Walk around the block.

Sizzling heat crisped the grass this summer until it resembled shredded Nabisco Shredded Wheat biscuits. The sun baked my head, because more often than not, I’d forget my hat. The dog refused to walk and instead lay near an air conditioning vent in the house. But yesterday’s soft breeze encouraged him to walk around the block. He actually trotted further than his usual one block or two. That’s how pleasant the morning was.

Nobby invites smiles.

Wherever we walk people smile when they see Nobby and often stop to pet him. Yesterday was no different. We were going along a tree-lined trail when two women approached. “What ‘blend’ is he?” one asked. She cradled Nobby’s head in her cupped hands. He loved her instantly.

“He’s a Golden…”

She finished my sentence, “…Retriever and standard Poodle?” I nodded.

She bent down and passed her hands along his back gently, then she stepped back and said, “Mmm, nice comportment….”  Obviously she knew dogs and probably had a bit of dog-show judge in her DNA.  “What’s his name?”

“Nobby.”

She laughed. “Is your last name Clarke?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised.  I wondered if she’d seen Peter walking Nobby?

“In England,” she said, “anyone whose surname is Clarke is called ‘Nobby.'”

“Yes, I know! You’re the first person to get that. We named him after my father-in-law.”

“I’m from England,” she said, “and Australia.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I could tell.” I would tell Peter about this when I visited later.

In this university town, old-timers grumble when the slow summertime pace screeches to a stop with the return of students, this year some six thousand more than ever before. Cars race along the main thoroughfares, stores are packed with incoming freshmen and weepy mothers, while
dads look forward to the empty nest back home.

So I wasn’t surprised to see a herd of students running full tilt along the sidewalk toward us half a block from home. I decided they could bloody well go around us rather than forcing me to step off the curb into the street. Nobby and I stayed on course even though I got dirty looks for not stepping aside. As the group, maybe 30 strong, pounded past, one runner stepped into the street, smiled at me and said, “Excuse us, please.”

Ah-h. “Thank you,” I said. What a nice young man.

Yesterday turned hot after the pleasant start, so I stayed inside with the dog. Today, though, was quite cool and London foggy. Nobby was only too happy to go for a walk this morning. We were nearly back home when we startled a flock of chickadees feasting on echinacea seeds in a neighbor’s garden—sunshine on the wing, a yellow watercolor wash, the perfect end to our walk around the block.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Once upon a time.

For my fortieth birthday 40 years ago my then-significant other, now husband Peter, surprised me with a trip to England. He’d planned the trip in minute detail. All I had to do was get a passport and bring my own spending money. A lifelong Anglophile, it was a dream come true.

This year, for my eightieth birthday, daughters Carolynn and Leslie planned a special weekend in Washington, D.C.  Granddaughter Samantha, who lives there, was tour guide, arrangement-maker, Uber-getter, personal chauffeur and laugh-inspirer. The three of them planned everything perfectly. All I had to do was pack my bag. I wasn’t even allowed to spend my spending money for anything!

From Friday check-in at a pretty boutique hotel to check-out Sunday afternoon the weekend was perfection. While my daughters got the room keys at the desk, I made friends with a miniature golden doodle named Bronx on the opposite side of the lobby. Suddenly, Look at our mom. She’s eighty today! echoed across the marble clad lobby. My raised left eyebrow didn’t shush them, but they are now 57 and 55. My evil eye hasn’t worked in years.

Our room, indeed the entire hotel, was sleek, sophisticated and so comfortable. I felt like a princess sleeping in a bed so soft. The bathroom mirror even seemed to have similar properties to Snow White’s magic one. Such luxury was a far cry from the motels we stayed in years ago where we shared towels and took our own soap.

Our early dinner, at the Kennedy Center’s Rooftop Restaurant, prior to seeing the New York City Ballet, was golden. No, really, I swear, the light was liquid gold infused with pink. Helped that Carolynn and Leslie, unbeknownst to each other, both wore shocking pink. They glowed. Our waiter, a sweet little man with an eastern European accent, took special care of me, probably cued by Samantha. Not only did we get an extra bottle of champagne, but he brought me a chocolate confection with a candle.

