Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Good Neighbors Robert and Emma Smith

Robert Smith at Mason Ball, December 1, 2013.


I came to live in this little house on three acres in Moncure in late 1998.  It was my first owned home, and I became part of a small black community here.  Before I moved in, I’d met Robert and Emma Smith, my next door neighbors, and their four-year-old grandson Demetrius.  The first time Emma saw me and my realtor, Liz, she said, “You’re like us.”  Liz is black, and I’m white. Robert is black, and Emma, white.  Meanwhile little Demetrius had thrown his arms around my legs and hugged me.

Demetrius, and later, in 2000, their puppy Lucky, made sure we became friends   Both boy and puppy came over to help me plant flowers on the front and side of the house.  Robert and I both grew vegetables, and I was going to my friend Debbie’s horse farm to get manure.  I asked Robert if he’d like to come and get manure, too. He got his nephew and constant companion, Tutty, to come along, and for a few years it was our Easter weekend ritual, the Friday or Monday, when they didn’t have to work.

Gradually I got to know Robert’s friends in the neighborhood who gathered on his porch weekends and at night when it wasn’t too cold.  I loved to hear them talking and laughing.

I’d been told by one of the African American judges for a minority book contest I sponsored in 1983 as editor of Carolina Wren Press (1976-91) that “All we have is our literature and our churches.” For Robert and his friends, there was Robert’s porch, where they were always welcome, and I’m sure they opened their hearts to each other, shared sorrows, and laughter.  Sometimes I would go over with a question or to tell them about an upcoming election.

Later Emma told me I was their mama, and others began to help me, too, especially Chainsaw, who began bringing me firewood for my wood cookstove, and was delighted when I gave him eggs or a jar of fig preserves.

Another neighbor, Harold Taylor, with whom I’d worked against air pollution and unsafe nuclear storage at Shearon Harris, whose evacuation zone we lived, told me people asked him if I was Emma’s mama, and he said yes.  I laughed, but that story has come true.  Emma made it so.

Once when NC Warn was suing Progress Energy for not being safe enough, their lawyer went with me to talk to Robert’s porch folks and get them to give him statements to use in court.  They willingly participated.  More recently as I walked our road getting signatures against fracking and offering people yard signs (water = life; no fracking) the porch men all signed my petition.  Several of them have told me that, for them, Robert’s porch was home.

Back in 2004, when many Chatham citizens were upset with our county commissioners letting in every development that came along, and we started the Chatham Coalition, and did win the elections, July primary, and then November, for our candidates, a friend of mine from Finland, Arja Holm, was visiting me in May.  I asked Robert if he would cook a hog for our big party.  He had a big traditional hog cooker, and he often gave barbecue parties to his large family and friends on holidays and birthdays.  He did.  Arja was fascinated.  Robert and one or two friends sat up all night to cook that hog, and on Saturday he pulled the hog cooker, with several friends and Emma coming along, to our party site out in Silk Hope.  Not a scrap of that hog was left.

In the beginning Robert lent me his smaller mower, and when that one broke down, I bought one and said we could both use it and left it with his machines and tools.  He had a larger riding mower, but occasionally he used the new one, and he always repaired it.  I had learned to use an electric weed-eater, and when I got a new one and didn’t understand how it worked, he helped me.  I learned to use a chainsaw to cut my firewood to the right length, and when the chain came loose, he’d put it back.

One day Robert and Tutty came over to consult.  I’d been using their clotheslines as Emma had a dryer, and I liked to dry my clothes in the fresh air.  Would it be okay if they moved the clothesline closer to my house?  I said fine. Tutty said, “Then you wouldn’t have to walk uphill.”  This made me smile, as I was, in my walks to stay healthy, deliberately walking uphill.  Nevertheless, I was happy to have it closer.  I guessed they wanted more space in their backyard.  Tutty dug the postholes and restrung the lines.

Robert, in his quiet way, held down the neighborhood.  I realized fairly early that within this part of Moncure’s black community there were different social groups, divided, I thought, along different church affiliation lines.  This part of Chatham was settled early by land grants in the 1700s, and of course there was slavery, and my neighbors are descended from those slaves, and as I’ve been told, most of the black population here is related, and they all keep track of relatives, including distant cousins.  Bertha Thomas, another neighborhood friend, and her family, attended the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist; Harold Taylor and his family and friends, attended Liberty Chapel.  Robert and his porch friends didn’t attend church, and neither do it, except on special occasions.  

