Heirlooms of Hope & History

Granny, Uncle Jim, and my mother before WWII

Granny kept her honey-colored cedar chest by a window in the front bedroom. She laid crisp white doilies on top to protect her treasure from scratches. There she displayed framed portraits, always the same until her grandchildren began to graduate from high school.
            She chose a tiered shelf of dark mahogany to place my graduation picture. “Your Uncle Jimmy made the frame when he was stationed in Hawaii and shipped it all the way here to Phelps,” Granny once said.
We both felt special.
           I have Uncle Jimmy’s frame and my younger likeness overlooking me as I write. Various china teacups fill Granny’s shelf in my dining room. I think my grandmother would smile upon the lovely table they set.
An Appalachian farmwoman who buried two babies, one teenager, and her husband, Granny cherished her dining room cabinet that chinked with fine china when her heavy feet passed.
           I don’t possess Granny’s Lane hope chest that neither dust nor moth corrupted. In her old age, she sewed her burial dress of white polyester and placed it inside the cedar with instructions to style her hair.
Granny’s mortal body had suffered too great a decline for either request to be honored. Aunt Eloise inherited and refinished Granny’s Lane masterpiece. My aunt stored mementos of her five children inside.

My mother kept her hope chest in our basement’s furnace room. I can only surmise it’s because our three bedrooms were too small to accommodate the case. Twin to Granny’s, the poor thing never saw light of day, companion of castaways and winter coats preserved in mothballs. If I hadn’t been afraid of the dark, I probably would’ve stolen the chance to rummage through its contents.
By the time of my wedding engagement, my parents had divorced. Preoccupied with the joy and burdens of hosting my reception, the tradition of the bridal hope chest fell by the wayside. 
Five yeas later, Mom resurrected her bequest from the bowels of the house and moved it to the basement in her new Kentucky home. Perhaps dashed hopes belong forgotten in basements.
Because two cedar chests abandoned by two daughters occupy our two bedrooms upstairs, Mom’s Lane remains in my basement, covered with a polyester quilt. Guess who sewed it.
Inside, on the upper left shelf, there’s a yellow hand-knitted baby sweater with matching beret Mom claimed mine—and my wedding gown, badly abused when I portrayed the bride of Frankenstein for Halloween over a decade ago.
Mom never said and I never asked who purchased her Lane heirloom—who invested hope in her marriage vows. Was it Grandpa, the man she adored, or Granny, the mother she left?
And how did my great-grandparents have the means to purchase Granny’s cedar chest in 1920?
Dear Reader, I’m resolved. Mom’s Lane has suffered enough neglect. It’s time to restore the honeyed glow on her keepsake and give it a sunny window.
Let the light shine on hope and history.

Autumn's Cornucopia

Mel and Mo enjoy summer's scenery on the farm
When we extracted honey two years ago it flowed into jars light, sun-drenched, summer blonde and floral to taste,” my friend Jack emailed. “Yesterday brought dark, dark, heavy orangish jars of flavorful anti-oxidant fighting goodness. Same hive.”
On the other hand, my bees disappeared again—another year without our raw honey in my pantry. After investing time and finances, I could be disappointed.
For what profit? As farmer and poet Wendell Berry says, “We live the given life.”
In my mother-in-law’s vernacular, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
On the brink of seventy years, I look on the bright side more than ever. I consider what our land has yielded, regardless of drought, fruits and vegetables to nourish us. There’s plenty left to consume with great pleasure until springtime.
Plenty to give away.
As I sliced one of our last watermelons into a bowl, I considered Michigan’s motto, Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice. Yes, if we seek a pleasant peninsula, if we open our eyes and rest them upon our lands and waters, we’ll see what abundance they give.
If we pause and lift our heads, perhaps we’ll notice our neighbor, risk a wave hello. If we slow down we might see what natural and human resources await our health and pleasure within our own community.
For heaven’s sake, there’s ample raw honey available in these parts of north Oakland and south Lapeer counties. I’ll buy what was given to another beekeeper.
Good economy.
I may not have bees to overwinter, but we do have five new chickens and their eggs to collect daily. Rain or shine. Those silly girls toured the greenhouse yesterday while I tidied apiary equipment. Like kids in Disneyland, the hens cocked their heads this way and that and chased crickets.
This is goodness from autumn’s honeyed mouth, October’s cornucopia spilling earth’s gifts upon our table and into our souls.

