Sunday, December 20, 2009

For Mother’s Day

The following was originally a WVTF radio essay. It appeared in The Floyd Press yesterday, May 10th, titled "It's Never Too Late to Get to Know Your Mother."

Last December a co-worker came to our home on the Blue Ridge Parkway bearing a festive basket of Christmas fruit. Our tree was up and Christmas lights hung from the windows. Upon stepping through the door, she glanced around once before settling her eyes on the white-painted bookcase where a collection of framed photographs was displayed.

“Who’s that beautiful woman?!” she gasped. Picking up a photo of my mother as a young woman, she said, “She looks likes a movie star. Is it Natalie Wood?”

The image my friend held in her hand was similar to one in my mother’s high school yearbook, which my siblings and I leafed through as children while giggling at the “old fashioned” graduating class of 1944. And when we found the boy my mother had a crush on whose name was Jake, someone, although no one ever confessed to it, wrote “Jake the Snake” next to his picture in loyalty to our father.

My mother, Barbara, the oldest of three children, came from a family of divorce, which was uncommon during the time she grew up. She was raised by her father in a repressed German Lutheran home in Squantum, Massachusetts, and from an early age she carried a heavy weight of responsibility, which became a theme in her life. First, as the hardworking eldest child in her father’s home, and then as the mother of nine children and the wife of a man who struggled with alcoholism for most of their married life.

My mother was the physical center from which everything happened in our family. To use her own manner of speaking, she “doesn’t miss a trick.” Although it wasn’t easy as a child to get one-on-one time with my mother, when I look at an elementary school picture of myself, I see now that it was her hands that buttoned up my dress, brushed my hair, and hung a string of pearls around my neck so that I would feel special for school picture day. And she cared for each of us that way.

The trait I admire most about my mother is that she continues to learn and can admit her own past mistakes. I also admire what she does for others, such as driving my uncle Vinnie back and forth to his cancer treatments years ago, planting flowers in other people’s gardens to cheer them up, and taking care of her last two grandsons so my sister could go back to work. It was because of the bond forged with her youngest grandsons that she was able to express regret for some missed opportunities of quality time spent with her own children when they were young, probably because there were so many of us.

This year my mother turned 80. She’s still a stunningly beautiful woman, even though when I asked her why she doesn’t go to the beach, 4 houses down from her house, she told me she won’t put on a bathing suit because, “Who wants to look at these old legs?”

Now that my own children are grown, I have more time to spend with my mother. She likes to travel and in the past few years we’ve taken short trips together, short because she hasn’t wanted to leave my dad home alone for too long. This past summer, my sister, my mother, and I drove to New Hampshire to visit an aunt. It was then, while driving through New Hampshire’s White Mountains that I was surprised to find out that my mother had been skiing before. “I’ll try anything once,” I remember her saying.

Four months after our New Hampshire trip and two months before my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary, my father died unexpectedly. We were all heartbroken, and our grief was complicated by the previous loss of two of my brothers, just 4 years before.

It was hard to imagine my mother without my father, but as the months passed by; her new life began to emerge. In the midst of loneliness, she carries on, and after caring for others all her life, her time now is her own.

I recently called her to see how she was. Her news was exciting. After reporting that she now knows how to use the TV remote, VCR, and copy machine, all things that my father wouldn’t allow anyone to touch, I learned that has a new kitten, is planning a trip south with girlfriends, and to attend my youngest son’s wedding here in Virginia in July. I was most surprised to find out that she’s thinking about getting a computer. I didn’t know my mother cared for cats or was interested in learning to use a computer.

I told her I loved her and hung up the phone, knowing that her “try anything once” attitude was seeing her through. I smiled as I relished the thought that it’s never too late to get to know my mother better and to learn something new about her.

Note: Originally posted on on May 11, 2007.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Floyd Writer's Room

The following was originally published in The Floyd Press newspaper on 3/29/07 as "Hotel rooms to showcase aspects of Floyd's talent."

It’s official. The first item for the Floyd Writer's Room, one of the themed guest rooms planned for the Hotel Floyd, has been purchased. It’s an antique writing desk with lots of interesting drawers, slots for letters, and a hinged work space that opens and closes.

After our Scrabble game at the café last week, Kathleen Ingoldsby and I walked over to the hotel building site, located downtown and just behind the Old Jacksonville Cemetery. There, we met with Katherine Chantal, who took a break from her job at the Harvest Moon to join us. We, all members of the Floyd Writer’s Circle, hoped to see the location and size of the actual room. Because of the unfinished construction, we soon discovered that wouldn’t be possible, unless we wanted to climb up one of the long metal ladders. So, we headed over to the nearest antique dealer and picked out the desk.

The Hotel Floyd, contracted by Jack Wall and Kamala Bauers, is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2007. Jack and Kamala are the directors of Wall Residences, an agency based in Floyd that provides foster care options for adults with developmental disabilities.

Besides the Local Writers Room, other themed rooms planned for the hotel include: The Crooked Road Room, The Blue Ridge Parkway Room, The Country Store Room, The Jacksonville Center Room, Floyd Fest Room, Harvest Moon Room, Winter Sun Room, Jeanie O’Neill Room, Malawi Room, Bell Gallery Room, Old Church Gallery Room, Floyd Figures Drawing Room, and the Chateau Morrisette Bridal Suite. All the rooms are being designed to showcase Floyd talent. Everything from what will hang on the walls to the furniture, most of which will be locally made, will highlight what our county and region have to offer. With environmental sustainability in mind, the hotel is being built using green technology. Eco-solutions, a small business that sells environmentally friendly building supplies in the Copper Hill part of Floyd County, will be providing much of the construction materials.

When Jack contacted me in February, inviting me to get involved in the themed room project, I immediately had ideas. “It should look like a study, done in warm earth tones. We’ll need bookcases, a desk, an old typewriter and Scrabble board displayed,” I told him as I jotted down the beginnings of a list. Soon after our conversation, I spoke with other members of the Floyd Writer’s Circle, contacted a couple of other local writers, and a small brainstorming group was formed.

