Author Archives: Craig R. Smith

The Marilyn Monroe of Thanksgiving Turkeys

In 2006, I wrote a blog piece about the Legend of the Black Turkey. Every year it seems to get more random Internet hits. Last year, a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, I was interviewed by a reporter for the Boston Herald. He had stumbled upon my blog and wanted some details on the turkey story. It was a pleasant interview, and he said the article would appear the following week. I checked online every day, well past Thanksgiving, but the piece never appeared. A full year later it shows up. Here it is:

by Kerry J. Byrne, The Boston Herald

Earlier this month we looked at the craft of smoked turkeys with barbecue champion Chris Hart; earlier this week it was the fine art of deep-fried turkeys. We close out our turkey triumvirate with the legend of the black turkey, one of the more curious food stories I’ve ever encountererd. Here’s the legend, based largely on a piece we published in the print Herald last year before Thanksgiving:

Writer Morton Thompson died long before the age of the Internet—July 7, 1953, to be exact. But he created a foodie phenomenon that percolates around the web more than a half century later.

It’s the legend of the black turkey, a charred-skin bird that’s painstakingly prepared during a day-long drunken boozefest with friends but that produces delectable, mahogany-hued meat so tasty and tender that it’s spoken of only in reverent hyperbole.

“Thompson’s turkey is to turkey as Miss Monroe is to women, as (Bobby) Jones was to golf,” wrote Richard Gehman in his 1966 book, “The Haphazard Gourmet.” Versions of the story are found in seemingly random places, from the website of an Australian Christian missionary, to more typical food blogs, to the best-selling 2003 novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which was turned into a movie in 2009.

Thompson wrote about the black turkey in a 1945 collection of short stories called “Joe, the Wounded Tennis Player.” He had served it at some point to famed essayist Robert Benchley (the grandfather of “Jaws” author Peter Benchley), who kept alive the story after Thompson’s demise.

“It’s far from a hoax,” said Craig Smith, who’s written about the history of black turkey at his blog ( “Anybody who’s ever tried it said it creates the most amazingly tender, delicious turkey they’ve ever had.”

Here’s the short version of how to prepare the allegedly delectable black turkey, with links to recipes below:

Take a “huge” turkey, simmer the giblets with herbs, spices and cider to create a basting liquid.

Start drinking, preferably a gin cocktail called the Ramos Fizz.

Then make an elaborate stuffing of fruit, herbs, spices, bread crumbs, ground veal, ground pork and butter. Fire the oven to 500 degrees and create a “stiff” paste of egg yolks, lemon juice, onion juice, spices and flour.

Now move on to martinis.

When the oven’s red hot, add the stuffed bird and keep drinking martinis until it starts to brown. Lower the oven to 350, remove the bird, coat it with paste, return to oven, let the paste set, and continue the process until all the paste is used. Then baste the bird with the liquid every 15 minutes, enlisting drinking buddies in the effort.

The skin will darken until it becomes a black, cindery crust. The fall-off-the-bone tender meat will range in color from golden brown to mahogany.

You will be very drunk by this time.

“It’s like cooking a turkey in crockery or clayware. It creates its own casing and locks in all the juices,” said Smith, the black turkey historian. “It’s a legend that’s only grown and that people talk about with awe.”

Look for black turkey recipes in completely random places, such as John Mark Ministries, Big Daddy’s Kitchen or the illustrious food blog,

If you ever actually attempt to make one, shoot us a note and let us know how it goes…you know, after you sober up.

Categories: Food and Diet, Fun, Holidays | 7 Comments


The first and foremost question a writer, public or intimate, must ask is, What must I say? To begin to know the answer to this question is to begin to know the essential self.

What must I say? What must I say? What must I say? What must I say? And finally, What must I say to you?

The beginning. Something wants to be said. We don’t know what it is or what shape it desires. An inchoate feeling. A pressure around the heart, perhaps, asking it to open. We pick up a pen or sit down at the computer.

This is the moment. Write. No matter what. Write. Don’t try to name it in advance, don’t call it play, or journal writing, or poem. Don’t ask it to have a form, or to be spelled correctly, or to appear in sentences. But write in pen so that you can’t erase it, and promise, as a way of showing respect, that it will not be thrown away.

