All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

The Timing of Things

It has been a little painful, passing up plants at my local nursery.  I would say I have shown restraint, great restraint, in the purchasing of flowers.  Even so, I have managed to make two big shopping trips, although I know by the middle of June my yard should be cluttered with big equipment and big guys using it as they start my home improvement projects. 

As I cruised the aisles of plants and flowers, succulents and ceramic pots, I decided I needed to move my summer operations to the little side porch that I used to enjoy.  It was here I had pots and pots of Gerber daisies, geraniums, and hanging baskets of weepy things, lobelia and creeping Jenny, wave petunias, English ivy.  These were heartbreaking disappointments for me because the birds loved them.  They nested and fed their young, and destroyed the plants completely.  The more expensive and exotic the hanging basket, the bigger the family that occupied it. 

The neighborhood changed a bit, for the better, actually, but I began to use the porch less and the back yard more.  But now adjustments must be made. I have purchased some begonias, a New Guinea impatiens and a couple of things I can’t name, and soon my little porch will be overflowing with granny flowers, and I shall sit there, in my cotton house dress, hose rolled to my knees, watching the world go by and offering the neighbors a chat and a Co-Cola. 

I have it in my head this spring has been “back to normal,” with cool mornings and evenings and warm dry days in between. Perfect weather.  Each day has seemed just the right length, an hour exactly an hour’s length long. The month, though, has sped by and I can’t quite make sense of it when I try to put these two things together.

This Memorial Day weekend I will take flowers out to Elmwood Cemetery where my people are buried, and I will take my sister, perhaps, because for some reason I can never find my Granny Opal.  The Skillmans are within spitting distance of the McDonoughs, but I miss them every time.  This is a pity, because I think I would like to buried next my Granny Opal, and I worry my loved ones will one day not find me, either. 

Although I am not sure about the logistics of a cemetery visit this year. The parents of the new twins will be out of town overnight and it will take grandparents, , aunties and uncles to pick up the slack.  We feel old an ineffectual with the three little ones. Especially when we see the picture of Daddy, flaked out on the bed, feeding Gretchen a bottle with his right hand as she lays by his side, Harmon flat out on his back  and thinking deep thoughts as he balances on balances on Dad’s left leg, Cy wallowing at his feet, and poor old toothless Nellie almost invisible among the tangle of clean baby clothes. 

There must be a ball game on the TV just out of frame.  It seems to soothe them all, even the dog. 

We trooped up to the cemetery when I was a kid but that was about it.  My grandmother, who never let the chance to entertain pass her by would call around nine on Memorial Day, suggesting something simple in the afternoon, a cookout with hotdogs and hamburgers and macaroni salad. We showed up with a couple of bags of chips and maybe some brownies, and it was as easy and wonderful as that. 

Summer doesn’t officially begin until the solstice later in June, but Memorial Day is the emotional start every kid’s summer, and most adults would agree.  I am hoping for a few more weeks of mild and sympathetic weather, cool mornings, just enough sun and gentle rains to give my zinnias and tickseed, my false indigo a good start.  A few more days, maybe, before those big guys show up, although I also want them to hurry.  And there it is.  The way time moves, and doesn’t move, and our relationship to it.  The way we don’t have time, and do, and how we can sit on the porch and watch the world go by, or gin around and make macaroni salad for the bunch. 

And sometimes all of that in single day, an easy day at that.

Taking the Hindman Cure

The campus looked much the same, at least at first glance, the slanting of light as it does in late afternoon,  and everything just a bit hazy and just a bit dappled and in spring, just a bit too green.

I have not been on the Hindman Settlement School campus for years now.  Not since the pandemic and perhaps a couple of years before that. Sometimes I might drive over for a couple of nights during the Appalachian Writers Workshop, but mostly I keep up with the goings on with newsletters and Facebook posts or chats with friends who are through there often. 

Last weekend I packed up the car and my old pal, Alice, and we headed east for a weekend writing retreat.  We would be there in time for Earth Day, and we would see Silas House, the retreat leader, just days before he became our Commonwealth’s new Poet Laureate.

