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For Children’s Sake, Drive Slowly


As I drove past Capshaw Elementary School, I glanced at the clock in my van:  2:14.  It wasn’t near 3:00, school dismissal time, so I wasn’t concerned about the lower speed limit that is enforced immediately before and the end of school days.

Children played on the playground and teachers gathered near a wooden bench.  As a former teacher, I have happy memories of those teacher conversations; recess is one of the few times during a school day that teachers can visit.  Four teachers stood in a circle, facing different directions to see the whole playground and monitor students, to be sure children were safe.  I recognized two friends.

            A city police car was parked in a street parking place, ready, I thought, for school dismissal. During my teacher days, I appreciated when police officers were present at the times when students were dropped off and picked up.  Just seeing a police car reminded drivers to slow down.  I waved to the policeman as I drove past.

            He waved back and turned on the blue lights on top of his car. I slowed for him to pass me, but he didn’t.  His car was on my bumper. 

            As I stopped in a parking place off the road, I wondered if there was something wrong with my van.  The policeman greeted me kindly, “Good afternoon, Ma’am. May I see your driver’s license?” 

            “Sure,” I said and handed it to him. “I hope your day is going well.”  He nodded and, holding my license, walked to his car.    

            I was surprised by his next words: “Mrs. Ray, you were going 28 in a school zone.  The posted limit is 15 MPH.”

            And then my experience as a teacher hit me.  Kindergarten students are dismissed at 2:00 p.m. so the school speed limit is enforced beginning at 1:45 p.m. My words rushed out.  “I’m so sorry.  I looked at my clock and because it wasn’t near 3:00, I didn’t think about the speed limit being lower now.  It’s because kindergarten students get out at 2:00, isn’t it?”

            The policemen repeated the posted speed limit, noted on a sign by a flashing yellow light, and he didn’t know about kindergarten students.  He looked stern.

             I knew exactly where that light was and I didn’t see it that day because I’d turned onto the street a half block after it. I wanted to whine, but I knew that wouldn’t help.  I said. “You know what makes this really embarrassing?  I taught at this school for more than twenty years.  I should’ve remembered.  I drive past here almost every day.  I’m so sorry I was going too fast and promise to be more careful.”

            I got no pity for being a teacher, but maybe it was my repeated regrets and promise that warranted only a verbal warning.  “Ma’am, you do that.  Be careful and slow down.”   

             Let my experience be you warning:  obey the speed limit and drive carefully. Especially near schools.


Searching and Hoping

“Well,” I said to Husband, “at least I got column fodder out of our lost stuff.”  We shook our heads and laughed at ourselves.           

It’s just a clipboard, an aqua-colored clipboard that I’ve carried to grocery stores for at least 30 years.  I’m old school and I write shopping lists on paper – 8½” x 11” paper that could be trashed.  When I taught school, it was usually a piece of notebook paper that might have had a student’s first draft of writing.  Now, it’s most often the back of a document I didn’t print correctly or a junk mailing.

            But I digress, it’s the clipboard that’s important.  When not used, its place is in the kitchen drawer under the oven with baking pans, but one day it wasn’t there. Remembering that I’d use it a few days earlier, I searched my van, even the third row back seat thinking one of my Grands probably moved it out the way. 

            “Maybe you left it in the grocery cart,” Husband said so I called the grocery store and was happy to know that they often find and always keep items left in carts.  I listened to pleasant instrumental music while the store employee searched Lost and Found and I thought of what was on my clipboard besides blank pages:  an inspirational writing by Rick Bragg, a keepsake drawing by one of my Grands, a list of heart-healthy foods.  

            “I’m sorry.  I didn’t find a clipboard.”  That wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  My next stop that shopping day was at the Dollar General Store so I called and a pleasant, cheerful sounding employee searched Lost and Found, but didn’t find a clipboard. 

            Two days later, I searched that drawer again.  I took out everything and at the bottom of the drawer, under three cookie sheets and two pizza pans, I found that old, much used clipboard.

