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?

Fruitcake and Hellebore

Hellebore, AKA Christmas rose, in my backyard

I don’t know which came first, Mom’s fruitcake or her sugar cookies. What girl notices grownup food when she’s anticipating the rolling pin, mixing bowl full of dough, and cookie cutters come December?

             Wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in Dad’s brandy, Mom’s fruitcake appealed to a mature audience. Whereas, my sisters and I gobbled up our yummy decorated sugar cookies long before our mother ceremoniously sliced the last few servings of her favorite Christmas sweet.

There she’d sit at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea in absolute awareness of the goodness her hands and the recipe yielded. With her right pinky extended, she nibbled on the finished product of creamed butter and sugar, eggs, brandy, sifted flour and spices, candied fruit, and pecans. Her brother Jim, a Marine stationed in North Carolina, shipped her Georgia pecans every summer for her holiday baking.

It took marriage and children for me to comprehend such roots deep within Mom’s fealty to her mother’s fruitcake—to recall and respect her blessed moment of rest and reflection.

After forsaking Mom’s recipe recent Christmases, I resurrected the index card two days ago to perpetuate this tradition with my daughters—cast my matriarchs’ fruitcake upon the waters. Perhaps I’ll live long enough to witness the strong pull of this confection upon their convictions.

Papa Joe’s in Rochester saved my plan with the Paradise brand of candied fruit. Sad to say, fruitcake is falling from fashion.

While my Kitchen Aid blended the batter, I stood before the kitchen window in a fine condition of contentment. White flowers of a Hellebore caught my eye. As she’s refused to bloom for three winters, Hellebore’s timing is perfect.

Matter of fact, during my bedtime reading, I recently learned Christmas Rose is the common name for Hellebore. 

She’s shy, a low grower prone to hibernation under snow. And that makes her all the more adorable.

This revelation came by an essay in a small but mighty book titled My Favorite Plant. Jamaica Kincaid, a gardener and garden writer born in 1949, edited the book.

Christmas Rose is the flower Richardson Wright, my Number One garden storyteller, grew under glass close to his Connecticut cottage for harvesting a handful of blooms in December.

Since they’ve no fragrance and flowers are few, I’ve not had the heart to clip a rose for my bondage indoors.

Rather, on those slow, snowy days, I’ll sit with a hot cup of tea at my kitchen table. I’ll gaze upon my Christmas Rose, extend my pinky, and salute my new Advent guest.

Dear Reader, my three loaves of fruitcake marinate in brandied cheesecloth. One waits in my kitchen cupboard. Our youngest daughter drives the other two cross-country with her dog Lily to celebrate Christmas with her sister’s family in the Bay Area.

Although tempted by Ruth’s invitation, my husband and I decided two cross-county treks are not practical time being. We’ll observe our Savior’s birth with our hens, cats, and Hellebore.

And Mom’s fruitcake.

Capacity for joy

Some of my favorite cookbooks

I take a homegrown garlic bulb from its basket in the basement. Of the hardneck variety, I prefer the more complex flavor of Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon to the mild softneck, Allium sativum ssp. Sativum.

            While it’s on my mind, I must say cupping my fingers around a hardkneck bulb while walking up thirteen steps gratifies my soul.

It’s an exercise to enlarge my capacity for joy and stimulate my memory, imagination, and zeal for cooking a delicious and nutritious meal.

I recall my posture of prayer while setting forty cloves in October’s soil, then mulching with oak leaves. Come next April or May, I’ll spy green sprouts in the leaves.

And of all the world’s architectural marvels, the spiral scapes will emerge from the center stems in June while the irises bloom.

The scape is as tasty as mature cloves. The pointed seedpod and coil make a gorgeous garnish on a plate, bowl, or platter. Making the most of a plant is a gardener and cook’s delight.

Then it’s time to prune the scape from the plant. This directs more nutrition underground to develop a robust bulb.

Infatuated with their furling and unfurling stems summer past, I forgot to prune the scapes from the plants.

The result? Wimpy garlic bulbs for cooking and cloves for planting. Come next June, I’ll remove the pod stems and see what my efforts yield when I harvest my crop.

Standing by the kitchen counter, I separate the cloves from the hardneck stem and think of Jeanette Farley, a fellow Friend of Herbs based in Seven Ponds Nature Center.

A good while ago, Jeanette donated her time and twenty softneck and twenty hardneck cloves to begin my garlic patch. We dug and set them on a bitter, windy October day. That’s one example of Jeanette’s admirable dedication to good food and friendship.

I throw the bare hardneck stem on the kitchen floor. Cuddles, our tortoiseshell cat, jumps down from her rocking chair and swats the stem in feline gymnastics.

I sense some irony. Although my mother loved cats, she loathed garlic. She remained faithful to yellow and green onions, always served with soup beans and cornbread until she could no longer cook.

Green onions definitely have their place on my table. The mandarin orange salad recipe I inherited wouldn’t be complete without two chopped scallions. There’s no way Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon could pull off what the Allium Fistulosum achieves in that blend of Romaine lettuce, almonds, onion, and fruit.

