You know what that is, don’t you? It usually strikes when you have reason to believe the snow will melt today, and just when the last little drift is about gone, the sky turns about 49 shades of grey, and the snowflakes begin falling. Again!

If it were 50 shades of grey, it would be shocking or maybe a little interesting; however, at 49, the next snowstorm is just boring. “But it’s so beautiful,” my southern family and friends say. No, my dears. Green is beautiful, as in leaves and grass, and yellow is beautiful as in daffodils and sunshine, and red is beautiful as in geraniums and cardinals, but white is ugly when it’s snow that covers everything in sight. Fortunately we do have cardinals that hang with us in the wintertime. Were it not for them, I’m sure the suicide rate would be much higher when the Februaries strike.

It’s funny – or it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic – I have no need to look at a calendar. I’m just fine on January 31, but come midnight, I go into the dumper. I stay here until the first of March. That’s the problem right there: Did you hear me? I said “here,” as in Granville, Ohio. “Here.” I don’t belong “here.” I belong in Mexico. It’s February, isn’t it?  When a body is somewhere other than where a body belongs, it’s bad. Believe me: it’s bad.

I belong in Guanajuato this February. Sometimes I belong in Los Cocos on the west coast in February, and sometimes I belong practically dead center in Mexico. If you place the tip of a finger in the center of a Mexico map, you will touch Guanajuato. It’s one of the wonderful colonial cities. It looks the same as it looked 300 years ago when the locals ran the Spanish out of Mexico. What a story that is! I love the story and lucky you! I’m going to tell it to you.

The Spanish dispatched the Maya and the Aztecs when silver was discovered running in thick veins through the mountains of central Mexico. They enslaved everyone they could find and sent them into the mines to bring out the silver. The Spanish landowners became very rich, and they lived it up for 300 years. They built beautiful buildings, elaborate cathedrals and vast plantations, many of which are still there today.

The place where I always stay in Guanajuato is in a house called Casa de Pita (Pita’s house). It was built by Pita’s great, great, etc., grandfather 300 years ago. Her family has lived there ever since. It is now a guest house with apartments and rooms, which she rents to visitors. It’s a lovely place, and I feel at home there. My hostess, Pita, is also my friend.

To continue the story, at about the time Pita’s ancestor was building her house, the indigenous people, many of whom had by then cross-bred with the Spanish, were plotting to take back their country. The leader of the gang was Father Miguel Hidalgo, priest of a church in the small town of Dolores, Mexico. The pope and cardinals of the Catholic Church already looked upon the good priest with a gimlet eye, for he had publicly questioned the church’s authority. Dolores is near Guanajuato, where the Spanish army was holed up in a granary called the Alhondiga, which had been turned into an armory.

I have been to the Alhondiga many times. It is a huge square building, with an empty middle, where the grain had been kept, but at that time, September 16, 1810, a garrison of Spanish soldiers guarded the armory. I’ll tell you about today’s Alhondiga later.

Now, down the road about 70 miles or so was and is the town of Querattero.  The governor had his office and his home in the center of town. His wife was Josefa Ortiz. Unbeknownst to the governor, Josefa sided with the rebels. She held regular meetings with the plotters right under the governor’s nose. She called her meetings a literary society. Having never had a reason to mistrust Josefa, she got away with it.

One night, the governor was meeting with the military leaders in the room next to Josefa’s room where she was holding her “literary society” meeting. Josefa heard the conversation from the governor’s group, and she thought she heard what could very well be a bomb shell. It was early September in the year 1810. The rebels had planned to attack the Alhondiga the following November. But as Josefa crept closer to the governor’s door she heard the generals agree to march on Hidalgo’s insurgents in three days. Just as she turned to run back to her meeting, the governor caught her. He had been suspicious of her literary society and now he knew Josefa was up to no good. He took her to her room and locked her inside. She did not have time to tell her friends what she had learned. She was frantic, but there was nothing she could do. How could she get word to Father Hidalgo that the rebels must march on the Spanish immediately before they were attacked?

Just then, there was a noise at the door, and she heard one of her fellow plotters softly calling to her. Quickly, she whispered through the keyhole, telling him to ride as fast as he could to Dolores to tell Hidalgo that he must gather his forces immediately and attack the Spanish army in the Alhondiga. All would be lost if they followed their original plan.

The keyhole listener ran to tell the other “literary society” members the news. They quickly scattered to alert the countryside, while he rode to tell the priest. When Hidalgo heard the news, he rang the church bells. Everyone knew they had to gather what weapons they could find and go to the churchyard immediately. Father Hidalgo issued the famous “grit of Dolores,” the call to arms.

Word spread through the countryside and hundreds of farmers, miners, and soldiers marched to Guanajuato. When they reached the Alhondiga, the Spanish fired on them from windows and the heights of the building. The rebels had no defense.

But Father Hidalgo had an idea. He strapped a large flat stone to the back of a miner and gave him a torch. “Crawl to the wooden doors of the building,” he said, “and set them alight.”

(I have written this story many times in a lighter vein and have pointed out that the good padre had just invented the bullet-proof vest, and has never received credit for it.)

The miner did as he was told. When he reached the double doors he torched the bottoms of them. The huge doors went up in flames, sending the Spanish soldiers pouring out, choking with the thick smoke.

It was September 16, 1810, and it has been celebrated every year since. The Victory at Guanajuato was the first battle of the War of Independence. The war continued for three years and the heroes of that first battle, including Father Hidalgo, were killed, and their heads hung in cages suspended on each corner of the Alhondiga. He is honored everywhere. The Town of Dolores is now named Dolores Hidalgo. I have been to his churchyard many times. I have seen and heard the same bells that summoned the rebels to go to war.

I never tire of the Alhondiga, I go there every year I go to Guanajuato. One side is dedicated to the heroes of the war of dependence. There are bas relief statues of their heads in each niche lit by spot lights. There is a huge wooden door to the gallery, much like the door the miner set afire. The miner is called El Pipila, or “the turtle.” A huge statue of El Pipila is high on a hill overlooking Guanajuato. There are few places in the city he is not visible.

Guanajuato is a place that is more special than I can tell you. There are tunnels leading into the town. No matter what time you happen to arrive there, you can hear music as your taxi emerges from a tunnel. There is dancing in the jardin, street performers, troubadours singing from every club at night, mariachi bands playing at each outdoor cafe. Artists are at work in the town square, and groups of singers in medieval costumes walk the streets singing till all hours.

I can’t possibly express how much I miss Guanajuato. I miss Pita, Gerardo, Carmela, Arixci, Nando, Paty, Juanita, Fernando, Pepe, Monica, Edgar, and all my friends there. I think about them every day. If only I could hear Gerardo play his guitar and sing just one more song to me, I would be content

My heart is in Guanajuato today. I only wish I were there with it.


Unless you’re color blind, you’re going to see red today.

