Category Archives: Judy Whelley

December 28 – The Pear

by Judy Whelley

On the first Christmas of my married life my mother gave me a small, obviously quite old, horsehair pear ornament. It was lovely, having that old but well-loved look about it. More precious still was the story she told. It was my grandmother’s gift to her for her first Christmas tree as a married woman. I felt a deep connection to this grandmother, having spent many hours with her as a child while my mother worked in the sewing factory. She died when I was thirteen so she never met my husband. Grandma was not a demonstrative or talkative woman so the tenderness of this gift to her daughter was unusual. I treasured the pear and from that year forward it was always the first ornament placed on the tree, a ritual connecting us as married women across three generations.

That experience, I believe, was the origin of a life long habit of treasuring ornaments with story.

I have a set of balsa wood cutouts with paper figures decoupaged on them from the first Christmas away from home. We moved so my husband could begin law school. We were poor and I was lonely. There were probably as many tears as there was glue in the paste.

When my son was born there came the traditional Baby’s First Christmas ornament. And each year after that I carefully chose one that represented his year: a Smurf the year he was obsessed with collecting the small figures, a small record with Bobby Sox dancers the year he and his god sister operated a 50’s restaurant in our living room. I think most mothers carefully preserve the reindeer antlers cut from construction paper in the shape of a small hand and the round ornament with that year’s school picture precariously glued to the side.

I cherish travel. There is an ornament for every trip we took, from camping to luxury travel in Europe. There are two “new home” balls, one from the starter house and one from the upgrade as our finances improved. Every December, as I opened each carefully wrapped ornament, I had the pleasure of remembering and recalling, an annual life review. When we divorced, I could no longer bear to hang the ornaments, too many memories.

My mother was only three years old when my grandmother was widowed after her husband was killed in a mining accident. My mother survived my dad by almost twenty years after his death from cancer and black lung disease. I’m no longer a married woman. I’m not a widow; I’m a divorcee. That changes the energy attached to the ornaments collected during my long marriage. Perhaps, one day, I’ll again enjoy reliving the story attached to them.

For now, my tree ornaments are pine cones and acorns, seeds representing rebirth, one owl for wisdom, and one horsehair pear for hope and love.

Judy Whelley lives and writes in Dayton, Ohio. You can blog with her at

August 1 – Hello Beautiful!

by Judy Whelley

I’m in Florida licking my wounds. My divorce finalized last September and the ex remarried in June. I’m still healing from the relationship betrayals that ended the marriage. He appears, at least outwardly, to be happy: new wife, new house, new stepson, and successful in his work. And me? Not so much. I was diagnosed with breast cancer just prior to the divorce and spent last summer and fall recovering from two surgeries and radiation. Between the divorce and the cancer, I’m feeling unwanted, undesirable, and afraid. I retired prematurely from teaching when the stress of the marital problems became so great that I could no longer function at school. I’ve come to Florida to gain some perspective, to focus on who I am, what I want to do, and where I want to go.

I feel least confident about my body and whether or not I am attractive. The ex had a sinister way of publicly praising me and showering me with exquisite gifts while ignoring or rejecting me sexually. The wounds came from what he didn’t say and do as opposed to what he did. Any private compliments given felt like being damned by faint praise. These mixed signals confused me. While mostly a confident and assertive person, sexually I doubted my worth.

He fancied himself a photographer, was always taking pictures. I was rarely the subject. He took pictures of others and often asked me to take his picture but inevitably when film was developed there were few shots of me. I had gained weight during the marriage, soothing my hurt feelings and loneliness with food, and felt shame about my appearance. I definitely did not have the self-confidence to ask to have my picture taken, even though there were times I wanted a photo of myself in a particular location because the magic and beauty of it spoke to me.

Today I’m sitting on the patio of a restaurant on Siesta Key. Because it is beastly hot and humid by midmorning, I get up at six to walk the nearby shady bike path and then come here to have breakfast and journal. I love this spot, feel like I belong. I smile at everyone I meet and they smile right back. Today I did something that required courage. I asked the owner to take a picture of me with my journal and ice tea at my favorite table. He was happy to do it and even though I felt self-conscious and awkward I posed with a smile. I treasure this not-very-special photo. Even though my hair is plastered down from walking in the heat and I’m wearing a tee shirt and no make up or jewelry, I look beautiful. I’m learning that beauty comes from passion within. No one else decides if I am beautiful. I decide that. I create that. And I welcome and embrace those who see and recognize it. Starting with me. Starting today.