The beginning. A blank page. It feels as if we will sit before it forever. Then let us sit before it forever. Let us sit before it until we can no longer resist writing.

The beginning is important. It is a wraith we are trying to catch, a swirl of smoke, an inspiration, just the barest breath of something coming into ourselves or going out.

—Deena Metzger, Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey

Categories: Writing | 3 Comments

The Case of the Disappearing Neighbors

First my next-door neighbor, Bill, disappears. His health has been precarious for some time, but one could generally catch him early in the morning, picking up his newspaper at the bottom of his driveway, or checking his mail that he knows darn well never arrives before 3 p.m. After Mom’s death I canceled my newspaper delivery and found I could sleep in a bit longer each day, so I would generally miss Bill’s walks down the driveway, which was fine by me because he was a garrulous, well-meaning, but exceedingly tedious fellow who never understood the immense value of a brief “good morning” (with no follow-up conversation) between neighbors.

He put his house on the market about two months after the housing bubble burst. And he had priced it too high even for a strong market. Needless to say, the house was taken off the market six months later. Bill had hoped to move to a nursing home, but decided to stay around for a while longer. He’d have weekly doctor visits and occasional hospital visits, and not-infrequent falls. Tony, the neighbor directly across from him, tended his lawn and looked in on him daily.

First I see that Bill’s mailbox is taped up. The outside lights come on with a timer, so they gave no indication of Bill’s presence or absence. Then Bill’s lawn starts looking shaggy. The Florida growing season begins sometime in April, but weekly cuttings aren’t generally needed until May, especially since it’s been a dry year. Why isn’t Tony cutting his lawn? Wait a minute, where is Tony, anyway?

You may remember my telling you about Tony some time ago. His blue diesel pick-up is still in the driveway. I’m sure I heard him start it up and let it idle for a half-hour sometime last week, didn’t I? But then I notice that I never see him around. His garage door, usually open and the scene of activity, is always closed. Tony has likewise disappeared. His wife hasn’t been around for a couple of years now; I wonder, briefly, if she made one final appearance and, in a fit of rage, killed him.

Did Bill die? Did he go into a nursing home? If so, why isn’t his house on the market again, and why has he left no provision for cutting his lawn? When the weeds became chest-high, I paid my lawn guy $40 to bring Bill’s yard back into the land of respectability.

Then there’s the Corner House I told you about. The place has gone into foreclosure, and its crazy and/or criminal residents have relocated, thank goodness. That’s three houses shuttered and vacant in the same month.

The folks across the street, the ones who plowed down my mailbox, have been extremely quiet. Maybe absent, I don’t know. I never see them. And my next-door neighbor, Felix, is disappearing in a different way: he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He and his wife went up to Long Island for a family reunion last month, and I fed their cat in exchange for swimming in their pool. Good people. Felix is at the stage when he’s really upset at how his faculties are slipping away, and he’s becoming increasingly frustrated and bad-tempered. He mentions that he thinks Tony must be in prison, though he has no basis for his opinion. His wife is the personification of patience and long-suffering, but I can see the strain it’s putting on her.

So yesterday I’m getting acupuncture and discover that I’m missing my wallet. I hope it dropped out of my pocket in my car, but it’s not there. It’s possible I lost it on the brief walks to and from my car, and someone quickly grabbed it, but it’s more likely that I left it at home. I rarely do, since I tend to double- and triple-check my pockets before leaving, a habit I’ve had for decades. I was meeting a friend for dinner, and I’m grumbling because of how much more this is making me drive out of my way, and I’m hungry.

And there, in front of his house, is Tony. “Where have you been?!” I shout, gleefully. He’s happy to see me too. He explains that he’s getting married. (Apparently the bad-tempered woman is now his ex.) He and this woman dated some 30 years ago, and they’ve recently reconnected, and he’s been in Connecticut with her, and they’re getting married next month. He’ll go where the work is: Connecticut if it’s there, down here if the jobs are more plentiful here. She’ll stay in CT, where her comfortable career is. He says it’s an ideal arrangement for both of them.

