I Think I’ll Have Another

As the holiday season arrives, traditions old and new emerge from the boxes of memory to brighten homes once again. For me, the holidays mean eating great food surrounded by even greater company.

And for decades, a staple of holiday fare for my family has been homemade shortbread cookies.

I’ve made them with my mother every year for as long as I can remember, as she made them with her mother, and her mother before that, who first made the cookies with her own mother (though the recipe has evolved over the years). Though the recipe has evolved over the years, it has maintained its delicious Every time we gather the ingredients together, the roots of the past grow up through the years separating us and sprout blossoms as colorful as the many shades of sugar we decorate the cookies with.

Making shortbread cookies is a serious undertaking in my family – we tend to make three batches of the delicious treat in just one setting. We compile the ingredients, get out the necessary utensils and cookware and pull out the containers of cookie cutters and decorative sweeteners. Dozens of silvery cookie cutters litter the counter, and countless shades of sugar sit ready at the decorating station. A few hours later we emerge from the kitchen, congratulating ourselves on a job well done, our taste buds singing in agreement after sampling a cookie, or two, or three right out of the oven.

At the next family gathering, our extended family shares in the mouthwatering goodness. Kids’ eyes widen, chewing slows, smiles brighten, then eyes close, savoring the flavor as the cookie melts in their mouths.

The recipe is simple, the joy it brings, profound. Allow me to share it with you.

Nannie’s Shortbread Cookies: 

  • 1 egg yolk (save the egg white)
  • 1 cup of butter, softened but not melted
  • ½ teaspoon of vanilla
  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • ¾ cup of packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda

Roll out the dough and use cookie cutters to shape the cookies.      Use the leftover egg white and paint it across the surface of the cookies before decorating with colored sugar.                                              Bake at 350 degrees for 7-10 minutes.

You’ll never go back to store-bought shortbread cookies again!

An Anderson Thanksgiving

Every few years, my mom’s side of the family, deemed the rowdy Andersons, gather at my uncle John’s log cabin nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. An architect and engineer, Uncle John designed and built this rugged masterpiece as a getaway home for himself, his wife, and their daughter. Using the foundation and bare bones of an original settler’s home, he reconstructed a grander and more comfortable version of a log cabin.

As I envision Thanksgiving Day in this cabin, warm feelings of nostalgia wash over me. The crisp smell of pine compliments the wafting aroma of nutmeg and butternut squash. Aunts bustle and bump into each other as they scramble to mash up potatoes, roll cheese balls and pull chocolate pecan pies out of the oven. I stand in the corner of the kitchen popping shavings of turkey into my mouth and asking futilely if I can help. Of course I don’t want to, but I can’t pull myself away from the mouth-watering feast. So I bounce from one foot to the other, watching as seasoned cooks conjure up sweet country ham and corn relish.

“Everyone to the kitchen—it’s ready!” Someone walks around to each room hollering. Uncles and cousins tumble inside laughing and wheezing from a lively game of football in the field bordering the cabin. In his quiet and steady voice, my dad prays over the food and expresses his thankfulness for family. Eyes peek open during the prayer to survey the array of scrumptious dishes. “Amen.” In a flash, a train of people forms, and we file along the counters, scooping here and grabbing there.

During previous Thanksgivings, I always resented being placed at the children’s table, but now I make a beeline for it, knowing that they’ll be no talk of politics or the economy. However, throughout the rest of meal, I mentally prepare my answers to the inevitable series of questions:  “Senior at JMU…PR and creative writing…I want to be a copywriter…no I haven’t been into photography since middle school.” My younger siblings and cousins shove food into their mouths and slurp red punch from plastic cups.

Allie, one of my cousins who’s five years my junior, never fails to stare at me the entire time and ask questions like, “Have you seen The Ring? Because I have,” and, “Do you like go out with your friends all the time since you’re in college?”

I force my brain to painfully remember the high school mindset and answer, “Yes, it’s total freedom.” She just smirks. I choke a little into my punch thinking about the overwhelming responsibilities and adjustments that also come along with college.

As the afternoon sun wanes, someone pushes us outside for some “family raking,” so we groan and rake dried leaves into piles until football comes on TV, and we all dash back inside to claim spots on the burnt red sofa or bear rug. Eventually, each family heads back to their respected motels and recharges for Friday, which always consists of devouring leftovers and pushing over dead trees in the surrounding woods.

Reflecting on past memories makes me long to creak open that log cabin door, feel the rough oak beneath my fingertips and listen as my relatives burst into applause as a touchdown is made. In one week, I’ll be savoring the old stories, cherished moments and faithful love that drifts along the foundation of this cabin tucked between mountains and seeping with warm smells and rolling laughter.




