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Who Needs an Umbrella?

I made it through April without an umbrella. That’s not to say I wasn’t outside in the rain.   I was, but never holding an umbrella. In fact, I gloated that I didn’t spend $20 or more to buy one.

When my small, folding, red umbrella that I kept tucked under the front seat of my mini-van bit the dust, I started looking for a new one. Every time I was in a store that stocked umbrellas, I checked out the selection. Designer styles with sparkles on the handles didn’t tempt me. Black and navy blue are drab and who wants drab on a rainy day? White ones would get dirty. Tan ones are boring.

Long umbrellas won’t fit under the van seat or in my purse. But I was tempted by one that was yellow on the top and decorated with the Vincent van Gogh painting “Irises” on the inside. Wouldn’t looking up at purple flowers while rain fell all around make for a happy day? Then practicality kicked in. If I were holding an umbrella, shouldn’t I be looking where I was walking, and not up? And if I spent $50 for a Van Gogh print, I’d like hanging it on my wall, and $50 is too much for an umbrella.

I’ve been entertained while looking at umbrellas. Some were labeled “waterproof.” What? Aren’t umbrellas supposed to be waterproof? I wasn’t looking for a white, frilly parasol to provide protection from the sun. Umbrellas protect from rain. And the term “windproof” is interesting. One was guaranteed to withstand 55 mph wind and supposed to be the only one that can stand up to heavy winds. If the wind is blowing 55 mph, I’m staying inside.

Then there are enormous umbrellas. Why would I want anything so big that I could fly like Mary Poppins? That’s how I’d feel holding a 68” umbrella. These are marketed to golfers, but since golfers rarely pull or carry golf clubs and usually ride in covered carts, I don’t understand the need for a gigantic cover.

And not all umbrella handles are alike. My trashed red one had a fat handle that fit my hand. Some handles are skinny, like a pencil. Some have curved, hook-like handles. And some have C-shape handles, much like cuffed bracelets and advertised to “leave your hands free for holding a baby or using a mobile or carrying things.” Seems like a good idea, but these handles are only on long umbrellas.

One March day, I talked myself out of buying a $20 orange umbrella, which I liked just okay, because I realized that for several months I hadn’t reached for an umbrella even once. Maybe I didn’t really need one.

I set April, Tennessee’s rainiest month, as a test. I wore my two jackets with hoods and I got sprinkled a few times, but I never wished for an umbrella. I may never own another one. It’s one less thing to keep up with.

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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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Put Litter in Its Place

 

            If there is a six letter bad word, it’s litter. Litter. Trash in a public place. Paper, cans, and bottles that belong in a landfill or recycling bin. I hate litter anywhere and everywhere and especially along the right of way. Always have.

When I was a kid, before protecting our natural environment were social and political issues, Mom and Dad made it a family issue. Part of our weekly yard care, in addition to pushing a lawn mower and clipping grass around shrubs with hand clippers, was picking up trash along the road near our house. And Mom and Dad taught me that nothing could be thrown out car windows. We had a car trash bag.

I carried on the trash bag practice with my children and their friends knew when I was the carpool driver all trash went in the bag. Except once when a carload of kids was riding in my Ford station wagon with flip-up back seats and in the rearview mirror, I saw a child toss a candy wrapper out the back window. We were on a neighborhood street, not a major highway.

I stopped the car on the wide shoulder and everyone, the litter culprit and those innocent, got out of the car and we picked up every scrap of trash we could find. My two school-age children were embarrassed and I should’ve handled the situation without using my teacher voice, but I was angry.

Now I walk from my house to the YMCA on Raider Drive a couple of times a week and I’m shocked at the amount of litter along a heavily traveled street that leads to a public school and a place to exercise.

Recently, while my three oldest Grands, ages 11, 10, and 8, visited, I told them we were going to do a service project. We’d pick up litter along the road close to the Y. Their responses were typical. How much will we get paid? (No money. Just the satisfaction of doing something good for our environment.) Do we have to? (Yes.) I’m not touching somebody else’s trash. (We’ll wear plastic gloves.) How long do we have to do it? (Until the job is done.) Can we have a treat afterwards? (Maybe.)

Reluctantly, my Grands pulled on gloves, took the trash bags, and decided we should work in pairs. One person, to hold the bag open and the other, pick up. A chore that would’ve taken me all morning was completed in twenty-two minutes. One Grand set her stopwatch.

After we finished, I liked what I heard. That wasn’t near as bad as I thought it’d be. It was almost fun. We found at least 25 apple drink aluminum cans. Why would somebody throw out aluminum cans they can recycle? Don’t they know plastic bottles can be recycled, too? They must not have a car trash bag.

And the last question: Gran, we don’t have to do this next week, do we? I certainly hope not.

 

 

Easter Menu and Bunny Cake

 “What do you want for Easter dinner? Anyone like to suggest a new menu?” Husband’s sister sent this message. She organizes family gatherings and makes sure we don’t all take potato salad.