Tony clears up the mystery: He too had been bothered by the denizens of the Corner House, especially the tall, bald, crazy-eyed fellow who kept asking for rides, and didn’t want anyone to know that he was leaving for fear they’d break into his house and become squatters. He was similarly afraid for Bill, so when Bill went into a home — an actual home owned by an LPN who takes care of a handful of seniors there, forming a pleasant little community — Tony didn’t think it would be good for the news to circulate through the neighborhood while the Corner House people were still there. Now they’re gone, so the news can spread freely. And Tony will make sure Bill’s lawn is tended, even if he’s living in Connecticut at the time. I mention, as a joke, that we wondered if he had been carted off to jail or something, and he replied, “No, those days are far behind me!” Another little surprise.

So all’s well with our neighborhood, except for Felix. I wish I had a magic wand. Or a miracle cure. For now, all I have is friendship and support. And the knowledge that we all disappear from time to time, sometimes forever, and always for good. Nothing is permanent, the Buddha tells us, except change.

Categories: Buddhism, Life in Florida, Relationships | 4 Comments

Wings of Desire

April may be the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain, as Mr. Eliot put it. But surely May is sadder still, at least in southern Brevard County, Florida, where each day dozens of star-crossed lovers, tiny, tragic Romeos and Juliets, fling themselves to their deaths on my car’s windshield. It’s lovebug season.

I have no idea whether the Ais and the Timucuans who lived here before the Europeans moved in named their months as other native peoples did, but “Planting Moon” or “Full Flower Moon” or “Moon When the Horses Get Fat” just doesn’t cut it down here. So I named last night’s full moon the Lovebug Moon in honor of our doomed flying libertines, locked forever in coital embrace. I hope their loving petits morts will coincide with the Big Death being dealt them by my mammoth of glass and steel. That way I catch them coming and going.

Categories: Life in Florida, Nature | 5 Comments

The Doorbell

The original doorbell of this house was particularly anemic. It could be heard from the living room and the kitchen, but almost nowhere else. So I replaced it with one of those annoyingly loud electronic versions which can be heard in the farthest bedrooms. (Despite this, one of my friends steadfastly refuses to use it, preferring to knock instead. Softly. Even if his arms are full and he would much rather come inside quickly. He has an alarm dog, which I grant is much more fun than a doorbell, but I really, really wish he would use the doorbell. But he won’t. He lives to annoy.)

Ours is a quiet neighborhood, most of the time. Remarkably safe and peaceful. The only worrisome aspect in the past year has been the home two houses away. It is supposedly a sort of church-based halfway house for people trying to turn their lives around, and I see a church van there once a month or so, but there is apparently very, very little oversight. Last year, in the middle of a rainstorm, a drenched young man rang the doorbell. He identified himself as a resident of that home, and said that he was on parole and there were drugs and firearms there (which alarmed me no end), and asked if he could use my phone to call the police. I let him use my land line, not wanting to hand over my iPhone to someone who, frankly, made me nervous.

He called the police, but he didn’t know his street address, and was reluctant to give his name since he was on parole. They asked to speak to me, and since I sounded reasonable, they agreed to send a car out. The fellow left. The police came here before going to the house in question. They came back to me, telling me that no one with this fellow’s name (which I finally had wormed out of him) or description lived at that home.

The guy returns a couple of weeks later. He had his street address in his hand, and says he’s really trying to go straight but he’s afraid his parole will be violated because he can’t be near drugs or weapons and his brother, also an ex-con, is causing trouble over there, and could we please call the police again? I told him he needed to stay here until the police came so I wouldn’t have to deal with them. He agreed, and we made the call. While we waited he was so jumpy and nervous that I became very uncomfortable. Finally he said he’d go sit on his porch and wait for them.

The police came, they spoke to me, they went to his house, they found no one matching his description, and certainly no one sitting on his porch. Then they came back to tell me all about it.

A few days later I saw him while I was driving by. I stopped and had a few stern words with him. Actually, I believe said stern words were, “Not cool, dude!” He said he had been in the house waiting for the police, but they never showed up. Hah!

He never returned. Whether he judged (rightly) that I would be in no mood to help him in the future, or he moved out or was re-jailed, I have no idea. I haven’t lost too many hours of sleep over it.

