Simple Life

Miss Jan for Christmas

A few of her favorite things

By Jim Dodson

As she eats her Sunday morning breakfast, Miss Jan looks across the table at me and cheerfully remarks, “You look very nice. Why are you so dressed up?”

As usual, I have a silly answer ready.

“Actually, Jan, I’m planning to address Congress today. I’m proposing a constitutional amendment promoting universal kindness, the four-day work week and the importance of using proper turn signals in traffic. Thought I should look my best.”

She laughs. “Good for you! What a great idea. I hope they listen to you!”

In fact, Wendy and I are just heading off to church. But this is a kind of game I play when Miss Jan comes to our house on weekends. She loves a good joke or a silly story that makes her laugh.

During the week, a lovely caregiver named Waletta looks after her needs at the independent senior living facility where Miss Jan lives, while her daughter, my busy wife, brings her groceries and takes her mom out to lunch at least once a week. She’s incredibly chatty with the waiters and a bit of an old flirt. Miss Jan is, too.

Every day is like Christmas when Miss Jan — as her art students called her — comes to our house. She eats her favorite foods, drinks a little wine, plays with Gracie, the dog, clips beautiful things out of magazines for her scrapbooks, watches Love It or List It and enjoys long afternoon naps. As her world narrows down, the past features more and more in her conversations. She takes genuine pleasure in the smallest of things.

“I love bacon,” she declares that same Sunday morning. “And eggs, too. They are my favorite foods.”

I knew what was coming next. She tells me how, when she was a little girl growing up on a farm in rural Connecticut, her mother would make bacon and eggs gathered from the farm’s henhouse every Sunday morning. How Jack, the hired man, would sit at one end of the table, her father, the architect, at the other, and Mike, the dog, between, waiting for scraps to fall. She even slips into the stern Irish voice of her mother, admonishing her daughters not to feed Mike. For it is a sin in the eyes of the Almighty to waste food.

I’ve heard this sweet story probably a hundred times over the past five or six years.

“I like that tie you’re wearing,” she declares next, buttering her biscuit. “Where did you get that?”

It came from a clothing shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, I explain, a Sinclair hunting tartan necktie I purchased for my daughter Maggie’s recent wedding, in honor of our Scottish heritage.

Miss Jan beams, speaking in exclamation points. “That’s wonderful news! When did she get married?”

“Two weeks ago yesterday. Up in Maine.”

“Oh,” she sighs, “I love Maine. It’s my favorite place. We lived on the water.”

“I know. You and Bill had a very nice life there.”

This prompts her to tell me about their cottage on the water in Harpswell, where they watched boats come and go all day, and the harbor lights at night; about the little kids she taught about the importance of art; about the clear starry nights come winter. This opens the door to other memories. She tells me about the trips to Europe she took with Bill — to England, Germany and Switzerland; her favorite sights; the colorful characters they met.

“Switzerland was my favorite place. I loved the mountains and the people.”

“How about Swiss chocolate?”

“Oh, I love Swiss chocolate. It’s my favorite!” She says this with an impish grin, like a little Irish girl sneaking a piece from the cupboard.

She tells me more about Bill, who I knew for more than two decades. “He was quite a dancer, you know, in his day. He played the accordion beautifully. The girls loved hearing him play.”

I never tire of hearing Jan’s stories again and again. Memories are like summer’s fireflies. They carry us through the darkness, but vanish too soon.

“I love biscuits,” she suddenly exclaims brightly. “Don’t you? They’re my favorite food. What’s yours?”

Before I can answer, she chuckles like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.

“I like you. You’re a really good guy. You make me laugh.”

“Just doing my job, ma’am.”

Not long ago, Miss Jan asked her daughter, “So who’s that funny man who stays in your house?” Perhaps she thought I was Jack, the hired man.

“That’s Jim, mom. We’ve been married 21 years.”

“Oh, right,” she said with a good Irish laugh. “I forgot. I really like him. He makes me laugh.”

According to the CDC, about 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of related dementia, including 5.6 million aged 65 and older, and about 200,000 under age 65.

Miss Jan is 84.  She jokes that she might live to be 100 — or just pass on “next year.”

“Don’t do that,” I say. “Who will laugh at my stupid jokes?”

Save for when she grumbles about having to take a shower and wash her hair — my wife’s weekly ordeal  — she seems remarkably happy, even a bit of a cheerful con artist. At dinner parties, for instance, she will listen intently before nimbly joining the table’s flow of conversation, for the moment sounding like the wise, compassionate, opinionated and highly intelligent mother and social activist she was most of her life.

When she Zooms with her younger sister, Alice, every other weekend or so, you’ll hear the two of them cutting up and gabbing away about people, things, places and memories that only a shared lifetime can provide.

True, every year her boat seems to drift a little farther from the shore. But for now, at least, she seems to be holding her own, defying the outgoing tide, happy as a kid on Christmas morning on days when she’s with us. 

Perhaps I cherish such days because they remind me how fleeting this life is, how short the time we are given. Miss Jan also reminds me of my own sweet Southern mother and her cheerful dance with this silent, insidious disease. She, too, was what I call a “happy forgetter.”

After my dad’s passing in 1996, I brought her and her half-blind yellow lab, Molly, to live with us in Maine. She delighted in the fiery leaves of autumn and the deep snows of winter. She loved our big, crackling fire and the sight of the herd of white-tail deer I faithfully fed at the edge of the forest on frigid nights.

When her memory began to fail, we moved her to a fine independent living facility where she became the belle of the ball in the evening dining room, squired around by a celebrated Episcopal bishop who’d marched across the bridge in Selma with M.L. King Jr. They were quite the talk of the place for a while.

One summer afternoon I drove her out to the seaside restaurant where she and my father always ate when they came to Maine to see their grandbabies. It featured a 10-mile view of the rocky coast that looked like a living postcard.

As we sat drinking wine, she told me about the day she met my father, remembered their first date and commented that I laughed just like him.

“I sure miss him,” I admitted. “I bet you do, too.” He’d been gone for five years.

She sipped her wine and smiled. “You have no idea, sugar. But don’t worry. I’ll see him very soon.”

She sounded so sure. Two days later, she suffered a stroke and peacefully slipped away.

I have no idea how long Miss Jan will be with us. With our four kids grown up and scattered to the winds, it will probably just be the three of us again this Christmas. Five, counting the dog and cat whose names she can’t remember.

But having Miss Jan for Christmas will be perfect. She says it’s her favorite holiday ever. We have that in common.

Plus, I can always make her laugh.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Life’s Funny

Quite A Spectacle

One woman’s perennial hunt for reading glasses

By Maria Johnson

“Are those your glasses?” asked the man in the broad-brimmed hat.

I looked down to see a pair of reading glasses with tortoise-shell frames lying on the folding table between us.

“Maybe,” I said.

He looked puzzled.

“I found them over there, where you were sitting,” he said helpfully.

I had been sitting in the grass, on my jacket, watching a high school tennis tournament.

I picked up the glasses from the table, flipped down another pair of reading glasses from atop my head — my dual-purpose headband for the last few years — and unfolded the temples, looking for a hint of ownership.


Close enough.

“Yep, thanks,” I said, stuffing the glasses into my jacket pocket, where they ran into — you guessed it — another pair of reading glasses.

I maintain a fleet because I’m in limbo, caught between the eagle eyes of my youth and the need for prescription lenses.

For now, my dollar-store magnifiers do the job. When I can find them.

Where do they go? Search me.

And my car.

And house.

And yard.

Those are the places I scour when I’m faced with small print and no specs in sight.

“Reading glasses?” my husband asks calmly whenever he sees me tossing aside sofa cushions, peering under beds, patting down hoodies or churning through our coat closet, turning pockets inside out.

When I’m desperate, I go granular, checking the interior pockets of my suitcase, purses I carry only at funerals and
the garden.

Once I was talking to a neighbor over a bed of irises. He kept looking down.

