Smith Mountain Lake Mystery Writer

Contemplations from a quiet cove on Smith Mountain Lake.

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Location: United States

I'm a Southern gal who loves life, my husband and our family (which, to date, includes 13 grandchildren). I enjoy being with friends and family. But I also like being alone and thinking up plots for future books. I've published two novels, both mysteries, and I'm working on my third. For more about my books, visit me at If you ever hear me say, "I'm bored," please get me to the ER immediately! Paddling my kayak and snapping pictures of the critters I see relaxes me. Beach music has the opposite effect--when I hear those old "doo-wops" I want to dance.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Right Place at The Right Time

On a tall pole on Smith Mountain Lake’s shore sits a large nest with a pair of ospreys. Smart folks at Smith Mountain Lake State Park attached a video camera to the nest and connected the video to a TV monitor inside the Welcome Center. This allows interested people to watch live, happening-right-this-moment action in the nest.

A week ago, Ron and I took college friends to see these fascinating raptors. Inside the Welcome Center, we watched the male and female tend their three eggs. The female, larger than the male, spread her wings and flew away. The male checked the eggs and rearranged the nesting material. He looked like a typical proud Daddy.

As we watched, the middle egg cracked and a chick struggled out of the shell. Excited, I snapped pictures. Then the egg on the left cracked and another chick emerged. By now I was almost jumping up and down. I could have watched all day.

Even though they didn’t turn out very well, I took pictures. Lots of them. Fifty-one, to be exact. Technical people would know why the photos weren’t great. All I know is that there were lots of wavy lines across the screen. I hope you can get an idea of what transpired.

Ten minutes later, Momma returned with a stick approximately 24 inches long. She put the stick on the edge of the nest, didn’t like it there, and tried tucking it in a couple more spots. We laughed. She was “rearranging the furniture.” Daddy refused to move away from the newly-hatched chicks. We laughed again as Momma turned and whopped him in the head with the stick. Was it accidental or on purpose? Anyhow, Daddy moved. Momma put the stick down, examined her babies, and tore meat off a dead fish stashed in the nest. After eating, she regurgitated and fed them. From what I’ve read, the parents will feed chicks for three months.

When the babies were eight days old, I checked on their progress. Larger now, they were in shadows, not easily visible. I took pictures anyhow. I’ll return weekly to see how they're doing. And I'll continue taking pictures. I feel close to this osprey family. I pray none of them will get tangled on fishing line or any of the trash some humans discard with no thought to what their actions cost our critters.

And I give thanks for being in the right place at the right time. And with my camera, too!

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Out of the blue . . .

The voice on the phone said, “Sally Ross (that’s me), this is Sallie Bette. Do you remember me?” Remember her? Even though I hadn’t seen her in 48 years (Mother will haunt me for inferring how old I am), I’d never forget Sallie Bette, one of my college roommates. “I’ve found Honey, Harriet, Mary Jane and you. Haven’t located Barbara yet, but I will. We need to get together at the rivah.” (In case all y’all don’t know, “rivah” is Southern-girl talk for “river,” in this case the Pamlico River in North Carolina.)

Because of doctor appointments and other commitments, I couldn't join Sallie Bette, Harriet and Honey at Sallie Bette’s cottage in Bayview, North Carolina, a few months ago. “We’ll do it again soon when you can come,” they promised me.

True to their word, a few days ago I waited for these same three gals to arrive at my home. Would I recognize them? Would we have anything in common, anything to say to each other? Would our days together be full of gigantic periods of silence? Sallie Bette’s husband Tom was coming, too. Would he and Ron enjoy each other’s company? I looked forward to—and, I'm ashamed to say, dreaded—their coming. The driveway alarm signaled their arrival. I took a deep breath and walked out to greet them.

Honey stepped out of the car first. The others followed. They all looked the same—a little older, but as cute as ever. I would have had no trouble recognizing them. Within minutes the 48 years disappeared. We talked, laughed, showed family pictures, discovered that we still had the same values, reminisced for two days and nights. I learned that Honey is a master scuba diver and that her husband had passed; that Sallie Bette and Tom had spent nine months together chasing blimps (I’m serious—blimp chasing is an honest-to-goodness job!); that Harriet, who looks to be pushing 40 instead of old age like me, loves cats and lives in my home town. Ron and Tom enjoyed each other, too.