The weather was good, the porches were full, friends I’ve just met, friends I haven’t seen for years, and friends I have only known as Zoom boxes were there, and it was fine, fine, fine. 

That sounds like it was a horde, but really, we were less than twenty, and a perfect number. For some, it was their first glimpse of the campus since the devastating flood last year. For others, it was that and then some.  They had been at the settlement school the night the waters rose, the night they huddled in the dark on higher ground, the night terror could only be gauged when lightening illuminated the approaching water.

The staff and volunteers have done an heroic job of cleaning up, setting the place right, and the flood’s damage isn’t so obvious to the casual eye.  But there, around back,  a boarded up window, here the door propped up against the side of a building, the door that flood waters ruptured and allowed a torrent of rushing water into the room where two staff members stood as they tried to save what they could.  First water around their ankles and then an explosion of force and water chest deep. 

We asked for their stories. These conversations were quiet, small.  Murmured remembering, soft whispers and the space to hang suspended for a moment, above Troublesome Creek, above the watermark, safe in the moment and together in a precarious world.

The settlement school sits on the side of a hill, looking out across Troublesome, and Highway 160 just beyond, a snaking road carved and dug from a rock face.  Over there the meadow, over that way the town. On Saturday the campus filled up with carloads of families, girls in first-time formals, every thing in their way, the high-heeled strappy sandals, the tight dress or the volumious one, neither designed for car rides and walking on uneven ground. Their stiff necks, corded and craning, a great balancing act of hair—piled, curled, bedazzled and unnatural in every way. 

Boys in tuxes and Chuck Taylors, cool young men.  Only their hands give them away.

Beaming parents, younger siblings, a photographer with a gigantic lens, posing the prom-goers on the bridge, in front of Uncle Sol’s cabin, any number of beautiful late afternoon spots. 

We forget sometimes the settlement school doesn’t belong only to us. From the beginning it anchored the community, served the community, held the town in its lap like a mother. And the town of Hindman often returned the favor, and has done since the first days. 

Some of us spent the weekend writing, some didn’t write a single word but listened to the words of others.  Some of us, and I am in this number, carefully filed and bookmarked the great writing Silas shared to celebrate the world around us.  I will read it later. I had to get my quota of laughing in, the old stories I have heard a hundred times and ones I might feature in.  The stories of new friends about people I don’t know, as funny or funnier than we think our stories are.  This is more lullaby to me than the brook skipping over rocks outside the window. I didn’t sleep well, but I loved long alll the weekend through. It is the nature of the place. And it remains.

Hindman was hurt, but she heals.

(Feature image: Lisa Parker, 2023)

Judging Books By Their Covers

There is much to be said for the  cover of a book.   We all know what lies within may, or may not,  bur well-written.  However,  when the two match up, cover and content, and in a good way, it is a joy not to be taken for granted. 

Here are some of my best loved books, in no particular order, that are as pretty as they are wonderful reads. In fact, sometimes I just go gather them up, together or on their own, to look upon their loveliness.  

In an English bookstore somewhere in Prague, maybe, or Krakow, I picked up “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton.  I needed something for the flight home, and the cover just compelled me.  I would describe it to you, but the book is long gone.  I gave it to my friend, Alice, to read.  She refuses to give it back, doesn’t even act sorry that she won’t return it. 

Talks about how it will hurt the book’s feelings and other such nonsense—although she actually believes this, I think—but trust me, the cover is beautiful and the story, set in a 1600s Amsterdam, is wonderful.  So much better than the mini-series. 

Jessie Burton has written a sequel, “The House of Fortune,” and I was so eager to get it I ordered it from London.  This cover is beautiful, too,  the end pages like elegant wallpaper and the text block and foot bands, too. I haven’t read it yet, so I keep it tucked out of sight for those times Alice visits. 

