Bird on a Wire

Meet “the other bluebird,” the indigo bunting


By Susan Campbell

“What, what? See it, see it! Here, here!!” Where? It’s a bird: high up on a power line singing incessantly, day-after-day during the summer months. This one can only be a male indigo bunting, loudly advertising his territory. He will continue to call out his challenge to everyone and anyone who will listen. His two-syllable, repeated vocalization is unmistakable.

To some, this fella is the “other” bluebird, slimmer but blue all over. Indigo buntings are an iridescent, darker blue than the familiar Eastern bluebird. And, as with all blue birds, their feathers are actually brown. The color we see is not due to actual blue pigmentation but from specialized microscopic structures that reflect and refract in the blue wavelength.  And, as with other buntings, this bird has a strong, conical bill, capable of cracking hard-shelled seeds.  

Female indigo buntings, however, are camouflaged; equipped with dull feathers that blend in with the habitat. They appear to be mostly brown with a pale throat, a lightly streaked breast and some hints of blue on the back. During the winter, males molt into drab plumage: not unlike our goldfinches. Immature males are often blotchy blue and brown their first spring and, as a result, will not likely breed. But when they don their breeding plumage they are a sight to behold and unmistakable.

Indigo buntings are found in a variety of habitats throughout the Piedmont and Sandhills. They tend to favor forest edges. But you can also look for them in brushy fields or clearings where weedy seed plants and insects are abundant. Associated dense woody growth provides good nesting substrate. Buntings may even be lured to where they prefer small oily seeds such as thistle (nyger). However, these birds have a broad, opportunistic diet. In early spring when seeds and insects are in short supply, they turn to buds, flowers and even young leaves. Indigo buntings eat mainly insects in the summer, not only feasting on a variety of caterpillars but large, hard-bodied beetles, grasshoppers and cicadas.

It should, then, come as no surprise that this species will disappear from areas where scrubby borders have been cut and grass is regularly mowed. “Tidying up” of our subdivisions and parks displaces indigo buntings as well as other migrant songbirds that require low cover. This is one reason why it is important to maintain as much green space in native vegetation as possible in our communities.

But indigo buntings do not stick around all year — as fall approaches, these little bits of the sky will flock up and head south to Central America and the Caribbean. They will fly great distances at night, using the stars to guide them.  In fact, indigo buntings were the subjects of early migration research in the 1960s. But, come the following April, they will be back in their favorite haunts, singing their familiar song once again.  OH

Susan would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to

Stay-At-Home Improvement

Minus social dates, many folks updated their digs
during COVID-19 closures

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman



Every time one door closes during a pandemic, another door opens at a paint store.

For many homeowners, the combination of spare time, bored children and a $1,200 stimulus payout from the feds has led to a serious outbreak of home-and-garden projects.

Several of our readers took the opportunity to zhuzh their surroundings — maybe because things you can tolerate during the normal sprint of life make you go ARRRGHHH! during a lockdown.

But as these readers prove, when life gives us ARRRGHHHs, it’s possible to make them into AHHHHHs!

A Moveable Makeover

“Home is Where We Park It.”

So reads a playful decal on the refrigerator inside the Mercer family’s camper, a 2008 Trail-sport that has transported them to many beautiful places, geographically and emotionally. Deb Mercer, husband Andy, and their three kids pulled the 29-foot trailer on a tour of the United States when Andy retired from Air Force active duty in 2012.

With extra downtime this spring, Deb focused on beautifying the camper’s overwhelmingly brown interior because, as she puts it, “It was ugly when we bought it. Most campers really are.”

Guided by a blog post (“My $500 Camper Remodel That I Did All by Myself,” at, the Mercers spent two months transforming beige blah to farmhouse fresh.

Thanks to gallons of paint and yards of peel-and-stick surfaces (vinyl hardwoods, wallpaper and countertop contact paper) plus “shiplap siding” cut from lightweight floor underlayment, and new upholstery stitched from canvas drop cloths, the kitchen perks in crisp black and white. Ditto the bathroom, now gleaming with vinyl tiles and punctuated by a turquoise cabinet.

The camper no longer appears tuckered out from its travels. Neither do its travelers, who crash on new mattresses and bedding, which means the family can once again let the good times roll.

What the Deck?

You’ve heard of lake life — the kicked-back lifestyle of people who live at water’s edge?

Well, Liz and Greg Pendergrass embody deck life, the al fresco aesthetic of people who regularly walk the planks.

“We bought the house for the deck,” say Liz Pendergrass. “It’s almost the full length of the house.”

Every few years, the couple spends two weekends washing and staining the weathered boards. But COVID-19 — and its captive audience — presented another option.

When grown sons Christopher and Peter came home for little brother John’s drive-through graduation from St. Pius X Catholic School, the Pendergrasses summoned all hands on deck. Then they passed out brushes and rollers.

The weekend after John’s Thursday graduation from 8th grade, the family of five sealed the deal, working as a team to apply a new color of semi-transparent deck stain: natural cedar.

Turned out, it was orange. Really orange.

“My youngest son said, “This is like rolling on macaroni and cheese,” according to Liz, who panicked. Silently.

“It’s kind of like a woman who colors her hair a totally different color, and she looks at it and says, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’ Then a couple of days go by, and she says, ‘You know, I kind of like it.’”

Now, Liz loves her hair. Er, deck. It’s so much brighter than before, partly because she bought some cushions for the deck, and son Peter helped to arrange the potted plants differently. Liz especially loves the palms that decorated her church during the Easter season.

To be clear, and to keep Liz from going to “heck” for swiping palms, we should say that Liz works in the office at St. Pius X, and she waited until the plants went into the trash after church’s highest holiday. “That’s when I snatched them — and resurrected them,” she says.

New life for the palms.

New life for the deck.

And no one goes to heck.


Beachy Keen

The family that stays (and stays and stays) together, renovates together.

At least that’s true in the home of Annie and Mike Vorys.

“It’s how we bond,” says Annie, O.Henry’s digital content manager.

When the lockdowns snapped into place, she and Mike decided to overhaul three adjoining rooms: foyer, living room and dining room. The project became a family affair with daughter Liv, 8, and son Matt, 7, using a chop saw and nail gun (under Mike’s close supervision) to help make board-and-batten wainscoting, a new side table, two end tables and side-by-side coffee tables.

As a Mother’s Day present, Mike built a round table for the dining room. Annie’s mom scored some white grommet drapes from Goodwill. A repainted chandelier and new can lights illuminated the room’s improvements.

In the living room, Mike crafted two floor-to-ceiling bookcases with interior lighting. Annie livened all three rooms with bright blue paint, cinching the nautical feel of the project. “Our favorite place in the world is Lakeside, Ohio,” Annie says, referring to the resort community on Lake Erie. “Everything is very beachy in the house where we stay.”

Family photos and mementoes adorn the walls: a fly-fishing rod Mike’s dad made; red-and-white Boy Scout signal flags from Annie’s father; a poem penned by Annie’s late sister; and sheet music autographed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer of the hit musical Hamilton, a favorite of Annie and her mom.

