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Surprising Teacher Gifts

“Open mine next! Mama said you’d like it. Is that your favorite color? Mom said everybody needed what I got you.” My students sat on the floor at my feet, and they were excited while I opened the pile of Christmas gifts on my desk. And often, they were just as surprised as I was by the gifts they gave.

During my teaching career, I taught third, fourth, and sixth graders, and parents – usually mothers – purchased gifts for teachers. So when children shouted, “Open mine next!” it was because they wanted to know what they were giving.

When I taught, poplar teacher gifts were Christmas pins and tree ornaments. I have ornaments, with students’ names written on the back, that I still put on my tree each year. And I’ve kept some pins, but the ones with the words ‘Best Teacher Ever’ were quickly stored away.

Some gifts weren’t typical teacher presents. A 3rd grade boy hung his head as he handed me a wrapped package and told me his mother had picked it out. It was a Teflon pie pan. I thanked Steven, hugged him, and assured him it was a great gift because I didn’t have a pie pan like that one. My assurances didn’t help. The other children had beamed when I held glittery red Christmas ornaments and pinned one more pin on my red sweater. This little guy couldn’t be consoled. Later his mother told me that he’d wanted to give me a sparkly Christmas tree pin, but she wanted me to have a pie pan like hers. This was a lesson. Years later, I wanted my own children to like the teacher gifts they gave.

Sometimes students told me about the cost of their gifts. When a girl gave me a store-wrapped package with gold paper and a red bow, I knew where the gift had been purchased and most items there weren’t typical teacher gifts. It was tree ornaments – a pair of beautiful green-feathered birds. As the students and I oohed and aahed, the gift giver said, “I picked them out and momma said you’d better like them because they cost a lot.” For the past twenty-five years, these two birds have decorated my tree and I still like them.

One boy was really proud of his gift and said his mother thought every teacher should be able to use it and it’d be different from everyone else’s. She was right – no one else gave me a photo album and I did use it. When I thanked him, he said, “Momma got a really good deal on it. It was on sale for half price and she had a coupon.” And then he told me exactly how much the album cost.

Students taught me that the gifts they give should be something they like, no matter what the mothers and the teachers think or the cost. Children give from their hearts.

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Christmas Then and Now

That tree, the one in the middle of the field, looked perfect. Not too wide. Just the right height. Except when we got close, we saw bagworms. This wouldn’t be our Christmas tree. When I was a child, my family went to our farm to cut a cedar tree. Sometimes Mom stayed home and baked sugar cookies and made hot chocolate, using Hershey’s cocoa and sugar, and sometimes she went with Dad, my brother Roger, and me.

Dad drove the tractor, a red International Cub, and I sat on the seat with him so I could steer, but Dad kept his hands resting on the steering wheel. Roger and Mom walked beside the tractor unless it was really cold and then she drove the family car as far as it was safe on the dirt road.

We passed the white wooden house where Dad’s grandparents had lived and where he was born. No one lived in the dilapidated farmhouse in the late 1950s and the tobacco base and pastureland were rented to a neighboring farmer.

At the foot of Huddleston Knob in Pickett County, cedar trees were plentiful, but choosing the right one took time. Like the one with bagworms, other trees appeared perfect from a distance, but closer they were much too wide or had a gaping hole with no branches. Dad traipsed from tree to tree holding out his arms to gauge a tree’s width and standing tall to his full 6’ 2” to estimate a tree’s height.

When we finally chose one, Dad and Roger chopped it down and we carried it home, a few miles away, tied to the top of the car. One side of the tree was always thinner with fewer branches so that side faced the living room picture window. Because Mom wanted the metal star placed at the treetop to graze the ceiling, Dad cut an inch at a time off the tree’s trunk until it was exactly the height she wanted.

My two oldest Grands, ages 11 and 13, went to their family’s basement last week and lugged a cardboard box to their living room. Elsie and Samuel opened the box and unpacked the sections of their 8’ tall artificial tree. They lay the pieces on the floor to determine which one had the longest branches and would be at the bottom of the tree. They and their parents stacked and secured each section to build their Christmas tree.

Then they adjusted the long metal branches so that they looked like a tree that had been cut in the woods.   And the whole family fluffed the pine needles on each limb, unfolding and ruffling the small plastic twigs that have been squashed in a box for eleven months.

