UNK announces winners of fourth annual Nebraska Emerging Writers and Artists Contest

KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney is recognizing eight high school students selected as winners of the annual Nebraska Emerging Writers and Artists Contest.

In its fourth year, the competition encourages high schoolers from across the state to showcase their creativity by submitting essays, poems, short stories and artwork using a specific theme as inspiration. This year’s theme was “Nebraska Traditions.”

A total of 165 submissions were received, with winners selected by UNK undergraduate students through a blind review process. First-place winners in each category receive a $100 prize and runners-up get $50. The winning students are also invited to present their work during the UNK English Department’s Student Language and Literature Conference.

The Nebraska Emerging Writers and Artists Contest is co-sponsored by the UNK Department of English, American Democracy Project, UNK Writing Center, Phi Eta Sigma freshman honor society, Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and UNK Art Society.

First place – Delayna Hermesch, Grand Island Northwest, “The Bob Devaney Sports Center: The Home of Traditions”
Second place – Trevor Beavers, Wahoo Public, “A Tradition That Makes Nebraska”

First place – Kayla Rupe, Wilcox-Hildreth, “This is Home”
Second place – Mary Beatty, Omaha Marian, “My Favorite One”

Short story
First place – Rita Harr, Omaha Marian, “How I Found My Sister”
Second place – Sydney Hill, Milford, “The Choices We Make”

First place – Cheryl Zeng, Lincoln East, “Through Binoculars”
Second place – Lauren Hills, York, “The Osborne Effect”

First Place Essay – “The Bob Devaney Sports Center: The Home of Traditions” by Delayna Hermesch
Photo from Big Ten Network
Photo from Big Ten Network

“I’ve been watching things closely, and I don’t think this state could ever be great in anything” (Looney 1). This quote is from a former Nebraska coach named Bill Jennings in 1960 because of how upset he was due to the amount of losses that year. How wrong he would be proven when only ten years later football coach, Bob Devaney, led the Nebraska football team to two national championships. University of Nebraska Lincoln later opened the Bob Devaney Sports Center in his name. The center is now a place full of Cornhusker culture and traditions. Robert Simon Devaney was born on April 13th, 1915. In college he played for Alma college, which led him to want to become a coach. He became the assistant coach at Michigan and head coach of Wyoming before coming to Nebraska. Bob Devaney wasn’t even Nebraska’s first choice either, he was their third choice (Looney 1). However, Nebraska picking their third choice might have been the best decision they ever made. “He was undefeated in his second year on the job, 47-8 in his first five years, and 42-4-2 in his last four years, he won eight Big Eight titles, took nine of his eleven teams to bowls, and won two national championships” (Looney 1). Devaney practically reinvented Nebraska football, so when a center was built on UNL’s campus in 1976 there was no question who name was going to be on it. Bob Devaney later retired in 1996 after 35 years of coaching at Nebraska and died a year later in 1997. However his legacy lives on in Husker history.

The Bob Devaney Sports Center was built for the main reason of holding millions of Cornhusker traditions. When its doors opened, it mainly hosted men’s and women’s basketball. In the past 48 years, it has evolved to host men’s and women’s volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics, swimming and diving, and track and field. Within the first 37 years there were over 450 victories with a winning record average of .751, leaving the Huskers with an amazing home court advantage (“Bob Devaney Sports Center” 3). While it started out as a small Husker facility “The Devaney Center now features many amenities that make it a premier Olympic Sport Venue in the nation” (“Devaney Center” 1). This is due to the renovations that happened in 2013, which left more room for sports and fans. Even before the renovations, the center has always been a place for hundreds of athletes to not only train but to show off their amazing abilities on the court, mat, track, and in the water. The center even holds quite a few high school events including track and state swim. The events are one aspect, the crowds are a whole other. Hundreds of thousands of people crowd the Devaney Center to watch the sports traditions of Husker Nation. By 1992 crowds were averaging over 13,000 people. In that year alone over 210,000 people came to watch a Husker hosted event at the center (“Bob Devaney Sports Center” 3). That was before renovations that created more room for Husker pride. “The student section was reorganized and reborn as the Red Zone, providing Nebraska with a lively student section” (“Bob Devaney Sports Center” 1). The renovations and many events have left the Devaney Center as a place designated to Husker culture.

