Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Showdown Over Horse Manure at Lake Massabesic

From left, Trixie Lefevre of Londonderry, Jane Mallinson of Chester, Denika Jones and
 daughter, Kryshanna Jones of Salem, took their message to the streets of Manchester,
in defense of horseback riding on the trails around Lake Massabesic. - PHOTO/Carol Robidoux
MANCHESTER, NH - A group of protesters lined the corner of Valley and Lincoln streets April 23, hoisting signs in defense of horseback riding along the trails at Lake Massabesic Watershed.

Trixie Lefevre of Londonderry said restrictions by Manchester Water Commission are punitive and unnecessary, and infringe on the rights of recreational horse riders.

Water Commissioners believe the horse manure contributes to algae blooms in the lake, which is the source of the city of Manchester's drinking water.

Horse manure is on the agenda of the Water Commission for its April 24 meeting, which begins at 4:25 p.m.

You can read more here at the NH Union Leader website.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Queen of Arts, Meri Goyette, Honored at Awards Luncheon

"We are all artists in our own way." - Meri Goyette

Meri Goyette, Queen of Arts in Nashua, NH.


Nashua NH Mayor Donnalee Lozeau recognizes Meri and Charles Goyette.

With much fanfare and the energy of a full house, longtime supporter of the arts, Meri Goyette, was honored April 6, 2014, at Sky Meadow Country Club. The champagne luncheon launched the inaugural Meri Goyette Arts Award, designed to honor champions of the arts annually. It was organized by City Arts Nashua and the Nashua Arts Commission

Goyette, 88, has dedicated herself to promoting and supporting an array of arts and entertainment initiatives in Nashua over the past four decades, from the annual International Sculpture Symposium, which embeds artists from around the world in Nashua to create original works, to spearheading the restoration of the historic Hunt Library. In between, Goyette has been in the thick of all things arts, organizing various committees and initiatives, penning books chronicling notable Nashuans and historical tidbits, hosting events, and most importantly, leading by example in encouraging art appreciation, support and development.

After a series of "thank yous" to those in the room for their support, Goyette summed up her sense of gratitude by saying, "You are all artists. We are all artists in our own way."

The luncheon featured live performances (see video clips below) from one of Nashua's premiere theater troupes, Peacock Players, as well as a poetry reading by NH poet laureate Alice B. Fogel, a ballet/hip/hop dance collaboration by Northern Ballet Theatre and Positive Street Art, and a live auction to support the ongoing arts community through City Arts Nashua.

J. Christopher Williams, President and CEO of Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, was recipient of the first Meri Goyette Arts Award, for his ongoing support of the arts through his leadership role within the Nashua community.

NH Senators Bette Lasky and Peggy Gilmour delivered a proclamation recognizing Goyette for her tireless efforts to establish Nashua as a haven for those who bring the creative arts to life, through music, fine art, dance, poetry and innovation.

Click through the videos below for highlights from the event.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Know Someone Struggling With Addiction? Join the Conversation April 2 at Saint Anselm

A little more than a month ago I posted on Facebook about a movie, "The Anonymous People," asking if anyone out there would lobby to bring it to New Hampshire. 

I have seen too many people lose their lives to drugs and alcohol, watched too many families crumble. I have heard the stories about the juggling act between urgency and insurance protocols that limit possibilities for those who want out. 

We all know someone.

Friend Loretta Brady saw my post and said that if I did the lobbying, she'd see about making it happen.

Guess what? It's happening!

You are invited to attend this free public screening, April 2, 2014 at Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Drive, Manchester, NH.

Link here for complete event information on Saint Anselm College website.

Why this matters

Get the story behind "The Anonymous People"  via filmmaker Greg Williams' kickstarter page (watch the clip below). From that humble beginning, Williams created a documentary aiming to change the conversation around the need for more avenues leading to long-term recovery for drug addicts and alcoholics, and the need to step out of the shadows of anonymity and share the stories of success among those living in long-term recovery.

Click here for more on "The Anonymous People," at Many Faces, 1 Voice.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Entrepreneurial Spirits: The Magic of Djinn

Open House at Djinn Spirits in Nashua is March 8, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Andy and Cindy Harthcock, owners of Djinn Spirits distillery in Nashua, NH.

By Carol Robidoux

First things first. 

Djinn is another word for an ancient spirit with genie-like powers. The "d" is silent, which is why Andy and Cindy Harthcock settled on "Djinn Spirits" as the perfect name for their brand new gin and whiskey distillery, located just off Amherst Street, in Nashua, NH.

"I especially loved that it's a triple entendre," said Andy Harthcock, who put nearly as much care into naming his business as he does in creating each unique batch of spirits.
Andy Harthcock designed the still used to make Djinn Spirits.

Aside from the joy of word play, there is the intrigue of a genie unleashed from her bottle, which doubles as their logo. It's an idea which comes close to capturing how it feels to unleash a signature line of spirits in a small but growing niche business, namely the craft distillery. 

Secondly, consider the Latin root of the word djinn – genius – which pertains to the enjoyment of life and "the spirit of social enjoyment," particularly fondness for good living, taste, appetite and inclinations.