With the input of others, my list of ideas grew longer. Kathleen, archivist for the Floyd Historical Society, envisioned a collection of books by Floydians and about Floyd that would span the past 100 years. Fred First, author of Slow Road Home suggested the room have audio capability on a computer for guests to hear local writers reading.

Simple, classic, warm, and uncluttered were some of the words we used to convey our vision to Jeanie O’Neill, interior decorator working on the hotel project. Jeanie, artist and owner of “The O’Neill Gallery and Boutique” agreed to hold our first brainstorming session at her house.

By the end of that first meeting, the long list of ideas I had been collecting had shortened, as we divided up tasks among us. Katherine had a tip for fair trade oriental rugs in Buchanan that she agreed to check into. Kathleen would begin looking for books for the bookcase. I would research the purchase of an antique typewriter, and Jeanie offered to bring swatches of paint colors and samples of tiles to our next meeting.

We hope as the creation of Floyd Writer’s Room unfolds other local writers will come forth with ideas and historic resources. Those who have something to share can contact me at

Note: Originally posted on on April 3, 2007.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Say Green!

The following originally appeared in "The Floyd Press" newspaper on March 22nd.

“Say Green!” someone called out as Max Charnley snapped a photo of spoken word performers at the Café Del Sol this past Saturday night. Because the Open Mic, scheduled every third Saturday, was on St. Patrick’s Day this month many in attendance were donned in green clothing.

“I want you all to know that I take reading poetry on St. Patrick’s Day very serious,” I announced to the audience as I began my 10 minute reading slot. I was wearing a sage green sweater that was purchased in Ireland and had the word “Blarney” sewed in the tag. “I don’t know whether blarney refers to a bunch of baloney or the gift of eloquence. It’s probably something in between,” I joked.

Earlier that day I had been reading from Thomas Cahill’s bestseller book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” The title is a reference to the Irish monks who, at the fall of the Roman Empire when literature and artifacts were being burned by barbarians, hand copied the Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian classics, which would have otherwise been lost to us.

Said to have invented rhyme, the Irish tradition was an oral one in which their history was preserved by way of spoken verse. Literacy came late to the out-of-way island, but once it did, the Irish made up for lost time. In one generation they learned Greek, Latin, and some Hebrew; they devised Irish grammars, and copied the whole of their native oral history. But they didn’t just copy. The Irish are credited with inventing the codex, the first prototype of a book (before that scrolls were used), and they produced the most magically illustrated manuscripts the world has ever seen. The Book of Kells, which includes four gospels and the Bible in Latin, is one such example.

I read a few excerpts from Cahill’s book about the Irish, their playful love of the alphabet, and their reverence for language. “The Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act,” Cahill wrote. Even at the earliest stage of their development, “the Irish were intoxicated by the power of words. Every noble Irish family maintained a family of ancestral poets,” I shared with the café crowd.

I knew from other reading that in the old Irish tradition the only position more noble than a poet was a king. In the spirit of the Irish poets, I introduced myself. “I am Colleen, which means “girl” in Irish Gaelic. I’m the granddaughter of Ellen Bergin of Youghal, County Cork, great granddaughter of Mary Murray, Margaret Keating, and Theresa Dineen from Cork, Tipperary, and Offaly,” I said before beginning my poem titled “My Grandmother’s Brogue” (which I read, in part, with a brogue).

The Irish theme continued when Katherine Chantal read a poem that wove two trips to Ireland together. In the early 70’s she traveled through the country with a backpack. Then, while on a more recent trip, she navigated the narrow country roads there while driving with her sister on the left side. … When wind is ever present in a land … How then to be still? ... Those emerald hills … The constancy of the ocean’s voice … Presents its own quiet … And projected us back to … Our ancestors who once walked the same … She read.

Four of the nine members of the Floyd Writer’s Circle, including myself, were in attendance. Most of us were already warmed up from reading two nights earlier at the Jessie Peterman Library where Friends of the Library hosted us as part of their Floyd Naturally! program. Our writer’s group is dedicated to promoting the spoken word in the community and has been co-hosting the Spoken Word Night with the café once a month since October 2005.

Writer’s Circle founding member Mara Robbins is a Hollins University student and a recent finalist in the undergraduate poetry competition at the 47th annual Lex Allen Literary Festival. She read several poems, one of which was about writing poetry forms, such as pantoums, haikus, sonnets, and villanelles. Jayn Avery, just back in town from selling her pottery on the Roanoke Market, read a hopeful poem about the coming of spring. Rosemary Wyman was inspired to write the poem she shared when she saw an acquaintance and his caregiver walking down the street.

Sally Walker, Café Del Sol owner and master ad libber, introduced readers and helped to make them comfortable by adjusting the mic when needed. There were two first timers. Young Mars read and essay about losing his beloved cat, and Martha Taylor shared the words of a poet she admired. Greg returned to the mic to read a poem that explained his recent haircut.
Poetry wasn’t the only evening’s offering of entertainment. Some in the crowd hummed along to a ballad that Chris Youngblood crooned a capella. Foot tapping and handclapping could be heard when Joe Klein belted out “The Star of County Down” (which I hummed then and continued to for the entire next day)

As Joe sang, I closed my eyes. Sitting on the café’s comfy couch and sipping my cold amber brew, I imagined us all in an Irish pub. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate and fulfilling way to spend a St. Patrick’s Day evening.

Reading of My Grandmother's Brouge is HERE.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Dance Free in Floyd

~ The following originally appeared in the Floyd Press on February 22nd.

I don’t play a musical instrument or a sport, but I dance. The small Massachusetts beach town I grew up in was home to The Surf Ballroom, a club with a big dance floor that hosted musical acts, some as well known as Sonny and Cher. Since I was a Surf-going teenager, dance has been an important part of my life, which is why I was thrilled when I learned in 2004 that Dance Free was coming to Floyd.