“The Essex Serpent” is another book with a beautiful, flowery and mysterious cover.  My pal, Silas, pulled it from the shelf when a bunch of us were book shopping, just to show me the cover. He said I didn’t have to buy it, he just wanted me to see it.  So, of course it came home with me and sits with my other chosen few, on a bookshelf all by themselves.  I’ve read it twice now, maybe three times, mostly to hold it in my hands.  A hardback book is as comforting as a blankie, all warm and the hefty, but not too heavy. Engaging the senses, the way it smells, the way it feels, the way the words make images in your head. 

Perhaps my favorite book is “Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset.  This book is not so easy to hold, as it runs 1124 pages in the paperback edition.  But it is a trilogy, three novels in one, so I can forgive the length. The first of the books was written in 1920, and they follow the life of the title character from her adolescence into her adulthood. Set in 1300s Norway, it fascinating and yet relatable.

My friend, Charlene, recommended the book and she would never steer me wrong. I am so glad she told me about it.  Everyone I know who has read it loves it, and vicariously loves Charlene for the recommendation, too. 

Get the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.  It is beautiful and is translated by the award-winning Tina Nunnally.  Oh, and Sigrid won the Nobel Prize in Literature for it, too.  This might be the one book I would recommend also in the Kindle edition, just because of the size of it.  But at least look at and admire the cover. 

The hardback edition, the one with the feather, is my favorite edition of “Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell. It will break your heart—the cover and the book.  A fictionalized telling of Shakespeare’s family life, and his son, Hamnet is beautiful written, compelling and fascinating. It is really a story of the plague, but so much more. 

I needed a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities,” for my book group.  I settled on a copy from Penguin Classics for only one reason.  The cover is blanketed in knitting needles and yarn all done up.  Now, who could pass that up, when one of the most iconic images in literature is Madame Defarge sitting by the guillotine, knitting?  The print is minuscule, and I mean, fine print tiny, but I don’t care.  I upped the magnification on my cheaters and off I went.  

“A Tale of Two Cities” is hard on me, fine print notwithstanding.  But I like knowing it is there, on the shelf, with my other pretty books, and that any time I want I can take it down and pretend to read it. Or actually read it. We will both look good, however it goes. 

Easter Blooming

Sterling was helping me with yard work on Monday.  She is my favorite helper, having been taught all the specifics and important gardening tips from her grandmother, Ruth.  She has ten years of experience already and isn’t even out of ninth grade.  

So I defer to her expertise and asked about the best time to plant something or other, and did she think it was too early.  

“Give it another couple of weeks,” she said. “The weather has been so crazy this spring.” 

I was thinking it had returned to normal. Remember when there were tornado watches and warnings almost every week in spring?  Spitting sleet in early April, only to sunburn a few days later when the weekend warmed.  The trips to nurseries because you just couldn’t stand it, all that green, all that color waving and making you want, want like you never had before. 

And giving in to the craving, you drive all your little darlings home, line them on the porch and admire their brilliance.  You have sense enough not to plant them in actual dirt, actually outside. A cold snap, one of the notorious little “winters,” and you drag them indoors.  There they adorn the hearth and get so cosy and snug they think their work is over and after all fear of frost has passed, you send them outside, but they refuse to bloom until June. 

This is how it is. This is how a Kentucky spring is supposed to be. 

This is what Sterling doesn’t know. 

Even so, her instincts are spot on.  Not that long ago I had this very discussion with my pal, Sally.  She said, in her clear and unassailable way, not to plant anything until Mother’s Day. 

Mother’s Day. I mean, really.  But then, weather changes. What is warm and balmy, like the breeze this morning as I write on the patio, will give way to clouds and storms by noon.  Even now, I feel the temperature drop. 

I have missed the drama of spring.  Even as I cleaned garden plots in February for an early March planting, I had pangs of sadness, or if not sadness, then wistfulness for the reminder of life’s elements larger than I. The mystery of it.  The test it puts me through.

Easter Week in the Christian tradition begins with the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem to cheering crowds and palms at his feet.  It ends with Golgotha and finally, the empty tomb. 

