The Omnivorous Reader

Mountain Redux

The return of Ron Rash’s classic character

By D.G. Martin

What is it about Waynesville, the small mountain city west of Asheville?

Two of our state’s most admired novelists set their best books in the mountains near Waynesville: Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, and Serena, by Ron Rash. Both books are gems with memorable characters and descriptive language that flows like poetry. Both deal with cruel and brutal destruction of life and land: Cold Mountain by war, Serena by the clear-cutting of ancient mountain forests.

Having written about Frazier recently, it is time to give attention to the work of Rash. His latest book, In the Valley, gives us nine new short stories and a novella that revives the main story in the classic Serena.

From its beginning, North Carolina has been the scene of environmental destruction that accompanied the creation of great wealth and employment opportunities. The importance of tars and pitch to our economy gave us our Tar Heel nickname and destroyed vast forests of longleaf pine.

In the early part of the last century, our mountain regions opened their treasured forests to massive clear-cut operations that destroyed some of the state’s most beautiful and important natural landscapes.

Serena was set in the time of the Great Depression in the immense forests near Waynesville. The leading characters were the owners of a Boston lumber company that was systematically cutting all the trees on the thousands of acres that it owned.

The background of systematic forest destruction was a perfect backdrop for Rash’s epic story of love, hate, ambition, ruthlessness and revenge. His novel opens at the railroad station in Waynesville. Pemberton, the leading partner in the lumber company, returns from Boston with his new bride, Serena. Her striking appearance and arrogance immediately awe Pemberton’s partners and most of the employees, who have come to meet the couple at the station.

Also at the station are a rumpled mountain man and his pregnant teenage daughter, Rachel, whose unborn child was fathered by Pemberton. The mountain man accosts Pemberton with a Bowie knife. In the ensuing fight, Pemberton sinks his own knife into the chest of the mountain man, who drops his Bowie knife and dies.

Serena, showing the dominating character that will carry the novel to its end, picks up the Bowie knife, hands it to the dead man’s daughter and says, “By all rights it belongs to my husband. It’s a fine knife, and you can get a good price for it if you demand one. And I would,” she added. “Sell it, I mean. That money will help when the child is born. It’s all you’ll ever get from my husband and me.”

Serena was ambitious and dramatically attractive, riding a white horse and displaying her well-trained eagle. She and her husband were determined to get rich by clear-cutting thousands of acres of North Carolina mountain forestlands, destroying a rich, stable and precious environment.

Rash made Serena a symbol of corporate greed and anti-environmentalism. Serena was also driven by personal passions. She was determined to eliminate her husband’s illegitimate son and the child’s mother, Rachel. This assignment went to Galloway, a one-armed employee utterly devoted to Serena. Galloway’s efforts, chronicled in the book’s dramatic last pages, were nevertheless a failure. The boy and mother were safe, and Serena was off to exploit the forests of Brazil.

Some critics compare the tale to Shakespeare’s Macbeth — the ambition of Serena and Pemberton to dominate, own, and exploit, leading to the same sort of triumphs and ultimate “bloody handed” tragedy. Maybe it’s a stretch to compare Rash with Shakespeare, but his vivid writing takes the reader by the hand and makes him a participant in the action, not just an observer. I found myself jumping aside to escape a falling tree that killed a lumberman. I panicked with a character who lost her way in the pitch dark of a mountain night. I died with one of the book’s characters as rattlesnake poison crept up our legs.

Serena established Rash as one of America’s leading authors. New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin named Serena one of her “10 Favorite Books” of 2008.

A novella that is part of Rash’s new book, In the Valley, brings Serena back from Brazil to North Carolina to take charge of a logging project. Galloway also returns to take on Serena’s murderous assignments, including the search for Rachel and her son.

Readers will again be impressed and horrified at Serena’s determined and brutal efforts that destroy more of the environment and decimate the logging crews.

Rash’s writing is firmly connected to his concerns about threats to the preservation of the environment. In an interview with Mountain Times Publication’s executive editor Tom Mayer, Rash explained, “I’m seeing now this peril for the national parks. There’s a lot of push to change what is considered wilderness that can be mined or timbered. My hope is that this (story) would remind us how hard won these national parks were and what they were fighting against.”

The new book is a bonus for fans of Rash’s short fiction. There are nine finely tuned short stories. All deal with mountain people like those he knows from growing up in or near the mountains, or from his long years teaching at Western Carolina University. These are folks that Rash clearly cares for and worries about. But the time settings vary, giving readers a look at mountain life over hundreds of years.

The opening story, “Neighbors,” is set during the Civil War in the mountain community of Shelton Laurel. A Confederate foraging and raiding party targets the farm of a young widow and her two children. The Confederates assume she is a Union sympathizer and prepare to burn her house and barn. Rash captures the meanness and ugliness of war and punctuates his point with an ending that surprises the reader and darkens the tale.

“When All the Stars Fall” deals with a poignant breakup of a father and son’s construction business because their value systems are different and incompatible.

In “Sad Man in the Sky,” a helicopter pilot who sells 30-minute rides takes on a troubled but inspiring passenger.

In “L’Homme Blesse,” a mountain college art professor explores the connection between the artwork of a Normandy invasion veteran and the images on the walls of ancient caves in France.

“The Baptism” is the story of a country minister responding to a worthless wife abuser who wants to be baptized. The story has an unexpected and satisfying ending.

A young female probationary park ranger in “Flight” encounters a bully who blatantly fishes without a license and breaks all the park’s rules. Her daring retort is illegal but satisfying.

A struggling late-night storekeeper in “Last Bridge Burned” helps a troubled woman who stumbles into his store. Years later he reaps an interesting reward when he connects with the same woman, who has been transformed.

In “Ransom,” a wealthy college student survives a lengthy kidnapping only to face more challenges resulting from the warm relationship she developed with her kidnapper.

