Angels Among Us


I don’t know much about her – how she lived or how she died. But I do know she was loved by the young boy who would become my grandfather, my PaPou.  His love kept her close to his heart always, and his story kept her memory alive for generations. The story is now 100 years old.

My PaPou was 10 years old when his mother died. He said an angel was the first to tell him. “I already know,” my grandfather had said to his Uncle George, the human bearer of the sad news. “The angel told me.” No one believed him, but he believed what he saw. He never doubted it.

My grandfather’s eyes filled with tears every time he recounted the story. He remembered that the angel was so beautiful it took his breath away. Yes, it had wings. No, he wasn’t afraid.

The only record I can find of my great grandmother Elena Sitnas is when she came to the U.S. from Greece in 1907, presumably to marry my great grandfather Angelo Komnenus, who had arrived three years earlier. Her parents and her brothers followed. They all came through Ellis Island.  Other than oral history, there is scant evidence of her life. The 1920 U.S. Census lists Angelo, four children, Elena’s parents and brothers at the same Manhattan residence. But not Elena. The angel had arrived before the census taker.

I know the family lived in Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty Midtown neighborhood for many immigrant families. I know Elena worked as a seamstress, making shirts. The conditions of shirt-making factories were notoriously bad in the early 1900s. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history – claimed the lives of 146 garment workers just four years after my great grandmother immigrated to New York City. Although that was not her fate, I imagine that working and living conditions contributed to Elena’s premature death, but I really don’t know. I have not been able to locate her death certificate. Multiple spellings of our Greek surname complicate the search.

I have two photos of Elena that I keep on our fireplace mantel, bookending an arrangement of candles. One serious, posed beside her husband, her hair pulled up in a chignon. The other, a complete contrast. She is dressed Roma-style, big earrings, her black hair cascading down her shoulders, her chin slightly tilted toward the sky. Her profile looks a lot like my mother, a grand-daughter she never met. She looks happy. My grandfather used to joke that we came from a long line of gypsies. Looking at this photo, I wonder.

Last year, I had a dream that I had to hide a white bird feather for a scavenger hunt. In the dream, I can feel the feather between my index finger and thumb. I’m twirling it. I know I am running out of time to hide it. I hand the feather to my oldest son. Even though I don’t see him do it, I know that he has hidden the feather behind the photo of my great grandparents on the mantel. I can sense it, and I feel good about his choice.

The next day, a friend handed me a white bird feather she found on a walk. I recognized it from my dream, and I knew where it belonged. I put it behind the photo of my maternal great grandparents. It has been there for almost a year.

This week when I dusted the mantel, I noticed the feather was gone.  At least I thought it was gone. Working my way down the mantel, I rediscovered the feather, neatly tucked behind a framing nail in the opposing photo, the carefree portrait of Elena as a young woman.

I believe in angels. Those we can see, and those we cannot. They are here, always here, leaving their imprint, if not their footprints, behind.


Under the Rainbow

As the cook-in-residence at our bed and breakfast, guests often ask for recipes. They also ask me which one is my favorite.

Since I get bored easily, I like switching up what I make for breakfast, sometimes creating my own recipes. It’s hard to settle on a favorite. Naming a favorite for a particular season would be easier, since I like to work with as many local ingredients as possible.

A few mornings ago, as I was standing over my well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, sautéing peppers, onions, potatoes and broccoli in unsalted butter from the Simply Natural Creamery, I finally had a good answer.  I realized that the garden vegetable frittata is my favorite, but not for any other reason than I can name where all the ingredients come from, including the eggs. Although I belong to the Community Supported Agriculture program at Petals and Produce, that morning I had selected only vegetables and basil harvested from the inn’s garden.

I remember Craig Shelton, the first New Jersey chef to win the James Beard Award and an early leader in the farm-to-table movement, talk about the science of cooking. Shelton holds a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale. As many accolades as he has received, the chef told the small audience (and I paraphrase) that he can never replicate the taste of a strawberry, picked from his restaurant garden, still warm from the sun, perfectly made by God.

Last year, our first summer garden in North Carolina, a rainbow appeared after a steamy rain shower. There is now photo proof that the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the abundance of riches buried in our own backyard garden. And yours, of course.



