2019 Summer Reading Issue


A pocketful of poets & photographers reflect on summer

Ask a poet to show you a glimpse of summer and they will not give you words on a page.

“OK,” they will tell you, tying a silk cloth over your eyes, and then they will take your hand, guide you to the end of the sidewalk, where you will leave your shoes.

The earth feels wet and cool beneath your feet, each step like a distant memory, and the more you trust the ground beneath you, the more you will notice that everything is alive. Whether or not you’ve been here before, or think you have, there is something foreign within the familiar, and the possibility of discovery ignites you.

Just beyond a swollen creek, where chorus frogs shriek in the wake of an August rain, something will demand your attention — a fragrance, perhaps. Or filtered light flickering across your face and skin. Or the sense of nearby movement. You will know when it arrives, and when it does, it will draw you closer to the source.

Before the cloth slips down below your eyes, you will feel a shift in the air. And then you will see it: a moss-laced grove, a golden field, the garden of a lover who still haunts you. The poet who led you here is gone, and in the midst of this enchanted dreamscape, you have unearthed something within yourself, a pain or a delight — an awakening that cannot be reversed.

This is the beauty of poetry. Sweet or bitter, subtle or Earth-shaking, whatever truth has been revealed reminds you of the exquisite cauldron of human emotions that you might stumble upon at any instant.

For our annual August Reading Issue, we invited a number of our favorite poets (including two Poet Laureates) to take us somewhere special with their words, matching them with a gifted photographer to illustrate their vision.

In this dreamy, golden season dripping with raw honey and memory, each moment is ripe with surprises. You’ll see. You can leave your shoes behind. You need only be open to discovery.  Ashley Wahl

Food for Thought

Plum Crazy

America’s sudden passion for heirloom fruits and vegetables means glorious varieties like Santa Rosa and Mirabelle plums are widely available


By Jane Lear

One of my earliest food memories is of a high-walled garden somewhere along the Cape Fear. It belonged to friends of my parents, and while they sipped long cool drinks in the shade of a venerable live oak, I was allowed to explore and eat pretty much anything I could find. Blueberries, raspberries, the pears reached by shinnying up a knotted rope to a convenient branch. Figs, plump and sweet with ultra-delicate skins.

And there were wonderful plums. I found their thin, taut red skins and gold flesh mesmerizing. Their rich aroma and full-on sweet-tart flavor were a revelation, and their texture — well, after my mother tried one, it was the first time I heard the word “lush.”

Those beauts were worlds apart from the characterless supermarket plums that are so common today. For ages, I thought those plums I enjoyed as an 8-year-old couldn’t possibly have been as magical as I remembered.

Until, that is, about 15 years ago on a visit to northern California, when I first bit into a plum from Frog Hollow Farm. The cultivar was ‘Santa Rosa,’ I discovered, and I felt as though I’d found a long-lost friend.

Santa Rosa has a grand American history. It was bred in 1906 by the celebrated horticulturalist Luther Burbank (1849–1926) at his plant research center. Named for its birthplace, the plum is arguably his crowning achievement. It’s no surprise that our family friends, both enthusiastic home orchardists, would have gotten their hands on some trees. 

The tight skin of a perfectly ripe Santa Rosa pops when you bite into it, and when devouring the flesh (“lush” is exactly what it is), it’s best if you’re leaning over the kitchen sink. I have this image of the modernist poet William Carlos Williams doing so, whisking his tie out of the way at the last second, before turning guilt into art in “This is Just To Say”:

“I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast. / Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.”

Any high school English teacher will tell you that this much-anthologized poem, written in 1934, can have a number of different meanings, including temptation and the triumph of the physical over the spiritual. But it’s also a great example of how to offer a non-apologizing apology after inconveniencing a loved one. The subsequent parodies (the first, by Williams himself) continued for decades and indeed have been given new life as a meme on Twitter:

“I have closed / the tabs / that were in / the browser / and which / you were probably / saving / to read / Forgive me / they hogged memory / and were / so old,” wrote stvnrlly@stvnrlly.

Happily, America’s increasing passion for heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables means a wider array of interesting plum varieties is available, including Santa Rosa and the small ‘Mirabelle,’ which is yellow blushed with crimson and intensely sweet. (In France, it’s used to make plum eau-de-vie.) Keep your eyes open, and if you see juicy looking tree-ripened plums for sale anywhere, snap them up.

The Williamses and their icebox aside, plums won’t continue to ripen if chilled. Keep them at room temperature and out of direct sunlight instead. If you must refrigerate them (they’re a magnet for fruit flies), don’t wash the ripe fruit beforehand, and bring to room temperature before eating. Another tip? Never cluster or stack plums or any stone fruit — that leads to uneven ripening or bruising. So spread out your bounty onto a platter instead of piling it into a bowl.

Whenever I see promising plums, I always buy too many, because I can’t decide what to do with them. A galette is always appealing, as is an upside-down cake. But I often take the path of least resistance and roast them, a technique I picked up from cookbook author and all-around culinary goddess Georgeanne Brennan. She roasts her stone fruit in a wood-fired outdoor oven, but a regular old oven works fine too, even though it isn’t nearly as romantic. And her trick of serving the roasted fruit with crème fraîche worked into fresh ricotta is a keeper: The thickened cream gives the fluffy, uncomplicated ricotta a nutty sweetness, a little tang, and voluptuous body.

