Tag Archives: Featherville

Hummingbird Juice

Photo courtesy of Rory Hartley.

Photo courtesy of Rory Hartley.

In 1969, my grandfather built a log cabin in Featherville, a small town in central Idaho.  The cabin overlooks the south fork of the Boise River and its porch is, in my opinion, one of the pleasantest places in which to squander entire summer afternoons.  I sit on the cabin’s dusty wooden porch and try to read, though I am often distracted by the swooped flight of the osprey that’s built its nest on the opposite river bank or the low hum of a hummingbird hovering just over my head, suckling from a freshly filled feeder.

Each year, I look forward to hanging the feeder.  The hummingbirds arrive minutes after I’ve hung it, usually in rotating quantities of four or five: copper and shimmering; pale, silken beige; emerald and ruby-throated. I admire their slender necks, their Lilliputian black feet.  They chatter on high pine branches, dive-bombing each other with their tails flared.  Evolution has granted them more personality per centimeter than any animal I can think of.  I watch them with wonder, and try to memorize the buzzing rumble of their wings to recollect on a snowy winter’s day.  They speak to me of joy.

I was particularly glad to see the hummingbirds again this summer, because last year the cabin came uncomfortably close to burning down.  Someone flipped their four-wheeler on the dry tinderbox of Idaho’s mountains, and the heat from the exhaust pipe inadvertently sparked a forest fire that threatened thousands of acres and hundreds of multi-generational family homes and businesses. For weeks, fed by fiery sparks of grief and dread, I awaited the inevitable news: Sorry, ma’am, the fire claimed your family’s cabin. We tried our best, but in the end there was nothing we could do to save it.  September was a long, hopeless month.

I’ve been coming to the cabin since I was a baby.  As a child, I didn’t realize that a manmade structure could assume a living, breathing identity, though in my experience it has. I can’t fathom my family’s history – or myself – without the cabin: its pale pastel walls, like an osmotic tonic; the scratchy moss green couch; the brown checkered linoleum and mismatched rugs; the remnants, relics, and artwork collected during my grandfather’s medical career in China and Africa.  These details are enfolded into innumerable Moris stories and memories.  I can’t imagine a summer without this particular porch or hummingbird feeder.

Ultimately, the awful news never came.  Firefighters wrested control of the flame as it hovered on the edge of evacuated towns, leaving residents their homes and livelihoods in tact… for now.  The relief, however real, hasn’t eradicated my dread over the cabin’s impermanence or the irrational rage that flares each time a four-wheeler rides past the front porch.  This temporary reprieve tastes of tarred ash.

My riverside musings are a little heavier this year, sagging under the weight of erosion and lost tree limbs, but I take solace in admiring my spritely hummingbird friends.  Now more than ever, I hold tight to the sight of them to help sustain me through the next long year. I pray this won’t be my last batch of hummingbird juice.

Hummingbird Juice

4 cups water
1 cup sugar
Red food coloring to preference

Bring water to boil in a medium saucepot.  Remove from heat when water starts to boil and stir in the sugar. Mix well to dissolve the sugar.  Add red food coloring – a few drops should suffice. (This is an aesthetic choice. My aunt doesn’t color her hummingbird juice and she experiences a moderate turnout.  I attribute my heavy traffic to the red food coloring.)  Let cool, then transfer to a glass feeder.  Hang feeder in a conspicuous outdoor spot.  Enjoy.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013


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Cooking for Friends

House Rule #1: Maximum Fun!

One of the finest aspects of a work schedule structured around the academic school year is the three-month reprieve that marks summer vacation.  An educator devotes all of her year to working with students – long hours, wearying weeks and responsibilities that seem never to end, bewildering efforts that are seldom adequately compensated… at least, not by salary.  Boarding school life adds extra pounds to the professional weight, since school life is inseparable from home life.  A teacher or tutor remains a teacher or tutor, on-call even at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.  This uninterrupted stress is relieved on the last, blessed day of the school year.