Miraculously, Mom made spaghetti sauce that rivaled any red-blooded Italian’s without the scent or appearance of garlic in her kitchen.

However, God is good to His children. Since the night someone served me steamy, buttery garlic bread in 1966, my capacity for garlic expands with the number of cookbooks on my kitchen bookshelf.

Dear Reader, Cuddles chases her garlic toy while I mince several cloves and sauté them with onion and venison for spaghetti bolognaise.

Next I slice and slather the baguette with garlic butter. Oh, what joy!     

Making merry with Osage oranges

Merry Osage orange snowmen
The fruit resembles a green, softball-sized brain.

But Lewis Meriwether didn’t know that in April 1804 when he found  “some slips of the Osages Plums and Apples“ in St. Louis. The explorer-botanist shipped them to Thomas Jefferson who shared the plants with Bernard McMahon in Philadelphia.

McMahon, “America’s pioneer nurseryman,” planted seven of Lewis’ cuttings in front of his store on Fourth Street, adjoining the churchyard of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

More than 200 years later, the trees still bear their sticky, milky, sappy orbs—a bit of history I’d love to behold some autumn day thanks to Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.

Following the steps of French explorers and traders, Lewis learned the Osage Indian and other tribes used the tree’s wood for bow making. Not too far into the future from Lewis and Clark’s westward expedition, pioneers planted Osage seedlings to provide thorny boundaries and windbreaks on America’s prairies.

Some southwest farmers planted all manner of fruit-bearing shrubs between the Osage trees for a bird habitat within the impenetrable hedge.

This clever idea appeals to me like the little fen where our hens like to hang out. My husband calls it “the back forty” of our three and a half acres.

Long before we moved north of 32 Mile Road, this Macula pomifera barrier fell out of fashion with the advent of barbed wire and the tractor. Some landowners used the rot-resistant timber from the Osage tree for their fence posts that outlived the barbed wire.

I knew nothing of the bow-making tree when l first drove my daughters east on 32 Mile to Romeo schools thirty-one years ago. Come fall, I spied something green smashed on the road that had fallen from branches above the Cusick Lake curve.

Now, it’s a dangerous, blind bend, so I dared not stop my car to satisfy my curiosity about botanical road kill.

Eighteen years later, my handyman Andy showed up one day with two buckets. “Here are some Osage oranges for your farm’s Christmas sale. They repel spiders,” he said. “I’d charge a buck a piece.”

I did, and sold out of the citrus-scented arachnid chasers. The ripe fruit contains a chemical (2, 3, 4, 5-tetrahy-droxystilbene) that deters many insects.

By the way, you need a male tree nearby for the female to bear fruit.

What I enjoy most about the Osage orange, named bois d’arc by early French explorers, is foraging them to design Christmas decorations.

Last week, my friend Marilyn emailed a timely reminder with a photo of her Osage oranges she gathered on the west side of the state. Post haste, I drove to my local source and filled two bags.

Dear Reader, we have Pierre Chouteau to thank for obtaining the species from an Osage Indian who harvested the fruit about three hundred miles west of his village.  

And thank you, Mister Meriwether, for putting Monsieur Chouteau’s saplings into Thomas Jefferson’s hands. The chartreuse fruit arrives just in time to make merry snowmen for Christmas.


A traditional Thanksgiving

A ceramic turkey from my mother-in-law's kiln, and a pie pumpkin from Yate's cider mill

As most post WWII American parents, Mom and Dad celebrated Thanksgiving Day with extended family—first and second cousins, aunts and uncles from O’Brien and McCoy clans. 

The folk at Mom’s table primarily came from Dad’s people who moved from Kentucky to Detroit for work. Dad was the O’Brien baby with nine siblings, Mom the eldest McCoy child with four younger brothers.

There’s nothing Mom loved more than cooking for family, and Dad’s people knew it.

These family dynamics granted our grown O’Brien cousins a place at the table with the adults. My two sisters and I took our Thanksgiving plates to the coffee table in the living room, close enough to hear our company’s chatter and laughter.

Uprooted Appalachians who needed one another, the gluten in Mom’s light rolls held us pilgrims together.  

I can still taste Mom’s mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams, and pecan pie. Those Thanksgiving Day gatherings in Detroit were the happiest years of my childhood.

I doubt my mother knew what historians claim as the first thanksgiving feast in 1621 with the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians. More important matters clung to Mom’s apron strings. What my sisters and I learned about this national holiday, we heard from Sunday school or public school teachers.

Nonetheless, my mother personified the spiritual meaning of Thanksgiving Day by serving two families bonded by marriage.

As for my father, the celebration offered the opportunity to attach the lights to his movie camera and capture his folk passing turkey platters, gravy bowls, and dishes of dressing around Mom’s candlelit table.  

And I’m forever grateful he did. Whenever I watch Dad’s home movies, I pause on faces at the dining room table on Joann Street and test my memory. Upon my last review, I realized my sisters and I are the only surviving family members from that gathering in 1957.

For a brief season while we raised our parents’ sixteen grandchildren, my four sisters and I rotated as hostess for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Alas, that bountiful season is long past, three generations of Warren and Sadie O’Brien’s offspring sown in Kentucky, California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Atlanta, and Indiana.

