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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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A Bicycle Built for Five

scan0005 (1)Why would anyone need a bicycle with five seats? And where do you get such a bike? How did such a bike end up at the top of the Spokes sculpture here in Cookeville?

Lissa Parks and I sat on the curb looking up at the bike. “Daddy built it so he and Mom and my three older sisters could ride together. I wasn’t born yet,” she said. As Lissa told me about her dad, Coolidge Holt, I was first intrigued because he was born and raised in Pickett County, my home county.

Coolidge was an only son born November 4, 1924, Election Day, and he had seven sisters. At 18 while a Pickett County High School student, he was drafted into the Army and served with the 88th Infantry. On July 13, 1944, Coolidge was wounded in Italy and spent the next eighteen months in hospitals in Italy and Kentucky recovering from injuries caused by shrapnel in his foot, knee, and shoulder.

Upon returning home, Coolidge enrolled in Tennessee Polytechnic Institute on the G. I. Bill and earned a B.S. and at the University of Tennessee he earned a Master’s degree, both degrees in Agriculture. He began his working career as a teacher at Manchester High School and continued to live in Manchester, Tennessee throughout his life.

In 1961, Coolidge worked for Arnold Engineering Development Complex, AEDC, as a recruiter and engineering aid, and he and his wife Donna had three daughters, ages 2 ½ to 5. He liked riding bikes and welded two bikes together to make a two-seater that he and Donna could ride together. But who would stay with their daughters while they rode?

Coolidge solved the problem by adding three more bike seats so the whole family could ride together. The bike first claimed notoriety in the AEDC newsletter where Coolidge’s family was pictured on the bike and a written description explained how it was made. That instigated the bike’s story going nationwide. In January 1962, Elmer Hinton included the story in his Down to Earth column in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. Then it became an AP story and was included in magazine inserts in major newspapers across the nation.

Lissa shared a copy of a September 1962 Popular Science magazine that showed a picture of her family on the bike. So within months, this unique bike that the Coolidge’s family rode for fun became famous. And Lissa said that everyone who lived in Manchester until the late 1980s rode her dad’s bike.

Eventually, the bike landed in storage and because Lissa’s son bike raced professionally, Coolidge gave it to her and him. When they heard about the plans for a bike display, they thought it might be the bike’s perfect home. And it is.

Lissa said, “When I look at that bike, I think of Dad’s creativity, enthusiasm. His ingenuity, his love. And safety, he was so safety first.”

Take time to see Spokes on West Broad Street near the train depot. You’ll see people’s stories, not just bikes.

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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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What’s your Advice to Graduates?

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 7.56.24 AMTake care of the little things, and the big things take care of themselves. That’s my advice. No matter how old the graduate. A six-year-old moving on from kindergarten or an eighteen-year-old headed to college or a university graduate ready for that first real job. Life is about little things.

            Children don’t learn to read a book. They learn the sounds of letters and how those sounds combine to make words. The words become phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and finally, a book. School assignments divided into small parts can be mastered. One problem completed begins a thirty-problem math assignment. Gathering materials for a science experiment is a small task.

In the workplace, few people begin in their ideal position. They do the mundane work so fellow employees can finish a big project. It’s documented that workers who do small things, such as get to work on time and complete tedious tasks well, have better chances for advancement.

I’m not sure when I first heard about little and big things. Maybe from Mom as she stood over me and taught me to thread her sewing machine and then sew. And finally complete a dress for the 4-H contest. Or when Dad insisted I make an outline for a fifth grade oral book report.

By my high school days taking care of little things became my motto, even though I didn’t always follow it. When I was a first year teacher, I was jerked from failing an enormous task. I was overwhelmed. Too many students, too many lessons, too many meetings and conferences, too many papers, too many bulletin boards. A wise principal handed me a tissue to wipe my tears of frustration and told me to go back to my classroom and teach math for one hour. Do one small thing.

My motto has served me well. I preached it to myself while raising children.   Swaddle tightly. Wipe up spilled milk. Wash diapers. Get them to school on time. For supper, serve two foods they’ll eat.

