For various reasons, Slim is no longer legally registered to vote. This is unfortunate. He continues to be a highly informed citizen and an ardent supporter of our democratic process. As a dedicated student of history, he knows how crucial it is to explore the many sides of every issue. His advice for today’s voting public: seek out multiple reputable sources, read, listen and question. Think critically. Remember that life is complicated. Be wary of anyone claiming to have a really simple answer.
And never think that your one vote, or your voice, is unimportant!
I knew I needn’t worry that Slim would sleep through Halloween. When he awoke a short while later, he was refreshed from his attic nap and eager to make the final preparations for the evening. This year marked a return to long-established pre-covid traditions; our neighborhood trick-or-treaters would once again be ringing doorbells.
Slim was not about to forego one of his favorite annual customs: the celebratory Halloween joyride. This event had been much beloved by Kiko, even though he typically spent most of the ride in a deep snooze. Slim maintained, as he had last year, that it was a requisite to honoring his furry buddy’s memory.
And an excuse to buy more candy. Slim’s mantra in this respect echoes the Meatloaf song: “Too much is never enough!”
Plus, ever since his first time behind the wheel of his dad’s Model T, Slim has loved to drive.
Slim and the pack were back in plenty of time to tweak the orange and green house lighting and take their places. “The spooky hour approaches, gang,” he cried, “as do little feet.”
With a successful big night behind them, the friends are kicking back. Chilling for a bit, as Slim ponders the direction his artistic pursuits will lead him. I expect to have skeletons in the attic for the foreseeable future. We should all be so lucky.
When Slim desired an indoor spot to rest and ruminate, he sought out a window seat in our recently finished third level. He was surprised to see that our attic project had, in fact, been completed. This time last year, the initial demo and removal process had barely begun. He knows us. He’s aware of our inclination to put off and procrastinate. And he knew how much there was in the attic to be removed and/or re-situated: the enormous whole-house fan in the floor, bulky HVAC ducts, chimney supports, the cedar closet (the only semi-finished space), and loads and loads of old insulation. Not to mention the diverse accumulation of stuff the attic had housed.
“You astound me! I thought you’d still be waffling over first steps!,” Slim exclaimed. I noticed that he subtly directed these comments more to my husband than to me.
He and the pack quickly made their way to the front dormer. “The ideal look-out! From up here, we can keep watch on the property and the road. And how nice to have a floor that goes all the way to the window!”
Slim appreciated the exposed-beam aesthetic. “Looks like one of those medieval half-timbered manor house rooms you like so much. I didn’t realize this was what you had in mind!” This remark he directed squarely at me. As I said, he knows us.
I didn’t have that concept in mind. But fortuitously, and thanks to the patience, talent, and vision of our contractor, who happens to be a master craftsman, it turned out that way.
Slim loved the built-in art table that extends from a wall of vintage wood, both of which were conceived and created by that expert craftsman. I’d wanted an expansive work surface, suitable for painting and building my miniature houses. Because the large central duct would be difficult to relocate, our contractor suggested encasing it in wood and positioning the table above. He’d carefully saved the old planks that covered the attic’s limited floor space. He planed down each piece, preserving the original saw marks, and reassembled them, quilt-like, to make a support wall. Another of his clever ideas was a roomy pull-out storage compartment located at each end of the wall.
“I’m getting inspired, just sitting here!, ” Slim proclaimed, leafing through a book of paintings by John Constable. “In all my decades kicking around this big wide world, I haven’t tried my hand at art. Never too late, right?”
Slim’s thoughts continued. “Maybe I’ll do some painting. Or take up wood-working. I do love architecture, and I’ve sure seen most styles and epochs first-hand. ” Eyeing my dollhouses, he offered, “This room calls out for a miniature medieval manor house, doesn’t it?”
He’s right, of course. Looks like I’ve found a partner in craft.
“But first, a little reading,” pronounced Slim, as he headed toward the cane-backed sofa. “And perhaps just the slightest bit of restorative shut-eye. We creative types need our rest.”
May you, too, get some rest before a very happy Halloween!
Our dear family friend Slim awakened earlier this month, as is his habit, from his annual semi-hibernation. An ardent nature lover, he was delighted to greet the brilliant colors and balmy breezes of this alluring October. He spent his first few days wandering the garden and grounds, enjoying the unique botanical mix of summer and fall that has defined these recent days.
He and his pack of loyal pups lazed by the fountain on pleasantly mild afternoons, glorying in pumpkins, bumpy gourds, bright impatiens and fall foliage.
