Monday, March 28, 2011

A sweet addiction

Black mulberries go through several color transformations before they are completely ripe and ready to eat.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 27, 2011)

I'm having a hard time controlling myself. Mulberries are ripe, and I can't stop eating them.

This year's crop is the biggest ever, and for some reason the birds — cedar waxwings, in particular — have not arrived to eat them. That leaves more berries for me to devour, and devour them I have. I can't seem to keep my mulberry consumption under control.

Pick a bowlful. Eat a bowlful. That has been my pattern. A couple of hours later, I'm at it again. By the end of the day, I'm wishing I had exercised some restraint.

"I don't feel so good," I told my husband the other night. "I think I may have overdone it a bit with the mulberries."

"You think?" he responded rhetorically, while directing his gaze toward my purple-stained fingers. "How many did you have today?"

"More than I'd like to admit," I admitted. "You know how I am with berries. I have no self-control."

Confession time: I am a berry addict. Put me in front of ripe fruit and you'll have a hard time prying my greedy little fingers away. That's especially true when the fruit is growing not on shrubby bushes or prickly vines but on huge trees.

My friend Pat recently moved to Florida from New York. He had never seen a mulberry tree, so I invited him to see and sample ours.

"Isn't it a bush, like in the nursery rhyme?" he asked.

"Not even close," I said, as we approached a grove of mulberry trees laden with ripening fruit.

Despite what "Pop Goes The Weasel" suggests ("Round and round the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel"), the mulberry is not a small plant. It's a large, deciduous tree. Several of ours are more than 30 feet tall and equally as broad.

The fruit develops on new growth and hangs from bendable limbs accessible by both adults and children. There are no thorns to contend with on this powerhouse of productivity, and it is one of the first plants to bear edible goodies in spring.

On our property, we grow three kinds of mulberries — white flesh fruit, black flesh fruit and red mulberries. The latter are native to America, but both white and black mulberries originated in China and were imported to this country in the 1700s.

Silkworms feed exclusively on the leaves of white mulberries. In Asia, the trees are an integral part of the silk-making industry. In the United States, the primary use of mulberry trees is to provide shade and attract wildlife.

Dozens of birds feed on the early season fruit. People — especially children — also find the abundant berries a welcome addition to their pre-summer diet. Unfortunately, the sticky purple morsels aren't as popular with parents, who have to clean up messes made by stained hands and juice-splattered feet. The mulberry's messiness has caused many a tree to meet an untimely demise.

On our property, we don't mind the mess. Sure, throughout the growing season, our fingernails are purple, and we have to remember to remove shoes before entering the house. But that's a small price to pay for such an easy source of tasty treats. We especially prize white mulberries because they provide all the goodness of the dark-skinned fruit without nearly as much mess.

My only problem with mulberries is my lack of self-control. How much goodness is too much? Is it possible for something to be too sweet? I'll get back to you on that. Right now, a mulberry tree outside is calling my name. I have berries to pick.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Getting wet is all in a day's work for the crew of All-Water Services

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 20, 2011)

One of the things I cherish about living in the country is our pure, sweet well water.

The well we drink from is 80 feet deep. The well driller who installed it 20 years ago said he tapped into an underground river. In digging, he unearthed fossilized shells and shark teeth that I keep on a shelf in my office. Every time I look at them, I'm filled with awe for not only the remarkable history they contain but also the deep, reliable source of drinking water they represent.

We are dependent on our water, so I knew we were in trouble one recent night when I turned on the bathroom spigot while getting ready for bed to find a mere trickle of water.

"The pump's out," I called to Ralph, who had already gotten under the covers.

It was 11 p.m. and pouring outside, but he reluctantly got up. We rounded up the needed equipment — umbrella, flashlight and hammer — donned some warm clothes and headed up the hill to see if we could fix the problem.

Anyone who depends on a well for household water and irrigation learns to identify and (hopefully) fix some common well and pump problems.

A few taps with a hammer on the pressure switch will occasionally bring a stalled motor back to life. Ants that get into a pressure switch can short it out. Remove the ants and, if you're lucky, the problem goes away. Pressing the reset button on the control box will sometimes save an expensive visit by repairmen.

