March company


Our cat, Cuddles
These monotonous March days, Cuddles, our tortoiseshell cat, spends a good deal of daylight contemplating springtime. When she’s not napping on a chair beneath the kitchen or dining room table, she jumps up on her stool by the kitchen’s sliding-glass door.

I love how she curls her front paws under her chest and ponders the frozen view. She’ll sit for hours without moving a whisker, her beautiful eyes fixed upon our neighbor’s snow-covered woodpile—her hunting ground when the snow melts and the earth thaws.

Sometimes her eyes close as if dreaming of mice. When she spies a passing wing or our chickens downhill strutting in their pen, she swags her tail, slowly. Oh yes, come Spring, birds beware!

Cuddles and her sister, Mittens, now thirty-something in feline years, seldom play inside any longer. I enjoy their sporadic wrestling matches which provoke echoes of my mother’s voice. “You girls fight like cats and dogs!”

Oh, those were the days. Once, when my parents left us alone, one of my sisters dared take Dad’s barber shears from the bathroom to use in the living room. Well, guess whose rear-end landed on the point of those scissors?

As I seemed unharmed by the puncture with no show of blood for evidence, my siblings and I agreed it best to keep the incident our little secret.

All’s I can say is God’s angels worked overtime with the O’Brien girls when Mom and Dad left us alone—which they seldom did. Otherwise, we may have been maimed or fatally wounded ourselves.

Back then in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, I couldn’t imagine keeping myself out of mischief with reading books like “Old Yeller,” “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and the Nancy Drew series. My parents read the newspaper. The neighborhood where we grew up in Warren didn’t provide a local library. Two strikes against developing readers of my sisters and me.

Nonetheless, I sit in my study including dictionaries of three different languages, literary anthologies, “how to write” books such as William Zinzer’s “On Writing Well.”

The top shelf of the bookcase my Uncle Jim built for my mother holds her collection of American and English classics, most I have yet to read.

For they have firm competition for my time. Jane Austen’s “Emma,” for instance, the novel that called my name last week which I have completed midway. Indeed, Austen’s wit and circuitous romances make engaging company in March.

A slow reader, I cannot plow through a book, sometimes reading until my eyes ache. Last night around midnight I read this dialogue, “My good friend, this is quite unnecessary; Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it, and as to Mrs. Bates’s, he may get there from the Crown in a hop, step, and jump.”

Dear Reader, such prose humors me. Written between February 1811 and August 1816 in England, Austen endured several months of March while developing her plots, places, and characters.

All lost on my sweet cat, Cuddles.

Beating the bushes

My darling junipers, after my beating

Well, it took winter long enough to arrive, and let loose when she did. My local library cancelled their “Pride and Prejudice” book talk two consecutive Wednesday nights due to icy roads. Then, somehow, this past Wednesday night, I missed the discussion.

“P&P’, as Jane Austen fans say, first enchanted me in 1967 when Miss Liennemann, my senior year English teacher, included the classic in our syllabus.

I’m eternally grateful for the assignment that influenced my reading and writing life more so than “Kon-Tiki” and “Great Expectations.” I enjoyed Thor Heyerdahl’s adventure on his raft with a team of sailors—and Dickens’ boy, Pip, coming of age in nineteenth-century London. Yet, they don’t call my name as does Jane Austen.

Perhaps it’s due to an investment I made years ago. A fellow reader and writer led me to a collection of antique copies of Austen’s work. I spent every discretionary dollar in my possession to purchase the treasure. Miss Austen’s seven stories in ten volumes rest under a glass dome until she calls my name.

My antique collection of Jane Austen's novels

You’d think wintertime ideal for holding one of Austen’s brittle, faded, green bindings. I did, too. Instead, I’ve been beating bushes.

Literally. That’s what happens when I fail to protect my ornamental junipers and boxwoods from heavy snowfall. The most efficient and merciful relief for shrubs and trees in snow distress is to grip the handle of a sturdy broom. Then trudge through snowdrifts and beat sagging branches laden with snow.

This exercise began with the junipers, two darlings planted beside each other nineteen years ago in my upper, backyard garden. The tall, thin shrub barely reached my knees back then. Now, I cannot touch its top. The other juniper I’ve trimmed into the shape of an umbrella. The two stand as inseparable attractions, no matter the season.

I whacked the broom on the bent branches of the tall juniper, clumps of snow falling on me and the ground as the branches sprang up. Easy-peasy.

The canopy of snow on the other juniper also gladly fell under the beautiful, blue sky. Invigorated, I spied our barrier of evergreens on the west side of the house, braches in the most humbling posture I’ve seen in our thirty-three years on this homestead.

“Take that!” I said and beat the branches with the broom. The boughs sprang up happily.

