The Christmas Santa Came Early … sort of

I guess I was five or six. Mona, a distant cousin was living with us for a while, and being a bit older than me (8 or 9 I think), she was who I depended on when life tossed an unexpected conundrum. A week before Christmas was no exception.

In the hallway next to our bedroom that we shared, was the pull down stairway to the attic. A couple of times, Mona and I came home from school and discovered the attic stairs down, Mom standing at the foot of them and Daddy at the top saying, “Is that it? I think I heard the bus.” Then Daddy would hop quickly down, and together they would snap the attic stair up closed then turn to innocently face us.

Mona was the one to always ask, “Whatcha’ doing up there?”

I figured we must have had more mice in that attic than the Pied Piper of Hameln, because Daddy would always reply, “Just checking to see that we don’t have mice,” and Mom would half-hardheartedly nod her head in agreement.

It was a week before Christmas.

What happened that night was either a Christmas miracle or a Christmas disaster depending on which room you were sleeping in. Mona and I suddenly awoke to a crash and a virtual downpour of Barbies and accessories, skates, puzzles, suitcases, t-sets, clothes, shoes, and dozens and dozens of other things like candy and yo-yo’s, falling through the ceiling. We sat there blinking like two hungry lions.

“What do you think it is?” I whispered to Mona.

“I think Santa Clause just came,” Mona said not taking her eyes of the skates, “And the skates are mine.”

“But Christmas isn’t till a week,” I added, “Will he come again?”

Mona gave me a look as she began hatching the scheme right then and there. “Go down the hall and tell Mom and Dad that you fell out of the bed in case they heard any thing.”

I walked in their room and found them both in a dead sleep, so I went back to our room and Mona quietly closed the door behind me. “They down?” she asked, as if I’d gone in and shot them both with a dart gun.

I nodded while I watched Mona shove “her stuff” under her bed and slide my stuff over to mine. “Stick this under your bed. We’ll put the bigger stuff in the back of the closet.” So in the middle of the night that’s what we did, and between moments of hiding the haul that, moments ago, was somehow sitting in the attic, we took a moment to play with the loot.

Once we were finished, we crawled back in bed and for the first time that night we realized we had a bigger problem we hadn’t thought about. A gigantic hole in the ceiling was right above the foot of our beds. Sheetrock hung from the ceiling in jagged pieces and upon closer investigation, Mona reported she could see a blue bicycle! Now how were we going to hid that hole?

It was Mona who came to their senses first. “I think we made a mistake. We need to put everything back in the pile and pretend we didn’t see it.” I asked if maybe we could just keep one thing, but Mona refused.

So, we pulled everything out from under the bed and closet, piled it in a pile and took the trashcan filled with little pieces of Sheetrock and insulation and dumped it on the pile. I may not remember a lot about Mona, but I do remember how she kept her cool that night through it all.

As I lay there in bed after, what she and I referred to as “The Big Christmas Crash”, I couldn’t believe that the wisest, craftiest person in the world was sleeping next to me. And while she wouldn’t let me play with even ONE toy that night, I found a new respect for her.

Front Row: Me and Mona – the smartest kid I ever knew.
Back Row: – my cousin Brenda ❤

The next day we “let” my Dad discover what happened in our room while we were at school. All the stuff went back up in the attic and he and Mr. Marlow were repairing the ceiling when we got home from school that day. And yes, we put on our game faces and asked what on earth had happened.

Daddy blamed it on the mice.

I don’t suppose I ever told my parents about the fiasco that took place that night … about how Mona took charge of the situation like a boss and how our feigned surprise Christmas morning was a result of many hours of Mona and I rehearsing our reaction in the basement.

Or … how it all somehow led to my deep fear of mice. Wonder how Mona’s doing?


Jack Kerouac is the first thing I see when I walk in the door.

So here I am.  Surrounded by her books, things that were special to us, photos of us, but mostly with the inspiration she bestowed upon me.  At times it’s hard to believe she has been gone almost a year, I’m still crumbling daily … missing our talks, her gentle way of phrasing things so that I could see her thoughts.  I miss the way I’d use a bland word when describing something and she’s say, “Oh certainly you can do better than that.”  She taught me to think in metaphors and in colors of a box of crayons.  Now that I’m here, it’s as if I’m seeing the world through her eyes and I’m so thankful.