What Does Fall Taste Like  

There is a certain kind of nostalgia that comes when the weather changes and the leaves drop like unevenly weighted balloons down to browning grass. There seems to be memories sparked by the smells of faraway snow and burning wood. The taste of apple cider sits along the back of my tongue and makes swallowing seem thicker than usual, like tears could be called up a little easier this time of year. When I write, I have a habit of putting my hand over my mouth to read back what I have written, and somehow my fingertips are always colder than the rest of me now that October has blended into November. It is a funny thing, nostalgia. I simultaneously feel that I am too young to have much of a life to look back on and think “those were the days,”  while often wishing I was a child again.

The Colonial Parkway is a road constructed by the National Park Service throughout the 26 years of pre-depression through post-World War Two America. Its 23-mile, stone roadway blends the harsh marsh into the sandy, crumbling edge of the York River, where on her best day she flows into the Chesapeake Bay and her worst she sits stagnant and mosquito filled. My thoughts turn to this road in Yorktown, Virginia when asked about November and nostalgia. Because along this stretch of two-way road is where the leaves change first in my town. Where the air turns lighter with the absence of humid river salt and the smoke from the wood fires at Jamestown float to mingle with the cloud cover at the mouth of the bay. When I was young, my family would bundle up into sweaters and swishy-fabric jackets and drive along the parkway to get to Colonial Williamsburg. I would always sit behind my mother on the passenger side, press my face up against the window and watch as the yellow-stone road blurred underneath the tires of my Father’s truck. The closer we got to Williamsburg, the more wilted the Yorktown Onion flowers got, the darker the horizon line of pine trees felt and the more orange the sky bled.

Williamsburg in the fall is where the ghosts of the colonies come to make the blacksmiths forgery ring out and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves a common sound. The rows of brick houses from 1600’s have modern style house paint adorning their front doors, and local garden club wreaths hanging prettily from brass knockers. We would walk our small group of four up and down the dusty streets and breathe in the new fall air and listen to the interpreters tell the tourists the stories of my hometown. We could always spot the tourists, wide-eyed and easily swayed by the claims of “George Washington spent the night here” and
“This is the original pot-pie recipe of the south,” always clutching onto children’s hands and bedecked with backpacks. However, as locals we knew that if you turned down a small light-brown dirt path after the Kings Head Inn but before the old Parliament house you would enter a sort of colonial speakeasy. This small structure housed the best hot cider you ever burnt your tongue on, and cookies that may have been the size of my head but tasted like the finest crafted morsel of dough and chocolate ever made.

Remembering Williamsburg and the parkway while a candle flickers on my window sill, feels very adult-ish of me, and it reminds me just how ready I am to go home. So when I take the turn (exit 235 off 64) to the Colonial Parkway in a few weeks, I’ll roll down my car window, motion to my little sister in the passenger seat and hope that my next breath tastes like wood ash and cinnamon.



Big Boys Don’t Cry

She offered that we watch a movie. I should have let her finish before I smoothly interjected, “Yeah that’s cool. I mean, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” She then began to thoroughly explain her affinity for horror films. “Okay, this is going to be a problem,” I thought to myself.

We hadn’t reached a point in our relationship when I could sit her down and explain to her that I  had made the conscious decision to abstain from all things “scary.” If I deemed something to be scary in nature, you could count me out. There are an assortment of things that fall under my imaginary umbrella of scary which ranges from turning on every light in the house in order to take a late night potty-break or refusing to take the trash out past sundown. Call me crazy all you want, but there is no way you can prove that someone isn’t lurking in the woods by the trashcan just waiting to make me a murder mystery. Watching a horror film ranks somewhere between visiting a location where someone  inexplicably perished and adhaljdjaslsgjsglksglkj ljsljsagjlsdg (I still don’t really know to say here. Any suggestions).

She had her heart set on watching a movie called “Deliver Us From Evil.” I recall the synopsis saying something about “a thrilling rendition of a true story about a cop and unconventional priest who team up together to perform an exorcism in an effort to solve a string of crimes.” Okay, there is a major distinction that I make between scary and thrilling. They both engage similar aspects of adrenaline and both involve a subtle fear of death, but the discrepancy manifests itself in how death finally takes me. There is an undeniable difference between being thrown off a roller coaster and quickly falling to your death and being axe murdered by a satanic children’s doll because you forgot to switch on the hallway light on your way to tinkle.

Also, what was this based on a true story hogwash? Are we talking loosely based, mostly based, or this definitely happened? The margin of error in discerning this fact was too wide, and as far as I was concerned, the error involved a gruesome death. Yet, I conceded. I agreed that we should watch “Deliver Us From Evil” because, and I quote, “The plot seemed like it had an interesting story line.” Oh the moronic lies I tell myself when I’m scared.