Judy Whelley is a writer living in Dayton, Ohio. You can blog with her at

January 23–The Third Sign’s the Charm

by Judy Whelley

After my dermatology appointment, I was to meet the friend who gave me the advice about being open to signs. I was pretty rattled, phoned her and blurted, “I have breast cancer!” We began a Keystone Cops routine, trying to find first a bar and then one another, ending up in the parking lots of bars on opposite sides of the street. She drove over, picked me up and took me to the bar across the street. Why we didn’t just go into the bar where I was I didn’t know. After a good cry, where she just looked into my eyes and listened with complete acceptance, we went in. It was after five on a Friday, too late to get other medical advice.

The bar was full of people celebrating the workweek’s end. I had a beer and a bowl of soup and tried to get some perspective. I faced the door and could see folks as they entered. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized that the person who had just walked in was my gynecologist. I walked over to her to be sure it really was her, and it WAS. I shared my diagnosis; she said while she had never treated a case of Paget’s Disease, she knew that the prognosis was good. I think this definitely qualified as a sign. For her to show up at that bar, at that moment, was a gift. Now I knew why we did not go into the bar across the street, I needed to be here.

On the drive home, I panicked. I called another friend and spilled the news. She pulled up Paget’s Disease on the Internet and began to read to me, confirming what my dermatologist said: it is rare, treatment is surgery, it can be DCIS (ductal cancer in situ) or invasive cancer, it is usually confined to one breast, one surgery involves removing the nipple and aureola, another is a modified radical mastectomy, sentinel nodes are removed to check the lymph nodes, sometimes follow up radiation, no mention of chemotherapy. The information from WebMD and the Mayo Clinic was almost identical.

When I told her I would have to go to the state capital, to the medical center there, she immediately volunteered to accompany me. I accepted, with gratitude; I was in the midst of an ugly divorce so I had no spouse to hold my hand and I had just lost my mother to cancer so the very word struck fear in my heart. It was such a relief to know I would not have to go alone. This was the final sign, letting me know that all was unfolding as it should. When I need to just cry and be heard, that will happen. When I need a doctor, the right one will appear. When I need someone to help me with travel and doctors a friend will be available. The signs are all there.

Judy Whelley is a writer living in Dayton, Ohio. You can blog with her at

January 23–A Harbinger and the First Sign

by Judy Whelley

In 2009, on my way to the dermatologist’s office to have a stitch removed from my nipple after a biopsy of some irritated skin, I saw one of those pink ribbon bumper stickers. The print under this one looked a bit different and I could not quite read the words. Avid word lover and reader that I am, I maneuvered my car till I was in position to read the bumper sticker and laughed out loud, “Save the Ta Tas!” I thought there goes a gutsy woman with a great sense of self and a great sense of humor.

At the office, I asked the nurse who had just removed the stitch about biopsy results. She said it was odd that they were not in the folder but she would check on them.

She returned, with the doctor, who pulled up a chair and said, “We have to have a little talk.” My heart sank. I wondered what kind of skin problem I had on my nipple and what the treatment might be. I was stunned when she told me that I have breast cancer, a rare type called Paget’s Disease. It accounts for less than five percent of breast cancers. At that moment I realized that the bumper sticker had been a harbinger, a preparation for what was ahead, a reminder to stay positive, maintain a sense of humor, and that being a gutsy woman is a good, good thing.

I have a dear friend who, whenever she is troubled, asks for signs from the universe to let her know things are unfolding as they should. She always promises that she will recognize the signs when she sees them.
After the doctor gave me the news and that the first line of treatment is surgery, she left to make an appointment for me with a breast cancer surgeon at the University Hospital at the state capital. She felt strongly that because of the rarity of this kind of cancer I needed to go to a major medical center. I just nodded. Do you know how, when you have just heard something truly astounding, for a while it is the only thing you can hear? I just kept hearing, over and over, breast cancer. Then, through that roar, I realized music was playing in the room. Despite my anxiety, a smile crept over my face. It was Louis Armstrong singing Wonderful World. I had helped found a charter school and that was our theme song. I was immediately soothed by the memory of several hundred children touching their foreheads and then outstretching their arms as they sang “and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” The peace and hope of those children centered me. I took a deep breath, relaxed into the music and the memory, and acknowledged the sign.

Judy Whelley lives and writes in Dayton, Ohio. Visit her blog at