Brewer Centennial Farm, Addison Township, Michigan

A sunny January morning calls me outside. I take a ski pole and navigate our icy driveway. There, in my perennial island, a poor Hellebore whimpers for help.  

     I inspect the damage.

     “Deer,” she says.

     “I’ll be back,” I promise.

     The sun’s melted the ice from our grated roads, so I round my first corner onto Townsend without a slip. The grumpy old man who lives in the bark of Mother Oak’s ancient edifice, scowls as I pass by. Truly, he should be glad that magnificent tree gives him refuge.

     Birdsong urges me onward. I wish again for better birding ID skills.

     Now, by no means does my handicap affect the bliss of rambling country roads. To see a wing in the air on a mild, January day catches my breath.

     Then a jay spats and swaggers.

     Jays, crows, redwing blackbirds, and mourning doves include the extent of my birdcall repertoire. They’ve befriended my gardens and fen by the compost bin, offering opportunity to observe and learn their distinct songs and physical features.

     However, the flighty and fast sparrow, finch, swallow, warbler, and wren clans (among others) elude me. They prefer distant and spacious places to feed, nest, and sing that don’t allow intimate acquaintance.

     Birdcalls attend me downhill where wings scout my second crossroad where the historic Brewer Homestead stands.

     Horses graze in an apple orchard on land purchased by farmers who left New York in the Nineteenth Century. They sought unbroken soil bordered by woodlands and waterways teeming with wildlife.

     As the deer pants for Stony Creek coursing her crooked route around and under former cow paths, so do the birds and I. Sometimes when approaching the Brewer bridge, I forget to anticipate flushing a nervous duck from the reeds.

     Since I’m no better at duck ID, I cannot say if it’s a mallard, black duck, or another common visitor I often startle from its foraging to sudden flight and quacking.

     This morning, however, the current rolls along in peace. Perhaps ducks aren’t out and about in January.

     I admire the two beautifully restored Brewer Centennial Barns. Happy to have all their windows intact, boards upright, and gates attached, the barns smile, speak of longevity within their community settled by fellow New York agrarians.

     The Brewer, Townsend, and Yule barns of Addison Township still stand in service—productive, resilient illustrations of mankind’s affection for and devotion to husbandry.

     I saunter along Stony Creek where rapids fall over manmade rock dams, perhaps once native footpaths crossing the stream.

     Fallen snow-capped logs span the water, many rotted with fertile bellies sprouting seeds and growing all manner of living things. Red dogwood branches reach for the sky this bright morning.

     Dear Reader, the winged and rooted things call my name. “Trust in the Lord,” they say. “For you shall be like a tree planted by the waters.”

     This I believe, for the Lord is my faithful Husbandman. He taught me to care for distraught Hellebores. And befriend grumpy old men in trees.

Janis Grant, proprietor of ReLiteration Bookstore in Almont, Michigan
Field trip: a visit to a place (such as a museum) made by students to learn about something. Webster Dictionary

Just when I thought life couldn’t be any better than Hobo Pies and S’mores, Mrs. Bradley took my Brownie troop to a ballet.

We followed her inside Ford Auditorium downtown on the Detroit River and sat toward the back. I gawked at the grand, high ceiling and hundreds of cushioned seats about half full of people all dressed up.

An empty stage lay a distance in front. A ballet had to be a wonderful thing for all these people to show up and watch. My fellow Brownies and I asked Mrs. Bradley, “When does it begin?”

She smiled. “Soon.” Nothing ruffled our leader.

Lights dimmed. Voices hushed. Slow, soft music began and swelled in volume from some invisible place. My skin tingled like it did when Dad played his Rhapsody in Blue album.

Dreamlike, ballerinas wearing fluffy skirts danced onto the stage—on their toes!

They all moved the same way at the same time like someone was pulling a cord attached to their legs, arms, and heads. They turned, leaped, and twirled together to the music, their thin, white arms like graceful waves.

When the ballet ended, the audience stood for long applause while the ballerinas bowed.

“Time to go,” Mrs. Bradley said.

I learned about the orchestra pit that fecundate visit to Ford Auditorium. I thought pit the wrong word for such an elegant thing and experience.

Sixty-plus years later, when cloudy days dominate January, or the world’s become too complicated, or I’m on the hunt for a rare book (or all three), I remember Mrs. Bradley and my first field trip.

In her spirit of adventure and appreciation of the fine arts, I drove to Almont last Friday. There, I met Janis Grant, proprietor of ReLiteration Bookstore.

Now, something like you’d find in a Dickens novel, Janis’s bookstore is a destination Mrs. Bradley would’ve approved for our Brownie troop.

