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Can You Go Home Again?

It’s said you can’t go home again, but I did. I sat on a pew on the right side of the church sanctuary beside the middle window. Where as a child I sat between Mom and Dad every Sunday morning for church services.

Byrdstown First Christian Church in Pickett County celebrated its centennial anniversary and invited former members to Sunday service. When I stepped inside church, my shoulders relaxed and I exhaled. The same wooden pews. Light oak pulpit, front and center. Song books in pew racks. People welcomed me and greeted me by name.

The same tall bulletin board displayed the number of church attendees the previous Sunday: 79. But on anniversary day, every pew, even the ones added with a recent addition, was filled. The following week the number posted will be over 200.

The opening hymn, “The Church in the Wildwood,” reminded me ‘No lovelier place in the dell. No spot is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the dale.’ Mine is a red brick building with white porch columns, where I memorized the 23rd Psalm and Mrs. Crouch required teenagers to recite a Bible verse at the beginning of Sunday school class.

Bob Emmert, the minister in the 1970s, preached. “I’m just a small thread God has woven into the tapestry of this church,” he said. Aren’t we all? A recent pictorial directory includes pictures and lists of past ministers, deacons, elders, song leaders, trustees, pianists, organists, trustees.

Dad, Taskel T. Rich, was an elder. Many Sundays he made announcements and he taught the adult Sunday school class. Early Sunday mornings at home he sat at the kitchen table holding coffee in one hand, his Sunday school teacher’s book in the other, and his Bible lay open.

As stories were told, my cousin Tootie remembered sitting on the front pew with my older brother Roger during a Christmas Eve service. After the children’s play portraying the birth of Jesus, Santa Claus walked down the aisle offering peppermint candy canes to all. While Santa stood beside Tootie, Roger pointed toward the floor and said, “He’s wearing Daddy’s shoes.” I was probably a toddler, never knew Dad as Santa, and can only imagine my skinny 6’ 2” dad saying “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

Martha remembered Mom as her Sunday school teacher. Mom told the young children to close their eyes and hold out their hands because she had treat. Martha felt something touch her hands and when she opened her eyes, she was so happy to have vanilla wafers. “Ruth always brought something for us,” Martha said. Mom gave. Sometimes a simple cookie, and most often a bouquet of flowers for the sanctuary.

For a few hours, I was home where I was baptized and married. Where I grieved for my grandparents, my parents. Where, as the current preacher said in his welcome, “Over the years, the names have changed, the hearts haven’t.” But some church members are third generation and they welcomed me home.

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Sharing Granny stories

Elizabeth Rose, a storyteller at Storyfest last Saturday, reminded me that people never really die when we tell stories about them. Although Granny, my paternal grandmother, left this earth in 1982, she lives on when I share her with my Grands.

            Granny dipped snuff, quilted, and raised a garden. She watched Saturday night wrestling, and sometimes when it was too rough she’d cover her eyes with her hands and peek through her fingers. She knew all the characters, their flaws, strengths, and transgressions, on The Edge of Night, a weekday soap opera that aired from 1952-1986.

And Granny raised chickens. Every spring she bought baby chicks from the Farmer’s Co-op and they lived in cardboard boxes on the closed-in back porch until they were strong enough to thrive in the henhouse.

Some chicks grew to be laying hens and some went in the freezer on chicken killing day. I have no idea how Granny determined which three month old chickens lived or died, but she chose the fryers. She’d grab a chicken, hold it tightly, and with a quick twist of her wrist, she’d wring its neck. Dad then tied a string around the chicken’s feet and hung it on our metal clothesline until Granny was ready to dip it into a black kettle of boiling water to loosen the feathers so they could be picked off.

The best Granny story was one my brother, Roger, told. Granny was a cook at a Byrdstown restaurant and walked home after work. She wore a white nylon uniform and a bib apron, tied around her neck and waist. She walked home after work and she’d stop at the hen house to gather eggs.

Roger often ran out the back door of our house to greet Granny. One day, when he was about 9 years old, he noticed prickly dried sweet gum balls on the ground, and Roger thought it’d be funny to surprise Granny and stick her with a sweet gum ball. He hid behind the hen house when she went inside.

