Homecomings

Fall 1968, Central Michigan University
Who couldn’t love newborn autumn in Michigan? With summer vacations archived in photos and memories, we flock again to high school and college football fields to cheer our team to victory.
Alumni, students, and parents clap to the beat of marching bands. In small to large towns, we celebrate homecoming in a place where we prepared our minds and bodies to greet our future with knowledge, skill, and confidence.
           And what reasonable person would drive by a cider mill pressing the sweet goodness out of Honey Crisps and Northern Spies without stopping in for a sip and doughnut?
Doesn’t every Michigander have a favorite doughnut?
For instance, check out Yate’s Cider Mill at 23 Mile and Dequindre Roads before 11 a.m. on a Friday and you’ll find folk lined up, waiting for the doughnut door to open.
“What’s the big attraction?” I asked the gray-headed guy behind me.
“Apple fritters! I hope they don’t run out before I get mine.”
“Me too,” said the man before me.  
Both men boasted the girth of life-long apple fritter fans.
“As a kid, I rode my bike here from Hazel Park every fall,” said the man behind. “I’ve come every year since.”
“Yeah, I’ve waited in this line for fifty-five years,” replied the other guy. “Our parents brought us here and waited in line.”
“That apple fritter kept me out of trouble and Mom’s hair all day long,” the guy behind added. “I made it home for dinner before the street lights came on. If I didn’t, she’d take my bike away.”
“Did she ever claim it?” I asked.
“Nope.”
I dared ask what makes the apple fritter worth the wait.
“Lots of apples, spices, and glaze. And it’s huge,” said the man behind. “The best flavor and bargain around.”
“It’s a family tradition,” said the other man.
Another homecoming—powerful and delicious.
We walked inside the building where the men pointed to a counter loaded with their knotty, glazed favorite.
“There they are, and there’s plenty left.”
The fritter lovers relaxed.  
“So, what brought you here?” asked the guy who grew up in Hazel Park.
“I guess to reminisce,” I said. “My senior year in high school my boyfriend and I double dated with another couple here. I’ve not been back since.”
“It’s a lot different now,” the man in front said.
I nodded. “I’d never visited a cider mill back then. The day was beautiful, just like today. We walked the trails. But I can’t remember the taste of cider and doughnuts.”
“Well, now you can make up for it. I highly recommend the apple fritter,” said the man who rode his bike to Yate’s.
Dear Reader, I avoided the bodily damage of the fritter, sat with a nutty doughnut, and recalled the days I escaped the house on my bike and soared in toe jumps before bleachers filled with fans.  
Then I boasted the limp of an old cheerleader and took a stroll along the river. Who couldn’t linger in such a lovely homecoming?

Simple Abundance

My favorite pail holds last year's grape harvest
Years ago I spied my favorite pail at the Armada Flea Market. Light gray enamel with a graceful mouth wider than the bottom, it called my name.
             More a large bowl than a bucket, the utilitarian design includes two handles. The lathed, wood grip in the middle of the long metal handle fits my hand perfectly. The pail swings and sings when carried.
The other handle is welded to the rim, I presume for hanging on a wall to keep the inside dry and rust free. The person who created my garden friend knew a thing or two about conservation and thrift.
Speaking of, I can’t remember the cost. But I’ll tell you right now, no amount of money can tempt me to sell her.
Yes, my pail’s an indispensible she.
I’ve not yet named her. She’ll tell me when she’s in the mood.
My marvelous find has served many purposes in her years of service here. She held all manner of lavender products in our farm’s gift shop. I could’ve sold her a hundred times.
After I liquidated the store, that trusty handle lay untouched until I went searching for the perfect sized container to carry our grape harvest into the kitchen. Our four champagne grape vines produce enough to fill her to the brim and yield twenty pints of grape lavender jelly.
Incidentally, my farm companion is also a heart and back saver since I carry our load below my waist.

