Image: Susan Bryant

Journey to a Night Flower
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 24 September 2018

For decades, my grandmother was the caretaker of a gangly, disorganized houseplant with nothing, so far as I could see, to recommend it. The plant was ugly, an awkward tangle of greenery fashioned from what seemed to be spare botanical parts: long stems that reached out in a vaguely threatening way and generated new stems, randomly, from within their own stretching expanses. Some of the stems were round and some of them were flat and some were almost serrated, and there were no leaves at all. It was less a plant than something out of a nightmare. As a little girl, I thought it might bite me. (more….)

Image: Annelise Capossela

The Gift of Menopause
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 5 August 2018

There are things I miss about being fertile. A waistline. Hair thick enough to hide my pink scalp and skin fitted enough to prove I have bones. Ovulation — those heady days each month when every cell was vibrating, when just the brush of my husband’s arm against mine could make unloading the dishwasher feel like foreplay. I truly miss ovulation. (more….)

Image: Getty Images

The Spider in My Life
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 23 July 2018

A small gray spider has pitched an elaborate camp at my work space in the family room. She is not an orb-weaver like E.B. White’s famous Charlotte. This spider’s web is a multilayered hammock-like construction strung between the leaves of the orchid I got for Mother’s Day and anchored by silken strands to the window frame in back and to an African violet and a desk lamp on either side. I don’t like to disturb my new deskmate, so I don’t water the plants. The orchid, a pink-and-purple confection with wide, glossy-green leaves, needs hardly any water. It is perfectly suited for this task. The African violet has seen better days. (more….)

Image: Susan Bryant

What It Means to Be Loved by a Dog
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 18 June 2018

There’s a story my husband has been telling for nearly 15 years, since not long after United States forces invaded Iraq. In a news report, American soldiers were going door to door with bomb-sniffing dogs, trying to persuade the citizens of Baghdad to adopt a well-trained pet. (more….)

Image: Andrea Morales for The New York Times

The Pain of Loving Old Dogs
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 25 February 2018

It’s 2 in the morning, and it has just started to rain. It’s a gentle rain, with no threat of high winds or lightning. I know this without having to get up to peer into the dark night or put on my glasses to check the weather app on my phone. I know the facts of this meteorological reality without even opening my eyes because there is a large dog with halitosis now standing beside my bed, panting. (more….)

Image: Tatsuro Kiuchi

Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 10 February 2018

The snow was three inches deep, a blizzard by Nashville standards, when I got a text from a parent supervising the neighborhood sledding: “It’s a robin migration out in your front yard. Do you put food out there for them?” I went to the window to look. There are nine different bird feeders around my house, but I’ve never seen a robin at a single one of them. (more….)

Image: Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos

Graceland, At Last
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 6 January 2018

In 1986, Paul Simon released his seventh solo album, “Graceland.” One year later, my fiancé Haywood and I moved to Nashville. Haywood was driving my father’s secondhand panel van with the fake woodgrain wraparound made of shelf liner that masked the previous owner’s business logo. Attached to the van was a trailer too heavy for the hitch. I was driving the Exploding Pinto, a nickname derived from that ancient model’s fuel-tank fires, and on top of the Pinto were several hundred pounds of books, provisionally contained in a homemade roof rack built of two-by-fours. (more….)

It’s Thanksgiving. Come On Home.
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 22 November 2017

I thought had escaped the beautiful, benighted South for good when I left Alabama for graduate school in Philadelphia in 1984, though now I can’t imagine how this delusion ever took root. At the age of twenty-two, I had never set foot any farther north than Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time I got to Philadelphia, I was so poorly traveled—and so geographically illiterate—I could not pick out the state of Pennsylvania on an unlabeled weather map on the evening news. (more….)

Image: Margaret Renkl

Holy, Holy, Holy
By Margaret Renkl
River Teeth, 17 July 2017

On the morning after my mother’s sudden death, before I was up, someone brought a basket of muffins, good coffee beans, and a bottle of cream—real cream, unwhipped—left them at the back door, and tiptoed away. I couldn’t eat. The smell of coffee turned my stomach, but my head was pounding from all the what ifs playing across it all night long, and I thought perhaps the cream would make a cup of coffee count as breakfast if I could keep it down. (more…)

Image: Antoine Maillard

Springtime’s Not-So-Peaceable Kingdom
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 4 June 2017

In spring, I search for nests. I part the branches of shrubs and low-limbed trees, peering into their depths for a clump of sticks and string and shredded plastic — the messy structure of a mockingbird’s nest. I squat and look upward for a cardinal’s tidy brown bowl. I stand even with the end of my house and look from the side into the ivy climbing the bricks, searching for a tiny avian hammock tucked into the leaves by house finches. I check the fern hanging under the eaves for the vortex tunnel built by a Carolina wren. (more…)

Image: Eleanor Taylor

Last Breath
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 26 February 2017

Weeks ago, when they first appeared in the neighborhood, I assumed they were starlings. A flock of starlings is the bane of the bird feeder — a vast, clamoring mob of unmusical birds soiling the windshields and lawn furniture, muscling one another aside so violently that no other birds dare draw near the suet. But this flock stayed high in the treetops, far from my feeders, too far away to recognize. Then a cold snap kept all the puddles frozen for days, and every bird in the ZIP code showed up at my heated birdbath to drink. (more….)

