Almanac February 21

Card, t-shirt, poster, wallpaper, children’s room decoration.

February is the space between the darkest hour and the earliest light. A paper-thin sliver of silver moon. A sensuous world of deep silence.

High in the towering pine, a pair of great horned owls sit with their clutch in the black of night, yellow eyes like ancient, swirling galaxies. In this realm of shadow and mystery — this wintry temple of stillness — they are the wisdom keepers. And they are always listening.

Warm beneath the great horned mother, three white spheres hold tiny, secret worlds. Days from now, the brood will hatch. But in this moment, all is quiet. Until it isn’t.

On the forest floor, movement flickers like a light in the dark. There’s a faint rustling of leaves. The stealthy owl king twists his head until he targets the source, seeing with his ears before his eyes. Hare? Mouse? We’ll never know. Nature holds her secrets close.

February heightens the senses. Silence cradles every sound, and you can feel it — the charged nothingness before the rhythmic hoots of the great horned beasts. The charged nothingness that follows.

Mystery flirts with your mind like wind dancing through metal chimes.

Just before the earliest light, you hear what sounds for all the world like the piercing, primal scream of a banshee. You are half frightened, half delighted, which speaks to your own primal nature. Next, you hear a sequence of yips and yups. A shriek and more yups. Then, silence.

You suspect what you’ve heard is a pair of foxes, but only the owl knows for sure. And in this sacred window between darkness and light — this thin crescent moon of a month — nature holds her secrets close.



When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe.

—John O’Donohue


Year of the Ox

Friday, February 12, marks the celebration of the Chinese New Year — day after the new moon. Cue the paper lanterns for the Year of the Ox, a year of hard work and, let’s hope, positive change. According to ancient myth, twelve animals raced to the Jade Emperor’s party to determine which order they would appear in the zodiac. The ox is the second because, well, the rat tricked it. All of this to say, trust your gut — and get ready for a good year in your garden.


Yellow flowers of oriental paper bush under snow in early spring.

Winter Bloomers

What is that spicy, glorious aroma, you ask? That would be paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), which gets its name from its bark, not its fragrant yellow flowers.

Paperbush is a deciduous shrub that blossoms in late winter. Native to the Himalayas, China and Japan, this winter bloomer prefers moist, rich soil and a shaded landscape. And with its elegant silhouette and bluish, almost silvery foliage, it dazzles all year.

Speaking of bluish . . . let’s talk about violets. Blue violet, purple violet, hooded violet, wood violet, meadow violet, woolly blue violet. Whatever you call it, the birth flower of February is an herbaceous perennial celebrated for carpeting the winter landscape. They’re edible, too. Although the common violet grows wild along our East Coast, there are hundreds of species of violet (genus Viola), first cultivated by the Greeks circa 500 B.C.

According to Greek myth, hunter-goddess Artemis transformed one of her nymphs into a violet — not, say, a red rose — when the huntress’s twin, Apollo, tried to pursue her. Thus, the violet is said to represent modesty and humility. It’s also been known as the “lesbian flower,” and in 1927, a play called The Captive featured a female character sending violets to another female character. The production stirred the pot, so to speak, with its conspicuous theme of lesbianism and was eventually shut down. But in 1978, the color violet made its way into the rainbow flag for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Celebration. Violets are for everyone. OH

Life’s Funny

Streaming Consciousness

When a little TV wisdom comes in handy 

By Maria Johnson

Like many people coping with COVID restrictions, I’ve been watching more TV — especially series with episodes that you can stream back-to-back-to-oh-look-it’s-next-month-already — on platforms such as Netflix, Prime Video and HBO.

My husband and I have snickered our way through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; been thoroughly freaked out by the all-too-timely The Plot Against America; cast a suspicious eye on just about every character in the detective show Endeavour (“Did you see the way that passerby pedaled his bicycle? Wasn’t it just a little too quickly?”); and been mesmerized by The Queen’s Gambit, in which the hauntingly beautiful actress Anya Taylor-Joy plays an addicted genius. The show has sparked renewed interest in the game of chess (see last month’s O.Henry magazine). It also has prompted armies of tippling women to look deep into their souls and ask themselves the hardest question: “Should I be wearing my hair in bangs like she does?”

I was so enchanted by the show that when my younger son offered to teach me to play chess during a recent visit, I agreed. He explained the rules. I knew that I needed to make a clever opening move. So I did.

I put my hand on a piece, stared at my son, and said with all the gravity I could muster, “Is this the piece that can hop like a bunny?”

He gave a barely perceptible nod.

I moved my piece to a square, held it there, looked at him intensely, and lifted one eyebrow.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked.

In this fashion, I touched all of the pieces and moved them to every conceivable spot — not unlike a primitive computer pondering all the possibilities — until he finally said, “OK, whatever, that’s a good move.”

I’m happy to report that this worked great. The game was close — long, but close — and he won only by moving a pawn to my back row, at which point the pawn became a queen who could do whatever the hell she wanted.

Which brings me to another show we’ve been watching, The Crown, which is about Britain’s royal family and the issues they confront — or, more accurately, don’t confront — in their personal and political lives.

Before I watched this show, I never knew much about the royals other than what I read in an occasional email digest from Quora, a question-and-answer website that deals in a fair amount of palace intrigue.

For example, a reader will ask a question like “What’s Prince Harry really like?” and a plumber from Gloucester will answer with great authority because a union buddy of his once fixed a loo in Kensington Palace, two floors away from Harry’s apartment.

That was good enough for me — until I started watching The Crown. Since then, I’ve been diving into royal history, customs and etiquette, just in case the queen and I ever meet up.

It could happen. Let’s say I’m in London, and I’m walking around Hyde Park, which is right next to Buckingham Palace and is slap full of dogs running loose. Maybe I notice a corgi that looks lost and more than a little irritated with other dogs sniffing its butt. I check its collar, hoping to see the owner’s contact information, and — whaddya know — there’s a tag that says “QE II, B. Palace.” So I call the number, and this little voice says, “Yesss?”

And I’m like, “Um, yeah, I found your dog, and I’m pretty sure I saved its life, so . . . ”

She tells me to come right over. When I hand over the dog, the queen is overcome with emotion. “Thankew,” she says. You know how she runs those words together.

And I’m like, “No problemo, Your Majesty.”

I know from watching the show that I’m supposed to call her “Your Majesty” on first reference and “ma’am” from then on.

Also, I curtsy to her, which goes against my grain, but in my head I think of it as a tiny reverse lunge.

