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A Gift that Anyone Can Give

We’re all searching for perfect gifts, Christmas Wish List gifts and surprise gifts. 

            Are all gifts wrapped in green paper and tied with red ribbons?  Are all gifts bought?  Are all gifts something to hold or build or wear or eat?  Certainly not. I’m reminded of this when I read, for the umpteenth thousand time, the words on a sheet of yellowed paper. The paper that was taped to the inside of Mom’s kitchen cabinet, and I’ve had it on my desk for thirty years.

A Gift that Anyone Can Give……..A Smile

It costs nothing, but saves much. 

It enriches those who receive it, without impoverishing those who give. 

It happens in a flash, and the memory of it sometimes lasts forever.

None is so rich or mighty that he can get along without it; none so poor that he is not enriched by it. 

It creates happiness in the home, fosters good will in business, and is the countersign of friends. 

It is rest to the weary, daylight to the discouraged, sunshine to the sick, and nature’s best antidote for trouble. 

It cannot be bought, begged, borrowed, or stolen, for it is no earthly good to anyone until it is given away. 

If you meet someone too burdened with grief or worry to smile, just give him one of yours.

For nobody needs a smile so much as he who has none left to give.

Anonymous Author

            I wish I knew the author of these words.  I’ve searched online and found many similar writings, but none exactly like the one Mom saved.

            I wish I knew from what booklet or yearbook Mom cut out this writing.  It was printed during the days of mimeograph machines, and the right top corner of the page has the number 13.  The paper is fragile. The message is strong and timeless.

            Perhaps no one needs a smile as much as those who work in the service industry, especially now.  They are expected to serve graciously, yet may not be greeted with smiles and appreciation.  Last week I watched a postal worker interact with three people.  She didn’t smile, but didn’t frown.  She did her job.  She took payment, put stamps on boxes, and stacked the boxes onto a big metal cart.

            Thinking of Mom’s clipped writing, I imagined she was weary at 4:00 on a Monday afternoon.  “You are working so hard and being so kind,” I said and I smiled as I handed her an envelope.  “I’m trying,” she said.  We chatted as she looked up how much postage is needed on a Christmas card going out of the country, put a stamp on the envelope, and took my money.

            Before I walked away, I smiled my biggest and wished her a happy rest of the day. She put both her hands on the post office counter, smiled, and said, “Thanks, I’ll keep trying.”             Her smile and positive attitude have stayed with me.  I appreciate her gift. 


Counting Gifts and Blessings

Have you seen the cartoon of a family gathered around a dining room table that’s laden with a Thanksgiving dinner, a perfectly browned turkey and bowls of sides?  A little girl, whose chin almost rests on the table’s edge says, “Shouldn’t we be thankful more than one day a year?”

            Yes, indeed, we should.  A habit that helped me during the pandemic was writing in a gratitude journal that I began years ago.  There’s something about listing and numbering blessings, using a favorite black ink pen on lined spiral-bound paper, that is calming. That reminds me the greatest blessings are gifts of my every day, ordinary life. 

            I credit Ann Voscamp’s books, One Thousand Gifts and One Thousand Gifts Devotional, for prompting me to keep an ongoing list.  Before reading her books, I mentally noted blessings and prayed thanksgivings, but I took Voscamp’s challenge to put pen to paper.  Actually, Voscamp writes that her cynical friends challenged her and her change in attitude led to her books.  Could I list 1000 Gifts? 

             My list began with people.  All those I love most, family and friends.  Then the comforts often taken for granted:  a warm house, food, clothes, car, the freedom to worship, running water.  My list became more specific. Micah, with open mouth and arms, runs to me.  Doing chair yoga with Sheila’s CD. Catching lightning bugs with Lucy.

            Looking back, my journal reads like a diary.  Medicine to control vertigo.  Swimming at the Y with Grands.  College girlfriends come to spend two nights.  Tommy Sue cleaned up my kitchen mess.

            This week guidepost.org posted an article entitled “Gratitude Makeover” which includes tips to stay present and uplifted.  1. As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, say “thank you.” 2.  Start a gratitude journal. 3. Live in wonder. 4. Take a new path. 5. Keep an “attitude of gratitude.”  I’m not surprised that a gratitude journal is number 2, and I’m convinced it leads to number 5.  Doesn’t gratitude create attitude?

