Jodi Hills

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


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Lazy Susan.

Whoever this Susan was, I liked her. And she couldn’t have been all that lazy, I thought, because her cupboard was always full. I thought Susan was the one who bought all the candy in that cupboard. Whenever we wanted a treat at my Grandma’s house, she would point to the corner cupboard and say Lazy Susan. My eager chubby brain and fingers didn’t take the time to analyze that this was just what the spinning rack was called — the spinning rack that held all my grandma’s candy. I liked believing some magical woman named Susan kept her cupboard full. Like maybe she worked directly with the Tooth Fairy. 

Something was lost when I learned there was no Susan fairy, nor Tooth, but I gained something better — the knowledge that I had a grandma who would keep her cupboard filled with treats – easy access treats – on the bottom shelf – the bottom spinning shelf – all for us to enjoy. And she didn’t buy what some called the “grandma treats” like hard mint candies, or burnt-orange peanuts. No she had Slo-pokes, and Black cows. Sugar Daddies. Toasted marshmallows. Chocolate bars and more chocolate bars. 

And as I got older. More truths came out. More losses. But one thing remained constant. The easy access of things given at my grandparent’s farm. The easy access of open spaces to run in. Secret rooms to hide in. Endless fields that said, be yourself. An open cupboard that said, keep believing in magic. And a love that remained full. Always within reach.


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She’s here!

I was at the New York library last night (in my dream). It is so rare that I have a good dream, I must tell you about it. To put it in perspective, if I don’t wake up screaming, it’s a good night. And those bad dreams, they can linger, not just through the morning, but for days. So this dream — this rare and glorious good dream — I put it to words, with hopes that it will linger.

I could smell the wood. And the paper. For me, libraries have always carried the scent of permanence and possibility. In the library was the perfect place for this dream to occur, amid the realm of all things possible. Dominique and I were donating our old books to the librarian. She was kind and grateful and wanted to visit. I told her of my love for books, and that, humbly, I too, was an author. She smiled and said she knew, and pulled out my most recent book, Pulling Nails. I beamed. She asked if I would mind signing a copy for the library. Of course! And maybe one for a fan, she asked. A fan? And then she stepped into the room — this beautiful woman — my grandma! My Grandma Elsie. And she was holding my book. (Tears of tenderness roll down my face as I type.) I was so happy to see her! Dominique look! It’s my Grandma! She held out my book and said, It’s gorgeous! (It’s gorgeous — you have no idea what those words will forever do to my heart!) And in my dream, I knew it was a dream, and I said out loud, …But she’s here! And she was. I can still feel her smiling.

I don’t know what dreams really are. I’m not sure that anyone does. The so-called experts say it means “this”, or “that”, but perhaps they are only as accurate as our local weather reporters making educated guesses. All I know for sure is that this morning the sun is shining and my heart is full — and it is as real as anything could be. I choose to call that love. Love that fills the air with the scent of permanence and possibility — and it IS gorgeous!

Good morning!


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What remains.

I admit that I was a little envious of the Pertermeier children, Erin and Shawn. They got to spend a lot of time with my grandma. Just the two of them, when she worked for them at Petermeier’s Funeral Home. Alone time with my grandma was hard to come by – she had so many grandchildren! 

I was sick with a bad cold and needed to stay home from school. My mother worked, so I spent the day with grandma at the Funeral Home. It may surprise you, but it was glorious. Despite the location, and my ailments, I was alone with her. She was all mine. 

The attention she gave me was as thick as the red velvet curtains that hung in the parlor. We played cards at the kitchen table. I didn’t know the rules to any of them. She said I’d pick it up as we played. I didn’t. And I’d lose every game. But she’d laugh, and I felt like I was winning. I knew I was winning. I walked beside her, step by step as she vacuumed (I know I was sick, but honestly, she didn’t work at it that hard.) We crossed the street to Jerry’s Jack and Jill and got treats. Hand in hand.  What’s most surprising to me, as quickly as this day passed, it has stayed with me for decades.

Years later, visiting my home town, I saw the empty space where the funeral home stood. For a moment, my heart stopped. Just a building some would say, but not for me. It was a day where I was everything. 

