Where are the weeders?

Creeping bluebell invades my favorite hibiscus plant 

July 23, 2010, a stormy, hot Friday morning at 6 AM, I listed preparations for “The Lavender Infused Life” workshop. Scheduled at 2 PM that afternoon for farm visitors, I had not enough time to weed the fields.

“Where are the weeders?” I penned in my journal. Meanwhile, weed seeds rooted and sprouted in and between the rows of lavender blooming beautiful shades of blue.

            Thirteen years later, I now sometimes reach for the wrong cabinet for my spices, or forget to write a certain thank-you note. Yet, I remember the ever present dandelion, creeping Charlie, and creeping bellflower—to name three of many menaces thriving in our lawn and my flower beds.

            It’s the same old story. Never enough weeders. I rise in the morning and lay down at night with weeds and weeders on my mind.

        One lavender season, while an aspiring herbalist and hopeful farmhand and I tilled a field, the young woman panicked when she unearthed a worm.


            Please know I made mud pies as a girl and found her phobia quite singular. I dared not tell the sweet, budding herbalist that a resident garter snake named Longfellow appears in my gardens and fields on occasion.

            Later, in our private conversation at my kitchen table, I assured her, “If you want to grow and study herbs, you will encounter worms. They’re good and necessary. And all staff members must weed.”

            She wept bitterly. “I’m sorry, but I cannot.”

            “And I’m sorry,” I replied, concerned she might hyperventilate.

This incident comes to mind whenever I chance upon a wriggling earthworm while turning the soil. I hope the young woman made friends with the creatures and is realizing her dreams.

Believe me, I’d rather see earthworms in the soil than the relentless rhizome of the creeping bluebell, a grower’s nightmare to remove. I understand some human foragers consider the green shoot and leaf a delicious, nutritious salad.

And of all mysteries, this greedy plant was once grown as a culinary herb for salads. Today, some folk add the leaf to their smoothie for a dose of vitamin C.

With this in mind, could I feed the bellflower leaf to our chickens? Nope. The plant’s poisonous to poultry. Good to know!

Hmm…boil the leaves with bacon and season with vinegar, salt and pepper like collard greens? Well, I do believe what I need comes to me, so I’ll mull that over—research Campanula rapunculoides a bit more.

I conclude with good news! Tomorrow, Saturday, May 20 at 1:30 PM, I introduce a new friend and weeder to my perennial island. Yes, I’ve given her fair warning of our adversaries.

“The black flies and ants are biting, so wear long sleeves and garden gloves,” I said. “The flies aim for your eyes, the ants for your wrists.”

Dear Reader, as you see, the gardener’s goal and reward is the pleasure of creating and maintaining a groomed, blooming garden.

            Now, before I forget, there’s a few thank-you notes to write.

Kentucky Wonders


My empty KENTUCKY WONDER POLE BEAN seed package

When a child, I thought the only green bean was the Kentucky Wonder that grew up corn stalks in Granny’s and my uncles’ vegetable gardens. Wherever Dad drove us along Peter Creek on summer vacations, these Appalachian staples appeared in tidy rows nearby a house.

            I loved Granny’s delicious beans “cooked down” with a ham hock and onion in the pot, served with a slice of her hot, buttered cornbread.

Every summer when Granny called Mom in Michigan and said, “Sadie, the garden’s in,” Dad drove us south with Mom’s empty canning jars in the trunk.

Granny’s garden yielded more than enough for Poppy Roy and her, their neighbors, and our family. While Mom and Granny sat under a shade tree, stringing and snapping beans and cutting corn off the cob, my sisters and I ran in Granny’s alley with neighbor children.

When we left Granny for Michigan, Dad filled his trunk with boxes of canned corn, beans, tomatoes, and bread and butter pickles. Mom rationed their labor until Granny called the following summer and said, “Sadie, the garden’s in.”

After Mom and Dad settled our family into the first house they bought on the extended G.I. Bill, Mom planted some of Granny’s Kentucky Wonder seeds along our backyard chain-link fence. She watched closely as the vines climbed and bean pods grew.

“Now, don’t you girls bother my beans,” she’d say.

“We won’t!”

Unbeknownst to my mother, the woman who lived in the house that shared our backyard fence didn’t understand the pods were beans. When her young boys pulled off a few and nibbled them, she panicked and called the City of Warren.

“Mrs. O’Brien?” asked the City official when Mom answered our doorbell.


