Lenten Rose

A Winter Blessing


By Ross Howell Jr.

Not long ago, my sister, Becky DeHaven, introduced me to Lenten roses by giving me some.

Becky has a natural-born curiosity about plants. She inherited our mother’s green thumb, is a charter member of Greensboro’s Seeds ’n’ Weeds Garden Club and has as fine an eye for landscape as any professional you could hire. Her Irving Park garden is evidence.

I, on the other hand, did not inherit our mother’s green thumb. But the plants my sister gave me are thriving — proof that while Lenten roses may look delicate, they’re tough, hardy plants.

Sometimes called Christmas roses or winter roses, Lenten roses are not roses at all.

They’re hellebores — Helleborus orientalis, to be specific — members of an exclusive little club of some 20 herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering species native to Eurasia. The highest concentration of hellebore species in the world is found in the Balkans.

Decades ago, they were a rarity in American gardens. So how did my sister discover them?

“I was looking for something that blooms in winter,” Becky says. “And that’s hard to find.” Then someone at a Seeds ’n’ Weeds meeting mentioned Lenten roses.

“I liked the spiritual aspect,” Becky adds. “That they bloom during Lent.”

Lenten roses usually start blooming in January, though in established beds, they can start as early as December and bloom straight through to April. They prefer shade to partial shade in well-drained soil, though my sister tells me some of hers have spread into areas in full sun.

Hellebore hybrids display a variety of colors — white, pink, red, purple, plum, yellow, green, even nearly black. Petals can be smooth or ruffled. The flowers can be shaped like upturned stars or nodding bells. Some hybrids offer double blooms.

These blossoms are set off against deep-green foliage, welcome color for a winter garden. And florists like hellebores because they make such long-lasting cut flowers.

Lenten roses can be incredibly prolific.

About the same time my sister was planting her first winter roses for color in her Greensboro garden, Brenda and Bill Brookbank of nearby Julian decided to conduct an experiment.

They tell me their backyard is filled with mature hardwoods, and back then they were looking for perennials that would grow in the shade. They planted a number of different plants. Among them were five Lenten roses.

“Everything died,” Brenda says. “Except the Lenten roses.” A year later, they noticed bright green seedlings springing up in the back yard.

“We thought they were weeds,” Brenda adds. So they started digging them, until they realized exactly what they were.

As the hellebores continued to propagate, Brenda got the idea to start transplanting them into pots to sell at a local farmers’ market.

“And what did you say, Bill?” she asks her husband.

Bill chuckles and answers, “I said, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna buy those plants.’”

If you’re a husband, you know just where this story is going.

That day Brenda sold every plant she’d potted. She potted more and sold them too. Then she contacted a local nursery to see if they wanted to buy any. They did, but they told her she’d need to be a certified seller. So she got her certification. Later, the Brookbanks bought the lot adjoining their property — to grow more hellebores.

And B&B Lenten Roses became a business.

“All the plants we’ve ever sold have grown from the seed of those original five,” Brenda adds.

“Oh, there’s no holding a Lenten rose,” my sister adds. The first season she put hers in, she noticed green shoots springing up everywhere. Like the Brookbanks, she thought they were weeds.

Over the years the hellebores have spread into my sister’s pachysandra. In fact, Becky uses her lawnmower to keep her walking path open, so broadly have they spread.

My sister’s Lenten roses display another typical characteristic: Lenten roses are remarkably quick to hybridize, meaning they reproduce in colors other than the color of the original plants. Though she started only with light pink flowers, her beds now display nearly every color of the Lenten rose palette, from white to nearly black.

“You never know what you’ll get with a Lenten rose,” Brenda Brookbank says. She explains that it’s a good idea to purchase them when they’re blooming, so you can be certain about the color.

“The mother plant will continue to produce the same color,” Brenda adds. But once the cross-pollinated seeds begin to sprout, all bets are off.

As for the Lenten roses my sister gave me — they’re growing by the house in the partial shade of a big willow oak in our neighbor’s yard. When we’ve had some snow or ice, I like walking outside to have a look, their dark foliage serene in the snow, here and there a pink blossom peeking through ice.

But another neighbor has expanded his parking area, so where the Lenten roses reside I want to plant arbor vitae as a screen.

I’m going to move the Lenten roses to a garden in Blowing Rock. They can stand the cold, and I have a well-drained spot with enough shade that I believe they’ll do just fine.

Another great hellebore characteristic, especially for the mountains? They’re seriously deer-resistant.

And as for my sister, Becky? Lately she’s been telling me about a new find, Chinese paperbush.

I expect I’ll have another topic to write about, some season soon.  OH

For more information on Lenten roses, contact your local garden shop or garden club. You can also visit B&B Lenten Roses at or call them in advance for an appointment to see their selection.

Ross Howell Jr. is a freelance writer and geezer gardener. Contact him with your plant ideas at

Food for Thought

The Soup Swap

It couldn’t be easier to share a warm meal with friends


By Bridgette A. Lacy

Southerners are known for their cookie swaps, but why not swap soup?