“Are those your glasses?” he finally asked.

I followed his eyes to the rhizomes.

“Maybe,” I said.

I stooped over, picked them up, rubbed the dirt off the lenses and put them on.

“Yep. Thanks.”

I think you see the pattern.

I know, I should put my reading glasses in a certain place when I’m not using them.

I do — on top of my head.

Usually this works. Sometimes too well.

I remember being at the beach, reading under an umbrella, when one of my sons walked up.

“Mom, do you know you have four pairs of glasses on your head?” he asked.

I knew about two of them. They were on my face: one pair of regulation sunglasses and one pair of readers propped in front of them.

Granted, it’s a look that will never land me in a fashionable eyewear advertisement, but I highly recommend it if you want people to leave you alone while you’re reading at the beach.

Without taking my eyes off the page, I raised a hand to the top of my head, where I felt two more pairs in storage.

“Yep. Thanks.”

“Just checking,” he said before dashing off.

I glanced at the mesh bag beside
me. A back-up pair stared at me, glassy-eyed. Check.

The way I figure it, readers are cheap, and the more I flood the market, so to speak, the better the odds of me finding a pair when I need them.

There’s a reason they’re sold in packs, right? As with anything you pick up and put down several times a day — pens, your cell phone, small children —  people expect you to misplace them once in a while.

Unfortunately, reading glasses, unlike kids and cell phones, make no noise when you call them.

Really, the only alternative is one of those old-lady chains that make a “necklace” out of your glasses.

Again, I offer a cost-reward calculation: reading-glasses-at-the-ready versus an accessory that magnifies your aging décolletage 2.5 times.

Yes, there’s a price to pay for living the unleashed life. It’s called dusting your breakfast cereal with chili pepper instead of cinnamon. Olé.

Or going to the store to buy a new box of glasses and not being able to read the box because . . .

But honestly, there’s an upside, too.

Recently, I invited a friend to lunch at my house.

I dusted, vacuumed and straightened up to a degree that I thought was passable, then I put on my reading glasses to check a text and looked around.

“Oh, man,” I said aloud. All of the minor smudges and crumbs around the kitchen jumped out.

There was only one thing to do: I took off my glasses as fast as I could.

Much better.

My friend arrived minutes later. She was carrying her toddler grandson, whom she had not misplaced. Yay.

And better yet, she wore no glasses.

Shew.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Contact her at

The Omnivorous Reader

Cozy Up

A mellow mystery on the Outer Banks

By Anne Blythe

Smile Beach may be a fictional spot on the imaginary Cattail Island, but in Smile Beach Murder, cozy mystery writer Alicia Bessette captures the real spirit of the Outer Banks, where the residents have a strong and often quirky sense of self-reliance and, at the same time, a profound need for community.

That connection is built around such places as the MotherVine Bookshop, Meek’s hardware store, the Cattail Crier office, the old lighthouse and inside the island natives’ homes, where the “inlanders” are referred to as dingbatters.

“Cattail Island is known for its beaches,” Bessette writes in the voice of her narrator. “The eastside ones evoke the covers of summer escape novels — windswept dunes sloping in fine sands, and beyond, the vast Atlantic. The westside beaches, including Smile Beach, feature the shallow, gentle waves of the Pamlico Sound. Unless of course there’s a storm.”

Callie Padgett, the protagonist, is a 38-year-old reporter freshly laid off from the Charlotte Times caught up in a storm of her own who has returned home to live with her uncle while she searches for another journalism job. She quickly gets swept up in a mystery when Eva Meeks, a beguiling eccentric whose family owns the local hardware store, is found lifeless at the base of the Cattail Lighthouse. Local police and others quickly label the death a suicide.

Callie is not convinced and begins her own sleuthing as a reporter hungry for a good story. We soon learn that Callie’s mother was found dead at the bottom of the same lighthouse 26 years earlier, an incident that prompted her to flee the island as soon as she was old enough.

Now she is back.

The feelings she has tried to bury for so many years resurface in a mystery about coming home, finding roots and finally getting to a place where they bring pride and allow for reinvention of oneself.

Cozy mysteries are a sub-genre of crime fiction that leave out the violence, darkness and sex that often accompany more hard-boiled whodunits. Always fast-paced, and sometimes lighthearted, they put readers in working detective mode trying to solve the pending conundrum alongside the protagonist.

In Smile Beach Murder, the launch of the Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery series, Callie vows to Summer, the 12-year-old daughter of Eva Meeks, that she will leave no clue unturned as she explores old haunts and new twists in this summertime narrative.

Bessette, a former newspaper reporter, poet and pianist who moved to the Outer Banks with her husband and fellow author Matthew Quick, gives a nod to mystery writers such as Mary Higgins Clark by having her protagonist work at the MotherVine Bookshop. The poetry and music come out in Bessette’s writing.

When Callie bangs on the door of a papered-up old storefront not far from the MotherVine, and encounters Toby Dodge, a former physical education teacher who moved to the island to open the Cattail Family Martial Arts School, Bessette writes: “His voice was musical, like if an upright bass could speak.” Elsewhere she writes, “Outside dusk leaked from the sky, pewter dripping into apricot . . . “

Bessette captures the sense of the Outer Banks from the very beginning of the book. “This barrier island, nine miles long, is shaped like a cattail, whip thin except for the wide part, three miles across,” she writes. “The wide part’s where most of the dwellings are, bungalow-style rental cottages and modest cedar-shake stilt homes. The southern end of Cattail Island curves slightly westward, allowing a glimpse of the lighthouse even from where I sit in the Elder Tree.”

Whether we’re with Callie on the thick and all-knowing Spanish-moss-draped branches of the Elder Tree or on madcap adventures and treasure hunts, we smell the maritime forests, peer into the waters below the rickety fishing pier and get to know Cattail Island’s cast of flawed but lovable characters.

It’s easy to embrace Uncle Hudson, Ronnie and Antoinette, the bookstore owner — all members of a group that had adventures together in the Old Farts Van, a vehicle Hudson fixed up himself when he was a young surfer. Tin Man, the bookstore cat, is Insta-famous with a delightful Instagram account the whole town seems to follow.

We cheer Callie on as she climbs over the sharp, iron-speared gate to dig into the story that Pearleen, the wealthy woman in the mansion beyond the gate, and her dutiful nephew Whitman have kept to themselves for years. Indeed, she leads us to a big breakthrough — a reveal that truly is a surprise ending.

There are times when Callie breaks into buildings and ignores boundaries that typically would not be crossed by journalists. Then again, without her making quick assumptions, pushing boundaries and beating the police to the answer of whether the Cattail Lighthouse is cursed, we would lose access to an alluring mystery that keeps us hunting for answers to the very end.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(November 22 – December 21)

We all know you’re the live wire of the zodiac. A hell of a party guest, too. But you’re so much more than a wildcard or a cheap thrill or a flaming hot mess. You’re kind, generous and far more sensitive than people realize. This month, Venus is in your sign until Dec. 9 and Jupiter is finally direct. Like it or not, you’ll be a magnet for love, money and luck. Just remember that your energy is precious. You get to choose who’s worthy of basking in it.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Try aiming a bit higher.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Do yourself a favor: Call it what it is.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

The end isn’t always the end.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

You’ll be fine.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20) 

The jokes are getting a bit stale.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Normalize active listening.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Is it time to take out the trash?

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

It’s all fun and games — or is it escapism?

Virgo (August 23 – September 22) 

Spice things up: Go for the two-ply.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Consider an alternate route.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

If it doesn’t bring you joy, then what are you even doing? OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 

The Fezziwigs Among Us

Five locals embody the true spirit of giving

By Jim Dodson

In A Christmas Carol, the beloved novella of greed and redemption published by Charles Dickens in 1843, the character of Nigel Fezziwig serves as a reminder of Ebenezer Scrooge’s forgotten youth, representing a time of innocence before Scrooge was infected with a money-making avarice that overwhelmed and tainted everything it touched in his life.

