I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.


Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.


The Bradford Store

For ten years I have lived my idea of a fairy tale existence. It ignored the obvious— the world spinning by at 60 miles an hour, and focused instead on life turned inward on our family farm. The Farm is a term that can refer to my old homestead, or to the working farm and home that belongs to my brother and sister-in-law, Grier and Kim, or to the historic totality.

Our little compound is bisected by a busy highway that was a dirt road before the Depression. As most of the farmland around us has been ceded to other uses, The Farm has become, every year, a greater anomaly. I loved, always, that we ignored the obvious.

Ten years ago, Kim and Grier had the Bradford Store moved off its original foundation, back onto higher ground in the middle of a field and turned their hobby of growing massive vegetable gardens into a business.

The old counters were freshly painted, the ancient floor cleaned and polished, the wood stove put back into commission and the Bradford Store started the business of dispensing love and good food, in that order.

Some businesses really do run on love. It could be a hot dog stand or a repair shop or, in this case, a local foods store, with the common thread that all decisions flow through a filter of love. The driving force is not profit—instead everything every day is done in the name of love of one’s fellow man. And that’s how it was with the Bradford Store.

My witty former husband coined a southern phrase we all use with regularity about all enterprises— “can’t nuthin be easy”. It’s not a question. It’s a statement. Even if it looks as easy as falling off a log, it will not be. And the Bradford Store, standing tall in a vast garden of flowers, pouring love into every transaction, selling the very best food the earth has to offer was, behind the scenes, a tough job. Kim worked six days a week for ten years, and often checked in on the seventh day. Every year nature provided a new pestilence to make harvesting crops difficult to impossible. It could be hail, a late frost, or a deadening drought that lasted the whole summer. They endured them all.

Meanwhile I was one of the many beneficiaries. Kim and Grier’s love and hard work showed up on my table day after day. I could step across the road and find food that had been growing 15 minutes earlier, take it home and shock myself with the intensity of my own dinner. Kim, the brilliant cook and food curator, taught me more about food in ten years than I had learned in the previous fifty. The milk she drove four hours a week to bring to the store literally had the flavor of sweet pasture grass. The eggs came in a dozen colors and have spoiled me for anything less.

Kelly, Kim’s right hand, brought in fresh made breads daily from her farm. The corn meal came from a historic grist mill. And when combined—these ingredients from other businesses that were also run on love— the result was food nirvana.

Kim surrounded the store with acres of flowers, the soil so rich some grew as tall as me. My mama, in the early years, living at The Pines retirement community, would come out, sit on the store’s front porch and create unique fresh flower arrangements, sold in Mason jars. She loved working with flowers, and the store and Kim and Grier, were her lifeline to the larger community, to family, to companionship. My son Stewart had the privilege of working at the store as a teenager and came away with many important life lessons in horticulture, customer service, salesmanship and hard work as did many other local teenagers.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather operated the Bradford Store. It ran on love when he was alive too. It served as a kind of community center for neighboring farmers.

The store was home to one of the few telephones in the community. A family friend told us how she would come to the store to talk to her fiancé who was off serving in WWII. Papa had a roll top desk full of receipts and ledgers listing items sold on credit. He also had a “pet” blacksnake that lived under the store to keep it pest-free. When holes in the old floors appeared he would patch them with a piece of advertising tin.

On the front of the building my dad, as a boy, painted the words “Free Air” beside the pump for filling tires. When I was young that always cracked me up, because, back then, air was always free. The ground outside the store was literally paved with multicolored bottle caps from sodas, and a life-size cardboard Santa drinking a Coke was the primary Christmas decoration. There was a bench out front where Papa would sit at day’s end, the sun setting behind the store.  And on one afternoon, back in the 30’s, my great-grandfather Will, the store’s founder, died peacefully inside its walls while reading Zane Grey.

Kim and Grier, from love, knowledge, courage, imagination and boundless enthusiasm, have built something that will always live in memory for hundreds if not thousands of people. I think of all the little children I have seen come in the store, or sit on the porch with an ice cream, and wonder if their memories will be as sweet as mine are— if 50 years from now they’ll talk about what it was like.

