Tea Leaf Astrologer

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

When a Sagittarius plays with fire, it’s wonderfully innocent. Sort of. But this bold and short-fused fire sign has a reputation for being more than a little reckless — especially when it comes to affairs of the heart. Pause and reflect during the solar eclipse on the 4th. Who are you? Who do you want to be? Should you splurge for that positively extravagant vegan leather coat? Fortunately, things are looking a bit more auspicious this month. But don’t leave the candle burning unattended.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Two words: humble pie. 

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Ask for a sign. You’ll know it when you see it.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Save the smothering for the bread and butter.

Aries (March 21 – April 19)

You are the Perfect Storm. Don’t hold back.     

Taurus (April 20 – May 20) 

Best not to wait for an invitation. 

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Ask again later.    

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

No matter how hot things get, play it cool.

Leo (July 23 – August 22) 

The quest for perfection doesn’t end well.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22) 

That smile on your face says it all.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Sometimes the obstacle is the path.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

When the popcorn is ready, the truffle oil will appear.  PS

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla. 


A Tree of Delights

Decorating can be for the birds, too

By Susan Campbell

This season, why not create a gift for your feathered friends and consider “decorating” a holiday tree just for them? Although a hearty evergreen would be best, anything from a leafless sapling to a young longleaf pine will work. Better yet, a younger American holly or other berry-laden variety would be a terrific choice!

Consider this a project for the whole family, just like hanging ornaments or setting up lights in the yard. Keep in mind that, especially when using an evergreen, you are providing not one, but two, basic needs that all our wintering birds have: food and shelter.

To “decorate” your tree:

— Drape with traditional strings of popcorn and cranberries or other dried fruits for the bluebirds and the blue jays.

— Hang homemade suet on pine cones for the chickadees and nuthatches.

— Nestle shallow cups with sunflower seed or millet on the thickest branches for the cardinals and titmice.

— Smear peanut butter on the bark to attract woodpeckers and wintering warblers.

Last, but certainly not least, your tree will invariably attract natural food in the form of tiny insects. It will take no time for Carolina wrens or ruby-crowned kinglets to find them between the leaves or needles, or under the bark.

It may be that you create your gift to the birds just after Christmas — when your indoor tree is finished providing joy for the family. This is about the time that natural foods are waning and the birds are foraging in earnest. No doubt, bird species large and small will find your arboreal creation before long. Keep track of which ones you see using the tree. It may be a longer list than you might think.

Of course, other wildlife will love this holiday gift, too. In addition to gray squirrels and perhaps a fox squirrel, southern flying squirrels may glide in at night for a snack. A raccoon or opossum may sniff it out. Even a white-tailed deer or two will probably take a nibble. But then, who doesn’t appreciate a treat during this special season?  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

The Twelve Days of Delights

By Jenna Biter      Photographs by John Gessner

Dec. 25 marks the first day of the Christmas season, not the last. In Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas begin with the birth of Christ and end with the Epiphany, the coming of the Magi, on Jan. 6. Thanks to the time span, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” came to be the earworm millions of radio listeners subconsciously hum from November till year’s end with the predictable vocal breakthrough at “five golden rings.”

Printed in 1780, the children’s book Mirth without Mischief features the earliest known version of the playful lover’s ode. Of course, the carol’s origins are less than clear, but most historians agree that the song was originally a memory-and-forfeit game. Singers who forgot lyrics paid their playmates with a forfeit like a kiss on the cheek. Only competitive kids, Jeopardy! champions, or carolers with serious sets of lungs typically finish the song, so we asked 12 local confectioners to interpret the verses in a visual cheat sheet of holiday desserts.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

By Kayla Renee Cakes

Kayla Lowery found an image of a lyric sheet while searching the internet for partridge-in-a-pear-tree inspiration and knew that she wanted to scrawl the carol’s opening line, “On the first day of Christmas,” on her cake to introduce the song. She daubed the fowl and foliage with a palette knife and paintbrush to achieve a vintage design that matches the tenor of the 18th century song. “I’m more of a buttercream hands-on kind of person than I am a fondant person,” she says, referring to her painterly technique. Lowery, 22, started her baking business when she was just 14 and will open her first storefront in January in downtown Raeford.

Email: kaylareneecakes@gmail.com

Instagram: @kaylareneecakes

Facebook: @KRLCakes

Two Turtle Doves

By Grace Filled Baker

“I am always inspired by vintage cakes,” says Alison Reed, whose mother in-law, Debbie Reed, taught her how to bake, passing along vintage piping techniques in the process. “I knew I wanted to do a heart, keep it clean and simple and white,” she says of her dessert. Reed made a chocolate cake with cream cheese filling, gracing it with two chocolate turtle doves. Doves mate for life, so the heart shape is fitting. Reed prefers to work in muted tones that support the vintage modus operandi of her home-based bakery, Grace Filled Baker.

