Monday, June 30, 2014

The Iris Garden

I've been walking in these suburbs for years now — long enough to see not only what is but also what used to be. On my way home Thursday, I passed a five-acre plot once home to an old farmhouse and iris garden. The house is gone now, bulldozed last month. In its place, a sprinkling of straw, a county sign, notice of hearing. The land will be rezoned R1 to R2. Instead of the iris garden we will have Iris Hills, nine single family homes.

Gone is the mint green farm house, the crumbling old shed covered in wisteria, the eye-popping iris and day lilies that made people pull off the road to see what all the fuss was about. Gone are the painters who would set up their easels there in the spring and summer. And gone most of all is Margaret, the garden's owner, who died a few years ago.

For years the place sat in limbo as the "Friends of Margaret's Garden" tried to save the flowers by turning the space into a park. But finally all options were exhausted. Now "Margaret's garden" joins a parade of places named for what they have displaced. On the same block of West Ox Road are Robaleed, a neighborhood named for a farm whose horses still hung their heads over the fence when we first moved here, and Blueberry Farm Lane, where we once picked — you've got it.

It's a strange, sad sort of duty to bear witness to the past, but it's also a privilege. Walkers see the world at four miles an hour. We notice a fresh coat of paint, a "For Sale" sign, a new car in the driveway. And because we notice, we belong.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014


Sooner or later you have to do it, to skulk down a private driveway because it leads to a path in the woods, to slip between trees in a stranger's yard.

To walk in the suburbs and stay only on the paved path is to miss the crumbling fences, the fern-banked creeks, the land as it was before.

I've been trespassing a lot lately. Looking for my own "northwest passage," a quick route to the bus stop in anticipation of Metro's new Silver Line (more on that in upcoming posts). On my Thursday walk home, looking for the thread of a trail I knew would take me behind the houses across the street from my own, I spied the owner of the brick colonial whose land I was perilously close to.

I looked at him, he looked at me. He was just far enough away that I could pretend he hadn't seen me, to continue picking my way gingerly through the fallen trees and prickly bushes in my work clothes,  a big bag stuffed with papers on my shoulder. I felt like an errant deer. And strangely enough, I ran into one of those just a few steps later. I stared at him, he stared at me.

Two stare-downs within five minutes. What else is a trespasser to do?

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Taking the Long Way Home

If the car is in the shop, then the driver rides the bus and walks home from the corner ... which is two miles away. This is fine, this is good, this is necessary, even. One should always walk the routes (or part of the routes) one drives. It's a good way to stay humble behind the wheel.

But yesterday's stroll wasn't humility-provoking. It was liberating. It was divine. Late afternoon, perfect summer weather (hot but not unbearable), sweater over my shoulders, music in my ears. I crossed the busy road early in the stroll (whew! worst part behind me) and hit a good stride as I ambled beneath the hedges that lead to Fox Mill.

Here's what I never would have seen from the car: A shy pudgy girl with some sort of instrument in a padded case on her back; we traded smiles. Was it a cello? I think so.

Two workmen mixing cement for the fence posts they were installing. Beside them, almost hidden in the grass, was a microwave plugged into a long extension cord and a couple of empty Tupperware containers. Lunch!

The last leg of my walk was along a little dirt path that I don't usually walk in work clothes. There was a bracing incongruity to it all, and most of all to sauntering up to the house — arriving home on my own steam — that made the rest of the day a breeze.

There's a lot to be said for taking the long way home.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Morning Salute

I write from the deck, early though it is. I want to be with the morning as it slowly unfolds. Want to be with those first birds — the bold? the restless? — as they greet the day.

It feels like rain. The air is full of moisture and a steady breeze flows in from the west. The early storm is an aberration and for that reason exciting. We are accustomed to the blistering heat that collapses of its own weight, that can only be released in a burst of sound and light and rain. But the morning storm is a riddle to me. Has it been brewing all night? Is it left over from the heat of yesterday?