He congratulated my husband on his near-complete triumph over the stiltgrass in the lawn of the back courtyard.
He marveled at this fall’s striking abundance of black walnuts and acorns. While walking across our yard toward our neighbor’s house, Slim remarked that he was reminded of the ball pit at Chucky Cheese.
After soaking up such a bounty of October sunshine, he was grateful for the shade of the screened porch.
Slim accompanied me to our church’s Trunk or Treat, as he has for the past several years. Never at a loss for the encouraging word, he bantered wittily with every small superhero and Barbie who came along for candy.
Slim brushed away a tear as he spoke of expecting his good buddy Kiko to emerge from a playroom nap in his leisurely, sedate manner. “I sure do miss the old boy!,” he declared. “He wasn’t a big talker, but he had a quiet integrity that I so admired.”
As usual, Slim, with his discerning eye for character, hit the nail on the head.
It’s been a particularly beautiful October here in Northern Virginia. I’ve been hesitant to post about the loveliness of these autumn days, considering the turmoil that currently engulfs so much of the world. Two wars rage, hostages suffer, families worry and grieve, survivors dig through neighborhoods reduced to rubble, atrocities are committed, revenge is sought, God’s name is invoked with righteous fury by rival parties, not just in battle-torn areas, but also here in the U.S., where our legislature has recently seemed more intent on sabotaging government than on governing. Under these circumstances, is it being trite and insensitive to say, “But aren’t the fall colors pretty?”
They really are, though. And maybe, because of all the ugliness that churns and boils around us, it’s even more necessary to cherish and give thanks for beauty wherever we meet it. I’d find it hard to let the season pass without a tribute.
Here, then, are some images of fall in the DC suburbs.
Early morning light shines through the leaves of maples and pin oaks, setting the field aglow.
This large flamboyant maple is a local star this time of year.
Red berries stand out on the pods of an evergreen southern magnolia.
One of the few touches of bright fall color in our front yard is provided by a small sassafras tree.
The sassafras is unusual for the variation in leaf shapes found on a single tree.
Some sassafras leaves are simple ovals; others have two lobes, making for a mitten shape, and others are symmetrical, with three lobes.
A gloriously golden tree is this towering, majestic hickory, one of my favorites in the area. It makes me smile every time I drive past it.
I love the variety of color and texture in this grouping of trees.
The word “red” seems insufficient to describe these brilliant, jewel toned leaves. Vermilion? Scarlet?
Against a cloudy sky, late afternoon light gilds the maples and white pines in our side yard.
Fall occasionally gifts us with an unexpected delight. This azalea typically blooms only in the spring, and its past blossoms have been deep, solid pink. These October flowers of variegated color are an especially pleasant surprise.
Our pale pink trellis roses continue to bloom sporadically well into the fall.
The October days are dwindling fast, and Halloween approaches. May you have access to autumn beauty while it persists, and may it bring you moments of peace and joy.
A while ago, my friend Amy was immersed in the ongoing process of emptying out her childhood home and preparing it for sale. I’d struggled with years of anticipatory dread before having to face such a prospect, and I admired her matter-of-fact approach. (Interestingly, and as is usually the case, my experience turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had expected.) But I found myself batting away pangs of melancholy as I thought about what she was going through. Our families have grown close over the years, often spending Thanksgivings, and even the occasional vacation, together. I’ve written before about the special friendship that our daughters, who grew up together, continue to enjoy. We’ve gotten to know Amy’s parents, who are gracious and good-humored, like the rest of the family. Her father passed away in 2016, as did mine. Her mother was planning a move to assisted living. Even if Amy wasn’t particularly sad about saying goodbye to her girlhood home and all its contents, lovingly gathered in over the decades, I found myself feeling sad for her.
One item with an uncertain future was a dollhouse that her mother had built, decorated and painted in the 80s. Since then, it had sat, largely untouched, on a table in an upstairs bedroom. Would I be interested?
She doesn’t want it? I asked, knowing full well the answer. I could hear her mom chuckling at the ridiculous suggestion of carting a dollhouse along to her more limited quarters in assisted living. Like her daughter, she steers clear of sentimentality.
I do not, at least in cases like this. Given an easy opportunity to save a once-beloved home, whether full-size or miniature, my instinct is to say yes. Of course I wanted the house.
I had never been inside Amy’s girlhood home, but the pretty bedroom with the dollhouse prominently displayed was instantly familiar. Decorated in shades of pale blue and white, a trellis-patterned paper covered the walls. At the windows were floor-length floral draperies, expertly sewn by her mother. The furniture was graceful white wicker. I grew up with rooms like this. I spent sleep-overs with friends in rooms like this.
