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Two Day Gift

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 8.03.09 AMNot all gifts are wrapped in shiny red paper. Not stuffed inside a gift bag. In September, I called Son and offered that he and Daughter 2 (some say daughter-in-law) take a mini-vacation while Husband and I stayed at his house. An offer of two nights away from home, from their three children, ages six, four, and two, and their dog, Baxter. A time to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

So in November on a Saturday afternoon, Son and Daughter 2 kissed and hugged Dean, Neil, and Ann and said, “Bye and be good. Do what Pop and Gran tell you and we’ll see you Monday.”

As Son and Daughter 2 drove out of their driveway, two-year-old Ann wailed for thirty seconds and said repeatedly, “Bye, bye, Mommy.” Husband, Dean, and Neil were having a snowball fight, throwing baseball size white balls of yarn at each other. I hugged Ann. She wiped her arm across her wet nose, and then said, “Let’s play, Gran!”

These three Grands were all ours. Time to play and read and take walks and build wooden cars. To giggle and sing silly songs and tell Purple Cow bedtime stories. To wrap small clean, wet bodies in towels and help wiggle into pajamas. To rub backs at bedtime and cuddle in bed early mornings. To bend the house rules a bit and bribe with Skittles.

Dean, a first grader, repeated my plan to his younger siblings. “Gran said she’d put Skittles in a jar when we did what we’re ‘posed to and we can eat ‘em after supper. I’ll count ‘em and give ‘em out.”

Co-commander Dean asked, “So how many Skittles is that?” after all 60 of the yarn snowballs had been picked up. And he followed me to the kitchen to be sure I put five in the jar.

The Skittle jar sat beside the list of suggestions and advice Son and Daughter 2 had written. Schedules. Neighbors’ phone numbers. Bedtimes. Meal menus. Favorite play activities. TV cable channels. Baxter’s feeding directions. How to cook a hot dog so Dean would eat it. Snacks Ann likes, but Neil hates. What to pack in Dean’s school lunch bag.

Every moment with our Grands wasn’t perfect. When Ann and Neil had breakdowns, Husband and I fumbled for reassuring words, but we knew hugs smooth toddlers. And we struggled through Monday morning to get Neil to preschool and Dean to the school bus stop.

After her brothers had left for school, Ann held a play phone to her ear and said, “Hi Mommy. Uh, huh. Yes. Yes. No. Pop and Gran. Yes. Bye, Mommy.” She ran to me, threw her arms around my neck, and said, “Love you Gran.”

I cherish the time that Husband and I had with Dean, Neil, and Ann. That’s the gift. Our Grands’ parents gave us their children for two days and nights. They trusted us. And they left another gift: detailed lists so we didn’t have to call them, not even once.

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Savoring Thanksgiving

I’m savoring memories. Yes, Thanksgiving was a week ago and you shoppers hit Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. But I’m taking a few more days to appreciate Thanksgiving.

You can put up Christmas trees, string blinking lights, play “Jingle Bells,” and hide gifts in places you’ll remember, but where no one will look. But also, join me in remembering Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. There are no fireworks, no Easter bunny candy, no wrapped gifts. Just good food and time with family and friends.

Husband and I hosted Thanksgiving dinner (served at 12 noon like all good southerners do) for some of my Bertram relatives, twenty-five people and three generations. None of us carry the Bertram surname; we’re descendants of deceased sisters, my mother and two aunts, who began our Thanksgiving Day tradition more than 60 years ago. In their memory, I put a picture of them with their husbands on our sideboard.

Guests brought the same food the sisters served. Green beans, creamed corn, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, whipped potatoes, and I’d made cornbread dressing in balls so every serving was crunchy outside and moist inside, just like Mom’s. Alicia’s pumpkin pie was the classic recipe used for decades. Myra perfected Aunt Nell’s asparagus casserole and Brenda has mastered the sweet potato casserole.

But change and surprises happen, for the good. Mike and Sarah served hot chicken-cheese dip and chips while Husband sliced the turkey. Instead of a few carrots and bell pepper strips piled together, Lilly’s veggie tray resembled a turkey. And since none of us dare try to duplicate Aunt Doris’s chocolate cream pie, Amy brought chocolate cake.