So I do a quick set of tiny reverse lunges, just to prove my good intentions and general fitness, and I wait. Unless the queen makes the first move, you never touch her. This won’t be easy. I’m a toucher. If she doesn’t offer me her hand to shake or fist bump, I’ll probably just give her a thumbs up, and say something like, “Cool purse. Ma’am.” If it’s the middle of the afternoon, she’ll probably invite me in for tea to show her gratitude.

Again, from studying up, I know that no one eats until the queen eats, and if the queen stops eating, you stop eating. I know I can handle the first part, waiting for her to start, but if they’re serving something delicious, like macarons — which are basically MoonPies — or little pimiento cheese sandwiches with the crusts cut off . . . I can’t make any promises.

But I’ll definitely let her lead the conversation. When she makes a point, I’ll agree by saying, “One would think so.” This is a very royal way of talking — saying “one” instead of “I.”

Given a chance to speak, I would try to find common ground, probably by talking about dogs because dog people love to talk about their pups. I might say something like, “One is curious, ma’am: Has Her Majesty’s dogs ever pulled her underwear out of the royal laundry basket?”

She could find this kind of familiarity refreshing.

Or she could use the royal accessory that I envy the most, the bye-bye button, a buzzer that summons her assistants to whisk away visitors when she’s heard enough.

Either way, I would be instantly qualified to answer a question on Quora.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at

O.Henry Ending

Never Arrive at the Funeral Home Late

A broken rule and a lesson on love and understanding


By Katherine Snow Smith

I watched from the second-to-last basement stair, which was covered in the original short-pile marigold carpet from 1959. My mother ironed my sister Melinda’s tea-length dress. It was the color of orange sherbet, lace overlaying silk. Melinda had worn it to our cousin Melanie’s wedding several years earlier. It would be the last dress she would ever wear, because she was to be buried in it the next day.

We had to be at Brown-Wynne Funeral Home to plan my sister’s funeral in just about an hour. My mother, who painstakingly pressed every tuck and every pleat, was moving in slow motion. Then she stopped ironing to talk.

“First thing this morning, we heard a lawnmower and looked out the dining room window and that sweet Grady Cooper was mowing the lawn. He did the front and back in all this heat,” she told me, referring to my dad’s good friend since sixth grade. Grady knew we’d have people coming over and wanted the house to look good, but more so, he just wanted to do something to help when there really was nothing anyone could do.

“And then that wonderful Glenn Keever insisted on going with your father and Alean to the funeral home this morning,” she said as she placed a tulip sleeve over the tip of the ironing board.

Alean was the housekeeper who had stayed with Melinda and me while our parents worked. She was still coming once a week when Melinda died at age 31 in a car crash. After my father told her the funeral would be closed casket, Alean asked if she could see Melinda once more. He complied immediately, later telling me he wouldn’t have done that for anyone but her.

Glenn was one of my father’s closest friends. He had identified my sister’s body for the authorities after she was killed by a drunk driver. My parents were out of town, and I was living in Florida. This all happened more than 20 years ago, and as every well-wisher promised me at the time, the pain has lessened. The gaping hole will never be refilled.

I still remember how the basement smelled that day with the stiff, clean fragrance of Niagara Spray Starch as my mom ironed. It was a familiar scent because the ironing board was always in our basement, where Melinda and I had spent hours, thousands of hours, playing.

To my right was the big brick fireplace, devoid of ashes in June. I pictured it two decades before, lined with produce boxes my mom procured from Winn-Dixie so Melinda and I could stack them three high and eight long to build empires for our Barbies.

Finally, my mother was done ironing Melinda’s dress. She carefully hung it on a padded coat hanger. Now if she could just change clothes quickly we could leave in 10 minutes and get to the funeral home almost on time. But then she placed a pair of white cotton underwear over the ironing board and gingerly touched the steaming iron to the fabric, an inch at a time.

Nobody, I mean nobody, was even going to see the underwear. What was she doing? And then I got it. I was only four months pregnant with my first child, but I got it. She wanted to be Melinda’s mother for five more minutes. She wanted to keep ironing, caring, teaching, defending, celebrating, helping, consoling, praising. This was the last thing she would ever do for her daughter.

“I love you so, so much and so did Melinda,” I said as I rushed to my mother and hugged her.

“Thank you, Katherine. I love you more than you will ever know,” she said through tears.

We were a good half hour late to the funeral home. Nobody complained.  OH

Katherine Snow Smith is a North Carolina native who has worked as a journalist throughout the Carolinas. She currently lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she is a freelance editor and writer, but visits her parents and friends in the Tar Heel state every month. This essay was excerpted from her first book, Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps and Lessons Learned, which was published by She Writes Press in 2020.

Labor of Love

The historic T. Austin Finch House blushes anew

By Cynthia Adams


Today, Thomasville’s Renaissance Revival mansion of the T. Austin Finch house is a favorite photo location for blushing brides, who smile radiantly for the camera from the Juliet balcony.

Exactly one century ago, the elegant home was built for another blushing bride, Ernestine Lambeth, the newly-wed wife of T. Austin Finch. Although the house was built as a symbol of their union, it also represented the fusion of two families’ successful companies: Lambeth Furniture and Thomasville Chair Company.

According to Winston-Salem historian Heather Fearnbach, the Finch-Lambeth wedding unified “two major North Carolina furniture-manufacturing dynasties.” And it firmly solidified Thomasville Furniture as a furniture megabrand.


Photographs by Amy Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman


But that was in another era. In succeeding years, the North Carolina furniture industry became a shadow of its former self. T. Austin Finch House languished, and then sat empty, serving as a poignant reminder of the decline of manufacturing in the state and in the Triad.

That’s when another young couple, Hilary and Andrew Clement, entered the story. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with an infusion of love and cash — not to mention strong backs and helping hands — the Clements vowed to restore the T. Austin Finch House to its former glory.

How that transpired is quite a saga.

The Clements were living in Greensboro when, in 2016, Andrew took a teaching job in Thomasville, which was close enough to commute. It wasn’t long before he learned about the historic Finch house, which had been on the market for several years.

No one wanted the house to be lost, including Thomasville’s city leaders, recalls Andrew. It was a valuable piece of the town’s story, and over time, it became a siren call to a man itching to see the old beauty saved.

