Ann Arbor, MI

Love Letters to My Michigan Neighbors

Tracy Stengel courtesy of Tracy Stengel

March, 2020

The world shut down and I found myself in denial. This can’t be happening. Stores and schools in the Ann Arbor, Michigan area closed around me and I needed to do something.


I didn’t have a sewing machine to make masks for local healthcare workers. I wasn’t a doctor, nurse, or respiratory therapist. Government leaders categorized me as an unessential worker. Useless. They told me to stay home. The “real warriors” would handle this.

And … that ramped up my tendencies toward depression and anxiety. I found it hard to tamp down fear and hysteria when my hands were tied.

I ended up joining the group of grass roots nobodies with no useful skill set during a pandemic beyond attempting to lift spirits, create smiles, and spread some love. All it took was a three-dollar bucket of sidewalk chalk and a positive message.

My neighborhood saw an uptick of foot traffic due to families staying home, gyms being closed, and mild weather after another long, Michigan winter. It wasn’t just joggers and dog walkers. Parents brought along the kids to get some fresh air and exercise. I wrote three inspirational messages at the end of my driveway in several different colors and added childlike drawings of hearts and flowers.

Silly, I thought. Almost embarrassing.

A family with four children busted me as I scrawled my words of hope and optimism. The kids pointed and made happy exclamations. That day, my heart ached for Italy and I dreaded what would happen in America. I needed the positive messages as much as everyone else. On their way back through, they stopped again to survey my work. I was just finishing up. The woman told me the kids were anxious to get home so they could decorate their driveway, too. “You’ve got them all excited!”

I laughed. It felt good. It’d been awhile.

Positivity was contagious

Later that evening, I passed by their house. The driveway was full of encouraging words written in blue, yellow, and green, “This too will pass,” and “Stay strong”. My step had a bounce as I headed home with a smile that took up most of my face.

The rest of the week, as I went on my daily walks, people said things like, “You’re the one who did the cool chalk art, right?” A few took pictures. 

Chalk art popped up everywhere in our neighborhood as restless children decorated their driveways with messages of hope, stemming from a virus they didn’t understand.

I got a love letter back

Then, my husband, Sam, announced we had mail. He waved a piece of paper in the air, folded neatly in thirds. It was a letter from a couple about ten houses down. Handwritten! It was a thank you for the driveway messages. They moved in last November. They looked forward to meeting us when things got better. It was signed with their address, email, and phone number. Sam and I looked at each other wide-eyed and grinned.

When was the last time we received a personal, handwritten letter in the mailbox? Nineteen-who-knows-what?

I emailed them back. The next time I walked by, I put a pink smiley face on the edge of their drive.

They’ll know it’s from me.

They emailed us back.

We made plans to get together to have cocktails on the deck in summer — once these somber times are behind us.

We can’t wait for better days ahead.

Little did we know, things were going to get worse in the summer. courtesy of Tracy Stengel

Summer — Winter, 2020

Daily walks became habit for our neighborhood since most people were working at home. With strict Covid restrictions in Michigan, Ann Arbor entertainment venues were either closed or had limited seating. Everyone seemed to crave the outdoors.

I didn’t know most of them, even though they lived on my street.

I know who they are now.

We don’t pass without a smile and a wave. We’re not strangers anymore. They’re our friends. 

We even met the ones who wrote us the handwritten letter. Standing at a distance, we introduced ourselves. Our paths often cross and we exchange cheery greetings and well wishes. 

No, we still haven’t gotten together for that cocktail on the deck, but we will. And when that day comes, we will have much to celebrate.

March 2021

I can’t believe it’s been a year since my first, tentative chalk drawing. 

With Spring on the horizon, my hopes have begun to soar. A vaccine has been approved and administered daily. Our numbers have been going down. We’ve gotten through the holidays without the usual fanfare and pageantry of endless parties and celebrations. 

Yet, we survived.

This morning, it was only 14 degrees out, but last month’s foot of snow has melted and the driveway was dry. Plus, the sun was shining which always makes me happy. 

I went out to the garage and found the bucket of chalk. Most of the thick, long pieces have been worn down to nubs. I’m going to need to buy some more. I managed to scrawl out my first message of the year to my Michigan neighbors. There will be many more to come. courtesy of Tracy Stengel

“Staying safe” doesn’t mean we can’t communicate and give comfort to our communities in safe ways. This pandemic hasn’t squelched our spirit. Light has always won in the face of darkness.

We can spread smiles faster than a virus and there’s never going to be a vaccine for love.

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI

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