There was a time that everyone sat around the dining room table and bowls of food were passed family style. At my house, the food was served buffet style on the kitchen counter. We oldest generation sat at the dining room table and younger folks around folding tables in the garage. After we ate, a new tradition may have begun when Bingo numbers were called until all players won and chose prizes.

Before we filled our plates, I called everyone together for an official welcome. How happy I was that we carry on this family tradition. I mentioned Mom and my aunts and welcomed cousin Brett’s girlfriend and her daughter. Someone whispered there might be a special announcement.

“So before we bless the food, anyone have anything else to share?” I asked.

“Brett might,” his mother said.

All eyes turned to Brett and Kim as he announced, “This morning I asked Kim to marry me and she said, ‘Yes.’ ” Everyone burst into spontaneous applause and cheers of congratulations.

We quieted. I was overcome with sentimental and happy emotions and said, “I meant to pray, but I’ll just cry.” Across the room, Mike smiled, nodded, and said a grateful prayer, blessing the food and us.

Before Christmas busyness strikes, I’m reveling in blessings of traditions, joys of change, and celebration of family. I wish the same for you.

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Who Decided Thanksgiving?

As I bake cornbread to make dressing for Thanksgiving dinner at our house, I’m thankful someone else planned the menu and set the date. But who created the menu? Who decided November?

Research led me away from the Thanksgiving story I learned as a child. Historians say it is possible the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, who had lived for thousands of years where the Pilgrims settled, ate a meal together in 1621. But the main meat was probably venison, and more than likely there were races and shooting contests and festivities that lasted at least three days.

George Washington declared a Thanksgiving holiday November 1789, but it was for only that year and wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast. He intended the day as a time of “public thanksgiving and prayer” and devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Thanksgiving wasn’t official until 1863 and it was a woman who came up with the idea for an annual holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale edited an influential women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for forty years from 1837-1877. Hale was an education advocate, a writer, a patriot, and through the magazine she set trends in fashion, reading, and cooking.

When Hale read about the possible 1621 Pilgrim feast, she became determined to turn it into a national holiday. The Godey’s Lady’s Book published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie which started food traditions. To gain public support to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, she wrote an editorial every year beginning in 1846, and she sent letters to all the United States governors, senators, the president, and other politicians.

Finally, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln set the fourth Thursday as the day to celebrate Thanksgiving. In his proclamation, he pleaded that all Americans ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.”

So Sarah Joespha Hale gets credit for the tradition of my family gathering around the dining room table and our Thanksgiving menu. And Abraham Lincoln set the date that hasn’t changed in 154 years, except for two years 1939-1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in hopes of spurring retail sales during the Great Depression. The change met such opposition that he signed a bill in 1941 to return Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday.

I appreciate that both Washington and Lincoln made religious statements when they declared Thanksgiving Day. Washington intended a time for public thanksgiving and praying to “that great and glorious Being.” Lincoln encouraged Americans to ask God to care for people and the nation.

And I’m glad Hale was determined that Thanksgiving be an annual holiday and created a menu of turkey, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin pie. I can’t imagine eating anything different on the fourth Thursday in November.

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Rainy Days

Rain gets a bad rap. How many times have you heard complaints about a rainy day? I do love sunshine, but I also love rainy days. And even better a thunderstorm, not a damaging storm, just rolling thunder and gentle rain.

As I write this, the morning sky is gray and water puddles stand in the driveway. Thunder woke me at 5:45 a.m. and then I heard the rain. I opened the shutters and raised a window and sat close as I drank my first cup of coffee. A perfect way to begin the day. I wouldn’t like rain every day, I’m not in favor of moving to Oregon where rain falls 164 days yearly, but I surely like a good rainy day.

And I’m not the only one. Three-year-old Jess said, “Yay, rain puddles. Stomp!” Have you ever seen a little kid walk around a puddle? Jess stops at a puddle’s edge and jumps right in the middle with both feet or stomps with one foot, then the other.

Elaine, age 6, likes rainy days to play in mud and be messy. She slathers her body with mud. Elaine doesn’t need spa treatments to reap the benefits of mud baths. Mud baths are advertised to soften skin, detox the body, improve circulation, and relieve stress. If these claims are true, my Grand should be calm and healthy.

“Mom won’t make us go outside to play,” said Lou, age 10. This Grand is happiest holding a book in her hands. “We get to watch TV more on rainy days,” said, Ruth. But when outside, both these girls are right beside their younger siblings stomping puddles and playing in mud.

