O.Henry Ending

December Diploma

The other gift of the Magi


By Phil Koch

My father-in-law, an immigrant to America, ended his one-room schoolhouse education in Ireland at age 12. My own father, a product of the East Side of New York City, quit grammar school before graduation. In each case they were expected to go to work early in life to help their large families and younger siblings survive.  Little wonder that both bright men placed a high value on education, imbuing their children with its importance. “A good education is something no one can ever take from you” became the mantra for my wife Anne and me, and for our family.

When Anne, a registered nurse, decided to resume college at age 61, she mused, “Do you realize how old I’ll be when I finish?” I replied, “How old will you be if you don’t?”

Being old can easily be a state of mind. Satchel Paige, the great baseball pitcher, once said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”     

Anne graduated at age 70 with a double major in history and English, Phi Beta Kappa. No less chronologically advantaged, I wrestled with the same challenge and wrote about it in O.Henry two years ago. It was a story of an impatient old man who, burnt out after two years of chasing a history degree, decided to end the pursuit. Health questions, and the required study of a foreign language, motivated the decision to stop at the time.

With an irony that O.Henry himself would appreciate, I found that I missed college even before the story had been published. I missed the stimulation from classmates that I interacted with. All were hardworking, some commuting and holding down part-time jobs while taking 18 credits a semester. I missed the fascinating subjects, the discipline of study, and the research and the writing.  After personal reevaluation, I decided to return.

UNCG let me study other subjects — German history and literature — in lieu of a language requirement. That helped encourage me to return once more to college at age 80, this time at a slower and healthier pace of three or six credits per semester. No longer in a hurry, I realized that the pursuit was more rewarding than the goal!

The last two years have been delightfully stimulating. Topics included “A History of North Carolina,” “The Berlin Blockade and Berlin Airlift of 1948,” “The History of Voting Rights in America,” and my senior thesis, The Influence of Gilded Age Music on Racial Stereotyping. I loved the challenges, the satisfaction in completing the papers.

Sometimes I hear, “I’ve thought about going back to school but never acted on it. Maybe I will . . .” I tell people, education is a gift that never ceases to give back.

At last, my Bachelor of Arts History degree is here — 65 years after my 1952 high school graduation. At age 82, I’m finished with school. And it doesn’t look like any college will come forward to use my remaining few years of athletic eligibility. I am the last of my family, which includes four children, their spouses and six grandchildren, to complete my college education. Anne’s dad, Tom Burke from County Mayo, Ireland and my dad, Phil Koch Senior from New York City, would agree that it is the best gift anyone can give to oneself. Merry Christmas, Phil.  OH

Now that he’s graduated, Phil Koch is preparing the next item his bucket list.

The Accidental Astrologer

Mixing It Up

Sagittarius brings a merry, motley crew

By Astrid Stellanova

Happy Holidays, Star Children!

December births make me think of Forrest Gump’s good ole chocolate-box.   

Born in December: Crooners Frank Sinatra, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift; politicians and criminals, like Winston Churchill and drug lord Pablo Escobar. Then, everybody else that is waaaay outside the box: Pope Francis and Walt Disney, Larry Byrd and Mary Queen of Scots. Stephen Spielberg and Richard Pryor. Beethoven. Nostradamus and Bruce Lee. Woody Allen and Samuel L. Jackson. Keith Richards and Jamie Foxx. Joseph Stalin and Benjamin Disraeli. . . Ad Astra — Astrid


Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

There ain’t nothing old about you but your money! And Honey, you know you are feeling the rush of being flush since a minor crisis passed this year. You escaped just fine with your wallet, hair and teeth intact. Now, the cake is ready, friends are gathering and birthday wishes are all coming true. Have faith. Your life is the sum of a lot of struggle but nothing was wasted — not even your dryer lint. (We can talk about that hoarding thing another day.)

Capricorn (December 22–January 19)

You don’t need to keep looking in the rearview mirror. All good things lie ahead, Sugar. Memory lane is closed. And what you have lying straight before you is worth focusing on. Meanwhile, there is a great opportunity for investing in yourself and a new idea in the new year. Don’t let that escape you — take the off ramp!

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

Well, look at you social caterpillar! You have broken into a tough circle of friends that only took about a thousand forevers. But you were patient and they finally saw that one of you was worth ten of a lot of people.  You’re well loved, Honey Bun.

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

You sayin’ your Jaguar can’t make it up the driveway at your mountain place? Or you’re allergic to all metals but platinum? Sugar, that is something called a humblebrag. Nobody else has told you, so I have to. It is true you have been prosperous. And that you have especially fine taste. Just say a little bit less about it.

Aries (March 21–April 19)

Somebody bamboozled you pretty good. Looked like you couldn’t tell a skunk from a Billy goat. Well, they reckoned wrong. You’ll get your chance to settle the score but don’t let it concern you. The view ain’t worth the climb, Honey Bunny.

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

There is one somebody who gets under your skin and makes you lose your ever-loving mind. You know who and when. You have got to stop the blame game, hurling insults faster than Kim Jong-un. It might be a game to them but it is bad for your constitution, Sugar.

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

You’ve been showing too many teeth. Makes people nervous, and that completely undermines you. Stop trying so hard to be liked. You don’t have to work that angle. If you can stand in your truth, they will admire you, anyhow. You are likeable enough, Sally Field.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

Let’s get some lumbar support for you, since you’re having a lot of trouble with your backbone. The thing is, you let a situation get out of control because you felt a lot of misplaced sympathy. But what they need from you is leadership. That might require you to be a lot firmer than your Beautyrest mattress.

Leo (July 23–August 22)

Yep, your little plan fell into place, which either puts you in the catbird seat or the litter box. You were cunning and scored a win. But is this a game you really want to win? Ask that question. Also, a friend from your past needs a pal. It would be good karma just to let them know you remember them.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

Can’t never could, Sugar, but don’t kill yourself. It is also true that flop sweat ain’t becoming. During the holidays you may be asked to step up and take on a social role that you have never especially wanted. But it will be growth for you. And a toehold inside a door that has been closed for a very long time.