I cherish the memory of cutting a tree in the woods. But, you know what, my Grands will cherish their memory of putting up their Christmas tree too because they’ll remember family time. Time together – that’s the happy memory.

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Rich Memories are Stirred up Looking Through Mom’s Old Recipe Box

I looked through Mom’s collection of 3 x 5 index recipe cards one more time. Surely, I’d find her corn bread dressing recipe. Surely, Mom wrote it down and filed it in her wooden recipe box. Surely, I overlooked it when I searched before.

Thanksgiving is about traditional foods that have been served by grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Mom always made the dressing to go with the turkey and giblet gravy, and after her death more than twenty-five years ago, I used recipes from cookbooks to make it for family gatherings. Last week I touched every recipe card in Mom’s file. The one recipe I wanted wasn’t there. I’ve determined the reason is the recipe was in her head. She seasoned by taste and added broth by feel.

But I discovered something I hadn’t noticed previously. Almost every recipe includes two ingredients: sugar and butter. And many include flour. Mom’s file is full of desserts: pies, cookies, cakes, and candies. Those are the labeled tab dividers. The tab labeled casserole doesn’t have a single card behind it, but Mom added another category: Rolls, Biscuits, Cornbread. She was a meat- and-three cook, a really good one, and she didn’t need recipes except for desserts and some breads. Her fried chicken and chicken and dumplings were the best ever. She cooked fall-apart beef roast in a pressure cooker and smothered liver with onions. She fried tender pork chops in a black skillet, then used the drippings for gravy. No recipes needed.

I also discovered Mom and I collected many of the same recipes, and I don’t know why I didn’t get them from her. Pecan Pie. Oatmeal Cookies. Angel Biscuits. Chess Squares. Sugar Cookies. Her Old Southern Light Cornbread recipe is exactly like the one I cut from a Southern Living magazine.

Like most cooks of her generation, Mom recorded many recipes using paper and pen. Reading her handwriting brings a lump to my throat. She wrote neatly and concisely, omitting every ‘the, an, a’ and her directions were simple. The last notes on most cards are numbers, such as 350º, 45 minutes.

My favorite finds are Never Fail Pie Crust and Southern Pecan Pie*. I wonder why I didn’t notice these recipes before and made them my own. Mom could make piecrust blindfolded and she always made two. One she put in the refrigerator for another day. Studying her recipe for pecan pie, I now know why the flavor of my pie isn’t as rich as Mom’s was. My recipe is exactly like hers except she used dark Karo syrup and I’ve always used light. (Dark is made with molasses and light corn syrup that is flavored with vanilla.)

For our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow, I’ll have to use the corn bread dressing recipe I’ve created, combining several recipes, and titled “Dressing Most like Mom’s.” But the pecan pie I’ll serve my cousins and sister-in-law and their children will be exactly like Mom’s. As close as I can make it.

*Recipes online at susanrray.com

Earth’s Biggest Natural Spa

A trip to Israel wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Dead Sea. The lowest place on Earth, sitting about 1300 feet below sea level and one of Earth’s saltiest bodies of water, ten times saltier than oceans. And my trip wouldn’t have been complete without floating on the Dead Sea. Not floating in, floating on.

The Dead Sea lies at the edge of the Judean desert where rainfall averages 2½ inches per year and is fed by the Jordan River.   Freezing temperatures never occur here. January’s temperatures average 60º and summertime temperatures hover between 90º-100º.

As I walked one block from my hotel on the sidewalk toward the Dead Sea, the October blue sky was filled with soft fluffy clouds. The beach looked like resort beaches. A snack bar. White plastic lounge chairs. Palm trees.

“Just walk in and lie back,” the tour guide had said. “Don’t try to turn over and swim. Don’t get the water in your mouth or eyes. And if you have cuts or scraps on your skin, you’ll feel the burn of salt.”

I saw friends from my tour group in the water so I put my towel on a chair nearby and kicked off my flip-flops at the water’s edge. A friend, wearing street clothes, said, “Are you sure you want to get in that water? I felt it with my hand. It’s really slimy and oily.” I nodded and smiled.