Local artist, dancer, and founder of Floyd’s Dance Free, Lora Giessler tells me that Dance Free was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in the late 60’s. Its purpose of providing a safe, smoke and alcohol free atmosphere for self expression through free style dance remains the same today.

“About 9 years ago, Olivia, a beautiful dancer and teacher from Paris and Boston did a spontaneous workshop with a group of us in Floyd that had been in a creative improv class together,” Lora told me. "He spoke of Dance Free New England. I was so inspired by this form of Dance and by him that I traveled to Boston to find out what it was all about,” she continued.

I was familiar with Dance Free from the book “Tuesdays with Morrie,” written by Mitch Albom, the bestselling author who also wrote “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” Morrie Shwartz, the man behind the book’s title, had been Albom’s college professor and was a Dance Free regular in the early days of its existence. Ironically and sadly, Morrie contracted Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), a fatal neurological disease that destroys muscle, and had to give up dancing.

In his book, Albom writes of Morrie’s winning spirit and how it shone throughout his decline into ALS. About Morrie’s involvement with Dance Free, Albom says: “They had flashing lights and booming speakers and Morrie would wander in among the mostly student crowd, wearing a white T-shirt and black sweatpants and a towel around his neck, and whatever music was playing, that's the music to which he danced. He'd do the lindy to Jimi Hendrix … Once, he brought a tango tape and got them to play it over the speakers. Then he commandeered the floor, shooting back and forth like some hot Latin lover. When he finished, everyone applauded.”

The original Dance Free, which actually took place in Cambridge, a subway stop away from downtown Boston, was only 24 miles from my hometown and yet, I never went. By the time I read “Tuesday’s with Morrie,” I lived in Virginia and was two decades too late to see Morrie dance.

I remember how excited Lora was when she got back from her trip to Boston, where she experienced Dance Free first hand. I thought of the scene from Albom’s book as we mused together about how much fun it would be to have a Dance Free in Floyd. But it didn’t happen then.

Several years after Lora’s trip, Floyd resident Maria Becke approached Lora and expressed her interest in helping to bring Dance Free to Floyd. Maria, a certified DansKinetics instructor with disc jockeying experience, offered to DJ the dances. Arrangements were made to host it once a month at the Winter Sun Music Hall, where the spacious hardwood floor has just the right slip and slide for a dancer’s feet.

Since the winter of 2004 on the fourth Friday of each month dancers twirl, whirl, shake, rattle and roll – sometimes with a partner but mostly alone – to the wide variety of music that Maria plays. Maria’s selections are representative of many kinds of music with influences from all corners of the world. She knows I love it when she throws an old Motown standard into the mix, a reggae favorite, or an occasional disco hit. Sometimes she can’t help herself and hops down from the stage where she serves up the mix and dances with us.

I’m grateful to have such an outlet for creative movement right here in Floyd. I love to dance the way my husband loves to play soccer, and when Dance Free night rolls around, I treat it like a favorite sport and as if I was preparing for a marathon. I rest during the day and when the time comes to go, I fill up a jug of water and fix myself a high protein snack. I want to make sure I can keep up my energy level because I know once the Dance Free music starts I won’t sit down until it stops.

Last year I wrote about Dance Free here at Loose Leaf: “With my eyes closed and slightly dizzy from spinning, I could have been back at The Surf, dancing in 1969,” I wrote.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The following originally appeared in The Floyd Press on January 18, 2007

She showed up about the same time as “A Taste of Floyd,” the slow food event that was hosted at the Harvest Moon Food Store last September. But some had spotted her even before that, with pups. The staff at the Harvest Moon has been collecting suggestions for names in a big glass cookie jar that sits on the check-out counter, along with donations to have her spayed. Meanwhile, they call her Ms. Hound.

Ms. Hound lives on the Harvest Moon grounds or by the barns that border it. Mostly she sits by the moss cow topiary that stands near the Harvest Moon driveway, the one that was donned in red ribbons and bells at Christmastime. She sits by the cow as if it is her rightful place in life, as if they were a likely pair.

“She wasn’t too happy when the wind blew the cow over and its head fell off,” Margie, the Harvest Moon owner, tells me. “She dragged a piece of it back to her doghouse that day,” she adds.

I had been trying to capture a picture of Ms. Hound for weeks, but she’s skittish of people. She’s either been abused in the past or is just used to living on her own in the wild, staff members, who have been feeding Ms. Hound, think.

But Floyd isn’t the wildest of places and Ms. Hound actually has a pretty darn decent dog house, which was generously donated by some of her fans who shop at the Moon.

“She’ll go in it only if no one is around,” Connie, a Harvest Moon manager, suggests. “She doesn’t want to feel trapped.”

One of the names in the cookie jar is Ms. Olive Chaepelle, which may refer to the lady-like dignity that Ms. Hound embodies. Margie likes the name Lu Lu.

“Yes, she does seem a little lu lu,” I respond. “Do you think she thinks the cow is real? How will the Humane Society ever get her in to be spayed? I haven’t been able to get within 10 feet of her,” I tell Margie.

Every time I shop at the Moon I have a new question about Ms. Hound, or I hear a bit of news about her. Sometimes I write a possible name on a piece of paper and drop it in the glass cookie jar, along with some coins that I hope are mounting up.

Connie thinks the name Freeda fits Ms. Hound’s personality. I nod my head.

She is a free spirit, after all. A loner with a lot of new friends.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Building Community in Floyd

The following originally appeared in the Floyd Press on January 11, 2007.

