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What’s Your Favorite Family Story?

This Saturday, April 30, let’s go to Dogwood Park behind the History Museum between 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.  Storytellers will entertain us with tales of their growing-up years, travels, and their friends and families. 

            If I’ve learned anything writing this column, it’s that everyone has stories.  Like the time Husband left town for a four-day golf trip and a trampoline was delivered and nine-year-old Son found a snake.  It was harmless garter snake, the size of a yellow #2 pencil and a bit longer than an unsharpened one, but I put on Husband’s work gloves to handle it. 

            Daughter, age 11, wasn’t happy that Son and I punched holes in a metal screw-on lid and put Garter in a quart canning jar so Son could take it to school the next day.   (The teacher had agreed a little snake would be welcome.)  Daughter thought Garter should’ve been left crawling in the weeds near our backyard creek and Son thought Garter should sleep in his room.  We left it inside the jar on the kitchen table.

            The next morning Son, Daughter, and I walked into the kitchen about the same time.  The jar was empty, except for grasses.  We searched, but we didn’t find Garter before school that Friday morning.  All during my teaching work day, I was eager to get home, find the snake, put it outside, and enjoy a calm weekend.  But that wasn’t to be.

            When we arrived home, three huge cardboard boxes blocked our front door.  I pretended I didn’t know what was in the boxes and thought when Husband got home, he could unpack those boxes and set up the trampoline. 

            After a thorough search, Garter wasn’t found.  Daughter and Son were disappointed so, in a moment of insanity, I suggested we look inside the boxes.  Long metal poles.  Heavy metal coiled springs.  Black mesh fabric.  Lugging all of that to the backyard was a chore. 

            Daughter, Son, and I applauded ourselves when a metal circle frame stood stable on level ground.  The children hooked the springs to the frame and laid the fabric on the ground inside the frame.  We began connecting the springs from the frame to the fabric and all went well, until the last few springs because the fabric tension was tight.

            I cut my finger on the sharp end of a spring and sent Son to the house to get the work gloves I’d left on the kitchen table.  We made a plan: Daughter and Son would pull the fabric and I’d pull on the spring to hook it into the metal ring attached in the fabric.

            I put on the gloves, grabbed the spring and said, “Ready, set, pulllll——oh, oh, oh, s***!”  My children dropped the fabric and stared at me.  In a shrill voice, I slowly screamed, “I’m okay.  The snake just crawled up my arm.”             Garter was returned to its outdoor home.  The trampoline was set-up.   Daughter and Son jumped and flipped and somersaulted.  And I knew this would be an all-time favorite family story.


Technology Needs High-Touch Balance

Husband and I have always had our differences.  He listens to the Blues; I choose Smooth Jazz.  He relaxes in front of TV; I unwind while holding a book.  He tops salads with Thousand Island dressing; I like Bleu Cheese.  When our home thermostat is set at 72°F, he’s cold and I’m hot.

            He worked in the business world.  I was an educator.  He was a fish out of water in my elementary school classroom; I never understood what he did every day at his office.  In retirement, he continues to serve on business related community boards; I volunteer for projects for children and their families.

            When our working and volunteer paths have crossed, we’ve worked well together and still do.  Before I submit a writing for publication, he edits it and always catches omitted words and typos.  Recently, he had an opportunity to write a column for a health-care facility publication and asked me to read it for errors and to make suggestions.  

            After reading quickly, my first response was a question: “May I use some of this for my column?”  His writing speaks to all professions and all people, working or retired. Maybe Husband’s and my occupations were more alike than I ever knew, and I wish I’d read the book to which he refers while I was in the classroom.  The following is an excerpt from Husband’s writing.

            We use technology routinely to do our jobs, communicate, shop, to entertain ourselves and more.  With one click, a package is delivered to our doors.  Siri or Alexa stream music or videos.  The world is at our fingertips.

            As I think about the technology we use each day, I am reminded of John Naisbitt’s book Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives.  The book was published in 1982 and was a best seller. In the second chapter of the book, “From Forced Technology to High Tech/ High Touch,” Naisbitt proposes “that whenever new technology is introduced into society, there must be a counterbalancing human response that is, high touch—or the technology is rejected.”