I preached it to my elementary students. Do daily homework. Write one paragraph. Memorize the multiples of 2, then work up thru 12s.

I’ve recited my motto to Daughter and Son and my Grands. And sometimes I get it back. Elaine, age 6, told me last week that I had to measure exactly ¾ cup water or the strawberry jam we were making wouldn’t turn out right. “It’s just a little thing, Gran.”

My maxim isn’t original. During the 19th century, Emily Dickinson wrote, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things.” John Wooten, who coached the UCLA basketball team to ten national championships beginning in the 1960s, said, “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Take care of the little things. Words to live by. For people of all ages.

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Let’s not Lose Letter Writing

 

screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-6-17-10-pmWhen Husband and I moved into our new house recently, I carried four boxes labeled “Letters” upstairs and stored them on the closet shelves in my writing-sewing-everything-room.

I glanced in one open cardboard box. Thin red ribbons tie together stacks of airmail letters. From Dad to Mom while he served in the Army during World War II and Mom was home in Byrdstown, Tennessee, caring for their toddler son and living with Dad’s mother. I’ve had this box since Mom’s death in 1991. Dad said, “You take those. Your mother kept them all these years.” And I’ve kept them for twenty-six years.

Although he was a teacher before being drafted, Dad served as a medic. One letter heading reads, “Somewhere in Germany. April 17,1945.” Dad wrote, “Notice the new APO number and address. I have seen three European countries: France, Belgium, and now Germany. We are in a group of buildings formerly occupied by a civilian hospital and we are certainly lucky to get such a set up. I can’t believe it is true after expecting to sleep in pup tents and have the hospital in tents. That could change anytime, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Sure is nice to write under the old light bulb once more.” He described the countryside of Belgium and Germany and then wrote words Mom must have cherished. “Darling, I am in no danger. Remember I love you very much and am just waiting for the day we can be together again.”

The envelope is stamped FREE. On the bottom left corner is a small rectangular black stamp with the words “Passed by Amy Examiner.” William G Healy, 1st Lt. scrawled his name to indicate that he approved Dad’s letter. So much history and love in one letter.

I’ve fill three legal-sized envelope boxes with letters I’ve received. Some newsy letters. Some love letters. Some required writings from my children when they were young and at camp. Some surprise letters. Some from former students.

Tommy was in my 6th grade class, 1991-92. In a letter he wrote on May 5, 1993, after his 7th grade, he wrote, “About school, the most important thing that happened was in math. My teacher Mrs. Holland said it was the most extraordinary change she had see in all her 23 years of teaching. I brought up my math grade 26 points, from 64 to 90.”

Until two months ago, I hadn’t seen Tommy since May 1992 as he walked out of my classroom. While visiting Daughter, I stood in the kitchen when a heating service man walked through. I nodded in greeting. He took three steps and stopped. “Mrs. Ray?” he said. He held out his arms and we hugged. A tight hug. Tommy had been a student I wished I could’ve brought home. A kid I often wondered about. Was he okay? He is. Better than okay.

Letter writing. Let’s not lose it. Who would like to receive a letter from you?

 

 

 

Chicken-coop Table

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-9-18-27-amIf furniture could talk, there’s an oak table that could tell stories. I first saw it, and four chairs, in Granny’s chicken coop in the spring of 1969 and it was completely covered with feathers and chicken poop. Granny said Husband-to-be and I could have the old rectangular shaped table, and my parents thought it’d make a perfect kitchen table for us. But I couldn’t believe anyone would ever eat a meal on it.

Using hot water and stiff brushes, Dad and I scrubbed the maple-veneered top, that was buckled and cracked, and discovered a solid oak top to match the table’s legs. Dad cleaned, sanded, and refinished the table and four chairs and he glued and secured every leg. It was the perfect size for a small one-bedroom apartment and had a pop-up leaf. Husband and I moved that sturdy, pretty oak table into our first apartment and took it with us when we moved.