We seize upon the freedom of summer as hungrily as if we’ve been on a yearlong cleanse.  I untether myself from tutoring appointments, becoming a freewheeler who runs at six in the morning and stays out late with friends if she feels like it; released from his second home in the classroom, my husband stays up all night and sleeps until noon.  We use the humble savings we’ve accumulated throughout the year to travel: visiting family, camping, and making the annual pilgrimage to the cabin my grandfather built for my grandmother, nestled deep in the woods of central Idaho.  This year, we invited friends to join us.

I love working at a boarding school.  I love the high school students’ energy, I’ve met incredible faculty families from around the world, and I have never had so many engaging, quirky lunchtime conversations.  My friends are some of the hardest working teachers, counselors, tutors, and administrators I know.  My life is better for knowing them, which is why I thought it would be fun to invite them to my own private Idaho – to commune, cook for them, and laugh without reserve.


I’ve been coming to the log cabin since I was a baby.  I have pictures to prove it: a chunky toddler, all pudgy thighs and blond ringlets in a flowered swimsuit, wiggling her toes in the riverbank’s soft, white sand; a seven-year-old brunette in a short sleeved red dress, gazing out the window of a car into a swath of established, fragrant ponderosas, blurred olive and amber brown; a gawky teenager, outfitted in silver braces and a strange black skirt, caressing her aunt’s thick-haired Kairn Terriers; a bride on her wedding day, resting on a bed of pine needles outside the kitchen window.  I married at the little church in the wildwood.  I catered my own reception and held it at the cabin, where we blew bubbles over the river and partied long into the night at the town saloon.

Of all the places I’ve lived or travelled to, the cabin feels most like home.  I feel most like myself there.  I remember how much my grandfather enjoyed inviting guests to the cabin, particularly in autumn when the sycamore trees flared golden before browning and shedding their leaves in the river.  He flourished in the company.  He loved playing Scrabble late into the night (and he usually won – with triple word scores using the high-point letters).  I think he also savored his guests’ appreciation of the home he’d built in the woods, of the area’s raw scenic beauty. I hope to perpetuate my grandfather’s legacy of laughter and communion by sharing the cabin with friends.


On this trip, I cooked:

Kielbasa with wild rice, green beans, green salad
Penne alla vodka, garlic bread, crisp salad
Pulled pork in spicy chipotle sauce, jasmine rice, black beans with green chiles
Gruyere egg casserole with mushrooms and tomatoes, bacon, sausage, pancakes
Crème brulée bread pudding and margarita lime pie (a birthday celebration!)

My friends asked: “Are you sure you want to cook for us?” Unequivocally yes.  I would make a living out of it if I could.  The act of food preparation quiets my frenetic mind; sharing with others soothes my soul.  Their pleasure is my pleasure; their company, my extreme good fortune.  Cooking for them is an earnest gesture of appreciation.

While our children played in the river, riding its currents on ancient black rubber inner tubes and building castles in the sand, I held vigil in the kitchen, chopping, slicing, and sautéing.  My friends went on hikes, biked the area trails, tubed, read books, and sunbathed.  I registered their comings and goings as I cooked, smiling into the pans sizzling on the stove, and squeezed in pockets of time to run, read, and write as well. When we all sat down at the dining table, huddled together under the big brass lantern, the rugged outline of pine trees silhouetted in dwindling evening light, I watched my friends dig into what I’d made, delighted by their enjoyment and delighted to share this time with them.

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My Favorite Things

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

Some of my happiest childhood memories involve The Sound of Music.  My grandparents had the soundtrack on LP at the family cabin in Featherville, Idaho.  Since the cabin didn’t have televisions, its primary entertainment source was the record player, on which my sister, Lisa, and I played records in heavy rotation.  Grandpa had amassed an eclectic collection in the years before LPs grew to near extinction, but our favorites were The Nutcracker and The Sound of Music.  Late at night, with the curtains flung open and moths fluttering against the lighted windows, Lisa and I leapt from avocado green sofa to sofa: hair flying and limbs flailing, like sugarplum fairies gone wild.  We waltzed on tiptoes through the kitchen, humming “Edelweiss.”  We pirouetted around the dining table, wire whisks raised in our hands, our voices warbling: “How do you solve a problem like Mariiiaaaaaaaa? How do you hold a moon beam… in your… haaaaaannnndd?”