Libra (September 23–October 22)

You speak Southern? Then you know not to look over yonder for something right under foot. Focus is all you need to find your heart’s desire. And even though you feel like you have given all you have for a mighty big goal, you have something important and don’t even recognize it.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

Hunh? Darling, you brought a cup of Ramen noodles to a knife fight? I don’t know what got into you lately, but you have had this idea that life is a spectator sport. Well, what are you planning to do with the rest of this special life? This month is a good time to ask yourself if you are going to keep chasing after unicorns.  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.

– Botanicus –

Their Darkest Hours

For brilliant red poinsettias, keep them under wraps

By Ross Howell Jr.


For years as a grad student and later as an itinerant bachelor, I put off buying Christmas decorations because I didn’t want to move them from one apartment to the next. Holiday decorating for me meant buying poinsettias — usually in foil-wrapped containers — to get instant seasonal cheer with minimal effort.

Besides, poinsettias have a cool history.

Indigenous to Mexico, Euphorbia pulcherrima owes its popular name to Joel Poinsett. Born in 1779 to a wealthy family in Charleston, South Carolina, Poinsett was a world traveler. President John Quincy Adams appointed him as the first Minister to Mexico in 1825. While visiting south of Mexico City, Poinsett saw a plant known among locals as Flor de Nochebuena, or “Christmas Eve flower.” An amateur botanist, Poinsett sent samples back home. Propagated and sold, the plants by 1836 had become known in the States as “poinsettias.”

So what did I do with my once-lovely poinsettias after the holidays were over? I dumped the then-desiccated plants into the trash.

As time passed, my lazy approach to holiday decorating left me feeling guiltier and guiltier.

All those plants I’d tossed. What if I’d tried to winter them over, do whatever mysterious things needed to be done to have them erupt in scarlet again the following Christmas?

Then one evening a message popped up on my neighborhood listserv.

“Is anyone in the area trying to force poinsettias? We are trying to do it but have to travel during the ‘dark time’ and need someone to tend them for us.” The sender was Tom Krissak.

Surely Krissak could give me a shortcut to poinsettia success. I mean, he already knew there was something called “dark time.”

Turns out, Krissak — retired from the funeral business — had sent the message on behalf of his partner, Samuel Johnson, who’s the gardener in their household. Krissak gave me Johnson’s number.

“Oh, I really just took up plants after I retired a couple years ago,” Johnson confesses over the phone.

He tells me he grew up in northern Virginia but has lived all over the world. A mathematician, Johnson first came to Greensboro to teach at Guilford College.

After years at Guilford, he left Greensboro for a time and studied the law, became a practicing attorney and returned to Greensboro for a second time.

“I like trying to keep plants alive,” Johnson says, “but I have just the opposite of a green thumb. If you want to talk about poinsettias, you need to call Esther Maltby.”

Maltby is a neighbor who recently stepped down after seven years as director of the Dunleith Community Garden on Chestnut Street.

“Esther and I worked out a deal,” Johnson continues. “She’s caring for the poinsettias while we’re away. If they live, we’ll split the plants between us.”

So what’s Maltby’s take on the poinsettia project?

“It’s really Samuel who’s done all the research,” Maltby says. “I just agreed to babysit.”

Maltby tells me she grew up in Pakistan, the daughter of Protestant missionaries. Her father was an engineer; her mother a teacher. Poinsettias were prolific where they lived in Pakistan, growing into bushes 8 to 12 feet tall.

“I never gave a thought to cultivating little ones,” Maltby says with a laugh.

Her strategy for forcing the poinsettias to bloom is to keep them in light—but not direct sunlight — for eight hours a day. Then she plunges them into darkness — under cardboard boxes covered by blankets — for the remaining 16 hours of the day.

When Maltby sees red bracts sprouting, she’ll stop the “dark time.” She began the process in mid-October, a little concerned about having enough time to bring the plants to full Christmas glory.

“Samuel messages me every day, asking how the poinsettias are doing,” she says. “I tell him they look good; they’re putting out lots of green leaves.”

She pauses.

“I sure hope this works,” she says.

Me, too.

Regardless, I realize now keeping poinsettias holiday-to-holiday requires way more mindfulness than a lazy guy like me can muster.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is getting ready for Elon University’s January term, when he’ll be teaching a general studies course entitled “A Brief History of Truth.”

Story of a House

All Rhodes Lead  to Christmas

How Mary Rhodes and husband Bill give new meaning to “Home for the Holidays”

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by John Gessner


“Honestly, I don’t know why we do this every year,” says Mary Rhodes with an exasperated chuckle, glancing around her house. A coy smile appears. “This is just something we love doing, I suppose, kind of a tradition now.”

Unless one’s eyes deceive, this is a woman who clearly relishes everything about the Christmas season, including the annual task of decorating every room of the handsome three-bedroom family home she shares with husband, Bill, in the pasturelands south of Greensboro.

Beginning with the wreath on the door and 6-foot Santa who stands like a North Pole doorman on her stately, four-columned side porch, Christmas is everywhere you look in the form of lavishly decorated Christmas trees, ornate gingerbread houses, garlands, angels, reindeer, figurines of carolers and at least half a dozen renderings of Father Christmas, both ancient and modern. Warm shades of red dominate throughout the house from the bittersweet on the mantel to the strands of beads artfully draped on her late mama’s silver service.

An heirloom family dining room table is already set with Christmas china for waves of holiday entertaining, and the vintage Steinway grand piano — look closely and you’ll see it’s signed by Mr. Steinway himself — is simply a key staging area for choirs of carolers and snowmen, candles and bowls of candy. Even a pair of mature Christmas cacti are in radiant full bloom for the holidays.

Welcome to a joyful tradition that began in 2003, a year after the Rhodeses sold their Irving Park home and moved out to occupy and redo Mary’s childhood home on Davis Mill Road south of the city. The traditional beige brick ranch house where Mary and her two brothers, Alex and Lawrence, grew up sits on 500 acres their grandfather acquired over half a century ago in order to keep horses for his Lee Street firm, Greensboro Coal and Ice. His son, Mary’s daddy, Calvin Ross, transformed the holdings into a 300-head dairy farm, becoming the top milk producer for Flav-O-Rich Dairy.

