O.Henry Ending

Sew What

If you’re looking for Suzy homemaker, keep looking



By Cynthia Adams

Home Ec maven Mildred Green always wore sensible shoes with her pastel polyester ensembles. Her clipped salt-and-pepper hair never varied in style. She had a small gap between her straight front teeth.

And when she stood at the front of the class, dread nearly consumed me.

“Next, we will make a dress.”

I gasped. A recent apron-making fiasco remained very raw.

Trudging down our gravel driveway after school, I weighed options: sew, or ruin my grade point average.

Mama went to Monroe and purchased lime green hopsacking, zipper and the required McCall’s pattern. She plopped the bag on my bed looking pityingly.

Within days I was again Mrs. Green’s focus. Her mouth set after examining my seams, so wonky you might have thought I’d been drinking while sewing.

“Tear that out.”

The next week, I fruitlessly struggled to guide the sewing machine’s foot. It careened off course, jumping into the zipper, savaging the metal.

A gunfire sound sent students crouching on the floor. 

Mrs. Green raced toward me with surprising speed as I inventoried my fingers.

“You broke the needle off!”

After repairing the machine, she composed herself. Then, predictably, said, “tear that out.”

After school, Mrs. Green would help remedy whatever I had done in class. I dreaded these sessions, watching her pink lips purse tightly.

During a former biscuit debacle, when I baked biscuits that could have been used for ammo, she commented wryly, “Your mother never allowed you to cook, I am guessing.”

I would not become a homemaker, I muttered one afternoon. Mrs. Green supported that decision.

Completed at last, my shift resembled Monty Python peasant garb.

“You will wear your finished dresses tomorrow for grading,” Mrs. Green announced.

The next day, I crept into homeroom — a sad sack in a, well, sadder sack. Moving from class to class, I willed myself invisible. In Algebra, I noticed a one-inch gap exposing my flank. I moaned.

By journalism class, a longer gap appeared underarm, exposing my bra. I pinned my arms to my sides.

Kathleen Gore, teacher and mentor, grinned.

“Want my sweater?” she offered.

I sank into a cubby to hide until it was time to face Home Ec.

Before total and utter humiliation, Mrs. Green gave a brief lecture about accessorizing.

“Assess yourself and remove one item after dressing. Never wear more than seven accessories.”

This I could master, I thought, given that I owned fewer than seven.

Then, one by one, she summoned us forth for review.

So many seams had opened that I approached the front of the class as if transporting an active grenade.

Titters erupted. Mrs. Green bit her lip. “Your mother should not have bought hopsacking.”

True. But shifting blame was unhelpful; I raised my chin.

Later, pulling the ruined garb over my head tested the remaining seams. The whole thing shuddered to the floor.

Only the invincible YKK zipper held.

That evening I lay wanly across a chenille bedspread imagining a writer’s life. Shelves of books inhabited this fantasy. As did the antique desks, typewriters and classical busts.

I imagined a closet stuffed with clothing — and eight, nine, maybe ten accessories, all to be worn at once.

And there would be writing awards, I thought bitterly. Springing up to attack the lime green monster on the floor, I easily ripped it to shreds. “Tear that out!”


No doubt, Mrs. Green would discretely purse her pink lips when the reporter inquired about her former, Pulitzer-Prize-winning student before letting out a simple sigh.  OH

Contributing editor Cynthia Adams happens to look fabulous in lime green, although “hopsacking” is still a trigger word. 

April Almanac 2021

April is the earliest fawn, dewy eyed and trembling, landing in a world so soft and tender you can barely remember the deep silence, the bleak landscape, the icy ache of winter.

The nectar of spring flows steady as milk from the mother. It is the wet kiss from doe to teetering fawn. It is here, now. And it is delectable.

Like the fawn, we’ve awakened to a warm and gracious Earth that simply gives.

A tabernacle of peepers sings out.

In the garden, thin spears of asparagus rise like tiny prayers to the sun, young turnips humming songs of the cool soil. Cottontail rabbit grows plump.

Purple martins chatter inside birdhouse gourds and everywhere — everywhere you look — edible flowers bloom.

Rosy pink redbud bursting from bare-branched limbs. Violet and clover spilling across lawns. Forsythia and dandelion mushroom like palatable sunshine. 

Even wisteria — sweet, aromatic miracle — twists around fences, buildings and treetops like ruche fringe, a garden party for this tender new world.

The trees are leafing out. There is pollen for the wasps, the beetles, the bees. And, do you hear that?

The chorus frogs have reached a crescendo, their many squeaking voices one.

The canticle of spring is growing stronger. Whitetail baby mews along.


I will be the gladdest thing

Under the sun!

I will touch a hundred flowers

And not pick one.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay


Canticle of the Sun and Moon(flowers) 

Now that we’ve made it past the last frost, bring on the summer bulbs: gladioli (sword lily), flamboyant cannas, caladium (aka, heart of Jesus, angel wings, elephant ears).

Sew the first of the sunflowers.

And — at the end of the month — moonflowers.

Although they look like morning glories, which open at the earliest touch of light, moonflowers blossom beneath the stars — each ephemeral bloom lasting just one night. Kissed by the light of a near-full moon, the fragrant white flowers are nothing short of enchanting. Create your very own Midsummer Night’s Dream, plus or minus a mischievous garden sprite or two.

Poetry Month

What is a flower but a poem?
Same of a tree, a nest, an egg.

Of course April is National Poetry Month. Look around. Birds weaving tapestries of needles and grasses. Spring tulips. Dogwoods like angelic flashes of white in naked woods. And, three words: violet blossom jelly.

Harvest wild ones in the morning. Three heaping handfuls. Place them in a pretty bowl.

Add boiling water. Stir, then keep covered for one rotation of the Earth.

Tomorrow, strain the liquid — deep and dark and blue. Add lemon juice; boil. Add cane sugar and pectin; boil and behold: wild fuchsia magic.

Just add toast.

