All posts by Uncommon Heather

All my life I've considered myself an artist. Give me a pencil and I will sketch. Give me clay and I will shape it into something cool. Now I see that written word is much like working with clay or paint in that I can write, erase and re-write to convey my ideas and feelings, and hopefully, create a work of art.

A Couple of Days in the District

One of the things we did this summer was take a trip to DC. My brother John and his wife Cara have lived in DC for about a decade, and it’s embarrassing to admit how little we have visited them. So, once we knew they’d be moving back to Vermont, we figured we should pay them a visit and enjoy DC on the cheap while we still could.

Here’s a photo montage and dramatic retelling of that experience.

July 5, 2018

I woke up early, to scarf down breakfast and pack the last of my things before Kris arrived.  We loaded up his car and hit the road just after 8am.  Exciting things happened on the drive, such as seeing animal control wrangling a giant turtle on the side of the road, and getting to drive on the new Tappan Zee Bridge! Except it’s not called that, it’s called the Governor Mario M. Cuomo bridge. It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely but it looks pretty cool, and I no longer had the nervous feeling that it was about to collapse under the burden of all the traffic on it. No pics of that because I was driving responsibly.

Somewhere along the New Jersey Turnpike

It was a beautiful day for a drive, and surprisingly light on traffic, considering it was the 4th of July holiday weekend.

Six hours and three rest stops later, we were in Capitol Hill! We found a parking spot half a block away from John and Cara’s house and carried all our luggage to the front door. Kris knocked on the door a few times. We were answered with a barking dog. John and Cara don’t have a dog. Mmm, maybe this wasn’t the right house.

Not the right house.

After calling John we realized we were on the wrong end of the street.  They were 210 SE, not 210 NE, or wherever the hell we were. Whoopsie!

Kris brought the car around so we wouldn’t have to lug everything back up the street. Soon we were at the correct house, and after a quick tour, we headed off to a late lunch at Blue Jacket.

John & Cara, still smiling after 1 year of marriage!
Kris and I, slightly goofy after the long drive.

After lunch, John and Cara took us on a brief walking tour of the area, but it was really hot and humid so we went back to their place to lay around with the cat for a bit.

Bertie was thrilled to have some belly-scratching visitors.

We concluded that waiting until evening would allow us to tour the monuments without the sun’s angry rays beating on us, but even so, it would be an oppressive night for a walk.

Days like these, we thank the Lord for A/C.

Nevertheless, we persisted. We started off with a gander at the Jefferson Memorial. A stately rotunda housing a larger than life bronze sculpture of – you guessed it – Thomas Jefferson.

The Jefferson Memorial.
The Washington Phallus Monument.
Inside the memorial, obvs.
Not even close.

From there, we continued around the tidal basin to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Never underestimate the importance of good lighting.
You wouldn’t believe how long I stood there waiting to get a clear shot of this.
People included to show scale…
A final look at MLK Jr.

From the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, we walked to the Lincoln Monument, where we also got a cool view of the Washington Monument at the other end of the reflecting pool. Even though it was now dark, the heat and humidity was so intense, it was like the whole world was a sauna.

The Washington Monument at night. A hot, muggy night.
The Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln himself.
The Korean War Memorial – especially powerful at night.

July 6, 2018

Cara woke up early to check the website for the Museum of African-American History & Culture. She was able to get 4 tickets for us to get in! We were excited, as it’s very popular and you have to buy tickets months in advance – or, get up at 6am and check for day-of availability.

Breakfast with Bertie

After a leisurely breakfast, we headed out, getting to the museum just in time for our 11:00 entry time.

The one picture I took…

I did not take many photos in the museum. I kind of felt like it would be disrespectful, especially during the first part, which was all about the middle passage. It was extremely crowded, but as you are reading about slaves being packed into transport ships like sardines, you realize your situation isn’t that bad.

