2020 Vision

Sources of inspiration 
Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. Habakkuk 2:2

Sometime between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, I remove my annual list of goals from the inside of my desk door. I review two categories, Personal and Professional, and wonder again who suggested this beneficial ritual.
For twenty-some years I’ve attempted to visualize the woman’s face or recall her name. To do so would quell a nagging dread of dementia. I pray my brain is more like my grandmother’s than my mother’s.
Throughout the year, I scan what my goals want to accomplish and gauge my progress, or cross off those no longer viable due to decisions out of my control.
On occasion, I lose interest in a goal, such as practicing my dulcimer. It’s a harsh defeat to write NO next to #3 under the Personal heading of 2019. I adore Sweetheart, hoped I could justify the practice time to master her four strings and make her sing.
However, in January my back rebelled against lifting heavy boxes of books and claimed 2019 as The Year of Sciatica Pain. My first chiropractor visit in my life coincided with my seventieth birthday in February.
They say only a strong mind and spirit overcome sudden and chronic decrepitude, and those nights I collapse at the dinner table and crawl into bed at 8 p.m., I feel nothing like a winner.
Yet, God comforts us where we rest, lifts His cup from the fountain of everlasting joy to our lips. In the midst of another L4 and L5 relapse this past July, my Heavenly Muse whispered the title of my first novella.
Year after year, this is what I want most—to drink from the Lord’s hand and listen to His Muse—to write beautiful and wonderful words of life.
Without my bidding, the Muse came from the little ghost town of my birth, Matewan, West Virginia. She spoke in the voice I’ve come to know and trust, granted me sight to see the story about the folk in the Matewan Garden Club.
Her timing is impeccable for my 2020 vision. After five years’ work, I’ve accomplished #4 in my Professional category for 2019. This means I’ve completed my childhood food memoir titled Milk, Honey & Chocolate Gravy and am seeking an agent for representationMeanwhile, my Muse calls me to Matewan to walk with the characters and learn what they believe, the fears and desires of their hearts.
What do they want most for their precious coal town banked along Peter Creek? What do they suffer and overcome? Who, what opposes their dreams and visions?
Dear Reader, in this second decade of what is no longer a newborn millennium, there’s much goodness, hope, and truth to seek and find. The Muse awaits our ear and hand to submit to her voice.
I encourage you to consider and write what you want most in 2020. Begin with one list, five to ten goals. Post them in a place you frequent. Nurture them with your affection and time throughout the year.
See what you and the Muse can do.    

Fast food, lasting friends

Marilyn (right) and me in the Romeo Cafe three winters ago before she moved to Michigan's west side
In high school, my friend Debbie introduced me to Marilyn in the halls of Lincoln Senior High School, Nine Mile and Federal in Warren. Inseparable, Marilyn’s yellow and brown Fiat offered us an escape during lunch hour to the Golden Arches newly rooted two miles north.
Since my mother couldn’t believe “people paid good money for those cardboard hamburgers,” I’d order the Filet O’ Fish. The wimpy piece of fish and cheese, splat of tartar sauce, and bun satisfied my conscience rather than my appetite.
Nonetheless, I spent my babysitting wages on fast food for the fun, friendship, and independence it bought. We loved the French fries. Seldom did I have enough change for the sandwich too.
Van Dyke Avenue south of Martin Road became Warren’s hotspot Friday nights after football and basketball games. Cars cruised with radios blaring the likes of I Got You Babe and Help Me Rhonda.
However, when it came down to taste and value, I preferred Elias Brother’s Big Boy, the double-decker burger with sauce similar to Mom’s Thousand Island dressing.
Although the restaurant sat one block from school, it may as well have been in Wichita. Our threesome could seldom afford the larger and better burger. McDonald’s knew that.
When I married, Mom’s good food rules governed our family table and allowed few exceptions to homemade. Our budget didn’t include McDonald’s. Nor Big Boy.
I admit, out of the blue, that messy burger still intrudes upon my taste buds. Last Friday night, for instance, when Marilyn came into town for Christmas parties with numerous folk in Romeo, her home for thirty-three years. “Let’s meet in Papa Joe’s parking lot,” she said.
Oh, laying your eyes upon an old friend after a long separation is good medicine for memory recall.
“Get in. I’ll drive,” I said.
“I didn’t bring enough clothes for the weekend. Let’s go shopping at the Rochester outdoor mall first, then eat. What about that Big Boy for old times sake?”
I glanced to the southeast corner of Rochester Road and Tienken. “Believe me, I’d really like to, but it might shock my body.”
After eight o’clock, a young, sweet waitress seated us. Upon Marilyn’s recommendation, I broke Mom’s good food rules and ordered the Big Boy Classic. Well, Mom would’ve approved had she ever tasted one. That’s all it takes.
            “Do you remember when you and Debbie hid in my car in Lincoln’s parking lot at lunch hour and begged me to drive you to McDonald’s?” Marilyn asked.
            I shook my head.
Within the immutable bond between food and friend we reminisced the past fifty-two years and closed the restaurant.
“How was everything?” the manager asked when Marilyn paid the bill.
“The food and service were excellent,” we said.
“Oh yes! My staff is the greatest, all drug free high school students! Look at them sweeping and mopping the floor.”
Dear Reader, on the cusp of 2020, Marilyn and the Big Boy remain the same in this mercurial world. 

