The Still, Good Life

The language and still life of food
Like a still life painting, three pears cuddled in my favorite green bowl. They formed a yellow circle with the rosy blush of one fruit.
           If only I could boast they came from our small orchard of six trees. Not this autumn. Perhaps drought is to blame. Although our dwarf peach yielded three mountaintop pies and a dozen pints of preserves by Labor Day, just one puny pear survived to make our mouths water. I sliced and tossed it in a butter lettuce salad with black currants and walnuts.
           So I gambled good money last week and bought three organic pears. Sometimes they don’t ripen after their continental journey—and pears bruise if you look at them the wrong way. That’s why I devoted my locally crafted pottery to them alone.  
Three days later the blushing pear called my name. The beautiful composition and color spoke of my three daughters—stories of maternal love, growth, and letting go.
I once fed my children in this home. One by one, they stepped from their circle and center of my life. As I left my mother. As my mother left my granny. And so life unwinds to the beginning of time.
In Albrecht Dürer’s “restless examination of nature”, he painted watercolor studies of fruit and created “precise drawings of flora and fauna.” I appreciate the artist’s High Renaissance subjects of the natural world.

At this place in my life, I’d rather eat fruit and arrange flowers than paint them. Yet, my three delicious pears are well consumed and have me musing. Perhaps someday I’ll resurrect my pastels and copy Mary Cassatt’s Lilacs in a Window. I’d like to capture the hues and ancestry of my mother’s heirloom lilacs transplanted to my backyard long ago. 
Cassatt’s contemporary and French Impressionist Paul Cézanne said it best, I think. “When color is richest, form is fullest.”
It was this formula that first drew my eye to the DIA’s Cherokee Roses by American artist Martin Johnson Heade. The contrast of white petals and yellow stamens resting on scarlet cloth moved me with similar quietude as my pears in a bowl.
These art experiences have come vicariously by pondering the meaning of numerous still life paintings in the DIA’s Dutch and American galleries. I’m discovering the movement, symbolism, and history within the compositions.

Dear Reader, now is apple season in Michigan. That means a drive to local orchards for cider and cinnamon doughnuts. Since our apple trees didn’t yield either, I’ll buy enough Northern Spy for several pies and crisps.
This is pure living, the real thing Cézanne painted in Still Life with Basket of Apples. “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art,” he once said.
I remember making applesauce with my mother in our Detroit home thirty-five years ago, and know what he meant.
The still life is the good life because it is loving and lasting.

The Mum's Message

Lincoln High School 1967 Homecoming float bearing Queen Cathy Hatmaker
Ah, the chrysanthemum—autumn’s emblem of high school homecoming.
I remember buckets full of the mammoth, white variety for sale at the admission gate of my alma mater’s football field. I pinned the puffy flower to my cheerleading sweater.
My first corsage.
The night was magical; the bright lights and bleachers crowded with classmates. Oh, the electricity of our fight song, horns and drums echoing in the crisp night air. With youth and school spirit pulsing through my veins, no wonder I leapt like a deer.
The football game was incidental. Sure, I cheered for my team to win and believed the drama was real when Rick Binieki limped off the field. Al Newman, my senior year boyfriend who was also a football player, confided Rick’s theatrics were staged for a time out. 
In my naiveté, the homecoming tradition meant pom-pom parties with friends and floats bearing the queen and her court. These school events diverted me from the tension and confusion of my parents’ divorce the year I graduated in 1967.
January 1968, before my father hugged me good-bye on CMU’s campus, Al, my anchor, returned my senior picture. Thankfully, I made the cheerleading squad and found another tribe of like minds, male and female. They navigated me around the landmines of insecurity into the bittersweet age of independence.
Sweet was the camaraderie of homecoming eve. CMU’s marching band led our cheer team through campus. Students joined the parade as we snaked by the Student Union, dorms, and streets lined with Greek houses.
We passed the football field and aimed for a wooden tower about three stories tall. The band circled the structure in a moat of instruments and belted out the Chip’s fight song. Some dignitary spoke some humorous remarks and lit the timber.
A fellow jilted cheerleader turned to me and said, “I can’t remember when I’ve felt this happy.”
I empathized. It’s impossible to feel insignificant and sad when we’re a part of a moment that sets our heart and mind afire with joy and hope. It is the moment alone without a friend when we‘re tempted to drift into doubt and disappointment.