The idea of transforming her tastefully decorated home into a living tableau of Christmas really got started when, as Mary Rhodes recounts, “friends of ours in Carlson Farms gave up hosting their annual Christmas party. Bill and I decided we would take up the party out here in the country.” With festive touches such as the several figurines that had belonged to her mother, the party was a “big hit,” Mary recalls. “I began adding to the decorations a little bit more every year. The collecting never stopped.”

Fifteen years later, the party is still going — and has grown to three different parties during the first two weeks of December.

The process begins when Bill Rhodes lays out the stored decorations on tables in the garage, allowing Mary and her longtime friend Myrna Robinson, a decorator from Southport, to work their magic piece by piece.

“Every year is a little different. We add things and move stuff around. Myrna really has lots of great ideas and sometimes we go a bit over the top,” Mary allows, “but somehow it all comes together surprisingly quickly. It looks like a lot of work but it only takes us a couple of days.”

Maybe more amazing is that Mary “Christmas” Rhodes does all of her own food preparation for the trio of fêtes that follow in quick succession beginning the second week of December . . . feasts that largely come from the Rhodeses’ bountiful veggie garden.

“The menu is a little different every year,” Mary confirms, “but I usually make a chicken-and-rice casserole with green beans, fresh corn, roasted beets and crowder peas and apple sauce made from trees right out back — everything from our summer garden. Everyone seems to love the food. I also do lots of baking — all sorts of cookies and brownies, rolls and several kinds of cakes — strawberry, chocolate, carrot and pound cakes. I just bake up a storm.”

The first of the annual gatherings is hosted for what Mary calls “our Greensboro people,” her former Irving Park neighbors and golf chums, numbering anywhere from 30 to 40 

guests. Among her many social gifts, Mary is two-time women’s golf champ at Greensboro Country Club and holder of several amateur titles including a recent North Carolina State Super Senior championship. Her trophies line shelves and her daddy’s vintage desk in the study.

“The Greensboro crowd always comes on Wednesday for lunch,” she explains. “They love fresh country food. The next day, Thursday, is for our friends from over at Colonial Country Club [in Thomasville]. That crowd is about the same size, always lots of fun to be with. They seem to love the food, too.”

Finally, on Friday of the same week, the Rhodes host friends and choir members from Greensboro’s Buffalo Presbyterian Church. You do the math. More than one hundred folks, many of whom begin checking in even before Thanksgiving, just to confirm they’re on the guest list.

All of which raises a polite question: Who helps Mary Christmas with the monumental food prep and cleanup? She waves it off and laughs again.

“We have a friend named Jim Eskridge who loves to do dishes. He’s a big help. But I do most of it myself. It’s really no big deal. Like the cooking and the decorating, it’s just part of the fun.”

Husband Bill, she quickly adds, helps with the cleanup but mostly attends to the open bar in the garage, dispensing his own version of holiday spirit.

To complete the festive schedule, all Rhodes lead to the house on Davis Mill on the Saturday before Christmas when the couple hosts a family that includes five children and 10 grandchildren. A second family gathering follows on Christmas Day with the addition of two aunts in their 90s for gift-giving and Mary’s beef tenderloin.

“We do this to share our love with friends and family. It makes everyone happy. We live in such a difficult world full of bad news, but for a few days out of the year, Christmas makes everyone slow down and smile at each other,” Mary reflects. “Sharing music and good food and beautiful things reminds you of the real meaning of the holiday. It’s been a blessing in our lives.”

Which raises a final question: How long does it take Mary Christmas to undecorate her amazing home for the holidays?

“Not as long as you might think. Just a day or two. Bill helps. We’ve got it down to a pretty good routine. Everything goes back in the garage for next year.”

Here she pauses and smiles coyly again.

“That’s when we head to Sebring, Florida, for the new year and a golf tournament called the Harder Hall Ladies Invitational that I’ve played in with friends for a long time. It’s the perfect way to end the year,” she allows. “But by then I’m already thinking about next Christmas — on the lookout for something to add to our decorations!” OH

Jim Dodson — and Wendy — deck their own halls with natural decorations, vintage Santas, antique white Christmas lights
and stuffed armadillos.

Tales of our favorite holiday gone wrong

Christmas in Hell’s Half Acre

Christmas was not my family’s long suit. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.  There was the requisite twinkly tree (fresh only, never “arty” as my mother would say.) There were hand-made evergreen wreaths and swags, fashioned by my grandmother’s clever hands. There was a modest amount of packages under that fresh tree. 

More about the packages later.

There was even, God help us, homemade fruitcake (two varieties, one called an icebox fruitcake, and then the bourbon-soaked variety that over the years became more a bourbon fruit mash, thanks to liberal drizzling of spirits). Slosh enough liquor over fruitcake, and you will find takers, I promise you. Namely, my father’s devoted employee, Howard.

It is hard to identify exactly what went so wrong with Christmas.  Perhaps it was because we were not living on Walton’s Mountain, home of homilies and happy endings. We lived in Hell’s Half Acre, which is instructive. And the hard fact was, most years Christmas was a bust.

Did we try too hard? I don’t think so. We were a tribe of misfits, who knew what the holidays were supposed to be like thanks to the Waltons, but couldn’t find the damned manual.

Even a kid could see we got it wrong. There was the year that my father gave my mother a mailbox, which he bought at the hardware store on Christmas Eve. He never wanted to go Christmas shopping until late on the 24th, when the hardware was the only establishment open. Even my child self knew enough to warn him it was a bad idea; Dad said he would write Mom a nice letter and put it inside.

One of us wrapped the thing, but this bad idea wasn’t something that stiff cheap wrapping could improve.  There was the clear outline of the mailbox flag, undisguised by dancing reindeer and made more lurid by the liberal use of Scotch tape. When my mother saw us maneuver it under the tree she was so pissed off she slung a red high heel across the room as she heard the front door open, thinking my father was home. The heel struck Howard squarely in the head just as he entered the foyer. 

Howard, a painful introvert, required a shot of courage just to make a friendly visit. He was a fixture at our house come the weekend, and although our mother tolerated him, he clearly got on her nerves. My father, a teetotaler, hid Howard’s Wild Turkey in the dishwasher, which hadn’t worked for years, and served as a bar. (Dad seemed to think we wouldn’t know where the liquor was if he put it somewhere related to kitchen chores.) Howard was one of those drunks who had a compulsion to tell the truth. Once under the influence, Howard alone had the guts to tell our mother what he thought of her cooking after a trip to the dishwasher for a swig.


