Hope In a Bowl of Soup

Every year, we ate Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Driving there in the car,  I’d pull my nose out of the book about the time we’d hit the big hill on her gravel road. A few minutes later, we’d see the small, white house – her closest neighbor.

I got a lot of reading done in the 45 minutes it took to get from our house to hers.

As we slowed down to turn into the long lane that was her driveway, I wondered which of my cousins were already there. Was there still enough daylight to go exploring in the barn? Would we get in trouble if we climbed on the roof of the pig-less pig pen? Would the roof cave in under our collective weight? Regardless, I knew just up ahead was an evening filled with cousins, presents and good food.

I’m not sure whose idea it was, but at some point we got away from our traditional holiday meal of ham and cheesy potatoes. Maybe it was because, as grandma got older, the adults wanted to take some of the responsibility off her hands. My aunts started offering up soups-usually chili, potato, and vegetable.

It’s the vegetable soup I remember most. As a kid, I wouldn’t touch the stuff. At home, when I started smelling a roast cooking in the oven, I became disappointed, rolling my eyes and hoping Mom would at least remember to cut me some raw carrots. I couldn’t stand them cooked. Until I discovered ranch dressing, I didn’t like the potatoes prepared with the roast either. Pot roast was definitely not my favorite meal. To make matters worse, I knew the leftovers from this meal would end up being vegetable soup.

My mom and her sisters liked vegetable soup though. In our family, it was a tradition all its own. Grandma liked hers with a can of Brooks chili beans in it. Most of the men didn’t like diced tomatoes in theirs; but at Christmas dinner, the women put them in anyway because the men gravitated toward the chili. A little cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, potatoes. Celery was optional. Is it any wonder I didn’t like this soup as a kid? It was downright healthy!


While the soups simmered on the stovetop, we’d dig into the appetizers. One of the many hunters in our family usually offered up venison summer sausage, partnered with squares of cheese on a round Ritz cracker. Someone would have picked up a cheeseball from the local grocery store deli. It was my favorite, the perfect balance of cream cheese and shredded cheddar. Years later, I’d write one of my aunts, asking if she could get me the recipe.

Long before Pinterest came on the scene, the women in our family served up trendy appetizers and sides. I remember ranch-flavored oyster crackers, apple salad with Snickers whipped in, marshmallow cream fruit dip, Chex mix and Puppy chow. Every inch of counter space and the entire kitchen table filled to overflowing.

Grandma always mixed up a pitcher of Kool Aid. One of our aunts would stand near the disposable cups, ready to hand off the Sharpie marker to ensure we’d only use one – our own – the entire evening. The adults always had coffee. Cup after cup of coffee.

If us kids ate all our soup – as if any of us were still hungry by that point – we could move on to the dessert table. One of my aunts shares her birthday with the Christ child, so we’d sometimes have cupcakes or a birthday cake. Also cheesecake, Rice Krispy treats and pecan (pronounced puh-con) pie.

I know what love is if it can be offered up on a platter of cheese and crackers. If it smells anything like a stovetop full of soups. If it looks like my grandma and her adult daughters bustling away in her kitchen. If it tastes like cherry cheesecake. If it can be heard in the uproariousness of thirty-plus people in one single-story farmhouse.

I know what love is. It’s these very tangible things giving me hope that love will always emerge victorious. Love looks, sounds, smells, feels-and tastes-like Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Like home.

* * * * *

Traci Rhoades lives in southwest Michigan, somewhere in a triangular section connecting Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids with all things Lake Michigan. She and her husband parent one daughter. They have dogs, cats, ducks, pigs and chickens–a number that is always changing, as farm animal counts tend to do. She enjoys watching sports, reading, cooking and all things Bible study. She is  a writer. When she first started blogging, she wondered about what unique voice she could bring, eventually landing on this one line: A country girl goes to church.

In Memoriam

It’s my fiftieth birthday and I’m wandering around a graveyard.

It’s not that I am feeling morbid, or even that I am attempting to come to terms with my mortality. (Although it’s hard to deny that there is something about turning 50 that pulls the whole mortality thing into sharper focus.)

My younger brother is visiting from New York City, which doesn’t happen very often, and we have decided to take a drive into the country to visit our parents’ burial plot.

“Do you have any paper towels?” Vern asks, as we merge onto the interstate, heading south from Pittsburgh toward Washington County, Pennsylvania.

I point to the glove compartment and raise my eyebrows. “Why?”

“Remember the last time we visited?” he asks, and I do. We planted marigolds, and we scrubbed dried bird droppings from the marble headstone. We laugh and agree that this is par for the course in a graveyard surrounding a church with the word “pigeon” in its name.