The exhibits were emotionally powerful, informative and interesting. I wish we’d had the time and stamina to do the whole museum in one shot. We made it through to the civil rights area and it was already 2pm. Upon exiting the exhibit hall, we saw the line for the cafe was very long, so we decided to go elsewhere.

It was a lot to take in, and it’s too bad we couldn’t get back in to see the rest, although we were pretty emotionally spent by the time we left anyway.

We drove up to NuVegan cafe for lunch, and that was really, really good stuff. Then, it was back to the house to rest up and cuddle with Bertie some more.

Forget MyPillow, get yourself a Bertie Pillow!

After some mid-afternoon R&R, and more eating, we decided to go to a Capitals game that evening. It blew my mind that we could still get tickets that late in the day, and for not much money, either! So, that evening we hit up the ballpark.


The sunset sky colors were so pretty that night!
Goooo Nats!

The game was entertaining, as was the audience. We had a group of frat boys sitting a few rows ahead of us who kept us entertained with their bro-laughter and failed attempts to initiate the wave. Mid-game they were joined by a group of girls who were flaunting their assets and tossing their hair. Then, some drama ensued as one of the girls got caught vaping.

As for the game itself, they were tied 2-2 for several innings, and John and Cara suggested we could leave in the 7th. I said, no way Jose! There’s going to be a dramatic tie-breaker, I can feel it! And lo and behold, in the bottom of the ninth inning, there was a home run and the Nationals won. Woo hoooo!

July 7, 2018

Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and fantastically less humid than the previous few days. We walked to the Eastern Market, and browsed the booths there for a while.

A section of the Eastern Market

After that, we checked out Capitol Hill Books. The moving company John worked for- Bookstore Movers- was started to fund the owner’s dream of buying Capitol Hill Books. Since our visit, he was able to make the purchase! Here’s an article about it.

Cara and John outside Capitol Hill Books
The Wacko Stacko
John in the basement section.

After the bookstore, where I purchased one book and a tote bag, we headed to the National Mall. There was a Smithsonian Folklife Festival going on, featuring Catalonia and Armenia. We heard there were going to be human towers, and this was something we had to see!

On the way, we passed the Capitol Building.

Once we got to the Mall, we wandered around the exhibits at the Folklife Festival. There was lots of cool art and craftsmanship on display. We witnessed an interesting dance routine with the dancers wearing various animal heads and lots of fireworks, but the real show was the human towers:

Towers in progress…
Getting pretty tall!

The human towers were really cool to see, but a bit nerve-wracking to watch. Little kids would climb up to the very top and raise their arm, which is what signalled that the tower was complete. Then they would scamper down the tower, sliding down the people like they were a fireman’s pole. One of the last towers was very wobbly and actually ended up collapsing. It looked like they fell gracefully, so hopefully no one was hurt.

Once the tower-building was complete, it was time for Kris and I to head home. We bade farewell to John and Cara and began our long journey north. Not long after getting on the highway we witnessed this creative genius, ironically sporting a Darwin sticker on their vehicle. Plot twist – there was a woman driving it!

Genius or moron?

And thus concludes our whirlwind journey to DC. Thanks to John and Cara for having us! We had a great time!

Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats!


So much for my “life purpose” of sharing my experiences so others can know they aren’t alone. Failure!

I won’t bore you with excuses for why I haven’t written all summer. None of them are really valid reasons. The truth of the matter is that I am just lazy and unorganized.

Today I write to you from the shores of Lake Champlain. I am up here to help my mom recover from her mastectomy.  She is doing really, really well. It’s so awesome. The chemo was incredibly challenging, especially the last couple of doses of the cocktail I mentioned in my last post called the Red Devil.

I had been worried about her all throughout chemo, because it is really hard for me to accept that in order to fight the cancer, they have to practically poison you to death to do so. The Red Devil was no joke. She felt worse than ever. Her blood counts were incredibly low. After her last dose, she had to get a blood transfusion because everything was so low. However, within a few days of the transfusion, she was feeling much better. She said she went from feeling like 40% of herself to about 70%, and that now (5 weeks post-chemo) she feels like her normal self again!

