Summer Reading: Some Promising Looking Fresh Hell

What fresh hell can this be?

Beach Reading 2
Accidental Literature

It is a line sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, but Dorothy Parker said it. Dang Shakespeare. It’s one of those quips that sounds so civilized, so much better than any number of other crude things one might choose to say when a situation demands it (wtf comes to mind).

I found Dorothy Parker in my great-grandmother Gracie’s basement when I was twelve, in her house way up high on a hill above the main channel of the Tennessee River. It was a jaw-dropping piece of land where Granny Grace lived in her little whitewashed board-and-batten cottage, its beauty completely lost on my bored, twelve-year-old summer vacation self. At the time I could not have foreseen I would start my own family there.

Boredom spawns creativity, they say. It did not during those long hours that stretched between time trying to sit still while Granny Grace swilled black coffee and chain smoked and told the same stories over and over (still mercifully entertaining on the thousandth telling), and shopping excursions (five pounds of bacon at the highway grocery) and chores (one summer we painted her house), and family dinner much later. I stupidly longed to be back home in the heat of Memphis with my twelve-year-old co-conspirators.

But left to my own devices I explored what there was to explore: potted African violets covering every inch of a massive round wood table; oil portraits of beloved family members (even dogs); the curious tintypes in Granny Grace’s ancient photo albums; and on a slab of concrete foundation that served as an impromptu bookshelf in the basement, a collection of cast-off paperbacks and back issues of magazines (yes, even magazines devoted to curating African violets). A found collection of Dorothy Parker short stories was my salvation at a horrible point on the pre-adolescent continuum when the excitement of adult life has revealed itself, but only through a foggy lens, and still well beyond reach.

A high school Latin teacher once said, it does not matter how you’re exposed to art, or music, or literature—only that you’re exposed to it. So if Bugs Bunny serves as your entrée to the world of Wagner, she went on, so be it. I think I agree with this. A damp Knoxville basement is as good a place as any to fall in love with the writing of Dorothy Parker. I tore through that book scarcely taking a breath. That was also the moment when I discovered the great appeal of the short story as a form.

Many years later I found Cormac McCarthy at a time when I was living in the same neighborhood where McCarthy himself once lived. His seamy autobiographical novel Suttree transfixed me like that dog-eared copy of Dorothy Parker stories had years before, Suttree still more because of its Knoxville setting; I had a good fix on the landscape in that delicious story. So yesterday when I came across a bargain paperback copy of The Crossing in our über-pricey local book store I snatched it up; seems fitting for a late-summer beach trip a few weeks hence. I couldn’t leave the store without a collection of short stories: a used copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by one John Updike shouted at me from the stacks.

Only one hellish oversight, Mr. Updike, if a little stale now:  you left out the Dorothy Parker. (Wtf?)

Agricultural Reflections: Cycling on the Battenkill

People here in Vermont are much closer to the land than they are in other states where I’ve lived. The state as a whole is sparsely populated, sparsely developed, and most of us live within spitting distance of at least one working farm. The road where I ride my bicycle is dotted with them, and an occasional gentleman’s farm, abundant second homes for city-dwelling folk in adjacent states, and a smattering of full-time residents.

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About now the second home owners are beginning to trickle back across our state lines and shake the winter out of their riverside cottages. Meanwhile, working life continues unchecked on the farms in the area, whose farmstands will soon overflow with the season’s abundant offerings; we take full advantage—there is nothing like fresh produce just pulled from the ground.

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I love riding past this farm in particular; on Friday I saw firsthand exactly how the rolled hay bales are wrapped in their distinctive white plastic, making them look for all the world like giant marshmallows. The farmer who was bent to this task as I pedalled past expertly speared each bale with his forklift-like machine, wrapping it with a mechanical arm the way a spider does an insect caught up in its web, and then depositing it in a neat pile, all in a matter of seconds.

It was right around suppertime for most people when I passed his place, not yet quitting time for him, with several unwrapped bales to go. The second time I passed I saw that he had finished them all. I wondered what had been set on the table in the cheerful yellow farmhouse just across the road, where hens are always scratching and pecking in the yard, a playset on one side, and toys strewn everywhere: the children in that household are immersed in the life of the American farm.