Forty-five minutes later, we pull into the parking lot of Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. A stone monument to the left of the wide front door proclaims the church’s historical significance:

The Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church was founded by John McMillan August 24, 1775. It is the oldest church west of the Monongahela River.


pigeon-creek-church-graveyardMy mother’s mother is a descendant of the Rev. John McMillan. Pigeon Creek was the home church of my mother’s father—and his parents, and their parents, and so on. This little red brick country church, perched atop a hill near the intersection of Brownlee and Church Roads, is in walking distance of the house in which my mother grew up, and in which I lived my first two and a half years.

Grandpa Hamilton was an elder at Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church, and Grandma Hamilton taught Sunday school and accompanied the choir on the piano. This is where Mom and Dad were married, where my two younger brothers and I were all baptized, and where my parents are buried, in a plot next to my grandparents.

It never fails to amuse me, as a person descended—through my mother’s line— from a long line of English, Scots-Irish, German, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, to see the Maczuzak headstone adjacent to the Hamilton one. My father, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant coal miner, married into a family of WASPs and is now buried among them.

I am descended from a Scots-Irish Presbyterian missionary who opposed the Whiskey Rebellion on the western frontier of America in the late 18th century. And I am the granddaughter of a brave Eastern European 18-year-old who sailed to Ellis Island in 1913 to labor in the coal mines of western Pennsylvania. The presence of my surname in Pigeon Creek’s graveyard, just a few hundred yards from a handful of Revolutionary War interments, speaks eloquently of the American story—and of mine.


Since my mother’s and father’s funeral services, a decade ago and nearly three years ago, respectively, I have attended only one worship service in this building—the installation of its new pastor, my friend and former campus ministry colleague, John Dykstra. That intersection of past and present is a story for another time, and a bit of serendipity. Another chapter in my history with this church.

Today, we stand together in the center of the small sanctuary, and John catches us up on the modern-day happenings of this congregation. Vern and I reminisce about our childhood memories of this place—how much brighter it used to be before the clear windows were replaced with stained glass, how the Hamilton/Maczuzak clan always sat in the same pew—second row on the left, as you face the altar.

We walk to up to the chancel to investigate the inscribed plaque on the side of the upright piano which has graced this space for nearly 40 years, a living monument to our musical grandmother:

MAY 7, 1978

gravestone-gridWe step into the bright September sunshine and walk together down the steep bank to visit the matching marble headstones for DAVID A. & FRANCES F. HAMILTON and for JANET HAMILTON & JOHN ANTHONY MACZUZAK. My grandpa and my dad were both predeceased by their wives, and when visiting the graves, must have experienced the jarring sensation of seeing their own names and birth dates etched into the marble, a blank space waiting to be filled in at some future time.

By the time they were my age, my parents knew where their earthly remains would rest. I am now 50 years old, and I have no idea.


“Are you two related to the Hamiltons at the top of the hill?” John asks, and curious to find out, we climb the steep bank to check out the headstones closest to the rear of the church building. Catching my breath after the climb, I pull out my phone and snap a photo of an ornate headstone:

David M. Hamilton
Aug. 28, 1846–Apr. 26, 1911
Elizabeth A. His Wife
Mar. 15, 1855–May 16, 1933

I text the picture to my mom’s brother and ask, “Who is this?”

Uncle John replies within minutes, identifying my great-great grandfather. After some back-and-forth Q and A, he wishes me a happy birthday and teases me about how I have chosen to spend it.


I don’t visit this cemetery often, and I confess that I am never really sure what I’m supposed to do when I get here. I feel connected to my parents in all sorts of places—even moreso than on this quiet country hillside.

But this is where we gathered with our family and friends shortly after they died. This is where we shared memories about how grateful we were to have known them. This is where we chose to erect a monument to commemorate that, once upon a time, they lived and breathed and laughed and cried and loved.

Like my ancestors at the top of the hill, most of whom I never met, and the people buried in the nearly illegible Revolutionary War era graves, the headstones in this cemetery represent flesh-and-blood men and women who lived full, rich, complicated lives about which I know very little. But I do know this: if they had not lived, I would not be here.

As Vern and I say goodbye, my friend John assures me that it’s not too late to purchase a burial plot in the Pigeon Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery, and we laugh. But then I wonder. Maybe I should. I’m not getting any younger.


Amy Maczuzak is a writer and editor who has lived most of her fifty years in or near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Strings, Attached

When I said goodbye to California when I was seven, I didn’t realize that I was letting the only home I’d known slip through my fingers. At seven, packing up two large moving trucks with everything you own seems like an adventure. I got into that large yellow truck and didn’t look back for a long while.

Home, for me, is the place I’ve lived most of my days since: Spokane, Washington, a medium-sized city with a small town feel, far from the rain and gloom of Seattle, on the coast. All of the bedrooms I’ve had to myself are in this city. This is where my favorite swing hangs, in my favorite park, the place I go to contemplate life, or to wait for a phone call from a boy that may or may not come. We have history, Spokane and I.