Obviously chemo is a tried-and-true method, because her tumors shrank significantly, and one of the smaller ones disappeared completely. The cancer that had been in her lymph nodes was nowhere to be found at the time of surgery.

As for the surgery, they removed her affected breast but only took out a couple of lymph nodes. This made the surgery a lot less invasive than it could have been. It also means she won’t have to worry about lymphedema, which is a condition that can develop if you get all the lymph nodes taken out of an area.

I can’t believe how well she is doing for someone who just had a part of her body removed. I was expecting her to be bedridden and immobile, but if you saw her out in public you wouldn’t even know she’d had surgery less than a week ago. Well, unless you saw the drain poking out of her shirt. Ew!

Well, time for me to take the doggie for a walk. One of my goals this week is to get back into the blog and plan out the content for the next few months. I’m taking requests! Let me know if there’s an eec-related topic you want me to talk about, or if you would prefer I philosophize about some aspect of life in general, I could obviously do that too.


Finding Purpose

Hi everyone!

So much has been on my mind lately (what else is new?), and I’ve made multiple attempts to write, only to save my posts as drafts for one reason or another. (Mainly because I think they are all dumb!)

Today I finished up a course called Coretography, which was designed by Tracy Otsuka to help people develop a roadmap for their lives. Of course I already know a lot of things about myself, but I’ve always had trouble figuring out what road I want to travel down, and where exactly I want to end up.  Her course helped me narrow things down a bit. I figured out:

My top 8 core values: Creativity, love, brilliance, humor, authenticity, health, environmentalism and mindfulness.

My passions: Being creative, being authentic and self-improvement.

Combined with my top talents: Empathy, humor and intelligence.

And my skills: Writing, grammar, and teaching.

Plus a few other things… resulting in my PURPOSE: to share my own life experiences in order to help people going through similar things.

At this point I think my best way of doing that is to continue with the blog, so I had better get writing!

The most prominent life experience I am currently experiencing is watching Mom go through chemo. At first it was so scary to know that she had cancer and that the prescribed course of treatment was to pump her full of hazardous chemicals.

Watching her lose her hair, lose weight, become fatigued and worn out has not been fun. I feel pretty helpless, and as a result I worry that I am not being supportive enough. I suppose one positive aspect of the whole thing is that we have been communicating a lot more than we used to.

Her treatment is progressing nicely though. Since February she was one one chemo cocktail, and today she just started a different cocktail. I probably shouldn’t use the word cocktail because that sounds like a fun drink garnished with fruit on a plastic sword. In reality, it’s about as opposite of that as you can get. One of the drugs they gave her today is nicknamed the Red Devil. She was warned to expect nausea, among other things. Fortunately she is only getting 4 doses of that, so I am crossing fingers and toes that she can bear it and get through it as quickly as possible.

It’s so mind boggling to me that in order for a person to fight cancer, they have to take in such toxic chemicals. I suppose there is a metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it is. She has been doing what she can with diet and supplements to help her body stay strong, and I am sure that is helping her. I even started taking one of the supplements myself (tumeric cucurmin) and I am about 90% sure it is helping my eyes, but that is a topic for another post.

I hope you, whoever you are who is reading this, is well. Thanks for reading, and please check back soon.

Live EEC Q&A on Facebook

Hi guys! I just did a new thing! I went live on Facebook to do a Q&A about EEC! There wasn’t a lot of Q’ing, so I mostly rambled on about life with EEC, but despite my internet connection cutting out a little bit, and my occasional “uhh” moments, I think it went pretty well!

Check it out!

I wish I could figure out how to change the preview so I don’t look like I just sucked a lemon.

I will definitely do more live videos in the future, so if you would like to hear me talk about something in particular, please let me know!

And don’t worry, I WILL blog again… with words and pictures… I promise. 🙂

Meet the Queen

This is our cat, Autumn.