If being a Husker is a culture, then the Devaney Center is the home of traditions. “Culture acts as the underlying thread that connects you to everyone else, with traditions acting as the events and customs to honor these” (“The Difference Between Culture and Traditions” 1). The title “Husker” brings hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people together for the pride of being a Nebraska fan. In other words, simply being called a Husker is an “underlying thread” for many people. Having the name of Husker makes people proud to live in the midwest. It drives people to paint themselves red and dress up as corn for a simple football game. The Devaney Center gives a place for that culture to have its traditions. Those traditions are the hundreds of sports that take place in the building, with Bob Devaney as the leader who jump started this Husker culture in the 1960s.

Being a Husker is being part of a culture, a group that all shares love for sports and amazing journeys of Husker athletes. Bob Devaney reinvented Husker love and traditions. A center named after him is now home to thousands of Husker sports traditions. It’s almost poetic the way things turned out. The Bob Devaney Sports Center is not only a major part of Husker culture, but it is the home of Husker traditions.

Works Cited
“Bob Devaney Sports Center.” Big 10, 19 Mar. 2013
“Devaney Center.” University of Nebraska – Official Athletics Website
Looney, Douglas S. “Glory Days It Wasn’t until ’62 That Husker History Really Began — with the Arrival of Bob Devaney.” Sports Illustrated, Jan. 1995, p. 4
“The Difference Between Culture and Tradition.” Preemptive Love, 29 May 2020

Second Place Essay – “A Tradition That Makes Nebraska” by Trevor Beavers
Photo from Nebraska School Activities Association
Photo from Nebraska School Activities Association

In Nebraska many traditions are celebrated and practiced. These traditions have helped mold Nebraska into what it currently is today. Traditions can be something as simple as a local event or can be grand like a Nebraska Husker Football game. One of the best Nebraska traditions is the Nebraska High School State Wrestling Championship. It is one of the best because it brings in many people with different ethnicities, backgrounds, and interests.

The tradition of the Nebraska State Wrestling Championship has been around for a long time. The tournament started in the early 1900’s and still is going strong today. The event is located at the CHI Health Center in Omaha and runs for a total of three days in mid February. Thousands of people look forward to this event every year. People from all over Nebraska gather in Omaha to get the best wrestling experience. Wrestlers from schools across Nebraska prepare their entire lives for the chance of participating in this event. Schools show their support for their wrestlers throughout the entire event. The experience of the event is something not felt during any other event in Nebraska.

As the sun rises on the first day of the tournament, hundreds of cars from different towns in Nebraska line up in downtown Omaha. The first day has two sessions. One session consists of two classes, and the second session consists of the other two classes. The classes separate the larger schools from the smaller schools and are labeled A-D. Class A is the highest class and usually consists of schools located in Lincoln or Omaha that have a large number of students. Class D is made up of schools that are set in small towns that have only a couple hundred students. As spectators start to file into the seats of the stadium, wrestlers are preparing for the event. Ten mats are set up across the floor of the room in all different assortments of colors. The lights shine on the mats, creating a spotlight for each match. The announcer in his loud voice calls for all the wrestlers in the 106 weight class to report to their mats. Within a few minutes, the mats were ready to go. Before the tournament can get underway, the national anthem is played. Every year the anthem is sung by a member from a Nebraska community. Everyone in the stadium has their hands over their hearts as the national anthem is sung. The stadium claps and cheers once the anthem is finished. The announcers approach the mics and inform the wrestlers and spectators about the rules of the tournament. Once the rules have been clearly stated, the announcers ask the wrestlers to enter the center of the mats. They shake hands and the referees give the ready sign. Once all mats are ready, the announcer yells in his best voice, “Let’s Wrestle” to officially start the tournament.

As the room erupts with the sound of whistles and cheers, the grapplers start wrestling their first match of the tournament. As matches finish, the next match is sent out. Above the wrestlers is the jumbotron that has a list of every match currently wrestling, the matches on deck, and the ones in the hole. Above the match schedule are the team scores for each class. After matches are done, names of schools are displayed on the board if they were in the top five in team points. The leaderboard constantly changed order. Parents cheered on their kids as they wrestled on the mats. Entire sections of the stadium are filled with a color scheme of different schools, and these fans would celebrate and cheer whenever someone from their school won a match. If one of their wrestlers lost, fans yelled out positive comments and clapped to cheer up the wrestler. With the diverse group of people attending the event, some people wear clothes that are relevant to their culture. People of all different ages, young to old fill the stands along with other athletes who are enjoying the competition of the event. After hours of wrestling, the audience is still fully locked in on the matches taking place. As the last few matches of the heavyweight bracket finish up, the people inside the stadium start to file out. The streets are filled with cars trying to get out of the parking lots to return home so fans can get some rest before the second day starts. Some families go out to eat to celebrate the accomplishments their wrestler had on day one. Wrestlers cannot go out to eat with their families though because they can only eat a little bit of food or else they will be over their weight class and disqualified from the tournament. Because of this wrestlers gather at hotels to get the needed rest to wrestle their best matches.

