Jodi Hills

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


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The candy dish.

I’m certain it wasn’t expensive, but it was priceless, this candy dish. White milk glass, with matching cover. My mother kept it on the end table, just as you entered the front door of her apartment on Jefferson Street. I don’t know if it was ever full, but I guarantee it was never empty. My mother made sure that when Josh and Rachel (her grandchildren) entered her apartment, lifted that cover, there was a special treat, just for them. They knew it would be there. They looked forward to it. Counted on it. Just as they did with her.

This certainty was something she had always given me. Still gives to me. Even at her lowest points in life, when her own heart wasn’t full, it was never empty — not for me. She always had something for me. 

On the phone the other day, she questioned herself out loud, “Did she have a home? Did she ever have a home?”  You can never tell someone how to feel. But I can tell her, with all certainty (and I only have it because she gave it), that she gave me a home. She gave Josh and Rachel a home. She gave us something sure and sweet and constant. So yes, there was a home, there was always a home for us. Always will be. And she lived there too. 

Never empty. Because of her.


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Further, deeper…

Before I could ride a two-wheeler to Lake Latoka, my mother would have to drive me there. Well, she didn’t have to, but she did. And certainly it wasn’t fun for her. She didn’t like heat, nor the water… But still, I would tug on her shirt, as she bent over the laundry that couldn’t be done during the work week, the laundry that ate up her Saturday morning. “Please, just for a few minutes,” I would plead. I didn’t know then that it would mean staying up hours later, when she was already tired, or maybe I wouldn’t have asked, but I’m not sure that I carried enough empathy at this young stage of life. Already sweating in my one-piece sailor swimsuit, I’d smile into her eyes, and she put down the basket. 

She placed her folding lawn chair as near to the shade of the one tree on the beach as possible. I splashed and waved and swam, as the straps of the chair made a pattern on the back of her thighs. All the youth of the surrounding Latoka area screamed, “look at me!” as their heads and feet popped up through water! The most comforting thought perhaps that I’ve ever had, is not feeling the need to yell the same. Because each time I turned, or spun, or splashed, or did a trick, and then looked up, her eyes were directly on me. She was always watching. Always there. The life-line that allowed me to go further, deeper, because she, you see, connected me to the shore.  

People often ask me, “How did you have the courage to start your own business…to dare expose yourself through word and canvas…move to another country???” I suppose the answer to it all, I always had the comfort of shore.


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The promised land.

“Don’t touch them,” I heard him say, while I was touching them. It was my grandfather’s voice in my head. He had said it when I found a fallen bird’s nest on his farm. The little bird beaks seemed to be crying out for me, but he said no, if I touched them, the mother would never come back. But surely it couldn’t be the same for bunnies I thought. Not the same for these beautiful cuddly little bunnies that I found on this day in the field next to our house. Bunnies were meant to be touched. To be held. They were accessible. Not like birds. Why, there was the Easter Bunny, and Bugs Bunny… chocolate bunnies, stuffed bunnies… Yes, I told myself, bunnies were meant to be held. There were three of them. No mother in sight. I placed one from each hand, back with the other. They squirmed and nestled and smiled. See, I told myself, they were just fine. The mother would come back.

I told my brother that afternoon what I had found. How I had picked them up. “Now you have to kill them,” he said.

“What?????? Noooooo! I would never!”

“Well, they are going to die anyway. Starve to death. Because the mother doesn’t like your smell.” And he walked away.

I stood motionless. How could he deliver this news and just leave me standing there. I was a murderer, and apparantly, I smelled.

I thought about getting my bow and arrow. The plastic one my aunt had purchased for me at Target. I could “do the right thing” (according to my brother) and kill them. I went into the garage to find my bow and arrow. I touched the string. Slid my finger along the faux feathers of the arrow. There was no way I could kill them. No way. I sat in the gravel at the end of the driveway, now not even certain that my own mother would return to me from work. Why would she? I was a smelly murderer.

When she finally pulled in, she didn’t even put the car in the garage. She stopped beside me. Opened the car door. I told her everything. She assured me that I was nothing of the sort, that mothers do come back. And as I sat on her lap next to the steering wheel, I could only believe her. She was proof.

The next day I searched for the bunnies. Praying for their mother’s return, as the weeds scratched my legs. I searched for hours, or maybe ten minutes, but there was no sign of any of them. No babies. No mother. My own mother went straight to the happily ever after…. “See, she said, “the mother came back and brought them to a new house and they are all just fine.” I believed her.

