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Remember that time when…

I sat in the back seat between Granny and my big brother Roger.  Dad drove our family’s 1956 hardtop Dodge, and Mom held a road map as we travelled from Tennessee to Oklahoma the summer I was ten years old. Granny and I sometimes swapped places and I could feel the breeze from the front seat window, rolled down just a few inches, and I’d crack my window enough to blow my ponytail.The reason for this trip was Granny wanted to visit her nephew’s family; it was my family’s only long-distance driving trip with her.  She wore a shirtwaist cotton dress, heavy black shoes and white anklets, and her white hair was cut short – all common for a 71-year-old-woman.  I thought she was old, really old. 

            As we traveled the two-lane highways, Granny and I played the alphabet game and searched for letters printed on billboards and road signs.  We could claim only one letter per sign from A to Z.  It took a long time to spot the end of the alphabet:  V, X, and Z.  Then we spelled words – our full names and random words.  

            Mom gave updates of how many miles to the next town, which might be just a gas station, grocery store and post office. We stopped at roadside parks to eat the picnic lunch Mom had packed.  Sandwiches, chips, cookies, and Cokes, in thick glass bottles. 

             Recently, I rode with Daughter’s family of seven in their ten-passenger van from Winter Park, Colorado to Cookeville, Tennessee.  During the first hour of travel, all eight of us took in the scenery.  Snow on the mountains above the tree line, arrow straight evergreens below, and deep slopes to valleys.  Switchbacks and steep inclines led to Bethoud Pass at 11,307 feet above sea level, then more curves down the mountain toward Denver.

            Son 2 and 17-year-old Grand sat in the front captains’ seats, taking turns as driver and navigator.  Four other Grands sat in their ‘regular’ seats: two-person bench seats, a three-person bench seat, and a jump seat.  During the two days travels, Daughter and I sat beside each Grand.  They had over-the-seat hanging bags filled with craft and drawing items, small toys, and snacks. And each had a device, a ‘screen.’

            Leaving the mountains, I sat beside Lucy, age 11, who stretched her legs across my lap, leaned against her pillow, covered herself with a quilt and listened to a book downloaded on an iPod.  Another Grand listened to music and solved Rubix Cubes.  Two watched a favorite movie for the umpteenth time.  Daughter took in a downloaded podcast.  All had earbuds or headphones.

            Enjoying the quiet, I read a book downloaded on my iPad.  But we weren’t quiet for the entire twenty-one hours trip, when I sat with my Grands we talked, played pencil and paper games, rubbed backs, and cuddled. 

            Maybe my Grands will have happy memories as I do when Granny and I rode side-by-side to Oklahoma.  They might say, “Remember that time Gran rode home with us from Colorado?” 

Mother’s Day is a Day for Memories

When you think of your mother, where is she? 

            I see Mom in her kitchen and in her sewing room.  She’s standing in the flower shop in the basement of my childhood home.  She’s sitting in her brown recliner.  She’s driving a lawn mower. 

            Maybe you think of your mom at one place, and I first picture Mom wearing a dark green plaid apron tied around her waist and patting biscuit dough made with Martha White self-rising flour, Crisco, and buttermilk.  She’d sift the flour, cut in Crisco with a pastry cutter, pour buttermilk into a flour well, and gently stir with a wooden spoon just until the flour wasn’t dry.  Never measuring.  Never looking at a recipe.  

            Mom handled the dough gently, patting it on a flour covered pastry cloth and then making it about ½” thick with a rolling pin that didn’t have handles.  She cut biscuits the perfect size for two bites for Dad and three or four for me.  Smaller biscuits bake more evenly, she told me, and you can eat more. 

            That same biscuit dough became dumplings for my chicken and dumplings birthday meal and Mom made dessert butter rolls using the same dough.  (When biscuit dough is more than biscuits is a topic for another column.)

            Mom and Dad hosted many family holiday dinners and backyard cookouts.  She taught me to fry chicken, make vegetable beef soup, and use a pressure cooker for a perfect beef roast and all the trimmings.  When I made lumpy gravy, it’s because I didn’t follow Mom’s directions.