Day two is the most packed out of the three days. On day two every class, A-D are combined, making it a sold out event. With the addition of a girls division that is growing rapidly, there are barely any seats left open. The atmosphere builds as entire sections prepare for the session to begin. Hundreds of fans wait in line at the countless food stands. This event has multiple food options. There are the standard concession stands with popcorn, hot dogs, and pop. There are also different stands that have their own unique food. A smoothie stand is very popular during this event and always has a long line. Ice cream is another popular item. A stand lies right next to the stairs that provides three flavors: birthday cake, mint chocolate chip, and double chocolate. All of these flavors can be put on a waffle cone or a dish. There is also the well known brand of ice cream, Dippin Dots, that also has a large number of customers. Even foods usually associated with fairs like funnel cakes are sold at the state tournament. With the variety of cultures attending the tournament there are plenty of food options to choose from.

As the start time approaches, the fans file into their assigned seats. The announcers get back to their table to describe how the session will work. If a wrestler lost the first day, they cannot lose again or they will be eliminated from the tournament. If wrestlers win their remaining matches, they will advance to the placement matches on day three. Again the announcer asks all 106 pounders to head to the center of the mat. The referees gave the ok sign, and the announcer officially began day two.

Day two is similar and different from day one. On day two, the crowd is much bigger, meaning there is more cheering and yelling. Spectators from every school were cheering louder than ever to show their support for their wrestlers. This was one thing everyone had in common. Every spectator wished the best for their wrestlers. Without the cheers and applause, there would be no atmosphere and the event would be boring and dull. The fans make the event the best it can be. It is because of the atmosphere that many of the wrestlers show their real emotions. When they win a match, they jump up and down or point towards their fans to show their appreciation towards them. The coaches also have big smiles on their faces and are proud of what their wrestler has done. If the wrestler loses, the fans still show their appreciation and applaud them. Coaches may give hugs to the wrestler if they are put down by the loss. A few tears are normal because the wrestlers have worked so hard to get to this point. As the final matches of the day approach, the stadium is at full capacity and supporting the last few wrestlers. Once the final whistle blows, the people clear out and prepare for the main event.

Day three is the biggest out of the three days because it consists of the best wrestlers remaining in each weight class. The day starts with an early morning session for the placement matches. During this session, the wrestlers who get 3rd-6th are determined. The crowd is not as big as day two, but they make their presence felt by cheering on the wrestlers.

After the first session is finished, there is a break for the stadium to get the mats prepared for the championship round. People are led out of the stadium and the doors are locked until the final session is ready to begin. Restaurants and bars that are close to the stadium are filled with people waiting for the finals to start. When the doors to CHI Health Center are opened, people flood into the stadium to claim their seats. The floor of the stadium is completely different with only four mats set up, one mat per class. On the sides of the floor, tunnels are put up for the wrestlers to walk through. Once it is time for the finals to begin, the lights turn off and a video is shown on the big screen showing the highlights of the past two days. People put up their phones with flashlights turned on and wave them from. After the video, the first group of wrestlers are announced. They approach the tunnel as smoke machines are let off for a cool effect. Once every wrestler is announced, they meet at the middle of the mat to shake hands. The whistles blow, and the finals are underway.

Fans cheer as the matches begin. As the matches went on, tension was felt throughout the stadium. Hard fought matches are finished and wrestlers celebrate their wins with backflips, jumping up and down, thanking god, and even jumping into their coaches arms. The smiles on the wrestlers faces are contagious making the people rooting for them smile alongside the wrestler. As the matches for each weight class finished, a medal ceremony was held for the six wrestlers who placed. The wrestlers stand on the podium to get recognized for their achievement. After the final medal ceremony, another award is given out. Every team in each class who had the most points at the end of the tournament received a trophy. The announcer talks for one last time, thanking everyone for their support and sportsmanship and thanking everyone for another amazing year of Nebraska wrestling.

