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Cole’s Country Store

“What’ll you have?” asked the server who stood beside me. I looked at the lunch menu that was hand written on a large dry erase board.

“Maybe everything. It all sounds good,” I said.

“You can. Some people eat one plate full here and take another one home,” said Tish who not only serves the food, she’s also the cook and cashier. “Save room for cherry cobbler and ice cream.”

Everything on the menu was good country cooking. Chicken casserole. Meatloaf. Green beans. Pinto beans. Mac and cheese. Fried apples. Cooked cabbage. Stewed potatoes. Fried corn. Slaw. And cornbread baked in a black skillet.

This was my second lunch outing to Cole’s County Store. I’d recommended Cole’s, located here in Putnam County, to my college roommate and her two Davidson County teacher friends because it’s like going home to mom’s and grandma’s kitchens. And that welcome is exactly what owner, Marcia Cole Huffman, intends.

But why did she buy a rundown, century-old building that had been boarded and empty for years and is located on Highway 70 west of Baxter, miles from other retail businesses? And why open a meat-and-three restaurant?

Marcia’s close friends and sisters discouraged her. They advised her to not consider buying the store when it was advertised for auction, but Marcia could not let her great-grandfather’s store go to someone outside the family. “I was obsessed,” Marcia admitted.

Marcia, who lives in Georgia and recently retired from working in a systems engineering office explained, “Dr. Phylander Sylvester Cole, my great-grandfather, established the store. It has been his doctor’s office, a post office, a place for marriages by a family justice of the peace, a bus stop, a polling place, a source for hunting and fishing license, gas and coal oil, a general store, a gas station, and a community gathering place! One friend put it this way, ‘What kind of financial decision is it to buy a rundown store in the middle of nowhere?’ Of course, it was not a financial decision – it was a HEART decision. Both sides of my family were born and lived in this beautiful area. I’ve been to all continents except the cold one, and the best place to be is in Putnam County, Tennessee.”

Marcia thought she’d update the building to be a country residence and a place for family gatherings, but when community members saw work being done on the abandoned store, they assumed it was going to reopen. Marcia said, “The whole thing spiraled!” Tish wanted to open a “meat-and-3” and she talked with Marcia. Neighbors, family, and friends helped Marcia and Tish equip the kitchen and provided store furnishings from the mid-1900s when the store was in its heyday.

Heart and opportunity. That’s why Marcia bought the old Cole’s Store and opened a restaurant. It’s worth a drive down highway 70; just don’t be in a hurry. You’ll want to sit and talk a spell, like I did. The meatloaf, mac and cheese, green beans, and coleslaw tasted like home.

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More Heart Tugs

Valentine’s Day. A time to show love. I promised myself to be mindful of Heart Tugs, to remember and appreciate loving moments.

I sat in my reading chair with paper and pen and read a short devotion early one morning while the house was quiet. Soon three young Grands and Son and Daughter 2 (aka Daughter-in-Law,) who were visiting for a few days, would awaken and be ready for juice, coffee, and breakfast. I closed my eyes and then heard a patter of footsteps. Five-year-old Neil stuck his head around the living room corner wall. I motioned for him to come to me.

My Grand, wearing only his ‘unders’ as he calls his underwear, ran across the room and snuggled onto my lap. He laid his head against my chest and wrapped his arms around himself. I covered him with a knitted afghan and in hushed voices we talked and agreed that we’d slept well and we weren’t hungry and we liked being the first ones awake. “Gran, tell me last night’s Purple Cow story,” Neil said.  I repeated, with Neil’s help, the one I’d made-up as I sat beside him on his bed the night before.

“I have a story,” said Neil and he spun a tale. A big black bear wandered away from home. He fell into a creek. He climbed out of the water and walked up a bank. “How do you like my made-up story?” he asked. I loved it, but most I loved those few minutes with my Grand, just the two of us together.

All our Grands and their parents gathered around Husband’s and my dining room table for brunch. Eight children, ages 3-13, and six adults. Last to fill my plate from the buffet served meal, I thought ‘this is as good as life gets.’ A cliché, but my thought. Jesse, who was seated, said, “Gran, come sit by me.” My four-year old Grand reached his hand toward mine. While holding his wiggling fingers as we all recited our family prayer, life got a little better.

