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Looking for America

Looking for America

I'm on my way home from a spontaneous road trip, embarked upon last week due to an itchy restlessness I couldn't shake. I haven't been on one of these in a while. The last one took me to the very same place I ended up in this time, along a very similar route, almost exactly one year ago.

I tell people I'm a free spirit, but maybe traveling this journey twice in two years is the beginning of a routine, or maybe it's a sign; maybe there's a reason I'm drawn to this particular area. Both could be equally true.

Sometimes I like to drive and be surprised by the journey. This time, I set out for a particular destination. I've been to parts of the Outer Banks in northeastern North Carolina before (the beginning of Say Yes was set near Kitty Hawk), but I'd never been to Wilmington or the beaches in southeastern NC. 

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

The view of the Atlantic Ocean from Wrightsville Beach.

I loaded the car Tuesday night and pointed it toward Wilmington the next day, fully intending to stay at least until the weekend. The drive was beautiful. Blue skies, bucolic fields, but man, was it hot. I think the temperature reached at least 95 on Wednesday as I was driving, and again the next day after a restless night spent in a hotel outside Wilmington.

Naturally, I headed to the one place everyone goes when it's that hot: The beach, specifically Wrightsville Beach, a stretch of gray sand outlining this section of the Atlantic Ocean. I think I spent more time looking for a parking spot along the waterfront than actually on the beach, and when I finally found a spot, I couldn't figure out how to work the parking meters.

Hey, I'm a writer, not a machine operator.

Fortunately, a sweet young man employed with parking enforcement came along and helped me feed a quarter into the machine. When I told him I had driven in the night before and only wanted to walk over to the ocean and back, he waved away my money and said, "Stay as long as you want." I could've hugged him, I was so grateful for his kindness.

Seashells, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Seashells, Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina.

On the way back from the beach, I stopped in historic downtown Wilmington (ok, I got lost in historic downtown Wilmington) and visited The Noble Thread, a yarn shop crammed into a nook on Water Street between a store for pet lovers and another full of intricately crafted woodwork. The owner had a lovely foreign accent I couldn't place, and was wearing a long-sleeved cardigan. The air conditioning, she said; it chilled her. "We're knitting sweaters now," she told me. "For the winter, when the cold arrives."

Meanwhile, I was in shorts and a t-shirt, and was trying hard not to suffocate in the middle of her lovely selection of hand knit shawls and multi-hued skeins of yarn. Last January's nine inches of snow is a faint memory. Never mind that I've already had a fire going at home and, in August, cast on a winter hiking cardigan in a sturdy, worsted weight wool.

The high heat turned out to be too much for me. People talk about Southern women being hothouse flowers, but I'm mountain born and bred. I wilt in temperatures over the mid-80s, so in spite of the shop owner's promises of cooler weather to come, that afternoon I headed north toward more temperate climes.

Google Maps routed me along the most remote backroads between Wilmington and Norfolk. Night fell before I found a restaurant for the evening meal that wasn't McDonald's or Subway, and that turned out to be a good thing. 

Doris & Roger's Restaurant is a Mom & Pop located off Hwy. 13 in Gates, a tiny community situated just south of the North Carolina-Virginia state line. The menu consisted of standard fare, burgers and sandwiches and chicken fingers, and a goodly selection of meat and two combinations. The sweet tea was delicious. Y'all folks living outside the South just don't know how bad you've got it, having to drink that unsweetened stuff. 

Every other guest in Doris & Roger's was a local. The youngest son of the family in the booth behind me was doing homework while waiting on their food to arrive. An older couple sitting across the room stopped by the booth in front of me (a mother and two kids) and gossiped for a while on their way out the door. It was like sitting in a restaurant back home. Same good-hearted folks, same friendly smiles, same routine conversations. 

"How's your mom doing, hon? I heard she was in the hospital."

"Oh, she's better now. Doc sent her home, told her to stay off her feet. Say, did you hear about Lou? She's down in her back again."

I chatted with the waitress, a high school girl sporting a blonde ponytail and a bouncy step, and nearly inhaled a plate of country fried steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Good, hearty, Southern fare. I turned down the offer of dessert (though lordy, was I tempted) and hit the road again. A couple of hours later, I reached the hotel I'd stayed in last year during my first trip to the Norfolk, Virginia, area.

Two trips to the same locale in two years does not a pattern make. Does it?

A giant rosemary bush, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia.

A giant rosemary bush planted in front of the Visitor Center, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Norfolk, Virginia.

Last year when I visited the Norfolk area, I went to the Virginia Aquarium and took a dolphin cruise skirting Virginia Beach. It was my first time out on the Atlantic Ocean. The dolphins were out in full force. A couple of the pods included calves, which were fun to watch.