Reading My Way Out

I didn’t want to look back to see when I last blogged, but it felt like a long time ago. Too long. Seven months to be exact. (Ok, I looked.) My last post was just before the U.S. presidential election. Timing is everything. Within days, there was so much vitriol in social and mainstream media. Blame, accusation, shame, anger, name-calling, gloating. I didn’t identify with any of it. I didn’t want to be part of the discourse, and I didn’t want to be irrelevant. So I chose to disconnect. I became a virtual bookworm

I fed my vice. I read and I read and I read. I loaded up my Kindle and unpacked a box of hardcover books that had been following me around for years. When I told my son how much I loved The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven – a book he passed along to me during his first year in college — he said, “I thought you’d like it.” Pause. “It took you what? Five years to read?”

I read so many books these past several months that my husband blamed reading for my insomnia. True, reading kept me awake at night, but it also kept me up during the day. A mind filled with Lincoln in the Bardo, A Gentleman in Moscow, Ribbon of Sand, Amsterdam, Hillbilly Elegy, When Breath Becomes Air, The Matthews Men, A Man Called Ove, Bel Canto (to name the ones I can recall quickly) is constantly thinking about other places, other times, other cultures, other lives. While seven months absorbed in reading effectively limited my exposure to negativity, somewhere between Americanah and The Zookeeper’s Wife, I became helplessly lost, like Macaulay Culkin looking for the library’s exit in The Pagemaster. Lured away by Adventure, Fantasy and Horror, his journey helps him face his fears. Except I wasn’t looking for the exit or conquering fear; I was avoiding both.

Last night, I said to Alan (as my witness), “When I finish this book, I’m going to start writing again.”  Like Harold and the Purple Crayon, I am making my way home.



The Only Thing to Fear


We thought Pearl E. Gates was pretty scary. Maybe she will make an appearance in the 2017 survey.

The only thing to fear is fear itself and our politicians.

Just in time for Halloween and Election Day, Chapman University in California, released its third annual Survey of American Fears. The survey breaks down fear into “domains.” There are 11: crime, economic, environment, government, illness and death, demographic changes, man-made disasters, natural disasters, personal fears, relationships and technology. Oh, my.

Among the top 10, “government” appears three times, including in the top spot, “Corrupt government officials.” Sadly, this is the No. 1 fear of more than 60 percent of the Americans surveyed. Greater than terrorism and not having enough money for the future, No. 2 and 3 respectively, we fear the corruption of our leaders, who have a hand in shaping many of our subsequent fears. Crime, death, and illness are predictably also in the top 10. In the domain of personal fears, reptiles claim the top spot, with more than 33 percent owning up to herpetophobia. Public speaking is No. 2, followed by deep lakes and oceans, small enclosed spaces, needles, germs, flying, blood, and animals. Amazingly, almost 10 percent of those surveyed admitted to being afraid of zombies, strangers, ghosts and clowns (In fairness, the survey was conducted in April before a rash of mysterious “clown sightings.” Fear of clowns might claim a higher spot next year.) Oddly, all of these outrank anything in the “relationship” domain. Dozens of other fears, including “technology I don’t understand,” far out-rank “significant other cheating on you,” although it is perhaps the most likely fear on the list to actually happen. Recent statistics show both men and women have cheated on their partners in about half of all relationships.

What does all this mean? Much worse than encountering Bozo in the woods on a dark night, we fear having to crawl into that small space called a voting booth to cast a vote for a politician, who we fear might be corrupt, but who somehow impresses us by having mastered one of our greatest personal discomforts, public speaking. We’ll return home — more fearful that a stalker (17 percent) might be waiting for us than an unfaithful lover — and wait for the election results, which will more than likely influence next year’s Survey of American Fears, along with a cult revival of Snakes on a Plane.

In Defense of Dylan



There’s nothing I can say about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been said.  Analyzed, categorized, finalized or advertised. I’ve defended the man for most of my life against the accusation: “He can’t sing.” Whether you agree or disagree is not important. Whether you agree or not that he deserves a Nobel Prize (adding another weighty honor to his collection that includes a trifecta of Grammy, Oscar, Pulitzer) is not important.  What matters is that it is important to me.

It’s personal.

I’ve been listening to Dylan since 1971. I was 11, collecting UNICEF money for children starving in war-torn Bangladesh.  A Beatles fan like everyone else, I continued to favor George Harrison’s music after the Fab Four split.  So when he organized The Concert for Bangladesh – an event that set the precedent for rock charity – I could not wait to listen to the album, which I’m sure cost me a lot of babysitting money. And there was Bob Dylan, buried on Side E, singing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. I was instantly hooked, inspired by the poetry, the imagery and the simplicity of the ballad. I went back to discover nearly a decade of Bob Dylan’s music that I had missed, simply because I was born too late.

