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Wild Mushrooms

I’ve acquired some shiitake mushroom spawn and now I’m looking for the right log to inoculate so I can grow my own. On my way to the mailbox today, I spotted a pretty purple mushroom and wondered if it’s edible. That brought memories of collecting mushrooms in my grandmother’s cow pasture when I was a kid.

In late summer when the common field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) began to pop out of the ground, my sisters and brothers and I would go out in the early morning and gather all we could find. There is no better cuisine than fresh mushrooms sautéed in Grandma’s butter and served hot for breakfast.

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Common Field Mushroom

I remember the cool of the August mornings, dew on the ground, tramping through the pasture while the cows were busy being milked. The mushrooms shone white among the greens of the grass and browns of the cow patties. Often they grew right next to, or in, the cow plops. That didn’t deter us country kids. We always washed the mushrooms when we got home. Sometimes they grew in broken fairy rings, created by the mycelium, the underground part of the plant, ever reaching outward to fertile ground.

fairy ring

Fairy Ring – I don’t know what species

When we gathered more than we could use, we’d package the excess and Grandma would take them town and sell them to her butter customers. That earned us a little spending money. I accompanied her one time. An old lady, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, delighted to get fresh wild mushrooms, peered at them carefully and said, “I’m glad the children know what to look for.”

Today, I’m amazed at her faith in us. Yes, we did know what to look for, but I, the oldest, was not more than twelve. By then I’d been collecting mushrooms for years. I don’t remember when I was first taught or by whom. Probably Dad, but it could have been Grandma, or both. My siblings and I knew the difference between the field mushroom, which is almost identical to the mushrooms sold in grocery stores, and the similar looking but deadly destroying angel (Amanita bisporigara). To us, the two were completely distinct, but a less savvy observer might not see the difference.

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Destroying Angel – Can you tell the difference?

This is why I don’t go mushrooming in Florida. The field mushroom doesn’t grow in this climate. Many other kinds do, but I’ve had no one to teach me. I collect and eat all kinds of wild foods, mostly greens, but I leave the mushrooms alone. I can identify weeds. If I’m not already familiar with a plant, there are books and the internet. I have cookbooks with recipes for wild foods and the website Eat the Weeds http://www.eattheweeds.com/  has a wealth of information. While this author, Green Deane, has information on wild mushrooms, he prefaces it with “Do not eat any mushroom without checking in person with a local, live, mushroom collector.” I take him seriously. On his mushroom page I see some that I’ve found growing in my woods, but I wouldn’t try them Continue Reading »

I Was There

Sometime in our lives, we have an experience that words are inadequate to describe. I had one on 8/21/17, the day of the Total Eclipse. It was my first. I’d missed every other solar eclipse in my life by being in the wrong place or because of cloudy weather. I wasn’t going to miss this one. But summers are so busy. I traveled through eight states in three weeks. Serendipitously, a library in West Virginia had free eclipse glasses. I picked up a pair.

On my way home, I checked for available campsites at my favorite state park in South Carolina. They were booked. I returned to Florida a week before the eclipse, having made no plans, and my van needed TLC before it could make another trip. Despair was not an option.

 

Not my van, but definitely my sentiment.

 

Fate began to smile. My mechanic made the critical repairs in a timely fashion. When I told him where I was going, he said, “You must really like to drive.”

“No. I just like to go places.”

South Carolina campgrounds were full, but what about Georgia? Only about 100 miles from Orangeburg, Magnolia Springs State Park still had vacancies! Instead of a grueling six hour drive to Orangeburg, I faced a four hour trip to Magnolia Springs, followed by only two hours the next day. I made reservations.

Sunday afternoon, I headed north. With no rangers on duty when I arrived, I chose a campsite and enjoyed my evening at the park. Bright and early Monday morning, I reported to the park office, but the staff wasn’t ready to do business yet. I told them I was going to South Carolina to watch the eclipse. “You registered online?” they said. “Then just go! You can do the paperwork when you come back.”

I drove through fog, optimistic the sky would clear. There was little traffic on US 301 although the interstates were jammed. I arrived in Orangeburg at 9:45 and found a shady parking spot at Edisto Memorial Gardens. With hours to spare, I walked around the Rose Garden and decided this was where I wanted to watch the eclipse. Workers were busy mowing and weeding. I thought, what a great job they had—being paid to experience the eclipse!

When I returned to the parking lot, it was full. I’d been wise to get an early start. Half the cars, it seemed, had Florida tags. I strolled through the Sensory Garden and rang the farm bell. Then I went down to the Azalea Garden, where other folks awaited the big event. From time to time, I heard the farm bell ring. Despite growing numbers, the atmosphere was peaceful, friendly, upbeat.

I asked those I encountered, “Where are you from?” Many were from Florida. A mother and daughter from Orlando had driven all night and slept at a rest stop in their Mini Cooper. A couple of ladies came up from Georgia. One couple was from Denver but had been vacationing at Hilton Head. Family members wore matching eclipse shirts. Some had brought their dogs. All races were represented, and many nationalities. I heard accents I could only dimly place, and one group spoke German.