Set 60 years after the Battle of Chickamauga, “The Belt” tells how a belt and its buckle that saved a Confederate soldier’s life during that battle has now saved the life of his great-grandson.

Rash’s fans will appreciate this short volume of some of his best writing. For those unfamiliar with his work, In the Valley would be a great beginning place.  PS

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Good Natured

Swedish Bitters

The long-life elixir

By Karen Frye

This is the story of a 500-year old European remedy that rejuvenates vital organs, improves regularity, aids in digestion, and cleanses entire bodily systems. The original recipe of 11 herbs was the work of the “Luther of Medicine,” a Swiss/German named Paracelsus (whose full name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) in the 1500s.

The formula for his elixir, lost for almost 200 years, was rediscovered in the 17th century by two Swedish physicians, Dr. Claus Samst and Dr. Urban Hjärne — hence the name Swedish Bitters. Hjärne lived to be 83, and Samst died at the ripe old age of 104, in a riding accident, no less. It’s worth pointing out that life expectancy in the 17th century was 20-40 years.

It was Maria Treben — a distinguished Austrian herbalist — who brought Swedish Bitters to the world’s attention. As a refugee in Czechoslovakia, she became ill with typhoid fever in a camp in Bavaria and was hospitalized for more than six months. Soon after her release, and while she was still very ill, her husband and family took her to Austria. A woman there heard of Maria’s suffering and, wanting to help, brought her a small bottle containing a dark, strong-smelling liquid. Along with that bottle of Swedish Bitters was the manuscript written by Samst explaining how the bitters heal every illness.

Maria was skeptical that a few modest drops could help her regain her health, so she put the bottle aside. Eventually she changed her mind and decided to give the bitters a try, and her symptoms disappeared.

Treban later put together a book about the maladies Swedish Bitters could help. Health Through God’s Pharmacy is still the best source of information on the many ways to use the bitters to improve one’s health and add years to one’s life.

Prevention is better than a cure, and using bitters as a daily tonic may ward off something that could lead to a health crisis. Our ancestors used herbs as treatments, so the list of the uses of the Swedish Bitters formula is long. Internally, it’s used to improve digestion and relieve pain. Nearly every malady you can think of is mentioned in Treben’s book. There are even uses as topical applications to alleviate skin diseases.

An herbal tonic that’s been around as long as Swedish Bitters and is still highly regarded earns a certain level of trust. It may be the missing ingredient to improving your health.  PS

Karen Frye is the owner and founder of Nature’s Own and teaches yoga at the Bikram Yoga Studio.

The Creators of N.C.

Art in Service

Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s flowers blossom

By Wiley Cash   •   Photographs by Mallory Cash

People begin arriving at 2 p.m. sharp on a Saturday afternoon at the Compare Foods Supermarket on Sharon Amity in east Charlotte: elderly men and women, families with small children, single mothers with babies on their hips — each of them carrying a distinctly different painting of bold, colorful flowers on 8×10 canvases. A few people appear uncertain, others seem excited to discover the source of the mystery that has brought them together. A message on the back of each painting has instructed them to arrive at this location on this day and at this time.

Over the past several days, the paintings — a hundred of them, in fact — have been found scattered around the Queen City on park benches, at bus stops, and inside laundromats, places that one does not expect to find works of art, especially art of this caliber. The artist, Charlotte’s Rosalia Torres-Weiner, is waiting for them, sitting on a folding chair outside her boldly painted art truck. The art truck is a repurposed delivery truck that, before the pandemic, Torres-Weiner used to deliver art supplies and arts education to Charlotte’s underserved Latinx communities. Today, those communities are coming to her.

Some people arrive speaking Spanish, others English, but Torres-Weiner, who was born and raised in Mexico City, moves effortlessly between the two languages, greeting everyone with a warm smile that cannot be denied, even by the mask she wears due to the continued rise in coronavirus cases in North Carolina, where Charlotte’s Latinx population has been particularly affected.

Over the summer, Charlotte’s WBTV reported that Hispanic people make up about 10 percent of North Carolina’s population, but they comprised roughly 46 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases. According to Atrium Health, 25 percent of Hispanics who were tested were positive for COVID-19, while testing for other groups returned positive rates at only 9.5 percent. Torres-Weiner, a self-described “artivist” whose work is fueled by service to her community, felt called to respond to the devastating effects of the COVID crisis.

“All my work comes from the community, and while I obeyed the orders to stay home, I realized that I needed to do something,” she says. She soon found herself asking: “What can I do to produce art and help the Latino community?”

This question led to an idea, and the idea eventually grew into action. Torres-Weiner’s husband, Ben Weiner, who works in technology, has grown accustomed to his wife coming up with these kinds of ideas, ideas that put her art to work in service of the community. He lovingly refers to these moments of inspiration, which he envisions as tiny black beans that grow into something larger, as frijolitos, and he has dubbed his wife’s visionary projects as “Frijolito, Inc.” As usual — and as her husband probably predicted — Torres-Weiner’s ideas on how to confront COVID grew.

One day, while bouncing ideas off a friend who is also part of Charlotte’s Latinx community, Torres-Weiner decided that she would find a way to distribute sanitization supplies to underserved communities. Her friend told her that was a great idea, but what people really needed was food. Mothers and fathers were dying of COVID, leaving behind spouses and children who needed support. Yes, they needed supplies to protect their bodies, but they also needed food, especially children, who were going to bed hungry, their physical pain compounded by the emotional pain of losing a parent to the coronavirus.

Pain and beauty: Torres-Weiner was motivated by one and desperate to spread the other, and she recalled a quote from the impressionist painter Claude Monet, “I must have flowers, always, and always.” She knew how to spread beauty, and she decided to paint a hundred 8×10 canvases with bold, colorful flowers. But she knew she needed help finding a way to address the pain people were feeling. Frijolito, Inc. sprang into action.

