Grandma’s Iron…

It sits on my hearth now, wearing a layer of rust and dust, three parts: two solid forms, 5 lbs. each, one upon the other, a team that’s served it’s mistress well and earned its rest. The two cast iron bases are shaped like plump, double-ender canoes. A clever metal handle grasps the top of a heated iron, and easily uncouples to take hold of the second base. A black, wooden dowel protects hand from the handle’s heat. This was the iron my grandmother used for most of her life; I remember seeing it heating on the cast iron stove when I was very small.

Like so much in Grandma’s kitchen, her iron fascinated me. With those heavy forms, she smoothed out the wrinkles in Grandpa’s freshly washed and starched, white shirts, set-in the pleats in her own voile and organdy bodices, ironed countless pinafores and shirts for four children, pressed the embroidered linen and lace table clothes and napkins used on Sundays. Dampen the garment; fold and roll it tightly; spread out the damp item on the padded board and begin pressing with one heated iron while the second iron heated on the stove. Fold, set aside, switch irons and begin again.

In Grandma’s immaculate kitchen, the table and pressed-wood-back chairs were the hub of family life on the farm. Usually, the table was covered with a cheery oil-cloth. In the center of the table, a white-enamel bowl sat, full of Saltine crackers for Grandpa. As he rushed out to the yard or sat down to read the paper, he’d always eat a few Saltines. And, if we grandchildren were very good, we’d get to take a few crackers from his dish for ourselves. Sometimes, Grandma sat out the butter dish and prepare buttered crackers for us. At that table we played Pick-Up-Sticks, Go-Fish, and Dominoes. Usually, we were three little cousins, two years apart, each seated on a few pillows or a dictionary. Grandma was fun, but she did not condone cheating, not even the slightest bumping of the table when that pesky Stick refused to slide off the pile for easy pick-up.

While we played, Grandma kept an eye on the pies or bread baking in the oven.  Before she got the

fancy, gas, enameled stove on four slender legs, she had a fat, roaring, wood stove with two grand oven doors festooned with very practical, serpentine steel-wire handles that dissipated heat and helped reduce the chance of burning your hand opening the oven door. The stove top had these amazing holes with black lids. A long handle could be inserted to lift the lids – I suspect to drop in more coals, though I seem to remember the stove was fed coals at the front from a metal coal bucket sitting to the side. Grandma’s pots sat on top of the lids which glowed red with heat. And one of the four burners always held her red tea kettle with water hot for washing or making coffee or tea. There was a warming oven above the stove, though it was so far above my gaze, that I don’t remember much about it, except Grandma lifting down a bowl of beans or a pot roast that had been hiding there until dinner was served.

My favorite part of the kitchen were the pump and bucket that sat by the back door. The small pump sat in a wooden clapboard cupboard. The wooden bucket sat beneath the pump, and that bucket was kept full of fresh water with an enameled ladle hooked to the side.  Being allowed to ladle out a drink of water was a great privilege for us cousins. A window above the pump looked out on the side porch and drive.  Two windows across the kitchen faced out over the fields. Beneath those double windows were a kitchen counter and eventually a sink with running water.  Grandma often stood at the sink, cleaning vegetables or washing up; she could look out over the fields of corn or wheat or potatoes, and she’d hold us up to look out as a pheasant or fox went ambling by.

All the windows were dressed in white curtains that were regularly washed, starched, ironed and rehung. There was linoleum on the floor, regularly scrubbed and waxed. A small pantry under the stairs next to the stove kept Grandma’s staples – flour, sugar, home-canned fruit and vegetables. With the items in her pantry, I believe Grandma could feed six people for a week without ever replenishing the larder. There was a lightbulb hanging from the angled ceiling of that little room, and I remember being amazed as fresh loaves of bread and jars of homemade jam were carried out by Grandma or her daughters and daughters-in-laws. Magic!

In my memory it was always summer in Grandma’s kitchen. Blowing curtains, the aroma of fresh-baked bread, and the squeak and gush of the pump splashing cold water into a wooden bucket.

