Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Down Tobacco Road

I wrote this a few years ago for a writing class. It's all true. The road has now been paved and cleared. There are nice houses built on the road now with swing sets and picnic tables in the yards. It doesn't seem the least bit frightening.

Dixon's Store, archives

 I can smell the beach house sometimes—the stale scent of heat and dust, suntan lotion, and Old Bay seasoning. I can feel the pain in my toes from stubbing them on the heavy furniture. When the weather is warm, clear and bright, it brings me back to the screened porch and the boundless view of the Bay, so wide at that point that we could see the eastern shore only on the clearest days. There I am on the upper floor, early in the morning, listening to the seagulls while lying in one of the old rusty metal beds. I feel the heat from the mysterious storage spaces under the eaves where there were boxes of sharks’ teeth we found at the water’s edge and arrowheads that my father had found in the tobacco fields as a boy. Black snakes shed their paper-thin skin in the dugout garage under the house near the old agitator washing machine with the roller wringer. The wind-up record player with only one record, “I’m a jaaaaaazzzzz baby.” The blue Shirley Temple glasses in the corner cupboard. Pouring vinegar on jellyfish stings. The old black tenant farmer who drove a horse-driven wagon down the road, shouting, “Cantaloupe . . . watermelon.” 
My grandfather on my father’s side built the beach house. He was an ice and coal man, at least until people got electric refrigerators and central heating. Even during the Great Depression people still needed ice and coal so he earned enough money to build a small house overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on an old tobacco plantation called Neeld Estate. My father grew up spending summers in the little house and his children did the same. We had no telephone, no television, no hot water. Then I thought it was dreadful, but in retrospect it was nearly perfect.
Despite the languid, idyllic summer days spent at the beach house, I am haunted by a menacing quality, a vulnerability that grew from the isolation and the solitude. The Neeld family still occupies the plantation house that has been there since before the Civil War. Growing up I heard a legend about a slave child who was thrown down the stairs and killed by the mistress of the plantation. It was said that the child’s ghost could be heard crying in the house at midnight. We avoided walking past the plantation house after dark, but one night, in my 15th summer, I had no choice.
My friend Anna had come to spend a few days at the beach house with my family. Early one evening Anna and I walked down the road to the beach where we ran into Ray and his friend. I knew Ray only slightly from past summers, but he had a car and made us an offer hard for any 15-year-old girls to refuse, “Want to ride with us to North Beach? I have to pick up something for my father.” Of course Anna and I wanted to go. We could ride in a car with boys and listen to the radio.
What Ray was getting was not for his father. He bought beer in North Beach and headed back, but he turned off the road into a gravel pit about four miles from home. He stopped the car. I was in the front seat with Ray. Anna was in the back seat with the friend. One of them said, “Put out or get out.” We had never “put out” before but we knew what they wanted. We got out and they drove away without a word.
We were barefoot, on a moonless night, in an area I scarcely knew. There were no houses nearby and we had no telephone in our beach house, so even if I had wanted to call my parents I couldn’t have. We considered our options. The quickest way home would have been to go across an inlet between Breezy Point and our beach. “I don’t know how deep it is,” I told Anna, “and I don’t know if we can climb those slimy jetty walls on the other side.” So we took off for the one-lane dirt road we called Tobacco Road. It was the major connector between Neeld Estate and the rest of the world, but it had never been paved. “But what if a car comes along? We won’t know who’s in it,” Anna whispered. So we decided that we should hide if a car approached. We feared what a stranger might do to two girls walking in the night on a secluded dirt road.
We walked in the darkness as fast as we could, hid when we needed to, and prayed Hail Marys aloud. At one point a car approached and we hid out of sight on the side of the road. But Anna slipped off the side into a ravine where people had been dumping trash. I screamed, “Anna! Anna! Annie, please answer me!” No response. She finally came crawling up, shaken, with her feet bleeding. We continued to walk in silence. When we reached the paved road, a dog belonging to a neighbor with the unlikely name of Mason Dixon came out of nowhere, barking and growling. I wet my pants. Finally, we reached the Bay. We just sat in the edge of the water and washed ourselves as best we could, then we walked home past the old plantation house. We didn’t hear the child’s ghost scream. Our own experience was horror enough.
             At the time, I didn't tell my parents what had happened, fearing I would be punished for going in a car with boys. Anna and I innocently went for a ride with boys we thought we knew. We could have been raped or died trying to get home, yet we thought we were at fault. Over 40 years have passed and I have lost contact with Anna. I don't even know if she remembers that summer night in our 15th year when our innocence started to slip away.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