A group of 40 Floyd Countians gathered together on a recent Wednesday night to view Josh Copus’s “Building Community” slide show presentation, which aptly took place in the Community Hall room of the Jacksonville Center for the Arts. After two different laptops were unable to handle the file size of Josh’s power point presentation those in attendance pooled their problem-solving skills in a display of community spirit to get the show up and running. During the 20 minute delay, impromptu humorous stories about Josh’s years growing up in Floyd were volunteered by audience members. Some wandered over to the Hayloft Gallery to see the home-schooler’s art show on display. Others lent a hand in transporting a desk top PC from a downstairs office, which proved to have enough processing power to run the show. The slides were chosen by Josh to highlight his research grant findings into using local materials in ceramics and his recent Bachelor of Fine Arts Thesis Show at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, where the Floyd High School graduate now lives.

Considering the standing ovation given at the end of Josh’s 90 minute presentation, it was obvious that the initial wait was well worth what followed. Josh’s high school drama background and comedic timing, his enthusiasm, and his insights into art made for an entertaining evening. Not only was it informative in outlining the creation of pots from the ground to the gallery, but the human and historic aspects of Josh’s education, his appreciation of natural resources, and his respect for the ceramic tradition made his story especially worth hearing.

The slide show began with a recounting of Josh’s initial research, funded by an undergraduate research grant and conducted with a fellow potter. The research led to the excavation of clay from tobacco farmer Neil Woody’s field in North Carolina, which Josh described in depth in a recent Studio Potter magazine article. It also involved the collection and use of other local natural resources, non-industrial processed materials, and trips to local mines for feldspar, limestone, and granite dust, all of which were used in making pottery glazes.

His Thesis Show was the culmination of four months of intensive labor, which started with the digging of wild clay and continued “up until the moment the show opened,” Josh joked. Although his finished pots were exhibited, the focal point of the Thesis Show was a 15 x 18 foot brick wall installation constructed out of handmade wild clay bricks. The wall tied into the theme of “Building Community” because the bricks, fired at varying temperatures to create a rainbow effect, were stamped with the word INDIVIDUAL, symbolizing the strength that each one has when joined together as a whole. “A single brick has relatively no power or usability. Bonded together they create a community. The wall visually shows that force of strength,” Josh told us.

A cube shaped arrangement of bricks stamped with the word COMMUNITY provided an interactive compliment to the wall installation. Throughout the course of the BFA Show people rearranged the COMMUNITY bricks into interesting shapes, some of which were photographed and included in the slide show. The COMMUNITY bricks were also available for people to take home. Most had Josh sign them before they did.

“Building kilns initiated my interest in bricks,” Josh, who has built several kilns and has assisted in building half a dozen others, told the group of Floyd Countians. He prefers wood fired kilns over electric or gas ones because wood is a common local resource, but also because it’s necessary to do wood firing with others, which further builds community. “Some firings took three days of constant tending. You can’t do them alone,” Josh said as he introduced us to one of his kiln crews by way of a photo.

Another component of the BFA Show, Josh explained, was an installation of bricks, titled “With Respect to My Influences.” The bricks in that installation were stamped with the names of people who were influential in Josh’s development as artist, including those of some well known Floyd potters, such as Jayn Avery (who opened the Floyd slide show with a warm introduction), Tom Phelps, Ellen Shankin, Rick Hensley, Donna Polseno, and Silvie Granatelli. Tom Phelps received a round of applause when Josh spoke of the mentoring influence that Tom had on his life and the lives of other young people in our community.

As Josh’s mother, I thought I was well informed about what Josh was up to, but after viewing the slide show and hearing the presentation, I realized I had gaps in my understanding, which the slide show helped to fill. Josh opened my eyes more fully to the role clay has played in human survival when he stated that the conceptual basis for his BFA Show was a pipe, a vessel, and a brick and then explained the significance of early ceramics: a pipe moves water and sewer, a vessel stores and transports food, and brick is used to make shelter. I was amazed to learn how many times each of his homemade bricks had to be handled in the making, drying, rounding of the edges, stamping, stacking, firing, loading, unloading, sorting by color, and installing of them. It made me appreciate his efforts to recreate the COMMUNITY brick installation at the Jacksonville presentation, making those bricks available for the slide show attendees to take home, as he had for those at his BFA Show.

What impressed me most about the slide show was seeing Josh’s dedication to making most everything he needed. The photos he shared showed how the back of his Asheville Clay Space Studio looked like a clay processing factory, with a brick making machine that extruded clay out in long lengths, a hand built shed, clay screening and drying racks, and more. Even Josh’s living space has been a renovation of his own making. For the past few years he has lived in a loft in the back of the warehouse that houses his studio, the front portion of which is a cooperative space where Josh and other potters work. But he won’t be there for long. He recently purchased a few acres of creek front property outside of Asheville and will soon be building a pottery studio, a wood-fired kiln, and a home there. This past summer he won a $15,000 Windgate Fellowship Award through the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design to fund the construction of the kiln and to further his exploration into using local material in ceramics.

Josh concluded the slide show at the Jacksonville Center with a photo of him at his treadle wheel, a pottery wheel that is powered by a foot kicking motion. “I value my treadle wheel more because I made it myself and with the help of my friends. I think that value is translated into my finished work,” he said. ~ Colleen Redman

For more information about Josh’s work, he can be reached at or 1-828-242-2368. You can read more about his Thesis show HERE and about his clay excavations HERE and see some of his pots for sale at an Asheville Gallery HERE.

1. Josh signs a Community brick at the Jacksonville Center slide show presentation. 2. Wall installation in the background at Josh’s UNC Thesis Show. 3. Fired bricks and pots stacked in the UNC kiln for the “Building Community” show. This entry was originally posted on on January 19, 2007 and also appeared in The Floyd Press.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Christmas Party

When the founders of Wall Residences, Jack Wall and Kamala Bauers, brought their vision of supporting individuals with disabilities to Floyd County in 1995, my husband, Joe and I, pooled our collective skills in human resources and joined their network of foster care families.

For over 8 years we provided foster care in our home for an individual with developmental disabilities. When it came time to retire from full-time foster care in the spring of 2005, we spent a year assisting our housemate, John, to make a gradual transition to another family home. With the help of the Wall community and his biological family, John was able to choose a new living situation after visiting his prospective new home in graduated steps and lengths of time.