Uh, what?

Autumn is the queen of our household. We joke that if the house caught fire, Dave would grab Autumn and leave me to fend for myself. It’s really not even a joke, but a fact I’ve come to terms with.

Autumn was rescued from the streets of Springfield, Ma, along with her daughter Reeses. My brother Kris and his then-girlfriend adopted them both from an animal shelter. From the beginning, Autumn and Reeses did not get along. It was so bad that Autumn stopped eating because she was so stressed. The vet said that if she didn’t start eating again they would have to put her down.

Luckily, she rallied and ate a couple of bites of food just hours before the deadline. Kris decided it would probably help Autumn to be away from Reeses for a while, so that’s when she came to live with us.

Dave had never had a pet cat before, and he was a little reluctant. I told him it was just temporary, so if he didn’t like her, we could send her back to Kris at the end of the summer. That was 11 years ago.



I’m the third wheel in this relationship…

After we’d had Autumn for a few years, she began having some issues. The vet did an x-ray to check for a bowel obstruction. There was no obstruction, but they found an airgun pellet lodged at the base of her tail. They performed surgery to remove it, just in case it was causing her pain. She looked so funny with the bald spot on her tail. But my heart ached to think of how much pain she must have been in, and how scared she must have been when she’d been shot!

When Gram died at the end of 2012, I inherited her black cat, Ebony. We felt awkward calling her Ebony, so we renamed her Sophie. Autumn was pissed that we brought a younger, slimmer cat into the household. For months we had to keep them physically separated so they wouldn’t fight. Even today, the occasionally lash out at each other, although very recently they’ve come to share the couch – as long as they are at opposite ends. Progress!

It’s a jungle in here.

Today, Autumn spends much of her day sleeping. Additional hobbies include eating, pooping, and torturing Sophie.


Autumn has the terribly annoying habit of waking Dave up multiple times in the night (this is where I’m grateful for being deaf in one ear), and waking me up about 10 minutes before my alarm goes off. She wakes us up in one of two ways.

Most commonly, she will sit in the doorway of the bedroom and make a variety of noises, ranging from huffy little grunts and chirps to operatic crescendos. Sometimes she accompanies her vocal stylings by picking at the baseboard moulding with her claws.

Her second wake-up method is to sit on the pillow and gently, yet threateningly drag her claws across delicate areas of skin, like the forehead, eyelids, and lately, the throat. Of course this wakes me up right away, and not pleasantly.

I will cut you.

I usually wrestle her off the pillow and get her to cuddle with me for a few minutes, but inevitably she will pop up moments later, claws extended, to try again. Sometimes, if she’s not up for wrestle-cuddling, she’ll get back on the floor and belt out some more tunes.

Living with Autumn isn’t all poop-scooping and fitful sleeps. She is a champion purrer. She purrs louder than any other cat I’ve ever known. She will purr for just about anything, whether you’re simply talking to her, petting her, preparing food for her, or just lying in bed snuggling.

Some of my favorite moments with her are when we are lying in bed, about to go to sleep at night. She will nestle down in between Dave and I, purring gently. Sometimes she’ll lie on my chest, and I will pet her with both hands and she’ll give me little kisses with her cold, wet nose.

Having a cat is a lot of work. It can be tough on the allergies (thank God for Zyrtec), tough on the sleep, and tough planning a vacation. (Our cats are very spoiled, okay?) With that responsibility comes reward, though. The eager greeting upon arriving home (even though that’s mostly about food), the wet-nose kisses, and the soft, soft fur… it all makes every 5am wakeup meow worth it.


Minimalism – The Struggle is Real

If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll recall that I have a fondness for the concept of minimalism. I’ve never gone on a rampage and thrown out all of my stuff or anything, but, section by section, I’ve gone through the house and pared down.