One day last week I had a conversation with a friend who is struggling with feeling distant from God, feeling like the brokenness of her life is only moving her farther away from Him. She asked how I had coped with the losses I have suffered in recent years. Yes, I had felt that same distance, but in time I developed a closer relationship with God, not in spite of the pain but because of the pain. And I heard myself saying that I found something sacred in it.

The word “sacred” in relationship to human suffering sounds a bit out of whack. Was I being ultra-dramatic, spouting off a bit too much sanctimonious woo-woo?

It is absolutely true that my communion with God and my desire to continue to grow closer to Him would not be what it is today if I had not suffered some big, painful losses in my life. I have said it before and I’ll say it again—when life brought me to my knees, it was then that I realized that on my knees was where I needed to be. God did not cause the brokenness in this world. He didn’t point His finger at me and say, “Let’s see what I can dish out to her and let’s see how she’ll handle it.” No—wretched things happened that I could not control and that I will never understand on this side of heaven. After years of moaning and unending questions, I have stopped trying to analyze rationally all of that life junk. Ultimately it’s a big waste of energy. It’s like going into a maze that has no exit, because there are no answers that would make any sense to me now. It is not for me to know. I have pretty much accepted that life sucks sometimes. But the darkness, those wretched things, led me to a deeper and deeper reliance on the Lord.

We are not alone when in the wake of pain and loss we question God’s benevolence. Perhaps in our minds He becomes a maleficent overlord with whom we want no relationship. It happens to the best of us who call ourselves believers. In the abyss of grief after his wife died, even C.S. Lewis had his understanding of God shaken and he referred to God as “the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector”—tough words coming from the revered author of Mere Christianity. (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 38)

Pastor John Pavolvitz wrote about this on his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said: (

"There’s an oft-misused excerpt found in Scripture, where the author Paul writes:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:2

"This isn’t a heavenly insurance policy paid with faith and exempting us from anything unpleasant, but the promise that if we choose to respond to all things from a place of love and goodness, that we—not necessarily our circumstances—will be better for it.

"In this way, I believe in suffering as a sacred space."

Yes, he said it—suffering is a sacred place. For me it took much too long to get to that understanding, but thankfully God walked beside me through the whole ugly mess and I now rest assured that He will continue to be beside me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Beauty school dropout

Here in Virginia it’s Election Day for local elected offices. So I dutifully went to my local polling place to cast my vote. (I’m so grateful that this marks the end of the annoying robocalls—it has been strangely quiet in my house today.)

In front of the local high school where those in my precinct vote, I ran into a woman I used to know from PTA activities when my kids were in elementary school. She kept moving up from PTA president and is now chairman of the county school board. She introduced me to a young man who is her colleague on the school board. The colleague recently moved into my neighborhood, on my street, just a block away. As I drove home I thought it was such good luck to have a neighbor on the school board in case I ever need something done in the county school system.

But then it dawned on me—what would ever cause me to need help from a member of the county school board? My kids are grown and have moved many states away. However, there’s that recurrent nightmare of mine with varying details that has to do with my not graduating from high school. For example, after years of work in both graduate and undergraduate school, I dreamed that I couldn’t get my graduate degree because I flunked a quiz in Mr. Wojick’s geometry class. The graduate program required me to go back and finish high school, then repeat college and grad school. Nothing counted because of that one geometry quiz.