Website: gracefilledbaker.com

Email: alison@gracefilledbaker.com

Instagram: @gracefilledbaker

Facebook: @GFBgracefilledbaker

Three French Hens

By Sal’s of Southern Pines

Sarah Gunderson, an experienced chef who runs her own catering and cake business, meticulously deconstructed “three French hens” into a crêpe cake layered with a pomegranate compote and diplomat cream, a pastry cream folded with whipped cream. She garnished her cake with pistachios and honeyed orange peel. The crêpes are French. The pastry cream is made with eggs, representing the hens. The “three” represent faith, love and hope. “I did honey for hope because I hope for a sweeter tomorrow; pomegranate for love; and then crêpe again, for the unleavened bread, for faith,” Gunderson says.

Website: salsofsouthernpines.com

Email: sgunderson@salsofsouthernpines.com

Facebook: Sal’s of Southern Pines

Instagram: @sals_ofsouthernpines

Four Calling Birds

By Cakes in the Pines

Kristen Donovan has been baking since her 13-year-old daughter was 3 and has been running her one-woman show, Cakes in the Pines, for two years. “I wanted to make it bright, happy — a Christmasy feel,” Donovan says. “Especially since these past two years have been a little dark.” So, instead of blackbirds, she opted for an evergreen-colored, vanilla bean buttercream overlayed with a snow-covered Christmas tree and a trio of white birds. The fourth calling bird, made of fondant and sugar paste with wafer paper wings, alights on the top tier, which is a marble cake. The bottom tier is vanilla.

Email: cakesinthepines@gmail.com

Facebook: @cakesinthepines

Instagram: @cakesinthepines

Five Golden Rings

By Pineconefections

Mary Hannah Ellis has some serious local baking credentials, but she’s a hobby baker and wants to keep it that way. “Baking should always be enjoyable; the kitchen is where I go to escape from work,” she says. She escapes to the tropics for the fifth day of Christmas. “I love Christmas, but I’m not a fan of winter,” Ellis says. “Summer is my favorite season.” So, of course, her interpretation has a piña colada spin. The “five golden rings” of paradise is a three-tiered cake made of pineapple layers with coconut-pineapple filling and coconut cream cheese buttercream, and it’s decorated with pineapple rings and piped sprigs of holly.

Instagram: @pineconefections

Six Geese A-Laying

Form V Chocolates

“When I thought of six geese a-laying, I immediately thought of golden goose eggs,” says Scott Hasemeier, Pinehurst’s resident chocolatier, who specializes in hand-painted bon bons. In a three-day process, Hasemeier made thin-shelled white chocolate eggs, filled them with a caramel “yolk,” and then tossed the eggs in golden luster dust before cozying them into a nest of chocolate-covered pretzels. “I rolled the pretzels into a small branch, and then I covered that with some chocolate bark and sprayed it with some green cocoa butter to make it look mossy,” he says.

Website: formvchocolates.com

Email: formvchocolates@gmail.com

Facebook: @FormVChocolates

Instagram: @formvchocolates

Seven Swans A-Swimming

Cookies by Jay

When Jessica Wirth and her family were stationed in England, she and her British neighbor would take their kids to feed a few of England’s swans, all technically owned by the queen — though her majesty exercises that option only in the waters nearest Windsor castle. After mastering the art of decorating cookies with royal icing, Wirth now runs her own home-based, cookie-making bakery, Cookies by Jay. She even owns a 3D printer to make her “seven swans a-swimming” cookie cutters. The cookies are her signature almond vanilla-flavored
sugar cookies with a soft-bite vanilla royal icing and hand-painted details.

Website: cookiesbyjay.com

Email: cookiesbyjaync@gmail.com

Instagram: @cookiesbyjay

Facebook: @CookiesbyJay

Eight Maids A-Milking

Ashley’s Sweet Designs

“I decided to do the scene with a big red barn because it’s like where I came from,” 24-year-old Ashley Garner says. “Robbins is a farm town.” She constructed an entire country scene out of movable sugar cookies finished with royal icing that anyone would like to eat and every kid would like to play with . . . and then eat. Garner started making and decorating cookies and cakes after catching the bug from watching television bakers. She posted her creations to social media, and people started placing orders. Now, she’s baking at Robbins’ new Middleton Street Bakeshop, where the owner, Carrie Ritter, allows her to work on her own business, Ashley’s Sweet Designs.

Email: ashleyssweetdesigns@outlook.com

Facebook: Ashley’s Sweet Designs

Nine Ladies Dancing

Lynette’s Bakery and Café

Lynette Bofill opened her eponymous bakery and café in 2019, and she’s been serving up Cuban American favorites ever since. She’s interpreted nine ladies dancing in a flan that tastes like Christmas. “My grandmother always made flan for every holiday or birthday,” she says. “It’s not a holiday without one.” Bofill’s “nine ladies dancing” is flavored with orange and cranberry and doused in a cranberry-bourbon citrus sauce. She imagined the soft, delicate caramel custard as nine elegant ballerinas, and the cranberry, citrus and shot of bourbon as their bold moves. “It comes together just like a performance,” she says.

