In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m re-sharing a tribute to my beloved late sister, who left us 10 years ago this summer after a five-year battle against the disease.  Please remember the millions of women who still need our help as the battle goes on.  Results and options have improved greatly in recent years, but the battle is not over.


It’s a funny thing about sisters and brothers.

You might long for them if you don’t have any.  But if you do, nothing in your life will ever drive you nuts in quite the same fashion.  That is, if you are like most of humanity.

Ours was a family of four kids, so common in those boomer days, three girls followed by a boy. My memories of my siblings as young children are distinctly unremarkable.  They might have been the bathroom wallpaper or the kitchen chairs–just there, the landscape of daily life, to be worked with, or around, as daily functioning might require.  No more, no less.

And then there was later, when inevitable dissonance and occasional outright war emerged with the arrival of adolescence.  Cruelty comes so easily then, and we devised our fair share and pointed it at each other.  When my older sister embarrassed me in front of, heaven help us, a BOY, I wrote a filthy epithet on her bedroom mirror in Vaseline (an interesting tool, yes?), using words I had never uttered out loud and might not have been able to define.  This awkward retribution earned me one of the most significant punishments of my young life.

But we three girls earned an even better one when we decided to show our young brother that he could not expect privacy in our shared bathroom.  When he sensibly resisted by locking us out, we picked the lock with a coat hanger and burst in before he could finish his business.  Our strict father exhibited zero tolerance for such bullying, thank goodness.  And really, remembering how we often we tried similar nonsense, it is a miracle that my brother is not a serial criminal, and still speaks to us.

Such stories, added to the routine family dynamics of adulthood, can crowd the heart at times.  So, when my daughter used to joke that she wished for a sister, I joked in return that I would happily give one of mine away.

That was before we lost one.

Perhaps more than any of the rest of us, my younger sister Jane signaled very early the adult she would become.  Named for both my parents, she was my mother’s spiritual and emotional twin, a magnetic personality endowed with faith and energy and a focus on others that drew people to her like hummingbirds to red petunia blossoms.

Her innate sense of right and wrong was maddening when we were younger.  Constitutionally incapable of tolerating unkindness or rule-breaking, she became an incorrigible tattle-tale.  For this saintly behavior we christened her Susie Good, and we dispensed revenge any time we could manage it without being caught.  We mocked her teeth, adding the nickname Snaggletooth (from the villain in the cartoon Quick Draw McGraw) and denied her entry into many of our games for no explainable reason.  Once on vacation we told her the only place available for her to sleep was in the closet, then watched with waning teenage superiority as she made the best of it and refused to cede victory by complaining.

A disposition to care for others that was embedded in her bones drew her to nursing school, and for a quarter century she nursed surgery patients, wounded diabetics, birthing mothers, and a long list of others.  She left active practice a few times, unable to disregard frustrations at the system, but she always went back to where she could get her hands on people in need.  When I observed that she would have made a great doctor, with more money for less hours worked, she rolled her eyes and shrugged, noting sarcastically that nurses are often closer to patients than doctors, and wasn’t that, after all, the point?

I can’t remember when I went from mocking what I perceived as a campaign for sainthood to admiring the person she became.  It might have been when I noticed that she showed up at every major turning point in my adult life.  She spent the night before my wedding, dispensing meds for the wedding-day diarrhea, my system’s physical signal of the unspoken fears that I was making a terrible mistake.  She took turns with my husband coaching me through labor, joking with the doctor about my cranky demands and patiently explaining every step.

Years went on, but her pattern remained.  With my older sister and brother, she came to unpack on moving day and stood by as I sobbed through my daughter’s graduation.  She drove an hour to my house so I didn’t have to be alone to tell my daughter the cat died.  Then my daughter married, and her aunt helped coached her through the birth of her first child.

My opportunity to try to balance the ledger of debts arrived way too soon, in the way you think happens to other people.  Suddenly, other people were us.  Diagnosed in her late forties with a rare and lethal form of breast cancer, she set out to wage war, and she succeeded so well for so long that at times we allowed ourselves to assume she would be among the few who beat the odds.  Whenever possible, I showed up for appointments and treatments and tests and sat in as bench support.

Even with all her professional insight, the system occasionally failed her, with an insurance snafu or a small clinical step overlooked.  At those moments, I bared proverbial claws and wanted nothing more than to use them to rip flesh somewhere on somebody, anybody, creating an uglier, bloodier version of Shirley MacLaine’s rant around the nurses’ station in Terms of Endearment.  My ferocious anger at any missteps astonished even me, but it didn’t take psychoanalysis or genetics to understand its roots. Watching her struggle was the tiniest millimeter away from experiencing it, since a sister is the nearest replica ever created to a woman’s own being.

When she said she just wasn’t up to attending the birth of my daughter’s second child, instinct told me time was short.  Diagnostic affirmation soon followed.  Along with her own two daughters  (both steadfast, brave and pragmatic like their mother), all three of us siblings took turns at her bedside in those final days.  In my heart, deepest dread joined with surprising gratitude for the privilege of being nearby, of witnessing the final steps in a journey she had defined so remarkably, all the way to the end.  As I bent to say my farewell on the last day I saw her, I said, “I’ll see you again.”  And I still believe it.

A person who lives life in service to others leaves behind a wide legacy of gratitude and, for one taken so young, profound heartbreak.  My own sense of loss at first seemed strangely functional, oddly physical.  It was like a power tool had ripped away one of my toes or fingers, or like I sat on a stool with a leg missing and was dumped sharply onto my butt on a concrete floor.  When grief is described like a part of you is missing, I had never before known how literally that’s true.

Thinking of her so constantly three years after she left us, I’m watching young siblings in our newest generation.  Their bonds and conflicts, their tender affection and dissonance, all ebb and flow with time and context.   After Buddy and I viewed a spectacular exhibit of antique Italian cars one day recently, the first thing he selected in the museum gift shop, without pausing to ask, was a present for his sister.  A couple of days later, I stepped in between them just in time as he screeched in frustration and lunged for her.  Her mistake?  She had boldly subverted his demands that she stay on her side of the line (literally) and color on her own dadgum side of the page.  And so it goes.