As the generous, big-hearted London businessman celebrating the arrival of Christmas by inviting people from every corner of society to share in the joy of food and dance, Old Fezziwig becomes an enduring symbol of the spirit of the holiday — one of sharing, caring, giving and believing in the goodness of humanity.

“The happiness he gives,” writes Dickens, “is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Fezziwig, in short, is the true spirit of secular Christmas.

If we’re lucky, we’ve all known someone just like him. Look around with open eyes and you might be surprised how many Fezziwigs there are among us.

Cooper Dunning

The Spirit of Spreading Light

Photograph by Lynn Donovan

Cooper Dunning is one of those bright young folks who gives you hope that America’s future might be in good hands after all. When you mention the spirit of Nigel Fezziwig, the Grimsley freshman lights up like the famous twinkling Christmas balls that illuminate the trees of Sunset Hills every Christmas  — which, as it happens, Coop probably knows more about than anyone.

When he was just 9 years old, the enterprising youngster played Tiny Tim in a High Point Community Theater production of A Christmas Carol. “It was so much fun,” he reports. “And the story really gets you thinking about others.” About that same time, Coop became so fascinated with the lighted balls that annually transform Sunset Hills into a glowing and magical forest during the holiday season, he decided to start making his own.

“We already had 40 or 50 of them in our own yard,” he points out, which he and his father, Matt Dunning, who owns a Greensboro landscaping business, made together. “But I discovered there was a lot of demand for them from people in the neighborhood who wanted their own. I thought there might be a small business opportunity in making them to sell — and a chance to do some good with the profits.”

His entrepreneurial instincts proved to be sharper than Jacob Marley’s pangs of regret. That first Christmas season Cooper produced 50 lighted balls and sold them all through Sunset Hills’ popular Corner Farmers Market, which included a plan to donate 20 percent of sales to the market’s innovative Greens for Greens program, which assists lower income shoppers. That first year, he cleared enough to donate $150 to the program, including a canned food drive that benefited the Second Harvest food bank.

The next year — during the shut-down days we’d all like to forget — he was up to 700 lighted balls that netted $1,000 for Greens for Greens and Greensboro Urban Ministry. Last year, his sales ballooned to 800 multicolored lighted balls and a holly jolly $2,000 for his chosen charities.

True to his mission of spreading light and feeding neighbors, this year the young business prodigy — now a worldly 14 — is aiming to make and sell 1,000 lighted balls, hoping to boost his annual donation to help others to $3,000.

“That’s why my bedroom is kind of crowded right now,” he admits as his seven-week production run-up to the holidays got under way back in middle October. One factor that makes Cooper’s lights so popular is the thick-gauge, high quality fencing wire he uses instead of traditional chicken wire to fashion the balls. In his bedroom off South Elam Street this particular day, half of an interior wall is covered by finished wire balls — he refers to them as “shells” —  ready for lighting. At the foot of his bed and filling a bedroom closet are hundreds of boxes of holiday lights, in all colors. “I just made a run to Lowe’s and pretty well cleaned them out,” he says with a laugh.

“We do have a bit of a storage issue,” admits his mom, Sarah, a communications professor at UNCG, poking her head into her son’s remarkably well-organized bedroom. “But he loves what he does and seems to get so much out of it.”

On average, Cooper can make 41 shells in about six hours, followed by another six hours of “wrapping” the balls with lights. “I’ve gotten much better at it,” he says, “and developed a system that works pretty smoothly. It helps that my forearms have gotten stronger over the years.” The added muscle, he explains, comes from playing tennis, swimming and rock climbing with friends.

One wonders when this young Fezziwig finds time to sleep, for he also produces a quarterly magazine that features the works of budding Gate City photographers and hosts a digital platform for their works.  On the day O.Henry dropped by to see how production was going, he was preparing to dye his hair pink for Grimsley’s Friday night football game against Western Guilford — “It’s pink-out night this week,” he cheerfully explains. Coop’s older brother, Tobyn, plays linebacker for the Whirlies.

For the moment at least, this grown-up Tiny Tim has no immediate plans beyond looking forward to driver’s training class, growing his photography skills and continuing to bring a little more light to a darkened world by feeding others. “I’ve got time to figure out what comes next,” he says, sounding much wiser than his years. “In the meantime, this is something I love to do. It really makes people happy. Isn’t that the message of A Christmas Carol?”

Spoken like a true Fezziwig.

Andrew Levitt

The Spirit of Spreading Laughter

Photograph by Bert VanderVeen

Andrew Levitt is one of those quiet souls who surprise you by the scope of their life and vision. Raised in a prominent Long Island family of sailors, early on he pictured a romantic life of racing sailboats to the West Indies — “In other words, your basic sailing bum,” he says with a laugh. “Fortunately, the universe had other plans for me.”

Indeed it did. After studying English literature at Yale, he became a Civil Rights activist who attended M.L. Kings’ funeral in Atlanta, joined the Peace Corps to teach school in Southeast Asia, and earned a Ph.d. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his wife, Peggy. He also became a gifted professional mime and nationally respected theater and live-performance educator, as well as an English teacher and published author and poet, not to mention a close friend of the late environmentalist — and Greensboro native — Thomas Berry. In tribute to his late mentor, Andrew wrote and performed a one-man show at the Greensboro History Museum based on the writings of his friend, dazzling an audience that included Berry’s brother, Leo, with his ability to replicate his hero’s voice.

Today, Andrew’s wife, Peggy Whalen-Levitt, is the director of the Center for Education, Imagination and the Natural World, a resource for teaching a new vision of the relationship between the inner life of the child and the beauty, wonder and intimacy of the universe. It’s these sacred values of life and nature that infuse every word of Andrew’s latest book, Heron Mornings, published in 2017, a poetic diary of one man’s moments of communion with the natural world while he walked his dog, Sasha, in the hours before dawn. “We’re all children of the forest,” he likes to point out, invoking one of Thomas Berry’s favorite sayings.

It was during one of our own predawn morning walks with the dogs several years ago that my wife and I met this remarkable fellow and his handsome samoyed, Misha, making their daily stroll through the neighborhood. As neighbors tend to do, brief greetings became casual conversations that eventually revealed this gifted poet and philosopher-naturalist in our midst.

During one of his own early walks years ago with Sasha — Andrew was teaching freshman English at Guilford at the time — he fell into conversation with a neighbor named Ernie Schiller who worked as a pediatric physician at Moses Cone Hospital. “I mentioned that many years ago my sister, who owns a successful art gallery in New York, put on a show that focused on medical clowns the Big Apple trains to work in area hospitals. It struck me that it might be fun to try do something like that around here — maybe at Duke University Hospital.”

“Good idea,” Schiller told him. “But you’re not going to Duke. You’re coming to Moses Cone!”

Fueled by his passion for narrative storytelling and live performance, a star with a big red rubber nose was born.

His first gig in April 2010 involved three days in the pediatric emergency department at Cone, which quickly turned into seven days a week. “I’d never seen the Patch Adams movie, but I basically made up my own repertoire of characters, a chimney sweep who sweeps away illness, a baker who bakes the pain away, no scary clown makeup — just a doctor with a funny red nose who comes in and announces, ‘I’m the doctor who treats your ills / With tales and folly instead of pills.’ I brought puppets and props. It made the kids laugh — even the parents and the real physicians.” Eventually, his colorful characters even found their way into a book.

“Andrew was a great person to have in the Children’s ED,” says Dr. Ross Kuhner, medical director of the children’s emergency department at Cone. “He helped ease the family and patient’s anxiety, and was always friendly and trying to be helpful. He had a wonderful disposition, always cheerful. I always felt bad about interrupting his puppet shows with the patients, and often watched along with the families.”