Nebraska has many traditions that are celebrated every year, but these traditions do not compare to the Nebraska High School Wrestling State Championship. The way the event brings together so many people from different ethnicities, backgrounds, and interests is beyond comparison to any other tradition. This tradition is what makes Nebraska, Nebraska.

First Place Poetry – “This is Home” by Kayla Rupe
Photo by Mariah Lundgren
Photo by Mariah Lundgren

Take a drive down the gravel road
Watching the waves of the endless cornrows
Meadowlarks resting on a wireline
Hovering over a sea of black bovine
Wherever I may roam
This is home

Sandhills, king of the prairie
Tall grass as far as the eye can see
Windmills stand alone
Catching every wind blown
Wherever I may roam
This is home

Cranes gather in corn field
Enjoying the residue of last year’s yield
A whitetail takes the last arrow from a hunter’s quiver
While channel catfish sway in the Platte River
Wherever I may roam
This is home

The city limits of Lincoln begin to fill
Encapsulating fans of the football thrill
The sea of red seizes the Cornhusker state
The game is nothing short of great
Wherever I may roam
This is home

A warm midwest greeting
The home of people who are worth meeting
A hug and a handshake
And a home-raised steak
These are mosaic pieces of Nebraska
The place I call home

Second Place Poetry – “My Favorite One” by Mary Beatty
Photo from Papillion Community Foundation
Photo from Papillion Community Foundation

Papillon’s Winter Wonderland; We’re walking downtown.
With bonfires and s’mores it’s never a letdown.
We wonder if winter’s anything but blustery and cold,
People wander the streets cause they’ve closed down the road,
Sipping hot chocolate and admiring the lights
We had to wait for the mayor so they’d ignite.
Shopping at shops with a welcoming warmth,
As we listen to many musicians perform.

Maybe this is my favorite tradition of all,
Other than being outside in a snow squall.

Spring sprouts a-sprung, gardeners on every corner
Planting milkweed and leadplant and purple prairie clover.
Admiring the buds in the butterfly garden,
Oh no! A frost warning, all of a sudden.
Quick, cover the plants before the cold morning,
Why is the weather so nonconforming?
Black trash bags lining the street,
Isn’t spring in Nebraska oh so sweet?

This is definitely my favorite time of year,
Wait a few days and summer’ll appear.
Summer fun in the sun at Papillion Days
It’s a great way to spend Father’s Day,
Helicopter rides and rollercoasters too,
And don’t forget about all the great food,
Funnel cake, cotton candy, fresh lemonade,
Stands for clothing and jewelry, even tuition aid
People helping out friends’ businesses
While listening to them apologize about the air’s humid thickness.

This has to be my favorite tradition,
Shopping under the baking sun.

Falling leaves, red orange trees, haunted houses,
Fresh cider and donuts and measuring ounces
Of pumpkins and apples and whatever u-picked
A trip to Vala’s is never that quick.
Spend a day (the food’s the best part).
Get some exercise on a heavy bike cart.
Pig and duck races, don’t forget the train,
This is one place where nobody’ll complain.

This is definitely my favorite one,
As long as there’s a stop at the pumpkin eating dragon.

First Place Short Story – “How I Found My Sister” by Rita Harr

Today was the day, the day my foster sister was to move in. When the social worker came to inspect our house months prior to make sure we could even provide for her, she explained that the girl who was to come live with us was very shy to adults. My mom was ecstatic as she took this to mean less work for her, and all she cared about was the government check coming to our house once a month. But here she was, JaNiyah, a fifteen year old girl from Kansas City. She stood still at the door waiting to be told where to go. She was dressed in ripped jeans, beaten up white crocs, and a blue hoodie that looked as if a dog had used it as a chew toy. While my Mom talked to the social worker, putting on her fake best mom in the world personality, I directed JaNiyah to her new room which was really just half of my current room. After about ten minutes of putting all of her belongings into her half of the closet I decided to ask my mom for some dinner.

“Hey, Mom?”

“What Lynn?” She screamed from the couch.

“Can we get dinner please?”

“No! I am not hungry. If you want dinner, make it yourself!”

