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Write Your Memories

During the past few weeks, I have hoped that other people are writing their experiences and thoughts about Spring 2020.  Those writings are for you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grands. 

            While I mulled over these thoughts for a columm, two friends shared the same idea and granted me permission to use their words.  Jennie wrote to a group of us who write and share memories. “I urge you to write about what you’re going through.  Write any way you want:  notebook and pen, word document, cell phone notes app. Your descendants may want first-hand accounts of what life was like in the spring of 2020 (for us, both the tornado and coronavirus.)  Equally important is the cathartic benefits of expressing your emotions in writing.  Don’t hold back.  Don’t self-censor.”

            Lori wrote on Facebook. “This is a tough, confusing time, but admit it, there are some bright spots to the slow-down of crazy busy lives and schedules.  I’ve started a ‘Blessings and Burdens’ journal to note down what I’m sad and anxious about and the inevitable bright spots that appear each day.  I want to remember those as a takeaway for this when it becomes a distant memory. And it will become a distant memory.”

            I can hear you say, “That’s easy for them – they’re writers.  No one wants to read my stuff.  I don’t know where to start.  It’s too late.  I should’ve started weeks ago.” 

            If you ever write anything, you’re a writer.  You write grocery lists and to-do lists so make a list of 5-10 things.  What is different today from January 2020? From March 2019?  What wasn’t on the grocery shelves that is always there?  (I was surprised there were empty shelves where flour and cornmeal are usually stacked.) How are you connecting with friends and family since you can’t visit in person? Who and what are you missing most?  Or follow Lori’s practice of listing daily blessings and burdens.

            I guarantee someone will want to read what you write, but maybe not any time soon.  I treasure my parents’ writings, like the story of how Papa and his two sisters bought a pump organ in the early 1900s.  I didn’t appreciate their stories when I was young, just as my Grands don’t value my writings.  I know they will.

            Start with anything that comes to mind. Your first sentence could be that somebody said I should write so I am.  Or I used a paper towel to hold the gas pump handle.  Or I’d really like to bake cookies with my grandchildren.  Or I wore a mask today.

            It’s never too late.  You might think you’ve forgotten, but when you start writing you’ll remember. Don’t be concerned about sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling. If you haven’t been writing, please pull out a pen and paper or put your fingers on a keyboard and write today, even for a few minutes.  Even a few sentences or a list.

            One last suggestion: date and sign every scribble.  Your children and grands will be glad you did.

Connecting with Family and Friends

I’ve never been so thankful for technology.  Since Tuesday, March 3, it’s been a lifeline.  I was sound asleep at 6:00 a.m. that Tuesday morning at Son’s home, when two phones rang.  My first thought wasn’t kind.  Who would call or text so early? 

            I hear Husband say, “Yes, we’re fine,” as I read a text from my Kentucky cousin. “Are you all okay?” he wrote.  I immediately responded, “Why wouldn’t we be?  We’re in Colorado.”  My cousin knew my response meant we were visiting Son’s family, and he simply wrote, “Bad tornado in Putnam County.”  While Husband finished his phone call with a Nashville friend, I scanned Facebook posts and learned about damages west of Cookeville, but none reported near our or Daughter’s homes. 

            As I pulled on my clothes I thought of April, 1974, when a tornado hit Tennessee.  Husband and I lived in Davidson County, and my parents lived in Pickett County. I don’t remember exact details, but I know I called Mom and Dad’s house from the one phone at Old Center Elementary School where I taught and they didn’t answer their phone. Hours later, my principal, Mrs. Granstaff, told me Husband had called the school office, and he’d talked to my parents; they and my grandparents were okay.  With great relief, I cried. 

            How differently we communicate now as compared to 1974.  Husband and I immediately called or texted family and friends in Cookeville, and then out-of-town family and friends, to let them know we were okay, but many people weren’t.  We flew home that day, as planned.

            Then the COVID19 virus pandemic hit and face-to-face meetings discouraged.  Grandparents aren’t hugging grandchildren, some not even visiting them, but we can see them onscreen. Husband and I have Facetimed with our Colorado Grands for years.  We’ve watched them turn somersaults, seen the big gaps in their mouths left from just-pulled teeth, and drunk tea at their pretend tea parties.  We still do that, but now Facetime means even more.

