Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Last weekend I spent some time cleaning out the guest bedroom and the three-drawer oak dresser that’s in it. Both were in bad shape, because during the holidays the guest room becomes my Christmas gift staging area, and I hide the clutter in the dresser. There was also a large plastic bin in the room that I’d been using to collect stuff to take to Goodwill, and because we’re short of shelf space there were stacks of books on the floor. I found space for the books in different places, mainly the linen closet (which has more books than linens in it). During the process, a “Loose Change” envelope from Wachovia Bank fell out of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

“Loose change” seemed like a pretty good sum-up of the stuff I discovered as I tidied the room and cleared out the dresser. I came across many long-forgotten and mildly interesting items in the drawers: a box of old letters and cards; a stained-glass star with the tip of one arm broken off; a decorative round box that held an orphaned earring, a pearl button, several red beads, and a safety pin; and a basket about the size of a baseball. Oh! I also found my two autographed baseballs! I am forever putting them away where the sun can’t fade the signatures and then forgetting where they are. It’s always a lovely surprise when I come across them. One was signed by Pee Wee Reese, and the other by Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

The letters and cards I found—from my friends Kathy and Ruby, and two from my grandmother—got me interested in seeing what I had written to them, so I checked my old computer files to re-read my side of the conversations. Here’s some of the loose change I found there (edited for clarity and loosely organized):

Fine Dining I

Jeanne and I decided we wanted to go to a lowbrow place for lunch, so we picked the Waffle House. When the waitress came over to take our orders, she looked down at her pen and clicked it a couple of times experimentally.

“There’s grits on my pen,” she said. “But I reckon it’ll still write.” 

We ordered, the pen worked fine, and while we waited for our food Jeanne took two dollar bills to play some songs on the juke box. She played “When I’m 64” by the Beatles and two of the Waffle House songs, including “Special Lady at the Waffle House.” That got all the waitresses riled up, and the oldest one—a tiny woman with a fierce expression—came to our table, brandishing a mop. She looked straight at me and said, “Hold my arm.”

I clamped my hand on her free arm. She turned to Jeanne and shook the mop at her. “You better be glad she’s holding my arm,” she said, “else I’d come after you for playing that dang Waffle House song!” 

Fine Dining II

Ernesto and I went out to dinner with my parents this weekend. We had finished our meal and paid the bill, and finally we got up to go. Ernesto and I went first, and my dad came along behind with Mama. She didn’t have her walker with her, so she was holding tight to Daddy’s arm. We made it to the door of the restaurant well before they did, and Ernesto held it open for them to come through. As they approached, Daddy noticed that Mama still had a grip on her extra-large cloth dinner napkin, which was nearly dragging the ground. He said, “Virginia, you’re about to walk out with your napkin.” At that moment, our waitress came up behind them, said, “I’ll take it,” and whisked it away. Daddy proceeded outside with Mama, and Ernesto let the restaurant door close behind them. At that point Daddy said, “Well, you’ll never get a whole set like that.”

The Church Bake Sale

I was working the church baked goods table at our annual craft fair and hot dog sale a few years back when two sisters, a short, pretty one with short dark hair, and a tall, pretty one with long red hair came at the end of the day. I had just put up a sign declaring that everything was half price. Each sister had a baby in a stroller, and as they chatted I learned that the red-haired sister was visiting the dark-haired sister for the weekend and both were concerned about having plenty of food for their combined families. They bought an apple pie, all of the muffins and sausage biscuits on the table, loaves of bread, and assorted cookies. Since they still wanted to go look at some of the craft tables, once they’d paid for the baked goods I helped them tuck it in the shade underneath the table for safekeeping.

Later, when the sisters returned, I started pulling everything out and placing it on the table. The last baked good to come up was the apple pie, with a tinfoil lid. When I put it on the white-clothed table I noticed a few tiny ants. “Oh, no,” I said, “I’m afraid the ants found the pie while it was under the table.”