Mo sleeps on our chicken chair 

All our place wants is our cat Mo. After eighteen years, we’re lonely for our black and white friend. Although we buried him next to Goldie, our protective hen, we still expect to find Mozart sleeping under the lilac bushes or sunning on the patio’s pea gravel. We listen for his voice. Mo said “Me-el” like nobody else.
Now we wait for our next mouser to show up. PJ, our first cat, and Mo both came to us when least expected. Two cats in twenty-six years. We may not know how to keep bees, but somehow our tomcats settled in and abided a long lifetime.

I know dear Reader, bees and tomcats are entirely different creatures not to be compared. However, I must say it’s a wonderful feeling to love and be loved by a living thing. And it hurts when they leave, bees or cat.
On this rainy October day, I turn to my study window from habit, remember Mo on the sill outside, talking to me. He couldn’t tolerate muddy paws. I appreciated that.
Oh yes, this place flows with more than enough goodness.

Autumnal Rites

Variegated Porcelain Vine berries, an autumnal beauty
However busy you are these days in physical labor, spare a few moments to enjoy the beauty of the flowers that remain. Richardson Wright, The Gardener’s Bed-Book 1929

According to an entry in Mr. Wright’s Bed-Book, I should’ve divided my irises in August to share with other growers. It’s not that I’m stingy. Years ago, I carried a basket of iris rhizomes everywhere until they were no more. I wrapped the gnarly things in tissue tied with a bow.
In Mr. Wright’s day, the landscape in view from his Connecticut hilltop flourished with his iris offspring. He kept a bucket of tubers on hand for conspirators who dropped by in hopes of securing a cutting from a prized rose. Wise man.
On this hilltop come August, flowers play second fiddle to food. Have to harvest and freeze raspberries and green beans. Can tomatoes, hang onions and garlic.
It’s tough, but I’ve learned to suffer the sight of seed heads for a pantry and freezer full of homegrown vegetables and fruit. What a glorious feeling when the last butternut squash is baked and frozen for winter soup.
Mr. Wright is on the money when he says, “By the end of September, one becomes surfeited with garden beauty.”
It’s the physical, emotional, and financial cost to sustain succession of color that leaves me wishy-washy about buying mums pumped with Miracle Grow. If deer don’t destroy them, winter will. Oh, but it’s tempting to pull into a nursery and walk amongst the scent of blooming chrysanthemums. An autumnal rite.
An alternative is to meander along our country roads and the Polly Ann Trail and harvest a handful of asters. Their dark purple, lavender, and white starry blooms make a darling and long-lasting bouquet.
There’s one on my kitchen table, a gift of nature’s cultivation. If only asters thrived on our little estate. I cannot tell you the number I’ve planted and lost the past thirty years.
Asters appear with apple cider and cinnamon donuts. Michigan’s comfort food at its best! A perfect way to celebrate summer’s end in the tang of coloring leaves.
“At such time we should not expect too much of the garden,” says Mr. Wright. “Let us turn our eyes to the rich panoply the trees are beginning to put on and the multitude of colored berries the bushes now hang out to indicate that their cycles also have been completed.”
Ah yes, the iridescent turquoise, lilac, and blue edible berries of the variegated porcelain vine. To my great pleasure, the plant grows happily here and prefers the south side of the pergola.
Another autumnal rite, I decorate my dining room table with the vines. Any flower lover is thrilled to receive a handful.  
Mr. Wright concludes, “The secreting of porch and garden furniture in the bowels of the barn—is an act of finality that brings me complete satisfaction.”
Me too, dear Reader.
Then I spare those moments on my backyard swing, observe the panoply of cycles turn, turn, turn.