I love the rich, faintly spicy flavor of roasted plums all by themselves, but you could easily use peaches or a combination of stone fruits — plums and nectarines, say. And you could substitute a dollop of mascarpone or softly whipped heavy cream for the creamy ricotta.

Roasted plums are versatile. They swing homey or haute, and are ideal if you aren’t a baker or need a gluten-free dessert, because there is no crust or crumble topping involved. They cook quietly all by themselves and make the kitchen smell heavenly. And, if you are fortunate, there will be a spoonful or two left for tomorrow morning.

Then again, you could just eat your plums out of hand, leaning over the kitchen sink.

Roasted Plums with Creamy Ricotta and Honey

1 cup fresh ricotta

About 1/4 cup crème fraîche

A dash of pure vanilla extract


6 to 8 plums, depending on size, or a mixture of plums and nectarines and/or peaches

Extra-virgin olive oil

Honey, for drizzling

1. Preheat the oven to 475º. Stir together the ricotta, crème fraîche, vanilla and about 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste, in a bowl. Pop that into the fridge until ready to use.

2. Cut the plums from stem end to bottom, first down one side, then the other. Gently twist the halves together; if they separate from the pit easily, that means they are freestone. Otherwise, they’re clingstone, so cut the flesh away from the pit in largish wedges. Put the plums in a shallow baking dish just large enough to fit them in 1 layer. Drizzle with about 1 tablespoon oil and turn them a few times to coat. Generously sprinkle with sugar and turn once or twice more. Roast until the plums have just collapsed and are tender and just caramelized enough, about 20 minutes.

3. Serve the plums in small bowls with the creamy ricotta and honey, for drizzling, on the side.  OH

Jane Lear, formerly of Gourmet magazine and
Martha Stewart Living, is the editor of Feed Me,
a quarterly magazine for Long Island food lovers.

Drinks with Writers

Southern Holy Smoke

Matthew Register’s quick rise from roadside to barbecue fame


By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

For Garland, North Carolina, native Matthew Register, it all started with a dream, a dream of teaching his three young children how to cook barbecue.

“In eastern North Carolina, you’re always around barbecue,” he tells me on a warm July day. The two of us are sipping pale ales from Foothills Brewing on the back deck of his family’s vacation home in Kure Beach. “Soon I realized that I could stand outside and drink beer and listen to music and nobody would bother me if I was cooking. And then I read John Shelton Reed’s book Holy Smoke, and it changed me. I began experimenting with recipes and giving barbecue away. People started calling and asking if I’d make barbecue for their family reunions.”

Once the people of eastern North Carolina, a place so steeped in barbecue history and culture that it has its own style of barbecue, came calling, Matthew and his wife, Jessica, knew they were on to something. They opened a roadside stand and sold barbecue sandwiches for $5. They wanted to sell 30 on the first day; they sold 150 instead.

“We couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It all happened so fast.” And then the Sampson County Health Department got involved. “I have a really good relationship with the health department now, but back then they made pretty clear that I couldn’t be selling sandwiches on the side of the road.”

Matthew and Jessica began the search for a spot to open a small restaurant, and a former fish market seemed like the perfect place. In April 2014, Southern Smoke opened in downtown Garland, and the dream of teaching his children about barbecue exploded into something Matthew never could have imagined. Since then he has appeared on The Today Show. He has been featured in magazines and spoken at conferences around the country. And, in May, Register released his first cookbook, Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today.

Even after all those hallmarks of success — a thriving restaurant, national acclaim and a cookbook — Matthew, as he writes in the book’s introduction, “didn’t set out to become a chef. In fact, even once cooking all day was my full-time job, I was uncomfortable with the title.”

I ask him if he has grown more comfortable with being considered a chef in recent years.

“A little,” he says. “When I think of the word chef, I think, that’s what Keith Rhodes is. That’s what Dean Neff is. That’s what Ashley Christensen is. I’m slowly growing more comfortable with it.” He takes a sip of his beer and looks at his book, where it sits on the table between us. “But now I’ve got this cookbook, and I’m dealing with those same feelings when people call me author.”

Make no mistake: Matthew Register can cook barbecue, but he can also write about it. While there are plenty of wonderful recipes in Southern Smoke, there are also the stories behind them. For example, the recipe for Smoked Chicken Quarters with Papa Nipper’s Church Sauce tells the story of Jessica’s grandfather, Jimmy Nipper, a man who “spent much of his youth shoveling hardwood coals into pits night after night, cooking whole hogs.” While he went on to join the North Carolina highway patrol, Jimmy continued to cook for fundraisers and church functions.

One of my favorite recipes is for Saltine Cracker Fried Oysters, which features a secret passed down from his great-grandmother Grace Jarmen Hart. The recipe also features instructions for making his grandmother Dorothy Hart’s tartar sauce with Duke’s mayonnaise, to which Matthew dedicates a short essay that argues for Duke’s being the best mayonnaise around. Don’t use it? “That’s a shame,” writes Matthew.

I ask him about the stories and historical information that accompany the recipes, and he tells me it was important both to honor his family as well as the diverse backgrounds of the people who have contributed to Southern cuisine.

“With Southern food, there may be five different wives’ tales about a dish, but you still don’t know where the food came from. A lot of people don’t understand how important West African food and culture are to Southern cuisine and vegetables like okra, for example. Our barbecue style is from the West Indies. A lot of our cuisine came from other parts of the world. But this is our story. This is what we are.”