The other night we tried all the above, to no avail. The pump wouldn't start no matter what we did. The remaining option was to install a new control box, a fix that had helped in similar situations before. If that didn't work, we'd have to call in the well driller.

We went back to bed and slept restlessly, thinking of ways to avoid the expense of a new pump.

Early the next morning, we hit the Internet and phones. We located a control box and our helper, James, drove into town to get it, then came back to replace the old one with the new. When he was done, we had thrown $250 into a hole that still didn't pump water.

By then it was midmorning, and the inconvenience of living without running water was beginning to show. In the kitchen, dishes covered with the sticky remains of oatmeal and blueberry pie filled the sink. We were using buckets of lake water to flush toilets and brushing our teeth with the stale supply from our emergency stash — bottles we'd put aside months ago.

Ralph dialed well drillers to see who was available on short notice. Several calls later, he contacted the crew at All-Water Services Inc. in Groveland. Derrick Brigmond, the youngest member of the family-owned business, said he could come by in the afternoon.

Around 1 p.m., the workers arrived. By then my kitchen looked like a disaster area. With my youngest son home for spring break and my daughter and grandson expected for dinner, I could feel my mood sinking into a hole about as deep as the well that wouldn't work.

About two hours and $2,850 later, a new pump and motor were in place.

"The motor was fried," said Darren Brigmond, as he and his son packed their equipment. "It could have been hit by lightning or it could just have been age. It's hard to tell."

It is hard to tell when the problem you're dealing with is 80 feet underground in a secret river. Fortunately for us, that river is still flowing with enough pressure to supply us and our plants with the high-quality water we've come to treasure.

Good, clean water is one of life's most basic needs. It is so essential that we take it for granted until something happens and the water is gone. The next morning, when I turned on the tap to brush my teeth, I did so with renewed appreciation for one of life's most precious commodities.

An old adage says, "If you spend money like water, you'll always be broke." But as I recently learned, if your well is broken, spending money may be the only way to make sweet water flow.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Three blooms...three memories

Purple wisteria

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 13, 2011)
I've done a bit of traveling lately, but I haven't left home. The fragrance of newly bloomed plants has taken me back in time and across the miles to remind me of places and people I love. 

Sweet alyssum was the first flower to trigger a memory.

I was visiting my daughter at her Winter Garden home, where she has planted her first entirely-on-her-own garden. I hadn't been to Amber's house for several weeks, and although I'd heard about all the vegetables and flowers she was growing, I'd yet to take a tour.

We were chatting as I stepped outside, but a strong whiff of a familiar scent stopped me midsentence.

"Is that alyssum?" I asked, looking around. Just outside the door, a cluster of fragrant white blooms hugged the ground. "It is alyssum! It smells just like Grandma's yard in Seattle."

Suddenly, instead of standing in Amber's backyard, I was 3,000 miles away. I was in front of my mother-in-law's home on N.E. 147th Street, where blankets of white and purple alyssum poked through the concrete next to the garage. Whenever we visited, the sweet aroma of alyssum flowers was there to greet us.

I have always loved that smell and the memories it triggered. Grandma Boas died last year, and the next-door neighbors bought her house. Our days of sitting in Grandma's flower-bedecked living room overlooking Lake Washington are gone, but as long as I can smell alyssum, I can be there in my mind.

When I returned home from visiting Amber, I ordered a packet of "honey-scented alyssum" seeds called "Summer Romance" from Renee's Garden.

My second journey began in my own backyard.

I was taking out the trash on the last day of February when I noticed a rush of color against the clay wall. I put the bags in the trash can and went over to where a stand of mature wisteria vines covers a section of carved-out hill. The day before the vines were bare, but overnight it had rained. The wisteria responded by producing masses of purple and white blossoms. I lifted a pendulous cluster of blooms to my nose.

One whiff and I was back on Cape Cod.

