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What’s in a Nickname?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get Out the Knitting Needles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Years Later

A green folder is in my filing cabinet. It’s labeled “To Do List” with a subtitle “Began Jan. ‘09 when Retired.” After teaching for 25 years, I retired December in 2008. On a cold January morning, I remember sitting in my home closet office in our basement and making a list.

I’ve always been a list maker so writing the things I wanted to do and thought I needed to do seemed practical. I thought I’d review the list regularly to update. How good it would feel to set goals and achieve them, but I don’t even remember the last time I saw this green folder.

It caught my eye recently and I didn’t open it. I stuck it under my writing desk calendar because January 2019 would be the perfect time to look inside, but now I’m hesitant. I’m sure I’ll see fun things and tasks that I haven’t done.

Taking a deep breath, as if facing something dreaded, I open the folder. Four notebook paper pages are clipped together. There are some things marked through – completed! I exhale in relief.

I had written categories: shopping, clean out, visit, learn new things, fun days, write, and sew. Evidently, I last updated the to-do list in 2012. Among the shopping items checked off are a rechargeable baby monitor, a toddler car seat for Samuel (Grand who was then 3 ½ ), and a bedspread for a guest bedroom. I baked and delivered cinnamon rolls to a few friends and regularly visited Aunt Doris and Uncle High. I completed a quilt that Grandma and Mom began, made a king-size quilt from scratch, and several baby quilts for Grands. I’ve read some really good books, worked some crossword puzzles, and have written about my childhood, essays that I hope my children and Grands read someday.

I haven’t learned to crochet or had our hutch repaired or made biscotti or walked a 5K race or written a book for children or organized the many letters my parents wrote each other. I haven’t taken a computer class or completed a denim quilt using the fabric of old blue jeans or ridden in a hot air balloon, although that adventure is on my 2019 calendar.

There are also loose pages in this folder. A Just for Today List. A bucket list of places to travel. A page dated June 27, 2012 is entitled, “What I’m glad I’ve done since being retired 3 ½ years.” Weekly suppers with Daughter’s family. Grands spend the night here weekly. Visit Son’s family more frequently. Twice monthly breakfasts with friends. Music classes with Grands. Exercised more often. Morning meditations. Written some memoirs. Writing a weekly newspaper column.

The green folder is now filed away again. I marked off some things on the to-do list and highlighted some to do for sure in 2019. And I added two: keep on keeping on and play with Grands. That’s been my life for the past ten years, and I hope will be for the next ten and more.

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Dreaded Phrases

My friend’s Facebook post prompted many comments and stories. Mary Jo wrote, ‘Some dreaded phrases,’ and she listed a few. ‘Easy to assemble. Dry clean only. This won’t hurt a bit. Hold for the next available line.’

I immediately thought of Christmas gifts labeled easy to assemble and parents who never held a screwdriver until all the little ones were tucked in bed on Christmas Eve. I’ve heard stories of bicycles and dollhouses completed minutes before children jumped out of bed Christmas morning. Or not completed and Santa leaving a note saying, “Your dad and mom will finish this. I had to travel around the world tonight. Love, Santa.”

‘This won’t hurt a bit’ goes hand-in-hand with a phrase I don’t like: it’s minor surgery. Maybe it’s simple and insignificant to the surgeon, but when I’m the patient lying on a back leather table and the doctor holds a knife, it’s not minor. It’s major to me, physically and emotionally.

‘Hold for the next available agent’ inspired similar phrases: please hold while I transfer your call and please hold because your call is important to us and the many instructions beginning with the word Press.  Does anyone else become frustrated hearing computer-generated instructions? Press 1 for store hours. Press 2 for the store address. Press 3 to inquire about your order. Press 4 to speak with someone in billing. Press 5 to speak with someone in repair. Only a few times, have I been patient enough to hear, “Press 0 to speak to a store representative.”

Oh, for the days when a person answered business calls and then answered questions. I don’t like being placed on hold, but I do appreciate the opportunity to leave my phone number with the promise of a return call because most calls have been returned in a short time.

Other dreaded phrases relate to driving: one lane for the next 49 miles and road construction ahead. But I have to throw in some road signs I don’t like to see, but make me chuckle. Slow People Working. Danger Men Working.