Aside from writing the recipes, I ask him about the experience of making a cookbook. “We shot the photographs for the whole cookbook in four days,” he says, his forehead breaking out in sweat at the mere memory of it. “It was late July, early August, 100 degrees. We made 16 to 18 dishes a day. We just cranked out food.” Perhaps that is what Matthew is best at: cranking out food that is personal, consistent, and brimming with history.

“We opened Southern Smoke and had a long line on the first day, and the line hasn’t stopped,” he says.

Later, after telling Matthew and his family goodbye, I notice a plaque hanging just outside the front door. It reads, “Be careful with your dreams. They may come true.”

Matthew Register should have been more careful.  OH

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

The Accidental Astrologer

By Jupiter!

The large, jolly-old-elf planet moves direct from its
retrograde phase, bearing gifts along the way

By Astrid Stellanova

Four months ago in April, Jupiter went retrograde. On August 11, Jupiter is going direct. This means (stellar Star Children that y’all are) that you can finally put to good use the knowledge you’ve been saving up for God-knows-how-long, but definitely too long. Mid-August, the full moon is in Aquarius. Dance on fertile ground and allow that psychic energy to rise up in you from your tippy toes. Meanwhile, don’t settle for humdrum but spice it up — douse them collard greens with peppers and vinegar!

Leo (July 23-August 22)

A tub of the world’s finest cellulite cream won’t straighten out the wrinkles from last month’s fiasco when your vanity got the better of you. A sweet-talking somebody sold you on a ridiculous number of superficial fixes. (Not literally, Sugar, the metaphorical kind.) What you really crave and need is straight talk. Learn to fight desperation with hope that ain’t found in a jar. Besides, a blind mule ain’t afraid of darkness.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

You’re a creative spitfire, known to let the pot boil over when you are in the middle of a project. Virgo season begins August 23, and that will signify a season of planning and cogitating. Give your sensitive self the time to reach those who matter.

Libra (September 23–October 22)

You wiggled around an issue like a worm in hot ashes. Now get a grip, because you are so whizbang amazing at so many things you seem to fixate on those teensy things you aren’t good at. Sweet thing, move into the big picture stage of your life.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

Sulking and bitching are bad enough when you’re a teenager, but downright unattractive when you’re middle-aged. Don’t bother your besties unless you are on fire. Fergoddsakes give them a break. Buy ’em coffee, wine, whatever. Period.

Sagittarius (November 2–December 21)

You went all Jesus, judgment and cheetah print when under pressure. Back up and clean it up and say you’re sorry. If you can somehow remedy that situation, then you deserve a gold star. The next lesson is learning grace when things are going well. 

Capricorn (December 22–January 19)

This month may feel like a repeat of when you spilled sweet tea all over the place and it was noticed. The good news is your devoted friends just rolled their eyeballs. Now you get to return the favor when someone else spills something all over the place.

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

Sugar bun, the full moon on the 15th is like magic time for you and the causes dearest to you. Use the light of the big, round orb to guide you and your steps. You have the platform to help those poor Muggles who don’t have your super powers.

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

Is there a loud, louder, loudest dog barking? Any signs of guilt you’ve overlooked? Be perceptive. Not to say jump to conclusions, just be aware. Late this month is a second full moon, which may give you surprising powers and light.

Aries (March 21–April 19)

You’re in for a spell of unexpected events, which is a lot like saying it’s hotter than hell in Texas. Aries born are born for the unexpected, which you will take to like a wizard to a wand. Fried okra and Jesus may figure into this month’s events.

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

If you practice and repeat your newfound skills, you have opportunities open that you have never experienced. The question is, will you, or is it irresistible to you to break wind in the spiritual elevator and pretend you didn’t?

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

There’s you, elbowing your way ahead, whether it’s a 75 percent-off sale or a spiritual crusade. Sugar, sometimes your ambition isn’t just blind — it is plain wrong. Bite back that impulse to power to the front and give somebody else an (unbitten) hand.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

Now that you have survived a down-to-the-wire scary time, you look worse than death on a saltine cracker. Take care of yourself, put your face back on, pull up your britches and take a respite. Remember, you can almost always disarm with charm.   OH

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.

The Omnivorous Reader

A Tree Grows in Carolina

Two debut novels renew old Brooklyn ties


By D.G. Martin

Some North Carolina literary old-timers remember a special link between North Carolina and Brooklyn.

In 1943 Harper & Brothers published the best-seller, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of America’s most-loved novels. The North Carolina connection?

Although its author, Betty Smith, based the novel on her experiences growing up in Brooklyn, she wrote the book in Chapel Hill. As a struggling divorcée with two children, she had moved to North Carolina to work at the University of North Carolina as a part of Paul Green’s writing program. The money she earned kept her going until the success of her book gave stability to her economic life.

This year the literary connection between Brooklyn and North Carolina has been renewed by two debut novelists, each with connections in both places. It happened earlier this year when Smith’s publisher, now HarperCollins, released A Woman Is No Man, the debut novel of Etaf Rum.

Like Smith, Rum based her novel on her life growing up in Brooklyn. Like Smith, the divorced Rum moved to North Carolina. Like Smith, she had two children. Like Smith, she found work in higher education, in Rum’s case, community colleges near where she lives in Rocky Mount.

