Paradise Found

Paradise Found

How a funky house on Lake Jeanette became a fortuitous vision

By Ashley Wahl 
Photographs by Amy Freeman


Plan all you want, but life has a way of leading you where you were always going, even if you don’t yet know it.

This adage has been a theme for Jay and Julie Brennan since the day they met. Why would the story of their unexpected dream home on Lake Jeanette be an exception?

Eight years ago, merely by chance, Jay and Julie each found themselves at Starmount Forest Country Club, where neither was a member. Mistaking Julie for someone he knew, Jay tried to strike up a conversation with her and was promptly shut down.

“I had recently divorced,” says Julie. “‘Do I know you?’ sounded like a pickup line.”

It wasn’t. Jay, whose own marriage was dissolving, “actually did think she was someone else,” he says.   

You know where this story is going: They weren’t looking for love, but they found it. And two years later, when the newly engaged couple decided they’d like to buy a house together, they certainly weren’t looking for a full-blown project.

After their private wedding in 2015 — “we didn’t want to have to worry about re-titling,” says Julie —  the Brennans closed on a house in Lake Jeanette’s Southern Shores community that met their three requirements: abundant natural light, ample privacy and proximity to Sherwood Swim & Racquet Club, where Jay plays tennis.

Today, their lakeside home — a modern stone, stucco and cedar vision with dramatic, angular rooflines and a sweeping view to the water from nearly every room — is everything they could have ever wanted. The interior is a playful 4,000-square-foot exploration of colors, patterns, shapes and textures (yes, stripes and polka dots can unite) with no shortage of light or whimsy. Hidden from the road by a veil of hardwoods, the five-bed, four and one-half bath house opens to a spacious ipe (Brazillian walnut) deck complete with outdoor kitchen, weather-resistant furniture and hot tub.

It’s less than four miles from Sherwood’s tennis courts.

But it’s nothing like the house they bought.   

Built in 1989, the original house was designed by an architect who lived there with his wife until the bank took it from them in the early ’90s. The Brennans bought it from the second owners.

“It was unusual,” Julie says of the interior. Pink walls and handmade Mexican tile floors. But the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the water rendered the house utterly resplendent with natural light. She saw potential.

Julie is a retired art teacher who worked for Guilford County Schools for 10 years following her move here from Lynchburg, Va.   

“Light is very important to me,” she says.

Jay liked the privacy. Because the house is surrounded by trees and situated on a cove near a water main that keeps boats confined to the main lake, the Brennans would never need to draw another window shade again. Plus, the modern design reminded him of the house his parents used to own in Naples.

“I don’t think there were any right angles in the entire house,” says Jay.

It was funky, but they liked it.

And so, before they made an offer, Julie called up her tennis buddy, Marta Mitchell (as in Marta Mitchell Interior Design), to give the house her expert eye.

“It’s got good bones,” Marta told them. “We can make this place whatever you want it to be.”

Obviously, they would want fresh paint on the walls and new floors. (Many of the tiles were broken or chipped, Julie explains, and an uneven foundation would render all furniture askew.) But there were two major problems that the Brennans wanted to address: a lack of storage space — for all Julie’s dishes, Jay teases — and a fireplace obstructing the otherwise uninterrupted view of the lake from the living room. While they were at it, they figured, they just might be able to move that wall out a bit to invite even more light into the space. And they wanted to add a screened porch.   

Having decided to save up funds to tackle the projects “all at once,” the Brennans moved into the house as it was and lived there for four years. 

In spring of 2019, at long last, they were ready to move forward with the renovation. Their vision was simple enough. But following the discovery of water damage and mold in the walls, plans changed.

“Rip everything out,” said Jay.

Marta Mitchell drew up blueprints (there were none to be found), and with the help of Frank Chaney (architect) and Pat Parr of Classic Construction (contractor), the team got to work, making the best use of the space and taking full advantage of the opportunity to start from scratch. Not only would the crew resolve the storage dilemma and enhance the Brennans’ view to the water, but they would also transform wasted space into an additional bathroom (main floor) and an artist’s loft accessible via floating staircase through Jay’s second-floor home office.