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Our Christmas fairy returns!
Yesterday, Mel carried our Christmas tree box upstairs. We paid $75 for our 6 foot fresh Douglas fir, perfect size for our small living room. (My husband calls it the “front” room.)
            “Have we ever paid that price for a tree, even when we chopped them down with the girls?” I asked.
            He’d mentioned earlier that the inflation and unemployment rates are low. I didn’t believe his inflation report for prices rise each time I purchase the same product, with the exception of gasoline and phone service.
            When we built our home thirty years ago, our first propane bill reached $500. The builders didn’t break ground until October. Then they took several weeks off for deer hunting and the Christmas Holidays. We moved in mid-February with the furnace roaring.
            Our first phone bill shocked us at 500 bucks. We hadn’t considered our area code is Oakland County and our two younger girls attended Romeo Schools in Macomb County. Long-distance calls outnumbered the local.
            Thank God that’s long behind us. Consumers Power offered us a supply line, and competitors forced ATT to come to their senses. We sometimes wonder how we made ends meet back then.
            I plugged in my two trusty sets of vintage colored lights and discovered they’d given up the ghost while stored in the basement.
Okay, Plan B: use the surplus white lights I bought last year for my redbud tree and couldn’t use because the limit is 3 sets at 150 bulbs each, a mere 450 twinkle lights for a tree the breadth of twenty feet.
This part I’d forgotten yesterday as I merrily connected five strands to equal 750 bulbs to illuminate our yuletide season. Then began the toughest part of Christmas: unwrapping those ornaments our three little daughters created to hang on our tree, now wanting their blue and hazel eyes.
As Perry Como crooned Silent Night, I heard a click and all but the bottom set of lights went out. Crestfallen, I eventually recalled the 3 set limit and submitted to the dictates of the manufacturer. At last, with 450 twinkling lights, I arranged my favorite ornaments and climbed the steps for bed.
Today, Handel’s Messiah accompanied another repair to the wings of my Christmas fairy; a charming gnome I purchased in the former gift shop in downtown Romeo named Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. The elf is over twenty years old with wings as arthritic as my back.
Tomorrow, I’ll dangle the pixie from the dining room chandelier to fly toward the ceramic Nativity my mother-in-law crafted for me when newlywed. In successive years, she added pieces until she completed the manger scene with donkey, cow, and sheep.
In all the Christmases of yesteryears, no one poured herself into decorating and giving to her children and grandchildren as my mother-in-law and mother.
Dear Reader, as a young mother, I couldn’t foresee a Christmas tree forlorn for children and grandchildren tearing open packages.
Praise God for the Nativity. Jesus, our salvation, hope, and joy. 
Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Gift of the baby robin