Rum’s Palestinian immigrant family and neighbors in Brooklyn in the 1990s and 2000s are not the same as Smith’s families, whose roots were in Western Europe. Still, both books deal with women’s struggles to make their way in families and communities dominated by men.

The central character in the first part of Rum’s book is Isra, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl whose family forces her into marriage with an older man, Adam. He owns a deli and lives with his parents and siblings in Brooklyn. Adam and Isra move into his family’s basement. Isra becomes a virtual servant to Adam’s mother, Fareeda. She pushes the couple to have children, males who can make money and build the family’s reputation and influence. When Isra produces only four children, all girls, she is dishonored by Fareeda and by Adam, who begins to beat her regularly.

Isra and Adam’s oldest daughter, Deya, becomes the central character of the second part of the book. Adam and Isra have died, and Fareeda raises their children.

When Deya is a high school senior, Fareeda begins to look for a man in the Palestinian community for her to marry. Deya wants to go to college, but she is afraid to bolt from her family and the community’s customs.

Though fiction, A Woman Is No Man is clearly autobiographical. As such, Rum explains, the book “meant challenging many long-held beliefs in my community and violating our code of silence.”

“Growing up,” she writes, “there were limits to what women could do in society. Whenever I expressed a desire to step outside the prescribed path of marriage and motherhood, I was reminded over and over again: A woman is no man.”

She writes that “what I hope people from both inside and outside my community see when they read this novel are the strength and resiliency of our women.” It will stir readers for other reasons, too. Its themes of conflict between a drive for individual fulfillment and the demands of community and family loyalty are universal.

The author’s well-turned and beautiful writing makes reading this debut novel a pleasure. Finally, her careful, fair-minded, sympathetic descriptions of complicated and interesting characters give the story a classic richness. Whether or not A Woman Is No Man attains the beloved status of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, it will surely be a widely appreciated treasure.

Another debut novel connects Brooklyn and North Carolina. This time it is a North Carolina native who moves to Brooklyn from Elizabeth City. From there, De’Shawn Charles Winslow moved to Harlem, where he wrote In West Mills, a book about African-Americans living and struggling in eastern North Carolina from roughly 1940 to 1987. There are no major white characters, and no focus on Jim Crow racism. There is almost nothing about racial conflict or the civil rights struggle. Putting these themes aside, Winslow shows his characters grappling with universal challenges that people of all races confront as they deal with the human situation.

West Mills is a fictional small town in eastern North Carolina, somewhere between Elizabeth City, where the author grew up, and Ahoskie, where the main character of the novel was born and reared.

That main character, Azalea Centre, or Knot, as she is called by everyone, has moved to West Mills from Ahoskie, where her father is a dentist and a bulwark of the local church. Knot, however, wants to get away from her family and make her own way.

She finds a teaching job in West Mills. Knot loves 19th century English literature. That sounds good for a teacher, but she also loves cheap moonshine and bedding a variety of men. One of them, Pratt Shepherd, wants to marry her. But after a session of enthusiastic lovemaking, she tosses him out of her life.

Soon after Pratt leaves, Knot learns she is pregnant. She does not want to end the pregnancy, but wants nothing to do with the child after its birth. To the rescue comes a dear friend, Otis Lee Loving, and his wife, Penelope, or “Pep.” They find a local couple to adopt Knot’s daughter. Only a few people in the community know that Frances, daughter of Phillip and Lady Waters, is really Knot’s birth child.

Shortly after she recovers from her delivery, Knot becomes pregnant again. Otis Lee comes to the rescue once more. He finds a place for the new baby with local storeowners, Brock and Ayra Manning. They name the baby Eunice.

When they grow up, Frances and Eunice, not knowing about their common origin, come to despise each other and fight for the attention of the same man. On this situation, Winslow builds a series of confrontations and complications that challenge the comfortable order of the West Mills community.

Meanwhile, as time passes, the community seems immune to the racial conflicts developing in other parts of the state. In one of the book’s few mentions of racial conflict, Otis Lee hears stories in 1960 about “the young colored people in Greensboro who had organized a sit-in a couple of months earlier” and pronounced it a terrible thing. Winslow writes, “Greensboro hadn’t come to them yet. And Otis Lee hoped things would get better so that it wouldn’t have to.”

Otis Lee is not only Knot’s loyal friend and rescuer, he becomes a major character. In a flashback to prohibition days he travels to New York City to rescue an older sister who is trying to pass for white. That effort fails, but his relationship with that woman provides a poignant thread that carries the book to one of its surprising endings.

Gathering early praise, Charlotte Observer critic Dannye Powell wrote of In West Mills, “Within its confines lies all you need to know of human nature — its stubbornness and grit, its tenderness and devotion, its longing and its sorrow, and how the best-kept secrets will threaten to take apart the heart, chamber by chamber.”

She concludes, “You’ll be hearing more about Winslow and his stunning debut novel.”

You will be hearing more about Winslow and Etaf Rum. Betty Smith would be amazed and proud.  OH

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. To view prior programs go to http://video.unctv.org/show/nc-bookwatch/episodes/

Story of a House

Sensei & Sensibility

The ancient art of bonsai enhances Mendy and John Kearns’ midcentury home

By Cynthia Adams     Photographs by Amy Freeman


Each home tells a story. It becomes the repository of past and present struggle and triumph, which is certainly the case of the High Point home of John and Mendy Kearns.

In their case, their home is filled with unique expressions, both artifact and the organic.

