Monthly Archives: April 2013

Our Victory Garden Is More of a Perseverance Garden

ImageHere we are in year four of our raised-bed garden, and it is a money pit. I’m trying to remember why people grow gardens in their back yards, and I’m pretty sure that saving grocery money is right there near the top of the list. The first year was tough, with four brand-new boxes, and then we added two more the following year. Somewhere in those two years, David found some free mulch—piles and piles of it!—so we added generous amounts of mulch to our garden beds. Good, right? Not exactly.

ImageWe were putting green and healthy plants into the boxes, and within a couple of weeks, they were turning a bronzy color. Some plants were not affected, such as the peppers. We picked buckets of peppers every year, no matter where we planted them. Here is this year’s baby bed of green bell, red bell, jalapeño, habanero, and cayenne peppers. Tomatoes were probably the worst. You know how tender they can be. We would put in all different varieties, and they would grow and blossom, but about the time the first fruit would appear, the disease would start at the bottom and it would be a race to see if we could get ripe tomatoes before the rot got to that branch. Well, that or the squirrels, who were climbing the cages and dive-bombing from the top.

After a while, we figured out that the mulch was diseased. Let that be a lesson to you: Always look a gift mulch in the mouth—or some such mixed metaphor. We realized that we would have to dig all of the soil out of the boxes, right to the bottom, or the disease would work its way through the new soil. David and I knew that we could not afford to do all of them at once, so we carefully chose two of them. Then one day David had a yard project that needed soil, so he dug out about half a box of bad soil. Unfortunately, it was not one of the chosen boxes. So, now we had to finish digging that one out and buy soil for three boxes.

Have you heard the expression “dirt cheap”? It is a cruel joke. Dirt is quite expensive, especially since I already have an acre and a half of it, most of which, unfortunately, has been ruined by the developer. The guy at Lowes recommended a local soil merchant named Ogburn’s. We were not sure. We had purchased soil a few years ago for a little less, but Ogburn’s has a website that looks like an online menu: all different flavors of soil, with detailed descriptions for the dirt connoisseur. You can have your topsoil screened or unscreened, you can get compost pure or mixed two different ways, and if you want gravel, they have Class B Rip Rap. I have no idea what that is, but it sounds dangerous. All these and many, many more are presented with tempting photos of the products. We ordered three yards of screened topsoil and one yard of BR2 Compost. You know what? It was pretty. It was much, much better than what we bought last time at the other place. If you need landscaping stuff near Raleigh, NC, I highly recommend Ogburn’s. They’re very nice, too. Here’s the website.

ImageIn other gardening disasters, we put the soil materials recommended in Square Foot Gardening into our two mini-boxes, one for strawberries and one for lettuce. Not that we get any strawberries, because of the (You guessed it!) squirrels. All I can say is that the SFG guy must live in the rainforest, because this soil mix is all about draining. It’s mostly peat moss and vermiculite, so when you water it, it’s parched half an hour later. The lettuce barely makes it 24 hours before wilting. So, I dug out half of the lettuce box, put in my new gourmet soil, and sprinkled in my salad mix seeds. We’ll see what happens. I have had great fun with this lettuce mix, though, and have bought a big seed packet a couple of times. It has red and green lettuce, red and green spinach, arugula, baby romaine, endive, and more, and it grows like gangbusters.Image

ImageI dug out a bit of the herb garden and replaced the soil so that I could try growing sage for the fourth year in a row! I keep on buying a new plant each spring, but I have high hopes this time. I don’t know what to do for the rest of the bed, as you can see that the oregano and thyme are perfectly happy, and I don’t want to disturb their roots. I would appreciate advice. I just put in that little parsley, and it always does fine. By the way, do you see the two green, plastic snakes? Apparently, those are there to give the birds and squirrels a good laugh. Don’t try this at home.

