We all want dessert

The Godmother of this blog left earth unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago.

I started this blog on a writer’s retreat that my dear friend Leslie Cannon organized a few times a year. During this grand tradition, I got a lot of encouragement and tips from my fellow writers on blogging. Leslie took the time to edit some of my posts and always had an encouraging or funny comment here or on Facebook. She did the same and more for me in person, the definition of a true friend.

She also made me laugh. Check out this photo:

Leslie at the Oscars

This photo is Pure Leslie. She added herself to Ellen’s Oscar selfie. (Courtesy of Meg Cannon.)

With an aching heart, I thought to myself, how do you write about one of the most witty, terrific writers, you have ever met?

I chose to ask Leslie Cannon’s fellow writers and friends Ursula Roma and Jan Toraason to share what they read at the celebration of her life. I think what they wrote is perfection.

Leslie, Leslie, Leslie

by Ursula Roma

Leslie Cannon was many things to me. She was a friend, a fellow writer, a surrogate mother, and a close confidante. After my mom died, and after some break-ups, she was one of the safest people to talk to about these relationships. She didn’t try to fix things, but gave me kind, caring, loving attention. She listened. And though Leslie LOVED attention, she was very good at being present, and giving attention when other people needed it.

We all want dessert

Occasionally for our Tuesday writing group, Leslie would neglect to bring writing, and I ALWAYS thought it was a bit unfair. Not because the rest of us didn’t occasionally do the same, there were certainly times when one of us might not have brought writing or been inspired to write. But it felt unfair, because it FELT like NOT GETTING DESSERT, the highlight of the meal. It left me with a sense of deprivation, because her writing was so good, and so rich, and funny, that it left me WANTING when it wasn’t there. And so, that feeling of wanting – well, I think she’s kind of left me with that. She’s left ALL of us with that. We ALL want more. We all want more because that feeling of laughter, that bursting out with laughter is such a healing experience. I think that’s what we’re all going to miss. She could make us feel so good.

It was worth doing

Leslie might sometimes say, “Let’s bring the conversation back to me” – and often times, we did. Not just because she PLAYFULLY INSISTED we do so, but because it was WORTH DOING. Because the laughs you could get from Leslie were pretty much irreplaceable – so it was worth giving her that extra attention. It always paid off.

I know that Leslie would love to be here right now – and I think she probably is! She wouldn’t want to miss it! So what better way to commemorate her – to keep this conversation going -with strangers, with people she knew, with mutual friends and family, than to have a T-SHIRT to encourage us to share her stories!

(At this point, Ursula opened her shirt to show her Leslie, Leslie, Leslie T-shirt.)

Ursula and Jan.

Ursula and Jan.

I think we should ALL consider wearing these shirts – and wear them out into the world to engage others in conversation ABOUT LESLIE –and to keep these stories going BACK to Leslie – as long as we can. Because we certainly aren’t going to match her WIT anytime soon. So these funny stories, these kind and crazy stories – will have to comfort us and keep her memory alive. And I think, she might just like that.

A Prayer for Leslie

By  Jan Toraason

Our Dear Leslie – friend, sister, and mother – now knows the answer to the great What’s Next. We had a conversation about it last year as a party wound down and we sat together sipping and snacking.

Leslie wanted to talk about religion. What did I believe, she asked. I gave her my usual hazy answer, and she said she thought the same: that there is something connecting all that is to the original energy. We are pieces of stars. There is something greater than ourselves, a divine mystery that set the universe to life and lives in us all.

She brought light to our lives

One thing I don’t think Leslie could know before this week was the tremendous love that all of her family and friends – everyone who was touched by her humor, her generosity, and her wisdom – what we all felt for her. I’ve never seen such an outpouring on Facebook. Our shock and grief at the sudden loss. Our appreciation for the light she brought to our lives.

We all have little movies in our head starring Leslie Cannon: images of the way she laughs, the way she enjoys life, her smarts, her self-deprecating ways, her romanticism, her quick mind, and original sense of humor.

Me and Ursula. This shirt makes me so happy.

Me and Ursula. This shirt makes me happy.

Her greatest accomplishment

I sensed in this last year or so that Leslie had come to a peaceful and gentle place in her life. She seemed sweeter and kinder and more giving than ever. She seemed to open up and breath in the pleasure of being with her family, her son-in-law, and especially her daughters and granddaughters. So many times she told us stories of their brilliance, beauty, and charm. She laughed at the startling and wonderful things they said, the faces they made. Her children seemed to be her proudest accomplishment. I know they will miss her terribly.

We all know that just as life begins, so it must end. But somehow still, the ending comes as a shock, especially when it comes unexpectedly. Of all the ways to die, though, in your sleep may be the best way, as many have said. And that’s especially true for Leslie, who always loved a good nap. That’s how I like to think of her now, in a lovely deep sleep.

We will miss Leslie’s voice, certainly, and her writing. We will remember her humor, her inventive way with words, and her fearless naming of the ridiculous. I think she may be laughing with us tonight as she transitions, just a few steps ahead of us, into the open door of a new beginning. She has entered again the river of time, of pure energy, of the stars. Yet to us, Leslie was always a star.

Yes, she was a star that we relished.

And still, she is here in us, in all our stories, and in our aching hearts even as we set her spirit free.

So we thank you, Leslie, and can just assume you are smiling at us now to say you’re welcome. You will always be with us, and we thank you for bringing your everlasting radiance to our lives.

