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One Hour and Five DecadesTour

“You know what I remember most about this quad?” Kathy asked.  Last week, four college girlfriends and I stood in the middle of the Tennessee Tech quad, the grass rectangle in front of Derryberry Hall and surrounded by buildings built in the early to mid-1900s. 

            “Lines!” Kathy said. “Remember standing in lines to register for classes?”  We all laughed. 

When we were freshmen in 1965, to register for fall quarter classes we were given packets that included a list of class offerings, including time, location, and teacher, and our advisors ‘signed off’ on the classes we needed.  

            Then began the quest to get IBM cards for classes and that required walking from building to building and standing in line.  First, I chose non-major classes, especially English and History and the teachers determined my choice.  

            “But, remember when you’d have all the cards you needed for classes, except one, and that one required class was offered at a time you already had a class?”  JoAnn asked.  That meant walking across this quad, returning a class card, and hoping you could get into another class. 

            Registering for classes was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle and it usually rained on registration day.  A day of frustration.  “But just think, if Blondie and T. D. hadn’t stood in a registration line they might never had met,” said Kathy. That chance meeting led to a wedding in 1968, and as trite as it is, they have lived happily ever after.

            Ted McWilliams, assistant director of admissions and our tour guide, laughed at our stories.  “You probably remember going to basketball games in Memorial Gym right in front of us?”

            Yes, and because every seat would be filled, some of us went early to save seats for friends.  But, we most remember the gym as where we attended concerts and Public Programs and danced. Concerts by The Lettermen, Neil Diamond, Sam and Dave, Ray Charles, The Boxtops – big names in the 1960s. 

            Public Programs was a required underclassmen hour-long class in the gym on Wednesdays beginning at 10:00.  Students were assigned seats, by alphabetical order, and to earn an A for 0.5 credit hours, we sat while a student worker took roll, noting empty seats.  During Public Programs, school announcements were made and someone, a visiting dignitary or a faculty member, gave a short talk. 

            In the spring of 1967, Husband, then Boyfriend, invited me to the ROTC Ball, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps formal dance.  He wore a rented tux and I wore a floor length blue satin dress and elbow-length white gloves as we slow danced under basketball goals.  

            “Let’s walk toward the new science building,” Ted said. My friends and I recalled chemistry lab classes in Foster Hall, which is no longer used, and English classes in Henderson Hall, where students still write papers and study Shakespeare. 

Ted led us on a one-mile tour, one-hour tour.  We five friends traveled more than five decades and didn’t stand in a single line.


College Friends are Lifelong Friends

As eighteen-year-olds from towns across Tennessee – Rockwood, Sparta, Nashville, Byrdstown, Jasper, Lawrenceburg – we came to Tennessee Technology University in 1965.  Seven coeds, two from one town.            

We lived on the top floor of Unit A dormitory.  Shared a hallway community bathroom, pink sponge hair rollers, poor boy sweaters, math homework, dictionaries, stories of the worst dates ever, and we swooned over Richard Burton’s pictures. 

            We practiced writing each other’s signatures, in case someone might be late returning to the dorm before it was locked each night: weeknight at 10:00 p.m., weekends at midnight. The sign-out and sign-in sheet was near the dorm front door, but one of us could distract the graduate student office worker while another signed the sheet. 

            We heated tomato soup in two-piece electric popcorn poppers – the only cooking appliances allowed.  But the bottom heating element heated a melted cheese sandwich when it was wrapped tightly in aluminumfoil.

We donned two-piece bathing suits, rubbed baby oil on our bodies, climbed out a dormer window, lay bedsheets on shingle roofing, and sunbathed.

            Typical dorm dress was baby doll pajamas.  Pajamas that could be hidden under knee length monogrammed London Fog rain coats, or knock-off London Fogs, and were acceptable attire to walk around the corner to the Midway Restaurant to get meat-and-three takeout suppers. This attire was also acceptable for an 8:00 Saturday morning class. 

            One of us dropped out of school to return home after her father’s death.  Two married while still students and lived across campus in married student housing; they brought home-baked cookies and cinnamon toast and stories of married life to the other four of us who lived in the dorm, two-by-two roommates. 