While my mother didn’t carp, “Why didn’t you duck?” after clocking Howard, I don’t recall her exactly cringing at what she had done. 

Howard the Melancholic took it well. Fortified with the right amount of spirits, he touched his forehead, took a look around and asked us kids if we wanted to go to the drive-in for a cheeseburger. 

Oh, yes. We did. (Forget how drunk Howard was; we eagerly climbed into his Oldsmobile.) 

It seemed that Christmas brought out Howard’s deepest angst. He aired his personal regrets concerning his wife, Ruby, the woman Howard felt he had deeply wronged by marrying. His was existential, grinding guilt.  She was, he said again and again, too good for him.  And he was not being ironic.

“Now, Ruby is a God-fearing, good woman,” he would slur, as we chewed French fries, slurped milkshakes and nodded without comment. The little dive had the best burgers anywhere.  And there was no point in interrupting, which even our baby brother grasped in time.  Howard was stuck on one channel — the Guilt Channel — and it played 24/7 in his heavy head.

“Ruby doesn’t drink,” he intoned. Won’t touch a drop. A Christian woman.” What we saw was a shriveled, humorless woman, who never smiled. But he praised how she kept a clean house and a plate in the oven for whenever Howard found his way home. 

“She knows the Bible, too.  You ought to hear that woman quote the Bible.” 

We listened, even though we squirmed, but stayed with his wandering monologue until he tootled with us back home.  Although Howard dusted a few ditches, he largely kept in his own lane. 

We would have taken a bullet for Howard. It wasn’t just the burgers.  He screwed up.

And that is where our lives intersected with his.  It was the remorseful screw up, Howard, whom we identified with, not the Scripture-quoting Ruby. Childless, he was unfailingly kind, buying magazines when we hawked them for the school, as well as boxes of World’s Finest (and most overpriced) candy bars. Sure, Howard was a mess, but he was our loving mess, and much more complex than Otis on The Andy Griffith Show

Otis was a TV character. Howard was real: a kindly, hard-working failure. His Ruby reminded him of that fact throughout their married lives.

Howard was also our guide to the perils of adulthood, which actually looked a lot like the perils of childhood from the backseat of the Olds. 

By the age of 10 my siblings and I understood that bad marriages happened to good people. Our own parents took 35 long years to finally divorce. 

After marrying at the reckless age of 17, my parents’ divorce was like climate change: Nobody wanted it to happen, but if you had eyeballs you surely saw it coming. 

But Howard and Ruby, bound inexorably by good old Christian guilt, never split.

In stark contrast to the miserably silent H&R were Deanna and Olin from next door, whose fights were so legion their young son Beau would knock on our door and ask to spend the night. Deanna was no long suffering Ruby. She was a leggy blonde who walked around barefoot in Daisy Dukes. Olin, also easy on the eyes, was golden tan and built to wear jeans.

Equally beautiful and jealous, both accused the other of the worst.  They were volatile. Deanna threw a steak knife at Olin and hit him.  Without a word, she packed Beau and the baby, Josh, into her convertible and split for Vero Beach, Florida.

I cried bitterly, not only because we could no longer snitch cigarettes from Deanna and watch any TV we liked while babysitting the kiddos, but she was my friend. And Deanna was a member of the Book of the Month Club(!)  She shared summer reading that was much more interesting than what the Bookmobile offered. 

Vero Beach sounded pretty damn good to me. I looked it up on the map; my father’s trucking company routinely hauled loads of Indian River citrus fruit. Vero Beach was just too far to consider spending Christmas there. 

Once, Howard had taken a flight to Los Angeles, then got right back on a return flight without leaving LAX.  (He had always wanted to see the West Coast, Howard explained between hiccups.)

But I vowed something to myself. If I lived to be 16, which sometimes looked dicey given my riding with a drunk driver for a cheeseburger, I would haul ass, too, and find my friend Deanna and the kids. 

Later I watched as Olin sat on the back steps and cried, his broad shoulders shaking. It was too much to take, and I went to my room, fell onto the bed, and did the same.

That year was an especially bad Christmas. No purloined ciggies, books nor trash TV.  No fun, really. 

So, we kids turned to our drug of choice: Stuff.

I yearned for something useful, like a tape recorder. A book. A cowgirl outfit like my sister’s. Anything but a doll, please, Baby Jesus!  When I tore away the wrappings, what I found was a blonde Revlon doll in a black cocktail dress and stilettos. I am unsure what I did with that bimbo, but I do recall devoting much of my childhood to wrenching a doll’s head from the torso faster than the boys could solve a Rubik’s cube. 

Which is why I pried away my younger sister’s Chatty Cathy explaining that I could turn it into two useful things: a tape recorder and a doll. I set to work on Chatty with my father’s screwdriver, and after destroying the doll discovered the box played inane phrases but could not record. Kim, robbed of her new doll, turned blue from holding her breath after first screaming bloody murder, and has not, not even today, forgiven me.

Was it my worst Christmas? 

It was up there in the annals of worsts.

Chatty Cathy was expensive, and I knew there would be hell to pay for my destroying her.  Anticipating corporal punishment, I found the buggy whip my father kept in the garage with an ancient carriage and hoisted it far into the attic. My Dad hated heights. If, in a fit of anger, he thought a buggy whip would be just the thing to teach me a lesson, I would remove all temptation. 

If things had been different I might have gone to Deanna and Olin’s house. But it was dark, and nobody was there, which I knew because I checked often, hoping.

I sat in the garage, hugging my knees, shivering with the knowledge that not everything works out just because it’s Christmas. Not expecting much, but still, hoping to hear Howard’s Olds crunch across the gravel. — Cynthia Adams



Gone to the Dogs

When your worst Christmas ever is also your best, calling it bittersweet would wrap it up with a tidy little bow. But as we all know, life isn’t that  cut and dried  — in fact, it’s rather messy most of the time (like my gift-wrapping skills). The year was 1989, and, at 9 years old, all I could think about was having a puppy to call my own. But not just any puppy — one that I circled at the top of my dog-themed stationery — the absolute living end of cuteness: small, golden, with floppy ears.