Whatever the case, the dawn continues to unfold, shapes slowly emerging from the backyard, first the azalea bush and then its individual leaves. First the day lilies and then their buds. I can even see through the backyard and across the street now. Two red oaks, their tall trunks like masts, emerge from the darkness to salute the new day.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Did Someone Say Fudge?

It's the last day of school in Fairfax County, which means little to me now except less traffic in the morning. It was our first year in 20 to be rid of elementary, middle or high school dates and deadlines.

But today is still special. It's the day that for years we celebrated with matinees, lunches out, shaving cream fights at the bus stop — and a peculiar ritual: watching "The Music Man" and making fudge.

The tradition started more than a decade ago, when we popped in a video of this musical to watch in the evening after an afternoon at the pool. There's a scene where Marian and her mother make fudge. And so we started making fudge, too. It's a delicious summer pastime anyway, fudge being the most boardwalk of candies.  But even if it wasn't, we're conditioned now: Hum the first few bars of "76 Trombones" or "Till There Was You" and we'll start to salivate.

So tonight, Celia and Claire will gather at the house and we will measure out the sugar and the cocoa powder and the milk. We'll set the pan on the stove and tend it till it bubbles and boils. We'll test it (often) and finally take it off the flame, beat it to glossiness and pour it onto a plate. If it all works according to plan we will be on a sugar high before it's dark.

School's out for summer! Who needs champagne?

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two Years and Counting

Claire and I escorted Suzanne to the train station when she left for the Peace Corps two years ago. It was Sunday, and not much traffic. Inside the train station, another story. The ancient rituals of leave-taking. Ours loomed large. As well it should. I haven't laid eyes on my oldest daughter for two years to the day. When I tell people how long it's been, they will often ask, "Skype?" "Once," I tell them. Only once. It's a lack of electricity compounded by a lack of bandwidth compounded by, well, Africa, I guess.

But I have seen Suzanne through the eyes of her father, sister and friend, all of whom have visited.  And I hear her every week or two on the phone.  And between these first-hand accounts and my mother's ear listening for tone, inflection and the spaces between the words — I know what I need to know. She is, for the moment (God willing, "Inshallah," as she has taken to saying), happy and healthy (minus — or plus! — an intestinal parasite or two).

Last year when I write "One Year and Counting" I thought Suzanne would be home by now. But she will stay another year in Benin, take on another Peace Corps job, another challenge. Still, my count-down to seeing her is only months, since she'll be back this fall on home leave.

One observation I'll repeat from last year's post, because it only deepens with time: Suzanne is the happiest person I know.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Swampy Places

In recent rambles I've come across my old friend the red-winged blackbird. Sometimes I catch him in the Franklin Farm meadow (what's left of it after the mowers strafe through). And from April till October I never fail to spy him in the cattails of the West Ox containment pond. Like him, I prefer swampy places.

He is a supple fellow, able to perch on a thin, waving branch. For this reason I think he has excellent balance, a weighted way of looking at the world. He takes life as it comes, which most birds do, I suppose.

I admire his jaunty attitude, the dab of scarlet on his wing, his trilling call. He flashes through the world with more majesty than most.

(No pictures of him, only his habitat.)

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Berries

Summer begins today and I can't think of a better way to celebrate it than with a picture of my go-to fruit this June, local strawberries. I've been hunting them down like a foodie (which I am not) and with mixed success.

According to a vendor at the Reston Farmer's Market, where I missed the berries by four hours a few weeks ago — "You have to get here by 8 if you want them," he said, and I sauntered in there at noon! — the crop was off by at least a third this year.

And the crop was late, too. A pick-your-own place I looked into pushed back its start time by two weeks. I'm blaming both the quantity and tardiness on our harsh winter.

But I found a farmer's market downtown, and at the last stall, a small selection of overpriced berries. I'm not saying how much these beauties cost. Let's just say they've been worth every penny.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Summer Reading (in Tandem)

Yesterday on the way home from work, I picked up a quart of local strawberries, a loaf of French bread and two books. I like thinking of books that way, as staple and delight.