Growing up we didn’t observe Lent, with the fasting a reminder of forty days in the wilderness, didn’t keep an Easter Vigil, didn’t have ashes or palm leaves. 

We had hymns. Each week as Easter approached, the music and the message moved us closer to Good Friday, Easter Sunday.  And the weather helped, in its subtle way. Sun on our faces, warm earth beneath our feet.  Then something turns. Storm, hail, darkness at noon. 

And yet.  And yet. 

A promise.

Things bloom.  They die.  They bloom again.

The Best Gift I Ever Received

She came to me one winter, at Christmas or my birthday perhaps. I can still see her face, pale pink and blue eyes, cherry cheeks and a rosebud mouth. She wore her hair as I did, in two long braids with bangs.  Her hair the same yellow I used to color the sun, mine, in contrast, black. 

She was beautiful. 

I carried her around by one of her braids, or by the little drawstring tucked under her chin. But mostly I sat her in my lap, this plump-faced head, and I gently squeezed her cheeks to feel all the mysterious and exciting things hidden inside the pin wale corduroy drawstring sack from which she was created. 

She had no name nor body.  Her felt eyes didn’t move but were no less expressive for it.  She had my heart, my curiosity,  and that was what mattered. 

Inside her soft pink head were small packets and sachets, tiny white plastic tubes with even tinier tops.  She smelled divine, small whiffs of delicate and delicious scents escaping the small gap down around the drawstring, all floral and honeyed and precious. 

In 1959 ours was a male-dominated home even though the number of boys and the number of girls were equal.  But still, masculine pursuits and activities seemed to take center stage, and usually this was just fine by me.  

I liked to dig in the dirt, ride bikes, play cowboys and Indians. I had female role models, of course, and they were adventurous, too, along with the men.  Women like Dale Evans, or Penny who tagged along with her uncle Sky King.They rode horses, and I mean fast, but Dale was always in skirts, and she lost some points with me for that.  They got rescued a good deal, too, but I would rewrite the plot line in my head so that the girls might save the day sometimes. 

My mother wasn’t overly fixy, although she looked beautiful on Sunday mornings in her hat and gloves, all made up for Sunday school and church.  But I don’t remember watching her prepare for a night out in her slip and pearls at a little boudoir table like mothers did on television. 

She had babies and spit up and dinner to contend with. 

My Aunt Maxine, out in California, sent me this floating face.  She had made it, my mother told me years later, sewing a drawstring bag from corduroy, gluing on the features, braiding yellow yarn into pigtails and gluing them on top of her head and down her cheeks with the ends hanging free. 

Inside she had tucked what seemed like hundreds of tiny treasures, Avon lipstick samples, little packets of lotion, bubble bath, sweet-smelling powders, discs no bigger than pennies with cherry red rouge inside.  My heart raced with joy whenever I stole a peek.  Still does, a little, this very minute, recalling it. 

The first little packet we opened, for I was too little to have mastered that skill, turned out to be a perfumed talc, although my mother and I thought it was lotion.  The fine powder went everywhere and I cried because now it was wasted, ruined. I was heartbroken. It took several days for my mother to persuade me to try again. We would be more careful next time.  

Because it is one of the worst feelings to waste a wonder. 

Because exuberance is great, but it can ruin the moment. 

And an aunt you seldom see still knows what you would love. She knows the size of a child’s hand, a child’s heart, and how a handful of tiny things, each perfect and complete, is a treasure forever, even decades and decades and decades later, the scent of talcum still freighting the air. 

New Life Times Two

Those babies arrived last week and more beautiful babies cannot be found in the tri-state area.  Your babies, if you have new ones, of course, are as beautiful, but really, only ours.  And my friend’s new grandson, who was almost born on the twins’ birthday.  He is beautiful, but that’s it. 

Such anticipation for such tiny little bundles.

And such exhaustion.

You would think we all gave birth to twins.