            We graduated. We hugged and promised to keep in touch. To write letters. To call, although phone calls were expensive and charged by the minute.  Within a few years, we’d all married, some living a short drive from each other, some in other countries.

            But we kept our promise.  We called to share news of jobs and babies and new homes.  For a time, we wrote a chain letter. When I received the seven-page letter, I read everyone else’s page, took out the page I’d written previously, wrote a new page, and mailed it to the friend who was to receive it next. 

            We wanted to celebrate our 40th birthdays together and five of us did.  To save money, we stayed in one hotel room that had a king bed and a pull-out couch bed and a commode that overflowed in the middle of the night.

            Since then, we’ve gathered most every year, usually all seven of us. One has told her children, “When I’m old and lose my mind, put me in a nursing home with my friends.  I’ll think I’m in the dorm and I’ll be happy.” 

            Last week five of us Sisterfriends spent three nights together here in Cookeville, and we toured the Tennessee Tech campus.  Memories flooded – fodder for another column.

Doing Right Isn’t Always Easy

            Richard stood straight as he walked toward the front door that summer afternoon in 1963.  Mom, Dad, and I watched through our living room picture window.

            Richard had called the day before and asked to visit.  He said he’d just been discharged from the Air Force and worked with my brother Roger in Spain. He asked if it would be okay to stop by on his way home to Mississippi; he wanted to meet Roger’s family.

            He shook Dad’s hand and nodded, almost bowed to Mom and me.  He stood taller than Dad’s 6’2” and although Roger had written about his good friend Richard and I knew he was black, his presence in our living room surprised me.  As a 16-year-old, I’d hoped he would bring gifts from my brother, but that wasn’t the reason he visited. 

            After a bit of small talk, we realized Richard had driven many miles out of his way to our home in Byrdstown, Tennessee.  He sat on the chair’s edge, closest to Dad who sat in the red rocking chair.  Mom and I sat on the couch facing them.  Richard leaned forward, his back straight, his hands clasped between his wide spread knees.

            He began to tell stories about his and Roger’s service together at Moron Air Base.  As communication specialists, they had sat side-by-side in an underground bunker. It was stressful: twelve hours on, twelve hours off.  Roger was still there.

            After a few minutes, Richard dropped his head and was quiet.  Then he said that Roger had been his only friend when he needed one. I don’t remember how Richard was wronged or if he explained.  I do remember that he wiped the back of his hand across his tear-filled eyes and I left the room.  Maybe because I got a non-verbal message from Mom or Dad or because I was uncomfortable watching Richard cry.  I sat out of sight in the kitchen, but close enough to hear.

            Richard said he wanted to meet Roger’s parents and thank them for their son.  He said Roger stood beside him when no one else did and Roger may have saved his life.  They had both been punished, and Roger’s only transgression was that he told the truth. 

             Richard also talked about good times he and Roger had shared in town during their time off, and about Diablo, the horse Roger bought and trained in Spain. Mom, Dad, and Richard talked and laughed. 

            Richard hugged each of us before he left our home, and we watched through the living room window as he walked to his car.

            The only time I heard my brother talk about Richard, he said that he was a good guy and wasn’t treated fairly because he was black.

            Even as a teen-ager, I knew Richard travelled many miles to do what most people wouldn’t do; he was a good guy.  And whatever my brother did, he did all his life – he stood with friends to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.

Can We Just Stop a Minute?

We stood around a high-top table at a rooftop restaurant.  Telling stories.  Remembering days long past.  Sharing where we’ve been and what we’ve done during the last fifty-something years, since the late 1960s. A few of Husband’s college fraternity brothers and their wives or dates had gathered for supper and a long-overdue visit.

            We laughed as we reminisced about parties, one when a diamond engagement ring was thrown across the dance floor.  (The ring was found and the next day he put it back on her finger.  The couple married and will soon celebrate their 53rd anniversary.)

We talked about children and grandchildren.  About jobs and careers.  About trips. About moves from apartments to houses.  About upsizing and downsizing.  About retirement and the luxury of doing what we want, when we want.

“Can we just stop a minute?” Gil said. “Just stop and appreciate that we’re here together.  After all these many years – when we were students at Tech – we’re together right now, at this moment.”