            Last week, we sang “Happy Birthday” to a Grand while other family members watched her blow out 11 candles.  They watched her excitement when she opened gifts they’d wrapped for her.  It wasn’t the same as being together, but it was a birthday celebration that will always be remembered.  Husband and I Facetimed with friends who live a few miles away. We visited from our front porch to their kitchen table.  We compared shopping adventures, projects completed, TV programs watched, toasted technology and friendship, and made plans to “see” each other next week.

            For three Sundays, I’ve “attended” church while sitting at home because First United Methodist, like many churches, has broadcast the morning service electronically.  

            Have you used Zoom, the video conferencing app?  I’d never hear of it until last week.  On Sunday, about thirty Sunday School class members came together for a discussion.  It felt good to see and hear friends and pray together.             I appreciate it all: phone calls, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Facetime, Zoom.   My ways to connect right now.  Thank goodness.

Gran! Stop!

My Grand and I hurried out my back door.  Micah wore his backpack stuffed with all the things a 5-year-old needs for his overnight visit at Husband’s and my home:  pajamas, underwear, a shirt, pants, a Spiderman action figure, a small rubber ball, and a Lego catalog. I juggled a bag of library books, my purse, a letter, and a watering can that I’d put on a garage shelf before getting in the van.

            My morning to-do list was in my head. Put the letter in the mailbox. Go to the bank and return library books.  Take Micah home.  Stop by the grocery for milk and apples and bananas – surely I could remember three items.  I was startled when Micah screamed, “Gran! Stop!”  With straight arms and legs, like he would lay in snow ready to make a snow angel, Micah stood two steps in front of me.  He looked over his shoulder; I think to be sure I had stopped.

            Alarmed, I stood still.  Micah squatted, that position only kids can do.  Flat feet. Knees bent. Bottom touching his heels and almost touching the ground.  He bowed his head.  “I think he’s alive and I almost stepped on him,” my Grand said.  An earthworm lay unmoving on the stone patio.  “Doesn’t he know he should be in the yard?”

            I said that worms tend to crawl around more when the ground is wet and it had rained last night. “So you think he’s been here all night?”  Maybe.  Micah examined him closely.  “A little part of him is smashed, but I think he’s alive.”

            Using his nimble forefinger and thumb, Micah carefully picked up the injured worm and then slung him into the yard.  The worm landed on top of the grass. “Uh, oh,” Micah said and then gently picked up the worm and lay him on dirt, near a flower bed.  Again, Micah squatted beside the worm, watching closely.  I took a deep breath, for patience, and waited.      

            Finally, Micah stood and announced, “He’s wiggling. I think he’ll be okay.”

            Micah comes from a family, including me, who often stops to save worms that have lost their way onto hard surfaces.  Later that morning, I walked to our mailbox and there on our blacktop driveway lay a fat earthworm.  When I touched him, he coiled, to protect himself, but making it harder for my not-so-nimble finger and thumb to grasp him.  On the third try, I finally moved him to dirt and then watched as he burrowed into the ground.

            Micah’s command, “Gran! Stop!” continues to play in my head. It nudges me. To do the things I can – save one little living thing, meet a new neighbor, wash clothes for someone who can’t. To appreciate nature – take in the yellow forsythia, the budding leaves, the chickadees at the birdfeeder. To be patient – accept life as it is, know that physical and emotional healing takes time.  To be joyful – just as a young child.  Just as Micah reminded me. ####

Common Sense in These Days

I can almost see Papa raise his bushy, white eyebrows and hear him say in a quiet monotone, “Well, now, it’s time to use some common sense.”  Papa’s calm demeanor and patience carried our family through extremes: trials and happy events.  When one of his three daughters was a bit out of sorts, Papa was the voice of reason. 

            Bombarded with warnings and information about a contagious disease, Papa would’ve said, “Well, then, don’t get around people.  Do what you can to not get sick and make good use of time at home.”

            Like everyone, I’ve read suggested ways to avoid the coronavirus disease.  Did anyone else remember hearing all these before, many years ago?  At home?  At school?  Even in Sunday School class?

            Keep your hands to yourself.  Don’t pick your nose. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth.  Don’t rub your eyes.  Wash your hands, with soap!  Wash before you eat, after using the bathroom, after being outside, after being at a birthday party. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Use a tissue or put your mouth in your elbow, not your hand.  Aren’t these habits our parents taught us and we taught our children and teachers repeat daily?