“Your neighbor behind you has filed a complaint about what you’re growing on the fence you share. She’s concerned the vines are poisonous.”

Shocked, Mom gripped the doorknob. “Sir, those are beans. Pole beans. I grew up on them. My children eat them.”

“Nevertheless, your neighbor has filed a complaint. I’ve orders to remove the vines.”

My mother submitted.

I knew nothing of the incident until I planted my first Kentucky Wonder seeds and shared the good news with Mom. As if my crop vindicated her loss, that summer I filled my freezer with Kentucky Wonders.

I’ve since planted Greasy and Turkey Craw bean seeds that my Uncle Tab saved and dried from his harvests. As Uncle Tab is no longer with us, last summer my husband planted string-less bean seed that didn’t produce well.

However, God knew the desire of my heart. I spied KENTUCKY WONDER POLE BEAN seed packages in the grocery store this week—$6 for two 100% certified organic packages distributed by SEEDS OF CHANGE.

Dear Reader, my cousin Barry helped Uncle Herm, my last surviving McCoy patriarch, plant Kentucky Wonder seed beside rows of corn seed along Peter Creek.  

I planted seed along a fence within a deer-proof fence in our backyard. 

I wonder who to call when the garden’s in.




L to R: Amulen, Brett, and me

I grabbed the opportunity to lay my eyes upon my grandchild, faced rush hour traffic south on I75 in the rain.

It seemed just weeks ago that my daughter Ruth and I helped move Amulen into his freshman dorm room at Wayne State University. We packed Ruth’s Jeep and my Prius.   

Now a sophomore, Amulen needed my car and dolly to move his belongings out of his dorm room. “Ruth has to work, so one of my friends will help. We’ll take several trips with your car,” he said.

Fine with me. I reserved the morning for the project, and lunch afterwards. Only the Lord knows the next time I’d see Amulen.

Mile by mile, my mind wandered back to the January day my dad drove me north on M20 to Central Michigan University. He wore his black suit and tie for the occasion.

My younger sister, Libby, and I also wore our Sunday best with our dress coats. The style January 1968.

I carried all my belongings in one suitcase, thankful Dad allowed my cocker spaniel, Sweetie, to join us.

We arrived at Woldt Hall and found my room on the ground floor, the “terrace.”

Just inside my room, Dad pointed to a colorful poster of three women on the right wall above a phonograph. “Looks like you have women of color for roommates,” he said.

Dad knew the face of every big band leader and the likes of Perry Como, but he had no interest in his daughters’ favorite Motown musicians.

Libby and I looked to each other. “Dad, they’re the Supremes,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied. He couldn’t help but know their fame.

Our college education began.

In contrast to that remarkable day, I drove to Detroit in sweat pants, long-sleeved jacket, and hiking boots for some serious lifting and loading with my grandson and his buddy.

However, Amulen and Brett, friends from Economics class, wouldn’t have it. They packed the car.

“Jaja, why don’t you go to Leo’s for a cup of tea? It’s right across the street. We’ll unload the car and be right back.”

I crossed Anthony Wayne Drive, amazed by my grandson—a Ugandan boy my California daughter and son-in-law fell in love with while working in Uganda.

Outside Leo’s, a female and male Detroit police team nodded and smiled, each holding a 7-Eleven cup.  

“I’m waiting on my grandson to return with my car for the last load of his belongings,” I couldn’t help but boast.  

“Yes, it’s rather quiet on campus when the students leave for home,” Officer Courtney said.

Officer Brian agreed. “They’ll be back fall semester.”

Dear Reader, Amulen, Brett, and I ordered the same East African meal at Baobab Fare, located on Woodward Avenue. We lifted our mugs of steamy chai tea and posed for a photo.

In my heart, I toasted to their education. To a life well lived with family, friends, significant places, and flashbacks to revive the faded glory of time past.

And someday, for grandchildren to lay their eyes upon.

A personal history of names


Lincoln High School, 1967, Speech 2 class

In April 1947, my parents named their first child Linda Lois. For two decades, the name Linda, meaning “pretty”, and Mary, meaning “beloved”, dominated the two most popular girl’s names in the United States.

 So, why in February 1949 did my parents break from fashion and sign “Iris Lee” on my birth certificate instead of “Mary Lee”?

Well, my mother, Sadie Lee McCoy O’Brien, resolved to fulfill a promise and chose Iris, meaning “promise”, although a name not famous.