So, today, we’ll be tackling the two boxes at the top. (Cue the horror movie music.) I just saw David walking down there, carrying his boom box and wearing his audiologist-recommended earplugs covered by aircraft earmuffs. Of course, we’ll have to buy some plants some day soon, and I’m looking far off toward the horizon for that break-even point, when we’ve recouped all of our investment and started to see a profit on this project. I’ve done a bit of math, and if we don’t invest any more than we have up to this point, I seriously think it will be the summer of 2033.

Stay tuned.

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Amazing Grace, by Eric Metaxas

As you know if you’ve been paying attention, I reviewed Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer last year around this time. After I read Bonhoeffer, I bought it, which is my typical order of business (I never buy a bad book that way), and while I was at it, I bought a couple of books by Bonhoeffer himself, plus Metaxas’ other biography, one about William Wilberforce.

Image Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery was timed to coincide with the movie that was coming out to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in England in 1807. Let me tell you, even though I have always had an interest in Wilberforce, I could not make it through that movie. I tried twice, and I somehow came away with the impression that William Wilberforce was sanctimonious, tortured, and boring.

How delighted I was that Mr. Metaxas returned my hero to me. In actuality, Wilberforce was cheerful and witty and had crowds of friends and admirers. To be sure, he was a serious Christian, scandalizing his nominally Anglican parents by becoming Methodist in a day when the word “Methodist” might as well have meant “radical terrorist.” Religious fervor of any kind was frowned upon by the upper classes, just as it is today, and Wilberforce’s parents encouraged him to party hearty and ignore his education as much as possible. Just meet all the right people and move in all the right circles.

Happily, Wilberforce’s aunt and uncle were not so inclined. They were devout Methodists and introduced young William to the luminaries of the evangelical movement of the time, including John Newton, a former slaver who wrote the beloved song that gives this book its title. Although he continued to stray throughout his adolescence, after his early graduation from Cambridge and astoundingly young election to parliament, Wilberforce came under the influence once again of religious intellectuals, and in his twenties he underwent what he always called the “Great Change.” From that time forward, he devoted his life to “two great objects: the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.”

“The reformation of manners” may sound trivial to us today, but, as Metaxas describes, Wilberforce lived in a society where the masses would witness bear baiting, bull baiting, hangings, burnings, and public human dissections. These were considered entertaining to the lower classes and instructional to would-be criminals. Wilberforce put forth bills to stop the burning of convicted female prisoners, but they failed, since the other MPs couldn’t see the harm. After all, the women were already dead by hanging. He also introduced a bill to have the corpses of the men sold to scientists, rather than publicly dissected, but the MPs thought that the horror of dissection would be a deterrent to crime that couldn’t be achieved in a private laboratory. Eventually, Wilberforce was able to enact some laws that he felt would stop the coarsening of society, and that he hoped would, in time, curb the violent tendencies of the crowds of London.

As for his most famous achievement, Wilberforce introduced a bill to stop the slave trade every year for twenty years before it passed. You may be thinking that there couldn’t have been that many slaves in England, and you would be right, but remember the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” In those days, the British controlled possessions all over the globe, and there were 800,000 African slaves in the West Indies working on sugar plantations. Wilberforce and his friends, who lived in a community called Clapham, showed the members of Parliament the diagrams of the terribly crowded slave ships and described the diseases and death that awaited a large proportion of the kidnapped Africans. They appealed to the ministers’ sense of morality, asking whether one person can rightfully own another human being. They were winning more and more of the members to their side, and it looked as if abolition would win the day.

Then came the French Revolution. As the cries of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! rang out from their ancient enemy, the English people decided that they wanted nothing that smacked of the values of this violent movement. In their minds, the abolition of slavery, which would hurt the British landowners and aristocracy in the New World, was equated with the execution of the nobles and royalty in France. It was absurd, but it went on for years. Thousands upon thousands of slaves died horrible deaths because the British House of Lords and House of Commons self-righteously clung to tradition, rather than looking at the reality of slavery. Lest you think this never happens today, look at how the moral outrage of abortion has become tangled up in women’s rights. Every single day in America, we take 52,000 of our own children, rip their limbs off, poison them, burn them, suck out their brains, and push them down industrial garbage disposals. Most of them are little girls. How can we self-righteously ignore the fact of their deaths in the name of any political right? But we do. And they did.

