Scuppernong Bookshelf

June Bloomers

New titles from Greensboro and beyond


Compiled by Brian Lampkin

As I sort through the 2,104 books being published in the U.S. in June 2021, I find far too many interesting titles to include here. The following hodgepodge tries to highlight some Greensboro specific books, while picking and choosing a few books that resonate with our times. But let’s start with an idea that occurs to me every summer: I’m going to walk the Appalachian Trail. One day, but it’ll be far less painful than just reading about it.

The Appalachian Trail: A Biography, by Daniel D’Anieri (Houghton Mifflin, $26). The conception and building of the Appalachian Trail is a story of the unforgettable characters who explored it, defined it and captured national attention by hiking it. From Grandma Gatewood — a mother of 11 who through-hiked with canvas sneakers and a drawstring duffle — to Bill Bryson, author of the bestselling A Walk in the Woods, the AT has seized the American imagination like no other hiking path. The 2,000-mile-long hike from Georgia to Maine is not just a trail up the eastern spine of the U.S., but a set of ideas about nature etched in the forest floor. This character-driven biography of the trail is a must-read, not just for ambitious hikers, but for anyone who wonders about our relationship with the great outdoors.

The Engagement: America’s Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage, by Sasha Issenberg (Pantheon, $40). This meticulously reported work sheds new light on just about every aspect of this fraught history. It also brings to life the perspectives of those who fought courageously for the right to marry along with those who fervently believed that same-sex marriage would destroy the nation. It is sure to become the definitive book on one of the most important issues of our time.

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson (Bloomsbury Publishing, $28). The right to bear arms has been consistently used as a weapon to keep African Americans powerless — from the 17th century, when it was encoded into law that the enslaved could not own, carry or use firearms whatsoever — until today, when measures to expand and curtail gun ownership are aimed disproportionately at the Black population. Anderson, also the author of White Rage, suggests that America sees Blackness as a threat that needs to be neutralized and punished.

What a Wonderful World This Could Be, by Lee Zacharias (Madville Publishing, $19.95). Zacharias continues to enhance Greensboro’s literary reputation with her latest novel, which follows a young woman through the turmoil of the 1960s radical underground and on into her life as a photographer whose past remains mysterious and unsettled. Savvy about art and the inner workings of extremist movements, this novel joins Zacharias’ Across the Great Lake (2018) in a late-career surge of important work. 

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith (Little, Brown & Company, $29). A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, this book illustrates how some of our country’s most essential stories are hidden in plain view. Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of our country and how it has come to be.

We Are What We Eat: A Slow Food Manifesto, by Alice Waters (Penguin Press, $28). This is a declaration of action against fast food values, and a working theory about what we can do to change the course. As Waters makes clear, every decision we make about what we put in our mouths affects not only our bodies but also the world at large — our families, our communities and our environment.

O. Henry: 101 Stories, by O. Henry (Library of America, $35). A fresh look at the full range of William Sydney Porter’s literary genius. Here are 101 stories, including such favorites as “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Last of the Troubadours”, alongside lesser-known and previously uncollected stories. With full annotation and a newly researched chronology of Porter’s life and career, this is a definitive edition for modern readers of a major American writer — and a must for every bookshelf in Greensboro.  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books.

Omnivorous Reader

Bigger Than a Saltbox

How a second story walk-up became an institution


By D.G. Martin

Ricky Moore’s Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook is full of good directions and advice about how to select, prepare and serve seasonal seafood from the North Carolina coast. It is also, and primarily, a memoir that explains the raging success of a seafood joint located in a shack in downtown Durham.

It was the delicious food at the Saltbox Seafood Joint that led the University of North Carolina Press to encourage Moore to write a book about the tricky business of getting the best tasting seafood to the table.

North Carolina’s cultural icon, David Cecelski, author of A Historian’s Coast: Adventures into the Tidewater Past, praises the new book as highly as he does the restaurant: “I think he’s written the finest seafood cookbook you’ve ever seen.”

Moore shares 60 favorite recipes and his techniques for selecting, preparing, cooking and serving North Carolina seafood. But the heart of this book is the story of how Moore rose from a hard-working family in coastal North Carolina and used the experiences of his youth, his military service, an education at the country’s leading college for chefs, and work in the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the world to make a tiny seafood restaurant into one of the country’s most admired eateries.

