but is a recipe for disaster to our canine companions. Over the past 15 months, Kumba has become more relaxed around other dogs and in fact has several puppy friends in our neighborhood.

The pandemic has done wonders for dog socialization, exposing them to different things without requiring participation.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Three weeks ago, we put Kumba’s readiness to be around another dog to a critical test when our daughter’s Lab, Pancho, came for a two-week stay. It was touch and go for a couple of days, but, thanks to Alison‘s guidance, Kumba’s resilience, and Pancho’s excellent guest manners, the dogs figured out how to share us, our home, walks, and even … (I am not suggesting this, but it was something that happened organically along the end of Week One) drinking out of each other’s water bowls.

At Alison’s recommendation, we introduced them in neutral territory during a walk at a gradually reducing distance, then sat with them in our backyard, then entered a toy-free home environment while constantly monitoring and trying not to panic when either dog bark-snarled to assert his space. That final point is the most difficult.

Have them meet in neutral territory

Alison Chambers
Success means smelling the same thing at the same time!

Rather than have Pancho come charging to the house, Alison suggested we have the dogs see each other outside. We walked out with Kumba and Pancho was across the street on the opposite sidewalk. Oh, a dog. Okay. Check.

Take a parallel walk

Alison Chambers

Keeping them at a distance from each other, with my daughter holding Pancho’s leash and me holding Kumba’s, we did a leisurely stroll around our lake, territory that’s familiar to each of them but which is not either one’s turf. We gradually reduced the distance between them until we were on the same sidewalk and slightly off sides. Kumba was pretty nonchalant and Pancho was totally fine. Check.

Pancho looking over his shoulder

Pancho first, leashes off, be in the backyard.

Alison Chambers

How do you fake relaxing in the backyard while every nerve in your body is attuned to what your dog may or may not do to your other dog? This was a more challenging process than I had expected, in large measure because we were on the dogs’ timetable. We also realized that our reactions could be more alarming than the dogs’ reactions to each other. It took a while, but Kumba and Pancho were both eventually able to lie down and even close their eyes. Check.

Clear toys, beds, bowls before you go indoors.

Alison Chambers

Cleared out the house’s public area, leaving the (back) family room and the (front) living room as big open neutral territories. Pancho hung out in the front room while Kumba was in the back. The kitchen in between became the demilitarized zone, where both dogs could amiably convene in case the person chopping up the food drop something on the floor. They both know that happens all the time. They say food brings people together, same for dogs!

Keep the calm. Dogs and their humans need breaks.

Alison Chambers

We initially kept the boys in separate bedrooms at night and if they were in the house without us, but otherwise they gradually figured out how to coexist together. We praised good behavior— I’m pretty sure lots of treats were dispensed by the other human in the house—and the dogs self-corrected when they stepped over each other’s borders. There’s nothing ambiguous about Pancho’s “hey, get your nose outa my face” bark.


They may never be friends, but our two good dogs co-habited very well. They’ve both spent a lot more time asleep this week!

Wow Kumba!!! What big strides you make!! 😎😎

Alison Chambers

Wellness Wednesday: How We Are Navigating Our Return to Normal

From March 2020 through Friday, my husband and I ate only what I prepared for us at home. I’m pleased to have managed our nutrition very well, and our recent bloodwork shows that we are holding our own against disease. I’ll write a post on nutrition another time to share some of the recipes and cooking tips I picked up along the way.

Today, however, I have to write that …. we broke out and ate at not just one but two restaurants this week. One was just okay, and the other was a homecoming.

Comfortably locked in for a year

The pandemic locked us in, and we got habituated to those limits. We found ourselves enjoying each other’s 24/7 company — not a surprise, but what a bonus after 40 years — and engaging outdoors at a distance with neighbors. I didn’t miss outside society very much at all. In fact, I’d decided that hermit living was just my style, or perhaps it was the idea of breaking out of our self-imposed limits that made me anxious.

Many of us have gotten very comfortable with the safety that our isolated environments have provided and taking these initial steps out of our safe, home-controlled environments can cause fear and anxiety.

Dr. Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Hard-wired for fear

Coming on the heels of a slow recovery from my near-death 2019 illness, the pandemic terrified both of us. The unseen enemy lurked everywhere. We adopted strict cleansing habits. Masks, gloves, and bottles of disinfectant popped up on counters and cabinets around the home and in the car. It was war.

Because our brains have evolved to encode fear so well, it’s hard to turn off.