Fly High! and be somebody. The amazing story of Bessie Coleman

Throwing it way back. Me, Mary Mac, and Eloise abound 2002.

Throwing it way back. Me, Mary Mac, and Eloise around 2002.

Have you ever been on vacation with someone else’s kids? It’s a lot easier when they aren’t yours. I used to be that single friend, enjoying the kids but not being responsible.

I remember picking my friend Eloise’s daughter Francis out of her crib, thinking I was helping. “Once she’s up she won’t go back to sleep,” Eloise moaned. Who knew? I thought.

I also recall her daughter Mary Mac asking me why I took so long in the bathroom. “Well, I’m not used to someone being in here with me,” I said. If I only knew that someday privacy would be a memory.

On one of my trips with Eloise, I brought Mary Mac the book  Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman. Mary Mac, soon to be 16, was five at the time.

The book is by Cincinnati writers Mary Kay Kroeger and Louise Borden. (Kroeger is a former coworker of mine.) Teresa Flavin’s illustrations compliment the story about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot.

Eloise recently shared with me that she still has the book and uses it in elementary school classrooms.

Bessie walked four miles to and from school every day.

Bessie walked four miles to and from school every day.

What do you love about Fly High?

As the mother of four children, three of them girls, I most appreciate the repeating lines and resonating message of Fly High! – work hard, dream big and “be somebody.” I also appreciate how the authors make a strong point that it was Bessie’s love of reading that gave her the desire and motivation to “be somebody.”

I never heard of Bessie Coleman until you gave Mary Mac Fly High! back in 2003. Harriett Tubman, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks – these were the women I often read about and heard about during Black History Month. And what an amazing woman she was!  A true pioneer, a dreamer, a hard worker, an adventurer, and according to this authors it all began with her love of reading as a small child laboring in the cotton fields of Texas. What are the odds of a daughter of illiterate farm hands becoming the first African American female aviatrix in America?

Brave Bess told kids, "You can be someday. You can fly high, just like me."

Brave Bess told kids, “You can be someday. You can fly high, just like me.”

Do your kids like it? Is that why you’ve kept it all these years?

 I kept the book because I love it.  In fact I keep a lot of children’s books.  Some to bequeath to my children when they grow up and have children of their own.  Some because they never get old like Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull or all of Kevin Henkes‘ mice books. I wish I was an elementary school media specialist.  I love children’s literature board books, picture books, early readers, young adult, classics and new.

I also store books in categories to pull and place in a basket by the fireplace each month.  In February I fill the basket with books relating to Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.

Mary Mac especially loves this book because it is inscribed to her by one of the authors, Mary Kay Kroeger.  But all the children love it.  Even my son loves the idea of being a barnstorming pilot.

Tell me about the kids you’ve read this book to and the props you use?

 When I was invited to Guilford County School’s Community reader day and found out I was assigned to a third grade class, I immediately picked this one. I thought the book was both interesting, inspiring, and the pictures were good.

For props I brought in the book, a picture of my children, a stuffed Snoopy dog, a wall clock with a picture of Snoopy in a biplane and dressed in a leather aviator hat, and a world map with Texas, Chicago, Illinois, and France highlighted on it. (Bessie travels to these destinations.)

I began by introducing myself, the book and then showed the children a picture of my children.  I wanted them to know who I was – a mom – and why I chose the book.  I wanted them to know that all of them and all of my children could “be somebody” just like Bessie Coleman.

Eloise uses these props while reading Fly High!

Eloise uses these props while reading Fly High!

I brought Snoopy and the clock because I wasn’t sure if third graders in 2015 would know what pilot or biplanes looked like in the early 20th century.  Thankfully Snoopy remains popular today and is even gaining a resurgence of popularity thanks to the expected release of The Peanuts Movie this year.  I had to laugh when I asked the children if they knew who the stuffed animal was and one boy responded, “Snoop Dogg.”  But I was really amazed at their interest in the picture of Snoopy in the wall clock.  That was by far the most interactive, fun part of our open discussion time.  When I asked what they noticed about the biplane compared to today’s planes I got all sorts of great answers, “Two wings”  “Open top” “Like a Convertible” “Cool leather helmet and goggles” “Propeller driven” and my favorite, “In the Peanuts’ movies, Snoopy imagines his dog house is a biplane” … and that was the question I used to begin reading the book.

After reading the book I shared the map I had printed out to show them just how far Bessie Coleman’s dream, hard work and desire took her.  She traveled from the cotton fields of Texas to the big city of Chicago to the airfields of France.  And I encouraged all of them to “Fly High” through the power of books, their imagination, hard work and their dreams.

When I left I heard the teacher say to her classroom, “Doesn’t that book just make you want to try something new or do something crazy?”  I hope the 20 minutes I spent with them planted seeds … just like Bessie’s mother did so long ago by giving her access to books as a child.

Thanks, Eloise!

Where to find the book and more information

Kroeger and Borden also collaborated on another historical book, Paperboy. This story is based on Kroeger’s father, a paperboy in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) in 1927. The story is during the time of the famous Jack Dempsey/Jim Dempsey fight. Ted Lewin’s images of OTR are excellent and Max and Calvin love recognizing parts of their city.

Borden is a prolific, well-known writer. Check out her website to explore her work, favorite authors, school visits, and more. One of my favorites is The Journey that Saved Curious George illustrated by Allan Drummond (another recommended site.) This true story about George’s creators, the Reys, is for adults and kids. Did you know the Reys escaped the German army during World War II on a bike? It’s an incredible and beautiful book.