Although she has made a living as a professional artist, Torres-Weiner went to college for business administration. “My sister became a lawyer, my other sister became a doctor, so when I told my mother I wanted to be an artist, there was not a choice,” she says. But sometimes mothers know best, and Torres-Weiner admits that her business background has provided the tools she needed to find funding and partnerships for her art projects. For her latest, she reached out to Google Fiber. With their support, Torres-Weiner was able to ensure that for each painting she painted, its new owner would have access to a gift bag containing hand sanitizer, masks, soap, and other items. Also, each bag would contain a $50 gift card to Compare Foods Supermarket.

As is often the case when Torres-Weiner executes a plan, her husband is on-site today. Each time someone arrives with their newfound art in hand, Torres-Weiner checks the number on the back of the painting and calls it out to her husband, who is inside the art truck, where the gifts bags are waiting. Out of the 100 paintings Torres-Weiner distributed across Charlotte, 89 find their way back to their creator, and although the new owners get to keep the paintings, many of them cannot believe their good fortune. Surely there is a catch, some of them ask. Others try to return their paintings, certain that such beautiful art cannot have been passed on to them for free.

If you ask Torres-Weiner why she feels compelled to use her art to support her community, she will respond by telling you that this is a community that has always supported her from the moment she and her husband arrived in Charlotte from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. “I remember when we moved here,” she says, “and we saw a church on almost every corner of the city, and we saw everyone playing baseball and taking their kids to activities, and my husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is our city. This place is going to embrace us.’ And it did. We’ve been here 26 years.”

But others in the city were not as convinced as Torres-Weiner that Charlotte was the place for her and her art. “When I started painting my colorful art, someone said, ‘You need to move to Santa Fe or San Francisco.’ I’m glad I didn’t listen.” Another time, while she was working on a mural in Washington, D.C., she told someone that she was ready to return home. They asked if she was heading back to Mexico. “No,” she said. “I’m going back to Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s my home.”

But home changes, and artists adapt, and Torres-Weiner has adapted, easily blending her Mexican cultural heritage into her work as a Mexican-American artivist living in Charlotte. By way of example, she references cuisine and how foodways can merge cultures and bring people together.

A few years ago, while standing in line at a walk-up Mexican restaurant that had long been a secret kept within the Latinx community, Torres-Weiner noticed the diversity of people waiting with her, and she struck up a conversation with a Black man who was standing behind her. He saw the paint on her clothes, and he asked if she was a painter. She said she was. As a matter of fact, she had painted the nearby mural of the Lady of Guadalupe on Central Avenue. The man told her the neighborhood had once housed primarily Black families, and before that White Charlotteans had made it their home. Now, the neighborhood was home primarily to members of the Latinx community, and Torres-Weiner explained that she was painting the mural to welcome them to Charlotte. While they waited for their lunch, Torres-Weiner and the man continued to talk about old landmarks, how communities change, how they maintain their hospitality, how they can welcome anyone who is looking for a home.

Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s career has taken her all over the world, and her work has been featured in major museum collections and ended up on the cover of a United States history textbook. But no matter where she goes or where her work is showcased, Charlotte remains home. “Last year, I was selected to represent North Carolina as a Mexican artist when an event was organized in Mexico City that invited one artist from each state in America to represent the arts,” she says. “And when they chose me as North Carolina’s artist, I was so proud.”

The day’s event has ended. The confused and curious people who arrived with a gorgeous painting in one hand are leaving with a bag full of groceries and COVID supplies in the other.

No one is more pleased than Torres-Weiner. It is obvious that her day of service has regenerated her, guaranteeing that she will soon find another way to put her art into action to serve her community. What else can an artivist do but create and serve? “It’s my food, it’s my air,” she says. “It is my Christmas.” PS

Wiley Cash and his photographer wife, Mallory, live in Wilmington, N.C. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Out of the Blue

A Different Kind of Christmas

Searching for our better angels

By Deborah Salomon

Prediction: Christmas will be tricky this year. Parades are iffy or off. Office parties face extinction. Caroling spreads COVID’s aerosolized particles. Can department store Santas fit masks over fake facial hair?

My upbringing afforded a different kind of Christmas — one that provokes criticism, some justified. This was the secular Christmas celebrated in New York and other large cities, in the late 1940s, when the Yanks came marching home to open arms, jingle bells and roasted-chestnut vendors on every street corner.

This “Christmas spirit” was enjoined by people of all faiths, or none. It was slammed as commercial, a sacrilegious riff on the real thing.

My father came from an ultra-orthodox immigrant Jewish family. My mother was raised Southern Baptist, in Greensboro. My father rebelled against the rules while holding tight to the cultural/culinary part. He laughed as Hanukkah became the “Jewish Christmas,” because it falls sometime in December. No matter, as long as he had a plate of latkes, the signature Hanukkah food. My mother did not seek church affiliation. But they both loved Manhattan Christmas. That meant a tree, gifts, fruitcake and the holiday show at Radio City Music Hall. For me, it also meant standing in line to see the animated windows at Fifth Avenue department stores.

They were magical, musical, depicting Christmases of yore, when ladies wore long skirts and tight bodices and gentlemen, waxed whiskers and wainscots. Some added sugar plum fairies, ballerinas, ice skaters on mirror ponds. Music tinkled from outdoor speakers.

Oh, how I wanted to jump into those scenes, like Alice into the looking glass.

Because, sadly, my childhood was less than storybook.