Website: lynettesbakerycafe.com

Email: info@lynettesbakerycafe.com

Facebook: @LynettesBakeryCafe

Instagram: @lynettesbakerycafe

Ten Lords A-Leaping

C.Cups Cupcakery

Growing up, Chelsea Schlegel enjoyed artistic endeavors like painting and sculpture. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and resort management, cake decorating turned out to be her match-made-in-heaven career fit. “I was always watching Food Network as a kid and loved the Ace of Cakes,” she says. Schlegel works as the cake decorator at Janell Canino’s C.Cups Cupcakery, where she created the bake shop’s “ten lords a-leaping” cake. “I decided to be pretty straightforward with it,” she says. And it paid off.

Website: theccupscupcakery.com

Email: southernpinescupcakes@gmail.com

Facebook: @theccupscupcakery

Instagram: @ccupscupcakery

Eleven Pipers Piping

The Bakehouse

“I immediately knew I wanted to do something classic,” says Teresa Santiago, the pastry chef at The Bakehouse in Aberdeen. “‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is a Christmas carol written in the 1700s, and it made me think of large chapels with stained glass windows and a really traditional Christmas.” Santiago hand-piped and painted the stained glass panels on columns of fondant, shaped the Christmas tree out of tempered chocolate, and hand-blew the ornaments from sugar. “Here at the Bakehouse, we love Christmas,” she says.

Website: thebakehouseofaberdeen.com

Email: thebakehouse@yahoo.com

Facebook: @thebakehouseofaberdeen

Instagram: @thebakehouseofaberdeen

Twelve Drummers Drumming

The Macaron Sisters

Military wives, friends and devoted bakers Morgan Wagner and Lindsay Weaver decided to tackle the art of macaron making together. They were hooked after their first batch, eventually launching their home-based business, The Macaron Sisters, to share their passion for the French cookie. “With macarons being naturally round with flat tops, we thought it would be neat to make them look like drums,” says Wagner. The lighter brown cookies with green piping are spiced gingerbread with eggnog buttercream, and the darker brown cookies with red piping are classic chocolate with chocolate peppermint ganache.

Website: morganbatanian.wixsite.com/themacaronsisters

Email: morganbatanian@gmail.com

Facebook: @themacaronsisters

Instagram: @the_macaronsisters

The Creators of N.C.

Cultivating Community

Caroline Stephenson steps out from behind the camera

By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

According to filmmaker Caroline Stephenson, “It’s all about storytelling.” She should know. She was born and raised in rural Murfreesboro, North Carolina, where she grew up surrounded by stories and storytellers. Despite the rich culture around her, as a young person, Stephenson believed that real art could only be found outside Hertford County. Her father, a retired professor and writer, and her late mother, an architectural historian, regularly traveled with the family to places like Norfolk, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and metropolitan New York, where they would visit museums and view films in art house theatres.

“That made a big impression,” says Stephenson, especially the films. “I wanted to do that.”

The restlessness that Stephenson felt as a coming-of-age artist in rural eastern North Carolina manifested itself not only in her desire to create, but also in an all-too-familiar angst-driven urge to leave home. Like so many young people who think opportunity and adventure are waiting somewhere else, Stephenson says that she “couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

First, she spent two years at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, and then two years at Boston University before transferring to Columbia College Chicago, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in film. Soon, she was living in Los Angeles, beginning a career that would carry her to places like Prague, Vienna, Athens and Budapest, working as an assistant director on sets for films and television shows like Empire, House and, currently, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

After marrying fellow filmmaker Jochen Kunstler and having two children, Stephenson felt a call to home. She and her young family moved back to Murfreesboro in 2010, where Stephenson came to terms with Hertford County’s rich cultural heritage as well as its incredible challenges. The county is 60 percent Black, and historical inequities in everything from education to home ownership serve to compound a poverty rate of 22 percent, much higher than the state average. The county’s struggles have also resulted in a dogged spirit of determination that immediately inspired Stephenson and her family to dedicate themselves to supporting the community.

“I’m driven by the incredible people where I’m from,” Stephenson says. “They created beauty, and above all they persevered and were proud.”

To tell the stories of the people of her region, Stephenson stepped behind the camera and relied on the talents that had taken her around the world. She made documentary films about Rosenwald Schools, which educated rural Black children during segregation, as well as a documentary about women who work in chicken processing plants in eastern North Carolina. Other documentaries and screenplays are in the works, all of them highlighting challenges that have either been overcome or are still being faced. 

Like any successful director looking for the best angles and working to make a production as seamless as possible, Stephenson is most comfortable being off camera, outside the glare of the lights.

“I like to be behind the scenes,” she says. “I want other people to shine.”

She also wants to make connections between the people and the organizations of Hertford County so they can support one another. In 2016, Stephenson opened Cultivator, an independent bookstore that quickly became a community hub. “We also sold local art and pottery, screened movies, held meetings and educational workshops,” she says. The store was the only bookstore within an hour’s drive in any direction but, as is the case with so many independent bookstores, it was tough to make ends meet. The pandemic made the venture even more difficult, and Cultivator closed its doors in April 2020, but the books — most of which were either donated or left behind after Stephenson’s mother, a voracious reader and book collector, passed away in 2014 — remained.

