Monday, December 16, 2013


Café Franco's is an Italian restaurant which my husband and I frequent here on the island because the atmosphere is pleasant and the food is good.  No; actually, it's great.  Homemade yeast rolls are served hot from the oven alongside a dish of fragrant Italian spices and olive oil.  The dishes of homemade manicotti and ravioli arrive at the table with the hot cheeses still bubbling.  Every meal is served by friendly, smiling wait-staff, some of whom are members of Franco's family.  And Franco?  He is in the kitchen, always, a serious man making from scratch seriously delicious Italian dishes.

Here it is in Franco's own words:  "Café Franco's is a traditional Italian restaurant inspired by the uncomplicated and laid-back lifestyle of the Italian people – good food and a good meal are essential to the human spirit…."

It does seem like that, on days when Ian and I head there with our hunger, putting aside for a moment our busy schedules and allowing ourselves to sink together into a booth, the little café lights shining softly overhead, and the smells of rustic tomato sauce drifting out from the kitchen.  Good food and a good meal DO seem essential to the human spirit on days like that.  And Café Franco's does both exceptionally well.

I could go on raving about the food but the thing that has my attention today is a tall post stuck in a potted plant near the front windows.  On it are five hand-painted lavender planks of wood with the names of cities  – all but one of them in Italy – and the mileage to each from Café Franco's : 

Venice 4671 miles
Rome 4757 miles
Florence 4684 miles
Ocracoke      84 miles
Palermo 4819 miles

The closest city to us is Ocracoke, and it's really more a small village than it is a city.  It's also the only American city named on the sign.  Ocracoke is one of the small islands that make up the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  It's south of here – farther south even than Hatteras Island – and a place only accessible by ferry. The thing I know about Ocracoke is that it houses a remnant of the Banker horses: horses protected and cared for now by the National Park Service.  Seventeen ponies remain today of the herd of small, sturdy horses that arrived sometime in the 16th century with Spanish explorers, seventeen descendents of a herd of unusual horses who are physically-distinct from other wild ponies on the Outer Banks: the ponies bear a different number of vertebrae and ribs and a distinct shape, posture, color, size and weight that sets them apart from other ponies. 

Those Banker ponies?  They are my connection to Ocracoke. What Franco's particular connection to Ocracoke is, I cannot say.  Maybe it is as tenuous a connection as that frail acknowledgment which exists between immigrants, between those who have left the countries of their births and find themselves in a new country.

All the other cities named on the sign-planks are somewhere in Italy. 

Palermo, though, has the distinction of being Franco's hometown.  What I know of Palermo could fit into a thimble: it is situated on the island of Sicily - a large island at the toe of the boot that we identify on maps as "Italy."  I remember something about a general named Garibaldi and his troops known as "The Thousands" who entered the city and took it back from the Bourbons in the 1800s.  I remember that's about the time Palermo became a part of the new Kingdom of Italy. And I know that the Mafia had a big part in the modernization of Palermo.  Or was it that the Mafia was modernized by Palermo?  I'm probably getting some of this wrong.  But I do remember that the city's patron saint is Santa Rosalia, who is said to have freed the city of the Black Death (Black Plague) sometime in the early 1600s and that she is celebrated with a festival every year on July 14th.  That kind of historical information sticks with me: throw in something about a plague or some dirty criminal activity, and I'm unlikely to forget that part.

But Franco? Franco knows where he is, always, in relation to his hometown. He is as tied to that city and its history as he is tied to making good food. He is the center of his own known world, always, but he hasn't forgotten who his people are and from where he has come.  I think it might be important to him – and maybe to his customers – to know how many miles he has traveled to get here. And how many miles it would take to travel back to Palermo, should the need arise. I like that he has journeyed over 4,800 miles from Palermo, Italy, to arrive here, and that he has brought with him the seasonings and the sensibilities of his hometown. There is a reason his good food is so "essential to the human spirit."  My spirit is surely feeling it today.

