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I want to remember a wonderful day, a happy day, and so, the horses of Shackleford Banks in North Carolina, on the day last year that Kelsea and I went on one of our adventures.


The Bad Day:
– continuing to nip the identity theft in the bud
– being lied to and cheated by someone once dear to me
– having two spots being biopsied for skin cancer
– Mr. Man deciding the mud room is his litter box
– Mr. Man catching a mouse and putting it in the bed
– spraining my thumb trying to get said cat/mouse out of the bed/house

I’m working hard to find the lesson and blessing in today.

Quote of the Day: “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” – Rumi

Daily gratitudes:
Seeing MKL
Eternal hope
Anne of Green Gables
Late-blooming irises the color of violets
The little painting that Kelsea brought me from a street vendor in Paris

It was cold walking downtown today.

The snapdragons and the zinnias and the sweet potato vines were still blooming, but so were the red holly berries, starkly brilliant against their dark green leaves.

I felt…confused and unexpected. I had forgotten what wind chill was.

I felt 18 again.

But my trenchcoat is the wrong color.

My pockets were empty. Where were my gloves? The lady passing me had big black-and-white herringbone patterned gloves, and I complimented her on how fun they were. She smiled.

Tears spring to my eyes.  From the wind or the pretty spindrift of prose in my head or the memory of being 18.

At 18, I walked another city’s streets in thin, soft Indian-print dresses and bohemian shirts, like the one I wear today.

The coolie shoes that I wore then, regardless of the weather, have been replaced by cowboy boots, as befits this city.

I remember the endless Dr. Who-like scarf that I gave to my boyfriend at Christmas, a find from a Cambridge thrift-store now long gone.

As is the boyfriend.

And probably the scarf.

I like the direction my life is taking now. Despite the approaching winter, I am happy.

We moved from Asheville to Durham yesterday via the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It was an emotional rollercoaster for me, going back to Durham, as I hadn’t been here since my Mother’s funeral.   And I haven’t been on the Blue Ridge Parkway since my childhood, which is a rollercoaster road itself.

So I was weepy, full of self-doubt, feeling all ages, having that sense of tiredness of spirit that has been so familiar off and on since the loss of my parents, my best friend, my marriage.  Feeling like I have everything ahead of me, and like I am not the same person I was two years ago, feeling like I’ve lost my confidence in my self, like I apologize for living, like I take responsibility for everything, regardless of whether or not its my fault.  And my not-so-little girl held my hand and just quietly let me feel what I needed to feel.

We stopped at a couple of beautiful scenic overlooks – at one, there were so many butterflies that they simply flew into our faces.  In fact, the Blue Ridge Parkway has very little roadkill, except for the suicidal butterflies.  We took a quick hike up to Linville Falls.

Kelsea had the rare opportunity stand in a tree and sit on a tree on the same hike.

Otherwise, our trip through the mountains to the Piedmont was uneventful, with the exception of the car in front of us running off the road onto the grassy median doing 75 mph – I was sure he was going to flip, as he was fishtailing and spitting dirt, but he regained control and stopped.

Arriving at the King’s Daughter’s Inn in Durham was a dream come true for me. 

I’d always wanted to live there when I retired (it used to be a home for little old ladies).  The innkeepers have turned it into a lovely retreat, and have made a point of keeping a lot of the original character of the house.  The solarium is a soothing haven of green.

The kitchen is separated from the breakfast room by heavy green velvet poitiers, and the bathroom door had a lock on it like the one in my bathroom growing up.  And funny thing, I discovered I could still lock myself in and have great difficulty getting out.  I almost had to call Kelsea on her cell phone to come open the bathroom door.

We walked around East Campus last night, and I told her tales of growing up there; we sat on one of the fraternity benches watching some ultimate players until the biting flies drove us half mad. 

We took a sunset drive downtown for more tale-telling about my restaurant days, and headed back to the Inn to snuggle up in our cushy bed.

This morning after breakfast, we said goodbye to the King’s Daughters Inn and her stressed-out owners, who were preparing for a house full of wedding party guests.  With a day to devote to Durham, we started out by finding the house I lived in the summer before I moved to Colorado – a very faded blue two-story on Lynch Street that we who lived there named the “L.O.P.S.I.D.E.D. P.E.N.G.U.I.N.”.  I can’t remember what it stood for, but I’m sure it’s buried in a journal from those days.

We then circled around Northgate (I described the luxurious experience of buying shoes in the early 1960s in great detail), and parked by the house I grew up in.  I was only a little weepy looking around the backyard and the front yard.  Kelsea was amazed at how much I could tell her about our neighbors from 40 years ago. 

We went by my old friend Harriet’s house at 6 Sylvan Place, and I told her about what that great friendship was like.  We then headed onto West Campus and spent some time in Duke Chapel, meditating, remembering.  I left a single tear behind.

Our next stop was the Divinity School Library and where we said hello to the librarian who took my Dad’s place, and wandered around the stacks looking at old books that my Dad acquired during his almost-50 years there.  So much had changed, but a few things were still the same, and that made me feel loved.