“Our clown was wonderful,” agrees Registered Nurse Deedee Jamison. “He came to the Peds ED every day he was in the hospital. Children giggled and he played with his puppets. He was a friend who took time to care for each of us. He remembered my children and he made sure he took extra care to everyone who needed a smile. I loved him! Different bow ties for each day. . . . He was wonderful. . . . brilliant.”

Andrew Levitt’s charming medical clowning lasted almost a decade, touching the lives and cheering up thousands of kids, young people, parents and staff. It took the arrival of a worldwide pandemic to finally close down the show.

“I still think about the kids I met and entertained,” he says not long ago, during a walk around his block. “When I started out, I had no clue how to help a child who was on an IV or was suffering. But — you know? — it came to me. All my training helped. I would wave a light shield around my young patients — protecting them from worry and harm. Can you imagine that?”

Happily, we can.

Joe Campbell

The Spirit of Serving Others

Photograph by Bert VanderVeen

Joe Campbell is one of those folks you probably will never meet — until you need him.

For many years he’s been a mainstay and volunteer at Greensboro’s Urban Ministry, serving warm meals and the wisdom of one who has been there and back to those who have fallen between the cracks of life.

A Greensboro native and self-described child of the ’70s, Joe took himself off to college and adopted a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol that led him to a place he never imagined going. “It was such a sad lifestyle,” he explains one chilly autumn morning over breakfast with a friend. “I drifted into it and met people who led me deeper into a lifestyle that had no value to anyone, including me. I had to finally reach the bottom. That’s when I found the way out.”

At his low point in 1979, he was consuming a case of beer daily and working at a curb market on Lawndale Drive. “One night this fella comes in and we start talking. He said some things about the power of God to change and heal that struck a strong chord with me — just a few words that changed my life. A few days later, he came by my house and we had a deeper conversation about the Holy Spirit and he posed a simple question to me: In a perfect world, what would I eliminate? I told him I would end lying and cheating and stealing — so that nobody would ever have to lock their doors at night.”

The stranger invited Joe to pray with him. It was his Road to Damascus experience.

“I got things off my back that night I’d been carrying for a very long time,” he explains. “I turned my back on them and walked with him to the Lord.”

Joe looks up and smiles, a trim, gray-bearded man who looks like a cross between Santa Claus and the patriarch of Duck Dynasty.

“I made a promise to God that night to give up alcohol, to pray, read my Bible and go with Jesus. The things I’d been doing in the past suddenly melted away. I never touched alcohol again. That was 43 years ago. In more ways than one, I was saved.”

He never learned the stranger’s full name. “His name was Don. Just Don. He wouldn’t even tell me where he went to church, said it didn’t matter. Just never go back to my old haunts, read and pray and tell others what happened to me. I never saw him again.”

Rather like Scrooge, as the result of the nighttime visitation, Joe was a changed man.

He found his salvation in following Jesus while selling antiques and working in lawn service. Over decades, he has helped others find their way back to the light of a good and sacred life. Best of all, he is part of a rotating team of dedicated Urban Ministry volunteers who provide food, shelter and spiritual wisdom to thousands of our neighbors in need each year. This means the world to Joe Campbell.

“Each of us has a different story,” he explains. “Mistakes and misfortune occur in every life. When I give my five-minute meditations, I like to share my own experience of finding a new life through faith and the gift of service to the Lord and others.”

The holidays always remind Joe of the gift he’s been given, especially at Christmas. He and wife, Marie, will welcome 30 family members to the holiday table this year. “That’s six children, 12 grandchildren and six great grandchildren,” he says with a twinkle. “We sort of blend Thanksgiving and Christmas together.”

But one old habit endures. “I like to find gifts at Goodwill or even on the streets of the city, used things people place at the curb. It’s amazing what you can find if you open your eyes. Really beautiful things that people overlook or cast aside.”

He would know.

First Moravian Church

The Spirit of Love, Candlelight and Good Things to Eat

Photographs by Lynn Donovan

As a chilly late October evening settles over Lindley Park, the fright lights of Halloween are shining brightly across the neighborhood. Inside the cozy candle hut at First Moravian Church on Elam Avenue, however, just down the walk past the church’s new community garden, it’s the light of a holy infant’s birth in late December that illuminates the spirits of seven volunteers as they work.

“It’s like this every year, a true church-wide effort,” says volunteer candle stringer Beverly Lozano, who along with husband David — an assembler of plastic Moravian stars and a chicken pie specialist — have gathered on a Friday evening to make more than 1,500 beeswax candles by Christmas week. “Over the six or seven weeks before Christmas,” she says, “we’ll have anywhere from 40 to 50 members helping out. It’s a lot of work, but also a lot of fun — what the season is really all about for us. Sharing love and candlelight and good things to eat.”

First Moravian’s annual Candle Tea and Christmas Eve Candlelight Lovefeast are beloved traditions. They date back centuries in the world’s oldest continuing Protestant denomination. The services are a longtime holiday staple in the lives of thousands of Greensboro residents from all faith traditions who grew up attending the church’s annual candle tea and love feast as school kids, a practice that continues today.

In an increasingly commercialized world made all but inescapable by smart phones and roaming Amazon vans, there’s something about the simplicity of fragrant handmade beeswax candles, distinctive Moravian stars, delicious homemade chicken pies, sinfully sweet sugar cake, handmade crafts and simple advent wreaths that stirs fond memories of a slower time when waiting for Christmas was all about waiting for the birth of a child.

“Like many people, as a young adult,” confides Sam Post, a retired real estate attorney and longtime member, “I got caught up in all the holiday’s commercialism. But coming back here reminded our family of what the essence of Christmas is all about, literally bringing light and love into the world.”


For many years, as a result, Post has served as something of the church’s de facto artisan-in-chief who makes the fragrant wax candles in vintage molds. He also creates spectacular paper stars and even builds sets for the candle tea’s annual “Putz,” German for “place,” a popular display that occupies the entire stage in the new fellowship hall with recreated scenes from Bethlehem, the Nativity, and an early Moravian village.

“The Putz simply wouldn’t happen without Sam and many others who give their talents to make the tea and lovefeast special every year,” allows volunteer Lisa Salo, who points out that early Moravians used such displays to illustrate Biblical stories for children and to share the spirit of the season with their neighbors.

Back in the candle hut, volunteer Addie Joplin, a UNCG international business major who will graduate in December, is busy stringing the candle molds before the wax is poured. “This is literally something that means so much to me because I grew up attending the candle teas and lovefeasts at my church up in Hickory [New Hope Moravian]. The light and scent of the candles on Christmas Eve is just about the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see.”

A few feet away, longtime volunteer Nancy Wall is trimming and polishing the candles with, of all things, women’s nylon stockings. “It’s one of our trade secrets,” she quips. “We give up our pantyhose to make the candles shine.” She jokes that she “married a Moravian and was forced into the church,” but wouldn’t have it any other way. This is her 25th year as a volunteer, she explains.

“We do this,” sums up Beverly Lozano, a Baptist-turned-Moravian who moved to Greensboro from New Jersey with David eight years ago, “because we consider it our gift to the community, whatever faith tradition people follow. It’s all about sharing love and candlelight, a beautiful tradition that’s passed down to us. It’s our joy to share it with everyone — and shine a light into the darkness.”

“Not to mention, our delicious chicken pie,” adds David Lozano, heading off to the kitchen where more than 1,500 pies are currently in production. “The men chop the chicken. The women make the dough. We think ours are the best you can find anywhere — the reason they sell out every year!”

For more information, contact or phone (336) 272-2196.

Körner’s Folly

The Spirit of Surprise and Joy

Photograph by Lynn Donovan

It may take a village to raise a child, as the familiar African proverb goes. But nothing less than a community of volunteer decorators is required to get historic Körner’s Folly in Kernersville annually decked out for its over-the-top Christmas display.

“The work begins around Halloween,” says Suzanna Ritz, “when a small army of folks from all over town devote their time and imagination to transforming this wonderful old house into something magical. Volunteers are the heart and soul of this incredible house.”