The tall, red-haired sister removed the foil and examined the top crust carefully. “There are only two, or maybe five,” she said. She blew lightly across the surface of that pie, sending flakes of top crust sailing onto the grass. Then she blew again, a little harder, and a larger piece of crust broke off and flew. “There,” she said. She slapped the foil back on top and started stacking muffins onto the stroller.


Earlier in the day, a lady came by the bake sale with a sort of dark blue medical device on her right foot, one of those cushiony things with two Velcro straps across the top of the foot.

“How’s your foot?” I asked. I figured she had sprained her ankle.

“It’s feeling pretty good,” she said, looking down at it. “I got bit by a brown recluse spider. It was hiding in the toe of the shoes I keep in my carport, so I can just slip them on when I want to run outside.” She looked up, and shook her head. “That spider bit me to the bone,” she said. “I lost a toe!”

I was horrified, but she added calmly, “You can bet that when I see a spider now, I stomp it good and hard.”

…and Snakes

My nephew, Will, has been in school in Idaho, and he came home this summer wearing a rattlesnake rattle on a leather cord around his neck. It wasn’t store-bought; he had actually killed the owner of the rattle. My sister told him that she did not wish him to tangle with rattlesnakes, and she told him about a colleague whose father was bitten by a rattlesnake while reaching into some brush to retrieve a bird he’d shot. “He nearly lost his hand!” she said. “He had to take anti-venom treatment for weeks.”

Will acknowledged the truth of this. The director of the school had already told him, “Whatever a rattlesnake bites, you should be prepared to lose.”

That same summer my dad found a black snake on the back porch steps, so he decided to relocate it. The snake attempted to flee, and slithered into a crack as if it planned to enter the crawl space (and from there the basement). Daddy was quick enough to grab the snake by the tail, but he said that a snake is surprisingly resistant to being dragged out of a crack, and he thinks he sprained the snake’s tail. He successfully relocated it to the woods, though.

Engineered Potato Salad

Daddy not only wrangles snakes when he has to, he also makes a mean potato salad. He printed the recipe in extra-large type from a site on the Internet. And because he is at heart an engineer and a craftsman, he is a stickler for precision.

“He would kill you, making potato salad,” Mama told me. “He gets his recipe out, and it calls for two pounds of potatoes. So he puts his potatoes in a bowl, and then he carries them down the hall to the bathroom. He weighs himself first, and then he gets back on the scale holding the bowl of potatoes.”

It’s good potato salad, too.

I Avoid Making a Pun (Until Now)   

Our minister has two granddaughters who were visiting this weekend. They are 4 and 3 years old, I would guess, and just as cute as they can be. They announced that they would like for the congregation to sing “Zacchaeus,” so he brought them up to the front of the church, and they led the singing. Both girls wore very pretty little butterfly clips in their hair. When I commented on the clips, their grandmother said, “The girls found them yesterday. They used to belong to their aunt.”

I started to say, “Ah, hairlooms,” but I was afraid that no one would get my joke and it really wasn’t good enough to survive a long explanation.

Adding It All Up

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem called “Ode to Things,” and I think that it is a decent sum-up of what it means when you revisit the bits and pieces that you’ve collected in your life, whether they are solid as a glass star or as light as a bake-sale memory. Here’s a fragment of his poem:

…these buttons
and wheels
and little

all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handles or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.

O irrevocable
of things…

many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.



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I won a trophy! Well, a consolation prize. My sister found it at an antiques mall and presented it to me at Thanksgiving, soon after Ernesto and I went from married, with chickens, to empty nesters.

It was like this:

At the end of the summer we removed the fence around the chicken coop and allowed the hens to roam free. It seemed sensible, since they were able to find ways out of their pen pretty much any time they wanted, and having the fence down made it easier to mow inside the pen. Plus, I loved having the hens out and about, running with the goats or hanging out under the bird feeders. They always went back to the coop to lay eggs and sleep. Life was peaceful and good.

