The Month of Yellow

April is the month of yellow around these parts.

The daffodils finally burst into bloom last week and dandelions along with them. Country roadsides have exploded into an earthly vision of sunshine with forsythia. The shrubs are packed so tightly together, their branches so thick and intertwined, that even the cleverest rabbit would have a hard time navigating them.

And since yesterday, the goldfinches, those canaries of the wild, have overtaken our bird feeders (at least when they can wrest a few perches from the squirrels). At this very moment, I look outside to see half a dozen of the lemony-yellow birds crowded on the feeder outside the living room window, with more waiting in the wings—flitting in the rhododendron, sitting on branches of the nearby mountain ash, even perching on the windowsill.

Everything about goldfinches is showy—bright yellow feathers glowing next to raven-colored wings, sweet soprano chirps filling the air, bouncing flight patterns giddily announcing, “We’re back!”

Ten days ago, the day heralding April, we watched snow falling outside the very window where the finches now gather. Exactly six months ago, the colors were inverted. At ground level, nature was browning. The color was in the trees-—the rich, muted reds and bronzes of fall. Today, our trees are still bare. To see most of today’s colors requires looking down instead of up, down towards the earth from which they are being birthed.

April yellows are the yellowest yellows. Like spring itself, the yellow of daffodils, dandelions, forsythia, and goldfinches is a symbol of happiness, hope, energy, our very life force.

April is a good time to be alive.

Rhododendron’s Many Faces

The rhododendron buds for next year’s flowers appear almost as soon as petals drop from the bush like an early summer cascade of pink snowflakes.

In winter, I can tell how many layers I need to wear by looking out the window at the big rhodie in our yard. On temperate days, the oblong leaves lie almost flat. As colder weather comes our way, they begin to curl inward, as if hugging themselves to keep the chill off. On the coldest days, a toddler’s little finger wouldn’t fit inside a single one of those curls.

As the leaves hang pendulously in winter, the buds above point skyward, reaching for warmth. Individually, they look like homemade hankie days long gone. Clustered together, they remind me of a chorus of angels.

On days like today, the merest dusting of snow clings to the leaves, and I see a different kind of snow angel.

Not long after spring makes its debut, the buds are pregnant with new life almost ready to burst open with color and aroma as killing frosts threaten.

Yet, somehow, they survive.

Lost Keys

They weren’t lost. We knew exactly where the keys were, all three sets.

As usual, mine were in my bag, in the car. I don’t like to carry baggage—of any sort. The Gnome was driving. He has pockets. He always takes his keys with him.

As we stepped into the parking lot with a full grocery cart that night, a funny look came over the Gnome’s face. “Do you have your keys?” he asked. “I must have left mine in the ignition.” Sure enough, that’s where they were.

We called the local constabulary. This was in the day when cars were equipped with a button just next to the window on the inside edge of each car door. To lock the door, all you had to do was press the button as you exited the car. All too easy to leave a key inside. It was also possible for skilled hand to pull the little button up into the open position with a coat hanger or similar device. The police carried such a device.

The black car arrived after an awkwardly long wait. The next few minutes could have been a scene from a TV sitcom.

The officer quizzed us. “Don’t you have a second set?”

“Yes sir, they’re in the car, too.” (Like we just explained,” I muttered—under my breath.)

“What about at home? Do you have an extra set there?”

“Well, yes. But our home is half an hour’s drive away. And with our keys locked inside the car, we can’t exactly drive there to get the keys to unlock the car door.” (If we could do that, I thought, we wouldn’t have needed to call you, now, would we?)

“Can’t you get someone to take you home to get your key?”

“Not exactly. Besides, that key is inside the house, and the house is locked, too. And guess where the house keys are. On the same key ring with the car keys.”

He seemed incapable of grasping our catch-22 predicament. Round and round we went. Somewhere, sometime, somebody was going to have to force some lock for us or we’d forever be out in the cold, literally.

Thankfully, the officer finally relented and with a quick flick of his wrist, we were finally on our way, groceries and all.

What about you? Do you have a lost keys story?

Creative Commons photo credit: Basile Morin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Winter, Reconsidered

My emotional connection with winter has a long history. It has rocked back and forth sometimes depending on my geographic circumstances. For the last few years our alliance has been strained.

This year, I’ve been trying to redefine my relationship to the season of short days and long nights, relentlessly prolonged and wrapped in gray in my neck of the woods.

During the coldest months, the sun’s rays rarely make an appearance and not just because of the brief period of daylight. Overcast is a generous word for many of our wintry days. Of the first fourteen days of this new year, we had perhaps two sunny days. That was the beginning of a season-long trend.