I bashed all the evergreens within my reach and walked uphill and indoors for a cup of green Earl Grey tea, and chocolate shortbread. Although beating bushes is great fun and exercise, I noticed the bent branches of the tall juniper did not recover upright. I’d have to tie the shrub together before the next snowfall, or risk damaged limbs.

Dear Reader, yesterday, I saw snow in the forecast and at last secured the branches of the skinny shrub. Which means I slept well last night and didn’t have to rescue my darling this morning. that “Emma” calling from under Jane Austen’s glass dome? It’s been too long.

Terms of endearment


The daffodils behind the garage 

This past February 20, between snow and ice storms, a friend emailed, “My narcissus are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            Amused by her sentiment, and happy to oblige a truthful report, I replied, “And my daffies are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            For I keep a patch of yellow daffodils behind the garage for this very purpose. Within view from the kitchen’s sliding glass door, they snuggle the garage and pea gravel border of our backyard patio. Often before the snow melts, their shoots drill through the soil to my applause.

My dependable showoffs, the daffies think they’re in the Mediterranean and usually bloom for my first Lenten bouquet. I’ll sometimes cut a magnolia branch and include it with the daffodils in a vase indoors and force the buds to open.

White Helleborus bloom, now covered with the last snowfall.

Although my Helleborus bloom first in winter, their short stems and white flowers seem too shy and matronly to consider them “little stinkers.” There’s not a narcissistic gene in the Helleborus. 

Indeed, Nancy, a fellow writer and gardener, revived in her email the endearment I used for my three girls while changing their diapers. Cloth diapers. Although Pampers appeared on the market in 1961, most young mothers of my means considered disposable diapers a luxury—and pun intended, a waste of money.

From the moment our third-born and baby could walk, she spontaneously performed fashion shows for every guest who entered our front door. Between wardrobe changes, she appeared in her diaper to the provocation of a unanimous, “What a little stinker!”

Today, she remains our family’s fashionista, her shoe and clothes closet the size of a small boutique.

As my children grew, I cheered them on in their passion to cross the finish line first, jump the highest pole vault, achieve academic awards, star as lead roles in high school plays, and design the latest fashion.

In a recent phone call from California, my second daughter used, “the stinker,” in reference to her eighteen-year-old son. I remembered my eighteenth year, the awkward and unprepared passage into the age of accountability and sensibility.

I remembered my daughter’s eighteenth year away at Alma College, responsible beyond her years.

Lastly, I considered my grandson, a young man taking his studies seriously as a student of Wayne State University, adapting well as a transplant into a different culture and city scape. Like narcissus, he’s driven to be first.

Now, being the second born of five daughters, striving for first place never crossed my mind. However, I achieved the highest score in cheerleading tryouts between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. One of the judges volunteered the information, otherwise I would’ve never known.

Oh, and in 2013 my lavender farm received the Keep Michigan Beautiful Award for my “outstanding contribution to beautification.”

Dear Reader, nonetheless, a good friend claims I’m “a stinker” whenever I tease her about working every job but prostitution to support her domestic hobbies and charitable donations.

I take it as a term of endearment.   

Hummingbird Cake History


Hummingbird gift from a friend

Everything holds a history, particularly delicious desserts. Take pie, for example, spelled “pye” in medieval England. Remember the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”? Indeed, at one time in British culture, live birds flew from pies in surprise entertainment for children at suppertime.

            Not as wildly exciting, but wonderful nonetheless, I remember my mother standing before the kitchen counter forming perfect balls of dough with her hands. The synchronized sound of her rolling pin on the countertop often roused expectation of relatives for dinner.

There was no such thing as one pie for dessert in Mom’s kitchen.

            Although famous for her flaky piecrusts, Mom also baked spice cakes and iced them in peaks of seafoam frosting. Her chocolate and banana-nut layer cakes with smooth, buttercream frosting also developed a palate for culinary excellence.

            Mom’s cookbooks I inherited also prove these favorites merely scratch the surface of the pastries she served her family, neighbors, and relatives.

            Considering this heritage, when my friend Marilyn gifted me a darling glass hummingbird last January, I hung the yellow-winged trinket below a kitchen cabinet for cheerful company. To my delight, on rare sunny days, the hummingbird’s yellow head and green beak cast sunbeams while I cook and clean.

            One recent day, while pondering what pastry to serve Marilyn and our fellow tea friend, Anne, for our February gathering, I recalled someone raving about the Hummingbird Cake.

Yes! That’s the perfect dessert to serve, I decided, and consulted my “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook, Mom’s “Pillsbury” cookbook, and Volume I and II of “The Gourmet Cookbook.”

Not one Hummingbird Cake recipe.

Surprisingly, my more modern Southern cookbooks do not include the recipe, either.