Devotion in Motion

One native plant at a time. That’s how Root & Branch Gardens’ Steve Windham is helping to restore our ecosystem

By Ross Howell Jr.



Sitting on his Wharton Street front porch, Steve Windham is telling me the story behind Root & Branch Gardens, his landscape design and services business.

What makes Windham’s approach unique is that he doesn’t want your yard just to be pretty. He wants it to protect the balance of nature.

For that reason, Root & Branch Gardens specializes in landscaping with North Carolina native plants and trees. Native plants, he tells me, are arguably essential to life as we know it. The birds, the bugs, the harmony of all living things.

Sharing this knowledge has become the soul of Windham’s work.    

I ask him how long he’s worked in landscaping and watch a twinkle dance at the corner of his eye.

“Since I was big enough to dig a hole,” Windham answers.

He describes a photograph in which he’s sitting in a wheelbarrow at the age of 8. It wasn’t just anybody’s wheelbarrow. It was his mother’s.

Jeannette Windham is the founder and proprietor of Jeannette’s Plants and Designs, a gardening institution in Greensboro — and later, in Summerfield — for many years.

Though retired, Jeannette still keeps her hand in the soil, so to speak, volunteering for Greensboro Beautiful Inc. (Steve, who’s also active, served as a past chairman.) Just recently, she curated the renovation of the Rock Garden at Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden, finalizing its design and specifying the plantings.

“My mom was a great inspiration . . . a mentor,” Windham says. “She’s a real plant person.”

Butterfly weed
Butterfly weed
 Jeana Garden Phlox and black-eyed Susan
Jeana Garden Phlox and black-eyed Susan


As a kid, Windham recalls helping his mother with various landscaping projects in Greensboro and getting his hands dirty in his granddad’s vegetable garden. Before graduation from Page High School, he even worked part-time for his mother.

At one time he considered a career in electrical engineering, but his interest in the natural world never waned. He studied at Guilford College and Central Piedmont Community College. “I took biology, ornithology, different things,” he says. He received a degree in horticulture at CPCC. And his passion for learning continues.

Windham is currently working toward a certificate in native plants from the North Carolina Botanical Garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, where a conservation garden offers something of a proving grounds for propagating native plants, banking seed to protect wild plants from extinction, conserving biologically diverse habitats and creating native gardens using sustainable gardening practices.

Before realizing what is now his core mission — that he is here to serve as a guide and advocate of native plants and trees — Windham ran a small business and worked at New Garden Landscaping & Nursery for nearly three decades.

In 2016, while Windham was still working at New Garden, he got involved with the Davidson Horticultural Symposium, which has been around for 35 years but seeks to offer new voices in horticulture.

One of those voices was Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. In the book, the University of Delaware professor uses hard science to convince readers how essential the link is between native plants and native wildlife. When gardeners fill their yards with nonnative species, native insects will not — or cannot — ingest these “alien” plants. So the insects starve, depleting a major food source for birds and other creatures.

When Windham fully understood how important native plants and trees are to the environment, he put that knowledge at the core of his professional life, launching Root & Branch Gardens in 2018.

“I decided to tie my personal interest to my business,” he says, “so I could practice conservation in my backyard and other people’s backyards.”

The point, Windham adds, is not to get customers to uproot and replace all their Bradford pear trees, crape myrtles and Burford hollies. He’s happy if he can get customers to at least consider native options, which are also beautiful, sustainable and beneficial to our ecosystem, when selecting trees and plants for their gardens.

As for groomed, expansive yards — well, he’d like to see them smaller. Many native grasses and shrubs that need no herbicides or fertilizer to thrive can be introduced to occupy some of the space.

Jacob Cline bee balm
Jacob Cline bee balm


But before Windham makes any suggestions, he first visits with his clients in their yards and gardens. He asks them if they like to have birds and butterflies around. He asks if they’d like to reduce the size of their lawns, and add plants that will provide food for wildlife. He asks their favorite time of year in their gardens, since various natives add interest at different times of year.

“Just because you decide to use native plants doesn’t mean they’ll do well,” Windham explains. The success of the natives depends on matching their traits with soil type, drainage and sunlight. There are some native plants that are best suited to shady, wet situations, and others that thrive in hot, dry exposures.

Now Windham is reading a New York Times best-seller by Doug Tallamy: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. If American landowners converted just half their yard space to native plants, Tallamy argues in his online initiative called the Homegrown National Park, they would “collectively restore . . . ecosystem function to more than 20 million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.” (To put that in perspective: the biggest U.S. National Park is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, comprising 13.2 million acres, more area than Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and the country of Switzerland combined.)

Windham is doing what he can to help make that happen.

The best part?

“I’m getting to do what I love,” says Windham. “And I know Mom is proud.”  OH

Root & Branch Gardens is located at 1019 Wharton Street, Greensboro. For more information, visit rootandbranchgardens.com.

Ross Howell Jr. is a freelance writer and geezer gardener. Contact him at


Interested in learning more about landscaping with native plants?

In addition to the resources already mentioned, Windham recommends Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden, written by Larry Mellichamp, professor emeritus of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

In addition to visiting Chapel Hill’s botanical garden, you might also want to visit The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1966, the botanical gardens comprise a 7-acre native plant garden, The Van Landingham Glen. Like the UNC-Chapel Hill botanical garden, the UNCC botanical gardens offer certification in native plant studies.

One of the oldest plant societies in North America (founded in 1951), the North Carolina Native Plant Society provides an outstanding website with a list of N.C. native plants for gardens, along with activities and events, at ncwildflower.org.

It’s a Blog’s Life

Social media maven René Zieg shares her flare

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman



If you drove by René Zieg’s home, a cream-colored bungalow distinguished by a heavy brow of evergreen clematis over the front door, you’d never guess that it was a laboratory of sorts, a proving ground of products and ideas.

Zieg publishes her findings regularly.

You can see them — as some 75,000 followers do — on her blog, Cottage and Vine (cottageandvine.net), a digital scroll of her musings about home, garden, food, clothing, travel and other expressions of self.