            Out of necessity, Mom learned to sew when she was a teenager and made clothes for herself and her two younger sisters.  During my growing up years, she made clothes for me, both my grandmothers, and herself; every seam was smooth and even and every garment fit perfectly.  Mom took up quilting to make each of her three grandchildren a quilt – machine pieced and hand quilted. 

            In 1960, Mom turned her love for flowers into a business to pay for my brother’s and my college educations when she opened Ruth’s Flower Shop in the basement of our home.  She arranged gladioli and pom-pom mums or carnations in white metal containers to take to the local funeral home and she made orchid corsages for Mother’s Day.  More than once, she dyed wild roadside Queen Anne’s lace for brides who couldn’t afford store-bought flowers for their bride maids’ bouquets. 

            Saturday house cleaning was finished by lunchtime so Mom could watched baseball games.  Leaning back in her favorite recliner she cheered for the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. 

            When Mom’s grandchildren were young, one of their favorite things to do was ride in a metal wagon pulled by a riding lawn mower.  Mom drove all over Dad’s and her backyard, as long as the kids sat on their bottoms in the wagon.  

            Mother’s Day is a day to make and share memories and to celebrate with those you love most.  Happy celebrating!

Reflections on Inauguration Day

What were you doing this time last week?  Last Wednesday, January 20, 2021, did you watch the presidential inauguration?

            For weeks, I was apprehensive and concerned. Regardless of political standing, many of us have been uneasy.  The pandemic, racial violence, our November election and its aftermath, the recent insurrection at the Capitol, the division and anger among our citizens – all give way to anxiety. 

            I’m not a political being and I avoid major conflicts; in fact, I’ve been accused of hiding my head in the sand and being a Pollyanna.  I’m uncomfortable wearing a cloak of anxiety and I prayed for safety and calm on January 20.  I needed peacefulness.  I needed positives. I needed traditions. 

            While inauguration days often include celebrations and parties and rituals, our Constitution requires only the swearing in of the president.  Article II, Section 1 gives the short oath that every president says: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  This oath was first taken 232 years ago by George Washington and now it has been repeated by our 46th president.  The repeating of these thirty-six words was a United States tradition I needed to hear and see.

            An online article entitled, “Corny Comforts of the Biden Inauguration,” stated that corniness is comforting and decent and old-fashioned. I realized the traditions I needed are corny.  Corny, as in not original and overly sentimental. 

            Vice-President Kamala Harris’s and Dr. Jill Biden’s tailored coats and high heels mimicked Mamie Eisenhower’s wool skirt and black heels.  Mrs. Eisenhower was the first First Lady I remember.  Last Wednesday, I was comforted by the expected opening and ending prayers of the ceremony.  The oaths of office taken with one hand raised and the other on a Bible.  The singing of the national anthem.  Fireworks at the end of the day.  I needed those traditions, corny and as old-fashioned as they might be.

             We’d been told who the performers would be and they lived up to their personas.  Expect the unexpected when Lady Gaga takes stage.  Expect J-Lo’s confidence and beauty.  Garth Brook’s cowboy hat.  All entertainers gave their best.

            But did anyone expect the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate to steal the show?  Amanda Gorman’s opening line, “When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” challenges me.  Those words make me wonder am I seeking light or shadows? 

            We knew this inauguration would be like no other.  People wearing masks and seated far apart.  Flags on the National Mall instead of people.   Barbed-wire fences and armed security personnel like never before. A history-making vice-president who prompted my former student’s daughter, 9-year-old Annaliese, to say, “Wow, Mom! We have a girl as vice president.  You mean I could be president or vice-president?”

            We choose what we remember.  What are your memories of January 20, 2021?   

Lux Remembers

In last week’s column, I wrote about Lux, a teen-age Rotary Exchange Student, who lived with our family for four months almost thirty years ago.  After she went home, she called Christmas mornings and we sent cards and pictures.  Now, via email and social media, we communicate.

            I asked Lux, her nickname for Lavanya, to share her memories. This column is snippets of her response. I didn’t made changes; her command of English is part of her story.

Dearest mom thank you very much for taking me through this memory line.

            OH MY how and where do I start from? It feels like I have just lived there in Cookeville and back. Evergreen in my memory which I would cherish every bit of it for my lifetime.

