Blue Willow Special

Blue Willow. They are common, everyday dishes. The pattern has been around since the 18th Century, massed produced in various countries, and widely used in diners and restaurants in the 1920s to serve up a hardy, inexpensive meal, commonly called “Blue Plate Special.” The plates are so familiar that unless you’re a collector, you probably wouldn’t give them a second glance at a second-hand shop.

Common in ubiquity. Common in color – blue image on white background. Common with an unvarying arrangement of objects. Common in terms of everyday functionality. Now, close your eyes. Can you recall the detail?

The Blue Willow pattern is actually complicated. It depicts a traditional Chinese waterside garden with images that tell a traditional folk tale of wealth, arranged marriage, forbidden love, honor killing and transformation. The lovers turn into the pair of doves prominently featured at the top center. The pattern is a feast for an imaginative mind.

IMG_1870The single place setting now in my possession could have been purchased almost anywhere in the early 20th Century. Maybe even today. But it wasn’t purchased. It was a gift from the Pungo River, nudged along with dozens of similar pieces, amazingly intact, to the water’s edge. It solidly served as the everyday tableware for the good folks who owned our house and inn about 100 years ago. Their descendants recently gave me this five-piece set. Yes, it’s complicated.

Not just any common Blue Willow plates, these particular Blue Willow plates, are among the things Linda Shavender Sluck remembers about her grandmother Ruth Wilkinson:

“She never used anything else. I remember standing at the sink and helping to wash them after a meal. Especially remember all of the delicious food that was prepared and served on them like her famous fried chicken.”

Linda was a little girl then, and her memories are more feeling than detail. “One thing I remember about staying on the street you live on was the predawn sounds of people coming to work at the crab house across the street,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes they would be singing.”

There are condos where the crab house once stood. The workers are long gone, but the river – the same one that delivered the special Blue Willow plates –  still carries their tune. When it’s quiet. Before dawn.

These oh-so-common plates are neatly stacked in our living room — not a typical place for a set of dishes. They are there to remind me that the most familiar things deserve a second look and that an uncommon story can turn an everyday dish into a family  heirloom.

Two birds flying high

A Chinese vessel, sailing by

A bridge with three men, sometimes four

A willow tree, hanging o’er

A Chinese temple, there it stands,

Built upon the river sands

An apple tree, with apples on

A crooked fence to end my song.

–A variation of a short Willow Pattern poem


My Long Journey to Andra Watkins


Written in gratitude to Anne Becker and in memory of Ruth Wilkinson, whose invisible hand has nudged together another generation of kindred spirits under the roof of her home-sweet-home in the tiny town of Belhaven, NC.

The river takes, the river gives. Which is exactly how the Wilkinsons, who lived at 367 East Water Street in Belhaven when the road was known as Front Street, long before their house became an inn, ended up with a collection of Blue Willow plates. Ruth Wilkinson, the family matriarch, arrived at the collection one plate at a time as they washed up on the shore of the Pungo, a bounty claimed by some Victorian-era hurricane, decades before hurricanes had names. Floatsam or jetsam, who knew? Who cared? The river practically delivered them to the Wilkinson’s doorstep.

The plates, I’m told, have graced the Wilkinson’s Thanksgiving dinner table, accommodating family recipes inspired by Ruth, for four generations. I know this from Anne Becker — Ruth’s great-granddaughter, author of the “Wilkinson Plates.

Although she now lives in Washington State, which might as well be a different country if not for social media, Anne’s connection to the river is strong. Eastern Carolina calls her home just about every year.

Aside from owning the same house in different lifetimes, my connection to the Wilkinsons starts with Anne’s Aunt Becky. Becky and her husband showed up at the inn one sunny afternoon. They were taking a drive down Memory Lane and wanted a look around the old homestead. They didn’t have much time; they wanted to get back to their home in southern Virginia before dark. Becky promised to return, and she did — always unexpected — gifting me with her memories, a copy of the “Wilkinson Plates,” and finally, before she died, connecting me with Anne. The river takes, the river gives.