Because John continues to live in Floyd, where he has friends, meaningful activities to take part in, and where many townspeople know him by name, Joe and I have been able to maintain an ongoing relationship with him. Sometimes he comes to spend a weekend. Recently he called on the phone to invite us to the Wall Residences’ Christmas Party at the Zion Lutheran Church on December 3rd.

“Can you bring a cake?” he asked excitedly, remembering that my husband Joe’s birthday is December 3rd.

“We’ll do our best to come,” I told him before hanging up.

In past years, a Wall Residence party has been a regular activity on our Christmastime schedule, and some have been elaborate enough to require a printed program of scheduled entertainment. One year a chorus of singers donned in white choir smocks and led by local musician, Bob Grubel, performed a series of Christmas Carols in the Zion Lutheran chapel. Another year, when the party was held at the VFW hall, John dressed in full Santa regalia and passed out candy canes at the door. Later, people took turns on the stage in a show of Christmas-themed talent.

This year having the party on the same day as the town parade made for a full day, and several of us, like me, got stuck in the after-parade traffic and arrived late to the party. When I got there, the room of about 40 were singing … Deck the halls with boughs of holly … fa la la la la … Many had Santa caps on. Because John is visually impaired, his current foster care provider, Karen, nudged him and leaned in to tell him that I was at the door. With an enthusiastic step, he made his way over to greet me. Joe was already there, holding the wrapped birthday present that John had given him while mingling about with friends that he hadn’t seen in awhile.

After more singing, a line full of friends chatting formed by the long table of food. The feast spread out on the red table cloth included turkey, stuffing, green beans and gravy from Slaughters Supermarket, alongside the potluck dishes that families had made. With my plate full of food, I sat across from foster care provider Dick Giessler, in between John and Curtis. Curtis, who lives with Dick, was sporting Virginia Tech clothes with a Special Olympics’ medal prominently displayed around his neck. He was asking Dick when they could go to Angel’s in the Attic again, as Karen and I compared our festive hats and posed for a picture that Dick’s wife Diane was taking. Charlie, who also lives in Floyd, pulled up in his wheel chair to greet me. “Where ya been?” he wanted to know.

There wasn’t cake, but there was pecan pie, and John led the group in singing Happy Birthday to Joe. A book lover who volunteers an hour a week answering the phone at New River Community Action Center, John had purchased a book about golf for my husband. He giggled as he stood over Joe, who was describing the cartoon scenes in the book to him.

“So that’s your birthday party this year,” I said to my husband as the party wound down and we were putting on our coats to leave.

“It was great. I really enjoyed myself” he beamed.

“Me too,” I responded. “Not only was it a fun way to celebrate your birthday, but between the parade and the party, I’m beginning to feel the Christmas spirit,” I said.

Post Notes: The above originally appeared in The Floyd Press in December 2006. To learn more about Wall Residences, you can visit their website at

Monday, November 23, 2009

Floyd’s First Hafla

Note: Halfa is a Middle Eastern word that refers to a celebration.

I ate a little too much Baklava at intermission and most everyone’s eyes in the photos I took glowed red from the low lighting. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed Floyd’s first Hafla, a showcase of women’s artistic expression, performed in the Black Box Theater of the June Bug Center this past Friday night in Floyd.

The theme of the well attended evening was belly-dancing, but there were also music and spoken word performances. The lobby was filled with vibrant visual art made by local women. Beverages provided were from the folks the Blackwater Loft and Middle Eastern delicacies prepared by Aaron Staengel were for sale. The black stage was transformed with flowing scarves and tapestries and bedecked with strings of light. A step stool draped in a bright red cloth led to the microphone where poets read and women took turns introducing each other.

Katherine Chantal, a well known local herbalist who performs many of our county’s wedding services, opened the evening. Appearing on stage in a long purple velvet dress, she greeted the audience and offered a blessing. For some reason, my name was first on the brochure of scheduled performers. I always get nervous before reading, but at least I didn’t have to bare my midriff like the belly dancers did, I thought to myself as Katherine graciously introduced me.

Although the evening was planned by and for women, there were men in the audience and even a small number of children. I began to feel shy about reading the poems I had chosen. … Some women know when they ovulate … I know when poetry is aroused … The pull of paper … The flush of pen …The push of creation … And the swollen weight of poems that are late … But the Halfa, with its focus on women and their issues was the right venue for such a poetry. I dedicated the last of my three poems, one entitled “Book Signing,” to all my women writer friends, most of whom were fellow Floyd Writers’ Circle members sitting in the front row, Jayn Avery, Mara Robbins, and Katherine.

In between songs and poems, the belly dancers commanded center stage. An exotic cape dance was performed by two young women (both mothers now) who I have watched grow up. I was particularly captivated by the sword dance done by Ilima Ursomarso and Deb Wildman. Not only did Ilima and Deb balance large silver swords on their heads, but they shimmied and shook while they did so. Ilima, the show’s producer who came to Floyd via Hawaii, is an accomplished dancer who directs the Rhythm Fire Dance Company in Floyd.

There were solo and group dances, many of which were performed by Ilima’s students. One talented troupe of performers came from Blacksburg. A woman named Samra, who Ilima introduced by describing her Cabaret style of dancing and by plugging her “101 Shimmies” DVD, shined in an all red costume that glittered as she moved. The grace and control of movement that the dancers embodied was a wonder to watch. To the jingle of bells, the jangle of silver bangles, and a rousing taped soundtrack, the crowd tapped along. Every now and then someone from the audience let loose a YIP YIP or a HOWL to let the performers know they approved.

By the time it was my turn to introduce my friend of over 20 years, Katherine, I was more relaxed. I said to the audience, “I’m going to tell you something about Katherine that I bet no one here knows, not even her son (who was sitting in the front row). In the 1970’s Katherine and I worked in rival day care centers in the same Massachusetts town. We both had articles published in Mothering Magazine in the early 80s, all before we ever knew each other,” I revealed.