The story begins near New Bern, where the families of Moore’s mother and father lived.

“I grew up along the Neuse and Trent rivers and spent plenty of my childhood fishing those waters, but I don’t want this to sound as though we were eating fish all the time. We ate it whenever we could get it, whenever it was available, or whenever somebody went out fishing,” Moore writes.

Moore was a self-described “Army brat.” He spent time in Germany and remembered his German babysitter feeding him local raspberries picked that day and freshly baked bread slathered with butter. “There I was, a little kid with an Afro and an orange Fat Albert shirt, soaking up all the German food culture,” he says.

After high school he considered studying art at East Carolina, but he craved the kind of experiences he’d found in Germany. When he turned 18 in 1987, he enlisted. After basic training and jump school, it was time for advanced training. “I picked the first option that would get me out of New Bern: military cook school in Fort Jackson, South Carolina!”

He learned that meals “had to sustain, had to be wholesome, and had to feed a lot of people.” There were regulations and recipes for everything, “even for Kool-Aid.” He learned “how to scale a recipe for a crowd, how to measure, and how to cook in huge vessels and vats.”

As he transferred from one post to the next — from Fort Polk, Louisiana, to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii — he learned new styles of food peculiar to that region. In Hawaii, he met his future wife, Norma.

Just before leaving the Army, an officer told Moore about the Culinary Institute of America, known in the cooking world as the Harvard University of culinary education. In 1993, he enrolled in a two-year program at the Institute and quickly found that, while there was much to learn, his background helped tie the pieces together.

“My basic training as a soldier wasn’t so different from learning kitchen fundamentals, but in culinary school you get the bonus of learning about wine pairings and the practical economics of running a restaurant kitchen,” he says. He interned at the finest nearby restaurants such as Daniel in Manhattan and the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York. “I went where I needed to in order to learn as much as I could. My goal was to be a great chef, period.”

After the Culinary Institute, he “hopped from one exciting kitchen to another, working with all kinds of cuisines.” He worked for free in the best restaurants in France.

“Through this work abroad, I found a shared sense of tradition, culture, behavior, and, most important, discipline when it came to food and dining. I was the only person of color in these European kitchens, which made me even more intense about learning as much as possible. Being Black automatically pigeonholed you.”

He writes that “the rustic roots of these culinary mainstays weren’t that different from the food of my childhood. I began to see that Southern food is not a lesser cuisine, and I shed many of the insecurities I had held about my own food culture. It was time to head back to the States.”

After returning to the U.S. and working in executive chef positions in Chicago and Washington, he and Norma moved back to North Carolina and settled in Chapel Hill. One day Norma asked him where she could get a fish sandwich. But not just any fish sandwich. A real fish sandwich. A sandwich, Moore writes, “with local fish, lightly breaded and seasoned, fried in fresh oil until golden brown and delicious, then served on fresh slices of yeasty sweet bread and garnished with traditional cooked green pepper and spicy onion relish plus tartar sauce chock full of capers, cornichons, eggs, and herbs.”

Moore knew he could make it — if he could find a good place to work.

He began to look for the right location in Durham. “I wanted a little shop, to do one thing really well, and to control every aspect of it. This was ultimately the base of my business model.”

He wanted Saltbox to be something like the old Rathskeller had been in Chapel Hill, a place folks would consider part of their hometown, a piece woven into the fabric of the community — a place that would make folks say, “You ain’t been to Durham if you haven’t been to Saltbox.”

He found that place on North Mangum Street in the middle of downtown Durham. It was “a little walk-up with the right bones.” By October 2012 he had it ready to open, “just in time for the first fish running of the fall.”

Today, that little walk-up is firmly established as a must-visit. Recently, Moore found a larger place on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, which has turned into a seamless second version of Saltbox, giving folks visiting Durham — and readers of his book — another option to join David Cecelski in swooning about Ricky Moore’s seafood.  OH

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. 

The Creators of N.C.

