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Born to be Grandmother

Ann Ray was born to be a grandmother and Grandmother was the name she chose when she was 47 years old and her first grandchild, my daughter, was born.  For the next 45 years, until her death last week, Husband’s mother lived and loved as Grandmother.  Her last fifteen years, she cherished being a great-grandmother and she smiled biggest when she hugged one of her great-grands.

            When I asked many years ago why she chose to be called Grandmother, because there are so many other name choices, she said, “Grandmother is the name on all the cards.”  Greeting cards were treasures.  She kept them close on the table beside the couch, displayed them on the fireplace mantle, and would say, “Did you see the cards I got?”

            Sending cards gave her even greater joy than receiving.  She knew the ages and interests of all twelve of her great-grands so she chose the perfect card for each.  When she said to me, “Look at this card I got for Samuel,” I knew she’d searched for a card with a picture of a boy and a basketball.  That’s how Grandmother loved. 

            She loved by doing.  Like making an extra recipe of strawberry fluff for family Christmas dinner so my daughter could take it home.  Daughter loved that fluff of Jello, Cool Whip, and crushed strawberries when she was young so even when she was the mother of five, Grandmother made extra.  Husband once said that he remembered eating salmon patties when he was a child so the next time there was a holiday family gathering, Grandmother served fried salmon patties along with the traditional turkey and ham.

            All who loved her have gifts that Grandmother chose or made just for us.  I treasure my cross-stitch sampler.  It’s black with pastel flowers and states: 1983, Susan Ray, Her Sampler.  We in-laws were hers just as her four children who she had diapered and burped.

            Two weeks ago, while Grandmother and I sat rocking on her carport, she said, “Susan, I didn’t think I’d ever be like this.  Not able to get up and do what I want.”  She paused, looking at the sky. “But I guess I’m doing pretty good.  I live by myself.  I can get dressed and talk to people on the phone.” 

            A widow for eleven years, Grandmother lived alone in the home where she and Grandfather raised their four children.  Until a few months ago, she drove to the grocery store and to her hairdresser’s shop every Thursday and to church on Sunday mornings. 

            She was determined to not be, in her words, ‘a problem to anybody.’  Even in death, she wasn’t. When she didn’t answer her phone, her daughter went to her home and found Grandmother sitting in her favorite corner of her couch and holding a TV remote, her head resting on her chest.  That afternoon she appeared to have fallen asleep and taken her last breath.              Grandmother blessed with her love, her gifts, her cards, and she chose the perfect name. We all, sometimes even her children, called her Grandmother.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

“Bring a folding chair and we’ll meet outside and sit safe distances apart,” my friend said.  As I walked out my back door to join five girlfriends for a backyard visit, I did a mental checklist to be sure I had everything I needed.  Keys. Phone. Purse. Sunglasses. Water bottle. A mask and chair, which stay in my van. 

            Pulling out of my driveway, I thought about the mask and chair – two things I never needed until the COVID-19 pandemic. A mask hangs from the windshield wiper lever and a fold-up chair lays in the trunk. 

            As I drove, I thought of all the many other things that I keep in my van.  In every vehicle I’ve ever owned there’s been a flashlight, maps, and an emergency bag, supplied with jumper cables and a first aid kit. I know I can get directions using a GPS or a maps app, but I like paper maps.  Currently, there are fold-up maps of Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky and a United States Atlas.  And I have a magnifying glass to read the tiny print, but was used recently to see a splinter in a finger.

            Wet wipes, aka baby wipes, a roll of paper towels, disposable diapers, and small plastic trash bags were staples when our children were young decades ago.  I no longer carry diapers, but those other items still come in handy.  As the kids got older, I added a blanket and plastic tablecloth for times when someone was cold or we wanted to have a spur-of-the-moment picnic and needed something to sit on. Last week when I hauled bedding plants, the plastic cloth kept the van floor clean and was easily wiped off.  I rolled up the blanket to brace a rose bush in a gallon-size pot.

            When my Grands began riding with me fifteen years ago, I set a bottle of hand sanitizer in a cup holder and have had one since, and it is refilled often.  A few books, including search-and-find-picture books and riddle books, are in the backseat pockets.  Pencils and paper are always available. 