Granny held up the bottom of her apron to form a pouch, reached under the sitting chickens to get the eggs, and placed them in her apron. She usually gathered 6 or more eggs. As she walked out of the hen house, Roger crept behind her.  He stuck a gumball right through her thin uniform on her behind.

Granny screamed. She threw her hands high above her head. She jumped and stumbled, but she didn’t fall. Eggs flew into the air, then hit the ground. When Roger told the story, he’d imitate Granny’s screaming and jumping and tears of laughter ran down his cheeks.

Granny and Daddy didn’t think much of my brother’s antics. Roger said Dad made sure he never did surprised Granny again.

Telling stories also leads to questions. How did she get the chicken feathers off? Did you ever gather eggs? What’s a gum ball?

Everyone can tell family stories. Try it and keep those you’ve loved and lost alive.

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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?

Red Dirt and White Shorts

imagesLast week when I wrote suggestions for how parents can partner with their children’s teachers, I alluded to letting children suffer natural consequences. Ramifications of behavior and choices.

Mom and Dad parented by allowing my poor choices, my mistakes, to be followed by natural consequences. Like the Saturday I spent all my money on comic books and then wanted to see a movie, probably a Gene Autry western. Because I didn’t have money, I didn’t see the movie.

One time, when I was about 6 years old and Mom and I visited her parents, I wore a new pair of white shorts and a red and white stripe top that Mom had made. After greeting Papa and Grandma and playing a few notes on their pump organ, I went outside to play. The dirt bank between my grandparent’s house and the road was red clay. On that hot summer day, the dirt was dry and hard. Papa and Grandma’s yard was several feet higher, maybe about eight feet, than the road and although I knew to stay away from the road, I drew pictures with sticks on the hard-packed dirt.

Rain had washed gullies in the red clay because there wasn’t any vegetation –none, no grass, no weeds. I walked barefoot on the soft dirt down the gullies; the slope was steep and I crawled up to the yard.

Then I discovered I could sit on the dirt bank, push myself, and slide. I’m sure the more I scooted down the slope, the slicker it became. By the time Mom discovered how much fun I was having, my white shorts matched the red in my top. I had wiped my dirty hands on my clothes, my hair, my whole body.

I wonder what I would have done if I’d been the mother. I can see myself, a little kid, covered with red dirt, wearing a new outfit, and as the mother I would have been angry – really mad! And probably Mom was, but I don’t remember that. I do remember sitting in our white enamel bathtub for a long time and Mom scrubbed my skin so hard it hurt – especially my feet and knees. She scrubbed with a washcloth and a small brush, probably the one she used to scrub the bathtub. And she must have dug into my head with her fingernails. It wasn’t a gentle hair washing like most times.

Mom’s scrubbing on my body was something I never wanted to endure again. And it was a natural consequence that the new shorts I had really liked, I could only wear at home. The red dirt became pink stains that never came out, and I didn’t get a new pair of white shorts. I don’t remember, but I bet Mom made me scrub those dirty shorts, with an old toothbrush.

I wasn’t forbidden from Grandma and Papa’s bank. In fact, after that day I slid down the slope many times, but I’d wear my oldest clothes, sometimes sitting on a piece of cardboard, and I didn’t rub dirt in my hair or on my body. Then I’d wash myself using Papa and Grandma’s outside water faucet.

At my elementary school, Byrdstown Elementary, there was also a red bank – much longer and steeper than Papa and Grandma’s, and many kids played on it, but I didn’t, not while wearing my good school clothes. Being scrubbed hard and not having a favorite pair of shorts to wear taught me a lesson.

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Stories Told at Cemeteries

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 9.55.59 AM  I was just a young child, about 6, the first time I remember walking in a cemetery. I tagged along with Dad and Granny, Dad’s mother, to place flowers on Granny’s parents’ graves. Mom had cut yard flowers –roses, iris, snowball blossoms – and arranged them in a vase. The Rich Cemetery, a small and private graveyard, had been a part of Granny’s parents’ farm, near the Moodyville community in Pickett County, when the land was deeded to be a cemetery.