Sometimes Heart Tugs happen when not holding hands or hugging or even touching the person who makes the heartstrings tighten. I posted a picture of an empty plastic popcorn bottle on Facebook and asked if anyone knew where I could buy it. “I bought it locally, but I don’t remember where. After looking at several stores (I listed five), I can’t find it,” I wrote. Friends’ comments gave suggestions of other brands and online links to order my favorite popcorn. Daughter 2 sent a text that read, “Tomorrow a box will be delivered on your porch. Enjoy. Love you!” From miles and miles across country, Daughter 2 sent a hug, masked as popcorn.

After Husband returned home from running errands, a box of chocolate covered cherries appeared on our kitchen counter. For no reason, except he knows what I like: surprises, chocolate, and cherries.

Heart Tugs. I’m catching all I can.

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Micah Spends the Night

“Is it my turn to spend the night?” Micah, age four, asked as I arrived at his family’s house. He’s the youngest of five Grands who take turns weekly spending the night with Husband and me. Micah wrapped his arms around my knees and looked up, “Gran, can I go home with you and stay tonight?”

His turn would be the next week. We counted the days. Seven. The next day Micah asked, “Is it my turn tonight?” When you’re four years old, seven days is an eternity.

On the morning of Micah’s overnight visit, Daughter sent a text, “Thought you’d want to know that Micah packed his bag before breakfast to go to your house. It’s beside the back door.”

That afternoon when I picked up Micah, he jumped down his back porch steps and said, “Let’s go!” His bulging black backpack was strapped over his shoulders. He carried a Lightning McQueen stuffed red car and a stuffed monkey and declined my offer to carry anything for him.

“Micah,” his mom called from the back door, “did you pack pajamas?” He did. “Underwear?” Yes. “Clothes for tomorrow?” Yes. “How about a good-bye hug?” Micah, already buckled by a seat belt in my van, held out his arms toward her and she came to him.

At our house, Micah dumped his backpack and “stuffies” beside the twin bed that he’s claimed as his and headed to the playroom. His mother’s and uncle’s plastic Fisher Price playhouse and garage are favorites. My Grand lay on his stomach and parked small cars on the top level of the garage and turned a handle to rotate the cars.

These toys entertained for a while, then Micah asked, “Can I play on the iPad?” A racecar game is his favorite and he shouted as his red car passed others, “Vroom! Faster! I won!”

After supper, Micah asked, “Can I take a play bath?” I agreed and said he could wash too, but he explained, “It’s just a play bath. No washing.” By the time my Grand decided he was finished playing, the bath water was cold, and all his body had been under soapy water he’d created by scrubbing rubber ducks so his play bath turned into a soaking clean bath.

Micah threw many books onto his bed and climbed on it. “Sit here, Gran. Let’s read,” he said and he scooted to one side. We agreed on three books and I read them as we sat together.

My Grand clutched his sleeping friends, monkey and Lightening McQueen, and snuggled under the covers. We named good things that had happened that day and said goodnight prayers. “Will you scratch my back?” Micah asked.

Fifteen minutes later, I stopped moving my fingers across his back, and Micah half-opened one eye just to let me know he wasn’t asleep. Soon he was.

If I hadn’t spent nights alone with my grandmother, I might not understand Micah’s eagerness to stay with Husband and me when we don’t do anything special. But I did and I do.

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What’s in a Nickname?

When I read an obituary last November, I did a double take. Mrs. Mary-Peanut Juanella Gray’s funeral service would be November 26 in Livingston. I read the obits daily. Do I know the deceased or a relative?  But this time, it was the name that caught my attention. Was Mary-Peanut her given name or was Peanut a nickname?

I called my cousin who lives in Livingston and asked if she knew Mary Gray who recently passed away. She didn’t. I said that in the obituary she was Mary-Peanut. “Oh, Peanut! That’s how everybody knows her. No one would know she died if Peanut wasn’t in her obituary,” Carolyn said, but she didn’t know why Mary was called Peanut.

I thought of many people I know by nicknames and wondered how those names came to be. Husband and I have friends from our college days. Jim was called Worm, probably because he was tall and thin and when he danced his body moved in slow, curving motions. Ace was always at the top of his game, whether dealing cards or making a deal. Skidrow isn’t sure how he earned his name, but it stuck and was shortened to Skids.