And not the least of considerations for the Harthcocks is that there's something truly magical about the start-to-finish process of turning murky malt mash into a smooth, potent liquor.

It's a process that Andy Harthcock explains with the precision of a computer engineer – which he is by vocation – and the finesse of an artist, a role he embraces fully, as integral to the art of distillery.

He explains how, after running his home-brewed beer through the still in 150-gallon batches, the resulting 100-proof "white dog whiskey" – akin to moonshine – ages for two to four weeks in white oak barrels.

"It's magical, what a charred barrel does to spirits," says Andy Harthcock.

More magical than, say, fermenting cheese, or slow-drying pig flesh, two things which almost happened, says Harthcock, as he sought to develop a viable side business that could eventually become his full-time passion.

The same still is used to make whiskey and gin.
"I knew I wanted to do something fun, and take advantage of my engineering skills. At first, we made some cheese. But cheese didn't excite me. Then, we considered meat, as in jerky. You know, there's actually a name for that industry, charcuterie – but again, it felt like there were already so many people doing that, and it just didn't excite me. Then one night my wife was reading up on craft distilleries and said, off-handedly, 'Hey, that would be fun.' By the time she got home from work the next night I had successfully made my first baby still out of her pressure cooker," said Harthcock.

Andy Harthcock pours a taste of Beat 3 whiskey.
Since opening in December, he's kept his day job with a defense contractor in Merrimack, NH, and his wife still works as a nurse. But they devote nights and weekends to Djinn Spirits – from perfecting and tweaking the small batch ingredients, to making connections, marketing, fine-tuning their five-year plan and welcoming weekend walk-in customers for impromptu tours and tastings.

Harthcock also will book private tours and tastings, and is open to special personalized on-site events. He looks forward to whiskey and gin appreciation classes, for those who have never learned the fine art and complexity of swilling high-end spirits.

Djinn's Beat 3 White Dog white whiskey retails for $25 per bottle. The name is a nod to Cindy Harthcock's heritage, growing up in a dry Mississippi town – the Beat 3 voting district –  where the best kept secret was the smooth, white lightning-hot moonshine underground. 

Djinn's signature gin is high caliber, at $30 a bottle. But this is where the crafting comes in, as the Harthcock's have labored over a secret blend of botanicals, including juniper and grains-of-paradise with a twist citrus, resulting in a delicate yet potent gin.

Because alcohol manufacturing and sales are highly regulated, Djinn's products are not available at state liquor stores – yet. Twice a month they send in federal reports and tax forms, a process also necessary for state officials here in New Hampshire. 

In the meantime, everyone's invited to Djinn's March 8 open house event, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., featuring tours, tastings, prizes and giveaways at the distillery, located at 2 Townsend West, Suite 9, in Nashua, in a small industrial park behind Country Tavern.

For a preview of the tour, click the video below. For more information, find Djinn Spirits online, and click here to follow them on Facebook, or contact the Harthcock's at, or 617.649.6972.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Meh - Another Valentine's Day? Take Heart

Hey you Spartan heart-breaker: I'm taking the 'meh' out of anti-Valentine's Day memes.

I'm mostly a traditionalist, which I guess is synonymous with being a slave to human ritual. But for the record, my dear husband of 34 years is my one and only Valentine. We will share a romantic candle-lit steak dinner followed by some decadent chocolate dessert, and some romance.

I'm one of the lucky ones, and I know it – especially based on all the anti-Valentine's Day memes I see posting across my social network.

For those suffering through another Valentine's Day, I only wish I'd written this sooner.

This, my friends, is for you:

Turns out you don't have to feel any moral or historical obligation to have a loved on on this particular day, or shop for a heart-shaped anything to bestow upon anyone.

Forget the hearts and flowers, the pricey chocolates. There is no verifiable connection to the vague historical saint named Valentine and our obsession with this emotionally draining Hallmark holiday.

No Cupid connection. No candle-lit dinner for two required. 

I've done the research.

According to scholars who kick this stuff around in their academic circles, it all points back to the ancient Roman cleansing and purification ritual of 
Februalia (from which the Romans named the month of February).

And that devolved into another pagan ritual, 
Lupercalia (derived from the Greek word for "wolf"), a three-day fest held around the ides of February, meant to drive away evil spirits and encourage health and fertility – mostly by bathing, and abusing their women into submission.

There's more.
Pan, the naked flute-playing god of shepherds.

Pan, the naked flute-playing god of shepherds who wore nothing but goatskins for skivvies, is a key figure here. The highlights reel would include the sacrifice of a goat and a dog, followed by the preparation and burning of salt mealcakes by the Vestal Virgins – aka nun-like women who were excused from marriage and childbearing in exchange for tending the Roman perpetual hearth fires.

Looks like it was Victorian-era pranksters who may deserve credit for the idea of delivering "valentines" – on Feb. 13, according to this BBC history lesson, those in the village known to be unlucky in love became targets of England's bully class. These twisted jokesters would leave a huge present on their target's doorstep who, upon finding the anonymous gift, would tear through several layers of wrapping only to discover a nasty-gram of lovelorn mockery scribbled on paper.

Around the same time, the historic Norfolk legend of Jack Valentine emerged.