Then Mom and Dad took me to Lovelady Cemetery to decorate the graves of Mom’s grandparents. The one thing I remember: walk around the graves, not on them. As a child, I certainly didn’t want to step on dead people. I didn’t know anybody buried in either cemetery. My parents’ grandparents were just as removed from me as the person buried in a grave marked only by a triangle-shaped limestone rock and thirty feet from the other graves in the Rich Cemetery. Those visits to cemeteries were carefree, outside times.

In 1974, my maternal grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack and was buried in the Lovelady cemetery next to his parents. A few years later Dad’s mother was buried in the Story Cemetery in Byrdstown. But I never regularly visited cemeteries until after Mom’s death in 1991. That’s when I began making the ‘decoration rounds’ with Dad. How I cried and hated to stand beside Mom’s grave. But during those yearly trips I’ve learned more about the people whose graves I walk around.

A black man named Toby was buried in the unnamed grave at the Rich Cemetery. He was a slave before coming to Pickett County in the late 1800s. He didn’t have a family, lived around town, and died about 1912, the year Dad was born. My Granny’s brother-in-law requested that Toby be buried in the family cemetery, and about ten years ago my cousin had a stone, with Toby’s name, placed at his grave.

Dad’s favorite uncle is buried near his grandparents. Uncle Scott was a farmer and sold corn to other hog farmers. He put most of his money in the local bank in the 1920s and lost it during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Aunt Doris, Mom’s sister, and I went together to the Lovelady Cemetery one Memorial Day. We secured a silk arrangement on top of Papa and Grandma’s headstone and then she laid a single red rose cut from her flower bush on her grandma’s grave. Aunt Doris explained that Grandma Bertram would go to cemeteries on Decoration Day and say that all she ever wanted on her grave was one pretty fresh flower. Aunt Doris also said that because Grandma Bertram valued reading and education, she opened a community lending library in her home long before a public library came to Pickett County.

Mom and Dad chose burial plots in the Story Cemetery, near their home in Byrdstown, more than a year before Mom’s death. One day during Memorial Day weekend, Husband and I will clean the headstones and place flowers on graves at three cemeteries in Pickett County.

I’m glad to have this way to honor parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and a great uncle. Some I never knew and some I knew well and loved. How I wish I’d written more notes to remember the stories of their lives.

Memorial Day. A time to pay tribute to those who came before us.  A time to share stories. And I’ll cut one pretty fresh flower for great-Grandma Bertram’s grave.

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Walk to Ralph’s

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.35.25 AMIt’s about a mile from Tennessee Tech to Ralph’s Do-nut Shop. Close enough to tempt students – especially those of us who lived in the dorms. It seemed that donut cravings hit strongest late at night.

When I was a Tech coed, my friends and I sat memorizing history dates, late-night-before-the-test cramming, and the more numbers that swirled through my brain, the more I craved sugar. Sugar mixed with flour and eggs and milk and butter, and then fried in hot oil. Finished off with a sugar glaze. One mention of donuts and we all closed our thick textbooks, tossed our notes aside, and united in a plan: To Ralph’s!

We threw on our long Villager raincoats, or off-brand copycats, over whatever we wore. Pajamas or t-shirts and shorts, or sweat pants – no need to really get dressed. And we put a few coins in our pockets and headed out the dorm’s front doors to the railroad tracks. Yes, to the railroad tracks that led almost straight to Ralph’s.

Someone might have carried a flashlight, but most often not. The moon, stars, and streetlights provided enough brightness to illuminate the metal rails. We walked on the wooden crossties, careful to avoid tripping on uneven beams or slipping on the muddy ground between. It was a short walk, less than fifteen minutes, and then one block south at the train depot, right down Cedar Street.

We could pool our money for a dozen plain glazed donuts for 60 cents or splurge on individual choices. For less than a quarter, I chose a chocolate covered, creamed-filled donut. My friends and I took over one u-shaped countertop. Drinking chocolate milk and our favorite late night treats, we completely ignored the fact that at 8:00 the next morning we’d face a history exam.