            Lavanya a tiny teenager decides one fine day that she would be part of this exchange program and live in another country where people culture food everything would be unimaginably new. Knowing very well that I could return home to India only after a year to see my family. Our only form of communication was letters and few phone calls due to the cost of international calls.

            New environment, new people, new accent of English, new food and an entire new culture waiting for me. My first day of school was mind blowing and challenging. One would understand if you know the layout of Cookeville high school. New teaching methods and the culture of my fellow students were so beautiful. My acceptance as one among them started then. I was surprised and at the same time felt happy to have had the wonderful opportunity to be there and experience such happiness.  God really have blessed me with such wonderful parents in India and two lovely parents and families in Cookeville ready to be my parents forever.

            A sister who takes me to school who teaches me how to enjoy cleaning the ice off the windshield. A wonderful younger brother with whom I played with snow and enjoyed watching his basketball matches at school. Fun and carefree where those days, no doubt.

            I remember Halloween and the large pumpkin which I sat down and carved into my own design and put a candle onto it. A work all by myself.  Going to the nearby town and visiting the Apple Barn and tasting apple pie with cinnamon. I could drool over it even today.  Mom I miss your Macaroni and Cheese .

            Stepping out to pick our Christmas tree home and the fun we had watching dad Allen decorate it.  He was as tall as the tree. What a wonderful Christmas. Singing songs, opening Christmas presents (I yet hold most of it) a visit to the church for the midnight prayer, watching the movie Ghost with Alicia and friends.

            My entire year in Cookeville with the most wonderful families would be cherished for a lifetime. I have learned that life is beautiful and distances are never a boundary to have such wonderful relationships and continue the bonding forever.

            I’m thankful for Lux and that she has happy memories.  When we’re busy with daily life, we often don’t realize the memories we’re creating.

Celebrate D-Day and Life

June 6 is a date that I’ve always remembered. When I was young, Mom baked a cake and fried chicken for Granny’s birthday meal, and she stuffed the chicken liver inside the back, Granny’s favorite piece. Etta Juda Rich, was born June 6, 1886. Granny liked birthday celebrations. On her 80th birthday, our family hosted a big party for family and friends, and we continued to celebrate Granny’s birthday with family for the next fifteen years.   

            In 1969, I graduated from Tennessee Tech and have remembered the date because it was Granny’s birthday. Although she didn’t attend the graduation ceremony, she sent a card with a $5 bill. The next year on June 6, wearing a long yellow bridesmaid dress, I stood beside my friend, Tommy Sue, as she and Butch married. 

            As a student, junior high or high school, I think I first heard about D-Day, June 6, 1944.  The day during World War II that the Allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches, Nazi-occupied France, and successfully began the end of Adolph Hitler’s hold on Europe.  The picture that has stuck with me is of huge ships and soldiers, wearing helmets and carrying backpacks and weapons, walking ashore from the ships. Maybe such a photo was in my high school history book.  

            I struggle to comprehend the event. The numbers are overwhelming.  According to history.com, 156,115 Allied troops stormed 50 miles of beaches with 6,939 ships, and 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders delivered Allies. The German forces were ready for battle. Allied losses were estimated to be over 4,000 on that day and because the Battle of Normandy continued until August, all deaths totaled 226,000.  D-Day marked a decisive turning point in the war.

             While writing this and searching for facts, I’ve side tracked many times. I listened to the radio broadcasts of the initial hours of D-Day that my parents and grandparents must have heard. I read a letter dated June 14, 1944 that Dad wrote to Mom while he was stationed at Camp Reynolds, Greenville, PA.  Most of the letter is personal about his searching for an apartment so Mom and my brother could join him.  But he ends with these words:  I’ve listened to the news while writing.  Sounds pretty good all the time now.  Hope it continues so this thing gets finished.

             June 6, a day I remember personal happy events.  I think of Granny and appreciate her, and the many quilts she stitched that are in my closet and on my beds. I remember wearing a cap and gown and receiving a diploma in the Tennessee Tech gym. And I wish Tommy Sue and Butch congratulations and enjoy seeing the many good wishes to them on Facebook. 