Live from The Burrow

Roots duo Chatham Rabbits reinvent the dream


By Wiley Cash
Photographs By Mallory Cash

American roots music is rife with compelling and talented duos — think Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, June Carter and Johnny Cash — but few have been as charmed or charming as Austin and Sarah McCombie of the North Carolina band Chatham Rabbits. The two first met in 2014 at a concert they attended separately, and within a few years they were rattling around the country together in a 1986 Winnebago, headlining concerts of their own. It’s an old story based on an even older dream: start a band with your best friend, sell everything you own, make a living with your music. But for Chatham Rabbits, that dream came true, and the most genuine thing about that dream is the music itself.

In marriage and in music, Austin and Sarah blend their individual histories into a shared musical experience. Years ago, Sarah first took the stage as a member of the South Carolina Broadcasters, a musical trio that harkened back to the bygone days of the Grand Ole Opry and AM radio country classics. Meanwhile, Austin played keyboards and guitar for an electro-pop band called DASH. Given their backgrounds, how would Chatham Rabbits describe their musical marriage?

“We’re not purists,” Austin says.

“And we’re certainly not the hippest,” Sarah adds. “But we’ve been able to belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time,” which is to say that Chatham Rabbits have always been able to create a musical home, both for themselves and for their fans.

The duo’s first album, All I Want From You (2018), was written in Bynum, where Austin and Sarah could sit on the porch of their old mill house and survey the entire village of tightly packed homes, a vantage point that revealed their own ties to the close-knit community. The music — with Sarah on banjo, Austin on guitar, and the two splitting lead vocals and sharing harmonies — reaches out to the listener while reaching back in time in search of stories. Their latest album, last year’s The Yoke is Easy, the Burden is Full, is carried by the same gorgeous melodies, harmonies and delicate instrumentation, but it possesses a more introspective quality, which makes sense considering that the album was written when the couple moved to their 11-acre farm in Siler City. In these songs, the Rabbits use contemplation as incantation, inviting the listener to sit quietly with Austin and Sarah as they reflect on their shared life and their families’ histories. If their debut album was a means of reaching out to connect with a larger community, then their more recent album is a guided, dreamy meditation on turning inward. Whether they’re reaching out or looking in, Chatham Rabbits have always invited listeners to join them.

They’ve recently invited listeners to join them on their farm, too, where a new barn has been repurposed to host outdoor concerts that allow for the requisite 6 feet of social distance between pods of attendees. On a Saturday in early May, Austin and Sarah are both smiling behind masks as they move through the preconcert crowd, catching up with old friends and meeting new fans for the first time. The two are refreshingly approachable, remembering people’s names and asking after their children and families. He’s wearing a navy-blue button down and khaki pants; she’s in a navy-blue dress that once belonged to her great aunt. Although there are speakers hanging from the rafters and a lighting system illuminates the instruments and microphone on stage, there are plenty of reminders that this is still a working farm. Saddles and bridles hang on the wall. Chickens meander through the crowd. In the nearby pasture, a black cow named Petunia rubs her back against an old tree.

“The barn was halfway built when the pandemic hit and all of our shows were being cancelled,” Austin says. “At the time, the barn floors were going to be dirt, and the builders were about to enclose the walls. We asked about pouring a concrete floor, and we learned that it would cost the same amount to pour the floor as it did to put up the walls. We chose the floor.”

That kind of quick decision making has served the band well during the pandemic, which has rocked the music industry, but Chatham Rabbits have found ways to adapt.

“When the pandemic hit, we were about to release a new album, and we spent a week worrying about the world and feeling sorry for ourselves,” Sarah says. “Then we got busy figuring out how to make it work.”

The two used funds from their Patreon crowdfunding platform to buy a Sprinter van and a flatbed trailer. Off they went, playing outdoor shows in neighborhoods across the state and into Virginia and South Carolina in support of the new album that was supposed to have been celebrated in concert halls across the country. “We’ve probably played one hundred shows from the back of that trailer,” Sarah says.

Once the barn was finished and the state’s health restrictions allowed it, they decided to test the waters by holding six live concerts throughout the summer in the space they’ve named The Burrow. The tickets sold out in less than three days. As the state’s coronavirus numbers improved, Chatham Rabbits released more tickets, which sold out in mere minutes.