No big event is without a wobble or two.  One of the twins needed a little extra help so spent some time in the nicu. He was so well taken care of, so carefully watched, I managed to keep my fear at bay.  His parents never mentioned the nicu without using the word “angel” in the sentence, and they were talking about the nurses, the respiratory therapists, not necessarily their baby. 

He’s doing well now, but when I first heard the news, I was on my way out to look at big slabs of stone at the place across the river.  I was scared about the nicu news, but I was assured I wasn’t needed, and things were stable, go on and go. 

So,  I put my shoes on and headed to Newburgh. It was a beautiful day and I sashayed all over that yard, chatted with the guys moving the big stones around, pranced in and out of the showroom, engaged anyone who looked my way.  

It was only when I got home that I noticed I had on one white shoe and one grey one. All I can say is, thank goodness the white one was filthy.

Not even the same style shoe, exactly.  Allbirds, yes, but one grey with a dark sole and one white all over. 

So, maybe I was a bit more upset than I knew about little Harmon.

My job has been fairly easy. I cook. Get in provisions, promise with all the flair I can muster homemade delectables, and I make a big deal of it in a subtle way. And nothing but the best for this sweet little family.  Potato soup, the most humble of dishes, but one that takes seventeen ingredients and three hours to perfect.  I exaggerate a bit, but it did take awhile because I had to make two trips to the store. 

My famous lasagne, which is easy but involved. Three trips to the store for this one and every pot and bowl I own.

In between there is big brother, nineteen months, and learning the word “no” as if he were in the gifted and talented program.  He is learning to use it, I mean. Not hear it when directed at him.  As deaf to it as if it were a dog whistle. 

I give him a whole lot of slack, though.  He has been uprooted and sent to the grandparents, everyone in high dudgeon and he doesn’t get it.  His routine is upended, and he can’t quite figure out why he goes to the hospital to visit these little wrapped up loaves of bread they make him kiss. 

But, eventually, the sweet little family is released to go home, somewhere around midnight, so Harmon, who is staying a while with his new friends in nicu, can have his farewell dinner, but they don’t go straight home. 

Oh no.  They can’t do that.  No electricity.  

The wind storm saw to that, so off to nana’s.

Monday dawned, warm and beautiful, and while Mama rested and Daddy assessed the situation at home vis-a-vis the power, I spent an active and eye-opening afternoon with the toddler. 

He has just about had it.  He did some digging in the yard, which I am all about, too. He threw lots of potting soil out of the pots, he thinks that is is his job, and I don’t mind a bit. He was a little hard to settle from time to time, but he has to be as tired and discombobulated as the rest of us so I didn’t get too exercised about it. 

But then, he took my phone and wouldn’t give it back, and when I finally wrested it from him there grew a great revenge in his heart. Not in his eyes, though, and this is the scary part.  He turned to the coffee table and swept all the books to the floor. Calmly.  Unemotionally.  A real “leave the gun, take the cannoli” moment.

It was then I knew, the real fun is about to start.

Start Procrastinating Those Christmas Chores Right Now!

I am early this year procrastinating all my Christmas preparations. After I was felled by the flu or whatever it was, I was very late  purchasing my tree from Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm.  Mid-week after Thanksgiving my sister and I made our way out Hwy. 144.  We thought perhaps we had missed the trees altogether, but no, there were still some, but my, they were petite.  Perfectly shaped but small.  

Which suits me fine, especially this year for some reason.  In truth, I have been hankering for a tiny see-through tree like they have in the Czech Republic. Small and  so light and you can carry them home by grasping onto the top and walking it through the streets like a toddler. Inside Hilltop, workers were rocking and chatting and it was if they opened up just for us.  

They had been swamped right after Thanksgiving and were taking a breather. I am happy with my tree and it will mean less trips to the basement for ornaments and lights.  In a week or so, my niece, Hannah, will come and do my “install.”  This means my Christmas install, which is a thing now and something she is very good at.  I keep telling her, I really don’t think my house is install-worthy, but she has shown me I am wrong.

