As we have done in the past, we are bringing you the first-, second- and third-place short stories, artwork and poems that have emerged from this year's Community Art and Writing Contest in District 214. You'll meet a young woman longing for love, an elderly man struggling with his wife's dementia, a 6-year-old getting used to a new mother. You'll see amazing artwork and read rich poetry.
The Community Art and Writing Contest has been a staple for many years, and gives adults in the community the chance to write and make art, alongside the District 214 students who compete in their own contests.
Today, we bring you the first-place artwork, short story and poems in the 2013 contest. On Friday, you'll see the second-place winners and on Monday, the third-place winners. All are remarkable. Enjoy.
1st place prose winner
By Paula Matzek
It was a crude chair carved out of a tree stump, moss growing up one side of the base. Behind it, on a pole, was nailed a pale wooden sign engraved with the words Zauberwald Wunschthron. Moira nearly had it translated in her head -- "magic forest, some kind of chair" -- when the guide, Elsa, invited anyone from the hiking group to sit in "the wishing chair." "Your wish is guaranteed to come true. After all, this is the enchanted forest!"
One by one, each of the dozen group members took a turn on the chair. Moira hesitated. It seemed silly and superstitious, but she plunked down, rested her hands on her thighs, and smiled for her friend Nicole's camera. The wish that popped into her head was a familiar one, repeated over ever-growing birthday candle arrays. May I find my true love and soul mate.
When she met Danny eight years ago, at twenty-six, she thought her wish had finally come true, but what a disaster he'd turned out to be, eventually breaking their engagement and going off with some cute, brainy engineering intern ten years his junior. Even four years later, the thought of him could make her stomach churn in anger, and she still felt a little broken, diminished, and unsure of herself.
"Crazy in love." That's how her friends had described her when she first met Danny. She was obsessed, not eating, not sleeping, rearranging all of her dreams and priorities to make a place for this man. She was crazy about him. Crazy in love with him. Crazy to have been in love with him, she now thought. Could she ever trust her judgment again?
he Women Wayfarers brochure had arrived in her mailbox two days after her thirty-fourth birthday. As she thumbed through it, hand poised over the recycling bin, photos of the German and Austrian Alps caught her eye. They reminded her of "The Sound of Music," which had just been shown on television for the umpteenth time last weekend. The first time she had seen it as a child, she was only struck by how scary the Nazis were, but by the time she was "sixteen going on seventeen," she'd vowed to visit that area some day. Danny had always promised that they would go there on their honeymoon, but that was before he ran off with the engineerette.
She talked Nicole into signing up for the Women Wayfarers trip but couldn't convince her that they both needed to learn some German.
"Why bother? Everyone there speaks English anyway. And our guide will be bilingual."
"Because it's the respectful thing to do when you're a guest in their country."
As she sprang up from the wishing chair and the group continued their hike through the lush German forest, Moira allowed herself one fleeting thought of John Karl. He would have been proud of her for how she was using her newly learned German on the trip. She pictured him sitting at a table in the community college library on the day of their first lesson. He had leapt up, shook Moira's hand vigorously, and looked straight into her eyes as he smiled and greeted her. "Guten Tag, Moira. I'm John Karl Zimmermann." His blazing blue eyes were so sincere and earnest that she had to look away and catch her breath.
"He's only my German tutor, only the German tutor ... Must keep my feet on the ground and my head in the lessons ..." she would tell herself before every session. "No matter what, I can't ever do 'crazy' again." But she was struggling. John Karl was patient and funny and engaging. When she went jogging and found 37 cents on the road, she thought, John Karl is 37 years old. Is this some kind of sign? And when her patio rose bush that hadn't bloomed in three years suddenly sprouted two perfect pink roses, she again saw an omen. It was all silly, she knew. But maybe silly was O.K., just not "crazy."
She met with John Karl for her last lesson three days before the trip. "When you get back, I want to hear all about it, and I want to see pictures. Have fun. You'll do great with the German."
Moira nodded. "Thanks. I'll see you in a couple of weeks." She was relieved that he wanted to meet again even though the German lessons were over. Lately, she and John Karl were becoming something that felt like more than just student and tutor. They had started going out after each lesson for German food and beer at Bauer's. They talked about places they'd traveled and places they dreamed of traveling, their careers, their dream jobs, their dream lives. John Karl had traveled far more than she had, but he told her not to worry. "You'll just get busy and catch up!" he laughed. "You know, we should go on an adventure together some time. Maybe that hike in the Cotswolds that you mentioned."
"That would be fun. And only English required!"
