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Dropping into a School Classroom

The second-grade students entered their classroom quietly, one at a time.  Their teacher, Mrs. M greeted each child by name and in a happy voice said, “Good morning.”  Some children responded with a wave; some nodded; some replied with words.  Some smiled; some frowned; some appeared too sleepy at 8:15 a.m. to show expression.

            This school day began just like mornings when I greeted students as they came into my classroom at Capshaw Elementary School.  But these children didn’t walk past their teacher.  They were at their homes, and their teacher was in her school classroom, and they came together on a Zoom conference call.

            I’ve wondered about remote learning.  How does it work?  Can young children learn while at home sitting in front of a computer?  Mrs. M, my former teaching colleague, agreed that I could join her Wednesday morning class, or as she said, “Be a fly on the wall.” 

             Wednesday was the first day back to school after a four-day break so Mrs. M said, “What did you do while you weren’t in school? Type one thing in chat that you did.” Immediately my computer screen was filled with the students’ responses: played Pokeman, built a snowman, played with my dogs, played video games.  Mrs. M responded verbally to each student and then asked, “Cindy, how are the goats?”  One student raised her hand, and Mrs. M told her to unmute herself and gave her permission to talk about Princess, her cat. 

            Then Mrs. M introduced me and explained why I was there: “Just to see what we do in class.” 

            I smiled when Mrs. M told her students, “Sit up, nice and tall, and ready to learn.”  Students sat at a desk or table or on a couch or an upholstered chair. A blank paper appeared on my screen at the same time Mrs. M said, “Let’s write today’s date together.  You write on your paper as I write on mine.”  She wrote and asked students to show their papers and they held their papers so that we all saw them.

            Together Mrs. M and the students checked morning work.  They wrote and said words that have the same vowel sound as in the word globe and solved the equation 9 + _ =17. Students held up fingers to show missing numbers and they checked their work.  After checking and correcting a whole page of work, Mrs. M said, “Mark this page so parents can take a picture and send it to me.”

            For three hours, I observed much more than I can share in 500 words.  In a nutshell, I saw teaching and learning in a completely different environment and format than I used during my teaching days, and I observed the same teacher-student connections, the same instructions, the same mix of students.             During a follow-up FaceTime conversation, I asked Mrs. M what has happened during remote learning experiences that was unexpected.  Her response and some of my other observations will have to wait for another column.

Be the Change

My cousin Myra shared a grocery store experience.  On Facebook she wrote, “The guy behind me in a checkout line 3-deep yielded his spot to a fragile, elderly gentleman with two items.”  Following this young man’s example, Myra yielded her spot too.  The woman in front of Myra paid for the older gentleman’s milk and meat.  Myra thanked the young man for starting a cascade of kindness. He told Myra that his 95-year-old grandmother had just recovered from COVID, and he was showing his gratitude. Myra ended her post with these words, “Be the change, friends, be the change.”

            Joe shared a similar experience.  As he drove home after work, he thought of his never-ending list of home chores.  He topped a hill and saw a stopped car driven by a young man who seemed to be trying to start the car.  Joe drove past, but knew he had to turn around and offer help.  The car had run out of gas.

            Joe wrote, “We had to get the car out of the road, but being one month post knee surgery, I couldn’t push it.”  A few minutes later, four people stopped, offered to help, and pushed the car to a safe place on the side of the road.  Joe took the young man home where someone would get gas and drive him to his parked car.  Joe wrote, “Kindness and empathy can go a long way.  I’ve been where he was and to this day remember the unselfish example of those who stopped to help me.”

            I’m reminded of a time when Son and Daughter were young, ages 5 and 7, and we travelled on Highway 111 to visit my aunt in Livingston.  Suddenly, my Ford station wagon veered right.  I immediately pulled onto the wide shoulder and stopped.  The back right tire was almost flat.  Before I could begin looking for a jack and spare tire, a pick-up truck stopped.  The driver was unshaven, his hair unkept, his clothes were dirty, and he needed a bath.  He immediately offered to change the tire.

