Sunday, December 10, 2017

Yuri Lebedev: A Flower of the Heart

Orchid buds by Rita Baldwin

Flowers of the Heart Eleven December 10, 2017

For Yuri Lebedev

Last night I said that the knowledge and mental development in Vera, in Yuri, in me was rare and irreplaceable. So we must do what we could. –Judy’s diary 1995

The first question he ever asked me was:
“Do you teach Russian literature?” That
was during my first visit in 1990 to Kostroma
and to their Writers’ Organization. I said, “No.”
By the time Yuri came in 1993 as one of
three Russian writers, to Durham and to my
village of Saxapahaw, I was teaching Anna
Akhmatova and took them to that class.
Later he invited me to come and teach at his
Kostroma University in 1995. I taught
American poetry and translating Akhmatova.
When I had very few students, he called them
glupi [stupid]. He and Vera kept me a week
in their apartment, where his son’s young
family also lived. We’d sit for hours after
meals talking with my rudimentary Russian
and my dictionary. Meantime he arranged
for me to live in one of his colleagues’
apartments for the next two months. Vera
took me shopping to the big daily farmers’
market in the city center. He and Mikhail
checked on me and had me for meals.
Once it was so cold–fifteen below freezing--
that Vera thought I would not come, but
I bundled up in my three scarves, two
pairs of warm socks, and the fur-lined vest 
from the painter Aleksei Belikh, and
when I got off the bus, Yuri was watching
for me. He was thoughtful and gracious
to a fault, and modest. Who would know
how much he knew about nineteenth
century Russian literature. He would astonish
me with his quiet comments: “Tolstoy
wrote about Russian life as it was in the
mid-nineteenth century, but Dostoevsky
wrote about what it would be like in the 
twentieth century.” When he was one of
the three Russian writers visiting Durham 
and my village of Saxapahaw, he’d always
be ready for the day’s meetings when I
arrived, and when I asked him how he was, 
he’d beam and say, “Otleechno” [Perfect].
When I, who was their chauffeur and, when 
we were alone, their interpreter, got sick 
with a bad cold, he exclaimed, “Judy, you
must not get sick, or we’ll be dead.” I didn’t 
drink his recommended toddy, with vodka
and hot pepper, but I did stay home to rest
for two days. My landlord, their host, John 
Jordan, took them to a turkey shoot. John
knew no Russian. They later described arriving
in the dark and seeing a lot of men with
guns. They thought the end was near, but
when it was their turn, they won two turkeys
and a ham. Rarely was Yuri angry, but
injustice infuriated him. A few months ago
he wrote to me about my country’s foolishness 
in its treatment of Russia and other countries. 
We were, he said, making the same mistake
the Soviet Union had made when it tried to 
force other countries into Communism,
as we now tried to force all the world into our
form of democracy.  He wasn’t angry at me.
He welcomed me to his home, told me all
the news of his family. When I answered, I
had to agree that our country was making 
plenty of mistakes, but also that I hadn’t much
power to change our approach to international
politics. I did hope to publish books about
my Russian experiences. I will never forget
the warmth of their hospitality in their small
apartment. The last meal we had together
in 1995, I began to cry. I didn’t want to
leave. He comforted me: “Don’t cry, Judy.
Have some more wine.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Gene Dillard: A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Ten December 3, 2017

For Gene Dillard

I loved him for his open heart, his brash speech,
and his outrageous behavior. He came into a diary
course in the main Durham Library, making sure
we all knew he was there, and asked was this the
class about keeping a journal. “Yes,” I said, and
he settled in. Later he took poetry classes, after
making sure it wasn’t a sissy thing to write
poetry. Some women were offended by his
unpredictable commentary. I never was.
Gradually he quieted, let us know his deep
feelings. He stuck with the poetry, let us meet
in his home, where we read Whitman, Dickinson,
and Charles Eaton. He never did my assignments,
but his poetry flourished. On several occasions
he fixed my car, which broke down before
or after a class. Once he lay under it, and
when I handed him the wrong tool, he fussed,
but he fixed the radiator hose. Another
 time he kept me at his house overnight,
then took me to buy a starter the next
morning. He liked to call me and ask if I
were decent. He made me laugh. Over the
years he has sometimes changed his voice
and asked, “Is this Judy Hogan, the famous
writer?” He joined the Peace Corps in 2002,
and went to Honduras, fixed water systems.
He could fix most things, and his regular
work was fixing heating and air conditioning
problems in university labs and businesses.
He was self-taught, but read widely in
philosophy and admired outdoor sculptors
who were whimsical. He’d drive a thousand
miles to see outside art that defied the
categories. In 2005 I invited him to speak
to my reading classes at the college, and he
told them how hard he studied for his license,
and had to take the exam three times before
he passed and could go independent. Then
there were our Charles Eaton years. Charles
was, I thought, the best living American poet.
I reviewed all his books and was invited to
visit him three or four times a year. Charles
didn’t cope well with his aging, and I heard
his laments. Gene began visiting him,
giving him rides, helping with household crises.
When a relative tried to declare Charles mentally
incompetent, and they took him to UNC’s
psych ward, Gene went to bring him home.
Charles was waiting in a wheelchair while
some doctors conferred nearby. Gene got
tried of waiting, grabbed the wheelchair
handles and hustled him out of the ward
and onto the elevator. An aide saw them
and went in pursuit, but Gene had
Charles in is truck by the time the aide
caught up, breathless. Charles was
shocked into laughter, but though Gene
offered to cruise Franklin Street, Charles
insisted he wanted to go home and back
to Pat, his wife. After Charles died,
Gene looked after Pat. I suspected she
was in love with Gene. Sometimes when
Gene calls, he says, “This is Charles Eaton.”
When I had to have my cataract surgery,
I told him I was worried. My mother had
lost her eyesight after a bungled surgery.
He called as soon as I was back home
and asked, “Is this one-eyed Hogan?”
I laughed.