Stephenson quickly realized that not having a storefront did not have to stop the work of Cultivator, and so she converted her minivan into a bookmobile. “It’s just a folding table, personal protective equipment, and boxes and boxes of free books,” she says. “But we now serve more people than we served with the bookstore.”

The Cultivator bookmobile regularly sets up in front of libraries, grocery stores, big box stores and churches. Sitting behind a table in the parking lot of Murfreesboro United Methodist Church one chilly night in late October, a volunteer named Christina is handing out books at the church-sponsored monthly bilingual dinner. Young children, many of them Spanish speakers, tote armfuls of children’s books, some written in Spanish. When Stephenson’s name comes up, Christina, who has been a volunteer for 10 years, pauses.

“Caroline is who inspired me to get involved in the community,” she says. “She does for others.”

Andrew Brown owns a family farm with his daughter, Sharonda, and has partnered with Cultivator to address food insecurity in the community. Sharonda is the evening’s featured speaker. The family has also been the subject of one of Stephenson’s documentaries.

“Caroline got things going when she came back home,” Brown says. “You need someone like her to bring people together.”

Inside the church’s fellowship hall, tostadas and accompanying fixings are being placed on long serving tables as a line of hungry diners forms. A woman named Alejandra announces that dinner is ready. Pastor Jason Villegas greets everyone, moving quickly between English and Spanish.

“I met Alejandra at an ESL (English as Second Language) class at Cultivator,” Pastor Villegas says. When Alejandra joined Villegas’ congregation, she encouraged him to preach in Spanish to reach more people in the community. The community dinners began not long after.

When Pastor Villegas says the blessing, he prays first in English, then translates it to Spanish.

“Thank you that we have connection and unity here,” he says. He keeps his eyes closed, but he lifts his hands as if gesturing toward the people around him. “And thank you to Caroline Stephenson for bringing so many of us together.”

Of course, Stephenson is not there to hear this prayer or witness her community’s gratitude. She is overseas on a film set, operating where she is most comfortable, behind the scenes. PS

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Reconsidering a White Christmas

Perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

By Tom Allen

The chances of a white Christmas in the Sandhills of North Carolina are slim to none. Even if a few flurries put folks in the holiday spirit, the National Weather Service defines a white Christmas as having at least 1 inch of snow on the ground the morning of December 25. But a couple of inches on December 22 that hang around for a few cold days would make the cut, right? Liturgically speaking, Christmastide is 12 days, so more days equals a greater probability, correct?

Dreaming of a white Christmas, where the treetops glisten? Bing crooned the iconic song, first heard in Irving Berlin’s classic, Holiday Inn, then later in the eponymous motion picture. It continues to be the bestselling Christmas song of all time.

The concept is lovely, but when it actually happens, the dream, more often than not around here, becomes a nightmare — wind, cold, ice, cars off the road, and sundry other unpleasantries. In our part of the world the three French hens wouldn’t have electricity.

Aside from a couple of Christmas day dustings, I’ve only experienced one white Christmas, in Louisville, Kentucky, the winter of 1990. One front after another brought several inches of snow, starting the first week of December, continuing, almost weekly, for the next three months. Snow and a couple of ice storms kept the frozen stuff on the ground until early March.

Western Kentucky is well-equipped for these seasons, unlike the more temperate parts of the South, where a couple of inches brings life to a standstill. Roads and parking lots stayed pretty clear. Even the apartment complex where I lived kept the sidewalks and entryways clean. But dirty, piled-up snow, gray mush and salty slush made for a depressing winter. And even with salt trucks and snowblowers, I often found myself waddling on an icy sidewalk or gingerly taking baby steps, hoping not to fall, which I did on a few occasions, bruising my ego more than other bodily parts.

On Christmas Eve 1990, my then-fiancée, Beverly, and I headed out to a service at the church we attended. The night was cold, raw, with just enough flurries to slow driving. Inside, the setting was beautiful, traditional, candles and crèche, and “Silent Night” to wrap things up. Heading out to my car after the service I noticed a grey Buick sedan had skidded on an icy patch into the front door panel on the passenger side of my red Toyota. Before I could yell, “Hey, hold on,” the car was gone. The dent was minor; I’d like to believe the chap driving the grey Buick had no idea he bumped my car. After all, it was Christmas — peace on Earth, goodwill to men, even the ones who dent your red Toyota. My instinct was to run, to catch the fella’s attention, to wish him a “Merry Christmas” before I pointed out we needed to talk. But another patch of ice brought me down, making me wonder just how merry and bright this Christmas would be.

As I recall, other than the dent — which I never got repaired — and a sore backside, it was a pretty good holiday. Oddly, the fact that our Christmas was white mattered little. I’ll take a chilly morning, clear roads, whatever family is gathered, and a snuggle with my dog. Because the perfect Christmas, like the perfect marriage or kids or job or church, really doesn’t exist.