I woke up in the wee hours to catch my flight to California. The temperature hovered somewhere right around freezing. This is the October I have come to know. Once we’d made it through security, there was little difference in temperature between airports and planes as we made our way south. But when I stepped out of the airport and into the Southern California afternoon, I intuitively peeled off my cardigan. My bare shoulders recognized the October sun.

There’s a part of me that has always protected myself against loving my birthplace. I’ve told myself that it’s expensive, and that it’s smoggy. I’ve told myself that there are more drive-by shootings there than there are in Spokane. All of this is true. But I tell myself something else: San Diego doesn’t belong to me. It takes more than being born into a place or a family to make it yours. That isn’t true.

Although my skin pinkens and burns easily, I notice that my joints are less creaky in the warmth. I don’t have to take several times the recommended daily dose of vitamin D by mouth, but allow my body to synthesize it while I walk along the beach, listening to the music of the seagulls and the way the waves come in, always persistent, never stopping.

In Spokane, people frequently look bemused when I tell them that I’m not an outdoorsy person. My Tinder matches tell me that their perfect date includes a hike, or a bike ride, or a snowshoeing excursion. Though I don’t love Spokane’s brand of outdoor activity, I could walk along the beach for hours, drinking in the smell of the sea. I could drift through the streets of my birthplace endlessly, following the scent of Mexican food.

On this last trip, I sat down with my family at a restaurant I’ve visited on every trip to San Diego, and many times before we moved. As we waited for a table, I watched the hypnotic motions of the women making homemade tortillas, tossing them onto an endless pile that never seemed to dwindle as waitstaff came to wrap a handful in paper to take to one of their tables.

I like to try new food and drink wherever I go, but not here. Here, there is only one possible order, a tostada suprema (which comes with shredded beef and pork). I order fresh flour tortillas on the side and heap the contents into extemporaneous soft tacos. I close my eyes and I am transported to any one of my previous visits. It’s undeniable: I have history with San Diego, too.


But there is more to it than that, of course, more than just the food and the sunshine. We pass the hospital where I was born, and my mom points it out. Sharp Hospital. Someone in the marketing department in the 80s decided to create tiny shirts that said “I’m a Sharp baby.” My mom still has mine.

I have family in this city, and a bit further up, in Costa Mesa and neighboring places that roll off my tongue easily, although it takes me a moment to connect them with the signs on the freeway inviting me to exit. I know the names because I’ve heard people say them. Sometimes, that’s how my faraway family feels. The names are familiar, natural, but I don’t quite know if I can claim that as mine. There is so much distance, so much life lived away from each other. 

But on this most recent trip, I began to try. I shimmied into the role of cousin, niece, granddaughter. I soaked in each person and the way they blurred together with every other memory we’ve had together, indistinct, layered.

I was sorry to leave. Perhaps that is what I’ve always been protecting myself against. There is an eternal, persistent ache to belonging in more than one place. There are Cara-shaped holes that cannot all be filled at once. There are strings that pull at me no matter where I am.

* * * * *

Cara Stickland is a writer from Spokane with some warmer roots reaching south. Spokane photo by Michelle Lee; Palm Tree photo by Jesse Collins.

Mix Tape


My exasperated, whispered command to be quiet is the loudest sound on the cassette tape. Repeatedly.

Through the whir of the nearly 40-year-old tape, I can hear the giggles of my younger brothers fade beneath the laugh track. Marie Osmond is singing about how she’s a little bit country, and her brother Donny is responding that he’s a little bit rock’n’roll. I hear the shuffling click that signifies a commercial break, abruptly followed by the resumption of the intro music and laugh track.


tape-recorderIt’s just before 8:00 on a Friday evening in the fall of 1977, and 11-year-old me is crouched on the shag carpeting in the family room of the house on Mt. Vernon Drive. While my mom, dad, and brothers lounge comfortably on the sectional couch behind me, I zealously guard the channel and volume dials of the console color television like it’s my job. My fingers are poised over the play and record buttons of the cassette recorder. As the clock strikes eight, I press down.

I am living in a time long ago and far away, before the proliferation of remote control devices or video cassette recorders or cable television. The likelihood of a member of my family storming the TV to change the channel from ABC to one of the three other options is unlikely. But I am not taking any chances.

There are six days and 23 hours between now and when the next Donny and Marie Show episode will air. By that time, I will have memorized the script and the songs of this one—and every shushing sound I make. From the opening musical number and ice-skating routine through the corny skits to the farewell strains of “May tomorrow be a perfect day,” I will have replayed in my head the images on the screen over and over. And over.