When at the library I saw the poster for the summer reading program, which starts today. "Paws to Read" is the logo.

It all rushed back to me then. The lists of titles each of my girls would keep — each in her own distinctive scrawl. Our trips to the library on sultry afternoons, laden with bags of picture books and chapter books. Searching the shelves for old favorites — and discovering new ones in the process. The coupons the girls received upon completion. Redeeming them for a cookie at the bakery or an eraser at the office supply store.

I live in a different universe now, but the girls and I still trade titles and lists and favorites. We may not read together anymore, but we do read in tandem.

(Illustration: Courtesy Fairfax County Public Library)

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

End of the Beginning

We practiced brush back down, shuffle ball change, time steps and breaks (single, double and triple). I continue to marvel at the many ways a foot can touch the floor.

But last night's dance class was different. It was my last basic beginning tap. After a two-week break I'll move up to ... drum roll, please ... advanced beginning tap!

Which makes me think of Winston Churchill: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

I looked it up. This from the Churchill Society: "After a series of defeats from Dunkirk to Singapore, Churchill could finally tell the House of Commons that 'we have a new experience. We have victory — a remarkable and definite victory." It was the Battle of Egypt.

Less than two weeks since the D Day anniversary and I'm comparing my tap dance class to the Allied victory in Europe. What can I say? It's early; that's all.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Light After Dinner

Last night I sat on the deck after dinner watching the daylight drain away. The air was full of moisture and I followed the bats as they darted through the air. They were invisible until they crossed a patch of still-blue sky. 

The wind picked up, moving the tallest oak branches. They might be palms waving in a tropical breeze, the fringed opening to an underwater cave, guardians of heaven.

As I sat there, the sky darkened and a faint star blinked beyond the blue. Frogs sang and lightning bugs danced ever higher in the sky. It was after 9 but I didn’t want to go inside. 

On nights like these it's easy to believe that summer will never end, that it will always be light after dinner, that there will always be more time. None of it true, of course. But lovely to believe just the same. 

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Parents need children, I once wrote, because they help them remember what it was like to be coming alive to the world. As a parent to young adults, I will amend that slightly. Parents need children because they remind them what it was like to be ... a young adult. And no matter how wondrous and exciting that can be, it makes me appreciate every creak in my middle-aged body.

What prompts this revelation? Having one daughter return from a four-day music festival, for one thing. Apparently it was difficult to sleep more than a few hours at a time there because the music blared all night. No shade, no quiet, no privacy. No thanks!

And then, from another daughter, a description of her Monday. A double shift at the restaurant: working lunch followed by a two-hour break when she ran and worked out at the gym followed by working dinner. Waitresses are on their feet constantly. I remember because I once was one.

So I head into Tuesday glad that I'm not 19 or 22 anymore. Takes some of the sting out of the day, doesn't it?

(Photo: Claire Capehart)

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Living Through Them

Studiously avoiding a Father's Day post — or even a post Father's Day post — too painful this year — I turn my attention to the natural world, to the deck, where (truth be told) a chunk of my natural world experience occurs. (Hey, I can't be tramping through the woods all the time. A girl's gotta work!)

This morning, as I start my en plein air office day, I watch the birds flit from feeder to perch and back again. Hummingbirds zoom to their nectar founts and attack them with fencing-like maneuvers. A young chickadee lands on the railing and hops his way to the feeder. A male cardinal splashes in the bird bath then flits off to the azalea bush.

What I notice is the constant motion, from perch to trough and back again. What seems an impossible distance to me — up fifty feet to the dead bough of a towering oak — is but a few wing beats to these creatures. They make living look easy. It's good to live through them today.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Oh Say, Can You Sing?

In honor of the two hundredth anniversary of the national anthem, choristers are converging on the National Mall to stage the largest sing-along ever of "The Star Spangled Banner." The National Museum of American History, which is sponsoring the event, is encouraging would-be warblers to join Anthem for America parties across the country. If there isn't a party near you, just tune in and sing along with the huge chorus at 4 o'clock today.