I woke up Christmas morning bright and early and heard something I thought might be a radio. It turned out to be the yipping of my heart’s desire: a cocker spaniel puppy. My siblings and I could hardly believe it. Santa had come through. We were also given Hungry Hungry Hippos that year. When Sandy the puppy wanted to play, he pushed one of the levers with his paw, and a single white marble rolled into the middle of the gameboard. The three of us kids melted instantly.

Once school started up again, it was back to reality. I impulsively told the friends who sat near me that Santa had given me a puppy. I received some blank stares. Nobody said anything. And in my heart of hearts, I knew they didn’t need to. “Santa doesn’t really exist . . . does he?” I stammered. Wow. Guess I was a little slow on the uptake, but I got over it quickly.

As the days went by, Sandy showed a less-than-adorable side, including lots of ankle biting, carpet staining and who knows what else. I was so in love I tried not to notice. One day after school, my mom told me she gave Sandy away to an “old lady” and that it was all for the best.

I was in a state of disbelief. My sister and I went to the basement to see if our puppy was there. No dice. When my brother heard the news, he took off on his bike. As children, it was hard to understand why it happened that way. Like puppies, life has its ups and downs, but as the title of one of my childhood books advises, It Could Be Worse!

But why would you do that? Why didn’t we get to say goodbye?

And why on God’s green earth would you unleash Sandy on a nice old lady?! Not to mention, our rounds of Hungry Hungry Hippos were never the same. — Annie Ferguson


A Dickens of a Christmas

A few days before Christmas of 2001, I jettisoned my Web design business, fired my clients, chucked everything into storage and relocated to London. Thanks to a not-so-honest cabbie (“Do all the parks in this city look alike or are we driving in circles?”) I made it to my flat with exactly £10 to my name.

My Website, TVparty.com, was churning out tens of millions of page views every month, one of the Internet’s first multimedia sensations, but there was no way to monetize that traffic. So I engineered a system whereby users could pay $5 for premium content (radical idea, huh?) resulting in deposits of between $0–60 a day to my debit card. Not much dough for living it up in one of the most expensive cities in the world but my future was so purposely uncertain I couldn’t have been happier.

Not knowing anyone in the city (my roommate was out of the country), I banged away at the keyboard with happy abandon in a top-floor flat overlooking Brixton, Europe’s melting pot (and home to a notorious prison.) When the morning of the 24th arrived, I gathered all the cash I had, a single £1 coin, and walked to the green grocer up on the high street where I came across a Florida grapefruit selling for exactly that amount. Returning home, I placed that juicy orb on the mantel above our nonexistent fireplace. It became both my Christmas present and tree. The next morning I savored that grapefruit (sprinkled with salt not sugar) while watching reruns of Bewitched and Sgt. Bilko that aired weekday mornings on the BBC.

Around 10 that night, a Christmas miracle occurred—I banked a staggering £3! So I jauntily headed out for a nightcap at one of the many pubs that lined the high street. The thoroughfare was eerily quiet, no cars moving about, with only one pedestrian in sight, a lady of the evening (it was cold that night so let’s call her Prosty) who asked if I, wanted a go. Which I rightfully reasoned was Londonese for, “You new in town, sailor?”

Respectfully declining her offer, the only holiday invitation I received that year mind you, I arrived at my destination only to discover all of the pubs were closed. I now had to walk back past Prosty again; naturally she propositioned me once more because, of course, I’m behaving just like a ‘John’ would. I again politely begged off. As I’m nearing my flat, I hear a commotion behind me. Prosty’s pimp had emerged from the shadows to physically berate her in the middle of the empty street. I yelled back to him, “Hey, it’s not her fault! I only have £3, and it’s on a card!”

The story’s not entirely bleak. In a nice Dickensian/O.Henry twist, it turns out living in London that year helped me land my first book deal, which led to writing and performing on five hours of Christmas Specials for the Bravo network from 2004–05. — Billy Ingram


Heave Ho! Ho! Ho!

It was so festive, the sanctuary of the Episcopal church my family and I attended, adorned with greenery, poinsettias and flickering candles. I was 16 at the time and, clad in a sleek knit dress and my first pair of high heels, I felt oh-so-grown up, as I sat wedged between my two college-age sisters. Except for the butterflies in my stomach that came with a the opening notes of a trumpet blasting out “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” while the “faithful,” convivial late-night revelers donned in gay apparel packed the church’s pews after making the rounds of holiday cocktail parties.

The service, which is to say, 30 minutes of calisthenics — standing, sitting, kneeling, sitting and standing again — got underway, and midway through, the lights dimmed while the congregants lit small tapers and knelt while singing “Silent Night.” Long about the last stanza about “radiant beams,” I was enveloped by the miasma of Johnnie Walker emanating from the gent enthusiastically swaying on the prayer bench behind me, fearful that he might send the congregation up in a conflagration as he warbled out, “Jesus Lord, at thy bi-irth,” with gusto ill befitting the carol. I began to feel a little over-radiant myself, the sweater dress becoming uncomfortably warm, as the butterflies fluttered anew.

The lights came up and it was time to stand again. And as I began to rise, so did a tide in my stomach, causing me to wobble in my high-heeled shoes, while tiny beads of sweat formed on my brow. The butterflies were in full migration. How could this happen? Then I remembered: “I’ll fix you an omelet,” my bossy eldest sister had announced earlier in the day. “You’ll love it,” she had assured me.

Famous last words from the family Shakespeare scholar who could expound on the differences between the First and Second Folios but historically had trouble finding her way around the kitchen.

Tonight it was Omelet’s revenge. To heave or not to heave? That was the question. The answer came upon this midnight clear beyond the blurry pages of my prayer book and filled me with panic. For there, on the seat of the pew in front of me lay a swath of shiny, thick, dark fur with a satin lining splashed with a single word, “Blackglama.” Its owner, a carefully coiffed duena had cast the mink aside during the heat of “Silent Night.” Little did Glama Girl know that her luxurious wrap, perhaps a wedding anniversary gift that had no doubt seen countless Christmas Eve services, cocktail parties and opera galas, was about to witness a baptism — its own — in of a morass of semi-digested Large Grade A eggs, cheese and onion.