Be it beets, onions, garlic, or tomatoes, my Armada Flea Market treasure holds up without a sign of resigning. She now waits in the garage beside the remnants of our peach harvest for our pears to ripen—a meager crop, but enough to risk for a pear cake recipe that caught my eye.
There’s still cabbage, squash, and some beans to carry up to the house in my bargain castaway. Through the years, I’ve wondered where this humble and purposeful item came from, and what will happen to her when I pass to Glory. I visualize her crammed in some storage unit, her handle resting on the rim.
Or worse, left at the end or our driveway in the rain.
In the scope of eternity, this year’s harvest and the implements we use to ease our labor are insignificant matters. However, today, and until our last breath, we must grow and eat food. And it’s most enjoyable and beneficial if we perceive and appreciate our provisions and health in doing so, particularly in the presence of family and friends.
Perhaps this is one reason why Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book, Simple Abundance, sold seven million copies since published in 1995. Could she imagine cell phones would become America’s most abundant and omnipresent tool?
  Dear Reader, considering this distraction from the simple abundance of the natural world and family life, this makes my peach harvest and favorite pail all the more meaningful and dear to me.
            It’s these simple things that build my abundant life.

Mutual Mentors

L-R: Connie, Me, Linda, Back L-R: April, Suzie, Jeannie
Several weeks ago, Connie invited me to Frankenmuth for a reunion with old friends from the former Redeemer Baptist Church in Warren.
          The nucleus of various women’s groups, Connie rattled off names I recalled from the 60’s and 70’s. Some women I haven’t seen since. Three have lived in Attica, Armada, and Oxford for thirty years. One friend lives in Livonia. The other settled in Texas.
“Linda’s coming in from Austin to visit her sister, so we thought it’s a good excuse to party,” Connie said.
Missionaries of sorts, I’d lost track where Linda and her husband had roosted after trotting the globe. Linda and her family had come to mind recently, so a gathering seemed timely.
“Linda’s sister and your sister Libby are joining us,” Connie added.
After they retired, Libby and her husband followed their children to North Carolina. Need I explain how grandbabies possess power to uproot and transplant grandparents in the twinkling of an eye?
A mere fifty-five years ago, as teenagers and young adults, we sisters and Redeemer friends couldn’t foresee where marriage and family would carry us. The Vietnam War loomed in darkness to claim many young men of our generation.
Meanwhile, every Sunday morning, we’d find either Mrs. Helen Sonnenberg or Mrs. Murial Braun waiting for us. They opened their Bible and taught about the love, mercy, and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They shared their testimony, sometimes with tears and blushed face.
In the fruition of time and human love, we stood with our groom before Pastor Braun in the sanctuary. Our guests, and the stained glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, witnessed our vows.
In eternity’s circle of birth, death, and resurrection, we’ve buried our parents. We hold our loss in reverence. 
That’s a strong bond when rounding up a group of senior women who lean on the non-committal side or enter the wrong reunion date in their planner.
“These ladies are driving me crazy! Now Libby can’t come,” Connie emailed.
Last Wednesday morning I met our ringleader in a carpool lot where she waved me to her vintage Cadillac.
“I reserved nine tickets for the river boat cruise, then Eunice and Darlene canceled. And Linda said her sister might not come,” Connie said.

“Seven’s a good number.”
Six of us met under the Bavarian Inn clock at ten and the fun began with “My sister didn’t come”, “Where’s the closest bathroom?” and “Where can I buy a cup of coffee?”
A blissful and delicious day in Frankenmuth followed, concluding with outdoor music and dancing. Connie covered it all with her Sony Cyber-shot.
On our return drive, my chauffer mentioned Helen Sonnenberg and Muriel Braun are still with us. “I loved Helen as a teacher.”
“I can’t remember her class.”
“She taught high school juniors.”
“I was a senior when I first stepped into Redeemer. Muriel became my mentor,” I said.
“Mine too.”
Dear Reader, I hope to visit Helen soon. Muriel lives in California. Perhaps I should call Connie and propose a visit.   