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Remembering Valentines

Image result for Old fashioned Valentine Cards. Size: 150 x 160. Source:

Recently, my sister and I were laughing about Valentine’s Days of our childhood. Each year Mom would take us to the Kresge or Woolworth’s 5 & 10 to buy booklets of perforated Valentines. The large pages of the Valentines books each had 6 Valentines that we could very carefully punch out with the tips of the fingers. (Impatience would lead to one or two torn cards that had to be discarded.)

See the source image

Nancy, my sister, and I would divide up the Valentines. Then began the tough job of choosing which card would go to which recipient. I seem to remember that in early February, our teacher sent home a list of the names of every student in our class. The purpose of the list was so we could be sure to have a Valentine for everyone. But, I hasten to note, not all Valentines were created equal – carried the same weight or emotional value. Giving a boy the doggie card (on the right above) would be embarrassingly forward. He would more likely receive a “Howdy, Pardner” card. While our best friend might get the little cocker spaniel with a special note in the red heart.

After addressing our cards on the back, “To Mary Alice, From Janice“, we began the really fun task of decorating shoeboxes to receive our Valentines. You see, on the day designated by our teachers for the Valentines party, we would bring in our Valentines for others AND a beautifully decorated, slotted shoebox as our personal mailbox. Before we commenced decorating, Mom would cut a slit into the top of the box – far too dangerous for us to undertake. Nancy and I would gather old wrapping paper, tissue paper, ribbons, buttons, lace, last year’s Valentines – anything we thought might be lovely as decorations. We would spend an entire Saturday before the party date preparing our Valentines Mailboxes. We had to carefully inscribe the boxes with our names prominently displayed so the correct Valentines would be secured in the right mailbox. Usually, we’d begin with swathing the cardboard box in pink or red tissue paper, carefully folding the ends and corners, gluing on the ribbons, lace, and buttons. We had to be careful not to glue down the box’s top, making it impossible to open the mailbox without destroying the decorations. That would never do! Even the inside of our Valentines mailboxes would be festooned with stickers, drawings, cutout pictures from magazines, whatever we fancied. (Of course, the boys’ Valentines boxes were never as pretty or interesting; sometimes they were even messy or unwrapped shoeboxes!)

At school, we would keep our Valentines mailboxes in our lockers until the end of the day, when they would be set out on our desks. (We sat at one desk all day and that same desk every day, so everyone knew where they could find us with notes, winks, or angry looks.) Finally, when the day’s work was completed, row-by-row, we would be allowed to walk around delivering our Valentines. BUT, we were not allowed to open our mailboxes until we got home from school. And so, we’d bundle up in our coats, mittens, hats, golashes, and, hugging our Valentines boxes close, trudge home through the snowbanks. Mom would have hot chocolate prepared, and we’d sit at the kitchen table and carefully open our boxes and spill the contents in a lovely, glowing pile of red and white onto the table. We’d read the names of each sender, just as though it was a huge surprise. And we would sigh and giggle at which Valentine each friend, or enemy, had chosen to send to us. (Of course, their parents had bought the same books of perforated Valentines at the 5& Dime.) When we’d looked at every one and weighed the significance of every message and picture choice, we’d put the Valentines back in the box and set them away… until some time when, alone, we would re-examine each card for any hidden message or meaning.

Ah, those were heady days, when all our hearts were so easily given and received.

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Warning: following are 2 poems I’ve written (In case you’re not fond of poetry, you may want to skip this entry; I will understand.)


Grief is the tear we wipe away, embarrassed,

the gasp in the dark, phones ringing through the night.

Grief tastes of Mother’s pies that no one’s mastered,

the smell of Dad’s tobacco, pipes so long gone cold.

Grief sits with us in joyful hours, and in our loneliness,

asking the questions for which no answers come.

Grief tells us what we do not wish to know.

Wild Mercy

Colors turn,

A blush, a flash of fire,

Leaves falling – kept promises.

Spring’s promises:

Robins’ breasts on fire,

Bulbs bursting – their turn.