 His full genius came to flower
when he began turning his home into
a work of art. He did some yard ornaments;
then began making mosaics of the walls
of his garage, then a wall in his garden
using bottles. Eventually, all the walls
of his house were mosaicked; then the
inside, even chairs and tables.

 Now he
lives inside his art. He reminds me of
Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth.
Gulley would paint murals wherever
he could find a good big space, even if
that wall was destined for demolition.
People stop by Gene’s house regularly,
and he gets coverage on TV and in the
local papers. Gene is moving out
now into the community with his
mosaic projects. There is so much to
see and love where Gene has been
turning what he sees in his mind’s eye
into stunning works of art.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sharon Ewing: A Flower of the Heart

Sharon and her daughter Nancy, 2014


Flowers of the Heart Nine November 26, 2017

For Sharon Dobbs Ewing

We sat together on the back row
of Svensen’s Shakespeare class.
He used to make fun of the girls
on the front row, say only the
pretty ones could sit there. Sharon
was a sorority girl, whose role was
to keep their grade average up.
I was a minister’s daughter and
rebelled against grades by my
senior year, but I loved that class.
We both made As. I visited her
family in Altus, for Thanksgiving,
and we lunched with our mothers 
at graduation. After that we lost
touch for nearly thirty years. In
1986 she wrote to me, saw my
name in the alumni mag. Was I
Judy Stevenson? Yes. I was editor
of Carolina Wren Press, and she
was looking for a publisher of
her poetry manuscript. She sent
it. I rejected it. She held on, and
that fall came to Chapel Hill with
her daughter Nancy to look at 
UNC as a possible college. That
fall I was overwhelmed. I had a
new NEH grant. My son had a
drinking problem, and I had to
move because the foundation
of my rental house was sinking.
I went to her motel room to meet
her. She hung on. By 1991, when 
I expected my first Russian visitor, 
I stayed with her and John in 
Alexandria. Mikhail was a no-show.
They helped me cope. When I
got home I learned he hadn’t been
able to get his visa. He came in
May 1992 for several weeks. 
Sharon had told me about the 
exchanges with Russian writers 
which the Virginia Center for
the Arts was doing, and i won
a place for July. I left for Russia
from their house and stayed in Russia
two months. I visited European and
then American friends and returned 
to Saxapahaw only at the end of
1992. By 1993, three Russian writers
arrived on Halloween for a month.
Sharon and John helped us see
the sights of Washington and visit
the Library of Congress to meet its
Russian expert. I was the interpreter
when John started a discussion
about God. I did my best with my
baby Russian, but I doubt the three 
Russian bears were very enlightened. 
In 1995 the Ewings came to Russia,
and we spent two weeks with Mikhail 
and his family. Sharon brought lovely
clothes for Katya and baby clothes
for the new granddaughter Dasha. In
1998, when I helped host Nikolai
Smirnov painter and Alyosha,
Mikhail’s son, they took Alyosha
to visit their daughter Nancy’s classes
and also brought him to Durham, 
where he could meet historians from 
UNC and Duke. When they boarded 
their Aeroflot flight home, Nikolai
carried a huge chainsaw which John
had helped him buy with his paintings
money. In 2001 she and I, Mikhail 
and Alyosha produced Earth and Soul:
An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry.
She was editor. I raised money and 
found poets. Alyosha typeset it, and
Mikhail designed and published it
in Russian and English. A few years
later I began attending the big mystery
convention: Malice Domestic. I stayed
with them. I’d talk her into going 
for one day when I was on a panel.
How to describe this faithful friend, 
always eager to help: A fairy godmother.
It was Mikhail who saw clearly her
compassionate nature. I trusted it and
leaned on it. Over time we shared our 
ups and downs. Sometimes they came 
here, slept on an air mattress on the
floor. She always brought food, and I
shared jellies, preserves, and applesauce 
cake. She’s still arranging readings 
for me in the D.C. area, and I still lean
on her, my faithful friend.

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)