"True, but let's speak German and confuse all the other guests."
In Austria, as the Wayfarers rode along the highway in their van, they watched local farmers painstakingly swathing fields of hay with sickles -- an entire hillside of tall grass, too steep to cut by machine, a gargantuan task, all done by hand.
"Can you imagine?" said Nicole. "I would just want to give up after the first hour."
"I suppose we could learn patience from that," Moira said. Like patience in a relationship, she thought but didn't say. John Karl came to mind. Getting to know someone as a friend before you go off the deep end.
Two days later, hiking the Besinnungsweg Trail near Neustift, the group encountered free-standing carved wooden tableaus, each of which showed a scene of figures in supplication or exaltation, arms and faces lifted toward the heavens. Elsa translated and explained the significance. "The trail was designed for reflection. The intention was for hikers to ponder priorities in life."
Take time to reflect on your priorities, Moira thought, as she soaked up the panorama of mountain and valley scenery. She had once lost sight of her priorities in her zeal to please Danny. Now her head was clearer, and she was advancing along her medical research career path. Sometimes it twisted like these alpine trails, making it impossible to see what lay ahead, but Moira knew that if she kept moving, she would find her way. She tried not to think too much about another priority, her desire to marry and have children. Best not to dwell too much on a goal that she could not achieve alone.
The last day of the trip Elsa described as a pilgrimage. "We will walk to the Wieskirche this afternoon. This is a very famous church, built to accommodate the many who came to view the famous crying statue of Christ. The walk is a pilgrimage for those who are seeking hope and sense in their lives."
"Who isn't?" Moira whispered to Nicole.
As they approached Wieskirche, Moira was surprised at how unadorned it was on the outside, a plain white stucco facade accented only with rose-colored trim. But inside was another story -- "a rococo jewel," she had heard Elsa describe it, and it was, with colorful painted scenes of Christ and angels on the domed ceiling, embellishment everywhere, gold trim, gilded statues. The very definition of ornate. Just like people, thought Moira. The exterior rarely hints at the richness inside.
A docent invited everyone to be seated. She pointed out various areas of the paintings on the ceiling. "Notice the scene of Christ sitting on a rainbow. It represents forgiveness," she said. Moira thought of Danny and vowed to truly forgive him once and for all. She sat up straighter in the pew just in time to hear the docent say, "You are here on a most special day, St. John's Day." The mere mention of "John" made Moira's heart pound. "This day is very special to us here at Wieskirche, since it was a 'John,' Johannes Baptiste Zimmermann, who did all of the art work you are seeing. His brother, Dominikus Zimmermann, was the architect." John Zimmerman? If this wasn't a sign, Moira couldn't imagine what was. Maybe the brothers were even ancestors of John Karl. She could barely wait to tell him about the church. She snapped several photos and wandered toward the back.
Scrounging in her bag, she came up with a fistful of euros to put in the collection box. Digging deeper, she added 37 cents -- one last silly, superstitious gesture before she headed to the side door. She gazed out at the meadow, the wies, for which the church was named. At the edge of the meadow, a winding rural road led her eyes to the horizon. She raised her camera one last time, captured the image, then strode out the door toward the rest of her life.
1st place poetry winner
By Kristen Franke
Grief sits at the window,
catching rain drops in the
bedraggled porcelain palms of her hands.
She hums elegies in a soft, lilting cadence
as if there were any doves left
to sing with her.
But Grief kept your baby teeth
and first photographs and first words.
She cradles them like orphaned seashells,
balancing their pearly frames at her notched ear
as if they were reciting your laughter --
as if there was still a sea to hear.
And Grief kept your pall --
a thin, ivory skin embroidered with gold ivy leaves
as if the morticians had flayed angels.
She's always asking about what they did with the wings,
insisting you would have looked lovely in white plumes.
She still cloaks the linen over her sparse scalp,
dubbing it a crown fit for any cruel man's king.
Grief reaches with spider hands to grab a fleck of rain,
breaching the rotting wood of the window sill.
She likes to think you might return --
that you would strut out of the magician's box at any given moment,
erupting with baskets full of smiles and raucous laughter and life,
tossing them about like confetti.
Yet she finds herself only waiting and brimming
with the despondent deluge of the aching vacancy you left
at the window sill.
Her stony-eyed face gazes down to where the storm
you brought forth delivered a muddy patch big enough for one.
And Grief plummets from the rotting wood,
with only rain drops and earth to catch her.
