Category Archives: Friendship

In Provincetown: The Heart of Commercial Street

Even though I’m glad to feel the September chill in the air, I find myself looking back fondly on August, to our time at the Cape.  Perhaps because the school year has begun, bringing its steady stream of routine duties and a deluge of paperwork, the echoes of those last lazy days of summer are especially sweet right now.

The appeal of our quiet little cottage complex in Truro is heightened by its location next door to bustling Provincetown, shoehorned into the narrow tip of the outer Cape.  It’s a tiny town with an expansive, generous spirit, urban flair, and an edgy sense of humor.  Eccentrics of all stripes, as well as tourists from the heartland, find a warm welcome in P-Town, where ecumenical diversity flourishes.

The central section of Commercial Street, the narrow main artery, is one long party during beach season, when it’s crowded with pedestrians and vehicles.  In Provincetown, the architecture is historic and charming, the street musicians are inventive and mostly talented, the food is excellent, offerings of art, musical theatre and comedy are vast and easily accessible, the drag queens are witty, the world’s most expressive T-shirts are available, and bay breezes blow.  It truly has something for everyone.


Above, the busy heart of Commercial Street, catching the ever-present Cape Cab in transit.  Its sister vehicles include two wildly painted mini-limos known as the Funk Buses, which offer on-the-road karaoke.  Provincetown is no place for a sensible Lincoln Town Car.


Another view of Commercial Street, above. The umbrella-shaded outdoor dining area at Patio is an ideal spot for people and dog watching.   Provincetown is an enthusiastically pet-friendly town, despite the notable absence of any dogs in this photo.  I counted thirty dogs in one hour last year during dinner at Patio.  Most were on leashes, others were pushed in strollers or carried in handbags.  There was even one puppy in some sort of dog-Snugli.  Because our place in Truro doesn’t allow pets, we can’t bring Kiko, but we almost always see at least one Shiba Inu.   My hope is that someday, somehow, he’ll be able to accompany us.  I like to think he has an artistic sensibility and would feel completely at home here.


Provincetown, fiercely protective of its unique quirkiness, is resistant to national chains. You won’t find a McDonald’s, a Rite Aid, or a CVS.  No Starbucks, no T.G.I. Friday’s, no Applebee’s.  No Burger King, although, there is, appropriately, a Burger Queen. The Little Red, above, is a friendly, well-stocked convenience store, housed in what appears to be a brightly painted Victorian playhouse. 


Like many buildings in densely populated Provincetown, this gray turreted house, which could easily feature in an Addams Family film,  has commercial space below and living space above.  The towers of the Pilgrim Monument and the Unitarian Church peek out from behind.


A living statue often occupies a prime spot in front of the Town Hall. Above, during the summer of 2010, Cady Vishniac posed regularly as a bronze figure of a Depression-era hobo. Richard Mason, inspired by Provincetown’s World War I Memorial statue nearby, occupied the corner in 2011, in the guise of a WWI soldier.


Above, the sun sets on the Lobster Pot and the Governor Bradford bar and restaurant across the street.  I’ve tasted nothing better, ever, I believe, than the pan-roasted lobster at the Lobster Pot.  If you think lobster is lobster, and cannot be improved upon, this will change your mind.  The Pot is always packed, but it’s worth the wait.  Get your lobster buzzer and wander through the nearby shops.

The yellow banner for Mary Poppers prompts me to note that this year, at last, we had a John Waters sighting.  The director and author makes his summer residence in P-Town.   I’ve never seen him riding his bike down Commercial Street, as many have, but we spotted him, unmistakable in his pencil-thin moustache, walking with friends on Bradford Street.  They were heading toward the Provincetown Theatre to see the popular Mary Poppins parody.


The haunting neon glow of The Lobster Pot, a beacon for hungry tourists and locals.

Look for another P-Town post to follow soon: Serenity on Commercial Street.

A Happy First Birthday to Wild Trumpet Vine


Just about a year ago, Wild Trumpet Vine was launched.  My husband helped me set up the domain and get started.  Without my Chief Technology Officer, I could not have entered the blogosphere, and I owe him thanks.

That first night, in a fit of inspiration, I composed the following two elegant sentences:

Welcome to my blog.  Please check back soon for new entries.

