Not a Modern Man

Uncle Herm and me at his home in the McCoy Bottom summer 2015
Uncle Herm’s phone number hasn’t changed in sixty-some years. The ten digits are rooted in my childhood. Should I ever forget them, the end of my productive life is nigh.
Until a decade ago, his phone number first connected me to Aunt Dean, his beloved wife. It seemed he felt awkward talking to a phone. Of Mom’s five daughters, I was my aunt and uncle’s “pick”, the term Southerners use for their favorite people, places, and things.
According to Uncle Herm’s account, this affection began the night of my nativity. As he rounded the mountain on foot in pitch dark after courting Aunt Dean, he saw lights in our homeplace.
“That was dif’ernt,” he said. “I hurried on down the runoff.”
Dad backed the car out of the garage. Uncle Herm opened the door for Mom.
“Get in the backseat, Herm,” Dad said.
They waited in the Matewan Hospital until the doctor announced, “Mr. O’Brien, you have another daughter. Your wife is resting well.”
I dial Uncle Herm and regret again the loss of my hardwired landline to WIFI. I listen for his voice—my anchor to the world I once knew.
I sing “Happy Birthday to You” with all my heart.
He’s silent.
“Do you know who this is, Uncle Herm?”
“It’s Arus.”
Music to my ears.
“I’m 88 yurs old. The doctor says I’ll make it to a hunderd.”
His fellow senior center cronies tipped him off about the doctor asking him to count back from twenty to one.
“I practiced and didn’t miss a number. But I couldn’t remember what the doctor asked me to remember before I counted backwards. He said I did good.”
As usual, my uncle recalls the past. “Grandpa Lark made a mistake when he sold the land across the creek to Uncle Frank. He and his boys made moonshine. Once Daddy helped Uncle Frank make a run. Mommy said ‘Now you can’t do that, Floyd.’”
He recalls the wormy chestnut his daddy and Grandpa Hunt cut down to build his mommy’s church. “A thousand feet of board timber cost $12 to mill.”
The last patriarch with accurate memory, Herman Glen McCoy lists the names and dates of the children his parents begot. The most grievous of all stories are the deaths of two babies who preceded his birth, his sister Sarah Jane’s death, and the mining accident that crippled his father in 1933.
“Daddy helped put Uncle Doc through dental school.”
“He paid for his brother’s degree while raising a family?” I ask in wonder.
“No huney, that was before Mommy and Daddy was married. Daddy was almost twenty years older than Mommy.”
Long and short memory in tact, he tells me that he replaced the back and front brakes on his daughter’s car this week.
Dear Reader, with each conversation, my uncle imparts a portion of his resilience to my spirit. I determine again to sustain my old phone number—to write until I cannot remember how to count from twenty to one.
At heart, I am not a modern woman.                     

Our French Christmas

Our daughter Kelly and the Jouet's dog, Fifi, 1995
We met the Jouet sisters and their father in early May 1995. They hosted Kelly, our middle daughter, while a student of the Alliance Francaise in Paris.                

The spring of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Kelly met us at the Paris train station. A dream come true. Commuters carried home boughs of nodding lilacs. A gardener, I thought it a lovely tradition. 
Kelly relayed some sad news. “Mr. Jouet is in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment. He would like us to visit him before you leave.”
She led us to the Jouet’s door located in a small hamlet outside the city. Marie-Aline and Fifi, the family’s German shepherd, welcomed us. 
“Would you like something to eat?” Marie-Aline said in beautiful English. The kitchen fascinated me. The stove’s large, hospitable size seemed eager for company. At their table I learned a few French foodways: they kept baguettes in a basket, and spooned black currant preserves and Nutella on their bread.
Marie-Aline offered a tour of the house. The spacious living room accommodated meetings for a local Christian youth group. Yes, the Jouet’s home bore the marks of charity. I thanked God they gave Kelly safe harbor while studying their language and history.
We deposited our suitcases in a room with private bath and bidet before Marie-Aline and Fifi led us to their gardens. I coveted their red climbing rose blooming on a terrace.