2nd place, prose
'My New Mommy'
By Joanne Rooney
Last night my new mommy sang a song when she put me to bed. The song was about a cowboy who had two hairs on his chest. It was a funny song and I liked it. It felt ok to kiss her good night when she kissed me. Her kiss is magic, she says, and it really works because I fell asleep right away. I don't know, though, if my old mommy wants me to love my new mommy or should I just pretend. But I let her kiss me because she says it is magic and it works. I like the cowboy song too.
My old mommy came to see me again after I fell asleep. She was really real this time but her face was hard to see. I think she still loves me but it was scary. She had on a white dress and she was kind of floating around. My brothers, Mark and Dusty, talk a lot about her when our new mommy isn't here. I hardly remember my old mommy before but they do. Sometimes I feel bad because I really like my new mommy but they want our old mommy back and think our new mommy is mean because she makes us do the dishes and clean out the bathtub. They fool her and pretend to put their clothes away but really just throw them under their beds to make it look clean. I put my clothes away. Well, sometimes. Mostly my big sister, Laurie, who is in high school, really does it because she wants my new mommy to like us so we better not get her mad. I think Laurie likes my new mommy because she bought her new clothes instead of the ones from when my old mommy was alive.
I like it when Laurie isn't in school because it's ok to hold my blankie even though my daddy says I am too old. It still smells like my old mommy smelled but I'm not sure. It's all mixed up. But I like Kindergarten because Mrs. Ryan smiles and everyone likes her because she lets us play and reads to us. I don't have to think about my mommies when I am coloring or learning new letters. I learned M, N, O and P today and I liked M best because Mrs. Ryan said "mom" started with that sound and even ended with it too.
My new mom made meatloaf yesterday. It tasted so good even my biggest brother Pete ate two pieces and didn't say "yuck." Tim -- my second high school brother told her to make it every night he liked it so much. But the brownies were all gone before we even ate and my mom got mad and then my dad got mad at her for getting mad and said what did she expect from kids. My new mommy got real mad and I think she went back to work so Laurie put me to bed. My old mommy didn't come and visit so I think it was ok to like my new mommy's meatloaf.
Yesterday I stayed up late because there's no school today and I fell asleep watching TV. My daddy plopped me into my bed and it woke me up. My new mom didn't make me wash or anything just "go to sleep and get clean in the morning" she said. I asked her if she was really my mommy now did that mean she would die like my other mommy. Maybe all my mommies will die, I said. Then she told me stories about a long time from now when I grow up and have my own babies and she will be a grandma and will help me take care of my babies and even sing them the cowboy song and give them magic kisses. But that isn't for a long time from now so I guess it means she won't die right away. Then she sang me that cowboy song til I fell asleep. My old mom just came for a minute. I guess she was saying good night, too.
Mark and Dusty got new jeans today and it wasn't even their birthdays. Mark got to buy a Cubs shirt but Dusty is a Sox fan and we couldn't find any shirts that said "White Sox" so he has to wait for his new shirt. He said he'd rather go naked than wear a Cubs shirt and it made my new mommy laugh because she likes the Cubs but my Dad likes the Sox. Mark jumped up and down with his Cubs shirt and my mommy smiled as big as her face. I guess even Mark and Dusty are starting to like her so it must be ok for me. My first mommy doesn't come much at night so I guess she's giving up and letting my new mom be ok.
Peggy McCallis sits next to me for music and we are partners sometimes in gym class. She is skinnier than me and her mom is getting to be friends with my new mom. Today Mrs. McCallis brought Patti over to play. I think my new mom and Patti's mom like each other because they talked all the time when we were playing. Mostly we climbed the tree in the back yard when our mommies were talking because they didn't pay attention and say "Watch Out" all the time.
My birthday party is pretty soon and I get to invite all the girls in my Kindergarten. My mom says she might even buy me a new pair of jeans like Mark and Dusty so I don't have to ever wear a skirt again. I hate wearing skirts so my mom says "So, ok. wear jeans." I think it's because she wears jeans a lot too.
My birthday is today but my party is tomorrow so I get two birthdays. Mark and Dusty say I'm spoiled but not too loud because they want two days for their birthdays too. Mommy gave me my presents today. Dressy Bessy is the best doll in the world. She is red and orange and is soft and smooshy and I loved her right away and she will sleep with me for the rest of my life. I wanted a Dressy Bessy my whole life and now I have her forever. My mommy was so excited when she gave it to me I think she almost cried. At least her eyes were all wet. I guess some people cry when they are really and truly happy. My mommy is one of those.