It’s August 1984, and nearly 18-year-old me is crouched on the shag carpeting next to the stereo system in my bedroom. This state-of-the-art piece of technology allows me to play a vinyl record or an eight-track or cassette tape. It also gives me the option to record from LP to cassette without the interference of outside noise.

mix-tapeI unwrap a blank cassette and click it into the front-loading slot. I press the play and record buttons just before dropping the needle into the groove of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America LP. I hum along with “The Logical Song” and “Goodbye Stranger” as I clutch my blue ballpoint pen and painstakingly copy the playlist from the record jacket to the lined cassette cover.

A growing stack of freshly recorded tapes is piling up on the floor next to the radio/cassette “boom box” I will be taking with me for my freshman year of college. My dorm room will not be large enough to hold my growing record collection, let alone a turntable.

There is a token Donny and Marie Show tape at the bottom of the stack, beneath Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. I will listen to that one when my roommate is not around.


It’s late June afternoon in 2006, and I have set up my laptop computer on my parents’ kitchen table, where I can enjoy the breeze wafting through the screen door. Mom is napping in her bedroom, recovering from her latest chemo treatment. Dad is on the golf course, taking a break from his nursing duties, and my brother and niece will be joining us for dinner in a little while. I am taking a break from laundry and food prep.

My iTunes library is displayed on the laptop screen, and I make a selection from the stack of compact discs from my parents’ collection—greatest hits compilations from Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Anne Murray, Kris Kristofferson, Helen Reddy, and Tom Jones. These are the CDs my brothers and I have given to my mom and dad for Christmas over the years, meant to replace worn vinyl LPs with their scratches and skips. This music—in addition to Supertramp, Culture Club, Billy Joel, and my extensive Osmond discography—is the soundtrack of my childhood.

I click a Carpenters disc into the CD drive of my computer and select “yes” to begin importing the tracks.

I walk over to the refrigerator, pulling out the makings for a salad. I chop cucumbers and tomatoes to the accompaniment of Karen Carpenter’s soothing voice. I shred lettuce to the melancholy strains of “Yesterday Once More.”


Amy bio YAH

The Rice Between Us

My mom’s dad was stationed in Okinawa during the Korean War in the 1950s. Although he never saw combat, he did see rice. When he returned from Japan after the war, he swore it off completely, exercising his power of choice as a civilian. As far as I know, he went to his death without eating another grain.

My mom’s mom honored his aversion. Recently she told me that she’d made him dinner when they were first dating: a dish that included rice. He hemmed and hawed and ultimately didn’t eat it. Only later, he told her the backstory. During their marriage, she never served rice when he was home. Sometimes, however, she would prepare it when he wasn’t. My mom doesn’t remember eating rice as a special occasion or a treat, but she remembers liking it.

My earliest memories are of eating white rice, my favorite–a foreshadowing of a palate that leans hard toward taste over health. It was only later that my mom switched to brown rice, for the higher fiber content (although she sometimes added Benefiber to white rice, which never bothered me). I knew the brown rice was supposed to be healthier, but to me it wasn’t really rice. I can’t help thinking that if my Poppa hadn’t been completely against rice, he would have agreed with me. He was never one to choose a healthy option over a more delicious one. That may have been part of what killed him at 56, before any of us were ready to say goodbye.


At nineteen, I signed up to take a trip to South Korea with my Tae Kwon Do school. I was months away from testing for my black belt, and I was eager to see the birthplace of my beloved martial art.

Almost immediately, I fell in love with the country. Although with my blonde hair and fair skin I looked like exactly no one who lived there, I felt completely at home. Every new experience filled me with delight. One of the first things we did when we arrived was eat. We really never stopped for long.

3161831426_780182ca28_zI had grown up eating three distinct meals every day, with breakfast containing different foods than lunch or dinner. This wasn’t always true in Korea.

My body plunged headfirst into culture shock, as I sunk my teeth into bulgogi (the most delicious Korean barbecue). At bulgogi restaurants, we would sit in groups at long tables with small domed metal grills in their centers, spaced every few feet from each other. Our server would bring us containers of marinated meats and vegetables, and we would cook them ourselves on the nearest grills. When we got close to meal times, my ears would prick up, hoping that someone would say that we were going for bulgogi again.

Another favorite for me was the classic meal-in-a-bowl, bibimbap. At one of the restaurants, our host told us that the concept is credited to members of the Mongolian army, who would put all of their leftover food into their helmets to eat like liquidless soup. Later, I discovered that this is only one of the many legends that surround this chameleon of a food. It looks different depending on where you are in the country, the time of year, the whim of the chef. If you’re making it at home, it’s a kitchen sink meal, lending itself easily to using up whatever you might have on hand. In a restaurant, it’s a little more uniform: a bowl of rice topped with veggies and (sometimes) cooked meat, with a variety of ingredients which were deliciously mysterious to me. It’s served very hot, sometimes in a heated stone bowl called a dolsot, which continues to cook the contents throughout the meal. At the last moment before serving, an egg is usually cracked over the top, the heat of the other ingredients quickly cooking it. I would mix the egg into my bowl with delight and then squeeze large dollops of spicy red pepper paste in, swirling my chopsticks to get a consistent flavor.