The truth is, it’s not that easy to keep it up. I’ll visit Walgreens during my lunch break to pick up more allergy medicine and by the time I leave the store I’ve got a new bottle of lotion, or a new nail polish, and of course a snack to take back to work with me. It’s possible I’ve even forgotten to get the allergy medicine because I was so enamored with all the shiny trinkets in the store.

When I go grocery shopping, I make a list of what we need based on the recipes we plan to make for the week. Yet every time, I end up walking out with at least 5 additional things I hadn’t planned for. Sometimes it’s legitimately a need, and I had just forgotten to put it on my  list. But more often than not, we could have made it through the week without an additional can of diced tomatoes, or another bag of frozen veggies, when we’ve already got a freezer full of them.

The worst is when I’m about to embark on a new life adventure and I get the urge to buy something to prepare myself for it. For example:

  • I’m going to take up running for exercise; I need to buy new running shoes before I can start.
  • I want to eat healthier this year; We should get a Ninja blender with food processor attachment and smoothie cups.
  • I need to write more; Let’s buy 5 notebooks and a 12 pack of pens, just in case the hundreds of pens I have around the house all stop working simultaneously.
  • The seasons are changing; I need new clothes.

I know I’m not the only one who does this, and in re-reading this list, nothing is really too crazy or expensive (besides the Ninja), but it just goes to show how quickly and easily we can fall out of the routine of being a considerate consumer.

What’s something you have a hard time resisting? Have you figured out a way to avoid the temptation? For me, I limit my trips to Walgreens as much as I can. I try to buy everything I’ll need for the week during my weekly shopping trip, because I find that it’s usually those quick little Walgreens trips where I end up with a spontaneous purchase that I didn’t really need.

Oh, and Amazon. I have to make a conscious effort not to buy every little thing I think of on Amazon. It’s just so easy to impulsively search for something and purchase it before your rational mind can catch up and stop you.

What’s your secret compulsive purchase? As you can see by the header image of this post, mine is nail polish. And I don’t even have 10 fingernails to use it on!


The Hermit Life

I haven’t felt much like writing lately. I have felt more like burrowing deep into my home and not coming out for an indeterminate amount of time.

I suppose we could blame my melancholy on the time of year, although I am hyper-aware that each successive morning and evening is a little brighter than the one before, thanks to the ever-changing rotation of the earth’s axis. Yeah that’s right, I have a science degree.

Perhaps we can blame it on my mom’s cancer, because you know I’m already milking that for all it’s worth. “Sorry, that thing you invited me to? I can’t go, because… my mom is sick.”

Meanwhile, she’s 300 miles away, so it’s not like I can do much for her from my own home. But, I did go up to visit her last week. At this point my function in visiting her is to bring tidings of comfort and joy. I brought books, magazines, games, and of course, my winning personality.

We shared a hermit-like existence for a few days, which are my favorite kind of days. Introvert life! We sat around reading and drinking tea, slowly plodding away at a puzzle, and when she took her naps, I worked on my artsy things or took the dog out for a walk. In the evenings, we’d enjoy dinner while watching a movie. It’s the lifestyle I wish I could live every day. Except for the cancer part, of course.

A blue evening on Lake Champlain

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what to do next. I’ve been trying to nurture my artistic side as much as I can, and my writing, although many days it’s a challenge to come home from work and plop down in front of my laptop, or at my art table, although it pains me more when I neglect to do so.

Lately, I feel like I am frustrated so much of the time. I feel like there’s never enough time to do the things I want to do. (See above paragraph about reading, puzzling, making art and taking long walks…). I feel like there’s got to be a better way to balance my life.

Speaking of balance, one thing I have done to improve my life lately is join Weight Watchers. I lost 2.4 lbs in the first week, so that was cool. I’ll have to write more about that in another post because my eyes are ready for bed now. It looks like tomorrow will be a work-from-home day, thanks to the storm that’s coming.

So stay tuned, friends, and let’s venture into the unknown together… or, we can just hang out in the same old, predictable middle-class lifestyle…  eww, just kidding. Let’s check out the unknown.