In my erstwhile home state of Tennessee there are also a lot of farms, but they are removed from city dwellers by geography and by generations. I have deep agricultural roots of my own in Tennessee, traced through my mother’s family, going back past her mother, and her mother’s mother, and two generations beyond them, reaching to her great-great-grandmother’s family, who were apple farmers in an area of Appalachia known as Tuckaleechee Cove: it is picturesque and largely unspoiled, although in recent years has become attractive to developers keen to capitalize on tourism—it is very near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the country.

But it did not take long for a finger of my Irish-born family to migrate towards difficult city life. Their Knoxville neighborhood was and is still known as Mechanicsville, a charming collection of tidy working class Victorian-era homes. The neighborhood got its name because it was home to skilled mechanics employed by the Knoxville Iron Company, area mills, and the railroad, says its historical marker. My forebears were among them, one Dennis Donovan in particular helping to lay some of the first railroad tracks to stretch through downtown Knoxville.

My great-grandmother told me stories about her life in Mechanicsville as a child, but the one that left the deepest imprint on me was the day her younger sister Bess burned her foot badly playing in the alley behind the house, stepping barefoot in the corrosive runoff that is a byproduct of lye soap making. My grandmother’s telling of the story was always so evocative I could almost smell that alleyway, and visualize the episode, the distraught child and her tears, and more likely than not the reprimand that followed, as if any were needed after that. I made her tell it to me again and again.

Not long after the lye soap incident Bess died of dysentery, soon after the deaths of her premature triplet siblings, who lived their short lives on the open door of the kitchen stove: there were no NICUs, nor life-sustaining machinery or modern medicine to save the day. So in the space of less than three weeks my great-grandmother’s parents lost three newborns and a five-year-old child; my great-grandmother Gracie, a couple of years older than Bess, was the sole surviving child in that awful chapter of my family’s life.

Ultimately Mechanicsville itself was doomed, divided by the imposing Interstate 40 when it blazed through Knoxville in the mid-twentieth century. It suffered decline like other neighborhoods of its ilk, but has shown signs of rebounding in the last twenty years as it has ridden the coattails of renewal in other older parts of the city. I wonder whether my grandmother’s family missed the uncluttered landscape of the mountains during their life in Mechanicsville; it is impossible to know.

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Knoxville’s old Mechanicsville is a thousand miles and multiple generations removed from the here and now on Vermont’s Battenkill. Agriculture has its own smells, very different from Victorian-era urban smells, and they are wide open on this stretch of river.

Vermont is attractive, I am told, for people raising families (less so for their college-bound kids, who often leave and do not always choose to return). I understand that appeal, far removed as rural Vermont is from the seamier influences of city life, with its fresher air, agrarian sensibilities and values, and a more intimate sense of community. There are disadvantages: city life has an energy and an abundance of cultural opportunities that elude us here—and in spite of that, the same big-city problems people ostensibly hope to avoid—violent crime, opioid addiction, and even environmental issues—are problems here, too. (Vermont is known for its burgeoning heroin addiction and related problems; and drinking water in wells tainted by none other than industrial waste—very, very close to home—has made national news recently.)

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There is no paradise.

But there is springtime in Vermont along the Battenkill, and for the time being anyway, it is intoxicating in its own glorious way. I don’t know whether generations of my family members in Knoxville, Tennessee forged machine parts that might have made their way north to Vermont; it’s pure speculation, of course, but would be a nice connection were it true.

The land connects us all, though, whatever our provenance.

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Race Relations

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Sometimes you get rapped on the knuckles by an ageing matriarch; it is possible you deserved it.

That is Kathryn “Katie” Blackwell, holding my brother Tom. The photo was made some time in 1969 or ’70 when he was still a newbie; my mom handed it to me a couple months ago when I saw her on my Way Down South visit. Tom looks miserable, but he mainly was miserable as a very young kid: he was what people used to call a “colicky” baby. Nothing sat well with him; ergo, that face. Then as a toddler he had to wear corrective shoes in an era when doctors thought they could somehow create a high instep where there was none. And he hated school. (Not to worry, he turned out just fine.)