I write poems Sunday morning, and Robert would welcome his men friends.  Thinking about him a lot as I have these last months as he began to lose his six-year battle with cancer, I can’t think of anyone I’ve known who lived out the commandments of Jesus as well to treat others as you would want to be treated.  Robert was so kind, so helpful.  He didn’t say much, but he lived out his love for other people.  He had flaws and weaknesses, as we all do, but he was so dependable and so determined to do right by other people.  In his quiet way, it seemed to me, that he was a guardian spirit holding down the neighborhood.  Emma told me that he had always worn a cross, which I hadn’t known.

One of the big ways he helped me was with the chickens.  I got my first chicks in 2003, a straight run, i.e., a mixture of hens and cocks, and I ended up with sixteen roosters and ten hens.  I asked him to help me kill the extra fifteen roosters.  I’d gotten very attached to my chickens, and Robert, Tutty, Clarence, Tutty’s father, and LoMae, Robert’s sister, all knew this was hard for me.  Their knowledge and understanding got me through it.  Robert and Tutty killed the roosters, and LoMae taught me how to pluck and clean them, how to cut the bile sack off the liver, etc.  I gave a chicken to each of my helpers.  They had all grown up on a farm.  That was my initiation.  Years later, in 2012, when I discovered five hens had been eating eggs, I read up on the butchering process, and killed those hens myself.  Then I told Robert.  I felt like I’d graduated!

Robert and Tutty cared for the hens when I was out of town, once or twice a year.  That one rooster was a problem though. He attacked everybody but me.  So Robert and Tutty put a string from the people door of the coop over to the chicken door, so that they could shut the chickens out while they took the feed in.

Robert went through three surgeries, many chemo treatments and always went right back to work.  I learned from Emma that he was in pain a lot the last months, but he kept going to work, which his boss, Buddy Kelly, at the Construction Equipment Parts Company, said at his service, he had found inspiring.  Robert told me that he had to “keep moving.”  Then last March he stopped going to work and began having regular Hospice visits.  I’d see the UNC Hospital van come to bring new equipment. Still, occasionally he’d be outside.  He asked me if was okay if he cut down some Rose of Sharon volunteer trees growing next to my fence.  Earlier he’d gathered brush I’d thrown over the fence and made a fire to burn one of the pine stumps.  He kept putting out vegetables from his small garden this year for anybody to help themselves.

Emma was right with him through his years long ordeal–three surgeries, a lot of chemo,–and his last difficult days--his daughters and son, too.  The morning he died Emma came over to ask me to mail a letter when I went to the post office.  She said he wouldn’t last much longer.  Later that Monday morning, June 23, I saw funeral home limousine in their driveway.  The photo below with him, his sisters and brother was taken on Father’s Day, eight days before he died.  The Sunday before, the 22nd, many people came over–a hundred, I’d guess, and the day he died, people brought more food, and even a porta-john for the week.  There were big gatherings Tuesday and Thursday nights and Friday after the funeral service and burial at Liberty Chapel Church.


Left to right, first row, LoMae (Lola Mae); Robert; Linda Smith;
back row:  George Smith, Joann (Helen) Matthews; Carrie Hackney.  Originally nine children; three brothers have gone before.


At his service, neighbors from all the different church groups came, and the porch friends, too.  His extended family alone is about 200 people, and there were also many friends there.  People who spoke about him talked about what a hard and conscientious worker he was, and also what a good friend.  He was a good listener and sometimes gave advice.  He was a quiet man with warming smile. He didn’t say much, but he always helped me.  We grew our vegetables differently.  I did mine organically, and he used conventional methods.  We’d talk about our crops.  His usually grew better than mine, but he was always curious about what I was growing.  When I put in the lasagna (layered) garden last winter, I saw him and Emma looking at it, and I can imagine he was thinking what in the world was she doing now.  Later I told him that the straw I put down was now growing wheat, and he wasn’t surprised. He’d already noticed that.