And there’s still a fainting couch in the downstairs ladies restroom.

We walked down to the Biology building to say hello to the petrified wood.  The big green hill that was perfect for rolling down, and the huge willow tree are gone, replaced by a building (as were some streets that I used to drive through).  But there is the delightful addition of the Man and Camel Statue.

Having restocked on sweatshirts and water in the Student Union, we drove off for a tour of my lower/middle school campus at Durham Academy, which was also remarkably unchanged, a drive-by of my friend Martha’s house in Hope Valley, and then back to my old High School campus.  Kelsea was delighted by the tale of Mrs. Schuster driving the school van through the wall of the gymnasium.

We felt a bit out of place checking into the Washington Duke – we’re much more like the doorman than the other guests.  But we’ll survive the interesting combination of posh and preppie.  Starving, we went on a foodquest. 

Ninth Street in Durham has been revitalized since I was little, and is now a happening street full of shops and restaurants – we had dinner at Dain’s Diner, which was featured on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food”‘s Durham episode, then bought a couple of presents at my favorite store ever, Vaguely Reminiscent, and the ever-popular Regulator Bookstore.

We are now embedded in the Washington Duke again – and by the way, the beds are made up as tight as straightjackets.  Kelsea had to unmake hers prior to getting in. 

Tomorrow, we end Cycle 1 of the EAR by finally making it to Topsail – 10 days in the Beach House will be bliss before we hit the road again.  We have alternated between never wanting our EAR to end and being ready to stop driving for a little while. 

The past two days have left me contemplative.  You can’t go home again, but then again, the part of you that called a place home can discover that it has never truly left, and that the place has not truly changed.  It’s amazing how many memories are stored in your head, how many emotions.  As I have said before, I believe that in your spirit, you are still every age you have ever been.  Today, the touch of a window latch, the sight of a cardinal in flight, the cool of the trees enveloping us as we drove the old route to school, just confirmed it.

As we know, according to my Mother, I was born asking where the next bus was.  I’ve never been content in this incarnation, this body, much less in being settled in one place.  In my head, I’ve been planning my journey around the world for years.  I’ve been longing for a life on a tropical island since I was eight years old.

My Mother’s mother went from home to home in the South and Midwest with my grandfather, who would buy land, build a house, live in it, teach school, farm, then sell the place, buy land somewhere, build a house, live in it…you get the picture.  I suppose my grandmother was content with this lifestyle – I never thought to ask.   But I know that at some point, late in her life, she had some kind of epiphany, which resulted in my Mother receiving a letter that started with, “By the time you read this, I will be in Yugoslavia.”  I think she had the wanderlust in her as well.  I have two mental images of my grandmother – one is of her sitting in a chair in The Barn, the last house my grandfather remodeled.  She’s wearing a plaid shirt, her glasses, looking away, looking peaceful.  The other is of her in a trenchcoat, her head covered by a white scarf, walking on a hill at the Acropolis.  Such a contrast, both so lovely.  Both so her.

My Mother was very like my grandmother – practical, peaceful.  On one of our last days together, we talked about the wanderlust thread that runs through the women in our family.  She had it too, always happy moving from house to house, always wanting to go to Europe, to see the Grand Canyon.  Her burning desire for most of her life was to go to India.  She never told me about that until that conversation.  My father was never happier than when at home, and so her dreams of journeying were thwarted.  She never resented it.  But after he died – in fact, while we were still in the room following his memorial service, she turned to her friend Jane and started discussing going on a Caribbean cruise.  (She felt a little bad about that, but she had no reason to.)

She did go on her Caribbean cruise that Fall, and I met her in Tortola and took her and her best friend around the island.  It was wonderful for all of us.  But she never got to see the Grand Canyon.  I suppose now she’s able to see it all, and that’s a nice thought.

Then there’s me.  Always planning, sometimes going.  I am learning that having the right place to call home is a good complement to traveling.  It changes the wandering from an escape, a search for something, to pure adventure and peaceful exploration.

Kelsea daily says to me, “You know what I want?  I want to go to Ireland.”  She fell in love with Ireland, even moreso than she loves Wales, when she went to Europe last summer.  I told her that I never even got on a plane until I was 14, and here she’s been to Europe twice.  She can now say, in an annoyingly blase manner, “I didn’t care for Paris.  I much preferred London.”  To which I snarl, “I’ve never SEEN Paris.” 

She says this is all my fault.  I’m the one who put travel posters (one, ironically, of the Eiffel Tower) on the walls of her nursery.  I’m the one who showed her pictures of exotic places around the world from the time she could sit in my lap.  I’m the one who sent her to Europe to experience other cultures.  And all of that is true.  But it’s not my fault.