I went home and painted the picture, “What remains may only be in the heart.” Ironically, I guess, I sold that painting almost immediately, and my representation was gone, but just as predicted, the feeling still remained, remains still.

We came home yesterday from traveling. I brought with me a cold. Awake throughout the night, blowing my nose, coughing, it was still there, that feeling. I would be ok. No longer jealous of the Petermeiers, but so grateful! What a gift they gave me. Time alone with my grandmother. An afternoon of red velvet love that I will carry with me forever. The remains of the day.


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Grandma’s dance.

My grandmother loved root beer floats. Oh how she loved them! She kept an old A & W root beer mug in the freezer, chilled and ready. Every visit to her house, after lunch, after Days of our Lives, she would ask, “Would you like a root beer float?” “No thanks, Grandma,” I would reply. I didn’t like root beer, and ice cream made me ill. Not my treat. “I could make them for us, no problem,” she continued. “No thanks,” I said, both smiling for different reasons. She smiled because she could almost taste her favorite treat. I smiled, because we had danced this dance so many times before. I knew I would eventually say yes, she would make two root beer floats, and she would eat them both.

What a pleasure it was to see her as a human. It’s rare, I suppose, that we get that. She was an aproned grandma, and so often we can get lost in that, forget that she was once a young girl, with her hair down, falling in love with a soon to be farmer. She was a woman of this world, not just grandma. She was a woman who had nine children, 27 grandchildren and so many more greats… but in a few rare moments, alone with her on a quiet afternoon, I got to see her, when she smiled, for the simplest of things, and it was beautiful.

Yesterday, in Baton Rouge, I asked Dominique to pull the car over. I had to take a picture. It was a giant root beer mug. I danced with my grandma again.


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Tremble.

I learned a new word yesterday, and not in French, but Latin. Spolia. Spolia is now an art historical term for the recycling of architectural fragments. A fragment of an old building is taken from its original context and reused in a different context. This has happened throughout history. Usually these pieces are not taken at random. It first began perhaps to symbolize a new ruler to rulers of the past, for example in the Arch of Constantine, fragments of sculptures honoring Marcus Aurelius and Trajan were added to symbolize the equal greatness of Constantine. The first time I saw this was in Chicago at the Tribune Tower. I thought it was beautiful, but I didn’t have the word for it then.

I suppose, as humans, we do the same. I hope we are doing the same. Giving honor to the best of those that have come before us. When my Grandmother passed away, I wrote a poem for her. My way of adding a piece of her to my heart. It still holds me. These pieces of her, my mother — what a foundation! I stand strong today because of them, for them, forever with them.


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No measuring cups.


It wasn’t often that I saw my Grandma Elsie without an apron covered in flour, that I saw the kitchen sink empty, her cupboards clear… You entered her house through the always unlocked door, directly through her kitchen. First impressions. It was always full. She was permanently baking and cooking, but rarely cleaning. This is not an insult. I have always admired her ability to let things roll. She didn’t seem overly concerned about the little things. She made it all look so easy. We asked her once about leaving the door unlocked, wasn’t she worried that someone could just walk in, in the middle of the night. “Well, maybe they’ll clean something…” was her response.


They say she never measured anything while cooking. I’m not certain it’s true, but it would be within her character. I started baking when I moved to France. I have no American measuring cups, and only a single French one. There is a lot of guessing. Not to mention the translating of recipes. The swapping out of ingredients (Chocolate bars are in the “exotic” aisle of the grocery store.) I’m not sure why I started. I don’t remember the first thing I baked. I’m going to guess cookies. I suppose for the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid to do it. There was no one who would judge me, or make fun of me. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. For the first time in my life I was secure that my love would not be measured by kitchen triumphs or failures. I was simply loved. It’s amazing what that confidence can do for you.


I think of my Grandma now as I bake for Christmas. I think of how she must have felt loved. So loved that she could dance in her kitchen, covered in flour, with the sink full of dishes. And I am so happy that she had that. That confidence. That love.


Now with all those children, all those years, all that living, of course she must have had her share of heartache. Of concern. I suppose, even worry. But she showed none of it. Not with her hands. With those hands, covered in flour, covered in dust, she held. She gave. She touched.


