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The Big White House

I’ve driven by the big white house a thousand times. And one day, I stopped. The owner, Gib Taylor, had issued an invitation. “So you finally got here to see your great-grandparents home place,” he said and smiled and offered his hand to shake mine.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t a good family history student when I could have asked my mother questions. Almost twenty years after Mom’s death I questioned her sister, Aunt Doris, about the white house close to my grandparents’ home. Aunt Doris said, “You mean Grandpa and Grandma Bertram’s house?” I frowned and her husband, Uncle Hugh, chuckled.

“That big white house? It’s the Sam Bertram house?” I asked. I’d heard stories about my great-grandparents’ house. “I thought the Sam Bertram house was gone. How could I not know that was the house?”

Uncle Hugh shook his head, laughed, and said, “You didn’t listen.” The truth hurt.

The house sits on Livingston Highway in Byrdstown, Tennessee, and was built in the early 1900s by my great-grandfather, Samuel Bertram and two of his sons, one my Papa. The road in front of it was dirt. Aunt Doris remembered the house as an enchanted place. There was a grape arbor on one side yard and rose bushes on the other. Behind the house was an old spring where moss grew.

Sam and Sarah Bertram’s home was a gathering place for their children and grandchildren. Family celebrations were held around the long table right beside the kitchen. After meals, the men swapped stories on the front porch, and the women washed dishes and then visited in the front parlor. And family pictures were made in front of the grape arbor.

According to Aunt Doris, the family gathered for special events, like watching the circus travel on the muddy road. Elephants walking in a line. Lions and tigers in big cages pulled by horses.

After my grandparents married, the newlyweds lived in this house. Upstairs in the biggest bedroom. So on my visit, I was eager to see the house, and Gib, who’d lived there since 2001, had planned my visit. He had mowed paths to the barn and water well.

“Here’s the barn. Probably been here since your great-grandpa kept horses in it,” Gib said. No picture could capture the smell of this century old barn. The feel of the animals that once slept in the stalls. The well where my great-grandparents lowered a bucket and brought it back up filled with water. The concrete box that held water in the 1930s.

Inside the house, Gib led me through each room. “You may not want to go upstairs. The steps are tricky.” I tiptoed on the narrow steps. The wide hallway is where my great-grandmother shelved books for a neighborhood lending library.

I found the biggest bedroom. “This is the room I wanted to see,” I said. “My grandparents’ room. My mother was born here in 1918.”

So now I drive by and am thankful for this house. Its stories. Its owner, who welcomed me.

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Sharing Granny stories

Elizabeth Rose, a storyteller at Storyfest last Saturday, reminded me that people never really die when we tell stories about them. Although Granny, my paternal grandmother, left this earth in 1982, she lives on when I share her with my Grands.

            Granny dipped snuff, quilted, and raised a garden. She watched Saturday night wrestling, and sometimes when it was too rough she’d cover her eyes with her hands and peek through her fingers. She knew all the characters, their flaws, strengths, and transgressions, on The Edge of Night, a weekday soap opera that aired from 1952-1986.

And Granny raised chickens. Every spring she bought baby chicks from the Farmer’s Co-op and they lived in cardboard boxes on the closed-in back porch until they were strong enough to thrive in the henhouse.

Some chicks grew to be laying hens and some went in the freezer on chicken killing day. I have no idea how Granny determined which three month old chickens lived or died, but she chose the fryers. She’d grab a chicken, hold it tightly, and with a quick twist of her wrist, she’d wring its neck. Dad then tied a string around the chicken’s feet and hung it on our metal clothesline until Granny was ready to dip it into a black kettle of boiling water to loosen the feathers so they could be picked off.

The best Granny story was one my brother, Roger, told. Granny was a cook at a Byrdstown restaurant and walked home after work. She wore a white nylon uniform and a bib apron, tied around her neck and waist. She walked home after work and she’d stop at the hen house to gather eggs.

Roger often ran out the back door of our house to greet Granny. One day, when he was about 9 years old, he noticed prickly dried sweet gum balls on the ground, and Roger thought it’d be funny to surprise Granny and stick her with a sweet gum ball. He hid behind the hen house when she went inside.

Granny held up the bottom of her apron to form a pouch, reached under the sitting chickens to get the eggs, and placed them in her apron. She usually gathered 6 or more eggs. As she walked out of the hen house, Roger crept behind her.  He stuck a gumball right through her thin uniform on her behind.