Well, as you may know, Wilberforce hung in there and was able to pass the abolition of the slave trade after twenty years of work. He and his friends believed that when the plantation owners realized that there were no more slaves to be purchased, they would treat the ones they had better, rather than work them to death as they had previously. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and so they pushed even more boldly for the abolition of slavery altogether. This did not come to pass until mere days before Wilberforce’s death, but he was tremendously blessed to be one of the few who live to see their fondest dream come to fruition.

Woven into this narrative of England’s abolition of slavery a full generation before America’s Civil War are tales of Wilberforce’s friendships and his marriage. He was a tiny, little man and did not marry until he was 37, when he fell in love at first sight with his 20-year-old wife, Barbara, with whom I greatly sympathize because she was a happy, wonderful wife but a miserable hostess. The Wilberforces had famous people passing through their house at all hours, and the family was always in chaos. Cheerful, loving chaos, but enough that people noticed and commented to others about it. Barbara bore six healthy children in quick succession, and soon they had to move to the country in order to have more space. This did not stop the Claphamites, who merely widened the circumference of their community. Wilberforce was in the center of it all, laughing, singing, and working, always working.

So that you will know how enjoyable reading a biography by Mr. Metaxas can be, I will share with you a part of his passage describing the wedding and estrangement of George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Neither of them was pure as the driven snow, and they hated one another heartily right from the start, but the Prince decided to marry because he needed to pay off his atrocious gambling debts, and he would receive a greater income if he were married.

Though there are likely worse reasons to marry, few leap to mind. The prince arrived drunk at the royal wedding, and things tobogganed speedily downhill from there. He made no secret of finding his bride stout and tedious, not to say hygienically unschooled. Nor did Caroline think her lothario prince much in the way of a catch either. … But a daughter was born the following year, at which point the unhappy couple bade each other adieu and accelerated in opposite directions. Caroline eventually settled in Italy, like seeds in an appendix, and the prince remained in England to return to the never-ending fox hunt, as it were. (Page 257.)

ImageThis is an informative, solid biography, and I have only been able to touch on the barest surface in this review. At less than 300 pages of Mr. Metaxas’ witty writing, it is certainly an accessible read, and I was happy to revive the character of one of my heroes. However, Amazing Grace is not the masterpiece that Bonhoeffer is. The latter work was a life-changing book for me, even though I knew about Dietrich Bonhoeffer before I read it. So take your pick: the Brit or the German, the 19th or the 20th century, slavery or Nazis. I say: take them both.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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When I’m Not Reading, There’s This

I’ve been very excited to see readers from Russia, Ireland, and Canada in the past few weeks. Please keep sharing!

Vintage Clothing

ImageSpring has finally triumphed over this long, chilly winter. I know this because my formerly gray car is now yellow. Although I love the change of seasons, I dread trying to find clothes to wear in my meager wardrobe. At the end of every season, I put my worn-out warm or cool clothes away and take comfort in the belief that by the time I need them again, I will be so much thinner and richer that I will go out and buy a whole new wardrobe. I don’t know why I keep on believing this, but I always do. And here I am, still broke, but 25 pounds lighter, not really ready to invest in a bunch of new clothes and not able to afford it if I were. I have found a few things that I couldn’t fit into last year, so that’s good. Someone at work told me that Oprah has an entire room devoted to each size that she flits through. I wonder how many rooms she uses for closets?

My Baby Is Burdened with Guilt

ImageI get about a thousand reviews a month sent to me at work to consider for the tender little ones of our county. For those of you who are interested in the youngest generation, here are some of the latest titles in board books for your toddlers: Les Misérables and War and Peace. Oh, yes. After announcing the titles to anyone within earshot of my computer at the library, I promptly deleted them from the vendor’s order cart. There is also an entire board book series based on classic titles. I cannot begin to express my disdain for parents who are so breathlessly terrified that little Abercrombie may not get into Yale that they begin World Literature classes while he is still in diapers. Cultural literacy is inculcated at this age by Mother Goose and Little Red Riding Hood. There’s enough there to keep all of you sleep-deprived for months. You can teach Abercrombie grace and redemption à la Jean Valjean by administering proper punishment and forgiveness the next time he thwacks his sister Honoria over the head with his toy train.