I fell in love with homemade soups during a 1994 La Napoule Art Foundation fellowship in Southern France sponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council. The chef, Malika, made a creamy, vegetable soup from scratch almost daily. Served with crusty baguettes and grated cheese for garnishing, I was in homemade soup heaven.

Soup is the ultimate comfort food, nourishing the body and soul. It’s a perfect remedy for the final bite of winter and, since scientists have predicted another surge in COVID cases, a soothing, comforting dish packed with fond memories.

A few years ago, my love affair with soup heated up when I heard Kathy Gunst, the resident chef for WBUR’s award-winning radio show Here & Now, talk about her cookbook, Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share.

I loved the idea of gathering a few friends and swapping jars of chowders or brothy liquids filled with fresh ingredients. “Soup fits almost any budget,” Gunst says. “Throw whatever ingredients you have in water . . . a little bit goes a long way.”

One of my favorites is a chunky stew-like black-eyed-peas concoction with fresh collards, carrots, ham and onions. It’s a savory and satisfying meal in a bowl. My friend, children’s book author Kelly Starling Lyons, often delivers a container to me on New Year’s Day to start my year off right.

My friend, Joyce, recently whipped up a batch of Ree Drummond’s Best Tomato Soup Ever. I drove over to her house with my recycled Talenti gelato containers. Once home, I washed my hands, grabbed a spoon and agreed that the silky smoothness was better than any tomato soup I’d ever tasted.

Good soup can be made with scraps, creating a peasant-like meal, or from pricey seafood, for a more sophisticated bisque. As long as the flavor is there, my spoon is ready. As Gunst says, “there are no limits on what can be defined as soup.”

So let’s get this thing started. And make the swap work for you — whether everyone exchanges soup at the same place and time, or you make your soup and tell your friends to bring their containers.

Here are Kathy Gunst’s Tips for Starting a Soup Swap:

Make sure the soup swap members are like-minded in terms of their diets. For example, everyone likes meat. Or everyone is vegetarian.

Email or text recipients a copy of the recipe.

Label all the soups and date them.

Use Mason jars or any containers you can recycle (I’m a fan of Talenti gelato). Let the soup cool down before packaging. Never ladle the soup when it’s boiling hot.

Use tea towels to cushion the containers you transport your soup in so they are not sliding around on the drive.

Generally, cream soups don’t freeze well. Leave out the cream until you are ready to eat it.

Drop the soup off in a safe manner. Leave it on your friend’s porch and call first. Consider including a crusty bread, crackers or a side salad.

Share the story behind your creation. “Every bowl of soup has a story behind it,” she says.  Sometimes it is inspired by a family member, other times it may be influenced by the produce selections at the Farmers’ Market.

Choose ingredients based on what’s available to you. According to Lee Mortensen, market manager at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, March and April come with lots of “first of the season” produce. “Look for greens of all shades, including a variety of herbs from mint to green onions,” she says.  Other ingredients perfect for soups are: fennel, asparagus, garlic, spinach, purslane, broccoli, mushrooms and ramps.

Spring Cream of Curried Asparagus Recipe adapted by Lee Mortensen from Perla Meyers’ The Seasonal Kitchen

“This is a simple soup bursting with flavor to hail the changing of seasons. It’s better if you make your own stock from chicken and veg if you can,” Mortensen says.


1 pound fresh asparagus

5 cups chicken stock


4 tablespoons sweet butter

4 tablespoons flour

1 to 2 teaspoons curry powder

3/4 cup heavy cream

Freshly ground white pepper

3 egg yolks

Dash of lemon juice


Remove the woody ends of the asparagus stalks. Clean stalks with a veggie peeler; cut off the tips and set aside.

Place the chicken stock and asparagus stalks in a 3-quart casserole. Bring stock to boil, reduce heat and simmer for 40–45 minutes.

While soup is simmering, drop asparagus tips into boiling, slightly salted water and cook for 3–5 minutes until tender. Drain and set aside.

Purée the stock and stalks in a blender and reserve. Keep warm.

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt butter, add flour and cook for 2 minutes without letting it brown.

Add the puréed stock all at once and stir while bringing the soup to a boil. Cook over low heat until mixture thickens and lightly coats a spoon.

Mix the curry powder with a little cream in a small bowl and add it to the soup with the asparagus tips. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Just before serving, mix the remaining cream and egg yolks in a small bowl and add the mixture to the soup with a dash of lemon juice. Stir vigorously while reheating the soup without letting it reach a boil and serve hot.  OH

Bridgette A. Lacy, a feature and food writer, is the author of Sunday Dinner, a Savor the South cookbook by UNC-Press. Her book was a 2016 Finalist for the Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize, Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

Home by Design

Elbow Grease

Because the heart wants what the heart wants


By Cynthia Adams

Closing our eyes to our termite-riddled garage and a looming bathroom tear-out, we snuggled down by the telly, cuddling our dogs, and watched Escape to the Chateau

It is an ironic choice of escape from our to-do list.