The resilience and flexibility required by the past year has influenced the song writing for their new album, to be released in coming months. “Many of the songs are reflections of us being at home together for an entire year,” she says. “It’s about our life on the farm, shifting friendships, and the way we had to come to terms with our foundations being rocked.”

As Austin and Sarah take the stage, the air is charged with energy and a giddy sense that something is returning to the world, whether it be live music or summertime or the feel of a cold beverage in your hand and the weight of a sleepy child on your lap.

After welcoming the crowd to the inaugural show at The Burrow, Austin and Sarah open with a song from their first album titled “Come Home.” Attendees take off their masks, settle into their beach chairs, and — for the rest of the evening — do just that. OH

Wiley Cash is the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, will be released this year.

Life’s Funny

Sticking a Toe In

Dusting off the pre-pandemic lifestyle


By Maria Johnson

The other day I went rummaging through my closet, looking for a particular pair of sandals — those skimpy things you wear on your feet in the summer, when you have somewhere to go.


Anyway, when I finally found them, I literally had to dust them off, because I hadn’t worn sandals in over a year — because, um, virus — and if you’re not wearing sandals, why bother to paint your toenails, right?

If you’re part of the mani-pedi industry, just hold your fire for a second and play along, OK?

The point is, I went toenail naked for more than a year.

It was very liberating. A little bit like giving up hair color, which I did a few years ago and have never regretted, mainly because my friends are smooth enough liars to say things like, “I like your gray. Not mine, of course. But yours is nice.”

OK, fine. Good enough. But I’m realist enough to know that no one is going to look at your feet and say, “I like your toenails better since you stopped coloring them.”

Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Unless you’re, like, 4 years old.

Yes, I realize the painting of nails — like every other way of dressing the body — is a social invention, a way that some women flash status and pizzaz.

It’s also true that the widespread shellacking of digits is a fairly recent development.

When I was growing up, in the 1960s and ’70s, some beauty salons offered manicures and pedicures — remember the TV ads with Madge soaking the cuticles of unsuspecting clients in Palmolive dishwashing liquid, gasp?? — but standalone nail salons didn’t exist.

Most women, if they painted their nails at all, did it themselves. My own experiments with bottles of bloody Avon lacquer, while sitting on a white chenille bedspread, did not go well, fume-induced headaches aside.

I might as well have dunked my fingertips in enamel, let them harden, then rubbed away everything around the nails with acetone, a la Michelangelo chipping away marble to reveal David.

It wasn’t until I experienced a salon pedicure (read: foot massage) in the 1990s — for about the same price as a bottle of polish and a couple of gallons of remover — that I had a toenail awakening.

From then on, I would have the piggies painted for sandal season. The fingernails, which were stuck in garden dirt, would never be the wiser.

I liked the dash of color at my feet. Plus, as someone who loathes high heels, it was a compensation, a way to say, “I care about fashion . . . up to a point.”

In a pandemic, let’s face it, the point moves way back. No one sees your toenails except your dog and maybe your partner, and trust me, neither one gives a fat damn.

Plus, in a Zoom meeting, no one can see your toenails, except maybe in an online yoga class. Actually, scratch that. No one in an online yoga class can see your toenails either. No one’s eyes are that good, and no one gets their whole body in the picture anyway. At best, all you can see is arms and legs flailing around, shooing cats away.

The truth is, not even your yoga teacher can see you — or hear you burping or groaning — because she has muted you. She just says, “Beautiful everyone,” every few minutes, which is PERFECT.

If there’s any time for unwarranted praise, it’s during a pandemic.

Like I said, lockdowns can be oddly liberating, although I confess, I’m a little worried about what I might let slip — from my mouth or other orifices — whenever I resume in-person yoga.

But at least my toes will look good because I finally got a pedicure again.

I know. Milestone.

Infections down. Vaccinations up. Toenails painted.

America is on the move again.

Which brings me back to the sandals. That’s why I dug them out — so the freshly varnished tootsies could dry on the way home.

At the salon, it hit me how much had changed. A mural of waterfalls had been replaced by a more explicit, and probably necessary, commandment: RELAX.

Everyone was masked, not just the nail techs who normally wear face coverings to filter out the dust of acrylic nail filing.