Until Halloween weekend. We went off to work that Friday the owners of two goats and 10 chickens. When we got home on Friday evening, I collected the eggs and noticed that one of the hens was missing. Ernesto said he had spotted a feathery pile across the road and up a bit that morning on his way to the office, and we imagined that some critter had gotten a hen and carried it away. It was a shame, but it does happen from time to time. I didn’t fret about it much.

The next morning we awoke to find that our white goat, Iris, had escaped from the corral and was standing outside the fence, looking as if she very much wanted back in. I went out to open the gate for her and found four chickens dead between the coop and the garden, and two more dead inside the coop. I report that quite calmly, don’t I? At the time, I was not calm. I didn’t scream or faint or anything, but it was a terrible shock, the kind where you walk back and forth and look at the poor limp hens and imagine that in another few seconds they will perk up and live again.

Two hens were actually still alive, though seriously rattled, and another was unaccounted for. I believe that whatever savaged the chickens had spooked poor Iris so badly that she leapt (hard to imagine) out of the corral. She has such stumpy legs, it actually cheered me up to think of her jumping.

We spent a sizable chunk of Saturday afternoon trying to catch the two surviving chickens to put them into the nursery coop, which is smaller and in a high-security pen. It used to be a dog pen, so it has a chain-link fence and the stable forms one wall. When the chickens were young, Ernesto added a layer of chicken wire across the top to discourage attacks from the air. We use it as a halfway point for new chicks. Once they’re sturdy enough to move out from beneath a heat lamp, they live in the nursery pen until they’re old enough to go free-range.

But after surviving the Night of Horror, our last two chickens would not allow us near them. They were Ameracaunas, one of them golden and the other mostly charcoal gray with touches of gold. They may have been shell-shocked, but they were still having nothing to do with us and were much spryer than Ernesto and I. That being the case, I waited for them to go into the coop for the night and then went out and reinforced the little chicken entry door with a heavy piece of wood. (Note: It was actually the sign that Ernesto had made when we had too many eggs to keep. It read “Fresh Eggs” on the first line and “Free Range” on the second line above our phone number. One afternoon a guy called to ask about the free range; he thought we were giving away an oven.)

I also took the wood-and-chicken-wire gate that used to be part of the hens’ enclosure and put that against the heavier piece of wood for extra protection.

Alas, the next morning I found both of those barricades pushed aside, and no sign of the hens. Inside the coop, a terrible struggle had caused the framing of one of the nests to be knocked completely askew. The Ameracaunas evidently fought to the bitter end.

We still don’t know what exactly went after the chickens. Possibly a fox or weasel, maybe even a coyote. Whatever it was, it took the goats several days to get over their uneasiness. The Wednesday after the massacre, Ernesto was working from home and looked up from his computer to see Iris and Rose walking up the driveway side by side. He led them back to the corral with little fuss, but we believe they were patrolling the property to make sure all was well. Either that or they were so psychologically damaged from the things they had witnessed that they were running away from home.

At about the same time that we lost our chickens and (therefore) our source of fresh eggs, I came across a bit of information about St. Swithun. It was almost as if the dear saint were reaching out to give me comfort in my chickenless and (therefore) eggless state:

He was, say the chroniclers, a diligent builder of churches in places where there were none before and a repairer of those that had been destroyed or ruined. He also built a bridge on the east side of the city and, during the work he made a practice of sitting there to watch the workmen, that his presence might stimulate their industry. One of his most edifying miracles is said to have been performed at this bridge where he restored an old woman’s basket of eggs, which the workmen had maliciously broken. David Nash Ford’s “Early British Kingdoms”

Apparently the egg miracle was St. Swithun’s greatest claim to sainthood, though the diligent building of churches probably didn’t hurt. He also gets credit for the weather during the summer, but I never did understand that part, something about if it’s raining on St. Swithun’s day it will rain for another 40 days. Moving on to more interesting tidbits, I found a charming photo of his skull, which looks rather egg-like itself, all tied up with a crimson ribbon and resting on a red cushion. St. Swithun’s bones seem to have been sent around to several different places, as his skull is in one place while his shins and various other parts are someplace else and possibly not together. Kinda like some of our chickens, poor things. It seems appropriate but sad that he is himself a broken Humpty-Dumpty of a saint, unable to put himself back together again.


