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Good ole Mary S.

Good ole Mary S.

I walked up the backyard yesterday after a walk with a friend in the soft rain. I was already thinking of the next thing I had to do when I walked over the bridge over the gully kwai (not its real name) and had enough sense to pause and see the blooms where they were planted. I felt a calming and a brightening simultaneously. The leafed out Japanese maple was all the umbrella I needed from the rain sprinkling down and the pine straw path hushed my clodhopper footfalls. And then right at eye-level were these babies. Not babies at all, quite mature like myself, but planted by Mary and Stuart decades ago, exactly in the right place for me to get happier just then. I think I’ll go back out there right this second. Our yard is such that if I don’t get right out in it and wander around, I can miss the best of what those Shumates did back there.

Mary’s been gone for a year now, but those azaleas and the phlox and ajuga and vinca busting out all over keep her ever-present. Excuse me, while I go pay my respects to her plants.




It’s been a couple of weeks of taking care of what’s on top and what’s on the bottom and everything in between. Roof leaks, sewer gas smells, gas stove servicing, annual termite inspection, car issues, trips to the dentist and the GYN.  I even made a colonoscopy appointment–though I made it for exactly the wrong day, so that will not stand. Too bad for you that I won’t go in to the fascinating details of the termite inspection since I need to preserve it for an upcoming column. Who can say what I’ll share about the colonoscopy? Already have a food-related story regarding my husband’s colonoscopy. Think I’ll save it for later. It isn’t even gross, so that’s disappointing. Donuts were involved. I can see the Krispy Kreme marketing campaign now….

Perhaps it’s because I work at home so often and am alone for long stretches that I tend to like conversing with worker guys when they’re here. Today my gas stove guy gave me a new lunch combo to try: cottage cheese and fresh-picked tomatoes. I was about to put cherries and blueberries in some cottage cheese for breakfast and he suggested I try my fresh-picked tomatoes next time. Will do. He broke into a big smile about how good that combo tastes. I’m on it. One summer taste that I can almost grasp with my mind and mouth leaning in the direction of southern New Jersey– Raisin bread, Miracle Whip, Land-o-Lakes white American Cheese and a couple of slabs of a Jersey tomato. OH. GOOD. Too bad the only thing my mouth is near is a pad of paper. It needs to be eaten in New Jersey anyway, so I’ll have to wait. And then I’ll really see a cottage in its dotage….

Why are tiny things so appealing? Miniaturized things? In the case of dollhouses, it can only be that one doesn’t have to clean the toilets. In the case of this display from Brookside Gardens in Montgomery County, MD, where I grew up (and pretty much the best thing in Montgomery County), it must be that there are no weeds that need pulling or no deer chomping on the azaleas.

Tiny is about control. If my garden consisted of a potted plant, I might be able to deal with it. Perhaps that is why writing picture books and poems for children appeal to me more than longer forms.


Sometimes it’s hard to see that I’m making  headway in a given area of life. It could be my tendency to weed 62% of the weeds in one spot of my yard, meaning to get back to it to get the rest before they go to seed and undo any of the % I just took care of, but then something else gets my attention and it’s weeks before I return to see that I was 100% dumb not to finish the task the first time around.

Painting on Wood by Cris Pool Wise

A couple of Pileated woodpeckers have been visiting my house and yard frequently–occasionally at full tilt–as was the case last week when we all heard a terrific BAM that could only mean a big damned bird had just hurt itself somewhere. We were shocked to see a dazed and dopey-looking Pileated woodpecker wobbling around in some bushes under a set of living room windows. Its pal was freaking out nearby as was I a little, wondering what I was going to have to do with this bird. Thankfully, in a few minutes, it had hopped over to a small tree and was more or less recovered. That had to be one big headache, though.

Later my husband and I watched as one of the woodpeckers went nuts on our oak tree stump that’s carved into a throne of sorts out front. It was making headway, quite literally, chipping away at something that a few years ago seemed as solid as stone. More than one chainsaw gave its life for the cause of my throne. I should probably go sit in it and ponder where I next should make headway, what else I should bang my head against, before the woodpeckers reduce it to a pile of mulch.

With the passing of dear Mary Shumate, who lived and loved the house and yard I’ve lived in 16 years, I’ve been appreciating her handiwork with a sharper eye. She and her dear husband Stuart built this house and fashioned this yard starting in 1955.

Mary's garden still grows.

It helps that the lamium and azaleas and vinca and phlox and dogwoods are all blooming exuberantly, and that I finished clearing the paths she and Stuart laid out and lined with cobbles decades ago and lined them with pine straw the past week. I tell myself it doesn’t much matter what’s going on on either side of the path as long as it looks well-tended. It’s not true, I know, but thank goodness the phlox are bobbing along here and there to take one’s eye off the ivy explosion. If it is a sin to plant English Ivy, that’s on her, God–not me! She just kept it under control better than I do. I’ll take the heat for that.