I hope I always carry with me a sense of who I am and where I have come from - also from whom I have come - so no matter how far I am from my own birthplace, no matter what histories are attached to me, they all contribute to who I am and who I am becoming.  After all, being from the deep south means I have a complicated relationship to almost everything from fried chicken to old hymns to sea-songs to quilts.  I recognize, first-hand, the face of poverty when I see it, and the face of a new mother's exhaustion, and I know what it is to labor under a hot sun, trying to eke something out of hard-scrabble land.  I know what it is to be from the South with its histories of slave-trading and racism and rum-running and carpet-bagging.  I also know what it is to be from honest people who work at being just and merciful, people who fear God and pray daily and are thankful for even the smallest blessings. I'm from people who lived their lives and disappeared again into eternity and whose names are now only listed in old census or employment records.  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.   

As the wanderer and prodigal that I have been most of my adult life, I haven't stayed in any single place long enough to erect a signpost to anywhere that has been important to me. But on days like this, I feel it there, that signpost erecting itself deep in my heart of hearts, a rough-planked, hand-painted signpost at some crossroads that points the way back, to home, wherever home has been.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Message, sans Bottle

One of the rewards of living on a barrier island is that, come October, the summer visitors have gone home again and the island is deserted except for the ones of us who live here and are more winter-hardy.  Houses along the beach today are mostly vacant, windows boarded or shuttered, and the balconies are wearing, again, their colorful "For Rent" realty signs.  The dunes are being slowly washed inland by the sea's punishing hand, back onto the Route 12, where they'll remain until early December - end of hurricane season - when the yellow-orange Dare county backhoes will shovel them back into dunes. 
I know this beach by now in the way I still know by heart old maps, the ones I memorized in childhood so I would recognize a place should I ever find myself there - wherever there happened to be - so I could know it for what it used to be before it changed its shape and spirit. In fourth grade, I learned, from a pastel-colored map of central Europe, where the slightly kidney-shaped country of Czechoslovakia lay on its side, a satellite state within the Soviet Republic. In its northern-western region, lay the city of Terezin where Theresienstadt had been built and where, Mrs. Jones told us as we patiently colored-in our maps,  Unlike other concentration camps, all the children who were brought into that work camp continued their schooling.
It was many years later, when I was working as a nurse myself and just starting to write, when I learned that Theresienstadt was where Ilse Weber - poet, writer, and musician -  had worked as a night-nurse in the children's infirmary, a nurse who had volunteered to accompany a transport of children to Auschwitz where she, her young son, and those other children were sent to the gas chambers as soon as they had arrived.  The unsavory details of history were kept from schoolchildren like we were in the 60s but, even as a girl, I only had to look around me to see how short-lived any place could be, how brief and mutable any topography is, how one storm can alter forever a shoreline, or a community, or a dock that had weathered many storms.  I knew first-hand how a "planned community" could rise from where there had once been a vast forest or meadow of wild grasses, how a family's failing dairy farm could be bought and a slaughterhouse/feedlot could be quickly erected so the industry of satisfying Americans' ravenous appetites could continue.  I learned early on to close my eyes and to distinguish the serene lowing of the dairy cows from the sounds animals make on a crowded feedlot.