Two years ago, for the first time in our marriage, my husband and I walked into a Bob Evans in Kentucky and ordered our Thanksgiving meal. Although the food tasted delicious, it felt odd to have someone work and serve me rather than their family.

When we found ourselves alone on Thanksgiving last year, we decided to drive to Frankenmuth, on the way stop by the place we rented on Center Avenue in Bay City as newlyweds.

Although good sports about the adventure, the dinner couldn’t come close to Bob Evans or home cooking. I resolved Thanksgiving is about preparing good food for my candlelit family table. No mater how small.

Dear Reader, as modern grandparents of a grand-dog, this Thanksgiving I tie my apron and cook with our youngest daughter who said, “Your traditional Thanksgiving menu, please.”

I’ll bake Mom’s light rolls and she'll take videos.

The redemptive voice of music

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russian musician and composer, April 1,1873 - March 28,1943

As a young mother, I anticipated laundry day like a little vacation. After my husband and our three girls walked out the side door for work and school, I heaved a sigh and finished breakfast dishes in silence—listened to that still, small voice.

I ran run up and down two flights of stairs cleaning house and spinning laundry from baskets to washer to dryer to baskets.If you’re a young mother, or once were, you know the drill.

After lunch I sat on the sofa in our knotty pine basement and folded towels and washcloths, underwear and socks, dishcloths, sports uniforms, linens from four beds, etc.

If my dinner menu didn’t distract me—or a daughter’s orthodontist appointment, or various interruptions a household of five people and three ducks present on any given day—I might catch Bill Kennedy’s Showtime while folding clothes in the afternoon.

           But my visit with Metro Detroit’s beloved curmudgeon suffered a downside. Seldom could I sit through the movie’s end due to carpool pickup.

           However, one laundry day I found myself freed from the duty when I tuned in to Bill Kennedy’s theme song, Just in Time.

           From the first five minutes of I’ve Always Loved You (1946), the cast and music composed by twelve classical masters wove a love story with potent psychological drama.  

Myra, the lead female character, believes she loves her tyrannical and womanizing maestro, Leopold Goronoff. Before an audience in Carnegie Hall, he deliberately destroys her career upon her debut while she performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.

Does she overcome this betrayal?

Other than bits of Beethoven and Mozart, my knowledge of symphonic orchestration lay limited in my father’s favorite album, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Of the Beach Boys, Lettermen, Righteous Brothers, Beatles, and Motown era, I’d never heard music speak from such depths of despair, hope, and triumph as in Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto. And without one word.

Composed in 1901, Rachmaninoff wrote his most famous symphony in recovery from depression after his Piano Concerto No. 1 received brutal reviews opening night. In 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family fled Russia’s Revolution to America’s freedom.

           With this in mind, I better understand the romantic and redemptive voices within Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. I perceive a link between the day folding clothes in my basement to my recent return to the music and movie I’ve Always Loved You.

As Rachmaninoff recovered from despair, Myra mends from Goronoff’s merciless offense. Decades later, in her return to Carnegie Hall’s piano, Myra sees through the maestro’s ego to the man who always loved her and trusted in her love.

Dear Reader, this past February my husband and I met our youngest daughter downtown Detroit for dinner. Afterward, we walked to Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue and found our seats in the fourth row for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2.

There, pianist Simon Trpceski from Macedonia spanned his fingers over the keys. Just in time, he reminded me failure and betrayal are not fatal.

God has always loved us. Just listen to Rachmaninoff.

Culinary Comforts and Companionship

Please be on the lookout for Natco brown-glazed tiles

An email from Joyce popped up on my computer screen. As she respects my workday, I supposed the subject important.

“Would you have a few minutes available for a short conversation this evening? I want to ask you about the Cook farm dairy,” she wrote.

Well, Joyce knows how to hook her reader. She also knows Cook’s produces my special order lavender lemon honey ice cream. But she didn’t know my favorite Cook’s Farm Dairy flavor is Cow Pie—dark chocolate, caramel, cashews.

A Rochester Hills resident, Joyce got wind of a restoration project underway on the historic dairy barn of the Rochester Hills Museum at the Van Hoosen Farm. She’d been foraging abandoned farms for the hollow, square brown-glazed clay Natco tiles to complete accurate preservation of the Van Hoosen barn.

Beware. Once Joyce scents a challenge, she won’t stop until she wipes the manure off her hands in utter delight (pun intended).

“I’d be happy to call Cook’s in the morning,” I said. “I’ve not talked with Tom the ice cream maker for months. Raised on a Michigan dairy farm, he might have a lead.”

Mind, ice cream of one flavor or form ranks number one in my culinary comforts. Mom served vanilla ice cream with her fruit pies of the season. Come summer, she made pineapple or banana ice cream. On special occasions, we walked into Sander’s for a hot fudge sundae.

“There’s an old farm at the Coats and Oakwood crossroads,” Tom said the following morning. “There’s another farm in the area, but I can’t remember the exact location. I’ll call you if I do.”