We five around that one table stopped.  We nodded.  We looked at the clusters of others who were talking and laughing.  My eyes filled with happy tears.

I’ve carried Gil’s words for two weeks. Just stop and appreciate.  Right now, at this moment. I am thankful for that time with friends, some Husband and I have kept up with and seen regularly, some we hadn’t seen since 1969.  For that reunion, people had made plans and travelled distances and even though some of us will gather again, the next visit won’t be that moment.

Time with family and friends doesn’t have to be long planned and can be anywhere, anytime. 

As I drove a friend to Vanderbilt for a radiation treatment, we talked about the days when we were neighbors and our children were young and how we fed PBJ sandwiches to the kids who were in our backyards at lunchtime.  Those were happy memories and I was happy for the time just the two of us were together in my van.

When I sat at a restaurant with two friends last week, I stopped talking and just listened.  I took in their faces, their smiles, their concern for another friend who was sick.  

As I visited on the phone with a friend, I didn’t dust window shutters or empty the dishwasher.  I concentrated only on our conversation. 

Most days, when the weather allows, before or after supper and sometimes both, Husband and I sit in rocking chairs on our front porch.  We share what we’ve done that day and greet neighbors as they walk their dogs.  We watch neighborhood children ride bikes and scooters.

Last week’s heart-breaking news of the deaths of young children and teachers in Texas tells us once again to hold those we love in long hugs.  To appreciate each conversation.  To take in and cherish time together.

Can we just stop a minute?  Just stop and appreciate.  Right now, at this moment.

Traveling Letter

“Will you participate in a group letter?” I texted to six college girlfriends.

            “I don’t like chain letters. Please don’t send one to me,” one friend responded. I explained that I wanted to begin a traveling letter and each of us would write a brief note and pass it on.  Like the letters we sent each other years ago, before email.  

            “I want to know how long it takes a letter to get to all of you and back to me.  It’ll be fun to read your writings. I’ll include stamps, and it’ll be fodder for a column,” I wrote.

            I smiled as I read the responses on the text thread.  “Is there a time limit?”  No.  “Only if you promise to share it with all of us after we’ve all written.” Yes. “Count me in! I love getting mail!”  “A column, of course!”  My friends texted laughing emojis and agreed to participate.

            In the late 1970s, we girlfriends kept a traveling letter going for several years.  When I received it, there were seven letters. I took out my letter, wrote a new one, and mailed it along with the other six pages to the next person on the list.  How I wish I had those letters.  

            So recently, I mailed a letter and suggested that writings could be about anything.  Weather. Dreams.  Pandemic.  Anything.  I wrote a paragraph about my backyard bluebird box.  Each person would add a few lines, to this same page and the back if needed, or write on another page, and mail it on.

            It took fifty-five days for our letter to travel to five addresses in Tennessee, one in Florida, and one in Kentucky.  Because two friends were vacationing when the letter arrived in their mailboxes, it took a bit more time than expected.  

            I received a fat envelope that required two stamps, and I didn’t open it immediately.  I waited until late afternoon after the day’s busyness.  With a glass of wine, I settled onto my front porch rocker and took five pages out of the envelope. 

            Snippets from each person’s writing are similar.  Frustrations with changed plans.  One wrote, ‘I have been reminded yet again that making plans is over rated.’

            Changes caused by the pandemic. ‘Harry (her husband) and I have been together more than we have in our 53 years of marriage.’  ‘No friends came to our house for months until we were all vaccinated.’

            Finding positives. ‘In my garden, flowers bloom, birds sing, the sun shines.’ ‘During the pandemic, we cooked more, visited with family, became friends with close neighbors, had time to read and exercise, and took up birdwatching.’ ‘It’s a beautiful quiet, peaceful Sunday afternoon.  The dappled sunlight is magical as I look into the woods.’

            I treasure my friends’ writings and have read our traveling letter several times.  Each time, I read something new, and after sharing it with friends, I’ll keep it.              This time next year, it’ll be history, and I’ll suggest we write a 2022 traveling letter.