That changed, somewhat, when we moved to Asheville. I was 11. My parents joined the Reform temple. I attended Sunday School and High Holiday services. We still exchanged gifts, sent cards to friends, hung a holly wreath on the door. No tree. My husband was Jewish; we raised three children in a 99.9 percent Jewish neighborhood, home to many Holocaust survivors. No trees, wreaths or lights except for the electric Hanukkah menorah (candelabra) in the window. I became expert at celebrating Jewish holidays at the table and elsewhere. My homemade crispy mini-latkes replaced fruitcake and eggnog, which was fine, although I missed some trappings of a secular Christmas, just not silly songs round the clock.

In Asheville I noticed that the Jewish community delivered Christmas dinner boxes for the needy, volunteered at hospitals and nursing homes so employees could have the day off. Jewish people do that in many places, as well as “eating Chinese” at the only restaurants that stay open. Therefore, for 35 years as a newspaper reporter I worked every Christmas. This took the form of a 24-hour Yule Log. I logged in at midnight Mass, the bus depot, rode the pre-dawn ferry across Lake Champlain, ice skating, fancy hotel buffets, afternoon movies and anything else I could find. I did that here for a while, beginning with a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, ending at Neville’s, after the last turkey carcass had been picked bare. Lately, I’m limited to the Project Santa bike giveaway early on Christmas morning. What a glorious sight: hundreds of shiny new bikes for children Santa bypassed. I wept, as did many volunteers who postponed holiday brunch to help each child find the right wheels, while Brenda Lee blared “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

I understand why the devout deem secular Christmas offensive. But I was a lonely only child, star-struck by the beauty. And now, during December, I don’t see why charitable acts and goodwill toward all should belong to a single faith. Therefore, I will forever roast chestnuts with Nat King Cole. On my playlist “Feliz Navidad” rates up there with anything Billy Joel. Because whatever motivates people to perform kind deeds deserves respect.

For sure, Christmas will be tricky this year. More unemployment, illness, poverty, isolation. Fewer turkeys, toys and trees. A perfect setting for practicing humanity — secular or sacred.

In 1966, Broadway lyricist Jerry Herman wrote a song for “Mame,” set in 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression:

We need a little Christmas,

Right this very minute

Candles in the window,

Carols on the spinet . . .

For I’ve grown a little leaner,

Grown a little older,

And I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder . . .

We need a little Christmas . . . right now!

Works for me.  PS

Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at

As Seen in the Sway

After 17 moves with the Army, Mark Myers may have settled down in Woodlake, but the longtime pilot has no plans to stay grounded. He and his wife, Missy — along with their four kids and their 15-passenger van — are the team behind Balloons Over America, flying 1,500 feet over Cameron, Carthage, Sanford and beyond.

In the four years they’ve owned the business, the couple has towed their balloons to festivals from Germany to Statesville, N.C. They flew passengers 5-10 times a month in their former home of Westminster, Maryland; and this month, they’ll be traveling to a festival in Albuquerque with On the Fly, a balloon in a traditional diamond weave.

You Become the Wind

For Mark, whose resume is filled with 36 years of aviation certifications and awards, learning to pilot a balloon was just one more experience to add to his LinkedIn page. The official FAA certification is “Lighter than Air,” — appropriately named, Missy says, because in the ballon “you become the wind.”

“Every balloon flight is an adventure. You can plan all you want, but the wind may decide it’s doing something else. Sometimes it’s good for us to be a little spontaneous and just go with it.”

If that sounds scary, take a cue from Missy — who’s just a little afraid of heights.

“There’s no wind in your face. You don’t have that feeling of acceleration or deceleration. The air is stable; most people will be 3-6 feet in the air and don’t realize they’ve left the ground. The experience is really unique and different, because it’s not at all what you think.”

It’s that Bucket List Item

Rides for up to four people typically last around an hour, and Mark can take you up in the clouds or keep you low enough for a high-flying bird’s-eye view. As for exactly how long you’ll be up or where exactly you’ll land? Well, you Type A person, that’s a bit out of your control.

“We don’t do many things in our lives anymore that we don’t plan to the last second,” Missy says. “Ballooning lends itself to not being a planned event. Most people, once they’re up, are happy to be relieved of that burden. Everything just seems so peaceful and our repeat customers want to experience that easy, relaxing feeling.”

For a lot of reasons (cost being one of them) ballooning is something most do once or twice.

An hour in Mark and Missy’s balloons will run you $300 per person. Why? Well, look at that big-ass balloon on the ground behind them. They’d have to pay us $300 just to roll that thing up. You’re also paying for fuel, insurance, and Mark’s expertise.

“Generally, it’s just someone who’s looking for a completely new experience,” Missy says. “It’s that bucket list item.”  PS



If I could round up stockings

I’d take all the holey ones from Mama’s box of sewings,

My father’s, first, the heel ragged as a monkey’s face.

I’d hang that sock again for him

And pray Santa would put an orange

Or some nuts down in the thin

And frayed toe, then arrange

One real coconut with peeling skinned

Off to let him know

The love he held for me I hold for him.

We were not poor — just didn’t have much money.

Christmas meant longing:

That chance to fill me with sunny

Trances when I would skip the fields

And pray for days that Jesus would not appear.

I was never ready to see Him

Alive instead of in a sermon nailed to a dogwood tree.

Before sunup on Christmas day

The plankhouse hummed with joy.

In my stocking: raisins, a few English walnuts, toy

From a Cracker Jack box I’d run

A store with: I’d “sell” my brother a Mary Jane

From his sock that Mama darned in a ray of sun.

— Shelby Stephenson

Shelby Stephenson was North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2015–2018. His most recent book is More.

Home by Design

The Speed Queen

Let’s hope she’s as simple as advertised

By Cynthia Adams

Cliff Ginn was in a lather about washing machines.

He owns a small textile-related business and, having weathered many storms given the tumult of the industry, has mastered self-control.

But today he is more agitated than, well, his dying washing machine’s agitator. I listen sympathetically while handing over the UPS package I’d accepted for him while he was out at appliance stores.

