St. Charles

The Editorial We: Because, Living On Snob Hill, We Are Amused


There is a tale of the unfortunate equery who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. "We are not amused," said the Queen when he had finished.-- Caroline Holland, courtier to Queen Victoria, in her Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, published in 1919

The impetus for this blog is simple: Stories from our lives on Snob Hill, especially those with the whiff of spice, scandal, and/or impropriety, are indeed amusing to us, and to you as well, we hope. We have always been guided by the words of the esteemed Southern social philosopher Claire Belcher, who said, " If you don't have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me," in Steel Magnolias.  Such people have been sitting next to us, sometimes invited, sometimes not, for 20 years now, and we thought it was high time we sat next to you, dear readers, and spread that spice and scandal, those vanities and humanities, and boners and bon mots, collected here, among 12 humble households, on a private private drive somewhere in Middle America.

Behold! The Holy Grail of Nut Grinders!


So, why the fanfare for this humble item? We are reminded of the quote, “I am haunted by waters” by Norman Maclean from the ending of A River Runs Through It. We have been haunted by this nut grinder — not by it’s presence, but by its absence.

For years, we have followed the example of countless PBS and cable cooks who chopped nuts with a knife (not to mention wending our way through Martha Stewart’s Christmas Cookbook). Sure, it was quick and efficient, but not even our best Damascus steel could provide the tactile delight we felt turning the crank of this humble grinder. Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, and, we admit, the occasional cinnamon stick, fell through the tin chute and were transformed by circular tines into the nut gravel required for cookies and cheese balls. A culinary chipper-shredder.

Remember, we would say (sometimes out loud, more often just to ourselves)? Remember how fun it was to chop nuts with that old grinder? The one our great-grandmother bought at a Christmas Bazaar at the Methodist church and gifted to our mother. Yes, that one.

As Tim Burton once said, “Things that I grew up with stay with me. You start a certain way, and then you spend your whole life trying to find a certain simplicity that you had. It’s less about staying in childhood than keeping a certain spirit of seeing things in a different way.”

The problem was, of course, memory and its damned specificity. We scoured garage sales, estate sales, and antique malls. We found plenty of nut grinders — plastic ones, electric ones, hand pumped ones, but never that one that we remembered. It had to be that one or nothing.

Imagine, then, a Thanksgiving day as our family gathered. Imagine it was this year, for instance. Imagine, too, our mother who extends a brown bag with handles, brimming with colored tissue paper. Imagine setting this “hostess gift” on the counter and turning to baste the turkey, only to have your mother pick it up and hand it to you again. Imagine as she says, “Please open this now. I think you’ll be pleased.”

And imagine your childhood flooding your eyes and the back of your throat as you pull it from its nest.

It may not be the prettiest item. It may not be the latest and greatest in nut grinding technology. It not even be exactly the color and pattern, neither of which you remember. But the design, the glass bottom, and, of course, that little handle. It’s almost — but only almost — better than the memory of it.

Beware nuts of the world. Behold, the holy grail of nut grinders.

The Bastard Bush of Snob Hill

"Furled" by CB Adams

"Furled" by CB Adams

Is there such a thing as a bastard in the plant world? We don’t really know.

There is, of course, the Bastard Cabbage, the Bastard Toadflax, and the Bastard Mustard Plant, but these are only common, vulgar names.

We know that in the human kingdom that bastard is an old term to signify a son who could not inherit (ala Prince Herbert’s “What, the curtains?”) because he was not born out of his father’s (ala, the King of Swamp Castle’s) marriage even though he was the proverbial fruit of his father’s loins, even though such fruits can be of either sex. 

This, compared to illegitimate daughters who were still eligible be married off, or sent to a convent, or employed as a servant, or dreamed Cinderella dreams. How perfectly medieval.

