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In Case of an Emergency

Omni House Parker Hotel. Boston. Monday. 9:25 a.m. The day begins with coffee and sweet rolls in the room. Leisurely, my college girlfriend, Alicia, and I brush our teeth, put on shoes, and listen for four girlfriends to knock on our door. Today is the first day to sightsee and celebrate our birthdays, our friendships that began in 1965 when we were Tennessee Tech freshman.

June and Kathy knock. We hug and greet. A loud voice thru the hotel intercom interrupts our conversation. Something like, “The Parker House uses voice messages to notify guests of emergencies. We are concerned for your safety. In case of an emergency, you will be given directions after this message.” The message repeats.

June, a retired school principal, says, “Well, that brings back memories of fire drills at…” The intercom breaks in. “Evacuate the hotel immediately. Go to the nearest stairway and down the steps.” June opens our room door. The message repeats. I throw my iPhone into my purse. Alicia says, “You go on. I’m just going to put a coat of clear polish on my nails.” The message repeats.

“No, you’re not. Grab your purse. We’re going,” I say. Alicia follows June and Kathy to the hallway. There is no sign of fire or smoke. As I follow my friends, the evacuation announcement continues. I pray our other two friends are safe.

Near the stairwell, a room door opens. A woman holds a baby in arms. Two young children stand beside her. My grandmother instincts kick in. I take one step toward them and note fright on the toddler girl’s face. No, this child doesn’t need a stranger to add to her fear.

My friends and I fall into the single file line down the steps from the fifth floor. I grip the rail with one hand and my purse with the other. No one says a word. I look down, planting my feet on the steps. Stay calm; don’t be scared I say silently. Fourth floor. No one hurries. Mechanical walking. Shuffling of feet. No talking.

My hair covers my eyes. If I fall, people will stumble. “I have to stop to get my hair out of my eyes,” I say. An unknown voice replies, “Thanks for the warning.”

I tuck my hair behind my ears. Sling my purse onto my shoulder. One more flight.

Hotel employees hold the lobby doors open and stand to form a walkway to guide us outside. Police officers and firefighters stand in the lobby. No one speaks. My friends and I find a place on the sidewalk to stand. A phone call confirms our other two friends are outside and walking toward us.

Two fire trucks are parked in the street. Firefighters sit in the cab. The hotel intercom blasts, “All clear. Have a good day. Thank you for your cooperation.” My friends and I hug each other.

Kathy says what each of us thinks. All clear. The best words of the day. Another reason to celebrate.

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What Children Believe

I read an article in Reader’s Digest about silly things people believed when they were kids and I knew my friends had such stories. Things they thought were true, but weren’t.

Mary Jo showed her three-year-old son a picture of her mother and explained that his grandmother was dead. Mary Jo asked if he knew what that meant. Her son responded, “Yes, it means the batteries ran down.”

Brenda believed the sun and the moon were the same because she never saw them in the sky together.

Amy was sure there really was a man in the moon. She was so afraid of him she wouldn’t look out a big living room window when the moon was full.

Elaine made sure her bedroom window blinds were down at night because she believed UFOs would get in her room if she didn’t.

Anita thought when it rained God was crying and storms meant that God was angry with folks who didn’t behave.

Jan believed that the only thing people did in Heaven was float on big clouds. She didn’t think that was interesting and couldn’t understand the hype she heard in Sunday school classes.

Dana believed a baby’s first clothes were made from threads the mother accidentally swallowed while sewing.   Babies were born wearing pretty rompers. She also thought all women were good seamstresses because those in her family were.

My son thought everyone’s mom had summers off work. “You, Aunt Brenda, Jan and Marilyn (neighbors) were off. I thought that’s just the way it was.” We were all public school teachers.

 

Seeing pictures of penguins in books and on television, Andrea thought penguins were huge, six feet tall. She was surprised when she saw a live one.

Julie was young when she found a cicada wing, a big see-through wing with black veins. She was sure it was a fairy wing and saved it, wrapped in cotton and inside a tiny box, for a long time.

Kae’s older sister, by 8 years, told her the police dropped her off for her family to take care of and if she ever told a lie, or even fibbed a little, the family was to call the police to come back and take her away. For several years, Kae believed her.

