The meaning of "garden"


Sarah Jane McCoy, circa 1930, the McCoy Bottom

According to my belated mother, Granny assigned her to cooking family dinners at age eleven. “Everything we ate was from our garden, except flour and sugar,” Mom would say.  

Her four younger brothers were almost grown men when they drove Grandpa’s buggy over the mountain into Pikeville, the closest city in Kentucky where they purchased staples. There, the McCoy boys first encountered rice.

Back home, while Granny traded with customers in her mercantile, her sons used every pot in the new homeplace with buckets of water to contain the swelling grain and finish what they started. The hogs consumed a good portion of their predicament, saving my uncles from their mother’s wrath over wasted food.

For centuries in Appalachia, if you couldn’t eat it, you didn’t need it. Great-granny Elizabeth’s calla lilies prevailed before the old homeplace only because the perennial red flowers asked nothing of anyone but admiration.

Years later in 1954, after my parents moved our household from the McCoy Bottom to Detroit, imagine our surprise when Mom found pink hollyhocks blooming in the backyard’s alley. She offered my sisters and me toothpicks to make ballerinas of the blossoms and buds.

The luxurious landscapes of our next rental house seemed like Paradise. Rocks painted white circled a large peach tree with tulips of all colors wide open beneath.

I know this because my father considered the sight so delightful he took home movies, a family treasure. Mom sits on the mowed grass in a dress weeding while my sisters and I play hide-n-seek amongst the floribunda. Perhaps this idyllic place inspired our mother to later try her hand with raising roses.

Yet, food came first when we moved into our new, little house Dad mortgaged with aid of the G.I. Bill. Mom grew her favorite stringed beans and tomatoes in the backyard while Dad sowed grass seed and later watered with a hose.

Mom added a maple tree to shade two bedrooms facing east. A fair-skinned woman, I don’t know how she endured the scorching summer days hanging clothes in a subdivision without one leafing tree.

A divorcee at age 52, my mother returned to Kentucky and built her dream home between the new homeplace and where her Granny Elizabeth’s calla lilies once flourished. Mom planted every southern vegetable imaginable including green apple trees similar to those I climbed with my sisters and cousins when we were youngsters.  

Next, Mom ordered tulip bulbs, roses, boxwood. A weeping cherry tree for the front yard. Pink hollyhocks for the back door in plain view from her bean-stringing chair.

After Granny passed, Mom inherited the framed photograph of her younger and departed sister Sarah Jane. Three years old, Sarah poses with a fan before Great-granny’s calla lilies.

Dear Reader, whenever I said to Mom, “I’ve been working in my garden,” I meant flowers while she thought beans and corn.

“Why, I didn’t know you grew a garden,” she’d reply.  

The root to Mom’s utilitarian meaning of the word ran deep and wide.


Mitty (L) and Cuddles (R) watch a male robin defend his territory

The season of the red-breasted robin calls our curiosity to the dining room window with a crash against the glass.

The bird’s instinct to protect his territory causes such bizarre behavior. He thinks his reflection is his foe. And his show’s running on two weeks now.

Mitty and Cuddles sit captivated before the window with whiskers upward, tail curling at the tip. Their carnivorous instinct sees a bird under their paw.

Poor kitties. At the sound of a hit, they run to the window and watch as long as the bird persists.

For several previous springtides, cardinal males dominated the upper branches of the same white pine. Meaning, for weeks the cardinal fought his reflection in the bedroom window upstairs. Now, the male robin claims the lower branches for his family’s nest.

                Mitty’s patience astounds me, watching the robin without a blink. Cuddles is the first to capitulate and take a long nap. It’s less effort to dream about catching a bird.

                I’m with Cuddles in one respect: the robin show is old.

I’d rather be outside weeding, planting, pruning, and spraying fruit trees. Tracing birdcalls and songs to bluebird boxes and fen.

Burning piles of yard waste to tidy up the back forty. Planting another magnolia tree to accompany my Mother’s Day magnolia from last year.  

And yes, the gratification of green garlic stems poking through oak leaves contrasts with woodpecker and carpenter bee damage done to the pavilion’s soffit.

There’s always something to do, and I’m glad of it.

For I remember the unsettled years of 1970 to 1975. Mel and I wandered with our two babies to rentals in Bay City, Rosebush, Clawson, Westland, and Warren before we purchased our first home in Berkley.