“Sorry,” I said to JaNiyah, defeated. She did not respond. “How about we get some Runza? I just got paid at work.” She nodded with a slight smile appearing on her face. I decided to order her a classic cheese runza with fries, while I got a cinnamon roll and chili. Fifteen minutes later the food arrived. I tipped the DoorDash deliverer three dollars and brought the bag of food to JaNiyah, but not before my mom saw it.

“What is that?” She barked.

“Oh, I thought JaNiyah might want some Runza, being her first time in Omaha is all.”

“Well, did you get me any?”

“No,” I responded. “You said you were not hungry.”

“You are such a selfish daughter. I work my butt off to provide for you, and you can not even be bothered to buy me some food? Just give me that bag!”

I left feeling angry, knowing that me nor JaNiyah would be getting food that night.

“We can just wake up early tomorrow and get breakfast from school,” I told her. She nodded.

The next day we woke up, hoping to get out of the house before my mom had time to yell at me. As we started our mile walk to the city bus stop since the school provided ones were too crowded to breathe in, JaNiyah muttered her first words to me.

“Can you buy me a bus ticket? I want to go live with my cousin”

“What are you talking about? You’re not making sense.”

“I want to go live with my cousin, she lives in Columbus, Nebraska. You are nice and all but I want to live with my family.”

“Why? Why don’t you just go alone then?” I didn’t want to show it but I was offended. I was excited to finally have someone to live with besides my mom, but I knew my mom was not the best parent and I wanted what was best for JaNiyah.

“I don’t have any money and you said you just got paid. You should come with me, you could even spend the night, you look like you could use a break from your mom.”

“My mom is not that mean to me, she just gets stressed out sometimes.”

“If you say so.”

She turned her back and kept walking.

“Wait! My mom doesn’t have a shift at work until Wednesday, and she mainly just sits on the couch on her days off; she won’t even notice that we, or her car, are gone for one day.”

“Thank you.” She smiled then went back to mute.

Once school was over we rushed home, packed her stuff in her tiny suitcase, and left. I told my mom we were spending the night at my friend’s house so she would not get suspicious. We got in the car and set out. Since Columbus was only an hour and half drive I thought we could make some stops.

“How about we go to the zoo? I bought some tickets for us.”


The iconic Henry Doorly Zoo. I had been living in Omaha my whole life and never been. My mom was always too lazy to take me, and my friends were too concerned with parties and boys to come to the zoo. After waiting in line for about half an hour we got in.

“We can only stay here for an hour,” I said. “Where do you want to go first?”

“I don’t know, I heard the lions are cool, and we could go to the nursery.”

The lions were very calm. The males mainly slept while the lionesses and cubs all played together. We stared at the lions for a while admiring their beautiful manes, and golden fur. In fact all the people around us were admiring the beautiful creatures. After staring we walked into the nursery and saw only two baby animals, a baby panda who looked quite large to be in the nursery, and a baby orangutan.

“What is wrong with the panda, he’s very large?” I asked.

The zookeeper explained that the baby panda had been rejected by his mother at birth. She had kept his twin brother, but assumed Winston here was too weak to take care of. They had to keep him in the nursery until he was old enough to join the adult pandas. I looked over at JaNiyah and she had a melancholy face. She was staring at baby Winston


“Yes,” I responded.

“Can we please go?” Tears were dropping down her face.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

She didn’t respond. I quickly brought her back to the car. Her tears now looked like mini waterfalls. We sat in silence in the parking lot until she stopped.

“I am sorry. I guess the baby panda reminded me of myself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re probably wondering why I am in foster care, or why I don’t talk to adults,” I nodded. “Well, when I was ten my dad left, he said my mom was too crazy to handle. It turns out he was right. My mom put me into foster care one year later. She said I reminded her too much of my dad. Ever since then I have gone from foster house to foster house, only staying for a couple months a time. I keep to myself, keep quiet so I don’t get attached and hurt when they send me to the next house. When I heard my cousin had moved to Nebraska I asked my social worker if I could be placed with her. She said my cousin was too young to take care of me. All I am saying is that I feel like that panda, all alone in this world, isolated.”

“Well, I know we just met, but you always have me. Let’s go get some early dinner. I know this great spot, they serve Omaha Steaks.”

We were quickly seated once we arrived. Once we ordered some food I noticed the television was playing a rerun of the Husker game from two weeks ago.

“Do you like football?” I asked.

“It depends.”