Baby robin, photo by Melanie Dahn
Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than receive.
Acts 20:35

I walked out my door for lunch with a dear friend empty handed. Not even a dozen of our girls’ fresh eggs, a garlic bulb, or jar of strawberry jam. Melanie would’ve opened wide her eyes to any or all of the above, but I hadn’t planned ahead. And it gnawed on me as I drove to Metamora’s White Horse Inn.
     Melanie sat in our usual spot for our annual reunion. “I’ve cleared my afternoon schedule, so no rush,” she said.
     “Good. Me too.”
     There’s no better gift than a girlfriend’s time.
     “I sowed half of my vegetable garden in wildflowers,” Melanie began. “It was beautiful and a lot less work, although we missed the food.”
     I nodded. “Mel and I have talked about laying the vegetable garden fallow next summer, or reducing it, but I don’t know how I can cook without my own vegetables. He can live without squash, but there’s nothing like butternut soup come winter.”
     After the waitress cleared our dishes, Melanie reached a little bag to me and triggered that gnawing feeling. “A little something from my gardens.”
     “Melanie, after all the time I’ve had to prepare you a gift, I didn’t bring you anything, and I feel awful.”
     “Please don’t.” She smiled and waited with anticipation.
     I found a box under crumpled tissue paper and recalled the beautiful greeting cards Melanie had gifted me a year ago, created from photos of the African Safari she and her husband had toured.
     The most remarkable little creature peered at me through the clear plastic lid. I’ve seen enough nested baby robins on our place to know one when I see it. But never had I beheld such a close-up that sharp and detailed. The little gold beak looked like it was smiling, and its black eyelids like sunglasses on a spiked, downy head.
     “Every spring, mother robins lay eggs in the wreath I keep on our front door window. Usually the babies fly away before I have a chance to take a photo. But this time, the baby turned its beak and posed when I shot the picture,” my friend said.
     Then, as wild birds do, the next morning all the babies had flown away.
    “I couldn’t believe the perfect timing,” Melanie said in awe. “If I hadn’t had my camera focused and my finger on the shutter button, I would’ve missed that sweet little face.”
     “This will make an ideal Thanksgiving Day card for my daughter and her family in California,” I said. “Perfect timing, again.”
     “There are more pictures in the box,” Melanie said.
      A luxurious golden moth, and gladiolus, Stargazer Lily, and wildflowers in bloom.
     Dear Reader, they’re all gifts to be given away upon some special occasion, perhaps words of cheer for what ails us, or a turn of thanks, in my case.
     It is more blessed to give than receive.                        

Granny's Fruit Cellar

My granny, Ollie McCoy Smith

“Now, ya’ll stay out of my fruit cellar,” Granny warned my sisters and me each summer vacation. She needn’t worry. We would never turn the doorknob to that dark, spooky place with a small window facing the alley side of the house.
Once, when she opened the door to store her canned tomatoes on shelves, I caught a glimpse of that window, appalled by spiders feeding on bugs.
           Built under the stairs descending the kitchen to the basement, Granny’s fruit cellar also served as a root cellar. But I couldn’t see the “root” side; a mysterious cave hewn into the earth.
           Granny held her root vegetables and cabbages captive in that pit black as night until her dimpled hands rescued them for a meal. But I never witnessed her wide hips enter that formidable den.
           Furthermore, I didn’t understand what Granny meant when she said “root vegetables,” because she harvested onions, potatoes, and carrots after I left Kentucky and returned to school in Michigan. There, Mom only had a fruit cellar.
           Passage into my grandmother’s fruit and root cellar came after her death in March 1997, not a year after I buried my firstborn. A holy moment, I followed Mom down the narrow and spiraling steps to the basement.
           The furnace and Poppy Roy’s miner shower and toilet stood to the left, just as I remembered. And there was the root cellar door on the right.
My mother whispered, “It’s been so long since Mom put up a garden, I have no idea what we’ll find in there.”
I’d slept in my grandparents’ basement bedroom until I married. Then, upon our first visit to Granny and Poppy Roy, she appointed my husband and me to her guest room where she kept her quilts in the closet.
As infants, our three daughters slept in that room with us. How is it possible for a grown granddaughter to understand such love and wealth within one place, from one person, and speak honor and praise due them?
My third grade school picture