“How was Cook’s season this year?” I asked.

“The best ever. People came as far as 100 miles.”

“Did you have some media interest?”

“Sure did. We had to decline the last reporter because we couldn’t keep up with the demand,” Tom said.

I called Joyce with Tom’s reference and returned to my novella in progress. The following afternoon, she drove into my driveway.

“I left you two voicemails,” she said. “I hope I’m not intruding.” She carried a small cooler by the strap.

While we emptied a pot Asam lavender tea, in fits of elated revelations Joyce said, “Here’s the most remarkable thing. It wasn’t the Coats and Oakwood farm where I got the lead for the tile. It was the other farm I happened to pass by. The farmer said he grew up on the Van Hoosen Farm! His parents managed their chicken and turkey production.”

“Well, what did he say about the Natco tiles?”

She smiled like a child at Christmas. Ceremoniously, she hauled her rescued treasure into the kitchen. “We’re looking for something similar to this!” Then she unzipped the cooler. My goodness! She removed a carton of Cow Pie ice cream.

“For your contribution to the barn project,” she said.

Dear Reader, I scooped dark chocolate ice cream with caramel and cashews into two bowls.

Oh, the blessed comfort of companionship and Cow Pie ice cream.

The definition of peregrinate 'per-uh-gru-nate

Kelly, my California daughter, and I visit the Japanese Garden in the Golden Gate State Park

It is a pretty coincidence that those who enjoy gardens and gardening also enjoy travel. Richardson Wright, The Gardener’s Bed-Book


Perhaps it’s my Celtic spirit of adventure and botanic name Iris that call me to rove garden paths.

Back in 1958, a child new to a muddy subdivision, I turned my bike onto the driveway of the only lawn on our block.

Lo and behold! I found shrubbery and blooming gardens in the backyard. June, the lady of the house, knelt before a flowerbed.

                  There, she introduced me to her Jack in the Pulpit and commenced my fascination with plants.

“Would you like to help weed?” June asked.

I went to my knees for my first lesson in discerning the differences between weeds and floras, a never-ending quest.

A few summers after, with Mom’s permission to expand my boundaries beyond Aunt June’s white brick ranch, I guided my blue bike into the woods at the end of our block.

Oh my goodness! A mossy pond and red patch of rhubarb! I can still taste that strawberry rhubarb pie Mom made with my rhubarb rescued from an abandoned farmstead.

I ‘ve since sauntered the breathtaking parks leading to Leeds Castle in England. Thrice, my California daughter and I have sipped tea together within the vast Japanese Garden of the Golden Gate Park. Twice, we’ve hiked Muir Woods together.

Last February, after three tours of the Emerald Isle within twenty years, my husband and I booked the “Country Roads of Scotland” excursion for this past April to celebrate our Fiftieth Wedding Anniversary.

When that didn’t happen, I dove into reading Richardson Wright’s The Story of Gardening and Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners. Both authors spoke of Philadelphia’s historic Bartram ‘s Gardens.

My feet itched to stroll the grounds of the oldest nursery in our United States—the eaarth where our Founding Fathers met with botanist John Bartram the sweltering summer of 1776 during a recess of the Continental Congress.

I planned an October visit for the benefit of Pennsylvania’s autumnal, rolling landscape. Meanwhile, I returned to West Virginia in June for my annual pilgrimage and toured the little hospital of my birth, a building in great disrepair. I recorded more family and local history.

I bided my time gardening, playing croquet with friends, and putting up our vegetable garden.

The first and second week of October, I combed Bartram’s Gardens website for information regarding Pennsylvania’s restrictions related to America’s long-term malaise.

Alas, I found conflicting information. However, one thing was clear—the bathrooms are closed to the public.

Well, that alone disqualifies the destination. We can’t traverse the 300 year-old gardens within the thirty-mile Garden Capitol District without available toilets.

The voicemail box for the Welcome Center was full. One website page said the Welcome Center was open; another page indicated the center was open limited hours.

And yes, “please wear a mask while walking the gardens.”

Dear Reader, who needs Pennsylvania’s colors or Bartram’s Gardens in October when you live in Michigan? 

There’s no prettier state to peregrinate with a bare face.



Mercy and comfort


My father (R barber) in his shop at Seven Mile and Joann Street in Detroit, circa 1954

Today, October 24th is my father’s birthday. Born in 1922, Warren G. O’Brien would be 98 years old. However, he lived seventy-two years as the Scriptures say, and left us.

When my sisters and I were youngsters, Dad would tease Mom and say, “I married an older woman. “ I knew my mother didn’t appreciate Dad’s remark by her pursed lips.

           Decades later, I figured the math from Mom’s January 10, 1922 birthday and understood my father’s play on dates and words. There’s nothing he enjoyed more than stretching the truth for the benefit of a joke at someone else’s expense. 

           Well, Mom showed Dad a thing or two. She divorced him and outlived him twelve years.

           Such memories come to mind on October 24th when I enter the date into my journal. Some flashbacks I’d rather forget, for my father and I often failed to exchange forgiveness, compassion, and love.