The Netflixian Report

ImageLately, David and I have jumped into White Collar, a series that had been recommended to me by two friends, but since I’m pretty stubborn, I’m just getting around to it. We love it. I think it’s currently in its fourth season, so lots more to look forward to. If you’ve seen Leo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can, you get the gist. Super-smart criminal ends up working for the FBI because they can’t figure out how to stop him otherwise. Interesting cases, great ensemble casting, and big, blue eyes.

The Treadmill Went Flat

So, I fought my way down 25 pounds and got stuck. I think the reason is that our treadmill has lost its “incline” feature. I used to have a good time setting goals for myself and really working up those hills. Walking on the flat surface is just not as fun nor as effective. David took the cover off the motor part of the treadmill, so now I can see everything moving when I walk, which is kind of scary. No, we are not accepting amusing theories as to why our treadmill may not be able to lift up anymore.

The Greatest of These Is Love

ImageDavid had taken on a second job for a while so that we could have a regular paycheck on his side and get some debts paid off. He would get up at 6:00 with me, as usual, and leave just after I did to get to his office. If he came straight home, he would get home just after I did in the evening, but he usually went out to show houses and got home between 7:00 and 8:00. In either case, he went right to his laptop and cell phone and worked until 10:00 or 11:00 at night, then got up to do it again the next day. Weekends, too. I missed him so much. Even when he was here, we couldn’t even talk or watch a TV show together. Eventually, it didn’t work out on either side, and now I have my husband back. You know what I learned? Money may always be a struggle for us, but not everyone is blessed to have someone they want to be with all the time. Life is short, and days are finite. Spend all the time you can with the people you love.

Hand the Crown to Bill

ImageI am coming right along with my smart phone. I recently went to the Verizon store, where the woman fixed my phone by turning it off and turning it back on. Oh. Although she was my age, she kept calling me “dear” and “honey,” but I was nice to her anyway. Then she told me that I could call Google customer service for help on the app. that wasn’t working. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “But it’s a free app. Is the tech support free, too?” She assured me that it was, so when I got home, I pulled up GooglePlay, put in my contact info, and hit send. My phone rang while it was still in my hand. Eerie. This very nice guy named Jim asked for my first name and a bit about my problem. Jim then introduced me to Bill, who deals with music issues, and it was all very chummy. Bill got it all fixed up, very patiently and kindly. He didn’t even act like he wanted to call me “honey” or “dear,” and they never put me on hold.  You know how some people fret that Google is taking over the world? Even though I will miss having a surname, I say: How soon can we make this happen and how can I help expedite the process?

There Was a Truck?

ImageMy husband is such a sport that he will read young adult books that I push at him, although we don’t always come away with the same experience. Recently, he read the complex and painful Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (see review, below), and became most animated at the part where Ari gets a ’57 Chevy pickup truck for his birthday. A red one. David was most pleased for Ari and would be happy to see one of these land in our driveway some birthday. He also read Twilight and went to the movie with me (told you he was a sport), but he got very upset during the movie. We all did, I suppose, but while the rest of us were appalled by the cartoonish makeup and campy acting, David was outraged that they gave Bella the wrong truck. It was the wrong make, the wrong model, and the wrong year. I’m sure that the producers were betting—correctly—that not a single teenage girl in the audience would notice, but I had to ask Mr. ADHD to stop talking about it in the theater. He tried, he really did, but every time a new scene showed the pickup, David had to blurt out, as quietly as possible, “That. Is. The. Wrong. Truck!”

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

ImageIn 1987, no one was gay. Not openly, anyway. Coming out meant shunning, ridicule, bullying, and, perhaps, beatings. If a teenage boy became aware that he was not attracted to girls, he hid his feelings from everyone, perhaps including himself. What does it take to crack open the secrets we hide from ourselves?