Let’s just hope the red you see will be a heart-shaped box of chocolates or a lacy nightie or some beautiful red roses. Valentine’s Day is not the day to see red if you’re mad at your mate. Better kiss and make up. For it’s time once again for cupids, love birds, and hearts.

Nobody really knows how the most romantic day of the year got all mixed up with that most crucial body organ, but red hearts and St. Valentine go together like St. Patrick and the green shamrock. St. Valentine’s Day was originally the Roman feast of Lupercalia, but was Christianized in memory of the martyr, St. Valentine. In the Middle Ages, Valentine became associated with the union of lovers under conditions of duress; i.e., Romeo and Juliet.
The Roman Catholic Church dropped St. Valentine’s feast day in 1969, but by then it was a genuine holiday, showing up on calendars all over the world, so we continue to shower our loved ones with red gifts and even the most dyed-in-the-wool cynics become softhearted on February 14.

There’s that word again: heart. The encyclopedia tells us that it is a chambered organ that pumps blood through our bodies on the average of 72 times a minute, or a total of 35 million gallons over the span of a year. In that year, it will beat two and a half billion times. It is the most likely of all our body parts to kill us. More people die of some kind of heart disease than any of the other modern-day death threats.

Further research into the red hearts-Valentine’s Day relationship reveals that in addition to the before-mentioned softhearted, one can be considered warmhearted, which is pretty much the same thing. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a hard-hearted (or even worse) a heartless person. We can do things wholeheartedly, or with a light heart or a heavy heart. We can feel fainthearted, downhearted, or even have our hearts broken. A heart to heart talk is usually good for us, and to have the cockles of our hearts warmed feels wonderful. If we get too mushy and sentimental, someone is bound to call us a bleeding heart.

Richard the Lion Hearted was said to be a fearless warrior; Pope Valentine was a good man but held his high office only a few short months back in 827; and Dustin Hoffman’s Cherokee grandfather said “My heart soars like a hawk,” in the movie, Little Big Man. Lorenz Hart composed “My Funny Valentine;” Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, “The last time I saw Paris, her heart was young and gay;” William Wordsworth penned “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky;” and General Valentine Blacker said, “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.”

Not exactly conclusive.
But maybe we don’t really need to delve into the question at all. We can just eat the bonbons out of the heart-shaped box, wear the naughty red underwear and the sparkling jewelry, and display the red roses where we can enjoy them most. Perhaps even a bit of poetry wouldn’t be amiss to celebrate such a special day. This is from “Love Songs of the New Kingdom,” written by an anonymous, obviously lovesick poet sometime around 1200 BC: “…and as I long for your love, my heart stands still inside me. Sweet pomegranate wine in my mouth is bitter as the gall of birds. But your embraces alone give life to my heart.”
After those elegant, romantic words
there’s just one thing left to say:
Happy Valentine’s Day


You may have heard me refer to my roommate, John, as “Last Husband,” and sometimes just “L.H.” The sobriquet has a double meaning: he was and is my last husband. Conversely, I was and (probably) am his last wife. We have been together and apart for the past 47 years. We kind of became accustomed to each other. Now, we live together, but we’re not living together, if you get my meaning. Just thought I’d clear that up.

John was born way up near the Canadian border in Watertown, New York. The first time I visited his Yankee homeland to meet his family, it was summertime. I was a new bride (for the third time). The homestead was a beautiful 100+ year-old house on about three acres on the Black River. His grandparents lived downstairs, and his parents lived upstairs. John’s mother was born there as was John, himself, some 26 years later. It was the only home either had ever known.

When John was 10 years old, his parents built a cottage on Lake Ontario, the most contrary body of water on the planet, as I was to find out in the distant future. I loved the old homestead on the river, but his parents took us to the cottage for the weekend. It was located on Pillar Point, a sliver of land jutting out into the lake. Lake Ontario beat on the point’s rocky shore, and the wind blew the water with such force, the spray constantly spat on the cottage windows, a good 100 feet from the water line.

It was bitterly cold, no matter what the season. Before long I called it “Polar Point,” a nickname not altogether appreciated by Last Husband’s mother, Marge. As I was also to find out in the future she did not altogether appreciate me either. The feeling was mutual, which is another story.

I was introduced to a bazillion family friends, all of whom told me about the deep, deep snow, and the ferocity of the winters. I was shown pictures of children walking dangerously close to power lines as they skipped atop snow piles. I saw photos of cars freshly dug out of six-foot snowdrifts. “We have to put the antenna up when we park the car so we can find it the next morning.”

Like so many programmed robots they all said it. To that, Marge invariably added,  “You have to be tough to live up here. We’re Survivors!” Interestingly enough she seldom left the indoors, and then only to get into the car to be driven to and/or from the homestead and the cottage.

To further illustrate the locals’ endurance skills, they included their little forest friends in the endless recitation of anecdotal evidence. They pointed out a narrow barkless circle about four feet up the trunks of most trees. “That’s where the rabbits chew the bark off as they stand on top of the snow.” Snow was the beginning, the middle, and the ending of every story.

One tale I loved was about the spectacular snows of Tug Hill, the topographical anomaly near Watertown that causes the horrendous snow depths. In the old days, the postman drove a two-mule wagon to deliver mail in Tug Hill on an erratic schedule because of the snowstorms.

On the morning in question, there were a few flakes in the air, but the mailman thought he could finish his run before the storm started blowing in earnest. He alighted from the wagon to take the mail to a house located at the end of a lane. The homeowners were glad to see him and invited him in for coffee.

By the time he left, the stuff was falling thick and fast. When he reached the spot where he left the wagon, it and the mules were gone. Search as he might, he couldn’t find them. He decided to wait out the storm in the house. When the storm subsided or as they say Upstate when it “stopped storming,” he looked again for the team to no avail.

Finally, he went back to his own home, figuring the mules pulled the wagon away and someone would contact him soon and tell him where he could find them. No such call ever came. The wagon and the team were found during the spring thaw, just where the mailman had left them. The mules were frozen solid in the same position they were in the last time he saw them. Is that a terrifying snow story or what?

In the fullness of time, it came to be that John and I and my two daughters moved from sunny Southern California to the frigid snowbelt cinched around Upstate New York. I can’t remember now why we did such a thing, but I seldom know why we do anything.

After I spent my first winter there, I had no trouble believing the mule story or any other tale of snow-caused atrocities.

We moved up there in November. Our first house was in Oswego. By this time, there was usually at least one measurable snowfall. It hadn’t happened yet. We took the girls to school on the next Monday morning. All was going well. John went to work at the Niagara Mohawk Power Station. He had secured a good job as a nuclear reactor operator, one of the same positions he served in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear fast attack submarine.

