School starts here today. I used to look forward to the first day of school, but even so there was a bittersweet feeling in the air. Now I miss having the definition–the segmentation that came with the seasons. Life anymore is a bit of a blur.
And Labor Day weekend is right around the corner. When I was growing up that meant time for the annual hot dog roast at Toad and Berle’s. Yes, his name was Toad and he lived in what had been the community schoolhouse when my dad was a kid.
There would be a big bonfire and the men would cut sticks and sharpen the ends for spearing hot dogs and holding them in the flames. The women would bring every side dish you could think of and there would be watermelon. Oh, and desserts. My goodness the desserts. Plus marshmallows. Although I think s’mores were too fancy for us.
The creek was nearby (see photo above) and we were meant to stay out of it but we didn’t. There was also a cliff over on Uncle Willis’ land (that’s somehow not nearly as high as I remember). We were meant to stay away from there, too. But we didn’t.
After eating, folks would sit around smoking cigarettes, talking, telling stories (otherwise known as lies), maybe playing some music. We kids would set fire to the hot dog sticks and write our names with burning embers against the night sky. Until someone made us stop. And then we’d do it anyway and sometimes we’d get in trouble and sometimes we wouldn’t. We’d go to bed late that night, smelling of smoke, hot dogs, and burnt marshmallows.
I guess people still have picnics on Labor Day weekend. I guess they even have hotdogs. But I’ll just bet they don’t cook them on a sharpened stick over an open fire while dusk settles like a soft blanket and the voices of just about everyone who’s ever cared about them hums in the background.
This Labor Day I might build a fire out back and roast me a hotdog, but I have a feeling it won’t taste the same. Not even a little bit.
While in West Virginia last weekend my brother showed me some ginseng plants. He was checking them to see if they had seeds he could plant to spur future growth. He gathered up the red fruit with seeds inside and sowed them in a new spot. Seeds need 18+ months to germinate so if we’re lucky, they’ll sprout in the spring of 2020.
Ginseng is not for those in a hurry.
The native plant is prized for all kinds of curative properties from preventing the flu to acting as an aphrodisiac. In the Orient, the fact that the root is often shaped like a man with a body, arms, and legs, makes folks believe it has all sorts of body-related benefits. Another name for it is manroot. It’s relatively common in Appalachia, although the fact that you can get $500 or more for a pound of the dried root has caused over-harvesting.
Enter sang hunters.
There are lots of regulations around how and when the roots can be harvested. Plants should be five years old or older before they’re harvested. If you plan to export the root, it has to be 10 or more years old. How do you know how old a plant is? The first year, there will be just one, compound leaf typically with three leaflets. After about five years, the plant should be at least a foot tall and will have four or more leaves each one with five leaflets. The plant pictured above with three leaves, each bearing five leaflets is probably three or four years old. Not ready for harvesting.
If you look closely, you’ll see a wee crown right in the center. That’s where tiny flowers gave way to red berries with two seeds each inside. They’ve been planted now.
Ginseng is going to find its way into my stories one of these days. It’s ripe with potential–poaching, stealing, the solitary act of hunting through the woods, the art of digging the plant so as to keep the root undamaged and intact . . . it’s an art and a mystery.
Just the sort of thing I love to write about.
I had the pleasure of attending the French Creek Pioneers gathering this past weekend with my dad and brother. This is a meeting of folks descended from the original settlers of French Creek, Va., back in the early 1800s (before West Virginia became a state). There were Goulds, Youngs, Smallridges, Sextons, and Phillips among others.
I’m descended from the Phillips line. The first ancestor to come to America was Nicholas who came to Dedham, Mass., in 1630. Six generations later, in 1815, David Phillips moved his family to French Creek. Seven generations later, in 1971, I came along.
These are the Phillips for whom I named the characters in my Appalachian Blessings series. They aren’t based on any specific ancestors, but are rather a collection of bits and pieces I’ve read or seen or heard along the way. And it was SO special to set up a book table and share those stories with folks who are . . . well . . . my family!
I love sharing my Appalachian stories with just about anyone, but it’s extra special to share them with family members who share the same heritage. Here are some photos from the weekend–click on the images for captions.
Bean supper with all the fixins!
My book table was in front of the pump organ, which was PLAYED during Sunday’s church service.
Gathering for music.
Dad and Daniel checking out Becky Foreman’s display.
Cousins from back when!
Dad sharing a photo of French Creek from the early 1900s.
It’s funny how something can be wonderful and deeply sad at the same time.
One of Appalachia’s sweet ladies is at home in heaven today. Earlier this year I wrote about my friend Anne–Queen of the May. Her 96th birthday was on May 1 and last night she slipped into forever.
