Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sam and Marie Hammond: Flowers of the Heart



Judy's orchids on the kitchen table

***
Flowers of the Heart Eight  November 19, 2017

For Sam and Marie Hammond

To understand Sam, think of Samwise helping Frodo
in that last climb in the Lord of the Rings. To think of
Marie, imagine a child born to an American Jew and 
a German Christian at the very end of World War II
and how she reconciled that paradox. She became a
devout Methodist, and in recent years has joined the
local Jewish choir, where they sing in Hebrew. To
envision their partnership, learn that he accompanies
that choir, and that every afternoon when Sam plays
the carillon at Duke Chapel, Marie comes to listen
and take Sam home. They met at Duke University when
she taught mathematics, and he was a music librarian.
Later he became a rare books librarian. One son became 
mathematician; the other went on to study music, but
then he became a priest who now studies canon law
at the Vatican. Parents do have these surprises, but Sam
and Marie took that fence with love and grace.
I met Marie first when I was teaching Daniel Deronda
as a model for writing fiction. She loves nineteenth
century novels. The both encouraged me to edit and 
annotate my grandparents’ diary kept in China. I waxed
and waned on that project, often setting it aside, but
Sam kept urging me on when I’d turn back to it.
“Find out who all these people were, and what all these 
Chinese place names stand for." He did research on the 
music mentioned and discovered answers for 
misspelled words. A kori [not cory] was a woven 
traveling basket made in Japan. The baby’s formula 
contained Mellins [ not mulins], an extract made 
from wheat and barley malt. I’m not an enthusiastic 
researcher, but Sam is, and they both read Grace
for typos and accuracy. I tried university presses, 
with no luck, but they recommended Wipf and 
Stock of Oregon, where Marie’s two books, one on 
Jeremiah and one about The Rabbi of Worms, Rabbi
Solomon ben Isaac, of eleventh century Germany,
had been published. Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16 
was accepted. I had the nearly overwhelming task
of formatting Grace properly.  It appeared in April 
2017 and has been my best seller. Sam and Marie 
took me to supper and we celebrated. When my son Tim
visits, we’go out to eat Chinese at their favorite
restaurant. Tim works with children in shelters and 
homes, with adults who have addiction problems.
They always praise him. At home they keep it simple;
no big screen color TV, only a small black and white; 
no answering machine or computer. Sometimes it’s
hard to get them to talk about themselves, but they
are good at getting their guests to talk. They regularly
visit their grandchildren in New England and Sam’s
elderly relatives in Georgia. Sam’s manners are
courtly. Marie’s the letter writer, by hand, by mail.
They go to the bi-annual meeting of the society that
honors Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others of that 
Inklings group, and Marie reads her papers there.
They also attend carillon conventions together and
teach Shakespeare at a local retirement center.
If you have Sam and Marie in your life, you 
have a gift without price.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Flowers of the Heart: Doug Williams



Cosmos on my kitchen table October 2011

***

Flowers of the Heart Seven November 12, 2017

For Doug Williams

He’s a quiet man, not much for
direct speech, but he has been
a loving friend to me for thirty years.
He came first to my Roadmap classes
in the Durham Library. He’d been
trained as an electrical engineer; 
computers were his specialty. As a
writer, I depended on them, 
especially after the nineties. He
became my fix-it man. I opened
the literary world to him. He wanted
to learn ancient Greek, and I loaned
him a grammar and a dictionary.
He studied Proust with me, and
he took several lifestyle courses
in which we asked ourselves
hard questions about our goals
in life and how we’d meet them.
He liked to read about American
presidents and the lives of poets.
He wrote some poetry, but mostly
he liked to talk over what he was 
reading and thinking. Once I had
a publisher for my grandmother
Grace’s China diary, he helped
with formatting which bewildered
me.  He laughs now at how he
invented a program to deal with
some footnote problems. Then
the computer he’d installed wouldn’t
turn on. He sent it back because the
warranty was still running and put
all the China files on a tiny computer, 
so I could get the formatted book 
to the publisher in a timely manner. 
I try not to bother him, but computers
defy my understanding, and I
write to Doug, and he comes down 
as soon as he can. I always offer
lunch or supper, but these days
he usually has other plans. He
likes to treat me for my birthday 
at a good restaurant and have a chat. 
His trust and care are a great gift.
Where would I be in my writer’s

life without Doug on stand-by?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Flower of the Heart: Mary Susan Heath