According to my mother’s account, she made a vow during World War II. “When I left the McCoy homeplace to work in a factory in Kansas City, I boarded a room in Mrs. Iris Ellis’ home. In that lonely time, Mrs. Ellis was like a mother to me. That’s why I named you Iris.”

            Had I known this significant history while a teenager, I may have better brushed off the boys when they hollered in the halls, “Hey, poison iris!” or, “How’s it goin’, eyeball?”

“Boys will be boys,” my mother, the elder of four brothers, would say.

Meanwhile, I met Mary Schwartz as students in Warren Lincoln High School. One of two Marys to twelve Lindas in our class of 1967, we befriended one another in our Speech 2 class and Synchronized Swim Club.

The summer before our senior year, Mary and I boarded a bus to visit my cousins along Peter Creek, Kentucky. My cousin Kathy picked us up at the Williamson, West Virginia bus station and drove us to her home in her shiny 1966 Mustang.

I’ve since wondered what possessed my parents to allow their seventeen-year-old daughter to travel south of the Michigan border with an overnight stay in a dingy Ohio motel. My goodness, the freedom of adventure my generation enjoyed before cell phones and social media.

Since that landmark summer, several Marys continue to weave their gifts, talents, and lovingkindness throughout my life. For the past twenty-some years, I’ve sat beside Mary Merlo on Mondays in a writing group. We critique and encourage each other’s work, talk about family.

The spring of 2011, Mary Ellen Hammarland brought her daughter, Heather, to a Mother’s Day Tea I hosted in my dining room.

Within a week, Mary Ellen joined my farm staff. That’s what happens with mutual affection for tea and weeding a lavender field.

Thirteen years later, Mary Ellen remains our house and chicken-sitter, and the leader of my neighborhood Bible study.

Last but not least, two years ago in church, another Mary entered my life. During one of our conversations after service she said, “Oh, what I’d give for a good haircut.”

A daughter of a barber, I replied, “I’d be happy to cut your hair.”

Dear Reader, Mary called yesterday. “Iris, please remember to bring your scissors Monday afternoon.”

“Will do!”

After my critique group, Mary and I will sit at her kitchen table and admire the pink Easter lily the Rochester OPC delivered to her door—enjoy Panera takeout, and count our blessings.

Before I trim Mary’s hair.



My little Stonehenge

The first week of April, I surveyed the neglected tree line along our dirt road, stood akimbo, and inhaled a deep breath of reality.

“It will take weeks for me to remove the mess with my pruners and your Sawzal,” I later reported to Mel. “Let’s call James.”

He agreed.

Several days later at 8 a.m., James, tall and thin with a black beard and teeth white as the bloodroot bloom, parked his truck and machinery in our driveway. A young man assisted James as I approached and welcomed them.

“Good morning! This is Daniel,” James said.

I shook Daniel’s hand. “Thanks for helping James. Let me know if you need anything,” I said, and left them to their work.

While I returned emails at my desk, I relaxed with a sense of relief. Yet, hired help confirmed the fact my body can no longer sustain the labor of pulling up invasive vines from the earth— a new-found sport thirty-four years ago when Fritz Builders constructed our house.

I recalled the drizzly, chilly day Mel and I rented a hole digger for planting trees on our property. Mainly evergreens. Three dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, tributes to Kim, a friend who introduced me to the gorgeous attraction in her suburban front yard.

I’d forgotten how the three fiery, perfectly shaped red maples, Acer Rubrum, came to grace the hind part of our property. One, the red maple I’ve christened “Storytelling Tree” for whenever the spirit of story moves me or a visitor, stands nearby the fire pit. (Children seem to prefer chicken stories to any other.)

The red maple is native to North America and a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family. The species comes in second to the Cottonwood as the fastest-growing on our land, and in the Eastern United States. Although the wind in cottonwood leaves sounds alluring, the bothersome cotton the Populus deltoids sheds dares me to curse.

A great-great granddaughter of Larken McCoy, a logger-farmer-builder who cleared his land and built his two-story homeplace in the McCoy Bottom along Peter Creek, Kentucky, I’ve inherited a bit of his spirit. However, I’ll endure those cottonwoods, leave their fate to the owner who follows our steps on this homestead.

 By the way, James returned yesterday with his wife Ashely to complete the job.

“Where’s Daniel?” I asked.

“He had a previous commitment,” James said. “He’s working seventy hours a week because our trade can’t find enough help.”

If only I were younger, I thought.

“James, I found a fine boulder where you’re wrapping up this morning. When you’re finished, could you help me move the boulder with our dolly?”