Side note: I'm actually shocked this one hasn't been turned into a holiday-themed horror movie, not unlike the "Halloween" series, featuring masked murdered Michael Myers.
Be somebody else's guest, Lumiere.

In the Disney version, Jack Valentine is an AC/DC chap who can morph into Old Father Valentine or Old Mother Valentine at will, knocking on doors and leaving gifts for good kids. It could feasibly involve a talking candelabra or dwarves in tights – I'll leave that to the animators.

However, in the Rob Zombie version, Jack's alter-ego, Snatch Valentine, knocks on doors of children anticipating happy Jack, and leaves a present with a string attached so that when said kid opens the door and reaches for the gift, Snatch yanks on the string and the gift is pulled away from the kid's grasp.

That ritual is repeated, several times, like a cruel knock-knock joke. Kids are warned not to follow the runaway package "or else" and so the wicked game continues until, finally, Snatch stops yanking the string and the traumatized child can finally get his hands on the elusive gift which, by this time, has triggered PTSD in said kid and, likely, has diminished future expectations of gift-associated holidays, including Christmas and birthdays.

So as not to be a complete Hallmark holiday heart-breaker, there is one shred of dignity in the legend of St. Valentine's Day.

In one historical account that has survived the rigors of distilling fact from fiction, there was a particular Valentine (among many historical Roman priests named Valentine) known for two things: performing weddings for soldiers who were otherwise forbidden from marrying; and spreading Christian ideals of faith and love to those persecuted during the Roman Empire.
The man, they myth, the legend: St. Valentine.

After allegedly healing the blind daughter of Asterius, he was martyred, tossed in prison and eventually beheaded on Feb. 14, 280 AD. He left a note prior to his execution, signed, "Your Valentine."

While I realize this debunkery of Valentine's Day may not help you all that much, the take away is that love is not just important to the human condition, it is the human condition.

It's not as tangible as a heart-shaped box of chocolates.

Rather, it's a mindset. An action word. A gift with no strings attached. A ritual with untraceable roots that go all the way back to the heart itself – by design the thing that keeps us alive. Strong yet fragile; vital as it is vulnerable. 

Today, let your human heart feel what it feels. Set your mind on love. Take action – whether that means buying your beloved a card at CVS, or committing a random act of love in some thoughtful, charitable, unconditional way for someone else who needs it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

For Art's Sake: Head of David Moved from City Hall

Ken Gidge with the "Head of David," on the third floor of Nashua City Hall. 

By Carol Robidoux

NASHUA, NH - If you noticed the giant "Head of David" statue was missing from the third floor at City Hall, Ken Gidge would like to hug you.

Because you are likely one of the few art aficionados who even knew the giant statue was on display at City Hall.

And that underscores in Gidge's mind why it was time to move the replica along. It was cast from the original masterpiece by Michelangelo, which he bought from a shop on Newbury Street 15 years ago.

Gidge said it's one of only 16 of exact replicas in the world.

Having no practical place to display it himself, Gidge – an artist and longtime State Rep – loaned it to the city with one caveat: that it be placed in a high traffic area, for maximum visibility.

With the exception of a brief stint on the main floor of City Hall next to the staircase, Gidge says the statue had a nomadic existence until it was finally exiled to the third floor five years ago, where it has been languishing, under-appreciated and doomed to obsolescence.

"This deserves a better place, and it's going to go to a better place. I want people to see it," Gidge said Friday, just before the big move.

Gidge got an offer for the statue he couldn't refuse, from Greg Kyre, owner of Gregory J's Flooring & Design Center on Amherst Street, who sent a crew to pick up the statue Jan. 24.
It's now on display his store, in the carpet room.

With no fanfare, the moving crew lifted the disembodied head from its pedestal and covered David's face with a protective cloth, then hoisted the statue onto a hand truck. Some city employees from the third-floor IT department, drawn by the commotion, gathered silently in the doorway of their office to witness what probably looked more like a kidnapping in progress. [See video].
The city's attorney, Stephen Bennett, emerged from a nearby office and stopped to talk with Gidge about the move.

"I don't think the mayor or the building manager knew it was leaving today," Bennett said. "Maybe a 'heads up' would've been nice."

They carried the statue down three flights of stairs and into a waiting van.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau was in Washington, D.C., Friday, for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. When contacted Friday, Lozeau said she was sorry to learn the statue was leaving the building.
"So nice that Ken shared with the whole city for such a long time," Lozeau said." David will be missed."

Gidge pointed to other works of art at City Hall he says should be more prominently displayed, like two landscapes in the rear of the third-floor auditorium painted by James Aponovich, "one of the best artists in this country," said Gidge, and another painting, hanging so high on the third-floor landing that you can't actually get in front of it to see it, Gidge said.

"This is a sad day. If you love art, you want art to be seen, and this has to be seen," Gidge said. "I'm sad it's leaving City Hall because this is probably where it belongs. In fact, famous people, like [John] McCain, have had their picture taken beside it. But most people walk right by it, as though it doesn't exist."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Shape of a Mother's Heart

Today is Aimée's birthday. I gave her some gift cards and a little crystal elephant necklace last week when she came up to New Hampshire for a visit. Sounds lame, but after 37 years, picking the right gift is still as hard as finding the right words to express what she means to me.