Cheering at CMU in 1969

Not long after that magnificent bonfire, an unknown Mel Underwood and some of his fraternity brothers showed up at Hillsdale College for CMU’s away game. Guess who he saw cheering along CMU’s sideline?
It took several phone calls for yours truly to trust this Theta Chi who resembled John Kennedy. We came from different domains. North and South. Catholic and Baptist. Yet, a guy who climbed trees with me and loved Jesus was worth the risk.

Dear Reader, I remain indifferent to football and cannot remember the words to my high school and college fight songs.
The mum’s message, however, I know. No matter our faults, setbacks, and sorrow, we have a friend in Jesus. He knows our needs and will not leave us comfortless.
Age to age, our God is patient and good; arms forever open for our homecoming.

Introducing Yule Love It's first farm fable: Brownie 2 Takes a Leap

Lem & Lee's hen yard, the place where farm fables are hatched
Lem and Lee’s five hens gathered around the pen’s water bowl. The rising sun sparked a mischievous gleam in Blondie’s eyes. Brownie 2 knew what was up.

“Bock, bock!” Blondie commanded.

Silver yawned. “Now what?”

“That’s not nice, Silver,” Blackie said and turned to Blondie. “What’s on your mind?”

Blondie pulled five straws from under her wing, winked at Brownie 1, and pointed to the pen door jammed against their rolling pen. “Look, Lem forgot to close it last night. Now’s our chance to do what we’ve all talked about.”

Brownie 2 squawked. “You mean what you and my twin have talked about. I’ve heard your whispers on the roost.”

Brownie 1 blushed.

Blondie stretched her neck and strutted. “Honestly girls, don’t you want to scratch for worms and bugs,” she pointed to their tractor pen, “outside that thing?”

“Booooock!” cried Silver. “To be snatched up by a hawk, never to roost together again?”

“Please,” Blondie drawled. She held up the straws. “This is fair and square.”

“Yes, fair and square,” Blackie clucked.

Brownie 2 scowled. “Tell the truth, Blondie! You and Brownie 1 want to scratch in Lem and Lee’s gardens!”

Silver gasped.

Blondie, the bossy hen
Blondie cocked her head. “What’s wrong with that?” She rolled her eyes. “Just look at this place. Not a worm in sight.”

Blackie flapped her wings. “You know she’s right.”

“Guaaawk!” Silver protested. “No she’s not! Lee’s gardens need their worms. That’s why she takes us on tractor field trips to the compost bins!”

Blondie thrust out her plump breast. “Whoever draws the shortest straw simply jumps atop the tractor pen to see Lem and Lee’s gardens. That’s all you have to do.”

Brownie 2 suspected foul play. “Let me see those straws, Blondie.”

The instigator splayed her wing feathers and revealed one short straw and four the same
length. “Are you satisfied?”

Brownie 2 looked to the sun for her answer. In a step and a leap she landed atop the tractor pen.

“Brownie 2! Come down before a hawk spies you!” cried Silver.

“What do you see?” hollered Blondie, Blackie, and Brownie 1.

Brownie 2 turned her head around. “Rolling turf and trees everywhere! And fields!”

“Can you see Lee’s gardens?” asked Blondie.

Brownie 2 landed on soft grass. Morning’s dew felt cool under her feet.

“Come back!” Silver pleaded.

The runaway zigzagged up the hill toward Lem and Lee’s house, looking about the landscape.