Dante Quintana ran trustingly toward life, arms and heart wide open and vulnerable. He was the only child of his loving and demonstrative parents, and his father was the only professor of Mexican descent at the university in El Paso. He taught English literature. Dante wondered if it was possible to be authentically Mexican if he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was eager to read and discuss everything.

Aristotle Mendoza lived his life inside himself as much as possible. His father suffered from PTSD after his time in Vietnam, and he and Aristotle both experienced recurring nightmares. Ari’s much-older brother was in prison, and no one would tell him why. Ari had been four years old at the time and had been sent away while the turmoil was going on. Now, Ari nurtured a smoldering anger against his parents for keeping him in the dark about the brother he had idolized, and he buttoned all of his feelings inside so tightly that they burst out in his dreams.

The summer they were fifteen, these very different boys met at the public pool. Dante suspected that Ari couldn’t swim, and he offered to teach him. Thus began a complex and evolving relationship that we follow for the next few critical years of the two young men’s lives. We experience the story through Ari’s perspective, except for the letters that Dante writes when they are apart for a year. Ari is much more in tune with his Mexican heritage, loves wearing the same Carlos Santana t-shirt day after day, asks for a ’57 Chevy pickup for his birthday and teases his mother that he will put low-rider hydraulics on it. He threatens his parents that he will join a gang, since, he says, that’s what Mexican boys do. Dante is like a whole new universe for him. Dante uses words Ari’s never heard before, like “inscrutable,” and he insists that Ari read great books and talk about them. One day, a group of boys shoot a bird for fun, and Dante is devastated. Ari— who has never walked away from a fight and is perfectly happy to get one started— is ready to flatten all of the boys, but Dante is shocked by Ari’s willingness to fight and his total lack of fear. Ari cannot admit to himself that his desire to defend Dante is anything more than friendship.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz gathered up all kinds of awards for this painful and beautiful young adult novel at January’s ALA Children’s Media Awards ceremonies. Besides a Printz Honor medal, it also won the Stonewall Award for the best LGBT book of the year, the Pura Belpré award for best work affirming the Latino culture, and was a Top Ten choice for the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best Fiction for Young Adults list. My only regret is that all the medals cover up the appealing and meaningful artwork on the cover. If you haven’t read a young adult novel since The Outsiders, you are missing some incredible writing, and this is certainly among the best. The structure of the novel, spanning several years as it does, keeps the reader interested as the boys move through adolescence, unfolding slowly but with major events marking each new phase in their lives. Every sentence is finely crafted, and I went back and re-read many passages just to savor the language again. The characters do speak in a realistic, everyday manner, but Sáenz makes every word significant.

This is a jewel of a novel, and although it deals with controversial issues, I highly recommend Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe for older teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. My opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Homesteading as a Spectator Sport

Over the years, David and I have collected an impressive array of homesteading books with titles like Build Your Own Castle with Materials You Find in the Woods and Getting Off the Grid by Using Bodily Waste for Fuel. We subscribed to The Mother Earth News for years and have wept and cheered our way through videos of Joel Salatin. You’d think that by now we’d live in a log cabin we built by hand and have a roof covered with solar panels. In actuality, we live in a typical tract house built by a bankrupt contractor and send an indecent portion of my paycheck to Progress Energy every month.

We are, however, ardent supporters of other people who homestead and try to enable them in any way our meager funds will allow, from buying their books to buying their eggs. Plus, we still read about homesteading, because we like to pretend that we will do this someday.

With that in mind, I patiently waited for my library copy of The Weekend Homesteader: A Twelve-Month Guide to Self-Sufficiency, by Anna Hess, since pretend homesteading two days a week seemed doable. This colorful, shiny paperback is divided up by the months of the year in the northern hemisphere, with the corresponding months “down under” in each chapter. Ms. Hess has truly packed a great deal of information into this volume, from finding a home site to composting, beekeeping, canning, and everything in between.  She includes lovely, helpful pictures, charts, graphs, and a guide to how long each project will take and how much it will cost, so that you can bite off just as much as you think you can chew for a weekend. Whether you want to keep chickens or build your own fuel system, it’s all here.