Will love triumph over the oceans of things that shadow sibling relationships over time?  Will they stay close enough to cheer each other’s successes, maybe even help the other one get there? If one is touched by tragedy, will the other stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to fight whatever needs fighting?  Of all my prayers for their future, none is more fervent than the one hoping nothing alters that singular sibling bond.

That, and the chance to be around long enough to see what happens.

A Labor Day weekend survey of the garden is a such a dreary exercise.

The petunias in the window box, big favorites of the hummingbirds and bees this summer, droop sadly in apparent surrender to the late-summer weather scourge. Their dry, twiggy stems are grumpily sprouting junior versions of their glorious purple trumpets from early summer. Patient daily watering does not appear to assuage their gloom or straighten their spines.

It has been generally miserable around here, as August in the South tends to be, when the old joke abbreviates the weather as HHH (hazy, hot, and humid). The plants are as irritable as the people as September arrives. The Gardener encountered a brief poem the other day that heralded September as the season of renewal. She briefly wonders where that poet resides but is pretty certain it ain’t around here.

A viney cherry tomato plant that hangs in a basket was a fun experiment this season for a warm sunny spot in the back of the house. The Gardener hung it on a pole and grinned at it all summer, thrilled at the candy-like flavor of its tiny red orbs. Then, as if the other maladies of August—storms, record heat, mold, and more amusements of that sort— were not sufficient to beat a Gardener into submission, the hornworms appeared. These vicious, naturally camouflaged attackers started at the top of the plant, working their way downward to shred the leaves and gobble the fruit. While the Gardener’s faithful back was turned, they transformed the proud green vines from robust to eligible for life support in an eye-popping 48 hours.

The first experience with hornworms was the stuff of nightmares. When poked, the sneaky, life-sucking little assassins rare up like a cobra and display tiny teeth. (No one could make this up. Seriously.) The Gardener was not proud of the satisfaction gained by ending Hornworm Reign of Terror with a sharp pair of garden shears for slaughter, but end it she did. Interestingly, Nature brooks no waste. The injured, half-bitten tiny tomatoes were hurled like Major League fastballs across the lawn toward the woods, more balm for the frustration. It was kind of fun to see the neighborhood flock of wild turkeys, strutting and clucking their grateful anticipation, descend on them like vultures on a roadside skunk. Can turkeys smell food? After watching these peaceful neighbors and their amusing habits for several seasons, the Gardener would not bet against it.

As the heat wave continues, even the stalwart herbs beg for relief. A new variety this year with a tiny, pointed leaf and tart, lemony flavor, the basil plant bushed out beautifully and faithfully did its thing in support of the quintessential summer tomato salad. As if on cue last week when we hit 99 degrees, the basil suddenly sprouted a cluster of flowers on the tips of the stems as thick as the wildflowers in the meadow beyond the house. The butterflies are enchanted by the little blossoms, and even the hummingbird is happily sucking away, but this sight holds no joy for the Gardener. She reads the message clearly: Basil is done for the summer.

Saddest of all—as pitiful in its decline as it was glorious at its peak– is the potted giant zinnia, nearly the size of a bush. This happy one brightened the porch all summer. The fat, fluffy blossoms of red, orange and yellow summoned the hummingbirds, who cheered the Gardener with daily visits outside the office window. Zinnias are a gardener’s safe harbor in the hot Southern summer. They are reliably heat tolerant and last so well in a vase when cut. But after this latest brutal siege, even a major morning dose of water doesn’t bolster the zinnia to stand up in the heat by mid-afternoon.

The Gardener knows just how it feels.

Yet there is no rest for those who cannot relinquish optimism when faced with these signs of pestilence, drought, and tragedy. The lifelong Gardener is either the most determined optimist you ever met, or an oblivious idiot, or somewhere combination of both (OOI). The owner of our best local garden center writes an informative weekly blog about our conditions and the opportunities they represent to us OOIs. “You can plant now!” He promises. “The nights are getting cooler! Plants will grow and thrive until the ground freezes solid. It’s not too late. There is plenty you can do.” (And to nudge that concept along, all plants are on sale, of course.)

Feeling the 90-plus degree sun on her sweaty neck as she surveys available bed space on the holiday, the Gardener is inclined to dispute this advice and write it off to blatant commercialism. She commences to poke around for evidence in support of surrender, and that she is right, and he is wrong (because why trust an expert?). Sure enough, dadgum it, here is the sight, on closer inspection, of small green sprouts emerging near the bases of the tired petunia vines. Poking a toe in exasperation at the black-spotted, rotting leaves where the Shasta daisies sprouted eagerly earlier in the summer, she can see fresh, green leaves popping up at the base of the rotted ones.

Maybe, just maybe it is too early to surrender, after all?

As the Gardener stands absorbing these little surprises, she begins to contemplate a quick run to the garden center, eternally alert to potential bargains and intent on scoring that alluring 15 percent off for just the right things to fill the open spaces in that bed. Why not listen to the experts, after all? If the poets consider it the season of renewal, who is the Gardener to argue? Lost in these fantasies, she looks down to see that a tiny butterfly, brilliant orange and black, has taken a brief rest on the toe of her garden sandals.

Surely, this is a sign. Sometimes the Gardener takes comfort in considering that her beloved late mother, her mentor as a Gardener, might be manifesting encouragement to her in the forms of the hummingbirds and butterflies. An OOI down to the marrow of her bones, she does not care if this sounds crazy. She heads inside in search of her car keys.


I went back in time yesterday.  Just for a little while—long enough for breakfast.