Ashely smiled. “James’ mother would ask the same thing.”

Dear Reader, James moved not only that beautiful boulder, but three, to the entrance of our driveway.

“There’s large rock other there, do you want it?” James asked.


He set the rock atop a boulder. “There!”

I smiled. “My little Stonehenge.”

A monument to my ancestors. Loggers. Farmers. Builders.

First fruits of spring


My Happy camper 

After several teasers of springtime, the scent of sparkling dew on grass greets me. Peepers sing in the marsh down the road.

The womb of morning blooms daffodils before my little camper named Happy. And why wouldn’t she be, surrounded by all this beauty?

Yes, this glory is well worth the wait—five months plodding downhill in snow and uphill again with six warm eggs in my pocket. Sometimes five. This happens when hens age.

These days with sky-high food prices, the recipients of my egg surplus are doubly grateful for their brown-shelled gifts. I wonder why more homeowners don’t keep layers. I’ve found the intangible benefits plentiful.

I kick open the henhouse door (it sticks at the bottom). “Good morning, girls!” I say.

The Isa Browns gather on the other side of the interior screened door, squawk until I unlock and swing the door open and their chute. They jump down into their pen, stretch their legs and peck.

I gather eggs, scrape their droppings off roost poles, and refresh their straw, feed, and water.

As diatomaceous earth deters creeping insects, I spread the white powder on the straw of the roosting and laying side of the house. Also, a sprinkle of powder on the pen’s ground offers a mite treatment when the girls dust bathe.

I close the henhouse door. “Thanks for the eggs! See you at sundown!”

The flock clusters by the pen door, plead for me to let them out to graze on grass as green as Ireland. If hens could drool, they’d be drooling.

I climb the hill and determine to repair their tractor pen posthaste for safe grazing while I’m occupied outside or inside.

Sure, there’s start-up and repair costs with hen husbandry. But once a sound, small structure is complete, there’s basically the feed and diatomaceous earth expense. Oh, and grain and water feeders. Hens must have access to a fresh supply of both.

The magnolia by the pergola begins to bloom

A luscious pink color catches my eye in the awakening landscape by the pergola. The magnolia! Of course. And the forsythia, in perfect yellow, springtime succession.

This moment quickens the intangible benefits my wise friend Andy spoke of when he suggested I add hens to my lifestyle. An avid deer hunter who kept dogs, horses, and hens, Andy once said, “I witness the seasons change when I walk to the barn in the morning and evening. I see things I’ve overlooked before.”

Such as the Moon and constellations rotating around Earth when I sit in the swing atop the hill after sundown.

In this season of my life where it is my privilege to behold the first fruits of spring, I recall my teenage years with four sisters and parents in a small house.

Dear Reader, come the first warm evening, I’d lay on the lawn in the backyard, my cocker spaniel Sweetie as my pillow, and stargaze.

Oh, blessed silence and breath. There’s no price tag for the many benefits of caring for a flock of hens.

A gift for cast down sheep


My baby Ruth's Easter bucket with a wind-up sheep and chocolates

If you have a beloved lamp (or several) in disrepair, I recommend the Village Lamp Shop just north of downtown Rochester. East of the traffic light by the Dairy Queen on Romeo Road, look left for a yellow house with “139” painted white on a brown awning shading the front entrance.

FYI, you’ve missed the shop if you reach the fork of Parkdale and Romeo Roads.

Now, two things: the window on the shop’s left says “GIFT SHOP”, and that’s no exaggeration. Once the brothers and experts with lamp restoration have taken care of your problems, browse the most original shop I’ve had the pleasure to enter.

That’s if you appreciate antiques and recycled castaways transformed into art, and that’s using the term broadly.

 I never fail to find gifts, useful and quirky, some less than $10, and most above. I promise you will smile within minutes, amused at the variety of oddities.

When I dropped off two abused pole lamps several weeks ago, a little basket of white, wooly sheep with darling faces caught my eye. I picked up a sheep to discover a windup key on its side.

“Bless my soul,” I whispered. For I’d recently read a book titled “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” wherein W. Philip Keller, a shepherd, illuminates God’s relationship with us, His sheep.

I’m ever grateful for the friend who gifted me the book, a woman with eyes to see what people need. In the pocket-sized masterpiece, Keller ruminates the twelve parts of King David’s shepherd song as I’ve never read or heard it preached before.

In his progression from “The Lord is my shepherd” to the final “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” is the fifth promise, “He restores my soul.”