            Hot bath.  Warm, comfortable bed.  Cardinal at the birdfeeder.  All Grands gathered around the dining room table to play Bingo. Annabel and Elsie climb their magnolia tree.  Sunshine through the kitchen window.  Fresh strawberries.

            Voscamp’s writings aren’t always comforting.  “Counting 1000 gifts means counting hard things, otherwise I’ve miscounted.” I struggle counting hard things. Holding Joe’s hand as he lay in ICU. Brett undergoing heart surgery. My hand surgery.  Why be thankful for sickness?  For pain, physical and emotional?  Yet, blessings surface even during stressful, difficult times.  Minister prays for healing hearts.  Doctor’s assurances.

            Especially during the past nineteen months, I’ve counted technology blessings:  Zoom, FaceTime, email, and texts.  Even when I couldn’t visit with family and friend in-person, we stay connected.

            This week, I wrote #5099.  A safe walk to my Grands’ house.  Some days, I don’t write in my gratitude journal and other days, my pen almost runs out of ink.   #5100 Being able to write a weekly column.            

‘Tis the season to be thankful. 

Trick or Treat, Smell my Feet

The earworm won’t go away.  It plays over and over in my head.  All because my 16-year-old Grand asked if his family could trick or treat in my neighborhood this year, like they did last year.  He reminded me that the little kids, his siblings, liked it and that my street is safe.

            “Sure, but it’s your parents’ decision.  I’ll walk with you if they say it’s okay,” I told him. And then I added, “Treat or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.” 

            I should have stopped after the word okay.  My Grand closed his eyes and shook his head as a teen-ager tends to do when a grandmother says something silly.  And those words about feet and something to eat have been on earworm rewind for a week. 

            That jingle takes me back to being a kid ghost, covered in a white sheet with eye holes cut out, and walking around my neighborhood on Halloween night.  My girlfriend and I chanted, “Smell my feet, give me something good to eat!” until we knocked on doors. 

            When a door opened, we held open our jack-o-lantern decorated paper grocery bags and in our sweetest voices we simply said, “Treat or treat.” In days of past, we children only knocked on doors of people we knew and we expected only one sucker or small chocolate candy at each house.  And I was always sure that if I wasn’t polite and said ‘thank you’ that the neighbor would report my bad manners to my parents.  I’d never say smell my feet to a grown-up.

            Since the smell-my-feet earworm hasn’t crawled away, I’ve wondered who wrote this jingle and when.  Every online source I found listed the writer as Anonymous.  After all, who’d claim credit for penning such words?  The jingle is first cited in print in 1948 or 1964, according to different online sites, but there are no named publications.  Who’d claim the notoriety of first printing these words? 

            I did discover several versions of the jingle.  Trick or treat, bags of sweets, ghosts are walking down the street.  Trick or treat, give me something good to eat; if you don’t I won’t be sad; I’ll just make you wish you had.  Kids in Canada have their own version:  Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat; not too big, not too small, just the size of Montreal.

            And I discovered a version, first cited in print in 1988 (again, no publication listed) that I hadn’t heard before and will erase from my head so to never say aloud:  Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat; if you don’t, I don’t care, I’ll pull down your underwear. 

            Imagine if I’d said to my Grand pull down your underwear instead of smell my feet.  He wouldn’t walk down my street with me again and that earworm would be even more annoying.

            How about bags of sweet?  That could be a pleasant earworm.

Thank You for Saving Lives

Dear Health Care Workers,

            I hope you’ve seen the yard signs around town that read ‘CRMC THANK YOU FOR SAVING LIVES!’  We could shout it from the Smoky Mountains and scream it in the hallways of Cookeville Regional Medical Center and it wouldn’t be enough to let you know how much you are appreciated. 

            Every work day you suit up, covering yourself from head to toe. I can only imagine the pep talk you give yourself as you drive to work. For months, you’ve fought COVID-19 for your patients and in most cases you’ve won. 

            News media gives us numbers of deaths – even one is too many.  Let’s celebrate the lives you save.  The people who leave the hospital and go home because you do your job and do it well.  Thank you.