Photographs by Amy Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman


The story of the house’s revival began in the summer of 2017, when Andrew began making repeated visits to the 1.5-acre property. He peered through the windows, admiring the architectural details and sensing the mansion’s former grandeur. Then he began wondering what a little love — or, more like a lot of love — could do for this vacant old house. Basically, Andrew Clement had fallen irrevocably in love with the Finch House. To get some perspective on his infatuation, Andrew decided to call Jim Howard, a Realtor and longtime friend, to walk through the mansion with him.

“It was an incredible deal,” says Howard. But what would Hilary think? Howard recognized it just might be a perfect match for the Clements, who were no newbies to restoration projects. In fact, buying and flipping houses was more than a mutual passion and avocation. “In 20 years as a remodeling contractor, I have repaired and renovated over 500 homes,” says Andrew. And together, Andrew and Hilary had renovated 17 properties — all distressed and most in foreclosure — including a 1938 bungalow in Glenwood, which they documented online.

Photo by Brittany Butterworth Photography
Photo by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Between Andrew’s experience and Hilary’s artistic eye, Howard became convinced that the couple could work some real magic on a property that certainly needed a lot of love.

Hilary is a rare bird: equal parts scientist and artist. She is a skilled Realist painter by night and manages a high-pressured DNA lab by day. Andrew is a third-generation craftsman who says he “was born” to become a renovator. Together, they complement one another’s strengths. 

Which, as it happens, is a good thing when undertaking something as daunting as a well-known mansion languishing in a sad state of neglect and disrepair in plain view on Thomasville’s main street. 

Indeed, this was no small undertaking. It was enormous — scary big even for someone with the Clements’ track record. Six bedrooms, nine bathrooms and 7,000 square feet of all sorts of issues, including rot and moisture. And that’s not counting the carriage house, former servants’ quarters or garage, which would add another 1,300 square feet of space to the project.

“There was some caution and a lot of due diligence,” says Andrew.

They decided that the only way they could make things work financially would be to revitalize the house as an event center. But they would have to battle mold and decay before the first new couple could stand inside its once lovely plaster walls and murmur “I do.”

Perhaps the resident ghost might have whispered in their ear that if they loved the house, a home would one day love them back. 

Who can explain love?

In any case, the Clements ultimately responded with a yes — they would love the house back to life. They purchased the Finch property on October 20, 2017.

Andrew had renovated his first old property when he was only 22-years-old — a house even older than the Finch house — a 1902 Queen Anne McLeansville farmhouse. The work inspired him to earn his general contractor’s license, and Andrew has focused upon renovations since. 

Now 42, he had 20 years of experience to his credit as proven by scars, scrapes and bruises. 

Yet nothing compared to such a grand mansion. And, it seemed karmic.

Inside the Finch mansion’s plastered and paneled walls was a century of history and the physical remnants of its former grandeur. For instance, original wormy cypress was used in a magnificent, intact library, part of an addition made in the late 30s. Fireplaces and surrounds had survived, thanks in part to the fact that there had been few owners and renovations. A delightful and mysterious star motif repeated in the public room. The home’s charming pastel-tiled bathrooms were in surprisingly good condition. Leaded glass windows and rare Jefferson windows were intact, too.

As Andrew grew more convinced it was viable to take on, Hilary was unnerved. “Hilary had a lot of reservations about the property,” admits Andrew. “She didn’t want the renovation to sink us financially, which it almost did. She was also concerned about me stretching myself too thin, which I did also,” Andrew admits. Ultimately, Hilary became persuaded that with their combined talents and determination, they could pull the project off.

“Hilary is our secret weapon,” confesses Andrew. “She has driven and controlled ‘the look.’ We agree on most design decisions, but I defer to her insight. Hilary built our website and runs our social media. This is so helpful in an image-driven business.”

In 2018, the couple hired historian Heather Fearnbach, whose professional assistance furthered the process of getting the home listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The listing was a crucial step in terms of securing important tax credits, which would make the project more feasible.  The application was aided by the fact that the Renaissance Revival home and its occupants were well-documented.  Given the Finches role within Thomasville’s history — Thomas Finch having even served as mayor — the provenance of the restored house was almost synonymous with the town itself.

“It’s really overwhelming at times when you think about who has been in the building and what it has meant to the community,” Andrew told the Lexington i in an interview.

It took the couple a full year to make the house habitable again.

Was there a moment when they thought, “what have we done?”

Oh, yes.

Photograph courtesy of Brittany Butterworth
Photograph courtesy of Brittany Butterworth


Two-thirds of the way through the project, Andrew admits he “hit a wall,” so to speak.

“I had some serious health issues, and we started to run out of money to complete the work,” he says. “It was at this point that I believed buying this property was the worst decision I had ever made.”

But this love story was written in the stars. Thankfully, at the perfect time and in the perfect way, the Clements were able to complete the renovation.

With the encouragement of family and friends, they hosted the first event in October of 2018. 

No longer the private address for the Finches, a powerful couple who entertained North Carolina’s affluent and influential, the historic home is now open as a public venue. 

The beauty of the home and carriage house, with an enormous reception tent out back, has attracted a flock of lovebirds, hosting more than 50 weddings over the last two years. 

Photograph courtesy of Serena Adams
Photograph courtesy of Serena Adams

The property is thriving, accommodating as many guests as can be safely organized with the constraints of a pandemic. Given that the story of this house is a tale of two couples, it is so fitting that the property has become a venue where other couples make vows that will determine the course of their lives. And it is uncanny how many parallels exist between the original owners and the couple that brought their home back to life.

Whereas the Finches were instrumental in modernizing and growing the furniture business, they were also deeply civic-minded, like the Lambeth family. The Finches lent considerable money and support to public projects, ambitious ones ranging from schools and hospitals to libraries.

Like the Finches, Andrew had also had a long commitment to public service. Howard notes, “He’s always chosen his career by the contribution to society.”

Andrew balances work as a project manager for Community Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that provides home repairs and new houses for low-income homeowners in Guilford County. “Community Housing Solutions (CHS) began in 2002 under the name Housing Greensboro,” he says. “CHS was formed in partnership with the Center to Create Housing Opportunities, Greensboro Housing Coalition, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro and the City of Greensboro.”

The house was formally listed on The National Registry of Historic Places on August 26, 2018.

Photograph courtesy of Aura Marzouk
Photograph courtesy of Aura Marzouk


“Grandson David Finch has visited to see the restoration. Great grandson Justin Finch has also visited with his wife. Both have been appreciative,” says Andrew.

Former Thomasville Furniture employees have also come to see the house, which was occasionally open to them long ago for special Finch-family events.