Years later, the first grown-up book we were assigned in middle school was “Of mice and men.” Lennie, the rabbits. It was all so sad. I wept for the story. For them. And I wept because I felt it all slipping away. I knew now. How could I go forward with this knowledge of unhappy endings? How did they carry it? I wept for my brother. My grandfather. How long had they carried this knowledge? I wept for my mother, who had to have known, but still lived on as proof — still passed on the possibility of happy endings. They all carried it, as best they could.

John Steinbeck says, “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men (humans), if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.” I would have to choose my own path. Walk in my own truth. I suppose we all have to do that. And with each word that I write, maybe I understand them, and myself, just a little bit more. See the beauty of it all, just a little bit more. This I can carry. I smile, and walk on.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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A berry in the window.

I’m currently reading the book, “Sorrow and Bliss,” by Meg Mason. The main character is remembering a period of time when her mother, a sculptor, would get lost in her work and not want to be disturbed. (Her mother is quite the eccentric character and a delicious read.) During these periods she would put a note on her studio for her two daughters, “Girls, before knocking, ask yourself this, is anything actually on fire?”  I’m still laughing. 

I was still a teenager when my mother started dating. She met a man, we’ll call him Roger, (because that was his name). When she (they) wanted a little alone time, she hung a decorative berry in the window of our garden apartment on Jefferson Street to alert me. It was a small strawberry, made of plaster, with a tiny string. So unassuming. So telling. If, when returning home on my ten-speed bicycle, I saw the berry in the window, I knew to keep riding. And joyfully, I did. 

I knew my mother was human when I saw her cry. Sorrow. It was good to now see her humanness for (forgive me) berry different reasons. Bliss. I can’t see a strawberry now without smiling.

I put up my painted berry today, in hopes that she can feel that girlish heart. In hopes that she will know, I will do anything for her to feel that way again. So I keep riding, round and round the block.


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Heart on my sleeve.

In my small hometown, there was a large department store, named Herberger’s. For those of you unfamiliar, you could call it a Dayton’s, Marshall Field’s, Macy’s, Dillard’s…a rose by any other name. It was the anchor store of our Viking Plaza (or Vikedale as we so lovingly called it). And by my use of the word “was,” I’m sure you can see where this is going. Funny how we didn’t. We assumed it would always be there. For shopping, of course! But more than that. For social interaction. Walking inside on cold and snowy days. Visiting. Encouraging. Living.


The first time my French husband visited Alexandria, we went out to Herberger’s with my mom. We entered near the shoe department. “Hi Ivy!” she said as she handed the shoes to her customer. Sue in the bra department waved. “Hi Ivy!” she said from women’s wear. The manager of the store stopped and said hello as we went to men’s wear. This was a normal day for us. We, my mom and I had grown up together at Herberger’s. Survived lonely Sunday afternoons there. Celebrated grand events there. Tried on clothes after clothes. Complimented each other. Gained our confidence. Grew our audience. Came to life. So it wasn’t strange to me when Claudia at the makeup counter asked my mom if she was feeling dizzy because she knew my mother – knew her history – her health. But my husband had this strange look on his face. “What?” I asked him. Does everyone know your mother here? “Sure,” I smiled. “It’s Herberger’s. She’s probably like the mayor.”


When Herberger’s closed several years ago. It was a shock. We weren’t prepared to say goodbye, but then, I suppose, no one ever is. We had survived so many goodbyes before, and we would survive this one as well.


I was playing “fashion show” yesterday, in our home in France. I try on things in my closet. Put together a capsule wardrobe like I’m a star on Youtube…look in the bedroom mirror, then the bathroom, then the downstairs full length mirror that gets the best lighting… then into the salon to show my husband. When I first introduced him to the playing fashion show, I’m not sure he really understood the game, or that we were even playing… “You have to say lots of nice things about me…” “A little more…” He’s become an excellent player.


With each outfit change I am shouting with glee over the changing room walls, over the music playing on the speakers above us, racing my mother to the best lit mirror (of course she had that figured out!). We weren’t wrong when we assumed that it would always be with us. It is! Herberger’s is alive and well in the south of France.


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Today’s pear.

I woke up to my first sale of 2022. It’s always a good feeling. Of course I like the money, but it is way beyond that. Always has been.