When I was sixteen (going on seventeen), Lisa flew to Boise during a break from medical school in Geneva to join me on a tour of colleges in the Pacific Northwest.  We drove the silver Tercel that Grandpa had “sold” to me.  It was an old, no-frills hatchback, but it was mine and I named it Orby, after one of Grandpa’s mischievous brothers.  As Lisa and I left Boise, heading west toward the highway, we stopped at a red light at the intersection of Milwaukee and Emerald.  The engine hummed quietly through the floorboards.  Summer wind blew through the car, the late afternoon sun warm on our legs. I couldn’t wait to start the trip and see the Oregon coast one more time, but as I stared down at my frayed denim shorts and freckled legs, I felt intense heat rise up my neck.  My forehead and cheeks burned.  Lisa looked at me with wide green eyes, the skin on her breastbone mottled with pink blossoms.  Ever responsible, Lisa ran through a shortlist of concerns:  Was the car overheating?  Did we have heatstroke?  Was this an allergic reaction?  What had we eaten for lunch?  Was there a bee in the car?  Did we need to turn around and go to a hospital?  We cranked the AC and started to roll up the windows.  Then we saw them: two good-lookin’ dudes perched high in a jeep in the next lane, peering down into our car with identical lopsided grins.  Lisa and I had been singing “The Lonely Goatherd.”

Goatherd incident withstanding, Lisa and I were accustomed to performing because we had a captive audience of family members staying at the cabin with us each summer, among them our enabler: Grandpa. Our cousins made excuses to go down to the river; uncle Don shuffled through the papers in his briefcase, squinting behind drugstore reading glasses; and Dad sequestered himself in the attic, illuminated by a single bare light bulb, tapping out manuscripts and textbooks on the manual typewriter he kept by his bed.  Aunt Sylvia sat on the flowery corduroy couch in the corner, knitting.  Grandpa had a talent for fixing his blue eyes on the pages of whatever he read, but every now and again, he lifted his gaze to smile at us.  Grandpa remained spry well into his 80s.  On really good nights, he sprung from his armchair and joined Lisa and me, bending at the knees and hooking his fingers into the imaginary suspenders on his chest, as we bobbed and sang, “Lay-oh-de-lay-oh-de-lay-hee-hoo!”

Grandpa was the first person to believe in my ability to write and he encouraged me to explore my talents, unprofitable though they might turn out to be.  He dreamed of writing fiction, and he bequeathed his unpublished stories to me when he died; the note affixed to the large manila folder read: “Keep writing!”  I also inherited my favorite of his belongings: a big, comfortable, tufted reading chair made out of I’m not sure what.  The chair is slippery and caramel brown, and it exhales a soothing pffft when occupied.  Its generous head- and armrests provide ample space for sleeping cats and reading material.  I like to sit in it sideways, my legs flung over the armrest, an avalanche of food books fallen around me, Lilycat coiled into a tight ball of white hair and purring on my lap.  I imagine Grandpa dozing in the chair, snoring softly, a book resting against his chest.  After his death, it felt less like losing him to keep something so big and enfolding near to me, something that felt almost as comforting as the soft scratch of his blue cardigan against my face when he pulled me into a bear hug.

Even as a young girl, before I became aware that it was possible for adults to be goofy, impetuous, mischievous, charmingly self-mocking, or wryly sardonic, I admired Maria’s little whimsies.  I admired the compulsion that drove her to rush to mountain peaks, singing at top volume with her skirt a-twirl.  I admired that she walked away from her faith for a reason that felt important to her.  (Not so much that she did it – at the prodding of the Mother Abbess, no less! – for a decorated military official with a cork up his butt, but at least she forsook her religion for a true passion.)  The von Trapp children adored her.  She was the kind of woman I aspired to be: tenacious, intelligent, resolute, and given to affection, deep emotion, and song.