The series offers comforting perspective from years of projects in our (almost) century-old home. These two do-it-yourselfers beavering away on an ancient, shuttered, abandoned chateau lend perspective to the months of sweat equity we poured into our own relatively modest abode.

This BBC program follows Dick and Angel Strawbridge, a British couple who bought a glorious French “pile” in 2015.

Pile is Brit-speak for a very large house. But the French call this a chateau. Larger than Sleeping Beauty

’s Castle (albeit smaller than the Biltmore), the couple’ ’s picturesque 19th century Château de la Motte-Husson is near the quaint village of Martigné-sur-Mayenne. They bought it for what they might pay for an unremarkable two-bedroom flat back in London: £280,000 pounds ($384,000) — a steal.

With 45 rooms, twin turrets, an actual moat and walled garden — all poetically set upon 12 acres of pristine countryside — it is a thing of singular beauty.

But one problem: this veddy beautiful chateau is in ruins.

No running water, heat or electricity. And after the purchase, the Strawbridges are left with an impossibly small budget for the kind of home improvements this pile will require.

Yet the couple dauntlessly ascribes to the motto “you eat an elephant one bite at a time” and rolls up their sleeves.

The Mister, 59, laughs like Santa and has the belly to match.

Meanwhile, the flamboyant and romantically inclined Missus, 40, twists strawberry-red hair into vintage curls and has a passion for red lipstick, arched brows, a hot glue gun, sewing, crafting and decoupage.

They are dauntless, energetic, cart-before-the-horse types — we were stunned by what they did with this moldering and long-abandoned property in just one season.

Years ago, I fell under the spell of an unusual Lindley Park home. It qualified as a “stockbroker Tudor” given that to afford its steeply pitched rooflines, many gables, brick and stucco features decorated with handsome half-timbers required a stockbroker’s bank account. As is unfortunately true of Tudors, the interiors were sunless. If the kitchen is the soul of a house, this one’s was dark.

The property was in a state of beautiful disarray that suggested its former splendor.

And I desperately wanted it.

Let’s just say, I should have a reality show titled, The Masochistic Homeowner: The Early Years.

One of the Tudor’s strangest interior details was a renovation gone wrong, so wrong you had to crawl out of an upstairs window and walk across a flat roof in order to access a room addition carved from an adjacent garage attic.

Whereas a smarter person would have viewed that matter alone as a deal breaker, I tried to figure out how to solve this dilemma, sleeplessly fantasizing about owning this home with a beautiful arbor and quirks. Which is why I so relate to Angel Strawbridge — sans her luridly done hair and turban.

When the Tudor’s home inspection report arrived, it, like the dour Strawbridge’s chateau analysis, filled a binder.

Leaking roof; problematic stucco; electrical and plumbing issues; even a terrifying problem with the fireplace and chimney.

If it wasn’t leaking, it was crumbling. If it wasn’t crumbling, it soon would.

I wanted it.

It took my practical partner to pry my fingers from the binder. My teary-eyed entreaties did not budge my engineer husband from NO to MAYBE.

Did I mention that Angel Strawbridge is an enchantress, 19 years younger than Dick? 

Had she wanted my decaying Tudor pile, her besotted husband would have laughed nervously and followed her lead like a spellbound adolescent.

That is not my husband.

We did not make a counteroffer on the Tudor.

Which, by the way, sold anyway.

We found another house. One that had many issues that the inspection did not uncover, and which took all of our savings to salvage. It is the house we now live in and love.

This 1929 house renovation followed on the heels of a 1911 reno that was even harder and costlier. Yet, somehow, my husband was as taken as I was by its quietly stoic beauty including its thick windowsills, French doors, beautiful light and park view. 

We both fell under its spell, even as we toiled.   

It was possible to bribe my husband into nightly work after our day jobs. He would plaster and paint; I would pick up pizza and bags of Twix bars before joining him. (If we carb-loaded, we could work till midnight, then do it all over again the next day.)

Like the Strawbridges, we undertook most of the work ourselves.

When the initial cosmetics were done, there was something . . . some indefinable something. As if the house warmly responded to our months of labor. It became a joy to step inside.

One day, my husband mused, “the house is smiling.” It liked being rescued from neglect; it reflected back to us the ministrations, the love.

No doubt, too, that Angel believes their French chateau is smiling at them having been liberated from decades of grime and neglect.

She is most definitely right. OH

We agree that O.Henry’s contributing editor Cynthia Adams should indeed have her own reality show. Go ahead and add The Masochistic Homeowner to your future Watch List.



Photograph courtesy of Marie Marry Me

Scuppernong Bookshelf

Greensboro Bound Carries On

A virtual gathering of the minds 


By Brian Lampkin

If the world were without COVID-19, this May would bring us the fourth annual Greensboro Bound Literary Festival. But, alas, the pandemic led us to cancel the 2020 event.

Like the rest of the world, we’ve learned how to live within the pandemic’s parameters. Thus, Greensboro Bound is ready to present a robust virtual festival this year — let’s call it GB 3.5 — on May 13–16, 2021. We’re bringing 50 writers together to engage in panels and conversations that address our unusual times. Our roster will surprise and thrill you.