Luckily, came a true Christmas miracle

I sank back down into the seat of my pew, hand clamped over my mouth, fearing what an “Ahh-men,” might produce, while my mother shot daggers at me for my presumed act of sacrilege. And then came the peal of the trumpet again, signaling the recessional, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Or in my case, a barely avoidable “Hock.”

But for the grace of God went I without incident, down the aisle and into the cold December night, bypassing the rector’s outstretched hand.

Later, in the wee, small hours of Christmas Day, the holy spirit moved my troubled insides, and the tide that I had successfully held back in church, came forth, leaving me weak as a kitten during the ensuing merriment and gift-giving. While everyone else in the family devoured my mother’s delicious cranberry bread, I nursed a flat ginger-ale and tentatively bit into a Saltine cracker. Then came the shriek of “Eewww, gross!” It was my middle sister, the true culinary whiz among us three, who had reached into the refrigerator and produced the carton of eggs.

“Has anybody checked the expiration date on these?” she asked.

Looking up from the book she’d been engrossed in, our eldest sister paused as the implication of the question registered. “Oh,” she said. “I guess I forgot.” — Nancy Oakley


Trailer for the Horror Film: The Attic

{Fade in tight on a coal-burning fireplace.

{Camera pulls back slowly to reveal the living room of young Harry’s grandparents’ home. It is 1953 and the scene is in full Christmas Eve mode. Eight-year-old Harry sits in a chair next to the decorated cedar tree. His parents and grandparents are generally ignoring him, their attention is focused on Harry’s new baby sister. This is an after-supper rest period, the hour or so for socializing before bed. Harry is eyeing the wrapped presents under the tree and getting sleepy. His mother notices.}

MOTHER: Ready for bed, Honey?

HARRY: Mmm. Yeah. Guess so.

MOTHER: Well, your father and I and Mary Jane are sleeping in the back bedroom this year. And you’re going to be sleeping in the attic. Won’t that be fun?

{Close up of Harry’s supershocked face.}

{Cut to Harry’s father in the hall, pulling down the folding ladder to access the dark attic.

{Point of view: Harry. His father gesturing for him to go on up. He climbs the ladder to the blackness. He turns to see his mother climb halfway up.

MOTHER: What an adventure! You’re so lucky! Please don’t mess with those toys in the corner. They belonged to Douglas, our little brother who died when he was 4.



{We see her climb down and close up the folding stairway, plunging the attic into total darkness.}

{Cut to close-up: Harry’s wide-open eyes in a sea of black.}  OHHarry Blair

The Mistletoe Bride

A gothic Christmas story

By Nan Graham

The Brits have a very different Christmas than ours. First, they say “Happy Chrimbo” for “Merry Christmas.” Then there’s the wearing of paper crowns by all at the Christmas dinner, Christmas pudding instead of pecan pie and Father Christmas . . . not Santa Claus. Even more bizarre, there are ghost stories. And I was reminded of one gothic Yuletide tale years ago in Charleston.

I was startled by the enormous scale of the image. The imposing oil painting was at least 8 by 6 feet, covering almost the entire wall of my favorite Charleston antiques store. I was drawn to the picture immediately not only by its size, but the immediate recognition of its subject: the Mistletoe Bride — just as I always pictured her. Beautiful. Young. Her radiant face full of mischievous cheer. Her long white veil, attached to the wreath of mistletoe on her dark hair. She tentatively looks over her shoulder as she lifts the trunk lid in front of her. The background behind her is a darkened attic. The moment is frozen.

The shop owner had never heard of the Mistletoe Bride, so I told him over a cup of hot tea. It was a favorite in Victorian England, where Christmas ghost stories were a pervasive custom and still are. It goes something like this: The couple were to be married in the groom’s castle on Christmas Eve. After the ceremony and wedding breakfast, the happy guests and newlyweds decided a game of hide and seek would be great fun. The groom was “it.”

Everyone hurried to closets and nooks within the great house while the bride, competitive to the max, decided the attic would make her the last to be found. She would win the game and remain the star of her own wedding day. She found her way to the attic, gloomy with castoffs from the great house. Then she saw the large oak trunk in a dim corner. It was huge, and she lifted the heavy lid with some effort. She looked around and listened for a moment to see if anyone were coming to the attic. Silence. She smiled and climbed into the trunk, excited at the thought of her young husband’s amazement when she pushed open the lid to reveal herself. She stepped in, tucking the long skirt of her dress beneath her, her wedding veil falling like a cloud around her. After she pulled the lid down, she heard it. The thud of the heavy metal lock as it clicked.

The guests searched until everyone was found. All but one. The bride. They looked everywhere. The groom frantic, the guests scurrying to check every cranny in the house. Nothing. They searched through the night and as the next day wore on, it became obvious that they would not find her.

Years later, the old man decided to move out of the manor house where he had married his beautiful bride and had lived alone for decades since her disappearance. Cousins were helping empty each room of its contents. The last task: the attic. The ancient trunk was opened and disclosed its grim secret — the skeleton of a young woman, her disintegrating veil falling from the wreath of mistletoe around her skull.

A horror story! At Christmas? Horrors! The traditional story gained wide distribution when it appeared in Thomas Haynes Bayly’s printed ballad around 1830 titled “The Mistletoe Bough”:

“O sad was her fate! — in sportive jest

She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.

It closed with a spring! . . . and, dreadful doom,

The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!”

Every household in England is said to have sung this ballad at Christmas in the mid-19th century: The Victorians were obsessed with this early urban legend. So taken were the English with the morbid story of the bride’s disappearance and grim discovery that country castles around the island even today claim the story as theirs: Castle Hornbeck, Basildon Grotto, Marwell Hall, Bramshil, House Brockdish Hall. And the reported most likely site of the tragedy was Minster Lovell Hall, built in 1440, and pretty much dismantled in 1747 by Baron Lovell. Its ruins remain a tourist attraction. Was this the Lovell mentioned in the ballad? His son, the devastated widower? Or the baron himself? No castle or attic or trunk to explore, so we will never know the truth of the matter.

Ghost stories on Christmas Eve were an English tradition long before Dickens wrote the most famous Christmas tale of multiple ghosts, A Christmas Carol, with a happy ending. The English, as well as the rest of the world, cherish being frightened out of their wits on Christmas Eve with visions of Marley’s ghost or Scrooge himself, who was truly scared straight by the three apparitions of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and the Christmas yet to come. But the haunting Yuletide tale of a wedding and young love forever lost remains a favorite. The Brits remain the Mistletoe Bride’s staunchest supporters, but Christmas ghost stories? Rarely in America.