            Megatrends was published before many of you were born, but the book was standard business reading in the 80’s.  I believe Naisbitt’s writings are still valuable as more and more technology is introduced into our lives.  There is a need to offset the no-human-contact high tech with personal interaction, high touch.

            What did you miss most when our country was locked down for COVID?  For me, I missed being with my family and friends, personal interaction.  Yes, we Zoomed and FaceTimed, but that was not the same as actually being in the room with family and friends.  We had a yearning to hug our grandchildren and look into the eyes of our best friends.

            As we depend more and more on technology, it’s important to understand the need for personal interaction.  In Megatrends, Naisbitt wrote, “We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature.”

Where I Am 2021

Recently, Husband hung two pictures on our bedroom wall: 8” x 10” black and white pictures of himself and me.  Pictures we gave each other while we were college students.  Pictures made a year before he put a diamond ring on my finger.  His picture sat on the three-drawer dresser beside my twin bed in my college dorm room. 

            My young Grand looked at the pictures and asked, “Gran, who are those people?” 

            “That’s Pop and me when we were dating,” I said.  Her furrowed brows said she didn’t believe me.  Why should she? Husband had hair; my hair was long and brown.  Those people didn’t have wrinkles or double chins.  My Grand doesn’t know those people, and somehow her doubt made me think of something my aunt said when she was about the age I am now.  

            While visiting Aunt Doris, she told me she’d been to three funeral home visitations and baked cakes for grieving families during that week.  I said, “I’m so sorry.” 

            Aunt Doris’s reply gave me the title of this column and a mantra for life: “It’s okay. This is where we are.”  In her gentle voice, my aunt encouraged me to take stock of today and to accept life and its changes.  This is where we are. 

            Even though I’m not a student, I still like to learn and ask questions.  I want to learn something every day, although I sometimes forget and learn the same thing another day.

            I’m no longer a granddaughter or daughter; I’m on the other side of those relationships. I attend more funerals than weddings.  A rocking chair on my front porch welcomes me. 

             I try to do something every day that I’ve never done before.  Last week I held a one-month-old kid, a baby goat, and it wiggled like the puppies I dressed in doll clothes when I was a child. 

            I like celebrations.  A gathering for fun or birthdays or Friday night pizza supper is a celebration. I’m still a country girl.  I’d choose sitting outside under a shade tree over a shopping trip anytime.  

            Exercise feels like physical therapy.  Stiff joints move slowly. I do chair yoga and Silver Sneakers exercise.  I walk around the block, not for fun, but to keep my bones strong.  I tiptoe, not to be quiet, but to stretch the calves of my legs. 

            I solve newspaper Sudoku puzzles and play Words with Friends online for brain exercise.  Writing my memoirs (which my children might read and appreciate when they are my age) and this column, forces me to think in complete sentences.

            I’m thankful for technology to easily and quickly communicate with friends and family, especially my teen-age Grands. I like board and card games – even when Grands ask to play the same game time and time again.  I’ll never read all the books on my to-be-read list.            

That girl in the picture is still in love with that guy. And the older we get, the more I embrace life as it is.

It’s a Mystery

I love a good mystery.  The who-did-it stories.  The why-did-it-happen questions. Recently, I was curious as I looked through a huge stack of newspapers that my mother-in-law, Ann, saved. 

            After her death in June, I wrote a column about Husband and me searching those papers. We cut out many pictures and articles of people Ann knew, but some papers went to recycling intact because we didn’t find anything to keep.

            There is one paper we have studied many times and can’t find anything about anybody we know, but there is something unique about this edition of the Nashville Banner, published May 14, 1946. A section has been cut out.  A 1½ inch x 1 column section.  What’s the missing article?

            It’s bordered by a story of charges against a grocer violating Tennessee Sunday blue laws, an engagement announcement from Scottsville, Kentucky, and an obituary from Columbia, Tennessee. So, maybe we were looking for a personal article.

            Ann kept detailed lists of family members, including dates of births, weddings, and deaths.  Husband searched for May 1946, but didn’t find anything.  We hoped his aunt, who has a very clear mind at age 93, would remember something.  She didn’t. 

            Then, I looked carefully at the small pink address label, that is glued upside down on the front page, and here was another mystery.  Who was Fred Luke whose address was Route 2, Cookeville?  Husband knew a Luke family, but doesn’t remember Fred. A google search gave no clues.