Since I was a kid, I’ve dabbled at writing, in fits and starts, rarely to satisfactory completion.  As I’ve said before, I’m a saver, an archivist of minutiae.  Boxes of messy, scribbled-over, food-stained pages document countless abandoned writing projects.  These fall into several phases, including the Smith-Corona period from high school and college, the IBM Selectric era (when my mother’s office upgraded, we purchased her old typewriter), and the Mac Plus/dot matrix printer years during grad school.  (When I bought my first PC, which had a screen somewhat smaller than the original Kindle, the Internet was hardly more than a vague, crackpot notion.)

Most of my writing, in addition to being fragmentary and unfinished, remains unread, except very briefly, by me. There is the exception, I hope, of the many letters to friends and family.  I turned these out at a particularly quick pace during my first job at the High Museum of Art.  I was a fast typist (this was my only real marketable skill), and after transcribing my boss’s letters, there was usually time to pursue my own voluminous correspondence.  I was in my twenties, my social life was active, and dear friends were newly scattered across the country.  Those were the days when I had much of consequence to report, and much on which to comment.  My letters were a substitute for the immediacy and intimacy of college life, together with friends, face-to-face, every day.

I almost forgot: there is one real writing project I did complete: my Ph.D. dissertation in art history, which is 345 pages long, accompanied by 150 pages of appendices and 289 photographs. It includes every obscure scintilla of information anyone could ever care to learn about a group of 14th-century English Apocalypse manuscripts. Most people, of course, are perfectly happy knowing absolutely nothing about these books. My tour de force was read by at least five people, my advisers. I’m sure of this because they scrutinized and questioned nearly every word during the four long years it took me to write it. My mother claims that she also read it. Now, impressively bound, the three volumes lead a life of quiet retirement on the bookshelves of our family room.

Other than my foray into medieval manuscript illumination, what I’ve always written about is daily life, and Wild Trumpet Vine continues along this course.  I learned decades ago that I have neither the imagination nor the inclination to write fiction. Even today, in sedate suburban middle age, I am impressed by the richness that day-to-day living throws my way. I marvel at life’s quirks, its absurd, unexpected turns, its unbelievable coincidences, its oddities and its unpredictable moments of intense sweetness, when meaning is glimpsed in the midst of nonsense, and love triumphs over cruelty.

Wild Trumpet Vine is, in some sense, a more efficient version of my letter-writing.  It refreshes existing links of friendship and family.  Because I have many more years under my belt, my friends are more numerous, and far more scattered, than ever. With marriage, my family network has expanded considerably.  I used to be an only child, now I have multiple brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.  The blog has worked to strengthen long-standing family ties, as well.  Growing up, I knew many cousins only in name.  Now, building on the bonds of kinship and the power of shared memories, we’re  enjoying the blessing of friendship.

My little blog has a further advantage over letter writing:  it encourages a wider, stronger web of connectedness. When new acquaintances, or friends of friends, are  moved to comment, it is typically to say I know what you mean!  I feel the same way!  Their feedback emphasizes the depths of our common experience.  Differences of culture and background–the details that may separate us–tend to fade away as the light of our humanity shines through.

To all those who join me, either regularly or occasionally, at Wild Trumpet Vine, I thank you.  Your comments are always welcome–you needn’t agree with me to respond.  Stick with me as we continue the journey.


Out of the Blue: A Prayer for 9/11


The weather is beautiful today here in northern Virginia.  The sky is clear and blue, the sun is bright, and the crisp, fresh promise of fall is in the air.  Eleven years ago, September 11 began just as gloriously.  We had no idea what was coming.

This morning, as I typically do on every September 11 since 2002, I find myself keeping an eye on the clock as 8:46 approaches.  Anything I might say about my memory of that day runs the risk of sounding trite or self-important, so I won’t attempt it.  All I can do is offer my prayer, in hopes that its power will be magnified as it joins and rises with the great cloud of kindred prayers around it.

On this September 11, I ask for God’s blessings on all those whose lives were irrevocably and tragically altered on that terrible day.  For the thousands who died, and for the many more loved ones who grieve for them.  For the children who grew up without a parent, for the spouses whose partners never returned, for the grandparents who became parents to their lost children’s children.  For those whose pain still pierces, and for those who suffer guilt because some healing has taken place, because cherished memories have dimmed.

I give thanks for the many heroes who sacrificed their lives or endangered their health on that day to save strangers.  For the firefighters, police and rescue workers who bravely answered the call to duty.  For unlikely individuals, like the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who rose to the daunting challenge.