Last year she hung the wreaths in the window by the gorgeous bows she made.  She filled out the door swags with rosemary, magnolia and I don’t know what all.  Mostly, I just like having her in my house for a little while, like when she was little.  We chat and laugh, and if all she did was stick some holly around the candles on the mantel, I would be happy. 

I still avoid, whenever possible, Hallmark movies, although one was on mid-day last week. It crested a new high for improbable. My friends have encouraged me to write a parody of them, but really, you can all write your own parodies better than I.

On the other hand, there is this little Christmas gift.  My television, the actual TV, has been a source of bewilderment and embarrassment for my nieces and nephews for years.  It is neither smart nor dumb, but one of those average TVs that falls through the cracks. But then I was visiting friends, and their TV was a thing of beauty, an object of envy.  

So I bought one. 

It is gigantic. 

It is very smart. 

It will display art, my own or the Great Masters, if I want. 

And it is on, right this minute, on the YouTtube Channel, with a video called, “Christmas Coffee.”  A steaming mug of coffee on close-up, pinecones and holiday scene all blurry and bokeh. Piano music is playing, mellow, with jazzy undertones, but happy and inane in the way you can enjoy it without thinking about it. I am my own Starbucks.

I was once accused of pulling pages out of magazines on how to “live a beautiful, singular life.” Pages on “creating new traditions when the old ones fade,”  All that.  I will cop to this, in part.  I would not say my life is “beautiful,” in the way Condé Nast means.  But it is comfortable, and kind.  Nor is it “singular.”  I need a couple of sheets of paper to list all the people who I care about, love, even. 

As for new traditions, it is interesting the way we abandoned so many things during the pandemic, or when parents die, or our lives move in directions we had not seen coming.  It is difficult and fraught with bad feeling and upset to spend all your energies trying to please Granny, especially when she has been gone for fifteen years.  Stop it. 

Unless Granny’s traditions still make you happy and warm inside.  Then, by all means, continue. That Christmas afternoon hike in the woods?  Of course!  Unless you would rather flip through those old pictures you never seem to get to. 

Me?  I am going to start baking next week or so. I’m re-reading “A Christmas Carol,” which I haven’t done in a couple of years. I might get Truman Capote out, too. But mostly, I am gonna watch that big ole mug of Joe steam on my TV.  Gonna enjoy all that Christmas Coffee on YouTube.

Winter Comforts, Inside and Out

The nights grow long and with them my level of boredom.  I am between series and I find myself  on Youtube as often as not, telling myself I am looking up a thing, but really, I am cruising the latest news on the Harkles — I didn’t make that up, someone else did —and then I want snow, so I visit weather sites, which leads to snow camping, which leads to camping inside your car, which leads to doing so in winterscapes, which leads to Walmart and Cracker Barrel overnight stays, and then I am in a camping gear review jungle, which leads to survival camping, which leads back to the snow, bringing us to fire starters and survival and bushcraft knives. 

You can’t imagine how many knives. 

Hand-made knives, Scandi blades, some with bow drill divots in the handle, stainless steel blades, high carbon steel blades, four inch long blades, eight inch, ten.  Hand-made leather sheaths, plastic sheaths, other kinds of sheaths that ride high, ride low, can be clipped sideways behind your back, which gives off a serious stealthy self-defense vibe. 

And ferro rods.  All of the videos I watch feature individuals with enough pockets to house  several small lighters, but they all build fires by striking sparks into a little nest of wood shavings with a ferro rod.  Now, the ferro rod is a slender rod crafted of ferrocerium, an alloy of materials that make lots of sparks when struck. 

The are small and will work when wet, cold, hot, you name it, and affordable as all get out.  Mine arrived last week and I spent a good half hour outside in the dark thrilling myself with all the mighty sparks I was throwing.  This afternoon I plan to set alight something combustable to see if I can start a fire in earnest.  I have loads of lighters around here, but honestly, it is just so tough to be able harness fire in this sparkly way.  

The ferro rods come with a small metal striker, but, really, you want one of the survival knives for that, one with a flat spine.  Again, because it is just so tough.  My choices in survival/camp/bushcraft knives are so extensive, I will need a few more hours in front of the TV to decide.