Eccentric Kernersville designer, artist and decorator Jule Gilmer Körner built his marvelously eclectic 5,600-square-foot, brick dreamhouse with its unique cross-gabled shingled roof in 1880, in part to promote his popular designs and custom furniture to potential customers — a classic Victorian “folly” that featured 27 rooms, 15 fireplaces, trap doors, a full theater, and no two doors or windows alike. Körner is best known as the marketing genius who created the national Bull Durham logo campaign that netted him a fortune.

Following Jule’s death in 1924, as Nancy Oakley, O.Henry’s once-senior editor, engagingly profiled in 2018, the impact of the Great Depression and two World Wars prompted the Körner family to board up the house, “which fell prey to vandals and looters. It became a haunt of local teenagers, some of whom carved their initials in one of the upstairs hallways. Even after the property’s purchase and protective placement on the National Register, the property was manned solely by volunteers for 30 years.”

In 1970, 26 local families — including Körner heirs — banded together to save the house from demolition, achieving protective status from the National Register of Historic Places three years later. A foundation was created to bring the house slowly back to life.

In the 1980s, family member Connie Körner not only directed the extensive renovation of the house/museum but inaugurated a lavish holiday decorating tradition in 2010 that echoes the Folly’s original Victorian splendor and seems to outdo itself every year. Hewing to a different Victorian theme each year, every room and nook of the house is lavishly decorated in period style by dozens of local volunteer decorators ranging from the local Boy Scout troop from the Moravian Church across the street to the Young Professionals Network from the Chamber of Commerce.

Over the past decade, the imaginative handiwork of longtime volunteers Ann Stoebe and Tim Burrow has come to define the kind of high-energy creativity that makes the decorated house a treasured holiday destination for more than 3,000 visitors annually during the holiday season.

Stoebe, 79, a native of Bedford, England, relies on her love of Christmas and cherished childhood memories to stir her creative juices. “You never quite know until you start where this will lead you,” she says. “But it’s really quite magical how it happens. I dream about decorations, even go to bed envisioning what I will do. For me, there’s so many wonderful memories of Christmas that are attached to this project.”

Famous for her bright red plaid ribbons and decidedly English touches, Stoebe has decorated a score of the house’s more eccentric rooms, including the tidy “Rose” room she did some years back with help from her daughter, Michelle, and granddaughter, Emma. This year, Stoebe’s assigned space is the cozy “Smoke Room,” which she aims to transform into an “Orient Express” theme using vintage leather suitcases, walking canes, Homburg hats, German humidors and an electric fireplace.

“I tried to give all of this up three years ago when my husband and I downsized our own house big time and got rid of a lot of my props,” she adds with a laugh. “But every year they say please and I come back. I just love it!”

She playfully points a finger at Tim Burrow. “Fortunately, Tim has a house full of props for any theme you can think of. He’s the source of true Christmas magic.”

Burrow is a resident of Asheboro who works with an estate sale company. “The entire second floor of my house is filled with nothing but props and decorations,” he explains, including all kinds of artificial trees and greenery. “You name it, I’ve probably got it.” In recent years, his portfolio of uber-festive rooms has included an upside down Christmas Tree with Victorian China tea cups, and trees covered with vintage postcards and Victoran musical instruments.

Since 2022’s theme is “A Storybook Christmas,” Burrow is turning the house’s library into a workshop for elves and a shoemaker, using 50 marionettes and puppets. Visitors will also find one of his vintage sleighs sitting on the lawn outside for use in holiday family photographs. He loves to dress in period costumes and visit with guests as they walk through rooms on the tours, including once as the ghost of Jacob Marley.

“I love to chat with visitors just to see their faces when they see what we’ve done to these rooms. It never fails. Their faces truly light up with joy. That’s what Christmas is all about – surprise and joy. That makes all our work such a pleasure.”  OH

Körner’s Folly’s popular Candlelight Tours are scheduled for December 3 and 17, featuring carolers, costumed guides, hot cider and Moravian cookies. Information: or (336) 996-7922.

Art of the State

Building Community

An artist and teacher, September Krueger finds connections through her practice

By Liza Roberts

September Krueger’s intricate quilts and silk paintings use subtle, watery colors, delicate stitching, layered images and the unexpected juxtaposition of organic and designed shapes and lines. They honor the natural world: birds and plants, and the environments they share. And they are the work of an artist with a deep appreciation for her subject and her medium.

From an early age, Krueger loved to draw. She studied textiles as an undergraduate in Philadelphia with the idea of becoming a fashion designer, but her graduate work at East Carolina University between 2007 and 2010 opened her eyes to the potential of textiles as an artistic medium, inspiring her to “develop layers of information on woven cloth.”

Her 77th Year, painted silk with machine and hand embroidery, 42 x 42

A kimono she made at ECU was the turning point. She was on familiar ground when it came to the sewing and structure of the garment, but found herself pulled in a new direction with the fabric itself and the stories it told. “All of the motifs were of cloth that had been batiked,” says Krueger, referring to the artistic process of using wax-resistant dye to create patterns, “and all of the batiked imagery related to religion, which comes up a lot in thinking about myself and my family.” From that point forward, function took a back seat, she says: “‘Wearable’ became less and less important.”

Krueger uses silk and other fluid fabrics in her work today, enabling her to “build up the surface in so many ways, almost like a collage artist,” often using repeated motifs like a small bird or a leaf. These also show up in her finely wrought woodblock prints.


Left: Goatsucker, painted silk with embroidery, 24 x 24
Right: Reward: Reveal, silkscreened on cotton sateen with machine embroidery and organza

Central to Krueger’s artistic calling, she says, is an instinct to share it and use it to build community. As director of lifelong learning at Wilmington’s Cameron Art Museum since 2020, one of her central goals is to open the museum’s offerings to new populations. Paradoxically, she says, the pandemic might have helped with that effort, because people who might not have taken themselves to the museum in ordinary times were compelled to visit virtually. Krueger’s community focus goes beyond Wilmington. In Kinston, for example, she and Anne Brennan, a fellow artist and the executive director of the Cameron Art Museum, designed tile mosaics for installation in Kinston Music Park. They were inspired by the work of iconic North Carolina artist Romare Bearden, known for his work in collage, and created it together with the young women of a community development organization called The Gate.

In addition, Krueger’s work as head of the art department at Southeastern Community College, where she has been a teacher since 2011, takes her to nearby Whiteville regularly. “I found a community immediately here in Wilmington, between the university and the community college. I found that there are outstanding artists in our community college system,” Krueger says. “And I also met people who were at different stages of life and were going back to study and figure out what they might want to do . . . Art connects them all.” OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

December Sazerac

Sage Gardener

“Wikipedia says commercial eggnog can have glucose, fructose, modified milk ingredients, carrageenan, guar gum and as little as one percent egg in it,” I holler to my wife, Anne, who is in the kitchen making chow chow. “What’s in yours?”

“Cream, eggs, sugar and too much nog after you get through with it,” says Anne, who was raised by Baptist teetotalers.

“Some North Carolinian in 1895 said you should use a half gallon of brandy in your eggnog,” I counter. “George Washington put one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye whiskey, a half pint of Jamaica rum and a quarter pint of sherry.”

“And his teeth fell out. Sherry sounds awful.”

“It would probably have been very sweet like cream sherry. George’s sounds just like yours. ‘Let set in a cool place for several days,’ he says. ‘Taste frequently.’”

“You got that covered. Would you come in here where I can hear you?” she shouts back.

“Only if you’ll make me some eggnog.”

“Too early and we don’t have bourbon or rum because you drank it all.”

Anne’s eggnog is legendary. Ask our editor, Jim Dodson, if you don’t believe me. 

Anne separates a dozen eggs that have been pasteurized. She beats the yolks until they’re thick, adds two cups of sugar gradually, then in goes about a pint of bourbon. While that chills for about an hour, she takes the egg whites, which have warmed to room temperature and beats them until they’re stiff. Finally she folds it all together and adds a sprinkling of freshly ground nutmeg.