Nothing seems to measure up.

Fortunately, the universe sent me inspiration.


Pregnant at 16 is not where I ever expected to be, but there I was, eating for two; my future – our future – unsettled. I imagined that there was no way for me to be a competent mother. I had barely made it through Algebra 2. Things between me and my boyfriend had ended before I knew there was a baby coming, and there was no looking back. Without much family discussion, it was understood that the best thing for my baby was not necessarily me – not at 16.

By June, someone pointed me in the direction of an adoption agency, the Children's Home Society of New Jersey. I agreed to go to counseling sessions, to fill out the preliminary paperwork – at around the same time the boy who had planned to be my husband professed his eternal love for me and for my baby.

I told him he shouldn't give up his freedom for the burden of a girlfriend with a baby.

He still never listens.

It was also around the same time I began to sew an elaborate baptismal gown to dress the baby in for when she left me, and the hospital. My intention was to relay a message to the fortunate woman who was to become her mother, who would recognize the love that went into every stitch. I wanted her to know that this baby hadn't come from just any wayward teen mom, but rather one who had managed to recreate her heart into the exact shape and size of a delicate dress, fit for an angel. 

It was a true labor of love.

With no skills, beyond the basics of ninth-grade home-ec, I purchased a few yards of white dotted-Swiss, some lace and yellow satin ribbon. Not knowing if this would be a girl baby or a boy baby, I instinctively picked up two daisies to add to the coat of the three-piece ensemble, and five delicate buttons – three yellow luminescent ones for the overcoat and two tiny duck buttons for the back of the gown.

I labored over this project for weeks, using my mother's old cast-iron sewing machine, a relic from the 1950s. It had a sticky foot pedal, a temperamental bobbin and a dull needle, but I was not deterred.

By August, the outfit was finished, not coincidentally around the same time I stopped meeting with the social worker at the Children's Home, and around the same time I'd accepted that the boy who planned to be my husband was truly, honestly, whole-heartedly excited about being a dad.

By September 12, my beautiful baby girl was born, and I had never felt so perfectly suited to anything in my life. Loving her was more than instinct – it was like we'd been together forever. Meeting was just a formality. I already knew everything about her, from her familiar nose to her exceptionally flexible toes.

By December, a dear woman from church, Debby Clarke, had stopped by with a gift from the heart – unlike me, she actually had skills and had sewn a beautiful baptismal dress for Aimée, trimmed in pink, with a lacy bonnet. I didn't mention the dotted-Swiss gown to her, and accepted it with sincere gratitude. By January, Aimée was baptized in Debby's dress, and the three-piece dotted-Swiss, already relegated to storage.

Over the course of my life I have lost track of plenty of significant items, some I have been searching for, with no luck, for years.

So when I went up to my closet this morning, hoping to find an old photograph that might punctuate a birthday post for my daughter on Facebook, the swatch of dotted-Swiss draped over the side of a cardboard box under the weight of some stored sweaters caught me off guard. I had almost forgotten about it.

I tugged on the sleeve and pulled out the dress. Next to it, a pile of once-important papers was harboring a length of yellow ribbon. It was the little bonnet, which had somehow gotten separated from the dress. I instinctively clutched the fabric to my chest and started for the stairs when I heard myself sobbing. Halfway down I turned around and went back up to the closet, tossing sweaters from the box until I found the third piece, the jacket with the daisies and tiny yellow buttons.

I sat down on the floor and carefully slid the sleeves of the gown into the jacket, noting the elastic had lost its stretch. I snapped the snaps and smoothed the wrinkles, running my finger along the hem, admiring the workmanship that I'd forgotten went into this little dress that had never been worn.

I marveled at how beautifully the yoke was seamed to the bodice, and how both hems were hand sewn admirably straight. Somehow, with no guidance, I managed to attach the tiny sleeves to the flowing garment without puckering the delicate fabric, and judged the circumference of a baby's wrist, tacking elastic in place, stitch by stitch, turning the cast-iron balance wheel of the sewing machine by hand.

And that's when it hit me.

I will probably never in my life be able to put into words what motherhood has meant to me, but if pressed, I would say that it feels a lot like holding a three-piece antique dotted-Swiss christening dress in my hands, a remnant of a place and time that changed everything. Every stitch, a labor of love; sewn with the best of intentions, perfect in all its imperfection.

Happy Birthday, my Beloved.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bon Voyage: On the Edge of Certainty

Nine days until Julie takes a giant step into the unknown. On Dec. 30 she will board a plane bound for Cyprus, where she will be a nanny for the Brady Bunch.

She will welcome the New Year with a great family that is not her own, on an island about as far from Syria as New Hampshire is from my childhood home in Pennsylvania.

As her mom, I am standing here on the sidelines, as uncertain as she is about how the next six months of her life will be – unsure of what she will learn about herself, how it will feel to live so far from everything familiar.

The adventurer in me is certain she will have the time of her life. It is the mother in me who is teetering on the edge of certainty.