            Arriving at my friend’s driveway, I wondered if a mask and a folding chair would become forever travelling supplies, like wet wipes did. Because my back is happier when I sit straight, I like a director’s chair with canvas back and seat. Maybe I could switch to a folding chair that fits inside a small bag; it’d take up less space and be easier to carry, but not as comfortable.

            When I arrived at the meeting place and opened my van trunk, I was surprised my chair wasn’t there. Thankfully, I had my plastic tablecloth to sit on so I didn’t have to sit on the ground. I put on my mask and joined my friends.              Back home, I found my chair leaning against the garage wall, right where I’d put it the day before when I took it out to haul boxes, and I put it back in the van.  No one should leave home without a mask and a folding chair.

Everyone Knows Someone

Everyone knows someone.  We know people who are grieving because they will never again hug someone they loved.  They mourn the death of their child or parent or niece or cousin or friend.

            Everyone knows someone whose home was destroyed.  Whose home was blown away.  Who walks among the rubble where their house once stood.  Whose beds and pillows and pictures and Bibles were carried miles away.  Who have said, “I’m okay. None of us are hurt. We are blessed.”  

            Everyone knows one of the first helpers.  A neighbor whose home was left standing and gave immediate shelter to others. Who wrapped towels around bleeding wounds.  Who held a frightened, crying child.  Who put shoes on bare feet. 

            Everyone knows a paramedic or deputy or fireman who was a first responder, trained to give emergency medical care. Who worked non-stop through the early morning hours, through the day, and into the next night.  Who carried victims.  Those who said, “I’ll never be able to erase the pictures from my head.  It was horrific.”

            We all received phone calls and texts from out-of-town family and friends and were asked, “Are you okay?”  I answered, “Yes. We’re okay.”  More questions led to my explaining that our home and our families’ homes aren’t near where the tornado hit. When I talked by phone with a close friend she heard my deep breath and asked, “But what?”

            Jessica was a Capshaw student and I’ve known her parents for 40 years.  From my teaching days, I remember Jessica as a 4th grader. A happy little girl with a big smile and who was everybody’s friend.  Although, our paths rarely crossed during recent years, I recognized Jessica at city hall where she was the receptionist.  She was still smiling. She served her community as a fair board volunteer and was active in her church.  The tornado took her life.

            Tom and Kay are friends from Husband’s and my college days.  Tom was Son’s first basketball coach.  I taught their daughters and followed their successes through college and now as adults. Every time I’ve said to Kay, as a greeting, “How ‘r you?”, she has responded, “Better than I deserve.” Tom and Kay’s home was completely destroyed.

            Amy was one of Daughter’s junior high school friends.  Once when she was at our house, I looked out our second story window and Amy waved from her perch in a tulip poplar tree.  I forced myself to smile, pointed down, and was relieved when her feet touched the ground. Houses around Amy and her husband’s house were leveled, but theirs was spared so they sheltered neighbors before emergency workers arrived.

            Millard was Son’s school friend.  He was always respectful, always kind, as a young boy and as a teen-ager.  Millard is a paramedic.  On Facebook, he shared the prayer he said while carrying a lifeless child in his arms.             We all know someone who is suffering after last week’s tornado.  That’s why we’re not quite okay and we help whoever and however we can.

Friends Getting Us Through

“It’ll be a short hike,” Pam announced to us twenty-four women.  We were near the Smoky Mountains for a three-day women’s church retreat.  I listened to the Saturday morning options: a hike, shopping at the outlet mall, or relaxing in the lodge where we were staying. 

            Wearing a splint on my right thumb and arm made me even more unbalanced than I usually am, but I really wanted to be outside in the woods.  “You’ll be fine. The park lists it as an easy hike.  If you need help, we’ll help you,” friends told me.  So, on a cloudy 40° F February morning, I put on the warmest clothes I had packed and double knotted my walking shoes.

            We walked across a gravel parking lot to begin the Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place nature trail. A small log cabin marked the beginning of the 0.6-mile trail near the Le Conte Creek. The first trail marker indicating the old road from Gatlinburg gave fair warning: rocks and ruts.  Tall trees, barks covered with moss on the north side, sheltered an open space where Bud and Cindy Ogle built a home and began farming 400 acres in 1879.