I avoided stepping on the scattered salt rocks that dotted the shallow water, took a few steps and stopped. I should have realized the salt rocks would be denser in deeper water and have sharp edges, like coral.   The bottoms of my feet hurt, but my flip-flops were far out of reach. Thankfully, a friend saw my dilemma and handed my shoes to me so I could walk until the water was above my knees. I lowered myself into the water.

What a strange sensation to lie completely still and feel as if I were on an invisible float. Only the heels of my feet and the back of my body were underwater. I raised my head and put both arms to my sides and continued to float. As I waved my hand high toward a camera, drops of water splashed onto my lips. It tasted like sticking my tongue in a bowl of salt.

I wasn’t concerned about being bitten by fish or bothered by other animals. Nothing, not animals nor plants, can live in the extreme salinity. This body of water, also called the Salt Sea, is a place for healing. The extremely high salt and mineral content is said to help people with arthritis, respiratory problems, and chronic skin conditions.

Floating on the Dead Sea was calming. I liked the smooth, slightly oily feeling, and the ability be still and completely relax in warm water. No wonder this body of water is known as earth’s biggest natural spa.

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An Unforgettable Parade

I’ve never seen a parade I didn’t like. From Fourth of July neighborhood parades where kids ride tricycles and wear blue shorts and red and white striped shirts to Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City, which I’ve only seen on television. And I try to never miss TTU’s Homecoming parades featuring floats made by Tech students and marching bands from many area high schools.

But one parade stands out in my memory. A parade I didn’t plan to watch. Didn’t even realize I was in the right place at the right time until I braked at a stop sign on Washington Avenue and saw a few people standing on the sidewalk. Samuel, my oldest Grand who was 11 at the time, was riding in my van with me.

“What’s happening here?” Samuel asked. I shrugged my shoulders and then looked across the street and saw a military vehicle, young people carrying the American flag and other flags, and some older men dressed in military uniforms. Then I remembered the date and that I’d read about a planned parade.

“It’s the Veteran’s Day Parade,” I said and immediately decided we would join the people on the sidewalk. I don’t remember every detail of that parade, but there were no floats. No fancy cars decorated with crepe paper and balloons. No clowns. No motorcycles. No horses. No candy thrown to spectators. And only one band, but not even all the members of the Cookeville High School marching band.

The band members played patriotic marching songs and members of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, carrying the flags led. Veterans marched or rode in military jeeps and trucks. Veterans from all branches of the military. Veterans of all ages. Most the age of grandparents. Some walking very slowly. All dressed in uniform.

The veterans carried their shoulders and chins high and acknowledged those of us who applauded quietly to say thank you. Slight head nods and closed mouth smiles were the veterans’ responses to our expressions of appreciation.

This Veteran’s Day parade was short. As the last veteran walked past, Samuel looked up at me. I wiped the back of my hands across my eyes and he asked, “Gran, why are you crying?”

To me, the veterans represented all who have served in the United States Armed Forces, including my father and brother. Dad served in the Army at the end of WW II, and Roger was stationed in Spain for three years while in the Air Force. And I thought of a high school classmate who lost his life fighting in Viet Nam.

Monday, November 12, at 11:00 a.m. we are all invited to honor our veterans at the Putnam County Veterans Day Parade. There will be a short opening ceremony at the courthouse, and then the parade will proceed along Broad Street from North Washington Avenue to the Cookeville Depot. Anyone interested in more information should contact a Veteran’s Service Officer at 931-526-2432.

Let’s line Broad Street to honor those who have served our country.

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Trained and Ready to Ride

Beside my driver’s license in my wallet, I have a new license that states, “The carrier of this card has personally been trained to ride camels professionally.”

To get this training, I travelled with a tour group to Tel Aviv, Israel, and then we rode a bus to the Judean Desert, near Mavo, Jericho and the Dead Sea. A metal sign outside a small building welcomed us to Genesis Land, advertised as where the patriarchs of the Old Testament lived. We saw the Jordan Valley, one of the deepest land trenches on earth, stretching to the horizon.

Six camels lay ten steps from the building’s entrance. Chewing their cuds, they ignored us tourists as we admired them, and I marveled how their legs folded and they lay with their bellies flat on the sand. Inside the building, we were given riding directions. Climb on and off a camel only under a guide’s instruction. Hold on tight to the metal bar with both hands at all times. And choose a tunic to wear while riding.