So, consider letting go of that perfect holiday. Substituting canned biscuits for yeast rolls that failed to rise isn’t the end of the world. What if the recycled Dollar Tree bag you had to use because you forgot that pretty roll of paper had someone else’s name on it? Don’t sweat it. Kids wiggly at Christmas Eve services? Baby starts crying during “Silent Night”? What better night to hear an infant cry?

The probability of a white Christmas here is low. Chances of a 70-degree day are the same as a 40-degree day. So be thankful for whatever’s on your table — and the people around it. Be civil. Be kind. Be glad.

Just watch out for that guy in a grey Buick sedan.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

The Violin in the Closet

Separated by tragedy, musical voices are reunited

By Susanna Klingenberg    Photographs by Eamon Queeney

Musical instruments carry the souls of the people who have played them. Inside the Raleigh home of Tony Morcos, a 1792 Zwerger violin and a 1905 Blüthner piano occupy places of pride. Exquisitely crafted of wood, strings and ivory, their story spans centuries and continents, tragedy and hope.

The lives of the piano and violin first intertwined through sisters Grete and Natascha Wilczynski, a promising pair on the performance scene in Munich, Germany, in the early 1900s. Partners and best friends, they often played duets in concert halls around the city. The two sisters had a striking stage presence with very different approaches. On the Blüthner, Grete was a technical, no-nonsense musician. On the Zwerger, Natascha was a free-spirited bohemian. Their musical strengths lifted and complemented each other, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

With the rise of Nazi rule, everything changed for Germany’s Jewish population. Passage of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws — the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor — meant that the life Grete and Natascha had known, including their appearances on the stage, was no longer safe. Natascha was scheduled to play her violin live on the radio with the Munich Radio Symphony, but the morning of the concert, she received a telegram — because of the new laws, she could no longer play. “You have been cancelled,” it read.

Soon thereafter, Natascha fled to Italy with her violin, but in 1938 she was deported to France, where life was equally perilous. With so much uncertainty, she left the Zwerger with her brother, Jakob, in Strasbourg. Her fears proved all too prescient. Natascha was arrested and sent to Drancy, a transit camp in France, then transferred to Auschwitz on August 31, 1942. She was murdered there, the date of her death unknown.

Meanwhile Grete, who had married and then divorced, fled to Jerusalem with her young daughter Ruth, leaving her beloved piano behind in Munich. Grete offered a former neighbor everything in her old apartment — all of her worldly possessions — if he could somehow rescue the Blüthner and get it to her in Jerusalem. Her neighbor succeeded, allowing Grete to carve out a meager living giving piano lessons in her Jewish quarter apartment, the sound of the piano bringing moments of normalcy to their new home.

Once Ruth was grown and living on her own in Jerusalem, Grete remarried and immigrated to New York, bringing the piano with her. When she retired to Florida in 1986, she sold the Blüthner piano to Stewart Kellerman, a writer and editor for The New York Times. He had once taken piano lessons from Grete’s great-niece (and Tony’s cousin), Daniela Morcos, while she was a student at The Juilliard School. Stewart was drawn to the sound and feel of the piano, but also the history of the instrument. “Knowing its story added to the pleasure of playing it,” he said in a recent interview.

Grete and Natascha Wilczynski

Ruth also eventually immigrated to the United States, marrying a Catholic man and converting to Catholicism. On her way to the United States, her ship stopped in Nice, France, where Natascha’s brother, her uncle Jakob, gave her the Zwerger violin. Ruth settled in Dayton, Ohio, but never mentioned to anyone — not even to her own children — that she was Jewish. It was a safe life, a deliberate step away from the persecution in her past. The violin, a physical reminder of her family’s story, was tucked in a closet, hidden for nearly 40 years.

That’s where her son, a curious, young Tony Morcos, found it.

“She’d ask me to go get something from that closet, and I saw the case there and wondered. And I just kept wondering,” says Morcos. “For a long time, I didn’t have the guts to ask my mom about that violin in the closet.” Once he started asking questions, he couldn’t stop. The story of his great-aunt Natascha sparked an interest in his roots and a recognition that his love of music, already a hobby, ran deeper than he realized.

By 1991, the 22-year-old Morcos was a college grad and fledgling musician, into “partying and guitars” and living in a tiny San Diego apartment. He decided to learn how to play his great-aunt’s violin. “I got that thing restored and took it to my teacher,” says Morcos, “and she said, ‘Now this is a violin!’” He began playing in coffee shops, bars, anywhere in San Diego that would have him. As his talent as a musician grew, so did his desire to reunite the violin with his grandmother Grete’s piano.

In the late ’90s, Morcos looked up Kellerman and asked if he’d be interested in selling the Blüthner. He wasn’t. But in 2015 — now settled in Raleigh — Morcos got a call from his cousin Daniela. “She said, ‘He wants to sell!’” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe he remembered me and took the trouble to track us down.”

