Jodi Hills

So this is who I am – a writer that paints, a painter that writes…


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Belong.

To have walked a place is to possess it. I knew this before I even knew what the word meant. 

From my first visit I tried to memorize my grandparent’s farm. The house. The barns. Fences and trees. Knowing that I would need it one day. Not the things inside the rooms. Not the furniture or figurines. Not the rusting tools. Nor the worn clothing. But the security. I suppose that’s all a home is — this feeling that if you went there, they would have to take you in. And if in fact I carried it with me, this feeling, this home, then I could go anywhere. I could have everything, or nothing else at all, and I would have this. And I would be OK. So I memorized the steps. The pictures hanging on the walls. The variety packs of cereals in the cupboard. The smell of damp work from overalls hanging on the wall. Tables and rugs and boots. Desks and doors. Closets. 

My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the For Sale sign in the front lawn of our home on Van Dyke Road. My mother was trying to say the words. I tried to listen as I went through the steps. “We’d find an apartment,” she said. I walked up the gravel driveway to the house. “And we’d be OK.” I opened the front door and clung to the overalls hanging in the entry. “Just the two of us,” she said. I walked up the three steps to the kitchen. Tears fell from her eyes as she tried to convince me. “It wasn’t my fault…” I went up the stairs to the first bedroom, the second, the sewing room. I walked the barn. Even the empty chicken coop. And I returned to her face. My mother’s face. Seeing her. Loving her. Trusting her. It didn’t matter where we were going. If we had everything, or nothing else at all, we had each other.

And I memorized each laugh. Each day. Each struggle. Each adventure. Every trip to every mall. Every pretty dress. Every conversation mixed with coffee and wine. Each moment with my mom. Knowing I would need it one day. And that day has come.

I walk the streets, the gravel paths of Aix en provence. I have filled out the forms. Followed the rules. Applied. Tested. And carry the card that says I belong. But I know the only way for that to be true is to walk it. This place. Gather it all in, step by step, and carry it with me. Scattering along the way, everything that I have collected through the years. Each story. Every pebble on the path that I walk daily is now mixed with my treasures. My memories. Dampened overalls and sparkling dresses. Laughs and loves. I am a part of it all. And I am home.


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No angel damage.

I was 18 when I had my appendix removed. My first year of college. Not really a kid anymore. Not really a grown-up yet. Everything was white in the room. It was icey cold.

I had felt this before. Lying in the layer of fresh snow. No separation of earth and sky – only this blinding white. Fearing I too would disappear, I flapped my arms and legs to become the angel I needed. But how would I get up, I wondered. Without ruining it — this beautiful angel in the snow. If I rolled over to hands and knees, it would be gone. Just another wreckage in the snow.  I laid still. The minutes seemed like hours, but then I saw her. My mom. In the corner of my eye. She ran out the front door, not taking time to button her coat. Still in street shoes, she hopped through the snow to my angel feet. Reach her arms to grab onto my wings and pulled me straight up. No angel damage. She had done it before. She would do it again and again. She looked at the perfect angel in the snow and smiled. I looked at the perfect angel next to me, and grabbed her hand.

I was just coming out of anesthesia when the nurse asked me, “Is your mom here?” I hadn’t yet opened my eyes, but I knew she was, or would be soon. Her coat flapping in the white, crisp air. I rested still in my angel.


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Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Recent and frequent tears have not made my heart, nor mind, any less wide-eyed. I jerked my head around to see the horses. The horses clopping behind me on the path. Gathering speed. Louder. The horses I knew would be there. I stopped. Looked. The clip-clop continued in my ear buds. The path behind me was empty.

I was listening to the Paris Review. They were playing a short story about a man visiting a town. All were on horseback. The reality of their podcasts is unprecedented. I don’t know how they produce it, but the sounds they create are alive. Separate from the narrator, the horses approached. The sound got nearer. So real. So magical. I could feel the breath of them behind me.

Further down the path, when the horses returned, the character’s departure, the clip-clip continued. This time, it wasn’t so startling, but more comforting. I liked thinking of them by me. Behind me. Walking with me. And I was no longer afraid, but comforted. I continued down the path, deep inside the magic.