The Beloved Milk Cow

A cow crossing on Lake George Road
That darned detour at Rochester and Hough Roads confused me with its arrow pointing east. I needed to turn west toward Seven Ponds Nature Center. I hadn’t traveled the Hough Road to Lake George route for a while and didn’t trust my instincts.
Yes, I arrived late and quite flustered for my herb group meeting.
My goodness, I drove the roads of Ireland alone—on the left side—thirteen years ago. What happened to that gusty woman with a keen sense of adventure?
When I returned to Ireland in October 2015, I hired transportation from the airport for the three-hour drive to Anam Cara Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat, my destination in County Cork. There I stayed put, read and wrote seven straight days while overlooking a Coulann Bay and a pasture of cattle. Four days poured down rain.
From sunup to sunset, Irish Dexters grazed on the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. I’d look up from my computer to observe they’d finally laid their weight down to ruminate awhile.
When on their hooves, calves poked and yanked at their mother’s udder. Looked awful painful to me. Uh-huh, I recalled, it could be.
The herd meandered in steadfast companionship with their voyeur in Anam Cara’s second story window. I’d pause, amused, and think of my mother’s affection for her family’s milk cows. With a glimmer in her eye she’d say, “My brothers drank two pitchers full every supper.”
Mom never milked cows. The eldest of her siblings, my granny assigned Mom to the cook stove. She’d laugh and tell the story about walking into the barn before a date and my grandfather would aim and squirt milk in her auburn hair.

Well, dear Reader, I digress.
“There’s nothing wrong with your mind, Iris,” consoled a fellow Friend of Herbs. “That detour is not marked for those driving west.”
“Just take Lake George to Hough to Rochester when you leave,” advised another.
I did, Lake George a breathtaking tunnel in a hundred shades of green—a peaceful drive in horse country.
Then, of a sudden, a stop sign affixed to a sawhorse appeared in the road. I stopped. A rope stretched from the sawhorse to both shoulders to prevent passage.
Of all things, a farmer stood to the left of the road as his milk cows followed one another to the other side. It looked like Ireland, but black and white cows. Holstein-Friesian, I believe.
I found my camera, opened my car door and aimed at the rare sight for me, yet all in a day’s work for the dairy farmer.
In quiet submission, the cattle lumbered along the edge of a cornfield in a parade of bulging udders. The farmer closed the gate, removed the barrier, and waved me on with a smile.
I’ll be driving the Lake George tunnel this October to view a hundred shades of autumn. Perchance I’ll stop for another cow crossing. Adventure at its best.
I wonder what breed was my mother’s beloved milk cow.

Synergy of the Parts

Dear Reader, guess what my husband and I found on the Polly Ann Trail this week? A Little Free Library! “Take a book. Share a book,” is its motto.
“What a surprise, a little library here in Leonard,” I said.
Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, initiated this brilliant idea of a book exchange in 2009. He built a model of a one-room schoolhouse in honor of his mother who taught school and loved to read. Mr. Bol secured his little library to a post, put it in his front yard, and stocked it with books.
His neighbors and friends begged for more. Today, over 75,000 registered Little Free Libraries in 85 countries bring communities together.
Jaema Berman, a friend and Director of Addison Township Library, said that’s exactly what happened when she met with the library board a year ago. A “huge fan of the Little Free Libraries”, she discussed the project with the members.
“I’m your man,” volunteered Brian Howarth.
I stood before his finished product, painted by Kara King, a fellow township resident. I recognized Kara’s similar bold colors and book motif she used to identify the outside of our big (relatively speaking) library located on Rochester Road in Lakeville.
The Little Free Library fit into the trail’s landscape with Leonard’s behemoth patched-up and preserved mill. Literature and agriculture stood together in harmonious juxtaposition.
I felt a rush of joy when I opened the door to two tiny shelves of books. “I’ll bring a book to swap next time we walk the trail,” I said.
Mel replied with a blank look.
“I’ll explain later.”

If this wasn’t enough excitement, within a stone’s throw of the Little Library, we recognized a copy of a painting by Aert Van der Neer titled Moonlit Landscape with a Windmill. Appropriately displayed on a post close to the mill, the Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside-Out trademark tagged the replica. Another bright idea. A peaceful image to begin our walk.
I’ve seen other DIA Inside-Out paintings on Macinac Island and several buildings throughout the Metro Detroit area. The art typically represents the mood and characteristics of the place where it is installed.
For instance, the lone walker in the foreground of Van der Neer’s moonlit silhouette of the windmill brought fresh synergy to our walk on the Polly Ann Trail. The Little Library, mill, and painting enhanced our experience in the natural world.

At the end of the trail and a beautiful day, I certainly didn’t expect to find a covered bench awaiting us at the trail’s intersection at Bordman Road. Nor did we anticipate another DIA Inside-Out painting—The Lily Pond by Charles Harry Eaton, a relaxing and cool scene for thirsty and hot hikers.
We sat and listened to squirrels chatter in the branches above us, and admired the skill and materials used to build the sheltered bench for our comfort.
All these parts of our whole community welcomed us in an extended place we call home.
And we say thank you.