The Kearns’ modern and eclectic home features a most unique interior drawn from three generations of family art history and heirlooms.

And then there is the unexpected — a living art form, bonsai, deepening and enriching their inner lives and exterior living areas.

Their private residence, surrounded by woods and landscaped grounds, is a sanctuary from the wider world, a space where the people and things they value most are closely kept.

The Kearns home has a modern vibe but dates to 1968. It is handsomely oriented to the back gardens and pool. Coursing behind the house, a small creek winds through landscaped grounds punctuated by Japanese maples that are redolent of bonsai. And, of course, inside the garden wall are a wide variety of potted bonsai almost everywhere you look.

The house belonged to NASCAR-owner Bill Davis before them, says Mendy. It is a pleasant, spacious house, oriented to the private yard with extensive windows off the living room.It is also a living laboratory for John’s passion for the ancient art of bonsai.

Mendy and their two daughters adore the classic pool, which hugs the lines of the midcentury modern home. John adores, and is obsessed with, the scores of bonsai surrounding the pool.

The Kearns’ residence speaks to honoring traditions — one they inherited and others imported from the Far East.

As a descendant of the Kearns family, owners of a once bustling High Point factory, John is steeped in history and a reverence for place. 

“My great-grandfather had a hosiery mill, called O.E. Kearns & Sons, on Hamilton Street.” (O.E. was his abbreviated name, Oscar Eugene, says John.) According to the City of High Point’s textiles archives, it was among five significant manufacturers: “Between 1910 and 1920, many well-remembered mills were started: Amos, Melrose, Crown, Triangle and O.E. Kearns. By 1923, High Point boasted 26 textile plants including 14 hosiery mills, and 42 percent of the revenue generated by city industries came from textiles. By 1940, there were two cotton mills, two silk mills, and 27 hosiery mills.”

The High Point Museum maintains examples of Kearns-made white cotton socks with a classic cuff in its collections.

The former mill, which closed in 1963, later housed Hamilton Fabrics, which John’s father, Tom Johnston Kearns, Jr., opened in 1978.

His father died in 2018, active in the business until the end. Now John is the second-generation family member to head Hamilton Fabrics.

John earned an associate’s degree at Lees-McCrae College before entering N.C. State to study horticulture and greenhouse operations. He finished his degree in December 1983 just as his father’s partner had quit. He sent inquiries to nursery businesses. “But it was dead of winter and they responded ‘try us again in April.’”

John’s father suggested he consider the fabric business.

“He said, if it worked fine, if not fine. I discovered the joy of the textiles business too.” Before John knew it, he had a sample case and a sales territory.

“I love the textiles industry; I found the joy in it,” he reflects.

John says while he made textiles his vocation, he found a niche that allowed him to remain in the natural world. It was bonsai, which he had discovered when a boy on the cusp of adulthood. Bonsai took on greater meaning once he accepted a position in the family business, one requiring time indoors and frequent travel.

Bonsai was how he decompressed from an over-stimulated world.

“It’s my therapy,” says John. “Some people play golf; I tried golf when I was little, and all it did was get me frustrated.”

Bonsai, on the other hand, was something one controlled.

It is singularly Asian. The Western mind seeks immediate gratification. Bonsai is not that; it is the very opposite. The cultivation of bonsai required exquisite patience and dedication, exemplified by Mr. Miyagi and his young mentee Daniel in The Karate Kid: “Think only tree,” he says. “Nothing else in the whole world, only tree.”

The art of bonsai becomes a study in self-awareness.

And while there are many devotees, it is hardly mainstream in America.

“There are what they call, ‘finish bonsai,’ on the market,” says John. But buying such a tree is expensive, and drains the joy out of it, he says. “Creating your own tree, watching it grow through the process of training,” is the joy of the experience.

From mid-February to spring, he devotes five to seven hours weekly to his craft. But during summertime, it’s a daily endeavor with frequent watering. In times of intense heat, the roots would dry and wither otherwise.

“Daily,” he stresses. His young daughters Maggie and Liza are sometimes involved in the watering.

Maggie once had her own bonsai tree. However, Liza rolls her eyes at the very suggestion of becoming more involved.

“No. Way.”

John laughs.

As he became a devotee of bonsai he gradually acquired “every book in print on bonsai, probably 75.”

He attends bonsai shows and seminars in and out of state. An Arkansas expert comes each February to give John a hand with the more labor-intensive aspects of bonsai maintenance.

The expert is so knowledgeable, “I probably learn more from him than anything. He used to be head of production at Brussel’s Bonsai in Memphis.” When he returned to his Arkansas roots, he began offering himself to support other enthusiasts. A tradition began, where the two men work together and prepare the bonsai for warmer months.

An annual Chicago-based bonsai show during August is attended by a couple of thousand, says John. He also occasionally attends a Winston-Salem club, and says it is “kind of like a car swap meet. You can take a tree and find out what is happening if you have a problem. Or learn more about what works for one plant versus another when it comes to pruning and watering.”

Mendy quickly says, “I really don’t know much about it,” yet manages to convey with a smile that perhaps she does.

Mendy is a Certified Public Accountant and vice president. Like John, she works in the family business at Hamilton Fabrics.

“I have three coats made from Hamilton Fabrics I wear to markets,” says Mendy. The on-trend coats and skirts were custom- created by a seamstress in High Point to showcase some of their most interesting and au courant products. It worked, says Mendy. “They are eye-catching.”