The doorbell rang last week, and a tall, balding man with several teeth missing, who said he was from The House In Question — which, he told me (oh joy oh rapture) has been foreclosed upon, so everyone will soon be moving out — and asked to use my phone. Alas, I have disconnected my land line, so I had to lend him my iPhone. Torn between not wanting him in the house (when did I become so frightened of strangers?) and not wishing him the freedom of the outdoors should he want to make a break for it, I stood with him on the stoop while he phoned. He had locked himself out of the house and was trying to find one of the other tenants who could come home and let him in. No luck. Then he asked me if I could help him break in. I demurred. I suggested he just sit on his porch for a few hours until someone came home.

This morning the bell rang at 9 a.m. I was in bed asleep. I’ve been ill for the past few days, and haven’t been sleeping well. I ignored it. If it’s the UPS guy, he’s just ringing out of courtesy. It can’t be the mail lady needing me to sign for something, since she’s never been seen in our neighborhood before noon. If it’s a Jehovah’s Witness (they ring the bell several times a year), I’m not interested, thank you, go away. If it’s a friend, they’d have called first. If it’s a neighbor in need, they’ll call out my name. So I ignore the bell.

It rings again. In my head I shout at the person on the stoop. “I don’t want any Girl Scout Cookies! I don’t want a free lawn insect assessment! I don’t want to hear how ADT Monitoring can me me feel safe! I don’t want to donate money for your elementary school’s soccer program! I’m in the shower! I’m on my deathbed! I can’t deal with you now!” I roll over with a scowl.

By now I’m irritated, so I can’t get back to sleep. I finally get up and get dressed, check the front stoop and see no UPS packages, see no one lurking on the front lawn, so I sit down and try to wake up. Ding-dong! The peephole tells me it’s my tall, balding man with the crazy eyes. I open the door, and immediately start coughing on his cigarette smoke. Before I can recover, he asks if he can pay me to take him to his job up on Route 192. Could be a 15 minute drive each way, could be 30, depending where he wants to go. But I decide in a flash to use my illness, and say, “Absolutely not! I’ve got the flu, and can’t even consider it. And [as I fan away the smoke] your cigarette would kill me. Sorry!” and shut the door. I have never been quite so rude to a visitor in my life. And yet, somehow, I don’t regret it.

Maybe my doorbell-eschewing friend is on to something. If I disconnect the doorbell and make everyone knock, I will not hear anyone. I can train myself to check the stoop once a day for packages. My friends can just let themselves in. And I’ll be well on my way to being the neighborhood curmudgeon.

Who am I kidding? I’m already there.

Categories: Humor, Life in Florida | 8 Comments

New Words for God

I met the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Newark (based in Newark, New Jersey), way back when he was bishop and I was a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, DC. I’ve forgotten why he was in town—probably business with the Presiding Bishop, whose main bailiwick is the National Cathedral—but he usually made time to stop in at St. Stephen’s, which was close to his heart because of our long history of civil rights actions.

He was something of a hero of mine because of his outspoken stance in favor of gay and lesbian rights in the Episcopal Church, but I wasn’t prepared, when I shook his hand and introduced myself, for him to actually know who I was. He had heard of my work with the church’s inclusive language lectionary (which sowed the seeds for The Inclusive Bible), and immediately engaged me in a long and animated conversation about inclusive language.

I now subscribe to his newsletter, in which he responds to letters from readers. I found this exchange particularly fascinating.

John Gamlin from Old Hall, East Bergholt, Colchester, UK, writes:

If we are now beyond theism then I suggest we are also beyond the word “God” — beyond it because:

  1. of the baggage it carries;
  2. to continue to use it is to be constantly misunderstood; and
  3. we will continue to drift back into the old language and old images.

So what new name?

  • Life?
  • Energy?
  • Love?

None will do, but we need to look somewhere for a new way to describe the bearer of eternity.

Dear John,

Thank you for your perceptive question, which has forced me to think about this issue in a new way to answer it — or at least to keep the conversation going. I need to make some distinctions or clarifications.

1. There is a difference between the experience of God and the explanation of the experience. Religion tends to assume they are the same. Theism is a human explanation of the experience of God; it is not God. The experience can be real or delusional. The explanation will never be eternal. No explanation ever is.

2. Personhood is the deepest experience of our lives as human beings and we cannot escape its boundaries. We describe everything in terms of that reality. That is why we think of God after the analogy of a person. We can also never get into the being of God, or of a fellow mammal, a reptile, a fish or an insect. We define each out of the reference of our own personhood. The same is true for every other creature. Xenophanes said it in the third century before the Common Era, “If horses had Gods, they would look like horses.”