Tony Morcos with his wife, Mindy

Morcos bought the piano and had it shipped from New York to his house in Raleigh to welcome it back to the family. After nearly a century, the instruments were reunited. Morcos decided to surprise his mother, Ruth, with a concert for her 90th birthday. It would feature the two instruments she hadn’t heard playing together since her childhood in Munich.

On August 29, 2015, the Zwerger violin and the Blüthner piano joined in their first duet in over a century. In honor of Grete and Natascha, they were played by two women with Jewish ancestry: Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky, principal second violin for the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and Mimi Solomon, an accomplished chamber pianist and lecturer at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

That night, the violin and piano filled the air with Brahms and Beethoven, undiminished, strengthened by their many caretakers. “The violin was dark and soulful, like a sultry woman,” says Wolborsky. Richard Ruggero, the longtime Raleigh piano tuner who maintains the Blüthner, describes its sound as “warm and romantic.”

Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky with the Zwerger violin

For the musicians and guests, the songs of the violin and piano awakened powerful feelings. “That evening was a life-altering experience for me,” says Wolborsky. “These instruments represent the history of my own family, and of so many Jewish families — their voices represent survival. This violin was not quieted. She still speaks.”

For Ruth, the instruments recalled decades of pain, the fortitude of building a new life and family, and the joy of music. “Mom and I cried when Jackie and Mimi played,” says Tony. “They were telling my mom’s story. She survived. The party honored her life and all she had been through to get to her 90th birthday.”

Ruth passed away last year but the story endures, a haunting reminder of darkness and hope, rendered in wood, strings, and ivory.  PS

Susanna Klingenberg is a writer, editor, and former North Carolina State University writing instructor.

A Heartbreaking Suspicion

In 1993, Tony Morcos took his great aunt Natascha’s violin for an appraisal at Sotheby’s in Beverly Hills. The appraiser was drawn to the bow, noting some missing embellishments. He confided a heartbreaking suspicion to Morcos: that Natascha had removed and sold the bow embellishments — gold and mother-of-pearl, most likely — to earn money for her escape. “He had seen this story before: a desperate Jewish violinist couldn’t sell her violin — that’s her livelihood — but she could sell the accoutrements,” remembers Morcos.

He began to piece together the puzzle: “We found evidence in old letters that Natascha was trying to raise the equivalent of $10,000 to get to Cuba, including selling the gold and mother of pearl from her bow, she was trying to survive, trying to get out, but was not able to.”

Ten years later, Morcos landed in the Raleigh workshop of world-renowned bow expert Jerry Pasewicz. After examining the bow, Pasewicz confirmed the appraiser’s suspicions and restored Natasha’s bow to its original beauty, forever a reminder of a life tragically lost. 

The Omnivorous Reader

Hell of a Read

A dizzying journey of the imagination

By Anne Blythe

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover is not one that works for the fourth novel written by Jason Mott, a writer and poet who lives in southeastern North Carolina. The title of Mott’s latest work of fiction, Hell of a Book, is in large, bold capital letters at the top of a black and yellow cover. Go ahead, judge it.

It truly is a hell of a book, one that explores racism, police violence and being Black in America.

It’s a novel — and a mystery, too — about a novelist with a vivid imagination. It’s difficult to know what’s real and what the writer is imagining. It’s also challenging to see how the main characters are connected, until the very end. Even then, there’s no certainty as to whether they’re truly bound in anything other than the novelist’s mind.

Mott pulls readers through a difficult and sometimes overwhelming conversation about “The Altogether Factual, Wholly Bona Fide Story of a Big Dreams, Hard Luck, American-Made Mad Kid” — his subtitle — with madcap humor, painfully poignant prose and a show-me-don’t-tell-me contemplative style.

The protagonist is a Black fiction writer on a dizzying book promotion tour, an unnamed bestselling writer who is breathlessly whisked through a blur of airports, hotels and cities by a quirky cast of drivers, and a profit-driven agent.

We first meet him at 3 a.m. in the hallway of a Midwestern hotel, where he’s naked, locked out of his room and being chased by an angry husband who has caught the author with his wife. He runs after him, flailing at him with a large coat hanger.

As the protagonist is about to be caught, the elevator doors open, and he escapes into a new scene with his savior of the moment, an elderly woman bringing home groceries in the wee hours of the morning.

“She’s eighty if she ever danced a jig,” Mott writes, showing his voice that delights throughout the novel.

As the naked novelist and blue-haired woman watch the hotel floors counted off in the elevator, Mott introduces readers to a sobering reality that becomes a central theme as the writer moves through his chaotic, alcohol-infused tour. Another Black male has been shot and killed by police, but Mott doesn’t give him a name. The old woman asks the novelist a question:

“Did you hear about that boy?”

“Which boy?”

“The one on TV.” She shakes her head and her blue hair sways gently like the hair of some sea nymph who’s seen the tides rise and fall one too many times. “Terrible, terrible.”

The novelist tries initially to go on with his celebrity life without fleshing out his feelings about “the boy.” He tries to push the latest outrage blaring on TVs and pulling Black Lives Matter advocates into the streets with signs and chants into that place deep inside himself where injustices stew without boiling over.