This little tidbit in the beginning grabbed me, though. At the end of her introduction, Hess has a text box that asks the question: “What is homesteading?” Here’s part of her answer: “To folks over the age of fifty, I usually describe homesteading this way: ‘Remember the back-to-the-land movement of the sixties and seventies? Homesteading is the same thing… without the drugs and free love.’” Oh, thanks. I wouldn’t know that because I’ve been unconscious since the seventies, probably as a result of the drugs. According to Wikipedia (and you know they never lie), the term “homesteading” was first used in America in 1862. Even I was not alive then! Seriously, we’ve used this term since we were married in 1980.

Once you pass the half-century mark, it suddenly becomes clear that you only have one life to live, and it’s the one where you go to work so that you can keep living inside your house. Hopefully, you will love your work, as I do, but it does take up a lot of your time. Furthermore, you realize that some of those goals you had are things that you really wanted to have done by your other self. The perfect one. The one who eats organic all the time, meditates daily, works out enviably, and has a dozen or so very close friends who come over every week to sip wine in your lush backyard and carry on scintillating conversations. That one.

In reality, I am never going to be a homesteader for two major reasons:

1)      I am way too lazy. Homesteading requires getting up early every day, especially if you have a rooster. You don’t have to have a rooster to get eggs, but the hens do lay better if one is around. However, we won’t get into such racy topics here. Furthermore, you may have noticed that homesteaders are really into shovels and sweating. I am into sofas and sitting. I love nature very much, but in a more observational role, as in, “Oh, look! A Rufous-sided Towhee!” I don’t have to go outside and try to touch it; I have binoculars, much to my neighbors’ concern. In addition, animals have to be cared for all the time! If you have anything that needs milking, you have to do this twice a day every day. No vacations, no sleeping in. Who can keep up with such a schedule? But I must confess another reason to avoid homesteading.

2)      I am afraid of pretty much everything living. For example, I really love dogs, but I am afraid of big dogs. My mother tells me that I was badly bitten by our neighbor’s cocker spaniel when I was two years old, so that may explain it. But have you ever seen a cow or a horse up close? They’re so decorative in a pasture when I’m driving by, but at a foot away, they are gigantic, with hard hooves and big teeth! I am even afraid of chickens, especially the aforementioned alarm-clock roosters. They will peck a chunk out of your ankle just for meanness. When we lived in Georgia, we had some friends who were actual, not-pretend-type homesteaders, and they kept a flock of chickens in the backyard. They homeschooled, as we did, and one day the mom called me up and offered us a dissection field experience. It seems that her rooster had pecked her once too often, “and now he’s in the freezer,” she said. After the lab experiment, his next appearance involved dumplings. I am just not that tough, but I’m so glad she was.

So will I keep on reading homesteading books? Oh, yes; I enjoy fantasy literature. When I’m out digging around in my (organic!) vegetable boxes, I can have that virtuous feeling that I’m doing my little part to get back to the land, get closer to God, save the planet, and feed my little family healthy food. And then I’ll come in and download How to Disconnect Your Soul from the Internet and Reconnect to the Earth into my e-reader.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of Weekend Homesteader. My opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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We Went to Zoar

ImageYesterday, we made a six-hour round trip to the place where my body will someday lie until the end of time. Not that we were trying to get a jump on things.  Rather, we were attending David’s eldest brother’s 40th wedding anniversary party. It was held in Cheraw, where David grew up, in Zoar United Methodist Church, which David’s grandparents helped to build. Coming home to Raleigh, we were chock-full of emotions, ranging from “Everything there has my family’s name on it” to “How could we possibly be old enough to have a sibling celebrating a 40th anniversary?”