If you’re not already in the holiday spirit, the spirit will definitely be in you after I add a little rum to your cup. No sherry this year, but it sounds tempting. At my age, teeth are a precious commodity.    David Bailey

Just One Thing

If in the holiday rush, you only get to see one exhibit, we encourage you to drop by Weatherspoon Art Museum and catch artist Titus Kapahr’s Byzantine-inspired gilded portraits. They all feature men who shared his father’s name, Jerome, and had their mugshots taken on the way to prison. Painting on a panel covered in gold leaf, Kaphar then dipped the portraits into a tank of tar. “The contrast of the two materials is striking,” muses Emily Stanley, Weatherspoon’s curator and head of exhibits. “The gold bears associations with value and spiritual realms, while the tar is emphatically related to the ground and being trodden upon.” The portraits are part of Gilded: Contemporary Artists Explore Value and Worth, which will be up until April 8, 2023. “The artists in this exhibit turn to gilding as a means to reconsider our value systems,” Stanley says. “Gilding images of graffiti and sidewalks, cardboard boxes and architectural fragments, they ask us to see the beauty in what we often overlook and honor that which we so often throw away.”       David Bailey

Unrequited Love

Old Gold

I’d gone steady with a few boys by the time I reached high school. Triangular love notes sent sailing across math class, make-out sessions at parties, handholding strolls in the snow. But it wasn’t until I was in 10th grade at Page that love gobsmacked me. I was a sophomore; he was a senior. I learned to smoke Old Gold cigarettes and drink beer. Ball games, dances, parties at homes where parents were elsewhere. I loved this guy in the all-in way that teenage girls have. His name was encircled by a heart on every notebook and written over and over on sheets of lined paper. We talked on the phone for hours at night. I was sure we’d get married someday.

And then, out of the blue, in the middle of the hallway between classes, he told me we were finished.

Inconsolable, I started eating six or seven oranges a day. In the afternoons, I would break out in hives, literally overdosing from vitamin C. Weird way to mourn, right? But who can explain the actions of a lovelorn teenage girl?

I moved on eventually, a little savvier and a little less willing to give my whole heart away.

When we were in college, he contacted me and we set up a date. I walked out of the dorm wearing a powder blue double-knit pantsuit my mother had made. The door to a VW Bug opened, and he unfolded himself from the front seat sporting faded jeans, a Dead Head T-shirt and long hair. It wasn’t going to work out.

Years later, happily married with three daughters, I was in Greensboro to take care of my dad who was in the hospital. After a particularly difficult day, sick of hospital cafeteria food, I drove to a nearby fast-food restaurant to grab a bite to eat.

Standing in line, I saw him across the room. Grayer, a little more weight around the middle, but it was him. Old feelings from after the breakup, when I’d see him at school, arose in me — sweaty armpits and palms, heart beating like mad. I walked slowly across the restaurant, tapped his shoulder. When he turned, I croaked out his name.

He stared. Squinted his eyes. Had my gray-streaked hair and crow’s feet rendered me unrecognizable?

He shook his head as though to clear it.

“Maggie?” he said.

My face on fire, I looked away to catch my breath, stunned that he didn’t even remember my name.

“Mamie,” I said, and smiled.

He had always loved my smile. And I guess, in a way, I had always loved his arrogant nonchalance.

Mamie Potter is the accounting manager at Builders Unlimited, Inc., and a long-time volunteer and bookseller at Quail Ridge Books. She lives in Raleigh where she spends her free time reading, writing stories and taking FaceTime photographs of her three grandchildren.

Photograph © Carol W. Martin/Greensboro History Museum Collection

We asked the Greensboro History Museum for a fun vintage holiday photo and they delivered. We’d have been good friends with the spirited Carrolls — and that name!

Scene & Heard

The city’s most beloved nightclub in the 1990s and early-2000s was undoubtedly The Rhinoceros Club, back when there were scant few reasons to venture downtown at night. Or during the day. for that matter.

Peeking into an open doorway, I discovered The Rhino will be making an electrifying comeback in its familiar location facing the Carolina Theatre on Greene Street. The surviving original fixtures like those charmingly antiquated, pulley operated ceiling fans and the ornately carved dark hardwood booths, window frames and bar are being meticulously restored. The plaster wall behind the bar was jackhammered to expose the brickwork and modern bathroom installation seem to be the only major cosmetic changes anticipated.

An edgy, hip, yuppie bar? So I’m told. I only recall being there once. From the stories I’ve heard, everyone of a certain age in Greensboro was at The Rhino when Bruce Springsteen strolled through the door on a January night in 1985 to catch a performance by up-and-coming Boston rockers The Del Fuegos.

Underway in 2019 before being paused, The Rhino’s ambitious, time-tunneling recovery effort is slated to be completed in early 2023. A legit nightclub for young upwards to congregate just steps away from a live performance venue (The Crown) and M’Coul’s might be just what downtown needs to ignite some sort of cohesive scene. Regardless, the new Rhino crowd will likely have to tolerate that old guy at the end of the bar insisting he was present when The Boss dropped by, telling some watered-down variation of the absolutely true story I just told you. I can definitely confirm its veracity because I wasn’t there.            Billy Ingram

German Dollhouse

A childhood treasure launches a newfound hobby


When my American father, who was in the U.S. Air Force, drowned in Alaska, my German mother took me back to her home country with her. I lived there happily and peacefully until I was 7 years old. Ultimately, my mother, working at a dental clinic, met a periodontist from the U.S. who became my stepfather. She brought to America as many of her German possessions as possible, including beautiful rugs, along with her delicate china and crystal. Also included, for me, was a priceless, handmade dollhouse, although a little beat up from the hours and hours my dolls and I spent enjoying it. I’m sure I must have  played with it a little longer in our new home, but I eventually outgrew it and moved on to college, boys and working.

In the early ’80s though, I was briefly unemployed and discovered an interest in miniatures. I retrieved the dollhouse from a friend of my mother’s, whose daughters had also cherished it. I took it to a dollhouse and miniatures shop off Battleground in Greensboro. This little store is no longer there, but, at the time, it was a wonderful playground for an adult hobby. Exactly what an interest in miniatures means psychologically for an adult, I never wanted to know. It was just fun and I found camaraderie with other enthusiasts. 


Inspired, I decided it was time my childhood companion got a major makeover. I stripped off patterned paper to reveal a beautiful, hand-painted roof! I removed parts of the façade, and cut a bay window and an attic window. I applied stucco to the exterior, had a small stained glass window made for the attic, and installed a bay window. Using a paintbrush I added shutters and columns, a chimney trimmed with copper and real stones at the entranceway.

In the interior, real wallpaper covers a small copper strip that allows for actual electric current to light the tiny lamps. Actual wood flooring is in the living room and bedroom, and tile in the kitchen. There are real, tiny photos on the walls, but the rest of the elaborate furnishings are too countless and fabulous to describe individually. But what a happy, productive hobby it’s been to bring this old dollhouse back to life.

Mainly, every time I look at the dollhouse, I remember the happy, peaceful, loving feelings at my grandmother’s house in Germany.

Kristin Howell is a Greensboro resident who spent some of her childhood in Germany

Calling All O.Henry Essayists

Several years ago, we introduced a personal essay contest that was a big hit with readers and creative writers of the Triad. It was called “My Life in a Thousand Words.”

The theme of this year’s “My Life in a Thousand Words” contest is The Year That Changed Everything.

Was it the unforgettable year you got married (or divorced), went to college (or dropped out), saw the light, kissed the blarney stone, joined the army, ran for president, met Mick Jagger, had a baby, ran away with the circus, spiritually awakened — or, like many of us, just survived?

Only you can tell the story.

Same modest guidelines apply: Deadline is December 24, 2022. Submit no more than 1,000 words in conventional printed form. Shameless bribes and free (expensive) gifts welcome. Flattery also works.

