Mary Beth Writes

 We are still able to see NEOWISE in the evening. 

More info about how to see it here: 

Len took this photo a few nights ago. The white stripes in the foreground are lightning bugs!

I wrote this column in 1997 and remembered it this morning.       


March 14, 1997

It’s tricky to get just the right perspective on one’s place in the universe.

I have a cousin whose last name is -- you guessed it -- Danielson. He and I didn’t know each other extremely well as kids and I see him even less as an adult, so it was quite a shock to walk into a family gathering and discover I have a distinguished relative. He’s a judge. He gets an Honorable before his name. However, I still remember his mom saying she gave him the name she did so that his initials would be BVD. She mentioned this saved a lot of time since she didn’t have to mark his underwear before he went to summer camp.

In the course of conversation, I learned that he’s interested in genealogy. He traced the Danielson family tree back several generations.

I asked for a copy of his research. It came last week. I sat down at the kitchen table and dived into what he came up with.

Well, I’m impressed that the original Daniel -- the guy who gave all the rest of the name Danielson -- was a guy born in 1699 in a place called Skog, Sweden. The further back you go in my family, the more our hometowns sound like someone trying to clear their throat. I am the first Danielson to live in a town with a French name (we were living in Racine) and I see this as a real contribution to our family’s story.

My cousin also sent a copy of an extremely funny, slightly informative speech about genealogy that he presented to his Rotary Club.       

First he explains the wildly exponential mathematics of genealogy. Everybody has 2 birth-parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-greats and so on. Every generation you go back doubles in size. Go back 400 years, you now have one million relatives. Go back 12 centuries, you now have 25 trillion ancestors. (I’m reminded of Senator Proxmire’s observation - a million here, a million there, pretty soon it all adds up.)

Of course, the snag is that there have only been 100 billion people who are now or have ever lived on Planet Earth.               

The solution to this mathematical conundrum is called the “pedigree collapse." (I didn’t make that up but I wish I did.) Experts say no one has more than about 2 million ancestors. At some point we are all semi-related. In plain speak, that means along the line folks have been unwittingly (oh, maybe some of them were “witting”) marrying relatives. The human race has certain similarities to a slew of six-toed kittens out in the barn.

The second interesting point my cousin makes in his speech is this. Study your family tree for a while and you will begin to think that the point of history is you. All those great-greats and great-great-greats got together so that your family could bloom into the full glory of you.

I went to sleep that night with a smug little grin on my large Scandinavian face. Just think, 300 years of Swedish potato farmers ploughed through history in order to produce one grand offspring. A local columnist in the Upper Midwest. (And perhaps a judge with bathroom-humor initials.)

Several hours later I awoke to the not-so-small sound of my husband padding about the house. I heard him in the hall. I heard him clomp (he can clomp barefoot) down the stairs to our son’s bedroom. I heard the front door open and close several times. I sighed, got up, and literally ran into him as we both rounded the corner in the family room.

“What are you doing?” You can imagine the wifely tone in my voice.

He looked sheepish and defiant at the same time. This a look many years of marriage will often teach a man.

“The comet. You can see the comet, so I got the kids up to look at it.”


Many feelings ricocheted through me including the sense that perhaps his family’s pedigree had collapsed before mine.

“Want to see it?”

Well, I bit back all the amazingly acerbic things one could say to a fellow who rouses children at 4:00 AM to look at the sky. I followed him into the living room.

And right there, out the middle of our window, was one of the strangest and most awesome sights I’ve seen in my life.

A blurry fist of light. An arm-long path of light suspended from it. My breath caught in my lungs. For a second there, I was pre-science and I was frightened by the beautiful wrongness of the sight.

I whispered, “It’s scary.”

My husband put his arm around me and murmured back.

“Yeah, comets always scare me, too.”

Two million ancestors behind us, each one a person who lived and breathed, who took what was given and yearned for more.

An infinity of space and stars around us, whipped through by orbiting comets of dust and gas.

It’s tricky knowing our place against all this. I think it’s worth our imagination to remember we are not the beginning; we are not the turning point. Everything we have is random. And is a gift.


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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

Car Accident & Not Buying the Farm Today

My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


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