This time, though, the world is outraged, and the protagonist can’t tune out the calls to stop the madness or the cries to confront centuries of oppression and brutality.

The morning after the naked ride in the elevator, we meet The Kid, a mysterious but thought-provoking boy who might, or might not, be a figment of the author’s imagination. He looks to be about 10 years old, “impossibly dark-skinned,” and might, or might not, represent the all too many Black children lost to police violence.

We also get to know Soot, another Black boy in rural North Carolina, whose father tries to teach the power of invisibility, picking up on a theme in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man about not wanting to be seen by oppressors. We’re left to wonder how these boys are connected to the protagonist.

Early on, it becomes clear that the touring novelist has what he describes as “a condition,” an unnamed affliction through which he can blend an imaginary world with reality. His storytelling style, almost a stream of consciousness, can be disorienting but riveting, mind-numbing but thought-provoking.

On one trip from an airport to a book event, The Kid appears in the backseat of a limousine. He’s fully aware that the driver up front can’t see him, and he’s ready to test the author’s assertion that he’s just a character made up in his mind.

“Why am I not real?” The Kid laughs.

“Because I have a condition,” the protagonist says. “I see things. People too. They say it’s some sort of escape valve for pressure on the mind, probably caused by some sort of trauma. But I don’t go in on that. I haven’t had any type of trauma in my life . . . Nothing worthy of a Lifetime network movie or anything like that.”

Trauma eventually takes readers from the misadventures of the book tour to the dirt roads of Bolton, the hometown of Soot — and Mott as well, raising yet another conundrum. Is Mott’s Hell of a Book really a novel, or is it more fact than fiction about a Black novelist from the South?

“Nestled in the sweaty armpit of Carolina swampland, surrounded by gum trees, and pines, and cedar, and oak, and wild grapevines, the town of Bolton is the land that time forgot,” he writes. “The main exports of Bolton are lumber and black manual labor. The wood comes from the forests and swamplands — all of which are owned by the local paper mill — and the labor comes from the town’s seven-hundred-odd residents. I wish I could tell you that there’s something more than those two chief exports that comes out of Bolton, but there’s nothing else. Bolton isn’t a town that gives, but neither is it a town that takes. It’s the type of place that keeps to itself. It’s self-sustaining, the way the past always is.”

The past and the present need to confront, and reckon with, what generations of Black Americans have endured.

“Down in this part of the world, we got it all: fifty-four Confederate flags planted along the Interstate, statues put up by the daughters of the Confederacy, plantations where you can have wedding pictures taken of the way things used to be, we got lynchings, riots, bombings, shrimp and grits, and even muscadine grapes,” the novelist writes.

“Yeah, the South is America’s longest-running crime scene. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But the thing is, if you’re born into a meat grinder, you grow up around the gears, so eventually you don’t even see them anymore. You just see the beauty of the sausage. Maybe that’s why, in spite of everything I know about it, I’ve always loved the South.”

It’s also the place where the protagonist, The Kid and Soot converge — without fully solving the air of mystery that surrounds them throughout the book. The enigmatic threads Mott so adroitly weaves together become more tightly stitched toward the end. Hell of a Book will make you think while also entertaining you on a helluva journey.

“Laugh all you want,” the protagonist writes as he and The Kid come to the end of the journey, “but I think learning to love yourself in a country where you’re told that you’re a plague on the economy, that you’re nothing but a prisoner in the making, that your life can be taken away from you at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it — learning to love yourself in the middle of all that? Hell, that’s a goddamn miracle.”  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Out of the Blue

All Aboard

A ticket to ride the memory train

By Deborah Salomon

I parked on Pennsylvania Avenue, gathered my stuff and walked toward The Pilot office for a staff meeting. I work mostly from home but enjoy seeing everybody, checking the grapevine at least once a week.

Just before opening the door, I heard the shrill whistle, clanging bell and thunderous approach of a train, not much more than 50 yards away.

Just like an old movie, the present fades away and I am, once again, a little girl waiting with her mother on the platform of the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, ready to board The Southerner which would take us to my grandparents’ house in Greensboro. The sensory experience practically knocked me over: sounds, smell, emotions all at once, as though a compartment (the right word) in my brain had burst open, spilling forth contents, remarkably intact.

Because this is about brains, not trains.

Nevertheless . . . trains were part of my childhood. I rode a subway to school and traveled to Greensboro several times a year by rail. After supper on warm nights, Granddaddy would walk me over to the tracks parallel to Lee Street to watch the freight trains rumble by. I waved at the engineer. He waved back.

But it was the overnight trips from Penn Station to Greensboro’s imposing Southern Railway Depot that are etched above the eyebrows.

Before boarding, we would “grab a bite” at a coffee shop (always an egg salad sandwich, for me) then proceed to the platform bathed in enough steam to hide a furtive Ingrid Bergman. The conductor really did shout “All aboard!” to hurry passengers onto coach and Pullman (sleeper) cars. An hour or so into the trip, near Philadelphia, porters would commence “making up” berths in upper and lower compartments.