Life Rerouted

Let’s do a family video chat soon,” Mom wrote in her email. “Let’s pick a time when you can all be available next Sunday.”

How lovely, I thought. We haven’t done a group chat with Mom in ages! A moment later, a pang of fear struck me. Something is wrong, my gut warned, We haven’t done a group chat in ages.

Dave chided me for being so dramatic. “She just wants to talk to you guys, is all,” he assured me. “Don’t assume the worst.”

Still, the next day I sent Mom a text. “Is something going on that you need to tell us?” I remembered at Thanksgiving she had mentioned that she and Kathryn were working on their wills. I told myself it could just be an update on that.

Maybe they’re going to take us on an all-expenses paid trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? I joked with my youngest brother, after I’d stirred up his anxiety by texting him and asking if he knew what was up.

Mom wouldn’t cave under the pressure of my probing texts, much to my frustration. “Tell you what,” she wrote. “If you can wrangle the boys, we can do a call tonight and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

By this point I knew it couldn’t be good. If it was a benign thing, like going over details of a will, or discussing plans for next summer’s family get-together, why wouldn’t she just say so and alleviate my worry?

After a flurry of text messages between the siblings, we agreed on a 7 pm call. Whatever it is, I hope it’s treatable, I thought to myself.

Just a few months before, Cara’s uncle had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He went from having a pesky cough to being in the ICU at Dana Farber in Boston within a month. His condition quickly deteriorated and he died the day after Christmas. It was shocking that it happened so fast, and left us all pondering just how abruptly life can be taken away from you and turned upside down for those left behind. This was still fresh in my mind as I fretted over what could be going on with Mom.

At 7 pm, I began dialing and connecting Mom and Kathryn to Kris and John and Nick. We greeted each other cheerfully, happy to hear those familiar voices across the miles. I can only assume my brothers all waited on the edges of their seats, as I did, for Mom to tell us why she’d wanted us all together.

“I have breast cancer,” she said.

“Fuck,” I breathed, my voice colliding with those of my brothers, all of us releasing exclamations of dismay at once. I thought first of my brother John, whose wife had just lost her uncle to cancer, and whose two close friends were also battling cancer. Just a few months before, they’d been talking with some concern about how many people they knew had cancer.

I leaned against the wall and stared at the familiar features of the kitchen, suddenly recalling similar anxious phone conversations with my siblings when Dad had been unexpectedly hospitalized years before. Why are kitchens always places of such intense emotion? I wondered.

We all held it together on the phone, as each of us expressed our concern and our support, and our promises to help out however we could. She explained that they didn’t know much yet, other than that they could tell it was cancer from the x-rays. It had spread to her lymph nodes, but they didn’t know yet if it had spread further. She would be going for a biopsy the next day to determine what kind of cancer it was.

After hanging up, I sat numbly. I knew it would take some time for the news to sink in. Cancer. It’s what I had feared, although somehow breast cancer seemed a little less scary. Breast cancer is so common! Breast cancer is pink ribbons and t-shirts and it’s something that can be beat, right? I realized then just how little I actually knew about it.

The days slowly turned to weeks – each day spent waiting for something else. I can imagine that for Mom these days of waiting were absolute agony. We tried to help keep things light by sending funny text messages and emails, and mailing cards for her.

I cautiously googled information about breast cancer. I remembered a young woman I knew who died from breast cancer in her early 30’s. I reached out to my former boss, who had just finished up chemo for her breast cancer. I mentioned it to a couple of friends and learned that both of them had breast cancer in their families – that their grandmothers and mothers and aunts had gone through chemo or surgery and had come out the other side.

While of course, I still nursed the lurking fear that Mom’s cancer could have spread and become more deadly, or that her particular kind of cancer would be incurable, I did find comfort in realizing just how many women have been through this.

Finally, after weeks of scans, x-rays, MRI’s, blood work and whatever else they could think of to check, it was clarified. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma that had spread to the lymph nodes, but, hallelujah, not anywhere else in her body.

