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.