From the living room ceiling hangs a mobile of ginkgo leaves by Greensboro sculptor Jay Jones, reminding Annie and Mike of their son Carpenter, who died at birth in 2012. The hospital put ginkgo leaf symbols on the doors of bereaved families as a sign of strength, peace and hope.

“We took things that reminded us of the most important people in our lives and put them up,” Annie says.


Backyard Bliss

Around Christmas, architect Steve Johnson drew up plans for several backyard projects that he and his wife, Erin, figured would take a year to complete.

Then came a pandemic, and suddenly the Johnson family was awash in time and children with no after-school plans (read: free labor).

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘Maybe it’s time to teach them how to spread mulch,’ ” says Steve, director of design and construction for Presbyterian Homes, an organization that builds and runs retirement communities.

Steve worked from home and office this spring. Arriving home mid-afternoon to relieve Erin — who was also working from home, overseeing the kids’ online schooling, and chipping away at a doctorate — Steve pulled 15-year-old Emma-Claire and 11-year-old Nolan off their Xbox, TikTok and cell phones and into the yard for a few hours of “sweat equity”.

Together, they created planting beds, tucking in flowers and shrubs plucked from local nurseries and from Erin’s parents’ yard. Steve built a beefy cedar frame for one hammock and draped another sling from frame to tree, creating a hangout duplex.

“My wife and I like to sit out there and talk in the evenings,” he says.

For the kids, he designed and built an elaborate support for a stand-on Swurfer swing. The kids lobbied for a swimming pool — motion denied — but they did score a trampoline with sprinkler attachment atop a cushy mulch pad.

The result was a private playground that the whole family can take credit for. “We’ll sit out there on the back deck, and the kids will be like, ‘You know, I remember the day we put that in,’” says Steve.  OH

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

Simply Summer

Seven local chefs serve up easy-to-prepare courses for seasonal eating

By Maria Johnson


Feeling the heat of summer? It’s a good time to head for the kitchen and KISS:

Keep It Small and Simple.

Because gatherings this time of year are likely to be modest and trips to the store less frequent, we asked local chefs to contribute summer recipes with eight or fewer ingredients. We were feeling generous, so we spotted them the salt and pepper.

Whether you’re slaking a single appetite or schlepping your family’s chow to a well-spaced picnic, these recipes are easy to assemble and can be scaled up or down. Several of our hometown pros went off-menu to create new dishes for O.Henry readers, so don’t be surprised if these courses taste as good as something you’d get in a restaurant — and remember the chefs’ generosity in these customer-starved times.



Pasta Perfect


Cindy Essa, noodler-in-chief at Pastabilities, collaborated with

Chef Jason Dingman (picture right), a 20-year veteran of the restaurant, to come up with this light and refreshing orzo salad. It’s a knockout with fresh basil and tomatoes, but dried basil and sun-dried tomatoes work just fine. This versatile salad may be served as a meal — add chicken, fish, shrimp or any protein and spoon over your favorite greens — or as a side dish or light lunch.

Mediterranean Orzo Salad

Servings: meal for two or side dish for four.

1 3/4 cups uncooked orzo pasta, prepped according to directions and cooled

3/4 cup finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (or 1 1/2 cups diced fresh tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes)

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup finely-diced red onion

1/4 cup toasted pine nuts

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil (or 2 teaspoons dried basil)

1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Gently combine all the above ingredients in a medium size bowl and chill for two hours.



Salad Days

The Well Cafe and Juice Bar

Jessika Olsen (below, left) of The Well Cafe and Juice Bar in downtown Greensboro incorporated some pantry staples with fresh leafy greens and green beans to create this filling salad. She added a sweet, tart, earthy dressing to create a symphony of summerflavors. She and cafe co-owner Veronika Olsen (below, right), her identical twin sister, give four-thumbs-up to this salad. They recommend serving it with a fresh baguette slathered in the cafe’s roasted red pepper Romesco sauce.




Fresh Spring Salad

Servings: 2

14 ounces marinated artichoke hearts. Drained and quartered.

Mixed spring lettuce (or arugula, Jessika’s favorite)

About a cup of green beans, trimmed and blanched

1 can cannellini beans, drained 



1/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice 

2 teaspoons whole grain mustard

2 teaspoons maple syrup (or honey)

To make the dressing, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, mustard and maple syrup. Layer the lettuce, green beans and artichokes on serving plates. Spoon over the cannellini beans. Drizzle dressing on top of salad and serve. 

Instead of blanching the green beans, you could sear them with reserved oil from artichoke hearts, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon.


Soup’s On!

Reto’s Kitchen

Caterer Reto Biaggi, who operates Reto’s Kitchen, jumped at the chance to make a simple summer soup. This tomato-based recipe is made in a standard size kitchen blender, which warms the soup so you don’t have to use your stove. A touch of tarragon gives away Reto’s upbringing in France, where the seasonal duo are often paired. A whirred slice of bread thickens and adds creaminess to the soup. Reto says that fresh tarragon is better, but dried will work, too. Likewise, fresh tomatoes at the height of the season are wonderful, but a can of peeled whole tomatoes will suffice.


Tarragon Tomato Soup

Servings: 2     

1/4 cup  extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic

1/2  cup onion, roughly chopped

1 1/2 teaspoon tarragon, preferably fresh

1/2  teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 slice white bread, crusts removed, torn into rough 1/2-inch pieces

1 can peeled whole tomatoes packed in juice (28-ounce) or 3 large fresh tomatoes

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Combine olive oil, garlic, onion, tarragon, red pepper flakes, bread, tomatoes with their juice, and water in the jar of a high-powered blender.

Turn blender onto low speed and slowly increase speed to maximum.

Blend 4–6 minutes, until soup is warm and smooth.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Blend.


Bottom’s Up!


When we asked Nino Giaimo — the proprietor of GIA: Drink. Eat. Listen. — if he could gin up a cocktail for us, he turned to his beverage director Dan Lis (right), who designed a drink for Nino’s father, Sal, co-owner of the GIA Distillery in the town of Madison, north of Greensboro. The drink is based on the distillery’s aged FJW Solera Style American whiskey, which is available in local ABC stores. Dan reports that Sal takes his drinks straight up, so this one is served with no ice, gently stirred. The smoky whiskey balances the blanc vermouth. The gin adds a subtle spice, and the drink is rounded by house-made coffee-and-cocoa bitters. Readers can substitute coffee-and-cocoa bitters made by the Crude brand. Lemon peel lends a touch of brightness. 




Sal’s Choice

Servings: 1

1 1/2 ounce FJW Solera Style aged American whiskey 

3/4 ounce Dolin blanc vermouth

1/2 ounce Ransom Old Tom gin 

2 dashes house-made coffee-and-cocoa bitters 

Combine, stir and garnish with a lemon peel.


Burger Bliss

Big Burger Spot

Fine dining veteran Jesse Mitchell has been showing his chops ever since he signed on with Greensboro-based Big Burger Spot in 2013. Mitchell, who worked at Green Valley Grill for eight years, is behind the restaurant’s popular slow braised short rib sandwich and the pot roast cheddar melt. BBS owner Guy Bradley challenged Mitchell to create a burger with an entirely different flavor profile for O.Henry readers, and Mitchell delivered this gem.