Reluctantly, I visited the Web and found a plethora of Hummingbird Cake recipes with common ingredients. Furthermore, I learned this supposedly world-famous cake is a Jamaican dessert introduced in the 1960s by the Jamaican Tourist Board.

This explains why Mom never baked a Hummingbird Cake, and why the recipe does not appear in cookbooks published in the 1960s.

Known in Jamaica as their “Dr. Bird Cake”, so named after their national bird, the hummingbird, they use their local pineapple, bananas, and spices to stimulate their tourist industry.  

The pliable recipe settled into the U.S. South, the likes of “Southern Living” magazine and Paula Deen creating their version once they got hold of the Jamaican recipe. This explains the recent, rapid growth of the cake in contemporary accounts of American cooking, and then the world’s.

Consuming generous amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, the dense, moist cake smothered in cream cheese frosting and heavily garnished with toasted pecans, we cleaned our plates.   

            Dear Reader, although there is no such thing as one kind of cake or pie on my table, I’m certain the Hummingbird Cake is destined to return.

            Oh, and the sherry glass filled to the brim with dark chocolate ganache, with the pot of steamy Earl Gray tea, completed our culinary experience entirely. And the ladies took plenty cake home.

Hummingbird Cake (350 degrees)

3 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon each nutmeg and ginger

½ teaspoon salt

3 eggs

2 cups mashed very ripe bananas

8 oz. cup crushed pineapple

¾ cup vegetable, or olive, or coconut oil

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

2 cups toasted pecans


8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups powdered sugar

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

1-2 tablespoons milk

·         Toast 2 cups pecans in oven. Grease and flour 2 round baking pans or bundt pan: place 1 cup pecans in bottom of pan(s)

·         Blend flour with dry ingredients; add wet ingredients, pour into pan(s)

·         Bake for one hour or until cake is dry with toothpick test; cool cake for two hours

·         Meanwhile, whip cream cheese with remaining ingredients for frosting. Pour over cake and sprinkle with remaining coarsely chopped pecans


My somewhat agrarian life

My granny along the banks of Peter Creek, Kentucky

 Crows call my focus to the treetops—a sign my saunter interrupted their feast of prey. Within a few steps, I find a dead rabbit in my path.

I occasionally encounter this sad sight on my walks, the automobile’s intrusion of the natural world’s cycle of capture, kill, consume. My consolation is the animal was spared a slow, torturous death by carnivorous birds.

And the yapping crows aren’t happy to be deprived their pickings and demand their free meal.

The rabbit’s lifeless, dark eyes look up to me as I take it by a foot and throw it into the hedgerow. I don’t want other vehicles running it over.

Do the crows thank me for serving their breakfast? Well, I don’t know crow-talk, however, those brass, black birds sound like they’re mocking me. But I don’t hold it against them. This is a broken world, and I’m broken, too.

That’s why I walk alone. To converse with my merciful Lord.

 I resume my walk under the fair, blue sky and remember the first spring in our new country home. Our three teenagers gathered by the bedroom window facing west. A hideous, inhuman scream came from the tree line along the road. Never had we heard anything so dreadful.

Later, a neighbor informed me the sound was that of a rabbit in the claws and jaws of a predator. I hoped and prayed my family and I would never hear that scream again. Thank God, we haven’t to this day.

As I turned and walked uphill, our first year in Addison Township flashed before me. Calling upon the fortitude of my Scots Irish German ancestors, I began building our slightly self-sufficient and sustainable homestead.

Homegrown food in the refrigerator, freezer, and canned in the pantry, for instance, like my granny did with her garden and hens. She gathered eggs and butchered meat birds for her delicious fried chicken.

I began our little farm with flowers and tomatoes, and soon learned rabbits are the gardener’s number one foil. For they nibbled my chicken wire guards, yielding a half-empty freezer and pantry to depress the woman who planted enough seeds and seedlings to feed her family and neighbors.

That’s why Granny built a strong fence around her garden, tall enough to discourage local men who drank too much at Beulah’s place from pulling up her tomatoes and corn again.

A dairy farmer, Great granny Hunt birthed ten children, one of whom she named Ollie, my granny. Great granny hitched her team of mules to her milk wagon and loaded it with crates of eggs, milk, and butter. She sold her farm products along Peter Creek, Granny’s small mercantile included.

Fourth generation McCoy-Hunt from Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, my somewhat agrarian life is a mere remnant of my matriarchs’.

Dear Reader, I’m satisfied with growing garlic, asparagus, raspberries, rhubarb, lavender, peaches, pears, and apples. And gathering half a dozen eggs.

Yet, come spring, I’ll plant again tomatoes, greasy beans, and collard greens in hopes to fill my freezer and pantry.