I had been working ever since First Husband took off to build his love nest in another tree (fodder for another story some day). That had been six years earlier, and I felt very housewifely as I returned from taking the girls to the bus stop. As I went about my homey duties, humming a merry tune, I noticed the wind had picked up. Inside of ten minutes, the most horrendous snowstorm I ever saw was blowing ferociously. The snow was horizontal as it rushed past the front window. I peered out to see if some of the snow happened to land on the ground, and I couldn’t see it. I mean I couldn’t see the ground. Astounded, I looked up, and to my complete surprise I couldn’t see the house across the street. Nor could I see our own mailbox at the end of the short driveway.

What in the name of all that is holy was going on? Was it the end of the world? Could we next expect The Rapture? Fer Gawd!

I turned the radio on, and the announcer was telling us not to be concerned. “It’s just lake effect,” he said to reassure us.

Just lake effect? I don’t remember exactly what he said next, but he intimated it was not a real live snowstorm, because it was “just lake effect.”

In no time at all, the snow stopped. The sun didn’t come out, but at least the snow quit its horizontal zipping past the front window. I peered through the glass to see the ground. Much to my surprise, some of the snow had managed to drop out of its frantic sideways rush. To what did my wondering eyes appear but probably three of four inches on the ground. I was shocked.

Just as I breathed a sigh of relief, the race was on again. This time from the other direction. Whereas the snow had come from the left (I have no idea about norths and souths, etc. I have all I can do to recognize left and right) only a few minutes earlier it now ran pell mell in front of my window from the right. I was beginning to feel like Alice. You know Alice. She found herself in Wonderland before slipping through the looking glass.

To cut to the (snow) chase, the same phenomenon kept happening for the next two hours. Every time it stopped before changing directions, I ran to the window to check the depth of the snow. There was no doubt. It was growing by several inches after each outburst.

Now, I had real worries. The children were scheduled to be let off the school bus at the corner, a good 50 yards from the house. The last time I saw them, they were wearing sweaters and light jackets. The guy on the radio kept announcing, too gleefully I thought, a precipitous drop in the ambient temperature. I could only hope the snow was in the stop phase of its insane rush first from the right and then from the left at the time the school bus stopped.

I gathered up coats, scarves, hats and gloves and slogged through 18 inches of snow to the corner. Thank goodness, the storm, or lake effect or whatever it was called, had stopped. Just as I reached the bus stop, both the big yellow bus and the big white snow arrived at the corner. I was terrified. The children would be scared to death. I had to put a calm, ain’t-we-got-fun face on it.

Much to my surprise, they alighted from the bus laughing and talking nonstop about the wonderful snow. I gave them their winter duds and instructed them to put them on immediately. They couldn’t stop laughing. After I helped them get coated and hated, I realized we were in what I came to know as a “white-out.” I had not the slightest idea how to find the house. All I could see was white as the icy snow stung my face when I turned in a circle trying to find the house.

Fortunately, Mandy (the oldest at 12) was born with an unerring sense of direction.

“It’s this way, Mom,” she said. “Follow me.” We followed as the three of us pushed through the deepening snow, to our nice, warm house. The girls were still overjoyed to see all that snow. It was the most they had ever seen. That was to change. Both the depth of the show and their overjoyed reaction to it. But that came later.

When John came home from work, he explained the lake effect phenomenon to us. It was due to the proximity of Lake Ontario and the crazy wind coming on land in waves, first this direction, then another direction. He said a lot more about it, but as John’s explanations are wont to be, it was long and involved, and unless one was a true weather lover, it was profoundly boring.

We stayed in the Oswego house for a year before we built and moved to our cabin in the woods. It was a totally different experience, but the lake effect snowstorms were pretty much the same. We stayed there long enough for me to gain a proficient and accurate assessment of snowstorms. I could tell in a matter of seconds whether it was a “real” storm or merely lake effect.

The radio announcer always outdid himself explaining to us which snowstorm was pelting us. Sometimes he would say he had to run outside before he could tell us, and he would do so during the next commercial break. He always came back, breathing heavily and triumphant as he announced whether it was real or lake effect.

It ceased to matter to me after the first few storms. The end result was always the same. A foot of snow that piled on top of the foot of snow from the last storm that piled on top of the foot of snow from. . . . . you get the idea.

Suffice it to say by the time we moved out of the snowbelt, we wished never to see another snowdrop as long as we lived.


Hasta Luego, Amigo
The Mexico Life

This is a story about the second time I visited Tepic, the capital city of Nayarit on the west coast of Mexico. It was in the winter of 2005. My first visit was in 1984.

I didn’t have particularly sweet memories of Tepic from 21 years ago, the last time I was there. But today’s sojourn there erased what few fond memories I have of the place. Come to think of it, I don’t have any memory of Tepic at all, except that I changed buses in its nasty bus station when I traveled from San Blas headed to Puerto Vallarta.

I am staying at Casa Mañana  in Playa Los Cocos. The owners, Lourdes and Rinehard, live in Tepic. It was Monday morning, and Lourdes had been at the hotel for the weekend. She was headed back home, and she kindly offered to give me a ride to Tepic. I wanted to do some souvenir shopping.

She has a spiffy new VW in a sedan I haven’t seen in the States. Almost all Volkswagens in North America are partially made here in Mexico. Street-ready VWs cannot be bought south of the border and driven home across that border; they don’t meet US specifications. More’s the pity, because they are significantly less expensive here. Many of the city police cars and taxicabs are VW bugs.

Playa Los Cocos (Coconut Beach) lies about 30 miles south of Tepic at the end of a harrowing, curvy road that weaves through the jungle and tests the nerves of even the most skilled driver. Having driven the road many times, Lourdes didn’t seem to notice as we sped along, slowing only for Mexico’s ever-present speed bumps. When we reached the outskirts of Tepic, she apologized to me and said she hoped she was not scaring me with her driving.

“One can’t be too polite when driving in the city. You have to assert yourself,” she said as she cut off a dusty pickup truck and came close to clipping a bicyclist. Seeing the near misses just as she was speaking, I believed her every word.

Salvador, the Casa Mañana waiter who has adopted me, and helps me improve what can only be described as my deplorable Spanish, had drawn a map on a napkin showing me the location at the station of the buses that traveled the road to Playa Los Cocos and would let me off in front of the hotel. He told me to use as a landmark the tall cathedral on Victoria Street. It was only five blocks from the bus station.

Lourdes dropped me in front of the station. Across the street was the “zocolo,” or the town square. There were the usual fruit stands on the zocolo edges, and a student band was just concluding a noontime concert. I kept to the street leading to the church. There was a variety of shops and farmacias. I wanted to buy presents for my family and cut-rate medicines for me. But first I had to have some cash.

There was a Banco Mexico on the street, and I went in to exchange a travelers check written in US dollars for pesos. Knowing I was supposed to co-sign the check in front of whomever was going to cash it, I started to sign it at a teller’s window. She waved me away and pointed to a counter with a pen and a calendar on display. Anyway, I thought she was pointing to the counter. I was confused, but I signed the check and took it back to her window.