            Because the time between catching the virus and showing symptoms of the disease is estimated between one and 14 days, it makes sense to stay away from people.  But we need groceries, so wash your hands before and after you shop.  Wipe down the grocery cart with an alcohol wipe and don’t touch anything you don’t have to touch.

             As Papa would have, I’m trying to see these days of staying home as opportunities. Time to finish a quilt.  Update picture albums.  Clean out my kitchen cabinets of things I haven’t used during the past three years since moving to this house.  Finish a few writing projects I started a long time ago.

            On Facebook, a friend listed movies for middle school age children to watch during Spring Break and I could certainly enjoy a few evenings watching some favorite movies.  And I’d really like a day to read all day.  I don’t have an excuse to not exercise because I can bend and twist and lift at home or go for a long walk outside.

            I understand the rational for cancelling sporting events and conferences and meetings, but I’m really missing March Madness.  Basketball is my favorite spectator sport and I looked forward all year to watching the games.  How disappointed the players must be and the many businesses that support the cancelled events are suffering.

            Daily life as we know it has changed, and, unfortunately, some of us will be sick.  I hate everything about the coronavirus.  The precautions.  The sickness.  The cancellations.  Its effect on the economy.             But as Papa would’ve suggested, I’m striving for common sense: trying to make decisions to live in a reasonable and safe way.  And I’m hoping for a silver lining – there must be one.

Everyone Knows Someone

Everyone knows someone.  We know people who are grieving because they will never again hug someone they loved.  They mourn the death of their child or parent or niece or cousin or friend.

            Everyone knows someone whose home was destroyed.  Whose home was blown away.  Who walks among the rubble where their house once stood.  Whose beds and pillows and pictures and Bibles were carried miles away.  Who have said, “I’m okay. None of us are hurt. We are blessed.”  

            Everyone knows one of the first helpers.  A neighbor whose home was left standing and gave immediate shelter to others. Who wrapped towels around bleeding wounds.  Who held a frightened, crying child.  Who put shoes on bare feet. 

            Everyone knows a paramedic or deputy or fireman who was a first responder, trained to give emergency medical care. Who worked non-stop through the early morning hours, through the day, and into the next night.  Who carried victims.  Those who said, “I’ll never be able to erase the pictures from my head.  It was horrific.”

            We all received phone calls and texts from out-of-town family and friends and were asked, “Are you okay?”  I answered, “Yes. We’re okay.”  More questions led to my explaining that our home and our families’ homes aren’t near where the tornado hit. When I talked by phone with a close friend she heard my deep breath and asked, “But what?”

            Jessica was a Capshaw student and I’ve known her parents for 40 years.  From my teaching days, I remember Jessica as a 4th grader. A happy little girl with a big smile and who was everybody’s friend.  Although, our paths rarely crossed during recent years, I recognized Jessica at city hall where she was the receptionist.  She was still smiling. She served her community as a fair board volunteer and was active in her church.  The tornado took her life.

            Tom and Kay are friends from Husband’s and my college days.  Tom was Son’s first basketball coach.  I taught their daughters and followed their successes through college and now as adults. Every time I’ve said to Kay, as a greeting, “How ‘r you?”, she has responded, “Better than I deserve.” Tom and Kay’s home was completely destroyed.

            Amy was one of Daughter’s junior high school friends.  Once when she was at our house, I looked out our second story window and Amy waved from her perch in a tulip poplar tree.  I forced myself to smile, pointed down, and was relieved when her feet touched the ground. Houses around Amy and her husband’s house were leveled, but theirs was spared so they sheltered neighbors before emergency workers arrived.

            Millard was Son’s school friend.  He was always respectful, always kind, as a young boy and as a teen-ager.  Millard is a paramedic.  On Facebook, he shared the prayer he said while carrying a lifeless child in his arms.             We all know someone who is suffering after last week’s tornado.  That’s why we’re not quite okay and we help whoever and however we can.

Friends Getting Us Through

“It’ll be a short hike,” Pam announced to us twenty-four women.  We were near the Smoky Mountains for a three-day women’s church retreat.  I listened to the Saturday morning options: a hike, shopping at the outlet mall, or relaxing in the lodge where we were staying. 

            Wearing a splint on my right thumb and arm made me even more unbalanced than I usually am, but I really wanted to be outside in the woods.  “You’ll be fine. The park lists it as an easy hike.  If you need help, we’ll help you,” friends told me.  So, on a cloudy 40° F February morning, I put on the warmest clothes I had packed and double knotted my walking shoes.