I give thanks for the unity we feel as a nation each year on September 11.  I pray that it might outlast this one day.  In the poisonous political atmosphere of this election year, may it inspire us to set aside our bitterness, for a while, at least, so that we might work together.

And, most of all, I thank God for the good that always comes from bad, even if, in our sorrow and anger, we may not see it until months or years later.

May we be especially receptive to the vitality of God’s blessings on this September 11.  I pray that we will feel God’s mercy and love descending on us all, from out of the blue.

The lower Manhattan skyline seen from Liberty State Park, NJ on August 19, 1991.

Our Summer Village on the Cape


This year, H’s sister and her husband brought their three-month old baby to Cape Cod. We were not so brave. We waited until our daughter was two and a half. The year before, we had attempted our first family beach trip, to the Outer Banks, just the three of us. While it was a joy to experience the sun and sand from D’s fresh perspective, it was not a vacation. The demands of our beautiful child, limitless as always in those early years, were more difficult to satisfy, being away from home. We were simply caregivers in an alien setting, and there was minimal opportunity for relaxation or enjoyment. When D was awake in the hotel, which was most of the time, H worried she would awaken or annoy our neighbors.  On the rare occasions when she finally succumbed to sleep, these same neighbors typically awakened her and annoyed me. There was great collective frustration all around.

That trip made me reassess the Cape Cod complex that H’s family has visited for over thirty years.  Some cottages are covered in white clapboard, others in weathered cedar shakes.  All are small but charming.  They cluster, like the homes of a compact village, around two spacious central greens and a pool. It’s timeless, quintessential Old Cape Cod, exactly the picture conjured by that 1950s Patti Page song of the same name.  An immensely wide beach, unusual for Truro, provides a  buffer zone from the water.  Rather than the pounding surf of the Atlantic, there is the relative tranquility of the bay.  It suddenly hit me that this was a decidedly welcoming environment for small children and their parents.

One of the greens, empty in the early morning, but soon to fill with friends.


Before the narrow boardwalk was built, about ten years ago, the trek to the bay was rather daunting.

I realized that at the Cape there would be willing, helping hands, certainly those of Grandma and Grandpa, perhaps those of H’s sister and her husband. I wasn’t hoping to hand my child over completely, only grateful for any assistance that might be offered. I also knew by this time that our daughter tended to behave better when she knew there were other eyes on her besides those of Mama and Daddy.

D, at two and a half, happily at work on her sand-pouring skills.

H’s family’s adopted Cape Cod village opened its arms to welcome our daughter, and for her it was love at first sight.  As children sometimes do, she appreciated the simplest things.  She found it supremely entertaining to sit outside our cottage, pouring sand into a cup; she didn’t even need a pail or shovel.  We would send her over to her grandparents’ cottage for cooking oil or butter, and she relished the responsibility.  H would use the walkie-talkie to tell his parents D was on her way, and we’d keep her in our sights during her short journey.  (There are no phones in the cottages, and before we were all so fiercely entangled in the web of technology, this meant an actual break from the typical work-a-day world.) Grandpa would signal D’s return, and she would arrive flushed and happy, more mature than when she had left.

D returns triumphantly from an errand.

There is a real sense of community in our vacation village, because families tend to return for the same week every year, and friendships are nourished.  Most of the parents who are now H’s and my age grew up vacationing here with their families.  Two sweet and thoughtful sisters, four and five years older than D, took her under their wings on our first visit.  Through these girls, D became acquainted with kids of all ages.  Even now, with one sister in college and the other a senior in high school, they remain close.  All the kids look forward to their annual reunion.  Friendships pick up seamlessly, as though no time has passed.

D with her best Cape friends. All teenagers now, the girls are still close.



Above, D and her friends float in the calm shallows of the bay, a pastime that never gets old.  Sometimes the waves kick up and boogie boards come in handy, but the water is never as rough as the ocean. Having grown up with the Cape’s prodigious seaweed, none of the girls finds it objectionable (as I did, at first).  Neither are they squeamish about the amazing variety of life in the water, which includes tiny shrimp, eels, sea worms, insects we refer to as potato bugs, and a vast number of unidentifiable, speedily swimming slimy things.  Some years there are hosts of jelly fish, but typically these are the small non-stinging kind, drifting in the water like blobs of translucent white paste.  D and her friends have always collected these in buckets, examined them, and returned them to the water.  The blue crabs that lurk in the sand are ready to rumble, pincers poised for an unsuspecting, intrusive toe.  Occasionally we see multitudes of horseshoe crabs, the dinosaurs of the crustacean world.  And there are the furry-looking spider crabs, of which D is inexplicably fond, despite her distaste for true arachnids.