“No,” she said, pointing to a bank officer in the back. At least I guessed she was a bank officer. She was seated at a desk rather than a teller window. In the States, such a configuration usually indicates a lower-rung officer.

The well-dressed, beautiful young lady, took my travelers check, and told me I had to sign it again. I pointed to my signature now in two places on the check.

“No,” she said again. “Aqui,” she insisted, pointing to a space under the signature line. I signed it again.

She took the check, carefully inspected it back and front and asked for my passport, which I handed over. She examined the photo on the passport, which is probably the worst photo ever taken of an earthling. Daniel, the kid at the hotel, who cashed a previous travelers check, teased me about it, saying it looked like a picture one would find on a wanted poster.

The bank officer held the passport up where she could compare the photo with my actual face. She frowned. By this time, I had not seen a smile in the entire bank. Everyone looked at me as though I might be an imposter at best and Ma Barker at worst.

Trying to lighten things up a bit, I said, “Yo tiene un malo dias.” I was trying to say, “I was having a bad day,” pointing to the passport picture. But whatever I actually said seemed to deepen her concern. She took the check and my passport to a more official bank officer. This one sat in a floor-to-ceiling glass office. That glassed-in officer now held my passport aloft and inspected my countenance some more.

The un-glassed-in officer came back to her desk. There were still no smiles or the slightest indication of the standard “friendly banker.” She punched a few numbers on her telephone and started writing on the back of the travelers check. When she finished, there were four closely spaced lines of numbers on the back of the check and more on the front. I’ve cashed many travelers checks in Mexico, but I’ve never been subjected to that much scrutiny.

At last she gave me the check, my passport, and a printed slip. The slip had more numbers on it. Now I had the slip, my passport, the numbered and re-numbered travelers check, but still no pesos. She returned my steady gaze, except to look around me toward the front door.

No, I thought, it’s not Ma Barker. She thinks I’m Bonnie and she’s looking for Clyde who must be waiting for my signal to burst into the bank, tommy-gun blazing. I made the gesture with upturned hands and raised eyebrows meant to indicate, So, what do I do now? She stood up and motioned for me to follow her.

Back to the original teller we went. I had the feeling she wanted me to put the items in my hand into the metal scoop at the bottom of the glass partition separating the teller from me. I looked about pondering that the officer at the desk where I sat for so long was the only individual in the bank not in a glass cage. She looked very small, but she was obviously capable of taking care of herself. Maybe she was a black belt or one of those colors that mean her hands must be registered with the Federales as a lethal weapon.

Now in front of the teller again, I felt sure I would at last get my pesos and be off on my shopping spree.

Not yet.

The teller punched some buttons on her telephone and listened as she wrote more numbers on what was now a tattered travelers check. She, too, sized me up by my passport photo and frowned. I smiled at her. There was no show of reciprocated friendliness from inside the teller’s cage.

At long last, she riffled through a stack of multi-colored paper money and pushed it at me in the metal scoop.

I thanked her profusely. “Mucias Gracias,” I said.

“De Nada,” she answered, still not smiling. At last they let me go. Glancing at a clock as I made my way to the door,  I saw that my transaction had consumed 40 minutes of the banco’s and my time, just to cash one of those quick and easy travelers checks.

Leaving the bank, I walked four or five blocks up Victoria Street, stopping in first this shop, then another. I bought shirts for the grandsons, some wooden tops, five pens, each decorated with a yarn and feather God’s eye, and I bought Daughter Mandy a pair of orange and yellow sandals “Hecho en Mexico.”

I crossed the street beside the large cathedral Salvador told me about and started down the other side of the street toward the zocolo, stopping to take a picture of the church’s tall spire against the puffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky.

I had only gone a few steps, when someone touched my arm and said, “Excuse.” I turned around and saw my arm was being touched by the long arm of the law. A member of the policia had interrupted my shopping spree. 

How nice, I thought. Like so many policemen in Mexico, he was going to inquire if I needed directions. Something was wrong, though. This one didn’t seem the least bit friendly. He must be related to someone in the bank, and it runs in the family, I thought..

He rattled off some Spanish, and I picked up the word, “photograph.” As I always do when I don’t understand a word and I think someone is being helpful, I said, “Ah, si.”

His eyes grew wider, as he took a step nearer. The touch on my arm now turned into a grasp. Not menacing, but nonetheless a grasp.  I looked at it and said, “Que?” (What?)

After a few minutes of mutual misunderstanding, I realized he was asking me if I took his picture.

“No,” I answered, and shook my head. Then, I was astounded when he asked if I took a picture of the bank. (“Photograph banco?”)

“No, nada,” I answered as plainly as I could.

There were several more questions from him all of which I answered with “Mande?” or “Que?” Then I realized he was asking me if I didn’t take a picture of him or the bank, what was I shooting?

I searched my limited Spanish vocabulary for the word, “church,” but came up with nothing. I pointed at the cathedral. Taking out my camera once again, I pantomimed as I pointed to the top of the church’s spire. I said, “church” about five times.

Having shot pictures all over Mexico, I know the protocol: (1) If you want to photograph a man, his child or his burro, ask permission. Ladies don’t seem to mind. The man will probably ask you to pay. It is rude at that point not to cross his palm with a few pesos. (2) Never take a photo of an Indian. In fact, don’t even let an Indian know you have a camera on your person. The story about a guy being stoned to death because he took a photo of a local ethnic group may be a Mexican urban legend, but I never take the chance. (3) Buildings are fair game. Shoot away.

The policeman was finally satisfied I was not taking pictures of him or the bank for the purpose of sharing them with my bank-robbing comrades. We would just have to case the joint in person. Besides, the bank was three blocks away, and it wasn’t even close to the church steeple way up in the sky. I don’t know where the cop was when I snapped the picture. But should there be a next time, which I doubt, I will proceed with the picture-taking assuming the police are all Indians.

I made a quick decision then to take a bus back to Playa Los Cocos as fast as I could. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in Nayarit’s capital city.

I made my way to the bus station and was told the bus that passed by the Casa Mañana would leave in one hour. Fine. I forked over 13 pesos, much to the confusion of the ticket agent. He pointed to 30.00 on the ticket. I just as vehemently pointed to the 13.00. I’d had about enough of Tepic’s inhospitable attitude.

There was a boy standing at the ticket booth who, I was told, had spent a great deal of time in California. The boy pointed to the 13 and then to his watch. Whoops! The 13.00 meant 1:00 p.m., and the 30.00 was the amount of pesos the bus trip cost (about $2.73). I was a little embarrassed, but all three of us laughed.  Amazing! There were at least two people in Tepic who knew how to smile. I felt better.

