Profile of a List Maker

My beloved mother, Sadie Lee McCoy, on a hot, humid day in Kentucky. A trooper extraordinaire.
I found a slip of paper on the kitchen counter. Since Mom was nowhere insight, I seized the opportunity to investigate. Spy, in other words.
            I recognized my mother’s penmanship from her signature on my report cards. Mrs. Warren O’Brien. A woman of few written words, she seldom wrote a comment in reply to the school’s request.
            Thus must be Mom’s grocery list, I thought. Her lower-case cursive was small and clear with a break here and there between letters. What on earth did t.p. mean?
            Was it candy like M&M’s? Once in a blue moon Mom brought a bag home from A&P or doling out Saturday and Sunday night TV time. My sisters and I loved M&M’s with Disney.
            I heard Mom walking up the basement steps and decided to stay put and solve the t.p. mystery. She took the pen next to the paper and added more items.
            “Mom, what t.p.?”
            “Why, Iris, that’s toilet paper.”
            Yuck! I’d let my imagination run in the wrong direction.
            Mom put the list in her purse. After dinner she drove off to A&P without me. As least I knew what t.p. meant.
            In recollection, that inedible domestic necessity deserved more respect than my childhood chagrin and immaturity could pay. In the end, my family could’ve survived just fine without M&M’s. On the other hand, our family of six without toilet paper would’ve faces a serious sanitation crisis. And who would’ve borne the blame?
            Truly, that’s the bottom line, the ultimate lesson learned from Mom’s abbreviation. Mothers write lists for peace of mind and household harmony. It’s their duty to keep cupboards and the fridge stocked with food, and bathrooms supplied with toilet paper, soap, and clean towels.
            It’s odd. Not once did I hear Mom speak t.p. A busy woman, perhaps she reserved it for her grocery list, a matter of saving seconds. I see it as a type of forerunner for today’s lol, one of social media’s irksome offspring that dilute the strength of the English language and human relationships.
            Thus, I’m devoted to lists, and use acronyms sparingly. I say good morning to my daily to-do list, AKA Action Log, and goodnight with the next day numbered per priority. I shut down my computer and sleep like a baby.
            My husband thinks I’m obsessive, yet he’s not a planner, the go-to person in an emergency. And he doesn’t sleep through the night.
            I’ve heard men say it’s useless to write lists. “Why should I when my wife tells me what to do?” is a standard defense.
            Since life is too bountiful, beautiful, and brief to fuss over these inbred differences, it helps to keep a mental list to practice the way to peace and joy.

            Dear Reader, I praise pen and paper, that moment when my mother t.p. taught me the purpose of writing lists.

A Beekeeper's Pledge

Uncle Herm with a truck load of produce from his garden
While visiting Uncle Herm in Kentucky’s McCoy Bottom several summers ago, I asked him where he kept his beehives.
           He narrowed his dark eyes. “Honey, mites killed all my bees before your mommy died.”
           A novice beekeeper, my heart sank. Mom passed in 2007. If Herman Glen McCoy, third generation beekeeper, couldn’t fend off mites back then, how could I in the present epidemic?
           Snagged in a moment of sadness and defeat, we stood beside one of his vegetable gardens, the graveyard high on the mountainside overlooking us.
His father and grandfather McCoy are buried there. Their bees produced enough honey to feed their large families and sell to folks up and down Peter Creek.
During the Depression and WW II, their produce, poultry, eggs, and honey helped nourish those remaining in their Appalachian homeland. With most the young men off to war and the women working in factories up north, my grandfather hired women as farmhands. They’d sometimes show up in heels to hoe the cornfields, asking for food or cash in return.
           In the last decade of her life, my mother, Sadie McCoy O’Brien, often spoke of her father’s generosity, his bees and honey. “Dad was happy when he found wide-mouth jars for his comb honey. That’s the only way he put it up.”
           Mom moved from Michigan back to the McCoy Bottom in the mid 70’s. She built her dream house with a pantry spacious enough to hold the fruit of her labors. For over twenty years, her “brother Herm” deposited jars of honey and buckets of produce on her back doorstep.
Uncle Herm and me in his kitchen

           “Uncle Herm, did you ever go back to beekeeping?”
“No. Everybody lost their bees. Then Gearl got sick, and it was too much with growing the gardens.”
During my aunt’s illness and since her passing, Uncle Herm’s never missed a summer growing several crops, giving the bulk away.
I eyed his green beans hanging in clusters from corn stalks. “Do you still have some honey?”
“There might be some in the basement.”
I followed him down steps into damp darkness to a shelf of canned food.
He took a quart and wiped off the shoot. “I don’t know if this is any good.”
“It’s crystalized, that’s all.”
“Well, if you want it, take it.” He walked to a bench and picked up a hive smoker. “This was Daddy’s. I won’t be using it, so take it too if you want.”
I hugged my uncle and skipped up the steps with his gifts, brought them home, and have dutifully used them.
           Dear Reader, although our three hives from last spring didn’t survive the winter, they left honey behind for us. This week we’ll see what reward awaits our time, expense, and devotion. 
Then, if bee biology and other forces of nature favor us, I’ll use my forefathers’ smoker for our one package of bees May 19. I’ll face the mites and other bee enemies for their sake.