And at every meal, without fail, we ate rice. I loved it.

I wonder, now, if I was trying to memorize the taste of Korea. I knew I couldn’t stay, that I would need to return to a land where rice was a side dish, not the undergirding of everything I ate. I could make rice at home. I could use my tongue to transport me back to Korea.


It no longer surprises me when I discover that my Poppa and I share similar tastes. It’s hard to know if it is because my mother missed him and cooked his favorites for me as a child. The ways of food and family are mysterious. I’m sure that there are other ways that we differ, but I know this one well, and I think about it every time I turn on my rice maker, or order a risotto, or take a virtual journey back to Korea, where I was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging.

For my Poppa, rice was also a portal to another place, but it was one that he wanted to remain closed forever. For me, the idea of Mongolian soldiers eating out of their helmets adds color and context to a delicious dish. But I have never been a soldier. I have never worn a helmet for long hours in the heat, knowing that I would have no control over how I broke my fast at each meal, far away from home. For a long while, I wondered if my love for rice was disloyal to him. Even though he never held others to his standard, now I think he might like the fact that I think of him as I reach for a piece of sushi or add coconut to my rice. Our connection continues to be strong, our opposite tastes providing an ironic but significant bond.

cara YAH bio

(photo credit)

Dublin Lamb Stew

Nine months after my college graduation, I find myself living with my parents, looking for work, trying to write more frequently, de-cluttering my room, and generally freaking out about life. It is a time of uncertainty, a time that requires more patience than I have.

The lamb stew I am cooking for St. Patrick’s Day takes patience, too. Lamb—trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2-inch cubes—simmers with beer, some spices, and broth for at least an hour before I can add the cubed potatoes and sliced carrots. I start early in the afternoon so that the stew will be ready for my family’s 6 o’clock dinner hour. As it cooks, the stew fills the kitchen with a meaty smell. Its taste, when we finally sit down to dinner, is rich, with a hint of thyme and a ghost of wheat from the beer. My family’s silence indicates their approval.

Deciding to make lamb stew was not so much a whim as a nostalgic gesture to the weekend I spent in Ireland three years ago. It was the end of my semester studying abroad. Four girlfriends and I had arranged our flights to stay over in Ireland for the weekend. After a jaunt to Galway, the Cliffs of Moher, and the shrine at Knock, we returned to Dublin for a farewell dinner to Europe. We chose what the hostel employee told us was the oldest pub in Ireland—The Brazen Head—partly for its history and partly because it was only a short walk away. A waitress seated us at a battered wood table in the pub’s squashed and dimly lit interior.

IMG_2325Four months abroad had felt like a lifetime; we were ready to return to American soil and our families. Yet, at the same time, we were overflowing with the exhilaration of seeing the world, of being young, of having friends, and of being more or less carefree. We ordered Guinness and raised a glass: to friendship, to Ireland, to life.

When the time came to order our food, I knew I had to try a truly Irish dish. I chose the lamb stew. Ladled into a wide-rimmed, white bowl, it came with a scoop of mashed potatoes floating on top. Crusty brown bread was served on the side, slathered in butter, which of course I dipped in the stew, soaking up all of its delicious gravy. My friend, Allison, also ordered the lamb stew and together we reveled in its heartiness, while the other girls enjoyed beef and Guinness stew, another Irish favorite.

Stew, in all its forms, although hearty and flavorful, is a rather unremarkable dish. What was it about the Dublin lamb stew that captured my attention so that it stands forth in my mind as a dish worth recreating?

I felt whole during that weekend in Ireland. Now that I had seen places that before I had only read about, the world seemed smaller. Anything was possible. I could go anywhere. I could meet anyone. I could do anything.

Perhaps, subconsciously, it is that feeling of potentiality I am seeking to recapture as I cook lamb stew for my family this St. Patrick’s Day. A bubble of hope rises in my heart like those that rise to the top of my stew as it breaks into a gentle, rolling boil. Anything is possible.

*   *   *   *   *

IMG_6527 vig“Dublin Lamb Stew” is by Stasia Phillips, a writer and amateur cook who loves a delicious bowl of stew once in a while. Studying abroad in Austria for a semester opened her eyes to a whole world of flavors that she is slowly incorporating into her cooking repertoire. Stasia draws inspiration for her writing from nature, good books, her faith, and hazelnut coffee. You can find her blogging at “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.”