The scene was a favorite hangout in my old neighborhood, a deli that used to be one of a type easily found all over town.  You know the kind I mean:  Speckled vinyl tabletops with chrome trim, shiny booths with a crack here and there in the deep upholstery, a full glass sugar shaker on every table, perched next to matching glass salt and pepper shakers.  Not so many years ago these joints bustled all over any city or even small town, just pick a street corner.  Now, in Nashville’s exploding metro area, you have to look hard and know where they remain, if at all.  With the flush of migration toward the South enhanced in the post-COVID world, a population swelled by tourism accompanied by a tsunami of commercial investment, our community has been overrun by chain restaurant “concepts” (whatever that means) most of them based elsewhere.  Expensive, gourmet selections only, menus on QR codes…la di dah, la di dah.

The local joints, the kind where you know the wait staff, where the favorites stay consistent and never disappoint, where someone actually acts happy you came—those are getting few and far between.  I am lucky enough to know the best one in town for breakfast, and there I decamped yesterday, in search a dose of the familiar and the comfortable.  And I was hungry.

Sure enough, the corned-beef hash and eggs (cooked perfectly, actually as ordered) and warm, crisp rye toast (still hot when served) set me right and adjusted my attitude after a long week.  And—remember this part?—they bring your coffee to the table, and pour it into a white ceramic cup.  No massive countertop coffee urns for self-service if you dare, an acre away from your table.  If you are looking for the exotically roasted, this place is not for you.  They pour the old standard, black-magic fluid that will stand your hair on end and rev you like a Grand Prix driver on the final lap.  Even more miraculous, they come by the table to pour your refill without waiting to be asked, using one of those glass carafes with a wide plastic pour spout.  Like I said, it’s a trip back in time.

While the hash has no equal in town—I think it’s their corned beef—the real soul magic here is served up by my old friend, the waitress whose station I always request.  She’s been pouring my refills, remembering to crisp up my bacon, and checking on my grandkids for more years than I can recall.  Every time I return and request her tables, not as often as when I lived just around the corner, I stiffen my back against the eventual probability that she will someday retire, her feet or her back will give out, and my breakfast will never be the same.  Yesterday was not that day, and my heart warmed to hear the hostess confirm we were heading to an open booth in her station.

Her name is Jamie, and her age I have never known or inquired.  Her blonde ponytail now features a couple of grey streaks, but otherwise, she has not changed in all the years I’ve known her—thick bangs, bright blue eyes, petite frame, black work costume, ubiquitous smile.  Yesterday she approached the table from behind, beginning her customary, bright, “How are you this morning..” before she realized the woman in the straw fedora hiding my Saturday hair was familiar.  “It’s YOU!” she exclaimed, reaching into the booth for a big hug.

How are you?  I asked, and earned her unwavering answer, the blue eyes as wide as ever:  “I’m wonderful.”  Over the years, over the clunking of countless warm plates of hash or French toast and a steady rhythm of those coffee refills, I’ve heard bits and pieces of Jamie’s own story.  And like the story of anyone who can see reality with both eyes open, there are lots of un-wonderful bits.  There was the unexpected death of her sister, and an unemployment stint for her long-time partner, referred to as “my old man.”  More recently, we wondered if the restaurant would survive the COVID restrictions.  Staff hours were cut, service hours reduced, takeout promoted.  She and the “old man” moved still further away from town to cheaper quarters, hanging on and scraping by like so many millions as those nightmare months stretched on.

And yet, she is wonderful.  Day in and day out, year after year, shift after countless shift, cheerful customers and jerks, on her tired feet, punching in orders and juggling plates and hot pitchers and looking after other people.  On the second coffee refill this visit, she paraded the steaming glass pot to the table and executed a little two-stepping dance maneuver in the aisle before she stopped to pour.  The breakfast traffic having slowed a bit, she plopped into the booth across from me and asked for more news of my grandkids, who often came with me to breakfast when I lived in the neighborhood.  I produced a photo showing the older of the two, at 12 now taller than his grandmother.  “When did they get so BIG?   You need to bring them back to see me soon.”  I played her a brief video of the kids delivering a toast at their mother’s recent wedding, and she turned toward me, her eyes filling with tears.  And then she was gone again. Time to pour refills at another booth.

The great writer Margaret Renkl, a fellow Nashvillian, delivered a commencement speech earlier this year in which she repeated this line:  “The world is beautiful, and most people are good.”  At a time when one is so often consumed with doubt and fear about the first, perhaps we can more easily believe it if we can open our eyes for the second.  Along with great hash and hot coffee, Jamie always provides a reminder to watch for the good people, the ones who shed kindness with every dance step in the most ordinary, innocuous places.

I know where to find one, when I need to.  She’s still out there, and she can’t be the only one. She’ll plunk down that white ceramic cup and bring all the steaming refills I want.  And if you are lucky, like me, you might get to take your coffee with a dance.



Is it a high-potential starting word in America’s favorite word game?  Three good consonants, two frequent vowels…a good opening volley this morning?

Or, is it the SOUND that erupted painfully from my throat, scaring the dog, when I busted my Wordle streak?  (AGAIN.)

If you are among the millions addicted to the word game that has gripped the nation, if you constantly update your strategy or sweat over your starting word, if you are on a text thread that shares scores every morning, then you know the real answer.  It’s both.

What’s that?  Not a Wordler?  We fanatics don’t JUDGE, of course, but I may quietly speculate what life is like under that rock.  I’ll even confess I started playing myself last year, after suffering the most acute case of fear-of-missing-out that ever struck.  What on earth were all these rows of blocks on Facebook, where the devoted shared their daily scores?  Why was everyone asking, “Did you get the word today?”  I was pretty much the only person I knew who wasn’t playing.  A good pal offered to COACH this beginner, and I dove in.  And was immediately hooked.

If you’ve had your eyes and ears open at all in the past year or two (this morning’s Wordle is daily puzzle No. 736) in the western world, you likely know this game offers you six chances to guess a five-letter word by the process of elimination of letters.  Sounds simple, right? You key in the letters for your GUESS and get instantaneous results. Green squares indicate correct letters in the right order, yellows are correct letters, out of order, and the remaining letters are eliminated.  You play it on your phone, and if you sign in, it tallies your running results, totalling how many tries it takes you and how many days in a row you get it right (the streak).