            And on this 75th anniversary of D-Day, my heart is heavy with gratitude to all who sacrificed for our War World II victory.  What if the outcome had been different?  Life wouldn’t have been the same. ####

Microcars and a Yellow Volkswagen

Beth opened the car door and said to my Grand, “Would you like to sit in this car?” Elaine’s eyes opened wide and my Grand shook her head rejecting Beth’s offer. “Well, it’s just your size,” Beth encouraged Elaine.

The 1957 BMW Isetta at the Cookeville History Museum is the perfect size for my seven-year-old Grand, but Elaine declined the invitation from Beth Thompson, the museum’s manager, to sit in a tiny car. Maybe because I’d just read aloud the sign that stated ‘Please do not touch the cars,’ and maybe because Elaine was startled that a front hood was also the door. Neither she nor I expected a car hood door or to be invited to touch a car.

The six displayed microcars, a part of the Lane Motor Museum collection in Nashville, don’t look large enough for adults. They seem like cars for my young Grands to ride in for fun, but they are real cars for adults and five on display can be driven. We rarely see small cars; they were built for European streets that are much more narrow than our Cookeville streets.

Seeing these small cars makes me think of a yellow Volkswagen, owned by my high school friend in the mid-1960s. Marietta was always willing to take us girls to ballgames, the skating rink, and the movie. But one spring day, when we were seniors, my friends and I planned an outing for the middle of a school day.

We left from the school parking lot after our second class and planned to return to school at lunchtime. Four girls squeezed in the back seat and I sat beside Marietta who immediately announced that the gas tank indicator showed empty. The service station attendant didn’t look surprised when we handed him two quarters and asked for fifty cents worth of gas.

And we shouldn’t have been surprised that he called Pickett County High School and reported that girls, who should have been in school, had just been at his service station. He probably named us. We traveled about five miles to the blue bridge near Sunset Dock, got out of the car, took pictures of ourselves that showed the car and the bridge, and went back to school.

The principal met us in the parking lot and watched as we climbed out of Marietta’s VW. His smile didn’t match his angry words. We were in trouble and each had to report to the teachers whose classes we’d missed and we had to write a letter to our parents explaining why we missed class. Those letters were to be signed by our parents and returned to school the next day.

When you see the microcars at the History Museum, located at 40 E. Broad Street, look for my favorite, William Cyclo. I’m partial to little yellow cars, and I’m thankful Marietta’s VW was bigger than this one. Also look for the car that that can be pedaled and has a gas engine and guess which car Elvis owned. These cars will be displayed until March 23.

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Rich Memories are Stirred up Looking Through Mom’s Old Recipe Box

I looked through Mom’s collection of 3 x 5 index recipe cards one more time. Surely, I’d find her corn bread dressing recipe. Surely, Mom wrote it down and filed it in her wooden recipe box. Surely, I overlooked it when I searched before.

Thanksgiving is about traditional foods that have been served by grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. Mom always made the dressing to go with the turkey and giblet gravy, and after her death more than twenty-five years ago, I used recipes from cookbooks to make it for family gatherings. Last week I touched every recipe card in Mom’s file. The one recipe I wanted wasn’t there. I’ve determined the reason is the recipe was in her head. She seasoned by taste and added broth by feel.

But I discovered something I hadn’t noticed previously. Almost every recipe includes two ingredients: sugar and butter. And many include flour. Mom’s file is full of desserts: pies, cookies, cakes, and candies. Those are the labeled tab dividers. The tab labeled casserole doesn’t have a single card behind it, but Mom added another category: Rolls, Biscuits, Cornbread. She was a meat- and-three cook, a really good one, and she didn’t need recipes except for desserts and some breads. Her fried chicken and chicken and dumplings were the best ever. She cooked fall-apart beef roast in a pressure cooker and smothered liver with onions. She fried tender pork chops in a black skillet, then used the drippings for gravy. No recipes needed.

I also discovered Mom and I collected many of the same recipes, and I don’t know why I didn’t get them from her. Pecan Pie. Oatmeal Cookies. Angel Biscuits. Chess Squares. Sugar Cookies. Her Old Southern Light Cornbread recipe is exactly like the one I cut from a Southern Living magazine.