Taste of Travel

Mel and I in Austria, 1990
Our summer vacation slips into history with the taste of Uncle Herm’s tomatoes on my mind.
           “Would ya’ll like a ham and tomada sandwich?” he asked my husband and me. “You have’ta be hungry.”
           “Not too much,” Mel said.
Truth be told, we’re always hungry for Uncle Herm’s garden. Mel couldn’t wait for him to offer a walk to his potato patch. Here I’m Scot-Irish, my husband’s English-Lithuanian, and he couldn’t survive without potatoes.
“I’ll slice a tomato,” I said, and aimed for the largest variety grown in Kentucky.
A widower of several years, my uncle lives on cornflakes, sandwiches, and what the Senior Center serves with local news. He’s given up Walmart’s frozen biscuits because it’s a bother to fry eggs. And you cannot eat biscuits without eggs.
He took a huge jar of mayo and a block of lean ham from the fridge. So far, so good.
I eyed the Wonder-like sliced bread on the kitchen counter and recalled Luke 10:8. “Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you.”
Our first meal at Uncle Herm’s table since my beloved aunt passed, a ham and tomato sandwich never tasted so delicious.
Gratitude enhances flavor when you bless what you find on your plate.
Remember the seventies when every bride received a Fondue pot for a shower gift and felt obliged to use it? Well, the flame of this communal meal had turned cold by 1990 when my husband, youngest daughter, and I joined a road rally though Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.
Three in a group of thirty, all connected to my mate’s employer, we dined on Swiss muesli and yogurt for breakfast, air-dried meat and fresh bread for lunch, and cheese fondue for dinner.
Now, considering America’s fondness for meat, and Wendy’s contagious commercial in the eighties, some of the heftier men amongst our companions thought it fun to holler “Where’s the beef?” to one another and the waiters.
Their banter escalated with each meal. Perhaps they hadn’t heard of Luke 10:8.
Toward the end of our tour, we followed the caravan of Mercedes out of Vienna into wine country. As the sun set, we walked the cobbled streets of Salzburg to Weinbottich, a restaurant with the reputation for the fabulous Salzburger Nockerl, a dessert.
While dining, we watched waiters carry huge platters of sweet soufflé from the kitchen door to tables in the spacious room. Guests fell silent while they consumed the Austrian confection resembling the Alps with whipped cream atop the peaks.
At last, our server cleared our dinner plates and returned with fresh coffee and spoons.

Salzburger Nokerl, our dessert
Dear Reader, that mountain of creamy, sugary egg whites melted in my mouth. I must admit our common dessert disappeared before I had my fill.
I have all I need to gratify that Salzburger Nockerl yearning; one half cup of heavy whipping cream, half a vanilla bean, seven egg whites, four egg yolks, lemon rind, sugar and flour.
A delightful way to celebrate the taste of travel.

Under the Pergola

One of several summer gatherings under our pergola 
I said “Sure” when Mary Ellen called Monday morning and asked if I was free to kayak Thursday at 9:30 a.m. with another friend. We never made it on Lakeville Lake and to lunch last year, so we hankered for the companionship.
That night at writing group, Elaine asked, “Are you available for company late Wednesday morning?” She had family coming in from Chicago and D.C. who’d never visited my place.
With writing projects, I wouldn’t have time to deadhead my gardens and dust the house. Yet, I adore Elaine’s offspring. 
I postponed business, swallowed my pride, and said “Sure.”
Blessed with the finest August morning Michigan can muster, I served what the garden gave us under the pergola— Elaine’s favorite haven on our three acres.
Enzo, not yet two and a former guest, walked downhill to the hen house with his beribboned walking stick and older cousin.
With Elaine’s son in the mix, my husband joined us for scones, cucumber-tomato salad, and lemon lavender ice cream.
“Rain,” Enzo said, dropping hands full of the pergola’s pea gravel to the ground.
How wonderful to have a child in our midst, the third of three generations gathered around our summer table.
How doubly marvelous to hear Anthony, second-generation patriarch, and his wife speak of resident life in D.C.
“Next time you’re in town, please be our guests,” they said.
It is a divine gift to hug folk good-bye who would rather linger.
The following morning, my kayak trio launched as planned, albeit breezy. My two friends glided before me, paddling and resting as I rowed behind without pause.
They stopped for me to catch up for our return to dock.
“Mary Ellen, can you tow me in? Even though I’m rowing constantly, I can’t keep up with you two.”
“Sure.”
A woman who would rather have her feet on the ground than in or on the water, I was glad to touch shore.
The three of us lunched for two hours at the Celtic Knot. We disclosed we had wavered to give ourselves the morning off to spend with each other.
“This is the advantage of our age. We can choose what we most enjoy,” we all agreed.
I awoke Friday morning to a repeat of Wednesday’s blissful weather and menu for Debra’s annual visit under the pergola. This year, however, her granddaughter Olivia stood before Debra on the front porch.
“Good morning, Iris,” Olivia said in her two-and-a-half year old voice.
Oh my goodness. Two darlings in one week.
When Olivia saw the swing she said, “Will you swing me?”
“Sure,” Debra said.
“No, Iris.”
“Sure,” I said.
Olivia swung “way high” with the wind on her face. She swung on her tummy and found a lightning bug in the grass.
She played with the pea gravel.
Of all amazing things, she made a mustache of her melted ice cream that dripped from her chin.
“Ummm,” Olivia sang with closed eyes.                                                                                  
“Ummm,” dear Reader. Three mornings off with friends. Two under the pergola with Enzo and Olivia.  