A good path to follow

During the service for her yesterday, her own exuberance was still quite evident since she had planned it–so many references to the natural world: For the Beauty of the Earth and Let All Things Now Living made me smile–which doesn’t often happen to me in church. And then there was the particularly well chosen Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

All that she planted and plucked, all those stones she lugged up from the creek, all the banks she built up, all the times she made her kids and grandchildren hate the gully (since she made them weed it for 5 cents a bushel, I heard yesterday! I offered them a quarter), and all the love of beauty she shared–they’re all evident right outside my window. And I am so grateful to be able to see her hand and eye at work still–even if I can’t keep the yard up to her standards.

Not sure she was much for keeping silence, but it was so much fun to listen to her that I think she was the exception to that rule. I’m happy to hear her voice in my head through the seasons.

The pair of bald eagles nesting on the south side of the James River near a part of JRPS, but on private land, have their own paparazzi and don’t seem to mind one bit. The sit and flit and scare off intruders and sit some more. It’s a glamorous life on the south bank. I don’t open the Times-Dispatch Eagle Camera every day since I would not get any work done if it were in my face constantly, but it is pretty fun to pull it up and see and hear what’s going on. Every once in a while I forget I have it up and I am startled by the sound of a coal train rumbling through my office–even if it is 4 miles away to the east.

I’ve caught both ma and pa eagle sitting in the nest together, but more often I see one sitting on the eggs and another flitting around and about. The eggs are due to hatch in a couple of weeks. Just now when I went to the camera, I had it minimized so I could hear what was going on and the eagle started talking to another eagle, presumably her partner. Something like, “Where the hell are you? Get back here now!” Then some faraway sirens started up in reply and the eagle seemed to have more to say.

I have less to say. Listen to the eagles instead.


for the sort of husband I have from the sort of wife I am. It isn’t the sexiest present. It isn’t the most expensive. It’s not hand-made or home-cooked, but it is pretty durned thoughtful. You don’t have to go to a store to purchase it. And after you purchase it, you don’t even own it, so that’s weird. It does have wheels, but it’s not a new car–or even a motorcycle or the classic bike under the Christmas tree. Nope, so much better.  Next-day delivery, even, which surprised me at 9 a.m. the morning after I ordered it online at 9 p.m. It will be appreciated year-round, so that’s something. It is in the home improvement category. Also the we really are getting older, huh? category. There’s a lot of stuff available in that category.

Love at first sight

This recycling container on wheels from Central Virginia Waste Management Authority made the man’s day–well in advance of Christmas. I still put a bow on it. Just like those Lexus commercials that I’m fairly sure everyone hates. I don’t like being put in a hateful mood at the holidays. And now I will never be in a hateful mood because we can get rid of our crappy collection of recycling bins and roll out the barrel!

Just visited my father-in-law last week and got him talking about the time he spent helping out at a family farm in Rutland, Massachusetts back in the day. He talked quite happily about cutting the hay and loading it into a wagon and then filling the barn with it–so much work, and more technique to it than a slothful type like me would have figured. He said he had a knack for packing the hay just right in the wagon. It hit me that though my husband has never once loaded hay into a wagon or barn that somehow that skill was transferred to him–slightly mutated–so that he has a knack, or an obsession perhaps, for packing a suitcase and car just right. Or so he thinks.

Unfortunately for him, my family possesses no such hay-making or packing skills. I come from a long line of manure spreaders.

Spindles survived Irene. Shouldn’t have kept you all in suspense but I have no power here in Virginia. Funny that the house I was worried about in NJ has electricity and is just fine while we had huge limbs suspended in power lines blocking a driveway (our neighbors’ lines and driveway; our tree’s limbs) until yesterday when our favorite tree company, True Timber, released the limbs and our neighbors. It was a delicate operation for he-men with chainsaws to tackle, and no damage to the driveway or any of us standing around in awestruck poses looking at the guys wielding their saws and ropes on some nastily tangled huge and heavy limbs.

Wandering around the neighborhood, it was easy to see that our little problem didn’t rate much notice. It is easy to notice how stupid so many people are–driving fast through intersections where the traffic lights aren’t working. I’m sure they need ice just like everybody else, but I’m going to say it’s not worth killing me for it. Not sure if that makes me ice-worthy or not. Too fuzzy-brained from all-Luna Bar diet and not enough drinking–water or wine. And for the record, I hate generators. The proliferation of generators has started a new kind of class system that has very little to do with class.

There will be no photo of that. But it’s only a matter of time, what with colon cleanses, genetic engineering, and 12-ply toilet paper. Pretty soon the rich and famous will arrange it so their shit don’t smell.

Perhaps I’m still reeling from our sewer line back-up last week. The house isn’t still reeking, so that’s a relief. Actually, it wasn’t as bad as all that. What backed up was mostly washing machine and dishwasher-related: relatively clean dirty water.  And yes, we cleaned everything up three times with every cleaning product known to harm skin, eyes, and the environment.

A scary sight

Some people I know have plumbers who redo their bathrooms and upgrade their kitchens. We get the plumbers with jackhammers and backhoes.  They wield them well, though, and put up with our shit, literally and figuratively,  so I’m glad for that.

I’m back!