“I want a dumb washing machine,” he states flatly. “I want the Volkswagen Beetle of washing machines!”

A Dapper Dan, Ginn could care less about washing machine style or function.

“Why should it care if my cotton is from Egypt or from Mississippi? Or, if my cashmere sweater is virgin or not? I do not judge.”

A de-wrinkling feature perhaps? No thanks.

“If I want to de-wrinkle something, I will just throw it in the drier with a wet rag.”

On he went with the questions.

“Must the washer and drier match?” he asks plaintively.


Well, maybe.

“I do like for my shoes and belt to match.”

Ginn complains about the steep learning curve for gadgets on his 2020 Volvo sedan. He definitely isn’t looking for a washing machine that requires him watching YouTube.

He was searching for the simplest machine to be found. One with an on and off button, he jokes. No fancy panels or electronic controls. Nothing that will die or confound him.

He even sat down and wrote an angsty rant about it:

“This is a year when I bought a new car with electronics that would make a 16-year-old-boy drool. And the prospect of having to buy a new iPhone . . . But back to the washing machine. It’s asking too much of me. Why so many choices and features.” (He was too distraught to insert question marks.)

Simplicity of design was what Ginn sought.

One such simplified machine still exists. It lacks the high-profile brand awareness of Maytag, Miele, LG or GE.

Its name is Speed Queen.

“Speed Queen!” he exclaims days later, over the phone. He was keeping me informed of his progress and had just discovered this brand at an old-school appliance store.

In a very short while, Ginn called to report back.

“I am on my way to do something every grown man dreads,” he says with the resignation of the already beaten. “And it’s not a colonoscopy.”

A long pause.

“It’s buying a washing machine.”

I knew appliance angst well.

An ill-fated encounter with a smart washing machine occurred more than 20 years ago in Genoa, Italy. I travelled with my friend, Dixie Hodge, to the home of Pat and Loren Schweninger. We were to stay there while they were away.

Arriving at the Genoa train station, my friend was suddenly distracted by a mob of gesticulating, chattering women who lifted her wallet. We were shaken, but gathered ourselves and trundled on with our cases.

The Schweningers’ rental, on a hillside overlooking the port city, was memorably reached via funicular.

I emptied all my clothing into their Italian-made, front-loading machine before dinner. I had no idea how to operate the machine, guessing at the foreign settings.

What seemed like hours later, my clothes — all my clothes — were still washing away.

Back home, my old top-loader would have been long finished.

After madly pressing buttons, it chugged to a stop — with all my soggy clothes inside clearly visible through the machine’s window.

The door could not be opened.

I knocked at the neighbor’s door, trying to explain that the machine was broken. Did they have any knowledge of washing machines? Or at least that’s what I attempted to ask, using a pastiche of English and terrible Italian.

Her reply was in English: “Call the Candy Man.”


Turns out the machine was by Italy’s most popular brand — Candy. Candy was the first to bring front-loading machines to the Italian market.

Their website states (in a convoluted translation) that the brand has been “part of Italian industrial history since 1945, when it launched the Model 50, the first washing machine thought for the households.”

The “thought for the households” is a charming touch — versus, what? Thought for use outside the home?

With my travel funds depleted and my friend’s wallet gone, I counted my lire.

How much was a house call going to cost?

Quick answer: all the lire I had.

The next morning, the Genovese Candy Man spent about two minutes looking at the machine. He pushed two buttons, the spin cycle began, and he grinned.

Clean clothes. Cleaned out pockets. Now both my friend and I were cashless in Genoa.

It was several years before I could be persuaded to consider a water-conserving front-loader.

As for Ginn?

It isn’t about the cash. He is a true believer in good design in both his wardrobe and his home. He admires and collects art. Italian-made shoes. Buttery-soft leather coats. German and Italian sports cars.

He and his girlfriend admire the finer things in life, and he has even written her poetry in Italian.

But Ginn has technology fatigue. He does not want to study the manual to decipher sleek electronics. He wants knobs to turn and buttons, as we say in the South, “to mash.”

Ginn has discovered he is a top-down kind of appliance man, one who believes — and plans to invest — in the simplest possible washing machine.

One that is top-loading, with an old-fashioned clothes agitator that stops whenever you open the lid to toss in one more thing.

Design simplicity at its finest.

“I don’t ask to save the planet,” he wrote to me later, “only to have white boxers.”

It will cost Ginn, of course. Simplicity doesn’t come cheaply.

But the smart money is on the Speed Queen.  PS

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to PineStraw and O.Henry.

Christmas Stories, Somewhat but Mostly Not True

By Daniel Wallace   •   Illustration by Ippy Patterson

The oldest family Christmas story I know is about my great grandmother, Nona. This is the century before last. Nona was a widow. As far as anyone could tell, Nona had always been a widow — some said she was born one. The truth is that her husband, my great grandfather, perished much too young in the salt mines of northern Alabama, leaving her alone with a brand-new baby, my grandfather, Ewing.  As everyone who knows anything knows, Alabama was once home to the largest salt deposits in North America, something having to do with the shallow Cambrian seas that once covered the entirety of the state. But the mines were deep and dangerous and only the bravest of men ventured into them.

After the salt mine tragedy, Nona was penniless but proud, foraging for food in the forest to feed herself and her wee child. They moved into a straw hut abutting the tail end of the Appalachian mountain range. It was all they could afford.

All Nona had was an old milk cow, named Deuce, and Deuce was about a day away from becoming their last supper when Nona had an idea. Ever resourceful and with a will of pig iron, she became a milk lady. In the beginning she only had enough milk to service a few homes, delivering it in old tin cups. But after making her first few sales she upgraded, got a cart, some bottles, and before the sun was up she loaded the cart full of as many bottles as she could, pulled by the source of it all, Deuce. With her profits she purchased another cow, and another, and soon she became the most popular milk lady in town; but then again she was also the only one.