Hilary keeps an art studio upstairs where she paints on weekends. She also chooses treasures for the house. Ones that “feel right,” says Andrew.

Would the house’s resident ghost approve of them?

The rugged Andrew pauses, smiles, then admits something as long shadows fall across the dining room, which retains its triple-hung sash windows.

“We have never spent the night and have no intention of ever living in the house.”

After being pressed, he merely grins — or grimaces — enigmatically. 

“Some of the local police and other residents swear the house is haunted. I do have to admit I’ve been weirded out a few times being in the house all alone when it’s dark.”

With darkness falling, Andrew flicks on a flashlight, gives a little shrug, and we both make a hasty exit.  OH

For more information about the T. Austin Finch House, visit To see Hilary’s artwork, visit And to view the Clements’ renovation of their Glenwood bungalow, visit


Feature photograph by Brittany Butterworth

On the Border

By Mélina Mangal  
Illustrations by Harry Blair


First time I saw it, I knew right away it was hurt. Else it would’ve flown away like any other sensible bird when it seen me coming with the hoe. It fluttered and cowered in the corner of the garden, in between the rows of pole beans. Probably fell out of the tree, like so many baby birds come springtime. But I didn’t see a nest in the sweetgum behind the fence. I would’ve noticed it.

The bird was squat and black, like a lump of furry fat. It looked like some kind of duck, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Its tiny tail feathers was caked with mud. Dark marble eyes stared at me. Could it smell the chicken fat, liver parts, bone bits and blood sunk into my skin from years coating my smock?

It had been so bad when I’d started at the Royal Poultry Emporium, couldn’t nothing take the smell away. No matter what I tried — Jovan Musk, coconut oil, even Frank’s aftershave — I still smelled that raw, bloody chicken as I drove back across the border to South Carolina every night with Aunt Della and Sheryl Caldwell. After a few years, couldn’t notice the difference no more. But everyone outside the plant could.

It tore me apart to see my own baby girl shrivel and cry whenever I came near ’cause of the smell. Seemed like she only let Frank hold her and give her the bottle. Maybe if I had just fed her my own milk, she’d be alive today. Preemies better off on formula, they’d said. But maybe she could’ve gotten used to my smell. After all, Frank did. Wasn’t the smell drove him away. It was the operation. After they cut my baby girl out, they cut out my womb. To save my life, they said.

I raised the hoe, wondering if there would be a sound as it came down across that feathery skull. I didn’t need no bird getting into my vegetables, ’specially since I had to live off them now. The company had barely paid my medical bills, and the court said the state didn’t need to pay nothing, even though they had never inspected that poultry pit. Not once. I needed the money, but Lucifer’s serpents couldn’t drag me back to a place like that again.

Didn’t never want to touch no more meat, no matter how it was cooked. Couldn’t stand to think about it — that frying in hot oil, boiling, barbecuing. Hellish flames burning and tearing at flesh, burning screams and dreams right off the bone. Fire trapping and slapping bodies into a smoldering ooze.

I looked down at the dirty lump staring at me. Was it a haint come from the bloody ashes to get me? Had to get rid of that bird, that nasty smelly bird.

I could still smell it, like it was just yesterday, stinking up my hair, my skin, my air. From where I’d stood near the front entrance, I’d heard the rush of gas as it lit a wall of fire all around us. Heard the fire killing screams. Pushed and ran and ran. Hot, hot, black smoke, frying flesh, screaming screaming screaming. Donna Basnight Sheryl Caldwell Vonda Truelove Laquita Fearington Annie Gibbs burning at the door marked Fire Exit Only. I saw them pounding, faces twisted and trapped from where I crawled outside. Smoky mess, couldn’t open the door for them — blocked — my arms still on fire as I looked down.

That bird stared up at me, glassy black eyes accusing. “Why me?”  I steadied the hoe between my shaking arms and raised it again, like a pickax. Had to get rid of that stinky bird. No more fowl. No more feathers. No more flesh.

The bird inched away, toward the fence, toward the ashes of the Royal Poultry Emporium. “Fly you, damn it! Why can’t you fly, you devil bird?”

I closed my eyes and with all my strength brought the hoe down. The sound of screaming filled my ears.

Stop. Stop the screaming. I brought the hoe down again and again, my eyes closed tighter to block out the cries. All I saw was black smoke.

Run. Run. Keep running. Stop. Stop the screaming. Stop.

I’d run clear across the field and was next to the highway. I leaned on the signpost to steady myself and catch my breath. Then I read the sign. Adopt-a-Highway. This portion of 177 adopted by Mason Hog Farms. The oatmeal I’d eaten for breakfast lurched up and out. I stood there until a horn honked at me.

My sister’s brown Dodge pickup stopped in the middle of the road. “Marilyn, what are you doing here?” Sandra’s soft voice coated me as she touched my arm.

“Just taking a walk. That’s all.” I knew what she was thinking. You never go nowhere. You’re afraid to leave the yard. But I couldn’t tell her what I was really afraid of.

I got in the truck with her and she drove me back home. After they released me from that burn center in Charlotte, Sandra let me stay in Michael’s room since he’d gone to the Marines. But my nephew’s room was right next to the kitchen. I couldn’t live that close to those smells. So Sandra’s husband had fixed up their old shed for me. I went right there and stayed the rest of the day, reading my Burpee’s seed catalog.

Next morning I went back out to the garden. The hoe lay in the dirt, next to five deep gashes where the blade had landed. I stopped to pick it up, so I could get back to my work. Felt like Grandpa Chaney, the way he used to bend to pick the beans and potatoes he’d planted earlier.

That’s all I want to do. Dig, plant, grow. Like Grandma Chaney too. Used to snap beans as fast as she knit. Snap plink snap plink as she dropped the beans in a bucket in summer. Click click clack when her needles connected in winter. And every so often she’d grab a chicken from the yard and twist and snap —

I heard a rustling in the dirt. I looked over and those hard wet eyes looked back up at me. Birds don’t blink but I thought it was dead. Should’ve been. The bird looked the same as I left it, a muddly black blob. Could’ve been a lump of dirt. Maybe it was.

I closed my eyes tight and counted to 10. When I opened them, the lump was still there. And it moved. I backed away. And kept walking, until I reached my little house.

I was shaking when I lay down on my cot. That damn bird. Fixin’ to eat up my seedlings. Sent here to scare me. I sat straight up again. No. No haint or bird or nothing was going to ruin my garden. I went back out to the far side and worked on my flower beds. Tulips, daffodils and iris about to bloom. This was my garden, no matter whose land it was on. I worked it, watered it, cared for it.