My little log cabin on the hill …

You’ll all have to excuse me, because every sentence is more than likely to end in an exclamation point … probably multiple ones … in bold … possibly italics … in orange or red!  This is a dream I’ve been inching towards for quite a while, three years I think.  I was bolstered forward like a catapult had smacked me in the rear end shortly after my Mountain Mother, Nancy Simpson, passed away after a long illness.  Even though it broke me in half, she had made me promise her during her last week that I would see that dream true.  I answered all to quickly that I would.  Not good enough for the woman who knew me best.  She let out an exasperated breath and grabbed my hand after a minute and made me look directly at her.  “No,” she said. “Promise me. Stop talking about it and go live your dream. Be an old woman on a mountain and write.  It’s the best advice I can give you.”  Tears were rolling down my cheeks and she told me she’d have none of that … “Emotion is meant to be remembered and written down.”

I am surrounded by my Mountain Mother … her books and things that were special to us! I want to be just like her. 
These were in her window … now they sit in mine! ❤ 

My little log cabin is adorable and is halfway between Waynesville and Maggie Valley.  It’s so quiet here you can hear your long forgotten thoughts and silences.  Sleep here is like a coma … you close your eyes and the curtain of the day drops.  When it’s raised the next morning, you can hardly believe your eyes. It wasn’t a dream.  I’m really here!

Roasting Coffee ….

Few people know that I craft home roasted coffees from Africa, South America and Hawaii. What started as a hobby has now turned into a definite obsession. My small Nesco Roaster will roast about a quarter of a pound of green coffee per batch to my liking. For me, it’s not a set it and forget it kind of thing, I stand there and stare at the beans whirling around in circles as they begin roasting, watch for their color to change from green – to yellow – to walnut, chocolate and finally that deep color that gives me such a thrill! I listen for those pleasing cracks as they go through the two stages of de-gassing and shedding their chaff … and finally when they sweat off that glistening dry oil that when heated up smells so heavenly!


A Costa Rican Dota Estate Coffee from Dota Terrazu.

This is one of my favorite coffees to roast because of the amazing scent it puts out early in the roast! You can tell by the beans that they are going to be quite chaffy, so I give them a brisk rubbing with a non-terry kitchen towel to loosen as much of it as I can before I begin.

Green coffee beans (unroasted) smell very much like grass when you open a fresh bag.  The first thing I do when I’m prepping for a roast is go through my beans and pick out any small twigs, pieces of string, or pebbles that end up in the bag.  The twigs and string will ignite in your roaster … and the pebbles will just kill it … so be sure to make a quick look at your beans.  If there are peewee’s in the mix (smaller beans), pick those out as well because they will roast earlier and then burn, otherwise ruining the entire batch if there are too many in there.  It’s better to check than wish you had later when you’re dumping a sad little batch of beans in the trash.

The roaster I use is a Nesco Professional Coffee Roaster. It suppresses the smoke and it quiet enough that you can hear the beans as they crack during the expanding and releasing stages. Here, my roaster is cycling through the cool down stage. There beans are still cooking on the inside, but the roaster itself is cooling down. Once it stops, I break ALL the rules and open it up to allow extra air to get to my beans, but I wait a full five minutes before removing them.


Once you open up the roaster and remove the screen over the chaff cup, you’ll see how much chaff has collected in the cup!  These were incredibly chaffy beans and since so much chaff collected in the cup, I’m expecting this roast to be incredibly smooth. The chaff from the cup is tossed in my garden along with left over coffee grounds.  I’m always happy when I see the chaff cup this full!  I know I’m going to have a good finished product.


After the beans have cooled the five minutes in the roaster (not what the instructions in the book says – but my method seems to work a little better), I remove the chaff cup and dump the warm beans into a wide-toothed sieve and shake off all the excess chaff.  I got this sieve at an Asian market and it’s actually for dipping stuff out of hot grease, but it works perfectly at removing chaff from freshly roasted coffee!  Shake until no more chaff falls and then set them aside to cool.


While the beans are cooling I make sure I’ve noted everything in my log book so I know how I roasted my beans.  I keep a thorough record of how long each type of bean roasted so I can pinpoint roast times on light, medium and dark roast … or if you want to be particular, you can throw light city, city, and dark city in there as well.  I also make a note of how many ounces of beans I roasted … believe it or not, that has a HUGE impact of the coffee finish.