The curtain-up lights were blinking as we dashed through the crowds to the Opera House and our third row orchestra seats. The performance was an eclectic program that featured music from Bernstein to Chopin to Kanye West and Jay-Z. I loved “The Night” danced to Chopin. Though I am a traditionalist balletomane, I shocked myself, my daughters and granddaughter when I actually enjoyed “The Runaway,” featuring the two rappers’ music!

Saturday morning during a walking tour of the D.C. neighborhood near our hotel, we ogled beautifully refurbished old houses, strolled quickly across Meridian Park, then zipped off to a tasting and tour at the Guinness brewery in Halethorpe, Maryland.

Nearly ten years ago, I developed a taste for Guinness when Peter and I were in Dingle, Ireland. Samantha, who loves Guinness too, organized the trip to the brewery. That creamy delight, stored and poured the way it should be, was the perfect accompaniment to my brunch entree, avocado toast with a poached egg. Carolynn enjoyed the same entree, but with a tiny glass of Guinness Garnet, an experimental brew.

That evening the four of us, plus four of Sam’s good friends,Lydia, Clare, Hannah and Bridget, met for an earthy Ethiopian meal in Georgetown. Carolynn and I opted not to join the others for after dinner drinks at a nearby wine bar. It was already after eight, nearly my bedtime!

A cherry blossom pink Sunday.  After brunch and books at one of my favorite places in the D.C. area, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, we “Ubered” to the National Mall to bask in warm pinkness. The cherry blossoms did not disappoint, nor did seeing the Martin Luther King monument for the first time or one of our favorites, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial,again. Goosebump-making! We were four among thousands enjoying the perfect April spring day.

That once-upon-a-time fairy tale April weekend had a happily ever after vibe. Turning 80 wasn’t so bad after all.

Thanks to Carolynn and Samantha for the photos. For a woman who has always taken hundreds of photos on trips, I was too agog, and possibly too old, to take many on this adventure. Thanks, too, to grandson Miah who called, as he’s done for years, to sing “Tommy Turtle” to me. Maybe you’d need to be there, but he makes my day.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

All mushrooms are edible, some only once.

Conditions have been just right this autumn for mushrooms to…mushroom. Southwest Virginia has been sauna hot, steam bath humid and deeply rainy.

As far as I know, only one type of the mushrooms pictured below is edible— the Chanterelles, shown at the very bottom. Photogenic as they all are, I wouldn’t touch any of the rest of them with a fork.

What’ll they be when they grow up?

I’m not a mycological expert by any means, but I do trust myself to identify a Morel, wash it, dust it with flour and fry it in butter. Yu-um!  However, Morels are springtime ‘shrooms and I haven’t seen one in the wild for years. A lifetime ago my dad took me along when he searched for them. He told me I should look under May apples’ leaves. I don’t remember if I found any there or if that was a ruse to keep me out of his way.

A few weekends ago Chanterelles were the centerpiece of an evening meal at one of my very favorite places, above a river, in the mountains. We had fresh local tomatoes, local corn, and pie made from local apples. Really, a meal doesn’t get any better. (I must confess I’ve made better crust, but the apples were good.)

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms says, “Mushrooms are among the most mysterious life forms. Ancient Greeks believed they came from Zeus’s lightning because they appeared after rains and reproduced and grew inexplicably.” The Guide goes on, “Though mysterious, mushrooms often appear suddenly and often in places where they’ve never been seen before. They have been out of sight, growing underground or beneath bark.” And they disappear quickly too. Yesterday there were a gang of little ‘uns huddled together under my downspout. They’re gone today.

Indeed, these fantastical-looking life forms are nothing if not bewitching. And their names add to their allure—Big Laughing Gym, White Dunce Cap, Lawn Mower’s Mush, Fading Scarlet Waxy Cap, Sweating Mushroom, Emetic Russula (emetic?!), Pinecone Tooth, Old Man of the Woods, Jack o’Lantern, Hen of the Wood, Saltshaker Earthstar.  If any of these are shown below, I don’t know it. I’m a mushroom admirer, not a mushroom professional.  For the real low down on mushrooms read Gloria’s posts. She writes “Virginia Wildflowers,” a beautiful, informative blog. Mushrooms are included.