3. The concept of God has been evolving as long as there have been human beings. In animism, which appears to have been the earliest human religion, God was defined as multiple spirits in a spirit-filled world. These spirits caused everything to do the things that we human beings observed happening. The sun moved, the moon turned, the flowers bloomed and the trees bore fruit. Animism sought to help us relate to and win the favor of these animating spirits. When we human beings moved into agricultural communities, God was defined in terms of the processes of fertility. When we grew into tribes on our way toward nation states, God became a tribal deity. In the Gods of Olympus, animism and tribal deities were merged into a hierarchy of Gods ruled by the head (chief) of the Gods (Jupiter, Zeus) but with animistic functions still being defined by spirits (Neptune and Cupid, for example). Finally, we moved into a concept of God’s oneness and God began to grow vaguer and more mysterious.

4. During our history, definitions of God have been born, changed and died and that is the process that is going on today. Our knowledge is expanding and our definition of God will expand with it. The God who was thought to ride across the sky as the sun, changed as our knowledge of the sun grew.

So what do we do? Allow the name to evolve. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is identified with wind and breath, concepts that eventually evolved into the word Spirit. God was identified with love, as the expander of life, and evolved into the understanding of the Christ figure as “love incarnate.” God is also identified with the idea of “rock” and evolved into the Ground of Being that we identify with the old patriarchal word Father.

I do not believe that in the last analysis any human being can actually define or redefine God, whether we call God the Holy, the Sense of Transcendence or anything else, but I do believe we can experience this presence and I do believe it is real. When we experience this presence I know of no other way to describe it except as “God.” History teaches us that the word God is never static; it is always in flux and ever changing. I suggest that we not be frightened and allow that process to continue.

I will continue to think about it because of you. So I thank you for your question.

—John Shelby Spong

Categories: Christianity, Spirituality, Worthwhile Reading | 2 Comments

Mr. Deity and the Messages

Season 1, Episode 4:

Categories: Humanism, Humor, Mr. Deity, Spirituality | Leave a comment

The Erotica Eight and the Great Puttanesca Initiation

I hope my friend Indigo Bunting will weigh in with her recollections and corrections to this story. I am old and my memory is failing, while her memory is remarkably pristine.

The first thing I don’t remember is the year. I rarely remember what year anything happened. But back when we all lived in Maryland, some friends offered to host a spirituality/mythology discussion group. We’d all watch an episode of the Bill Moyers series, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, and discuss it afterwards. This evolved into a general spiritual exploration group, which didn’t go so well since some of us wanted more theory, others wanted more practical stuff, and some seemed dedicated to fluffy bunnies and unicorns. (It seems now that this pattern has been repeating in my life for quite some time now.)

This group evolved, or devolved, into discussion of another book, Ladies’ Own Erotica by the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society. We’d read a few chapters in preparation, then come together over an amazing meal that one of us would prepare, and discuss the book. It was a heady mixture of the lubricious (one of my favorite words in the whole wide world) and the respectable, the intellectual and the wanton, the sensual and the spiritual.

By this time the group had weeded itself down to a core group of eight people: two married couples; one couple who didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, which merely showed how silly the whole argument was, since no one could be more married in body, soul, or mind than they; and two single guys. That first night, sitting around over Bill Rau’s pasta puttanesca and much excellent wine discussing women’s approach to erotica and how it differed from men’s, and what made something exciting or arousing in one context and either boring or rather distasteful in another, we christened ourselves the Erotica Eight.

The Erotica Eight met quite a few times after that, sometimes discussing erotica, sometimes not; we even went on a group trip to Chincoteague, Maryland, and Assateague Island at the height of a winter snowstorm, and rented a house for a long weekend. That is a longer and much stranger story for another time.

The Great Puttanesca Initiation happened this way. When we arrived, we found Bill at his stove in the middle of making this sauce that smelled oh-my-god-is-it-possible-for-anything-to-have-a-more-intoxicating-aroma. A surprising amount of excellent extra-virgin olive oil, a few teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes, a couple of tins of anchovies (which was my first honest encounter with those wondrous fishies), and a dozen or so cloves of garlic, minced. To this was added a goodly amount of lovely oil-cured black olives, capers, and several cans of roma tomatoes, and a little tomato paste. A little red wine, a few leaves of basil, and a handful of chopped Italian parsley. That’s it.

