Chelle Summer


Turning the Holidays Around to about Others

Michelle Rusk

My mom worked hard to make sure we had great birthdays. While they were nothing compared to the over-the-top parties I see parents do for their children now, she invested a lot of time in making big signs that she hung in the kitchen and coordinating our birthday parties.

But what she couldn't control were the emotions of my dad whose unhappiness in life constantly enveloped our house and often ruined Thanksgiving because they would have an argument about something. And there were extended family get togethers on my mom's side where too much drinking too place. You know how it ends– even if you've never experienced one yourself, you've heard the stories from others. Everyone gets mad at everyone else. 

When I was married the first time, my then mother-in-law, visiting from Texas, once got up and left the dinner table right smack in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, my then father-in-law running after her out the door. To this day, I don't think we know what made her mad.

So holidays haven't always been the happiest occasions for me. Until I figured out how to make them about other people.

When Greg's entire family (all nine!) decided they wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Albuquerque with us this year, I was happy to cook because it meant I could create something for others and enjoy that process. I'll admit I was tired by the time ten days ended and the last of the family returned to the east coast. However, it was an uneventful holiday– there was no drama and everyone enjoyed the company of each other. What more could you ask for?

When my birthday rolls around next week, it'll be the same. I'll go to 12:10 pm mass to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe and then Greg and I will gather with a group of friends at a restaurant for dinner (tacos for all!) to celebrate not just my birthday but Guadalupe's feast day. 

I don't have the expectations I used to have of my birthdays and holidays. I try to think of something fun to do, something that will make me happy while in some way giving to others.

And that makes them happy and memorable days for us all.


Michelle Rusk

Before my friend Bonnie died– just three weeks after my dad in January 2006– each time I would go to her house, she usually had something to share with me. She was in her late sixties when I moved across the street (although I got to know her better in the years after I had moved a few miles away) and I would often spend evenings with her sewing or working on some other crafty project. One time she had my first husband bring back nautical rope from a trip to Portland, Maine (he worked for a company based there) and she gessoed the yellow rope white and we made shell wreaths. That's the sort of things Bonnie liked to do.

Often she would have pages in marked in Martha Stewart's magazine for me look at or family items pulled out to share stories about her family or her husband Greg's family. 

The tablecloth above was given to me after she died by her daughter Sadie who wasn't into giving dinner parties and had no use for it. I'm not sure the last time it was used– or the matching napkins. Bonnie bought it in Middle East (most likely Saudi Arabia) during the time they lived there because Greg worked for an oil company. 

When Bonnie was dying of cancer, I spent as much time as I could with her and at some point she started to ask me which of her things I might like to have. Or she offered certain things she knew Sadie wouldn't want (sadly, Sadie– who has since died, too along with Greg and Bonnie's son Gordon)– had a prescription problem and just about everything Bonnie gave her was sold to pay for drugs, including many quilts that Bonnie had made. 

One afternoon as we sifted through fabric she asked me if I would like her dining room table. There was one reason for this, one thing I really wanted was a table that would fit twelve people around it. I have no idea who those twelve people would be, but I just liked the idea of having that many people around one table. 

It was never mentioned again because she died not long after that and I didn't bring it up because it wasn't my place to. I'm sure she never mentioned it to Sadie, simply because she was on a morphine drip and didn't always remember what we had discussed. The table got sold, but the tablecloth and napkins were given to me.

In the nearly eleven years I've had them, I've never used them. My current table doesn't fit that many people and with the many losses in my family, I haven't had reason to put that many people around the table. Any family events I had before my mom's death when I was living in Illinois were at her dining room table (now in the loving hands of my sister Karen) with a tablecloth of mine or Mom's. Bonnie's tablecloth always was pushed to the bottom of the drawer.

However, on Thanksgiving this week, I will gather the entire David and Delcia Rusk family at my dining room table (we'll be bumping my desk– which is my parents' kitchen table and a leaf for it) up to the dining room table. I'll cover it with Bonnie's tablecloth and we'll use the napkins that match it.

We'll top the tablecloth with Greg's and mine wedding china combined with Delcia's mother's china from Argentina. 

It feels more significant than ever to recognize Bonnie in my life. My mom was the one who instilled my creativity in me, always encouraging me to write/draw/create/sew, but it was Bonnie who took it to the next level teaching me so much more. As I continue to forge my lifestyle brand– Chelle Summer– forward, all that Bonnie taught me is going to yet another level.