“Bock! Bock! Look for worms!” Blondie demanded.
But Brownie 2 heard only birdsong in trees on the hill. Then, a winged shadow passed over her. She froze. To her relief, Lem appeared on the slope.

“Come on, girl,” he said.

She hurried behind him to the big pen where her family waited.

“Well, that was a fine adventure,” Lem said and latched the door.

“Did you see worms in their gardens?” her four sisters persisted.

Brownie 2 shook her head. “I saw tall trees and colorful birds singing lovely music.”

Blondie sulked and ducked under the henhouse for a dust bath.

That night, Lem and Lee’s hens roosted together. Brownie 2 fell fast asleep, satisfied with her fine adventure. She saved Lee’s beautiful gardens from Blondie’s appetite. In return,Lem saved her from the hawk’s.

Fair and square.

What's a Fume Board?

L/R: Iris and Mary Ellen inspect hives for capped honey

There’s never a dull moment in a beekeeping community. Peaceful? Yes. Boring? Never.
Even in the midst of relaxing apiary observation, we stand watch for a robber bee, wasp, or spider web that attempts to snare a beloved pollen carrier. What bliss to assist in the production the most valuable food on this planet!
Honey. Pure and simple.
Uh, oh, did I just say the S word?
My sincere apology. 
Indisputably, honey is pure. I won’t expound on raw honey’s endless benefits here, for my remarks and reflections are focused upon Mark’s fume board.
I know; you non-beekeepers are puzzled. What on earth is a fume board? Who’s Mark? Please be patient.
However, if you, dear Reader, are not familiar with the recreational, medicinal, and nutritional benefits of honey, I hereby recommend you do your research. But bee (Freudian slip), I mean, be prepared. Beekeeping can overcome our common sense. That’s assuming we own a smidgen in the first place.
For the long-awaited season of drawing off honey is upon us. We apiarists, newbies to old-timers, are simply (there’s that word again) out of our minds. We’re drooling as we plan, prepare, and suit up for the big moment.
The lift off!
Yes, when we stand beside our hive, for we NEVER stand before it. If we do, that means we need to read Beekeeping for Dummies. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.) We hold our hive tool up like a surgeon, pause, and take a deep breath with visions of capped honeycomb in our heads.
Bees building wax cells to store honey for the winter

Oh, one more thing. We fill our tank before we begin the sticky project of extracting honeyed frames from boxes. I promise the scent of raw honey will make am empty stomach grumble.
Thus, our bee team of four consumed stuffed green peppers, slaw, melon, and blueberry pie yesterday afternoon to inaugurate our big event.  Mary Ellen and I are somewhere between new and experienced beekeepers and know enough to prepare for surprises. They can be messy without well-fed bodies and informed minds.
Our husbands led us down the hill to our apiary with camera and iPhone. I followed with Mark's fume board.
Mary Ellen retrieved our bee clothes and equipment from the greenhouse and filled my grandfather’s smoker with dry pine needles. With all the pollen the bees carried into the hives, we hoped for a few frames of capped honey in the hive with four boxes. We aimed for that lid.
I pulled Mark's fume board from its black bag.
“I’ve never heard of a fume board,” Mary Ellen said. She held her favorite bee book and pointed to a picture of a bee escape.  
“And I’d never heard of a bee escape or fume board until last week. Mark said he uses the fume board to move the bees from the box we’re working on, down to the box below.”
Well, dear Reader, Mark’s fume board turned out a mute point. Not one frame provided 95% capped honey. That means sealed and marketable.
And who’s Mark?  A generous neighbor of the experienced beekeeping kind who came to our rescue.

The Domestic & the Wild

A Yule Love It double-yoked blue egg. 