It’s something in our bloodline, something that runs through the women just like the shine does, a spark that makes us want to see the world, while having a true home to which to return.  A longing  for a life that is a perpetual Grand Tour.  A desire to meditate with Buddhist monks in Tibet, to beachcomb on deserted islands off the coast of Brazil, to watch breaching whales in Alaska’s waters, and swim with seals in the Galapagos.  To see lava creep down a Caribbean volcano in Montserrat, the moonlight on the Taj Mahal, and the sun shine through the ceiling of the Pantheon.  To climb the hills of Bray, and count each sheep in Wales.

Homer said, “There is nothing worse for mortals than a wandering life.”  I heartily disagree.  My thinking is more in line with Robert Louis Stevenson’s: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel’s sake.  The great affair is to move.”  (Stevenson died and is buried on an island in the South Pacific.)

In my eyes, our women’s wanderlust is a true blessing.  My mother and my grandmother are smiling.

My niece graduated from college yesterday.  It is a strange feeling to see someone whom you held in your arms when she was only hours old make this giant step into the world of adulthood.  It makes you feel your own age most acutely.  Especially since she is graduating from the same university from which I graduated 26 years ago. 

Watching her ceremony made me remember my own graduation day, which had its tribulations and triumphs.  Of course, hers did as well.  It was held in an intimate outdoor amphitheatre, which, weather-wise, is a fairly safe bet in Colorado in May.  But this year, our weather has been exceptional – cold and rainy even now, when usually we’re basking in the 80s.  Sure enough, just before the ceremony started, so did the chilly rain, pouring down necks and backs in rivers.  The family had been smart enough to bring a few umbrellas to loan out.  Kelsea, in her ongoing efforts to acclimate to the climate of Wales and Ireland, just decided to get wet, until someone forced a makeshift rain hat on her head, constructed out of plastic that formerly covered an orchid corsage.

The speakers were unable to have microphones due to the rain, and it was hard to hear them over the thump of raindrops on dozens of umbrellas.  While most students dressed for the occasion, I was amazed to see some in untucked T-Shirts, baseball caps and ratty blue jeans.  I’d think the event called for a bit more effort.  And some of the skirts were so short that they came all the way up to the “zatch”, as my Mother used to say.  I kept waiting for someone to turn an ankle in their 3- and 4-inch heels as they negotiated the stairs, the stage and the stairs. 

The Director of Student Services hugged every single graduate, which was a nice touch, but had I been her, I wouldn’t have been chewing gum the entire time.   I guess propriety is dead and buried in an unmarked roadside grave.

Walking back through campus to the truck, I felt myself 21 again.  I have spent so much time on college campuses in my life that they feel like home.  Since I always worked so much in my junior and senior years, I didn’t spend any time just hanging out in the quad – I don’t think I ever lay on the grass in the sun and studied. 

So my memories of my time on this particular campus are thin and few.  I regret that.  I wish I had embraced the college culture more.  But I didn’t have the time to play.  I just had time to work and to study.  Until now, that’s about all I’ve ever had time to do.  Now, I have a chance to embrace life.  Just like my niece does.  In our own ways, we’re both starting new chapters in our lives.

One of the humorous, questionable advantages of having an older brother is that he always remembers your “classic” moments.  E-Bro loves to recount the tale of how, one summer morning when I was in my early teens, I asked him how to boil water.  I don’t think he’s stopped laughing yet.

But it’s true.  Although I admit that I learned a lot about how to make bacon and eggs that summer, a dish which became my signature breakfast through senior year of high school, I couldn’t cook anything else.  The kitchen was my Mother’s for dinner and my Father’s for baking.  Mother wasn’t a gourmet cook.  Her cooking was basic, normal, pretty good.  Nothing she was particularly proud of – it was a have-to-do, not a want-to-do.  The repertoire included such things as Spam, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, creamed chipped beef on toast, county-style steak, the ubiquitous canned/frozen veggie, and a hunk of iceberg lettuce with carrots, olives, etc. for salad.  When she wanted to drive me out of the house, she would make sauerkraut and sausages, naturally one of E-Bro’s favorites.

The irony of my first job being that of cook in a restaurant was not lost on me.  I worked the grill/deli side of the restaurant, occasionally venturing into the salad station downstairs in the fancy French part when the need was dire.  But as a grill cook, I learned to make a few things well: grilled cheese, pastrami sandwiches, cole slaw, chicken salad – nothing complicated, but enough to survive on.  And I sliced my hand to the bone on my 18th birthday, while demonstrating (most impressively as it turned out) what NOT to do when the meat slicer was running.

Moving onto college, my first important college boyfriend still stands by his accusation that my chicken-in-wine (one of my Mother’s special recipes) gave him food poisoning.  That was the first time I ever tried cooking for a boyfriend.  Come to think of it, I didn’t risk it again for probably six years.  Really.

I still stayed in the restaurant world for work.  After two and a half years in a pizzeria, I can make a mean pie. And I toss a mean dough.  Always a useful skill.  (I also severely burned my arm on the inside top of the pizza oven during one lunch rush.)  I basically survived on pizza, as I had convinced myself that I couldn’t cook.  At my apartment, I managed to boil artichokes, and eat peanuts out of the shell in bed.  That was pretty much how it was when I met Pat. 