Click on photos to enlarge them.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Dog days of summer.

Our summer in southwest Virginia had more than its share of dies caniculares, dog days. And none more so than Labor Day weekend at one of my very favorite spots, Leslie and Martin’s river house.

Granddaughter Samantha and three friends, Hannah, Clare, and Bridget, were there for the long weekend with their dogs, Huckleberry, Gooseberry and Hopper. Peter, Nobby and I went for a few hours on Sunday. Peter lives in a memory care center now, so the outing was a treat for him…for both of us. When we arrived he remembered having been there before.

The day was gorgeous though bloody hot. We arrived in time for brunch and feasted on Sam’s veggie frittata, as well as mixed fruits, mimosas and coffee. All I had to do was remember to bring the champagne. The girls—to Gram they’re girls—zipped down to the river after we ate, while we four of certain ages played dominoes and cards.

The best part of the day was the laughter Sam always generates, enhanced by her friends’ asides. You’d never guess from these photos that Peter no longer knows the names of anyone pictured except Nobby’s and mine.To be fair, he’d only met Clare once, and had never met Bridget. But he plays dominos as skillfully as ever, and still offers up one-liners to make us chuckle.

The blinding storm on our return trip up the mountain turned the curvy road into a slick river strewn with rocks and branches. We dodged one monster limb that would surely have crushed a car had it landed on the roof. Peter helped drive by clutching the armrest and yelping when I punched the wrong button for the emergency blinkers, opening sunroof button instead! We were quite damp before the thing slid back in place.

But the skies cleared by the time we got to the Floyd Country Store for ice cream cones as luscious tasting as the fluffy clouds above looked.

It was a good day.

The ancient Romans called the hottest, most humid days of summer dies caniculares, dog days. Such days were associated with the dog star Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.

Augusts past.

It’s been eight-and-a-bit months since I posted here. Tsk.  On January 17 I wrote about a favorite trip we took in August 2017! Thirteen months have passed. Tsk tsk.

Time flies.

In the 12 years following husband Peter’s retirement and before dementia tightened its grip, we were lucky enough to have a lot of wonderful trips—to Norway, Africa, Netherlands, to Mexico, Alaska, and Canada, plus several trips to England. But the August trip in 2017 was his last to a favorite destination—upstate New York where daughter Carolynn and her husband Bill live, and where we’d lived for 17 years. Not that Peter remembered we lived there, nor the house that we lived in all that time.

Last month I visited on my own—Peter is now in a memory care facility. I’d thought I might drive the 596 miles, stopping halfway like we did in previous years. But Leslie convinced me to fly. “You’ll be so tired, Mom. That’s such a long drive by yourself.”

I argued I’d been doing all the driving for several years, though Peter was along for company. He couldn’t help with the driving, but he was there, not talking, but there. That did help.

So I flew. I was nervous. Silly, really, because I traveled alone when I worked, plus all the trips Peter and I took involved long flights to unfamiliar places. Still, I managed to get myself to New York even though I overslept because I’d set my alarm to 6:15 p.m. instead of 6:15 a.m.

Carolynn was waiting in Syracuse and she whisked me eastward across the NYSThruway to home away from home.

The miserable hot weather didn’t do us any favors that week, nor did the almost daily drenchings, but it was all good. A pretty hike at Chittenango State Park, shopping and, best of all, I helped process honey. In truth I couldn’t spin the honey fast enough or for very long, so I sat on a chair and held a heat gun at the side of the stainless steel drum while Carolynn and her honey of a helper, Robin, turned it.

The buzz.

Last year Carolynn finally realized one of her long-held dreams when she bought the equipment needed to raise bees and gather their honey. With the bees came a Bill-built shelter for the hives. This year he outdid himself when he built a honey house that is part she-shack, part bee-shack. Seeing it for the first time was enough to make me think about keeping bees too.

Nearly all the materials and most of the furnishings were reclaimed from garage and builder’s sales, from the side of the road, and from Peter’s workshop. It is such a “bee-utiful” space where the Queen Bee hosted me, Robin and her mom Pat at a relaxing, scrumptious lunch—puff pastry quiche, fresh fruit, and honey cupcakes—plus hotly contested rounds of canasta.