What could possibly go wrong?

Hold my beer.  Some of us find new ways to defeat ourselves at least once a week, if not more frequently.  Take note here of just a few ways a Wordler can blow it.  After 320 plays (hey!  Is there a Wordle anniversary gift for one year?), I recommend that you don’t:

  • Start playing when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. Awake, maybe, but brain still fuzzy, you’ll overlook blatant clues and annoy yourself so thoroughly you’ll soon be even more AWAKE, even more unlikely to recapture SLEEP, and get a crappy score.  A two-for-one nightmare.
  • Play the same starting word every single ding-dang day. There are those who SWEAR by this strategy—and hey, I know one who outscores me most days—but I can’t stick with that.  It left me totally BORED.
  • Select your first guess based on the mood of the day. I woke up the other morning still glowing from a wonderful gathering of loved ones the previous day, so I started with HAPPY.  The irony was unbearable; I busted the streak painfully, even with four of the five letters by the third guess.  Why did you WASTE an extra consonant, with those two P’s, asked a kind fellow-sufferer, who probably heard my GROAN miles away at his house.  I don’t know, because I was, well, you know, HAPPY, before I played this dadgum game?  Some have luck starting with the weather (CLOUD); he, on the other hand, often starts with terms inspired by the daily news.  On the historic day of our former president’s recent federal indictment, he started with CRIME and got the word in three tries.  Poetic justice?  You decide.
  • Forget that many words contain a letter that appears more than once. I made this mistake, oh, I dunno, 25 or 30 times before I finally caught on, being quick that way. Still, hope glimmers faintly on the horizon, proving that even the most bullheaded players may finally catch on.  Today’s word is RODEO, and I got it in four.
  • Play without your glasses because you are too lazy to get up and get them. Need I point out how much M looks like N when you are squinting, and so forth?

How could I miss TASTE? And the streak begins again at Zero.

Enough about ways we make it harder.  What about ethics?  (Gasp!  Must we apply moral standards to Wordle?  Examine your own conscience, is my advice.)

Of all the Wordlers I know, only two have openly confessed–one of them whispering, if you can do that in a text–to consulting an outside source to improve results. One reviews a website that archives previous words; he checks it before entering a guess.  Does that make him a CHEAT, he asked me recently?  Reading this text, I inhaled sharply.  Not because I was scandalized, but because I felt stupid for not knowing that the words don’t repeat.  Or that such websites exist.

Another daily Wordler confessed to roaming the wild, forsaken deserts of Google to get the word in six tries or less—checking the spelling, or asking the Almighty G if her guess is actually a word (the latter an unnecessary step, as the game rejects entries not found in the dictionary and doesn’t count them as one of your six tries).

My personal diversion from the most rigid standards of play involves asking for clues.  One recent morning I had eliminated so many letters in four tries that I couldn’t even type out a word that actually WAS a word with the letters I had left.  After about a quarter-million attempts and three cups of coffee, I would have happily busted my streak just to finish, but, no.  There was nothing for it but to plead for assistance.  I texted my pal:  Give me a hint, I begged, PRIDE and SHAME abandoned, wondering how I could possibly get on with my day, which happened to contain some actual productive objectives and commitments beyond word puzzles.  Felt the same more than once, have you? If you’re thinking of slinking to the dark side and joining me there, here’s a tip:  Ask for the first letter, if you don’t have it already.  It flips on a switch with illumination more powerful than the overhead light at the dentist’s office.

I read this week that the New York Times is introducing a new word game called “Connections.”  Will it draw away the Wordle faithful, or just consume still more time in the average day for addicted puzzle players?  “The editor of the game talks about how she makes it feel fun,” begins the announcement story.  Oh, really?  I decline to speculate on how much fun is actually involved in my addiction to Wordle.

Yet I stick with it.  And I don’t want for much.  My goals are simple:  I want to improve my stats to show more puzzles solved in THREE tries than in four.  That gap is big, and the mountain looks high. I may never get there, but if I do, I’ll be so HAPPY.

AGONY may be the answer, but getting it in three is still a triumph.




Hello, Gorgeous.

So you’re back, are you?  Yes, here you are, in all your tempting ruby glory.  I can’t get enough of you, and I don’t care who knows it.

There are those who may say (sing it, Andy Williams) that the year-end holidays are the most wonderful time of the year.

Perhaps that’s true, but right here, right now, record one vote in that category for Strawberry Season.

These red crown jewels of cuisine, the tiny ripe ones sweet enough to make you weep on first bite if you weren’t too busy reaching for another—they come from right up the road this time of year, if you are lucky enough to live in the right places.  In our neck of the woods, the Strawberry Epicenter is Portland, Tennessee, and on farms stretching out and around the rolling hills of north-central Volunteer State.

Why Portland?  The definitive local source is silent on and agricultural/scientific bases for the local strawberry boon.  According to the website for Portland’s annual strawberry extravaganza, “in the early 1900’s Portland’s big industry was ‘strawberries’.  In addition to the large number of farms and agricultural businesses growing the country’s finest berries, there was a creating factory, a fruit processing plant, a canning factory, and a freezing facility producing strawberries for Breyers Ice Cream and other national brands.

It continues: “During the peak of the strawberry business Portland would ship out 30 railroad cars a day.  Portland started hosting the Middle Tennessee Strawberry Festival in 1941…Each year in mid-May the festival brings 40,000-plus people together to celebrate the importance of the strawberry industry to Portland’s heritage.”

Thirty freight cars a day?  That’s a train worth hopping, like the hoboes of old in search of better times and places.  That “country’s finest berries” part just might reflect regional bias; who knows?  Google reports, as Google tends to do, a maddening variety of conflicting answers on where to find the best strawberries in the U.S.  Here’s our answer to Google’s eternal indecision:  The best strawberries are the ones that are grown right up the road, wherever you may be.

Meanwhile, if you have even one eye open, you cannot miss the arrival of the Most Wonderful Time.  Like a royal coronation or the Super Bowl, it is heralded with street banners, celebrations, and featured recipes in every possible media outlet.