Love is never measured.


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Peach

Living in an apartment most of my young life, I didn’t really understand the basement of my grandmother. The room at the bottom of the stairs was stacked with glass jars filled with fruit and vegetables. She “canned.” I didn’t really know what that meant. No one really explained it to me. I’m ashamed to say, I wondered if we, they, were poor. Did we have to save this food in these jars? Were we preparing for something terrible to happen? I didn’t know – and I was afraid to ask.


I loved my grandma. She had a twinkle that came from some inner assuredness, so my worry didn’t last long. And I forgot about it.
Peaches have begun to pop out on our front yard tree. Each year when they blossom and then give fruit, it feels like a tiny miracle. They are beautiful. A melding of orange and yellow and red. I imagine the tiny angels that come in the night with brushes and release all the colors, just for us to give a wow in the morning sun!


In a few weeks, I will pick these peaches and peel them. After I take the skin off, the fruit is almost without color, a pale yellow at best, but then when I boil them, they release into the most glorious color of, well, peach! It is stunning. And the magic continues.


As each jar is emptied, over fresh baked bread, or brioche, or just by the spoonful, I am taken on a sticky hand trip, across the ocean, chubby fingers locked in my grandma’s, walking down the stairs to her glorious basement. “I see it now,” I tell her. “It’s magic and it’s beautiful!”

My grandma came last night with the other angels. The peaches fill the tree and the morning air says, “Wow!”


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Toasted marshmallows

My grandmother walked comfortably in her skin.  Skin that was stretched a little more horizontally than vertically.  Skin she donned in aproned dresses and comfortable shoes. 
She was tall to me when I was a child. Sturdy. Sure. I clung to her side, bashful and uneasy. We walked into Jerry’s Jack and Jill, the small grocery store near the end of Broadway. She picked a cart and began down the first aisle. I gripped the cart beside her hand. She stopped almost immediately.  “Ooooo….” I knew this sound – it meant she liked something she saw. She grabbed the plastic bag filled with toasted marshmallows. One of her favorites. “Grab those,” she said. I put a bag in the bottom of the cart. “No, up here.”  She placed them in the top part of the cart where a child would sit.  She opened the bag.  “Grandma!” I screamed. 
“What?” she asked.
“You can’t do that.” I claimed.
“Oh, it’s fine…”
“But it’s stealing.”
“I’m going to pay for them. It’s fine.”
“But -“
“Oh, they know me.”
We walked around the store. Filled the cart. Past workers and shoppers in aisle. “Oh, hi, Elsie!” I heard again and again, but no one said a word about the marshmallows that were disappearing from the cart.
We got to the check-out and the first thing she placed on the counter was the empty bag. The clerk gave her a wink and rang up the bag.  They did know her. Everything was fine.
It seemed so easy, so normal. And I Ioved the way her chubby frame glided like Ginger Rogers, backwards through this small town.  She made no selfies, no tweets, but she lived out loud. And people knew her.
Yes, this was a small town. But aren’t they all, really. If you back up and look at us, on this planet, as humans, we are specks, delightful specks, but all living in our small communities – be it Minneapolis, or Paris. How do we not know each other? We must know each other. Know ourselves. If we can do this, we can do better. Much better.
I surpassed my grandmother’s height years ago, but she is still so very tall to me.  Take a look around. It’s an amazing world, with amazing people. “OOOOOOOh!”  “Yes!”  If we can see it, see each other, everything’s going to be fine.


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If she did worry, it never showed in her hands. She held. She gave. She touched.

It can’t be too personal. That’s what they taught me about writing at the University. The reader doesn’t want to know that anyone could have written it. They wanted to know that you wrote it. You knew it. You felt it. And you shared it with them. And so I did. 


When I paint. When I write, it is never generic. It is specific. It is personal. When I write about a house, it is a big, yellow, house, with a yellow so inviting, that if you were to walk by, just being you, it would call to you, “come in, you and your heart sit down.” When I write about my mother, people say, “Oh, that’s my mother.” “That’s my sister.” “That’s so me.” When I write about my heart, being overwhelmed or overjoyed, people say, “How did you know exactly what I was feeling?” And the power of these words show me, every day, I am not alone. We are not alone.