            I’ve heard stories about nurses holding phones so family members can see their loved one – mom, dad, grandparent, son, daughter – on a FaceTime call.  You hold patients’ hands and you are their medical and emotional and spiritual caretakers.  You give and give and give.  Thank you.

            You trained to be caretakers, but I wonder if you think, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’  You do what you need to do, no matter if it falls into the expectations or the training as medical caretakers. Thank you.

            You’ve worked to save lives when patients come to you not having done their part to stay healthy.  No matter if patients are vaccinated or unvaccinated, you do your best.  Thank you.

            That yard sign thanks all who work at our local hospital, all 2,466 employees.  Those who stand beside patients’ beds couldn’t do their jobs without staff members who cook and serve food, mop floors, read x-rays, purchase supplies, keep computers running, count pills, and many other tasks. Thank you.

             Recently, I watched as twelve children, ages 4-16, used chalk to write and draw on hospital sidewalks that you walk to and from work.  The kids had been told they could write anything encouraging, anything happy, anything to say thank you.   

            They knew exactly what to say in just a few words. You are our Heroes. Your work matters so much.  Thank you! Cookeville appreciates you. You do it right!  You’re a STAR!  Smile big!  You lift us up!

            Bright colored drawings of smiles, rainbows, hearts, stars, flowers, stick people wearing face masks, and a girl with pink hair accompanied the words.  I hope those words and drawings put a smile on your face and told you that we’re thankful you do your job every day. 

            Many things have been done to show our appreciation. Yard signs, meals delivered to you, notes written, and chalk drawings are to support you through work days.

            Your work matters so much. You do it right!  You are saving lives!  Thank you.

Columnist Note: Purchase a yard sign.  Proceeds go to the CRMC Employee Assistance Fund.  https://interland3.donorperfect.net/weblink/weblink.aspx… $10/each for pick up. $25/each for delivery.

Caught Being Good

He wore biking shorts and a tight shirt, like serious bikers wear.  He walked slowly toward the Cane Creek Park picnic shelter where I and fifteen other book club members sat, and then he stopped about ten feet away from us.  I called out, “Can we help you?”

            He nodded, pointed toward the parked cars, and asked, “Are any of you ladies driving that white Honda?”  My friend raised her hand and said, “I am.” 

            “Well, ma’am, I’m sorry, but I accidentally ran into the front fender.  It’s a very small dent.  Will you come look at it with me?”  the man said.  All sixteen women groaned and my friend walked toward her car.  We watched as he pointed to a front fender and she rubbed her hand on it.  They talked, but we couldn’t hear them.

            When she rejoined the circle, my friend said, “I couldn’t even see it, but he says there’s small dent and he’ll fix it.  My husband would probably see it, but I don’t.”  Isn’t that the way with cars and men? Men see things women don’t.

            As the club meeting continued, I was seated where I watched the man squat beside the fender and use his hands and a cloth.  After 15 minutes he approached us again, and because my friend was speaking at the club podium, I walked with him to her car.

            “I did my best to fix it.  I don’t think anyone will notice,” he said.  I ran my fingers over the fender where he pointed and it was smooth. 

            “I can’t feel anything. How’d you do that?”  I asked.

            “I’ve fixed a lot of dents and scratches on cars for friends.  It’s not hard if you’re careful,” he said and wiped the fender with a cloth he held in his hand.

            “That was really kind.  Thank you,” I said.

            “Well, ma’am, my bike hit that fender and fixing it was the right thing to do,” he said.  “Please tell your friend over there I’m really sorry and appreciate that she wasn’t upset.”

            After the meeting, all of us checked out the fender and no one could see or feel a dent, and the paint color was all the same.

            This man had been caught.  Caught being good. 

            Years ago, when I taught in an elementary school, during an April faculty meeting the principal passed out sheets of paper labeled ‘I was Caught Being Good.’ 

            “When you see a student doing something kind, something helpful, something good, fill in his or her name on this form and write the good deed,” she told us.  The timing was perfect.  At the end of the school year, kids were a bit squirrely and teachers were weary.  

            Students were excited and happy when they were complimented for being good.  Everyone wanted to be caught, and teachers’ spirits were lifted as we looked for students who did good deeds.