Also, plexiglass panels hung over the pedicure chairs, dangling between customer and pedicurist.

It made conversation difficult. The tech and I leaned in to talk underneath a shield.

“Have you been vaccinated?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” she answered at point blank range.

“I see,” I said, slowly reclining my chair backward.

She volunteered that her husband had had COVID but that she’d never exhibited any symptoms.

My mind flashed “ANTIBODIES.” I scooched forward.

The Dance of the Pandemic Bell Curve.

We continued talking, and it occurred to me how much I’d missed these incidental conversations, these ephemeral windows of understanding.

The tech confided that she was torn about the vaccines — scared that they might have been developed too quickly, yet hopeful that getting a shot might mean more freedom to travel internationally.

“I’m 50/50, you know? Some days, I think, ‘Yes.’ Some days, I think, ‘No.’ I think I will get it eventually,” she said.

I said that I was torn, too — fully vaccinated, wary of close contact with unvaxxed folk, and ready to stick some Munis Mauve toes into the water again.

She lifted a foot to show her own nails, painted yellow only a month before. She, too, had been going toenail nude until recently.

We shared a crinkle-eyed laugh through plexiglass, each of us putting our best foot forward.  OH

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

Short Stories

Glitter Optional

Dust off your festival garb. Cosplayers and incarnated fairies: This one’s for you and the kiddos. Greensboro Summer Solstice Festival returns to the Arboretum and Lindley Park on Saturday, June 19, from 2–10 p.m. Celebrate the longest day of the year with a party so ripe with midsummer magic that Shakespeare might have dreamed it (although we definitely added the glitter). Fit for “the young and the ageless,” this solstice celebration is a prismatic, hypnotic, enchanted collaboration of local artisans, performers, budding entrepreneurs and — don’t forget it — Mother Nature. Frolic through the bazaar at Lindley Park (2–8 p.m.), mingle with the mermaids in the butterfly garden, dance yourself into a trance during the hour-long drum circle, and soak up the sensory magic until the fire stops spinning. Buskers and vendors and wings? Oh, yeah. Admission: $10 (free for children 12 and under). Info:


Porch Strummin’

On Saturday, June 12, the porches of Dunleath Historic Neighborhood will become tiny concert venues for, yep, Dunleath Porchfest. From noon until 5 p.m., the public is invited to mosey from house to house and soak up the folksy-country, bluesy-woozy, gypsy-jazzy goodness of bands like The Headless Chickens, Half-Baked Betty, Hokem Pokem, High Cotton, The Grand Ole Uproar and The Brown Mountain Lightening Bugs — to name just a few. Find details on who’s performing and where plus how to tip virtually at, where you can also read up on precautionary safety practices, transportation and parking, plus the grand finale at Sternberger Park. You can find Dunleath Neighborhood near downtown Greensboro, just off Summit Avenue, Yanceyville Street and Bessemer Avenue. Bring a blanket or chair, the kids, the dog, canned goods for the Triad Health Project food pantry, and cash for tips, food and swag. The porchfest slogan says it best: Spread only music and goodwill. 


The Gamut is Steep

You’ve heard of Steep Canyon Rangers, right? The Grammy-winning bluegrass band from Western N.C.? If you haven’t seen them live, perhaps you saw them pickin’ and fiddlin’ and croonin’ with banjo wizard Steve Martin on NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert. And you can catch them with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra — that’s GSO, baby — on Saturday, June 5, 8 p.m. Tickets: $25–45 (you better snag ’em fast). White Oak Amphitheatre at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, 1921 W. Gate City Blvd., Greensboro. Info: 


Keep it Classical

So many acronyms, but here’s one we all know and love: EMF. This Eastern Music Festival season, which begins Saturday, June 26, and continues until the end of July, celebrates 60 years of musical excellence. This nationally recognized classical music festival and educational institution fuels the dreams of young musicians from across the country and around the globe, breathing new life into a tradition that continues to enrich our community, delight our spirits and — yes — evolve. Find more than 65 ticketed concerts and 30-plus outreach performances to be held on the campuses of Guilford College and UNCG, and other venues in Greensboro. Just follow the tuba music.

