A friend's friendly reminder


My redbud (Cercis canadensis) outside my study window, prune after blooming in spring

You’d think a gardener could rest from yardwork in January. Not according to Richardson Wright, one of America’s foremost garden historians, advisors, and authors (1887-1961).

As you lean against your pillow, lamplight upon pages you hold open to “January 20” in a well-worn copy of “The Gardener’s Bed-Book,” the furnace blowing warm air from a vent into your room, you read his concluding words for the day: “All tree pruning should be finished before the end of this month.”

“What?!” you declare and drop the book upon your lap. “Richardson must be joking! This is Michigan!”

Now, you know better, for you’re acquainted with Mr. Wright’s devotional dedicated to efficient and wholehearted gardening. Whether it be identifying his garden tools with a patch of French blue paint, to his passion for cut flowers arranged in a vase on a table or nook, the former editor of “House & Garden” magazine in the 1920s and 1930’s speaks with authority.

Even so, you’ve long spoken his first name in praise and complaint as you absorb his knowledge, wisdom, and humor seven mornings a week.

You’ve also heard him earnestly speak your first name, friend to friend, when he repeats his reminder, “Yes, all tree pruning should be finished by the end of this month.”

More often than not, you’ve turned to your window, sleet or snow beating upon it, and ignored Richardson’s January 20 footnote. Come spring and summer, your puny apple and pear harvest confirms the man from Connecticut knew what he was talking about when his book was first published in 1929.

Nature cannot change her ways. Trees leaf and bear best when pruned in winter.

Well, you offer one last argument—who needs to prune fruit-bearing trees in freezing weather when you can buy produce from the local farmers market? Perhaps it’s best to cut the pear and apple trees down and simplify life.

Here, Richardson hides his mustache and scorn behind a hand, and leaves you to the consequences of your own neglect.

In time, if you truly desire to consume the delicious labors of your land, you’ll observe the remainder of January’s weather forecast for a sunny and calm day.

Meanwhile, you’ll assess your trees’ needs, sharpen your saw, and have the appropriate ladder at ready.

When the ideal pruning morning arrives before February first, you’ll put down your coffee or tea mug and pull on your snow gear. For you’re determined to put Richardson’s advice to test.  

You understand there’s more visibility of the tree’s structure without its leaves to better prune. And it makes sense that diseases and bugs are less prevalent to make a home of the fresh cuts in dormant limbs.

Furthermore, winter pruning doesn’t stimulate new growth that may not harden before the sap runs in springtime.

Eventually, dear Reader, you suspect your good friend Richardson Wright promoted winter pruning to relieve the demands of springtime gardening upon his fellows.

In genuine mercy, he submitted his friendly pruning reminder of January 20.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree

R-L: Mom, Patty, Iris, Libby, Linda, Sonia, circa mid-1990's

 I celebrate Mom’s January birthday with one of her favorite sweets.

Her four younger brothers often decreed her apple pie undeniably the best of its kind. Especially served a la mode with her beautiful smile and cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

She once said in her seventies, “I’ve baked a mountain of pies in my life.”

In that report, my mother didn’t exaggerate. Furthermore, she never could countenance a slice of American cheese atop her apple pie. Me neither.

Come January 10, Sadie Lee McCoy’s birthdate, I’ve had enough Honey Crips and Jonathans. I prefer a slice of Mom’s fruitcake in honor of the hours she stood before the kitchen counter mixing eggs, butter, flour, and spices with pecans and candied cherries and pineapple. A generous woman, Mom baked multiple batches of this holiday treat for her brothers and children.  

Her recipe (which I gladly inherited) yields enough to fill one large tube, or three loaf pans. Mom chose a tube pan. Larger the cake, the better. While the inverted confection cooled atop a bottle, she soaked cheesecloth in Dad’s brandy in a bowl. Then wrapped the entire cooled cake with the flavored cheesecloth.

She sealed the finished product with aluminum foil, packaged and mailed what went south, “back home” to my uncles. The last huge round vanished somewhere within the house until Christmas Eve. I suspect Mom sneaked it into the basement’s spidery fruit cellar, safe from her girls’ sweet tooth.

After my sisters and I consumed the Christmas trees, wreaths, and snowmen cookies we’d decorated with Mom, her five-pound cake remained untouched, marinating to perfection.

At last, her masterpiece appeared Christmas Eve, slices arranged on a festive platter. Piece by piece, we enjoyed Mom’s fruitcake to the last serving.  

Now in my seventies, I cannot say I’ve baked even a hill of apple pies. Perhaps I came close with hundreds of batches of currant lemon lavender and mocha chocolate pecan scones for the ten years I served teas to farm guests.

Yet, that short season pales to the lifetime my mother baked for her siblings, husband, five children, five sons-in-law, and fifteen grandchildren. Add the years she cooked for Van Dyke Public Schools and later baked and decorated wedding cakes for customers, I imagine a mountain of pastries isn’t far from the truth. 

This past Tuesday, on my mother’s 101st birthday, I removed my one loaf of fruitcake from its hiding place. The other two loafs left the house Christmas Day as gifts to my daughters. They love their Nana’s fruitcake.

I unwrapped the cheese cloth and sliced a larger than usual piece, and cut it in half. “Happy birthday, Mom,” I said and plated my portion. The other half I shared with my husband.

Dear Reader, one pound and eight ounces of fruitcake remain hidden for me to savor whenever I please. Meanwhile, I’m thinking Mom’s fried apples and biscuits with my hens’ fresh eggs will make a fine, winter breakfast.