Granny screamed. She threw her hands high above her head. She jumped and stumbled, but she didn’t fall. Eggs flew into the air, then hit the ground. When Roger told the story, he’d imitate Granny’s screaming and jumping and tears of laughter ran down his cheeks.

Granny and Daddy didn’t think much of my brother’s antics. Roger said Dad made sure he never did surprised Granny again.

Telling stories also leads to questions. How did she get the chicken feathers off? Did you ever gather eggs? What’s a gum ball?

Everyone can tell family stories. Try it and keep those you’ve loved and lost alive.

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Thankful for Cousins

screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-8-10-09-amI’m thankful for cousins. Especially my only two first cousins, Mike and Alan. They’re on my emergency call list. You know, that list of three people to call when you need help and they come immediately without asking why and what. They simply ask where.

And I’m thankful for my cousins’ wives who married into a family with strong traditions and they adjusted their family plans around the Bertram traditions. These women have willingly (at least I’ve never heard them complain) taken their turn hosting our family gatherings at noon on Thanksgiving Day. A tradition started by three sisters, my cousins’ mothers and Mom, in the 1940s.

Tomorrow we’ll eat the same foods our mothers prepared years ago. Including cornbread dressing shaped in balls and asparagus casserole with cream of mushroom soup.

I’m thankful for another cousin I’ve recently gotten to know. I’ve always known about Francis, a generation younger than me. Knew when he was born, followed his educational journey, his career success, and knew he lived in Cookeville. A few weeks ago, I had reason to know him personally and hug this cousin.

During the time that our home of 32 years was on the market to sale, I prayed for someone to buy it that would love it. Appreciate the effort we put into building it. Love the trees and yard. Several lookers walked through. Finally, we got the call of an offer and after two more phone calls, we agreed on a price. Then Husband asked who the buyer was.

I called the realtor to be sure of the name.   He confirmed Francis by name and occupation. Francis and his wife had walked through once and made an offer shortly thereafter. “Francis is my cousin,” I said.

Why would anyone make the decision to buy a house after a fifteen-minute walk through? Francis told me, “I’ve always liked your house. When I was a little kid, Mom and I rode bikes past it and she told me, ‘Your cousin lives there.’ She told me how we’re related and about you.”

Francis’s great-grandmother and my grandfather were siblings. His grandmother and my mother, first cousins, were born a few months apart, were everyday playmates as kids and good friends as adults. So that makes Francis and me fourth or fifth cousins or some would say, distant cousins. But in small town South distant cousins, that you like, are cousins with no numbers.

And I’m thankful for Francis’s wife. As I took a seat across from here at a bank conference table to close the house sale, she leaned toward me, put her hands forward, and held my hand. She said, “You must be sad leaving your home. We’ll take good care of it and love it. And bring your grandchildren to play in the creek and snow sled. Our girls would love to meet your grandchildren.”

Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful for cousins and their wives and answered prayers.

Tie On an Apron

imgresJust the word apron makes me smile. Granny’s aprons were part of her day’s attire and used for many tasks, including carrying eggs from the henhouse. Grandma Gladys’ aprons were stained with bacon grease. And I can see Mother wearing her green and red striped apron and standing at her white Westinghouse stove as she stirred milk and sugar and Cocoa for a chocolate cream pie. All their aprons tied around the waist, officially called waist aprons.

Granny tied a clean apron over her dress every morning. Her daily attire was a cotton, button-up-the-front dress, long sleeves in the winter and short sleeves in the summer, and an apron that somewhat matched her dress. Granny made aprons from flour sacks that held twenty-five pounds of flour. The sack, ripped open at the seam and laid flat, just needed three sides hemmed and one side gathered. Stitch the gathers to a front waistband, in a complementary fabric, and attach long strings to the waistband. The fabric strings were one or two inches wide and long enough to tie in a bow in the back or wrapped around the waist and tied in the front. Granny wore her apron all day, except when she went to town or church or visited a friend.

When she chopped weeds or hoed her garden, Granny used her apron to wipe sweat from her face. And she held the bottom of her apron up to form a pouch with one hand and picked black-eyed peas with her other. Then she sat on the white church bench on her front porch and shelled the peas right into her apron. No need for a bucket or a pan. And although Granny always had chickens and gathered eggs, she never owned an egg basket.   Her apron held eggs quite well.

Grandma Gladys’ aprons were gifts from her three daughters and she tied hers high above her waist to catch bacon grease splatters. She was the master at frying meats and vegetables. Seems she wore the same apron for a week, until washday on Monday. Because Grandma liked pretty things, some of her aprons were decorated with ruffles along the bottom hem.