I, too, gave gifts–taking Lucky to the vet for shots and checkups (Emma said, “He’s half yours.”); getting fresh gravel for our two driveways; taking over eggs, or a pie, some flowers, a book, but I always felt more gifts came my way.  I was adopted.  I was trusted. 

When Emma came over Wednesday morning to tell me she wanted my poem read at the service, and I was to have a reserved seat with the family, I felt very honored.  Then one of his nieces, whom I’d met only briefly, when she came to see if it was okay to park in my yard, and I said yes, as she walked with the family into the sanctuary, pulled me over, “You come with us.  You’re part of the family.”

Emma and Robert and their family and friends helped me make a home here.  Others, too, but they have been my closest neighbors and the ones I’ve gone to first for help and advice about all the things you run into in the country.  

Then there was the copperhead.  Wednesday, I went into the garden late afternoon, tipped up the big tub to let out rainwater, and there was a coiled copperhead.  I gently put the tub back and went in to have supper and think about what to do.  My son Tim called, and I told him.  As I talked, thinking about the 200 people next door, I told him I’d ask the neighbors to kill it.  So I had supper and waited until 7, when they’d have finished eating.  Then I approached the first young men I saw about killing a copperhead. 

They clearly weren’t up for that, but Casca, Robert’s son, came out, and I told him.  Clavin, Robert’s close friend and neighbor on his other side, was found, and another man who offered to do the deed.  Clavin got him a hoe.  A couple of other men followed to watch.  I said, I hadn’t want to look again to see if it was still there. This man used the hoe to lift off the tub, and there was the still coiled snake, so chop, chop, he died.  

Another man said, “You went in the house to think about it?”  I said yes.  I could tell they were amused.  I’m laughing now myself. I’ll always be grateful to this relative of Robert’s, and I forgot to ask his name.  When he saw me at the church, he asked, “Found any more copperheads?”  “No,” I said, “and thank you so much.”

The Sunday before Robert died the next morning, thinking about gifts, I wrote this poem, the one that was read on Friday, June 27, the day we buried him.  I think Robert might still be here guarding our neighborhood from harm.



June 22, 2014

... a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift...the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality....where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment.  The Gift, Lewis Hyde       

For Robert Smith, my neighbor 1998-2014.

When recognition comes and trust is extended 
in ways I never expected, my spirits lift like 
the slow, awkward ascent of a great blue heron.  
Other people’s trust always surprises me,
even though my friends tell me, “You are
trustworthy.”  Another’s trust is a gift.  My
place is this world is verified, and it’s exactly
the space I already inhabit.  I lowered my
expectations, but I kept working and giving
away poems, thoughts, even fears, keeping 
in mind the welfare of others.  In so many
ways we are all one.  Let the surface
distinctions fall away.  The family of man
exists after all.  More hospital equipment
arrives for my good neighbor Robert whose
cancer is winning now.  Six years he fought 
to live and work, to stay among us.  Now
his friends and family visit–not in crowds.
That last Memorial Day weekend party of
two hundred is past, but in twos and threes
they come by and then leave.  Robert is
greatly loved.  A few days before he began
to stay in bed, he told me he’d crank my
mower if I had any trouble.  He has helped
me for fifteen years.  We shoveled horse
manure together.  He assembled the new
lawnmower and helped me figure out the
weedeater.  He’d take the chainsaw apart
and get it working.  I admired his neat
garden, and flourishing tomatoes and 
peppers.  He’d ask about mine, which was
never neat, but it did produce food.  I 
loved to make him smile.  Our world here
will shift and be bereft when he is gone.
We already mourn, our gift in answer to 
his quiet ones to so many people during
his sixty years of life.

From his Homegoing service, June 27, 2014, Liberty Chapel Church: Born: February 3, 1954; Died: June 23, 2014.  60 years old


Judy Hogan, Hoganvillaea Farm, Moncure.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Our Real Selves

Judy holding a green pear--look closely. Photo by Mark Schmerling.



February 16, 2014

We have to believe in 
the future in order to ward it off 
when the sky darkens and omens 
fall all around us.  Only the patient
serenity of our spirits, allowing each
day’s exuberance, will do it, will keep
us upright, well-balanced, firmly 
rooted in the miracle of present time.
–A Thread of Light V.