The organizing principle of this year’s series of events is “21 Conversations.” The sessions will pair writers from North Carolina with voices from the outside world, if you will. And what an outside world we’re bringing to virtual Greensboro. We can start with cancelled 2020 holdovers — Nnedi Okorafor (Binti: The Complete Trilogy) and Billy Collins (Whale Day: And Other Poems) — who have both agreed to rejoin us in 2021.

Did I promise thrills and chills? How about Roxane Gay! Gay’s feminist voice and intellectual force has made her one of the country’s guiding moral centers. Her bestselling nonfiction work includes Bad Feminist; Hunger; and Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, and she’ll be highlighting her forthcoming book, Unti on Writing. Roxane will be in conversation with Cynthia Greenlee, who has edited the recently published The Echoing Ida Collection.

Next up is CNN commentator Bakari Sellers representing the “Outside World” team. His memoir, My Vanishing Country, insists upon the value and dignity of rural, Black working-class life in the South. Bakari’s father, Cleveland Sellers, was a presenter at our 2019 festival with his own memoir of the Orangeburg Massacre.

At my age, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to still have heroes and I’m suspicious of the heroic in most of its forms, but I can’t deny the joy inching toward adulation I feel for the work of writer/filmmaker John Sayles. He’ll join us for a conversation on the 1898 Wilmington Race Riots, which was depicted in Sayles’ novel, A Moment in the Sun. We’d love to have a mini-Sayles film retrospective as well, but we’ll need to see how the COVID and vaccine numbers look in May. He did make a movie (Amigo) based upon A Moment in the Sun, so we’d like to show that and, perhaps, some of these great films: Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star.

We will partner with Greensboro’s historic Magnolia House to bring a conversation with Candacy Taylor, author of The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Whitney Otawka, author of Saltwater Table, will be in conversation with North Carolina chef Ricky Moore, author of Saltbox Seafood Joint Cookbook. Other worldly writers include Sharon Salzberg (Lovingkindness), Kaitlyn Greenidge (Libertie) and Rivers Solomon (Sorrowland).

Not to worry, North Carolina will be well-represented. Ron Rash (who will be in conversation with Billy Collins), John Hart, Allan Gurganus, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, Issac Bailey, Denise Kiernan and Greensboro’s own James Tate Hill will all engage the aforementioned writers. In addition, we’ll have poetry workshops (with Jessica Jacobs and Nickole Brown), romance panels (with Alisha Rai, Rosie Danan, Kianna Alexander and Joanna Lowell) and talks with the editors and authors of two books: Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America and A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South.

All of these conversations will premiere on the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival’s Youtube channel during the festival weekend. Our May Scuppernong Bookshelf column will give you the entire schedule of events with details on how to register. As always, Greensboro Bound events are free. We wish these remarkable writers could be here in person, but we must evolve with these unusual times. Please join us May 13–16 from the comforts of home — and catch a glimpse inside the homes of some of our favorite writers!  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books. Stay tuned for more information about the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.

Omnivorous Reader

Feeling a Bit Eel

A deep dive into mystery

By Stephen E. Smith

When asked
why women found him irresistible, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson responded in the first-person plural: “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”

If you’re wondering what that means (the probable double entendre notwithstanding), you’re not alone. Unfortunately, you won’t find the answer in Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels, although this New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Outdoor Book Award contains information aplenty about the enigmatic eel — a fish belonging to the order Anguilliformes, comprised of eight suborders, 19 families, 111 genera and about 800 species.

Unless you’re an unlucky fisherman (eels are not a sought-after game fish) or a bumbling scuba diver, it’s unlikely you’ve come in contact with this squirmy creature that lurks in the darkness at the bottom of oceans, rivers and lakes, and you’re probably wondering why you’d read a book about them. But Svensson’s focus is on an important and timely truth: The lowly eel is linked with every other organism, including the squirmiest of them all, homo sapiens — and that makes The Book of Eels a compelling read, especially in light of the pandemic that has swept the planet.

To this point, Svensson weaves a series of personal vignettes with believe-it-or-not facts (e.g.: The Pilgrims were saved from starvation by eating eels) and biographical sketches of scientists who were determined to discover the eel’s place in the ecosystem.

He opens with a detailed breakdown of the eel’s life cycle, which begins in the Sargasso Sea where fertilized eggs hatch into gossamer leptocephalus larvae known as “willow leaves.” Over a period of years, these delicate organisms drift the ocean currents and are eventually deposited in rivers and lakes (the eel can survive in salt and fresh water and for long periods in the open air), where they transform into elvers and then into yellow eels before becoming the silver eels that return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die. This progression can consume decades, and eels have been rumored to live more than a hundred years, suspending the aging process to adapt to environmental stresses.