Every so often, I put on my eclipse glasses and looked at the sun. It looked like an orange cookie. The sky cleared and clouded again. Some expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to see anything (Oh you of little faith!) but others were, like me, optimistic that the weather would be kind.

I walked through a sunny area where families had set up canopies. As I approached a scattering of trees, someone called my name! Who here would know me? It was fellow writer Jessica Elkins and her husband. They’d stayed in a motel in Statesboro, Georgia and were enjoying a little picnic of fruit and cheese and crackers. I joined them.

About 1:30, people wearing eclipse glasses stood pointing at the sky. The sun looked like someone had taken a bite out of the orange cookie. Over the next several minutes, the bite grew larger. Then a cloud occluded the sun and we couldn’t see anything. The cloud gave us some relief from the heat, but many were anxious we’d miss the eclipse. I kept saying, “The cloud will move on and then the sky will clear.”

Eventually, that cloud moved, but another took its place! Blue sky lay all around, but that cloud seemed happy to stay put.

The weather was kind. After a very long 20 minutes, the cloud went away and the crowd went, “Ahhh!” The sun now looked like a crescent moon. The light around us was subdued, as though clouds still shaded the Earth. The crescent grew slimmer. Around 2:20, I took leave of my friends.

On the way to the Rose Garden, I passed a group of Seminole Indians who were drumming and chanting. The light continued to dim. I sat down on the ground in the middle of the Rose Garden.

Dusk is falling.

By 2:35, the sun was only a thin sliver and the air was noticeably cooler. Dusk had fallen. Then it grew dark. The crowd cheered. We clapped with excitement. We laughed with delight. The drummers increased the volume of their chant. I took off my eclipse glasses.

In the sky was a silver white ring—the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

Streetlights came on. At 2:45, a band of sunlight appeared on the north side of the garden. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” I glanced up to see a tiny jewel of sunlight on the edge of the silver ring. It was time to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Pictures don’t do it justice. (Photo by Jake McElveen.)

Daylight returned. People stirred, their eyes lit with wonder, exclaiming, “Wow.” “Cool.” “Incredible.” As I made my way back to my friends, I encountered a phenomenon that wasn’t visible on the lawn of the Rose Garden. The asphalt was covered with little crescents of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, as though the image of the crescent sun had been shattered into a thousand pieces and  projected onto the ground. A stander-by said they’d been present before the totality, facing in a different direction.

A Thousand Crescent Suns

There were no strangers. Everyone was overcome with awe. One said, “There are no words to describe it.” Another, “Words are inadequate.” A lady said she now understood why people get addicted to solar eclipses and will go anywhere in the world to see them. I’d heard that the experience was a life-changing event. It’s true.

Jessica began to talk about the next one, in 2024, and said she intended to watch it. Yes, I thought, me, too. The wonderment buoyed me all the way back to my campsite. That night, all I could think about was that beautiful silver ring that was the sun. It still remains in my mind’s eye.

The next total eclipse in Florida is August 12, 2045. I’ll be…how old by then? In the meantime, there are others in parts of the world I have yet to visit. On April 8, 2024, less than seven years from now, a total eclipse will begin in Mexico, cross Texas and Arkansas (where I have family), the Midwest, and into western New York and New England.

Arkansas, 4-8-24, here I come!

CANEBRAKE

I was elated when the 2015 Bacopa Literary Review accepted this short story for publication. Now I want to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it. For more information on Bacopa, visit: http://writersalliance.org/bacopa-literary-review. You can order a copy of the 2015 issue through Amazon. It has more short stories as well as poetry and creative non-fiction. Happy reading!

Cattle Gap

Cattle Gap

Mario stepped off the school bus into the late August heat. “Remember, no TV till I get home,” Aunt Ginny, the driver, told him. “Make a sandwich and do your homework. I’ll be home in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aunt Ginny was his foster mother, not his aunt, but he didn’t want to call her “Mama.” He had a mother. He’d just finished the first week of sixth grade, but he felt so lost. Changing classes was a new experience, and there were so many new faces. He wore nicer clothes than he used to, but old classmates still treated him with contempt.

He should have gone to middle school last year, but he had flunked fourth grade. Not because he was stupid. He’d missed too many days. Last year, he did better. He learned to get himself up in the morning, even if his mother overslept or wasn’t home. He missed his mother.

Mario checked the mail and found a letter from his father in California. “Dear Mario,” it began. “I hope this finds you well. I am quite good, as is Cissy, and the kids. The social worker was here today to do the house check. She said she saw no problem with you coming here. It will take awhile for the paperwork to get to Florida, so we have to be patient. I’m saving money for a plane ticket to come get you.”

A joyful bark interrupted him. Aunt Ginny’s dog Skeeter bounded down the driveway and knocked the letter from his hands. Skeeter always came to greet him. Mario wondered what Skeeter would do after he left. By then, there might be new foster children to greet.

“Hey, Skeeter,” Mario stuck the letter into his backpack to read later. He paused at the cattle gap. This was a relic from the days when the old place had been a farm. The cattle gap was a grate made from railroad rails laid horizontally across a small ditch. Cows would not venture to cross, but it was no barrier for vehicles and most boys.