Everything in the living room is covered in Hamilton Fabrics, she adds. “The antiquities are mostly from John’s family.”

However, some of the living room artwork was painted by her mother and grandmother. In the kitchen there’s a colorful display of art created by Maggie and Liza.

The antiques throughout their main living areas have been in the family for several generations, says John with quiet pride.

His great-great grandfather began a furniture company called High Point Mantel and Table, actually in the same block as the family’s now defunct hosiery mill. “They made fireplace mantels, kitchen tables and desks.”

The family own pieces from his great-grandfather’s furniture company, including a library-style table and other table and chairs.

A walnut freight desk in the living room once held bills of lading for outgoing freight in the warehouse of his grandfather’s hosiery mill.

“When I was a kid, it was all beat up,” John says, remembering when it was still in the factory. A functional piece, the joints are intricately joined and dovetailed — no glue.

“They kept the paperwork for freight shipments here,” he explains.

John’s father had the standing desk refinished. It is such a great piece, he kept it in his bedroom and later passed it along to John and Mendy.

The oldest piece in the family’s possession dates back to the colonies. “This chest came over on the Mayflower,” says John, indicating a simple pine chest in front of the den sofa.

“On the family tree (above the sitting room mantel) is an ancestor who was a passenger on the Mayflower. The chest was theirs.” Someone, he laments, had “painted it Pepto-Bismol pink; I had it stripped down.”

His father helped develop the family’s ancestral tree, plotting the genealogical histories. It was he who established the provenance of the Mayflower chest.

In the living room John points out a game table with remarkable, somewhat formal design, intended for chess or checkers, “that has been in the family for generations.”

He moves into the dining room, stopping at a mint-condition, wood-encased radio that still works. “It’s been a while since I plugged it in, but this radio was in my great aunt’s house in Charlotte.” (She also left John another treasure and even greater rarity; a camel saddle.)

The library-style glass-front cabinet the radio rests upon was once used in the family hosiery mill and dates to the turn of the 20th century by John’s estimate.

Yet Liza, who is watching as her father gives a tour, “would probably paint it,” John accuses, and gives her an affectionate grin. “I ask her what she would do if she inherited all this stuff? She hates old brown furniture.” He watches closely for a reaction.

Liza good-naturedly shrugs.

Exiting the kitchen, with a brief nod to the camel saddle which looks much like a quirky stool, John returns to his other favorite topic: the great outdoors. “My parents were both avid gardeners. I grew up in the garden,” he says.

He marvels. “You could order a bonsai for $9.99,” he says, standing before a wired bonsai in his collection, which he estimates is 40 years old.

“I pointed out a bonsai, and said ‘I want one of these.’” John was only 13 years old at the time.

“It lived about two weeks, but died, and I kept the container and put another tree in . . . it lived maybe four weeks and it died.” John persevered.

“I finally got the hang of it. One [bonsai] led to a picnic table full of maybe 12–14. By this time, I was probably 17.”

Instead of focusing upon girls or cars, he was admittedly obsessed with care and cultivation of miniature, manicured trees. Then John laughs again. “I liked cars too,” he corrects. “I drive a big Suburban, but it’s more for work, filled with (fabric) sample cases.”

After marriage, he and Mendy acquired a house and a greenhouse,
where John tended a steadily growing bonsai collection numbering more
than 150 trees.

The house, one of unique design by Norman Zimmerman, with

extensive gardens including a waterfall and koi pond, was unsuited

for children. “It wasn’t working for the girls.” The young couple stuck

a for-sale sign out “and sold it the next day.”

There was no choice but to whittle his collection down. After the family decamped to a High Point condo, John had to sell all but five of his beloved trees. “It was fun, but I was ready for a break from it.”

But he had not left bonsai behind. “I kept all my tools.”

John says, “It was a full-time job keeping the bonsai trimmed and sprayed . . . I travel a lot, too, and then came home and spent time in the greenhouse Saturday and Sunday. Maggie, my oldest, had her own tree.”

Most of John’s bonsai are outdoor varieties that he can over-winter in his garage. Only two are tropicals.

One is a Brazilian rain tree that winters indoor, one of only two that he brings inside as temperatures plunge. The other is from the Beautyberry family, native to exotic, warmer climates. John points out hardier bonsai varieties, including flowering quince, crepe myrtle, and a zelkova.

Then John only touches briefly upon the true price of his passion; of what bonsai requires. Bonsai is a jealous mistress of his free hours.

“It’s ideal for retirees, someone with time on their hands,” sighs John.

It is an ongoing process.

“I had a propagation bed where I’d grow cuttings 15 years ago. I gave a friend a small boxwood bonsai. It turned out really nice. When he sold the house, he allowed me to dig it up and replant it.”

Now, John maintains seedlings in a training area. Seedlings of Trident maples will be separated later for a better presentation. If he finds a contorted “reject” tree at a garden center, he buys it. Bonsai does not strive for straight lines but artfully gnarled and twisted profiles. “You do not want perfect and straight.”

There is the perpetual hunt. In a display area is a “grove” of Beech trees John collected in the woods four years ago, as well as a Sweet Gum he found. “I kept them separate containers to let them get established then put them together in a ‘forest’ planting this spring.”

Each year “you have to repot, root prune and maintenance prune. It’s very maintenance intensive. You can skip it maybe one year, but if you don’t do it, they get root bound.”