Seeing this era come to a close makes me so glad for my tired family who have given so much to so many. And glad for the thousand images in my head of bounty and beauty, kindness and community that came from running on love.



Miss Janie’s Green Tomato Pickles


green tomato pickles

I found the yellowed half envelope in Mama’s green cloth-covered recipe book . Mama hated to cook, so I presumed the book was nothing of importance to her. When she died, I took the book home with me— it had outlived both my parents and was one of the few things that remained unchanged from childhood.

For four years it sat on the bookshelf in my house with the other cookbooks. Then, one day I took it down to study. I discovered that it was, in fact, both a treasure and a time capsule.

They say men marry women who remind them of their mothers. Perhaps they do— all men except my dad. My father’s mother, “Miss Janie” as Mama called her, was the consummate great cook. Actually, I would call her a chef. She died in the late 60’s and yet, whenever we gather, the topic of her cooking always comes up. Anyone who ever sat at her table has never forgotten it.

Mama Janie

Some of my earliest memories are of the tastes, textures and look of the things that came from her kitchen. She was a brilliant woman and a perfectionist. And she had an appreciation for beauty and order that was apparent in every aspect of her life, from the handmade starched organdy curtains in the windows to the white gloves on her hands when she drove her blue and white ’57 Chevy.

Nothing went to waste. A pan of used dishwater became food for the houseplants, the soapiness a deterrent to insects. The exquisite scraps from every meal, every homegrown tomato peeling, every crumb of leftover homemade biscuit or cornbread, became food for the fat pig.

Everything was flawless and serene. When you climbed into bed at night, scrubbed down to new skin, the sheets were sweet with the fresh air they’d dried in, and ironed to perfect smoothness. To be in her home was to be perpetually aware of the righteousness of the simple things in life.

Janie Staton's Class092

A graduate of East Carolina she came to Huntersville from her home in the eastern part of North Carolina by train to take her first job as a school teacher. She met my very handsome grandpa, and married him in the parlor of the Teacherage, as they called the house the teachers all lived in, because the journey back home was too daunting to marry there.

Mama Janie and Papa

Early childhood educators make great mamas. And grandmamas. Mama Janie knew how to stimulate us, how to spark our imaginations and enchant us. Most of the memories I have of my early childhood are memories of being in her house.

Somehow, when Janie Bradford died, there were no recipes left behind. Only my Aunt Carol, also a wonderful cook, had one: Devil’s Food Cake. All her life Aunt Carol kept that recipe a secret, refusing to give it to anyone. When she finally shared it with me I knew it was a passing of the baton. I made it, with all its many complicated steps, and watched it vanish immediately.

Upon opening Mama’s green cloth cookbook I discovered that it had been a wedding present from Great Aunt Mary and it contained recipes from most all seven of my great aunts, and Mama, the dutiful 21 year old bride, had acted as scribe to Miss Janie and had recorded three recipes of hers. I immediately shared the recipes with Mama Janie’s descendants, and my brother and I launched into preparing her green tomato pickles… without doubt the weirdest pickle recipe I have ever seen.

Among its FIFTEEN ingredients are flour, and eight sour pickles. So you have to put pickles in these pickles. It took three trips to the grocery… one to the Bradford Store, to get the fresh ingredients, taken from the same soil Janie’s would have come from. Then to a second store for jar lids, salt and sour pickles, then to a third store that has wonderful fresh herbs and spices because Mama Janie specified that white mustard seeds were preferred. I was not able to find, in any of the stores, white mustard seeds so I winged it with yellow and black ones. Then, of course, I forgot a few things and had to make a night raid on the garden to bump up the red pepper count.

It took three days. One day you chop. And chop. And chop. The second you sterilize and pack jars and can. The third you finish up all the loose ends if you are me. And clean all that gear. But after hours on my feet it occurred to me that 60 years ago in this very kitchen, Janie would have been busy making these pickles. I think it would please her, as it does me, to think that we carry on, with huge love and respect for the talents and hard work of our amazing predecessors. We still treasure what they treasured. And if we are very lucky, we eat as well as they did.