I lay down in it next morning before the sun come up. I felt all misty and cool and new, like the morning glories before they open up to the day. Like the deep purple pansies shiny with dew. I pretend to be one of them, with fresh new skin. Velvety soft and smooth, so smooth you want to lay your face next to one and breathe pure sweetness.

After the sun come up I got my tools and returned to the vegetable side of the garden. I inched closer to the bean patch. But I was going to work on the peas first. My fingers sunk into the damp black dirt. It felt good to not feel pain no more. I saw a flutter in the corner of my eye but didn’t want to turn. I kept playing with the dirt, letting it sift through my fingers.

I heard a tiny sound from the bean patch. I didn’t want to see nothing ’cept dirt and seedlings. But I saw the bird.

It was still a dirty black lump. Its head lurched forward and grabbed a thick graybrown worm. It snapped its beak and swallowed. The bird’s skinny throat bulged where the worm got sucked down. My hands were shaking. This bird wouldn’t die.

I backed up and ran to Sandra’s house. Had to do something, clean. Had to do laundry. I threw all their clothes from the basket into the washing machine, then ran across the yard to get all of my clothes. I did four loads and hung each batch to dry outside.

The next day I went to weed near the turnips and collards. The ground was still wet from rain and the plants looked all clean and green. I smiled at them. Then I stole a peek at the bean patch. The bird was still there but farther away this time. And it looked different.

I walked over to the bird and saw its shiny tail feathers. The rain must have washed all the dirt off. I moved in and looked at it even closer. It shivered. I saw myself in its mirror eyes. A hulking creature with stained and stretched skin holding a hoe in her hands.

Water leaked in through the door when it stormed that night. I cut out the light and stuck my toes in the cool puddle. I watched out the window as thousands of droplets fell from the sky. A rain parade showered my flowers and vegetables, like confetti in those New York parades on TV.

A flash of lightning lit up a corner of the garden, and I smiled at how pretty and silver it looked. But I jumped when a clap of thunder struck real close. I couldn’t stop shaking after that. Why couldn’t it have rained the day of the fire? Water would have poured over the flames, dousing them quick. Another bolt of lightning flashed and thunder crashed again, even closer. Why’d it have to happen?

Lightning lit the bean patch before me, and I strained to see from behind my window. That bird would be pelted out there, if it was still alive. Seconds later, I was out in the garden, sloshing around in the mud, looking for the bird. Rain washed over me, soaked through me, seeped into me.

I nearly stepped on it as the bird tried to hide under new tomato plants. I scooped it up and it pecked at me, but I ran all the way back to my little house with it.

I dried it with my towel and set it down on the braided rug next to my cot. It set there, still shaking, looking all around. After I dried myself and changed, I stepped over it to my bed. I lay there looking down at that shiny black mess of feathers. It smelled just like me, wet and muddy.

I didn’t get up for my morning walk in the flowers like usual. I was too afraid of stepping on the bird in the darkness. So I lay there until the sun poked in through the windows. The bird didn’t move when I stepped over it to get breakfast. I bent down and touched it, thinking it might be dead. Its eyes opened, but this time it didn’t shake or flutter away from me. Or try to peck. I stroked the back of its neck and was surprised at how soft it felt. Like a kitten.

After making toast for myself, I crumbled up another piece and put it outside my door for the bird. If I just fed it a little and looked after it for a while, it would fly off on its own when it could. I went to the bean patch right away after that and worked all the rows of vegetables.

A week passed before Pansy walked without looking like she’d topple over. I’d started feeding her corn and cereal and other scraps. She loved them. And her feathers looked silkier and shiner than I ever guessed they could. I still hadn’t figured out what kind of a bird she was. She had to be some special kind of duck.

When the mailman came around to my little house, I was holding Pansy in my lap, stroking her sleek feathers. He held out the white envelope and I took it with my left hand.

“Got yourself a new bird there, Ms. Marilyn?”

“Just nursing it till it can fly again.”

“You know chickens don’t fly much. That’s a Bantam. My brother raises ’em.”

He ticked me off when he started laughing. So I didn’t answer. I looked at the envelope. It was from Cameron, Tate & Howell, lawyers for the plant. I knew from the size it couldn’t be a check. So I set it down and stroked Pansy with both hands. I heard a cheer-cheer-cheer and saw a red bird land in the sweetgum. I blew it a kiss.  OH

(From the book All the Songs We Sing, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective published by the Blair/Carolina Wren Press.)

Working at the intersection of nature, literature and culture, Mélina Mangal highlights those whose voices are rarely heard, and the people and places that inspire them to explore their world. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, Mangal opened up the first joint Public/School Library in Carrboro at McDougle Middle School. She has authored short stories and biographies for youth, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award. Her latest book is Jayden’s Impossible Garden.

Cuckoo for Cocoa

Custom chocolates sweeten the deal in downtown Gibsonville

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

Relax, last-minute lovers. Debbie Stephens, the owner of Once Upon a Chocolate in Gibsonville, has your back at Valentine’s Day.

After nearly 30 years in the chocolate business, she knows what to expect.

You’ll saunter into her corner store on V-Day — or the day before, if you’re the plan-ahead sort — looking for confections to express your affection. Some of you will appear to be rather desperate.

You might ask Stephens what kind of chocolate she thinks your beloved would like — an indication that you might have issues that chocolate alone can’t fix.

But, being an experienced businesswoman, the type with a soft-centered heart, Stephens will be kind. She’ll ask what sorts of sweets your sweetie savors, then she’ll guide you through a vast selection of velvety truffles and crunchy nut clusters arranged, in regimented rows, inside a gleaming glass case.

If you’re looking for a more direct statement of purpose, she can show you hearts, Cupids, roses and lips wrapped in bright foil skins and glossy cellophane bags.

She will have stocked up for the holiday, having hand-poured more candies than usual. Her small-batch method — along with her ability to mold custom chocolates in almost any shape you can imagine — sets her apart from most retail chocolatiers, who buy their wares from wholesalers.

“It’s what enables my website to thrive,” she says.

Her success embodies a sort of Forrest Gump Paradox. Gump, the movie character, famously quoted his mother as saying, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” Stephens didn’t realize, until she was in her 30s, that she could make a second career of allowing people to know exactly what kind of chocolate they were going to get.