            I told Son and Daughter to stay in the car and I stood out of this man’s way.  Within minutes, he had replaced the flat tire with the spare tire.  I held out a $20 bill and said, “Thank you.” The man smiled, shook his head, and said, “Pass it on.  Help someone else.”

            A century ago, Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolent resistance to lead India’s independence from British rule, and he inspired civil rights movements across the world.  This quote is attributed to him, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That’s a paraphrase. Actually, he said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”             Thanks, Myra, for reminding me that change is possible and that kindness begins with one person.

What carried you thru 2020?

One day during the first week of March, 2020, I stood beside my friend at her kitchen sink while we talked.  A tornado had struck Putnam County and many people were grieving the loss of loved ones and homes.  The spread and seriousness of the corona virus had become real.  My friend added her family news of the past two days.  Her dentist had discovered that she needed major dental work.  A close family member was scheduled for a diagnostic medical procedure the next day, and her husband, and others in management positions at his workplace, had been told to work long hours on assembly lines until a strike was settled with employees who normally did those jobs.

            With exasperation, my friend said, “Okay, 2020! What else you got?”  My friend and I hugged and assured each other that somehow all would work out.  Somehow.

            During the past ten months, I have often thought back to that day.  Our physical health, our endurance, our emotions, our faith, even our sense of humor have all been tested.  Last week, I read a question: what carried you through 2020?  My quick one-word answer was HOPE.

            Hope is defined as believing that something good may happen and feelings of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.  What gave me hope?  Quiet morning devotion time, including listing blessings.  Meeting with Sunday School class members using Zoom.  Knowing that health care workers gave their best to care for patients. Reports of vaccines to prevent COVID. FaceTime visits with Grands who live far away.  Playing card and board games with Grands who live across town. Text messages to and from friends and family. Jokes – anything that made me laugh.  

            When my normal routines of life, i.e., grocery shopping and club meetings and face-to-face visits with friends, came to a halt I began walking for exercise more often and it occurred to me that the big picture life remains the same.  Daily sunrises and sunsets. Changing seasons.  White blossoms burst open on dogwood tree branches in the spring, leaves in the summer, red berries in the fall, and now the branches are bare.  Mother Nature gives hope.

            There was hope and celebration when my young cousin and his wife welcomed their baby daughter into their family.  When friends married.  When a few family members came together.  When the COVID vaccinations began last week. 

            Some take-aways of 2020 give hope.  A young woman who lost her mother to COVID learned that she’s much stronger than she thought she was or could ever be.  Nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and all health care workers are heroes.  Teachers gained more respect as they taught using unprecedented methods.  I’ve become more patient, waiting for deliveries, waiting for quarantines to pass, waiting for vaccines to be available, just waiting.             As 2021 opens its first week, I ask, “Okay, 2021.  What have you got?”  Whatever comes, even amid chaos and pain, there is hope.

Happy Heart Tugs Needed

In early 2020, I wrote on my calendar that today’s topic would be Heart Tugs. I’ve written other columns about happy times when heartstrings tighten. Times to imprint in my head and heart to relive and cherish.   

            During 2020, I haven’t followed through on my intention of writing quarterly Heart Tugs.  Other topics took precedence this summer and fall.  And now, I wrestle with sharing moments that paint pictures of happiness and well-being when so many people struggle from all that 2020 has thrown at us. 

            While it’s good to celebrate the joyful moments, I can’t put sadness and sorrow aside. All emotions kindle Heart Tugs:  some happy, some comforting, some painful.

            Many celebrated Christmas while still grieving the death of someone they love.  Many lost their homes in the March tornado. Many can’t hug parents and grandparents who are in retirement homes or hospitals.  Many families didn’t celebrate Christmas in traditional ways.

            In June, as Husband’s mother’s casket and vault were lowered into her grave, her family stood close by.  Three of her great-grandchildren, all younger than 6 and wearing masks, stood within inches of the grave and watched as shovelfuls of dirt were thrown. At age 92, Grandmother lived a long life with little illness. Her greatest treasures were her twelve great-grands who knew exactly where she kept candy for them.

            Thankfully, technology has connected friends and families.  Six college girlfriends and I didn’t make our planned annual trip, but we visit often using Zoom.  A friend and her siblings and their children and grandchildren reminisced and laughed together even though all were in their own homes and miles apart. 