We toasted our together-again status with a bottle of champagne—and Honey Brown beer, not named for college friend Honey, but a good excuse to drink it, although I still prefer white wine, preferably Hickory Hill Winery’s Vidal Blanc. Sorry, Honey. Anyhow, Honey was in a North Carolina grocery store and saw, of all things, Honey Brown beer! Even though she didn’t make it, she had to buy a case. And, of course, we drank it. Well, some of it.

All six of us piled into Ron’s beloved boat for a three-hour cruise (was Gilligan of the Gilligan's Island fame a two or a three-hour cruise?) of Smith Mountain Lake. Because all four of our guests were huge (like gigantic book worshipers) David Baldacci fans, the first place on our tour, of course—and because it’s not too far from Ron and me—was Baldacci’s waterfront home. (In case you haven’t guessed, he’s my favorite author. His first novel, Absolute Power, hooked me. I recently stood in line in broiling, desert sun with no water and big red killer ants crawling up my legs—just kidding about the desert sun, the water and the ants--for an hour and a half just to get his autograph on his latest novel, The Whole Truth.) Note to My Favorite Author: We waved and yelled and acted like crazy folks and waved some more. So sorry you missed us!

And guess what else. I can’t believe it, but for once I was in the right place at the right time! At the Smith Mountain Lake State Park, we watched two osprey eggs hatch, saw two babies break through their shells, watched as Daddy took care of them until Momma returned. But that’s my next blog. Don’t miss it!

Too soon we said our goodbyes, but promised we’d get together again soon. I hope that next time Barbara and Mary Jane will be able to join us. And maybe by then we’ll have located Martha. If you’re wondering where Martha fits into this, she lived across the hall, was a good friend.

All y’all come back now, you heah (that’s Southern talk)?

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Monday, May 12, 2008


Hanging on my screened porch is an Easter cactus I inherited from my mother-in-law after she died of colon cancer in 1986. No, that isn’t a typo. I really did say 1986! Over the past 22 years I’ve hauled it from Greenville, NC, to Lynchburg and Evington, VA, and finally to Smith Mountain Lake. I thought about tossing it out a few times, but couldn’t do it. Don't know why. Never a handsome plant, over the years I continued to water Cactus occasionally when I thought about it. I re-potted it once even though it never seemed to grow. A few weeks ago I carried Cactus to the porch and actually dusted it, removed some dead twigs, and hung it on a hook. And promptly forgot about it.

Two days before Mother’s Day I happened to glance at Cactus while putting the dogs outside. Shocked at what I saw, I stopped so suddenly that Angus and Yellow Dog rammed into my legs. I couldn’t believe it. There, on the tip of a cactus branch, was a tight pink bud! I ran to tell my husband.

On Mother’s Day one perfect, deep-pink blossom on the end of a stem dazzled us. Today there are two blossoms; more buds promise additional bursts of blazing color.

Strange. This plant had never once bloomed since 1986. That's 22 years! I don’t know how long my mother-in-law had tended to Cactus before I inherited it, so I don’t know the actual age of the plant.

My mother-in-law and I didn’t always agree, but I loved her. Since seeing the first blossom on Cactus, I’ve thought of ways I could have been a better daughter-in-law, wish I could make amends. Memories of the good times with her have brought both smiles and tears.

Harriet Newman grew up in Oakland, California, and when it was time for her to go to college, she commuted eight and a half miles one way via ferry (the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t open until 1936) from Oakland to San Francisco. To get from the ferry to San Francisco State Teachers College, she rode the cable car and/or trolley for another hour. She made the nearly two-hour commute twice a day for four years. She graduated, married--and never worked outside the home.

The oldest of five, Harriet was a talented artist. Her three sons inherited some of her talent. Even though she adored her boys, I wish she’d had at least one daughter. Harriet would have loved teaching her how to crochet, make rhubarb / strawberry jam, straight-from-Sweden meatballs, congealed salads, the best-ever pound cakes, casseroles, from-scratch bread. Her daughter would have learned how to clean, to cook, to know that you never put rolls on the bottom shelf in the oven or they’d have black bottoms, how to make beds properly, and how important it was to dust the tops of door frames (even if you were too short to see the tops). She gave lots of energy and time to good causes, helped her friends whenever needed, enjoyed showing off her grandchildren to her friends. And she gave birth to the man I married, a man I cannot imagine living without. Thank you, Harriet.

And thank you, Cactus, for reminding me of what my mother-in-law has passed on to me: my wonderful husband, three incredible children, 12 nearly perfect grandchildren. And lots of memories. I love you, Harriet. And I'll never forget you.

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