Back in the 1990s, she was living in Florida, working as an office manager for a home improvement chain, and looking for an exit ramp from corporate life. Her mother, a small business expert with the state of Mississippi, suggested that she buy a chocolate shop franchise.

Stephens had no experience making candy, but she liked crafting, and she figured she could learn to get creative with cocoa.

Debbie’s Chocolate Delights opened in Tampa in 1992 and quickly became popular with people who wanted edible favors for weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, bridal showers, baby showers and business gatherings.

Custom candy bars — done in dark chocolate, milk chocolate or white chocolate — also were a hit.

Debbie Boggs, the wife of All-Star baseball player Wade Boggs, used to order hundreds of candy bars, with a family photo printed on the wrapper, for a Christmas party they hosted every year.

Within a couple of years, Stephens bought the store from the franchiser. Personalized chocolate was a good fit for her. Local customers kept her busy, and as online shopping took off in the early 2000s, people started locating the hard-to-find shapes on her website.

One year, a helicopter-related company in the Netherlands ordered a fleet of chocolate choppers.

“I was thinking, ‘Is there no one closer to you that has chocolates? You’re in a candy country,’” says Stephens, who happily obliged the company nevertheless.

Another memorable order came from a mall management company in the U.S. For a grand opening, they wanted custom-wrapped chocolate bars, some containing golden tickets for prizes, like the candy bars in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The biggest order ever — 2,000 boxes, each containing five custom chocolates — came from a marketing company that was handling swag for a funeral home company headed to an industry convention in Las Vegas.

The boxes — which included a chocolate bar with the company logo, a chocolate golf ball and a grand truffle with a money sign on top — went into the hotel rooms of company guests.

In 2010, Stephens sold the Tampa business — including the name and molds — and she and her husband moved to Burlington to be closer to family.

“I started over from scratch,” says Stephens. “I didn’t have anything but a little bit of knowledge about things that worked and things that didn’t work.”

She set up shop in Gibsonville at the corner of Piedmont and Burlington avenues, a short hop from Main Street.

“The small downtown setting appealed to me,” she says. “We have a wonderful merchants’ association, and the town is always striving to be better. There’s a sense of community that isn’t found in a big city.”

The railroad-flavored business district, with its signature red caboose and garden train, draws a steady trickle of visitors, many with children. For them and other youngsters, Stephens keeps a ready supply of chocolates resembling the superhero Falcon, the folksy Thomas the Tank Engine and the robotic Transformers.

Area businesses — including The Inn at Elon, Cone Health and Duke University — count on her for candies bearing their logos.

But the majority of her business — in non-COVID times anyway — comes from out-of-staters who find her shop online and call in their orders. Stephens handles the details by phone to ensure accuracy.

“I have customers telling me all the time that it is refreshing to talk directly to an owner,” she says.

Her top seller is the gold foil-wrapped figure that’s billed on her website as a “chocolate Oscar-style statue.”

The stand-up figure is a winner with people who host Hollywood-themed gatherings and watch parties for the annual Academy Awards show, which has been moved to April 25 this year because of COVID.

Six years ago, Parade magazine mentioned Stephens’ chocolate statues in a story about Oscar parties. She was inundated with calls the next day.

“It was so bad that Monday morning, we had to take the phone off the hook,” she says. “That was a case where too much publicity was a bad thing.”

Stephens has shipped the statues as far away as Paris, France and Azerbaijan.

She also helps customers who want to celebrate specific films.

“I enjoyed an order the year the movie Titanic came out,” she says. “The client was having a party, and I made cruise ships for each person, as well as a large block of white chocolate that looked like an iceberg. She placed it on a mirror on her table.”

Stephens’ bank of about 5,000 molds made from food-safe plastic makes it highly likely that she can turn out whatever shape her customers might want:



Cell phones.

Pipe wrenches.

Slot machines.

“I have an artillery regiment in Kansas City that orders chocolate cannons for their event every year,” she says. “The (chocolate) handguns have been ordered by a group in Atlanta who holds a concealed-carry convention every year.”

Business gatherings have plunged in the past year because of COVID, and that has taken a huge bite out of Stephens’ sales. Her business is down 75 percent, but the remaining 25 percent is enough to keep her melting and pouring.

The raw material is a chocolate base that comes from a supplier in 50-pound cases. She liquifies the tear-shaped, chocolate discs in melters that hold the molten mixture at a steady temperature while she dips and pours.

The chocolate takes 10 to 20 minutes to set up, and it keeps for three to four months. Stephens uses no preservatives.

There’s not much need; her creations disappear quickly, though not by her own hand, which answers one of the most common questions she hears: Aren’t you tempted to eat your work?

Stephens says no.

“At work, I’m thinking of food like chicken, burgers; nothing sweet,” she says. “I have a tendency to want chocolate at home, but I just don’t take it home. It’s rich, and you can’t eat tons, plus if I’m sitting around eating it, I just have to make more.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at

February Poem


Every year for one summer week we fled city concrete,

our skinned and scarred bony legs climbing steel bus steps.

Our mother shaking her head at the zoomorphic use

of a racing dog she believed was grossly falsified, sighing:

Why they would put a fast dog on this slow-ass bus is beyond me!

The driver collecting tickets always shook his head back,

not for the misleading hound, but the long night ahead —

a sundown that commenced crying fights, the lap feast

of cold fried chicken and bread slices, head balancing acts

of sleep upright. All to get down home, a foothill

in the blue ridge mountains where we stepped off

into a morning and the arms of our grandmother

who’d say: My you’ve grown. How was the ride? Who’d boast

she rode the mule-pulled tractor to the schoolhouse in snow.

— Crystal Simone Smith

(From the book All the Songs We Sing, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective published by the Blair/Carolina Wren Press.)

Wandering Billy

Remembering Marion

She never missed a beat. And I sure miss her


By Billy Eye

Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart. – Washington Irving

Marion Hubbard, a dear friend and remarkable woman, passed away a few weeks ago. Marion and her husband, A.P. (Ainslie Perrow), were two of my parents’ closest friends. I’d known them all my life and grew to love them like they were my own family.

The Hubbards lived in a lovely home on Sunset Drive, where they raised their two daughters, Libby and Ada. A.P. was a businessman. For many years, his wholesale lumber company was a prime resource for the city’s leading contractors, supplying wood for homes being built in Kirkwood, Sunset Hills and Starmount Forest. Eventually, A.P. Hubbard Wholesale Lumber blossomed into an international, multimillion-dollar enterprise.