            While on a weekend trip to watch our oldest Grand play basketball, Husband couldn’t find his favorite black cap and I was sure I’d packed it in the corner of our suitcase.  Two Grands thought he’d worn it to Chick-fil-A the night before so on the way to the next game, we stopped there. The employees searched in all the places they put lost items, but didn’t find it. 

            Back at the Hampton Inn, we went through all the drawers, although both of us were certain we hadn’t put anything in them.  We searched our stack of dirty clothes on the top closet shelf.  Thinking he might have worn it to breakfast and left it at a table or in a chair, we asked the hotel clerk if anyone had turned in a black cap.  No one had.

            When we began packing to come home, Husband found his cap.  Tucked tightly in the corner of the black-lined suitcase – right where I put it and where neither of us saw black against black.

            That’s how we sometimes spend our days.  Searching and hoping.

More Than Just Waiting

I give my college roommate a hug, tell her I love her, and then watch as she walks, leaning on a cane and limping, beside a nurse.  When they’re out of sight, I rush from the surgery waiting room to the nearest elevator, down to the hospital cafeteria. 

            It’s 6:00 a.m. and I’d awakened at 3:45 at Roomie’s home where I’d spent the night.  Since she couldn’t eat or drink anything before hip replacement surgery, I didn’t have the heart to drink coffee at her house.  She likes morning coffee more than I do.

            As I swallow the first sip of hot breakfast blend, I smell bacon.  It’s a large cafeteria in a large hospital in a large city and there were many breakfast choices.  A hot bar offers bacon, sausage, eggs, biscuits, white gravy, and hashbrowns. There are bars for pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit, and bagels.

            The only other diners, all wearing blue scrubs, stand at the griddle station. I get in line behind them. 

            “Hello. What can I get for you, sweetie? How about an omelet or egg sandwich?” Although I normally don’t like strangers’ affectionate terms thrown my way, I appreciate this young woman’s greeting – she practically sings.  Her eyes, over a bright red mask, sparkle.

            She puts the ham, spinach, and mushrooms for my omelet on the griddle.  She serves egg and bacon sandwiches to two people in front of me. She breaks and whips three eggs and pours them on the griddle and nods to the man who stands behind me.  

            “How’ya doing, Ted? What do you want in today’s omelet?”  Ted, who wears a security uniform, orders.

            “That’s just like yesterday’s,” she says as she folds my omelet into a perfectly tight rectangle. Looking my way, she asks, “You got family here, sweetie?”

            I say that my college roommate is getting a new hip.  “Oh, and you get to be here with her. I pray she does well.”  This young woman serves more than egg sandwiches and omelets.

            In the surgery waiting room, I spot one chair beside a small table in a corner and make my nest for the next few hours. 

            A family sits nearby, within hearing distance.  Two daughters assure their mother that their dad will be just fine.  A man sitting across from them, tells about his older brother, who is at that moment having heart surgery, falling out of a tree.  Another brother doesn’t agree that he wasn’t hurt and talks about an arm cast.  I eavesdrop on a lively family conversation.  Two brothers tell stories about everything from the worst meal their momma ever put on the table to the night they drank too much whiskey.

            During the drive from my roommate’s home to the hospital that morning, she’d asked, “What do you plan to do while you wait?”             

“Probably read and maybe do a little writing,” I’d said. I write the first draft of this column, but I never open the book.  Oftentimes, real life is better than any book.

Don’t Cry, Smile

I ate the last Christmas cookie.  No, I savored that cookie with ceremony.  A second cup of coffee, flavored with vanilla, a half spoonful of sugar.  But I was sad.

            This star sugar cookie, covered with yellow icing, red sprinkles and red-hot candies, was the last one that my Grands decorated a week before Christmas.  The last one on my glass platter.  As I bit one star point, I remembered the anticipation of Cookie Decorating Day.

            Right after Thanksgiving eight-year-old Micah asked, “Gran, are we going to decorate Christmas cookies?”  Yes.  “When?” was the next question.  His three older sisters asked questions during the three weeks.  Did you get more sprinkles? Can we bake lots of trees? Last time we ran out of red food coloring; did you get more?  Will we make gingerbread men like we always do?