And to perpetuate my heritage—fourth generation beekeeper.

Two Immutable Things

Male Cardinal poses on the raised lettuce bed in the backyard early spring
Some years ago, our neighbors across the road built a horse ring addition to their barn. Watching the Amish build the roof entertained me for a month.
          Our house sits on a hill overlooking the Nikolic’s historic Townsend homestead. I’ve walked passed it thousands of times. We go back almost thirty years before Velco and Martha found and purchased it.
At twilight, I’d sit in our backyard and listen to cattle lowing in the distance. Back then, before light pollution reached us, shooting stars streaked the night sky. Imagine that natural show and sound track.
          Thus, I was emotionally attached to the Townsend farm when I first met our potential new neighbors walking the lay of the land.
          “This is what I’ve dreamed of since I came to America,” Velco said.
The buildings had fallen into desperate disrepair when he and Martha rescued the old hip barn’s collapsing timbers.
With Michigan’s four seasons, I never tire of the panoramic view of our neighbor’s meadows and hayfield. The past several winters have offered the surprising scene of two pyramids, one of sand, the other gravel.
I paid the duo no mind until this winter’s meditative, daylong snowfalls. One morning over fresh eggs and toast, I noticed the piles had transformed into two white peaks near the road’s tree line.
The pyramids enchanted me on my walks and drives up and down the road. I spied them from our windows upstairs. My winter Arabia.
Mealtime with the pair became a ritual. This month, the snow melted from the south and west side of the mounds, then snow fell again.
Robins in summer
Now, their north side is bare. Buds swell on branches. Robins and cardinals flirt and mate. Squirrels gather food from mast beneath leaf mold. This time next month, the illusion of Egypt won’t be visible from our house and property.
So I spy them at sunrise and dusk while I may. One pile of sand, the other stone, most likely left over from the horse ring, transform into silhouettes and whisper holy words.
Perhaps it’s the influence of The Ten Commandments, a childhood memory of Moses leading the Israelites’ Exodus from bondage and pyramids—Khufu at Giza, the largest Egyptian pyramid, also the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in existence.
The most humble in appearance, Khufu has outlived the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and The Colossus of Rhodes.
Remember these Wonders from world history? They imprinted our minds with images from books, movies, and stories. They tease our imagination to see them, attempt to understand humankind in another time and place.

For we know change comes by seasons. All things come from, through, and to God.
Dear Reader, my five senses perceive the weather and my neighbor’s piles of sand and stone stand for two immutable things—God’s love and faithfulness.
As the birds proclaim, this is the risen season.

Pie Seasons

We're looking forward to Strawberry Rhubarb Pie Season here at Yule Love It
The following is an excerpt from Iris's memoir cookbook in progress. 
I pedaled north to the end of the block and eyed the woods at the corner of Wagner and Frazho Streets. From the day we moved to Wagner, that last patch of wilderness spared by development called my name with powerful yearning, the same feeling when I saw the   first mountain range come into view on our drive home to Kentucky. Didn’t my heart leap at what awaited within those timbered hills?
Now I was in fourth grade and knew copperheads and rattlesnakes didn’t live in Michigan. And Mom didn’t say I couldn’t go into the woods alone. Aunt June had said Jack in the Pulpit grew in the forest.
I crossed Frazho and walked my bike into the cool dark scent of moss, bark, and leaf mold. My skin tingled under the thick green canopy, light peeking through in lacy patterns like Granny’s doilies.
Barelegged, I stepped carefully in deep grass, fallen logs, and branches, watching for those prickly blackberry canes that drew my blood in Kentucky. My goodness, did I love Granny’s blackberry cobbler with milk!
Birds flew from one tree to another, chirping real happy. Wagner had not one tree for a bird to perch, so they all came to this oasis. If I were a bird, I’d live in this place and sing, too.
I searched for Jack in the Pulpit. Aunt June said they liked to hide. Camouflage, she named it. The plant’s green and yellow striped flower resembled grasses that grew around it. Although I didn’t find Jack in the Pulpit, I learned what camouflage meant.
My nose led me to a swamp where a huge tree had fallen across. Did I ever want to climb upon it! But moss was slick, and I’d probably fall into the murky green water and drown. The sun broke through an opening in the treetops and glistened on the pond and cast shadows in a hundred shades of green.

