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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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Treasures – the Simplest Things

screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-7-51-03-amThe true treasures in life are found in the simplest things. A small, framed picture with those words sits on the windowsill above my kitchen sink. Perched in the frame’s corner are a miniature birdfeeder and three birds: a cardinal, a blue jay and a tufted titmouse. This picture by Marjolein Bastin, and sold by Hallmark, makes me smile every time I see it, although it’s been in my kitchen for decades.

            Not to be sappy, excessively sentimental, but during the holidays my greatest treasures and what I most appreciated were not purchased gifts under the Christmas tree.

Like many mothers, my best gift was having my children and their families together. They sat around Husband’s and my dining room table. Six adults, eight children, ages 1 to 11. A white tablecloth and a Christmas candle centerpiece weren’t important. Or that some drinks were poured into the best crystal and some into plastic cups with a top and a straw.   Or what food was served. How many times have you heard someone ask, “Mom, have you eaten?” Maybe she was filled with the happiness of having all her brood together and eating was trivial.

Three Grands and their parents travelled across country and three nights, at my Grands’ bedtime, I read Watch Out for Mater. (In the world of Cars, Mater is a rusty tow truck that Lightning McQueen must protect.) Dean, age 5, chose the book. He and his little brother Neil snuggled close as I sat on their bed. Dean giggled because Lightning had a girlyfriend, Sally, and Neil was sad that Matter cried. “He should’ve listened to Lightning. Then he wouldn’t cry,” Neil said. How good it was to snuggle and watch my Grands absorb the characters’ emotions.

For our first-ever Family Talent Show, David, a beginning piano student, played “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Louise, age 9, entertained us with her violin. Two five-year-old cousins teamed up to share every Knock-Knock joke they knew and then they made up a few. And anyone who didn’t have a planned act, danced. (This term is used loosely to include shuffling feet and somersaults.)

My seven year-old Grand gave me a special handwritten card. “I love Gran bekus she loves me.” I treasure her line drawings of a butterfly and a spider web and she signed it as I sign her birthday cards, ‘Love forever.’ My Grand knows how to tug my heartstrings.

When I announced, “Anyone who wants to win a prize come sit quietly at the dining room table.” I wasn’t sure how my plan would go. I brought out Bingo. A wire cage, marble size balls embossed with such things as B15, white playing cards, and a basket of prizes. This game deserves its own column.

You’ve enjoyed such simple things, too. Family together. Reading a book. A handmade card. A game. Acting silly. Let’s appreciate simple things as treasures during 2017.

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Leaving and Taking

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-6-35-24-amHusband and I are moving. Leaving the house we built. The yard we cleared of brush and saplings. The home where we raised children and welcomed Grands. Moving a short distance, only a mile. To a yard that’s much smaller than the 2.3 acres we cleared thirty-something years ago. To a house a bit smaller and making it our home.

It’s a good move. A move we’ve talked about for several years. A move that’s our choice.

We’re leaving our snow sledding hill.   Where the Grands learned to sled, learned to lean left to avoid hitting a tree, learned that their sledding turn wasn’t over until they pulled the sleds up the hill for someone else to have a turn. We’re taking the buyer’s promise that our Grands are welcome to sled anytime the hill is covered with snow.

We’re leaving the basketball goal. The goal set up on the concrete driveway before the house walls were painted. The goal that our children and Grands spent hours shooting a basketball through. We’re taking the ball and we’ll buy a portable goal.

We’re leaving the wedding steps. The outside yard steps built fourteen years ago so wedding reception guests could easily walk down our steep hill to celebrate with Daughter and Son-in-Law. We’re taking the memories and pictures of a long line of family and friends who visited as they slowly made their way down the steps to wedding punch and cake.

We’re leaving the creek. The shallow, narrow creek that’s perfect to wade in and build a dam across. To throw a leaf into and watch it float, to throw rocks into for a big splash, to gather smooth rocks, to dig in the mud. We’re taking the buyer’s welcome to come play anytime.