A string of cool nights, and the Canada Geese are on the move, booking flights south. They honk to one another, form their V, land in fields to fuel up, and take off again. The sky’s as busy as that above Detroit Metro Airport.
            It’s pure entertainment, Michigan’s end-of-summer wild bird air show, especially with the Sand Hill Cranes in the lineup. This Labor Day weekend, flocks of three to six flew over us while we cleaned out and painted the henhouse’s interior. Just had to stop the paintbrush, look up, and listen.
I’ve spied cranes only once on our property—graceful, long-legged birds with a red beret. Like the Canada Geese, you can hear the cranes’ raucous calls to one another before you see them.
On the other hand, we awake these days to the plaintive call of a mourning dove. I prefer the robin’s cheerful song to usher in a new day. Yet, this kin to the lamented passenger dove has its place and purpose in our inscrutable and beautiful natural world. That a dove bore the olive branch to Noah after the Great Flood is significant, I think.
Also known as turtledoves, mourning doves mate for life. They’re passive and less social compared to the ever-flighty robin, cardinal, and sparrow. I’ve never observed mourning doves in a flock. The two doves at our place perch on the clothes poles and utility lines along our driveway.
Perhaps the male is watching over us when I hear him woo his beloved. One winter day, I sat in our kitchen’s chicken chair with a cup of hot tea and watched a pair of doves love on one another atop the clothes poles.
It worries me that they’re ground feeders. Mo the old cat is still a hunter at heart, so the dove’s whirling sound never fails to alarm me. It’s sad to see and hear a lone dove on the wire. And it breaks my heart to find one dead in the yard.
Well, dear Reader, as summer expires, so must these ruminations. We’ve a clean, white henhouse to refurnish. After spending the past three nights roosted under their pullet palace, our five girls are not happy campers.
We have no delusions. The time, labor, and money Mel and I spend to gather fresh eggs for quiche, cake, and scrambling is ridiculous. In recompense, our girls appear every dawn in their pen and stretch their legs for our amusement.
No matter the season, we carry their blue and green eggs up to the house for our nourishment. This a Sand Hill Crane cannot do.
Yes, I appreciate the domestic and the wild. Still, I cannot bear the sparrows when they invade the henhouse and pen for grain. We’re working on solving that problem.
Meanwhile, we’ve decided one sure thing.
“I’ll never paint the inside of the henhouse again,” Mel said.
“Me neither.”
Once we reopen their chute for business, we’re off to Romeo for peach pie a la mode.

Camp Franklin

Mel & Iris watch the solar eclipse with fellow eclipsers in Franklin, KY
Dear Reader, can be a marvelous gift when life doesn’t unfold as planned.
No sooner had I backed our car under the shade of a giant oak, opened our trunk and dug into the cooler did a perfect stranger appear.
           "Do you have solar glasses?” the bearded guy asked. “We have extras.”
           Ravenous for chilled peaches and cucumbers, I could hardly believe my ears and eyes. He held two pair of “safe” glasses that resembled those on the Internet.
My husband and I glanced to one another, my slotted spoon and white paper promptly forsaken. The totality of the solar eclipse wasn’t lost on us after all.
“As a matter of fact, we don’t,” I confessed.
Our fellow eclipser nodded to his buddy who stood outside their vehicle, a blue SUV to our left. A young woman read her cell phone in their air-conditioned car.
Carl, Corrie, Brian

“I tagged along with my friends. I’m from Massachusetts. They’re from Vermont,” he said.
A field of soybeans blanketed the background in a scene that promised to fulfill the desire of our hearts.
          “What do we owe you?” I asked and accepted his offer.
          He stepped closer. “Nothing. They came in a package of ten, and there’s only the three of us.” He paused and peeked into our cooler with a grin. “But you could trade some of your food if you’d like.”
           “Oh, I’m sorry. That wasn’t very hospitable of me,” I said.
           He laughed. “Hospitable? I was joking.”
          The ice broken, we exchanged names and hometowns.
Brian’s friends Carl and Corrie joined the conversation and fun, as did our Camp Franklin neighbors from Lexington, KY. More than five hundred equipped eclipsers set up chairs, tripods, and card tables, the mood growing Woodstockian, sans the heavy metal and drugs.
I passed our homegrown fruit and vegetables around. We played with our glasses and cameras. Joyful expectation lit every face.
Caught by surprise, Corrie stood before me, head tilted, wearing gag glasses with big eyeballs. “See what happens to your eyes when you look at the sun without proper eclipse glasses?”
Iris & Mel have fun with Corrie's glasses