There is something appealing and haunting about a lonely beachhead, the melancholy chaos of waves unbroken by human "partying" and vacation noise, the beach unburdened by food wrappers and drink cans and bright beach umbrellas, fine grains of wet sand shifting into and out of small tide pools, rearranging the shoreline. Today this familiar stretch of beach is deserted again:  there's not another person in sight for as far as I look in either direction.  No wild brown ponies graze in the sea-grasses. Even the pelicans aren't flying in formation over the tide-line as they often do.  Just me and a few scavenging gulls. I've come here to clear my head for a while and to let my little dog run free, happily snuffling at whatever tender bits the sea washes her way. . .though she doesn't like the water.  Not one bit.  We are a bit alike in that, the dog and me, her with a deep love of sand and detritus and small shells emptied of crustaceans, and me with my old terror of drowning, of being utterly washed out of myself.  
I like walking in the sand because, when I do, my limp is disguised. I look like everyone else looks walking along a sand-deep beach:  crookedly heaving, rocking along back and forth on the feet, trying to stay upright, lurching around to accommodate the shifting depths of wet sand.  Only animals seem to manage a beach walk with any real grace.    
As often as I have come to the shore in these days after the storm, I have never seen a bottle wash up on the tide, whole, corked, bearing a message inside, some letter from a stranger whose fate I cannot know.  I confess, though, I want to find such a message, not just these smashed-to-bits, tide-polished remains of tossed bottles: those beautiful blue and green shards of sea glass that the tourists valiantly search for so they can carry them home to their jewelry-makers who will wrap them in silver and suspend them from sterling chains so they can carry some bit of the sea's handiwork with them.  
Maybe I believe something written and sealed and hurled into the sea would be something important, something I'd want to know, something that might change the way I understand who humans are when under duress.  Maybe I hope that one message will get through of all the ones that have surely been thrown into oceans across the world.  Maybe that dreamy schoolgirl who loved old maps has become a woman still a little in love with the idea that someone wrote an urgent letter long ago, threw it out into the tides, in hopes it would arrive one day, found by some stranger who would happen upon it and read it and be moved, be utterly changed by what was written there.  
I know. The stuff of old movies and romances. 
Now, the dog's adventure is finished and my search of the tide is coming up empty again, so I'll head back up the big dunes to the wooden sea-steps that will take me to Highway 12 and then home again and that's when I see it: one large, oblong concrete block from the old sea-wall, abandoned in the dunes…one of many that were brought in last fall for Hurricane Sandy, blocks solid enough when they were lined up end to end with others to keep the dunes from being wholly eaten by the sea. This one still retains the heavy steel loop embedded in the top by which it had been carried and lifted into place by heavy machinery. It has the distinct, dark mark of mildew along the bottom third, that watermark where the sea and the shore encountered each other.
But there's also something more here: something written by a traveler who wayfared here after the last storm. Along the back-side of the block, someone has written in inelegant graffiti, LOVE ME, except that the “O” in the word LOVE has been replaced by a black heart. And, on the top of the block – in salmon-colored letters – another, smaller, perhaps more desperate entreaty: Please?
Maybe I never got the message being sent before because I've been looking for it to come to me in the way all the old stories say it will: in a corked bottle floating to shore, tangled in seaweed, lurching about in the froth at the tide's edge.  Maybe the real message about what humans feel in some desperate final hours of a cataclysm – the important message anyway – is written on an abandoned concrete seawall block, tucked out of sight in the dunes, being slowly overtaken by shifting sand. Maybe the message was somewhere too in a child's map, pastel-colored, borders and topographies long ago erased and redrawn by time, by the hand of histories we weren’t privy to.  
And maybe, in the middle of all these the ordinary days when feel like we're being shipwrecked, slowly, certainly, we go in search of the message some wiser, sea-weary person has sent – even if we're not wholly-aware that it's what we're looking for –  some last, urgent words to remind us what it is we've come here for, a reminder of who and what we are – good-hearted or black-hearted –  and what we most long for.  Maybe the message is always going to be the same, no matter in what form it comes to us:  LOVE ME. Please?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