We’re leaving the dining room. The room where Son and Daughter-in-Law opened wedding gifts the day after their wedding while those who love them best sipped coffee and nibbled cinnamon rolls. Where Happy Birthday has been sung dozens and dozens of times. Where my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary supper and their teenage grandchildren wanted to eat and run and go to their high school’s football game. Where friends eat whatever is served – soup and cornbread or steak and shrimp. We’re taking the dining room table, the china, the silver, and making plans for family Christmas breakfast at our new home.

We’re leaving the very best ever next-door neighbors. Neighbors who watched our house and collected our mail when we vacationed and brought treats on every holiday. We’re taking their friendship.

We’re leaving trees. White oak, sycamore, tulip poplar, dogwood, maple. Trees we marked with yellow plastic strips to save from chain saws. Trees that drop brown and yellow and orange leaves. Trees where squirrels build nests and run along their branches. Trees I love. We’re taking memories of our children and the Grands jumping in just-raked leaf piles. Memories of the last yard clearing, for the year, on the day after Thanksgiving when family time was spent using leaf blowers, rakes, and huge tarpaulins to haul leaf piles to the woods.

We’re leaving a basement garage. We’re taking our cars to a main level garage.

We’re leaving one home and taking our beds, our clothes, our books, our coffeepot, and our welcome mat to a new home.

Oh, how I wish I could wave a wand to pack, move, unpack and be sitting with my knees under my writing desk. The move is good. The moving, not so good.

Thank You, Playground Leaders!

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 7.37.21 AMBy now, everyone in Cookeville knows the Heart of the City Playground officially opened this month. But my Grands and many other children have run, climbed, jumped, and swung since December. Cookeville’s 12,000 square foot playground is unique in design and is accessible for all children – those who run on two legs and those who roll a wheelchair.

As I watched and listened during the Sunday afternoon Grand Opening ceremony, I felt a huge sense of pride. And not just for the playground. I’m most proud of the mothers who led this effort. The mothers of babies and toddlers and middle school age children. The mothers had said to each other that they wished for a place to get together with their children. A convenient place where their children could play safely and they could visit with each other. A place where all children could play.

One of these mothers invited me to a playground organizational meeting at city hall almost two years ago. I was the only gray haired person there – all others were young enough to be my children and younger. The meeting was chaotic and the enthusiasm on fire. I left knowing that these young parents would build a playground no matter what and that I’d met the future of Cookeville. During the past two years, I crossed paths with a few of these leaders.

Having no fundraising experience didn’t stop Elizabeth from volunteering to be in charge of raising almost $500,000. She and her committee hosted many events, everything from a gala where guests wore black ties and tiaras to Touch-a-Truck where children climbed on tractors and fire engines. They went to businesses and wrote letters and made phone calls to secure sponsors. And Elizabeth hugged and thanked a kid who gave $10, as if that was all the money needed.

Virginia captained the Design and Special Features committee. She and her committee made sure all the special Cookeville designs were authentic. Derryberry Hall, the Depot, Burgess Falls, and more. She moved those cut out pieces from under a tent during rain to a church basement or to anywhere she could find to keep the designs dry during the week long rainy build week. Virginia was the paint lady and she ensured that every board and screw top and bird and waterfall were painted the right color.

Ashley and Kelly, with smiles and encouragement and hard work, spearheaded as general coordinators. They complemented each other with their divided tasks. They led by example and never missed a chance to give credit to others. To Laura who organized 2,000 build volunteers and Alejandra who chaired a committee to babysit for the build volunteers’ children. Hannah made sure water, snacks, and meals were provided for workers. Ashley and Kelly sent an email to invite all volunteers to the Grand Opening. The invitation began with “YOU ALL SHOULD BE SO PROUD! WE DID IT! A lot of sweat, tears (and some blood!)… but it’s finished and you had a part in leaving a LEGACY for the children of this community for years to come!”

 

I marvel at the energy of these young mothers. Their dedication. Their perseverance. Their determination. As I watched them work together, I realized that Cookeville is in good hands. My generation appreciates this younger generation.

Congratulations to Ashley and Kelly and all the committee captains. I hope you talk and laugh together often as you watch your children play at the Heart of the City Playground.