At low tide, the water of the bay empties out nearly completely, so it’s almost possible to walk across to Provincetown.  Starfish, sand dollars and scallop shells are revealed among the reeds.  It’s time for D and her friends to build expansive sand compounds, which they populate with feisty hermit crabs and slow-moving moon snails.  Before long, the tide turns and begins to inch back in.  Islands of sand appear and gradually diminish.  Soon the bountiful and diverse life of the bay is submerged once again.

A view across the bay at low tide.


D and her friends congregate on the last remaining island as the tide rushes in.


In the warmth of the late afternoon sun, the green beckons to villagers of all ages.


A reed city in the sand, one of D’s ephemeral beach creations.


Our little nephew examines his tummy in the shade of his peapod.

This year, it was a blessing to welcome the new baby on the beach.  It was also a blessing, at this stage of my life, to be the baby’s aunt rather than mother.  D’s newest cousin looked out on the summer landscape from the shade of his peapod tent.  When it appeared that even from that sheltered vantage point, the bright light made him cranky, Grandma and Grandpa went on a mission to Provincetown.  They returned with infant sunglasses that strapped around the head with an elastic ribbon.  This made their grandson, and all of us, much happier.

I had almost forgotten that magical essence of Baby.  What a gift is a baby’s smile!  How rewarding it is to share in his squeals of delight! Our darling nephew was just discovering his unique voice, and his vocal experiments were enchanting and enthusiastic. I had nearly forgotten the incomparable warmth and sweetness of a baby in my arms.

D treasured the time she spent with her cousin.  For one week a year at least, he was, and will be, a substitute for the brother she never had.  And I like to think that next year, when he’s old enough to walk, he will follow in our girl’s sandy footprints.  I can see the two of them now, wandering through the sea grass, making their way down to the bay.

Still checking on the tummy, which is looking good.



Shore Road Scenes in Cape Cod



One of the nicest things about returning to the same place year after year is having the time to take note of the small details, those that change, and those that stay the same. My favorite early-morning activity is a breezy walk along Shore Road. It hugs a narrow strip of land, bordered on one side by the bay, and on the other, by marshy ponds, dunes, and the Atlantic Ocean.  After years of making this walk, I have committed most of its imagery to memory.


Quaint, lovingly maintained cottages, surrounded by lush flowers and foliage, abound on Shore Road. Scrubby, tenacious Cape Cod roses (Rosa rugosa), thrive in the sandy soil and salt air.


This iconic Cape Cod cottage is as forthright as a child’s drawing, surrounded by hydrangeas  and set on a neat green lawn.


Not everything on Shore Road is postcard-perfect, I’m happy to say.  The picturesquely scruffy makes a showing, as well.  This small dilapidated motel property is perpetually for sale.  I photograph it every year, and its changes are minimal.  One or two decaying beach chairs always keep watch on the bay.  The above photo dates from August 2012.


My photo of the same spot, from August 2010.


I document Door #19 of the old motel every year.  It varies only in the amount and configuration of its greenery.  Above is this year’s photo.


Last year’s photo, with a greater abundance of vines.


Sunflowers and Queen Anne’s Lace stake their claim to this forgotten fragment of a wooden porch.


Two crows pose next to  a cross-like clothesline support.


This vacant lot is home to a community of birdhouses, including a central caboose.


Last year’s Birdland centerpiece was a lighthouse.


CapeCod20121231The neat white and green boxes of Days’ Cottages, set in a line against the bay, date from 1931.  Each structure bears the name of a flower, such as Freesia, Dahlia and Petunia.  This long-lived
and virtually unchanged cottage colony has a loyal clientele.  It is a popular subject for local artists.


Last year I spotted this red fox enjoying the quiet of an enclosed yard.  He kept a keen eye on me as he scratched repeatedly, shook, and then trotted off unhurriedly toward the sand.  Of course he
reminded me of Kiko. On every walk along Shore Road, I somehow end up thinking about Kiko, and I wish he were walking with me.   