Iris, Kelly, Mel, the Jouet's house guests outside Paris

Later, Aurelie, Marie-Aline’s older sister, returned from work. We partook in the French’s 9 p.m. dinner hour. They spoke of their concern for their father’s health.
The next day while Kelly was in class, we learned the Parisian habit of sunning your face beside the circular basin in Luxemburg Gardens. We later met her by the garden’s Statue of Liberty to gladly learn the difference between a patisserie and a boulangerie. 
           In the course of the week, our two capable hostesses confided their grievous estrangement from their mother and younger sister. Before we left their home and Paris, we visited Mr. Jouet, a remarkable scientist and inventor who supported his daughters with affection and trust. He succumbed to cancer within six months.
           Several years later, imagine my glad surprise when Kelly relayed a call from Marie-Aline with wonderful news. The Jouet sisters and their mother had reconciled and would love to celebrate Christmas with us in our home.
           What joy! But would they find our little place comfortable, and contentment in our quiet village of Romeo? Would they enjoy my southern-northern American table?
Begin with baguettes, Nutella, and yogurt, Kelly recommended. I built my menus on that foundation.

As the Jouets did us, we welcomed them as family. Mere years after our firstborn’s death, laughter and conversation filled our Christmas with charming French accents. The lone man, my husband reveled in his French-American harem and double batches of homemade Christmas cookies.
We drove our two clans to Detroit for the Jouets to taste Greek Town. I observed the affection of the older sisters toward their younger. What a blessed gift to partake in the restoration of a family.
According to the Jouet’s tradition, we exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. They sang their favorite French carols before Marie-Aline suggested we go caroling. Kelly thought festive Tilson Street in Romeo might welcome carolers.
My two daughters, the three French sisters, and I bundled up to sing Christmas joy to perfect strangers. From house to house, our songs carried our hope for peace to all the Earth.
Dear Reader, a man who understood the dynamics of cause and effect, I believe Mr. Jouet would’ve joined us in this substantial proof of the Virgin’s birth.  From what I understand, he too participated in large doses of Christian tradition.


To Sit on Santa's Knee

I sit on Santa's knee in the Detroit Institute of Arts December 1 on Noel Night
My volunteer badge clipped to my red sweater, I stand inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. A reindeer headband accents my holiday cheer. I’m happy to oblige when asked to take tickets for pictures with Santa. As a youngster, I believed in Santa Claus with all my heart.
A sense of expectation swells in the queue of parents and children as Santa poses in his chair for a camera check. Oh the joy of Noel Night in downtown Detroit!
Impeccably dressed in his red and white suit and bearded with his own whiskers, he utters not one “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The twinkle in his eyes says it all. This Santa embodies how I imagine the real Saint Nicholas.
           I recall my dad on Christmas Eve. Ever the prankster, he would point to the darkness outside our living room’s window. “Look! Up there, over the Rivard’s house. There’s Rudolf’s red nose! Listen to Santa’s sleigh bells!”
I’d stand still as a statue and strain my eyes and ears. Year after year, never did I doubt Dad told the truth. After all, I believed in Jesus without seeing Him.
Santa’s cameraman motions thumbs up. I collect tickets and drop them into a box. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas!” guests reply.
I believed Santa, Mrs. Claus, and their elves lived in the North Pole—a place like Heaven. Even when Santa didn’t eat all our cookies and drink the milk we left, I believed in his eternal return Christmas Eve.
Until my ninth year.
That summer while at play, a cousin my age leaned close. “Your mommy wrote my mommy a letter and said she’s pregnant, that she’s always pregnant.”
Unawares, my cousin taught me a new word. By summer’s end, my childhood innocence unraveled entirely. I knew where babies came from and Santa no longer existed.
As the line for Santa thins, I observe his gentleness with the children, teens, and adults. It’s odd. I can’t remember sitting on Santa’s knee as a child. Did I ever tell him what I wanted for Christmas? Miraculously, he always left the desire of my heart under our tree.
Santa looks across the spacious hall and catches my eye. He waves a gloved hand and points to his knee.
I shake my head and point to the ticket box.
“Iris, I’ll take tickets if you’d like a picture with Santa,” my volunteer director says.
Santa waves again.
In a moment of unexpected fulfillment, I sit on Santa’s knee.
“What’s your name?”
We pose for our picture.
“What would you like for Christmas, Iris?”
This Santa is serious about his assignment. I consider what I want most in the whole world. “It’s a hard request, Santa.”
“Go for it.”
Eye to eye, I spoke it.
He sighed. “I don’t have power to do that.”
I nodded. “But you can pray.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Merry Christmas, Iris.”