The porters! They were the essence of rail travel, posters for institutional segregation/racism. Most had white hair under their caps. All were kind and deferential. Unlike rather stern conductors, they smiled, made me feel safe. Watching them assemble upper and lower bunks concealed by heavy canvas curtains was like watching a child play Transformers. I can smell the ironed cotton sheets, feel the scratchy wool blankets, see the pillows covered in striped ticking.

Then the Pullman car went dark.

I peeked out. How strange to see strangers padding up and down the aisle in robes and slippers.

Once under the covers (I got the window side) after my mother fell asleep, I squeezed a metal gadget that unlocked the heavy shade and watched the landscape speed by.

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack . . . lullaby of the wheels.

We woke early, dressed (nobody traveled sloppy back then) and made our way to the dining car for breakfast. Glorious! Outrageously expensive orange juice, scrambled eggs, biscuits and jam served by waiters wearing white gloves, who called me “Missy.”

Out the windows, Virginia and then North Carolina looked so much greener than New York. I saw cows grazing.

The air felt warm and fresh as we disembarked. Granddaddy was waiting in his ’36 Dodge, which emitted an odor that made me car sick. I can smell it, right this minute, and still feel woozy.

There’s so much more. When I was about 8 my mother sent me on ahead, alone. By then, the route required changing trains in Washington, at midnight. Always an adventurous child, I was thrilled. My mother pinned a note on my jacket, instructed the conductor, gave the porter a whole dollar to look after me, although little was required.

By then, I knew the ropes.

This was soon after World War II; trains were filled with happy young soldiers headed home. The ones in my car “adopted” the lone little girl, taught me a card game, gave me Hershey bars. Unthinkable, now, which makes the memory even more precious.

But this is about the brain, right, not the train?

My last train ride was in Switzerland, in 1996. Here, I learned the hard way that if departure is scheduled for 10:32 that means 10:32, not 10:33. However, a few days before this memory eruption, I spoke to a couple who still ride Amtrak from Southern Pines to Penn Station, for a lark. Sure, it takes 12 hours but no driving to RDU, parking, weather delays, baggage issues, cramped seats, getting a cab ($50) or bus to midtown Manhattan. You can walk around, maybe recline. I must have been ruminating on this when Amtrak blasted across Pennsylvania Avenue unlocking a trainload of memories — audible, olfactory, visual — which like ghosts at midnight on Halloween, must slither back into that compartment in my frontal cortex, forever.   PS

Deborah Salomon is a writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at debsalomon@nc.rr.com.


North Pole Heads South

There will be a Christmas Adventure for children 12 and under, including pics with Santa and a candy hunt, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 1, at the Recreation Center Gym, 160 Memorial Park Court, in Southern Pines. For more information call (910) 692-7376. Also on Dec. 1, the North Pole Experience comes to the National Athletic Village, 201 Air Tool Drive, in Southern Pines, with activities, music, sleigh rides and more. The experience continues on Dec. 4, 10 and 11; all times are from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. For further information go to www.nationalathleticvillage.com.

Even Santa Loves a Parade

The Christmas Parade in downtown Southern Pines will be from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 4. Rumor has it Santa will be kickin’ it in the Pines. Hard to imagine any more information would be required but, if you just need someone to talk to, you can call (910) 692-7376.

Let Out the Cummerbund

The Women of Weymouth kick off the holidays with a gala at the Boyd House on Saturday, Dec. 4, at the Weymouth Center for Arts & Humanities, 555 E. Connecticut Ave., Southern Pines. There will be an open bar, hors d’oeuvres, a buffet dinner catered by Elliott’s on Linden, music and dancing. Black tie is optional. The cost is $90 for members and $110 for non-members. For information call (910) 692-6261 or visit www.weymouthcenter.org.

Music to Our Ears

The Moore Philharmonic Orchestra will perform its 17th annual Holiday Concert at the Bradshaw Performing Arts Center, Owens Auditorium, 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst, on Saturday, Dec. 4, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free. For more information go to www.mporchestra.com. At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 5, the Sandhills Community College Music Department will present its holiday concert, also at Owens Auditorium. Admission is free and open to the public. For further information call (910) 695-3828. And, on Sunday, Dec. 12, the Moore County Choral Society will have its annual holiday concert with conductor Anne Dorsey, also at Owens Auditorium. For additional information go to www.moorecountychoralsociety.org.

Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairies

Watch the Bolshoi Ballet perform Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic The Nutcracker in high def at the Sunrise Theater, 250 N.W. Broad St. in Southern Pines, on Sunday, Dec. 19, at 12:55 p.m. For more information go to www.sunrisetheater.com.

Don’t Look Now, But Here Comes 2022

Bring the whole family to downtown Southern Pines to ring in the New Year before Grandpa’s bedtime on Friday, Dec. 31. The pine cone drops at 8 p.m. but before that there will be live music, carnival games, face painting and more. For additional information call (910) 692-7376.