The blue palette of the dollhouse perfectly matched that of the bedroom. The house is larger than any I’ve made. I recognized it as the Magnolia kit from Greenleaf Dollhouses, described as a “classic country farmhouse.” I had expected to be impressed, and I was. Amy and her mother are talented in a wide range of endeavors, practical, artistic, and everything in between. Only a confident crafts person would take on as sizable and complicated a miniature house as this in a first attempt. It was one that I might have worked up to, eventually. But now, I didn’t have to. I could simply welcome the ambitious creation into my collection.
I could also happily receive its extensive and charming furnishings. Amy’s mother was nothing if not attentive to detail. She outfitted every room and hallway thoroughly, with thoughtful touches that make the difference between house and home. She painstakingly painted and papered the walls and ceilings, stained the floors, staircase and doors. She made curtains for many of the windows. There’s a wealth of delightful little objects: books, newspapers, potted plants, framed artwork, lamps, candlesticks, and ornate rugs. In the upstairs bedroom, a fancy hat rests on a stand, and a pair of dainty lady’s slippers lies beside the bed. The effect throughout is cozy, warm and inviting.
The house was in great shape, requiring only a few minor repairs. I re-glued some parts that had popped apart during forty-odd years of existence. I touched up some of the white paint, but I didn’t change the blues of the exterior, which are still fresh and clean. I love the tiny brass lights, the working French doors on the upstairs porches, and the little window boxes filled with bright red geraniums.
On the front exterior, I painted a pair of terracotta pots filled with impatiens, and some climbing roses. I added more variety to the colors of the brick foundation and chimney. I painted the shingled roof dark green, and added a white roof crest. A cheery touch that needed no refurbishment is the white chimney trellis covered with miniature silk flowers.
On the front porch, the white sofa and table remain exactly where Amy’s mom placed them, as does the blue metal mailbox, painted with the message “Welcome Friends.”
The Magnolia Farmhouse has a new place of honor next door at my mother’s. It fits in well. Nothing in that spare bedroom is new; every item has a long and winding history. Most have been enjoyed by multiple generations. The painted yellow furniture, which dates from the 1920s, was originally in my father’s childhood home in eastern Kentucky. There are dolls and stuffed animals–my mother’s, mine, and my daughter’s, and Mama’s Pretty Maid toy oven, ca. 1940. There’s a red rocking chair that was my daughter’s favorite seat at age three. There’s a tall thin chest devoted to my mother’s multitude of sewing notions. Framed prints from the 1960s were rescued from a trash bin in a church Sunday School closet. The room has become a compact museum of pleasant family memories. How appropriate that it’s now home to the miniature house so carefully assembled by Amy’s mom. Its presence reminds me of the many ways that the lives of our two families are intertwined. As I’ve learned, friends are the family that we choose.
If there’s a little house in your life that needs a loving second home, let me know. I bet I can make room.
In my last post, I wrote about the industrious squirrels that have planted a lovely crop of sunflowers in our back yard. Unfortunately, most of the other plants that pop up, unbidden, untouched by human hands, are not as welcome. As the typical suburbanite knows, a dizzying number and variety of weeds grow smarter and more determined with every passing year. My husband, for example, is currently waging war against his leggy green nemesis, stiltgrass, which seeks to take over the lawn.
But there is one self-seeding flower that I’m always happy to see: the petunia.
I’ve known a few rather snooty gardeners who look down their noses at the petunia. They consider the flower to be too compliant, and therefore expected and ordinary. I’ve never felt that way. In the deep shade of old oaks and tulip poplars surrounding my childhood home in Atlanta, no sun-loving flowers ever lasted long. We tried repeatedly, but without success. I was elated to be able to grow mounds of bright, hearty petunias here in Virginia, on and around our sun-drenched back patio. They’re perfect in the big pots atop the brick pillars along the fence line. They bloom quickly and continuously, well into the fall, needing only light and fairly regular watering. I especially love this Queen of Hearts variety, above. With its red hearts separated by yellow ribbons, it pairs beautifully with a smaller red variety.
The petunias have been busy this season. They tend to choose appropriate and charming spots for self-planting. Last year I’d positioned a large clay bowl of the flowers atop the stepping stone by a gate. I used it for other plants this year, in a different location. But by June, petunias began sprouting up around the stone, never mind the thin, mulched soil. The seeds from the previous year’s spent flowers simply plant themselves, I’ve learned. And now, without any planning or care on my part, they’re flourishing.