This is also a good time to go over your now roasted beans for a quality check.  In the photo above, you can tell that there are some very dark beans, some uncracked beans, and some beans that are very light in color.  Anything non-uniform in your roast will effect the final outcome of your roast.


I go through my roasted beans and pick out the too-dark ones, the lighter ones (which probably weren’t quite ripe), and the ones that didn’t either split or crack during the roast.  There were seven in this roast that didn’t make the cut.


A good batch is uniform in color with very little chaff showing after running through the sieve.  This photo is of early season Kona Coffee Beans and it’s usual for them to be varied in sizes, but they all roast evenly.  The more you roast, the more you learn which beans will roast evenly and which ones won’t.  Costa Rican beans are more temperamental but more fragrant than most when roasting, but Kona is one of the easiest to roast.  Tanzanian is also an easy first roast coffee and makes for an amazing cup of coffee!  Nothing beats Tanzanian Peaberry for the scent during brewing!


I package and date all the coffees I roast and let them degas for at least 24 hours before opening the bag.  I won’t go far as to say it will ruin the roast, but it does a lot to soften the boldness of a good roast … so I set mine out of sight and out of mind until they are ready to open and enjoy or send to friends.


People always ask what kind of coffee grinder I have.  Mine is a Cuisinart Burr Coffee Grinder.  It will grind anything from the finest grind on up to the most coarse … the the burr is never a problem.  This photo was right after doing a fine espresso roast for a neighbor.  The lines on the side are where I was testing the looseness of the grind.  I washed it right after, but I’m always fascinated with the fact this grinder will grind coffee as fine as powder.


I store my coffee in plastic containers and never EVER refrigerate or freeze your fresh coffee.  Grind your beans for only as much as you’ll use in two days and keep your freshly ground beans in an air-tight bag or container.  That goes for the ground beans as well.  I generally use one heaping tablespoon for a cup of coffee in a French Press.

Happy Roasting everyone!

Five Poetry Books …

There are, in this world, five books that I dearly love. Five poetry books that have shaped me, changed me and helped me become a better, more visually observant writer.  These are the writers I’ve admired for many years … all different in their own right, most from the 50’s, and all with a particular flair with words in some unusual way.

Meet my five favorite poets.

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishops “North & South” :   This one is first because I’ve had it the longest.  Elizabeth Bishop sends her readers on a Mr. Toads Wild Ride of vivid imagery and whimsical tales!  My Aunt Lila introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop when I was a teenager and it was her poem “The Fish” that  hooked me (pardon the pun).  “The Fish” reminded me immediately of a child’s reenactment of “Moby Dick”  and it was impossible not to continue this incredible collection of simple and colorful poems!  And there are so many that I adore: “Roosters”, “The Gentleman of Shalott” and “Man Moth” … and the list would go on and on!  It makes me wish I were related to her!  She seems like one of those people you feel like you’d call Aunt Lisabeth.

Stanley Kunitz

“Selected Poems” by Stanley Kunitz:   So this was my Dads book and he really admired Kunitz.  I had picked it up when my Dad was living and wondered how much Mr. Kunitz was paying my Dad to keep that ridiculous book in the house.  After my Dad passed away, I just happened to flip through it and a particular poem demanded my full attention.  It was his poem “The Portrait” … a poignant memory about a slap his mother gave him as a child.  In his 64th year, he could still feel it in his cheek.  But there were other less sad under-tales and they are goodies!  He writes of romance and simple memories so beautifully, you almost feel as if you’re intruding on his moment.  LOVE this book!

carl sanberg

“Complete Poems” by Carl Sandburg:  If you loved eating more than anything, imagine, if you will sitting down to a table piled so high with food you couldn’t see what was on top or on the bottom!  This is how this book is … six hundred and seventy-six pages of pure beautiful Carl Sandburg poetry that is enough to satisfy your craving for poetry for months!  If you’re a bit like me and you love a history lesson scattered around in your poetry, Sandburg will never disappoint. At times you think he’s writing an inaugural address in verse, and other time you think perhaps he’s just in the mood to tell you a thing or two about Abraham Lincoln you didn’t know, and then he just surprises you with a fog walking in on cat feet!  The man is a genius whether he’s writing for kids or grownups, it’s all absolutely unforgettable!