I have painted since I was five years old. I wrote stories. Drew pictures. For myself. For my mom. It wasn’t just something I did, it was me – it is me – who I am. I remember some of my first sales of paintings. I would get so excited. Start talking. Telling the story of the origin. Hands waving. So in the moment, I wouldn’t even see the check written and slid across the table. My mom was with me at this particular sale. As she was so often. I was in full excitement mode. Hugging the buyer as we said goodbye. Hugging my mom. She looked at me with her mothering eyes and said, “Take the money, Pea Brain!” She had a way of snapping me back to reality. We laughed! I picked the check off the table.

It’s still exciting to make a sale. It’s still exciting to connect with people. Read your comments when I post each day. It’s still exciting to have a mother that knows me so well. It’s exciting to make a living — to make a life!!! Every day!

Today I will pack up this pear and send it from Aix en Provence to Pennsylvania. And with it will go a piece of my heart, a bit of my story, and the sweet laughter of gratitude.


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I have to believe.

I graduated high school with a cast on my ankle. I graduated college with a full length cast on one leg and an ankle cast on the other. I had over 20 surgeries. And I never thought of myself as weak. I think if you carry, (sometimes kick) your backpack filled with hardcover books across an icy campus, while on crutches, you can consider yourself strong.

In between the plaster I wore what Fleet Farm would call work boots. I wore them with jeans. I wore them with dresses. If this had happened in today’s fashion world of “the clunkier boot the better,” no one would have noticed, but I was well ahead of my time. And they did get noticed, and people were not always complimentary.

My mother, knee deep in grief during my teenage years, found a way to get herself dressed, and not just dressed, looking good dressed, fashionable well beyond her monetary and emotional means dressed, carrying herself with dignity, with purpose, with strength well ahead of her time. How could I not put on a pair of boots and believe that my feet would take me where I need to go?

Yesterday I wrote in permanent marker all over my Dr. Martens. These boots, I thought, need to tell the story I’ve been writing for years. These boots need to walk in the strength of all the words that have carried me. Remind me of where of where I’ve been. Take me, wherever I need to go. I believe.


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The journey.

It happens with a really good book. I have this urgency to keep reading and this need for it to never end. This push and pull inside my brain and heart – keep reading one tells the other, no, wait, slow down. It’s happening right now with the book, “Our Country Friends.” I read last night until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, then woke up early to continue. My eyes still scratchy with sleep I plowed through each word. Slow down my heart urged, but my brain’s hand kept pointing forward.


We were driving to Chicago, my mom and I. It was winter and the trip was always a gamble, but one we were so willing to take. If we could make it beyond Tomah, Wisconsin, without a snowstorm, we were safe. As we neared this critical halfway point, the snow began. Then harder. We kept singing to the radio as the view got whiter and whiter. “Do you think we’ll be smart enough to pull over if it gets too bad?” my mother asked. Before I, or she, could respond, the barrier across the freeway had been lowered and we were forced to pull off the exit. “I guess not…” we said together.


I don’t remember what we bought on that trip to Chicago – that shopping excursion – but I do remember the journey. The journey together. I suppose that’s everything, isn’t it? I closed my book and went down to make breakfast. I wanted it to last a little longer. I want it all to last a little longer.


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Pillowing.

“Your heart pillows to mine, and I am home.” It is a simple sentence. One I wrote for my book, “Home.” I also made it into a picture that hangs in our upstairs hallway. To take a noun – pillow – make it a verb, and everyone still knows exactly what it means, this is a thrill!


I have always loved words. I grew up with them. They are a living force in my life. An exchange of goods – as my mother read to me before bed. An exchange of goods, as I read to her my blog each day.


This lifeforce – these words – how do I give thanks for them? As the lyrics say in the song “To Sir with Love,” — “How do you thank someone, who has taken you from crayons to perfume?” For that’s what these words have done. They have raised me from a child. From my first visit to the library at Washington Elementary. To today, as I arrange them together, hopefully in a new way, on this page, eagerly trying to lift, to inspire, to connect. So to thank them, in my most humble way, I can only use them to the best of my ability. Use them for good. (Because make no mistake, they are tools – these words – and just as easily as they can build, they can also destroy). I pray that I, we, use them well. Share them with kindness, with as much love as they were first shared with me, by a woman, who I would grow to resemble in looks, who I long to resemble in heart. She laid them so gently in my bed, these words, so softly, so comforting, one might even say she pillowed them.
Don’t spare your words. Share them. Mean them. Thoughtfully, gently, use them well.