And yes, the squirrels planted two sunflowers among the petunias. (Trying to emulate the practice of our small furry friends, I buried a number of sunflower seeds in July. None of those sprouted.)
If there’s a little room to spare, a petunia or two may move in. Easy-going, if uninvited guests, they’ll adapt to most any accommodation. This bright red petunia made herself at home with a spiky-stemmed Crown of Thorns plant, which bears small, similarly colored blooms.
Petunias are well-equipped for a challenge. Deep within each flower are those tiny seeds, seeds of hope. They’re the promise of new life that lies ahead, even when all might seem lost. The little plant above sprouted from seeds that searched out a smidgen of soil in the grout of our bluestone patio. It’s been sending forth a regular succession of fuchsia and white blossoms since July. When I’m tempted to see the world as a swirling mess of meanness, chaos and confusion, I try to think of this humble yet persistent patio petunia. Even in an inhospitable environment akin to bare, unyielding stone, seeds of hope are constantly being planted. I’ll try to look for the seeds, recognize the sprouts, and do my best to nourish them. Pay attention to the petunia. Like the sunflower, it offers powerful life lessons!
If I had no other demands on my time, I could spend an hour or so every day weeding the mulched beds in our back yard around the roses and nandina. Removing the countless maple seedlings alone would keep me occupied. A few years ago, I began noticing some small green shoots that I hadn’t seen before. At first I uprooted them. When one escaped my eye and quickly threw forth lush, fuzzy green leaves, I let it grow. Before long, an interesting bud had formed.
Cradled snugly in the center of a group of emphatically veined leaves, it looked like a small, spiky star.
The bud grew larger, a beautiful thing in itself. Covered by bristly, sharply pointed mini-leaves, it resembled a small artichoke.
Soon, the spiky leaves opened to reveal a sphere covered by yellow petals, their ends gently tucked together at the center. And then I realized: this was a sunflower.
Of course. We’ve made our yard into a haven for birds and squirrels, with multiple feeders, water sources and plenty of scattered seed. We often watch as a squirrel takes a single sunflower seed and buries it, using pointy little fingers to pat down the earth, carefully and thoroughly. According to my husband, this behavior is definitive evidence that I’m providing too much seed. Maybe. But maybe the squirrels simply take pleasure in gardening. They’ve planted pumpkins and acorn squash for us in the past, as well as a flourishing pin oak tree.
Over the past several years, the squirrel-planted sunflowers have become more plentiful, and larger. Each day brings new developments. The bright yellow petals unfold in sections, so that the flower calls to mind a child playing peek-a-boo. The stalks grow taller, thicker and stronger, the leaves bigger.
Apparently I had never examined a live sunflower. I worked from photos when I painted a field of sunflowers not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the late winter of 2022. I hadn’t noticed the distinctive spiral design at the flower’s center. How had I managed to live this long and yet miss such intricate floral majesty? The awesomeness of life’s little miracles continues to amaze me. (And, in a related note–that old Spirograph set I enjoyed as a kid–is it still on the basement shelves among the games? )
I wanted to learn more about these botanical beauties gifted to us by generous squirrel farmers. A sunflower, I know now, is a well-organized community of hundreds of smaller flowers, or florets. What I’ve always thought of as petals are, in fact, individual flowers, or ray florets. Their sunny flamboyance serves to attract pollinators to the many tiny disc florets that compose the center. The disc florets begin opening around the outer periphery, so that the inner spiral is surrounded by a shaggy, deep golden fringe. Each of these florets is a perfect, five-lobed tubular bloom, rather like a lily, sized for a fairy. They will, in time, grow into seeds.
It’s rare to find a sunflower not hosting a pollinator, or two. They’re favorites of these elegant swallow-tail butterflies. In the photo above, I see two friends deep in conversation, as the flower bows its head slightly to greet and accommodate the butterfly.
Carpenter and bumble bees are never far away. They often nestle in and immerse themselves in the luxurious pollen offered by the rounds of disc florets.
Sunflowers are heliotropic: they orient their faces toward the sun. The flowers turn subtly from east to west with the motion of the sun across the sky, and back to the east in the evening to await the coming dawn. Greater sun exposure yields better growth. The sun-following motion occurs in younger flowers. Older ones, heavy-laden with incipient seed, remain east-facing in order to attract more pollinators. In the photo above, the three flowers remind me of medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the Three Ages of Man. There’s an early bloom, the small child, bursting with pent-up potential. There’s a fully developed blossom, the young adult in her golden, cheerful prime. And then there’s the older flower, an expression of seasoned maturity and a life well-lived. Its large brown seed head teems with successfully pollinated disc florets. Its yellow ray florets may be bedraggled, but that just means they’ve served their purpose.