Once we moved in together, he tried to help me understand that I COULD cook, I just WASN’T cooking.  He actually taught me a lot about things like not measuring and not following a recipe exactly.  I guess he taught me to relax in the kitchen, and in our pre-kid years, we enjoyed cooking together.  While I did have some notable failures, such as forgetting the baking soda in the banana bread, I reached a point where I felt confident in the kitchen.  (Though never with baking.)

But after Kelsea was born, and I was working so much, the kitchen became Pat’s domain.  In one of those many bizarre power plays that contributed to the downfall of our marriage, I let him convince me that I was an incompetent cook.  Any confidence that I had gained in the kitchen vanished, along with any joy in cooking.  It was just more work to me, and I didn’t like it.  I still experimented sometimes when things were still okay in our marriage, but the worse our marriage got, the less I wanted to be in the kitchen.  Maybe I’ll take that to the Red Couch for analysis sometime.

Then, I moved out.  And in my own little kitchen, with the basic implements that I remember my Mother having, I am pretty clueless.  I still love my cooking magazines and cookbooks – I like the idea of cooking.  I have limited counter space.  I still lack confidence, even though I now have time.  Being on the Atkins Diet (still working well, by the way), limits my culinary options fairly significantly – perhaps simplifies them would be a better term.  But I do try. 

Honestly, it’s a joke with Kelsea and me.  We reached a peak of lowness last weekend, when I attempted to broil pork chops while boiling water for crab legs.  Sounds like two simple and distinct actions, doesn’t it?  Well, the cottage is equipped with high ceilings and a smoke detector as sensitive as a bipolar woman with severe PMS.  Between some kind of grease build up on the broiler unit (from roasting chicken – and don’t tell me to clean the oven, because the last time I did that, I got a chemical burn on a very delicate body part, and so am gun-shy about repeating the process without body armour) and the steam from the crab legs, the smoke detector went off.  Permanently.  We opened the window in the kitchen, with Kelsea fanning the smoke away from the smoke detector with a full-size flag of Ireland.  We also opened the kitchen door, accidentally loosening the Mexican porcelain sculpture suspended from the kitchen ceiling, which fell with a splendid shattering crash to the tile entryway, spewing little pieces into the lawn.  Kelsea’s arms gave out, just as smoke started belching from the burners on the stove, so I turned everything off, and waved my sweater in front of the smoke detector until it stopped.  The pork chops and crab legs were overdone and Kelsea and I were done in.

I’m not ready to figuratively throw in the towel, but clearly my current strategy is not working.  Wait, I don’t even know what my current strategy is.  But tonight, as the chicken is roasting away, I have defeated one nemesis.  I took the battery out of the smoke detector.  Talk about living dangerously.

Tobacco is the second largest cash crop in North Carolina.  (Marijuana is the first – similar growing conditions.)  My home state is the largest producer of tobacco in the USA.  Brightleaf tobacco, sweeter and milder than other available tobaccos, was a favorite of Civil War soldiers.  In fact, its popularity was a major contributing factor in the growth and development of the city of Durham, where I was born, with the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory being the first major factory in town in 1874. 

Bull Durham was a consolidation of rival tobacco producers, with the merger being initiated by the Duke family.  (Yes, THAT Duke family.)  This company morphed into American Tobacco, which was split by federal anti-trust laws into five separate companies in 1911.  By the time I came along, three were surviving and thriving in Durham: American Tobacco, Liggett & Myers, and R.J. Reynolds.

When I was very small, my parents took me to the tobacco auction.  I think we went for two years in a row – I must have been two or three for the first one.  I don’t recall that first auction at all, but my Mother told me that they put me up to sit on one of the high bales, and I cried because I was afraid I was going to get cancer from the tobacco.  Now, how bizarre is that, that a child of three would know that tobacco is a cause of cancer?  The second time we went, I remember enjoying myself, and I remember how strong the smell was. I always wanted to go back, but it seemed we couldn’t after that.  I don’t know if they stopped holding the auctions or if they just stopped being open to the public.  It’s funny to see the black and white photos, because my memories of the auction are in color.  Everything seemed sepia-tinged, the color of teeth stained from smoking for fifty years.

Driving to the beach, we would pass miles and miles of tobacco fields.  The leaves were indeed bright and lush and seemed as if they went on forever.  I was always amazed at the endless rows, stretching to the horizon.  I never saw anyone working the fields and wondered how they were tended, how they were harvested.  Tobacco was the first crop I could identify by sight.

In downtown Durham, that scent of tobacco was amazingly rich.  Pungent, sweet, smokey, fresh, it smelled like the color of spring green in the Crayola crayon box.  The yellow-green color of the tobacco in the fields was the color of the smell.  Driving under the L&M bridge walkway on Main Street, there were days when I would hold my nose until the smell was gone.  However, as a teenager, I found I loved the smell, practically basked in it when I was driving to work at the restaurant.

