Essays

Image: William DeShazer for The New York Times

Waking Up to History
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 1 April 2019

Like many girls of my generation in the rural South, I learned every form of handwork my grandmother or great-grandmother could teach me: sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting. I even learned to tat, a kind of handwork done with a tiny shuttle that turns thread into lace. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting on the edge of my great-grandmother’s bed, our heads bent together as she pulled out my mangled stitches. (more….)


Image: Margaret Renkl

It’s For the Birds (and Us, Too)
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 11 February 2019

It was 18 degrees in Nashville on Jan. 30, the day I made up my mind to participate this year in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which runs Feb. 15-18. By the time I got around to signing up, it was 70 degrees outside and raining torrentially, breaking a rainfall record that had stood since 1884. Tornado sirens were wailing for hours, setting back all my efforts to rehabilitate our traumatized little rescue dog by what I’m guessing will be weeks. (more….)


Image: William DeShazer

The Gift of Shared Grief
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 4 February 2019

When my mother died in 2012, she left behind a huge collection of memorabilia. Not just the usual love letters, family photographs and cherished recipe cards but also random items that almost no one else bothers to save. Things that meant something to her but whose meaning she never explained to me. (more….)


Image: William DeShazer for The New York Times

The Blessing of a Rescue Dog
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 27 January 2019

The scruffy little dog of indeterminate origin — she’s either a beagle mix or a terrier mix, depending on which veterinarian is guessing — reaches the end of the driveway and sits down. A gentle tug on the leash merely inspires the dog to lower herself completely, her face on her front paws. A treat offered in exchange for progress on this “walk” yields no better results. (more….)


Image: Billy Renkl

The Christmas Time Capsule
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 24 December 2019

It would be fair to call my home décor aesthetic the opposite of a Pottery Barn catalog. In theory, I would love to live in a Pottery Barn catalog, but in practice, I’m too much of a pack rat to be comfortable among spare furnishings in rich earth tones. Our house looks like an ongoing estate sale. (more….)


Image: Getty Images

The Solace of Birds in Winter
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 14 December 2018

In the search for comfort in the face of so many 21st-century dangers — to democracy in the age of fake news, to the natural world in the age of climate change — I don’t normally think of winter as offering much in the way of consolation. (more….)


Image: Margaret Renkl

Remembrance of Recipes Past
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times,

All fall, in random hours, I’ve been looking for my great-grandmother’s recipe for corn cakes. I have a perfectly serviceable recipe for everyday cornbread, but it’s nothing like those corn cakes I find myself returning to in memory. (more….)


Image: Annelise Capossela

How To Rake Leaves on a Windy Day
By Margaret Renkl
The New York Times, 11 November 2018

Leaf blowers are like giant whining insects that have moved into your skull. They are swarming just behind your eyes, drilling deep inside your teeth. Leaf blowers have ruined autumn with their insistent whine and their noxious fumes, and they are everywhere. (more….)


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. 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. (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. (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. (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: Billy Renkl

Recompense
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. (more….)


Image: Jon Han

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.” (more….)