St. Swithun’s egg-like skull

Anyway, now we have a participation trophy for chicken farming. I am trying to decide what to have engraved on it, maybe “Remembering the Eggsistential Crisis of 2017,” or “We tried.”

But perhaps leaving it blank is the best memorial to our poor hens.

Remember: May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day. It’s not too early to plan how you intend to celebrate and/or “protest the bleakness of chickens’ lives.”



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Fragments of unwritten country songs seem to fall into my lap. Most of the time I end up saving them as-is, going no further than to marvel at their spirit, but once in a while I can squeeze an entire verse out of a sentence that strikes me as worthy. It’s amazing how often the people around me talk in country song language. Here are a few examples:

Pat was telling us about one Christmas in Vermont when a neighbor struck and killed a deer near her house. He came to the door and asked Pat’s husband to come help with the dressing of the meat. Pat described this to her daughter, who had called just before leaving to travel home for the holiday. Her daughter said, “Let me get this straight. We’re having roadkill for Christmas.”

This very morning Pat came to work with a picture of a creature she had passed on her way to her car. In a parking lot. In town. “Look what was in the parking lot!” she said, passing her phone for us to see. “I think I have a crawdad near my house.” You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey.

Neighbors are always a rich source of material. Talat described one of her former neighbors who led a very independent life, but who did have a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means. “They take nice vacations together, cruises….” She shrugged. “Well, he’s got the money, and she’s got the time.”

It’s a match made in heaven
Like mojitos: rum and lime.
He’s got the money, honey;
She’s got the time.

(Now that I think about it, “a sometimes relationship with a gentleman of means” has rather a nice lilt to it, too.)

This spring, Jeanne helped plan and execute a lecture and small reception that featured Diane Rehm. Later, I asked her via email, “Hey, did you get to actually meet Diane Rehm?”

She responded right away. “YES!!!!  She is tiny and pretty and wore stiletto heels. She held my hand while she drank champagne. Lovely.”

She held my hand while she drank champagne
And my heart whirled up toward the sky
I might have been holding a bird in my hand
And I prayed that it would not fly.

I prayed that it would not fly away
I prayed that it would not fly,
I held her hand while she drank champagne
And prayed that she would not fly.

Lovely, indeed. Don’t you agree? You don’t have to.

Julie, too, is often involved with special events. She recently managed one that involved lunch at Point A followed by a short bus ride to Point B for a tour of a new building, after which the bus would bring everyone back to Point A. One of the guests arrived terribly late and asked that her lunch be packed in a to-go box so she could take it along. Sadly, she left the box on the bus while taking the tour, during which time the bus driver determined that he had a spot of engine trouble. He drove back to the garage and traded to a better bus to complete the trip. A minor fuss ensued when, upon getting back on the bus, the hungry guest discovered that the boxed lunch was gone. Julie shook her head. “She left her lunch on a broken-down bus!” she said.

“She Left Her Lunch on a Broken-down Bus (and the Sandwich Was Made of Ham)”

I haven’t been able to get further than a title for that one, but isn’t it a fine title?

Finally, we were enjoying a little family dinner with my nephew, recently returned from a semester abroad. We had Hursey’s barbecue and chicken with the appropriate sides, supplemented with some items from my parents’ fridge. Daddy set out a dish of dill pickles and jalapeno pickles. As we finished eating, he asked if anyone wanted the last of the jalapenos.

My sister said, “I don’t want to take your last one.”

Daddy said, “Oh, I’ve got more in the pantry. This the just the last of the ones that were in the refrigerator. I like my hot pickles cold.”

Daddy has opinions on the news;
I don’t always share my Daddy’s views.
Sometimes we come to disagreement,
And our voices start to rise,
That’s when Daddy turns the tide
With words both calm and wise.