            Next, I used the services of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  I filled out the online Microfilm Copy Order and mailed my request, with the required $5.00, for page 6 of the Nashville Banner May 14, 1946.  On the subject line, I listed the titles of surrounding articles.  Finally, we’d know what had been cut out of this paper.

            Two weeks later, I received an email including a pdf file.  I immediately looked at the bottom of the page and it was completely different from the page I held in my hand.  Thinking I’d been sent the wrong page, I checked the date of the microfilmed page: Tuesday, May 14, 1946.  So, I took pictures of the page we have and sent it.  I asked if there might be a page that matched in a different edition on file.

            I received a long letter of explanation from the assistant director for reference services of the state library.  He had looked through microfilm for that date, and others, for pictures and articles that matched those on our page and found nothing.  He explained that it was common for a newspaper, at that time, to print early and late editions and some content was printed aimed at specific communities, not appearing in all editions. He only has one afternoon edition on file.            

What was this missing article?  Why did Ann save this paper?  Did Fred Luke, whoever he is, cut out the article?  Maybe you can provide clues.  As much as I love a good mystery, even more, I love a mystery solved.

The Family Archivist

Last week, when I wrote about reading newspapers, I thought that was my only column about newspapers.  But then Husband brought home two cardboard boxes stuffed with papers from his mother’s home. 

            My mother-in-law, Ann Ray who passed away recently, saved documents from and about those she loved.  She kept personal letters, all kinds of greeting cards, school programs, wedding invitations, birth announcements, and celebration of life programs. Among these are a few newspaper clippings, but it seems Ann often saved the entire paper when a picture or the name of someone she knew was printed. So, Husband and I have looked for those pictures and articles.

            We turned the pages of The Sparta Expositor and The Sparta Tennessean, both published in Ann’s hometown.  We looked through The Tennessean, the Nashville Banner, and local papers, The Citizen, the Herald-Citizen, and the Dispatch.  We searched editions of The Oracle, published by Tennessee Technological University during the years Ann’s children were students.  We saved editions of The Charger, the Putnam County Senior High School paper, to give to Husband’s brother who was the 1972-73 editor.  And we found the Christmas 1972 Cain-Sloan Co. catalogue, probably because Husband was the Rivergate store manager at that time.

            Going through these many papers, a stack almost four feet high, was a walk back in time.  I cut out my picture with the hostesses of my bridal shower given by Ann’s friends.  There are pictures and a long two-column article, including a description of the bride’s bouquet, about her niece’s wedding in 1970.  In a July 1972 issue of the Herald-Citizen, a picture of Husband’s grandparents and their children was published when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

            Husband and I relived his 1985 campaign for and election to the Cookeville City Council.  There are pictures of Son playing basketball and Daughter with her volleyball team when they were high school students in the 1990s.

             I became sidetracked by local ads and society news.  On August 15, 1967, Kroger advertised stewing hens for $0.29 a pound and watermelon for $0.69 each.  June 1971 Bob’s Shop for Men held a Semi-Annual Clearance sale offering short sleeve sport shirts for $4.50-7.50. In that same paper, McMurry-Roberson had a full-page ad featuring wedding dresses.  I read lists of admissions, dismissals, and births at Cookeville General Hospital.  A 1975 issue published a column entitled, “In and Around Cookeville” which included names of out-of-town overnight guests visiting their relatives.

            Husband and I cut out every article about and picture of someone we know, but after looking through many issues, we said, “Why did she save this?  You look through it.”  Some papers went to recycling intact.

            A paper I’ve turned through several times is the Nashville Banner, published May 14, 1946.  The one thing different about this paper is a section has been cut out – a small 1 ½ inch x 1 column clipping.  This paper might prompt a third column.  What was the missing article?  Is it saved somewhere?

Remember Time with Dad

 Father’s Day brings memories. As his only daughter, Dad always let me know that I was his best and most-loved daughter. He told me and hugged me and kissed my cheeks and rubbed my back and spent time with me. The quiet times we shared are some of my happiest memories with him.

When I was growing up, there was a big wooden rocking chair with a red padded seat and back in our living room. It sat next to a window and across the room from the front picture window. A coveted seat. Dad often sat there to read the daily newspaper or study his Sunday school lesson or read a book.