Most of the tobacco factories closed down before I left town.  American Tobacco was still open, and when I headed downtown for work after school, I had to be sure to avoid one particular street during shift change at the factory – so many people were crossing that it delayed me for ten minutes. 

That factory closed in the late 1980s, and was redesigned into offices and shops.  From a distance, I lamented the passing of this industry that gave birth to the town.  On the positive side, several organizations in Durham (and several developers – pardon me while I spit) have been dedicated to keeping the historic facades of the factories and warehouses alive, so that the character of certain parts of downtown have remained the same for nearly a century.  Old Liggett and Myers warehouses were turned into trendy condos, and old American Tobacco warehouses have been developed into Brightleaf Square, a mixed-use complex. 

The South’s devotion to retaining its architectural history is both impressive and pleasing.  Unlike many other areas of the county (the West in particular), the fact that a building is old does not necessarily mean that it needs to be torn down and replaced with something new.  No where else in the country have I seen so many hand-hewn barns and sheds, some canted crazily to one side or another, unused except as a support for rampant kudzu, but still revered for the significance of their past. 

(I suppose some could argue that the owners are just too lazy to tear them down, but I choose not to subscribe to that theory – I like my own better.)

I was living in Colorado by the time the movie “Bull Durham” came out, and I loved it.  I watched wistfully as Kevin Costner walked down Morgan Street in the dark, past the old tobacco barns turned into condos.  Parts of the movie were filmed at the old Durham Bulls Ballpark, which I’ll write about someday.  Talk about a ballpark with character.

Although it seemed as if almost everyone smoked in North Carolina, my parents didn’t.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  My Mother did for a short while before she met my Father, and again during a stressful period when she was in graduate school.  I never saw her smoke, but I discovered cigarettes in her purse one day when I was looking for change or gum or kleenex or something.  I felt as if I had discovered a betraying secret and it disturbed me terribly, so I had to ask her about it.  She wasn’t angry – she was open, but I think she asked me not to tell anyone.  It had been drilled into us that smoking was bad for you and a stupid idea.

I didn’t have my first cigarette until the night I graduated from college.  I smoked a couple of Marlboros as a peace-offering with a woman who had been cheating with my boyfriend.  I actually liked the taste, but I never felt the addictive elements.  (E-Bro is the same way.  He likes the taste, but could take or leave the whole smoking thing.  No nicotine addiction.  I wonder why?)  After that, I would have an occasional bummed cigarette when I was out in a bar.  I only bought one pack in my entire life and my cheating boyfriend smoked most of that.  I still have a pack that I found unopened at a catering event some 10 years ago.  Pat was a respiratory therapist in his youth, and so was an avid anti-smoker, but he would, on very rare occasions, have a puff of a cigarette to cure a severe case of the hiccups.  I have found that a teaspoon of sugar is a better and tastier cure. 

(I did smoke herbal cigarettes in college for a month or so, until I discovered that they were worse for you than regular cigarettes and I was asked to leave the student union because they thought I was smoking pot.)

I can’t remember the last time I smoked a cigarette.  Maybe it was a hit off of Bubba Sue’s a year or two ago.  But my last whole one?  Long, long before Kelsea was born.  I don’t miss it.  The Captain smoked, but that scent was just part of who he was, and I was never tempted when I was with him. 

Now, the occasional cigar…well, it’s been a long time since I had one of those either – mostly because I didn’t like tasting it for two days.  But in my business travelling days, Davidoff was my favorite brand, and I could only find them in a little cigar shop near Rockefeller Center in New York City.  I remember my first cigar.  But that too is a story for another time.

I’ve had North Carolina and Durham at the forefront of my mind lately, so I expect I’ll be writing more about growing up Southern.  It feels good.  And I like things that feel good these days.

Today is the day that the shot that started the Civil War was fired from Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  While this wasn’t one of the “shots heard round the world”, it was certainly a shot heard round the United States.

From a born and raised Southerner’s perspective, the Civil War has many layers of meaning and significance.  (Let me say here that I’m not a historian, so this isn’t going to be a history lesson. And I am fully aware of the failed and magical thinking of Southerners of previous generations, so don’t shoot the writer.)  The war was called many things – the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence – and to this day, when I go home to North Carolina, there are still traces.  The side of barn outside of Hampstead still bears a faded wall-sized Confederate flag.  Those flags appear on license plate holders of trucks, and on flagpoles outside of small old houses.  I still get the sense that the South is biding its time, waiting for the right time to strike – that the war isn’t really over – it’s just in hiatus.

In high school, which is when we first started studying the Civil War, we were taught that it was a war about economics – not about slavery (though slavery was inseparable from economics, wasn’t it?).  When slavery was discussed, the focus was not on the philosophy behind it, or even the politics surrounding it, but on the unfair portrayal of slavery and slave owners in histories created by non-Southerners.  I also had an English teacher in senior year who sent students out of the room if they said that the South lost the War.  Mention of Generals Grant and Sherman were not permitted in her presence.  But Robert E. Lee had achieved demigod status in her mind.