On Cape Cod, wisteria signaled the end of winter. After several months of cold, gray, wet and snowy weather, it was a sign we were eager to receive. In April, vines that ambled over stone walls and climbed sagging trellises burst into bloom. The air was heavy with their aroma. I'd go outside with clippers and return home with a basket full of blooms. Vases of wisteria brought springtime indoors.

It has been years since I lived on the Cape, but one sniff was all it took to transport me to back in time. I was a young mother in our hand-built house in the woods. The kids were little. They were busily drawing pictures on a long roll of brown paper spread across the pine floor. I stood in the kitchen listening to their chatter as I cleaned up after the midday meal. On the windowsill behind the sink sat a huge bouquet of wisteria flowers. With each dish I scrubbed, I inhaled the sweet promise: "Winter is over! Spring is here!"

My third olfactory journey was closer to home. In fact, it was right here at home. Ralph and I were on our way to the junk pile in search of some paving stones to use in the garden when I smelled perfume in the air. Our junk pile is a few steps beyond a grove of citrus trees. We have only a few trees, but even one orange tree blooming will fill the air with an intense perfume.

The smell of orange blossoms is the aroma of home. It speaks of Florida and sunshine and family time together. When I first moved to Groveland, groves of citrus trees still covered the hills. There are far fewer now than there were in the 1980s, but the trees that remain still stop me in my tracks. Their heady fragrance proves the past is not over — at least not completely.

As long as scent can trigger emotions, a bit of yesterday will always be here. People who say time travel is impossible must never have taken a flight of fancy. That's too bad, because it can be quite a trip.

Monday, March 7, 2011

I'm hiding...come find me!

Small phone + large stack of papers = a frustrating search

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 6, 2011)

"Have you seen the phone?"

I ask that question several times a day. So does my husband.

It's usually followed by one of us saying, with (I'm embarrassed to admit) more than a hint of self-righteousness: "Where'd you leave it?"

The second question is followed by a frantic search that escalates in proportion to a series of accompanying queries. On the surface, the questions seem helpful. In reality, they're anything but.

"Where'd you have it last?" "Did you leave it in the car?" "How about your pocket?" "Did you check your purse?"

The answers are (in order):
  • "If I knew where I had it last, I wouldn't be traipsing around the house picking up pillows and looking under papers muttering expletives."
  • "No."
  • "I already checked."
  • "It's not in my purse, and why do you always think it's in my purse, anyway? How about in your shorts? Maybe you had it last, not me."

After a while, one of us lights upon the brilliant idea of calling the missing phone from our land line. Of course, we could have done that initially had we thought of it, but we didn't.

We weren't thinking. That's the problem.

So, we make the call and somewhere in the distance a familiar tune beckons.

"It's in the bedroom!" or "It's coming from the porch!" or "It's right here on my desk! Yeesh! I looked there twice! How could I have missed it?"

Pick any of the above. At one time or another, we've found the phone in each of those places.

The object of our attention is a simple (translation: outdated) clamshell design. We could text with it and take pictures if we wanted to, but we don't. We bought the phone for one reason: to talk. Of course, to do that, the phone must be present, and as far as I can tell, it doesn't come with a feature that lets aging boomers locate the device when they forgot where they left it.

Marriages thrive on a diet of mutual respect, appreciation and tolerance. I love my mate and enjoy his company, but when we're searching for a misplaced cell phone, he drives me crazy.

That's probably because his mannerisms mirror my own. We're both frequently preoccupied and shamefully forgetful, and our forgetfulness is vexing. No one wants to be that person — the one who is constantly wondering aloud where she left this or put that.

Yet here we are. We have become our parents. We've entered the "muttering" phase of life, when things refuse to stay put and some yet-to-be-discovered force causes small objects such as cell phones, keys and important notes to vanish inexplicably.

Until the phone rings and the wayward object is located.

Promises ensue.

"I will try harder," I vow, "not to leave the phone in the car, on my desk, on the porch or (all right, I admit it) in my purse."

I promise to try harder to focus on what I'm doing. I will pay more attention. My husband promises, too. Time passes. If we're lucky, we make it through an hour. Then it happens again.

"Have you seen the phone?" I ask as I wander through the house.