What if We Hadn’t Stopped the Road?

A large new Morningside home in the Druid Hills tradition.

Today’s residents of Atlanta can be proud that their city didn’t give up on the possibility of safe and pleasant neighborhoods flourishing near the heart of the city. The old was not sacrificed for the new simply because it fell briefly on hard times. I hate to think of how very different Atlanta might have been if the protests had been less robust, if I-485 had been built. It was a close call; it had been a sure thing, a project supported by the State of Georgia and City of Atlanta officials. By everyone, essentially, except those who lived in Morningside and Virginia-Highland.

Had a freeway been allowed to snake its way through these two historic neighborhoods, so much character would have been lost. Neighbors would be physically separated by concrete and steel. Trees and green space would be considerably diminished. Had I-485 been realized, there were plans for further widening of many area roads, as well as the demolition of Morningside and Inman elementary schools, both dating from the 20s. Today, both schools have been enlarged and beautifully restored, their architectural style of a piece with that of their neighborhoods.

In all likelihood, the area would have faded into a state of actual urban decay. Decades later, it might have recovered, to some degree. There would be owners who, out of necessity, would find a way to reconcile living along a highway ramp, a river of cars speeding through their back yards. Those monstrous sound-blocking fences might inflict further ugliness.

After the defeat I-485, much of its funding was diverted to MARTA. The city’s rapid transit system would not be as extensive and effective as it is today. Atlanta’s suburbs, now vast, might be even more sprawling, and the city’s mind-numbing traffic probably far worse. Morningside and Virginia-Highland are two of the most sought-after neighborhoods precisely because they are close and easily accessible to the real and varied life of the city. Their residents may avoid Atlanta’s terrifying freeways if they choose. Their homes are nestled safely in the eye of the storm.

Without a doubt, Morningside and Virginia-Highland would not be the inviting neighborhoods they are today; people would not be flocking into the city to live there. Most of the older homes would not have been lovingly restored. The newer ones would not have been so thoughtfully and appropriately reconfigured to fit in with a unified vision for the neighborhoods. While there are large new houses being constructed, there is not a cookie-cutter McMansion in sight. The surrounding landscape is rolling and verdant, sheltered by forests of tall trees.

The successful fight against the highway resulted in Atlanta’s neighborhoods having a greater say in what is built in their back yards. The city now has a system of Neighborhood Planning Units to ensure that residents have a real voice in matters that affect their lives.

Having witnessed first-hand the battle of the old neighborhoods against I-485, I know how fortunate I am to have learned this very important lesson at a young age: if you love something, it’s worth fighting for. And when we join together with one powerful, clear voice, we can accomplish great things.

One of Morningside’s former 1960s ranches, enlarged and popped up.


This Morningside home, refreshingly, looks almost exactly the same as it always has.

After Demolition, Green Space & Amazing Playscapes

There were several large sections of Morningside and Virginia-Highland where multiple homes were demolished in anticipation of I-485. Some of these have been transformed into popular community parks. Exploring the inventive playscapes in these parks was, for my daughter, one of the highlights of every visit to Atlanta when she was growing up.

The most extensive of these once-vacant areas is on Virginia Avenue, across from Inman School (formerly Elementary, now Middle), where eleven houses were torn down to make way for a highway interchange. The land remained scrubby and untended for many years. In 1988 it became John Howell Memorial Park, named for a Virginia-Highland resident who helped lead the fight against I-485 and who died from complications of HIV.  Along the Virginia Avenue entrance stand eleven granite piers (modeled on those on St. Louis Place and elsewhere in the neighborhood), each bearing a plaque with an address of one of the lost homes. Appealing landscaping, a children’s playground and a sandy area for volleyball guarantee that the park is always lively.

One section of John Howell Park has become the Cunard Memorial Playground. In the summer of 2003, a sudden blinding thunderstorm stopped evening rush hour traffic throughout the city.  A huge oak tree, its roots weakened, fell across North Highland diagonally onto the SUV of a young family, killing Lisa Cunard and her two sons, Max, age three and Owen, just six months old. Her husband, Brad, who had been driving, survived physically unharmed. The parents had just picked up Max from preschool, and Lisa was riding in the back seat, as she usually did, to be closer to her boys.  Firefighters from that old Virginia-Highland station rushed across the street, ready to extricate victims and perform CPR, but it was too late. 