            Using Facetime, Husband and I watched our Grands, who live an airplane ride away, open Christmas gifts we had shipped to them.  They wrapped new blankets around their shoulders and the two boys, ages 7 and 9, plopped onto the floor and looked at their new books.  Our five-year-old Grand said repeatedly, “I want to tell you something.”  She described every something in detail.

            During this pandemic, one of the few places our local Grands can go is to Husband’s and my house.  So last week, our 15-year-old Grand came with his four younger siblings to decorate sugar cookies.  He slathered colored icing and poured sprinkles with fake enthusiasm.  When Husband stood beside him and spread green icing on a baked Christmas tree, our Grand’s attitude changed. 

            Two hours later, these five Grands boxed up their decorated cookies to go home, and I declared this the best cookie decorating ever.  My six-foot teenage Grand said, “Yeah, Gran, that was really fun.”  A minute later, he asked, “Gran, are you crying?”

             On cold winter days while I walk outside for exercise, I’ll be warm wearing the scarf my 13-year-old Grand knitted for my Christmas present.  My nine-year-old Grand reached her arms high, hugged me tightly, and whispered, “I love you so much, Gran.” 

            Heart Tugs. I’m catching all the happy ones I can – to balance the sad ones.

Surprise Christmas Gifts!

If ever there was a Christmas to give surprise gifts, it’s this one.  Unexpected gifts that bring smiles and laughs and memories. 

            Neither Husband’s nor my family pulled pranks often, but we remember a few surprises, like the year Uncle B played a trick on his father-in-law, my grandfather.  Papa was one of the most honest and fair and no-nonsense people I’ve ever known.  When Mom shopped for shirts for his three sons-in-laws’ Christmas presents and then told Papa the cost of each, he would give her money, even as little as a dollar, to put in the pocket if a shirt cost less than the others. 

            Every Christmas Papa gave one-pound boxes of Paul’s Stick Candy, soft stick candy of many different flavors, and as a kid I thought he owned the candy company because his name was Paul.  Papa tucked a $20 bill under the top flap of the white cardboard box – fifty years ago that amount bought a brown paper bag full of groceries.

            Uncle B told everyone except Papa his plan.  When Uncle B opened his and Aunt Nell’s box of candy, he swapped the $20 bill for a $100 bill.  He waved that bill above his head and said, “Thank you, Paul!”  Papa’s chin dropped, his eyes grew big and he reached into his back pocket, pulled out his billfold and looked inside it. How could he have made such a mistake!  Everyone, even us young grandchildren, laughed.

            Papa’s look of astonishment changed to confusion, when Uncle B drew a breath and held up Papa’s $20 bill.  Now, decades later, we grandchildren still laugh about the look on Papa’s face.

            Husband’s dad, aka Grandfather, was shocked by a gift he received one Christmas.  He had no hint of what was inside a beautifully wrapped package, but he was prepared for a surprise because no name was written on the gift tag to show who gave it.  Grandfather’s children, in-laws, and grandchildren sat gathered in his and Grandmother’s living room, and only the giver knew what was in the package.  Young grandchildren sat close on the floor by Grandfather’s feet, and he took his own sweet time to open the mystery package.

            Grandfather laughed aloud when only he saw the gift:  an xx-large white cotton bra embellished with sequins and red ribbons.  Holding both straps, Grandfather held his gift high for all to see.  Little ones covered their faces; grown ones laughed until tears rolled.  And for many years, we laughed again because that decorated bra was often among the gifts under the Ray family Christmas tree.

            Have you ever gotten a pig’s tail for Christmas?  When Husband was young, his maternal grandfather and uncles traditionally killed hogs the week of Christmas so a fresh pig’s tale was often wrapped and under the Christmas tree for the Powell family Christmas gathering.

            I don’t have a pig’s tail, but there are some things around our house that will be surprise gifts. As we celebrate this holy day, let’s bring laughter to Christmas 2020.

Shop at Home – Chapter 2

After reading my recent column about shopping at home, friends shared stories and agreed that I could share them here. 