Mother tied an apron around her waist only when she worked in the kitchen – cooking or canning or freezing. She wore the same one until it wasn’t clean – sometimes once, sometimes several days. And if it could be worn again, she tied her apron to a kitchen drawer handle when she took it off.   Some of hers were originally flour sacks – striped or solid fabric, no tiny floral prints for Mother – but she made some Sunday aprons from store-bought fabric. Fabric she’d bought on sale or fabric left over from a dress she made.

When I cook, I pull a bib style apron over my head. I need a whole body apron – not a waist one. I wouldn’t dare slice tomatoes or brown beef roast without a covering. I’m so messy that if I didn’t wear an apron, I’d have to change clothes to be presentable at the dinner table. Before I get the cornmeal and buttermilk out to make cornbread, I slip an apron over my head, wrap the ties around my waist and tie it in the front – all in one motion.

And I keep an apron handy – hanging on a kitchen cabinet doorknob. That’s just the way I was raised.

Father’s Day

imagesIn 1914 President Woodrow Wilson approved a resolution and declared the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day. In 1972 President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making Father’s Day a federal holiday on the third Sunday in June.

Why was Father’s Day proclaimed a holiday 58 years later than Mother’s Day?

Two women campaigned for these two holidays. Anna M. Jarvis who lived in West Virginia, devoted six years of her life after her mother’s death, beginning in 1908, petitioning state governments, business leaders, churches, and community organizations for Mother’s Day. In 1909 a Spokane, Washington woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, tried to establish an official day for fathers. Inspired by Jarvis’s work, she thought fathers deserved the same recognition as mothers. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and Washington celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

Slowly, the holiday spread. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge urged state governments to observe Father’s Day in an effort to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.” Tobacconists and haberdashers promoted Father’s Day. They advertised cigars and men’s clothing as gifts instead of roses, the flower that Dodd had proposed as the official symbol of Father’s Day. And the earliest greeting cards showed neckties as the perfect Father’s Day gifts.

So why did it take so long for fathers to officially have their own holiday?

Maybe because Sonora Dodd didn’t work as hard for Father’s Day as Anna Jarvis worked for Mother’s Day or maybe Dodd didn’t talk to the right people.

Maybe because, as one historian wrote, men “scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift-giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products–often paid for by the father himself.” (http://www.history.com)

Maybe because during the 1920s and 1930s, a movement arose to favor one holiday: Parent’s Day.

Maybe because the Depression derailed the effort to honor both parents and an attempt was made to de-commercialize holidays.

Maybe because, as a florist explained, “fathers haven’t the same sentimental appeal that mothers have.”

Nevertheless, a day to honor fathers unofficially continued. When World War II began, advertisers stated that celebrating Father’s Day was a way to honor American troops and support the war effort and by the end of the war, although it wasn’t a proclaimed holiday, Father’s Day was celebrated. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued a public statement declaring the third Sunday in June the official day to observe Father’s Day. Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed a proclamation making the day permanent.

It is estimated that on this Father’s Day 80 million cards will be given. Half of those will say, “Happy Father’s Day.” One fifth will say, “To my Husband.” Others will be given to grandfathers, fathers, uncles, sons. But very few cards will feature a necktie – the traditional least favorite Father’s Day gift.

Maybe the necktie is why Father’s Day was proclaimed 58 years later than Mother’s Day.

Maybe because the powers who were, the congressmen and presidents, didn’t want to create a holiday that their children would give them ugly ties. Ties they would have to wear.

Happy Father’s Day!

Mom Said

Bertram Girls front030 - Version 2Sunday is Mother’s Day and I’ll honor my mom with memories. Even though she passed away more that twenty years ago, I still remember many things that she said, and not just her words. There was no time that Mom spoke louder or more clearly than when a surprise gift arrived one day.

At 13, I was as tall as Mom, five foot, seven inches and taller than all my friends. I didn’t like being tall. Mom often placed her hand on the small of my back and gently ran her fingers up my spine. “Stand tall and proud,” she’d whisper.

Dad’s large hands rubbed my shoulders. “No slumping. You’re beautiful – just like your mother,” he’d say.

I didn’t feel proud or beautiful. Just tall.

One summer day a package from Sears Roebuck came in the mail. Mom was pulling weeds from her flowerbed and told me to put it on the kitchen table.