In 1980, Dad made and gave us a round oak table so the chicken coop table went into storage. I like to think it enjoyed a rest. No doubt after surviving several moves, and our children’s toddler years, it needed some time off.

When Daughter was a college student and living in an apartment, the table was her desk. For three years it sat next to her bed and was covered with books, papers, a word processor, and everything that a college student throws onto a flat surface. And then back to storage for a short time until Son and his friend, college students, needed a kitchen table in their apartment.

After graduation when Son took his first job, the table went with him to Kentucky. Then Son married, and the table travelled with the newlyweds to Texas and then Colorado. When Son and Daughter-in-law bought a new kitchen table, chicken-coop table once again became a desk. But it was soon replaced by a new modern office desk. Now it’s back here in storage.

Chicken-coop table is well traveled. During the past forty-eight years, it’s made five stops in Tennessee, two in Kentucky, one in Texas, and two in Colorado. It’s ridden in vans, pick-up trucks, rented trailers, and professional moving trucks.

How I wish this table had a tiny recorder and could tell its stories. The chickens squawking in the chicken coop. Discussions around a breakfast table between newlyweds and Friday night pizza with friends. Those first meals with a new baby in the house. Birthday parties. Holiday dinners.

Stories told in the confines of a college coed’s room. Stories of studying and laughing and crying and celebrating. It could tell of life in an apartment of two college men. Late night talks and card games played. Life of a young man taking on his first job.   Second-generation newlyweds and their first child.

And I’d really like to know where that table lived before it was stored away in Granny’s chicken coop. And I wonder how long chicken-coop table will rest. When will it be used again?

What if you break your resolution?

screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-7-55-31-amDid you read the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip in this newspaper last week? Snuffy, a hillbilly who lives deep in Kentucky hills, almost hit the bullseye with my feelings about New Year’s resolutions. Snuffy’s friend, Lukey, asked, “Didja make a New Year’s resolution?”

Snuffy answered, “Shore did! Made it! Broke it! Already mullin’ my options fer next year.”

I say, “Made it! Broke it! Already trying again.” According to a televised news report, only about 44% of the people in the United States make resolutions and less than 10% are successful in keeping these self-made promises.

The top resolutions are being a better person. That includes weight, exercise, breaking bad habits and the list goes on. My goals fall within that wide realm and I was inspired by two people, Brenda and Deanna.

Brenda answered the phone when I called the doctor’s office. She spoke with a cheerful voice. I sniffed and coughed and explained that I wanted to see the doctor. “Oh, honey, you need to. Let me find a time for you to come in. How long have you felt so bad?” Maybe she was asking for information, but she sounded concerned. “I want you to feel better. It’s no fun being sick,” she said. Brenda scheduled my appointment and I was ready to hang up the phone when she said, “Now you take it easy. Don’t try to do much until you feel better.”

While eating at a restaurant, I felt a small jolt on the back of my chair and someone rubbed against my shoulder. I turned and a little girl almost fell into my lap. Deanna grabbed her daughter and said with great embarrassment, “Oh, I’m so sorry. My two-year-old tried to jump from her chair onto the floor. I couldn’t catch her in time. I’m sorry.” Big sister stood close beside her daddy. Baby sister was in Dad’s arms.

I smiled and said, “She’s your middle child, right?” She was and she leaned against my lap. I lay my hand on her shoulder. “Middles think they can do anything,” I said. Deanna nodded, and I told her that I’m a retired teacher and have eight young grandchildren. Deanna sighed. “Oh, thank you. I’m glad you understand.” We visited briefly. Talking about children. Deanne hugged her middle child and said to me, “You have a really good day. We try to everyday.”

Be friendly and nice. That’s my resolution. Brenda could have scheduled my appointment in a business voice and never acknowledged that I sounded sick. Never encouraged me to take it easy. Deanna could have grabbed her toddler, apologized quickly, and headed out the door. My encounters with both women were short. Both made me smile.

Like 90% of people who make resolutions, I break mine. Then I try again to be like Brenda and Deanna. Just take a few minutes to be friendly and nice to everyone. Even strangers. Especially to family and friends.

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