I rise and turn,

Old hands toward the fire.

What do I bring to spring’s promise?

Like the leaves, it is my turn

To feed the fire

That helps the stars to turn.

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February Gardens column

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Three Small Changes to Help the Environment


JAN. 22, 2021


As I bundle up before the fire and wish spring would hurry up, my thoughts often wander to the joys and activities that are ushered in with the spring’s breezes. Along with getting the bikes tuned up and the barbecue cleaned, those of us who enjoy working on our gardens also know there are tasks and plans that must be addressed. Maybe it’s finally time to have that flagstone path installed, or perhaps this is the spring when you remove that half-dead tree. After what the environment has suffered over the last eleven months, this may be the spring we really commit to doing more to protect and restore the environment.

With that last resolve in mind, here are three suggestions I’ve come across that will reduce our impact on Mother Earth. Each suggestion is easy to implement and sure to make you feel that you are making a positive difference for the environment. 

First, water conservation. 

Of course, we all try to be mindful of water usage in our homes. Our toilets, washing machines, and showers are fitted with devices to help limit the water flow. But, when we step outdoors, our gardens and lawns always seem to be calling out for another sprinkling, a good soak, more water! 

Rain barrels: If you haven’t already done so, you might be ready now to commit to rain barrels at the bottom of each of your downspouts. They’re commonly available at hardware stores, and the children in your life can have fun decorating all the barrels. (They may already have done some of this at school.)

Soaker hoses: Switch out that uncooperative garden hose for a few soaker hoses. You can choose the type that roll out from the downspout, and after the storm they roll up again. The soaker hose allows the water to seep deep into the roots of your plants. Water is not evaporating or, as with my uncooperative sprinkler, watering the sidewalk and sometimes the street.

Grey water-buckets: An easy way to conserve water and keep your potted plants flourishing, both indoors and outside, is the “Bucket Brigade.” All you need are small buckets, one for each bathroom shower. (Perhaps an attractive model, hand painted by some clever artist in your life.) Put a bucket under the faucet when you turn-on the shower to let it heat-up. Instead of sending all that water down the drain, you’ll have a bucket of water to carry to your thirsty plants. 

Gray-water plumbing: If you’re ready to really step up to more intensive water conservation, call in a plumber. Have the drains from your dishwasher and wash machine plumbed to go outside and into a containment receptacle. (There are plans online to give you some ideas.) Unless you’re very handy with PVC pipe, don’t try this on your own.  Expand


Second, natural fertilizer and weed killer:

Nitrogen run-off is a major contributor to pollution and diminishment of plant and animal life in our creeks, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. We all know about the damage chemical fertilizers can cause. There are natural fertilizers and herbicides (weed killers) that can feed our plants and get rid of weeds without causing further damage to our waterways. 

Compost: How many times have we read an article or watched a video explaining how to setup a composting site. It’s an excellent way to put leftover food waste and plant matter to use. But, it requires a discreet location to avoid unpleasant odors wafting over your neighbor’s fire pit and pesky critters rummaging through the composting material. So, an alternative for those of us who are reluctant to tackle our own compost bins…natural compost by the bag. You’ll find organic lawn and garden fertilizer by the bag at the hardware store and, sometimes, sold by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other conservation groups. They’re the best, often containing byproducts from regional fisheries. Farmers sometimes sell bagged manure as well. 

Weed killer: There are lots of recipes online for mixing up a batch of effective weed killer. They usually involve vinegar and sometimes salt. You’ll find one that works for you. They have the added advantage of insuring the safety of children and pets. 

The third conservation resolution is perhaps the most fun, native plants.

While it’s interesting to coax exotic flowers, shrubs, or trees to grow and flourish in our gardens, such pampered plants also demand lots of attention and special watering, fertilizer, and protection from pests. Think about replanting some or all of your flowerbeds with native plants. They’re hardy and attractive, and used to the weather conditions of our mid-Atlantic region. Usually, they require less water and are resistant to regional pests. 