“We were out of the house for almost 15 months,” says Jay, co-founder of a company that connects innovative startups with health care systems such as Cone Heath. Being displaced for over a year might have been disorienting enough in “normal” times. Never mind in the midst of a global pandemic. 

But in July of 2020, the Brennans moved back into their home, which was transformed from the inside, out.

White stone and stucco complemented by warm cedar supersedes original exterior siding — unremarkable and gray.

Inside, the eye dances across lively, polychromatic silk rugs and hardwood flooring, a miscellany of colorful art and sumptuous furnishings, then on through the back windows, which, original fireplace gone, make the deck and backyard feel like an extension of the interior. In the living room, abstract prints pop against muted walls and sunlight flickers through an avant-garde handblown glass light installation suspended from the vaulted ceiling like something straight out of a Chihuly exhibit.

“We commissioned those,” says Julie of the glass pendants created by Ohio artist Doug Frates, who she and Marta discovered at High Point Market.

An open floor plan allows copious natural light and seamless flow from living room to dining room, where a matching set of bird chandeliers hangs above a Hooker table with chairs upholstered in fabrics most designers only wish their clients would let them pair up.

“It’s quite unconventional,” says Julie of the prismatic polka-dot-and-stripe combo. But Marta Mitchell and Annelise Tikkanen, MMID’s design team on this project, were clear on what Julie wanted.

“It’s eclectic . . . it’s Bohemian . . . it’s just color and fun,” says Julie. “It’s . . . me.”

Marta Mitchell describes the interior as a “unique reflection of the Brennans’ vision.”

“Comfort and function being top of mind,” she adds, “this house is now open and airy and lends itself for everyday living and for entertaining large groups — hopefully in the not-too-distant future.”

The living-and-dining area opens to the “screened porch wing,” where a 60-inch flat screen is mounted above a modish gas fireplace that no longer obstructs the view of the lake.

“We get a breeze from both sides, so it’s comfortable out here even in the summer,” says Julie.

Plus, Jay adds, “We have one of those nice Big Ass Fans.”

The contemporary kitchen, sleek and minimalistic, is decked in a sea of blue tiles and backlit glass-paneled cabinets that showcase Julie’s crystal. The Brennans love their hideaway fridge, sub-zero wine cooler and Wolf appliances, but Jay will tell you that the ice maker is his favorite feature. For Julie, it’s easily the hidden pantry, which has “tons of storage for all my porcelain.”

In the master suite, where one of Julie’s paintings picks up colors from the abstract pastel rug, the Brennans now have His and Her walk-in closets, each with a window to let in natural light. But the best view of the water is from their bed — or the adjacent deck, where two orange rockers await coffee at sunrise.

Besides the den (dark by design) and fitness and laundry rooms, there’s only one other room (upstairs) that doesn’t have a lake view.

“That’s Nicole’s room,” says Julie, whose granddaughter lives here too.

Nicole, 18, and her dog, Omar (a German shorthaired pointer mix), occupy a purple bedroom with a built-in wardrobe, fringe pendant lights and a small gallery of her own bold and colorful paintings.

Actually, Omar has a bed in nearly every room.

And he’s not the only resident smitten with the entire house.

Although Jay admits the renovation was much more extensive than he could ever have imagined — “let’s just say the budget and I were no longer well-acquainted by the end of the project,” he says — he and Julie pulled out all the stops and couldn’t be happier.

So, there you have it. They weren’t looking for it — and this house found them, more than they found it — but the Brennans are convinced that the house at the edge of Lake Jeanette was always meant to be theirs.  OH

Our Crown Jewel

Our Crown Jewel

The evolving history of Greensboro’s Country Park


By Billy Ingram

I exit the cockpit of a F2H Banshee Navy fighter jet, walk past the 20 mm cannons mounted on the fuselage and, surveying unfamiliar surroundings, gaze across a pristine lake. In the distance, my brother and sister are waving me over from an approaching train, steam bellowing from its bulbous black smokestack as it chug-chug-chugs to a halt.

I am 7 years old, and I’m with my family at Country Park.

Many children of Greensboro have similar memories. And lucky for all of us, public parks and recreational facilities were central to the city’s vision of a 20th century urban center. The crown jewel of Greensboro’s green space has always been Country Park.

