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.


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

My husband woke with pancakes on his mind this morning.

“Thinking of Gram again?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadie Lee McCoy, my mother

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

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

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

Well fed, I attend to my priorities.