birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


She was such a gentle woman—Grandma “Tressa”. I never heard her raise her voice; I never saw her eyes flash in anger, or her hand lash out in spite.

One time, only, I heard her cry out in pain, when her adult children were shouting angrily at each other—the summer after my grandpa died. I wonder if she cried when grandpa fell down dead, when I was twelve. I never saw it. I sort of wish I had.

There were fourteen children born to her. I was talking with her when she was 85 and in hospital with a broken hip, when my first daughter was a baby. She said, “Bobby, I was pregnant and feeding babies for 28 years. Imagine that! A mother shouldn’t outlive any of her children.”

She did outlive some—her youngest two died in childhood. One succumbed to diphtheria, before there were vaccines. Don’t get me started on vaccination—we just don’t know, now days, what horrors contagion wrought.

The other somehow found and drank from a bottle of lye that lay under the house out of sight and mind. What shock she must have suffered! What self-recrimination she must have felt!

Then for many years, she suffered merely her adult children’s poor choices—drinking, womanizing, money troubles. And, she enjoyed successes too. One uncle started during high school delivering telegrams by bicycle; he ended his career a vice-president for Western Union—IMAGINE!

He, and his older brother, developed a neuromuscular disorder late in life. “Imagine, Bobby,” she said in that same talk, “my genies are making their arms and legs shake out of control. Imagine.” It was a long, slow debilitating disorder. I never heard a name for it nor an explanation—other than her “genies” (genes) doing it to them.

My mother was her first, born before she turned 16; I was named Barbara for number twelve, who was twelve when I was born.

Fourteen! Imagine raising fourteen children—in a three-bedroom house, on porter and seamstress wages. They were farmers in Nebraska before the Dust Bowl and Depression. Imagine!

Grandmother Elizabeth

The Third Grandmother