Located off North Lawndale Drive, Country Park is the nucleus of a 217-acre entertainment destination that encompasses the Greensboro Science Center (a science museum and zoo) and its OmniSphere Theater; Jaycee Park and its Stoner-White Stadium; and Spencer Love Tennis Center.

It’s almost hard to imagine Greensboro without it.

In 1901, a 14-acre tract of lowlands flanking North Elm Street was the first land set aside for an official city park. Today we know the space as Fisher Park, but at the time, it was merely a swampy patch of undeveloped land likely donated to the city in an effort to save the surrounding neighborhood from overdevelopment. In coming years, sinuous walking trails were installed, allowing the public to fully enjoy its bucolic environs at long last. Also in 1901, Douglas Park opened on the south side of town, transforming an 8-acre plot of woods into a vibrant gathering spot with walking paths, a playground and a basketball court. It even had a stream running through it.

In 1902, far outside of city limits, the Greensboro Electric Co.’s streetcar system leased what was known as Lindley Park, where a dance pavilion, man-made lake, bowling alleys, a Vaudeville theater and refreshment booths once drew happy crowds. The iron-and-stone entranceways on Spring Garden are all that remain of that ancient amusement park. Yet somehow, without all the flashy accoutrement (showgirls, candlepins and ice skating, for instance), Lindley Park endures as a sacred place for relaxation and solace.


PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum


This sudden turn-of-the-century mushrooming of public parks was Greensboro’s bid to join a national social movement. The idea was to provide places to contemplate nature and recreate, reducing the stress and strain of urban life. Following the lead of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park in New York City, cities from coast-to-coast began adding parks to their urban landscapes.

Initially modeled after the grounds of manors and estates in England, these parks catered mostly to rich families. However, over the decades, parks began accommodating the working-class families with playgrounds and recreational facilities. The prevailing theory at the time was that public money was well spent on these projects because they could potentially reduce class conflict, socialize immigrants and get kids off the streets. Building parks was a laudable social goal and demonstrated a city’s sense of social responsibility.

And so it was in Greensboro. In an outstanding demonstration of civic pride following the Great Depression, volunteers, city workers and laborers from the Public Works Administration worked together to turn 79 acres purchased in part with cemetery bond funds into Country Park. 

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum


The result of their efforts opened in 1934. When temperatures sizzled that summer, the park attracted nearly 2,000 visitors per day. A wooden superstructure known as The Bath House, situated along the eastern edge of Lake Sloan, the park’s northernmost and largest body of water, is where swimmers could change and shower. Just a few feet away was a high-diving platform. A vertical aquatic merry-go-round was positioned in the middle of the lake, and there was even a sandy beach-like shoreline for sunbathing. Swimming was suspended during the polio outbreak of 1948 but resumed in the 1950s.

Around 1952, the park welcomed a one-fifth scale MTC G-12 train that maneuvered around on a 12-gauge track. That kiddie sized choo-choo was in operation every afternoon in the summertime. Nearby, a full-size Greensboro Fire Department ladder truck and a Southern Railway boxcar acted like magnets, attracting children who couldn’t wait to climb into, up on and around the stationary machines.

By the 1960s, two other man-made lakes sparkled on the property, where rowboats and pedal boats floated in endless, lazy circles, with mallards and Canada geese watching from the shorelines. Fishing was allowed with a permit, and seven picnic shelters were scattered around the lakes with free-standing grills. The park had an archery range, ball field and a craft shop where you could buy a bottle of Pepsi for five cents.

© Carol W. Martin/Greensboro History Museum Collection.
© Carol W. Martin/Greensboro History Museum Collection.


A tram system shuttled motorless city folk about the park on weekends and holidays. Under the direction of Harvey West, the Municipal Band performed weekly Sunday night concerts from a pavilion located on the south side of Lake Sloan.

The Country Park train was replaced in the summer of 1959 by a much bigger attraction when Greensboro resident W.A. Cameron purchased a trio of railroad cars pulled by a 1,700-pound Crown steam locomotive nicknamed “The General.” Based on the design of an 1855 Western and Atlantic Railroad passenger train of the same name that had been commandeered by Yankees during the Civil War, the attraction was a hit. There was even a mini cowcatcher (exactly what it sounds like) up front.