I watch The Sound of Music every year at Thanksgiving because it is so entwined with the things I associate with love and showing appreciation.  Maria had her list of favorite things, and I have mine.  Thanksgiving gives me the outlet to freely and openly sing praise to everyone and everything I love, which makes it my favorite holiday.  I’m so thankful for my family, children, and incredible friends; for our collective good health, our jobs, our happiness, and our quirks and talents.  I’m thankful for all the things I have learned and will learn in my life.  But most of all, this year, I’m thankful for a life history that is woven together so tightly and completely that I can’t celebrate one memory without also giving thanks for so many others.

Thanks for believing in me, Grandpa.


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Words for Goodbye

Life isn't fair. Death is even less so.


The NY1 headline on February 12, 2010, read: “Snow Plow Hits, Injures Woman.”  By the next day, the New York Post amended the headline to “Plow Tragedy.”  Both articles reported the seventy-year-old pedestrian who was struck in the head by a snowplow that had been clearing express bus stops along 23rd Street after a major snowstorm.  No one knew the woman’s name.  Her name was Valentina and she was my mother.

Recent coverage of Hurricane Irene reminded me of the power of these weighty strings of words called headlines.  Though I left New York in 1995, I have many friends who live in the city, and friends and family sprinkled all along the eastern coastline.  If mom still lived, she would have been among those I prayed for as I obsessively monitored Irene’s advance up the seaboard.  I wouldn’t relive those long, awful days that preceded mom’s death for anything.  But, just sometimes, I am thankful that mom isn’t alive to see what’s happening in the world.  Mom watched the news incessantly; her television blared news programming even when she wasn’t actively watching it.  She took news matters seriously, sometimes sickened herself with sadness and concern for those suffering, sniffling through tears or screaming at the images on the screen: You idiots!  How could you do this?  Is everyone crazy?

Here are some of the headlines that I am so thankful mom didn’t live to see:  Madman in Norway!  Earthquake, Tsunami Strike Japan!  Famine in East Africa!  Hurricane Irene on Path to Pummel NYC!


Once upon a time, there was a retired Ukrainian repairman named Stefan who loved a retired Ukrainian administrative assistant named Valentina.  Stefan and Valentina shared a ‘friendship’ that Valentina refused to define.  They went for walks together along the streets of New York in the spring and the fall; when it was too hot or too cold outside, they met each other for meals, either in their separate apartments or in restaurants and diners in between.  They shared a fondness for McDonald’s coffee.  They loved to dance together at the senior center and they were both skillful dancers.  Sometimes Stefan grew overly possessive of Valentina and she declared, “He’s a pain in a neck!”  But, after a couple of days, Valentina’s temper waned and she began to miss dapper little Stefan with his tailored suits and full white mustache.  She’d see him again.  He held her hand like she was the princess of his magical Ukrainian kingdom.  In life, Stefan had already lost his wife of many years.  He’d also lost an adult son.  Stefan wailed loudly at Valentina’s funeral, spilled thick tears onto his dark grey suit.  He needed help standing at her gravesite, weeping.  He didn’t want to toss his handful of dirt onto her casket or relinquish the funeral’s last flower.  Stefan died shortly after Valentina.



Amberly and I worked together at the local gourmet coffee shop while we attended college at Utah State University.  Am was tall and lean, with long yellow-blond hair, full lips, perfect straight teeth, and twinkling blue eyes.  I liked her instantly.

Am and I kept in touch throughout the years, living our lives on parallel tracks in neighboring towns.  Am’s last pregnancy coincided with my last pregnancy; she desperately wanted a daughter to balance out her three sons, and I desperately wanted another son because I was terrified of having a daughter.  Neither of us got what we wanted, but got instead the children we didn’t realize we desperately needed.

When doctors diagnosed Am with stage four pancreatic cancer, she refused to accept its grim ramifications.  She adopted a diet of raw foods and took up a stricter exercise routine.  She contacted a homeopathic nurse (her “witch doctor”) and began a course of vitamins and supplements that, coupled with her optimism and positivity, extended her life far longer than the $20,000/month treatments that her doctors originally proposed.  Am and I both silently elected to ignore the inevitable finality of her illness – that one day much too soon her children would face their lives without her, that her death was not an if, but a when.