Something like a sparkling ruby caught my eye. Rhubarb! Bunches of it in the woods surrounded by concrete. Had I known about Huck Finn, I would’ve felt just like him. I knew not to touch the rhubarb without asking Mom’s permission.
Arms crossed at the kitchen sink, Mom smiled at my discovery. I didn’t tell her about the swamp or she wouldn’t let me go back.
“Yes, Iris. Bring some home and I’ll make a strawberry rhubarb pie. Leave your bike here, and take Linda with you.”
Exhilarated, I led Linda into the woods to the rhubarb patch. We pulled out as many stalks as our arms could hold. All the while, I tasted Mom’s warm strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream melting on the side.
Triumphant in muddy school shoes we’d outgrown, we carried our bounty down Wagner, huge leaves bobbing in glad submission to Mom’s recipe.
“Mom! Come look!” I hollered as we turned up our driveway.
She stood in the door and put a hand to her heart. Mind, my mother laughed the most peculiar way when something tickled her soul. I didn’t understand why she laughed until she cried.
Now, I can only surmise she saw something she believed was lost—food from a remnant of a farmstead in the midst of a wasteland. The strength of our joy in that moment has never lost its power. That’s why I grow rhubarb today.
In this manner, I learned Mom’s pie seasons. Spring’s strawberry rhubarb and lemon meringue. Summer’s cherry and blackberry. Fall’s apple and pumpkin. Winter’s pecan and coconut cream.
I developed a hunger to grow my own berries and orchard, to raise hens as my grandmothers did to gather eggs for rich custards and fluffy meringues.
Dear Reader, that’s the way with food. It teaches the growing seasons in an unbroken chain from one generation to another.

Women and Windows

Interior with a Lady by Vilhelm Hammershoi
Modern & Contemporary Galleries, Detroit Institute of Arts
My husband mentioned his favorite painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts is of a lady knitting by a bright window. The name of the art and artist eluded him.
                  Of all the museum’s collection to capture a man’s eye, this surprised me. Was he referring to one of the DIA’’s “women and windows” paintings I’ve come to admire?
                  “Which gallery?” I asked.
                  “It was in a hall.”
                  “Which floor?”
                  “Can’t remember.”
                  This happens when you’ve gorged yourself on art.
                  Later, during another volunteer shift, I found Interior of a Lady by Vilhelm Hammershoi in the hall outside the Modern and Contemporary Galleries. As I suspected—Mel’s favorite.
                  Hammershoi’s Danish lady is one of the DIA’s pieces that pair a woman with a sunlit window—in this case with a white curtain tied back, a large white door to the right. However, the seated woman in the black dress is not knitting, It appears she’s sewing or mending a hanky.
                  A small detail, I admit, yet significant to me. And, I believe, to the artist’s composition.
                  With his bee in my bonnet, after Friday night’s fish fry in Romeo, Mel and I returned to the DIA and settled before Interior with a Lady.
                  “Is this your favorite?” I asked.
                  “I don’t see knitting needles, do you?”
                  Mel drew closer to the dark figure. “No.”
                  “I see a hanky.”
                  “Looks like it.”
                  We absorbed Hammershoi’s stunning light and shadows.
                  “Why is this your favorite?” I asked.
                  “Because it’s serene.”
                  Serene? To me, the painting seemed profoundly sad and empty. The lady’s solitary figure is draped in black from neck to floor. Does she stitch the handy for her tears?

                  “Do you want to see my favorite painting?” I said.
                  We hurried into the American Galleries to Mother and Child by Enoch Wood Perry. The loneliness of Hammershoi’s lady is a stark contrast to the tenderness and contentment expressed between Perry’s mother and child. Diffused light casts slanted shadows upon rich blue, gold, and red.
Mother and Child by Enoch Wood Perry
American Galleries, Detroit Institute of Arts
                  Mother and Child appeals to that brief season of six years bearing my children, the joy and pleasure of them nursing, their sighs and smiles while they sleep.              
                  “This is serenity,” I said.
                  It is natural to see these two paintings differently, as most art. To me, Interior with a Lady” reveals the demands of loss and grief—the barrenness of a house without a child, mate, sibling, or parent.
                  Serenity comes by the unspeakable cost of forgiveness and faith. With all my heart, I want to see Hammershoi’s lady lift her head to the healing light.
                  As Perry’ American mother, I held my infant’s hand and gazed upon her face in awe. Praise the artist for reflecting these domestic sensibilities that recall our ancestors’ gentility and propriety following the Civil War.
                  Dear Reader, I find myself in both paintings—a woman who sits in sunlit windows to watch the shadows they cast. To lift my eyes to face the light.
                  Pray for forgiveness and faith.