            The question that surprised me was 17-year-old Samuel’s: “Gran, can I come by myself to decorate cookies?”  It took me back to the time when he was the only Grand and stood on a stool and smeared icing everywhere and there were more sprinkles on the kitchen counter and the floor than on cookies. 

            I’ll forever keep the pictures when just two weeks ago Samuel and Husband spread green icing and then very carefully placed individual cylinder shape sprinkles on tree cookies

            Earlier that day, Samuel’s four younger siblings had stood around our kitchen island – each with a stack of plain cookies.  They laughed and reached across each other for sprinkles and waited patiently, or impatiently, for someone to finish with the bowl of red or green or yellow or blue or white icing. 

            They spilled sprinkles.  They ate sprinkles.  They iced their fingers and licked them.  They counted how many cookies they had decorated and compared with how many everyone else had decorated. 

            When all the cookies were finished, each Grand put a few on my Christmas platter. 

I wondered who had decorated this last cookie I was eating and for a few moments, I felt sad.  The happiness, the fun of Christmas 2022 cookie decorating would never exactly be repeated.

            My memories went to other times that will never exactly be repeated.  Son’s family, who lives miles and miles away, came to visit. All eight Grands and their parents sat with Husband and me around our dining room table – to eat and play Bingo and visit.

            Exchanging gifts with a group of friends that Husband and I first knew more than forty years ago when we declared ourselves The Gourmet Group.  A first day of 2023 hike led me to the place my mom waited to catch the school bus. 

            We cherish times that we look forward to and love and wish didn’t end. I think of advice from Dr. Seuss’s book, The Cat in the Hat:  Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.  

            Enjoy the moment, hold the memories, and smile.  Then make a plan. Valentine’s Day cookie decorating will be fun.

Greeting Strangers

A few words can bring laughter and good feelings. While four college girlfriends and I spent four days together, we stopped at a Walgreens to buy hand lotion, ice, and playing cards. 

My friends stood nearby when I laid ice and cards on the checkout counter. A man, about age 40, stood behind me and cleared his throat. “Hmmm.  Looks like it’s poker night,” he said and smiled slightly.  With a serious look, I replied, “You’re exactly right.” His slow nod made me chuckle and I shook my head; then he laughed, as did the woman behind him.  

A fifteen-second encounter among strangers.  Yet, one of the best stories from our girlfriend trip to celebrate our 75th birthdays.  Who would suggest a group of retired women would buy ice and cards for poker night?  (Actually, we’d planned to deal a few hands of bridge, but we didn’t stop talking until bedtime.)  This young man’s comment brought smiles to everyone who heard him.

            A friendly comment can make both the giver and receiver smile. A FaceBook friend posted about giving compliments to strangers.  Words can be simple.  ‘Love those shoes.’  ‘Great looking hair!’  ‘I like that green shirt.’   Why give such compliments?  The FB post states: Because life is hard and some people are just plain mean. You never know what other people are going through and a few positive words might make them happier, at least for the moment, and will boost your spirits, too.

When I do grocery shopping, stock clerks are often in the aisles opening boxes and placing items on shelves.  What a monotonous job.  One day as I put cake mixes in my shopping cart, I said, “You keep everything so orderly on the shelves.  Thanks for making it easier to shop.”  The young man turned to me, grinned, and said, “Thanks.  No one ever noticed.”

            I admit speaking to strangers doesn’t come naturally to me.  I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowded elevator and only acknowledge those around me with a half-smile and not say a word.  I think of Husband’s and my long-time friend Russell who lived the adage of never meeting a stranger.

            While riding on an elevator, Russell would strike up a conversation with strangers, make connections, exchange contact information, and claim kinship.  He had the gift of putting strangers at ease and making all around him happier.  One time I dreaded going to a social event where I knew very few people and I gave myself a pep talk, ‘I’m going to be like Russell and have a good time.’  I’ve shortened that talk:  Be a Russell.

            Who needs compliments?  Everyone.  Even a few words encourage.

Who responds to friendly comments?  Almost everyone.  We college friends certainly did.  Every time I play with those cards, I’ll smile, or maybe I’ll send each girlfriend one card on her next birthday. 