When David and I were first married, back in the Paleolithic Era, we lived within easy walking distance to this little brick church. It was the first non-Catholic church I had ever stepped into, although we attended the Catholic church in town. Zoar is out in the country, and David’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, ad infinitum, lived close by. Some of the stained glass windows are in honor  of all sorts of Teals and Campbells, David’s grandmother’s family name. There is a portrait of his aunt in one spot, with a plaque underneath citing all of her good deeds. David’s grandparents owned a prosperous family farm and peach packing plant, and all of his family members were key players in this busy little community.

David writes: “When I was a kid, Sunday afternoons were spent at my grandmother’s house ‘visiting.’ We’d have our Sunday dinner, then sit on the porch in warm weather or in the den in winter, waiting for friends and family to drop by, to visit.  Everyone knew to come to Mama Teal’s house, and so they did— to share the news of the day, or to tell and retell stories of the past.  ‘Big Bill’ Rivers was a great story-teller.  He could have the whole house howling in laughter from so many tales of family life back in the day.  Our family hasn’t ‘visited’ anyone in as long as I can remember.  No one has shared any of the great family stories of the past with my son.  He has no connection to Zoar, and may not have a connection to anywhere we’ve lived for that matter.”

ImageNow the only ones left are David’s brother and his wife. Charles and Janet are really good people, and anyone who stays married for forty years these days deserves to be honored. They have worked hard all their lives, raised two children, and are now enjoying six active grandchildren, none of whom live nearby. They are still working, and Charles is also the local volunteer fire chief. They socialize with people who were once classmates, and the church where their parents and grandparents worshipped is still a key part of their lives. Their ancestors’ graves are a short walk away.

This is how everyone used to live, isn’t it? When we read books— fiction and nonfiction— from earlier times, we see that it was shocking and traumatic for people to move away from their home town, especially since they may never have seen one another again. In the past few decades, though, it has become normal for Americans to move around, particularly to seek employment. As for me, I don’t even have a home town! I’m sure many people feel the same way.

When David and I were engaged, I thought that the whole rural, small town idea was romantic. You know, let’s get back to the land, and all that. It was 1980, remember; I grew up wearing peasant dresses and long hair. What a shock I must have been to them! Here was a native son marrying this then-Catholic girl, fresh from New Jersey, where I’d lived for ten years and had picked up some of the accent, I’m sure. Everyone was so nice to me, although perhaps tentative. I am truly blessed in my extended family.

Rural life, though, is not romantic. It is hard work that takes perseverance and a clear-sighted understanding of life. All ideas of romping through the meadow go out the window when the crops fail due to drought or the grocery store your grandfather founded closes up when Wal-Mart opens on the bypass. When you drive through the country now, it is so bleak. A family farm today often means that Tyson or Cuddy has put enormous, hideous chicken or turkey houses on your property, and most of the farmers have debts that they can never repay. The towns are taken over by fast-food restaurants and the old downtown areas are drying up. Children of farmers work in mills, often owned by overseas corporations, keeping the local population fairly close to minimum wage.

I asked David this morning why he moved away and whether he missed living in his home town. He said that, although he felt nostalgic seeing the old church, he had planned to move away even before we met. After he had graduated from college a couple of hours away and then traveled to Europe, he had different plans for his life, and he knew that as long as he lived in their small town he would always be his father’s son. Although his father was a very respectable man, he was a mechanic and a high school graduate. It did not matter that David had excelled in academics all through his education, he could never be more than a supervisor in a factory. He told me this morning that, one time when he was looking for a new job, the headhunter had told him about a position in Cheraw for which he was perfectly qualified, but David refused to even interview. He knew that he could not move back to a place where he would always be the youngest son of his father, being slipped into a slot that other people had made for him, one that didn’t fit him anymore.

ImageThere are always new people moving into small towns, and there always will be. But they won’t be the ones whose names are on the church pews or carved on the marble headstones. The children of once-proud families will find less and less reason to visit, until some librarian in the future will list the names in a book of the genealogy of the area, a gem for some local history buff. In the meantime, we can be comforted that this world is not our home, and that there actually will be an end of time someday.