HOW TO SLICE A RUTABAGA: Lessons in Southern Cooking

Valentine's Day 2013 - in the
                    waiting room of Eastern Carolina 

 A woman in the waiting room where I sit asks another woman with a bandaged thumb, "What happened to your thumb, darlin'?"

The wounded woman hoists the gauzy thumb up into view so we can all see it. Great for hitch-hiking, I think to myself, flipping through a back-issue of Country Living while I wait for my husband to get out of kidney-stone surgery. But this woman doesn't seem the type to go around hitching a ride with strangers.  She seems more the off-white-Cadillac-with-the-gold-hood-ornament-and-leather-seats-type. 

The Driving-Miss-Daisy type.

The gray-haired woman sighs heavily.  "I was trying to cut up a rutabaga."

A low, murmur stirs the other women sitting around her.  Something like sympathy. A Southern I've-been-there-and-I -feel-your-pain kind of murmur. She has everyone's attention now, even the elderly lady who has been fighting with her thick blue yarn and long bamboo knitting needles.

Another grandmotherly woman in stretch pants holds up for us her right pointer-finger so we can see the pale white scar running the length of her finger.

"I got this when I was a young thing, just married and pregnant already, learning to cook Horace's favorite food.  He just loved rutabagas" – she dragged out the single syllable of the word: looooved – "and his mama made them for him every Sunday dinner along with the fried chicken.  We'd have to go to church and then go straight over to his mama's house for dinner because she made them rutabagas just for her boy.  That's what she called him - her boy. When his mama died from the sugar diabetes – God rest her soul – I thought I'd try to make them for him.  Sliced my finger straight through to the bone on the first try.  You could hold it under the faucet and pull it open and see right down to the pink bone, if you didn't pass out. Which I almost did."

We all lean in to get a better look at her scar.  Another woman, with dyed orange-red hair, pipes up brightly and says that the doc who stitched it up must-a been real good at stitchin' because you couldn't hardly see it unless you was to know it was there and go looking for it.

The scarred woman shrugs, "Nah. I didn't go.  Just wrapped it in torn diaper-cloth and put a fat rubber-band around it.  Horace wouldn't pay for no doctors back then." Horace must be the one in surgery here today.  The cheap bastard.  

Then she snaps back to her story:

"Every day I'd peel off the bloody wrap - and it hurt like the devil had gnawed it  - then I'd stick the cut finger way down in a cup of milk, then wrap it in a fresh piece of diaper-cloth and rubber-band it again.  Like that, for about two weeks or so, until it closed up and scabbed over. Horace didn't get no rutabagas from me again. Ever."

I take some mean-spirited pleasure in knowing that the unsympathetic Horace never again tasted the sweet rutabagas he'd craved all his life.

Meanwhile, the gauze-thumbed woman is in her own reverie, probably thinking she wished she had known that little trick about the milk and diaper-cloth before her visit to the E.R., for the two shots it had taken to numb the sliced thumb, and the thirteen stitches to close it up, and a tetanus shot afterwards for good measure.

Another woman, much older than the rest of the grandmothers, says, "I'll tell you how to slice a rutabaga, honey.  You just get you a rubber mallet and you hit it right hard on the stem place about 10 or 11 times. Real hard.  Works for turnips too."

That's when the youngest woman among us, a quiet little thing sitting with her grandmother, perks up, excitable suddenly to share her secret with these more seasoned kitchen cooks.  She says, "Oh, I just put the whole rutabaga in the microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes.  It comes out hot though so I use a mitt to hold onto it.  But the skin will be real soft, soft as butter, so the knife-tip will just slide right through it."

She is beaming, happy to be a part of these older Southern women talking around her.  But all around us an awkward silence has fallen. The grandmothers exchange a look with the young woman's grandmother who, out of a deep and fervent love for her granddaughter, takes the girl's hand in hers and smiles at the offended women around her.

"Or, if you don't have – or like – a microwave, you can just slip the rutabaga into a pot of boiling unsalted water and it's just the same."

An appreciative little murmur goes through the group of women and they relax again, grateful that any talk of microwaving food is at an end. But now they are fixated on another perplexing thing:

Why unsalted water?

The wise grandmother, still holding onto her granddaughter's hand for consolation, says, "Now, you KNOW why.  Never, ever get salt in a wound.  You boil that rutabaga in salty water and then cut into it. . . ."

She trails off meaningfully and raises her eyebrows.  They all nod then and um-hm-hm and tsk-tsk, even the young wife.

Then they fall back to leafing through their magazines.  The gauze-thumbed woman stares still at her thumb, maybe wondering how she lost her audience and all that sympathy she initially had.

They know something, these older women.  All of them.  Something I cannot figure out.  Long after they leave that day - one by one, two by two, until I am the only woman remaining in the waiting room - I am trying to put all those pieces together, trying to solve the riddle of why the boiling water has to be unsalted. And all the tension that probably could have been cut with a sharp knife when a microwave was mentioned.

A wounded rutabaga. Salted. Pounded on the stem. Torn baby diapers. Bone-cuts dipped into a daily milk-bath. Fat rubber-bands. Kitchen wounds - earned wounds. And scars. That stingy old Horace who wouldn't take his hurt bride to a doctor. And a modern young woman who microwaves her rutabagas, a shameful thing for some reason I cannot fathom.