            Taking in the smell of the woods and stopping to feel the moss, I heard someone say, “Hold onto the rail and be careful. This little bridge is damp and slick.”  The bridge was a worn twelve-inch plank over a six-foot wide creek. The log rail wiggled as I took baby steps sideways over the water.  After crossing the bridge and tip-toeing around water-filled ruts and slick rocks, we twelve hikers naturally divided into three groups.  Those who were sure on their feet.  Those who needed a helping hand.  And those who went back to enjoy nature at the log cabin.

            I wanted to continue, but thought I probably should turn around.  “Come on. You can do it,” Cindy encouraged me. “You can hold my shoulder.” As we walked, Cindy stayed one step in front of me while I looked at the ground to avoid tripping over tree roots and small pointed rocks.

            Large stumps and rotting logs covered the woods.  A sign told us that the largest logs were the remains of chestnut trees, one of the most used trees by early pioneers. Chestnuts were a staple food and could be traded for shoes and household items.  The timber was rot-resistant, light-weight, and strong for buildings.

            Cindy held my hand as together we made our way over and around a pile of boulders.  Standing in the middle of an evergreen forest, mostly hemlock, we felt raindrops. The trail brochure described this forest as a place where souls of people come for renewal of spirit.

            It was a short hike, but not so easy for me. As I began writing this column, I wavered between focusing on my friends’ encouragement and help or the serenity the Great Smoky Mountains. Then I realized that because friends helped, I could enjoy nature.  I appreciate both.

You Got a Pencil?

“I’ll keep score. You got a pencil?” my friend said as four of us sat down to play Canasta.  I handed her the pencil that lay on my kitchen desk.  A gray mechanical pencil.  She looked at it carefully, raised her eyebrows, and then looked at me.  I knew her question.

            I chuckled and said, “Don’t you have your name on your favorite pencil?”  My friend shook her head slowly.  “That’s from my teaching days.  I taped RAY (in red, no less) on it so when I misplaced it, I hoped someone would find it and give it back.”

            I retired from teaching eleven years ago and this pencil goes back as least twenty years.  It’s a perfect pencil. A Pentel Quicker Clicker with 0.5 mm lead. (I know these details because I recently lost one like it that I kept in my purse and I bought two new ones for $8.00.)  It fits my hand perfectly and is always sharp.  A quick click with my thumb advances the lead and I continue writing, not even stopping to lift it from paper, nor do I lose my train of thought.  It’s written lesson plans in two-inch square plan books, to-do lists, grocery lists, column first drafts, and worked a few Sudoku puzzles.

            Even as a kid, I had a favorite pencil. Yellow, a number two, and hexagon shape, never a round pencil that would roll off my desk.  A yellow, #2 was all I knew so when my dad asked for a #1 pencil, I questioned him.  A #1 writes darker and he could see the letters he wrote in the newspaper crossword puzzle better. 

            Through the years, I mainly used traditional yellow pencils. But when I taught elementary students, I stocked a classroom pencil holder with all sorts of pencils, including round ones with holiday décor, and a classroom student chore was to sharpen those pencils every morning.  If a bright red round pencil encouraged a kid to write, so be it.

            How did pencils come to be?  We say a pencil has a lead core, but it doesn’t.  An ancient Roman writing instrument, called a stylus, was made from a lead rod and the word lead stuck.  Pencil cores are non-toxic graphite rods.  Graphite was first used in the mid-1500s in England because it left a darker mark than lead.  Graphite rods were initially wrapped in string and later inserted in hollowed-out wooden sticks, and the first wooden pencils were created.  In the mid-1600s, the first mass-produced pencils were made in Germany.

            A patent for mechanical pencils was granted in 1822, but the push button mechanism wasn’t developed until fifty years later.  Eventually, metal and wood casings gave way to plastic and a holder for an eraser was added.            

For the past six weeks, while I wore a cast or splint following thumb surgery, I missed grabbing my pencil and making a quick note.  It feels good, almost a comfort, to hold this simple instrument between my thumb and index finger and write a grocery list.  

Trivial Holidays ‘til Spring

Spring begins Friday, March 20, twenty-nine days from now, and winter drags. So, as I did a few years ago, I’m searching for holidays to celebrate.  Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, and that’s a time to wear green, pinch those who don’t, and drink from a frosty mug.  But there are many unofficial days to celebrate.  What better time than now?