I bought the ticket and took a seat in the street level waiting room. The buses left the station by an exit immediately adjacent to the place where I was sitting. It soon became clear I would die if I sat for an hour breathing their noxious exhaust fumes. I sought refuge on the upper level where the buses took on passengers.

I waded through my memory weeds trying to remember leaving from that very bus station for a trip to San Blas many years ago. The bus I was to take today was considerably bigger and in better shape than the bus I rode 21 years ago.

Remembering there were reserved seats on the primera classe buses, I mused they must have abandoned the assigned seating because no one paid any attention to it anyway. When we climbed aboard the bus that was to take us to San Blas in 1984, I remember there were two people sitting in the seats that had been assigned to my husband and me. We said nothing, and took seats in another part of the bus.

When at last the driver indicated the 2005 bus was about ready to take off, I climbed aboard and sat in the second seat on the right-hand side. Almost immediately, an older Mexican gentleman told me I was in his seat. He asked to see my ticket. Mind you, almost all this communication was accomplished using hand signals. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

“Ah, cinco,” he said, pointing to the number, 5, previously overlooked, on my ticket. He pointed to the seat across the aisle.

“Lo siento,” I apologized, and stepped across the aisle to take my correct seat. A Mexican lady of my approximate age and weight sat down beside me in the aisle seat. We were a bit crowded. Our passenger list now numbered six, but I knew we would pick up more who would hail the bus from the roadside.

We were soon out of town and back on the jungle curves where we were to spend the next two hours if we were lucky. If we were not lucky, we would either spend the time in the hospital or in the morgue.

The driver, obviously trying to break a land speed record, “put the pedal to the metal,” as we said in those carefree teen years. We zoomed through the jungle missing by mere inches vehicles coming from the opposite direction.

There were tiers of mountains, fading into blue haze on the horizon. There were banana fields, agave and tobacco fields and thick jungle foliage sprinkled with the intense colors of tropical flowers. Yes, it was beautiful. I half expected to see Sigourney Weaver at the edge of the jungle cooing to a mountain gorilla. I did spot a truly fine iguana that blinked its eye as the bus sped by.

I tried to think only of the breathtaking scenery, but mostly I was scared.

Suddenly feeling a little sick, I slid the window open next to my face and drew in the fresh air. About this time, the lady in the seat beside me drifted off to dreamland. Sharp curves to the right caused her sleeping body to lean into my terrified one, crushing me against the side of the bus. She neither knew nor cared that the Angel of Death awaited us at the apex of every hairpin curve. Had he not claimed many a life at a curve in this very road, now marked with a memorial cross? Had he not called home many at one time where the curve was marked with many crosses, no doubt done in by a bus crash?

My seatmate seemed perfectly comfortable as she took her afternoon siesta. The line was crossed when her head drifted toward my shoulder. She also neither knew nor cared that I have a life-long prejudice against being touched by strangers. The same prejudice had already been breached in Tepic by the cop.

She apparently wanted to cuddle  as she laid her head so close to my face, her hair tickled my neck. I jerked my shoulder upward, which brought her out of her stupor enough to lean in the other direction, thereby avoiding what could have been a nasty scene.

As it happened the bus arrived at my hotel in only one hour and 50 minutes, knocking off 10 minutes of our ETA and at least that many years off my life. I stumbled over the cobblestones in the Casa Mañana parking lot and climbed the steps to my room. Once there, I plopped down on my bed and was soon off to dreamland myself.

But before I dozed off, I promised myself I wouldn’t take a bus or any other form of transportation, including a burro, to visit Tepic again. Enough, as they say, is quite enough.


Addition to story as of  2014: In my usual manner, I spoke too soon. I have now been in Tepic many times with no harm befalling me at all. My favorite dentist practices there, and several friends live there. There is a beautiful new bus station at Tepic, and most of the buses no longer belch noxious fumes. I still love Casa Mañana,  and I have spent many wonderful times at the hotel. That area along the Pacific Coast is now called Riviera Nayarit, and the tourist office is marketing it as the next big tourist area of the many big tourist areas in Mexico. My friend, Lourdes, is now a grandmother, although she still looks as though she has not yet seen 45. She built a casita on a farm near the hotel, where she raises fruit trees and keeps horses. I have yet to see it, but I hope to visit again soon


This is a Christmas addendum to the following story about my cousins’ homes in the country. I promised my Cousin Jimmy I would write it the morning of Christmas Eve, but things kept getting in the way and now here it is at 12:28 AM, Christmas morning.

Jimmy remembers hearing about the incident, and I remember living it as though it were last year instead of 75 Christmases ago.

It was our custom to go to the country to select our Christmas tree. We always went the Sunday before Christmas. Daddy didn’t like having a tree in the house. To tell the truth, he really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. But more about that in another story.

On the appointed Sunday in 1941, we traveled to Aunt Hazel’s house to have dinner. Afterwards, Daddy, Uncle Melvin, Jimmy and I went into the woods to select a Christmas tree. In those days almost everyone I knew had a cedar tree. We were no exception. As usual, Daddy chose a tree much too short to suit me, and I let it be known that a taller tree was a much better choice. We had the same argument every year. We finally reached a compromise, and he chopped the tree down. He and Uncle Melvin dragged it to our car and tied it on top.

It was after dark when we left to go home. Daddy drive, of course, and Mother sat in the passenger seat holding my baby sister. I was in my favorite spot in the car when we were on a longish trip:  on the little shelf at the top of the back seat, where I could watch the stars go by. Remember, there were no seat belts in those days. We tooled down the blackness, and I was loving every minute of it. Christmas was only a few days away, the stars were close enough to touch, and everything was right with the world. I was brimming over with four-year-old wonder and joy.

Suddenly, Mother screamed and Daddy slammed on the brakes. Standing crosswise in the middle of the road was a big, shaggy, brown mule. There was nothing Daddy could do. The car hit it right in its middle. There was a frightening thud, and the windshield view was obliterated by a mass of brown hair that disappeared in an upward direction, followed quickly by another sound on the roof of the car and then a thud behind the car. When we hit the mule, it sailed up to the top of the car and rolled over the roof, Christmas tree and all. Daddy leapt  from the car and ran toward the spot where the mule had probably landed. Just as he did so, the mule got to its feet and went galloping off across a nearby field, apparently not hurt at all.

Shortly, Daddy returned to the car. I was thunderstruck, and Mother was still kind of whimpering. It took us a while to gather our composure to continue our trip home.

We lived in the big house with all our extended family at the time, and when we arrived, everyone came running out to see the Christmas tree. The three of us all talked at once telling about our adventure with the mule. I was very unhappy about the tree, because I just knew it was crushed and ruined. We would never get Daddy to go back and cut down another tree.

But Dooley, my grandmother, and the others looked the tree up and down and declared it may have been a bit smushed on one side, but never mind. We would turn that side to the wall. The Christmas tree was to be set up in a corner of the living room, and it would be just beautiful.