Yet, God is merciful. He will not leave us comfortless.

           For instance, the day Dad appeared at my door unannounced. Although perturbed by his untimely visit, I was glad to see him. How long had it been? We’d become further estranged after his second divorce.

           I served Dad cups of coffee and leftover homemade spaghetti, forgetting he loathed Italian food. He lived on Little Caesar’s pizza.

Letting down my guard, I heard contrition in his voice. The loneliness in his brown eyes perpetuated by his improper behavior broke my heart.

Now was my chance, so I dared broach a subject most veterans of foreign wars avoid. “Dad, where did you serve with the Marine Corps during the war?”

“You don’t know?” he mocked.

“Now Dad, how could I know if you didn’t tell me?”


“Why didn’t you ever talk about it?”

He paused. “Our sergeant said, ‘What happened here, stays here.’”

As his rifle kept in the back of the coat closet, Dad longed to forget the stench of ammunition, death, and human waste in Guam’s trenches. Yet, memory is not a compliant human faculty.

Since those few, private hours with my father, I’ve wondered if I could’ve aided him like a midwife to deliver his nightmares into the light. Yet, I prefer to believe he loved me and would not release his demons to torment my mind with war’s carnage. I’ve never read a combat story or watched a war movie, particularly Saving Private Ryan.

On Dad’s birthday, I sometimes imagine his whereabouts the morning the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. At age nineteen and the last child at home, I see him gathering eggs in Board Tree Hollow, Kentucky, unaware he’d soon enlsit in the armed services.

O’Brien family legend says Dad’s nine siblings gathered at Alonzo and Laura O’Brien’s house when their baby brother came home on furlough. They drank coffee all night and listened to his basic training adventures.

Dear Reader, I called my two surviving daughters this morning to commemorate their Grandpa O’Brien’s birthday.

God is merciful. He will not leave us comfortless.



Talking apples

Our Northern Spy harvest   

It all began with little green apples.

Aunt Eloise mailed Mom a letter saying the fruit was ready for canning applesauce. Mom loaded up the car with her Mason jars and our suitcases. Dad drove us south to the McCoy farm where we lived the first four years of my life.

Without a care in the world, my sisters, cousins, and I climbed the scraggly trees to fetch a few apples. Sour as can be, we chewed around the worms.

“The apples taste better with salt,” cousin Kathy said.

My mother, aunts Eloise, Alma Leigh, and Dean, laid wood under the shade of a black walnut tree beside the homeplace. They hoisted Granny’s copper cauldron above the logs.

After they gathered chairs and bushels of apples around the pot, they lit the fire. The peeling and laughter commenced.

Without understanding how and why, I knew those women loved my sisters and me because they made us applesauce.

McCoy offspring, we ran willy-nilly while our moms filled the huge copper bowl with apple slices, sugar, and cinnamon. At last, the mouthwatering scent of the steamy, bubbling cauldron called us to our mothers.

“Don’t get too close. You’ll get burned,” they chimed like they did every summer.

But we got too close because we loved to squeal when the hot applesauce popped on our bare bellies and arms. We wore our blisters with pleasure until one-by-one, we lost interest in simmering applesauce.

Twenty-six years later and 500 miles away from the McCoy farm, the little green apple orchard was long gone and forgotten. When Michigan’s apple season arrived on Cummings Street in Berkley, I had no applesauce clan to peel and laugh with. No copper cauldron to set above a blaze.

Yet, I had a bushel of fruit, soup pot, stove, and a basement. And three hungry mouths to feed, as Mom would say.

While the girls raced Big Wheels around the mammoth gravity furnace, I peeled Northern Spys until lunchtime.

Afterward, while her two younger sisters napped in the silent house, one-by-one, my eight-year old handed me crisp Spys, Mom’s favorite pie apple.

Something squeaked.

“What was that?” Becky asked.

I looked up to the basement window above us and under the table and chairs where we worked.


“It’s probably a mouse,” I said.

Becky scooted close to me.

“Are you afraid?”


I attempted humor to comfort her. “Perhaps the apples thanked you for being such a good helper.”

She smiled. “They can’t really talk, can they?”

Sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it, dear Reader?

Forty-two years later, overlooking our little orchard from the kitchen window, my husband and I peeled, cored, and sliced about a bushel of Mom’s favorite pie apple.

While I stirred bubbly sauce tinted red with our raspberries, I heard cousin Kathy’s squeal.

I hereby vouch for southern green apples and Northern Spys. They can talk.

They speak of familial love and belly blisters. Of copper pots, basements, and Big Wheels.

The comforting language of bubbling applesauce.  

Two rooms of my own

When our youngest daughter claimed her independence, my husband gained her bathroom. He moved his health and beauty aids from our master-bedroom bath to the other, just nine easy steps away.

            Since I’d never known the benefits of my own bathroom, I first founded a proverb on the sink’s countertop and in the drawers: “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Meaning, I pitched my mate’s cruddy stuff from his former three drawers and installed my belongings.

The notion of a room of my own fell upon my ears several years prior when I attended my first writer’s conference. An aspiring journalist, I looked and listened for guidance to commence my new avocation.