I held my breath when Mom opened the door to the scent of dust and fumes of withered potatoes, onions, and cabbages. Sooty cobwebs hung on the window like tattered curtains. Several jars of canned food stood abandoned on the shelves.
“It’s not as bad as I thought,” Mom said.        
We emptied jars worth salvaging and washed them in the kitchen sink. I carried a few keepsakes home.
Several summers ago, anticipating our garden’s harvest, I consulted our farm’s handyman about digging a root cellar along the outside west wall of our house. Although possible, the cost was prohibitive and the location impractical for winter access.
“Why do you want a root cellar?” our handyman asked. “There’s just you and Mel to feed.”
It took some thought to search my heart. “Because my granny had one, and her house burned to the ground a few years ago.”
Dear Reader, sometimes, a granddaughter needs to smell her grandmother’s root vegetables. She needs her granny back.

Soup Season

Homegrown soup and garlic baguette

No one cooked and baked from scratch like my mother—except Granny, who assigned her first child to the wood stove when she was eleven.
           There, Mom mastered biscuits, cornbread, pies, roasts, gravies, stringed beans in pork fat, fried chicken and pork chops, and oxtail soup for her family of eight.
Praise God, I’m one of Mom’s five daughters whom she also fed Southern home cooking. And when I bore her three granddaughters, every summer vacation their Nana invited us to her table to partake in her Kentucky garden.
She stocked her root cellar, freezer, and pantry with the homegrown—poised to consider culinary trends the trade winds blew in.
My children loved their Nana’s pizza crust smothered with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, red and green peppers, and onions. Yet, Mom couldn’t countenance tacos in any form in her kitchen. And we’d never find garlic bread on the table with her spaghetti.
But who could think about tacos and garlic when my mother served a dish of warm apple pie with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on the side?
With this in mind, I called Mom mid December 1981 and informed her of my diagnosis of advanced endometriosis. “Can you come and stay with Mel and the girls while I’m in the hospital for surgery and a few days after?”
To my family’s relief, Nana smoothed our rough spot with delicious meals and portions twice the size I plated them.
My mother managed to clean out my freezer and refrigerator stuffed with meat, milk, and fresh vegetables, plus a pantry stocked with baking supplies, pasta, rice, and canned goods.
My husband gained ten pounds in seven days. If you doubt, ask him yourself.
Thirty-eight years later, Mom’s hamburger soup still holds legendary status from that December she cooked in my kitchen. She used two pounds ground sirloin to my one for the largest stockpot in the house.
Before she returned to Kentucky, Mom and I enjoyed a cup of tea alone. “Mel and the girls said they loved your hamburger soup. What spices and ingredients did you use?”
“Well, I can’t remember. That was a week ago.”
You see, my mother cooked instinctively from old knowledge and imagination. She also guarded her culinary secrets with great pride and care. I was on my own to perform the impossible.
I’ve since made hamburger soup countless times, and have yet to match the flavor my husband remembers. In the process, I’ve developed an adventuresome spirit with whatever I have in the house. After all, Mom would say that’s one key ingredient to a good soup.
Use what you have.
Onions, garlic, butter, olive oil, two small purple and one medium plain cabbage heads, sliced. Three carrots, sliced. A bag of frozen corn. Chicken broth and homegrown canned tomatoes. Chopped celeriac and parsley. Salt and pepper.
Dear Reader, this is the soup season. And in my house, it’s served with garlic bread.
Yes, Mom. Garlic. Occasionally, apple pie a la mode.

