Friday, June 28, 2019

Cowboy Code ~ Backstory for the new novel from Ellie's desk

I was born in the new era of television and on Saturdays glued myself to our black and white screen when cowboy shows came on—The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and especially Gene Autry. Every time Autry picked up his guitar as his buddies sat around the campfire under a crescent moon, I felt a thrill. Unlike my father, good cowboys never got drunk and always defeated the bad guys. My father wasn’t a bad guy, but his drinking nearly destroyed our family.
Although I was born in the Maryland hospital where years later John F. Kennedy would be taken after the Dallas shooting, from the time I was young my mother told me stories about her early life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Many of those tales bore fruit in Cowboy Code. Panthers came down from the forests at night and stole chickens from her father’s yard, and the woods were full of ticks and poisonous snakes. She recalled the train stopping at the town’s station and unloading wealthy visitors and dignitaries headed for the elegant Homestead resort a short drive away to play tennis or golf and soak in the hot springs. She spoke about what was known as the African settlement where the Negroes lived. Her father, a mill foreman and secretly a member of the Ku Klux Klan, hired one of the young men from the settlement to help him with his small farm. My mother had been the oldest of three children, and her father inflicted harsher discipline on her than he did on her younger brother and sister. At eighteen she married to escape the sting of the razor strap for the most minor infraction of his rules. 
In the late 1930s, my mother gave birth to two boys. They were still very young when their father was killed in an explosion at the town's paper mill. In her early twenties, my mother was a beautiful widow with no means of support, so she took a job at the mill and hired a nanny for her sons. In Cowboy Code, I replaced the older boy with Bobbie, a 14-year-old girl, because I wanted the story to reflect a girl’s coming of age and her feelings of isolation in the mountain town, distress because of the racism of its citizens, and powerlessness to do anything about her stepfather's alcoholism.
After her husband’s death, my mother married a sailor who struggled with alcohol addiction. My father moved his wife and two stepsons to Washington, D.C. where he worked for the Navy Department. As I grew up, our summer vacations were spent visiting relatives in southwest Virginia. We never entered an aunt’s or cousin’s house without sitting down for a meal of meat, vegetables fresh from the garden, and hot baked biscuits. Once in a while we engaged in table raising, a combination of spiritualism and levitation that occurs in the novel. To this day I am unable to explain the phenomenon. 
Cowboy Code took twenty years to find its way into print. I was reluctant to release the story to the public and expose the shame I’ve felt for most of my life around my father’s drinking, my grandfather’s participation in the KKK, and the soot and poverty of my family’s Southwest Virginia roots. But in writing about the people of the fictional town of Pine Cliff, I have come to realize that they are the embodiment of dignity, honesty, a strong work ethic, and a deep spiritual faith, and I’m proud to say that they are my people.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Blood in the Sauce

What a weekend the three gals from Syracuse picked for a visit to Fern Forest Treehouse. They had booked a year earlier, aiming for peak foliage season, and they hit it spot on. The maples put on a show of gold, orange, and crimson accented with deep green of the pines. Cool nights made for good sleeps and after a hike to the top of Mt. Abe and a soak in the hot tub, the trio hunkered down under blankets high in the trees. In the morning they shuffled in wearing onesies—a tiger, a lion, and a skeleton—for cups of hot black coffee.
            Ashley, a singer-songwriter, is known as Syracuse’s “wild child rocker,” and her band, Professional Victims, has played nationally. By day Ashley works at a tech company selling secondary market tech hardware, but at night she takes to the stage in exotic outfits, her long dark hair swinging at her waist. On Saturday night we all sat by the wood stove and she played a few songs on her guitar and sang, her resonant voice effusing emotion. 
The treehouse weekend was Ashley’s idea, but two of her close friends signed on with enthusiasm. Jennifer is a seraphic beauty who works as an ICU nurse in Syracuse, shovels snow from the walkway of a house she bought by herself, and manages single-parenting her four children.   
Abigail owns the restaurant LoFo specializing in farm-to-table dishes, locally sourcing ingredients. Cauliflower wings and beet burgers are two popular dishes on the menu. "Food is the common denominator that connects us," she says. That’s true, but last weekend it was the treehouse that brought us together.
It was also the weekend of the vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Understandably, many women in their thirties (Ashley is in her forties) believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Dr. Ford is 51, but between 1982 and 1997 when Jennifer was fifteen, not much changed about the way women were treated. In fact, not much has changed since 1962 when I was fifteen. When the Senate’s very close vote confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment, the four of us were dispirited, angry, and fired up to let our voices be heard.