The keynote speaker addressed her female audience, many in the “second shift” of our lifespan. “What are the necessary conditions to think and write our best work?” she asked.

I held my pen ready.

She introduced Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own.

I knew little about the English author other than she drowned herself in a river. That tragic end of her acclaimed success deterred me from reading her work as it did Sylvia Plath’s poetry, and other writers tormented by mental illness.

I preferred Jane Austen’s fiction for her happy endings and compelling characters, and Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction to inform my faith.

Yet, I’d paid $35 and invested a Saturday to sit amongst several hundred women who knew much more about the writing industry than I. So I scribbled the following.

“First, the woman’s mind needs to be fed,” the speaker said.

A housewife and mom who cooked my mother’s four food groups and loved to read, I agreed.

She continued, “Second, Virginia Woolf asks, what does it mean to write?”

Again, I pondered why I desired to step beyond the comfort and privacy of my daily journal, into the criticism of the competitive and sometimes brutal literary market.

To preserve family and local history.

To encourage the reader’s faith, hope, and love in God.

To enthuse vision for a peaceful and purposeful future.

Foremost, to the best of my ability, persuade people to write their hearts out.

What I took home that October day in 1993 was this: a writer needs a room of his or her own, a holy sanctuary with a door to close upon a conceived idea to feed and deliver with much joy and travail.

The following fall, I resumed studies for my Bachelor of Arts degree. Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, appeared on a class syllabus.

I opened my Norton Anthology of English Literature and read the sixty pages of Woolf’s brilliant review of the historical absence of women in literature.

Dear Reader, yesterday I sat on the banks of Stoney Creek under a blue October sky. Amber and scarlet leaves fell onto the water, swept downstream by rapids.

I thanked Virginia Woolf for inspiring a study of my own, and “the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what (I) think” when in my shower.                                   

Loving Lily

My baby Ruth and her puppy Lily  

Ruth called the third week in July. “Mom, I bought a puppy.”

“I didn’t know you wanted a pet.”

My youngest daughter lives in a house with more windows than timber. Enough to make a mother worry and suggest a dog might be a good idea for safety’s sake. But I held my tongue.

             “Oh, I’ve been thinking about a puppy for a while, but I couldn’t take on the responsibility until after surgery.”

Running on the fumes of her rock-solid resilience for months, the surgery took place the second week in June, not one day too soon. Recovery laid Ruthie low a few weeks, but she bounced back in July like my spattering of snapdragons each summer.

“Boy or girl?” I asked.

“Girl. The breeder named her Lily. She’s wonderful, Mom.”

Quick and true, the force of my child’s sentiment recalled my puppy Sweetie—the steadfast joy and companionship a little ginger-colored cocker spaniel offered my growing family for eleven years.

“What’s Lily’s breed?”

“A black lab with the cutest eyes.”

“Melts your heart, doesn’t she?”

“Oh yes, I’m smitten. I pick her up tomorrow. I can’t wait to drive her out to the farm for you to meet her. She loves to run.”

I remembered Shadow, our neighbor’s black lab who brought his ball to me whenever I appeared in my perennial island. For eight years Shadow and I played toss and fetch until my neighbor asked a tough question one day.

“Iris, Shadow has arthritis in his hips. After he chases the ball, he cries all night in pain. Would you please not throw the ball for him when he brings it to you?”

I hope and pray Lily didn’t inherit the lab’s arthritic DNA. I’d love to play toss and fetch with her for a good, many years.

It was Saturday, September 5, when Ruth and Lily arrived. Ruth carried into my kitchen the equivalent of a baby’s diaper bag filled with Lily’s toys, and whatever else Ruth reckons necessary to fulfill her duty as a conscientious and loving pet owner.

Before we sat down for brunch, Ruth said, “Sit,” to Lily.

And Lily did—perhaps one reason why some folk prefer pets to children.

We cleared the table. Out came the tennis ball. Lily went running downhill. Her paws propelling above the grass and tongue lolling to the side solicited our admiration.

“Mom, let’s take a walk on the road,” Ruth said.

“Doesn’t Lily need a leash?” I asked.

“No. She won’t run off.”

And Lily didn’t.

“Isn’t she cute how she sniffs and wags her tail?” Ruth asked.

I laughed. “You’re talking like a proud mother.”

Later, Ruth put Lily in the passenger seat. 

“No seat belt?” I teased.

Dear Reader, Lily looked to me with her puppy dog eyes.

What’s not to love about my grand-dog? I lavished Lily with affection while Ruth fed her treats and handled the potty pick up.

Moreover, I beheld my baby’s beautiful, blue eyes for three hours.

The darkest hour of my life

These late September chrysanthemum days saturate my natural senses with the faculty of memory.

While I separate laundry in the morning, the ruddy scent of football season recalls my dorm room on Central Michigan University’s campus. I know the rustle of autumn’s falling leaves from walking to classes and the football field to cheer, Let’s go Chips!

Such moments soak into your bones and soul.