Because a young man greeted me, a stranger, my friends and I laughed and have a happy memory.

When There Are No Words

Sometimes there are no words.

            No words to say to a wife whose husband drank his morning coffee and took his last breath a few hours later.  No words to a friend who didn’t expect a diagnosis of cancer.

            No words to encourage someone who continues to be in pain after surgery.  No words to comfort the parents of a teenager who collapsed and unexpectedly passed away.

            No words to express distress and grief for the people of Ukraine.

            One early morning last week I sat with pen and journal in hand and thought, ‘There are no words.’ Yet, I wrote names and hardships and grief, and I shared with a few college girlfriends who live miles away. They responded.  They, too, have friends and family members who suffer and my friends also hurt for the Ukrainian people.

            What can we do?

            I was taken back to a day many years ago when I visited my Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh who were then only a few years older than I am now.  We talked about what we’d done during the past week.  Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh had been to funerals and she had taken food to the families of those who had passed away, as well as taken a meal to a sick friend.  I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” 

            I have never forgotten Aunt Doris’s words. “It’s okay.  It’s where we are.”   I’m sure I frowned and I know Aunt Doris explained, “It’s where we are in life and it’s okay.”   She talked about the fun that she and Uncle Hugh had enjoyed with friends: playing competitive Rook card games, celebrating a new year, taking weekend trips.  Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh laughed as they reminisced about happy times with a friend whose funeral they had attended a few days earlier.  And through their conversation, I took in their happiness of times past that made accepting sadness easier.

            Last week I reminded myself that even though I don’t like what’s happening, I know life cycles. Calm. Jubilation. Sadness. Anger. Celebration. Grief.  Happiness.  And through those times people walk beside each other.

            Being raised in a small rural southern town, where everyone knew everyone’s business, I watched my parents and my extended family take care of each other and their friends.  They showed up.  They took food.  They hugged.  They listened. They prayed.

            I know that pain, distress, grief, and heartache are part of life, and I can follow my family’s examples.  Sit beside someone in emotional or physical pain.  A pot of homemade vegetable soup or a take-out meal speaks more than words said.  When I put my arms around the parents who mourned their teenager, there were no words.  Nothing to say.             

There’s hope that a touch and a hug speak love and caring.  There’s hope that showing up and listening show sympathy and concern.  There’s hope that prayers are heard, even unspoken prayers.

You Get It, Right?

“Why was the Energizer bunny arrested?” I asked. My teenage Grand didn’t even guess; he shook his head and held his hands palms up.  “He was charged with battery!” 

            My Grand dropped his chin and closed his eyes.  “You get it, right?” I asked.  He nodded and looked at me with no expression.  His responses were exactly as I’d expected; not everyone appreciates jokes known as groaners. 

            Why did the puppy jump into the pool?  He was a hot dog.

            The other day I held the door open for a clown. It was a nice jester.

            How do you clean a tuba?  With a tuba toothpaste.

            I put my grandma on speed dial.  I call that Instagram.

            Thank you to my friend Brad Gran for sharing these and many other groaners.  Brad must have an unlimited source because almost every week he responds to an informative and inspiring Sunday school email with a list of jokes, and he granted me permission to share them with you.

            We need groaners. Questions with obvious answers and puns that make plays on words.  One-liners that make us think twice.  As a kid, I knew these jokes as corny, a term that describes anything overused or obvious, as simple as the corn we country folk shelled to feed to pigs. 

            Groaners cover many subjects. A pessimist’s blood type is always B negative. Every calendar’s days are numbered.  I’ve been to the dentist many times so I know the drill.  A bicycle can’t stand on its own because it is two-tired.  Everyone thinks my runny nose is funny, but it’s snot. (That’s a good one for my young Grands.)

            Stand-up comedians have perfected the art of delivering groaners: serious dead-pan facial expressions, monotone voices, and patience to wait for delayed responses.  Groaners are also known as Dad jokes.  Maybe because dads master a comedian’s delivery, and children often think their dads are silly.  

            Your fingers have fingertips, but your toes don’t have toetips.  Yet, you can tiptoe, but you can’t tipfinger.   If lawyers are disbarred and clerygymen defrocked, then doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, models deposed, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?