Like most cooks of her generation, Mom recorded many recipes using paper and pen. Reading her handwriting brings a lump to my throat. She wrote neatly and concisely, omitting every ‘the, an, a’ and her directions were simple. The last notes on most cards are numbers, such as 350º, 45 minutes.

My favorite finds are Never Fail Pie Crust and Southern Pecan Pie*. I wonder why I didn’t notice these recipes before and made them my own. Mom could make piecrust blindfolded and she always made two. One she put in the refrigerator for another day. Studying her recipe for pecan pie, I now know why the flavor of my pie isn’t as rich as Mom’s was. My recipe is exactly like hers except she used dark Karo syrup and I’ve always used light. (Dark is made with molasses and light corn syrup that is flavored with vanilla.)

For our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow, I’ll have to use the corn bread dressing recipe I’ve created, combining several recipes, and titled “Dressing Most like Mom’s.” But the pecan pie I’ll serve my cousins and sister-in-law and their children will be exactly like Mom’s. As close as I can make it.

*Recipes online at susanrray.com

Playing Papa’s Pump Organ

Papa sat in his easy chair beside me while I played “In the Garden” on his pump organ. My maternal grandfather, Paul Bertram, was a man of few words. When I finished the last note I knew he approved because he nodded, ever so slightly, and smiled. A closed mouth smile, his lips barely curved at the corners.

Papa’s approval was enough to encourage me to continue pumping the foot pedals to play “Rock of Ages.” After I played these two hymns, I opened the church hymnal and chose another. Papa sat as long as I played and I played as long as my twelve-year-old legs could pump the pedals.

I liked to pull out all the stop knobs to make the volume louder and it was fun to experiment by pushing some in. I didn’t know what Dulciana or Dolce or most of the other words printed on the nine other stops meant. I recognized the words Treble and Bass, but didn’t know what they meant when combined with Coupler and neither did Papa. He didn’t play any keyboard instrument, but he liked music and the organ was important to him.

Papa never talked about the days when he played musical instruments and I never saw him hold a fiddle, except in pictures, but I knew he had played one. Papa, his brother, and two sisters, Ervin, Mary and Martha, bought the organ about 1915 when they were all young adults, but not married so the organ sat in their parents’ parlor.   In the 1930s after their mother’s death, their father broke up housekeeping and lived with his daughter Mary and her husband. And the organ was moved to Papa and Grandma’s home.

During World War II, Papa and Grandma moved to Oak Ridge where he worked as a carpenter on war-related buildings. Upon their return home to Pickett County, Papa paid his siblings for their part of the organ and he took great pride in owning it. I wish I’d questioned him and taken notes. Who played it? Where did they buy it? Certainly not in the Bertram siblings’ hometown, Byrdstown, Tennessee. How much did it cost?

I continued to play for Papa every time I visited until his death in 1974 and about ten years later when it was time for Grandma to move from their home this dark stained, huge reed organ was moved to my house. Through the years I’ve played the organ occasionally and encouraged Daughter and our older Grands to play. Many notes stuck. The sounds were muffled. The pedals were stiff. But it played, until a few months ago when a pedal flopped because the binding connecting it to the bellows broke.

In his will, Papa excluded the organ from other property and left it to his three daughters with instructions, “One old organ shall be kept in the family if possible.” I believe family pieces are treasured only if they are used. So now what do I do with this family heirloom?

To be continued….

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Are you a Collector?

Everybody collects something. Even if we don’t intend to. I certainly didn’t set out to collect glasses, eyeglasses. When Dad passed away, I wrapped his glasses in a soft cloth and stored them in my bedroom dresser drawer beside Mom’s glasses that I had saved after her death.

A few years later, I discovered four pairs of glasses among a box of my paternal grandmother’s keepsakes. I recognized Granny’s glasses, but not the other round wire framed ones. One missing a temple and one held together with wire and a brown shoelace. And a pair of fragile, falling-apart glasses inside a hard black case stamped with an Oklahoma doctor’s address. Because these three pairs are small, I think they belonged to a woman, maybe my great-grandmother or maybe Granny when she was young.

Now, these eyeglasses are displayed in a glass curio cabinet in my home. It feels good to see something that my parents and grandmother wore.