Last week she had a port installed, and tomorrow she begins chemo. She will have to do chemo, followed by surgery and then radiation. I wish they could just do surgery and leave it at that, but I trust that her doctors know what is best. Obviously I don’t, as I literally just learned about breast cancer from Google in these past few weeks.

So, that’s where we’re at right now. I am focusing on keeping a positive attitude about it, and trusting that this will be yet another interesting chapter in our lives. Writing about it is therapeutic for me, but I’m trying to balance it with respect my mom’s privacy, as she is not the kind of person who would blog about her problems and post it all over the internet like I do.

For those of you who know my mom and want to follow her progress, she has created a Caring Bridge page, which is kind of like a blog.  Just go to and type in her name. Or, ask me for a direct link.

Namaste, friends.

Hello from the Other Side (of the Atlantic)

I was just thinking that it’s been about 2 years since I’ve been to Amsterdam. I really liked it there. I felt like I could live there. Maybe I did, in some previous lifetime.

Anyway, let’s revisit my thoughts about being a homebody who likes to travel. The struggle is real.

Uncommon Heather

Goodness me, it has been quite some time since I last wrote. I was busy gearing up for my first overseas trip to Amsterdam and Germany.

Hello from Amsterdam!

But first, a story. When I was in fifth grade, I went on my first overnight school trip. We went to a place called PEEC in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. I forget how long we were there for, but it was at least a couple of nights.

I have always been a homebody. Even when I would sleep over at my friend’s house next door, I would look out the window at my house and feel homesick. If I hadn’t been so afraid of the dark I would have made the trek across our yards so I could be in my own home with mommy and daddy and sleeping right down the hall.

So naturally I was really nervous to…

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The Radium Girls

Below is another Toastmasters speech I gave – just last night, actually! It was inspired by a book I read recently, called The Radium Girls; The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore. I’d known of the Radium Girls before, but I’d always been curious to know more. Her book is a very moving look at the lives these women led, many cut extremely short by their radiation poisoning. If you’d like to know more, I highly recommend the book.

Also –  I notice that when I write my speeches, they don’t really follow the same cadence that my writing does… maybe because I’m not writing for anyone to read it, but to hear it, and I find that when it comes to speaking, I’d rather use simpler words so my tongue doesn’t get tied up.


It was a beautiful spring day in 1922, but Mollie Maggia barely noticed the weather. She had been suffering for months with an intense pain in her jaw. It had all started with a toothache. Her dentist pulled the tooth, but instead of healing, the wound became a festering blister. More teeth began to ache; in fact, her whole jaw ached. Her dentist treated her for a common inflammatory condition to no avail. He continued to remove her teeth, one by one, until one day when a piece of her jaw came out in his hand. Upon examination of it, he saw that it was brittle and full of holes. He was baffled, and still, could offer nothing more than strong painkillers.

Mollie was a dial painter for the US Radium Corporation in Newark, NJ. She had been working there since she was 19. Now, she could no longer work at all, due to the blinding pain in her mouth. She would die months later, when the necrosis reached her jugular, and she bled to death. She was 24 years old.

By then, the dentist suspected that Mollie’s work with radium had caused her gruesome demise, but he couldn’t prove it. Her autopsy was performed by a doctor hired by the radium company, and the official cause of death was marked as syphilis.

Working for US Radium Corporation had been considered a privilege for the women who’d been hired there. This was the company that had invented Undark, the luminous paint applied to dials, watch faces, and instrument panels used by the military in WWI. The company had advertised for young women with “nimble fingers” to perform the delicate task of painting the small numbers and fine lines. The young women, ranging in age from 14-20, came from working-class, immigrant families. They felt fortunate to find the dial painting jobs, which was easy and fun work and paid well.