Back to the point of today’s post.  One lovely summer afternoon, I was wandering through the Virginia Military Institute Museum with a friend.  I peered into a glass case and gasped.  There was a photograph.  A photograph of a man who I’d known my whole life (until he died.)  What on earth was his picture doing here?  But wait, he looks a little different – he has long hair.  And the photograph is a tintype.  It’s not possible.  I’m so confused!  All that ran through my mind in about 5 seconds. When I found the caption for the image, I realized I’d been mistaken…but I’d been as close as could be.

Edmund Ruffin claimed (and many accept the claim) to have fired the first shot of the Civil War.  A farmer, writer, ardent believer in state’s rights, and Fire-Eater (a group of extreme pro-slavery activists), he was on the fringes of politics for his entire life.  He joined South Carolina troops at the age of 67, which is how he found himself at Fort Sumter for the historical moment.  While there is much debate about exactly what his role was in initiating the battle, it is definitely the case that he was present at the firing of the first cannon shot.

Where does this tie into my life?  My Mother worked for years for Edmund Ruffin’s grandson, a gastroenterologist in Durham.  Dr. Ruffin, a gruff, irascible soul (like his grandfather) had  a heart of gold, a green thumb passed down through generations, and a dry sense of humor.  Having lost my only grandfather at age 7, Dr. Ruffin served as a sort of surrogate grandfather (without the laps and snuggles – he was far too dignified and scary).  He had three daughters, a loving wife, and two faithful servants, a husband and wife couple.  I spent much time at his office at Duke Hospital (later at Croasdaile Clinic) and at his plantation-style red-brick house in town, which looked eerily similar to his ancestral home of Evelynton Plantation.

Behind his house, Dr. Ruffin had a garden.  This was no ordinary garden.  This was at least an acre of seemingly endless vegetables, and a lovely rose garden tended by Mrs. Ruffin.  E-Bro and I would go work in the garden in the summers, helping Dr. Ruffin tend the crops.  And these could legitimately be called crops.  He had rows of cucumbers growing on tall fences.  Vines heavy with green beans.  Corn, tall and golden. Onions and potatoes dug from the ground.  Yellow and pattypan squash. And more tomatoes than anyone could know what to do with.  (It never occurred to me to ask what he did with the harvest – I’m sure it was something good for the community – that’s the sort of man he was.)

Summer thunderstorms would chase us inside some afternoons, and the female half of the hired help would give us sandwiches and milk at the small kitchen table. I remember drinking out of the hose from the side of the house, the water icy cold and sparkling, with the metallic tang from the brass hose head.  Fresh mint and parsley grew alongside the house by the kitchen door.

I remember Mrs. Ruffin as looking coiffed and lovely.  Even though she may not have always worn pearls, she was one of those women who gave the impression that she was always wearing pearls.  Her rose garden had little benches and a pergola.  I used to try to smell each different type of rose – there must have been a hundred.  Even at that age, the adage “Take time to stop and smell the roses” was engrained in my little head.  Mrs. Ruffin developed Alzheimer’s, much to the family’s extreme sorrow, and passed away in a nearby nursing home.  I think it broke Dr. Ruffin’s heart.  I can’t imagine the pain inherent in being a physician yet being helpless to heal the one you love most.

To  this day, the smell of sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine takes me back to summers in Dr. Ruffin’s garden.  I still laugh at a particular memory:

E-Bro and I were picking tomatoes, and he found one that had been bored into by hornworms.  He took it over to Dr. Ruffin.  “What do I do with this?” he asked.  Dr. Ruffin said, “Well, you take it, and you take this one,” splatting a second such blighted fruit in his hand, “and you take them both down to the end of the row and you throw them over the fence.”  OK, it doesn’t seem to translate, but with the seriousness of his delivery, you’d have thought he was about to reveal some mystical gardening wisdom, not just instructions to toss tomatoes into the woods. Guess you had to be there.  I’m glad I was.

In 1865, Less than two months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, Edmund Ruffin wrote the following:

“I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!”

He wrapped himself in a Confederate flag and shot himself in the head.  Some historians have described this as “the last shot of the Civil War.”

Edmund Ruffin and his grandson were both Southern Gentlemen, with a code of honor that is rapidly becoming a ghost of itself in the South today.  I could – and will – write about that concept of the Southern Gentleman, but not now.  Today, it’s overcast in Colorado, and I’m a long way from whatever home is now.  I’m feeling the need for a quest to reconnect with my roots and discover the directions in which they’ve spread, beneath and above the soil of my soul.

In other words, I’m ready to start something.

When we went to Wales three years ago, we spent one night in a wonderful place called Gwydir Castle.  Pat talked the couple who had bought and were restoring the place into letting us stay, even though Kelsea was under the age limit for acceptable guests.  It was so worth it.