The next two hours involved calculated measures of extreme excuses and avoidance. Some of the evening’s highlights include me pretending to be asleep so I wouldn’t have view the particularly scary parts, faking an unexpected important phone call from work, and conveniently having a very active bladder. Needless to say, the evening did not go how I expected. However, I must add that if we would have watched Disney’s “Enchanted,” which was my movie choice, the evening would have ended with tears of joy from a thrilling love story of a fairy tale princess who found true love in the real world.


Where Cinematic Horrors Come True

There are few local haunts that send chills down your spine like Western State Hospital—also known as the abandoned insane asylum off Interstate 81. It turns out that the horrific depictions of insane asylums in movies and shows are actually not too far off from the truth.

Looming atop a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Western State Hospital is located in Staunton, Virginia. After passing this abandoned building countless times, I decided to dig into its history, and what I discovered is truly ghastly. Originally called Western State Lunatic Asylum, the government-sanctioned facility received its first patient in 1828. Dr. Stribling, the first hospital director, believed in moral and medical therapy, which entailed healing through human relationships. He taught his staff to encourage mental patients to find vocations, hobbies, exercises, and to engage in fun activities.

However, Dr. Stribling represented the silver lining of Western State Hospital’s gruesome past. In 1905, renowned physician Dr. DeJarnette became the new hospital director. As a fierce advocate of eugenics, he wrote a poem, which included the stanza:

This is the law of Mendel,
And often he maken it plain,
Defectives will breed defectives,
And the insane breed insane.
Oh why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey’s nest,
To increase our country’s burdens
When we should only breed the best?

DeJarnette facilitated the sterilization of hundreds of his patients who he deemed “unfit” to reproduce. One could get sterilized for being poor, unintelligent, mentally unstable, or promiscuous. Basically, if you weren’t of a certain skin color, social class, or mental state, you were at risk of undergoing a forced sterilization.

Not only did DeJarnette enforce sterilization, he also administered electroshock therapy, lobotomies, isolation, and physical restraints. Imagine being strapped down and shocked until you have a seizure or picture doctors plucking at nerves behind your eyes while you’re still conscious. This was the every day life for patients at Western State Hospital. Thus, the asylum morphed from a haven of healing to a decrepit ward where despicable practices were implemented. Sterilization and these unethical “therapies” continued to grow in popularity after World War II and even after Americans witnessed the devastating genocide as a result of the eugenics movement propagated by the Nazis.

In the 1970s, Western State Hospital was converted to a penitentiary and residence for children with extreme behavioral disorders. By 2002, the city of Staunton finally boarded up the building with the hopes of renovating it into condominiums, offices, and a shopping mall. However, the abandoned insane asylum still looms among the Blue Ridge Mountains casting a shadow that whispers of unspeakable horrors.

Walk along the grounds or crawl through a hole into the building, and you will still discover black handprints scattered across the walls, boxes of teeth, hospital beds, and solitary confinement rooms. And who knows, you might just find some old crusted wires used in electroshock therapy or the medical tools used to scrape behind patients’ eyes.

So beware JMU students, Dr. DeJarnette may still lurk the hallways waiting for his next patient—his next victim—his next…you.




Blood and Sweat, Tears and Fears

As the spirit of Halloween swells during October, once again friends dare one another to test their courage in Fear Forest.  And so, with trepidation in their step, they risk venturing into the darkness and never returning.

The hayride over to the forest seems innocent enough.  But as the wagon crests the hill, a spurt of flame bursts upward and the sound of a gunshot causes everyone to duck.  Lurching to a stop, you see witches dancing around a huge bonfire and a long line of people huddled together waiting to enter the forest.  The wait lulls you into a false sense of security, but soon enough you learn to look over your shoulder every so often, as shadowy figures creep around in your peripheral vision.  The ghouls and creeps are bad enough, but when a chainsaw-wielding madman revs his bloody weapon right next to you, you can’t help the scream that escapes your mouth.

Closer now to the forest, shrieks punctuate the whispered conversation, causing the hairs on your neck to stand up, almost like an ice cold hand has trailed down your spine.  A bloody skeleton in battle armor bares his sword at your group, halting you in your tracks.  He says nothing, but you recognize it is not time to enter.  He herds the frightened band in front of him through the door and into the darkness, returning without them.  A bloodcurdling scream sounds from behind him then is cut off.  He gestures with his sword that it is your turn to enter, and you gulp.  Your friends cower behind you, pulling at your sleeves, and with shaky steps you enter the Fear Forest.

All your senses are on high alert as you tiptoe forward – you hear the crackle of leaves, feel a cold wind tug at your hair, smell the musty forest and the sharp tang of…blood?  They can’t touch me, they can’t touch me, you think, over and over again as you enter the darkness.