This year, I started off at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. I needed to get out in the sun and stretch my legs, and this turned out to be the perfect place to do it.

I couldn't figure out the map (maybe if I'd put on my peepers?), so I walked around the visitor's center through paths lined with all manner of plants. Some I knew, thanks to a flower loving mother and a short stint working at an herb garden, and some I didn't. I tried to hunt down name tags for the ones I couldn't identify from memory. Alas, not every plant was marked. 

The first section I happened upon was the Rose Garden, row upon row of roses of every kind and color separated by dense paths of lush grass. Most of the visitors stuck to the marked paths. A few of us more adventurous ones wandered onto the grass. An Asian man wearing a brimmed hat and a long sleeved shirt over cargo pants snapped closeups of the blooms with a fancy 35 mm camera. An ancient African-American woman meandered from bush to bush, sniffing any rose that caught her fancy. Young couples held hands as they strolled the grounds, and parents led their children carefully away from the thorn tipped stems.

One young girl piped out a reasonable question. "Where are the signs that say no walking on the grass?"

I don't know what answer her parents gave to satisfy her curiosity. I was too busy smelling the roses.

Lasting Peace rose bush, Norfolk Botanical Gardens, Virginia.

Lasting Peace rose bush, the Rose Garden, Norfolk Botanical Garden.

I lost track of time during the trip. I don't wear a watch and my calendar is used mostly to help me keep track of work, not days of the week. Sometime after my trip to the Botanical Garden, a deranged individual opened fire on a crowd of music lovers. The internet erupted in a storm of vitriol and sorrow in nearly equal measures, it seemed, and the wedge shoved into the gaps between the various members of America's multi-everything society dug in a little deeper. 

I'm still not at a point where I can comment on this terrible tragedy, except to express my own sorrow for the victims.

I'd love to point out that those calling for more laws don't understand what laws actually do. They don't protect. They don't prevent. They only allow society to punish actions deemed criminal, long after the crime has been committed. Sadly, the people needing to hear this the most are deaf to reason.

While the tragedy and subsequent brouhaha unfolded, I did what I always do. I wrote. I observed. And I tried to keep my focus where it needed to be, on the things I have some control over, even if control is in appearance only. 

One night, I wrote a short story nearly two thousand words in length. It flowed out of me so swiftly, I have to wonder if perhaps worry pushed it out. My time in Norfolk was coming to an end, long before I was ready for it to. The work I'd set aside to accomplish there had hit another snag, and I was becoming frustrated with it and the reactions to the Las Vegas shooting.

The day before I left, I jumped in the car and headed toward the beach, hoping to clear my mind. On the way, I stopped at The Yarn Club, a nifty shop in Virginia Beach. 

Yarns bought on my trip home.

Yarns bought on my trip home. From left to right: Malabrigo Sock, color 850 Archangel (The Noble Thread, Wilmington, NC); Dragonfly Fibers Djinni, color Beauty School Dropout, and Yarn Love, color Juliet Mermaid (The Yarn Club, Virginia Beach, VA); Sugar Bush Cabot, color 9023 Serenity Lane (Gate City Yarns, Greensboro, NC).

When I'm upset, yarn therapy always helps, particularly when the staff is friendly and the store carries lots of yarn. The Yarn Club fits that description to a tee. Given the way the ladies in attendance discussed projects, I'm fairly certain I was the only stranger, and most definitely the only newcomer. When knitters discuss each other's progress on patterns with ease, you know they spend a lot of time together.

What tickled me the most was the conversation between Andrea, the store's owner, and a young woman winding a skein of yarn on a hand-cranked winder. "I told my mom I was going to hang around until I was indispensable," the young woman said. Without missing a beat, Andrea replied, "You know, it so happens that I'm looking for someone to help out. [So-and-so] just can't work a reliable schedule between classes, and she doesn't want to work Saturdays. Why don't you come in next week..."

I lost the tail-end of that conversation to one taking place closer to me revolving around another woman's yarn purchases. "I'm still working on that blanket," she said, "but [so-and-so] told me about this yarn, and I just had to come in and see it for myself." The woman to whom she was talking nodded sagely, as if she understood exactly which blanket, which so-and-so, and which yarn the first woman was discussing.

It's hard to stay upset around a group like that.

Half an hour, three skeins of yarn, and a new pattern later, I continued on toward Virginia Beach. Unsurprisingly, it took as long to find a parking spot as it did to drive there. It's not that the lots were full; they weren't. There's just not a lot of public parking. 

I finally found a spot near a public playground situated on the ultra-fine, orange tinted sand. Half a dozen folks dangled fishing lines over a metal rail into a man-made inlet outlined by a boulder pier. Three Navy vessels sailed into it as I walked along the concrete boardwalk.

Can a boardwalk really be a boardwalk if it's not made of wood?