Our room was on the second floor and overlooked an interior courtyard.  In the morning, we were amazed to see peacocks on the window ledge.  They flew up from the ground – I didn’t know they could fly – and perched on the stone railing and awoke us with their amazing gurgle-gobbling.  We were all a little disoriented, and it took us a few minutes to figure out what we were hearing.

The peacocks roamed the grounds freely.  Pat and I took a walk together through the spreading trees and up the garden paths.

It is a nice memory – and we encountered one fellow in particular who seemed to have developed a….fondness for me.  He was definitely trying to impress, blocking our path, and spreading his tail to its fullest extent, then slowly revolving to show me how much more handsome he was than my current companion.  He refused to let me go for some time, so I took advantage of his preening by taking pictures.

We found peacock feathers all over the grounds, and thought it was wonderful.  Kelsea and I collected feather bouquets and played with them – she did a wonderful peacock impersonation.

There was no way we could take them with us, so we decided to take them outside and give them back to the grounds.  As we were leaving our wing of the castle, we encountered the male half of the couple who owned the property.  We wanted to make clear that we weren’t smuggling the feathers away, in case they used them for something.  As soon as we showed them to him, he literally blanched (I’ve never seen anyone do this before), backed away, stammered something unintelligible and disappeared down the stairs.

Kelsea and I were disturbed – had we done something to offend him?  Was he angry with us?  We caught up with his wife and asked if we had made some grievous error.  She explained that he loved having the peacocks on the grounds, but he’d been raised to believe that having the feathers in the house (detached from the bird) was terribly unlucky, and meant that death would come to the house.

I had never heard this superstition before, so I did a little research after we got home.

Apparently this legend works both ways.  In certain counties in the United Kingdom, peacock feathers in the house do indeed portend ill luck.  Documentation of this belief goes as far back as 1866.  However, the more modern side of the psychic community believes that peacock feathers indoors signify protection of the energy of the home environment.  This belief is particularly common in Asian cultures.

How did this superstition arise?  The end of a peacock’s feathers resemble the “evil eye” of olde, otherwise known as the eye of the she-demon, Lilith,

or perhaps reflective of the evil Argus, with one hundred eyes all over his body, who was transformed into a peacock with an eye at the end of each tail feather.

Thus, villagers thought that the bird’s feathers would bring bad luck.  Other theories are more focused on protecting the species.  The “evil eye” feather indicated that the flesh of the peacock was poisonous, a totally false idea which was propagated to save the peacock from becoming the main dish at any and every elegant banquet in Renaissance Europe.

Of course, when you consider what peacock feathers have been used for (and how many have been used), they might have been justified in their concerns around the survival of this species of fowl.  Consider:

– This Chinese wedding dress has 2009 peacock feathers as part of the train, at a cost of $1.5 million smackeroos.

– A handmade peacock feather cloak (this one took 1500 feathers) – image credit for this goes to Rob Jan:

– Peacock feather shoes by designer Pedro Garcia

– Peacock feather wedding bouquets (doesn’t the bad luck thing rear its head here?)

Peaccok feather cake topper by Lana Pelham of Fairbanks Florist in Orlando, Florida

And finally, the ubiquitous peacock feather fan.

Peaccok feather fan by Lana Pelham of Fairbanks Florist in Orlando, Florida

My mother always wanted one, and so I gave her one that I found in an antique store in Georgetown, Colorado for Christmas one year.  She would never do anything with it other than fan herself (duh) but it was one of those lifelong dreams fulfilled (sort of like me wanting an Easy-Bake Oven and a Mystery Date game.)

Peacocks are not the brightest bird in the boat, but they are beautiful.  We found them at several Welsh castles (including an albino peahen at Ruthin Castle)

and they terrorize small children with food at the Denver Zoo.

Kelsea and I laid out our peacock feathers artistically on a hedge at Gwydir Castle before our departure.  We never saw our host again.  Hopefully by now, he has recovered from the shock.

There are two kinds of people in the world: people who love seashells and people who could not possibly care less about them.  I am (as you might imagine) the former, and I simply cannot comprehend how anyone could be the latter.  Countless times, as I have wandered beaches looking at and through piles of shells, I have seen people walk over those same piles with an absolute unconsciousness.  Don’t they know that they are trodding on treasures, crushing gems from nature beneath their calloused soles?

Many a day, I returned from a morning beach walk with a sunburned and aching back and a bag full of shells – if I’d had the foresight to take a bag with me.  Otherwise, it was handfuls, with more  stuck in the entryways of whatever swimsuit I had on.  When I was little, my mother and grandmother were the ones with the sore backs – guess I was closer to the ground and more flexible in those days.

When I was little, we took the train to Florida to see my grandparents.  As I think about it, I know that we saw the sea there, but it doesn’t strike me as my first memory of seeing the sea.  I think it’s because we were on a gulf beach and there were no waves.  I do remember that we spent the day on a beach that sort of jutted out in a little peninsula, and my mother told me that on one side of the peninsula, where we were, the water was gentle and calm, but on the other side, the water was colder and had a current that could pull me away from the shore.  I didn’t go in the water much at all, but E-Bro did, with my mother.