We have pondered the etymology and gender of bastard all summer (leading to an unproductive sidetrack of reading-up-on William the Bastard) as the bush established itself in the yard. And even if bastard today tends to be gender specific (even though history says not), we might still feel free to apply it to the bush, to which we have (rightly or wrongly) assigned a femininity.

After all, we regularly hear young women refer to each other as dude, dick, and son of a bitch (which is doubly perplexing to us), so why not bastard? Especially given that the root of bastard is thought to be from the Latin, bastardus, or perhaps bastum, which is the same as “pack saddle,” which may stem from the idea being of a child produced from a relationship with a traveler.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with a bush because if it is just a question of genetic lineage, then bastardism need not apply. Let us quote one of our favorite Tricky Dick Nixonisms: “Let me say this about that.”

We have adopted a bastard bush.  Or more appropriately, we rescued this bastard bush from landscaping euthanasia. For more than 20 years, this bush thrived at the edge of a Mother’s deck. It was not indigenous to this property, having been transplanted from its original home at our Parent’s former domicile, where it had thrived for at least a previous 20 years. 

 It is a common bush with common name, Rose of Sharon, but to Mother, it is a vulgar name, a name not to be spoken because Sharon is the name of the woman a former brother-in-law married after divorcing our Sister. Mother had enjoyed, maybe even loved, this bush for 30 years, but through no fault of its own, she condemned it now because its moniker was a too-painful reminder of one our family’s great trials (to say nothing of the damage to our Sister and Nephews).

And now we understand from whom we inherited our tangled associative tendencies, including the list we compiled of all the names we would never name either of our sons, drawn from all the people who had offended, bullied, us sometimes in our lives.

So Mother had decided (now ten years post-divorce) that she could no longer endure the bush’s presence. She summed up her animosity by way of a phrase from Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Shortley: “That bush is an abomination!” (Rose of Shortley, perhaps?)

And like a medieval king, it was off-with-its-head, except it was off-at-the-roots.

Mother had mentioned off-handedly that she was going to have her gardener remove the offensive shrub along with some invasive bamboo, a sap-drooling Mimosa tree, and some clumps of decorative grass that no longer interested her. Always on the lookout for free plant material, we asked if we could have it. This pleased Mother because she was glad for it to live, just not within her line of sight.

So that is how the bush came to Snob Hill. And with it we felt it required a new name. If Mother inquired about the health of the bush, we wanted a name that would not conjure unpleasantness. We tried:   

  • M-m-m My Rose of Sharona, by way of The Knack
  • Rose of BetterNotPickIt, with thanks to Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt
  • Rose HasItsThorn, from GNR
  • Nat King Cole’s Ramblin’ Rose, or was it the Grateful Dead?
  • Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie
  • And even Rose of Shawan, after a family surname and a great-grandmother who grew them

But none of them stuck. As didn’t Rose of WhatsHerName (too polysyllabic). And neither did Rose of Slut nor Rose of Crotch Jockey, keying off Mother’s preferred nicknames for that person. “It’s not fair to the plant,” she said.

For a bit, we promoted a sex change and referred to it as Rose of Sharon, but pronouncing it like Ariel Sharon, with a long o and emphasis on the second syllable. This proved unsuccessful. Not many got the joke. And most importantly, Mother was not a fan. It may of failed for her because this alias still reminded her of you-know-who, in the same way that gosh-darn-it is only a mask for the real intent of god-damn-it.

Mother didn’t say why, but we suspect it may be that she leans less toward the Judeo and more toward the Christian tradition. There is a certain form of irony in this because 1) Rose of Sharon is mentioned in the Bible, 2) said plant is not a true rose, and 3) is not the same plant as the bush we know today. If only flora confusion were the root of unrest in the Middle East…

One half of Us took a cue from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath suggested Rose a Sharn, as a tip of the hat to this bush’s hardy and resilient character. But the Other Half quickly dismissed this as: Too Joad family. Too Beverly Hillbillies. Too Gomer Pyle.