My daughter and I were in Atlanta during the tragedy. When the storm hit, with violent force, we were stuck in the car with my parents along another tree-lined road not far away. Atlanta’s trees are majestic and many, but they can also be a threat.  Our vulnerability, as lightning struck all around us, was imminently clear. The ride home was slow-going and nerve-wracking, but we were lucky; we made it. That night we heard the news about the Cunard family, who had been so terribly, horribly, heart-breakingly unlucky.

D has a particular fondness for the Cunard Playground. Like many Atlantans, we both feel a connection to the family, because we remember that hideous night so well. I knew the tree that fell; I knew the house in front of which it had stood. We had been in that exact spot many times.

The playscapes at the Cunard include easy-going toddler attractions and some especially ingenious contraptions for older kids. I don’t have the words to describe these latter creations; I’ve never encountered such things before. As if to emphasize the need to live this short life to the fullest, they are apparently intended for determined daredevils. D has always referred to this park as the “spinny” park because it’s possible there to spin round and round, at varying speeds, in a crazy variety of ways. When she urges me to have a go on one of these whirling oddities, I know I’m a real grown-up, because I’m sure that immediate nausea would follow. I also know I would have loved all these inventively twirling things, just as D does, when I was a kid. My husband has tried them, and even he must admit that he also is an adult. 

The Cunard Playground was, like the defeat of I-485, a remarkable community effort. The grieving friends, family and neighbors of the Cunard family joined together to ensure that this loving mother and her two boys, so very young, will be remembered in a vital and meaningful way. The playground is  a unique and fitting memorial, an exultant space that Max and Owen would, no doubt, have cherished.

D and her friend who introduced us to the Cunard Memorial Playground.


A quiet, briefly non-spinning moment.
Spinny 2
I used to enjoy cutting and pasting so my one daughter would become two. Every day when she was young, though, I was thankful that she was not twins. Here, she attempts the spinning circle, twice.


Our most recent Atlanta visit, of course, included a visit to the spinny park.


This thing is one of D’s favorites. I don’t really get it.

Morningside Begins its Comeback

Atlanta, July 2011 065
This original Morningside home was never in jeopardy. While larger than most of the 1930s-era houses, its Tudor style is typical.

Morningside recovered quickly after the defeat of I-485. Homes that had languished unoccupied for seven years sold at relatively high prices. Construction soon began on new, bigger houses on the vacant lots we had come to view as common property. This was the only drawback to the resolution of the conflict. My friends, my dog Popi and I had become accustomed to having the run of these quirky recreational areas during the day. The decaying houses were in a constant state of flux, offering new discoveries with every visit. A steady stream of odd objects and eye-opening reading material was left behind by other visitors. Vagrants obviously used the houses occasionally for drinking and sleeping, but they were almost always gone by daylight.

We loved the chaotic wildness of the overgrown lots, where we picked blackberries and flowers, gathered hickory nuts and cut holly in the winter for Christmas wreaths. We appreciated the accelerated pace with which Nature was reclaiming its space—the sturdy oak saplings that forced their way up through cracks in concrete patios, the ivy that pushed through crevices around windows to flourish in drafty old bedrooms. We roamed so freely among the ruins that we had begun to see it as our right.

Nevertheless we were respectful, not destructive, although we often confronted the appalling vandalism of others. Sometimes we found charred floorboards where fires had been set. Mantelpieces and chandeliers were ripped out and stolen. Windows and bathroom fixtures were smashed, purely for fun. We had known many of the former residents; we had been guests in these homes. A cloud of memories swirled around me each time we set foot in the house where my friend Deborah had lived. We had played together there before the road became a threat. I remembered the kitchen, where we shared after-school snacks, as cozy and inviting. It was now ill-used and desolate, its remaining appliances wrenched from the walls. Graffiti streaked across the ceiling of her former bedroom.  Her family had been forced out early in the fight. I wondered where they had gone. How bitter was it for them to know that they had been uprooted for no reason?

On our street, where no houses had been condemned or torn down for the highway, many owners began renovations that they had put on hold. Building permit signs were hammered into front yards and the first of a long parade of Porta-Potties appeared (the ultimate in-town status symbol). Our family embarked in earnest on removing the applied veneer of the early 1960s (linoleum tile, gold carpets, faux wood-grain wallpaper) that masked classic elements of our house. Morningside, its future at last assured, was on the up and up.