Mary Susan Heath and Judy at Goldsboro reading May 1, 2015

***

Flowers of the Heart Six   November 5, 2017

For Mary Susan Heath

She said she used to think she was Mary,
but now she knows she is Martha. Her
husband Tom has been fighting cancer
some years and growing tomatoes. They
eat a lot of tomato dishes, which also
fights the cancer. She gets out of the
kitchen when he’s canning. Her mother
is in her nineties, and she helps her with
shopping and doctor appointments. Her
Durham grandchildren often visit, or she 
goes there. When I go to Goldsboro to
read and do a workshop, Mary Susan 
helps Katherine with all the arrangements,
and we three have a meal together. A few
years back she began driving to my house
for my Thursday afternoon “Life Story”
class. She had already worked ten or more
years on the book about her uncle’s life
in the army, but she began the editing
process. On winter days I’d have the
woodstove burning, and I offered hot
lemon balm tea. I also sold my homemade
breads, and she bought the cinnamon loaf
and ate it on the drive home. She also
brought wood. The last year she took
the class, she got the other students to
chip in and brought me a cord of wood.
I still have some, and she’s preparing
to publish her book. When I go to
Goldsboro, I take cinnamon bread,
and she gives me canned tomatoes.
I was in her home for breakfast and
watched her manage the dogs and the 
cat. Kind but firm. Once she brought
me a whole wardrobe of Thrift Store
clothes. She chooses well. They all
looked new to me, and they all fit.
I told her I was like Thoreau. I have
my favorites and I wear them until
they’re worn out. She said Thoreau
didn’t even have window glass to keep
out the cold. I was overwhelmed,
but now I look through all my choices
before I go to court about stopping
the coal ash, visit the Department
of Environmental Quality in Raleigh,
or give a poetry reading. Some outfits
are already favorites. Others are 
waiting for the right occasion. We’re
having a very warm fall. The fire is
laid in the woodstove, but the house
hasn’t gotten cold enough to light it.
My wood bin holds enough logs for
the winter when the Arctic blasts
sweep down on us from Canada. We
communicate by email, and sign

our letters “Love.”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Emma Smith: A Flower of the Heart


Emma and Robert Smith at the Mason Ball

***

Flowers of the Heart Five October 29, 2017


For Emma Smith

We met nineteen years ago. I was buying
this house and land, and she and Robert 
lived next door. I came with Liz, my real
estate agent, who was black. Emma said,
“You’re like us.” Robert is black, and she’s
white. She welcomed me from the first, as
did her three-year-old grandson, Demetrius,
who hugged my knees. Robert was more
cautious, but before long I talked him into
going to get horse manure with me. When
puppy Lucky came to live with them in
2000, when we had our big snowstorm, 
Lucky and Demetrius came over to watch
me plant flowers in front, and vegetables
in back. People asked Harold, who was
working with me against a low-level
nuclear dump, if I were Emma’s mother.
He said yes. It was Emma who did the
mothering. She told Robert’s friends
to bring me firewood. One cut down a 
dead tree for me. She’d come over and
tell me about her life. Robert was
difficult, but she stuck to him. When
he got cancer, she was right there
through surgeries, chemo, radiation.
Robert kept moving and held off
dying as long as he could. Emma was
always ready to give me a ride, to my 
mechanic or to the hospital. Once she
loaned me her car. When it was time
for her to sell their house, she stipulated
that my new neighbor had to promise
to help me. Emma said I should still
call her if I needed a ride. When I fell
in the road near my house in July,
she heard about it and came to check
on me. She has her health problems,
but they don’t slow her down much.
She always says what she thinks, even
more than I do. For that I love her, and
for her impulse to help other people. She 
lives for her grandsons. We lost Demetrius
when he was only thirteen. Emma grieved
but now that new baby has her glowing with
with pride, and Omari. She makes sure he 
does well in school, and she goes to all his
games. How lucky I am to have Emma in

my life: a few miles away but still close by.

***

Demetrius Alston with his father Kenny and his mother Novella (Missy)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Elaine Goolsby, A Flower of the Heart