1000 Breakfasts

Breakfast was never so good. Bacon, hash browns with onions, two eggs over medium, and buckwheat pancakes. But it wasn’t just the food – the women around the table made this one of the best ever breakfasts.  For the first time, since March 2020, the Tuesday Breakfast Group recently gathered at a restaurant – not outside, not on Zoom.

            Tuesday Breakfast (Could there be a more mundane name?) began with four women in 2010.  As we rode home together after a girls’ weekend at Fairfield Glade, we talked about how good it felt to laugh and cry and play games and stay up late and wear pajamas all day.  Just women, who often gathered with husbands for Friday night suppers and to celebrate birthdays.

            “We could visit together in Cookeville,” one said.  We all agreed.  Not overnight, but regular visits. Maybe monthly?  No, how about every other week?  Not a weekend day or Monday or Friday.  Tuesday.  Maybe out for lunch?  No, breakfast.  Not too early. How about 9:00?  And with that Tuesday Breakfast formed.

            We met at Algood Diner, moving with it from Algood to its location on Willow Avenue.  When this diner closed, we tried several home-cooking, table-service restaurants before settling at Grandma’s Pancake House. 

            One friend moved out of town and others joined us.  Now, one person sends a reminder text on Monday mornings, and even a message saying, ‘Can’t make it this time!’ connects us. Every other week since 2010, Tuesday Breakfast has been on my calendar. That’s about 1000 breakfasts!

            March, 2020, the world shut down. Tuesday Breakfast at Grandma’s was cancelled. We took folding chairs and sat six feet apart in one friend’s driveway under huge shade trees.  We ate our brown bag lunches or snacks or whatever.  We talked loudly, often repeating what was said because everyone couldn’t hear.  We didn’t touch each other’s stuff.  We waved good-bye.  When cold weather hit, we met mid-day during the warmest part of a day.  And during the coldest months, we Zoomed, holed up in our homes, and ate together across screens.

            Finally, after sixteen months, six Tuesday Breakfast friends sat shoulder-to-shoulder and just inches across the table from each other at Grandma’s Pancake House.  We laughed about dropping food on ourselves.  Laughed so hard that one of us snorted and some wiped tears.  We laughed about things that happened yesterday and years ago.  

            We ate slowly.  Talking and listening are our soul food.  No topic – except some politics – is off limits. We complain and whine.  We praise and share happy times.  A grandchild scoring a soccer goal gets applause.  We share patterns and recipes. We share concerns and problems.  We ask for prayers.

            Before the pandemic, I didn’t fully appreciate Tuesday Breakfast. Last week, it felt so good, so heart- lifting, so comforting to be with these women who are a circle of acceptance and care.              

Last week, we hugged. 

In these Unsettled and Disturbing Days

I didn’t want to write about racial issues.  What can I say?  Why voice my thoughts? I’m a white, retired elementary public-school teacher.  I grew up in a small Tennessee county where the only black people worked in the kitchen of a restaurant near the Obey River bridge that spans Dale Hollow Lake.

            When I was young, I sang a song in Sunday School class about people of different colors, and my teacher taught that all people were equal in God’s sight. I’ve never questioned that lesson.

            When I see and hear and read about deaths, injuries, riots, and destruction, the well-known Sunday School song plays in my head.  Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow; black and white. They are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world

            And when I see and hear and read about deaths, injuries, riots, and destruction, I’m sad and feel unsettled, restless, helpless. I think of my friends who are black.  I think of their children.  Their spouses.  Their siblings.  And I hurt for all of them.

            I reached out individually to two black women friends. One was a TTU basketball player and the other is a teacher whose classroom, a few years ago, was right next door to mine.  One has children who are university graduates; the other has young children.  I respect these women and gladly call them friends. Although I haven’t sat face-to-face with either recently, I hope they both know I’m willing to help them anytime.

            So, I asked Leah and Summer two questions. How I can share that although our skin color is different, our hearts, our minds, and our bodies are the same?  That even though our experiences and ‘upbringings’ are different, that our choices are the same?

            Leah disagreed that our life choices are the same.  She’s right; each person’s choices are different along life’s path.  I meant, but didn’t say, our choices in our actions and reactions.  Leah wrote, “I do feel that when we lead with love, we have the best opportunity to learn, overcome fears of the unknown, and build bridges!”