Never did I think of pulling one weed, planting a flower, or harvesting a basket full of homegrown asparagus until we moved into our little bungalow on Cummings Street.

There, our little backyard called my name. Changed my life.

That’s where I met Burt on the south side of our fence, Bud on the opposite, and their impeccable landscapes. Burt spent one summer tapping white bricks into a meticulous border along his prolific rose garden.

Tap, tap, tap, while my girls played in the sandbox, swung on the swing, and swam in the swimming pool.

Inspired by Burt’s roses and Bud’s vegetables, I mail-ordered one bare-root Tropicana hybrid tea and asparagus crowns from Jackson & Perkins. While waiting for their arrival, per directions on the morning glory seed package, I ran a serrated knife across the seeds and soaked them twenty-four hours before planting.  

My goodness! What fertile earth! Those blue morning glories draped the fence we shared with Bud.

“Berkley was once a bog,” he said one day over the fence. “We can grow anything.”

Dear Reader, I remember the asparagus ferns taller than Burt, the tangy scent of my Tropicana rose, her slips my neighbors took home to propagate under a quart canning jar.

I remember their instinct to grow.

April synonyms


Becky and Kelly Underwood Easter 1976

April is synonymous with birdsong­: pregnant robins who proudly carry the title of our State Bird. There’s nothing sweeter than waking before dawn to a cheerful chorus of red-breasted mothers-to-be.

             I related to their song this morning when a plump robin landed on a limb outside my study window. Wednesday, April 5, 1975, the morning I waddled into Crittenton Hospital in Rochester, came to mind.

Three weeks overdue with my second child, Dr. Johnson decided to induce labor. Since our family lived forty-five minutes south from the hospital, I agreed and packed for the night. Devoted to my first attempt with natural childbirth, Mel and I dropped off Rebecca, our four-year old daughter, with a sister in Troy.

              In 1970, the obstetrician who assisted in Rebecca’s birth ordered Twilight Sleep during my labor. She consequently preferred sleeping to nursing. Engorgement ensued, the first of many obstacles that foiled my commitment to breastfeed.

Second time around, older and wiser, I listened when a friend recommended Dr. Johnson and his OB-GYN team who offered Lamaze classes to their patients and husbands. What hooked Mel was the steak and lobster dinner the hospital staff served the father and mother before they left for home with their baby.

The Lamaze movement connected me to La Leche League, an international organization that advocates for breastfeeding mothers. The local group sustained a hotline and monthly meetings hosted in members’ residences.  

Rebecca, who chose the name Becky in kindergarten, enjoyed my Lamaze breathing exercises. She’d sit before me and close her eyes while I breathed into her face.

On our short drive from my sister’s house to the hospital, I asked Mel, “If it’s a girl, what do you want to name her?”

“Not another Bible name,” he said.

“You don’t like the sound of Rebecca and Rachel?”


Considering my Irish roots, I asked, “What about the name Kelly?”


I delivered Kelly that afternoon without sedatives. She nursed vigorously on the delivery table.

My husband suggested Elizabeth for Kelly’s middle name. Obviously, he didn’t recall the New Testament reference to John the Baptist’s mother.

That night, one of April’s ice storms blew in. Alone in my postnatal room, I couldn’t sleep for joy and longing to unwrap Kelly Elizabeth for Rebecca Jane to touch. I ached for my children, husband, and bed.

The fresh April air.

Today, mother robins revive these desires, remind me not all fledglings survive when they leave the nest. No matter our diligent feeding and watch over them, many snares await the wing in its flight for independence.

On the eve of Kelly’s birth, although she’s 2,000 miles away, I see and feel her in my arms when I look out our windows, or walk our little farm and along Stoney Creek. For wherever there is a tree or shrub, the atmosphere teems with life and song.

Dear Reader, April is synonymous with birth, a tear fallen for tenderness lost. Rebecca’s hand ever reaching for Kelly’s, and never touching.

Many beautiful things

Lady in White Tea hosted by Connie (standing R)

Mitty jumped up on my bed this morning during my devotionals. Cuddles, Mitty’s sister, established this daily meeting when they were kittens. She aimed for my pen to chew on the cap which makes a scribbly mess in my journal. One morning several months ago, Mitty showed up on my bed instead for her turn to chew on my pen.