My Grands take me back. As a kid, I patted dozens of mud pies and meatballs. I liked the feel of sloppy wet dirt squishing through my fingers. But one of the few times I remember Mom really being angry with me was a rainy day. I was about eight when she let me use her red umbrella to walk in the rain for fun. I played in our front yard, running barefoot through standing water, and then decided the umbrella would make a good boat. Mom wasn’t happy that her good umbrella was upside down, soaking wet, and the underneath side plastered with wet leaves. Leaves that stained.

I admit I’ve chanted, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day.” When I taught a class of 28 sixth-grade students, I hated rainy days that prevented outside recess and walking around the school building after lunch in the cafeteria to take the long way back to our classroom. And when Daughter and Son-in-law’s wedding reception was planned for our backyard, I cussed the four days of non-stop rain.

I planned to write a happy, enjoy-the-rain ending for this column. But I can’t. I went grocery shopping at 4:15 p.m. and walked in drizzling rain and darkness hit and my hair frizzed and I was cold and damp. No wonder rain gets a bad rap.

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Maxim for Life

WHERE WE ARE

I chose the title of this column when my aunt said to me, “It’s okay. It’s where we are in life.” That was 2009.

One of my first columns told about a phone conversation with Aunt Doris, who was 83 at the time and has since passed away. When I asked what she and Uncle Hugh had done during that week, she said they’d attended two funerals. One for a close friend. I was upset that they had lost a good friend and their week was spent at the funeral home and church.

Aunt Doris said, “It’s okay. It’s where we are in life.”   With those words, she assured me that she had accepted her life stage. Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh were familiar with the rituals of death. Each morning and at noontime, they listened to the radio for the local news and obituaries, and Aunt Doris called her church or a friend if she needed more information about a death.

By that afternoon, she had fried apple pies or a homemade chocolate pie ready to take to the family of the deceased. She and Uncle Hugh attended visitation or the funeral and sometimes both. They gave their time and hearts to comfort those who were mourning.

In a 2009 column, I wrote that I’d adopted Aunt Doris’s words as a maxim for life. No matter what my age or situation, it’s where I was and being okay was my goal. And now, that Husband and I are losing friends to death and many of our conversations are about sickness, I preach Aunt Doris’s words to myself.

Recent deaths hit hard. Our next-door neighbor of 34 years and another friend with whom we’ve celebrated good times since 1977. Some friends care for invalid parents. Others suffer debilitating illnesses. Friends endure chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Wheelchairs and walkers are common in homes. I’m not accepting any of this easily.

It’s comforting to remember the past. Sleeping twice for two hours during the night and hoping for a nap when a baby naps. Giving baby showers and wedding parties. Sewing Halloween costumes and Easter dresses. Chauffeuring children to sports practices, piano lessons, church choir. Monitoring homework.

Travelling long distances to watch Daughter play volleyball and Son play basketball. Welcoming twelve teen-age girls to Friday night slumber parties. Cooking hamburgers for Son and his friends. Hosting a 50th wedding anniversary dinner for parents.

Celebrating engagements and weddings. Cuddling newborn grandchildren. Comforting a Grand during his first overnight stay, his first time to sleep away from home and his parents. And now, setting the family table for six adults and eight Grands for Christmas morning breakfast.

Aunt Doris was right. It’s where we are in life that determines what we do. And she showed me that accepting a life stage and its activities, its blessings, and its trials make life okay.

I don’t have to like losing friends and sickness. Just accept. I’ll keep talking to myself.

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Ode to Crib

downloadFor twelve years a crib sat in the corner of the room that adjoins Daughter and Son-in-Law’s bedroom. A sturdy dark cherry crib. The room’s décor changed. From blues to golden and back to primary blue. Boy. Three daughters. Boy. The crib stayed parked in its corner.

And then last week, the youngest moved upstairs into his big boy bed. His very own twin bed. And the room will no longer be a nursery. It’ll be study room. A reading room. A library. A place to hang out. Baby and toddler toys were moved out. Bedroom dresser carried upstairs. Bookshelves moved in and still the crib stood, now in the middle of the room, until finally the time came to take it down.