Using her tablecloth is a way of saying thank you.

This Is Me

Michelle Rusk

In the more than twenty years that I have been flying back and forth between my now-home of Albuquerque and my hometown in the Chicago suburbs, from the air I have gotten pretty good at locating the house I grew up in as well as the house that I had bought not too far from it, now sold since my last move back to Albuquerque. I can spot the high school I attended, the quarry-now swimming pool I spent my teens years at with my friends. Then as we travel toward the lake and then around the downtown Loop, I can spot my maternal grandparents' house on the north side of the city. This time I also saw the hospital where I was born at– the same hospital where my grandfather was a doctor on staff– and the high school my mom and her sisters attended.

It had been almost a year until I flew through for a short night's stay this past weekend, on my way to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for a talk. I couldn't get there from Albuquerque in one day to arrive before my talk so I split the trip overnight.

I missed my hometown, on the way in, my nose buried in a stack of magazines that had been collecting on my coffee table. We were heading over Lake Michigan when I looked out the window and instantly I thought of my family. I thought of everyone who isn't here anymore: all my grandparents, my parents, and my younger sister.

All the people who make up much of who I am today.

I am proud to be from Chicago, my parents both city dwellers until they married and moved to the suburbs to raise us, all of us born in the city at the same hospital. I'm proud to be a Midwesterner. I live in New Mexico now, that's my home, that's who I am today, but as the plane traveled forward over the Lake, then turning north to come back to land at O'Hare, a series of memories traveled through my mind, various events in my life– many of them routine– that helped me to dream and become the person I am.

They might be silly– thinking about listening to Chicago radio each morning before school– but each one of those events or parts of the daily routine helped me to dream, to think about what I wanted out of life, to experience life.

I ate pizza with my sister and a very good friend that night, in a restaurant chain we had grown up eating at. And when I checked into my hotel there at the airport and poured myself a glass of water I realized something.

Lake Michigan water.

I was taken back to my grandparents' house on the north side and the little jelly jars Grandma left by the sink so one could grab a quick glass of water (Who thought about transmitting germs in those days? Especially within families). The water had a smell to it, and a taste you could only get when it was just out of the tap.

We had well water in Naperville until later when the pipes were finally laid and then (this was after I had moved away), they, too, had Lake Michigan water. To say I couldn't stop drinking it was an understatement. The next morning I made sure to get my fill and enjoy it.

It might seem silly to some but I believe that going back to where you are from, to be reminded of what brought you to where you are today, takes you forward in life. I don't take steps backward in my life but I look backward sometimes at the steps that have been laid. And in them I remember the family and the people who helped me become who I am today. Then I continue my path forward.

The Big Move

Michelle Rusk

After an extremely hot July here in New Mexico, the mornings have cooled into the lower sixties. It's one sign that fall is around the corner. But in August I also see the days getting shorter as darkness keeps with us later in the morning and just a general feel that it's time for school to start as the shadows change.

But I am always reminded of August in Albuquerque because twenty-two years ago this week I moved here as a twenty-two-year-old college graduate heading off to graduate school at the University of New Mexico.

New Mexico was not a place familiar to me much more than my uncle's brother lived here. I didn't intend to stay so much as I saw it a stop on my journey, hoping to continue to head west to Los Angeles, the place where I'd wanted to live since I was thirteen.

Yet twenty- two years later, with a year and a half hiatus where I moved back to Illinois, here I am.

And here I intend to stay. With time spent in Los Angeles, of course.

I know that it was hard for my parents to leave me here, and a Uhaul filled with my belongings as well as many useful items from my grandmother's house because she had died less than a year before (to this day I have more Pyrex glass dishes than Target). My move was only eighteen months after my younger sister's death and it would have been easier for everyone if I had stayed closer to home. But my parents knew I wasn't going to be the kid who stayed close to home. 

While I did try to move back for a time, I realized that I might be a Midwesterner by blood, but I'm much happier here in the Southwest. It seems to fit me better (the vast amounts of sunshine help). A priest I knew back at Ball State said, after I had come back to New Mexico for the second time, "I don't know why you left. You spent almost your entire adult life there."

I came in New Mexico as a twenty-two year old and it has influenced much of who I have become right down to my cooking. 

I won't leave but I also don't forget the journey here.