Stay tuned.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cheryl Maher: A life and death, tragic and complex beyond words

Cheryl Maher
For more on Cheryl Maher, victim of a July 10 murder-suicide, CLICK HERE

Originally published July 17. 2011
Concord Monitor Viewpoints

I know there was nothing I could have done to prevent the tragedy of Cheryl Maher's death. But something in me flickered, like failure, when I heard she was the victim in a murder-suicide who had been bound, bludgeoned, stabbed and left for speculation.
I'd written about Cheryl in the past, after getting an SOS from her two summers ago.
She found me because I was the local reporter in Derry, where she lived at the time. We tried to meet at the always bustling Mary Ann's Diner on Broadway, but there was a wait for tables, so I followed Cheryl a few doors down to Anthony's Cucina, where there was no wait because there were no other customers.
"This is better, anyway," said Cheryl, like she was finally able to breathe.
In the time it took us to walk the few hundred feet, a huddle of friendly faces greeted Cheryl by name as we passed by the Friendship Center, a hole-in-the-wall meeting place for people in recovery, positioned between the two downtown diners.
Cheryl was known there as a woman who'd spent too many years retreating from life and escaping her personal pain through drugs and alcohol. She'd been down the rocky road of recovery and relapse. Over time she had discovered how the kindness of strangers who'd been down the same road had a way of helping you drop the crutch of your addiction as you learned to walk again, in hope of running one day, full tilt, toward life.
Back then, I wasn't able to solve Cheryl's dilemma.
She came to me concerned for her twin daughters who were about to enter high school. Both of them have steep learning and developmental challenges due to autism. Cheryl feared they'd be swallowed whole in the state's largest high school.
"Just read through this and you'll understand why I have to fight so hard for my girls," said Cheryl, transferring the armload of documents to me as a waitress refilled our coffee cups. I paged through the records of their school evaluations, noting between the lines a pattern of advocacy -- she frequently made waves during evaluation meetings, without apology. Cheryl wanted the best for them. She understood their differences. She saw their untapped potential.
She wanted me to write about the flaws in the educational system for kids with disabilities, and the frustration it creates for parents. She wanted me to write about how her daughters weren't getting what they really needed in the public school setting. Individual Education Plans are written to protect the system and secure special education dollars, said Cheryl; they rarely elevate the child in need of real life skills.
Her biggest roadblock was that she shared custody of her three youngest kids with their father, and as legal custodian, he did not agree with Cheryl's sense of urgency, that a move to a private school in Amherst would make a difference.
Looking back, maybe they both wanted what was best for their daughters, but in the end, it was the bitterness of their divorce -- the drama of their marriage, the soap opera of Cheryl Maher's life -- that got in the way.
I wanted to help her. I tried contacting the district's special education director that same week, but summer is a tough time to find school staffers to interview.
I never wrote the story.
Because, over coffee that day, Cheryl also told me her life story. The tidal wave of turmoil she shared with me was overwhelming. It was beyond my ability to navigate in a world of daily news deadlines. In that moment I recognized that the real story was about Cheryl, an imperfect but intriguing human being who was a victim of circumstance long before she was a victim of murder in Weare.
So yes, the news of her death last week shook me hard. Tears rose up in me like a reflex as I involuntarily imagined her unspeakable suffering.
As everything went dark in her world, I imagined how her helpless, frantic heart stopped beating, and how her last thoughts settled on the pain of leaving behind four motherless children.
But the truth is, I cried for the tragic life and death of a woman too complex for anyone to capture in a single news story. I cried knowing that all the stories written in the aftermath would never be enough to solve the puzzle of Cheryl Maher, a beautiful dreamer and broken woman on the mend; a resilient survivor who was stopped dead in her tracks just as she was finally learning to run.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Of Monarchs and Milkweeds

In a small patch of miracles on Robert Frost Farm in Derry you might not notice that it's the season of the Monarch, a small but amazing force of nature that exists, in no small way, thanks to the humble milkweed.
By fall this season's fourth generation of the storied winged waifs will have emerged, fortified and ready to fly far from the incubator milkweeds that begat them.
The first three generations live only weeks. Their sole purpose is to procreate. They know their place -- live and die in the garden of their birth.
The autumn Monarchs are different; four times removed from the truncated life cycle of their great-grandparents, they are born with loftier goals: to live long enough to migrate south to their ancestral home in the mountains of central Mexico. Here they will soak up the secrets of life, like miniature mutant Mayans seeking some force stronger than sun. Impossibly they have found their way to a place they've never been, collecting on tree limbs like a million pulsing leaves.
In the spring, they head back in the direction from which they came, following the scent of milkweed blooms, breeding and dying along the way, sloughing off three generations as they journey home.
It is the fourth generation of these majestic flyers that will once again complete the cycle, settling among the milkweed of their predecessors, their predestined breeding ground, exhibiting a hard-wired instinct as inexplicable as it is magical.
Monarchs lay only one egg per plant. When caterpillars emerge, they feast on the milky weed, its sap laden with a chemical that renders the caterpillars toxic to its predators, even after they morph.
Through spring and summer the orange-and-black insects behave just like their less-majestic counterparts. But as the leaves begin to turn, everything changes. The last caterpillar, bred to survive, has climbed from its chrysalis, dried its wings in the sun and fluttered off to find the place where its great-great-great-grandmother wintered.
And so it is that the milkweed can finally fade, having served its purpose, as well. Its leaves shrivel against October's chill. Its pods, browned and burgeoning with fluff, provide a home for lady bugs and their tiny speckled larvae, which crawl like microscopic alligators along the thin bark of the craggy, skeletal weed.
And then it happens, one by one the pods explode, their puffball seedlings strewn in clusters, some clinging to the papery shell, waiting for the right motivation; others catching the first breeze that comes along, drifting until the air-borne seed is plucked from the atmosphere by tiny fingers that know a good wish-puff when they see it.
Some will be eaten by the birds; others will rot on fallow rock and stone. Those that find their way into the woods and weeds will wait for spring, to germinate and regenerate, and to beckon once again to the butterflies which will come back, because they must.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Maternal Magnetism


