When I Think About Writing

When I think about writing, I think about both of my parents. Today is my mother’s birthday, although she is no longer with us. My mother was an avid reader. She read the morning paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with breakfast and often did the crossword puzzle. She read, like I do, when she was waiting anywhere, often after dinner and when she went to bed.

She liked to read to us when we were young, but I soon wanted to read for myself.

We subscribed to several magazines over the years including US News and World Report, Better Homes and Gardens and several horse magazines. She belonged to the Book of the Month Club for many years and read all of their selections. In later years, she mostly read mysteries. I was surprised to learn she read Stephen King, saying that even though she was not really a horror fan, he was such a good writer.

As far as I know, other than letters (in an age when people wrote letters), she didn’t do any other writing. But she certainly could have. She was a strict grammarian and I learned at an early age to say, “This is she,” or, “It is I.”

I only asked for her critique of my writing once. We had been assigned, in fourth grade I believe, to write an autobiography. She was not pleased that I included the fact she was divorced. I was simply trying to explain why my half-brother had a different name (and a different father). She said that was none of anyone’s business and since I attended a Catholic girls school, I later understood why she might not want that to be public knowledge. As a result of her criticism, I never showed her any more of my writing.

My father wrote letters and once a humorous poem about a difficult construction project. He read the paper, magazines, and for enjoyment, Louis L’ Amour westerns. His favorite television shows were “Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide”, so his choice of reading material wasn’t surprising. He, too, was a grammarian. He would dictate business letters for me to type and later let me word them and he would check them.

The Sisters of Mercy who taught me were all well-educated and very clear in teaching us grammar based on diagramming sentences, something I think I could still do in my sleep.

But anyway, Happy Birthday, Mother, and thanks for the grammar and the reading example, both have served me well. And I wish you could read my mysteries, although maybe you have and are critiquing them as I write.

Urban Homesteading

We no longer live on ten, fifty, one hundred or three hundred acres—all past situations. We now live in a duplex with a very small yard. But that situation hasn’t stopped us from growing some of our own food.

After determining that the east side of our house received at least six hours of sun per day, we drove to Bailey, North Carolina and purchased several three-year old blueberry plants of three different varieties (needed for pollination). We took out overgrown nandinas and other shrubs and replaced them with blueberries. They bloom in the spring, are green all summer and turn red in the fall.

 We have been able to pick, eat and freeze blueberries for the past four years. We pull weeds occasionally, but the plants and their mulch pretty well shade them out. We net them as the berries become ripe and enjoy picking daily from late June to mid-July.

This spring we added to our future berry production by planting a serviceberry tree. It is a native Virginia tree which blooms early in the spring and eventually will produce an edible berry, similar to a blueberry.

Sage, rosemary and oregano grow beside the blueberries as do daylilies and a huge Annabelle hydrangea; overall, a nice landscaping feature.

Total effort was one day’s drive, one day taking out shrubs, one day planting, thirty minutes netting the plants each year and during the season, fifteen minutes a day picking. Freezing involves washing and drying, placing on a cookie sheet to freeze and then filling containers. No chemicals, no transportation and fresh, yummy berries. While blueberry pie and my concoction of blueberry delight (a trifle sort of dessert made with pieces of a simple yellow cake, vanilla pudding, whipped cream and blueberries) are family favorites, our usual enjoyment are healthier options: topping sugar-free cereal or mixed with yogurt and granola. And one added benefit, reaching under the net to pick creates all sorts of interesting yoga positions—free.

Everyone Loves A Parade

Everyone loves a parade . . . For the first time in the five years we have lived here, we made it to the Williamsburg Christmas Parade. It is at night, so lots of lighted floats, some even shooting snow! Although I enjoyed watching this parade, I am not generally a fan.

Our sorority had a homecoming float. Not only did I hate decorating it, I kept thinking how much the money spent could help the charities which we supported.

When I became a 4-H agent, our 4-H clubs decorated a float—lots of hours in a cold warehouse, and lots of expense. And I ended up with tonsilitis for Thanksgiving.