When I wrote of puttanesca some time ago, I said that the celebrated Neapolitan dish was so named because it was “pasta the way a whore would make it.” Many think the the name refers to the decadent sauce’s hot, spicy flavor and rapturous aroma. Others say that because the ingredients were so inexpensive, it was offered for free to prospective customers to entice them into houses of ill repute — or that the dish was so quickly made that prostitutes could prepare it between customers.

Author and chef Diane Seed relates this story:

To understand how this sauce came to get its name, one must consider the 1950s when brothels in Italy were state-owned. They were known as case chiuse or “closed houses” because the shutters had to be kept permanently closed to avoid offending the sensibilities of neighbors or innocent passers-by. Conscientious Italian housewives usually shop at the local market every day to buy fresh food, but the “civil servants” were only allowed one day per week for shopping, and their time was valuable. Their specialty became a sauce made quickly from odds and ends in the larder.

Tonight I made puttanesca sauce myself for the first time. I was not disappointed. It was not quite as spicy as Bill’s version was, but there was definitely a heat that crept up on me as I ate it. It was sensuous, and heady, and altogether wonderful. But as you can see, it was my counterpart to Proust’s madeleine: one mouthful, and I was transported back to the even headier days of the Erotica Eight, of our sitting around a table filled with wine and laughter, eating the food of whores, and tracing the strange road from Joseph Campbell to the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society.

Categories: Cooking, Relationships, Sex and Sexuality, Spirituality | 12 Comments

Mr. Deity and the Light

Season 1, Episode 3:

Categories: Humanism, Humor, Mr. Deity, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Mr. Deity and the Really Big Favor

Season 1, Episode 2:

Categories: Humanism, Humor, Mr. Deity, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Ella Hoyle

In a fit of I-don’t-wanna-cook-dom, I brought home one of those supermarket rotisserie chickens this afternoon. It was, to quote my great grandmother, “cooked to a fair-thee-well.” I suppose they must be overcooked to satisfy regulations, even though the most heat-resistant strain of Salmonella dies at 140°F, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare. Ignoring the research, the USDA mandates that chicken be cooked to 165°, and many restaurants and grocery stores ensure compliance by cooking it to 170°, which also ensures dry white meat.

And for all that, it’s still better than cooking.

My great grandmother, a tiny, incredibly energetic woman named Ella, cooked everything to a fair-thee-well. Chickens (whose necks she would wring herself, before beheading them on the old tree stump out back). Green beans. Corn. Potatoes. Nothing was burned, but everything needed to be anointed with gravy or butter to restore some modicum of flavor. Her Sunday dinners were full of laughter and stories, fresh iced tea with an inch of sugar sitting in the bottom (which we would never stir, lest it become undrinkable), and Grandma Hoyle, hopping up every five minutes to get something new from the kitchen.

I loved my Grandma Hoyle. On her 99th birthday, she told us that her dream was for some young man to pick her up in a little red convertible, and she’d make him speed down the road with her head scarf flying in the breeze. She lived on a tiny country lane in Boyds, Maryland—I believe her street has become part of the historic district, so the lane is still just as tiny as it used to be—a block from the tiny white Presbyterian church she attended so faithfully, and in whose century-old cemetery she is now buried. A bit further down the road is the historic Boyds Negro School, a one-room 22 x 30 foot wooden building that served as the only public school for African Americans in central Montgomery County from 1895 to 1936. It contained some desks, a blackboard, a potbelly stove, and a framed picture of abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Subjects taught in the school included spelling, cooking, reading, singing, and weaving. Grandma Hoyle had proudly served on its board of directors when she was younger. I believe the Underground Railroad ran through Boyds.