These videos lead to other videos, especially of the prepper persuasion, and I can now heat a corner of my house for several weeks with a match, a long taper and a can of Crisco.  

Warmth is a big theme in wilderness survival as well as with the doomsday crowd.  Toward that end, I have also purchased a stack of those survival blankets, the shiny ones that look like you are wrapping up in party balloon material.  Well, actually, you are.  But they can save your life. 

As t the small packs of hand-warmers I have sitting in a box in my vestibule might save your life. They aren’t just for your hands while sitting at the football game or up in the deer blind.  You can throw them into your sleeping bag, your socks, lots of places to keep you warm.

A canteen filled with hot water can be taken into that same sleeping bag or under the mylar blanket, and clutched in desperation against your chest—it, too, can keep you warm. 

Which led me to some web pages for plain old garden variety hot water bottles.  Our cousins across the pond love them, use them almost every night, and I have friends who set their houseguests up with them, too. 

And they are the most wonderful things.  Why don’t we use them more often?

If you come visit me overnight, I can fix you a hot water bottle.  I have several.  And when I fix you that hot water bottle, it will be cute, too, because it will be wearing a sweet little cable knit sweater, a turtleneck sweater, to be exact. When I ordered my hot water bottles, I was led to Etsy, and an artisan in Latvia knit these for me. 

So, lots of old and new going on over here.  All the algorithms advancing my horizons in new ways, taking me to sites that embrace and celebrate starting fires with sparks, sleeping in the snow under a tarp, warming the family around a can of Crisco, a hot water bottle at your feet, which will surely hasten every sweet dream.

What Room There May Be

The last white Christmas I remember was many years ago, at a time when I was entertaining on the regular, and I was getting ready for my annual Solstice party.  The idea of celebrating the Solstice horrified my mother, even when I explained it was the most benign of parties,  merely a symbolic awaiting for the return of the light, but she was having none of it. 

Early on the day of the party I began receiving calls from guests who were traveling for the holiday.  They had decided to leave town early to beat the weather and so had to send regrets.  Because I was busy cooking and cleaning I hadn’t watched the news for a couple of days and assumed my pals were worried about the weather where they were headed. 

As I saw off the last of my guests that night,  it began to rain a little, maybe a flake or two thrown in.  I awoke the next morning to a foot of snow, as unexpected and as magical as I remember snow when I was a child.  We were snowbound for several days, with only the most trepidatious sorties out for family gatherings, or supplies. 

Again, we look to the skies for signs of snowfall.  We are assured the temperatures will be frigid, dangerously and life-threatening cold, with or without the white stuff.  The eight-year old kid in me hopes for snow, the running to the front door at night, checking for the shimmery swirl of flakes in the lamplight.  Peeking through the blinds in the middle of the night, the way the room is brighter in the morning after a snow, even with the shades drawn, the thrill of untouched drifts in the backyard. 

But another part of me has already been on the phone minding other people’s business as it pertains to their Friday appointments in Nashville.  Already I have offered my car to make a late-in-the-week airport run because I have all-wheel drive, and I think those are magic words this time of year. I have helped to crash the weather website I like best, checking every half hour or so for updates, even though the updates are still just speculation, at least for snowfall.

I have the luxury of sitting in my warm little house with no travel plans and dreaming of snow.  And I also have the grown-up worry of traveling loved ones, icy steps and pregnant nieces. I have become my worry-wart grandmother. I am not just concerned about my family, either, but yours, and anyone who will travel, or have their travel plans derailed because of the bitter cold, the snow that will fall somewhere this Christmas weekend. The disappointment of that.

To be on the road, and cold, and worried—pregnant, perhaps, and stranded.  This is how the Christmas story begins. An ordinary, “story of my life” kind of tale that seems to hit hardest those with the least. 