The personal narratives that frame the story center on Svensson’s father, who worked asphalting roads during the day and fished for eels in the evenings. Recalling the time they shared becomes a metaphor for one’s passage through life. “The stream represented his roots, everything familiar he always returned to . . . (The eels were) a reminder of how little a person can really know, about eels or other people, about where you come from and where you’re going.”

Other narrative threads explore the professional lives of A-list eel fanatics, beginning with no less a personage than Aristotle, who spent years studying eels and believed that they sprang spontaneously from mud (so much for Aristotelian logic). Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and philosopher, guessed that eels reproduced by rubbing up against rocks that loosened particles that turned into baby eels. Other eel aficionados abound — Francesco Redi, Carl Linnaeus, Carlo Mondini and Giovanni Grassi. Even Sigmund Freud was a devoted eel researcher (what could be more Freudian?), who spent four weeks in Trieste, dissecting eels in an unsuccessful search for their male reproductive organs.

It was Johannes Schmidt, a marine biologist, who achieved the great breakthrough concerning the eel’s life cycle. In 1904, he chartered the steamship Thor and launched a determined effort to find the eels’ breeding grounds, spending most of his professional life doggedly trawling for willow leaves in the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic until he tracked them by size back to the Sargasso Sea, an astonishing 18-year exercise in singular obsession.

But it’s Rachel Carson, best known as the author of The Silent Spring and an early heroine of the environmental movement, that garners most of Svensson’s admiration. Despite her proclivity for anthropomorphizing the eel, he finds her writing in The Sea Around Us both inspirational and personally revealing, quoting her extensively: “As long as the tide ebbed, eels were leaving the marshes and running out to sea. Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey . . .  And as they pass through the surf and out to sea, so they also passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.” Svensson is thus lulled into humanizing eels, speculating that they don’t experience tedium the way humans do, and sliding again into metaphor “. . . life is over in the blink of an eye: we are born with a home and heritage and we do everything we can to free ourselves from this fate . . . but soon enough, we realize we have no choice but to travel back to where we came from, and if we can’t get there, we’re never really finished . . .”

Sprinkled throughout Svensson’s narratives there are tips on eel fishing, a litany of less-than-appetizing eel recipes (the Japanese consider eel a delicacy), a touch of philosophical speculation, and more than enough sentimentality, including a conclusion that borders on mawkish.

So who would enjoy Svensson’s eel book? If you’re a fan of John McPhee’s work — The Control of Nature, Encounters with the Archdruid, Oranges, The Pine Barrens, etc. — you’ll likely find The Book of Eels a compelling and informative read. Like McPhee’s monographs, Svensson’s story is more profound than its technical parts, evolving into philosophical musings on the mysteries of life and death. At the very least, readers will discover a level of environmental awareness that’s timely and valuable.

Do we know all there is to know about the eel’s life cycle? Despite Schmidt’s intense devotion to discovering the eel’s reproductive behavior, no human has ever seen two eels mate, and no one has seen an eel, alive or dead, in the Sargasso Sea. It remains a mystery. Probably Jack Johnson’s snarky response to inquiries about his love life was right on the money: There are questions that don’t require answers.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Creators of N.C.

Welcome Home

How Amarra Ghani became a guiding light for those in need 

By Wiley Cash
Photographs by Mallory Cash

Amarra Ghani has continually found herself in two roles that are surprisingly in concert with one another: caregiver and outsider. These two roles go hand-in-hand more than one would think. Often, outsiders come from a perspective that allows them to assess the needs of others with fresh eyes, and caregivers tend to take on singular roles that set them apart.

“I’ve always felt different,” Ghani, the founder of Welcome Home in Charlotte, says. “The color of my skin, my name.” After 9/11, these feelings intensified for Ghani, a practicing Muslim whose parents are Pakistani immigrants. “I felt super-ostracized,” she says, despite growing up in ethnically and culturally diverse cities in New York and New Jersey. “People would say hurtful things to me because of what I looked like or how I grew up.” Ghani’s feelings of being an outsider intensified when her family moved to Charlotte halfway through her senior year of high school. Feeling alone, Ghani began to lean on her faith. “I was isolated from everyone,” she says. “I fell in love with Islam because it was comforting for me. I was praying more. I was reading the Koran and I felt like God was my only friend.”

After high school, Ghani attended community college in Charlotte before transferring to the University of North Carolina-Asheville, where she founded the Muslim Student Association in hopes that other practicing Muslims would not feel as alone as she once had. “That’s where I found my voice,” she says. After college, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and later as a production assistant at NPR. Ghani was living out her career dreams, but was called home to Charlotte in 2016 after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She became her mother’s caregiver.

She didn’t stop there.

While throwing a “friendsgiving” celebration that year, Ghani encouraged her friends to bring warm winter clothes that she could donate to people in need. She learned that a friend’s mother — a native of Afghanistan who’d been living in Charlotte for 40 years — was gathering clothes for local refugees. When Ghani took her friendsgiving haul to the woman’s house, she asked her what else local refugees needed. She was surprised to learn that most of them needed the basic necessities like utensils, towels and bedding. She told her that she would put out a call on social media, which she had regularly used to make connections during her work in D.C. The response was overwhelming; soon, her parents’ garage was full of donated materials, from used clothing to brand new items to gift certificates. “Once I started, it just kept growing,” she says. When the pool of donors and volunteers swelled from 30 people to over 250, Ghani realized that she needed a better platform, so she set up a WhatsApp group called “Welcome Home.” This seemed like an appropriate name for a group dedicated to welcoming refugees as they bridge the gap between the struggles in their old lives and the challenges of the new.   