After Wallace and I were married, we rode in a few parades in Edmonton, Kentucky. One year, the leaders took a wrong turn, causing rearing motorcycles to be facing our less than pleased horses. Another year, Wallace and our son and a friend took off to ride cross country to the parade starting point at the fairgrounds. They never arrived. Thinking the worst, I drove back toward home and found them slowly riding back to our farm. It seems Brent’s pony had put her head down to take a drink as she crossed the creek and he ended up soaking wet.

Another year, Wallace was away, but our daughter, Wynn, and a friend were determined to ride. I hauled the horses to the starting point where we froze waiting for the parade marshal, who arrived thirty minutes late. They rode the circuit and back to the fairgrounds where I loaded the horses, made it home, unloaded, unhitched the trailer, fed the horses, and then drove two and half hours to meet Wallace in Lexington so that Wynn could compete in a winter tournament the next day.

Wynn rode in the Forest City, NC parade with no mishaps. Then after we moved to Rural Hall, North Carolina, Wallace decided to drive her new horse in the Christmas parade. The mare ran over me as he unloaded her. Then we hitched the mare and she was more or less okay with the flag girls twirling in front of her, prancing happily (American Saddlebred horses do love a parade). I was to drive the truck and trailer to the end point, then catch a ride back to the origin point to do the pooper-scooper duty. No one would give me a ride, so I hoofed back the mile parade route in time to pick up the wheelbarrow, followed the horse and cart to the end, scooping poop as it occurred. Not especially fun.

So last night I waved at the floats, appreciated their efforts and felt thankful I was not a participant.

Always Marketing

Our sweet mare, Sunset’s Lydia, suffers from a metabolic disorder known as PSSM. This means she must get most of her energy from fats and proteins as opposed to carbs. A horse Keto diet. When we were attending a horse show in Raleigh, North Carolina, we realized we were out of alfalfa pellets which she eats with canola oil as a part of her regular diet.

So, we headed to the nearest feed store to the show grounds. Now, change of subject, but not really. We live in Williamsburg, Virginia, the home of William & Mary. Neither of us attended the esteemed school, but when we moved here, a friend gave my husband a W&M shirt. I laughingly suggested he wear the shirt while we were in Raleigh to help promote the book about the college which I recently edited.

Within a few miles of the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, we found an old- time feed and hardware store, complete with pot-bellied stove and a cadre of gentlemen gathered around it. When one of the men rang up our order, he asked my husband if he had attended W&M. My husband, being ever helpful, said, “No, but my wife just edited a book all about life at the college.”

I then told the gentleman that the book was available for pre-order and wrote the title on one of my business cards. Turns out he had lots of ancestors from Williamsburg and was interested in anything to do with William & Mary.

You never know what opportunities and connections await. Be ready.

Seamless Travel

My husband and I recently travelled from our home in Williamsburg to Ballinasloe, County Galway Ireland. We could have gotten on the early morning Amtrak and travelled directly to Newark—Liberty International Airport. We actually drove to Baltimore to spend a few days with our daughter and family and took the same train from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Newark airport. There a tram carried us to the international terminal and our Aer Lingus flight.

Upon arriving in Dublin, we planned to stay in an airport hotel to recover from jet lag before boarding our bus to the west of Ireland. A hotel shuttle took us to the hotel and back to the airport the next day to board our cross- country bus. The buses run often and are very reasonable. Our round- trip ticket for two was $56 for a two-and-a-half-hour journey with few stops.

When we returned, we took the bus directly to the airport terminal. Upon landing in Newark, we boarded the tram to the hotel shuttle stop and took the shuttle to our hotel—we could have boarded a train from the airport but again decided on some recovery time. The next morning our shuttle deposited us back at the airport and one tram stop later we were at the train station where both commuter and Amtrak trains are available.

Hampton Roads brands itself as a tourist destination. And, Williamsburg and Newport News as well as Norfolk have Amtrak service with some bus connections to Virginia Beach. But as far as I know, there are no train or bus connections from Williamsburg to Richmond or Newport News or Norfolk airports. Virginia Beach has declined to extend the Tides commuter rail from Norfolk to the beach.

Tourist dollars could best be spent connecting airports to train stations and buses, allowing visitors to arrive without cars. Increased subsidies to public transportation could ease traffic congestion throughout the country. Carless visitors would not add to traffic or air pollution and would attract additional classes of tourists.