“If men don’t wise up,” I said, “there will be blood. It may be menstrual blood, but blood nonetheless.”
“Blood in the sauce!” Jen yelled.
I must have looked confused. Abigail the chef was intrigued. The wild child rocker wanted to hear more.

In some cultures, Jen explained, if a woman wanted to control her man, she would put menstrual blood in the tomato sauce. After he ate the spaghetti, he’d be compelled to do whatever she commanded.
“‘Blood in the sauce’ sounds like a song,” I said. I could see Ashley’s wheels turning. 
Over the weekend we drank wine and Vermont beer and ate some good food. I was sorry to see Sunday come. They packed up Jen’s car leaving us vegetables from Abigail’s garden, her pickled beets and green beans, a jar of chipotle mustard, a bottle of New York bourbon (good with kombucha, you purists), and the conviction that strong women like these three are going to shake up this country. 
As they piled into the car to make their way back to Syracuse, Jen raised her fist. 
“Blood in the sauce!” she hollered. 
Fellows, you’d best be mindful of what you eat.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Nothing's impossible with love

            “In dreams and in life, nothing is impossible.” Jared and Emily left this fortune cookie adage in the Treehouse guestbook when they checked out last weekend. It seems appropriate that I read it on the day of Meghan Markle’s wedding to Prince Harry because, as it turns out, Emily and Jared will follow their lead in the autumn of next year.
            Jared was a bundle of nerves when he texted H about the best way to propose to Emily during their upcoming weekend at Fern Forest Treehouse. H suggested they climb Mt. Abraham and he pop the question at the summit. But it was a chilly day in mid-May and although they are both marathon runners, Jared wanted a venue more relaxing. We offered a couple other ideas—a soak in the hot tub, borrowing the mic at a local music concert, or taking the gondola to the top of the mountain in Stowe. None of those idea floated with Jared. 
Finally, we suggested walking the Robert Frost inspirational trail in Ripton, where Frost lived for a spell. The trail, just ten miles of dirt road from the Treehouse, wanders a third of a mile through woods and fields rimmed with blueberry and huckleberry bushes, crosses a beaver pond boardwalk, and opens to scenic views. Jared liked that idea, and off they went, the ring burning in his pocket.
            While they were gone, H picked up a dozen red roses, and I set a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket to chill in the Treehouse. Then I cued Beyonce’s song Single Ladies—Put a Ring on It—to play when they walked in the door, assuming, of course, that the ring would be sparkling on Emily’s finger.
            She had stopped on the trail to admire the Vermont mountain view, Jared told us later. He told her, “I prefer this view.” When she turned around, he fell to one knee and held open the ring box. He didn’t need to ask. Her answer was an unhesitating yes.
            They had met right out of college, but as 22-year-olds, neither was ready to make an unconditional commitment. They both had jobs in Boston and dated regularly. The more they saw of each other, the more things seemed right between them. When Jared was hired by a financial company in Manhattan, he couldn’t imagine moving without Emily. After three years of dating and two of living together, neither could deny the happy inevitable.
            For the rest of the Fern Forest weekend, the engaged couple bubbled with joy. Jared’s nerves finally had calmed and he looks forward to taking Emily to Iceland in June where they plan to rent a camper and circle the island. The sun will be out seventeen hours a day, and they'll have to pull shades on the camper windows to sleep. But no matter—a bright light no shade can dim shines on these two. Their dreams are coming true and I believe that for them, nothing indeed is impossible.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dogs to the rescue at Fern Forest Treehouse