            Who can you catch this week?  Tell them they’ve been caught. Both of you will feel good.

Is Gossip Good or Bad?

           “This might be gossip, but did you hear…..?”  Those words spilled from of my mouth as my friend and I sat on her living room couch.  I repeated what I’d been told about a mutual friend, someone we’d both known many years.

            My friend and I had heard slightly different versions of what had happened and after a few minutes of conversation, we agreed the how didn’t matter, the outcome was the same. And we both wished the outcome had been different. We wished our friend was happy and healthy, not as she is and we talked about how we could help her family.

            Gossip brings people together and creates community.  Yet, most people think gossip is unkind and malicious, but, originally, gossip carried a positive meaning.

            The origin of gossip is the Old English word godsibb.  A word composed of God and the adjective sibb, meaning a relative, anyone who was kin.  It also referred to someone who was a sponsor, a spiritual support, a godfather or godmother to a person being baptized.

            A reliable source stated that during pre-historic times talk among friends and family, was a way to find suitable mates and encouraged stronger friendship and alliances. The word godsibb came to mean talking about others who weren’t present, as well as sharing recent happenings, thoughts and opinions. 

            Writings from the 1300s show that gobsibb was often used to identify women friends who were present at a birth.  A child’s birth was a social event and friends spent hours talking among themselves and giving moral support to the mother during her labor.

            Anthropologists say that gossip was a bonding agent to women in societies where they were granted little power.  

             It’s not known exactly how gossip took on a negative connotation and how the word became associated with women, but through centuries, that’s what happened. So much so, that when we women talk about anyone and anything, we’re labeled as gossips.  When men talk, it’s called networking or lobbying.   

            A 2019 study reported by BBC.com found that workers, men and women, gossip about 52 minutes a day.  Most conversations weren’t positive or negative, but neutral.  Gossip helps workers realize shared values and experiences and bring workers closer.  Office workers might call this ‘water cooler talk’; teachers call it ‘playground talk.’ The study concluded that gossip is a good thing.

            By Webster’s definition, gossip is talk about other people, sometimes involving details that are not confirmed as truth.  The word gossip does make us think of people who maliciously talk about people and like to spread rumors, but when a conversation about other people isn’t harmful and mean, it is good.  

            I wish the Old English word godsibb had survived through the centuries. With all its negative connotations, no one wants to be labeled a gossip.  But calling someone a gobsibb -wouldn’t that be a compliment?

            When my friend and I talked about our friend, was that good or bad?  It was good, and maybe I should have said, “This is godsibb.  Did you hear…..?”

Squelching Smadness

Quinn was upset.  As six-year-old girls can be, she was a bit hysterical.  Crying.  Wailing.  Lying on the floor.  Quinn’s mother checked her daughter quickly, determined she wasn’t injured, and hugged her.  “Are you sad or mad?” the mom asked.

            Between sobs, Quinn said, “I’m smad.”  She sniffed, then said, “I’m sad and mad.”  Quinn was unhappy and angry.  When her grandmother shared this story, Quinn’s reason for being upset wasn’t remembered.  That a young child could describe her feelings was remembered. 

            Smad.  What perfect word.  Sad and mad tangled and meshed together.  A big snarly mess.  Right now, I’m smad about several happening going on in world. 

            Recent natural disasters have been devastating. In Haiti, over 2, 200 people died, about 300 are still missing, and 53,000 homes were destroyed by an earthquake.  A flood in Waverly, just 160 miles west of Cookeville, took twenty people’s lives and destroyed 270 homes.  Devastation caused by Hurricane Ida is still being evaluated. Did these disasters bring memories of the tornado that struck here in March, 2020? 

            The news from Afganistan is heart-breaking.  Senseless deaths and violence.  Death always hurts – people loved every person who died and they grieve. 

            After being vaccinated for Covid 19 and family and friends receiving vaccines, I had hoped that this virus would lose its grip on our daily lives.  Now, the delta variant is on a rampage and while the vaccine should prevent serious illness for me, how I wish my young grandchildren were vaccinated.  I wish everyone were vaccinated and would wear masks.

            One day in 2006, while eating lunch in the teacher lounge with young teacher friends, they talked about Facebook and encouraged me to set up an account.  Since then, I’ve used social media and liked connecting with former students and long-time friends, and I post this column on Facebook. 