Kirsten Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Taking baby steps toward old behavior

I walked into a grocery store for the first time in nearly a year when we got our first vaccine. The Publix pharmacy was near the bread aisle, and I will associate the sweet scent of dough with freedom for the rest of my life.

When we were fully vaccinated and outdoors, we began to relax around others. I went to Target, to Publix, to the post office. Not all at once, but here and there.

The way to work through anxiety is to take very small steps forward and expose yourself to manageable amounts of anxiety.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

One giant step into a restaurant

Then came last week, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people could go maskless. Our daughter’s visit coincided with that announcement, and I made reservations — at an outdoor table — at our old favorite weekly dinner place.

It was the first time I’ve had mahi-mahi since the pandemic hit. And blue cheese dressing. And anything someone else cooked.

My family enjoyed an outdoor dinner at Bimini Twist in West Palm Beach

Choosing to keep new patterns

Still, that dinner did not feel like a homecoming. I hadn’t missed dining among strangers, and that included the wait staff, none of whom were our old regulars. Things change over 15 months. Including us.

A lot of people have found that this year has really allowed them to slowdown, to let go of things, to create new patterns and ways of being.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Two days later, we hit a homerun at our favorite breakfast place, where Latino sisters welcomed us back like family. Oh, how we’d worried about them. Other than being unemployed for three months, they and theirs are all well. Tucking in to a hearty Mediterranean omelet and homemade bread, I knew we were on our way to a new normal.

For a lot of people, it’s going to take some time to readjust to a new norm that isn’t quite pre-pandemic but getting closer.

Dr. John Whyte, chief medical director of WebMD.

How are you handling this phase of our unprecedented life?

Embassy Kid: Preface

I am completing a memoir about my childhood, which I spent in Latin America, Europe, and Washington DC during my father’s career in the Foreign Service. Here is the preface from Embassy Kid: A Memoir, which I hope to publish within the year.

Jane Kelly Amerson López

Alone in America

I watched the tail lights of the rental car vanish down the elm-lined street on that August afternoon in 1973, taking my parents and my sister back into the Foreign Service landscape without me. I should have been in that backseat, eyes forward, hands folded, as America vanished behind us, the self-contained, four-person unit jetting back into our Real World.  Instead, here I was, stranded alone in America, astonished to find myself broken apart from the family unit with which I’d negotiated 18 years in Latin America, Europe, and the even stranger land of the Washington DC suburbs. 

Most American kids leave home to go to college. My home had just left me. I was an Embassy kid. 

Finding My Way

It would take me the better part of a decade to sort myself out. While my family completed my father’s Foreign Service career abroad, I switched to my middle name and wandered through the United States, accumulating college credits at five institutions, working a series of hourly jobs, and training as a modern dancer, a trajectory that eventually landed me in New York City. There, in the city that felt like all the places in the Real World at once, the nicest man I know called me by my Spanish name and something clicked in my heart. We’ve been married for forty years, during which we’ve created our own real world rich in rewards, the greatest of which is our daughter. We’ve traveled, but America is home.

Third Culture Kid

 It wasn’t always. When I was younger, I struggled to answer the most American of questions: “Where are you from?”  I lived in eight places in six countries on three continents before I was 18, but none of them was home. I was born in Minnesota and my Norwegian ancestry shows in my fair coloring, but I grew up in Latin countries. I was an American kid with the mystique of a diplomatic passport overseas, but I felt like a foreigner in the United States. I sink my roots fast and make friends quickly, but I up-root easily and don’t ever look back. I’m never from here, but I’m also not from there. Neither a true-blue American like my parents, nor a member of any other nation, I’m a Third Culture Kid. 

Archeological Exploration

When I was in second grade in the magical ancient city of Rome, I was sure I’d be an archeologist. Although that idea evaporated when we moved to another part of the world, I realize now that I’ve spent the better part of my adult life sifting like an archeologist through the detritus of my childhood, looking for the evidence of where I was from. 

I wove childhood memories and family anecdotes into stories about my parents, Robert and Nancy Amerson, my sister, Susie, and me. I dove into the journals, letters, and interviews my parents left behind containing their personal observations about a quarter-century with the United States Information Agency. My father’s book about Venezuela, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, and the oral histories of other Foreign Service officers who served alongside my father during the Cold War, have allowed me to breathe life into historical events and to recover personal experiences that would otherwise have been lost to time. Finding a way to share these stories has been a thrill, a comfort, and an honor. And reflecting on the impression of these experiences on the Embassy kid that I was and the adult I have become has been a rewarding journey. 