That picture was made in the East Tennessee home of well-off extended family members; my guess is we were visiting from Memphis for the holidays, or maybe for a wedding, not sure. I was only seven.

Katie was employed by members of my extended family as a cook, but I am sure she did housework, too. And clearly she stepped in to help with babies when help was needed; I am pretty sure she changed all our diapers at some point or other. In those days she’d have been called a “domestic,” probably. And as I imagine was true of so many others of her ilk, she held close ties to the members of my family, who loved her deeply, employed her for decades, and continued to look in on her long after her retirement.

The house itself was spectacular, but it was Katie who ruled the roost there, and I don’t think anybody in my family would dispute that. My memories center around her cooking, mainly, but also her affections, where food equates with love. After a day-long haul from Memphis to Knoxville, Katie was usually the first to greet us, a massive tray of her chocolate chip cookies somewhere nearby. (I still have a shiny aluminum tray I feel sure was one of hers.)

Ironically Katie herself was malnourished as a child and suffered the effects of scurvy all her life, most notably in her severely bowed legs, and probably also her short stature, although the bowing in her legs would certainly have been a contributor. She moved in a distinct waddle, throwing her weight from side to side, propelling herself forward in a way that appeared to me painstakingly difficult and just downright painful. It never seemed to slow her down one jot.

Her greeting to me was the same, always, with her arms thrown wide open: “Welllllll, now, come on over here and give your black granny a hug!” She squeezed the life blood out of me, leaving a small trace on my cheek of the grease she wore to slick back her hair. Her gnarled, arthritic joints and calloused hands still moved deftly, peeling potatoes, washing out big stock pots, and—incredibly—pulling hot pans out of the oven without a mitt. Sometimes she allowed me underfoot in the kitchen while she worked, but when things were busy shooed me out of the way to go play outside.

In moments of relative calm—when things were not bustling, the oven was going, the dishwasher running—Katie sat quietly at the kitchen table reading the Bible. Things were the same at the smaller house down the hill, occupied by still more extended family, for whom Katie worked in the same capacity.

Later in the evening when we all sat down to dinner in the capacious formal dining room it would be Katie’s incredible rolls passed around the table, her fried okra, her vinegar-marinated sliced cucumbers, and her sweet, sweet iced tea poured in every glass. And I knew those chocolate chip cookies were waiting; if we were not staying at the big house, we’d be at the cottage next door, where my great-grandmother lived, and Katie would have made sure another tray of cookies ended up in the kitchen there, too.

For all the years my distant family occupied that enormous house Katie continued to work there. Even when they sold it and moved to a neighboring town, I still saw her on summer vacations, as my great grandmother lived most of her last years in the little cottage next door and Katie continued working at the house down the hill. Her enthusiasm to see me, and my brother, never ever waned. It was always the same effusive welcome, the tight hug, the same greasy smear on our faces.

And then one day during the summer between tenth and eleventh grades everything changed.

You can’t have attended public school in Memphis in the 1960s and ’70s and avoided the complexities of racial integration. I remember my seventh grade year as the year of epiphanies, eye-openers as it were, not all of them good. For me it was just one year, characterized by hallway and gymnasium violence, and notably, a really poor academic experience. It was the year I learned the “f” word, and although I had certainly heard the “n” word by then, I had never heard it thrown around so liberally by kids of all persuasions. All of it felt awful to me, none of it enriching.

For the next couple of years I attended an all-girl pressure cooker prep school. But for tenth grade we—my parents and I—decided to give the Memphis City Schools another go. A high school for the performing arts had a promising sounding curriculum. It was by no means a sterling academic year, and as for the arts program (I was there not for dance, but for music), it was average at best. But it was at least a socially enriching experience; by May I had many, many new friends—black and white—all of us united by our common interest in the performing arts.

Later that summer in Knoxville I found Katie sitting by a windowsill in the kitchen of the East Tennessee house at the bottom of the hill, reading her Bible. As always, she was thrilled to see me. I sat down to talk to her. She asked me about school, about ballet, about what I had been up to. I told her about my year, about studying classical guitar and playing in a string ensemble, about getting ready for ballet school in Illinois, where I studied in the summer.