I have to confess that geometry was not my strongest subject. I got almost a perfect zero in one quiz—just one lousy correct answer that was pure luck caused me to get 5 percent. It has been over 50 years since I earned that 5 percent and it still haunts me. However, I must have great intuitive sense when it comes to geometry. We had to take some sort of standardized national geometry exam and I breezed through it with a high score. How could that be? I guessed. I just looked at the measurements—if side A was 18.5 inches and side B was 36 inches, then I guessed that proportionately side C looked like it should be 42 inches. I didn’t waste time doing those tedious Pythagorean things. (It shocks me to know that I just used the word Pythagorean in a sentence. Will wonders ever cease? Next thing you know I'll be swimming laps at the Y.)

Other than the geometry bugaboo, I have found myself trying to graduate wearing only a slip—my dog ate the cap and gown. Many times I have had night terrors about not being able to find my assigned classroom or I had forgotten to go to the class all year and it was time for the final exam. Or maybe that was real life. Hard to tell. Now I’m going to panic. I need to find my diploma to prove that I really am a high school graduate. I don’t think my influential neighbor can help me get my diploma. Not only did I go to high school outside of this county, outside of this state, but my high school went out of business many years ago. The only thing I have is a fading photograph. That’s not proof. Am I going to have to sign up to take a GED exam? Please tell me there’s no geometry on the exam.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Corrie ten Boom on forgiveness

This is not my writing, but the writing of a Dutch woman named Corrie ten Boom, who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home. Her account of forgiveness makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Excerpted from I'm Still Learning to Forgive.
"It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
"It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’
“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mars trans-fat detector

Could it be a mere coincidence that the world headquarters for the Mars candy company is directly across the street from my doctor’s office? Seems like a conspiracy to me.

Yesterday I was driving back from visiting my friend in Pennsylvania. While I was driving home I got a call and a voice mail message from my doctor. I ignored the call until I pulled up in front of my house. My doctor wanted to talk to me because the results of my cholesterol blood test that I had earlier in the week had come in. The results weren’t catastrophic, just not good. I was recently put on a statin drug yet the numbers had not come down as low as the doctor hoped they would. So she said I should address the issue with dietary vigilance.

She presumed that I ate a healthy diet (because I told her so) and that I just needed to make sure I cut out trans-fats, eat lots of veggies, and exercise regularly. Oh, yes, of course.

I really didn’t absorb much of what she said because I was beginning to panic, thinking that she had some sort of detection device that could tell her what was in my car. In my car at the very moment I was attesting to a healthy diet were the purchases I made in Pennsylvania. This included: (1) 600 pieces of Halloween candy purchased at the Walmart in Gettysburg; (2) doughnuts purchased at the Amish Market on the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and (3) a large bag of great bargains from the Utz potato chip factory outlet in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Some of these healthy items were consumed en route because there were annoying traffic issues. The worst was a Mack truck on the beltway, backing up to pick up the pieces of scrap metal that had fallen off the truck in the center lane of the beltway. This was only about a mile from my exit so I was tired and frustrated and my ill-perceived remedy was in the front seat of my car, just an arm’s reach from my mouth.

So as I spoke to my doctor, confectioners’ sugar and bbq potato chip shards in my lap and Heath bar wrappers on the floor, I knew that my rationalization would have been weak and she wouldn’t buy it.

I repent! I repent! So now I’m heading for the gym to bike until I collapse in a feeble attempt to atone for my transgressions.

But I still think that I might develop some sort of valid theory that the Mars company has poisoned those of us who live near their headquarters and they have plans to install trans-fat detectors in our cars. I'm doomed as doomed can be.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Brad and Ma

So I’m having a conversation with my mother this evening and the cheery issue of the hereditary aspect of breast cancer comes up. We are especially sensitive to information about heredity and breast cancer because my grandmother (my mother’s mother) died of breast cancer at the age of 49. I mention to my mother that some women with high genetic predisposition to breast cancer are having preventative mastectomies. For example, Angelina Jolie.