The most authentic fans wait patiently for the arrival of the local gems in glorious early summer, disdaining the hard and flavorless imposters that perch in other seasons in the produce section coolers at any grocery store.  Too large, off-color, or, worst of all, hollow inside (shuddering is the appropriate response here), these are easy to ignore, for they are the poorest imaginable substitutes for the true, local, delectable thing.

Strawberries are tasty testimony to the eternal truth that small is so often superior.  The very best of these scarlet prizes are small, blood-red, no orange tones.  They are firm, not too hard (underripe), and not too soft (overripe).  We the faithful (read: picky) scan container arrays at farmers markets and in neighborhood produce shops, scrupulous in selection.  We are indifferent to how long this examination requires, and we pity those who don’t understand it’s importance.

At this height of the Blessed Season, the chefs of YouTube, the Food Network, and beyond present us with countless recipes to feature our treasures during this brief annual spectacle.  There they perch atop a salad, snuggling amidst Southern pecans and local goat cheese.  And here they are swimming in a cocktail, the scarlet tones drawing the eye like hummingbirds to red geraniums.  My, they photograph well.  A favorite local restaurant, Nashville’s fabulous Midtown Cafe, added strawberry cake to the dessert menu, its lovely pink cream icing proudly holding up the fresh, naked trophies atop each slice.  It is enough to haunt your dreams.  I awake wondering how I can finagle a return visit before the season ends.  One must have one’s cake and…well, you know what I mean.

About those recipes.

Admire them as you may, but there is a great secret among the most indefatigable of the Strawberry Tribe.  We never make it through those recipes.  Because we are bound to the only recipe that matters:  Pop in mouth immediately.  Follow with another.  Continue with as many as possible, before the Blessed Season ends, all too soon.

January, I defy you.  Your dank, slate-shadowed days are but a passing blip, barely worthy of acknowledgement.

February, I see you lurking there in the shadows, ready to smother us with your utmost:  Your truncated days when gray blankets the drizzly world down into the marrow of your bones and the golden touch of sunshine seems like a distant, irretrievable fantasy of the past.

But you can forget it.  Neither of you are taking me down, because Fern will not let me forget that different, maybe better, days are ahead.

We have some history, Fern and I.   This is our fifth winter together, and we’ve logged some miles across the seasons of our shared journey.  After such an extended relationship, this winter she earned an official name, though not an especially creative one, because she is a, well, you catch on here—a fern, of the commonly called “asparagus” variety.  This plant is described by one of the expert gardening sources as “an attractive herbaceous perennial that is easy to grow”.    Without a breath for pause I’d shove that description one step further:  These suckers are dang near immortal.

Fern first joined our household as a young sprout, growing wonderfully on a hot, west-facing patio, adding height and lush volume, almost like a great hairdo, to a grouping of flowering pots.

She performed so well that first summer that I decided on a whim, and a fleeting nod to the garden budget, to see if I could winter her successfully near a sunny window inside the house.  This experiment was met by Fern with, at best, grumpy cooperation.  Even when comfortably damp in her sunny spot, she littered needles all over the floor, jabbed me with prickly insistence when I tried to trim her away from the window blinds, and generally made herself a pain in the neck.

When I decided to move at the end of another hot summer, a cherished friend offered to keep my favorite plants while I was in temporary quarters for a few months.  I debated about sending her to foster care, well-acquainted with her cantankerous nature, but my kindly friend was game, so off Fern went.

Temporary quarters stretched over the winter months in the sad, dark season of COVID, and plant reports from foster care were cheerfully delivered.  All were doing well, though Fern was demonstrating her unsavory winter behavior.  “I’m trimming and watering it and doing my best, but I don’t know,” said my patient pal.  She told a mutual friend that one of my plants might not make it, and the friend said, “Oh, no, I hope it’s not her favorite!”  Haha, I responded to that story, no worries there.  If she dies, she dies.

But she didn’t.

Fern emerged again on the new patio when spring arrived, turned home to explode to an even more massive, resplendent size, fronds waving jauntily in the warm summer breezes.  Another summer came and went as Fern reigned over the patio pot garden.  Then last fall arrived, time to shut down the patio; what to do?

Somehow, I didn’t have it in me to face another prickly, messy winter with Fern.  Maybe I’ll cut her way back and just try to save a few sprouts, I thought, but her root system had grown so dense I couldn’t even pull the blasted green monster out of the pot without help.  Exasperated, weary, mind and heart focused on other things, I cut off all the prickly stalks and stuck the large, heavy pot in the back corner of the patio, abandoned.  Fern and I had run our course together; surely those years of great summers was more than enough.

The holidays arrived, and with them the threat of the coldest temperatures in recent memory.  Preparing outdoors for anything that could be damaged, I grabbed the pot on a whim, sure that Fern was dead but wondering if the pot might freeze and crack.  I shoved the heavy thing just inside the patio door without further thought, scrambling to finish my freeze-prep tasks.  Turning again to other things over the next days and weeks, I ignored it completely as the holidays commenced, just waiting to shove it back out the door as soon as weather permitted.

The post-freeze thaw brought sunshine, and with it, a surprise.   Bending to move the heavy pot in a late surge of post-holiday organizing, I was stunned to see several small green sprouts emerging from the cluster of dead brown spikes that were alone in the pot just a few weeks before.

Fern was back. And I didn’t know whether to praise or grieve.

Fern in early Jan., sprouting by the window, against all odds.

Wow!  I thought first.  No water, no nothing, yet I didn’t kill her.  Dang, I thought next, do I really want to keep messing with this blasted thing after all this time?

Yet it seems that the die is cast.  Fern stands stubbornly by the windows with the view of the woods behind the house, where dead leaves, muddy bark, and bare limbs declare the drudgery of late winter.  Her prickly, unwieldy green stalks duplicate and triplicate against all odds, standing between me and the woody morass, declaring refusal to submit to the season.  I will not be ignored or intimidated, I will not surrender, I will not starve or die of thirst, Fern insists.  I will outlast.  It’s almost as though she is telling me: You can do the same.