Le Fromage Burger

Servings: 1

8 ounces fresh ground chuck

3 strips thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, fried

2 ounces Boursin brand garlic-and-herb cheese

2 ounces onion jam

1 ounce mixed greens

Salt and pepper

Brioche bun

Form ground chuck into 5-inch diameter patty. Salt and pepper both sides. Cook over high heat on grill or skillet until desired temperature is achieved. Medium is recommended.

For onion jam, julienne one whole red onion and place in sauce pan. Add 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to boil ten minutes, then reduce heat and simmer for an hour.

Butter brioche bun and toast in skillet. Remove toasted bun and spread Boursin cheese on bottom bun. Place grilled burger on top of cheese, then add bacon and mixed greens. Spread onion jam on top bun and complete the burger.


Smoothie Sailing

Manny’s Universal Cafe

The smoothie menu at Manny’s Universal Cafe, in the heart of downtown Greensboro’s South End, is extensive and creative, ripe with selections such as Mango Mashup, Pomegranate Punch and Goji Power. But owner Manny Polanco and his mother Margarita Delgado, the maker of menu magic, still wanted to create a new drink for the pages of O.Henry. A few pulses later, Kiwi WE Strong was born. “We like it because it has vitamins, protein and antioxidants — perfect to help us stay ready and strong to get through these times of adjustments. We have to stay healthy,” says Manny. If that doesn’t make you want to quaff a kiwi, nothing will.


Kiwi WE Strong

Servings: 1

2 hands-full fresh spinach

2 fresh kale leaves

1 gala or Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored

2 kiwis, peeled

1/2 frozen, peeled banana

2 tablespoons peanut butter, thinned with 1 tablespoon water 

1 teaspoon lemon

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

1 cup of ice

In a standard kitchen blender add spinach and kale first, then other ingredients. Start blender at medium speed, finish at high speed. You’re done when your smoothie is . . . smooth.


Keep Pounding!

Pound by Legacy Cakes

If you’re looking for a cheap hit of aromatherapy, walk into the bakery called Pound by Legacy Cakes for a whiff of happiness. Visual yays won’t be far behind, as you take in more than a dozen glazed and frosted pound cakes that are baked daily in a riot of colors and flavors: caramel, strawberry, chocolate, pineapple, apple-walnut and the ever-popular banana split. Founded by Pleasant Garden native Margaret Elaine Gladney, the bakery — which opened last year in an inconspicuous space on Spring Garden Street near Holden Road — is a sweet memorial to Elaine’s late mother and master baker Margaret Shoffner Gladney. The family offers this recipe for their vanilla pound cake, a customer favorite that’s “simple, delicious and one of the best comfort foods,” according to Margaret, who runs the bakery with help from sons Brandon and Anthony Tankard.


Glazed Vanilla Bundt Cake

16 tablespoons (two sticks) unsalted butter

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

4 eggs

3 cups all purpose flour

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

Mix the butter and sugar together then add salt and the baking powder. Add the eggs next, mixing them in one at a time. Add flour and milk alternately. Once this mixture is thoroughly blended, add vanilla extract and beat until batter is smooth. Grease a 10-inch bundt baking pan and pour in batter. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately one hour. You can use a toothpick or small knife to check to see if the cake is done. Once baked, flip the cake onto cooling rack and let cool before glazing.

Glaze Ingredients:

2 tablespoons milk or water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar)

Add ingredients into a small bowl and hand stir until consistency is creamy or at desired thickness. Pour over cake.

Simple Life

The Stolen Flower Child

Love, loss and living things


By Jim Dodson

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a clear spring morning in my tiny corner of the planet, I was out early planting a fig tree in the side garden — my primary hideout even before a killer virus came to town — when I witnessed an enchanting scene of discovery.

An elegant gray-haired woman and a toddler on wobbly legs came slowly down the street hand in hand. The woman was about my age. I guessed the little dude might be her grandson. 

They paused at the edge of my garden. The woman pointed to a birdbath and a pair of busy bird feeders hanging over flowering shrub roses. Several finches were at the feeder and two cardinals were taking morning dips in the birdbath. Bees were circulating through blooming sage. Spring was alive and buzzing.

The little dude dropped the woman’s hand and wobbled straight into the garden for a closer look at the action.

The woman followed close behind, keeping a maternal hand ready to catch him if he fell. The birds didn’t appear the slightest bit perturbed by the pair’s intrusion, and neither was the gardener — for what good is a garden if living creatures don’t pay a visit, be it birds, bees or boys?

Indeed, at one point, the little guy tripped and tumbled over. He didn’t cry, however. He pushed himself back to his feet and giggled, holding out a fistful of my good garden dirt to share with his companion.

She made a delighted show of accepting his special Earth Day gift. Together they examined something in the palm of her hand, perhaps a big wiggly earthworm. My garden is full of them.

How wise she was to encourage this new citizen of the Earth to get dirty in a garden. Once upon a time, when people lived much closer to the soil, Nature was regarded as an essential teacher of the young, a maternal presence used in the service of myths, legends and fairy tales to convey important lessons about survival in a wild and unforgiving world. Perhaps the handsome older woman knew this. Perhaps, given the enchantment of the moment, she actually was Little Dude’s fairy grandmother.

In any case, as I watched this tender scene unfold, leaning on a shovel in my side yard, two thoughts came to mind.

One was a line from a poem that I had commited to memory decades ago, “The Stolen Child” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

The other was a powerful flashback to the enchanted young woman who introduced me to this poem and changed my life, 50 years ago to the day.

*   *   *

Her name was Kristin.

We grew up attending the same church and sang together in the youth choir, but she never really looked my way because she was a year older and several lifetimes wiser, a beautiful cheerleader who became a wise and spirited flower child.

During the autumn of my junior year in high school, however, she turned to me after choir practice and wondered if I might give her a ride home. On the way home, she informed me that she’d ditched her college boyfriend and wondered, with a teasing laugh, if we should begin dating. I had a new Chevy Camaro from money I saved up from mowing lawns and teaching guitar. I thought she just liked my car.

What she saw in me at that moment is still hard to say. I was such a straight arrow kid, an Eagle Scout who grew up camping and fishing and was more at home in the woods than the city. Once upon a time, I’d even briefly been a member of the local chapter of Young Republicans and shaken Richard Nixon’s hand, though I didn’t dare let this out until our second or third date.

“That’s OK,” she said with a laugh, “I think the universe sent me to wake you up and save you from the Republicans.” 

Perhaps it was our shared passion for the outdoors that created such a powerful bond. She loved to hunt for wildflowers and visit public gardens where she could sit and read poetry or study her lines for a play. She even walked golf courses with me doing the same. Yeats and Walt Whitman were her favorite poets. Because of her, I fancied Yeats and Whitman too.