            Did you know anyone can make up a holiday?  Adrienne Koopersmith, the undisputed champ of creating holidays, calls herself “America’s Premier Eventologist.” She’s created more than 1,900 holidays, during the past 30 years.  Timeanddate.com lists fun, wacky, and trivial holidays for every day, and I’m choosing Wednesdays.

            Today is Chocolate Mint Day, as in Girl Scout Chocolate Mint cookies. Or how about a chocolate mint latte? Chocolate pudding flavored with mint would be yummy, and so would a big bowl of chocolate mint ice cream.  Did you know there is a mint chocolate herb whose leaves actually taste like chocolate mint?  Add that to your chocolate cake recipe.

            February 26 is Tell a Fairy Tale Day.  Find a child and tell your favorite childhood fairy tale.  My Grands will hear Goldilocks for the ‘umpthteenth’ time.  Forty years ago, my mother made three stuffed bears, Papa, Mama, and Baby, for my children, and she gave them a Little Golden Book of the story.  The bears sway and bounce their way through the woods and their little home and Goldilocks runs.  Or you might host a fairy tale party.  Guests could dress as their favorite character and bring foods from favorite stories.

            March 11 is Oatmeal Nut Waffle Day. Yum!  These would be more nutritious than regular waffles because oat grain is high in protein, mineral, and fiber.  I’ll eat my oatmeal pecan waffles, topped with blueberries and syrup.  Remember, waffles aren’t just a breakfast food.  The combination of waffles and chicken would be even better with oatmeal nut waffles. 

            March 4 is March Forth and Do Something Day. This day encourages people to do something new to enrich their own or other peoples’ lives.  Its name is a play on the date, March fourth, which sounds like march forth, to move forward or into action.  So, march forth and do something.  Something that helps someone else.  Something that you’ve always wanted to do or said you would.

            March 18 is Awkward Moments Day to celebrate or forget those embarrassing moments that we’d like to forget, but are probably funny.  Laugh about those times with family and friends.  Like the time I thought I looked my best wearing a floor length new summer dress and new white patent shoes at a wedding reception.  While the band took a break, I walked across the empty dance floor to refill my punch cup and right in the middle of floor, I slipped and landed on my bottom. 

            Just four more Wednesdays until spring. That’s time to celebrate many trivial holidays and make up a few of our own.

An Open Letter to Jake Hoot

Dear Jake,

When a tall woman, old enough to be your mother – no, your grandmother – holds her arms out to hug you, that’ll be me.  It will be a hug of gratitude for sharing your singing talent with everyone who watched Season 17 of The Voice and my thanks for your humility, your thoughtfulness, and your appreciation.

             Until this season, I’ve never watched The Voice. A few years ago, a friend encouraged me to watch it.  “Be sure to catch the first show of the season,” she said.  “That’s when the coaches pick teams and there’s lots of outstanding singers.”  I missed your blind audition, but when I heard someone from Cookeville made the cut, I searched online and found a picture of you wearing a black cap and a dark plaid shirt.  I jumped on the Jake Hoot bandwagon when Tennessee Tech hosted a Watch Party at Hooper Eblen.  Out of curiosity, I went, sat with hundreds of your fans, and watched to the very end when you performed.

            I don’t remember what you sang that night.  I do remember that I felt a connection with you, a Cookevillian and a TTU alumnus.  You wore normal everyday clothes and could have sat unnoticed among those of us watching, except for your height and because I’m six feet tall and my son is 6’ 9” I was happy to see a big guy on stage.  You lived, with your missionary family, in the Dominion Republic where I spent a week on a mission trip.

            That Monday night I voted for you and Tuesday, I cheered when you made it through.  Then I watched every Monday and Tuesday and voted 10 votes every way I could. 

            Thank you, Jake, for the excitement you have created in our community.  Your successes were our successes.  We celebrated over coffee with breakfast, sweet tea with lunch, and wine with dinner.  We downloaded your songs.  We talked about people we knew who knew you.  We marveled that someone from Cookeville was in L. A. and doing well.