While working full-time with Wells Fargo, Ghani set about turning Welcome Home into a functioning organization, complete with a board of directors. Once things became official, the first phase of the organization’s work was to meet the basic needs of the refugee community by furnishing apartments, for example, or taking people on grocery store visits and other errands where assistance was needed. The second phase of operations focused on sustainability, and the organization forged ahead with programs in English language education and services that pair refugees with translators who can accompany them on doctor visits and other appointments where language may be a barrier.

Ghani knows these difficulties firsthand. “English is my second language because my parents would not talk to me in English,” she says. “As the child of immigrants, there’s a time when you become your parents’ parent. I was 11 when I started helping my dad with forms or going to the doctor with them or going to parent-teacher conferences to translate.” What a difference an organization like Welcome Home would have made in the life of her family: “I wish someone had guided my parents,” she says. “My dad could’ve had less pressure on him.” And how were they to know such resources existed? “When you’re someone who doesn’t speak the language and you’ve just arrived and don’t know the community around you, you need someone to guide you. That is what drives me.”

Welcome Home started out with 21 families, and they all eventually graduated from the program, no longer in need of assistance. “We have families who come here and who don’t know English or how to drive and perhaps have a fourth grade education,” Ghani says. Not only are they learning how to survive in a world that feels so foreign, she continues, but they are learning how to thrive. “We have three families who have been able to purchase houses in the last year,” she says. They were able to raise money to cover the rent for another family where the wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Earlier this year, we learned that this family was able to buy a house as well.”

But Ghani also recognizes the hesitancy many people have about seeking help, which is why Welcome Home plays such an important role in the lives of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar. While many refugee organizations are missionary in nature, Welcome Home is not. Still, Ghani cannot deny the comfort families find in working with an organization largely comprised of people who share the refugees’ religious faith, culture and worldview. “It makes a difference in small ways and big ways,” she says. “For example, during Thanksgiving, our families know that we can provide Halal turkeys. That establishes a level of trust.” Now, perhaps more than ever, trust is paramount as refugees settle into a new community during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the virus takes its toll in communities across the state, Welcome Home finds itself back in their first phase, meeting the basic needs of their families. “It’s all about necessities and fundraising to cover bills,” Ghani says. It’s also about keeping families safe from the virus itself. In mid-February, Welcome Home partnered with the city of Charlotte and the Mecklenburg Department of Health Services to provide vaccinations. “They reached out to us because of the skepticism of the vaccine in refugee and immigrant communities. We’re bridging that gap and bringing familiarity to the process of getting vaccinated,” Ghani says.

Through it all, Ghani, who last month was awarded UNC-Asheville’s Francine Delany Award for Service to the Community, maintains that she is driven by her faith, as well as by the memories she has of being an outsider and her most recent calling to care for those in need. “What did I do to deserve the life that I have?” she asks. “Nothing. I was just born into this family and this faith and this atmosphere. Others aren’t so lucky.” When she works with refugee families, assisting them with everything from getting clothes to learning English, she can’t help seeing a bit of herself in their struggle. “I know where they’re coming from,” she says, “I’ve been in that place.” No matter the place where members of Charlotte’s refugee community find themselves, Amarra Ghani wants to make certain they get home.    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.

Short stories

Pisces and Quiet

You’ve seen the viral YouTube video.
Some aquarium, somewhere, a security camera captures an octopus slipping from its tank after hours, slinking across the floor like some kind of shape-shifting alien, then dipping into a nearby tank to snack on, say, an exotic fish. In this scenario, the Pisces is, indeed, the fish. And here’s the thing: They asked the octopus if it were hungry. Selfless to a fault, Pisces are the ultimate martyrs of the zodiac. But there are better, healthier ways to invite attention. Music, for instance. Quincy Jones, Josh Groban, Nina Simone and Erykah Badu? All Pisces. Ditto Rihanna, Kurt Cobain and Smokey Robinson. Take it from the greats: Find a way to channel your fathomless sea of emotions before it gets the best of you. Because life is far more interesting thanks to your veritable brand of over-the-top drama.






O.Henry’s 10 for 10

Have you heard? As announced in our January issue, O.Henry is hosting a short story contest for our 10-year anniversary. And that’s an emphasis on short. Tell us a story in 10 words. For inspiration, look up the famous 6-word novel attributed to Hemingway. Guidelines are simple. Using the subject line “O.Henry’s 10 for 10,” submit your short story — one per entrant, please! — by email to Deadline: May 1, 2021. Winning entries will be published in our anniversary issue. Bonus points for pulling off an O.Henry twist.