Suddenly the Grim Reaper looms in front of you, a scream leaps from your throat, your friends slam into your back, and you almost stumble to the ground.  Losing your balance and your head, you sprint past the ghostly apparition and soon come to a halt outside an abandoned shack.  Something rustles in the darkness behind you, and too afraid to look behind you, you take a deep breath and plunge into the creaking structure.  Bloody body parts swing from the ceiling and opaque sheets separate you from the haunts beyond.  Preoccupied by the movement of the gory limbs, you fail to notice the butcher until he jumps out at you.

Adrenaline pumping, gasping for breath you run ahead and shriek at the sight of another grotesque figure popping out at you. Ominous fog floods the ground, and eerie lights illuminate the path, but the horrors that lurk on every side stay hidden behind trees and scraps of metal.  A howl sounds in the distance, and you whimper with fear.  What comes after the first shack is a blur, a whirlwind of fear and doom.  Figures coming to life, statues that may not be statues, a school bus with frights in every row, a clump of grass that came to life and starting chasing you, psychedelic lights that prevent you from walking straight, and circus freaks (clowns and all) cackling, giggling, taunting you.

The bloodcurdling scream behind you sounds vaguely familiar, but at this point it’s every man for himself.  In the distance you see a pinprick of light, and it gradually gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

The Ghost of Apartment 14 

Our study abroad, two-week stay in Galway, Ireland in the summer of 2016 began like every other new day in a new place did. However, it quickly got rather, interesting…

Once safely ensconced in our new apartment, Sarah and I were roused from our dozes in our new bedrooms by Ryan, our third roommate, asking us with a bit of a quaver in his voice, “Have either of you have used the bathroom yet?”

When we answered no, Ryan, laughing with a panicky edge, asked Sarah and I to come look at the bathroom door handle. Before we got but a few steps down the creaky, sloped hardwood floors our bedroom doors slammed shut with what we assumed was just wind from our open windows. Reaching the bathroom and a wide-eyed Ryan, he just pointed our gaze to the handle, and there, in stark red was what looked like a bloody handprint.

Now being an almost religious watcher of all things crime shows I knew that the likelihood that for this mean anything besides the last person to use the bathroom had red paint or wet nail polish or something on their hand was an astronomically small chance, so we wiped the handle clean and left to enjoy the day. After a day of new sights and no small amount of getting lost, all five of us packed into the living to watch a movie or two and enjoy some Irish refreshments.

Bang! A door slammed shut somewhere down the hall, all of us jumped and looked at each other, for a few minutes we played around with the idea of air pressure and wind gusts and we quickly dismissed it. But the next day windows closed in the morning that were open when we went to sleep, and the skylight windows were open and then slammed shut. Throughout the two weeks we stayed in apartment 14, we heard doors creaking, closing, opening, voices when no one else is talking in the apartment, and people moving around in the apartment when no one else was home or even worse when Ryan, Sarah, Stuart, Rachel and I were all in the same room together.

The culminating ghostly behavior occurred on our second to last day in apartment 14. Ryan, whose room was the only one with a balcony, asked myself and our other roommate if we’d been out on his balcony last night. When we said no, just like for the door handle, Ryan informed us of the creepiest conclusion that this conversation could have had at that point. He woke up that morning and immediately saw a hand print pressed into the outside of our third story apartment sliding glass doors. His balcony had no access from the street and Ryan wasn’t outside that night at all.

Joking about all these occurrences and our friendly or at least apathetic ghost of apartment 14 with the other seven of our study abroad group, Nora a girl on our trip, told us that she looked up the construction of the apartments because she was confused how some of the student’s apartments opened onto the courtyard and some onto the street. She told us the following story:

“The man who made this entire apartment complex, made them with really cheap materials to make more money off the construction. In his hurry to get away with the low-cost construction he cut corners on obeying Ireland’s building codes, for example not having apartments be directly walk-up off the street. The backers for the project eventually found out about the contractor’s poor construction and code violations and were going to tear the place down and press charges against the contractor. Hearing all this through good old Irish gossip the contractor went to the apartments, walked up to apartment 15 and killed himself. And because of this the backers let the project stand and use the apartments for a long-stay hotel.”

At the point, understandably our group freaked out. Maybe this contractor is our apartment 14 ghost?

All I know is that Ireland to me felt like the thinnest place I have ever been in relation to how close you feel to some kind of otherworldliness when just walking down the streets of Galway or out in the middle of a ruin. While in Galway, I also experienced personally strange things. For example, a tattoo that I got on a Tuesday was completely healed by Wednesday night, my body’s responses to daily medication were going haywire, and all of this only occurred while inside the apartment. So whether you believe in ghosts or not, sometimes things happen that are a little too coincidental to overlook.

Happy ghost hunting and haunting this October, just watch out for the door handles near you.

The Heart and Soul of James Madison University