And besides I got a new book about Clifford the Red Dog. He was so big he couldn't fit in the house when he grew up so they built a new house just for him. I wish we had a dog but Mommy says all us kids are enough for her! Mommy read Clifford the Red Dog about ten times before I went to bed on my first birthday day. Then she sang about the cowboy who had "only two hairs on his chest" again. It always goes with the magic kiss. I like it when she is home and doesn't have to work because then she puts me to bed and Daddy doesn't because he doesn't sing and his kiss good night isn't magic.
I got a lot of presents at my birthday party and they are all downstairs in a pile because I was too full of cake and ice cream to play with them. My friends all like me because they got to come to my party. Patti spilled her ice cream all over the floor and my mom had to wipe it up and then wash the whole floor. She didn't get too mad.
Now I am six years and two days old. It is Sunday so Daddy yelled and yelled and we finally all went to church on time. He does this every Sunday. When we got home I said "Mommy, can I have two eggs because now I am six? It was the very first time I ever called her "Mommy." She liked it and she said yes right away so I called her "mommy" again when I wanted more orange juice. Then I said "Mommy, can I have some more bacon" and "Mommy, can I play outside" and "Mommy, can I have a drink" and I kept saying Mommy all day long til I got used to it. Mommy's took out her big face smile whenever I said it. She is pretty when she wears the big face smile. So I just said Mommy Mommy Mommy til I got used to it.
I guess she is my mommy forever, now. And that's ok because it will be fun when she gives my kids the magic kiss and sings them about the Cowboy who had two hairs on his chest.
2nd place, poetry
By Borislav Strahilov
He'd lay on the light blue shirt that is covered
in oil stains from the years of usage,
staring into the front right brake caliper of our dark
red Ford. The yellow portable lamp, smeared
with grease, lays on the ground
pointing in the direction of the brake.
His eyes squint and the eyebrows follow
as he twists the wrench. The rusty
bolt does not budge and he swears
under his breath. With sweat trickling down
the side of his head, he gives it another
go and finally manages to loosen
the bolt. Laying on the light blue shirt,
with the smell of oil in the garage,
with the bright dirty light
next to him, he fixes something yet again.
3rd place, prose
'A Wanted Death'
By Dennis Depcik
The quiet awakens me.
As I lay motionless on the family room couch, that has been my bed for the past twelve months; I stare at a tiny spider moving slowly but deliberately across the ceiling just above my head. I wonder where he's going and how long it'll take him to get there, marveling at his persistence. Then it hits me -- why isn't the baby monitor breathing?
I throw off my blanket and sit up quickly. What's wrong with the monitor? Why isn't it breathing? I grab the baby monitor from the end table next to my "bed" and hug it to my ear. No sound. I check the little green light -- it's on. I bring it to my ear and listen again -- still no sound.
The baby monitor is Maggie's life line to me. This and the Taboo Game buzzer that is always near her when I am in another room. She sleeps on the couch in the living room just twenty feet from me but out of my line of vision. Every day I fall asleep and waken to the sound of her breathing. Today the monitor is silent.
I rise from my bed and slowly walk to the open French doors that separate our living room from our family room -- the doors that separate Maggie from me. I stand in the doorway and look at her lying on the couch. The thought races through my mind ... did Maggie die in her sleep?
I want Maggie to die. I want this Maggie to die. This is not my Maggie.
She can't talk -- except for an occasional word or two. Then the rest of the thought must be pulled from her as if we're playing "20 Questions."
Maggie sits next to me on our couch staring straight ahead at the television that's always on.
"I want ..." She mutters.
I'm startled by her attempt to talk and quickly turn to her, "You want what, babe?"
"I want ..."
I wait so as not to speak for her, not to infantilize her. Ten, twenty seconds pass as I watch her struggle with what is trapped in her head but can't escape past her lips. Finally, I ask again.
"What is it, babe? What do you want? Are you hungry or thirsty?"
"Do you want me to get you something?"
"Do you want something from the kitchen?"
And I start the litany we go through almost every day:
"Do you want something from the living room -- the dining room -- our bedroom -- the play room" -- until I have mentioned every room in the house.
"No," she answers to all.
She looks at me with eyes that have lost their light, closes them and slowly shakes her head from side to side, then gives me a small hapless grin ... it's gone. Whatever she was asking for is lost in the foggy labyrinth of her once clear mind.
Maggie tries to walk every day. With my help, she struggles to raise herself from the wheelchair, barely balancing as I help her grab hold of the walker and waiting until I steady her from behind. She stands bent over at the waist and slumped at the shoulders. I tell her to straighten herself before we start our daily twenty-foot trek from one end of the kitchen to the other. I tell her standing taller will make it easier to keep her balance. She tries to do as I ask, but her back is bent again within seconds.