Mom: Angelina Jolie? Who is that?

Me: She’s the beautiful actress who is married to Brad Pitt.

Mom: Oh, I love that movie about the river.
Me: “A River Runs Through It”? Yes, I love that movie too. The book is even better. It’s actually a short story in a book. I have it and I’ll bring it to you so you can read it.
Mom: Oh, yes, the book is often better than the movie. Brad Pitt—he’s my boyfriend. I have no idea what he sees in that woman. She has such puffy lips.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

For this I have Jesus

Last week I was reading the story of a Rwandan woman who lost most of her family in her country’s genocide. Now she struggles to support local children who became orphans in the wake of the genocide. As expected, her work is difficult and she has few resources, yet she continues to cling to her faith. When asked how she perseveres, she responded, “For this I have Jesus.”

I love this simple phrase—for this I have Jesus—what an incredible thing to remember, to hang onto, for so many of life’s trials and triumphs. He is there, by my side, and whenever I need Him, I just need to ask for mercy or give thanks.

I am troubled when I learn that a friend has cancer? For this I have Jesus.

My grandson runs to sit on my lap in the cold Montana morning so I can share my blanket with him? For this I have Jesus.

My roof cracks under the weight of heavy ice and rain and I’m at my wits end trying to handle it? For this I have Jesus.

My brother gets murdered? For this I have Jesus.

My daughter tells me she is pregnant with twins? For this I have Jesus.

I’m sleepless with worry about finances and a million other worldly troubles? For this I have Jesus.

Every minute of every day, for every decision, every worry, every blessing in my life, I have one song to sing, one prayer. For this I have Jesus.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Badass and the child of God

A few days ago my friend Jeannie was here visiting and predictably she and I went to the biggest, grubbiest thrift store in the area. This store makes a big deal over Halloween—they have racks and racks of Halloween costumes and most of the employees are wearing masks and wigs or complete costumes. There is a pirate or a witch around every corner.

So I was digging through a rack of sweaters when I saw a mom coming down the aisle pushing a large baby stroller. The mom was a very cute, very hip young woman dressed in a short swingy skirt with tights and combat boots. The little one in the stroller appeared to be wearing some sort of monster mask—my assumption based on the fact that others in the store were wearing Halloween costumes. When they got closer I realized that there was no mask—the child had a grossly malformed face. I looked away, horrified that I could have said something amazingly stupid about the mask that wasn’t a mask.

My friend Jeannie was a couple of aisles away—when she saw the mom pushing the stroller, her initial impression was that it was not a human being in the stroller—an easy misassumption to make.

We both ran into the mom pushing the stroller several other times. The child may have been about 4 years old, just judging from her size—it was impossible to tell because her body was covered with a blanket. She was dressed in girly pink clothes with a bow in her hair. She had an extreme craniofacial abnormality—her skull was misshaped and asymmetrical, her nose was on one side of her face, and she had a huge lump in the center of her upper face. Bits of dark hair were growing around her forehead and down her face.

And the hip young woman we presumed to be her mom was continually talking to her, showing her pieces of clothing, saying, “What do you think? Do you like this?”

My eyes filled with tears. I was struck by the love, the nobility, the amazing courage of the mother. And I was struck by the humanity of the child with what appeared to be an unhuman face. I was horrified by my initial reaction—that I thought it was a grotesque mask—and humbled by the experience. For days it has stayed with me, and the thing that rises to the surface of my thoughts and feelings is that God’s love shines through all of it. God loves the child as much as any other child He has created. And God must have a special place in His heart for the courageous mom.

Today I had my yearly check-up with my orthodontist. He is on a team of medical specialists who works with children affected by craniofacial abnormalities. I told him the story and he said, “That mom is badass!”