So Happy Chrimbo! Merry Christmas! and God Bless every one, y’all . . . as Tiny Tim and I say!  OH

Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.

The Art of Giving

Looking for something a little different — and locally handmade —
for gifts this year? These artists have you covered


Handmade for the Holidays

Bill Johnston’s Clay Art

By Cynthia Adams

Photograph by Mark Wagoner

Bill Johnston was raised in North Wilkesboro, where his grandfather founded American Furniture Company, later American Drew. 

“I grew up with an appreciation for the mountain wilderness and the forest,” says Johnston. “We cut timber and made furniture, and we were stewards of the land. So a lot of my pottery has leaves and acorns and symbols of the wilderness, the N.C. forest and Blue Ridge Mountains

The former designer took up his art after visiting a pottery festival in Virginia, where he retired in 2000. By the time he returned to Greensboro in 2014, he had acquired a pottery wheel. His early pieces were functional,  — cookie jars and such — decorated with those signature acorns and leaves, and other organic themes. He moved toward pure sculpture, influenced by classical elements.  Johnston joined the Northeast Artists League.

“The next year I got second place in sculpture. The art gallery invited me to do a show and they sold 75 percent of my pots,” he continues.

In 2018 he will have his seventh show at Wilkes Art gallery in North Wilkesboro.  In his shop, Johnston is experimenting with “slip trailing.” Johnston applies watery clay onto the pot. As he wipes it off, he sculpts it into shapes.

“It’s innovative for me,” Johnston says.  “Slip trailing gives me a way to sculpt and create interesting surfaces.” The vase in his hands takes on a painterly quality, with copper red glaze showing through on the inside and on the foot. In the background, Opera, usually Verdi or Mozart, fills the studio while he works. “When something is good, my heart rate goes up and I get so excited,” he says.

For info:  WilliamJohnstonPottery.com or phone:  (336) 707-6500.



Handmade for the Holidays

Gary Fischer’s Fused Glass Creations

By Maria Johnson

Photograph by Mark Wagoner

Gary Fischer was vacationing in the Bahamas in the mid-1990s when some colorful fused glass platters caught his eye in an art gallery.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “This was kind of like stained glass, but it didn’t have the lead between the glass pieces. It was like a free-form stained glass.”

Back home, Fischer, a radiologist, tried to research fused glass, but found little information; the Internet was still new. Then he noticed a newspaper item about a fused glass class at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem.

He took the course, and his imagination was fired.

What started as a hobby blossomed into a passion. Now retired, 71-year-old Fischer spends several hours a week happily immersed in his art. He works in the garage studio of the Hamilton Lakes home he shares with his wife, Ellen Fischer, an accomplished children’s book author who has written some Jewish-themed stories.

Gary Fischer focuses on Judaica in his glass art. His best sellers are mezuzahs, finger-shaped covers that contain small pieces of paper inscribed with prayers. Observant Jews mark their homes with mezuzahs on doorframes; the mezuzahs tilt toward the inside to welcome guests in.

Fischer creates menorahs for Hanukkah and plates for Shabbat and Seder meals. He also makes jewelry. His pendants, rings and earrings bear Hebrew words and symbols. He crafts secular pieces, too, and some Christian jewelry.

The ancient art of fusing glass — essentially melting pieces of glass together — taps Fischer’s understanding of science and aesthetics. The glass, which he buys in sheets, must be fired in a kiln at precise temperatures ranging from 1,100 to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling must occur very slowly.

One clue you’re looking at fused glass: Tiny bubbles form when pieces of glass are melded. You can see this in pieces made with see-through, or cathedral, glass. Other fused glasses are opaque. Some have iridescent sheens. Dichroic glass shimmers with different colors when held at different angles.

Fischer uses all of these glasses in his works, which he sold at the National Folk Festival during its three-year run in Greensboro. He also sells at the local Jewish Festival, on Etsy, and from his studio, by appointment. Info: Gfisch25@yahoo.com.



Handmade for the Holidays

The Deeply Felt Art of Jerry O’Donnell

By Maria Johnson

Photograph by Mark Waggoner

Looking for a heartfelt gift?

How about a gift of artsy felt?

Greensboro’s Jerry O’Donnell has been creating one-of-a-kind felt works for nearly a decade. He’s best known for his earth-tone wall hangings that whisper landscape, but he also creates table runners, scarves, shawls, bags and felted soaps, which are exactly that —felt-covered bars of soap that act as gentle washcloths.

O’Donnell’s love affair with felting began in 2008, though it wasn’t his first fling with fiber. A native of Buffalo, New York, he’d learned to weave cotton and wool cloth during the arts and crafts renaissance of the 1960s. A fan of abstract expressionism, he longed to weave blocks of color with blurry edges similar to the paintings of Mark Rothko.

O’Donnell, a registered nurse, lugged his looms with him as he followed jobs to Florida and finally to Greensboro, where he discovered Gate City Yarns, a hive of fiber art.

One day, he explained his holy grail — the ability to weave diffused edges — to someone in the shop.

“Have you tried felting?” she asked.

“No,” O’Donnell said.

“I teach felting classes here. You should come to one of my classes,” she said. The teacher was Victoria Clegg, whom O’Donnell describes as the premier felter in this area.

From her, O’Donnell learned to conjure the effect he’d been after. He arranged wispy tufts of dyed animal hair — usually from sheep, goats, camels or alpacas — sprayed it with an alkaline solution (warm soapy water) and applied heat and pressure so the fibers would grab each other and draw nigh.

You know that cashmere sweater that went into the Maytag as your size and came out as a perfect fit for your cat?

That’s felting.

Only O’Donnell does it on purpose. As art.

His work was recently included in Cut & Dyed, a show at the Center for Visual Artists in Greensboro’s Cultural Center. He sells at Elements Gallery on South Elm Street.

Now retired from nursing, O’Donnell, 75, teaches felting where he learned it, at Gate City Yarns. Next year, he’ll lead a class at the Randolph Arts Guild in Asheboro. From time to time, he shares his knowledge through the nonprofit Creative Aging Network-NC, based in Greensboro.