Even those rare days are frequently unhelpful when it comes to getting a dose of Vitamin D. The frigid temperatures allow for only a couple of small skin slivers—between toboggan and eyebrows and between lower eyelids and muffler. Even eyes may be covered with sunglasses, particularly when sun and snow combine to create blinding brightness. And sometimes the snow—especially if it’s deep, icy, or drifts high and unevenly—makes the outdoors a dangerous proposition, particularly for those of us who are more susceptible to breakage because of age.

Nonetheless, I’m taking measures.

  • I treat all my senses: my most worn sweater that wraps me like a cocoon, thick, soft socks, and a plush comforter make me feel as if I’m burrowing into the neck of a friendly Old English Sheepdog.
  • I surround myself with the soft glow and herbal scent of candles. I play soothing music that lifts my spirit—mostly classical, folk, and Celtic.
  • I try to hold an intentional smile, if only as subtle as the Madonna’s. It brings comfort to those around me, and my spirits unconsciously lift.
  • I sip tea, slowly, and look at the outdoors. Really look at it, noticing all the nuances of winter’s offerings, playing with words to find the most descriptive—and life-affirming—ways to describe the scene before me.

The work is all-encompassing. But so far it has proven worth the effort. Winter will still be around for a while up here on the diagonal, so I’m still working at it.

Our society has a tendency to think of winter as a time of death. Green grass and summer wildflowers have ‘died;’ leaves have fallen and dried making deciduous trees look dead. I’ve challenged myself this year to look at nature differently.

Lawns may no longer be emerald, but they will regrow; the grass is not dead. We have a tendency to overlook the subtle tan shades of tall grasses, but they provide rustling interest on a winter day, even more when they wave gently in a breeze.

Winter isn’t a braggart. Its marvels are less noticeable than the lushness of spring and the vibrancy of summer. In those seasons, winter’s elusive wonders are hidden. But now—now they surround us. Now is the time to revel in them.

When I manage to get out of doors, whether for a walk in the woods or a scenic drive, I look again. I search for positive words, alternatives to bleak, dreary, and overcast. Words like contemplative, silver-tinged skies, reflective, pensive. Winter calls us to introspection. Is that why we resist it?

On one typically cold but unusually bright morning, the roofs of the houses we passed on our way to town were covered with the thinnest veneer of frost. As we rode by, sunlight played on the icy crystals, creating a glittery shimmer, as if the shingles were made of twinkling fairy lights.

The skeletal trees, bare of their green camouflage, fill the landscape with sculptural architecture. Their nakedness allows me to appreciate aspects hidden at other times of the year.

The branches of some reach upward, as if in praise of the sky. Some trees are encircled by draping branches, reminiscent of welcoming arms ready to enfold me and offer comfort. Some trees are so gnarled and craggy it’s easy to imagine they sit on the edge of an enchanted forest.

About now, with trees looking as bereft of life as they have for months, the sap begins rising, an event which will go entirely unnoticed except for syrup makers and those who happen to fell a tree at that crucial time, but pivotal to the reemergence of the verdant leaves we long for.

Subtle color variations and not-so-subtle textural differences in tree bark differentiate one species from another. Touch a sycamore or crape myrtle, with bark as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom.

Consider the trees with peeling bark—paper thin birches and rugged shagbark hickories, or the finely ribbed bark of the pin oak and the thick, deeply furrowed bark of the black locust. Bark with overlapping plates, like black birch, make me think of armadillos and scaly dinosaurs.

As I look more closely at trees, I see mosses as dark as midnight and lichens, some the palest green, eerily fluorescent in the dark. In the woods outside my kitchen window sits the tree stump. Over time, moss has begun to creep upwards, slowly covering its sides. Today, I saw for the first time that the entire stump is blanketed in moss as soft as down, hinting at a fairyland.

There are trees with burls and hidey holes. Who goes there?

A cyclops tree?

Winter serves a purpose. Plants store up their reserves, ready to explode with new life as warmer weather and more hours of sunlight appear. The flora does what it needs to do during winter. Animals know how to handle winter, too. Some, like plants, go dormant to preserve strength, feeding off stores of fat until nature is ready to provide its bounty.

What if we humans were to welcome winter in all its aspects and live with it, not against it, as the rest of nature seems to do so well? What if we turned off the electronics, indeed perhaps electric lights when the sun goes down. What if we did those quiet chores best done in front of a fire or by candlelight with a cup of hot chocolate or tea at our sides? What if, instead of staring at some screen, we talked to each other, played games together, put together a jigsaw puzzle, corresponded with relatives and other friends, read aloud or silently, wrote, contemplated? What if we used winter to restore ourselves, to create, to maintain?