Outer Banks

Tears streamed down my face as I huddled in my corner of the backseat of our wood-paneled station wagon. I was crying as quietly as I could, not wanting to attract concerned attention from my parents, or ridicule from my two younger brothers. As the car sped north and west—across the causeway to the mainland, away from the Atlantic Ocean and toward my western Pennsylvania home—I was convinced that my 12-year-old heart would break.

The Best Week of the Year had come to an end.


I was nine years old the first time my family vacationed on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That first year, it was me, my parents, my two younger brothers, and the family of a man my dad worked with. Three years later, my dad’s three brothers and their families had joined us on what would become an annual pilgrimage and a de facto family reunion.

Every year, we journeyed to Kill Devil Hills, to The Cavalier by the Sea motel at milepost 8.5 of Beach Road. It was a week I looked forward to all year, when I would reconnect with cousins who were so cool, they probably would never notice me in the school hallways if (a) we lived near each other and (b) were not related.


A typical day in my life during the Best Week of the Year went something like this:

The aromas of brewing coffee and frying bacon would greet me when I awoke, mixing with the scents of saltwater and Coppertone suntan lotion.

I would emerge from my bedroom, hair hastily combed, swimsuit on, to find Mom and Dad sitting in bamboo chairs at the Formica table of the main room, finishing breakfast and watching morning TV. My bare feet would shuffle across the grainy, sandy texture of air-conditioned linoleum. After slurping up a bowl of cereal, I would be out the door, a brightly colored beach towel slung around my neck.

A quick stop at the pool in the courtyard to see who was already swimming, and I’d continue on, under the archway and onto the beach. Stumbling across the already hot sand toward the crashing waves of the Atlantic, I would drop my towel next to the cluster of beach umbrellas where my tribe had already set up camp for the week.

nags-head-family-picUncle Mike and Aunt Mary would be sipping their morning coffee. Uncle Paul and Aunt Barb would be slathering suntan lotion on my littlest cousins. Cousins closer to my age would be stretched out on towels—exposed skin glistening with baby oil, as was the naive custom of the 1970s—or jumping the waves.

After lunch, my cousin Mike would start his latest sand sculpture masterpiece, and my brothers would help our younger cousins fill plastic buckets with plastic shovels-full of sand, building castles and digging moats.

As shadows grew longer, we would wander back to our rooms to shower and change clothes before dinner—hot dogs and watermelon by the pool, or fresh seafood at a nearby restaurant, or spaghetti and meatballs prepared in one of the kitchens.

Later, we would return to the pool, or pile into cars for a trip to ride go-carts or bowl or see a movie. We would play cards until bedtime.

Then the aromas coffee and bacon and Coppertone would signal the beginning of the next day.


Around the time I graduated from high school, our family stopped going down every year—but the uncles and aunts and cousins did not.

While I loved these beach vacations, and so did most of my family, my mother was never a fan of the sand, and she wasn’t a swimmer. She didn’t like the beach, but she knew what this week meant to the rest of us.

The last time my whole family made that trip together was in the mid-’90s. My brothers and I were now young adults. It was a hotter-than-usual summer, and biting sand flies and stinging sea lice and the lack of a discernible ocean breeze served as the proverbial heavy last straw. Mom made it clear that we were welcome to go back again—but she was done with beach vacations.


In July 2007, it had been more than a decade since I had spent that summer week with my cousins. As we approached the first anniversary of losing Mom to cancer, my family returned.

Everything felt so much the same. And completely different.

The swimming pool and the beach were mostly unchanged, as were the Cavalier’s cottages—even with cosmetic upgrades of indoor-outdoor carpeting and fancy new pleather furniture. Traffic on the Beach Road was heavier, and there were more restaurants and hotels and houses between the causeway and milepost 8.5. Cousins I had played with as children were now husbands and wives and parents, and their children looked forward to this week as eagerly as we had at their age. Our tribe still set up camp under the rented umbrellas near the ocean, and we now spanned three generations and seven decades.

But even as we made new memories, introducing my new sister-in-law to the Atlantic Ocean and teaching my 12-year-old niece to play euchre, I missed my mom. I was aware that memories had been made in my absence that would never be mine. I was 40 years old and way past the age of wanting to live in my bathing suit.

At the end of the week, driving my own car across the causeway, away from the Outer Banks and toward western Pennsylvania, I let the tears flow.

This was still The Best Week of the Year for my cousins. It just wasn’t mine anymore.


Amy bio YAH

Creeping Myrtle

I’m puttering happily in my yard, hand-picking dead leaves from around newly-sprung bulbs and perennials. Sometimes a new shoot bursting from the earth has, in its green exuberance to reach the sun, pierced a dead leaf: a sword slaying winter. Those are my favorite leaves to gently remove—an affectionate greeting, like tucking a wisp of hair behind a daughter’s ear upon her arrival home from school.