             It’s curious how the two cats respect the other’s alone-time with me and my puddle of books. It’s always the same: the cats rub their faces on the leather and paper bindings and covers. Most fascinating is the way they open their paws and pull the pen to their jaws. They’ll tire of my affection and lay against my legs for their first nap of the day. It is a beautiful thing to see a cat sleeping beside you.                

This morning, however, I could not linger. Of all blissful occasions, my friend Connie invited me to her home for tea.

Mind, Connie and her tea group take tea seriously, which means she sets a table with her unique personality and creative spirit. Of all possible ideas in her pretty little head, she decided to assign the “Lady in White” theme to today’s party.

“You can wear winter white,” she had complied.

This sent me to the basement yesterday to resurrect the most comfortable and outdated outfit on the planet. I.E., it resembles summer pajamas. Yet, the cream color met Connie’s criteria.

Spray starched and ironed, my clothing hung on the closet door as I roostered up. I packed my lavender lemon currant scones and cream and drove north to Connie’s home.

A sprinkling of purple crocuses greeted me and another guest who dressed in white lace from head to toe. I counted on my scones and cream to compensate for my poor excuse of a costume.

The lacy ladies in white arrived. The feast ensued. First course: Connie’s chicken-leek soup, scones, ambrosia salad. Second: egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches. Third: Quiche Lorraine with spinach.

To settle our food, Connie led us on a tour of her impeccably maintained vintage clothing collection spanning from her mother’s wedding gown, to her childhood Shirley Temple-like dress, to bell-bottoms.

Then she served dessert. Meringue drops and Seven Sisters Layer Cake. Giddy with sugar and caffeine, we posed for photos, another tea tradition upheld with hilarity.

Our hostess declined offers for help with dishes. “I have a dishwasher,” Connie said.

While driving home, I felt a letdown similar to after childbirth. I laid down on my bed before dinner, which I never do. Up jumped Mitty to snuggle.

Later, I recalled the beautiful things and ladies I met throughout the day, and the DVD a neighbor loaned me. Captivated from start to finish, I watched the exquisite documentary titled “Many Beautiful Things.”

Dear Reader, if you seek beauty, please watch this movie. I promise the story will open your spiritual eyes to meet beautiful things one by one, wholly and with joy.

Behold another risen season! The most beautiful of all things.

One man and seven women


When a series of three reading buddies recommend a book, I often buy it. However, several years ago, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010), a New York Times bestseller by Eric Metaxas, came with concern. I don’t read horror, fiction or non-fiction.

And what could be more horrific than another graphic account of Hitler’s Third Reich seducing a nation into fascism while annihilating Europe’s Jews and their sympathizers by the millions? Weren’t The Diary of Anne Frank and The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom enough for me to comprehend the reach of tyranny’s cruelty and ruin?

“Trust me,” a friend said, “although tragic, Bonhoeffer tells an important, redemptive story relevant to us today. My husband and I read it to each other. That might help you make it to the end. You must finish the book.”

Having read and respected Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1937), I bought Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer upon my friend’s word. My husband and I read to one another until we reached mid-way its 542 pages.

“I need a break to read something lighter. I’ll finish Bonhoeffer later,” Mel said.

As I turned the pages to the end, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theological convictions publicly responded to Germany’s gradual spiritual, moral, and social decline. ‘Only those who believe obey’ is what we say to that part of a believer’s soul which obeys, and ‘only those who obey believe’ is what we say to that part of the soul of the obedient which believes. If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of cheap grace, which is another word for damnation. If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation through works, which is also another word for damnation.

Bonhoeffer’s belief and obedience led him to the executioner’s gallows. Corrie ten Boom’s belief and obedience followed her Lord’s deliverance from evil through the gates of Ravensbrück concentration camp back to her home in Haarlem, Holland. Afterwards, Corrie began a lifelong ministry as a “tramp for the Lord’, speaking her testimony of forgiveness throughout the earth.

Within the bounty of God’s mercy, in the early 1970’s, Corrie ten Boom stood on the platform of Bethesda Missionary Church in Detroit. And there I sat amongst 2,000 people, moved that Corrie forgave the Nazi guards who beat and starved her and her sister Betsie, and millions of other women, men, and children.

Fifty-one years later, I’ve concluded Eric Metaxas’ book titled 7 Women (2015). Corrie ten Boom is listed in the cast with Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa. All women who believed and obeyed, and obeyed and believed in the salvation of Jesus Christ, stood upon these first and second halves against oppression, and forgave their enemy.