Would our family and internal lives be richer? I think they might. Would we welcome winter as we welcome spring? Would we be better primed for what life brings in the next season? We might begin to treasure and even look forward to long winter evenings as a time of personal and family enrichment.

We can’t beat winter. Why not join it?

 

Proud Mountain Woman

(This essay was first published in the 2018 issue of Gateways Creative Arts Journal, themed Remembering and Forgetting.)

Not again!” she snapped. Until this moment, it had been a perfect morning. But when she turned on the tap to fill the coffee pot, nothing. Dadgum it! Preparing a hearty breakfast before seeing Braxton off to work was one of the many ways she strove to be the best wife she could possibly be. This thing with the water was getting to be a nuisance. All she asked of the Harwell boy was that he wait just a measly half-hour to divert the water supply to the cattle trough so Brack could get a pre-workday shower and she could fix his breakfast.

Today was one time too many. In a flash of huff, she trounced across the kitchen, slammed the screen door behind her, stomped across the sandy back yard in her pink and blue flowered pajamas, climbed over the barbed wire fence into the neighbors’ pasture, and turned off the cows’ water supply with a sharp wrist twist.

She marched triumphantly back to the kitchen, still mad, but smug. Today there would be coffee.

Who is this woman? What is her story? Her name is Pam Dillard Coates. I know this true life episode because the four-year-old me was in the kitchen when it happened. No doubt, the only reason this long-ago moment stands so clearly in my memory is that such a display of temper and venom was so unlike the quiet, gentle woman I knew as my mother.

That woman would never snap, never slam, and never, ever leave the house in her pajamas.

At the time, our young family of four was living in Mars Bluff, South Carolina, about eight miles east of Florence. My parents rented an old farmhouse from the Harwells who lived next door in what has been described as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival antebellum architecture in South Carolina. Even I knew it was pretty impressive encircled as it was with twenty-two Doric columns (not that I knew to call them that).

By contrast, our small wood frame house stood atop brick pillars, in the way of many houses of its era. The open space under the house was intended to keep things cooler in the hot southern summertime. Perhaps the nearby presence of “The Columns,” as the Harwell home was known, made our little house look shabby to the lady who came calling one day to welcome us to church. Mother did not like the sense she got that this matron felt sorry for us and that she looked down on us. It was a slight Mother never forgot.

But our home wasn’t nearly as pitiful as the two-room unpainted wooden shanty occupied by a tenant-farming couple. I walked across the fields to visit them on occasion. It was a tiny space, even by four-year-old standards. I walked into the small area designated as a kitchen with room for a wooden counter top on one side of the door and an old-fashioned icebox on the other. An open doorway led into the combination living-bedroom. The place was dismally spare. At least our house had electricity—and running water, sometimes.

We lived a couple hundred miles and a world apart from Mother’s hometown in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina. The people of sandy eastern South Carolina thought her mountain accent was quaint. By one means or another, someone was always calling attention to her differentness. She felt out of place, patronized, and she was rightly sensitive to any hint of disdain.

In the mountains, she was in her element. Her family was well-respected. Her parents were leaders in the small community. It was home.

She didn’t realize just how much. Though she was unaware of it, all of Mother’s ancestors had settled the area when it was first opened up via cession by the Cherokee. Every single one of them came to this country no later than the 1700s, some earlier. Like today’s immigrants, they were mostly poor folk who left their home countries in search of a better life. For the most part, they found it.

The Stillwells, Loves, Dillards, and Nortons were some of the first to move to western North Carolina as it opened up for settlement. The rest came not long after. Some made their way from Virginia through eastern Tennessee. A few moved from points further east in North Carolina, and more came from bordering counties in South Carolina and Georgia.

In other words, Mother’s mountain heritage included the very deepest roots among European settlers. And though she is still the sweet, gentle woman I remember from my childhood, I now understand that she is—and has always been—so much more. She shares many of the traits commonly attributed to Southern Highland mountaineers: self-reliance, persistence, and stoicism borne of necessity; reticence, independence, and individualism borne of isolation; and a hefty dose of mountain pride that demands to be treated with dignity.

Today she’s even more proud of her mountain heritage than she was as a twenty-something young mother. So am I.

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

Traveling with Airbnb

(Part of a series from a recent trip the Gnome and I took to Nova Scotia.  To read from the beginning, start here.)

How do two naturally reticent travelers get to know the people of their host country? It occurred to us that staying in real homes where we’d get to meet honest-to-goodness Nova Scotians on a more than fleeting basis might be a good way to do it, so we decided to take a chance on Airbnb rentals. (Disclaimer: I have no relationship with Airbnb except as a customer.)