So, would I go there again? You betcha.

Light last August.

New York State’s snow belt is known for its winter white layered look, wind-driven drifts, and lake effect snow. We lived there 17 years and I loved every minute of those deep, cold winters. But the miracle of that region’s brilliant summer days reside in my memory too, like the summertime pages on a new calendar.

Last August, when we visited daughter Carolynn and husband Bill for a week we lucked uponone perfectly stunning day — warm with a whiff of autumn cool. Carolynn had planned the day trip to western New York for Peter and I and her friend Robin. (With Bill at work Peter had to put up with three gabbling women by himself.)  The day was so August-bright that our eyes hurt. Our destination was Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua.

Now western New York State is as unlike Mississippi as a moose to an alligator. Yet, when we arrived I thought immediately of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County even though that’s a fictional place and I’ve never been to Mississippi. I’ve read Faulkner several times over but can’t recall any connection between Yoknapatawpha and Canandaigua Counties.

Certainly Sonnenberg Gardens that day had nothing in common with steamy Mississippi in summer. It was so cool in the shade that we popped in and out of the sun to warm up. Who would have thought to bring a sweater in August?

The enormous mansion evoked what today would be called “shabby chic.” It invited lingering, but it was the gardens that captivated me. The early Victorian glass houses hadn’t been modernized. There were no automatic windows or sprinklers, no obvious plant maintenance, or  new plantings. Everything looked decades old, plants way overgrown, yet all healthy enough and lush. The horticulturists and groundskeepers were attentive to their jobs even with diminishing funds to pay them.

Genteel privilege overlay the grounds like a scent, lavender perhaps. I could imagine Victorian ladies strolling the paths, then settling on the mansion’s enormous porch with mint juleps, laughing and gossiping the afternoons away. I envisioned myself in an organza gown — pale blue — tripping the light fantastic in my silvery satin shoes. Peter, a ballroom dancer in his day, would wear linen trousers with a white shirt and collar starched so stiffly that he couldn’t turn his head.

Snow falls outside my window today. Just enough to make me happy, and light enough to shovel easily. People in the snow belt up north have likely had enough of winter for this season. Now is the time to sits by the fire and plan a summertime trip to Sonnenberg Gardens, or even to Mississippi.

In The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (University of Minnesota Press, 1954) William Van O’Conner wrote that Faulkner borrowed a sense of everything in decay from Victorian and  fin de siecle literature. Did that thought rub off on me when I read his books? I may have to read Light in August yet again.

How cold is it when the hot tub freezes?

Below the window and down the hill, the river was a silvery ribbon threading between steep banks of dormant rhododendrons on one side and stands of tulip poplar, oak, hickory, sycamore and wispy pines on the other. Frozen wintery beauty without snowy highlights.

A Friday afternoon at one of my favorite places to be, just be. The river.

Oh, there’d been hiccups for the four of us — Leslie, Martin, Peter, me — in our attempt to get an early start to the weekend. A weekend, I should add, that will go down in weather history as one of the most frigid ever in this country, especially in the southeastern states.

The results of the extreme cold for us began when Martin discovered that their furnace at home had stopped working on that 7° morning. And my quick quarter-hour to set up medical appointments went to 90 minutes because the facility had suffered burst pipes, plus many staff hadn’t made it to work. At the river getaway, a mouse rampage forced sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing and trapping detail even before the wood stove began to pump out enough heat to warm the little house above the 40° thermostat setting…all before Peter and I arrived.

Order restored, the absolute bliss of sitting snug by the fire with books to read, cards to play, puzzles to work, movies to watch, and football and ice skating to enjoy on TV, was a joy. What could be better than going to sleep blanketed by stars outside the window beside my bed, and tucked under a covers striped with a brilliant moonbeam in the middle of the night?

As she always does, Leslie launched herself into the weekend in the kitchen with a pot of tomato soup and toasted sandwiches for lunch, followed by lentil soup and salad for supper, vegetable soup for Saturday lunch, and our customary New Year’s stuffed cabbage good luck dinner that night.