Many times I sat in Dad’s lap while he sat in that red rocker and he often read aloud to me. I really liked when he read the Sunday comics and he’d share some newspaper articles.   And we’d take turns reading aloud whatever book I was reading at the time, usually a biography or fiction book from the school library. After we read, Dad asked questions. What was that chapter about? What do you like about this book? Now, what do you think will happen? Looking back, I realize he was teaching, which was his profession for many years, but as a child, I liked the comfort and security I felt sitting in Dad’s lap.

Another memory is sitting between Mom and Dad during Sunday church service.   We always sat in the same pew, about eight rows back on the right side. The sanctuary was small and most Sunday’s church attendance was about 100.

Mom put her hand on my thigh and if I wiggled too much her soft gentle caress became a firm squeeze. We didn’t have a church bulletin and I never had paper to draw or scribble on, but Dad knew how to keep me still and quiet. He handed me his blue ballpoint pen that was clipped in his shirt pocket and laid his hand, palm up, on my lap. I rarely wrote with a pen so I clicked the pen’s top several times.

Then I drew lines along every crease that crisscrossed Dad’s palm. And I drew pictures using those lines. Silly faces. Trees. Unusual shapes. Dad sat perfectly still and so did I, intent on my drawing, and sometimes he closed his eyes. Then Mom eased her arm across the pew behind me and nudged Dad’s shoulder. He jerked his head, opened his eyes, and he and Mom exchanged glances, and I kept drawing.

Dad taught me to ride a bike and drive a car. He encouraged me to climb trees and ride horses. He ate the practice biscuits I made for 4-H baking contests and he clapped loud when I bowed after playing my piano recital pieces. But I most remember the quiet times. Sitting in the red rocking chair. Drawing on his hand during church. Now, decades later, I still feel Dad’s love.

What’s inside that Prince Albert Can?

When Granny tucked things into a Prince Albert tobacco can, I’m sure she didn’t think I’d look in that tin can 76 years later and find gifts.  But I did.

The four-inch tall, flat can is wrapped in thick grocery bag brown paper and penciled on the paper is Property Ett Rich Sept 25 -1941. I chuckle when I read Ett. Named Juda Etta Rich, her friends called her Ett, but she signed Etta Rich on checks. I never knew she referred to herself as Ett.

The red on the front and back of the can is worn off, imprinted on the backside of the brown paper wrapper. The can’s top and bottom are rusty. As I carefully force the lid open, I see fabric. A woman’s silk handkerchief, wadded into a ball, with black embroidered edges. The fabric so delicate, I fear I’ll tear it. It’s like others that Granny carried – stuffed in her bosom or sometimes she knotted a few coins tightly in the handkerchief corner and then stuck it in her apron pocket.

And a small, crocheted bag. Only about three inches across the bottom, a semi-circle shape with a one-inch handle. Surely it was white or cream colored at one time; not the dingy beige it is now. Was this someone’s change purse? Who made these treasures? Not Granny. She quilted, but never held a crochet hook. Maybe her mother, Elizabeth Huddleston Rich who died in 1921? Or one of Granny’s two sisters?

Tucked in the bottom of the can is a folded paper. Using tweezers I ease it out. A 5” x 8” blue-lined tan school paper. It’s a letter penciled in cursive in the traditional friendly letter format: heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. Granny’s sister, Mary, signed it.

This family document is headed with Caddo, Oklahoma, dated June 28, 1922, and addressed Dear Sir. With no corrections, the one sentence body of the letter reads as follows: Please permit Ett Rich to take my part of Father Bank account To Pay expencies. Signed: Yours Truly, Mrs. Mary Pierce.

As I hold this crinkled old paper, I can see Granny at Pickett County Bank in Byrdstown, Tennessee, as she signed forms to transfer her father’s money from her sister’s name to hers. David Rich died March 1922, just months after his wife’s death. Granny and her sister Dona lived in Byrdstown; Mary and her husband had moved west.

So Granny was the executor of her father’s estate. I knew she continued to live on the family farm, the home place, for a many years. Where did Granny keep this document for almost twenty years before she stored it in the Prince Albert can? Why were that handkerchief and small bag inside?

I have to think Granny valued these items as family keepsakes. And reading the letter and handling the crocheted bag and handkerchief connects me with great-grandparents and a great aunt I never knew. Thank you for this gift, Granny.

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.














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.


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.