Besides, the Other Half of Us said, “That whole titty thing at the end is indelible in all the wrong ways, and I’m not talking about breastfeeding in public.”

In the end, we chose Rose of Snob Hill. It’s safe. It’s appropriate. And it’s accurate. Rose is happy on the hill and is thriving, especially with the mild and wet summer. His/her roots are going deep. And we can all live with that.       

The Family Sedums

We received the call a few weeks ago.

Well, not that call, but an important call nonetheless. We are referring of course to the call from Mother, who wanted to know if we would like the family sedums.

Some receive the family jewels, others, apparently, the family sedums. They were currently in pots on her deck and, despite her best efforts, something insisted on eating them, “to the quick,” as Mother put it. Every morning she would look outside to find another sedum reduced to a sad stub. She had moved the pots all year, from driveway to walkway to deck, trying to make them inaccessible, in successive order, to the deer, the squirrels, the chipmunks, groundhogs, beavers, slugs, and gypsies, tramps, and orchid thieves.

To no avail.

The solution, Mother had concluded, was total exile, to secret them from her house in another county to ours … if we wanted them. We did, but this begs the question, “What if we said no?” The answer is, of course, “Not an option,” which sounds like the catchphrase from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that is our life. We are the inheritors of the family jewels and the family sedums.

Her offer came with some precedent. We already have the reputation as the repository of the family flora. Already rooted are the Hen and Chicks we were given in childhood by a great-grandmother who gave us “starters” from hers that she grew in strawberry pots, and Old Bastard, the maple tree flourishing in the backyard that is the progeny of the magnificent specimen a grandfather (the eponymous Old Bastard) had in his front yard before the Missouri Highway Department cut it down to widen the road.

There are no plant import regulations between St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. The sedums arrived in pots so large and heavy Father had brought along a ramp to slide them into the child-sized red Flexible Flyer wagon, the only wheeled conveyance we had since the red wheelbarrow’s tire went flat and we felt too cheap to spend $32 for a new one.  Who knew so much would have depended upon it?

Any of our looky-loo Snob Hill neighbors were rewarded with the sight of two 75-year-olds and two 53-year-olds (one limping along in a cam boot) guiding the sedums down the uneven stone walkway the way those people in the Macy’s Day Parade handle the giant Snoopy balloon on a windy Thanksgiving day. After safely seated on the front patio, our neighbors no doubt continued to be entertained as we stood, gesticulating over the pots, which Mother was quick inform that she wanted back.

There were three varieties of sedums, each with its own history and all of which are botanically unexceptional. They are just garden variety sedums. Mother pointed. Father pointed. We stood with hands on hips, trying to follow their disagreement about which sedum came from which side of the family. We can only be certain now of this: there is one from each side of the family and one that was purchased years ago by our parents. With a knowing glance, we acknowledged to each other that in a few seasons, after the sedums became established and spread in their new home, the confusion would only grow.

What our neighbors could not hear next was the story Mother told of the sedums from her own mother’s garden. This grandmother was a wonderful and giving woman with a tragic taste in men. She married twice after divorcing mother’s father (the only good one of the bunch). The third was a carpenter named Raymond (forever ruining that trade and name). Our grandmother was no gardener, but she liked to have a few flowers to brighten the yard that overlooked an interchange on Highway 55. She could never get anything to grow because Raymond delighted in running over with his riding lawnmower whatever she had planted. Tulips, marigolds, and Black-eyed Susans – all succumbed as he rode over them, laughing.

The only plants he could not kill were the sedums that she protected in beds, built of unattractive concrete blocks that lay along the basement foundation. During the last year before she died, Mother dug up some of the sedums and took them home. She nurtured them for more than 20 years and when she moved to two new houses.

Now this sedum legacy continues on Snob Hill. Family folklore blends with family plantlore – proof that love has the capacity to outlive cruelty for as long as we care to tend it and pass it on.

And Mother has her pots back.

--CB Adams