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Count Your Blessings

            While on a retreat with church women, I heard two helpful quotes during our Sunday morning devotion.  Love and trust are the solvents for worry and fret. Count your blessings.

Women are twice as likely as men to worry and feel anxious, but men worry too. We sometimes allow worry to take control of our daily lives although we know worry never solved anything.  

            Worry takes the mind to the worst of what might happen.  According to webmd.com, it can affect daily life and interferes with appetite, relationships, sleep and job performance.  Chronic worry affects physical health – most common are headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, high blood pressure, and heart disease.   

            In my research, I didn’t find one positive result of worrying.

            Since this topic sprang from a church retreat, we turned to scripture. Philippians 4:6 reads, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your request to God.”   Jesus is quoted in Matthew 6:25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.”

            Other scripture tells us to trust and have faith and be thankful in all circumstances.  Many of us struggle with how to move from worry to trust to thanksgiving to counting blessings.

            A few years ago, I read two books written by Ann Voscamp: One Thousand Gifts and 1000 Gifts Devotional.  Voscamp admits to being a worrier.  While complaining to friends, one challenged her to make a list of gifts.  Could she number blessings from God? Gifts she already had. Everyday gifts. During a conversation among good friends, Voscamp was challenged to make a list of 1000 gifts. 

            The beginning of her list included morning shadows across the old floors, mail in the mailbox, wool sweaters with turtle neck collars.   Eventually, she listed 1000 gifts and more. 

            I took the challenge.  First on my list are names – Husband, Children, Grands, Friends.  Through the years, I’ve counted cardinals at the birdfeeder, sunshine and shadows, a warm house, my Grand sitting on my lap, putting together a jigsaw puzzle with Husband, cherry ice cream, having good parents, daffodils.

            From One Thousand Gifts, I copied these words: You can feel only one emotion at a time.  I must feel hope, thankful, glad, happy, and kind.  So if I worry, I can’t feel hopeful and thankful and can’t count blessings. 

            Did anyone else grow up singing Count Your Blessings at church? I played the piano for Sunday morning services when I was in high school, and it wasn’t easy to keep up with our song leader, Willy, who sang in triple time, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.  Count your blessings; see what God hath done.”

            Worry doesn’t evaporate when counting blessings, but worry slowly dissolves.             The newspaper editor might print this on the weekend religion page – that’s okay.  I promised myself to always write about where we are and counting blessing is where I am.


Don’t Cry, Smile

I ate the last Christmas cookie.  No, I savored that cookie with ceremony.  A second cup of coffee, flavored with vanilla, a half spoonful of sugar.  But I was sad.

            This star sugar cookie, covered with yellow icing, red sprinkles and red-hot candies, was the last one that my Grands decorated a week before Christmas.  The last one on my glass platter.  As I bit one star point, I remembered the anticipation of Cookie Decorating Day.

            Right after Thanksgiving eight-year-old Micah asked, “Gran, are we going to decorate Christmas cookies?”  Yes.  “When?” was the next question.  His three older sisters asked questions during the three weeks.  Did you get more sprinkles? Can we bake lots of trees? Last time we ran out of red food coloring; did you get more?  Will we make gingerbread men like we always do?

            The question that surprised me was 17-year-old Samuel’s: “Gran, can I come by myself to decorate cookies?”  It took me back to the time when he was the only Grand and stood on a stool and smeared icing everywhere and there were more sprinkles on the kitchen counter and the floor than on cookies. 

            I’ll forever keep the pictures when just two weeks ago Samuel and Husband spread green icing and then very carefully placed individual cylinder shape sprinkles on tree cookies

            Earlier that day, Samuel’s four younger siblings had stood around our kitchen island – each with a stack of plain cookies.  They laughed and reached across each other for sprinkles and waited patiently, or impatiently, for someone to finish with the bowl of red or green or yellow or blue or white icing. 

            They spilled sprinkles.  They ate sprinkles.  They iced their fingers and licked them.  They counted how many cookies they had decorated and compared with how many everyone else had decorated. 

            When all the cookies were finished, each Grand put a few on my Christmas platter. 

I wondered who had decorated this last cookie I was eating and for a few moments, I felt sad.  The happiness, the fun of Christmas 2022 cookie decorating would never exactly be repeated.

            My memories went to other times that will never exactly be repeated.  Son’s family, who lives miles and miles away, came to visit. All eight Grands and their parents sat with Husband and me around our dining room table – to eat and play Bingo and visit.

            Exchanging gifts with a group of friends that Husband and I first knew more than forty years ago when we declared ourselves The Gourmet Group.  A first day of 2023 hike led me to the place my mom waited to catch the school bus. 

            We cherish times that we look forward to and love and wish didn’t end. I think of advice from Dr. Seuss’s book, The Cat in the Hat:  Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.  