Send to:

Scuppernong Bookshelf

In the Lonely Backwater

An excerpt from local author Valerie Nieman’s latest novel

Introduction by Cassie Bustamante

Local author Valerie Nieman knows a thing or two about weaving a thrilling tale of mystery complete with compelling and intricate characters. And her latest novel, In the Lonely Backwater, happens to be the perfect size for stuffing into your favorite reader’s stocking.

Maggie, an awkward high-schooler, is an outsider who lives on a small houseboat with her drunkard father in a sleepy North Carolina lake marina town, her mother having long run off to start a new life without her. In her disordered life, Maggie finds solace and order by losing herself in categorizing the plants around her.

Her world is disrupted when the body of her cousin Charisse is found shortly after a school dance. Because they’ve never been on the best of familial terms, Maggie is marked as a person of interest from the beginning.

Nieman tells us this book was inspired by an inscription on her senior yearbook: “A girl I barely remember wrote, ‘I hope all our misunderstandings are cleared up,’ and signed it, ‘Love.’ I do not remember the disagreement, but the emotional storms of high school came slamming back.”

Now, a peek inside:

I wondered if Detective Vann had memorized all the stuff in that little red notebook, which was nowhere in sight.

“She was messed up. I don’t know if it was drinks or something else. There was that big rip down the front of her dress.”

“Did she say anything about that?”

“Not to me. She and Nat went back in the trees and were talking. Then they came back and we all sat around and finished the bottle. I walked home.”

“Leaving Charisse and Nat and David all in the graveyard.”

“That’s right.”

“Anything else you remember?”

He doesn’t need to know all that I remember. I remember better about the real world than all this stuff with Charisse. I remember that Easter had come right when it was supposed to, the woods filling in green, with dogwood and fading redbud coloring the edges. Prom day came two weeks after Easter, even the oaks pushing out their leaves by that time. It had been a cool spring, late frosts, but the Thursday before prom the winds shifted; a breeze filled in from the southwest and put a chop on the lake. It turned really hot really fast, 90 degrees that afternoon. It was enough to raise a sweat during the day. By the time I got done with work and made it up to the gas station, it had cooled, just warm and nice, smell of cut grass and narcissus. The air began shifting around, more from the west, gusts and then dropping to nothing. By the time we headed to Old Trinity graveyard, clouds were filling in fast.

I remember in the graveyard, the smell of flowers rising up from Wisteria Lodge, a fallen-in plantation house whose owners now lived under the gravestones we sat on. I remember how headlights from cars on the highway moved across the graves in a certain way, depending if they were headed north or south. But then lights swung all the way across as a car turned onto the pike and stopped, and the lights stayed on, casting giant tree-shadows against the church for a long time. We could hear the motor running. Nat came out of his funk and was looking like WTF?, and Hulky stood up and started that way, then the lights and the engine cut off. We heard one door open and close. Next thing we knew, Charisse was standing inside the gate.

“Hey, guys?” Her voice rose way up at the end.

“Hey Charisse,” Nat blurted out. She followed his voice, uncertain as she walked across the graves, maybe because of high heels, but when she got to us we could see she was barefoot and there was a gash down the turquoise shimmer of her dress. Her face didn’t look right, but everyone looked ghoulish as the moon went in and out of the clouds.

I could feel the boys sweat, see how they repositioned themselves as they sat. Charisse was Charisse. Not Maggie.  OH

Valerie Nieman is the author of In the Lonely Backwater and four earlier novels, and books of short fiction and poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she is professor emeritus of creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. In the Lonely Backwater can be found wherever books are sold.

Painting With Paper

Greensboro’s Ronda Szymanski cuts to the heart with her spirited collages

By Maria Johnson 
Photographs by Amy Freeman

Anyone else would have seen the publication for what it was: a full-color arts and culture magazine packed with stylish fonts, catchy headlines, fetching photographs and comely advertising.

Ronda Szymanski saw that — and something else hidden in the pages: an angel.

An angel named Ariel. In a garden.

Szymanski (pronounced sha-MAN-ski) sketched her vision on a wooden panel, then flipped through the magazine and snipped the raw ingredients of the collage that resided, for the time being, in her head.

A smiling face.

A sandaled foot.

Folds of fabric.

A golden halo.

A pair of butterfly wings.

Clusters of roses.

Banks of greenery.

She pasted down the background first, then went to work on the angel.

But this was no pious affair. Szymanski punched up her heavenly hostess with clippings of words and images that blended from a distance and brought a smile upon closer inspection.

A whole fish and a close-up of a cat’s tongue tucked into the angel’s skirt.

A wee sketch of a cowboy hanging out by the roses.

A dragonfly.

A book slapped with the word “Gratitude”.

“It’s a go-with-the-flow process,” she says. “I can’t know what I need until I get there.”

In the end, Szymanski decided that Ariel — a figure from Christian and Jewish mysticism — was more holistic than holy.

“She turned out to be more of a faerie — whimsical and playful . . . Maybe she lost her religion,” Szymanski muses with a spritely smile.

At 55, she reads much younger than her age in her denim shirtdress and bright white Keds. Her frosted blonde hair is mostly contained in a top knot, but a few wisps have busted out — or been allowed to free-range — to frame an oval face set with blue-green eyes.

She’s a familiar sight in Greensboro art and civic circles. A Junior Leaguer, she has served on the boards of the symphony guild and opera company.

Others know her from her Greensboro business, Salt & Soul, a wellness spa that offers hydromassage (a massage chair filled with warm, pulsing water), an infrared sauna and halotherapy.

Trending around the country, halotherapy is the practice of going into a salt room or “cave” in hopes of boosting respiratory health.


“Halotherapy is used in medical centers in Eastern Europe for COPD, asthma and even cystic fibrosis,” says Szymanski, who launched her business in 2021, mid-pandemic, and rebooted with a second grand opening last month.

For halotherapy, Salt & Soul customers enter a white room that suggests a salt cave; Szymanski and her husband literally threw a fluffy salt-rich coating onto the walls to create the effect.

Then clients step over beds of pink Himalayan salt and recline in zero-gravity chairs.

“They’re like lawn chairs,” Szymanski explains. “They take the weight off your spine.”

Soft instrumental music plays. The lights are low. If customers want, they can cuddle with a soft blanket as they breathe aerosolized salt.

“I like to say a little blessing that people get what they need in the salt room,” Szymanski adds. “If that’s a nap, that’s OK.”

She displays a few of her collages at the spa. Following the salt theme, those works evoke the seaside. A Soft Landing is an abstract harbor scene, heavy on blues and whites with a wink of red.

“That’s to symbolize drama and passion,” says Szymanski. “It reminds me of the coast at the Mediterranean.”

She hopes to use her shop to exhibit the work of other artists, as well as her own not-so-beachy pieces, which she stows at her home, a ranch house on four acres near Summerfield.

Szymanksi leads the way to her basement sanctuary like a tour guide, weaving past pockets of the practical (bunk beds, old refrigerator, exercise equipment, her husband’s coffee roaster) and the meditative (candles, pillows, icons).

Szymanski’s tiny studio — where the cutting and pasting happens — is a collage itself, a salad of cork boards and finished works surrounding a folding wooden card table that she bought at Costco about 20 years ago.

The square surface has functioned, at various times, as kitchen table and dining room table. Now, it’s Art Central, layered with scraps of paper that Szymanski has snipped from a motherlode of city magazines stacked in a blue plastic bin.


“This is my palette,” she says with a wave of the hand. She is watched over by the kindly countenances of her subjects.

“There’s an elephant. There’s Gandhi. Here’s the Queen,” she says, picking up a portrait of the recently-deceased British monarch, who is vibrant in a fuchsia hat and suit.

The image appears to be painted, thanks to Szymanski’s skill at laying down snippets printed with various colors, textures and patterns.