He’ll tell me:
I may not know everything or very much at all,
The limits of my knowledge are not wide, nor are they tall;
I don’t know where we’re headed, who is wrong, and who is right—
But I know exactly what I like.

I like my iced tea good and sweet,
I like my coffee strong and bold,
I like red-eye gravy with my ham,
And I like my hot pickles cold.

I have my own opinions on the news,
And Daddy doesn’t always share my views.
Now, I am seldom calm and only very rarely wise,
But like my Daddy, I know what I like.

I like my coffee topped with cream,
I like my green tea cold, with lime,
I like to watch the nighttime sky,
And I like to play around with rhyme.

Now Mama claims no interest in the news,
And she prefers to not share all her views,
But I’ve been watching Mama all my life,
And I know pretty well what Mama likes.

Mama likes to sleep late when she can,
She likes to win the family Scrabble prize,
Mama likes Duke basketball a lot,
And Mama likes to laugh until she cries.

We all like watching baseball in the spring,
(The Braves are going to win the Series yet.)
Sometimes we like to sit around and sing,
And we like fishing every chance we get.

Well, yes, I did get carried away with that one. There are two lies in it: Daddy doesn’t drink coffee, and there are no known limits to his knowledge.

Do you ever come across naturally occurring country song fragments? Send them my way, and I’ll see what kind of mess I can make with them. You know that’s what I like.

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Nothing is more natural than bad behavior. I only have to look outside at the chickens to understand that. Right this minute, I have one chicken who is isolated from the other 11 members of the flock. I had to stage an intervention and get her out of the large pen because her coop-mates were pecking her without mercy. I think it may be only one coop-mate who was to blame—one of the red hens who is quite large and broad-chested and full of herself. She had reduced Nunna Chicken (I call her that for family reasons that I won’t bother to explain here) to a listless heap who wouldn’t even attempt to go into the coop at night, she was so terrorized.

Finally I carried Nunna away and put her into the nursery pen with its smaller coop and much smaller enclosure, and in a few weeks she was back to her old self—plump, with a healthy red comb. She is still not laying properly, though. Every once in a while she produces a misshapen brown egg, and twice I have found nothing more than a yolk in her nest. One memorable day I checked and found that she had laid a full egg with not one speck of shell on it. The white of the egg had more or less oxidized, and had the look and feel of clear gelatin. Horrible. Anyway, once she was all better and obviously feeling well, we attempted to introduce her back into the main coop. Within seconds, she was getting her ass kicked again, so I moved her back to ICU (the Isolated Chicken Unit).

Nunna has spent part of this weekend following me around the back yard, because her tiny enclosure has been exhausted of grass and (presumably) bugs. It certainly has the appearance of a wasteland. Plus, I think she now sees me as her champion (which of course I am). I am the source of fresh water, food, toast crumbs, cracked corn, and protection from sharp pecks.

As human beings we have one simple, yet seemingly impossible, job: to love one another. But is anything more difficult? Like the chickens, apparently it feels more natural to keep peck, peck, pecking each other. I saw something once that said if a chicken has blood on it, the other chickens will peck her to death. What is wrong with chickens? What is wrong with humans? I don’t have a solution; I’m merely offering a sad observation.

Here’s another random bit of information: This very week I saw a great quote from Ursula K. LeGuin about wearing Banana Republic safari/Army surplus-style gear. She wrote, “I looked like a hen in a pillowcase.”

Come to think of it, a good name for a chicken would be “Ursula K. LeHen.”

I should start a website devoted to names for chickens, similar to the Comprehensive Bunny Name List* originally discussed on this site five years ago today. The timing is right. We were in Tractor Supply today and they have the banner up that says, “Chicks are here!” They weren’t, but Tractor Supply has the pen all set up to receive them when they arrive.

Maybe my chicken names will follow the theme begun with Ursula K. LeHen, and will all be the names of writers. Jane Austhen. J. K. Fowling. Eggatha Christie. Elizabeth Barrett Brownhen.

Send me your suggestions for chicken names, and I’ll add them to my list.