Marion, on the other hand, led the life of a fairly typical Atomic Age housewife. She golfed and dined at the Greensboro Country Club, volunteered with the Junior League, served as a Rotarian, rode horses with the kids, taught Great Books in public schools, attended Holy Trinity Church and traveled the world. She was also a voracious reader, a veritable one-woman lending library filling life’s blank pages with verve, warmth, laughter, love and a keen sense of purpose.

A.P. died suddenly in 1997, when Marion was 68. I interviewed Marion Hubbard in 2016 for an article that was never published. It’s the untold story, in her words, of how she stepped up as CEO of A.P. Hubbard Wholesale Lumber in the wake of her husband’s death. If a movie is ever made of Marion’s life, they’ll have to resurrect Barbara Stanwyck for the lead.

Marion started the tale by saying that just before A.P.’s funeral, someone from the company approached her.

“Marion, you really have to be in the office on Monday,” they told the newly widowed homemaker.

That, she said, got her attention. After all, she knew enough about the current state of the business to know that she could lose a lot of money if she didn’t immediately take charge. “When I went in,” Marion recalled, “one salesperson that works for A.P. came up and said, ‘Well, do you know about my bonus?’”

“Yes, I do know about that,” replied Marion.

“Well, do you know about that job we’re doing down in Charleston?” he retorted. 

“I know about that too, yes,” she said.

“Well, do you know about . . .”

This went on and on, she said, always with the same response: “Yes, I know.”

The salesman became so furious his face went red. “Well, A.P. lied to us,” Marion recalled him blurting out. “Your husband said he never talked about business after 5 o’clock.”

“He didn’t,” quipped Marion. “But he came home for lunch!”

As it turned out, that salesperson had assumed — and even told everyone — that he would be in charge in the event that A.P. passed.

This gave me a glimpse into the kind of relationship that A.P. and Marion must have had. Although she was a housewife, Marion had been aware for many years of the inner workings of her husband’s company. For instance, she said they would go into the office together on weekends and A.P. would look over the books and discuss upcoming jobs. “So he really did give me some insight,” she said. “It wasn’t just completely cold turkey.” She felt she had no choice but to take the reins of the business when she did.

“I would be left with all the obligations but none of the benefits if I didn’t,” she told me. “A couple of people in my family told me, ‘Well, you can’t do this.’ And by that, meaning, ‘You’re probably not capable of it.’ Of course, that did not sit well with me.”

There were, she recalled, some immediate, unexpected hurdles. A competitor, who was also a friend, attempted to lure away her most productive salesmen. Also, the bank initially refused to lend her any capital as they normally would have done for the company.

“I suggested to the bank that maybe they were treating me that way because I was a woman,” Marion told me. “They were genuinely shocked. They said, ‘Oh no, it’s because you’re inexperienced.’ Which I thought . . . that’s reasonable.”

Fortunately, A.P.’s life insurance benefit provided the temporary finances to keep commerce, and timber, flowing.

But one challenge followed another, as will happen in business.

Embezzlement? Yep. That, too. 

The good news was that sales were “huge, in the millions, but our profit margin was so tiny, I’d be embarrassed to tell you what it was,” Marion said. Because they sold truckloads of product, any mistake was a big, expensive mistake. If a truckload of lumber disappeared, your bottom line could go from black to red overnight. In fact, that actually happened. “A truck driver called and said he didn’t have time to make a delivery,” Marion told me. “So he parked the truck outside his house, and it was gone the next morning.”

Here’s where luck came into play: One of the salespeople was returning to Greensboro from a sales call when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something odd. “He makes a U-turn, drives back into the woods and there’s the tractor trailer with the lumber on it!” Beating a hasty retreat, he called the cops who recovered the stolen goods.

She proved to be a tough businesswoman who steered the company successfully through the worst recession since the 1930s. But Marion was always generous, attributing the success to having a low overhead and a dedicated workforce. “We really did have some really good people. We had one of the buyers come in and say, ‘We can’t believe you did this much business out of this little office.’”

The company had its best year in 2015 — so good, Marion said, “it nearly killed us.”

Collecting what was owed her at times presented a challenge. “I talked with this guy in Alabama who had declared bankruptcy. I felt sorry for him, of course, but I said, ‘Oh, you can start over.’”

She was in her late 80s at the time.

“Oh no, Miss Marion,” he told her, “I’m too old to do that.’”

And she said, “How old are you?”

The man was 35.

“My goodness,” said Marion, “You know J.C. Penney started his ten-cent store when he was 75? You are not too old.”

Can you believe he had the nerve to ask how old she was?

He gasped when she told him .

When Marion retired in 2017, A.P. Lumber was one of just a handful of lumber brokers remaining in Greensboro.

I feel extremely fortunate that my sister and I had the opportunity to visit Marion last October. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon talking about times past and folks passed. She certainly didn’t seem like someone who would no longer be with us in just a couple of months.

A true Southern doyenne, I deeply regret that the unsinkable Marion Hubbard isn’t here to read this now. Thankfully her warmth and zest for life live on in memory.  OH

Mr. O.G — Original Greensboro — aka Billy Eye would love to hear from you. Email


Unexpected Guests

The red crossbill makes an appearance


By Susan Campbell

This winter has been quite a season for birders across the Eastern United States. Here in North Carolina, it has been incredible with a variety of unexpected species scattered across the state. A few of them, like the snowy owl on the Outer Banks, were only around for a day. But others have been surprisingly widespread, are persisting and are being found in numbers. One such species is the red crossbill.

This feisty little seedeater with the oddly crisscrossed bill is native to the boreal forest, where conifers are abundant. They are uniquely adapted to pry open the sizable cones of spruces, firs, pines and even the small, compact cones of hemlocks. Crossbills are after the oily, nutrient-rich seeds found within. With short legs and strong feet, they cling easily to not only the bark and branches of the trees they forage on, but to the needles and cones as well.

The challenge for these birds of the North is that the cone crop that they depend on, especially during the colder months, is not predictable. Some years there is more than enough food to sustain them. But in seasons such as this one, red crossbills are forced to migrate much farther south than usual to find enough seed to make it through the winter.  They may appear at feeders, especially those with hulled sunflower (referred to as “hearts” or “meats”) that the birds can easily consume.