If money doesn’t grow on trees, why does every bank have so many branches?

            A twist on the definitions of words brings moans and groans. Pasteurize:  too far to see. Acre:  someone that aches.  Thesaurus: a dinosaur that studies words.  Professor:  the opposite of confessor.   Tooth: the ordinal number of two.  Infantry:  a small, young tree.

            I search for groaner riddles to share with my young Grands.  During a FaceTime visit with a six-year-old Grand, she asked twice for just one more.   What did one marshmallow say to the other?  I want s’more time with you! What goes up and down and never moves?  A staircase.

            Young Grands laugh quicker than teenage Grands, but I’m not giving up.  Eventually teenagers regain their sense of humor, and groaners will be around forever.  

Life as it Should Be

            It was a typical Friday.  Micah, age 7, visited Husband and me and because he’d finished his home-school work, we could play.  After Micah won three games of UNO, I asked, “How about a Ralph’s donut?”

            My Grand immediately dropped the UNO cards that he was carefully putting into their cardboard box and asked, “Right now?”  He put on his shoes and was out the back door before I grabbed my purse and headed to the garage. 

            “Can we eat inside there?” My Grand’s eyes opened wide with hope.  I explained that depended on how many people were in the bakery.  “So we might have to stay in the van?”  I nodded.  His shoulders slumped.

            Micah’s wish came true.  Only a few customers were in the donut shop that is often a gathering place for friends to ‘settle the world’s affairs.’   

            Micah ordered a plain twist and chocolate milk. We sat on stools across the room from the only other seated customer, a gray-headed, weathered-face man who wore a flannel shirt.  I watched customers come and go and admired the employee behind the counter whose manners and service were impeccable and friendly. 

            He greeted each person who walked in the bakery while he packed donuts into boxes and bags to serve others.  “Be with you in just a minute,” he nodded to a young man wearing a baseball cap, t-shirt, and jeans. 

            “I’m not in a hurry.  I’m doing chores and errands for my mom today,” the young man said as he sat on a stool facing the gray-headed customer, and they nodded greetings to each other.

            “You do that, young man.  Help your momma all you can,” said the older man.

            “She had long list when I got home last night.  I’m on a leave from Fort Bragg.”

            For the next few minutes while customers came and went, these two men shared where they’d been stationed and their jobs in different branches of the military.  I couldn’t hear every word, but enough to know their experiences, separated by decades, brought them together.

            Micah’s and my next stop was Heart of the City Playground. Every time I’m there, I think of the cold rain, the mud, the chilling temperature in October 2015 when volunteers built this playground, and every time, I’m glad to see people there.  While I pushed my Grand in the nest swing, his favorite, three young women (I assumed mothers) stood beside toddlers sitting on the see-saw.  The mothers laughed and talked.  A baby slept nearby in a stroller.

            A little boy squealed when his dad caught him at the bottom of the slide.  From atop the rope climbing structure a little girl called, “Look at me!” to a woman who sat on a bench and cradled an infant. 

            Life as it should be.  Strangers come together through common experiences.  Kind words. Friends talk while children play.  Toddlers safe because Moms and Dads are nearby.

            And a donut and chocolate milk.  All here in my Grand’s hometown.         

So Goes the Days

Jo’s walk after supper was rained out so it was a good time to finish a project.  She explained, “I could finish some crafty things for a wedding shower. I went toward my craft room, again I say toward my craft room, and came back with polished nails and a bottle of water.  Not the task I set out to do!”  

            Just a few days before Jo had gone downstairs to get one thing and did several things.  Later, she headed up the stairs with her arms full, but not the one thing she went downstairs to get.  She asked her Facebook friends, “Do you all do that?  If not, don’t tell me.  Spare me!”

            Jo, I’m right there with you.

            Early morning is a perfect time for a walk. One day last week, the temperature was 60 something and the sun was shining.  I’d had my morning fuel: coffee and a spoonful of crunchy peanut butter.  I’d thrown a load of clothes in the washing machine and I’d be home about when the washer shopped and would put the clothes in the dryer.  A brisk short walk could jumpstart my day. 