And speaking of our January issue . . . If you were wondering who painted the hauntingly quirky “Madam” portrait featured on our cover (photo contributed by VIVID Interiors), that would be Greensboro’s own Kevin Rutan, owner of Fe Fi Faux. Find him on Instagram @krutan2018.






It’s Play Time

Here’s two for you. First, UNCG’s School of Theatre presents George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, inspired by one of the most heroic, mystical and misunderstood teenage girls to have ever walked the Earth. On-demand streaming is available from March 18–20, with a Frame/Works Discussion held via Zoom on Monday, March 22, 7 p.m. Tickets are $5. Box Office: (336) 334-4392. Info: Joan’s tale tips the scale toward searingly tragic. But it’s nothing a little dystopian comedy can’t remedy. March 24–27, at 7:30 p.m., Greensboro College Theatre presents Eastern Standard. Set in 1987, this Richard Greenberg rib tickler was a knockout at New York’s famed Manhattan Theatre Club and, later, a Broadway hit. This review from The New York Times in 1988: “For anyone who has been waiting for a play that tells what it is like to be more or less middle-class, more or less young and more or less well-intentioned in a frightening city at this moment in this time zone, Eastern Standard at long last is it.” Performances are free to the public. Face masks required. Greensboro College Theatre, 815 W. Market St., Greensboro. Tickets: (336) 272-7102 (extension 5242). Info:

Simple Life

In the Beginning

A grande dame, an old beech and other memory-keepers on the path to this gardener’s genesis 


By Jim Dodson

Fifteen years ago, a grande dame of English gardening named Mirabel Osler smiled coyly over a goblet of merlot and said something I’ll never forget. “You know, dear,” she declared, “being a gardener is perhaps the closest thing you’ll ever get to playing God. Please don’t let on to the Almighty, however. He thinks He gets to have all the fun.”

The café in Ludlow, Osler’s Shropshire market town, claimed a Michelin star. But the real star that early spring afternoon in the flowering Midlands of England was Dame Mirabel herself. Spry and witty, the 80-year-old garden designer had reintroduced the classic English “cottage garden” to the mainstream with her winsome 1988 book, A Gentle Plea for Chaos.

The intimate tale of how she and her late husband transformed their working farm into a botanical paradise where nature was free to flourish became a surprise bestseller that fueled a worldwide renaissance in cottage gardening. It’s actually what inspired me to create my “faux English Southern Garden” on a forest hilltop in Maine.

My visit with Osler was one of several stops I was making across England in the spring as part of a year-long odyssey through the horticulture world while researching a book about human obsession with gardens — including my own.

When I asked Dame Mirabel why making a garden becomes so all-consuming and appealing, she had a ready answer.

“I think among the most valuable things a garden does for the human soul is make us feel connected to the past and therefore each other,” she said, sipping her wine.

“We’re all old souls, you know, people who love plants. Especially trees.”

She was delighted that I shared her enchantment with trees, mentioning a gorgeous old American beech that stood beside our house in Maine and how it became the centerpiece of my own wild garden.

When my children were still quite young, we carved our initials into the beech — as one must do with its smooth, gray bark — hoping our names and the tree might reside together forever, or at least a couple hundred years. Unfortunately, our great beech was visibly ailing, which sent me on an odyssey to try to save it. That quest ultimately became a book called Beautiful Madness.

“I think that’s the alchemy of a beautiful tree,” Dame Mirabel agreed. “They speak to us in a quiet language all their own. They watch over the days of our lives and will long outlive us. No wonder that everyone from Plato to the Druids of Celtic lore believed divinities resided in groves of trees. Trees are living memory-keepers.”

Mirabel Osler passed away in 2016, age 91. Not long after Beautiful Madness was published in 2006, however, she wrote me a charming note to say how much she enjoyed reading about our visit in Ludlow. True to form, as my wife, Wendy, and I discovered on that unforgettable spring day, Dame Osler’s final garden was a chaotic masterpiece, a backyard filled with beautiful small trees and flowering shrubs arching over a narrow stone pathway.

Not surprisingly, as this long, dark winter of 2021 approached its end, Dame Mirabel was on my mind anew as I began serious work and planning on what will be my fourth — and likely final — garden.

Five years ago, Wendy and I purchased a handsome old bungalow in the neighborhood where I grew up, allowing me to spend the next three years transforming its front and side yards into my version of a miniature enchanted forest — my tribute to Dame Mirabel’s Shropshire garden.

I nicknamed the long-neglected backyard dense with overgrown shrubs and half-dead trees “The Lost Kingdom.” Reclaiming just half of this space was another odyssey, but more than a year later — and thanks to the assistance of a younger back and a Bobcat — a promising shade garden of ferns, hostas, Japanese maples and a handsome Yashino Japanese cedar now flourishes there. It reminds me of the many Asian-themed botanical gardens I’ve visited.

That left only a final section of the “Lost Kingdom” to deal with, which I began clearing late last fall, resulting in a nice blank canvas half in shade, half in sun.