I might have been described as obsessed. I started taking guitar lessons – a budding folk singer in my own mind. I read Rolling Stone magazine, seeking out any reference no matter how insignificant about Dylan. I read Dylan’s own prose, Tarantula, and Anthony Scaduto’s An Intimate Biography.  I wrote my 8th grade term paper about Bob Dylan: his life, his music, his impact on society. I quoted him like some people quote movie lines. He inspired me to make music my hobby, write poetry, become politically active, major in Political Science and writing and build a career in public affairs. He was the mentor I would never meet, but who was always there for me, growing, changing and maturing with the times.

I was fortunate to see Bob Dylan perform for the first time at Madison Square Garden in New York City during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975 and most recently at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, 2016. I was able to share that occasion with my middle son, Alex, another Dylan fan who had some catching up to do, but ultimately surpassed me in his knowledge of Dylan’s later works.

The day Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was ecstatic. The news propelled me out of a bad mood.  I felt vindicated. Yet, 45 years later, I found myself defending the man to anyone who questioned his right to win.

Read Dylan’s lyrics as poetry. Listen to A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Masters of War, Shelter from the Storm, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll in Dylan’s own voice, delivering his songs like no one else can, complete with gravel, grit, spit and strum. In my mind, no one else does them justice. Whether insightful (Blowing in the Wind), inspirational (The Times They Are A-Changing), harsh (It’s Alright, Ma), spiritual (Not Dark Yet), or loving (Forever Young), it’s raw Dylan.

It’s personal.

I’m sure I’ll be defending Dylan until I die, and when that day comes, someone will respect my wishes and play a recording of Dylan singing the five-and-a-half-minute version of Mr. Tambourine Man. With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, I’ll be following still.


Finding Joy in a Swing


My new swing sparks joy. Even on the hottest summer days, I can find peace there, shaded under the magnolia, catching a salty southwest breeze, reading a book, enjoying a glass of wine with my husband, or just looking beyond the Belhaven harbor breakwater, thinking. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what sparks joy.

When it comes to clutter, I’m fairly liberated. I recognized a long time ago that I don’t function well in a disorganized environment. But several of my friends have referred to the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. Since I fancy myself living on a boat someday, I thought I might learn a trick or two from the KonMari method.

Not necessarily easy to follow, a lot of the de-cluttering advice is obvious – discard items that are broken, clothes that are out-of-style. Here’s where I got stuck: Beyond the functional, keep only that which sparks joy.

Maybe I’m interpreting this too deeply, but I don’t derive joy from things. I derive joy from relationships, nature, the arts, experiences and accomplishments. So how did I end up with enough stuff to fill a bed-and-breakfast and a small apartment? Aside from a couple of display cases of decorative items, much of what I own is functional: clothes, furniture and cookware. My closest and attic aren’t bulging. Mostly, they are holding out-of-season clothes and seasonal decor. Useful stuff, right? I needed to challenge myself further, so I imagined that I was moving out of the country and that I’d have to pay an exorbitant price for shipping. What would I take with me?

Here’s the short list:

Three vintage red wood canisters decorated with a fanciful black poodle. These always make me smile because they remind me of Maya, our fur child, who brings me great joy.

The South American santos on my yoga studio mantel are the closest I come to having a collection of anything. They also fall into the category of folk art, and most of the original art I have collected brings me joy. It wouldn’t take up a lot of room, and I know I could make some tough choices to lighten the load.

The pew that came from the 200-year-old church where my husband and I were married is a treasured keepsake, as is the 1800s tavern-style dining room table that has been the center of generations of conversations. I recently traded a rustic corner cupboard and mission-style child’s desk for an old wooden baker’s cupboard. If I could, these are the pieces I would put in that fantasy shipping container, along with two matching oak secretary tables, perfect bedside stands.

Two quilts made by a great-great grandparent, the life-ring from my grandfather’s boat, an antique gun from my husband’s family. These are things we have been entrusted with and will keep close. Personal items like scrapbooks, old family videos (now on DVD) and pre-digital photographs, already neatly organized, are not negotiable; they always bring me joy.

What about the swing? Although its sturdy, weather-resistant components make it seaworthy, the swing that now brings me great joy didn’t make the cut in my head-game. After all, it is easy enough to replace.