The work requires a fixed routine beyond merely repotting: “Rake the roots off and put them into fresh pots.”

The branches are also wired to follow a beautiful pattern suggesting traditional bonsai. He uses copper wire on the branches to achieve that signature look. “This gives them movement,” he says.

As winter approaches, John loads the bonsai individually onto separate rolling carts and moves the fragile trees under cover in the garage. He rolls them out to water.

Among his collection is a 40-year-old Trident maple from a Mississippi collector. He acquired it from his Arkansas bonsai source.

Yet one of the oldest in John’s present collection is an Elaeagnus, remaining from his bonsai-intensive house.

“The lone survivor,” he says. “Native to China. It is an evergreen. It’s probably 50 years old.”

He had to cut away some of the bark and decay, a mark of bonsai’s transcendence over perfection.

John grows quiet. “It is a beauty.”

He is aware his collection is unusual.

“It is art,” John says. “That’s what it is.”  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

Life’s Funny

Poetry in Motion

Or, the metamorphosis of a childhood dream


By Maria Johnson

WIMBLEDON — This is not what I imagined: First, it’s not rainy. Or broiling, as it has been in Europe for the past few weeks. It’s perfect weather, which makes the day all the more astounding. I finally made it to Wimbledon, though not in the way I dreamed about, when I first started sleeping with a pro.

Pro Staff, that is. It was a Wilson wood racquet, lacquered black and white, with nylon string, candy-striped by threads of red and blue. My mom bought it at Value Village near our neighborhood pool, which had three hard-surface tennis courts tacked on. Tennis was an afterthought, but there was a decent pro and a free clinic for kids. So I went.

It was the Seventies, and the great American tennis boom was, well, booming. Chris Evert was a be-ribboned, two-fisted metronome. Her boyfriend and, for a while fiancé, Jimmy Connors, wore a Buster Brown haircut, shorty shorts and swung a steely T-2000 racquet.

Then there were B&B. Bjorn and Billie Jean. The slap shot Swede and the rhinestoned conquerer of Bobby Riggs. The sport also served up John McEnroe, who picked volleys out of his shoestrings, and the freshly defected Martina Navratilova, who feasted on Twinkies and — when she had her head together — top 10 players.

It was a glorious time to find tennis.

And that’s what it felt like — a discovery of immense importance. Here was a sport that offered personalities, drama, romance, tons of TV coverage, and most of all, for me personally, an irresistible feeling.

I remember the first time I connected, really connected with a forehand. A bunch of us kids in the free clinic were lined up on the service line, starched into ready position, racquets pointing straight ahead at 12 o’clock. The pro tossed us a ball. We would take the racquet back to 6 o’clock, step and hit on the first bounce.

I socked the ball into the fence. It hit the sweet spot. Sweet Jesus.

The vibration traveled from ash, to arm, to all of the addictive juices an 11-year-old brain could offer. I was flat hooked.

From then on, I lived on court, rubbing blisters, practicing tosses under the midday sun, and generally redirecting my neighborhood-baseball arm into a serve and volley arm. I devoured Tennis to Win, by Billie Jean King, who started playing at exactly the same age I did. If this fireman’s daughter from Long Beach, California could make it to the pros, why couldn’t I?

I made a sign that said “Think Wimbledon.” I taped it to the ceiling above my bed. It was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last star I wished on at night. Certainly, if I repeated it enough, believed it enough, envisioned it enough, I would get to the high altar of tennis

Which I did, eventually.

After a decent high school playing career, I hung up my racquet for 20 years until our boys were small and we joined a neighborhood swimming pool with some tennis courts tacked on. At the urging of a friend, I took a lesson with the pro. The pro put me on a club team, and that’s how the second act of my tennis life started.

The sport looks so much different from this station in life.

Absent the blinders of youth, and the ridiculous pressure I put myself under as a kid, I see that practice never makes perfect. At best, practice — or THE practice — of any game or craft gives you perspective to see that game itself is the teacher.

And so you learn that some shots are winners and some are stinkers.

That the difference between winning and losing is hitting just a few more winners.

That the secret to hitting a few more winners is to let it happen.

 And that letting it happen means you might not get what you wanted — or you might — just not the way you thought you would.

The grass is so green here. It’s mowed in vertical stripes, just like on TV. I can see so much better, in person, how the ball barely comes up off the surface.

I can see the ball boys and girls running with precision, bowling the yellow felt balls to each other around the edges. They are so serious, putting themselves under such pressure.

Sitting in the second row of an outer court, I can see what the American brothers, Mike and Bob Bryan, are signaling to each other en route to a Fourth of July doubles victory over a Slovakian and Ukranian pair.

I can see my husband and bearded sons chuckling in awe at the heavy kaboom of Bob Bryan’s serve and the playful “you can’t touch this” short volleys of brother Mike.

I can see ivy-covered walls and boxes and of purple and white petunias glowing in the mid-afternoon sun.

Beyond that lies a tree line, and beyond that, out of sight, a village, and more villages, and vast, vast life.

This is not at all what I imagined it would be like.

It’s so much better. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Wandering Billy

News You Can Chews

Eatin’ up all that the local scene has to offer


By Billy Eye

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans. ” Ronald Reagan

Downtown Greensboro has something it hasn’t had since the 1970s, a real, honest-to-goodness, bona fide candy store. Gate City Candy Company is owned by Dan Weatherington, who tells me this sweet spot in the 500 block of South Elm has been a lifelong ambition. “I’ve been wanting to open a candy store since I was a little kid,” he says.