With a master’s degree in applied gerontology from UNCG, O’Donnell is interested in helping seniors like himself be active and creative. Felting, he says, provides immediate results and an outlet for expression.

“I can paint with it, in a sense,” he says.

Rothko at last.

Info: elementsgso.wixsite.com



Handmade for the Holidays

Andrew Saulters’s Handstitched Books

By David Claude Bailey

Photograph by Mark Waggoner

Go to one of Andrew Saulters’s favorite coffeehouses — The Green Bean, Coffeology or Tate Street Coffee House — and it’s easy to spot him, hunched over a table, looking a bit rabbinical with his full-on beard and crumpled Homburg hat. What on earth is he doing over there with a needle and thread? Why, he’s sewing another handmade book for Unicorn Press, which he took over from Glenwood Community Bookshop founder Al Brilliant last year after working with him for several years.

After launching the press in 1966 in Santa Barbara, California, with his then-partner Jack Shoemaker, Brilliant “published hundred and hundreds” of poets, along with his late wife, Teo Savvoy — aided, over the years, by 40-some other women and men who worked at the press. Such as Greeensboro’s Sarah Lindsay, who says she once “swept the floor and served tea at 4” there, in addition to setting type, printing pages and binding books by hand — before becoming a National Book Award finalist in poetry.

“Poets use small presses like a minor league,” Brilliant once told local writer Deonna Kelli Sayed in a podcast. For instance, Brilliant published Philip Levine’s Pili’s Wall  in 1971 — before Levine, who died in 2015, snagged the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1995 and became U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011.

Saulters, who earned an M.F.A in poetry from UNCG after completing a degree in aerospace engineering (as in rocket scientist) at Georgia Tech, stresses that Unicorn “seeks to publish excellent works of poetry that are unlikely to find a home elsewhere.” And so he has for the past four years, with a competition that publishes books by previously unpublished poets. Saulters’s cover designs are striking, his typography eclectic and solid, and his bindings handsome and well-crafted. And softcover books range for a remarkably reasonable $10-18. Still, he insists, “even though I spend a lot of time making these books, they only exist because of what’s inside them. They are objects that exist to be read.”

And also to be given as gifts — because while you’re giving someone something that’s made locally, one-at-a-time by hand, you’re also supporting undiscovered poets. And small bookshops such as Glennwood and Scuppernong that carry Unicorn books. And Andrew Saulters, a craftsman, poet and binder of books you can watch — while discussing the state of literature and the world over a cup of java.

Info: www.unicorn-press.org


Handmade for the Holidays

Skip Koscher and the Art of Bonsai


By Maria Johnson

Photograph by Mark Waggoner

Sometimes, folks become artists on purpose.

Sometimes, it’s by accident.

Put bonsai artist Skip Koscher in the latter category.

Forty years ago, a friend saw one of Skip’s potted plants growing cockeyed on a shelf.

“Where’d you get the bonsai?” the friend asked.

“The what?” said Skip.

An artist was born.

Koscher read up on the ancient Chinese-and-later-Japanese art of bonsai. “It’s pronounced BONE-sigh,” says Koscher, ‘Bone’, as in chicken bone; ‘sigh,’ as in ‘I gotta do my taxes.’”

He learned that bonsai isn’t a particular kind of plant; it’s the practice of shaping a plant, usually a woody shrub or tree, into whatever the artist wants it to be.

Typically, the plant is potted in a shallow dish to stunt growth. Most people picture bonsai as a small tree that swoops to one side. That effect is achieved by careful training and pruning.

Koscher, who was making his living in the ancient American art of copier repair when his friend mentioned the bonsai-by-chance, started teaching himself the craft.

“It was a hobby that became an obsession that required funding,” he says.

For years, he sold his manicured creations on the side of U.S. Highway 220 between Lake Higgins and Lake Brandt in Greensboro. He also parked his truck, emblazoned with “BONSAI,” up the highway in the town of Madison.

He quit the roadside business about the same time he retired from his repair job eight years ago, opting to sell bonsai from the greenhouses behind his home in Stokesdale. That’s where you’ll find him most days, grooming his verdant pets. Sometimes, he coaxes them into shape with wires and weights. He’s been known to set a plant on its side to induce curved growth.

His most popular works are made from juniper, but he sculpts a wide variety of shrubs and trees: sarissa, Fukien tea, podocarpus, azalea, ficus, natal plum, acacia, osteomeles, bougainvillea, Texas ebony and others. Koscher, now 70, is hooked on making art that’s alive. His vision for every bonsai is unique. “It keeps changing, depending on what the plant presents,” he says

He’s not the only bonsai artist in the area, he says, but he’s the only one who sells to the public. He has sold thousands of plants ranging in cost from $35 to hundreds of dollars each.

Even then, he’s picky. He vets potential owners, asking questions about where the plants will be located. One couple wanted a bonsai for a windowless office. Koscher refused to sell to them. Most bonsai need full sun to filtered sun and an owner who pays close attention to watering needs. Koscher sends every plant home with a care sheet.

“It’s a responsibility,” he says, noting that bonsai can live 20 years or more if they’re well tended.

Thinking of giving bonsai as a gift? Pick a plant person, maybe one who has expressed a desire to have a bonsai by leaving you this magazine. With this page marked. And this story circled. Hey, there’s nothing like giving a sure hit.

Info: bonsainc.com  OH



December Poem



December orphans the dove

permits growing pains flight

whispers this is why you fought —

in a wrap of bright cerements

weans solstice with a mutter and a kiss

bestows sparkle to ruined promises.

December lends diamonds

spins a symphony in crackling trees

waltzes us to the whistle of sleet —

seizes the ripple in my weary stream

warns a feral life knows no end

argues reasons to abridge the verdict.

December chaperons chill

points out the joy in an ashen sky

bends all light across the gaunt branch —

she liquors my lips with her tongue

allows secrets loosed on a smile

re-pours the bitter vintage till it is gone.

December is a confession

knocking down the tell-tale curtain

promising weakness will set you free —

directs congealed communions

palming our dead leaves as wafers

proffers intinction in a frosty spirit

and glazes gravestones so I can sleep.

— Sam Barbee