I passed by my mother’s picture as I first went out the door for this particular walk. I had just been working on my computer, and I had this thought — What happened to her email? Where did they go now? The reminders from Sundance catalog — this turquoise coat that she would love. What happened to all the emails we had exchanged. Promises. Love. Were they still hovering? If I sent one now – to her address – her address that carried my birthday numbers — where would it go? Could she see it?

I stepped onto the path and hit play. Trying to drown out the typing in my head, when the horses startled me. They were so alive. The presentation so real. My heart was so willing to believe in them that fear turned into comfort.

I’m typing the words now. My cheeks still rosy, more from magic than from the cool winter air. Each word is filled with love. Filled with chance. Filled with a comforting joy that walks beside me. Magic that I don’t need to understand, that I just believe. Unconditionally. My mother is with me. Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Wide-eyed. I hit send.


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Off to a different deck

My mom was dizzy for most of her life. An imbalance in her inner ear. We had only been on the cruise ship for a short time when it began — a tumbling in my brain that went directly to my stomach. An inner violence I had never felt before. I spent the first day hugging porcelain.  My mom seemed fine. I couldn’t believe it. How was she doing it? “Oh, I always feel like this,” she said, shrugging it off. And she went in search of the captain, humming the theme song to The Love Boat. 

I got a couple of shots from the ship’s doctor, easing the symptoms and allowing me to navigate while on the ship. The only problem was, it seemed to be overcompensating, and walking on land was a struggle. So this is what they meant by a drunken sailor?  It lasted even after returning home. The long hallway in my apartment building proved very challenging, and for nearly a week, I serpentined my way from the garage to my door.  Once again, I marveled at the silent strength of my mother, and kept walking.

Yesterday, I went out for my normal afternoon walk.  A quarter of the way through, my left earbud stopped working. It didn’t make sense to turn back, so I continued on. But it felt so strange. I couldn’t seem to adjust. I felt partial. Incomplete. Off balance. I kept walking. In search of my other voice. I only mention it because it occurred to me, this is what it’s like to lose someone you love. The world hasn’t changed, but your way of navigating through it is completely different. But you keep walking. The sun still shines. The trees are lovely. The ground is solid. The birds are humming. I see my mother skipping off to a different deck.

I was given the strength long ago. Now is the time to use it.


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Sofly, gently, joyfully.

My mother loved to dance. And she had the gams to prove it. Every Saturday night at the Glenwood Ballroom, her size 10’s glided across the polished wooden floor. Her heart knew the word to every song and easily instructed her feet.

She taught me how to do the same in our kitchen. Rugs kicked aside. Music turned high. She would always lead. I’d watch her eyes. Feel for the ever so slight movement of her hand against mine. And soon we were in the living room. Down the hall. Spinning. Through the bedroom. Back in the kitchen. Never pushed. Always led. With movements so graceful. So subtle. There wasn’t a difference between my hand in hers, or when I let go. I see now that that was the true gift. The ever gift.

There is no difference between the two pictures I have posted. Different times. Different countries. Sure. But for me, in both, I am being led, softly, gently, joyfully, oh so joyfully in the dance.


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From rack to mirror.

I often tell the story of the first time Dominique went with my mom and I to Herberger’s. Upon entering the back door, it started — the meet and greet. There’s Jessica from shoes. Hi Jessica! Sue in bras. “The last one fits great!” Oh there’s Carol. “Thanks for the boxes!” “This is the manager,” my mom pointed out. “Oh, hi Claudia — we’ll need to pre-order the Clinique.” Dominique seemed dazed and confused. He whispered in my ear, “I don’t understand?” What? I said – it all seeming so normal. “Is your mom the mayor?” He asked. “Of Herberger’s,” I said, “Yes!”

Some of my best memories are in dressing rooms. Whether it was me, or a complete stranger (of course only upon their urging), my mother was there to help. She would stand just behind your shoulder. Look with you in the three way mirror. And with your very best interests at heart, she would say, “I think we can do better.” And then she was with you – to the very end – from rack to mirror and back again. Until it was just right. No abandonings. Only truth. Only support. Until it was completely beautiful.

I have been told that these sweet memories will someday turn from pain to comfort, and then to complete joy. And I believe it. I have to believe it because I’ve seen it from every angle. This three-way reflection of truth, support and beauty.