Hats off to BWI and Norfolk for making travel easier!

Graceless In New York

It’s a good thing my parents didn’t name me Grace. My latest example of being “not
grace” occurred in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, certainly a place for grace. Since our visit occurred during Covid restrictions, I was careful to have my vaccination record and ID in hand. Once that passed muster, we were herded to the purse/bag checking station.

I will first tell you that it was a cold, half rain-half snow day. So, I had my all-weather
hooded coat on, with the hood up. Because we were in the big city, I had the shoulder strap of my purse over my head and resting on my left shoulder while the purse was secured on my right side. Then I had wrapped my thick wooly scarf around my neck, over the coat and tied it.

I reached to pull my purse off my shoulder and managed to pull my scarf over my face,
the purse strap now entangled in the scarf and coat hood. Fortunately, the purse checkers had a sense of humor. “Do we need 911?” One asked. The second replied, “Maybe the jaws of life.” And, “It’s okay, we’ve got you.”

In an earlier year, I might have died of embarrassment, but having lived my graceless life
so long, I only began to laugh. Eventually I was untangled and lived to see the glory of the Met.

Making Meals—Out of Little at All

I never went hungry. A blessing that many Americans take for granted, but others cannot. I grew up on a farm and we had some lean years with my mother making a few desperation dinners, but mostly we had beef or pork and/or lamb from the farm in the freezer as well as frozen green beans, tomatoes, green peppers, Swiss chard, squash and corn from our garden as well as applesauce from our apple tree. We also had what we called winter pear trees—the pears were not good to eat, but she made pearsauce out of them. I suspect they might have been tasty canned—I have canned similar pears, but she was not much into canning.

My father contracted with a commercial bakery to pick up their old bread. He took our converted Dodge moving van which could carry four horses, or several cattle or hogs to market, and filled it with day-old bread. We first went through the packages choosing sweet rolls, variety breads and whatever else appealed for the home freezer. The rest we emptied into an old chicken plucking tank which warmed the water to brew pig slop. The pigs loved it and the barn smelled like chicken soup.

For several years we had a milk cow and my mother, although growing up as a city girl, learned to make soft cheese and butter. We had chickens for fresh eggs. A neighbor grew corn, oats, wheat and barley on our farm on the shares. My mother would take some of the wheat and cook it as a hot cereal.

My father loved creamed corn, right out of the can. So, one desperation dinner I remember was creamed corn mixed into scrambled eggs—not bad at all.

One very cold winter night, we found a heifer which had been shot by a hunter. For reasons now unclear to me, in order to use the meat, we had to have the entire carcass made into smoked beef sausage. My father had the opportunity to go back to the city and work for my uncle. During the week, we stayed in an old sorority house he owned with gas stoves. My mother was afraid to light the ovens and we didn’t really move much to that house in the way of cooking equipment. I can remember eating the smoked sausage along with toast she made by holding bread over the gas flame. Not my favorite.

I no longer live on a farm and have only a small garden. None the less, we still have a few off the land meals—we use a small raised bed down the street from us. We grew tomatoes, green onions, peppers, zucchini, lettuce, basil and Swiss chard. At our house we have blueberry bushes, rosemary, thyme and oregano along with cherry tomatoes. My favorite is to sauté fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers and zucchini and serve over pasta with fresh cut basil and parmesan cheese. Swiss chard makes a great quiche, along with green onions.

This year, the news mentioned the higher cost of Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks to Food Lion we purchased an almost fifteen -pound turkey for less than five dollars. Throughout the year I freeze stale bread, heels and leftover cornbread to use for stuffing.  I had to buy peas, cranberries, and potatoes along with onions and celery. I now have turkey and dressing in the freezer along with a carcass and broth for soup making—an investment of ten dollars made us many meals. And I suspect as inflation increases, our “creative cooking” will continue.

Peaceful Poconos

My husband and I recently traded out time share for a week in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania at Shawnee on the Delaware. We were right on the Delaware River—a little worrying as the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through—but we stayed dry. I can’t say as much for the golf course.