August Reconciliations

This is the month of the test of the gardener. Were I running things I would simply cut August out of the calendar. Richardson Wright, The Gardener’s Bed-Book, 1929
My late mother, Sadie Lee McCoy, at her Kentucky home, summer 1997
Here I go again, quoting my favorite garden writer. You’d think the man lived next door and looked out his study window into my perennial island.
           He shakes his head at my scrawny red hollyhocks and wonders why on earth I waste my writing time.
           Well, I’d say, the seedlings sure do start off with a boast and promise of healthy blooms. I weed, fertilize, water, mulch, and enclose them in a decorative obelisk to protect them from deer.
Isn’t that enough TLC? After all, hollyhocks are mallows. They’re drought-tolerant, and not supposed to be finicky.
Take my mother’s pink hollyhocks, for instance. She planted seeds in the soil beside her backyard patio. Summer after summer, they grew taller and wider than me in her hot, humid Appalachian climate.
For proof, Mom posed for a photo with a blossom in her hand. I cherish that picture, dear Reader. I searched five hours before I found it in a scrapbook. 
I left Mom’s house with hollyhock seeds, which I promptly sowed in my Michigan garden, with all the faith in the world.
Speaking of world, this largely forgotten medicinal plant, Althea rosea, spread from China to the Middle East. The Crusaders named it “holy” and “hoc”, old English for “mallow.”
This I learned from the summer issue of Herb Quarterly featuring the malvaceae family, and spotlighting the stately hollyhock.
I fell in love with hollyhocks at first sight the summer of 1954 when my parents rented a house on Yacama Street in Detroit. Pink hollyhocks grew in the stinky, dirty alley between trashcans.
My sisters and I pulled off blossoms and made ballerinas with toothpicks. That must’ve been Mom’s idea. I certainly wasn’t that clever at five-years-old.
That beautiful memory prompts my perennial effort to grow the towering plant. The stalks will mature if I fend off the deer. Then come August, they die back.
Victorians adored hollyhocks, known for centuries as a healing herb “to soothe and warm the stomach” and “ease coughs and sore throats.”
From leaf to seed, the entire plant is edible and rich in medicinal value. I’d like to make a pot of tea with the seeds. A currant lavender lemon scone on the side would be nice.
However, it’s August. I’ve reconciled I may never grow hollyhocks like I remember on Yacama and my mother’s back garden. Yet, I think there's enough seeds to brew one cup of tea.
I may as well dig up the puny hollyhocks and seek a suitable replacement. A deer-resistant plant. Scarlet hibiscus. Caryopteris. Astilbe. Something that blooms heartily through summer while I deadhead lilies.
Meanwhile, I’ll experiment with hollyhock roots in green bean soup. Stimulating one’s digestion is a healthy way to reconcile garden regret.
Regarding Mr. Wright’s sentiments, since August yields stringed beans and tomatoes, I prefer to keep the month on my calendar.