What an anthem we have! One of the most difficult to sing of any, with a wide-ranging melody and a high note at the end. A strange sort of anthem for a democracy, when you think about it. "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is easier, though undeniably British. Or even "America the Beautiful," though it has its share of high notes, too.

Also interesting, I ponder today on Flag Day, is the fact that our anthem asks questions rather than makes statements. And it's written in second person. "Oh say, can you see?" These features make it more conversational than most. It's a song that wonders more than it pronounces, that marvels more than it prescribes. And in those ways, it is endearing.

(Manuscript of Francis Scott Key's lyrics to the National Anthem courtesy National Museum of American History.)

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Friday, June 13, 2014

Chicken of the Woods

When I spotted it a week ago, I thought it was a flower. So brilliant, so orange. What kind of flower, of course, I had no idea. But I'm an optimistic gardener, also a bit near-sighted, and from a distance it appeared that some brave unknown volunteer had settled down into the clay soil.

On closer inspection, of course, I learned the truth. Not a flower but a fungus. A flower of darkness. A decomposer. Beautiful at its business, thriving on wounded oaks.

A little research and I have the answer — laetiporus, chicken of the woods, so called because it is edible and tastes like ... yes, chicken.

I'll get my chicken from chicken, thank you very much. Beauty I'll take wherever I can find it.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Moment in Time

A quick walk yesterday at lunch time. Just long enough to feel the pulse of the city and to muse about what often occurs to me on walks in crowded places: That we are all here together on this earth. Right now. That we are all sharing a moment in time: young and old, weak and strong, those who've just begun and those who are almost done.

Some of us are in love; some of us are in despair. And some of us (those would be the teenagers on family vacations) are bored out of our minds. But for this one moment, the distinctions are irrelevant. We all feel the warm sun on our faces. We are all equally alive.

I don't want to get all mystical now, but lifetimes, after all, are composed of moments. Which is why dipping my toes into the waters of humanity almost never fails to comfort and inspire me. It certainly did yesterday.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It's Back!

You forget what it's like. The feeling of moving slowly through the atmosphere, pushing it aside, clouds of moisture.

You forget what it does to your hair. How all attempts at order and smoothness are in vain.

You forget how it warms and comforts you, this steam bath that we move through most summer days.  And the muggy nights, so full of ache and promise.

For the last weeks we've lived in a dream: cool nights, warm days, sweaters after the sun goes down. But something was missing.

The humidity is back. Summer is here.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The other day I stepped out of my car at the library to return some books and for some reason I was overwhelmed by the blueness of the sky.  I don't think I was imagining it. The sky really was bluer than usual. In fact, it was blotting out the green of the trees and the brown of the brick.

Why the library? Why then? I have no idea. It was a fine, low-humidity afternoon. Recent rains had cleaned the air. 

I hurried home, back to where I could put the sky in its place. This is how I view it from the deck, softened by trees and — at least when I snapped this shot — puffed up with clouds.

Intensely blue? Yes. But parceled, balanced — framed.


Monday, June 9, 2014

World That Was

I see them everywhere. They're made of straw or cloth; they are jaunty or slouchy. Are men's summer hats making a comeback? In my limited experience on the streets and in the conveyances of Washington, D.C., the answer would have to be yes.

The question is whether this trend is dermatologically or sartorially driven. Given the fraught nature of our times, I'd go with the former.

Whatever the explanation, I'm enjoying it. The other day on Metro, my seat mate removed his straw fedora and for an instant I was back in the dark, downtown church we sometimes attended with my grandfather when I was very young. There were hooks in those old wooden pews, little pincers perfect for playing with during Mass, and that's where my grandfather would hang his hat.

Metro cars, of course, do not supply this amenity, so my seatmate simply held his awkwardly on his lap. I shifted in my seat, tried to give him and his hat as much room as possible. I thought about anachronisms like hat hooks and how they seem so fussy and antiquated in our streamlined days. And I thought about what the world was like when we had them.