Katherine read a poem about the changing roles of a mother. Mara read a piece called “Alliterate This,” about juggling motherhood and her creative writing studies at Hollins College. Shamama, who was introduced as having “bang stuff” performed in hip-hop-like character. Although her performance had a comedic flair, the subject she spoke of, affordable housing for single mothers, was serious. Her bio in the program read: Shamama is available for babysitting.

Sally Walker, local singer and owner of the Café Del Sol, delivered an entertaining three song set of smooth jazz songs and was accompanied by musicians Billy Miller and Chris Luster. Singing and strumming, Floydian Kari Kovick called for some back-up singers from the audience to join her onstage. It was Kari who skillfully wound down the evening's high energy with a mother’s lullaby that she wrote for her youngest daughter.

“Feel free to cuddle,” she playfully told the audience before proceeding to serenade us. The purity of her resonant voice gave me chills as I listened and provided a gentle ending to a fun filled celebration.

Photos: 1. Blacksburg group. 2. Katherine greets the crowd. 3. Ilima with sword balanced on her head. 4. Kari.

The above was originally posted on on December 16, 2006 and was also published in The Floyd Press in December.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Potter and a Farmer Find Common Ground

“Why didn’t you tell us that Josh was being interviewed for US Airways Magazine?” my sister-in-law’s message on our answering machine said. Her husband was flying from Missouri to the east coast when he picked up the magazine in the seat pocket in front of him, I learned when I called her back. Flipping through the pages, he found himself reading an article about Asheville, North Carolina, written by Stephen Poole. He was stunned to come across this about my son: “During one of the biannual Studio Strolls you might meet Josh Copus (Wedge Building), an aspiring potter who, after seeing a farmer excavating a field, wound up with tons of free clay and a new friend.”

Josh, a twenty-seven-year-old BFA student at University of North Carolina in Asheville, has been getting a lot of attention for his work with local clay. In 2005 he and his fellow potter, Matt Jacobs, won an Undergraduate Research Grant titled “Recreating Tradition: Observing the Effects of Local, Non-industrially Processed Ceramic Material on the Work of Contemporary Ceramists.” The grant led to a presentation of their findings at last year’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research and a show, organized by Josh and Matt, at Asheville’s American Folk Gallery. The show featured pottery made with local materials by North Carolinian studio potters and those from as far away as Japan and England. More recently, Josh was awarded a $15,000 Windgate Fellowship Award to fund the construction of a wood-fired kiln and to further his exploration into using local materials in contemporary ceramics.

The US Airways mention of Josh was the least of the press he’s recently received for his work. He was also cited in the current issue of “Ceramics Monthly,” a local potter who subscribes to the magazine informed me. Another magazine, “Studio Potter” recently published “Neil Woody’s Turkey Creek Field,” a story penned by Josh that describes his unlikely friendship with the farmer whose land he had excavated clay from.

“Neil Woody is a sixty-year-old tobacco farmer in Leicester County of western North Carolina with a drainage problem in one of his fields. Last year, Neil farmed over a hundred acres of burly tobacco but didn’t harvest a stick out of the bottom field that runs along Turkey Creek,” Josh’s story begins.

Working on a tip from a local rock hound, Josh and Matt drove out to Turkey Creek in search of “wild” clay. What they found was a ditch with huge chunks of dark blue clay lining the bank by the road. Apparently, the farmer who owned the adjacent fields had dug into the sedimentary clay in an effort to divert heavy rains from flooding his crops. They left with a truck load of the roadside clay and the name of farmer, which they learned from a neighbor passing by who pulled over to lend a hand.

According to Josh, using the wild clay was an enlightening experience that inspired the creation of new pots. He and Matt stretched their prized stash of it for as long as they could, but eventually it ran out. “It took a long time to get up the nerve to call Neil … The Woody’s have been living in Leicester County for six generations, so there are a lot of them in the phone book,” Josh wrote in the Studio Potter article.

Making the call, Josh arranged to meet Neil Woody to ask about harvesting clay from his field. He was encouraged to discover that not only was Neil receptive to the idea, but that Neil had a reference for handmade pottery, as he had inherited a small collection of folk pots from his grandmother and had fond memories of her using them.

“When I showed Neil a pot made out of the clay from his tobacco field, I caught a glimpse of the potential that pots have to impact people’s lives. He held it as a potter would, turning it over in his hands and touching it like someone with an insider’s appreciation for how it was made. He didn’t just look at it, either; he really saw it and he knew where it came from,” Josh explained.

After a couple of small shovel digs that were beginning to feel invasive to the land, Josh approached Neil to ask about a full scale excavation. He describes Neil’s response this way: “Now Josh, you know you’re going to pay those boys to pull that stuff out of there. You don’t need to pay me nothing; you leave my field in better shape than you found it and we’ll be all right.” He liked what we were doing and didn’t feel the need to exploit the situation. I also think he knew his eventual payment would come. He really liked our pots and we had every intention of giving him anything that caught his eye,” Josh wrote.

The Studio Potter article goes on to outline the three day excavation of eleven dump-truckfuls of clay at a cost of $3,800, but the main theme of the story is the one Josh tells about the bond that was forged between him and Neil, based on their mutual appreciation of the land and what it provides, as this excerpt illustrates: “What is truly unique is the experience: my friendship with the Woody family and the feel of the clay through my hands. Neil offered me an education in clay beyond the classroom. He told me stories about the land and the people who lived on it. Instead of just talking about the physical properties of clay, Neil taught me about its history.”

Neil and Josh’s friendship is ongoing. Josh says he looks forward to Neil’s visits to his pottery studio. “He never calls; he just stops by whenever he is in the neighborhood, which happens frequently, especially during auction time at the tobacco warehouse just down the street. He just walks in and says, “Show me something you made out of that old dirt,” the story concludes.