Image: Ansellia Kulikku

Late Migration
By Margaret Renkl
Guernica, 6 December 2016

Every monarch in the world is hatched on the leaf of a milkweed plant somewhere in the continental United States, and almost all of them spend winters on fir-covered mountains in central Mexico, in clumps so thick that tree branches can crash to the forest floor from their weight. (more….)

Image: Margaret Renkl

Quoth the Vulture ‘Nevermore’
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 31 October 2016

The rains we’ve been waiting for, yearning for, have finally arrived in our part of Tennessee, and the sugar maple leaves are falling now in great clots. Rain is falling and leaves are falling and my youngest son, like his brothers, has received his Selective Service card in the mail, and today I have returned to my house to find a lone black vulture standing in my front yard. (more…)

Red in Beak and Claw
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 31 July 2016

Two years ago, a day before the baby bluebirds were due to hatch, I checked the nest box just outside my office window and found a tiny hole in one of the eggs. Believing it must be the beginnings of a hatch, I resolved not to check again right away, though the itch to peek was nearly unbearable: I’d been waiting years for a family of bluebirds to take up residence, and finally an egg was about to shudder and pop open. (more…)

By Margaret Renkl
Proximity, 13 September 2016

It’s October, when your birthday always seems to fall on the most splendid day of the year. Even if it’s a work day, you must find some time to set aside your small whirring machines and your contentions. Maybe there is a creek that all summer has been still and dry and now is wet and tumbling with tiny twigs and leaves and sweetgum balls. Maybe there is a field gone golden with weeds, with finches perched in the seedcrowns. Maybe there is an old train track that hosts no trains but lays out a whole parade route of purple thistles, or a dirt road where the close pines have set down a thick carpet for your hurting feet. Maybe there is a lake where a bald eagle sometimes fishes, and you think to see it dive, to hear its wings rise up to break its fall, to watch its yellow feet pull a sleek brown fish from the green water.

(more …)

Caregiving: A Burden So Heavy Until It’s Gone
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 8 August 2015

“Marry an orphan,” my mother used to say, “and you can always come home for Christmas.” What she should have said was: “Marry an orphan, or you’ll have four parents to nurse through every torment life doles out on the long, long path to the grave.”

As it happens, I married the opposite of an orphan, a man whose relatives live deep into old age despite diseases that commonly fell others: cancer, sepsis, heart failure, emphysema. My husband’s elders get sick, and then they get sicker, but somehow they persevere.

(more …)

Teaching Sam to Drive
By Margaret Renkl
Ladies’ Home Journal, December 2007

“Okay, you have to slow WAY down here,” I’m saying. Sam, at the wheel, doesn’t respond. He’s not ignoring me; he’s concentrating too hard to speak. His hands, correctly positioned at 10 and 2 o’clock, grip the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles are white, and his face, furrowed in concentration, is beginning to turn red. It occurs to me to wonder if he’s actually holding his breath. Then it occurs to me to wonder if he’s forgotten how the brakes work on our 12-year-old Camry. This is not his first time behind the wheel, but he’s never parked before, and he’s approaching the last row of spaces in the supermarket lot without decelerating in the least.


Ode To Ralph
By Margaret Renkl
Parenting, October 2007

It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’ve had a bad dream, the kind that makes you afraid to go back to sleep. So I’m padding around the house, checking on my brood. Sam, 15, is all knobby legs and elbows sticking out of the trashed bedclothes. Seeing him now reminds me of the tiny clutch I used to feel standing in his doorway when we first moved him out of the crib: how small he seemed, how vulnerable, his knees tucked under his chest. “As long as he sleeps with his bottom in the air, he’s still a baby,” my mother used to say. But no one at my house sleeps with his bottom in the air anymore. Even Joe, 9 the baby of the family, is a smaller version of Sam, tangled up in the sheets, and the corners of his room are stuffed with bike helmets and baseball bats and lacrosse sticks.


What My Children Teach Me
By Margaret Renkl
Ladies’ Home Journal, October 2007

Four years ago, through a fluke of YMCA scheduling, my two younger sons ended up on the same fall soccer team. Sam, my eldest, had abandoned soccer years before in favor of baseball, so each week I had to sit through only one soccer practice instead of two, the Saturday obligation was over with one 40-minute game, and I had a single absurd jersey color to wash each week instead managing one load for fluorescent orange and another load for Barney purple. Plus, the coaches were brilliant—offering just the right combination of skills, encouragement, and gentle reminders that soccer players don’t tackle each other, especially not when they’re on the same team. I know a gift from God when I see it, so that team is exactly where my sons have stayed ever since. (Henry, 11, plays in his own age bracket; and Joe, 9, plays up.) All the other soccer moms I know are jealous. They think I’ve pulled off some kind of cosmic act of fraud. Isn’t total subservience to the demands of the league the whole point of being a soccer mom?