Sara’s dad, a doctor, delivered one of her male classmates on exactly the same day she was born. Sara’s older brother said the babies were switched so her family would have a girl. As elementary students, Sara and the boy had the same eye and hair color and the boy’s name was her father’s middle name. Sara believed.

Janna thought people in jail were in charge of changing the traffic lights.

Hearing a song on the radio, I thought the singer stood in the radio station building and sang into a microphone. My big brother laughed hard when I wondered how the singers travelled to different towns so fast.

These beliefs make me smile. Being naïve, the innocence of children.

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The Big White House

I’ve driven by the big white house a thousand times. And one day, I stopped. The owner, Gib Taylor, had issued an invitation. “So you finally got here to see your great-grandparents home place,” he said and smiled and offered his hand to shake mine.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a good family history student when I could have asked my mother questions. Almost twenty years after Mom’s death I questioned her sister, Aunt Doris, about the white house close to my grandparents’ home. Aunt Doris said, “You mean Grandpa and Grandma Bertram’s house?” I frowned and her husband, Uncle Hugh, chuckled.

“That big white house? It’s the Sam Bertram house?” I asked. I’d heard stories about my great-grandparents’ house. “I thought the Sam Bertram house was gone. How could I not know that was the house?”

Uncle Hugh shook his head, laughed, and said, “You didn’t listen.” The truth hurt.

The house sits on Livingston Highway in Byrdstown, Tennessee, and was built in the early 1900s by my great-grandfather, Samuel Bertram and two of his sons, one my Papa. The road in front of it was dirt. Aunt Doris remembered the house as an enchanted place. There was a grape arbor on one side yard and rose bushes on the other. Behind the house was an old spring where moss grew.

Sam and Sarah Bertram’s home was a gathering place for their children and grandchildren. Family celebrations were held around the long table right beside the kitchen. After meals, the men swapped stories on the front porch, and the women washed dishes and then visited in the front parlor. And family pictures were made in front of the grape arbor.

According to Aunt Doris, the family gathered for special events, like watching the circus travel on the muddy road. Elephants walking in a line. Lions and tigers in big cages pulled by horses.

After my grandparents married, the newlyweds lived in this house. Upstairs in the biggest bedroom. So on my visit, I was eager to see the house, and Gib, who’d lived there since 2001, had planned my visit. He had mowed paths to the barn and water well.

“Here’s the barn. Probably been here since your great-grandpa kept horses in it,” Gib said. No picture could capture the smell of this century old barn. The feel of the animals that once slept in the stalls. The well where my great-grandparents lowered a bucket and brought it back up filled with water. The concrete box that held water in the 1930s.

Inside the house, Gib led me through each room. “You may not want to go upstairs. The steps are tricky.” I tiptoed on the narrow steps. The wide hallway is where my great-grandmother shelved books for a neighborhood lending library.

I found the biggest bedroom. “This is the room I wanted to see,” I said. “My grandparents’ room. My mother was born here in 1918.”

So now I drive by and am thankful for this house. Its stories. Its owner, who welcomed me.

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Straight Line Winds Hit

Screen Shot 2017-06-01 at 7.18.16 AMLast Saturday night, most of us were carrying on normally, not expecting damaging weather. Husband and I hosted our supper group, friends who have gathered around each other’s dining room tables for decades. Lightning flashed. We heard, and ignored, the rain and the wind.

The lights flickered and then darkness. Of course, someone kidded that we should’ve paid our electric bill. We waited for the lights to come on. “Well, this is a first. We’ve never eaten in the dark,” someone said. I made a mental note to always use candles as part of the table decorations.

Eventually, someone turned on the flashlight on an iPhone. Using it, I found the box of candles stored under a bathroom sink. Christmas red glitter candles, white candles, fall candles. Some tall, some short. Each set on a glass plate and lit. Two under glass globes brighten the dining table.

“Luckily, I turned on the coffeemaker before dinner and we can have coffee with dessert,” I said. We cut pies, scooped ice cream, and poured coffee in the glow of candlelight. All seemed well as we talked and told stories of past times the power went off.