Currently Josh is busy putting together his BFA Thesis Show, which is entitled “Building Community” and involves a wall installation of homemade bricks. The bricks are fired by Josh at varying temperatures creating a rainbow of clay color. Each one is stamped with the word “individual,” symbolizing the formidable strength that each separate individual has when joined together as a whole. There will be other bricks stamped with the word “community” available for visitors to take home, as well as a display of Josh’s pottery.

My husband and I are making plans to attend the show, scheduled for December 8th at UNC in Asheville. “Will Neil Woody be there?” I asked Josh the last time we spoke on the phone.

“Yes, of course,” he answered.

“Good,” I said enthusiastically. “I’m looking forward to shaking his hand.” ~ Colleen Redman

Note: The above first appeared on on November 10, 2006 and was also published in The Floyd Press that November.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Floyd Fandango is Here to Stay

At the first annual Floyd Fandango, an autumnal beer tasting carnivale hosted by the founders of Floyd Fest, my husband and I saw a clown balance a wheelbarrow on his head while juggling sticks. We got advice from a talking crystal ball, rode on a Ferris wheel, drank mead, and ate handmade potato chips. Unfortunately, we had a prior commitment in the evening and could only spend 4 hours at the event. According to the schedule printed in the Fandango pamphlet, we missed a snake charmer, a fire eater, a magic act, and even country rocker Junior Brown, one of the headlined musical performances.

Billed as a two day “Faire, Carnivale and Brewe” our Fandango experience began this past Sunday at 12:30 in the on-site festival parking lot with what in Grateful Dead concert-going circles would be called “a miracle” ticket. I knew I was about to enter a magical space when a woman approached me and said, “Do you need a ticket? We have an extra.” She handed me a ticket and then walked away without a word about re-imbursement. The sun was shining as the wind picked up and billowy clouds rolled by. I tightened the collar of my sage green wool sweater and began the adventure.

I was there for an education in beer, and I got one. Although I love the taste of good wine, I don’t feel well when I drink it, and so I have turned to beer as my designated alcoholic beverage. While visiting friends in Belgium ten years ago, I discovered that I could actually love beer, but the difference between amber and ale was lost on me. In restaurants, I have been known to order “New Balance” (which are sneakers) when I meant to order “New Castle” (a dark but not Guinness dark beer).

With my pen and notepad in hand, and with the help of beer booth attendants, I wrote down the following informal list of beers in descending order from darkest to lightest types: stout, porter, bock, larger, amber, ale, pilsner. This list alone was worth the price of admission, of which I didn’t pay, but there was more adventures to be had at Floyd Fandango.

My husband made me nervous on the top of the Ferris wheel. I can handle heights, but only if everyone involved stays perfectly still. He was flaying his arms about as he talked and pointed out sights below. I managed to gesture to the sign in bold red letters on the back of the seat in front of ours, “Do Not Rock Seat,” as I shrunk down into mine.

Back on the ground, we socialized with old friends and met a few new ones, many of whom wore costumes, whimsical hats, and sported colorful face painting. We browsed the vending booths, which featured everything from pottery and flutes to real estate and tractors. At lunch time, a man sitting at the café table next to mine offered to share some of his salami. Two young girls approached us selling cut roses. Such things can happen at a Fandango, of which one dictionary definition defines as “tomfoolery.”

The band, American Dumpster, whose lead singer was described by the Charlottesville Daily this way: “young Bob Dylan’s charisma with Howlin’ Wolf’s voice,” was warming up when I looked at my watch and noticed how late it was getting. We pulled ourselves away.

While walking back to the parking lot, my husband stopped at the Strong Man carnival game. He lifted a giant mallet and let it go, ringing the bell on its top. Apparently he’s a he-man, but there was no time for him to receive his awarded prize. We held hands as we continued walking reluctantly back to our car. He looked slightly dejected at having to leave the fun behind.

“Cheer up,” I said to him. “We’ll come back again next year.”

Post Notes: For more information about Floyd Fandango, FloydFest and other related festivals go to Check out my Floyd Fest archives HERE. The above was originally posted on on October,24 2006 and appeared in The Floyd Press around that same time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Walking Tour

Longtime member and photograph archivist of the Floyd County Historical Society, Kathleen Ingoldsby, was instrumental in bringing the Historic Walking Tour to Floyd. She was the spark behind the creation of the eight panel, fold-out walking tour brochure guide, complete with sepia photos and descriptive listings of 45 historic sites in Floyd. While attending the first annual Floyd Homecoming and Harvest Festival this past Saturday, I was among one of the first groups who, with our brochures, followed Kathleen, our tour guide, around town as if she was the Pied Piper of local history.

She is also a member or my writer’s workshop and a regular Scrabble player, which is probably why, when describing a “quonset roof structure,” she pointed out what a good scoring Scrabble word “quonset” would make. After seeing the quality of the walking tour brochure and guessing at the amount of work that went into it, I understood why she's recently been too busy to attend our writer’s circle.

Because I forgot my notebook, I was forced to scribble all over my brochure during our hour-and-a half trek, which began at the Old Jacksonville cemetery, dated on the brochure as circa 1827. The rare soapstone tomb table there is especially impressive. When my sons were young they imagined it to be the one Aslan, the lion in the Narnia Chronicles, was slain on.

By following the brochure and listening to Kathleen’s narrative, we learned that at one time Floyd had a movie theatre and a hospital in town. There was likely a 10 pin bowling alley above what is now the Spessard and Boswell law offices. There were gas pumps in front of the Farmers Supply, which first began as the Thomas Huff General Store. “Many people learned to drive in the parking lot behind the building, which also sold automobiles. Without licenses, anyone could drive back then,” Kathleen elaborated.