The walk back along the railroad tracks took longer than going. That’s when we’d talk and giggle and share secrets that can be told in the dark when you can’t see anyone’s expression. We’d stop to marvel at the stars, locate the Big Dipper and try to identify at least one other constellation. We’d look for the North Star and wish for falling stars and meteors.

Recently, I told my 7 year-old Grand about walking the railroad tracks to Ralph’s. “Why didn’t you drive?” she asked. No one, except June, had a car and it was fun to walk. “That wasn’t safe!” I never saw or heard a train when we walked and we could jump off if a train came our way. And we traveled in groups – never alone. Things were different 50 years ago. “Did your mother know you were walking on railroad tracks?” No. “Was it really late?” Yes.

“Did the donuts taste the same?” Yes. When my college girlfriends spent the night with me recently, the donut cravings hit about 10 p.m. Thankfully, not many people were in Ralph’s and heard six women giggling and arguing about which donuts were the best. Coconut cake. Apple fritters. Chocolate covered creamed filled. Twists. We each chose our favorite, a carton of milk, and sat at the same u-shaped counter.

We agreed on a few things. The donuts tasted just as good as we remembered. We were glad we didn’t have to walk home on the railroad tracks and we didn’t have to study for tests. And those late night adventures to Ralph’s helped cement our friendship.

Aprons and More Aprons

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 8.07.50 AMAprons are not just for mothers and grandmothers, and a cook’s apron can tell you if you want to eat what’s on the dinner table. I thought I’d shared everything about aprons in a previous column, but some friends’ comments pushed me to write more.

When Kay’s son was a high school student, he asked for an apron for Christmas and he didn’t plan to cook. He put it on every school morning before he left home. All the crumbs from his breakfast that he ate as he drove, fell on the apron, not his clothes. I wonder if his football teammates knew he wore an apron. Do they tease him or wish they were brave enough to slip one over their heads?

One Christmas I surprised Son with an apron. He unwrapped his gift, saw bright orange fabric and said, “Oh, a Lickity Split apron.” LickitySplit – the convenience store that Husband owned when Son was a kid. Son stood, slipped the neck strap over his head, and then said, “Wow! This is great! It’s long enough.” The standard Lickity Split apron didn’t cover much of Son’s 6’9” frame. But when I cut the bottom off of one and sewed it onto another, that extra long apron was just right. On work mornings, he dresses for the day and wears his apron while making and eating breakfast with my Grand who awakes before the sun comes up. And Son is a grill master – the spots on his apron prove it.

My friends agree that a spotless apron means one of two things: it’s never been worn or don’t trust the cook. A good cook’s apron has stains. Squirts of spaghetti sauce, splatters of bacon grease, drippings from barbequed ribs, and blackberry purple blotches. If the cook’s apron is spotless, I say, “You know I’m really not very hungry. I won’t eat much.” Maybe the cook is wearing a brand new apron, but I have an out until I take a few bites and can decide that I’m hungrier than I thought.

A gardening apron hangs on a hook in my laundry room. Bib style made of heavy fabric and with big pockets along the bottom – perfect to carry a digging trowel and I’m not sure what else because I’ve never put a gardening tool in it. I discovered those pockets are also perfect for feather dusters, dust cloths, spray cleaner, and a few paper towels. I should wear it more often or give it to a gardener.

One of my favorite aprons is a waist apron with ties much too short to reach around my waist, but it’d fit one of my young Grands perfectly. It’s made of bright yellow cotton fabric and trimmed with decorative tape with tiny red and yellow flowers.  This apron has many deep narrow pockets, the perfect size for crayons, and two larger pockets. Crayons, scissors, and mucilage glue – that’s what was in the pockets when Mom gave me this little yellow apron, that she’d made, for my sixth birthday.

I’m told there are specialty job aprons. For welders, seed-sowers, chefs, waiters, potters, blacksmiths, artists. But somehow, when I think of an apron, the first one to come to mind is still a green and white one that tied around Mother’s waist. And it’s covered with stains.