Few people share my enthusiasm for winter’s cold. I’ve always been the odd one out in a roomful of warmth-seekers. Admittedly, the wood stove’s comfort and Martin’s determined stoking, made the weekend cozy. All part of a package that would have been better if we were snowed in.

How cold was it last weekend? Cold enough for icicles to form on the leaky wood-fired, wood-clad hot tub, and cold enough to freeze my new mattress topper that spent the previous night in the back of my car. Laid in sun coming in the dining room windows, I managed to thaw it before bedtime.

That evening, the loft’s railing was the perfect place to warm my pajamas in the air rising from below. Sweet dreams? Ah, yes.

Mead high and caffeine buzz.

In recent months, I’ve developed an almost unquenchable thirst for good coffee. Even though I long ago stopped drinking it after midday, I still crave it. Wakeful nights? Yes, but!

In August, I drove all the way to Central New York to find, coincidentally, some of the best coffee I’ve had. Better than the Starbucks Morning Joe I brew for myself at home, and on a par with Our Daily Bread’s coffee.

Peter and I arrived at daughter Carolynn and son-in-law Bill’s home in Clinton early afternoon on a Friday. (We now split the long drive into a two day event, going and returning home. I’m the lone driver now, and 596 miles is more than I can manage in one go.)

By Saturday morning I’d revived enough so that when Carolynn suggested the two of us go to the Farmer’s Market at Utica’s revitalized train station, I was ready. Gorgeous morning, lovely offerings by various vendors — vegetables, soaps, breads, jewelry — but none more so than the Heartsease Hill mead we found. We tasted a number of owner Joe Kappler’s varieties, too many as it turned out, because by 9:30 we were tiddly.

“Coffee,” Carolynn said, “we need Utica Coffee. Bagg’s Square Cafe, you’ll love it, Mom,” she said. And I did. Aging, long-declining Utica is coming back, and Baggs Square is an example of that.

Luckily for me, Utica Coffee has a cafe in Clinton, smack on the corner across from the village green. We went there three more times during our visit.

Coffee drinking isn’t all we did on our annual trip north, but it created the most buzz.  The final morning, when Carolynn suggested iced coffee with an espresso shot, I agreed, never dreaming I’d “go to the moon” like “The Honeymooners'” Alice!  To say I “woke the hell up” is to understate. I could’ve driven back to Virginia fueled soley by caffeine.

If the shoe fits…

There are no Manolo Blanik, Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, or Gucci shoes in my closet. I shop at TJMaxx or online at Zappos. I am not a shoe snob, no, but I am a shoe lover. My eight pair of Crocs of various styles and colors, seven pair of Clarks, six pair of Saucony sneakers are proof of my low-brow fetish. Countless other makes and styles make up my collection.

And now, now, I have a pair of the cutest, most comfortable, most me pair of shoes ever!

Daughter Carolynn and I were doing some retail therapy. She spotted the shoes and urged me to try them. I argued. They won’t look good on my horrible feet, I told her, and besides they’re not my size. I wear a 10 and these were a decidedly non-dainty 10.5, for heavens sakes. But they did fit — no cramming, no pain — and honestly, if they hadn’t fit I would’ve bought them anyway and put them on a shelf to admire.

I have uglier feet than the rhizomes on bearded iris. No, really, uglier than the ugliest wicked stepsister. My long boney toes — husband Peter calls them finger toes — are  knobbly, bumpy, veiny. I do not go anywhere, except to the shower, with naked feet. It’s even hard for me to bare my feet for a pedicure.

These perfectly adorable shoes actually look pretty darned good on me. They hide the worst parts of my feet and, because they’re a denimy blue leather with colorful painted-on designs, they Go. With. Everything. When I put them on I preen and prance in front of any reflective surface — electric kettle, shiny wheel covers, shop windows, and mirrors, of course.

All I gotta say is, look out, Cinderella, I am going to the ball with or without Prince Charming.

l’Artiste shoes, très magnifique, oui, and all the prettier because they were marked 40% off.

