Camaraderie of love and hope


L-R: Ruth, Miles, Mary, Iris, and Mel Underwood, Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2021

I hummed along to Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” and set the dining room table for Thanksgiving Day dinner guests: our daughter Ruth, and Mel’s younger brother Miles and his wife Mary from Whitefish Lake.

Miller’s sliding trombone provoked memories of 18960 Joann Street in Detroit. There, my sisters and I danced and shouted “Pennsylvania six, five thousand!”

                Three tender Appalachian transplants, we had no clue Pennsylvania was another state in the United States of America. We also didn’t know “Pennsylvania six, five thousand” was a phone number.

Where we came from along the banks of Peter Creek in Kentucky, only post offices, stores, and a few rich people had phones. Everyone else hollered up and down the hills to their neighbors.

                Thanksgiving Day on Joann Street, Dad took home movies of my sisters and me and our cousins. We danced to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and the silly “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” More places we didn’t know.

Meanwhile, Mom’s huge, stuffed turkey baked in her oven. Her light rolls rose in muffin tins on the back of her stove. Her pecan, apple, and pumpkin pies cooled on the kitchen counter while she mashed potatoes and baked candied yams with marshmallows.

At last, Dad filmed Mom’s candlelit table. Elbow to elbow, our father’s kinfolk passed platters and bowls in gratitude of Mom’s good, home cookin’.

In this reflective mood, I laid my eyes upon the sparkling, crystal glasses I inherited from my mother and listened to Glenn Miller’s lyrics. The meaning of the words illumined my understanding.

As a child, I’d danced in oblivious bliss of my father’s part in the Allied Forces’ victory of World War II. Now, at the age of Dad’s death, I at last comprehended his reverence for Glen Miller’s music—songs that spoke the camaraderie of love and hope for his safe return to Peter Creek from overseas.

I woke rested and enthused to a drizzly Thanksgiving morning, thinking of Ruth walking in the Detroit parade.

Miles and Mary arrived around nine o’clock and unloaded the turkey in a roasting pan.

“Miles’ mom gave me the roaster,” Mary said.  

“She filled my kitchen with her gifts, too,” I replied.

“When do you expect Ruth?” she asked.

“The parade ends at noon. So between two and three.”

My first co-op traditional Thanksgiving dinner, Mary also provided the dressing and gravy and her homemade pecan pie (per Ruth’s request), with a can of Reddi-Whip.

Ruth and our grand-dog Lily walked in while Miles carved the turkey. He obliged samplings for Lily.

Unlike the bygone Thanksgivings of our childhoods and our children’s, we passed platters and bowls with ample elbow room. No children jitterbugged to Glenn Miller’s swing, nor played touch football outdoors.

Yet, to my chagrin, this Thanksgiving dinner owns one unforgettable bungle: my repulsive green bean casserole.

It’s confirmed, dear Reader, the expiration date on the French-fried onion can read 2017.

Food. Family. Story. Thus began another blessed Advent season.

Heroes and Milestones


Uncle Herm, the elder brother, and Uncle Tab, now gone to Glory (photo March 2018)

Pardon me, dear Reader, for this hurried letter. You see, my beloved Uncle Tab, the baby of Floyd and Ollie McCoy’s children, passed away last Sunday at age eighty-nine. His funeral is in two days in Lexington, Kentucky. 

My four sisters and I now have one older surviving hero on my mother’s side. Uncle Herm. I’ve introduced you to these brothers and Appalachian coal miners before.

I hope I didn’t neglect to tell you that when I was a child, they took turns bouncing me on their knee and recited, “Ars Lee caught a flea sitting on her daddy’s knee.”

The root of my love for stories, I believe.

For there’s more to the tale than that. When my mother, the eldest in her family, was a child, her daddy bounced her on his knee and said, “Sadie Lee caught a flea sitting on her daddy’s knee.”

Imagine how such affection and inheritance bonds an uncle and niece.

Our summer vacation surrogate fathers, Uncles Tab and Herm ran leg races with us around the Homeplace in the McCoy Bottom, a flatland between the bosoms of surrounding mountains. The first to touch the snowball bush from where we started, won the race.

Uncle Tab would insist I beat him and Uncle Herm the summer of my twelfth year. I think they rigged the race.

Uncle Tab makes chicken and dumplings for dinner (photo 2017)

Meanwhile, our daddy, an O’Brien, barbered in his shop on Seven Mile Road and Joann Street in Detroit as Mommy helped Granny put up her garden in canning jars at her house in Phelps.

As they wiped sweat from their brows, my sisters and I played in Phelps’ alleys with the Charles children. A lady named Beulah who wore too much makeup owned a store and roller rink that Granny forbad us to enter.