The General was supplanted a few years later by a homemade contraption with faux caboose and a kiddie cage that looked like it might have been designed by the Merry Pranksters on LSD.

(The original Country Park railroad landed in the possession of a young, up-and-coming plastic surgeon, then was later purchased by a Climax couple who sold it on eBay in 2008.)

The first of two decommissioned Korean War-era F2H Banshee Navy fighter jets from Cherry Point arrived at Country Park in January of 1959, decades before playground equipment safety became a public-health issue. Donated by the Marine Corps, the jets were installed on the east side of the lakes; on one side of the planes, a ladder offered kids access to the cockpit, which they could (somewhat) safely exit via playground slide on the other side of the plane. That said, some residents still have scars from mounting those rusting artifacts, arms or legs singed from hot metal surfaces. And with less than adequate guardrails, I’m probably not the only kid that toppled off of those slides. The jet planes were removed in the late-1960s.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF Greensboro History Museum


From day one at Country Park, the streets leading in and out of the park became something of a shortcut for drivers with a need for speed. Not ideal. Thus, in 1960, supplementary access was closed off in favor of a single entrance for automobiles. Around that time, the central body of water was filled in to allow foot traffic access to a 1.6-mile paved circle around the circumference of the park. That’s likely when swimming was discontinued.

As cities across the nation turned to more of a recreational-and-sports complex model for urban parks, construction of the Lewis Center’s multipurpose sports facility was completed on the west side of Country Park in 1964. Because the Greensboro Jaycees raised most of the money for the project, a 75-acre plot abutting the west end of Country Park was christened Jaycee Park in the 1970s, including three football/soccer fields, tennis courts, a Pony baseball field and volleyball courts.

Casey’s Bar-B-Q, a hometown favorite, operated a weekend concession at Country Park during the ’60s. In 1970, the Parks & Recreation Department’s Country Park Patio restaurant entered the scene, selling hot dogs, soft drinks, candy, snow cones and ice cream.

The original city zoo, located at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in the ’50s, featured a peacock, raccoons, an American bald eagle, two bison, alligators, a monkey, a vicious groundhog, several varieties of pheasant, an assortment of ducks and geese, five deer, a goose named Oswald and a black bear cub named Bruno.

As the zoo aged, concern mounted about the animals’ welfare and their being housed in “inadequate structures.” After a “Save Our Zoo” campaign in 1969, the idea of a new and improved zoo turned into a contentious, on-and-off-again affair, but thanks to a last-minute infusion of cash from the city, the new zoo finally welcomed their first visitors in spring of 1973. It was designed sort of like a big, rambling barnyard, with an indoor petting zoo and enclosures for miniature burros, coyotes, a cougar, an American Bison, two elk, black swans, cattle, opossums, turkeys, a llama and Bruno the bear, who had been a major attraction for 14 years at that point. Admission was 50 cents — 25 cents for children.


The Junior Museum, also commonly referred to as The Children’s Museum, got underway in 1957 — a collaborative effort of the Junior League, City Council and Greensboro Parks & Recreation. The staff (mostly Junior League volunteers) taught children about natural sciences, how to care for the small animals on site and how to help injured critters and birds. This facility would eventually evolve into the Natural Science Center, which now threatens to eclipse Country Park as a tourist attraction.

As a teenager in the ’70s, if friends wanted to have a backyard barbecue, Country Park was the preferred venue. (Who wanted to hang out with anyone’s parents?) In those days, the woods were so thick around the picnic areas that you couldn’t see past the tree lines. There was almost no foot traffic — a lone jogger, perhaps. It legitimately felt like you were luxuriating in the countryside.

About that time, ten cents of every dollar (up from 3.5 cents two decades earlier) expended by the city went into a system that included 109 parks, 86 tennis courts, 78 camp sites, 65 picnic sites, 42 playgrounds, 17 baseball fields, 11 community centers, 10 gymnasiums, five outdoor pools and two indoor pools.