While researching another book inspired by her Belhaven family, Anne spent a few days with us last summer, sleeping in the bedroom once occupied by her Aunt Iris. We became fast friends, bonding over our early political careers, writing, reading, gardening, baking, old houses and the spirits among us.

A few months ago, Anne surprised me with a package that contained a beautiful cowl she knitted while channeling the cold Pungo River breezes, and two novels written by author Andra Watkins. Without giving away any secrets, Anne knew I would love Andra’s novels, based on our shared fascination with Theodosia Burr Alston, Vice President Aaron Burr’s less-infamous daughter, whose death remains a North Carolina legend, as unsettled as the fate of the Lost Colony.

I had just started reading Andra’s second book when out of the blue, I received an email from Andra Watkins herself.  Anne Becker had suggested she contact me about hosting an author’s night at our bed and breakfast.

At first, I was like – What? We can’t afford to host a New York Times best-selling author! I almost responded, politely of course, without opening her proposal. But I loved Andra’s books, so I couldn’t resist.  I opened the document, and my concerns amplified — What? We can’t accommodate 100 people! But then I thought about the flotsam-or-jetsam Wilkinson plates and how that one book connected me to Anne, and how one book connected Anne to Andra, and Andra to me. The river takes, the river gives. It’s my turn to keep it flowing.

Sponsored by Between Water & Main Bed & Breakfast, Andra Watkins will be coming to Belhaven’s Wilkinson Center, 144 W. Main St., Sun., Feb. 11, 2018, 3-4 p.m., to present “I Walked 444 Miles to Make a Memory,” a hilarious, motivational program about her New York Times best-selling memoir “Not Without My Father.” Book sales and signing to follow. Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by calling 252-943-0367.


Love, Mom


Today he turns 30. The child who made me a mother.

4:50 a.m. was the defining moment. Just like that, I went from Gail to Kyle’s mom. Later I would be Alex’s mom and Drew’s mom. But this date, hour and minute was my crowning. No matter the titles I earned during my professional career, this is the only one that makes my heart sing.

262,800 hours of on-the-job training, yet I am no expert. It’s impossible. Just when I thought I had it down, the game changed. And it hasn’t stopped changing.

Happy Birthday to the child who proved that McDonald’s food really can bring on labor. Gave new meaning to Labor Day weekend and made Sept. 3 my official Mother’s Day.

A thirtieth birthday warrants a trip to the attic to sort through the baby books and memory box. Among the letters to Santa, report cards, early art projects, achievement ribbons and class photos, there are pages of stories. A journal of things I didn’t want to forget. Minutiae, mostly.

I wanted to remember how you always began sentences with, “I have a good idea.” And “probably” was your favorite response to questions. You were the ultimate polite kid, always saying “thank you” when your friends followed your commands in Simon Says.  One night I had told you that I was going out for the evening and that I would give you a goodnight kiss when I came back. “Okay,” said your three-year-old self to his very pregnant mother. “When I fall sleep, I’ll be turned the right way so you won’t have to bend.” And you were.

Happy Birthday to the child who was born to serve. Who looked after your brothers beyond all rationale expectation, earning the not-always-complimentary moniker of “third parent.” There was the time you went to the New Jersey Shore with a friend’s family and selflessly spent your allowance on souvenirs for your brothers, who weren’t lucky enough to spend the day at the beach. And the time we took the train from New Jersey to Chicago, and you patiently spent hours teaching your youngest brother how to tie his shoe laces.  And the time …

Neighborhood baby-sitter, life guard, volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. Your roles and responsibilities changed as you grew beyond the world of family and friends and into the community, but your sense of purpose never wavered.

“Would you be upset if I didn’t go to my college graduation ceremony?” asked your teenaged self, who had already passed up senior year of high school for a bridging year at college. You went to Europe instead. Then in your 20s, after a few years of corporate life, you announced you were enrolling in police academy. You didn’t skip that graduation.