     We weren't ideal together in this world. When you lined us up, more often than not we repelled, my mother and me, like certain magnets, the highly-charged space between us impossible to bridge. Only later in her life did my mother loosen her grip on my free-spirited world enough to see me in the context of who I'd become.
     Whatever rebellions I'd led against her in my youth, whatever assaults on her maternal authority, were forgotten by her in those last years.
     In the end I was a perfect daughter, she would say. And I gratefully accepted the gift of her selective memory, relaxing my own notion of her judgemental world, once and for all.
     She was a lefty. Her handwriting sloped downwards and her penmanship was decipherable, at best. When the dog chewed up the Valentine she'd sent that year, I didn't know it would be the last. But something in me gathered up the tooth-punched pieces for safe keeping. Once in a while on a slow morning I'd pull the scraps from the plastic bag and strain to read the looping script. Her message was hopelessly lost to me, but it was always just enough to bring me to tears, the thought that my mother's hands would never again write me a love note, Valentine's Day or not.
     Anna Mary Allen was born on July 3, 1918, the daughter of Victorian parents, eldest of two. She was not like the other girls -- she moved far from home for an Ivy League education at University of Pennsylvania, mastering psychology and social work. As an aside, her brilliance led her to fluency in French and German, mainly because it enhanced her love of classical music. She knew Mozart's works by heart, and recited their Köchel chronology by ear. "Accchhh," Mom would say, uttering the sound of appreciation beyond words in any language. "That's Mozart's piano sonata K330 in C Major. First movement," as a flurry of notes spilled from the hi-fi, always tuned to WFLN, Philly's classical music station.
     Her compulsions were expansive, beyond vinyl recordings of every great composer known to man loosely arranged and overflowing into a compulsive collection of storage cabinets. She also chain-smoked into the early 1970s, and collected small colored-glass vases, for rose buds, and bone china teacups, for afternoon tea. She subscribed to so many monthly magazines that the stacks were piled two-publications wide by 2-feet deep for all the 19 years we lived together. She read promiscuously and voraciously -- D.H.Lawrence to Billy Graham.  She later discovered she could listen to religious cassette tapes while she read, sponging up every kernel of knowledge available. 

     For all the flaws I've ever ascribed to my mother, I don't know if I ever fully understood or appreciated just how boundless her capacity for knowledge was, even now.
     I was more preoccupied with the idiosyncrasies of her intelligence and how she relied on regimentation to survive, just as she came to be tethered to an oxygen tank in the end. She had a specific way of watering her African violets, of hanging laundry to dry in the bathroom, of leaving herself copious, cryptic notes detailing everything from grocery items to affirmations from Jesus. She dusted around objects and vacuumed a solitary path through the living room. She drove to the supermarket, daily, in her old '55 Chevy to answer God's calling to find those in need of prayer, who would turn up in the cereal aisle, finding what they really needed -- a dose of my mother's spirit-filled, prayer-inspired social services.
     When my mother gave up the writings of Edgar Cayce for the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I was relieved. At 14, my mother was so distracted by her new-found gifts of the spirit that I could finally breath the sweet air of freedom that had eluded me, under my mother's controlled atmosphere.
     So if I spun a little out of control, maybe it was because my maternal string had been so tightly wound. 

     I hate to think I had screwed things up for myself.
     Still, when I had to tell my mother that, at 16, I was going to make her a grandmother, I did not expect her inner social worker to wrap me up in a protective blanket of understanding, but she did.
     Looking back now, it was the best gift I could have given her at 58 -- I had apparently done enough to single-handedly wear down her sharp edges so that, when my first born arrived, my daughter could be received, completely and unconditionally, by her grandmother's open arms.
     And that is when the secret of motherhood magnetism began to reveal itself to me. It is an organic, unflinching force beyond our ability to control it, obvious to me as I saw my mother latch onto her granddaughter with the subatomic urgency that had escaped us. I began to realize that it wasn't her, or me. Our mutual complexities interfered with the natural pull I thought she lacked. But reflecting on it all, here and now, I know my direction in life was set by the precarious pivot on which we intersected. 