Dear Reader, I believe in the first Noel Night with all my heart. God with us. Hope of His world.

Pecan Sandie DNA

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies
They’re the epitome of shortbread. Mom called them Pecan Sandies. Every blessed Christmastime, she’d form the dry dough into small balls and bake them, the buttery scent wafting throughout the house. Then she’d roll the warm cookies in powdered sugar.
     A clueless kid, I munched on our decorated sugar cookies and washed them down with milk. A sophisticated baker, Mom bit into a Pecan Sandie that crumbled in her coffee. I can still see the ecstasy on her face.
     Southerners love their butter, pecans, and coffee.
     They’re not the only tribe who claims these foods as old molecules in their DNA. There are Russian Tea Cakes, Swedish Tea Cakes, and Mexican Wedding Cakes—cousins of the Pecan Sandie clan.
     After 48 Christmas seasons rolling crumbly dough between my hands, I understand. Who could resist naming this simple, exquisite pastry as their own?
     I’m not a Pecan Sandie historian, but I hazard a guess Mom’s recipe is an inherited variation of Scottish shortbread. After all, Mary, Queen of Scots, is attributed to popularizing “the biscuit” in her homeland—a sweet legacy from a bitter life.
     A much happier history, my Great-Granny Annie Chapman Hunt raised dairy cattle. She churned cream into butter then pressed it into molds. She hitched a mule to a wagon and drove to the nearest mining camps in eastern Kentucky to sell her merchandise.
     “I felt real big when Granny let me help her with her butter molds,” Mom said in her last years with us. “We never went hungry, even in the Depression.”
     I imagine Great-granny would’ve had plenty butter available to bake shortbread during long, frigid winters. Every Nineteenth Century Southern cook kept flour in her barrel for biscuits. All great-granny needed was salt and sugar to make shortbread. Nothing fancy for one of the delicate confections on the planet.
     My mother wasn’t sure she approved when I first offered her a Pecan Sandie with mini chocolate chips. She stood by her ingredients with a fixed lower lip.
     Decades later, I developed another new food molecule with one tablespoon of culinary lavender speckled throughout the dough. I promise you, if Mom could’ve smelled the aroma of baking butter, lavender, and chocolate she would’ve jigged for a taste.
     I recently baked a double batch of Pecan Sandies for my herb group’s cookie exchange at Seven Ponds Nature Center. I carried my contribution in the white vintage pail my mother gifted me twenty-five years ago. We celebrated an Appalachian Christmas with her that December.
     Dear Reader, I miss my mother sorely at Yuletide. I believe her Scots/German genetics would’ve eventually developed a new Pecan, Chocolate, Lavender Sandie molecule.
     The epitome of shortbread.

Chocolate Lavender Pecan Sandies

Blend: 1-cup butter with ½ cup powdered sugar; add 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Add to mixture: 1 ½ cups flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ cup chopped pecans, ½ cup chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate), and 1 tablespoon culinary lavender.

Bake for 12 minutes at 400 degrees on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Roll warm in powdered sugar. Cool thoroughly before storing. Yield: 2 ½ dozen.