The ditch held a little water from yesterday’s thunderstorm. It looked like a good place for snakes to hide. Aunt Ginny had warned him to beware of snakes. What he feared even more than snakes was slipping and falling between the rails. He gripped his backpack, inhaled deeply, and balanced on the first rail.  Safely across, he let his breath out. He had never lived in the country before, and there were so many things to worry about.

Aunt Ginny’s farm now grew pine trees. Halfway up the driveway, Skeeter started barking again and dove into the palmettos that grew among the trees. Mario heard a great thrashing noise. Something big was in there. What could it be? A bobcat? A coyote? What if it was a bear?

“Skeeter! Come back!” But Skeeter was too busy to obey.  Mario set his books down and followed. A fine net settled over his face and he cringed. He brushed and sputtered to get the cobweb off. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail and brushed frantically over his head and shoulders. Could the spider be on him? It would be one of those enormous yellow ones that spun great webs between the trees. Aunt Ginny hated them and killed any she found in her yard. So they hid in the woods to ensnare unsuspecting boys.

He stepped forward. Skeeter stopped barking. Mario eyes darted around and looked down. Skeeter sniffed at a large gopher tortoise which tried to run from him. Its short legs flailed against a palmetto frond, which rattled against its neighbors, creating a noise way out of proportion to the size of the creature.

Mario let out a nervous laugh. “All this fuss over a little ole turtle!” He poked it with a stick and watched the gopher’s head and limbs draw into its shell. Maybe this would make a good pet. He carried it to the house, found an old washtub, and filled a dish with water. He’d ask Aunt Ginny what they ate. He never had a pet before.

Mario went back for his backpack and let himself into the house. He fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of iced tea before settling down at the kitchen table with his homework. Then he remembered his father’s letter. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. It’s been so long. You must be nearly a man by now.” His mother had called him her “little man.” He had taken care of her when she couldn’t take care of herself. After they put him in foster care, everyone treated him like a child. His first foster parents even made him go to day care. Aunt Ginny wasn’t so bad. She fussed over him, but she also gave him independence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a father to you,” the letter went on. “I didn’t know how things were with your mother.” Mario winced. He didn’t like people saying things about his mother. “You see, after we split up, every time I went to see you, we’d fight so bad, I thought it was best to just stay away. I thought sending money every month was enough.” Mario had not been aware of any money. His mother said his father was dead. He had a vague memory of a man arguing with his mother, but he was not sure if that had been his father or a stepfather.

His musings were interrupted by Skeeter’s frantic barking. Mario rushed out. There was a new noise, an intense buzzing, like that of a windup toy out of control. And there, on the ground, not two yards from Skeeter’s nose, was a coiled rattlesnake.

He dared not panic. He called Skeeter, who only kept barking and circling the snake, keeping a distance of four or five feet between them. What should he do? Call for help? But Skeeter could be dead before it arrived. His pounding heart drowned out the sounds of both snake and dog. Mario crept up behind Skeeter and grabbed his collar. He dragged him up the steps and through the front door. Skeeter was an outside dog and Aunt Ginny didn’t let him into the house, but this was an exception.

After the rattling noise ceased, Mario looked out and saw the snake crawling across the yard toward the back of the house. What if it got in the house? He ran to the shed and found a hoe. He tried to sneak up on the snake, but it turned back toward him and started to coil. Mario raised the hoe as high as he could and brought it down onto the snake’s neck with enough force to drive it into the ground. The body twisted every which way, but its neck was broken. Mario chopped with the hoe until he severed the head from the body. He trembled back to the porch and collapsed on the steps.

Then he remembered Skeeter and let him out. Skeeter immediately returned to the snake, but when it didn’t react to his barking, he began to sniff. Mario jumped to his feet. Maybe it couldn’t bite, but it still had venom on its fangs. He scooped up the head with the hoe and buried it in the garden. Only now did he examine the body. He’d never seen a real rattlesnake before and didn’t know they were so pretty. This one had diamond-shaped markings on reddish skin. He had seen belts and hat bands made from snake skins. The body was thicker than his arm and might be enough for more than one belt.

Warily, he picked it up. The skin was not slimy, but smooth and cool, like glass. Mario carried it to the back porch and got a knife from the kitchen. Although he had never skinned anything before, he’d seen it done. He cut off the rattle and put it in his pocket. Then he carefully separated the skin from the carcass, which he buried in the garden. He stretched the skin on an old board and nailed it down.

Only then did he truly appreciate his feat. The snake had been as long as he was tall. He shook the rattle in his pocket. Now he knew what a rattlesnake sounds like. The deadly creature could have killed him, but he had killed it. He marveled at how easy it was to kill. He stood up straight. Perhaps he was a man after all.

Suddenly, he heard the school bus out on the road. He put the skin and the tools in the shed and hosed off the back porch. The bus turned into the driveway. He washed the knife and put it away. He slipped into a chair and opened a book as the bus came to a stop in the yard.

A few minutes later, he heard Aunt Ginny say, “What’s this?” He had forgotten all about the turtle.