The Life of Farm and Letters

(Photo: Yule Love It Lavender Farm 2009)
My heart sank when trucks from American Tree lined up before our house at 8:30 a.m. It wasn’t easy letting go my last two lavender fields, about 500 shrubs in a lovely flurry of mid-October bloom.

“The landscapers are here!” I hollered from my study to the coffee hound in the kitchen. “Why don’t you offer them a cup?”

“Sure! I’ll make a pot.”

Mel measured Gevalia kaffe with a huge smile on his face. He’d had enough lavender labor a long time ago.

“You don’t have to be so happy about it,” I said.

He slid me a sideways grin.

Months prior, I’d consulted with John from American Tree about the project, and now the equipment stood ready to roll onto the property. I wiped my eyes and walked out the door into autumn’s chill.

“Would ya’ll like some coffee?” I asked the men.

The foreman threw up his hands. “Hallelujah! Si!” He pointed to the west plot. “We’ll begin over there.”

Mel Underwood (gray hair and blue fleece)
and American Tree Crew, Oct. 2019
Five minutes later, Mel served fresh brew to the boss in the Bobcat and his men ready with shovels.

“This is a sad and momentous day for me,” I said and focused my camera on the crew.

They obliged.

With the greatest of ease and speed, the Bobcat removed the weed cloth and my beauties, mere plugs when my staff and I planted them in 2007 and 2010.

Pile of old lavender field and weed cloth,
October 2019
All morning long, I left my desk for minutes to witness the end of a vision, to marvel at the piles of lavender bushes and recall the cost invested in each plant—the harvest each Violet Intrigue, Miss Catherine, and Royal Velvet provided.

For scones, ice cream, brownies, lemonade, tea, soap, spritzers, candles. And beautiful bouquets.

I remembered women burying their faces in bundles they clipped with scissors. Oh, what harmony of fragrance and song in the fields! The soft laughter of friendship.

Yule Love It Lavender Farm, Oct. 2019
As the machinery left the property, I envisioned native wildflowers growing on one bare plot, and a new lavender field on the other.

That night after dinner, I informed my reluctant farmer of my plan to plant 100 Grosso babies next spring.

“I thought we were finished growing lavender,” he protested.

I appealed to his stomach. “Remember, I use it for scones and brownies. And your lavender lemon ice cream. Besides, I need to grow a patch for my bees. Even you don’t mind harvesting Grosso’s long stems.”

Foremost, growing lavandula angustifolia induces dreams and visions. In expectation of 2020, I walk our land and see it is more than Yule Love it Lavender Farm.

It is a little homestead including two humans, four hens, two cats, numerous redbud trees and beautybushes, and one Magnolia tree that wants more of its kind for company.

Dear Reader, the life of farm and letters is often a solitary endeavor, albeit entirely fulfilling, particularly when in bloom.

Come this winter, I’ll read, write, cook, and walk, listen to the voices of a new season—the soft laughter of friendship.

A tribute to Marlene and Gino Mallia

Marlene and Gino Mallia of the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary 

Last January, I talked with Gino Mallia, husband of Marlene Mallia, President of the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society.
“I don’t know if you can afford the dues,” he said.
“How much are they?”
“Two dollars.”
I would’ve paid a higher price just to enter Milmine Hall, the Society’s meeting place. The two-story historic building has mystified me from the moment I laid eyes on it thirty years ago.
When I’d drive by in the dark, candlelight glowing in the lower windows, I’d think, just what do you do, Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society?
Who took such good care of the building and grounds? Someday, I would walk inside those red doors.
Meanwhile, work and family commitments led me away in a hundred different directions from Milmine Hall.
Yet, in the fulfillment of time and obligations, and by a series of divine interventions two summers ago, my husband and I arranged the removal of my father and our firstborn’s vaults from White Chapel to reside in Lakeville Cemetery.
March 21 at 1 p.m., I stepped inside Milmine Hall as a member of the Society.
A center aisle parted four long tables on each side of the room. Members gathered to the left. I knew the Mallias by Gino’s voice and his briefcase, splayed and stuffed with notebooks and papers.
           Marlene called the meeting to order. When she led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer, I knew I’d found another place in my community.