            Enjoy the moment, hold the memories, and smile.  Then make a plan. Valentine’s Day cookie decorating will be fun.

A Letter to 2022

Dear 2022,

            Welcome.  Come in, take your coat off, and stay a while.  I’ve been expecting you and hope you come bearing gifts.

            Your recent predecessors, 2020 and 2021, gave moments – sometimes days, weeks, and months – that I want to forget.  Times that my friends and I never want to visit again. So, 2022, you can do almost nothing and be remembered kindly, but allow me to share a few words that I’ve heard would be welcomed during the next twelve months.


            Common Sense




            Mark Twain said, “Compassion is language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”  It’s concern for other people’s misfortune and suffering.  People don’t share the same experiences, the same mishaps, the same problems, but everyone can show compassion.  Standing beside those who hurt shows concern and mercy.  Suffering is part of life and can’t be avoided, but compassion fosters healing.

            Would you please bring cooperation?  The process where people work together to reach a common goal.  Sport teams are an example.  When a volleyball team wins a match, all six players are credited.  Blockers stop the ball at the net.  Other players ‘dig’ the ball off the ground, and the setter and hitter work together to return the ball into the opponents’ court.  Cooperation requires teamwork and compromise and combined efforts. 

            Now, about common sense.  Some people call it ‘horse sense’ because even a horse has enough sense to return to the safety of the barn. My grandfather, Papa, practiced common sense.  With a limited education, he looked at the facts, surveyed possibilities, allowed for exceptions, and made decisions based on past experiences and what was available at the moment.  And then he lived with the outcome.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted as writing, “Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes.”  That was Papa.

            Consideration is simply being nice, being kind.  It’s what was learned while sitting on the floor in Sunday School class: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consideration is a choice, an opportunity to show respect. It’s the good manners that mothers around the world preach to their children, especially as they go out the backdoor to play with friends and siblings or go to school. 

            A few doses of childlike would be welcomed gifts.  Adults could uncover the good of being a child, leaving the not-so-good covered. Young children enjoy life at its simplest.  The wonder of an ant carrying a crumb.  Splashing in a puddle of water.  Walking in the rain.  Amazed by a shooting star and the colors of rainbows.  Stacking blocks just for the fun of knocking them down. Could you bring the joys of everyday life?

            So dear friend, 2022, share your best and be remembered kindly. With these gifts, maybe each person will be remembered kindly also.             

P.S.  This writing is a bit late because last week I enjoyed a heavy dose of childlike when Tennessee was blanketed with snow and I forgot to mail this letter.

Be the Change

My cousin Myra shared a grocery store experience.  On Facebook she wrote, “The guy behind me in a checkout line 3-deep yielded his spot to a fragile, elderly gentleman with two items.”  Following this young man’s example, Myra yielded her spot too.  The woman in front of Myra paid for the older gentleman’s milk and meat.  Myra thanked the young man for starting a cascade of kindness. He told Myra that his 95-year-old grandmother had just recovered from COVID, and he was showing his gratitude. Myra ended her post with these words, “Be the change, friends, be the change.”

            Joe shared a similar experience.  As he drove home after work, he thought of his never-ending list of home chores.  He topped a hill and saw a stopped car driven by a young man who seemed to be trying to start the car.  Joe drove past, but knew he had to turn around and offer help.  The car had run out of gas.

            Joe wrote, “We had to get the car out of the road, but being one month post knee surgery, I couldn’t push it.”  A few minutes later, four people stopped, offered to help, and pushed the car to a safe place on the side of the road.  Joe took the young man home where someone would get gas and drive him to his parked car.  Joe wrote, “Kindness and empathy can go a long way.  I’ve been where he was and to this day remember the unselfish example of those who stopped to help me.”

            I’m reminded of a time when Son and Daughter were young, ages 5 and 7, and we travelled on Highway 111 to visit my aunt in Livingston.  Suddenly, my Ford station wagon veered right.  I immediately pulled onto the wide shoulder and stopped.  The back right tire was almost flat.  Before I could begin looking for a jack and spare tire, a pick-up truck stopped.  The driver was unshaven, his hair unkept, his clothes were dirty, and he needed a bath.  He immediately offered to change the tire.

            I told Son and Daughter to stay in the car and I stood out of this man’s way.  Within minutes, he had replaced the flat tire with the spare tire.  I held out a $20 bill and said, “Thank you.” The man smiled, shook his head, and said, “Pass it on.  Help someone else.”

            A century ago, Mahatma Gandhi used nonviolent resistance to lead India’s independence from British rule, and he inspired civil rights movements across the world.  This quote is attributed to him, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That’s a paraphrase. Actually, he said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”             Thanks, Myra, for reminding me that change is possible and that kindness begins with one person.

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.


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.


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?


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?