Her first-ever work is propped nearby. It’s a solemn rendition of the Virgin Mary titled Joy of All Who Sorrow.

Szymanski did the piece in 2009, when she lived in Texas and worked as a life coach for a man with mental illness. They took an art class together at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The assignment was to make a collage. A fan of Byzantine icons — Szymanski and her husband, Chris, were married in an Eastern Orthodox Church — she choose the Virgin as a symbol of love and forgiveness. The work is grounded with hellish scenes and figures at the bottom. Higher up, Szymanski glued words of hope and direction.

“It’s the story of my life,” she says. “It was about healing and overcoming the sorrows of your past.”

Her classmates loved the work. Szymanski kept going. A piece called “The Fall” shows Jesus in the Garden of Eden, alongside Adam, Eve and the serpent.

Never mind the biblical timeline, she says, Christ represents the presence of God in the garden.

She entered the collage in a show, won a special merit award and collected a $250 prize.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I am an artist,’” she says.

Today, she finds inspiration everywhere, whether it’s in a book about iconography, in her backyard chicken coop or in her pen of Nigerian Dwarf goats.

Animal portraits are among her most popular works.

“I love nature,” says Szymanski, who was born on a dairy farm in rural Illinois. “I’m a Midwest farmer’s daughter.”

She also considers herself perpetually spiritual, but not necessarily religious.

“My religion is love, and my journey is to seek the path that will get me the closest to that,” she says. “It’s a long journey.”  OH

Wandering Billy

The Island of Misfired Toys

Naughty or nice, you didn’t want to wake up to these gifts on Christmas Day!

By Billy [Eye] Ingram

One of our family Christmas traditions was all of us showing off those predictably lousy presents from various older relatives, probably the most revolting being a used baby changing pad my sister-in-law was horrified to unwrap. On the other hand, there were gifts that young and old alike eagerly anticipated Santa would deliver. Careful what you wish for: More than a few turned out to be potentially catastrophic, lethal even.

Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab

Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab No. 12006. Photograph  Courtesy of Science History Institute

I thought the Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab my older cousin received in 1965 was the coolest thing ever, most likely purchased from Charlie Plummer at Friendly Center’s Fleet-Plummer Hardware where they always stocked a gloriously lavish toy selection over the holidays. Even the illustrated metal box was boss looking, depicting two hearty boys, younger and older brothers one surmises, exploring a better life through chemistry. Inside that compact, clasped canister was a row of test tubes, scales and two walls of minute glass jars filled with powdery substances with exotic names like calcium oxide, cobalt chloride and sodium ferrocyanide, a less toxic cyanide — all together a dizzying array of potions and poisons. There was even sodium carbonate, basically Alka-Seltzer, for mother after she realizes the potential chemical weaponry her offspring might be scheming to unleash upon the neighborhood. Come to think about it, has anyone seen little Fluffy lately? That noxious apparatus was lots safer and saner than its predecessor.  In 1950, parents would have ventured out to Harry and Faye Rimsky’s Tiny Town Toyland on South Elm to locate A.C. Gilbert Company’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, aka “The Most Dangerous Toy in History.” A mad scientist’s dream come true, it came with a Geiger counter; a spinthariscope for observing decaying atoms; a Cloud Chamber assembly; alpha, beta and gamma sources of radiation in addition to four vials of actual radioactive uranium ore; plus an instruction booklet where Mandrake the Magician explains how science works. All the contaminates and gaseous emissions a glowing boy needs to make the family home go poof!


a shot of some vintage lawn darts somtimes called JARTS. One of each color inside the yellow ring in a back yard setting.

Sold at Sears on Eugene Street in the late-1960s, Jarts was a set of 1½ foot tall, aerodynamic, metal, pointy darts, the kind you would throw in a bar, only many, many times larger. When I was about 12 years old, the jolly one brought us a box of these lawn darts. Did we javelin those heavy, spiked missiles at each other threateningly or use them as weapons against neighborhood kids? Of course we did. Judge if you must, but dodging lawn darts made us more resilient to life’s slings and arrows.


One of the most dangerous devices ever to hit the toy market, Clackers were made right here in Greensboro in a small factory on Smyres Place in the early-1970s. An immediate sensation, the inevitable risk of injury was just one of the reasons they flew off the shelves. Clackers consisted of two dense, colorful acrylic balls connected by a small rope on a stick, allowing kids to “clack” them together by moving their hand up and down vigorously and with precision. The idea was to slap those globes together above and below your hand, making the loudest possible noise. When you eventually missed, those rock-hard balls rocketed into your wrist and knuckles, resulting in bruised and occasionally cracked bones. Ironically, the better you were at this rhythmic hand jive, the more dangerous it became. Wear and tear on those synthetic globes caused clackers to crack, sending shards flying in all directions, leading to a marring little Christmas for more than a few youngsters.

1972 Ford Pinto

Can you imagine anything more exciting than a brand new car in the driveway, wrapped in a pretty red bow, making it a December to Remember? Not if the year was 1972 and the automobile was a Ford Pinto, known for bursting into flames whenever they were rear ended. Twenty-seven drivers were roasted alive and numerous others seriously injured any time the gas tank was struck. Pintos built in Canada had an inexpensive part attached to the gas tank that prevented this very problem. It’s a mystery why the automaker didn’t similarly upgrade its American-built models. A friend of our family owned a ’72 Pinto, purchased from Bob Dunn Ford on Murrow Boulevard, that was plowed into from behind but he somehow spared a fiery demise. He happened to be pulling out of the gas station after a fill-up so there was no oxygen in the tank to allow for combustion.

Mr. Coffee Machine

Also in 1972, TV commercials starring Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio introduced America to the Mr. Coffee Machine, a tremendous leap forward for brewing java at home. An electronic marvel of glass and plastic replaced the simplistic percolators folks had used since the days of old. But with progress came growing pains, and by growing pains we’re talking family homes going up in flames. In the 1970s and ’80s, there were major Mr. Coffee recalls due to the devices being a fire hazard. As late as a decade ago, Mr. Coffee was again recalled for spewing hot grounds and scalding water on users. Even today, coffeemakers in general are considered one of the most dangerous kitchen appliances. Yet another reason Starbucks is a multibillion dollar business.

Easy-Bake Oven

Thanks to Warren’s Toyland at Lawndale Shopping Center in 1968, our neighbor, Toot King, discovered an Easy-Bake Oven under the tree, 5 years after the toy debuted. Given the technology of the time, it seemed a pretty safe operation. Two 100-watt bulbs cooked itty-bitty cakes. The biggest drawback was that the itty-bitty mixes cost as much as the real thing. In 2006, a new Easy-Bake Oven design was introduced that made January headlines with kids getting their itty-bitty fingers and hands trapped inside the baking chamber, leading to dozens of second and third degree burns.

Aqua Dots

In 2007, Toys “R” Us on High Point Road sold Aqua Dots, candy-colored beads that could be arranged in any pattern and, when wet, fused together to create a necklace or a bracelet. They were swallowable and laced with gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), aka the “date rape drug.” One shudders to think how many parents reading this now are thinking, “You mean I could be sedating my overexcited brats on Christmas Day and they took that of the market?!?”

A gift you do want this season (no joke): As I write this, local singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle is No. 1 on the Alternative Country Specialty Music chart with his album, Forsythia, that he describes as “somewhere where gospel, folk, country, blues, all that stuff lives together.” Rolling Stone raves about Forsythia saying, “There’s something very comforting about listening to it, but not in a cheap or obvious way. It’s more hard-won.” It’s an exquisitely produced album that resonates. I didn’t grow up listening to music like this, yet Caudle’s melodies sound like home. Available on the usual music platforms such as Spotify and Amazon.  OH

Billy Ingram is O.G. — Original Greensboro. His latest book, EYE on GSO, is a collection of stories (mostly) about Greensboro originally published in O.Henry and other publications. A great gift idea, available where books are sold and on Amazon.