Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer


Recently I was introduced to Deborah, who works with my new neighbor, Heather. When I told Heather about it, I thought about the web of connections leading to this chance meeting. 

A mid-August day in western Illinois can take your breath away. Temperatures run high that time of year. The humidity of the Mississippi River and the flat, fertile ground clings to everything and makes it hard to breathe. But on that day in 1933, the air was milder than usual and a light rain freshened the skies.

On that day in 1933, John welcomed Dorothy to his side, and they spoke their vows to honor and love each other, vows that were kept for 69 years. While Dorothy held his hands, her bridesmaid and cousin Rosemary held the bride’s bouquet.

John and Dorothy had nine children together, one of whom was Jim. Rosemary and her husband had children, too, one of whom was Chuck. Chuck and Jim, second cousins, knew each other as they grew up, attended the same university, and had overlapping social circles.

When Jim graduated college, he married, began a teaching career, and became a father. His teaching career thrived and his daughters grew, but his marriage struggled and ultimately ended.

One summer Jim began a master’s degree program at another university in Illinois. While there, a mutual friend introduced him to Melanie. Melanie and Jim quickly fell in love and married the next year.

After Melanie finished her degree, she applied for a job in downtown Chicago. Her interview was on the coldest recorded day in Chicago history (really!), and she got a job developing software for a major bank. One of her work mates was Bruce. Soon Bruce left the software development team to join the bank’s trust management group.

After a couple more years, Melanie left the bank to enter graduate school. She finished the degree and gave birth to a son, after which she taught Finance at the same school.

In the summer of 1992, Jim, his wife Melanie, and their young son moved to Iowa. Melanie was about to start graduate school (again!), but Jim didn’t have a job arranged yet. After 23 years teaching high school science, he hoped to find a similar position.

John and Dorothy’s son Jim spoke with Rosemary’s son Chuck. Chuck had a connection in the same Iowa town, a man who worked in administration for the school district. With Chuck’s recommendation to ease the way, Jim accepted a teaching position in the district. Jim had many talented co-workers at his school, people dedicated to their students. One of those was Jan, a gentle man who taught physical science.

Jim, Melanie, and Son were fortunate in other ways in their new home. Across the street in one direction lived Darrell and Judy, who treated the new family with kindness. In another direction lived Kathy’s family. Her son attended the same school and played on the same soccer team. The mom of another boy on that team was Beth, a relative of Kathy.

In 1996 Darrell and Judy moved across town. Melanie finished her degree in 1997 and applied for a job in trust investment management. The man who interviewed her and hired her was Bruce, her co-worker from Chicago, now living in Iowa.

Between Melanie’s new job and Jim’s teaching position, it made sense to move. In 1997 they moved to a new house, right next door to Darrell and Judy. Darrell and Judy’s neighbors on the other side were a woman named Hazel and her daughter Holly.

Holly was older than the son, but the two became friends. Their friendship deepened when Holly helped Son learn how to play clarinet and saxophone. She helped him learn the basics and Son came to love the saxophone. When he entered junior high he was fortunate to have an excellent band teacher. The band teacher encouraged the kids to play in the jazz band, which Son did.

In high school he continued to play. His jazz band excelled and often won area jazz band contests. One of those contests was hosted each year at Son’s high school. It was the annual qualifying contest for state competition. Many of the judges are professional jazz musicians and educators from the area. When Melanie helped run the qualifying contest in 2006, she met a jazz musician and professor named Steve.

Steve plays with a few different bands. One of those bands is called “The Beaker Brothers,” and they play a lot of rock from the late 1960s and ’70s. Ed is one of Steve’s bandmates in that group.

After Jim retired from teaching in 2007, his friend Jan recommended he work for an education resources company. Jan started there when he retired from teaching. Ed worked there, too, as did Darrell.

Backtracking in time… In 2002 Jim and Melanie and Son moved to a different house. Next-door neighbors on both sides worked for the same education company where Jim later worked. Two doors down lived Nancy, a retired teacher who quilted. In 2007 Nancy invited Melanie to a meeting of the local quilters guild. At the meeting, Melanie reconnected with Bethrelated to Kathy, who lived across the street from Melanie and Jim when they first moved to Iowa. Beth quilts, too. 

In summer of 2017, Nancy and her husband, the neighbors two doors down, sold their home to downsize. Heather and her husband, moving to town to work at the hospital, bought the house.

A different stream of time… For decades Jim has been a blood donor. Years ago, one of the phlebotomists at the blood bank, who frequently jabbed Jim when he donated, was Deborah. Yes, the same Deborah who recently met Melanie.

On a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, Melanie and Jim went out to hear The Beaker Brothers play. Steve and Ed were on stage with their bandmates, covering the Allman Brothers and other bands of the era. When they took a break, Steve visited with Jim and Melanie. As he did, Deborah approached to say “hello” to him. She already knew Steve through her friendship with Ed and his wife. As it turns out, Ed is Deborah’s ex-in-law.