Janet’s big brother thought since his nickname was Frog his sister should be called Tadpole, shortened to Tad. As a child, Janet begged her brother not to call her Tad, but he did and eventually, so did their parents and other family members. Even after fifty years, Janet hasn’t shed the nickname.

Henrietta and Marietta where adopted when they were just a few weeks old. Their parents laid them in a white wicker bassinet and their father said, “Look, we have a little blondie and a little blackie.” Blondie’s hair was golden and Blackie’s was midnight. These names have followed them throughout their lives, except when Blondie and her husband moved to another state, she began to introduce herself as Henrietta so only childhood and college friends call her the name her father gave her. Blackie married Brownie, and very few people know either by their names on their birth certificates.

Larry Maddux remembers when he was a college student and first called Mad-eye. He and his friend, Mike Powers nicknamed Tootie, joined a group of guys for a friendly card game. A friend welcomed them and said, “There’s old Toot-eye.” Another chimed in, “And old Mad-eye.” That one time, when Larry was spontaneously called Mad-eye, gave him a name he’s carried into retirement.

Tootie is a common nickname for both men and women, and it seems to be an affectionate name. Charlene Parrott signs her name Tootie on everything except legal documents, but she doesn’t know how she acquired this name. Growing up in Byrdstown I knew several Tooties: Tootie Cross, Tootie Keisling, Tootie Storie.

Most often, nicknames are given good-naturedly, with kindness, and to people liked and loved. Psychologists say a nickname allows an emotional connection, usually a positive one. So to all known by a nickname, cherish it. Embrace it.

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Wishing for a Snow Day

“If there’s no school tomorrow, the first day back we’ll have our spelling test,” I told my 6th grade students. I hoped the prediction of 4-6” of snow would come true and school would be closed on Friday.

“What if it’s Monday?” a student asked.

“We’ll have spelling test. But if the weatherman is right, we’ll get lots of snow and it’ll be really cold and we won’t have school until the middle of next week. Do a snow dance tonight,” I said and held up my crossed fingers.

“I’m wearing my pajamas backwards,” said one girl, suggesting that would be good luck and snow. “Me, too!” sang a chorus of many. As much as my students wished for a no-school snow day, I wished harder. Snow days were happy days for me, as a student and teacher.

When I was young, Dad was the principal of Pickett County High School so when schools closed, my family was home. Chores were put aside, except necessary tasks, such as feeding life stock and milking the cow and keeping a fire going in the coal-burning furnace. Mom, Dad, my older brother, and I were home, sometimes for several days.

Mom made a pot of vegetable soup and we played games. I was about 8 years old when I learned to play Pig, a card game that’s popular in Pickett County, and requires four players and partners. We switched partners after each game, and we’d declare a grand winner, never me, but I wasn’t given much slack.

We also played Hearts, a card game that doesn’t require partners and could be played with only three people so I’d play if two more would. And Mom and I played Scrabble on our cardboard playing board and made words using the small wooden blocks with letters. I was always ready for a game and dealt the cards for Solitaire when alone.

As a teacher, snow days meant sleeping late. I loved unplanned days off. Calm and restful days to make soup and bake cookies. Days to play games and catch up on home projects. Days with my own children to sled and build snowmen and drink hot chocolate and play games and read books. Days accumulated by teaching extra minutes every day to allow no-school days without adding days at the end of the school year.

On snow days, I stayed home. I reasoned if the roads were dangerous for school buses to be driven on, they were dangerous for me. Sometimes the only slick roads were county mountain roads with bridges and people questioned why schools were closed for just a skiff of snow, but I supported, and still support, those who make decisions for the safety of all school children.

Now, as a retired teacher, when I hear, “Putnam County schools are closed,” feelings of calm and relief and happiness wash over me. Maybe I’ll do a snow dance and wear my pajamas backwards. I need a snow day!

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Get Out the Knitting Needles

Two sweaters, one green and one brown, are hidden away in the bottom of my cedar chest. I haven’t worn either sweater in decades, yet I won’t part with them. When I was teenager, Mom decided she and I would learn to knit, and Mom’s aunt agreed to teach us, if we were serious and would finish the sweaters we started.