The Headen-Howard House property, number 14 on the Floyd Historic Walking Tour list, is so historically valued that it’s individually listed in Virginia and National Historic Registers. It features an original brick well house, meat house, log stables, a separate brick kitchen, and its original ornate wrought iron fence, which was common in Floyd County in the 19th century. My Irish heritage is probably what caused me to underline the part of the description that read, “Constructed by Henry Dillon, an Irish-born brick mason.”

Dillon’s own brick home, just across the street, still stands and is also a historic site. Since the recent addition of the over-sized wooden lady on the front lawn, sculpted by artist Lanny Bean, this mid-nineteenth century brick home is an especially easy landmark.

Kathleen, a former potter and an architectural enthusiast, knows a lot about bricks. As she described their early method of manufacture and styles of laying them, I was running my hand along the soapstone wall of the real estate office that used to be the “Peoples Bank.” Soapstone, the mineral steatite, is found all along the Appalachian chain and was readily available in Floyd, she told us. I was thinking about the chimney in my own home, built with recovered soapstone slabs that were found at an abandoned house site, as Kathleen pointed to the Food Lion and told us that clay bricks were once fired on the lot. Later, I would run my hand along the quartz filled stone wall, another example of the use of local resources, on the corner of Locust and Oxford Street and wonder how I could have passed by it so many times without really appreciating it.

It was hard to imagine the oxen carts hauling building supplies that Kathleen described, or the soda fountain in the original Odd Fellows Hall (a factor in how Oddfella’s Cantina got its name) where Bell’s Art Gallery now exists. There were lots of lawyer’s offices back then, just as there are today. On court day, which likely happened about once a month, townspeople came out to socialize, watch the trials, trade horses, and do other business. In fact, part of Locust Street was once called "Jockey Street."

According to Kathleen early Floydians were a resourceful group, and the Floyd of 1860 was a bustling hub of enterprise, even more than Montgomery County at the time. The 1846 Jacksonville Academy and the Oxford Academy, a high school that taught calculus, Latin, and Greek, were important educational influences that brought new people and new ideas to Floyd.

So much about the town of Floyd has changed, but in other ways it hasn’t. During the ninteenth century Floyd was a mix of tried-and-true culture and new innovation. When I think about the Floyd I know today, it could be described the same way.

Post Notes: You can learn more about Floyd history by visiting the Floyd County Historical Society’s website. The statement on the Historic Walking Tour brochure, made possible by “The Floyd Fund” reads: The Society encourages interest in the history of Floyd County through the collection, preservation, and stewardship of significant historic materials. Educational programs include lectures, publications, community outreach, and exhibits. The Society maintains a substantial archive of historic artifacts, documents, and early photographs. Photo #3 is of our tour group standing in front of Schoolhouse Fabrics, which at one time was a high school. This post was originally posted at on September 19, 2006 and was also published in The Floyd Press.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

They Call Me Aunt Orlene

In a private woodland setting on a warm August afternoon, Phyllis Stump transformed herself into Orlene Puckett, the legendary local midwife. For nearly two hours, Ms. Stump, a storyteller and actress, held the attention of approximately 15 of us who attended her one-woman play. Under an open tent, to protect us from the bright sun, we laughed and cried as “Aunt Orlene” revealed the story of her life.

She was born Orlene Hawks in 1837 and is believed to have lived to be 102 years old, but not all the records agree. Regarding those discrepancies, Ms. Stump, as Aunt Orlene, explains, “I’ve lived long enough, and you have too, to be mighty skeptical of anything the government tries to tell you, especially if it comes to facts and figures.” About the death of her first child from diphtheria at the age of seven months, she lowered her head, leaned on her walking stick and said this: “I can tell you for sure that the pain of bringing a baby into this world don’t compare to losing a child, even if you know she’s going to heaven.”

Orlene Puckett bore and lost a total of 24 babies. Some were stillborn; others lived a few hours or a number of days. Ironically, at the age of 50 she took up midwifery, traveling by horse, mule, carriage, or on foot all over Carroll, Patrick, and Floyd County to deliver over 1000 healthy babies.

Schooled by her mother, Orlene lived a typical 19th century rural mountain lifestyle. Her family didn’t have much money. They made what they needed and grew what they ate, supplementing their diet with foraged food and herbal medicine. Her life spanned the Civil War and WWI, right up to the late 1930s, when construction of The Blue Ridge Parkway forced her out of her mountaintop cabin. She died weeks after that move.

So believable was Ms. Stump’s performance as Aunt Orlene that when the play was over and Ms. Stump donned her modern-day clothes and spoke in her own voice, I was jarred. Once I was able to make the transition, accepting that Aunt Orlene was a character portrayal, I approached Ms. Stump with two questions. The first was one that many have asked, back in Orlene’s time and still today.

“How is it possible that all of Orlene Puckett’s babies died?” I wanted to know.

Her answer was the same one given by Karen Cecil Smith in her book, Orlean Puckett: the Life of a Mountain Midwife; RH disease, which meant an incompatibility between Orlene’s blood type and her babies.

My next question was one pertaining to the old black bag that Ms. Stump used in her play. It was authentic, Orlene Puckett’s, lent to Ms. Stump by a family member of Orlene’s.

“Can I peek inside?” I asked curiously. She obligingly flicked it open and I peered in. The sateen fabric was frayed and torn. I saw a daisy flower and a soldier’s emblem.

“It’s probably from WWI,” Ms. Stump told me.

My curiosity was not abated, and so days later I called Ms. Stump, using the phone number on the business card she gave me. I told her how convincing her performance had been and how well written the script was.

“How did you come to do this particular play?” I asked.

“We bought a house in 2001 off the Blue Ridge Parkway,” she answered, “a half mile from the Puckett cabin." She was standing in front of the cabin with her husband one day when she said to him, determinedly, “I’m going to come up here and be Orlene Puckett.”

After taking a year to do research and write the script, Ms. Stump has realized her goal. “They Call Me Aunt Orlene” is a captivating play, one that is likely to become a regional classic.

The above was published in the Floyd Press in September 2006.