Deborah recognized Jim and introduced herself to Melanie. She now works at the hospital in a different department. It is the same department in which Heather works.

Deborah and Heather might know each other despite all the other connections. But Jim and I only know that Deborah and Heather know each other because of all the other connections.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Herman Melville


Great Horned Owl Visiting Again

In February we told the story of a great horned owl visiting our backyard. Before that day, we never saw or heard one in our yard. Today we had the privilege of a second visit.

This time it perched on a lower branch than before, and Jim was able to get some terrific shots.

Great Horned Owl. Eastern Iowa. 11/15/2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Click on any picture below to embiggen.

And here is a short video to show a bit of personality.

We watched it as a cat roamed through our yard beneath it. The cat was lucky the owl wasn’t ready for dinner. Later a squirrel grazed under the bird feeder and similarly escaped a violent death.

It was quite a treat to see this beautiful bird.

Autumn Walks

by Jim and Melanie

One of our true pleasures is walking or hiking with each other. The pace allows for companionable silence or conversation, and for experiencing our current surroundings while letting the past and future fade. When we travel we look for opportunities to hike, and at home we walk the neighborhood or make small outings to local trails. Serendipity often blesses us while we’re out.

When visiting Washington state last month, we intended a hike in Point Defiance Park, a city park in Tacoma. It hugs the shoreline of the Tacoma Narrows and Commencement Bay, south of Seattle. Jim also wanted to visit the park’s rose garden, displaying the last of early fall’s blooms.

What we didn’t anticipate was the dahlia garden. The tall-stemmed blooms overwhelmed us with their joyful colors. We don’t see many dahlias where we live, so we lingered for a while, taking dozens of photos. Here are a few. Click to embiggen.


This week we hiked closer to home. We drove to hiking and mountain biking trails a few miles away, next to the Coralville Reservoir. There are several miles of trails, rated from easy to difficult. Because they are for bike riders as well as walkers, the trails are designated for one-way traffic to improve safety. We hadn’t hiked in this area before and enjoyed the new adventure.

Most of the trail is within the trees with no view of the water, though you can see the reservoir in places. The fall colors are slow in coming this year, and the trees are still leaf-covered, perhaps due to our mild summer.

Our moment of serendipity came about halfway through our hike, when we chanced upon this Santa-on-a-tractor-in-a-creche. It seemed to be the perfect representation of Christmas in Iowa, though a little early.

Since we hadn’t been to these trails before, we stuck to one designated as “easy.” There is a lot more to explore for other times. We’ll go back.


Snakes on a … Sidewalk!

by Melanie and Jim

Most snakes in Iowa are pretty harmless, not scary like snakes on a plane. The ones we see most often are non-venomous and pretty amusing. They are Brown Snakes, and they typically measure from 13-18″ long. Most we see in our neighborhood are smaller than that, with lengths from about 8-12″.

Yesterday’s first snake sighting was on the paved trail behind our house. We had just left the house for a short walk when we happened on the snake, stretched almost its full length across the trail. We estimated it was about a foot long, maybe slightly more. There was some dappled sunlight warming the little thing. They seem to appear in early fall. They like areas with water and some woodland border, making our neighborhood the perfect habitat.

Jim ran back to the house to get a camera while Melanie stood guard. Two women came along and admired it while we waited. They said there were other snakes that were much smaller farther along. And then one of the women hopped a little and pointed to two more snakes at the edge of the sidewalk. A bicyclist rode by, and we directed him to the side so he wouldn’t run over the small monster.

Finally Jim came back, camera in hand.

Slightly out of focus, its tongue is flicking at high speed.

Great picture of its markings, including the top of its head.

With no sense of scale, you might think this is large and ferocious!

A few seconds of video, with Melanie’s finger to show how tiny it is.

After that encounter, and noting the two other snakes at the edge of the sidewalk, we didn’t see any more for most of our walk. Shortly before getting home, Melanie saw another skedaddle into the grass. It was a larger, longer snake and moved very quickly. It moved too fast to get a good look at it, but because of its larger size, we guess it may have been a garter snake.

Snakes are always fun to see around here, partly because we know they are harmless if not bothered. Do you encounter snakes where you live?


Sending Quilts to Texas?

Catbird Quilt Studio

The hurricane disaster in Texas may displace people from more than 100,000 homes for at least several weeks. They need housing, food, water, and some way to replace all the goods lost to water damage, or simply washed or blown away. Should you send replacement items? Should you send quilts?

It’s tempting, isn’t it? A quilt is a tangible item to show your concern, to offer both comfort and warmth. I’ve already seen a number of requests for quilts for Texans. I’ve also seen one of those requests in a Facebook group called a fraud, and deleted after the group moderator couldn’t affirm its legitimacy.