* The CBNL™ is still alive and now has more than 5,000 names, plus a list of Suggested Bunny Names, one of which is Faye Bunaway.



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A snapshot of Thanksgiving 2016.

Ernesto’s cousin, Pablo, and his wife, Andrea, drove down from New York for the long weekend, and this year’s holiday was like a dream of Thanksgiving: The turkey obediently turned golden brown and was finished all the way through at the appointed hour, and every side dish from Greensboro, Chapel Hill, and Liberty was heated and on the table in proper order. Robin’s sweet potato casserole was a symphony; Holli’s mashed potatoes were a poem; my oyster dressing was warmly appreciated by a discerning few.

After the clean-up it was time for the annual Thanksgiving Day Hike, and ten (out of 14) people and five out of 5 dogs headed down the path toward the creek and up into the back field.

Ernesto and Pablo had devised a scheme for the Friday after Thanksgiving: They wished to cook a leg of pork in a hole in the ground, Cuban style. Ernesto and my dad dug the hole a week before, finding the spot where, ten years earlier, Ernesto had roasted a pork shoulder. Daddy had kept all of the items we had used on that occasion—the metal lid for the hole, the grate to hold the pork, and four long-handled hooks (probably coat hangers in a previous life) to help lift the grill in and out of the hole. We were ready.

On Friday morning, Andrea and I went to Food Lion to collect a few things for the side dishes, while Ernesto and Pablo drove straight to the farm to start the fire. There was some concern that we would be cooking deep into the night if we didn’t get it going fairly quickly. They started a second fire in the wood stove in Daddy’s shop, which could provide a continuous supply of fresh coals for the pit. What with one thing and another, it was nearly noon before the pork leg, lovingly marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, emerged from its cooler and was lowered into the pit. We were already about two hours behind schedule.

Imagine the next six and a half hours, if you possibly can. Well, I know that you can’t, so I will try to give you the flavor of them. The weather was unseasonably warm, nearly 70 degrees. Ernesto and Pablo settled into chairs around the pit, sweaters and jackets came off, the two big dogs stalked around the edges of the site. We had a digital remote meat thermometer, not meant for gauging the heat of a fire pit, but it was rather nice because we could poke the metal probe through a small hole in the metal lid over the pit and let it dangle down, while the temperature gauge on the other end told us how hot it was down there. Everyone thought that the temp would shoot up to 400 degrees when we first fed it down into the hole, and we were anxious when it only registered about 275. But it was early, and we remained hopeful.

Every 40 minutes or so, Ernesto and Pablo shuttled burning coals and chunks of wood from the wood stove to the pit. When the heat didn’t rise, they devised better ways of insulating the metal lid so that heat couldn’t escape. They used hoes to beat back small grass fires that occasionally erupted around the edges of the hole. They grew progressively smokier. During one of the intervals when the pork was lifted out so that coals could be added to the pit, I measured the leg’s internal temperature. It was 65 degrees. Clearly, we had a distance to go.

As anxiety rose, the bucket loads of burning embers from the wood stove grew larger and more fiery. The guys had been sharing one pair of heavy leather gardening gloves, but soon Pablo appeared wearing a pair of stout black rubber gloves.

“Where did you find those?” Daddy asked. Pablo said he’d seen them under the shelter, so he borrowed them.

“Well, don’t touch the meat with them,” Daddy warned. “Those are my dog-washing gloves.”

Andrea decided she would take a walk around some of the trails that we had missed the day before. The next thing time I turned around, she was holding a crude map that Daddy had drawn to show where all the trails were, and how they connected. I got out the fishing gear and headed for the pond. About 30 minutes later, I caught a bass on the artificial worm, and as word of my success reached the fire pit, Pablo and Andrea and Maggie, the black lab, joined me.

Pablo hooked a bass on the fly rod, but it spit the fly out before he could bring it home. I gave Andrea the artificial worm gear, and she worked her way around the entire pond, trying to find a fish that hungry. Maggie splashed around the edges of the pond with great energy, repeatedly. Pablo returned to his duties at the fire, and I caught a bass on the fly rod he abandoned.