Her husband, who founded the local mill, died before I was born (fell off a chicken coop that he was repairing at the age of 86). She had two children, my maternal grandmother, and “Poor Little Russell,” whom she cared for until he died, which was only a couple of years before she did. Russell had severe birth defects, though in that era nothing could be done for him, so what precisely his condition was, I never learned. His limbs and facial muscles were twisted, his body wasted, and he was incapable of articulate speech. We assumed he was also mentally disabled, though it now occurs to me that he may have lived his life with an unimpaired mind trapped in that tomb of a body, and no one would have been the wiser. Grandma Hoyle was his sole nurse, and she was wonderfully patient and tender with him. We would go upstairs to pay our respects each time we’d come for a visit. I never knew if he understood we were in the room, or if he knew and was angry or upset by my discomfort, even though I tried to pretend he was “normal” and exchange pleasantries with him.

Grandma Hoyle’s sister was Vinnie. Her husband, a man named Hicks, founded the town’s general store, and even forty years after his death, Hicks’ General Store was still open for business under that name, despite the presence of a handsome new supermarket less than a mile away. For years my taciturn uncle (or was it their strange adult son, about whom I know next to nothing?) kept raccoons in a large cage, just at the edge of the woods that surrounded their property. After my uncle died, and the son either died or disappeared, I never learned which, Aunt Vinnie came to live with Grandma Hoyle, and the atmosphere at that little home changed dramatically.

Aunt Vinnie was as irascible as one of the raccoons they had caged. She could find fault in anything: the temperature of the tea or its strength; the sound of the television, even when it was tuned to her favorite show; the feel of the lace doilies my grandmother had tatted to be used as antimacassars. She never paid a dollar in rent, never cooked a bite of food, never lifted a finger to help clean up, but spent all her time bedeviling my sweet-hearted and longsuffering Grandma Hoyle. Vinnie was two or three years younger than Ella; we assumed she had been spoiled at a very early age and never grew out of it.

Poor Little Russell died first. Vinnie died a couple of months after that, of the flu, I think. Grandma Hoyle had two very pleasant and untroubled years at the end of her life, which she spent receiving visitors, telling stories, and watching her beloved Lawrence Welk Show. She didn’t cook Sunday dinner any longer, but would enjoy whatever we brought in. But to this day I miss those meals with the chicken and vegetables cooked to a fair-thee-well, and that amazing bundle of energy that was Ella Hoyle.

Categories: Family | 5 Comments

Mr. Deity and the Evil

Season 1, Episode 1 of one of the funniest webshow/podcast series I’ve ever seen:

Categories: Humanism, Humor, Mr. Deity, Spirituality | 3 Comments

Happy Birthday, Mom


November 21, 1920—November 11, 2008


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A Pact with the Living

Those who have died have never left
The dead are not under the earth
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocks
The dead are not under the earth
Those who have died have never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the woman’s breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in the home
They are with us in the crowd
The dead have a pact with the living

by Birago Diop
as adapted by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Categories: Death, Poetry Sundays | 3 Comments


Marguerite Louise Russell Bachman Smith died one year ago today, ten days shy of her eighty-eighth birthday.

It was a decent day. I’m tired, but not emotionally exhausted. My brother Darryl came by today, and I gave him Mom’s jewelry to be parceled out between his wife, my brother Dale’s wife, and their various kids. Or sold, if they don’t find anything they want to wear, or anything of sentimental value they want to keep.

Yahrtzeit means “time of [one] year” in Yiddish, and refers to the anniversary of a loved one’s death. It is customary for Jews to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I learned today is literally the “Orphan’s Kaddish.” Lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of a loved one is a minhag, or custom, that is deeply ingrained in Jewish life to honor the memory and souls of the deceased.

I didn’t have a yahrtzeit candle to light, but I had some quiet time with Mom’s spirit, as I often do in the evenings. We used to watch many of the same TV programs together, and we knew each other’s reactions so well that as we watched, we’d glance over for the expected frown or listen for the laugh.

It’s been a year of being stuck, and of getting unstuck. Mourning, at least this time, is not at all what I expected. It was a full-body experience, not so much an emotional one (though there were certainly moments . . . ).

The strangest change, I think, has been in realizing the weight of Mom’s illness, how profoundly it limited her and how she hated being limited, how she struggled against it even as she was trying to let go. In her last year, I found myself reproving her for not struggling harder; now I see that she fought harder and struggled more bravely than I ever realized, and probably more than I ever could.

I love her and miss her, certainly, but most of all I admire her and thank her.

I think W.S. Merwin said it best in his brief poem, “Separation”:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Categories: Death, Family, Judaism | 9 Comments

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