The innkeeper often comes off badly in Nativity plays.  We think he’s mean.  Yet, he didn’t turn them away.  He sent them around back, to the only sheltered place he had left.  Might he have brought them blankets?  We don’t know, but, surely if he had one to spare he would have.  Some bread, an oil lamp for the long night ahead. 

I chatted today with my friend, Kveta, by email, sending her Christmas greetings and remembering our time together in Ukraine. War-town, cold and cast into darkness now, and what can we do?  The suffering in so many places.  It is enough to make us hide in our beds and view the world through the same blinds we peek through, waiting for snow.  

We only have so much room. 

But might we still be a blanket for others, that manger of hay?  Might we look for and keep some small corner swept out and tidy, somewhere warm and safe for anyone who needs it?

The gift of that. Small perhaps, but loving.  Just enough, and therefore, perfect. 

When the People you Love Make You Sick

I rise from my sickbed to send you post-Thanksgiving greetings. My illness has been impressive, with high temperature and aches, and a couple of times there, I may have hallucinated.  This is not hyperbola.  This is fact, and had it persisted I would have been in the ER, along with some of you, I hear.

I just partied too much, I guess. Not the partying of my youth, with late nights and smokey places, but with so many family gatherings, beginning on Wednesday and carrying over to Saturday evening.  I was already run down before the festivities began.  For all my gathering up celery and day old bread, for the all the bags of sugar and brown sugar and pecans, I failed to check my vanilla. 

Vanilla. Another trip to the store.

But the idea of being spotted in public looking as I did, all streaked with flour and blobs of butter was more than even I could bear.  I decided instead to use bourbon, which mostly went unnoticed by everyone except for one super-taster nephew.. 

I cooked, baked, stirred, folded dough, and brined the turkey in a Gott cooler. My nights were late, my mornings early.  But really, things pulled together pretty well, better than last year when I set the oven on fire. We had fourteen for dinner, but mercifully not here, and it was all so pleasant we stayed until evening.  On Friday my niece, Alex, thought it would be fun for the two new toddler cousins to gather at my house to make cinnamon ornaments, as she and her grown cousins had done at Sutton Elementary.  

She showed up with supplies and all the toys her little one, Arthur, had outgrown, bringing them  for Cy, the younger cuz. I decided why not ask all the adult nieces and nephews, and their parents to join us, not to make ornaments, but to visit—my grandmother’s favorite word—and to spend an nice afternoon before they all take off for evening plans.  

We never got to the ornaments, as you would imagine, but the boys, who hardly know each other, thank you Covid, played well and sweetly, with only little bitty grabs for toys.  Cy, who was born smack dab in the middle of Covid, couldn’t get over his cousin, the little person just like him, and he spend a good deal of time squatting down and getting in Arthur’s face, saying. “Baby?  Baby?”  

It’s his new word, and everyone is a baby now. 

Then Saturday and dinner with the newlyweds, Brad and Hannah.  I think there was a game on, too, and part of the point of the party, but by then I was beginning to fade.  It was still nice to get to know Brad’s parents a bit better, to spend time with his kids, who are great. But mostly I wanted to go home and cough my head off in peace. 

By Sunday, I could hardly move. I crawled to the medicine cabinet for a  thermometer, and after a time, as I faded in and out, it began to beep in a frantic way to signal I was in the danger zone.  I lay on the couch with my barking cough, my fever-addled dreams, and moaned a lot.

My sister, ahem, was unwell, too. So I am inclined to blame her. Of course, I was out and about in an intense way getting ready for Thanksgiving.  I spent time with more people in a three day period than I have seen in the last three months. And the little ones.  Who knows where those hands have been?

I did my due diligence and took one, then two, Covid tests.  Both negative. I rallied a bit, my temperature went down, slowly, but still.  I had a doctor’s appointment already on the books, so with luck she can help me to a full recovery when I see her later today. 

And yet, the time with my dear hearts couldn’t have been better, unless a few more of them had been able to join us. I don’t know about the others, but I loved every minute of our being together.  So, let’s face it.  Sometimes your family makes you sick.  But then, sometimes, like this past weekend, it is worth the risk.