When a child memorizing this psalm for Sunday school class, I related “He restores my soul” to God’s forgiveness of my sins—washing my heart, mind, and spirit whiter than snow.

At age twelve, a tragic family event separated me from my Sunday school class and church services—and Pioneer Girls on Friday nights where my teacher placed my first Bible into my hands.

From that day when cast down, separated from my Bible teachers and fellow students, I couldn’t comprehend my Shepherd daily restored my distressed soul with His promises hidden within my heart.

Five years later, one marvelous day after cheerleading practice, a friend who needed her soul restored as much as I, asked, “Iris, would you like me to pick you up for Sunday school this Sunday?”

The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. He makes us to lie down in green pastures. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our soul.

Dear Reader, I bought a wind-up sheep for my book giver and daughters.

“How cute!” they said.

We watched the sheep turn in circles as their dogs sniffed the odd little creature.

As Philip Keller says, “We may rest assured that our Shepherd will never ask us to face more than we can stand.”

My Easter song


My three girls: (L-R) Kelly, Becky, Ruth, Easter 1979

I miss my daughters most at Eastertime. Sewing their dresses, finding three new pairs of white patent leather shoes.

            The Easter of 1979, our family lived on Great Smoky Drive outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Young with our futures before us, we’d left our extended families, neighbors, and church in Michigan for my husband to seize an employment opportunity.

Becky, our firstborn, attended fourth grade and loved her teacher and class. Perhaps her new pierced ears helped her adapt. She conscientiously sterilized her earrings with peroxide in a small paper cup.

When I crossed the Allegheny River to drive our middle child, Kelly, to preschool, her younger sister Ruth said, “Alligator River!”

Sponsored by the church we attended, Kelly also loved her teacher and fellow students. She cried when I returned to take her home.

“I want to go to preschool, too!” Ruth said.

Nonetheless, as Easter Day approached, the girls anticipated our return to Michigan for their Easter egg hunt with their cousins.

And I longed for dinner with my sisters and their families. Foremost, though, I recalled the Easter Sunday service within the sanctuary of our former church, the highlight being Buddy Mack’s solo of “The Holy City.”

We didn’t stick in Pennsylvania and soon moved our belongings back to Michigan. Each Easter Sunday, Buddy Mack sang “The Holy City” to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

By 1990, Becky had dropped out of college addicted to drugs. My husband, daughters, and I received word of her death July 6, 1996. Shattered, we left our church and never heard Buddy Mack sing “The Holy City” again.

Dear Reader, as you heal, it’s peculiar what you remember and hold dear. As Easter Day approaches, I remember Buddy Mack’s gift to fellow pilgrims, and sing his song on Buddy’s behalf. Please sing along.

Last night I lay asleeping
There came a dream so fair,
I stood in old Jerusalem
Beside the temple there.
I heard the children singing
And ever as they sang,
Methought the voice of Angels
From Heaven in answer rang
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Lift up your gates and sing,
Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna to your King!"

And then methought my dream was chang'd
The streets no longer rang.
Hush'd were the glad Hosannas
The little children sang.
The sun grew dark with mystery,
The morn was cold and chill
As the shadow of a cross arose
Upon a lonely hill.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Hark! How the Angels sing,
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna to your King!"

And once again the scene was chang'd
New earth there seem'd to be,
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea
The light of God was on its streets
The gates were open wide,
And all who would might enter
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day,
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away.
"Jerusalem! Jerusalem
Sing for the night is o'er.
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna for evermore!"


Sweet landmarks and legacies


Almond croissants fresh out of the oven, Give Thanks Bakery, Rochester, MI.

In 1954, my parents moved our family from our Kentucky homeplace of three generations to Detroit’s Yacama Street. My sisters and I had never seen such crowded houses on both sides of a “block,” as city people named where they lived. Every house had a number. Our house’s number was 19346.

Nobody’s house had numbers on Peter Creek where we came from. Everybody knew everybody and where they lived.

The new neighbors on our block, we lived next door to Italians, and across the street from Germans and Polish folk. They all spoke languages we didn’t know.

Alarmed by the trucks and cars that drove fast on Seven Mile Road, my mother forbid my sisters and me to skip rope past our neighbor’s house. We spent most our playtime in the backyard.

Five years old then, my saving grace was Brown’s Creamery, my landmark on Seven Mile Road. I dreamt about spinning on the stool and scooping ice cream from a tall, frosted glass as other children did.