Easter dinner is actually lunch, served sometime around noon. True southerners know this. I’m surprised Sister thinks anyone would like a new menu. What’s Easter dinner without ham and rolls and potato salad and broccoli salad and deviled eggs and an Easter bunny cake? Husband’s siblings, with children and grandchildren, gather for a family egg hunt and dinner. And maybe the menu can change, but no matter what, I’m baking a cake.

Two weeks ago, my 8-year-old Grand asked, “Gran, when are we going to make the Easter bunny cake?” Not, will we? Not, can we? When? I’ll bake a two-layer cake in round pans. And then the Grands, who want to, will help ice and decorate it. Ten years ago, when our oldest Grand was almost two, I invited him to help spread icing and make the bunny’s face. I never imagined that something so simple would become a tradition.

You know the bunny cake that has a big round face, long ears, and a bowtie. Every year I pull out the 3 x 5 index card that has a small picture of the finished cake and a diagram of how to cut one layer into almost thirds. For the bunny’s ears, I cut two elliptical shapes from each side, leaving a bowtie shape in the middle.

The picture shows a round bunny face, covered with white icing and coconut. Short red, narrow licorice candy stings form the mouth and whiskers. A green jellybean for the nose. Two pink ones for the eyes. Pink tinted coconut colors the ears. And about a dozen jellybeans decorate the bowtie. Our bunnies are sloppy, glitzy cousins to this one.

My Grands don’t like coconut. And I provide many jelly beans. After all, when three or four Grands want to help, the bunny is divided into parts so that everyone has the freedom to decorate one part. My Grands have created a rotation and they know whose turn it is to decorate the favorite part, the face. Others choose an ear or the bowtie. Our bunny’s ears and bowties are laden with color. Sometimes in a pattern. Sometimes random designs. Sometimes a single color. Always completely covered with candy and the ears never match.

Sometimes our bunny smiles. Sometimes frowns. Sometimes has an open mouth. He’s even had tears. What else would you call yellow jellybeans below red eyes? He’s had eyebrows and purple jellybeans whiskers and bugs in ears. Black jellybeans do look like bugs.

“Gran, don’t forget. The bunny is chocolate. Not that yellow cake,” I was told. One year, I absentmindedly baked a yellow cake. You just don’t mess the flavor of the bunny cake. But maybe we could change the other Easter dinner dishes. Anyone like to suggest a menu?

Happy Birthday!

It’s birthday season in our family. All eight Grands were born between March 17 and June 8. All spring babies. And that means birthday cakes, candles, and singing “Happy Birthday.” The perfect picture is the birthday boy or girl blowing out the candles while everyone else sings. So how did this tradition begin? Why do we have birthday cakes? Why candles? Who wrote “Happy Birthday?”

Birthday cakes were traditional for Ancient Romans. They celebrated someone’s birth with pastry and one theory about birthday candles goes back to that time. People brought cakes adorned with lit candles to the temple of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The candles’ glow was like the glow of the moon, a symbol associated with Artemis, and it was believed that the smoke carried prayers to the heavens. Today’s tradition of making wishes before blowing out birthday candles may have come from that belief.

Or maybe the tradition of birthday candles can be credited to the Germans. In the 1700s, the Germans traditionally placed one lit candle on a cake to celebrate children’s birthdays. The candle symbolized the light of life. In 1746, a Count celebrated his birthday with an extravagant festival. According to an article in Mental Floss, published January 2014, “there was a Cake as large as any Oven could be found to bake it, and Holes made in the Cake according to the Years of the Person’s Age, every one having a Candle stuck into it, and one in the Middle.”

It’s no surprise to me that “Happy Birthday” was written by a schoolteacher. Teachers have always come up with little ditties to lighten the work of a school day. In 1893, a Kentucky kindergarten teacher, Patty Hill, and her older sister wrote the original lyrics: “”Good morning to you / Good morning to you / Good morning, dear children / Good morning to all.”

Later, in the early 1900s the lyrics were changed to become our beloved birthday song. A song sung around kitchen tables, in banquet halls, at the grandest of parties. In movies and radio. And then, in 1934, the Hill sisters secured a copyright over the song if it was sung for profit.

In 1988, after a series of acquisitions, Warner Music became the owners of “Happy Birthday” and reported earning $2 million yearly. Half of those royalties went into The Hill Foundation, set up in the sisters’ honor. But there were rumblings and arguments that the song belonged to public.

In 2013, a filmmaker filed a lawsuit against Warner Music over the copyright. Two years later “Happy Birthday” was declared public domain and royalties for its use would no longer be paid to Warner Music. “Happy Birthday” should belong to the public. I never imagined it otherwise. It’s the most sung song.

I’m thankful to Ancient Romans, Germans, and a kindergarten teacher who all contributed to making our family birthday celebrations fun. What would a birthday be without cake, candles, and singing?

Travel. New Experiences. Family.