Who am I to argue?  Yet on so many days, it is a hard message to accept.

Winter is such a daunting companion in times when the world suffers on nearly every possible front.  COVID will not be banished.  Zelensky desperately needs tanks to hang on.  Certain branches of U.S. government operate like, at best, the mocking skits from Saturday Night Live, stretching credulity for any person with an atom of common sense.  Eggs cost more than your electric bill. Global drivers of despair loom everywhere we turn.

What is left for our late-winter gloom but to watch for encouragement in the smallest of things?  Fern earned the right to remain undisturbed in her post by the window, growing increasingly, amazingly taller, even while root-bound, dry, and neglected, interrupting my view of the dark, still woods beyond.  If I remember to watch her progress, to pay attention, maybe I, too, can remember that beyond darkest of winter days, spring still follows.  It’s so hard these days, isn’t it, to remember to hope?

So, I am keeping my eye on Fern.  Hoping that I can be as tough as she is; not sure, every single day, but hoping.  She sets the bar, or shall I say the branch, pretty daggone high.

Fern in summer-glory state










Picture this:  The next day, there were cookie sprinkles in my bed.

You really can’t make this stuff up.  How did the little multi-colored devils make their way from the kitchen?  Certainly not because I was eating in bed; I was too exhausted by that time to even open my mouth, much less chew. Most likely they were stuck to the paws of the cat, who jumps on the bed to nudge me awake, no small job on this particular morning.

Heaven knows the kitchen floor was a virtual garden of sprinkles, topping a thick carpet of flour, dough crumbs, and what-all. It was all there for the strolling after a worn-out grandmother collapsed in bed before she finished cleaning the floor.  For all I know, the sprinkles were stuck to my own feet.

It was the morning after the annual holiday cookie-baking extravaganza, with grandkids Buddy, Sis, and me.  The kids are competent, trained clean-up staff, but the schedule went awry for this baking session, and I had to hustle them home before they could do their part.  So, I was a clean-up staff of one, surveying the damage.

More evidence of the previous day’s culinary chaos was traveling on four feet. Reaching down on to clip on the dog’s leash for his routine morning stroll, I lightened his load by plucking a small nugget of dried meringue from the fluffy black spikes of hair just above the base of his ear.  Not hard to figure that one out; he knows exactly where to loiter under the island counter to catch whatever falls.

Why is this baking process so messy?  For one thing, we make the dough from scratch and roll it out the old-fashioned way. We follow a recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting that attributes the recipe to her own mother. (That’s right, the great-great-great grandmother of my baking co-conspirators.)

And truly expert bakers may have other thoughts, but in my experience, the answer to all questions about working with scratch dough is more flour, everywhere and always.  Dough getting sticky, or splitting under the pin? Dump more flour on the hands, on the rolling pin, on the dough ball.  When this technique is employed by bakers ages 9 and 11, turning the kitchen floors into a decorator’s “Dusty White” finish is but the work of a moment.

Next comes the decorating phase.  Supplied with red, green, and white icing tubes, a box of edible eyeballs, the whipped egg whites for texture, and four colors of sprinkles, Buddy and Sis set to work on holiday masterpieces.  A highlight for their G-ma is observing their artistic inclinations evolving as they get older.  In a short year, pre-teen Buddy has blown past friendly gingerbread men with smiles and standard icing trim to a tray full of one-eyed cyclops characters and a tenderly crafted skeleton.

While Sis opted for some more traditional formats—striped candy canes, and dotted Christmas trees—the concept of excess does not haunt the vocabulary or the thoughts.  Gentle suggestions about the thickness of icing or the volume of sprinkles were cheerfully yet determinedly unheeded.

Happily, the children have matured into a phase where humor may trump heartache when disaster strikes.  I feared a hardworking young baker’s disappointment when I pulled a tray of his smaller cookies from the oven.  Apparently, decorative eyeballs require a certain dough thickness to maintain shape while cooking.  The little cut-outs were not thick enough, and they emerged looking like a pack of forest creatures that had been slain by a mythical cave monster, their eyes plucked out by vultures.  “Oh, dear,” I mumbled, and before I could utter anything more helpful, Buddy looked over my shoulder at the melted carnage.  Hahahaha, he hooted.  “That looks WEIRD!  Eeewwwww!”

My girlfriends asked maddeningly logical questions about our baking plans when I shared them in advance.  Why not just buy the dough, make it easier?  asked one.  Don’t you want to get a decorating kit with instructions?  queried another.  How great that you let them do them however they want, said a third, kindly, with only a tiny pinch of surprise.

Staring at the next-day sprinkles sparkling on the bed linens, I admit I pondered those questions.  Is doing things the hard way a family trait, I wondered, not for the first time?  Do the cookies really taste better, from scratch—and is that even the point?  Maybe I just wanted to focus on one family tradition, and the memories attached, in this first Christmas since my mother died.   In the company of the children, this one felt so right.

Observing the wreck that remained for remediation, I remembered one more detail.  Sometimes I actually like the sight of a messy kitchen.  Sometimes, it is a vivid, aromatic illustration of shared fellowship, creative outcomes, and more than a few unexpected laughs.  Even if I am left with melted eyeballs stuck like glue to non-stick cookie sheets and meringue-wearing dachshunds.  It’s the best kind of holiday chaos.

Merry Christmas to all. May the chaos reign.






Made a few notes for next time after hosting Thanksgiving for the family.