Sometime later, Mom and Dad moved our belongings to 18960 Joann Street, also south of Seven Mile Road where Dad barbered in a shop on the corner.

On a Saturday while Dad worked, my two sisters and I walked hand-in-hand with Mom on the sidewalk along Seven Mile Road. To our surprise, she turned the corner facing Gratiot Avenue. She opened the glass and brass door to the Sander’s store. My sisters and I spun on our stools and scooped ice cream from a frosted glass.

I developed a fondness for Sander’s Confectionary which sold chocolates packaged in gold boxes, tied with ribbon. Mom never bought a box of chocolates.

One day, my Joann Street playmate, Camille, invited me into the “foyer” of her house. “Stay here,” she said and disappeared within her beautiful home.

Meanwhile, I spied something sparkly upon a small table against a wall. A sunbeam shone through the tiny window of the front door onto a crystal dish filled with chocolates. Unawares, that moment of resisted temptation granted me permission to enjoy fine sweetness whenever I could afford the expense.

Alas, as Brown’s Creamery, the Sander’s stores on Gratiot and Woodward Avenues are long gone with many remarkable establishments that proclaimed a vibrant community.

Even so, a discerning palate will not forget due honor to Brown’s Creamery and Sander’s sweet legacy.

 Nowadays, I frequent my most local Sander’s downtown Rochester store, and Give Thanks Bakery. Give Thanks’ almond croissant happens to be my present favorite pastry.  

Last Saturday, I paid ten bucks to park for a table in Canelle patisserie, 45 Grand River Avenue, Detroit. Facing the corner of Grand River and Griswold, a friend and I observed diehard Red Wings fans sporting team jerseys, braving the cold and wind.

Dear Reader, I ordered a chocolate pistachio croissant and cappuccino. My friend chose their scrambled egg croissant. I pass on our recommendations to you.

Time will tell if Canelle Detroit makes my list of sweet landmarks and legacies.

March company


Our cat, Cuddles
These monotonous March days, Cuddles, our tortoiseshell cat, spends a good deal of daylight contemplating springtime. When she’s not napping on a chair beneath the kitchen or dining room table, she jumps up on her stool by the kitchen’s sliding-glass door.

I love how she curls her front paws under her chest and ponders the frozen view. She’ll sit for hours without moving a whisker, her beautiful eyes fixed upon our neighbor’s snow-covered woodpile—her hunting ground when the snow melts and the earth thaws.

Sometimes her eyes close as if dreaming of mice. When she spies a passing wing or our chickens downhill strutting in their pen, she swags her tail, slowly. Oh yes, come Spring, birds beware!

Cuddles and her sister, Mittens, now thirty-something in feline years, seldom play inside any longer. I enjoy their sporadic wrestling matches which provoke echoes of my mother’s voice. “You girls fight like cats and dogs!”

Oh, those were the days. Once, when my parents left us alone, one of my sisters dared take Dad’s barber shears from the bathroom to use in the living room. Well, guess whose rear-end landed on the point of those scissors?

As I seemed unharmed by the puncture with no show of blood for evidence, my siblings and I agreed it best to keep the incident our little secret.

All’s I can say is God’s angels worked overtime with the O’Brien girls when Mom and Dad left us alone—which they seldom did. Otherwise, we may have been maimed or fatally wounded ourselves.

Back then in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, I couldn’t imagine keeping myself out of mischief with reading books like “Old Yeller,” “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and the Nancy Drew series. My parents read the newspaper. The neighborhood where we grew up in Warren didn’t provide a local library. Two strikes against developing readers of my sisters and me.

Nonetheless, I sit in my study including dictionaries of three different languages, literary anthologies, “how to write” books such as William Zinzer’s “On Writing Well.”

The top shelf of the bookcase my Uncle Jim built for my mother holds her collection of American and English classics, most I have yet to read.

For they have firm competition for my time. Jane Austen’s “Emma,” for instance, the novel that called my name last week which I have completed midway. Indeed, Austen’s wit and circuitous romances make engaging company in March.

A slow reader, I cannot plow through a book, sometimes reading until my eyes ache. Last night around midnight I read this dialogue, “My good friend, this is quite unnecessary; Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it, and as to Mrs. Bates’s, he may get there from the Crown in a hop, step, and jump.”

Dear Reader, such prose humors me. Written between February 1811 and August 1816 in England, Austen endured several months of March while developing her plots, places, and characters.

All lost on my sweet cat, Cuddles.