 Five years ago, Jo found a newspaper from 1989 that had four-leaf clovers dried between its pages.  She remembered a day when her son Eli, then age 10, and his grandpa walked across the field between their homes.  Eli found 82 four-leaf clovers that day, and Jo had dried some of them in the newspaper that had been stored on a top closet shelf.  Jo cut an 8” x 10” section that showed the date from the paper.  She glued clovers around the paper’s edges and wrote a poem about that day when Eli and his grandpa were together.  Eli was 35 when he received the framed newspaper and poem, and he cried, as did all who watched him open his Christmas gift.  To make it an even more sentimental gift, Eli’s grandpa died in 1989.

            Delores shared that her mother writes a poem for her children’s birthdays and those saved poems are some of Delores’s most cherished gifts.  Recently, I found a picture of my granny holding my son when he was only six weeks old.  Jo’s and Delores’s gift ideasprompted me to write a short memory of Granny and mail it along with the picture to Son.  His immediate response and thank you give me the idea that a single picture with a short writing might be inside a few Christmas packages.

            Linda’s mother asked her brother and Linda to walk through her home and pick out the family pieces of antique furniture that they would like to have.  Last week, my friend Carol invited her only granddaughter to look through her jewelry and choose what she wanted.  I’m reminded of the day that my aunt took a ring off her finger and put it on mine. It was my grandma’s birthstone ring that had five stones:  one for each of my grandparents, my mother, and my two aunts.  Being the only surviving daughter, Aunt Doris wore the ring often.  That day she said, “It’s your turn to wear this ring.” 

            Friends also chimed in about regifting.  Nell said that her late step-mother thought she was the master re-gifter, but her gifts proved otherwise.  She gave a car vacuum with dirt inside the bag and a casserole dish with food stuck under the rim of the lid.  Her clothing gifts weren’t well received either:  a sweater with a speck of dried food on the front and a silk blouse with wrinkles where it had been tucked into a skirt waistline.

            One of the most legendary gifts that Nell’s step-mother gave was an evening clutch with theater stubs inside – not tickets, stubs.  This idea can be refined:  tickets or green folding money inside a new purse or wallet could be a really good gift.

            There are a at least two advantages of shopping at home:  you can wear pajamas and you’ll save money. Have fun shopping!  Only eight more days.

Why not shop at home?

            Is anyone Christmas shopping at home this year?  Not from home – at home?  My mom and Husband’s mom gave gifts that were theirs and that have become more valuable, sentimentally and, maybe, monetarily over the years.   

            I remember a Christmas in the late 1980s when I opened a lightweight package from under Mom and Dad’s tree and found a note inside.  I don’t remember exactly what Mom wrote, but my gift was a to choose a framed art print of a painting by Ralph McDonald from those that hung on Mom and Dad’s living room and dining room walls.  Mom had collected McDonald prints and now they were Christmas gifts for us children and spouses and grandchildren, who were teen-agers. 

            I was a surprised.  Mom and Dad liked these prints of wildlife in their natural settings, of frontier men and American Indians, and I couldn’t imagine how their house would look without these pictures.  And I wondered what if more than one of us chose the same print.  Mom explained the plan.  We were each to write the name of one or two favorite prints on a piece of paper and give it to her.  And while our chosen prints would be ours, she and Dad wanted to keep them hanging on their walls for a few more years.

            Mom knew us well – we didn’t choose the same prints.  After her death, when Dad sold their home and moved to a smaller place, Mom’s Ralph McDonald print collection had already been divided.  The Statesman, a picture a mockingbird, has hung on my living room wall since 1992.    

            Husband’s mother often shopped at home. When we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, she gave us a set of glasses, Princess House Heritage pattern juice glasses.  Ann explained that they were really old, may fifty-years old, and she’d bought them at a ‘home party.’  I was always amused when Ann would say, “That’s really old,” a way of saying that’s something valuable and keep it.  I treasure these hand-blown etched crystal glasses and they fit my young Grands’ hands perfectly.  One of my favorite Christmas gifts from Ann was a plain heavy glass butter dish with a domed top that had been her mother’s.  It’s got a few scratches and a chip which reminds me that it set on the family kitchen table when Ann was a child. 