Happy Birthday to the man, soon to be a husband, who kick-started my motherhood clock, knocking me head-over-heels into the boundary-less infinity that is love.

May all your dreams come true.


Be a Local Tourist


The winter before she took off for college, my sister decided that she and I should hike the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that we weren’t hikers. Or campers. Or prepared in any way. We were just teenagers ready to test the limits of our independence — in no small way.

I can’t believe our parents didn’t balk when we announced our daring plan or when the glossy brochures, maps and trail guides arrived in thick envelopes via postal mail. In retrospect, I’m sure they knew it would never happen, so they let our notion run its course – which it did, before we ever broke in our sneakers. (Yeah. Sneakers.) Wasn’t it fun just planning, imagining, bonding?

It was an idea destined to fall apart. We relied on summer job money to pay college tuition. We couldn’t afford an off-the-family-grid adventure. As the plan began to unravel, Linda and I considered driving south, anywhere along the trail “away from home,” “not New Jersey,” and sleeping in her car – a well-worn Ford Maverick we lovingly, laughingly called the Mav-er-wreck. The green machine wouldn’t have gotten us safely to Virginia, let alone Georgia.

We never did hike the trail that summer or at any other time, together. When I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods some 25 years later, I laughed out loud. Linda and I were spared the roles of the clueless Bill and his hapless friend Stephen Katz, who carried a stash of Little Debbie snacks to fuel his way.

At 2,192 miles, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is the longest blazed trail in the U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  Three out of four people who start the AT fail to cross the finish line, including casualties Bryson and Katz.  Bryson does go back to hike sections of the trail he missed and highlights a 27-mile stretch along the Delaware Water Gap as one of the most scenic. The water gap, which divides the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, edged by the Blue Mountains to the west and the Kittatinny Ridge to east, was less than an hour from our family home and even closer to where my sister and I eventually put down roots. We drove through the Delaware Water Gap almost every winter weekend to ski in the Poconos or to visit my brother. “We need to do this,” I would say looking out the car window at the frozen water cascades clinging to the rock face. “We need to do this,” I would say as the ice turned into streams. “We need to do this.”

Like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty or the iconic Empire State Building, we could go any time, I reasoned. But we didn’t, until we were packing to move to North Carolina. Linda, who complained that kayaking across the Cape May Harbor was forced labor, passed on the opportunity.

On a beautiful August day, Alan and I, a couple of our then college-aged kids and their friends, made a day of it. The hike was a bit strenuous, over streams, through the woods and up rocky inclines, as difficult to climb as they are to descend. After several starts and stops — pointing out a a wildflower there, a patch of blue sky, a suspicious hole in the ground (all covers for catching our breath) —  Alan and I found our way to a rocky outcrop with a spectacular view of the Delaware Water Gap. The young ones were waiting for us with the expected, “What took you so long?”

Why, indeed, did it take us so long?

The hike was an edited version of a much bigger, storybook plan, with a different cast of characters, but it was still awesome.

I marvel at the adventurers who stay at our bed and breakfast. Newlyweds “working their way” around the world. A young couple biking from Tennessee to Virginia. A retired couple who sailed around the world, only to end up in Belhaven, N.C. The Hokulea crew, who traveled the world in a replica of a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, with no auxiliary power, navigating by the stars. Their stories remind me that there are plenty of brave people in the world and, although I have the heart of a traveler, I am not one of them.

The fact that they are here, in little Belhaven, prevents me from dismissing my own backyard as ordinary. As an innkeeper, it’s my job to see the community through the eyes of our guests, or as a tourist “just passing through.” You never know if “the best part,” the keepsake of their trip, will be something they discovered in eastern Carolina: A bear sighted eating corn on the side of the road. A rave-worthy meal. A surprise encounter with an old friend. Or the most scenic part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.




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.