An Homage to My Parents

This book is an homage to my parents, two patriots in the firmament of Embassy people, men and women who, then and now, serve as America’s emissaries abroad, raising their children in foreign lands far from family and friends in order that the world get to know us.

These are the stories of an ordinary American family living through extraordinary times in the service of their country. 

This is where I am from. I am an Embassy kid.

Family Friday: When COVID Hits Home for a Reporter

Micaela Watts has spent the year of pandemic tracking the mounting data for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, part of the USA Today Network of newspapers of which my daily, The Palm Beach Post, is part. Her work meant understanding the virus better she ever wanted to know and listening to more heartbreak than she ever wanted to hear. Then, it came for her 100-year-old grandmother, and Ms Watts’ own heart broke.

The two worlds I strive to keep separate came crashing together: my job and my family. I was face to face with COVID-19, a set of genetic codes contained in a virus strand that brought the modern world to its knees. And now it had my grandmother, my Mimi. I had dutifully avoided seeing her for a year, even as I worried it would be her last. She was, after all, 100 years old.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Here is a portion of the article Micaela Watts wrote about her grandmother’s final hour. I found it so touching that it needs no more words from me. Please read through to the end, as the final line broke my heart, too.

The COVID-19 unit was bright and clean. And though Brett had warned me I might hear a lot of different alarms and beeps, it was eerily quiet.

As my gaze moved toward the top of the bed, I first became aware of the dull roar of her oxygen supply. It reminded me of the closed-air system on airplanes, the hiss they make when planes are idling on the runways. I went up to her. Underneath the oxygen mask, her lips were dark. She took a ragged, gravelly breath. I heard her drowning in her own body.

The palliative care doctor, Dr. Blair, placed a hand on my back. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep her comfortable. She won’t be in any pain.” I burst into sobs. I looked over at Dr. Blair. To my surprise, I saw her eyes fill with tears. After a year of the pandemic and her career in palliative care, she was still moved by a granddaughter saying goodbye.

“If this is too hard, and you need to leave,” Brett the nurse said, “I’ll stay with her. I promise you, she will not go out alone.”

Over the next hour and a half, I held her hands and talked, loudly. Between her faulty hearing and the whoosh of the oxygen, I knew I needed to shout. I wondered if anyone passing outside her room could hear me yelling Psalm 23. “I love you,” I yelled. “I love you and it’s OK to go now.”

I watched as a single tear started to spill out of the corner of each of her closed eyes. She tried speaking, tried sitting up. She was already halfway gone. At 100, time was already coming for her, that was true. But did that make watching your loved one die any easier? Not for me.

When Brett next entered the room to administer her next shot of morphine, I knew it was time. “Brett …” I began, turning toward him. “You can turn it off now.” Brett nodded and pivoted toward the control panel for her oxygen. The hissing stopped. The silence that followed was the loudest sound I ever heard.

“She’s going to go quickly now,” he said. I nodded and kept Mimi’s small hand in my grip. She gripped back, hard. I watched her draw fewer and fewer breaths until there were none noticeable. Her grip went slack. I felt a hand on my back again. It was Brett. I looked at him, and he nodded. He didn’t have to say anything.

I slumped over in my chair, and he folded me into a hug. He reassured me that, since there was no intubation, no drawn-out fight, Mimi’s passing was one of the most peaceful he had seen in a solid year of watching people die.

At precisely 10 a.m. that day, the health department sent out their customary tweet with the day’s COVID-19 numbers as well as the daily press email. I opened it up.

There was one new reported death due to complications from COVID-19.

Micaela Watts, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Micaela Watts and her grandmother, Evelyn Watts

Family Friday: Why It’s Always Time to Say Thank-You

Six months ago, we were masked into pandemic lockdown, locked in and fearful as the coronavirus stalked the world. I could not have imagined that a vaccine would reopen the world to our family this spring, but here we are, vaccinated and awaiting the visit of our vaccinated daughter and her vaccinated fiancé. Just yesterday, the CDC announced that we can move mask-free through the outside world.

Science should win all the prizes this year.

I’ve begun wondering how long it will take us to forget how grateful we must be for the rest of our lives. I’m going to try very, very hard to remember what it was like to be in quarantine as I move out into the populated landscape once again. And, as I do, I’m going to thank everyone that got us through the storm to safe harbor.