Things I Forgot For Thanksgiving Dinner

  • Graham crackers for the smores.   Oh, yes, we had the snazzy outdoor firepit, acquired in hopes of extending the space for the crowd out onto the back porch, a welcome dose of fresh air and crackling logs after the three pie varieties had worn off.  I could envision the pastoral, after-dinner sweetness of the scene, even smell the toasting marshmallows.  But not clearly enough to remember the graham crackers.  Spoiler alert:  Ritz served as an adequate substitute, but I’m still embarrassed.
  • A bathroom serving at least 10 guests benefits from more than half of one roll of toilet paper.  Surely the other nine were grateful to the enterprising niece (you know who you are) who located the back supply in the other bath and delivered where needed.  Thanks for having my back, kiddo.
  • Carrots, pickles, and smoked oysters for the relish tray for cocktail hour, meant to mimic what my mother always offered on our first Thanksgiving without her.  I kept thinking the tray looked a little dinky with just olives and pickled okra, but couldn’t quite focus on the solutions awaiting their turn quietly in the cabinet. Where they remain.  Does that stuff last until next year?
  • Actually offering liquor to your guests increases the chances of them actually drinking it.  That fine bottle of bourbon, a gift and popular new brand, went untouched.  When I wondered why to my daughter, she said, “I didn’t know it was there.”

Things I remembered

  • Mom was right.  (But you knew that already, didn’t you?) Years ago, I asked her–with what I thought was appropriate reverence–how to watch the antique lace tablecloth she handed down into my care.  One never knows, in a family, when reverence may be misplaced.  “Put a candlestick or serving dish over the spot and forget it,” she advised, an Olympic gold piece of hostess advice if ever there was one.
  • Pre-adolescent children—an age that has been known to try the patience of the most hallowed of saints–can actually be excellent kitchen meal-prep staff.  They’re like dogs, their mother observed later; they do best with a job.
  • Do not buy a used car from anyone who tells you that making gravy is easy.  It’s a myth, perpetrated by the most gifted cooks in cahoots with purveyors of turkey gizzards.  I know absolutely how tricky it can be, because I watched very carefully while my gifted sister-in-law worked really hard on it.  But not closely enough to do it myself, next time.  (And dang, it was good.)
  • A strategic Leftover Distribution Plan is vital.  Even the most calculating and careful hostess might have too much food—I’m told by a friend.  Check your shelf of disposable containers, maybe check it twice. Stand by to load them with abandon, and don’t let anyone out the front door who doesn’t tote one, preferably two or three.  It can undermine dignity to resort to leaving mashed potatoes anonymously on the doorsteps of unassuming neighbors and tearing up homemade rolls in the backyard for the birds.
  • How our dad laughed when he got really, really tickled.  Which was pretty often, at these gatherings.  Nine years after he left us, I saw and heard him in my brother’s laugh and the familiar, gleeful expression on his face.  It’s a laugh that rings bells and lights candles and melts away grief.  Extra napkins may be required to mop the face.








It happened again the other day, at it has so many times in the last few months.  And it will happen again, I have grown to accept, until, well, until it finally doesn’t.

I reached for my phone, an instinct rooted in countless repetitions across my life, to call my mother.  She’ll know the answer, I was certain, to whatever small question I was considering about a recipe, or a plant, or the identity of some distant connection in our family.  In the age of over-abundant digital information, where some have never touched a cookbook or handwritten family recipe and turn instead to the words of distant strangers, I still trusted my mother’s knowledge, experience, and judgment on certain topics above all options.  Besides, it was a reason for a chat.  It was a chance to hear her voice, to hear “love you, too, sweetie,” one more time.

In the more than nine months since my mother died, I’ve thought about calling her dozens of times.  At first, my hand might even reach toward the phone on the kitchen counter before I caught myself.  Nine months into the grief journey, memory at last overcomes instinct before I look for the device, but the inclination still keeps coming.  I asked a beloved friend who lost someone the year before Mom died how long this pattern would go on.  “Until it doesn’t anymore,” she replied, with a sad, knowing shrug.

The phone call instinct hit me again when I contemplated a summer tradition during our first summer without Mom.  As far back as I could remember, she undertook the project every summer until she no longer had her own kitchen. A second or two later, still stinging from that urge to call, I reached instead for a small binder on my cookbook shelf, a little loose-leaf number she made for us with copies of recipes from family and friends she wanted to be sure she preserved.

I’d never checked the binder for applesauce hints.  After all, we’ve made it every summer for years, first under her direct supervision, then from memory of her guidance when working in the kitchen was no longer easy for her.  In truth, I didn’t really have any lingering questions about the relatively simple process, but I wondered if seeing her notes might help me make my way into the kitchen and get started.  How funny to realize that this perennial favorite was not included in her compilation.  Maybe she thought it was too obvious and simple to write it down; who knows?

So, with nothing to guide me but memories and a daughter’s fear that I would let Mom down if our family moved through a holiday season with no applesauce on the table, it was time to get busy.  Making applesauce is a fun and pretty labor-intensive afternoon in the kitchen with a team of like-minded helpers.  Over the decades, my mother made it with her mother, one of her aunts, her children, then her grandchildren.  But company in the kitchen this time was not for me.  Uncertain how it would feel with the grief still so fresh, I undertook it alone.  I wondered what memories it would invoke, and how it would feel to revisit them.  Deep down, I hoped it maybe it would help.  And there was also the opportunity to honor Mom’s habit of giving away her bounty to the sick or the sad, those in need of comfort food, or as a simple gesture of thanks.

Alone in the kitchen with the gorgeous green apples, knives and cutting boards, the saucepan and the mill, I got to work.  Sure enough, as the tart aroma of the cut fruit filled the house, the memories turned my kitchen into a movie theater of the heart, with images and voices moving around as though they were standing at the counter next to me.  In memory of those gone ahead who re-appeared to help out that afternoon, here is a faithful description of the process she taught us.

The Very Best Homemade Applesauce

Ingredients and equipment:

½ bushel of Lodi (pronounced Loe-die) apples

Good paring knives and cutting boards

5-quart stove pot

8-10 freezer containers, depending on size you prefer

Foley mill

Step 1:  Wash apples thoroughly.  Quarter and remove core.  Chop quarters into smaller sections about 1-1 ½ inches across; do not peel.  Using smaller pieces enables the apples to soften faster on the stove and helps prevent any burning on the bottom of the pan.