wallace stephens

“The Collected Poems” by Wallace Stevens:   He’s the wild card in my list, but on my list of favorite poets.  He is the most aristocratic and high-falluting of most of the poets … he’s hard to read … you find yourself having to re-read lines before you can elevate yourself to his high-thinking and finally get the meat of what the devil he’s talking about, but once you get it, you just want to cry.  Yeah, he’s that amazing.  He uses multi-syllable words I’ve scarcely heard of like I toss around pronouns.  In my favorite piece,  “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (yeah, don’t try to guess where he’s going with that title), he invites you into a corner of his imagination and have a look at his thoughts on God.  HIGHLY moving, captivating and a spark of romantic verbiage, Wallace Stevens brings my imagination to life, and that’s what I love most about poetry.  If a poet can do that, then they’re accomplished in my eyes.


“Living Above the Frost Line” by Nancy Simpson:  Saving the best for last.  This is a book by my Mountain Mother and I’ve loved all her books equally, but this book is my favorite.  With gentle echos of Elizabeth Bishop (a poet who’s style she greatly admired), her writing is a timeless as the Blue Ridge mountains and the poems roll out of her pen like a free-flowing fountain.  I’ve sat in front of her and watched her compose … how she would look out her window, then down on paper, tap her pen a few times in the margin, and then start writing so quickly it was as if she were chasing the thought and catching it on paper.  She was a word genius, who had a flair for describing the things she observed so vividly you could envision a pink pantsuit walking out the door, or leaves on the ground turning into a flock or wrens.  I carry this book with me everywhere and no matter how many times I read it, I always find some new little discovery that I missed the first hundred times I read it.

Last but Not Least

A Walk in the Woods With Mom …

From March 20, 2010 …
It’s been the longest, hardest Winter I can ever remember. Truly. Bronchitis hung on to me almost the entire season, so believe me when I say I’m THRILLED to see it go.
On Cherry Mountain there is a tiny little spring … so tiny that if you were hiking through the woods across the mountain a week ago, you would step in it and scarcely realize that you had just crossed one of the most charming features of the mountain. But if you were to pause for a moment … really pause and breathe in the surroundings a bit, you would realize you were standing between two upward slopes. At your feet you would look down and see that you were standing on rock, and perhaps then you would hear the faint, ever so faint, dripping of water. Watercress and moss lay like carpet at your feet, and the only other sounds you would hear are the chattering of birds and perhaps the scurry of squirrels in the trees.
Up until yesterday, my life felt very much like that spring … dripping, tired, and unseen in many ways. I felt as if I had little more to offer, for that is what being shut up all winter can do to you. The world around me had buried me … covered me up … and nearly made me feel invisible. I knew I had potential … I knew that somewhere inside myself, all I needed was a little dose of Springtime and I’d feel myself burst back to life. But Spring always seemed just out of reach … always a week away … another frost … another cold front … always coming and coming, beating me down and down until I was even LESS than a drip.
I was stagnant.
All this talk in metaphors brings me to this:
Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I talked to my Mountain Mother. To my surprise, she and I have shared this metaphor all winter. It has been as if we’ve been walking side by side all winter long, scarcely aware the other one was there. You cannot know the immediate comfort I felt in knowing that when looking back on my long lonely Winter, I was never really as alone as I felt. My Mother was walking with me and our closeness carried the two of us through the hardest of winters.
Then, yesterday afternoon after we talked, she took a walk down the mountain for the first time all Winter. It was as if something was pulling her along … one foot in front of the other down a path she had walked a million times before. Across the road, down the drive, around the bend and through the deep Cherry Mountain ground cover she went. I can close my eyes and see her … her heart thumping … her eyes on the greenest spot in the woods. I can see her stepping determinedly … her hand firmly clutching her walking stick … I can hear her breath quickening.
Squinting her eyes, she takes a closer look … then opening wide at what she sees! For years it had only been a lingering drip, and now, there it was a Spring Branch … flowing freely over the rocks again! The Spring head was alive and somehow Cherry Mountain worked it’s magical spell and she, as well, felt herself coming back to life. She breathed in deep … so deep that her lungs filled for the first time all winter.
And I, a hundred miles away at my home in Atlanta, felt it as well! It was as if she breathed in enough for the two of us and slowly I felt a gentle sigh flow through me. Winter was nearly over … tomorrow it would be Spring!