Plans are afoot to make what might seem to be radical changes for the newly christened Battleground Parks District. Effectively erasing the largely undeveloped parcel between the Greensboro Science Center and Country Park, the overall concept proposes constructing boardwalks, viewing platforms, wooden abutments jutting into the water, weirdly-shaped climbing structures for kids, accommodations for food trucks, an amphitheater, a waterfall river, additional shelters, and — of all things — a zip line.

I don’t know what it says about our society that viewing stations would be requisite in order to ponder the existence of trees and waterways. Enticing to the zip line crowd, I suppose.

While neighborhood parks like Fisher and Lindley have remained virtually unchanged over the last half century, Country Park, on the other hand, has continually evolved with the times, following national trends about just what constitutes a park — and adapting to the recreational needs of each new generation. While the city’s footprint has stretched well beyond the park and its surrounding facilities, Country Park remains a tranquil oasis for fishing, exercising, meditation and socializing with friends and family. It’s nice to know that will never change.

And, who knows, I may even ride that zip line one day.  OH

The author of five books, Billy Ingram was born and raised in Greensboro. Thanks to Nollie Washburn Neill Jr. for pictures of his trip to Country Park taken by his father in the early-1960s.

The Wonder of Color

The Wonder of Color

Piedmont Photography Club delivers the whole, glorious spectrum

By Maria Johnson



Let us take a moment — here in this month of mud, bluster and bursting forth — to honor ROY G. BIV.

That’s not a person. It’s an acronym for colors along the visible spectrum of light.

Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. Blue. Indigo. Violet.

Throw in black and white, and you have the ingredients of every color that any human has ever seen — or ever will see — with unaided eyes.

That’s shocking when you think about it.

We see so few colors.

And yet, we experience such joy in our wee rainbow, in the gradations and textures and juxtapositions with other colors.

It’s all about how they’re arranged.

And — as any student of Monet knows — how much light falls on them. There is no true color, of anything, only constantly changing reflections of constantly changing light.

Here’s the freaky part: the color happens in our brains. Objects have no inherent color — just surfaces that reflect light in different wavelengths.

Basically, the reflected light — a kind of electromagnetic radiation — hits the photoreceptors in our eyeballs, which dashes them off in chemical telegrams to our brains, which decodes them as colors.

From this neurological basis, we discern objects, depth, movement and sometimes awe. Witness the pleasure prompted by these photographs provided by the Piedmont Photography Club.

The club, which has been around since the 1970s, holds quarterly contests for members. These images, gleaned from last year’s competitions, showcase the wonder of color.

So, photo buffs — and photoreceptors — rejoice as we prime our senses for spring and revel in the glory of ROY and company.  OH

Learn more about the Piedmont Photography Club at

“Atlantic Beach”

Renee Russell, Winston-Salem

It looked like the sky was on fire. That’s how Renee Russell describes the sunset the night she and her husband, David, got to Atlantic Beach to meet with family last summer. She loved the smoky clouds — “I can see a Viking boat in that bigger cloud,” she says — and bristling sea oats below. Renee, a home-health nurse, has been taking photographs for most of her life, but capturing images has become a passion since David, also a prolific shooter, asked her to join the photography club with him about 20 years ago. Stress dissolves, she reports, when she shifts her focus to captivating scenes and starts snapping. “It’s a challenge, at times, to get the shot that you really see or want somebody else to see,” she says. See the couple’s work at


“Facing the Light”

Bet Wilson, Winston-Salem

Talk to amateur photographers, and a theme emerges: They squeeze in lots of pictures while taking vacations. Or, more accurately, they squeeze in lots of vacations while taking pictures. A few years ago, Bet Wilson did both while visiting Arizona in late summer, the best time to photograph Antelope Canyon, which is on Navajo land near Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. She booked an excursion into the slot canyon with 10 other photographers. The guide drove them into the rocky hollow and threw up a handful of dust to accentuate the shaft of light that turned water-worn rock into cathedral. “It was one of the joys of my life to capture that,” says Bet. “I just feel so fortunate that I was able to time my trip so I could be there — and it was a sunny day.”