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…. As it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:13-16.

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Southern Guys and Knives

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If you looked inside several of my kitchen drawers, you would find a wide assortment of very sharp knives. This has something to do with the fact that I am married to a Southern guy. I’m sure that if I looked into his two brothers’ kitchen drawers, I would find exactly the same thing. He also owns a few pocket knives, much treasured and kept very sharp. My son, although not as obsessive about it, also has a couple of pocket knives. I never have to struggle to open presents on Christmas morning, which is good, considering that David thinks it’s hilarious to tape them until they’re hermetically sealed.

I am not sure why we must take such exquisite care of our knives, but it is closely tied to a man’s honor and self-worth. Something to do with slaying the dragon or bringing home the big game, no doubt. Or, it could be that my husband wants to make sure that nothing keeps me from producing a fabulous meal.

ImageGood cooking doesn’t explain the pocket knives, though. At a time when most of the nation gets the vapors from a pair of nail scissors, Southern guys are still packin’ some hardware. Years ago, we lived in Kentucky and went to a very small church where we could let the kids run around outside between Sunday school and the church service. One of the women in the church—let’s call her Prunella—was from Ohio and had no desire to fit into the local culture. Prunie had five boys of her own and had decided to parent them and everyone else in the church very strictly. Since her kids were kept away from anything that a male child might want to do, they were fascinated by the sinful ways of other boys.

One Sunday, they heard that my son had received a new pocket knife, and they were panting to see it. When Prunella saw Michael holding a pocket knife in front of her boys, she rushed over, grabbed it away from him, and gave him a furious lecture about bringing weapons to church. She then dragged him over to his father, much to her sons’ glee, and proceeded to lecture David about his worthless parenting skills. My husband had been talking to a group of a half-dozen men or so, and when they finally understood that she was ranting about a pocket knife, they all looked at one another, reached into their pockets, and pulled out an assortment of blades. Prunella nearly fainted away. What followed was a typical male conversation, comparing the beauty of the Sunday-Go-to-Meetin’ knives with the ingenious gadgetry of the Swiss Army knives. I’ve always wondered why they have a corkscrew. Is it because there’s nothing like a refreshing glass of chardonnay when you’re out in the forest chopping up firewood?

ImageThere is also the knife paraphernalia. We are the proud owners of three or four sharpening systems. We have a plain whetstone for which my husband has created a wooden holder. Of course, there is a special oil for that. David’s brother also gave him a stand contraption, where you clamp the knife onto the holder and slide rods with increasingly fine whetstones across the edge. The only one I can actually use is the diamond file sharpener that we keep inside for quick, slight sharpening. Who knows? There could be others out in the garage that are used for sharpening tools and such. ImageWe inherited the lovely butcher block knife drawer that we had given David’s parents decades ago, although it only fits small knives, and David also has a few of his dad’s knives. Since we don’t want to be sliced to ribbons when reaching for the can opener, David has made a cardboard sheath for each knife, held together with shiny brown packing tape. So, I guess it’s more accurate to say that if you looked in my kitchen drawers, you’d see a bunch of cardboard and tape.

ImageNaturally, we find it difficult to use sub-par knives, so when we go on vacation, we take them with us. Seriously. When we were at the beach with my family last Thanksgiving, my mom opened one of the drawers, saw a knife in a cardboard sheath, and held it up, laughing. “Look!” she said. “Who does this remind you of?” Everybody said, “David.” When she looked confused because no one else was laughing, I said, “It is David’s. We brought our chef’s knife.” She was stunned, but I swear, none of the other knives would cut butter. I have become a knife snob.

Funny thing is, none of the Southern guys I know have ever thought of hurting a person with a knife. You might think that I only know peaceful, sensible people, but I beg to differ. I know a lot of people who are not the least bit sensible. For Southerners, as well as for rural people everywhere, it’s more of a symbol of competence and self-sufficiency. Whether he’s mending fences or getting his new cell phone charger out of that impossible plastic bubble, a man without a knife just ain’t no kinda man.

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