And then a text was received from a someone’s adult child. “Are you okay? Trees and power lines down everywhere.” The message was read aloud three times before we all listened. Another adult child sent a similar message. “Stay put. It’s bad out here.” We were being told by our children to not go out of the house. That was a turnaround from years past.

Twenty minutes later, through phone texts, we all confirmed that our children and grandchildren were safe. By candlelight, we cleared the table, scraped dishes, divvied leftovers, and took our children’s advice.

We settled on the sofa and comfortable chairs and someone told a joke. And that reminded someone of another joke and another. And soon, jokes were just a few words: “Remember that one about the train.” We laughed hard. We reminisced funny past group experiences. Hee-hawing and cackling.

During a moment of quiet, someone said, “So if we’re asked what we did Saturday night when the lights went out, we’ll say ‘Just sat around and told jokes with old friends.’ ” The evening ended. All got home safely, detouring to avoid blocked roads.

Through the night, the city employees and volunteers worked to restore electrical power and clear roads. And Sunday morning, like so many people, Daughter and Son-in-Law and their children discovered their yard covered with large limbs, branches, and twigs. They called a friend and asked to borrow his truck. He brought his truck, his chain saw, and his children. Two other families pitched in. The dads sawed, big kids carried big limbs, little kids toted branches. Hours later, the yard was cleared.

I hope such fierce winds never hit again. It’s a time Husband and I will never forget and Daughter’s family won’t either. We’ll remember the winds, the darkness, the damage, and most of all, the friends.

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What’s your Advice to Graduates?

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 7.56.24 AMTake care of the little things, and the big things take care of themselves. That’s my advice. No matter how old the graduate. A six-year-old moving on from kindergarten or an eighteen-year-old headed to college or a university graduate ready for that first real job. Life is about little things.

            Children don’t learn to read a book. They learn the sounds of letters and how those sounds combine to make words. The words become phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and finally, a book. School assignments divided into small parts can be mastered. One problem completed begins a thirty-problem math assignment. Gathering materials for a science experiment is a small task.

In the workplace, few people begin in their ideal position. They do the mundane work so fellow employees can finish a big project. It’s documented that workers who do small things, such as get to work on time and complete tedious tasks well, have better chances for advancement.

I’m not sure when I first heard about little and big things. Maybe from Mom as she stood over me and taught me to thread her sewing machine and then sew. And finally complete a dress for the 4-H contest. Or when Dad insisted I make an outline for a fifth grade oral book report.

By my high school days taking care of little things became my motto, even though I didn’t always follow it. When I was a first year teacher, I was jerked from failing an enormous task. I was overwhelmed. Too many students, too many lessons, too many meetings and conferences, too many papers, too many bulletin boards. A wise principal handed me a tissue to wipe my tears of frustration and told me to go back to my classroom and teach math for one hour. Do one small thing.

My motto has served me well. I preached it to myself while raising children.   Swaddle tightly. Wipe up spilled milk. Wash diapers. Get them to school on time. For supper, serve two foods they’ll eat.

I preached it to my elementary students. Do daily homework. Write one paragraph. Memorize the multiples of 2, then work up thru 12s.

I’ve recited my motto to Daughter and Son and my Grands. And sometimes I get it back. Elaine, age 6, told me last week that I had to measure exactly ¾ cup water or the strawberry jam we were making wouldn’t turn out right. “It’s just a little thing, Gran.”

My maxim isn’t original. During the 19th century, Emily Dickinson wrote, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things.” John Wooten, who coached the UCLA basketball team to ten national championships beginning in the 1960s, said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Take care of the little things. Words to live by. For people of all ages.

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The Joys of Five-Year Old Grands

downloadI don’t like that two of my Grands are having birthdays. Elaine and Dean, born one month apart, and a thousand miles from each other, are turning six. An age when some imagination and excitement wanes.

Elaine creates a family out of everything, anything. She lined up crackers on her lunch plate. “Look, Gran. It’s a daddy and mommy and three kids.” They went on an adventure in the park. They played ball and ran through a creek. The littlest kid fell and hurt his knee. “It’s okay. His mommy put a Band Aid on it,” Elaine said.