Dear Reader, when we are tested, let us remember this great cloud of witnesses. Let us stand. Believe and obey. Obey and believe.

By the way, Mel finished Bonhoeffer.


Padriac Pearce, Irish poet, 1879-1916

I discovered the root of my love for poetry twenty years ago when traversing Ireland’s winding roads. A dominant charm of the Emerald Isle is the English language spoken by the Gaelic tongue. The cost of travel is worth the verse and cadence of conversation in boisterous pubs and beside cozy peat fires.

However, as my Midwest husband couldn’t understand my relatives’ speech upon his first visit to my Appalachia, neither could my ear follow the Irish brogue.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, I consider my McCoy-O’Brien agrarian ancestors and their way of storytelling. I remember my maternal grandmother’s three books: the Bible in her hands, and a hymnal and songbook kept on her piano’s music rack. She also read the daily newspaper to keep pace with her community and new recipes.

A preacher, Granny reprimanded me when I could read music just enough to plunk out Little Brown Jug on her piano keys. “Now, git down from my piana! Who taught you how to play that ole drinkin’ song?”

Guess Granny didn’t know I took violin lessons in school. As a child, I couldn’t perceive the cultural divide between her life and my family’s. And I dared not ask why the songbook sat beside the hymnal.

My parents didn’t read books when raising my four sisters and me. As Granny, they also religiously combed the news.

I acknowledge the responsibilities my parents carried: the midnight oil my mother burned with her Brothers sewing machine to clothe her five growing girls.

My parents’ reading habits reflected middle-class America in Post-WW II’s sprawling suburbs. Our city planners also overlooked the value of reading literature when they neglected to build libraries within our neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, nationwide, households traded family stories and literature for the television.

When my older sister and I entered high-school, Dad provided us with a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, an expensive and overwhelming feast of history and information too formidable to comfortably use.

Yet, God is good and put Miss Shingler into my path. My sophomore English teacher, she quickened the promise of poetry when she led our class in reading aloud poetry by Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, to name a few.  

Dear Reader, today I pull a poetry anthology from my bookshelf and listen to an Irish voice from the early 1900’s.

THE REBEL by Padriac Pearse (1879-1916)

                I come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,

                That have no treasure but hope,

                No riches laid up but a memory

                Of an ancient glory.

                My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,

                I am the blood of serfs;

 The children with whom I have played, the men and women with    

                     whom I have eaten…

               Have worn shameful manacles, have been bitten as at the wrist

                     by manacles…

              I say to my people that they are holy…

             That they are greater than those that hold them, and stronger

                     and purer,

              That they have need of courage, and to call on the name of

                    their God,

              God the unforgetting, the dear God that loves the peoples for

                   whom He died naked, suffering shame.

Lessons from the birds and bees


(L to R) The henhouse, beehive platform, and greenhouse, March 7, 2021

It’s Sunday. I stand in the warm sunshine of our kitchen’s sliding glass door. Downhill, our Isa Browns peck and scratch in their pen. The foundation for my beehive stands beyond and between the henhouse and greenhouse­: three symbiotic structures indispensable to growing our favorite foods.

             The repurposed greenhouse built in 2006 for growing lavender plants now holds bee equipment, handy gardening tools, and straw for the chickens’ bedding.

Usually a congenial and often amusing view, today the coop is sadly less one resident. Since the April day we brought the flock of half a dozen home in our cats’ kennel, they’ve proved a dream come true. No cannibalism. No mites. No complaints.

And we appreciate their large, brown eggs with yummy orange yolks!

Mind, beekeeping is my idea. I’m determined to learn and overcome the trials and tribulations of housing these remarkable pollinators and harvesting their honey. One must roll up their sleeves to realize the benefits of the Apis mellifera to our natural world and personal health.

On the other hand, my husband, who raised chickens (roosters too) with his twin brother when boys, prefers poultry.

“They don’t sting,” he says.

Matter of fact, he showed mercy upon his egg layers and let them out to range Thursday past. After a long winter, overcome with sympathy for his pullets, Mel tends to cave when they squawk for green pastures. It’s reminiscent of those years our young daughters cried, “Daddy, pleeease, can we go?”

Well, when Mel went to close the henhouse chute two nights ago, a Brown went AWOL. Not a feather left behind.