Even though she was making enough to feed herself and young Ewing, she was still too poor for a tree, and their hut — one tiny room, shoebox-small — was too teeny for even a shrub. But as she was reported to say right from the start, “We do what we can with what we might have.” She said it in the way that people who come from nothing say that sort of thing, all matter of fact, followed by a brief shrug of the shoulders.

So this is what happened on Christmas morning. Nona took Ewing off into the forest, pulled on a cart by the ever-loyal Deuce. And there they sat beneath the tallest, most majestic pine in the forest, an ancient giant of the Pinus clan, a tree so big it’s visible from space, they say. And there she would make a prayer, share some milk and give her son his present. As has been told to the subsequent generations of immeasurably spoiled and ungrateful children, Ewing was thrilled with his interesting pine cone or a rock in the shape of a shoe.

But here is what was remarkable about that Christmas, and every Christmas they shared.  They never spent it alone. One by one all the animals of the forest would creep up, join them there, slinking out of the forest-dark like shy friends. Deer, raccoons, wild hogs, bluebirds, hawks, turkeys, forest mice, coyotes, snakes, skunks, sometimes even a cougar or bobcat. Nona particularly loved a black bear she called Susie. They’d all keep their animal distance, but close enough for Ewing to see the warm steam of their collective breath. So the Christmas present really wasn’t a pine cone at all, nor a rock, it was the presentation and a celebration of the awesome myriad of life. She was actually giving Ewing the whole world.

I met Nona when I was three days old and she was 101. A week later she died in her sleep and Deuce followed soon thereafter. In honor of her passing no one in town drank milk for a month.

And now to her son, Ewing, my grandfather. Ewing was nicknamed “Dumbo” as a child, due to his larger-than-life ears. He was actually quite brilliant and used his ears to good effect: not only could he wear large hats; he could also hear everything. He could hear an owl sigh. He married my grandmother Lucille when he was but 18 years old, after he fell in love listening to her hum.

Like his mother, Ewing was an inventive and resourceful entrepreneur. Would it surprise you to know that Ewing was the man who invented the boiled peanut stand? This is almost a true fact and let no one tell you different: the very first ever. He built it out of pallets and tree branches, using rusty nails pulled from old barns, and set it up on the side of the busiest road out of Cullman, a meager dirt road that disappeared after a hard rain and had to be repaved with more dirt next time the sun came out. His peanut stand was the most modern thing around at the time and people went no matter if they liked peanuts or not.

Peanuts grew wild in Cullman. An underground forest of them in Ewing’s backyard became an underground goldmine. The first stand was a great success — boiled peanuts from a roadside stand! What a concept! — and that success led to a second, a few miles down the road. He hired his cousins and cousins of cousins, friends of his cousins and their sons and daughters and soon the stands were everywhere, from Alabama down through Mississippi, sweeping into Louisiana and Florida, up through Georgia and finally into the Carolinas. Very few people know that most boiled peanut stands back then were franchises, but that’s what they were in the beginning. A little part of every peanut sold found its way back to my grandfather’s pocket, and though he never became a rich man he was able to move his bride Lucille out of the thatched hut and into a proper house in town.

Christmas was a magical time in my grandparents’ home. My father got all kinds of presents: peanuts, tiny cars made of peanut shells, and best of all, peanuts painstakingly carved by Lucille, intricate portraits of Washington and Lincoln, or detailed landscapes of the French countryside, all from her imagining what it might be like. Find one today and it’s worth more than a Fabergé egg. Alas, most of them were eaten.

Lucille and Ewing saved and saved and eventually built an actual restaurant serving a great variety of foods. It was the only restaurant for 50 miles in any direction. Some people had never seen a restaurant before; many weren’t even familiar with the concept. Ewing and Lucille had to teach them to use a menu and then how to order their food from the lady in the pale blue frock. The good citizens of Cullman and beyond caught on quick.

People take restaurants for granted, but they shouldn’t. Restaurants are everywhere now, sure. But it wasn’t always like that. You may have my grandparents to thank for that. Maybe not.

With boiled peanut money my grandparents bought a house big enough for a tree and money at the end of the year to buy something for my dad, Eron, their only child. One Christmas morning my father got a pocket watch. On another he got a knife. The next, a bulky jacket, and then a pair of shoes — three sizes too big, for growing into. On his 16th Christmas they gave him a suitcase, on his 17th a compass. He saw where this was going. Year after year he had gotten one single thing until he got all the things he needed to make a life of his own and when he was 18 years old set off for the wider world.

On his first Christmas morning alone my father woke before the sun came up, fell into the Mississippi River and floated 200 miles down stream to the Gulf of Mexico on a raft hastily assembled from twigs and mud grass, and was finally rescued by one of the bravest and most intrepid sailors ever to roam the Gulf of Mexico in an old shrimp trawler: Joan Pedigo, the woman who would become my mother. They fell in love in about three-quarters of a second.

Family followed almost as quickly: me and three sisters, dogs and cats and a snake and a bird. Still: struggling. Lots of mouths to feed. It was my mother who had the idea for the salted peanut, which brought the two biggest industries in town — salt and peanuts — together for the first time. How no one had thought of it before her was a mystery. Thanks to the salted peanut for a period of years we were a family of not insignificant wealth. Later, a bigger company, the one that made complimentary peanuts — really nice people, for the most part — would put us out of business. But until then every Christmas we traveled to a different country in the world. We’d plan our trips out beginning on January 1, studying the language, the mode of dress, learning their customs and histories: Mongolia, Argentina, Gabon — you name it. One cold Christmas we spent with Eskimos in Greenland. Atelihai means hello, but that’s all the Inuit I remember. Because of my parents and Christmas our family has been almost everywhere there is to go. Name a place.