I made a painting of my grandmother’s hands. It has been purchased from Chicago to San Francisco. And I know that a piece of my grandmother gets to go there. She gets to pass over Wrigley Field, through the Magnificent Mile, into the loving arms of Illinois. She crosses the largest bridge a girl from Minnesota could ever imagine. And she shows them her hands. These strong and beautiful hands. These hands that could raise nine children, could also build bridges and stadiums, and we were not that different. We were a part of it all. She was. I am.

Each painting holds a story. Each picture, each phrase, is me, with my nose pressed up against the window pane, on Van Dyke Road, nearly wearing the window through with wishes and plans and dreams. Connecting us all, they would take me farther than I even dared to dream.


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Rolling.

There was a Ben Franklin store in the middle of Broadway. It was right next to the theatre. They sold penny candy. Before the matinee, we would take our quarters and buy full sacks of candyand take them to watch the feature movie.
As a kid, I didn’t think there could be anything better. But my grandma did. She loved the Ben Franklin too, but more than the candy. In the middle of summer, the local merchants held Crazy Days. Often spelled Crazee Daze, or with a backwards“c” – maybe a crooked “d” – anything to promote just how crazy these deals were going to be. They lined the sidewalks with all kinds of product. It looked like a carnival when you were a kid,or a grandma who was waiting for the next big deal! Most likely it was just the unsold merchandise they wanted to get rid of before the next season, but that reality had not yet set in – for either of us. I’m not sure for my grandma, if it ever did.


At Ben Franklin they had “grab bags.” Brown paper sacks filled with mystery merchandise. Each had a small price written in marker on the front, and you had to buy it sight unseen. Now, some told of the great surpises that were found, for only a nickel, only fifty cents – why it just can’t be – how lucky! My grandma told of these stories too, but had never actually experienced such a thrill. “But maybe this time…” she wouldalways say. I walked the crazy sidewalks with her and we finished at Ben Franklin. She gave me a quarter to pick out any sack I liked. She picked out many.


You have to know a little bit about my grandma. She loved to play games of any kind. Cards. Dice. She wasn’t the kind of grandma to let you win. No, she enjoyed beating you. Not in a mean way, but like in a kid-like way… like your older sister of brother would. She loved to play. She wouldn’t teach you the rules, she said you’d pick it up as we played – meaning she would beat you and beat you until you finally caughton. There was a dice game. You had to roll the numbers in a certain sequence, and if you didn’t, you lost your turn. And the pure joy she got when you lost your turn was beautiful. She would swipe in with her swollen farm hands and scoop up those dice before you knew what happened. “Ooooooo, she lost it!” she would say, almost giggling. She loved to play so much that it was infectious. You never felt hurt or sorry, just watching her play, made you want to play. So we rolled the dice. And we kept rolling.


We brought our Ben Franklin sacks to her car and opened them one at a time. With such anticipation I removed the top staple. Unwrinkled the sack. I pulled out a plastic face that was knitted into a cover for a kleenex box. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. “Ooooooo,” my grandma said, “She lost it!” And oh, how we laughed. My grandma knew how to laugh. She knew how to play. We would go back the next year, and roll again.


My mother loved Frank Sinatra. We listened to the same records over and over on our giant stereo. It looked like a piece of furniture. About the size of a small sofa. Speakers on each end.On long Sunday afternoons, we would each lie on opposite sides of the stereo, our heads in front of a speaker, and Frank would sing. Sunday afternoons were long. My father was gone. My mother was sad. The sun went down early on winter days. In the dark. No money. No company. We lied beside Frank and he told us, with such certainty, we had to believe, “Maybe this time,” he sang, “I’ll get lucky… all of the odds are in my favor, something’s bound to begin… maybe this time, maybe this time, I’m gonna win…”


Was it the American spirit? The Hvezda spirit? The spirit of women? Something made us believe. Something made us keep rolling. Keep trying. Something made us believe beyond the season. Maybe this time it’s going to last. Maybe this time we might win. We believed. We all kept rolling.