I was 17 on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, though I cannot tell you much about the rally we attended in a public park after school that Wednesday. There was a good crowd, lots of posters and energy, a bevy of passionate speakers warning about the dangers of air and water pollution to future generations. Someone had hauled a rusted heap to the rally site, as I recall, and protesters took turns gleefully bashing the gas-guzzler with a sledgehammer — or maybe this was a subsequent protest we attended together. In any case, I was grateful we’d parked my almost-new Camaro well away from the scene.

I recently learned from the website that the first Earth Day protest “inspired 20 million Americans” — at the time, 10 percent of the total population of the United States — to take to the streets, parks and auditoriums “to demonstrate against the impacts of 150 years of industrial development that had left a growing legacy of serious human health impacts.”

The site goes on to note that the first Earth Day led to some significant steps by year’s end: the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of other environmental firsts including the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Clean Air Act. Ironically, Richard Nixon signed these pieces of legislation into law. He deserved a handshake for this.

“Two years later,” the website adds, “Congress passed the Clean Water Act, followed by the Endangered Species Act — laws that protected millions of men, women and children from disease and death as well as hundreds of species from extinction.”

In 1990, 200 million people in 141 countries mobilized to make recycling and alternative energy sources primary objectives of Earth Day activism. “Today,” the site concludes, “Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior.” And create a sustainable planet. For me, the best part of that first local rally was when Kristin read Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” a poem that appeared in his first poetry collection in 1889. The theme plays off loss of childlike innocence against the unmentioned backdrop of a world being turned upside down by the social upheavals of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Yeats grew up in beautiful County Sligo where folklore and legends of fairies stealing children were commonplace, a subject that deeply interested the poet for much of his career.

In the end, the innocent child is lured away from the familiar comforts of home to a world far removed from the one he knows and loves — stolen away, in the end, to a place that is both wild but also faintly sinister.

On some level, the message is an allegorical plea not to abandon the beauty and challenges of real world, seduced by an illusionary longing to leave troubles behind. Over the year and a half we were together, Kristin opened my eyes about so many things in this world — poetry, art, music, the power of an open mind and the spiritual connectedness of every living creature.

Whenever we debated politics — I was still something of a half-hearted Republican — she joked that she might end up becoming my Maud Gonne, the  23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist Yeats met in 1889 and proposed to — without success — at least three times. She became the poet’s unrequited love and lifelong haunting. In a way, Kristin became mine — or at least my Stolen Flower Child.

We agreed to part when she went off to college in the mountains. The separation was my suggestion. I had a cool Camaro and a silly notion that I needed “space” to date around “before I settled down.” The decision was one I soon came to regret.

Two years later, we got back together. For three October weekends in a row, I drove six hours across the state to reconnect with my first love. She was soon to graduate with degrees in social work and drama, and was being considered for an understudy role in London. I was trying to decide between becoming an English teacher or a journalist. She helped convince me that writing was my proper path.

On Sunday night, October 25, 1973, we parted having made a plan to go to England together someday soon and see what life would yield. Kristin went to the steak house where she worked as weekend hostess and I drove six hours back to school. Later that evening, three young teenagers entered the restaurant to rob patrons, held a gun to the head of the hostess and pulled the trigger.

*   *   *

As I watched the wise fairy grandmother and Little Dude resume their walk down the block, hand in dirty hand, I went back to planting my young fig tree, marveling how quickly half a century had passed. I also wondered, on this important day in the life of the planet, what sort of world Little Dude would soon inherit.

Ironically, just days before, a gutted Environmental Protection Agency removed the last regulations on air and water pollution in America, part of a systematic dismantling of the sweeping gains in environmental protection that had taken place over half a century, at a time when the vast majority of scientists warn the Earth is facing perilous consequences due to climate inaction. Among other things, the coronavirus pandemic has been traced to human encroachment into formerly wild places where Ebola, SARS and other killer viruses were born. Experts also warn that the world’s population of insects — the basis of our own food chain — is nearly half what it was the year of the first Earth Day.

As for me, it took almost two decades to speak of my own personal tragedy. A final golf trip with my father to England and Scotland when he was dying allowed me to finally open up about that dark October. It proved to be my second great awakening.

Today, I understand that the world is indeed full of sorrows, but thanks to the gifts my stolen flower child gave me, I understand that the power of love is the real magic of life on this planet, not to mention the importance of keeping an open mind while celebrating the spiritual connectedness of every living creature.

I sometimes feel her presence — keeping an eye on my progress, I suspect — especially when I’m in the garden.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

Short Stories

***Given the unusual circumstances currently facing all events and their organizations, anyone planning to attend any program, gathering or competition should check in advance to make certain it will happen as scheduled.

Tiny Trees

Since its gift shop reopened in May, we’d like to think Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden (215 South Main Street, Kernersville) is going forward with regularly scheduled lectures and programs. As of this writing, its discussion, “Bonsai for Fun,” is still on the books for June 11 at 6 p.m. PJCBG’s garden manager Josh Williams will present the ins and outs of cultivating, caring for and training the petite plants, and will answer any questions you may have. Have a bonny bonsai of your own? Bring it in! To register: (336) 996-7888 or

Picture This

A show and sale of work by the late Greensboro streetscape artist Maggie Fickett is ongoing, online, at, the website of Center for Visual Artists. For more info on the show, Maggie Fickett: Living in Plein Air, go to and scroll down to the department called “High Browsing.” While you’re at it, sign up for The Sazerac, an email newsletter that’ll land in your inbox every Friday at 5:30 p.m. and help you kick off the weekend with a smile.

Long Ago and Farro-way

If you’ve been dreaming of the Green Valley Grill’s blue crab-and-spinach dip, flatbreads, and one of our faves, the salmon and farro salad for the last couple of months, dream no more! Wipe the drool from your chin, go online to the restaurant’s website, place a to-go order for lunch or dinner, and pick it up in the parking lot (622 Green Valley Road).  It’s a big deal, because unlike many Gate City eateries, GVG is employee-owned and therefore shuttered its doors for the duration of the corona calamity. But starting Mother’s Day with a selection of family-sized meals, it cranked up again, implementing a drive-through system with military precision. And who knows? By the time you read this, the popular hangout may have reinstituted on-site dining. Either way — and especially if you go for the salmon — it’s a fin-fin situation. Info:

Market Mania

Though many places came to a screeching halt in the last couple of months, the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market (2914 Sandy Ridge Road, Colfax) has soldiered on. As summer approaches, it’s gathering steam starting June 6, when it hosts “Ask a Master Gardener,” featuring a representative from the Guilford County Cooperative Extension who will be on hand to offer advice about growing stuff. June 13 sees “Touch a Truck,” encouraging kids to explore construction equipment — sanitized, we hope — such as fire trucks, dump trucks, cranes and just about anything with an engine and big wheels. On June 19, a case of the blues has never been so welcome, as the Market presents Blueberry Day. (Do we see a cobbler in your future?) Winding up the month on the June 20, you can again get the, er, dirt from a Master Gardener but the main attraction is the Market’s annual Crawfish Boil. Come early for your 5-pound stash of either live crawdaddies or if you prefer, cooked up with Cajun spices. It’s summer y’all! Let the sunshine in and laissez les bons temps rouler! Info:

A Visual Feast

Area artists serve up a smorgasbord of food-inspired works


We eat with our eyes, the old maxim goes. For visual artists, truer words were never spoken. And what better muse for the visual imagination than the myriad shapes, colors and textures of fruits and vegetables: the jagged stripes on a melon’s rind, the pinwheel sections of an orange’s pulp, yellow corn kernels neatly aligned on an oblong cob, and a perennial favorite among artists, the curves of a pear sheathed in a smooth green — or sometimes rosy —  skin? A still life of a set table can suggest familial harmony or discord, silent gratitude or the moment that a romantic spark ignites between two souls. A Falstaffian feast laden with game and fowl tells a story of prosperity, conviviality — or gluttony. The proverbial sweat on a wine bottle, the steam rising from a cup of coffee create quiet reflective moods. The red-and-white swirl on a candy cane, the wavy crimps of a pie crust elicit warm childhood memories, while the larger-than-life label of a tomato soup can raises questions about consumption. We invited several artists — many of them familiar to readers of the magazine — to submit works celebrating food. For, after all, to celebrate food is to celebrate life. And life, as you’ll see on pages that follow, is a banquet. Bon appétit!  — Nancy Oakley



Chip Holton, untitled mural, Green Valley Grill


Agnes Preston-Brame, Bosc and Anjou, 14.5 x 15 inches, charcoal on paper


Alexis Lavine, Good Fortune, transparent watercolor on cold pressed paper, 15 x 11 inches


Rachel Campbell, Still Life with Bread and Confectionary After Flegel, oil on canvas 30 x 24 inches


William Mangum, Ham’s, oil


Bethany Pierce, Cherries Macabre, 16 x 20 inches


Richard Fennell, Still Life, 2008, oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches


Rachel Rees, Untitled, oil on canvas, 8 x 9 inches


Scott Raynor, Study in Teals and Green, oil on paper


Bethany Pierce, Happy!, 2011, oil on panel, 24 x 36 inches

The Stuff that Dreams are Made Of

Fantasy houses near and far

By Cynthia Adams

Illustration by Harry Blair


When I asked a wise and close friend who had just bought a townhouse whether she’s found her dream house, she replied:  “Ha ha. My dream home fantasy comes with a secretary, or is self-vacuuming.”

My own fantasy property is old enough to have weathered several epidemics, including the cholera outbreak in the 1830s. Its location is somewhere warm, where languid breezes lift the curtains at the French-style windows that open from the floor to nearly the top of the 16-foot ceilings. I picture it in the Garden District of New Orleans, home to some of the best Southern writers who have ever drawn breath. (With enough ruin, moral decay, absinthe and jazz to inspire volumes.)

Limestone bearing the dint of age would extend from the foyer throughout the first floor, a light-flooded expanse thanks to an oculus at the top floor. The generous staircase would also feature limestone; worn by the generations of feet who have traveled it.

This dreamscape has grounds to roam, reflect.

A classic colonial home in an upscale urban neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even a house landlocked on a city square like the Harper Fowlkes House in Savannah would do — the gardens are dense with plantings, and its stature elevates it above the fray. Sweet Savannah, with the largest historic district in the United States and Lowcountry cooking — and more than its share of turpitude, as revealed by John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

House-lover Jackie O. visited nearby Mercer House when Jim Williams, the central figure in Berendt’s book, lived there. Williams was a huge preservationist and died in his downstairs library. Ironically, no Mercer ever lived there, but Williams saved it from ruin.

In the blue hour of a Savannah evening, high above the Bonaventure cemetery, a dove cries as I pour myself another.

As with any great fantasy, the grounds and setting are vital, recalling Jefferson’s Monticello or Vanderbilt’s Biltmore. Much of the dream builds on itself: tightly clipped boxwood hedges are involved; also, a pea gravel front courtyard. And burbling fountains, olive trees in ancient pots, and Floribunda roses. 

A reflecting pool lies at the end of a wending, mossy rill. The rill leads the eye from the stone terrace, which is beyond a generous pergola. 

Preferably, all flowers are white, much like the ones writer Vita Sackville-West preferred. Moonflowers open in the twilight.

But meantime, my reality is not that vision no matter how much I squint my eyes. 

Dream projects never completed and dream houses haunt us. My father’s dream house, his home place, burned down before its restoration was finished. 

Even for some who’ve built their fantasy home, the dream lives in perpetuity. Take retired anthropologist Tom Fitzgerald, who built an architect-designed house with an inner courtyard in Sunset Hills. 

“This home about captures the fantasy,” he says. But he’s not hesitant to add a dream setting: “I would also have liked to be in a warmer climate and have a house facing the sea or a body of water, but like this house — open, airy, tall ceilings, small yard to look after.”

Like Fitzgerald, Sharon James, who lives in Stoney Creek, is a house-lover and collector. James built a dream home when she lived in Chargin Falls, Ohio.

From her home and garden in Whitsett, she’s quick to describe her imaginary abode in minute detail:

“A beautiful early 19th-century Greek Revival, all white with columns and furnished perfectly of the period! Fourteen-foot high ceilings, heart-pine floors, beautiful windows that raise from the bottom. Wonderful crown moldings and door surrounds and gorgeous staircase to second and third floors,” James writes.

As for the grounds? “Surrounded by beautiful lawns and French parterre. Large veranda front and back. How is that for starters?”

Those of us who literally dream of houses, and by the way, I am one, thank you very much Sigmund Freud, hunger to glimpse how the other half lives.

News junkies took advantage of a virtual oculus (Latin for “eye”) opened by Covid-dictated broadcasting from celebrities’ homes. 

Twitter’s Room Rater, developed by a bored Washingtonian who felt we needed a little laughter during quarantine, had over 200,000 followers at last count. Feeding a public obsession with fame — not to mention the human tendency toward voyeurism — the site ruthlessly rates celebrity spaces. Art, bookcases, light placement, even wall color determine a score on a scale of one to 10. As the site’s viewership soared, celebs began to take notice and took measures — often in vain — to up their scores. 

Not unlike the novice Zoomer who inadvertently revealed her most private of privates when she carried her laptop along to the powder room, many A-listers demonstrated they were not quite ready for prime time.

We Zoomers-and-doomer preppers, cats and kittens living in TV Land, discovered even our idols who hold a lofty position on a pedestal may or may not inhabit a dream house. 

News celebs had to strike a balance in their choices of settings: professional without being too aloof. Attractive without looking too personal. Or just less messy and distracting. 

Anderson Cooper fueled viewers’ home fantasies when he briefly broadcasted from what looked like his den/study. Design bloggers were in seventh heaven, commenting on the malachite wallpaper (or was it faux painting?) and the gold bound tomes on his bookshelves. CBS anchor Gayle King moved around her Manhattan apartment, plunking down at her ritzy dining room table, using real wallpaper — not virtual! — as her backdrop. The dining room’s beautiful yellow paper (Harlem Toile de Jouy) blew up the blogosphere.  Sheila Bridges, the wallpaper designer, was thrilled when excited clients phoned, identifying the pattern. It continued to make ongoing guest appearances as King cycled through settings.