Flowers of the Heart Four  October 22, 2017

For Elaine Goolsby

Her voice was never loud, yet
she stood firm when it mattered.
She listened well and then asked
penetrating questions beyond the
skill of most social workers, trained
though they are to get to the bottom
of things in other people’s souls. I
first met Elaine when her poet
sister Virginia visited me. I came to 
know and love her when I taught a
writing class through Durham Tech, 
and asked my students to bring in
a letter they, or someone else, had
written. She brought her pen pal’s, 
from when she and Graham began
their correspondence right after
World War II. This first letter,
recovered, set off what she called
her “letter in a bottle.” She wrote
to find him, and he called her up.
Their correspondence came back
to life. She showed me the letters,
and we decided to publish them, 
and did.  Graham came for the
occasion. Later she would go
to England, and I would meet him,
too, when I was in Wales. Elaine
and I became close and had lunch
together every few weeks, first at
the Greek restaurant, Mariakakis,
and later at Nantucket, both in
Chapel Hill. By the 90s, at Fortune
Garden or their Thailanna, near where 
she lived in Durham. Elaine, a good
listener, was occasionally fierce,
but only when it mattered. She knew
more about me than most people did,
and then she was always helping me.
In the 80s, my Carolina Wren Press
became a Durham Arts Council
affiliate, and all those boxes had to be
moved several times, and her husband
B.D. would help, too. When I left the
house on Barclay Road to move to
Saxapahaw, she and her son Chris helped,
despite icy rain, on January 1. One very
hot July day in 1995, she and B.D. moved
me from the room I rented in Saxapahaw
to a storage unit. We ate watermelon for
electrolytes. When I flew out of Raleigh-
Durham they’d let me sleep on their 
couch and then take me early to the airport.
When B.D. got sick, I’d call a cab. She
took nearly every class I offered, and
kept writing poems. She lost B.D. and 
other good friends. She has had a lot of 
losses, but she’d talk to those dying
and offer comfort. Slowly her mind
has drifted into early dementia, but she 
keeps reading. When she couldn’t take
care of her daughter, Heather began taking 
care of her. Now they have her quarantined
because she might have tuberculosis. No
one can go into the house, and she can’t 
go out until they know. As long as I could,
I took her to Thailanna and brought her
library books. She’d still ask those
penetrating questions, but she’d forget
my answers. Anna and Gif came to love
her, and we all miss her. She’ll soon be
eighty-eight. She doesn’t complain about
all her losses. Sometimes she laughs.
A very sturdy, sane friend, who, through
these years, has found the grace to accept
what she can’t change.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Rare Poet: Jaki Shelton Green


Christmas Cactus in my Kitchen Window.

***
Flowers of the Heart Three October 15, 2017
For Jaki Shelton Green

We live in racist times. It was bad
here in the early seventies, but Jaki drove
to our old farmhouse set off away from
the farmer’s new brick one, with a
briefcase full of poems. Slight, but 
determined. Brave, undaunted. I’d had 
a postcard: “We are two black writers. 
Are you interested in our work?” I wrote
back to send it. They did, and then Jaki
arrived alone. I was shocked to read:
“The moon is a rapist peeing in my
window,” but I recognized a different
cultural take on the moon in the Ku Klux Klan
South. I published her first book Dead on
Arrival. She had two young children, as
did I. Sometimes I picked up Segun when
I got Ginia from the Victory Village Daycare.
Once I hosted local poets for a potluck at
our farmhouse. Another poet’s teenaged
son, when Jaki was working with a wok
in the kitchen, thought she was the maid.
We laughed. It has been forty-four years. 
She has won so many honors: Piedmont
Poet Laureate, North Carolina Award, North
Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Once she was
angry when I refused one book, but I published
Dead on Arrival and New Poems. Later,
those who took up Carolina Wren Press, 
brought out newer ones. When her daughter
Imani died, after a short and terrible fight
against a raging cancer, her sun went into
a shadow realm. She was terribly sick, even
paralyzed. Finally, a holistic doctor helped
with diet and other treatments. Jaki began
to heal and once more gave readings. Now
she has a major art show of remembrance
for her lost Imani. Years ago she was
invited to a poetry event in the mountains
for the Fourth of July. We had her third baby
with us, little Eva. We sat outside, and
Jaki wrote a poem in her notebook;
“Simmering in blood. Simmering in blood...”
Those lines repeated over and over. I published
it. Her candle has burned bright these forty-four
years, except for that darkness when Imani died,
and grief imprisoned her. Our friendship held.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Someone I can always count on


Flowers of the Heart 2 October 8, 2017

For Katherine Wood Wolfe

Katherine drove to Durham from her 
home in Goldsboro every week to my
writing classes in the late 1990s. I was
selling bread, and Katherine always bought
a cinnamon loaf and ate some driving home.
When she stopped commuting those ninety
miles, she worked with me by mail. She 
had been crippled by arthritis, but her 
spirit was so strong and determined, we 
forgot to notice. When I taught Proust, 
she had re-married, and I mailed her notes 
and my comments on her writing. She 
helped another woman write and publish 
her book. When my first mystery 
Killer Frost came out in 2012, she 
arranged a reading in Goldsboro and 
pulled in all her friends. I’ve been
each year since with new mysteries and
books of poetry. I go next Tuesday to
talk about my grandmother Grace. She
always indulges me, gives me flowers, 
prepares snacks for the occasion, and
late at night we talk about our lives and 
our writing. She publishes more of her
own work now. Her voice is strong
but not loud. She imagines the feelings
of children and gives them voices. She
notices things other people skim over. 
We were both born in 1937, I, in May; 
she, in September. She’s someone I can
always count on. Other people’s needs
don’t frighten her. She quietly adds
them to her “to do” list.