In the past I’ve made quilts to give post-disaster. But unless a disaster is local, I won’t do it again. Why not? Very simply, if a community is facing the scale of tragedy that Houston and other Texas cities are facing, figuring out how…

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On one side there were Nazis and on the other side there were no Nazis and Trump still came down on the wrong side. #charlottesville

This is the rant I wish I’d written.

Margaret and Helen

helen-mug1From Helen:

Margaret, several people have asked me why I haven’t been writing. The truth is, honey, this isn’t funny anymore. Our President… scratch that… the moron currently occupying the White House just equated George Washington to Robert E. Lee. He can’t understand why a memorial to the symbolic founding father of our country is different than a memorial to a general in an army that fought a failed rebellion against our government.

Mr. President, with no respect intended, I implore you to please step down. You are not qualified for the position you now hold. Quite frankly, you are not qualified to be much more than a reality TV star, a position I hold in very low regard by the way.

There is a reason that in Germany you will find no statues of Hitler, no monuments to the Third Reich, and noChancellor of Germany suggesting there was blame…

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National Museum of the Air Force

by Melanie and Jim 

You may have seen some of our posts about our travel to Yellowstone and back. That’s only one of the four road trips we’ve done in the past few weeks. Recently we also headed the other direction, to southern Ohio. On the way we visited the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton.

The museum has a number of galleries inside. The interior collections include the early years of flight, aircraft from World Wars One and Two, Korea and Vietnam, and current times. There are cargo planes, a variety of fighters and spy planes, intercontinental missiles, and experimental craft. Presidential and other executive transport planes, space travel, and Cold War air memorabilia are shown. Outside the huge hangars are more planes and a memorial park.

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Quilts From Central Asia

Another part of our multi-faceted, 3000 mile road trip — the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, NE.

Catbird Quilt Studio

Last month Jim and I traveled across northern Nebraska and through Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park. We’ve posted several times about our 3,000 mile road trip in our joint blog, Our View From Iowa.

When we returned, we dropped south into Colorado before driving across southern Nebraska. For our route, the most convenient way to cross the Missouri River is on I-80 at Omaha. To get that far, we went through Lincoln, NE, home of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.

A few days before, Jim asked me if I wanted to stop at the museum on the way by. Well, YEAH! I visited the museum with my sister a few years ago and was glad for the opportunity to go back.

The current exhibits included four small galleries, none of which drew my interest. Besides the small exhibits, a large gallery displayed dozens of quilts and…

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Dew Boys

That’s Dubois, Wyoming, pronounced as “Dew Boys,” emphasis on the dew.

Born in the 1960s, I was a little too young to enjoy the era of television westerns. The 1950s and 60s were thick with them, but the only one I watched was Bonanza. Oh, those handsome Cartwrights, riding and fighting and oh so unlucky in love. And The Big Valley, with the equally handsome Barkleys, and the strong, tough Victoria Barkley, as played by Barbara Stanwyck. It was a pretty limiting look at the old west. My family never traveled much father west than the Mississippi River, so my view of the modern west was non-existent, too.

As I write this, Jim and I are in Dubois, Wyoming. Dew Boys. It’s a convenient stop on our route back to Iowa, after several days in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Yellowstone is breath-taking, and so postcard-perfect that parts almost look fake.) Dubois shows a slice of the west that is both unique and typical of this hard-living part of the country.

Surrounded by national forest, national parks, and national wilderness, the town represents some of the small portion of Wyoming that is owned privately rather than by the government. It serves and survives on the summer tourist trade as they move into and out of the parks. Several establishments provide lodging, while others dish up food, alcohol, or art.

Our hotel motel is long and low, settled on the highway for decades, across the street from the Wells Fargo bank. Guarding the driveway is a giant black bear, at least twelve feet from snout to tail. The owner’s son told us the bear has always been there, at least since his grandparents owned the place. It’s a remnant of other days, along with the jackalope, the giant steer skull, and a huge trout hanging at the other end of town.

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Miss Pickerell and Me

Jim’s memories of a favorite book and author from his childhood.

How I See It

One of the first books I remember reading was Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars written by Ellen MacGregor and illustrated by Paul Galdone. It was published in 1951. It had a strong influence on me. Many other young readers apparently felt the same way as evidenced by the comments on this page at Goodreads. That book made me hungry for more adventures in science by the independent spinster with a pet cow who was willing to say what was on her mind.

I read about her trips to the Arctic and the Undersea as well as her adventure with a Geiger Counter. The science in each book was explained in ways a young person could understand. I have no doubt those books helped reinforce my interest in science. I became a teacher of physics for my career. Thank you, Miss Lavinia Pickerell and Ellen MacGregor.

MacGregor first wrote…

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