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Home Again

Tom returns today from three weeks in Africa. Though work took him there, he had time for a wonderful visit with Suzanne, including a stay in her village, Toura.

Traveling in Benin is not for the faint of heart, so I imagine the house will look pretty good to Tom — running water, electricity and one or two more sublime blue-sky days for deck-sitting.

But the place — this house, this neighborhood, these woods and fields — is looking better and better to me, too. Freed of school schedules and young children, it is no longer a nest but a refueling station. It's a place for the girls — and their parents — to leave from and return to as we make our way (separately and together) in the wide world.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)

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Friday, June 6, 2014

D Day + Seventy

Dad was in the 95th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. He flew two tactical support missions on D Day. But it wasn't until a 50th anniversary trip to the  beaches of Normandy that he realized what the ground troops had endured.

"I don't think the American people appreciate what some of those men did," Dad told a newspaper reporter interviewing him about the offensive. "Those guys, they deserve all the honors."

Typical of Dad to say the other guy gets the glory. But he knew as well as anyone what it meant to climb into the cramped tail gunner's compartment of a B-17 bomber and take off in darkness for the battlefield continent. He did it because it had to be done. They all did.

Now Dad is gone, and D Day has become less a personal war story and more a historical event. But it was a historical event Dad was part of — and he never forgot it. "You were part of this great, massive undertaking," Dad said in that same newspaper interview. "You were part of history."

(Photo: Lloyd Wilson Collection of the 95th Bomb Group Horham Memorial)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ran Right Past It

Yesterday was National Running Day. Since this fact escaped my notice until after posting time, I'm celebrating it now.

In the last year I've become more of a runner in the suburbs than a walker in the suburbs. This has its good points and its bad points. In the plus column, I exercise a little more rigorously and finish a little more quickly.

In the negative column, well, I'm not walking. And walking sets the brain to spinning. It's about the pace. The clip-clop instead of plod-plod. It's about exerting one's self enough to jostle the gray matter — but not so much that huffing and puffing is all I do. Walking gives me a chance to notice things; with jogging I might run right past them.

The best days are when there's time for a run and a walk.  One for the body and one for the soul.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Last night, a conversation about writing. About finding the time, setting deadlines, asking for help. Setting scenes, learning dialogue — these things aren't easy for the journalist turned memoirist or the short-form writer turned long-form writer, my friend and I agreed.

But there are universals. The scrap of paper a child played with today in her stroller as her mother wheeled her up the Metro elevator. The bald woman in the flowered dress who waved to the conductor. Every day, a barrage of details finds its way into our brains. How to preserve them? How to honor them?

The details we seek as reporters are within us, and it's up to us how we use them. One day they may surprise us.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fern Forest Floor

A walk yesterday in the late afternoon. Copper and I ran down Folkstone Drive, then ducked into the woods. It was cool and quiet there, and what struck me first was the filtered light. This is a second-growth forest, maybe third- or fourth (if that's possible). The oaks are 70 to 80 feet or taller, and the birch and hickories and other trees in the canopy shade the smaller plants, give them a vaulted ceiling beneath which to grow.

I take off my sunglasses, hold them in my leash hand. The colors are even more intense now — the dark greens of the holly and the brilliant hues of the newly unfurled ferns. In places the woods are carpeted with ferns. It's a fern forest floor.

I look more carefully at the delicate fronds, watch them as they wave slightly in the breeze. There is something satisfyingly primordial about ferns, something soothing in their longevity on this planet. They thrive in the indirect light.

As I think of writing about ferns today, Copper tugs at his leash. The ferns are the height of his sturdy little shoulders; he swishes through them when he ventures off the path.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Busting Out

It's what June is doing. What the song celebrates. What you can feel in the morning air, the promise of warmth but not humidity.

The hydrangeas that were thinking about blooming in April and beginning to leaf in May are finally getting serious now.

Tomatoes and herbs are planted, annuals are potted. And the climbing rose is showing its stuff.

I can live with this. 

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