And there are preambles we don’t want to hear. I hope I don’t make you mad, but ____. You don’t want to hear this, but ____. Those make me think of a day when Son, then age 16, came home one summer afternoon and said, “Mom, I gotta’ tell you something you won’t like.” Parents of teenagers know my sick feeling when my heart hit my stomach. He talked about the recent non-stop rain and flooding and heavy winds and I envisioned a wrecked car. When he finally said that the huge oak tree outside my school classroom window had uprooted and lay on the ground, I was sad, greatly relieved, and mostly touched that he knew how I loved watching that tree through the seasons.

Mary Jo, thanks for letting me use your post as a column springboard. It took me on a mind journey.

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What’s for Supper?

cutlery-297617__480Who cooks supper meals? Remember meat-and-three-meals? Pork chops, fried chicken, beef roast, or meatloaf and three sides. Vegetables such as potatoes, green beans, corn, peas, cole slaw, and carrots. Mom cooked like that. And sometimes she served homemade soup with hot cornbread or spaghetti topped with her special tomato sauce and meatballs. That’s the suppers I ate as a child and I learned to cook at Mom’s elbow.

When friends reminisce about the first meals they ate as newlyweds, they tell funny stories because the wives didn’t know how to cook. My newlywed story is different. A few months after Husband and I married, I remember him telling me, “We really don’t have to have a big supper with meat and vegetables every night.”  I took him at his word.

I’ve always like cooking – like to chop, dice, bread, measure, mix, knead, sauté, brown and bake. But planning and shopping are chores. If someone would just tell me what to cook and buy the groceries, I’ll cook. I’ve been in a slump and I looked for other meal options.

Anyone else tried mail order meals? I ordered by email and UPS delivered a box of food packed on ice on my doorstep. Inside was everything needed, with directions, for two meals for Husband and me.   Everything for Crispy Rice Chicken Katsu with roasted Chinese broccoli. Everything. Including a liquid egg, ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, and 2 fluid ounces Tonkastu Sauce. The meal was delicious, easy to prepare, and I loved that I didn’t have to buy a large amount of an ingredient that I rarely use. One box included 2 teaspoons of Chicken Demi-Glace and 3 thyme springs and 1 red fresno chili.

To avoid planning and for easy shopping, there are fresh ready-to-cook meals available in the grocery stores. Sweet chili chicken, mild Italian sausage with sweet peppers and onions, flank steak stuffed with spinach and provolone. All ready for the oven or microwave. Even taco soup for my crockpot. And salads are bagged with cut lettuce and carrots, dressing, and croutons. All I have to do is open the plastic bags and dinner is ready.

Frozen meals have come a long way. Remember TV dinners in the 1950s? Meat drowned in bland brown gravy and tasteless mashed potatoes and diced soggy carrots weren’t acceptable on Mom’s table. But oh, the frozen meals choices today. Beef Lo Mein, Alfredo Chicken, Three Cheese Lasagna, Chicken Pai Thai, Chicken Pot Pie. And there are kids’ meals with chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and broccoli.

And delicious prepared meals are available from local caterers. Take the food home, heat it, and serve. Nothing could be easier. Voila! Dinner is served!

I’ve tried mail order meals, meals in a box, meals in plastic bags, catered meals. Some passed the test – as good as Mom’s. Most didn’t. Time to make this week’s menu and shopping list, including what I call ‘find-it, eat-it’ meals. Husband is good with that.

There’s More Summer Living

At the end of May, my 11-year-old Grand wrote ‘Summer Schedule’ in big letters on her family’s laundry room chalkboard. Louise had erased her family’s plan of sport practices, music lessons, and dance classes, and she wrote three short sentences.

Stay in bed to your heart’s content.

Swim to Mom’s content.

And read to your brain’s content.

Every time I’ve seen Louise’s schedule I’ve hummed two songs that I first heard as a child. Summertime and In the Good Old Summertime. We weren’t a singing family, but I learned a few lines from Summertime that I’d sing and Dad whistled.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.