          The main items on the agenda included the April 18 spaghetti dinner and the Lakeville Cemetery Memorial service, the latter the most remarkable Memorial commemoration I’ve ever witnessed.           As I sat under the food tent with my beloved’s gravestones in view, their beautiful resting place struck a holy balance between the grief of death and the joy of life.
The communal meal and the program including music, poetry, and speakers from the Armed Services, required tireless planning and work by the Mallias, their family, and Society members.
           Marlene has served as President for the past twenty years. Under her direction, auxiliary members have restored fallen monuments, unearthed markers, erected a windmill, and built a gazebo.
           A well-groomed cemetery holds priority in the Society’s purpose.

        “We bought four new benches on sale at ACE’s in Oxford,” Gino reported in our October meeting.           
          Members know Gino’s not all work and no play. He’s predictably frisky when in his glory boiling pasta for the Auxiliary’s spaghetti dinners.
           “How much is a membership?” a guest asked.
           I knew what was coming.
“Well, I don’t know if you can afford it,” Gino said.
           “What are the dues?”
           “Two dollars.”

           I drove by Milmine Hall yesterday morning and saw Gino’s keys in the open door.
“Marlene’s scrubbing the roasters,” he said. “She needs them for her soup Halloween night.”
           “I make three different kinds. Potato, bean, and chili. Why don’t you join us?”
“Yeah,” said Gino, “with everyone else in Leonard.”
           Dear Reader, this is just a glimpse of what the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society does.

To love an onion and friend

I was unaware Robert Farrar Capon, the late Episcopal priest and author, published The Supper of the Lamb in 1967.  
            Furthermore, I knew nothing of Capon’s “culinary reflection” when I began housekeeping in 1970 with The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I built my family table upon the recipes between those beloved and battered red-checkered covers.
Page 247 smells of Chess Pie. Dessert has always been my favorite course.
Long in my empty nest, my friend Carol gifted me The Supper of the Lamb for Christmas 2013.
“Let’s discuss the book next month,” she said. “I think you’ll love it.”
The author hooked me with his dedication page: “To my wife: the lightning behind all this thunder.”
In the preface, Capon states his cookbook “involves considerable fiddling around…and from it, you may learn things you never knew, or be confirmed in prejudices you have always held—or even come away with a new recipe or two.”
Who doesn’t love fiddling around, learning new things, tasting food preferences, and acquiring a new recipe?
I dove into Capon’s “Ingredients” for “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times” knowing the dish and left-overs would never see the light of my refrigerator.
Then came the onion in The First Session with the boom of a theologian and amateur cook who loves the world’s “textures, tastes, and smells, enough to keep us intrigued for more time than we have.”

An onion grower, I studied one of my crop, and indeed saw the architecture of a Russian church spire.
“You will note…that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. You are constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word,” Capon says.
No, his isn’t the typical cookbook. I should’ve known from the jacket art, The Wedding Banquet by Peter Bruegel, courtesy of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.
You won’t find such food-human spirituality in the Betty Crocker CookbookGourmet, and Beard on Pasta. You won’t read such wisdom as, “A man can do worse than be poor. He can miss altogether the sight of the greatness of small things.”
An onion is more than an ingredient. It’s food we plant, weed, and harvest. We slice the elongated separations that form the globe.
“The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools…and the knife reigns supreme,” says Capon.
A diced onion simmers in my squash soup.

The Supper of the Lamb has redefined its genre, no longer limited to recipes and how to set a proper table. Capon speaks of affection for food, people, animals, place, and our Creator.
 “Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of the loving eye,” Capon says.

We see this in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Still Life with Onions, 1881.
Dear Reader, Carol and I talked long and lively about the beautiful layers of paper in an onion. We were glad to consider the greatness of food and what we love.
One another.

Please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exJDhkFJGg0 for a brief history of Renoir’s Still Life with Onions