Beating the bushes

My darling junipers, after my beating

Well, it took winter long enough to arrive, and let loose when she did. My local library cancelled their “Pride and Prejudice” book talk two consecutive Wednesday nights due to icy roads. Then, somehow, this past Wednesday night, I missed the discussion.

“P&P’, as Jane Austen fans say, first enchanted me in 1967 when Miss Liennemann, my senior year English teacher, included the classic in our syllabus.

I’m eternally grateful for the assignment that influenced my reading and writing life more so than “Kon-Tiki” and “Great Expectations.” I enjoyed Thor Heyerdahl’s adventure on his raft with a team of sailors—and Dickens’ boy, Pip, coming of age in nineteenth-century London. Yet, they don’t call my name as does Jane Austen.

Perhaps it’s due to an investment I made years ago. A fellow reader and writer led me to a collection of antique copies of Austen’s work. I spent every discretionary dollar in my possession to purchase the treasure. Miss Austen’s seven stories in ten volumes rest under a glass dome until she calls my name.

My antique collection of Jane Austen's novels

You’d think wintertime ideal for holding one of Austen’s brittle, faded, green bindings. I did, too. Instead, I’ve been beating bushes.

Literally. That’s what happens when I fail to protect my ornamental junipers and boxwoods from heavy snowfall. The most efficient and merciful relief for shrubs and trees in snow distress is to grip the handle of a sturdy broom. Then trudge through snowdrifts and beat sagging branches laden with snow.

This exercise began with the junipers, two darlings planted beside each other nineteen years ago in my upper, backyard garden. The tall, thin shrub barely reached my knees back then. Now, I cannot touch its top. The other juniper I’ve trimmed into the shape of an umbrella. The two stand as inseparable attractions, no matter the season.

I whacked the broom on the bent branches of the tall juniper, clumps of snow falling on me and the ground as the branches sprang up. Easy-peasy.

The canopy of snow on the other juniper also gladly fell under the beautiful, blue sky. Invigorated, I spied our barrier of evergreens on the west side of the house, braches in the most humbling posture I’ve seen in our thirty-three years on this homestead.

“Take that!” I said and beat the branches with the broom. The boughs sprang up happily.

I bashed all the evergreens within my reach and walked uphill and indoors for a cup of green Earl Grey tea, and chocolate shortbread. Although beating bushes is great fun and exercise, I noticed the bent branches of the tall juniper did not recover upright. I’d have to tie the shrub together before the next snowfall, or risk damaged limbs.

Dear Reader, yesterday, I saw snow in the forecast and at last secured the branches of the skinny shrub. Which means I slept well last night and didn’t have to rescue my darling this morning.

Hmmm..is that “Emma” calling from under Jane Austen’s glass dome? It’s been too long.

Terms of endearment


The daffodils behind the garage 

This past February 20, between snow and ice storms, a friend emailed, “My narcissus are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            Amused by her sentiment, and happy to oblige a truthful report, I replied, “And my daffies are popping up, the little stinkers!”

            For I keep a patch of yellow daffodils behind the garage for this very purpose. Within view from the kitchen’s sliding glass door, they snuggle the garage and pea gravel border of our backyard patio. Often before the snow melts, their shoots drill through the soil to my applause.

My dependable showoffs, the daffies think they’re in the Mediterranean and usually bloom for my first Lenten bouquet. I’ll sometimes cut a magnolia branch and include it with the daffodils in a vase indoors and force the buds to open.

White Helleborus bloom, now covered with the last snowfall.

Although my Helleborus bloom first in winter, their short stems and white flowers seem too shy and matronly to consider them “little stinkers.” There’s not a narcissistic gene in the Helleborus. 

Indeed, Nancy, a fellow writer and gardener, revived in her email the endearment I used for my three girls while changing their diapers. Cloth diapers. Although Pampers appeared on the market in 1961, most young mothers of my means considered disposable diapers a luxury—and pun intended, a waste of money.

From the moment our third-born and baby could walk, she spontaneously performed fashion shows for every guest who entered our front door. Between wardrobe changes, she appeared in her diaper to the provocation of a unanimous, “What a little stinker!”

Today, she remains our family’s fashionista, her shoe and clothes closet the size of a small boutique.

As my children grew, I cheered them on in their passion to cross the finish line first, jump the highest pole vault, achieve academic awards, star as lead roles in high school plays, and design the latest fashion.

In a recent phone call from California, my second daughter used, “the stinker,” in reference to her eighteen-year-old son. I remembered my eighteenth year, the awkward and unprepared passage into the age of accountability and sensibility.