So my guest writer this week is Daughter. After her twelve-year-old son loosened screws to disassemble the crib and the mattress was stored away, Daughter wrote to that small bed where her babies and toddlers had slept.

Dear Crib,
I don’t know how it came to be that your first occupant is dismantling you with real live man-tools. How many nights have our babes slept in your protection? I’ve done the math and it’s been approximately 4,532 nights. And days. Oh, the naps. The long nights. When I, so desperate for sleep myself, yearned to crawl in beside a restless babe.

            How our wee ones slept bundled, little baby burritos. How we all cheered the first morning or after naptime, when many months old they were first found standing, holding the rail. Smiling so proud. We took pictures and clapped. All 5 times.

            How one especially determined girlie went awol (climbed out) at just 18 months. It was in this crib she first tested boundaries and determined they were not for her.

            How many sibling romps and illicit jumps have been taken? How many songs have been sung, blessings whispered over newborns, giggly infants, squishy toddlers.

            We bought you, dear crib, as thirty-year-old first time parents who had researched far too deeply and visited more than many furniture stores (#blessourhearts) looking for just the right one. And we found it. You’ve been good to us, trusty friend. Now, you wait. Just pause. Rest in the dark basement. Because I strongly considered Pinterest-ing you into another useful thing…a chalkboard perhaps, or nifty drying rack, or a snazzy holder for matchbox cars.

            But I just can’t do it. So, when all these people bring me some grandbabies to visit, you will once again be hauled up the steps and I will lay those beautiful babes down to sleep in your well-loved, tear-stained, bite-mark self. So long, dear crib, until we meet again. #passthetissues

Pass the tissues is right. I cried when the room was in a shambles transforming from nursery to whatever is its new title. And I cried days later when Daughter announced, “Crib has a home for a few years!” It’s moving to friend’s house for her first granddaughter’s visits.

Crib has many more loving nights and daytime naps to give.

Who Likes to be Scared?

downloadIt’s the season for haunted houses and horror movies and ghosts. Slaughterhouse. Dead Land Haunted House. Spooks Galore. The Haunting. Night of Demons. Halloween. Cemetery of Terror. A frightening list could fill this column and none would appeal to me. I don’t like being scared and don’t understand why anyone does. One ghost encounter was enough for me.

When I was a high school student, several girlfriends and I spent the night with our friend Nelda. An after school, Friday night slumber party on a late summer day.   We piled our books and overnight bags in Nelda’s room and went outside.

Nelda’s family’s farm was on a gravel road and not another house was in sight. We sometimes walked through the barnyard and across a field to a small cemetery. But that day, we walked the long way around on the country road because the field was planted with corn. Corn stalks, much taller than us, grew and the paths between the rows of corn were too narrow to walk through without being scraped by razor-sharp leaves.

In the cemetery, we laughed and talked. We made up stories about the people whose names were on the tombstones and those whose graves were marked with slabs of unmarked stones. We sat under the low branches of oak and hickory trees as the sun settled low in the sky. Then we got quiet. Quiet enough to hear silence –an eerie sound.

Someone whispered, “Ghosts.” Silence and twilight and tombstones were frightening. Ghosts? Where? Did you see one? My friends and I stood and huddled together. Nelda told us that someone had recently been buried in the back of the cemetery close to the woods. When we looked that direction, the sun probably cast a shadow or maybe a tree branch fell or perhaps a squirrel jumped from a limb to the ground or maybe nothing happened. Someone screamed, “Ghosts!”

We ran. Through the cemetery. Across a graveled road. Climbed a wire fence at a wooden fence post and ran into the cornfield. Corn leaves slapped our faces and scraped our arms and legs. Scared. Hearts beating fast. Away from the cemetery ghosts. A friend’s shoe fell off and still we ran through the biggest cornfield in Tennessee. Screaming for each other to keep up. Hurry.

When we finally made our way to a clearing, Nelda’s dad stepped out of the barn and more than one of us cried. Nelda told him we’d been in the old cemetery and heard scary noises. Maybe ghosts. Her dad was a man of very few words. He walked with us to the house and turned on the outside water spigot. Nelda’s mother handed us a bar of soap and towels. We scrubbed and rinsed and dried.

None of us were really sure what we saw or what we didn’t see. There were later times we same girls sat among the same tombstones, giggled and told stories, as teen-age girls do, but we never saw ghosts again.

Once was enough.