Looking for love? Try getting a dog. Then take said dog to the local dog park. Toss a ball and watch the canines chase it. Could be that one of those ball hounds belongs to someone looking for another someone just like you.
            That happened to last weekend’s Treehouse guests Amy and Hans. Amy has a rescue sheltie-spaniel mix named Bean. Hans’s Allie, also a rescue, is a cross between a chihuahua and a whippet. For doggies who look so different, they seemed to get along fine at the dog park outside Boston. So fine, in fact, that Hans and Amy had plenty of time to get acquainted.
After tossing balls and watching the pups play, Hans suggested he and Amy have coffee sometime. She agreed, and he said he’d call her. Trouble was, he walked away without getting Amy’s number.
It was a slap-your-forehead moment for Hans, but he figured he’d see her again at the dog park.
Luckily, he did. This time after exercising the dogs, Amy pointed to a coffee shop across the street and said, “Coffee. There. Now.”
            A young Boston attorney, she wasn’t going to let this swarthy, handsome fellow slip away again.
            Two years of dog parking later, Hans, a management consultant, popped the question. Amy, a beautiful and intelligent blonde, is no fool. Of course she said yes. A year later, they married on the island of Anguilla in the British West Indies and Bean and Allie became sisters.
            Amy and Hans celebrated their second anniversary at the Treehouse and from what we gathered, all four in the little family are off to a howling good start.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Lions and Tigers and a Fireman in the Treehouse—oh my!

            When Kelly walked into the big cat house at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, she broke into tears. She has wanted to be a zookeeper since she was in college but she was focused on ungulates, hoofed animals like giraffes, pigs, deer, and hippopotamuses. That was before she met the lions. In that single moment she realized what she wanted to do with her life.
            Kelly is very pretty with a mane of long, lion-colored hair. Always protected by a barrier, she says the tigers are a challenge to train, but she trains the lions by praising them and giving treats when they do as she asks. She gets an old male to open his mouth so she can check his teeth and gums for sores, and if he has a cut on a paw pad, she has taught him to hold up his paw so she can reach through the mesh to apply an ointment. When the lion behaves badly, she ignores him and he doesn’t get a treat.
             She gives her boyfriend Will a sideways glance. “You can train men that way, too,” she says. “Praise them when they pick up their socks and ignore them when they’re annoying.”
            I’ll have to try that.
            But I can’t imagine Will doing anything annoying. He’s a firefighter, paramedic, and former U.S. Army vet with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. A strong, hulking young man, Will wears size 16 sneakers (I peeked when he took them off in the mud room). He was a machinegunner in the military, carrying 110 pounds of equipment and ammunition through the scorching deserts for the entire two years of his assignments.
            Now he saves lives.
            Last Valentine’s Day he was on his way home to get ready for his late shift at the firehouse when he saw smoke. Black smoke, not the light gray that rises from chimneys. He knew it was a bad fire.
            Even though he was off duty, Will approached the house and saw that the dumpster against the building had caught and was igniting the clapboards of the back wall. When he knocked on the door, there was no answer, so he let himself in.
            Inside he found an elderly woman sitting in a chair with her walker beside her and a young man who appeared to be disabled.
            “You have to get out,” he told them. “Your house is on fire.”
            The young man the woman said was her son left the house, but she struggled to get up. Will scooped her up in his arms, carried her out, and put both mother and son in his truck to keep them warm. Then he called the fire department.
            While the fire truck was on its way, will looked for a hose and faucet. Finding no source of water, he grabbed a recycling bin and began scooping snow and throwing it at the fire. He managed to keep the fire at bay until the rescuers arrived, saving the house with minor damage.
            Will never bragged about the rescue, but one of the firemen reported the event to the fire chief, and the local paper printed a story about him. When I read the article, I realized we had a hero in the Treehouse. Actually, two heroes. It takes more courage than I could muster to face an open-mouth lion.
            Kelly says the zoo houses only rescue animals and those born in captivity, and she stresses that the zoo does not take in wild animals and donates every year to wildlife conservancy. She and Will have their own little zoo with a dog, two cats, a corn snake (Kelly’s), and a python (Will’s).