We took the tree inside, and Dooley leaned it against the wall in the corner. The decorating was set for the following evening. I think I was still in a state of shock. I was sent to bed right away, and the grown-ups continued to discuss the mule experience in the living room. I could hear them, and it scared me. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like it one bit.

The next night after supper, the family gathered to decorate the tree. I usually gladly took part in the festivities, but I was quite uneasy being close to the tree. Someone teased me and asked if I thought that mule was somehow still in the tree, and everyone laughed. Of course, I didn’t think any such thing, but there was something about it I didn’t like and mostly didn’t understand. For years I asked myself why was I afraid of that tree. I don’t know. To this day, I can still work up a little shiver thinking about it. There’s no doubt in my mind it was a feeling of fear, but I have no idea where it came from.

It did, however make the Christmas of 1941 prominent in my memory. I guess you could say my personal ghost of Christmas Past was a big, brown, shaggy mule.

So, there it is. I hope if you have a mule experience with your 2014 Christmas, he was there by invitation only, and that your entire New Year is free of ghosts, past, present, and future.

Thanks for reading.


Sundays seemed a lot more special when I was a child. Now, more than not, it’s just another day.

A very long time ago, everyone was home on Sunday. The stores were all closed. Weeks before Christmas, the newspaper ads read, “50 (or so) shopping days before Christmas.”

In the south, dinner was served as soon it could be placed on the table after church. Almost everyone had a dining room, and it may have been unused for six days of the week, but in our house the table was set with the best dishes and the whole family was expected to be present when Pappy said the blessing.

My immediate family consisted of Mother, Daddy, and me. We lived in a large house in Nashville with Dooley, my maternal grandmother and Pappy, her second husband. Also in residence were my Aunt Mildred (for whom I am named) and her daughter, Dorothy Jeane. The two of them lived in the country with Aunt Mildred’s husband’s family. After he died of TB, Aunt Mildred and Jeane moved into Dooley’s house with us.

Part-time occupants included my step-aunt Abie, my paternal grandmother, and my step-great grandmother, Granny Karl, who was Pappy’s stony-faced mother. With all the comings and goings it was necessary to count heads before the Sunday dinner table was set.

After dinner, still dressed in our Sunday best, the extended family scattered. We either received company, or we went visiting. My very favorite place to visit was way out in the country in a settlement of sorts called Smith Springs. Never mind that the fields that were my playgrounds are now filled with suburban homes when Nashville grew so much and so fast it burst at the seams. I will always remember it as my second home in the country. It is evergreen in my memory.

Three of Mother’s cousins, all siblings, lived with their families on a large parcel of land. Mother’s cousin Hazel lived in the original homestead far off the road up a hill. Hazel’s sister, Louise, lived on one side of the property and her brother, Robert, on the other side. Their houses were located close to the road.

These four first cousins had their first babies within 10 months of each other. Hazel had Jimmy who was a week older that I. We were born in August of 1936. Mother and Hazel often joked that they ran into each other at the hospital. Hazel was leaving carrying the newborn Jimmy as Mother was hurrying in to have me. Three months older than the two of us was Marjorie, Cousin Louise and Otis Charlton’s daughter. Cousin Robert and his wife, Lola, had Ina Lou in March of 1937. She was double-named for her grandmother and for my grandmother.

(I am making an effort to not confuse you here, but I can understand if it’s clear as mud as we used to say back in the dark ages). Mother, Hazel, Louise, and Robert were all first cousins, their fathers being the Russell brothers. We firstborns, Marjorie, Jimmy, Ina Lou, and I (Mildred Ann) are second cousins.

So, it came to pass I had three country cousins, all very near my own age, Our mothers delighted in their children and in each other. We had our pictures taken constantly, I was mostly a disagreeable child, and there are no photos of me smiling just as there are none of Jimmy being still. Marjorie is shown very reserved and dignified. Ina Lou, being younger than the other three often made her distrust of her older cousins known by being heard. Believe it or not, these babyhood propensities, so often photographed, turned out to be indications of our grown-up personalities.

Four years later there was a regular population explosion when all four adult cousins plus one more who lived in town, had babies. In this second batch came our cousin Tim. He was actually Timothy Russell, III. The first Tim was the patriarch of all the country siblings, and my grandfather’s brother. The second Tim, or T.J. lived in the city with his wife, Tilly. She was from a very rich family, and was older than her husband by quite a few years. After the third Tim was born, she dedicated herself fully to him, and T.J. went along his merry way. He didn’t get to really know his son until years later.

Tilly loaded up and often brought Baby Tim to the country. In addition to the boy, she brought several changes of his clothes, extra blankets, his food, a jug of city water and a bottle of milk from a commercial dairy. In later years I often wondered what kind of germ or disease she thought may attack Tim. The rest of us were hale and hearty, and were turned loose to go and do whatever we pleased. Maybe the other grown-ups were offended by Tilly’s obvious distrust of the country environment, but I don’t think they took offense. I do think they got a laugh or two out of it. To this good day, Jimmy still teases Tim about the special treatment he received.

Certainly, off limits to Little Tim was a communal water pail just outside the kitchen door with a metal dipper handle hooked over the rim. We had the option of drinking from the dipper or filling glasses that were available nearby. I loved to drink from the dipper. It had a rolled top and tasted metallic, which somehow enhanced the coldness and crispness of the water.

The pail was outside in the “Dog Trot.” For those unfortunate souls who have no connection with southern country life, I will explain.

The Dog Trot was a common architectural fixture in the south. Nashville gets remarkably hot and humid in the summertime. To take advantage of the slightest breeze, the farm houses were constructed in two sections connected with a long hallway that was open to the outdoors at both ends. Each section of the house had a door from two rooms that opened onto the Dog Trot. I often wished our city house had been constructed the same way. We could dash to the back yard from the front porch before the grown-ups even knew we were gone.

In a few years both ends were closed, probably because the same geographical oddity that makes Nashville so hot in the summer makes it so cold in the winter. The founders weren’t kidding when they named the place “The Nashville Basin.”

When we original four left babyhood for bigger adventures, the entire acreage was our kingdom. We explored it all. The old barn was particularly intriguing for me. It seemed to have dozens of rooms filled with the most astonishing assortment of farm and mechanical implements. It took a few years until I was brave enough to venture into the barn. It was quiet and cool, and a little scary. On one notable occasion I tiptoed into a room in which a cow was escaping the afternoon heat. I screamed, upsetting the poor cow as she nearly trampled me on her way out of the barn.

I loved climbing over the stile that provided access to the other side of fence down by the road. The stile negated the necessity of opening and closing the big gate at the driveway. I considered it a fantastic innovation, although I’m fairly certain it was in use by the first settlers and before. I even wandered through the tall weeds in back of the barn, much to the gastronomical delight of the resident chiggers. It was a short cut to the Charltons’ log cabin on the road.