The resort is very spread out, intermixed with older homes and commercial enterprises, as well as a professional theater. One reason we chose this location was to be able to view water falls. Buttermilk Falls is adjacent to the property. Dingman’s Falls was about thirty minutes away, a beautiful drive in the Delaware Water Gap National Area. This falls and another, Silver Falls, were easily accessible along a boardwalk. We went to this area both before and after the storm—quite a difference!

We also drove north to the quaint town of Milford, Pennsylvania, full of older homes, lovingly landscaped. This town is within commuting distance of New York City.

In Shawnee, we ate twice at the Gem and Keystone on the property—great food and service and we were able to eat on the porch. There were many other choices nearby.

When I was growing up, the Poconos were known for cheesy honeymoon resorts with mirrored ceilings, heart shaped beds and so on. We only saw one hotel advertising “sedutive suites”. Rather the area’s appeal lay in natural beauty, lots of hiking trails and opportunities to kayak and canoe. There are ski resorts, golf courses and other amenities.

We played mini-golf and enjoyed the pools at the resort. The nearby towns of East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg offered shopping and dining opportunities, although I didn’t see much in the way of antique or consignment  stores—my favorite haunts. There were, however, many places to buy cigarettes and beer. And we always enjoy driving through the countryside, observing farms and architecture.

Although a long way from my native Western Pennsylvania, I found the countryside similar, as well as the style of homes and barns. All in all a restful and enjoyable trip.

Out of Nothing at All

“Making Love Out of Nothing at All” by Air supply is one of my favorite songs. My husband’s cousin Elaine does this on a regular basis, although her mission could more directly be titled, “Making Beauty Out of Nothing at All.”

Her apartment is full of eclectic treasures, art work, tapestry, photos, pottery, vases—each attached to a memory. While other seniors (she will be 92 in August) may be downsizing, she says she couldn’t bear to part with one single thing attached to a memory. New memories and hence new objects appear on a regular basis. In her bedroom, a Japanese fan is splayed artfully on the pleated window shade—a new addition from our last visit.

Her current volunteer project involves framing artwork for a charity which helps furnish apartments for men moving out of homeless shelters. She had an interesting weed tree in her yard which produces a number of different leaf shapes. She mats and frames these in beautiful frames she scours from thrift shops and yard sales. She might also frame a pretty notecard, or anything really which could become art. In the fall she finds colorful leaves to feature.

She hasn’t redecorated her apartment in terms of paint, wallpaper or carpet, for years. But art abounds—in all forms. Our table was set with plates covered with three different beautiful paper napkins, cut to fit and topped with a clear glass plate.

When she is not crafting art or spoiling her Maine Coon cat, she is at the computer, writing poetry, once again making beauty– out of nothing at all.

Making Hay

You can take the girl out of the country, but … As I drove to Tappahannock to deliver books to T-Town Tack and Western Wear, my eyes took in the fields of waving wheat, harvested wheat and newly raked hay. For much of my life, this time of May has meant time in the hayfield. Putting up good hay, suitable for horses, is a complex process. It must be cut before it is too stalky, it must have time to dry, it must be baled at the perfect moment. Too early and the moisture will cause it to mold and build heat, even enough to spontaneously combust. Too dry and it will be dusty and of less nutritional value.

On a good year in Western Pennsylvania, Memorial Day marked the first hay cutting. We spent the weekend mowing, raking and baling the fragrant timothy. I think the alfalfa and clover fields were a bit later. I cherished those times, working with my father to put up hay. It was also a time of picnics with our good friends who lived only a few miles away. We got together on every holiday, either at their place or ours, grilling out.

But I digress. Today is our daughter’s birthday. She was born on a Friday morning and my husband watched my c-section through a door. Back in my hospital room, we held our precious gift and then that night he drove the eighty miles back home to work in the hayfield the next day.

Our son and our daughter learned to work in the hayfield. Our son talks about his job by saying, “I’ve hauled hay, this job isn’t hard work.” Our daughter and her best friend out worked their football player classmates when helping a farmer who baled hay in South Carolina.

We no longer have hay fields to mow, rake or bale, but as a horse owner and lover, I appreciate the process. I grieve for every farmer who has his mowed and raked hay ruined by rain (not likely this spring). And I love the scent of freshly mown hay—perhaps someone could bottle and sell it?