Spanning several social media platforms — including a dedicated website, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and email newsletters — Zieg fuses the commercial and the personal with ease.

Her posts draw on her own home-improvement projects; seasonal design ditties; meals that she and her husband make (“Sometimes he’ll say, ‘This is blog-worthy,’ and we’ll take a picture.”); her experiences with freebies and invitation-only tours; family gatherings; and morsels vacuumed from websites, magazines and books.

Recently, when her older son, Tyler, was getting married on a February weekend visited by an ice storm (which happened after the ceremony was delayed so the bride could recover from COVID), Zieg pulled out the stops to make the rehearsal dinner memorable. She scripted signs, composed table decorations and assembled a slide show of snapshots. People were surprised when she didn’t cry at the wedding the next day. René explained that she’d spent all of her tears while going through family photos.

Such vulnerable glimpses, she says, are vital to her readers.

“I would like for people to know me a little bit. I read a lot of blogs, and I enjoy them more when I feel like I know the writer. I feel like they’re more relatable,” says Zieg, who grew up in Asheboro and earned a degree in fashion merchandising from UNCG.

She met husband-to-be Rick, a Maryland native who graduated from UNC Charlotte, through a high school friend. They settled in Greensboro in the early 1990s, nestling into a home in Lindley Park before transplanting to their current home in the old Starmount neighborhood in 1996.

René started blogging in the late aughts, when sons Tyler, now 25, and Parker, 22, were in elementary and middle school. “Back when we still got a newspaper, Rick was reading about blogs,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You really should start a blog as a creative outlet.’” René let the idea simmer for a couple of years before launching her site in 2009. “It started out as family things — parenting strategies, things the kids were doing, family management,” she says. As the boys grew, René, by then a full-time mom, focused on writing about the thoughtful curation of home and garden. “Once they get older, you know, you kinda get back to your roots,” she says.

René leaned on design experience from former jobs, one as a merchandiser in the men’s and boy’s divisions of Girbaud, then a 

brand that belonged to Greensboro-based clothing giant VF Corp. “We’d take designs from French designers and adapt them to the American market, with colors and buttons and trims,” she says.

Her last full-time gig was with the Klopman Mills division of Burlington Industries, where she devised mood boards to show potential customers how synthetic fabrics could be used in apparel.

On her way to work one day at the Burlington Industries headquarters — a mid-century “exoskeleton” building that was leveled to make room for the expansion of Friendly Center — she first saw the Starmount home that would be hers.

Like most people who fall in love with a house for sale, she and Rick were blind to the flaws. “It was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine. We can move in!’” René says, laughing. “Then all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Well, we really need to do this.’”

Some fixes — like ripping up the mauve carpet that crawled up the pine stairs leading to the second story of the 1938 home — were easy and cheap. Other improvements took more design and budget planning.

In 2003, the Zieg family (pronounced ZIG, as in zigzag) undertook a major renovation. They bumped out the back of the house, adding about 200 square feet to the dining room and another 200 square feet to what had been a galley kitchen. The construction lent itself to good stories — later. “We had two toddlers, and we were washing dishes in the bathroom,” René says. “When we pulled up the flooring, you could see dirt in the crawl space under the kitchen floor,” chuckles Rick.

The improvements were pre-blog, but subsequent renovations and tweaks have been a mainstay of Cottage and Vine. There is no shortage of subjects. “When you live in an older home, it’s like the Golden Gate Bridge,” René says. “You finish working on one thing and move on to another.”

“I like having something going on at the house,” adds Rick, a sales director whose company makes liners for shipping containers. “Fixing something, painting something or landscaping in the backyard is fun.”

René’s likes and reflections snare oceans of eyeballs. Fohr, a company that verifies the reach of social media influencers, puts her audience at almost 75,000 between all of her platforms.

There’s likely some overlap among followers, but René’s numbers still are robust enough to generate a healthy stream of income thanks to dozens of advertisers, including Crate & Barrel, Lexus and Nordstrom. She works with a national agency, AdThrive, that places advertisements on her blog. She also uses rewardStyle, a monetization program. When readers click on her links and tags, and buy the attached items, René gets a commission.

Often, companies pitch products to her, hoping she’ll post a picture and write-up. Walmart, for example, dangled a fee for her to write about their on-line clothing store. So last fall, René bought some jeans, sweaters, boots, dresses and a faux-Sherpa coat, then posted pictures of herself modeling in her home and at locations around Greensboro. She stresses that she only promotes products that appeal to her tastes.

“I’ve turned down more than I’ve accepted,” she says.

“It’s been people coming to her, not her going to them, which is a high compliment to her,” adds Rick.

The perks of the job can be surprising. Sound Sleep Products, a gel-foam mattress company, sent René a queen size sample compressed into a small box. “We opened it in the dining room, and it sort of exploded,” René says, laughing. “We had to finagle it back to the bedroom. We’re still sleeping on it.”

The bedroom echoes the placid vibe of the home, where downy whites and beach beiges dominate. Blue-and-white ceramics speak calmly. Live plants and pale green glassware bring in notes of nature, along with fibrous mats and baskets. Faded oriental rugs pave the hardwoods. Impressionistic watercolors by family friend Lenton Slack of Asheboro grace the walls.

Even the family’s Weimaraner, Reagan, fits the decor with her soft gray coat.

Sometimes, René solicits feedback on interior changes. Last fall, when she trotted out a new kitchen island/prep table made of metal and marble, she pondered what kind of rug should go underneath. “I’m torn between a simple sisal rug or a vintage rug with muted color. What do you think?” She asked. Readers voted for vintage.

In 2010, when she painted the upstairs hardwood floors — a way to brighten the former attic while avoiding the cost and disruption of refinishing floors — readers lauded her courage. “It takes a brave woman to paint the floor white, so kudos to you! Love it, it looks stunning!” exclaimed a reader known as The Hip Hostess.