None of this conversation makes any sense to me.  But having just recently moved back into the deep South, I'd better start figuring this kind of stuff out or I'll have to just go on keeping my mouth shut in gatherings like these, lest I too be found wanting, to be practicing shameful things – like microwaving fresh vegetables – in my kitchen.

Who's knee-deep in Deep Dixie now?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Start With A Woman

Start with a woman in a cotton housedress walking away from a house.  Not a remarkable house. A house like every other on the street: concrete block, no insulation, jalousied windows, a brief green lawn, the ratcheting sprinkler dousing it, children running through. A day so hot the tarry street is melting and gooey, shiny as mirage.

That woman. Her name? Flora Lee. Flora Lee Haynes. Her house?  Somewhere far down the city bus-line, waiting – as always – for her return. Children to feed. Laundry to scrub in the wash tub at night. Cracked sidewalks. No grass, the only ratcheting there the ratcheting of her life between that house and its obligations and our house and its obligations.  One of which was me.

Or maybe that house wasn't real.  The children were. I'm certain of that. And the obligations.  Why else would she travel so far on a bus before dawn each weekday morning for such small pay and a bus ticket? Why walk the three hot blocks to our door and back to the bus-stop each evening? 

Nigger maid.

That's what she heard as she walked, smiling, through the children on our block.  Children. By that, I mean Billy Kurtz.  And his younger brother.  Tough Catholic boys in a working-class Baptist neighborhood where everyone was equal in poverty, in the land of opportunity-that-passes-our parents-by.  

And what of the girl I was then, girl who loved her and the fresh-detergent smell of her, girl who stood in the doorway each evening when she left and watched her go, smiling, up the block towards the neighborhood bullies, girl who never uttered one word to them on her behalf.

Not. One. Word.

Monday, July 1, 2013


I am pleased to say that my third collection, Prodigal, is being published by Aldrich Press and will be out sometime early in 2014, thanks to a diligent and hard-working editor, Karen Kelsay.

You can check out Kelsay Books' other recent titles here:

Here, also, is a link to my webpage where I'll be posting updates:

Most of all, my gratitude to all of you who have, over the years, supported writers by reading.

All best,

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Reveal


I dreamed last night that I had walked across the street to the mailbox to leave a letter there for pick-up later in the day. It was early morning and the light was that bare, piebald kind of light that arrives when the horizon is just turning into the sun which has not yet emerged from the sea. The island was captive again in the golden-peach-pink light that makes Kill Devil Hills sometimes seem more like a movie set than an actual town by the storm-tossed edge of the Atlantic.  Rigged. Staged. Hushed. Everything of import – the wind-slung tree boughs, birdsong, late-spring grass, the light, the tide, everything filtered through a salt lens – and its import to be revealed, slowly, as the day's play goes forward towards its scripted conclusion. 


When I pry open the stubborn latch on the mailbox, there is a single envelope. I am surprised to find it there: perhaps I left it behind yesterday when I'd gathered an awkward armful of small parcels and letters. I lift it from the darkness of the box. It feels light and crisp in my hand and seems much worse for the wear of having traveled far, crumpled, smudged at the edges as if it has passed through many hands.  I can see, by the clean, square absence in the cancellation postmark that there had once been a stamp on it.  Even the postmark is watery and unreadable.  On the front of the envelope is written, in elegantly thin cursive letters, "Dear Anne."  Nothing more.


I turn it and turn it in my hands, feeling the delicious weight of anticipation, trying to forestall, briefly, the pleasure I always feel at opening a hand-written letter, unfolding the page, and reading it.  There is a silence around me, as if everything waits.  But how can this be?  I am always imagining that I am accompanied by the ten-thousand things of the world, that they too lean in to see, to hear, to know.  In lieu of a God, I suppose, whose presence I have never sensed, despite my most earnest desires to believe.  Just a sign, Lord, I prayed as a girl, a small one, so I can know You are here. 

But stealth seemed, always, to be God's modus operandi. That and a great and unbearable silence.


So I take what company I imagine I have.  We lean in - the world and me - for a moment, waiting together for the reveal. I slip my forefinger under the envelope's flap and take out the paper which seems impossibly thin, as if it were threads of a cloth barely held together. I tremble, thinking it will crumble in my hands.  Like so many things have.  All those patients, barely held together by medicine and hope.  