            Throughout those many weeks, I enjoyed your every performance and I appreciated the little things.  You answered questions with “Yes, mam,” and “Yes, sir.”  On the final night as you four finalists took the stage, you stopped and offered your hand to Rose who walked up the steps behind you. 

            When you were announced as the winner, you bowed.  Bowed. Most winners throw their arms high with a stance of look at me.  Your response was humble thankfulness.  You gave credit to others.  You came home to Cookeville and, with gratitude, offer a free concert.

            In your dress, your manners, your performances, you stayed true to the person you were the very first night of The Voice.  You reminded me that good guys do finish first.

            May your singing career be successful and may you have the courage to not let others define you as continue to be yourself.

Blessings for the very best from a Hoot Fan,


Where did the Years Go?

I slid the folded letter from its envelope. You are invited  to celebrate Tennessee Technological University Homecoming November 7-9, 2019, and join the Golden Grad Society. Golden Grad! Like a hot potato, I dropped the invitation onto the kitchen counter. I’d seen Golden Grads, people who’d graduated from TTU fifty years earlier. 

During halftime of Tech’s football Homecoming game, an announcement is made: Please welcome today’s honored guests, our Golden Grads!  People walk from the sidelines of Overall Field to the 50- yard line.  Some amble, some lean on canes, some hold another’s arm. Some march and swing their arms. Some take long, intentional steps. Some wear letter sport jackets. Some wear school colors, purple and gold. 

All gather at mid-field and wave to us fans as we stand to honor these individuals who have attended classes, studied, and earned a degree five decades earlier. Most have retired from work.  Some have gray hair, some no hair. Some carry stooped shoulders. Some limp. Many wear glasses. These aren’t young people.  Not even middle age.

And now, I have received an invitation to become a member of their society. But, in my heart, I’m a student wearing a brand new wool three-piece suit that Mom made for my 1965 homecoming outfit. On a rainy Saturday, I’m the co-ed who ruined a $60 pair of new shoes that matched my outfit. 

On a cold snowy Saturday, I’m a newlywed, warm in my ankle-length red coat, who sits on the top bleacher and proudly watches Husband crown the 1969 Homecoming queen; one of his duties as Associated Body President.  Five years later, I’m the mother of three-week old Daughter and I drove two hours to celebrate homecoming with friends.  

After moving back to Cookeville, Husband and I welcome out of town guests and plan the weekend. Friday night gathering with his fraternity brothers and my sorority sisters. Saturday with friends and children: morning parade and afternoon football game. We celebrate Daughter’s birthday when it coincides with homecoming. Sunday morning brunch around the kitchen table.  Pots of black coffee, eggs, bacon, and stories of college days keep on coming. 

I’m the TTU fan who takes in every football and basketball game with Husband and our two teenage children. A fun way to share good wholesome family time. And when Son is a TTU student, I wish for him to make friends and happy memories and graduate. Years later, Husband and I take Grands to Tucker Stadium and explain four downs, extra points, field goals, and we high-five Awesome Eagle. 

Saturday, November 9, we Golden Grads will stand in the middle of TTU’s Overall Field and wave to football fans. And if anyone assumes that because we graduated many, many years ago, we are old and happy just to be able to walk and wave, that’s not exactly who we are. 

Maybe, just maybe, when I’ve watched other Golden Grads they, too, were students, young adults, parents, grandparents who were surprised that fifty years passed so quickly

Hot Air Balloon Q & A

After writing two columns about riding in a hot air balloon, Husband and I have been asked several questions.  So, this is one more hot air balloon column.

 The three main parts of a hot air balloon are the basket, the envelope, and the burner.  The basket, a.k.a. gondola, is where the pilot and passengers stand during flight and where the propane gas tanks are stored.  The envelope, which most people call the balloon, is usually made of nylon panels which expand at the top and taper at the bottom, and the envelope attaches to the basket.  The burner is attached to the basket and produces hot air.

Now for the questions.   Where did you ride?  We flew with Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures in Franklin, Tennessee, and flew south of Franklin. They fly early mornings and late afternoons, weather permitting, from April thru October. 

How far did you go?  Eight miles in an hour.