The beach itself slopes gently down into the churning Atlantic, a brown-green mass of foam topped waves. There were no seashells here. Whether the beach had been picked clean or the ocean had drawn them back into her depths, I couldn't say. Seagulls and small birds, possibly sandpipers, ran along the edges of the beached waves. Each time a wave hit the shore, the birds scuttled out of the water's reach, then scurried into the ebbing wave's wake and pecked at the sand. There was a rhythm there, between the crash of the waves and the birds' flocking hunt, an endless, ageless interdependency affected more by the strolling couples sharing the birds' hunting grounds than by the ships dotting the horizon.

I stood at the water's edge under the fading sun letting a thought go with every curl of water onto sand. A nearby sandcastle, a relic of an earlier visitor to the beach, eroded away under the unceasing tide. Simon and Garfunkle came to mind. I am a rock, they sang. I am an island.

A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.

I'm human and, in spite of my self-imposed, introverted isolation, I'm not an island. I'm an American mourning the senseless loss of so many good people. That day, under a blue sky stretching as far as I could see, I cried for people I will never know, for their families, and for a grief-stricken nation scarred not by bullets or guns, but by the hands of an individual whose motives we may never know.

The boulder pier, Virginia Beach.

The boulder pier, Virginia Beach.

Every human is inherently both good and evil. Each of us carries those seeds from birth. Whether they are watered by nature or nurture is immaterial. The roots are there, growing within us, a fact humans have grappled with since the beginnings of self-awareness hundreds of thousands of years ago. The idea that evil deeds are caused by outside forces clings to ideological dogmas like Marxism, in part because no individual can accept the innate bad residing within herself. Poverty must be the root of crime, such philosophies insist, and poverty is caused by corporate greed. Those filthy capitalist pigs, Marxists scream. Power to the people.

Never mind that white collar crime is rooted in the excess of money, not its lack, and the fact that some people are just wrong inside. Let's not allow logic to stand in the way of a good slogan.

Before I'm accused of flogging an abhorred (and logically untenable) ideology, I should add that this same attitude exists across a wide swath of human beliefs. The religiously faithful believe morality is achieved only through the belief in a higher power, and that good and bad alike are imposed on humans by outside powers, God and Satan in Christianity, for example. 

It's easy to place our sins at the feet of a supernatural force, or someone else's misdeeds, or a tool (like a gun), and much harder to accept personal responsibility. 

But this is human nature. To decry it is an exercise in futility. We will always look outside ourselves for answers.

Virginia Beach

The Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach.

Monday night, I packed and loaded everything I didn't need for the next day into the car. The next morning, after a night spent working and too little sleep, I headed for my final destination, the Nauticus campus in downtown Norfolk. 

If America was broken and its people ruined by innate evil, it didn't show here. In the morning, I toured the museums and science centers housed inside Nauticus (officially the National Maritime Center), and toured the deck of the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned battleship moored onsite. The entire complex was manned in part by volunteers who, unless I'm sorely mistaken, were former military service members. Tourists speaking a variety of languages mingled with Americans of all flavors.

On the Battleship Wisconsin, I skirted the people and ducked under lifeboats, through topside narrow corridors created between clearly labeled machinery and steel sided compartments. Everything was a flat gray I came to associate with the Navy during my brief stay in the area, everything except the deck and the giant anchor chains stretched along a sizable chunk of its length.

I had just enough time for lunch between that and a Navy Base Cruise scheduled for two o'clock, so I went to the onsite Dockside Cafe and ordered a truly awesome club sandwich. The gentleman manning the cash register was a Jersey boy, born and bred. We had a lovely conversation about the differences between there and Virginia, including his love of the mountains and snow (I told him to come on out to Western North Carolina), and how that area of Virginia isn't really the South. 

Lunch was brought to me by a thin woman in her '60s, and I swear, she had to be a native Southerner. When I tried to take my food tray from her, she said, "I got it, hon" and took it to my table. I got a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a big smile. I'm not sure which made my day, the conversation with the cashier, the excellent meal, or her, but by the time I finished eating and headed off for the cruise, I was in a much better mood.

A gun on the USS Wisconsin.

A 16" gun on the USS Wisconsin, Norfolk, Virginia.

The Navy Base Cruise is a two-hour tour of that section of the Elizabeth River. We saw a ship in dry dock and enough boats, ships, and cargo-loading cranes for a lifetime. The tour guide pointed out many of the features we could see, including historic sites in Norfolk and nearby Portsmouth, and was kind enough to detail the different seagoing vessels as we passed.

I have never seen so many gray ships in my life. Since I'm only seldom around large bodies of water, that's probably not saying much.