There’s a section reserved for Opal’s peanut brittle, frosted pecans and sponge candies. “It’s made right here in Greensboro,” she says. Opal once worked at Cone Mills she says, and the guy who’s making the candy now got the recipe straight from Opal. “He’d been doing it on the side and turned it into a full-time business,” Weatherington explains. Homemade fudge, chocolate-covered pretzels and nuggets come from Nancy’s Candy Company in Meadows of Danville, Virginia, on the Blue Ridge Parkway. “As soon as we can get things worked out we’re going to produce our own fudgen but all of the chocolates will still come from Nancy’s,” Dan says.

This place is your childhood on display — Pez, Pop Rocks, Smarties, Ring Pops, Jelly Bellys, M&Ms in colors I’ve never seen before including black. They also sell soda pop, a rainbow of Nehis and even bacon-flavored, carbonated sodas. Then there’s my favorite, sour cherry candies, just like the kind I used to buy by the pound at the center city’s original confectionary located in a nook that was eventually repurposed as the entrance to Churchill’s, next to White and Wood.


Looking for a distinctively distinguished Sunday brunch experience? A few weekends ago filmmaker Maurice Hicks and I shared a terrific noontime meal, accompanied by a Jazz trio, at the historic Magnolia House downtown on Gorrell Street.

Several issues back, O.Henry magazine published a feature by Grant Britt about this lovely home. It’s the place listed in the famous Green Book where African-American performers stayed from the 1950s into the 1960s when playing gigs in our city. Count Basie, Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, Joe Tex, and a plethora of legendary performers crossed this threshold back in what we euphemistically refer to as “the day.”

It’s a limited brunch menu, but if you’re fortunate enough to find Burgundy Beef Tips over Creamy Grits on the menu, are you in for a treat. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal more, and the elegant surroundings doubles the pleasure. I also recommend you take a few moments to get acquainted with the neighborhood around Magnolia House, dotted as it is with some of the finest homes in the city dating back to the turn of the last century, when Greensboro’s toniest families took up residence there. Book reservations online at www.TheHistoricMagnoliaHouse.com.


For some time I’ve been meaning to check out A Special Blend coffeehouse on West Market, adjacent to The Art Shop where I spent a great deal of lucre back when I was a working artist. I finally got the opportunity, albeit under unusual circumstances. I was playing a small part in a film scene that took place there, directed by local horror-meister Jaysen Buterin. Also in the scene was Thomas Marvin of the “Jared & Katie in the Morning” show on WKZL. Someone must have told Thomas that the slower an actor delivers his lines, the more screen time he’ll get, but I’m not sure that advice applies when you’re playing a homeless person.

A Special Blend stands apart not only for its fair-trade, organic, Arabica brews served alongside locally sourced pastries and sandwiches, but also because they employ folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, enhancing their ability to lead more productive and meaningful lives. It’s a very friendly place. Next time you find yourself contemplating a trip to Starbucks maybe you’ll want to give this enterprise an opportunity to caffeinate your day instead.


In keeping with the poetic theme of this issue, here’s a bit of doggerel of my own. See if you can spot all of the Greensboro references both past and present.

22-year old Bobby was a hot-blooded lad;

Living in the basement of a Fisher Park pad.

A simple abode, Glascock stove and a toaster;

Over his bed hung an old Joe Camel poster.

Awakening at noon, shaking off crumbs from crackers;

Bobby pulls Cowboy Cuts up, then bangs on his Clackers.

Last night’s Wildflower Witbier left his head in a hurt;

Sliding into Gold Toes, he dons a Ralph Lauren shirt.

A Vicks inhaler jars him awake,

On the counter a Made-Rite sandwich awaits.

A note left by mother has a special request, eh?

“Pick up Liver Pudding down at Bestway.”

Bobby downs an Orange Crush, then lights up a Kent;

With a David Oreck candle to cover the scent.

Searching around for the keys to his car,

He finds them in a box labeled El Moro cigar.


Revving up his sleek, Jeep Wrangler, he’s out on a tear;

A hint of Mother Murphy’s butterscotch sweetening the air.

Approaching the boulevard, picking up speed;

He thinks,“Stamey’s hush puppies are what I need.”

Blows past a Thomas Built with the stop sign displayed;

(One town over is where that school bus was made.)

Distracted by a HondaJet streaking the sky;

A dangerous situation escapes Bobby’s eye.

A Volvo semi is jackknifing ahead;

A collision ensues, now Bobby is dead.

A horrible sight, no Bill Magnum scene;

Or anything you’d encounter in this magazine.

TV cameras arrive because 2 Wants to Know;

Breathless reports ensue on The Good Morning Show.

Two mangled vehicles, naught left but to pray;

D. H. Griffin and Mack Trucks hauling the wreckage away.

Sadly, Bobby’s lack of attention and pursuit of frivolity;

Led yesterday to the canceling his Pilot Life policy.

Fond of O.Henry endings? Bobby’s short life of ill

Came to a halt right outside a Biscuitville.

It’s where his mom works, and she fell to pieces;

He’d forgotten to stop and pick up the Neese’s! OH

Billy Eye is the Poet Laureate of nowhere and never will be.