Later in the day, the sun warms my arms as I pull cabbages from the earth and carry garden waste to the burn pile. I remember Merilee, my freshman roommate in the fall semester of 1968. A personification of her name, she says, “You’ll have to come home with me some weekend and watch my brother slalom. ”

Fifty-two years later, I hear the speedboat; see Merilee’s brother in his wet suit spraying a fishtail with his ski on White Lake. In the house, Merilee holds her baby brother while her mother stirs spaghetti sauce for dinner.

That night, I sleep in the comfort of Merilee’s bedroom.

With four sisters in a three-bedroom ranch, none of us ever had a bedroom of our own. A year after my parent’s divorce, college came at the right time to escape the fallout. Although I want to reciprocate Merilee’s hospitality with an invitation to my home, it’s not a good idea.

In the waning sun, I return to the remnant of my beehive that survived last winter only to be sacked by yellow jackets. The sound of neighborhood children at play falls upon another beekeeping failure.

Frame by frame, box by box, I inspect the hive in bewilderment.

Why no honey in the top box? Not one sticky, healthy drop.

There’s no sign of disease in the two brood boxes. A handful of bees huddle over empty brood cells.

I remove the bottom box and find a cluster of dead bees on the bottom board. No sign of mites or wax moths. Yes, the hive must’ve swarmed and left the remainder too weak to fend off robbers.

There’s nothing else I know to do but leave the orphaned bees to themselves. I will begin anew next spring.

Long into the night, our neighbors gather around a bonfire with their family. A warm and moonlit evening when muted voices and laughter travel to open windows, I listen to the timbre of three generations. 

I recall the darkest hour of my life.

Merilee and our suite mates had left for Christmas break. I am in bed in my dorm room, too weak to open my eyes. I sleep and awake in the dark and daylight. And sleep again. Merilee and my mother don’t know I’m ill in bed. No one knows.

Dear Reader, I cannot remember rising to my feet. Or who rescued me. Or who drove me home. Yet, I stood as Maid of Honor in my older sister’s wedding December 28, 1968, recovered from the Hong Kong flu.

Surely, God’s healing, guiding hand rests upon me. Then. Now. And evermore.

Oh my ganache!

Goblets of raspberries and ganache on a table

    What happens when you whisk one cup simmering heavy whipping cream, one cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, one teaspoon vanilla extract, and two tablespoons butter together?

 Ganache! A no-fuss, no-fail recipe sure to raise eyebrows as a glaze, icing, or sauce.

Fond of Appalachian chocolate gravy, my favorite way to consume ganache is hot from the pot over steamy, split buttermilk biscuits.

However, in the midst of this brief raspberry season, nothing compliments ganache like fresh berries. Pour one-half cup chocolate into four small bowls and chill in the fridge. Meanwhile, pick your berries or run to your local farm stand or grocer.

The key to a quick, delicious and beautiful dessert is to stock the ingredients. In my kitchen, that’s easier said than done, for I’ve come to consider chocolate chips as my husband does potato chips.

A handful of semi-sweet or dark chocolate morsels (preferably Ghirardelli) satisfies my sweet tooth with a lot less sugar than a cookie or two. The results of my recent blood test support my logic.

That in mind, this morning I was glad to find more than enough Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips, heavy whipping cream, vanilla, and butter to make ganache.

But first, I baked a batch of currant lemon lavender scones for lunch with Yolanda at noon. Then I resurrected four vintage ice cream bowls I found at the Armada Flea Market, filled them with hot ganache, and cooled them.

Meanwhile, I washed the pot, heated homemade asparagus soup, and assembled two salads of greens, grapes, apples, and pecans. A teapot and teacups stood waiting with Earl Gray and a bouquet of mums and clematis for my guest.

The only Yolanda I’ve met in my lifetime, she’s a mother of two daughters and two sons. One daughter and her husband live locally with two Siberian Huskies and two huge furry rescued cats. Her remaining three offspring landed in Denver, Colorado, San Diego, California, and Bethesda, Maryland, in that order.

With their four grandchildren residing in three distant destinations, Yolanda and her husband Art travel to the east and west coast frequently. Furthermore, when they’re not visiting their kids and grandkids, Yolanda rotates the care of her 101 year-old mother with her sister.

Thus, when Yolanda calls and says, “I’m home,” we plan several hours to catch up.

A friendship rooted in our children’s high school plays and soccer games, Yolanda remained a secret pen pal to my surviving two daughters after our firstborn’s death in 1996.

Both in college, those years were undeniably the most grievous for my young women and me. Yet, faithfully, Yolanda mailed my girls letters of encouragement. Quietly, she stood in the gap for me—bowed her head in prayer.

Dear Reader, what happens when you share your table with a long-lived friend? When you scrape the last bit of chocolate from a recycled ice cream dish together?

Oh my ganache! You realize your bond has long surpassed the rooted stage, and in the spirit of Jesus’ love, blossoms as we age.

A wholesome thing

Sixty new Grosso lavender plants grow on a slope facing west
My computer sits marooned under our painter’s drop cloth. For the first time in my life as a journalist, I carry a recycled composition book and pen outside, and write.
                  It feels good. How could it not when I’m overlooking sixty new lavender plants happily growing on a green slope? My husband and neighbor accompany birdsong with background lawnmower music.
       The natural and manmade live in harmony as Mel swipes an apple off the tree and bites into it. He holds it up and smiles.