Ivy, Periwinkle, Ajuga, Sedum: You may want to replace parts of your lawn with hardy, green groundcover. Groundcover provides the same rest for the eye contrasting with the showy, taller flowerbeds. Groundcover can provide charming, seasonal blossoms as well. Periwinkle sports tiny, purple flowers in the spring; Ajuga leaves turn deep russet in autumn. Expand


Snapdragon, Petunia, Zinnia, Foxglove: Those flowers we might think of as “old-fashioned” have retained their popularity for a reason—they’re survivors. If you add groupings of these dependable plants to your garden, you’ll add color while saving worry and effort. 

Locust, Gingko, Hickory, Crape Myrtles, and Redbuds: Drought-resistant trees are a boon to our landscapes and our lives. The Shagbark Hickory’s wooly bark is endlessly intriguing. Who can ignore the rosy blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of the Redbuds or the autumnal gold, fan-shaped leaves of the Gingko? (We won’t dwell on their stinky seed balls in the spring.) Crape Myrtles and Honey Locusts are familiar beauties.

After all your work implementing these suggestions, here’s a little hint to impress your neighbors and friends. Everything discussed here—water conservation, natural fertilizers and herbicides, and using native plants—is part of the gardening philosophy with the impressive name, xeriscaping, from the Greek “xeros” or dry. 

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January’s Garden Column

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A Tiny Garden Framed in a Winter Window


JAN. 04, 2021


January can be a tough month to navigate, looking out the window at the muted colors, the gray and white of winter. You may see bare trees, the buffeting wind, here and there a pile of brown leaves and twigs. But, don’t be downcast; you can change your point of view by changing your view all together. Yes, you can work magic, transform a small portion of your home into a springtime garden.

So, sit back, and imagine one of your windows, preferably a window facing east or south, bursting with greenery—frothy Asparagus Ferns, fuzzy Siderasis, fragrant Pineapple Sage, perhaps even a Date Palm or Orchid for a bit of the exotic, tropical vibe. You’re beginning to feel that spring sunshine already, right? 

I propose a Window Garden as a project for this blustery January. You might find yourself imagining a window lush with green life, dripping from the “head” or top of the window and climbing along the frame. Or, you might want something a bit simpler—an arrangement of pretty plants all in a row along your window sill. You may want to be very bold and install window boxes on the outside of your window—now there’s a large-scale undertaking. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s stick with indoor window gardens.

For about 30 years, mid-20th Century, Jean Hersey was a popular and respected garden expert. Her popularity was in part attributable to her practical, easily followed instructions for beginning gardeners, and handy hints and clever ideas for the more experienced gardener. She wrote a number of books on gardening, including The Woman’s Day Book of House Plants. In that book she discussed the particular pleasures of window gardens. “When you give your care, interest, and affection to a garden of indoor plants they reward you with vibrant health, gay colors, assorted textures, and myriad fragrances.” Now that’s a resounding and irresistible endorsement; don’t you think? 

There are four components in planning and executing a window garden. (Now, that’s not too demanding.) Part 1: Planning, Part 2: Planting, Part 3: Tools, and Part 4: Maintenance Tricks. So, let’s review what’s involved in putting a bit of springtime into your life right now!Expand


Part 1: Planning

Take a seat in your usual spot. Look around. Which window can you see from here? That’s the window where your little garden might prove the most satisfying for you. What direction does it face? Preferably east or south for the best growing sunlight. 

Decide how expansive your tiny garden will be—plants only on the sill? Plants hanging and vining? How many plants will you want to create the effect you’re imagining?

Will you want to create a traditional garden with a random assortment of plants, or perhaps a water-garden of plants that can grow in water, or a fragrance-garden, or would it be fun to focus on a particular color scheme?

Part 2: Planting 

Look at some pictures of house plants. Choose plants that match your level of commitment to maintaining them. For example:

• Easy to grow plants: Aloe—a succulent and good for healing scrapes and burns. Asparagus Fern—feathery sprays of rich green with tiny blossoms when it feels like it wants to. Begonia (many varieties to choose from)—pretty leaves and blossoms, easy to propagate should you decide to start a second or third window garden. Philodendron—an almost indestructible champ that can live in water or soil and loves to grow in any light. You can have fun guiding the tendrils up and around your window. 