It boils down to one thing:
that exchange of light, that
mutual knowledge: here we are–
our real selves.  Nothing else.
We stand each alone, yet our
words make a link, a thread
of light.  It can’t be faked.
Once there, it stays.  We can
weaken it, deny it, run fast
away, but light–whether
physical or spiritual–is
indestructible.  Do we think
we can switch it off, douse
the flame?  We can try, but
something larger keeps
re-igniting what once burned
bright.  The very darkness
it inhabits preserves its uncanny 
power, its incandescent fire.  
Let it be.  Let it live.  Let go 
fear and doubt, those familiar
shadows.  Step into this light,  
Be the being whose soul you 
inherited and welcomed.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gifts from the Universe

Sage in bloom in my garden a few springs ago.


GIFTS VI. June 8, 2015

The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.  The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift, and not an acquisition.  The Gift.  Lewis Hyde

How many years left?  We never know.  I tell
myself twenty-three, but who knows?  Even
twenty-three is not very many.  So far my
body and mind hold me together.  Seventy-seven
isn’t young, but I don’t feel old yet.  My aging
has been gradual, gentle, graceful.  I rest
more, but I work steadily to prepare books
for publishing and write new ones, too.  I
grow food, care for the plants, trees,
creatures, earth where I live and flourish.
I work with others, too, for justice and 
well-being in our communal life.  Always
the battle: good versus evil.  Let my life
help the good, strengthen its place among 
us.  Let me learn and keep on learning.
Let my life be a beacon to help others see
and understand more than they did before,
lift the smog that obscures the view of cynics.
Let me praise those who quietly do their 
best without fanfare.  Let me reveal in my
writing the foolishness and wrong-footednes
of the evil-doers, but not forget their
humanity.  Let me drop all stereotypes
and glib pronouncements and see beauty 
and honesty wherever it flourishes.  Let me
face my own problems with wisdom,
courage, and humor, and imagine the
difficulties of others.  Let me be patient
with myself and my body and mind.  Let
my wisdom increase and my foolishness
fall away.  Let me treasure each day, each
creature, plant, being I encounter.  All 
our gifts are precious, and we, mortal
and flawed though we are, are also gifts
from the Universe, which we inhabit
long enough to leave behind us what
may be cherished when we’re gone. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review of KM Rockwood's Steeled for Murder

Steeled for Murder: A Jesse Damon Crime Novel.  K.M. Rockwood.  Terpsichore, An Imprint of Musa Publishing.  2012. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-61937-859-9. $7.50 (on Amazon); Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-61937-175.0  $4.99.  253 pages.

Jesse Damon, the sleuth by default in Rockwood’s mystery Steeled for Murder is one of those characters who lives in the mind long after the book is closed.  I identified with Jesse early.  Released from prison after serving twenty years for a charge of murder which he didn’t commit, he becomes a suspect because he works in the plant where Mitch Robinson, a forklift driver, was murdered. 

Detective Belkins is obsessed because his daughter was raped, tortured, and killed, and he’s after Jesse, despite the supervisor’s testimony that Jesse had been working on a plater machine when the forklift driver was killed.  Montgomery, Belkins’ partner, tries to keep him from violating procedures, but Belkins keeps turning up, often alone, to accuse and arrest.

Jesse feels lucky to have the job at Quality Steel Fabrication.  He works hard to fulfill all the requirements of his job and his parole, wearing his leg monitor, checking in by phone with his parole officer if he has any schedule changes.  He has little extra money, so he eats peanut butter sandwiches and drinks instant coffee.  For entertainment, he gets books from the local library. He can’t belong to the union until he’s finished with his parole, and if he loses his job, he may land back in prison or if he violates any of the terms of his parole, like drinking or driving without a license.  Fortunately his immediate bosses find him a good worker, and one of the other lift drivers, Kelly, is kind to him, treats him to breakfast, and tells him what she knows about Mitch, who was apparently dealing drugs.  Jesse likes her a lot, but he has to be very careful, and he is.

We have an interesting reversal here.  The criminal is the good guy; the cops are the bad guys.  Then another terrible irony is at work. The more Jesse tries to help other people, even at the risk of being sent back to prison (he drives a very sick woman to the hospital when he has never driven before), the more his behavior is misinterpreted and suspicion mounts.  I was especially touched by how he cared for the sick woman’s four children when he knew almost nothing about childcare except what he had learned in a foster home.