Ultimately, we were looking for safe, clean, convenient places to lay our heads, perhaps cook a couple of meals, and occasionally run a load of laundry. And we wanted a reasonable amount of privacy. But we also wanted to get to know our hosts, where possible.

With those goals in mind, we began scouring Airbnb sites at each of the locations we anticipated spending a night. We splurged a time or two because we were so taken with a particular listing, but overall, we booked on the cheap. With service fees, taxes, and in some cases cleaning fees, our nightly rentals ranged from a mere $47 (for a whole house!) to $103 (for a bedroom and private bath, but the location—and our hosts—made it worth the price.)

We stayed in a couple of garage apartments attached to the host families’ homes but as private as we wanted. In one, our laps were kept warm by Mustache, the hosts’ loving cat.

 

 

We stayed in the upstairs loft of a former nautical museum. How’s that for quaint? And our host, Ginger, wowed us with her homemade whole wheat rolls.

 

We stayed in a former B&B honeymoon suite complete with waterfall Jacuzzi, right on the banks of the Annapolis Royal River.

 

The gracious Cheticamp hosts where we rented a bed/bath suite, are former teachers who once lived in Nunavut, Canada’s newest, largest, and most northwestern province. Their home, shared with a cat and seven former sled dogs, is filled with Inuit art. Each morning we were greeted with a full breakfast, not at all the norm with Airbnb. We hugged our goodbyes while the dogs sang for us.

 

Private home so no pics, but here are a couple of views of the river just outside and of one of our hosts’ seven dogs.

A couple of sites we picked from Airbnb listings were more traditional B&Bs, though small ones with just two or three rooms each. Both featured shared baths along the lines of boarding houses of the past. That worked out just fine; we never had to compete for bathroom time. Salty Rose’s and Periwinkle Cafe, run by a pair of sisters, was above a combo bakery and craft shop. We got a complimentary breakfast and left with a few locally made souvenirs. At the Crab Apple Inn, we were treated to a full breakfast (as well as complimentary homemade wine the night before). These places were almost as cozy and familial as single-family Airbnb spots.

 

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A couple of places we stayed were touted as 200-year-old homes. That really appealed to us. And there were two places where the host wasn’t on site and we were completely on our own. In Halifax, we stayed in a modern apartment in a residential neighborhood in easy walking distance of eateries and no more than a five-minute drive from every site on our long list of places to visit. So convenient! A colorful, fully decorated home greeted us in Cape Breton’s Sydney, where we had a good view of the Sydney River from the living room window.

 

 

Each of these places had its own charms. And with each, the Gnome and I took a little informal survey. What did we especially like or dislike? It was a way to hone our preferences for future searches. And let me tell you, sometimes we had to scratch our heads to find a ‘dislike.’ We never had trouble coming up with a wow factor, though.

Two places really stood out for us. One was billed as a ‘former prospector’s cottage.’ We had the whole rustic place to ourselves on a quiet country road in rural eastern Nova Scotia. It reminded us of our long-ago dream of finding and loving an old farmhouse in the country. We really loved this place. We fell in love with our host, Gail, too. Maybe it was because we’re the same age. Maybe it’s because we saw the ‘old hippie’ in each other.

Or maybe it was her keen insight. She sensed how much we loved this maritime province. As we were chatting, she looked deep into our eyes with her witchy ones, an enigmatic smile forming on her face, and out popped these words: “You’re going to move here!” Of course, she didn’t know how bound by love we are to our own home, but neither did she know that we once seriously considered moving to Nova Scotia nor the hold it’s had on us all these years. Gail brought us warm eggs from her henhouse for our breakfast. Yum!

 

Gail calls this a heritage home. We call it perfect.

The other stop that filled our hearts wasn’t in Canada but Vermont, in the charming village of Newbury. When we read the description of this 200-year-old home and its location in an honest-to-goodness New England village, with a village commons, town hall meetings, and all. (Newhart, anyone?), we added a day to our trip so we could make this detour. In theory, we prefer to nix places where we have only a bedroom in a private home; we can’t help feeling that we’re imposing—never mind that the hosts have chosen this path and we’re paying for the space. Irrational, I know, but we feel like we have to tiptoe and whisper.

This time it was different. In essence, we had the whole downstairs to ourselves. But it was more than that, and more than the charm of an old home in a quintessential New England village that dates to the revolutionary period. It was also our host, Linda. You can read more about her and our stay in her home here.

No pics of Linda’s private home, but I snagged this one of the village store from Creative Commons.

In a head-to-head competition between traditional lodgings and this entrepreneurial one, Airbnb wins hands down in my book, at least for this kind of trip. Our experience was so enriched by these homey, sometimes quirky, stays—and ever so much more by the hosts who extended us such hospitality and friendship. Thanks to every one of you!