Although Janis didn’t have The Russians by Richardson Wright in her Russia section, in good time she added my total for three books: Lord and Peasant in Russia, Beloved Friend, the story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda VonMeck, and An Einstein Encyclopedia.

“I can’t believe I’m buying three books when I have several bags in my car to drop off at my local library,” I said.

Janis looked up from her calculations. “You have books in your car?”

“Seven bags.”

“Oh, I can apply those toward your purchase.” Like a Dickens character, Janis pointed to a room with a chair. “Put them in the middle wherever you can find space.”

On my attempt to exit for my books, displayed to the left side of the door, Great American Speeches snagged me. I handed the book to Janis. “Please add this.”

Dear Reader, I didn’t last long as a Brownie Scout for lack of transportation to meetings.

But oh, how Mrs. Bradley influenced my life with her field trip to the ballet.


The Floyd and Ollie Jane McCoy farm located along Peter Creek, Kentucky, circa 1945

My husband woke with pancakes on his mind this morning.

“Thinking of Gram again?” I asked.

He grinned like a boy. “She fed us grandkids pancakes with bottles of Log Cabin syrup every summer.”

Bessie and Milton Underwood owned and operated the Presque Isle Lodge north of Alpena from 1946 to 1975. Mel grew into a hungry man on Gram’s pancake breakfasts and whitefish dinners.

On the other hand, my maternal granny fed my sisters and me buttermilk biscuits smothered in sausage gravy in Phelps, Kentucky. She topped off breakfast with fried apples on buttered biscuits. For dinner, she set before us fried chicken, homegrown green beans, and mashed potatoes.

Although she must’ve, I cannot remember my mother flipping pancakes. My father, an O’Brien, preferred fried eggs, bacon, and potatoes for breakfast.

Therefore, ours is a house where North met South in January 1970. We’ve adapted our diets accordingly. I modified Gram’s lumberman’s flapjack to an oatmeal buttermilk batter with pecans and blueberries, served with pure maple syrup.

This is the recipe I placed before Mel this morning. “Just follow directions,” I said and began my New Year’s goals—a perennial priority January first.

At the top of my list is purging and preserving boxes of stuff we’ve inherited from our children, parents, and in my case, Granny. Add to that drawers of family photos yet to be installed into albums, and I believe we have a winter’s worth of work.

You see, we’ve run out of storage space for my mother-in-law’s turquoise jewelry, and can no longer postpone the reunion of Cabbage Patch babies to their mid-life mothers.

From what I hear, this scenario is common amongst our Viet Nam generation. We possess remarkable family records to protect for posterity—if they’re interested.

For example, I hold my parents’ wedding invitation. A formal note that provides indisputable evidence of young love and hope for a bright future after World War II, it’s a keeper.

My grandfather, James F. McCoy, and his wife, Ollie Jane, extend the welcome. That came as a surprise since all my life I’ve not once heard anyone call my grandfather James. Deceased before my birth, I know Grandpa as Floyd.

This illustrates a family peculiarity and my grandparents’ cordiality within their Appalachian community. I don’t know how the invitation landed in my hands, but I’m glad of it.

Sadie Lee McCoy, my mother

And there’s a small, prenuptial photo of my mother leaning against Dad’s Chrysler, circa 1940’s. Mom strikes a sexy pose, most likely directed by my father, a camera enthusiast, who loved a new automobile almost as much as he did his fiancĂ©.

Dear Reader, a photo of Grandpa Floyd’s hen house and homeplace in the McCoy Bottom catches my eye. A coon dog pants in the foreground. That’s where I lived seventy-one years ago.

I sense the influence of my Scot-Irish-German forefathers and foremothers upon my soul, and am thankful for our six hens. They provide plenty eggs for Mel’s pancakes.

Well fed, I attend to my priorities.   

Home alone Christmases

Our daughter, Becky, Christmas 1972

I didn’t know what to do when Christmas Day first found me alone with my husband. As empty nesters, it wasn’t the least humorous like Hollywood’s Home Alone.

My mother and mother-in law had modeled ideal parents with a houseful of children and grandchildren on Christmas Day. In the succession of generations, I expected to perpetuate into old age their stacks of gifts before the decorated fir, and a table laden with a feast and glowing candles.

How swiftly our parental season passed, driving in Holiday blizzards between Mom’s house in Warren to the Underwood’s in Grand Rapids. There, Grandma and Grandpa Underwood awaited their granddaughters’ arrival.

Grandma Rosie loved to lie down on the living room sofa and play possum when we walked into her house. She began the tradition with Becky, our firstborn. Grandma lured our little girl to open the antique coffee grinder filled with Hershey kisses wrapped in red, green, and silver foil. Then Grandma would sit up and say, “What are you gettin’ into?”