“I found him in the woods. Can I keep him for a pet? Do you know what they eat?”

She shook her head. “No, you can’t keep him. They’re an endangered species. The game warden’d throw us both in jail. You need to let him go. He’ll find food in the woods.”

Disappointed, Mario hopped off the porch. The motion jiggled the rattle in his pocket. Aunt Ginny perked up as though listening, but when she heard nothing more, she went inside. Mario carried the turtle with one arm and held his other hand over the pocket to keep the rattle quiet. After he released the gopher, he returned to the house and found Aunt Ginny brushing paw prints off the living room couch.

“What was Skeeter doin’ in the house?”

“Uh, there was a rattlesnake in the yard. I didn’t want him to get bit.”

“You left it alone, I hope.”

Mario couldn’t lie to her. His hesitation told on him.

“Empty your pockets,” she directed.

He had no choice but to show her the rattle. Her eyes bulged.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the shed.” He told her the whole story.

“I don’t think it’d come into the house. It was just trying to get under the house where it’s cool.” When Aunt Ginny saw the size of the skin, she clutched her chest and hollered, “Holy Jesus! Snake that big could kill you!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’s a canebrake rattler. That’s why it’s so red. They don’t usually bother anybody. They usually just run away.”

“But it was trying to bite Skeeter.”

“Only because he was harassing it.  If you see another one, you and Skeeter stay in the house till I come home. Promise?”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt like a child again. He looked down at his feet.

Aunt Ginny put an arm around his shoulders. “Was you scared?”

“No ma’am. Well, maybe. I guess. I was afraid for Skeeter.”

“You were very brave to protect Skeeter. I’m proud of you for that.” Then she turned him to face her and put a hand on each shoulder. “But from now on, leave snakes alone. I can’t have a foster child bit by a poisonous snake.”

“Yes ma’am.” When he looked into her eyes, they were twinkling.

“What do you plan to do with that?” She meant the canebrake skin.

“Can I take it to California with me?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“What do you think my dad will say?”

Aunt Ginny smiled. “I think he will be very proud of you.”

Healing Weeds

One day when I was volunteering at the elementary school, the children and I stood around a raised garden bed discussing what grew there and what we were going to do that day. One of my philosophies about weeds is—if they’re not doing any harm, let them be. Some may argue that they take nutrients from the vegetables, but if they’re not trying to take over, I let them live until they must be removed for a valid reason. Besides, they may be of some benefit we have yet to discover.

Ponysfoot grew in that bed. I pointed it out to the kids and said, “It’s not in the way, so let’s leave it for now. It’s probably good for something, I just don’t know what.”

That bugged me. I should know what ponysfoot’s good for, so when I got home I asked my friend Google. Google doesn’t know much, but it knows whom to ask.

If someone is selling something on the internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. There were several ads selling ponysfoot seeds! Why would anyone buy ponysfoot? Because it’s a good groundcover, used for erosion control. Silver Ponysfoot, which grows in the Southwest, is used in landscapes and even hanging baskets. The species that grows in Florida is Dichondra carolinensis, Carolina Ponysfoot.

Ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis)

The website “Natives for Your Neighborhood” said that although ponysfoot is a garden weed, as a groundcover it competes with less desirable plants, thus can be beneficial. So I was right to leave it in the garden bed. Among its uses are habitat restoration and as a butterfly plant. (So far I haven’t found any info on its use as a butterfly plant, although it does have flowers.) One site mentioned a Dichondra lawn, which may have been popular at one time because it was easy and inexpensive to maintain.

I was happy to learn that Carolina Ponysfoot is edible, if bitter, and surprised to find that it has medicinal properties. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure. As I ventured down this path of discovery, I learned that other common lawn weeds also have medicinal uses. Dollar weed, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, also called pennywort, is another herb that lower blood pressure. I’ve eaten Dollar Weed Slaw, which is delicious, but try though I might, I can’t get dollar weed to grow in my yard. Long before I discovered the virtues of this plant, my daughter Carrie had a lawn full of it. Unfortunately, although she did nothing to make it go away, it did.

I began to google plants that do grow in my yard. Chickweed (Stellaria media) was used in the past to treat scurvy and is still used for a number of ailments, including weight loss. I’ll have to try that. You can buy it in herbal capsules, but I take advantage of the chickweed growing profusely in my yard and use it in salads, cooked greens, and green smoothies.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When my daughter Amber lived in Virginia Beach, a neighbor had a lawn overgrown with wild violets (Viola sororia). When she remarked on the pretty flowers, the homeowner said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of them.” Amber was aghast. She knew the blossoms and leaves are edible, but not if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Euell Gibbons praised the common blue violet for its high Vitamin C content. With the flu going around, I try to stay healthy, so once my violets started to bloom, I began eating them. My research revealed that violas have been used in Europe for centuries for everything from cough to cancer. Caution: don’t confuse Violas with African violets which are totally unrelated.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia). The leaves are similar to Ponysfoot.