I look in this morning’s mirror and smile because I can hear it…I can hear her… “We can do better. We will do better.” She is with me. And it is beautiful!



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Carry it with you.

I would often receive pictures of men cut out from the Banana Republic catalog with a note, “He’s on order. Feel free to call him dad.” 

I knew my mother’s handwriting. I knew her sense of humor. 

I can’t stop smiling as I read through her journals. 

July 9th, 1992

“I’m still celebrating my birthday. My philosophy is to live life to the fullest. Don’t just taste or sample it – devour it and have a second helping. Love a lot and laugh a lot. (And since I have not done much loving of late — I’m laughing a lot!!!) I hope before I finish this book I’ll be doing both! Just keep reading.”

While painting a series of portraits in France, I knew exactly what to do with the man in the hat. I made a copy and sent it to my mother. “Sorry for the delay. Your order is on its way.” 

Write it. Record it. Memorize it — this soundtrack of laughter with the ones you love. Nothing is lighter than joy. Carry it with you.


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Beyond fear.

My mother was in grade school when she hit Arnie Zavadil in the head with her metal lunch box. He was making fun of her younger brother Tom. She was the eldest daughter of Rueben and Elsie. And she took it seriously. She would later drop “eldest” and trade it in for “prettiest,” when describing her familial role, but she never lost her protective spirit.

I counted on that protective swing my whole life as we navigated through the world, often filled with “taunting Arnies.” Even when she traded in her lunch box for white ruffles, dangling earrings and Red Door perfume. I always felt safe. I felt protected. What a gift she gave us all.

Never underestimate the strength of a Hvezda girl armed with love — she is grace beyond fear.


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Dinner Theatre.

We were waiting to be served. And waiting. Dishes were clinking and clanking from the chosen few that already had their meals. The Chanhassen Dinner theatre was filled in the dim theatre light. Table by table people were delivered their pre-play food. Of course all were appeased with a complimentary glass of wine. And then another. The kitchen must have been having a problem. No explanations were brought forward. We were getting so hungry, my mother and I. 

We loved going to the theatre. We saw almost everything. It wasn’t just about the performance, we had a production of our own. The pre-shopping at Ridgedale or Southdale. The getting dressed while sipping skim vanilla lattes. Make-up. Hair. A dash of perfume. The excitement building. The drive to the theatre. Walking from the parking lot without wrinkling. Everything building toward the peak of receiving this meal. So the additional 30 to 40 minute wait seemed like a lifetime. The extra glass of wine was not in the schedule, and it started to take hold. My mom was getting chattier. Looking over this shoulder and that. “What could be taking so long?  Are they ever going to serve us?  I don’t understand. This has never happened before…”  She couldn’t get the next line out without laughing — the “Don’t they know who we are???” line. Oh how we laughed. Laughed with wine. Laughed without worry. Laughed with the knowledge that we WERE important – the most important of all (at least to each other). 

When the plates finally arrived, my mother napkined her lap, (a napkin that was already filled with laughter-tears). I did the same. She sat up straight. I followed. She smoothed out the sleeves of her ultra-white ruffled blouse. She was pure elegance, I thought. She balanced the fork in her polished hand. Lifted the vegetable to her mouth. She nodded in approval as she chewed. Swallowed, and said, “These are the best damn peas I’ve ever had!” I flung my napkin to my face to keep the laughter from snorting out of my nose. 

I don’t remember which play it was. I’m sure it was good. But I will never forget those peas. My mother.

We think it’s the big things we will miss. I suppose it never is. Today, share something small with someone you love. A bit of your heart. A giggle. It may just last a lifetime.


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Tiny airplanes. Little horses.


We were both surprised to see how excited he was for the carnival. Charles is at least 6’ tall, but only 14. His voice changed before his heart. He wanted to go on the rides. The city of Aix doesn’t have room to house giant rides for the Christmas fair. They are mostly for toddlers. Tiny airplanes. Little horses. We could see he was disappointed. Sometimes, you just want to be small.

Some might say I’m too big to miss my mom. But nobody told my heart. So I eagerly await in the blinking light of the Christmas tree, for a miracle twice my size. A miracle of joy. A miracle of peace — one that passes all understanding. I still want to ride the tiny airplanes. The tiny horses. To feel the magic of the season — the magic of being small.