Musical (Thank-You) Notes

The enforced aloneness of the Coronavirus pandemic gave us a new appreciation for the people that make our lives possible. The apartment-dwelling residents in big cities applauded front-line workers from their balconies. Drive-by birthday parties became “a thing.” Musicians — like Yo Yo Ma, who kicked off #SongsOfComfort on Twitter — serenaded their neighbors.

Yo Yo Ma, playing Dvorak’s “Going Home”

Thank-You Notes and Holiday Cards

Last fall, we were not going anywhere, seeing anyone, doing anything. No parties. No visits. No people. And, yet, I sent out thank-you notes.

I had recently organized my stationery drawer, discovering a stash of note cards inherited from my mother’s treasure trove years ago. Thank-you notes, blank notes, Christmas cards, some with envelopes were so old that the adhesive had flaked off.

In between sewing masks and making phone calls for the Biden campaign (yes, thank you Georgia!!!!) I sent notes to some 50 aunts, uncles, cousins on the family mailing list maintained by our family scribe, Aunt Snooky.

I sent out holiday cards without a real holiday in sight and thank-you notes just because. It’s time to do it again, to the neighbor who delivered food from the grocery store, to my pool buddy who texts me when she’s going over for a swim, to the neighbors who have helped acclimate our rescue Lab Kumba to the dynamics of our community. To our daughter, whose genuine concern and interest in our lives shines through in her frequent calls, I sent an unbelievable New York Times Nutella banana bread.

Who do you know who could use a thank-you note?

Thanking Amsterdam

Two years ago this week, my husband and I were completing our two-week crossing of the Atlantic. We had no idea that my heart would stop on May 5 while we were in Amsterdam, or that a compassionate community of nurses, doctors would save my life and that the Turkish family of another ICU patient would adopt my husband into their fold.

Yesterday, finally able to safely stand in a long line at the post office, I mailed my Amsterdam doctor, nurse, and physiotherapist copies of Kaleidoscope WoJo’s anthology In My Shoes including my story, Surviving Amsterdam. And, to celebrate the new lives created since we left Holland, I also mailed my friend Julie Iribarren’s charming children’s book, Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog, to my doctor’s baby girl and to the baby girl of our Turkish friend.

Pre-order from Amazon through Wednesday!

Random Acts of Kindness

So, as the world re-opens, let us not get so busy that we forget how much we treasure each other. I was touched by the words in a lovely obituary that ran in my newspaper in February, and will close with them.

Life is a song. Love is the music. Jayne was a blessing of light and love to all who knew her. In Jayne’s memory, please consider a random act of kindness today.

Obituary of Janice (Jayne) T. Balma, The Palm Beach Post

Family Friday: A Conversation With the Creative Team Behind “Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog”

Several years ago, I wrote about an abandoned Golden Retriever, Levi Journey, who was rescued by a retired teacher and became a therapy dog. Last year, I wrote the happy news that Levi’s story was becoming a book. Now, I am thrilled to announce that Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog has been published here .

I recently spoke with Author Julie Iribarren, Illustrator Martin Peers (Toast Cartoons), and Palm Beach County Library Children’s Librarian Vanessa Rossel about how this charming and touching book came to be.

Julie lives in Florida and Martin lives in the UK, but the illustrations fit the story so well.  How did you find each other?

Julie: That is pretty remarkable. I discovered Martin on Facebook through his mother, who is on the page devoted to commemorating the development of the Golden Retriever breed in the 1860s by Lord Tweedmouth in Scotland. Browsing Facebook last March, I found a charming Golden Retriever cartoon that had been posted by Martin’s mother. I didn’t know who it was by, but I knew I had found my illustrator! 

Martin: I’ve been drawing cartoons all my life, and I especially enjoy drawing animals.  Ever since my family owned the first of several Golden Retrievers, I have been drawing cartoons of this characterful, handsome dog breed. When Julie reached out to me in March, it was perfect timing, because I had just quit working for the railroad and was devoting myself to cartoons and illustrations full-time. I loved the idea behind her book, and accepting her invitation to be the illustrator was a commission from heaven!

What were your concerns and expectations going into the project?

