Easter Offerings

Easter preparations proceed at full tilt, the patio cleaned and set for 16 diners, flowers arranged, ham ready for the oven, cheeses grated for the shrimp and crab casserole, eggs decorated, eggs deviled in three ways. Scalloped pineapple emerges fragrant and crusty from the oven (an old-fashioned/new recipe from my friend Wilma who wowed us with it at the Tax-Aide Volunteer luncheon) as the perfect ham accompaniment, and so many other dishes and goodies coming from friends and neighbors.

So, contemplating leftovers and in need of bread for luncheon tomorrow, I resurrected an old recipe which I have not made since we sold The Purcellville Inn in 1986: Cottage Cheese Dill Bread. Listening to classic rock and roll and working at my baking station on the big kitchen island, I measured and stirred, proofed and patted, a second rise of the soft dough, and the result was two beautifully browned Pullman loaves, slathered with Irish butter and coarse salt. My husband-of-almost-thirty-years’ comment? “You’ve been holding out on me again, sweetheart!”

He’s right. Always good to go back and visit the oldies-but-goodies. Happy Easter. The bread has arisen.

cottage dill bread

Knives and Guns and Wagging Tongues

red station wagon

Family Road Trip 1955


(This post was originally published on the Gloria Sirens blog in June of 2014.)

I only ever imagined the whispers behind shielding hands: “Did you hear about her mom?” “Did you see the ambulance at the house yesterday afternoon?” “I heard she was crying again in Anthropology class today!” I did not grow up subject to pointing fingers or the snickers of my peers. The neighbors never failed to bring us dinner when my mother was hospitalized nor was she ostracized from her various social organizations after a stint in the state mental ward. The community always welcomed my mother back, offered the next employment opportunity, praised her charm, her grace, her lovely home, and her well-groomed, well-behaved children.


Or at least, that is how I remember the events surrounding my mother’s lifelong mental illness. Perhaps, people did recoil from us socially, or avoided speaking with her on the street, or did not include me in their children’s’ sleepovers because they had heard about Wynelle, and her troubles.  I will never know. Perhaps we lived in a kinder, gentler world in those days when Congress debated the Civil Rights Act, and the neighborhood crafted and hung a street-wide banner celebrating Mr. Mullikan’s bravery when his fire truck arrived first to a recent fire, and good manners prevented us from spitting out the tough and gamey mutton stew served every spring at the community fundraiser, its green-tinged sauce gluey with mint jelly.

Rosensteel house  softened vignette

I do know that despite my memories of understanding neighbors and friends, we did not openly discuss my mother’s illness. It remained “that thing which will be unnamed” until I was seventeen years old and the only child left in the house. I confronted my father and demanded that he explain why Mom’s sickness, her frequent absence, the many times we observed strange white-coated men strapping her into a straitjacket or onto an ambulance gurney—why this was allowed to exist and what in God’s name made her this way? After twenty years of putting out the fire, my father was no closer to knowing the reason for the embers of her disease than I was. Each episode and method of treatment, from barbaric hydro-therapy and electric shock sessions to increasingly complex pill cocktails, only entrenched her more deeply in illness, the proverbial cure harsher than the disease.


Yes, she heard voices at times. Yes, she ran naked out onto the balcony of her home and tossed flower pots into the street and yard below. Yes, she gave generous gifts and keepsakes to new and old friends and friends of friends, only to ask for the gifts back afterwards, when she was feeling more rational. Somehow my father kept us out of debt after her manic spending sprees. She called us down to scrambled egg breakfasts at 2 am. But never did she wield a weapon or threaten us or anyone else.  Or so I thought until my oldest sister told me recently of a scene at the Sunday dinner table when Mom rose from her chair, snatched the carving knife and held it aloft. My sister seized our hands and flew with us upstairs, locking the bedroom door and soothing us with 45 rpm records and fashion magazines.  I don’t have any recollection of this episode, none at all. My father never spoke of what transpired afterwards.

Over the years I held onto scraps of joy. I took pride in my mother’s ability to return to us. I praised her strength, marveled at her ability to head out into the world after a set-back. I planted kisses on her temples, each side implanted with a crescent-shaped scar where the shock-therapy headset pressed against her flesh. And I give prayers of thanks daily for being blessed with a husband who agreed jointly to take on her care in her later years, years during which she attended our children’s recitals and sports events and school assemblies, until hydrocephalus, water on the brain, stole her speech. Mom’s body folded in on itself and her once nimble dancing limbs failed to support her to walk. I will never know if she knew her surroundings in the last few months or if the psychosis of her disease held her captive. I don’t know if she ever heard me say, “Goodbye, Mom. We love you.”

As I listen to the commentary and interviews in broadcast media and read op-ed pieces about the recent stabbings and shootings, I struggle to accept the truth: there but for some sort of grace goes my family. We could have been chasing after my mother on a paranoid spree of violence. We could any day be the victims of someone else’s unstable loved one. So could you. How do we face such a threat? How do we diffuse the ill, who are so often victims themselves? Comfort1One of the largest struggles my family faced was one of accountability, as do our legislatures and fellow citizens, wrestling and debating gun control and policies and funding addressing mental health, or mental illness.