My Favorite Bakery

Mel outside the Spalding Bakery in Lexington, Kentucky
My mother never bought a bakery cake. It was a matter of thrift and pride in her apple pie’s reputation and whatever her oven produced, sweet or savory.
Truly, I didn’t know what a bakery was until my mother led me into Sanders at Gratiot and Seven Mile. I never dreamed candy and cakes could be so beautiful. We sat on stools at the soda fountain. She ordered two hot fudge sundaes.
We preferred the flavor of Sanders hot fudge to Kresge’s. Thus began my life-long loyalty to Fred Sanders, the sweetness he brought to Detroit, our new home.
When my family moved to Warren, I yearned for Sanders hot fudge sundae. However, I was content with a scoop of ice cream with Mom’s two-layered chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. As my sisters and I grew, our birthday cakes transformed into bosomed dolls with fluffy buttercream dresses decorated with cascading red roses. 
Mom didn’t buy pastries, either. She filled the skirt of our Aunt Jemima cookie jar with homemade oatmeal, raisin, walnut cookies.
She baked date bars. They didn’t last long. Later, she found a recipe with a large yield of peanut butter bars coated with melted Nestle chocolate chips blended with peanut butter.
My mother never made donuts. “The hot oil is too dangerous. You girls might get burned,” she said.
Who needed plain ole donuts when Mom placed hot pecan pies and peach cobblers on the counter to cool? Hers was my favorite bakery in the world, for she taught by example how to prepare and appreciate wholesome, delicious, and lovely desserts. She savored hers with hot tea or coffee.
I remembered this upon my first encounter with Butternut Bakery in Warren. During my brief employment with the Bank of Commerce, fellow employees chose me as the designated donut runner for lunch break.
Doubting my donut qualifications, I made the rounds taking orders and collecting exact change.
“I’d like a buttercream donut,” one teller said.
A buttercream donut?
Well, it wasn’t round with a hole, but a long pastry with buttercream bulging from its middle. I licked my lips, laid down prejudice with 50 cents, and savored my first donut with hot tea.
On Fridays, customers lined up early for Butternut’s famous banana cake. That happens when a particular food carries the essence of a place for generations.
There’s Lexington, Kentucky’s “original” glazed donut, for instance.  
On our recent drive through downtown Lexington to Mom’s gravesite, Mel and I passed a red brick building with a long line outside the door.
“Looks like a bakery,” I said. “Let’s stop after we visit the cemetery.”
Mel nodded with visions of donuts in his head.
An hour later we stepped into Spalding’s Bakery advised by a fellow customer that everything is delicious.
“But I always buy the plain glazed donut,” she said.
Mel devoured his custard-filled and chocolate-glazed donut.
Considering calories, I savored a molasses with raisin cookie.
Dear Reader, Mom wouldn’t approve, but I’m thinking about Spalding’s plain ole glazed donut—the essence of Lexington since 1929.