I agree—the mom is badass and the little girl is a child of God. Bless both of them for their courage, for not hiding in shame, for carrying the nobility of their humanity for all to see.

There are no coincidences—my Bible study for yesterday was about this verse:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7

Monday, October 19, 2015

The cold

Just feeling the itch to do a writing exercise. I want to drift into the other side of my brain for a while.

So I pull a book from the shelf and see what happens. Combining a little reality with a prompt from fiction. The book—Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. On page 120, the sentence: “I can’t have my wife sleeping in the cold truck, not now. Not with the baby coming so soon.”

On my right foot: big toe pink, second toe white, third toe white, forth toe pink, pinky toe not pink but white. My left foot a different pattern of white and pink toes. Having once experienced frost bite, my feet are not fans of cold weather. But I wonder if this obsession with staying warm lies in something deeper, in another life at another time. I fill the bathtub with the hottest water I can tolerate. Steam fills the room and begins dripping down the walls, beneath the iron cross and the Guadalupe votives. Soaking in the bathtub, the room lit only by candlelight, I lift my arm out of the water and watch steam rise from my fingers and hands as I make steamy designs in the candlelight—figure eights and waves like a witch invoking black magic. When the steam dissipates, I put my arm back into the hot water and try new designs, new rhythms, anything to conjure up protection from the cold. On an exposed northwest corner, my bathroom is the coldest room in the house. The walls are cold to the touch and I imagine there is no insulation between the outside brick and the inside plaster. It was built at a time when energy was cheap. The leaves are only beginning to turn on the trees and hard winter is many weeks away. This is how I will live until spring returns, soaking in hot water until my skin erupts in itchy, rashy patches. I can’t sleep if I’m cold so I cook like a lobster and quickly slip into bed where the heat of my over-cooked body warms the cold sheets. Am I awake or am I drifting off to sleep? Startled, I sit up in bed, thinking I heard the voice of my long-dead father. “Papa?” I whisper. No response. I burrow down deeper under the blankets. And I begin to shiver. I hear his anxious voice as if from another room. “I can’t have my wife sleeping in the cold truck, not now. Not with the baby coming so soon.”

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Chicken pumpkin curry sliders

There was a minor mental work-up to the event. I made sure I gathered all the ingredients, put on my apron, and decided I would test a new recipe. What a joke! It took about 5 minutes to put the thing together and about 5 minutes to cook. I am now eating one of these (super delish) sliders while writing this post. I cooked, worked out the adaptation of a new recipe, and it is a success. Can I milk it a bit and say I slaved over the hot stove, blah, blah, blah? It’s so easy and so good—make it and thank me later. By the way, I have to point out that it’s also a paleo recipe. I think something is wrong with me and I'm entered an alternative universe where the person who seems to be me is cooking paleo. But the fact that my hands smell like curry powder is a blessing.

This is an adaptation of a recipe I found at the gym. The only notation I have for the source is PaleOMG. (The photo is mine.) Thanks for the inspiration, whoever you may be.

Chicken Pumpkin Curry Sliders

1 pound ground organic white meat chicken

¼ cup canned pumpkin puree

¾ cup almond flour

2 tablespoons curry powder (I used Penzey’s Maharaji Curry Powder)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 shallot, minced

½ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

2 tablespoons olive oil
Mix ground chicken, pumpkin, almond flour, curry, garlic, shallot, salt, and pepper. Mix well and form into balls (about the size of a lacrosse ball).
Heat olive oil in large sauté pan over medium-high heat.
When oil is heated, drop the chicken mixture balls into the pan. When the bottom of the balls begins to brown, flatten with a spatula, cook one minute, and flip. Cook second side for about 3 minutes.
It made 5 decent-sized sliders but I think you could make them either larger or smaller, depending on how you plan to use them. (One thought I had was to make them smaller and serve as an appetizer with some sort of chutney or another sauce.)