Then I told her all about my new friends. My new black friends.

I could sense her body stiffen, and noted a change in her demeanor. Setting her jaw she looked me squarely in the eye. In a throaty voice I had never heard before, she said, “You listen to me. You leave those black children alone. It is wrong for you to have them as your friends. You stick to your white friends. You hear me?”

I was confused and speechless. I had heard adults use racist language around Katie during my childhood, did not understand much of it until I had a chance to mature, but knew it was wrong; I tried not participate. But this? I could not get my head around it. I had come to this matriarch seeking approval and instead was rebuked.

Katie’s message was lost on me, and I did not see her for many, many years after that. But when I had a chance for further reflection, I realized her strongly-held opinion was nothing if not earnest, and it was probably best to just shut up and listen. And it is possible my motives were less than pure: maybe I expected to be handed a gold star by this woman whose wisdom far surpassed my own, and she was having none of it.

Decades later I assumed Katie surely must have passed away. And then one night near the end of my marriage, my now-ex-husband came home very late and woke me up to tell me not only was Katie still living, but she was 104 and would soon be celebrated at a nearby restaurant, a place where she had a past unbeknownst to me, in an event with full press coverage.

Of course I had to go.

At 104 Katie was beyond infirm: completely blind, hard of hearing, a double amputee. I spoke at length with her son and his wife. They explained to me how Katie had lost one and then the other leg, but she continued to stay positive in spite of it all. Could she carry on a conversation, I wondered? On again, off again, they said. They encouraged me to try.

I got down low where I was close to Katie’s face and held her hands, and with the help of her daughter-in-law, told her who I was. There was no recognition. At first. But then, I sensed an awakening in her, and heard that familiar voice in my ear, a little diminished, but unmistakable. She was back, there was recognition, and now it was I to gather her in an embrace. Her daughter-in-law beamed that I got her on a “good” day.

It was the last time I would see her. But before Katie’s death a couple of years ago, my mom went to her home for a much longer visit. They talked about a lot of things, including Katie’s prized recipes; she dictated a few of them to mom while she was there.

It was only after my last visit with Katie that I learned some other things about her: that her mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, that her given name was Vashti (it was Katie who later changed it to “Kathryn”), that she was born the second of ten children in a family who formed its own baseball team, that as a very young woman she learned to cook at Knoxville’s Highland Grill (long out of business but recently reopened as The Grill at Highlands Row), and that she supplemented her income taking in laundry and ironing for pennies. And not surprisingly, that she was known in her own community for giving selflessly to those in need.

Katie was named a “Tennessee Treasure” before her death on a website that celebrates centenarians. I can think of no better moniker than “treasure” for this incredible human being, a woman who took her convictions with her to the grave, leaving me and others to reflect on them; I hope she is somewhere smiling.

Katie Blackwell

Mise En Place

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Today I had a huge, long list of stuff I planned to do. Some was work related, some was house related (actually most was house related), and there was the usual catching up on correspondence. Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s mandate to me as he was leaving this morning: go out and pick up sticks. (Manly Vermonter translation: get ’em now, you are almost out of kindling, and don’t be whining to me about it when the lawn is buried under ten feet of snow.)

I did try to pick up sticks. I’ve been under the weather for the last week, though, and every time I swooped down to grab one my head felt like it was exploding off my neck.

So I did the sensible thing and went back inside and baked cookies.

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I had all the ingredients for molasses cookies and decided that since they have molasses in them they must be health food. (Ergo, cookies equal health food.) Lately my life has felt distinctly un-mise’d en place. During an afternoon phone chat I whined to HCB that I have felt unsettled for three years. Would I feel the comfort of being settled, ever again? He assured me I would.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies came out of my mom’s third grade cookbook. I remember that rumpled book, its faded blue pages held together with faded ribbon, a contribution from every member of the class therein. (Betcha anything she still has it.) We made those cookies all the time when I was a kid. The summer before my sophomore year in college I sat down with pen in hand and copied recipes I wanted, from that book and others, so I’d have them in my very first apartment. My own collection is looking pretty aged now.