Nellie and the Cross in the Woods

Cross in the Woods Shrine, Indian River, MI

Nellie grew up in Indian River. I grew up in Warren. She never stepped foot south of Flint. My furthest trip north was to Prudenville with my high school cheerleading squad. 
Nellie and I couldn’t have been more different that January day we moved into our dorm room.
She smoked. I loathed the stench of cigarettes. She ratted her red shoulder-length hair. I wore my mousy brown cut short. She drank her tea black. I drank mine with milk.
Her cigarette poised between two fingers, Nellie declared, “What? Are you crazy? Nobody drinks tea with milk!”
Had I one British neighbor or been better traveled, I could’ve countered: “Tell that to the English.”
            No. Nellie’s menthol Salem carried authority, her firm grasp on the world. A teenager of Appalachian roots, what did I know? My granny drank her tea iced and sweet, for Heaven’s sake. She wouldn’t approve of Nellie’s thick makeup and profanity.             
           Yes, my first roommate intimidated me at times. A comedian, she joked about life in Indian River, the northern hamlet famous for the giant crucifix.
I’d never heard of Indian River or its crucifix.  “How big is it?”
Nellie laughed. “How should I know? I’ve never seen it.”
She must be kidding. I determined to see for myself the largest Jesus on the largest cross in the world.
One night I heard Nellie crying in her sleep—a broken-hearted whimper. A sound sleeper from a household of seven family members, I’d never heard anyone cry in bed.
Poor Nellie. She wept with her back to me and didn’t move a muscle. Should I ask what was wrong, if there was anything I could do to help?
Not a good idea. That would embarrass Nellie. So I prayed for my roommate and never revealed I’d heard her cry.
Later, in a rare, tender moment, Nellie confided her boyfriend had jilted her.
“Mine did too.”
Afterward, she invited me to visit with her and her older, married sister. We drank tea together. Black.
Years later, Nellie welcomed me into her home in Mt. Pleasant. I turned the pages of her wedding album. She married a local Tuma of The Embers family. I had waitressed for the fine restaurant as a student and was glad to see Nellie settled and content.
“Iris, I always felt sh#!&y when I stole your snacks with the other girls,” Nellie confessed.
I had forgotten.
Several years later, Nellie died in a car crash.
These intimate memories lay mute until last Friday. In earnest, I sat before the Cross in the Woods in Indian River.
There, with the blue sky and white clouds a backdrop to Jesus’ suffering, I saw Nellie at her desk in our dorm room. She laughed with a lit cigarette. I heard her cry in the night.
Dear Reader, I now see we were more alike than we knew to admit. Lonely, broken, and seeking true love, neither of us had a grasp on the world.
That’s why the Cross.

Brief and Indelible History

Inside the Provencal-Weir Home in Grosse Pointe Farms
Having savored lavender lemon ice cream since Independence Day, I packed the last half-gallon in a cooler. Mel drove us through thick rush hour traffic to Grosse Pointe Farms for a special event.
Oh, almost forgot to mention the Ghirardelli triple chocolate brownies to serve with the ice cream—the most praised culinary pair conceived in my kitchen. I’ve witnessed reserved folk swoon at the flavor of lavender lemon ice cream and a Ghirardelli brownie.
Mel and I arrived at 381 Kercheval for a tour of the historic Provencal-Weir House. Fellow docents of the Detroit Public Library—foragers of history, culture, and art—gathered inside the house’s parlor.
The Grosse Pointe Historical Society invested research and funds to relocate the building and resurrect its period wallpaper and furnishings, Mike Skinner, the Society’s tour guide explained. Then came my favorite part—the Euphemia and Pierre Provencal love story.
Imagine “the shores of the lake and Detroit River…lined with the picturesque windmills of the French ‘habitants’ and the air full of their legends and superstitions.” In that setting the Rev. Gabriel Richard united Pierre Provencal and Euphemia St. Aubin in holy matrimony February 1, 1831.
In this wilderness known as a ribbon farm, Pierre and Euphemia commenced their charitable work to build an orphan’s home. In the sequence of time, they rescued and educated Detroit children who had lost their parents from the Cholera Plagues of 1832, ’34, and ’49.
          A total of twenty-four orphans reached adulthood under Pierre and Euphemia’s care. They left the Provencal farm with “enough of Pierre’s worldly goods to make a start in life.”
          When crops failed, Pierre distributed provisions from the farm’s “spacious granaries” to their neighbors. He installed a confessional box and altar in the east parlor where we stood.
          “There was no church or chapel in the area, so people came from miles around to worship,” Steve said.
Our minds chuck full of local history, DPL docent Tudi Harwood led our group to the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park on Lakeshore Drive for a potluck. Mel and I were awestruck by the sun upon Lake St. Claire—the scent of fresh water.
No wonder the French settled here, I pondered. The contrast between the Provencal’s provincial farm and the mansions along Lakeshore Drive defied reality. 
But there we were in the park’s parking lot with our ice cream cooler and container of brownies, walking in history on a former ribbon farm. We passed a sign inscribed with “Farewell to Summer. Bring your own Smores fixings for a campfire.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I replied.                                        
“What?” Mel asked.
“To wrap up summer with a bonfire and Smores.”
You see dear Reader, as brownies and ice cream, Smores are a part of my food DNA. I’m a former Brownie Scout, a brief and indelible season in my history.
Not as charitable as Euphemia Provencal’s. Yet, those who wrapped up the last bit of lavender lemon ice cream in the clubhouse’s activities room didn’t seem to notice.