So does only a few pairs of glasses make a collection? How many of anything is a collection? Some say three. Some say a collection is more than can be used or enjoyed at one time. There is no set number and that makes everyone who owns a group of things a collector.

The Cookeville History Museum recognizes that we are all collectors and its current featured exhibit is Collecting Cookeville. Collections owned by Cookevillians. When the museum asked for 3-5 items from collections to borrow for display, I took my ancestors’ glasses. Other people took vintage Coca-Cola items, antique silver trophies, silver napkin rings, vintage books, flower frogs and many more things. This exhibit runs thru February 24 and is in memory of Linda P. Carlen who was an avid collector and a friend of the history museum.

So does the History Museum have only this special exhibit? No. When you visit, take a few minutes to stroll through Cookeville’s past. You’ll see items reflecting pioneer life: farm and kitchen tools, spinning wheels, and arrowheads. Civil war items include a diary, bullets, and a lance. From World War I and II, there are uniforms, canteens, medals, draft cards, and trench art.

My Grands’ favorite displays relate to school. An old timey desk with a chair attached. Sweaters, beanies, and artwork from Tennessee Polytechnic Institute, TPI, and later Tennessee Technological University, TTU.

Stop by the History Museum (admission is free) located at 40 East Broad Street from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday thru Saturday to travel back in time. I applaud the folks at the museum for documenting our community’s history and I appreciate these collections loaned by regular, everyday people.

Everyone collects. Why? Professional collectors are usually motivated by money. The reason most amateurs collect is love. That’s exactly why I saved Mom’s, Dad’s and Granny’s glasses. And, yes, I have a few other collections.

Surely, collecting is a good hobby.

Ode to Crib

downloadFor twelve years a crib sat in the corner of the room that adjoins Daughter and Son-in-Law’s bedroom. A sturdy dark cherry crib. The room’s décor changed. From blues to golden and back to primary blue. Boy. Three daughters. Boy. The crib stayed parked in its corner.

And then last week, the youngest moved upstairs into his big boy bed. His very own twin bed. And the room will no longer be a nursery. It’ll be study room. A reading room. A library. A place to hang out. Baby and toddler toys were moved out. Bedroom dresser carried upstairs. Bookshelves moved in and still the crib stood, now in the middle of the room, until finally the time came to take it down.

So my guest writer this week is Daughter. After her twelve-year-old son loosened screws to disassemble the crib and the mattress was stored away, Daughter wrote to that small bed where her babies and toddlers had slept.

Dear Crib,
I don’t know how it came to be that your first occupant is dismantling you with real live man-tools. How many nights have our babes slept in your protection? I’ve done the math and it’s been approximately 4,532 nights. And days. Oh, the naps. The long nights. When I, so desperate for sleep myself, yearned to crawl in beside a restless babe.

            How our wee ones slept bundled, little baby burritos. How we all cheered the first morning or after naptime, when many months old they were first found standing, holding the rail. Smiling so proud. We took pictures and clapped. All 5 times.

            How one especially determined girlie went awol (climbed out) at just 18 months. It was in this crib she first tested boundaries and determined they were not for her.

            How many sibling romps and illicit jumps have been taken? How many songs have been sung, blessings whispered over newborns, giggly infants, squishy toddlers.

            We bought you, dear crib, as thirty-year-old first time parents who had researched far too deeply and visited more than many furniture stores (#blessourhearts) looking for just the right one. And we found it. You’ve been good to us, trusty friend. Now, you wait. Just pause. Rest in the dark basement. Because I strongly considered Pinterest-ing you into another useful thing…a chalkboard perhaps, or nifty drying rack, or a snazzy holder for matchbox cars.

            But I just can’t do it. So, when all these people bring me some grandbabies to visit, you will once again be hauled up the steps and I will lay those beautiful babes down to sleep in your well-loved, tear-stained, bite-mark self. So long, dear crib, until we meet again. #passthetissues

Pass the tissues is right. I cried when the room was in a shambles transforming from nursery to whatever is its new title. And I cried days later when Daughter announced, “Crib has a home for a few years!” It’s moving to friend’s house for her first granddaughter’s visits.

Crib has many more loving nights and daytime naps to give.