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My mom did not own a stand mixer when I was growing up. We mixed the batter with a wood spoon and it was stiff as all get-out. This afternoon while I watched the mixer whir around, effortlessly blending the flour and egg and gooey molasses, I wondered about Mary Ann. What kind of a kid was she? Was she nice to my mom? (Was my mom nice to her?) Is she still alive? What did she do with her life? Was it a settled life? Did she marry and have kids? Did she divorce?

One thing I know for sure. That cookbook was a product of WWII-era Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my mom and her family lived at the time. Her parents, and her grandmother (my great grandmother Gracie) all lived under the same roof in G.I. housing and contributed to the war effort in one capacity or another. My great grandmother was a librarian, and my grandmother was a lab technician, each of them at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the bomb that would end the war was in development. I am fairly certain their lives did not feel mise’d en place, either–probably not many Americans could make that claim.

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Another thing I know for certain. Neither mom nor Mary Ann had Silpat. What a glorious invention. Had the outcome of that war been different, maybe none of us would have Silpat. (All hail Silpat!) Have a molasses cookie, on me.

Mary Ann’s Molasses Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup shortening (it’s Vermont: use butter, dammit)
  • 4 T molasses
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t cloves
  • 1/2 t ginger
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t salt

Preheat oven to 375º. Mix and work with hands or mixer. Form into small balls. Roll in sugar. Bake 15 minutes.

Yield: depends. How big are your balls? (Ha.) And how much cookie dough did you eat while you were baking? (Please, no sanctimonious speeches about raw eggs–you know you do it, too.)

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Note: the cookie jar was made by a Memphis potter and sculptor named Ellen McGowan; my mom bought it at a crafts fair on the lawn of the Pink Palace Museum in the mid-1970s. (It says, Tomorrow I go on a diet!) My dad once told Gelsey Kirkland that we lived in the Pink Palace while he was schlepping her around town during one of her many guest appearances with Memphis Ballet. She believed him. True story.

 

Grey Day

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Today I decided I would document my walk backwards from my mailbox. The air smells every bit of fall but still felt summery to me. This dairy barn  across from the property where I am a squatter is long out of service, but its owner recently gave it a new roof to slow its demise. I know this about it because I spoke with a family member who works in the town hall and we talked about it and the property for a long while one afternoon. I find its shape and texture and small windows hugely appealing.

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I turned my back on the highway to head back down the driveway. I sat on the wood bridge leading onto the property and dangled my feet from it for a while. There is a sensory collision here of the freshness and roiling from moving water and cars zipping up and down the rural highway parallel to the stream.

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I love the orange carpet at the end of the long straightaway and the embracing trees overhead; they make a nice portal to a private place. I have followed many deer down this drive in my car’s headlights at night; they tend to disappear into the woods at the turn. I have also upset more than one gang of turkeys.

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Right at that place a smaller stream disappears under the road through a culvert. Torrential rains at times during the spring and summer sent it sloshing over the top, taking some driveway with it.

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An unused outbuilding stands resolute with its steeply pitched roof; it housed a small real estate office long ago, I am told, and later a college student. It has no running water, but a pretty wood floor.

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Somebody was still very busy today with the flowers.

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And just beyond, my tomato plants, which have not bloomed, nor will they likely before the first frost gets them. I am pleased that I started these from seed, and actually a little amazed I managed this at all. But as was the case with my first ever attempt at gardening this year, the outcome is wanting–I did not achieve Gracie’s tomatoes. I learned a thing or two. For example, do not put young tomato plants in a hot room with no air circulation; they will be dead within hours. And also, you can’t really dig in Vermont soil deeper than an inch or so before you hit rock. You need a stronger constitution for that than I possess.

I am hoping for sunshine tomorrow and tomatoes next year.

 

Finding Family

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This has been a Handsome Chef Boyfriend weekend through and through. I am writing from his place this weekend, hanging around an extra day on the chance I can meet a deadline in a foreign and yet ever familiar environment. It is messy and inconvenient for everybody concerned; tomorrow morning will come early, and I know I will feel at least a litte underfoot as we all launch for the first day of our work and school weeks.

Mainly, though, I feel privileged to be here.