IMG_4155Hello there, fierce beauty. It’s good to see you again.

Late spring is my favorite time to garden. It’s more leisurely and satisfying than early spring, when there is at once so much to do—so many soggy leaves and fallen branches to gather—and so little you can do other than wait for the sun to do its work. And by mid-summer the heat has risen and I’ve lost much of my initiative; all I want to do is sit back and sip iced tea, not face the dull but pressing work of weeding and watering.

But in April and May, nature has begun to give the garden shape. Visits to my yard remind me which returning plants I’ve rooted where, while the gaps between them spark ideas about new plants I might want to try. I’m energized both by what’s there and what’s possible, and the dreaming takes me often to the brick patio where my iced tea and go-to gardening book wait.

13162129724_05e0aa9e05_bAs I sit at the table flipping through the “Annuals” section of my book, the groundcover that borders the patio on two sides seems non-threatening and innocent. It has no plans for the summer, it seems, no big goals or bucket lists. It’s just hanging out, looking green like it should and showing off the pretty little blue flowers that earned it the name “Periwinkle.” For the moment I’m able to forget another name the plant is known by: “Creeping Myrtle.”

So I ignore it. I’m busy deciding how many flats of annuals I can reasonably justify buying to add spots of color to our shady property. I’m also daydreaming about our family’s first al fresco meal of the season, and what I might ask my husband to cook on the grill. Meals on the patio are, to me, the closest city dwellers can get to a family getaway without packing up the car and leaving home.

There’s something about physically separating ourselves from the dirty dishes in the kitchen, the laptops, our separate places behind separate closed doors, that touches on the many meals of my childhood that were cooked and consumed under the shade of tall trees at campground picnic tables, and the playground picnics we spontaneously put together when our girls were little. Meals outside are meals that say, “This is just about us, here and now. Everything else can wait.”

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If only time and nature knew how to wait.

In my garden, by late June, the Periwinkle has morphed into Creeping Myrtle mode and is well into its insidious advance into my territory. The precious borders of the patio begin to diminish. Gradually, as the vines inch onto the bricks, chairs are inched away by guests. As a result of the shifting chairs, the large rectangular table eventually gets pushed out to make more room.

It’s an imperceptible migration from one week to the next, until, one day, I walk out to the patio with plates and silverware and notice the table seems almost centered on the rectangle of bricks rather than shifted to the south edge, as intended. In fact, that rectangular foundation is looking rather square. I set the plates down and walk over to grab and lift a handful of vines.

They look as if they’re rooted where they lay, but they easily lift up, exposing a surprisingly wide swath of bricks below. I keep lifting the tangled growth, revealing more and more bricks, until finally the roots—in soil, where they belong—are exposed.

Those territory-hungry plants can infringe on a foot of patio in a month, it seems! What they see in bricks is beyond me, but it seems they haven’t put much thought into it. They’re motivated only by a vague sense of world dominance, without any concern for the path they’ll take or what they’ll do when they arrive.

“You can’t turn your head to focus on the flowers for even a couple of weeks without some aggressive vine trying to ruin everything,” I think to myself, heading to the garage for gardening gloves and clippers.

I ruthlessly attack the Creeping Myrtle, extreme in my hacking as I know it’s only a matter of time before nature’s wild, raw inclinations begin again to dominate, erasing subtlety, variation, and any boundaries I’ve decided to draw. It is, of course, worth it—all the battles waged against the encroaching weeds as well as all the coaxing and care of what I find beautiful. In the end, it’s all about the table we set and sit down around, to claim what is ours.


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Kristin bio YAH

My People

With a demanding sing song in my voice, I yell after Dad as he walks to his shop, “Like items together!

As always!”, he responds while chuckling to himself, “Wouldn’t dream of something different!

It’s our little joke. I try to invite the semblance of order; he insinuates that I’m a bit neurotic.

In Dad’s smudged and hardened hand are ten powerful magnets. He dug them from a rotting plastic crate.  

As he bent over the cracked tub, Mom barked at him, “I already went through that stuff!

But, that just egged him to dig a little deeper. “Ohhhhh…I wouldn’t want you to get rid of any treasures!” When he discovered the magnets, he was vindicated in his search.

An hour earlier, we wrestled Dad’s new welding table off the back of the truck using chains and the tractor. After the steel monstrosity was put into place, Mom wandered over and begun poking through a hidden corner of the property.

That corner had been the home of a battered RV for several years. Frank was in a tough place and my good-hearted parents allowed him to park his RV behind Dad’s shop, a long extension cord providing him with power. He stayed long enough to compile quite the assortment of stuff, mostly leftovers from job sites, or so the story goes.