Other broadcasters, like CNN’s Chris Cuomo, reported from the all-white and neutral basement of his Long Island home while in a fever dream state induced by COVID-19. The space was spotless — but more lab than fab. It lent a devastating veritas as Cuomo’s illness progressed. But it might as well have been a set from a sci-fi flick. We learned from these makeshift home setups how these people actually live. Without stylists, lighting experts and  makeup artists, they’re just schmoes in their basements! And like Cuomo’s, uninspired basements at that.

Talk about unfulfilled home fantasies!

Over years, I’ve kept a file of clippings of houses I considered ideal. To review it is to travel back to a time when I thought living in a great English pile and swanning around in a Laura Ashley number was the peak of chic. (I still own a pink Laura Ashley jumpsuit, by the way.)

Time was, when I would have given a kidney to meet Mario Buatta, the Prince of Chintz. Fans of Bravo’s Southern Charm and Charleston, South Carolina, maven Patricia Altschul know she was a devoted Buatta client. 

He died in 2018. But chintz, dear readers, lives on.

Dreams, when realized, not so much. When I was younger, and going through a primitive furniture phase, I dreamed of owning a true saltbox — having taken too many trips to New England, Williamsburg and Old Salem. 

Tragically, I got my wish, building a version of a saltbox in a brand-new development.

The outcome was rusticated, homespun madness, with interiors so dark they probably contributed to my need for counseling. The house sat on a cul-de-sac nicknamed Knot’s Landing after the 1980s melodrama, as one by one couples divorced and decamped.

My rustic dream home on Knot’s Landing wore rough-hewn barn siding with actual knots in the “great room” and wide pine floors throughout the downstairs. The end effect was more of a Great Gloom.

Coveting the dinged or dull pewter pieces of yesteryear I decorated with salt glaze pottery, rag rugs and quilts — except for the crazy quilts I inherited, which were too colorful. Distressed furniture, either real or reproduced, was my jam. It was a time when people actually beat floors and furniture with chains in order to achieve a weathered appearance. 

I owed much to Ethan Allen for inspiration and Country Living magazine whose interiors I memorized. New England’s Country Curtains provided the tab style curtains that I hung onto wooden rods, successfully blotting out the little light from the house’s very narrow windows.

The result was unique in a way that had made my younger self proud. In retrospect, my tastes evoked Ethan Frome more than Ethan Allen.

Sedgefield Realtor Pickett Stafford called me to candidly discuss the light-starved house after a showing when my marriage collapsed. “Were you depressed there?” she asked diplomatically, knowing it was a rhetorical question.

Once the faux saltbox was sold, I escaped cul-de-sac purgatory, got contact lenses and realized I hadn’t been able to see very well for about five years.

Designer Todd Nabors’ fantasies focus on a weekend/vacation retreat: “A vintage mountain cottage covered in chestnut bark at Linville.” Although the coast would also do as Nabors’ dream setting, specifically “one of the original shingled houses from the 1920s near the Carolina Yacht Club on Wrightsville Beach. I have the decoration for each all worked out in my mind’s eye!” And the designer also entertains fantasies about European villas.

Then there is the ultimate fantasist: Furlow Gatewood, who lives the dream on a small compound. You may be in the Furlow fan club if you too own a copy of One Man’s Folly: The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood, the book that fueled my own fandom.

Gatewood is known mostly among preservationists like Pratt Cassity, who visited the designer in his home base of Americus, Georgia and praised Gatewood’s genius for a sense of place. “The middle Georgia landscape is one that is rewritten by the order of row crops, orchards, and engineered grids of small towns. Settled quietly in one of these ordered yet oddly natural landscapes is a collection of handsome architecture,” Cassity writes from splendid isolation in his own historic home in Athens, Georgia.

“The Gatewood residences,” he continues, “are each perfectly balanced but work as a whole much better. They support the total design of this little bit of evolved landscape. The interior design is the creamy and sweet surprise inside. Everywhere you look you see very familiar objects, art, views, plants and buildings but somehow you’ve never seen them this way before.”

For Gatewood has moved not one, not two, but four formerly ruined homes to his 14-acre property and restored them. To perfection. I first read about them 13 years ago in a piece by Julia Reed for Veranda magazine and was instantly mesmerized. Because Gatewood is quite literally living out his dream. He has my heart.

He resides in “the Barn,” which is anything but, and once a carriage house. The “Peacock House” featuring bewitching French doors and columns were chief among the reasons he simply had to have it.

The “Cuthbert House” was trucked 65 miles to Gatewood’s compound in order to rescue the beauty from a wrecking ball. This mid–19th-century Gothic house had to be sawed in half in order to transport it. 

Where others saw a ruin worth trashing, Gatewood saw the faux stone exterior and beauty in its vernacular design, the 16-foot ceilings and moldings. 

He sponsored trucking the “Lumpkin House” a mere 40 miles to save it, as well.  Again, Gatewood explains it had doors he could not resist. Also irresistible to him were the original transom windows.

One should approach Gatewood’s compound driving a British Racing Green MG with the top down, a gentle summer breeze stirring, to best appreciate the potted blue hydrangeas lining the drive, their mop heads bowing in gentle greeting. 

Peacocks stroll through the property, the namesakes of said Peacock House. 

But even for someone like Gatewood, reality intrudes on the platonic ideal of home. Where he falls down: the kitchen.

The one kitchen photographed for the book is nondescript. An afterthought. Ditto for baths. 

Having cooked considerably more in the past few months, I renew my wish for a proper AGA stove. Also, limestone flooring in the kitchen, which would not have fixed cabinetry but be outfitted like a room in the manner of the best European kitchens. A wonderful French table, bearing the scars of years of use would stand in for an island. Limed walls, perfectly aged would show patina, as would an enormous fireplace. Casement windows and French doors open to the rear garden. An antique greenhouse, painted deep green, does double-duty as entertaining space.

White cozy tropical bedroom interior in attic, Scandi-Boho style, 3d render

Despite an initial cleaning, fluffing, and rearranging spate, during the shelter-at-home mandate, there were days when I strongly considered some kindling and a match. The downstairs bath’s ceiling plaster has begun a curious blooming; the gray tile walls need to go. My laboriously painted stripes above said tile now bore me stupid. 

Demolition is my current obsession. The thing most needing demolishing taunts me:  our termite-riddled 94-year-old garage. 

Just imagine it transformed into a gabled board and batten carriage house featuring a Dutch door and ribbed metal roof! Envision the interior with a mini kitchen and sitting room, brick flooring, and beadboard paneled walls! White-washed beams and salvaged architectural flourishes. An outdoor shower would allow for splashing off after tending an idyllic white cottage garden. 

There would be an outdoor fireplace and wisteria-heavy pergola for entertaining. 

Wait — make that exterior stone, with a moss garden, and a low wall perhaps? 