Followers also endorsed a major project that the Ziegs finished last fall: the construction of a patio that spans the back of the house. Greensboro landscape designer Marguerite Suggs drew plans for hardscape and surrounding plants, some of which were transplanted (boxwoods and limelight hydrangeas) and some of which were bought new (autumn ferns and an oh-so-upright hornbeam tree). Pruning Perfection & Landscape, a local company, laid the patio pavers. They also installed lighting below trees, along walkways and under the ledge of the patio’s knee wall. Buffalo Fence erected sections of privacy fence, dressing up the posts with pyramidal copper caps. The overhaul preserved René’s herb garden, which is outlined by rocks from family homes in Vermont, and West Jefferson, North Carolina.

René inherited her green thumb — a kitchen orchid supports 19 white blossoms — from both parents. Her mother, Rita Hunter of Asheboro, specializes in gardening to attract monarch butterflies. Her late father, Norman Hennessee, raised vegetables. René relishes the memory of sitting down with him to watch Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS.

Norman, who was an avid woodworker, also whispers his presence inside René’s home. The family prizes his Queen Anne and Chippendale reproductions. Another heirloom is the kitchen table that René’s maternal great-great-grandfather fashioned from thick pine planks in the 1800s. Generations have sat around the table, spilling their lives, literally and figuratively, across the love-worn boards.

The Ziegs have added their own chapters to those stories. Years ago, they hired carpenter Doug Mack to build a banquette down the long side of the table. René looks at the nautical-style bench, deep with concealed storage, and sees her sons, exhausted from swim practice and full of a late dinner, lying down and falling asleep on the broad seat.

Soon to be empty nesters, René and Rick plan on staying put. They’re fond of their neighbors and of the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown Greensboro and their favorite haunts at the Four Corners crossroad in Lindley Park. Plus, René is itching to entertain on the new patio and write about it.

And there are more projects on the horizon. Like refreshing the downstairs bathroom. Moving the laundry room from the basement to the first floor. Organizing the basement into a proper storage space. There is no end in sight, which is a bonus for René and her readers.

“It’s an evolution,” says René. “Our needs change, and our house changes with that.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Contact her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Queen of DIY

How stay-at-home mom Ursula Carmona became a media sensation (Hint: She did it herself)

By Cynthia Adams



Nine years ago, Ursula Carmona typed out her manifesto:

“I’m a DIY junkie,” she confessed. And with “expensive taste but no décor budget,” she realized this was her best option.

Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that her simple mission — to create fresh, creative interiors on the cheap and inspire others in the process — would render her a nationally recognized design influencer.

And yet, this self-taught, DIY, social-media sensation wasn’t always comfortable using power tools, tearing out walls or gutting rooms.

This came of necessity, she insists.



One day, she found an old circular saw at a yard sale, and before she knew it, Carmona was leaning into all sorts of power tools — hard. Mastering tools emboldened her to tackle projects like moving walls, creating her own built-ins and undertaking entire bath and kitchen re-dos.

Her résumé reads like a DIY dream: Better Homes & Gardens Stylemaker; nominee for Domino’s Design Blog Awards; runner up for Home + Garden Trendsetter of the Year.

Now, Carmona’s work is regularly featured in The Home Depot blog, Better Homes & Gardens Style Spotter Blog, IHeart Organizing and Remodelaholic.

And since landing in North Carolina five years ago with her family, she has been power-tooling, painting and resurfacing her way towards creating the home of her dreams — transforming a fixer upper in nearby Ruffin into a house fit for the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. Check it out in the January 2021 issue, to be exact. All the while, she’s become a print and social media inspiration for thousands of others with ambitious tastes but limited budgets.

A decade ago, before her husband Orlando’s California job relocated their family from “the brown hills of Cali” to the frigid Great Lakes area, Carmona worked as a massage therapist. Although she briefly considered nursing school, it occurred to her that a profession in health care or alternative medicine simply wasn’t going to spark her joy.

Orlando supported her decision to stay at home as daughters Fiora, Priya and Sayuri were born in close succession.

“My husband worked two jobs. We slept on an old mattress with a spring that used to poke me in the ribs at night.” They saved money and stuck to a budget.

But living in the cold clime of the North, in a confining bubble of children, meals and chores, she morphed into a dauntless “DIY junkie,” she admits. Adversity in the form of the difficult climate and distance from her California family amplified her creativity.

With kids at home, says Carmona, “You need some outlet.”

And so she began documenting her DIY spirit by creating her first blog, Home Made by Carmona.

The blog was something of her own, something she could work on in her precious downtime. Just a little project, she figured. Even if nobody read it, she consoled herself, “it’s a way to reach out to a creative community.”

Life as a stay-at-home mom provided endless content. From her once lonely kitchen table, the first-time blogger began sharing meal planning and organizational tips, then, eventually, projects that became more and more ambitious. Within just two years, she had amassed thousands of subscribers.

Soon, too, Carmona was invited to appear on HGTV’s popular home improvement programs, becoming a name. A brand, even.

She gained eager sponsors like The Home Depot, whose products aided her renovations. She was even invited to travel with HGTV Expos, presenting alongside celebs like Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines.

Early on, Carmona found an experienced ally among HGTV’s original stars.

“I had a chance to chat with Matt Fox,” she says. “He mentored me, helping my public speaking.” (Fox and Shari Hiller hosted Room by Room, HGTV’s first-ever program, which swiftly boosted home renovation’s ascending popularity among viewers.)

Carmona ascended too. Naturally telegenic and preternaturally calm, her gentle smile and self-assurance caught the attention of magazine editors, TV producers and sponsors — those who “make things possible.” Still, she modestly insists, she is “not a top tier” blogger.

Things happened swiftly. Only a few years after launching a blog, Carmona’s inspiring “chic on the cheap” projects landed in coveted print and digital shelter publications, including Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living, This Old House, House Beautiful, ELLE Décor, BuzzFeed, DIY, Apartment Therapy and Domino.



For someone who had never worked in media or design — and without the help of an agent to promote her — that’s pretty impressive. But she worked hard, springing up before dawn each day and often toiling away into the night.

She credits necessity and creative restlessness as the genesis for her work, but it’s clear she possesses an extraordinary drive.