Last weekend, one of our guests asked me where we bought our swing. I happily directed her to A&W Sales on Seed Tick Neck Road, just outside of Belhaven. When she and her husband returned to the inn, guess what they had in the back of their pick-up? Joy, multiplied!

The swing sparked a deep conversation about the things we value in life. And while Barbara might have been able to find a similar swing closer to home in Virginia, this purchase is a souvenir of her trip to Belhaven. I envision her enjoying her new swing as much as I do mine, sharing the story of how she got it, looking out over the Chesapeake Bay, reading, relaxing, or thinking about a perplexing question.

Swing on, sweet chariot. With your lifetime guarantee, you will be swaying in the breeze long after I’m gone. Long after the magnolia is gone. Ungrounded and safe. An object of joy, if not a keepsake, in a messy world.



Loco Locavore

IMG_0387 I wanted to jump over the moon when the Simply Natural Creamery delivery truck, with its Jersey cow painted on the side, pulled up to our bed-and-breakfast yesterday morning.

When we opened our inn, one of my goals was to be a “locavore” bed-and-breakfast. Not necessarily organic, locavores are committed to buying a significant amount of locally produced food and other consumables. I had no idea just how difficult and time-consuming it would be.

Whispering Willow in Lincolnton, NC, while not quite local, supplies our all-natural soap, shampoo and body oil. We found local sources for eggs, pecans, breakfast meat, preserves and some fruit. We joined the CSA (Community-supported Agriculture) at Petals and Produce in Pinetown, where we also purchase homemade wheat bread every week. This year, we planted a vegetable garden, growing spinach, squash, tomatoes and herbs that often appear in our breakfast frittatas. We’re growing melon, too. We accomplished a lot in Year 1, but there was something missing in our locavore chain. Dairy. Breakfast ingredient staples like milk, cream, buttermilk and butter. Before I would confidently wave the locavore flag, I wanted to find a reliable local source for these perishables.

About 10 months ago, Jane Lassiter Boahn at Raised in a Barn Farm in Chocowinity, introduced me to Michael Fulcher of Simply Natural Creamery in Ayden, about 55 miles west of Belhaven. We emailed. We spoke by phone. We met at the dairy. Michael told me that he had to rustle up some customers before he could add a new delivery route. In rural, eastern Carolina, I understood it could take a while – until the cow’s come home. I imagined that it would be equivalent to herding cows – described as part art, part science and part psychology – three elements that, coincidentally, make the Simply Natural cream rise to the top.

Originally from the Channel Island of the same name, Jersey cows produce what is called the “Cadillac” of all milk. Here’s why: A glass of Jersey milk has greater nutritional value than milk from other breeds, specifically 13% more protein and 16% more calcium. Jersey milk also contains A2 beta-casein proteins that allegedly have more health benefits than A1 varieties, making it easier to digest. It also contains 20 percent more butterfat than other bovine milk, which quite simply tastes better. The cows at the family-owned creamery are pasture-raised, with plenty of room to roam. They are not treated with rBST or artificial growth hormones to increase milk production. They produce a lesser quantity, but higher-caliber milk. They also command a premium price, but it is so worth it.

Simply Natural Creamery welcomes visitors, often by the busload, to learn about their operation and to try out what is arguably their very best product: ice cream. They serve up about two-dozen flavors (including an assortment of toppings and homemade waffle cones) at their on-site ice cream parlor. If you haven’t tried this simply delicious brand of ice cream, you haven’t really screamed.

Lucky for Belhaven-area residents and visitors, entrepreneur Lindsay Clark just opened a Simply Natural Creamery ice cream shop at Attic Life at the Landing on Main Street. Attic Life carries about 18 flavors, and I am on a mission to try them all.

IMG_0389Now you know why I am jumping (and screaming) at 8:15 a.m. when Tim and Michael walk up to my doorstep with a small crate of dairy items. Not exactly like winning the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstake, but a significant milestone in this locavore’s journey.

In the U.S., food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to consumer. Buying local equates to lower emissions. Most states have adopted policies and programs to promote local agriculture. North Carolina’s 10% campaign is helping to build the state’s local food economy by encouraging consumers to spend 10% of their existing food dollars with local producers. It’s fresher. It’s healthier. It’s sustainable.

It’s a challenge, but you can do it. One crate, one basket or one scoop at a time.