Can’t you just see it?  OH

Contributing Editor Cynthia Adams admires house-mad Edith Wharton, who wrote to “decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”  

The Omnivorous Reader

An Honest Day’s Storytelling

Finding truth in Lee Smith’s fiction and nonfiction


By D.G. Martin

Some North Carolina writers say that it is easier for them to tell the truth in fiction than it is in nonfiction. In nonfiction, the facts can bind up authors so tight that it is hard for them to deliver the truth.

The two most recent books by North Carolina’s beloved novelist Lee Smith give us a chance to compare her “truth-telling” strengths in her fiction versus her nonfiction writing. Her most recent book, Blue Marlin, which came out in April, is fiction, while her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, was published in 2016.

The main character and narrator of Smith’s Blue Marlin is a young teenage girl dealing with growing up, religion, boys and the troubled mental health and marital problems of her parents. Much of Dimestore, Smith’s only nonfiction book, deals with the same topics in the context of the real life experiences of Smith and her parents. 

Blue Marlin is short, about 120 pages, each filled with Smith’s warm and sympathetic storytelling gifts and characters who reach out and remind us of people we knew growing up. 

In the book, the Lee Smith-like character, Jenny, age 13, discovered her beloved small-town lawyer dad was having an affair. Soon everybody in town knew. Her dad moved out of their home. Her depressed mom sought treatment at a hospital in Asheville. After a time, her parents decided to try to put their marriage back together on a trip to Key West, Florida, with Jenny.

Riding to Key West in the back seat of her dad’s new Cadillac, Jenny began a list of good deeds she would do on each day of their trip, “which ought to be enough,” she thought, “to bring even Mama and Daddy back together.” But, will the time in Key West do the job?

Their motel, the Blue Marlin, was a positive, not just because of its swimming pool and waterslide. The motel was occupied by a movie crew, including actor Tony Curtis. Jenny and her mom were big movie fans and read the fan magazines together. They “squealed together” over Curtis. Things were off to a good start.

Jenny settled into Key West. She walked the streets, visited the sites, made friends with the locals, and did her good deeds every day. But she’s not sure her good deeds are working. “My parents were endlessly cordial to each other now, but so far they had never slept in the same bed. I knew this for a fact. I checked their room every morning.”

To find out whether Tony Curtis’ help and Jenny’s good deeds could bring about real marital reconciliation, you will have to read the book, but Smith leaves clues in the afterword.

Following a real family trip to Key West to help her real parents’ troubled marriage, Smith writes that the Key West cure worked. “Mama and Daddy would go home refreshed, and stay married for the rest of their lives.” She writes that of all the stories she has ever written, “this one is dearest to me, capturing the essence of my own childhood — the kind of unruly, spoiled only child I was; the sweetness of my troubled parents, and the magic essence of Key West, ever since January 1959, when these events actually occurred.” Smith cautions her readers that not all the events in her book happened, describing it as “autobiographical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction.” 

She explains, “I can tell the truth better in fiction than nonfiction.”

A few years ago when I read Dimestore, I thought her memoir’s real stories were, in some respects, even better than the wonderful ones she had told in her novels and short stories. 

Her descriptions of the real characters in her life were, like her fictional characters, compelling. Dimestore opened the door for her many fans to know her as well or better than her good friends do. 

It gave clues about how growing up in a small Appalachian coal mining town and spending most of her life working, writing and raising a family here in North Carolina have influenced her writing.

We learned that her seemingly idyllic childhood, with devoted parents, surrounded by loving members of an extended family, was also full of challenges.

In a chapter titled “Kindly Nervous,” Smith described the “immense anguish” her beloved father felt during his bouts of bipolar mania. 

But for Smith there was a bright side to her father’s condition, which he described as “kindly nervous.” When her father could not sleep, he would work all night at the dimestore he owned in downtown Grundy, Virginia. Smith often accompanied him to the store and slept on a pallet under his desk. In the morning, he took her to breakfast. “How I loved those breakfasts! I got to have my scrambled eggs and my own big white china cup of sweet, milky coffee alongside early-morning truckers and the miners who’d just worked the graveyard shift, their eyes rimmed with coal dust like raccoons.”

Her mother suffered, too, and was frequently hospitalized for depression and anxiety.

But, again, Smith emphasizes the bright side. “This is my story, then,” she writes, “but it is not a sob story. Whenever either of my parents was gone, everybody — our relatives, neighbors, and friends — pitched in to help take care of me, bringing food over, driving me to Girl Scouts or school clubs or whatever else came up.”

One time, both parents were hospitalized, her mother in Charlottesville. Her mother’s doctor invited the 13-year-old Lee to have lunch with him. “Our luncheon,” she writes, “remains one of the most memorable occasions of my youth.”

After a long formal lunch with lots of conversation about Smith’s love of literature, the doctor asked her if, because both parents were ill, she was worried about getting sick herself.

Smith replied, “You mean, if I am going to go crazy, too.”

When the doctor said, “yes,” Smith thought, “How did he know? Because that was exactly what I thought about, of course, all the time.”

The kindhearted doctor assured her that he was a good doctor and she seemed to be “a very nice, normal girl, and I am here to tell you that you can stop worrying about this right now. You will be fine.”

She was fine, and explains how such events can be blessings for an author.

“This is an enviable life, to live in the terrain of one’s heart,” she writes. “Most writers don’t — can’t — do this. Most of us are always searching, through our work and in our lives: for meaning, for love, for home. Writing is about these things. And as writers, we cannot choose our truest material. But sometimes we are lucky enough to find it.”

Is Smith’s “truest material” in her fiction or her memoir? I am not sure I know the answer. But one thing is certain, whenever she puts pencil to paper, the result is going to be moving, and honest.  OH

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. and other times. To view prior programs:

Life’s Funny

A Dirty Little Secret

Navigating the plant-emic


By Maria Johnson

It started as a joke. Sort of.

Faced with lots of time together this past spring, my husband and I decided to build a victory garden, a nod to the vegetable gardens that Americans planted to boost self-sufficiency and free up food supply chains during both world wars of the 20th century.

Moved by the global impact of coronavirus, we decided we could, we would, grow our own food.

Some of it.

OK, a couple of salads’ worth.

Let’s be real. We don’t have acres and mules, like my grandparents did when they literally ate out of their rural garden during the Great Depression.

Later, after they moved to town — town being a relative term — they weathered WWII by turning more than half of their deep backyard into a garden. To extend the harvest, my grandmother canned vegetables, which was a major operation with glass jars, rings, lids, funnels, rubber gloves, forceps and hot water baths.

Well times, they’ve a-changed. I’m pretty sure our homeowners’ association would bust us if we went full scarecrow on our yard, and the only thing getting a hot water bath in this house is me.

No, we wouldn’t bite off subsistence farming.

But we were down for some garnish farming.

It would be a fun project, a good thing for a couple of work-at-home empty-nesters to do together.

With a smidge of skill and a lot of luck, we could declare victory over the tyranny of Zoom and the never-ending search for a camera angle that doesn’t give you five chins, not to mention the pressure of arranging a bookcase background that says “casual genius,” while making sure the camera is far enough away that no one can make out your complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books.