As she said, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Occupational hazards


Two trees who hold each other on Townsend Road, Addison Township

Well into Michigan’s sedentary season, I awoke this morning wanting a muddy walk. Other than a hike downhill to the henhouse and back uphill with eggs in my pockets, I’ve not spent much time outdoors the past several winters.

            After my bathroom scales found the five pounds I’d lost while gardening last summer, I laced my hiking boots the second time this winter. I resolved to walk at least twenty minutes before my desk impaled me for the day.

An occupational hazard.

During Christmas vacation, Kelly, my California daughter (the offspring who gifted me a 1,000 piece puzzle) asked if I’d like to take a short walk. Our favorite route, a long, steep downhill/uphill trek, features the restored, historic Townsend barn on the hilltop.

Kelly and her younger sister learned to drive on Townsend’s rutty, dirt road, often avoiding potholes deep and wide enough to bury them in our used Chrysler Le Baron. Ruth, our youngest child, the family’s “Braveheart,” learned to drive during the movie’s release and pothole season in 1995. Twenty-five years ago.

Enough time to forget that walking in the morning revives such blessed memories. I also recalled my two trees who hold each other, which I forgot to greet when Kelly and I passed them. Per my former ritual, this morning I touched the trees, a hand on each, felt the furrows in their bark.

Praise God, they still stand.

In the quiet, leafless atmosphere, I aimed again toward the sound of hammering, just as Kelly and I walked toward the whine of an electric saw several days ago. When we turned onto our neighbor’s drive, we beheld the most magnificent barn graced with a cupola.

My neighbor worked amongst piles of wood with his saw.

“Hello, Sabastian! I brought my daughter to see your barn,” I said.

He offered his usual smile. “Go on inside!”

We climbed the stairs from the lower floor of horse stables to the upper room of the behemoth building.

“This is huge!” Kelly said.

“Sabastian dreams big,” I replied.

“He sure does.”

Perhaps that’s why the hammer called my name again this morning. To witness the fulfillment of his dream and resolve in progress—with his two hands and tools of his trade in very uncomfortable weather.

A builder’s occupational hazard.

At the bottom of Townsend’s hill, I admired Sabastian’s handiwork without notice, then scaled the road back home more grateful than ever for neighbors who cherish barns and horses and hay fields.

And relieved I dream of writing stories in the comfort of a heated or air-conditioned study, depending on the weather, I returned to my desk.

Dear Reader, I resisted the pull of Kelly’s 1,000-piece puzzle, one fifth completed, until after I parked my boots in the basement and completed the day’s commitment to stories.

Tomorrow morning, Lord willing, I’ll test my resolve again after hen chores with a walk, return home for sunny side up eggs and toast with honey. 

Sit, and dream big.

To make a nimble mind


My Christmas puzzle from my daughter, Kelly

The night after Christmas Day, our California daughter said, “Mom, let’s begin your new puzzle.”

Considering she presented me with the beautiful gift the day before, I replied, “Sure!” It seemed the perfect way to enjoy one of the two nights she and her husband spent in our house—the home where we celebrated Christmases during her junior and senior high school and college years before she left the nest.

“Dad, do you want to join us?” Kelly asked.

“No thanks,” he said, and settled into conversation with our son-in-law, Steve.

Kelly and I rolled up the dining room tablecloth on one end and emptied 1,000 pieces onto the pad. “That’s a lot of puzzling. We won’t finish this in your two nights here,” I said.

“We had fun with the puzzle you gave us a few Christmases ago,” Kelly replied.

So, we enjoyed matching pieces until 11 P.M. Meanwhile, I determined to appreciate the slow, solitary process of completing the lovely picture of a bee skep encircled by wildflowers and honeybees.

The following day, Steve, Kelly, and I lunched on delicious African food in downtown Detroit and visited her younger sister in her workplace. Then we picked up my grandson from Wayne State’s campus to shop with us on Canfield Street. Thus, the puzzle didn’t interest us when we returned home.

After dinner, relaxing around the puzzle pieces, I asked Kelly, “Have you made your goals for 2023?”

She nodded. “Wilderness backpacking for one.”

“Oh yes, that’s why you wanted the REI gift card for Christmas,” I remembered.

“And I’d like to learn to play chess.”

 “Me too!”

When a chessboard appeared in the first part of my second novel several years ago, I questioned my characters. “You sure about this? I know nothing about the game.”

            “Trust us,” they said. “Playing chess makes a nimble mind.”

            I did trust them. For I’ve learned, as Madeleine L’Engle declares in her memoir, “A Circle of Quiet,” creativity is an act of complete faith. Truly, the woman who wrote the children’s classic, “A Wrinkle in Time,” speaks with authority.

I confess, when Kelly and Steve drove away yesterday morning for the airport and left me profoundly lonely and without a puzzle partner, I laid down to rest. Decided I wanted a nimble mind.

While building the five parts of my second novel, the chessboard appeared throughout the story without necessity of one detour from writing for chess lessons. Now, under the direction of a small publisher in Richmond, Virginia, I have a brief window of time where I’d like to learn the game, try my eye and hand on the board before Matewan Garden Club is released this coming spring.

Dear Reader, those puzzle pieces on the dining room table compete with chess lessons, ask for time with Kelly’s gift. Both are worthy activities to achieve. Truth is, I could use the mental exercise and break from words.

I’ll finish the puzzle—clear the space for a chessboard and thirty-two chessmen.