I loved to listen to the crickets, the birds singing their hearts out, and the wind in the willow trees. I often stood still just to hear the quiet that was somehow not disturbed by the country sounds.

My cousins and I played all kinds of wonderful games: hide and seek, Red Rover, Mother may I, and kick the can. It was so much fun to have people to play with whom I knew so well. There was no need for shyness or intimidation. I could wander off by myself or play with a field full of cousins and be completely at home even in this wonderland.

Jimmy was the adventurous type, much to his parents’ consternation on many occasions. One particular adventure was had also to his own detriment. One day it occurred to him that the steep pitch of the metal barn roof would make an ideal slide. Up he climbed as far as he could on the roof. He then sat down and slid all the way to the ground. He was right. It was a fantastic slide. Unfortunately, there was an errant nail protruding from the metal surface. As he slid down Jimmy managed to find it in the worse possible way. He was bleeding profusely when he made it into the house. There was a rushed trip to the doctor’s office, and after many stitches he was sent home, having learned a hard lesson the hardest way possible.

My favorite attraction was “Old Dolly.” Old Dolly was a huge Belgian mare, a beautiful plow horse. She was, indeed, used expressly for that purpose. She was blind, but she knew every inch of the property. I was amazed that she never bumped into anything. As my daughter, Mandy, loves to relate, “Mom knows a lot about horses, and she loves them. She’s also terrified of them.”

Regrettably, she is correct. I had a horse once, and he scared me to death, but that’s another story.

I was a little scared of Dolly at first. I tried to sneak up on her when I was alone. I just wanted to get a better look. Somehow, she always heard me coming. It didn’t matter how quietly I walked, her head turned toward me and blind though she was, she looked right at me. I always ran back into the dooryard.

I don’t know how old she was, but Old Dolly is huge in my earliest memory of the place. She was never anything but “Old” Dolly. Her back could accommodate four or five of us comfortably, and whoever sat nearest her head would gently push her neck in the direction we wanted to go. She walked when we told her to go and she stopped when we told her to “whoa.” I loved her with all my heart. Citation will always live in my memory as my favorite race horse, but Old Dolly lives in my heart forever.

There was a pond nearby in the barnstead, where we were not allowed to play. Often, it had a green scum that squelched any desire we may have had to enter the water. I marveled at the animals drinking from the pond. I noticed they managed to avoid the scum.

It was an actual working farm, although all three men on the place had jobs as well. Someone arose before dawn in the winter to milk the cow, and again after work every evening. There were chickens for eggs and meat. A large portion of the fields was allotted to a garden. Every kind of vegetable and fruit was grown there.

In a pen far away from the house the families raised hogs. On a particular cold November day, the men gathered at the pen. My father was often among them. It was hog-killing day. Afterwards, the animals were cleaned and cut up into portions that were smoked in a small shed built especially for that purpose. There was lots of country ham, which is strictly a Southern delicacy. It is so salty, Yankees don’t always cotton to its taste. They often prefer the milder spiral-cuts so popular today.

Many times when we visited on Sunday afternoon, Hazel would forestall our departure by saying “Ya’ll spend the night.” Of course, Daddy had to go to work the next day, but Mother would often tell Aunt Hazel we would stay and Daddy could pick us up in a day or two. I was ecstatic.

Mother and I, and later my little sister slept in a bed just off the Dog Trot. I’ll never forget the aroma of home-smoked bacon and ham being cooked on the huge wood stove. By the time the biscuits came out of the oven, we were seated at the table. Everything was homemade. There were mounds of creamy butter (hand-churned) and the best preserves on earth. Nothing has ever tasted as good as Aunt Hazel’s breakfasts.

At harvest time, many days were given over to canning and putting other vegetables away for the winter. Near the back of the house, there were double doors built into a little hill. The doors enclosed the root cellar, where all the food was put by. When winter came it was brimming with jars of home-canned vegetables, fruits, and jams. It was also a great shelter when tornados threatened, as they often do in the south.

As the years went by, I lost contact with my country cousins. They never lost each other. In October of 2013, I was in Nashville when my sister died. My cousin Jeane told Jimmy I was in Nashville. He gave her a number and told her I better not leave town till I talked to him. I called him, and he came to see me at the hotel where I was staying. We knew each other immediately. We talked about the past and the times in between then and now. He told me the annual family reunion was in a couple weeks. I wanted to go more than anything.

I found a flight that wouldn’t break the bank, and I decided to go to the reunion. There was Jimmy and his wife, Becky, waiting to pick me up at the airport. I saw each one of my cousins, most of their children, their grandchildren, and in Jimmy’s case, his great-great-grandchildren. I was so glad to see everyone. It was also overpowering. We tried to catch up, but it left too much to tell in one short day. I spent the night with Jimmy and Becky in their gorgeous home in Murfreesboro, and I hated to tell them goodbye.

I don’t ever want to lose touch again. Like me, many have scattered to the four winds, but they manage to still keep up with one another. I will do the same, now and for the rest of my life.

Jimmy is, of all things, a golfer. It’s hard for me to imagine Jimmy swinging a golf club, but I guess he’s pretty good at it. I asked him what kind of score he shot, and he said he could shoot his age, which, at the time, was 77.

Last June, I was in Nashville again for my 60th class reunion. I loved seeing my old friends again, and I was particularly happy to be able to spend another night with Jimmy and Becky. The next day, Jimmy had a golf tournament. He left early, giving me time to visit with Becky all day before my 6 pm flight. What a wonderful new cousin she is to me. We talked and talked about everything under the sun. I had a great time. It’s so rare for me to hit it off with someone new right away, but that’s exactly what happened with Becky.

Sometimes I despair over what the future will bring. I don’t like to look at it too closely, because it is iffy at best. I guess everybody my age likes to look at the past, and that’s certainly true of me, but thank God for my Cousin Jimmy for helping me to bring back my past, because it’s now a part of my future as well. And that can only be a good thing – a very good thing!

Here are a few photos from long, long ago taken at the Russell Family Homestead. To my knowledge it was never called that. I called it simply “The Country”.

The edge of the pond and the old barn. It was already ancient 70  years ago.

The edge of the pond and the old barn. It was already ancient 70
years ago.

The oldest of the second cousins is Dorothy Jeane, here shown riding a tricycle on the farm.

The oldest of the second cousins is Dorothy Jeane, here shown riding a tricycle on the farm.

Aunt Hazel with Jimmy, Mother with me, Aunt Louise with Marjorie, in front of the grape arbor.

Aunt Hazel with Jimmy, Mother with me, Aunt Louise with Marjorie, in front of the grape arbor.

Aunt Louise with all four firstborns.

Aunt Louise with all four firstborns.