The halfway point of the tour was the Navy Base itself. We saw only parts of it, mainly the ships moored at various piers. The highlight for me was seeing the two aircraft carriers moored at the farthest pier. My brother was a yellow shirt on the USS Abraham Lincoln and an uncle served aboard the USS Nimitz. I knew that aircraft carriers are floating cities, but until I saw them for myself, I didn't realize how truly massive the carriers are.

We had some special guests on board during the cruise, a reunion of crew members of the USS Harlan R. Dickson. After the ship (boat?) turned around near the aircraft carriers, the reunion guests performed a small memorial to shipmates and other military personnel lost in combat. It was a brief ceremony. Some of the wives threw flowers into the boat's wake, someone said a prayer, and at the end, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" was broadcast over the speakers.

I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free.

Even a staunch libertarian like me feels a burst of nationalistic fervor when Greenwood sings, and I'd gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today.

America is a symbol for freedom, and not just any kind of freedom, but that on the most basic level, the freedom of the individual to live his or her life in a way that most benefits him, as long as it materially harms no other's rights to the same. That ideal has drawn millions of immigrants to this great land for centuries, and we enfold them into our embrace, much as the ocean gathers shells from the shore and returns them to her depths. Humans were meant to live free. For much of the world, America is freedom's home.

So maybe I wasn't being nationalistic after all when I heard those words. I would fight, and die, for the ideal of freedom, but I will always remember that an ideal is nothing without the people in whom it is imbued, and a country is nothing without its people. Many fight to uphold those ideals, here at home by speaking out against injustices and promoting freedom wherever they can, or elsewhere through military and other service to our country.

Some give their lives fighting wars we don't always understand. Death is inevitable. Even the universe will die at some point, and be reborn again as something new. Sacrifice for freedom isn't a new concept, but it's difficult to accept when someone else is dying for your right to live freely.

Letter in bronze, Armed Forces Memorial, Norfolk, Virginia.

Letter in bronze, Armed Forces Memorial, Norfolk.

An Armed Forces Memorial occupies one corner of the sidewalk near where the Navy Base Cruise boat docks. It consists of excerpts from letters written by deceased soldiers, cast in bronze sheets that were scattered around the enclosure as if they'd been blown there by the wind. The letters contained sentiments of poignant beauty alongside blunt hopelessness and despair.

When will this war end? I long to be home.

I read those letters as I waited for the cruise to begin, and I thought of my grandfather, who died during World War II, not so that his wife and children would have freedom, but on the slim hope that the Nazi occupied land he flew over would someday share in that freedom. He gave his life for people he never knew, and they repaid him by burying him and his crew mates, and remembering them. It was all they could give until that freedom was achieved. Later, one of the witnesses, then a young boy, founded a museum to honor those who died that day in the air battle over his village. 

Everything has an ugly side. For my grandfather, the fight for an ideal led to his death.

For the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, the freedom of self-defense enshrined in the 2nd Amendment was perverted and twisted at the hands of an individual who lacked all respect for it and other individuals.

We cannot have the good without having the bad. 

America will never be the Utopian ideal libertarians hope for, in which individuals exist in perfect respect for one another, and I fervently hope it will never devolve into the socialistic, omniscient state my friends on the left desire it to be. Neither is realistic, nor overly likely to succeed or persevere. 

In the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in the City of Lights, I was reminded again and again that America is not the embodiment of evil, that her heart is her people, and the people, while flawed and merely human, are basically good. 

It was there in a sheepish waitress's smile when I hunted her down to retrieve the silverware she'd forgotten to bring me.

It was there in the love shared by couples walking along the beach, disturbing birds busy chasing waves.

It was there in the conversations shared with me and overheard, in the friendship offered by the many people I met, and in the kindness bestowed upon a stranger just passing through.

America isn't lost. It isn't broken. It's there if you look for it, beyond the yellow journalism, fake news, and social media rants, beneath the ever unconstitutional restrictions imposed upon our freedoms by well-intentioned (and occasionally politically expedient) politicians. It exists in the hearts and minds of her people, and in the communities we build one with another, not in borders or government offices or even a piece of paper enshrining humanity's natural rights. 

I wasn't looking for America when I set out on my quest to shake the restlessness plaguing me, certainly not the America portrayed in news broadcasts here and abroad, but America is what I found. The journey was a potent reminder of the power we have to perpetuate one of the most fragile and pursued states humans have ever faced: The freedom of, and absolute right to, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Bon voyage, my friends, and safe travels. Freedom is gonna be a bumpy ride.

Scarecrows and Rain Dances

Scarecrows and Rain Dances

Growing up, I must’ve had the strongest female role models of any woman alive, except maybe my sister, who was blessed with the same set.