Yep. Been there.

Name another.

Been there too.

Christmas! Christmas seems made for tall tales: look at the big red one that persists to this day. These days our own Christmases aren’t quite as big as the ones that preceded it — no bears, I am sorry to say — but they are just as beautiful: North Carolina, where we have lived for the last 40 years or so, makes sure of that. Until this year for decades running my family has produced postcard-worthy Christmases: the tree, the lights, the boxes wrapped in shiny paper, all of us gathered together next to the hearth beneath what felt like a dome of warmth and love.

But Christmas is not the same this time around. The pandemic has put a chink in our plans. Our clan is distant and scattered, and we do so many things in the world: we’re lawyers, doctors, construction workers, stage designers, Navy men and women, judges, paralegals, writers, scientists, artists, animal trainers. Every one of us knows a little bit about something, and together — could you bring us all together — we’d know practically everything. My second cousin is training snow-white pigeons to fly back and forth between our many homes, carrying Christmas greetings; another is perfecting the hologram, so even if we’re not together we will look like we are.

But then I think back to Nona, and those misty mornings she spent beneath that towering pine, with mountain lions and turtles, et al; of my father, floating down the Mississippi clinging to a twig and a blade of grass. Which is just to say that yes, Christmas will be different this year, but it’s different almost every year, in one way or another. It’s what Nona said: We do what we can with what we might have: to hope and work for better times while making these times the best they can possibly be. That may be the story of our Christmas this year, but it may also be the story of all our lives.  PS

Daniel Wallace is author of six novels, including Big Fish (1998) and, most recently, Extraordinary Adventures (2017). His fourth novel, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, won the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize for best fiction published in North Carolina in 2009, and in 2019 he won the Harper Lee Award, an award given to a living, nationally recognized Alabama writer who has made a significant lifelong contribution to Alabama letters. He lives in Chapel Hill where he directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of North Carolina.


December Books


The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, by Marie Benedict

In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Her husband, a World War I veteran, and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

Fresh Water for Flowers,
by Valérie Perrin

Violette Toussaint is the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne. Casual mourners, regular visitors and sundry colleagues — gravediggers, groundskeepers and a priest — visit her to warm themselves in her lodge, where laughter, companionship and occasional tears mix with the coffee she offers them.

Miss Benson’s Beetle, by Rachel Joyce

From the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry comes an uplifting, irresistible novel about two women on a life-changing adventure, where they must risk everything, break all the rules, and discover their best selves.

Big Girl, Small Town, by Michelle Gallen

Majella is happiest out of the spotlight, away from her neighbors’ stares and the gossips of the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up just after the Troubles. She lives a quiet life caring for her alcoholic mother, working in the local chip shop, watching the regular customers come and go. Then her grandmother dies and Majella’s predictable existence is upended.


The Berlin Shadow: Living with the Ghosts of
the Kindertransport
, by Jonathan Lichtenstein

In 1939, Jonathan Lichtenstein’s father, Hans, escaped Nazi-occupied Berlin as a child refugee on the Kindertransport. Almost every member of his family died after Kristallnacht and, upon arriving in England to make his way in the world alone, Hans turned his back on his German Jewish culture. As Hans enters old age, he and Jonathan set out to retrace his journey back to Berlin.

Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear,
by Eva Holland

Since childhood, Holland has been gripped by two debilitating phobias: fear of losing her mother, and fear of heights. Finding the nerve to face down her fears, Holland not only shows us how to grapple with our own, but invites us to embrace them as a way to live happier and feel more alive.

I Cook in Color: Bright Flavors from My Kitchen and Around
the World
, by Asha Gomez

Best known for her easy mix of cooking traditions from the American South and her homeland of Kerala in Southern India, chef Asha Gomez continues to evolve her unique cooking style.


Meerkat Christmas, by Emily Gravett

Sunny the Meerkat wants Christmas to be PERFECT. So, he sets out to find snow, and Christmas trees, and the most amazing dinner. But something is still missing, and he may just have to go all the way back home to discover just what it is. Everyone’s Christmas will be just perfect with this fun holiday read-together. (Ages 3-6.)

Counting Creatures, by Julia Donaldson

The much-loved author of the Gruffalo and Animalphabet is back with this clever, beautiful title, just perfect for nature lovers and animal lovers alike. (Ages 4-7.)

Find Fergus, by Mike Boldt

Oh, Fergus. He just doesn’t GET hide and seek. After hiding among moose, polar bears and skinny trees, Fergus finally discovers the perfect hiding place. But when it’s time for the game to be over, Fergus is nowhere to be found. Oh, Fergus. (Ages 3-6.)

Cat Kid Comic Club, by Dav Pilkey

Fans of the wildly popular Dog Man books will be inspired to dream up their own stories and unleash their own creativity as they dive into this new graphic novel adventure. (Ages 9-12.)

Five More Sleeps ’Til Christmas, by Jimmy Fallon

Every kid knows it’s the nights before Christmas that are the hardest. The excitement, the toys dreamed of, the anticipation! This fun Christmas countdown book is the perfect way to help giddy tots get through those last five nights before the big day! (Ages 3-8.)

Exploring the Elements, by Isabel Thomas

Everything in the world is made of 118 elements, and this fun title is an artful and accessible guide to each and every one of them. Sections include the design of the periodic table, graphically stunning layouts featuring each element’s letter symbol, atomic number, attributes, characteristics, and uses. This little gem is the perfect gift for that kid who appreciates something interesting and unusual. (Ages 9-14.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Weekend Away

Urban Wonderland

The Madcap gents hightail it to bustling Greenville

By Jason Oliver Nixon

Recently, at High Point Market, John and I ran into a Greenville native and friend and, over drinks, we discussed the state of downtown HP.