A few years ago, we Master Gardeners were planting a butterfly garden in a local park. One container was full of bluish flowers all abuzz with honeybees. When told we had to clear those out and replace them with the prescribed butterfly plants, I protested, to no avail. I did manage to rescue a few of those wondrous wildflowers, take them home, and replant them. These are Stachys floridana, Florida betony, another weed hated by lawn enthusiasts. Not only edible, I now find that the leaves can be made into a tea to treat colds, headaches, anxiety, and diarrhea.

One of my favorite weeds, Bidens alba, aka Spanish needles, is one of the most cursed because of the seeds that hitchhike on your clothes. Butterfly enthusiasts like Bidens because it’s a great nectar plant. I’ve been eating it for years but never knew it had medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s said to cure just about anything, including MRSA! Other bidens species are also useful, and you can even buy Bidens pilosa tincture.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I can’t leave out Lyre Leaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, which grows all over the eastern US. It gets its name from the leaves that are shaped like a lyre and have a burgundy stripe down the middle. The blue blossoms, when grown en masse, make a lovely show. This is a nectar plant for butterflies and has the same properties as garden sage, just not as strong. One common name, “cancer root,” refers to its use as a folk remedy for cancer. It is certainly edible and makes a good tea for sore throats.

Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia Lyrata)

Now tell me, does it make any sense to spend money on poisons to kill herbs on your lawn, then spend more money at the drugstore to buy potions prescribed by a doctor, when your yard, if left alone, will grow its own pharmacopoeia?

Always be sure of what you put in your body. Don’t go by common names. There are several different species called chickweed, for instance. Research any plant before you use it. Herbs can have side effects and interact with medications. If you have any doubts about a plant’s identity, ask someone who knows.

 

This past summer, my sister Sue and I embarked on a genealogical expedition. Our main focus was Hampshire County, West Virginia where the Rogers family has roots going back hundreds of years. I’d  visited this area before but this was Sue’s first trip. We camped at Wapacoma Campground on the South Fork of the Potomac River, west of the county seat of Romney.

Wapocoma Campground

It takes a special kind of nerd to find pleasure in digging through old documents for clues to our past. We visited the main library and the Capon Bridge branch, both which have historical and genealogical records. I’ve spent many hours in these libraries and always find new treasures, but the weather was too nice to spend all day indoors.

Most of our West Virginia ancestors came from the British Isles in the 1700’s and settled in the vicinity of Slanesville, a small community in the Cacapon River Valley. Daniel and Nancy Slane and their six children immigrated from Ireland in the late 18th century and settled in what became known as Dogtown because the Slanes had so many dogs. Later it was renamed Slanesville.

Almost Heaven

The Rogers moved here after the Civil War and married into the McDonald clan. After farming in Pennsylvania and Kansas, this part of West Virginia must have seemed like Heaven. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they left this lovely valley for the bitter climate of upstate New York. Not all of them left. William Lewis Rogers remained and is buried in the Kidwell Cemetery.

Sue’s favorite place to look for ancestors is in old graveyards. The Kidwell Cemetery is at the end of a private lane with one residence which is a family day care. In addition to Kidwells, there are a variety of other family names, including McDonald. William Rogers was not related by blood to the Kidwells but through the marriage of his son John Thomas Rogers, my great-grandfather, to Rebecca McDonald. Apparently William got along well enough with his in-laws for them to provide him with an eternal resting place.

Sue meticulously inspected each headstone, deciphering weathered inscriptions, while I took notes and photographed them. I noticed more comings and goings at the day care next door than usual, but I didn’t give it much thought. Finally, no more tombstones to examine, we moved to the nearby Mount Union Church Cemetery. I’d never stopped here, but Sue couldn’t pass it by.

We parked on the dirt road behind the church and found dozens more Kidwells, McDonalds, and other names connected with our family. While we cataloged more possible dead relatives, quite a bit of traffic zipped by on the dirt road, which I thought was strange. Sue went back to my van for something, leaving me to take notes and pictures. When she didn’t return, I went to check on her. I found a pickup truck parked near my van, and a man was talking to Sue.

Apparently, my big blue van with the Florida license tag had attracted attention. The valley was buzzing with questions about who we were and why we were hanging out in these graveyards all afternoon. Hence, the traffic at the day care and behind the church. Finally, this man had the courage to stop and check us out. He had a good laugh. Two ladies doing genealogical research had spooked the whole community!  He said we were welcome to visit any dead relatives we wanted to, and he would notify the citizens of Slanesville that we were no threat.

Not only accommodating, but helpful, he said, “You see that house next door? That man knows all about these cemeteries and who’s buried here. Go over and tell him I sent you.”

So we did. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get, but by now word must have gone ‘round that we were harmless. The man next door didn’t know much about our dead relatives, but he did know some of our living ones. Names like Hiett and Kidwell, previously known to me only from dusty documents and decaying headstones, tumbled from his mouth. He gave us directions and phone numbers. I’d always suspected we had distant cousins here but wasn’t sure how to find them. Could our attempts to dig up dead relatives yield some live ones?

I drove around trying to locate their residences while Sue tried calling them on her cell phone. Country directions being what they are, I couldn’t find them. Sue couldn’t reach anyone by phone and left messages. We headed toward North River Mills in search of the historic Evan Hiett House.