Did you know where you were going?  That’s similar to the question Husband asked Logan, our pilot, right after we left the ground.  Husband said, “Where are we flying?” Logan answered that he wasn’t sure, but there were two or three possible routes.  It depended on the wind.

Can you steer a hot air balloon?  There isn’t a mechanism for steering.  Logan had information about the direction and speed of the wind at different altitudes and, when needed, he used the burner to put hot air into the envelope so it would rise and catch the wind.  He also controlled vents in the envelope with chords or ropes to release heat to maneuver and land.

 How does the balloon get hot air?  A propane burner provides heat to the envelope.  

So, there was fire?  Were you afraid?  No, close to the burner, the envelope is made of a flame-resistant material, Nomex.  And the flame is in the middle of the envelope – not really close to the fabric.

Were there chairs?  No, we stood in the basket.

How did you get in the basket?  The sides of the basket were about four feet high and had two stepping holes in each side.  We stepped onto a small step stool, then used the stepping holes to climb up and stand or kneel on the top edge of the basket and stepped into it.

Did you fly back to where you started?  No, the wind carried us south.  As we flew, the crewmen talked with the pilot and drove the van to meet us where we landed.

Were you surprised by anything?  Yes, the prayer at the end of the flight.  In keeping with a long-time ballooning tradition, Logan recited the “Balloonist Prayer.”

May the winds welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with its warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God
joins you in laughter and sets you gently
back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

Would you do it again?  Yes!  Anywhere.  Anytime.

Bucket List Adventure – Part 2

Saturday, September 7 was a perfect day to ride in a hot air balloon.  It had been on my bucket list for years. A previous ride was cancelled due to high winds, but this day seemed ideal. No wind and blue sky. Husband and I would be in the air about 6:00 p.m.

I didn’t like the balloon pilot’s 10:30 a.m. text message. Logan wrote, “We’re watching the weather – mainly the wind forecast to be sure we can take off.  Will update you around 1:00.” 

            Husband and I were shopping ten miles from the meeting place in Franklin, Tennessee, and the treetops weren’t moving.  What wind?  Logan’s 1:00 text read, “Sorry we are still watching the evening.  It could go either way. Right now, plan on meeting at 4:45 and if anything changes we will notify you as soon as possible.” 

I told myself we live close to Middle Tennessee Hot Air Adventures and I could reschedule.  Logan’s 2:30 text read, “We will see you at 4:45.”  I shouted, “Yes!” and threw both fists in the air.

            Logan met us in a parking lot, and Husband and I met Ken and his daughter, Katie who would also be flying.  Two crewmen loaded the equipment into Logan’s van, and we travelled to the launching site, a church yard.

            As he drove, Logan gave instructions.  “Stand back and watch while we spread out the envelope – that’s the balloon – and blow it up.  I’ll show you how to climb into the basket.  If we don’t take off immediately, the basket might rock.  That seems unnerving.  Just stay calm and still.”

            The 100-foot-long envelope and basket lay on the ground. Logan turned on an industrial fan to begin blowing up the envelope.  The blue, yellow, green, orange, red, and blue envelope blew up to its 120,000-cubic foot capacity – big enough for 120,000 basketballs.  After the envelope was fully inflated, the attached basket was set upright.  What a beautiful balloon!  What a small basket – only about 4’ x 6’.

Logan climbed into the basket; then we four passengers.  Logan nodded toward a nearby basket and said, “We’ll go up after them.  We’ll rock, but we’re tethered to the van.”  I struggled to be calm when the basket rocked.

“Okay, we’re ready,” Logan said.  He pressed a lever to turn on the propane burners.  Slowly, the untethered basket lifted.

Beautiful.  Exhilarating.  Awesome.  Riding in a hot air balloon was even better than I expected.  Katie and I waved down to children in their backyards.  “I’ve never felt like a celebrity before,” Katie said.  Dogs barked.  Deer ran to the woods.  Adults waved and took pictures.

For an hour, we floated over treetops, subdivisions, highways, open fields, and, as Husband noted, utility lines.  I concentrated to freeze this experience in my memory.  Too soon, Logan pointed and said, “We’ll land in that field.”

            Descending was gradual. The basket set softly on the ground. I felt like a little kid that gets off a roller coaster and asks, “Can I go again?”  Now, riding in a hot air balloon is on my wish list.