The following night, the doorbell rang. “I’m sorry, Mr. Underwood,” said a young neighbor down the road, “but I think our dog killed one of your chickens. I’d be happy to pay for it.”

Relieved to know the victim’s whereabouts, Mel shook his head. “These things happen when you care for animals.”

I admire the five reddish-brown hens, golden light upon their up-turned tail feathers, oblivious to their loss.

A human being, I know all too well the grief and disappointment of losing who and what you cherish. I recall two miserable weeks last summer fighting yellow jackets, searching for their nest in vain while the worker bees battled the robbers in relentless defense of their queen and colony.

In the end, I found three empty honey supers once filled with capped comb. Yet, the number of dead bees indicated the queen got the heck out of Dodge with her devotees.

Consoled my over-wintered hive may have survived, I remember what a fellow beekeeper said in church this morning. “I bait and trap yellow jackets with meat, water, and a bucket.”

Be sure, dear Reader, I took note of his methods. Soon, I’ll organize the greenhouse and assemble a hive for another season observing the most magnificent insect in flight and on the frames of honeycomb.

My goodness, there’s no place on this little farm the hens love to explore more than our cluttered greenhouse.

The light of mercy and service


Members of the Casa Maria Guild of Imlay City (Dolores Ganstine, back row, third from right)

This week, in the midst of a messy change from our long-term communications provider to another, something wonderful happened. Like a ray of sunshine, an email from Dolores Ganstine appeared in my inbox.

“Happy Happy Birthday Iris🎂🎁🍦 Hope you have a Wonderful day and year,” she wrote.

More than a decade ago, Dolores and her Casa Maria Guild invited me as their guest speaker for the Annual Spring Luncheon they host for Imlay City’s Maple Vista seniors.

There I met women who hold no agenda other than to lift the spirits of Maple Vista’s seniors with a delicious lunch, learn something new, and laugh at life’s ironies­.

In 2019, Dolores called with a request to speak for their April 2020 Spring Luncheon. “Just tell us stories,” she said.

I was thrilled to accept.

            On March 12, 2020, as the Guild’s President, Dolores emailed to cancel their April luncheon. “We’re really worried about bringing the Corona virus to the Maple Vista seniors and each other,” she explained.

Although disappointed, I understood.

I struck my pen through “Maple Vista Luncheon” noted on my calendar. I would miss engaging with this wise, cheerful band of women.

Having witnessed the bountiful mercy and love the Guild members poured upon the seniors, I hoped their group would soon resume their ministry.

When the earth thawed last March, I walked into my gardens and forgot Dolores, her Guild, and Maple Vista. Out of sight, out of mind.

A year later, it’s beyond my understanding how people survived 2020 unharmed without a trowel in their hand and a patch of earth under their feet.

Statistics of increased depression amongst our elderly, and a twenty-five percent rise in teenage suicide, indicate a good portion of America has not escaped pandemic seclusion without injury and death.

These reports validate what I’ve learned from the births of my children to the deathbeds of my parents: affectionate touch sustains life and offers a gentle release from it.

We need a pair of loving eyes to welcome us into this world, guide us through it, and release us when God calls us home.

Dolores later emailed this sad news. “I have been meaning to let you know that our Maple Vista ladies guild has disbanded. Most of the ladies had been members for 20 years or longer, and because of the Covid we couldn’t go there or do anything for the seniors. So no more Casa Maria Ladies Guild after 42 years.”

I composed myself and phoned Dolores. “I’m sorry to hear about your guild.”

“We’re all in our late seventies and eighties. Younger women aren’t interested in the Guild like we were twenty years ago. My daughter and I are going to do something for the seniors on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day anyway.”

Dear Reader, I’m thankful for the perfect timing of Dolores’ ray of sunshine. The Past President of the former Casa Maria Guild does not hide her light under a bushel, or a pandemic.

Light. The natural disinfectant. 

Note: recommended reading from the Washington Post:

Rites of passage


My housecoat from my daughter Ruth for Christmas

I packed my suitcase with my winter clothes, red housecoat, and jewelry box. For the first time in my life, I left home in February 1968 to attend Central Michigan University. In retrospect, the day is grounded as a rite of passage.

Never again did I share a bedroom with one of my four sisters. Away from the hub of home, neither did I observe my two younger siblings grow into adolescents and gain their first housecoat. Another rite of passage.