Yesterday I felt privileged to be with HCB’s sweet mama and two of his out-of-town sibs for the afternoon and evening. HCB and I had a purposefully unhurried morning drive to Brattleboro, hoping to hit a few tag sales on our way. I am not ashamed in the least to say that breakfast was a bag of apple cider doughnuts from Clear Brook Farm, eaten straight from our laps in the car, washed down with hot McDonald’s coffee and jokes about lawsuits. We licked the sugar from our fingers and swept crumbs to the floor. Could breakfast be better?

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The cool and  slightly rainy day had prompted merchants to begin breaking down their tents by the time we arrived at the big farmers’ and flea market in Wilmington but we still scored some beautiful yellow mums to take to Brattleboro, along with two gorgeous pepper plants for ourselves, and probably the best tomatoes I’ve seen all summer. Gracie would approve.

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The trees are starting to show color now, especially at higher elevations. We stopped on Hogback Mountain and took in stunning views of the Greens stretching all the way into Connecticut and Massachusetts. I still have a long way to go before I will feel accustomed to Vermont winters but I can never tire of this, which in so many ways reminds me of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, where I spent the last three decades of my life:

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Time stands still when we are with HCB’s family, a reality that is nice in so many ways. In the last two years I have had occasion to meet many of his extended family members during holidays, at one big wedding, and a summer reunion, where I have tried like crazy to remember names and get a handle on which baby belongs to whom, how many cousins and aunts and uncles there are, how they are all connected. These occasions are loud and happy and push me outside my comfort zone. But I welcome the chance to sit quietly and chat with HCB’s mama and his sibs with no distractions. Yesterday was like that–lots of conversation, a few household chores, a rainy day of watching scores of birds avail themselves of an abundance of seeds in the backyard feeders.

We finished the day in the company of a crowd of hardy Vermonters gathered at the Evening Star Grange in Dummerston for a chicken and biscuit dinner, courtesy of HCB’s mama. This multi-generational phenomenon–the chicken dinner–was new to me on my arrival in New England. You can find them in churches and community centers all over the place (and in this case, the grange, which you will see has its roots in agriculture as a social, community, and political meeting place, if you Google it). I have observed signs scrawled in marker and poked in the ground on street corners announcing these dinners, which are open to anyone inclined to go. A modest fee gets you a ticket at the door; once inside you hand it over and in turn receive more food and dessert than you can shake a stick at, as Gracie would say, second helpings offered generously while supplies last. We sat at long tables dressed in checkered tablecloths and enjoyed the kind of dinner I could easily imagine a group of people a century ago might have also.

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There is also a palpable, down-home sense of community. Lots of people know each other and shout friendly greetings. Last night a gentleman asked a woman in line ahead of us whether she had ever gotten her new bathtub installed. Nope, she smiled, it’s not time for my annual bath yet! That, friends, is deliciously Vermont. There are also plenty of folks who do not know each other, but who make each other’s acquaintance by the end of the evening if they’ve broken bread together at the same table.

The singular experience of immersion in a social network of this sort, or a huge extended family gathering, was never really part of my childhood. My brother and I had a few cousins, none of them close to our age, and we really only had limited exposure to them and to other members of our extended family. A week in summer and the occasional Christmas away from home–that pretty much describes our extended family life. It was not a bad experience–just a different one.

Now I find myself coming into a different kind of fold. I sat with a very close friend of HCB’s family at a wedding brunch a little over a year ago. We talked for a long time about varied topics, but the conversation ultimately found its way to family, to this family.

“They absorb you,” he told me, with a broad smile.

I’ve never been happier to be absorbed.

Bleeding Hearts and Good Intentions

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Dang, that sounds like a country song.

It is time to fess up and explain what happened in the Secret Garden. The ugly truth is that I tried to have my first-ever vegetable garden and the stupid groundhog emerged victorious. The wind is officially knocked out of my sails. Groundhog 1, Deb zip. No beans, no chard, no peas, no squash.