Someone thought it would be really cute to photograph all four babies in a bassinet. Jimmy and Marjorie obviously disapproved, while I gave them my usual sneer, and Ina Lou ignored them.

Someone thought it would be really cute to photograph all four babies in a bassinet. Jimmy and Marjorie obviously disapproved, while I gave them my usual sneer, and Ina Lou ignored them.

Someone thought it would be even cuter to photograph poor Ina Lou behind the car bumper, while Jimmy and I were just glad it wasn’t us.

Someone thought it would be even cuter to photograph poor Ina Lou behind the car bumper, while Jimmy and I were just glad it wasn’t us.

This is me sucking my thumb in front of the gate that led to the barnyard. I really didn’t like to have my picture taken. Still don’t.

This is me sucking my thumb in front of the gate that led to the barnyard. I really didn’t like to have my picture taken. Still don’t.

: Jimmy saw this picture only recently. He just said, “I hated that pig. It was mean.”

Jimmy saw this picture only recently. He just said, “I hated that pig. It was mean.”



I mentioned earlier that I was really into crochet. Here’s my grandest accomplishment. His name is Tommy Turkey, and I made him for our Thanksgiving Day centerpiece. He is a larger version of a Teri Crews Design, and I love him. Tommy is sitting in a crocheted ring decorated with autumnal decorations. This ring served double duty. It was our wreath for the autumn season.
I’m so busy making Christmas presents for my family, I haven’t had time to make our Christmas wreath. It is to be “Roses in the Snow.”
Maybe I’ll have it finished by Christmas 2015.
Hope yours is merry.
The pattern for the original Tommy if here:
Teri has tons of really cute animals and other softies. Her web site is Take a look at it. You’ll be amazed!

Fashioning Fascinators: Q&A With Australian Designer Kai Joldeski

I’m fascinated by Fascinators. One of the reasons I’m falling behind on my web site entries is I’ve become crochet-crazy. I’m hooking Christmas presents like mad. I fully intend to write like mad after New Year’s.

OverDressed for Life

Designer Kai Joldeski contacted me after she discovered my article on fascinators. We have much in common – she, a designer of fascinators and me, an admirer

Kai lives in Melbourne, Australia and is a self-taught artist who sells her wares on ETSY. She says she doesn’t feel complete if she hasn’t created something every day.

In addition to making fascinators, Kai is back at university studying Internet Communications. She agreed to do a little Q&A for just for you, readers.

How did you get started making fascinators and when? 

I have been making accessories (handbags, earrings, belts, scarves, bracelets, shoe clips and brooches) since I was a very young girl for myself and my friends. Fascinators were the next natural adventure. I started only this year with fascinators and set up at Etsy in April.

Do you make hats as well?

Occasionally I will make a hat, but I prefer fascinators as they can be worn to more occasions…

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When the leaves begin to fall and the weather turns a bit nippy, I always think about the experience I’ll tell you about below. It is one of many from this particular “life,” not all of which were pleasant, but unforgettable nonetheless.

During the early 70s there was a great movement in this country to “go back to the land.” Much to the dismay of my two daughters, my husband and I decided to join it. We spent the summer building a cabin on 13 scruffy acres in Upstate New York, and prepared to settle in for the winter. We would study and learn self-sufficiency.

Come spring, we looked forward to tapping our Maple trees and making our own syrup. Consulting my homesteaders’ handbook, I was surprised to learn there are several varieties of Maple trees, but only the Sugar Maple’s sap has a high-enough sugar concentration to make the process worthwhile. Silver and Red Maples, which grew cheek by jowl with the Sugar Maples in our woods were never tapped for syrup-making purposes.

Although the pictured leaves indicated only subtle differences I was confident I could tell them apart when the time came. However, further reading indicated the leaves would not be on the trees when it came time to pound in the taps sometime in early March. Now, what was I going to do?

I took my tree-identification book to the woods to examine the tree trunks. Inspecting the tree bark by holding the book against each tree I suspected might be a Sugar Maple was disappointing. The results were inconclusive.

Finally, inspiration struck. I would simply take a spray can of neon paint and mark the Sugar Maples while I could still identify them by their leaves.

In the woods down a hill from the cabin, I peered high in the treetops to identify the Sugar Maples. To double-check I carefully examined the leaves under the tree. Thus assured, I spray-painted a large “X” on the side of the tree trunk facing the cabin, reckoning I would be lugging my sap collection apparatus (a minor detail not yet figured out) from that direction.

After marking 20 trees, I started back to the cabin and turned to admire my handiwork. I discovered, much to my horror, I had misidentified the first tree. From the angle I now approached it, I discovered it was a Red Maple. Fearful I couldn’t remember which tree was mistakenly marked six months later, I had to do something to stop me from tapping that tree.

Taking the spray can in hand, I drew a straight line through the “X” and underneath wrote in huge letters the word, “NO!” I could now welcome winter with no fear of the leaves falling too soon, knowing we would enjoy the fruits of my labor on our pancakes next spring.

The leaves indeed fell, the brush disappeared on the 100 yards or so down the hill where the woods began,  and there in full view of our cabin were now revealed 19 trees marked with huge reflective “Xs” and one tree shouting from the forest, “NO!”

The kids laughed, their friends laughed, my friends and neighbors laughed and then their friends and neighbors came to see and stayed to laugh. When the snow fell, the sight was even more impressive. All those brilliant red letters contrasting with the white snow made for a striking visual experience.

One day a hunter came to the door. He wanted to know why all those trees were marked in the forest. He had, he said, hunted in those woods all his life, and he had no idea anyone lived here. I assured him that yes, someone did live here, and if he didn’t get off my land, I’d set the dogs on him.

The opportunity to say that comes along but once in a lifetime if that, and I seized on it. We only had one dog, but it sounded more threatening to imply the plural.

Yes, he said he would go, but first would I tell him about the markings. No, I most certainly would not I said as I turned to whistle for the dog. The hunter skedaddled, but not before he, too, laughed.

As it turned out, the maple syrup experience didn’t go as smoothly as the homesteader handbook indicated. We tapped the trees in March and boiled down the sap over an outside fire. When the liquid started to thicken, we were instructed to pour it off into a saucepan, and finish it inside on the stove. Each time this crucial point was reached, something invariably happened to divert my attention, and the syrup proceeded from golden amber to black tar before I could say “Mrs. Butterworth.”

We tried tapping the red Xed trees the next year, and this time we managed to produce less than a pint of dark Grade C syrup that any self-respecting maple syrup maker would have thrown out before it even reached the bottle. We called it quits after that.  In time we left the cabin in the woods; the “Xs” and “NO!” were still there bright and glowing as ever. I suppose they’re there to this day.

All of which brings me to the moral of this story: never spray iridescent paint on anything you don’t plan to live with for the rest of your life. Believe me. The only way to hide it from your constant view is to move away from it.


When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.