I remembered my daughter’s eighteenth year away at Alma College, responsible beyond her years.

Lastly, I considered my grandson, a young man taking his studies seriously as a student of Wayne State University, adapting well as a transplant into a different culture and city scape. Like narcissus, he’s driven to be first.

Now, being the second born of five daughters, striving for first place never crossed my mind. However, I achieved the highest score in cheerleading tryouts between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. One of the judges volunteered the information, otherwise I would’ve never known.

Oh, and in 2013 my lavender farm received the Keep Michigan Beautiful Award for my “outstanding contribution to beautification.”

Dear Reader, nonetheless, a good friend claims I’m “a stinker” whenever I tease her about working every job but prostitution to support her domestic hobbies and charitable donations.

I take it as a term of endearment.   

Hummingbird Cake History


Hummingbird gift from a friend

Everything holds a history, particularly delicious desserts. Take pie, for example, spelled “pye” in medieval England. Remember the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”? Indeed, at one time in British culture, live birds flew from pies in surprise entertainment for children at suppertime.

            Not as wildly exciting, but wonderful nonetheless, I remember my mother standing before the kitchen counter forming perfect balls of dough with her hands. The synchronized sound of her rolling pin on the countertop often roused expectation of relatives for dinner.

There was no such thing as one pie for dessert in Mom’s kitchen.

            Although famous for her flaky piecrusts, Mom also baked spice cakes and iced them in peaks of seafoam frosting. Her chocolate and banana-nut layer cakes with smooth, buttercream frosting also developed a palate for culinary excellence.

            Mom’s cookbooks I inherited also prove these favorites merely scratch the surface of the pastries she served her family, neighbors, and relatives.

            Considering this heritage, when my friend Marilyn gifted me a darling glass hummingbird last January, I hung the yellow-winged trinket below a kitchen cabinet for cheerful company. To my delight, on rare sunny days, the hummingbird’s yellow head and green beak cast sunbeams while I cook and clean.

            One recent day, while pondering what pastry to serve Marilyn and our fellow tea friend, Anne, for our February gathering, I recalled someone raving about the Hummingbird Cake.

Yes! That’s the perfect dessert to serve, I decided, and consulted my “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook, Mom’s “Pillsbury” cookbook, and Volume I and II of “The Gourmet Cookbook.”

Not one Hummingbird Cake recipe.

Surprisingly, my more modern Southern cookbooks do not include the recipe, either.

Reluctantly, I visited the Web and found a plethora of Hummingbird Cake recipes with common ingredients. Furthermore, I learned this supposedly world-famous cake is a Jamaican dessert introduced in the 1960s by the Jamaican Tourist Board.

This explains why Mom never baked a Hummingbird Cake, and why the recipe does not appear in cookbooks published in the 1960s.

Known in Jamaica as their “Dr. Bird Cake”, so named after their national bird, the hummingbird, they use their local pineapple, bananas, and spices to stimulate their tourist industry.  

The pliable recipe settled into the U.S. South, the likes of “Southern Living” magazine and Paula Deen creating their version once they got hold of the Jamaican recipe. This explains the recent, rapid growth of the cake in contemporary accounts of American cooking, and then the world’s.

Consuming generous amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, the dense, moist cake smothered in cream cheese frosting and heavily garnished with toasted pecans, we cleaned our plates.   

            Dear Reader, although there is no such thing as one kind of cake or pie on my table, I’m certain the Hummingbird Cake is destined to return.

            Oh, and the sherry glass filled to the brim with dark chocolate ganache, with the pot of steamy Earl Gray tea, completed our culinary experience entirely. And the ladies took plenty cake home.

Hummingbird Cake (350 degrees)

3 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon each nutmeg and ginger

½ teaspoon salt

3 eggs

2 cups mashed very ripe bananas

8 oz. cup crushed pineapple

¾ cup vegetable, or olive, or coconut oil

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

2 cups toasted pecans


8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups powdered sugar

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

1-2 tablespoons milk

·         Toast 2 cups pecans in oven. Grease and flour 2 round baking pans or bundt pan: place 1 cup pecans in bottom of pan(s)

·         Blend flour with dry ingredients; add wet ingredients, pour into pan(s)

·         Bake for one hour or until cake is dry with toothpick test; cool cake for two hours

·         Meanwhile, whip cream cheese with remaining ingredients for frosting. Pour over cake and sprinkle with remaining coarsely chopped pecans