       The weather is ideal for open-air musings. Breezy. Low humidity. Sunny. With most of summertime’s gardening and canning behind, the blue sky waits to infuse my spirit again with faith, hope, and love.
                  I pray to God for my daily dose of forgiveness and wisdom.
                  Today is September 11, 2020, and evokes memoires of New York City’s Twin Towers in flames. And the day I drove our third-born daughter to Chicago where she’d enrolled in art school. We arrived to the city gathered downtown to rally in support of the families who lost loved ones, and America’s safety against terrorism.                   
                  I didn’t want to leave my youngest child to duke it out alone with Chicago. But she said, “Mom, I have to do this.”
                  A familiar refrain raising three girls.
                 Thankfully, my baby overcame an assault and three more Chicago moves and returned to Michigan, found her place in our Great Lakes State.
                  The scent of fresh-mown lawn wafts over the landscape. I absorb September’s colors; the border of tall, amber grasses, tinged russet of a maple, the persistent cardinal flower blooming in the copper pot once used for stirring Macintoshes on an open fire.
                  We love homemade applesauce.

                  But back to this story.
                  After Roland our painter renews my office, I’ll do one last weeding of this season to the stacks of books holed up in the study’s closet. My empty bookshelves loafing in the living room want some space for new books—poetry, biography, history, memoir, novels, and gardening.
                  My list of new titles to preview grows daily.
                  It’s four o’clock on Friday, September 11, 2020, and the sun’s aglow on the pink petunias cascading from the hen house window box. Deadheading pays off.
                  The Rose of Sharon by the beehive blooms her last flurry of lavender petals. The three boxes of the hive painted the same color stand stacked in the shade. After a pest-free spring and summer, I’m fighting yellow jackets presently. The worker bees sacrifice their two-week life cycle in a valiant duel with the honey thieves.

                  I don’t know why I haven’t written outdoors all these years. A vitamin C and D and radiation-free environment encourages composition more so than sitting before a computer screen for hours.
                  Dear Reader, I recall a photo of Robert Frost sitting on a porch with his writing table on his lap, pen in hand.
                  Indeed, a marooned computer on a fine, September day is a wholesome thing. Makes one feel a bit Robert Frost-ish.

Learning by example

Gino & Marlene Mallia, March 19, 1955

My grandmother taught me to love good food by her joy in growing it, cooking and serving it. During my childhood, Granny’s table was the safest and most delicious place in the world.

My mother taught me the absolute bliss of birthday parties. Without fail she baked five birthday cakes each year, iced them with buttercream frosting, and decorated them with roses and green leaves. We celebrated in our basement with neighborhood playmates and family.

My father taught me to value home movies, his handwritten captions with the name and age of the birthday girl. A barber who filmed everything he prized, including his five daughters and the Detroit Tigers, Dad zoomed in on Mom’s roses.

Miss Shindler, my sophomore English teacher, introduced me to the beauty of language and tragedy of thwarted love when our class read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Miss Liennemann, my senior English teacher, assigned Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to her students. The novel opened my eyes to the blind spots in romantic love.

Now, well over the hill, I reflect upon these and other people who laid foundational life lessons in my mind and spirit unawares. Productive memory exercise, this review also generates gratitude for those who guided me into the rewarding avocations of parenthood, writing, and gardening.

I’m learning to recognize the fluent hosts of folk who also teach by example. Gino and Marlene Mallia of Leonard, for instance.

The past twenty years, Gino and Marlene have conscientiously fulfilled their respective roles as treasurer and president for the Addison Township Cemetery Auxiliary.

When Gino phoned this past March and said, “We’ve cancelled the meetings and spaghetti dinners,” I replied, “I’ve been expecting your call.”

The low-key auxiliary meetings mean much to me. I learn who’s been born, gone off to college or military service, and who’s elderly and needs help. We discuss the cemetery’s history and needed repairs. Gino reports on the program for the Memorial Day Ceremony.

Furthermore, gathering as a community twice a year over a plate of Gino’s spaghetti sustains the ties that bind in peace and understanding.

Presently, Marlene is recovering from a fall. After sixty-five years of marriage, Gino is counting down the days until his wife returns from rehab.

“The people at church signed up to bring meals when Marlene comes home,” he said when we spoke tonight. “Neighbors have brought me dinner, and the kids take me out. I’m puttin’ on weight!”

Yes, we learn how to take care of one another by example. Now it’s Gino and Marlene’s turn to receive.

“Someone offered to take Marlene’s place as president,” Gino said. “She can’t do the heavy lifting any longer.”

I hear in Gino’s voice his concern for his bride and the roles they vacate in the township where they married March 19, 1955, raised their children, and now live with their great-grandchildren.

Dear Reader, this is what sixty-five years of life-lessons can build.

I think that’s worthy of a party, don’t you? When Marlene’s on her feet again, I’ll bake Mom’s banana-nut cake with buttercream frosting, sans the roses.