Nanny, our paternal grandmother, lost her first husband to Nazi gunners during World War II, her eldest daughter at a tender age to a tragic accident, and her second husband to drink. She developed rheumatoid arthritis in her late thirties, the most severe case her specialists had seen at the time, and eventually died due to complications thereof, but not before seeing her remaining five children and umpteen grandchildren reared proper like.

Her faith and a lively sense of humor shored up her strength, traits she passed on to the better part of her progeny, usually in equal measures. We’re the Bible-thumpin’est, laugh-out-loudest bunch of yehaws never seen outside the South.

MawMaw, our maternal grandmother, married a man whose first wife had died upon the birth of their third child. As soon as the deed was done, he volunteered for the Navy (presumably out of patriotic duty during World War II), and when he returned, gifted my grandmother with ten additional children.

If that doesn’t speak to her strength, nothing ever will.

Then there are the aunts, a quirky bunch of women born and bred in the fine mountain arts of making hushpuppies, smiles, and mischief, not necessarily in that order.

None beat Mama for sheer obstinance. If it had to be done, by golly, she made sure it was done, and done right the first time. Or else. I was on the receiving end of or else enough to know she meant it when she said it.

Mama was a bundle of energy, not frenetic or obtrusive, but the kind of energy that sticks with a task from start to finish and doesn’t let a whole lot get in the way in between. That energy was expended on a number of endeavors over her too-short life, not least of which was a penchant for helping the people around her in ways they least expected.

She started sewing at a young age and later won the local 4H contest for a skirt she made with her own two hands. (I was never straight on whether she did that at age nine or in the ninth grade.) Alas, PawPaw thought Raleigh was a road too far for one of his daughters to travel, and so, she stayed home while her peers tarried on.

That minor setback might’ve kept Mama from showing her skill to a bunch of city judges, but it didn’t stop her from sewing. Over the next few decades she progressed from sewing for herself to sewing for others, and eventually wound up sewing wedding dresses for local brides, then organizing their weddings.

Mama had a good hand for getting people where she wanted ‘em to be and a fine eye for crafting pretty out of humdrum.

Her needlework was rarely confined to garment making. The first house I remember living in was out on Wolffork Road. The Tanner House, we called it, a one-story white farmhouse with red shutters and trim. It had wood floors and a fireplace, and an old, gray barn out back. Mama salvaged a chair from that barn, refinished it from top to bottom, then embroidered flowers on black velvet for a seat cushion.

The leftover velvet went into a vest for a costume she made for me when I was in first grade, or maybe the seat cushion was made out of scraps from the vest.

Either way, I still have the whole outfit tucked away in my closet, a tiny gypsy shirt and colorful skirt, and that black velvet vest, embroidered with musical notes and a butterfly in Mama’s fine, even hand. One day, I’ll sit her great-grandchildren down and show them that vest, but not for a good, long while as my son is only nineteen and not nearly ready to settle down yet.

Or so he tells me.

The sewing and quilting and refinishing morphed into a part-time career redecorating rooms and whole houses in partnership with Mama’s youngest sister, Debi. The two of them squeezed the extra work in around full-time jobs and full-time children. I swear, I think they must’ve redone every second house in a one hundred mile radius during those days, judging by the number of trips they took to the wallpaper outlet.

When it came time to paint or wallpaper or refinish for me and my sister, Mama headed the project from start to finish. My sister and her husband built a house when their kids were little. Mama was the one sorting through paint chips and fabric samples, matching one to the other for best effect, and that’s exactly the way my sister wanted it. Neither one of us inherited that talent, more’s the pity.

Mama always took an active role in our lives, even when her disapproval of said lives ran high. In elementary school, she was that mother. You know the one I’m talking about. If there was a school function, Mama was there with bells on and then some. One year she came to an event as a scarecrow and the next as Peter Pan. Nobody blinked an eye, especially us kids.

‘Course, that could’ve been because we didn’t recognize her as the scarecrow until we got home. She was still wearing the autumn striped, toed socks she’d worn to school that day. Otherwise, we might never have cottoned on to her guise.

Not a thing changed when me, my brother, and my sister grew into extracurricular activities. Mama still didn’t approve of the decisions we made, but she still volunteered for nigh on everything. If the Athletic Boosters or the Band Boosters needed an extra chaperone, up her hand went. She was score keeper and fund raiser, and all around morale booster, and I mean that quite literally. There wasn’t a thing Mama wouldn’t do for the people around her, nor any dare she’d refuse.

One memorable baseball game, she promised Little S. she’d do a rain dance on the pitcher’s mound if he hit a homerun on his first at bat. Danged if he didn’t hit one over the fence on his first swing. As soon as he rounded home, Mama handed her score book and pencil over to another mama, walked out onto the field, and in the tradition of the finest shaman this side of the Great Mississipp’, proceeded to whoop and holler her way through a rain dance on the pitcher’s mound.