The living have seemed so fragile to me since then, though it has been many years now since I left that midnight underworld and stepped firmly again into the daylit world. I cannot help but see, even in their youth and good health, how fragile the children seem teetering from one side of the playground to the other, how delicate the retired couples walking the beach hand in hand, and the young mothers who look bruised and exhausted with caring for their children, and the fathers bent with obligation.

Barely. Held. Together.

I open the three folds of the paper and read there a single sentence:  After a long journey, I have arrived.


I think of my friend, Lucille.  And Ken. And of my grandmother who, as she lay dying in a hospital, dreamed the child I carried was a son, already born.  I think of the ones who suffered whose names I do not remember now who once came into my care as a nurse. I think of childhood friends who kissed their mothers goodbye at the station and waved from the bus and train windows, the boys who set off for war and did not return, or who did return but did not come all the way back.  I think of my former student who was buried young, three years gone now.  I think of you too, my friend, there, wherever you are, smiling and waving, setting off again today in the golden-peach light of my dream, waving, happy, barely held together.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Superbowl Sunday, 2013: Flight

Because Ian is not a sports fan - especially of football - we are out for a long drive today rather than being indoors at home watching the game which was still in pre-game festivities when we left the island.  My husband, the aerospace engineer, needs to find some piano wire for a new project so we have driven up to Chesapeake, Virginia, looking for hobby shops.  While we had little luck in the city, we did stumble on one at the outskirts, right beneath an overpass.  Underneath, the concrete is graffitied heavily with black and red and white paint.  Beautiful lettering, but using a script I do not know, words I cannot cipher. I am strangely content knowing that someone came here, off the roadway, off the path, to leave his mark on the concrete world. You'd have to be looking for it to see it, much like poetry. Or here by accident, as I am.

Ian is inside the hobby warehouse and I am waiting for him in the car with the window half down, scribbling, as is my habit when he loses himself happily in the pursuit of flight. He has parked the car so I can face away from the building - an ugly, squat building - where he is scavenging for that "special wire" he needs to control something-or-other that will allow the plane to fly as he wishes it to fly.  

In a field nearby, three men are flying a large-scale radio-controlled plane, making it do its loop-de-loops and fast turns.  At one point, it flies upside down - something wholly implausible in the actual world of flight. Something a pilot would stringently avoid.  The thirty-something man who is flying the red and white plane sets it down neatly in the middle of the field and the young boy who has come to empty the trash into a large green barrel near the field has hesitated in awe, watching the men fly, watching as they gather their plane and equipment and head back to their truck.  The boy stares after them as they drive out of the sand lot and into the road, then he blinks and drops his attention again to the task of the trash can.  This is remarkable to him, that boy,  flight, the control of something mid-air, the easy way the men make the air theirs and move the small craft through it.  He does not seem interested, however, in the odd set of new concrete stairs set out into the middle of the field: three stairs going nowhere.  Or maybe it says too much to him already.  He heads back into the warehouse, shoulders sagging, eyes down, his chore finished.  Back to the warehouse of parts, of gears and flywheels, of pieces of things that make little sense to him.

Clearly, an effort has been made, here along the frontage road, to preserve a wooded barrier between the highway and the gravel road that runs along beside it:  40-foot-tall hardwoods stripped by winter winds of all but a few crisp leaves; a few tall pines and evergreens, a tangled thicket of dry grasses and thorn bushes.  At the top of one tall tree, a turkey-foot claws at Virginia's partly-cloudy, partly-still-blue Sunday afternoon sky.

It is easy today to send the eye up, up into the bright cobalt of space, if only to forget for a while the gaudy net - the spidered web - of power lines and cables strung between metal poles and across the tree line that remind us we live below the gaudy net of progress.  As if we can forget, for a while, how bound we are to the planet. As if it might be possible to allow something in us to rise, higher than the faded treetops, higher than the electric power structure, higher than the gaudy turquoise-and-faded-red sign perched precariously atop two rusted poles that announces Debbies RC World.  As if a shop of radio-controlled aircrafts and all the small guyed wires and knobs that send them careening skyward could be a world, as if even a world that small, that temporary, would be safe in our hands.