Rather, be it a dorm room on campus, or a rented house in downtown Mt. Pleasant, my roommates and I gathered in our housecoats and hair rollers at day’s end.  

A short-sleeved dress at knee’s length, our attire buttoned, zipped, or snapped from collar down to hem. As Mom preferred snaps, I followed suit.

No self-respecting and frugal college female in the 1960’s and 70’s would be without her favorite, cozy housedress. Relaxed around the television after waiting tables in the Embers restaurant, my roomies and I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon July 20, 1969. In our rollers and housecoats.

Not to be confused with the long abandoned dressing gown, such as the peony pink taffeta floor-length robe my mother sewed for my wedding trousseau. Her gorgeous, long-sleeved work of art spoke of my mother’s romantic side.

As I never mastered seaming and embroidery, my mother and older sister Linda showed mercy upon my three little girls with robes for Christmas gifts.

Alas, following my mother’s principle “use what you have”, cut off jeans and tee shirts replaced my threadbare housedress for a season. Then along came Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic gold medals and fired up the sweat suit dominating J.C. Penney’s children’s and adult clothing departments.  

After school and church, my three little gymnasts and I lived in sweat pants. They passed their childhoods turning front walkovers and back handsprings—walking their balance beam, a Christmas gift from Uncle Larry.  

We owe the most recent phenomenal fashion shift to the yoga pant. “Athleisure” stretched from the gym/studio to street, shopping malls, and office. Nowadays, a long blouse (or is it a short dress?) with accessories satisfies our “formal events” cultural dress code.

I’m not complaining. As the sweat suits of the 80’s, the selection of black pants riding the yoga wave is endless. I wear them with my winter dresses and skirts. And in this present polar vortex, they’re perfect to layer under ski pants our girls left behind.

That’s if I manage to persuade myself to leave the warmth of the new, wooly housecoat my baby Ruth gifted me Christmas past. Yes, what went around came around at last.

Unlike my style of yesteryear, Wooly’s long sleeves are not meant for a busy housewife in the kitchen and laundry room. Or a college student commiserating with roommates.

Dear Reader, Ruth knew her find is designed with the solitary septuagenarian in mind.

Grateful, I wrap Wooly around a new book of poetry from my middle daughter. Another rite of passage.

The crow's conference caws

Six Isa Browns enjoy their Romaine lettuce breakfast on a frigid morning

Friday, January 29, the sun set while I typed the last line of my second novel. Two hundred and ninety-nine pages. Five hundred and eighty five hours.

Surprised and gratified, I rolled my chair away from my desk, two days before my deadline.

What now?

No, best not open the front door and shout my good news to the birds and neighbors.

So I found my husband relaxing in the living room with Michigan History Magazine. He looked up, my countenance ready to disclose something indiscernible. “What?”

“I just finished the first draft to Matewan Garden Club.”

He left his reading long enough to give a hug. “Are you happy with it?”

“For a first draft. Since you’ve cooked dinner the past two weeks, how about you order Leonard’s pizza?”

His eyes lit up.

I returned to my desk and emailed the breaking story to several fellow writers and readers.

Since Mel balks at tossing salads, I mixed some bib and romaine lettuce with sliced pear and pumpkin seeds, dressed with sea salt, ground pepper, apple cider vinegar, and olive oil.

Why is it a happy occasion enhances the flavor of the simplest meal?

Yesterday, almost two weeks later, the sunny, snowy morning called me downhill to the hens again. This time, I bundled up. In my sprint to the novel’s finish line, I’d neglected our six Isa Browns, and they let me have it.

 “Where’ve you been?” they reprimanded. “You should see the mess inside our house!”

I’d suspected as much. This happens in deep of winter.

“And where’s our greens?” they asked as I opened the pen door.

“I’m sorry, girls. I’ve forgotten my manners.”

In recompense, I turned the straw around and under their roost pole inside the house, uncovering a pile of grain. While they scratched and pecked at leftovers, I secured the heat lamp above their water feeder. “Can’t have your house burning down.”

            They didn’t hear a word.

             “I promise to visit more often,” I said, and closed their yolk-yellow door.

             Warm from exercise, sun, and the ideal winter jacket and boots, I aimed for the double swing uphill.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!”

You hear the bodacious birds before you see them. What were they out to pilfer this morning?

With my arms open to receive all this frigid wonder, I sat on the swing and bathed my face in the sun.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” Black wings flew above me toward the vegetable garden.