            But now I’m smad because I see Facebook posts that are intended to tear down people and/or create conflict.  Those posts are sometimes questions. I’m smad that people write words that hurt and purposely cause disagreements to divide people.

            I could wallow in smadness.  Be sad and mad all day long, every day, but I don’t want to live that way.  My best antidote to smadness is counting blessings – literally numbering and writing blessings in a lined spiral bound notebook.  It’s a morning habit I began several years ago after reading One Thousand Gifts, an inspirational book, by Ann Voskamp. 

            Voskamp was challenged by a friend to list 1000 gifts so she took pencil in hand, and while caring for her five children and doing chores alongside her husband on their working farm, she wrote.  As I write blessings, words of thanksgiving, smadness is pushed aside. 

            When I heard Quinn’s coined word, I knew I’d take it as my own.  It’s okay to be smad.  It’s not okay to stay smad. For me listing joys, even something as simple as a yellow finch snatching seeds from my birdfeeder, helps squelch being smad.

When Children Leave Home

            My friend Celeste is sad.  Life at her house isn’t the same. It’s not loud and messy. No homework or junk on the kitchen table. Instead, it’s bare and clean. No stuff on the steps to carry upstairs.  And she can park her car in the garage. Her house is too quiet, and she’s counting the days until her son’s fall break.

            Celeste’s youngest child packed his bags and moved from home to a college dormitory.  She was quick to tell me that she is really good and she trusts God through this season of life, but she thinks no one prepares parents for this chapter of parenthood.

            I think she’s right.  Who prepares parents for an empty nest?  Bookstores’ shelves are filled with information about caring for babies. There is advice for dealing with the Terrible Twos and Middle-Schoolers and Defiant Teens, and school counselors help high school students and their parents apply to colleges and seek scholarships.  But who gives support to the parents when their children leave home?   

            I remember the days when Daughter and Son moved from home to college and my feelings were a garbled sad and happy mess. I’m not a counselor or a family relationships expert so my thoughts are based on experience.

            Empty nest syndrome is real.  Parents grieve. We spend eighteen years raising children and when they no longer sleep at our houses every night and eat most meals at our tables, we are sad.  We miss them and their busy lives: practices, ball games, recitals, last-minute changes of plans, friends visiting.  Suddenly, our houses are much too quiet.  

            So, Celeste, as you adjust to a new chapter in your family’s life, it’s okay to have a few lonely times, and then celebrate that you’ve done your job well.

            Successful parents give children wings – the confidence to leave home.  Be like the mother bird when she pushes her young out of the nest and watches him fly.  She flaps her wings as if in applause and chirps and sings like a standing ovation.  Celebrate that your son has become independent to move away and that he is continuing his education.

            This is a time to look back at the days before you were a parent. Reconnect with friends, maybe those who were your high school or college friends.  Spend time with people you haven’t had to time to be with.  Take your mother and aunt to lunch or visit a neighbor who you hardly know.  

            Try something new.  Do the things you’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time.  Learn a new skill or take a college class yourself.  Help out at your favorite local charity.

            Celeste, relish this time as your son becomes a young adult. He’ll be home to visit and expect his favorite meals and put his stuff on the kitchen table and park in your garage space. And, believe it or not, there will be a time when he leaves and you’ll enjoy quiet and calm.

Welcome Back, Hummers!

I heard a low rumbling noise.  A short high-pitched squeak.  A barely audible rattle. Was he back?  I put my book down and looked.  I couldn’t see him anywhere.  While sitting comfortably on my front-porch white wicker rocker as the sun went down, I began reading again.

            I realized a something flashed a few feet in front of me and saw a bird perched on my hummingbird feeder.  “Oh no,” I thought, “don’t drink it.  That sugar water may be spoiled.”  The hummingbird turned his head side-to-side as if rejecting the cloudy liquid inside the plastic feeder.

            If we could’ve had a conversation, I’d asked, “Where’ve you been?”  He flitted off rattling, and squeaking.  Did he say that he’d be back and he’d like fresh sugar water?      