I cracked up.
“It worked! She got it!” Corrie said to her companions.
To the minute, the celestial and terrestrial elements of darkness and light followed their predictable and super-natural path, from the moon’s first bite out of the sun’s right side to total eclipse.
Camp Franklin fell silent in cool, mysterious darkness, the sun’s corona a ring around the moon. Then, the diamond and a burst of cheers.
Yes, the miraculous moment happened as NASA had planned. What we hadn’t anticipated, though, was holy communion with humankind and the heavens on the edge of a farmer’s soybean field.
In retrospect, I thank Copernicus and Galileo, fellow stargazers who paved the way for this and future encounters with the Word’s Creation—unspeakable gifts of life.
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. John 1:5

Chasing the Sun's Shadow

We view the solar eclipse in Franklin, Kentucky. Next week, the story behind the glasses.

All this talk about the solar eclipse calls to my inner stargazer. How could I possibly stay behind this weekend when millions of Americans are chasing the sun’s shadow from coast-to-coast?
It all began two weeks ago after my husband and I returned from my annual pilgrimage to Kentucky. A friend and fellow writer called to discuss some business. Afterward, knowing my southern ties, she said, “We’ve planned our vacation to view the solar eclipse in North Carolina.”
“I’ve not heard about it,” I confessed.
“Oh? Well, it’s been 99 years since the last total eclipse across the United States,” she said. “We’re excited to see it.”
We said good-bye, and I dismissed this remarkable event and any hope that Mel and I could leave our harvest another August weekend.
           Then yesterday while cooking peach, ginger, lavender jelly, I received an email. “I’ll be in Nebraska watching the solar eclipse with the kids and grandkids Saturday through Tuesday.”
           Now, that was my tipping point. If an overworked editor has sense enough to capture this heavenly miracle with his family, I’d better rethink opportunity versus responsibility. After all, we won’t be around for the next solar eclipse that hovers over America.
I returned to peeling peaches. Mel stood to my left, slicing them into a measuring bowl.
Blessed be the wise counsel of the kitchen sink! Running water. Sweeping vistas outside the window. The scent of tomatoes, green bell peppers, and cucumbers awaiting my TLC.  
Sweetie, my long-departed Cocker Spaniel and fellow stargazer, came to mind. When i was a teen and our small home grew loud and crowded, Sweetie would follow me out the front door to our small, grassy patch.  We cuddled and studied the constellations.
“How many tomatoes are ripe for harvest?” I asked Mel.
“A lot.”
“Would you pick them so I can put them up after the peaches?”
Turned out that many tomatoes needed to ripen. So, like Uncle Tab does, I spread newspaper on the kitchen counter and arranged the tomatoes green side up. “Are there any beans to pick?”
“No, they need a few more days to fill out.”
“Enough time to see the totality of the solar eclipse?”
He smiled. “I guess. You’ll have to call Sue for the hens and Mo.”
“But you probably won’t find a room,” Sue said.
It's Saturday, 2:15 p.m. There's no time to track down eclipse glasses, so I've packed a slotted spoon and white paper for our journey into the path of totality, that one spot in Franklin, Kentucky where we will watch the Great American Solar Eclipse with our back to the sun.
Today, my side of the family gathers before sunset for a wedding, the last of my nieces and nephews to marry their beloved. I will dance with my sisters and husband.
Dear Reader, tomorrow morning two senior stargazers will rise early with a cooler of food, just in case Cracker Barrel has no vacant tables.
Please stay tuned for the rest of the story.