“Evan Hiett House” in North River Mills

On the way, we passed a little church with a cemetery. We stopped and, no surprise, found more dead relatives. While there, Sue received a phone call. One of her messages had reached someone who passed it on to the family historian, Linda, a distant cousin who was more than willing to share her knowledge of the Kidwell/Hiett/McDonald families. We met her for lunch at the restaurant in Slanesville the next day.

Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald, ca 1930

Linda turned out to be our fourth cousin, descended from Francis Marion Kidwell,  the brother of our great-great grandmother, Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald.  Cousin Linda came armed with a wealth of information, including old photographs and family crests.

Kidwell Family Crest

Cousin Linda kept making references to the “tiara” she should wear because we are descended from royalty, specifically the Plantagenets who ruled England before the Tudors. Then she burst our bubble by explaining that many people are of noble descent. We know more about our exalted ancestors because the nobility kept better records than the peasantry. No surprise—we’re also descended from peasants.

Hiett Family Crest

Cousin Linda said the house in North River Mills wasn’t our ancestor Evan Hiett’s residence, that his was up the road from Slanesville. She showed us pictures of his and other ancestral homes. These are on private property and not readily accessible, but she knows who to ask for permission to visit them.

Unfortunately, Sue and I had to leave the following day, so further adventures had to wait. This coming summer I look forward to exploring the nooks and crannies of Hampshire County for more stories about my roots.

Read the story of Linda’s ancestor, our Uncle Frank, at https://marieqrogers.com/2012/12/30/falling-off-dutchess/

Sarah’s Fruitcake

People just don’t understand fruitcake. This time of year, when the fruitcake jokes begin making the rounds, I cringe. Every summer when I drive through Claxton, Georgia, the “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” I shake my head in disgust. I’ve considered stopping and setting these well meaning but ill informed people straight. I hardly call those white bricks of sugar, filled with stomach-turning green and red things, fruitcake. I make fruitcake. Real fruitcake.

I got started after receiving an inheritance from my great-grandfather. Grandad made it to 97, outliving three wives and a series of “housekeepers.” He wasn’t quite as bad as Henry VIII. He didn’t behead his wives, but he worried the first two to death and divorced the third in a era when divorce was not quite respectable. It was also not respectable to live with a woman without the blessing of marriage, so Grandad had “housekeepers.”

Grandad was a handsome young man.

His wives were out of the picture by the time I entered the world, but I remember a few of the housekeepers. One had a daughter who had no arms. I remember visiting one day with my grandmother. The girl was washing dishes. I was too small to look into the sink and see just how she did it, but she stood on one leg, her other foot in the sink working in the sudsy water. She wore slip-on shoes so she could slide her feet out easily whenever she needed them for hands. I assume she went to a special school. Her mother told her to show Grandma the necklace her teacher had given her. The girl stood on one foot, lifted the other to her chest and held out the necklace, the same way you or I would with our hands.

Grandad’s house

Years later, Grandad had a housekeeper around his age named Nellie. She and Grandad would sit on the porch together or walk down the road hand in hand. Once Nellie asked me about my family and was amazed that none of our many children had died. When she was young, she said, it wasn’t unusual for a family to lose several children. She told me about a sister who had died. “I really liked that sister.”

Then we moved to Florida. I visited the summer after Grandad died. Aunt Ora Mae was sorting through his effects and gave me a few of his things. Among them was a stained and tattered notebook filled with antique recipes, one of which was Sarah’s Fruitcake.

I have no idea who Sarah was. Apparently she was an acquaintance of whomever kept the recipe book. When I showed the book to Grandma, she didn’t recognize the handwriting, but she was sure it wasn’t my great-grandmother Rebecca’s. She surmised it had belonged to one of Grandad’s subsequent wives or one of the “housekeepers.”

I’m not sure what the standards of kitchen measurement were in those days, but Sarah’s instructions included “coffee” cups of this and that as well as “teaspoons” and “tablespoons” which I’m sure only approximated modern measures. In addition to raisins and other dried fruit, Sarah used citrons. I’m willing to bet they were actual home-preserved citrons, not those plastic green and red things which are passed off as fruitcake ingredients today.

That November, I made my first fruitcakes, shared them with family, and sent some to my grandparents. I used standard measuring cups and spoons and lots of dried fruits, no “citrons.” It was delicious.

I’ve made fruitcake every year since. I’ve modified and improved Sarah’s original recipe, but I still give her credit for what she shared with the unknown woman in Grandad’s life. Here’s the recipe I use now:

  1. Mix together 6 to 8 cups of dried fruit. Suggestions: raisins, golden raisins, diced figs and prunes, cranberries, currants, diced dates and apples, cherries, and pineapple. (I use canned pineapple, drained, of course.) Add 1 to 2 cups of broken pecans.
  2. Mix together and add to the fruit:

2/3 cup butter

1 cup honey (you can use raw sugar)

½ cup sour cream

3 beaten eggs

  1. Combine and add:

3 ½ cups flour (preferably whole wheat)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon orange peel

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

To incorporate all these dry ingredients into the fruit mixture will be a test of strength, but it’s worth the effort. If the dough is too dry, add a little more sour cream.