When came in early spring.


Dylan won my heart when, in reference to my husband, he pulled me aside and said, “But you’re so nice.  How’d you end up with him?”  Sixteen years old, with an intense gaze and a handsome face half-concealed by a dark fanning of spiked hair, Dylan attended the school where my husband teaches.  He was one of my husband’s advisees, so he spent a significant amount of time at our house after school and on weekends: hanging out, playing video games, talking, laughing, and quickly becoming more like a son than a contractual obligation.  Once, as my children and I left the school’s dining hall, my then-three year old daughter clutched my hand, looked up at me with her bewitching golden eyes, and exclaimed, “I wish I had a hundwed dowwars so I could go shopping!”  Dylan, in passing, flashed a crooked smile and quipped: “They grow up so quickly.”  I couldn’t wait to see what Dylan would do as he grew into adulthood – his intellect and potential so white hot.

People leave Dylan endearing messages on his Facebook page all the time.  At least, they had been leaving him messages, as I had been before recently unfriending him.  I just couldn’t bear to see his funny face anymore – to feel the continual smack of realization that he was really gone.  I couldn’t bear reading those raw, heartfelt messages written to the dead.  Sometimes I have to remind myself that even the smartest kids make stupid mistakes; that life isn’t fair, and death is even less so.



I am seven years old, sitting on a cold oak pew in a small, cold church in the Idaho mountains.  Marlene, who is my friend Cindy’s mom, stands at the front of the church facing our Sunday school group.  Marlene is old – mom old – and she is dressed in a maroon sweatshirt, dark blue jeans, and plain white tennis shoes, faintly scuffed on the sides.  She holds an emptied bottle of laundry bleach in her right hand.  “This is how you cut off and discard the bottle’s label,” she says, her cheeks dimpling as she smiles and illustrates.  “Then, you draw an outline for a hand-sized hole on the top part but not too close to its mouth,” she says, pointing to a good spot, “and you cut around the outline, like so.”  We raise our blunted scissors and Marlene approaches us individually to help us stab into the emptied, cleaned, and dried bleach bottles scattered on the table in front of us.  Marlene smells of soap and hair spray.  Her hands are warm when she takes my bottle, jabs an entry hole for my scissors, then hands the bottle and scissors back to me, still smiling.  Sunlight rises in the church’s windows, casting small beams of color and light through the decals of stained glass.  I am thinking about how much I like the colors blue and purple when Marlene resumes.  “You cut out a small part of the handle, where it meets the bottle on the bottom side,” she says, pointing to the correct spot for our clarification.  “And there you go!  You can hang these anywhere to hold stuff, like clothespins, empty bags, rubber bands, golf balls…” The air fills with the sound of markers squishing against plastic.  I decorate my bottle with flowers; some of the other children draw aliens, dinosaurs, wild scribbles and swirls.  We stand and sing “Jesus Loves Me” before Marlene dismisses our class and church begins.

Twenty-six years later, Marlene invites my family to a barbeque at her house.  My children, age five and three, play games in the grass with her grandchildren.  They eat otter pops together in the shade.  When I learn of Marlene’s death in January, I think of grass stains and clothespins, bleach bottles, popsicle sticks, markers, scissors, and craft glue.



Marlene’s sister, Donna, spoke with me about angels and visions at Marlene’s barbeque last summer.  Donna saw her dead mother in a vision.  Her mother’s ghost smiled at her and quieted her soul, she said.  “She gave me that last gift of a smile so that I could reach peace with her passing,” said Donna, wiping tears from the deep creases of her grey eyes.  I told her about my grandmother’s bedside visitation when I was five, how I thought she was most certainly an angel in a blue polyester gown and matching turban.