It’s the first line that stuck in my head. This lullaby was written in 1935 for Porgy and Bess, a play about troubled people in Charleston who played hard, fell in love, and for whom life wasn’t easy. I didn’t know that story when I was young; I just liked that the livin’ was easy.

I remember only part of the beginning verse, about holding hands, from In the Good Old Summertime. We didn’t sing it as it was written in 1902 and recorded by many artists through the years, up to 1965 by Nat King Cole.

In the good old summertime
In the good old summertime
Strolling through a shady lane
With your baby mine
You hold her hand and she holds yours
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your tootsey-wootsey

In the good, old summertime.

Mom and Dad sang, or actually chanted, a version that went something like, “I’ll hold your hand and you hold mine and that’s a very good sign. That we’re having fun in the good, ole summertime.” Or sometimes we’d dine in the good ole summertime. Or we wondered what time it was in the good old summertime.

So now that school bells are ringing what happens to Louise’s Summer Schedule? Stay in bed, swim, read. Even though the summer season includes August and most of September, when school begins, summer seems to end. Like many children, my Grand isn’t ready for a school schedule to squelch summer time. And I’m not either.

There’s still a lot of summer living. There are long days for walks in the woods, along a stream, and downtown to the ice cream store. There’s time for more backyard playing and cookouts. More fresh homegrown yellow squash to fry, more juicy red tomatoes to slice, more green beans to snap, more watermelon to slurp. More lake sunsets and boat rides. More front porch rocking.

Although Louise and her siblings are back in school, her Summer Schedule is still on the wall. Her mom said, “I just can’t give it up.”  Who wants to give up good old summertime when the living is easy? Not me. Nor my Grands. Nor their mother.

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One Solitary Sundflower

Daughter posted a picture on Facebook of one sunflower plant beside a utility pole. Right in the middle of town. Inches from the sidewalk. A five-foot tall plant growing from a palm-size area of soil surrounded by asphalt. One beautiful bright yellow plate size flower. An unexpected sight.

So unexpected that Daughter’s 9 year-old daughter, Ruth, shouted from the back seat of their van as they drove past it, “Whoa, look at that flower!” A few days later, my Grand pointed it out to me. “Look, Gran, just one flower. It’s pretty, it’s it?”

This flower, this plant, intrigues me in many ways. I think of the huge fields of sunflowers that I saw while driving across Kansas six years ago. Bright yellow blossoms covered the prairie from the interstate highway to the horizon. Such a contrast: millions of blossoms and one single flower.

Sunflowers have been around a long time and are valued for practicality and beauty. Evidence of sunflowers has been uncovered at archeological sites as far back as 3,000 B. C. They were first cultivated by the Southwestern Native Americans and have become valuable as medicine, fiber, seeds, and oils. Early European settlers sent seeds back to Europe where the sunflower became popular in cottage gardens and then Van Gogh’s paintings in the 1880s gave this flower prestige.

Sunflowers adapt to soil from sand to clay and tolerate dry to medium moist soils as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged, which is why the one time I tried to grow sunflowers they drowned and died. They are remarkably tough and grow best in full sun. Yet, this solitary sunflower grows in a low place where rainwater pools, and it stands on a tree-lined street.

Daughter and I talked about this plant. There are many questions we’d like to ask it. Are you lonely being the only one in a sea of asphalt? Were you planted on purpose? Or did a stray seed make its way into that tiny crack of dirt between the utility pole and street? Are you struggling to live? Do you know you preach to us?

Daughter says, “We see you standing there so strong and lovely. You make a difference by bringing beauty into the mundane of driving down our street to get somewhere in life. You remind us to look for lovely. You stand, and sometimes, that is enough.”

I see strength and determination. Against all odds, you survived. You stand proud, but not nearly as tall as the towering utility pole that brushes your petals. You grew where planted: not in a cottage or backyard garden, not among friends in Kansas, but on a small town city street.

Elaine, age 7, was with me in my van when we past this flower and she said, “Gran, have you seen the sunflower? It shouldn’t grow there, but it does.”

“It’s persistent and determined,” I said.

“Per what? What does that mean?”

Sunflower, do you know the lessons you teach? The inspiration you share?

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