She also learned the basics of home renovation — electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry — all by herself, calling it “solo remodeling.”

More and more she was tapped for national television appearances on HGTV and as a speaker at home improvement shows. She became a DIY finalist featured on Hallmark channel’s Home and Family Competition.

She marvels that all of this has happened. But when she shares the story of her childhood, it’s clear the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Carmona is the oldest daughter of Donald and Karen Town, who remain on the West Coast. Donald is a fine artist and a former art director for Disney known for creating iconic art for films including Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

As a child, Carmona often accompanied her father at work and played on film sets.

“I grew up a Disney kid . . . The philosophy that you can create anything.”

She even jokes that she married her husband “because he looks like Aladdin.”

Carmona interned at the studio while she was being home schooled, rotating through the various departments and absorbing the creative energy.

“My folks sought to be expansive,” she adds. They always encouraged us to “explore whatever we wanted to do.”

Long before the pandemic, Carmona proved herself uniquely equipped to handle isolation. She was committed to providing the home-school experience to her children, too.

Yet blogging was daunting because there was such a learning curve.  Carmona slowly taught herself everything from writing content and creating photography to styling and blocking shots, even learning HTML in order to program her new blog.

The photography and styling were easier. “I’m very visual,” she explains.

She studied search engine optimization in order to attract more eyeballs to her blog.

What most surprised her were the responses to organizational ideas and meal planning tips.

“Everybody wanted free downloadables and printables,” she muses.

Wearing the hats of wife, mother, blogger, influencer, home renovator and do-it-yourselfer, Carmona kept gaining momentum with her projects and attention from followers. She expanded into other platforms, adding Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.

America took notice. One journalist marveled that she had taken her make-do, re-do style and “turned that into an art form” after she was a featured speaker at a Cleveland, Ohio, home show five years ago.

Yet another journalist called Carmona’s home renovation skills nothing short of a “sensation.”

Upcycling and self-reliance became key to her mission.

Repurpose things, she stresses. “You can make beautiful things with effort and creativity. That is what I want people to understand.”

Her daughters helped her rescue cabinets from the roadside by loading them into a wagon and lugging them home. Now painted and with new hardware, they factored into a reno and are utterly unrecognizable.

“I don’t want people [to view us] as design bloggers who didn’t have to reach to get here. And, I don’t want them to waste money.”

She worked equally hard at presenting her projects in an encouraging and articulate way.

Opportunities began flowing — speaking gigs and televised appearances. She accepted multiple “one-room challenges” along with fellow bloggers.

At one point, she undertook “at least four one-room challenges sponsored by Better Homes & Garden” in a single year. The challenge requires completing a room renovation within six weeks, as a community of bloggers post their progress along the way.

Despite travel limitations, 2020 led to more media exposure than ever, as home-bound followers eagerly attempted DIY themselves, although the pandemic halted media junkets. Many of her most popular ideas on Pinterest concerned adapting to pandemic confinement: A closet became an office — a “cloffice.”

But there was another all-consuming project: the fixer upper.

Around the 2016 Cleveland home show, Carmona made another vow: No more shoveling snow.

“I had lived in the North for so long. When opportunity came, I said, ‘Is it my chance to be warm?’ We’d heard so much about North Carolina from friends and my sister.”

Carmona sought a place private and verdant.

They searched online properties once Orlando found a job in Elon.

A (vacant) two-story house set on 16 acres of woodlands in Ruffin interested them. It was remote but blissfully private. Plus, it had a guest cottage.

“Space and opportunity,” Carmona says. But her husband was dismayed.

“He said, ‘Oh, this is terrible!’” She giggles. “But, I knew I was home.”


The setting was idyllic. There was even a solar panel! The houses would allow her to expand her skills, she decided. As for her husband, well, ‘He didn’t object that hard.’”

She knew he would come to love it. “The joy comes from making the space your own.”

Renovating the guest house kitchen was first, so her sister, brother-in-law and their new infant could temporarily stay there. (They later resettled in Charlotte.) Her own kitchen redo happened later.

Recently, when Better Homes & Gardens came to document the progress of Carmona’s DIY dream home — including the kitchen, the living room and various refurbished interiors — what they didn’t photograph was her newly renovated greenhouse. (Carmona is an avid gardener as well, with, believe it or not, a separate gardening blog.)

And what was that line about the apple and the tree?

The Carmona daughters are growing up. Fiona, 16, who has dreams of culinary school, is working with her mother on a culinary blog, Cooking with Carmona. Priya, 15, aspires to be a textile designer and has been printing her own designs onto fabric for design projects.

Last year, Carmona braved COVID to fly to California for a partnership project with The Home Depot. This was especially close to her heart: she was to tweak her parents’ home.

“I wanted a space to showcase his [Donald Town’s] artwork. I will say, despite the job he’s had and the lifestyle he’s chosen, he’s the most down-to-earth person.”

Carmona pauses. “Maybe a little too humble. He rubs shoulders with these incredible people and doesn’t say a word.”

Like her father, she is self-effacing. “I consider myself a mid-level blogger. But when you are breaking into a smaller niche, it presents some opportunities.”

She adds, “Isn’t the idea of stretching oneself to break the mold?”

It’s not just who you know, talent and skill, she says, “but a little luck too.” OH

You can check out Ursula Carmona’s blog at www.homemadebycarmona.com.