As Andrea completed her circuit of the pond, I went back up to the fire to check on progress. I found Pablo gingerly brushing ashes off the pork leg, which was out of the pit during one of the periodic coal-fetchings.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, we had an accident,” Ernesto said. “The leg rolled off during our maneuver.” He considered the pork thoughtfully, and added, “It was the sacramental anointing of the ashes.”

The big dogs, exhausted, lay in the cool shade by the shelter and fell asleep. Fishless, Andrea collected greens from Fred’s fall garden and snipped some of his rosemary. She spent the next hours in the kitchen, massaging kale and greens in lemon juice, then adding chopped apple and pomegranate seeds for salad; sautéing apples and onions for a compote; peeling potatoes and seasoning them with rosemary for roasting in the oven. Holli’s husband, Bobby, hung around the kitchen, no doubt wondering if he would ever be able to eat dinner and go home.

“Rosemary is my favorite herb,” Andrea told us. “It helps improve memory.”

“Really? One of my mom’s caregivers suggested that I get her a rosemary plant,” Bobby said.

“Now that’s what I call an excellent caregiver,” I said, but Bobby said she wasn’t around anymore, because he had fired the company she worked for and found a different one.

The rosemary potatoes went into the oven, and I put together a corn and cheddar casserole that was very similar to a macaroni and cheese only with corn instead of macaroni. Pablo came in periodically to instruct us on how to prepare tostones—twice-fried slices of green plantain, which between the first and second frying are smashed into round discs.

We joked that the meat might not be done until midnight (or possibly breakfast), but it came into the house around 6:30, and it was lovely. Pablo and Ernesto removed the charred and somewhat battered skin, regretting its loss. By the time the table was set and the side dishes assembled, it was ready to serve.

Holli donated her fluffy pink Jell-O salad, which had gone mostly untouched on Thanksgiving Day because it was forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

We ate.

Afterwards, when the dishes were washed and the leftovers put away and the fluffy pink Jell-O stuff had been tasted and one or two slices of leftover pumpkin pie were consumed, we toasted the day, Thanksgiving, and each other with sparkling cider that Pablo and Andrea had brought as a hostess gift.

Thank goodness we had eaten a good deal of rosemary, so we can remember it all forever.

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In the book Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the heroine, Flora, is trying to decide what to do with her life. She’s hit a rough patch, and her prospects are bleak. A friend suggests that she start by listing what she likes. Flora says: “Having everything tidy and calm all around me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks….”

I like all those things, too, especially the first couple. And since listing things you like is cheering, I decided to fill out my own list of favorite things. One  of them is the photograph at the head of this post. Yes, hard times do require furious dancing, and these times we are in certainly seem to qualify. My other special likes: happy songs, having plenty of time to think things over, and vintage cookbooks.

Last week I was treated to exactly the type of happy song I love. My co-worker, Breanne, sent me a link to a fine performance of “If My Nose Was Running Money [I’d Blow It All on You].” Breanne said that she first heard that song at her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and since that made it an automatic family tradition, she sang it at her own wedding reception.

Breanne was inspired to share the nose song because I had sent her a link to one of my favorite music videos, and she was so pleased with it that she wanted to give me a song in return. The video is Finnish band Steve ′n′ Seagulls covering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” You would swear those Finnish boys were from right here in North Carolina., especially when you see the guy driving up to the band’s back yard gig on a riding lawn mower while playing the accordion. It is not only a masterful version of the song, it is also visually delightful.

Goodness knows we need all the delight we can get.

Now about that second item on my list—having time to think things over. My most important source of inner peace is having the time and space to meditate at my leisure on life. I can do that a bit in the car on my daily commute, but I find that there is never enough time to fully untangle my mental knots. It’s a shame, because contemplation is key:

To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.