Secret Language of Twins

Double, double, toil and trouble . . . Willy’s song might have been about the Twins. It’s Gemini season, folks. Equal parts charm and impulse, this air sign is flighty, secretive and analytical to a fault. But we mostly love them. Well, half of the time. And this month, Gems, the solar eclipse on June 10 might do a number on that fickle heart if you’re not willing to sit with your shadow for a few days. And yet, what would your life be if not dramatic? Venus is in your house of money. The universe is asking you to slow down. You won’t listen. So, keep stirring the cauldron. See what bubbles. It won’t be dull.

Simple Life

Kid of Wonder

Just as my father did, I’ll try to keep my child’s heart


By Jim Dodson

For years, I’ve joked that my late father was an adman with a poet’s heart. He never failed to quote some ancient sage or dead philosopher when you least expected it.

As a know-it-all teenager, alternately amused and mortified by his endlessly upbeat personality, I gave him the nickname “Opti the Mystic.”

It took me growing up to finally realize what an extraordinary gift he was to me and anyone lucky enough to know him.

When I was still pretty small, he hung two framed items on my bedroom wall.

One was the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, maybe the best life and career advice a father ever gave his son or daughter on how to walk with kings but keep the common touch.

The other was a quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, a student of Confucius: “The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart,” which confused me until my dad explained:

“Philosophy is designed to make you think. Some might think it simply means you should guard your child’s heart from growing cynical about life. I think it means that it’s wise to keep your own child-like sense of wonder — whatever age you are.”

My parents also gave me a set of the How and Why Wonder Books, a popular illustrated series designed to teach history and science to young people in the 1960s. The volumes made me take the idea of wonder quite seriously.

My mother said she always “wondered” what I was going to ask her next. In truth, I was something of a wondrous pest.

I wondered typical kid things, like why the sky was so blue and why I had to wear shoes to church in summer — why I even had to go to church in summer when the outdoor world was so green and inviting.

Naturally, I wondered about what made the seasons change and the stars move and where hurricanes come from. When a mountainous press foreman at my dad’s newspaper informed me that we lived smack in the middle of something called “Hurricane Alley” in Mississippi, I ordered a hurricane emergency kit from National Geographic in case one struck our coast.

To my regret — though probably good fortune — no hurricane came.

Thanks to the How and Why Wonder books, I became an avid reader at age 5.

But I often wondered about things the wonder books couldn’t explain.

Like why Mr. Sullivan, who lived alone two houses down, was suddenly building a bomb shelter in his backyard — and why he believed “Russian spies were everywhere.” Or what the vacation Bible school teacher was talking about when she said, “Jesus sees everything you do and writes it down for later.”

It made Jesus sound like a Russian spy, not a prince of peace. When I asked her what “for later” meant, she explained that the list Jesus keeps would determine who would — or wouldn’t — be “saved from eternal hellfire.”  I wondered why Jesus would keep such an awful list.

About that same time, during the presidential election of 1960, I wondered why my mother voted for Senator Kennedy and my father for Mr. Nixon. “Someone had to cancel out your father, honey,” my mom explained with a laugh. “Every now and then, even he makes silly decisions.”

On a beautiful Friday afternoon three years later, Mrs. Brown, my favorite teacher, suddenly left the room and returned with red and swollen eyes, dismissing us an hour early. Someone had shot and killed the President. I spent the next week glued to the TV set, wondering.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if that’s the moment modern America began to lose her innocence, as some historians like to say, and if that’s when I decided I would become a journalist like my old man — if only to find out how and why.

No wonder I spent the first decade of my career writing about the terrible things human beings do to each other, reporting on everything from unrepentant Klansmen to corrupt politicians, Atlanta’s status as America’s murder capital to the South’s growing racial tensions.

As I approached 30, I feared I might be prematurely burning out — i.e. losing my sense of wonder.

But something saved me in the nick of time. One spring afternoon I went out to write a simple story about an inner-city baseball league and got recruited to coach a team called the Orioles for the next two seasons. More than half the kids on my team were African-American and came from one of the city’s bleakest housing projects. I made a deal with their parents and grandparents to drive them home after every practice and game. I also bribed them with milkshakes from a local joint called Woody’s CheeseSteaks if they learned to behave like gentlemen on and off the field.