More Than One Way Home

My Uncle Herm and Uncle Tab (behind), summer 2016 
Most every July of my childhood, Dad drove our family to Kentucky for vacation. The summer he couldn’t leave his barbershop, Dad dropped Mom, my sisters, and me off at the Detroit bus station. In Ohio, we boarded a train to Williamson, West Virginia. That meant a two-day trip to the place Mom called “home.”
           The pull of blood to Peter Creek ran deep in my mother’s soul.  It began with a phone call from Granny. “Sadie, the garden is in. When ya’ll comin’ in?”
           Not once did Granny’s green beans, tomatoes, and corn fail to draw her only daughter back to her table.
           Mom washed, ironed, and packed our clothes. She carried empty canning jars up from the basement fruit cellar and put them in the trunk of Dad’s red and white 1956 Chrysler.
I stood on the hump in the backseat and watched the city disappear. With his arm resting in the open window, Dad and his cigarette drove through Ohio, the flat and boring state with countless cornfields.
My father knew the shortest distance between our house in Warren and Granny’s porch in Phelps. After several vacations, I learned some landmarks. Then, lo and behold, he’d find another shortcut to shave off a few miles and minutes.
Point of a man’s pride.
Since he preferred to drive after a day’s work, I’d find my spot in the back seat window after dark. I’d watch the headlights of cars behind us, and the red taillights in the other lane. Sometimes I’d awake in front of Granny’s house before sunrise.
I’d climb her front steps in that fogging feeling of travel, her generous bosom waiting at the door to welcome us. Mom led my older sister and me to the basement bed where we slipped between clean sheets.
We woke to the scent of bacon, biscuits, and fried eggs. Fried apples and potatoes. After breakfast, Mom let us loose to play with the neighborhood kids. How I loved to chase Paul Ray and Buddy Boy.
Sixty years later, my husband and I take I75 to Lexington and our hotel room. Next morning we sit down for a Cracker Barrel breakfast, then groom Mom’s gravesite. Later, for the first time, we visit Uncle Tab, one of two remaining McCoy patriarchs, in an assisted living facility.
Me, Uncle Tab, and Mel, July 27, 2019
From Lexington, the Mountain Parkway carries us to US 23 south to Peter Creek where Uncle Herm, Uncle Tab’s older brother, waits. We walk Uncle Herm’s garden. He talks about what crop “didn’t do no good” this summer. We follow Uncle Herm through the shell of the old homeplace where I lived the first four years of my life.
The pull of blood runs deep in a niece’s soul.
We visit Matewan, West Virginia, where my mother delivered me February 21, 1949. My husband takes a picture of me before the vacant building. 
For old time sake, we drive US 23 through Prestonsburg, Louisa, and Ashland Kentucky before we cross the Ohio River into Portsmouth, Ohio.
Dear Reader, without a GPS or effort to shave a few miles and minutes, we look for landmarks that remain on our journey home.
Our place where four hens and two kittens wait.      

A Painter's Eye and Hands

(L-R) Rose and Mischele wrap up painting Yule Love It's pavilion
Before Cheryl agreed to paint for us, she ran her hand over the walls in the bedroom. It seemed she searched for our house’s heartbeat.
           Like an artist before her easel, Cheryl studied her subject and visualized the transformation from one color to another.  
She’d seen several in our domain. Red to gold. Gold to Federation blue. Cream to earthy green.
           Twenty years ago, Cheryl rag-rolled our stairway, hallway, and master bath. I can’t believe she submitted to such tedious work to achieve the wallpaper motif I desired.
           I prefer wallpaper to paint. When our three girls were young, I pasted rolls of floral designs to their bedroom walls. For several years, our two younger daughters shared a room with their Jenny Lind twin beds and yellow wallpaper with white polka dots. The room sustained its sunny disposition no matter the girls’ or mine.
           “Mom, wallpaper’s out of style,” my youngest declared when she grew up. The last to leave the nest, she painted her bedroom red. What did I say about hue and mood?
Cheryl promptly brushed two coats of warm gold over the red to create our guest room. I papered a band of white gardenias mid-wall.
Beyond all reasonable expectations, Cheryl offered to paint the interior of the vintage Coachman camper I inherited from a hunter. Again, Cheryl touched the entire interior before her rollers and brush produced my glamper dubbed “Happy.”
Winter past, I phoned Cheryl and said I’d like to convert our main floor from earth tones to pale blue, white, and gray.
“I’m sorry. I’d love to paint for you, but I’m retired,” she said.
Desperate, we hired a recommended painter. The duo didn’t come close to Cheryl’s mastery. Would I ever find another painter with eyes and hands like hers?
Last year my husband said, “I think we should have the pavilion painted. It’s looking rough.”
The project manager of household improvements, I didn’t fancy tracking down another Cheryl. But the bee buzzed in my bonnet.
One unsuspecting Sunday morning after church, Mischele, a licensed builder, engaged in conversation with my friend Patty and me.
“Do you paint pavilions?” I asked.
“I paint everything. That’s how I started my business,”Mischele replied.
“Do you have a business card?” Patty and I asked in unison.
Enthused, I passed the good news to my husband.
What a glad day when 1 Construction Gal parked her red truck in our driveway where I met her assistant Rose. Until rained out, they touched the cedar, talked and laughed while they set up scaffolding, repaired woodpecker holes, and rolled and rolled white paint.
Mischele, Iris, and Rose celebrate the painted pavilion


Congenial to completion, Mischele and Rose returned blooming window boxes to the pavilion’s west wall and the last of seven white trellises to a post.
Voila!
           Her wedding ring and clothes splattered with paint, Mischele turned to the pavilion and asked, “What do you think?”
           “I think I’m going to miss you two. But we do have two bathrooms that sorely need your expert eye and hands.”
           “Oh!” replied Mischele, “that’s our specialty!”