            ‘Take vitamins and get tennis shoes,’ I thought as I walked from my kitchen.  In the bedroom, I picked up the magazine that I’d dropped onto the floor when I fell asleep reading the night before.  

            In the bathroom, I brushed my teeth, folded and put away a t-shirt, that hung on the clothes rack, because it wasn’t quite dry the day before when I took it out of the dryer.  In the closet, I picked up dirty socks and took them to the laundry room.

            Back in the be kitchen, I filled a water bottle to carry for my walk, looked down at my flip flops on my feet and thought, ‘Vitamins. Tennis shoes.’  I started all over again, walking toward the bathroom and the closet.

            Finally, I’d swallowed multi-vitamins and put on my socks and tennis shoes. I’d ready as soon as I got my AirPods and phone so I could listen to a podcast, Stuff You Should Know, while I walked. Airpods secure in my ears, but where was my phone?

            It wasn’t in my purse or on the kitchen desk.  I retraced my morning steps and found it on a closet shelf. With phone in my pocket, AirPods in my ears, and water bottle in hand, I opened the back door to step outside – just as the washing machine buzzed. 

            The clothes were washed. I could put wet clothes into the dryer and they’d dry while I walked. I raised the washing machine lid and realized some clothes needed to be partially dried, then hung. 

            I didn’t look back.  Those clothes weren’t going anywhere, but I was.  I walked out the door thirty minutes after I first thought about vitamins and tennis shoes.            

So goes my days – filled with distractions and forgetfulness.  Like Jo said, “Do you all do that?  If not, don’t tell me!”

What’s Growing under the Mailbox?

Have you noticed the lavender and purple groundcover flowers in yards this spring?  My thrift has never been prettier.  It’s so pretty that I posted a picture on Facebook and while friends who commented agree the blossoms are pretty, some do not agree on what’s growing under my mailbox.

            Isn’t that phlox? Creeping phlox? Plox?  Moss phlox?  “Aren’t the plants with purple blooms thrift and those with white blooms candy tuft?” asked someone who grew up in Giles County, Tennessee.

            I learned on a trusted gardening website that Phlox subulate, a low-growing perennial, is known as creeping phlox or moss phlox and is also called thrift and is a member of the phlox family.  And according the owner of a local nursey and garden center, both names are used.  The garden center stocks phlox in many colors: white, lavender, and shades of pink and red, and when customers ask for thrift, they are asking for phlox.  Candy tuft is a different plant. 

            The names phlox and thrift may be regional, and thrift is probably an old-fashioned name. The comments under my Facebook post shows that many of us who call it thrift learned the name from our mothers and grandmothers. 

            Mom grew thrift.  For as long as I can remember at my childhood home, lavender thrift covered the four-foot bank between the yard and driveway and draped over the stacked rock wall by the driveway.  Every spring, blossoms covered the bank and throughout the rest of the year, thrift was a green ground cover.              About thirty years ago, Husband and I transplanted many plants from my parents’ yard.  I expected that a couple of years later, the plants would spread and thrift would cover the ground around our azalea bushes.  Mom warned me that the shaded area I’d chosen to plant wasn’t the best for growing thrift, and she was right.  It didn’t flourish, but it lived and eventually it spread, but never like Mom’s.

            Many years later, after Mom and Dad’s deaths, in the middle of summer when the green plants were wilted, a young man mowed our yard and cut weeds using a weed-eater.  He cut my thrift to the ground.  I cried and told myself it was only plants, and I should have told him not to cut the groundcover near the azalea bushes.  

            I dug up some of the roots and transplanted them to an area in a small flower bed that was in full sunshine, and the next spring, I tended those few green sprigs as if they were in intensive care.  They survived and when Husband and I moved four years ago, I transplanted enough thrift to cover a one-foot square and I added plants that I bought at the local garden center

            So, the blanket of lavender and dark pink thrift under my mailbox isn’t just beautiful, it’s a happy childhood memory that I was determined to capture and enjoy. 

            Call it thrift or phlox – it’s all the same.