The baby of ten children, our father’s brothers were older and played baseball instead of running races. After the mine fell in on Uncle Ed and crippled him, the men stopped playing baseball in the Bottom.

My sisters and I called Uncle Ed our Uncle Daddy because they looked so much alike. Sadly, there’s not one O’Brien alive of their generation to say good-bye to Uncle Tab. Since my sisters and I are half O’Brien, we’ll stand in for them.

After we received the expected news about Uncle Tab, my husband and I celebrated the forty-fifth birthday of our baby, Ruth. After she read the birthday letters we wrote, she said, “If I live to ninety, I’ve spent half my life.”

Milestones such as this cause a mother to linger in the moment. “If I live to be ninety, I’m in the last quarter of my life,” I replied.

Last night, our daughter Kelly called from California. “Mom, was it Uncle Tab or Herm who paid all us kids $20 for standing on our heads in Nana’s family room?”

“Uncle Herm. So, you remember?”

“Who could forget an uncle shelling out twenty-dollar bills to his nieces and nephews for standing on their heads?”

House plans


Becky accepts her First Place medal in the 200 meter with the Second and Third Place winners

When Mel and I visited Angie and El in Saline last March, they removed their robot vacuum from the coat closet for a demo.

“A Christmas gift from the grandkids,” Angie said.

Although impressed with the cute and mute machine, I was inclined to use what we have. Our Miele vacuum cleaner, specifically.

            However, the idea of a compact, cordless vacuum concealed in a bedroom closet upstairs grew on me. We wouldn’t have to carry the Miele canister with its long hose and attachment up and down thirteen steps.

Considering our age, inflation, and product shortages, the sooner the purchase the better. Mel’s birthday this week offered the perfect occasion.

            So I called Angie for her maid’s manufacturer and model. This led to mention of her first granddaughter, a college freshman and one of many grand-stars who orbit Angie and El’s immaculate household.

            “Madi asked us to come visit her at Purdue. Of course we’re going,” Angie said.

            Madi’s mother, Christa, ran track with Becky, our eldest and deceased daughter. When Becky won the Class D State Track Championship in the 200 and 400 meters in 1987, Angie and El sat with us in the stands.

The fall of 1987, Christa’s and Becky’s cross country team won the Class D State Championship. Angie, El, Mel, and I waited at the finish line with other fans.

Joy unspeakable.

Proud parents hold the trophy of the Girls' Class D State Cross Country Championship 

Soon afterward, we sold our house in Detroit and moved our family into an apartment in Sterling Heights before Christmas. Our three girls shared the master bedroom and bath for fifteen months without one spat. Meanwhile, Mel and I saved for and purchased property in Addison Township.

            Remember the hot, muggy July of 1988 with an average temperature of 88.9 degrees? Our daughters spent hours in Shoal Creek’s swimming pool while I sat in the shade and studied house plans for our little Cape Cod. 

            “It’s like we’re on vacation,” Becky once said at the dinner table.

            With Angie and El’s home three minutes from our temporary residence, we often shared Becky’s and Christa’s college plans. Thirty-three years later, Angie 79 miles away, we reflected upon that year of 1988.

“If you had a chance to do it over again, would you do anything differently with your house?” Angie asked.

I answered without hesitation. “I’d follow the blueprint with the entrance from the garage into a mudroom with a door to the hall. But Becky needed a closet for the first floor bedroom, so we opted to put the garage door entering the kitchen. We never thought Becky wouldn’t claim her room.”

Angie, a daughter and mother who endures her blows with peace and patience, said, “We can plan all we want, but our children must live their own plans.”    

True, dear Reader. The door to the garage in our kitchen reminds me of my folly in revising house plans for a teenager’s bedroom.

However, I plan to turn loose our maid in my first-floor study-library and the closet we built for Becky.

A light in the darkness


The Big Dipper almost as I saw it (courtesy of the internet)

When we moved our family from Detroit’s streetlights to a country road in February 1989, we learned the phrase, “We’ll keep a light on for you.”

Under a new moon, we couldn’t find our way to our neighbor’s house on the corner without their lights to guide us. Beyond the beam of our porch lamps, we couldn’t see our hands before our face.

            Come springtime, our little women, ages 19, 14, and 12, sat on their bedroom floor in the evening, looking into the black void beyond an open window. A heinous scream shivered through me.

Terrified eyes turned to me. “Mom, what’s that awful sound?” they asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never heard it before.”

            A neighbor down the road later said, “Oh, that’s a rabbit cyrin’ out ‘cause a coyote’s after it.”