Oh, the laughter!

A young mother full of hope and faith, I trusted such love and affection to build spiritual and emotional bonds within our three daughters, and immunity against lies and deception.

Then, in the mid 70’s, my mother shook our world when she moved to Kentucky and built her dream home. She left four daughters and three grandchildren behind, and took our twelve-year old baby sister with her.

What else could Mel and I do but alternate Christmases between Nana’s in Kentucky and Grandma Rosie’s in Grand Rapids? One Appalachian Christmas, Mom’s grandkids played football in eighty-degree weather.

A brief survey of my family albums reveals the few Christmas dinners my family hosted in our various homes. Mel, our two younger daughters, and I served the most memorable Christmas dinner a few years after Becky’s death in 1996.

The table spread from dining room through living room, Mel and I proclaimed the reconciliation of our marriage derailed by the hardships of our daughter’s substance abuse and burial.

As childbirth is a moment set in time, so was that glorious night serving Chicken in Wine Sauce to my mother, sisters, and their families. Yes, praise God for blessed memory—God’s faithfulness to two grieving parents and siblings.

In our home alone Christmases, Mel and I’ve found solace in what we name our Trip Down Memory Lane. He navigates us by the homes where we raised our children in Metro Detroit.

Charlevoix Street, Clawson. Cherry Hill Apartments, Westland. MacArthur Manor Apartments, Warren. Cummings Street, Berkley. Algonac Street, Detroit.

Sometimes we stray to Lincoln High School where I learned to swim and almost drowned in synchronized swimming productions. Where I first read Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Finally, Mel pulls over before 25708 Wagner Street in Warren where I grew up, where he first met my family.

“Look, your mom’s maple still stands,” he says.

Dear Reader, this is why Jesus came to Earth. To save and comfort the broken hearted.    

Remembering cousin Ronnie

Cousin Ronnie, an obvious Michigan fan

The incoming call triggered my internal alarm. My Kentucky sister doesn’t typically phone during a workday. I assumed sad news.

“Patty, what’s going on?”

“Are you busy?”

“Just making Quiche Lorraine for company. And you?”

“I’m roosterin’ up,” she said.

I envisioned her makeup table covered with lighted mirror and all manner of beauty products and curling irons.

“I have a closing in south Williamson this mornin’, then I’m off to Pikeville,” Patty said.

Her route pops up on memory’s map—the landmarks she’ll pass along Route 23 and Kentucky’s Big Sandy River.

She relays her frustration with expiring curling irons and offers her family’s Christmas logistics.

Then she says, “I have some sad news.”

I think it’s Uncle Tab, our mother’s youngest brother who lives in Lexington, Kentucky. With the pandemic restrictions for senior care residents, I’ve not seen him in two years.

“Did you hear about cousin Ronnie?” Patty asks.


“He passed away yesterday at age eighty-three.”

“Well, I’m sorry for his wife Jenny, but I’m glad I visited Ronnie and Uncle Tab in Florida several winters ago,” I said.

“I forgot about that.”

“I’ll share the details some other time.”

We said our good-byes with cousin Ronnie and the mid-fifties on my mind.

Dad drove to Peter Creek, Kentucky, and brought sixteen-year old Edgil Ronnie and his pitching arm to our home on Yacama Street in Detroit.

Cousin Ronnie threw a mean fastball backed up with his curveball and made the Philadelphia Phillie's farm team. Mom packed her favorite nephew man-sized lunches with a thermos of sweet tea for the ball field.

She kept my two sisters and me quiet on his days off from ball practice so cousin Ronnie could sleep in.

“The boy has growin’ to do,” Mom said.

One sunny day, cousin Ronnie took my hand for a walk. I heard change jingling in his pocket. We turned the corner onto Seven Mile Road where he held the door open to Brown's Creamery.

I spun on the stool for the first time and ordered chocolate malt.

Sixty-some years later, I visited Uncle Tab, cousin Ronnie, and their wives in their Florida homes. Cousin Ronnie and I walked their neighborhood together.

"Your mommy would give me her loose change,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “’Take Iris and treat yourselves to an ice cream,' she’d say.”

Mom did the same for my older and younger sister until cousin Ronnie blew out his pitching arm and the Phillies coach sent him home.

I pined when Dad drove Cousin Ronnie back to Peter Creek. Mom did too.

Two Februarys later, Mom and Dad brought Patty home from the hospital to Joann Street in Detroit.

Dear Reader, the Christmas before, our father bought his first movie camera and lights. Although we have no film of cousin Ronnie’s fastball backed up by a curveball, my sisters and I have hours of Baby Patty drooling and taking her first steps before Dad’s bright lights.

The predecessor to Patty’s makeup mirror?