Red crossbills often give themselves away, since they travel in noisy flocks. Their distinctive “jip” calls are unlike any other vocalization you might hear in the winter in central North Carolina. Although the adult males are a bright red-orange color, the females and immature birds are more muted. They may get overlooked as one of our more common finches or sparrows. The streaky brown plumage of a female crossbill might cause confusion: They look very much like our familiar female house finches. So, be sure to look very closely at the bills of all the “little brown jobs” that show up at your feeder. And if you get lucky and spot a crossbill or two, I would love to hear about it.

Interestingly, we do have a small population of red crossbills that breed in the northwestern corner of our state. The habitat on Mount Mitchell is the equivalent of the boreal forests of Canada and northern New England. So, if you don’t happen upon any in the coming weeks, should you find yourself at elevation in the mountains this summer, you may, nonetheless, catch a glimpse of one of these unusual birds. OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at

The Pleasures of Life Dept.

Good Gravy

The hot and heavy love affair that keeps me coming back for more


By David Claude Bailey

My father said he couldn’t wait to go to heaven. He’d heard that everything there came with gravy on top of it.

I’m my father’s son, and please consider this a Valentine to the elixir of life, to mother’s milk (with a little pan juices, flour and fat thrown in), to no less than my favorite food group — gravy.

Oh good gravy, how I love thee. And I’m not alone. My idol, Dolly Parton, once admitted, “Every time I fell off a diet was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.” And the late American humorist Erma Bombeck once quipped, “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.”

(By the way, Dad, how’s chocolate ice cream topped with sawmill gravy?)

Speaking of sawmill gravy, it was my father’s favorite — and mine too, though red-eye gravy and chicken-fried milk gravy are close contenders. At any rate, on the rare occasion Dad couldn’t jet home from work for a half-hour lunch because he was covering for another employee (which he inevitably did as manager of the Belk store in Reidsville), he’d go to Miller’s Cafe, put a napkin in his lap and, presto, a plate of biscuits, carpeted with sawmill gravy would appear, along with a cup of black coffee and a bottle of Texas Pete. Maybe you think sawmill gravy with biscuits isn’t exactly a well-balanced meal, but consider this: at the base of this Southern food pyramid are the biscuits, made from wholesome Midwestern-raised grain, bleached to perfection. Your dairy requirement? Isn’t gravy loaded with milk? Protein? The sausage bits swimming around the plate. And vegetables? Isn’t that why they put sage in Southern sausage?

My wife, Anne, makes superb gravy when she will. (Why would anyone leave a frying pan on the stove in which meat has been cooked without making gravy?) Anne’s finest is the milk gravy she makes after frying venison cutlets in bacon fat. Serve it on rice and you have to be careful not to swallow your tongue. When she heard I was writing about gravy, she wrinkled her nose the way she does and said, “OK, Mr. Smarty Chef Pants, what is gravy? And what’s the difference between a gravy and a sauce?”

“Good question,” I answered, which is what people on NPR say when they’re put on the spot. I spent several months as a backline chef in a French restaurant, so I know what gravy is. Besides, I grew up eating gallons of it, made by the finest Pennsylvania-Dutch cook in the South, my mother. Her hallowed gravy boat buoyed mahogany pot-roast gravy, silky gravy made from roast chicken, potent and peppery au jus from roast beef and the milk gravy I learned how to make from watching her. She’d sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of flour and lots of pepper into her midnight-black, cast-iron skillet that was still sizzling with fat and pan drippings from frying fatback. She’d scrape up any crunchies sticking to the pan as the flour browned, then add milk slowly as she whisked the flour in and let it thicken. What could be simpler? But when does a gravy become a sauce and vice versa?

I decided to consult Monsieur Larousse, as in Larousse Gastronomique. “You must understand, my American friend, we cook sauces, not gravy.” That’s what was channeled into my mind’s ear as I read the 15 pages devoted solely to sauces in Larousse. The closest thing to gravy, my Gastronomical friend said, is a demi-glaze, aka brown sauce, which has as its base dark and classic Espagnole sauce.

“This has nothing to do with Spain,” Monsieur Larousse interjected from his massive tome. “We call it Espagnole sauce because Spaniards are dark. And because Germans are blonde, we refer to the much lighter sauce made from veal or poultry as sauce Allemande.” To make Espagnole sauce, I learned from Larousse, be prepared to boil bones, meat, carrots, onion, thyme, bay leaf and bacon for hours, draining and straining and skimming and recooking it multiple times. I remember how at Print Works Bistro I’d be tasked with pouring off the broth that had been cooking for hours in a 20-gallon steam jacket. The result was wonderful. But not gravy.

Miss Fannie, as in Miss Fannie Farmer, calls pan drippings “the simplest, purest gravy imaginable.” Amen, sister. Keep it simple. Scrape the browned bits from the pan in which the meat has been cooked, she says, along with two tablespoons of fat. Add salt, pepper and a half cup of water or broth and stir. Want a thick gravy? Make a roux as my momma did with the pan fat or thicken the mixture with flour or corn starch stirred into cold water and then added to the pan. Easy, peasy, but stir, stir, stir to prevent lumping.

But what if a cook chooses to enhance a gravy with cream, eggs, wine or spices other than salt and pepper? Surely it then becomes a sauce. Both of my daughters say that their favorite gravy is their own dad’s proprietary red-eye gravy. I fry country ham only long enough to create something to scrape. Then I add enough coffee (espresso because that’s what I drink) to deglaze the pan.  Lots of pepper, NOT salt, a dash of Worcestershire and Texas Pete, and, finally, I add, yes, Coca-Cola to sweeten it just a tad, not more than a tablespoon. Then, top it off with water until it’s the right strength. If you don’t put it on grits, you weren’t raised right.

The question is, with those fancy ingredients, is it a sauce or gravy? Miss Joy (as in Joy of Cooking), for instance, classifies “pan gravy” as just another sauce. As does the authoritative John Mariani. Gravy, he says, is “a sauce, usually flour-based, served with meat, poultry and other foods.” But I’m pretty sure that neither of them are from the South.

Confused, I finally decided to ask Noah Webster: “A sauce made from the thickened and seasoned juice of cooked meat.”

Why didn’t I look in the dictionary in the first place?

Now that you know all that, why don’t you get up early February 14, fry up some Neese’s Extra Sage Country Sausage, pop a can of refrigerator biscuits if you don’t enjoy making them from scratch, and see if your significant other doesn’t love you once, love you twice, love you better than gravy and rice.  OH

As a dinner guest, O.Henry’s Contributing Editor David Claude Bailey has been known to jump up from the table after volunteering to make gravy. And he insists no one has ever been disappointed because he did.