When Frank fired up the RV and drove away, there were promises of coming back to pick up his stuff and clean up the mess. But, months have passed. We know it isn’t going to happen but keep joking about it anyway. “You’ll never guess who I heard from” and “Frank will be back any day now.”  

Riding LawnmowerSurrounding the weed-free rectangle where the RV sat, there is a leaning stack of warped barn wood and a small pile of white tile. Tools, left outside, are rusted or hardened. A tower of old-school electronic equipment is balanced on an ancient riding lawn mower. At the edge of the area is a red truck with uncertain ownership. The desert has begun reclaiming some items, burying them into the sand or breaking them down with the unrelenting rays.

No one in my family is very good at throwing things away, the remnants of historical want. Digging through the abandoned stuff is painful at times. Thing after thing, wasting away. It’s hardest to know what to do with the items that still have a small flame of possibility.  

I walk some dirt-covered hangers toward the “keep” pile and mom quickly gestures toward the “dump” pile. I launch a defense in the silence of my head about their merit but place them into the trash bin.  My desire for order defeated by the reality of the time and effort it would require to restore them back to usefulness. Not worth the $.75 of value the old hangers have.

Burn PileBy self-designation, I’m in charge of the “burn” pile. We’ve only just begun the clean-up but the pile is already past the size of a “small fire.”  I will need to figure out a secondary pile before the project is complete.  

Mom is going to call a local guy to see if he wants to pick up the “metal” pile. Waiting for scrap prices increase again, he has been collecting.

Occasionally, after a day of puttering through his projects, Dad will direct the remote to the Kiltchners and say, “Let’s see what my friends are up to.” As the Alaskan homesteaders root through their boneyard of stuff and repurpose the broken down items into something astounding, Dad will smile and say, “Those are my people.

As we lose light in the setting sun, the work quickly comes to an end. In our own little way, we are righting a wrong, restoring the order and dignity of the desert. Working alongside my parents, in a small portion of our family land, I think to myself, “Like items together!”

There is no doubt: these are my people.


mary bio YAH

I’d Rather Mop My Church Than Go Home

Every Saturday afternoon our church gymnasium transformed from a basketball court or hockey “rink” into a sanctuary. In fact, our church was little more than a gymnasium with a maroon floor and a few offices with thin carpets around it. If our church youth group was in charge of church set up in the afternoon, we’d sometimes play hockey in the morning, go out for lunch (Wawa hoagies were my personal favorite), and return to help with the set up.

However, some Saturday afternoons I joined adult home groups and Sunday school groups at church as they hauled out racks of chairs manhandled the wooden platform into place. I gravitated to the large wet mops that followed the dust mops along the floor, leaving a smooth, shining surface before we did the heavy lifting with the chairs and section dividers.

church seats-yahI’d also tag along with the church janitor if he ever needed a hand. I’d become so accustomed to helping out that when he went away on vacation, he hired me to take over for him. I brought along two friends who split the pay but made the work go much faster. This earned me a key to the church while still in high school.

There’s no denying that I like a tidy space. I like things in their place. I’m that person who rearranges the dishwasher with the big plates in the back, small plates in the front, bowls in the top center, and glasses on top sides. I’m the sweeper and the arranger of stuff in our home for sure, and I embrace that role. That isn’t all of it.

My high school years were tumultuous and divisive. Life at home was full of highs and lows. I didn’t just find friends or community at this Baptist church down the road from our house. I found a peaceful sanctuary. I wonder if I instinctively knew that I could relax in my church. It didn’t matter if I was listening to a sermon, playing hockey, or mopping the floor.

Looking back, I can see that I needed a place to be at rest, and when it feels like a divorce is tearing everything at home to pieces, it can be quite restful to set up a gym with 400 chairs in a semi-circle with a group of friends—or strangers. It doesn’t really matter. For some reason there’s nothing like walking into a dusty, chaotic gym and turning it into a clean, orderly space with carefully arranged rows of chairs and a backdrop of fake plants.

Mind you, I wouldn’t have complained if my church had sped up its transition into more contemporary music. In retrospect, the most relevant and relatable aspect of my church was the way I always felt welcome and at home. I’m sure our janitor could have worked a little faster without me tagging along, and I’m sure those set up crews didn’t need me to mop or set up chairs.

They didn’t need me, but they always welcomed me.

I just had to show up ready to use a mop or a move a few chairs.

I’ve read a lot about children who have parents go through a divorce and how they need an anchor. They need a stable place or relationships where they can feel a sense of peace and stability. For me, it was my church. My church was far from perfect, but for a season when I needed an anchor, it provided one when I needed it the most.


Ed bio YAH