“Coyotes?” I asked, appalled at the severe code of the food chain.

He laughed. “Welcome to the country!”

Within two growing seasons of rabbit-nibbled perennials and tree saplings, I better understood God’s wisdom and began keeping tomcats. First P.J., then Mo, short for Mozart, a musical, fierce feline. Mo hunted and consumed my number one garden pest with impunity.

I’ve learned to protect the perimeter of our vegetable garden with an eight foot deer-proof fence and chicken wire at the base to deter hopping critters. Still, I mend that fence annually, gnawed by another generation of Peter Rabbit.

The other night when I took our grand-dog Lily out on her leash, a cottontail skittered into the road’s windrow. Thankfully, Lily didn’t see or scent the creature.

 Rather, she stood facing west under a black, starlit sky, her Labrador nose the only muscle moving on her sleek body.


We couldn’t see them on the other side of the valley, but Lily didn’t budge. She growled low and long. I griped her leash and turned her toward the perennial island.

Above the garden’s crabapple tree, the Big Dipper hung upside down, poised on the end star of the ladle! The bowl poured northward. I gazed skyward in the silent, cold atmosphere, amazed to see the seven stars in this position as Earth rotated within the heavens.

After a good night’s rest under the Big Dipper, Lily and I returned to the same place outside our front door the following morning. Dim rays of dawn glistened on the frost-covered lawn and leaves.

Lily sniffed while one by one, stems of heart-shaped redbud leaves detached from branches and fell upon a cushion of papery leaves with a soft sound of finality. Leaf by leaf, they offered up their last breath.

In the lifetime of this lovely tree, I’d never witnessed this sacred farewell. I have Lily to thank for her perfect potty timing.

Dear Reader, if I lived a thousand years, I think it a fraction of time to adequately partake in a small portion of the changing seasons.

Of one thing I am confident. My loving God will always keep a light on in the darkness.

The who, where, what, why, when of life


A birthday card from my childhood scrapbook

Today I lunched on asparagus soup as October shed her wet and windblown clothes. Another season concludes, the divide wider between my childhood and present day. A challenge for a writer devoted to memoir, to sustain authenticity of times, places, things, and people.

Memory often serves me well. Yet, as we all know, she’s prone to embellish the truth. Just ask my four sisters and I to tell you the same story we all experienced in the same place at the same time, and you’ll see my point.

We human beings perceive specifics differently: who, where, what, why, and when. If we misrepresent one of the five w’s, we slant our history.

Most readers understand memory’s limitations. They forgive an author’s minor embellishments in such remarkable memoirs as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

Nonetheless, at times I grope for the right word to describe the person, emotion, and circumstance. For me, this condition is not writer’s block, rather, fussing over uncertainties. God forbid I misspeak.

Although I couldn’t recall Camille Makuch’s siblings, that didn’t confirm my childhood lookalike and best friend was an only child. My online searches the past ten years led nowhere but discouragement.

Until yesterday.

Glory hallelujah! While puzzling out a memoir passage from patchy mental pictures of Camille’s mother, the still, small voice I’ve come to trust suggested I open my red scrapbook again.

Most likely provided and preserved by my mother, I can’t recall who placed the fragile, abused keepsake into my hands after her death. Splotches of dry glue on many pages indicate someone tore mementoes from my treasure.

My object of pursuit was a birthday card which says “Making a birthday call to say Hello!” illustrated with three kittens and a telephone. Inside, Mrs. Makuch signed, “Happy Birthday Iris! Camille Makuch & her parents.”

Unaware of Mrs. Makuch’s first name, I searched online for Camille Makuch’s obituary, which delivered Eleanor Makuch’s obituary, Camille’s mother.

Born the same year as my mother, Mrs. Makuch’s children included Camille and two siblings who live in Michigan. They lauded their mother as a marvelous Polish cook who retired at age 81 from the Detroit Public Schools.

Yes, this made sense. Camille and I rode our bikes together on Joann Street south of Seven Mile Road. Our mothers forbade us to leave our block.

Several online links confirmed Camille’s occupation as an RN in the Okemos area. And one link provided her home address.

Thrilled with these revelations, I retrieved a greeting card from my mother’s secretary. Ceremoniously, I introduced myself to the playmate who also wore her hair in a bob.

If the address is correct, Camille should receive her card Monday, November 1.

Dear Reader, Mrs. Makuch’s birthday card and others from Granny, my Sunday school teacher, and Pioneer Girls leader bridge the divide of time.

Perhaps this explains why I love kittens and have accumulated plastic bins of cards I’ve received throughout my life. What better way to review the five w’s of my personal history in my sunset years?