            Not all shop-at-home gifts are sentimental.  I have a gift stash:  Christmas hand towels, fancy napkins, notecards, pens with pom-pom tops, scented candles, magnifying glasses, copies of a favorite devotional book, and even a small decorative pillow.  These are items purchased at discount prices or gifts I’ve received and someone else will enjoy more than me.  (I’m careful not to re-gift to the one who gave the gift!)

            Shopping at home would be a good choice this year, but I’m not sure what’s here for our Grands.  What if I wrapped home things in Christmas packages, and we play a good old-fashion game of Grab Bag?  It could be a new tradition.

Breaking Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving is about traditions and I cherish traditions. Even before I was born, Mom, her two sisters, and their parents celebrated together on Thanksgiving Day at noon.  The number of place settings at the table has changed over the past 75 years (yes, 75!). Card tables were set up for us children and grandchildren, and then the passing of grandparents and parents meant we children moved to the dining room table.  Thankfully, in-laws graciously gave us this day, and we’ve welcomed parents-in-law, in-law siblings, boyfriends, and girlfriends.

            Now, we who were born into this tradition are grandparents, and although none of us carry our maternal grandparents’ last name, we gather for the Bertram Family Thanksgiving.  But not this year.  On Thanksgiving Day, we might be with a son’s or daughter’s family. Maybe with a few people that we’ve claimed into our COVID-safe bubble. Maybe alone. 

            I wince when I hear someone say that rules are made to be broken, meaning it’s acceptable, or even good, to break a rule. Rules keep us safe and provide peace and order.  But, we all know instances when rules were broken for good at that moment.

            I take that stance with traditions.  Traditions are made to be broken. It’s the safest and best for my family to not be together this Thanksgiving.  I’ll miss my cousins and their families.  The hugs.  The laughing over the re-telling of stories about our parents and grandparents.  The first time to see a cousin’s six-month-old granddaughter.  The dividing of leftovers. The kitchen clean-up with my sister-in-law and cousins because the best conversations are over the kitchen sink, not at the dinner table. 

            Several weeks ago, I came to terms with our decision and pondered how to make this Thanksgiving a celebration with only Husband and Daughter’s family.  It’s the food.  As Daughter said, “The best meal of the year!” We pared the menu to turkey, cornbread dressing, a few sides, bread, and pies.

            And I thought of two things to make our Thanksgiving unique: turkey bread and a tablecloth.  I hope our Grands and their parents look back on Thanksgiving 2020 and remember that’s when I baked bread that looked kinda’ like a turkey, and we drew and wrote on the table cloth. 

            Neither idea is original. The bread is baked in a round cake pan with one big round roll in the middle (the turkey body) surrounded by smaller rolls (feathers), and a bread dough turkey neck and head draped over the body.  A whole clove marks the turkey’s eye and yellow and brown and orange sprinkles decorate the feathers.  We’ll draw and write on the heavy flannel-backed white table cloth that’s been around for years.

            Sometimes breaking traditions is good.  We Bertram cousins will be together next Thanksgiving and I have a feeling we’ll have a couple of new traditions.  Thanksgiving dinner won’t be complete without turkey bread and the tablecloth from 2020.

            May everyone stay well and enjoy a Happy Thanksgiving.

When Clothes Talk

“Hi, Gran, you look like Dad!”  Micah said.  I’d walked up behind my six-year-old Grand while he played with Matchbox cars on a track he’d made in the dirt.  He turned quickly and looked up to greet me.

             “Micah,” I said, “why do you think I look like your Dad?”  Son2, aka son-in-law, and I are about the same height, and he could wear my t-shirts, but his would be a bit tight for me.

            “What you’ve got on,” my Grand answered. “Doesn’t Dad have a shirt like that?” My t-shirt had a bicycle on it and because Son2 has ridden in many biking events, he often wears t-shirts with a picture of a bicycle.  I shook my head to answer Micah, and realized I was wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes, like Son2 wears most days since he’s been working at home during these months of the pandemic.