We gathered up so many shells – my brother found a hammerhead shark washed up on the beach, and we found several huge horseshoe crab shells.  We packed up a lot of shells in our suitcases and carted them back to North Carolina.  But once we got them home, the stench was overwhelming.  Clearly, we had brought home a few that still had some animals living inside – and they hadn’t enjoyed the train ride.

I must have been very small on that trip, because we hadn’t been to Topsail yet, and we went to Topsail when I was 7 (I think).  But after that trip, I was hooked on shells.  Mother would take me to the library at Duke, to one particular set of stacks that housed more biological science books.  I can remember the room, but I can’t remember what building it was in.  These stacks held shelves and shelves of books about seashells.  On very rare occasions, I was allowed to check one out to look at the pictures. (The good thing about being a librarian’s daughter is that your parents never had to worry about you not being careful with books.)  My favorite was a large book written by a man who had travelled the world, spending months on remote deserted islands, gathering shells.  One page would have a large picture of a rare and beautiful shell against a black background, and the facing page would be his account of where he found the shell and what he knew about it.  That was what I decided I wanted to do – be him.  Or rather, travel the world to remote desert islands collecting shells.  I was  slightly disillusioned when my mother told me that he had to collect the shells with the animals still inside and remove (a.k.a. kill) the animals – I felt bad for the animals.  But that was probably my first career goal – to be a beachcomber.

When we started going to Topsail and to Hatteras, I collected so many shells it was unbelievable.  I was completely indiscriminate, and my Mother literally did not get rid of the boxes and boxes of shells in the basement until she sold the house almost 35 years later.  Neither of us could bear to part with them.  Though she tried.  And eventually, we did.

Shell collecting at Hatteras was different from shell collecting at Topsail. 

Surprisingly, even though the distance between the two points on the North Carolina coast is only about 150 miles, the beaches offer a diversity of shells.  Hatteras, likely due to its rough waters and extended location into the Atlantic, is (or used to be) a repository for conch and scotch bonnet shells, amazingly intact and rarely found farther south. 

Topsail, on the other hand, held shark’s teeth, scallops, drills and other tiny shells that my Mother so loved.

While the north end of Topsail Island is now fully (over) developed, in the early 70s, it was barren and windswept, with only the remnants of some naval activity visible in old bunkers and metal hulls.  I remember the first time we walked out on the beach, so different from the beach just a few miles up the road, I looked down and found one of the rarest shells I have ever found.  The next trip, my grandmother found a Lion’s Paw – I was so jealous.

When I moved North for college, one of my first “important” boyfriends gave me a shell that he had found on a beach in Israel, and strung it on a gold chain for me.  I wore that even after we broke up, until I went back home for the summer, and found myself next to the ocean.  It was as if I needed to have a little piece of the sea with me at all times. 

And one of the most special gifts Pat ever gave me was a gold cast of a seashell from Topsail that I wore on a chain – it was his own idea, which made it even more special.

On a trip to South Padre Island, in theory to visit my father-in-law before he died, I recall making one of my first and favorite “executive decisions” to buy a small shell-framed heart-shaped mirror for our house.  I think I’ll bring it with me to my house.  Ex-Pat will never miss it.

When Kelsea was born, she went to Topsail when she was 9 months old.  She’s gone every year since.  Up until her time in Wales and Ireland, it was her “happy place”.  Much to ex-Pat’s chagrin, she is as enamored of seashells as I am, though I have helped her temper for collecting tendencies so that they are much more manageable.  And I have also reached a point where I am quite discriminating in the shells that I gather at Topsail.

But once I started travelling to the Caribbean, the urge to beachcomb returned with a vengeance, as there were new and unusual shells on the beaches of the BVIs and Anguilla.  With the exception of the conch that I found and smuggled home, most of them were mercifully small, and colors I’d never seen before – orange, purple, green.  They now live in small, special bowls in various niches in my cottage.

But even on my last trip to Anegada, I wandered the shores with my hands full, not having the foresight to bring something to carry my treasures in (other than an empty beverage cup).  Though I outsmarted myself by finding flotsam that could be used as a container.  I was so proud of my little self!

I still have dreams (actual nighttime dreams) of wandering shell-rich beaches, collecting treasures beyond belief.  And I’d be lying if I said that shelling is not a factor in considering which beaches around the world to visit.  Eventually, I’ll make it to Sanibel Island, my childhood fantasy.

Enough for today, but tomorrow, I will treat you to a treatise on the many roles the shell has played in many cultures.

And I will leave you with the mental image of the return of the catamaran on which I took my first snorkel trip; they had a tradition of allowing each of us to blow a conch shell to announce our arrival into the harbor.  My honk was kind of feeble, but with the sun setting on the hills of Tortola, the essence of the experience was primitive and magical.

January 2021


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