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.”