            We walked across a gravel parking lot to begin the Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place nature trail. A small log cabin marked the beginning of the 0.6-mile trail near the Le Conte Creek. The first trail marker indicating the old road from Gatlinburg gave fair warning: rocks and ruts.  Tall trees, barks covered with moss on the north side, sheltered an open space where Bud and Cindy Ogle built a home and began farming 400 acres in 1879.

            Taking in the smell of the woods and stopping to feel the moss, I heard someone say, “Hold onto the rail and be careful. This little bridge is damp and slick.”  The bridge was a worn twelve-inch plank over a six-foot wide creek. The log rail wiggled as I took baby steps sideways over the water.  After crossing the bridge and tip-toeing around water-filled ruts and slick rocks, we twelve hikers naturally divided into three groups.  Those who were sure on their feet.  Those who needed a helping hand.  And those who went back to enjoy nature at the log cabin.

            I wanted to continue, but thought I probably should turn around.  “Come on. You can do it,” Cindy encouraged me. “You can hold my shoulder.” As we walked, Cindy stayed one step in front of me while I looked at the ground to avoid tripping over tree roots and small pointed rocks.

            Large stumps and rotting logs covered the woods.  A sign told us that the largest logs were the remains of chestnut trees, one of the most used trees by early pioneers. Chestnuts were a staple food and could be traded for shoes and household items.  The timber was rot-resistant, light-weight, and strong for buildings.

            Cindy held my hand as together we made our way over and around a pile of boulders.  Standing in the middle of an evergreen forest, mostly hemlock, we felt raindrops. The trail brochure described this forest as a place where souls of people come for renewal of spirit.

            It was a short hike, but not so easy for me. As I began writing this column, I wavered between focusing on my friends’ encouragement and help or the serenity the Great Smoky Mountains. Then I realized that because friends helped, I could enjoy nature.  I appreciate both.

You Got a Pencil?

“I’ll keep score. You got a pencil?” my friend said as four of us sat down to play Canasta.  I handed her the pencil that lay on my kitchen desk.  A gray mechanical pencil.  She looked at it carefully, raised her eyebrows, and then looked at me.  I knew her question.

            I chuckled and said, “Don’t you have your name on your favorite pencil?”  My friend shook her head slowly.  “That’s from my teaching days.  I taped RAY (in red, no less) on it so when I misplaced it, I hoped someone would find it and give it back.”

            I retired from teaching eleven years ago and this pencil goes back as least twenty years.  It’s a perfect pencil. A Pentel Quicker Clicker with 0.5 mm lead. (I know these details because I recently lost one like it that I kept in my purse and I bought two new ones for $8.00.)  It fits my hand perfectly and is always sharp.  A quick click with my thumb advances the lead and I continue writing, not even stopping to lift it from paper, nor do I lose my train of thought.  It’s written lesson plans in two-inch square plan books, to-do lists, grocery lists, column first drafts, and worked a few Sudoku puzzles.

            Even as a kid, I had a favorite pencil. Yellow, a number two, and hexagon shape, never a round pencil that would roll off my desk.  A yellow, #2 was all I knew so when my dad asked for a #1 pencil, I questioned him.  A #1 writes darker and he could see the letters he wrote in the newspaper crossword puzzle better. 

            Through the years, I mainly used traditional yellow pencils. But when I taught elementary students, I stocked a classroom pencil holder with all sorts of pencils, including round ones with holiday décor, and a classroom student chore was to sharpen those pencils every morning.  If a bright red round pencil encouraged a kid to write, so be it.

            How did pencils come to be?  We say a pencil has a lead core, but it doesn’t.  An ancient Roman writing instrument, called a stylus, was made from a lead rod and the word lead stuck.  Pencil cores are non-toxic graphite rods.  Graphite was first used in the mid-1500s in England because it left a darker mark than lead.  Graphite rods were initially wrapped in string and later inserted in hollowed-out wooden sticks, and the first wooden pencils were created.  In the mid-1600s, the first mass-produced pencils were made in Germany.

            A patent for mechanical pencils was granted in 1822, but the push button mechanism wasn’t developed until fifty years later.  Eventually, metal and wood casings gave way to plastic and a holder for an eraser was added.            

For the past six weeks, while I wore a cast or splint following thumb surgery, I missed grabbing my pencil and making a quick note.  It feels good, almost a comfort, to hold this simple instrument between my thumb and index finger and write a grocery list.