“You and your wife! You do whatever you want! The people who used to live here would never do that!”

The neighbor has made her way to our curb, walking precariously with the aid of a nurse. She is livid, and her wrath is aimed at my family.

We’ve never met this neighbor. She lives around the corner and down a bit. Apparently she was very good friends with our home’s prior owners, who have long since passed and whose family sold the property to us 13 years ago.

I scan the past decade to see what might have incensed her so. We cut down a pine tree last summer that was threatening to topple. We dug up a cluster of dead boxwoods last spring. A few years ago we hired someone to prune the gangly pines that border our property.

I know this house’s yard used to be a showstopper. The lady who lived here was an avid gardener. Neighborhood scribes tell us “The Washington Post” photographed the lawn each spring, heralding its blooming dogwoods and grape hyacinths.

I can’t compete. We moved in with young sons, who quickly parked their yellow plastic trucks under the dogwoods and began excavating the hyacinths. I spent a couple of summers trying to maintain order among the perennials, but boys and work and, well, life intervened. We sacrificed a swath of perennials for a vegetable garden; I’ve replaced the yard’s finicky plants with ones that thrive by neglect.

So, yes. There’s plenty to make this neighbor mad.

But my husband (who isn’t always so insightful) says the yard has nothing to do with it.

“She misses the old people,” he whispers after her harangue.

He may have a point.

My friend Karen says people have a tendency to get “stuck.” Old habits, bad memories — even happy times — can stifle our growth. We’re so busy dwelling on what was that we fail to embrace what is.

That’s certainly true in my own life. When we moved here from Tampa 13 years ago, I left a church and community that I dearly loved. They became the standard by which I measured everything in my new life. They became the yardstick by which nothing here ever measured up. As years passed and I lost touch with my old cadre, I still held a bit of myself back, reserving my full embrace for a memory.

I got unstuck last summer, when we traveled back to Florida for a week. It was the height of August. Many of my old friends were on vacation. Some had moved. Some were just busy with the lives they live now and had no time for coffee and remembrances.

“Wow,” I remember thinking. “I’ve been mourning something that doesn’t even exist.”

I think that’s where my neighbor is. She and the former owners of our house were original buyers in this neighborhood. They were young housewives together; they raised their children together. They probably belonged to the same church and the same clubs. Judging from the appearance of her yard even today, I’m sure they gardened together.

Maybe she isn’t really exasperated with me. Rather, she’s mourning the loss of her friend. The loss of a way of life.

The loss of time.

The nicest thing I can do is extend some compassion and understanding her way. Maybe I’ll invite her for an afternoon of tea and biscuits. She can tell me how the neighborhood used to be.

(And give me some gardening tips.)

Sweet Potato Biscuits


I have no idea where I got this recipe. I found it tucked in the “appetizer” section of my recipe file. You’re supposed to make tiny biscuits from the buttery, shaggy dough, then stuff them with honey, mustard and ham. I make bigger biscuits and use them to sop up the juices from vegetarian soups and chili. They’re delicious either way.

  • 1 large sweet potato
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, very cold
  • 1/3 cup cold, shaken buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Prick the sweet potato all over with a fork. Place it on a greased baking sheet or pie plate and roast until tender, about 1 hour.

Cool the potato slightly, then peel it and mash it well. Set it aside.

Increase your oven’s temperature to 425 degrees. Grease a 9-inch baking pan and set it aside.

Whisk the flour, dark brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda together in a large bowl.

Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until it’s well distributed and you have pea-sized clumps.

Combine the buttermilk and 3/4 cup of the mashed sweet potato in a small bowl. Stir well, then add to the flour and butter mixture.

Toss everything gently with a fork until the dough comes together. It’s going to be a little dry and very shaggy.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat it into a circle that’s about 1 inch high.

Using a 1 1/2- to 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out biscuits. After making one pass, press the scraps together and continue cutting out biscuits until you have no dough left.

Place the biscuits in your greased cake pan. (Their sides should lightly touch.) Brush them with melted butter, then bake for 20-25 minutes.

When the biscuits are done, cool them for 10 minutes, then remove them from the pan. Serve immediately, or let them cool slightly.