My hand to God, y’all, that’s exactly the way it happened, or the way I remember it, which amounts to the same thing.

Mama was also the one sitting in the back of the bus with the kids, laughing up a storm to a tape of Bill Cosby while the other chaperoning parent sat in the front behind the bus driver, none of which should come as a surprise to anyone.

The years rolled on, aging as they do, and so did we. Mama wasn’t shy of expressing her dislike of my budding flirtation with music during high school. She wanted me to be a cheerleader and hang with the popular crowd. I wanted to bury my nose in a book and leave socializing where it belonged, with someone else’s crowd. Anyone else’s. I wasn’t picky.

In spite of our difference of opinion, she made my costume when I was chosen as the marching band’s assistant drum major (it now hangs in my closet beside the black velvet vest outfit), and she dutifully fulfilled her role as the Band Boosters’ secretary. I found some of the cassette tapes of the minutes a few years ago, after she died, and haven’t the courage to listen to them, knowing darn good and well her voice is recorded on there.

Maybe someday, but not until the heartache of losing her far too soon fades a mite.

Mama’s energy was seldom confined to costuming and decorating and keeping an eye on her young’uns, which often included any child foolish enough to stand still long enough for her and Daddy to claim ‘em.

As the offspring of farmers, Mama knew a fair bit about growing and preserving. She collected daylilies of every size and color, and planted them up and down the rock wall behind the house she and Dad built when we kids were teenagers. Shoots of her mother’s favorite roses were nestled into their own spots at the bottom of the yard, along with a sprig or two of roses salvaged from Nanny’s house before she died.

Try her best, but Mama couldn’t hardly get thrift to grow below the roses. In the eight years since her passing, it still hasn’t taken off good, but like Mama, it’s hanging in there, too stubborn to wither away.

Mama was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about a decade before her death. That didn’t stop her from doing a blasted thing she wanted to do, though it did slow her down a bit. She still found time to piece quilts for all the grandkids, attend all their games, home and away, and mix up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when the occasion called for it.

Which happened to be quite often. Of course, it was. What are grandchildren and rainy days for besides PBJs, the Little Rascals, and a good cuddle with MeMom?

To a mountain-bred woman, cooking means preserving your own food. Daddy never wanted a garden (he’d had enough of that growing up, thank you very much), so Mama helped with MawMaw’s garden or bought fruits and vegetables in bulk from local farmers. Spring time brought strawberries for shortcake and jams. In summer, she rounded us up in the cool, early morning hours and herded us into overgrown fields to help her pick blackberries. Our fingers were purple by the end of the humid mornings, and we were covered in sweat and ticks, like every young’un should be in the endless days between one school year and the next.

Fall was for vegetable soup and slaughtering hogs, not usually at the same time, and everywhere in between, we canned. Younger kids with small hands were responsible for washing the jars while the grown ups boiled down fruit and peeled, chopped, sliced, and strung all manner of homegrown vegetables.

I was roped into both for a good long while, along with my sister and cousins, just as we were charged with clean up after meals and such. It was a fair trade for a hot breakfast on a cold winter morning. Canned sausage, refried on the stove, served with fresh-from-the-oven, scratch biscuits and piping hot applesauce seasoned with sugar and butter. I miss those days.

Mama continued canning and preserving throughout her life. The summer before she died, she put by enough food to do her family for half a decade after, at least. She never got a chance to cook from a single jar. One cloud-swept October day, Daddy took her to the hospital yet again for the endless pain her doctors never found a way to control. He came home for the night, thinking, as we all did, that they’d fix her up as best they could (again) and send her back home, if not better, then at least not suffering such debilitating pain.

I wish to God we’d been right that time.

Mama never came home. Her body was sent from the hospital to the funeral home, and we were left to wear the shoes not one of us could possibly fill alone.

Family and friends flooded into Dad’s home, sharing with us the love Mama had so freely given them. The visitation lasted more than an hour after the time set aside for it. So many people came by, I only remember them as a blur of teary smiles and commiserating handshakes.

After the memorial service, Mrs. Gillespie, my third grade teacher, pulled me aside and said, “I will never forget the time your Mama…” Sadly, we were interrupted before she could finish the thought, and I will never know what Mama did to embed that particular remembrance in Mrs. Gillespie’s head.

Though I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if it had something to do with scarecrows and rain dances and a good woman living life, and loving.

This month would’ve marked my mother’s 69th birthday. Happy birthday, Mom.

Friday Finds

Friday Finds

Header image:
Smoke has become a real problem across Western North Carolina and the surrounding areas as wildfires burn in several national forest locations.
Photograph courtesy of Cris Bessette.

A roundup of interesting books, movies, and tidbits, some old, some new, and some stuff I just wanted to share.

Halloween may be over (unless you're a Hobbit, in which case, Second Halloween!), but this movie is one I'll be watching again soon. 