I’m glad the sunflowers caught my attention and gave me pause. Nature’s everyday masterpieces rarely fail to brighten my day. But that’s not all. When I take the time to look, and to listen, they speak to me of something far greater. Of the marvel of ongoing creation, powered by an all-encompassing presence. A benevolent presence, both immanent and transcendent, defying words and pushing the limits of thought. If I’m quiet, I might sense the whisper of the breath of God that inhabits and flows through everything. Through the sunflower, from squirrel-planted seed, to shoot, to stalk, to flower, and back to seed. Through me. And through you.
We humans could do worse than follow the example of the sunflower. If we seek the light, we’ll have life, and have it more abundantly.
One of the things I like most about living in Northern Virginia is experiencing the change of seasons. I enjoy looking out for the many small signs that herald the end of one season and the beginning of another. This year, as usual, I was paying attention as spring yielded to summer. And certainly, it feels like summer, with the heat and humidity expected during a DC-area July. Most afternoons, a storm threatens, typically with lots of bluster and thundery build-up. Sometimes a pounding, torrential rain follows, or maybe it’s just a few sprinkles. Considerable drama, either way. That’s summer, with moods that are shifting and short-lived, rather like those of a fiery teenager with no homework and time on her hands.
Summer is here, without a doubt. But for me, something is off. I’d like to blame it on my broken thumb. Maybe my sense of timing is out of whack because of the injury? During those two months with a cast, followed by a splint, most tasks required twice as much time to complete; that’s true. But it can’t explain my occasional tendency to suddenly forget what season we’re in. It’s more like I’m waiting for some special signifying cue that tells me: Now this is Summer.
A part of me, I think, is waiting for my own fiery teenager, or elementary schooler, or Kindergartner, or preschooler, to finish her classes for the year and be here, at home, on summer break. It’s similar to the way I felt in mid-December. How could the “Holiday Season” have been upon us without our girl home for the holidays? And how can it really be summer without her here?
I’m not complaining. I’m grateful that our daughter has found a career that she enjoys; it’s why my husband and I encouraged her to work hard throughout her many years of schooling. And we count ourselves fortunate that she lives nearby in Maryland. Right now, she’s on a work trip, in Tacoma, Washington. She flew there immediately after returning from Scotland and England with friends. She’s making her own choices, living her life, and we celebrate that.
My husband and I have not been especially clingy parents. We made a conscious effort not to shelter our daughter, or to keep her to ourselves. Growing up as an only child, my small family warmly welcomed others, and we tried to do the same. We encouraged D to forge strong friendships, yet to be unafraid to claim her independence at times. She was among the few students to attend her college orientation on her own. H and I were skeptical of the University’s entreaty, earnest and emphatic, for parental attendance at orientation. Seemed too much like a marketing ploy. D said later that she felt a bit awkward when she sat beside someone else’s mother on the shuttle bus from the parking lot, but other than that, our absence didn’t bother her. When we dropped her off at UVA that first August, (and yes, we helped move her in) we left teary-eyed. We didn’t expect to see her for quite a while, and that thought made us sad, but we tried to keep it to ourselves. We visited her on grounds only rarely, and we didn’t push her to come home on weekends. I have friends who headed to Charlottesville for most home football games and the accompanying all-day festivities. Not us. H, especially, was concerned about interfering with D’s engineering studies. When his sister, her husband and their little boys drove down from Rochester to spend an Easter weekend with us, we didn’t tell our daughter. She’d already said she had too much work to do, and wouldn’t be home for Easter. We took her at her word. She was upset with us. And then the pandemic prevented our visiting during most of her final two years at UVA (with the exception of her graduation, which we happily attended).
All this may make us sound like cold, unfeeling parents. We are not. If we were, I wouldn’t be walking around in the July heat, wondering when summer will begin.
I’m not bemoaning the loneliness of an empty nest. But neither am I unmindful of and unmoved by our daughter’s absence. Images of summers past, when she was with us, are never far away in my mind’s eye. I have sudden flashes of leisurely breakfasts with her on the screened porch. I see her jumping into the blow-up wading pool first thing on a summer morning, in her nightgown. I see D and her friends dashing through the sprinkler spray in the front yard. I see her happily cuddling our young dog. Those were summer days that felt like summer. I miss them. But I have them with me, too. And always, I will count them among life’s treasures.