            I prepared fresh food for Mr. Ruby Throated Hummingbird.  One part white sugar dissolved in four parts warm water.  I washed two feeders, one for our front porch and one hanging on a shepherd’s hook in the back yard, and filled them.  Sure enough, Mr. Hummingbird and a friend came for breakfast and supper.  And the next day and the next.

            Where have my birds been all summer? I hung feeders the first of April because I’ve been told ‘scouts’ come early to identify good feeding spots.  By mid-April, I’d seen several and expected, like past years, to watch hummers all summer, but a month later they were none in sight.

            I didn’t give up.  Through the spring and into summer, I emptied and rinsed and refilled the feeders regularly.  But when Mr. Hummingbird showed up in mid-July, those feeders held week-old water. Hot weather demands almost daily cleaning and refills.

            Hummingbirds are now coming to my two feeders.  The general rule to know how many use a feeder is to count the most birds you see at one time and multiply by ten.  I doubt twenty hummers are feeding; I’m happy to see two. 

            One friend said she’s seen hummers at her house all summer and as many as seven at one time, but most friends said they haven’t seen any until recently. Birdfeederhub.com offers reasons. 

            Maybe our hummers have been eating flower nectar or choosing more protein, and less carbohydrates.  While nesting, the female gathers gnats, spiders, fruit flies, mosquitoes, and aphids for herself and her young and then returns to feeders after the babies leave the nest.  

            As I watch these tiny birds dart, I’m amazed.  Hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards because their wings rotate 180º in all directions.  An adult weighs about 1/8 ounce, the same as a nickel.  A hummer’s nest is the size of a half dollar, and its white eggs are the size of jelly beans.             Hummingbirds are the smallest migrating bird, and usually travel alone, not in a flock, up to 500 miles. When these little wonders of nature go to Central America in October, I’ll store their feeders until next April and they can come back wherever they want.  Rumbling and squeaking and rattling.

Who Inspires You?

I first noticed him about two years ago.  A heavyset young guy walked briskly past my house in the middle of the day.  He wore a long sleeve black shirt and dark shorts and he walked the loop around the neighborhood a few times, but I didn’t recognize him as a neighbor. Not many days later as I ate lunch, he walked past again, wearing the same clothes.

            After several months, his walk became a slow jog and he jogged past our house, not around the neighborhood loop, about midday. During the winter months, he wore a black knitted cap and traded his shorts for long dark colored pants.  Monday thru Friday, he jogged past and I wondered what was his story.  Some warm days, I’d eat lunch on my front porch and could have yelled to him, but he was focused on the street and I hated to intrude. 

            Now, his jogging has turned to running and he isn’t heavyset – he’s almost slim.  His black shirt is faded, but the knitted cap looks the same.  On a sunny winter day, as I walked the neighborhood loop for exercise, he ran near me so I called out to him. “I’m impressed that you run every day.  Do you have two minutes to talk?” I asked.

             He stopped and said, “Thanks,” and I realized he wasn’t as young as I had thought, maybe almost 40? After introducing myself, he told me his name which sounded familiar.  Thinking he might have been one of my children’s classmates, I asked where he went to school.  He attended Capshaw Elementary and graduated from high school in a neighboring county.  When I said that I’d taught at Capshaw, he told me that didn’t remember all his teachers and they probably didn’t remember him, but most people remembered his twin sister.

            I asked what inspires him to run every day.  “I’ve got a five-year-old son and I want to keep up with him.  I thought I’d just walk during my lunch hour,” he said and he explained that he works less than a half mile from my neighborhood. “Then I speeded up a little. It’s surprising what your body can do.  I never expected to run,” he said. 

            “That must be your lucky running shirt,” I said.  He laughed and said, “Yeah, I take these clothes to work and put them on to run, and I take them home to wash every night.”

            I searched through Capshaw Elementary School yearbooks and found brother and sister, 6th graders in 1992 -1993.  Neither were in my homeroom class, but I remember two twelve-year-old kids who smiled often and were well-behaved, hard-working students.             Now when I see him run, I silently cheer him on.  This runner’s determination to keep up with his son inspires me to keep moving, keep exercising. Maybe my body will surprise me. And my brief chat with him reminds me that my path often crosses with good people and taking just a few minutes to talk can be a blessing.