“I love football. Especially the Huskers. I know they lose a lot, and hire a new coach every week, but I love them.They’re something that brings people together. Every week no matter who they are, Husker fans get together in hopes that they will return to their glory days, back when they were one of the best colleges, feared by every team. And when they lose the fans get upset. However, the next week they’re back in the stands with more hope.”  We finished our savory steaks and left.

We continued to drive on the highway. As we were at a red light I looked over and saw a black squirrel. They are one of the things I love about Nebraska. Black squirrels are only found in three places around the world, Nebraska, Colorado, and some parts of Canada. Despite the fact that they live here, they are still very rare to find. Last time I saw a black squirrel was on my sixteenth birthday a couple months ago. When I saw it I thought maybe it would bring me good luck. Maybe this black squirrel meant luck was about to come.

As we kept driving I noticed all the farms and truckers. Living in the city part of Nebraska you never notice just how many farms there are. I always hated the outdoors, but I could admire how much work the farmers put into their crops and livestock. It took so much work to produce just a single plant, and the unpredictable weather that came with Nebraska made it even harder. In the end though the farmer is given a tangible item that they can be proud of.  As we kept driving in silence I found a sense of peace. I had never noticed it, I was never proud of my state, but at that moment all the beautiful nature of the farmland had given me peace.

Thirty minutes later we arrived at JaNiyah’s cousin’s house. It was a modest blue house on a man-made lake.

“What’s her name?” I asked.


“She knows you’re coming right?”

“Not exactly.”

I was nervous as we walked up to the door. We rang the doorbell. Thirty seconds later Marianna walked out.

“Oh my goodness JaNiyah, I haven’t seen you in five years. What are you doing here?”

“Well, I guess I was thinking I might be able to come live with you, I saw on your Instagram you just moved here.” Marianna began to stare at me. “Oh, this is my friend Lynn.”

“Come inside guys,” Marianna directed us inside. She asked me to wait in the living room while she talked to JaNiyah. What felt like an eternity later they returned. Janiyah looked mad.

“Let’s go,” she said.

Once we got into the car I asked her what happened. She explained that her cousin couldn’t afford to take her in and she didn’t want to break the law by taking her in. We walked back to the car in silence.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked.

“I guess back to your house.”

“I am really sorry, I know you were hoping to leave. Can I do anything for you?”

“Yes, you can stick up for yourself,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Stick up to your mom. It looks like we are going to be living together for a long time now, we might as well make the best of it. When we first left you looked drained. I watched you observe the beauty all around us, you look renewed. This trip has brought us together, you are like my sister now.”

I was emotional, I had never had a sister before, but now that I had a new little sister I knew I would do anything for her. By the time we got back home it was almost midnight.

“Why are you back so early?” My mom asked.


“Is that attitude I hear in your voice?”

“Mom, I don’t care anymore. I am sick of the way you treat me. Today I realized that I don’t need you. I found a sister today, I found a love for nature today. I can’t keep living with you treating me like this.” My mom was speechless for once in her life.

“I don’t know what to say. I didn’t realize the way I acted was hurting you so much, I’m truly sorry.”

Janiyah and I left and went to bed. The next morning we woke up with a sweet smell wafting to our nose. We quickly ran down the hallway to see what it was. My mom stood at the kitchen counter in front of her plates of waffles, pancakes, bacon, sausage, and orange juice.

“You made all of this?”  I was shocked.

“Yes, I thought you guys might like it,” she smiled. “And JaNiyah I am so sorry for the impression I made on you last night, maybe we can start over?”

“Of course,” she said. I knew the mere fact she was talking to my mom meant that she wanted to stay with us.

“Hey, mom? Do you think we can go to the zoo today?” She nodded.

Second Place Short Story – “The Choices We Make” by Sydney Hill

“Mom! Are you okay? Can you hear me? Help is coming. Hold on, just stay awake for a bit longer, okay? Mom, MOM!!!”

It all went black.

As I blinked my eyes open, I noticed only two things. My first thought was that I was in the cleanest room I had ever seen, like freakishly clean. Then I noticed that there was a podium in the middle of the room with a book that had my picture on it. The book outlined my entire life, every accomplishment and mistake was out in the open for all to see. After further examination, I realized that it included pictures with every major milestone in my life. I could see pictures from the day I graduated high school, then my college graduation, the day I married my best friend, the day I found out I was pregnant, then the hospital pictures from the day I gave birth to the lights of my life. The sight of my babies brought tears to my eyes. Where was I?