  1. Line baking pans with parchment or waxed paper and fill 2/3 full. You can dress up the cakes with a line of pecan halves down the middle. Bake at 275 degrees until a toothpick come out clean.

I use 4 or 5 small loaf pans (7 ½  x 3 ¾). The number of pans needed depends on the volume of fruit and nuts. Cooking time varies by the size of pans. Cakes in small loaf pans take a little over an hour.

Try it. You’ll like it. And maybe next Christmas season, like me, you’ll cringe at those unkind “fruitcake” jokes.

On this Veteran’a Day, I’m posting a family story about my Dad, in the words of my sister, Sue Rogers Kreikemeier:

“My father, Russell G. Rogers, was a born storyteller. There was no end to his collection of yarns, but like many veterans, he seldom spoke of his war experiences. While most of his stories told of light-hearted adventures, his occasional comments, pieced together with his faded diary and letters home, fill in some of the gaps that he left us with.

Dad was an 18 year old farm boy when he was drafted into the Army during World War II. After basic training and a train ride across the United States, he was shipped out to the Philippines. While the majority of Japanese soldiers had retreated from their strongholds, ‘hold-outs’ existed for some time to come. Dad simply described his assignment there as ‘mop-up duty’. He recalled the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, noting that President Truman’s decision to do so probably saved his life, as his unit was being outfitted with wool uniforms which he suspected was preparation for a land invasion of Japan.

(In this picture, Dad is the short guy on the right, with his schoolmate Marty Zemek. This was not taken in Hawaii, but in my grandparents’ front yard. Dad served in the Seventh Army Air Force.)

After the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied Forces, Dad’s next stop on Oahu must have seemed like landing in paradise! During this time he was assigned the task of cleaning the officers’ quarters on the base. Photos later brought home to the States show the joyful faces of Dad with several of his hometown buddies, unexpectedly reunited thousands of miles and one war later, from home. Having attended a one room country school together, they knew how to make their own fun, and joined him in such antics as ‘borrowing’ officers’ uniforms and visiting the Officers’ Club.

When General Dwight Eisenhower was scheduled to arrive on base and inspect the troops, Dad was assigned to prepare the classiest suite on the base for the General. He, like many of his comrades, greatly admired Eisenhower. I’m sure he did his farm-boy best to make a bed you could bounce a dime off. To his great disappointment, after inspecting the troops, General Eisenhower left the base, opting for the comforts available in Honolulu. In spite of his initial chagrin, Dad was always proud to be known for having made the bed that General Eisenhower never slept in.

These tidbits have led me to explore more about what his war experiences might have included. I’m sure his story is reflective of many other stories, if they had been told, of young farm boys and girls thrown into circumstances beyond their imaginations. I am humbled by the resilience of our ‘Greatest  Generation’, who, in spite of a heavy veil of pain and suffering, were able to find joy and wonder in a hurting world.”

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Our sister Bonnie Rogers Grundel adds:

“So here is a picture of Dad’s military shadow box. Also, he got the Combat Infantryman Badge.

Per Wikipedia: “On 27 October 1943, the War Department formally established the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and the Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) awards in Section I, War Department Circular 269 (27 October 1943): The present war has demonstrated the importance of highly-proficient, tough, hard, and aggressive infantry, which can be obtained only by developing a high degree of individual all-around proficiency on the part of every infantryman. As a means of attaining the high standards desired and to foster esprit de corps in infantry units; the Expert Infantryman and the Combat Infantryman badges are established for infantry personnel.”

Supposedly Dad got an extra $10 a month for obtaining this badge!”

Dad with old Army buddy Frank Ross.

And here’s my contribution: When we were kids, we asked Dad if he ever got shot in the war. With a straight face, he lifted his shirt,  pointed to his belly button, and said, “Yes, here.”

 

Grappling with Irma

Every day during hurricane season, I pull up the National Hurricane Center website to see what’s brewing. Irma began as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa. When she was christened on August 30th, I was preoccupied with my daughter Carrie who was in the hospital. Overnight, Irma grew to hurricane strength. When Carrie was discharged, I expected life to return to normal. It did, for a few days. While Irma snaked across the Atlantic Ocean, I went to church on Sunday and ate a hamburger to celebrate Labor Day.

Tuesday, as Irma approached the Leeward Islands as a Category 5 storm, I was packing for an out of town meeting. I’d planned to meet my friend Jackie after lunch and head south. Jackie called. In a voice tight with anxiety, she said she was having second thoughts. A friend in Titusville called to say she’d been told to evacuate with her invalid husband. But Irma’s a week away, I said. We’ll be home before then. Jackie said if they’re starting to evacuate the coast and South Florida, we’d run into heavy traffic and gas shortages. Besides, she had a bad gut feeling. I’ve learned to heed gut feelings, so I stopped arguing. We decided not to go. Later, the meeting was cancelled anyway.

I unpacked my suitcase. Living inland in a sturdy house, I had no need to evacuate, but I checked my supplies and made a list of things I needed. Irma was projected to hit Florida. Dwelling in the woods, I could face a week without electricity.