            Summer responded that the key is choice. She wrote, “We can choose how we see those around us, even if it challenges us. We can choose to hear and acknowledge others’ experiences, even if it differs from what we’ve heard or thought before. We can choose to be different from our upbringing, even if it makes our family uncomfortable. We can choose to learn from the past, (including a past that wasn’t written in school textbooks) so that our today and tomorrow are different. Today we must become uncomfortable. So that tomorrow will be a little more comfortable.”

            My friends wrote words that I couldn’t.  Love. Opportunity to learn. Overcome fears of the unknown. Build bridges. Choose how we see others. Hear and acknowledge.  Learn from the past.  Be uncomfortable today so tomorrow will be more comfortable.            

Although my unsettled feelings are uncomfortable, Leah and Summer give me hope for more comfortable tomorrows.

Friend for 40 Years

Do you remember when and where you met your really good friend? The one who laughs with you during good times and cries during bad times.

September, 1977. Husband and I had moved back to Cookeville, back to his hometown and my college town after living in Nashville for seven years. I didn’t want to go to the Newscomers Meeting that night. Cookeville wasn’t really new, but my college friends weren’t here. We had two toddlers so I spent my days changing diapers and wiping up spilled milk.

Husband knew many Cookeville people. I didn’t. “You should go,” he said. “It’ll be a night out and you’ll meet people.” I did need a night out. But with strangers?

I heard laughter and chatter as I walked through the church hallway. In a large room, about thirty women had gathered in small clusters. Not one familiar face. I found a seat on the back row.

The Newcomers chairman said loudly, “Welcome to Newcomers! We’ll start as we always do. Everyone will stand and introduce yourself. If it’s your first meeting, tell us when and why you moved here? Tell all about yourself, your hobbies, and if you have a family, about them.” Oh, no. I didn’t know I’d have to stand and talk.

A gray-headed woman said she’d researched Cookeville and decided to retire here. Obviously, she’d practiced her introduction. What would I say? Words jumbled in my brain. Another lady, with a welcoming smile, stood.

“I’m Rita Craighead. We moved here about two months ago. Cookeville is my husband’s, Bob’s, hometown.” That got my attention – just like us. In a confident, soothing voice she said, “We moved here with no job and no place to live.” Really? So had we.

“We lived with Bob’s mother for a while and have just moved into a house,” Rita said. “We have one daughter, Andrea, who is ten.” There’s a difference.

“Anything else?” Ms. Chairman asked.

“Well, I like to play cards and read and cook and my husband encouraged me to come tonight to make new friends.” Same as me, I thought.

Quickly others stood and rattled off their names. As I stood, every woman turned backwards in her chair and looked at me. “I’m Susan Ray. And everything Rita said, that’s me. Except Allen and I have two young children, ages 2 ½ and 1.”

Rita and I hugged for the first time at the end of the meeting. Our families became friends. We shared meals, sometimes pizza right out of the box; sometimes beef tenderloin on finest china. Andrea, their daughter, babysat our children. For more than 30 years, I often stopped by Rita’s house for a cup of coffee and visited at her kitchen table. After Bob’s death in 2009, Rita moved to Murfreesboro to be close to her daughter and her brother. I was sad.

Last week, during Rita’s funeral service the minister said to keep memories of Rita in our minds and hearts and souls. I’m so very thankful for Rita’s friendship and for that first hug and many, many more.


Celebrate Friendship Day

How will you celebrate National Friendship Day? It’s Sunday, August 6th and I didn’t know it exists until recently. There’s an official day for almost everything and most I ignore, but friends should be celebrated.

The founder of Hallmark originated a day to honor and appreciate friends in 1919, but it really didn’t catch on. In 1935, the United States Congress proclaimed the first Sunday of August as National Friendship Day. It isn’t known exactly why, but as World War I came to an end there was a need for friendship among countries and people.

In 2011, the UN General Assembly proclaimed an International Day of Friendship with the idea that friendships between people, countries, and cultures can inspire peace efforts and after the UN proclamation many countries adopted Friendship Days. The basic idea of all counties is the same: a day to acknowledge friends’ contributions to your life and to cherish the people you love.