Suddenly I felt a presence behind me, and a feeling of dread traveled up my spine, making me shiver. Everything came rushing back, and immediately, I knew. I understood then, that I was dying. This mysterious presence behind me was here to take me to the afterlife. Slowly, I turned to face my fate.

“This isn’t fair, I’m still young,” I said to the man, with tears silently streaming down my face.

The man sighed, as if he heard this same argument too many times, “Unfortunately, dear, death is unpredictable. However, I will make you an offer. You can choose to go back to the land of the living or to go on to your final destination with me, but only after you do one thing.”

“What’s the condition?”

“You will have to relive three different moments in your life. You will see some happy moments, I promise. But, I need you to understand that you might not like everything you see in your memories. Once we begin, we cannot stop, you will have to see it through.”

He was looking at me like he didn’t think I could handle it, which irked me just a little bit. I mean, who does he think he is? He doesn’t know me. That look in his eye was all I needed. I looked him in the eye and said, “How do we begin?”

With a look of disbelief, he started to explain, “All you have to do is to choose a photograph from the book and touch it. When the events in the memory have unfolded, you will be pulled out, and may choose a new one. Keep in mind, you can only choose three memories, then you have to make your final decision.”

Easy enough, I thought as I turned back to my table of memories. Which one should I choose first? I don’t even recognize half of these pictures, they should start adding captions under them. I did recognize one of the pictures immediately, so I grabbed it. As I touched the picture, I could feel myself being sucked into it.

It’s a surreal experience, to see your six year old self throwing a tantrum. I didn’t realize that I was going to watch the memories from the outside, like a ghost. Weird.

“But mommy, I want cotton candy!” the six year old me said.

My mother looked exasperated, “No, you’ll get sick if you eat that junk, then ride all of the rides. We can share one after we are done with the rides, okay?”

My younger self still didn’t look very happy, but my little brother decided that would be the best time to run towards our all-time favorite ride. She obviously had to follow him. I remembered this day vividly, and the exact ride they were rushing off to. It was the ride with the hang gliders that spun you in circles, making you feel like you’re flying. This was always the first ride my brother and I would find every year, it was our favorite and a family tradition of ours. Who could find it first? My brother beat me everytime, it was like he staked out the fair the day before, just to win. I remember our times at the county fair so clearly. I can recall the smell of the building where they kept the horses, the confusion we felt in the mirror mazes, and the relief when we stopped to sit down for some ice cream. The fair has been the only event that I have been able to attend every single year, eventually I started my own family tradition here with my own kids. As my brother and I stepped off the ride and ran to get back in line, I felt myself being pulled out of the memory.

“Why am I back here already? Nothing happened yet.”

“Maybe nothing happened, but you remembered everything that you needed to know from that particular memory. Pick your next memory, please.”

Flipping through the pages of pictures, I thought really hard about which memories I wanted to relive, which ones would be the most important to my decision. This one, I thought, will take me back to my roots. I just know it. The weird feeling starts again as I touch the edge. Here we go again, I think to myself.

This memory brought me back to the warm, summer Saturdays that were my favorite days. The hustle and bustle of the farmer’s market has been the background for some of my favorite family memories. This particular picture has taken me back to my twenties, when I was a fool in love, still in the infamous honeymoon stage associated with newly weds and elated with a surprise pregnancy. We were scared, of course, we’re first time parents, who wouldn’t be? But that didn’t stop us from heading down to the haymarket that particular Saturday morning. We made the rounds. We had conversations with just about everyone there, since we were regulars at the market and explored the new vendors that had braved the haymarket that weekend. My husband and I spent too much money and enjoyed every second of it. By the time the vendors started to pack up, we were ready for a nice scoop of ice cream from Ivanna Cone, something we have done since our relationship began years ago. As always, we sit together on the stoop outside and share our scoops. Mine was obviously the Andes mint ice cream, and my husband got his usual dutch chocolate ice cream.

As I watched my twenty year old self from the distance, I realized just how much I truly miss my husband. The pain of losing him had lowered to a dull ache, but I still felt the loss constantly, like when my daughter needed help choosing which college to attend, or when I walked her down the aisle. I know he was looking forward to that from the day she was born. It should have been him.

“Are you okay?” my mysterious guide questioned.

“I’ll be okay.” I hadn’t even realized the memory ended, or that I was crying. Let’s be real though, I was sobbing, I thought I was healing, but apparently not. I took a couple deep breaths, needing to get myself together before I chose my last memory. “Alright, I’m ready.’”