Poem April 2021

Beige Wall Telephone, 1960s


To you who have never known what it is to be tethered

     to the family’s one phone by a corkscrew cord

          filthied by idle fingers twisting it as we talked

and stretched by our efforts to sneak with the handset

away from the dining room where that cheap plastic box

     clung to the wall, my sister and I desperate

          to hide behind curtains or in a nearby room

and mumble dumb endearments to whichever lucky soul

we had a crush on that week: I won’t say how wonderful

     it felt to hear a call’s unexpected tremolo

          and rush to answer that sudden summons,

lifting the receiver’s heavy curve out of its metal hook,

or to dial seven numbers on a whirring analog wheel

     and hear a distant ringing pulse in the ear,

          knowing that actual bells trilled as a body

moved through space to deliver its hopeful Hello? –

no, it was awful, that phone, intended for businesses,

     brisk standing exchanges of information,

          not a home where its too-public anchoring

left adolescent siblings open to each other’s mockery

and the cocked ears of nosy parents straining to decode

     one side of conversations as we curled closer

          to the wall and whispered words downward

into the darkness that our huddling made, not pacing

like a barking dog chained to a stake in the backyard

     but trying our best to vanish, descending

          slow as a diver sipping words like oxygen

from a humming line whose other end kept us breathing.

— Michael McFee, From We Were Once Here,
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017

Wandering Billy

Ghost of a Place

What life was like for German POWs in Greensboro



By Billy Eye

I never felt like a free man until I was a prisoner in your country.

— Unknown former German POW

In 1943, Basic Training Center No. 10, later officially designated as the Overseas Replacement Depot (ORD), was established on the north side of Greensboro, where Bessemer and Summit avenues intersect. Situated on 650 acres, ORD’s mission was to train and outfit U.S. Army Air Forces for the European theatre of war. And grafted onto the southeastern corner of the base, located south of Bessemer at the corner of Winston and Sullivan streets, was the gateway into ORD’s German Prisoner of War camp.

The initial influx of POWs (referred to then as PWs) had been captured as combatants serving with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. (Somewhat coincidentally, that’s where my father was stationed during that period.) Housing 400 Krauts (the derogatory nickname wartime Germans were almost universally given) from 1944 until 1946, ORD’s POW camp was one of 18 small “branch camps.” Compare that with much larger installations statewide, housing thousands of internees in Butner, Fort Bragg, Monroe, Southern Pines and Hoffman.

In accordance with the Geneva Convention, POWs were required to be housed and fed in the same manner as American recruits. Germans would treat our detainees reciprocally, or so we hoped. But, as we later discovered, that was not the case.

POWs crossed the ocean to America on Liberty (cargo) ships and arrived in Greensboro by Pullman cars — the height of luxury — where they were waited on by Black porters in transit and enjoyed meals in dining rooms where African-Americans weren’t welcome. In fact, they were treated so well that it created a furor after local airmen of color complained — and rightly so — that our enemies were afforded better accommodations than they were.

Meanwhile, with every able-bodied male recruited for the war effort, the U.S. suffered from a severe manpower shortage. Crops rotted in the fields. Food shortages called for extreme rationing.

And so it was that women were recruited for our manufacturing sector. Think Rosie the Riveter, et al. For obvious reasons, we couldn’t have German nationals building our ships and planes. However, there were crucial jobs related to infrastructure that the captives could perform. Wearing bright blue fatigues with the letters “PW” stenciled on the back, many prisoners spent their days plowing fields and harvesting cotton, tobacco and peanuts, while also performing other duties on and off base. Limited to 8-hour shifts, they earned 80 cents a day.

The enormous milking barn that sat — until recently — behind Friends Homes at Guilford was taken apart by Germans and then rebuilt across Friendly Avenue for the Coble Farm. “When they [POWs] come in from the field,” a 1945 Greensboro Daily News article stated, “they will go to a spigot, take off their shirts, and let the water run all over their bodies.” At first, MPs (Military Police) supervised the work details, but before long the POWs began arriving unaccompanied and would often share meals with the families for whom they were working. Many were even invited for Sunday dinner.

Luis Felicia, who went on to establish a well-known dance studio in Greensboro, was stationed on the base from 1943–45. In an interview with a UNCG history project, he recalled supervising Germans servicing the Officer’s Club, said to be one of the most elegant clubs in the nation. “Some of them were just kids,” Felicia said. “They were real young, you know, and they’d come, and they’d send me eight of them, and every week I’d get a different batch. They were there to clean and, you know, do the chores around the club.”

Besides minor problems communicating, there were few snags. Quite the opposite, actually. “They were real happy,” Felicia commented. “I think they were happy to be prisoners because they had a lot of good food to eat.” One day while emptying the garbage cans out, one of them told him, “My goodness. Hitler would feed the whole army with what you just threw away.”

According to ORD News in August of 1944, Germans bivouacked in the Gate City grew “sick and tired” of the war. Just a couple of months earlier, those same POWs were certain the Wehrmacht armed forces would prevail. Now, with 4,000 allied bombers dropping their payloads over Berlin every day, they began questioning the Nazi propaganda they’d been force-fed back home.

A year after Victory in Europe Day, all Axis combatants were forcibly deported back to their hometowns. If given a choice, a great number would undoubtedly have stayed. After all, they had it a lot better in the U.S. than they did in their own war-ravaged nation, a large portion of which was occupied by Russians who were not at all sympathetic to their plight.

Many Germans who were quartered in Greensboro wrote letters back to the American families they grew to know while working for them, often receiving “care packages” in return. In those missives, some former combatants remarked that, ironically, they never understood the concept of freedom until they were imprisoned here.

If you want to tour what’s left of that enemy internment facility, travel down Winston Street from Sullivan Street. To the right were eight Prisoner of War barracks with four latrine and shower units in the rear. One of the barracks still exists at 727 Winston Street (but with a more modern brick facade). Next door, what was formerly Mess Hall No. 11 (reserved for German POWs) has been repurposed as a heating and air business. An outbuilding can still be spotted at the rear of 721 Winston.

An unfenced guard field would have been located to the left, where an administration office at 704 Winston resolutely sits up on cinderblocks just as almost every other temporary building in ORD did. The fencing in front of that dilapidated structure is precisely where the barbed wire line was in 1944.

At that time, Winston Street (then South 13th Street) ended at the edge of camp. Now it curves to the east, leading to Utility Street and offering a look at the camp’s other concertina-wired zone reserved for recreation and education, which included English lessons. It appears that four of the five original buildings still exist. R.E. Michel Company at 2100 Sullivan Street operates out of two refurbished rec halls that were built for POWs at the eastern edge of the camp.