The Black & White Season

Echinacea seed head with bonnet of snow
The first snowfall thrills my soul. Growing season behind, Nature hides what garden work I’ve left undone under a vast, peaceful blanket. Pure. White. Cold.
                  Should the first snow come after nightfall, I wake to a landscape erased of debris, a most glorious vision to behold. My shoulders relax. One of winter’s many benefits.
                  “Rest and read,” says the land.
                  First, I must make my tracks in the virgin stillness. “I’ll the do hen chores this morning,” I tell my husband.
                  It’s entirely selfish. To hold warm eggs in my hands on a frigid morning is a celebration impossible on hot summer days.
                  Food. Those little hens produce nourishment with such little effort on our part. Nothing like a fresh brood.
                  Deer tracks zigzag across my black and white path uphill. Surfeited by countless shades of primary colors for months, the landscape’s austerity pleases my eyes. Swaths of snow cling to bark like gauze. The patches won’t last long. November is mercurial. I’m old enough to know.
                  “Look up,” cries a jay.
                  I stop. My jaw falls open as his blue feathers fly from the architecture of bare branches.
                  These monochromatic designs remind me of Chinese art I studied briefly in a college art class. I kept the overpriced textbook titled Art Past and Present. It’s helpful to recall what I learned and promptly forgot twenty-four years ago.
                  On this steel gray morning, what I see is darkness and lightness of a single color, what artists call “value.” The low value, darkness, changes to high value, lightness, depending upon atmospheric conditions, such as humidity and sun exposure.
                  From a distance, the trees stand sleek and black, the branches filigree against white. Below, in a garden to the right, three small iron urns appear black holding snow mushrooms.
                  Climbing the steps, the black stem and seed head of a spent Echinacea bloom catches my eye. Layers of ice crystals balance high atop the thistle globe like French women wore their coiffeurs in the Eighteenth Century. Now a few yards away, the three urns reveal their natural rusty color. The closer, the higher and lighter the value.
                  Value, an interesting word with a double meaning. This little plot of land holds a great deal of value for my husband and me. It’s much more than what the real estate is worth. This is our home, where we hope live our last days sowing seed and collecting eggs.
                  When many of our peers are selling their large homes to downsize, we’re planning another fresh coat of paint for the interior of our little house.  
                  It seems this is the winter for choosing paint colors. We’ve had enough of the old low, dark values the past decade or so. Lightness with white ceilings is what we’d like to try again.
                  Now, dear Reader, it’s time to settle into my reading chair before I begin moving furniture this week.
                  I’m drawn to the values of black ink on a white page.

What Our Bones Carry

Stretching my back at 8 months pregnant with my firstborn, November 1970

As you know not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of God who makes all. Ecclesiastes 11:5

November 1956, my father brought home a movie camera. He filmed Mom’s expanded belly wherein our new baby developed unbeknownst to my two sisters and me. Wearing a generous blouse, our mother stood on a ladder and hung tinsel and ornaments on our Christmas tree.
           According to Dad’s directions, the following February Mom walked through our front door in her black furry coat. Dad followed with a bundle of baby blankets in his arms. To our amazement, he sat on the sofa and unwrapped his fourth daughter before his camera propped on a tripod.
Then Mom passed our baby around to my sisters and me, and then to Aunt Goldie who helped Mom care for us. We each posed with baby Patty in our arms, smiling into Dad’s camera lights.
           There was no end to our happiness. We gathered by Mom’s elbows as she bathed Patty in the kitchen sink. When our baby outgrew the sink, Mom carried her to the bathtub. Dad followed with his camera. We followed Dad.
           Month by month, Patty’s bones grew before our eyes as we beheld the miracle of our parents’ love without understanding the fruit of its spirit. We cheered when Patty walked at 8 ½ months. We laughed when she licked buttercream frosting from her chubby fingers. How we loved birthday cakes and ice cream!
Then, like a thief, sorrow came swiftly the summer of 1958. I didn’t know why our parents left my sisters and me with relatives those days and nights while on vacation in Kentucky. We didn’t know Mom and Dad cried in Williamson Hospital. Afterward, Dad drove us home to Michigan as if nothing tragic happened.
My mother presented Dad with their last healthy and beautiful daughter in 1961. Six years later their marriage succumbed to grief and regret smothered by my father’s alcoholism and abuse.
November 25, 1970, my husband drove me from Rosebush to Mt. Pleasant hospital. Two days later, I held our firstborn in my arms, sunlight shining through our Mustang's windshield and upon our daughter’s face. Later, my mother carried a belated Thanksgiving dinner into our doublewide to celebrate the birth of her second grandchild.
To Mom’s delight, two healthy and darling Underwood granddaughters followed. Like my dad, I took movie pictures of their growth.
In the fulfillment of old age, years after my firstborn’s death, Mom breached one of her many secrets. “I miscarried our only son. I felt like I’d let Warren down.”
In context of this history, perennial questions returned this November. Knowing the genetics she carried within her bones, what secret darkness persuaded my daughter to take her first drag of marijuana? Why didn’t the bones that grew within her womb grant her grace to walk away from alcohol and cocaine? Where did the coroner dispose of my grandchild's bones?
Dear Reader, I confide this double sorrow, again resolve to rest these questions in God’s hands, for no one escapes suffering. We do not know the works of God who makes all.
Yet, our Savior wipes our tears and waits beyond the grave. In Him, there is no end to our happiness.