 

 

‘Gardens and flowers have a way of bringing people together…’

We’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most famous gardens in the world including Kew, Sissinghurst, and Kensington in England, Netherlands’ Keukenhof at tulip time, the National Arboretum in Washington, DC, Montreal’s Botanic Gardens, to name a few.

On July 8 we toured seven outstanding gardens right here in Montgomery County, Virginia, during the 22nd annual New River Valley Garden Tour, the best yet. I emoted all the way home.

They are different from each other, each enviable in unique ways, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the one where rust prevailed. Yup, rust.

The Angle-Relf garden is tucked away on a narrow winding road, set on a hill hidden from view if you headed east. The couple bought the rundown 40-year-old house in 1976 and set about taming its weed-covered four acres that was overly populated with locust and cedar.

To call their creative idyll imaginative is to beg a look at a Thesaurus for better adjectives to do it justice, perhaps fanciful or inspired or quixotic. The pair reclaim and recycle with humor and vision, and always with rusty overtones.

 

This year’s seven gardens, the Angle-Relf’s, plus the Golden’s, Hagood’s, Hammett’s, Ryan-Plunket’s, Schnecker’s and Wickham’s all all provided multiple chances to fall in love with gardening. It was an absolutely picture-perfect, weather-perfect day.

 

With apologies to Doctor Seuss.

Oh! the places we go
for a view, for a bite,
to see something new,
some special delight.

We’ll shop for a widget,
or bag of birdseed,
sometimes a beer,
and a burger we need.

Sometimes a movie,
or maybe a drive,
a stroll through a garden
glorious! alive!

In springtime flowers
need consideration,
colors and scents,
Mother Nature’s perfection.

We searched at the market,
we looked at Lowe’s,
the most unusual we spied,
was “nested” at Crow’s.

A surprise we found
in a big brown pot,
a cat was inside
very grumpy, we thought.

He would not be moved
nor enticed away,
he liked his pot
on that warm spring day.

Among flowers we bought,
were red geraniums tall
to plant in my pots,
no kitties at all!

 

 

A ‘peak’ at a perfect day.

Mondays have a bad reputation and our Monday that week deserved the label. Awful. But the week redeemed itself with a Wednesday that was perfection.

After a quick trip down the mountain to Roanoke, we lifted our bottomed-out psyches at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea, then soared with the Paul Villinski installations at the Taubman Museum of Art around the corner.

Villinski’s showcase exhibit “Passage” hovered, as if in an updraft, above the atrium. “Passage,” a large-scale wooden glider with a 33-foot wingspan reminiscent of the balsa wood gliders he loved as a boy, is part precise construction and part whimsey. A thousand black butterflies, carefully fashioned from reclaimed material found on New York City streets, cover the glider and appear to help it stay aloft. “Emblematic of hope and liberation,” the artist says.

Paul Villinski oversees installation of his sculpture “Passage” in Taubman Museum’s atrium. Photo, Stephanie Klein-Davis, The Roanoke Times.

Flight connotes mankind’s desire to leave our earthly concerns behind, Villinski believes. Maybe that’s what lured me — the promise of a few hours to leave behind my concerns from two days before. And it worked! I was spell-bound the minute we walked inside. Peter had to nudge me to turn my attention to the docent just inside the door. “You were transported the minute you walked in,” she said, laughing. Indeed I was. She told me that the glider would actually be air-worthy if it had skins, and if there were a very small person licensed to pilot it.

“Farther,” Villinski’s exhibit in an upstairs gallery, was equally, magically moving, with flights of butterflies and birds, and other flights of fancy that captivated us.

Both “Passage” and “Farther” will be at the Taubman through January 21, 2018.

 

“Homeward Bound,” juried art. Although I didn’t know it beforehand, seventy-four works  by fifty-nine Virginia artists, all winners to my eye, were housed in other galleries. Many pieces are made from found objects — bobby pins, keys, hats, old nightgowns, horsehair — plus fascinating paintings, drawings, and sculpture all helped make our day.

“Homeward bound,” is the Taubman’s first juried art show, and will remain only through July 17. Hurry home.

We ended our perfect day, such a welcome antidote to Monday, with a walk around City Market. There, I found the perfect peaches and blueberries for our evening to come. The peak of perfection, if I may say so.