“Street Art”

Bill Cowden, Winston-Salem

Maybe Bill Cowden wouldn’t notice the masked character today, now that half the world covers its face to filter out COVID, but two years ago, the lithe figure stood out on an art-plastered corner in Austin, Texas. “It wasn’t just junky graffiti,” Cowden says. “It was a lot of interesting different scenes.” Cowden lifted his cell phone and documented the urban tableau. This frame ended up in a club contest. “The competition is friendly,” says Cowden, the group’s president. “Our goal is to help anyone who needs help.” In non-COVID times, the club organizes trips to scenic places around the state, including Lake Mattamuskeet, where snow geese stop during their annual migration.


“Peaceful Beauty”

Ed Haynes, Oak Ridge

Sometimes, the best photos lurk right under your nose. Or outside your breakfast nook. That’s where Ed Haynes saw this butterfly sipping lantana nectar at sunset. “The backlit wings are what makes that one so good,” Ed says, explaining the challenge of capturing quick-moving subjects in low light. “You gotta get your exposure right. It’s a balance between getting enough light and having a fast enough shutter.” Ed’s daughter, Edie, turned him onto photography a couple of years ago, after Ed retired as a maintenance supervisor at the former MillerCoors brewery in Eden. COVID makes him grateful for his new pastime. “I’m glad I can do something in my backyard,” he says.

“Munching Monarch”

Susan Hayworth, Bermuda Run

Susan was stalking Monarch butterflies last September when she took the Blue Ridge Parkway to Doughton Park, a stop on a migration loop that stretches from the northeast U.S. and Canada, down to south Florida and Mexico. She caught this Monarch caterpillar mid-chomp. Soon, it would make a chrysalis and emerge to stretch its orange and black wings and finish the trip south. No single butterfly completes the loop; the journey spans five generations. Some monarch lines, fluttering northward after their winter vacations, stop in North Carolina in the spring. Charmed by the moderate climate and milkweed, they might stay for a few generations (the Monarch lifespan is three to five weeks except for those that overwinter; they can live a few months). Others continue to press north for the summer. Come September and October, their progeny reverse course and stop at Doughton Park to gas up on nectar for the long trip to wintering grounds — no time for royal whoopee. Thousands of Monarchs migrate south during that time, but “You’re not guaranteed you’re gonna see anything,” says Susan. “So for me to go on a hunt and see this — and have it turn out as well as it did — that’s pretty special to me.”


“Jackson Fall”

Franklyn Millman, Winston-Salem

On the way from Jackson, Wyoming, to Yellowstone National Park, Franklyn Millman and his wife, Susan Von Cannon, parked their car and took a walk. “The whole road was covered with these yellow aspen leaves,” says Franklyn, “but finding a scene where you have a lot of vertical trunks that don’t interfere with each other . . .” It took some doing. Finally, Franklyn found the frame. “It had a certain rhythm to it,” he says. “I like the simplicity, and of course I liked the color.” A devoted shutterbug and recently retired internist, Franklyn has traveled worldwide. Once, in Iceland, he ventured onto a wind-whipped beach to shoot chunks of icebergs. A giant wave reared. “It knocked me down and submerged my camera,” he says, laughing. He grabbed a backup camera and kept shooting until he bagged a keeper. “Your pulse actually increases, and you say, ‘Man, if I can capture that before it goes away . . .’  Those moments are relatively infrequent, but sometimes conditions are just right and, boy, it’s amazing.”


“Egret in Carolina Blue Sky”

Boyd Rogers, Summerfield

Boyd was itching to play with his new toy, a 600 mm photo lens. An ideal opportunity came one morning at North Topsail Beach, when he spotted egrets coming and going in a bay behind the island. “You have to get them in focus, lock on and track them while you’re shooting,” he says. “It takes hundreds of pictures sometimes to get the one you’re looking for.” He likes this shot for its simplicity — “There’s nothing to distract your eye away from the bird” — and for the sharp focus on the bird’s pupil. “The eyes are the windows of the soul, I’ve read. Birds are not as much fun as mammals, but there’s a lot there, in birds’ eyes,” he says.