Neither Hallmark nor proclamations are needed to convince me the importance of friends. As a young teen, I learned to appreciate friends when my parents often welcomed my girlfriends for overnight slumber parties. Later, I depended on college friends to get through late night study sessions and unravel tangled emotions.

Neighborhood friends’ visits and impromptu lunch dates carried me through long days of caring for my babies and toddlers. When Daughter and Son played sports and attended scout meetings, my friends and I carpooled. Fellow teacher and writing friends encouraged me when I wanted to throw away red pens and keyboards. All along life, friends have kept me going and growing.

Quotes I’ve heard are true. Friends ‘do’ without waiting to be asked. A true friend knows your faults and loves you anyway. A real friend walks in when others walk away. A friend is a gift you give yourself.

Friends sat beside me while I fretted in hospital waiting rooms. They showed up at my front door with hugs and food when my parents passed away. They said, “I’m on my way,” when I called for help. They stood beside me even when I messed up.

And I’ve heard that friends know us better than family and friends are the family we choose. Friends are family? Yes, according to Kathryn.

I commented to Kathryn that she had a large group of friends from different walks of life and she responded, “Yes, I have a big framily.”  Framily? Did she misunderstand what I said? Did I hear her correctly? Then I realized framily combines friend and family.

“That’s a perfect word,” I said. Friends who are closer than family. Friends who know more about us than family. Friends who shoulder heartache when family stumbles.  Although the word framily was first used in 2006, the concept has been around for a long time. Remember the 1990’s television show “Friends” about six people who resembled a family?

National Friendship Day. A day to honor people you love. People who are your framily.


In Case of an Emergency

Omni House Parker Hotel. Boston. Monday. 9:25 a.m. The day begins with coffee and sweet rolls in the room. Leisurely, my college girlfriend, Alicia, and I brush our teeth, put on shoes, and listen for four girlfriends to knock on our door. Today is the first day to sightsee and celebrate our birthdays, our friendships that began in 1965 when we were Tennessee Tech freshman.

June and Kathy knock. We hug and greet. A loud voice thru the hotel intercom interrupts our conversation. Something like, “The Parker House uses voice messages to notify guests of emergencies. We are concerned for your safety. In case of an emergency, you will be given directions after this message.” The message repeats.

June, a retired school principal, says, “Well, that brings back memories of fire drills at…” The intercom breaks in. “Evacuate the hotel immediately. Go to the nearest stairway and down the steps.” June opens our room door. The message repeats. I throw my iPhone into my purse. Alicia says, “You go on. I’m just going to put a coat of clear polish on my nails.” The message repeats.

“No, you’re not. Grab your purse. We’re going,” I say. Alicia follows June and Kathy to the hallway. There is no sign of fire or smoke. As I follow my friends, the evacuation announcement continues. I pray our other two friends are safe.

Near the stairwell, a room door opens. A woman holds a baby in arms. Two young children stand beside her. My grandmother instincts kick in. I take one step toward them and note fright on the toddler girl’s face. No, this child doesn’t need a stranger to add to her fear.

My friends and I fall into the single file line down the steps from the fifth floor. I grip the rail with one hand and my purse with the other. No one says a word. I look down, planting my feet on the steps. Stay calm; don’t be scared I say silently. Fourth floor. No one hurries. Mechanical walking. Shuffling of feet. No talking.

My hair covers my eyes. If I fall, people will stumble. “I have to stop to get my hair out of my eyes,” I say. An unknown voice replies, “Thanks for the warning.”

I tuck my hair behind my ears. Sling my purse onto my shoulder. One more flight.

Hotel employees hold the lobby doors open and stand to form a walkway to guide us outside. Police officers and firefighters stand in the lobby. No one speaks. My friends and I find a place on the sidewalk to stand. A phone call confirms our other two friends are outside and walking toward us.

Two fire trucks are parked in the street. Firefighters sit in the cab. The hotel intercom blasts, “All clear. Have a good day. Thank you for your cooperation.” My friends and I hug each other.

Kathy says what each of us thinks. All clear. The best words of the day. Another reason to celebrate.