There’s nothing shiny down there, silly crow.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” came from maple branches high above me.

I recalled my walks years ago in deep snow, the councils of crows held in black walnut trees along our country roads. Yes, I’d missed this amusement our five sunny days in January.

“Caw! Caw! Caw!” they agreed.

Yet, dear Reader, I met a significant goal in January, did what I was sent here to do, I believe.

While Isa Browns laid eggs, and crows held conference caws, whether I showed up or not.

Poetic Jusice

(L-R) Cuddles and Mittens in a quiet moment 

Our kittens, Cuddles and Mittens, chase one another, spat from kitchen to dining room. Their two-ring circus amuses me, unlike PJ and Mo, our beloved and belated tomcats, lone mousers for eight and eighteen years respectively.

Several weeks after we buried Mo, we brought Cuddles and Mittens home. I soon found myself speaking what my mother oft repeated when my sisters and I quarreled and wrestled.

“You girls fight like the gingham dog and calico cat.”

As I separate cloves from a garlic stem, our young cats pouncing upon one another, I ponder again my mother’s meaning. Just what were the gingham dog and calico cat to provoke that inscrutable smile on my mother’s face?

Mind, amply versed in nursery rhymes and children’s literature in school, Mom supplemented our reading with picture books. However, memory will not recall the story or illustrations of a gingham dog and calico cat.

The cat and the fiddle and their allies, yes.

While I chop garlic for spaghetti sauce, it seems fitting for my mother, raised on a farm, to learn a verse casting a dog in gingham and a cat in calico cloth. For she opened our side door to stray toms and doctored them. However, she preferred pups in the house.

Under the influence of poetry and playfulness, I throw the bare garlic stem to the kitchen floor. The girls impulsively paw such things, including spools of thread, and chase them on the wood floors. The sound is soothing, and tells their whereabouts.

The garlic stem barely hits the floor before Mitty, the aggressive sister, bats it down the hall. Then off she goes under a dining room chair.

Cuddy, the compliant one, observes Mitty play with their new toy. Within minutes, Mitty tires and curls up to nap in the kitchen’s sunny corner.

The acrobat of the two, Cuddy enjoys her turn of vicarious exercise. She stands on her hind legs and tosses the garlic stem up.

Who needs a mouse to entertain a cat?

Curious, I seek and find the source of Mom’s gingham dog and calico cat: a poem-limerick by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The Duel

The gingham dog and the calico cat

Side by side on the table sat.

In the following two stanzas, the dog and cat literally unravel one another by tooth and claw to this last stanza:

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
      But the truth about the cat and pup
      Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
            (The old Dutch clock it told me so,
            And that is how I came to know.)

Dear Reader, when my mother proclaimed her daughters fought like the gingham dog and calico cat, I think she foresaw the day we stood in her place.

And so explains the smile upon her face.

Watchful eyes

My maternal grandfather and grandmother's gravestone in Peter Creek's cemetery

My sisters and I spent a few weeks each summer playing in the McCoy Bottom under the watchful eye of our ancestor’s cemetery. A familiar landmark above our portion of Peter Creek and the railroad tracks, I didn’t give my family’s burial grounds much thought.

Dad never drove us across the creek, over the bridge and up the steep runoff to the top of the hill to visit his parents’ graves. Neither did Mom take us to see her father’s tombstone, or Aunt Sarah’s, her younger sister.

Throughout my childhood, repeated family stories without tangible proof our dearly departed once lived and breathed, transfigured them into legend-like characters you find in the Bible and literature.

However, my occasional admittance into Granny’s quilt room where two vintage portraits, one of Grandpa Floyd, the other of Aunt Sarah, confirmed respectively Mom’s witness of her father’s curly hair and her sister’s Debate Club pin on her dress.

My Aunt Sara Jane's gravestone

As a child, the stories of their tragic deaths worried me. Of Scot-Irish descent and superstitions, I suspected if I went to see Aunt Sarah’s grave, I might die at age fourteen as she did.

To fertilize fear, I overheard Mom say to another relative, “Don’t you think Iris looks like Sarah did as a girl?”

When my family celebrated my fifteenth birthday in February 1964, I blew out the candles on my birthday cake with gusto.

By May 1967, a month before my high school graduation, my father no longer lived with us. He called Mom with the tragic news that his nephew, Boonie, serving with the 35th Artillery Regiment in South Vietnam, lost his life while clearing a minefield.