Add about an inch of water to the pot.  Don’t add too much water, or the sauce becomes too thin.  Heat water to near simmering, then begin adding apple pieces.  Increase heat to a gentle, ongoing simmer, stirring frequently, on low-medium heat until apples soften and break down. Continue adding additional apples and simmering until mixture reaches desired thickness.  Extra water can always be added if needed.

Mom always said that as long as you didn’t burn the apples in the pot, you couldn’t really mess this up.  The secret to the whole thing, she said, was choosing the right apples.  We always use Lodi, an early summer apple with a distinctive, lip-smacking tart flavor.  We don’t add sugar, believing the natural flavor is the secret ingredient.  Over years of offering our delicacy to guests, it’s become clear the tart flavoring is not everyone’s thing.  Recently I’ve made a second batch using a sweeter apple variety called Paula Red, recommended by the women at Jackson’s Orchard in Bowling Green, Ky, the only folks whose opinions on applesauce I value as much as Mom’s. (Jackson’s is a family enterprise that produces the best apples you’ve ever laid eyes on.)  I serve that second variety to friends and save the Lodi batch for family occasions.

Step 2:  Pour the simmered apple “stew” into a Foley mill positioned above a large mixing bowl.  The mill uses an angled blade and the circular motion of the crank to strain the stew into sauce consistency and retains the skins to be discarded.  Crank until all stew has been compressed into sauce; let cool before storing.  A half-bushel of apples makes about nine quarts.  Use or freeze in 2-3 weeks; freezes well for up to a year.

As I chopped, stirred and milled, I let the memories flow around the kitchen as they would.  There was Mom’s Aunt Dadie, who cooked with a sensible print cotton apron over her dress, which was always paired with nylon stockings and low-heeled pumps, even in the kitchen.  She was Mom’s favorite family cooking companion, competent, fast and focused in the kitchen.  There was Mom in my sister Kate’s kitchen the last year she was able to join in the process. She perched on a stool by the stove, also sporting an apron, stirring one pot patiently while I tended another, calmly reassuring her always over-anxious daughter that I was doing just fine, just fine.  There was my beautiful niece, sharing memories of her childhood time in her grandmother’s kitchen, mimicking the circular motion of the mill with her right arm and emphasizing, “That’s work!”  Finally, there was my own granddaughter, probably about four years old, caught at the Christmas table using both hands to up-end the delicate porcelain bowl (also Mom’s) so she could lick the final smears of applesauce off the bottom.

At the end of a long, hot afternoon in the kitchen with my memories and the visitors they brought along, I filled a freezer shelf and felt some relief that I had done Mom proud.  Thanksgiving will be here soon, and we’ll have plenty of applesauce for the family table.  Bowl-licking will be encouraged.

A couple of weeks after I finished, a kind neighbor with great handy skills loaned me a tool and expert guidance on how to fix my locked-up sink disposal.  When I knocked on the door to return his loan, I offered a container from the freezer.  “Homemade applesauce,” I explained.  “Thanks so much for helping me out.”

“Oh, great, thanks!”  he smiled.  “I love applesauce.  My mom used to make it.”

“Really?” I answered, surprised that I could keep a catch out of my voice.  “Mine, too.”


In the heady, post-war days in the spring of 1948, he was a three-year-old hero, a superstar before the term was coined, his name in the headlines everywhere and on the lips of the lucky punters who picked him in the Kentucky Derby and cashed in.  He thundered into history that June at Belmont Park by eight lengths, achieving what only seven before him had managed in more than a century:  An American Thoroughbred racing Triple Crown, having added the Preakness Stakes win in between the Derby and Belmont victories.

Citation winning the 1948 Belmont Stakes. Photo credit: The Blood-Horse library.

His name, Citation, was carved into trophy after trophy and into the long shadows cast by the greatest of all time.  He was born in the spring of 1945, a few short weeks before the Allies declared victory in Europe.  After four seasons on the track, 32 wins and more than a million dollars earned, his place secured in racing history and the hearts of millions of fans, he retired at six and returned to his birthplace in the rolling fields of Central Kentucky’s Bluegrass country at his birthplace, Calumet Farm.

By the time I met him, when I was eight and he was 20, he was living the quiet life of a celebrated old man.  Calumet was informally open to visitors back in those days, and we lived just down the road.  When my parents entertained out-of-town guests with a visit to the renowned Thoroughbred operation, with its red-trimmed white barns and pristine, white plank fences, they let their horse-worshipping middle daughter tag along.

To a child, it was hard to equate a thundering champion with this gentle old fellow, head drooping in relaxed fashion over his stall door, long back swayed deeply with age, soft whiskers twitching with gentle snorts as he sniffed hopefully for the treats customarily proffered by the still-frequent stream of admiring fans.  He ignored the patient recitation of his stats and remarkable accomplishments by the kind farmhand, who chatted proudly about the champion as he passed the feed bucket to visitors.  Just the treats, please, said those twitchy snorts, so I flattened my palm, as I had long ago been taught, and gingerly approached.  As long as I kept my palm rigidly flat, I knew, he could nibble the soft golden oats off without using those old teeth.  And so he did.

Did he shed his shoes after every brilliant triumph, like an exhausted ballet dancer whose magical athleticism broke down her ribbon-tied toe shoes after The Nutcracker?  The long-time farmhand was vague on that point, as I recall, but the discarded racing plates attributed to the old champion were free to the faithful who handed over the oats and maybe stroked the old, still powerful neck, which I was too timid to try.  It was a souvenir like no other, said to be straight off the foot of one of the fastest creatures to every streak across the earth’s face.  This shoe, I thought as I clutched it in the car on the ride home, could have won the Kentucky Derby.  It really could have, I repeated to myself, not daring to speculate aloud for someone to pooh-pooh.

I’ve been privileged to brush close to greatness a few times in my life, and when I think of those moments, I still think of Citation.  Half a century later, I’ve lost count of the number of homes where Citation’s shoe has resided with me, one of the tiny handful of souvenirs that ever meant enough to keep.  But I kept it for luck, for inspiration, and for fond memories every year at Derby time.