So . . . 425,000 Germans incarcerated around the country, including about 10,000 in North Carolina, helped America win World War II? Nazi that coming!  OH

Billy Eye would love to write the definitive book on ORD if ever there is funding for such a project.


The Delightful, Delectable Tulip

And why I really am my wife’s hero



By Ross Howell Jr.

My wife Mary Leigh’s favorite flower is the tulip. That makes life simple for me, as a husband.

Anniversary or Valentine’s Day, if I show up with a bouquet of tulips, I’m a hero. (Caveat: It’s very important to remember the date before the event.)

For the gardener side of my life, however, tulips are not simple.

No, the bulbs aren’t hard to plant. And while the flowers are beautiful, offering a wide range of colors and shares — sometimes stunning, sometimes subtle — believe me when I say these flowers are tricky. The tulip’s history is long and storied. Cultivated in Persia (now Iran) as early as the 10th century, the tulip derives its name from the Persian word for “turban.”

Following its introduction from the Ottoman Empire to 17th century Europe, the tulip became wildly popular, nearly wrecking the Dutch economy in 1637, when a speculative futures market saw individual bulbs fetch astonishing sums before crashing, leaving some investors with ruinous losses.

It’s loss — more accurately, depredation — that’s my problem.

The delightful tulip is tasty to many North American mammals, including squirrels, chipmunks, voles, rabbits, groundhogs, various breeds of domestic cattle and white-tailed deer. These are just the mammals in my personal experience. No doubt there are more.

Imagine my chagrin after I filled our Olive Street backyard bed with what I announced as “Mary Leigh’s” tulips, only later to discover that neighborhood squirrels had excavated and eaten nearly every bulb.

The next year I tried planting bulbs at the front of our house. Most of these bulbs escaped the squirrels’ delectation. I attribute this good fortune to car and pedestrian traffic, and to the neighbors’ cats across the street, though the cats don’t seem to deter the squirrels’ custom of bringing pecans from the trees across the street to picnic on our front porch steps.

I’m not alone in facing such tulip challenges.

Consider the case of my friend, Devin Lacey.

Devin is a strapping, six-foot-five-inch Appalachian State grad who pours drinks part-time at a Blowing Rock watering hole. He’s also the founder of a successful business called Booze and Bouquets Floral Designs, providing arrangements for businesses and events, as well as selling flowers to individual customers at Boone’s Watauga County Farmers’ Market. Except the booze, of course, Devin grows everything he sells.

That includes tulips. Which prompted an Instagram Story about him eating a bulb for the express purpose, he explained, of understanding why deer found them so palatable.

“They’re crunchy,” Devin opined after chewing and swallowing the whole thing. “Like a water chestnut.” (I don’t recommend you try this at home.)

Devin isn’t surrendering. He’s installed tall fencing, and still happily plants and sells his tulips. In spite of such hardships, I’d recommend tulips to any gardener. Some people stake chicken wire or plastic netting over their bulbs to deter squirrels and chipmunks. As for deer, people try red pepper flakes, fragrant spices, hot sauce, garlic or mothballs. Electric fencing works well. (Personally, I draw the line at bar soap suspended in old panty hose or sprinkling a mix of blood, urine and whatever other disgusting fluids that might confuse the deer.)

There’s nothing quite so thrilling as the sight of tulips blooming on a sunny April day. In front of our house, Mary Leigh and I have some that were first given to us as a wedding present.

Despite squirrels, time and my own pained efforts, the tulips still make her smile, which, to me, is the loveliest sight of all.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a freelance writer and geezer gardener. Contact him at ross.howell1@gmail.com.

For a pleasant spring outing, head off to Dewberry Farm in Kernersville, where owners Art and Wendi Johnson offer a magnificent display of more than 100,000 tulips! For modest fees you can walk among the beds, pick your own bouquet and even purchase bulbs for planting. Get in touch with the Johnsons at info@dewberrymanor.com or call (336) 971-4684 for available dates and times.


Ruby Ready

Ladies and gentlemen, start your feeders



By Susan Campbell

It’s that time, folks! North Carolina’s smallest bird, those winged jewels that have spent the winter in the tropics, are now headed back our way. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be returning to gardens and feeders by mid-April. So, it’s time to get ready!

First and foremost, in spite of what you may have heard, these tiny dynamos are mainly insectivorous. Bugs of all kinds make up the majority of their diet. Anything small enough to fit down the hatch will be consumed throughout the day — followed up by a nectar chaser every now and then. Therefore, it is critical to be judicious year-round in your use of pesticides and herbicides, so that the invertebrates hummingbirds depend on will thrive.

Consider planting for your hummers. There is a wide array of plants that are easy to grow that will get the birds’ attention. The best are obviously native species such as trumpet creeper, coral honeysuckle, cardinal flower, bee balm, columbine and even butterfly weed. There are loads of non-native perennials that are a wonderful (and not invasive) addition to your hum-garden, like many of the salvias, Mexican sunflower, sultan’s turban and lantanas. Do not be surprised if you see a hummer hovering around the vegetable garden when your okra starts to bloom or your basil goes to seed. Keep in mind that the thicker the vegetation is in your yard, the buggier it will tend to be — a good excuse to let things go wild in at least a section of the property. And dense vegetation will also provide the birds with necessary cover for roosting, as well as protection from the elements and potential predators.

Of course, many of us have augmented our yards with sugar water feeders that will bring the tiny birds into view. While there are many brands on the market — with more being added every season — they vary in quality and effectiveness. No matter what kind you choose, be sure it can be opened up for complete cleaning and that the ports are large enough (at least 3 mm) not to cause bill injury. Hummer feeders need to be cleaned with hot water (no detergent) at least every three days during the heat of the summer, so easy access for effective scrubbing and rinsing is critical. A 10 percent bleach solution is fine later in the season when mildew can be an issue. Just be sure to rinse all of the parts very thoroughly before refilling.