Julie: Well, this was my first book, and so it was a rough start. I knew the story I wanted to tell — in fact, I’d been telling the story to children across Palm Beach County when Levi and I visited for the Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program. It was one of the Royal Palm Beach  librarians, Vanessa, who pushed me to write the book.  Each time Levi and I visited Vanessa’s library, she had a new idea, a new approach, how it might begin, a website to check out. She was marvelously relentless! 

Vanessa: I watched how the children and their parents reacted to Levi’s story, and I knew Julie needed to tell the world this inspiring tale — from abandoned and alone, to rescued and loved, to  serving a greater purpose as a therapy dog. I adopted my own dog, so the story broke my heart. It was amazing how Levi calmed the children’s nerves and helped them want to read just by his presence. Telling the story seemed a fitting tribute to his journey. And when the pandemic hit, the libraries closed and ARF was suspended, I knew Julie was going to use the break to create the book. 

Martin: Last year, I set myself up as a freelance illustrator and this was my first big commission.  I was not at all concerned by this project – on the contrary, I thought it was a brilliant story and I couldn’t wait to get going!   I knew exactly how I should approach the illustration work and went through Julie’s manuscript in meticulous detail to work out how the illustrations should look, what sections of text would be best served by illustrations, and most importantly to capture a character design of Levi in cartoon form that Julie was happy with. 

Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons
Martin Peers, illustrator and cartoonist, Toast Cartoons

How about the project’s challenges and joys?

Julie: I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know how. As a retired teacher, I wanted the book to be a teaching tool, but I got bogged down in the details and Levi’s sad beginning made the story so dark. Then, the West Boynton/Wellington Florida Writers Association critique group and another writers group that also meets at the library gave me some starting points, but it was when Martin and his artistry came on board that the story sprang to life.

Martin: I knew right away that the “voice” needed to be Levi’s, and when Julie made that change the book became much more fun and engaging and suited the illustrations even better. She gave me room to create while providing me with photos of all the people and places in Levi’s life, so that the illustrations could have the right look and feel.

Vanessa: I’m in the illustration of the library ARF program!

Julie: And our neighbors and their pets, rescue volunteers Joe and Diane, and Dr. Del La Torre (aka Dr. D.) from the animal clinic used by Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue have all loved seeing themselves in Martin’s cartoons. 

Martin: I am very particular in everything I do for clients, so it was really important to get these images right. I began with sketches, then full page layouts that showed where the text should go. I was heavily involved with the approval of the final draft with the publishers, as I was adamant that my illustrations should be presented in a certain way, with the correct sections of the text, and that the font sizes were consistent. There was a lot of back and forth with the publishers to sort out these technical changes. I imagine it must have been so frustrating for Julie! But it was definitely worth all the effort. 

Julie: It was intense at times. I am fussy and picky, and it was frustrating not to have direct control on the design side of the publishers, but they were overwhelmed with work — the pandemic brought out the inner author in a lot of us.

Vanessa: The book really captures the emotions of this story. 

Martin: The best part of being an illustrator is that my work brings people so much joy. The positive reactions this book has garnered on release and the enthusiastic response to my drawings feel wonderful!

Julie: It is more than I ever expected this book could be. I’m thrilled with it.

So, what’s next?

Julie: Well, the book is now available through BookBaby. Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges). I’m beginning to schedule readings at schools, libraries, and community center to promote the book. In fact, we’ll be in Kelly’s neighborhood later this week and again in May. 

Vanessa: We are thrilled to have Julie and Levi kick off the library’s virtual summer reading program, and we’ll bring them back to the ARF program when we resume in-person programs.

Martin: Levi’s story has been such a tremendous experience for me as an illustrator, and working with Julie has been great.  It has really shown me what I can be capable of after so long drawing pictures in a non-professional capacity.  I really feel I have done the right thing in transitioning to illustrator and I hope that my work on Levi’s story will be the first of many illustration projects – either working with other authors or, ideally, illustrating my own children’s book!

Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi his story
Author Julie Iribarren reads Levi Journey his story

Julie: This was a labor of love. On the good days during this past year, I could envision a whole Levi series — “Levi Goes to the Beach,” “Levi Goes to the Farmers Market.” But there were so many challenging days that my husband made me promise that this was going to be the only book, otherwise the Levi series would have included “Levi Meets His New Daddy.”

Levi Journey: An Unlikely Therapy Dog is available through BookBaby, and Amazon is doing a promotion through May 6 (as is Target and, for the international market, BookDepository, which charges a bit more but will send it without shipping charges).