They did just that. I bought a lot of milkshakes over those two years. We never lost a game.

Those kids — the “Mob that Became a Team,” as Reader’s Digest would call them — restored my lost sense of wonder.

After that second season, I turned down a dream job in Washington for a much simpler life on the bank of a winding green river in Vermont, where I got a pup, taught myself to flyfish, read every book of philosophy and poetry I could lay my hands on and lived in a small cottage heated by a woodstove for a year.

It was my private Walden Pond. My heartbeat slowed. I fell in love with the winter stars again. And that next spring, I recovered my passion for golf by playing the same course Rudyard Kipling played when he lived in the town, not long after he wrote “If.”

I realized that life truly is a wondrously circular affair — that everything you’ve loved is always with you, waiting to be born again, and that nobody — not even Jesus — is keeping a list like a Russian spy.

Here’s proof of the universe’s wondrous circularity. Not long ago, one of the players from the team that saved me, called out of the blue. “I’ve been trying to find you for years,” Pete said. “I finally found you and your books on the Internet.”

Pete and his teammates are in their early 50s now, grown men with their own careers and families. We’re planning a reunion. A few weeks ago, Pete sent me a photograph of himself standing in front of Woody’s CheeseSteaks. His hair is gray but he looks the same.

I may look a little older, I told him, but I’m still a kid of wonder, too.  OH

Jim Dodson can be reached at

The Nature of Things

The Dress

Something old, something new and a lifetime of memories


By Ashley Wahl

Some people are born storytellers, colorful raconteurs with theatrical gestures and dynamic voices to match. My grandmother wasn’t like that. Still, I couldn’t help but love her stories.

Just over 5 feet tall, Mimi was petite, sensible and soft spoken — but much tougher than she looked. Ask any of her six children, who knew better than to test her nerves, especially on grocery runs, when her swift backhand had, from time to time, restored order.

Even after her short-term memory began to slip, Mimi could recall, in exquisite detail, vibrant scenes from the past. She often used filler phrases like “but whatever there” as a sort of sassy punctuation, which I adored.

Because her stories were a part of her, it felt like they were a part of me, too. 

Among the best were tales about her uncle Joe, who ran off with the traveling circus, and memories of her younger sister, Shirley, who was allowed to wear overalls and go fishing with their daddy.

“I was expected to wear dresses,” she would say. “But whatever there.”

Speaking of dresses, I wish I knew the story of her wedding gown. Her memories of Papa were always my favorite.

Like on their first date, when he told her they would marry someday, and she laughed out loud.

Her parents weren’t excited about their engagement — they said Papa was from the wrong side of the tracks — and so she made wedding plans without them. Did she tell me her gown was handmade? Or had it been sewn by a friend? Sounds right, but I can’t remember.

Mimi and Papa were 20 when they made their vows, which they kept for nearly 60 years. After Papa died, she still talked to him aloud.

When her eyesight began to decline, Mimi moved in with my aunt, but dragged her feet leaving the last place she and Papa called home in Hope Mills.

By last year, she was mostly blind. My aunt was sorting through one of her closets when she found Mimi’s wedding gown.

This is a good time to mention that I had recently found a dress for my own wedding, a handmade creation from a design house where almost everything is made from vintage materials and upcycled treasures. My dress was no exception. But it wasn’t quite finished. The designer was looking for an antique fabric to add length and layers.

Mimi’s dress was a perfect match. I couldn’t wait to call and tell her, but when I did, I must have caught her in a foggy moment. I didn’t think she’d really grasped what I’d said.

Back in spring, the designer surprised me with photos of my dress-in-progress. She hadn’t just made it longer. She’d also added a lace belt made from Mimi’s sleeves and embellished the neckline with buttons that had swept down the back of Mimi’s dress.

It was something straight out of my wildest dreams.

Mimi died in April, not long after the dress was complete. And just a week before she passed, she sent a note — something she’d asked my aunt to write out:

I am so happy you have found love and wish you both a lifetime of memories. . . . I’m glad you will wear some of my wedding dress — what an honor for me after all these years.

An honor for me too, Mimi. And this September, your memories will be a part of my own. In fact, they already are.  OH

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