Because I only watched it twice leading up to Halloween, thank you very much.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman deliver outstanding performances in the lead roles, and are supported admirably by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as The Aunts, and Goran Visnjic and Aidan Quinn as the Owens sisters' love interests. 

Now, some of you probably think that because I'm a writer, I should be pointing to the book on which the movie was based, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. Uh, no. This is one of the few cases where the movie was far, far better than the book. Stick with the movie. Don't watch it alone and, for pete's sake, "Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can."

Dubbed a techno-thriller by reviewers, Chuck Wendig's Zeroes is the story of a group of misfit hackers who are pulled together and coerced (read: imprisoned and forced) to work for a shadow government agency to an end that becomes clear after a terrifying and weird twisting journey. Technology geeks and nerds of all flavors will enjoy this one particularly, but anyone who likes a fast-paced, intense story should find a good read between the covers. I did, and no one can accuse me of being a geek... Oh, wait.

Every once in a while, I go on a mini-book-buying spree. A couple of days ago, for instance, I ordered five paperbacks ranging the gamut from Epic Fantasy to Urban Fantasy to Science Fiction. Amazon is my friend. 

So is Barnes & Noble. Whenever I'm in Asheville, I try to stop by the local B&N and browse the new releases, and usually come home with at least one book. On the trip before last, I picked up one by debut author Becky Chambers, whose first work is titled The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The title alone is worth the read.

Amazingly enough, Harper Collins, the publisher, has set the Kindle edition's price to $1.99, completely contravening the Big 5's usual practice of pricing digital editions as high as, or higher than, the paperback edition. (Or, at least, that was the price when I wrote this blog post at 4:38 p.m. on Thursday, 10 November 2016, EST.)

This was the book I took with me to read during my recent Kodak/Knoxville, Tennessee, trip. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far into it during the trip and had to turn my attention away from fun reads toward more serious, work-related reads (see the sidebar for what I'm currently reading). Don't tell me how it ends! I want to figure that out myself.

The crew working the Jones Gap fire northwest of Highlands, North Carolina, just a few miles from my current home.
Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service.

While most around the United States are preoccupied with the recent election results, folks here in the Southeast are more concerned about the wildfires spreading across the Southern Appalachians. Some of them are being set by an arsonist(s), including those in the Macon County, North Carolina, and Rabun County, Georgia, areas. Many are being forced to evacuate, while others are under a state of emergency, and many more try to find a way to cope with the smoke permeating our air.

This is my home area, friends. The smoke is so thick in some places, the roads are impassable. My son is asthmatic. A couple of nights ago, we drove from his home in Georgia up to Sylva, NC, to eat at Bogart's. (Best burgers in Jackson County!) The smoke was so bad and so hard on his lungs, we contemplated turning around.

Smoke from wildfires diminishes the sun in Franklin, NC. Photo courtesy of Brandon Ledford.
Thick smoke from wildfires obscures the sun in the Frogtown area of Franklin, North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Ledford.

Good thing we didn't. Halfway through our meal, a group of about eighteen forest rangers walked in, and that eventually led to my son and I visiting the Jackson County Command Center, where we spoke with a young man about donations. The folks fighting the fires include, from my understanding, forest rangers, members of the National Guard, and others flown in from at least nine states across the country, as well as local firefighters and other emergency service personnel. Under the harsh floodlights shining down on the command center, the men and women looked completely worn out. I later learned that they're shipped out to the fires after breakfast and don't come back until bedtime.

That's a long, hard day, especially considering that the only food they have in between is what they can carry in their packs and clothes.

I ended up going in with my editor (Richard, for those who don't know him) and donating a crap ton of Slim Jims, nuts and dried fruits, and sodas, the latter having been specifically requested by members of the fire crews. After the hours they work trying to stop the spread of these wildfires, the least we can do is provide something other than water and Gatorade for them to drink.

As far as I know, the command centers are still accepting donations. I only know of two, the one set up at the Holiday Inn Express just north of Dillsboro, NC, and the one set up at the old Caterpillar factory outside of Franklin, NC. (This article mentions a command center in Clay Co., NC, but I don't know the location.) Considering the scope of the fires, there have to be others, so if you're interested in donating or otherwise helping, try contacting local emergency services or ranger stations for more information.

The men and women who came here from outside the South have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the locals. Let's continue doing what we can to make their lives easier until they can return to their own families and communities.

Ledford Road smoke by Amy Watts
Smoke hangs over the road leading to property owned by my family near Franklin, North Carolina.
Photograph courtesy of Amy Watts.
Pumpkintown wildfire by Erica Welch Arvey
Fires burning across the road from a populated area in Pumpkintown, North Carolina. 
Photograph courtesy of Erica Welch Arvey.