The best choice for offering homemade nectar is a saucer-style feeder, such as a HummZinger, that pops apart for easy cleaning and refilling. The beauty of these feeders is that they do not tend to seep or drip and, as a consequence, are less likely to attract the bees and wasps that reservoir-style feeders do. Also, many designs now have a built-in ant moat that creates an effective barrier to those even tinier sugar-loving critters that abound in our area during most of the year.

Please avoid store-bought mixes. They can contain additives and preservatives that may not be good for the birds. A simple mix of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water is all you need to use. Adding color to the fluid is not recommended, nor is it necessary. Red dye is usually a petroleum-based compound that the birds cannot digest. Besides, ruby-throateds have phenomenal color vision and can see the red components of your feeder from over a half a mile away.

Last but not least, although hummingbirds do not use conventional bird baths, they do need to keep their feathers clean. There are specialty fountains on the market that are very shallow and may attract them to bathe, though it’s more likely you will see a ruby-throated rinsing off by making passes through your sprinklers. You could even have a close encounter with an overheated ruby-throated if you happen to be watering with a hose during the heat of the day. OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at susan@ncaves.com.

Life of Jane

Basket Case

Beware of Easter bunnies – and babies – bearing gifts

By Jane Borden

In spite of enjoying idyllic Easter traditions in my youth — picking flowers from our yard for the wire-mesh cross at First Presbyterian Church, hunting for marshmallow candies inside tulip blooms in my great aunt’s storybook garden — my strongest memory of the holiday is the time I dressed as the Easter Bunny to work a party for 3-year-olds.  

It was a sweet gig. At 13, I was a regular babysitter for a couple of the children  invited, so my audience members were already my fans. Plus, there’d be candy. My parents dropped me on the other side of Dogwood Park, where I climbed inside a polyester, adult-sized rabbit, and attached the bug-eyed helmet. Then I sauntered into the mêlée, basket of candy in hand, adopting my best congenial walk. Just your average steroidal Lepus, looking for fun and eager to hug. Everybody get psyched.  

The first child who saw me started to cry immediately. Within seconds, they were all screaming, abandoning their hunts to help spread the warning to neighboring villages: A monster conjured from the unknown had come to wave its hairy paws at them and dance a jig. “Regard its tapping foot! Its unnatural cotton tail!! Why does the beast present its behind?! Only heaven can save us now.”  

Thirty seconds after affixing the costume’s head, I removed it. Then, commenced a new terror. “The monster is my babysitter! The monster is my babysitter? Clearly, I have never noticed my babysitter’s behind!!”  

Every moment in early childhood, because we are born clean slates, is unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Reality is sudden, overwhelming, occasionally horrifying and confounding to pick apart. Then enters a creature breaking the rules their brains have so struggled to grasp. It resembles a stuffed toy but possesses free will. It has dead eyes, but sees. It was not invited.  

Still, heartbreakingly, the children were torn. Though wailing, they did not run — because this half-beast babysitting specter bore sweets. Candy is the closest thing toddlers have to religion. Like grace, it is perfect, rare and delivered by gods. Was this polyester monster the deity their parents addressed before meals? Certainly, each meal ended with sweets.  

In the end, though, the basket of treats could not calm. They dropped even the candies they’d already collected, and with good logic. What if the foil wrapped chocolate rabbits in their hands began to speak and dance as well? They could suffer no more unexplained wagging behinds.  

But slowly the children understood and accepted that they were safe, and that I was still me but in strange clothes. We exchanged belated hugs. I babysat often. Usually, this involved feeding kids boxed macaroni and cheese, playing games, and putting them to sleep not long after I had arrived. Afterward, there were hours to kill. So you could say I was babysitting or you could say I was eating cheese. Every fridge contained the string variety, and usually Kraft slices too. I also ate the leftover mac and cheese, as well as small portions of pretty much everything in the refrigerator and pantry. As long as there was enough for my portion to go unnoticed, I partook. It was the prepubescent equivalent of swiping a bit of liquor out of each bottle of your parents’ cabinet. But I also did the dishes, always, in a desperate ploy to stay employed. I tidied toys and wiped counters. Then I watched television until the adults returned to drive me home. My mom instructed that I never count wages upon receiving them, so I stuffed the  wads and checks in my pocket, pulling them out as soon I crossed my parents’ threshold. Sixteen  dollars, fist-pump to the sky! And that was a raise. When I started at 12, I charged $2.50 an hour. I had taken a babysitting class at Cone Hospital, so I deserved every penny. 

Babies watching babies. The kids liked me be cause I was one of them. When I texted Nancy May — who co-organized that egg hunt — to ask what she remembered about the day, she said, “I also got a lot of special grown-up candy for you. But your mom told me afterwards that you were disappointed not to get the same kind the kids had on the hunt, so I  brought some of that over to your house later.” 

At some point, presumably during my twelve years in New York, I forgot how to be with children. This, in spite of a diet still filled with children’s candy. Now, I’m relearning. The reality of having my own is not at all the way I had imagined it would be. You think it’ll be hard. Or, at least, people tell me that a lot — “It must be hard.” They say it because they can’t imagine, don’t know what to expect. But parenthood isn’t hard, per se. It’s just a new reality. And there is definitely a long transition into understanding how this reality works. The transition itself is difficult, absolutely. But the reality? I can’t say if it’s hard or easy. It just is. 

So, parents out there, take a moment to imagine a scenario. You have just had your first child and are in the middle of that harrowing transition, still coming to grips with what the phrase constant care actually means. You are leaning over a crib at 3 a.m., wiping poop off its railings, struggling with a squirming and crying infant, when out of nowhere, an elephant-sized baby saunters into the nursery, waving its big-baby hands and doing a little jig. What would you do? Even if it came bearing an oversized basket full of what, at the moment, are your favorite things – wine, a hot meal, sleep – it’s a basket full of sleep. I don’t care how much you want it, you scream.

You can find Greensboro native Jane Borden, author of I Totally Meant To Do That, in L.A. now — or at JaneBorden.com or via twitter.com/JaneBorden.