Sinh Nguyen, Winston-Salem

Painstakingly gorgeous. That describes this striking composition, which Sinh Nguyen pieced together at a workstation in his backyard. He snipped an unfurling frond of fern. He positioned a potted flower behind it. He used a syringe to apply drops of water to the fern. He positioned his camera, which was hitched to a Sony 90 mm macro lens, on tripod. He fired the shutter. Again and again. “I took it more or less one hundred times,” he says. “I picked the ten best ones.” Using PhotoShop, he merged the images, preserving the best of each. Thirty years ago, Sinh took a class at the New York Institute of Photography, but he had little money or time to indulge his interest. Now retired, he quenches his thirst for beauty. “I get bored and walk around with my camera and the ideas come,” he says. “I take whatever catches my eye.”


“Water Lilies in Sun”

Marinella Holden, Winston-Salem

The afternoon sun was tilting toward the golden hour at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, S.C., when these water lilies pinged on Marinella Holden’s photographic radar. “It was just a vivid little area,” she says. “The colors were gorgeous, and the light was right.” Marinella took up photography after her husband, Jerry, was well into it. “I wish we’d taken this up earlier,” she says. “It just makes you more aware of your surroundings. Sometimes you’re not focused, but when you’re taking pictures, you are.” See the couple’s work at



Karen Vohs, Winston-Salem

Karen went to the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival in Cary hoping to see hues of blue; the photography club was having a contest with one category reserved for subjects of that color.

This puffy pachyderm fit the bill. Karen crouched low and shot upward — “like a little kid looking up” — to include the pink orbs that popped hot against cooler shades. An avid photographer for the last 10 years, Karen enjoys the challenges of the art: the quest to find and frame subjects, as well as the technical process of digital editing. She has learned much from her snap-happy peers. “There’s a lot of really good photographers in the club who are willing to share their knowledge,” she says.





Poem March 21

Pairing Mantids


He has only one job to do. And she, with her hunger,

her need to feed the future without him by consuming him,

has a lot to get done before winter.

His head tilts slightly, like a sinner at communion,

like a teen expecting his first kiss to be like lightning.

Then his body starts to do the work it was built to do.

She turns toward him and wipes off his face.

He knows it’s all over, but his body keeps on, unknowing itself.

His is the kind of stupid happiness

you can only appreciate at a distance,

the kind you know cannot be as good as it looks.

Hers is the work of duty and a different devotion.

While he takes her from behind, she takes him

head first just like she took a yellow striped hornet

who would have taken her to his own hideaway,

just as she took the grasshopper who was tired of summer,

as she took the large green moth who had no mouth of its own.

She ignored those magnificent wings — just let them fall —

as she ignores the thrusting body that falls away from hers.

He dies two deaths at once, the deaths of love and of life.

But the moment between, the moment before it all ends,

is the moment of his glory and the beginning of her toil.

— Paul Jones

Paul Jones is the author of

What the Welsh and Chinese Have in Common

Almanac February 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

—John O’Donohue


Year of the Ox

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


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

Winter Bloomers

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

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

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

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

O.Henry Ending

Never Arrive at the Funeral Home Late

A broken rule and a lesson on love and understanding


By Katherine Snow Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor of Love

The historic T. Austin Finch House blushes anew

By Cynthia Adams


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

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

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


Photographs by Amy Freeman
Photographs by Amy Freeman


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

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

How that transpired is quite a saga.

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

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

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


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

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

Photo by Brittany Butterworth Photography
Photo by Brittany Butterworth Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can explain love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes.

Photograph courtesy of Brittany Butterworth
Photograph courtesy of Brittany Butterworth


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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph courtesy of Serena Adams
Photograph courtesy of Serena Adams

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph courtesy of Aura Marzouk
Photograph courtesy of Aura Marzouk


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

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

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

Would the house’s resident ghost approve of them?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Feature photograph by Brittany Butterworth

On the Border

By Mélina Mangal  
Illustrations by Harry Blair


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just nursing it till it can fly again.”

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

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

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

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

Cuckoo for Cocoa

Custom chocolates sweeten the deal in downtown Gibsonville

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also helps customers who want to celebrate specific films.

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

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



Cell phones.

Pipe wrenches.

Slot machines.

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

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

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

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

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

Stephens says no.

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

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