Since Christmas Day, I’ve spent hours just looking at this space the way the author in me stares at a blank white page before starting a new book.

Creating a new garden from scratch is both addictively fun and maddeningly elusive — a tale as old as Genesis. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor skint of wallet.

Gardens, like children, mature and change over time. At best, gardeners and parents must accept that we are, in the end, simply loving caretakers for these living and breathing works of art. Although the Good Lord may have finished His or Her garden in just six days, I fully expect my new final project — which, in truth, is relatively small — to provide years of work and revision before my soul and shovel can rest.

No complaint there, mind you. As the Secretary of the Interior (aka, my wife) can attest, her garden-mad husband enjoys few things more than getting strip-off-before-you-dare-come-into-this-house dirty in the great outdoors, possibly because his people were Orange and Alamance county dirt farmers stretching back to the Articles of Confederation. Their verdure seems to travel at will through his bloodstream like runaway wisteria.

After weeks of scheming and dreaming, sketching out elaborate bedding plans and chucking them, it finally came together when a dear old friend from Southern Pines named Max, renowned for his spectacular camellia gardens, gave me five of his original seedlings for the new garden. I planted them on the borders and remembered something Dame Mirabel said about old souls and trees being memory-keepers.

Surrounded by Max’s grandiflora camellias, this garden will be a tribute to the trees and people I associate them with.

A pair of pink flowering dogwoods already anchor a shady corner of the garden where a peony border will pay tribute to the plant-mad woman who taught me to love getting dirty in a garden, my mom.

Nearby will be a pair of flowering crab apple trees like the pair that bloomed every spring in Maine, surrounded by a trio of Japanese maples that I’ve grown from sprouts, linked by a winding path of stone.

A fine little American beech already stands at the heart of this raw new garden, a gift from friends that recalls the old beech tree that sent me around the world.

For now, this is a good start. There will be more to come. For a garden is never really finished, and I’ve only just begun.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry magazine.

The Nature of Things

Year of the Fox

The subtle magic of a different kind of circus


By Ashley Wahl

My sweetheart and I share a birthday in February. Last year, same as the year before, we took each other to the circus to celebrate. This year we are training a fox.

OK, the fox is actually a dog. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we think she might be training us. The point is, it’s a different kind of circus this year, and a timid red dog with large, pointy ears is showing us a thing or two about magic.

In our former life, Alan and I spent the coldest months in Florida, near Sarasota, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus maintained its winter quarters for over 30 years. There, the circus arts are still alive and thriving, and each year — with the exception of this year — its Circus Arts Conservatory puts on Circus Sarasota Under the Big Top, which always falls on our birthday. The show is fantastical. No wild animals, of course. Just a dazzling display of human potential. For us, it felt like the ultimate celebration of life on this strange and beautiful planet. 

Although we were technically living in Asheville (as in, that’s where we got our mail), our Florida home was a no-frills camper van equipped with the bare essentials, including a single-burner camp stove and a portable fridge. Rarely did we stay in one spot for longer than three days, and on weekends, we set up our canopy tent at art and craft festivals up and down the coast, vending our wares alongside fellow travelers.

Suffice it to say there was no room for a dog in our traveling carnival. 

But life twists and turns like a master contortionist. When we put down our stakes in Greensboro last fall, we felt it was time to add a member to our troupe.

Back when we thought we were looking for a guard dog, we hooked up with a German Shepherd rescue that had recently taken in a mama with eight pups. The dam wasn’t exactly a Shepherd — or any other breed that was easily defined. She was smaller — maybe 50 pounds — with a short, red coat and large, pointed ears. Someone found her dodging traffic on a busy road in Fayetteville and, as it turned out, had an unneutered German Shepherd waiting at home. You can guess what happened next.

The whelps were darling — half Shepherd, half whatever their mother was — each one adopted as soon as they were old enough. We brought home mama.

This is a good time to mention that Alan and I are first-time dog owners. And while we had binge-watched several seasons of Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, nothing can prepare you for bringing home a shy little fox of a dog who is, quite literally, scared of everything.

And everyone.

While she isn’t exactly the guard dog we envisioned — at least not yet — we named her for the Hindu goddess Durga, protective mother of the universe often depicted perched on the back of a lion or tiger. Talk about a circus act. As for the name, we figured she might grow into it.

Admittedly, watching Dog Whisperer before adopting a dog is a bit like reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods before hiking the Appalachian Trail, but our big takeaway is that, often, a dog’s behavior hinges upon its human’s energy. We are witnessing firsthand that Durga’s trust and confidence starts with our own. It’s a wonderful practice — leading by example rather than trying to “fix” what’s “out there.”

And what a beautiful lesson on patience.

Our only expectations are that of our own reactions and yet, by some miracle, our shy little fox is blossoming. 

No, she’s not jumping through hoops or walking a tightrope yet, but what is the circus if not a celebration of the extraordinary?  And isn’t it extraordinary to live life fully and without fear?

We’re getting there.   OH

Contact editor Ashley Wahl at