Walking is such a simple task -- lean forward a little and put one foot in front of the other. Move your left foot ahead, even a few inches, then shuffle the right foot parallel to the left. Maggie tries. Her left foot moves six inches relatively smoothly; the right foot is cemented to the floor. Maggie stands in one spot, swaying slightly from side to side as she attempts to lift her right foot. I gently encourage her "Come on, honey, you can do it." This should be her achievement -- so I wait as she struggles. After several minutes, which seems like an hour to me and probably much longer to her, I tell her "Let me help." I slide my right foot under her right foot, lift it and move it parallel to her left. This ritual is repeated forty times until we reach the end of the kitchen. It's been twenty minutes and Maggie is spent. I bring the wheelchair and we return to the couch where Maggie falls asleep. She has run her marathon for today.
I stopped showing pictures of our grandchildren to Maggie. The speech therapist suggested, a year ago, that I do this to improve her memory -- "to build new pathways in her brain." I would show Maggie a picture and ask "Do you know who this is?" And she almost always said "Yes." So, I would wait for her response as she stared at the photograph. After a few seconds, she would turn her head slowly and look at me as if to say, "I told you I know who it is, what else do you want from me?" When I would push for a name, Maggie would look at the picture again for a few more seconds, turn to me, lower her eyes, grin, and shrug her shoulders.
I don't want Maggie to suffer the indignities she faces every day. So, I try so hard to encourage her and act as though things aren't as bad as they really are.
I look away when her hand trembles as she brings her coffee cup to her mouth and some of it spills down her chin onto her sweatshirt. She tries to wipe it with her one good hand before I notice, but coffee stains can't be wiped away that easily.
I put pajama tops on her and leave the room for a few minutes. I want her to button the tops herself and feel the pride of her achievement. When I return, Maggie sits motionless in her wheelchair, arms at her side -- two buttons completed. I tell her how proud I am and help her button the rest. She looks at me with tears in her eyes, not tears of accomplishment, but as if to say, "I can't even do this."
I tell her she's doing better because today she remembers the name of two of our four children. And when she cries because it took her so long to say the names, I tell her she did better than yesterday -- even though she hasn't -- but she wouldn't remember anyway.
She can't remember anything ten minutes afterwards, can't wash herself, needs to be helped to the bathroom, can't move her right arm, can't walk, can't talk -- can't tell me if she's angry, sad or afraid. Yet, I know she's afraid.
No, I don't want this Maggie to live.
I'm not supposed to feel this way -- but I can't help it. I'm not supposed to think this way -- but I do. I'm expected to be the rock, be forever brave; the one who refuses to give up -- the one who's always cheerful -- the one who pushes, cajoles and inspires.
Didn't I want to be a priest when I was young? I'm the one who should believe all life is sacred -- no matter how diminished. I'm supposed to believe you hang on to life with every ounce of strength -- you never give up -- life, no matter how minimal, is a gift that must be cherished. Wanting Maggie to die is wrong. It's being unfaithful. It's being a terrible husband. I am not supposed to give up hope.
But I don't feel this way.
I stand in the doorway to our living room watching Maggie's blanket to see if I can detect even the slightest movement. I listen for her breathing and hear nothing. Has her position changed from last night? Her head seems to rest on the pillow in the exact same place. I move closer, straining to see something -- hear something. I pray she has died in her sleep and her struggle has ended; her everyday embarrassments are over; her dignity is no longer under attack.
I slowly move nearer -- watching, listening; then I stop. Did I just see the blanket move ever so slightly? Maggie bends her left leg, tenting the blanket as I move even closer. She turns her head slowly -- looks at me -- and smiles.
My heart quickens.
Thank you, God, for giving me another day with my Maggie.
3rd place, poetry
By Sarah Caprio
You storm into your room
After losing all hope for the world.
You crumble on your bed
Wishing you never said those
Things to your friends.
You almost ignore the buried blanket
That lays forgotten on the ground.
The sea-foam green color
Burns into your mind.
With every high hit beat
From the music pulsing in your ears.
You think back to the better days.
Back to the cherished childhood
You once had.
You think back to the stuffed animals
The dress-up days,
And laughing with your friends.
Your mind thinks back to the blanket
How its ripped up and torn and beaten
But so are you
You think that if a piece of cloth
Can hold itself together
Then why can't you.
You think that if a piece of cloth
Can find a way to stay whole
Then you and your friends should, too.