Atlanta, July 2011 061
Another of Morningside’s grander original homes, built in the Spanish Colonial style. While it dates from the 1930s, it has had several successive renovations.


The sun hits the eaves of one of Morningside’s smaller, more-typically sized homes.

Morningside, Virginia-Highland, and the Fight Against I-485

Atlanta, July 2011 073

During our time in Atlanta, my daughter and I usually spend part of one day browsing the eclectic shops of the Virginia-Highland neighborhood. Developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb,” with trolley lines to downtown, Virginia-Highland is now one of the city’s most inviting and vibrant sections. It wasn’t always this way.

When we moved to Atlanta in the late-60s, many such in-town neighborhoods were, to varying degrees, down at the heels. We found an affordable house in Morningside, which adjoins Virginia-Highland. Most Morningside homes dated from the 1930s. Small but well-built, many resembled English cottages. It was a neighborhood with great bones, but a bit tired and frayed. It had the look of a place whose heyday had passed. Most of our neighbors were elderly; Mama and Daddy were among the few young kids. Many homes were behind on routine maintenance. As anyone with a renovator’s soul and an affinity for hard work recognizes, this is the time to buy. Things will get better, my parents reasoned, and they would be instrumental in the upswing.

Atlanta, July 2011 085
The original marker denoting the boundary of the Lenox Park section of Morningside.

Virginia-Highland was shabbier at the time than Morningside; it was older and had had more time to slide into dishevelment. Both neighborhoods were haunted, now and then, by the ghost of a rumor that a highway was being considered in the area. My parents, and others new to the area, decided to regard it as neither likely nor imminent. But in the years to follow, the threat became all too vivid.

The temper of the times was changing.  Fear of inner city crime was mounting. The conflicts over school desegregation never turned violent in Atlanta as they did in some cities, but they prompted more homeowners to sell and flee to the suburbs.  Older neighborhoods like ours were increasingly branded by state officials as futureless pockets of urban decay. What Progress required, according to the Georgia Highway Department, was a multi-lane freeway to whisk city workers safely home in the evenings to suburban promised lands. The highway, named I-485, would cut a frighteningly large swath through the hearts of Morningside and Virginia-Highland. The ghost was real, and it meant business.

Almost immediately, the state began a fierce program of land reclamation to prepare for the road. Many elderly owners were frightened into accepting low offers for their properties, which were quickly razed or left to deteriorate, unprotected from nature and vandals. It was heart-renching when the moving vans arrived and the slow exodus of boxed-up belongings began.  It was heartbreaking when the “Condemned” signs were posted.  There were a few brave owners, however, who refused to leave, even under threat of legal action. Some of these determined residents remained in the homes they had built, even as they seemed poised to tumble down around them.

Atlanta, July 2011 092
A Morningside garden angel, in prayer.

I-485 appeared unstoppable once the demolition machines were roaring. It could easily have been declared a lost cause. But a coalition to oppose the road had taken root, and like those who refused to move, this group wasn’t afraid to persevere. Several young Morningside mothers, including Mary Davis and Barbara Ray, who were parents of my friends, played a crucial role in countering the conflict.  Energetic and zealous, they rallied their friends and neighbors. They formed the Morningside-Lenox Park Association specifically to fight the road. They explored various legal angles and kept working even as other groups lost hope. There were several points when it looked as though the fight was unwinnable. But each time they persisted; these women did not give up.  After a while, some of the most pessimistic among us began to glimpse the possibility that together, perhaps, we might triumph. And if we didn’t, it was certainly worth our best effort. As the coalition gained in strength and numbers, the tide gradually began to turn. After several years of closely fought legal battles and imaginative grass-roots efforts, the freeway was stopped.

At first it was hard to believe that we had won. We had lived with the fight, and with uncertainty, for so long, but now it was history. The reality of relief set in. Thanks to five fiercely determined young mothers, our homes and neighborhoods were safe.  Now it was time to start the clean-up. We would be here for a while.