Family Friday: How to help your unsocialized dog say hello

A dog on a leash encountering another dog is like a person in handcuffs walking into a party.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

Alison Chambers knows dogs, and she shares her expertise to help us better understand and live with our pets. In my March post, she gave us tips on helping pandemic dogs through separation anxiety. We’ve had great success using her tips to wean our rescue Lab Kumba from our constant presence. Things to chew on help!

Our rescue Lab Kumba and his chew toy
Our rescue Lab Kumba and his very well chewed toy

Today’s advice is on helping socialize our pets. We discovered that our sweet new boy had a wild streak of aggression when confronted with another dog. The pandemic has helped keep such encounters at bay. But as life opens back up again, how can we help our dogs meet each other? Here’s Alison’s advice.

Rule Number One: Don’t let dogs go nose-to-nose. Human look each other in the eye and face each other when we speak. To a dog, a direct stare is an invitation to conflict.

Rule Number Two: Keep the leash loose. Restraining a dog sends the message that what they are greeting is dangerous.

Rule Number Three: Limit the transaction to two seconds. Then recall your dog with his name, not a yank on the leash. Remember Rule Number Two?

Rule Number Four: Not all dogs want to say hello. Read your dog and the dog you have encountered.

Rule Number Five: Always ask permission before approaching another dog. Use the social distancing skills we’ve learned during pandemic to keep aware of personal space.

Alison Chambers of Complete Canine Training

We’ll be working on these tips as we help Kumba navigate his environment in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned for a progress report and tips from Alison Chambers on how to understand our dogs.

Alison Chambers and Otto

Family Friday: What I Learned About My Grandfather in His Eulogy

He was what you saw: a simple, forthright, kindly, gentle man of utmost integrity. In fact, he leaned backward to avoid any pretense.

Reverend Harold Rekstad’s eulogy of James T. Robb

I was bent on surviving seventh grade as a first-timer in a Maryland junior high when my mother’s father, Grandpa Robb, died in April, 1967. He was only 69 — three years older than I am now — brought down by prostate cancer. I didn’t know that his illness was the reason for the trip my sister and I made with our mother from Bogotá the summer before sixth grade, or that the last time I’d see him would be in a Winona hospital, where he noticed my stylish pale pink lipstick. Brief visits to Winona were all I’d known of Grandpa until the week that my grandparents spent with us in Colombia, when we connected as fellow writers in a way that felt very special.

Grandpa had a quiet smile on his face as he wandered over to a bench and pulled his notepad and pencil out from his jacket breast pocket. I recognized the unseeing gaze — he was building a poem. I hoped he would share it with me, like Mom shared my poems with him in her Monday letters home.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Bogotá, 1964

Dad was five thousand miles away setting up press for the Pan-American summit in Uruguay that April, so my sister and I stayed with next door neighbors while Mom flew to Minnesota alone.

Laying in the Murrays’ guest room bed, I realized that I would never again hold Grandpa’s soft, creased hands, never again hear his voice reading my poetry back to me over the telephone, never again seek his counsel on a rhythm or a rhyme. The void was as big as the night sky over the White House the night we stood vigil for President Kennedy.

Jane Kelly Amerson López, The Dictator Flew Over Our House & Other True Stories, Rockville, 1967

Just this week, I discovered the typed-out eulogy that Grandpa’s pastor and close personal friend, the Reverend Harold Rekstad, delivered on April 13 at the First Congregational Church in Winona. Reading it, I felt that I was sitting in those pews but also sitting with Grandpa.

Quality of character

Jim would be greatly distressed if he thought this would be a sad or mournful occasion. He would dislike even more any kind of flowery eulogy. However, he manifested many qualities of character which we want to recall, not in eulogy, but as an inspiration for ourselves in the years to come!

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Soul of a poet

There was neither sham nor guile in his makeup. Jim had the soul of a poet. He sensed and saw the world about him and felt deeply what is missed by the casual observer.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Compassionate man

Jim was a man of genuine compassion. He cared about others, and expressed his concern In quiet, thoughtful, unobtrusive ways. He was a man of genuine religious faith, the kind that comes from the heart by deed and thought, not rote or ritual. Of all the possessions he might bequeath his loved ones, this would be the choicest, for it was was plain and simple.

The Reverend Harold Rekstad, First Congregational Church

Grandpa’s Bogotá poem: A Call and Farewell (1964)

I cannot leave this place

This town

Or any land

But must look back

And then I see

One beckoning

And gently waving hand.