I suggest a starting point: don’t point fingers. Not at each other or organized health care or legislative bodies, and especially not at the displaced, disenfranchised, dysfunctional souls that populate our planet.  And there will be no whispers behind shielding fingers. Be vocal about your discomfort if discomfort is what you feel. Mental illness takes hostage both victim and observer. And take action. Read about mental illness. If you are a researcher or medical specialist or a survivor—write about mental illness so we can hear your story, gain from your knowledge.  Talk about mental illness—to your spouse, your parents, your kids. Much can be said for the hereditary factors involving mental illness. Know your family history. Maybe eccentric Aunt Flavia was bipolar. Maybe Grandpa drank to quiet the voices in his head.

And for heaven’s sake, be kind. In all my experiences with my mother and the many other victims of mental illness I have encountered–on the street, in doctor’s offices, in mental wards–small acts of kindness speak a universal language of comfort. Our family prayer is “Be ye kind, one to another. Amen.” And no, we did not get this from Ellen DeGeneres, but I applaud that she speaks a similar phrase at the end of her daily talk show, omitting the Amen, of course. Whether you pray or just send good “intentions” out into the world, please engage yourself in an effort to understand and treat mental illness. Our collective mental health depends on it.

A Peaceful Path

Living with mental illness: tilting at windmills


On Irishing

We gathered our Irish spirits in the gloaming of Friday evening, dining with friends and family on Corned Beef and Cabbage, finishing up our meal with Barmbrack fruitcake and pecan whiskey hard sauce. Not until Saturday did we think to dive into Spotify for tunes and dirges, a cacophony of fiddles and flutes, rogues with whiskey rough voices shouting drinking songs, and tenors crooning ballads.

Treasured neighbors joined us for Guinness stew on Saturday evening, sitting around afterward over oat-crusted apple crisp, sipping Sexton single malt (or wine or water), tapping our toes, telling our stories. Whether true or not, surely, we all have a little Irish in us.

Potato pancakes and smoked salmon with dill cremaSunday morning, inspiration struck and brunch topped the fare of the weekend: soft scrambled eggs flecked with green, black bread toast, smoked salmon with watercress and dilled crème, mashed potato pancakes—a meal to inspire memories. I dug into my writing and research archives, finding the census reports documenting my grandparents, next rooting through old photo albums, scanning the treasures I found.

In 1900, my paternal grandparents were born, one generation removed from the Irish potato famine, bred of hardworking peasant stock from County Cork. If Grandpa White had been born in Ireland, would he have migrated north, finding work among the shipwrights of Belfast who built the Titanic, instead of becoming a pipe-fitter and welder for the Tennessee Valley Authority?

The 1920 U.S. census listed my grandmother, Lottie Dale Barney Fagey, as a “housemaid” in the home of a widow who inherited and ran her late husband’s mercantile business with her two adult sons. The husband most likely died in The Great War. Lottie Dale cooked, cleaned, and looked after Widow Tompkins’s 9-year old daughter, Margaret.

Not two years later, on my father’s birth, young Lottie became known as Dale White. One picture survives from her courtship with my grandfather, Cletis Goldie White. Dale wears a smocked apron overdress and a haircap, standing with her hands clasped in front. Cletis grips a tree branch, hanging playful and teasing, kicking his feet, his Paddy cap tilted rakishly.


My father’s family lived in southern Illinois and the western part of Indiana, traveling from outlying towns and small cities to Indianapolis, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky, following railroad maintenance work, building roads and bridges, and toiling in mines and small oil fields. Mamaw and Papaw White (as we called Cletis and Dale), found some constancy after Great-grandad White retired. The railroad granted him a life-lease on a sharecropper’s farm, a scrap of land near the railroad lines Great-grandad walked and inspected with his lantern (the original occupation of those known as “linemen”). In between work projects, my grandparents parked their trailer on the land, sharing water from the well, jerry-rigging electricity from the single pole at the corner of their dirt road and the paved two-lane county road leading into Allendale, Illinois.

I never knew them in the years they struggled to raise a family during the depression, or how they felt sending their first son, my father, off to war at age 18, or both sons off to the Korean War. My memories are of sitting on the porch of my great-grandparents’ house, shelling beans and peas, shucking corn, sitting on top of the hand-crank ice cream maker to provide traction when the churning became difficult, our mouths watering at the smell of a freshly-plucked chicken frying in lard. We were charmed, thinking that outhouses, pot-bellied stoves for heating and cooking, and water hand-pumped into the kitchen all marvelous adventures in the 1960s. We scrubbed our clothes on a washboard, hanging them to dry in the backyard, and competed with each other for the right to wash my grandmother’s glorious head of shiny white hair. She would park her walker next to the well, and we rinsed her hair with water drawn in a galvanized bucket.

Washing Mamaws hair

My grandparents moved to a series of trailer parks after Great-grandad died and they lost the lease on the farm, relocating to Indianapolis to live with my aunt after Mamaw broke her hip for a second time. My final memories of them are of illness, and flares of Irish temper always ending in laughter. Mamaw called Papaw a rascal.  He called her “old woman.” They died just a year apart. They loved for a lifetime.

MaMaw                        PaPawWheelchair hugs