On Wednesday, Irma threatened Puerto Rico with 185 mph winds. I went to Publix for a few items. People were snatching up bottled water and emptying the shelves of staples and snacks. Why? Didn’t they have containers they could fill with tap water? Was there something magic about bottled water? And didn’t they have food in their pantries? I had come mainly for perishables. At gas stations, cars were lined out into the streets. I found one with no lines, but they were out of gas. No problem, I had a quarter of a tank.

Thursday, Irma attacked the Bahamas, 500 miles away. Schools were closed. Football games, church services, and meetings were cancelled. I busied myself picking up my yard, securing things that Irma could fling through my unshuttered windows. I moved plants to places I hoped they’d be safe and brought the most fragile ones inside.

Irma skirted Hispaniola and cast her roving eye on Florida, as yet undecided where to strike. The projected path was up the east coast, possibly off into the ocean. Good, I thought. At 11 pm, she jogged westward, threatening to come up through the peninsula—directly toward me!

Somewhere under here lies the late great state of Florida.

During 2004, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes, I made a “safe room” in the closet under the stairs. When Hurricane Frances lumbered through, we hunkered there for two days until she moseyed on. Since then, that space had deteriorated into a jumbled, dusty collection of everything I didn’t want to throw away or stash in the attic. Anticipating a need for a safe room again, I cleaned it out. It took me two days.

On Friday, Irma weakened to a Category 4 and began to maul Cuba. I managed to find a gas station still in business. My sister in the panhandle called to see how I was doing. She was worried about us in the path of the storm, but she sounded like she was about to fall apart herself. She’d already called our sisters who live south of me and was amazed at how calm we all sounded. Well, yes, we’d weathered hurricanes before. (https://marieqrogers.com/2014/09/29/hurricane-dora/) We know how to survive. So had she—Ivan in 2004 and she didn’t want to go through that again!

Saturday, Irma spent a second day scouring Cuba as a Category 3 and her little dance with Florida shifted to the Gulf coast. I remained calm. Yes. Calm. I took a break from closet cleaning to relax and crotchet. I was so calm that I picked up the wrong size hook and had to rip out what I’d done and start over. Anticipating a need for comfort food, I decided to make brownies and a healthy alternative, banana cranberry bread. I was so calm, I peeled the bananas, put the skins in the bowl, and caught myself about to throw the bananas into the compost! Yeah, I was so calm, I forgot to add cranberries.

Sunday at 5 am as Irma hit Key West, pumped back up to Category 4, I woke to heavy rain. What? The center of Irma was 400 miles away! Around 10 am, a strong windstorm blew branches from trees and my lights blinked off for a few seconds. By now ankle deep water flowed through my yard. No problem. I live in pine flatwoods. That’s why I built the house well off the ground. But my driveway would soon be impassibly muddy and some roads were already closed due to flooding. Between squalls I drove into town to fetch Carrie and her husband and bring them to my house. Afterward, I parked in my neighbor’s field where it was high and dry and away from trees.

This is after the water went down.

Irma was 300 miles away, battering South Florida as a Category 3, when my electricity went out at five pm. No problem. I have a gas stove and a supply of water. Whenever I empty a bleach bottle, I fill it with water in case of a power outage. The trace of chlorine keeps the water fresh. My store of “hurricane water” has come in handy. One Thanksgiving, with a houseful of guests, my pump inexplicable stopped working. No problem. I took out some hurricane water and heated it on the stove so I could wash dishes.

Wind and rain continued all night. Every so often I’d hear a thud—something small hitting the roof or something large falling in the yard. I braced for the worst, prepared to retreat to my safe room. Around 2 am Monday, Irma reached Tampa as a Category 1 and churned up the Gulf coast. The bully that had wrought death and destruction on every island in her path found the Florida mainland a tougher victim. Irma weakened. By 8 am, she lost hurricane force and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Sometime during the morning, her center passed less than 20 miles away, her winds lashing the trees but not as violently as Frances 13 years ago. Her momentum carried her into Georgia, then Alabama where she petered out before midnight. What an anticlimax—I didn’t even need my safe room.

During a lull, I went out to check for damage. I still had a roof. Three young trees leaned over, ready to fall, and a large branch had been torn off a mature tree, but none threatened the house. The ground was blanketed with branches and shredded leaves. That afternoon, my neighbor drove up in his tractor. He said my driveway had been washed out where it crosses the creek, but he and another neighbor had repaired it. Adversity can bring out the best in people.

I have a deck under here somewhere.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear. I don’t know where the butterflies had sheltered, but now they flitted from flower to flower and danced in the sunshine.

Zebra Longwing
Florida’s state butterfly

I took Carrie and Al home. Their house was also intact, the inevitable branches littering the yard. I listened to the news. Floods, downed trees, roads closed, bridges washed out. An estimated 15 million without power. That’s ¾ of the state’s residents. It might be weeks before all would be restored. No problem. I have hurricane lamps.

Then—miracle of miracles—a few minutes before 7 pm the electricity came back on!

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