“You think downtown High Point struggles,” our pal said. “Greenville was worse back in the day. Twenty years ago, you just wouldn’t go to most of downtown. And now it’s really breathtaking. The restaurants, the shopping, the river walk and access to nature . . .”

Intrigued, John and I did our homework. Once the self-proclaimed textile capital of the world, Greenville, S.C., languished for decades when fabric firms moved overseas. Happily, a visionary urban revitalization master plan kicked off in the 1990s and continues to transform this once-uncut gem into the poster child for what a small-scale city downtown can become. Families love it. Foodies love it. BMW has its international manufacturing HQ here. Find Michelin’s U.S. headquarters there, too. It’s super walkable, super dog friendly. Heaps of nature make hiking and biking ideal. Expect loads of art galleries and working artist studios. Furman University. Cultural venues that range from the Children’s Museum of the Upstate to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum, plus a world-class performing arts center. And a smattering of charming, newly spruced-up towns surrounding the city make for great day trips.

So on a crisp late fall afternoon, John and I piled into the Subaru and set sail for the three-hour drive to this mythical city in the northwest corner of South Carolina. We left the pups behind.

Home base for the weekend was The Westin Poinsett, a historic, 12-story property smack in the middle of Main Street’s hustle and bustle.

The Poinsett has had a seesaw history since its 1925 opening. After decades as a glittering hostelry it eventually morphed into a retirement home. And then, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, it was abandoned and regularly vandalized. Now, in a beige-on-beige sort of way, the Poinsett sparkles anew after its late 1990s restoration.

Speaking of hotel design, downtown Greenville lacks a good one-off boutique hotel: It’s all Hyatt Place and Aloft (perfect for folks with dogs), Hilton and Hampton Inn. Fortunately, a sleek AC Hotel by Marriott will soon open just down from the Poinsett, and construction of the high-style Grand Bohemian Greenville, perfectly situated at the base of Reedy River Falls, approaches completion.

Checked in, John and I hightailed it for sunset cocktails at the stylish UP on the Roof bar situated, incongruously, atop the Embassy Suites downtown. We wanted a birds-eye view to kick off the weekend festivities, and that’s just what we got. John and I sipped artisanal cocktails and took in the stunning vistas of downtown and the surrounding mountains.

After drinks, we walked a few blocks to Urban Wren, a newly opened eatery tucked into an urban neighborhood blossoming with brand-new lofts next to the still-busy Norfolk Southern tracks. Think an interesting, slightly vexing menu that travels from Italy to Asia and India with a few stops in between. Pair the far-flung menu with cement floors and an edgy Brooklyn vibe that caters to a young, stylish, and, apparently, moneyed crowd.

“Wow, $44 for salmon,” I blurted.

John harrumphed and commented on how packed the restaurant was. Jammed, in fact.

Even during a pandemic, the Greenville restaurant scene bristles with electricity. And residents are truly passionate — and vocal — about their dining-out likes and dislikes.

A Greenville friend checked in, “You have to go to ASADA and Fork and Plough. And you must have cocktails at EXILE and the Swordfish (Cocktail) Club. You will love Willy Taco Feed & Seed and Bar Margaret. And lunch at Afghan restaurant Aryana is a must. Have a glass of rosé and the pickled beet and pear salad at Passerelle Bistro overlooking the falls to take in the view but be sure to get off the beaten path — there are so many amazing options further afield.”

And so John and I mapped out a plan.

Saturday morning kicked off with superlative pastries and lavender-scented lattes at French-owned Le Petit Croissant cafe and from there we walked Main Street to the baseball stadium and back across the Reedy River.

The transformation of Falls Park on the Reedy is the crown jewel of the city’s impressive revitalization. Once all but hidden by a 1960s-era highway bridge, the stunning, mist-kissed falls are now part of a vast river walk that is populated with walkers and bikers who enjoy the numerous cafes and shops and taking in the views from the architecturally stunning pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge.

We stopped at the wonderful M. Judson Booksellers next to the Poinsett, explored Mast General Store, and popped into superlative men’s store Rush Wilson Limited. The sidewalks were bustling.

“It’s so nice to see so many people out and about,” mentioned John. “It almost feels ‘normal.’”

After exploring downtown, we hopped into the car and visited the buzzy parking lot sale at The Rock House Antiques. We stopped at the Hampton Station dining and entertainment complex and considered lunch al fresco but realized we were perhaps too old for the man bun and tattoos/ax throwing/mac and cheese scene. Instead, we visited the charming Greer, a vest pocket-sized town that, like Greenville, has been lavished with much urban-planning love. We were smitten with the blocks-long burg, explored Plunder for antiques and lunched upon crepes at Barista Alley. We drove to the nearby Hotel Domestique, a Provençal-style inn that caters especially to cyclists, and ogled the stonework and postcard-perfect nature views at the 1820s-era Poinsett Bridge.

We stopped in the town of Travelers Rest, an epicurean’s delight at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside Greenville. So many restaurants! Driving back into town, we stopped for dinner at the James Beard-nominated working farm-cum-eatery Oak Hill Café and lapped up a terrific local cheese plate and duck confit with spaetzle.

Sunday morning was languid and began with a Tuscan-inspired lunch on the balcony at Main Street’s Jianna, where a glass of montepulciano paired perfectly with spot-on people watching and a shared plate of pasta.

Phone buzzing, it was our Greenville friend texting a slew of other restaurant and must-visit ideas.

“You need to meet artist Joseph Bradley. Try the cheese at Blue Ridge Creamery. Brunch at Topsoil. And I think you’d like the lunch counter at the Pickwick Pharmacy.”

Ah, so much to see, so little time. And so many reasons for a return visit.

With that in mind, John and I turned off our phones and spent the afternoon on the river walk with a picnic blanket and a pile of books and magazines.

The distant roar of the falls only added to the bliss.  PS

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.