     Like a compass needle, her magnetism pointed me exactly in the direction I needed to go, whether we ever really knew it or not. Just as the invisible moon pulls at the ocean, even through a sky of clouds, my mother continues to move me. She did not fail me. I did not fail her. We were the best we could be together, and in that way, we are ideal; the space between us no longer impossible to bridge.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on the greatest gift of all -- from a daughter to her dad


(Originally published September 11, 1994)           

It's never to late to be thinking about Father's Day.

It's one of those Hallmark holidays that leaves a grown woman feeling pretty small. After all, what do you give a man who has more tacky ties (thanks to his kids) than Dolly Parton has colorless wigs?

Each holiday my sister and I look at each other with that "Got any bright ideas this year?" look, and then we resort to the usual tried but true alternatives to genius -- a box of Walnut pipe tobacco, or some peanut chews.

The notion that there's anything a kid could ever give a parent to even the score is unrealistic.The years of sacrifice and heartache that go into parenting are priceless -- not as in precious and adorable; as in costly, beyond measure.

Or so I thought.

I was flipping through this week's Time magazine when an article caught my eye. And I read with an unexplainable emotion the story of Chester Szuber, a retired Michigan Christmas tree farmer. In short, after 20 years of suffering with heart disease, living through three open-heart surgeries and enduring four years on on organ transplant waiting list, Szuber's new heart arrived on Aug. 18.

It wasn't technically his turn.

But a twist of fate brought his name to the top of the list. His 22-year-old daughter, Patti, had turned up in the University of Tennessee Medical Center, brain dead following a freak automobile accident during her vacation in the Smoky Mountains. Patti was a nursing student. She was the youngest of Chester's six children. She was a loving daughter who had probably given her dad a fair share of tacky ties and novelty gifts over the years. And she was a card-carrying organ donor.

I don't know about you, but I've never seen my pancreas. I'm not even sure if I could pick it out of a line-up on America's Most Wanted Internal Organs. I know that my kidneys look something like the beans in chili, and that my heart looks nothing like the shape of the Valentines I send every Feb. 14.

But unlike other human guts, the heart is symbolic. It is more sentimental to us than any other part of our anatomy. We regard it as much more than a squishy, pulpy mass with ventricles and arteries that get clogged from too much butter and bacon.

Our hearts rule us. They gauge our love. We are defined by our heart in degrees of feeling. Sometimes our hearts break. With any luck, they mend. And when it comes to big decisions, we either use our whole heart or half of it, in the follow through.

But these heart conditions are medically unrealistic. We know our hearts are basic biology. They pump blood through our bodies. If they stop, so do we.

I can only imagine what Chester Szuber thought about during the time it took for his daughter's heart to be transported the 600 miles from Tennessee to Michigan. What he said, according to the article, was: "It would be a joy to have Patti's heart."

The parent in me has trouble with Chester's joy. I have placed my hand over my 3-year-old Billy's chest, on demand, to feel his "heart beep." The rhythmic thump has always reminded me how fragile his life – all life – is. Little more than skin and bones seem to separate our physical life from certain death. I would sacrifice myself to preserve his tiny heart.

And yet, it is the daughter in me that was so moved by Chester Szuber's story. Death came to Patti Szuber too soon. She would never get to say good-bye. No more family Christmases in Michigan. No more well-intentioned Father's Day gifts.

But for every day Chester Szuber lives, he will rely on the steady pulsing of Patti's heart. He will never have to feel the permanent void felt by most parents at the loss of a child. The empty cavity in Szuber's chest, where the imperfect heart of a parent once beat, has been filled with the loving heart of his own child.

Chester Szuber's joy, as I try to comprehend it, is something too sentimental for science to explain. As a daughter, I've spent my whole life trying to give an adequate piece of my heart to my parents. But it never feels like enough.

And so it is for her final gift that a part of me envies Patti Szuber. More than the physical pumping of life-sustaining blood, Patti was able to give back to her father the precious gift of life he had first given her, 22 years ago.

I know in my heart, the real joy in that exchange between father and daughter belongs to Patti.

Postscript: June 19, 2011

I never spoke to Chester Szuber when I wrote the original column. It was harder 17 years ago to track someone down than it is today.

Over the years I have wondered about Mr. Szuber and his heart, so today I looked him up. It was easy. I dialed his number and got his answering machine, which included his cell phone number. So I dialed again, and Chet, as he prefers to be called, picked up on the third ring.

First, I wished him a happy Father's Day.

Then I had to ask him how he and his heart were faring all these years later.

"I feel like a million bucks. I pretty much woke up from surgery feeling great, and I have felt great every day since," he said.

I also asked him if it's true, what I've read, that sometimes a heart recipient finds that they take on some of the qualities of a donor.

"I don't know if it's from Patti's heart, but I have a lot more patience for people than I ever did, before getting her heart," he said.

He is back to Christmas tree farming, and still as grateful as ever for his daughter's ultimate gift.