Will and Kelly are lucky to have found their life’s passions. From what H and I could tell, there was also some prodigious luck at work in finding each other.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Caga Tió moves into the Treehouse

           Last weekend's guests at Fern Forest brought us the tradition of the Catalon Christmas pooping log.
That’s right—a log that poops—presents.
Ari, from Catalonia, and Juan, from Colombia, brought their daughters Maia and Mar for a second visit to the Treehouse, this time with åvia (grandmother) Anna visiting from Barcelona. On one of their three nights with us, they told us that Santa doesn’t bring children gifts in Catalonia. They get gifts from Caga Tió, the log with a smiling face and a red stocking cap.
             Beginning with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, children place a bit of food in front of Tió every night and cover him with a blanket to keep him warm. If they take good care of the log, it will poop gifts for them. The tradition goes that on Christmas Day the children leave the room to practice their Tió de Nadal songs and pray for presents.
            Children in Catalonia, it seems, are permitted free use of the Catalon word “caga,” meaning “shit.” Here’s the English translation of the pooping log song: “Shit, log—shit nougats, hazelnuts and cheese. If you don’t shit well, I’ll hit you with a stick. Shit, log!”
While they’re singing and praying, parents surreptitiously place gifts under the blanket. When youngsters are called back into the room, they sing their songs while beating the tió with sticks to make him poop their gifts. The presents are usually small—candies, nuts, and little toys. (Larger gifts are brought by the Three Wise Men—which makes me wonder what offense Santa perpetrated to be exiled from Catalonia.)
When the log has pooped out all his gifts, he poops a hunk of coal (according to åvia Anna) or a square of toilet paper with Nutella smeared on it (says Ari), indicating that the log has nothing left in him except—ahem—poop, and the fun is over.
H was so taken with the pooping log story that the next day he took Maia and Mar to his workshop and fashioned his own caga tió topped with a red ski hat. Mar offered the log a few leafs of lettuce from the garden, but Ari declared that the tió was not expected to poop until Christmas, which I was relieved to hear.
Even though the family now lives just outside New York City, they still celebrate the pooping log tradition. When we said farewell, we offered them H’s caga tió as our parting gift.
“No thanks,” Juan said, smiling. “We have our own pooping log.”
Now, it appears, so does Fern Forest.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Every picture tells a story, every story shows a picture

            My biggest regret about being a student at George Washington University in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is that I didn’t take photos at the student rallies to protest the Vietnam War. I thought about those times this past weekend when Mike and Chantal visited Fern Forest. They’re both artists. Mike constructs public installations of huge mosaic tile images, and Chantal heads the graphic art program at Tufts. They had booked the Treehouse to celebrate the thirteenth birthday of their beautiful, dewy-eyed daughter Leyla.
Mike Mandel, "Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971"
                Chantal has published several books of her artwork, and I’m especially drawn to the images overlaid with words. The Turk and the Jew is my favorite, a visual documentation of her courtship with Mike. She’s from Turkey, a round-face beauty who holds the steady job while Mike fishes for projects.

“Photographs are basically small pixels,” Mike says. “So why not blow up a photo and make each pixel a small tile.” His work involves tens of thousands of inch-square tiles in a hundred different colors. He hires a small team to put the tiles on a grid he makes from the photographs, mostly of people and some of horses. The effect is stunning both from close up and from a distance. His work hangs in airports, subways, universities, convention centers, and even parking garages. You can see examples at

Mike began as a photographer, and I can’t get enough of the black and white shots from the ‘70s on his website. One album is quick candids of people in cars, another of cheap motels, and some naughty shots of lovers necking behind a ride at a carnival. I especially like his self-portraits using a delayed shutter. He appears with strangers in every shot, a skinny gooney-looking guy with shoulder-length hair and horn-rimmed glasses, often with his shirt off, his pants barely held up with a belt. Now in his sixties, he looks more mature—but don’t we all?

When I told him about the protest marches I attended on the grounds of the Washington Monument, when some men pushed over an ice cream truck for no good reason, when I ran through clouds of tear gas to get to class, when the GWU student center was filled with young people from all over the country crashing on the floor, when the police bloodied students with clubs, when students retaliated by throwing bricks through windows and setting a police car on fire, when I had to bail friends out of jail and was almost arrested myself, when thousands of us crowded together demanding peace, I realized that I didn’t have to take photos. The images are still in my head, and I can use words to get the pictures onto paper.

Each of Chantal’s and Mike’s art pieces tells a story. As for me, one of these days I’ll find the story I want to tell about my college days and do my best to wring it out of my memory in word images.