I took slow steps towards the podium, trying to prepare myself for the unexpected emotions that these memories seemed to provoke. The page the book was flipped to had a particular picture that caught my attention. It seemed like an innocuous picture of me and my children, but I could see the sadness that still lingered in our eyes. This photo is from just after the death of my husband, there was a hole right where he always stood in family photos. I was still reeling from the last memory, but I felt like this was the right memory to conclude this bizarre journey, so I ran my fingers over the glossy finish of the photo.

The sun was blazing, but the light breeze made the day just bearable to spend the day at the zoo. At least that was the argument my daughter made when she dragged me out of bed that morning. She argued that I spent too much time alone in that house, sitting amongst his things. She convinced her brother to come with us, and even pulled her own daughter out of school, as well. My daughter packed all of us up in the car and drove us down to the Henry Doorly Zoo. I think she knew that I just needed to spend time with my family.

After a tiring morning — I was too old to keep up with the toddler — I could recall when we  finally sat down for lunch, my daughter gave me a look with watery eyes. Her look told me that she was thinking the same thing that I was, as we watched my granddaughter dig up fossils. We both wished that he was still here, that he could be a part of this amazing day. That day helped me begin the process of moving on. I wasn’t okay by any means, but I started leaving the house again. My kids really helped me heal.

When I came out of the photo, the figure was staring at me. We stood there looking at each other, waiting for the other to speak. I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.

“Your journey has come to an end. I need an answer now. Would you like to continue living or come with me?” he said, presenting the ultimatum that started this.

I was tempted to stall him, anything to buy some time, but I could tell that wasn’t going to work. The waterworks were starting up again, I couldn’t seem to stop them. I was really torn. On one hand, I would love to see my husband again, I miss him so much. On the other hand, I don’t want to leave my kids. They might be grown now, but I still have things to teach them, I have grandkids to spoil, and I still need to see my son get married. I don’t want them to lose both of their parents in such a short amount of time. I knew what my choice had to be.

“I wish to see my husband very much, but I need to return to the land of the living. I’m not ready yet.” I told him.

“Okay, since you say that, I have one more thing for you before you return. Turn around.”

Doing as he says, I turn around slowly, and promptly start sobbing, because there he was. My partner in crime. My best friend. The love of my life. My husband was standing right there, as healthy as the day I met him. He had to come to me, I couldn’t seem to move my feet, they were cemented to the ground. As he wrapped his arms around me, I couldn’t believe how solid he was.

“Well, hey there.” He teased me with a twinkle in his eye.

“How are you standing there and teasing me right now? You’re dead!”

“I asked for a special favor from our friend over there. I just needed to tell you some things. I understand. I’m proud of you for choosing our kids, we’ll have our time together again. And I love you.”

He was fading away now. We didn’t have much time.

“Wait! I need to tell you everything. Our daughter had a baby and she’s gorge—”

“I know, I know everything. I’ve been watching from up there. You tell her that I’m proud of her too, okay? And tell that son of ours that he better start going to that 8 am class, it’s important.”

“Okay,” I said laughing through the tears. I was fading too now, it was time, “I love you!”

Then I woke up in a hospital bed.

“Mom! Mom, can you hear me?” That was from my daughter, she looked like she hadn’t left my side in days. She rushed to my side and held me close to her. I tried to hug her back as best I could.

“It’s okay, darling. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

First Place Art – “Through Binoculars” by Cheryl Zeng

“Through Binoculars” is a graphic poem that combines art and poetry to narrate a personal experience with the Sandhill Cranes. Sprinkled into my writing is also insight into a broader, larger “nation observing their grace”, waiting eagerly for the annual Sandhill Crane migration. Despite this poem being an experience of mine alone, it reflects one of the longest standing traditions for Nebraskans – the appreciation and observance of the Sandhill Crane.

Second Place Art – “The Osborne Effect” by Lauren Hills

The pixelization style of my painting of the legendary Nebraska Football coach Tom Osborne communicating to a player represents that just as a team is a sum of its supporters, this painting is the product of its pixels. Each of the 10,000 pixels is numbered representing a large crowd like the 90,000 capacity sell out crowd for every game since 1962. The tradition Coach Osborne left behind is forever ingrained in the red blood of a Husker and a scarlet sea of fans that support them every Saturday of the season.