– Rowan Williams, in an address to the Roman Synod of Bishops (2012)

Obviously, if I had all the time I really need to meditate (or sit around with my mouth hanging open—same thing), I would be more honest and loving. It’s not my fault that I’m not.

Silent worship time at the Quaker Friends meeting is my weekly chance to contemplate without fear of interruption. Sometimes I glance idly through the pew Bible, if my own thoughts are unusually dull. I was doing so on a recent Sunday when I came across this verse: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” (Psalm 4:4b, NKJV)

I nearly laughed out loud and spoiled everyone else’s contemplation, because evidently that text is the bedrock, so to speak, of my mother’s spirituality. She enjoys sleeping, and she’s good at it. She arises from sleep reluctantly, and clings to it by recounting her dreams for us (especially the most bizarre ones). Probably I inherited this from her, because even though I am more of a morning person than she is, I love sleep and like to tell about my dreams, too.

My dad would probably agree that Psalm 4:4b belongs on a sampler above Mama’s recliner. A couple of years back we were about to be seated at a restaurant, and the hostess asked if we preferred a booth or a table. “A booth,” Mama said, real quick. Once we got settled in, she said, with great satisfaction, “I’d much rather sit in a booth than at a table.”

Daddy, having stowed her walker somewhere out of the way, heard this as he sat down and said, “Yes, and you’d much rather lay in the bed than sit in a booth.”

Finally, there are few things that make me happier than old cookbooks, especially from small Southern churches or country towns. I love the way they withhold crucial information: the size of the pan needed, the temperature of the oven, or a measurable amount of certain ingredients. And the names of the dishes! Coca-Cola Salad, Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick, Fancy Franks, and (this is true) Potatoes au Rotten. That one’s a classic, because although it’s a version of scalloped potatoes with cheese, it also calls for “a special barbecue sauce that I concoct myself.”  Oh, I see. There’s no possible way anyone else could use that recipe to make Potatoes au Rotten. Thanks for submitting it to Maury O’Dell’s Ask-Your-Neighbor Cookbook, Rufus! For you see, that particular recipe came from the kitchen of Rufus L. Edmisten, former Attorney General and later Secretary of State of North Carolina.

The first thing I look up in an old cookbook is usually cornbread. I have had many varieties of cornbread in my life, but I miss the type of cornbread that my grandmother used to make. It was not crumbly, like Jiffy cornbread, nor was it tall and cakelike. It was nearly flat, with a crispy crust and a dense center. About the closest thing I have found is the Crusty Soft-center Spoonbread recipe from The Joy of Cooking. But it’s not exactly right, either, and I have made it my life’s work to replicate that cornbread. (I did get the recipe from my grandmother some years back, but it has never turned out right for me and she and I never got together to figure out what I was doing wrong before she died.)

Her recipe began with softening biscuits in hot water, then adding cornmeal, salt, and milk. Without getting up and looking, I think that was it. About a year ago I found a recipe in an old cookbook at someone else’s house and jotted it down hastily on a piece of note paper. I gave it the name, “Cornbread Like Grandma’s?” but forgot to write down the name of the cookbook. Anyway, the recipe began with biscuits, which was what gave me hope that it might be the one. I have made it twice now, with slight variations, and it is very close to the cornbread I remember. If I play with the type of oil I use, I may finally have it.

I recently added to my vintage cookbook collection by picking up a copy of Beth Tartan’s North Carolina & Old Salem Cookery. I hoped it might have a cornbread recipe comparable to Grandma’s, but it doesn’t. Still, there is one cornbread variation called Aunt Dealy’s Corn Cakes that I may have to try. It involves combining 2 cups of corn meal, ½ teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of soda, and 1½ cups of buttermilk. (Beth Tartan is very reliable when it comes to measurements.) The instructions read:

Make the stiff batter into round balls—rather small ones—and flatten into cakes about 1/2-inch thick. Have bacon grease or lard deep enough in the pan to run back and forth—but not too deep. Have the pan medium hot.

When the cakes are brown (it will not take long), turn. They should rise and be light and happy.

So should we all.

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Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.


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