That night while I lay in bed reading Mom laid the package on my bed. I’m not sure of the exact words of our conversation, but they were something like this. Mom said, “Susan, this is for you. You’ll probably never wear it. But you’ll have it if you need it.” I ripped the package’s thick brown paper. Inside was ugly white material—like the drop cloth we’d used while painting my bedroom. This thing had hooks and laces.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“A back brace,” Mom said. “I know it’s hard to stand straight. I remember. I was taller than everyone at school.”

“A brace? My back doesn’t hurt.”

“It’s not for pain. It’s to help you have good posture. You don’t need this brace now. We’ll just put it in your closet and if you ever think it’s too hard to stand straight, you can wear it.” Mom put the hideous brace, inside its brown package, on my closet shelf. Front and center. Eye-level.

After Mom left my room, I wanted to throw the package away, but instead I threw it onto the closet floor, kicked it to the back corner. Throughout my high school years, that package stayed hidden. Mom still rubbed her fingers up my spine. Dad still patted my shoulders. They didn’t have to say anything. I never wanted to see that ugly brace again.

I survived being the tallest girl in my class, and I even accepted my almost-last place in our high school graduation line – shortest to tallest.

When Mom and I packed my clothes before I left home for college, she found the worn package on the closet floor. “I don’t think you need to take this,” she said. I was sure I didn’t.

Years passed. After I graduated from college and married, Mom and I cleaned out my closet so my room could be her sewing room. “Where’s the brown package?” I asked when the closet was empty.

“Gone,” Mom said.

“Where? Did you find someone who needed to wear that awful brace?”

“No. I threw it away after you left for college. It did its job. I’m glad it never came out of the package.”

“So you didn’t want me to wear it?” I asked.

“I hoped not. That might have been the best $6.00 we spent when you were in high school. You stand tall and straight with wonderful posture.”

Mother never took a child psychology or a parenting class. She was a smart, loving mother, and even now, half a century later, when I feel my shoulders slump, I hear her. Loud and clear.

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It’s a Bittersweet Time

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 8.20.12 AMIt’s a bittersweet time when children pack up their belongings and go away to college. Parents wave goodbye and wish they hadn’t done such a good job. They raise their children to be independent and take wings and when the kids happily leave the nests, parents cry. Tears of sadness. Tears of joy. Tears for no reason. Well, maybe only mothers cry, and not all mothers. I did.

When Husband and I took our firstborn to college, I was happy that she was going to the school that she chose. Sad that it was a four hours away. Happy that she felt confident. Sad that my little girl had grown up. As we drove home, I replayed every birthday she’d celebrated and cried that those years were gone. And then two years later, Son moved across town to go to Tennessee Tech.

I tell parents to give themselves two weeks to adjust and they’ll like the empty nest stage. It took that long for me to sleep through the night. No more 3:00 a.m. awakenings to check beds and be sure that all were home and safe and sound. When I wrapped a gift, the scissors and tape were right where I’d left them. And there were no gym bags or backpacks to stumble over in the hallway.

When my children lived at home, they did their own laundry. To me, that meant wash and dry and take the clothes to their rooms. To them, doing laundry meant put clothes in the washer and turn it on. Or dry clothes and leave them in the dryer. In my empty nest home when I opened the washer and dryer, they were empty. And the leftovers that I’d stored in the refrigerator to eat for supper were still there. The only dirty dishes in the sink were my cereal bowl and coffee cup. And there was enough milk for my cereal the next morning.

I admit that learning to parent from afar wasn’t an easy learning curve for me. For 18 years when our children walked out of the house, they told me where they were going and with whom. It took time for me to learn that no news was truly good news and to trust that I’d get a phone call when someone needed me or had something to tell me. I tried to follow my own mother’s advice: tell them you love them and don’t ask too many questions. There are some things we parents don’t want or need to know.

Finally, I discovered empty nest freedoms. Husband and I took spur-of-the-moment overnight trips. We ate only at the restaurants that that we liked. I went clothes shopping for myself. The whole house stayed cleaner and neater.

Just when I began to really like Husband’s and my new lifestyle, Daughter and Son came home for a weekend visit. Somehow, I didn’t mind finishing the laundry they started, and I cooked their favorite meals. I carefully maneuvered around their shoes and backpacks and duffle bags, knowing they wouldn’t be there for long.

And on Sunday afternoon as they left, I gave them all the food leftovers, plus the bags of groceries I’d bought just for them, kissed them good-bye, and swore that I had some allergy problems. Why else would my eyes by red and watering? Tears of sadness. Tears of joy.