Lilacs, Lyric Hall, and June Bliss


In the early spring of the first year we spent in our house, I noticed green buds emerging from the gray branches of the tall shrub by the front walk. I had wondered about the identity of this large and leggy plant. When I looked closely, I saw the beginnings of lilac leaves. Our new old house was blessed not only by eminent silver maples, but also by a mature, substantial lilac bush. This realization brought me a jolt of happiness more typically associated with an unexpected gift, such as one that arrives in a pale blue Tiffany box. Lilacs have a special place in my heart. Like the maples, they speak of home and loved ones.

Lilacs grew in great abundance around my grandparents’ house, the locus of my earliest and happiest childhood memories. Lilacs surrounded the area in front of the smokehouse and adjacent to the chicken lot. They created a leafy enchanted shelter, a cozy enclave where I liked to play with my grandmother’s kittens.

Atlanta is generally too hot for lilacs. I missed them, growing up in Georgia. For me, the lilac became a symbol of a time long past, alive only in memory and never to be repeated. I didn’t expect to live among lilacs again.

Then I moved to New Jersey, where lilacs, like peonies, thrive. My walks into Rocky Hill took me past a ramshackle former church in the center of town. Built in 1870 as a Methodist Episcopal church, by the early 20th century the building was known as Lyric Hall and used as a community theatre and concert space. I knew the place as the home of a dear friend with the unlikely, romance-novel-worthy name of June Bliss. For many years, June was the warm and capable administrator at the center of the art history department at Princeton University. To anxious grad students she was a calm and motherly presence.  To professors preoccupied with the esoteric details of research, she was a grounding force.

Lyric Hall became June’s home in the early 1970s. She rented out the old sanctuary as a warehouse and lived in a warren-like apartment that had been added to the back of the building in the 1940s. June’s girlhood home was a magnificent Gothic revival house near Princeton, where her sister continued to reside. It baffled me that after growing up in such an architectural gem, she was content with her quirky, cramped apartment. I always imagined how the church could be renovated into a striking, spacious, light-filled home. June probably could have easily afforded such a project, but she wasn’t interested. She was thoroughly without pretense, and her unusual living quarters suited her just fine. I think she enjoyed the surprise in the eyes of first-time visitors’ to her decidedly eccentric home.

The old church was set on an expansive piece of property that adjoined what had once been the town green. June had a large garden in the side yard, bounded by a towering hedge of lilacs. She was generous with her bounty of vegetables and flowers. She encouraged me to cut as many lilacs as I wished, which I gladly did, usually under the watchful eye of the neighbor’s hulking pot-bellied pig. Every spring, thanks to June, our apartment was filled with bouquets of lilacs, in addition to the peonies I bought down the road. On a return visit after H and I had married and moved south, June dug up forget-me-nots from her garden to send back with us.  I planted them behind our townhouse, where they are probably blooming still.

June was a cheerful person with a lively sense of humor and a keen appreciation for irony. She retained her sunny disposition in the face of the cancer that afflicted her for a number of years before finally claiming her life. I remember very clearly the warm summer day I went to the mailbox and found the kind note from June’s daughter that broke the news of her mother’s death.  D was very young at the time, and we had been playing in the yard together.  Seeing my sudden tears, she dashed over to comfort me.  Our lilac bush serves as a reminder that departed friends, as well as the essence of home and family, remain with us always.

This spring, though, I was dismayed that only one small lilac bloom appeared. For several years now, blossoms have emerged only at the very top-most branches.  June’s vigorous lilac hedge, in contrast, bloomed profusely, from bottom to top, for decades. When I asked if she had a gardener’s secret, she laughed and replied that she simply appreciated the plants and left them alone.  Our lilac evidently needs something more than admiration.  I’ve read that an aggressive pruning can reinvigorate an old lilac plant. We will get the shears out this weekend and go to work.

I recently discovered that upon June’s death, her home was donated to the New Jersey Historic Trust. The Trust sold it, with a preservation easement, to an architectural firm that restored the building to its original appearance and now uses it as their headquarters. The gray asbestos siding was removed, the original white clapboard restored and repainted. The arched windows were elongated to their full height and the sanctuary space’s soaring ceilings were restored. June’s old apartment was replaced with a bright and much larger one.

It’s remarkable to me that even though June didn’t care to restore Lyric Hall for use as her own home, she made it possible that others, later, could enjoy the beauty of the renewed historic building. It gives me hope for the rehabilitation of our tired lilac bush.  Lyric Hall flourishes again, a fitting memorial to its former owner, and I’m convinced our lilacs can, too.


My grandfather and me, with lilacs behind us.