It started with a spider.

One night, I wandered into my laundry room at oh-dark-thirty and happened to catch a glimpse of a shadow on top of my washing machine. That shadow shouldn’t have been there, crouching in the deeper shadows surrounding it, and like the cussed fool I am, I said what every woman trapped in a horror movie says right before the bad guy jumps her.

Let’s see what that is!

Eyes pinned on the shadow, I cautiously stretched out an arm and flipped on the light. There on top of my washing machine sat a spider as big as my palm.

I screamed. It jumped. I’m telling you, this scene had all the makings of a campy Steve Martin comedy.

Still squawking, I snagged the dust pan and tried to smash the spider. The dang thing kept scrambling out of the way. After three or four missed swats on my part, it retreated over the top of the washing machine, out of sight.

Undeterred, I called in the big guns, a 17.5 ounce can of Hot Shot Wasp & Hornet Spray, the only poison I have on hand. (It’s my editor’s. He left it here by accident.) Thus fortified, I stormed into the laundry room (all 5′ 1.5″ of me), climbed on top of the washing machine, and squirted half a bottle of bee poison at the hapless spider while it tried to skeedaddle out of the way. Once it was good and subdued (i.e. the skeedaddling dwindled to the wounded crawl of a dying soldier across a bloody battlefield), I hopped off the washing machine, grabbed a broom handle (sans bristles), and killed the sucker dead.

Good fortune, eh? So what if after my victorious triumph, I staggered out of the laundry room hacking and coughing and couldn’t fold my laundry, thanks to the excess fumes? I’d escaped having a spider jump on me or, worse, bite me or my son.

I should’ve known things would go downhill from there.

The next day, my son and I were in the parking lot about to leave for lunch. My dad happened to be outside at the same time (he lives next door, or rather, we live next door to him). He called us over and pointed to a six-inch hole in the asphalt, near where our driveway merges into his. Under that hole? A sinkhole. The asphalt had rippled and bucked from lack of support for a good three feet uphill of the hole. My son looked in and estimated the sink was only about a foot deep, and Dad deemed it repairable with a sledgehammer and a dose of gravel.

“Two years,” I told my dad. “We just needed two more years.”

“Two years for what?” he asked.

“Two years for us to move. If this had happened in a couple of years, it wouldn’t have been a problem, since nobody would be living here.”

“Where are you going again?” he deadpanned, and I threw up my hands and walked away, shaking my head. It wasn’t like Dad and I hadn’t just discussed (read: argued about) me and my son finding a bigger place so we’d both have the privacy we each needed. Dad acted like we were trying to abandon him. In reality, we’re just doing what humans have been doing for millennia: Roaming until we find where we belong.

In the meantime, there’s a six-inch hole in my driveway, my car has a short in it that continually drains the battery, and I’ve got a leaky bathtub to fix before water from the shower rots the floor.

Oh, yes, and a (I hope) dead spider in my trash can.

Did I mention the $1200 in car insurance, on two aging cars that are barely worth $2000 each, plus over $600 in house insurance, all due in the same week? No? Well, there ya go.

This here is what our side of the Watson branch calls Watsonomics, a term borrowed from Married with Children‘s Al Bundy, who explained Bundynomics like this:

AL)    Peg, have you ever heard of The Bundy Curse?

PEGGY) You mean that foot odor thing?

AL)    No, the other curse! You see, the minute a Bundy starts having good luck, he
       immediately starts building up an equal amount of bad luck! It's simple
       Bundynomics. For example: when I was 18 years old, scored four touchdowns in 
       one game, I became the greatest football player in the history of Polk High.

PEGGY) And what bad thing happened after that?

Al turns to Peg and glares at her.

PEGGY) Oh! Like I'm the one who said, "Al, show no ambition. We can live off your income
       of rocks and leaves." Honey, there is nothing wrong with having good luck.

AL)    Yes, there is! And you know what's worse then a Bundy having good luck? 

PEGGY) A Bundy wearing Speedos while having good luck?

AL)    Good guess, Peg, no. A Bundy admitting he's having good luck, because that when
       the bad luck starts!

Bad luck after good. That explains Watsonomics perfectly. Just when we hit smooth sailing, the Hand of God reaches down and smacks us, sort of the same way Emeril does when he’s seasoning a recipe.

Bam! You think that’s good luck? Ha! Wait ’til you see what I have in store for you. Bam, bam!

But hey. At least I didn’t wind up like Denny in “The Cocoon” by John B. L. Goodwin, as a cocoon after he had the gall to kill a moth for his collection. I read that tale as a kid the way anybody with any sense reads an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, at night under the covers with a flashlight. If strange knocks start alternating between the front door and the window, you can forget it. I’m not going outside to investigate no matter how much bug spray I have in hand.