She likes to take a bath at my house to play with the yellow rubber ducks. (Those same ducks I wrote about once before.) “Do you know how a daddy duck drinks water?” my Grand asked and then she held the biggest duck’s head under water. “He gulps really big!” The mommy duck gulped just a little. “The baby can’t gulp. The mommy has to help him.” Elaine held two ducks close together, bill to bill.

Dean plays balloons. “Gran, let’s play find the balloon! I’ll go first,” he said. I closed my eyes until he shouted, “Okay, look now!” I searched his family’s living room and named places as I searched for the red balloon he had hidden. Not under the couch. Not on the table. Not in his ear. Dean laughed. I sat on the floor and pretended not to notice his jacket over the balloon beside my foot. “Gran, look!” he shouted.

“Give me a clue,” I said. He opened his eyes wide and pointed toward my foot and giggled. I lifted my foot, shook my head. Dean fell on the floor and laughed.

“Gran!” He jerked his jacket off the balloon. “I win!” he said.

Then the balloon was a ball. “Let’s count how many times we hit it,” Dean said. How many times could he and I hit it and keep it up in the air? Each time the balloon touched the floor for the next twenty minutes, my Grand said, “Let’s try again.”

Elaine and Dean are easily entertained. Read a book. They shout out words they know. Build a skyscraper with blocks or Legos or rocks. They show off their ability to count to 100. Dig in the dirt. Look for worms and bugs. Draw silly pictures with funny faces. Line up matchbox cars to race. Sort cars by color and size. Learning is fun.

And no one giggles about underwear like a 5-year-old. “Gran, don’t look. I’m taking off my underwear,” Dean said and giggled. I stood in the bathroom to supervise his bath. Another time, Elaine handed her dirty clothes to me after her bath and said, “Did you know my underwear stinks? Smell!” She snickered and ran from me.

Last week I gave Elaine her birthday present, she hugged and thanked me and then said, “Gran, did you know I’m six today?” And Dean will be in June. Shucks.

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Mother’s Day Reflections

As I think about Mother’s Day, I think of things I did. Things I would have denied I’d do as a mom, as an adult. I’d never mow the yard to seek sanctuary. Never eat a sandwich made with molded bread. Never lock children out of the house. And I didn’t know mothering was for life.

My children were four and six years old when I discovered the solitary joy of mowing the yard. Daughter and Son played outside and knew to stay far from me as I walked behind our gas-powered lawn mower. And I didn’t walk fast. For at least an hour, my children dug in the sand pile, rode bikes, just played outside within my sight, and they knew not to come close to the lawn mower. I had my thoughts, my relative quiet time, all to myself.

I wasn’t finished mowing one day and it was near lunchtime so Daughter, then about age seven, waved her hands frantically to get my attention.   She offered to make lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Daughter and Son carried a tray with sandwiches, apples, and pitcher of Kool-Aid lemonade to our outside picnic table. After I ate the last bite of my sandwich I said, “It was the perfect lunch. Thank you!”

“The bread looked kinda’ funny,” Daughter said. I asked what she meant. “It had some green spots. They didn’t look good so I just put ‘em on the inside.” The sandwich was delicious.

It makes sense to lock the doors when children are inside the house. But when they are outside? One cold winter day, when my two were young teenagers and arguing about something insignificant (I don’t even remember what) and I refused to get involved in their squabbles, I went outside to our deck and called them to come to me. I said, “I don’t want to hear your argument. Stay out here until you settle it and can be nice to each other.” And then I went back in our house and locked the door and said through a closed window, “You can knock when you are ready to come in.”

BC, (Before Children), I thought parents raised children to 18 or 21 and then sent them on their way. I learned differently while mine were still young. Grandma Gladys, my maternal grandmother, spent the last years of her life in a heath care facility. Rarely going outside, even to sit in a wheelchair, she watched the seasons change through a big window across the room from her bed. I walked into Grandma’s room one January day, just as my mother was kissing her cheek and telling her bye. “Put your coat on. It’s looks cold outside,” Grandma said to her 65-year-old daughter. Grandma’s nurturing instinct was strong even when her mind and body weren’t.

Mom looked up and saw me. “She’ll always be my mother. That’s just how it is,” Mom said. Mothers always mother. Always.

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