The pattern I chose for a springtime green sweater was simple: only knit and purl stitches. But Mom, always eager for a challenge, chose a cable pattern. Before beginning the sweaters, we had to knit perfect squares to pass Aunt Dorothy’s standards. She was a stern teacher. If every knitted row, every stitch, wasn’t perfect, Aunt Dorothy ripped out stitches for us to do over.

After supper meals, Mom and I sat together, under a bright floor lamp, and knitted and talked and half-listened to whatever TV program Dad had chosen to watch. When we finally completed the sweater fronts, backs, and sleeves, we took them to Aunt Dorothy and learned how to stitch them together.

Mom sewed wool skirts and jumpers to match my two sweaters, and I wore them with pride for years. She continued knitting and made more sweaters and several afghans. But during my years of college and early marriage and teaching and raising children, I didn’t picked up knitting needles.

Then about 15 years ago, when a local yarn shop opened, I got the knitting bug and gave scarves for Christmas gifts. When our first Grand was a toddler, I took him to the yarn shop to choose yarn for a knitted cap and now his little brother wears it. But I haven’t progressed past scarves and caps.

Last winter, while Annabel and Lou visited overnight, I got out knitting needles and yarn and showed my two Grands how to knit. Lou, now 11, keeps a knitting project in her bag that goes everywhere just in case she has five minutes with nothing to do. Lou’s interest in knitting and a recent article I read have encouraged me to finish a scarf I started two years ago. (There’s my bad habit of starting a project and not finishing it! That was another column.)

I read that knitting acts as a natural antidepressant and helps ease anxiety and depression and aids with keeping the brain healthy. Repetitive knitting motions help the body relax, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and decrease muscle tension. Also, the movements of looping and purling can have the same effects on the brain as meditation.

And knitting helps the brain stay sharp because it is engaged and focused. Knitting is a mathematical activity: counting stitches, rows, changing from one stitch to another, increasing and decreasing stitches.

What better time to knit than the dead of winter?  It’s good way to relax and avoid depression. Everyone can knit – young, old, men, women. And maybe, someone will keep a scarf or cap or sweater tucked away as a happy memory made with love.

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Lessons Learned from Cranes

I heard them before I saw them. Loud, rattling calls like a bugle stuck on an off key F#. Sometimes a single Sandhill Crane flew overhead, but most often it was a flock in a V-shaped formation. And sometimes I heard them, but never saw them, probably because their calls can be heard up to 2.5 miles away.

I wish I’d kept track of the number of times I looked up to see cranes during December. Whether in my house or outside, I could hear their loud calls as they flew from their northern habitat to warmer grounds. Many Sandhills stopover or winter at the Hiawasse Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, about 85 miles from Cookeville.

The cranes unique bugle calls amuse me, but I’m amazed by the way they fly in formation. The V shape serves two purposes: to conserve energy and to keep track of each bird. The first bird works hardest to break the wind and splits it into smaller currents. The birds that follow catch those currents and use them as support. And the currents are split from bird to bird until the ones at the tail of the V practically get a free ride.

Each bird flies about a meter behind and a meter beside the one it follows. In this arrangement, they can keep track of each other. One day I watched a flock of at least thirty birds and as they went out of sight, I heard a weak rattle. One lone bird flapped slowly at a lower level than those I’d watched and as he seemed to struggle, I heard another crane calling and flying toward him.

When the hard-working strong leader of the V becomes tired, he drops back, often to the end of the line, and another crane takes the #1 position. According to nationalgeaographic.com, a scientist studied pelicans that were fitted with heart-rate monitors and he found that birds at the back of the V had slower heart rates than those in front and flapped less often. Each bird in the V formation can take a turn as leader working hard for a short time and then slacking near the end.

Sandhill cranes gather in social units and families and they mate for life. But a lone, isolated crane will be taken into a flock and it even helps parent young birds.

These birds’ instinctive behavior teaches lessons. Work together and follow a leader, and take turns being the leader. No one has to be in charge all the time and everyone needs time out. Watch out for each other and when a teammate, a friend, or a member of the group needs help, drop out of routine and lend a hand. Look for the loners. Watch those that don’t have built-in support and include them.

As I write the last words of this column, a loud call, a rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” grabs my attention. A couple of Sandhills. I hope they find a flock.

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