“So, Gran, what are ya’ going to write about this week?” Lou, age 10, asked.

“You mean for the paper?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure. Do you have any ideas?”

“Well, yeah. About our trip!” My Grand raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, emphasizing that surely this week’s topic would be her trip with Husband and me to visit Son and family. Lou’s uncle, aunt, and three young cousins, ages 5, 3, and 1, who live 1300 miles away.

“How about you write this week’s column?” I said.

“Gran, I wrote one for you. The one about the big yellow duck, remember? You do this one.”

Weeks after returning home, Lou is still reveling in the experience of flying and being the big cousin whom little cousins wanted to sit beside at the supper table. Of being the first of her family to spend the night at her uncle’s and aunt’s home. (Her dad and brother visited, but not overnight.) Watched a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Traipsed a rocky path and skipped rocks in a branch of the Poudre River and kept a smooth egg-shaped rock for a souvenir.   Spotted a herd of mule deer at Rocky Mountain National Park. Coached cousins turning backward somersaults. Read bedtime stories and kissed goodnight. Ate a bakery chocolate chip, cream-filled, cookie sandwich. Pretended to gobble one-year old cousin’s meal of plastic carrots and fried eggs.

Last week, Lou looked at me with a somber, serious expression. “Gran, thanks for taking me.” Those five heartfelt simple words brought tears to my eyes. She appreciated. She had fun. She recognized an once-in-a-lifetime gift. Never again would boarding an airplane and flying be the experience it was this first time. Never would visiting her uncle and aunt and cousins be as exciting. And, next time, the snowcapped Rocky Mountains won’t look so tall, so huge.

I’d be lying if I said that taking Lou to visit Son and family was fun just for her. I loved it. Even the ninety-nine million questions she asked before and during. Is security (at the airport) scary? What does it feel like when the plane starts? Is it loud? When will we get there? What will we do there?

When she sensed that she was reaching her question limit as we flew over Missouri, she suggested a game of hangman. (I would guess her message by naming letters to replace blank lines, much like Wheel of Fortune.) Her messages were questions. What time will I have to go to bed? What will we eat for breakfast? Will Dean (her 5 year-old cousin) have to go to school?

Lou made me laugh. She wiggled her 65-pound body into her airplane seat and declared, “I’m squished!” She sat with eyes glued to the airplane window. “Look! Those little, tiny things are cars.” “Can you see that? Another plane! Right there.” “So that’s what the top of clouds look like.”

Travel. New experiences. Family. Yes, Lou, that’s a column.

 

Yellow Spring Blooms – Not all good

Yellow announces spring. Forsythia, with long flowing branches covered in tiny horn-shaped blossoms, promise warmer days. If I had only one bush in my yard, it’d be forsythia, never trimmed except for dead branches and those that cross another branch.

Bright golden daffodils scream loudest. A. A. Milne wrote “A house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside.” Milne also said, “Daffodils in a green bowl – and let it snow if it will.” Maybe that’s the origin of the warning to watch out for snow on daffodils.

Some daffodils now hang their heads after enduring snow showers and freezing temperatures. A few gave up and fell to the ground promising yellow next spring. I drive out of my way to go by a house on Hudgens Street that has a bed of daffodils with orange centers. It’s my “spring fix” every day.

As much as I love yellow spring flowers, there is one I hate. A round, one-inch, flat flower grows in the center of the world’s ugliest plant. Yellow flowers that bloom at the same time as forsythia and daffodils. Yellow flowers that dot lawns and fields. Yellow flowers that become a child’s toy to blow.

I hate dandelions. Hate the sprawling ground-hugging prickly leaves. Hate the white, fuzzy seeds that fly. Dandelions challenge me to dig them up. There is nothing reasonable about how much I hate these yellow flowers. They are just a weed. A daisy’s cousin. But they spread like wildfire when those round tufts of fluffy seeds are carried by wind or someone blowing on them.

I think I blew dandelion seeds once, as a young child. Mom took the stem from my hand and whatever she said made such an impression that I never did it again. And although it wasn’t said, I knew Mom thought a yard filled with dandelions belonged to someone who was lazy and had no pride. Digging up dandelions was one of the few chores that I got paid for. I quickly learned that I had to dig up long taproots. No roots, no money.

During a weekend teacher environmental conference many years ago, I was given a bucket and told to collect my lunch from the field. A field of weeds.  Some people marveled at the tender dandelion leaves they picked. And they dug the roots to brew tea. I couldn’t do it. Why would I want prickly leaves in my mouth? (I did discover that clover is quite tasty and tender.) And I’ll stick with Earl Gray tea, thank you.

Supposedly, there’re benefits to ingesting dandelions. Improved digestion. Laxative. Relieve joint pain. But there are countless other things I can eat and drink that will give the same results. And I’d never spend $6.49 for sixteen dandelion teabags!

I treasure yellow daffodils and forsythia blooms. There’s only one good thing about dandelions: I get to dig in the dirt.