            Now, I love Son2, but Micah’s words that I look like him made me think about the clothes I wear. What other time in history would a child’s father and grandmother wear the same type of clothing?  I can think back one generation when my mom wore pants, but not jeans.  Her pants often had elastic waistlines and were made of stretchy fabric, and Mom wore long Bermuda shorts in the summer.  I never saw either of my grandmothers wear pants; even when Granny hoed the beans and pulled weeds from her flowerbeds, she wore a cotton shirtwaist dress. 

            History tells us that in the mid-1800s, women wore bloomers under dresses. By the early 1900s, women’s trousers appeared on high-fashion runways. During World War II, when more women entered the workplace, they wore pants for comfort. It wasn’t until the 1960s that pants became fashionable and popular for women.  And even then, we college students in the late 60s remember that pants weren’t allowed in classes.  I often wore my lightweight knee-length raincoat over shorts or pants to class.  

            By the early 1970s, pants suits, made of matching or coordinating fabrics, were poplar and comfortable.  The long tops were several inches above the knees and covered loose wide-leg pants.  And then the hippy revolution hit, with bell-bottom pant legs and jeans, and women began to wear pants everywhere.

My favorite jeans were bell-bottoms, wide legs that dragged so long that I almost tripped.  Now, like most women, I have several pair of jeans and I’ll keep wearing them.

            Who doesn’t have a collection of comfortable t-shirts?  We wear them to support sports teams, state our beliefs, and show where we have travelled.  But Micah made me think that I’ll wear other shirts when I’m out and about.            

The day I wore a t-shirt without writing or a picture and visited Micah’s house, his mother said, “You’re dressed up.  Going somewhere special?”  I didn’t tell Daughter that I was wearing a plain pink t-shirt because of something her son said, instead I said, “Yes, to visit with all of you!”

Finding Joy in a Plant

A tall snake plant sits in the corner of our dining room, and that simple plant makes me happy.  Recent weather forecast for frost signaled the time to bring potted plants indoors.  It felt good, almost soothing, to wipe the dust and grime off the long, narrow, strong leaves.  Partly because when I clean, I want to see a difference and this plant was dirty. But mostly, because it once belonged to my grandmother.

             A tall snake plant in a white pot always set on Grandma and Papa’s front porch.   She called it a mothers-in-law tongue, and her mother gave it to her.  As a kid, I didn’t really like it. The pointed, sharp leaves hurt when I brushed by arm or leg against them and I didn’t think it was pretty.  After Grandma’s death about thirty years ago, my aunt moved the plant to her house and shared two starter plants with me.  Grandma had few material things to pass on so I was really glad to have something that was hers; something she had nurtured.

            Snake plants require little care.  In fact, leave them alone and they grow well.  In the summer, I sat the pots outside and prided myself that the leaves were green and healthy.  When frost threatened, I moved the plants into a garage corner for the winter.  After many weeks, I noticed the tall leaves were limp. So, I set the pots in a bucket and poured water around the soil and left the plants in water all day. In fact, I left them for several days, and the leaves began to turn yellow.  I’d broken the #1 rule about care for snake plants: don’t overwater.

            Root rot killed one plant. Aunt Doris gave me detailed instructions to save the other one and she offered new starter plants, but I was determined to bring my small plant back to life. And I did, and now truly appreciate it as Grandma did hers.  

            The long, narrow, strong leaves earned this plant the name snake plant and prompted other names. Mothers-in-law because we mothers sometimes struggle to hold our tongues.  In Spain, it’s known as Saint George’s sword.  It’s also called viper’s bowstring because the stiff fiber in the leaves are strong. 

            Snake plants are succulent plants and their leaves retain water, similar to a cactus. I finally learned to water mine only when the top few inches of its soil are completely dry and to never pour water on the leaves.  I just learned that snake plants clean the air better than most plants because not only do they give off oxygen, they absorb high amounts of carbon monoxide and filter toxins in the air.  I’m sure Grandma didn’t know her plant helped to keep her healthy. 

            Now, the tallest leaf on my snake plant is about 40”and there are dozens of leaves, so many that it must be divided.  Next spring, I’ll give starter plants to my children.  Who knows how many generations might enjoy a simple snake plant?