As for working with radium, there was no reason for them to be concerned. The girls had no reference for the hazards of exposure to radiation. Radium had only been discovered 20 years before and had been given positive monikers like, “The Wonder Element” and “Liquid Sunshine.” In fact, Radium was marketed as a tonic to cure everything from impotence to dull smiles. You could buy radium lingerie, radium butter, radium toothpaste, radium water and even radium-laced cosmetics. Of course, most of these products did not actually contain any radium, as it was far too rare and expensive, but it made for some great marketing campaigns.

Undark, the luminous paint, was mixed several times a day by the painters themselves. The recipe was simple: a pinch of radium powder, which was a mixture of radium + zinc sulfide, a dash of water, and a dab of adhesive combined in small crucibles at the workbench. Then, the girls would dip a fine-point brush into the mixture and settle into the task of painting the tiny numbers on the watch faces. Even a brand-new brush would soon lose it’s fine point, and so they were taught a technique called lip-pointing to keep the brush in top shape. It was simple – they’d just put the brush to their mouths and shape it with their lips, just as you’d point a piece of thread before putting it through a needle.

Many times, they asked if it was safe to do this, and each time, they were reassured that it was. Radium was not harmful, they were told. In fact, it would be good for them! It took a while to get used to the grittiness of the paint on their tongues and lips, but it didn’t taste bad, and so the girls soon became used to the routine – lip, dip, paint. Every few strokes repeat – lip, dip, paint.

The studio where they painted had a large expanse of windows and skylights, and so it was a bright, cheery room. The girls chatted happily as they worked, feeling positive about the direction their lives were going. Thanks to their salaries, they’d been able to ease the burden on their working-class parents. They were paying off debts and saving money for the future.

At lunchtime, the girls would put down their paintbrushes and push their work to the side. They were allowed to eat lunch at their work tables, as long as they didn’t get food on the dials. The dust from the radium powder covered everything in the room – the tables, chairs and floor continually hosted a light coating of it.

In order to check their work, the girls would bring their trays of painted dials into a darkroom to have them inspected. It was there that they noticed each other’s lips glowing in the dark, and that the powder that had fallen onto their dresses gave them a luminous, otherworldly glow.

Everything about the girls glowed – they were happy young women, at the cusp of their adult lives. Newark was a bustling city with a lively night scene. The girls would wear their best dresses to work so that they would be dusted with the luminescent powder, and at the end of the day they’d paint their fingernails and sometimes even their teeth with the leftover paint, so that when they went out in the evening, they would literally glow in the dark. On some occasions, they’d even bring the leftover paint home to share the novelty with younger siblings.

It wasn’t until Mollie Maggia died such a horrible death, that the girls began to really question the safety of radium. By then, many of them had moved on from the US Radium Corporation and were working in banks or stores, or had gotten married and stopped working altogether. Many, like Mollie, began having tooth and jaw pain, while still others found themselves with inexplicable aches and pains in their hips and knees. These once-radiant young women were becoming decrepit, as if they had aged an entire lifetime in just 5 years.

The Radium Girls in New Jersey were not alone in their plight – there were also radium dial-painting factories in Waterbury, CT, as well as outside of Chicago. The conditions were the same – the girls all lip-pointed, and worked in ignorant bliss of the dangers of the radioactive paint.

In each case, it took years before the true cost of their professions would be realized. One by one the girls became ill, and eventually it became clear that the common denominator in their afflictions was the radium paint. It may have been too late to save themselves, but they would not go down without a fight.

Filing lawsuits against the powerful radium companies was not easy. Each company fought back hard, their lawyers using every trick and loophole they could to evade responsibility for the girls’ troubles.

Nevertheless, the Radium Girls persisted. Groups in Newark and Chicago rallied together to fight for compensation. The newspapers chronicled their plights, giving the groups names like “The Ghost Women” “The Living Dead” and the “Women Doomed to Die.” It took years, and many of the women died along the way, but in the end they won compensation and brought light to the issue of workplace safety. These women championed women’s rights, workers rights, public health and environmental justice. Thanks to the Radium Girls’ efforts, there began a legacy of labor standards that persists today.