I planted my beautiful heirloom beans (which had already yielded a full serving of veg before I even got them out the door). In two days’ time the cheeky rodent–who stands on its haunches in the mornings and mocks me from the field while I yell obscenities from my window–had stripped the stalks bare. Not of beans, mind you, but of the leaves. ALL of them. There were actually a few beans still dangling miserably from what was left of the stalks. Groundhog left them there, kind of an in-your-face taunt lobbed at the humans who had tried and failed (miserably) to trap and relocate the destructive little miscreant. Handsome Chef Boyfriend walked out to check the trap one morning to find the creature sitting on a piece of cantaloupe meant to be bait.

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As my great-grandmother Gracie would have said, it aggravates me. Only she would have put the emphasis on the third syllable, like this:  it aggraVATES me. Yessir, that it does. And I want to deal with that dumbass groundhog the way Gracie used to threaten her husband Ed when he misbehaved:  stitch it in a sheet and beat it with an iron skillet. (Only Gracie would have called it an ARN skillet.)

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You may be wondering why I have included photos of these gorgeous plants in this post. These are right on the property, planted by people who lived here before me. They are beautiful and alive and I get to look at them every single day. I decided showing you photos of pretty flowering plants would be more entertaining than a picture of dead bean stalks.

I have only a vague plan now for the thriving young tomato plants that are still inside my loft. I am going to try a container garden, like my bloggy friend Katie has done. (She is hugely inspiring.) I am hoping I can put containers somewhere outside, out of reach of the hog. Still hoping beyond hope for Gracie’s tomatoes.

I leave you with a photo of Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s own vegetable garden which he sent me when he arrived home earlier today. Showoff.

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Gracie’s Tomatoes

IMG_20140422_114811My great-grandmother lived ’til I was into my thirties; notably, for all but the last couple of months of her life, she was pretty dang lucid, too.  Had she survived another year she’d have met her great-great-grandson.  But, to quote a friend, she still won.

Gracie.  She lived in a tiny, vernacular cottage perched at the summit of a steep slope on the main channel of the Tennessee River; the view was to die for.   Any morning of the week found her hunkered down on the corner of her worn wicker sofa in the 1970s addition she built on a tight budget.  (She did everything on a tight budget but only because of willful frugality–as an adult woman she never wanted for anything.)  From there she could observe river traffic and the wildlife on her three rural acres, and opine about anything and everything, politics mainly.  At her right elbow sat a saucered cup of black coffee and another saucer of crisp bacon slices (she rarely had fewer than two pounds in the fridge). When they were in season there were also a few generously salted tomato slices on that plate.  Wisps of smoke unfurled from the cigarette between her fingers, her skin and hair betraying a lifelong nicotine addiction.  It took so  little else to make her happy, with the possible exception of the company of her multi-generational progeny.

In her last decade Gracie lived in a nursing home where she made daily trouble for the staff.  She defied the no-smoking-in-the-room rule, sitting openly on her toilet with cigarette in hand.  You could confront her about the ash pile on the floor in the bathroom and she would only shrug.  A small pleasure in the absence of coffee and bacon and tomato slices on the Tennessee River, for a woman who had lived nearly a century, and who was the only sibling of five to survive childhood during hard times in Victorian-era Knoxville.

She broke rules without a stitch of guilt.

Of Gracie’s culinary triumvirate I share her passion for black coffee and tomatoes.  (Bacon is evil as we all know.)  But at the confluence of this holy trinity I can taste the southern-grown and harvested fruit at the height of the season, and there is nothing like it.  I have had some pretty good approximations here in New England.  Not a true Southern tomato, though.  That succulent mouth explosion is Nirvana, enough said.

Last week I resolved to start tomato plants from seed inside (since it is Still Winter here) as I intend to make a vegetable garden this summer, dammit.    As I mentioned in the last post, I enjoyed success starting other vegs indoors from seed but was a bit eager and now have sprawling plants that are ready for the ground too soon.  They will probably die before I can move them, although they continue to look pretty healthy and I will nurture them inside as long as they will allow.

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Gracie had the Midas touch with gardens and houseplants, African violets especially.  She did not share this particular gift with me.  But sometimes I think I possess her intransigence, which is occasionally desirable and even helpful when you’ve got to navigate through tough and unforgiving wilderness.  I leave you with Gracie’s language, written in her own hand, and I shall keep you posted on the tomatoes.

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Needle Threader If you use one put it back Dam it Gracie