Doctors diagnosed Donna with brain cancer in April.  They removed a good portion of the tumor in her head, but they couldn’t remove it all.  Cindy, who lost her mother only months before, confided that her Aunt Donna’s mind was deteriorating rapidly.  When, in June, my father sent me an email cryptically titled Featherville, an all-too-familiar leaden feeling descended on me.  Donna and Mae had both died, within a day of each other.  I received my father’s email on the same day the USU Alumni magazine informed me of Amberly’s death.


Mae preached at the Little Church in the Wildwood.  In my memory, she was always trim and put together – button-down shirts in floral patterns, straight leg slacks, handsome leather sandals – though most of the congregants to whom she ministered at the small, one-room church wore threadbare denim and plaid flannel.  She placed importance on decorum: powdering her face before services, spraying her short auburn bouffant tidily into place.  She refused to be seen without a swipe of bright pink lipstick on her thin lips, and she emanated a traveling cloud of Chanel No. 5 wherever she went.  These outward details helped to amplify her sermons, highlighting her natural eloquence and affirming her love for her work and her celestial employer.

I sat on her lap as a child.  When I grew up and fell in love, Mae eagerly offered to officiate my wedding.  She was the first to hug me as I left the church.

Perhaps I am being cynical to think it cruelly ironic that Mae, ever the one to put herself together, spent her last years tormented by acute dementia.  Long-term dementia just doesn’t seem an even-handed fate for a person who dedicated her life to the ministry of a compassionate, forgiving God.  Did Mae’s faith buoy her as her thoughts untethered themselves from reality?  Did she understand that she was dying when the moment came?  What frazzled threads unraveled the final seams of the tapestry of her life?

Valentina and Paulette, Susan and Julia

About halfway through my mom’s weeklong descent into death, my best friend, Susan, took me to a restaurant to make sure I was eating.  She sat across from me as I cried into my plate.  Her small children played in the kid’s corner.  Nothing made sense.  Mothers, daughters, life, death, ventilators, blood, and gauze bandages coalesced into one terrible seething mass that somehow affixed itself deep inside, waiting to grow fat on a diet of grief.

Last week, Susan and I traded places.

The message light beeps on my phone.  I know something is wrong when I hear Susan’s voice.  I don’t want to know what I worry she might say, but I call her back immediately, tasting metal.  Susan cries hoarsely into the phone.  “My mom died,” she says, her voice in a tremor.  “Daddy can’t stop sobbing… He keeps saying, ‘I want to die too!’  Jules, I don’t know what I’m gonna do if Daddy dies of a broken heart!”

My mind backpedals to the Bellevue SICU, where mom died.  She was the first death.  Susan’s mother, Paulette, is the eleventh to die in the last 18 months.  I have learned the vocabulary of incomprehensible grief from the previous ten.

“Don’t worry about Andrew and the kids,” I say to Susan, almost placidly, though my pulse is racing and Paulette is in my head, sitting sideways and cross-legged in her narrow kitchen, intently monitoring an everything bagel that is toasting in the oven.

I say: “Kids are resilient, and Andrew will be fine.”  My ears are ringing.  I sense the inception of Susan’s pain, so new and uninvited, coating the landscape of her life with its thick, sulfurous resin.

This year I have taken an exhausting deep immersion crash course in the language of loss.  Will it ever feel “normal” to be so conversant in it?

“You need to focus on you,” I say to her, while thinking of the numerous trips my sister and I made to the Goodwill on 23rd Street to dispose of mom’s belongings, each time treading over the exact location where her life began its conclusion.  I couldn’t focus on anything but the yellow police tape.

“Do what you need to do to survive this, and don’t be afraid to let your grief show.”  I’m like a death coach now: all bravado and empowerment. But I can’t forget lying down on my mother’s bed, weeping, staring out the window grates to see the clouds eclipsing the February sun.

“Go to your dad, be with your family.  Now is not the time you want to be alone…” I know the language but it doesn’t sever the associated images: My husband coming to my office at work, standing in the doorway, saying, “Honey, you need to come home now.  Your mother’s been in an accident.”  I never felt so alone as I did in the nine days that followed.

My best friend sobs into the telephone two thousand miles away.


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