I found myself saying aloud, as I read, “Not again!”  We get to know Jesse from the inside so well, he is so completely presented, that we not only identify with him but the suspense that we experience, as Jesse copes with all the blame falling on him for things he didn’t do, is so integral to his character and situation that it never feels like calculated suspense.  We never disbelieve the likelihood of these things happening to Jesse, and we long for him to find affection and the trust of other adults.  The children trust him, in another irony.

This, to me, is not only extremely skilled writing but beyond that, K.M. Rockwood has such a depth of understanding of another human being’s feelings that you can be inside Jesse’s skin, wishing, hungering, but making yourself stay under control to keep out of prison, then turning around to risk prison by helping other people.

This is a supremely moral book.  It also points to the many flaws in our justice and legal systems, which can lock away an innocent sixteen-year-old, and then make it so hard for him to survive as a normal person in the outside world.  Rockwood would have been a welcome addition to the “social issues” panel at the Malice convention.  She knows whereof she speaks, and she speaks eloquently.



KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for her novels and short stories.  She is one of the bloggers on

Sunday, June 1, 2014


This photo of my Italian Honey figs in August 2011 after the Hurricane Irene passed by.  This year the figs, nearly killed by last winter's low temperatures, are slowly leafing out again, but no figs yet.  What bounty we take for granted until it's gone.


May 18, 2014

A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts.  We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will.  It is bestowed upon us.  Lewis Hyde in The Gift.

Without the gifts where would we be?
I live alone, work alone, wrestle with
my inner dilemmas alone; talk myself
into better spirits when mine plummet.
Then come days when I need other
people.  I forget the communal bonds
that hold me up until I fall.  My life
grinds to a halt because my truck’s
brakes aren’t working right.  Or is it
a bad tire?  I pull into a service station
I’ve driven past hundreds of times–
Speight’s on Fayetteville Rd.  I look
at the tires, which look okay, so I ask
for advice, and an elderly black man
says, “Just a moment.”  He was busy, 
late afternoon, but he comes to check,
agrees tires are okay, offers to drive
with me around the block.  I tell him 
to drive.  I already know how the truck
skews left when I brake.  Traffic is
bad on Fayetteville, but he’s a 
patient man, and the truck reveals
its problem.  Then he jacks it up and
shows me how the left front tire won’t
move.  “The front left brake caliper is 
frozen,” he says.  “Don’t drive on it–
you’ll make it worse, more expensive
to fix.”  I call for a tow and let my
faithful mechanic Al know it’s coming.
He says he’ll wait for it.  After it’s 
gone I call my friend Elaine, who 
doesn’t drive far from home these
days because of her diminishing
eyesight.  I explain where I am
several times.  I tell her she has 
passed Speight’s thousands of times.  
We go to the library to return and 
collect books for us both, then to 
supper.  I call my daughter, who
promises to fetch me home.  She’s
tired, but she comes, apologizes
for being cranky, but there she is
when I needed to get home to
the hens and Wag.  I live until 
Friday without my truck.  Denise
agrees when I ask if she could
take me to the Thursday farmers’
market to pick up tomato plants, 
buy strawberries to freeze for the
winter, a cuke, and tomatoes.
The rain does not dismay the
farmers, but by the time Denise
delivers me and my berries, she
has waded through puddles and 
been drenched.  I give her the
weekly eggs she buys and thank
her.  Friday Nova and John have
more plants for me, and my truck
will be ready in late afternoon.
I ask John if he could take me to
pick up my truck after I choose
the plants, and he graciously
agrees.  John hates being stuck
behind school buses or waiting
for a break in traffic on Highway
54, but we get to Al’s, who re-did
the brake calipers on both front
wheels.  Al is thinking of my
future safety and believes this
nineteen-year-old pickup still 
has miles in her.  Today I finished
planting John’s gift of tomato,
pepper, and okra plants, and
watered farmer Kenneth’s tomatoes
and Chris’s flowers–all gifts.
I think of all these strands that
came to life last Tuesday, which 
I didn’t imagine I’d need when 
I left home.  We so easily forget 
how gifts lift us, restore our faith 
in ourselves and in others, 
even in life itself.