• Somewhat touchy but awfully nice: Peace or Spathe Lily—graceful arching leaves and scented, white blooms, needs careful attention to watering (not too much or too little.) Winged Pea—great for hanging with feathery, trailing foliage and exotic, red flowers, needs lots of sun but not too much. Miniature Rose—petite plant with delicate greenery and pink (usually) blooms, needs to be away from drafts. Camelia—glossy, deep green leaves and lush, fragrant blooms. Needs fertilizer all year through. Plan to set it outside in the summer to give it a real boost.

• Petulant beauties: African Violets—lush, fuzzy leaves form a nest of soft green with pink and purple violets bursting like sparklers. They’re lovely but sensitive to too much light and water. If you’ve got the “magic touch” they’ll charm everyone with their beauty. Orchid—strange, exotic leaves and tendril/roots with ruffled blossoms atop slender stalks. Another plant that demands the “magic touch.” Sea Onion—talk about a showy gal! A bulbous “onion” with graceful, trailing leaves and a tall, curving stalk festooned with tiny, white stars. A real show-stopper. But, keep her warm and carefully watered, watch for a scale that may form and can be removed.

Part 3: Tools 

You may want to identify an attractive basket or box in which to store your tools for this tiny garden. You’ll be using these tools often, and having them nearby makes the tasks less onerous.

• Watering can, jar, baster, dropper. Depending on the plants you’ve chosen, you may want all these on hand to deliver just the right amount of water to each plant.

• Spray jar. Some of your plants will enjoy a light shower to keep their leaves fresh.

• Scissors, tweezers, garden shears. There will be dead leaves and over-zealous vines that you’ll want to remove. You may want to keep a little covered jar or pot nearby for these trimmings. They can go into your compost pile too.

• Plant food/ fertilizer. Unless you’ve included something exotic, any of the common fertilizers, powder or liquid, will do. 

• Pencil, short stick. You’ll find the soil may get too compact. Use a pencil to gently poke holes in the soil providing the roots with better moisture and air distribution.

• Soft brush. While your home may be meticulously clean, dust does seem drawn to plant leaves. You can gently brush off the larger, firmer leaves. If the leaves become seriously dusty, dampen a paper towel with milk and wipe off each leaf. 

• Floor lamp/clip-on lamp. If you’re finding the window you’ve chosen does not provide enough sunlight, add a lamp with a grow-bulb or a 100-watt bulb. Set the lamp on a timer to come on for 2–3 hours at dusk. (You probably don’t want your window lit up all night.) Expand


Part 4: Maintenance Tricks 

No need to re-invent the wheel, as they say. Here are some hints from Ms. Hersey and other window gardeners.

• If your window is drafty, in the evening gently drop a sheet or linen towel over sensitive plants to protect them until the morning sun warms them again.

• Do a bit of pruning when you notice a stray branch or leaves. Keep your plants shapely and properly sized for their locations. Don’t wait until it becomes a big task. (Remember those scissors in your tiny tool-kit.)

• Turn the pots every week so the plants will receive sunlight on all their leaves, otherwise, they’ll become lopsided and flat or thin on one side.

• Egg shells and coffee grounds can make excellent pepper-uppers for your plants. Mix the crushed shells grounds in an old jar or can somewhere unobtrusive. Then, once a month or so, sprinkle the mix on your plants. You may want to poke a few holes with that pencil before adding the shells and grounds.

Well, that sounds fairly simple, doesn’t it? This is a project that can be completed in a weekend but will bring you pleasure for days and weeks to come. You might grow so fond of your window garden that you’ll keep it going all year long. And, it’s a great project to do with children of almost any age. Take lots of pictures to record the progress of the growth and blooms as they emerge. There might even be some botany lessons rolled into the gardening; who knows.  


JAN. 04, 2021

7:00 A.M.

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