A child of Kentucky, Anne would tell stories about growing up on a farm, attending a one-room school, spending time with her grandparents, briefly working in New York City, and raising her girls. She was a bit of a muse for me. And she still is.
I’m happy for Anne today. And I’m sad for her family who loved her so. I’m sad for all of us who knew Anne and will miss her and I’m sad for those who never got to meet this sprite of a lady with dancing eyes who loved nothing so much as a good book.
That was the thing about Anne–books. I think that as soon as she learned to read she picked up a book and only put that one down long enough to pick up the next. When visiting her she was always surrounded by stacks of books. If you checked out books from our church library, odds were excellent that Anne’s name would be on the card already. She read everything and was happy to tell you what she thought.
She read my first novel while I was still shaping it. She read each book as it released and her stamp of approval meant so much to me.
I hope there are books in heaven. I can’t wait to hear which ones Miss Anne will recommend when I get there.
Twice yesterday I heard someone talk about the importance of sharing words of love or affirmation. That old saying about how sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt is nonsense. Words can be excruciating.
Conversely, they can be precious, healing, inspiring, blessed gifts when shared in the right way. So, I thought I’d start the week with some words that I hope bless you.
YOU, whoever you are, have been handmade by God. He designed you and is even now shaping you. Why? Because he loves you. No, he absolutely adores you. You’re the most amazing part of his creation and he knew exactly what he was doing when he gave you that hair, those eyes, and your own special way of laughing.
He did NOT make a mistake when he made that bit of you that you’ve never liked–your nose, your thighs, your toes that make you not want to wear sandals. He knew all about that thing that challenges you–that illness, that habit, that addiction, that tendency you try to control . . . And he STILL thinks you’re absolutely amazing.
And so, since I know God is never wrong, I thought I’d remind you today that you ARE amazing. And you are loved.
Romans 8:38-39 – For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
No, it’s not a pet name for your grandfather.
September is when pawpaws–also known as Appalachian bananas–are getting ripe. A pawpaw is a large, greenish oval that’s the largest, edible native fruit in the U.S. Folks say it tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana with a pudding-like texture. I’ll confess I’ve never had one since I really, really, REALLY don’t like bananas.
They’re beginning to show up in farmer’s markets and some folks are even growing them commercially. They haven’t really caught on at grocery stores, though. They don’t last long once picked and bruise easily. And, of course, our current food system depends on being able to ship huge amounts of produce long distances. Hence rock hard peaches and cardboard tomatoes. (Don’t get me started!)
In the 1800s, Agronomist E. Lewis Sturtevant described the fruit in his book “Edible Plants of the World” this way: “… a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people. The fruit is nutritious and a great resource to the savages.”
The fruit has been growing in notoriety since NPR did a piece in 2011 and again in 2017. You can even order frozen pawpaw pulp pretty much year round with the whole fruit available in season.
I’m hoping pawpaws don’t become the next ramp for the local food scene. The last few Aprils in the Asheville area have seen ramps worked into the menu of every trendy restaurant. I kind of like the idea that pawpaws resist being mass-marketed. There should be at least one food that really, truly is seasonal. You may be able to buy strawberries in October and asparagus in January, but here’s hoping pawpaws remain a foraged delicacy of early fall.
Pawpaws on NPR
. . . or do I mean subjective?
I got scores back from RWA last week. (That’s Romance Writers of America.) I entered The Sound of Rain in the “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements” category.
Spoiler alert–my story didn’t win.
I tend to brace myself when I get scores. Having not even made the finals, I knew they weren’t going to give me the big head. There were five scores. (Which impresses me–that’s a lot of judges to wrangle and ensures a fairer contest.) The first four were downright respectable averaging out to 8.1 out of 10–not too shabby.
Then there was score #5. A big ole 3.7. Ouch. The reader indicated that she felt my book didn’t fit the category. Hmmmm. Too many religious elements? Or too few?
And that right there is the summary of this crazy, roller coaster ride of putting stories out for the world to read. There will usually be someone who ADORES what you write. And then there will be someone who can’t believe you had the audacity to put those words in print.
I’ve had reviewers upset because they didn’t realize I was writing a religious story. And others upset because they thought this was supposed to be Christian fiction.
One of my favorite reviews said that the writing was really good, but the story was terrible. She DID say I was a good writer . . . But my stories will never make everyone happy.
And that’s okay. It reminds me of those old commercials that said things like, “Four out of five dentists who chew gum recommend . . .” There was always that fifth dentist who probably preferred Black Jack chewing gum (licorice!) or who maybe didn’t chew gum at all.
So what’s my takeaway after receiving my scores? Hey, 80% of the readers enjoyed my story. I’d say that’s not too shabby. And reader #5? Well, I guess she’s not my target audience.