"Bottom line is I'd much rather have this heart beating in Patti's chest, not mine. But she's taken good care of me over the years."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unrefined Art of Raw Food

             If you are what you eat, then eat something full of life, 
                  says raw foodie Mary-Ellen Hedrick, of Derry.
Eating in the raw: Mary-Ellen Hedrick has discovered the benefits of a raw food diet, and is ready to teach others. Here she whips up a batch of watermelon soup using fresh fruit, agave nectar
and cardamom, an aromatic spice.
By Carol Robidoux
DERRY -- It's encouraging to those in the local "raw food" trenches that First Lady Michelle Obama is talking about what Americans are putting on their dinner plates.
Last week the familiar USDA food pyramid was dismantled in an effort to adjust our bad eating habits. The push targets childhood obesity, but is meant to teach everyone some new ways of thinking about how we eat, and how what we eat affects our health.
On June 2 the First Lady introduced "My Plate," a straightforward approach to eating -- a dinner plate with four color-coded sections. Half is designated for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Mary-Ellen Hedrick, a dedicated raw foodie, would say that's about half right.
Hedrick truly believes that we are what we eat. Food that is eaten "raw," or without processing, additives or cooking beyond 112 degrees Fahrenheit, provides all the live nutrients a body needs to thrive.
Raw ingredients will become a no-cook 
marinara sauce in minutes.
"I realized sugary sweets were impacting me. I had no energy. I felt like I needed to take naps in the middle of the day," said Hedrick, who began seriously exploring the world of raw food about a year ago. "It's been a natural progression. In spite of myself, my palate has changed. And I can't argue with how I feel -- I have this mental clarity, and my energy is back."
What she's learned is that cooking food destroys enzymes which makes it harder for the body to digest. She says the process of digesting cooked food actually depletes our own enzymatic reserves, diminishing the natural energy and antioxidants in living food.
"And that depletion is what causes aging and disease," Hedrick said.
She is a middle school social studies teacher by day and now a certified raw food chef, by choice. Combining those two skill sets, Hedrick has launched a new business, Raw Kitchen, and is looking forward to spending her summer teaching others the benefits of raw food. 
During a recent cooking demonstration Hedrick whipped up a summer meal within minutes, using only fresh ingredients and a food processor, including watermelon soup, summer squash "linguine," macadamia nut and raw cashew Alfredo sauce, zucchini angel hair "pasta," and chilled marinara sauce, using tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, olive oil, dates, fresh parsley, garlic and cayenne pepper.
Raw food, as a movement, is growing, not only here, but across the globe, Hedrick said. With more attention being focused on what we eat, how our food is produced and the health risks associated with certain foods, she expects more people to explore the benefits of a raw food diet.
Which is not to say that she's a purist.
She has occasional lapses that may include pizza night or meat off the grill, especially when eating away from home. But Hedrick admits one deterrent has been the resulting "food hangovers," which leave her feeling sluggish and cloudy. She considers her current diet about 80 percent raw.
Zucchini angel hair "pasta" with marinara sauce.
"When you think about how much Americans rely on Fryolators and food that comes in boxes, you can really understand why eating raw can make you feel so much better," said Hedrick. "Sometimes I think about what was considered 'normal' eating when I was a kid -- a bologna sandwich on two pieces of Wonderbread covered in mayonnaise, and a glass of soda -- the thought of feeding that to my daughter, given how much more we know now about good nutrition, isn't an option," Hedrick said.
Despite its expanded raw food factor, reaction from hardcore food experts to the new USDA dinner plate quadrants have been mixed.
Vegan proponent Dr. Neal Barnard, who is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, remarked that with all due respect, isolating a quarter of the plate for protein is not necessary, since many whole grains and vegetables have sufficient amounts of protein.
Hedrick agrees.
She has found that raw nuts are no more expensive than meat, and way more versatile. She has learned to sprout wheat berries and lentils, which she uses to create a slew of recipes high in protein and enzymes.
When it comes to food prep, she relies heavily on her food processor, spiral slicer, and dehydrator. Her microwave is obsolete. Her oven, mostly in the way.
The greatest health benefit has been boundless energy,
said Mary-Ellen Hedrick, a raw food enthusiast.
"My next step toward 100 percent raw will be changing over from coffee to this," said Hedrick, reading off the ingredients from a bag of organic coffee substitute that included carob, barley, chicory, dates, almonds and figs.
"For me, the journey began because I have such a sweet tooth. I couldn't resist sugary desserts. But then I learned that there really are so many dessert options that are free of caloric impact, using nuts and fruits and agave nectar. From there, I just started to expand my raw food list," Hedrick said.
Her urge to change her eating habits coincided with the awareness that what she ate was affecting how she felt, for better or worse.
"Even before raw food, I was already becoming more aware of things like consumption of animals and animal byproducts. I was trying to opt for free range chicken and eggs, striving to be more considerate of the animals and buy those raised sustainably, rather than in cages," Hedrick said.
"At first, people who change over to a raw diet actually experience degrees of detox -- anything from rashes to nausea -- our bodies have accumulated so much stuff in the way of additives and chemicals. Once you get over that, you feel the difference, every day. Even starting off slow and eating raw for one or two meals, you feel a difference," Hedrick said.
"After that, your body tells you what it wants you to eat -- whether it's going to be a fruit kind of day, or maybe you are craving a handful of nuts. You let that drive you, and really start listening to your body, and there's no doubt you'll naturally start to change your eating habits," Hedrick said.
For more information or to schedule a cooking lesson contact Hedrick: or  603-732-2425.