Marilyn, my traveling friend, and I chose green tunics and raised our hands when asked, “Who’s ready to ride?” The camels, dromedaries, were outfitted with double saddles. Over each camel’s one hump, was a metal and leather saddle with two seats and raised metal bars for riders to hold. “Just throw your leg over and hold the bar,” the guide said. “When the camel stands, she’ll raise her front legs half way up, then her back legs, so hold on.”

As our camel stood, Marilyn and I were thrown backward and then forward, and I spontaneously named her when I shouted, “Whoa, Nellie!” We settled into the flat saddles, and Nellie was the third camel of six tied together with ropes.

A guide led only the first camel so Nellie had some leeway. She wandered from the center of the twelve-foot wide path to the edge that dropped off at least 500 feet and sitting astride Nellie, it looked like 5000 feet. Nellie’s hooves were inches from the edge while she nibbled leaves of a palm tree and when the tied rope became taut, she moved quickly to the side and forward at the same time. Marilyn and I clutched the metals bars tightly, knuckle-white tightly. “Does she think she’s a Kentucky race horse?” Marilyn said.

Camels aren’t graceful. Because they walk using the legs on the same side of their body at the same time, it creates a swaying motion for riders. Marilyn and I were just getting our movements in sync with Nellie’s when our ride ended.

“Hold on and lean back. Her front legs go down first,” the guide told us. Marilyn and I leaned as far back as we could and we both stayed centered and astride Nellie as she lowered herself and us.

There was only one thing I didn’t like about riding a camel. The ride was too short. But now that I have a license to ride camels professionally, I can ride again. Maybe across a desert, a very small one.

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Glimpses of Israel

After a ten-day trip to Israel, I struggle to string words together. Maybe it’s the twenty-six hours of being awake and travel, with only catnaps. A bus ride from hotel to the Tele Aviv airport. A long wait to check-in, followed by a 11½ hour flight to Newark, New Jersey. Lines for U. S. customs and to board another plane. A two-hour flight to Nashville. A car ride, arriving home at 12:30 a.m.

Jet lag is a real disorder and is surely partially responsible for my lack of concentration. But as I begin this column for the umpteenth time, I realize the main reason I’m struggling is that I’d like to share everything I saw and experienced. That’s impossible. I travelled with a church tour group and many experiences were religious, but I’ll only share a few glimpses of Israel’s geography and its culture.

Tele Aviv is a huge city with billboards, traffic lights, and tall buildings, just like U. S. cities, except the gray or white buildings are rectangular shaped, void of decoration. As our group of 40 tourists travelled north toward Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, I sat glued to the bus window. Dry grasses and short evergreen trees (the same as here, except cedar trees don’t grow in Israel) grew on the rolling hillsides that were dotted with limestone boulders, the size of beach balls and much larger. Tall trees were dusty, as if sprinkled with dull gray and brown glitter.

Along a two-lane road, compact cars zipped around our bus, and a man, dressed in muted brown clothing including a head wrap, rode an older model bicycle on the road’s shoulder. When we passed a small picnic area, I wondered if he would stop there.

Crops are grown with irrigation along the Jordan River valley between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Under white cloth coverings, date palm trees appeared decorated with blue plastic bags, but those bags are to protect and catch the clusters of fruit. Olive tree groves fill hillsides.

I expected deserts, like those I’ve seen in our western states, but my mouth dropped when I saw the massive brown rocks and sand mounds, like mountains. “How big?” my nine-year-old Grand asked yesterday. “You know how tall the Smokey Mountains are? Well, take off the trees and imagine caramel colored rocks and sand dunes,” I said.

We visited Masada National Park, an ancient fortress built atop a 1500-foot high plateau. We rode a cable car instead of hiking the winding switchbacks, the Snake Trail, to see the ruins of King Herod’s Palace that was built beginning about 30 B.C. We sat on stone synagogue benches and saw cisterns, bathhouses, living quarters, even holes formed in stone slabs for cooking.   Looking east, a thirty-minute drive away, was the Dead Sea, and in all other directions were stone mountains and desert to the horizon. Pictures can’t capture the vastness.

No wonder people travelled on camels through this desert, and I looked forward to riding one. That’s next week’s column.

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