Ours would be a victory garden all right, victory being a relative term.

Full confession: I’ve always wanted a beautiful raised-bed garden. They’re peaceful places to me, perfect microcosms of life. To the best of your ability, you arrange them to be bountiful, knowing that events beyond your control — weather, weeds, pests, disease — will take their toll. Some loss is inevitable.

On the other hand, if you don’t tend your patch in small ways every day, it’ll go to ruin.

Over the years, I’d made several runs at the raised-bed dream by buying a flimsy frame here and there and planting what a friend refers to as spaghetti sauce in the raw: tomatoes, basil, oregano, bell peppers.

The results were always kind of puny. Turns out, tomatoes get this thing called blossom end rot, which looks as nasty as it sounds.

Plus, squirrels eat tomatoes. Correction: Squirrels like to take ONE BITE out of a tomato, then hand it to you and go, “Want some?”

Another lesson learned the hard way: Plants need sun. And water. Other than rain.


The point is, I’m older and wiser now. More Zen and able to breathe deeply and see deeply. 

Also, I found a slingshot in one son’s room.

Hear that, you !@#$% squirrels?

I skimmed the Internet for hearty-looking raised bed frames. Unfortunately, they all came with hearty price tags.

That’s when I decided it would be better if we  — and by that I mean my husband — built the frames from scratch.

I dug out a YouTube video of a carpenter assembling what seemed to be an easy-to-make frame. At least she made it look easy. Same thing, right?

Jeff watched the video and said sure, he could do that.

Sweet. The next thing you know I’m in a home improvement store buying lumber and screws and garden soil and composted manure and mulch (to keep the weeds out, natch) and, let’s see . . . what else?

Oh yeah, seeds.

Standing at the seed rack, I heard someone else laying plans for a “victory garden.” It was a communal moment. All around the seed rack people stood, hands on masked chins, staring thoughtfully at the packets, much as they might ponder titles at a local bookstore — and with the same realization: There are so many titles you’ve never experienced.

Who knew there were so damn many kinds of self-help books — or green beans?  I bought a couple of varieties of the beans — shorter ones, and longer ones, for you gardening aficionados — along with some peas, carrots, beets, radishes, cucumbers and okra.

A gardener friend, who raises his tomatoes from seed, kindly donated some German Johnson and Brandywine plants to our cause.

The next couple of weekends went like this:

Drill-drill-drill. Hammer-hammer-hammer. Measure-measure-measure.

Mulch-mulch-mulch. Shovel-shovel-shovel.


Dig-dig-dig. Sew-sew-sew. Plant-plant-plant.


I must say, things are looking good. We have four gorgeous cedar frames resting on an apron of hardwood mulch and brimming with dirt the color of chocolate cake. The tomatoes are fuzzy and vigorous. Peppers and basil stand sentry nearby. The seeds are sprouting, each type with its own distinctive leaves. We like to watch them grow and change.

We pluck weeds, study sun and shadow, and talk to our tender charges.

“Are you happy?” I ask them over coffee in the wet chill of morning. “Do you have what you need?”

Someone asked me how much this garden cost. In dollars. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I have shredded the receipts.

This much I do know: Victory takes many forms, and there’s more than one way to feed a soul.  OH

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

June 2020 Almanac

By Ash Alder


June is the ink that flows from the poet’s pen — sweet as gardenia and ephemeral as a dream; the fountain of everlasting passion.

If ever you have read the love letters from John Keats to Fanny Brawne, the girl next door who was to Keats “so fair a form” he yearned for finer language, then you can understand.

“I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair,” Keats wrote his dearest girl one long-ago summer morning. And then, the famous line:

“I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”

Imagine landing love-drunk in the thick of glorious June:

The ecstasy of a world bursting forth with fragrant blossoms.

The sweet nectar of each inhalation.

The utter intoxication of existence.

June is a medley of aliveness — brighter than bright, fairer than fair, and butterflies in all directions.

Be still in the June garden, where love letters between hummingbird and trumpet creeper flow like honey, and you will learn the language of the heart. 

June is the poet and the muse. Keats and Fanny.
Butterfly and bloom. 

Suppose you lived but three June days as rose, coneflower, poppy or phlox.

What you might receive as the giver of such resplendence . . . the true delight of life.

Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly.
— Pablo Neruda

Squash blossom isolated on white background

Pick (and Fry) You Some

Something about edible flowers feels both deliciously wild and, well, just plain fancy. And since that bumper crop of zucchini comes with a holy explosion of yellow flowers, it seems fried squash blossoms are what’s for dinner — or at least the first course.

If you’re a squash blossom newbie, here’s one thing to keep in mind: There are he-blossoms and she-blossoms. The male blossoms, which grow on long stalks, don’t produce fruit; they pollinate. Female blossoms grow closer to the center of the plant; you’ll spot them by their bulbous stems (they’re sitting on fruit). Leave them to grow. Pick the male blossoms but leave enough so that the harvest may continue.

Another tip with the blossoms: Pick ’em the day you want to fry ’em. Check the petals for bugs and bees before removing the stamen or — if you picked a she-blossom — pistils. Wash, dry, and sauté or fry. Or if you want to take your summer dish to the next level, Google stuffed squash blossom recipes and see what happens next.

Growing vegetables in a pot. Set of potted plant. Home garden. Tomato, onion pepper and celery growth. Isolated vector illustration on white background.

The Victory Garden

Among the positive effects of stay-at-home orders, at least in this neck of the woods, is that more people are growing their own food (see page 21). Raised beds built from scrap wood and old pallets in late March are now turning out sweet peppers and pea pods, zucchini and summer squash, green beans, cukes, melons, eggplant, you-name-it.

Haven’t started your own kitchen garden? It’s not too late. This month, sow bush, pole and lima beans; plant cukes, corn, okra, eggplant, peppers, basil and — your sandwiches and neighbors will thank you — tomatoes. Start Brussels sprouts and collards for mid-July transplant, and don’t forget flowers to call in the pollinators. 

When your bumper crops arrive — you’ll know when you can’t pick ’em fast enough — find ways to share and save the summer harvest.

Bunch of blueberries on a white background


Blueberry juice is not blue — it’s purple. I recall making this casual discovery on a summer day in my youth when, not sure why, I smooshed a plump one into the page of one of my journals. But that isn’t the only magical quality contained within this wonder berry. They are slam-packed with antioxidant health benefits, for starters. One handful contains 10 percent of your daily-recommended vitamin C, and did you know that a single bush can produce up to 6,000 blueberries a year? That’s 153 heaping handfuls.

Among the many health benefits associated with eating blueberries (lower blood pressure, reduced risk of cancer, increased insulin response, reversal in age-related memory loss), they’re also known to brighten your skin. I’m not surprised that Native American indigenous peoples called these scrumptious berries “star fruits.”

Father’s Day lands on Sunday, June 21 — the day after official summer. Consider planting a bush in Pop’s honor. Container; moist soil; full sun. Two or more bushes are better than one.  OH