Dad loved Boonie—the first boy I saw boldly smoking a cigarette in his dad’s house.

“He grew up without a mother,” Mom said. “Myrtle died of a cerebral hemorrhage when  Boonie was a baby.”

That explained why Uncle Jay, Boonie’s dad, looked sad. And with age came more genetic revelations. Aunt Myrtle, one of Dad’s five sisters, died of the same malady as their mother.

Dad asked my four sisters and me to ride with him and attend Boonie’s funeral in Peter Creek. I felt compassion for my father, but considering our personal conflicts, I declined.

Memory doesn’t recall my whereabouts in Michigan when the lone bugler played the twenty-four-note salute upon the hill for Boonie’s military memorial.

Yet, our Kinsman-Redeemer works in wondrous ways to restore our waste places. I’ve since stood before my grandparents and Aunt Sarah’s graves. I’ve thanked them for watching over me when I was a carefree child climbing green apple trees.

And some summer, I’ll find cousin Boonie’s stone and thank him for his sacrifice.

Meanwhile, every Sunday after church, my husband drives us up a hill in Addison Township. He turns our car into Lakeville Cemetery.

Amongst ancient white pines and maples, we stand before my father’s gravestone with our firstborn’s beside.

Dear Reader, we cast a watchful eye over our home, and our family’s burial grounds.

Love's yearning for peace of mind

My dog Sweetie Lee, her puppies, and me, October 1968

Before I turned in last night, I called my Michigan daughter for peace of mind. Considering the contrast between her dog’s energy level and her parents’, she opted to leave her pet in their house with a friend while on a business trip.

“Hi, Mom.”

Our youngest child is a pro at disguising distress, yet the tight voice on the phone betrayed her. “How was your meeting?” I said above road noise.

“Good, thanks.”

“Are you almost home?”

“Got in this morning and went to Detroit to work on a photo shoot.”

I didn’t caution my offspring about burnout because we’re from the same DNA. However, I did inquire about my grand-dog.

“Oh, she’s okay, but I’m disappointed the sitter left her alone much of the time.”

Flashbacks of my fiascos as a babysitter and hiring babysitters for my children related to her dilemma. She and her older sister ran profitable babysitting circuits throughout their teenage years, and not without snags.

“I’m sorry. Good sitters are hard to find,” I said.

My husband overheard my end of the conversation. “Tell her we’ll be happy to dog sit any time.”

I admired our daughter’s standards for her beloved dependent, and understood her reluctance to discuss the matter when discouraged, exhausted, and hungry.

“We’ll talk about this later if you’d like. Don’t worry about a sitter.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

With Mel’s promise to care for our grand-dog in her home, I slept soundly until an old nightmare shook me awake.

I’m twenty-eight years old and eight months pregnant with our third born. And I’m betraying my faithful dog Sweetie, a golden cocker spaniel I abandoned frequently from the summer of 1965 when my boyfriend drove me to a pet store before he left for Vietnam.

Sweetie listened to my broken heart when my parents divorced in 1967. When I returned home from college the weekend the Tigers won the World Series in 1968, Sweetie presented me with a litter of black puppies.

Sweetie Lee ran to the door when I returned from college and summer employment. We stargazed together. She jumped up on the bed I shared with a sister and slept at my feet.

After I married in January 1970, Mom took care of Sweetie best she could while raising my three younger sisters and hosting their weddings.

At last, a glorious summer day in 1975, I drove Sweetie in our Volare station wagon to our first home as a permanent, albeit brief, resident of the Mel, Iris, Becky, and Kelly Underwood household.

The following fall as Sweetie approached the average life expectancy of an English cocker spaniel, our good-natured pet became deaf and prone to biting when my toddler touched her ears.

Dear Reader, I dream of Sweetie in my arms, her brown, sad eyes when I placed her in the back seat of a friend’s car never to see her again.

A choice made under duress to regret my lifetime, our Michigan daughter never met Sweetie, yet she knows her—love’s yearning for peace of mind.

Winged and rooted things

Brewer Centennial Farm, Addison Township, Michigan

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

     I inspect the damage.

     “Deer,” she says.

     “I’ll be back,” I promise.

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

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

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

     Then a jay spats and swaggers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Bradley's Field Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Time to go,” Mrs. Bradley said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seven bags.”

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

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

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

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